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  • Of Ants and Men: More PBS Adventures in Rearranging Blank Slate History

    Posted on November 26th, 2015 Helian 5 comments

    The history of the rise and fall of the Blank Slate is fascinating, and not only as an example of the pathological derailment of whole branches of science in favor of ideological dogmas.  The continuing foibles of the “men of science” as they attempt to “readjust” that history are nearly as interesting in their own right.  Their efforts at post-debacle damage control are a superb example of an aspect of human nature at work – tribalism.  There is much at stake for the scientific “tribe,” not least of which is the myth of the self-correcting nature of science itself.  What might be called the latest episode in the sometimes shameless, sometimes hilarious bowdlerization of history just appeared in the form of another PBS special; E. O. Wilson – Of Ants and Men.  You can watch it online by clicking on the link.

    Before examining the latest twists in this continuously evolving plot, it would be useful to recap what has happened to date.  There is copious source material documenting not only the rise of the Blank Slate orthodoxy to hegemony in the behavioral sciences, but also the events that led to its collapse, not to mention the scientific apologetics that followed its demise.  In its modern form, the Blank Slate manifested itself as a sweeping denial that innate behavioral traits, or “human nature,” had anything to do with human behavior beyond such basic functions as breathing and the elimination of waste.  It was insisted that virtually everything about our behavior was learned, and a reflection of “culture.”  By the early 1950’s its control of the behavioral sciences was such that any scientist who dared to publish anything in direct opposition to it was literally risking his career.  Many scientists have written of the prevailing atmosphere of fear and intimidation, and through the 1950s, ‘60s, and early ‘70s there was little in the way of “self-correction” emanating from within the scientific professions themselves.

    The “correction,” when it came, was supplied by an outsider – a playwright by the name of Robert Ardrey who had taken an interest in anthropology.  Beginning with African Genesis in 1961, he published a series of four highly popular books that documented the copious evidence for the existence of human nature, and alerted a wondering public to the absurd extent to which its denial had been pursued in the sciences.  It wasn’t a hard sell, as that absurdity was obvious enough to any reasonably intelligent child.  Following Ardrey’s lead, a few scientists began to break ranks, particularly in Europe where the Blank Slate had never achieved a level of control comparable to that prevailing in the United States.  They included the likes of Konrad Lorenz (On Aggression, first published in German in 1963), Desmond Morris (The Naked Ape, 1967), Lionel Tiger (Men in Groups, 1969), and Robin Fox (The Imperial Animal, 1971, with Lionel Tiger).  The Blank Slate reaction to these works, not to mention the copious coverage of Ardrey and the rest that began appearing in the popular media, was furious.  Man and Aggression, a collection of Blank Slater rants directed mainly at Ardrey and Lorenz, with novelist William Golding thrown in for good measure, is an outstanding piece of historical source material documenting that reaction.  Edited by Ashley Montagu and published in 1968, it typifies the usual Blank Slate MO – attacks on straw men combined with accusations of racism and fascism.  That, of course, remains the MO of the “progressive” Left to this day.

    The Blank Slaters could intimidate the scientific community, but not so the public at large.  Thanks to Ardrey and the rest, by the mid-70s the behavioral sciences were in danger of becoming a laughing stock.  Finally, in 1975, E. O. Wilson broke ranks and published Sociobiology, a book that was later to gain a notoriety in the manufactured “history” of the Blank Slate out of all proportion to its real significance.  Of the 27 chapters, 25 dealt with animal behavior.  Only the first and last chapters focused on human behavior.  Nothing in those two chapters, nor in Wilson’s On Human Nature, published in 1978, could reasonably be described as other than an afterthought to the works of Ardrey and others that had appeared much earlier as far as human nature is concerned.  Its real novelty wasn’t its content, but the fact that it was the first popular science book asserting the existence and importance of human nature by a scientist in the United States that reached a significant audience.  This fact was well known to Wilson, not to mention his many Blank Slate detractors.  In their diatribe Against Sociobiology, which appeared in the New York Review of Books in 1975 they wrote, “From Herbert Spencer, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” to Konrad Lorenz, Robert Ardrey, and now E. O. Wilson, we have seen proclaimed the primacy of natural selection in determining most important characteristics of human behavior.

    As we know in retrospect, the Blank Slaters were facing a long, losing battle against recognition of the obvious.  By the end of the 1990s, even the editors at PBS began scurrying off the sinking ship.  Finally, in the scientific shambles left in the aftermath of the collapse of the Blank Slate orthodoxy, Steven Pinker published his The Blank Slate.  It was the first major attempt at historical revisionism by a scientist, and it contained most of the fairytales about the affair that are now widely accepted as fact.  I had begun reading the works of Ardrey, Lorenz and the rest in the early 70s, and had followed the subsequent unraveling of the Blank Slate with interest.  When I began reading The Blank Slate, I assumed I would find a vindication of the seminal role they had played in the 1960s in bringing about its demise.  I was stunned to find that, instead, as far as Pinker was concerned, the 60s never happened!  Ardrey was mentioned only a single time, and then only with the assertion that “the sociobiologists themselves” had declared him and Lorenz “totally and utterly” wrong!  The “sociobiologist” given as the source for this amazing assertion was none other than Richard Dawkins!  Other than the fact that Dawkins was never a “sociobiologist,” and especially not in 1972 when he published The Selfish Gene, the book from which the “totally and utterly wrong” quote was lifted, he actually praised Ardrey in other parts of the book.  He never claimed that Ardrey and the rest were “totally and utterly wrong” because they defended the importance of innate human nature, in Ardrey’s case the overriding theme of all his work.  Rather, Dawkins limited that claim to their support of group selection, a fact that Pinker never gets around to mentioning in The Blank Slate.  Dropping Ardrey, Lorenz and the rest down the memory hole, Pinker went on to assert that none other than Wilson had been the real knight in shining armor who had brought down the Blank Slate.  As readers who have followed this blog for a while are aware, the kicker came in 2012, in the form of E. O. Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth.  In the crowning (and amusing) irony of this whole shabby affair, Wilson outed himself as more “totally and utterly wrong” than Ardrey and Lorenz by a long shot.  He wholeheartedly embraced – group selection!

    Which finally brings me to the latest episode in the readjustment of Blank Slate history.  It turned up recently in the form of a PBS special entitled, E. O. Wilson – Of Ants and Men.  It’s a testament to the fact that Pinker’s deification of Wilson has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.  The only problem is that now it appears he is in danger of being tossed on the garbage heap of history himself.  You see, the editors at the impeccably politically correct PBS picked up on the fact that, at least according to Wilson, group selection is responsible for the innate wellsprings of selflessness, love of others, at least in the ingroup, altruism, and all the other endearing characteristics that make the hearts of the stalwart leftists who call the tune at PBS go pitter-pat.  Pinker, on the other hand, for reasons that should be obvious by now, must continue to reject group selection, lest his freely concocted “history” become a laughing stock.  To see how all this plays out circa 2015, let’s take a closer look at the video itself.

    Before I begin, I wish to assure the reader that I have the highest respect for Wilson himself.  He is a great scientist, and his publication of Sociobiology was an act of courage regardless of its subsequent exploitation by historical revisionists.  As we shall see, he has condoned the portrayal of himself as the “knight in shining armor” invented by Pinker, but that is a forgivable lapse by an aging scientist who is no doubt flattered by the “legacy” manufactured for him.

    With that, on to the video.  It doesn’t take long for us to run into the first artifact of the Wilson legend.  At the 3:45 minute mark, none other than Pinker himself appears, informing us that Wilson, “changed the intellectual landscape by challenging the taboo against discussing human nature.”  He did no such thing.  Ardrey had very effectively “challenged the taboo” in 1961 with his publication of African Genesis, and many others had challenged it in the subsequent years before publication of Sociobiology.  Pinker’s statement isn’t even accurate in terms of U.S. scientists, as several of them in peripheral fields such as political science, had insisted on the existence and importance of human nature long before 1975, and others, like Tiger and Fox, although foreign born, had worked at U.S. universities.  At the 4:10 mark Gregory Carr chimes in with the remarkable assertion that,

     If someone develops a theory about human nature or biodiversity, and in common living rooms across the world, it seems like common sense, but in fact, a generation ago, we didn’t understand it, it tells you that that person, in this case Ed Wilson, has changed the way all of us view the world.

    One can but shake one’s head at such egregious nonsense.  In the first place, Wilson didn’t “develop a theory about human nature.”  He simply repeated hypotheses that Darwin himself and many others since him had developed.  There is nothing of any significance about human nature in any of his books that cannot also be found in the works of Ardrey.  People “in common living rooms” a generation ago understood and accepted the concept of human nature perfectly well.  The only ones who were still delusional about it at the time were the so-called “experts” in the behavioral sciences.  Many of them were also just as aware as Wilson of the absurdity of the Blank Slate dogmas, but were too intimidated to challenge them.

    My readers should be familiar by now with such attempts to inflate Wilson’s historical role, and the reasons for them.  The tribe of behavioral scientists has never been able to bear the thought that their “science” was not “self-correcting,” and they would probably still be peddling the Blank Slate dogmas to this day if it weren’t for the “mere playwright,” Ardrey.  All their attempts at historical obfuscation won’t alter that fact, and source material is there in abundance to prove it to anyone who has the patience to search it out and look at it.  We first get an inkling of the real novelty in this particular PBS offering at around minute 53:15, when Wilson, referring to eusociality in ant colonies, remarks,

    This capacity of an insect colony to act like a single super-organism became very important to me when I began to reconsider evolutionary theory later in my career.  It made me wonder if natural selection could operate not only on individuals and their genes, but on the colony as a whole.  That idea would create quite a stir when I published it, but that was much later.

