Frans de Waal on Animal Smartness and the Rehabilitation of Konrad Lorenz

It’s heartening to learn that there is a serious basis for recent speculation to the effect that the science of animal cognition may gradually advance to a level long familiar to any child with a pet dog.  Frans de Waal breaks the news in his latest book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?  In answer to his own question, de Waal writes,

The short answer is “Yes, but you’d never have guessed.”  For most of the last century, science was overly cautious and skeptical about the intelligence of animals.  Attributing intentions and emotions to animals was seen as naïve “folk” nonsense.  We, the scientists, knew better!  We never went in for any of this “my dog is jealous” stuff, or “my cat knows what she wants,” let alone anything more complicated, such as that animals might reflect on the past or feel one another’s pain… The two dominant schools of thought viewed animals as either stimulus-response machines out to obtain rewards and avoid punishment or as robots genetically endowed with useful instincts.  While each school fought the other and deemed it too narrow, they shared a fundamentally mechanistic outlook:  there was no need to worry about the internal lives of animals, and anyone who did was anthropomorphic, romantic and unscientific.

Did we have to go through this bleak period?  In earlier days, the thinking was noticeably more liberal.  Charles Darwin wrote extensively about human and animal emotions, and many a scientist in the nineteenth century was eager to find higher intelligence in animals.  It remains a mystery why these efforts were temporarily suspended, and why we voluntarily hung a millstone around the neck of biology.

Here I must beg to differ with de Waal.  It is by no means a “mystery.”  This “mechanization” of animals in the sciences was more or less contemporaneous with the Blank Slate debacle, and was motivated by more or less the same ideological imperatives.  I invite readers interested in the subject to consult the first few chapters of Robert Ardrey’s African Genesis, published as far back as 1961.  Noting a blurb in Scientific American by Marshall Sahlins, more familiar to later readers as a collaborator in the slander of Napoleon Chagnon, to the effect that,

There is a quantum difference, at points a complete opposition, between even the most rudimentary human society and the most advanced subhuman primate one.  The discontinuity implies that the emergence of human society required some suppression, rather than direct expression, of man’s primate nature.  Human social life is culturally, not biologically determined.

Ardrey, that greatest of all debunkers of the Blank Slate, continues,

Dr. Sahlins’ conclusion is startling to no one but himself.  It is a scientific restatement, 1960-style, of the philosophical conclusion of an eighteenth-century Neapolitan monk (Giambattista Vico, ed.):  Society is the work of man.  It is just another prop, fashioned in the shop of science’s orthodoxies from the lumber of Zuckerman’s myth, to support the fallacy of human uniqueness.

The Zuckerman Ardrey refers to is anthropologist Solly Zuckerman.  I invite anyone who doubts the fanaticism with which “science” once insisted on the notion of human uniqueness alluded to in de Waal’s book to read some of Zuckerman’s papers.  For example, in The Social Life of Monkeys and Apes, he writes,

It is now generally recognized that anthropomorphic preoccupations do not help the critical development of knowledge, either in fields of physical or biological inquiry.

He exulted in the great “advances” science had made in correcting the “mistakes” of Darwin:

The Darwinian period, in which animal behavior as a distinct study was born, was one in which anthropomorphic interpretation flourished.  Anecdotes were regarded in the most generous light, and it was believed that many animals were highly rational creatures, possessed of exalted ethical codes of social behavior.

According to Zuckerman, “science” had now discovered that the very notion of animal “intelligence” was absurd.  As he put it,

Until 1890, the study of the social behavior of mammals developed hand in hand with the study of their “intelligence,” and both subjects were usually treated in the same books.

Such comments, which are ubiquitous in the literature of the Blank Slate era, make it hard to understand how de Waal can still be “mystified” about the motivation for the “scientific” denial of animal intelligence.  Be that as it may, he presents a wealth of data derived from recent experiments and field studies debunking all the lingering rationale for claims of human uniqueness one by one, whether it be the ability to experience emotion, a “theory of mind,” social problem solving ability, ability to contemplate the past and future, or even consciousness.  In the process he documents the methods “science” used to hermetically seal itself off from reality, such as the invention of pejorative terms like “anthropomorphism” to denounce and dismiss anyone who dared to challenge the human uniqueness orthodoxy, and the rejection of all evidence not supplied by members of the club as mere “anecdotes.”  In the process he notes,

Needing a new term to make my point, I invented anthropodenial, which is the a priori rejection of humanlike traits in other animals or animallike traits in us.

