Dawkins, Pinker, and Ardrey: The Making of an Unperson

The Blank Slate is absurd.  Consider your own behavior, the behavior of those around you, and the many observable commonalities in human behavior that are obvious if you trouble yourself to read a little history, and it is difficult to grasp how anyone could believe something so palpably ridiculous.  In spite of that, it prevailed for many years as the dominant theory of human behavior among those who passed as experts in related fields.  We have a powerful inclination to believe in comforting fallacies over jarring realities, and nothing so jarred the comforting fallacy that human behavior is so malleable that we can be “re-educated” at will to become perfect citizens of ideal fantasy worlds or systems as the reality of innate human behavioral traits.  So intertwined are our emotions with the whole subject of why we act and think the way we do that the very history of the subject has been amply adjusted to suit preferred narratives.  That is true whether one speaks of the adherents of the Blank Slate or its opponents. 

An intriguing instance of the latter is the case of Robert Ardrey.  He was arguably the most influential opponent of the Blank Slate who ever took up a pen.  He is also an unperson.  It is a remarkable fact that Steven Pinker, who wrote a book entitled The Blank Slate, purporting to describe the history and nature of a phenomenon he accurately described as a secular religion, could only bring himself to mention Ardrey’s name in a single paragraph.  Even then it was only to distance himself from the man, as if from an untouchable.  Speaking of Ashley Montagu’s Man and Aggression, a collection of essays by Blank Slaters directly aimed at Ardrey and, to a lesser extent, Konrad Lorenz, he wrote, apparently in the persona of Dawkins’ poodle,

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.”)

This statement must seem remarkable to anyone who has bothered to read Ardrey and Lorenz, not to mention Dawkins.  To the best of my knowledge, Lorenz’ ideas about the “discharge of hydraulic pressure” never appeared in Ardrey’s work, and Lorenz himself only mentioned the hypothesis as an afterthought to an earlier paper.  It by no means played any central or significant role in his thought or intellectual legacy, and no role in Ardrey’s work whatsoever.  As for Dawkins’ claim that “the authors got it totally and utterly wrong,” it was based entirely on his rejection of theories of group selection proposed by Wynne-Edwards that Ardrey mentioned approvingly in The Social Contract.  It is hard to believe that Pinker ever troubled himself to actually read Ardrey’s books, not to mention those of many other thinkers whose work he freely bowdlerized to fit his narrative in The Blank Slate.  If he had, he would have noticed that the common theme of all of them was that the Blank Slate was wrong, that innate predispositions profoundly influence human behavior, with the caveat that they influence it less than in perhaps any other species, their actual expression being heavily influenced by culture and environment, and that, far from implying anything “deterministic” about either our behavior or our future, we can and should alter our behavior based on a recognition of the reality of human nature.  In a word, the basic themes of The Blank Slate appeared in Ardrey’s work more than a quarter of a century earlier, but expressed more clearly, certainly more entertainingly, and without Pinker’s regrettable tendency to pontificate about the role of thinkers whose work he has either not read or not understood. 

As for group selection, the notion that it played some kind of a central role in Ardrey’s work, or even in The Social Contract, the one of his books in which it is mentioned, is nonsense.  The phrase in Dawkins’ book to which Pinker refers reads as follows (Dawkins is speaking of claims about the significance of his subject):

These are claims that could have been made for Lorenz’s On Aggression, Ardrey’s The Social Contract, and Eibl-Eibesfeldt’s Love and Hate. The trouble with these books is that their authors got it totally and utterly wrong. They got it wrong because they misunderstood how evolution works. They made the erroneous assumption that the important thing in evolution is the good of the species (or the group) rather than the good of the individual (or the gene.)

I haven’t read Eibl-Eibesfeldt’s book, but as far as Lorenz and Ardrey are concerned, the one who got it “totally and utterly” wrong here is Dawkins.  Neither of them “assumed that the important thing in evolution is the good of the species.”  Apparently, writing as a young man far less prominent than he is today, Dawkins completely missed the point of their work.  Both of them understood the genetic basis of evolution, and were well aware of the controversy regarding group selection, which Dawkins hardly “discovered.”  Human and animal behavior, rather than evolution, was the central theme of their work, a fact that Dawkins apparently missed completely.  It’s difficult to understand his attack on them as other than an attempt to gain notoriety and promote his book by tweaking the tails of two individuals who were both a great deal more prominent than he at the time, and who both had many enemies in the orthodox scientific community.  To get an idea of the basis for Dawkins remark, consider what he said about Ardrey a bit later in The Selfish Gene.  Speaking of the theory of group selection he writes,    

To put it in a slightly more respectable way, a group, such as a species or a population within a species, whose individual members are prepared to sacrifice themselves for the welfare of the group, may be less likely to go extinct than a rival group whose individual members place their own selfish interests first. Therefore the world becomes populated mainly by groups consisting of self-sacrificing individuals. This is the theory of ‘group selection’, long assumed to be true by biologists not familiar with the details of evolutionary theory, brought out into the open in a famous book by V. C. Wynne-Edwards, and popularized by Robert Ardrey in The Social Contract.


