Blank Slate at Birth

Portrait of John Locke, by Sir Godfrey Kneller...

Portrait of John Locke, by Sir Godfrey Kneller. Oil on canvas. 76×64 cm. Britain, 1697. Source of Entry: Collection of Sir Robert Walpole, Houghton Hall, 1779. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was John Locke, 17th century British philosopher, who first came up with the notion that human beings are ‘blank slates’ at birth, who only become ‘real people’ through experience and upbringing.  It was the beginning of the never-ending ‘nature versus nurture’ debate, but of course he was entirely wrong.

Not this prevented some terrible atrocities being committed in later centuries, all in the name of ‘cleansing’.  After Charles Darwin had published his revolutionary book ‘The Origin of the Species’, the scientific world was in a spin, and eager for more new ideas.  Darwin had a cousin named Francis Galton. It was he who came up with now infamous theory of Eugenics – the idea that human beings could be improved upon by selective breeding.. In 1865, he published a study of the intellectual superiority of children from notable families, finding that they were 240 times more likely to succeed in life than their poorer counterparts.

 Many who attended the first Congress of Eugenics, in London in 1912, embraced his ideas with enthusiasm.  The idea that ‘unfit’ men should not be allowed to breed caught on very quickly, and by 1913, 16 US states had introduced laws calling for the sterilisation of the ‘feeble-minded’. German devotees of this ridiculous idea came to power in 1933. Thousands of people in that country were sterilized for being mentally ill, in some way, and we all know what happened to the Jewish community.  After the end of WWII, and the horrific discovery of what the Nazis had done, thinking on the issue changed again.  1920’s American psychologist John B Watson proclaimed all talk of traits and instincts to be beyond quantification, and called for more focus on how humans reacted to the world around them.

Charles Darwin, photographed by Julia Margaret...

Charles Darwin, photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 In 1931 US Winthrop Kellog performed a pioneering study of how genes affect behaviour by raising a baby chimp alongside his 10-month old daughter. He found that the ape behaved exactly as the human child did, where brain and body differences permitted.  So the environment in which they were raised as  important as their genetic make-up. The debate rumbled on over the following decades, with the publication of endless books and studies on the subject of human behaviour and its development. By the middle of the 1990’s, the academic world, at least, had come to the same conclusions about it as most philosophers had been espousing for centuries.

It is all a mix of natural tendencies, the influence of upbringing, but most importantly of all, the sheer randomness of genetic chance.  When the human genome was mapped, and counted at over 30,000, that said nothing about the limitless billions of possible combinations that there simply have to be. The book ‘The Nurture Assumption’ by  US psychologist Judith Rich Harris in 1998, gave scientific creedence to a fact that countless generations of parents have instinctively known.  Parents have absolutely no influence over the personalities of their children. Kids turn out the way their genes dictate.

1. Should we tinker with our genetic make-up?

As time goes by, it becomes ever clearer that what people have within themselves, in terms of personality and academic ability, is due solely to the complex interaction of the genes they were born with.  Of course the way that they are brought up plays a part, but nowhere near as big a one as once believed.  The kid who is bold and daring at five years of age will almost certainly go through life with the same attitude, because they simply cannot help themselves. In the hazy universe of genetic ‘Lego’, no two people will, or could ever be put together in the same way, and that is what makes human beings so fascinating.

The moment of your birth does not witness a ‘blank slate’ person coming into the world, but a complicated, intricate being whose future is, in some respects, pre-determined simply by the way nature has put them together. Whatever sort of character you are in later life, be it faithful spouse or inveterate womaniser, the simple truth is that you were born that way, and all you can do is make the best of it.

English: "A Venerable Orang-outang",...

English: “A Venerable Orang-outang”, a caricature of Charles Darwin as an ape published in The Hornet, a satirical magazine Deutsch: Man sieht Darwin als Affen dargestellt, was eine Anspielung auf seine Evolutionstheorie sein soll. Seiner Meinung nach entwickelten sich die Menschen aus den Affen, was damals eine völlig neue Vorstellung war. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


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