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. Continue reading ““Mama’s Last Hug” by Frans de Waal; Adventures in the Rearrangement of History”
Rough and Tumble by Prof. Travis Pickering is an amazing little book. The author’s ostensible goal was to defend the “hunting hypothesis,” according to which hunting played an important role in the evolution of our species. In spite of that, Pickering devotes much of it to furiously denouncing authors who proposed very similar versions of that hypotheses, in some cases nearly a century earlier. I’ve seen this phenomenon often enough now to coin a phrase for it; The Pinker Effect. The Pinker Effect may be described as proposing a hypothesis combined with a denunciation and/or vilification of authors who proposed the same hypothesis years earlier, often in a clearer, more articulate and accurate form. The quintessential example is Steven Pinker’s denunciation of Robert Ardrey, in his The Blank Slate, in spite of the fact that Ardrey had presented a better and more accurate description of the Blank Slate debacle in books he had published as many as four decades earlier. Interestingly enough, Ardrey is also one of the authors who presented a very similar version of Pickering’s hunting hypothesis in a book, appropriately entitled The Hunting Hypothesis, back in 1976. He is bitterly denounced in Rough and Tumble, along with several other authors, including Carveth Read, who proposed a prescient version of the hypothesis in his The Origin of Man as long ago as 1920. What could explain this counterintuitive phenomenon?
I can only speculate that what we are seeing is a form of ritual appeasement of the powers that control the ideology, not to mention the purse strings, of one’s tribe. In this case we are speaking of academia, now controlled by aging leftists. I suspect that many of them haven’t forgotten the shame and humiliation they experienced when Ardrey, Konrad Lorenz, and several others made a laughing stock of them back in the 60’s and 70’s in the process of demolishing the Blank Slate orthodoxy. This demolition crew included several authors who were also prominently associated with the hunting hypothesis. Now, nearly half a century later, it would seem that Pickering still doesn’t dare to defend that hypothesis without first performing a triple kowtow before the former high priests of the Blank Slate! The historical background is fascinating.
First, let’s review the striking similarities between Pickering’s version of the hunting hypothesis and those proposed by other authors as much as a century earlier. Keep in mind as you read down the list that he not only borrows their ideas without attribution or even praise, but actually denounces and vilifies every one of them!
Early meat eating
Pickering: Like others before me, I argue that hunting was a primary factor in our becoming fully human – a factor underpinning the completely unique ways in which we organize ourselves and interact with others of our own kind. This means, in turn, that we need to characterize human predation as accurately as possible in order to build the fullest and most realistic understanding of what it is to be human.
Carveth Read: But the ancestor of Man found an object for association and cooperation in the chase. Spencer, indeed, says that a large carnivore, capable of killing its own prey, profits by being solitary; and this may be true where game is scarce: in the Oligocene and Miocene periods game was not scarce. Moreover, when our (ancestral, ed.) ape first pursued game, especially big game ( not being by ancient adaptation in structure and instinct a carnivore), he may have been, and probably was, incapable of killing enough prey single-handed; and, if so, he will have profited by becoming both social and cooperative as a hunter, like the wolves and dogs – in short, a sort of wolf-ape (Lycopithecus).
Pickering: “The contrasting (in comparison to Australopithecines, ed.) long legs of Homo (including even those of its earliest species, like Homo erectus) probably made it a more efficient bipedal strider than were the australopithecines. But the anatomy of the ape-man hips, legs, knees, and ankles indicates that its species were also quite capable terrestrial bipeds.”
Raymond Dart: “It is significant that this index, which indicates in a measure the poise of the skull upon the vertebral column, points to the assumption by this fossil group of an attitude appreciably more erect than that of modern anthropoids. The improved poise of the head, and the better posture of the whole body framework which accompanied this alteration in the angle at which its dominant member was supported, is of great significance. It means that a greater reliance was being placed by this group upon the feet as organs of progression, and that the hands were being freed from their more primitive function of accessory organs of locomotion.” (Australopithecus africanus: The Man-Ape of South Africa, published in Nature, February 7, 1925.)
Use of weapons
Pickering: Perhaps in an effort to maintain at least a semblance of behavioral distinction between “us and them,” some scientists still insist on clinging to the remaining (seemingly less consequential) disparities. Hunting with weapons was one such vestige of supposed human uniqueness. But, recently primatologist Jill Pruetz saw to toppling even this minor remnant of presumed human exceptionalism. Using their teeth to sharpen the ends of sticks into points, the chimpanzees of Fongoli, in the West African country of Senegal, fashion what are essentially simple thrusting spears into hollows in trees in an effort to stab and extract bushbabies, the small nocturnal primates who sleep in the holes during the day.
Carveth Read: The utility and consequent selection of hands had been great throughout; but their final development may be referred to the making and using of weapons fashioned according to a mental pattern. Those who had the best hands were selected because they made the best weapons and used them best. (The Origin of Man, 1920)
Debunking of human scavenging
Pickering: Like all scientific hypotheses, these that sought to balance the reality of ancient cut marks with the idea of passive scavenging generated testable predictions. And, time and again, they failed their archaeological tests. In failing, they also effectively falsified the overarching hypothesis of passively scavenging hominins.
Robert Ardrey: I wondered from an early date about the popularity of the scavenger hypothesis. If we were incapable of killing large prey animals such as wildebeest and waterbuck, then how were we capable of stealing their remains from their rightful and more dangerous killers? If we had been concerned with only a few stray bones, then luck could account for it. But the impressive accumulations at early hominid living sites must indicate either that we had been even more adept thieves than we are today, or that the great carnivores in those times were unaccountably lazy at guarding their kills.
Hypothesis of ambush hunting:
Pickering: Along this tactical continuum, hunting from a tree-stand is fairly simple, but it still conveys many benefits to the hunter. In addition to the disadvantaging nature of hunting from above (again, ungulates do not typically look up when scanning for predators), attacking an animal from above also takes the hunter out of potentially harmful physical contact with the prey.
Carveth Read: We may, indeed, suppose that at first prey was sometimes attacked by leaping upon it from the branch of a tree, as leopards sometimes do.
Robert Ardrey: The rare waterhole, the occasionally trickling stream, were the only places where they (other animals, ed.) could come to drink. So water became a natural trap. We did not need the long-striding foot: we could wait with our ambush for the game to come to us.
I could cite many other examples. The fact that Pickering devotes much of his book to denouncing these authors who agree with him seems odd enough, but it’s not so surprising if you happen to be familiar with the history of the Blank Slate debacle. Let’s review some of the salient details.
Konrad Lorenz and Robert Ardrey were two authors singled out by Pickering as paragons of villainy. To hear him tell it, they both must have wracked their brains each morning to come up with a list of bad deeds they could do that day. Oddly enough, it happens that they were also the twin betes noire of the Blank Slaters of old. They were loathed and hated, not because of anything they had to say about hunting, but because they insisted there is such a thing as human nature, and it is not only significant and important, but extremely dangerous for us to ignore. During a period of several decades before they appeared on the scene, it had gradually become anathema for scientists in fields relevant to human behavior to suggest that we were possessed of innate behavioral traits of any kind. Marxism and the other fashionable egalitarian ideologies of the time required it. Instead, reality was ignored in favor of the myth that all our behavior is a result of learning and experience. The result was what we now refer to as the Blank Slate. During the 60’s and 70’s Ardrey and Lorenz published a series of books that revealed to an amused lay audience the absurd nonsense that passed for “science” among these “experts.” As one might expect, this provoked a furious reaction, as documented, for example, in books like Man and Aggression, edited by Blank Slate high priest Ashley Montagu, which appeared in 1968. It’s still available for just two dollars at Amazon, and is required reading for anyone with a serious interest in the affair. It didn’t help. The Blank Slate charade slowly began to unravel. As increasing numbers of the more honest members of the academic and professional tribe began to break ranks, it eventually collapsed. Clearly, the shame of the Blank Slaters of old still rankles because, after all these years, Pickering still found it necessary to appease them by coming up with a ludicrously contrived rationalization for claiming that his “good” version of the hunting hypothesis was different from the “evil” version proposed by Ardrey, Lorenz, and company long ago.
As it happens, the reason Pickering gives for smearing Ardrey, Lorenz, and the rest, who are conveniently no longer around to defend themselves, is their supposed support for the so-called “Killer Ape Theory.” It is commonly defined as the theory that war and interpersonal aggression were the driving forces behind human evolution. It is usually associated with “genetic determinism,” the notion that humans have an irresistible and uncontrollable instinct to murder others of their kind. None of the authors Pickering denounces believed any such thing. This “theory” was a strawman invented by their Blank Slate enemies. Its genesis is of historical interest in its own right.
Raymond Dart is usually cited as the author of the theory. The basis for this claim is a paper he published in 1953 entitled The Predatory Transition from Ape to Man. The paper is available online. Read it, and you will see that it contains nothing even approaching a coherent “theory that war and interpersonal aggression were the driving forces behind human evolution.” To the extent that an “theory” is present in the paper at all, it is just what the title claims; that pre-human anthropoid apes hunted and ate meat. The problem with the paper, seized on years later by the Blank Slaters to prop up their “Killer Ape Theory” strawman, was that it appeared to have been written by a somewhat unhinged junior high school student who had been watching too many Friday night creature features. Some of the more striking examples include,
Either these Procrustean proto-human folk tore the battered bodies of their quarries apart limb from limb and slaked their thirst with blood, consuming the flesh raw like every other carnivorous beast; or, like early man, some of them understood the advantages of fire as well as the use of missiles and clubs.
A microcephalic mental equipment was demonstrably more than adequate for the crude, carnivorous, cannibalistic, bone-club wielding, jawbone-cleaving Samsonian phase of human emergence.
On this thesis man’s predecessors differed from living apes in being confirmed killers: carnivorous creatures, that seized living quarries by violence, battered them to death, tore apart their broken bodies, dismembered them limb from limb, slaking their ravenous thirst with the hot blood of victims and greedily devouring livid writhing flesh.
