Animal “Culture” and Hard-Wired Behavior

Until quite recently the scientific establishment continued to bitterly defend the notion that human behavior is entirely or almost entirely derived from learning and culture, or what Robert Ardrey used to call the “Romantic Fallacy.” Interesting (and quite recent) artifacts of this belief in the “expert” community can be found, for example, in “Man and Aggression,” edited by Ashley Montagu, copies of which are available at Amazon for just a penny. Absurd on the face of it to anyone with an open mind, this particular piece of “scientific” chicanery was required for ideological reasons, as described by Steven Pinker in “The Blank Slate.”

The weight of evidence, never really lacking for at least the last half century and more, eventually became so compelling that these old orthodoxies finally had to be abandoned, and the profound influence of innate predispositions on human behavior is now generally accepted. Books on so-called hard-wired behavior have been flooding off the presses lately, most of them with little or no mention of the bitter ideological battle that had to be fought and won before such ideas gained acceptance. Indeed, Robert Ardrey, Konrad Lorenz, and others who carried the battle through the 60’s and 70’s are now passed over with abashed silence, and have become unpersons to the scientific establishment, somewhat after the fashion of Trotsky.

According to the current mythology, the idea of innate predispositions suddenly burst on the scene in 1975 with the publication of the “seminal” Sociobiology by E.O. Wilson, although there were no “seminal” ideas in the book that hadn’t been discussed at length in works such as African Genesis, The Territorial Imperative, and On Aggression a decade and more earlier. Wilson was a less bitter pill for the establishment to swallow than Ardrey and Lorenz because he didn’t insist on pointing to those aspects of innate behavior that weren’t “nice,” and he had sterling academic credentials, making him one of their “tribe.”

In the upshot, the heresy of insisting on innate human behavior has been replaced by the heresy of “reductionism,” or the supposed belief that our “instincts” determine our behavior, leaving no room for cultural or learned variations among groups. I know of no serious thinker who has ever actually been a “reductionist” in that sense, but the term is, nevertheless, current as a pejorative to attack those whose theories seem too threatening to the remaining ideological sacred cows. It is interesting to speculate, however, on whether the scientific establishment may have overshot the mark somewhat in that direction.

Consider, for example, the case of the bonobo.  Let us recall that, after assuming for decades that chimpanzees were mild, unaggressive, vegetarians based on an almost complete lack of studies of the apes in the wild, the scientific establishment suffered a rude shock when Goodall and others shattered this benign myth about one of our nearest primate relatives. In spite of their acceptance of innate behavior, including innate moral behavior, the tribe of psychologists, anthropologists and sociologists still hoped against hope that, in spite of the uncooperative chimps, human beings were still fundamentally “kind” and “nice” and that, with a few tweaks here and there, a new morality could be created, featuring them, of course, as the virtuous moral paragons and architects of the same, nobly guiding mankind into a Brave New World of “human flourishing.” Enter the bonobo, strikingly chimp-like in appearance, but a poster-ape of “niceness” and “kindness.” It all seems too good to be true, and perhaps it is.

It seems there’s a palpable danger of confirmation bias here. Perhaps bonobos really do have an innate tendency to be “nice.” If so, well and good. It won’t change anything as far as our own nature is concerned. However, the populations observed in the wild are necessarily small, many of the published studies are based on observations of behavior in small “sanctuaries,” and it may be that, having embraced innate behavior, we are now discounting the possibility that what we are seeing are cultural differences within a “parameter space” the bounds of which depend on innate mental traits, but which are otherwise more flexible than might be convenient to fit our latest ideological prejudices. Recent studies of Japanese macaques, for example, have uncovered remarkable cultural differences between groups in relatively close proximity to each other. Is it impossible, then, that cultural differences might not result in bonobo societies that are a great deal more “chimp-like,” and chimp societies that are a great deal more “bonobo-like” than current stereotypes suggest?

Our knowledge of ourselves has expanded greatly of late. For example, we now know that the qualities that distinguish us from other animals are significantly less distinct and sharp than many of us are comfortable with. Analogs of human behavior have been found in animals a great deal more distant from us genetically than the great apes. Under the circumstances, it would be well for us to keep in mind that, less than half a century ago, virtually the entire scientific establishment believed completely mythical accounts of the behavior of our nearest living animal relatives.  This time, we really need to get it right.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

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