On Steven Pinker’s Second Fairy Tale: The “Hydraulic Theory” of Konrad Lorenz

You have to hand it to Steven Pinker.  At least his book about the Blank Slate drew attention to the fact that it ever happened.  It would have been nice if he’d gotten the history right as well.  Unfortunately, his description of the affair airbrushes the two men most responsible for ending it completely out of the picture.  I refer to Robert Ardrey and Konrad Lorenz.  Ardrey played by far the most significant role of any individual in smashing the Blank Slate orthodoxy.  He was an outsider, a former playwright, whose highly popular and influential books insisting on the existence and significance of human nature made a mockery of the Blank Slate among intelligent lay people.  The academic and professional tribe of “scientists” in the behavioral disciplines never forgave him.  The humiliation they suffered during their slow, post-Ardrey return to reality following their long debauch with ideologically motivated myths tarted up as “science” rankles to this day.  One can still find occasional artifacts of their hatred in the popular media, as I noted in an earlier post.  That probably explains why Pinker dropped Ardrey down the memory hole.  It can be understood, at least in part, as a belated defense of his academic ingroup.  The result was a ludicrous “history” of the Blank Slate affair that studiously avoided mentioning the role of the individual who played the single most important role in ending it.

Pinker’s rationalization for ignoring Ardrey and Lorenz was certainly crude enough.  He managed it in a single paragraph in Chapter 7 of The Blank Slate.  The first part of the paragraph reads as follows:

The Noble Savage, too, is a cherished doctrine among critics of the sciences of human nature.  In Sociobiology, Wilson mentioned that tribal warfare was common in human prehistory.  The against-sociobiologists declared that this had been “strongly rebutted both on the basis of historical and anthropological studies.” I looked up these “studies,” which were collected in Ashley Montagu’s Man and Aggression.  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.”)  In any case, the reviews contained virtually no data about tribal warfare.

That’s for sure!  Man and Aggression, published in 1968, was a collection of essays by some of the most prominent anthropologists and psychologists of the day.  It’s quite true that it had little to do with tribal warfare, because it was intended mainly as an attempt to refute Ardrey and Lorenz’ insistence on the existence and importance of human nature.  As such, it is one of the most important pieces of historical source material relevant to the Blank Slate.  Among other things, it demonstrates that Pinker’s portrayal of E. O. Wilson as the knight in shining armor who slew the Blank Slate dragon in Chapter 6 of his book is nonsense.  The battle had been joined long before the appearance of Wilson’s Sociobiology in 1975, and the two chapters in that book that had even mentioned human nature were essentially just restatements of what Ardrey, Lorenz, and several other authors of note, such as Robin Fox, Paul Leyhausen, Desmond Morris, Anthony Storr, and Lionel Tiger, had already written, in part, more than a decade earlier.

As can be seen in the paragraph from Pinker’s book, he cites two main reasons for airbrushing Ardrey and Lorenz out of existence.  The first is Dawkins’ comment in The Selfish Gene that, “The trouble with these books is that the authors got it totally and utterly wrong.”  If you actually read what Dawkins was talking about, you’ll see this comment had nothing to do with human nature, the Blank Slate, or sociobiology.  Indeed, it had nothing to do with the theme of Pinker’s book, or any fundamental theme in the work of either Ardrey or Lorenz, either, for that matter.  It turns out Dawkins was referring solely to their favorable comments about group selection! In one of the more amusing ironies of scientific history, E. O. Wilson, Pinker’s heroic debunker of the Blank Slate, later outed himself as a far more devoted advocate of group selection than anything Ardrey or Lorenz ever dreamed of!  If they were “totally and utterly wrong,” Wilson must be doubly “totally and utterly wrong,” and himself and candidate for the memory hole.  I’ve written at length about this dubious rationale for dismissing Ardrey and Lorenz elsewhere.

However, group selection wasn’t Pinker’s only excuse for creating his fairy tale version of the Blank Slate.  His other one (or more correctly, two), is contained in the sentence, “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.”  In fact, Lorenz often does discuss whether particular adaptations are for the good of the species or not.  He does so mainly to illustrate his point that, while the innate behavioral traits that can result in aggression in human beings were “good for the species,” in the sense that they promoted the survival of our species as a whole, at the time that they evolved, the same traits may now be “not for the good of the species” in the radically different environment we find ourselves in today.  One could say in the same sense that our hands, feet and eyes are “for the good of the species,” because we are better off with them than without them.  I can only surmise that Pinker falsely imagined that Lorenz was trying to claim that selection operated at the level of the species.  In fact, he never claimed anything of the sort.  In the few instances he actually spoke of selection in his book, On Aggression, he was careful to point out that it took place at the level of individuals, or perhaps a few individuals.

It turns out that the history behind Pinker’s comment that “Ardrey and Lorenz believed in archaic theories such as that aggression was like the discharge of a hydraulic pressure” is a great deal more interesting.  I seriously doubt that Pinker even knew what he was talking about here.  His knowledge of the “hydraulic theory” was probably second or third hand.  In the first place, Lorenz never had a “hydraulic theory.”  He did have a “hydraulic model,” and referred to it often.  An animated version of the model, which he first presented at a conference in 1949, may be found here.  Lorenz never referred to it as other than an admittedly crude model, but one which illustrated what he actually saw in the behavior of many different species.  Anyone who is capable of raising fish in an aquarium or ducks and geese in their backyard, can read Lorenz and see for themselves that, whether Pinker thinks the model is “archaic” or not, it does nicely illustrate aspects of how these species’ actually behave.

This begs the question of how this simple and accurate model became transmogrified into a “theory.”  It turns out that the “authority” the Blank Slaters of old most often used to “refute” Lorenz’ “hydraulic theory” was one Daniel Lehrman, a professor at Rutgers and a purveyor of behaviorist flim flam of the first water.  His A Critique of Konrad Lorenz’s Theory of Instinctive Behavior appeared in The Quarterly Review of Biology back in 1953. By all means, have a look at it.  To read it is to marvel at how delusional the Blank Slaters had become by the early 50’s.  Lehrman denied the existence of instincts, not only in the great apes and human beings, as Ashley Montagu did in the 60’s, but in rats and geese, no less!  For example, according to Lehrman, the innate egg retrieving behavior of geese described by Lorenz was not innate, but was a result of “conditioning” while the goose was still in the egg!  He cited studies according to which the neck movements used by the goose to retrieve the egg actually began developing a few days after the egg was laid when the “head is stimulated tactually by the yolk sac.”  Apparently it never occurred to Lehrman that he was merely kicking the can down the road.  Why would the fetal goose move its head one way rather than another in response to this “conditioning?”  Indeed, why would it move it’s head at all?  As Lorenz put it, there must have been an innate “schoolmarm” to teach the goose these things.  Lehrman gives several other examples, explaining innate developmental feedback mechanisms in terms of behaviorist “conditioning.”  The following is another example of his “devastating” arguments against Lorenz:

Now, what exactly is meant by the statement that a behavior pattern is “inherited” or “genetically controlled?”  Lorenz undoubtedly does not thing that the zygote contains the instinctive act in miniature, or that the gene is the equivalent of an entelechy which purposefully and continuously tries to push the organism’s development in a particular direction.  Yet one or both of these preformistic assumptions, or their equivalents, must underlie the notion that some behavior patterns are “inherited” as such.

Quick!  Someone run and tell the computer programmers!  Everything they’ve done to date is clearly impossible.  Are they trying to claim that their video games actually exist in miniature in the software they’re trying to peddle?  Lehrman next gives a perfect illustration of what George Orwell was talking about when he spoke of “Newspeak,” in his 1984.  Newspeak was a version of the language that would make it impossible to even conceptualize “Crimethink.”  As Lehrman puts it,

To lump them (behavioral traits) together under the rubric of “inherited” or “innate” characteristics serves to block the investigation of their origin just at the point where it should leap forward in meaningfulness.

Elsewhere Lehrman makes a similar case for actually expunging the words “innate” and “instinct” from the behavioral science dictionary.  To borrow Orwell’s terminology, he considered them “doubleplus ungood.”  In retrospect, I think we can see perfectly well at this point what kinds of “investigation” really were blocked for upwards of half a century by the high priests of the Blank Slate, and it certainly wasn’t the kind that was dear to the heart of Prof. Lehrman.  But what of the “hydraulic theory?”  Here’s what Lehrman has to say about it:

Lorenz (1950) describes in some detail a hydraulic model, or analogy, of the instinct mechanism, including a reservoir of excitation and devices for keeping it dammed up (innate releasing mechanism) until appropriate keys unlock the sluices.  Hydraulic analogies have reappeared so regularly in Lorenz’s papers since 1937 as to justify the impression that they are not really analogies – they are actual representations of Lorenz’s conception and channeling of “instinctive energy.”

Got that?  You’d better not hum the tune to the Rolling Stone’s “She’s Like a Rainbow” too often, or you’ll find yourself accused of proposing a “theory” of the transformation of women into rainbows.  The same goes for “Like the Dawn,” by the “Oh Hello’s.”  Heaven forefend that you ever describe a cloud as like a camel, or a whale, or a unicorn, or you might find yourself accused of proposing a “theory” of the transubstantiation of clouds.  That, my friends, was the magical process by which Lorenz’ simple model was transmuted into Pinker’s mythical “archaic hydraulic theory.”

So much for Pinker’s “fake but true” history of the Blank Slate.  To my knowledge he has never yet shown the slightest remorse for the violence he has done to the history of what is probably the greatest scientific debacle of all time, not to mention to the legacy of the two men most responsible for restoring some semblance of sanity to the behavioral sciences.  I would caution those who expect that he ever will not to hold their breath.  As for Lehrman, he became a member of any number of prestigious learned societies, and received any number of prestigious awards and decorations for his brilliant contributions to the advancement of “science.”  It would seem that, just as no good deed goes unpunished, no bad deed goes unrewarded.

Why the Blank Slate? Let Max Eastman Explain

In my opinion, science, broadly construed, is the best “way of knowing” we have.  However, it is not infallible, is never “settled,” cannot “say” anything, and can be perverted and corrupted for any number of reasons.  The Blank Slate affair was probably the worst instance of the latter in history.  It involved the complete disruption of the behavioral sciences for a period of more than half a century in order to prop up the absurd lie that there is no such thing as human nature.  It’s grip on the behavioral sciences hasn’t been completely broken to this day.  It’s stunning when you think about it.  Whole branches of the sciences were derailed to support a claim that must seem ludicrous to any reasonably intelligent child.  Why?  How could such a thing have happened?  At least part of the answer was supplied by Max Eastman in an article that appeared in the June 1941 issue of The Reader’s Digest.  It was entitled, Socialism Doesn’t Jibe with Human Nature.

