An Ironic Biography of E. O. Wilson

It may be a bit ironic that a biography of E. O. Wilson was published by Richard Rhodes, whose most famous book was probably “The Making of the Atomic Bomb,” but that’s not the irony I refer to. Rhodes’ book, “Scientist, E. O. Wilson: A Life in Nature,” alludes to a much greater irony, and certainly one of the most amusing scientific ironies of all time. It has to do with the historical role assigned to Wilson by one of his peers. To understand it, you need to know a bit more about Wilson and the times he lived in, so let’s take a look at what Rhodes has written about him.

Wilson was a well-known scientist long before 1975, but he first achieved national prominence in that year with the publication of “Sociobiology.” The reason for this was his inclusion in the final chapter of the book of comments to the effect that innate behavioral traits of the kind observed in many animals also occurred in human beings. In other words, he defended the existence of human nature. Rhodes covers the well-known allergic reaction of Wilson’s peers in the behavioral “sciences” of the time in some detail. Unfortunately, his comments on the significance of this reaction, and why it occurred, belong more in the realm of myth than fact.

According to Rhodes,

Ironically, as several scholars have noted, the conflict between Wilson and the Sociobiology Study Group was the opposite of what it seemed. Buried beneath the classic rubble of scholarly attack I the service of career ambition lay a more fundamental disagreement between traditional liberalism and the emerging radicalism of the Vietnam and post-Vietnam era. The SSG and its larger affiliation, Science for the People, had emerged from the 1960s New Left as activist groups favoring multiculturalism, the beginning of the movement in support of what the cultural historian Neil Jumonville calls “significant multicultural differences to be preserved and honored between races and ethnicities” – that is, identity politics.

The “Sociobiology Study Group” was an organization founded to attack Wilson for his deviation from the pseudo-religious dogmas of the Blank Slate, which passed as “science” at the time. However, the idea that these dogmas had emerged in the Vietnam and post-Vietnam eras, or that they weren’t defended just as fanatically by “traditional liberalism” as by the multiculturists of the New Left is nonsense. They were certainly around in the 1920’s as attested by H. M. Parshley in an article entitled “Heredity and the Uplift,” which appeared in the February, 1924 issue of H. L. Mencken’s “The American Mercury.” Describing the “multiculturist” types of his own day, Parshley writes,

The philanthropist, the social worker, too often the sociologist, and always the uplifter have held, to state their views most extremely, that the individual is wholly the product of his circumstances. The child is “plastic.” Placed in Fagin’s clutches he becomes a criminal; but for the curfew she becomes a streetwalker. Surrounded, on the other hand, with swaddling care and subjected to edifying precept and example, with occasional touches of the bastinado, the same lumps of indifferent wax take on in time the form of stock-brokers, and captains of industry, Chautauqua orators and senators, bishops and college presidents. This is the old environmentalist philosophy, which, though largely discredited and discarded by science, still feeds the flames of hope and envy in the breasts of the have-nots and remains the underlying principle of the Uplift.

In other words, the “usual suspects” have been with us since long before the Vietnam era, whether as the multiculturists of today or the Uplift of a century ago. Alas, Parshley’s fond hope that science would rescue us from the environmentalist zealots was sadly mistaken. They established the hegemony of what we now know as the Blank Slate in the behavioral “sciences” for well over half a century, stifling any serious progress towards human self-understanding in the bud. Those interested in confirming this for themselves can consult Carl Degler’s excellent “In Search of Human Nature,” or, if they prefer an account from the point of view of the Blank Slaters themselves, “The Triumph of Evolution,” by Hamilton Cravens.

Rhodes also accepts the now-standard “history” of the Blank Slate, according to which E. O. Wilson was the noble knight in shining armor who single-handedly slew the Blank Slate dragon.  That account is just as mythical. It’s quite true that the only reason for the notoriety of his “Sociobiology” was his defiance of the Blank Slaters. However, by the time his book appeared, the Blank Slate house of cards was already collapsing thanks to the efforts of men like Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, and, most significantly, Robert Ardrey. The content of “Sociobiology” that stuck in the craw of the Blank Slaters was little different from what Ardrey had written nearly a decade and a half earlier in such highly popular books as “African Genesis,” and “The Territorial Imperative.” However, Ardrey was an outsider, a “mere playwright.” The academic and professional “experts” in the behavioral sciences needed a fig leaf to demonstrate that their “science” was “self-correcting,” and one of their own was the “real” nemesis of the Blank Slate. Wilson was that fig leaf.

There is ample verification of Ardrey’s role for anyone interested in Blank Slate history as opposed to Blank Slate mythology. See, for example, an invaluable little piece of source material entitled, “Man and Aggression,” edited by Ashley Montagu and published in 1968, and available on eBay and elsewhere for a few dollars. It consists of a collection of attacks on Ardrey as well as Konrad Lorenz, with William Golding, author of “Lord of the Flies,” thrown in as an afterthought, apparently for comic effect. These attacks are remarkably similar to those advanced by the Sociobiology Study Group, complete with the now familiar “scientific” arguments that Ardrey and Lorenz were Nazis, fascists, and “extreme right wingers.”

Enter Steven Pinker and his “history” of the Blank Slate, published in 2002. A member of the academic tribe himself, Pinker seized on Wilson, another member of the tribe, as the “dragon slayer” of the Blank Slate. However, to do so, he couldn’t just ignore Ardrey and Lorenz. Somehow, he had to discredit them. He did so in a single paragraph of his book, dismissing them as “totally and utterly wrong,” using as his authority for this remarkable claim a footnote pointing to a passage in Richard Dawkins’ “The Selfish Gene.” Dawkins had, indeed, accused Ardrey and Lorenz of being “totally and utterly wrong,” but not about human nature, the major theme of their work. No, Dawkins had been referring to their advocacy of group selection! That, along with some nonsense about Lorenz’ “hydraulic theory,” which I have disposed of in another post, formed the entire basis for Pinker’s consignment of the role of these two highly significant figures in the history of the Blank Slate to the memory hole!

Now, let us return to Rhodes’ biography. In the final chapters he documents Wilson’s whole-hearted advocacy of an evolutionary mechanism also suggested by Darwin. What was it, you ask? None other than group selection! If you doubt Rhodes, by all means read such Wilson titles as “The Social Conquest of Earth,” “The Meaning of Human Existence,” and “The Origins of Creativity,” in which Wilson emerges as the most determined, uncompromising, and prominent advocate of group selection to appear in the last 50 years! This is the irony I refer to in my title. Pinker is sorely in need of a substitute knight in shining armor.

