Not-So-Blank Slate: The Quandary of Behavioral Genetics

Does the new science of behavioral genetics suggest that racism is hereditary?

Posted Apr 05, 2018

In his 2003 bestseller The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, Steven Pinker asserts that "The three laws of behavioral genetics may be the most important discoveries in the history of psychology." Never mind whether or not he's right about its place in history (for my money, I'll still take Milgram's work on obedience), there is no doubting that behavioral genetics is changing the way we understand human behavior.

Viking Press
Source: Viking Press

So, what are the three laws? And what are their implications for race relations?

Law 1: All human behavioral traits are heritable.

No psychologist advocated harder for the notion of a "blank slate"—the idea that all human behavior is learned—than John Watson, who is usually credited with founding the behavioral school of psychology. In 1930, he famously claimed that given a dozen healthy, well-formed infants and his "own specified world," he could take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist he wanted. Even back then Watson knew he was overstating his case. Today, we know he couldn't have been further from the truth.

As much as we might wish that our choices and effort could entirely determine what we make of ourselves, the reality is that all of our behaviors, including our attitudes and beliefs (which are internal or private behaviors) are at least partially influenced by how we're wired. How high we jump, how quickly we solve math problems, and, yes, even our racial attitudes are controlled, in part, by the genetic programming inherited from our biological parents.

All this is not to say that environment doesn't matter. Of course it does. The law states that all behavior is heritable, not that it is "entirely" or even "mostly" genetically deterministic. We jump higher if we are in peak shape and have good technique and we can often master a new math skill with time and practice. But the upward limits of our jumping and intellectual ability are genetically determined and, for the present time (gene replacement technology may one day change this), still outside of our control. The point here is that we may want to maximize the benefit of our hard work by focusing it on pursuits that play to our natural strengths and that if we are unsure of what those strengths might be, we'd be best served by taking a cue from our parents, our siblings, and our other biological relatives.

Our racial attitudes and ideologies are more complicated. The vast literature on political ideologies provides some insight. Political ideology is significantly correlated with personality traits such that those who have a stronger preference for stability and social dominance (i.e., a preference for social hierarchies) are more likely to identify as conservative, while those who report higher openness to new experiences and a preference for social equality are more likely to identify as liberal (e.g., McCrae, 1996; Pratto, Sidanius, Stallworth, & Malle, 1994). What is important here, in terms of understanding the role of genetics, is that it is NOT the case that personality traits (which emerge in early childhood) cause people to develop political attitudes in early adulthood, as is commonly assumed. Rather, the correlation between the two is a function of an innate common underlying genetic factor (Velhulst, Eaves, & Hatemi, 2012).

While these kinds of research findings are certainly open to different interpretations, I think they point to a shared humanity. That is, our politics, including our racial politics are a product not only of our histories and life experiences but also of our individual genetic programming. We may not want to admit it, but our political beliefs and racial attitudes are not entirely within our control.

Kaboompics, creative commons
Source: Kaboompics, creative commons

Law 2: The effect of being raised in the same family is smaller than the effect of the genes.

It's often true that "the apple doesn't fall far from the tree," but when it's true (and it isn't always!) it's probably more due to the apple's genetic programming than that particular tree's nurturance. It's not that nurturance is unnecessary or unimportant. For the genetic programming to take hold, trees need water and a little tender loving care, but it doesn't much matter who provides this care.

Children are much more complicated, yet their behavior is determined in a remarkably similar way. For example, identical twins (which have identical genetic coding) reared by different parents are, on average, just as similar in personality as those reared by the same parents, while adoptive siblings reared by the same parents are no more alike than those reared by different parents. I'm not familiar with any behavior genetics (i.e., twin and adoption) studies that examined racial attitudes in particular, but I would expect the same pattern to hold there too.