Robert Ardrey, in The Social Contract, used the group-selection theory to account for the whole of social order in general. He clearly sees man as a species that has strayed from the path of animal righteousness. Ardrey at least did his homework. His decision to disagree with orthodox theory was a conscious one, and for this he deserves credit.

Dawkins disingenuousness here is staggering.  Let’s assume that he actually read The Social Contract.  In that case, he either completely failed to comprehend what he was reading, or he is deliberately misrepresenting Ardrey’s work.  In the first place there’s the incredible arrogance of the comment that group selection was “assumed to be true by biologists not familiar with the details of evolutionary theory.”  This is to completely ignore that group selection had long been a matter of scholarly debate well before Dawkins published his book, that the parties of any significance on either side were both well aware of “his” theory of the selfish gene, and they either supported or opposed it using sophisticated evolutionary arguments.  Other than that, The Social Contract was not about group selection, nor was the subject central to the theme of the book.  Ardrey brought up the subject, not as an “assumption,” but as an admittedly controversial hypothesis that might explain, for example, the prevalence of alpha males within groups from generation to generation.  Ardrey must have scratched his head at reading Dawkins nonsense to the effect that he “used the group-selection theory to account for the whole of social order in general.”  There is no basis whatsoever for that remark in any fair reading of Ardrey.  He did not believe, nor did he ever claim, either implicitly or explicitly, that “man as a species has strayed from the path of animal righteousness.” 

Other than that, Dawkins was “completely and utterly wrong” to claim that Ardrey, Lorenz, Wynne-Edwards, or any of its other serious proponents was “completely and utterly wrong” about group selection.  That is apparent from the fact that the hypothesis of group selection hardly disappeared after Dawkins published his book.  It continues to be a contentious and controversial issue to this day.  However, the question is not whether group selection can or cannot actually occur.  The question is whether there could have been any possible basis for making the claim that the hypothesis was “completely and utterly wrong” in 1972, when Dawkins published his book.  In fact, there was insufficient knowledge of the complexity of  gene interaction and expression, not to mention a detailed physical understanding of the causes of such complex behavioral traits as altruism and moral behavior, and not to mention the lack of mathematical tools sufficiently precise to model the relevant processes, both then and now, to justify such a claim.  Thus, Dawkins implicit assertion that he was as infallible as the pope regarding group selection is ridiculous, and Pinker’s recognition of Dawkins as an infallible pope is even more absurd.

That such obscurantist versions of the “truth” can appear as easily among the supposed opponents as among the defenders of the Blank Slate is a testimony to the degree to which our emotions cloud the discussion of human nature.  Scientific detachment is difficult to achieve in studying both ourselves and our species.  We are so influenced by preferred narratives about the way things ought to be that we often can’t perceive the simplest truths about the way they really are.  And what of Ardrey?  One can only assume that, by pointing out that the “scientific” orthodoxy of the Blank Slate was palpably absurd, he insulted the gravitas of the entire professional scientific community, whether pro- or anti.  After all, he was a mere playwright (like Shakespeare, who Darwin loved to quote).  His was an act of unforgiveable lese majeste.  Hence, it was necessary that he disappear.  He became an unperson.

To those interested in knowing the truth, I can only suggest that they read the source material.  Those who trouble themselves to actually read Ardrey will find that group selection and the “good of the species” were virtually irrelevant to the central themes of his work.  Again, those themes were that the Blank Slate is wrong, that innate predispositions profoundly influence human behavior, and that their actual expression is strongly dependent on culture and environment.  They appeared in his books long before the publication of Sociobiology, which in its essentials is a mere echo of Ardrey.  Ardrey’s own explanation of the existence of Blank Slate in African Genesis was at once more concise, more entertaining, and less philosophically flatulent than Pinker’s The Blank Slate, which appeared almost half a century later.  It would also never have occurred to Ardrey to write a long book about such a subject that studiously ignored the role of individuals who played key historical roles relevant thereto. 

One can only hope that future historians have the intelligence and probity to recognize the true significance of Ardrey’s role.  He was a man of many hypotheses, and was quick to admit it when he was wrong.  However, regarding the key theme of his work, the profound influence of the innate on human behavior, he was right, and his detractors were wrong.  None were better than he at grasping the “big picture,” in the spirit of E. O. Wilson’s Consilience.  In the intervening years since his last book was published, we have witnessed what amounts, for the most part, to a triumphant vindication of his work.    As we have seen, his reward has been relegation to the status of an unperson. 

No doubt many others who recognized important truths about the human condition consigned themselves to oblivion, or bowdlerization, in the process.  Would you like to know what Hume, or Mill, or Huxley, or Spencer, or Read, or Keith, or Lorenz, or Ardrey really had to say about the subject?  There’s only one way to find out for sure.  Read them yourself.

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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