The Forgettable Philosophy of Konrad Lorenz

Konrad Lorenz was a great man.  A careful observer of animal behavior, he noted the many similarities between the innate traits of some of the species he studied and the behavior of human beings.  In view of the fact that we are the products of a similar process of evolution, and the improbability of the supposition that our ancestors had suddenly shed all these innate traits in the relatively short time it took them to evolve large brains, he came to the seemingly obvious conclusion that the ultimate cause of these analogous characteristics was to be found in the genetic programming of the brain.  It was not, however, obvious to a great number of sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, and other professional “experts” in human behavior, including the vast majority of them in the United States, over a period of many decades.  They persisted stubbornly in the belief that no such innate traits existed, that all human behavior worth mentioning was a result of culture and education, and that the human mind at birth was actually a “blank slate.”

The absurdities of blank slate orthodoxy are sufficiently obvious that the ease of debunking them is akin to that of shooting fish in a barrel.  In fact, there were numerous debunkers during the decade of the 60’s and early 70’s when the theory was still in vogue.  Of these, Lorenz was the second most effective.  The most effective was Robert Ardrey.  As proof of this assertion, we have the testimony of the blank slaters themselves, conveniently assembled in an invaluable little book published in 1968 and edited by Ashley Montagu entitled, Man and Aggression.

In the fullness of time, blank slate orthodoxy collapsed under its own weight and the pressure of advances in the relevant sciences.  It is one of the more remarkable oddities of this field of study that has always had such an abundance of oddities that its demise was accompanied by the emergence of a whole new orthodoxy in the form of a fantastically imaginary account of its downfall.  The whole, fanciful tale can be found in The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker, purportedly a “history” of the blank slate in which he manages to get through 528 pages in paperback with hardly a mention of its two most effective opponents.  Lorenz is dismissed because of his “hydraulic theory,” an hypothesis that made only a minor appearance in his work and was utterly insignificant as far as his fundamental thought on human behavior is concerned.  Ardrey, a brilliant man and the greatest debunker of them all, is waved out of existence with a single mention because, according to Richard Dawkins, no less, he was “completely and utterly wrong.”  This concoction was apparently produced to cover the shame of the academic and professional experts in human behavior who had been so wrong for so long, in part by trotting out E.O. Wilson as the “real” father of opposition to the blank slate.  His book, On Human Nature, was merely a repetition of the fundamental conclusions that had appeared in the work of Lorenz and Ardrey more than a decade earlier.  No matter.  He could plausibly be claimed by the experts as one of their own.  Now, instead of being shamed by a mere playwright, they had actually cleaned their own house.  To add oddity to oddity, it turns out that the reason that Dawkins claimed that Ardrey was “totally and utterly wrong,” was his support for the theory of group selection in his book, The Social Contract.  The theory, still highly controversial, was subsequently embraced by none other than E.O. Wilson!  And what of Lorenz?  He may have been right about innate behavior, but, regrettably, he had linked it with some of the less savory human traits in On Aggression.  For example, from that book,

To the humble seeker of biological truth there cannot be the slightest doubt that human militant enthusiasm evolved out of a communal defense response of our prehuman ancestors.  The unthinking single-mindedness of the response must have been of high survival value even in a tribe of fully evolved human beings.  It was necessary for the individual male to forget all his otgher allegiances in order to be able to dedicate himself, body and soul, to the cause of the communal battle.


Humanity is not enthusiastically combative because it is split into political parties, but it is divided into opposing camps because this is the adequate stimulus situation to arouse militant enthusiasm in a satisfying manner.  “If ever a doctrine of universal salvation should gain ascendancy over the whole earth to the exclusion of all others,” writes Erich von Holst, “it would at once divide into two strongly opposing factions (one’s own true one and the other heretical one) and hostility and war would thrive as before, mankind being – unfortunately – what it is!”

This was a bit much for the orthodox “experts.”  After all, they had been assuring each other for years that the pervasiveness of warfare in virtually all human societies since the beginning of recorded time was merely a regrettable coincidence.  Take away war toys, adjust the “culture” here and there, and fine tune the educational system a bit and, viola!, it would be banished to mankind’s dark past, never to return again.  If something in our genes actually did contribute to this remarkable “coincidence” of warfare, such dreams vanished like the morning fog, and with them all the Brave New Worlds of “human flourishing” that were being planned for a recalcitrant humanity.  Having strained on the gnat of innate behavior, they found this added lump of “aggression” just too much to swallow.  Lorenz had to go.

No matter, in the end, Pinker’s fairy tale doesn’t wash in any case.  The truth will out.  We have Ashley Montagu and his fellow blank slaters to thank for that.  Pinker may have relegated Ardrey and Lorenz to the ranks of unpersons, but they were not quite so delusional.  They knew who their most effective opponents were, and they set it all down in black and white in no uncertain terms in Man and Aggression.  For anyone who cares to fact check Pinker’s “official history,” that invaluable little book is still available in paperback at Amazon for the bargain basement price of one cent.

