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”
It’s not necessary to read all of Darwin’s books and manuscripts to learn what he had to say about morality. Just read Chapter IV of his The Descent of Man. If you haven’t seen those pages yet, they may be a revelation to you, because later generations of behavioral “scientists” have been very coy about mentioning them. They are decidedly out of step with the socialist and egalitarian ideologies that it became the goal of the 20th century behavioral “sciences” to “prove” as corollaries of the Blank Slate. As such they represent a high point in mankind’s search for truth and self-understanding. When it comes to morality, that search was quickly derailed by a combination of ideologically corrupted “science” and sellers of philosophical snake oil. Nearly a century and a half later, it remains derailed. There is little reason to hope that it will recover anytime soon.
The things Darwin had to say about morality were remarkably bold, given that he lived in Victorian England, and was married to an extremely pious Christian wife. Indeed, the first sentences of the chapter in question can be seen as reflection of this less than ideal environment:
I fully subscribe to the judgment of those writers who maintain that of all the differences between man and the lower animals, the moral sense or conscience is by far the most important. This sense, as (Sir James) Mackintosh remarks, “has a rightful supremacy over every other principle of human action”; it is summed up in that short but imperious word ought, so full of high significance.
Later authors have attempted to use this passage to prop up their artificial taboo against “anthropomorphism.” In fact, it is best understood as a brief genuflection to the prevailing “moral landscape.” In this heavily cherry-picked chapter, it’s best to read the whole thing. Darwin was anything but a carbon copy of the “co-discoverer” of evolution by natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace, who believed in evolution below the neck, but substituted spiritualistic mumbo-jumbo for the origin of the human mind and conscience. Darwin considered the human brain, mind, and moral sense as much the result of natural evolution as the rest of us. He realized that the same emotions responsible for the moral sense in humans exists in other animals as well. We are exceptional only in our ability to think about what our emotions are trying to tell us, and our ability to use language to communicate our thoughts to others. Darwin hardly considered this an unbridgeable gap, and thought it entirely possible that similarly advanced minds could evolve in other animals. As he put it,
The following proposition seems to me in a high degree probable – namely, that any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well, or nearly as well developed, as in man.
So much for human exceptionalism!
For, firstly, the social instincts lead an animal to take pleasure in the society of its fellows, to feel a certain amount of sympathy with them, and to perform various services for them. The services may be of a definite and evidently instinctive nature; or there may be only a wish and readiness, as with most of the higher social animals, to aid their fellows in certain general ways.
In the above we find Darwin clearly distinguishing between the fixed instincts of, for example, insects, and the more “malleable” behavioral predispositions existing in humans and other social mammals. In other words, here Darwin is preemptively debunking the favorite mantra of later generations of Blank Slaters that acceptance of evolved behavioral traits amounts to “genetic determinism.”
But these feelings and services are by no means extended to all the individuals of the same species, only to those of the same association… We have now seen that actions are regarded by savages, and were probably so regarded by primeval man, as good or bad, solely as they obviously affect the welfare of the tribe, – not that of the species, nor that of an individual member of the tribe. This conclusion agrees well with the belief that the so-called moral sense is aboriginally derived from the social instincts, for both relate at first exclusively to the community.
In other words, there are ingroups and outgroups, a fact that it took nearly half a century for Sir Arthur Keith to resurrect and state as a coherent hypothesis. Modern philosophers and behavioral scientists alike have fallen into the extremely dangerous habit of ignoring this aspect of human moral behavior, preferring to emphasize our “altruism” instead.
Secondly, as soon as the mental faculties had become highly developed, images of all past actions and motives would be incessantly passing through the brain of each individual; and that feeling of dissatisfaction, or even misery, which invariably results, as we shall hereafter see, from any unsatisfied instinct, would arise, as often as it was perceived that the enduring and always present social instinct had yielded to some other instinct, at the time stronger, but neither enduring in its nature, nor leaving behind it a very vivid impression. It is clear that many instinctive desires, such as that of hunger, are in their nature of short duration; and after being satisfied, are not readily or vividly recalled.
