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  • The Damore Affair and the Ghost of the Blank Slate

    Posted on August 12th, 2017 Helian No comments

    So you thought the Blank Slate was dead, did you? Check out this post about the Damore affair by Jerry Coyne at his Why Evolution is True website:

    Salon disses dismisses Google memo as “biological determinism” that can “slip into eugenicist doctrines”

    Coyne is a professor emeritus at the University of Chicago. He’s also a leftist of great honesty and intellectual integrity. You should read him should you believe that such creatures went the way of unicorns long ago.  Among other things, he’s a strong supporter of the University of Chicago’s steadfast stance in favor of freedom of speech.  Coyne takes issue with an article by one Keith A. Spencer entitled, The ugly, pseudoscientific history behind that sexist Google manifesto, condemning Damore. Here’s the money quote:

    The Salon article is “The ugly pseudoscientific history behind that sexist Google manifesto“, and is by Keith A. Spencer, a Salon writer whose scientific training appears to be a B.A. in astrophysics/English at Oberlin (double major) and then subsequent work in the humanities and writing ever since (he also has a master’s degree in literary and cultural studies from Carnegie Mellon).  Although I’m not a credentials monger, perhaps Spencer’s lack of biological training is shown in the way he refutes Damore’s “pseudoscience”: his refutation relies on a single book published in 1984: Not in Our Genes, by Richard Lewontin, Steven Rose, and Leon Kamin (henceforth LRK). I am well familiar with that book, as the first author was my Ph.D. supervisor, and I have to note two things. First, The book not a dispassionate review of the literature: the authors wrote it because they were committed to dispelling biological determinism, and were certainly diehard opponents of evolutionary psychology, then called “sociobiology”. You cannot count on that book to be an objective review of the literature, as it’s a polemic. It should not have been used by Spencer as an authoritative refutation of gender differences.

    Second, the book is outdated. It is now 33 years old, and a considerable literature has accumulated since then. Not one thing is cited from that literature save in support of the absence of two sexes (see below)—Spencer just emits quote after quote from that book. And he uses it to refute three assertions that, he claims, Damore makes—at least implicitly…

    Note that Lewontin was Coyne’s Ph.D. supervisor. I know from other posts that Coyne admires and respects him personally, and reveres him as an educator in the field of evolutionary biology. The fact that he would take issue with Lewontin in this way is, among other things, what I mean by honesty and intellectual integrity.

    But just check out the quote. Here we have someone citing “Not in Our Genes” as a respectable scientific tract. It’s stunning! Even such reliable stalwarts of the Left as Scientific American and PBS threw in the towel and accepted the fact that there actually is such a thing as human nature long ago, flinging Not in Our Genes on the garbage heap of history.  How can one account for such an absurd historical anomaly?  Well, if you read Damore’s manifesto, you’ll notice that he actually uses the term “evolutionary psychology,” and in a supportive fashion, no less.  Of course, the fundamental premise of evolutionary psychology is the reality and importance of human nature, and insisting on that fact is tantamount to waving a red flag in the face of hoary Blank Slaters like Spencer.  These people are like the Bourbons; they’ve learned nothing and forgotten nothing. They still quote their ancient texts as if nothing had happened since those golden days of yesteryear, when the Blank Slate orthodoxy controlled the academy, the media, and the behavioral sciences virtually unchallenged for upwards of half a decade. They also still recall those who smashed their hegemony with unabated bitterness. Foremost among them was Robert Ardrey.  Sure enough, he popped up in a PBS special about Homo naledi as an evil proponent of the “Killer Ape Theory” even though no one, to the best of my knowledge, ever suggested that Homo naledi hunted or even ate meat. For more on that similarly incongruous fossil of the Blank Slate, see my post, PBS Answers the Burning Question:  What Does Robert Ardrey have to do with Homo naledi?

    It’s not hard to find similar artifacts these days.  Indeed, they pop up on both the Left and the Right, as evolutionary psychology has a way of deflating cherished narratives on both ends of the ideological spectrum.  However, those responsible for the mutilation of the behavioral sciences we recall as the Blank Slate were primarily leftist ideologues.  Given the Left’s current all but unchallenged hegemony in the academy, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a concerted attempt to turn back the clock and restore the Blank Slate orthodoxy at some point along the line.

  • “Five Easy Pieces” and the Ghost of Robert Ardrey

    Posted on December 22nd, 2016 Helian 1 comment

    I know.  You think I’m too obsessed with Robert Ardrey.  Perhaps, but when I stumble across little historical artifacts of his existence, I can’t resist recording them.  Who else will?  Besides, I have moral emotions, too.  I’m not sure where I sit on the spectrum of Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations, but when I consider Ardrey’s shabby treatment in the “official” histories, they all start howling at once.  Ardrey shouldn’t be forgotten.  He was the most significant player in the events that come to mind when one hears the term “Blank Slate.”

    What was the “Blank Slate?”  I’d call it the greatest scientific debacle of all time.  The behavioral sciences were derailed for fifty years and more by the ideologically motivated denial of human nature.  Unfortunately, its history will probably never be written, or at least not in a form that bears some resemblance to the truth.  Perhaps the most important truth that will be redacted from future accounts of the Blank Slate is the seminal role of Robert Ardrey in dismantling it.  That role was certainly recognized by the high priests of the Blank Slate themselves.  Their obsession with Ardrey can be easily documented.  In spite of that he is treated as an unperson today, and his historical role has been denied or suppressed.  I have discussed reasons for this remarkable instance of historical amnesia elsewhere.  They usually have something to do with the amour-propre of the academic tribe.  See, for example, here, here and here.

    If there are grounds for optimism that the real story will ever see the light of day, it lies in the ease with which the elaborate fairy tale that currently passes as the “history” of the Blank Slate can be exposed.  According to this official “history,” the Blank Slate prevailed virtually unchallenged until the mid-70’s.  Then, suddenly, E. O. Wilson appeared on the scene as the knight in shining armor who slew the Blank Slate dragon almost single-handedly with the publication of Sociobiology in 1975.  As I’ve noted in earlier posts, there’s a great deal of source material in both the academic and popular literature whose existence is very difficult to account for if one takes this sanitized version of the affair seriously.  I’ve occasionally cited some of the numerous examples of articles about or by Ardrey, both pro and con, in popular magazines including the highbrow Encounter, the more professionally oriented Saturday Review, the once popular Life, the “recreational” Penthouse, and many others, all of which appeared long before the publication of Sociobiology.  I recently stumbled across another amusing example in one of Jack Nicholson’s earlier flicks, and probably one of his best; Five Easy Pieces.

    I hadn’t watched the film since 1970, the year it was released.  I thought it was entertaining at the time, especially the iconic restaurant scene with the uncooperative waitress.  However, I certainly didn’t notice any connection to the Blank Slate.  It was a bit early for that.  However, I happened to watch the film again a couple of days ago.  This time I noticed something.  There was the ghost of Robert Ardrey, with an amused look on his face, waving at me right out of the screen.