I revere E. O. Wilson as a great scientist and, when it comes to the subject of human morality, a great philosopher. It is unfortunate that he became an unwilling participant in the bowdlerization of the history of the Blank Slate by Pinker and others. As for Rhodes, I might have wished he’d done a bit more historical homework, but his biography of Wilson is still well worth reading. I noticed little if any diminution in the same clarity and excellence of his writing that I found in “The Making of the Atomic Bomb.” Given that the man is well into his 80’s, that qualifies him as a rock star in my book.

On Steven Pinker’s “Rational” Morality

According to the Amazon blurb on “Rationality,” Steven Pinker’s latest book, “Rationality matters. It leads to better choices in our lives and in the public sphere, and is the ultimate driver of social justice and moral progress.” In fact, Pinker addresses the issue of morality in the book. However, the degree to which he’s rational about it is open to question. According to Pinker,

One realm that is sometimes excluded from the rational is the moral. Can we ever deduce what’s right or wrong? Can we confirm it with data? It’s not obvious how you could. Many people believe that “you can’t get an ought from an is.” The conclusion is sometimes attributed to the philosopher David Hume. “Tis not contrary to reason.” He famously wrote, “to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.”

Pinker then goes on to tell us that, “Philosophers in the first half of the twentieth century took Hume’s argument seriously and struggled with what moral statements could possibly mean if they are not about logic or empirical fact,” and “Hume may have been technically correct when he wrote that it’s not contrary to reason to prefer global genocide to a scratch on one’s pinkie. But his grounds were very, very narrow.” Pinker doesn’t elaborate on the latter statement, probably for the very good reason that it’s nonsense. Hume’s grounds weren’t “narrow” at all. They were a straightforward elaboration of what had already been written on the subject by, among others, the Earl of Shaftesbury, and, more importantly, Francis Hutcheson.

Using Pinker’s prized “rationality,” Hutcheson demonstrated beyond any “rational” doubt that morality can’t be derived from reason, either narrowly or broadly, but must originate from what he referred to as a “moral sense.” His brilliant, “An Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections, with Illustrations on the Moral Sense,” includes such amazingly “modern” passages as,

These Moral Perceptions arise in us as necessarily as any other Sensations, nor can we alter, or stop them.

Let us once suppose Affections, Instincts or Desires previously implanted in our Nature: and we shall easily understand the exciting Reasons for Actions.

The Question then is, “Does a Conformity to any Truth make us approve an ultimate End, previously to any moral Sense?” For example, we approve pursuing the publick Good. For what Reason? Or what is the Truth for Conformity to which we call it a reasonable End? I fancy we can find none in these Cases, more than we could give for our liking any pleasant Fruit.

These passages were published in 1728, more than a century before Darwin, so it is not surprising that Hutcheson imagined that God was the source of our moral sense. We now know that it exists as a result of natural selection, because the innate predispositions that give rise to it happened to increase the odds that our ancestors would survive and reproduce.

Hume presented similar arguments, but with a more secular foundation. Pinker’s attempt to relegate him to the “first half of the twentieth century” is absurd. I can only suggest that he consult “The Righteous Mind,” by his fellow public intellectual, Jonathan Haidt, published as recently as 2012. Therein he will find a significantly more “rational” discussion of Hume. Speaking of individuals in a study who were “morally dumbfounded – rendered speechless by their inability to explain verbally what they knew intuitively,” Haidt wrote,

These subjects were reasoning. They were working quite hard at reasoning. But it was not reasoning in search of truth; it was reasoning in support of the emotional reactions. It was reasoning as described by the philosopher David Hume, who wrote in 1739 that “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.

A bit later in the book Haidt writes,

Given Hume’s concerns about the limits of reasoning, he believed that philosophers who tried to reason their way to moral truth without looking at human nature were no better than theologians who thought they could find moral truth revealed in sacred texts. Both were transcendentalists.

Recall, now, that Pinker imagines himself a great fan of the Enlightenment, and even published a book with that title. Haidt continues,

Hume’s work on morality was the quintessential Enlightenment project; an exploration of an area previously owned by religion, using the methods and attitudes of the new natural sciences… Hume got it right. When he died in 1776, he and other sentimentalists had laid a superb foundation for “moral science,” one that has, in my view, been largely vindicated by modern research. You would think, then, that in the decades after his death, the moral sciences progressed rapidly. But you would be wrong. In the decades after Hume’s death the rationalists claimed victory over religion and took the moral sciences off on a two-hundred-year tangent.

Now we find Pinker off on this same tangent, a self-described “rationalist,” rejecting one of the quintessential works of the Enlightenment he claims to champion. In fact, Hume’s relevance to the question of morality is at least as great today as it was a decade ago. Apparently Pinker never actually read Hume, or, if he did, didn’t comprehend what he was reading. Hume, and Hutcheson before him argued very convincingly that you could follow a chain of reasons back as far as you pleased, but you would never find some ultimate reason as the source of human morality, for the very good reason that the foundation of morality lies in human emotions and human nature. Pinker never attempts to challenge these arguments. Instead, he imagines he can hand-wave them out of existence by claiming they’re too “narrow.” The same goes for his fantasy that Hume is no longer relevant “since the first half of the 20th century.”

After his breezy dismissal of Hume, Pinker writes, “In fact, it is not hard to ground morality in reason.” Let’s consider the “rationality” of his arguments in favor of that statement. According to Pinker,

But now let’s just say that we prefer good things to happen to ourselves over bad things. Let’s make a second wild and crazy assumption: that we are social animals who live with other people, rather than Robinson Crusoe on a desert island, so our well-being depends on what others do, like helping us when we are in need and not harming for no good reason.

This changes everything. As soon as we start insisting to others, “Your must not hurt me, or let me starve, or let my children drown,” we cannot also maintain, “But I can hurt you, and let you starve, and let your children drown,” and hope they will take us seriously.

