Robert Plomin’s “Blueprint”: The Reply of the Walking Dead

The significance of Robert Plomin’s Blueprint is not that every word therein is infallible. Some reviewers have questioned his assertions about the relative insignificance of the role that parents, schools, culture, and other environmental factors play in the outcome of our lives, and it seems to me the jury is still out on many of these issues. See, for example, the thoughtful review of Razib Khan in the National Review. What is significant about it is Plomin’s description of new and genuinely revolutionary experimental tools of rapidly increasing power and scope that have enabled us to confirm beyond any reasonable doubt that our DNA has a very significant influence on human behavior. In other words, there is such a thing as “human nature,” and it is important. This truth might see obvious today. It is also a fact, however, that this truth was successfully suppressed and denied for over half a century by the vast majority of the “scientists” who claimed to be experts on human behavior.

There is no guarantee that such scientific debacles are a thing of the past. Ideologues devoted to the quasi-religious faith that the truth must take a back seat to their equalist ideals are just as prevalent now as they were during the heyday of the Blank Slate. Indeed, they are at least as powerful now as they were then, and they would like nothing better than to breathe new life into the flat earth dogmas they once foisted on the behavioral sciences. Consider, for example, a review of Blueprint by Nathaniel Comfort entitled “Genetic determinism rides again,” that appeared in the prestigious journal Nature. The first paragraph reads as follows:

It’s never a good time for another bout of genetic determinism, but it’s hard to imagine a worse one than this. Social inequality gapes, exacerbated by climate change, driving hostility towards immigrants and flares of militant racism. At such a juncture, yet another expression of the discredited, simplistic idea that genes alone control human nature seems particularly insidious.

Can anyone with an ounce of common sense, not to mention the editors of a journal that purports to speak for “science,” read such a passage and conclude that the author will continue with a dispassionate review of the merits of the factual claims made in a popular science book? One wonders what on earth they were thinking. Apparently Gleichschaltung is sufficiently advanced at Nature that the editors have lost all sense of shame. Consider, for example, the hoary “genetic determinism” canard. A “genetic determinist” is a strawman invented more than 50 years ago by the Blank Slaters of old. These imaginary beings were supposed to believe that our behavior is rigidly programmed by “instincts.” I’ve searched diligently during the ensuing years, but have never turned up a genuine example of one of these unicorns. They are as mythical as witches, but the Blank Slaters never tire of repeating their hackneyed propaganda lines. It would be hard to “discredit” the “simplistic idea that genes alone control human nature” by virtue of the fact that no one ever made such a preposterous claim to begin with, and Plomin certainly wasn’t the first. Beyond that, what could possibly be the point of dragging in all the familiar dogmas of the “progressive” tribe? Apparently Nature would have us believe that scientific “truth” is to be determined by ideological litmus tests.

In the next paragraph Comfort supplies Plomin, a professor of behavior genetics, with the title “educational psychologist,” and sulks that his emphasis on chromosomal DNA leaves microbiologists, epigeneticists, RNA experts, and developmental biologists out in the cold. Seriously? Since when did these fields manage to hermetically seal themselves off from DNA and become “non-overlapping magisteria?” Do any microbiologists, epigeneticists, RNA experts or developmental biologists actually exist who consider DNA irrelevant to their field?

Comfort next makes the logically questionable claim that, because “Darwinism begat eugenics”, “Mendelism begat worse eugenics,” and medical genetics begat the claim that men with an XYY genotype were violent, therefore behavioral genetics must also “begat” progeny that are just as bad. QED

Genome-wide association (GWA) methods, the increasingly powerful tool described in Blueprint that has now put the finishing touches on the debunking of the Blank Slate, are dismissed as something that “lures scientists” because of its “promise of genetic explanations for complex traits, such as voting behavior or investment strategies.” How Comfort distills this “promise” out of anything that actually appears in the book is beyond me. One wonders if he ever actually read it. That suspicion is greatly strengthened when one reads the following paragraph:

A polygenic score is a correlation coefficient. A GWAS identifies single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) in the DNA that correlate with the trait of interest. The SNPs are markers only. Although they might, in some cases, suggest genomic neighborhoods in which to search for genes that directly affect the trait, the polygenic score itself is in no sense causal. Plomin understands this and says so repeatedly in the book – yet contradicts himself several times by arguing that the scores are in fact, causal.

