Scientific American Notices Human Nature

And speaking of Robert Ardrey, what more striking vindication of his contention that there actually is such a thing as human nature could there be than recognition of that very fact by the relentlessly politically correct Scientific American?  In fact, such recognition has appeared many times, implicitly or explicitly, in the pages of the venerable SA since the collapse of the Blank Slate orthodoxy.  The most recent example turned up in one of its sponsored blogs, The Primate Diaries, written by evolutionary anthropologist and science historian Eric Michael Johnson.  Its title, Human Nature and the Moral Economy, is itself an interesting combination of Ardreyism and the kind of ostentatious piety that has become the trademark of Scientific American.  That fact alone documents a rather dramatic change in the “moral landscape.”  In his heyday, Ardrey was the bête noire of the ostentatiously pious.  I’m not aware that SA ever even deigned to mention his work, but if it did, it was likely the sort of mention reserved for the morally suspect.  Now we find the mag referring to human nature as matter-of-factly as if it had never been doubleplusungood at all.

The theme of Johnson’s article is the “inextricable tie” between economics and moral behavior.  It is his contention that, “…anthropologists may have some insight” into showing us “how we might integrate our economic and moral values that so often appear at odds.”  Well, there are anthropologists, and then there are anthropologists.  Here Johnson isn’t referring to the left over Blank Slaters of the Marshall Sahlins school who still infest the American Anthropological Association, but the rather less common species, as exemplified in this case by Joseph Henrich and his colleagues, who embrace human nature and are exploring its interaction with culture.  According to Johnson,

The researchers’ conclusion was that altruistic punishment emerged in our species through a process of gene-culture coevolution. In other words, human psychology is biologically predisposed to enforce a system of fairness, but how much we do so depends on the culture we see reflected around us. This result was later supported by another study in 2010 that developed a model explaining how even “selfish genes” could promote altruistic traits.

Ah, yes, “biological predispositions.”  That classic Ardreyism should bring a smile to the face of those too old or too young to realize that no such man ever existed.  But the “reevaluation of values” doesn’t stop there.  Johnson continues,

…in addition to small-scale foragers or horticultural societies and those (humans) living in large industrial economies, there is considerable evidence that an innate sense of fairness exists in our closest primate relatives as well.

It boggles the mind, really.  Twenty years ago, such stuff would have landed the author in the camp of the rankest and most incorrigible heretics.  Today it trips off his tongue as if it had never been even remotely controversial.  Never fear, though, dear reader.  If Scientific American recognizes human nature, that it follows that human nature must be “Good.”  And, sure enough, we learn that “cooperation and fairness” are “in our genes” (pace Richard Lewontin).  This begs a further question:

…if it is the case that fairness and cooperation are intrinsic features of the human species (at least within groups) how can this information be used to promote a moral economy?

Here we have come full circle and returned to that warm and fuzzy world, so familiar to longtime habitués of Scientific American, in which Good and Evil objects are not just mirages, but real things, and there actually are such unicorns as “moral economies.”  Here they regain the comforting reassurance that they are “…not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers,” but can continue to sleep the sleep of the truly just.  Everything is still for the best in that best of all possible magazines.  Human nature isn’t just a grab bag of behavioral traits.  In fact, it is a magical nostrum for reforming the economy as befits the “more just, verdant, and peaceful” world favored by the editors of Scientific American.  As Johnson puts it,

Since we now know that many of the assumptions about human nature that classical economics was based upon were either wrong or woefully incomplete, it is high time that other ideas be accepted around the table. With an economic system teetering on the edge of unprecedented inequality it would be immoral not to consider other options.

At this point we have a more or less complete picture of evolution as interpreted by SA, at least as it applies to human nature.  As an aspect of that nature, morality isn’t just a subset of behavioral traits that are the end result of a random process of natural selection, and as such purposeless and without a goal.  Rather, there exists an absolute thing-in-itself, the Good, without which such statements as, “…it would be immoral not to consider other options” would be reduced to absurdities.  Morality evolved for a purpose, and it is to serve that Good!  Better yet, the editors know what that Good is.  It’s true that two earlier experiments in applying morality to economics didn’t end well; Nazism and Communism.  Never fear, though.  No doubt the diagnostics for detecting the true Good at Scientific American are much better now than anything available in those days.  We need only trust the editors to apply them to our economic system, and inequality and exploitation will be things of the past.

Robert Ardrey: Incidents in the Disappearance of an Unperson

Who was Robert Ardrey?  He was the most important, eloquent, and influential opponent of what is now referred to as the Blank Slate orthodoxy.  You don’t have to take my word for it.  The fact is documented in the major newspapers and magazines of the 60’s and 70’s, the period in which Ardrey published his four major books on the subject.  It is also documented in the testimony of his Blank Slate opponents themselves.  For example, from an essay by Geoffrey Gorer, a patron of George Orwell and a widely read psychologist of the time, entitled “Ardrey on Human Nature,”

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

…he does not distort his authorities beyond what is inevitable in any selection and condensation… even those familiar with most of the literature are likely to find descriptions of research they had hitherto ignored, particularly in The Territorial Imperative, with its bibliography of 245 items.

The above was published in a historically invaluable little collection of essays by prominent Blank Slaters entitled Man and Aggression, edited by Ashley Montagu, and published in 1968.  It was aimed primarily at Ardrey, with Nobel laureate Konrad Lorenz thrown in for good measure, and novelist William Golding added for comic relief.

For those unfamiliar with what’s been going on in the biological and behavioral sciences during the last hundred years or so, the Blank Slaters believed that there was no such thing as human nature, or, if it existed, its effect on our behavior was insignificant.  For example, from Montagu in Man and Aggression,

Mr. Ardrey deplores the rejection of “instinct” in man, and actually goes so far as to suggest that “a party line” has appeared in American science designed to perpetuate the “falsehood” that instincts do not exist in man.  Mr. Ardrey needs the concept of “open instincts,” of innate factors, to support his theorizing.  But that requirement constitutes the fatal flaw in his theory, the rift in the playwright’s lute, for 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 other words, the Blank Slaters were what might be referred to as “cultural determinists.” They believed that human behavior was exclusively, or almost exclusively, learned, and determined by culture and experience.  Ardrey referred to this as the “romantic fallacy,” and his analysis of it and of the reasons for its existence is unsurpassed to this day.  In fact, in spite of Montagu’s blustering denial, the Blank Slate did represent a prevailing orthodoxy, or “party line.”  The Blank Slaters managed to enforce this “party line,” so absurd that, as Orwell might have put it, it could only be believed by children and intellectuals, over a period of many decades, in psychology, sociology, anthropology, and the rest of the behavioral sciences in the United States, and in large measure in Europe and the rest of the world as well.  Few of them were as polite as Gorer.  For the most part, their methods consisted of the same combination of vilification and lies used against the great anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, and documented in Alice Dreger’s outstanding essay, “Darkness’s Descent on the American Anthropological Association.”

Such an impudent and obvious perversion of science couldn’t last forever.  Ardrey exposed the hoax in a brilliant and widely read series of four books that appeared in the 60’s and 70’s.  In the process, he touched on many topics which have become commonplaces in evolutionary psychology today, such as ingroup/outgroup behavior, which he referred to as the Amity/Enmity complex, altruism, the biological roots of morality, etc.  In all of his work, his major theme was that there is such a thing as human nature, and it is important.

One would think that Ardrey has been triumphantly vindicated in our own day.  The Blank Slate orthodoxy he fought so long has collapsed, and many of his ideas and theories have become familiar and widely accepted, not only in the scientific literature, but in the popular media as well.  If so, however, one would think wrong.  As Orwell wrote, “Those who control the present control the past.”  As it happens, the true historical role of Ardrey is a source of some discomfort to the scientists, academics, and public intellectuals who control the message today.  You see, he wasn’t one of their tribe.  Indeed, he was a “mere playwright.”  He may have been right, but he committed the sin of daring to think outside of their ingroup, and to shame that ingroup with the simple truth that there is such a thing as human nature at a time when most of its inmates were dead wrong on that score.  His whole career was a blatant insult to their amour-propre.  He had to be suppressed.  He became an unperson.  He was dropped down the memory hole.

