“Mama’s Last Hug” by Frans de Waal; Adventures in the Rearrangement of History

I admire Frans de Waal. One of the reasons is the fact that he knows about Edvard Westermarck. In his latest book, Mama’s Last Hug, he even refers to him as, “…the Finnish anthropologist who gave us the first ideas about the evolution of human morality.” In fact, that’s not true. Darwin himself gave us the first ideas about the evolution of human morality, most notably in Chapter IV of his The Descent of Man, and, as I’ve noted elsewhere, a host of scientists and philosophers wrote about the subject before Westermarck appeared on the scene. However, as far as I can tell all of them promoted some version of naturalistic fallacy. In other words, they thought that evolution would result in ever “higher” forms of morality, or that it was possible for us to be morally obligated to do some things and refrain from doing others by virtue of natural selection. Westermarck was the first writer of note after Darwin to avoid these fallacies, and no one of any stature with his insight has appeared on the scene since. To that extent, at least, de Waal is right. Unfortunately, he has an unsettling tendency to state his own moral judgments as if they were objective facts. As one might expect, they are virtually identical with the moral judgments of the rest of the academic tribe. Since Westermarck rightly pointed out that those who do this are victims of an illusion in the first chapter of his first book on the subject, The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas, one wonders whether de Waal understood what he was reading. Other than that, de Waal is one of the best writers around at describing progress in our understanding of the mental and emotional traits of other animals, and of the many similarities between us and them that are the natural result of the continuous evolution of these traits over millions of years. In his words,

I focus on emotional expressions, body language, and social dynamics. These are so similar between humans and other primates that my skill applies equally to both, although my work mostly concerns the latter.

Emotions, in turn, are of overriding importance if we would understand, not only animal behavior, but the human condition:

Our judicial systems channel feelings of bitterness and revenge into just punishment, and our health care systems have their roots in compassion. Hospitals (from the Latin hospitalis, or “hospitable”) started out as religious charities run by nuns and only much later became secular institutions operated by professionals. In fact, all our most cherished institutions and accomplishments are tightly interwoven with human emotions and would not exist without them.

He believes this is also true of a critical aspect of human behavior; our morality. I agree. De Waal draws a sharp distinction between emotions and feelings. As he puts it,

Triggered by certain stimuli and accompanied by behavioral changes, emotions are detectable on the outside in facial expression, skin color, vocal timbre, gestures, odor, and so on. Only when the person experiencing these changes becomes aware of them do they become feelings, which are conscious experiences. We show our emotions, but we talk about our feelings.

De Waal is certainly aware of who the Blank Slaters were, the kind of “science” they did, and the gross disconnect between their egalitarian rhetoric and the reality of their behavior. A self-described hippy in the 70’s, his studies led him to collect extensive data on social hierarchy and the wielding of power among apes. He couldn’t avoid noticing the same behaviors in his own leftist ingroup:

It came down to the staple of the observer: pattern recognition. I started to notice rampant jockeying for position, coalition formation, currying of favors, and political opportunism – in my own environment. And I don’t mean among just among the older generation. The student movement had its own alpha males, power struggles, groupies, and jealousies. In fact, the more promiscuous we became, the more sexual jealousy reared its ugly head. My ape study gave me the right distance to analyze these patterns, which were plain as day if you looked for them. Student leaders ridiculed and isolated potential challengers and stole everybody’s girlfriend while at the same time preaching the wonders of egalitarianism and tolerance. There was an enormous mismatch between what my generation wanted to be, as expressed in our passionate political oratory, and how we actually behaved. We were in total denial!

A bit further in the book he adds,

Human hierarchies can be quite apparent, but we don’t always recognize them as such, and academics often act as if they don‘t exist… Given a choice between manifest human behavior and trendy psychological constructs, the social sciences always favor the latter.

He recounts an encounter between Paul Ekman, a colleague who studied the connection between emotions and facial expressions, and a typical Blank Slater, an anthropologist who insisted that human emotions and their expression were infinitely malleable. According to de Waal,

Expecting to find cabinets full of field notes, films, and photographs of human body language, Ekman asked if he could get a look at his records. To his astonishment, the answer was that none existed. The anthropologist claimed that all his data were in his head.