Well, no, they won’t take us seriously, but how does that “change everything?” Why does Pinker imagine there’s any connection between being taken seriously and morality to begin with? He continues,

That is because as soon as I engage you in a rational discussion, I cannot insist that only my interests count just because I’m me and you’re not, any more than I can insist that the spot I am standing on is a special place in the universe because I happen to be standing on it. The pronouns I, me, and mine have no logical heft – they flip with each turn in a conversation. And so any argument that privileges my well-being over yours or his or hers, all else being equal, is irrational.

It’s hard to imagine anything more irrational than this. Does Pinker imagine that human beings are no different than the indistinguishable particles of physics? If what Pinker writes is true, then the genes that are responsible for the existence of morality must be completely irrational, because, to the extent that they fail to “insist that only their interests count,” they quickly go extinct. Apparently, we are to forget about the reasons morality exists, and simply agree with Pinker that whatever he personally feels is “fair,” must therefore be moral. QED. Lions must be both irrational and immoral because they kill the cubs sired by others so they can substitute their own. Male gorillas must be irrational and immoral because they kill unprotected infants, a behavior which promotes their own genetic interests, but which Prof. Pinker would doubtless consider manifestly unfair.

Pinker doesn’t entirely ignore the evolutionary origins of morality, writing, for example,

How do rational agents come into existence in the first place? Unless you are talking about disembodied rational angels, they are products of evolution, with fragile, energy-hungry bodies and brains. To have remained alive long enough to enter into a rational discussion, they must have staved off injuries and starvation, goaded by pleasure and pain. Evolution, moreover, works on populations, not individuals, so a rational animal must be part of a community, with all the social ties that impel it to cooperate, protect itself, and mate.

This passage is truly ironic. Some time ago in his bowdlerized history of the Blank Slate, Pinker air brushed out of existence the two men most responsible for the demise of the Blank Slate orthodoxy in the behavioral sciences, Robert Ardrey and Konrad Lorenz, because they claimed that “evolution acted for the good of the species.” Now we find him making exactly the same claim. Elsewhere he makes it clear that he does not believe that natural selection acts at the level of populations, but so did Ardrey and Lorenz. Is it not, then, “rational” to dismiss Pinker as well, based on his own arguments? Reading on, we find,

When you combine self-interest and sociality with impartiality – the interchangeability of perspectives – you get the core of morality. You get the Golden Rule… Versions of these rules have been independently discovered in Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Islam, and other religions and moral codes.

That’s certainly good evidence that human moral emotions tend to be similar across populations, just as one would expect if those emotions exist because they evolved. However, it is hardly rational to conclude that the similarity of these rules somehow means they are objectively true, independently of the emotions responsible for their existence in the first place. Pinker continues,

Impartiality, the main ingredient of morality, is not just a logical nicety. Practically speaking, it also makes everyone, on average, better off. Life presents many opportunities to help someone, or to refrain from hurting them, at a small cost to oneself. So if everyone signs on to helping and not hurting, everyone wins. This does not, of course, mean that people are in fact perfectly moral, just that there’s a rational argument as to why they should be.

Really? Help them do what? Isn’t it wise to consider what their goals happen to be, and whether they either support or diametrically oppose our own before we “help” them accomplish those goals? Does Prof. Pinker seriously believe that everyone on the planet must have the same goals, and they must be identical to his own? Apparently, we are to dismiss anyone who doesn’t agree with Prof. Pinker on what our goals ought to be as “irrational.”

Indeed, one is at a loss to imagine what species Pinker is thinking about. It can’t be human beings. Regardless of what culture or ethnic group we belong to, we perceive others in turns of ingroups and outgroups. Our species is never “impartial” when it comes to treatment of the “other,” the denizen of the outgroup. That is simply a fact, and to deny it would be the very opposite of rationality. All Pinker is really doing is insisting that the types of behavior he and his academic tribe consider “nice” must therefore magically be “moral,” and to disagree is to be, by definition, “irrational.”

To be “rational,” we must ignore the reasons morality exists to begin with. To be “rational,” we must abandon the goals we have set for ourselves in life if Prof. Pinker and his tribe don’t deem them “nice,” regardless of whether those goals are in harmony with the genetic origins of morality or not. To be “rational,” we must forget about the relevance of our behavior to either our own genetic survival or the long-term survival and continued evolution of our species. To be “rational,” we must assume that behavioral traits that evolved eons ago, because they happened to promote the survival of individuals living in small groups of hunter gatherers, will automatically be just as “useful” to us today. In the process, we must ignore the fact that, while such individuals may have helped members of their own group, they were generally hostile to individuals in the next group over. It never occurred to them to help these “others.” No, we must limit ourselves to behaviors that Prof. Pinker deems “fair,” on pain of being anathematized as “irrational.”

No thanks, Prof. Pinker. Your version of morality is the very essence of irrationality.

Harvey Fergusson on Morality, Free Will, and Human Behavior

Harvey Fergusson does have a Wiki page, but he’s not exactly a household name today. Remembered mostly as a writer of fiction, he produced some great Western novels, and some of the characters in his “Capitol Hill” will still be familiar to anyone who has worked in the nation’s capital to this day. His name turns up in the credits as a screenwriter in a few movies, including “Stand Up and Fight,” starring the inimitable Wallace Beery, and his work even drew a few lines of praise from H. L. Mencken. As it happens, Fergusson wrote some non-fiction as well, including a remarkable book entitled Modern Man.

The main theme of the book is what Fergusson refers to as “the illusion of choice.” As one might expect of a good novelist, his conclusions are based on careful observation of human behavior, both in himself and others, rather than philosophical speculation. In his words,

It struck me sharply how much of the conversation of my typical modern fellow-being was devoted to explaining why he had done what he had done, why he was going to do what he intended, and why he had not done what he had once professed an intention to do. Some of my more sophisticated subjects would describe these explanations, when made by others, as “rationalizations” – a term which is vague but seems always to imply a recognition of the necessarily factitious nature of all such explanations of personal behavior. But I found none who did not take his own explanations of himself with complete seriousness. What is more, I have not found either in conversation or in print any recognition of what seems obvious to me – that these explanations typically have for their effect, if not for their unconscious motive, to sustain what I have termed the illusion of choice. This may be more adequately defined as the illusion that behavior is related more exactly and immediately to the conscious mental processes of the individual than any objective study of the evidence will indicate that it is.