    The great debunker of the Blank Slate turns up around 1:20:25 into the film.  Bobby (Jack Nicholson), his somewhat trashy girlfriend, Rayette, and a few other family members and guests are gathered in the living room of Bobby’s childhood home.  A pompous, insufferable woman by the name of Samia Glavia is holding forth about the nature of man.  The dialogue goes like this:

    Samia Glavia/Irene Dailey: But you see, man is born into the world with his existent adversary from the first. It is his historic, lithic inheritance. So, is it startling? Aggression is prehistoric. An organism behaves according to its nature, and its nature derives from the circumstances of its inheritance. The fact remains that primitive man took absolute delight in tearing his adversary apart. And there is where I think the core of the problem resides.

    John Ryan/Spicer: Doesn’t that seem unnecessarily apocalyptic?

    Glavia: I do not make poetry.

    Rayette: Is there a TV in the house?

    Glavia: I remarked to John, that rationality is not a device to alter facts. But moreover I think of it as an extraneous tool, a gadget, somewhat like… the television. To look at it any other way is ridiculous.

    Rayette:There’s some good things on it, though.

    Glavia: I beg your pardon? (Condescendingly)

    Rayette: There’s some good things on it sometimes.

    Glavia: I have strong doubts. Nevertheless, I am not discussing media.  (Icy, condescending smile)

    Susan Anspach/Catherine van Oost: I think these cold, objective discussions are aggressive.

    As Catherine leaves the room, Glavia rants on: There seems to be less aggression, or violence, if you like, among the higher classes, and loftier natures.

    Nicholson/Bobby Dupea: You pompous celibate. You’re totally full of shit.

    Great shades of Raymond Dart!  “Aggression” was a key buzzword at the time in any discussion of innate human nature.  Naturalist Konrad Lorenz had published the English version of his On Aggression a few years earlier.  Ardrey had highlighted the theories of Dart, according to which Australopithecus africanus was an aggressive hunting ape, in his African Genesis, published in 1961.  The scientific establishment, firmly in the grip of the Blank Slate ideologues, had been furiously blasting back, condemning Ardrey, Lorenz, and anyone else who dared to suggest the existence of anything as heretical as human nature as a fascist and a Nazi, not to mention very right wing.  (sound familiar?)  See, for example, the Blank Slate tract Man and Aggression, published in 1968.

    I’m not sure whether producer Bob Rafelson or screenwriter Carole Eastman or both were responsible for the lines in question, but there’s no doubt about one thing – whoever wrote them had been well coached by the Blank Slaters.  Their favorite memes were all there.  The grotesque, exaggerated “Killer Ape Theory?” Check!  The socially objectionable nature of the messenger?  Check!  Their association with the “exploiting classes, or, as Samia Glavia put it, “the higher classes and loftier natures?” Check!  As a final subtle touch, the very name “Glavia” is Latin for a type of sword or spear, a weapon of “aggression.”

    I’m sure there are many more of these artifacts of reality out there, awaiting discovery by some future historian bold enough to dispute the “orthodox” account of the Blank Slate.  According to that account, nothing much happened to disturb the hegemony of the Blank Slaters until E. O. Wilson turned up.  Then, as noted above, the whole charade supposedly popped like a soap bubble.  Well, as the song goes, “It ain’t necessarily so.”  Ardrey and friends had already reduced the Blank Slate to a laughing stock among the lay public long before Wilson happened along.  The “Men of Science” knew the game was up.  Still, they couldn’t bear to admit that a “mere playwright” like Ardrey had forced them to admit that the elaborate Blank Slate fairy tale they had been propping up for the last 50 years with thousands of “scientific” papers in hundreds of learned academic and professional journals was a hoax.  They needed some “graceful” way to rejoin the real world.  They seized on Wilson as the “way.”  Any port in a storm.  As a member of the academic tribe himself, he made it respectable for other “Men of Science” to disengage themselves from the Blank Slate dogmas.  Be that as it may, as anyone who was around at the time and was paying attention was aware, the man who was the real nemesis of the Blank Slate was Robert Ardrey.  If you’re looking for proof, I recommend Five Easy Pieces as both a revealing and entertaining place to start your search.

    Why is all this important?  Because the Blank Slate affair was a disfiguring and corruption of the integrity of science on an unprecedented scale.  It clearly demonstrated what can happen when ideological imperatives are allowed to trump the scientific method.  For half a century and more it blocked our path to self-understanding, and with it out ability to understand and cope with some of the more destructive aspects of our nature.  Under the circumstances it might behoove us to at least get the history right.

    Robert Ardrey

  • “On Aggression” Revisited

    Posted on October 3rd, 2016 Helian 8 comments

    Once upon a time, half a century ago and more, several authors wrote books according to which certain animals, including human beings, are, at least in certain circumstances, predisposed to aggressive behavior.  Prominent among them was On Aggression, published in English in 1966 by Konrad Lorenz.  Other authors included Desmond Morris (The Naked Ape, 1967), Lionel Tiger (Men in Groups, 1969) and Robin Fox (The Imperial Animal, co-authored with Tiger, 1971).  The most prominent and widely read of all was the inimitable Robert Ardrey (African Genesis, 1961, The Territorial Imperative, 1966, The Social Contract, 1970, and The Hunting Hypothesis, 1976).  Why were these books important, or even written to begin with?  After all, the fact of innate aggression, then as now, was familiar to any child who happened to own a dog.  Well, because the “men of science” disagreed.  They insisted that there were no innate tendencies to aggression, in man or any of the other higher animals.  It was all the fault of unfortunate cultural developments back around the start of the Neolithic era, or of the baneful environmental influence of “frustration.”

    Do you think I’m kidding?  By all means, read the source literature! For example, according to a book entitled Aggression by “dog expert” John Paul Scott published in 1958 by the University of Chicago Press,

    All research findings point to the fact that there is no physiological evidence of any internal need or spontaneous driving force for fighting; that all stimulation for aggression eventually comes from the forces present in the external environment.

    A bit later, in 1962 in a book entitled Roots of Behavior he added,

    All our present data indicate that fighting behavior among the higher mammals, including man, originates in external stimulation and that there is no evidence of spontaneous internal stimulation.

    Ashley Montagu added the following “scientific fact” about apes (including chimpanzees!) in his “Man and Aggression,” published in 1968:

    The field studies of Schaller on the gorilla, of Goodall on the chimpanzee, of Harrison on the orang-utan, as well as those of others, show these creatures to be anything but irascible. All the field observers agree that these creatures are amiable and quite unaggressive, and there is not the least reason to suppose that man’s pre-human primate ancestors were in any way different.

    When Goodall dared to contradict Montagu and report what she had actually seen, she was furiously denounced in vile attacks by the likes of Brian Deer, who chivalrously recorded in an artical published in the Sunday Times in 1997,

    …the former waitress had arrived at Gombe, ordered the grass cut and dumped vast quantities of trucked-in bananas, before documenting a fractious pandemonium of the apes. Soon she was writing about vicious hunting parties in which our cheery cousins trapped colubus monkeys and ripped them to bits, just for fun.