    Which brings us to the most amusing plot twist in this whole, sorry farce; PBS’ wholehearted embrace of group selection.  Recall that Pinker’s whole rationalization for ignoring Ardrey was based on some good things Ardrey had to say about group selection in his third book, The Social Contract.  The subject hardly ever came up in his interviews, and was certainly not the central theme of all his books, which, as noted above, was the existence and significance of human nature.  Having used group selection to declare Ardrey an unperson, Pinker then elevated Wilson to the role of the “revolutionary” who was the “real destroyer” of the Blank Slate in his place.  Wilson, in turn, in what must have seemed to Pinker a supreme act of ingratitude, embraced group selection more decisively than Ardrey ever thought of doing, making it a central and indispensable pillar of his theory regarding the evolution of eusociality.  Here’s how the theme plays out in the video.

    Wilson at 1:09:50

    Humans don’t have to be taught to cooperate.  We do it instinctively.  Evolution has hardwired us for cooperation.  That’s the key to eusociality.

    Wilson at 1:13:40

    Thinking on this remarkable fact (the evolution of eusociality) has made me reconsider in recent years the theory of natural selection and how it works in complex social animals.

    Pinker at 1:18:50

    Starting in the 1960s, a number of biologists realized that if you think rigorously about what natural selection does, it operates on replicators. Natural selection, Darwin’s theory, is the theory of what happens when you have an entity that can make a copy of itself, and so it’s very clear that the obvious target of selection in Darwin’s theory is the gene. That became close to a consensus among evolutionary biologists, but I think it’s fair to say that Ed Wilson was always ambivalent about that turn in evolutionary theory.

    1:19:35 Wilson:

    I never doubted that natural selection works on individual genes or that kin selection is a reality, but I could never accept that that is the whole story. Our group instincts, and those of other eusocial species, go far beyond the urge to protect our immediate kin. After a lifetime studying ant societies, it seemed to me that the group must also have an important role in evolution, whether or not its members are related to each other.

    1:20:15 Jonathan Haidt:

    So there’ve been a few revolutions in evolutionary thinking. One of them happened in the 1960s and ‘70s, and it was really captured in Dawkins famous book ‘The Selfish Gene,’ where if you just take the gene’s eye view, you have the simplest elements, and then you sort of build up from there, and that works great for most animals, but Ed was studying ants, and of course you can make the gene’s eye view work for ants, but when you’re studying ants, you don’t see the ant as the individual, you don’t see the ant as the organism, you see the colony or the hive as the entity that really matters.

    At 1:20:55 Wilson finally spells it out:

    Once you see a social insect colony as a superorganism, the idea that selection must work on the group as well as on the individual follows very naturally. This realization transformed my perspective on humanity, too. So I proposed an idea that goes all the way back to Darwin. It’s called group selection.

    1:22:20 Haidt:

    Ed was able to see group selection in action. It’s just so clear in the ants, the bees, the wasps, the termites and the humans.” Wilson: “The fact of group selection gives rise to what I call multilevel evolution, in which natural selection is operating both at the level of the individual and the level of the group… And that got Ed into one of the biggest debates of his career, over multilevel selection, or group selection.

    1:23:20 Pinker:

    Ed Wilson did not give up the idea that selection acted on groups, while most of his fellow biologists did. Then several decades later, revived that notion in a full-throated manifesto, which I think it would be an understatement to say that he did not convince his fellow biologists.

    At this point, a picture of Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth, appears on the screen, shortly followed by stills of a scowling Richard Dawkins.  Then we see an image of the cover of his The Selfish Gene.  The film describes Dawkins furious attack on Wilson for daring to promote group selection.

    1:24:10 Wilson:

    The brouhaha over group selection has brought me into conflict with defenders of the old faith, like Richard Dawkins and many others who believe that ultimately the only thing that counts in the evolution of complex behavior, is the gene, the selfish gene. They believe the gene’s eye view of social evolution can explain all of our groupish behavior. I do not.

    And finally, at 1:25, after Wilson notes Pinker is one of his opponents, Pinker reappears to deny the existence of group selection:

    Most people would say that, if there’s a burning building, and your child is in one room and another child is in another room, then you are entitled to rescue your child first, right?  There is  a special bond between, say, parents and children.  This is exactly what an evolutionary biologist would predict because any gene that would make you favor your child will have a copy of itself sitting in the body of that child.  By rescuing your child the gene for rescuing children, so to speak, will be helping a copy of itself, and so those genes would proliferate in the population.  Not just the extreme case of saving your child from a burning building but for being generous and loyal to your siblings, your very close cousins.  The basis of tribalism, kinship, family feelings, have a perfectly sensible sensible evolutionary basis.  (i.e., kin selection)

    At this point one can imagine Pinker gazing sadly at the tattered remains of his whole, manufactured “history” of the Blank Slate lying about like a collapsed house of cards, faced with the bitter realization that he had created a monster.  Wilson’s group selection schtick was just too good for PBS to pass up.  I seriously doubt whether any of their editors really understand the subject well enough to come up with a reasoned opinion about it one way or the other.  However, how can you turn your nose up at group selection if, as Wilson claims, it is responsible for altruism and all the other “good” aspects of our nature, whereas the types of selection favored by Pinker, not to mention Dawkins, are responsible for selfishness and all the other “bad” parts of our nature?

    And what of Ardrey, whose good words about group selection no longer seem quite as “totally and utterly wrong” as Pinker suggested when he swept him under the historical rug?  Have the editors at PBS ever even heard of him?  We know very well that they have, and that they are also perfectly well aware of his historical significance, because they went to the trouble of devoting a significant amount of time to him in another recent special covering the discovery of Homo naledi.  It took the form of a bitter denunciation of Ardrey for supporting the “Killer Ape Theory,” a term invented by the Blank Slaters of yore to ridicule the notion that pre-human apes hunted and killed during the evolutionary transition from ape to man.  This revealing lapse demonstrated the continuing strength of the obsession with the “unperson” Ardrey, the man who was “totally and utterly wrong.”  That obsession continues, not only among ancient, unrepentant Blank Slaters, but among behavioral scientists in general who happen to be old enough to know the truth about what happened in the 15 years before Wilson published Sociobiology, in spite of Pinker’s earnest attempt to turn that era into an historical “Blank Slate.”

    Dragging in Ardrey was revealing because, in the first place, it was irrelevant in the context of a special about Homo naledi.  As far as I know, no one has published any theories about the hunting behavior of that species one way or the other.  It was revealing in the second place because of the absurdity of bringing up the “Killer Ape Theory” at all.  That straw man was invented back in the 60s, when it was universally believed, even by Ardrey himself, that chimpanzees were, as Ashley Montagu put it, “non-aggressive vegetarians.”  That notion, however, was demolished by Jane Goodall, who observed chimpanzees both hunting and killing, not to mention their capacity for extremely aggressive behavior.  Today, few people like to mention the vicious, ad hominem attacks she was subjected to at the time for publishing those discoveries, although those attacks, too, are amply documented for anyone who cares to look for them.  In the ensuing years, even the impeccably PC Scientific American has admitted the reality of hunting behavior in early man.  In other words, the “Killer Ape Theory” debate has long been over, and Ardrey, who spelled out his ideas on the subject in his last book, The Hunting Hypothesis, won it hands down.

    Why does all this matter?  It seems to me the integrity of historical truth is worth defending in its own right.  Beyond that, there is much to learn from the Blank Slate affair and its aftermath regarding the integrity of science itself.  It is not invariably self-correcting.  It can become derailed, and occasionally outsiders must play an indispensable role in putting it back on the tracks.  Ideology can trump reason and common sense, and it did in the behavioral sciences for a period of more than half a century.  Science is not infallible.  In spite of that, it is still the best way of ferreting out the truth our species has managed to come up with so far.  We can’t just turn our back on it, because, at least in my opinion, all of the alternatives are even worse.  As we do science, however, it would behoove us to maintain a skeptical attitude and watch for signs of ideology leaking through the cracks.

    I note in passing that excellent readings of all of Ardrey’s books are now available at

  • But What of Shaftesbury?

    Posted on February 8th, 2015 Helian 3 comments

    In this and my previous post, I discuss some British philosophers that even most well-educated laypeople have never heard of.  Why?  Because they shed a great deal of light on the subjects of human nature and morality.  These subjects are critical to our self-understanding, which, in turn, is critical to our survival.  If we had read, understood, and built on what they taught, we might have avoided wandering into many of the blind alleys into which we were led by subsequent generations of the “men of science.”  The most damaging and delusional blind alley of all was the Blank Slate orthodoxy.  Ironically, it was enforced by exploiting the very moral emotions whose existence it denied, setting back the behavioral sciences and moral philosophy by more than a century in the process.  View, if you like, these posts as an attempt to pick up the lost threads.