Consider this in light of the following comment by Seth Schwartz who writes one of the Psychology Today blogs:

In a controversial set of experiments, neuroscientist Ben Libet (1985) scanned participants’ brains as he instructed them to move their arm. Libet found that brain activity increased even before participants were aware of their decision to move their arm. Libet interpreted this finding as meaning that the brain had somehow “decided” to make the movement, and that the person became consciously aware of this decision only after it had already been made. Many other neuroscientists have used Libet’s findings as evidence that human behavior is controlled by neurobiology, and that free will does not exist.

Fergusson was not quite as bold as “many other neuroscientists.” He made it quite clear that he wasn’t addressing the question of determinism or free will, but was merely recording his personal observations. In spite of that, he certainly anticipated what Libet and others would later observe in their experiments. What is even more remarkable is how accurately Fergusson describes the behavior of our current crop of public intellectuals.

Consider, for example, the question of morality. Some of them agree with me that moral judgments are subjective, and others insist they are objective. However, their moral behavior has nothing to do with their theoretical pronouncements on the matter. Just as Fergusson predicted, it is more or less identical with the moral behavior of everyone else. They all behave as if they actually believe in the illusion that natural selection has planted in our brains that Good and Evil are real, objective things.  And just as Fergusson suggested, their after-the-fact claims about why they act that way are transparent rationalizations.

In the case of such “subjective moralists” as Richard Dawkins, Jonathan Haidt and Jerry Coyne, for example, we commonly find them passing down moral judgments that would be completely incomprehensible absent the tacit assumption of an objective moral law. In common with every other public intellectual I’m aware of, they tell us that one person is bad, and another person is good, as if these things were facts. To all appearances they feel no obligation whatsoever to explain how their “subjective” moral judgments suddenly acquired the power to leap out of their skulls, jump onto the back of some “bad” person, and constrain them to mend their behavior. Like me, the three cited above are atheists, and so must at least acknowledge some connection between our moral behavior and our evolutionary past. Under the circumstances, if one asked them to explain their virtuous indignation, the only possible response that has any connection with the reason moral behavior exists to begin with would be something like, “The ‘bad’ person’s actions are a threat to my personal survival,” or, “The ‘bad’ person is reducing the odds that the genes I carry will reproduce.” In either case, there is no way their moral judgments could have acquired the legitimacy or authority to dictate behavior to the “bad” person, or anyone else. I am not aware of a single prominent intellectual who has ever tried to explain his behavior in this way.

In fact, these people, like almost everyone else on the planet, are blindly responding to moral emotions, after seeking to “interpret” them in light of the culture they happen to find themselves in. In view of the fact that cultures that bear any similarity to the ones in which our moral behavior evolved are more or less nonexistent today, the chances that these “interpretations” will have anything to do with the reason morality exists to begin with are slim. In fact, there is little difference between the “subjective” moralists cited above and such “objective” moralists as Sam Harris in this regard.  Ask them to explain one of their morally loaded pronouncements, and they would likely justify them in the name of some such nebulous “good” as “human flourishing.” After all, “human flourishing” must be “good,” right? Their whole academic and professional tribe agrees that it must be “really good.” To the extent that they feel any constraint to explain themselves at all, our modern “subjective” and “objective” moralists seldom get beyond such flimsy rationalizations.

Is it possible to defend “human flourishing” as a “moral good” that is at least consistent with the reason morality exists to begin with? I think not. To the extent that it is defined at all, “human flourishing” is usually associated with a modern utopia in which everyone is happy and has easy access to food, shelter, and anything else they could wish for. Such a future would be more likely to end in the dystopia comically portrayed in the movie Idiocracy than in the survival of our species. Its predictable end state would be biological extinction. Absent the reason high intelligence and the ability to thrive in diverse environments evolved, those characteristics would no longer be selected. If we use the survival of our species as the ultimate metric, “human flourishing” as commonly understood would certainly be “bad.”

Fergusson was an unusually original thinker, and there are many other thought-provoking passages in his book. Consider, for example, the following:

The basic assumption of conservatism is that “human nature does not change.” But it appears upon examination of the facts that human nature from the functional viewpoint has undergone constant change. Hardly any reaction of the human organism to its social environment has failed to change as the form, size, and nature of the human group has changed, and without such change the race could hardly have survived. That human nature will change and is changing seems to be one of the few things we can count upon, and it supports all our valid hopes for the amelioration of human destiny.

Here we see Fergusson as a typical denizen of the left of the ideological spectrum of his day. His comment encapsulates the reasons that led to the radical rejection of the existence of human nature, and the disaster in the behavioral sciences we now refer to as the Blank Slate. Like many others, Fergusson suffered from the illusion that “human nature” implies genetic determinism; the notion that our behavior is rigidly programmed by our genes. In fact, I am not aware of a single serious defender of the existence of human nature who has ever been a “genetic determinist.” All have agreed that we are inclined or predisposed to behave in some ways and not in others, but not that we are rigidly forced by our “genes” to do so. Understood in this way, it is clear that evolved human nature is hardly excluded by the fact that “Hardly any reaction of the human organism to its social environment has failed to change as the form, size and nature of the human group has changed.” Properly understood, it is entirely compatible with the “changed reactions” Fergusson cited.

In reality, rejection of the existence of human nature did not “support all our valid hopes for the amelioration of human destiny.” What it really did was bring any meaningful progress in the behavioral sciences to a screeching halt for more than half a century, effectively blocking the path to any real “hope for the amelioration of human destiny.”

The fact that I don’t always agree with Fergusson does not alter my admiration for him as an original thinker. And by the way, if you happen to live in Maryland, I think you will find “Stand Up and Fight” worthy of a couple hours of your time and a bowl of popcorn.

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

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

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

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

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

In fact, they were just hostile reviews of books by the ethologist Konrad Lorenz, the playwright Robert Ardrey, and the novelist William Golding (author of Lord of the Flies). Some of the criticisms were, to be sure, deserved: Ardrey and Lorenz believed in archaic theories such as that aggression was like the discharge of a hydraulic pressure and that evolution acted for the good of the species. But far stronger criticisms of Ardrey and Lorenz had been made by the sociobiologists themselves. (On the second page of The Selfish Gene, for example, Dawkins wrote, “The trouble with these books is that the authors got it totally and utterly wrong.”)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Artifacts of a Historical Scavenger Hunt

Today we suffer from a sort of historical myopia due to our obsession with social media. In our struggle to stay abreast of what’s happening in the here and now, we neglect the past. Instead of going back and examining the source material for ourselves, we leave it to others to interpret it for us. These interpretations are commonly bowdlerized to fit a preferred narrative. It’s a shame, because the past holds a rich mine of material relevant to the present. Pick up and old book, or an old magazine, and you’ll often find that they bring the reality of today into sharper focus. Nuggets of insight will pop up in the strangest places, often in articles that ostensibly have nothing to do with the insight in question.