Who was Max Eastman?  Well, he was quite a notable socialist himself in his younger days.  He edited a radical magazine called The Masses from 1913 until it was suppressed in 1918 for its antiwar content.  In 1922 he traveled to the Soviet Union, and stayed to witness the reality of Communism for nearly two years, becoming friends with a number of Bolshevik worthies, including Trotsky.  Evidently he saw some things that weren’t quite as ideal as he had imagined.  He became increasingly critical of the Stalin regime, and eventually of socialism itself.  In 1941 he became a roving editor for the anti-Communist Reader’s Digest, and the above article appeared shortly thereafter.

In it, Eastman reviewed the history of socialism from it’s modest beginnings in Robert Owen’s utopian village of New Harmony through a host of similar abortive experiments to the teachings of Karl Marx, and finally to the realization of Marx’s dream in the greatest experiment of them all; the Bolshevik state in Russia.  He noted that all the earlier experiments had failed miserably but, in his words, “The results were not better than Robert Owen’s but a million times worse.”  The outcome of Lenin’s great experiment was,

Officialdom gone mad, officialdom erected into a new and merciless exploiting class which literally wages war on its own people; the “slavery, horrors, savagery, absurdities and infamies of capitalist exploitation” so far outdone that men look back to them as to a picnic on a holiday; bureaucrats everywhere, and behind the bureaucrats the GPU; death for those who dare protest; death for theft – even of a piece of candy; and this sadistic penalty extended by a special law to children twelve years old!  People who still insist that this is a New Harmony are for the most part dolts or mental cowards.  To honest men with courage to face facts it is clear that Lenin’s experiment, like Robert Owen’s, failed.

It would seem the world produced a great many dolts and mental cowards in the years leading up to 1941.  In the 30’s Communism was all the rage among intellectuals, not only in the United States but worldwide.  As Malcolm Muggeridge put it in his book, The Thirties, at the beginning of the decade it was rare to find a university professor who was a Marxist, but at the end of the decade it was rare to find one who wasn’t.  If you won’t take Muggeridge’s word for it, just look at the articles in U.S. intellectual journals such as The Nation, The New Republic, and the American Mercury during, say, the year 1934.  Many of them may be found online.  These were all very influential magazines in the 30’s, and at times during the decade they all took the line that capitalism was dead, and it was now merely a question of finding a suitable flavor of socialism to replace it.  If you prefer reality portrayed in fiction, read the guileless accounts of the pervasiveness of Communism among the intellectual elites of the 1930’s in the superb novels of Mary McCarthy, herself a leftist radical.

Eastman was too intelligent to swallow the “common sense” socialist remedies of the news stand journals.  He had witnessed the reality of Communism firsthand, and had followed its descent into the hellish bloodbath of the Stalinist purges and mass murder by torture and starvation in the Gulag system.  He knew that socialism had failed everywhere else it had been tried as well.  He also knew the reason why.  Allow me to quote him at length:

Why did the monumental efforts of these three great men (Owen, Marx and Lenin, ed.) and tens of millions of their followers, consecrated to the cause of human happiness – why did they so miserably fail? They failed because they had no science of human nature, and no place in their science for the common sense knowledge of it.

In October 1917, after the news came that Kerensky’s government had fallen, Lenin, who had been in hiding, appeared at a meeting of the Workers and Soldiers’ Soviet of Petrograd.  He mounted the rostrum and, when the long wild happy shouts of greeting had died down, remarked: “We will now proceed to the construction of a socialist society.” He said this as simply as though he were proposing to put up a new cowbarn.  But in all his life he had never asked himself the equally simple question: “How is this newfangled contraption going to fit in with the instinctive tendencies of the animals it was made for?”

Lenin actually knew less about the science of man, after a hundred years, than Robert Owen did.  Owen had described human nature, fairly well for an amateur, as “a compound of animal propensities, intellectual faculties and moral qualities.”  He had written into the preamble of the constitution of New Harmony that “man’s character… is the result of his formation, his location, and of the circumstances within which he exists.”

It seems incredible, but Karl Marx, with all his talk about making socialism “scientific,” took a step back from this elementary notion. He dropped out the factor of man’s hereditary nature altogether.  He dropped out man altogether, so far as he might present an obstacle to social change.  “The individual,” he said, “has no real existence outside the milieu in which he lives.” By which he meant: Change the milieu, change the social relations, and man will change as much as you like.  That is all Marx ever said on the primary question.  And Lenin said nothing.

That is why they failed.  They were amateurs – and worse than amateurs, mystics – in the subject most essential to their success.

To begin with, man is the most plastic and adaptable of animals.  He truly can be changed by his environment, and even by himself, to a unique degree, and that makes extreme ideas of progress reasonable.  On the other hand, he inherits a set of emotional impulses or instincts which, although they can be trained in various ways in the individual, cannot be eradicated from the race.  And no matter how much they may be repressed or redirected by training, they reappear in the original form – as sure as a hedgehop puts out spines – in every baby that is born.

Amazing, considering these words were written in 1941.  Eastman had a naïve faith that science would remedy the situation, and that, as our knowledge of human behavior advanced, mankind would see the truth.  In fact, by 1941, those who didn’t want to hear the inconvenient truth that the various versions of paradise on earth they were busily concocting for the rest of us were foredoomed to failure already had the behavioral sciences well in hand.  They made sure that “science said” what they wanted it to say.  The result was the Blank Slate, a scientific debacle that brought humanity’s efforts to gain self-understanding to a screeching halt for more than half a century, and one that continues to haunt us even now.  Their agenda was simple – if human nature stood in the way of heaven on earth, abolish human nature!  And that’s precisely what they did.  It wasn’t the first time that ideological myths have trumped the truth, and it certainly won’t be the last, but the Blank Slate may well go down in history as the deadliest myth of all.

I note in passing that the Blank Slate was the child of the “progressive Left,” the same people who today preen themselves on their great respect for “science.”  In fact, all the flat earthers, space alien conspiracy nuts, and anti-Darwin religious fanatics combined have never pulled off anything as damaging to the advance of scientific knowledge as the Blank Slate debacle.  It’s worth keeping in mind the next time someone tries to regale you with fairy tales about what “science says.”

How a “Study” Repaired History and the Evolutionary Psychologists Lived Happily Ever After

It’s a bit of a stretch to claim that those who have asserted the existence and importance of human nature have never experienced ideological bias. If that claim is true, then the Blank Slate debacle could never have happened. However, we know that it happened, based not only on the testimony of those who saw it for the ideologically motivated debasement of science that it was, such as Steven Pinker and Carl Degler, but of the ideological zealots responsible for it themselves, such as Hamilton Cravens, who portrayed it as The Triumph of Evolution. The idea that the Blank Slaters were “unbiased” is absurd on the face of it, and can be immediately debunked by simply counting the number of times they accused their opponents of being “racists,” “fascists,” etc., in books such as Richard Lewontin’s Not in Our Genes, and Ashley Montagu’s Man and Aggression. More recently, the discipline of evolutionary psychology has experienced many similar attacks, as detailed, for example, by Robert Kurzban in an article entitled, Alas poor evolutionary psychology.

The reasons for this bias has never been a mystery, either to the Blank Slaters and their latter day leftist descendants, or to evolutionary psychologists and other proponents of the importance of human nature. Leftist ideology requires not only that human beings be equal before the law, but that the menagerie of human identity groups they have become obsessed with over the years actually be equal, in intelligence, creativity, degree of “civilization,” and every other conceivable measure of human achievement. On top of that, they must be “malleable,” and “plastic,” and therefore perfectly adaptable to whatever revolutionary rearrangement in society happened to be in fashion. The existence and importance of human nature has always been perceived as a threat to all these romantic mirages, as indeed it is. Hence the obvious and seemingly indisputable bias.

Enter Jeffrey Winking of the Department of Anthropology at Texas A&M, who assures us that it’s all a big mistake, and there’s really no bias at all! Not only that, but he “proves” it with a “study” in a paper entitled, Exploring the Great Schism in the Social Sciences, that recently appeared in the journal Evolutionary Psychology. We must assume that, in spite of his background in anthropology, Winking has never heard of a man named Napoleon Chagnon, or run across an article entitled Darkness’s Descent on the American Anthropological Association, by Alice Degler.

Winking begins his article by noting that “The nature-nurture debate is one that biologists often dismiss as a false dichotomy,” but adds, “However, such dismissiveness belies the long-standing debate that is unmistakable throughout the biological and social sciences concerning the role of biological influences in the development of psychological and behavioral traits in humans.” I agree entirely. One can’t simply hand-wave away the Blank Slate affair and a century of bitter ideological debate by turning up one’s nose and asserting the term isn’t helpful from a purely scientific point of view.

We also find that Winking isn’t completely oblivious to examples of bias on the “nature” side of the debate. He cites the Harvard study group which “evaluated the merits of sociobiology, and which included intellectual giants like Stephen J. Gould and Richard Lewontin.” I am content to let history judge whether Gould and Lewontin were really “intellectual giants.” Regardless, if Winking actually read these “evaluations,” he cannot have failed to notice that they contained vicious ad hominem attacks on E. O. Wilson and others that it is extremely difficult to construe as anything but biased. Winking goes on to note similar instances of bias by other authors in various disciplines, such as,

Many researchers use [evolutionary approaches to the study of international relations] to justify the status quo in the guise of science.

The totality [of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology] is a myth of origin that is compelling precisely because it resonates strongly with Euro American presuppositions about the nature of the world.

…in the social sciences (with the exception of primatology and psychology) sociobiology appeals most to right-wing social scientists.

These are certainly compelling examples of bias. Now, however, Winking attempts to demonstrate that those who point out the bias, and correctly interpret the reasons for it, are just as biased themselves. As he puts it,

Conversely, those who favor biological approaches have argued that those on the other side are rendered incapable of objective assessment by their ideological promotion of equality. They are alleged to erroneously reject evidence of biological influences because such evidence suggests that social outcomes are partially explained by biology, and this might inhibit the realization of equality. Their critiques of biological approaches are therefore often blithely dismissed as examples of the moralistic/naturalistic fallacy. This line of reason is exemplified in the quote by biologist Jerry Coyne

If you can read the [major Evolutionary Psychology review paper] and still dismiss the entire field as worthless, or as a mere attempt to justify scientists’ social prejudices, then I’d suggest your opinions are based more on ideology than judicious scientific inquiry.

