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  • “Mama’s Last Hug” by Frans de Waal; Adventures in the Rearrangement of History

    Posted on June 9th, 2019 Helian 1 comment

    I admire Frans de Waal. One of the reasons is the fact that he knows about Edvard Westermarck. In his latest book, Mama’s Last Hug, he even refers to him as, “…the Finnish anthropologist who gave us the first ideas about the evolution of human morality.” In fact, that’s not true. Darwin himself gave us the first ideas about the evolution of human morality, most notably in Chapter IV of his The Descent of Man, and, as I’ve noted elsewhere, a host of scientists and philosophers wrote about the subject before Westermarck appeared on the scene. However, as far as I can tell all of them promoted some version of naturalistic fallacy. In other words, they thought that evolution would result in ever “higher” forms of morality, or that it was possible for us to be morally obligated to do some things and refrain from doing others by virtue of natural selection. Westermarck was the first writer of note after Darwin to avoid these fallacies, and no one of any stature with his insight has appeared on the scene since. To that extent, at least, de Waal is right. Unfortunately, he has an unsettling tendency to state his own moral judgments as if they were objective facts. As one might expect, they are virtually identical with the moral judgments of the rest of the academic tribe. Since Westermarck rightly pointed out that those who do this are victims of an illusion in the first chapter of his first book on the subject, The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas, one wonders whether de Waal understood what he was reading. Other than that, de Waal is one of the best writers around at describing progress in our understanding of the mental and emotional traits of other animals, and of the many similarities between us and them that are the natural result of the continuous evolution of these traits over millions of years. In his words,

    I focus on emotional expressions, body language, and social dynamics. These are so similar between humans and other primates that my skill applies equally to both, although my work mostly concerns the latter.

    Emotions, in turn, are of overriding importance if we would understand, not only animal behavior, but the human condition:

    Our judicial systems channel feelings of bitterness and revenge into just punishment, and our health care systems have their roots in compassion. Hospitals (from the Latin hospitalis, or “hospitable”) started out as religious charities run by nuns and only much later became secular institutions operated by professionals. In fact, all our most cherished institutions and accomplishments are tightly interwoven with human emotions and would not exist without them.

    He believes this is also true of a critical aspect of human behavior; our morality. I agree. De Waal draws a sharp distinction between emotions and feelings. As he puts it,

    Triggered by certain stimuli and accompanied by behavioral changes, emotions are detectable on the outside in facial expression, skin color, vocal timbre, gestures, odor, and so on. Only when the person experiencing these changes becomes aware of them do they become feelings, which are conscious experiences. We show our emotions, but we talk about our feelings.

    De Waal is certainly aware of who the Blank Slaters were, the kind of “science” they did, and the gross disconnect between their egalitarian rhetoric and the reality of their behavior. A self-described hippy in the 70’s, his studies led him to collect extensive data on social hierarchy and the wielding of power among apes. He couldn’t avoid noticing the same behaviors in his own leftist ingroup:

    It came down to the staple of the observer: pattern recognition. I started to notice rampant jockeying for position, coalition formation, currying of favors, and political opportunism – in my own environment. And I don’t mean among just among the older generation. The student movement had its own alpha males, power struggles, groupies, and jealousies. In fact, the more promiscuous we became, the more sexual jealousy reared its ugly head. My ape study gave me the right distance to analyze these patterns, which were plain as day if you looked for them. Student leaders ridiculed and isolated potential challengers and stole everybody’s girlfriend while at the same time preaching the wonders of egalitarianism and tolerance. There was an enormous mismatch between what my generation wanted to be, as expressed in our passionate political oratory, and how we actually behaved. We were in total denial!

    A bit further in the book he adds,

    Human hierarchies can be quite apparent, but we don’t always recognize them as such, and academics often act as if they don‘t exist… Given a choice between manifest human behavior and trendy psychological constructs, the social sciences always favor the latter.

    He recounts an encounter between Paul Ekman, a colleague who studied the connection between emotions and facial expressions, and a typical Blank Slater, an anthropologist who insisted that human emotions and their expression were infinitely malleable. According to de Waal,

    Expecting to find cabinets full of field notes, films, and photographs of human body language, Ekman asked if he could get a look at his records. To his astonishment, the answer was that none existed. The anthropologist claimed that all his data were in his head.

