The Troubled Past of Evolutionary Psychology, or Why Robert Ardrey Should Not Be an Unperson

I often mention Robert Ardrey on this blog. It’s not because I’m a hero worshipper, although I consider him an exceptionally brilliant man. Rather, I’m disturbed by the marked tendency of scientists and academics in disciplines relevant to his work to ignore him. The reason, I think, has much to do with the fact that Ardrey was right about the central theme of all his work, which was decidedly not the “Killer Ape Theory,” that favorite hobby of his detractors. Rather, that theme was the significant impact of innate, evolved behavioral traits, or “human nature,” on human behavior. He was the most important representative of that point of view at a time when virtually the entire academic and professional community of experts in the behavioral sciences was wrong. For the most part, they promoted the “Blank Slate” orthodoxy of the day, according to which, if human nature exists at all, its effect on or behavior is insignificant. In the meantime, many of them have accepted the truth of many of the central themes of Ardrey’s work, but they have not accepted Ardrey.

Ardrey, after all, was a “mere playwright.”  His sin of being right when all the self-anointed experts were wrong was an unpardonable affront to their dignity. As a result, while many of the books on innate human behavior that have been rolling off the presses lately read like Ardrey retreads, the man himself has become an unperson. As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, one of the most remarkable instances of the phenomenon is Steven Pinker’s book on the Blank Slate, entitled, appropriately enough, The Blank Slate. In that book, running to more than 400 pages in my paperback copy, he somehow managed to avoid any mention of Ardrey except for a single sentence, in which he dismissed him as “totally and utterly wrong.”  And the reason?  Because Pinker had it on Richard Dawkins’ authority, as set forth in The Selfish Gene, that Ardrey’s comments on group selection, a topic hardly central to his work in one of his lesser known books, were inaccurate.  Well, as readers of my post on E. O. Wilson’s latest book will have noticed, some very influential scientists are not quite as convinced as Dawkins that Ardrey was “totally and utterly wrong” about group selection after all.

Pinker’s omission of Ardrey’s contribution to the demise of the Blank Slate orthodoxy may have been excusable if his role had been insignificant, but it was hardly that.  In fact, Ardrey was the most significant opponent of the Blank Slate in its heyday.  As I have pointed out before, that is not just my opinion, but was that of the Blank Slaters themselves.  Some of the most influential of them published a book entitled Man and Aggression, edited by Ashley Montagu, which appeared in 1968 and is still available used for a nominal price at Amazon.  The book was a polemic directed mainly against Ardrey, with a few potshots at fellow heretic Konrad Lorenz as well.  In the essay by one of the contributors, Geoffrey Gorer, a noted psychologist of the day, one finds the following:

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 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.  His wide readership has been earned, at least in part, by his mastery of the writer’s crafts.

Anyone who doubts the accuracy of Gorer’s remarks need only browse the popular newspapers and magazines of the day, which often carried stories on Ardrey’s work.

Why should anyone be concerned about the suppression of Ardrey today?  It seems to me that, if an entire academic and professional community could have been “totally and utterly wrong” about something as obviously bogus as the Blank Slate, at a time when a “mere playwright” dared to face them down in a series of very popular books and tell them they were wrong, it’s worthwhile knowing the reason why, whether it injures the amour-propre of latter day experts in the behavioral sciences or not.  Unless we know and understand how it is that an entire community of experts could have gone so disastrously off the tracks in support of an orthodoxy that, as Ardrey and a few others were insisting, was palpably false, we are more than likely to see recurrences of the same phenomenon in the future.

I think one can begin to see the reasons in some of the essays in Man and Aggression.  For example, again from Gorer,

His categories and preferences are bound to give comfort and provide ammunition for the Radical Right, for the Birchites and Empire Loyalists and their analogues elsewhere; there is, however, no evidence to show that Ardrey himself holds or advocates any such political views.

from naturalist Sally Carrighar,

Nothing could more effectively prolong man’s fighting behavior that a belief that aggression is in our genes.  An unwelcome cultural inheritance can be eradicated fairly quickly and easily, but the incentive to do it is lacking while people believe that aggression is innate and instinctive with us, as both Ardrey and Lorenz declare.

and from editor Ashley Montagu,

Such ideas were not merely taken to explain, but were actually used to justify, violence and war.

Montagu, in particular, was a veritable font of disinformation.  Some of his best thigh-slappers from the book include,

Mr. Ardrey needs the concept of “open instincts,” of innate factors, to support his theorizing.  But that requirement constitutes the fatal flaw in his theory, the rift in the playwright’s lute, for man is man because he has no instincts, because everything he is and has become he has learned, acquired, from his culture, from the man-made part of the environment, from other human beings.


