Human Nature vs. the Blank Slate

Food for thought from Steven Pinker and Edmund Burke

By Jerry Kammer on December 22, 2015

Those of us who want to regulate immigration think of ourselves as pragmatists who recognize that too much even of a good thing can be a bad thing. But we often face the accusation that we are racists, bigots, and xenophobes with bad manners and intolerable politics. It is a situation akin to the poisoned atmosphere that MIT psychologist and author Steven Pinker describes as the result of attacks on cognitive scientists who suggested that genes influence human personality and behavior.

This hypothesis — that human nature is to some extent written in our genes — was apostasy to those whose science was guided by liberal activism. They insisted that the mind is a blank slate and that attitudes and behaviors are the result of social constructs and environmental influences.

Pinker’s best-selling book The Blank Slate has a passage that presents a striking parallel with the immigration debate:

The taboo on human nature has not just put blinkers on researchers but turned any discussion of it into a heresy that must be stamped out. ... The analysis of ideas is commonly replaced by political smears and personal attacks. The poisoning of the intellectual atmosphere has left us unequipped to analyze pressing issues about human nature just as new scientific discoveries are making them acute.

Another passage from Pinker made me think of the absurdly fanciful claims that some open-borders advocates make about the redemptive power of unlimited immigration. Pinker writes of "the astonishing claims from pundits and social critics about the malleability of the human psyche: that little boys quarrel and fight because they are encouraged to do so; that children enjoy sweets because their parents use them as a reward for eating vegetables; that teenagers get the idea to compete in looks and fashion from spelling bees and academic prizes."

The open-borders types want us to believe that human societies are infinitely malleable and that those who want to limit immigration have been warped by right-wing indoctrination. I think they should keep in mind the observation by Edmund Burke around the time of the French Revolution that the revolutionaries were "so taken up with their theories about the rights of man that they have totally forgotten his nature."