    This remarkable transformation from Montagu’s expert in the field to Deer’s “former waitress” was typical of the way “science” was done by the Blank Slaters in those days.  This type of “science” should be familiar to modern readers, who have witnessed what happens to anyone who dares to challenge the current climate change dogmas.

    Fast forward to 2016.  A paper entitled The phylogenetic roots of human lethal violence has just been published in the prestigious journal Nature.  The first figure in the paper has the provocative title, “Evolution of lethal aggression in non-human mammals.”   It not only accepts the fact of “spontaneous internal stimulation” of aggression without a murmur, but actually quantifies it in no less than 1024 species of mammals!  According to the abstract,

    Here we propose a conceptual approach towards understanding these roots based on the assumption that aggression in mammals, including humans, has a significant phylogenetic component. By compiling sources of mortality from a comprehensive sample of mammals, we assessed the percentage of deaths due to conspecifics and, using phylogenetic comparative tools, predicted this value for humans. The proportion of human deaths phylogenetically predicted to be caused by interpersonal violence stood at 2%.

    All this and more is set down in the usual scientific deadpan without the least hint that the notion of such a “significant phylogenetic component” was ever seriously challenged.  Unfortunately the paper itself is behind Nature’s paywall, but a there’s a free review with extracts from the paper by Ed Yong on the website of The Atlantic, and Jerry Coyne also reviewed the paper over at his Why Evolution is True website.  Citing the paper Yong notes,

    It’s likely that primates are especially violent because we are both territorial and social—two factors that respectively provide motive and opportunity for murder.  So it goes for humans.  As we moved from small bands to medium-sized tribes to large chiefdoms, our rates of lethal violence increased.

    “Territorial and social!?”  Whoever wrote such stuff?  Oh, now I remember!  It was a guy named Robert Ardrey, who happened to be the author of The Territorial Imperative and The Social Contract.  Chalk up another one for the “mere playwright.”  Yet again, he was right, and almost all the “men of science” were wrong.  Do you ever think he’ll get the credit he deserves from our latter day “men of science?”  Naw, neither do I.  Some things are just too embarrassing to admit.

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

    Posted on June 5th, 2016 Helian 17 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    A few pages later he writes,

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

    and notes, referring to the behaviorists, that,

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

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

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

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

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

  • 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

  • …And One More Thing about James Burnham: On Human Nature

    Posted on October 17th, 2015 Helian 4 comments

    There’s another thing about James Burnham’s Suicide of the West that’s quite fascinating; his take on human nature.  In fact, Chapter III is entitled “Human Nature and the Good Society.”  Here are a few excerpts from that chapter:

    However varied may be the combination of beliefs that it is psychologically possible for an individual liberal to hold, it remains true that liberalism is logically committed to a doctrine along the lines that I have sketched:  viewing human nature as not fixed but plastic and changing; with no pre-set limit to potential development; with no innate obstacle to the realization of a society of peace, freedom, justice and well-being.  Unless these things are true of human nature, the liberal doctrine and program for government, education, reform and so on are an absurdity.

    But in the face of what man has done and does, it is only an ideologue obsessed with his own abstractions who can continue to cling to the vision of an innately uncorrupt, rational and benignly plastic human nature possessed of an unlimited potential for realizing the good society.

    Quite true, which makes it all the more remarkable that virtually all the “scientists” in the behavioral “sciences” at the time Burnham wrote these lines were “clinging to that vision,” at least in the United States.  See, for example, The Triumph of Evolution, in which one of these “men of science,” author Hamilton Cravens, documents the fact.  Burnham continues,

    No, we must repeat:  if human nature is scored by innate defects, if the optimistic account of man is unjustified, then is all the liberal faith in vain.

    Here we get a glimpse of the reason that the Blank Slaters insisted so fanatically that there is no such thing as human nature, at least as commonly understood, for so many years, in defiance of all reason, and despite the fact that any 10 year old could have told them their anthropological theories were ludicrous.  The truth stood in the way of their ideology.  Therefore, the truth had to yield.

    All this begs the question of how, as early as 1964, Burnham came up with such a “modern” understanding of the Blank Slate.  Reading on in the chapter, we find some passages that are even more intriguing.  Have a look at this:

    It is not merely the record of history that speaks in unmistakable refutation of the liberal doctrine of man.  Ironically enough – ironically, because it is liberalism that has maintained so exaggerated a faith in science – almost all modern scientific studies of man’s nature unite in giving evidence against the liberal view of man as a creature motivated, once ignorance is dispelled, by the rational search for peace, freedom and plenty.  Every modern school of biology and psychology and most schools of sociology and anthropology conclude that men are driven chiefly by profound non-rational, often anti-rational, sentiments and impulses, whose character and very existence are not ordinarily understood by conscious reason.  Many of these drives are aggressive, disruptive, and injurious to others and to society.


    The bolding and italics are mine.  How on earth did Burnham come up with such ideas?  By all means, dear reader, head for your local university library, fish out the ancient microfiche, and search through the scientific and professional journals of the time yourself.  Almost without exception, the Blank Slate called the tune.  Clearly, Burnham didn’t get the notion that “almost all modern scientific studies of man’s nature” contradicted the Blank Slate from actually reading the literature himself.  Where, then, did he get it?  Only Burnham and the wild goose know, and Burnham’s dead, but my money is on Robert Ardrey.  True, Konrad Lorenz’ On Aggression was published in Germany in 1963, but it didn’t appear in English until 1966.  The only other really influential popular science book published before Suicide of the West that suggested anything like what Burnham wrote in the above passage was Ardrey’s African Genesis, published in 1961.

    What’s that you say?  I’m dreaming?  No one of any significance ever challenged the Blank Slate orthodoxy until E. O. Wilson’s stunning and amazing publication of Sociobiology in 1975?  I know, it must be true, because it’s all right there in Wikipedia.  As George Orwell once said, “He who controls the present controls the past.”

  • PBS Answers the Burning Question: What Does Robert Ardrey have to do with Homo naledi?

    Posted on September 19th, 2015 Helian No comments

    PBS just aired what’s billed as a NOVA/National Geographic Special entitled Dawn of Humanity on the stunning discovery of a trove of remains of an early human species dubbed Homo naledi in a South African cave.  According to the blurb on its website,

    NOVA and National Geographic present exclusive access to a unique discovery of ancient remains. Located in an almost inaccessible chamber deep in a South African cave, the site required recruiting a special team of experts slender enough to wriggle down a vertical, pitch-dark, seven-inch-wide passage. Most fossil discoveries of human relatives consist of just a handful of bones. But down in this hidden chamber, the team uncovered an unprecedented trove—so far, over 1,500 bones—with the potential to rewrite the story of our origins.

    There’s nothing surprising about the fact that a story about Homo naledi appeared on NOVA.  What’s really stunning, however, is its content.  To all appearances it appears to have been supplied by an ancient Blank Slater who was frozen like a popsicle some time back in the early 70’s, and then had the good fortune to be thawed out like Rip van Winkle just in time to write the script for Dawn of Humanity.  One can certainly quibble about his take on the significance of Homo naledi, but one thing is certain.  He has favored us with a remarkable piece of historical source material.