The way in which history has been rewritten is sufficiently absurd, and has been the subject of some of Fate’s more amusing and ironic practical jokes.  To make a very long story short, E. O. Wilson was anointed the new “Father of Evolutionary Psychology,” for writing the same things as Ardrey more than a decade later.  A whole mythology has been invented about the various and sundry “novel theories” set forth in Wilson’s Sociobiology and On Human Nature.  In reality, the only reason both books were so widely read and achieved such notoriety was their insistence that innate behavior existed, and it applied to humans as well as other animals, themes long familiar in the work of Ardrey.  A whole decade has been erased, and today one commonly finds ludicrous assertions about the “first stirrings” of the new science of evolutionary psychology happening in the mid-1970’s.

As it happens, to the extent that any justification is ever given for the dismissal of Ardrey at all, it is often based on his embrace of group selection.  Indeed, he was impressed by the theories of group selectionist V. C. Wynne-Edwards, whose books were popular at the time, but the idea that group selection was somehow essential to the major theme of innate human nature which was central to all his work is absurd.  Nothing daunted, public intellectual Steven Pinker used the group selection red herring to dismiss the entire corpus of Ardrey’s work as “totally and utterly wrong” in the revised version of history presented in his The Blank Slate.  As I mentioned above, Fate occasionally plays some uncommonly funny practical jokes on the revisers of history.  In a perverse show of disdain for the “historical” role of “Father of Evolutionary Psychology” assigned to him by the modern puppet masters, the gallant old man has just defiantly embraced (you guessed it) group selection!  So far I haven’t been able to determine whether Wilson’s faux pas will be allowed to pass in the name of keeping up appearances.  If not, then perhaps we will see him, too, disappear down the memory hole, along with the crowning of some new and improved “Father of Evolutionary Psychology.”

Well, that should be enough to bring those who have missed some of the earlier episodes of this continuing drama up to speed.  With that, let me finally return to the incidents that are the theme of this post.  In fact, they are just a couple of data points for those who happen to take an interest in the arcane details of post-Communist techniques of transforming important historical personalities into unpersons.  Perhaps they will bring a smile to the shade of Trotsky, wherever he may be.

The first turned up in a recent interview of that courageous and recently vindicated anthropologist, Napoleon Chagnon, by Carol Iannone, that appeared in Academic Questions, the journal of the National Association of Scholars.  In a discussion of the now-familiar attacks on his work by the Blank Slaters he remarks,

By 1974 I was attempting to shed additional light on Yanomamö social and political behavior by using Sewall Wright’s widely known coefficients of relatedness and inbreeding.  As I read more work in what was emerging as “evolutionary biology,” I realized that I was trying to do what William D. Hamilton had done in a much more sophisticated way in 1962 in his two classic papers on inclusive fitness, now more widely known as “kin selection” theory.  In 1975, E. O. Wilson published his widely acclaimed book, Sociobiology, and touched off a wave of public reactions from individual academics in the social sciences, including the cynical reaction of one of my former professors, Marshall Sahlins, in a book he hastily rushed to press entitled The Use and Abuse of Biology (1976).  The distinguished English theoretical biologist, Richard Dawkins, immortalized a central argument in Sahlins book by naming it “the Sahlins Fallacy”:  that kin selection could not possibly apply to humans because most languages do not have words for the fractions needed to calculate relatedness.  That’s like saying that rocks cannot fall according to the laws of gravity because rocks cannot calculate their mass.

I – and other social scientists and anthropologists – publically defended E. O. Wilson and the academic freedom to extend the arguments of W. D. Hamilton, G. C. Williams, and other theoretical biologists in explanations of some human social behavior regardless of how antagonistic cultural anthropologists such as Sahlins were to these ideas.  And of course, this made me very unpopular among those cultural anthropologists who yet subscribe to the view that all human behavior is learned and “cultural” and none of it is the consequence of our evolutionary past.  In short, there is no such thing as “human nature” – there is just a “cultural nature.”

Here, Chagnon has embraced what I sometimes refer to as the “Big Bang Theory of Evolutionary Psychology,” the notion that, “in the beginning, the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.  And the E. O. Wilson said, ‘Let there be evolutionary psychology,’ and there was evolutionary psychology.”  It is one of the central bits of scaffolding propping up the revised history of the field.  Of course, the contention that, “In 1975, E. O. Wilson published his widely acclaimed book, Sociobiology, and touched off a wave of public reactions from individual academics in the social sciences,” is absurd.  Just buy yourself a copy of Man and Aggression for a penny, or whatever the current rate is at Amazon, and you’ll find it documented that this “wave of public reactions from individual academics in the social sciences” had already been “touched off,” at least as early as 1968, and by none other than Robert Ardrey.

I deeply admire the courage and perseverance of Chagnon, not to mention E. O. Wilson’s brilliance and defiance of academic fashion.  However, here the former is simply parroting the contrived “history” of the Blank Slate approved by his tribe.  I won’t speculate on whether he has simply never read the work of Ardrey, and, isolated among the Yanomamö, wasn’t aware of the very active controversy about human nature during the period from the publication of Ardrey’s African Genesis; A Personal Investigation into the Animal Origins and Nature of Man in 1961 to the supposed “invention” of the idea that there is such a thing as human nature by Wilson in 1975, or whether he is simply suffering from some variant of Orwellian doublethink. In any event, his comment demonstrates the extent to which the Wilson fantasy has been transmogrified into “historical fact.”  I simply set it forth as the first of my two data points touching on the disappearance of Robert Ardrey.

If, to paraphrase Marx, we can look on the first of my two anecdotes as tragedy, the second is better characterized as farce.  It turns up in an interview entitled Richard Dawkins: By the Book, that recently appeared in the New York Times.  In this ramble through Dawkins’ favorite authors, he replies to the question, “Who are your favorite contemporary writers and thinkers?” as follows:

I’ve already mentioned Dan Dennett.  I’ll add Steven Pinker, A. C. Grayling, Daniel Kahneman, Jared Diamond, Matt Ridley, Lawrence Krauss, Martin Rees, Jerry Coyne – indeed quite a few of the luminaries that grace the Edge online salon conducted by John Brockman (the Man with the Golden Address Book).  All share the same honest commitment to real-world truth, and the belief that discovering it is the business of scientists – and philosophers who take the trouble to learn science.  Many of these “Third Culture” thinkers write very well.  (Why is the Nobel Prize in Literature almost always given to a novelist, never a scientist?  Why should we prefer our literature to be about things that didn’t happen?  Wouldn’t, say, Steven Pinker be a good candidate for the literature prize?)

Yes, that would be rich indeed!  A Nobel Prize to reward a man who somehow managed to write a whole book about the Blank Slate that devoted only a single paragraph to the man the Blank Slaters themselves admitted was their most important and influential opponent, and then only to dismiss him, quoting another author, as “totally and utterly wrong.”  But wait, there’s more!  Do you know who Pinker used as his authority for the assertion that Ardrey was “totally and utterly wrong?”  You guessed it, dear reader!  It was none other than Richard Dawkins!

There’s nothing to be surprised about in all this.  The revision of history is proceeding as planned.

Robert Ardrey
Robert Ardrey

The Legacy of Leon Trotsky: How far “Left” was the “Left Opposition”?

Trotsky was a lot like Blaise Pascal.  Both were religious zealots, the former of a secular and the latter of a more traditional spiritual religion, and yet both left behind work that was both original and interesting as long as it wasn’t too closely associated with the dogmas of their respective faiths.  In Trotsky’s case, this manifested itself in some interesting intellectual artifacts that one finds scattered here and there among his books and essays.  Some of these document interesting shifts in the shibboleths that have defined “progressive” ideology over the years.  As a result, by the standards of today, one occasionally finds Trotsky on the right rather than the left of the ideological spectrum.

For example, when it comes to media of exchange, he sometimes seems to be channeling Grover Cleveland rather than William Jennings Bryan:

The raising of the productivity of labor and bettering of the quality of its products is quite unattainable without an accurate measure freely penetrating into all the cells of industry – that is, without a stable unit of currency.  Hence it is clear that in the transitional (to true socialism, ed.) economy, as also under capitalism, the sole authentic money is that based upon gold.

In the matter of gun control, Trotsky occupied a position to the “right” of Mitch McConnell:

The struggle against foreign danger necessitates, of course, in the workers’ state as in others, a specialized military technical organization, but in no case a privileged officer caste.  The party program demands a replacement of the standing army by an armed people.