    What I find the most remarkable thing about the book is that, in spite of these broad hints about how things were back in the day, he can’t bring himself to admit the full extent of the carnage. He seldom, if ever, uses the term Blank Slate, and never mentions the rather salient fact that the Blank Slate orthodoxy brought meaningful progress in the behavioral sciences, intimately connected as they are with his own discipline, to a screeching halt for more than half a century. He must be aware of the truth. De Waal is 70 years old, and must have noticed what was going on around him as a young Ph.D. student. He must have been aware that anyone who challenged the prevailing orthodoxy was furiously attacked, and was likely to have his career destroyed or derailed. It gets worse. Beyond avoiding the “indelicacy” of mentioning painful truths about the “integrity” of the behavioral sciences, shameful as they must be to de Waal and the rest of the academic tribe, he actually trots out mythical versions of the “history” of the Blank Slate. He is hardly unique in this respect. Of one thing we can be sure. Whatever fairy tale eventually emerges as the preferred “history” of the Blank Slate, any resemblance between it and the truth will be purely incidental. Let’s look at some examples. According to de Waal,

    In sociobiological depictions of nature as a dog-eat-dog place, all behavior boiled down to selfish genes, and self-serving tendencies were invariably attributed to “the law of the strongest.” Genuine kindness was out of the question, because no organism would be so stupid as to ignore danger in order to assist another. If such behavior did occur, it must be either a mirage or a product of “misfiring” genes. The infamous summary line of this era, “Scratch an altruist, and watch a hypocrite bleed,” was quoted over and over with a certain amount of glee: altruism, it said, must be a sham.

    Here we see a typical and fundamental aspect of the revised “history” – the smearing of those who were right about human nature when virtually the entire academic tribe was wrong. In the lay vernacular of the 60’s and early 70’s, the academic specialty most closely associated with this lonely group was ethology. It became “sociobiology” after the publication of the book of that name by E. O. Wilson in 1975. Did “sociobiologists” really depict nature as a dog-eat-dog place? One would think that the first place to look for an answer would be in the writings of Wilson, the greatest sociobiologist of them all. Wilson sees nature as the very opposite of a dog-eat-dog place. He is probably the most prominent proponent around of the idea that altruism plays a highly important role in the natural world, and that it exists mainly by virtue of group selection. Two other highly regarded sociobiologists, Robert Trivers and Richard Alexander, independently proposed explanations of apparently unreciprocated altruism back in the mid-80’s. The most recognizable proponent of selfish genes, of course, is Richard Dawkins, who published The Selfish Gene back in 1976. However, he was no sociobiologist. His book included attacks on sociobiologists in general and Wilson in particular for defending altruism in the natural world.

    In short, de Waal’s “dog-eat-dog” fantasy is just that – a fantasy. This begs the question, “Why?” Why is it that a respected public intellectual would claim to “remember” something that even a cursory glance at the source material reveals as pure nonsense? Readers of this blog can probably guess the answer – the Blank Slate. This “memory” and others like it can only be explained if one knows the history of the affair.

    By the 1960’s, the vast majority of scientists and professionals in the behavioral sciences had already been claiming that there is no such thing as human nature for several decades. This nonsense, laughable to any reasonably intelligent child, was the product of ideological imperatives that required perfectly plastic, malleable human beings to serve as denizens of the various utopias that were in fashion at the time. It was propped up by vilifying anyone who demurred as a racist, fascist, fanatical right-winger, etc., and letting them know that their careers would be destroyed if they persisted. As a result, it took an outsider, someone the Blank Slaters couldn’t destroy, to begin kicking out the props that supported the Blank Slate façade, thereby initiating its slow but inexorable collapse. The outsider who eventually turned up was Robert Ardrey, and he accomplished the feat by publishing a series of four highly popular books that defended the existence and importance of human nature, and exposed what had been going on in the behavioral “sciences” to intelligent lay people. The “men of science” were furious at Ardrey for exposing and humiliating them. They haven’t forgiven him to this day, and they still can’t admit that he was right and they were wrong. Instead of simply admitting as much, they have concluded that they can better preserve the “integrity” of their field by concocting an alternative “history” of the affair out of whole cloth. According to the current version of this “history,” Ardrey and others who began chiming in with the same message after he had broken the ice were “bad men,” and the “men of science” have now exposed their “errors.” Lately the “men of science” have actually had the gall to claim that the Blank Slate never happened, that it was all a “straw man.” De Waal’s dubious “memories” are best understood in the context of this campaign to rearrange history. Another example occurs in Chapter V:

    The first animal emotion studied – the only one that mattered to biologists in the 1960s and ‘70s – was aggression. In those days, every debate about human evolution boiled down to the aggressive instinct.

