On the Politics of Evolutionary Psychology

Robert Kurzban, an Associate Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, writes a blog for the journal Evolutionary Psychology.  Every few posts one finds him responding to some critic of the field.  For example, in a recent piece entitled Could Evolutionary Psychology’s Critics Pass Evolutionary Psychology’s Midterms? he writes,

Back in October of last year, Larry Moran wrote a critique of an article about domestic abuse, which I subsequently responded to, pointing out an error in Moran’s post. Moran later responded in turn on his blog, writing, in part:

“Robert Kurzban was upset by my critique of science journalism and evolutionary psychology [Evolutionary Psychology Crap in New Scientist]. You might recall that my criticism is based on many common features of evolutionary psychology but the most important are the unwarranted assumptions that: (1) a particular specific behavior has a strong genetic component. (2) that the behavior is adaptive, and (3) that we know how our ancestors behaved.”

Kurzban responds to this rather obvious stuff, stock and trade of the critics of the field since the antediluvian days, now lost in a fog of myths, before Sociology was more than a twinkle in E. O. Wilson’s eye, and before it even went by the name of Evolutionary Psychology, with the similarly obvious observation that it’s nonsense.  He goes on to describe how even beginning students of EP were able to demolish Moran’s claim about “unwarranted assumptions” in a midterm exam, and concludes with the observation,

The broader point is that Moran is only one instance of a larger phenomenon, and critics of evolutionary psychology frequently demonstrate innocence of the field’s basic assumptions and theoretical commitments. As I’ve said in the past, an interesting question is why critics feel comfortable voicing such strong objections to the field, given their lack of background, even to the point, as in this case, of accusations of the discipline not being a science. I don’t pretend to understand the motives, but it’s an area that merits closer study. I’m afraid that we can be confident that there will be plenty of additional data along the same lines from our voluble critics of evolutionary psychology.

I suspect Prof. Kurzban has been around long enough to understand the “motives” perfectly well.  Perhaps his sense of academic gravitas prevents him from calling a spade a spade or, more precisely, propaganda.  In fact, as he points out in his post, Moran’s objections are ridiculous from any rational point of view.  But hackneyed and threadbare though they are, they’ve been around a long time for a reason.  They’re excellent as propaganda.  As another expert in a different field of psychology once noted, people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it. 

But, to return to Prof. Kurzban’s question, what could Moran’s motive be for bleating such nonsense with the rest of the sheep?  It’s always been obvious enough.  It’s the same motive that convinced an earlier generation of benighted graduate students that they would be serving the greater good of mankind by physically attacking someone as benign as E. O. Wilson for suggesting there actually is such a thing as human nature.  It springs from the fact that evolutionary psychology and what was once upon a time a secular religion known as socialism are mutually exclusive.  True, the secular religion is no more; its god went bankrupt.  Artifacts of its demise, however, persist, especially in the more obscurantist recesses of university campuses, like the afterglow of a great supernova.

Socialism requires what evolutionary psychology precludes; that human behavior be infinitely malleable.  And why?  Prof. Kurzban asked for data points, so I will give him one.  In fact, I already mentioned it in an earlier post.  It turned up in an essay by Geoffrey Gorer, a world-renowned psychologist in the middle decades of the 20th century.  Gorer was a friend and correspondent of George Orwell, and gave him a leg up in finding publishers for his first books.  Both were convinced socialists.  In an essay published in 1956 entitled, appropriately enough, The Remaking of Man, Gorer wrote,

One of the most urgent problems – perhaps the most urgent problem – facing the world today is how to change the character and behavior of adult human beings within a single generation.  This problem of rapid transformation has underlaid every revolution (as opposed to coups d’etat) at least from the time of the English Revolution in the seventeenth century, which sought to establish the Rule of the Saints by some modifications in the governing institutions and the laws they promulgated; and from this point of view every revolution has failed… the character of the mass of the population, their attitudes and expectations, change apparently very little.