    In my previous post I highlighted the philosophy of Francis Hutcheson.  I note in passing that he was actually born in Ireland, and studied and received his degree in Scotland.  I did that because Hutcheson was the first, or at least the first I know of, to elaborate a well thought out and coherent theory of the origins of morality in an innate “moral sense,” demonstrating in the process why, absent such a moral sense, moral behavior is not even possible.  In other words, the “root cause” of morality is this moral sense.  Furthermore, Hutcheson explained why, as a consequence, it is impossible to distinguish between good and evil using reason alone.  Two hundred years later the great Finnish moral philosopher Edvard Westermarck, who had read and admired Hutcheson, noted that in the ensuing years, his contention that, “the moral concepts are ultimately based on emotions either of indignation or approval, is a fact which a certain school of thinkers have in vain attempted to deny.”

    That said, it is hardly true that the works of many other 18th century British authors do not contain ideas similar to Hutcheson’s.  Such authors are often able to see further and more clearly than those who have come before by virtue of the privilege of, as Einstein put it, “sitting on the shoulders of giants.”  In Hutcheson’s case, one such giant was Anthony Ashley-Cooper, the third Earl of Shaftesbury.  Hutcheson certainly left no one in doubt concerning his debt to Shaftesbury in his own time.  Sir James MacKintosh, who left sketches of many forgotten British moral philosophers who are well worth reading today in his, “On the progress of ethical philosophy, chiefly during the XVIIth & XVIIIth centuries,” which first appeared as a supplement to the Encyclopedia Brittanica in 1829, went so far as to refer to Shaftesbury as Hutcheson’s “master.”  Although Shaftesbury was born in England, MacKintosh claimed that, “…the philosophy of Shaftesbury was brought by Hutcheson from Ireland,” after it and similar works had been suppressed in England for some time “by an exemplary but unlettered clergy.”

    Like Hutcheson, many of the themes in Shaftesbury’s writings would have sounded very familiar to modern evolutionary psychologists.  For example, he had this to say on the Blank Slate ideology of his day:

    It was Mr. Locke that struck at all fundamentals, threw all order and virtue out of the world, and made the very ideas of these… unnatural and without foundation in our minds.

    Locke, of course, is often cited as a forerunner of the Blank Slaters of the 20th century, although the comparison isn’t entirely accurate.  He rejected innate morality because it was incompatible with his Christian theology rather than the secular “progressive” ideology of a later day.

    The key theme of Hutcheson’s work as far as the modern science of morality is concerned – the existence of an innate “moral sense” – is, if anything, emphasized even more strongly in the writings of Shaftesbury.  For example, from his Inquiry Concerning Virtue or Merit, probably his most important work on morality as far as modern readers are concerned,

    Sense of right and wrong therefore being as natural to us as natural affection itself, and being a first principle in our constitution and make; there is no speculative opinion, persuasion or belief, which is capable immediately or directly to exclude or destroy it.  That which is of original and pure nature, nothing beside contrary habit or custom (a second nature) is able to displace.  And this affection being an original one of earliest rise in the soul or affectionate part; nothing beside a contrary affection, by frequent check and control, can operate upon it, so as either to diminish it in part, or destroy it in whole.

    A somewhat startling aspect of Shaftesbury’s work, given the time in which it was written, was his recognition of the continuity between human beings and other animal species.  For example, again from the Inquiry,

    We know that every creature has a private good and interest of his own, which Nature has compelled him to seek, by all the advantages afforded him within the compass of his make.  We know that there is in reality a right and a wrong state of every creature, and that this right one is by nature forwarded and by himself affectionately sought.


    We have found that, to deserve the name of good or virtuous, a creature most have all his inclinations and affections, his dispositions of mind and temper, suitable, and agreeing with the good of his kind, or of that system in which he is included, and of which he constitutes a part.

    and, finally,

    The ordinary animals appear unnatural and monstrous when they lose their proper instincts, forsake their kind, neglect their offspring, and pervert those functions or capacities bestowed by nature.  How wretched must it be, therefore, for man, of all other creatures, to lose that sense and feeling which is proper to him as a man, and suitable to his character and genius?

    If one didn’t know better, one might easily imagine that E. O. Wilson’s latest book, The Meaning of Human Existence, with its assertions about our “good” nature being the result of group selection, and our “evil” nature the result of selection at the level of the individual, had been inspired by Shaftesbury.  For example,

    There being allowed therefore in a creature such affections as these towards the common nature or system of the kind, together with those other which regard the private nature or self-system, it will appear that in following the first of these affections, the creature must on many occasions contradict and go against the latter.  How else should the species be preserved?  Or what would signify that implanted natural affection, by which a creature through so many difficulties and hazards preserves its offspring and supports its kind.

    One must hope that such passages won’t draw down on Shaftesbury’s head the anathemas of Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker as the great heresiarch of group selection theory.

    In a remarkable passage that might have been lifted from the pages of Westermarck, Shaftesbury reveals some doubt regarding the objective existence of good and evil, in spite of our tendency to imagine them in that way:

    If there be no real amiableness or deformity in moral acts, there is at least an imaginary one of full force.  Though perhaps the thing itself should not be allowed in nature, the imagination or fancy of it must be allowed to be from nature alone.  Nor can anything besides art and strong endeavor, with long practice and meditation, overcome such a natural prevention or prepossession of the mind in favor of this moral distinction.

    Finally, at the risk of exhausting the patience of even my most dogged readers, allow me to throw in another aspect of Shaftesbury’s writings that would put him “ahead of his time” even if he were alive today; his dispassionate and temperate comments on the subject of atheism.  Consider, for example, the following:

    …it does not seem, that atheism should of itself be the cause of any estimation or valuing of anything as fair, noble, and deserving which was the contrary.  It can never, for instance, make it be thought that the being able to eat man’s flesh, or commit bestiality, is good and excellent in itself.  But this is certain, that by means of corrupt religion or superstition, many things the most horridly unnatural and inhuman come to be received as excellent, good, and laudable in themselves.


    …religion, (according as the kind may prove) is capable of doing great good or harm, and atheism nothing positive in either way.   For however it may be indirectly an occasion of men’s losing a good and sufficient sense of right and wrong, it will not, as atheism merely, be the occasion of setting up a false species of it, which only false religion or fantastical opinion, derived commonly through superstition or credulity, is able to effect.

    To confirm those observations, one need look no further than recent events in the Middle East.  When it comes to “fantastical opinion, derived commonly through superstition or credulity,” the 20th century gave us two outstanding examples, in the form of Communism and Nazism.  Pundits like Bill O’Reilly claim that atheism itself is responsible for all the crimes of these modern secular versions of “corrupt religion.”  This was a form of bigotry of which Shaftesbury, writing three centuries earlier, give or take, was not capable.

    Of course, Shaftesbury no more wrote in a vacuum than Hutcheson.  Similar themes may be found in the work of many other British moral philosophers of the time.  In particular, Joseph Butler, like Hutcheson, borrowed heavily from Shaftesbury in developing his own ideas regarding the origins of morality in human nature.  Brief descriptions of the work of many others may be found in the book by Sir James MacKintosh referred to above, and in Michael Gill’s excellent book, The British Moralists on Human Nature and the Birth of Secular Ethics.

  • E. O. Wilson’s “The Meaning of Human Existence:” Doubling Down on Group Selection

    Posted on December 31st, 2014 Helian 3 comments

    It’s great to see another title by E. O. Wilson.  Reading his books is like continuing a conversation with a wise old friend.  If you run into him on the street you don’t expect to hear him say anything radically different from what he’s said in the past.  However, you always look forward to chatting with him because he’s never merely repetitious or tiresome.   He always has some thought-provoking new insight or acute comment on the latest news.  At this stage in his life he also delights in puncturing the prevailing orthodoxies, without the least fear of the inevitable anathemas of the defenders of the faith.

    In his latest, The Meaning of Human Existence, he continues the open and unabashed defense of group selection that so rattled his peers in his previous book, The Social Conquest of Earth.  I’ve discussed some of the reasons for their unease in an earlier post.  In short, if it can really be shown that the role of group selection in human evolution has been as prominent as Wilson claims, it will seriously mar the legacy of such prominent public intellectuals as Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker, as well as a host of other prominent scientists, who have loudly and tirelessly insisted on the insignificance of group selection.  It will also require some serious adjustments to the fanciful yarn that currently passes as the “history” of the Blank Slate affair.  Obviously, Wilson is firmly convinced that he’s on to something, because he’s not letting up.  He dismisses the alternative inclusive fitness interpretation of evolution as unsupported by the evidence and at odds with the most up-to-date mathematical models.  In his words,

    Although the controversy between natural selection and inclusive fitness still flickers here and there, the assumptions of the theory of inclusive fitness have proved to be applicable only in a few extreme cases unlikely to occur on Earth on any other planet.  No example of inclusive fitness has been directly measured.  All that has been accomplished is an indirect analysis called the regressive method, which unfortunately has itself been mathematically invalidated.

    Interestingly, while embracing group selection, Wilson then explicitly agrees with one of the most prominent defenders of inclusive fitness, Richard Dawkins, on the significance of the gene:

    The use of the individual or group as the unit of heredity, rather than the gene, is an even more fundamental error.

    Very clever, that, a preemptive disarming of the predictable invention of straw men to attack group selection via the bogus claim that it implies that groups are the unit of selection.  The theory of group selection already has a fascinating, not to mention ironical, history, and its future promises to be no less entertaining.

    When it comes to the title of the book, Wilson himself lets us know early on that its just a forgivable form of “poetic license.”  In his words,

    In ordinary usage the word “meaning” implies intention.  Intention implies design, and design implies a designer.  Any entity, any process, or definition of any word itself is put into play as a result of an intended consequence in the mind of the designer.  This is the heart of the philosophical worldview of organized religions, and in particular their creation stories.  Humanity, it assumes, exists for a purpose.  Individuals have a purpose in being on Earth.  Both humanity and individuals have meaning.