The regime of proletarian dictatorship from its very beginning this ceases to be a “state” in the old sense of the word – a special apparatus, that is, for holding in subjection the majority of the people.  The material power, together with the weapons, goes over directly and immediately into the hands of the workers organizations such as the soviets.  The state as a bureaucratic apparatus begins to die away the first day of the proletarian dictatorship.  Such is the voice of the party program – not voided to this day.  Strange:  it sounds like a spectral voice from the mausoleum.

However you may interpret the nature of the present Soviet state, one thing is indubitable:  at the end of its second decade of existence, it has not only not died away, but not begun to “die away.”  Worse than that, it has grown into a hitherto unheard of apparatus of compulsion.  The bureaucracy not only has not disappeared, yielding its place to the masses, but has turned into an uncontrolled force dominating the masses.  The army not only has not been replaced by an armed people, but has given birth to a privileged officers’ caste, crowned with marshals, while the people, “the armed bearers of the dictatorship,” are now forbidden in the Soviet Union to carry even nonexplosive weapons.

Finally, Trotsky wasn’t “sophisticated” enough to buy into the Blank Slate.  For example,

Competition, whose roots lie in our biological inheritance, having purged itself of greed, envy and privilege, will indubitably remain the most important motive force of culture under communism too.

His bête noire, Stalin, used to refer to him as “traitor Trotsky” because he was the leader of the “left opposition.”  Times change, and so do ideological dogmas.  Today he would probably be more likely to find himself among the “right opportunists.”


The Strange Case of Dr. Robert Trivers

Anyone with a passing interest in evolutionary biology has heard of Dr. Robert Trivers.  He is a giant in the field, and the seminal papers he published in the 1970’s on reciprocal altruism, parental investment theory, and gene-level thinking inspired the work of the likes of Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker.  Well, I happened to look up a link for a reference to him in another post, and found to my surprise that he has been driven off the campus of Rutgers University!  He has been involved in a controversy lately over his accusation that one of his graduate students committed fraud in a scientific paper.  Apparently he was banned from campus because a colleague who supports the alleged fraudster claimed Trivers had “frightened him in his office.”

Now, I have no firsthand knowledge of any details of the case, but it does seem a bit rich that a university that tolerated a violent homophobe as basketball coach for three years would ban and humiliate an honored scientist with no history of violent or aggressive behavior because someone claimed he “frightened him.”  Amazingly, there’s almost nothing about this case on the Internet.  Here is Trivers’ side of the story:

I was involved in a case of academic fraud at Rutgers University concerning a very striking paper published in one of the top science journals of the world (Nature, 2005). I was a co-author on that paper and the head of the project in which the work took place. I was then a co-author of a short book proving that the prior paper was completely fraudulent. Indeed the chance that it was not fraudulent was less than one in ten billion.

 But a colleague who wished to preserve the results (Dr Cronk) took the opposite view. I was creating the illusion of fraud beyond one in a billion but there was actually no fraud at all. When the dust settled, I was ejected from campus, not permitted back to any of it except in the company of an armed police officer for almost five months, deprived of any contact with my two classes, then 90% complete, deprived of my research space for 20 months and found to be in violation of the University’s anti-violence policy (which can lead to suspension without pay) having done nothing more violent than call a man who had slandered and defamed me multiple times, a “punk”.

If this is true, it is certainly a high-handed abuse of authority by the Rutgers administration.  I would certainly like to hear Rutgers’ version of what happened, but can find nothing on the web.  All this didn’t happen yesterday.  Where are all the scientific heavyweights who have heaped praise on Trivers over the years?  Are their reputations too delicate for them to get involved?  They certainly don’t need to rush to judgment one way or the other, but at the very least they could insist that the public be given some rudimentary information about what’s going on.  I don’t doubt that Trivers rubs many people the wrong way.  He represents the exact opposite of the Blank Slater narrative according to which evolutionary biologists and psychologists are really all closet fascists and racists.  He was close friends with Huey Newton, former Chairman of the Black Panthers, who served as godfather for one of his children, and is a bitter enemy of Israel and supporter of the Palestinians.  However, his take on the reasons behind his punishment has the ring of truth.  In his words,

 As I later learned, my case showed many of the classic features of such cases in academia. Chiefly, there is no upside to fraud—at least not to admitting to it—the university in which the work takes place has no interest in revealing the fraud that occurs within its boundaries, nor does the journal that published the fraud.

The scientific journal claims to promote and publish the truth, but when presented with strong contrary evidence to work it has already published, it does not act at once to retract the results nor even call attention to their untrustworthiness—in fact, it often does nothing at all. Thus, a paper (Brown et al 2005 [PDF]) may easily survive un-rebutted in the literature for over seven years, accruing 127 citations, in spite of a small book (Trivers et al 2009 [PDF]) proving the fraud far beyond a reasonable doubt, yet to this day Nature refuses to publish even a reference to the book. For an account of Cronk’s early behavior regarding the fraud problem, see Chapter 12 of Trivers et al (The Anatomy of a Fraud [PDF]).

Since the work was supported by Federal funds (NSF), the rule is that when fraud is alleged concerning such work, the Institution that received the money must investigate and report back to the Federal government—otherwise the Federal government is happy to cut off ALL federally supported research until compliance is achieved. In short, Rutgers had no choice and its 27-month investigation duly confirmed that fraud was committed (RAB report 2012 [PDF]) exactly as alleged in our 2009 book.  Although Rutgers refuses to release the report publicly, I do so here because I am permitted to share copies of the report with whomever I choose. I was co-principal investigator and co-author on the fraud itself and I was co-author on a book proving the fraud. Rutgers’ official investigation merely bore out what our book showed.

Does Rutgers have a different version?  By all means let’s hear it.  Whether one agrees with his political opinions or not, Dr. Trivers has made mighty contributions to the advance of human knowledge.  If he has really deserved the punishment and humiliation meted out to him by the Rutgers officialdom, the public certainly has a right to know the reasons why.

UPDATE:  Richard Dawkins has apparently taken notice.  I also found a post by leftover Blank Slater John Horgan about a response from Trivers to one of his rants against evolutionary psychology.  According to Horgan, Trivers called it “shallow,” and accused him of “acting out the old Scientific American‘s long-standing inability to look at human sociobiology objectively.”  This at least demonstrates that Trivers hasn’t lost his originality, and ability to think outside of an ideological box.  Why?  Because in spite of the fact that he stands on the left of the political spectrum himself, it’s apparently clear to him that Scientific American is much better described as a political tract than a science journal.  He also isn’t afraid to offend the Horgan clones who still manage to maintain the ancient orthodoxy that there is no such thing as human nature in some of the more sequestered echo chambers of academia.  Perhaps this explains why it has been necessary for him, so far at least, to fight this battle alone.


Napoleon Chagnon’s “Noble Savages” – The Life of an Anthropological Heretic

Supposedly Otto von Bismarck once said, “Laws are like sausages.  It is better not to see them being made.”  The same could as well be said of science.  However, for those who insist on watching the process, Napoleon Chagnon’sNoble Savages” is a must read.  The book relates the author’s experiences as an anthropologist, a field long dominated by a particularly unsavory crew of sausage makers.  Indeed, there is some question about whether they ever intended to make any real sausages at all.  Instead, for many decades now, they have been busily engaged in concocting imaginary ones, which have the advantage of tasting much better than the real ones.  In point of fact, they don’t invent sausages, but human beings, which, unlike the real ones, are never aggressive, and always nice.  One might refer to them as Homo nihilum.

Chagnon was never cut out to be one of these fanciful anthropologists.  He lacked imagination.  On top of that, he was naive.  In a word, he told the truth.  Chagnon devoted his career to studying the Yanomamö, an indigenous people of South America.  It was obvious to him from the start that they were not particularly nice, and were decidedly not invariably benign and unaggressive.  He lacked the skills that are carefully acquired by most anthropologists, such as the ability, when one holds up four fingers in front of their face, to truly believe that they are seeing five.  In a word, he had the bad taste to blurt out what he had seen in learned journals and academic conferences.  This unwonted candor so shocked his fellow anthropologists that they actually began acting like Yanomamö themselves, confirming some of Chagnon’s hypotheses in the process; they reacted with furious hostility and aggression towards a perceived member of an outgroup.  The shibboleth of human “niceness” that Chagnon had so clumsily demolished happened to be one of the main ideological props, not only of their ingroup, but of the ingroup of a whole host of related ideologues as well.  In their alternative universe, humans are never, ever naturally aggressive.  The somewhat discordant fact that warfare has been a ubiquitous feature of human existence since before the dawn of recorded time is explained away as merely the unfortunate artifact of some pathological derailing of human culture in the distant past.  In order for us all to become “nice” again, all we need to do is eliminate these pernicious cultural engrams from our brains by such time-honored techniques as denying the obvious.  Ironically, their furious and ruthless attacks on Chagnon provided a perfect example of the very behavior they were so determined to deny.  They debunked their own myth.  As Chagnon put it,

This virtual Noble Savage is a construct based on faith:  in that respect anthropology has become more like a religion – where major truths are established by faith, not facts.