It’s hard to imagine that anyone could seriously believe that “science” consists of fanatically rejecting similarities between human and animal behavior that are obvious to everyone but “scientists” as “anthropomorphism” and “anecdotes” and assuming a priori that they’re of no significance until it can be absolutely proven that everyone else was right all along.  This does not strike me as a “parsimonious” approach.

Not the least interesting feature of de Waal’s latest is his “rehabilitation” of several important debunkers of the Blank Slate who were unfortunate enough to publish before the appearance of E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology in 1975.  According to the fairy tale that currently passes for the “history” of the Blank Slate, before 1975 “darkness was on the face of the deep.”  Only then did Wilson appear on the scene as the heroic slayer of the Blank Slate dragon.  A man named Robert Ardrey was never heard of, and anyone mentioned in his books as an opponent of the Blank Slate before the Wilson “singularity” is to be ignored.  The most prominent of them all, a man on whom the anathemas of the Blank Slaters often fell, literally in the same breath as Ardrey, was Konrad Lorenz.  Sure enough, in Steven Pinker’s fanciful “history” of the Blank Slate, Lorenz is dismissed, in the same paragraph with Ardrey, no less, as “totally and utterly wrong,” and a delusional believer in “archaic theories such as that aggression was like the discharge of a hydraulic pressure.”  De Waal’s response must be somewhat discomfiting to the promoters of Pinker’s official “history.”  He simply ignores it!

Astoundingly enough, de Waal speaks of Lorenz as one of the great founding fathers of the modern sciences of animal behavior and cognition.  In other words, he tells the truth, as if it had never been disputed in any bowdlerized “history.”  Already at the end of the prologue we find the matter-of-fact observation that,

…behavior is, as the Austrian ethologist Konrad Lorenz put it, the liveliest aspect of all that lives.

Reading on, we find that this mention of Lorenz wasn’t just an anomaly designed to wake up drowsy readers.  In the first chapter we find de Waal referring to the field of phylogeny,

…when we trace traits across the evolutionary tree to determine whether similarities are due to common descent, the way Lorenz had done so beautifully for waterfowl.

A few pages later he writes,

The maestro of observation, Konrad Lorenz, believed that one could not investigate animals effectively without an intuitive understanding grounded in love and respect.

and notes, referring to the behaviorists, that,

The power of conditioning is not in doubt, but the early investigators had totally overlooked a crucial piece of information.  They had not, as recommended by Lorenz, considered the whole organism.

And finally, in a passage that seems to scoff at Pinker’s “totally and utterly wrong” nonsense, he writes,

Given that the facial musculature of humans and chimpanzees is nearly identical, the laughing, grinning, and pouting of both species likely goes back to a common ancestor.  Recognition of the parallel between anatomy and behavior was a great leap forward, which is nowadays taken for granted.  We all now believe in behavioral evolution, which makes us Lorenzians.

Stunning, really for anyone who’s followed what’s been going on in the behavioral and animal sciences for any length of time.  And that’s not all.  Other Blank Slate debunkers who published long before Wilson, like Niko Tinbergen and Desmond Morris, are mentioned with a respect that belies the fact that they, too, were once denounced by the Blank Slaters as right wing fascists and racists in the same breath with Lorenz.  I have a hard time believing that someone as obviously well read as de Waal has never seen Pinker’s The Blank Slate.  I honestly don’t know what to make of the fact that he can so blatantly contradict Pinker, and yet never trouble himself to mention even the bare existence of such a remarkable disconnect.  Is he afraid of Pinker?  Does he simply want to avoid hurting the feelings of another member of the academic tribe?  I must leave it up to the reader to decide.

