Of Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis, and Historical Narratives

Jonathan Haidt is one of the most coherent thinkers in the social sciences today. A Professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, he specializes in the study of morality and emotion, and how they vary across cultures. He describes himself as an atheist, and embraces the notion that there is such a thing as “human nature,” in the sense that our behavior is profoundly influenced by innate predispositions. For that alone he would have suffered the anathemas of his fellow experts in the behavioral sciences a few short decades ago. Until quite recently they were still in thrall of the collective delusion that human behavior is almost entirely determined by culture and education. But Haidt doesn’t stop there. His work focuses on our moral nature, and he is of the opinion that moral reasoning is not the basis of moral judgment. Rather, he supports what he calls the social intuitionist model, according to which moral judgments are the result of quick, automatic intuitions, including moral emotions. Moral reasoning commonly only appears after moral decisions have already been made, serving to rationalize them after the fact. Innate, evolved traits play a significant role in the process. In Haidt’s words from the paper, “The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment,”

The social intuitionist model… proposes that morality, like language, is a major evolutionary adaptation for an intensely social species, built into multiple regions of the brain and body, that is better described as emergent than as learned yet that requires input and shaping from a particular culture. Moral intuitions are therefore both innate and enculturated.

Obviously, we have come a long way since the 60’s and 70’s, when the entire orthodox scientific establishment was defending the cherished but palpably absurd dogma that “human nature” was almost entirely the result of education and culture, and the effect of innate predispositions of the kind Haidt refers to on human behavior were insignificant. In one of the more remarkable paradigm shifts in scientific history, they have finally been forced by the weight of evidence to abandon that delusion. For all that, they have shown a remarkable resistance to facing the obvious implications of the truth they have finally embraced. Nowhere has that been more true than in the field of morality.

If what Haidt says is true, then human morality is the expression of evolved behavioral traits. As such, it cannot be other than subjective in nature. Objective good and evil cannot exist because there is no legitimate basis for their existence. Morality has no purpose, nor does it serve any higher end. It exists purely and simply because it has increased the odds that carriers of the genes that give rise to it would survive and reproduce those genes. In spite of these seemingly elementary facts, no human illusion is as persistent and resilient as the belief in objective good.

Haidt explores some related issues in his book, The Happiness Hypothesis. It’s a good read, consisting of a collection of interesting ideas, insights and recent research results and concluding with an examination of the question, “What is the meaning of life.” According to Haidt, the question, “What is the meaning of life?” really consists of two sub-questions: What is the purpose of life? and What should be our purpose within life? He does not attempt an answer to the first, but focuses on the second, noting that it refers to what we should do to have a good, happy, fulfilling and meaningful life. Haidt devotes the final portion of the book to the question. There is something rather striking about his answer. It requires acceptance of the theory of group selection.

Why is that striking? Back in the day when, as noted above, virtually the entire orthodox scientific establishment was proclaiming the dogma that “human nature” was almost exclusively the result of education and culture, the most influential and significant writer insisting that the establishment was wrong, recognized as such at the time by proponents of both points of view, was Robert Ardrey. Well, it so happens that Ardrey, a brilliant writer with a profound grasp of the big picture, was right and the establishment was wrong about the role of the innate on human behavior. Yet today his name is hardly mentioned in the same breath with Galileo, or any of the other great destroyers of false orthodoxies in the sciences for that matter. Rather, he has been almost entirely forgotten. It happens, you see, that Ardrey was outside the academic pale. He was, in fact, a playwright for much of his career, and it would be too painful for the guild of “experts” to admit that a mere playwright like Ardrey had correctly insisted on an abundantly obvious truth at a time when they were still collectively defending a cherished but palpably false delusion.