You have to hand it to Comfort, he can stuff a huge amount of disinformation into a small package. In the first place, the second and third sentences contradict each other. If SNPs are variations in the rungs of DNA that occur between individuals, they are not just markers, and they don’t just “suggest genomic neighborhoods in which to search for genes that directly affect the trait.” If they are reliable and replicable GWA hits, they are one of the actual points at which the trait is affected. Plomin most definitely does not “understand” that polygenic scores are in no sense causal, and nowhere does he say anything of the sort, far less “repeatedly.” What he does say is:

In contrast, correlations between a polygenic score and a trait can only be interpreted causally in one direction – from the polygenic score to the trait. For example, we have shown that the educational attainment polygenic score correlates with children’s reading ability. The correlation means that the inherited DNA differences captured by the polygenic score cause differences between children in their school achievement, in the sense that nothing in our brains, behavior, or environment can change inherited differences in DNA sequence.

I would be very interested to hear what Comfort finds “illogical” about that passage, and by virtue of what magical mental prestidigitations he proposes to demonstrate that the score is a “mere correlation.” Elsewhere we read,

Hereditarian books such as Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s The Bell Curve (1994) and Nicholas Wade’s 2014 A Troublesome Inheritance (see N. Comfort Nature 513, 306–307; 2014) exploited their respective scientific and cultural moments, leveraging the cultural authority of science to advance a discredited, undemocratic agenda. Although Blueprint is cut from different ideological cloth, the consequences could be just as grave.

In fact, neither The Bell Curve nor A Troublesome Inheritance have ever been discredited, if by that term is meant being proved factually wrong. If books are “discredited” by how many ideological zealots begin foaming at the mouth on reading them, of course, it’s a different matter. Beyond that, if something is true, it does not become false by virtue of Comfort deeming it “undemocratic.” I could go on, but what’s the point? Suffice it to say that Comfort’s favorite “scientific authority” is Richard Lewontin, an obscurantist high priest of the Blank Slate if ever there was one, and author of Not in Our Genes.

I can understand the editors of Nature’s desire to virtue signal their loyalty to the prevailing politically correct fashions, but this “review” is truly abject. It isn’t that hard to find authors on the left of the political spectrum who can write a book review that is at least a notch above the level of tendentious ideological propaganda. See, for example, Kathryn Paige Harden’s review of Blueprint in the Spectator. Somehow she managed to write it without implying that Plomin is a Nazi in every second sentence.  I suggest that next time they look a little harder.

My initial post about Blueprint tended to emphasize the historical ramifications of the book in the context of the Blank Slate disaster. As a result, my description of the scientific substance of the book was very broad brush. However, there are many good reviews out there that cover that ground, expressing some of my own reservations about Plomin’s conclusions about the importance of environment in the process. See, for example, the excellent review by Razib Khan in the National Review linked above. As I mentioned in my earlier post, the book itself is only 188 pages long, so, by all means, read it.

The Pinker Effect: Prof. Pickering’s Violent Agreement with the Hunting Hypothesis

Rough and Tumble by Prof. Travis Pickering is an amazing little book. The author’s ostensible goal was to defend the “hunting hypothesis,” according to which hunting played an important role in the evolution of our species. In spite of that, Pickering devotes much of it to furiously denouncing authors who proposed very similar versions of that hypotheses, in some cases nearly a century earlier. I’ve seen this phenomenon often enough now to coin a phrase for it; The Pinker Effect.  The Pinker Effect may be described as proposing a hypothesis combined with a denunciation and/or vilification of authors who proposed the same hypothesis years earlier, often in a clearer, more articulate and accurate form.  The quintessential example is Steven Pinker’s denunciation of Robert Ardrey, in his The Blank Slate, in spite of the fact that Ardrey had presented a better and more accurate description of the Blank Slate debacle in books he had published as many as four decades earlier. Interestingly enough, Ardrey is also one of the authors who presented a very similar version of Pickering’s hunting hypothesis in a book, appropriately entitled The Hunting Hypothesis, back in 1976.  He is bitterly denounced in Rough and Tumble, along with several other authors, including Carveth Read, who proposed a prescient version of the hypothesis in his The Origin of Man as long ago as 1920. What could explain this counterintuitive phenomenon?

I can only speculate that what we are seeing is a form of ritual appeasement of the powers that control the ideology, not to mention the purse strings, of one’s tribe. In this case we are speaking of academia, now controlled by aging leftists.  I suspect that many of them haven’t forgotten the shame and humiliation they experienced when Ardrey, Konrad Lorenz, and several others made a laughing stock of them back in the 60’s and 70’s in the process of demolishing the Blank Slate orthodoxy. This demolition crew included several authors who were also prominently associated with the hunting hypothesis.  Now, nearly half a century later, it would seem that Pickering still doesn’t dare to defend that hypothesis without first performing a triple kowtow before the former high priests of the Blank Slate! The historical background is fascinating.

First, let’s review the striking similarities between Pickering’s version of the hunting hypothesis and those proposed by other authors as much as a century earlier. Keep in mind as you read down the list that he not only borrows their ideas without attribution or even praise, but actually denounces and vilifies every one of them!