Despite the skepticism widely shared in the now politically correct anthropological profession, the ethnographic and archaeological evidence overwhelmingly indicates that warfare has been the most important single force shaping the evolution of political society in our species.

Having so egregiously upset the apple cart by observing that human beings are not necessarily all that “nice” after all, Chagnon could not leave well enough alone.  Instead, he rubbed salt in the wound.  As any good progressive can tell you, such human conflict as does exist must be caused by “greed” for money, property, and related appurtenences of the social means of production.  Alas, it turns out that this notion, too, belongs in the realm of faith, not facts.  In the author’s words,

Conflicts over the possession of nubile females have probably been the main reason for fights and killings throughout most of human history:  the original human societal rules emerged, in all probability, to regulate male access to females and prevent the social chaos attendant on fighting over women.

I suggest that conflicts over the means of reproduction – women – dominated the political machinations of men during a vast span of human history and shaped human male psychology.  It was only after polygyny became “expensive” that these conflicts shifted to material resources – the “gold and diamonds” my incredulous colleagues alluded to – and the material means of production.  By that time, after the agricultural revolution, the accummulation of wealth – and its consequence, power – had become a prerequisite to having multiple mates.

Chagnon simply would not desist.  Next, he went after another of the favorite sacred cows of the “progressives”; the notion of egalitarianism:

Pre-state societies – tribesmen like the Yanomamö – are described by many anthropologists as egalitarian:  everyone is more or less interchangeable with any other person of the same age and same sex, so status differentials are essentially determined by age, sex, and occasionally the ephemeral characteristics of leaders.  This is definitely not the case among the Yanomamö.  If my teachers (and anthropology textbooks) got anything wrong, it was their misunderstanding of the notion of egalitarianism:  they stubbornly insisted on tying it to “differential access to material resources.”  Among the Yanomamö, tribesmen differ in their ability to command and order others around because of differing numbers of kinsmen they can deploy in their service, whether they are unokai (men who have killed or been involved in a killing), and other nonmaterial attributes.


The traditional anthropological view of egalitarianism is remarkably Eurocentric and ethnocentric, that is, the argument that tribesmen are egalitarian because nobody has “privileged” access to “strategic” material resources.  Such a view erroneously projects our own political and economic views into the Stone Age.

Perhaps the most unforgivable sin of all was Chagnon’s embrace of sociobiology/evolutionary psychology.  As he put it,

Our training had emphasized the role that culture played in human social relationships while completely ignoring the evolution of human behavior.  The view from anthropology was that psychologists studied human behavior and anthropologists studied culture.  Ever since Durkheim, cultural anthropology was skeptical about not only psychology and biology, but any theory that emphasized the biological underpinnings of behavior.

He goes on to describe his own embrace of what is known to the layman as human nature, and the furious attacks such ideas drew from the ideological zealots of the “progressive” left, noting,

One of the pro-sociobiology participants that I frequently ran into at these debates, Robert Trivers, said to me at one of them:  “I’ve finally figured out what they mean by a ‘balanced’ debate.  For every clear demonstration of how effective a sociobiological explanation is of some phenomenon, it must be ‘balanced’ by a completely nonsensical appeal to B.S., emotions, and political correctness.

Of course, this particular flavor of ideologically inspired obscurantism is known to aficionados as the Blank Slate episode in the behavioral sciences.  It is interesting how his status as, in spite of his heresies, a member of the academic tribe, has shaped Chagnon’s consciousness of the affair.  For example, he is unfamiliar with anything that happened before E. O. Wilson’s publication of Sociobiology in 1975, has apparently never read Robert Ardrey and is unaware of his significance, particularly in shaping the consciousness of a large audience outside of academia, and seems unaware that, for the time being at least, the Blank Slaters have lost control of the message outside of the ivory towers.  For example, the “mainstream media” has embraced the basic premises of evolutionary psychology as if there had never been the least controversy about the subject.  This was decidedly not the case in the 1980’s and 90’s.  Furthermore, Chagnon seems to think that Blank Slate ideology was less pervasive in other branches of the behavioral sciences, such as psychology, than in cultural anthropology.  This was certainly not the case in the United States, though it may have been true to some extent in Europe and elsewhere.  In a word, he takes a very cultural anthropology-centric view of the affair.  As a  result he can certainly see clearly enough what’s going on in his own field.  However, the impact of the Blank Slate orthodoxy transcends any one academic baliwick, and he may not see this big picture quite as well.

In any case, all these heresies goaded the ideologues who called the tune in anthropology into a frenzy.  As usual, they were none too picky about the ways they chose to strike back.  There were, of course, the usual accusations of racism and fascism, and the familiar bowdlerization of anything faintly smacking of evolutionary psychology as “genetic determinism.” A collection of slanders was published by a particularly vile reptile by the name of Patrick Tierney and, to its eternal shame, was uncritically received by the august members of the American Anthropological Association.  Those interested in the details of this episode are encouraged to read, “Darkness’s Descent on the American Anthropological Association,” by Alice Dreger.  The attacks continue unabated to this day.  A typical example of the genre, full of the usual pious grandstanding, by one Lori Allen, another “expert” who was never there may be found here.  By all means read her essay.  After you reach the 99th ad hominem attack on Chagnon, it may start to dawn on you why I insist on the importance of understanding morality for what it really is.  In general, people like Ms. Allen can no more justify the legitimacy of their copious striking of pious poses than the man in the moon.

In the end, Chagnon had the consolation of being elected to the National Academy of Sciences, at which one of his more persistent attackers, Martin Sahlins, resigned.  Good riddance!  May many more of Sahlins’ fellow obscurantists pursue the same course.  It reminds me of the words from my favorite German version of Haydns Creation, after God says, “Let there be light!” (see Google translate.  The original libretto was actually in English, but I like the German translation a lot better)

Erstarrt entflieht der Höllengeister Schar
In des Abgrunds Tiefen hinab
Zur ewigen Nacht.

Verzweiflung, Wut und Schrecken
Begleiten ihren Sturz,
Und eine neue Welt
Entspringt auf Gottes Wort.

I may be an atheist, but sometimes a good oratorio hits the spot.  Other than that, I can only say I admire Chagnon for his courage, both in enduring the rage of his fellow “scientists,” and in working in conditions in which his life and safety were anything but secure for many years in the pursuit of knowledge.  And, by all means, read the book.

UPDATE:  Hattip to her ladyship for the hbd-chick-lanche.  😉

Napoleon Chagnon and Robert Ardrey

History.  You don’t know the half of it.  Not, at least, unless you have the time and patience to do a little serious digging through the source material on your own.  A good percentage of the so called works of history that have appeared in the last 50 years have been written by journalists.  Typically, these take the form of moral homilies in which the author takes great care to insure the reader can tell the good guys from the bad guys.  They are filled with wooden caricatures, crude simplifications, pious observations, and are almost uniformly worthless.  The roles are periodically reversed.  For example, Coolidge, universally execrated by all right-thinking intellectuals in the 1930’s, has just been stood upright again in a new biographical interpretation by Amity ShlaesCharles Rappleye, one of my personal favorites among the current crop of historians, documents how Robert Morris morphed from good guy to bad guy back to good guy again in the fascinating epilogue to his biography of the great financier of our War of Independence.

Occasionally, major historical figures don’t fit into anyone’s version of the way things were supposed to be.  In that case, they just disappear.  Robert Ardrey is a remarkable instance of this form of collective historical amnesia.  Ardrey was, by far, the most effective opponent of the Blank Slate.   For those unfamiliar with the term, the Blank Slate was an ideologically induced malady that enforced a rigid orthodoxy in the behavioral sciences for several decades.   According to that orthodoxy, there was no such thing as human nature, or, if there was, it was insignificant.  The Blank Slate was bound to seem ridiculous to anyone with an ounce of common sense.  In a series of four books, beginning with African Genesis in 1961 and ending with The Hunting Hypothesis in 1976, Ardrey pointed out exactly why it was ridiculous, and what motivated its adherents to maintain the charade in spite of the fact.  They have been fighting a furious rearguard action ever since.  It has been futile.  Ardrey broke the spell.  The Blank Slate Humpty Dumpty was smashed for good.