    It all starts innocently enough.  We are introduced to Lee Berger, who headed the team that discovered Homo naledi.  There are scenes of him strolling across the South African landscape with his two dogs, poking into limestone caverns of the sort where his nine year old son discovered the first fossil remains of Australopithecus sediba, like Homo naledi another creature with a small, ape-like brain that walked upright on two feet.  He points to the places where the remains of several other individuals of that species were later found.  Things continue in that sedate vein until suddenly, at minute 35:15, we are shaken out of our pleasant rut by the announcement that the abundance of the sediba remains,

    …might help explain the Australopith’s transition into our genus, Homo.  They might also prove or disprove a highly influential theory about the dawn of humanity.  A theory inspired by the very first discovery of an Australopith fossil.

    We are informed that the discovery referred to happened in 1924.  The place was South Africa, and the discoverer was Prof. Raymond Dart of the University of Witswatersrand in Johannesburg.  Miners had sent Dart a chunk of limestone in which was embedded the skull of a hominid child, different and more primitive than any previously discovered.  He named the new species Australopithecus africanus.  At that point, around minute 36:45, we get our first hint that PBS is about to administer a strong dose of propaganda.  Quoting from the script,

    Darwin and (Thomas Henry) Huxley predicted that our origins would be in Africa based on comparative anatomy.  You know, they looked at the skeletons of chimps and gorillas and they looked at ours and they went, “Well they’re so close to us, and they’re more close than anything else, so it must have been in Africa.”  And then the sort of second generation of evolutionary biologists shied away from that.  They started to find fossils in Europe.  They started to find fossils in Asia.  And of course that tied in very nicely with the sort of racist, imperialistic thoughts of the day.  They couldn’t abide the thought of it being in Africa.

    I rather suspect that the reticence of this “second generation of evolutionary biologists” to immediately accept Dart’s “out of Africa” theory was due to the fact that they had based their life’s work on developing theories about the emergence of early man in the only places where fossil evidence had actually been found up to that time.  It’s really not too hard to imagine that they may have been unenthusiastic about seeing all that work washed down the drain.  Of course, we’ve long been familiar with the tendency of the “progressive” inmates at PBS to instantly seize on such understandable regrets and transmogrify them into something as sinister and criminal as “racist, imperialistic thoughts.”  That’s old hat.  What’s really surprising is that, in what follows, we are treated to a long-winded denunciation of the “Killer Ape Theory.”  At 40:45 we learn,

    Raymond Dart was building a theory about how the Australopiths, our apelike ancestors, became human.  His ideas about the dawn of humanity were the touchstone for thinking about our origins for generations.  In the 1940’s, more examples of Australopithecus began to be found, and a key site not only had fragments of Australopithecus, but also the bones of many other fossil animals.  And Dart noted that these bones were broken in a special way.  Dart became convinced they were weapons made by our primitive ancestors.  Was this the key to what first made us human?

    At this point, PBS has passed well beyond prissy comments about racism and imperialism to the full blown distortion of history.  In the first place, Dart’s thinking never became a “touchstone” for anything, and certainly not for generations.  He never even published anything about hunting behavior in early hominins until 1949, and what you might call his “seminal” paper on the subject, The Predatory Transition from Ape to Man, didn’t appear until 1953.  Both papers were published in obscure venues, and both were largely ignored.  Dart never claimed that bones that “were broken in a special way” were weapons.  Rather, he claimed that the double-headed humerus, or upper foreleg bone, of a common type of antelope had been the weapon, and the bones that “were broken in a special way” were actually skulls with indentations that appeared to be the result of the use of that bone as a club.

    In any case, next we learn that Dart had been a medic in World War I, and,

    ..had seen at first hand the barbarity humans are capable of.  It made sense to him that the origins of humanity were steeped in blood.  Raymond Dart’s experience in the World War may have colored his interpretation of what these bones and teeth meant.  You know it gave him a view of sort of the dark side of humanity and the violence of humanity, and he came up with this idea that Australopithecus had figured out that bones and teeth were hard, and could be used as weapons to kill other animals.  The sort of “Killer Ape Theory” of early humans.  Dart believed that the more aggressive and adventurous of our ape-like ancestors abandoned their forest environment and moved into savannahs.  There, they became hunters and predators.  His theory, that this violent transformation gave rise to humanity soon found an audience far beyond the small world of paleoanthropology.

    In fact, there is no evidence that all this psychobabble about World War I is anything but that.  Dart’s claims were based on compelling statistical evidence, which is left unmentioned in the program.  In the first place, a large and statistically anomalous number of the humerus bones proposed as weapons had been found in association with the africanus remains.  Damage to the skulls of other animals supposedly inflicted with these weapons was not randomly located, but occurred far more often in locations where one would expect it to occur if it had been inflicted with a bludgeon or club.  Dart’s interpretation of these facts has often been challenged, most prominently by C. K. Brain in his The Hunters or the Hunted?, published in 1981.  Brain noted that twin puncture wounds found on an Australopith skull may well have been left by a leopard.  Sure enough, the skull in question is featured on the program, and the puncture marks described as if they were incontrovertible proof that Dart’s apes had never hunted.  As it happens, however, Brain is a careful scientist, and never maintained anything of the sort.  Indeed, in The Hunters or the Hunted? he describes in detail two important objections to the leopard theory, and while he certainly challenged Dart’s theories, he never suggested that they had been incontrovertibly disproved.  Predictably, these facts are left unmentioned in the program.

    At this point I started wondering why on earth PBS would start laying on such thick dollops of propaganda to begin with.  Possible hunting in A. africanus wasn’t really germane to the behavior of a newly discovered species like Homo naledi, the apparent theme of the show, nor to that of Australopithecus sediba, for that matter.  I wasn’t left hanging for long.  At that point, the ancient Blank Slate Rip van Winkle the program had been channeling all along tipped his hand.  After all these years, he had hardly forgotten the shame and embarrassment he and his fellow “men of science” had experienced at the hand of a certain playwright by the name of Robert Ardrey!  Suddenly, at about the 42:50 point, the screen is filled with Ardrey’s image.  Then we see in quick succession images of two Life magazine covers and one of Penthouse, all three of which prominently announce articles he had written.  The narrative continues,

    In the 1950’s there was a drama critic and playwright names Robert Ardrey, who became very interested in human origins, and he went to Africa and spoke with Raymond Dart.  And Robert Ardrey, being a dramatist, could write like anything, and he wrote this amazing book published in 1961 called African Genesis (dramatic drumbeat).  African Genesis became a pop-science publishing sensation of the early 1960s.  Ardrey’s ideas, building on those of Raymond Dart, helped frame public debate about the dawn of humanity for the next 20 years.  (Potts cuts in) The very first sentence in that book; I remember it because I read it as a teenager and was enthralled by it, “Not in innocence, and not in Asia, was mankind born.”  And in that one sentence he encapsulated Raymond Dart’s ideas, that it was an African genesis, and that where we came from was not from an innocent creature (dramatic drumroll), but from the most violent of killer apes.

