I recently read an article by Ed West on his Substack page in which he wonders why the blank slate theory of human nature still persists despite abundant scientific evidence against it and 20 years after Steven Pinker wrote The Blank Slate also refuting it.
In the simplest terms, the ‘blank slate’ theory posits that all or most human differences are the result of socialisation rather than biology or nature. Proponents of the blank slate theory can take issue with any suggestion that certain distinctions between individual human beings, such as sex differences or IQ, are products of nature rather than culture. In keeping with the rest of my blog, in this post I’ll focus here only on sex differences.
In his Substack article, Ed West writes:
“Rather than blank slate-led ideas falling into mockery and obscurity, the opposite has happened – they’ve proliferated and spread. Pinker was obviously right, yet seems to have lost.”
Ed West, The triumph of the blank slate
Evidence for this trend, according to West, comes from recent articles that deny certain differences between men and women such as one published in The Atlantic arguing whether or not boys have an advantage over girls in competitive sport and another from The New York Times suggesting that women’s maternal instinct is not natural (you can find the links on his post). More troubling perhaps is scientific publications such as Scientific American arguing that Western science only considered one sex – male – and the female body was considered inferior to it resulting in a ‘two sex model’ to reinforce gender divisions.
For me, the short answer to the question why blank slatism has persisted is because many influential publications, and institutions, have become dominated by people with the radical ideology we broadly call ‘woke’. I realise this is not exactly a groundbreaking revelation, but it is the simplest explanation to why the blank slate theory has still not disappeared.
Since ‘woke’ ideology assumes that Western societies have been formulated for the benefit of straight white males at the expense of everyone else, be they women, black or LGBT, any suggestion that, for example, male dominance in certain fields is a result of sex differences – rather than the preferred argument that men have gamed the system for their own advantage – is rejected.
I call this a ‘fact-narrative mismatch’ as any facts that go against the established ideological narrative are considered verboten. This has been complicated further by transgenderism, which argues that biological sex is determined more by personal identity than by our physiology. It was perhaps naive of us to assume that science would not be free of the kind of mental gymnastics that blank slatists engage in elsewhere even though science is meant to be objective and impartial.
Ed West notes at the end of his article:
“…as (Steven) Pinker points out, people can still fight for liberal causes while acknowledging these facts (MM: biological sex differences), but many people choose not to.”
Again, the reason for this is likely because it is easier to reject facts that go against a certain ideology than to try and incorporate the facts or change your beliefs to accommodate them.
The article concludes:
“It is odd that, as the evidence for genetic influences has stacked up, so the scientific community has come to be more enthralled to the blank slate. Strange ideas that Pinker confidently predicted were on the way out are stronger than ever, and the hereditarian view more, rather than less controversial — even such obvious facts as physical differences between the sexes are a matter of dispute.”
I would disagree slightly here because I think the controversy is more about the conflicting views of the pro-blank slate side vs the anti-blank side rather than one view taking precedence over the other. It is also likely that there are many people in the scientific community who have avoided getting involved in the discussion in the first place. Even feminists, who are often favourable towards blank slate theory, have ended up in conflict with each other over the transgender issue which challenges the existence of sex differences.
Ed West is correct however that blank slatism has been surprisingly robust even in scientific fields for reasons I have already mentioned. Furthermore, it is entirely possible that blank slate thinkers will eventually dominate the prominent scientific institutions – in which case we can only hope that genuine scientists can establish themselves elsewhere.
Nevertheless, is it possible to question or disagree with some of the conclusions reached by scientists about human sex differences whilst also being against blank slate theory? If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you may have seen my reviews of The Ape That Understood the Universe and Testosterone.
I am broadly in agreement with what the respective authors of those books, Steve Stewart-Williams and Carole Hooven, write about the biology behind sex differences and I thought both books were overall good. Even so, I pointed out in those reviews certain points that were made by Stewart-Williams and Hooven that I disagreed with. In short, I did not always share their opinion on certain sex differences even though I believe that sex differences do exist.