I can’t imagine what Winking finds “blithe” about that statement! Is it really “blithe” to so much as suggest that people who dismiss entire fields of science as worthless may be ideologically motivated? I note in passing that Coyne must have thought long and hard about that statement, because his Ph.D. advisor was none other than Richard Lewontin, whom he still honors and admires!  Add to that the fact that Coyne is about as far as you can imagine from “right wing,” as anyone can see by simply visiting his Why Evolution is True website, and the notion that he is being “blithe” here is ludicrous. Winking’s other examples of “blithness” are similarly dubious, including,

For critics, the heart of the intellectual problem remains an ideological adherence to the increasingly implausible view that human behavior is strictly determined by socialization… Should [social]hierarchies result strictly from culture, then the possibilities for an egalitarian future were seen to be as open and boundless as our ever-malleable brains might imagine.

Like the Church, a number of contemporary thinkers have also grounded their moral and political views in scientific assumptions about… human nature, specifically that there isn’t one.

Unlike the “comparable” statements by the Blank Slaters, these statements neither accuse those who deny the existence of human nature of being Nazis, nor is evidence lacking to back them up.  On the contrary, one could cite a mountain of evidence to back them up supplied by the Blank Slaters themselves.  Winking soon supplies us with the reason for this strained attempt to establish “moral equivalence” between “nature” and “nurture.”  It appears in his “hypothesis,” as follows:

It is entirely possible that confirmation bias plays no role in driving disagreement and that the overarching debate in academia is driven by sincere disagreements concerning the inferential value of the research designs informing the debate.

Wait a minute!  Don’t roll your eyes like that!  Winking has a “study” to back up this hypothesis.  Let me explain it to you.  He invented some “mock results” of studies which purported to establish, for example, the increased prevalence of an allele associated with “appetitive aggression” in populations with African ancestry.  Subtle, no?  Then he used Mechanical Turk and social media to come up with a sample of 365 people with Masters degrees or Ph.D.’s for a survey on what they thought of the “inferential power” of the fake data.  Another sample of 71 were scraped together for another survey on “research design.”  In the larger sample, 307 described themselves as either only “somewhat” on the “nature” side, or “somewhat” on the “nurture” side.  Only 57 claimed they leaned strongly one way or the other.  The triumphant results of the study included, for example, that,

Participants perceptions of inferential value did not vary by the degree to which results supported a particular ideology, suggesting that ideological confirmation bias is not affecting participant perceptions of inferential value.

Seriously?  Even the author admits that the statistical power of his “study” is low because of the small sample sizes.  However statistical power only applies where the samples are truly random, meaning, in this case, where the participants are either unequivocably on the “nature” or “nurture” side.  That is hardly the case.  Mechanical Turk samples, for example are biased towards a younger and more liberal demographic.  Most of the participants were on the fence between nature and nurture.  In other words, there’s no telling what their true opinions were even if they were honest about them.  Even the most extreme Blank Slaters admitted that nature plays a significant role in such bodily functions as urinating, defecating, and breathing, and so could have easily described themselves as “somewhat bioist.”  Perhaps most importantly, any high school student could have easily seen what this “study” was about.  There is no doubt whatsoever that holders of Masters and Doctors degrees in related disciplines had no trouble a) inferring what the study was about, and b) had an interest in making sure that the results demonstrated that they were “unbiased.”  In other words, were not exactly talking “double blind” here.

I think the author was well aware that most readers would have no trouble detecting the blatant shortcomings of his “study.”  Apparently to ward off ridicule he wrote,

Regardless of one’s position, it is important to remind scholars that if they believe a group of intelligent and informed academics could be so unknowingly blinded by ideology that they wholeheartedly subscribe to an unquestionably erroneous interpretation of an entire body of research, then they must acknowledge they themselves are equally as capable of being so misguided.

Kind of reminds you of the curse over King Tut’s tomb, doesn’t it?  “May those who question my study be damned to dwell among the misguided forever!”  Sorry, my dear Winking, but “a group of intelligent and informed academics” not only could, but were “so unknowingly blinded by ideology that they wholeheartedly subscribed to an unquestionably erroneous interpretation of an entire body of research.”  It was called the Blank Slate, and it derailed the behavioral sciences for more than half a century.  That’s what Pinker’s book was about.  That’s what Degler’s book was about, and yes, that’s even what Cravens’ book was about.  They all did an excellent job of documenting the debacle.  I suggest you read them.

Or not.  You could decide to believe your study instead.  I have to admit, it would have its advantages.  History would be “fixed,” the lions would lie down with the lambs, and the evolutionary psychologists would live happily ever after.

On the Gleichschaltung of Evolutionary Psychology

When Robert Ardrey began his debunking of the ideologically motivated dogmas that passed for the “science” of human behavior in 1961 with the publication of his first book, African Genesis, he knew perfectly well what was at stake.  By that time what we now know as the Blank Slate orthodoxy had derailed any serious attempt by our species to achieve self-understanding for upwards of three decades.  This debacle in the behavioral sciences paralyzed any serious attempt to understand the roots of human warfare and aggression, the sources of racism, anti-Semitism, religious bigotry, and the myriad other manifestations of our innate tendency to perceive others in terms of ingroups and outgroups, the nature of human territorialism and status-seeking behavior, and the wellsprings of human morality itself.  A bit later, E. O. Wilson summed up our predicament as follows:

Humanity today is like a waking dreamer, caught between the fantasies of sleep and the chaos of the real world.  The mind seeks but cannot find the precise place and hour.  We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology.  We thrash about.  We are terribly confused about the mere fact of our existence, and a danger to ourselves and the rest of life.

In the end, the Blank Slate collapsed under the weight of its own absurdity, in spite of the now-familiar attempts to silence its opponents by vilification rather than logical argument.  The science of evolutionary psychology emerged based explicitly on acceptance of the reality and importance of innate human behavioral traits.  However, the ideological trends that resulted in the Blank Slate disaster to begin with haven’t disappeared.  On the contrary, they have achieved nearly unchallenged control of the social means of communication, including the entertainment industry, the “mainstream” news media, Internet monopolies such as Facebook, Google and Twitter, and, perhaps most importantly, academia.  There an ingroup defined by ideology has emerged that has always viewed the new science with a jaundiced eye.  By its very nature it challenges their assumptions of moral superiority, their cherished myths about the nature of human beings, and the viability of the various utopias they have always enjoyed concocting for the rest of us.  As Marx might have put it, this clash of thesis and antithesis has led to a synthesis in evolutionary psychology that might be described as creeping Gleichschaltung.  In other words, it is undergoing a slow process of getting “in step” with the controlling ideology.  It no longer seriously challenges the dogmas of that ideology, and the “studies” emerging from the field are increasingly, if not yet exclusively, limited to subjects that are deemed ideologically “benign.”  As a result, when it comes to addressing issues that are of real importance in terms of the survival and welfare of our species, the science of evolutionary psychology has become largely irrelevant.

Consider, for example, the sort of articles that one typically finds in the relevant journals.  In the last four issues of Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences they have addressed such subjects as “Committed romantic relationships,” Long-term romantic relationships,” “The effect of predictable early childhood environments on sociosexuality in early adulthood,” “Daily relationship quality in same-sex couples,” “Modern-day female preferences for resources and provisioning by long-term mates,” “Behavioral reactions to emotional and sexual infidelity: mate abandonment versus mate retention,” and “An evolutionary perspective on orgasm.”  Peering through the last four issues of Evolutionary Psychology Journal we find, “Mating goals moderate power’s effect on conspicuous consumption among women,” “In-law preferences in China: What parents look for in the parents of their children’s mates,” “Endorsement of social and personal values predicts the desirability of men and women as long-term partners,” “Adaptive memory: remembering potential mates,” “Passion, relational mobility, and proof of commitment,” “Do men produce high quality ejaculates when primed with thoughts of partner infidelity?” and “Displaying red and black on a first date: A field study using the ‘First Dates’ television series.”

All very interesting stuff, I’m sure, but the last time I checked humanity wasn’t faced with an existential threat due to cluelessness about the mechanics of reproduction.  Articles that might actually bear on our chances of avoiding self-destruction, on the other hand, are few and far between.  In short, evolutionary psychology has been effectively neutered.  Ostensibly, it’s only remaining purpose is to pad the curriculum vitae of the professoriat in the publish or perish world of academia.

Does it really matter?  Probably not much.  The claims of any branch of psychology to be a genuine science have always been rather tenuous, and must remain so as long as our knowledge of how the mind works and how consciousness can exist remains so limited.  Real knowledge of how the brain gives rise to innate behavioral predispositions, and how they are perceived and interpreted by our “rational” consciousness is far more likely to be forthcoming from fields like neuroscience, genetics, and evolutionary biology than evolutionary psychology.  Meanwhile, we are free of the Blank Slate straitjacket, at least temporarily.  We must no longer endure the sight of the court jesters of the Blank Slate striking heroic poses as paragons of “science,” and uttering cringeworthy imbecilities that are taken perfectly seriously by a fawning mass media.  Consider, for example, the following gems from clown-in-chief Ashley Montagu:

All the field observers agree that these creatures (chimpanzees and other great apes) are amiable and quite unaggressive, and there is not the least reason to suppose that man’s pre-human primate ancestors were in any way different.

The fact is, that with the exception of the instinctoid reactions in infants to sudden withdrawals of support and to sudden loud noises, the human being is entirely instinctless.

…man is man because he has no instincts, because everything he is and has become he has learned, acquired, from his culture, from the man-made part of the environment, from other human beings.

In fact, I also think it very doubtful that any of the great apes have any instincts.  On the contrary, it seems that as social animals they must learn from others everything they come to know and do.  Their capacities for learning are simply more limited than those of Homo sapiens.

