Napoleon Chagnon and Robert Ardrey

History.  You don’t know the half of it.  Not, at least, unless you have the time and patience to do a little serious digging through the source material on your own.  A good percentage of the so called works of history that have appeared in the last 50 years have been written by journalists.  Typically, these take the form of moral homilies in which the author takes great care to insure the reader can tell the good guys from the bad guys.  They are filled with wooden caricatures, crude simplifications, pious observations, and are almost uniformly worthless.  The roles are periodically reversed.  For example, Coolidge, universally execrated by all right-thinking intellectuals in the 1930’s, has just been stood upright again in a new biographical interpretation by Amity ShlaesCharles Rappleye, one of my personal favorites among the current crop of historians, documents how Robert Morris morphed from good guy to bad guy back to good guy again in the fascinating epilogue to his biography of the great financier of our War of Independence.

Occasionally, major historical figures don’t fit into anyone’s version of the way things were supposed to be.  In that case, they just disappear.  Robert Ardrey is a remarkable instance of this form of collective historical amnesia.  Ardrey was, by far, the most effective opponent of the Blank Slate.   For those unfamiliar with the term, the Blank Slate was an ideologically induced malady that enforced a rigid orthodoxy in the behavioral sciences for several decades.   According to that orthodoxy, there was no such thing as human nature, or, if there was, it was insignificant.  The Blank Slate was bound to seem ridiculous to anyone with an ounce of common sense.  In a series of four books, beginning with African Genesis in 1961 and ending with The Hunting Hypothesis in 1976, Ardrey pointed out exactly why it was ridiculous, and what motivated its adherents to maintain the charade in spite of the fact.  They have been fighting a furious rearguard action ever since.  It has been futile.  Ardrey broke the spell.  The Blank Slate Humpty Dumpty was smashed for good.

Enter Napoleon Chagnon.  The great cultural anthropologist has just published his Noble Savages, in which he recounts his experiences among the Yanomamö of South America.  Over the years, he, too, has fallen afoul of the Blank Slaters for telling the truth instead of adjusting his observations to conform with their ideological never never land.  He, too, has been the victim of their vicious ad hominem attacks.  One would think he would revere Ardrey as a fellow sufferer at the hands of the same pious ideologues.  If so, however, one would think wrong.  Chagnon mentions Ardrey only once, in the context of a discussion of his own early run-ins with the Blank Slaters, as follows:

My field research and analytical approach were part of what anthropologist Robin Fox and sociologist Lionel Tiger referred to as the “zoological perspective” in the social sciences, a reawakening of interest in man’s evolved nature as distinct from his purely cultural nature.

For the record, Fox and Tiger were unknowns as far as the “reawakening in man’s evolved nature as distinct from his purely cultural nature” is concerned until they published The Imperial Animal in 1971.  By that time, Ardrey had published all but the last of his books.  Konrad Lorenz had also published his On Aggression in 1966, five years earlier.  The Imperial Animal was an afterthought, published long after the cat was already out of the bag.  At the time it appeared, it impressed me as shallow and lacking the intellectual insight needed to grasp the ideological reasons for the emergence of the Blank Slate orthodoxy.  Chagnon continues,

I hadn’t fully realized in the late 1960s that the mere suggestion that Homo sapiens had any kind of “nature” except a “cultural nature” caused most cultural anthropologists to bristle.  What Tiger and Fox – and a small but growing number of scientific anthropologists – were interested in was the question of how precisely evolution by natural selection – Darwin’s theory of evolution – affected Homo sapiens socially, behaviorally, and psychologically.

Long-term studies of nonhuman primates and primate social organizations were affecting cultural anthropology.  Many earlier anthropological “truths” were beginning to crumble, such as claims that Homo sapiens alone among animals shared food, made tools, or cooperated with other members of the group who were genetically closely related.  More generally, findings from the field of ethology and animal behavior were beginning to work their way into the literature of anthropology.  Predictably, cultural anthropologists began to resist these trends, often by denigrating the academics who were taking the first steps in that direction or by attempting to discredit the emerging contributions by criticizing the most sensational work, often by nonexperts (for example, Robert Ardrey’s African Genesis).