In a word then, Lorenz deserves a lot more respect than he gets in Pinker’s yarn, or in the sanitized “histories” that are fed to unwitting undergraduates in the current crop of Evolutionary Psychology textbooks, and he deserved the Nobel Prize he was awarded for his work in 1973, two years before Wilson published On Human Nature.  Why, then, do I find his philosophy “forgettable.”  It seems to me that, just as Einstein should have stayed out of politics, a field in which he was easily manipulated by the unscrupulous ideologues of his day, Lorenz should have left the philosophizing to Kant and Hegel.  Alas, he had drunk too deeply in those waters.  Like Don Quixote, who, Cervantes tells us, read stirring tales of knight-errantry until he became a bold knight himself in his imagination, Lorenz thought to save the world with his philosophy.  He could sling epistomologies, ontologies, and teleologies with as much panache as the best of them, and so he did in a number of his lesser known works.

It happens I have just waded through one of them, entitled The Waning of Humaneness, a somewhat rough approximation of the German title, Der Abbau des Menschlichen, which conveys more of the flavor of Spengler’s Der Untergang des Abendlandes (The Decline of the West), a work which Lorenz often cites.  Written in 1983 when Lorenz was 79 years old, the book is a mish-mash of stuff taken, sometimes word for word, from his earlier books, dubious claims about the origin of values, even more dubious prescriptions for restoring them so that humaneness stops waning, all in a melange of simplistic pontification about preserving the environment inspired, we are informed, by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

To enlist the help of others in restoring “humaneness,” it is first necessary to explain to them what it is.  It turns out that humaneness is as similar to all the other noble causes that have disturbed the tranquility of mankind since time immemorial as one pea to all the others in a pod.  In short, Humaneness is what Lorenz thinks is Good.  It’s not very original as Goods go.  In the Foreword we are informed that it consists of restoring the environment and reversing the cultural “decadence” with which its degradation goes hand in hand.  This is to be done by restoring “true” morality and values.  Of course, the rub, as with all such systems, lies in establishing the legitimacy of the Good.  Why is the Good really good?

In the case of Lorenz, the task of establishing this legitimacy would seem particularly daunting.  After all, he was a pioneer in establishing the innate, genetically programmed component of human morality.  By no means does he renounce his earlier work.  In fact, he actually cites it.  For example, reiterating his earlier claims about the ancient wellsprings of the emotions that influence human behavior he writes,

Based on genetic programming are not only the apparatuses for sensory perception and for logical thinking that outline and fill in with color the picture we have of our world; also based on these programs are the complicated feelings that determine our interhuman behavior.  Our social behavior especially is dominated by an immensely old heritage of species-specific action and reaction patterns; these are undoubtedly much, much older than the specific capacities of intelligence associated with our neocortex, that is, with the evolutionarily youngest part of our brain.


It is beyond doubt that a great number of qualitative emotions, recognizable and unmistakable, are common to all mankind, that is, are anchored in the genes of humans.

So far so good.  However, these innate traits, as well as the various culturally transmitted modes of behavior to which they give rise haven’t kept up with the pace of technological and cultural change.

…many of the innate as well as traditional norms of humans that were still well-adapted programs of social and economic behavior just a short while ago today contribute to the waning of what is humane.

Again, if we can drop the “waning of humaneness” jargon and simply say that these behavioral traits have become maladaptive, Lorenz is merely reiterating truths that have, in the meantime, become obvious to all but the most diehard and ancient of blank slaters.  But it is just here that Lorenz, along with so many others who have more or less accepted the facts as set forth above, run off the tracks.

It seems clear to me that, if the ultimate cause of human behavior (and moral behavior, however defined, is merely a subset thereof), lies in the evolved features of our brains, then there can be no possible legitimate basis for one human being to claim that what his subjective emotions portray to him as the Good must also be the Good for everyone else.  This pervasive illusion, cause of so much human misery, should finally be recognized as such and jettisoned once and for all.  But in spite of the demise of the Blank Slate, in spite of a tidal wave of papers in scholarly journals on innate behavior, and in spite of a continuing flood of books on themes such as hard-wired morality and the moral behavior of animals, that isn’t about to happen.  The emotional high of feeling morally superior to lesser mortals is just too sweet and savory to dispense with.  Orgasms of self-righteousness and virtuous indignation are almost as satisfying as the sexual kind, and they last a lot longer.  But to experience them in all their glory, the Good must be justified.

