Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt and the Unpersons of Evolutionary Psychology

The history of the behavioral sciences in the 20th century cannot be other than an embarrassment to the current practitioners in the field.  Truth was sacrificed to the ideologically motivated dogma now referred to as the Blank Slate.  This dogma, according to which the influence of innate predispositions on human behavior is insignificant, crippled the advance of scientific understanding in fields such as psychology, sociology, and anthropology for many years.  Eventually, the dogma collapsed under the weight of its own absurdity.  Perhaps because of the innate human nature that they once pretended didn’t exist, today’s crop of experts has lacked the courage to admit how wrong they were for so long.  To admit the truth – that they had been completely wrong about something absolutely fundamental to even a rudimentary understanding of human behavior – would be to sacrifice their academic and professional gravitas.  It would be the equivalent of saying, “Yes, we were complete ninnies for the better part of a century even as we bamboozled the general public into believing we knew what we were talking about, but, trust us, now we’ve got it right.”

As a result, it was necessary to give history a makeover.  A new version of the past was created that glossed over the true scale and significance of the debacle.  The Blank Slate was described as “archaic” science, as if it had happened in the days of Galileo instead of a few short years ago.    New heroes were created as the knights in shining armor who had defeated the Blank Slate dragon, chosen from the ranks of the experts themselves, and suitable to their sense of amour propre.  Their noble deeds supposedly all began with the publication of E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology in 1975.  This reinvented version of the past has certainly helped propped up the academic gravitas of today’s crop of experts.  Unfortunately, it has also resulted in some collateral damage.  Among other things, it ignores the contributions of those who actually did play the most significant role in the overthrow of the Blank Slate.

There were not a few of them who debunked the Blank Slate long before the appearance of Sociobiology.  One of the more interesting examples was the Austrian ethologist, Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt.  There’s actually an interesting association between him and Robert Ardrey.  It happens that Ardrey, and not E. O. Wilson, actually was the most significant and effective opponent of the Blank Slaters.  As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, Steven Pinker managed to write a whole book entitled The Blank Slate, now accepted as the standard “text” on the subject, that ignored the role of Ardrey and that of Nobel Prize winner Konrad Lorenz, in spite of the fact that these two were recognized by the Blank Slaters themselves as their two most influential and effective opponents.  Anyone doubting the fact need only consult the invaluable little historical document Man and Aggression, edited by Ashley Montagu.  No matter, the two just didn’t fit in the new “standard version” of history.  Pinker dismissed them with a bare couple of lines, declaring that they had been “totally and utterly wrong.”

As it happens, his “authority” for this assertion, remarkable as it is in view of the fact that the two had been the most effective opponents of a dogma that really was “totally and utterly wrong,” was none other than Richard Dawkins, who asserted as much in The Selfish Gene.  His reason for this rather sweeping assertion was their supposed support of the theory of group selection.  What’s interesting about all this as far as Eibl-Eibesfeldt is concerned is that Dawkins lumped him and Konrad Lorenz together with Ardrey in the same denunciation.  Referring to group selection in The Selfish Gene, he wrote,

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).

For the record, here’s the bit in Pinker’s The Blank Slate that relies on Dawkins’ “authority” to dismiss the work of Ardrey and Lorenz:

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.”)

Basta!  So much for Ardrey and Lorenz!  To the best of my knowledge, Ardrey never even mention the “hydraulic” theory, and Lorenz only brought it up in one of his later papers.  It was of virtually no significance to his overall contribution to the behavioral sciences.  Dismissing Ardrey and Lorenz because of group selection is like dismissing Einstein because of his remarks on quantum theory.  It completely misses the actual theme of their work, which was their insistence on the significance of innate behavioral traits.  The same is true of Eibl-Eibesfeldt.  He wrote a great deal about group behavior in Love and Hate, but there is little if any basis in the book for the claim that he thought these traits existed as a result of group selection.  If anyone can find a passage to justify such a claim, I would be glad to know about it.