What I find the most remarkable thing about the book is that, in spite of these broad hints about how things were back in the day, he can’t bring himself to admit the full extent of the carnage. He seldom, if ever, uses the term Blank Slate, and never mentions the rather salient fact that the Blank Slate orthodoxy brought meaningful progress in the behavioral sciences, intimately connected as they are with his own discipline, to a screeching halt for more than half a century. He must be aware of the truth. De Waal is 70 years old, and must have noticed what was going on around him as a young Ph.D. student. He must have been aware that anyone who challenged the prevailing orthodoxy was furiously attacked, and was likely to have his career destroyed or derailed. It gets worse. Beyond avoiding the “indelicacy” of mentioning painful truths about the “integrity” of the behavioral sciences, shameful as they must be to de Waal and the rest of the academic tribe, he actually trots out mythical versions of the “history” of the Blank Slate. He is hardly unique in this respect. Of one thing we can be sure. Whatever fairy tale eventually emerges as the preferred “history” of the Blank Slate, any resemblance between it and the truth will be purely incidental. Let’s look at some examples. According to de Waal,

In sociobiological depictions of nature as a dog-eat-dog place, all behavior boiled down to selfish genes, and self-serving tendencies were invariably attributed to “the law of the strongest.” Genuine kindness was out of the question, because no organism would be so stupid as to ignore danger in order to assist another. If such behavior did occur, it must be either a mirage or a product of “misfiring” genes. The infamous summary line of this era, “Scratch an altruist, and watch a hypocrite bleed,” was quoted over and over with a certain amount of glee: altruism, it said, must be a sham.

Here we see a typical and fundamental aspect of the revised “history” – the smearing of those who were right about human nature when virtually the entire academic tribe was wrong. In the lay vernacular of the 60’s and early 70’s, the academic specialty most closely associated with this lonely group was ethology. It became “sociobiology” after the publication of the book of that name by E. O. Wilson in 1975. Did “sociobiologists” really depict nature as a dog-eat-dog place? One would think that the first place to look for an answer would be in the writings of Wilson, the greatest sociobiologist of them all. Wilson sees nature as the very opposite of a dog-eat-dog place. He is probably the most prominent proponent around of the idea that altruism plays a highly important role in the natural world, and that it exists mainly by virtue of group selection. Two other highly regarded sociobiologists, Robert Trivers and Richard Alexander, independently proposed explanations of apparently unreciprocated altruism back in the mid-80’s. The most recognizable proponent of selfish genes, of course, is Richard Dawkins, who published The Selfish Gene back in 1976. However, he was no sociobiologist. His book included attacks on sociobiologists in general and Wilson in particular for defending altruism in the natural world.

In short, de Waal’s “dog-eat-dog” fantasy is just that – a fantasy. This begs the question, “Why?” Why is it that a respected public intellectual would claim to “remember” something that even a cursory glance at the source material reveals as pure nonsense? Readers of this blog can probably guess the answer – the Blank Slate. This “memory” and others like it can only be explained if one knows the history of the affair.

By the 1960’s, the vast majority of scientists and professionals in the behavioral sciences had already been claiming that there is no such thing as human nature for several decades. This nonsense, laughable to any reasonably intelligent child, was the product of ideological imperatives that required perfectly plastic, malleable human beings to serve as denizens of the various utopias that were in fashion at the time. It was propped up by vilifying anyone who demurred as a racist, fascist, fanatical right-winger, etc., and letting them know that their careers would be destroyed if they persisted. As a result, it took an outsider, someone the Blank Slaters couldn’t destroy, to begin kicking out the props that supported the Blank Slate façade, thereby initiating its slow but inexorable collapse. The outsider who eventually turned up was Robert Ardrey, and he accomplished the feat by publishing a series of four highly popular books that defended the existence and importance of human nature, and exposed what had been going on in the behavioral “sciences” to intelligent lay people. The “men of science” were furious at Ardrey for exposing and humiliating them. They haven’t forgiven him to this day, and they still can’t admit that he was right and they were wrong. Instead of simply admitting as much, they have concluded that they can better preserve the “integrity” of their field by concocting an alternative “history” of the affair out of whole cloth. According to the current version of this “history,” Ardrey and others who began chiming in with the same message after he had broken the ice were “bad men,” and the “men of science” have now exposed their “errors.” Lately the “men of science” have actually had the gall to claim that the Blank Slate never happened, that it was all a “straw man.” De Waal’s dubious “memories” are best understood in the context of this campaign to rearrange history. Another example occurs in Chapter V:

