You have to hand it to Steven Pinker. At least his book about the Blank Slate drew attention to the fact that it ever happened. It would have been nice if he’d gotten the history right as well. Unfortunately, his description of the affair airbrushes the two men most responsible for ending it completely out of the picture. I refer to Robert Ardrey and Konrad Lorenz. Ardrey played by far the most significant role of any individual in smashing the Blank Slate orthodoxy. He was an outsider, a former playwright, whose highly popular and influential books insisting on the existence and significance of human nature made a mockery of the Blank Slate among intelligent lay people. The academic and professional tribe of “scientists” in the behavioral disciplines never forgave him. The humiliation they suffered during their slow, post-Ardrey return to reality following their long debauch with ideologically motivated myths tarted up as “science” rankles to this day. One can still find occasional artifacts of their hatred in the popular media, as I noted in an earlier post. That probably explains why Pinker dropped Ardrey down the memory hole. It can be understood, at least in part, as a belated defense of his academic ingroup. The result was a ludicrous “history” of the Blank Slate affair that studiously avoided mentioning the role of the individual who played the single most important role in ending it.
Pinker’s rationalization for ignoring Ardrey and Lorenz was certainly crude enough. He managed it in a single paragraph in Chapter 7 of The Blank Slate. The first part of the paragraph reads as follows:
The Noble Savage, too, is a cherished doctrine among critics of the sciences of human nature. In Sociobiology, Wilson mentioned that tribal warfare was common in human prehistory. The against-sociobiologists declared that this had been “strongly rebutted both on the basis of historical and anthropological studies.” I looked up these “studies,” which were collected in Ashley Montagu’s Man and Aggression. In fact they were just hostile reviews of books by the ethologist Konrad Lorenz, the playwright Robert Ardrey, and the novelist William Golding (author of Lord of the Flies). Some of the criticisms were, to be sure, deserved. Ardrey and Lorenz believed in archaic theories such as that aggression was like the discharge of a hydraulic pressure and that evolution acted for the good of the species. But far stronger criticisms of Ardrey and Lorenz had been made by the sociobiologists themselves. (On the second page of The Selfish Gene, for example, Dawkins wrote, “The trouble with these books is that the authors got it totally and utterly wrong.”) In any case, the reviews contained virtually no data about tribal warfare.
That’s for sure! Man and Aggression, published in 1968, was a collection of essays by some of the most prominent anthropologists and psychologists of the day. It’s quite true that it had little to do with tribal warfare, because it was intended mainly as an attempt to refute Ardrey and Lorenz’ insistence on the existence and importance of human nature. As such, it is one of the most important pieces of historical source material relevant to the Blank Slate. Among other things, it demonstrates that Pinker’s portrayal of E. O. Wilson as the knight in shining armor who slew the Blank Slate dragon in Chapter 6 of his book is nonsense. The battle had been joined long before the appearance of Wilson’s Sociobiology in 1975, and the two chapters in that book that had even mentioned human nature were essentially just restatements of what Ardrey, Lorenz, and several other authors of note, such as Robin Fox, Paul Leyhausen, Desmond Morris, Anthony Storr, and Lionel Tiger, had already written, in part, more than a decade earlier.
As can be seen in the paragraph from Pinker’s book, he cites two main reasons for airbrushing Ardrey and Lorenz out of existence. The first is Dawkins’ comment in The Selfish Gene that, “The trouble with these books is that the authors got it totally and utterly wrong.” If you actually read what Dawkins was talking about, you’ll see this comment had nothing to do with human nature, the Blank Slate, or sociobiology. Indeed, it had nothing to do with the theme of Pinker’s book, or any fundamental theme in the work of either Ardrey or Lorenz, either, for that matter. It turns out Dawkins was referring solely to their favorable comments about group selection! In one of the more amusing ironies of scientific history, E. O. Wilson, Pinker’s heroic debunker of the Blank Slate, later outed himself as a far more devoted advocate of group selection than anything Ardrey or Lorenz ever dreamed of! If they were “totally and utterly wrong,” Wilson must be doubly “totally and utterly wrong,” and himself and candidate for the memory hole. I’ve written at length about this dubious rationale for dismissing Ardrey and Lorenz elsewhere.
However, group selection wasn’t Pinker’s only excuse for creating his fairy tale version of the Blank Slate. His other one (or more correctly, two), is contained in the sentence, “Ardrey and Lorenz believed in archaic theories such as that aggression was like the discharge of a hydraulic pressure and that evolution acted for the good of the species.” In fact, Lorenz often does discuss whether particular adaptations are for the good of the species or not. He does so mainly to illustrate his point that, while the innate behavioral traits that can result in aggression in human beings were “good for the species,” in the sense that they promoted the survival of our species as a whole, at the time that they evolved, the same traits may now be “not for the good of the species” in the radically different environment we find ourselves in today. One could say in the same sense that our hands, feet and eyes are “for the good of the species,” because we are better off with them than without them. I can only surmise that Pinker falsely imagined that Lorenz was trying to claim that selection operated at the level of the species. In fact, he never claimed anything of the sort. In the few instances he actually spoke of selection in his book, On Aggression, he was careful to point out that it took place at the level of individuals, or perhaps a few individuals.
It turns out that the history behind Pinker’s comment that “Ardrey and Lorenz believed in archaic theories such as that aggression was like the discharge of a hydraulic pressure” is a great deal more interesting. I seriously doubt that Pinker even knew what he was talking about here. His knowledge of the “hydraulic theory” was probably second or third hand. In the first place, Lorenz never had a “hydraulic theory.” He did have a “hydraulic model,” and referred to it often. An animated version of the model, which he first presented at a conference in 1949, may be found here. Lorenz never referred to it as other than an admittedly crude model, but one which illustrated what he actually saw in the behavior of many different species. Anyone who is capable of raising fish in an aquarium or ducks and geese in their backyard, can read Lorenz and see for themselves that, whether Pinker thinks the model is “archaic” or not, it does nicely illustrate aspects of how these species’ actually behave.