In other words, instead of being some unique human trait that suddenly evolved out of nothing, morality exists in nascent form in many other animals. The “unique” features of human morality are merely artifacts of these preexisting traits in creatures with unusually high intelligence.
It may well be first to premise that I do not wish to maintain that any strictly social animal, if its intellectual faculties were to become as active and as highly developed as in man, would acquire exactly the same moral sense as ours. In the same manner as various animals have some sense of beauty, though they admire widely different objects, so they might have a sense of right and wrong, though led by it to follow widely different lines of conduct. If, for instance, to take an extreme case, men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering. Nevertheless, the bee, or any other social animal, would gain in our supposed case, as it appears to me, some feeling of right or wrong, or a conscience.
How can one read such passages without admiring the genius of Darwin? No one else in his time even came close to writing anything of such brilliance and insight. Consider what is packed into the last of these short passages alone: 1) A blunt denial of human exceptionalism, 2) A debunking of objective morality, and 3) Dismissal of theories that existed then as now that “objective moral truth” somehow manages to “track” morality rooted in mental traits that exist by virtue of evolution by natural selection. Darwin goes on to cite many examples of analogs of human moral behavior in other animals, noting that,
Besides love and sympathy, animals exhibit other qualities connected with the social instincts, which in us would be called moral; and I agree with (Louis) Agassiz that dogs possess something very like a conscience.
As if in answer to later generations of behaviorists clutching their box mazes with their theories of “conditioning” he writes,
In many instances, however, it is probable that instincts are persistently followed from the mere force of inheritance, without the stimulus of either pleasure or pain. A young pointer, when it first scents game, apparently cannot help pointing. A squirrel in a cage who pats the nuts which it cannot eat as if to bury them in the ground, can hardly be thought to act thus, either from pleasure or pain. Hence the common assumption that men must be impelled to every action by experiencing some pleasure or pain may be erroneous.
Far from believing that evolution by natural selection would result in a universal moral sense, identical in all races, Darwin concluded that the obvious differences in human moral behavior confirmed his theory. As he put it,
Except through the principle of the transmission of moral tendencies, we cannot understand the differences believed to exist in this respect between the various races of mankind.
There is much more in this short chapter bearing on the evolution of human morality. It is truly a must read for anyone interested in the subject. In addition to what he wrote about evolved behavioral traits in man and animals in The Descent of Man, Darwin also wrote a chapter on the subject intended for publication in The Origin of Species. Unfortunately, the full manuscript did not appear in that book. However, Darwin passed it along with much other related material accumulated during the course of his life to his young collaborator, George Romanes. Romanes published the full chapter, along with much of the other material he had received from Darwin, in his Mental Evolution in Animals, which appeared shortly after Darwin’s death. The book is available online, and may be found by clicking the link on the title.
Many authors published theories of morality, supposedly based on Darwin’s theory of evolution, beginning shortly after publication of The Origin of Species. Almost all of them promoted some theory of objective morality, and either ignored or completely failed to grasp the significance of what Darwin had written on the subject. Edvard Westermarck appeared like a ray of light in the fog, publishing his brilliant The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas in 1906. Among major philosophers, he alone appeared to grasp the implications of what Darwin had written about morality. Like the fourth chapter of The Descent of Man, his book was forgotten, and no philosopher or scientist has appeared in the century plus since then who appears to grasp not only what Darwin wrote about the evolved roots of morality, but also the implications of what he wrote regarding the question of objective morality. The lucubrations of some of these “evolutionary moralists” are interesting in their own right, but I must leave them for a later post.
