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  • Robert Ardrey: Incidents in the Disappearance of an Unperson

    Posted on September 18th, 2013 Helian 11 comments

    Who was Robert Ardrey?  He was the most important, eloquent, and influential opponent of what is now referred to as the Blank Slate orthodoxy.  You don’t have to take my word for it.  The fact is documented in the major newspapers and magazines of the 60’s and 70’s, the period in which Ardrey published his four major books on the subject.  It is also documented in the testimony of his Blank Slate opponents themselves.  For example, from an essay by Geoffrey Gorer, a patron of George Orwell and a widely read psychologist of the time, entitled “Ardrey on Human Nature,”

    Almost without question, Robert Ardrey is today the most influential writer in English dealing with the innate or instinctive attributes of human nature, and the most skilled populariser of the findings of paleo-anthropologists, ethologists, and biological experimenters… He is a skilled writer, with a lively command of English prose, a pretty turn of wit, and a dramatist’s skill in exposition; he is also a good reporter, with the reporter’s eye for the significant detail, the striking visual impression. He has taken a look at nearly all the current work in Africa of paleo-anthropologists and ethologists; time and again, a couple of his paragraphs can make vivid a site, such as the Olduvai Gorge, which has been merely a name in a hundred articles.

    …he does not distort his authorities beyond what is inevitable in any selection and condensation… even those familiar with most of the literature are likely to find descriptions of research they had hitherto ignored, particularly in The Territorial Imperative, with its bibliography of 245 items.

    The above was published in a historically invaluable little collection of essays by prominent Blank Slaters entitled Man and Aggression, edited by Ashley Montagu, and published in 1968.  It was aimed primarily at Ardrey, with Nobel laureate Konrad Lorenz thrown in for good measure, and novelist William Golding added for comic relief.

    For those unfamiliar with what’s been going on in the biological and behavioral sciences during the last hundred years or so, the Blank Slaters believed that there was no such thing as human nature, or, if it existed, its effect on our behavior was insignificant.  For example, from Montagu in Man and Aggression,

    Mr. Ardrey deplores the rejection of “instinct” in man, and actually goes so far as to suggest that “a party line” has appeared in American science designed to perpetuate the “falsehood” that instincts do not exist in man.  Mr. Ardrey needs the concept of “open instincts,” of innate factors, to support his theorizing.  But that requirement constitutes the fatal flaw in his theory, the rift in the playwright’s lute, for man is man because he has no instincts, because everything he is and has become he has learned, acquired, from his culture, from the man-made part of the environment, from other human beings.

    In other words, the Blank Slaters were what might be referred to as “cultural determinists.” They believed that human behavior was exclusively, or almost exclusively, learned, and determined by culture and experience.  Ardrey referred to this as the “romantic fallacy,” and his analysis of it and of the reasons for its existence is unsurpassed to this day.  In fact, in spite of Montagu’s blustering denial, the Blank Slate did represent a prevailing orthodoxy, or “party line.”  The Blank Slaters managed to enforce this “party line,” so absurd that, as Orwell might have put it, it could only be believed by children and intellectuals, over a period of many decades, in psychology, sociology, anthropology, and the rest of the behavioral sciences in the United States, and in large measure in Europe and the rest of the world as well.  Few of them were as polite as Gorer.  For the most part, their methods consisted of the same combination of vilification and lies used against the great anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, and documented in Alice Dreger’s outstanding essay, “Darkness’s Descent on the American Anthropological Association.”

    Such an impudent and obvious perversion of science couldn’t last forever.  Ardrey exposed the hoax in a brilliant and widely read series of four books that appeared in the 60’s and 70’s.  In the process, he touched on many topics which have become commonplaces in evolutionary psychology today, such as ingroup/outgroup behavior, which he referred to as the Amity/Enmity complex, altruism, the biological roots of morality, etc.  In all of his work, his major theme was that there is such a thing as human nature, and it is important.

    One would think that Ardrey has been triumphantly vindicated in our own day.  The Blank Slate orthodoxy he fought so long has collapsed, and many of his ideas and theories have become familiar and widely accepted, not only in the scientific literature, but in the popular media as well.  If so, however, one would think wrong.  As Orwell wrote, “Those who control the present control the past.”  As it happens, the true historical role of Ardrey is a source of some discomfort to the scientists, academics, and public intellectuals who control the message today.  You see, he wasn’t one of their tribe.  Indeed, he was a “mere playwright.”  He may have been right, but he committed the sin of daring to think outside of their ingroup, and to shame that ingroup with the simple truth that there is such a thing as human nature at a time when most of its inmates were dead wrong on that score.  His whole career was a blatant insult to their amour-propre.  He had to be suppressed.  He became an unperson.  He was dropped down the memory hole.