To characterize this class B movie stuff as a “theory” is a bit of a stretch. When it comes to human nature, there is nothing in the paper in the form of a coherently elaborated theory at all. The only time Dart even mentions human nature is in the context of a sentence claiming that “recognition of the carnivorous habit as a distinctive australopithecine trait” has implications for understanding it. Based on this flimsy “evidence” that the “Killer Ape Theory” strawman was real, and Dart was its author, Pickering goes on to claim that,
Ironically, it was Robert Ardrey, an American dramatist (and Dart’s mouthpiece in four popular books), who provided the voice closest to cool detachment when he abstracted the “killer ape hypothesis” thusly: ‘Man is a predator whose natural instinct is to kill with a weapon.’ In no subtle way, predation and aggression were coupled as the ultimate propellants of human evolution.
Here we must charitably assume that Pickering has never actually read Ardrey’s books, because otherwise we would be forced to conclude that he is a bald-faced liar. The theme of all Ardrey’s books, which reviewed the work, not only of Dart, but of hundreds of other scientists, was that there is such a thing as human nature, and it is significant and important. The idea that he was nothing but “Dart’s mouthpiece” is beyond absurd. His books are easily available today, and anyone can confirm that fact who takes the trouble to actually read them. In the process, they will see that when Ardrey wrote that “Man is a predator whose natural instinct is to kill with a weapon,” he had nothing even remotely similar to the “Killer Ape Theory” in mind. Pickering himself amply documents in his book that not only human beings but our hominin ancestors were predators, that they killed, and that they did so with weapons. That leaves only the term “instinct” as the basis for all Pickerings fulminations against Ardrey and the rest.
In order to pull off this feat, he had to come up with a fairy tale according to which they all believed that humans were driven to hunt by some kind of a genetically induced rage, directed both against their animal prey and other human beings. He, on the other hand, while generously admitting that some emotions were relevant to hunting behavior, prefers a more cerebral version of hunting behavior characterized by cool calculation rather than emotion. This is really the only significant difference he comes up with between their version of the hunting hypothesis and his own, and apparently is the basis of his conclusion that they were “evil,” whereas he is “good.” According to Pickering, those earlier, “evil” proponents of the hunting hypothesis believed in a version of hunting behavior that was actually more characteristic of chimpanzees. He goes to a great deal of trouble to distinguish their “emotional” style hunting with our own, “cerebral” version. To quote from the book,
Expertise in hunting the large, warily dangerous prey of human foragers and cashing in on its concomitant evolutionary rewards does not mature from the hell-bent approach employed by chimpanzees to dispatch their prey. Application of brute physicality is an efficient means for chimpanzees to kill because they hunt in groups, they concentrate on much smaller animals than themselves, and the rely on their superhuman strength and agility to overpower their victims… A human has no hope of out-muscling, out-running, or out-climbing his typical prey, but, if his mind stays clear, he can absolutely count on out-thinking those animals.
…all the brain power and fine motor control in the world aren’t worth a damn to a human hunter if his brain’s commands are overridden by emotion. Clear thinking in survival situations – and what is a hunting and gathering life if not a daily struggle for survival? – is dependent on control of emotion.
General emotional control in hominins may not have yet developed by the time of Homo erectus. But, the archaeological record of Homo erectus implies strongly that the species applied emotional control, at least situationally, when it hunted…
So much for Pickering’s version of the difference between his ideas and the “Killer Ape Theory” he attributes to Ardrey, Lorenz, et. al. Even as it stands it’s a pathetic excuse, not only for failing to attribute the many “original” ideas in his book about human hunting to the virtually identical versions presented by Ardrey in his The Hunting Hypothesis, not to mention years earlier by Carveth Read in his The Origin of Man, but for actually denouncing and vilifying those authors. However, the “difference” itself is imaginary, as can be easily seen by anyone who takes the trouble to read what Ardrey and the rest actually wrote.
Pickering’s deception is particularly obvious in the case of Lorenz. He made it perfectly clear that he didn’t associate Pickering’s version of “emotion” with hunting behavior. Indeed, he was dubious about associating “aggression” with hunting at all. For example, in On Aggression, he wrote,
In yet another respect the fight between predator and prey is not a fight in the real sense of the word: the stroke of the paw with which a lion kills his prey may resemble the movements that he makes when he strikes his rival, just as a shot-gun and a rifle resemble each other outwardly; but the inner motives of the hunter are basically different from those of the fighter. The buffalo which the lion fells provokes his aggression as little as the appetizing turkey which I have just seen hanging in the larder provokes mine. The differences in these inner drives can clearly be seen in the expression movements of the animal: a dog about to catch a hunted rabbit has the same kind of excitedly happy expression as he has when he greets his master or awaits some longed-for treat. From many excellent photographs it can be seen that the lion, in the dramatic moment before he springs, is in no way angry. Growling, laying the ears back, and other well-known expression movements of fighting behavior are seen in predatory animals only when they are very afraid of a wildly resisting prey, and even then the expressions are only suggested.
In none of his books did Lorenz ever suggest that hunting behavior in man was any different from that of other hunting animals. That which Ardrey actually wrote on the subject, as opposed to the “killer ape theory” flim flam that is constantly and falsely attributed to him, is much the same. For example, from The Hunting Hypothesis, he discusses what might have given us an advantage as nascent predators as follows,
Yet we had some advantages. There was the innocence of animals, such as Paul Martin has described in North American prey pursued by skilled but unfamiliar intruders from Asia; our Pliocene victims could only have been easy marks. There was our ape brain, incomparably superior to that of any natural predator. If the relatively unintelligent lioness can practice tactical hunting and plan ambushes as Schaller has described, then our talents must have been of an order far beyond lion imagination.
In his Serengeti studies George Schaller shows that any predator taking his prey is cool, calculating, methodical. It is a kind of aggressive behavior radically unlike his defense of a kill against competitors. Then there is overwhelming emotion, rage, and sometimes a lethal outcome unlike normal relations within a species. Such would have been the situation between competing hunters in glacial Europe.
Pickering anointed poor Carveth Read and other early authors honorary proponents of the “killer ape theory” even though they were long dead before Dart ever published his paper. At the beginning of chapter 3 he writes,
The same nauseating waves of cannibalism, unquenchable bloodthirst, cruel misogyny (specifically), and raging misanthropy (generally) that course through the writings of Dart and Ardrey also typify the pre-Dartian ramblings of Morris, Campbell and Read.
Dart may have been a bit over the top in his “seminal” paper, but the above is truly unhinged. Pickering must imagine that no one will take the trouble to excavate Read’s The Origin of Man from some dusty library stack and read it. In fact, it can be read online. Even out of the context of his time, this furious rant against Read is truly grotesque. Read the first few chapters of his book, and you will see that his hypothesis about hunting behavior in early man actually came quite close to the version proposed by Pickering.
In his eagerness to virtue signal to the other inmates of his academic tribe that his version of the hunting hypothesis is “good” as opposed to the “evil” versions of the “others,” Pickering actually pulls off the amusing stunt of using now irrelevant studies once favored by the Blank Slaters of old because they “proved” early man didn’t hunt, to attack Dart, supposed author of the “killer ape theory,” even though the same studies undermine his own hypotheses. In particular, he devotes a great deal of space to describing studies done by C. K. Brain to refute Dart’s claim that statistical anomalies in the distribution of various types of bones in South African caves were evidence that certain bones had been used as weapons and other tools. It was masterful work on cave taphonomy, in which Brain explored the statistics of bone accumulations left by animals as diverse as hyenas, leopards, owls and porcupines. Unfortunately, he chose to publish his work under the unfortunate title; The Hunters or the Hunted? The work was immediately seized on by the Blank Slaters as “proof” that early man hadn’t hunted at all, and was really a meek vegetarian, just as Ashley Montagu and his pals had been telling us all along. Brain was immediately anointed a “good” opponent of hunting, as opposed to the “evil” men whose ideas his work supposedly contradicted. Pickering apparently wanted to bask in the reflected glory of Brain’s “goodness.”
Of course, all that happened in the days when one could still claim that chimpanzees were “amiable vegetarians,” as Ashley Montagu put it. It’s worth noting that when Jane Goodall began publishing observations that suggested they aren’t really all that “amiable” after all, she was vilified by the Blank Slaters just as viciously as Pickering has vilified Dart, Ardrey, Lorenz and Read. Now we find Pickering trotting out Brain’s book even though it “disproves” his own hypotheses. Meanwhile it has been demonstrated, for example, in careful isotopic studies of Australopithecine teeth, that the species Dart first discovered ate a substantial amount of meat after all, as he had always claimed. Clearly, they were also occasionally prey animals. So were Neanderthals, as their remains have been found in predator bone accumulations as well. That hardly proves that they didn’t hunt.
In short, if you like to read popular science books, beware the Pinker Effect. I note in passing that C. K. Brain never stooped to the practice of “proving” the value and originality of his own work via vicious ad hominem attacks on other scientists. He was Dart’s friend, and remained one to the end.
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.
I know. You think I’m too obsessed with Robert Ardrey. Perhaps, but when I stumble across little historical artifacts of his existence, I can’t resist recording them. Who else will? Besides, I have moral emotions, too. I’m not sure where I sit on the spectrum of Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations, but when I consider Ardrey’s shabby treatment in the “official” histories, they all start howling at once. Ardrey shouldn’t be forgotten. He was the most significant player in the events that come to mind when one hears the term “Blank Slate.”
What was the “Blank Slate?” I’d call it the greatest scientific debacle of all time. The behavioral sciences were derailed for fifty years and more by the ideologically motivated denial of human nature. Unfortunately, its history will probably never be written, or at least not in a form that bears some resemblance to the truth. Perhaps the most important truth that will be redacted from future accounts of the Blank Slate is the seminal role of Robert Ardrey in dismantling it. That role was certainly recognized by the high priests of the Blank Slate themselves. Their obsession with Ardrey can be easily documented. In spite of that he is treated as an unperson today, and his historical role has been denied or suppressed. I have discussed reasons for this remarkable instance of historical amnesia elsewhere. They usually have something to do with the amour-propre of the academic tribe. See, for example, here, here and here.
