Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors. I am going beyond my facts and I admit it, but so have the advocates of the contrary and they have been doing it for many thousands of years.
–John B. Watson, Behaviorism (1930)
SLAVE MENTALITY: NATURE VS. NURTURE
In the “nature versus nurture” controversy over whether inherited traits or the impact of the environment has the bigger influence on human behavior, the American psychologist John B. Watson (1878-1958) came down squarely on the side of nurture: It’s the social environment – family, community, culture – we grow up in, say Watson and friends, not the “blood” (or the genes, or the DNA) we bring into the world with us, that exerts the stronger influence over who we are: our abilities, our attitudes, our character. Moreover, says Watson, if he doesn’t have the “facts” – the experimental data – to back up his intuition about nurture over nature, neither do those “advocates of the contrary” who believe that the answer to who we are lies mainly in the traits passed on to us by our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, etc.
Nowhere in those “many thousands of years” mentioned by Watson was the “nature” argument championed more one-sidedly – and often, many would claim, cynically – than it was by those 19th-century American scientists, clergymen, and politicians who sought to defend and preserve the institution of slavery in the Southern United States. From the pseudoscientific medical “findings” of Dr. Samuel A. Cartwright (“Report on the Physical Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race”), to the smug paternalism of ministers like the Rev. A.T. Holmes (“Duties of Christian Masters to Their Servants”) and politicians like South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun (whose 1937 address to the U.S. Senate on slavery as a “positive good” set the tone for the Southern counterattack against Northern abolitionism), there was no shortage of medical, theological, and historical justifications for the continuation of slavery in the American South.
The third essay assignment for this section of English 101 asks you to consider the nature vs. nurture controversy as it might apply to conditions in the antebellum (pre-Civil War) South as you have come to understand those conditions 1) through historical documents, including the memoirs of former slaves and the just-mentioned Southern defenses of slavery; 2) through the satiric prism of Mark Twain’s novel Pudd’nhead Wilson; and 3) through what may be inferred about the psychology of the master-slave relationship from behavioral studies such as the Milgram Experiment conducted at Yale in 1961 and, ten years later, the Stanford Prison Experiment.
You may approach the assignment in either of two ways, as outlined on the next page of this essay prompt. Whichever topic you choose to write about, the grading criteria are the same:
• 1300-1700 words;
• Coherent exploration of a single thesis as it is presented in your introduction;
• Meticulous adherence to MLA information, page, and citation formatting;
• Citation of at least 6 credible sources: 3 or more from among the readings I have assigned for the class, 3 or more the fruit of your own research into the topic you have chosen to write about.
NOTE: We will extensively review and discuss these criteria, as they apply to both topics, in class during the weeks before the essay’s due date.
In his “Report on the Disease of and Physical Peculiarities of the Negro Race,” originally addressed to the annual meeting of the Medical Association of Louisiana on March 12, 1851, Dr. Samuel A. Cartwright offers a description of several medical and/or mental conditions which, he claims, are exclusive to Negro slaves and to their ancestors in Africa. He describes the symptoms of these presumably hereditary conditions – drapetomania, for example, which he defines as “the disease causing slaves to run away,” and Disaesthesia Aethiopia, or dullness (“hebetude”) of mind or body – as physiological or anatomical “peculiarities” of the Negro race. While Dr. Cartwright’s theories have since been thoroughly discredited, they are often studied today as examples of the lengths to which a “master race” will go in order to justify its existence. This assignment invites you to write a research essay in which you propose an alternative, “nurture”-based interpretation of the anecdotal data presented by Dr. Cartwright in defense of his “nature”-based arguments for the continuation of slavery. Specifically,
Write an essay in which you challenge Dr. Cartwright’s diagnoses – in other words, in which you propose alternative explanations and treatments for one or more of the symptoms and behaviors he describes in his report. In challenging Cartwright’s assumptions and conclusions, be sure to draw upon your understanding – based on the reading you’ve already done for the class, as well as from the sources your own research turns up – of the situation of slaves and their masters in the pre-Civil War South.
In his novel Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894), Mark Twain explicitly takes up the question of “nature vs. nurture” when – in anticipation of what would become standard practice among geneticists – he set up a “twin study” of the impact of different environments on the racially indistinguishable, perhaps even genetically linked infants Thomas a Beckett and Valet de Chamber Driscoll. (The novel even includes a second set of twins, the Italian “noblemen” Angelo and Luigi Capella, for purposes of contrast and comparison.) Write a research essay in which you answer the following question:
Judging from the story he tells in Pudd’nhead Wilson and focusing on the personalities and behavior of the twins Tom and Chambers, switched at birth, does Mark Twain come down on one side or the other of the nature-nurture debate? Which side? What evidence in support of your conclusion does the novel provide? Also – this is the research part of the assignment – are there literary scholars who agree or disagree with you about Twain’s opinion? What are their claims? And what evidence have they cited to support those claims?