Early meat eating

Pickering: Like others before me, I argue that hunting was a primary factor in our becoming fully human – a factor underpinning the completely unique ways in which we organize ourselves and interact with others of our own kind. This means, in turn, that we need to characterize human predation as accurately as possible in order to build the fullest and most realistic understanding of what it is to be human.
Carveth Read: But the ancestor of Man found an object for association and cooperation in the chase. Spencer, indeed, says that a large carnivore, capable of killing its own prey, profits by being solitary; and this may be true where game is scarce: in the Oligocene and Miocene periods game was not scarce. Moreover, when our (ancestral, ed.) ape first pursued game, especially big game ( not being by ancient adaptation in structure and instinct a carnivore), he may have been, and probably was, incapable of killing enough prey single-handed; and, if so, he will have profited by becoming both social and cooperative as a hunter, like the wolves and dogs – in short, a sort of wolf-ape (Lycopithecus).

Early bipedalism

Pickering: “The contrasting (in comparison to Australopithecines, ed.) long legs of Homo (including even those of its earliest species, like Homo erectus) probably made it a more efficient bipedal strider than were the australopithecines. But the anatomy of the ape-man hips, legs, knees, and ankles indicates that its species were also quite capable terrestrial bipeds.”
Raymond Dart: “It is significant that this index, which indicates in a measure the poise of the skull upon the vertebral column, points to the assumption by this fossil group of an attitude appreciably more erect than that of modern anthropoids. The improved poise of the head, and the better posture of the whole body framework which accompanied this alteration in the angle at which its dominant member was supported, is of great significance. It means that a greater reliance was being placed by this group upon the feet as organs of progression, and that the hands were being freed from their more primitive function of accessory organs of locomotion.” (Australopithecus africanus: The Man-Ape of South Africa, published in Nature, February 7, 1925.)

Use of weapons

Pickering: Perhaps in an effort to maintain at least a semblance of behavioral distinction between “us and them,” some scientists still insist on clinging to the remaining (seemingly less consequential) disparities. Hunting with weapons was one such vestige of supposed human uniqueness. But, recently primatologist Jill Pruetz saw to toppling even this minor remnant of presumed human exceptionalism. Using their teeth to sharpen the ends of sticks into points, the chimpanzees of Fongoli, in the West African country of Senegal, fashion what are essentially simple thrusting spears into hollows in trees in an effort to stab and extract bushbabies, the small nocturnal primates who sleep in the holes during the day.
Carveth Read: The utility and consequent selection of hands had been great throughout; but their final development may be referred to the making and using of weapons fashioned according to a mental pattern. Those who had the best hands were selected because they made the best weapons and used them best. (The Origin of Man, 1920)

Debunking of human scavenging

Pickering: Like all scientific hypotheses, these that sought to balance the reality of ancient cut marks with the idea of passive scavenging generated testable predictions. And, time and again, they failed their archaeological tests. In failing, they also effectively falsified the overarching hypothesis of passively scavenging hominins.
Robert Ardrey: I wondered from an early date about the popularity of the scavenger hypothesis. If we were incapable of killing large prey animals such as wildebeest and waterbuck, then how were we capable of stealing their remains from their rightful and more dangerous killers? If we had been concerned with only a few stray bones, then luck could account for it. But the impressive accumulations at early hominid living sites must indicate either that we had been even more adept thieves than we are today, or that the great carnivores in those times were unaccountably lazy at guarding their kills.

Hypothesis of ambush hunting:

Pickering: Along this tactical continuum, hunting from a tree-stand is fairly simple, but it still conveys many benefits to the hunter. In addition to the disadvantaging nature of hunting from above (again, ungulates do not typically look up when scanning for predators), attacking an animal from above also takes the hunter out of potentially harmful physical contact with the prey.
Carveth Read: We may, indeed, suppose that at first prey was sometimes attacked by leaping upon it from the branch of a tree, as leopards sometimes do.
Robert Ardrey: The rare waterhole, the occasionally trickling stream, were the only places where they (other animals, ed.) could come to drink. So water became a natural trap. We did not need the long-striding foot: we could wait with our ambush for the game to come to us.

I could cite many other examples. The fact that Pickering devotes much of his book to denouncing these authors who agree with him seems odd enough, but it’s not so surprising if you happen to be familiar with the history of the Blank Slate debacle.  Let’s review some of the salient details.