In his heyday Montagu could rave on like that nonstop, and be taken perfectly seriously, not only by the media, but by the vast majority of the “scientists” in the behavioral disciplines.  Anyone who begged to differ was shouted down as a racist and a fascist.  We can take heart in the fact that we’ve made at least some progress since then.  Today one finds articles about human “instincts” in the popular media, and even academic journals, as if the subject had never been the least bit controversial.  True, the same “progressives” who brought us the Blank Slate now have evolutionary psychology firmly in hand, and are keeping it on a very short leash.  For all that, one can now at least study the subject of innate human behavior without fear that undue interest in the subject is likely to bring one’s career to an abrupt end.  Who knows?  With concurrent advances in our knowledge of the actual physics of the mind and consciousness, we may eventually begin to understand ourselves.

More Egg on Pinker’s Face: E. O. Wilson’s “The Origins of Creativity”

If you’re expecting a philosophical epiphany, E. O. Wilson’s The Origins of Creativity isn’t for you. His theme is that science and the humanities can form a grandiose union leading to a “third enlightenment” if only scholars in the humanities would come up to speed with advances in the sciences via “thorough application of five disciplines – paleontology, anthropology, psychology, evolutionary biology, and neurobiology.”  Good luck with that.  We can smile and nod as the old man rambles on about his latest grand, intellectual scheme, though.  He isn’t great because of such brainstorms.  He’s great because he combines courage and common sense with an ability to identify questions that are really worth asking.  That’s what you’ll discover if you read his books, and that’s why they’re well worth reading.  You might even say he’s succeeded in realizing his own dream to some extent, because reading Wilson is like reading a good novel.  You constantly run across anecdotes about interesting people, tips about unfamiliar authors who had important things to say, and thought provoking comments about the human condition.  For example, in “The Origins of Creativity” you’ll find a portrayal of the status games played by Harvard professors, his take on why he thinks Vladimir Nabokov is a better novelist than Jonathan Franzen, his reasons for asserting that, when it comes to the important questions facing humanity, “the grail to be sought is the nature of consciousness, and how it originated,” and some interesting autobiographical comments to boot.

Those who love to explore the little ironies of history will also find some interesting nuggets in Wilson’s latest. The history I’m referring to is, of course, that of the Blank Slate.  For those who haven’t heard of it, it was probably the greatest perversion of science of all time.  For more than half a century, a rigid orthodoxy was imposed on the behavioral sciences according to which there is no such thing as human nature, that at birth our minds are “blank slates,” and that all human behavior is learned.  This dogma, transparently ludicrous to any reasonably intelligent child, has always been attractive to those whose tastes run to utopian schemes that require human behavior to be a great deal more “malleable” than it actually is.  Communism, fashionable during the heyday of the Blank Slate, is a case in point.

Where does Wilson fit in?  Well, in 1975, he published Sociobiology, in a couple of chapters of which he suggested that there may actually be such a thing as human nature, and it may actually be important.  In doing so he became the first important member of the academic tribe to break ranks with the prevailing orthodoxy.  By that time, however, the Blank Slate had already long been brilliantly debunked and rendered a laughing stock among intelligent lay people by an outsider; a man named Robert Ardrey.  Ardrey wrote a series of books on the subject beginning with African Genesis in 1961.  He had been seconded by other authors, such as Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox, long before the appearance of Sociobiology.  Eventually, the behavioral “scientists” were forced to throw in the towel and jettison the Blank Slate orthodoxy.  However, it was much to humiliating for them to admit the truth – that they had all been exposed as charlatans by Ardrey, a man who had spent much of his life as a “mere playwright.”  Instead, they anointed Wilson, a member of their own tribe, as the great hero who had demolished the Blank Slate.  This grotesque imposture was enshrined in Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, which now passes as the official “history” of the affair.

Where does the irony come in?  Well, Pinker needed some plausible reason to ignore Ardrey.  The deed was done crudely enough.  He simply declared that Ardrey had been “totally and utterly wrong,” based on the authority of a comment to that effect in Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene.  In the process, he didn’t mention exactly what it was that Ardrey was supposed to have been “totally and utterly wrong” about.  After all, to all appearances the man had been “totally and utterly” vindicated.  As it happens, Dawkins never took issue with the main theme of all of Ardrey’s books; that there is such a thing as human nature, and it is important and essential to understanding the human condition.  He merely asserted in a single paragraph of the book that Ardrey, along with Konrad Lorenz and Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, had been wrong in endorsing group selection, the notion that natural selection can operate at the level of the group as well as of the individual or gene.  In other words, Pinker’s whole, shabby rationale for dismissing Ardrey was based on his support for group selection, an issue that was entirely peripheral to the overall theme of all Ardrey’s work.  Now for the irony – in his last three books, including his latest, Wilson has come out unabashedly and whole heartedly in favor of (you guessed it) group selection!

In The Origins of Creativity Wilson seems to be doing his very best to rub salt in the wound.  In his last book, The Hunting Hypothesis, Ardrey had elaborated on the theory, also set forth in all his previous books, that the transition from ape to man had been catalyzed by increased dependence on hunting and meat eating.  The Blank Slaters long insisted that early man had never been guilty of such “aggressive” behavior, and that if he had touched meat at all, it must have been acquired by scavenging.  They furiously attacked Ardrey for daring to suggest that he had hunted.  If you watch the PBS documentary on the recent discovery of the remains of Homo naledi, you’ll see that the ancient diehards among them have never given up this dogma.  They insist that Homo naledi was a vegetarian even though, to the best of my knowledge, no one had even contended that he wasn’t, going so far as to actually call out the “unperson” Ardrey by name.  The realization that they were still so bitter after all these years brought a smile to my face.  What really set them off was Ardrey’s support for a theory first proposed by Raymond Dart that hunting had actually begun very early, in the pre-human species Australopithecus africanus. Well, if they were still mad at Ardrey, they’ll be livid when they read what Wilson has to say on the subject in his latest, such as,

By a widespread consensus, the scenario drawn by scientists thus far begins with the shift by one of the African australopiths away from a vegetarian diet to one rich in cooked meat.  The event was not a casual change as in choosing from a menu, nor was it a mere re-wiring of the palate.  Rather the change was a full hereditary makeover in anatomy, physiology, and behavior.

and

This theoretical reconstruction has gained traction from fossil remains and the lifestyles of contemporary hunter-gatherers.  Meat from larger prey was shared, as it is by wolves, African wild dogs, and lions.  Given, in addition, the relatively high degree of intelligence possessed by large, ground-dwelling primates in general, the stage was then set in prehuman evolution for an unprecedented degree of cooperation and division of labor.

Here, Wilson almost seems to be channeling Ardrey.  But wait, there’s more.  This one is for the real historical connoisseurs out there.  As noted above, in the bit from The Selfish Gene Pinker used for his clumsy attempt to airbrush Ardrey out of history, Dawkins condemned two others for the sin of supporting group selection as well; Konrad Lorenz and Austrian ethologist Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt.  I suspect Lorenz was a bit too close to Ardrey for comfort, as the two were often condemned by the Blank Slaters in the same breath, but, sure enough, Eibl-Eibesfeldt makes a couple of cameo appearances in Wilson’s latest book!  For example, in chapter 12,

During his classic field research in the 1960s, the German anthropologist Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt demonstrated in minute detail that people in all societies, from primitive and preliterate to modern and urbanized, use the same wide range of paralinguistic signals.  These entail mostly facial expressions, denoting variously fear, pleasure, surprise, horror, and disgust.  Eibl-Eibesfeldt lived with his subjects and further, to avoid self-conscious behavior, filmed them in their daily lives with a right-angle lens, by which the subject is made to think that the camera is pointed elsewhere.  His general conclusion was that paralinguistic signals are hereditary traits shared by the whole of humanity.

Brilliant, but according to Pinker this, too, must be “totally and utterly wrong,” since Eibl-Eibesfeldt is mentioned in the very same sentence in Dawkins’ book that he used to redact Ardrey from history!  At least it’s nice to see this bit of vindication for at least one of Pinker’s “totally and utterly wrong” trio.  I suspect Wilson is perfectly well aware of the dubious nature of Pinker’s “history,” but I doubt if he will ever have anything to say about Lorenz, not to mention Ardrey.  He has too much interest in preserving his own legacy for that.  I can’t really blame a man his age for wanting to go down in history as the heroic knight in shining armor who slew the Blank Slate dragon. He actually tries to push the envelope a bit in his latest with comments like,

At first thought, this concept of kin selection, extended beyond nepotism to cooperation and altruism within an entire group, appears to have considerable merit.  I said so when I first synthesized the discipline of sociobiology in the 1960s and early 1970s.  Yet it is deeply flawed.

During Ardrey’s day, the scientific discipline most often associated in the lay vernacular with resistance to the Blank Slate was ethology.  A few years after Wilson published his book with that title in 1975, it became sociobiology.  Now evolutionary psychology has displaced both of them.  I’m not sure what Wilson means by “sociobiology” here, but I’ve never seen anything he published prior to 1975 that comes close to being a forthright defense of the existence and importance of human nature.  Ardrey and others had published pretty much everything of real significance he had to say on the subject more than a decade earlier.

Be that as it may, I have no reservations about recommending “The Origins of Creativity” to my readers.  True, I’m a bit skeptical about his latest project for a grand unification of science and the humanities, and the book is really little more than a pamphlet.  For all that, reading him is like having a pleasant conversation with someone who is very wise about the ways of the world, knows about the questions that are important for us to ask, and can tell you a lot of things that are worth knowing.

The Damore Affair and the Ghost of the Blank Slate

So you thought the Blank Slate was dead, did you? Check out this post about the Damore affair by Jerry Coyne at his Why Evolution is True website:

Salon disses dismisses Google memo as “biological determinism” that can “slip into eugenicist doctrines”

Coyne is a professor emeritus at the University of Chicago. He’s also a leftist of great honesty and intellectual integrity. You should read him should you believe that such creatures went the way of unicorns long ago.  Among other things, he’s a strong supporter of the University of Chicago’s steadfast stance in favor of freedom of speech.  Coyne takes issue with an article by one Keith A. Spencer entitled, The ugly, pseudoscientific history behind that sexist Google manifesto, condemning Damore. Here’s the money quote:

The Salon article is “The ugly pseudoscientific history behind that sexist Google manifesto“, and is by Keith A. Spencer, a Salon writer whose scientific training appears to be a B.A. in astrophysics/English at Oberlin (double major) and then subsequent work in the humanities and writing ever since (he also has a master’s degree in literary and cultural studies from Carnegie Mellon).  Although I’m not a credentials monger, perhaps Spencer’s lack of biological training is shown in the way he refutes Damore’s “pseudoscience”: his refutation relies on a single book published in 1984: Not in Our Genes, by Richard Lewontin, Steven Rose, and Leon Kamin (henceforth LRK). I am well familiar with that book, as the first author was my Ph.D. supervisor, and I have to note two things. First, The book not a dispassionate review of the literature: the authors wrote it because they were committed to dispelling biological determinism, and were certainly diehard opponents of evolutionary psychology, then called “sociobiology”. You cannot count on that book to be an objective review of the literature, as it’s a polemic. It should not have been used by Spencer as an authoritative refutation of gender differences.

