Robert Ardrey was a brilliant man. After a successful career as a playwright, he became an anthropologist, and wrote a series of four books in the 60’s and 70’s refuting the absurd orthodoxy of the Blank Slate that prevailed at the time. In other words, to the tune of vociferous abuse from the “men of science” in psychology, sociology, anthropology, and the rest of the behavioral sciences, he insisted that there actually is such a thing as human nature. The abuse was an honor Ardrey well deserved, because he proved to be a very potent antidote to the Blank Slate nonsense, perhaps the most remarkable perversion of science of all time. Indeed, he was the most influential and effective opponent of the Blank Slate in its heyday. That fact was nicely documented by the Blank Slaters themselves in an invaluable little collection of essays entitled Man and Aggression. The book, which appeared in 1968, was edited by arch-Blank Slater Ashley Montagu, and was aimed mainly at Ardrey, with a few barbs reserved for Nobel laureate Konrad Lorenz, and with novelist William Golding thrown in for comic effect. As I write this, used copies are still available at Amazon for just a penny. In case you happen to be hard up for cash, here’s a quote from the book taken from an essay by psychologist Geoffrey Gorer:
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.
Of course, we now live in more enlightened times, and the Blank Slate collapsed under the weight of its own absurdity years ago. In a word, the life work of Robert Ardrey has been heroically vindicated, no? Well, not exactly. You see, the “men of science” could never forgive Ardrey, a mere playwright, for shaming them. Indeed, Steven Pinker, one of the tribe, went to the trouble of writing a remarkable revision of history entitled, appropriate enough, The Blank Slate, in which he actually performed the feat of completely ignoring Ardrey, other than in a single paragraph in which he claimed, on the authority of Richard Dawkins, that Ardrey had been “totally and utterly wrong!” It’s like writing that Einstein was “totally and utterly wrong” about relativity because he didn’t think right about quantum theory. I won’t go into the specious reasons Pinker used to fob off this gross imposture on his readers. I’ve gone into them in some detail, for example, here and here. Suffice it to say that Ardrey’s support for the theory of group selection had much to do with it.
Fast forward to 2014. Two Oxford academics by the names of Monica Duffy Toft and Dominic Johnson have just published a paper in the journal International Security entitled Grounds of War; The Evolution of Territorial Conflict (hattip hbd-chick). And what is it about that title that brings Ardrey to mind? Ah, yes, as those familiar with his work will recall, he wrote a book entitled The Territorial Imperative, published back in 1966. As it happens, the “similarities” don’t end there. Allow me to point out some of the others that appear in this “original” paper:
Toft & Johnson: Territorial behavior—or “territoriality”—is prevalent not only among humans, but across the animal kingdom. It has evolved independently across a wide range of taxonomic groups and ecological contexts, whether from the depths of the ocean to rainforest canopies, or from deserts to the Arctic tundra. This recurrence of territoriality suggests evolutionary “convergence” on a tried and tested strategic solution to a common environmental challenge. Organisms have tended to develop territoriality because it is an effective strategy for survival and maximizing “Darwinian fitness” (reproduction).
Ardrey: Territorial behavior in animals, of the past few decades, has attracted the attention of hundreds of competent specialists who have recorded there observations and their reasoned conclusions in obscure professional publications. The subject is very nearly as well known to the student of animal behavior as is the relation of mother and infant to the student of human behavior. Furthermore, many of the concerned scientists, as we shall see, believe as do I that man is a territorial species, and that the behavior so widely observed in animal species is equally characteristic of our own.
Toft & Johnson: Across the animal kingdom, holders of territory (or “residents”) tend to have a higher probability of winning contests, even against stronger intruders. Territoriality is thus heavily influenced by who was there first.
Ardrey: We may also say that in all territorial species, without exception, possession of a territory lends enhanced energy to the proprieter. Students of animal behavior cannot agree as to why this should be, but the challenger is almost invariably defeated, the intruder expelled.
Toft & Johnson: Territoriality does not necessarily lead to violence. Indeed, biologists regard it as a mechanism that evolved to avoid violence. By partitioning living space according to established behavioral conventions, animals can avoid the costs associated with constant fighting. Furthermore, although discussions of territorial behavior tend to focus on aggression, territorial behavior has two distinct components: attack and avoidance. Residents tend to attack in defense of their territory (fight), intruders tend to withdraw (flight).
Ardrey: The territories of howler (monkey) clans are large, the borders vague. But clans have only to sight each other in this no man’s land and total warfare breaks out. Rage shakes the forest. That rage, however, takes none but vocal expression… Should intrusion occur, these voices joined will be the artillery of battle. And strictly in accord with the territorial principle, the home team will always win, the visiting team will always withdraw.
I could multiply such “similarities” into the dozens. Far be it for me, however, to charge the two authors with anything so crude as plagiarism. Indeed, Toft and Johnson actually do take care to cite Ardrey. Here’s what they have to say about him:
The idea that evolution helps to explain human territorial behavior is not new. Robert Ardrey’s popular book The Territorial Imperative, published in the 1960s, championed the role of territorial instincts in human conflict. This account, however, suffers from some now outdated views of evolution, for example, the idea that behaviors are “hard-wired,” or that they evolved because they helped the group or the species as a whole.
Here we find Toft and Johnson squawking to order like two Pinkeresque parrots. One must charitably assume that neither of them has ever actually read Ardrey, because otherwise one cannot construe this bit as other than a mendacious lie. This is what the two have to say about what they mean by the term “hard-wired”:
As with many other human traits, territoriality might be loosely considered not as “hard-wired” but as “soft-wired”—a component of human nature but one that is responsive to prevailing conditions. Power, rational choice, domestic politics, institutions, and culture are of course important as well in explaining territorial conflict, but evolutionary biology can provide additional explanatory power.
I’m not sure if Ardrey ever even used the term “hard-wired,” but if he did it certainly wasn’t in the sense that Toft and Johnson use it. He constantly and repeatedly insisted on the “soft-wired” nature of human behavioral predispositions. For example, from The Territorial Imperative:
The open instinct, a combination in varying portion of genetic design and relevant experience, is the common sort in all higher animal forms. As beginning with the digger wasp we proceed higher and higher in the animal orders, the closed instinct all but vanishes, the open instinct incorporates more and more a learned portion. In man it reaches a maximum of learning, a minimum of design.
There are many similar passages in Ardrey’s work. Turning to the next charge, I know of nothing therein that suggests that he ever believed that selection actually took place at the species level. He did occasionally point out the obvious truth that various behavioral traits tend to benefit a species as a whole rather than harm it, but the claim that this amounts to support for species-level selection is nonsense. Readers can check this for themselves by reading, for example, the last page of Chapter 3, section 2 of The Territorial Imperative. Ardrey did support theories of group selection. So did Darwin. So did E. O. Wilson in his latest book, The Social Conquest of Earth. Does that fact also disqualify those two from any claim to their own ideas? What’s next? Will Toft and Johnson come up with an “original” theory of evolution by natural selection. Perhaps they could even write a book about it. Allow me to suggest the title On the Origin of Species. They could follow that with their own versions of Wilson’s Sociobiology and On Human Nature.
The saddest thing about it all is that Toft and Johnson are likely to get away with this revision of history a la Dawkins and Pinker. After all, the academics and other “men of science” hate Ardrey. How dare he be right when almost all of them were embracing the mirage of the Blank Slate! How dare a mere playwright do such a thing?