This begs the question of how this simple and accurate model became transmogrified into a “theory.” It turns out that the “authority” the Blank Slaters of old most often used to “refute” Lorenz’ “hydraulic theory” was one Daniel Lehrman, a professor at Rutgers and a purveyor of behaviorist flim flam of the first water. His A Critique of Konrad Lorenz’s Theory of Instinctive Behavior appeared in The Quarterly Review of Biology back in 1953. By all means, have a look at it. To read it is to marvel at how delusional the Blank Slaters had become by the early 50’s. Lehrman denied the existence of instincts, not only in the great apes and human beings, as Ashley Montagu did in the 60’s, but in rats and geese, no less! For example, according to Lehrman, the innate egg retrieving behavior of geese described by Lorenz was not innate, but was a result of “conditioning” while the goose was still in the egg! He cited studies according to which the neck movements used by the goose to retrieve the egg actually began developing a few days after the egg was laid when the “head is stimulated tactually by the yolk sac.” Apparently it never occurred to Lehrman that he was merely kicking the can down the road. Why would the fetal goose move its head one way rather than another in response to this “conditioning?” Indeed, why would it move it’s head at all? As Lorenz put it, there must have been an innate “schoolmarm” to teach the goose these things. Lehrman gives several other examples, explaining innate developmental feedback mechanisms in terms of behaviorist “conditioning.” The following is another example of his “devastating” arguments against Lorenz:
Now, what exactly is meant by the statement that a behavior pattern is “inherited” or “genetically controlled?” Lorenz undoubtedly does not thing that the zygote contains the instinctive act in miniature, or that the gene is the equivalent of an entelechy which purposefully and continuously tries to push the organism’s development in a particular direction. Yet one or both of these preformistic assumptions, or their equivalents, must underlie the notion that some behavior patterns are “inherited” as such.
Quick! Someone run and tell the computer programmers! Everything they’ve done to date is clearly impossible. Are they trying to claim that their video games actually exist in miniature in the software they’re trying to peddle? Lehrman next gives a perfect illustration of what George Orwell was talking about when he spoke of “Newspeak,” in his 1984. Newspeak was a version of the language that would make it impossible to even conceptualize “Crimethink.” As Lehrman puts it,
To lump them (behavioral traits) together under the rubric of “inherited” or “innate” characteristics serves to block the investigation of their origin just at the point where it should leap forward in meaningfulness.
Elsewhere Lehrman makes a similar case for actually expunging the words “innate” and “instinct” from the behavioral science dictionary. To borrow Orwell’s terminology, he considered them “doubleplus ungood.” In retrospect, I think we can see perfectly well at this point what kinds of “investigation” really were blocked for upwards of half a century by the high priests of the Blank Slate, and it certainly wasn’t the kind that was dear to the heart of Prof. Lehrman. But what of the “hydraulic theory?” Here’s what Lehrman has to say about it:
Lorenz (1950) describes in some detail a hydraulic model, or analogy, of the instinct mechanism, including a reservoir of excitation and devices for keeping it dammed up (innate releasing mechanism) until appropriate keys unlock the sluices. Hydraulic analogies have reappeared so regularly in Lorenz’s papers since 1937 as to justify the impression that they are not really analogies – they are actual representations of Lorenz’s conception and channeling of “instinctive energy.”
Got that? You’d better not hum the tune to the Rolling Stone’s “She’s Like a Rainbow” too often, or you’ll find yourself accused of proposing a “theory” of the transformation of women into rainbows. The same goes for “Like the Dawn,” by the “Oh Hello’s.” Heaven forefend that you ever describe a cloud as like a camel, or a whale, or a unicorn, or you might find yourself accused of proposing a “theory” of the transubstantiation of clouds. That, my friends, was the magical process by which Lorenz’ simple model was transmuted into Pinker’s mythical “archaic hydraulic theory.”
So much for Pinker’s “fake but true” history of the Blank Slate. To my knowledge he has never yet shown the slightest remorse for the violence he has done to the history of what is probably the greatest scientific debacle of all time, not to mention to the legacy of the two men most responsible for restoring some semblance of sanity to the behavioral sciences. I would caution those who expect that he ever will not to hold their breath. As for Lehrman, he became a member of any number of prestigious learned societies, and received any number of prestigious awards and decorations for his brilliant contributions to the advancement of “science.” It would seem that, just as no good deed goes unpunished, no bad deed goes unrewarded.
2 thoughts on “On Steven Pinker’s Second Fairy Tale: The “Hydraulic Theory” of Konrad Lorenz”
FYI Pinker on the Blank Slate in 1999
I found this on an internet site, note comment re hydraulics.
The collapse of the wall between the terrestrial and the celestial was
followed by a collapse of the once equally firm (and now equally forgotten)
wall between the creative past and the static present. Lyell showed that
today’s earth was sculpted by everyday erosion, earthquakes, and volcanos
acting in the past over immense spans of time. The living and non-living, too,
no longer occupy different realms. Harvey showed that the human body is a
machine that runs by hydraulics and other mechanical principles. Wohler
showed that the stuff of life is not a magical, quivering gel but ordinary
compounds following the laws of chemistry. Darwin showed how the astonishing
diversity of life and its ubiquitous signs of good design could arise from the
physical process of natural selection among replicators. Mendel, and then
Watson and Crick, showed how replication itself could be understood in physical
I doubt we’ll have to go quite so far back as Harvey to find the source of Pinker’s fantasies about “hydraulic theory,” but you never know. 😉