Influences

One hesitates to name those who have influenced one’s point of view in this day of ostentatious public piety.  There is hardly an individual of any significance who has not been condemned as “immoral” for one reason or another.  Often this is done by those who, if challenged, could not explain coherently why one thing is morally “good” and another “bad.”  Their moral judgments are built on a foundation of sand, but they are, nevertheless, cocksure they are right.  The writer who most profoundly influenced my own attitude towards morality and ethics was probably Robert Ardrey, author of books such as “African Genesis” and “The Territorial Imperative.”  Ardrey was a remarkable man.  Trained as a statistician and later employed as a playwright, he turned his attention to anthropology and the behavioral sciences in the 1950’s.  He traveled widely, met and learned from a great number of scientists in the field, and thought deeply about what he had seen.   The overriding theme of his work was the deep connection between human behavior, and our evolutionary past, the “animal” basis of what we are, if you will.  Ardrey popularized the work of many scientists and students of animal behavior, noting the frequent human analogs of that behavior, especially in the primates.  He also hypothesized about the influence on human behavior of our evolutionary past, suggesting that “innate predispositions” influenced a host of human behavioral traits, such as our tendency to perceive the rest of humanity in terms of “in-groups” and “out-groups,” the predisposition to acquire a morality, conditioned by culture, but with many common features in all human societies, and even apparently “altruistic” behavior.  Ardrey was attacked by those who claimed he put too much emphasis on traits they objected to, such as aggression.  However, they missed the point.  Ardrey himself never considered such notions more than hypotheses, as evidenced by the title of one of his books, “The Hunting Hypothesis.”  The fundamental point of Ardrey’s work was that there is a genetic basis for human behavior, that we act the way we do and perceive the world the way we do, in part, because that’s the way our brains are wired. 

 

In fact, Ardrey’s most bitter enemies, people of the likes of Ashley Montagu and Richard Lewontin, did not merely differ with him about the nature of the genetic influence on human behavior.  They denied, in works such as Lewontin’s “Not in our Genes,” and in Montagu’s claim that the human brain at birth was a “tabula rasa,” that such an influence even existed.  One might consider the decades since Ardrey’s death in 1980 a triumphant vindication of his work.  Research has generated such mounds of evidence supporting his fundamental ideas that the Montagu school of behaviorists has now all but disappeared.  However, in spite of the current almost universal acceptance of the notion that genes influence behavior, a fact that would have seemed astounding to anyone following the debate in the 60’s, Ardrey has hardly been proclaimed a genius in retrospect.  The reason for this is probably one of the very human behavioral traits Ardrey pointed out, the amity-enmity predisposition, the tendency to categorize our fellow human beings in terms of “in-groups” and “out-groups.”  For a host of reasons, Ardrey’s ideas were unwelcome to the political left of his day.  Leftists preferred to believe that human beings had an unlimited capacity to acquire whatever traits were needed to make them perfect denizens of the Marxist and other utopias that were being concocted for them.  For that reason, they put Ardrey into their “out-group,” identifying him as a “fascist,” a “racist,” and a supporter of all the sinful tendencies the political left of that day associated with their enemies on the right.  He remains in that out-group to this day, even though modern leftists have been forced to accept the truth of his fundamental ideas, and there he will probably stay.  He is still, like many other thinkers who have been condemned for shaking the ideological cages on the left or the right too harshly, well worth reading.

 

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