The first animal emotion studied – the only one that mattered to biologists in the 1960s and ‘70s – was aggression. In those days, every debate about human evolution boiled down to the aggressive instinct.

This “memory,” too, is utter nonsense, as anyone can confirm by consulting the still plentiful source material. The “debate” in those days wasn’t over whether “aggression” was a human instinct, but over the question of whether innate human behavioral traits, or “human nature,” if you will, existed at all. It’s inconceivable that de Waal isn’t aware of this fact, and yet nowhere in his book does he so much as mention the Blank Slate. The number of biologists in the 60’s, particularly in the United States, who explicitly embraced the claim that human nature even existed was extremely small. Among those who did, the idea they claimed that aggression was the only animal emotion that mattered is ridiculous. Their work was collected and summarized by Ardrey in his books, including African Genesis and The Territorial Imperative, both of which appeared in the 60s. In both there are extensive descriptions of many aspects of animal behavior other than aggression, including altruism and moral behavior, as well as the claim that these forms of behavior also existed in human beings. That was the real subject of debate.

Whence, then, the “aggression” canard? It can best be understood as a Blank Slate strawman. The few who dared challenge the Blank Slate orthodoxy hardly ignored forms of behavior other than aggression. However, they didn’t ignore the fact of aggression, either. It was, of course, the theme of On Aggression, published by Konrad Lorenz in 1966. Even that book, however, discussed many other forms of animal behavior. The Blank Slaters seized on the topic because aggression could be portrayed as “bad.” They then tossed in the bogus strawman that their opponents believed that aggression was a rigid, “genetically determined” behavior, forcing humans and other primates to behave like “killer apes.” This transparent lie has been propped up by the academic tribe ever since. Unfortunately, de Waal compounds the lie with statements such as,

There is one domain, though, in which aggression is common and reconciliation rare, making for decidedly different outcomes. This domain received enormous attention in 1966 when Konrad Lorenz argued in On Aggression that we have an aggressive drive that may lead to warfare, hence that war is part of human biology.

Both Lorenz and Ardrey discussed aspects of human nature that “may lead to warfare.” Neither one of them ever claimed that it followed that war is some rigid, genetically determined part of human biology. Both were perfectly well aware that anything like modern warfare was impossible before the technology necessary to support it became available. What they did do is suggest that some aspects of innate human behavior might have something to do with the prevalence of warfare throughout recorded history and, if so, it would behoove us to understand what those aspects are, as a means of preventing warfare in the future. This suggestion can only be portrayed as “wrong” or “irrational” if one rejects the claim that innate human behavior exists at all or, in other words, if one has swallowed the dogmas of the Blank Slate. If de Waal really believes that Lorenz ever claimed that “war is part of human biology,” let him cite line and verse. Otherwise he should retract this patently false statement. A bit later, de Waal doubles down, presenting his version of that favorite Blank Slate canard, the “killer ape theory,” as follows:

In the 1970s, however, came the first shocking field reports of chimpanzees killing each other, hunting monkeys, eating meat, and so on. And even though killing of other species was never the issue, the chimpanzee observations were used to make the point that our ancestors must have been murderous monsters. Incidents of chimps killing their leaders, such as described above, are exceptional compared to what they do to members of other groups for whom they reserve their most brutal violence. As a result, ape behavior moved from serving as an argument against Lorenz’s position to becoming exhibit A in its favor.