Enter Napoleon Chagnon.  The great cultural anthropologist has just published his Noble Savages, in which he recounts his experiences among the Yanomamö of South America.  Over the years, he, too, has fallen afoul of the Blank Slaters for telling the truth instead of adjusting his observations to conform with their ideological never never land.  He, too, has been the victim of their vicious ad hominem attacks.  One would think he would revere Ardrey as a fellow sufferer at the hands of the same pious ideologues.  If so, however, one would think wrong.  Chagnon mentions Ardrey only once, in the context of a discussion of his own early run-ins with the Blank Slaters, as follows:

My field research and analytical approach were part of what anthropologist Robin Fox and sociologist Lionel Tiger referred to as the “zoological perspective” in the social sciences, a reawakening of interest in man’s evolved nature as distinct from his purely cultural nature.

For the record, Fox and Tiger were unknowns as far as the “reawakening in man’s evolved nature as distinct from his purely cultural nature” is concerned until they published The Imperial Animal in 1971.  By that time, Ardrey had published all but the last of his books.  Konrad Lorenz had also published his On Aggression in 1966, five years earlier.  The Imperial Animal was an afterthought, published long after the cat was already out of the bag.  At the time it appeared, it impressed me as shallow and lacking the intellectual insight needed to grasp the ideological reasons for the emergence of the Blank Slate orthodoxy.  Chagnon continues,

I hadn’t fully realized in the late 1960s that the mere suggestion that Homo sapiens had any kind of “nature” except a “cultural nature” caused most cultural anthropologists to bristle.  What Tiger and Fox – and a small but growing number of scientific anthropologists – were interested in was the question of how precisely evolution by natural selection – Darwin’s theory of evolution – affected Homo sapiens socially, behaviorally, and psychologically.

Long-term studies of nonhuman primates and primate social organizations were affecting cultural anthropology.  Many earlier anthropological “truths” were beginning to crumble, such as claims that Homo sapiens alone among animals shared food, made tools, or cooperated with other members of the group who were genetically closely related.  More generally, findings from the field of ethology and animal behavior were beginning to work their way into the literature of anthropology.  Predictably, cultural anthropologists began to resist these trends, often by denigrating the academics who were taking the first steps in that direction or by attempting to discredit the emerging contributions by criticizing the most sensational work, often by nonexperts (for example, Robert Ardrey’s African Genesis).

So much for Robert Ardrey.  His shade should smile.  Chagnon’s rebuke of “sensationalism” is positively benign compared to Steven Pinker’s declaration that Ardrey was “totally and utterly wrong” in his book, The Blank Slate.  Both charges, however, are equally ridiculous.  Pinker’s “totally and utterly wrong” was taken on hearsay from Richard Dawkins, who based the charge on, of all things, Ardrey’s kind words about group selection.  The idea that the Blank Slaters attacked Ardrey as an easy target because of his “sensationalism” is also nonsense.  By their own account, they attacked him because he was their most influential and effective opponent, and continued as such from the time he published African Genesis at least until the appearance of E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology in 1976.   Why the dismissive attitude?  Call it academic tribalism.  The fact that the “nonexpert” Ardrey had been right, and virtually all the “experts” of his time wrong, has always been a bitter pill for today’s “experts” to swallow.  It is a lasting insult to their amour propre.  They have been casting about trying to prop up one of their own as the “true” dragon slayer of the Blank Slate ever since.  Until recently, the knight of choice has been E. O. Wilson, whose Sociobiology, another afterthought that appeared a good 15 years after African Genesis, was supposedly the “seminal work” of today’s evolutionary psychology.  Alas, to the bitter disappointment of the tribe, Wilson, too, just embraced the group selection heresy that made Ardrey “totally and utterly wrong” in his latest book, The Social Conquest of Earth.  No doubt it will now be necessary to find a new “father of evolutionary psychology.”  In my humble opinion, the choice of Tiger and Fox would be in poor taste.  Surely the tribe can do better.

And what of Ardrey?  He was certainly sensational enough.  How could he not be?  After all, a man whose reputation had been gained as a playwright thoroughly debunking all the “experts” in anthropology and the rest of the behavioral sciences was bound to be sensational.  He was a man of many hypotheses.  Anyone trolling through his work today would have no trouble finding other reasons to triumphantly declare him “totally and utterly wrong.”  However, let’s look at the record of the most important of those hypotheses, many of which had been posed by other forgotten men long before Ardrey.

The fact that human nature exists and is important:  Ardrey 1, experts 0

The fact that hunting became important early in human evolution:  Ardrey 1, experts 0

The fact that humans tend to perceive others in terms of ingroups and outgroups:  Ardrey 1, experts 0

Understanding of the ideological origin of the Blank Slate:  Ardrey 1, experts 0

Realization that the behavioral traits we associate with morality are shared with animals:  Ardrey 1, experts 0

The list goes on.  Ardrey set forth these hypotheses in the context of what the Blank Slaters themselves praised as masterful reviews of the relevant work in anthropology and animal ethology at the time.  See for example, the essays by Geoffrey Gorer that appeared in Man and Aggression, a Blank Slater manifesto published in 1968.  And yet, far from being celebrated as a great man who did more than any other to debunk what is arguably one of the most damaging lies ever foisted on mankind, Ardrey is forgotten.  As George Orwell once said, “He who controls the present controls the past.”  The academics control the message, and Ardrey is dead.  They have dropped him down the memory hole.  Such is history.  As I mentioned above, you don’t know the half of it.

Robert Ardrey
Robert Ardrey

Not All Cultural Anthropologists are Evil!

Yes, it’s true, there are a lot of leftover Blank Slaters around.  They live on in the hermetically sealed halls of academia as sort of a light echo of the Marxist supernova.  Still, I count myself lucky to have witnessed the smashing of the absurd orthodoxy they once imposed on the behavioral sciences.  Few people pay any attention to them anymore outside of their own echo chambers.  That makes it all the more refreshing to see shoots of new life sprouting in the once desiccated wasteland of cultural anthropology.

Consider, for example, the work of anthropologist Joe Henrich, currently a professor of psychology and economics at the University of British Columbia.  As a young graduate student in 1995, Henrich landed in Peru and began studying the Machiguenga, an indigenous people who live by hunting and small-scale farming.  In the process, he turned up some very interesting data on the importance of culture in human affairs.  As noted in an article entitled, We Aren’t the World, that appeared recently in the Pacific Standard,

While the setting was fairly typical for an anthropologist, Henrich’s research was not. Rather than practice traditional ethnography, he decided to run a behavioral experiment that had been developed by economists. Henrich used a “game”—along the lines of the famous prisoner’s dilemma—to see whether isolated cultures shared with the West the same basic instinct for fairness. In doing so, Henrich expected to confirm one of the foundational assumptions underlying such experiments, and indeed underpinning the entire fields of economics and psychology: that humans all share the same cognitive machinery—the same evolved rational and psychological hardwiring.

The particular game that Henrich used was the Ultimatum Game (click on the hyperlink for a description), and as the data accumulated, it revealed some rather profound behavioral differences between the Machiguenga and the average North American or European.  Again quoting from the Pacific Standard article,

To begin with, the offers from the first player were much lower. In addition, when on the receiving end of the game, the Machiguenga rarely refused even the lowest possible amount. “It just seemed ridiculous to the Machiguenga that you would reject an offer of free money,” says Henrich. “They just didn’t understand why anyone would sacrifice money to punish someone who had the good luck of getting to play the other role in the game.”

Obviously, “the same evolved rational and psychological hardwiring” was not the most parsimonious explanation for this “anomaly.”  It was, of course, culture.  As Henrich and his collaborators continued their research,

…they began to find research suggesting wide cultural differences almost everywhere they looked: in spatial reasoning, the way we infer the motivations of others, categorization, moral reasoning, the boundaries between the self and others, and other arenas. These differences, they believed, were not genetic. The distinct ways Americans and Machiguengans played the ultimatum game, for instance, wasn’t because they had differently evolved brains.