So much for Robert Ardrey.  His shade should smile.  Chagnon’s rebuke of “sensationalism” is positively benign compared to Steven Pinker’s declaration that Ardrey was “totally and utterly wrong” in his book, The Blank Slate.  Both charges, however, are equally ridiculous.  Pinker’s “totally and utterly wrong” was taken on hearsay from Richard Dawkins, who based the charge on, of all things, Ardrey’s kind words about group selection.  The idea that the Blank Slaters attacked Ardrey as an easy target because of his “sensationalism” is also nonsense.  By their own account, they attacked him because he was their most influential and effective opponent, and continued as such from the time he published African Genesis at least until the appearance of E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology in 1976.   Why the dismissive attitude?  Call it academic tribalism.  The fact that the “nonexpert” Ardrey had been right, and virtually all the “experts” of his time wrong, has always been a bitter pill for today’s “experts” to swallow.  It is a lasting insult to their amour propre.  They have been casting about trying to prop up one of their own as the “true” dragon slayer of the Blank Slate ever since.  Until recently, the knight of choice has been E. O. Wilson, whose Sociobiology, another afterthought that appeared a good 15 years after African Genesis, was supposedly the “seminal work” of today’s evolutionary psychology.  Alas, to the bitter disappointment of the tribe, Wilson, too, just embraced the group selection heresy that made Ardrey “totally and utterly wrong” in his latest book, The Social Conquest of Earth.  No doubt it will now be necessary to find a new “father of evolutionary psychology.”  In my humble opinion, the choice of Tiger and Fox would be in poor taste.  Surely the tribe can do better.

And what of Ardrey?  He was certainly sensational enough.  How could he not be?  After all, a man whose reputation had been gained as a playwright thoroughly debunking all the “experts” in anthropology and the rest of the behavioral sciences was bound to be sensational.  He was a man of many hypotheses.  Anyone trolling through his work today would have no trouble finding other reasons to triumphantly declare him “totally and utterly wrong.”  However, let’s look at the record of the most important of those hypotheses, many of which had been posed by other forgotten men long before Ardrey.

The fact that human nature exists and is important:  Ardrey 1, experts 0

The fact that hunting became important early in human evolution:  Ardrey 1, experts 0

The fact that humans tend to perceive others in terms of ingroups and outgroups:  Ardrey 1, experts 0

Understanding of the ideological origin of the Blank Slate:  Ardrey 1, experts 0

Realization that the behavioral traits we associate with morality are shared with animals:  Ardrey 1, experts 0

The list goes on.  Ardrey set forth these hypotheses in the context of what the Blank Slaters themselves praised as masterful reviews of the relevant work in anthropology and animal ethology at the time.  See for example, the essays by Geoffrey Gorer that appeared in Man and Aggression, a Blank Slater manifesto published in 1968.  And yet, far from being celebrated as a great man who did more than any other to debunk what is arguably one of the most damaging lies ever foisted on mankind, Ardrey is forgotten.  As George Orwell once said, “He who controls the present controls the past.”  The academics control the message, and Ardrey is dead.  They have dropped him down the memory hole.  Such is history.  As I mentioned above, you don’t know the half of it.

Robert Ardrey
Robert Ardrey

2 thoughts on “Napoleon Chagnon and Robert Ardrey”

  1. In fact, an amusing artifact of Ardrey’s influence on flims recently popped up in a recent PBS special about the discovery of Homo naledi entitled “Dawn of Humanity.” Follow the link and fast forward to the 35:15 minute mark. At that point the narrative is hijacked by some ancient Blank Slater who apparently just crawled out of his cave after being asleep for the last 40 years. There is a long rant about the “Killer Ape Theory,” and then, at the 42:50 mark, the screen is filled with a scary image of none other than Robert Ardrey! Whoever wrote this bit knew all about Ardrey, because then images of magazines that included Ardrey articles from the 60s and 70s appear. This is followed by the opening scene from Kubrick’s “2001, A Space Odyssey!” Apparently the Blank Slate Rip van Winkle has “learned nothing and forgotten nothing,” because the “Killer Ape Theory” debate has been over for more than two decades, and Ardrey won it hands down. Even the impeccably PC “Scientific American” admitted as much in the April, 2014 issue. I posted much more on this in “PBS Answers the Burning Question: What does Robert Ardrey have to do with Homo naledi?” a couple of months ago.

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