Second, the book is outdated. It is now 33 years old, and a considerable literature has accumulated since then. Not one thing is cited from that literature save in support of the absence of two sexes (see below)—Spencer just emits quote after quote from that book. And he uses it to refute three assertions that, he claims, Damore makes—at least implicitly…

Note that Lewontin was Coyne’s Ph.D. supervisor. I know from other posts that Coyne admires and respects him personally, and reveres him as an educator in the field of evolutionary biology. The fact that he would take issue with Lewontin in this way is, among other things, what I mean by honesty and intellectual integrity.

But just check out the quote. Here we have someone citing “Not in Our Genes” as a respectable scientific tract. It’s stunning! Even such reliable stalwarts of the Left as Scientific American and PBS threw in the towel and accepted the fact that there actually is such a thing as human nature long ago, flinging Not in Our Genes on the garbage heap of history.  How can one account for such an absurd historical anomaly?  Well, if you read Damore’s manifesto, you’ll notice that he actually uses the term “evolutionary psychology,” and in a supportive fashion, no less.  Of course, the fundamental premise of evolutionary psychology is the reality and importance of human nature, and insisting on that fact is tantamount to waving a red flag in the face of hoary Blank Slaters like Spencer.  These people are like the Bourbons; they’ve learned nothing and forgotten nothing. They still quote their ancient texts as if nothing had happened since those golden days of yesteryear, when the Blank Slate orthodoxy controlled the academy, the media, and the behavioral sciences virtually unchallenged for upwards of half a decade. They also still recall those who smashed their hegemony with unabated bitterness. Foremost among them was Robert Ardrey.  Sure enough, he popped up in a PBS special about Homo naledi as an evil proponent of the “Killer Ape Theory” even though no one, to the best of my knowledge, ever suggested that Homo naledi hunted or even ate meat. For more on that similarly incongruous fossil of the Blank Slate, see my post, PBS Answers the Burning Question:  What Does Robert Ardrey have to do with Homo naledi?

It’s not hard to find similar artifacts these days.  Indeed, they pop up on both the Left and the Right, as evolutionary psychology has a way of deflating cherished narratives on both ends of the ideological spectrum.  However, those responsible for the mutilation of the behavioral sciences we recall as the Blank Slate were primarily leftist ideologues.  Given the Left’s current all but unchallenged hegemony in the academy, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a concerted attempt to turn back the clock and restore the Blank Slate orthodoxy at some point along the line.

More Whimsical History of the Blank Slate

As George Orwell wrote in 1984, “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”  The history of the Blank Slate is a perfect illustration of what he meant.  You might say there are two factions in the academic ingroup; those who are deeply embarrassed by the Blank Slate, and those who are still bitterly clinging to it.  History as it actually happened is damaging to both factions, so they’ve both created imaginary versions that support their preferred narratives.  At this point the “official” histories have become hopelessly muddled.  I recently ran across an example of how this affects younger academics who are trying to make sense of what’s going on in their own fields in an article entitled, Sociology’s Stagnation at the Quillette website.  It was written by Brian Boutwell, Associate Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at St. Louis University.

Boutwell cites an article published back in 1990 by sociologist Pierre van den Berghe excoriating the practitioners in his own specialty.  Van den Berghe was one of those rare sociologists who insisted on the relevance of evolved behavioral traits to his field.  He did not mince words.  Boutwell quotes several passages from the article, including the following:

Such a theoretical potpourri is premised on the belief that, in the absence of a powerful simplifying idea, all ideas are potentially good, especially if they are turgidly presented, logically opaque, and empirically irrefutable. This sorry state of theoretical affairs in sociology is probably the clearest evidence of the discipline’s intellectual bankruptcy. But let my colleagues rest assured: intellectual bankruptcy never spelled the doom of an academic discipline. Those within it are professionally deformed not to recognize it, and those outside of it could not care less. Sociology is safe for at least a few more decades.

In response, Boutwell writes,

Intellectually bankrupt? Those are strong words. Can a field survive like this? It can, and it has. Hundreds of new sociology PhDs are minted every year across the country (not to mention the undergraduate and graduate degrees that are conferred as well). How many students were taught that human beings evolved about around 150,000 years ago in Africa? How many know what a gene is? How many can describe Mendel’s laws, or sexual selection? The answer is very few. And, what is worse, many sociologists do not think this ignorance matters.

In other words, Boutwell thinks the prevailing malaise in Sociology continues because sociologists don’t know about Darwin.  He may be right in some cases, but that’s not really the problem.  The problem is that the Blank Slate still prevails in sociology.  It is probably the most opaque of all the behavioral “sciences.”  In fact, it is just an ideological narrative pretending to be a science, just as psychology was back in the day when van den Berghe wrote his article.  Psychologists deal with individuals.  As a result they have to look at behavior a lot closer to the source of what motivates it.  As most reasonably intelligent lay people have been aware for millennia, it is motivated by human nature.  By the end of the 90’s, naturalists, neuroscientists, and evolutionary psychologists had heaped up such piles of evidence supporting that fundamental fact that psychologists who tried to prop up the threadbare shibboleths of the Blank Slate ran the risk of becoming laughing stocks.  By 2000 most of them had thrown in the towel.  Not so the sociologists.  They deal with masses of human beings.  It was much easier for them to insulate themselves from the truth by throwing up a smokescreen of “culture.”  They’ve been masturbating with statistics ever since.

Boutwell thinks the solution is for them to learn some evolutionary biology.  I’m not sure which version of the “history” gave him that idea.  However, if he knew how the Blank Slate really went down, he might change his mind.  Evolutionary biologists and scientists in related fields were part of the heart and soul of the Blank Slate orthodoxy.  They knew all about genes, Mendel’s laws, and sexual selection, but it didn’t help.  Darwin?  They simply redacted those parts of his work that affirmed the relationship between natural selection, human nature in general, and morality in particular.  No matter that Darwin himself was perfectly well aware of the connections.  For these “scientists,” an ideological narrative trumped scientific integrity until the mass of evidence finally rendered the narrative untenable.

Of course, one could always claim that I’m just supporting an ideological narrative of my own.  Unfortunately, that claim would have to explain away a great deal of source material, and because the events in question are so recent, the source material is still abundant and easily accessible.  If Prof. Boutwell were to consult it he would find that evolutionary biologists like Stephen Jay Gould, geneticists like Richard Lewontin, and many others like them considered the Blank Slate the very “triumph of evolution.”  I suggest that anyone with doubts on that score have a look at a book that bears that title by scientific historian Hamilton Cravens published in 1978 during the very heyday of the Blank Slate.  It is very well researched, cites scores of evolutionary biologists, geneticists, and behavioral scientists, and concludes that all the work of these people who were perfectly familiar with Darwin culminated in the triumphant establishment of the Blank Slate as “scientific truth,” or, as announced by the title of his book, “The Triumph of Evolution.”  His final paragraph gives a broad hint about how something so ridiculous could ever have been accepted as an unquestionable dogma.  It reads,

The long-range, historical function of the new evolutionary science was to resolve the basic questions about human nature in a secular and scientific way, and thus provide the possibilities for social order and control in an entirely new kind of society.  Apparently this was a most successful and enduring campaign in American culture.

Here, unbeknownst to himself, Cravens hit the nail on the head.  Social control was exactly what the Blank Slate was all about.  It was essential that the ideal denizens of the future utopias that the Blank Slaters had in mind for us have enough “malleability” and “plasticity” to play their assigned parts.  “Human nature” in the form of genetically transmitted behavioral predispositions would only gum things up.  They had to go, and go they did.  Ideology trumped and derailed science, and kept it derailed for more than half a century.  As Boutwell has noticed, it remains derailed in sociology and a few other specialties that have managed to develop similarly powerful allergic reactions to the real world.  Reading Darwin isn’t likely to help a bit.

One of the best books on the genesis of the Blank Slate is In Search of Human Nature, by Carl Degler.  It was published in 1991, well after the grip of the Blank Slate on the behavioral sciences had begun to loosen, and presents a somewhat more sober and realistic portrayal of the affair than Cravens’ triumphalist account.  Among other things it gives an excellent account of the genesis of the Blank Slate.  As portrayed by Degler, in the beginning it hadn’t yet become such a blatant tool for social control.  One could better describe it as an artifact of idealistic cravings.  Then, as now, one of the most important of these was the desire for human equality, not only under the law, but in a much more real, physical sense, among both races and individuals.  If human nature existed and was important, than such equality was out of the question.  Perfect equality was only possible if every human mind started out as a Blank Slate.

Degler cites the work of several individuals as examples of this nexus between the ideal of equality and the Blank Slate, but I will focus on one in particular; John B. Watson, the founder of behaviorism.  One of the commenters to an earlier post suggested that the behaviorists weren’t Blank Slaters.  I think that he, too, is suffering from historical myopia.  Again, it’s always useful to look at the source material for yourself.  In his book, Behaviorism, published in 1924, Watson notes that all human beings breathe, sneeze, have hearts that beat, etc., but have no inherited traits that might reasonably be described as human nature.  In those days, psychologists like William James referred to hereditary behavioral traits as “instincts.”  According to Watson,

In this relatively simple list of human responses there is none corresponding to what is called an “instinct” by present-day psychologists and biologists.  There are then for us no instincts – we no longer need the term in psychology.  Everything we have been in the habit of calling an “instinct” today is the result largely of training – belongs to man’s learned behavior.

A bit later on he writes,

The behaviorist recognizes no such things as mental traits, dispositions or tendencies.  Hence, for him, there is no use in raising the question of the inheritance of talent in its old form.

In case we’re still in doubt about his Blank Slate bona fides, a few pages later he adds,

I should like to go one step further now and say, “Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.”  I am going beyond my facts and I admit it, but so have the advocates of the contrary and they have been doing it for many thousands of years.  Please note that when this experiment is made I am to be allowed to specify the way the children are to be brought up and the type of world they have to live in.

