Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind”: First Impressions

I’ve finally started reading Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind.  It does not disappoint.  Haidt is certainly among the greatest, if not the greatest, moral psychologists of our time.  He may turn out to be wrong in detail here and there, but I suspect that continued advances in our understanding of how the brain works will confirm the big picture he has painted for us when it comes to human morality.  If it were up to me, this and a few similar books would be required reading in every high school in the country.  If nothing else, they might at least provoke the next generation of advocates of holy causes into thinking a little about whether they’re actually motivated by a saintly desire to save the world, or perhaps something rather less heroic.

That said, let the nitpicking begin.  I will have more to say about the book in a later post, but a couple of things caught my eye as I began reading.  First, Haidt’s comments in favor of group selection in response to criticisms of E. O. Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth by Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, and a host of other anti-group selectionists were no fluke.  He leaves no doubt where he stands on the matter in The Righteous Mind as well.  For example, from the introduction,

But human nature was also shaped as groups competed with other groups.  As Darwin said long ago, the most cohesive and cooperative groups generally beat the groups of selfish individualists.  Darwin’s ideas about group selection fell out of favor in the 1960’s, but recent discoveries are putting his ideas back into play, and the implications are profound.  We’re not always selfish hypocrites.  We also have the ability, under special circumstances, to shut down our petty selves and become like cells in a larger body, or like bees in a hive, working for the good of the group.  These experiences are often among the most cherished of our lives, although our hivishness can blind us to other moral concerns.  Our bee-like nature facilitates altruism, heroism, war and genocide.”

I find it surprising that Haidt would have the courage to stick his neck out like this on such a controversial subject, and one that is likely to arose the ire of some very influential public scientists and intellectuals.  Group selection theory has inspired fierce passions for well over half a century, and continues to do so today.  Haidt has much to lose by climbing into the arena and joining the slugfest.  The question is, what does he have to gain?  One can only surmise that he is convinced group selection played a key role in the evolution of the behavioral traits described in his book, or perhaps that the latest mathematical models of group selection published by Martin Nowak and others are airtight.

Other than that, I was bemused (or perhaps chagrined is a better word) to find Steven Pinker’s fanciful and farcical “history” of the Blank Slate ensconced in yet another book by a respected public scientist.  Apparently the rulers of Orwells Oceania were right.  “He who controls the present controls the past.”  Here’s Haidt’s version of the fairy tale:

The second wave of moralism was the radical politics that washed over universities in America, Europe, and Latin America in the 1960’s and 1970’s.  Radical reformers usually want to believe that human nature is a blank slate on which any utopian vision can be sketched.  If evolution gave men and women different sets of desires and skills, for example, that would be an obstacle to achieving gender equality in many professions.  If nativism (the belief that natural selection gave us minds that were preloaded with moral emotions, ed.) could be used to justify existing power structures, then nativism must be wrong.  (Again, this is a logical error, but this is the way righteous minds work.)

While it was true that the Blank Slate was embraced by reformers because it accommodated their utopian visions, those reformers were on the scene long before the type prevalent in the 60’s and 70’s came along, and the earlier versions were really more mainstream than radical.  They typically supported some flavor of socialism, an entirely mainstream philosophy in the 30’s, 40’s and well into the 50’s, particularly in Europe, and represented the scientific and political orthodoxy of their day, at least as it existed on university campuses.  I recently wrote an article about a typical example of the type, anthropologist and socialist Geoffrey Gorer, a friend and supporter of George Orwell, who was also a convinced socialist.  Gorer was entirely respectable, mainstream, and impeccably non-radical in his day, and wrote the following in the 50’s:

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.

Gorer was highly intelligent, by no means a pious pecksniff of the 60’s and 70’s stripe, but, like so many other behavioral scientists of his era, had somehow managed to convince himself that a theory that should have been immediately identifiable as bunk to any reasonably intelligent 10 year old was actually true. It had to be true, or all of those fine “worldwide ideologies” that had occasioned the spilling of so much ink would be stillborn.