My main disagreement with Stewart-Williams and Hooven was not so much about the existence of sex differences, but more about how those differences are interpreted. I believe current understandings of sex differences can lead to a romanticised view of women over men which is one of the problems we have in current discourse. Steve Stewart-Williams was at least honest enough to note in The Ape That Understood the Universe that current theories about sex differences shaped by evolution present a more unflattering picture of men than they do of women.
Similarly, Carole Hooven ends up making vaguely feminist arguments in her book Testosterone despite presenting very good information about sex differences. You might say that beggars can’t be choosers in the present situation and we need to support academics who are against blank slate theory as much as possible. However, I think you can still support somebody even if you don’t always agree with them, which is often the case anyway. That doesn’t mean though that you can’t express scepticism towards some of their ideas.
For example, Steve Stewart-Williams and Carole Hooven both explore the more violent tendencies of men compared to women; I didn’t have too much of a problem with the information presented by either author; it is true for instance that men are more likely to commit crimes and acts of violence than women are. However, I got the impression sometimes from both books that male violence was some kind of taboo subject that believers of blank slate theory or other progressive notions were in denial about.
This assumption that male violence is a taboo subject reminded me of a post I once saw on Twitter which presented a graph on crimes rates between men and women. As you might expect, the line representing men was far higher than that of women, leading to mock surprise from commenters that men and women really are different after all. The responders possibly thought they were being very edgy and politically incorrect in expressing these sarcastic reactions but how many feminists would dispute this discrepancy? After all, look how much attention is placed on trying to change men’s behaviour and end so-called ‘toxic masculinity’.
To be clear, I’m not denying that men are more violent than women, only that pointing this out is not as provocative or dangerous to woke ideas as some people appear to think. In fact, this difference in violent behaviour between the sexes can lead to the following thinking process:
- Men and women are different
- Men are more violent than women
- Something must be done about male violence against women
Points one and two are correct, and point three is still reasonable, but this is hardly controversial for feminists. In addition, female violence is often overlooked or excused by the fact that women are on average weaker than men.
Let’s look at another claimed sex difference:
- Men and women are different
- Women are more empathetic than men
- If women had more power, then society would be better off because they would be more empathy and compassion.
I’ve written before about whether women are in fact more empathetic than men, so I won’t go over old ground. Maybe the difference in empathy is indeed true, but whatever the truth, point 3 is again something that feminists may believe themselves and they don’t have to have a blank slate view to come to that conclusion.
The fact that men are bigger, more physically stronger and more aggressive than women also fits very neatly with the feminist view that women are victims and men are perpetrators. Similarly, the fact that women are typically more risk averse and anxious then men can lead to the assumption women are naturally timid and need constant encouragement and support.
I guess the point I’m trying to make here is that acknowledging sex differences only takes us so far. It does not necessarily stop ‘woke’ or ‘progressive’ ideas such as feminism from taking hold. In fairness, this point was pointed out by Ed West and Steven Pinker in the above quote. Obviously, the answer is not to adopt the blank slate belief yourself, but I think having a degree of scepticism about some (but not all) of the current thinking about sex differences is important.
I admit there is a danger here in that you can end up in the same boat as blank slate thinkers in rejecting certain differences between groups because you personally dislike them. One way out of this is to consider how you deal with those you are in disagreement with. Do you believe that those with opposing views to yours should be prevented from expressing them or ‘cancelled?’. The answer for me would be no. It’s also crucial to have humility and not assume that your position cannot change in light of new information.
Returning to Ed West’s article, the impression I got from reading Steve Stewart-Williams’ and Carole Hooven’s books is reflected in what I read from West. In other words, I’m more or less on the same side as him, but I’m also more sceptical than he is about some of the current understandings on sex differences. I don’t mean obvious differences like men being physically stronger than women, but more complex ones such as differences in personality.
