The Blank Slate: A Liberal-Totalitarian Dogma

Back in the 1980s, as I studied for a doctorate in anthropology, I found myself somewhat dismayed by certain social science dogmas.   For one thing, the original unity of American anthropology—as a bio-cultural science studying Homo sapiens—had long been fragmented into ill-fitting shards.  Cultural anthropologists were generally hostile to any perceived “biological reductionist” explanations for human behavior.  To the extent that they were even interested in behavior, it was assumed to be entirely “culturally determined” (i.e., “learned”—although even an interest in actual psychological process was viewed as reductionist).  At the same time, biological/evolutionary anthropologists (then called “physical”) were interested in human genetics, our primate inheritance, and ultimately the origins and development of genus Homo.

Myopically, liberal-minded cultural anthropologists presumed that any recognition of an evolved human nature would surrender their social ideals of equality to politically reactionary rationalizations of differential power (by sex, “race,” etc.).  Although this position was perhaps warranted early in the 20th century—to counteract racist and sexist ideologies as well as to demonstrate the extraordinary cultural variability of previously assumed universals such as male dominance—it was certainly outmoded by the late 20th century.

So, these two major subfields—the cultural and the biological—had split into two different spheres of inquiry, so much so that most “culturalists” came even to distrust scientific inquiry as such.  In part, this reflected a valid, if oversimplified, recognition of the egregious role played by Western “applied science” in imperialism, genocide, weapons development, environmental degradation, and related horrors. In the aftermath of the defeat of racialistic fascism in the 1940s, anthropologists were finally able to discredit pseudo-scientific ideas of racial supremacy, male “superiority,” and the like.  (See, for example, Ashley Montagu’s Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race.)

By stressing the remarkable range of cultural variability to be found in widely varying ecological/subsistence contexts, cultural anthropologists continued to believe that they were promoting an informed criticism of industrialism, capitalism, sex-stratification, and so forth.  They overlooked the fact that their dogma of cultural/behavioral malleability had less sanguine implications for individual freedom and psycho-social well-being.  (See, for instance, the behaviorist B. F. Skinner’s “utopian” Beyond Freedom and Dignity).  By the end of the 20th century, influential anthropologists embraced the reigning “postmodernist” theories, and peremptorily rejected the very idea of a “human nature” as reactionary “essentialism.”

Yet, Homo sapiens, a species derived from its mammalian/primate roots, obviously requires certain socio-psychological conditions consonant with its nature. (Indeed, the eminent anthropologist Weston La Barre characterized the human species as “hyper-mammalian”: prolonged dependency, intensified mother-child bond, etc.).  Such a universalist doctrine, based on the demonstrable facts about evolved human behaviors, could have scientifically bolstered the global human rights agenda—for example, as it focused on the real, bio-psychological needs of children everywhere.

Indeed, such findings of trans-cultural anthropology and comparative psychology (e.g., Bowlby’s UN research on maternal care, attachment, and mental health) are still critical to the recognition that human nature is de-limited, defined by specific psycho-social needs, and subject to suffering and pathology if these needs are denied or ignored.  To recognize such fundamental, relatively intractable psycho-social needs is also to fundamentally challenge politically repressive institutionalized structures.

William Manson is the author of The Psychodynamics of Culture (Greenwood Press). Read other articles by William.