The Group Selectionist and the Blank Slater: David Sloan Wilson Interviews Richard Lewontin

I would rank the Blank Slate debacle as the greatest scientific disaster of all time.  For half a century and more, the “men of science” created and maintained a formidable obstacle in the way of our gaining the self-knowledge as a species that may be critical to our survival.  This obstacle was the denial that human behavior is in any way influenced by innate human nature.  For the time being, at least, the Blank Slate orthodoxy has been crushed.  It would seem however, that the scientific community is still traumatized by the affair.  The whimsical “histories” that continue to be concocted of the affair and of the roles of the key players in it is a manifestation thereof.

For example, Robert Ardrey, the most influential and effective opponent of the Blank Slate orthodoxy in its heyday, has been thoroughly vindicated as far as the main theme of all his work is concerned.  In spite of that, he is a virtual unperson today.  Having shamed the “men of science,” it would seem that it is now beneath their dignity to even take notice of the fact that he ever existed.  Meanwhile, Richard Lewontin, one of the high priests of the Blank Slate, is revered, and continues to win prestigious awards as a “great scientist.”  Among people who should certainly know better, the mere mention of the fact that he was a kingpin of the Blank Slate orthodoxy is greeted with stunned disbelief.

Recently Lewontin was interviewed by David Sloan Wilson, one of today’s foremost defenders of group selection, a topic with a fascinating history of its own in connection with the Blank Slate.  We find that, like the Bourbons who were propped back up as French monarchs by the victorious allies after the defeat of Napoleon, he has learned nothing and forgotten nothing.  He has merely become more circumspect about revealing the ideological motivations behind his “science.”  This becomes obvious when Wilson gets around to asking Lewontin about the connection between The Spandrels of San Marco, a paper he co-authored with Stephen Jay Gould in 1979, and Sociobiology.  Lewontin demurely replies that it may have been “contextually relevant,” but the paper was mainly an attack on naïve adaptationism.  Wilson:  “I’m interested to know that was the primary motivation for the article, not Sociobiology.”  Lewontin:  “Yeah.”  Balked in this first attempt, later in the interview, Wilson becomes a bit more blunt.  (I delete some of the exchange for brevity.  I encourage readers to look at the entire interview.)

DSW:  Dick, I’d like to spend a little bit of time on Sociobiology and also Evolutionary Psychology, because even though that didn’t motivate the Spandrels paper, it still motivated you to be a critic and Steve too.

RL:  Look, when I look at Sociobiology, the book or some of the other books he (E. O. Wilson) has written, it drives me mad.  For example, if you read – I’ll take an extremely nasty example because it’s so clear – it is written that aggression is a part of human nature.  It says that in the book, it lists features of human nature and aggression is one of them.  So then I have said to Ed and others of his school, what do you do about people who have spent almost their entire lives in jail because they refuse to be conscripted into the army?  What do you think the answer is?  That is their form of aggression.

DSW:  Well, OK, that’s facile.

RL:  I don’t know what you can do about it.  If everything can be said to be a form of aggression, even the refusal to be physically aggressive, what kind of science is that? …Because if everything by definition can be shown to be aggression then it ceases to be a useful concept in our scientific discussions.

As it happens, Lewontin uses the same argument in Not In Our Genes, a book he co-authored with fellow Blank Slaters Steven Rose and Leon Kamin in 1984.  It makes no more sense now than it did then.  Obviously, what’s still sticking in Lewontin’s craw after all these years is a series of books on the subject of human aggression that appeared back in the 60’s, the most famous of which was “On Aggression,” by Konrad Lorenz, published in the U.S. in 1966.  In fact, the notion that the anecdote about an imprisoned pacifist demolishes what Lorenz and others actually wrote about human aggression is the sheerest nonsense.  Lorenz and the others never dreamed that any of their theories on the subject precluded the possibility of conscientious objectors in any way, shape or form.  In reality Lewontin is refuting, not Lorenz, but his favorite strawman then and now, the “genetic determinist.”  Lewontin’s “genetic determinist” is one who believes that “human nature” forces people to behave in certain ways and not in others, regardless of culture or environment.  If such beasts exist, they must be as rare as unicorns, because in all my reading I have never encountered one, not even among the most hard-core 19th century social Darwinists.  Lewontin imagines them behind every bush.  For him, all sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists must necessarily be “genetic determinists.”

Lewontin spares Wilson any mention of his obsession with “genetic determinists,” but lays his cards on the table nevertheless.  He’s still as much of a Blank Slater as ever.  For example, at the end of the interview,

My main complaint is… the underlying claim that there exists a human nature, which then the claimant must give examples of, and so each claimant gives examples that are convenient for his or her pet theory.  I think the worst thing we can do in science is to create concepts where what is included or not included within the concept is not delimited to begin with, it allows us to claim anything.  That’s my problem with Sociobiology.  It’s too loose.