This certainly conforms to the current version of the academic tribe’s narrative, but it is far from the truth. “Lorenz position” was never, ever, that “our ancestors must have been murderous monsters,” another lie among the many invented by the Blank Slaters. It wasn’t Ardrey’s position, either, as I’ve documented in my post about Travis Pickering’s book, Rough and Tumble. Indeed, the “murderous monster” lie, otherwise known as the “killer ape theory,” was much more commonly used to smear Ardrey than Lorenz. What Ardrey claimed is that our ape ancestors hunted. The Blank Slaters furiously denied this, although we now know that it was quite probably true. He also claimed that, since they hunted, they must also have killed, which the Blank Slaters also furiously denied, but which is also quite probably true. The only other significant aspect of the killer ape theory is that our ancestors killed like “murderous monsters,” that they were always furious and enraged when they killed. Neither Ardrey nor Lorenz believed this. Indeed, as I’ve documented elsewhere, they believed exactly the opposite. We encounter more of the same when de Waal gets around to describing the behavior of our more peace-loving relatives, the bonobos. According to the author,

They are simply too peaceful, too matriarchal, and too gentle to fit the popular storyline of human evolution, which turns on conquest, male dominance, hunting and warfare… Our hippie cousins are invariably hailed as delightful, then quickly marginalized.

To this I can only wonder, “Where have you been?” I’ve been reading stories about how wonderful and peaceful bonobos are nonstop for at least the last ten years. They’ve been anything but marginalized. The amusing thing is that they occasionally slip off their pedestal, especially in discussions of their “feminist” proclivities. I was at a talk by a woman who had spent much time observing bonobos in the field. She described how two dominant females treated a male who got out of line. They viciously attacked him and, as she triumphantly declared, tore his testicles almost completely off! De Waal continues,

Of all the apes, the bonobo looks most like Ardi (Ardipithecus ramidus), down to its general body proportions, long legs, grasping feet, and even brain size. But instead of offering a new perspective stressing humanity’s gentle and empathetic potential long with that of one of its closest relatives, anthropologists gave us only hand-wringing about how atypical Ardi was – how could we have had such a gentle ancestor? Presenting Ardi as an anomaly and a mystery kept intact the prevailing macho storyline.

Seriously? The anthropologists have become a gang of warmongers, male chauvinists, and killer ape aficionadoes, and I didn’t even notice? I can only suggest that de Waal read Darkness’s Descent on the American Anthropological Society by Alice Dreger. Therein he will learn that the “science” of anthropology has long been more about insuring that reports from the field reflect how leftist academics imagine human beings should be than about how they actually are. It should be an epiphany for him.  We find another quaint throwback to the strawmen of the Blank Slaters near the beginning of Chapter 6, where we find the comment,

Emotion-based reactions have this gigantic advantage over reflex-like behavior: they pass through a filter of experience and learning known as appraisal. I wish early ethologists had thought of this, instead of clinging to the instinct concept, which is now largely outdated. Instincts are knee-jerk reactions which are pretty useless in an ever-changing world. Emotions are much more adaptable, because they operate like intelligent instincts.

Here, again, we must charitably assume that de Waal has never read what the early ethologists actually wrote. From Darwin on, when they spoke of instincts, they made it perfectly clear that they weren’t referring to “knee-jerk reactions,” but to what de Waal calls emotions. Every scientist I’m aware of who ever wrote about “human instincts” was careful to point out that, in our species, they were much less rigid, much more subject to what de Waal calls “feelings,” and much more amenable to conscious restraint than in other animals, and that, for that matter, they weren’t “knee-jerk reactions” in many other animals as well. In fact, the “knee-jerk reaction” was yet another favorite canard of the Blank Slaters of old. They, of course, insisted that human beings, not to mention apes have no instincts. See, for example, the comments to that affect in Man and Aggression, by Ashley Montagu, one of the more invaluable pieces of source material from the heyday of the Blank Slate. Apparently they imagined this piece of nonsense would become more palatable if they redefined “instinct” to refer exclusively to rigid and unlearned types of behavior such as one finds, for example, in insects, in spite of the fact that they knew perfectly well it was never used in that sense when applied to human beings. As can also be seen by referring to Man and Aggression, this pathetic gambit was aimed mainly at Robert Ardrey, who had used the term as commonly understood in African Genesis. In his later works he was at pains to refer to human instincts as “open-ended” or as “innate predispositions” to make it perfectly clear what he was talking about. If de Waal seriously believes that “instinct” has always meant “knee-jerk reaction,” I can only suggest he pick up a copy of one of Darwin’s books. Darwin often used the term, and made it perfectly clear that he was not referring to a “knee-jerk reaction” when he applied it to human beings in, for example, his The Descent of Man.