This is not obvious, especially to first-time parents who tend to attribute their child's behaviors to their own parenting, at least until they have a second child and observe how very different their children are from each other - despite being parented more or less the same way in a similar family environment. The emerging personality and behavioral differences are, at least partly, the expression of the different genetic combinations, and though it is less obvious when it comes to similarities (for example, both kids are smart or athletic or shy), those, of course, are partially genetically determined as well. The point isn't that genes are deterministic, but that it isn't the family of origin that tends to make a meaningful difference. Parenting matters, but as the third law (below) shows, they are not deterministic either.

Law 3: A substantial proportion of the variation in complex human behavioral traits is not accounted for by the effects of genes or families.

And here is the good news. We cannot control our genetic programming and, as adults, we cannot undo our family upbringing, but behavioral genetic research shows that a very substantial proportion of who we are and how we behave is determined not by genes, not by family, but by our unique experiences.

I am different from my parents in several very important ways: They are both engineers, while I am a psychologist. They are politically conservative, while I lean considerably left. They certainly didn't raise me to be different from them in these important ways. They probably could not have done that, even if they tried. We're different, my parents and I, because I had very different life experiences. I grew up in the United States, while they grew up and spent their young adulthood in what was then the Soviet Union. But it's not just that. I also watched different films, read different books, and was taught by different teachers. And of course I had different friendships and different romantic relationships and, obviously, different obstacles and opportunities.

I can trace my interest in race relations (the primary focus of my writing and academic work) to watching Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing as an 18-year-old college freshman back in 1989. I saw very few movies that year, but I remember being curious and eager to see this controversial film that some film critics were advising audiences to avoid out of concern that it would trigger a race riot. I couldn't have predicted it then, but the emotional arousal and confusion I felt during and after the film (as I overheard the various conversations around me) became a transformative experience in my life. And of course I've had many others. All of us have...and will.

This is the take home point from behavior genetics - that our tendencies and certainly the limits of our potential are genetically influenced but that we still have ample room to grow and change and that we have the ability to shape this growth through the choices we make, including whom we include in the club of humanity.

There are, of course, social constraints on our choices. We may not have the opportunity, as children, to interact with others who are racially different from us. Or we may have such opportunities but are discouraged from pursuing them by our parents and/or our peer group. Such social constraints are not trivial and are generally underappreciated by both lay people and psychologists. But no matter the constraints, we still get to decide how we want to interact with the world we live in (as illustrated by Viktor Frank in his Holocaust memoir, Man's Search for Meaning).

Public Domain
Source: Public Domain


Taken together, the three laws suggest that the slate is far from blank and that we all start life with different genetic wiring that predisposes us to act and think in different ways. Ultimately, no matter what the genetic predisposition might be, both racism and anti-racism are individual choices, and they should be treated as such. Yet, we might also have a bit of humility about our own supposed anti-racism (it may have come pretty naturally to us based on our wiring and life experiences) and a bit of compassion for the racism we see in others.

I am not suggesting that we accept or tolerate either structural or interpersonal racism. To the contrary, I am often horrified by how ubiquitous they are and how powerful their influence is. But as we engage in the effort to eradicate racism, we might remember that, like poverty, illness, and many other types of inequalities, much of what we see in terms of individual racial attitudes is not only the product of moral corruption and other individual failings but also of the inheritance of our genes and our earlier experiences.


For more racial analysis of news and popular culture, join the | Between The Lines | Facebook page and follow Mikhail on Twitter.

[Creative Commons License] This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


Pratto, F., Sidanius, J., Stallworth, L. M., & Malle, B. F. (1994). Social dominance orientation: A personality variable predicting social and political attitudes. Journal of personality and social psychology, 67(4), 741.

Verhulst, B., Eaves, L. J., & Hatemi, P. K. (2012). Correlation not causation: The relationship between personality traits and political ideologies. American journal of political science, 56(1), 34-51.  

McCrae, R. R. (1996). Social consequences of experiential openness. Psychological bulletin, 120(3), 323.