Innate Temperament: A Terrifying Idea?

Yes, for some, biologically based, innate temperament is a terrifying idea.  In his remarkable book, The Blank Slate,* Steve Pinker devotes 90-some pages to discussing this topic directly, and many more pages to discussing how this plays out in both science and society.  “Terrifying” may be an excessive description for the qualities measured by the MBTI and other “normal” temperament scales, but the roots of temperament theory go deep and wide, and spread to other, less, palatable areas of thought.

First of all, consider that all temperament scales assume that the differences that we measure are innate and genetically programmed in the development of each human brain.  Logically, that means that many other, less “normal” differences are also genetically programmed.  This idea, when turned to extreme aggression and/or a tendency to violence, suggests that crime itself has a genetic basis.  You can’t logically admit that major areas of the brain–and related behavior–are under genetic control, and then automatically exclude less desirable behaviors.  Similarly, you can’t logically exclude the very important area of intelligence, and that certainly tends to open Pandora’s box.  If you are one of those happy souls who can keep pleasant and unpleasant ideas apart, in logic-tight compartments you may be fine with this, but many people cannot.  This may be most true of some scientists who struggle to be logical about this, but refuse to accept the implications that follow.

To see the effect of bringing unwanted information to the world, you can go all the way back to 1616 and Galileo’s assertion that the sun was fixed in space and the earth revolved around it.  His long struggle with the Catholic church culminated in 1633 with a conviction for heresy, a sentence of house arrest for the rest of his life, and a ban on any publication of his works, past or future.  It might seem a bit over the top for a mere difference of opinion about earth and sun, but the fact is, his heliocentric theory rocked the foundations of both the belief system of the Church and the belief system of most ordinary inhabitants of Europe.  Church doctrine saw the earth as fixed and the sun as revolving around it–thus man at the center of the universe.  No doubt most everyday laymen saw it the same way, and were greatly comforted to believe that human life was the central focus of everything.

You might think that we have long outgrown such surprising needs and fears, but the truth is that any new finding that contradicts a strongly held (and comforting) set of beliefs, is going to rock somebody’s universe.  When that happens to enough somebodies, who have some power to bring to bear, the results may not be too different than in the case of Galileo.  Pinker gives us two startling examples of what can happen when respected scientists open up the issue of individual differences.  In 1975, Harvard zoologist, E. O Wilson, took a daring step (or a foolhardy one, depending on your viewpoint) and published a massive review of the literature on animal behavior, along with some very new ideas on the role of genes and natural selection, in developing unique behaviors for unique species.  In this book, Sociobiology,** the author also had the temerity to add a chapter on the human animal, as if all the same principles applied.  The book created a firestorm.  It was criticized for essentially attacking the whole role of human culture in shaping behavior, and was nicknamed “vulgar Sociobiology”. Some very important scientists in genetics, paleontology, and related fields (especially Stephan Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin) circulated a paper for supportive signatures that was called “Against Sociobiology”.  The author was accused of supporting, slavery, and even stirring up the genocidal view that led to the actions of Nazi Germany.  Basically the argument was that if aggression, sexual behaviors, self-centered actions, etc. had innate causes, then all cultural control would be lost–certainly a fearful and discomforting thought–but not at all what he author had said.

Both in his classes at Harvard, and his many lectures elsewhere, he was dogged by protesters over and over again, for literally years.  In 1978, at an invited lecture at a major science meeting he was greeted by a group carrying swastikas, and chanting “Racist Wilson, you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide”.  Before it was over he was doused with a pail of water.  All this for a liberal-democrat who dared to write that human behavior might have genetic forces.

But–that was 1975–old news?  Not really.  Pinker’s book takes us next to the year 2000. During this year, an anthropological study became the flashpoint for a whole new war over innate characteristics.  Two researchers–geneticist James Neel, and anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon–had been studying aggression among the Yanomamo tribes who lived (and live now) in the Amazon rain forest.  Altogether, their work spanned  30 years.  Aggression levels were extraordinarily high among the Yanomamo, with frequent warfare and raiding of other tribes, The question, of course, was why and their conclusions suggested genetic involvement.  As they were wrapping up this long study, a journalist obtained information on their work and their results,entirely from sources other than the researchers themselves, and published  this under the title Darkness in El Dorado.  Two fellow anthropologists obtained galley proofs of the book and sent a letter of warning to the  Anthropological Society warning that Neel and Chagnon’s work was both inflammatory and disgraceful in the extreme.  Among other things, their letter stated that “This book should shake anthropology to its very foundations. It should cause the field to understand how the corrupt and depraved protagonists could have spread their poison for so long, while they were accorded great respect throughout the Western world….”  Once again racism, eugenics in its most evil form, and actual genocide were the accusations.