Here, in a nutshell, we can see the genesis of hundreds of anecdotes about learned professors dueling over the role of “nature” versus “nurture,” in venues ranging from highbrow intellectual journals to several episodes of The Three Stooges.  Watson seems to be literally pulling at our sleeves and insisting, “No, really, I’m a Blank Slater.”  Under the circumstances I’m somewhat dubious about the claim that Watson, Skinner, and the rest of the behaviorists don’t belong in that category.

What motivated Watson and others like him to begin this radical reshaping of the behavioral sciences?  I’ve already alluded to the answer above.  To make a long story short, they wanted to create a science that was “fair.”  For example, Watson was familiar with the history of the Jukes family outlined in an account of a study by Richard Dugdale published in 1877.  It documented unusually high levels of all kinds of criminal behavior in the family.  Dugdale himself insisted on the role of environmental as well as hereditary factors in explaining the family’s criminality, but later interpreters of his work focused on heredity alone.  Apparently Watson considered such an hereditary burden unfair.  He decided to demonstrate “scientifically” that a benign environment could have converted the entire family into model citizens.  Like many other scientists in his day, Watson abhorred the gross examples of racial discrimination in his society, as well as the crude attempts of the Social Darwinists to justify it.  He concluded that “science” must support a version of reality that banished all forms of inequality.  The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

I could go on and on about the discrepancies one can find between the “history” of the Blank Slate and source material that’s easily available to anyone willing to do a little searching.  Unfortunately, I’ve already gone on long enough for a single blog post.  Just be a little skeptical the next time you read an account of the affair in some textbook.  It ain’t necessarily so.

 

On the Unsubjective Morality and Unscientific Scientism of Alex Rosenberg

In a recent post I pointed out the irrational embrace of objective morality by some public intellectuals in spite of their awareness of morality’s evolutionary roots.  In fact, I know of only one scientist/philosopher who has avoided this non sequitur; Edvard Westermarck.  A commenter suggested that Alex Rosenberg was another example of such a philosopher.  In fact, he’s anything but.  He’s actually a perfect example of the type I described in my earlier post.

A synopsis of Rosenberg’s philosophy may be found in his book, The Atheists Guide to Reality.  Rosenberg is a proponent of “scientism.”  He notes the previous, pejorative use of the term, but announces that he will expropriate it.  In his words,

…we’ll call the worldview that all us atheists (and even some agnostics) share “scientism.”  This is the conviction that the methods of science are the only reliable ways to secure knowledge of anything; that science’s description of the world is correct in its fundamentals; and that when “complete,” what science tells us will not be surprisingly different from what it tells us today… Science provides all the significant truths about reality, and knowing such truths is what real understating is all about.

Well, I’m “one of us atheists,” and while I would agree that science is the best and most effective method to secure knowledge of anything, I hardly agree that it is the only method, nor do I agree that it is always reliable.  For that matter, I doubt that Rosenberg believes it either.  He dismisses all the humanities with a wave of the hand as alternate ways of knowing, with particular emphasis on history.  In fact, one of his chapters is entitled, “History Debunked.”  In spite of that, his book is laced with allusions to history and historical figures.

For that matter, we could hardly do without history as a “way of knowing” just what kind of a specimen we’re dealing with.  It turns out that, whether knowingly or not, Rosenberg is an artifact of the Blank Slate.  I reached convulsively for my crucifix as I encountered the telltale stigmata.  As those who know a little history are aware, the Blank Slate was a massive corruption of science involving what amounted to the denial of the existence of human nature that lasted for more than half a century.  It was probably the greatest scientific debacle of all time.  It should come as no surprise that Rosenberg doesn’t mention it, and seems blithely unaware that it ever happened.  It flies in the face of the rosy picture of science he’s trying to paint for us.

We first get an inkling of where Rosenberg fits in the context of scientific history when he refers approvingly to the work of Richard Lewontin, who is described as a “well-known biologist.”  That description is a bit disingenuous.  Lewontin may well be a “well-known biologist,” but he was also one of the high priests of the Blank Slate.  As Steven Pinker put it in his The Blank Slate,

Gould and Lewontin seem to be saying that the genetic components of human behavior will be discovered primarily in the “generalizations of eating, excreting, and sleeping.”  The rest of the slate, presumably, is blank.

Lewontin embraced “scientific” Marxism, and alluded to the teachings of Marx often in his work.  His “scientific” method of refuting those who disagreed with him was to call them racists and fascists.  He even insisted that a man with such sterling leftist bona fides as Richard Trivers be dismissed as a lackey of the bourgeoisie.  It seems to me these facts are worth mentioning about anyone we may happen to tout as a “scientific expert.”  Rosenberg never gets around to it.

A bit further on, Rosenberg again refers approvingly to another of the iconic figures of the Blank Slate; B. F. Skinner.  He cites Skinner’s theories as if there had never been anything the least bit controversial about them.  In fact, as primatologist Frans de Waal put it in his Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?,

Skinner… preferred language of control and domination.  He spoke of behavioral engineering and manipulation, and not just in relation to animals.  Later in life he sought to turn humans into happy, productive, and “maximally effective” citizens.

and

B. F. Skinner was more interested in experimental control over animals than spontaneous behavior.  Stimulus-response contingencies were all that mattered.  His behaviorism dominated animal studies for much of the last century.  Loosening its theoretical grip was a prerequisite for the rise of evolutionary cognition.

Behaviorism, with its promise of the almost perfect malleability of behavior in humans and other animals, was a favorite prop of the Blank Slate orthodoxy.  Such malleability was a prerequisite for the creation of “maximally effective” citizens to occupy the future utopias they were concocting for us.

Reading on, we find Rosenberg relating another of the favorite yarns of the Blank Slaters of old, the notion that our Pleistocene ancestors’ primary source of meat came from scavenging.  They would scamper out, we are told, and steal choice bones from the kills of large predators, then scamper back to their hiding places and smash the bones with rocks to get at the marrow.  This fanciful theory was much in fashion back in the 60’s when books disputing Blank Slate ideology and insisting on the existence and significance of human nature first started to appear.  These often mentioned aggression as one aspect of human behavior, an assertion that never failed to whip the Blank Slaters into a towering rage.  Hunting, of course, might be portrayed as a form of aggression.  Therefore it was necessary to deny that it ever happened early enough to have an effect on evolved human behavioral traits.  In those days, of course, we were so ignorant of primate behavior that Blank Slater Ashley Montagu was able to write with a perfectly straight face that chimpanzees are,

…anything but irascible.  All the field observers agree that these creatures are amiable and quite unaggressive, and there is no reason to suppose that man’s pre-human primate ancestors were in any way different.

We’ve learned a few things in the ensuing years.  Jane Goodall observed both organized hunting behavior and murderous attacks on neighboring bands carried out by these “amiable” creatures.  For reporting these observations she was furiously denounced and insulted in the most demeaning terms.  Meanwhile, chimps have been observed using sticks as thrusting spears, and fire-hardened spears were found associated with a Homo erectus campsite dated to some 400,000 years ago.  There is evidence that stone-tipped spears were used as far back as 500,000 years ago, and much more similar evidence of early hunting behavior has surfaced.  Articles about early hunting behavior have even appeared in the reliably politically correct Scientific American, not to mention that stalwart pillar of progressive ideology, PBS.  In other words, the whole scavenging thing is moot.  Apparently no one bothered to pass the word to Rosenberg.  No matter, he still includes enough evolutionary psychology in his book to keep up appearances.

In spite of the fact that he writes with the air of a scientific insider who is letting us in on all kinds of revelations that we are to believe have been set in stone by “science” in recent years, and that we should never dare to question, Rosenberg shows similar signs of being a bit wobbly when it comes to actually knowing what he’s talking about elsewhere in the book.  For example, he seems to have a fascination with fermions and bosons, mentioning them often in the book.  He tells us that,

…everything is made up of these two kinds of things.  Roughly speaking, fermions are what matter is composed of, while bosons are what fields of force are made of.

Well, not exactly.  If matter isn’t composed of bosons, it will come as news to the helium atoms engaging in one of the neat tricks only bosons are capable of in the Wiki article on superfluidity.  As it happens, one of the many outcomes of the fundamental difference between bosons and fermions is that bosons are usually force carriers, but the notion that it actually is the fundamental difference is just disinformation, and a particularly unfortunate instance thereof at that.  I say that because our understanding of that difference is the outcome of an elegant combination of theoretical insight and mathematics.  I lack the space to go into detail here, but it follows from the indistinguishability of quantum particles.  I suggest that anyone interested in the real difference between bosons and fermions consult an elementary quantum textbook.  These usually boil the necessary math down to a level that should be accessible to any high school graduate who has taken an honors course or two in the subject.

There are some more indications of the real depth of Rosenberg’s scientific understanding in his description of some of the books he recommends to his readers so they can “come up to speed” with him.  For example, he tells us that Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, “…argues for a sophisticated evolutionary account of several cognitive capacities critical for speech.”  Well, not really.  As the title implies Pinker’s The Blank Slate is about The Blank Slate.  I can only conclude that cognitive dissonance must have set in when Rosenberg read it, because that apocalypse in the behavioral sciences doesn’t fit too well in his glowing tale of the triumphant progress of science.  Elsewhere he tells us that,

At its outset, human history might have been predictable just because the arms races were mainly biological.  That’s what enabled Jared Diamond to figure out how and why western Europeans came to dominate the globe over a period that lasted 8000 years or so in Guns, Germs, and Steel (1999), Though he doesn’t acknowledge it, Diamond is only applying an approach to human history made explicit by sociobiologist E. O. Wilson in On Human Nature more than 30 years ago (1978)…”

Seriously?  Guns, Germs and Steel was actually an attempt to explain differences between human cultures in terms of environmental factors, whereas in On Human Nature Wilson doubled down on his mild assault on the Blank Slate orthodoxy in the first and last chapters of his Sociobiology, insisting on the existence and significance of evolved human behavioral traits.  I can only conclude that, assuming Rosenberg actually read the books, he didn’t comprehend what he was reading.