Lorenz goes about the task without much virtuosity, but with a few idiosyncratic twists.  In short, he admits that values are subjective, but claims that they are, nevertheless, real.  As he puts it:

What must be made clear, and convincingly, is that our subjective experiential processes possess the same degree of reality as everything that can be expressed in the terminologies of the exact natural sciences. …Since all of the moral responsibilities of humans are determined by their perceptions of values, the epidemic delusion that only numerical and measurable reality has validity must be confronted and contradicted.

Certainly our subjective impressions are real and do actually exist in the sense that they result from observable and measurable physical phenomena in our brains. The non sequitur here is that, simply by virtue of the fact that they do actually exist in that fashion, they thereby acquire some sort of objective legitimacy.  Some more or less similar leap of faith is always necessary to establish a moral system.  Somehow, a subjective impression must be promoted to the Good, an objective thing in itself.  Only in that form can it acquire the power of serving as an imperative for all mankind.  It seems to have occurred to Lorenz that his claim of objective validity by virtue of subjective reality is a rather threadbare variant of this essential sleight of hand.  To prop it up, he drags in Beauty.

For all the value perceptions of humans that have been discussed up to now, the assumption is justified that these sensibilities assist the individual in advantageous achievements and, therewith, the assumption is also justified that their programs as well, through selection of these achievements, have evolved in typical ways.  But there is the beautiful, the genesis of which in a similar manner must be doubted, for which, in fact, an explication of origin by means of selection seems conspicuously contrived.

If Lorenz’ argument for the special status of Beauty gives you a faint sense of a televangelist arguing for the special status of divine creation, you’re not alone.  Cutting to the chase, in the final chapter the author reveals himself as a theist.  We finally detect the supernatural stiffening behind all this flimsy stuff about Beauty and Values.  Nature is “really beautiful” and “true values” are really legitimate because God wants it that way.

Lorenz’ suggestions for turning the humaneness curve back in the right direction are paltry enough.  Even in 1983 he was still feeling the afterglow of the 60’s youth fetish.  (As a baby boomer myself, I cannot but feel a distinct relief that my generation, the object of all that obsession with “youth,” has finally reached retirement age).   As usual, we were to redeem mankind from its horrible fate:

The predicament of young people today is especially critical.  Forestalling the threatening apocalypse will devolve on their perceptions of value; their sensibilities of the beautiful and worthwhile must be aroused and renewed.

And how was this arousal and renewal to be brought about?

It must still, in some way, be possible to provide even those children born and reared in large cities with some kind of opportunity for developing their capacities to perceive the harmony and disharmony of living systems – if only by means of an aquarium.  Those children who are given a chance to tend to aquarium and to care for its inhabitants come to learn, through necessity, to comprehend a functioning entirety in its harmony and disharmony, an entirety bringing together and combining very many systems consisting of animals, plants, bacteria and an entire range of inorganic givens, systems that complement one another and systems that are antagonistic to one another.  Children would learn how delicate the equilibrium of such an artificial ecological system is.

It may seem uncharitable to dismiss the aquarium idea.  After all, we’ve tried pretty much everything else.  However, I can assure the reader that, as a child, my teachers had me tend to both an aquarium and a beehive for good measure, and look how I turned out.

The Waning of Humaneness contains a good deal more of puerile stuff about corporate war profiteers, the evils of nuclear energy, canned homilies about saving the environment, the stupidity of Americans who live in suburban subdivisions, tiresomely repetitious warnings about the impending suicide of mankind, etc., but that can rest.  Konrad Lorenz was, after all, a great man.  Working in his own specialty, he struck a telling blow at the Blank Slate, one of the most pernicious pseudo-religions that ever claimed the name of science.  Let us remember and honor him for that.

Ingroups and Outgroups: All Things Old are New Again

According to an article I just ran across on the World Science website, scientists have just “discovered” that “Human prejudice may date back 25 million years or more.” On closer reading, one finds that what they have just “discovered” has been obvious since the days of Darwin; that we humans group others of our species into ingroups and outgroups. Sir Arthur Keith summarized earlier work on the subject and put it on a firm theoretical basis well over half a century ago. As Robert Ardrey, who called it the Amity/Enmity Complex, wrote of it a couple of decades later, it was, “the resolution of a paradox posed by Darwin, solved by Wallace, explored by Spencer and Sumner, revived and extended by Keith, and for the last twenty years cast aside (by the “Blank Slaters”, ed.) under the pretense it does not exist.”  Ardrey went on to say, “What seems to have occurred to no one, excepting possibly Keith, is that the animal is a moral being, and that human morality is a simple evolutionary extension of a form of conduct which has existed in nature for many hundreds of millions of years.  But unless we inspect both the history of the falsehood and the history of the truth, we shall not in least part grasp our contemporary predicament.”