It’s heartening to learn that there is a serious basis for recent speculation to the effect that the science of animal cognition may gradually advance to a level long familiar to any child with a pet dog. Frans de Waal breaks the news in his latest book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? In answer to his own question, de Waal writes,
The short answer is “Yes, but you’d never have guessed.” For most of the last century, science was overly cautious and skeptical about the intelligence of animals. Attributing intentions and emotions to animals was seen as naïve “folk” nonsense. We, the scientists, knew better! We never went in for any of this “my dog is jealous” stuff, or “my cat knows what she wants,” let alone anything more complicated, such as that animals might reflect on the past or feel one another’s pain… The two dominant schools of thought viewed animals as either stimulus-response machines out to obtain rewards and avoid punishment or as robots genetically endowed with useful instincts. While each school fought the other and deemed it too narrow, they shared a fundamentally mechanistic outlook: there was no need to worry about the internal lives of animals, and anyone who did was anthropomorphic, romantic and unscientific.
Did we have to go through this bleak period? In earlier days, the thinking was noticeably more liberal. Charles Darwin wrote extensively about human and animal emotions, and many a scientist in the nineteenth century was eager to find higher intelligence in animals. It remains a mystery why these efforts were temporarily suspended, and why we voluntarily hung a millstone around the neck of biology.
Here I must beg to differ with de Waal. It is by no means a “mystery.” This “mechanization” of animals in the sciences was more or less contemporaneous with the Blank Slate debacle, and was motivated by more or less the same ideological imperatives. I invite readers interested in the subject to consult the first few chapters of Robert Ardrey’s African Genesis, published as far back as 1961. Noting a blurb in Scientific American by Marshall Sahlins, more familiar to later readers as a collaborator in the slander of Napoleon Chagnon, to the effect that,
There is a quantum difference, at points a complete opposition, between even the most rudimentary human society and the most advanced subhuman primate one. The discontinuity implies that the emergence of human society required some suppression, rather than direct expression, of man’s primate nature. Human social life is culturally, not biologically determined.
Ardrey, that greatest of all debunkers of the Blank Slate, continues,
Dr. Sahlins’ conclusion is startling to no one but himself. It is a scientific restatement, 1960-style, of the philosophical conclusion of an eighteenth-century Neapolitan monk (Giambattista Vico, ed.): Society is the work of man. It is just another prop, fashioned in the shop of science’s orthodoxies from the lumber of Zuckerman’s myth, to support the fallacy of human uniqueness.
The Zuckerman Ardrey refers to is anthropologist Solly Zuckerman. I invite anyone who doubts the fanaticism with which “science” once insisted on the notion of human uniqueness alluded to in de Waal’s book to read some of Zuckerman’s papers. For example, in The Social Life of Monkeys and Apes, he writes,
It is now generally recognized that anthropomorphic preoccupations do not help the critical development of knowledge, either in fields of physical or biological inquiry.
He exulted in the great “advances” science had made in correcting the “mistakes” of Darwin:
The Darwinian period, in which animal behavior as a distinct study was born, was one in which anthropomorphic interpretation flourished. Anecdotes were regarded in the most generous light, and it was believed that many animals were highly rational creatures, possessed of exalted ethical codes of social behavior.
According to Zuckerman, “science” had now discovered that the very notion of animal “intelligence” was absurd. As he put it,
Until 1890, the study of the social behavior of mammals developed hand in hand with the study of their “intelligence,” and both subjects were usually treated in the same books.
Such comments, which are ubiquitous in the literature of the Blank Slate era, make it hard to understand how de Waal can still be “mystified” about the motivation for the “scientific” denial of animal intelligence. Be that as it may, he presents a wealth of data derived from recent experiments and field studies debunking all the lingering rationale for claims of human uniqueness one by one, whether it be the ability to experience emotion, a “theory of mind,” social problem solving ability, ability to contemplate the past and future, or even consciousness. In the process he documents the methods “science” used to hermetically seal itself off from reality, such as the invention of pejorative terms like “anthropomorphism” to denounce and dismiss anyone who dared to challenge the human uniqueness orthodoxy, and the rejection of all evidence not supplied by members of the club as mere “anecdotes.” In the process he notes,
Needing a new term to make my point, I invented anthropodenial, which is the a priori rejection of humanlike traits in other animals or animallike traits in us.