With that let’s consider what Rosenberg has to say about morality.  He certainly seems to “get it” in the beginning of the book.  He describes himself as a “nihilist” when it comes to morality.  I consider that a bad choice of words, but whatever.  According to Rosenberg,

Nihilism rejects the distinction between acts that are morally permitted, morally forbidden, and morally required.  Nihilism tells us not that we can’t know which moral judgments are right, but that they are all wrong.  More exactly, it claims, they are all based on false, groundless presuppositions.  Nihilism says that the whole idea of “morally responsible” is untenable nonsense.  As such, it can hardly be accused of holding that “everything is morally permissible.”  That, too, is untenable nonsense.

Moreover, nihilism denies that there is really any such thing as intrinsic moral value.  People think that there are things that are intrinsically valuable, not just as a means to something else:  human life or the ecology of the planet or the master race or elevated states of consciousness, for example.  But nothing can have that sort of intrinsic value – the very kind of value morality requires.  Nihilism denies that there is anything at all that is good in itself or, for that matter, bad in itself.  Therefore, nihilism can’t be accused of advocating the moral goodness of, say, political violence or anything else.

A promising beginning, no?  Sounds very Westermarckian.  But don’t jump to conclusions!  Before the end of the book we will find Rosenberg doing a complete intellectual double back flip when it comes to this so-called “nihilism.”  We will witness him chanting a few magic words over the ghost of objective morality, and then see it rise zombie-like from the grave he just dug for it.

Rosenberg begins the pilgrimage from subjectivity to objectivity by evoking what he calls “core morality.”  He presents us with two premises about it, namely,

First premise:  All cultures, and almost everyone in them, endorse most of the same core principles as binding on everyone.

and

Second premise:  The core moral principles have significant consequences for humans’ biological fitness – for our survival and reproduction.

Seems harmless enough, doesn’t it, but then we learn some things that appear a bit counterintuitive about core morality.  For example,

There is good reason to think that there is a moral core that is almost universal to almost all humans.  Among competing core moralities, it was the one that somehow came closest to maximizing the average fitness of our ancestors over a long enough period that it became almost universal.  For all we know, the environment to which our core morality constitutes an adaptation is still with us.  Let’s hope so, at any rate, since core morality is almost surely locked in by now.

Are you kidding me?  There is not even a remote chance that “the environment to which our core morality constitutes an adaptation is still with us.”  Here, Rosenberg is whistling past the graveyard when it comes to the role he has in store for his “core morality.”  He is forced to make this patently absurd statement about our supposedly static environment because otherwise “core morality” couldn’t perform its necessary role in bringing the zombie back to life.  How can it perform that neat trick?  Well, according to Rosenberg,

Along with everyone else, the most scientistic among us accept these core principles as binding. (!!)

Some nihilism, no?  Suddenly, Rosenberg’s “core morality” has managed to jump right out of his skull onto our backs and is “binding” us!  Of course, it would be too absurd even for Rosenberg to insist that this “binding” feature was still in effect in spite of the radical changes in the environment that have obviously happened since “core morality” supposedly evolved.  Hence, he has to deny the obvious with his ludicrous suggestion that the environment hasn’t changed.  Meanwhile, the distinction noted by Westermarck between that which is thought to be binding, and that which actually is binding, has become very fuzzy.  We are well on the way back to the safe haven of objective morality.

To sweeten the pill, Rosenberg assures us that core morality is “nice,” and cites all sorts of game theory experiments to prove it.  He wonders,

Once its saddled with nihilism, can scientism make room for the moral progress that most of us want the world to make?  No problem.

“Moral progress?”  That is a contradiction in terms unless morality and its rules exist as objective things in themselves.  How is “progress” possible if morality is really an artifact of evolution, and consequently has neither purpose nor goal?  Rosenberg puts stuff like this right in the middle of his pronouncements that morality is really subjective.  You could easily get whiplash reading his book.  The icing on the cake of “niceness” turns out to be altruistic behavior towards non-kin, which is also supposed to have evolved to enhance “fitness.”  Since one rather fundamental difference between the environment “then” and “now” is that “then” humans normally lived in communities of and interacted mainly with only about 150 people, the idea that they were really dealing with non-kin, and certainly any idea that similar behavior must work just as well between nations consisting of millions of not quite so closely related individuals is best taken with a grain of salt.

Other then a few very perfunctory references, Rosenberg shows a marked reticence to discuss human behavior that is not so nice.  Of course, there is no mention of the ubiquitous occurrence of warfare between human societies since the dawn of recorded time.  After all, that would be history, and hasn’t Rosenberg told us that history is bunk?  He never mentions such “un-nice” traits as ingroup-outgroup behavior, or territoriality.  That’s odd, since we can quickly identify his own outgroup, thanks to some virtue signaling remarks about “Thatcherite Republicans,” and science-challenged conservatives.  As for those who get too far out of line he writes,

Recall the point made early in this chapter that even most Nazis may have really shared a common moral code with us.  The qualification “most” reflects the fact that a lot of them, especially at the top of the SS, were just psychopaths and sociopaths with no core morality.

Really?  What qualifies Rosenberg to make such a statement?  Did he examine their brains?  Did neuroscientists subject them to experiments before they died?  It would seem that if we don’t “get our minds right” about core morality we could well look forward to being “cured” the way “psychopaths and sociopaths” were “cured” in the old Soviet Union.

By the time we get to the end of the book, the subjective façade has been entirely dismantled, and the “core morality” zombie has jettisoned the last of its restraints.  Rosenberg’s continued insistence on the non-existence of objective good and bad has deteriorated to a mere matter of semantics.  Consider, for example, the statement,

Once science reveals the truths about human beings that may be combined with core morality, we can figure out what our morality does and does not require of us.  Of course, as nihilists, we have to remember that core morality’s requiring something of us does not make it right – or wrong.  There is no such thing.

That should be comforting news to the inmates of the asylum who didn’t do what was “required” of them. We learn that,

Almost certainly, when all these facts are decided, it will turn out that core morality doesn’t contain any blanket prohibition or permission of abortion as such.  Rather, together with the facts that science can at least in principle uncover, core morality will provide arguments in favor of some abortions and against other abortions, depending on the circumstances.

The pro-life people shouldn’t entirely despair, however, because,

Scientism allows that sometimes the facts of a case will combine with core morality to prohibit abortion, even when the woman demands it as a natural right.

That’s about as wild and crazy as Rosenberg gets, though.  In fact, he’s not a scientist but a leftist ideologue, and we soon find him scurrying back to the confines of his ideologically defined ingroup, core morality held firmly under his arm.  He assures us that,

…when you combine our core morality with scientism, you get some serious consequences, especially for politics.  In particular, you get a fairly left-wing agenda.  No wonder most scientists in the United States are Democrats and in the United Kingdom are Labour Party supporters or Liberal Democrats.

Core morality reaches out its undead hand for the criminal justice system as well:

There are other parts of core morality that permit or even require locking people up – for example, to protect others and to deter, reform, rehabilitate, and reeducate the wrongdoer.

That would be a neat trick – reeducating wrongdoers if there really isn’t such a thing as wrong.  No matter, core morality is now not only alive but is rapidly turning into a dictator with “requirements.”

Core morality may permit unearned inequalities, but it is certainly not going to require them without some further moral reason to do so.  In fact, under many circumstances, core morality is going to permit the reduction of inequalities, for it requires that wealth and income that people have no right to be redistributed to people in greater need.  Scientism assures us that no one has any moral rights.  Between them, core morality and scientism turn us into closet egalitarians.

Did you get that?  Your “selfish genes” are now demanding that you give away your money to unrelated people even if the chances that this will ever help those genes to survive and reproduce are vanishingly small.  Rosenberg concludes,

So, scientism plus core morality turn out to be redistributionist and egalitarian, even when combined with free-market economics.  No wonder Republicans in the United States have such a hard time with science.

Did his outgroup just pop up on your radar screen?  It should have.  At this point any rational consequences of the evolved origins and subjective nature of morality have been shown the door.  The magical combination of scientism and core morality has us in a leftist full nelson.  They “require” us to do the things that Rosenberg considers “nice,” and refrain from doing the things he considers “not nice.”  In principle, he dismisses the idea of free will.  However, in this case we will apparently be allowed just a smidgeon of it if we happen to be “Thatcherite Republicans.”  Just enough to get our minds right and return us to a “nice” deterministic track.

In a word, Rosenberg is no Westermarck.  In fact, he is a poster boy for leftist ideologues who like to pose as “moral nihilists,” but get an unholy pleasure out of dictating moral rules to the rest of us.  His “scientific” pronouncements are written with all the cocksure hubris characteristic of ideologues, and sorely lack the reticence more appropriate for real scientists.  There is no substantial difference between the illusion that there are objective moral laws, and Rosenberg’s illusion that a “core morality” utterly divorced from its evolutionary origins is capable of dictating what we ought and ought not to do.

It’s not really that hard to understand.  The ingroup, or tribe, if you will, of leftist ideologues like Rosenberg and the other examples I mentioned in recent posts, lives in a box defined by ideological shibboleths.  Its members can make as many bombastic pronouncements about moral nihilism as they like, but in the end they must either kowtow to the shibboleths or be ostracized from the tribe.  That’s a sacrifice that none of them, at least to the best of my knowledge, has ever been willing to make.  If my readers are aware of any other “counter-examples,” I would be happy to examine them in my usual spirit of charity.

“Five Easy Pieces” and the Ghost of Robert Ardrey

I know.  You think I’m too obsessed with Robert Ardrey.  Perhaps, but when I stumble across little historical artifacts of his existence, I can’t resist recording them.  Who else will?  Besides, I have moral emotions, too.  I’m not sure where I sit on the spectrum of Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations, but when I consider Ardrey’s shabby treatment in the “official” histories, they all start howling at once.  Ardrey shouldn’t be forgotten.  He was the most significant player in the events that come to mind when one hears the term “Blank Slate.”

What was the “Blank Slate?”  I’d call it the greatest scientific debacle of all time.  The behavioral sciences were derailed for fifty years and more by the ideologically motivated denial of human nature.  Unfortunately, its history will probably never be written, or at least not in a form that bears some resemblance to the truth.  Perhaps the most important truth that will be redacted from future accounts of the Blank Slate is the seminal role of Robert Ardrey in dismantling it.  That role was certainly recognized by the high priests of the Blank Slate themselves.  Their obsession with Ardrey can be easily documented.  In spite of that he is treated as an unperson today, and his historical role has been denied or suppressed.  I have discussed reasons for this remarkable instance of historical amnesia elsewhere.  They usually have something to do with the amour-propre of the academic tribe.  See, for example, here, here and here.

