The Blank Slate: A Stroll through the Valley of the Rubies

It is unlikely that an accurate history of the Blank Slate affair will ever be written. Historians of science commonly have at least some connection to the academic and professional tribe of scientists. That tribe is understandably coy about admitting that they almost unanimously propped up something as absurd as the denial of human nature for over half a century. Legitimate research was replaced by ideologically motivated dogmas, resulting in what was probably the greatest scientific debacle of all time. Those who would understand what happened will need the patience to wade through the source material. One of the best pieces thereof I’ve ever run across is Defenders of the Truth – The Sociology Debate, by Ullica Segerstrale.

Segerstrale describes herself as a sociologist, but she’s also what used to be called a “crack reporter” in days of old when genuine reporters were not yet extinct. Somehow, she managed to acquire easy access to most of the key players on both sides, and she was an acute and knowledgeable observer. The result was a genuine treasure trove of information about the affair.

Of course, the most well-known account of the Blank Slate is Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate. Unfortunately, that history almost completely ignores the two individuals who played the most important role in smashing of the Blank Slate hegemony; Robert Ardrey and Konrad Lorenz. Ignoring the role of these two in what purports to be a history of the Blank Slate is equivalent to leaving Darwin out of a history of the Theory of Evolution. Of the two, Ardrey was the most significant, and he was an outsider, a “mere playwright,” who mortally offended the academics and professionals by making their denial of human nature a laughing stock among intelligent lay people. They haven’t forgotten the shame and humiliation of being exposed as charlatans to this day. As a result, apparently out of solidarity with his tribe, Pinker saw fit to airbrush both Ardrey and Lorenz out of history.

Instead of praising them for their role in smashing the Blank Slate, Pinker dismissed Ardrey and Lorenz in a single paragraph of his book. The passage, referring to Man and Aggression, a collection of reviews edited by arch-Blank Slater Ashley Montagu and a superb piece of source material in its own right, is as follows:

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.”)

This passage is so absurd on the face of it that Pinker must have simply assumed that no one would ever bother to question it. In the case of his own academic tribe, of course, he was right. That doesn’t alter the fact that he was playing fast and loose with the truth. In the first place, the claim that Lorenz’ comparison of aggression in some animals to a simple hydraulic device was an “archaic theory” is utter nonsense. It was not a “theory” to begin with, but a model, and anyone can confirm that the model is both apt and accurate by repeating Lorenz’ experiments themselves. As for Ardrey, the idea that he “believed” in this “archaic theory” is also nonsense. Perhaps he referred to it in passing at some point, but as far as I can tell he never even mentioned it.

Pinker’s passage about the “far stronger criticism” by the “sociobiologists themselves,” must be one of the most ludicrous and also one of the most ironic comments that has ever appeared in what purports to be a history of science. As I have pointed out elsewhere, when Dawkins claimed that Ardrey and Lorenz were “totally and utterly wrong,” he wasn’t even referring to any of the central themes of the Blank Slate debate. He was referring to group selection! Dawkins never even declared his support for “sociobiology” until long after publication of Wilson’s Sociobiology. A more apt choice for one of the “sociobiologists themselves” would be none other than Wilson himself. In fact, Pinker portrayed Wilson as the greatest hero of the Blank Slate affair, the knight in shining armor who slew the Blank Slate dragon. Here’s the irony: As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, Wilson came out as a strong supporter of (you guessed it) group selection, in some of his later books! This begs the question of whether Pinker knew that his “hero,” Wilson, by far the most important of the “sociobiologists themselves,” was a supporter of group selection much earlier, at the time he published “The Blank Slate.” If so, he must have been at least as “totally and utterly wrong” as Ardrey and Lorenz. And this brings us back to Segerstrale’s book.

Several passages in Defenders of the Truth make it perfectly clear that Wilson’s support for group selection was common knowledge at least as far back as the publication of Sociobiology! For example,

…Wilson inherited his mentors’ fondness for holistic explanations, substituting the old metaphysical holism with a ‘new holism’ based on communication theory, and gave much more prominence to ‘group selection’ explanations that did some of his English colleagues (like Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene).

So while Dawkins in The Selfish Gene fully embraced kin selection, Wilson’s particular brand of sociobiology regarded kin selection as just one of the many possible mechanisms for altruistic behavior, on a par with group selection.

According to (evolutionary biologist Irven) Devore, when writing the book (Sociobiology) Wilson had not really appreciated the importance of Hamilton’s kin-selection theory; he was thinking more in terms of group selection.

It is hard to imagine that Pinker, who considered himself expert enough on the subject to write a book about the Blank Slate, could possibly have been unaware of Wilson’s support for group selection at the time he published. Under the circumstances, it is hard to construe his claim that Ardrey and Lorenz should be erased from history because of their support for group selection as other than a ludicrous smear, apparently intended to placate an academic and professional tribe that for more than half a century had propped up theories of human behavior that any reasonably intelligent ten year old must have realized were nonsense.

Apparently, Noam Chomsky realized they were nonsense as well. Segerstale’s book includes an interesting first-had account of the debate that ensued at a conclave of Blank Slaters who referred to themselves as the Sociobiology Study Group when Blank Slate kingpin Richard Lewontin, who had invited Chomsky, tried to Shanghai him into supporting the cause. Chomsky begged to differ and, as Segerstrale records,

What was worse, Chomsky could not just be dismissed – his radical credentials were impeccable, and he had been a left-wing activist longer than most people present. Adding salt to the wound, Chomsky even stated that he thought it important for political radicals to postulate a relatively fixed human nature in order to be able to struggle for a better society. We need a clear view of human needs in order to know what kind of society we want, Chomsky proclaimed. Not surprisingly, under these conditions, no Chomsky critique of sociobiology emerged.

The hegemony of the Blank Slate at the time was no secret to Chomsky, and perhaps he considered his defiance an act of despair. According to Segerstrale,

For Chomsky, finding out about human nature constituted the most interesting challenge there was. Surprisingly, however, he said that he doubted that science would be able to say much about it – he suggested that we might rather try to find the answer to human nature in literature.

Gems like this are strewn throughout the book. It shows that Chomsky believed the sciences were so hobbled by the Blank Slate dogmas that they were incapable of shedding light on the secrets of human behavior. Those who would seek them out would be better advised to look for them in the writings of such acute observers of the human condition as novelists (and playwrights).

This and much more invaluable source material may be found in the pages of “Defenders of the Truth” by those who seek a deeper understanding of the Blank Slate than is to be found in Pinker’s bowdlerized account. By blocking our path to self-understanding, no perversion of the sciences has ever been more destructive and dangerous to our species. It is well worth learning something about it.

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