    At this point we’re treated to one of the favorite gimmicks of the Blank Slaters of yore.  The program segs to scenes from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.  We are assured that Kubrick was influenced by Ardrey, and then shown the familiar opening scene, with an ape-man smashing everything in sight with a bone wielded as a club.  The only problem is that Ardrey didn’t write the script for the movie.  We find the same trick in that invaluable little piece of historical source material, Man and Aggression, a collection of Blank Slater rants published in 1968 and edited by Ashley Montagu.  Most of the attacks are directed at Ardrey and Konrad Lorenz, but William Golding, author of Lord of the Flies, is thrown in for comic effect in the same fashion as Kubrick.

    Next, at about 45:45, there is a schtick about how tartar from sediba’s teeth was examined, revealing that it contained phytoliths, microscopic particles of silica that are found in some plant tissues.  At 48:15 the narrative continues,

    Here, at last, is evidence that will help support or disprove Dart’s theory… The tooth evidence from sediba indicates a diet very similar to todays chimpanzees.  While they may have eaten some meat, there’s little to back up Raymond Dart’s theory that they were killer apes.

    Here one can but roll one’s eyes.  The plant evidence in sediba’s teeth hardly indicates that its consumption of meat was as the same as, not to mention greater or less than, that of chimpanzees.  Here, too, we find revealed the remarkably anachronistic nature of this whole production.  Left unmentioned is that fact that chimpanzees are, after all, killer apes, too.  They organize hunting parties with the intention of killing and eating other species, and they also carry out organized attacks on other chimpanzees, often killing them in the process as well.  None of this is mentioned in the program.  Indeed, when Jane Goodall first observed and reported the behavior referred to she was furiously denounced and subjected to incredibly demeaning ad hominem attacks by the Blank Slaters.  It’s as if none of this ever happened, and the program is frozen in time back around 1975.  The rest consists mainly of pleasantries about the recovery of the Homo naledi remains.

    In reality, the “killer ape theory” that we have just seen dusted off and trotted out for our benefit is largely a Blank Slater propaganda myth.  Modern apes kill, and when they kill they are certainly violent.  They can, therefore, be accurately described as violent killer apes.  The “killer ape” of the Blank Slaters, however, is a nightmare figment of their imagination – a furious, violent creature constantly attacking everything around it, as so gaudily portrayed in Stanley Kubrick’s film.  Nothing in any of Ardrey’s books even comes close to a description of such psychopathic B movie monsters.

    The very magazine covers mentioned above, shown as the narrator lays on the propaganda about killer apes, are revealing in themselves.  I happen to have copies of all three of them, and none of the articles by Ardrey they contain has the least thing to say about the “killer ape theory.”  Instead, they all deal in one way or another with the real theme of all Ardrey’s work; the existence of innate human nature.  And that, I strongly suspect, is the real reason the program even mentions Ardrey.

    All appearances to the contrary in Dawn of Humanity, the debate about the “hunting hypothesis” is now over for all practical purposes.  It has been decided in favor of Ardrey.  Clear marks of butchering have been found on bones dated to more than 3 million years before the present.  It has been suggested that the bones were scavenged from the kills of other predators, but the idea that it never occurred to early hominins to hunt between that time and half a million to a million years before the present, a period during which early man clearly began using stone tipped and fire-hardened hunting spears, is nonsense.  It is doubly nonsense in view of the observed hunting behavior of chimpanzees.  Even the impeccably politically correct Scientific American admitted as much in an article entitled Rise of the Human Predator, that appeared in the April 2014 issue.  More remarkable still, in a PBS series entitled Becoming Human that aired in 2009, we were informed that,

    Homo erectus probably hunted with close-quarters weapons, with spears that were thrown at animals from a short distance, clubs, thrown rocks, weapons like that. They weren’t using long distance projectile weapons that we know of.

    The Homo erectus hunt was simple but effective. It fed not just their larger brains, but the growing complexity of that early human society.

    Why, then, this grotesque anachronism, this latter day program frozen in time in the early 1970’s?  As I mentioned earlier, the Blank Slaters have forgotten nothing, and forgiven nothing.  They know that the reason for Ardrey’s enormous influence wasn’t the “killer ape theory.”  Rather, the constant theme of all Ardrey’s work was his insistence on the existence of innate human nature.  Virtually all of the “men of science” in the behavioral sciences at the time his books began appearing, at least in the United States, firmly supported the Blank Slate orthodoxy, insisted that virtually all human behavior was a result of learning and culture, and denied the existence of any such thing as innate behavioral traits in human beings.  Ardrey was right, and they were all dead wrong.  A “mere playwright” had shamed them and exposed them for the charlatans they were.

    Today books and articles about innate human behavior, and its analogs in other animals, roll off the presses as if the subject had never been the least bit controversial.  The Blank Slate orthodoxy has been smashed, and the one man whose writings were far and away the most influential weapon in smashing it was Robert Ardrey.  As for the “men of science,” they are engaged in a game of bowdlerizing history to hide this inconvenient truth.  The usual tactic is to ignore Ardrey, elevating some pretender to the role of “slayer of the Blank Slate.”  If he is mentioned at all, it is only to briefly note, after the fashion of Steven Pinker, that he was “totally and utterly wrong” based on some alleged inaccuracy in one of his books that had nothing to do with the overall theme.  That’s why I said that artifacts like Dawn of Humanity are valuable because of their historical interest at the beginning of this post.  For such remarkable anachronisms to even appear, someone has to be seriously out of step with the official line.  It has to be someone who knows just how significant and influential Ardrey really was, a fact demonstrated by the very magazine covers that appear on the program.  Insignificant nobodies weren’t invited to write articles for Life magazine in the late 60’s and early 70’s, not to mention Penthouse, and pieces by Ardrey can be found in many other familiar magazines of the day.  Furthermore, that “somebody” has to be so bitter about Ardrey’s demolition of his precious Blank Slate dogmas that his hatred boils to the surface, revealing itself in such remarkable productions as the one described here.  When that happens we occasionally learn something about the Blank Slate debacle that the “men of science” would prefer to leave swept under the rug.  A little truth manages to leak out around the edges.  This time the truth happened to touch on the real historical role of a man named Robert Ardrey.

    Robert Ardrey

    Robert Ardrey





  • More Ardreyania, with Pinker and CRISPR

    Posted on August 11th, 2015 Helian No comments

    Robert Ardrey is the one man the “men of science” in the behavioral disciplines would most like to see drop down the memory hole for good.  Mere playwright that he was, he was presumptuous enough to be right about the existence of human nature when all of them were wrong, and influential enough to make them a laughing stock among educated laypeople for denying it.  They’ve gone to great lengths to make him disappear ever since, even to the extreme of creating an entire faux “history” of the Blank Slate affair.  I, however, having lived through the events in question, and still possessed of a vestigial respect for the truth, will continue to do my meager best to set the record straight.  Indeed, dear reader, I descended into the very depths to glean material for this post, so you won’t have to.  In fine, I unearthed an intriguing Ardrey interview in the February 1971 issue of Penthouse.