    This “memory,” too, is utter nonsense, as anyone can confirm by consulting the still plentiful source material. The “debate” in those days wasn’t over whether “aggression” was a human instinct, but over the question of whether innate human behavioral traits, or “human nature,” if you will, existed at all. It’s inconceivable that de Waal isn’t aware of this fact, and yet nowhere in his book does he so much as mention the Blank Slate. The number of biologists in the 60’s, particularly in the United States, who explicitly embraced the claim that human nature even existed was extremely small. Among those who did, the idea they claimed that aggression was the only animal emotion that mattered is ridiculous. Their work was collected and summarized by Ardrey in his books, including African Genesis and The Territorial Imperative, both of which appeared in the 60s. In both there are extensive descriptions of many aspects of animal behavior other than aggression, including altruism and moral behavior, as well as the claim that these forms of behavior also existed in human beings. That was the real subject of debate.

    Whence, then, the “aggression” canard? It can best be understood as a Blank Slate strawman. The few who dared challenge the Blank Slate orthodoxy hardly ignored forms of behavior other than aggression. However, they didn’t ignore the fact of aggression, either. It was, of course, the theme of On Aggression, published by Konrad Lorenz in 1966. Even that book, however, discussed many other forms of animal behavior. The Blank Slaters seized on the topic because aggression could be portrayed as “bad.” They then tossed in the bogus strawman that their opponents believed that aggression was a rigid, “genetically determined” behavior, forcing humans and other primates to behave like “killer apes.” This transparent lie has been propped up by the academic tribe ever since. Unfortunately, de Waal compounds the lie with statements such as,

    There is one domain, though, in which aggression is common and reconciliation rare, making for decidedly different outcomes. This domain received enormous attention in 1966 when Konrad Lorenz argued in On Aggression that we have an aggressive drive that may lead to warfare, hence that war is part of human biology.

    Both Lorenz and Ardrey discussed aspects of human nature that “may lead to warfare.” Neither one of them ever claimed that it followed that war is some rigid, genetically determined part of human biology. Both were perfectly well aware that anything like modern warfare was impossible before the technology necessary to support it became available. What they did do is suggest that some aspects of innate human behavior might have something to do with the prevalence of warfare throughout recorded history and, if so, it would behoove us to understand what those aspects are, as a means of preventing warfare in the future. This suggestion can only be portrayed as “wrong” or “irrational” if one rejects the claim that innate human behavior exists at all or, in other words, if one has swallowed the dogmas of the Blank Slate. If de Waal really believes that Lorenz ever claimed that “war is part of human biology,” let him cite line and verse. Otherwise he should retract this patently false statement. A bit later, de Waal doubles down, presenting his version of that favorite Blank Slate canard, the “killer ape theory,” as follows:

    In the 1970s, however, came the first shocking field reports of chimpanzees killing each other, hunting monkeys, eating meat, and so on. And even though killing of other species was never the issue, the chimpanzee observations were used to make the point that our ancestors must have been murderous monsters. Incidents of chimps killing their leaders, such as described above, are exceptional compared to what they do to members of other groups for whom they reserve their most brutal violence. As a result, ape behavior moved from serving as an argument against Lorenz’s position to becoming exhibit A in its favor.

    This certainly conforms to the current version of the academic tribe’s narrative, but it is far from the truth. “Lorenz position” was never, ever, that “our ancestors must have been murderous monsters,” another lie among the many invented by the Blank Slaters. It wasn’t Ardrey’s position, either, as I’ve documented in my post about Travis Pickering’s book, Rough and Tumble. Indeed, the “murderous monster” lie, otherwise known as the “killer ape theory,” was much more commonly used to smear Ardrey than Lorenz. What Ardrey claimed is that our ape ancestors hunted. The Blank Slaters furiously denied this, although we now know that it was quite probably true. He also claimed that, since they hunted, they must also have killed, which the Blank Slaters also furiously denied, but which is also quite probably true. The only other significant aspect of the killer ape theory is that our ancestors killed like “murderous monsters,” that they were always furious and enraged when they killed. Neither Ardrey nor Lorenz believed this. Indeed, as I’ve documented elsewhere, they believed exactly the opposite. We encounter more of the same when de Waal gets around to describing the behavior of our more peace-loving relatives, the bonobos. According to the author,

    They are simply too peaceful, too matriarchal, and too gentle to fit the popular storyline of human evolution, which turns on conquest, male dominance, hunting and warfare… Our hippie cousins are invariably hailed as delightful, then quickly marginalized.

