Beyond the ‘blank slate thesis’

At some point in the 1990s, a poster began to appear on the London Underground. It depicted four brains, three of which were identical and one of which was much smaller than the others. From a distance, it appeared to be a crude taxonomy of the kind that one might associate with a nineteenth-century phrenologist. But closer inspection revealed a political message. Set out in a line, with the small one last, the brains were labelled, respectively, ‘African’, ‘European’, ‘Asian’, and ‘Racist’.

From memory, this striking and ingenious image was the fruit of an unlikely collaboration between the Commission for Racial Equality and the advertising firm Saatchi & Saatchi. But whoever was responsible for it certainly had a finger on the pulse. For notwithstanding the occasional wrangle (the ‘Bell Curve’ controversy comes to mind), the feeling by the 1990s was that race was indeed an outmoded concept, scientifically if not politically. Racists, it was felt, if not actually subhuman, certainly missed the point of being human.

This was all a big step forward, but it also entrained certain misconceptions to do with the role of DNA in shaping human characteristics and behaviour. The problem was one of overcorrection: eugenics, and scientific racism more generally, led to a rejection of biology per se, especially where subjects such as ethnicity were concerned. Adopting the concept of ‘social constructionism’, or the ‘standard social science model’, academics argued that human behaviour was shaped, not by biological forces, but by culture. (Steven Pinker calls this the ‘blank slate’ thesis.) Thus one form of reductionism was replaced with another. In their desire to rid humanity of the dirty water of Nazism and its analogues, antiracist academics threw out the healthy baby of genetics.

In The Invisible History of the Human Race, the Melbourne-based writer Christine Kenneally salvages this dripping infant from the flagstones. Yes, she writes, race is a concept with no biological legitimacy; but that is not to say that ancestry has no part to play in human culture and history. For Kenneally, indeed, the concept of ancestry – as expressed through genetics or genealogy – is quickly coming into its own as a tool in the study of history. And while she defines that concept broadly to include not only heredity but also the persistence of ideas and culture, it is the scientific emphasis that dominates The Invisible History and makes it such an interesting enterprise. This book is not without its problems, but it is a bold and absorbing one.

It begins with a sort of meta-history, in which Kenneally explores how our ideas of what is ‘passed down’ are themselves passed down and have changed over time. Challenging the ‘anti-genealogists’ who regard family history as unhistorical, and outlining the toxic history of eugenics (‘the worst idea in history’), she both gets her retaliation in first and seeks (I suspect) to inoculate the reader against over-interpretation of the scientific data. While this can feel like overkill, it is salutary to be reminded of the long, wrongheaded history of racial science. The Nazis were aberrant in many ways, but their belief in racial purity, or ‘hygiene’, was far more pervasive than is popularly assumed.

Moving to the question of ‘what is passed down’, Kenneally takes us in some surprising directions. In her chapter on ‘silence’, she considers how Tasmanians attempted to cover up their convict pasts, while in her chapter on ‘information’ she meets with representatives from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, whose massive Family Search project answers Joseph Smith’s injunction to offer baptism to church members’ dead relatives. (Disappointingly, she doesn’t mention the Mormons’ own filthy history of racism, which was based on the belief that black Africans are descended from Noah’s cursed son Ham.) One of her most confronting chapters considers the descent of ‘ideas and feelings’ and explores the possibility that in the countries to have suffered most from slavery mistrust has been passed down through the generations, with calamitous results for social cohesion. Here and elsewhere, Kenneally discovers many arresting parallels and correlations.

The best chapters, however, are those on genetics and on how it is revolutionising historical research. Genetic maps are a case in point. There has long been a debate amongst historians about precisely what happened in fifth-century Britain after the Romans left in AD 410. Did the Saxons, Angles, Jutes and Frisians who’d been raiding the southeast corner of ‘England’ assimilate peaceably with the local Britons, or was the process one of violent displacement? Genetic analysis can help solve such questions by comparing DNA from different populations and by analysing changes within them over time. It can also, of course, be pressed into service in order to clear up specific mysteries. That Thomas Jefferson fathered a number of children by his black mistress Sally Hemings is now beyond all reasonable doubt, thanks to the endeavours of genetic researchers.

Though beautifully written, The Invisible History can occasionally suffer from its author’s tendency to treat her sources as part of the story. This recent mutation in intelligent non-fiction, which is by no means disastrous to its fitness as a form, entails much flying around the place and describing different offices and talking to experts and non-experts alike. All of which is perfectly fine, so long as it doesn’t lead the author to skimp on the analysis or take her subjects at their own estimation. On the whole, Kenneally does neither of these things, though I think she is rather too uncritical of the narcissistic tendency in modern genealogy, especially as it relates to ‘race’. One of the ironies of modern politics is that the very divisions created by racism live on in a broadly progressive emphasis on racial or ethnic ‘identity’. That this irony remains largely unexplored in Kenneally’s otherwise excellent chapter on the ‘politics of DNA’ is a source of (mild) disappointment.

If the great merit of Kenneally’s book is to map genetics back into history in a way that avoids a crude determinism, the merit of Adam Alter’s Drunk Tank Pink is to remind us that our beliefs and behaviour are indeed conditioned, though not determined, by forces of which we are unaware. These forces, or ‘cues’, take many forms, but Alter identifies three broad categories: the brain, human interaction and the environment, or the worlds ‘within’, ‘between’ and ‘around us’. ‘At its heart,’ writes Alter, ‘this book is designed to show that your mind is the collective end point of a billion tiny butterfly effects.’

Less concept album than greatest hits compilation, the book is crammed with interesting things, though whether the reader’s interest is maintained will depend to a greater degree than usual on the prior knowledge he brings to it. Certainly many of the experiments will be familiar to readers with an interest in psychology, even if it’s only a passing interest. The ‘drunk tank pink’ experiment of the title, which demonstrates the ‘tranquilising power of bright pink’; the peer pressure experiments of Solomon Asch; the insights into ‘bystander syndrome’ afforded by Darley and Latané – all of these studies are well known, and well documented. This is not a criticism. It is merely to point out that Drunk Tank Pink is a book aimed squarely at the neophyte.

For me, the most interesting parts of the book have to do with the subject of prejudice. Again, Jane Elliott’s famous experiment, in which subjects were fooled into thinking that eye-colour is a measure of intelligence, amongst other things, will be familiar to many readers. But more recent experiments yield fascinating insights into the role of prejudice in decision-making. In one 2004 experiment, researchers sent job applications to companies – identical in every detail, save for the applicant’s name at the top – and found that employers were much more likely to offer interviews to applicants with white-sounding names. More seriously, researchers in 2002 developed a computer program in which subjects were required to shoot figures holding guns and disregard figures holding phones and wallets. Mistakes, they discovered, were significantly more probable in cases where the innocent figures were black.

Drunk Tank Pink is not a difficult book; but to the extent that it illuminates some of the darker regions of the human mind, it can be a challenging one. Clearly, our society has a long way to go before it can consider itself truly ‘post-racial’. The hope is that in understanding how prejudice operates at the subconscious level we can begin to overcome it. Naturally, this will be the work of decades and will take more than cute posters on the Underground.

Christine Kenneally, The Invisible History of the Human Race
How DNA and History Shape Our Identities and Our Futures
Black Inc.; $29.99; 355pp

Adam Alter, Drunk Tank Pink
The Subconscious Forces that Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave
Oneworld; £8.99; 261pp

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First published in The Weekend Australian.