Eventually, when the delusion collapsed, resulting in one of the more remarkable paradigm shifts in the history of the sciences, the “experts” constructed an entire alternative reality, exemplified by Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, according to which, incredibly, Ardrey had been “totally and utterly wrong,” and the real hero had been the more respectable and palatable E. O. Wilson, no matter that the ideas he set forth in books like Sociobiology and On Human Nature were no more than a reformulation of Ardrey’s thought. Now the chances that Pinker ever actually read Ardrey before dismissing him as “totally and utterly wrong” are vanishingly small, but he cited Richard Dawkins The Selfish Gene as the basis of his claim, as if Dawkins were as infallible as the pope. Dawkins, in turn, based his entire criticism of Ardrey on some remarks he made in his book The Social Contract about a theory that was of no particular significance whatsoever as far as the fundamental question of the role of the innate on human behavior is concerned. And what was that theory? Why, none other than the theory of group selection, without which Haidt’s “Happiness Hypothesis” evaporates in the mist. It appears that Dawkins was somewhat premature in announcing its demise. Such are the narratives that occasionally pass for “history” in the sciences. Meanwhile, Ardrey remains an unperson. I should think he deserves better.

Of Evolutionary Psychology and Historical Myopia

The journal Evolutionary Psychology hosts a blog written by Robert Kurzban, an Associate Professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Its content is mostly commentary about ongoing research in the field, with a strong academic flavor. Now and again, however, Robert will react with a measure of chagrin, and seeming surprise, to the occasional potshot directed at EP by some unrepentant cultural determinist (for example, here, here and here). These latter typically seize on some supposed flaw in one obscure scientific paper or another as a pretext to condemn the entire field of EP as pseudo-science.  What surprises me most about this is Robert’s surprise.  His replies always have the air of someone who can’t comprehend why his field has been singled out for carte blanche condemnation, like the victim of schoolyard bullies who can’t fathom the reason that they constantly steal his glasses and tromp on them.

In fact, nothing could be more predictable than these attacks.  After all, a basic premise of the field of Evolutionary Psychology is that there is such a thing as innate human nature.  That premise, obvious as it may seem, contradicts the quasi-religious, ideologically driven denial of human nature that has been the prevailing orthodoxy in the behavioral sciences ever since the days of Franz Boas, an orthodoxy that was very much alive and kicking well into the late 90’s.  Should one really be surprised at the bitter mutterings of the many partisans of that now-shattered orthodoxy who are presumably still alive and kicking as well?  EP, after all, does not exist in a vacuum.  It is not just another scientific sandbox for specialists to play in, isolated, not only from all the other scientific sandboxes, but from the real world outside as well.  It is inextricably entangled with any number of weighty issues relevant to politics, ideology, philosophy, and religion.  The idea that one can arrive at independent scientific judgments in the field without taking the significance and influence of these connections into account is, at the very least, “bad science.”  It assumes an almost complete lack of awareness of the intellectual history relevant to the field ever science the days of Darwin.

Perhaps I’m the one who should be surprised that I’m surprised.   To see why, one need look no further than the works that pass as textbooks in the field.  For example, Evolutionary Psychology, by David Buss, is accepted by many as the standard.  The first chapter, entitled “The Scientific Movements Leading to Evolutionary Psychology,” is a remarkable example of “history” encapsulated in the form of a disarmingly simple-minded fairy tale.  For example, there is a section entitled “The Ethology Movement.”  To begin, as anyone who was actually alive at the time of the “ethology movement” and has some passing familiarity with both the relevant scientific and popular science literature that appeared at the time must be aware, by far the most significant player in this “movement” was Robert Ardrey, acknowledged at the time as such by scientific friend and foe alike.  To confirm that fact, one need look no further than Man and Aggression, published in 1968 and edited by Ashley Montagu, a collection of essays directed at Ardrey and Konrad Lorenz by several experts in the behavioral sciences.  By all means, check the source material.  As I write this, the hardcover version is available at Amazon for $1.88, and the paperback for only a penny.  Nowhere in Buss’ account of the Ethology Movement does one so much as encounter Ardrey’s name.