    To this I can only wonder, “Where have you been?” I’ve been reading stories about how wonderful and peaceful bonobos are nonstop for at least the last ten years. They’ve been anything but marginalized. The amusing thing is that they occasionally slip off their pedestal, especially in discussions of their “feminist” proclivities. I was at a talk by a woman who had spent much time observing bonobos in the field. She described how two dominant females treated a male who got out of line. They viciously attacked him and, as she triumphantly declared, tore his testicles almost completely off! De Waal continues,

    Of all the apes, the bonobo looks most like Ardi (Ardipithecus ramidus), down to its general body proportions, long legs, grasping feet, and even brain size. But instead of offering a new perspective stressing humanity’s gentle and empathetic potential long with that of one of its closest relatives, anthropologists gave us only hand-wringing about how atypical Ardi was – how could we have had such a gentle ancestor? Presenting Ardi as an anomaly and a mystery kept intact the prevailing macho storyline.

    Seriously? The anthropologists have become a gang of warmongers, male chauvinists, and killer ape aficionadoes, and I didn’t even notice? I can only suggest that de Waal read Darkness’s Descent on the American Anthropological Society by Alice Dreger. Therein he will learn that the “science” of anthropology has long been more about insuring that reports from the field reflect how leftist academics imagine human beings should be than about how they actually are. It should be an epiphany for him.  We find another quaint throwback to the strawmen of the Blank Slaters near the beginning of Chapter 6, where we find the comment,

    Emotion-based reactions have this gigantic advantage over reflex-like behavior: they pass through a filter of experience and learning known as appraisal. I wish early ethologists had thought of this, instead of clinging to the instinct concept, which is now largely outdated. Instincts are knee-jerk reactions which are pretty useless in an ever-changing world. Emotions are much more adaptable, because they operate like intelligent instincts.

    Here, again, we must charitably assume that de Waal has never read what the early ethologists actually wrote. From Darwin on, when they spoke of instincts, they made it perfectly clear that they weren’t referring to “knee-jerk reactions,” but to what de Waal calls emotions. Every scientist I’m aware of who ever wrote about “human instincts” was careful to point out that, in our species, they were much less rigid, much more subject to what de Waal calls “feelings,” and much more amenable to conscious restraint than in other animals, and that, for that matter, they weren’t “knee-jerk reactions” in many other animals as well. In fact, the “knee-jerk reaction” was yet another favorite canard of the Blank Slaters of old. They, of course, insisted that human beings, not to mention apes have no instincts. See, for example, the comments to that affect in Man and Aggression, by Ashley Montagu, one of the more invaluable pieces of source material from the heyday of the Blank Slate. Apparently they imagined this piece of nonsense would become more palatable if they redefined “instinct” to refer exclusively to rigid and unlearned types of behavior such as one finds, for example, in insects, in spite of the fact that they knew perfectly well it was never used in that sense when applied to human beings. As can also be seen by referring to Man and Aggression, this pathetic gambit was aimed mainly at Robert Ardrey, who had used the term as commonly understood in African Genesis. In his later works he was at pains to refer to human instincts as “open-ended” or as “innate predispositions” to make it perfectly clear what he was talking about. If de Waal seriously believes that “instinct” has always meant “knee-jerk reaction,” I can only suggest he pick up a copy of one of Darwin’s books. Darwin often used the term, and made it perfectly clear that he was not referring to a “knee-jerk reaction” when he applied it to human beings in, for example, his The Descent of Man.

    It’s sad, really. If de Waal had tried to publish Mama’s Last Hug back in the mid-70’s, the Blank Slaters would have furiously denounced him as a racist and fascist, in league with the likes of Robert Ardrey and Konrad Lorenz just as they did to E. O. Wilson when he published Sociobiology back in 1975. Is it really too much to ask that de Waal take a look at what the old ethologists and sociobiologists actually wrote, instead of propping up ludicrous myths about them? If he did, he would notice that their hypotheses were actually virtually identical to those he supports today. De Waal knows all about the connections between emotions and human behavior, and has embraced the truth that human morality is rooted in emotion. Why then this bowing and scraping to the ancient Blank Slaters, who vilified and attempted to destroy anyone who proposed similar ideas a few decades ago. Why this gleeful collaboration in the bowdlerization of history? Do the Blank Slaters of old still wield that much power in academia? Is de Waal that fearful of being ostracized from his academic tribe?