Haidt continues:

The cognitive scientist Steven Pinker was a graduate student a Harvard in the 1970’s.  In his 2002 book The Blank Slate:  The Modern Denial of Human Nature, Pinker describes the ways scientists betrayed the values of science to maintain loyalty to the progressive movement.  Scientists became “moral exhibitionists” in the lecture hall as they demonized fellow scientists and urged their students to evaluate ideas not for their truth but for their consistency with progressive ideals such as racial and gender equality.

Nowhere was the betrayal of science more evident than in the attacks on Edward O. Wilson, a lifelong student of ants and eco-systems.  In 1975 Wilson published Sociobiology:  The New Synthesis.  The book explored how natural selection, which indisputably shaped animal bodies, also shaped animal behavior.  That wasn’t controversial, but Wilson had the audacity to suggest in his final chapter that natural selection also influenced human behavior.  Wilson believed that there is such a thing as human nature, and that human nature constrains the range of what we can achieve when raising our children or designing new social institutions.

Prophets challenge the status quo, often earning the hatred of those in power.  Wilson therefore deserves to be called a prophet of moral psychology.  He was harassed and excoriated in print and in public.  He was called a fascist, which justified (for some) the charge that he was a racist, which justified (for some) the attempt to stop him from speaking in public.  Protesters who tried to disrupt one of his scientific talks rushed the stage and chanted, “Racist Wilson, you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide.”

There, in a nutshell, are all the elements of Pinker’s bogus “history”:  In the beginning, the Blank Slate was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.  And E. O. Wilson said, Let there be light, and there was light.  As I will never weary of pointing out, it didn’t happen that way.  Wilson, for whom I have the greatest respect as a scientist and a courageous thinker, was hardly a “prophet” who came along and single-handedly slew the Blank Slate Dragon. Prophets are the carriers of revelations. Wilson carried none, at least as far as human nature is concerned.  He was preceded by numerous influential thinkers, such as Konrad Lorenz, Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, and Theodosius Dobzhansky, who also “believed that there is such a thing as human nature, and that human nature constrains the range of what we can achieve when raising our children or designing new social institutions,” and were derided for those beliefs as fascists long before E. O. Wilson came on the scene.

The most famous and influential of Wilson’s predecessors by far, as documented by the Blank Slaters themselves in Man and Aggression, an invaluable piece of historical source material edited by Ashley Montagu and published in 1968, was Robert Ardrey.  For example, from Gorer, who contributed to the book,

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.

The idea that there was anything “audacious” about “suggesting that natural selection also influenced human behavior” by 1975 is nonsense.  There is literally nothing in Sociobiology, at least as far as the ideas Wilson was attacked for, or regarded as a “prophet” for writing, are concerned, that had not appeared repeatedly in the works of Ardrey published more than a decade earlier, such as African Genesis and The Territorial Imperative.  For example,

Man is a fraction of the animal world… We are not so unique as we should like to believe. The problem of man’s original nature imposes itself upon any human solution.

Amity – as Darwin guessed but did not explore – is as much a product of evolutionary forces as contest and enmity. In the evolution of any social species including the human, natural selection places as heavy a penalty on failure in peace as failure in battle.

A certain justification has existed until now, in my opinion, for submission of the insurgent specialists to the censorship of scientific orthodoxy. Such higher bastions of philosophical orthodoxy as Jefferson, Marx, and Freud could scarcely be stormed by partial regiments. Until the anti-romantic (anti-blank slate) revolution could summon to arms what now exists, an overwhelming body of incontrovertible proof, then action had best be confined to a labyrinthine underground of unreadable journals, of museum back rooms, and of gossiping groups around African camp-fires.

If today we say that almost nothing is known about the much-observed chimpanzee, then what we mean is that almost nothing is known of his behavior in a state of nature.

The romantic fallacy (blank slate) may be defined as the central conviction of modern thought that all human behavior, with certain clearly stated exception, results from causes lying within the human experience… Contemporary thought may diverge wildly in it prescriptions for human salvation; but it stands firmly united in its systematic error.