Konrad Lorenz and Robert Ardrey were two authors singled out by Pickering as paragons of villainy. To hear him tell it, they both must have wracked their brains each morning to come up with a list of bad deeds they could do that day. Oddly enough, it happens that they were also the twin betes noire of the Blank Slaters of old. They were loathed and hated, not because of anything they had to say about hunting, but because they insisted there is such a thing as human nature, and it is not only significant and important, but extremely dangerous for us to ignore. During a period of several decades before they appeared on the scene, it had gradually become anathema for scientists in fields relevant to human behavior to suggest that we were possessed of innate behavioral traits of any kind. Marxism and the other fashionable egalitarian ideologies of the time required it. Instead, reality was ignored in favor of the myth that all our behavior is a result of learning and experience. The result was what we now refer to as the Blank Slate. During the 60’s and 70’s Ardrey and Lorenz published a series of books that revealed to an amused lay audience the absurd nonsense that passed for “science” among these “experts.” As one might expect, this provoked a furious reaction, as documented, for example, in books like Man and Aggression, edited by Blank Slate high priest Ashley Montagu, which appeared in 1968.  It’s still available for just two dollars at Amazon, and is required reading for anyone with a serious interest in the affair. It didn’t help. The Blank Slate charade slowly began to unravel. As increasing numbers of the more honest members of the academic and professional tribe began to break ranks, it eventually collapsed. Clearly, the shame of the Blank Slaters of old still rankles because, after all these years, Pickering still found it necessary to appease them by coming up with a ludicrously contrived rationalization for claiming that his “good” version of the hunting hypothesis was different from the “evil” version proposed by Ardrey, Lorenz, and company long ago.

As it happens, the reason Pickering gives for smearing Ardrey, Lorenz, and the rest, who are conveniently no longer around to defend themselves, is their supposed support for the so-called “Killer Ape Theory.” It is commonly defined as the theory that war and interpersonal aggression were the driving forces behind human evolution. It is usually associated with “genetic determinism,” the notion that humans have an irresistible and uncontrollable instinct to murder others of their kind. None of the authors Pickering denounces believed any such thing. This “theory” was a strawman invented by their Blank Slate enemies. Its genesis is of historical interest in its own right.

Raymond Dart is usually cited as the author of the theory. The basis for this claim is a paper he published in 1953 entitled The Predatory Transition from Ape to Man. The paper is available online. Read it, and you will see that it contains nothing even approaching a coherent “theory that war and interpersonal aggression were the driving forces behind human evolution.” To the extent that an “theory” is present in the paper at all, it is just what the title claims; that pre-human anthropoid apes hunted and ate meat. The problem with the paper, seized on years later by the Blank Slaters to prop up their “Killer Ape Theory” strawman, was that it appeared to have been written by a somewhat unhinged junior high school student who had been watching too many Friday night creature features. Some of the more striking examples include,

Either these Procrustean proto-human folk tore the battered bodies of their quarries apart limb from limb and slaked their thirst with blood, consuming the flesh raw like every other carnivorous beast; or, like early man, some of them understood the advantages of fire as well as the use of missiles and clubs.

A microcephalic mental equipment was demonstrably more than adequate for the crude, carnivorous, cannibalistic, bone-club wielding, jawbone-cleaving Samsonian phase of human emergence.

On this thesis man’s predecessors differed from living apes in being confirmed killers: carnivorous creatures, that seized living quarries by violence, battered them to death, tore apart their broken bodies, dismembered them limb from limb, slaking their ravenous thirst with the hot blood of victims and greedily devouring livid writhing flesh.

To characterize this class B movie stuff as a “theory” is a bit of a stretch. When it comes to human nature, there is nothing in the paper in the form of a coherently elaborated theory at all. The only time Dart even mentions human nature is in the context of a sentence claiming that “recognition of the carnivorous habit as a distinctive australopithecine trait” has implications for understanding it. Based on this flimsy “evidence” that the “Killer Ape Theory” strawman was real, and Dart was its author, Pickering goes on to claim that,

Ironically, it was Robert Ardrey, an American dramatist (and Dart’s mouthpiece in four popular books), who provided the voice closest to cool detachment when he abstracted the “killer ape hypothesis” thusly: ‘Man is a predator whose natural instinct is to kill with a weapon.’ In no subtle way, predation and aggression were coupled as the ultimate propellants of human evolution.

Here we must charitably assume that Pickering has never actually read Ardrey’s books, because otherwise we would be forced to conclude that he is a bald-faced liar. The theme of all Ardrey’s books, which reviewed the work, not only of Dart, but of hundreds of other scientists, was that there is such a thing as human nature, and it is significant and important. The idea that he was nothing but “Dart’s mouthpiece” is beyond absurd. His books are easily available today, and anyone can confirm that fact who takes the trouble to actually read them. In the process, they will see that when Ardrey wrote that “Man is a predator whose natural instinct is to kill with a weapon,” he had nothing even remotely similar to the “Killer Ape Theory” in mind. Pickering himself amply documents in his book that not only human beings but our hominin ancestors were predators, that they killed, and that they did so with weapons. That leaves only the term “instinct” as the basis for all Pickerings fulminations against Ardrey and the rest.