    It’s even more sad that de Waal isn’t the only one actively engaged in making up an alternative history out of whole cloth. Many others are busily engaged in the project as well, and the “men of science” will very likely succeed in “adjusting” history to spare their amour propre and the humiliation of admitting that they were consistently and almost uniformly dead wrong about something as critical to our very survival as an understanding of our own nature for more than half a century. Apparently, when it comes to “selfish genes,” they have more than their share.

  • Darwin and Morality

    Posted on September 10th, 2018 Helian No comments

    It’s not necessary to read all of Darwin’s books and manuscripts to learn what he had to say about morality.  Just read Chapter IV of his The Descent of Man.  If you haven’t seen those pages yet, they may be a revelation to you, because later generations of behavioral “scientists” have been very coy about mentioning them.  They are decidedly out of step with the socialist and egalitarian ideologies that it became the goal of the 20th century behavioral “sciences” to “prove” as corollaries of the Blank Slate.  As such they represent a high point in mankind’s search for truth and self-understanding.  When it comes to morality, that search was quickly derailed by a combination of ideologically corrupted “science” and sellers of philosophical snake oil.  Nearly a century and a half later, it remains derailed.  There is little reason to hope that it will recover anytime soon.

    The things Darwin had to say about morality were remarkably bold, given that he lived in Victorian England, and was married to an extremely pious Christian wife.  Indeed, the first sentences of the chapter in question can be seen as reflection of this less than ideal environment:

    I fully subscribe to the judgment of those writers who maintain that of all the differences between man and the lower animals, the moral sense or conscience is by far the most important.  This sense, as (Sir James) Mackintosh remarks, “has a rightful supremacy over every other principle of human action”; it is summed up in that short but imperious word ought, so full of high significance.

    Later authors have attempted to use this passage to prop up their artificial taboo against “anthropomorphism.”  In fact, it is best understood as a brief genuflection to the prevailing “moral landscape.”  In this heavily cherry-picked chapter, it’s best to read the whole thing. Darwin was anything but a carbon copy of the “co-discoverer” of evolution by natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace, who believed in evolution below the neck, but substituted spiritualistic mumbo-jumbo for the origin of the human mind and conscience.  Darwin considered the human brain, mind, and moral sense as much the result of natural evolution as the rest of us.  He realized that the same emotions responsible for the moral sense in humans exists in other animals as well. We are exceptional only in our ability to think about what our emotions are trying to tell us, and our ability to use language to communicate our thoughts to others.  Darwin hardly considered this an unbridgeable gap, and thought it entirely possible that similarly advanced minds could evolve in other animals.  As he put it,

    The following proposition seems to me in a high degree probable – namely, that any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well, or nearly as well developed, as in man.

    So much for human exceptionalism!

    For, firstly, the social instincts lead an animal to take pleasure in the society of its fellows, to feel a certain amount of sympathy with them, and to perform various services for them. The services may be of a definite and evidently instinctive nature; or there may be only a wish and readiness, as with most of the higher social animals, to aid their fellows in certain general ways.

    In the above we find Darwin clearly distinguishing between the fixed instincts of, for example, insects, and the more “malleable” behavioral predispositions existing in humans and other social mammals. In other words, here Darwin is preemptively debunking the favorite mantra of later generations of Blank Slaters that acceptance of evolved behavioral traits amounts to “genetic determinism.”

    But these feelings and services are by no means extended to all the individuals of the same species, only to those of the same association… We have now seen that actions are regarded by savages, and were probably so regarded by primeval man, as good or bad, solely as they obviously affect the welfare of the tribe, – not that of the species, nor that of an individual member of the tribe. This conclusion agrees well with the belief that the so-called moral sense is aboriginally derived from the social instincts, for both relate at first exclusively to the community.

    In other words, there are ingroups and outgroups, a fact that it took nearly half a century for Sir Arthur Keith to resurrect and state as a coherent hypothesis. Modern philosophers and behavioral scientists alike have fallen into the extremely dangerous habit of ignoring this aspect of human moral behavior, preferring to emphasize our “altruism” instead.