    The interview was conducted in New York by Harvey H. Segal, who had served on the editorial board of the New York Times from 1968 to 1969, and was an expert on corporate economics.  The introductory blurb noted the obvious to anyone who wasn’t asleep at the time; that the main theme of all Ardrey’s work was human nature.

    Equipped only with common sense, curiosity, and a practiced pen, Robert Ardrey shouldered his way into the study of human nature and has given a new direction to man’s thinking about man.


    An impact on this scale is remarkable for any writer, but in Ardrey’s case it has the added quality of being achieved in a second career.

    As usual, in this interview as in every other contemporary article and review of his work that I’ve come across, there is no mention of his opinion on group selection.  It will be recalled that Ardrey’s favorable take on this entirely ancillary subject in his book The Social Contract was seized on by Steven Pinker as the specious reason he eventually selected to announce that Ardrey had been “totally and utterly wrong.”  There is much of interest in the interview but, as it happens, Ardrey’s final few remarks bear on the subject of my last post; artificial manipulation of human DNA.

    In case you haven’t read it, that post discussed some remarks on the ethical implications of human gene manipulation by none other than – Steven Pinker.  According to Pinker the moral imperative for the bioethicists who were agonizing over possible applications of such DNA-altering tools as CRISPR-Cas9 was quite blunt; “Get out of the way.”  Their moral pecksniffery should not be allowed to derail the potential of these revolutionary tools for curing or alleviating a great number of genetically caused diseases and disorders or its promise of “vast increases in life, health, and flourishing.”  Pinker dismisses concerns about the possible misuse of the technology as follows:

    A truly ethical bioethics should not bog down research in red tape, moratoria, or threats of prosecution based on nebulous but sweeping principles such as “dignity,” “sacredness,” or “social justice.” Nor should it thwart research that has likely benefits now or in the near future by sowing panic about speculative harms in the distant future. These include perverse analogies with nuclear weapons and Nazi atrocities, science-fiction dystopias like “Brave New World’’ and “Gattaca,’’ and freak-show scenarios like armies of cloned Hitlers, people selling their eyeballs on eBay, or warehouses of zombies to supply people with spare organs. Of course, individuals must be protected from identifiable harm, but we already have ample safeguards for the safety and informed consent of patients and research subjects.

    That smacks a bit of what the German would call “Verharmlosung” – insisting that something is harmless when it really isn’t.  Tools like CRISPR certainly have the potential for altering DNA in ways not necessarily intended to merely cure disease.  For example, many intelligence related genes have already been found, and new ones are being found on a regular basis.  Alterations in genes that influence human behavior are also possible.  Ardrey had a somewhat more sober take on the subject in the interview referred to above.  For example,

    Segal:  What about the possibility of altering the brain and human instincts through new advances in genetics, DNA and the like?

    Ardrey:  I don’t have much faith.  Altering of the human being is something to approach with the greatest apprehension because it depends on what kind of human being you want.  It is not so long since H. J. Muller, one of the greatest American geneticists and one of the first eugenicists, was saying that we have to eliminate aggression.  But now there is (Konrad) Lorenz who says that aggression is the basis of almost all life.  Reconstruction of the human being by human beings is too close to domestication, like control of the breeding of animals.  Muller’s plan for the human future was dealing with sheep.  I happen to be one who works best at being something other than a sheep, and I think most people do.

    and a bit later, on the prospect of curing disease:

    I see some important things that might be done with DNA on a very simple scale, such as repairing an error in, say, a hemophiliac – one of those genetic errors that appear at random every so often.  But that is making a thing normal.  It is not impossible that some genetically-caused disease, particularly if it has a one-gene basis, might be fixed.  But genes are like a club or political party with all sorts of jostling and jockeying between them.  You change one and a bell rings at the other end of the line.

    I tend to agree with Ardrey that there is a strong possibility that CRISPR and similar tools will be misused.  However, I also agree with Pinker that the bioethicists are only likely to succeed in stalling the truly beneficial applications, and the most “moral” course for them will be to step aside.  The dangers are there, but they are dangers the bioethicists are most unlikely to have the power to do anything about.

    At the individual level, parents interested in enhancing the intelligence, athletic prowess, or good looks of their offspring will seize the opportunity to do so, taking the moralists with a grain of salt in the process, and if the technology is there, the opportunity to create “designer babies” will be there as well for those rich enough to afford it.  Even more worrisome is the potential misuse of the technology by state actors.  As Ardrey pointed out, they may well take a much greater interest in the ancient bits of the brain that control our feelings, moods and behavior than in the more recently added cortical enhancements responsible for our relatively high intelligence.

    In a word, what we face is less a choice than a fait accompli.  Like nuclear weapons, the technology will eventually be applied in ways the bioethicists are likely to find very disturbing.  It’s not a question of if, but when.  The end result of this new era of artificially accelerated evolution will certainly be interesting for those lucky enough to be around to witness it.

    Robert Ardrey

    Robert Ardrey

  • Historical Artifacts of the Blank Slate

    Posted on July 10th, 2015 Helian 7 comments

    James Boswell, who wrote the famous biography of Dr. Johnson, recounts in his journal a conversation with a man who trusted nothing about history except the mere occurrence of such widely witnessed and notorious events as great battles.  Similar thoughts have probably occurred to anyone who has lived through historical events and was paying attention.  I have lived through several in my own lifetime that I interpret a great deal differently than the versions that appear in the standard histories.  In other cases there are profound differences of opinion among the writers of history themselves.  The most striking example in my own experience is the Blank Slate affair.  In my opinion it was the greatest scientific debacle ever, and yet little has been written about it.  The best known historical account is Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, a deeply flawed bowdlerization of reality.  There are many possible reasons for the lack of a reliable account of what happened.  Perhaps the academics one would normally consider most qualified to write on the subject are too ashamed to talk about it.  It was, after all, a remarkable failure of the “science” they represent, and which they loudly insist everyone else must trust and defer to.  An honest history must also reveal the role their “tribe” played in actively promoting and bitterly defending an absurd fantasy for a period of more than half a century.  Fortunately, a great deal of source material exists that isn’t quite in step with the “official” version of the affair, which tends to gloss over these inconvenient truths.

    “Official” versions of the history of the Blank Slate, including Pinker’s, typically run more or less as follows:

    • A wave of progressive ideology swept the world in the early 20th century, characterized by rapidly changing attitudes about race and sex.  Accounts of behavior based on innate biological traits that were perceived as immutable stood in the way of the progressive ideal of equality.  As a result, theories of behavior were reformulated to eliminate whatever could be construed as condoning racism and sexism.  Innate explanations were dropped in favor of purely cultural accounts of human behavior.  The result was the Blank Slate.
    • The Blank Slate orthodoxy controlled the behavioral sciences until the 1970’s.  Only then did cracks begin to appear in the façade.  However, nothing of any real significance happened until 1975, when E. O. Wilson published Sociobiology.  Only then did the debate begin in earnest.
    • Wilson and his supporters were subjected to furious attacks, motivated more by politics than science.  Gradually, however, they gained the upper hand.  As Pinker put it, “…sociobiology did not, as (Marshall) Sahlins had predicted, turn out to be a passing fad.  The title of Alcock’s 2001 book The Triumph of Sociobiology says it all.”