In fact, group selection theory was no more an essential to the work of Eibl-Eibesfeld than it was to that of Lorenz or Ardrey.  Its only real significance as far as they are concerned has been to serve as a red herring to justify relegating their work to the dustbin.  The main theme in the work of all three was their insistence that innate predispositions have a significant influence on human behavior.  Books are currently rolling off the presses in a continuous stream confirming that theme.  In a sane world, the three would be lionized as heroes who stood up against a popular lie in the teeth of a vicious campaign of vilification by the ideologues who promoted that lie.  This is not a sane world.  No matter how great their real significance, those who published before 1975 had “jumped the gun” as far as the new official history is concerned.  It was necessary to drop them down the memory hole.

Eibl-Eibesfeldt jumped the gun.  His Love and Hate, which was probably his most effective critique of the Blank Slate, appeared in 1970.  He wrote the book in part to complement Lorenz’ On Aggression, debunking the notion that Lorenz’s book promoted genetic determinism, e.g., the idea that human behavior is genetically predetermined, and is little influenced by culture or environment.  Indeed, while their opposites, the Blank Slaters, who insisted that human behavior was, for all practical purposes, completely malleable, and influenced little if at all by human nature, certainly existed in great numbers, I doubt that there has ever really been such a thing as a genetic determinist, or at least none with any pretense of scientific respectability.  Eibl-Eibesfeldt himself apparently thought Ardrey was one, writing, for example,

“Cain rules the world.  If anyone doubts it let him read the history of the world.” wrote Leopold Szondi in 1969.  In his view a murderous inclination is inherent in all men and he speaks of a “Cain-tendency,” a drive factor with which we are born.  Robert Ardrey has sketched a similar portrait of mankind.

One can but surmise that he swallowed the disinformation thrown out by Ardrey’s enemies, and, like many of his other critics, never bothered to actually read his work.  If he had, he would have found that nothing was further from the truth.  In fact, Ardrey constantly insisted on the influence of both innate predisposition and culture on human behavior.  The whole point of his work was that there is no such thing as an irresistible “Cain-tendency.”  On the contrary, as he constantly reiterated in every one of his books, he believed that the human predispositions that have contributed to our long history of aggression and violence can be controlled and, perhaps, redirected towards positive ends, but only if we understand them.  At the time that his books appeared, the main threat to acquiring that understanding was the ideology of the Blank Slate.  Eibl-Eibesfeldt was well aware of the quasi-religious nature of that ideology.  For example, from Love and Hate,

Marxists base all their efforts on the assumption that there is no such thing as human nature, in the sense of innate dispositions, and that man is shaped by his social environment alone.  Now there is no doubt that the social environment shapes man to a significant extent – it is in man’s malleability that our hope lies – but innate dispositions are equally demonstrable.  If only these can be taken into consideration then society might be spared a number of fruitless experiments.

In other words, like Ardrey, Eibl-Eibesfeldt did not agree that the best way to solve our problems was to collectively bury our heads in the sand and pretend that the behavioral traits that give rise to them don’t exist.  Elaborating on this theme, he wrote,

Our biological investigation of human behavior has first of all shown that the aggressive drive that is innate in us has its own natural antidotes… Just as medicine developed successfully as an empirical science, so we shall be able to evolve ways to cure the crises of society only from a biological understanding of human behavior… Good or evil?  This disposition toward intolerance and aggression is certainly innate in us, but we carry no mark of Cain upon our brows.  The thesis of man’s killer nature cannot seriously be upheld; on the contrary investigation shows that by nature we are also extremely friendly beings.

Many interesting examples of cross-cultural commonalities in human behavior, many of them derived from the author’s own extensive work in the field, are cited in Love and Hate.  They remind one of the similar examples cited in an earlier work by another famous author.  That author was Charles Darwin, and the book in question was The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.  The importance of innate behavioral traits in human beings and their relevance to morality were no secret to Darwin, as anyone who reads his book can see.  Unfortunately, few people have read it, or, for that matter, even heard of it.  Given the troubled history of the field, that should come as no surprise.

6 thoughts on “Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt and the Unpersons of Evolutionary Psychology”

  1. Another in this series, which I am very glad you are writing. I have Darwin’s book on the emotions and Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt’s Love and Hate. I think the latter published a larger compendium of his research, which I seem to recall reading quite some time back.

    I remember his clever use of film cameras with a false and true lens direction, to catch unaffected behaviour. And his depiction of the typical flirtatious eye movements of young women and the signs of grief.

