Ed West

The ‘blank slate’ view of humanity is looking increasingly outdated

The 'blank slate' view of humanity is looking increasingly outdated
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Quietly, patiently, tentatively, scientists are revolutionising the way we see human nature, a breakthrough that may be as earth-shattering as Darwin's discovery 150 years ago. Or to put it this way, scientists went looking for genetic influences on human behaviour - and what happened next will blow your mind.

Last month psychologist Oliver James published a book with the self-explanatory title, Not In Your Genes, which sought to minimise or deny the effects of genetics on a wide range of conditions. As intelligence specialist Stuart Ritchie observed in The Spectator:

'To open the book is to step into a parallel universe. In James’s neo-Freudian world, DNA has no effect on the mind or mental health, whereas parenting reigns supreme. His theory, largely derived from his experience as a psychotherapist, is that interactions between parents and children, especially abusive or neglectful ones, leave deep impressions, fully explaining why children become similar to their parents.'

Rather than starting a reaction to genetic determinism, James's book may represent the last gasp of the Freudian 20th century.

Last week, for example, a study found multiple genes linked to educational success, and more will surely follow. There are numerous papers being published linking all sorts of characteristics and traits to genes - depression, smoking, even tiredness. This meta-analysis on twin studies lists the estimated degree to which various traits are heritable. It shows that while cognitive abilities are just over 50 per cent genetic, even things like social values are hereditary.

The evidence that human nature is under genetic control has been building for some time, yet despite this it remains a taboo to discuss it because it doesn't fit with the ‘blank slate’ model of human behaviour. If you turn on any radio bulletin about the sex gap in STEM subjects, for example, or the differences in academic achievement between the social classes, possible genetic factors are never mentioned. I'm never sure if this is because the people in broadcasting are unaware of them, or whether it is just assumed they're so obvious as to be not worth explaining.

The reasons for the cultural taboo about genetics are obvious, understandable and political, although buttressed by mainstream Christianity, which is opposed to any sort of genetic determinism. As Fraser pointed out in his recent piece about designer babies, the word ‘eugenics’ still elicits a strong and negative reaction, even if people are happy to ignore it taking place in practice. Genetics makes it easier to justify injustice, and it's hard to build an egalitarian society once one accepts that things like intelligence are partly genetic. On the other hand, a society that ignores genetics does a huge disservice to the less able, who are thrown into competitive fields in which they cannot possibly thrive.

It also, paradoxically, leads to greater kudos for those at the top who are wrongly seen as having justly earned their success, when in fact it was partially through genetic luck. Our discourse is filled with that tiresome phrase 'privilege', yet the greatest privilege is to be born intelligent, healthy and attractive (and, just to compound this sense of injustice, these three things correlate).

All this has a huge bearing on public policy, especially when so much of it is involved in promoting a fairer society. It would be like trying to reduce economic inequality while pretending that wealth cannot be inherited and that all fortunes were the results of education, 'culture', hard work or sheer luck. These things really are in our genes - yet public policy is still built on an outdated 20th century idea of human nature.

Written byEd West

Ed West writes the Wrong Side of History substack

Topics in this articleSociety