In this “enlightened” age, when an increasing stream of books like Wild Justice:  The Moral Lives of Animals by Bekoff and Pierce and Primates and Philosophers:  How Morality Evolved by Frans de Waal et. al., are rolling off the presses, one would think that brilliant thinkers like Ardrey and Keith, triumphantly vindicated, would receive the tardy recognition they deserve.  If so, one would be very mistaken.  You see, Ardrey was a mere playwright, guilty of the unpardonable lèse-majesté of challenging the entire establishment of behavioral scientists of his day and proving them wrong, and Keith was presumptuous in writing down such ideas before the official “beginning” of Evolutionary Psychology as set forth in the mythical histories of the science set forth in the modern textbooks on the subject.


The Afterlife of Objective Morality

Morality is a subjective mental construct, fundamentally emotional in nature, and no more capable of existing as a “thing in itself,” discoverable by reason, than hunger, sexual desire, or physical pain.  Its ultimate cause as a collection of behavioral traits inherent in our brains in the form of predispositions whose expression can vary depending on cultural and environmental factors, but is broadly similar among human populations.  The mental traits responsible for the expression of morality evolved.  They did not suddenly pop into existence thanks to some miraculous mutation simultaneously with the appearance of homo sapiens.  Rather, those traits in humans represent incremental adaptations of similar traits that have existed in our animal ancestors for tens of millions of years, if not longer.  They are entirely similar in that respect to most of our other distinguishing characteristics as a species, as demonstrated by the wonderful advances in the field of evolutionary development in recent years.  They did not evolve because they served the greater good, or because they were in accord with some imaginary, objective “good-in-itself,” or because they promoted “human flourishing,” as it is variously defined.  They evolved because they increased the probability that the individual packets of genetic material that gave rise to them would survive and reproduce.  They did not evolve to serve any purpose, nor did they evolve because they promoted the “good of the species.”  They evolved at a time in which the conditions of human existence were utterly dissimilar to those existing today.  As a result, the assumption that they will continue to promote the survival of the packets of genetic material that give rise to them under these vastly altered conditions is unwarranted.

I cannot assert that all of the above statements are certainly true, any more than I can assert that anything at all is certainly true.  I can, however, point out that all of them are supported by compelling and rapidly increasing bodies of evidence.  Most of the scientists working in the relevant fields of study are aware of the existence of that evidence.  As a result, most of them will now admit that, at least to some degree, human morality, not to mention our other behavioral traits, are dependent for their existence on features programmed in our brains by our genes.  Few of them would have made such an admission, at least in the behavioral sciences, as recently as two decades ago.  In spite of the fact that thinkers since the days of Darwin and before have insisted on the decisive role of innate predispositions, or “human nature” in shaping human behavior, the quite recent general acceptance of that fact that can be traced in both the scientific and popular literature represents a genuine paradigm shift in the behavioral sciences.

It should hardly be surprising that the behavioral expression of morality in conscious animals with highly developed brains can be complex and vary significantly in detail across human populations.  The fact remains that the mental traits responsible for what we refer to as “moral” behavior, under its various definitions, are a subset of the mental traits that are the ultimate cause of what is loosely referred to as “human nature,” more or less arbitrarily set apart from the rest.  It follows that, absent those evolved mental traits, morality as we know it would cease to exist.  It does exist because it promoted the survival of packets of genetic material carried by individual human beings.  Attempts to alienate it from those origins by assigning some “purpose” to it, whether that purpose be the service of some imaginary supernatural being, the greater good of some “master race,” promotion of “human flourishing,” or what have you, are irrational.  There is no “objective good.”  There is no legitimate basis for one animal of a particular species insisting that all the other animals of that species “should” conform to and adopt his particular version of “the good” given the fact that his ability to imagine such a fundamentally emotional construct as “the good” exists because of mental traits that evolved because, at least at some time in the past, they happened to promote the survival of the packet of genes he happens to be carrying around.  If our species were anywhere near as intelligent as we give ourselves credit for being, it would seem that recognition of the above facts would follow immediately on recognition of the fundamental nature of morality.  It is a tribute to the power of the emotional traits that give rise to moral behavior that nothing of the sort has happened.  The deontologists, consequentialists, and various other tribes of moral and ethical philosophers have continued their speculations about what we “really ought” to do as if nothing had happened, like the sages of yore who debated over how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.

I suggest to the fellow members of my species that, given the paradigm shift referred to above, it is high time that we refrain from such unproductive debates, and accept the logical consequences of what we have discovered about morality.  It would be useful, at least from my point of view, for a number of reasons.  For example, for reasons I have set forth elsewhere, continued attempts to establish moral systems threaten the survival of our species.  The desire to avoid extinction may be just another emotional whim, but I suspect that it is one that I share with many others of my species.  As such, it is a goal towards which we might agree to work together.

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.


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.