Consider, for example, the following excerpt from the October, 1842 issue of the Edinburgh Review, one of the dominant British journals of literature and politics in the first half of the 19th century. It came from an article about the recently published autobiography of one M. Berryer, a prominent lawyer and eyewitness of some of the worst atrocities of the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. In one of the opening paragraphs of his review, the anonymous author offers the following general comments about human nature:

Few men know the fluctuating nature of their own character; – how much it has varied from ten years to ten years, or even on the recurrence of similar events. Few men attempt to distinguish between the original predispositions and the accidental influences which, sometimes controlling and sometimes aggravating one another, together formed at any particular epoch their character for the time being. Still fewer attempt to estimate the relative force of each; and fewer still would succeed in such an attempt.

Amazing, really! That passage might have been lifted from an introduction to a book about the latest advances in Genome Wide Association Studies. It demonstrates that people were perfectly well aware of the existence of “original predispositions” almost 200 years ago. This brief passage shows more insight into the nuances of the entanglement of “nature” and “nurture” in our species than the vast majority of the tomes of psychology, sociology, and anthropology published during the hegemony of the Blank Slate. It puts in sharp relief the extent to which we managed to dumb ourselves down in the service of ideologically motivated truisms. To read it is to wonder at our success in willfully blinding ourselves to the truth in an area as potentially critical to our survival as self-understanding.

Perhaps most prominent among the ideologies that required an imaginary version of human beings rather than the real thing was and remains socialism. By reading old books one can gain an appreciation of how familiar “Marxist” ideas had become long before Marx became a household name. Consider, for example, the following passages from “Sybil,” published in 1845 by Benjamin Disraeli. Most remember him as a British Prime Minister during the reign of Queen Victoria, but he was also an outstanding and prolific novelist. Sybil, the heroine of the novel, is the daughter of a leader of the proletariat, and speaks of him as follows:

When I heard my father speak the other night, my heart glowed with emotion; my eyes were suffused with tears; I was proud to be his daughter; and I gloried in a race of forefathers who belonged to the oppressed, and not to the oppressors.

According the Devilsdust, one of Disraeli’s working-class characters,

We’ll clean out the Savings Banks; the Benefits and Burials will shell out; I am treasurer of the Ancient Shepherds ( a trade union), and we passed a resolution yesterday unanimously, that we would devote all our funds to the sustenance of Labour in this its last and triumphant struggle against Capital.

Later Devilsdust is recorded as saying of Stephen Morley, a labor journalist who might have served as a prototype for Lenin,

…if ever the great revolution were to occur, by which the rights of labour were to be recognized, though bolder spirits and brawnier arms might consummate the change, there was only one head among them that would be capable, when they had gained their power, to guide it for the public weal…, and that was Morley.

In short, the idea of class struggle culminating in a proletarian revolution was already well developed before Marx wrote “Das Kapital.” What he added was a “scientific” theory distilled from Hegelian philosophy according to which the revolution was inevitable, and the proletariat would emerge victorious and establish a worker’s paradise by the force of historical “laws.” The conviction that one was fighting for the Good, and must inevitably win the fight, served as a powerful intoxicant for already radicalized fanatics, and, as we now know, would culminate in a nightmare.

Perhaps most prominent among the public intellectuals who sought to warn us of the perils of listening to the Marxist siren song was Herbert Spencer. For his trouble, he was vilified as a “social Darwinist” and forgotten. That’s ironic, because Spencer was never a Darwinist to begin with. His ideas about evolution were much more Lamarckian in character. His brilliant critique of socialism, however, was based on insights about human nature that are seldom equaled among modern scholars. It turned out to be a prophecy of uncanny accuracy about the reality of Communism. Consider, for example, the following passages, written in the introduction to a collection of essays published in 1891 entitled “A Plea for Liberty.” The first refers to an earlier summary of some of the more prominent features of the innate human behavior denied by Blank Slaters, then and now.

The traits thus shown must be operative in any new social organization, and the question to be asked is – What will result from their operation when they are relieved from all restraints? At present the separate bodies of men displaying them are in the midst of a society partially passive, partially antagonistic; are subject to the criticisms and reprobations of an independent press; and are under the control of law, enforced by police. If in these circumstances these bodies habitually take courses which override individual freedom, what will happen when, instead of being only scattered parts of the community, governed by their separate sets of regulators, they constitute the whole community, governed by a consolidated system of such regulators; when functionaries of all orders, including those who officer the press, form parts of the regulative organization; and when the law is both enacted and administered by this regulative organization? The fanatical adherents of a social theory are capable of taking any measures, no matter how extreme, for carrying out their views: holding, like the merciless priesthoods of past times, that the end justifies the means. And when a general socialistic organization has been established, the vast, ramified, and consolidated body of those who direct its activities, using without check whatever coercion seems to them needful in the interests of the system (which will practically become their own interests) will have no hesitation in imposing their rigorous rule over the entire lives of the actual workers; until, eventually, there is developed an official oligarchy, with its various grades, exercising a tyranny more gigantic and more terrible than any which the world has seen.

Astonishing, no? If your education about the reality of Communism doesn’t extend beyond what’s taught in the public school system, by all means read Orwell’s “1984,” or, better yet, “The New Class,” by Milovan Djilas, one of the most brilliant political writers of the 20th century. If that’s not enough to impress you, check this out:

Misery has necessarily to be borne by a constitution out of harmony with its conditions; and a constitution inherited from primitive men is out of harmony with conditions imposed on existing men.

These seemingly obvious facts, that we possess innate behavioral traits, and they evolved in conditions radically different from the ones we live in now, are seemingly beyond the grasp of virtually every prominent public intellectual today. They speak of morality, community, and politics as if these salient facts didn’t exist. We continue this type of self-imposed obscurantism at our peril.

