While wandering to and fro on the Internet, and surfing up and down in it, I recently ran across an article that appeared in the New York Times a while back touching on the subject of human nature entitled, “Thirst for Fairness May Have Helped Us Survive.” Of course, “all the news that’s fit to print” comes with a leftist slant in the Grey Lady, and the ideological left has stubbornly rejected the very idea that there is such a thing as human nature until quite recently. Indeed, until little more than a decade ago, such notions were not only rejected, but associated with any number of nefarious outgroups on the political right. As this article documents, times have changed. At some point, the mounting evidence that there not only is such a thing as human nature, but that it has a profound effect on our behavior, a fact that has always been obvious to anyone with an ounce of common sense who happened not to be encumbered with the quasi-religious ideological baggage of the Blank Slate, became to weighty to deny, even for the most casuistic dwellers in academia. A paradigm shift happened. The whole, tawdry intellectual facade that had been propping up the Blank Slate finally collapsed in a heap, human nature was embraced, albeit with a wry lack of enthusiasm, and a whole, largely mythical “history” of its passing was invented, as set forth, for example, in Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate. This article provides some interesting insight into how the “news” about human nature is currently being assimilated on the ideological left.
It turns out that there was nothing to be afraid of all along. For example, we read with a sigh of relief that “To be fair is human: Our instinct is to limit hierarchy.” A nice touch, that. There was a time when the very use of the word “instinct” would set the “experts” in human behavior to huffing and puffing about the precise definition of the word and its use in such a context. In these post-paradigm shift times, its value as a bludgeon for such point scoring has evaporated. Thus, a word that once inspired the striking of some of the most extravagant intellectual poses now raises nary an eyebrow, and has resumed its humble place in the vernacular. Elsewhere in the article we read that, according to one Dr. Katarina Gospic, “…the act of treating people fairly and implementing justice in society has evolutionary roots. It increases our survival.” Citing another expert, the author opines, “Our rise to global dominance began, paradoxically enough, when we set rigid dominance hierarchies aside.”
And who was that expert? Why, none other than Dr. David Sloan Wilson. I had to smile at that, although the joke would be somewhat obscure to anyone who hasn’t been paying close attention to the human nature controversy. You see, Wilson is one of the foremost proponents of the theory of group selection. It happens that this very theory was mentioned favorably in The Social Contract one of Robert Ardrey’s lesser known books. Now, Robert Ardrey was almost universally recognized by the Blank Slaters themselves in their heyday as their most formidable intellectual opponent, as documented, for example, in a collection of their essays entitled Man and Aggression. Edited by Ashley Montagu, the book can still be found on Amazon for a mere penny. However, it wouldn’t do for Ardrey, a mere playwright, to have been right about human nature when virtually the entire academic and professional community of experts in psychology, anthropology, sociology, etc., had been dead wrong. It was just too embarrassing to admit. It was necessary to revise history, relegating Ardrey to the role of an unperson, in the process elevating the far more academically palatable E. O. Wilson, who did nothing more than parrot Ardrey’s ideas in such books as On Human Nature and Sociobiology more than a decade later, to the role of the gallant knight who had actually defeated the Blank Slaters. Of course, some excuse was needed for sweeping Ardrey under the rug, and one was duly found – group selection! No matter that group selection played a minor role at best in Ardrey’s thought, it would have to serve. Richard Dawkins did the actual dirty work, writing in The Selfish Gene, that Ardrey was “totally and utterly wrong” about group selection. Pinker seized on this in The Blank Slate, treating Dawkins’ pronouncement as if it were a divine revelation to dismiss Ardrey’s entire legacy in a single sentence. It would seem, in retrospect, that Ardrey wasn’t quite as “totally and utterly wrong” about group selection as Dawkins suggested, or at least not in the opinion of David Sloan Wilson, now cited as an expert in the NYT. But wait, there’s more! A certain well known scientist has joined David Wilson in publishing papers in support of group selection. And who may that be? Why, none other than E. O. Wilson! Now, if Dawkins and Pinker were justified in dismissing all Ardrey’s work on account of group selection, can we expect another pronunciamento from them throwing E. O. Wilson under the bus as well, for the same reason? I’m not holding my breath.
But I digress. Let us turn to the article in question, and examine it for more broad insights into the topic of human nature. So far we have learned that our species is happily endowed with an “instinct” for fairness and equality. The author helpfully spoon feeds us regarding the relevance of this insight to current social arrangements concerning the distribution of wealth in the United States. We are unsurprised to learn that from a purely scientific and evolutionary standpoint, such arrangements are decidedly maladaptive. However, one looks in vain for any mention of such things as the hunting and raiding behavior of chimpanzees and its possible relevance to the suggestion that “human nature” might have something to do with our unrelieved history of warfare and slaughter of outgroups, or any other of the less politically correct elements of our behavioral repertoire. Of course, it’s only one data point, but I think it’s still a fairly accurate representation of the “progress” of the ideological left as it relates to innate human behavioral traits. In brief, it amounts to abandonment of the Blank Slate and acceptance of innate human behavior as glibly as if it had never been the subject of the slightest controversy. It also tends to take the form of seizing at any straw to “prove” that our innate predispositions are benign and politically correct, and studiously ignoring any evidence to the contrary.
And who are we to cavil at this “progress?” Surely it is a great leap forward from the blind “not in our genes” obscurantism that prevailed during the long reign of the Blank Slate. Research in the broad field of evolutionary psychology can now proceed, if not without controversy, at least without the distraction of thunderous anathemas hurled down by the high priests of a secular religion posing as scientists. So long as that research can proceed unhindered, we will gradually gain a deeper and more realistic understanding of our innate behavioral traits, revealing them as they really are, rather than as we want them to be. That, it seems to me, is real progress.