And what of Ardrey, who brilliantly described both “anthropodenial” and the reasons that it was by no means a “mystery” more than half a century before the appearance of de Waal’s latest book?  Will he be rehabilitated, too?  Don’t hold your breath.  Unlike Lorenz, Tinbergen and Morris, he didn’t belong to the academic tribe.  The fact that it took an outsider to smash the Blank Slate and give a few academics the courage to finally stick their noses out of the hole they’d dug for themselves will likely remain deep in the memory hole. It happens to be a fact  that is just too humiliating and embarrassing for them to ever admit.  It would seem the history of the affair can be adjusted, but it will probably never be corrected.

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.

17 thoughts on “Frans de Waal on Animal Smartness and the Rehabilitation of Konrad Lorenz”

  1. Well said.
    But I don’t think they do get it.
    The ‘tribal machinations’ of the sheltered workshop of academia seem to blind them so comprehensively that they are trapped.
    Recently I bothered to reread Dawkins “the selfish gene.” Good grief, really the last chapter on meme’s seems to be his strange way of apologising for the only logical conclusion of the book. A conclusion that genes which direct our lives are based on the experiences of those who survived and any morality or ethic behaviour is little more than a post act ‘description’ by our wishful thinking self to try and make the improbable soup we find ourselves in more understandable.
    Having said that I then finished reading Ardreys ‘the hunting hypothesis” after having agreed with him in nearly everything he has said in the previous books, I found myself a little bemused by his last chapter.
    Anyway, maybe Pinker hasn’t read much Ardrey, maybe today’s topic hasn’t read much Pinker, somewhat appropriate.

  2. I also thought the notion that higher animals lack any internal mental states such as feeling, thinking, etc. and that they are totally different from humans in this regard to be utterly implausible.

    Some scientists have even gone so far as to deny the existence of internal mental states in humans. According to them, humans don’t think, they just think they think.

  3. @David

    Whatever one thinks of the contents of “The Selfish Gene,” the book is certainly of great historical significance. For example, Ardrey is listed in no less than six places in the index, demonstrating that he was hardly seen as a mere “pop ethologist” who was never taken seriously by “real scientists” at the time. Dawkins does claim that he and Lorenz were “totally and utterly wrong,” but only about group selection. Pinker later seized on this passage to rationalize his deletion of the two from the historical record. In his “The Blank Slate,” however, he rips the passage out of context, ignoring the group selection connection entirely, implying that Dawkins meant Ardrey and Lorenz were wrong about everything. To put it bluntly, that was a lying distortion of what Dawkins really wrote. Elsewhere, Dawkins actually praised Ardrey for “doing his homework,” in instances where his hypotheses diverged from “orthodox theory” regarding the role of group selection. In all cases where he disagreed with Ardrey, it was about the role of group selection. Ardrey certainly was a proponent of group selection, but that was hardly the main theme of all his work. That theme, of course, was that innate behavioral predispositions exist in human beings, and they are significant. He was right about that when virtually the entire professional and academic tribe was wrong. To dismiss all of his work, not to mention his seminal historical role, as “totally and utterly wrong” because he said good things about group selection is not only ludicrous but deeply dishonest. Today, ironically enough, we find none other that E.O. Wilson, anointed by “historians” like Pinker as the knight in shining armor who “really” slew the Blank Slate dragon, not only going much further out on a limb in support of group selection than Ardrey ever did, but being fulsomely praised for his “pro-social” theories on the subject in a PBS special!

  4. @Jim

    Exactly. When I first started reading what the “scientists” were saying about animal intelligence my reaction was, “Are you kidding?”

  5. “Here I must beg to differ with de Waal. It is by no means a ‘mystery.’”

    De Waal is a committed left-liberal, for him this is a “what elephant” reaction, there are things he just will not see, thoughts he will not think.