As they say, read the whole thing.  I find stories like this tremendously encouraging.  Why?  In none of Henrich’s papers that I have looked at to date is there any suggestion that anyone who disagrees with him is either a racist or a fascist.  In none of them do I detect that he has an ideological ax to grind.  In none of them do I detect an implicit rejection of anything smacking of evolutionary psychology.  Quite the contrary!  In a conversation with an interviewer from, for example, Henrich explicitly embraces human nature, suggesting that its evolution was driven by culture.  For example, from the interview,

Another area that we’ve worked on is social status. Early work on human status just took humans to have a kind of status that stems from non-human status. Chimps, other primates, have dominant status. The assumption for a long time was that status in humans was just a kind of human version of this dominant status, but if you apply this gene-culture co-evolutionary thinking, the idea that culture is one of the major selection pressures in human evolution, you come up with this idea that there might be a second kind of status. We call this status prestige.


A commitment to something like anti-nepotism norms is something that runs against our evolutionary inclinations and our inclinations to help kin and to invest in long-term close relationships, but it’s crucial for making a large-scale society run. Corruption, things like hiring your brother-in-law and feathering the nest of your close friends and relatives is what really tears down and makes complex societies not work very well. In this sense, the norms of modern societies that make modern societies run now are at odds with at least some of our evolved instincts.

I love that reference to “evolved instincts.”  Back in the day the Blank Slaters used to dismiss anyone who used the term “instinct” in connection with humans as a troglodyte.  “Instincts” were for insects.  Humans might (but almost certainly did not) have “predispositions.”  Politicians and debaters are familiar with the gambit.  It’s basically a form of intellectual one-upmanship.  Of course, neither then or now was anyone ever confused by the use of the term “instinct.”  Everyone knew perfectly well in the heyday of the Blank Slate what those who used it were talking about, just as they do now in the context of Henrich’s interview.  The pecksniffery associated with its use was more or less equivalent to a physicist striking intellectual poses because someone he disagreed with used the term “work” or “power” in a matter different from their definitions in scientific textbooks.

In short, the work published by Henrich et. al. does not appear to conform to some ideological party line in the interest of some future utopia.  It’s intent does not appear to be the enabling of pious poses by the authors as “saviors” of indigenous people.  One actually suspects they have written it because it is what they have observed and believe to be the truth!

This sort of work is not only very refreshing, but very necessary.  Science advances by way of hypotheses, or what some have called “just so stories.”  Truth is approached by the relentless criticism and testing of these “just so stories.”  The havoc wrought in the field of cultural anthropology and many of the other behavioral sciences by the zealots of failed secular religions destroyed their credibility, greatly impairing their usefulness as a source of criticism and testing for the hypotheses of evolutionary psychology, which have been proliferating in such abundance of late.  Work like this may eventually restore some semblance of balance.  It’s high time.  There is no form of knowledge more important to our species than self-knowledge.  It is not hyperbole to say that our survival may depend on it.



E. O. Wilson vs. Jerry Coyne: The Group Selection Wars Continue

A few days ago E. O. Wilson published a bit in The New York Times entitled The Riddle of the Human Species.  Wilson, of course, is a fine writer and a great thinker who’s books include, among others, the seminal Sociobiology.  He has been referred to as the “Father of Evolutionary Psychology,” or was, at least, until he challenged some academic orthodoxies in his latest, The Social Conquest of Earth.  Among the most egregious of these was his defense of group selection, a subject with a fascinating history which I have often discussed in this blog.  Basically, the group selection hypothesis is that natural selection of certain traits occurred because it favored the survival of groups, even though those traits were either neutral or detrimental to the survival of individuals.  This drew a chorus of boos from the likes of Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker, who have more or less staked their reputations on the assertion that group selection never happened or, if it did, it wasn’t important.  There’s really nothing new in Wilson’s latest bit.  He basically reiterates the themes of his latest book, including group selection.  This again drew the predictable catcalls from the Dawkins/Pinker camp.  One of them was penned by Jerry Coyne, proprieter of the blog, Why Evolution is True.  I certainly agree with his take on evolution, but I found some of the arguments in his response to Wilson’s latest risable.

Coyne writes,

So it’s sad to see him, at the end of his career, repeatedly flogging a discredited theory (“group selection”: evolution via the differential propagation and extinction of groups rather than genes or individuals) as the most important process of evolutionary change in humans and other social species. Let me back up: group selection is not “discredited,” exactly; rather, it’s not thought to be an important force in evolution.  There’s very little evidence that any trait (in fact, I can’t think of one, including cooperation) has evolved via the differential proliferation of groups.

Here Coyne does a complete 180 in a single paragraph, making the bombastic claim that group selection is discredited and then doing a quick rowback to the more prosaic, “Well, maybe not quite.”  There may be very little evidence that any trait evolved via group selection, as Coyne suggests, but there’s very little evidence that those that might have evolved via group selection didn’t, either.  Coyne continues,

I’ve covered this issue many times (e.g., here, here, here, here, and here), so I won’t go over the arguments again. Wilson’s “theory” that group selection is more important than kin selection in the evolution of social behavior (published in Nature with Martin Nowak and Corina Tarnita) was criticized strongly by 156 scientists—including virtually every luminary in social evolution—in five letters to the editor, and sentiment about the importance of group selection has, if anything, decreased since Wilson’s been pushing it.

This is the classic “50 billion flies can’t be wrong” argument, or, in more polite parlance, the argument from authority.  Coyne knows that it is just as flimsy as the claim that group selection is a “discredited theory,” but this time he takes a bit longer to do a 180, writing near the very end of his bit,

His theories have not gained traction in the scientific community. That doesn’t mean that they’re wrong, for, in the end, scientific truth is decided by experiment and observation, not by the numbers of people initially on each side of an issue.

If that’s the case, why bring up the “156 scientists” argument to begin with?  If memory serves, there were very few “experts” in the behavioral sciences who didn’t at least pay lip service to the Blank Slate orthodoxy until a very few decades ago.  Did that make it right?  Coyne next takes Wilson to task for his “inaccurate” use of the term “eusociality”:

“Eusociality” as defined by Wilson and every other evolutionist is the condition in which a species has a reproductive and social division of labor: eusocial species have “castes” that do different tasks, with a special reproductive caste (“queens”) that do all the progeny producing, and “worker castes” that are genetically sterile and do the tending of the colony. Such species include Hymenoptera (ants, wasps and bees, though not all species are eusocial), termites, naked mole rats, and some other insects.

But humans don’t have reproductive castes, nor genetically determined worker castes.  Wilson is going against biological terminology, lumping humans with ants as “eusocial,” so he can apply his own theories of “altruism” in social insects (i.e., workers “unselfishly” help their mothers produce offspring while refraining themselves from reproducing), to humans.

Here, one can but smile and wonder if Coyne is actually serious.  Is he really unaware that, while he may not have actually coined the term “eusociality,” Wilson supplied the first scientific definition for it?  Is he no longer allowed to use a term that he essentially invented as he sees fit?  The presence of “castes” is by no means universally accepted as a requirement for eusociality in any case.

As it happens, Wilson is co-author with Martin Nowak and Corina Tarnita of a paper presenting a mathematical theory of group selection entitled, The Evolution of Eusociality. Alluding to this, Coyne writes,

The mathematical “proof” given by Nowak et al. does not show that group selection is a better explanation than kin selection for social behavior in insects, for their “proof” does not vary the level of kinship, as it must if it could allow that conclusion.

This begs the question of whether alternative mathematical “proofs” of kin selection are any better.  To this, as one who has spent a good part of his career as a computational physicist, I can only laugh.  Consider the case of the National Ignition Facility (NIF), built to demonstrate inertial confinement fusion.  The finest three-dimensional full physics codes, amply benchmarked with the results of previous experiments on earlier giant laser facilities such as Nova at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and OMEGA at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics at the University of Rochester, confidently predicted that the NIF would succeed in achieving its ignition goal.  It did not.  It is currently short of that goal by more than an order of magnitude.  Trust me, the mathematical models that are supposed to “prove” group selection or kin selection are hopelessly crude by comparison.  They can all be taken with a grain of salt.  Coyne continues,

The second egregious and false claim in this paragraph (a paragraph that’s the highlight of the piece) is that “multilevel selection is gaining in favor among evolutionary biologists” because of the Nowak et al. paper. That’s simply not true.  The form of multilevel selection adumbrated in that paper is, to my knowledge, embraced by exactly four people: the three authors of the paper and David Sloan Wilson.