In order to pull off this feat, he had to come up with a fairy tale according to which they all believed that humans were driven to hunt by some kind of a genetically induced rage, directed both against their animal prey and other human beings. He, on the other hand, while generously admitting that some emotions were relevant to hunting behavior, prefers a more cerebral version of hunting behavior characterized by cool calculation rather than emotion. This is really the only significant difference he comes up with between their version of the hunting hypothesis and his own, and apparently is the basis of his conclusion that they were “evil,” whereas he is “good.” According to Pickering, those earlier, “evil” proponents of the hunting hypothesis believed in a version of hunting behavior that was actually more characteristic of chimpanzees. He goes to a great deal of trouble to distinguish their “emotional” style hunting with our own, “cerebral” version. To quote from the book,

Expertise in hunting the large, warily dangerous prey of human foragers and cashing in on its concomitant evolutionary rewards does not mature from the hell-bent approach employed by chimpanzees to dispatch their prey. Application of brute physicality is an efficient means for chimpanzees to kill because they hunt in groups, they concentrate on much smaller animals than themselves, and the rely on their superhuman strength and agility to overpower their victims… A human has no hope of out-muscling, out-running, or out-climbing his typical prey, but, if his mind stays clear, he can absolutely count on out-thinking those animals.

…all the brain power and fine motor control in the world aren’t worth a damn to a human hunter if his brain’s commands are overridden by emotion. Clear thinking in survival situations – and what is a hunting and gathering life if not a daily struggle for survival? – is dependent on control of emotion.

General emotional control in hominins may not have yet developed by the time of Homo erectus. But, the archaeological record of Homo erectus implies strongly that the species applied emotional control, at least situationally, when it hunted…

So much for Pickering’s version of the difference between his ideas and the “Killer Ape Theory” he attributes to Ardrey, Lorenz, et. al. Even as it stands it’s a pathetic excuse, not only for failing to attribute the many “original” ideas in his book about human hunting to the virtually identical versions presented by Ardrey in his The Hunting Hypothesis, not to mention years earlier by Carveth Read in his The Origin of Man, but for actually denouncing and vilifying those authors. However, the “difference” itself is imaginary, as can be easily seen by anyone who takes the trouble to read what Ardrey and the rest actually wrote.

Pickering’s deception is particularly obvious in the case of Lorenz. He made it perfectly clear that he didn’t associate Pickering’s version of “emotion” with hunting behavior. Indeed, he was dubious about associating “aggression” with hunting at all.  For example, in On Aggression, he wrote,

In yet another respect the fight between predator and prey is not a fight in the real sense of the word:  the stroke of the paw with which a lion kills his prey may resemble the movements that he makes when he strikes his rival, just as a shot-gun and a rifle resemble each other outwardly; but the inner motives of the hunter are basically different from those of the fighter.  The buffalo which the lion fells provokes his aggression as little as the appetizing turkey which I have just seen hanging in the larder provokes mine.  The differences in these inner drives can clearly be seen in the expression movements of the animal:  a dog about to catch a hunted rabbit has the same kind of excitedly happy expression as he has when he greets his master or awaits some longed-for treat. From many excellent photographs it can be seen that the lion, in the dramatic moment before he springs, is in no way angry.  Growling, laying the ears back, and other well-known expression movements of fighting behavior are seen in predatory animals only when they are very afraid of a wildly resisting prey, and even then the expressions are only suggested.

In none of his books did Lorenz ever suggest that hunting behavior in man was any different from that of other hunting animals.  That which Ardrey actually wrote on the subject, as opposed to the “killer ape theory” flim flam that is constantly and falsely attributed to him, is much the same.  For example, from The Hunting Hypothesis, he discusses what might have given us an advantage as nascent predators as follows,

Yet we had some advantages.  There was the innocence of animals, such as Paul Martin has described in North American prey pursued by skilled but unfamiliar intruders from Asia; our Pliocene victims could only have been easy marks.  There was our ape brain, incomparably superior to that of any natural predator.  If the relatively unintelligent lioness can practice tactical hunting and plan ambushes as Schaller has described, then our talents must have been of an order far beyond lion imagination.

In his Serengeti studies George Schaller shows that any predator taking his prey is cool, calculating, methodical.  It is a kind of aggressive behavior radically unlike his defense of a kill against competitors.  Then there is overwhelming emotion, rage, and sometimes a lethal outcome unlike normal relations within a species.  Such would have been the situation between competing hunters in glacial Europe.

Pickering anointed poor Carveth Read and other early authors honorary proponents of the “killer ape theory” even though they were long dead before Dart ever published his paper.  At the beginning of chapter 3 he writes,

The same nauseating waves of cannibalism, unquenchable bloodthirst, cruel misogyny (specifically), and raging misanthropy (generally) that course through the writings of Dart and Ardrey also typify the pre-Dartian ramblings of Morris, Campbell and Read.