  6. Thank you for the comment.
    Indeed the acknowledgment of Tinbergen, Ardrey and Lorenz was quite stunning in Dawkins ‘The Selfish Gene’.
    I would consider myself a representative sample of the standard University education in the social sciences and that these people were never heard of is telling. I wonder how many people who read the selfish gene ever take the time to read these writers.
    Having found them through my own readings I mentioned them to my old lecturer, his only comment was a grunt and some aggressive barking re all behaviour being cultural. That academia, in the social sciences, has such a rigid hierarchical structure means that a generation of such thinkers will have to go before the movement can occur.
    The points you make re the ‘group’ theory continues to strike a cord. There is something wrong here and I just wish we could have a short response from the three gentlemen in question.
    Re the denial of Ardrey, I’ve read quite a few writers who mention materialism, or scientific materialism etc,. instincts were always key in the old myths and legends, and reality has been there for all to see if only they could remove their individual ‘beliefs’. My point is that Ardrey maybe a bit like Bob Dylan when he was challenged re the ‘traditional’ background and how some of his songs were pinched, his defence is that all these things are just slow changes on the path.
    Maybe the re-emergence of these obvious threads into the social sciences is proof that even without the acknowledgement of these great men the truth is there to see? I’d be interested if you had any thoughts.

    PS have you ever heard of Monism? and the associated overreach?

  7. @David

    The fact that Dawkins attacked Lorenz and Ardrey as “totally and utterly wrong” in the very first chapter of “The Selfish Gene” says a lot, both about who they were, and who he was at the time. He was a young striver, not the icon he has become today. By attacking Lorenz and Ardrey he was attacking the most significant enemies of the academic establishment in the behavioral sciences at the time. The fact that the two were the most significant enemies can be easily confirmed by consulting the source literature, some of which has been cited on this blog. See, for example, “Man and Aggression,” a collection of rants against the two published in 1968. In those days, of course, the academic establishment consisted of orthodox Blank Slaters. I don’t think Dawkins was a Blank Slater himself, but he wasn’t above ingratiating himself with them to insure a favorable reception for his book.

    As for group selection, its main interest for me is not whether it actually occurred to a significant extent, but its fascinating history. Dawkins used it to attack Lorenz and Ardrey. Pinker cited that attack to rationalize dropping the two down the memory hole. E. O. Wilson was subsequently anointed the great knight in shining armor in the imaginary history according to which he was the first to challenge the Blank Slate orthodoxy. Then E. O. Wilson, in what must be called an act of supreme historical irony, himself became the greatest group selectionist of them all!

    Monism is a term that carries a couple of thousand years of philosophical baggage, and I would prefer not to associate myself with it one way or the other.

  8. Off Topic here, but news just breaking that Britain is leaving the EU. I’d be fascinated in your thoughts re this?
    As a Welshman I would go further and vote for Welsh independence but that’s another story!?

  9. @David

    Sorry for the late reply. I’ve been preoccupied lately, selling a house in the west of the country, selling my furniture, piling the rest in a rental truck, and driving back east. I start a new job tomorrow. I’ll be more responsive once things have settled down a bit.

    I really have no idea whether the Brexit will be good for the UK or not. In general I like to see countries remain intact rather than break into fragments. Bigger countries are able to do bigger things. That’s why it was the United States, and not Estonia, that landed the first man on the moon. However, in specific cases my reaction will probably be based more on emotion than rational analysis. Perhaps its because my ancestors fought on the Union side in our Civil War. I think preserving our union worked out well for us.

  10. I think you will find this interesting. Getting more specific about where the reward circuitry for aggression lies in the brain.

    Of course they have to get PC at the last and say it will help them find drugs to blunt aggression in humans.

    “The study findings demonstrate a previously unidentified functional role for the lateral habenula and its inputs from the basal forebrain in mediating the rewarding component of aggression and suggest that targeting shared underlying deficits in motivational circuitry may provide useful information for the development of novel therapeutic drugs for treating aggression-related neuropsychiatric disorders.”

  11. Also:

    “We discovered a brain circuit—connecting the basal forebrain and lateral habenula—that appears to control the motivation of a male mouse to be aggressive and subordinate another male mouse. The significance of these findings is that the circuit seems to be telling an animal that subordinating, or ‘bullying,’ another animal is a rewarding behavior.”

    This is really a big deal. That neuroscientists have been unable to specify the SOURCE of the aggressive urge has been the main point of attack of the deniers of human nature and human aggression. Science will still have to trace out this circuit in humans to put the nails in the blank slate coffin, but the argument of the blank slaters is as good as DEAD.