    Wilson is right when he says that this is what most people understand by the term “meaning,” and he decidedly rejects the notion that the existence of such “meaning” is even possible later in the book by rejecting religious belief more bluntly than in any of his previous books.  He provides himself with a fig leaf in the form of a redefinition of “meaning” as follows:

    There is a second, broader way the word “meaning” is used, and a very different worldview implied.  It is that the accidents of history, not the intentions of a designer, are the source of meaning.

    I rather suspect most philosophers will find this redefinition unpalatable.  Beyond that, I won’t begrudge Wilson his fig leaf.  After all, if one takes the trouble to write books, one generally also has an interest in selling them.

    As noted above, another significant difference between this and Wilson’s earlier books is his decisive support for what one might call the “New Atheist” line, as set forth in books by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens.  Obviously, Wilson has been carefully following the progress of the debate.  He rejects religions, significantly in both their secular as well as their traditional spiritual manifestations, as both false and dangerous, mainly because of their inevitable association with tribalism.  In his words,

    Religious warriors are not an anomaly.  It is a mistake to classify believers of particular religious and dogmatic religionlike ideologies into two groups, moderate versus extremist.  The true cause of hatred and violence is faith versus faith, an outward expression of the ancient instinct of tribalism.  Faith is the one thing that makes otherwise good people do bad things.

    and, embracing the ingroup/outgroup dichotomy in human moral behavior I’ve often alluded to on this blog,

    The great religions… are impediments to the grasp of reality needed to solve most social problems in the real world.  Their exquisitely human flaw is tribalism.  The instinctual force of tribalism in the genesis of religiosity is far stronger than the yearning for spirituality.  People deeply need membership in a group, whether religious or secular.  From a lifetime of emotional experience, they know that happiness, and indeed survival itself, require that they bond with oth3ers who share some amount of genetic kinship, language, moral beliefs, geographical location, social purpose, and dress code – preferably all of these but at least two or three for most purposes.  It is tribalism, not the moral tenets and humanitarian thought of pure religion, that makes good people do bad things.

    Finally, in a passage worthy of New Atheist Jerry Coyne himself, Wilson denounces both “accommodationists” and the obscurantist teachings of the “sophisticated Christians:”

    Most serious writers on religion conflate the transcendent quest for meaning with the tribalistic defense of creation myths.  They accept, or fear to deny, the existence of a personal deity.  They read into the creation myths humanity’s effort to communicate with the deity, as part of the search for an uncorrupted life now and beyond death.  Intellectual compromisers one and all, they include liberal theologians of the Niebuhr school, philosophers battening on learned ambiguity, literary admirers of C. S. Lewis, and others persuaded, after deep thought, that there most be Something Out There.  They tend to be unconscious of prehistory and the biological evolution of human instinct, both of which beg to shed light on this very important subject.

    In a word, Wilson has now positioned himself firmly in the New Atheist camp.  This is hardly likely to mollify many of the prominent New Atheists, who will remain bitter because of his promotion of group selection, but at this point in his career, Wilson can take their hostility pro granulum salis.

    There is much more of interest in The Meaning of Human Existence than I can cover in a blog post, such as Wilson’s rather vague reasons for insisting on the importance of the humanities in solving our problems, his rejection of interplanetary and/or interstellar colonization, and his speculations on the nature of alien life forms.  I can only suggest that interested readers buy the book.

  • On the Continuing Adventures of the “Killer Ape Theory” Zombie

    Posted on November 19th, 2014 Helian No comments

    An article entitled “The Evolution of War – A User’s Guide,” recently turned up at “This View of Life,” a website hosted by David Sloan Wilson. Written by Anthony Lopez, it is one of the more interesting artifacts of the ongoing “correction” of the history of the debate over human nature I’ve seen in a while. One of the reasons it’s so remarkable is that Wilson himself is one of the foremost proponents of the theory of group selection, Lopez claims in his article that one of the four “major theoretical positions” in the debate over the evolution of war is occupied by the “group selectionists,” and yet he conforms to the prevailing academic conceit of studiously ignoring the role of Robert Ardrey, who was not only the most influential player in the “origins of war” debate, but overwhelmingly so in the whole “Blank Slate” affair as well. Why should that be so remarkable? Because at the moment the academics’ main rationalization for pretending they never heard of a man named Ardrey is (you guessed it) his support for group selection!

    When it comes to the significance of Ardrey, you don’t have to take my word for it. His was the most influential voice in a growing chorus that finally smashed the Blank Slate orthodoxy. The historical source material is all still there for anyone who cares to trouble themselves to check it. One invaluable piece thereof is “Man and Aggression,” a collection of essays edited by arch-Blank Slater Ashley Montagu and aimed mainly at Ardrey, with occasional swipes at Konrad Lorenz, and with William Golding, author of “Lord of the Flies,” thrown in for comic effect. The last I looked you could still pick it up for a penny at Amazon. For example, from one of the essays by psychologist Geoffrey Gorer,

    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.

    In case you’ve been asleep for the last half a century, the Blank Slate affair was probably the greatest debacle in the history of science. The travails of Galileo and the antics of Lysenko are child’s play in comparison. For decades, whole legions of “men of science” in the behavioral sciences pretended to believe there was no such thing as human nature. As was obvious to any ten year old, that position was not only not “science,” it was absurd on the face of it. However, it was required as a prop for a false political ideology, and so it stood for half a century and more. Anyone who challenged it was quickly slapped down as a “fascist,” a “racist,” or a denizen of the “extreme right wing.” Then Ardrey appeared on the scene. He came from the left of the ideological spectrum himself, but also happened to be an honest man. The main theme of all his work in general, and the four popular books he wrote between 1961 and 1976 in particular, was that here is such a thing as human nature, and that it is important. He insisted on that point in spite of a storm of abuse from the Blank Slate zealots. On that point, on that key theme, he has been triumphantly vindicated. Almost all the “men of science,” in psychology, sociology, and anthropology were wrong, and he was right.

    Alas, the “men of science” could not bear the shame. After all, Ardrey was not one of them. Indeed, he was a mere playwright! How could men like Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Moliere possibly know anything about human nature? Somehow, they had to find an excuse for dropping Ardrey down the memory hole, and find one they did! There were actually more than one, but the main one was group selection. Writing in “The Selfish Gene” back in 1976, Richard Dawkins claimed that Ardrey, Lorenz, and Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt were “totally and utterly wrong,” not because they insisted there was such a thing as human nature, but because of their support for group selection! Fast forward to 2002, and Steven Pinker managed the absurd feat of writing a whole tome about the Blank Slate that only mentioned Ardrey in a single paragraph, and then only to assert that he had been “totally and utterly wrong,” period, on Richard Dawkins’ authority, and with no mention of group selection as the reason. That has been the default position of the “men of science” ever since.

    Which brings us back to Lopez’ paper. He informs us that one of the “four positions” in the debate over the evolution of war is “The Killer Ape Hypothesis.” In fact, there never was a “Killer Ape Hypothesis” as described by Lopez. It was a strawman, pure and simple, concocted by Ardrey’s enemies. Note that, in spite of alluding to this imaginary “hypothesis,” Lopez can’t bring himself to mention Ardrey. Indeed, so effective has been the “adjustment” of history that, depending on his age, it’s quite possible that he’s never even heard of him. Instead, Konrad Lorenz is dragged in as an unlikely surrogate, even though he never came close to supporting anything even remotely resembling the “Killer Ape Hypothesis.” His main work relevant to the origins of war was “On Aggression,” and he hardly mentioned apes in it at all, focusing instead mainly on the behavior of fish, birds and rats.

    And what of Ardrey? As it happens, he did write a great deal about our ape-like ancestors. For example, he claimed that Raymond Dart had presented convincing statistical evidence that one of them, Australopithecus africanus, had used weapons and hunted. That statistical evidence has never been challenged, and continues to be ignored by the “men of science” to this day. Without bothering to even mention it, C. K. Brain presented an alternative hypothesis that the only acts of “aggression” in the caves explored by Dart had been perpetrated by leopards. In recent years, as the absurdities of his hypothesis have been gradually exposed, Brain has been in serious row back mode, and Dart has been vindicated to the point that he is now celebrated as the “father of cave taphonomy.”

    Ardrey also claimed that our apelike ancestors had hunted, most notably in his last book, “The Hunting Hypothesis.” When Jane Goodall published her observation of chimpanzees hunting, she was furiously vilified by the Blank Slaters. She, too, has been vindicated. Eventually, even PBS aired a program about hunting behavior in early hominids, and, miraculously, just this year even the impeccably politically correct “Scientific American” published an article confirming the same in the April edition! In a word, we have seen the vindication of these two main hypotheses of Ardrey concerning the behavior of our apelike and hominid ancestors. Furthermore, as I have demonstrated with many quotes from his work in previous posts, he was anything but a “genetic determinist,” and, while he strongly supported the view that innate predispositions, or “human nature,” if you will, have played a significant role in the genesis of human warfare, he clearly did not believe that it was unavoidable or inevitable.  In fact, that belief is one of the main reasons he wrote his books.  In spite of that, the “Killer Ape” zombie marches on, and turns up as one of the “four positions” that are supposed to “illuminate” the debate over the origins of war, while another of the “positions” is supposedly occupied by of all things, “group selectionists!” History is nothing if not ironical.

