January 2003

Are Human Traits Inherited or Acquired?

Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report

“Intellectual life today is beset with a great divide,” says Steven Pinker in his article, “The Blank Slate,” in Discover, October 2002. “On one side is a militant denial of human nature, a conviction that the mind of a child is a blank slate that is subsequently inscribed by parents and society…At the same time there is a growing realization that human nature won’t go away.”

For much of the past century psychology has tried to explain all thought, feeling and behavior with a few simple mechanisms of learning by association. Social scientists have tried to explain all customs and social arrangements as a product of the surrounding culture. A long list of concepts that would seem natural to the human way of thinking–emotions, kinship, the sexes–are said to have been “invented’ or “socially constructed.” Behaviorist psychologists John B. Watson and B. F. Skinner simply banned notions of talent and temperament, together with all the other contents of mind, such as beliefs, desires and feelings. Watson boasted, “Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in. and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select–doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief, and yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.”

Yet anyone who has had more than one child, or been in a heterosexual relationship, or noticed that children learn language but house pets don’t has recognized that people are born with different talents and temperaments. An acknowledgement that we humans are a species with a timeless and universal psychology pervades the writings of great political thinkers, and without it we cannot explain the recurring themes of literature, religion and myth. Moreover, the modern sciences of mind, brain, genes and evolution are showing that there is something to the commonsense idea of human nature. There must be complex innate mental faculties that enable human beings to create and learn culture.

The denial of human nature has not just corrupted the world of intellectuals but has harmed ordinary people. The theory that parents can mold their children like clay has inflicted child-rearing regimes on parents that are unnatural and sometimes cruel. It has increased the anguish of parents whose children haven’t turned out as hoped. The belief that human tastes are reversible cultural preferences has led social planners to write off people’s enjoyment of ornament, natural light and human scale and forced millions of people to live in drab cement boxes. And the conviction that humanity could be reshaped by massive social engineering projects has led to some of the greatest atrocities in history, Pinker says.

Cracks are appearing in the doctrine of the blank slate. As new disciplines such as cognitive science, neuroscience, evolutionary psychology and behavioral genetics flourished, it became clearer that thinking is a biological process, that the brain is not exempt from the laws of evolution, that sexes differ above the neck as well as below it, and that people are not psychological clones. There is a suggestion that the human mind evolved with a universal complex design. Anthropologists have returned to an ethnographic record that used to trumpet differences among cultures and have found an astonishingly detailed set of aptitudes and tastes that all cultures have in common. This shared way of thinking, feeling and living makes all of humanity look like a single tribe, which the anthropologist Donald Brown has called the universal people. Hundreds of traits, from romantic love to humorous insults, from poetry to food taboos, from exchange of goods to mourning the dead, can be found in every society ever documented.

Studies of the brain also show that the mind is not always a blank slate. The brain has a pervasive ability to change the strengths of its connections as the result of learning and experience–if it didn’t we would all be permanent amnesiacs. But that does not mean that the structure of the brain is mostly a product of experience. Study of the brains of twins has shown that much of the variation in the amount of gray matter in the prefrontal lobes is genetically caused. . These variations are not just random differences in anatomy like fingerprints; they correlate significantly with differences in intelligence. People born with variations in the typical brain plan can vary in the way their minds work. A study of Einstein’s brain showed that he had large, unusually shaped inferior parietal lobules, which participate in spatial reasoning and intuitions about numbers. Gay men are likely to have a relatively small nucleus in the anterior hypothalamus, a nucleus known to have a role in sex differences. Convicted murderers and other violent, antisocial people are likely to have a relatively small and inactive prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that governs decision-making and inhibits impulses. These facts imply that differences in intelligence, scientific genius, sexual orientation and impulsive violence are not entirely learned.

The blank slate has often been widely embraced as a rationale for morality, but it is under assault from science. Yet just as the supposed foundations of morality shifted in the centuries following Galileo and Darwin, our own moral sensibilities will come to terms with the scientific findings, not just because facts are facts but because the moral credentials of the blank slate are just as spurious.

One of the fears associated with the idea of innate human endowment is the fear of inequality. Individuals, sexes, classes and races might differ innately in their talents and inclinations. If people are different, it would open the door to discrimination, oppression or eugenics. But none of this follows. A universal human nature does not imply that differences among groups are innate. Confucius could have been right when he wrote, “Men’s natures are alike; it is their habits that carry them far apart.”