    Secondly, as soon as the mental faculties had become highly developed, images of all past actions and motives would be incessantly passing through the brain of each individual; and that feeling of dissatisfaction, or even misery, which invariably results, as we shall hereafter see, from any unsatisfied instinct, would arise, as often as it was perceived that the enduring and always present social instinct had yielded to some other instinct, at the time stronger, but neither enduring in its nature, nor leaving behind it a very vivid impression. It is clear that many instinctive desires, such as that of hunger, are in their nature of short duration; and after being satisfied, are not readily or vividly recalled.

    In other words, instead of being some unique human trait that suddenly evolved out of nothing, morality exists in nascent form in many other animals.  The “unique” features of human morality are merely artifacts of these preexisting traits in creatures with unusually high intelligence.

    It may well be first to premise that I do not wish to maintain that any strictly social animal, if its intellectual faculties were to become as active and as highly developed as in man, would acquire exactly the same moral sense as ours. In the same manner as various animals have some sense of beauty, though they admire widely different objects, so they might have a sense of right and wrong, though led by it to follow widely different lines of conduct. If, for instance, to take an extreme case, men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering. Nevertheless, the bee, or any other social animal, would gain in our supposed case, as it appears to me, some feeling of right or wrong, or a conscience.

    How can one read such passages without admiring the genius of Darwin?  No one else in his time even came close to writing anything of such brilliance and insight.  Consider what is packed into the last of these short passages alone: 1) A blunt denial of human exceptionalism, 2) A debunking of objective morality, and 3) Dismissal of theories that existed then as now that “objective moral truth” somehow manages to “track” morality rooted in mental traits that exist by virtue of evolution by natural selection. Darwin goes on to cite many examples of analogs of human moral behavior in other animals, noting that,

    Besides love and sympathy, animals exhibit other qualities connected with the social instincts, which in us would be called moral; and I agree with (Louis) Agassiz that dogs possess something very like a conscience.

    As if in answer to later generations of behaviorists clutching their box mazes with their theories of “conditioning” he writes,

    In many instances, however, it is probable that instincts are persistently followed from the mere force of inheritance, without the stimulus of either pleasure or pain.  A young pointer, when it first scents game, apparently cannot help pointing. A squirrel in a cage who pats the nuts which it cannot eat as if to bury them in the ground, can hardly be thought to act thus, either from pleasure or pain. Hence the common assumption that men must be impelled to every action by experiencing some pleasure or pain may be erroneous.

    Far from believing that evolution by natural selection would result in a universal moral sense, identical in all races, Darwin concluded that the obvious differences in human moral behavior confirmed his theory.  As he put it,

    Except through the principle of the transmission of moral tendencies, we cannot understand the differences believed to exist in this respect between the various races of mankind.

    There is much more in this short chapter bearing on the evolution of human morality. It is truly a must read for anyone interested in the subject.  In addition to what he wrote about evolved behavioral traits in man and animals in The Descent of Man, Darwin also wrote a chapter on the subject intended for publication in The Origin of Species.  Unfortunately, the full manuscript did not appear in that book.  However, Darwin passed it along with much other related material accumulated during the course of his life to his young collaborator, George Romanes.  Romanes published the full chapter, along with much of the other material he had received from Darwin, in his Mental Evolution in Animals, which appeared shortly after Darwin’s death. The book is available online, and may be found by clicking the link on the title.

    Many authors published theories of morality, supposedly based on Darwin’s theory of evolution, beginning shortly after publication of The Origin of Species.  Almost all of them promoted some theory of objective morality, and either ignored or completely failed to grasp the significance of what Darwin had written on the subject.  Edvard Westermarck appeared like a ray of light in the fog, publishing his brilliant The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas in 1906.  Among major philosophers, he alone appeared to grasp the implications of what Darwin had written about morality.  Like the fourth chapter of The Descent of Man, his book was forgotten, and no philosopher or scientist has appeared in the century plus since then who appears to grasp not only what Darwin wrote about the evolved roots of morality, but also the implications of what he wrote regarding the question of objective morality.  The lucubrations of some of these “evolutionary moralists” are interesting in their own right, but I must leave them for a later post.