  12. @Anon

    You’re exactly right. The reason that it was so important to fight the Blank Slate orthodoxy wasn’t so that the evolutionary psychologists in academia could invent a myriad new “just so stories.” It was important because it enabled just this kind of research on the brain to go forward. Once the circuitry responsible for innate behavioral traits has been pinned down and demonstrated in repeatable experiments, ideologically motivated denial of the very existence of innate behavior becomes impossible.

  13. 1) Had a small exchange with someone on Shermers tweet account and it occurred to me that their denial of the work of Ardrey actually constitutes some sort of plagiarism.
    The cases where Ardrey states or alludes to fact that some of these people half get years later, then spruik as some breakthrough I don’t need to tell you.
    Shermer is a case in point, I remember reading an obscure book by Tinbergen, and he makes a certain point, now Shermer may not have read it but he based a part of his later book, The Believing Brain on the same point,.

    This got me thinking that acadenmics who ‘do papers’ have to have this notion that they have ‘discovered’ something. The Truth, has undoubtedly been discovered by many over the years and I often think its more the challenge of conveying it to others that is the challenge. The conveying was Ardreys genius, but alas the current lot are still way away.

    2) As I was commenting I had a Like from the Robert Ardrey Estate. Have you had any contact with them?

  14. @David

    I have had some contact with the Ardrey family. Dan Ardrey thanked me for my posts about his (grand?)father, and comped me copies of his books on Audible. I believe he’s editing an autobiography. I was introduced to the family via Loretta Breuning, who has written a few books, and heads the Inner Mammal Institute, which you can visit on Facebook. Loretta is an original thinker and an authority on Ardrey. She has traveled to various universities that possess original Ardrey material and sent copies of some of it to me.

  15. Two little tangents,
    First little incident I thought you would find amusing.
    When I was teaching about 20 years ago there was introduced in the ‘Health and Human Development’ department an American invention, a lifesize baby, ie a moulded plastic baby which the students had to carry around for about a week and fulfil all the requirements of a mother. Now in classic psychology world this was meant to build up an aversion to having a child as a teenager as who would possibly want a screaming baby at 3 in the morning.
    Anyhoo, this continued for years and obviously so convinced where those who ran the program that no one would enjoy having a mock baby that they didn’t bother checking if the desired (less teenage pregnancies) result was occurring,. Fast forward 20 years and in a quiet little scandal they have now been removed from all schools as the actual result of triggering the maternal instinct in 16 year old girls was to RAISE the pregnancy rate. This says so much about the state of play.
    Secondly, a different tangent.
    I have mentioned occasionally the rather interesting ideas based around ‘materialism’.
    Now this is a rather bizarre discussion as all the metaphysical/religious thoughts, all the raptures, and epiphanies have all taken place in this universe, all the result of a wonderful awareness of some of the matter and the energy that miraculously moves between.
    So I was rather chuffed when reading a book arguing the case for science, “Facing the Future” by a Michael Allaby, he came up with the following ripper of a paragraph.
    “No scientist denies that the reductionist approach has limitations, These are well understood. Should any scientist claim that any living organism is ‘nothing more’ than a chemical reactions, or the spinning of electrons, (there falls a straw man if I ever saw one) then he or she is either joking or being silly. (in case we didn’t grasp the deep scientific basis for his argument he then goes back to further develop his astounding thought) Scientist are but human, after all, and, like the rest of us, sometimes they say silly things.

    I’d never heard of him, but he did allow for some interesting thoughts, even if it was at his own expense.

    Hope your well.

  16. Yes, the psychologists still haven’t discovered that human emotional responses exist because they enhanced the odds of having children, and not the opposite. It will be interesting to see if they ever discover that fundamental truth.

    As for materialism, people’s opinions about it tend to inform their opinions about free will. It’s somewhat like basing opinions about fire on the existence of phlogiston. We are still far from understanding what all this stuff (matter and energy) really is at a fundamental level, and why it exists to begin with.

    I’m doing well, and hope you are, too. I haven’t been blogging much lately because of a move across the country, new job, etc., but should be back to “normal” before too long.

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