    The way in which history has been rewritten is sufficiently absurd, and has been the subject of some of Fate’s more amusing and ironic practical jokes.  To make a very long story short, E. O. Wilson was anointed the new “Father of Evolutionary Psychology,” for writing the same things as Ardrey more than a decade later.  A whole mythology has been invented about the various and sundry “novel theories” set forth in Wilson’s Sociobiology and On Human Nature.  In reality, the only reason both books were so widely read and achieved such notoriety was their insistence that innate behavior existed, and it applied to humans as well as other animals, themes long familiar in the work of Ardrey.  A whole decade has been erased, and today one commonly finds ludicrous assertions about the “first stirrings” of the new science of evolutionary psychology happening in the mid-1970’s.

    As it happens, to the extent that any justification is ever given for the dismissal of Ardrey at all, it is often based on his embrace of group selection.  Indeed, he was impressed by the theories of group selectionist V. C. Wynne-Edwards, whose books were popular at the time, but the idea that group selection was somehow essential to the major theme of innate human nature which was central to all his work is absurd.  Nothing daunted, public intellectual Steven Pinker used the group selection red herring to dismiss the entire corpus of Ardrey’s work as “totally and utterly wrong” in the revised version of history presented in his The Blank Slate.  As I mentioned above, Fate occasionally plays some uncommonly funny practical jokes on the revisers of history.  In a perverse show of disdain for the “historical” role of “Father of Evolutionary Psychology” assigned to him by the modern puppet masters, the gallant old man has just defiantly embraced (you guessed it) group selection!  So far I haven’t been able to determine whether Wilson’s faux pas will be allowed to pass in the name of keeping up appearances.  If not, then perhaps we will see him, too, disappear down the memory hole, along with the crowning of some new and improved “Father of Evolutionary Psychology.”

    Well, that should be enough to bring those who have missed some of the earlier episodes of this continuing drama up to speed.  With that, let me finally return to the incidents that are the theme of this post.  In fact, they are just a couple of data points for those who happen to take an interest in the arcane details of post-Communist techniques of transforming important historical personalities into unpersons.  Perhaps they will bring a smile to the shade of Trotsky, wherever he may be.

    The first turned up in a recent interview of that courageous and recently vindicated anthropologist, Napoleon Chagnon, by Carol Iannone, that appeared in Academic Questions, the journal of the National Association of Scholars.  In a discussion of the now-familiar attacks on his work by the Blank Slaters he remarks,

    By 1974 I was attempting to shed additional light on Yanomamö social and political behavior by using Sewall Wright’s widely known coefficients of relatedness and inbreeding.  As I read more work in what was emerging as “evolutionary biology,” I realized that I was trying to do what William D. Hamilton had done in a much more sophisticated way in 1962 in his two classic papers on inclusive fitness, now more widely known as “kin selection” theory.  In 1975, E. O. Wilson published his widely acclaimed book, Sociobiology, and touched off a wave of public reactions from individual academics in the social sciences, including the cynical reaction of one of my former professors, Marshall Sahlins, in a book he hastily rushed to press entitled The Use and Abuse of Biology (1976).  The distinguished English theoretical biologist, Richard Dawkins, immortalized a central argument in Sahlins book by naming it “the Sahlins Fallacy”:  that kin selection could not possibly apply to humans because most languages do not have words for the fractions needed to calculate relatedness.  That’s like saying that rocks cannot fall according to the laws of gravity because rocks cannot calculate their mass.

    I – and other social scientists and anthropologists – publically defended E. O. Wilson and the academic freedom to extend the arguments of W. D. Hamilton, G. C. Williams, and other theoretical biologists in explanations of some human social behavior regardless of how antagonistic cultural anthropologists such as Sahlins were to these ideas.  And of course, this made me very unpopular among those cultural anthropologists who yet subscribe to the view that all human behavior is learned and “cultural” and none of it is the consequence of our evolutionary past.  In short, there is no such thing as “human nature” – there is just a “cultural nature.”

    Here, Chagnon has embraced what I sometimes refer to as the “Big Bang Theory of Evolutionary Psychology,” the notion that, “in the beginning, the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.  And the E. O. Wilson said, ‘Let there be evolutionary psychology,’ and there was evolutionary psychology.”  It is one of the central bits of scaffolding propping up the revised history of the field.  Of course, the contention that, “In 1975, E. O. Wilson published his widely acclaimed book, Sociobiology, and touched off a wave of public reactions from individual academics in the social sciences,” is absurd.  Just buy yourself a copy of Man and Aggression for a penny, or whatever the current rate is at Amazon, and you’ll find it documented that this “wave of public reactions from individual academics in the social sciences” had already been “touched off,” at least as early as 1968, and by none other than Robert Ardrey.

