Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate is a wonderful book. It documents the hijacking of the behavioral sciences by dogmatic ideologues with a reckless disregard for the truth. They established an oppressive orthodoxy that sought, not to debate its opponents, but to vilify and silence them. Pinker reviews the origins and development of their extreme “nurture versus nature” narrative, the political and ideological dogmas that inspired it, and presents a treasure trove of scientific evidence debunking those dogmas. Anyone who respects the truth and values the freedom of human thought owes him a debt of gratitude for what is, by and large, a masterful work. It is, however, not without its flaws and, uncharitable as it may seem, I will seek to point some of them out.
Perhaps the greatest is Pinker’s acceptance of the “big bang” myth of the demise of blank slate orthodoxy, according to which it began with the “seminal” books of E. O. Wilson, starting with Sociobiology, followed by On Human Nature. In fact, with all due respect to Wilson, a brilliant thinker whom I deeply admire, there was nothing significant about either book that was not old hat by the time they were published. Both of them suggested that innate traits had evolved in humans as well as other species that significantly affected our behavior. That hypothesis had been suggested by many other thinkers before Wilson, and Konrad Lorenz, Robert Ardrey and others had presented copious evidence that it was true at least 15 years before the publication of Sociobiology. By the time Sociobiology appeared, the evidence for innate human behavior, obvious enough to everyone but philosophers since ancient times, had become sufficiently compelling to leave no doubt that the hypothesis was correct in the minds of anyone who had not shut themselves off from the truth in an ideological strait jacket.
Ardrey, in particular, had a remarkable influence on his times, especially in the educated lay community, with books like African Genesis (1961), The Territorial Imperative (1966), and The Social Contract (1970). All of these books convincingly debunked the very same ideologues that Pinker spends so much time refuting in The Blank Slate, and all elicited the same blind fury from the ideologues that he so deplores. Lorenz, co-winner of a Nobel Prize in 1973, presented similar ideas in On Aggression (1966), and had the honor of being vilified and ridiculed with Ardrey in Man and Aggression (1968), a collection of essays edited by blank slate high priest Ashley Montagu. Unfortunately, Lorenz couldn’t resist occasionally falling into the obscure style of German philosophers, a weakness particularly evident in Behind the Mirror (1973), a factor that weakened the impact of his popular science books.
Both Ardrey and Lorenz shared the same fundamental ideas: That innate genetic traits have a significant effect on human behavior, that our genetic programming could manifest itself in “good” ways, but also in destructive behavior such as aggression, and that it was essential to learn the truth about our nature in order to control the darker aspects of it so as to avoid self-destruction. In those most significant and fundamental aspects of their thought, they were right and the orthodox community of experts were wrong. They might have forgiven Lorenz, because he was one of their own tribe, but he was joined at the hip with Ardrey. Ardrey was an outsider, an upstart, and they could never forgive him for shaming them. He became, and remains, an unperson.
It is all the more remarkable that the two most influential opponents of the blank slate in the 60’s and early 70’s should be virtually absent from a book entitled “The Blank Slate.” The ideologues may be in retreat, but their anathema still stands, and Pinker still obeys the interdict of his tribe. A new narrative has arisen to replace the old. Lorenz and Ardrey are absent from the copious list of references at the end of the book. The only mention of Ardrey is on page 124. Here is what Pinker has to say:
The Noble Savage, too, is a cherished doctrine among critics of the sciences of human nature. In Sociobiology, Wilson mentioned that tribal warfare was common in human prehistory. The against-sociobiologists declared that this had been “strongly rebutted both on the basis of historical and anthropological studies.” I looked up these “studies,” which were collected in Ashley Montagu’s Man and Aggression. In fact they were just hostile reviews of books by the ethologist Konrad Lorenz, the playwright Robert Ardrey, and the novelist William Golding (author of Lord of the Flies). Some of the criticisms were, to be sure, deserved: Ardrey and Lorenz believed in archaic theories such as that aggression was like the discharge of a hydraulic pressure and that evolution acted for the good of the species. But far stronger criticisms of Ardrey and Lorenz had been made by the sociobiologists themselves. (On the second page of The Selfish Gene, for example, Dawkins wrote, “The trouble with these books is that the authors got it totally and utterly wrong.”)
And thus, with a wave of the hand, Pinker dismisses the two most influential opponents of the blank slate in the heyday of blank slate orthodoxy, and the ideological blinkers of his tribe slam into place. It is hard to believe that he has ever actually read any of the books of Ardrey or Lorenz, or even took more than a superficial glance at Man and Aggression, for that matter. If he had, he might have noticed that the blank slate essayists themselves did not share his condescending attitude. For example, from Geoffrey Gorer’s “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.
