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.

lion-impala