Opinion: God bless America

Last year, there was a slightly embarrassing moment in the race to become Republican nominee for the White House. In answer to the question “do you believe in evolution?”, at least three of the candidates indicated that they did not. Senator John McCain, it must be said, passed the test with flying colours. The question was in fact directed at him and, after a short pause to weigh up his options, he plumped for a straight “yes” – though he then rather spoiled things by saying, “I also believe when I hike the Grand Canyon and see a sunset that the hand of God is there also.” Doubtless with this addendum, he sought to retrieve a few of the votes he had so recklessly thrown away a moment before.

But just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water from which we first emerged over 300 million years ago, along comes the delightful Sarah Palin who appears to be some sort of creationist, or so it is being widely reported in the media. It shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise I suppose; polling regularly reveals over half of Americans to be creationists. But even so, the question has to be asked: how is it that views which are considered crazy amongst intelligent Europeans have come to seem almost normal in the context of American political discourse, particularly that of the right-wing?

I have a somewhat convoluted and highly speculative theory about all of this which borrows heavily from a very important book – perhaps even the most significant book published so far this century. But despite its relevance to political thought, I have yet to see it mentioned in any of the book lists that political types are often asked to draw up as essential reading matter. It wasn’t listed among the favourite books of Chris Huhne or Nick Clegg, nor indeed among those of our leading Lib Dem bloggers (here and here). The book in question is The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker.

Pinker’s book concerns a question that is as old as the hills, and yet in many ways remains central to one’s entire outlook, be it political, philosophical, or moral. The question is: which is the greater determinant of human behaviour – nature or nurture? Yes, that old chestnut! Are we principally fashioned by our genetic inheritance, or are we instead shaped by the environment in which we find ourselves situated? Do we start out in life with a “blank slate” so to speak, or is the slate already covered with writing before we even begin?

The answer, of course, is that there is plenty to be said in support of both of these positions but, once the argument begins, it is astonishing how rapidly tempers flare. For some reason, this stuff is dynamite. Opposing viewpoints are often characterised as being on one extreme or the other. So people like Pinker are “genetic determinists” who believe that our genes control every aspect of our lives, and every decision we make; while Pinker’s opponents are the “out-and-out blank-slaters” who think that every child is born with equal potential, and how we turn out as adults is entirely due to social conditioning. In reality, virtually nobody holds these positions today.

But leaving these caricatures to one side, Pinker’s thesis is that we have, for far too long, erred towards the blank slate end of the philosophical spectrum. I have to say that in general I agree. While I have yet to meet the mythical out-and-out blank-slater, I would nevertheless like to suggest that we are genetically determined to a far greater extent than many people would appear to be comfortable with. The principal opponents of this viewpoint are some on the political left, and the Marxist or feminist academics with whom Pinker seems to have been battling for most of his adult life.

So why all the discomfort? Pinker sets out four “fears” that might make us hesitate in the face of what the science is increasingly telling us. These are the fear of inequality, imperfectibility, determinism, and nihilism. I can’t possibly do justice to all of these – you’ll have to read the book – but the fear of inequality is probably the one which most offends left-wing sensibilities. The blank slate theory of human nature is totemic to the left because it acts as a guarantor of political equality – or so they think. All men (and women) are born equal, and so it follows that whatever differences emerge later in life must be due to the pernicious inequities which we tolerate in society.

In fact we are not born equal. The truth is that the angels handed out our key physical and behavioural attributes in varying quantities and, worse still, these attributes are largely heritable. To some, this is simply too unpalatable and leads in extremis to outright denial of the science. But this fatal misstep does incalculable damage to the cause of equality. For political equality was never a scientific theory; it is a moral principle. It is a declaration that everyone, of whatever colour or sex, has a right to equal treatment under the law; and it is a commitment to treat everyone on their individual merits, and never as representatives of some arbitrary group. Deciding a priori what the science ought to say merely serves to offer up a needless hostage to fortune, as and when more of the data rolls in.

So it would appear that Sarah Palin is not the only one who might be in denial of science. If Pinker is right, the political and academic left have long been resisting scientific findings which threaten to upend their cherished world-view. This is why I am now finding it hard to join wholeheartedly in the chorus of sneering which has been directed at Palin since her name first emerged. Feminists, in particular, seem to have been thrown into total confusion by the appointment of the Alaskan bombshell. It would certainly be easy enough to slam her for being a creationist, but even here I’m starting to wonder whether this embarrassing state of affairs might not play to her advantage.

You see Palin doesn’t make the mistake of hitching her moral outlook to some half-baked science – heck no, she just gets her morality straight out of the Bible! Not for Palin the false promise of a socialist Utopia – she believes literally in the Genesis story – in the “original sin” of Adam, now passed on from generation to generation. But here’s a strange and wonderful thing: the doctrine of original sin has in fact been partially vindicated by modern science. For we principally inherit the genes required to survive and reproduce, not those required to be nice! In her innocence, could it be that Palin is in fact closer to the truth than all the lefty social science academics in the world?