The above historical artifacts all bear on the reality of the here and now, characterized by the hegemony of equalist dogmas. Equalism started out benignly enough, as a reaction to the gross exploitation and abuse of a majority of the population by an elite distinguished by nothing but the accident of birth. It has now morphed into a monster that demands that we all pretend we believe things that are palpably untrue on pain of censorship, social ostracism, and loss of employment and educational opportunity.  From the first item cited above we can see that the interplay of innate human nature with experience and learning was a matter of common knowledge to an anonymous book reviewer more than a century and a half ago. Even children have a rudimentary familiarity with human nature and have acted based on that knowledge for millennia before that. It is all the more astounding that the Blank Slate orthodoxy required denial of the very existence of human nature for upwards of half a century, and virtually every academic and professional “expert” in the behavioral sciences meekly went along. This orthodoxy was eventually destroyed by its own absurdity, strikingly portrayed to a wondering lay public in a series of books by a man named Robert Ardrey. Now Ardrey is remembered, if at all, as a bete noire with which to terrify young associate professors. Today the Blank Slate is well on the way to making a comeback. Now, however, instead of making themselves laughing stocks by denying the existence of human nature, its resurgent clergy merely see to it that no research is done in anything of real relevance to the human condition.

As for Communism, we can count ourselves lucky that we’ve been there, done that, along with “democratic” socialism, national socialism, and a grab bag of other versions. These repeated failures have at least slowed our progress towards stumbling off the same cliff yet again.  Of course, they haven’t stopped equalist ideologues from claiming that the only reason socialism has been such an abject failure to date is because it hasn’t been “done right,” or that previous versions weren’t “real socialism.” Fasten your seatbelts.

Meanwhile, I suggest that you take the time occasionally to read old things; novels, magazines, newspapers, it doesn’t really matter. You’ll find that the self-imposed stupidity and politically correct piety of modern societies aren’t inevitable. There have been other times and other cultures in which people could speak their minds a great deal more freely than under the secular Puritanism that prevails today. The fact that the culture we live in today is a “natural” outcome for our species doesn’t mean you are obligated to either accept it or refrain from fighting to change it.

Morality, Philosophy, and the Unicorn Criterion

Darwin eliminated any rational basis for belief in objective moral truths when he revealed the nature of morality as a fundamentally emotional phenomenon and the reasons for its existence as a result of evolution by natural selection. Edvard Westermarck spelled out the implications of Darwin’s work for those with minds open enough to accept the truth. Their number has always been exceedingly small. The power of the illusion of the objective existence of good and evil has blinded most of us to facts that seem almost trivially obvious.

We tend to believe what we want to believe, and we have never been determined to believe anything more tenaciously than the illusion of moral truth. We have invented countless ways to prop it up and deny the obvious. Philosophers have always been among the most imaginative inventors. It stands to reason. After all, they have the most to lose if the illusion vanishes; their moral authority, their claims to expertise about things that don’t exist, and their very livelihoods. I’ve found what I call the “unicorn criterion” one of the most effective tools for examining these claims. It amounts to simply assuming that, instead of instilling in our brains the powerful illusion of objective good and evil, natural selection had fitted each of us out with an overpowering illusion that unicorns are real. Then, simply substitute unicorns for moral truths in the arguments of the objective moralists. If the argument is as good for the former as it is for the latter, it seems probable to me that both arguments are wrong. Continue reading “Morality, Philosophy, and the Unicorn Criterion”

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

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

E. O. Wilson’s Farewell Letter

There are but 125 very sparsely filled pages in Genesis, E. O. Wilson’s latest. The book is really little more than a pamphlet. The few reviews one finds online are dismissive in their brevity. Perhaps it’s best described as a farewell letter from the grand old man. If so, the loss will be great. I know of no one who can fill his shoes. Wilson is an independent, courageous thinker who is refreshingly free of the now ubiquitous habit of larding his books with virtue signaling to his academic tribe. He can also occasionally be quite blunt. For example, in Genesis,

The following can be posed with near certainty. Every part of the human body and mind has a physical base obedient to the laws of physics and chemistry. And all of it, so far as we can tell by continuing scientific examination, originated through evolution by natural selection.

No mealy-mouthed nonsense there about “spandrels,” or “exaptations.” Wilson has always been forthright about insisting on the obvious. Continue reading “E. O. Wilson’s Farewell Letter”

The Blank Slate and the Great Group Selection Scam

“Group Selection” has certainly been good for something. Steven Pinker seized on the term to rationalize dropping those who played the greatest role in demolishing the Blank Slate orthodoxy down the memory hole in the fairy tale he served up as the “history” of the affair. His version had the great advantage of sparing the feelings of the academic and professional “experts” in the behavioral sciences, by assuring them that their “science” had been self-correcting after all. In fact, it didn’t self-correct on its own for over half a century. As so often happens, it took outsiders to finally break the Blank Slate spell and extract the behavioral sciences from the swamp they had been floundering in for so long. They included ethologists and behavioral geneticists who were supposed to be confining their attention to animals. Perhaps the greatest of them all was the “mere playwright,” Robert Ardrey, an outsider par excellence. Enter Richard Dawkins, who observed that some of the most important of these dismantlers of the Blank Slate were “totally and utterly wrong” about group selection. No matter that the theme of their work had been the existence and importance of human nature, and not group selection. Pinker seized on Dawkins’ convenient phrase, and declared that they had all been “totally and utterly wrong,” period, without even bothering to mention that Dawkins criticism had been limited to group selection.

It gets worse. It is hardly clear that the very term “group selection” as used by generations of earlier thinkers since Darwin even meant what Dawkins claimed it did. You see, there’s “group selection,” and then there’s “group selection.” The term can mean different things to different people. No doubt a great many thinkers since Darwin would  have been furious to learn that Dawkins had gratuitously foisted his definition on them. Many of them meant nothing of the sort. They certainly included Konrad Lorenz, one of the men specifically called out by Dawkins. Lorenz liked to speak of traits as being “good for the species.” Indeed, there can be little doubt that our hands, with their nice, opposable thumbs, and the eyes that present us with a 3-dimensional view of the world are “good for our species.” That rather obvious observation hardly implies that these handy traits were actually selected at the level of the species. Lorenz never suggested any such thing. Indeed, elsewhere he wrote very clearly that selection takes place at the level of the individual, not at that of the species. In spite of that, Dawkins insisted in putting words in his mouth, and Pinker was only too happy to use Dawkins as his “authority” on the matter.