    I mentioned I E-E once on the old Anthro-L discussion group and got a critical comment about the ethics of his filmwork. Human universals in behaviour were not popular on that discussion list.

    Incidentally, you may be interested to know that Frank Salter, whose work on human ethology I enjoy, has an article in the June issue of Quadrant, the Australian monthly opinion journal, entitled “The War Against Human Nature in the Social Sciences”.

  2. I’ll have a look at Salter’s article. The war on human nature has been going on for some time. My main problem with evolutionary psychology at the moment is that it wants to pretend that there is no war, or that it’s an “archaic” thing of the past, and that the history of the war and those who played the most significant roles in it can be safely ignored.

  3. I think it is partly that old “killing the Father” thing. And not wanting to be in intellectual debt. Camille Paglia is interesting on this, in respect of her attack on Foucault.

    Also, some of the early human ethologists are probably seen as an embarrassment. Ardrey, a playwright (I admire him actually, and his prose was fantastic. I still have his books.) And Lorenz with his Teutonic oddities, who I seem to recall was criticised for being too close to the Nazis when he won his Nobel.

    EO Wilson, much as I admire him, has a genius for the limelight. And I think he pretty much sucked all the oxygen out of the room with his Sociobiology. Trivers is another showman (albeit a genius of sorts). They are just more presentable and impressive. Trivers has “cool cred”, with his Black Panther connections.

    People always tidy up history. Why does Darwin not Wallace get all the attention? Lots of reasons. But one is probably that Darwin makes a better character in the evolution morality play. Wallace had all sorts of odd social views and believed in Spiritualism.

  4. I admire Ardrey, too. In fact, I consider the man a genius. I say that in full awareness of his mistakes, which he was often the first to admit himself, and his occasionally too vivid imagination. However, he was by far the most significant and convincing advocate of human nature at a time when virtually the entire academic and professional community in the social sciences was promoting the blank slate fairy tale. He had a gift for searching out and marshalling data in support of his ideas that is astounding for those pre-Internet days, and was admired for it even by his opponents. He saw the significance of Dart’s cave taphonomy data. Have you noticed C. K. Brain’s rowback and the increasing respect for Dart’s work in that field lately? Ardrey was able to appreciate the brilliance of outsider’s like Eugene Marais, to whom he dedicated one of his books. He understood the relationship of Marxist and other socialist thought to blank slate ideology, and analyzed it in his books better than anyone I have read since. He wrote a chapter about ingroup-outgroup behavior at a time when most social scientists had never heard of such a thing. And the list goes on and on. In the last analysis, he was right and his opponents were wrong about the significance of human nature, the real theme of all his work. The fact that today’s evolutionary psychologists are content to treat him as an unperson is shameful.

    As for Lorenz, his main weakness was that he imagined himself a great philosopher in the obscure German tradition. He would have done better to stick to his specialty than imagining himself as a reincarnation of Kant like some latter day Don Quixote. However, Pinker’s dismissal of his work because of his “hydraulic theory” is beyond absurd.

    I enjoyed reading Salter’s essay, and learned some new things from it. However, I note that he, too, supports the “standard” version of the history of evolutionary psychology. For example,

    “Human nature began its return slowly in the 1970s, a trend that continues.”
    and,
    “Evolutionary psychology developed from the ferment of ideas and research ignited by one of the greatest scientific controversies of the last century. It began in 1975 when Harvard University professor Edward O. Wilson included a chapter on humans in his magisterial opus Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, which brought together current theory and data on animal social behaviour.”

    E. O. Wilson hardly “ignited the ferment of ideas and research” that led to evolutionary psychology. To believe that, one must be completely ignorant of the furious ideological battle that was going on in the 60’s and early 70’s. For all the significance attributed to it by later day revisionists, Sociobiology was really just an afterthought in the battle over the significance of human nature that had already been going on for many years.

  5. I am glad you enjoyed Salter’s essay. I am not sure I can add much more, except to say that Ardrey’s descriptions of animal watching and animal behaviour are the best I have ever read.

    I suspect he is a lot of biologists’ guilty secret.

  6. Many thanks for a logical and well written article that I happened to stumble upon in the course of my research for an article on instinctive parenting.

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    Nice work!

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