The theory that the researchers had developed to explain the unusual level of violence was that, to begin with, violence was admired in this society, and resulted in high status for successful warriors.  This, in turn, resulted in more wives and more children, and a resulting increase in warlike descendants.  That, of course implied that something genetic might be at work. Among their many acts of evil, during this study, Neel and Chagnon were accused of introducing measles into the Yanomamo tribes (often lethal without medical aid) and had deliberately withheld medical help, all to test a theory about genetic fitness.  In actuality the tribes had had many contacts with miners working in the area, and had been in the midst of a measles epidemic when the researchers arrived.  Other accusations included an allegation that radiation experiments were done, that axes and other battle weapons were supplied to the tribesmen to provoke them into fighting, that a documentary on an actual fight was really a staged event,*** and even that Chagon pressured the villagers to supply him with girls for sexual activity.

The book was  lurid, totally lacking in verification and ultimately proven to be false.  However, the accusations flew from the author and the anthropology attackers to newspapers all over the world.  One headline was “Scientist Killed Amazon Indians to Test Race Theory”.  In a matter of months the storm was over.  Easily documented information backed up the researchers on every item except, of course their theory that genetics were at work in Yanomamo aggression.  This was true, and was, of course, the heart of the firestorm of criticism.  The University of Michigan did a comprehensive study of these issues in October of 2000, and fully vindicated the researchers.  With respect to the two anthropologist critics they note that “The problem comes when extreme moralists believe that debate can only end when their opponents are denounced, demonized, and driven from their community into silence.”  With respect to the book, Darkness in El Dorado, they suggest that “Its targets are science, genetics, and neo-Darwinian theory, as exemplified by Neel and Chagnon.”  They note also that “James Neel died in February, leaving a wife and children who now have to read newspaper headlines accusing him of genocide.”***

Not mentioned in Pinker’s Blank Slate, are other events of this kind in the late 1980s and 1990s, perhaps because the outcomes were not quite as dramatic.  However, during this period, research began to appear in some quantity on genetic relationships to crime and violence, and there were instances over and over where presentations on this topic were cancelled, not accepted at all, or accepted only with major revisions.  Similarly there were many presentations disrupted by agitators.  Again, the topic was too painful, especially with implications for ethnic or racial differences.

Also in this time period, The Bell Curve was published.  This was a massive work, documenting hundreds and hundreds of findings on individual and group differences in IQ and other cognitive measures, and their effects on lifestyle, education and income.**** The authors did not directly argue for genetic effects, but the implication was there to be found.  It was, however, a very thorough and professional presentation.  That did not save it from another firestorm of criticism, but it did mean that the important “somebodies” who were deeply offended, generally fought the battle on a more scholarly and intellectual level (no water pouring)..  It was a long and protracted battle, that has never ended, but with all the passionate charges of racism, at least the authors were not accused of genocide.

So now, past all that, have we become more calm and civil?  No, not even slightly.  The Blank Slate was written before two still more egregious events occurred in the next decade.  The first was Harvard President Summers’ debacle at a luncheon talk.  He and many other Harvard faculty were attending a conference on “Diversifying the Science and Engineering Workforce”.  Recruitment of women faculty in these areas has been a severe and continuing problem in all of the elite universities.  For example, in spite of rigorous efforts, of 32 faculty hires for that year in Arts and Sciences, Harvard had made offers to only four women.

Summers began his talk by suggesting three possible reasons for the problem.   One was the fact that early career success in these fields demanded 80 hour work weeks, and this meant that many women with young children, might be unwilling to make this commitment.  A second possibility was that simply that universities were still discriminating against women.  The grenade in the box though was another alternative–that there simply are fewer women at the highest level of scientific ability.  He cited research that indicated in areas of math and science, that males and females are of equal abilities on average, but–and it is a big but–male scores range more widely from the mean with both more very low scores and very high scores being more frequently male.  (Author note:  there is some good, carefully done research that indicates this.  Google Camilla Benbough and male/female SAT scores,for an example).  His logic was that this difference resulted in significantly more men than women in the top 1% of all applicants, and it seemed clear that he thought this was the most compelling cause.

You can wonder if Summers is in the bottom 1% in self-preservation skills (or perhaps an incredibly strong MBTI-type T.)  He was asked by the moderator to “come and be provocative” and he started his talk by saying that he was going to do that by tossing out several hypotheses.  He also added, after his bombshell innateness hypothesis, that he “would like to be proven wrong on this.”  None of that mattered, however, once the “innate” word got loose in the room.   One female MIT biologist left in the middle of his talk, suggesting that it had made her physically ill, and subsequently took the story to the press where it virtually went viral.   In a matter of hours an apology for all of this was requested and given, but in the end it didn’t matter.  Two months later, he was given a vote of no confidence by the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and eventually he resigned from the presidency.  This was not the only precipitating cause;  he had been too outspoken and too disrespectful of political correctness before, but this was the tipping point.  In all of this, only one member of the Harvard faculty spoke in his defense–the Blank Slate author, Steven Pinker!