If there are grounds for optimism that the real story will ever see the light of day, it lies in the ease with which the elaborate fairy tale that currently passes as the “history” of the Blank Slate can be exposed. According to this official “history,” the Blank Slate prevailed virtually unchallenged until the mid-70’s. Then, suddenly, E. O. Wilson appeared on the scene as the knight in shining armor who slew the Blank Slate dragon almost single-handedly with the publication of Sociobiology in 1975. As I’ve noted in earlier posts, there’s a great deal of source material in both the academic and popular literature whose existence is very difficult to account for if one takes this sanitized version of the affair seriously. I’ve occasionally cited some of the numerous examples of articles about or by Ardrey, both pro and con, in popular magazines including the highbrow Encounter, the more professionally oriented Saturday Review, the once popular Life, the “recreational” Penthouse, and many others, all of which appeared long before the publication of Sociobiology. I recently stumbled across another amusing example in one of Jack Nicholson’s earlier flicks, and probably one of his best; Five Easy Pieces.
I hadn’t watched the film since 1970, the year it was released. I thought it was entertaining at the time, especially the iconic restaurant scene with the uncooperative waitress. However, I certainly didn’t notice any connection to the Blank Slate. It was a bit early for that. However, I happened to watch the film again a couple of days ago. This time I noticed something. There was the ghost of Robert Ardrey, with an amused look on his face, waving at me right out of the screen.
The great debunker of the Blank Slate turns up around 1:20:25 into the film. Bobby (Jack Nicholson), his somewhat trashy girlfriend, Rayette, and a few other family members and guests are gathered in the living room of Bobby’s childhood home. A pompous, insufferable woman by the name of Samia Glavia is holding forth about the nature of man. The dialogue goes like this:
Samia Glavia/Irene Dailey: But you see, man is born into the world with his existent adversary from the first. It is his historic, lithic inheritance. So, is it startling? Aggression is prehistoric. An organism behaves according to its nature, and its nature derives from the circumstances of its inheritance. The fact remains that primitive man took absolute delight in tearing his adversary apart. And there is where I think the core of the problem resides.
John Ryan/Spicer: Doesn’t that seem unnecessarily apocalyptic?
Glavia: I do not make poetry.
Rayette: Is there a TV in the house?
Glavia: I remarked to John, that rationality is not a device to alter facts. But moreover I think of it as an extraneous tool, a gadget, somewhat like… the television. To look at it any other way is ridiculous.
Rayette:There’s some good things on it, though.
Glavia: I beg your pardon? (Condescendingly)
Rayette: There’s some good things on it sometimes.
Glavia: I have strong doubts. Nevertheless, I am not discussing media. (Icy, condescending smile)
Susan Anspach/Catherine van Oost: I think these cold, objective discussions are aggressive.
As Catherine leaves the room, Glavia rants on: There seems to be less aggression, or violence, if you like, among the higher classes, and loftier natures.
Nicholson/Bobby Dupea: You pompous celibate. You’re totally full of shit.
Great shades of Raymond Dart! “Aggression” was a key buzzword at the time in any discussion of innate human nature. Naturalist Konrad Lorenz had published the English version of his On Aggression a few years earlier. Ardrey had highlighted the theories of Dart, according to which Australopithecus africanus was an aggressive hunting ape, in his African Genesis, published in 1961. The scientific establishment, firmly in the grip of the Blank Slate ideologues, had been furiously blasting back, condemning Ardrey, Lorenz, and anyone else who dared to suggest the existence of anything as heretical as human nature as a fascist and a Nazi, not to mention very right wing. (sound familiar?) See, for example, the Blank Slate tract Man and Aggression, published in 1968.
I’m not sure whether producer Bob Rafelson or screenwriter Carole Eastman or both were responsible for the lines in question, but there’s no doubt about one thing – whoever wrote them had been well coached by the Blank Slaters. Their favorite memes were all there. The grotesque, exaggerated “Killer Ape Theory?” Check! The socially objectionable nature of the messenger? Check! Their association with the “exploiting classes, or, as Samia Glavia put it, “the higher classes and loftier natures?” Check! As a final subtle touch, the very name “Glavia” is Latin for a type of sword or spear, a weapon of “aggression.”
I’m sure there are many more of these artifacts of reality out there, awaiting discovery by some future historian bold enough to dispute the “orthodox” account of the Blank Slate. According to that account, nothing much happened to disturb the hegemony of the Blank Slaters until E. O. Wilson turned up. Then, as noted above, the whole charade supposedly popped like a soap bubble. Well, as the song goes, “It ain’t necessarily so.” Ardrey and friends had already reduced the Blank Slate to a laughing stock among the lay public long before Wilson happened along. The “Men of Science” knew the game was up. Still, they couldn’t bear to admit that a “mere playwright” like Ardrey had forced them to admit that the elaborate Blank Slate fairy tale they had been propping up for the last 50 years with thousands of “scientific” papers in hundreds of learned academic and professional journals was a hoax. They needed some “graceful” way to rejoin the real world. They seized on Wilson as the “way.” Any port in a storm. As a member of the academic tribe himself, he made it respectable for other “Men of Science” to disengage themselves from the Blank Slate dogmas. Be that as it may, as anyone who was around at the time and was paying attention was aware, the man who was the real nemesis of the Blank Slate was Robert Ardrey. If you’re looking for proof, I recommend Five Easy Pieces as both a revealing and entertaining place to start your search.
Why is all this important? Because the Blank Slate affair was a disfiguring and corruption of the integrity of science on an unprecedented scale. It clearly demonstrated what can happen when ideological imperatives are allowed to trump the scientific method. For half a century and more it blocked our path to self-understanding, and with it out ability to understand and cope with some of the more destructive aspects of our nature. Under the circumstances it might behoove us to at least get the history right.
Once upon a time, half a century ago and more, several authors wrote books according to which certain animals, including human beings, are, at least in certain circumstances, predisposed to aggressive behavior. Prominent among them was On Aggression, published in English in 1966 by Konrad Lorenz. Other authors included Desmond Morris (The Naked Ape, 1967), Lionel Tiger (Men in Groups, 1969) and Robin Fox (The Imperial Animal, co-authored with Tiger, 1971). The most prominent and widely read of all was the inimitable Robert Ardrey (African Genesis, 1961, The Territorial Imperative, 1966, The Social Contract, 1970, and The Hunting Hypothesis, 1976). Why were these books important, or even written to begin with? After all, the fact of innate aggression, then as now, was familiar to any child who happened to own a dog. Well, because the “men of science” disagreed. They insisted that there were no innate tendencies to aggression, in man or any of the other higher animals. It was all the fault of unfortunate cultural developments back around the start of the Neolithic era, or of the baneful environmental influence of “frustration.”
Do you think I’m kidding? By all means, read the source literature! For example, according to a book entitled Aggression by “dog expert” John Paul Scott published in 1958 by the University of Chicago Press,
All research findings point to the fact that there is no physiological evidence of any internal need or spontaneous driving force for fighting; that all stimulation for aggression eventually comes from the forces present in the external environment.
A bit later, in 1962 in a book entitled Roots of Behavior he added,
All our present data indicate that fighting behavior among the higher mammals, including man, originates in external stimulation and that there is no evidence of spontaneous internal stimulation.
Ashley Montagu added the following “scientific fact” about apes (including chimpanzees!) in his “Man and Aggression,” published in 1968:
The field studies of Schaller on the gorilla, of Goodall on the chimpanzee, of Harrison on the orang-utan, as well as those of others, show these creatures to be anything but irascible. All the field observers agree that these creatures 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.
When Goodall dared to contradict Montagu and report what she had actually seen, she was furiously denounced in vile attacks by the likes of Brian Deer, who chivalrously recorded in an artical published in the Sunday Times in 1997,
…the former waitress had arrived at Gombe, ordered the grass cut and dumped vast quantities of trucked-in bananas, before documenting a fractious pandemonium of the apes. Soon she was writing about vicious hunting parties in which our cheery cousins trapped colubus monkeys and ripped them to bits, just for fun.
This remarkable transformation from Montagu’s expert in the field to Deer’s “former waitress” was typical of the way “science” was done by the Blank Slaters in those days. This type of “science” should be familiar to modern readers, who have witnessed what happens to anyone who dares to challenge the current climate change dogmas.
Fast forward to 2016. A paper entitled The phylogenetic roots of human lethal violence has just been published in the prestigious journal Nature. The first figure in the paper has the provocative title, “Evolution of lethal aggression in non-human mammals.” It not only accepts the fact of “spontaneous internal stimulation” of aggression without a murmur, but actually quantifies it in no less than 1024 species of mammals! According to the abstract,
Here we propose a conceptual approach towards understanding these roots based on the assumption that aggression in mammals, including humans, has a significant phylogenetic component. By compiling sources of mortality from a comprehensive sample of mammals, we assessed the percentage of deaths due to conspecifics and, using phylogenetic comparative tools, predicted this value for humans. The proportion of human deaths phylogenetically predicted to be caused by interpersonal violence stood at 2%.
All this and more is set down in the usual scientific deadpan without the least hint that the notion of such a “significant phylogenetic component” was ever seriously challenged. Unfortunately the paper itself is behind Nature’s paywall, but a there’s a free review with extracts from the paper by Ed Yong on the website of The Atlantic, and Jerry Coyne also reviewed the paper over at his Why Evolution is True website. Citing the paper Yong notes,
It’s likely that primates are especially violent because we are both territorial and social—two factors that respectively provide motive and opportunity for murder. So it goes for humans. As we moved from small bands to medium-sized tribes to large chiefdoms, our rates of lethal violence increased.