It is not so easy to studiously ignore Konrad Lorenz.  He was, after all, a Nobel Prize winner.  He appears in Buss’ book as a nice old man followed by a line of ducklings.  It would seem, you see that that was his primary contribution to the field.  According to the book, “Lorenz (1965) started a new branch of evolutionary biology called ethology, and imprinting in birds was a vivid phenomenon used to launch this new field,” and “Indeed, the glimmerings of evolutionary psychology itself may be seen in the early writings of Lorenz, who wrote, “our cognitive and perceptual categories, given to us prior to individual experience, are adapted to the environment for the same reasons that the horse’s hoof is suited for the plains before the horse is born, and the fin of a fish is adapted for water before the fish hatches from its egg.”  One cannot but laugh out loud when reading such stuff.  Imprinting, professor?  Really?  Have you never heard of such other works by Lorenz as King Solomon’s Ring, On Aggression, and Behind the Mirror, all of which contained a great deal more than a “glimmering” of what later was rechristened “Evolutionary Psychology,” and all of which had a great deal more to say about the significance of the field to the human condition than his papers about imprinting in ducks?

Professor Buss next helpfully informs us that,

Ethology ran into three problems, however. First, many descriptions acted more as “labels” for behavior patterns and did not really go very far in explaining them. Second, ethologists tended to focus on observable behavior – much like their behaviorist counterparts – and so did not look “inside the heads” of animals to the underlying mechanisms responsible for generating that behavior. And third, although ethology was concerned with adaptation (one of the four critical issues listed by Tinbergen), it did not develop rigorous criteria for discovering adaptations.

Yes, professor, and in the same sense, Aristotle “ran into the problem” of not inventing magnetic resonance imaging.  Such abject trivializations of the work of a whole generation of brilliant thinkers is apparently what today passes for the official “history” of the field.

Which brings us to the anomalous situation we are in today.  The whole essence of the “Ethology Movement” and the whole essence of what is now called Evolutionary Psychology, is encapsulated in that one statement of Lorenz’, “our cognitive and perceptual categories, given to us prior to individual experience, are adapted to the environment for the same reasons that the horse’s hoof is suited for the plains before the horse is born, and the fin of a fish is adapted for water before the fish hatches from its egg.” The work of Ardrey, Lorenz, Tinbergen, and the lesser lights of the “Movement,” all focused on that one theme, has been triumphantly vindicated.  And yet, in the weird Twilight Zone of what today passes for “history,” they have either been forgotten entirely, or, failing that, the essential relevance they always stressed of their ideas to the human condition writ large ignored and students who will never understand the significance of their field unless they are aware of the significance of these connections fobbed off with some incoherent mumblings about “imprinting theory.”

One can but shake one’s head.  Would you know something about the real history of what is today called Evolutionary Psychology?  You had better come armed with a fondness for seeking sources, the spirit of a detective, and a lot of patience.

Dawkins, Pinker, and Ardrey: The Making of an Unperson

The Blank Slate is absurd.  Consider your own behavior, the behavior of those around you, and the many observable commonalities in human behavior that are obvious if you trouble yourself to read a little history, and it is difficult to grasp how anyone could believe something so palpably ridiculous.  In spite of that, it prevailed for many years as the dominant theory of human behavior among those who passed as experts in related fields.  We have a powerful inclination to believe in comforting fallacies over jarring realities, and nothing so jarred the comforting fallacy that human behavior is so malleable that we can be “re-educated” at will to become perfect citizens of ideal fantasy worlds or systems as the reality of innate human behavioral traits.  So intertwined are our emotions with the whole subject of why we act and think the way we do that the very history of the subject has been amply adjusted to suit preferred narratives.  That is true whether one speaks of the adherents of the Blank Slate or its opponents. 

An intriguing instance of the latter is the case of Robert Ardrey.  He was arguably the most influential opponent of the Blank Slate who ever took up a pen.  He is also an unperson.  It is a remarkable fact that Steven Pinker, who wrote a book entitled The Blank Slate, purporting to describe the history and nature of a phenomenon he accurately described as a secular religion, could only bring himself to mention Ardrey’s name in a single paragraph.  Even then it was only to distance himself from the man, as if from an untouchable.  Speaking of Ashley Montagu’s Man and Aggression, a collection of essays by Blank Slaters directly aimed at Ardrey and, to a lesser extent, Konrad Lorenz, he wrote, apparently in the persona of Dawkins’ poodle,

