When Robert Ardrey began his debunking of the ideologically motivated dogmas that passed for the “science” of human behavior in 1961 with the publication of his first book, African Genesis, he knew perfectly well what was at stake. By that time what we now know as the Blank Slate orthodoxy had derailed any serious attempt by our species to achieve self-understanding for upwards of three decades. This debacle in the behavioral sciences paralyzed any serious attempt to understand the roots of human warfare and aggression, the sources of racism, anti-Semitism, religious bigotry, and the myriad other manifestations of our innate tendency to perceive others in terms of ingroups and outgroups, the nature of human territorialism and status-seeking behavior, and the wellsprings of human morality itself. A bit later, E. O. Wilson summed up our predicament as follows:
Humanity today is like a waking dreamer, caught between the fantasies of sleep and the chaos of the real world. The mind seeks but cannot find the precise place and hour. We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology. We thrash about. We are terribly confused about the mere fact of our existence, and a danger to ourselves and the rest of life.
In the end, the Blank Slate collapsed under the weight of its own absurdity, in spite of the now-familiar attempts to silence its opponents by vilification rather than logical argument. The science of evolutionary psychology emerged based explicitly on acceptance of the reality and importance of innate human behavioral traits. However, the ideological trends that resulted in the Blank Slate disaster to begin with haven’t disappeared. On the contrary, they have achieved nearly unchallenged control of the social means of communication, including the entertainment industry, the “mainstream” news media, Internet monopolies such as Facebook, Google and Twitter, and, perhaps most importantly, academia. There an ingroup defined by ideology has emerged that has always viewed the new science with a jaundiced eye. By its very nature it challenges their assumptions of moral superiority, their cherished myths about the nature of human beings, and the viability of the various utopias they have always enjoyed concocting for the rest of us. As Marx might have put it, this clash of thesis and antithesis has led to a synthesis in evolutionary psychology that might be described as creeping Gleichschaltung. In other words, it is undergoing a slow process of getting “in step” with the controlling ideology. It no longer seriously challenges the dogmas of that ideology, and the “studies” emerging from the field are increasingly, if not yet exclusively, limited to subjects that are deemed ideologically “benign.” As a result, when it comes to addressing issues that are of real importance in terms of the survival and welfare of our species, the science of evolutionary psychology has become largely irrelevant.
Consider, for example, the sort of articles that one typically finds in the relevant journals. In the last four issues of Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences they have addressed such subjects as “Committed romantic relationships,” Long-term romantic relationships,” “The effect of predictable early childhood environments on sociosexuality in early adulthood,” “Daily relationship quality in same-sex couples,” “Modern-day female preferences for resources and provisioning by long-term mates,” “Behavioral reactions to emotional and sexual infidelity: mate abandonment versus mate retention,” and “An evolutionary perspective on orgasm.” Peering through the last four issues of Evolutionary Psychology Journal we find, “Mating goals moderate power’s effect on conspicuous consumption among women,” “In-law preferences in China: What parents look for in the parents of their children’s mates,” “Endorsement of social and personal values predicts the desirability of men and women as long-term partners,” “Adaptive memory: remembering potential mates,” “Passion, relational mobility, and proof of commitment,” “Do men produce high quality ejaculates when primed with thoughts of partner infidelity?” and “Displaying red and black on a first date: A field study using the ‘First Dates’ television series.”
All very interesting stuff, I’m sure, but the last time I checked humanity wasn’t faced with an existential threat due to cluelessness about the mechanics of reproduction. Articles that might actually bear on our chances of avoiding self-destruction, on the other hand, are few and far between. In short, evolutionary psychology has been effectively neutered. Ostensibly, it’s only remaining purpose is to pad the curriculum vitae of the professoriat in the publish or perish world of academia.
Does it really matter? Probably not much. The claims of any branch of psychology to be a genuine science have always been rather tenuous, and must remain so as long as our knowledge of how the mind works and how consciousness can exist remains so limited. Real knowledge of how the brain gives rise to innate behavioral predispositions, and how they are perceived and interpreted by our “rational” consciousness is far more likely to be forthcoming from fields like neuroscience, genetics, and evolutionary biology than evolutionary psychology. Meanwhile, we are free of the Blank Slate straitjacket, at least temporarily. We must no longer endure the sight of the court jesters of the Blank Slate striking heroic poses as paragons of “science,” and uttering cringeworthy imbecilities that are taken perfectly seriously by a fawning mass media. Consider, for example, the following gems from clown-in-chief Ashley Montagu:
All the field observers agree that these creatures (chimpanzees and other great apes) are amiable and quite unaggressive, and there is not the least reason to suppose that man’s pre-human primate ancestors were in any way different.
The fact is, that with the exception of the instinctoid reactions in infants to sudden withdrawals of support and to sudden loud noises, the human being is entirely instinctless.
…man is man because he has no instincts, because everything he is and has become he has learned, acquired, from his culture, from the man-made part of the environment, from other human beings.
In fact, I also think it very doubtful that any of the great apes have any instincts. On the contrary, it seems that as social animals they must learn from others everything they come to know and do. Their capacities for learning are simply more limited than those of Homo sapiens.
In his heyday Montagu could rave on like that nonstop, and be taken perfectly seriously, not only by the media, but by the vast majority of the “scientists” in the behavioral disciplines. Anyone who begged to differ was shouted down as a racist and a fascist. We can take heart in the fact that we’ve made at least some progress since then. Today one finds articles about human “instincts” in the popular media, and even academic journals, as if the subject had never been the least bit controversial. True, the same “progressives” who brought us the Blank Slate now have evolutionary psychology firmly in hand, and are keeping it on a very short leash. For all that, one can now at least study the subject of innate human behavior without fear that undue interest in the subject is likely to bring one’s career to an abrupt end. Who knows? With concurrent advances in our knowledge of the actual physics of the mind and consciousness, we may eventually begin to understand ourselves.