If you’d like to read a brief but concise account of the use of the term over the years, take a look at Section 1.2.5 (“Group Selection”) in the first volume of Johan van der Dennen’s The Origin of War, which is available free online. As he puts it,

Group selection is one of the most confused and confusing topics in modern evolutionary biology. It is part of an ongoing and sometimes acrimonious, controversy over the “level-of-selection.” the term “group selection” is used in a dazzling number of different meanings. One generic meaning of the term “group selection” is the idea that a trait may evolve for the benefit or the “greater good” of the group or species, but at the expense of the individual gene carrier.

Dawkins wrongly implies that this “strict” version of the definition is the only one around, but that’s hardly the case. Van der Dennen continues,

The other generic meaning of the term “group selection” is the idea that in the course of human evolution, groups have competed with one another – some groups subjugating other groups, some groups absorbing and assimilating other groups, some groups even eliminating other groups altogether – and that these events must have had an impact on the gene pools and (the direction of) human evolution. As applied to the human species, therefore, group selection may be eminently possible, “since one group of humans can consciously organize their altruistic behaviors and wipe out a rival group.” …This latter meaning of the term “group selection” is probably what Darwin envisaged when attempting to explain human morality (which posed a serious problem for his theory).

Darwin suggested a solution to the problem as follows:

It must not be forgotten that although a high standard of morality gives but a slight or no advantage to each individual man and his children over the other men of the same tribe, yet that an advancement in the standard of morality and an increase in the number of well-endowed men will certainly give an immense advantage to one tribe over another. There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to give aid to each other and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection.

In other words, “the other generic meaning” of the term “group selection” was certainly plausible if the traits in question could somehow arise via natural selection. Darwin was puzzled about how these traits could evolve to begin with, given that they imparted only “a slight or no advantage” to individuals. This, of course, is already quite different from Dawkins’ “strict definition,” according to which “group selection” means traits that are only useful to the group, but actually harmful to individuals within the group. As it happens, Sir Arthur Keith, whose work I discussed in my last post, also commonly used “the other generic meaning” of the term “group selection.” Indeed, he referred to his “new theory of human evolution,” the subject of a book with that title published in 1948, as “group theory.” Heaven forefend that Pinker should immediately pounce on poor Sir Arthur and declare him “totally and utterly wrong” with the rest.  In fact, like Lorenz, he also made it perfectly clear that he wasn’t using the term in the strict sense implied by Dawkins. But most importantly, he suggested an answer to Darwin’s puzzle. According to Keith, the traits commonly associated with group selection could very definitely be strongly selected at the level of the individual.  In other words, they were not necessarily harmful to the individual at all.

According to Keith, life in small groups in close proximity to each other had a forcing effect on human evolution. In his words, “it favored rapid evolutionary change.” As noted in my last post, he considered our common tendency to perceive others in the context of ingroups and outgroups as key to this effect. In his words,

It will this be seen that I look on the duality of human nature as an essential part of the machinery of human evolution. It is the corner-stone of my mosaic edifice… We may assume, therefore, that in the very earliest stages of man’s evolution, even in his simian stages, “human nature” was already converted into an instrument for securing group isolation.

According to Keith, in the context of isolated, competing groups, the factors which favored the survival of groups were also strongly selected at the level of the individual. As he put it, “Individual and group selection went on hand in hand.” Obviously, he was not using the term “group selection” in the sense suggested by Dawkins. In the following chapters, he discusses many aspects of human morality and human nature and the reasons they would have been strongly selected at the level of the individual in the context of his “group theory.” These included many aspects of human behavior that we can all observe for ourselves, assuming we are not blinded by ideological dogmas, such as the desire to appear morally “good” in the eyes of others in the group, the desire to achieve high status in the group, the desire to appear attractive to the opposite sex, etc. As Keith pointed out, all of these “good” traits would contribute strongly both to the “selection” of the group in competition with other groups, and at the same time would strongly increase the odds that the individual would survive and reproduce within the group.

Darwin and Keith were hardly the only ones to use the “other generic meaning” of group selection. Indeed, use of the term in that sense may be considered the default until V. C. Wynne-Edwards finally showed up in the early 60’s with a version that really does fit the “strict” definition preferred by Dawkins. Whether that version ever actually happened to a significant extent is still the subject of bitter disputes. The point is that use of the term by no means implies acceptance of the “strict” version. It goes without saying that it is also no excuse for rearranging history.

Ingroups and Outgroups and Sir Arthur Keith – Adventures in the Bowdlerization of History

There is no more important aspect of human nature than our tendency to perceive others in terms of ingroups and outgroups. Without an awareness of its existence and its power it is impossible to understand either out history or many of the critical events that are happening around us today. A trait that probably existed in our ancestors millions of years ago, it evolved because it promoted our survival when our environment and way of life were radically different from what they are now. In the context of current human technologies and societies, it often appears to have become wildly dysfunctional. We can distinguish ingroup from outgroup based on the subtlest of differences. That worked fine when we all lived in small groups of hunter-gatherers. The outgroup was always just the next group over. Today the same mental equipment for identifying the outgroup has resulted in endless confusion and, in many cases, disaster. The only way out lies in self-understanding, but as a species we exhibit an incorrigible resistance to knowing ourselves.

In my last post I commented on the foibles of an ingroup of intellectuals whose “territory” was defined by ideology. I’m sure they all believed their behavior was entirely rational, but they had no clue what was going on as they reacted to a “turncoat” and “heretic” in the same way that ingroups have done for eons. Had they read a seminal book by Sir Arthur Keith entitled A New Theory of Human Evolution, they might have had at least an inkling about the real motivation of their behavior. Published in 1948, the book was of critical importance, not just because it addressed the question of ingroups and outgroups, but because of Keith’s sure feel for the aspects of human behavior that really matter, and for his forthright and undaunted insistence on the existence and importance of innate human nature. He was certainly not infallible. What scientist is? He believed the Piltdown skull was real until it was finally proved a hoax just before he died. Some of what he had to say about human behavior has stood the test of time and some hasn’t. However, his hypotheses about ingroups and outgroups definitely belong in the former category, along with many others. There is no question that they were closer to the truth than the Blank Slate dogmas that already served as holy writ for most of the so-called behavioral scientists of the day.