“Territorial and social!?” Whoever wrote such stuff? Oh, now I remember! It was a guy named Robert Ardrey, who happened to be the author of The Territorial Imperative and The Social Contract. Chalk up another one for the “mere playwright.” Yet again, he was right, and almost all the “men of science” were wrong. Do you ever think he’ll get the credit he deserves from our latter day “men of science?” Naw, neither do I. Some things are just too embarrassing to admit.
Back in the day when the Blank Slaters were putting the finishing touches on the greatest scientific debacle of all time, there was much wringing of hands about “aggression.” The “evolutionary psychologists” of the day, who were bold enough even then to insist that there actually is such a thing as human nature, were suggesting that, in certain circumstances, human beings were predisposed to act aggressively. Not only that, but the warfare that has been such a ubiquitous aspect of our history since the dawn of recorded time might not be just an unfortunate cultural artifact of the transition to agricultural economies. Rather, it might be the predictable manifestation of innate behavioral traits. They suggested that, instead of hoping the traits in question would disappear if we just pretended they didn’t exist, it might be wiser to seek to understand them. If we understood the problem, we might actually be able to take reasonable steps to do something about it.
Fast forward to the present, and the Blank Slate is still with us, but only as a pale shadow of its former self. References to human nature are commonly found in both the popular and academic literature, as if the subject had never been the least bit controversial. The fact that innate predispositions have a significant impact on human behavior is accepted as a matter of course. However, it turns out that the assumption that if only the power of the Blank Slate orthodoxy could be broken, we could start to seriously address problems, such as warfare, that are a threat to our security and perhaps our very survival, was a bit premature. In retrospect, it seems the Blank Slaters should have learned to stop worrying and love human nature.
What has happened in evolutionary psychology and the other scientific disciplines that address human behavior may be described by a term that was fashionable during the Third Reich – Gleichschaltung. Literally translated it means “equal switching,” or, in plain English, something like “getting in step.” The Blank Slate was a brute force attempt to sweep undesirable traits under the rug, and portray human behavior as almost perfectly malleable through brainwashing (or “education” and “culture” as it was more delicately put at the time). Such “ideal” creatures would be infinitely adaptable as future denizens of the utopias crafted by the ideological Left. In spite of the manifest absurdity of the Blank Slate dogmas, and the failure over and over again of actual human beings to behave as the Blank Slaters claimed they should, the Blank Slate orthodoxy prevailed in the behavioral sciences over a period of many decades. It turns out that the whole charade may have been completely unnecessary.
In retrospect, the solution was obvious; Gleichschaltung. Today we find the process in full swing. The number of papers currently appearing in the academic journals that take even a sideways glance at “ungood” human behaviors like aggression is vanishingly small. Rather, most of the papers that are published may be broadly grouped into two “safe” subject areas; 1) sex, always good for attracting at least a few of those citations that look so good on academic CVs, and 2) “approved” forms of behavior, such as altruism.
Examples are not hard to find. For example, glance through the articles in recent editions of the journal, Evolutionary Psychology. They include such titles as “Are Women’s Mate Preferences for Altruism Also Influenced by Physical Attractiveness?,” “Male and Female Perception of Physical Attractiveness; An Eye Movement Study,” “The Young Male Cigarette and Alcohol Syndrome; Smoking and Drinking as a Short-Term Mating Strategy,” “Effects of Humor Production, Humor Receptivity, and Physical Attractiveness on Partner Desirability,” and “Mating and Memory; Can Mating Cues Enhance Cognitive Performance?” So much for sex. There is also a plentiful supply of papers in the second broad area mentioned above, generally with impeccably politically correct titles that signal the virtue of the authors, such as “Empowering Women; The Next Step in Human Evolution?,” “Upset in Response to a Sibling’s Partner’s Infidelity; A Study With Siblings of Gays and Lesbians, From an Evolutionary Perspective,” and “Western Europe, State Formation, and Genetic Pacification.” The last of these suggests the very rapid evolution of “peaceful” individuals thanks to the fortuitous effects of culture during the last thousand years or so. Occasionally one even finds titles that mix the two categories, such as “Sexual Selection and Humor in Courtship; A Case for Warmth and Extroversion.” The point here is not that the authors of these papers are wrong, but that their findings and theories tend to be “in step.”
When it comes to economic behavior, a subject near and dear to the hearts of those on the ideological Left, recent discoveries about our innate traits are equally reassuring. Ample confirmation may be found at the website of Evonomics, where one finds the following in the “about” blurb; “Orthodox economics is quickly being replaced by the latest science of human behavior and how social systems work. Evonomics is the home for thinkers who are applying the ground-breaking science to their lives and who want to see their ideas influence society.” Here one may find such encouraging titles as “Traditional Economics Failed. Here’s a New Blueprint; Why true self-interest is mutual interest,” “Does Behavioral Economics Undermine the Welfare State?” (of course not! As the author hopefully if somewhat diffidently opines, “Like any field, behavioral economics gives you lots of opportunity to pick and choose, and if you’re willing to be superficial or unscrupulous, you can justify lots of policy positions with it. But on balance I think it cuts in favor of the welfare state.”), and “Why the Economics of ‘Me’ Can’t Replace the Economics of ‘We.'” It turns out that “evolved behavior” deals Conservative and Libertarian heroine Ayn Rand an especially severe smackdown. The author of one article, entitled “What Happens When You Believe in Ayn Rand and Modern Economic Theory,” concludes that, “Our very survival as a species depended on cooperation, and humans excel at cooperative effort. Rather than keeping knowledge, skills and goods ourselves, early humans exchanged them freely across cultural groups.” According to other papers, “science says” that evolved human behavior promotes altruism, not selfishness, and Rand must therefore be all wet. See, for example, “What Ayn Rand Got Wrong About Human Nature and Free Markets; When altruism trumps selfishness” and “Ayn Rand Was Wrong about Human Nature; Rand would be surprised by the new science of selfishness and altruism.” Indeed, the “evonomicists” seem obsessed by Rand, going so far as to suggest that a Soviet style cure might have been called for to treat her ideologically suspect notions. The author of the last article mentioned above asks the rhetorical question, “I believe a strong case could be made that Ayn Rand was projecting her own sense of reality into the mind’s of her fictional protagonists. Does this mean that Rand was a sociopath?,” adding remarks in the remainder of the paragraph that leave the reader with the impression that she almost certainly was. In an article entitled, “Let’s Take Objectivism Back From Ayn Rand,” group selection stalwart David Sloan Wilson piles on with, “…it is no secret that the Ayn Rand movement had all the earmarks of a cult.”
Far be it for me to retrospectively assess the mental health of Ayn Rand one way or the other. My point is that, when it comes to innate behavior, the process of Gleichschaltung is well underway. One can already predict with a fair degree of certainly what most of the “discoveries” about innate human behavior will look like for the foreseeable future. Be that as it may, one still detects glimmers of light here and there. As yet, no such “iron curtain” shrouds thought and theory in the behavioral sciences as prevailed during the darkest days of the Blank Slate. One occasionally finds articles that are “noch nicht gleichgeschaltet” (still not in step), in both Evolutionary Psychology and at Evonomics. In the former, for example, see “Book Review: What Men Endure to Be Men: A review of Jonathan Gottschall, The professor in the cage: Why men fight, and why we like to watch,” and in the latter a article by Michael Shermer entitled Would Darwin be a Socialist or a Libertarian? that actually has some nice things to say about Friedrich Hayek. It would seem, then that the process of Gleichschaltung is not yet quite complete, although, given the almost universal lack of ideological diversity in academia, there is no telling how long those few who persist in being “out of step” will still be tolerated.
Perhaps the greatest cause for optimism is the simple fact that the Blank Slate has been crushed. There is no longer a serious debate about whether innate human nature exists. If its existence is accepted as a fact, then psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and economists may continue to publish papers portraying it as universally benign and dovetailing perfectly with leftist ideological shibboleths until they are blue in the face. Neuroscientists, evolutionary biologists, and geneticists will still be out there investigating how these innate processes actually work at the microscopic level in the brain. With luck, they may eventually be able to discover ways to isolate a few kernels of truth from the chaff of “just so stories” that are inevitable in the publish or perish world of academia. One must hope they will sooner rather than later, because it is likely that our very survival will depend on acquiring an accurate knowledge of exactly what kind of creatures we are.
In a world full of nuclear weapons, it is probably more important for us to learn what innate aspects of our nature have contributed to the incessant warfare that has plagued our species since before the dawn of recorded time than it is to know how male eye movements influence female sexual receptiveness. Similarly, it is important for us to be familiar, not just with the “good” innate behaviors commonly found within ingroups, but also with the “ungood” innate behaviors we exhibit towards outgroups, and for that matter, the mere fact that there actually are such things as ingroups and outgroups. One hardly needs the services of a professional evolutionary psychologist to observe the latter. Just read the comments at any liberal or conservative website. There one will find ample documentation of the fact that members of the outgroup are not just wrong, but evil, hateful, and deserving severe punishment which is not infrequently imagined in the form of beating, killing, or, as was recently called for in the case of Sarah Palin, gang rape and other forms of sexual assault. In other words, “aggression” is still out there, and it isn’t going anywhere. It might be useful for us to learn how to deal with it without either annihilating ourselves or destroying the planet we live on. Behavioral scientists might want to keep that in mind while they’re composing their next paper on the “nice” aspects of human behavior.
The Blank Slate is not over. True, behavioral scientists, intellectuals, and ideologues of all stripes now grudgingly admit something that has always been obvious to those Donald Trump refers to as the “poorly educated,” not to mention reasonably perceptive children; namely, that there is such a thing as human nature. However, many of them only admit it to the point where it interferes with their imaginary utopias of universal brotherhood and human flourishing, and no further. Allow me to consult the source material to illustrate what I’m talking about. In Man and Aggression, published in 1968, Blank Slate high priest Ashley Montagu wrote,
…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… 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… Human nature is what man learns to become a human being.