Of course Palin’s naive world-view can never be more than half correct. Her pro-life views will do little to empower women. I hear she has a few doubts about climate change – hardly surprising if she has been taught that man has been granted “dominion” over the world’s resources. Doubtless she will see aggressive tax-cutting as some sort of moral imperative. After all, we have all been bestowed with the divine gift of freedom, with which we may either choose to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, or not as the case may be. Personal responsibility is everything – never mind that from a scientific standpoint, the concept of “free will” has never looked more shaky than it does today. So it’s a mixed bag.

Well that’s the theory (and it is “just a theory” as a creationist might say about evolution). I’ll briefly summarise it in case you weren’t paying attention: It is that the American liberal left is gravely at fault for remaining too long (on account of a variety of misplaced fears) in a state of denial regarding a modern scientific understanding of human nature, thus allowing the religious right to punch through with their grossly inferior (yet still vaguely credible) theory of human nature based essentially upon scripture which (though it pains me to say so) does actually contain the odd useful insight. What do you reckon?

Do you know there is a part of me that actually wants Sarah Palin to win in November? Frankly she hasn’t got a clue, but she is in possession of a simple childlike honesty that is really quite endearing. By contrast, the political left can just leave one feeling so tired.

* Laurence Boyce is a Lib Dem member and occasional contributor to Lib Dem Voice.

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65 Comments

  • Is the balance even fixed? Are we all either one thing or another, or isn’t it possible that there is infinite space for variation between different individuals over the extent to which different principles effect us?

  • This Sarah Palin also believes that dinosaurs are Satan’s Lizards…!!

    [Well, actually she’s never really said this – but no reason not to spread it around – she probably thinks it]

  • But here’s a strange and wonderful thing: the doctrine of original sin has in fact been partially vindicated by modern science. For we principally inherit the genes required to survive and reproduce, not those required to be nice!

    This isn’t even close to being right; a moral sense – niceness, if you will – is obviously innate to (non-psychopathic) humans and part of our genetic inheritance.

  • Our genetics give us a range of possibilities and our environment allows us to realise one of these.

    The brain is plastic so the relationship to an individual neuron is pointless to know, but how it relates to them all.

  • MartinSGill 11th Sep '08 - 2:00pm

    I agree, an excellent article Laurence.

  • Laurence, I like your line “there is no contradiction” and would like to expand on that theme.

    Science and religion are different things, yes, but even they can both be reconciled to each other if we learn to understand them differently and apply the lessons of one correctly to the other.

    As far as I’m concerned this is something inherent and essential to liberalism.

    “Belief is knowing that you certainly don’t know, and knowledge is belief in the certainty of your belief.”

  • Top posts from Mr Boyce.

  • I’m so glad (and so should you be) that others can put my views across so well.

  • Terry Gilbert 12th Sep '08 - 11:42am

    I see Obama has woken up to the difficulties posed by Palin’s nomination:

    http://i.dailymail.co.uk/i/pix/2008/09/10/article-1054101-029A7F1200000578-189_468x597.jpg

  • Terry Gilbert 12th Sep '08 - 11:50am

    Seriously, (the Palin threat and Obama’s need for a change of presentation aside) my own view on Lawrence’s topic is that, while we may have varying levels of genetically determined brain capacity at birth, few of us ever use more than about 10 or 20% of what we have. So it ought to be possible for most people (excepting those born with significant impairment)to attain a high level of achievement, so long as they are brought up in a sufficiently nurturing environment.
    I remain a lefty, Lawro!

  • The 10% figure is a myth and totally wrong.

    http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=people-only-use-10-percent-of-brain

    Our brains are very modular and different areas are dedicated to different things. So yes, if you are doing something that only requires one “module” you might only be using 10% at that time. The other 90% get used when you do other things.

    Our brain is a massive energy drain, it uses around 20% of the total energy consumption of our bodies and if we “only used 10%” of it natural selection would have eliminated it pretty quickly, as the wasted 18% of our energy could have been used elsewhere; e.g. going longer between meals.

    c.f. Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works.

    The biggest evidence to support nature shaping our choices are studies on separated identical twins where despite different upbringings they still have extremely similar hobbies, political views and choices of partners, even how they decorate their houses.

    In my view “free-will” is our ability to defy our genes; allowing our reason to override our instincts and pre-dispositions; from using contraception to not attacking someone that makes us angry. That’s where nurture comes in; teaching reasoning, critical thinking and values and allowing people to recognise when their instincts are wrong.

  • Terry Gilbert 12th Sep '08 - 2:23pm

    Those with a little could use could use the spare capacity. 10% of a lot could be equal to, say, 20% of a little. Though I doubt that the differences in brian power at birth (for those who are not significantly impaired) amount to a variation wide enough to make that necessary. I am certainly not thick, btw – BA(Cantab), MA (Kent), CQSW.

  • Terry Gilbert 12th Sep '08 - 2:24pm

    Though I am capable of mistyping brain…
    :-))

  • My local democrat (yes, democrat) candidate for the House declares he is 100% pro-life and 100% pro-gun.
    It’s pathetic really that they don’t see the contradiction in these slogans…

  • An absolute belief in God and an absolute belief in free will… I bet those Republicans like to pick and choose when they apply each argument too!

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