Here, I can but suggest that Coyne try Google, using the search term “group selection.”  It would seem based on a cursory search that there are rather more embracers of group selection than he imagined.  Coyne concludes,

Why does Wilson keep writing article and article, and book after book, promoting group selection? I’m not a psychologist, so I don’t know the answer. What I do know, though, is that his seeming monomaniacal concentration on a weakly-supported form of evolution can serve only to erode his reputation… Wilson’s reputation is secure. It’s sad to see it tarnished by ill-founded arguments for an unsubstantiated evolutionary process.

What, exactly, is this supposed to be?  A thinly veiled threat?  If not, how else is one to construe it?  Is Coyne suggesting that Wilson either repeat orthodoxies about group selection that he clearly believes to be false, or, alternatively, shut up and surrender his freedom of speech because he’s worried about his precious reputation?  It brings to mind my own furious denunciation of Aristotle in my 9th grade biology class for promoting wrong theories of cosmology.  My teacher, Mr. Haag, who was much wiser than I deserved, observed, “Well, at least he thought.”  I’ve thought a great deal about that reply since the 9th grade.  To this day I have no idea whether group selection was really important or not, and don’t believe that anyone else has adequate evidence to decide the question one way or the other, either.  However, regardless, I will always honor and admire E. O. Wilson.  At least he thought.

Alas Poor Evolutionary Psychology: Take 2

Back in 2002, Robert Kurzban, who writes a blog for the journal Evolutionary Psychology, wrote a review of Alas, Poor Darwin:  Arguments Against Evolutionary Psychology, by Steven and Hilary Rose.  The Roses, ideological zealots and leftover Blank Slaters who have devoted their careers to scientific obscurantism, had regurgitated all the usual specious arguments against human nature, which had already become hackneyed by that time.  Anyone with a passing interest in human behavior likely knows most of them by heart.  They include the claim that the hypotheses of EP are unfalsifiable, that evolutionary explanations of human behavior serve evil political ends rather than science, etc. etc., usually topped off with that most ancient and threadbare red herring of them all, that anyone who dares to say anything nice about EP is a “genetic determinist.”  In his review, entitled, “Alas Poor Evolutionary Psychology:  Unfairly Accused, Unjustly Condemned,” Kurzban demolishes them all in turn, writing in his conclusion,

There are now a collection of dialogues in the popular press between evolutionary psychologists and their critics. The discussions all seem to have the same form: Critics assert that evolutionary psychologists are wrong in believing behavior is genetically determined, that every aspect of the organism is an adaptation, and that discovering what is informs what ought be. Evolutionary psychologists reply that they never made any of these claims, and document places where they claim precisely the reverse. The critics then reply that evolutionary psychologists are wrong in believing behavior is genetically determined, that every aspect of the organism is an adaptation, and that discovering what is informs what should be.

The contradictions between what evolutionary psychologists have said and what their critics have said they said are as clear as they are infuriating. All of the correctives that I have presented here have been discussed before, and all of them are in the pieces cited by the critics of evolutionary psychology. It is unfathomable how the Roses and the other contributors to Alas Poor Darwin could have come away from the primary literature with their impressions of genetic determinism, panglossian adaptationism, and so on.

I suspect that Kurzban fathomed the reasons well enough, even then.  Such attacks on EP are not scientific refutations, but propaganda, designed to prop up pseudo-religious ideological shibboleths that happen to be badly out of step with reality.  Even then, they already had all the familiar trappings of propaganda, including the “Big Lie”; endless repetition while studiously ignoring counter-arguments.  Nothing has changed in the ensuing decade.  “Genetic determinism” is still as much a fixture in the screeds of left-over Blank Slaters as ever.  Pointing out the absurdity of the charge is as futile as trying to refute the charge of “fascism” by carefully explaining the theory of the corporate state.  Razib Khan, who writes the Gene Expression blog for Discover magazine, notes that he was just denounced as a “genetic determinist” for daring to even question the scientific credentials of cultural anthropologists, in a couple of posts that didn’t so much as take up the question of the connection between genes and behavior.

All this points up a fact that is as true now as it was in the days of Galileo.  “Science,” understood as a disinterested and cautious search for truth inspired by a spirit of skepticism, can still be as easily derailed by secular religious zealots as it was by the more traditional “spiritual” variety who intimidated Galileo and still fume against Darwin.  The puerile myths of the Blank Slate represented the prevailing orthodoxy in the behavioral “sciences” for decades, propped up, not by a tolerant and open spirit of academic freedom, but by vilification and intimidation of anyone who dared to step out of line.  Evolutionary psychologists are hardly the only victims, but they are probably the most prominent.  They have the misfortune of representing an idea that happens to tread on far more ideological toes than most.  Blank Slate orthodoxy is hardly unique in that regard.

For example, one of the common hypotheses of evolutionary psychology that there may be an innate component of human morality immediately elicits a “territorial defense” response from the legions of those who spend their time devising new moral systems for the edification of mankind.  Most of them spend their time cobbling elaborate proofs of the existence of the Good just as their intellectual forebears once concocted proofs of the existence of God.  Consider, for example, the case of the author of the Atheist Ethicist blog, who has demonstrated that, because a equals b and b equals c, it therefore follows that anyone who dares to claim that there is “an evolutionary basis for morality” is immoral.  To make a long story short, the “ethicist” believes that those insidious evolutionary psychologists are not limiting themselves to studying the “is” of human moral behavior, but have a disquieting tendency to lap over into the “ought,” a territory which he has reserved for himself and his revolutionary moral system of “desire utilitarianism.”  He does not actually name any specific examples of the most egregious of these evildoers, but no doubt we can trust him given his unique moral qualifications.

It isn’t difficult to find similar examples illustrating why the ideologically inspired find EP such a tempting target.  However, the fact that it is is a stroke of very bad luck for our species.  After all, EP is a field devoted to expanding our understanding of our selves, and there is no more critical knowledge than self-knowledge.  For example, what if the greed of evil corporations, or the imperialist pretentions of certain uniquely evil races, or “frustration” don’t turn out to be completely adequate and all-encompassing explanations of human warfare after all?  Is it really possible to know with absolute certainty that innate behavioral traits play no role whatsoever?  If they do, the failure to discover and understand them may threaten our very survival.  I happen to prefer survival to the alternative.  For that reason, it seems to me that the time for refuting such charges as “genetic determinism” with patient, reasoned arguments is past.  It is high time to begin fighting back against the ideological zealots with the same weapons they have long been using against their victims.

Carroll Quigley’s Book Review: “Scientific Criticism” in the Heyday of the Blank Slate

The importance of self-understanding seems self-evident.  Our species is quite capable of committing suicide.  If we can learn why it is we tend to behave in some ways and not in others, our chances of avoiding that fate will be much improved.  That’s why it’s a matter of no small concern that the behavioral sciences were hijacked over a period of several decades by ideological zealots, who succeeded in imposing the false orthodoxy that human nature doesn’t matter; the so-called Blank Slate.  In spite of the obvious significance of these events, very little effort has been devoted to understanding why and how they happened, and how they might be prevented from happening again.  I can think of nothing more important for the behavioral sciences to study and understand than the reasons for their own ideologically induced collapse.  So far, however, very little is happening along those lines.  Anthropologists, psychologists, and sociologists are cheerfully churning out books and papers about evolved human nature as if the whole episode never happened, in spite of the fact that much of it took place within living memory.

In fact, the manner in which the false orthodoxy was imposed had nothing to do with science.  It was accomplished by people who were, for all practical purposes, religious zealots, using the time-tested methods that have always been used to impose orthodoxy; vilification, psychological terrorism, ad hominem attacks, and self-righteous posing.  The only difference between the zealots of the Blank Slate and more traditional religious fanatics was the secular rather than spiritual nature of the gods they served.

I recently ran across an interesting example of genre fossilized on the Internet.  It took the form of an attack on Robert Ardrey, bête noir of the Blank Slaters of his day, and the most effective and influential opponent they ever had to deal with.  It was couched in the form of a book review written by one Carroll Quigley, a professor of history at Georgetown.  The work in question was Ardrey’s The Social Contract, and all the usual gambits are there; the assumption of superior scientific gravitas, the dismissal of opponents as “pop psychologists,” the copious invention of strawmen, topped off with moralistic posing and denunciations of the “sins” of the unbelievers.