Well, not exactly.  Readers who really want to crawl into the mind of a Blank Slater should read Not In Our Genes, the book I referred to above.  There it will be found that Lewontin’s problem isn’t that Sociobiology is “too loose,” but that he perceives it as an impediment to the glorious socialist revolution.  You see, Lewontin is a Marxist, and Not In Our Genes is not a book of science, but a political tract.  In its pages one will find over and over and over again the assertion that those who believe in human nature are stooges of the bourgeoisie.  Sociobiology and the other sciences that affirm the existence of human nature are merely so many contrived, ideologically motivated ploys to defend the capitalist status quo and stave off the glorious dawn of socialism.  For example, quoting from the book,

Each of us has been engaged… in research, writing, speaking, teaching, and public political activity in opposition to the oppressive forms in which determinist ideology manifests itself.  We share a commitment to the prospect of the creation of a more socially just – a socialist – society.  And we recognize that a critical science is an integral part of the struggle to create that society, just as we also believe that the social function of much of today’s science is to hinder the creation of that society by acting to preserve the interests of the dominant class, gender, and race.

Biological determinist ideas are part of the attempt to preserve the inequalities of our society and to shape human nature in their own image.  The exposure of the fallacies and political content of those ideas is part of the struggle to eliminate those inequalities and to transform our society.  In that struggle we transform our own nature.

Those who possess power and their representatives can most effectively disarm those who would struggle against them by convincing them of the legitimacy and inevitability of the reigning social organization.  If what exists is right, then one ought not oppose it; if it exists inevitably, one can never oppose it successfully.

Here, then, we see that Lewontin is being a bit coy when he claims that he only objects to Sociobiology and the other sciences that affirm the existence of human nature because they are “too loose.”  In perusing the book, we find that not only Konrad Lorenz and Robert Ardrey, but also Richard Dawkins, Robert Trivers, and W. D. Hamilton are all really just so many hirelings of the capitalist system.  No matter that Trivers is a radical leftist, and Ardrey almost became a Communist himself in the 1930’s.

It is amusing to read Lewontin’s pecksniffery about the lack of scientific rigor in the work of these “capitalist stooges,” followed in short order by praise for the “scientific” work of Mao, Marx, and Engels.  I can only encourage anyone in need of a good belly laugh to read Engels’ Dialectics of Nature.  Therein he will find the great St. Paul of Marxism lecturing the greatest scientists of his day about all the errors he’s discovered in their work because they don’t pay enough attention to the dialectic.  Lewontin’s confirmation of one important facet of innate human nature, ingroup/outgroup identification, referred to by Ardrey as the Amity/Enmity Complex, by his furious ranting against the “bourgeoisie” in a book that claims there is no such thing as human nature would also be amusing, were it not for the fact that 100 million “bourgeoisie,” give or take, paid with their lives for this particular manifestation of outgroup identification.

If one is determined to cobble together a version of “reality” in which Lewontin figures as a “great scientist” instead of the Blank Slate kingpin he actually was, he will find no better place to look than the pages of Not In Our Genes.  It comes complete with sage warnings against running to the opposite extreme of “cultural determinism,” and anathemas against the proponents of tabula rasa.  To this I can only reply that nowhere in any of his work has Lewontin ever affirmed the existence of anything resembling the innate predispositions that one normally refers to in the vernacular as human nature, and he has consistently condemned anyone who does as politically suspect.  If “good science” were a matter of condemning anyone who disagrees with your version of reality as a hireling of the forces of evil, Lewontin would take the cake.

UPDATE:  Whyvert tweeted a link to a great article by Robert Trivers posted at the Unz Review website entitled, Vignettes of Famous Evolutionary Biologists, Large and Small.  Included is a vignette of none other than Richard Lewontin.  As it happens, Prof. Trivers was among those singled out by Lewontin as an evil minion of the bourgeoisie in his Not In Our Genes.  His article includes some very interesting observations on the disintegrating effects of politics on Lewontin’s scientific career.

One thought on “The Group Selectionist and the Blank Slater: David Sloan Wilson Interviews Richard Lewontin”

  1. When confronted with the ramblings of the various religious school’s I often find it easier to ignore the sound, literally to ignore the sound and to look into the picture of the Priest, Monk etc and watch their actions and observe their status and wealth.
    The looking for group dynamic, such differing religions show us the noise is little more than a human equivilent of the ‘whale songs’, it keeps the pod together and acts as a group identifier.
    Such it is with these high priests of science, they are demanding from their followers submissive acceptance of nonsense, and are making it very easy to identify those external people who are unwilling to bow to them. Group game theory screams answers, the followers follow, any move is seen quickly, the ‘Great Man, reaps rewards and cultural benefits, aggressively attacking his rise in the pecking order.
    I’m always fascinated to what extent these people are ‘consciously’ aware of their behaviours, sadly that they tend to all come from the same class, school and would you believe it the, same universities, is not seen as a ‘group’ phenomena, but rather a amazing process that identifies and then polishes genius, hogwash, most of these people would not survive for five days from the sheltered workshops of the university setting.
    However, we see in their demand for some other force than nature and in our case human nature as some humanist equivilent to the ‘god of the gaps’. They are desperate to believe that they are not part of the natural world, but in some part of the universe that cares for their ’emotions’ for justice and fair play.

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