If you’re expecting a philosophical epiphany, E. O. Wilson’s The Origins of Creativity isn’t for you. His theme is that science and the humanities can form a grandiose union leading to a “third enlightenment” if only scholars in the humanities would come up to speed with advances in the sciences via “thorough application of five disciplines – paleontology, anthropology, psychology, evolutionary biology, and neurobiology.” Good luck with that. We can smile and nod as the old man rambles on about his latest grand, intellectual scheme, though. He isn’t great because of such brainstorms. He’s great because he combines courage and common sense with an ability to identify questions that are really worth asking. That’s what you’ll discover if you read his books, and that’s why they’re well worth reading. You might even say he’s succeeded in realizing his own dream to some extent, because reading Wilson is like reading a good novel. You constantly run across anecdotes about interesting people, tips about unfamiliar authors who had important things to say, and thought provoking comments about the human condition. For example, in “The Origins of Creativity” you’ll find a portrayal of the status games played by Harvard professors, his take on why he thinks Vladimir Nabokov is a better novelist than Jonathan Franzen, his reasons for asserting that, when it comes to the important questions facing humanity, “the grail to be sought is the nature of consciousness, and how it originated,” and some interesting autobiographical comments to boot.
Those who love to explore the little ironies of history will also find some interesting nuggets in Wilson’s latest. The history I’m referring to is, of course, that of the Blank Slate. For those who haven’t heard of it, it was probably the greatest perversion of science of all time. For more than half a century, a rigid orthodoxy was imposed on the behavioral sciences according to which there is no such thing as human nature, that at birth our minds are “blank slates,” and that all human behavior is learned. This dogma, transparently ludicrous to any reasonably intelligent child, has always been attractive to those whose tastes run to utopian schemes that require human behavior to be a great deal more “malleable” than it actually is. Communism, fashionable during the heyday of the Blank Slate, is a case in point.
Where does Wilson fit in? Well, in 1975, he published Sociobiology, in a couple of chapters of which he suggested that there may actually be such a thing as human nature, and it may actually be important. In doing so he became the first important member of the academic tribe to break ranks with the prevailing orthodoxy. By that time, however, the Blank Slate had already long been brilliantly debunked and rendered a laughing stock among intelligent lay people by an outsider; a man named Robert Ardrey. Ardrey wrote a series of books on the subject beginning with African Genesis in 1961. He had been seconded by other authors, such as Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox, long before the appearance of Sociobiology. Eventually, the behavioral “scientists” were forced to throw in the towel and jettison the Blank Slate orthodoxy. However, it was much to humiliating for them to admit the truth – that they had all been exposed as charlatans by Ardrey, a man who had spent much of his life as a “mere playwright.” Instead, they anointed Wilson, a member of their own tribe, as the great hero who had demolished the Blank Slate. This grotesque imposture was enshrined in Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, which now passes as the official “history” of the affair.
Where does the irony come in? Well, Pinker needed some plausible reason to ignore Ardrey. The deed was done crudely enough. He simply declared that Ardrey had been “totally and utterly wrong,” based on the authority of a comment to that effect in Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. In the process, he didn’t mention exactly what it was that Ardrey was supposed to have been “totally and utterly wrong” about. After all, to all appearances the man had been “totally and utterly” vindicated. As it happens, Dawkins never took issue with the main theme of all of Ardrey’s books; that there is such a thing as human nature, and it is important and essential to understanding the human condition. He merely asserted in a single paragraph of the book that Ardrey, along with Konrad Lorenz and Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, had been wrong in endorsing group selection, the notion that natural selection can operate at the level of the group as well as of the individual or gene. In other words, Pinker’s whole, shabby rationale for dismissing Ardrey was based on his support for group selection, an issue that was entirely peripheral to the overall theme of all Ardrey’s work. Now for the irony – in his last three books, including his latest, Wilson has come out unabashedly and whole heartedly in favor of (you guessed it) group selection!