Dart may have been a bit over the top in his “seminal” paper, but the above is truly unhinged. Pickering must imagine that no one will take the trouble to excavate Read’s The Origin of Man from some dusty library stack and read it.  In fact, it can be read online.  Even out of the context of his time, this furious rant against Read is truly grotesque.  Read the first few chapters of his book, and you will see that his hypothesis about hunting behavior in early man actually came quite close to the version proposed by Pickering.

In his eagerness to virtue signal to the other inmates of his academic tribe that his version of the hunting hypothesis is “good” as opposed to the “evil” versions of the “others,” Pickering actually pulls off the amusing stunt of using now irrelevant studies once favored by the Blank Slaters of old because they “proved” early man didn’t hunt, to attack Dart, supposed author of the “killer ape theory,” even though the same studies undermine his own hypotheses.  In particular, he devotes a great deal of space to describing studies done by C. K. Brain to refute Dart’s claim that statistical anomalies in the distribution of various types of bones in South African caves were evidence that certain bones had been used as weapons and other tools. It was masterful work on cave taphonomy, in which Brain explored the statistics of bone accumulations left by animals as diverse as hyenas, leopards, owls and porcupines.  Unfortunately, he chose to publish his work under the unfortunate title; The Hunters or the Hunted? The work was immediately seized on by the Blank Slaters as “proof” that early man hadn’t hunted at all, and was really a meek vegetarian, just as Ashley Montagu and his pals had been telling us all along.  Brain was immediately anointed a “good” opponent of hunting, as opposed to the “evil” men whose ideas his work supposedly contradicted.  Pickering apparently wanted to bask in the reflected glory of Brain’s “goodness.”

Of course, all that happened in the days when one could still claim that chimpanzees were “amiable vegetarians,” as Ashley Montagu put it.  It’s worth noting that when Jane Goodall began publishing observations that suggested they aren’t really all that “amiable” after all, she was vilified by the Blank Slaters just as viciously as Pickering has vilified Dart, Ardrey, Lorenz and Read.  Now we find Pickering trotting out Brain’s book even though it “disproves” his own hypotheses.  Meanwhile it has been demonstrated, for example, in careful isotopic studies of Australopithecine teeth, that the species Dart first discovered ate a substantial amount of meat after all, as he had always claimed.  Clearly, they were also occasionally prey animals.  So were Neanderthals, as their remains have been found in predator bone accumulations as well.  That hardly proves that they didn’t hunt.

In short, if you like to read popular science books, beware the Pinker Effect.  I note in passing that C. K. Brain never stooped to the practice of “proving” the value and originality of his own work via vicious ad hominem attacks on other scientists.  He was Dart’s friend, and remained one to the end.

The Group Selectionist and the Blank Slater: David Sloan Wilson Interviews Richard Lewontin

I would rank the Blank Slate debacle as the greatest scientific disaster of all time.  For half a century and more, the “men of science” created and maintained a formidable obstacle in the way of our gaining the self-knowledge as a species that may be critical to our survival.  This obstacle was the denial that human behavior is in any way influenced by innate human nature.  For the time being, at least, the Blank Slate orthodoxy has been crushed.  It would seem however, that the scientific community is still traumatized by the affair.  The whimsical “histories” that continue to be concocted of the affair and of the roles of the key players in it is a manifestation thereof.

For example, Robert Ardrey, the most influential and effective opponent of the Blank Slate orthodoxy in its heyday, has been thoroughly vindicated as far as the main theme of all his work is concerned.  In spite of that, he is a virtual unperson today.  Having shamed the “men of science,” it would seem that it is now beneath their dignity to even take notice of the fact that he ever existed.  Meanwhile, Richard Lewontin, one of the high priests of the Blank Slate, is revered, and continues to win prestigious awards as a “great scientist.”  Among people who should certainly know better, the mere mention of the fact that he was a kingpin of the Blank Slate orthodoxy is greeted with stunned disbelief.

Recently Lewontin was interviewed by David Sloan Wilson, one of today’s foremost defenders of group selection, a topic with a fascinating history of its own in connection with the Blank Slate.  We find that, like the Bourbons who were propped back up as French monarchs by the victorious allies after the defeat of Napoleon, he has learned nothing and forgotten nothing.  He has merely become more circumspect about revealing the ideological motivations behind his “science.”  This becomes obvious when Wilson gets around to asking Lewontin about the connection between The Spandrels of San Marco, a paper he co-authored with Stephen Jay Gould in 1979, and Sociobiology.  Lewontin demurely replies that it may have been “contextually relevant,” but the paper was mainly an attack on naïve adaptationism.  Wilson:  “I’m interested to know that was the primary motivation for the article, not Sociobiology.”  Lewontin:  “Yeah.”  Balked in this first attempt, later in the interview, Wilson becomes a bit more blunt.  (I delete some of the exchange for brevity.  I encourage readers to look at the entire interview.)

