Tuesday, August 21, 2012
A decade after Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate, why is human nature still taboo?
The idea that “gender” is a “social construct”, is about as factual as creationism
It is hard to know whether Julian Savulescu’s suggestion that we have a “moral obligation” to engineer babies will help push the overton window towards a new and more frightening era of eugenics, or will arouse enough revulsion to make people take the threat seriously.
But one thing is for certain – it’s a good thing we live in a society where Savulescu can make such comments, and though I find the idea morally reprehensible, there is nothing reprehensible in itself in suggesting ways of tackling societal problems such as violence, nor of testing a moral taboo.
The issue of taboos is a central aspect of perhaps the most important book to be published in this still young century, Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, which came out ten years ago next month.
In it Pinker mentions a study that “asked about a hospital administrator who had to decide whether to spend a million dollars on a liver transplant for a child or use it on other hospital needs”, and which found that “not only did respondents want to punish an administrator who chose to spend the money on the hospital, they wanted to punish an administrator who chose to save the child but thought for a long time before making the decision”.
That’s why people don’t touch taboos; yet as Pinker argued in the book, the great taboo of today is that of human nature and the blank slate is a sacred doctrine. Despite the book's impact, 10 years later the blank-slate model of human nature is still routinely discussed as fact, rather than fantasy, and continues to have serious implications for society (one of which may be that we are rushing towards the sort of projects suggested by Saveluscu).
The blank slate doctrine affects almost every area of our lives. Take, for example, recent moves in Ireland to set quotas on women in politics, a move that is moderate compared to quota systems already implemented in Scandinavia. Whether one thinks this is right or not, what is wrong is that the starting premise is a totally pseudoscientific view of human nature – gender feminism.
As Pinker wrote, there are two types of feminism: “Equity feminism is a moral doctrine about equal treatment that makes no commitments regarding open empirical issues in psychology or biology. Gender feminism is an empirical doctrine committed to three claims about human nature. The first is that the differences between men and women have nothing to do with biology but are socially constructed in their entirety. The second is that humans possess a single social motive – power – and that social life can be understood only in terms of how it is exercised. The third is that human interactions arise not from the motives of people dealing with each other as individuals but from the motives of groups dealing with other groups – in this case, the male gender dominating the female gender.
“In embracing these doctrines, the genderists are handcuffing feminism to railroad tracks on which a train is bearing down.”
Gender feminism is no more scientific than astrology, yet the idea of total equality of outcomes is still some sort of vague official goal among the European elite, largely because “people’s unwillingness to think in statistical terms has led to pointless false dichotomies", between "women are unqualified" and "fifty-fifty absolutely".
The end result of gender feminism has been the blackening of the name feminist, which many women and men deny because they associate it with radical, unscientific ideas about “gender” being a “social construct”, ideas which are still taught as fact in British universities despite being as factual as creationism.
Then there is the false dichotomy about nature and nurture in child-raising. In education, for instance, public debate still revolves around the idea that intelligence is environmental, when all available evidence suggests that it is between 50 and 80 per cent nature. So when Chris Woodhead made the point that children from higher socio-economic backgrounds are, on average, cleverer, his views were considered outrageous.
Of course there are environmental factors that disadvantage poorer children, and these should be addressed, just as there are ways in which women can be given more choice in their careers, but that is the point of Pinker’s book – accepting human nature does not necessary mean embracing any ideology. The Harvard professor is no polemicist and he leaves readers to draw their own conclusions. Being a conservative, liberal or socialist are all legitimate stances, depending on what priorities one favours (stability, freedom or equality). But what is not legitimate is forcing debate to revolve around false facts.
I don’t agree with Pinker about everything; I find it unlikely that the home environment really has such a small influence on children’s outcomes, but I don’t pretend this is based on anything but my own experiences and prejudices. His belief that there is no soul – “the ghost in the machine” – I find too awful to contemplate. I have the right to choose not to believe those things; what I don’t have the right to do is force others to accept my premises, and to damn them as sinners or thought criminals if they don’t.
And that is exactly how advocates of the blank slate have come to dominate the public sphere for so long, and why terrible decisions have been made by public officials, based on faulty data.