The contemporary revolution in the natural sciences points inexorably to the proposition that man’s soul is not unique. Man’s nature, like his body, is the product of evolution.

Marxian socialism represents the most stunning and cataclysmic triumph of the romantic fallacy over the minds of rational men… And an observer of the animal role in human affairs can only suggest that much of what we have experienced in the last terrifying half-century has been simply what happens, no more and no less, when human energies become preoccupied with the building of social institutions upon false assumptions concerning man’s inner nature.

It is the superb paradox of our time that in a single century we have proceeded from the first iron-clad warship to the first hydrogen bomb, and from the first telegraphic communication to the beginnings of the conquest of space; yet in the understanding of our own natures, we have proceeded almost nowhere.

In reality, similar ideas set forth in Wilson’s books such as Sociobiology and On Human Nature, are better seen as afterthoughts than audacity.  Keep in mind that we are not discussing the merits of this or that scientific theory here, but mere matters of historical fact, e.g., who were really the most significant and influential opponents of the Blank Slate?  A genuine example of audacity may be found in Pinker’s book.  He dismisses the entire life work of Ardrey (and Lorenz) as follows:

The Noble Savage, too, is a cherished doctrine among critics of the sciences of human nature. In Sociobiology Wilson mentioned that tribal warfare was common in human prehistory.  The against-sociobiologists declared that this had been “strongly rebutted both on the basis of historical and anthropological studies.”  I looked up these “studies” which were collected in Ashley Montagu’s Man and Aggression.  In fact, they were just hostile reviews of books by the ethologist Konrad Lorenz, the playwright Robert Ardrey, and the novelist William Golding (author of Lord of the Flies).  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.”)

So much for “the most influential writer in English dealing with the innate or instinctive attributes of human nature” in a book purporting to be about the Blank Slate. Pinker doesn’t even bother to explain why Ardrey and the rest were “totally and utterly wrong. To learn that, we have to consult The Selfish Gene itself. Here is the passage referred to:

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 gene).

In other words, group selection was Pinker’s excuse for excising Ardrey from history and anointing Wilson as the great prophet who had thrown down the gauntlet to the Blank Slaters. We are to ignore the life work of a man, brilliant in spite of the constant bowdlerization of his work (and acceptance of that bowdlerization by those who should know better) as the “Killer Ape Theory,” and unrivaled in his ability to portray the big picture, whose constant theme was “that there is such a thing as human nature, and that human nature constrains the range of what we can achieve when raising our children or designing new social institutions,” because of group selection. In one of the most delicious ironies in the history of science, that theory has now been embraced by “dragon slayer” of the Blank Slate E. O. Wilson himself. In fact, the last couple of decades have been nothing if not a triumphant vindication of Ardrey’s battle against the false orthodoxy of the Blank Slate. To delete him from the history of that sad episode in the history of science as “totally and utterly wrong” makes about as much sense as deleting the Wright brothers from the history of manned flight as a couple of dilettante bicycle mechanics.

I suggest that if Haidt looked into the historical facts for himself, it might begin to dawn on him why Dawkins and Pinker were so quick to condemn Wilson’s advocacy of group selection in his latest book.  As a psychologist, I suggest he might want to consider the reasons why Pinker and others have so grossly misrepresented the history of the Blank Slate in a way that, to all appearances, seems intended to spare the sensitivities of the “group” of academic experts to which Pinker belongs by airbrushing out of history a man whose influence and significance as regards the Blank Slate controversy were much greater than Wilson’s, but who had the “audacity” to be right when the “group” of academic experts were wrong in spite of the fact that he was a “mere playwright.” It might behoove him to do so for reasons of sheer self-preservation. After all, if the man who really was the greatest opponent of the Blank Slate in its heyday could be airbrushed out of history and become an unperson for advocating group selection, what’s to prevent the same thing from happening to Haidt, not to mention Wilson?

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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