I know. You think I’m too obsessed with Robert Ardrey. Perhaps, but when I stumble across little historical artifacts of his existence, I can’t resist recording them. Who else will? Besides, I have moral emotions, too. I’m not sure where I sit on the spectrum of Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations, but when I consider Ardrey’s shabby treatment in the “official” histories, they all start howling at once. Ardrey shouldn’t be forgotten. He was the most significant player in the events that come to mind when one hears the term “Blank Slate.”
What was the “Blank Slate?” I’d call it the greatest scientific debacle of all time. The behavioral sciences were derailed for fifty years and more by the ideologically motivated denial of human nature. Unfortunately, its history will probably never be written, or at least not in a form that bears some resemblance to the truth. Perhaps the most important truth that will be redacted from future accounts of the Blank Slate is the seminal role of Robert Ardrey in dismantling it. That role was certainly recognized by the high priests of the Blank Slate themselves. Their obsession with Ardrey can be easily documented. In spite of that he is treated as an unperson today, and his historical role has been denied or suppressed. I have discussed reasons for this remarkable instance of historical amnesia elsewhere. They usually have something to do with the amour-propre of the academic tribe. See, for example, here, here and here.
If there are grounds for optimism that the real story will ever see the light of day, it lies in the ease with which the elaborate fairy tale that currently passes as the “history” of the Blank Slate can be exposed. According to this official “history,” the Blank Slate prevailed virtually unchallenged until the mid-70’s. Then, suddenly, E. O. Wilson appeared on the scene as the knight in shining armor who slew the Blank Slate dragon almost single-handedly with the publication of Sociobiology in 1975. As I’ve noted in earlier posts, there’s a great deal of source material in both the academic and popular literature whose existence is very difficult to account for if one takes this sanitized version of the affair seriously. I’ve occasionally cited some of the numerous examples of articles about or by Ardrey, both pro and con, in popular magazines including the highbrow Encounter, the more professionally oriented Saturday Review, the once popular Life, the “recreational” Penthouse, and many others, all of which appeared long before the publication of Sociobiology. I recently stumbled across another amusing example in one of Jack Nicholson’s earlier flicks, and probably one of his best; Five Easy Pieces.
I hadn’t watched the film since 1970, the year it was released. I thought it was entertaining at the time, especially the iconic restaurant scene with the uncooperative waitress. However, I certainly didn’t notice any connection to the Blank Slate. It was a bit early for that. However, I happened to watch the film again a couple of days ago. This time I noticed something. There was the ghost of Robert Ardrey, with an amused look on his face, waving at me right out of the screen.
The great debunker of the Blank Slate turns up around 1:20:25 into the film. Bobby (Jack Nicholson), his somewhat trashy girlfriend, Rayette, and a few other family members and guests are gathered in the living room of Bobby’s childhood home. A pompous, insufferable woman by the name of Samia Glavia is holding forth about the nature of man. The dialogue goes like this:
Samia Glavia/Irene Dailey: But you see, man is born into the world with his existent adversary from the first. It is his historic, lithic inheritance. So, is it startling? Aggression is prehistoric. An organism behaves according to its nature, and its nature derives from the circumstances of its inheritance. The fact remains that primitive man took absolute delight in tearing his adversary apart. And there is where I think the core of the problem resides.
John Ryan/Spicer: Doesn’t that seem unnecessarily apocalyptic?
Glavia: I do not make poetry.
Rayette: Is there a TV in the house?
Glavia: I remarked to John, that rationality is not a device to alter facts. But moreover I think of it as an extraneous tool, a gadget, somewhat like… the television. To look at it any other way is ridiculous.
Rayette:There’s some good things on it, though.
Glavia: I beg your pardon? (Condescendingly)
Rayette: There’s some good things on it sometimes.
Glavia: I have strong doubts. Nevertheless, I am not discussing media. (Icy, condescending smile)
Susan Anspach/Catherine van Oost: I think these cold, objective discussions are aggressive.
As Catherine leaves the room, Glavia rants on: There seems to be less aggression, or violence, if you like, among the higher classes, and loftier natures.
Nicholson/Bobby Dupea: You pompous celibate. You’re totally full of shit.
Great shades of Raymond Dart! “Aggression” was a key buzzword at the time in any discussion of innate human nature. Naturalist Konrad Lorenz had published the English version of his On Aggression a few years earlier. Ardrey had highlighted the theories of Dart, according to which Australopithecus africanus was an aggressive hunting ape, in his African Genesis, published in 1961. The scientific establishment, firmly in the grip of the Blank Slate ideologues, had been furiously blasting back, condemning Ardrey, Lorenz, and anyone else who dared to suggest the existence of anything as heretical as human nature as a fascist and a Nazi, not to mention very right wing. (sound familiar?) See, for example, the Blank Slate tract Man and Aggression, published in 1968.
I’m not sure whether producer Bob Rafelson or screenwriter Carole Eastman or both were responsible for the lines in question, but there’s no doubt about one thing – whoever wrote them had been well coached by the Blank Slaters. Their favorite memes were all there. The grotesque, exaggerated “Killer Ape Theory?” Check! The socially objectionable nature of the messenger? Check! Their association with the “exploiting classes, or, as Samia Glavia put it, “the higher classes and loftier natures?” Check! As a final subtle touch, the very name “Glavia” is Latin for a type of sword or spear, a weapon of “aggression.”
I’m sure there are many more of these artifacts of reality out there, awaiting discovery by some future historian bold enough to dispute the “orthodox” account of the Blank Slate. According to that account, nothing much happened to disturb the hegemony of the Blank Slaters until E. O. Wilson turned up. Then, as noted above, the whole charade supposedly popped like a soap bubble. Well, as the song goes, “It ain’t necessarily so.” Ardrey and friends had already reduced the Blank Slate to a laughing stock among the lay public long before Wilson happened along. The “Men of Science” knew the game was up. Still, they couldn’t bear to admit that a “mere playwright” like Ardrey had forced them to admit that the elaborate Blank Slate fairy tale they had been propping up for the last 50 years with thousands of “scientific” papers in hundreds of learned academic and professional journals was a hoax. They needed some “graceful” way to rejoin the real world. They seized on Wilson as the “way.” Any port in a storm. As a member of the academic tribe himself, he made it respectable for other “Men of Science” to disengage themselves from the Blank Slate dogmas. Be that as it may, as anyone who was around at the time and was paying attention was aware, the man who was the real nemesis of the Blank Slate was Robert Ardrey. If you’re looking for proof, I recommend Five Easy Pieces as both a revealing and entertaining place to start your search.
Why is all this important? Because the Blank Slate affair was a disfiguring and corruption of the integrity of science on an unprecedented scale. It clearly demonstrated what can happen when ideological imperatives are allowed to trump the scientific method. For half a century and more it blocked our path to self-understanding, and with it out ability to understand and cope with some of the more destructive aspects of our nature. Under the circumstances it might behoove us to at least get the history right.