    I deeply admire the courage and perseverance of Chagnon, not to mention E. O. Wilson’s brilliance and defiance of academic fashion.  However, here the former is simply parroting the contrived “history” of the Blank Slate approved by his tribe.  I won’t speculate on whether he has simply never read the work of Ardrey, and, isolated among the Yanomamö, wasn’t aware of the very active controversy about human nature during the period from the publication of Ardrey’s African Genesis; A Personal Investigation into the Animal Origins and Nature of Man in 1961 to the supposed “invention” of the idea that there is such a thing as human nature by Wilson in 1975, or whether he is simply suffering from some variant of Orwellian doublethink. In any event, his comment demonstrates the extent to which the Wilson fantasy has been transmogrified into “historical fact.”  I simply set it forth as the first of my two data points touching on the disappearance of Robert Ardrey.

    If, to paraphrase Marx, we can look on the first of my two anecdotes as tragedy, the second is better characterized as farce.  It turns up in an interview entitled Richard Dawkins: By the Book, that recently appeared in the New York Times.  In this ramble through Dawkins’ favorite authors, he replies to the question, “Who are your favorite contemporary writers and thinkers?” as follows:

    I’ve already mentioned Dan Dennett.  I’ll add Steven Pinker, A. C. Grayling, Daniel Kahneman, Jared Diamond, Matt Ridley, Lawrence Krauss, Martin Rees, Jerry Coyne – indeed quite a few of the luminaries that grace the Edge online salon conducted by John Brockman (the Man with the Golden Address Book).  All share the same honest commitment to real-world truth, and the belief that discovering it is the business of scientists – and philosophers who take the trouble to learn science.  Many of these “Third Culture” thinkers write very well.  (Why is the Nobel Prize in Literature almost always given to a novelist, never a scientist?  Why should we prefer our literature to be about things that didn’t happen?  Wouldn’t, say, Steven Pinker be a good candidate for the literature prize?)

    Yes, that would be rich indeed!  A Nobel Prize to reward a man who somehow managed to write a whole book about the Blank Slate that devoted only a single paragraph to the man the Blank Slaters themselves admitted was their most important and influential opponent, and then only to dismiss him, quoting another author, as “totally and utterly wrong.”  But wait, there’s more!  Do you know who Pinker used as his authority for the assertion that Ardrey was “totally and utterly wrong?”  You guessed it, dear reader!  It was none other than Richard Dawkins!

    There’s nothing to be surprised about in all this.  The revision of history is proceeding as planned.

    Robert Ardrey

    Robert Ardrey


    10 responses to “Robert Ardrey: Incidents in the Disappearance of an Unperson” RSS icon

    • I read an Ardrey book about 30 years (The Territorial Imperative, I believe). It was quite good.

      My assumption is that scientific theories based on math get more respect in the long run than ones based on words. William D. Hamilton’s 1964 papers on the arithmetic of kin selection and similar breakthroughs were taken up by two publicists of genius, Edward O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins in readable books in the 1970s.

    • There are few things if any more important for us to understand than why we behave and think the way we do. Progress towards that understanding was derailed for a period of decades by the episode of the Blank Slate. Ardrey was, by far, the most important player in the whole affair. He gave a brilliant explanation for the reasons behind the Blank Slate orthodoxy years before anyone else had a clue about what was going on. Unless you understand his role, your grasp of the history of the affair is bound to be incomplete. However, Pinker’s portrayal of that history is not just incomplete. In fact, in ignoring Ardrey’s role other than to say he was “totally and utterly wrong,” quoting Dawkins as his authority, he falsified history. I doubt that it was intentional. It was probably merely reckless. It certainly soothed the injured amour propre of Pinker’s academic tribe. However, in my opinion the history is too important to be left uncorrected.

      As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, Hamilton was indeed a brilliant mathematician, and another brilliant mathematician, George Price, demonstrated to him that group selection, if not common, was at least possible. E. O. Wilson, who was anointed the “father of evolutionary psychology” for writing the same things as Ardrey 15 years later, recently embraced group selection in his latest book. Dawkins claimed that Ardrey was “totally and utterly wrong” because, while it was hardly a central theme of his work, he had good things to say about group selection. It has to be one of the more amusing ironies in the history of science.

    • Thanks for the article,

      Ardreys work really helped translate a lot of the questions about almost everything important I needed to know.

      This article links up the “unpersoning” I couldn’t understand how his name wasn’t as common as Darwin’s or some other pioneer of knowledge and understanding who’s work is one epiphany after another or at least reaches out and puts word to thought.