If he had even taken the time to read the first page of Montagu’s introduction, Pinker would have noticed that William Golding was not somehow treated as a co-equal of Ardrey and Lorenz, nor was he of any significance as far as the book is concerned except as a red herring thrown out in a couple of the essays. As for the bit about “hydraulic pressure,” Lorenz simply used the analogy to illustrate his contention that not all behavior is a response to external stimuli, as claimed by the behaviorists. Their theory, ironically part and parcel of the Blank Slate orthodoxy itself, was that behavior is almost exclusively reactive, and therefore can be altered to an unlimited extent by learning. If Lorenz’ rejection of behaviorism is “archaic,” then it was pointless for Pinker to write his book. The Blank Slaters were right! As far as the notion that “evolution acts for the good of the species” is concerned, I can only surmise that Pinker took one of Ardrey’s more colorful phrases out of context. Both men’s view of evolution was entirely sober and orthodox. Again, if their ideas on the subject are somehow in conflict with some detail of the latest nuances of evolutionary theory, that is hardly a reason to dismiss their life’s work with contempt. Is the fact that Dawkins happened to throw a temper tantrum in The Selfish Gene and declare “The trouble with these books is that the authors got it totally and utterly wrong,” supposed to constitute a reasonable argument against them? “Totally and utterly wrong” about what? The whole point of the books was that innate behavior is real and the blank slate is wrong. Does Pinker disagree? Then why did he bother to write his book? Has Dawkins now become as infallible as the pope, so that we’re forced to take him at his word and must use him as an authority, even if he utters blockheaded phrases like that? Here are some of the things Ardrey actually wrote in African Genesis in 1961:
Man is a fraction of the animal world… We are not so unique as we should like to believe.
The problem of man’s original nature imposes itself upon any human solution.
Amity – as Darwin guessed but did not explore – is as much a product of evolutionary forces as contest and enmity. In the evolution of any social species including the human, natural selection places as heavy a penalty on failure in peace as failure in battle.
A certain justification has existed until now, in my opinion, for submission of the insurgent specialists to the censorship of scientific orthodoxy. Such higher bastions of philosophical orthodoxy as Jefferson, Marx, and Freud could scarcely be stormed by partial regiments. Until the anti-romantic (anti-blank slate) revolution could summon to arms what now exists, an overwhelming body of incontrovertible proof, then action had best be confined to a labyrinthine underground of unreadable journals, of museum back rooms, and of gossiping groups around African camp-fires.
If today we say that almost nothing is known about the much-observed chimpanzee, then what we mean is that almost nothing is known of his behavior in a state of nature.
The romantic fallacy (blank slate) may be defined as the central conviction of modern thought that all human behavior, with certain clearly stated exception, results from causes lying within the human experience… Contemporary thought may diverge wildly in it prescriptions for human salvation; but it stands firmly united in its systematic error.
“God made all things good,” wrote Jean-Jacques Rousseau. “Man meddles with them and they become evil.” …Stated so baldly, the Illusion of Original Goodness may bring a shudder to the contemporary spirit. But from Rousseau’s proposition a host of conclusions, all logical, all magical, came into being; that babies are born good; that in innoccence resides virtue; that primitive people retain a morality which civilized people tend to lose;
The contemporary revolution in the natural sciences points inexorably to the proposition that man’s soul is not unique. Man’s nature, like his body, is the product of evolution.
Marxian socialism represents the most stunning and cataclysmic triumph of the romantic fallacy over the minds of rational men… And an observer of the animal role in human affairs can only suggest that much of what we have experienced in the last terrifying half-century has been simply what happens, no more and no less, when human energies become preoccupied with the building of social institutions upon false assumptions concerning man’s inner nature.
It is the superb paradox of our time that in a single century we have proceeded from the first iron-clad warship to the first hydrogen bomb, and from the first telegraphic communication to the beginnings of the conquest of space; yet in the understanding of our own natures, we have proceeded almost nowhere.
Sound familiar? It should if you’ve read Pinker. Much of what Ardrey wrote about the “romantic fallacy” might have been taken directly from the pages of The Blank Slate. Notice anything about an “archaic hydraulic theory?” Neither did I. Does any of the above seem “totally and utterly wrong?” It doesn’t to me, either, nor does it to Pinker if we can believe what he wrote in his own book.
In a word, the narrative hasn’t died. It’s just assumed a new guise. Forget Pinker’s red herrings about “hydraulic theories.” The essential facts are that Ardrey and Lorenz defended the idea of innate behavior, and their opponents dismissed it. They got it right, and their opponents got it wrong. But Ardrey, you see, was a “mere playwright,” and the expert community could never forgive him for humbling them and for his flagrant lese majeste. It was essential that the truth be vindicated, not by an outsider, but by one of their own ingroup. In may be necessary for successful playwrights to have some expertise in human nature, but Consilience, a word that Pinker mouths repeatedly in his book, can only be carried so far. And so it was that a whole new mythology was created, and E. O. Wilson was anointed as a knight in shining armor who suddenly popped up 15 years after the publication of African Genesis and defeated the blank slate ideologues single-handed.
There are other problems with The Blank Slate, less severe but significant nevertheless. For example, Pinker shares the philosopher’s vice of creating neat Procrustean beds upon which the ideas of our greatest thinkers are distorted to make them fit into tidy patterns. According to such schemes, for example, philosopher A begat philosopher B, philosopher B begat Philosopher C, and philosopher C begat the Blank Slate. These tidy systems peel away the individual worth and integrity of our best minds and bowdlerize them into a simple stew so that pedants can make a pretence of understanding them. Thus a man as brilliant as John Stuart Mill, who had the misfortune to write about the human condition before the revolutionary ideas of Darwin could inform his thought, is reduced in The Blank Slate to a mere precursor of a hidebound ideologue like Ashley Montagu.
I’m sorry if some of my own animosities have surfaced here, but I am only human, too. That which is innate in us includes emotions that make it a matter of no small difficulty to step back and look at ourselves with cold scientific detachment. Pinker deserves our highest praise for The Blank Slate, because, as we press ahead with new discoveries, it is essential that we understand how entire branches of the behavioral sciences could have been so deranged and derailed by ideological dogmas. If the blemishes I imagine in his book are real, they can never serve as a pretext to dismiss his work with a wave of the hand, as he has so casually done to others.