…and One More Thing about Mencken

Occasionally Mencken’s American Mercury would include a section called the “Soapbox,” where lucky readers might find their letters to the editor.  One of them, signed by “A Reformed Psychologist” from Utica, NY, read as follows:

The great problem of psychology, during the next fifty years, will be to account for the fact that presumably rational beings once believed in some of the psychologies prevailing today.

The same could have been said fifty years later, when presumably rational beings believed,

The genetic contribution to man’s nervous system is virtually complete at birth.  Almost everything that happens thereafter is learned.  It is this consideration which inspires the modern anthropologist to declare that man has virtually no instincts, and that virtually everything he knows he has learned from his environment.  (Kenneth Boulding, Man and Aggression, p. 87)

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.  (Ashley Montagu, Ibid., p. 12)

…human nature is what man learns to become as a human being.  As we trace the details of man’s evolutionary history we see that it is with the development of culture that man’s brain began to grow and develop in a simultaneous feedback interaction with culture as an organ of learning, retrieval, and intelligence.  Under the selection pressures exerted by the necessity to function in the dimension of culture, instinctive behavior would have been worse than useless, and hence would have been negatively selected, assuming that any remnant of it remained in man’s progenitors.  In fact, I also think it very doubtful that any of the great apes have any instincts.  On the contrary, it seems that as social animals they must learn from others everything they come to know and do.  Their capacities for learning are simply more limited than those of Homo sapiens.(Ashley Montagu, Ibid., p. 15)

If the Reformed Psychologist of 1933 were resurrected in our own time, he would likely be very disappointed.  No apology has been forthcoming from the psychologists, not to mention the anthropologists or sociologists, either for the silliness retailed as “science” cited above, or the earlier silliness of the Reformed Psychologist’s own time.  We have neither heard an apology, nor has there even been a serious attempt by behavioral scientists to study and understand their own behavior.  That’s why I have to smile whenever I hear them refer to themselves as “men of science.”  If they were truly “men of science” surely it would occur to them that they owe the rest of us a convincing explanation of how they could have been so wrong about so many things for so long.  But failure to provide an explanation for why they foisted nonsense that was palpably false on the rest of us as “science” for so long is not the worst of it.  The worst of it is that they vilified and shouted down anyone who disagreed with them as fascists, racists, Nazis, right-wing reactionaries, John Birchers, and any number of other unsavory epithets, as documented in that invaluable little piece of historical source material, Man and Aggression, and many other easily accessible books and other documents.  Are we to understand that this, too, was “good science”?  Under the circumstances, a certain degree of skepticism regarding theories coming from those quarters would seem justified.


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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