In The Origins of Creativity Wilson seems to be doing his very best to rub salt in the wound. In his last book, The Hunting Hypothesis, Ardrey had elaborated on the theory, also set forth in all his previous books, that the transition from ape to man had been catalyzed by increased dependence on hunting and meat eating. The Blank Slaters long insisted that early man had never been guilty of such “aggressive” behavior, and that if he had touched meat at all, it must have been acquired by scavenging. They furiously attacked Ardrey for daring to suggest that he had hunted. If you watch the PBS documentary on the recent discovery of the remains of Homo naledi, you’ll see that the ancient diehards among them have never given up this dogma. They insist that Homo naledi was a vegetarian even though, to the best of my knowledge, no one had even contended that he wasn’t, going so far as to actually call out the “unperson” Ardrey by name. The realization that they were still so bitter after all these years brought a smile to my face. What really set them off was Ardrey’s support for a theory first proposed by Raymond Dart that hunting had actually begun very early, in the pre-human species Australopithecus africanus. Well, if they were still mad at Ardrey, they’ll be livid when they read what Wilson has to say on the subject in his latest, such as,
By a widespread consensus, the scenario drawn by scientists thus far begins with the shift by one of the African australopiths away from a vegetarian diet to one rich in cooked meat. The event was not a casual change as in choosing from a menu, nor was it a mere re-wiring of the palate. Rather the change was a full hereditary makeover in anatomy, physiology, and behavior.
This theoretical reconstruction has gained traction from fossil remains and the lifestyles of contemporary hunter-gatherers. Meat from larger prey was shared, as it is by wolves, African wild dogs, and lions. Given, in addition, the relatively high degree of intelligence possessed by large, ground-dwelling primates in general, the stage was then set in prehuman evolution for an unprecedented degree of cooperation and division of labor.
Here, Wilson almost seems to be channeling Ardrey. But wait, there’s more. This one is for the real historical connoisseurs out there. As noted above, in the bit from The Selfish Gene Pinker used for his clumsy attempt to airbrush Ardrey out of history, Dawkins condemned two others for the sin of supporting group selection as well; Konrad Lorenz and Austrian ethologist Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt. I suspect Lorenz was a bit too close to Ardrey for comfort, as the two were often condemned by the Blank Slaters in the same breath, but, sure enough, Eibl-Eibesfeldt makes a couple of cameo appearances in Wilson’s latest book! For example, in chapter 12,
During his classic field research in the 1960s, the German anthropologist Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt demonstrated in minute detail that people in all societies, from primitive and preliterate to modern and urbanized, use the same wide range of paralinguistic signals. These entail mostly facial expressions, denoting variously fear, pleasure, surprise, horror, and disgust. Eibl-Eibesfeldt lived with his subjects and further, to avoid self-conscious behavior, filmed them in their daily lives with a right-angle lens, by which the subject is made to think that the camera is pointed elsewhere. His general conclusion was that paralinguistic signals are hereditary traits shared by the whole of humanity.
Brilliant, but according to Pinker this, too, must be “totally and utterly wrong,” since Eibl-Eibesfeldt is mentioned in the very same sentence in Dawkins’ book that he used to redact Ardrey from history! At least it’s nice to see this bit of vindication for at least one of Pinker’s “totally and utterly wrong” trio. I suspect Wilson is perfectly well aware of the dubious nature of Pinker’s “history,” but I doubt if he will ever have anything to say about Lorenz, not to mention Ardrey. He has too much interest in preserving his own legacy for that. I can’t really blame a man his age for wanting to go down in history as the heroic knight in shining armor who slew the Blank Slate dragon. He actually tries to push the envelope a bit in his latest with comments like,
At first thought, this concept of kin selection, extended beyond nepotism to cooperation and altruism within an entire group, appears to have considerable merit. I said so when I first synthesized the discipline of sociobiology in the 1960s and early 1970s. Yet it is deeply flawed.
During Ardrey’s day, the scientific discipline most often associated in the lay vernacular with resistance to the Blank Slate was ethology. A few years after Wilson published his book with that title in 1975, it became sociobiology. Now evolutionary psychology has displaced both of them. I’m not sure what Wilson means by “sociobiology” here, but I’ve never seen anything he published prior to 1975 that comes close to being a forthright defense of the existence and importance of human nature. Ardrey and others had published pretty much everything of real significance he had to say on the subject more than a decade earlier.
Be that as it may, I have no reservations about recommending “The Origins of Creativity” to my readers. True, I’m a bit skeptical about his latest project for a grand unification of science and the humanities, and the book is really little more than a pamphlet. For all that, reading him is like having a pleasant conversation with someone who is very wise about the ways of the world, knows about the questions that are important for us to ask, and can tell you a lot of things that are worth knowing.