      For a single persons impression, I have learned the most from Ardrey. His books are like field, practical exercises and assignments for psychology, zoology, anthropology. If another species wanted to know how man ticks and what to expect on earth I would refer him to Robert Ardrey’s books first up.

    • Finding someone who has the experience of life to accept the reality of much of what Ardrey said is such a tremendous relief.
      That much of what Ardrey says strikes one as the blinding obvious, yet is denied by even the so called leaders in the fields of evolutionary theory, leaves a sense of either being on the cusp of understanding or so far out on a limb as to worry about the strength of the branch.
      Thank you so much for your strident if frustrated sharing of your insights and supporting Ardrey.

    • I’d say “strident and frustrating” is a pretty good description of my defense of Ardrey. I find the spectacle of one who was the most effective and influential opponent of the Blank Slate in its heyday, and who was right about human nature when all the “men of science” were wrong, being treated as an unperson very frustrating. Today we see the Territorial Imperative, the Hunting Hypothesis and many of the other ideas for which he was denounced as a racist and a fascist in his own day treated as if they were commonplaces that no one had ever doubted, without attribution or mention of Ardrey’s role in promoting those ideas. Those who denounced him are celebrated as if they were the heroes. Ironically, even group selection, the very hypothesis Pinker used to rationalize his absurd and cynical dismissal of Ardrey in a book that was supposed to be about the Blank Slate, is now supported by none other than E. O. Wilson. Apparently the academics will have to rewrite the history books again. Yes, it’s very frustrating, to say the least.

    • Thank you for your thoughts. Dawkins intrigues as he was a student of Niko Tinbergen, author of a book titled ‘instinct’, which I have yet to read. Tinbergen received is Nobel prize wuth Lorenz. That much of what I see in Lorenz is denied, yet illustrated by the actions of the post Christian moralists of the Dawkins types strikes me as rather illustrative of a deeper pattern of behaviour.
      Let’s face it Dawkins is the child of the ‘in group’ of his cultural academia. He seems unconscious of his territorial and agressive actions, these being reinforced by rewards within his cultural setting.
      Have you read the Tinbergen book, if so would you recommend it. Its very expensive and I’m intrigued if Dawkins faction run his estate? Thanks again

    • Unfortunately, the only book I’ve read by Tinbergen was “Curious Naturalists,” which I thoroughly enjoyed. I’m sure his “The Study of Instinct” would be well worth reading. I’ll have to see if I can find a copy.

    • Returning to the post that led me to your site, Ardrey.
      Just rereading the first part of the territorial imperative. The words directed to Montague were clear, fool.
      One of the areas that we find it so hard to analyse is why do we think/believe, Montague argues that we are all cultural, so a man stripped of all culture is a void? Madness, what is man if stripped of all his culture? Where does such a man go, what does a man do, Surely his understanding of himself will give some footing to this.
      Man without culture, an interesting thought.

      The Dan Schneider Interview 8: Desmond Morris (first posted 2/16/08)

      This is a interview with one of Ardreys contemporaries, and one of the very few still alive, Desmond Morris. I was thrilled to see that he dropped an old Ardrey line, but sadly not surprised when the interviewer missed the reference.

      Thought you’d like it.

      DS: It’s been some years since I last read the book, but as I recall you seem to have been insistent that the connections to our simian past are manifest and should be embraced, and that this was the source of controversy. Yet, in recent years, those who favor ignorance seem to have gotten only stronger. Why do you think there is such a visceral objection to evolution, when it is so manifest, even a century and a half after Darwin?

      DM: Some people are arrogant enough to think of themselves as a ‘special creation’ – fallen angels rather than risen apes. But personally I like animals and I am proud to be called one, not insulted.

    • As a long time Buddhist and one who studied Ardrey and EO Wilson when they first wrote their classics, seeing how their ideas resonate with the deep theory of karma, I wanted to comment.

      The “Blank State” idea directly contradicts the Buddhist idea of the latent causes of behavior of animals and humans, implying past, prenatal (past life, transmigration) causes. Central to the Buddhist theory was the Ten Life States and the “3000 Life States.”

      The “6 lower life states” refer to the range from hellish life as manifested by all known creatures during their life moments to hunger/desire, to Animality and Anger, then tranquility, to heavenly life moments-transient raptures and their “mutual possession” also on a continuum, with learning, deeper thinking, compassion and Enlightenment.

      Buddhism speaks of “voidness”, sunyata, which contains all causes and effects. In Japan the advanced theory is called “Ichinen Sanzen” — “3000 life states in a momentary condition of life.”

      As a point of interest the particular sects of Buddhism, with this theory as explained by Arthur Clarke, in his write-up of the making of the film, 2001 A Space Odyssey, “worship a black rectangular slab.” Kubrick was very much influenced by Robert Ardrey.

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