  • Frans de Waal on Animal Smartness and the Rehabilitation of Konrad Lorenz

    Posted on June 5th, 2016 Helian 17 comments

    It’s heartening to learn that there is a serious basis for recent speculation to the effect that the science of animal cognition may gradually advance to a level long familiar to any child with a pet dog.  Frans de Waal breaks the news in his latest book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?  In answer to his own question, de Waal writes,

    The short answer is “Yes, but you’d never have guessed.”  For most of the last century, science was overly cautious and skeptical about the intelligence of animals.  Attributing intentions and emotions to animals was seen as naïve “folk” nonsense.  We, the scientists, knew better!  We never went in for any of this “my dog is jealous” stuff, or “my cat knows what she wants,” let alone anything more complicated, such as that animals might reflect on the past or feel one another’s pain… The two dominant schools of thought viewed animals as either stimulus-response machines out to obtain rewards and avoid punishment or as robots genetically endowed with useful instincts.  While each school fought the other and deemed it too narrow, they shared a fundamentally mechanistic outlook:  there was no need to worry about the internal lives of animals, and anyone who did was anthropomorphic, romantic and unscientific.

    Did we have to go through this bleak period?  In earlier days, the thinking was noticeably more liberal.  Charles Darwin wrote extensively about human and animal emotions, and many a scientist in the nineteenth century was eager to find higher intelligence in animals.  It remains a mystery why these efforts were temporarily suspended, and why we voluntarily hung a millstone around the neck of biology.

    Here I must beg to differ with de Waal.  It is by no means a “mystery.”  This “mechanization” of animals in the sciences was more or less contemporaneous with the Blank Slate debacle, and was motivated by more or less the same ideological imperatives.  I invite readers interested in the subject to consult the first few chapters of Robert Ardrey’s African Genesis, published as far back as 1961.  Noting a blurb in Scientific American by Marshall Sahlins, more familiar to later readers as a collaborator in the slander of Napoleon Chagnon, to the effect that,

    There is a quantum difference, at points a complete opposition, between even the most rudimentary human society and the most advanced subhuman primate one.  The discontinuity implies that the emergence of human society required some suppression, rather than direct expression, of man’s primate nature.  Human social life is culturally, not biologically determined.

    Ardrey, that greatest of all debunkers of the Blank Slate, continues,

    Dr. Sahlins’ conclusion is startling to no one but himself.  It is a scientific restatement, 1960-style, of the philosophical conclusion of an eighteenth-century Neapolitan monk (Giambattista Vico, ed.):  Society is the work of man.  It is just another prop, fashioned in the shop of science’s orthodoxies from the lumber of Zuckerman’s myth, to support the fallacy of human uniqueness.

    The Zuckerman Ardrey refers to is anthropologist Solly Zuckerman.  I invite anyone who doubts the fanaticism with which “science” once insisted on the notion of human uniqueness alluded to in de Waal’s book to read some of Zuckerman’s papers.  For example, in The Social Life of Monkeys and Apes, he writes,

    It is now generally recognized that anthropomorphic preoccupations do not help the critical development of knowledge, either in fields of physical or biological inquiry.

    He exulted in the great “advances” science had made in correcting the “mistakes” of Darwin:

    The Darwinian period, in which animal behavior as a distinct study was born, was one in which anthropomorphic interpretation flourished.  Anecdotes were regarded in the most generous light, and it was believed that many animals were highly rational creatures, possessed of exalted ethical codes of social behavior.

    According to Zuckerman, “science” had now discovered that the very notion of animal “intelligence” was absurd.  As he put it,

    Until 1890, the study of the social behavior of mammals developed hand in hand with the study of their “intelligence,” and both subjects were usually treated in the same books.

    Such comments, which are ubiquitous in the literature of the Blank Slate era, make it hard to understand how de Waal can still be “mystified” about the motivation for the “scientific” denial of animal intelligence.  Be that as it may, he presents a wealth of data derived from recent experiments and field studies debunking all the lingering rationale for claims of human uniqueness one by one, whether it be the ability to experience emotion, a “theory of mind,” social problem solving ability, ability to contemplate the past and future, or even consciousness.  In the process he documents the methods “science” used to hermetically seal itself off from reality, such as the invention of pejorative terms like “anthropomorphism” to denounce and dismiss anyone who dared to challenge the human uniqueness orthodoxy, and the rejection of all evidence not supplied by members of the club as mere “anecdotes.”  In the process he notes,

    Needing a new term to make my point, I invented anthropodenial, which is the a priori rejection of humanlike traits in other animals or animallike traits in us.