Moreover, the case against bigotry is not a factual claim that people are biologically indistinguishable. Enlightened societies strive to ignore race, sex and ethnicity in hiring, admissions and criminal justice because the alternative is morally repugnant. Discriminating against people on the basis of race, sex or ethnicity would be unfair, penalizing them for traits over which they have no control.

Regardless of IQ or physical strength or any other trait that might vary among people, all human beings can be assumed to have certain traits in common. No one likes being enslaved. No one likes being humiliated. No one likes being treated unfairly.

A second fear of human nature comes from a reluctance to give up the age-old dream of the perfectibility of man. If we are forever saddled with fatal flaws and deadly sins, according to this fear, social reform would be a waste of time. But an antisocial desire is just one component among others. Some faculties may endow us with greed, lust or malice, but others may endow us with sympathy, foresight, self-respect, a desire for respect from others and an ability to learn from experience and history. Social progress can come from pitting some of these faculties against others.

Remarkably, although both Nazi and Marxist ideologies led to industrial-scale killing, their biological and psychological theories were opposites. Marxists had no use for the concept of race, were averse to the notion of genetic inheritance, and were hostile to the very idea of a human nature rooted in biology. “All history is nothing but a continuous transformation of human nature,” wrote Mao.

But “the reminder that human nature is the source of our interests and needs as well as our flaws,” states Pinker, “encourages us to examine claims about the mind objectively, without putting a moral thumb on either side of the scale.”

Panopticon: Government And Privacy In The New Millennium

Panopticon: a word from the early 18th century. An idea from the mind of Jeremy Bentham, English civic philosopher and designer of prisons. An idea that has become central to American life in the 21st Century.

Panopticon: a prison system, whereby the jailer can keep in view all of the inmates, all of the time. The dream of fascists.

Panopticon: the ambition of many of the present leaders of the United States Government, ostensibly to fight a war against terrorism.

It is the stuff of dystopian novels like 1984 and Fahrenheit 451, movies like Brazil and THX 1138, the fevered conspiracist fantasies of the black helicopter theorists who rant from cryptic websites and on late night talk radio shows.

But this time is different. This time the fears are couched in the words of conservative journalists like William Safire, Republican stalwarts like Dick Armey and Bob Barr, let alone the urgent warnings from the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

For example: the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Information Awareness Office administers a program known as “Total Information Awareness”(TIA). The aim of TIA is to gather data from all available signal intelligence sources and compile it into a mammoth, ever-churning database. Expert system and fuzzy logic software would search for patterns in the data, patterns which would flag possible terrorist activity. The scope of the data would include transaction data contained in current databases, such as financial histories, medical records, communications, travel records and commercial and other private transactions.

This outrageously intrusive, intimate, unconstitutional (see the Fourth Amendment) project is supervised by none other than Iran-Contra conspirator, liar to Congress and convicted felon, Vice Admiral John Poindexter. As of this writing, a coalition of over thirty civil liberties groups have urged Senate leadership to “act immediately to stop the development of this unconstitutional system of public surveillance.”

Not only does TIA aim to cull together the data already described, but also to develop biometric technology for the identification and tracking of individuals by various means, including gait and face recognition.

TIA is only one part of a host of new measures which sacrifice individual privacy–guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution–in order to combat terrorism. The list also includes:

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which allows for the circumvention or suspension of standard criminal procedures as required in tracking suspected terrorists;

The USA PATRIOT Act: Section 215 allows for, among other things, the review of library and bookstore records;

The Department of Homeland Security, the largest reorganization of government in over half a century, a domestic intelligence agency involving more than 170,000 new employees, unprecedented organizational mandates, of labyrinthine complexity;

The Critical Infrastructure Protection Board, which is drafting a proposal for requiring Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to allow for government monitoring of all traffic through their gateways;

In addition, already underway are more extensive surveillance techniques, such as expanded video surveillance and the use of so-called “backscatter” imaging which permits the viewing of persons and items inside of vehicles and possibly even buildings.

The current administration has argued that these measures are necessary in order to combat terrorism. At the same time, the operative definitions for terrorism are vague and ambiguous, and we are also asked to accept the premise that the war on terrorism could last indefinitely, perhaps for decades, perhaps even half a century.

