|Barred spiral galaxy NGC1672 [Courtesy NASA]|
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.Similarly, anthropologist Ashley Montagu declared, "Man is man because he has no instincts, because everything he is and has become he has learned, acquired, from his culture, from the man-made part of the environment, from other human beings." [Pinker2002, pg. 24].
Closely related to the blank slate doctrine is the "noble savage" doctrine, namely the notion that humans in their natural primitive state are unselfish, peaceful and free from the many blights of modern society such as greed, violence, jealousy and psychological hangups, all of which are unfortunate byproducts of modern civilization. Like the blank slate, the noble savage was reflected in the writings of Rosseau, who in 1755 wrote that "nothing can be more gentle than him in his primitive state" [Pinker2002, pg. 6].
In the 20th century, these doctrines were given considerable momentum through the writings of anthropologist Margaret Mead. After her study of South Seas islanders, she wrote "We are forced to conclude that human nature is almost unbelievably malleable, responding accurately and contrastingly to contrasting cultural conditions." She described these native peoples as peaceful, egalitarian, satisfied with their material lot and sexually uninhibited [Pinker2002, pg. 25-26]. Numerous other prominent social scientists and scholars, including such giants as Bertrand Russell and H. L. Mencken, adopted the prevailing views of Montagu, Mead and others without serious question.
This general philosophy was interpreted by some as giving license to what most people today would term a largely amoral or even hedonistic lifestyle: If there is no fundamental reality to a human sense of material possession, then greed and competition are obsolete, and furthermore a totally communal society without private property is indeed achievable (as promoted by Karl Marx, for instance). If there is no fundamental reality to sexual jealousy, then there is no need for marriage or for sex to be restricted to marriage. If there is no fundamental human proclivity to violence, then the total elimination of violent crime is possible merely by suitably re-educating the populace, after which all violence will cease. And if even moderate levels of self-control are unnecessary and even harmful to our social and psychological well-being, then everyone should seek to throw off such controls, and to oppose institutions (such as religious movements) that have advocated them.
Along this line, in the 1980s anthropologist Donald Brown, after surveying hundreds of anthropological studies from around the world, collected a set of characteristics that had been found common to all human societies, even those that have had little or no contact with the western world. He identified approximately 150 such features, including abstract speech and thought, religion of various forms, common facial expressions for different emotions, marriage, taboos against incest, greater levels of aggression among males, sexual jealousy, sexual modesty and fear of death. He concludes that there is indeed a universal human nature, and that these features point to what that universal human nature is [Pinker2002, pg. 435-439].
Modern sociologists and anthropologists dealt a similarly devastating blow to the "noble savage" doctrine. Researchers returning to the South Seas islands found that Margaret Mead's earlier findings were almost perversely mistaken. For example, far from being paragons of nonchalant innocence, some Samoans beat or even killed brides that were found not to be virgins on their wedding night, and numerous suspected adulterers received the same fate. Similarly, researchers in Africa found that the "harmless" !Kung San, in some cases, avenged murder by mass murder in return. One archaeologist summarized the rates of male deaths in warfare for a number of indigenous civilizations in South America and New Guinea. He found rates 10 to 60 times higher than U.S. and Europe during in the 20th century (encompassing both WWI and WWII) [Pinker2002, pg. 435-439]. Additional statistics and details on crime and violence through the ages and in our own time are presented in Decline and Violence. See also The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature [Pinker2002], authored by prominent Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker.
Most people, of course, are not so lacking in self-control that they ever lash out in violence. But among the nonviolent majority some people have more self-control than others. Aside from intelligence, no other trait augurs as well for a healthy and successful life. Walter Mischel began his studies of delay of gratification (in which he gave children the choice between one marshmallow now and two marshmallows later) in the late 1960s, and he followed the children as they grew up. When they were tested a decade later, the ones who had shown greater willpower in the marshmallow test had now turned into adolescents who were better adjusted, attained higher SAT scores, and stayed in school longer. When they were tested one and two decades after that, the patient children had grown into adults who were less likely to use cocaine, had higher self-esteem, had better relationships, were better at handling stress, had fewer symptoms of borderline personality disorder, obtained higher degrees, and earned more money.
Other studies with large samples of adolescents and adults have documented similar payoffs. Adults can wait indefinitely for two marshmallows, but as we have seen, they can be given equivalent choices such as "Would you rather have five dollars now or forty dollars in two weeks?" Studies by Laibson, Christopher Chabris, Kris Kirby, Angela Duckworth, Martin Seligman, and others have found that people who opt for the later and larger sums get higher grades, weigh less, smoke less, exercise more, and are more likely to pay off their credit card balance every month. ...
After adjusting for any tendency just to tick off socially desirable traits, the researchers combined the responses into a single measure of habitual self-control. They found that the students with higher scores got better grades, had fewer eating disorders, drank less, had fewer psychosomatic aches and pains, were less depressed, anxious, phobic, and paranoid, had higher self-esteem, were more conscientious, had better relationships with their families, had more stable friendships, were less likely to have sex they regretted, were less likely to imagine themselves cheating in a monogamous relationship, felt less of a need to "vent" or "let off steam," and felt more guilt but less shame. Self-controllers are better at perspective-taking and are less distressed when responding to others' troubles, though they are neither more nor less sympathetic in their concern for them. And contrary to the conventional wisdom that says people with too much self-control are uptight, repressed, neurotic, bottled up, wound up, obsessive-compulsive, or fixated at the anal stage of psychosexual development, the team found that the more self-control people have, the better their lives are. The people at the top of the scale were the mentally healthiest.
For additional discussion, see