Today there are few original copies of his book around, although some are offered at Amazon as I write this. However, it is available online at, and reprints are available at and elsewhere. It is a must read if you interested in human behavior, and even more so if you are interested in the history of the behavioral sciences in general and the Blank Slate in particular. Unfortunately, most of the accounts of that history that have appeared in the last 50 years or so are largely fairy tales, concocted either to deny or “embellish” the reality that the Blank Slate was the greatest scientific catastrophe of all time. If you want to know what really happened, there is no alternative to consulting the source material yourself.  One of the biggest fairy tales is that the man who played the greatest single role in demolishing the Blank Slate, Robert Ardrey, was “totally and utterly wrong.” In fact, Ardrey was “totally and utterly right” about the main theme of all his books; that human nature is both real and important. He insisted on that truth in the teeth of the Blank Slate lies that had been swallowed by virtually every “behavioral scientist” of his day.

Ardrey had an uncanny ability to ferret out scientists whose work actually did matter. Sir Arthur Keith was no exception. What he had to say about Keith and his take on ingroup/outgroup behavior was far more eloquent than anything I could add. For example,

In his last two books, Essays on Human Evolution in 1946 and A New Theory of Human Evolution in 1948, Keith took the final, remorseless step which his thinking had made inevitable. Conscience, he affirmed is simply that human mechanism dictating allegiance to the dual code. Those who assert that conscience is inborn are therefore correct. But just how far does conscience compel our actions in such an ultimate direction as that of the brotherhood of man? Not far. Conscience is the instrument of the group.

Human nature has a dual constitution; to hate as well as to love are parts of it; and conscience may enforce hate as a duty just as it enforces the duty of love. Conscience has a two-fold role in the soldier: it is his duty to save and protect his own people and equally his duty to destroy their enemies… Thus, conscience serves both codes of group behavior: it gives sanction to practices of the code of enmity as well as of the code of amity.

These were Keith’s last words on the subject. If the grand old man had any noteworthy capacities for self-delusion, they escape the eye. And when he died a few years later, at the age of ninety, with him ended truth’s brief history. His thoughts by then were overwhelmed by the new romanticism (the Blank Slate, ed.) when falsehood came to flower: his sentiments were condemned by that academic monopoly which substituted high-mindedness for the higher learning. And as for almost twenty years no one followed C. R. Carpenter (a primatologist who published some “inconvenient truths” about the behavior of monkeys and apes in the field, anticipating the revelations of Goodall and others, ed.) into the rain forest, so for almost twenty years none has followed Sir Arthur Keith into the jungle of noble intentions.

Beautifully said by the great nemesis of the Blank Slate. Ardrey had much else to say about both Keith and the history of hypotheses about ingroup/outgroup behavior in Chapter 8, “The Amity-Enmity Complex” of his The Territorial Imperative. If you’re looking for source material on the history of the Blank Slate, Ardrey’s four books on human nature wouldn’t be a bad place to start. They’re certainly more accurate than Pinker’s fanciful “history” of the affair. Keith himself was certainly aware of Blank Slate ideologues and their “academic monopoly.” However, he had a naïve faith that, if he only told the truth, he would eventually be vindicated. A hint about the extent to which that faith was realized can be gleaned by perusing the Wiki entry about him, which dismisses him into the realm of unpersons with the usual hackneyed claim of the pathologically pious that he was a “racist,” along with a gleeful notice that he was taken in by the Piltdown skull.

When it comes to the bowdlerization of history, by all means, have a look at the Wiki entry on “Ingroups and outgroups” as well. The most shocking thing about it is the thought that its author might actually believe what he’s written. We learn, for example, that “The terminology was made popular by Henri Tajfel and colleagues during his work in formulating social identity theory.” One wonders whether to laugh or despair on reading such absurdities. The idea that the history of what Ardrey referred to as the “Amity-Enmity Complex” began with some inconsequential “study” done by a Polish psychologist back in 1971 is beyond ludicrous. That’s just one of the reasons why its important to read such important bits of source material as Keith’s book. He actually presents an accurate account of the history of this critical aspect of human behavior. For example,

In brief, I hold that from the very beginning of human evolution the conduct of every local group was regulated by two codes of morality, distinguished by Herbert Spencer as the “code of amity” and the “code of enmity.”

Spencer wrote extensively about the subject in his Principles of Ethics, which appeared in 1892, nearly 80 years before the subject “was made popular” in Tajfel’s “study.” Unfortunately, he also noted the fallacies behind the then fashionable versions of socialism in another of his books, and gave reasons that governments based on them would fail that were amply confirmed by the history of the next hundred years. For that, he was viciously condemned as a “Social Darwinist” by the socialist true believers. The moniker has stuck to this day, in spite of the fact that Spencer was never even a “Darwinist” to begin with. He certainly had his own theories of evolution, but they were much closer to Lamarckism than Darwinism. In any case, Keith continues,

As a result of group consciousness, which serves to bind the members of a community together and to separate the community from all others, “there arises,” to use the words of Professor Sumner, “a differentiation between ourselves – the ‘we’ group or ‘in’ group – and everybody else – the ‘out’ group.”

The passage Keith refers to appeared in Folkways, published by Prof. William Graham Sumner in 1906, also somewhat earlier than the good Prof. Tajfel’s study. Of course, studies by learned professors of psychology are not necessary to document ingroup/outgroup behavior. Just read a little history. Look around you. Can one really understand the furious hatred of Trump by so many highly educated academics and intellectuals absent a grasp of this aspect of human behavior? Are racism, anti-Semitism, religious bigotry, hatred of the “bourgeoisie” or other versions of the “class enemy,” or any of the other myriad versions of outgroup identification that have been documented in our history best understood as the acts of “evil” people, who apparently get up every morning wracking their brains to decide what bad deeds they can do that day, or are they better understood as manifestations of the type of innate behavior described by Prof. Keith? I personally lean towards the latter explanation. Given the incredibly destructive results of this aspect of our behavior, would it not be advisable for our “experts” in evolutionary psychology to devote a bit more attention to it, as opposed to the more abstruse types of sexual behavior by which they now seem to be so fascinated? No doubt it would annoy the hardcore Blank Slaters who still haunt academia, but on the other hand, it might actually be useful.

Sir Arthur had much more to say about the evolution of human nature, including that great tool of historical obfuscation, “group selection.” But that’s a matter best left to another day.