    Lopez’ other two “positions” include “The Strategic Ape Hypothesis,” and “The Inventionists.” I leave the value of these remaining “positions” to those who want to “examine the layout of this academic ‘battlefield’”, as he puts it, to the imagination of my readers. Other than that, I can only suggest that those interested in learning the truth, as opposed to the prevailing academic narrative, concerning the Blank Slate debacle would do better to look at the abundant historical source material themselves than to let someone else “interpret” it for them.

  • Troublesome Nick and the Timid Echoes of the Blank Slate

    Posted on May 14th, 2014 Helian No comments

    You can still get in trouble for saying things that are true, or, for that matter, even obvious.  Consider, for example, Nicholas Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History.  I haven’t yet read the book, so have no comment on whether any of the specific hypotheses therein are scientifically credible or not.  However, according to the blurb at Amazon, the theme of the book is that there actually is such a thing as human biodiversity (hbd).  So much is, of course, not only true, but obvious.  The problem is that such truths have implications.  If there are significant genetic differences between human groups, then it is unlikely that the influence of those differences on the various metrics of human “success” will be zero.  In other words, we are dealing with a truth that is not only inconvenient, but immoral.  It violates the principle of equality. 

    It is only to be expected that there will be similarities between the reaction to this particular immoral truth and those that have been observed in response to other immoral truths in the past.  Typical reactions among those whose moral emotions have been aroused by such truths have been denial, vilification of the messenger, and the invention of straw men that are easier targets than the truth itself.  All these reactions occurred in response to what is probably the most familiar example of an immoral truth; the fact that genes influence behavior, or, if you will, that there actually is such a thing as “human nature.”  In that case, denial took the form of the Blank Slate orthodoxy, which perverted and derailed progress in the behavioral sciences for more than half a century.  The messengers were condemned, not only with the long since hackneyed accusation of racism, but with a host of other political and moral shortcomings.  The most familiar straw man was, of course, the “genetic determinist.”

    Predictably, the response to Wade’s book has been similar.  Not so predictable has been the muted nature of that response.  Compared to the vicious attacks on the messengers who debunked the Blank Slate, it has been pianissimo, and even apologetic.  It would almost seem as if the current paragons of moral purity among us have actually been chastened by the collapse of that quasi-religious orthodoxy.  Allow me to illustrate with an example from the past.  It took the form of a response to the publication of E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology in 1975.  Entitled Against “Sociobiology”, it appeared in the New York Review of Books shortly after Wilson’s book was published.  As it happens, it didn’t have just one author. It had a whole gang, including such high priests of the Blank Slate as Steven Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin. The message, of course, was that all right-thinking people agreed that the book should be on the proscribed list, and not just a mere individual. Anathemas were rained down on the head of Wilson with all the pious self-assurance of those who were cocksure they controlled the message of “science.” For example,

     The reason for the survival of these recurrent determinist theories is that they consistently tend to provide a genetic justification of the status quo and of existing privileges for certain groups according to class, race or sex. Historically, powerful countries or ruling groups within them have drawn support for the maintenance or extension of their power from these products of the scientific community.

     Wilson joins the long parade of biological determinists whose work has served to buttress the institutions of their society by exonerating them from responsibility for social problems.

    and, of course, the de rigueur association of Wilson with the Nazis:

     These theories provided an important basis for the enactment of sterilization laws and restrictive immigration laws by the United States between 1910 and 1930 and also for the eugenics policies which led to the establishment of gas chambers in Nazi Germany.

    Now, fast forward the better part of four decades and consider a similar diatribe by one of the current crop of the self-appointed morally pure.  The paragon of righteousness in question is Andrew Gelman, and the title of his bit is The Paradox of Racism. True, Gelman doesn’t leave us in suspense about whether he’s in the ranks of the just and good or not. He can’t even wait until he’s past the title of his article to accuse Wade of racism. However, having established his bona fides, he adopts a conciliatory, and almost apologetic tone. For example,

    Wade is clearly intelligent and thoughtful, and his book is informed by the latest research in genetics.

    Wade does not characterize himself as a racist, writing, “no one has the right or reason to assert superiority over a person of a different race.” But I characterize his book as racist based on the dictionary definition: per Merriam-Webster, “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” Wade’s repeated comments about creativity, intelligence, tribalism, and so forth seem to me to represent views of superiority and inferiority.

    That said, I can’t say that Wade’s theories are wrong. As noted above, racial explanations of current social and economic inequality are compelling, in part because it is always natural to attribute individuals’ successes and failures to their individual traits, and to attribute the successes and failures of larger societies to group characteristics. And genes provide a mechanism that supplies a particularly flexible set of explanations when linked to culture.

    Obviously, Gelman hasn’t been asleep for the last 20 years.  Here we find him peering back over his shoulder, appearing for all the world as if he’s afraid the truth might catch up with him.  He’s aware of the collapse of the Blank Slate orthodoxy, perhaps the greatest debunking of the infallible authority of “science” of all time.  He allows that we might not merely be dealing with a racist individual here, but a racist truth. He even acknowledges that, in that case, something might actually be done about it, implicitly dropping the “genetic determinism” canard:

     Despite Wade’s occasional use of politically conservative signifiers (dismissive remarks about intellectuals and academic leftists, an offhand remark about “global cooling”), I believe him when he writes that “this book is an attempt to understand the world as it is, not as it ought to be.” If researchers ever really can identify ethnic groups with genetic markers for short-term preferences, low intelligence, and an increased proclivity to violence, and other ethnic groups with an affinity for authoritarianism, this is something that more peaceful, democratic policymakers should be aware of.

    Indeed, unlike the authors of the earlier paper, Gelman can’t even bring himself to summon up the ghost of Hitler.  He concludes,

     Wade’s arguments aren’t necessarily wrong, just because they look like various erroneous arguments from decades past involving drunken Irishmen, crafty Jews, hot-blooded Spaniards, lazy Africans, and the like.

    In a word, Gelman’s remarks are rather more nuanced than the fulminations of his predecessors.  Am I making too much of this apparent change of tone? I don’t think so. True, there are still plenty of fire-breathing Blank Slaters lurking in the more obscure echo chambers of academia, but, like the Communists, they are doing us the favor of gradually dying off. Their latter day replacements, having seen whole legions of behavioral “scientists” exposed as charlatans, are rather less self-assured in their virtuous indignation. Some of them have even resorted to admitting that, while it may be true that there is such a thing as human biodiversity, the masses should be sheltered from that truth. Predictably, they have appointed themselves gatekeepers of the forbidden knowledge.

    I note in passing the historical value of the attack on Wilson mentioned above.  Like many similar bits and pieces of source material published in the decade prior to 1975, still easily accessible to anyone who cares to do a little searching, it blows the modern mythology concocted by the evolutionary psychologists to account for the origins of their science completely out of the water.  According to that mythology, it all began with the “big bang” of Wilson’s publication of Sociobiology.  The whole yarn may be found summarized in a nutshell in the textbook Evolutionary Psychology by David Buss.  According to Buss, Sociobiology was “monumental in both size and scope.” It “synthesized under one umbrella a tremendous diversity of scientific endeavors and gave the emerging field (sociobiology) a visible name.”  And so on and so on.  At least that’s the version in my 2009 edition of the book.  “History” might have changed a bit since Wilson’s embrace of group selection in his The Social Conquest of Earth, published in 2012.  We’ll have to wait and see when the next edition of the textbook is published.

    Be that as it may, the fact is that the reason for the original notoriety of Sociobiology, and the reason it is not virtually forgotten today, had nothing to do with all the good stuff Wilson packed into the middle 25 chapters of his book that was subsequently the subject of Buss’ panegyrics.  That reason was Wilson’s insistence in the first and last of his 27 chapters that there actually is such a thing as “human nature.” There was nothing in the least novel, original, or revolutionary in that insistence. In fact, it was merely a repetition of what other authors had been writing for more than a decade. Those authors were neither obscure nor ignored, and were recognized by Blank Slaters like Gould and Lewontin as their most influential and effective opponents. They, and not any novel “scientific synthesis,” were the reason that such worthies paid any attention to Wilson’s book at all. And, much as I admire the man, they, and not Wilson, were most influential in unmasking the absurdities of the Blank Slate, causing it to stumble and eventually collapse. Those facts were certainly no secret to the authors of the article.  Allow me to quote them by way of demonstration:

    From Herbert Spencer, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” to Konrad Lorenz, Robert Ardrey, and now E. O. Wilson, we have seen proclaimed the primacy of natural selection in determining most important characteristics of human behavior.

    Each time these ideas have resurfaced the claim has been made that they were based on new scientific information.

     The latest attempt to reinvigorate these tired theories comes with the alleged creation of a new discipline, sociobiology.