A bit later, in 1984, fellow Blank Slater Richard Lewontin generously expanded the repertoire of “innate” human behavior to include urinating and defecating in his Not in Our Genes. One still finds such old school denialists in the darker nooks of academia today, but now one can at least speak of human nature without being denounced as a fascist, and the existence of such benign aspects thereof as altruism is generally admitted. However, no such tolerance is extended to aspects of our behavior that contradict ideological shibboleths. Here, for example, is a recent quote from a review of Jerry Coyne’s Faith Versus Fact (a good read, by the way, and one I highly recommend) by critic George Sciallaba:
For all the vigor with which Coyne pursues his bill of indictment against organized religion, he leaves out one important charge. As he says, the conflict between religion and science is “only one battle in a wider war—a war between rationality and superstition.” There are other kinds of superstition. Coyne mentions astrology, paranormal phenomena, homeopathy, and spiritual healing, but religion “is the most widespread and harmful form.” I’m not so sure. Political forms of superstition, like patriotism, tribalism, and the belief that human nature is unalterably prone to selfishness and violence, seem to me even more destructive.
Aficionados will immediate recognize the provenance of this claim. It is a reworked version of the old “genetic determinism” canard, already hackneyed in the heyday of Ashley Montagu. It serves as a one size fits all accusation applied to anyone who suggests that any aspect of the human behavioral repertoire might be “bad” as opposed to “good.” Patriotism and tribalism are, of course, “bad.” There’s only one problem. If “genetic determinists” exist at all, they must be as rare as unicorns. I’ve never encountered a genuine specimen, and I’ve search long and hard. In other words, the argument is a straw man. There certainly are, however, people, myself included, who believe that our species is predisposed to behave in ways that can easily lead to such “bad” behaviors as tribalism, selfishness and violence. However, to the best of my knowledge, none of them believe that we are “unalterably prone” to such behavior. What they do believe is that the most destructive forms of human behavior may best be avoided by understanding what causes them rather than denying that those causes exist.
Which finally brings us to the point of this post. Human beings are predisposed to categorize others of their species into ingroups and outgroups. They associate “good” qualities with the ingroup, and “evil” qualities with the outgroup. This fact was familiar to behavioral scientists at the beginning of the 20th century, before the Blank Slate curtain fell, and was elaborated into a formal theory by Sir Arthur Keith in the 1940’s. I can think of no truth about the behavior of our species that is so obvious, so important to understand, and at the same time so bitterly denied and resisted by “highly educated” ideologues. Tribalism is not a “superstition,” as Mr. Sciallaba would have us believe, but a form of ingroup/outgroup behavior and, as such, a perfectly predictable and natural trait of our species. It has played a major role as the sparkplug for all the bloody and destructive wars that have plagued us since the dawn of recorded time and before. It is also the “root cause” of virtually every ideological controversy ever heard of. It does not make us “unalterably prone” to engage in warfare, or any other aggressive behavior. I have little doubt that we can “alter” and control its most destructive manifestations. Before we can do that, however, we must understand it, and before we can understand it we must accept the fact that it exists. We are far from doing so.
Nowhere is this fact better illustrated today than in the struggle over international borders. Take, for example, the case of Germany. Her “conservative” government, led by Chancellor Angela Merkel, long followed a policy of treating the countries borders as if they didn’t exist. More than a million culturally alien Moslem “refugees” were allowed to pour across them in a single year. This policy of the “conservative” German government was cheered on by the “leftist” German news media, demonstrating that the pleasant mirage of universal human brotherhood is hardly a monopoly of either extreme of the political spectrum. The masses in Germany reacted more or less the same way they have reacted in every other western European country, demonstrating what some have referred to as an “immune” response. They resisted the influx of immigrants, and insisted that the government reestablish control over the nation’s borders. For this, one finds them condemned every day in both the “right wing” and “left wing” German media as “haters.”
A remarkable fact about all this, at least as far as Germany is concerned, is that the very same German media, whether of the “right” or the “left,” quite recently engaged in a campaign of anti-American hatemongering that would put anything they accuse the local “tribalists” of completely in the shade. The magazine Der Spiegel, now prominent in condemning as “haters” anyone who dares to suggest that uncontrolled immigration might not be an unalloyed blessing, was in the very forefront of this campaign of hate against the United States. One could almost literally feel the spittle flying from the computer screen if one looked at their webpage during the climax of this latest orgy of anti-Americanism. It was often difficult to find any news about Germany among the furious denunciations of the United States for one imagined evil or another. It was hardly “all about Bush,” as sometimes claimed. These rants came complete with quasi-racist stereotyping of all Americans as prudish, gun nuts, religious fanatics, etc. If ever there were a textbook example of what Robert Ardrey once called the “Amity-Enmity Complex,” that was it. After indulging in this orgy of hatemongering, Der Spiegel and the rest are now sufficiently hypocritical to point the finger at others as “haters.”
There is another remarkable twist to this story as far as Germany is concerned. There were a few brave little bloggers and others in Germany who resisted the epidemic of hate. Amid a storm of abuse, they insisted on the truth, exposed the grossly exaggerated and one-sided nature of the media’s anti-American rants, and exposed the attempts in the media to identify Americans as an outgroup. Today one finds the very same people who resisted this media hate campaign among those Der Spiegel and the rest point the finger at as “haters.” In general, they include anyone who insists on the existence of national borders and the sovereign right of the citizens in every country to decide who will be allowed to enter, and who not.
The point here is that the outgroup have ye always with you. Those most prone to strike self-righteous poses and hurl down anathemas on others as “haters” are often the most virulent haters themselves. To further demonstrate that fact, one need only look at the websites, magazines, books, and other media produced by the most ardent proponents of “universal human brotherhood.” If you find a website with comment threads, by all means look at them as well. I guarantee you won’t have to look very far to find the outgroup. It will always be there, decorated with all the usual pejoratives and denunciations we commonly associate with the “immoral,” and the “other.” The “tribe” of “others” can come in many forms. In the case of the proponents of “human flourishing,” the “other” is usually defined in ideological terms. For leftists, one sometimes finds the “Rethugs,” or “Repugs” in the role of outgroup. For rightists, they are “Commies” and “socialists.” It’s never difficult to exhume the hated outgroup of even the most profuse proponents of future borderless utopias as long as one knows where to dig. We are all “tribalists.” Those who think tribalism is just a “superstition” can easily demonstrate the opposite by simply looking in the mirror.
Today we find another interesting artifact of this aspect of human nature in the phenomenon of Donald Trump. The elites of both parties don’t know whether to spit or swallow as they watch him sweep to victory after victory in spite of “gaffes,” “lies,” and all kinds of related “buffoonery,” that would have brought his political career to a screeching halt in the past. The explanation is obvious to the “poorly educated.” Trump has openly called for an end to uncontrolled illegal immigration. The “poorly educated” were long cowed into silence, fearing the usual hackneyed accusations of racism, but now a man who can’t be cowed has finally stepped forward and openly proclaimed what they’ve been thinking all along; that uncontrolled immigration is an evil that will lead to no good in the long run. This fact is as obvious to the “poorly educated” in Europe as it is to the “poorly educated” in the United States.
Ingroups and outgroups are a fundamental manifestation of human morality. There is an objective reason for the existence of that morality. It exists because it has promoted the survival and reproduction of the genes responsible for it in times not necessarily identical to the present. It does not exist for the “purpose” of promoting universal brotherhood, or the “purpose” of promoting “human flourishing,” or the “purpose” of eliminating international boundaries. It has no “purpose” at all. It simply is. I am a moral being myself. I happen to prefer a version of morality that accomplishes ends that I deem in harmony with the reasons that morality exists to begin with. Those ends include my own survival and the survival of others like me. Uncontrolled immigration of culturally alien populations into the United States or any other country is most unlikely to promote either the “flourishing” or the survival of the populations already there. As has been demonstrated countless times in the past, it normally accomplishes precisely the opposite, typically in the form of bitter civil strife, and often in the form of civil war. I happen to consider civil strife and civil war “evil,” from what is admittedly my own, purely subjective point of view. I realize that my resistance to these “evils” really amounts to nothing more than a whim. However, it happens to be a whim that is obviously shared by many of my fellow citizens. I hope this “ingroup” of people who agree with me can make its influence felt, for the very reason that I don’t believe that human beings must forever remain “unalterably prone” to constantly repeating the same mistake of substituting a mirage for reality when it comes to understanding their own behavior. That is what the Blank Slaters have done, and continue to do. I hope they will eventually see the light, for their own “good” as well as mine. We are not “unalterably prone” to anything. However, before one can alter, one must first understand.
It’s important to understand morality. For example, once we finally grasp the fact that it exists solely as an artifact of evolution, it may finally occur to us that attempting to solve international conflicts in a world full of nuclear weapons by consulting moral emotions is probably a bad idea. Syria is a case in point. Consider, for example, an article by Nic Robertson entitled, From Sarajevo to Syria: Where is the world’s moral compass?, that recently turned up on the website of CNN. The author suggests that we “solve” the Syrian civil war by consulting our “moral compass.” In his opinion that is what we did in the Balkans to end the massacres in Bosnia and Kosovo. Apparently we are to believe that the situation in Syria is so similar that all we have to do is check the needle of the “moral compass” to solve that problem as well. I’m not so sure about that.
In the first place, the outcomes of following a “moral compass” haven’t always been as benign as they were in Bosnia and Kosovo. Czar Nicholas was following his “moral compass” when he rushed to the aid of Serbia in 1914, precipitating World War I. Hitler was following his “moral compass” when he attacked Poland in 1939, bringing on World War II. Apparently it’s very important to follow the right “moral compass,” but the author never gets around to specifying which one of the many available we are to choose. We must assume he is referring to his own, personal “moral compass.” He leaves us in doubt regarding its exact nature, but no doubt it has much in common with the “moral compass” of the other journalists who work for CNN. Unlike earlier versions, we must hope that this one is proof against precipitating another world war.
If we examine this particular “moral compass” closely, we find that it possesses some interesting idiosyncrasies. It points to the conclusion that there is nothing wrong with using military force to depose a government recognized as legitimate by the United Nations. According to earlier, now apparently obsolete versions of the “moral compass,” this sort of thing was referred to as naked aggression, and was considered “morally bad.” Apparently all that has changed. Coming to the aid of a government so threatened, as Russia is now doing in Syria, used to be considered “good.” Under the new dispensation, it has become “bad.” It used to be assumed that governments recognized by the international community as legitimate had the right to control their own airspaces. Now the compass needle points to the conclusion that control over airspaces is a matter that should be decided by the journalists at CNN. We must, perforce, assume that they have concocted a “moral compass” superior to anything ever heard of by Plato and Socrates, or any of the other philosophers who plied the trade after them.
I suggest that, before blindly following this particular needle, we consider rationally what the potential outcomes might be. Robertson never lays his cards on the table and tells us exactly what he has in mind. However, we can get a pretty good idea by consulting the article. In his words,
Horror and outrage made the world stand up to Bosnia’s bullies after that imagination and fear had ballooned to almost insurmountable proportion.
Today it is Russia’s President Vladimir Putin whose military stands alongside Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s army. Together they’ve become a force no nation alone dares challenge. Their power is seemingly set in stone.
It would seem, then, based on the analogies of Bosnia and Kosovo, where we did “good,” that Robertson is suggesting we replace the internationally recognized government of Syria by force and confront Russia, whose actions within Syria’s borders are in response to a request for aid by that government. In the process it would be necessary for us to defeat and humiliate Russia. It was out of fear of humiliation that Russia came to Serbia’s aid in 1914. Are we really positive that Russia will not risk nuclear war to avoid a similar humiliation today? It might be better to avoid pushing our luck to find out.
What of the bright idea of replacing the current Syrian government? It seems to me that similar “solutions” really didn’t work out too well in either Iraq or Libya. Some would have us believe that “moderates” are available in abundance to spring forth and fill the power vacuum. So far, I have seen no convincing evidence of the existence of these “moderates.” Supposing they exist, I suspect the chances that they would be able to control a country brimming over with religious fanatics of all stripes without a massive U.S. military presence are vanishingly small. In other words, I doubt the existence of a benign alternative to Bashar al-Assad. Under the circumstances, is it really out of the question that the best way to minimize civilian casualties is not by creating a power vacuum, or by allowing the current stalemate to drag on, but by ending the civil war in exactly the way Russia is now attempting to do it; by defeating the rebels? Is it really worth risking a nuclear war just so we can try the rather dubious alternatives?
Other pundits (see, for example, here, here, and here) inform us that Turkey “cannot stand idly by” while Syria and her Russian ally regain control over Aleppo, a city within her own borders. Great shades of the Crimean War! What on earth could lead anyone to believe that Turkey is our “ally” in any way, shape or form other than within the chains of NATO? Turkey is a de facto Islamist state. She actively supports the Palestinians against another of our purported allies, Israel. Remember the Palestinians? Those were the people who danced in the streets when they saw the twin towers falling. She reluctantly granted access to Turkish bases for U.S. airstrikes against ISIS only so she would have a free hand attacking the Kurds, one of the most consistently pro-U.S. factions in the Middle East. She was foolhardy enough to shoot down a Russian plane in Syrian territory, killing its pilot, for the “crime” of violating her airspace for a grand total of 17 seconds. She cynically exploits the flow of refugees to Europe as a form of “politics by other means.” Could there possibly be any more convincing reasons for us to stop playing with fire and get out of NATO? NATO is a ready-made fast track to World War III on behalf of “allies” like Turkey.
But I digress. The point is that the practice of consulting something as imaginary as a “moral compass” to formulate foreign policy is unlikely to end well. It assumes that, after all these centuries, we have finally found the “correct” moral compass, and the equally chimerical notion that “moral truths” exist, floating about as disembodied spirits, quite independent of the subjective imaginations of the employees of CNN. Forget about the “moral compass.” Let us identify exactly what it is we want to accomplish, and the emotional motivation for those desires. Then, assuming we can achieve some kind of agreement on the matter, let us apply the limited intelligence we possess to realize those desires.
Morality exists because the behavioral predispositions responsible for it evolved, and they evolved because they happened to promote the survival of genes in times radically different than the present. It exists for that reason alone. It follows that, if there really were such things as “moral truths,” then nothing could possibly be more immoral than failing to survive. We would do well to keep that consideration in mind in determining the nature of our future relationship with Russia.
The history of the rise and fall of the Blank Slate is fascinating, and not only as an example of the pathological derailment of whole branches of science in favor of ideological dogmas. The continuing foibles of the “men of science” as they attempt to “readjust” that history are nearly as interesting in their own right. Their efforts at post-debacle damage control are a superb example of an aspect of human nature at work – tribalism. There is much at stake for the scientific “tribe,” not least of which is the myth of the self-correcting nature of science itself. What might be called the latest episode in the sometimes shameless, sometimes hilarious bowdlerization of history just appeared in the form of another PBS special; E. O. Wilson – Of Ants and Men. You can watch it online by clicking on the link.
Before examining the latest twists in this continuously evolving plot, it would be useful to recap what has happened to date. There is copious source material documenting not only the rise of the Blank Slate orthodoxy to hegemony in the behavioral sciences, but also the events that led to its collapse, not to mention the scientific apologetics that followed its demise. In its modern form, the Blank Slate manifested itself as a sweeping denial that innate behavioral traits, or “human nature,” had anything to do with human behavior beyond such basic functions as breathing and the elimination of waste. It was insisted that virtually everything about our behavior was learned, and a reflection of “culture.” By the early 1950’s its control of the behavioral sciences was such that any scientist who dared to publish anything in direct opposition to it was literally risking his career. Many scientists have written of the prevailing atmosphere of fear and intimidation, and through the 1950s, ‘60s, and early ‘70s there was little in the way of “self-correction” emanating from within the scientific professions themselves.
The “correction,” when it came, was supplied by an outsider – a playwright by the name of Robert Ardrey who had taken an interest in anthropology. Beginning with African Genesis in 1961, he published a series of four highly popular books that documented the copious evidence for the existence of human nature, and alerted a wondering public to the absurd extent to which its denial had been pursued in the sciences. It wasn’t a hard sell, as that absurdity was obvious enough to any reasonably intelligent child. Following Ardrey’s lead, a few scientists began to break ranks, particularly in Europe where the Blank Slate had never achieved a level of control comparable to that prevailing in the United States. They included the likes of Konrad Lorenz (On Aggression, first published in German in 1963), Desmond Morris (The Naked Ape, 1967), Lionel Tiger (Men in Groups, 1969), and Robin Fox (The Imperial Animal, 1971, with Lionel Tiger). The Blank Slate reaction to these works, not to mention the copious coverage of Ardrey and the rest that began appearing in the popular media, was furious. Man and Aggression, a collection of Blank Slater rants directed mainly at Ardrey and Lorenz, with novelist William Golding thrown in for good measure, is an outstanding piece of historical source material documenting that reaction. Edited by Ashley Montagu and published in 1968, it typifies the usual Blank Slate MO – attacks on straw men combined with accusations of racism and fascism. That, of course, remains the MO of the “progressive” Left to this day.
The Blank Slaters could intimidate the scientific community, but not so the public at large. Thanks to Ardrey and the rest, by the mid-70s the behavioral sciences were in danger of becoming a laughing stock. Finally, in 1975, E. O. Wilson broke ranks and published Sociobiology, a book that was later to gain a notoriety in the manufactured “history” of the Blank Slate out of all proportion to its real significance. Of the 27 chapters, 25 dealt with animal behavior. Only the first and last chapters focused on human behavior. Nothing in those two chapters, nor in Wilson’s On Human Nature, published in 1978, could reasonably be described as other than an afterthought to the works of Ardrey and others that had appeared much earlier as far as human nature is concerned. Its real novelty wasn’t its content, but the fact that it was the first popular science book asserting the existence and importance of human nature by a scientist in the United States that reached a significant audience. This fact was well known to Wilson, not to mention his many Blank Slate detractors. In their diatribe Against Sociobiology, which appeared in the New York Review of Books in 1975 they wrote, “From Herbert Spencer, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” to Konrad Lorenz, Robert Ardrey, and now E. O. Wilson, we have seen proclaimed the primacy of natural selection in determining most important characteristics of human behavior.
As we know in retrospect, the Blank Slaters were facing a long, losing battle against recognition of the obvious. By the end of the 1990s, even the editors at PBS began scurrying off the sinking ship. Finally, in the scientific shambles left in the aftermath of the collapse of the Blank Slate orthodoxy, Steven Pinker published his The Blank Slate. It was the first major attempt at historical revisionism by a scientist, and it contained most of the fairytales about the affair that are now widely accepted as fact. I had begun reading the works of Ardrey, Lorenz and the rest in the early 70s, and had followed the subsequent unraveling of the Blank Slate with interest. When I began reading The Blank Slate, I assumed I would find a vindication of the seminal role they had played in the 1960s in bringing about its demise. I was stunned to find that, instead, as far as Pinker was concerned, the 60s never happened! Ardrey was mentioned only a single time, and then only with the assertion that “the sociobiologists themselves” had declared him and Lorenz “totally and utterly” wrong! The “sociobiologist” given as the source for this amazing assertion was none other than Richard Dawkins! Other than the fact that Dawkins was never a “sociobiologist,” and especially not in 1972 when he published The Selfish Gene, the book from which the “totally and utterly wrong” quote was lifted, he actually praised Ardrey in other parts of the book. He never claimed that Ardrey and the rest were “totally and utterly wrong” because they defended the importance of innate human nature, in Ardrey’s case the overriding theme of all his work. Rather, Dawkins limited that claim to their support of group selection, a fact that Pinker never gets around to mentioning in The Blank Slate. Dropping Ardrey, Lorenz and the rest down the memory hole, Pinker went on to assert that none other than Wilson had been the real knight in shining armor who had brought down the Blank Slate. As readers who have followed this blog for a while are aware, the kicker came in 2012, in the form of E. O. Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth. In the crowning (and amusing) irony of this whole shabby affair, Wilson outed himself as more “totally and utterly wrong” than Ardrey and Lorenz by a long shot. He wholeheartedly embraced – group selection!
Which finally brings me to the latest episode in the readjustment of Blank Slate history. It turned up recently in the form of a PBS special entitled, E. O. Wilson – Of Ants and Men. It’s a testament to the fact that Pinker’s deification of Wilson has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. The only problem is that now it appears he is in danger of being tossed on the garbage heap of history himself. You see, the editors at the impeccably politically correct PBS picked up on the fact that, at least according to Wilson, group selection is responsible for the innate wellsprings of selflessness, love of others, at least in the ingroup, altruism, and all the other endearing characteristics that make the hearts of the stalwart leftists who call the tune at PBS go pitter-pat. Pinker, on the other hand, for reasons that should be obvious by now, must continue to reject group selection, lest his freely concocted “history” become a laughing stock. To see how all this plays out circa 2015, let’s take a closer look at the video itself.
Before I begin, I wish to assure the reader that I have the highest respect for Wilson himself. He is a great scientist, and his publication of Sociobiology was an act of courage regardless of its subsequent exploitation by historical revisionists. As we shall see, he has condoned the portrayal of himself as the “knight in shining armor” invented by Pinker, but that is a forgivable lapse by an aging scientist who is no doubt flattered by the “legacy” manufactured for him.
With that, on to the video. It doesn’t take long for us to run into the first artifact of the Wilson legend. At the 3:45 minute mark, none other than Pinker himself appears, informing us that Wilson, “changed the intellectual landscape by challenging the taboo against discussing human nature.” He did no such thing. Ardrey had very effectively “challenged the taboo” in 1961 with his publication of African Genesis, and many others had challenged it in the subsequent years before publication of Sociobiology. Pinker’s statement isn’t even accurate in terms of U.S. scientists, as several of them in peripheral fields such as political science, had insisted on the existence and importance of human nature long before 1975, and others, like Tiger and Fox, although foreign born, had worked at U.S. universities. At the 4:10 mark Gregory Carr chimes in with the remarkable assertion that,
If someone develops a theory about human nature or biodiversity, and in common living rooms across the world, it seems like common sense, but in fact, a generation ago, we didn’t understand it, it tells you that that person, in this case Ed Wilson, has changed the way all of us view the world.
One can but shake one’s head at such egregious nonsense. In the first place, Wilson didn’t “develop a theory about human nature.” He simply repeated hypotheses that Darwin himself and many others since him had developed. There is nothing of any significance about human nature in any of his books that cannot also be found in the works of Ardrey. People “in common living rooms” a generation ago understood and accepted the concept of human nature perfectly well. The only ones who were still delusional about it at the time were the so-called “experts” in the behavioral sciences. Many of them were also just as aware as Wilson of the absurdity of the Blank Slate dogmas, but were too intimidated to challenge them.
My readers should be familiar by now with such attempts to inflate Wilson’s historical role, and the reasons for them. The tribe of behavioral scientists has never been able to bear the thought that their “science” was not “self-correcting,” and they would probably still be peddling the Blank Slate dogmas to this day if it weren’t for the “mere playwright,” Ardrey. All their attempts at historical obfuscation won’t alter that fact, and source material is there in abundance to prove it to anyone who has the patience to search it out and look at it. We first get an inkling of the real novelty in this particular PBS offering at around minute 53:15, when Wilson, referring to eusociality in ant colonies, remarks,
This capacity of an insect colony to act like a single super-organism became very important to me when I began to reconsider evolutionary theory later in my career. It made me wonder if natural selection could operate not only on individuals and their genes, but on the colony as a whole. That idea would create quite a stir when I published it, but that was much later.
Which brings us to the most amusing plot twist in this whole, sorry farce; PBS’ wholehearted embrace of group selection. Recall that Pinker’s whole rationalization for ignoring Ardrey was based on some good things Ardrey had to say about group selection in his third book, The Social Contract. The subject hardly ever came up in his interviews, and was certainly not the central theme of all his books, which, as noted above, was the existence and significance of human nature. Having used group selection to declare Ardrey an unperson, Pinker then elevated Wilson to the role of the “revolutionary” who was the “real destroyer” of the Blank Slate in his place. Wilson, in turn, in what must have seemed to Pinker a supreme act of ingratitude, embraced group selection more decisively than Ardrey ever thought of doing, making it a central and indispensable pillar of his theory regarding the evolution of eusociality. Here’s how the theme plays out in the video.
Wilson at 1:09:50
Humans don’t have to be taught to cooperate. We do it instinctively. Evolution has hardwired us for cooperation. That’s the key to eusociality.
Wilson at 1:13:40
Thinking on this remarkable fact (the evolution of eusociality) has made me reconsider in recent years the theory of natural selection and how it works in complex social animals.
Pinker at 1:18:50
Starting in the 1960s, a number of biologists realized that if you think rigorously about what natural selection does, it operates on replicators. Natural selection, Darwin’s theory, is the theory of what happens when you have an entity that can make a copy of itself, and so it’s very clear that the obvious target of selection in Darwin’s theory is the gene. That became close to a consensus among evolutionary biologists, but I think it’s fair to say that Ed Wilson was always ambivalent about that turn in evolutionary theory.
I never doubted that natural selection works on individual genes or that kin selection is a reality, but I could never accept that that is the whole story. Our group instincts, and those of other eusocial species, go far beyond the urge to protect our immediate kin. After a lifetime studying ant societies, it seemed to me that the group must also have an important role in evolution, whether or not its members are related to each other.
1:20:15 Jonathan Haidt:
So there’ve been a few revolutions in evolutionary thinking. One of them happened in the 1960s and ‘70s, and it was really captured in Dawkins famous book ‘The Selfish Gene,’ where if you just take the gene’s eye view, you have the simplest elements, and then you sort of build up from there, and that works great for most animals, but Ed was studying ants, and of course you can make the gene’s eye view work for ants, but when you’re studying ants, you don’t see the ant as the individual, you don’t see the ant as the organism, you see the colony or the hive as the entity that really matters.
At 1:20:55 Wilson finally spells it out:
Once you see a social insect colony as a superorganism, the idea that selection must work on the group as well as on the individual follows very naturally. This realization transformed my perspective on humanity, too. So I proposed an idea that goes all the way back to Darwin. It’s called group selection.
Ed was able to see group selection in action. It’s just so clear in the ants, the bees, the wasps, the termites and the humans.” Wilson: “The fact of group selection gives rise to what I call multilevel evolution, in which natural selection is operating both at the level of the individual and the level of the group… And that got Ed into one of the biggest debates of his career, over multilevel selection, or group selection.
Ed Wilson did not give up the idea that selection acted on groups, while most of his fellow biologists did. Then several decades later, revived that notion in a full-throated manifesto, which I think it would be an understatement to say that he did not convince his fellow biologists.
At this point, a picture of Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth, appears on the screen, shortly followed by stills of a scowling Richard Dawkins. Then we see an image of the cover of his The Selfish Gene. The film describes Dawkins furious attack on Wilson for daring to promote group selection.
The brouhaha over group selection has brought me into conflict with defenders of the old faith, like Richard Dawkins and many others who believe that ultimately the only thing that counts in the evolution of complex behavior, is the gene, the selfish gene. They believe the gene’s eye view of social evolution can explain all of our groupish behavior. I do not.
And finally, at 1:25, after Wilson notes Pinker is one of his opponents, Pinker reappears to deny the existence of group selection:
Most people would say that, if there’s a burning building, and your child is in one room and another child is in another room, then you are entitled to rescue your child first, right? There is a special bond between, say, parents and children. This is exactly what an evolutionary biologist would predict because any gene that would make you favor your child will have a copy of itself sitting in the body of that child. By rescuing your child the gene for rescuing children, so to speak, will be helping a copy of itself, and so those genes would proliferate in the population. Not just the extreme case of saving your child from a burning building but for being generous and loyal to your siblings, your very close cousins. The basis of tribalism, kinship, family feelings, have a perfectly sensible sensible evolutionary basis. (i.e., kin selection)
At this point one can imagine Pinker gazing sadly at the tattered remains of his whole, manufactured “history” of the Blank Slate lying about like a collapsed house of cards, faced with the bitter realization that he had created a monster. Wilson’s group selection schtick was just too good for PBS to pass up. I seriously doubt whether any of their editors really understand the subject well enough to come up with a reasoned opinion about it one way or the other. However, how can you turn your nose up at group selection if, as Wilson claims, it is responsible for altruism and all the other “good” aspects of our nature, whereas the types of selection favored by Pinker, not to mention Dawkins, are responsible for selfishness and all the other “bad” parts of our nature?
And what of Ardrey, whose good words about group selection no longer seem quite as “totally and utterly wrong” as Pinker suggested when he swept him under the historical rug? Have the editors at PBS ever even heard of him? We know very well that they have, and that they are also perfectly well aware of his historical significance, because they went to the trouble of devoting a significant amount of time to him in another recent special covering the discovery of Homo naledi. It took the form of a bitter denunciation of Ardrey for supporting the “Killer Ape Theory,” a term invented by the Blank Slaters of yore to ridicule the notion that pre-human apes hunted and killed during the evolutionary transition from ape to man. This revealing lapse demonstrated the continuing strength of the obsession with the “unperson” Ardrey, the man who was “totally and utterly wrong.” That obsession continues, not only among ancient, unrepentant Blank Slaters, but among behavioral scientists in general who happen to be old enough to know the truth about what happened in the 15 years before Wilson published Sociobiology, in spite of Pinker’s earnest attempt to turn that era into an historical “Blank Slate.”
Dragging in Ardrey was revealing because, in the first place, it was irrelevant in the context of a special about Homo naledi. As far as I know, no one has published any theories about the hunting behavior of that species one way or the other. It was revealing in the second place because of the absurdity of bringing up the “Killer Ape Theory” at all. That straw man was invented back in the 60s, when it was universally believed, even by Ardrey himself, that chimpanzees were, as Ashley Montagu put it, “non-aggressive vegetarians.” That notion, however, was demolished by Jane Goodall, who observed chimpanzees both hunting and killing, not to mention their capacity for extremely aggressive behavior. Today, few people like to mention the vicious, ad hominem attacks she was subjected to at the time for publishing those discoveries, although those attacks, too, are amply documented for anyone who cares to look for them. In the ensuing years, even the impeccably PC Scientific American has admitted the reality of hunting behavior in early man. In other words, the “Killer Ape Theory” debate has long been over, and Ardrey, who spelled out his ideas on the subject in his last book, The Hunting Hypothesis, won it hands down.
Why does all this matter? It seems to me the integrity of historical truth is worth defending in its own right. Beyond that, there is much to learn from the Blank Slate affair and its aftermath regarding the integrity of science itself. It is not invariably self-correcting. It can become derailed, and occasionally outsiders must play an indispensable role in putting it back on the tracks. Ideology can trump reason and common sense, and it did in the behavioral sciences for a period of more than half a century. Science is not infallible. In spite of that, it is still the best way of ferreting out the truth our species has managed to come up with so far. We can’t just turn our back on it, because, at least in my opinion, all of the alternatives are even worse. As we do science, however, it would behoove us to maintain a skeptical attitude and watch for signs of ideology leaking through the cracks.
I note in passing that excellent readings of all of Ardrey’s books are now available at Audible.com.
I would rank the Blank Slate debacle as the greatest scientific disaster of all time. For half a century and more, the “men of science” created and maintained a formidable obstacle in the way of our gaining the self-knowledge as a species that may be critical to our survival. This obstacle was the denial that human behavior is in any way influenced by innate human nature. For the time being, at least, the Blank Slate orthodoxy has been crushed. It would seem however, that the scientific community is still traumatized by the affair. The whimsical “histories” that continue to be concocted of the affair and of the roles of the key players in it is a manifestation thereof.
For example, Robert Ardrey, the most influential and effective opponent of the Blank Slate orthodoxy in its heyday, has been thoroughly vindicated as far as the main theme of all his work is concerned. In spite of that, he is a virtual unperson today. Having shamed the “men of science,” it would seem that it is now beneath their dignity to even take notice of the fact that he ever existed. Meanwhile, Richard Lewontin, one of the high priests of the Blank Slate, is revered, and continues to win prestigious awards as a “great scientist.” Among people who should certainly know better, the mere mention of the fact that he was a kingpin of the Blank Slate orthodoxy is greeted with stunned disbelief.
Recently Lewontin was interviewed by David Sloan Wilson, one of today’s foremost defenders of group selection, a topic with a fascinating history of its own in connection with the Blank Slate. We find that, like the Bourbons who were propped back up as French monarchs by the victorious allies after the defeat of Napoleon, he has learned nothing and forgotten nothing. He has merely become more circumspect about revealing the ideological motivations behind his “science.” This becomes obvious when Wilson gets around to asking Lewontin about the connection between The Spandrels of San Marco, a paper he co-authored with Stephen Jay Gould in 1979, and Sociobiology. Lewontin demurely replies that it may have been “contextually relevant,” but the paper was mainly an attack on naïve adaptationism. Wilson: “I’m interested to know that was the primary motivation for the article, not Sociobiology.” Lewontin: “Yeah.” Balked in this first attempt, later in the interview, Wilson becomes a bit more blunt. (I delete some of the exchange for brevity. I encourage readers to look at the entire interview.)
DSW: Dick, I’d like to spend a little bit of time on Sociobiology and also Evolutionary Psychology, because even though that didn’t motivate the Spandrels paper, it still motivated you to be a critic and Steve too.
RL: Look, when I look at Sociobiology, the book or some of the other books he (E. O. Wilson) has written, it drives me mad. For example, if you read – I’ll take an extremely nasty example because it’s so clear – it is written that aggression is a part of human nature. It says that in the book, it lists features of human nature and aggression is one of them. So then I have said to Ed and others of his school, what do you do about people who have spent almost their entire lives in jail because they refuse to be conscripted into the army? What do you think the answer is? That is their form of aggression.
DSW: Well, OK, that’s facile.
RL: I don’t know what you can do about it. If everything can be said to be a form of aggression, even the refusal to be physically aggressive, what kind of science is that? …Because if everything by definition can be shown to be aggression then it ceases to be a useful concept in our scientific discussions.
As it happens, Lewontin uses the same argument in Not In Our Genes, a book he co-authored with fellow Blank Slaters Steven Rose and Leon Kamin in 1984. It makes no more sense now than it did then. Obviously, what’s still sticking in Lewontin’s craw after all these years is a series of books on the subject of human aggression that appeared back in the 60’s, the most famous of which was “On Aggression,” by Konrad Lorenz, published in the U.S. in 1966. In fact, the notion that the anecdote about an imprisoned pacifist demolishes what Lorenz and others actually wrote about human aggression is the sheerest nonsense. Lorenz and the others never dreamed that any of their theories on the subject precluded the possibility of conscientious objectors in any way, shape or form. In reality Lewontin is refuting, not Lorenz, but his favorite strawman then and now, the “genetic determinist.” Lewontin’s “genetic determinist” is one who believes that “human nature” forces people to behave in certain ways and not in others, regardless of culture or environment. If such beasts exist, they must be as rare as unicorns, because in all my reading I have never encountered one, not even among the most hard-core 19th century social Darwinists. Lewontin imagines them behind every bush. For him, all sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists must necessarily be “genetic determinists.”
Lewontin spares Wilson any mention of his obsession with “genetic determinists,” but lays his cards on the table nevertheless. He’s still as much of a Blank Slater as ever. For example, at the end of the interview,
My main complaint is… the underlying claim that there exists a human nature, which then the claimant must give examples of, and so each claimant gives examples that are convenient for his or her pet theory. I think the worst thing we can do in science is to create concepts where what is included or not included within the concept is not delimited to begin with, it allows us to claim anything. That’s my problem with Sociobiology. It’s too loose.
Well, not exactly. Readers who really want to crawl into the mind of a Blank Slater should read Not In Our Genes, the book I referred to above. There it will be found that Lewontin’s problem isn’t that Sociobiology is “too loose,” but that he perceives it as an impediment to the glorious socialist revolution. You see, Lewontin is a Marxist, and Not In Our Genes is not a book of science, but a political tract. In its pages one will find over and over and over again the assertion that those who believe in human nature are stooges of the bourgeoisie. Sociobiology and the other sciences that affirm the existence of human nature are merely so many contrived, ideologically motivated ploys to defend the capitalist status quo and stave off the glorious dawn of socialism. For example, quoting from the book,
Each of us has been engaged… in research, writing, speaking, teaching, and public political activity in opposition to the oppressive forms in which determinist ideology manifests itself. We share a commitment to the prospect of the creation of a more socially just – a socialist – society. And we recognize that a critical science is an integral part of the struggle to create that society, just as we also believe that the social function of much of today’s science is to hinder the creation of that society by acting to preserve the interests of the dominant class, gender, and race.
Biological determinist ideas are part of the attempt to preserve the inequalities of our society and to shape human nature in their own image. The exposure of the fallacies and political content of those ideas is part of the struggle to eliminate those inequalities and to transform our society. In that struggle we transform our own nature.
Those who possess power and their representatives can most effectively disarm those who would struggle against them by convincing them of the legitimacy and inevitability of the reigning social organization. If what exists is right, then one ought not oppose it; if it exists inevitably, one can never oppose it successfully.
Here, then, we see that Lewontin is being a bit coy when he claims that he only objects to Sociobiology and the other sciences that affirm the existence of human nature because they are “too loose.” In perusing the book, we find that not only Konrad Lorenz and Robert Ardrey, but also Richard Dawkins, Robert Trivers, and W. D. Hamilton are all really just so many hirelings of the capitalist system. No matter that Trivers is a radical leftist, and Ardrey almost became a Communist himself in the 1930’s.
It is amusing to read Lewontin’s pecksniffery about the lack of scientific rigor in the work of these “capitalist stooges,” followed in short order by praise for the “scientific” work of Mao, Marx, and Engels. I can only encourage anyone in need of a good belly laugh to read Engels’ Dialectics of Nature. Therein he will find the great St. Paul of Marxism lecturing the greatest scientists of his day about all the errors he’s discovered in their work because they don’t pay enough attention to the dialectic. Lewontin’s confirmation of one important facet of innate human nature, ingroup/outgroup identification, referred to by Ardrey as the Amity/Enmity Complex, by his furious ranting against the “bourgeoisie” in a book that claims there is no such thing as human nature would also be amusing, were it not for the fact that 100 million “bourgeoisie,” give or take, paid with their lives for this particular manifestation of outgroup identification.
If one is determined to cobble together a version of “reality” in which Lewontin figures as a “great scientist” instead of the Blank Slate kingpin he actually was, he will find no better place to look than the pages of Not In Our Genes. It comes complete with sage warnings against running to the opposite extreme of “cultural determinism,” and anathemas against the proponents of tabula rasa. To this I can only reply that nowhere in any of his work has Lewontin ever affirmed the existence of anything resembling the innate predispositions that one normally refers to in the vernacular as human nature, and he has consistently condemned anyone who does as politically suspect. If “good science” were a matter of condemning anyone who disagrees with your version of reality as a hireling of the forces of evil, Lewontin would take the cake.
UPDATE: Whyvert tweeted a link to a great article by Robert Trivers posted at the Unz Review website entitled, Vignettes of Famous Evolutionary Biologists, Large and Small. Included is a vignette of none other than Richard Lewontin. As it happens, Prof. Trivers was among those singled out by Lewontin as an evil minion of the bourgeoisie in his Not In Our Genes. His article includes some very interesting observations on the disintegrating effects of politics on Lewontin’s scientific career.