    No doubt this version of “history” is comforting to academic practitioners of the behavioral sciences.  It elevates one of their own, E. O. Wilson, into the role of the knight in shining armor who slew the Blank Slate dragon.  It includes a happy ending, in which science was recued and put back on track by the scientists themselves.  It is also complete nonsense.  Everything of any significance about human nature in the meager treatment it received in Sociobiology, which was devoted mainly to Wilson’s study of ants and other fauna, as well as in his On Human Nature, published three years later, is completely derivative from works that had appeared through the 1960’s.  They were written by the likes of Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, Desmond Morris, Lionel Tiger, Hans Hass, and, most prominently of all, Robert Ardrey.  Their books were widely read and extremely influential.  As a result, by the end of the 60’s, the Blank Slate was a dead man walking.  By the beginning of the 1970’s the only question remaining was how long it would take the dead man to fall.  In fact, it was a slow tumble.  The grip of the Blank Slate in academia and much of the public media wasn’t finally broken until the turn of the century, and one still hears its death rattle occasionally even today.  However, there can be no real question about who was actually responsible for its demise.  The relevant historical source material is there in abundance for anyone who takes the trouble to look for it.

    I’ve written about Pinker’s specious reasons for dismissing the earlier work of Lorenz and Ardrey in an earlier post.  There can be little doubt that he knew the truth, but simply chose to ignore it.  For example, he mentions reading Man and Aggression, a collection of Blank Slater essays edited by Ashley Montagu and aimed mostly at Ardrey and Lorenz.  Published in 1968, it is one of the more important pieces of historical source material on the subject.  One of the essayists Geoffrey Gorer, psychologist, former patron of George Orwell, and prominent public intellectual at the time, wrote as follows:

    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.

    As noted above, there’s no need to take Gorer’s word for it.  The historical evidence is there.  Ardrey’s significance and the derivative nature of Wilson’s comments on human nature was certainly no secret to the rest of the Blank Slaters.  In their mobbing attack on Sociobiology in the New York Review of Books 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.

    In fact, the lay public was far ahead of these “scientists.”  Ardrey’s work may not have seen the light of day in the academic journals, but it had been prominently featured throughout the 60’s and early 70’s in such popular magazines as Life and Time, in many of the more “high brow” venues, such as the Saturday Review, and even in the “respectable” articles that lent redeeming social value to Playboy and Penthouse.  By the time Sociobiology finally appeared, the Blank Slaters were largely engaged in a drawn out process of bamboozling themselves, with a predictable conclusion.

    A typical example of these numerous “Ardrey tracks” appeared in the February 1972 issue of Encounter magazine.  Entitled “4-Dimensional Man,” it was concerned not with group selection, Pinker’s bogus excuse for dismissing the entire corpus of Ardrey’s work, not with “hydraulic theory,” which he used to drop Konrad Lorenz down the memory hole, but with the common theme of all Ardrey’s work; the reality of human nature.  The “4th dimension” Ardrey referred to was, of course, mankind’s evolutionary past.  As he put it,

    For some decades now, certain areas of our most popular sciences have dedicated their efforts to the proposition that man is three-dimensional, owing nothing of his behavior, his thoughts, his actions to anything but present circumstances of his environment, as experienced within his lifetime.

    Ardrey was hardly unaware of the tactics of bullying and vilification the Blank Slaters used to silence their enemies.  He had been one of their prominent targets long before Wilson was similarly “martyred.”  Noting the obsolescence of the term “instinct,” when applied to human beings and other higher animals he wrote,

     Instinct – inherited behavioral patterns perfected in our evolutionary experience – enter as a factor in the human equation, or they do not.  The environmentalist insists they do not and (in the best tradition once suggested by Maslow) is not above reinforcing his arguments with the insinuation or direct observation that those who disagree with him are reactionaries, Social Darwinists, fascists, and probably racists to boot.

    He continues with a pithy description of the Blank Slate orthodoxy:

    The environmentalists have the advantage of widespread academic control, widespread influence over educated thought and organs of opinion, but the disadvantage of sometimes stunning displays of ignorance concerning new facts of biological life.

    and notes that, by that time, they already had an intimation of their coming demise:

    Something is panicking the three-dimensionals, and how well I know!  In their defenses against the intruder they resort too frequently to self-righteousness, to unprofessional misquotation, and (as I have earlier suggested) to the upside-down McCarthyism of charging right-wing political guilt.  I find it difficult to believe that I have dedicated the last fifteen years of a quite profitable writing career to the fascinations of evolution simply to prove somebody’s political leanings.

    Things haven’t changed much, have they?  The same, hackneyed tactics still feature prominently in the arsenal of latter day “progressives.”  Today they serve mainly as an admission of intellectual sterility.  Ardrey’s article ends on a prophetic note:

    The controversy will not end for a long, long while.  But the fatal pessimism of the environmentalist rests without doubt on the failure of changes in environment to alter significantly the nature of man.  And the optimism of the evolutionists rests on man the inheritor, the four-dimensional animal.

    Ardrey was not optimistic because he believed in a changeless status quo enforced by rigid human instincts.  Rather, he hoped that by “comprehending ourselves” we would enable “new illuminations of human complexities and civilization’s paradoxes,” adding that no such human progress would be possible,

    …if we regard the baby born as a fresh blackboard, on which any Skinnerite may sign his name.  He is a being born with many a propensity for evil or for good, inheritances maladaptive or overwhelmingly adaptive to present circumstance.  But we must first try to understand him.  That surely is the intellectual objective of developing evolutionary thought.

    All this was written long before the appearance of Sociobiology, and yet today, even as thinly disguised versions of his hypotheses of the hunting transition from ape to man, human territoriality, ingroup-outgroup behavior, etc., turn up ever more frequently in the academic literature as “original work,” Ardrey is treated as a pariah.  After all, he was a “mere playwright,” and how much could such playwrights as Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Shaw, not to mention Ardrey, possibly know about human nature?  I am no disciple of Ardrey’s, nor do I consider him infallible.  Indeed, unlike so many others, he was quick to admit his own mistakes.  I do, however, feel a certain sense of unease when I see lies and half-truths tarted up as “history.”  I will therefore continue to insist that Ardrey was the most influential and effective opponent of the Blank Slate.  The historical source material demonstrating that truth is there in abundance.  Perhaps some day a historian of more than common integrity will collect it and write a history of the Blank Slate debacle the way it was, instead of the way academic apologists wish it had been.



  • Faith versus Fact: New Atheism Rejects the Blank Slate

    Posted on June 6th, 2015 Helian 6 comments

    Jerry Coyne just launched another New Atheist salvo against the Defenders of the Faith in the form of his latest book, Faith versus Fact.  It’s well written and well reasoned, effectively squashing the “sophisticated Christian” gambit of the faithful, and storming some of their few remaining “God of the gaps” redoubts.  However, one of its most striking features is its decisive rejection of the Blank Slate.  The New Atheists have learned to stop worrying and love innate morality!