So–when will the “war on terrorism” be over? How will we know when to call a halt? There will be no Berlin Wall to dismantle; there will always be threats, dissent, enemies, those who are critical of U.S. foreign policy or even American culture.

What will become of the vast apparatus of government power, commercial interests, and confidential information even if an end is declared? Will all of these entrenched political and financial entities simply evaporate?

What has happened to our Constitution? What about our perception of ourselves, our rights, our identities, our relationship to our government and to each other?

The Panopticon of Jeremy Bentham represented the ultimate imbalance of power between the State and the Prisoner. All power resided with the State. The State was omniscient and omnipotent; the Prisoner was completely powerless. As Michel Foucault described it from the inmate’s point of view, “He is seen, but he does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject in communication.”

In our day, the White House has closed off access to presidential records going back to the Reagan-Bush era, has refused to divulge information on policy formation as requested by the General Accounting Office, and has directed federal agencies to expand rejections of Freedom of Information Act requests. The imbalance between private and public power grows steadily, all in the name of national security.

As surveillance of individuals increases–whether by video, wiretap, internet or other means–intimidation increases as well. According to Foucault, “Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.” Government control becomes internalized.

For the time being, the “war on terrorism” has meant the radical escalation of power in the Executive Branch of our government. Money and manpower are being pumped into an impending war on Iraq as part of a “pre-emptive” strategy to eliminate threats to the U.S., while domestic spying increases unchecked.

What about Congress? Congress has approved, with little debate, extraordinary actions which will undermine individual rights for years to come.

The Judiciary? Last August, the American Bar Association Task Force on the Treatment of Enemy Combatants, found that “The government has taken the position that with no meaningful judicial review, an American citizen alleged to be an enemy combatant could be detained indefinitely without charges or counsel on the government’s say-so.”

James Madison, writing in The Federalist Papers, stated that, “The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands . . . may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.”

Civil liberties, once given up, are difficult to recover. Unlimited government surveillance–the Panopticon–and unlimited government power, for whatever justification, will lead us to a very dangerous place.

“This (TIA) is a program that incorporates all of the ‘Big Brother’ operations that the American public has feared from its government all these years and that the Constitution has protected us from–spying, invasion of privacy, you name it,” said Peter Kornbluh, a senior analyst at the National Security Archive at George Washington University. “And Admiral Poindexter, of all people, is now in charge of that program.”

“If the Pentagon has its way, every American–from the Nebraskan farmer to the Wall Street banker–will find themselves under the accusatory cyber-stare of an all-powerful national security apparatus,” said Laura W. Murphy, director of the Washington office for the American Civil Liberties Union.

“So much for the presumption of innocence and the right to privacy,” said George Getz, a spokesman for the Libertarian Party. “Unless this Orwellian project is dismantled, innocent Americans will suffer under the kind of high-tech, 24-hour surveillance that the Stasi and the KGB would have envied.”

“This could be the perfect storm for civil liberties in America,” said Marc Rotenberg, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington “The vehicle is the Homeland Security Act, the technology is DARPA and the agency is the F.B.I. The outcome is a system of national surveillance of the American public.”

“…this (Homeland Security) is one of the most far-reaching pieces of legislation I have seen in my 50 years…” said Senator Robert Byrd. “Never have I seen such a monstrous piece of legislation sent to this body.”

“A lot of my colleagues are uncomfortable about this and worry about the potential uses that this technology might be put, if not by this administration then by a future one,” said Barbara Simon, a computer scientist who is past president of the Association of Computing Machinery. “Once you’ve got it in place you can’t control it.”

–Richard Garrard

Limits of Humanism

We celebrate humanism as a progressive, rational life stance, a broad path for thought and action. Humanism encompasses transcendentalism, atheism and secularism. It includes those who are agnostic about claims to absolute truth and those who embrace an enlivened ethics to guide life choices, and frames our understanding of existence in terms of evolution rather than creationism.

Furthermore, it recognizes human life is both cognitive and intuitive .Human emotion is now known to have a biological basis. Intuition has been shown to provide a bridge between conscious and unconscious thought in the human brain in a firmly interdependent, productive way. Intuitive knowledge is therefore no less valid than rational knowledge; it is just non-obvious, non-rationally derived knowledge. There is no longer any doubt, scientifically, that humans, in order to be healthy, have to be intuitive as well as logical.