DSW:  Dick, I’d like to spend a little bit of time on Sociobiology and also Evolutionary Psychology, because even though that didn’t motivate the Spandrels paper, it still motivated you to be a critic and Steve too.

RL:  Look, when I look at Sociobiology, the book or some of the other books he (E. O. Wilson) has written, it drives me mad.  For example, if you read – I’ll take an extremely nasty example because it’s so clear – it is written that aggression is a part of human nature.  It says that in the book, it lists features of human nature and aggression is one of them.  So then I have said to Ed and others of his school, what do you do about people who have spent almost their entire lives in jail because they refuse to be conscripted into the army?  What do you think the answer is?  That is their form of aggression.

DSW:  Well, OK, that’s facile.

RL:  I don’t know what you can do about it.  If everything can be said to be a form of aggression, even the refusal to be physically aggressive, what kind of science is that? …Because if everything by definition can be shown to be aggression then it ceases to be a useful concept in our scientific discussions.

As it happens, Lewontin uses the same argument in Not In Our Genes, a book he co-authored with fellow Blank Slaters Steven Rose and Leon Kamin in 1984.  It makes no more sense now than it did then.  Obviously, what’s still sticking in Lewontin’s craw after all these years is a series of books on the subject of human aggression that appeared back in the 60’s, the most famous of which was “On Aggression,” by Konrad Lorenz, published in the U.S. in 1966.  In fact, the notion that the anecdote about an imprisoned pacifist demolishes what Lorenz and others actually wrote about human aggression is the sheerest nonsense.  Lorenz and the others never dreamed that any of their theories on the subject precluded the possibility of conscientious objectors in any way, shape or form.  In reality Lewontin is refuting, not Lorenz, but his favorite strawman then and now, the “genetic determinist.”  Lewontin’s “genetic determinist” is one who believes that “human nature” forces people to behave in certain ways and not in others, regardless of culture or environment.  If such beasts exist, they must be as rare as unicorns, because in all my reading I have never encountered one, not even among the most hard-core 19th century social Darwinists.  Lewontin imagines them behind every bush.  For him, all sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists must necessarily be “genetic determinists.”

Lewontin spares Wilson any mention of his obsession with “genetic determinists,” but lays his cards on the table nevertheless.  He’s still as much of a Blank Slater as ever.  For example, at the end of the interview,

My main complaint is… the underlying claim that there exists a human nature, which then the claimant must give examples of, and so each claimant gives examples that are convenient for his or her pet theory.  I think the worst thing we can do in science is to create concepts where what is included or not included within the concept is not delimited to begin with, it allows us to claim anything.  That’s my problem with Sociobiology.  It’s too loose.

Well, not exactly.  Readers who really want to crawl into the mind of a Blank Slater should read Not In Our Genes, the book I referred to above.  There it will be found that Lewontin’s problem isn’t that Sociobiology is “too loose,” but that he perceives it as an impediment to the glorious socialist revolution.  You see, Lewontin is a Marxist, and Not In Our Genes is not a book of science, but a political tract.  In its pages one will find over and over and over again the assertion that those who believe in human nature are stooges of the bourgeoisie.  Sociobiology and the other sciences that affirm the existence of human nature are merely so many contrived, ideologically motivated ploys to defend the capitalist status quo and stave off the glorious dawn of socialism.  For example, quoting from the book,

Each of us has been engaged… in research, writing, speaking, teaching, and public political activity in opposition to the oppressive forms in which determinist ideology manifests itself.  We share a commitment to the prospect of the creation of a more socially just – a socialist – society.  And we recognize that a critical science is an integral part of the struggle to create that society, just as we also believe that the social function of much of today’s science is to hinder the creation of that society by acting to preserve the interests of the dominant class, gender, and race.

Biological determinist ideas are part of the attempt to preserve the inequalities of our society and to shape human nature in their own image.  The exposure of the fallacies and political content of those ideas is part of the struggle to eliminate those inequalities and to transform our society.  In that struggle we transform our own nature.

Those who possess power and their representatives can most effectively disarm those who would struggle against them by convincing them of the legitimacy and inevitability of the reigning social organization.  If what exists is right, then one ought not oppose it; if it exists inevitably, one can never oppose it successfully.

Here, then, we see that Lewontin is being a bit coy when he claims that he only objects to Sociobiology and the other sciences that affirm the existence of human nature because they are “too loose.”  In perusing the book, we find that not only Konrad Lorenz and Robert Ardrey, but also Richard Dawkins, Robert Trivers, and W. D. Hamilton are all really just so many hirelings of the capitalist system.  No matter that Trivers is a radical leftist, and Ardrey almost became a Communist himself in the 1930’s.

