no more tabula rasa

The coming years will show that “tabula rasa” was just a ruse, it turns out humans are actually not “blank slates”, and we’ve been fooled by our own wishful thinking into believing something that could never be. What science is now showing is that we might actually be influenced to think and behave the way we do in part because of our nature. Wait. Humans have a nature? It turns out we do. In time this knowledge will become more apparent to us, and as additional information becomes known we will inevitably hear voices who claim that we are “biologically determined” little creatures — which is to say that we cannot improve outside of what our genes have bestowed upon us. This clunky line of reasoning may inspire some people into a depressing and incorrect form of deterministic thinking. But biological determinism is as fallacious as cultural, linguistic and/or environmental determinism. Of course, there are limits to who we can become, but that’s true even if biology plays no role whatsoever. But within that we have choices we can make that can improve who we are, regardless of our genetic makeup or environmental circumstances. There’s nothing depressing about biology playing a role in who we are, in fact, it’s somewhat liberating to know we are not solely determined by the shackles of our own cultural or environmental circumstances, and that in fact there are more components to what makes us unique, and thus more avenues to find room to improve our lot.

But which is more important? Do we turn out the way we do primarily because of the environment and culture from which we are raised? or do we find ourselves to be who we are mostly because of our genes? The short answer is that it’s complicated. The long answer is that virtually all human traits are partly heritable, and this includes ability and behavioral traits that we like as well as those we don’t like. But this does not mean that we are determined by nature, anymore than it means we are determined by nurture. Thus, a person born with a particularly unattractive behavioral propensity in one environment might be led to a more genteel framework in another, but we should still allow ourselves to consider how biology plays a role in order to mitigate its effects where we can.

Currently, some in the social sciences heavily prioritize everything but biology as it pertains to human outcomes. Lest anyone accuse me of strawman construction, rest assured I am not coming from a position of outsider ignorance (outsider, yes, ignorance, no). I have read their papers, this is something that exists. A social scientist of this persuasion will point to the vast number of studies that have been done demonstrating the importance of family environment and culture in how we turn out. But all they’ve done is proven that these things matter. In a similar fashion, I could demonstrate the importance of wheels to why cars move. I could perform any number of studies to show that, without wheels, cars get nowhere, but those cars with wheels are highly mobile. In general, cars with wheels are correlated with successful transport of humans and cargo. But if one asked me what’s under the hood, I could say that it doesn’t matter, or perhaps it hardly matters, because ultimately wheels are far more relevant to car performance. If we place good wheels on all cars, we’ll have more effective cars, and to some degree I’d be right. But I’d also be incredibly wrong.

While we have some understanding about the degree to which nature, nurture and environment influence us — thanks mostly to twin studies — we are kidding ourselves to say that we know, with certainty, that one is more important than the other. Any claims as such are moral/political in nature, not based on actual fact. However, we are denying ourselves tremendous progress when we prioritize the question — as it pertains to nature, nurture or environment’s effect on human outcomes — of “which is more important” over the question of “in which way does each matter”. And it’s precisely for human outcomes that we should want to know more, not less, about all of the components that come together to make each one of us who we are. To limit ourselves to only one or two areas, and to minimize whole categories of other relevant information is nothing more than a fools errand — even if it’s done with good intentions.

It’s time to be done with the tabula rasa. Concerns about what will happen if we do are unfounded, and mostly based on historical precedent that is unlikely to be repeated in our current culture, with an already sound ethical framework developing for how to discuss these issues. There is greater risk if our culture were to continue to drink the Kool-aide, since science is showing more and more the relevance of DNA to who we are. The next great strides in human development will depend on our ability to harness this information for the good, even if that means we have to fight off those who may seek to harness it for the bad. Because as with all good things, there is some risk, but I am confident that we are prepared to confront it. And I am confident that humanity will be better as a result. But even if we stick our heads in the sand as a society, the information will continue to come in and confront us, and we will be less prepared to address it if the taboo around discussing the issue remains in place. Which is why I am discussing it, because we have far more options when we are right than when we choose to be wrong out of fear or uncertainty.

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