Despite science’s failure to illuminate much of the unknown, it is clear that it makes steady inroads into seemingly unfathomable, mysterious territories through application of observable, repeatable techniques. Scientific confirmation of what we know instinctively– that healthy humans need to be both non-rational and rational–underpins our “faith” in science. It has yielded us vast quantities of empirical knowledge–both of outer, and now inner, worlds, and brought them into commonplace acceptance.

Still, Humanism has been said to be limited in that it fails to stand in awe of life’s mysteries. I would rejoin that humanists face mysteries with a deep and natural wonder, with all the full emotional and intellectual appreciation a well-equipped brain could encompass, but ultimately, subject any and all findings to the rigors of scientific, critical analysis, for substantiation, repeatability. It strikes me that the real mysteries that bewilder us demand our utmost vigilance have their roots in human behavior: mutual mistrust, disrespect and mistreatment of our own and other species with whom we share the earth. The real limits of humanism lie in our failure to inspire passionate concern, and action, for human failings.

–Heather Dorrell

No Humanists Need Apply

(Washington, DC) President Bush signed executive orders today to further his agenda of faith-based initiatives. American Humanist Association Executive Director Tony Hileman responded, “Bush’s actions explicitly ignore the wishes of the elected members of Congress who intentionally did not pass faith-based initiative legislation.”

Today’s executive orders allowed sectarian organizations to receive public dollars, specified that those public dollars won’t come attached with prohibitions against discriminatory hiring practices, and opened two new governmental faith-based offices in the Department of Agriculture and the Agency for International Development.

“In these actions, not only does Bush undermine the democratic process by usurping legislative powers but he also misuses public funds by opening the door for violations of the principle of church-state separation. Perhaps of even more consequence, these executive orders specifically allow faith-based organizations to discriminate in their hiring even though they are using public funds,” explained Hileman.

“One thing’s for sure, the message is loud and clear that some of these faith-based organizations receiving our tax dollars will be able to say ‘Gays, women, and Humanists need not apply.’ Public funds shouldn’t be used to discriminate. Congress made this understood only a few years ago when they stopped the flow of public dollars to Bob Jones University,” said Fred Edwords, editor of the Humanist magazine.

Bush’s faith-based initiatives will invariably lead to discrimination in hiring and in the services provided. Should Jews have to receive services in an environment inundated with Christian faith symbols, rhetoric, and practices? Should Humanists and others in need have to give up their freedom of conscience in order to receive government services?

When our representatives in Congress were presented with these programs they were rejected. The President should respect the decisions of Congress and not subvert them in a way that breaches the integrity of the wall of church-state separation.

Bush Misrepresents America

(Washington, DC) “The Bush administration is misrepresenting America by trying to impose President Bush’s personal religious views internationally,” said American Humanist Association Executive Director Tony Hileman.

Despite the fact that abortion is legal in America, U.S. representatives pushed for anti-abortion measures throughout the Fifth Asian and Pacific Population Conference attended by thirty-two nations. In the opening days of the conference they demanded there be “No reference to ‘services’ in relationship to reproductive health,” objected to use of the term “reproductive rights,” and tried to remove references to adolescents, arguing that it might promote teenage sexual activity.

A Bush administration statement issued at the conference makes clear the extent of this unpopular view: “The United States supports the sanctity of life from conception to natural death.”

Hileman responded, “Bush is stepping over the bounds of appropriate separation between religion and government when he puts forth his religious interpretations as U.S. foreign policy. The public at large–especially we Humanists–are not supportive of this extreme view that protected human life begins at conception. Not only is there no legitimate national interest in pursuing this agenda, but it hinders existing international family planning efforts and is not supported by American law.”

The international community soundly rejected U.S. demands, which likely will be used to excuse continued lack of support of reasonable population programs. The delegation from the Philippines was particularly taken aback. The Philippine Legislators’ Committee on Population and Development Foundation expressed concerns over the U.S. position, particularly noting “the attempt of the US government to impose its own policies over other nations through a process that violates democracy and the use of threat to exhibit its power in relation to international agreements and commitments.”

Hileman added, “But these aren’t really America’s policies. They are only those of George W. Bush and his church. Reproductive rights must be protected, not just in the United States, but internationally, particularly where countries are asking for the help such services provide. We need to stand up to these continued religiously motivated attacks on women’s reproductive freedoms by the Bush administration.”

–Tony Hileman