As Pinker recalls: “Research on human nature would be controversial in any era, but the new science picked a particularly bad decade in which to attract the spotlight. In the 1970s many intellectuals had become political radicals. Marxism was correct, liberalism was for wimps, and Marx had pronounced that ‘the ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class’. The traditional misgivings about human nature were folded into a hard-left ideology, and scientists who examined the human mind in a biological context were now considered tools of a reactionary establishment.”
So Richard Herrnstein was called a racist for arguing, in 1971, that “since differences in intelligence are partly inherited, and since intelligent people tend to marry other intelligent people, when a society becomes more just it will also become more stratified along genetic lines”, even though he was not even discussing race. He received death threats and his lecture halls were filled with chanting mobs.
Then there was EO Wilson, whose Sociobiology concluded that some universals, including the moral sense, may come from a human nature shaped by natural selection. The aim of the book was to describe things such as violence and altruism through evolution, yet a widely-read article by a group of academics accused him of promoting theories that “led to the establishment of gas chambers in Nazi Germany”.
As Pinker says: “The accusation that Wilson (a lifelong liberal Democrat) was led by personal prejudice to defend racism, sexism, inequality, slavery and genocide was especially unfair – and irresponsible, because Wilson became a target of vilification and harassment by people who read the manifesto but not the book.”
Other controversies down the years included the unmasking of the myth of the noble savage, with scientists who found murder rates in pre-agriculture societies were astonishingly high accused of justifying genocide; and rape, which gender feminists believed was not about sex, despite clearly being about sex.
The latter has been especially tragic because of the moral imperative behind the study of rape – to reduce its occurrence. As Pinker wrote: “Any scientist who illuminates the causes of rape deserves our admiration, like a medical researcher who illuminates the cause of a disease, because understanding an affliction is the first step towards eliminating it. And since no one acquires the truth by divine revelation, we must also respect those who explore theories that may turn out to be incorrect. Moral criticism would seen to be in order only for those who would enforce dogmas, ignore evidence, or shut down research, because they would be protecting their reputations at the expense of victims of rape that might not have occurred if we understood the phenomenon better.”
That, unfortunately, is how orthodoxies are enforced across a range of subjects, despite being incredibly weak. On the idea that intelligence is entirely environment, Pinker wrote that “even in the 1970s the argument was tortuous, but by the 1980s it was desperate and today it is a historical curiosity”. And yet now, in the second decade of the 21st century, it is still not considered decent to question the taboo about human nature when it comes to policy.
But just as the good name of feminism has been stigmatised by its radical wing, the whole of the social sciences have been damaged by the blank-slate orthodoxy, which has led to widespread anti-intellectualism, since the public at large come to view academia as a font of convenient untruths and agenda-driven nonsense (or to use the popular phrase, political correctness). Worst of all it has actually made it harder to help the most vulnerable, because we fail to take account of the fact that some people are less smart than others or, as Savulescu pointed out, more prone to vice or violence; and it has even made society less sympathetic to people who, because they have been less blessed by nature, lose out in the rat race.
A decade after The Blank Slate, why is human nature still taboo?
British Police won’t return an innocent girl’s laptop computer
A further illustration of the police's heavy-handed collaboration with social workers
A recurring theme of this column for three years has been the heavy-handed readiness of the police to obey the orders of social workers bent on seizing children from their parents, too often for no good reason.
It is now exactly a year since one bright 13-year-old got into a fight with her semi-autistic younger brother, leaving a bruise on his arm. Asked by a teacher next day how it happened, he replied – to protect his sister – that his father had done it. The school called the social workers and the father was arrested and given police bail – despite the boy admitting to the police that he had lied and that the fight was between him and his sister. Three police then searched the family home, confiscating the girl’s mobile phone and laptop and snatching an iPod from her three-year-old sister, claiming that these were needed as “evidence”.
Before any court order could be given, the family escaped to Ireland, where they settled happily to start a new life. The Irish social workers and police reported that they had no concerns about the family, who are now Irish citizens. The older girl is a star pupil at school, and when the English social workers called her head teacher, trying to find some excuse to have the children deported, they were given short shrift. But still, a year later, the girl has not been given back her mobile and laptop, despite written authorisation to her grandmother to collect them on her behalf.
When I asked the West Mercia police why the children’s property has not been returned, I was told that the “evidence” could not be given back because “police investigations are still continuing”. Having talked to the girl – as I have to several other articulate teenagers who have experienced the kind of “support” the police give to social workers – I’m afraid such behaviour does not inspire in them quite the respect the police might wish for.