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

This statement must seem remarkable to anyone who has bothered to read Ardrey and Lorenz, not to mention Dawkins.  To the best of my knowledge, Lorenz’ ideas about the “discharge of hydraulic pressure” never appeared in Ardrey’s work, and Lorenz himself only mentioned the hypothesis as an afterthought to an earlier paper.  It by no means played any central or significant role in his thought or intellectual legacy, and no role in Ardrey’s work whatsoever.  As for Dawkins’ claim that “the authors got it totally and utterly wrong,” it was based entirely on his rejection of theories of group selection proposed by Wynne-Edwards that Ardrey mentioned approvingly in The Social Contract.  It is hard to believe that Pinker ever troubled himself to actually read Ardrey’s books, not to mention those of many other thinkers whose work he freely bowdlerized to fit his narrative in The Blank Slate.  If he had, he would have noticed that the common theme of all of them was that the Blank Slate was wrong, that innate predispositions profoundly influence human behavior, with the caveat that they influence it less than in perhaps any other species, their actual expression being heavily influenced by culture and environment, and that, far from implying anything “deterministic” about either our behavior or our future, we can and should alter our behavior based on a recognition of the reality of human nature.  In a word, the basic themes of The Blank Slate appeared in Ardrey’s work more than a quarter of a century earlier, but expressed more clearly, certainly more entertainingly, and without Pinker’s regrettable tendency to pontificate about the role of thinkers whose work he has either not read or not understood. 

As for group selection, the notion that it played some kind of a central role in Ardrey’s work, or even in The Social Contract, the one of his books in which it is mentioned, is nonsense.  The phrase in Dawkins’ book to which Pinker refers reads as follows (Dawkins is speaking of claims about the significance of his subject):

These are claims that could have been made for Lorenz’s On Aggression, Ardrey’s The Social Contract, and Eibl-Eibesfeldt’s Love and Hate. The trouble with these books is that their authors got it totally and utterly wrong. They got it wrong because they misunderstood how evolution works. They made the erroneous assumption that the important thing in evolution is the good of the species (or the group) rather than the good of the individual (or the gene.)

I haven’t read Eibl-Eibesfeldt’s book, but as far as Lorenz and Ardrey are concerned, the one who got it “totally and utterly” wrong here is Dawkins.  Neither of them “assumed that the important thing in evolution is the good of the species.”  Apparently, writing as a young man far less prominent than he is today, Dawkins completely missed the point of their work.  Both of them understood the genetic basis of evolution, and were well aware of the controversy regarding group selection, which Dawkins hardly “discovered.”  Human and animal behavior, rather than evolution, was the central theme of their work, a fact that Dawkins apparently missed completely.  It’s difficult to understand his attack on them as other than an attempt to gain notoriety and promote his book by tweaking the tails of two individuals who were both a great deal more prominent than he at the time, and who both had many enemies in the orthodox scientific community.  To get an idea of the basis for Dawkins remark, consider what he said about Ardrey a bit later in The Selfish Gene.  Speaking of the theory of group selection he writes,    

To put it in a slightly more respectable way, a group, such as a species or a population within a species, whose individual members are prepared to sacrifice themselves for the welfare of the group, may be less likely to go extinct than a rival group whose individual members place their own selfish interests first. Therefore the world becomes populated mainly by groups consisting of self-sacrificing individuals. This is the theory of ‘group selection’, long assumed to be true by biologists not familiar with the details of evolutionary theory, brought out into the open in a famous book by V. C. Wynne-Edwards, and popularized by Robert Ardrey in The Social Contract.

and,

Robert Ardrey, in The Social Contract, used the group-selection theory to account for the whole of social order in general. He clearly sees man as a species that has strayed from the path of animal righteousness. Ardrey at least did his homework. His decision to disagree with orthodox theory was a conscious one, and for this he deserves credit.