It’s sad, really. If de Waal had tried to publish Mama’s Last Hug back in the mid-70’s, the Blank Slaters would have furiously denounced him as a racist and fascist, in league with the likes of Robert Ardrey and Konrad Lorenz just as they did to E. O. Wilson when he published Sociobiology back in 1975. Is it really too much to ask that de Waal take a look at what the old ethologists and sociobiologists actually wrote, instead of propping up ludicrous myths about them? If he did, he would notice that their hypotheses were actually virtually identical to those he supports today. De Waal knows all about the connections between emotions and human behavior, and has embraced the truth that human morality is rooted in emotion. Why then this bowing and scraping to the ancient Blank Slaters, who vilified and attempted to destroy anyone who proposed similar ideas a few decades ago. Why this gleeful collaboration in the bowdlerization of history? Do the Blank Slaters of old still wield that much power in academia? Is de Waal that fearful of being ostracized from his academic tribe?

It’s even more sad that de Waal isn’t the only one actively engaged in making up an alternative history out of whole cloth. Many others are busily engaged in the project as well, and the “men of science” will very likely succeed in “adjusting” history to spare their amour propre and the humiliation of admitting that they were consistently and almost uniformly dead wrong about something as critical to our very survival as an understanding of our own nature for more than half a century. Apparently, when it comes to “selfish genes,” they have more than their share.

3 thoughts on ““Mama’s Last Hug” by Frans de Waal; Adventures in the Rearrangement of History”

  1. Awesome post,.
    Still thinking of a response,.
    “The Parliament of Instincts’ came to mind,.
    There may well be a hierarchy of drivers here,.
    Instincts,. Emotions,. Feelings etc,.

    Thank you again and will try and formulate a coherent comment.

  2. Well, your post sent me to some of the great source material.
    Konrad Lorenz, ‘On Aggression’, the great Ardrey ‘The Territorial Imperative’ and the wonderful Tinbergen with his masterpiece ‘Instinct’.
    The greatest challenge was not to rush to the computer and quote from their wonderful knowledge.
    So what to say? The denial of the underlying causes of human behaviour has led to the place where we have not spent time defining, understanding and coming to grasp with our drivers.
    Which leads me to a non comment,. I don’t think there is anything I could add to what these great thinkers said. However, having named the three books which I would recommend to any undergraduate, could I be so presumptuous to ask that you maybe consider doing a post about your ‘Most important books’, maybe three, maybe five even maybe the most important ten,.
    What a pickle academia has cooked for us.

  3. @David
    Maybe I’ll write a post about books that have influenced me one of these days, but it would be hard to pin down a limited number as “most important.” Obviously, Ardrey’s books would make the list, and especially the first two. Atheist that I am, I’ve still been influenced by the Bible in many ways, and still find it a very entertaining book for its insights into psychology and enduring human nature, not to mention some of the historical vignettes. I’ve found several novelists thought provoking and, in many ways, “non-fiction,” because of their insight into the human condition. Foremost among these is Stendhal, but Sinclair Lewis, George Orwell and Somerset Maugham were also important. My overall understanding of history has strongly influenced how I see the world and, of course, many books have contributed to building that up. In short, picking a limited number of “most important” books won’t be easy.

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