    In a word, the Blank Slaters themselves certainly perceived nothing “novel” in Sociobiology. By the time it was published the hypotheses about human nature they objected to in its content were already old hat. They were merely trying to silence yet another voice proclaiming the absence of the emperor’s new clothes. Again, just do a little searching through the historical source material and you’ll find that the loudest and most influential voice of all, and the one that drew the loudest bellows of rage from the Blank Slaters, belonged to one of Wilson’s predecessors mentioned by name in the above quotes; Robert Ardrey. Of course, Ardrey was a “mere playwright,” and it’s a well-known fact that, once one has been a playwright, one is automatically disqualified from becoming a scientist or writing anything that counts as science ever after. Add to that the fact that Ardrey was right when all the scientists with their Ph.D.’s were wrong about human nature, and I think it’s obvious why making him anything like the “father of evolutionary psychology” would be in bad taste. Wilson fits that role nicely, or at least he did until his flirtation with group selection escalated into a full scale romance.  Ergo, Ardrey was declared “totally and utterly wrong,” became an unperson, and Wilson stepped up to fill his ample shoes.  Alas, if past history is any guide, I fear that it eventually may become necessary to drop poor Nick down the memory hole as well.  True, at least the man isn’t a playwright, but he isn’t sporting a Ph.D., either.  Really, how “scientific” can you be if you don’t have a Ph.D.?   In any case, the mythology that passes for the history of evolutionary psychology began “just so.”   

  • “Grounds of War” – A New Paper on Territoriality with Remarkable “Similarities” to the Work of Robert Ardrey

    Posted on April 4th, 2014 Helian 7 comments

    Robert Ardrey was a brilliant man.  After a successful career as a playwright, he became an anthropologist, and wrote a series of four books in the 60’s and 70’s refuting the absurd orthodoxy of the Blank Slate that prevailed at the time.  In other words, to the tune of vociferous abuse from the “men of science” in psychology, sociology, anthropology, and the rest of the behavioral sciences, he insisted that there actually is such a thing as human nature.  The abuse was an honor Ardrey well deserved, because he proved to be a very potent antidote to the Blank Slate nonsense, perhaps the most remarkable perversion of science of all time.  Indeed, he was the most influential and effective opponent of the Blank Slate in its heyday.  That fact was nicely documented by the Blank Slaters themselves in an invaluable little collection of essays entitled Man and Aggression.  The book, which appeared in 1968, was edited by arch-Blank Slater Ashley Montagu, and was aimed mainly at Ardrey, with a few barbs reserved for Nobel laureate Konrad Lorenz, and with novelist William Golding thrown in for comic effect.  As I write this, used copies are still available at Amazon for just a penny.  In case you happen to be hard up for cash, here’s a quote from the book taken from an essay by psychologist Geoffrey Gorer:

    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.

    Of course, we now live in more enlightened times, and the Blank Slate collapsed under the weight of its own absurdity years ago.  In a word, the life work of Robert Ardrey has been heroically vindicated, no?  Well, not exactly.  You see, the “men of science” could never forgive Ardrey, a mere playwright, for shaming them.  Indeed, Steven Pinker, one of the tribe, went to the trouble of writing a remarkable revision of history entitled, appropriate enough, The Blank Slate, in which he actually performed the feat of completely ignoring Ardrey, other than in a single paragraph in which he claimed, on the authority of Richard Dawkins, that Ardrey had been “totally and utterly wrong!”  It’s like writing that Einstein was “totally and utterly wrong” about relativity because he didn’t think right about quantum theory.  I won’t go into the specious reasons Pinker used to fob off this gross imposture on his readers.  I’ve gone into them in some detail, for example, here and here.  Suffice it to say that Ardrey’s support for the theory of group selection had much to do with it.

    Fast forward to 2014.  Two Oxford academics by the names of Monica Duffy Toft and Dominic Johnson have just published a paper in the journal International Security entitled Grounds of War; The Evolution of Territorial Conflict (hattip hbd-chick).  And what is it about that title that brings Ardrey to mind?  Ah, yes, as those familiar with his work will recall, he wrote a book entitled The Territorial Imperative, published back in 1966.  As it happens, the “similarities” don’t end there.  Allow me to point out some of the others that appear in this “original” paper:

    Toft & Johnson:  Territorial behavior—or “territoriality”—is prevalent not only among humans, but across the animal kingdom. It has evolved independently across a wide range of taxonomic groups and ecological contexts, whether from the depths of the ocean to rainforest canopies, or from deserts to the Arctic tundra. This recurrence of territoriality suggests evolutionary “convergence” on a tried and tested strategic solution to a common environmental challenge. Organisms have tended to develop territoriality because it is an effective strategy for survival and maximizing “Darwinian fitness” (reproduction).

    Ardrey:  Territorial behavior in animals, of the past few decades, has attracted the attention of hundreds of competent specialists who have recorded there observations and their reasoned conclusions in obscure professional publications.  The subject is very nearly as well known to the student of animal behavior as is the relation of mother and infant to the student of human behavior.  Furthermore, many of the concerned scientists, as we shall see, believe as do I that man is a territorial species, and that the behavior so widely observed in animal species is equally characteristic of our own.

    Toft & Johnson:  Across the animal kingdom, holders of territory (or “residents”) tend to have a higher probability of winning contests, even against stronger intruders. Territoriality is thus heavily influenced by who was there first.

    Ardrey:  We may also say that in all territorial species, without exception, possession of a territory lends enhanced energy to the proprieter.  Students of animal behavior cannot agree as to why this should be, but the challenger is almost invariably defeated, the intruder expelled.

    Toft & Johnson:  Territoriality does not necessarily lead to violence. Indeed, biologists regard it as a mechanism that evolved to avoid violence.  By partitioning living space according to established behavioral conventions, animals can avoid the costs associated with constant fighting. Furthermore, although discussions of territorial behavior tend to focus on aggression, territorial behavior has two distinct components: attack and avoidance. Residents tend to attack in defense of their territory (fight), intruders tend to withdraw (flight).

    Ardrey:  The territories of howler (monkey) clans are large, the borders vague.  But clans have only to sight each other in this no man’s land and total warfare breaks out.  Rage shakes the forest.  That rage, however, takes none but vocal expression… Should intrusion occur, these voices joined will be the artillery of battle.  And strictly in accord with the territorial principle, the home team will always win, the visiting team will always withdraw.

    I could multiply such “similarities” into the dozens.  Far be it for me, however, to charge the two authors with anything so crude as plagiarism.  Indeed, Toft and Johnson actually do take care to cite Ardrey.  Here’s what they have to say about him:

    The idea that evolution helps to explain human territorial behavior is not new. Robert Ardrey’s popular book The Territorial Imperative, published in the 1960s, championed the role of territorial instincts in human conflict. This account, however, suffers from some now outdated views of evolution, for example, the idea that behaviors are “hard-wired,” or that they evolved because they helped the group or the species as a whole.

    Here we find Toft and Johnson squawking to order like two Pinkeresque parrots.  One must charitably assume that neither of them has ever actually read Ardrey, because otherwise one cannot construe this bit as other than a mendacious lie.  This is what the two have to say about what they mean by the term “hard-wired”:

    As with many other human traits, territoriality might be loosely considered not as “hard-wired” but as “soft-wired”—a component of human nature but one that is responsive to prevailing conditions. Power, rational choice, domestic politics, institutions, and culture are of course important as well in explaining territorial conflict, but evolutionary biology can provide additional explanatory power.

    I’m not sure if Ardrey ever even used the term “hard-wired,” but if he did it certainly wasn’t in the sense that Toft and Johnson use it.  He constantly and repeatedly insisted on the “soft-wired” nature of human behavioral predispositions.  For example, from The Territorial Imperative:

    The open instinct, a combination in varying portion of genetic design and relevant experience, is the common sort in all higher animal forms.  As beginning with the digger wasp we proceed higher and higher in the animal orders, the closed instinct all but vanishes, the open instinct incorporates more and more a learned portion.  In man it reaches a maximum of learning, a minimum of design.

    There are many similar passages in Ardrey’s work.  Turning to the next charge, I know of nothing therein that suggests that he ever believed that selection actually took place at the species level.  He did occasionally point out the obvious truth that various behavioral traits tend to benefit a species as a whole rather than harm it, but the claim that this amounts to support for species-level selection is nonsense.  Readers can check this for themselves by reading, for example, the last page of Chapter 3, section 2 of The Territorial Imperative.  Ardrey did support theories of group selection.  So did Darwin.  So did E. O. Wilson in his latest book, The Social Conquest of Earth.  Does that fact also disqualify those two from any claim to their own ideas?  What’s next?  Will Toft and Johnson come up with an “original” theory of evolution by natural selection.  Perhaps they could even write a book about it.  Allow me to suggest the title On the Origin of Species.  They could follow that with their own versions of Wilson’s Sociobiology and On Human Nature.

    The saddest thing about it all is that Toft and Johnson are likely to get away with this revision of history a la Dawkins and Pinker.  After all, the academics and other “men of science” hate Ardrey.  How dare he be right when almost all of them were embracing the mirage of the Blank Slate!  How dare a mere playwright do such a thing?

    Robert Ardrey

    Robert Ardrey

  • Another Episode in the Adventures of Group Selection

    Posted on February 6th, 2014 Helian 1 comment

    In this episode, Martin Nowak pokes yet another stick into the inclusive fitness hornet’s nest with his answer to the question of the year over at  The question is, “What scientific idea is ready for retirement,” and Nowak, an evolutionary mathematician at Harvard, doesn’t mince words in throwing down the gauntlet.  His answer:  “Inclusive Fitness.”

    Nowak, it may be recalled, is a proponent of group selection.  That doesn’t sit well with many of his peers, who have staked their reputations on their support for IF, and stand to lose some serious face if Nowak succeeds in debunking it.  The definition of the term “group selection” can be tricky.  Johan van der Dennen has a good section on it (Section 1.2.5) in his online book, The Origin of War.  However one defines it, it has a fascinating history.