The field studies of Schaller on the gorilla, of Goodall on the chimpanzee, of Harrisson on the orang-utan, as well as those of others, show these creatures to be anything but irascible.  All the field observers agree that these creatures are amiable and quite unaggressive, and there is not the least reason to suppose that man’s pre-human ancestors were in any way different.

It seems to me unwise to assume that today’s scientists are so much smarter, so much more free of ideological bias, and so much more infallible than the contributors to Man and Aggression that they will ever be immune to tomorrow’s incarnation of the Blank Slate, and yet they prefer to sweep the whole affair under the rug, referring to it as “archaic science,” or ignoring it completely.  It is anything but “archaic.”  It is still alive in the dark recesses of many university campuses, although its breathing has become increasingly labored of late, and was still fobbed off as received wisdom in the public media as recently as 15 years ago.  Instead of sweeping the Blank Slate under the rug, a new generation of scientists would do better to learn from it so they don’t repeat the same mistake again, and to insist that their students know the details to insure that they are well aware of the potential impact ideology can have in distorting scientific truth, to the point of deluding and befuddling a whole generation of “experts.”  In particular, evolutionary psychology, the modern incarnation of the ideas Ardrey represented, cannot afford to suppress and distort its past.  It will always need to deal with the contradiction between what we want ourselves to be and what we are.

One could cite many instances of potential conflict on the interface between science and ideology.  The clash between the theory of evolution and religious dogma is a familiar example.  However, the evolution of the brain is an area with the distinction of having potential conflicts with both religious and secular sacred cows.  In the case of the latter, contradictions arise because of the ideologically motivated insistence that all human groups not only be treated equally and have equal standing under the law, but actually are equal, for example, in “intelligence,” or brain function.  The potential such ideas might have for inhibiting free inquiry regarding the evolution of the brain were well reflected in an article that appeared in the New York Times a few years back.

The article, entitled Brain May Still Be Evolving, Studies Hint, discussed the finding by Bruce T. Lahn and his colleagues at the University of Chicago that “two genes involved in determining the size of the human brain have undergone substantial evolution in the last 60,000 years, …leading to the surprising suggestion that the brain is still undergoing rapid evolution.  Here are some extracts from the article:

New versions of the genes, or alleles as geneticists call them, appear to have spread because they enhanced brain function in some way, the report suggests, and they are more common in some populations than others.

 But several experts strongly criticized this aspect of the finding, saying it was far from clear that the new alleles conferred any cognitive advantage or had spread for that reason. Many genes have more than one role in the body, and the new alleles could have been favored for some other reason, these experts said, such as if they increased resistance to disease.

“I do think this kind of study is a harbinger for what might become a rather controversial issue in human population research,” Dr. Lahn said. But he said his data and other such findings “do not necessarily lead to prejudice for or against any particular population.”

A greater degree of concern was expressed by Francis S. Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute. Dr. Collins said that even if the alleles were indeed under selection, it was still far from clear why they had risen to high frequency, and that “one should resist strongly the conclusion that it has to do with brain size, because the selection could be operating on any other not yet defined feature.” He said he was worried about the way these papers will be interpreted.

Commenting on critics’ suggestions that the alleles could have spread for reasons other than the effects on the brain, Dr. Lahn said he thought such objections were in part scientifically based and in part because of a reluctance to acknowledge that selection could affect a trait as controversial as brain function.

You get the gist.  Any suggestion that there are differences in brain function between human groups raises immediate ideological hackles.  Scientists who are ignorant of the profound impact ideology has had in the past in distorting and, in some cases, falsifying, scientific results are likely to be blindsided by their critics if their own work happens to impinge on such forbidden zones.  A typical result is mystification at why their work is suddenly being subjected to hostile criticism, amounting to an apparently gross double standard that, strangely enough, doesn’t seem to apply to workers in more benign fields.

Scientists are probably more that usually vulnerable to such attacks because of their tendency to focus exclusively on some narrow specialty.  I suspect the impact would be a great deal less startling if young graduate students in the behavioral sciences in general, and evolutionary psychology in particular, were required to learn at least some rudiments of the history of their field, focusing not on the achievements of star performers, but on phenomena like the Blank Slate that have stifled and misdirected scientific progress in the past, turning whole branches into something more akin to religious sects than scientific disciplines.  The learning process would, of course, be facilitated if some of the most significant events and personalities in that history were no longer ignored.


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.