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  • Robert Ardrey: Incidents in the Disappearance of an Unperson

    Posted on September 18th, 2013 Helian 20 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Robert Ardrey

    Robert Ardrey