Up till the present century revolutions were typically concerned with the internal arrangements of one political unit, one country; but the nearly simultaneous development of world-wide communications and world-wide ideologies – democracy, socialism, communism – has posed the problem not merely of how to transform ourselves – whoever ‘ourselves’ may be – but how to transform others.

If Prof. Kurzban is looking for smoking guns regarding the “motives” of Evolutionary Psychology’s detractors, it seems to me this is a good one. But wait, there’s more!  It happens that Gorer contributed another essay to a remarkable little book entitled Man and Aggression, an invaluable piece of source material for anyone interested in the history of evolutionary psychology edited by Ashley Montagu that appeared in 1968.  Its contributors were a collection of academic and professional worthies, all of whom denied that there was any such thing as innate human nature, at least of any significance.  They were the sort of people one might refer to today as “Blank Slaters.”  The book, still available at Amazon for about a dollar, was basically a polemic aimed at the two most influential proponents at the time of what later became Evolutionary Psychology.  Most of them included some version of at least one of Moran’s “critiques” of Evolutionary Psychology.  Most of them also alluded to the moral turpitude of the defenders of innate human nature in matters of politics.  Gorer’s essay happened to include the following remarkable passage about one of the book’s two human targets:

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.

I daresay Prof. Kurzban is as innocent of any knowledge of the existence of a man named Robert Ardrey as a typical Soviet apparatchik was innocent of any knowledge of a man named Leon Trotsky during the last years of Stalin. And yet I have seen him refer to Richard Lewontin, a man who was “completely and utterly wrong,” to paraphrase Richard Dawkins, about the blank slate, a convinced Marxist who still spouts blather about the “dialectic” (what great fun it would be to hear him try to give a “dialectic” account of the class nature of the Russian Revolution), and author of a book as inane as “Not in our Genes,” as a revered and highly respected authority.

Odd, isn’t it, that experts in the field of evolutionary psychology should be performing triple kowtows before Richard Lewontin even as they astutely ignore a man who, easily within living memory, was known as, “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.” Odd, too, that Steven Pinker could have written a whole tome about the Blank Slate that contained a grand total of only one mention of the man acknowledged by the Blank Slaters themselves to be their most influential and skilled opponent, and then only to dismiss him as having been, again paraphrasing Richard Dawkins, “completely and utterly wrong.” It occurs to me that evolutionary psychologists would be a good deal more effective at resisting politically motivated obscurantists like Moran if they would refrain from distorting their own history.

Robert Ardrey

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.

3 thoughts on “On the Politics of Evolutionary Psychology”

  1. My whole family are atheists, our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith. However we do not rely soley upon science and reason, but we usually distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason. We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, openmindedness, and the pursuit of knowledge.

  2. Thank you for remembering Robert Ardrey. His books influenced me quite a bit, and they were a delight to read. I don’t know why he is not more recognised. I suspect it is partly academic snobbery, because the guy was a successful playwright, not a professional scientist.

    No doubt he made mistakes, but if – for example – you go back and read Wilson’s Sociobiology, the section on Man reads very creakily now too.

  3. I agree that academic snobbery, as well as academic shame, are a big part of the reason Ardrey has become an unperson in those quarters. By the testimony of the Blank Slaters themselves,they had no more important or effective opponent than he in the entire Blank Slate controversy (see “Man and Aggression” by Montagu, et.al.) Yet Steven Pinker can only bring himself to mention him once in a book that purports to document that controversy, and then only to claim that he had been “totally and utterly wrong.” And why? Because, on the testimony of Richard Dawkins, he didn’t “think right” about group selection. Well, as we now know, the verdict isn’t quite in yet on group selection after all, and if Ardrey was wrong about it, so was Darwin.

    The big point that Ardrey was trying to make, and that all of his books were about, was hardly group selection. It was that innate predispositions exist in human beings. He was “totally and utterly” right about that, and all his many opponents in academia and the behavioral professions were really the ones who were “totally and utterly wrong.” In the upshot, many of those opponents who were so wrong still hold respected emeritus professorships, and Ardrey has been forgotten and ignored. No good deed goes unpunished.

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