    It’s hard to imagine that anyone could seriously believe that “science” consists of fanatically rejecting similarities between human and animal behavior that are obvious to everyone but “scientists” as “anthropomorphism” and “anecdotes” and assuming a priori that they’re of no significance until it can be absolutely proven that everyone else was right all along.  This does not strike me as a “parsimonious” approach.

    Not the least interesting feature of de Waal’s latest is his “rehabilitation” of several important debunkers of the Blank Slate who were unfortunate enough to publish before the appearance of E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology in 1975.  According to the fairy tale that currently passes for the “history” of the Blank Slate, before 1975 “darkness was on the face of the deep.”  Only then did Wilson appear on the scene as the heroic slayer of the Blank Slate dragon.  A man named Robert Ardrey was never heard of, and anyone mentioned in his books as an opponent of the Blank Slate before the Wilson “singularity” is to be ignored.  The most prominent of them all, a man on whom the anathemas of the Blank Slaters often fell, literally in the same breath as Ardrey, was Konrad Lorenz.  Sure enough, in Steven Pinker’s fanciful “history” of the Blank Slate, Lorenz is dismissed, in the same paragraph with Ardrey, no less, as “totally and utterly wrong,” and a delusional believer in “archaic theories such as that aggression was like the discharge of a hydraulic pressure.”  De Waal’s response must be somewhat discomfiting to the promoters of Pinker’s official “history.”  He simply ignores it!

    Astoundingly enough, de Waal speaks of Lorenz as one of the great founding fathers of the modern sciences of animal behavior and cognition.  In other words, he tells the truth, as if it had never been disputed in any bowdlerized “history.”  Already at the end of the prologue we find the matter-of-fact observation that,

    …behavior is, as the Austrian ethologist Konrad Lorenz put it, the liveliest aspect of all that lives.

    Reading on, we find that this mention of Lorenz wasn’t just an anomaly designed to wake up drowsy readers.  In the first chapter we find de Waal referring to the field of phylogeny,

    …when we trace traits across the evolutionary tree to determine whether similarities are due to common descent, the way Lorenz had done so beautifully for waterfowl.

    A few pages later he writes,

    The maestro of observation, Konrad Lorenz, believed that one could not investigate animals effectively without an intuitive understanding grounded in love and respect.

    and notes, referring to the behaviorists, that,

    The power of conditioning is not in doubt, but the early investigators had totally overlooked a crucial piece of information.  They had not, as recommended by Lorenz, considered the whole organism.

    And finally, in a passage that seems to scoff at Pinker’s “totally and utterly wrong” nonsense, he writes,

    Given that the facial musculature of humans and chimpanzees is nearly identical, the laughing, grinning, and pouting of both species likely goes back to a common ancestor.  Recognition of the parallel between anatomy and behavior was a great leap forward, which is nowadays taken for granted.  We all now believe in behavioral evolution, which makes us Lorenzians.

    Stunning, really for anyone who’s followed what’s been going on in the behavioral and animal sciences for any length of time.  And that’s not all.  Other Blank Slate debunkers who published long before Wilson, like Niko Tinbergen and Desmond Morris, are mentioned with a respect that belies the fact that they, too, were once denounced by the Blank Slaters as right wing fascists and racists in the same breath with Lorenz.  I have a hard time believing that someone as obviously well read as de Waal has never seen Pinker’s The Blank Slate.  I honestly don’t know what to make of the fact that he can so blatantly contradict Pinker, and yet never trouble himself to mention even the bare existence of such a remarkable disconnect.  Is he afraid of Pinker?  Does he simply want to avoid hurting the feelings of another member of the academic tribe?  I must leave it up to the reader to decide.

    And what of Ardrey, who brilliantly described both “anthropodenial” and the reasons that it was by no means a “mystery” more than half a century before the appearance of de Waal’s latest book?  Will he be rehabilitated, too?  Don’t hold your breath.  Unlike Lorenz, Tinbergen and Morris, he didn’t belong to the academic tribe.  The fact that it took an outsider to smash the Blank Slate and give a few academics the courage to finally stick their noses out of the hole they’d dug for themselves will likely remain deep in the memory hole. It happens to be a fact  that is just too humiliating and embarrassing for them to ever admit.  It would seem the history of the affair can be adjusted, but it will probably never be corrected.