Quigley begins with his version of the “pop psychology” canard:

…in this book there is no more science than there is in a comic strip.  As an entertainer, Ardrey is the Scheherazade of the present day, telling tales about strange animals, in far off places and in remote times, with every assurance that they are true, but, like the Arabian Nights, it is foolish to worry about how true they are, they are so unbelievable and so glib.

That would have been news to the people whose work Ardrey quoted.  They were usually chosen from among the most well-known and respected researchers of their day, who described the behavior of animals that, far from being far off or remote, were often quite common.  Geoffrey Gorer, himself a Blank Slater, but one who managed to preserve some semblance of common decency, observed that,

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

…he does not distort his authorities beyond what is inevitable in any selection and condensation… even those familiar with most of the literature are likely to find descriptions of research they had hitherto ignored, particularly in The Territorial Imperative, with its bibliography of 245 items.

It’s not clear why Quigley thought he was qualified to lecture Ardrey on animal behavior in the first place.  He certainly had no claim to expertise in the field.  However, he so distorted what Ardrey had to say on the subject that his expertise was irrelevant in any case.  For example, he writes,

It is true that Ardrey has read a great deal about animal behavior, but he never seems to grasp what it all means, and his biases prevent him from seeing what is really there. For example, he gives the impression that he is constantly exploring Africa, watching lions with George Schaller, or chatting with the world’s greatest experts about elephants. He tells us that he “made a general survey of predatory communities” in Africa in 1968, but his ignorance of lions is so great that he misunderstands most of what he sees, reads, or is told. For example, one afternoon, Ardrey and his wife roused a lioness “a few hundred yards” from a herd of browsing impala. Two of the impala came over to see the lioness as it sought another sleeping place, while the others “never for a moment stopped eating.” Ardrey was amazed at this, but decided that he could not say that the impala were “suicidal” since the lioness was so sleepy. Then he adds, “Nevertheless, one can state in very nearly mathematical terms the survival value of approaching or fleeing the presence of a lion of unknown antagonism if you are an impala.”

This is typical of the ponderous way Ardrey covers his ignorance. Despite his claims of intimacy with Schaller, who studied lions in Africa over three years, 1966-1969, Ardrey apparently does not know that killing by a lion (1) is not motivated by “antagonism”; (2) almost never takes place in the middle of the day; (3) is never directed at an animal which is looking at the lion; and (4) the attack never is made from a distance of over 40 to 50 yards. Ardrey will find these rules stated by R. D. Estes in Natural History for February and March 1967 or by Schaller in National Geographic for April 1969. The latter says, “The lion must stalk to within a few feet of a potential victim before its rush has much chance of success. Prey animals are fully aware of the lion’s limitations. They have learned how near to a lion they may wander without danger of attack—usually to within about 120 feet. This leads to ludicrous situations . . . A visible lion is a safe lion.” Need I add that Ardrey’s “suicidal” impala were about 500 feet from danger.

To see that this critique is not only preposterous but a deliberate and malicious distortion of what Ardrey actually said, one need only read the passage in question.  I found it on page 76 of my hard cover copy of The Social Contract, and it can be seen by clicking on the “Order and Disorder” chapter and scrolling down at the above link to book.  It is worth quoting in full:

One afternoon we passed an all-male herd of twenty or twenty-five browsing impala, then a few hundred yards away came on a lioness sleeping under a tree.  Approaching her too closely, we disturbed her.  She rose, and for the first time was observed by the impala.  We could hear the instant far off snort.  Now the lioness moved away at deliberate pace toward another tree and another spot of shade.  Immediately two impala detached themselves from their fellows and came running after her, sending back to the party repeated warning snorts.  When she settled herself again, the two still lingered, watching tensely, giving their occasional snorts.  Not until she had most evidently gone back to sleep did they trot away to rejoin their fellows, who never for a moment had stopped eating.

One cannot say that the two impala had accepted risks of a suicidal nature by following a lioness as sleepy as this one.  Nevertheless, one can state in very nearly mathematical terms the survival value of approaching or fleeing the presence of a lion of unknown antagonism if you are an impala.

The observant reader will notice that Ardrey never expressed “amazement,” did not take the possibility seriously that the impala were “suicidal,” obviously had no intent of using the term “antagonism” as a scientifically rigorous description of lion behavior, and nowhere stated the minimum distance between the impala and the lion was either 500 feet or any other distance. He is merely using a personal anecdote to illustrate a point, and nowhere makes any claims, express or implied, about the feeding behavior of lions that would in any way justify Quigley’s gratuitous blather on the subject.

A familiar tactic of the old Blank Slaters was the blowing of smokescreens with scientific jargon.  For example, they furiously pounced on anyone who used the term “instinct” in connection with human beings.  “Instinct,” you see, was reserved for such programmed behavior as the building of nests by insects, and using to refer to open-ended predispositions became an inexcusable sin.  Nowadays, of course, “instinct” is back in fashion as a vernacular term, and no one seems particularly confused when it is applied to humans.  Here’s Quigley’s version of the smokescreen:

Moreover, this slovenly thinking, which ignores the distinction between animal societies and human societies, also ignores the distinction between social acts and biological actions.  Thus he says that “the social life” of a leopard is “limited to a few occasional hours of copulation;” copulation is biological, not social, just as parturition is.  The whole book is filled with his confusions of quite distinct things in this way.

I really doubt that anyone, except, perhaps, Quigley, was confused by Ardrey’s “unscientific” use of the term “social life” to describe copulation in leopards.  Fortunately, the physicists have not seen fit to go around correcting everyone who doesn’t use terms like “work,” “energy,” “power,” etc., as they are defined in the scientific jargon.  The substitution of jargon for the vernacular in this context would likely be similarly unhelpful.

Just as with the polemics exchanged between the iconoclasts and the iconodules, or the believers in Communion in both kinds with the believers in Communion in only one kind, such “reviews” usually conclude with the striking of moralistic poses and the raining down of anathemas on the object of the author’s ire.  Quigley’s was no exception.  Here is how “science” was enforced by the Blank Slaters:

Fundamentally, Ardrey is a racist, devoted to a belief in human inequality and unfreedom, an enemy of social “disorder” which must be suppressed by authority because man is a predatory, violent, aggressive creature, compelled by irresistible hereditary compulsion to war over territory.  These are fascist ideas, and, in this book, Ardrey is doing for America what Treitschke, H. S. Chamberlain, Alfred Rosenberg, and others did for Germany:  preparing an intellectual basis for fascist political action.

That Ardrey believed none of the things Quigley attributes to him in the above quote is a fact familiar to anyone who has actually read his books.  He was, in fact, a liberal of the far left who nearly became a Communist himself at one point, or at least he was until he became familiar with the real nature of “progressive” ideologues in the school of hard knocks.  None of this mattered to the “scientist” Quigley, who was intent on character assassination, not uncovering the truth.  Comically enough, this ringing tribute to freedom of thought appeared a few paragraphs after Quigley piously observed that Ardrey seemed to think that the truth was being suppressed by the scientific establishment, and that,

The reasons for this conspiracy are not stated, but it seems to be partly because the established don’t want these brilliant young researchers, whom Ardrey has found, to eclipse them and show them up for the old fuddy-duddies that they are. Partly also for more secret political reasons related to Ardrey’s idea that there is a profoundly unscientific liberal establishment which is based on a number of lies like equality, democracy, and freedom (!) which makes it necessary for them to want to suppress the scientists that Ardrey is reporting on.

Not the least interesting bit in Quigley’s opus is the manner in which he actually slips in the knife, the ideological shibboleth of the Blank Slate cloaked in the mantle of science, quite unobtrusively midway through the review:

Ardrey tries to tell us what man is like.  He insists that man is simply an animal (which implies that animals are simply men).  This is, of course, contrary to general scientific belief, which holds that man evolved from an animal when his survival shifted from dependence upon inherited behavior to dependence upon learned behavior.

This, of course, is the actual point of all the browbeating and histrionic posing.  Failing this “scientific fact” all the cherished utopias of the Blank Slaters collapse like a house of cards.  Indeed, the most prominent of them, Communism, collapsed quite spectacularly, exposing Quigley’s “general scientific belief” as one of history’s most successful and damaging hoaxes in the process.