In his article, Ed West cites studies that suggest that personality differences are sex-linked and are larger in more equal societies than unequal ones. This increase rather than decrease in difference has been called the ‘gender equality paradox’ which suggests that efforts to eliminate barriers against both sexes allow sex differences to emerge freely. Occupational choices also seem to be more divergent between men and women in more equal countries which also supports this apparent paradox. There is likely some truth in this gender paradox, as well as the idea that both sexes have distinctive personality traits, but we can still run into the same problems I described before.
For example, Ed West states:
“When Jordan Peterson told Cathy Newman in a Channel 4 interview in 2018 that men tend to be more disagreeable than women, I was quite surprised by how many people were scandalised, seeing it as horrifically provocative rather than something so obviously true it takes courage to say it.”
Men are probably more disagreeable than women in the sense that men are more competitive and more likely to engage in physical violence, but I would still question the idea that men are more disagreeable than women as a general rule. It’s also important to note that personality tests are largely self-assessments, so subjectivity will affect results. Nevertheless, the pros and cons of personality tests are a topic for another day.
The assumption that men are on average more disagreeable is that, by contrast, women are more agreeable. Although we can easily find evidence that supports this idea – women are more nurturing, etc. it is easy to fall back into the same old narratives – women are victims, men are perpetrators and so on.
For instance, Jordan Peterson argues in his book 12 Rules for Life that agreeable people tend to sacrifice themselves for others and find it hard to stand up for themselves. This is often presented as one of the flaws of agreeableness. While being a pushover is certainly a flaw, it’s still a rather flattering one. People are far more likely to sympathise with an ‘agreeable’ person who is excessively selfless than a ‘disagreeable’ person who is excessively selfish.
If women are more agreeable than men, than perhaps something should be done about this. If only there was a political movement that wanted to ’empower’ women in some particular way? I’ve called this idea before the ‘women are too nice for their own good argument’ which seems to suggest that the worst thing about the female sex is their excessive compassion.
The mention of the gender equality paradox reminded me of a tweet I saw from Ed West a couple of years ago in which he posted a study suggesting that sex differences in narcissism were larger in egalitarian countries with men being higher (of course) than women. In response, I expressed scepticism in the comments like I have in this post.
If the reader thinks I’m just rejecting sex differences I don’t like, all I can say is we can still ask some questions: if women are becoming less narcissistic and more agreeable, why do men increasingly feel unhappy and discouraged about seeking relationships? Women who are high in agreeableness and low in narcissism would seem to be ideal marriage material, but many men are put off from getting married and are instead opting out. Women are also often presented as lacking self-esteem and being self-critical, yet women will freely criticise men while any criticism of women is met with outrage and women are told nothing is their fault.
I also don’t think the idea that women are more compassionate than men, like sex differences in violence, is particularly controversial. Notably, Steven Pinker argued in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature that the apparent decline in violence over the past few decades is partly the result of ‘feminisation’ and the ‘rights revolutions’ that have accompanied this. Women being less violent, according to Pinker, means they are more likely to advocate for non-violence. This is similar to the feminist idea that giving women more power will make the world a better place, and it came from the author of The Blank Slate himself! In this interpretation, femininity could be said to be the antidote to a world tainted by poisonous masculinity.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting there are no sex differences that give women an advantage over men. For example, I believe it’s probably true that girls pick up reading and writing quicker than boys do and can sit still for longer periods of time. This partly explains why girls tend to perform better than boys at school, although I don’t think it’s the only reason. Similarly, I think women can detect emotions in others more readily than men can, but I still wonder whether this is empathy as it’s traditionally described. I also think the idea that men and women are complementary – i.e. both sexes have strengths and weaknesses that balance each other out – is largely true.
Although I wouldn’t dismiss Steve Stewart-Williams, Carole Hooven or Ed West for simply having a different view of sex differences than mine – recognising that sex differences exist is as good a starting point as any of course – there is a danger that the conversation gets stuck in one interpretation and alternative ones are dismissed as the same as blank slatism.
As I’ve tried to show here, we can be against the blank slate and recognise that sex differences exist on the one hand but also debate some of the assumption about differences on the other. This is one of the reasons I decided to start this blog and something I’d like to write more about in future.