If there are grounds for optimism that the real story will ever see the light of day, it lies in the ease with which the elaborate fairy tale that currently passes as the “history” of the Blank Slate can be exposed.  According to this official “history,” the Blank Slate prevailed virtually unchallenged until the mid-70’s.  Then, suddenly, E. O. Wilson appeared on the scene as the knight in shining armor who slew the Blank Slate dragon almost single-handedly with the publication of Sociobiology in 1975.  As I’ve noted in earlier posts, there’s a great deal of source material in both the academic and popular literature whose existence is very difficult to account for if one takes this sanitized version of the affair seriously.  I’ve occasionally cited some of the numerous examples of articles about or by Ardrey, both pro and con, in popular magazines including the highbrow Encounter, the more professionally oriented Saturday Review, the once popular Life, the “recreational” Penthouse, and many others, all of which appeared long before the publication of Sociobiology.  I recently stumbled across another amusing example in one of Jack Nicholson’s earlier flicks, and probably one of his best; Five Easy Pieces.

I hadn’t watched the film since 1970, the year it was released.  I thought it was entertaining at the time, especially the iconic restaurant scene with the uncooperative waitress.  However, I certainly didn’t notice any connection to the Blank Slate.  It was a bit early for that.  However, I happened to watch the film again a couple of days ago.  This time I noticed something.  There was the ghost of Robert Ardrey, with an amused look on his face, waving at me right out of the screen.

The great debunker of the Blank Slate turns up around 1:20:25 into the film.  Bobby (Jack Nicholson), his somewhat trashy girlfriend, Rayette, and a few other family members and guests are gathered in the living room of Bobby’s childhood home.  A pompous, insufferable woman by the name of Samia Glavia is holding forth about the nature of man.  The dialogue goes like this:

Samia Glavia/Irene Dailey: But you see, man is born into the world with his existent adversary from the first. It is his historic, lithic inheritance. So, is it startling? Aggression is prehistoric. An organism behaves according to its nature, and its nature derives from the circumstances of its inheritance. The fact remains that primitive man took absolute delight in tearing his adversary apart. And there is where I think the core of the problem resides.

John Ryan/Spicer: Doesn’t that seem unnecessarily apocalyptic?

Glavia: I do not make poetry.

Rayette: Is there a TV in the house?

Glavia: I remarked to John, that rationality is not a device to alter facts. But moreover I think of it as an extraneous tool, a gadget, somewhat like… the television. To look at it any other way is ridiculous.

Rayette:There’s some good things on it, though.

Glavia: I beg your pardon? (Condescendingly)

Rayette: There’s some good things on it sometimes.

Glavia: I have strong doubts. Nevertheless, I am not discussing media.  (Icy, condescending smile)

Susan Anspach/Catherine van Oost: I think these cold, objective discussions are aggressive.

As Catherine leaves the room, Glavia rants on: There seems to be less aggression, or violence, if you like, among the higher classes, and loftier natures.

Nicholson/Bobby Dupea: You pompous celibate. You’re totally full of shit.

Great shades of Raymond Dart!  “Aggression” was a key buzzword at the time in any discussion of innate human nature.  Naturalist Konrad Lorenz had published the English version of his On Aggression a few years earlier.  Ardrey had highlighted the theories of Dart, according to which Australopithecus africanus was an aggressive hunting ape, in his African Genesis, published in 1961.  The scientific establishment, firmly in the grip of the Blank Slate ideologues, had been furiously blasting back, condemning Ardrey, Lorenz, and anyone else who dared to suggest the existence of anything as heretical as human nature as a fascist and a Nazi, not to mention very right wing.  (sound familiar?)  See, for example, the Blank Slate tract Man and Aggression, published in 1968.

I’m not sure whether producer Bob Rafelson or screenwriter Carole Eastman or both were responsible for the lines in question, but there’s no doubt about one thing – whoever wrote them had been well coached by the Blank Slaters.  Their favorite memes were all there.  The grotesque, exaggerated “Killer Ape Theory?” Check!  The socially objectionable nature of the messenger?  Check!  Their association with the “exploiting classes, or, as Samia Glavia put it, “the higher classes and loftier natures?” Check!  As a final subtle touch, the very name “Glavia” is Latin for a type of sword or spear, a weapon of “aggression.”

I’m sure there are many more of these artifacts of reality out there, awaiting discovery by some future historian bold enough to dispute the “orthodox” account of the Blank Slate.  According to that account, nothing much happened to disturb the hegemony of the Blank Slaters until E. O. Wilson turned up.  Then, as noted above, the whole charade supposedly popped like a soap bubble.  Well, as the song goes, “It ain’t necessarily so.”  Ardrey and friends had already reduced the Blank Slate to a laughing stock among the lay public long before Wilson happened along.  The “Men of Science” knew the game was up.  Still, they couldn’t bear to admit that a “mere playwright” like Ardrey had forced them to admit that the elaborate Blank Slate fairy tale they had been propping up for the last 50 years with thousands of “scientific” papers in hundreds of learned academic and professional journals was a hoax.  They needed some “graceful” way to rejoin the real world.  They seized on Wilson as the “way.”  Any port in a storm.  As a member of the academic tribe himself, he made it respectable for other “Men of Science” to disengage themselves from the Blank Slate dogmas.  Be that as it may, as anyone who was around at the time and was paying attention was aware, the man who was the real nemesis of the Blank Slate was Robert Ardrey.  If you’re looking for proof, I recommend Five Easy Pieces as both a revealing and entertaining place to start your search.

Why is all this important?  Because the Blank Slate affair was a disfiguring and corruption of the integrity of science on an unprecedented scale.  It clearly demonstrated what can happen when ideological imperatives are allowed to trump the scientific method.  For half a century and more it blocked our path to self-understanding, and with it out ability to understand and cope with some of the more destructive aspects of our nature.  Under the circumstances it might behoove us to at least get the history right.

Robert Ardrey

“On Aggression” Revisited

Once upon a time, half a century ago and more, several authors wrote books according to which certain animals, including human beings, are, at least in certain circumstances, predisposed to aggressive behavior.  Prominent among them was On Aggression, published in English in 1966 by Konrad Lorenz.  Other authors included Desmond Morris (The Naked Ape, 1967), Lionel Tiger (Men in Groups, 1969) and Robin Fox (The Imperial Animal, co-authored with Tiger, 1971).  The most prominent and widely read of all was the inimitable Robert Ardrey (African Genesis, 1961, The Territorial Imperative, 1966, The Social Contract, 1970, and The Hunting Hypothesis, 1976).  Why were these books important, or even written to begin with?  After all, the fact of innate aggression, then as now, was familiar to any child who happened to own a dog.  Well, because the “men of science” disagreed.  They insisted that there were no innate tendencies to aggression, in man or any of the other higher animals.  It was all the fault of unfortunate cultural developments back around the start of the Neolithic era, or of the baneful environmental influence of “frustration.”

Do you think I’m kidding?  By all means, read the source literature! For example, according to a book entitled Aggression by “dog expert” John Paul Scott published in 1958 by the University of Chicago Press,

All research findings point to the fact that there is no physiological evidence of any internal need or spontaneous driving force for fighting; that all stimulation for aggression eventually comes from the forces present in the external environment.

A bit later, in 1962 in a book entitled Roots of Behavior he added,

All our present data indicate that fighting behavior among the higher mammals, including man, originates in external stimulation and that there is no evidence of spontaneous internal stimulation.

Ashley Montagu added the following “scientific fact” about apes (including chimpanzees!) in his “Man and Aggression,” published in 1968:

The field studies of Schaller on the gorilla, of Goodall on the chimpanzee, of Harrison on the orang-utan, as well as those of others, show these creatures to be anything but irascible. All the field observers agree that these creatures are amiable and quite unaggressive, and there is not the least reason to suppose that man’s pre-human primate ancestors were in any way different.

When Goodall dared to contradict Montagu and report what she had actually seen, she was furiously denounced in vile attacks by the likes of Brian Deer, who chivalrously recorded in an artical published in the Sunday Times in 1997,

…the former waitress had arrived at Gombe, ordered the grass cut and dumped vast quantities of trucked-in bananas, before documenting a fractious pandemonium of the apes. Soon she was writing about vicious hunting parties in which our cheery cousins trapped colubus monkeys and ripped them to bits, just for fun.

This remarkable transformation from Montagu’s expert in the field to Deer’s “former waitress” was typical of the way “science” was done by the Blank Slaters in those days.  This type of “science” should be familiar to modern readers, who have witnessed what happens to anyone who dares to challenge the current climate change dogmas.

Fast forward to 2016.  A paper entitled The phylogenetic roots of human lethal violence has just been published in the prestigious journal Nature.  The first figure in the paper has the provocative title, “Evolution of lethal aggression in non-human mammals.”   It not only accepts the fact of “spontaneous internal stimulation” of aggression without a murmur, but actually quantifies it in no less than 1024 species of mammals!  According to the abstract,

Here we propose a conceptual approach towards understanding these roots based on the assumption that aggression in mammals, including humans, has a significant phylogenetic component. By compiling sources of mortality from a comprehensive sample of mammals, we assessed the percentage of deaths due to conspecifics and, using phylogenetic comparative tools, predicted this value for humans. The proportion of human deaths phylogenetically predicted to be caused by interpersonal violence stood at 2%.

All this and more is set down in the usual scientific deadpan without the least hint that the notion of such a “significant phylogenetic component” was ever seriously challenged.  Unfortunately the paper itself is behind Nature’s paywall, but a there’s a free review with extracts from the paper by Ed Yong on the website of The Atlantic, and Jerry Coyne also reviewed the paper over at his Why Evolution is True website.  Citing the paper Yong notes,

It’s likely that primates are especially violent because we are both territorial and social—two factors that respectively provide motive and opportunity for murder.  So it goes for humans.  As we moved from small bands to medium-sized tribes to large chiefdoms, our rates of lethal violence increased.

“Territorial and social!?”  Whoever wrote such stuff?  Oh, now I remember!  It was a guy named Robert Ardrey, who happened to be the author of The Territorial Imperative and The Social Contract.  Chalk up another one for the “mere playwright.”  Yet again, he was right, and almost all the “men of science” were wrong.  Do you ever think he’ll get the credit he deserves from our latter day “men of science?”  Naw, neither do I.  Some things are just too embarrassing to admit.