The Blank Slateism of the Right

Ben Sixsmith in Quillette:

SlateThere is an idea that human nature is a “blank slate,” a tabula rasa, free of inherited content, on which education and experience leave their marks. This idea, found in the work of progressive philosophers like John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, suggests that we are wholly or mostly the products of our environments. This concept is central to left-wing belief regarding unequal societies and the almost unlimited potential of mankind if we escape what Marx and Engels called our “chains”.

This belief has been extensively discredited, first by observation and now, increasingly, by science. Steven Pinker summarised the genetic and psychometric research that documents the scale of our inherited characteristics in his 2002 book The Blank Slate, which has since been updated in 2016. Some of this research is unsurprising. No one would maintain that if they had worked out more in the gym and eaten fewer hamburgers they could outsprint Usain Bolt. Yet there is evidence that numerous physical and cognitive traits, including intelligence, are more heritable than previously thought, and that these traits have a significant influence on our lives.

Critics of these findings have tended to be left wing, like the psychotherapist Oliver James, whose book, Not In Your Genes, was judged by the intelligence researcher Stuart Ritchie to be “bending over backwards to avoid awkward conclusions”. Conservatives have less cause for surprise and alarm. They have always believed in what Thomas Sowell called “the constrained vision”, according to which human nature is real, flawed and inflexible. And there is, for some conservatives, a greater temptation to exploit than ignore genetic research.

Nonetheless, while blank slateism has persisted on the left, so, in subtler forms, has blank slateism on the right.

More here.