It’s hard to imagine that anyone could seriously believe that “science” consists of fanatically rejecting similarities between human and animal behavior that are obvious to everyone but “scientists” as “anthropomorphism” and “anecdotes” and assuming a priori that they’re of no significance until it can be absolutely proven that everyone else was right all along. This does not strike me as a “parsimonious” approach.
Not the least interesting feature of de Waal’s latest is his “rehabilitation” of several important debunkers of the Blank Slate who were unfortunate enough to publish before the appearance of E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology in 1975. According to the fairy tale that currently passes for the “history” of the Blank Slate, before 1975 “darkness was on the face of the deep.” Only then did Wilson appear on the scene as the heroic slayer of the Blank Slate dragon. A man named Robert Ardrey was never heard of, and anyone mentioned in his books as an opponent of the Blank Slate before the Wilson “singularity” is to be ignored. The most prominent of them all, a man on whom the anathemas of the Blank Slaters often fell, literally in the same breath as Ardrey, was Konrad Lorenz. Sure enough, in Steven Pinker’s fanciful “history” of the Blank Slate, Lorenz is dismissed, in the same paragraph with Ardrey, no less, as “totally and utterly wrong,” and a delusional believer in “archaic theories such as that aggression was like the discharge of a hydraulic pressure.” De Waal’s response must be somewhat discomfiting to the promoters of Pinker’s official “history.” He simply ignores it!
Astoundingly enough, de Waal speaks of Lorenz as one of the great founding fathers of the modern sciences of animal behavior and cognition. In other words, he tells the truth, as if it had never been disputed in any bowdlerized “history.” Already at the end of the prologue we find the matter-of-fact observation that,
…behavior is, as the Austrian ethologist Konrad Lorenz put it, the liveliest aspect of all that lives.
Reading on, we find that this mention of Lorenz wasn’t just an anomaly designed to wake up drowsy readers. In the first chapter we find de Waal referring to the field of phylogeny,
…when we trace traits across the evolutionary tree to determine whether similarities are due to common descent, the way Lorenz had done so beautifully for waterfowl.
A few pages later he writes,
The maestro of observation, Konrad Lorenz, believed that one could not investigate animals effectively without an intuitive understanding grounded in love and respect.
and notes, referring to the behaviorists, that,
The power of conditioning is not in doubt, but the early investigators had totally overlooked a crucial piece of information. They had not, as recommended by Lorenz, considered the whole organism.
And finally, in a passage that seems to scoff at Pinker’s “totally and utterly wrong” nonsense, he writes,
Given that the facial musculature of humans and chimpanzees is nearly identical, the laughing, grinning, and pouting of both species likely goes back to a common ancestor. Recognition of the parallel between anatomy and behavior was a great leap forward, which is nowadays taken for granted. We all now believe in behavioral evolution, which makes us Lorenzians.
Stunning, really for anyone who’s followed what’s been going on in the behavioral and animal sciences for any length of time. And that’s not all. Other Blank Slate debunkers who published long before Wilson, like Niko Tinbergen and Desmond Morris, are mentioned with a respect that belies the fact that they, too, were once denounced by the Blank Slaters as right wing fascists and racists in the same breath with Lorenz. I have a hard time believing that someone as obviously well read as de Waal has never seen Pinker’s The Blank Slate. I honestly don’t know what to make of the fact that he can so blatantly contradict Pinker, and yet never trouble himself to mention even the bare existence of such a remarkable disconnect. Is he afraid of Pinker? Does he simply want to avoid hurting the feelings of another member of the academic tribe? I must leave it up to the reader to decide.
And what of Ardrey, who brilliantly described both “anthropodenial” and the reasons that it was by no means a “mystery” more than half a century before the appearance of de Waal’s latest book? Will he be rehabilitated, too? Don’t hold your breath. Unlike Lorenz, Tinbergen and Morris, he didn’t belong to the academic tribe. The fact that it took an outsider to smash the Blank Slate and give a few academics the courage to finally stick their noses out of the hole they’d dug for themselves will likely remain deep in the memory hole. It happens to be a fact that is just too humiliating and embarrassing for them to ever admit. It would seem the history of the affair can be adjusted, but it will probably never be corrected.