    The group selection hypothesis can be traced back to Darwin, and enjoyed a brief vogue when it was popularized by V. C. Wynne-Edwards in his book, Animal Dispersion in Relation to Social Behavior, published in 1962.  As recounted by Mark Borello in his excellent, Evolutionary Restraints: The Contentious History of Group Selection, Wynne-Edwards’ theories quickly came under attack, and were largely rejected after the appearance of seminal papers by David Lack (Population Studies of Birds, 1966, and The Natural Regulation of Animal Numbers, 1966) and George Williams (Adaptation and Natural Selection, 1966).  Both took the gene-centric view favored by William Hamilton, who had proposed his theory of kin selection in 1964.  Their ideas were popularized in Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, which appeared in 1976, and evolved into today’s neo-Darwinian synthesis, which favors inclusive fitness theory.

    As it happened, one very prominent writer who had been impressed by Wynne-Edwards’ ideas was Robert Ardrey, who wrote a series of books in the 60’s and 70’s defending the existence of innate human behavioral traits, or what one might call human nature. He did so in defiance of the Blank Slate orthodoxy of the time, which denied the existence of innate behavior in humans, which prevailed in anthropology, psychology, sociology,  and the rest of the behavioral sciences in the United States at the time.  There is no question that Ardrey was the most effective and influential opponent of the Blank Slate in its heyday.  The Blank Slaters themselves admitted as much, for example, in Man and Aggression, a collection of essays edited by Ashley Montagu that appeared in 1968.

    And this is where the history gets really interesting.  In The Selfish Gene, Dawkins claimed in the first chapter that Ardrey, along with Nobel Prize winner Konrad Lorenz and the famous ethologist Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, had been “totally and utterly wrong” because of their support for group selection.  Enter Steven Pinker, who dismissed Ardrey in his book, The Blank Slate, with a single paragraph because, on Dawkins’ authority, he had been “totally and utterly wrong!”  Now this is certainly absurd, because the theme of all Ardrey’s work was human nature, not group selection.  In other words, Pinker actually managed to write a book running to 528 pages in paperback, supposedly all about the Blank Slate, that dismissed the man who was, by the Blank Slater’s own account, their most successful and influential opponent, with a brief mention to the effect that he had been “totally and utterly wrong!”  In looking around at the intellectual landscape in the behavioral sciences as well as the popular media today, anyone with a passing familiarity with Ardrey’s work cannot help but conclude that he was not only not “totally and utterly wrong,” but has been triumphantly vindicated.  The problem isn’t that he was “totally and utterly wrong,” but that didn’t belong to the academic tribe.  In fact, Ardrey came to anthropology late in life after being a very successful playwright.  It would seem that, of all professions, playwrights could be expected to have some passing knowledge of human nature.  No matter, he shamed the scientists, so Pinker dismissed him and ginned up what amounted to a thorough revision of history to “set things straight.”

    One of the ways in which the record was “set straight” was by exaggerating the role of E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology, published in 1975.  Now, I’m very fond of Wilson’s books, and consider him a great man, but the idea that Sociobiology was the first serious challenge to the Blank Slaters, as claimed by Pinker beginning on page 108 of the paperback version of his book, is patent nonsense.  There is nothing of real relevance to the Blank Slate controversy that appeared in either Sociobiology or On Human Nature, which appeared a few years later, that hadn’t been familiar to Ardrey’s readers more than a decade earlier.

    Fast forward to 2012.  E. O. Wilson, never one to avoid rocking the boat or pass quietly from the scene in the odor of sanctity, tossed a bombshell into the behavioral sciences with the publication of his The Social Conquest of Earth.  I came in the form of Wilson’s wholehearted embrace of (you guessed it) group selection!  This evoked some sour responses from Pinker, whose specious rationalization for his dismissal of Ardrey wouldn’t stand for such practical jokes, not to mention Dawkins, and a host of others.  Wilson had never really completely distanced himself from group selection, and his fulsome endorsement of it in his latest book was based on mathematical models he had worked on in collaboration with none other than Martin Nowak.

    Now we find Nowak, not only doubling down on group selection, but actively seeking to slip a knife between the ribs of the inclusive fitness aficionados!  I must say that I have no strong opinion one way or the other about group selection.  In the language of physics, you might say the problem has a huge number of degrees of freedom that are often addressed crudely, if at all in the mathematical models on both sides.  However, I must admit that I find the controversy and its convoluted history hugely entertaining.  And I do wonder when Pinker is going to publish a revised edition of The Blank Slate, dropping all those nice things he said about Wilson down the memory hole, perhaps replacing them with a brief paragraph to the effect that he was “totally and utterly wrong.”

  • 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

  • Napoleon Chagnon and Robert Ardrey

    Posted on March 17th, 2013 Helian 2 comments

    History.  You don’t know the half of it.  Not, at least, unless you have the time and patience to do a little serious digging through the source material on your own.  A good percentage of the so called works of history that have appeared in the last 50 years have been written by journalists.  Typically, these take the form of moral homilies in which the author takes great care to insure the reader can tell the good guys from the bad guys.  They are filled with wooden caricatures, crude simplifications, pious observations, and are almost uniformly worthless.  The roles are periodically reversed.  For example, Coolidge, universally execrated by all right-thinking intellectuals in the 1930’s, has just been stood upright again in a new biographical interpretation by Amity ShlaesCharles Rappleye, one of my personal favorites among the current crop of historians, documents how Robert Morris morphed from good guy to bad guy back to good guy again in the fascinating epilogue to his biography of the great financier of our War of Independence.

    Occasionally, major historical figures don’t fit into anyone’s version of the way things were supposed to be.  In that case, they just disappear.  Robert Ardrey is a remarkable instance of this form of collective historical amnesia.  Ardrey was, by far, the most effective opponent of the Blank Slate.   For those unfamiliar with the term, the Blank Slate was an ideologically induced malady that enforced a rigid orthodoxy in the behavioral sciences for several decades.   According to that orthodoxy, there was no such thing as human nature, or, if there was, it was insignificant.  The Blank Slate was bound to seem ridiculous to anyone with an ounce of common sense.  In a series of four books, beginning with African Genesis in 1961 and ending with The Hunting Hypothesis in 1976, Ardrey pointed out exactly why it was ridiculous, and what motivated its adherents to maintain the charade in spite of the fact.  They have been fighting a furious rearguard action ever since.  It has been futile.  Ardrey broke the spell.  The Blank Slate Humpty Dumpty was smashed for good.

    Enter Napoleon Chagnon.  The great cultural anthropologist has just published his Noble Savages, in which he recounts his experiences among the Yanomamö of South America.  Over the years, he, too, has fallen afoul of the Blank Slaters for telling the truth instead of adjusting his observations to conform with their ideological never never land.  He, too, has been the victim of their vicious ad hominem attacks.  One would think he would revere Ardrey as a fellow sufferer at the hands of the same pious ideologues.  If so, however, one would think wrong.  Chagnon mentions Ardrey only once, in the context of a discussion of his own early run-ins with the Blank Slaters, as follows:

    My field research and analytical approach were part of what anthropologist Robin Fox and sociologist Lionel Tiger referred to as the “zoological perspective” in the social sciences, a reawakening of interest in man’s evolved nature as distinct from his purely cultural nature.

    For the record, Fox and Tiger were unknowns as far as the “reawakening in man’s evolved nature as distinct from his purely cultural nature” is concerned until they published The Imperial Animal in 1971.  By that time, Ardrey had published all but the last of his books.  Konrad Lorenz had also published his On Aggression in 1966, five years earlier.  The Imperial Animal was an afterthought, published long after the cat was already out of the bag.  At the time it appeared, it impressed me as shallow and lacking the intellectual insight needed to grasp the ideological reasons for the emergence of the Blank Slate orthodoxy.  Chagnon continues,

    I hadn’t fully realized in the late 1960s that the mere suggestion that Homo sapiens had any kind of “nature” except a “cultural nature” caused most cultural anthropologists to bristle.  What Tiger and Fox – and a small but growing number of scientific anthropologists – were interested in was the question of how precisely evolution by natural selection – Darwin’s theory of evolution – affected Homo sapiens socially, behaviorally, and psychologically.

    Long-term studies of nonhuman primates and primate social organizations were affecting cultural anthropology.  Many earlier anthropological “truths” were beginning to crumble, such as claims that Homo sapiens alone among animals shared food, made tools, or cooperated with other members of the group who were genetically closely related.  More generally, findings from the field of ethology and animal behavior were beginning to work their way into the literature of anthropology.  Predictably, cultural anthropologists began to resist these trends, often by denigrating the academics who were taking the first steps in that direction or by attempting to discredit the emerging contributions by criticizing the most sensational work, often by nonexperts (for example, Robert Ardrey’s African Genesis).