Dawkins disingenuousness here is staggering.  Let’s assume that he actually read The Social Contract.  In that case, he either completely failed to comprehend what he was reading, or he is deliberately misrepresenting Ardrey’s work.  In the first place there’s the incredible arrogance of the comment that group selection was “assumed to be true by biologists not familiar with the details of evolutionary theory.”  This is to completely ignore that group selection had long been a matter of scholarly debate well before Dawkins published his book, that the parties of any significance on either side were both well aware of “his” theory of the selfish gene, and they either supported or opposed it using sophisticated evolutionary arguments.  Other than that, The Social Contract was not about group selection, nor was the subject central to the theme of the book.  Ardrey brought up the subject, not as an “assumption,” but as an admittedly controversial hypothesis that might explain, for example, the prevalence of alpha males within groups from generation to generation.  Ardrey must have scratched his head at reading Dawkins nonsense to the effect that he “used the group-selection theory to account for the whole of social order in general.”  There is no basis whatsoever for that remark in any fair reading of Ardrey.  He did not believe, nor did he ever claim, either implicitly or explicitly, that “man as a species has strayed from the path of animal righteousness.” 

Other than that, Dawkins was “completely and utterly wrong” to claim that Ardrey, Lorenz, Wynne-Edwards, or any of its other serious proponents was “completely and utterly wrong” about group selection.  That is apparent from the fact that the hypothesis of group selection hardly disappeared after Dawkins published his book.  It continues to be a contentious and controversial issue to this day.  However, the question is not whether group selection can or cannot actually occur.  The question is whether there could have been any possible basis for making the claim that the hypothesis was “completely and utterly wrong” in 1972, when Dawkins published his book.  In fact, there was insufficient knowledge of the complexity of  gene interaction and expression, not to mention a detailed physical understanding of the causes of such complex behavioral traits as altruism and moral behavior, and not to mention the lack of mathematical tools sufficiently precise to model the relevant processes, both then and now, to justify such a claim.  Thus, Dawkins implicit assertion that he was as infallible as the pope regarding group selection is ridiculous, and Pinker’s recognition of Dawkins as an infallible pope is even more absurd.

That such obscurantist versions of the “truth” can appear as easily among the supposed opponents as among the defenders of the Blank Slate is a testimony to the degree to which our emotions cloud the discussion of human nature.  Scientific detachment is difficult to achieve in studying both ourselves and our species.  We are so influenced by preferred narratives about the way things ought to be that we often can’t perceive the simplest truths about the way they really are.  And what of Ardrey?  One can only assume that, by pointing out that the “scientific” orthodoxy of the Blank Slate was palpably absurd, he insulted the gravitas of the entire professional scientific community, whether pro- or anti.  After all, he was a mere playwright (like Shakespeare, who Darwin loved to quote).  His was an act of unforgiveable lese majeste.  Hence, it was necessary that he disappear.  He became an unperson.

To those interested in knowing the truth, I can only suggest that they read the source material.  Those who trouble themselves to actually read Ardrey will find that group selection and the “good of the species” were virtually irrelevant to the central themes of his work.  Again, those themes were that the Blank Slate is wrong, that innate predispositions profoundly influence human behavior, and that their actual expression is strongly dependent on culture and environment.  They appeared in his books long before the publication of Sociobiology, which in its essentials is a mere echo of Ardrey.  Ardrey’s own explanation of the existence of Blank Slate in African Genesis was at once more concise, more entertaining, and less philosophically flatulent than Pinker’s The Blank Slate, which appeared almost half a century later.  It would also never have occurred to Ardrey to write a long book about such a subject that studiously ignored the role of individuals who played key historical roles relevant thereto. 

One can only hope that future historians have the intelligence and probity to recognize the true significance of Ardrey’s role.  He was a man of many hypotheses, and was quick to admit it when he was wrong.  However, regarding the key theme of his work, the profound influence of the innate on human behavior, he was right, and his detractors were wrong.  None were better than he at grasping the “big picture,” in the spirit of E. O. Wilson’s Consilience.  In the intervening years since his last book was published, we have witnessed what amounts, for the most part, to a triumphant vindication of his work.    As we have seen, his reward has been relegation to the status of an unperson. 

No doubt many others who recognized important truths about the human condition consigned themselves to oblivion, or bowdlerization, in the process.  Would you like to know what Hume, or Mill, or Huxley, or Spencer, or Read, or Keith, or Lorenz, or Ardrey really had to say about the subject?  There’s only one way to find out for sure.  Read them yourself.