And finally, there is James Watson.  Common sounding name, but not a common man.  This is the Watson of Watson and Crick–discoverers of the structure of DNA, and winners of the Nobel prize. Following that amazing contribution in the 1950s,  James Watson took over the Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory in 1968, at a time when a strong hand was needed, and built it into one of the finest institutions for molecular biology in the world.  He continued as its director, president and then chancellor for 40 years. So what could Dr. Watson have done wrong?

In October of 2007 he traveled to England to promote an autobiographical book, tantilizingly called Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science.  Unfortunately, while there he was interviewed by London’s Sunday Times.  During the interview, he allowed himself to comment that he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa”, adding that “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours–whereas all the testing says not really”.  This was, of course, printed, and again went virtually viral.  The first ramification was that a scheduled talk at the London Science Museum was cancelled on the grounds that his remark was totally unacceptable. One British politician accused him of “baseless, unscientific and extremely offensive comments”. Other talks were cancelled, one group called for a criminal investigation, and the Nobel Laureate precipitously departed for America.

Back in the US there was more to come. The Board of Trustees that oversees the Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory suspended him and removed him from all duties there.  He apologized repeatedly, and retracted his original statement, saying, in effect that he misspoke. However, the UK Independent headlined on of these retractions with his comment “To question genetic intelligence is not racism”, and quoted him as “This is not a discussion about superiority or inferiority.  It is about seeking to understand differences, about why some of us are great musicians and others great engineers.”  Galileo, in his time, was reputed to have murmured after his retraction speech on the relationship of earth and sun “and yet it does move”.  Some scientists are like that.

On October 25, 2007 James Watson resigned as Chancellor of Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory.

Part II–Coming next week, I will look at why ideas about innate temperament and abilities  can be terrifying.

 Selected references

* Pinker, Steven (2002).  The Blank Slate:  The Modern Denial of Human Nature.  New York: Viking

**Wilson, Edward. O. (1975, 2000).  Sociobiology:  The New Synthesis.


****Herrnstein, Richard J. & Murray, Charles (1994). The Bell Curve:  Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life.  New York: Free Press.

The Summers and Watson cases produced a flood of information on the internet.  Sources here began with Wikipedia and then involved reading and cross-validating a large number of blogs and news reports.



This entry was posted in And careers, And politics?, Anything/Everything-Temperament and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Innate Temperament: A Terrifying Idea?

  1. INTJ says:

    Thanks for your thoughts. This is a very sticky area, as you suggest. But where do you stop in censoring other people’s thoughts? Some of the people who strongly believe in global warming feel that skeptics are holocaust deniers who are preventing action needed to save the world. A number of them have spoken out saying that disagreement here should be considered criminal and punished accordingly. If that view of scientific disagreement becomes the standard then, it seems to me, science would be in terrible trouble.

    Meanwhile, I’d like to ask a small favor. I had a pingback from Germany (in German, which I cannot read at all) and am interested to know what it said. I know that a pingback is just a message indicating that some other blogger has linked to you, but there was also an added line which went [… ] bin ich in einem Artikel heir – in dem es darum geht warum die Psychologie den MBTI nict ernst…

    The pingback itself is at the end of the blog on “Why does psychology diss the MBTI?” but the part I typed above here doesn’t seem to show up there. Anyhow, if you have a moment to look at it and let me know what it says I would really appreciate it.

  2. Lars says:

    As ever, a well written and interesting article from you.

    I agree that genitical heritage is a very hot topic. It is one case of misused science and has often been in the past. Science itself can’t be racial, it only tells us differences. But humans are racial when interpreting science. With the history we have its very hard to see this purely scientific and without politic implications.

    Especially here in germany, if some politician or scientist says something similar to the above examples, he is automatically positioned in the far right corner by public opionion (far right has a very negative meaning here in germany and is considered nearly the same as radical or right extreme, “Rechtsradikal”) . Even more worrying however, is that such statements often get praise and admiration from people who are really on the far right side. This makes it more than often hard to differentiate who is making really racial comments and who is just expressing personal opinion or discussing science.

    The really sad thing is, that the critics may be against racism, but are discriminating others themselves: if you accuse someone of racism because he says some people are due to genetical reasons more intelligent than others, than you are implying that intelligent people are better people.
    Of course intelligence is an important factor, but there are so much equal important character qualities, as we have seen for example in your recent article about the VIA-IS strenghts test.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *