The Group Selectionist and the Blank Slater: David Sloan Wilson Interviews Richard Lewontin

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.

On the Continuing Adventures of the “Killer Ape Theory” Zombie

An article entitled “The Evolution of War – A User’s Guide,” recently turned up at “This View of Life,” a website hosted by David Sloan Wilson. Written by Anthony Lopez, it is one of the more interesting artifacts of the ongoing “correction” of the history of the debate over human nature I’ve seen in a while. One of the reasons it’s so remarkable is that Wilson himself is one of the foremost proponents of the theory of group selection, Lopez claims in his article that one of the four “major theoretical positions” in the debate over the evolution of war is occupied by the “group selectionists,” and yet he conforms to the prevailing academic conceit of studiously ignoring the role of Robert Ardrey, who was not only the most influential player in the “origins of war” debate, but overwhelmingly so in the whole “Blank Slate” affair as well. Why should that be so remarkable? Because at the moment the academics’ main rationalization for pretending they never heard of a man named Ardrey is (you guessed it) his support for group selection!

When it comes to the significance of Ardrey, you don’t have to take my word for it. His was the most influential voice in a growing chorus that finally smashed the Blank Slate orthodoxy. The historical source material is all still there for anyone who cares to trouble themselves to check it. One invaluable piece thereof is “Man and Aggression,” a collection of essays edited by arch-Blank Slater Ashley Montagu and aimed mainly at Ardrey, with occasional swipes at Konrad Lorenz, and with William Golding, author of “Lord of the Flies,” thrown in for comic effect. The last I looked you could still pick it up for a penny at Amazon. For example, from one of the essays by psychologist Geoffrey Gorer,

Almost without question, Robert Ardrey is today the most influential writer in English dealing with the innate or instinctive attributes of human nature, and the most skilled populariser of the findings of paleo-anthropologists, ethologists, and biological experimenters… He is a skilled writer, with a lively command of English prose, a pretty turn of wit, and a dramatist’s skill in exposition; he is also a good reporter, with the reporter’s eye for the significant detail, the striking visual impression. He has taken a look at nearly all the current work in Africa of paleo-anthropologists and ethologists; time and again, a couple of his paragraphs can make vivid a site, such as the Olduvai Gorge, which has been merely a name in a hundred articles.

In case you’ve been asleep for the last half a century, the Blank Slate affair was probably the greatest debacle in the history of science. The travails of Galileo and the antics of Lysenko are child’s play in comparison. For decades, whole legions of “men of science” in the behavioral sciences pretended to believe there was no such thing as human nature. As was obvious to any ten year old, that position was not only not “science,” it was absurd on the face of it. However, it was required as a prop for a false political ideology, and so it stood for half a century and more. Anyone who challenged it was quickly slapped down as a “fascist,” a “racist,” or a denizen of the “extreme right wing.” Then Ardrey appeared on the scene. He came from the left of the ideological spectrum himself, but also happened to be an honest man. The main theme of all his work in general, and the four popular books he wrote between 1961 and 1976 in particular, was that here is such a thing as human nature, and that it is important. He insisted on that point in spite of a storm of abuse from the Blank Slate zealots. On that point, on that key theme, he has been triumphantly vindicated. Almost all the “men of science,” in psychology, sociology, and anthropology were wrong, and he was right.

Alas, the “men of science” could not bear the shame. After all, Ardrey was not one of them. Indeed, he was a mere playwright! How could men like Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Moliere possibly know anything about human nature? Somehow, they had to find an excuse for dropping Ardrey down the memory hole, and find one they did! There were actually more than one, but the main one was group selection. Writing in “The Selfish Gene” back in 1976, Richard Dawkins claimed that Ardrey, Lorenz, and Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt were “totally and utterly wrong,” not because they insisted there was such a thing as human nature, but because of their support for group selection! Fast forward to 2002, and Steven Pinker managed the absurd feat of writing a whole tome about the Blank Slate that only mentioned Ardrey in a single paragraph, and then only to assert that he had been “totally and utterly wrong,” period, on Richard Dawkins’ authority, and with no mention of group selection as the reason. That has been the default position of the “men of science” ever since.

Which brings us back to Lopez’ paper. He informs us that one of the “four positions” in the debate over the evolution of war is “The Killer Ape Hypothesis.” In fact, there never was a “Killer Ape Hypothesis” as described by Lopez. It was a strawman, pure and simple, concocted by Ardrey’s enemies. Note that, in spite of alluding to this imaginary “hypothesis,” Lopez can’t bring himself to mention Ardrey. Indeed, so effective has been the “adjustment” of history that, depending on his age, it’s quite possible that he’s never even heard of him. Instead, Konrad Lorenz is dragged in as an unlikely surrogate, even though he never came close to supporting anything even remotely resembling the “Killer Ape Hypothesis.” His main work relevant to the origins of war was “On Aggression,” and he hardly mentioned apes in it at all, focusing instead mainly on the behavior of fish, birds and rats.

And what of Ardrey? As it happens, he did write a great deal about our ape-like ancestors. For example, he claimed that Raymond Dart had presented convincing statistical evidence that one of them, Australopithecus africanus, had used weapons and hunted. That statistical evidence has never been challenged, and continues to be ignored by the “men of science” to this day. Without bothering to even mention it, C. K. Brain presented an alternative hypothesis that the only acts of “aggression” in the caves explored by Dart had been perpetrated by leopards. In recent years, as the absurdities of his hypothesis have been gradually exposed, Brain has been in serious row back mode, and Dart has been vindicated to the point that he is now celebrated as the “father of cave taphonomy.”

Ardrey also claimed that our apelike ancestors had hunted, most notably in his last book, “The Hunting Hypothesis.” When Jane Goodall published her observation of chimpanzees hunting, she was furiously vilified by the Blank Slaters. She, too, has been vindicated. Eventually, even PBS aired a program about hunting behavior in early hominids, and, miraculously, just this year even the impeccably politically correct “Scientific American” published an article confirming the same in the April edition! In a word, we have seen the vindication of these two main hypotheses of Ardrey concerning the behavior of our apelike and hominid ancestors. Furthermore, as I have demonstrated with many quotes from his work in previous posts, he was anything but a “genetic determinist,” and, while he strongly supported the view that innate predispositions, or “human nature,” if you will, have played a significant role in the genesis of human warfare, he clearly did not believe that it was unavoidable or inevitable.  In fact, that belief is one of the main reasons he wrote his books.  In spite of that, the “Killer Ape” zombie marches on, and turns up as one of the “four positions” that are supposed to “illuminate” the debate over the origins of war, while another of the “positions” is supposedly occupied by of all things, “group selectionists!” History is nothing if not ironical.

Lopez’ other two “positions” include “The Strategic Ape Hypothesis,” and “The Inventionists.” I leave the value of these remaining “positions” to those who want to “examine the layout of this academic ‘battlefield’”, as he puts it, to the imagination of my readers. Other than that, I can only suggest that those interested in learning the truth, as opposed to the prevailing academic narrative, concerning the Blank Slate debacle would do better to look at the abundant historical source material themselves than to let someone else “interpret” it for them.

Nature vs. Nurture at the Movies: Hollywood Turns on the Blank Slate

If Hollywood is any guide, we can put a fork in the Blank Slate.  I refer, of course, to the delusional orthodoxy that was enforced by the “Men of Science” in the behavioral sciences for more than half a century, according to which there is no such thing as human nature.  Consider, for example, the movie Divergent.  It belongs to the dystopian genre beloved of American audiences, and is set in post-apocalyptic Chicago.  A semblance of order has been restored by arranging the surviving population into five factions based on what the evolutionary psychologists might call their innate predispositions.  They include Candor, whose supreme values are honesty and trustworthiness, and from whose ranks come the legal scholars and lawyers.  The brave and daring are assigned to the Dauntless faction, and become the defenders of the little city-state.  At the opposite extreme is Amity, the home of those who value kindness, forgiveness and trust, and whose summum bonum is peace.  Their admiration for self-reliance suits them best for the agricultural chores.  Next comes Abnegation, composed of the natural do-gooders of society.  So selfless that they can only bear to look in a mirror for a few seconds, they are deemed so incorruptible that they are entrusted with the leadership and government of the city.  Finally, the intelligent and curious are assigned to the Erudite faction.  They fill such roles as doctors, scientists, and record-keepers.  They are also responsible for technological advances, which include special “serums,” some of which are identified with particular factions.  One of these is a “simulation serum,” used to induce imaginary scenarios that test a subject’s aptitude for the various factions.

As it happens, the simulation serum doesn’t always work.  When the heroine, Tris, takes the test, she discovers that she can “finesse” the simulation.  She is a rare instance of an individual whose nature does not uniquely qualify her for any faction, but who is adaptable enough to fit adequately into several of them.  In other words, she is a “Divergent,” and as such, a free thinker and a dire threat to anyone who might just happen to have plans to misuse the serums to gain absolute control over the city.

Alas, there’s trouble in paradise.  The “factions” are groups, and where there are groups, there are ingroups and outgroups.  Sure enough, each “in-faction” has its own “out-faction.”  This aspect of the plot is introduced matter-of-factly, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.  And, of course, since it can be assumed that the audience will consist largely of the species Homo sapiens, it is.  Most of us, with the exception of a few aging behavioral scientists, are familiar with the fact that it is our nature to apply different versions of morality depending on whether we are dealing with one of “us” or one of the “others.”  It turns out that Abnegation is the outgroup of Erudite, who consider them selfish poseurs, and weak and cowardly to boot.  That being the case, it follows that Abnegation is completely unsuited to run the government of Chicago or any other post-apocalyptic city state.  That role should belong to Erudite.

Which brings us, of course, to the “bad guy.”  You’ll never guess who the bad guy is, so I’ll just spill the beans.  It’s none other than Kate Winslet!  She plays the cold and nefarious Erudite leader Jeanine Matthews.  These smarties are planning to overthrow Abnegation and seize control for themselves with the aid of the martial Dauntless, whose members have been conveniently mind-controlled with the aid of one of Erudite’s serums.  Eventually, Jeanine unmasks Tris and her amorous partner, Four, as Divergents.  And with them in her power, she treats them to a remarkable soliloquy, which nearly caused me to choke on my butter-slathered popcorn.  Once Erudite is in the saddle, she explains, they will eliminate human nature.  Using a combination of re-education a la Joseph Stalin and mind control drugs, all citizens will become latter day versions of Homo sovieticus, perfectly adapted to fit into the Brave New World planned by the Erudites.  The utopia envisioned by generations of Blank Slaters will be realized at last!

There’s no need for me to reveal any more of the plot.  It’s a very entertaining movie so, by all means, see it yourself.  Suffice it to say that, if Hollywood now associates the denial of human nature with evil bad guys, then the Blank Slate must be stone cold dead.  Or at least it is with the exception of a few ancient Blank Slater bats still hanging in the more dark and obscure belfries of academia.

For the benefit of the history buffs among my readers, I note in passing that Hollywood never quite succumbed to Gleichschaltung.  They were always just a bit out of step, even in the heyday of the Blank Slate orthodoxy.  Consider, for example, Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 movie Straw Dogs.  It was directly inspired by the work of none other than that greatest of bête noires of the Blank Slaters, Robert Ardrey.  The first to taste of the forbidden fruit was Strother Martin, best known for his portrayal of the sadistic “Captain” in Cool Hand Luke (“What we have here is a failure to communicate”).  He, in turn, passed on Ardrey’s African Genesis to Peckinpah, with the remark that the two seemed to share similar attitudes about violence in human beings.  Peckinpah was fascinated, and later said,

Robert Ardrey is a writer I admire tremendously.  I read him after Wild Bunch and have reread his books since because Ardrey really knows where it’s at, Baby.  Man is violent by nature, and we have to learn to live with it and control it if we are to survive.

That statement, rough around the edges though it is, actually shows more insight into the thought of Ardrey than that revealed by about 99.9% of the learned book reviewers and “Men of Science” who have deigned to comment on his work in the ensuing 45 years.  Specifically, Peckinpah understood that Ardrey was no “genetic determinist,” and that he believed that aggressive human predispositions could be controlled by environment, or “culture.”  As it happens, that is a theme he elaborated on repeatedly in every one of his books.  The theme of Straw Dogs was taken directly out of The Territorial Imperative.  According to Ardrey,

There is a law of territorial behavior as true of the single roebuck defending his private estate as it is of a band of howling monkeys defending its domain held in common.  Huxley long ago observed that any territory is like a rubber disc:  the tighter it is compressed, the more powerful will be the pressure outward to spring it back into shape.  A proprietor’s confidence is at its peak in the heartland, as is an intruder’s at its lowest.  Here the proprietor will fight hardest, chase fastest.

In Straw Dogs, Peckinpah’s diminutive hero, timid mathematician David Sumner, played by Dustin Hoffman, travels from the sheltered campus of an American university to be with his young wife, Amy, in her native village in England.  To make a long story short, she is raped by three of the locals.  Eventually, these muscular miscreants are joined by other townspeople in besieging Sumner in his territory, his house, in the mistaken belief that he is knowingly harboring a murderer.  Ardrey’s territorial boost takes over with a vengeance, and Sumner draws on unimagined reserves of strength, courage, and resourcefulness to annihilate the attackers one by one.  As badly behind the PC curve as any Disney film, Hollywood eventually repented and in 2000 churned out an alternative version of Straw Dogs, in which all the violent behavior was “learned.”  By then, however, getting in step meant getting out of step.  Even the Public Broadcasting Network had given the Blank Slate the heave ho years earlier.

Straw Dogs was hardly the first time Hollywood took up the subject of nature versus nurture.  For those whose tastes run more to the intellectual and profound, I have attached a short film below dealing with that theme that predates Peckinpah by almost a quarter of a century.

“On Aggression” and the Continuing Vindication of the Unpersons

The vindication just keeps coming for the unpersons of the Blank Slate.  First Robert Ardrey’s “Territorial Imperative” is confirmed in an article in the journal International Security.  The authors actually deign to mention Ardrey, but claim that, even though their “novel ideas” are all remarkably similar to the main themes of a book he published almost half a century ago, it doesn’t count.  You see, unlike all the other scientists who ever lived, Ardrey wasn’t infallible, so he can be ignored, and his legacy appropriated at will.  Shortly thereafter, Ardrey’s “Hunting Hypothesis” is confirmed yet again, and in the pages of Scientific American, no less!  The article in question bears the remarkably Ardreyesque title How Hunting Made Us Human.  It does not mention Ardrey.

Now another major theme from the work of yet another unperson whose life work and legacy don’t count because Richard Dawkins said he was “totally and utterly wrong” has been (yet again) confirmed!  The unperson in question is Konrad Lorenz, a Nobel laureate who dared to suggest that genes might have some influence on human aggression in his book, On Aggression, published back in 1966.  According to the authors of a recent Penn State study there is now some doubt about whether Lorenz was “totally and utterly wrong” after all.  Here are some blurbs from an account in the Penn State News:

Aggression-causing genes appeared early in animal evolution and have maintained their roles for millions of years and across many species, even though animal aggression today varies widely from territorial fighting to setting up social hierarchies, according to researchers from Iowa State University, Penn State and Grand Valley State University.

If these “mean genes” keep their roles in different animals and in different contexts, then perhaps model organisms — such as bees and mice — can provide insights into the biological basis of aggression in all animals, including humans, the researchers said.

Do you think Lorenz will get any credit?  Dream on!  After all, he wasn’t infallible (what was it he was wrong about now?  The “hydraulic theory” or something), and it’s a “well known fact,” as Stalin always used to say, that any scientist who wasn’t as infallible as the Almighty should be ignored and forgotten and his work freely appropriated.  Or at least that’s the rule generally applied by the modern “historians” of the Blank Slate to scientists whose existence is “inconvenient” to their narrative.

BTW, the title typically used for articles about the study is very amusing.  In most cases, it’s simply copied from the one used in the Penn State News; “Wasps use ancient aggression genes to create social groups”.  Move along people!  There’s nothing interesting here.  It’s just a dull study about wasps.

No matter, studies on the influence of genes on human behavior continue to stream out of the Academy, demonstrating that, for the most part, such work can now be done without fear of retribution.  That, and not any vindicated or unvindicated scientific hypothesis, is the real legacy of Ardrey, Lorenz, and the other great unpersons of the Blank Slate.