British social workers are scum
Social workers took a newborn baby girl into care within hours of her birth while the mother was still dosed up on morphine. The mother, 26, had been given the powerful opiate to recover from life-saving surgery after a difficult labour.
Coventry City Council social workers, who hours earlier been told by the mother she wanted to keep the baby girl, then asked her to consent to have the child taken away while she was still under the influence of the drug.
A judge at London's High Court has now ruled that the state officials violated the human right of the mother and baby, which is now seven months old.
The court heard that the troubled mother, from Coventry, West Midlands, was still feeling the effects of the powerful pain-killing drug when she agreed to have the baby removed.
In a ruling which set out guidelines for the future, Mr Justice Hedley said he 'seriously doubted' whether the woman - who feared she would have an allergic reaction to the morphine - was legally capable of giving her consent at the time.
The judge said the council had conceded that social workers should not have sought the mum's agreement when they did and that the baby's removal from the post-natal ward 'was not a proportionate response' to any risk to the child's welfare.
He added that the council - which has started an internal investigation into what happened - accepted that it breached the mother and baby's rights to respect for family life, enshrined in Article 8 of the Human Rights Convention.
Coventry had agreed to pay damages to the mother, as 'just satisfaction' for the breach of her rights, and she has asked that the undisclosed sum be spent on giving her therapy.
The judge said the mother had endured a harrowing childhood and adolescence which left her not only vulnerable but 'devoid of parenting instinct or intuition'.
She has three other children, who have also been taken into care and placed for adoption. The court heard that she had 'previous unhappy relationships with men'. She is seeing another man at the minute, which she 'believes promises better things'. However, he is a drug addict.
The judge ruled there was an 'overwhelming' case that the welfare of the baby girl also demanded that she be placed with an adoptive family. But that social workers need to be more careful when asking parents to have their child removed.
Giving guidance for the future, Mr Justice Hedley said local authorities 'may want to approach with great care' the obtaining of consent from mothers in the aftermath of giving birth, especially where there is no immediate danger to the child.
Australia: Bosses' rights to sack workers for drug and alcohol use go up in smoke
BOSSES are being warned they may breach anti-discrimination laws if they sack workers for alcohol or drug use - and this may include smokers.
The latest legal advice to Queensland and NSW small business has raised concerns that the warnings may also apply to smokers.
Chamber of Commerce and Industry Queensland president David Goodwin accused smokers of costing the state "millions and millions" of dollars in lost productivity each year, and questioned why industrial relations laws defied common sense.
"They (smokers) can't always make it up in their own time," he said. "If you miss that sales call because you're outside smoking, you've cost your organisation."
Cancer Council Victoria recently cited research that found smokers who took four 15-minute breaks daily spent 1.2 years smoking on the job over an average working life.
Mr Goodwin said he believed business could dismiss an employee for ignoring smoking policies after verbal and written warnings, although the legal advice had raised some questions.
The Australian Business Lawyers and Advisors, which provides in-house counsel for Queensland and NSW's chambers of commerce and industry, urged firms to introduce smoking guidelines that were well explained.
However, it flagged the potential for discrimination.
"A decision to dismiss an employee on the basis of alcohol or drug use may infringe various pieces of federal and state legislation that prohibit discrimination on the ground of impairment and/or disability," it said. "Recent case law has established that drug and alcohol dependency can be characterised as an impairment ... (and) the use of drug and alcohol policies against an employee must be carefully considered to ensure that discrimination laws are not breached."
Australian Council on Smoking and Health professor Mike Daube said smokers had no entitlement to special consideration in the workplace. "They can manage without cigarettes on aircraft, in cinemas, churches and in a whole host of circumstances," he said. "Work is no different. Staff are employed to work."
Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.
American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of other countries. The only real difference, however, is how much power they have. In America, their power is limited by democracy. To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges. They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did: None. So look to the colleges to see what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way. It would be a dictatorship.
For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, GREENIE WATCH, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, GUN WATCH, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, DISSECTING LEFTISM, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL and EYE ON BRITAIN (Note that EYE ON BRITAIN has regular posts on the reality of socialized medicine). My Home Pages are here or here or here. Email me (John Ray) here. For readers in China or for times when blogger.com is playing up, there is a mirror of this site here.