    Just like the Blank Slaters of yore, the New Atheists may be found predominantly on the left of the political spectrum.  In Prof. Coyne’s case the connection is even more striking.  As a graduate student, his professor/advisor was none other than Blank Slate kingpin Richard Lewontin of Not In Our Genes fame!  In spite of that, in Faith versus Fact he not only accepts but positively embraces evolutionary psychology in general and innate morality in particular.  Why?

    It turns out that, along with the origin of life, the existence of consciousness, the “fine tuning” of physical constants, etc.,  one of the more cherished “gaps” in the “God of the gaps” arguments of the faithful is the existence of innate morality.  As with the other “gap” gambits, the claim is that it couldn’t exist unless God created it.  As noted in an earlier post, the Christian philosopher Francis Hutcheson used a combination of reason and careful observation of his own species to demonstrate the existence of an innate “moral sense,” building on the earlier work of Anthony Ashley-Cooper and others early in the 18th century.  The Blank Slaters would have done well to read his work.  Instead, they insisted on the non-existence of human nature, thereby handing over this particular “gap” to the faithful by default.   Obviously, Prof. Coyne had second thoughts, and decided to snatch it back.  However, he doesn’t quite succeed in breaking entirely with the past.  Instead, he insists on elevating “cultural morality” to a co-equal status with innate morality, and demonstrates that he has swallowed Steven Pinker’s fanciful “academic version” of the history of the Blank Slate in the process.  Allow me to quote at length some of the relevant passages from his book:

    Evolution disproves critical parts of both the Bible and the Quran – the creation stories – yet millions have been unable to abandon them.  Finally, and perhaps most important, evolution means that human morality, rather than being imbued in us by God, somehow arose via natural processes:  biological evolution involving natural selection on behavior, and cultural evolution involving our ability to calculate, foresee, and prefer the results of different behaviors.

    Here we encounter the conflation of biological and cultural evolution, which are described as if they were independent factors accounting for the “rise” of human morality.  This tendency to embrace innate explanations while at the same time clinging to the “culture and learning” of the Blank Slate as a distinct, quasi-independent determinant of moral behavior is a recurring theme in FvF.  A bit later Coyne seems to return to the Darwinian fold, citing his comments on “well-marked social instincts.”

    In his 1871 book The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, where Darwin first applied his theory of evolution by natural selection to humans, he did not neglect morality.  In chapter 3, he floats what can be considered the first suggestion that our morality may be an elaboration by our large brains of social instincts evolved in our ancestors:  “The following proposition seems to me in a high degree probable – namely, that any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well developed, or nearly as well developed, as in man.”

    This impression is apparently confirmed in the following remarkable passage:

    A century later, the biologist Edward O. Wilson angered many by asserting the complete hegemony of biology over ethics:  “Scientists and humanists should consider together the possibility that the time has come for ethics to be removed temporarily from the hands of the philosophers and biologicized.”  Wilson’s statement, in the pathbreaking book Sociobiology:  The New Synthesis, really began the modern incursion of evolution into human behavior that has become the discipline of evolutionary psychology.  In the last four decades psychologists, philosophers, and biologists have begun to dissect the cultural and evolutionary roots of morality.

    Here we find, almost verbatim, Steven Pinker’s bowdlerized version of the “history” of the Blank Slate, featuring E. O. Wilson as the knight in shining armor who came out of nowhere to “begin the modern incursion of evolution into human behavior,” with the publication of Sociobiology in 1975.  Anyone with even a faint familiarity with the source material knows that Pinker’s version is really nothing but a longish fairy tale.  The “modern incursion of evolution into human behavior” was already well underway in Europe in 1951, when Niko Tinbergen published his The Study of Instinct.  It was continued there through the 50’s and 60’s in the work of Konrad Lorenz, Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, and many others.  Long before the appearance of Sociobiology, Robert Ardrey began the publication of a series of four books on evolved human nature that really set in motion the smashing of the Blank Slate orthodoxy in the behavioral sciences.  There is literally nothing of any significance in Sociobiology bearing on the “incursion of evolution into human behavior” or the emergence of what came to be called evolutionary psychology that is not merely an echo of work that had been published by Ardrey, Lorenz, Tinbergen, and others many years earlier.  No matter.  It would seem that Pinker’s fanciful “history” has now been transmogrified into one of Coyne’s “facts.”

    But I digress.  As noted above, even as Coyne demolishes morality as one of the “gaps” that must be filled by inventing a God by noting its emergence as an evolved trait, and even as he explicitly embraces evolutionary psychology, which has apparently only recently become “respectable,” he can never quite entirely free himself from the stench of the Blank Slate.  Finally, as if frightened by his own temerity, and perhaps feeling the withering gaze of his old professor/advisor Lewontin, Coyne executes a partial retreat from the territory he has just attempted to reconquer:

    In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker makes a strong case that since the Middle Ages most societies have become much less brutal, due largely to changes in what’s considered moral.  So if morality is innate, it’s certainly malleable.  And that itself refutes the argument that human morality comes from God, unless the moral sentiments of the deity are equally malleable.  The rapid change in many aspects of morality, even in the last century, also suggests that much of its “innateness” comes not from evolution but from learning.  That’s because evolutionary change simply doesn’t occur fast enough to explain societal changes like our realization that women are not an inferior moiety of humanity, or that we shouldn’t torture prisoners.  The explanation for these changes must reside in reason and learning:  our realization that there is no rational basis for giving ourselves moral privilege over those who belong to other groups.

    Here we find the good professor behaving for all the world like one of Niko Tinbergen’s famous sticklebacks who, suddenly realizing he has strayed far over the established boundary of his own territory, rushes back to more familiar haunts.  Only one of Lewontin’s “genetic determinists” would be obtuse enough to suggest that the meanderings of 21st century morality are caused by “evolution,” and those are as rare as unicorns.  Obviously, no such extraordinarily rapid evolution is necessary.  The innate wellsprings of human morality need not “evolve” at all to account for these wanderings, which are adequately accounted for by the fact that they represent the mediation of a relatively static “moral sense” in a rapidly changing environment through the consciousness of creatures with large brains.  As brilliantly demonstrated by Hutcheson in his An Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections, absent this “root cause” in the form of evolved behavioral predispositions, “reason and learning” could chug along for centuries without spitting out anything remotely resembling morality.  Innate behavioral predispositions are the basis of all moral behavior, and without them morality as we know it would not exist.  The only role of “reason and learning” is in interpreting and mediating the “moral passions.”  Absent those passions, there would be literally nothing to be reasoned about or learned that would manifest itself as moral behavior.  They, and not “reason and learning” are the sine qua non for the existence of morality.

    But let us refrain from looking this particular gift horse in the mouth.  In general, as noted above, the New Atheists may be found more or less in the same region of the ideological spectrum as was once occupied by the Blank Slaters.  If they are now constrained to add innate behavior to their arsenal as one more weapon in their continuing battle against the faithful, so much the better for all of us.  If nothing else it enhances the chances that, at least for the time being, students of human behavior will be able to continue acquiring the knowledge we need to gain self-understanding without fear of being bullied and intimidated for pointing out facts that happen to be politically inconvenient.