    So much for Robert Ardrey.  His shade should smile.  Chagnon’s rebuke of “sensationalism” is positively benign compared to Steven Pinker’s declaration that Ardrey was “totally and utterly wrong” in his book, The Blank Slate.  Both charges, however, are equally ridiculous.  Pinker’s “totally and utterly wrong” was taken on hearsay from Richard Dawkins, who based the charge on, of all things, Ardrey’s kind words about group selection.  The idea that the Blank Slaters attacked Ardrey as an easy target because of his “sensationalism” is also nonsense.  By their own account, they attacked him because he was their most influential and effective opponent, and continued as such from the time he published African Genesis at least until the appearance of E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology in 1976.   Why the dismissive attitude?  Call it academic tribalism.  The fact that the “nonexpert” Ardrey had been right, and virtually all the “experts” of his time wrong, has always been a bitter pill for today’s “experts” to swallow.  It is a lasting insult to their amour propre.  They have been casting about trying to prop up one of their own as the “true” dragon slayer of the Blank Slate ever since.  Until recently, the knight of choice has been E. O. Wilson, whose Sociobiology, another afterthought that appeared a good 15 years after African Genesis, was supposedly the “seminal work” of today’s evolutionary psychology.  Alas, to the bitter disappointment of the tribe, Wilson, too, just embraced the group selection heresy that made Ardrey “totally and utterly wrong” in his latest book, The Social Conquest of Earth.  No doubt it will now be necessary to find a new “father of evolutionary psychology.”  In my humble opinion, the choice of Tiger and Fox would be in poor taste.  Surely the tribe can do better.

    And what of Ardrey?  He was certainly sensational enough.  How could he not be?  After all, a man whose reputation had been gained as a playwright thoroughly debunking all the “experts” in anthropology and the rest of the behavioral sciences was bound to be sensational.  He was a man of many hypotheses.  Anyone trolling through his work today would have no trouble finding other reasons to triumphantly declare him “totally and utterly wrong.”  However, let’s look at the record of the most important of those hypotheses, many of which had been posed by other forgotten men long before Ardrey.

    The fact that human nature exists and is important:  Ardrey 1, experts 0

    The fact that hunting became important early in human evolution:  Ardrey 1, experts 0

    The fact that humans tend to perceive others in terms of ingroups and outgroups:  Ardrey 1, experts 0

    Understanding of the ideological origin of the Blank Slate:  Ardrey 1, experts 0

    Realization that the behavioral traits we associate with morality are shared with animals:  Ardrey 1, experts 0

    The list goes on.  Ardrey set forth these hypotheses in the context of what the Blank Slaters themselves praised as masterful reviews of the relevant work in anthropology and animal ethology at the time.  See for example, the essays by Geoffrey Gorer that appeared in Man and Aggression, a Blank Slater manifesto published in 1968.  And yet, far from being celebrated as a great man who did more than any other to debunk what is arguably one of the most damaging lies ever foisted on mankind, Ardrey is forgotten.  As George Orwell once said, “He who controls the present controls the past.”  The academics control the message, and Ardrey is dead.  They have dropped him down the memory hole.  Such is history.  As I mentioned above, you don’t know the half of it.

    Robert Ardrey

    Robert Ardrey

  • E. O. Wilson vs. Jerry Coyne: The Group Selection Wars Continue

    Posted on March 4th, 2013 Helian 2 comments

    A few days ago E. O. Wilson published a bit in The New York Times entitled The Riddle of the Human Species.  Wilson, of course, is a fine writer and a great thinker who’s books include, among others, the seminal Sociobiology.  He has been referred to as the “Father of Evolutionary Psychology,” or was, at least, until he challenged some academic orthodoxies in his latest, The Social Conquest of Earth.  Among the most egregious of these was his defense of group selection, a subject with a fascinating history which I have often discussed in this blog.  Basically, the group selection hypothesis is that natural selection of certain traits occurred because it favored the survival of groups, even though those traits were either neutral or detrimental to the survival of individuals.  This drew a chorus of boos from the likes of Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker, who have more or less staked their reputations on the assertion that group selection never happened or, if it did, it wasn’t important.  There’s really nothing new in Wilson’s latest bit.  He basically reiterates the themes of his latest book, including group selection.  This again drew the predictable catcalls from the Dawkins/Pinker camp.  One of them was penned by Jerry Coyne, proprieter of the blog, Why Evolution is True.  I certainly agree with his take on evolution, but I found some of the arguments in his response to Wilson’s latest risable.

    Coyne writes,

    So it’s sad to see him, at the end of his career, repeatedly flogging a discredited theory (“group selection”: evolution via the differential propagation and extinction of groups rather than genes or individuals) as the most important process of evolutionary change in humans and other social species. Let me back up: group selection is not “discredited,” exactly; rather, it’s not thought to be an important force in evolution.  There’s very little evidence that any trait (in fact, I can’t think of one, including cooperation) has evolved via the differential proliferation of groups.

    Here Coyne does a complete 180 in a single paragraph, making the bombastic claim that group selection is discredited and then doing a quick rowback to the more prosaic, “Well, maybe not quite.”  There may be very little evidence that any trait evolved via group selection, as Coyne suggests, but there’s very little evidence that those that might have evolved via group selection didn’t, either.  Coyne continues,

    I’ve covered this issue many times (e.g., here, here, here, here, and here), so I won’t go over the arguments again. Wilson’s “theory” that group selection is more important than kin selection in the evolution of social behavior (published in Nature with Martin Nowak and Corina Tarnita) was criticized strongly by 156 scientists—including virtually every luminary in social evolution—in five letters to the editor, and sentiment about the importance of group selection has, if anything, decreased since Wilson’s been pushing it.

    This is the classic “50 billion flies can’t be wrong” argument, or, in more polite parlance, the argument from authority.  Coyne knows that it is just as flimsy as the claim that group selection is a “discredited theory,” but this time he takes a bit longer to do a 180, writing near the very end of his bit,

    His theories have not gained traction in the scientific community. That doesn’t mean that they’re wrong, for, in the end, scientific truth is decided by experiment and observation, not by the numbers of people initially on each side of an issue.

    If that’s the case, why bring up the “156 scientists” argument to begin with?  If memory serves, there were very few “experts” in the behavioral sciences who didn’t at least pay lip service to the Blank Slate orthodoxy until a very few decades ago.  Did that make it right?  Coyne next takes Wilson to task for his “inaccurate” use of the term “eusociality”:

    “Eusociality” as defined by Wilson and every other evolutionist is the condition in which a species has a reproductive and social division of labor: eusocial species have “castes” that do different tasks, with a special reproductive caste (“queens”) that do all the progeny producing, and “worker castes” that are genetically sterile and do the tending of the colony. Such species include Hymenoptera (ants, wasps and bees, though not all species are eusocial), termites, naked mole rats, and some other insects.

    But humans don’t have reproductive castes, nor genetically determined worker castes.  Wilson is going against biological terminology, lumping humans with ants as “eusocial,” so he can apply his own theories of “altruism” in social insects (i.e., workers “unselfishly” help their mothers produce offspring while refraining themselves from reproducing), to humans.

    Here, one can but smile and wonder if Coyne is actually serious.  Is he really unaware that, while he may not have actually coined the term “eusociality,” Wilson supplied the first scientific definition for it?  Is he no longer allowed to use a term that he essentially invented as he sees fit?  The presence of “castes” is by no means universally accepted as a requirement for eusociality in any case.

    As it happens, Wilson is co-author with Martin Nowak and Corina Tarnita of a paper presenting a mathematical theory of group selection entitled, The Evolution of Eusociality. Alluding to this, Coyne writes,

    The mathematical “proof” given by Nowak et al. does not show that group selection is a better explanation than kin selection for social behavior in insects, for their “proof” does not vary the level of kinship, as it must if it could allow that conclusion.

    This begs the question of whether alternative mathematical “proofs” of kin selection are any better.  To this, as one who has spent a good part of his career as a computational physicist, I can only laugh.  Consider the case of the National Ignition Facility (NIF), built to demonstrate inertial confinement fusion.  The finest three-dimensional full physics codes, amply benchmarked with the results of previous experiments on earlier giant laser facilities such as Nova at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and OMEGA at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics at the University of Rochester, confidently predicted that the NIF would succeed in achieving its ignition goal.  It did not.  It is currently short of that goal by more than an order of magnitude.  Trust me, the mathematical models that are supposed to “prove” group selection or kin selection are hopelessly crude by comparison.  They can all be taken with a grain of salt.  Coyne continues,

    The second egregious and false claim in this paragraph (a paragraph that’s the highlight of the piece) is that “multilevel selection is gaining in favor among evolutionary biologists” because of the Nowak et al. paper. That’s simply not true.  The form of multilevel selection adumbrated in that paper is, to my knowledge, embraced by exactly four people: the three authors of the paper and David Sloan Wilson.

    Here, I can but suggest that Coyne try Google, using the search term “group selection.”  It would seem based on a cursory search that there are rather more embracers of group selection than he imagined.  Coyne concludes,

    Why does Wilson keep writing article and article, and book after book, promoting group selection? I’m not a psychologist, so I don’t know the answer. What I do know, though, is that his seeming monomaniacal concentration on a weakly-supported form of evolution can serve only to erode his reputation… Wilson’s reputation is secure. It’s sad to see it tarnished by ill-founded arguments for an unsubstantiated evolutionary process.

    What, exactly, is this supposed to be?  A thinly veiled threat?  If not, how else is one to construe it?  Is Coyne suggesting that Wilson either repeat orthodoxies about group selection that he clearly believes to be false, or, alternatively, shut up and surrender his freedom of speech because he’s worried about his precious reputation?  It brings to mind my own furious denunciation of Aristotle in my 9th grade biology class for promoting wrong theories of cosmology.  My teacher, Mr. Haag, who was much wiser than I deserved, observed, “Well, at least he thought.”  I’ve thought a great deal about that reply since the 9th grade.  To this day I have no idea whether group selection was really important or not, and don’t believe that anyone else has adequate evidence to decide the question one way or the other, either.  However, regardless, I will always honor and admire E. O. Wilson.  At least he thought.