It is amusing to read Lewontin’s pecksniffery about the lack of scientific rigor in the work of these “capitalist stooges,” followed in short order by praise for the “scientific” work of Mao, Marx, and Engels.  I can only encourage anyone in need of a good belly laugh to read Engels’ Dialectics of Nature.  Therein he will find the great St. Paul of Marxism lecturing the greatest scientists of his day about all the errors he’s discovered in their work because they don’t pay enough attention to the dialectic.  Lewontin’s confirmation of one important facet of innate human nature, ingroup/outgroup identification, referred to by Ardrey as the Amity/Enmity Complex, by his furious ranting against the “bourgeoisie” in a book that claims there is no such thing as human nature would also be amusing, were it not for the fact that 100 million “bourgeoisie,” give or take, paid with their lives for this particular manifestation of outgroup identification.

If one is determined to cobble together a version of “reality” in which Lewontin figures as a “great scientist” instead of the Blank Slate kingpin he actually was, he will find no better place to look than the pages of Not In Our Genes.  It comes complete with sage warnings against running to the opposite extreme of “cultural determinism,” and anathemas against the proponents of tabula rasa.  To this I can only reply that nowhere in any of his work has Lewontin ever affirmed the existence of anything resembling the innate predispositions that one normally refers to in the vernacular as human nature, and he has consistently condemned anyone who does as politically suspect.  If “good science” were a matter of condemning anyone who disagrees with your version of reality as a hireling of the forces of evil, Lewontin would take the cake.

UPDATE:  Whyvert tweeted a link to a great article by Robert Trivers posted at the Unz Review website entitled, Vignettes of Famous Evolutionary Biologists, Large and Small.  Included is a vignette of none other than Richard Lewontin.  As it happens, Prof. Trivers was among those singled out by Lewontin as an evil minion of the bourgeoisie in his Not In Our Genes.  His article includes some very interesting observations on the disintegrating effects of politics on Lewontin’s scientific career.

On the Resurrection and Transfiguration of the Blank Slate

All appearances to the contrary in the popular media, the Blank Slate lives on.  Of course, its heyday is long gone, but it slumbers on in the more obscure niches of academia.  One of its more recent manifestations just turned up at Scientia Salon in the form of a paper by one Mark Fedyk, an assistant professor of philosophy at Mount Allison University in Sackville, Canada.  Entitled, “How (not) to Bring Psychology and Biology Together,” it provides the interested reader with a glimpse at several of the more typical features of the genre as it exists today.

Fedyk doesn’t leave us in doubt about where he’s coming from.  Indeed, he lays his cards on the table in plain sight in the abstract, where he writes that, “psychologists should have a preference for explanations of adaptive behavior in humans that refer to learning and other similarly malleable psychological mechanisms – and not modules or instincts or any other kind of relatively innate and relatively non-malleable psychological mechanisms.”  Reading on into the body of the paper a bit, we quickly find another trademark trait of both the ancient and modern Blank Slaters; their tendency to invent strawman arguments, attribute them to their opponents, and then blithely ignore those opponents when they point out that the strawmen bear no resemblance to anything they actually believe.

In Fedyk’s case, many of the strawmen are incorporated in his idiosyncratic definition of the term “modules.”  Among other things, these “modules” are “strongly nativist,” they don’t allow for “developmental plasticity,” they imply a strong, either-or version of the ancient nature vs. nurture dichotomy, and they are “relatively innate and relatively non-malleable.”  In Fedyk’s paper, the latter phrase serves the same purpose as the ancient “genetic determinism” strawman did in the heyday of the Blank Slate.  Apparently that’s now become too obvious, and the new jargon is introduced by way of keeping up appearances.  In any case, we gather from the paper that all evolutionary psychologists are supposed to believe in these “modules.”  It matters not a bit to Fedyk that his “modules” have been blown out of the water literally hundreds of times in the EP literature stretching back over a period of two decades and more.  A good example that patiently dissects each of his strawmen one by one is “Modularity in Cognition:  Framing the Debate,” published by Barrett and Kurzban back in 2006.  It’s available free online, and I invite my readers to have a look at it.  It can be Googled up by anyone in a few seconds, but apparently Fedyk has somehow failed to discover it.

Once he has assured us that all EPers have an unshakable belief in his “modules,” Fedyk proceeds to concoct an amusing fairy tale based on that assumption.  In the process, he presents his brilliant and original theory of “anticipated consilience.”  According to this theory, researchers in new fields, such as EP, should rely on the findings of more mature “auxiliary disciplines,” particularly those which have been “extremely successful” in the past, to inform their own research.  In the case of evolutionary psychology, the “auxiliary discipline” turns out to be evolutionary biology.  As Fedyk puts it,

One of the more specific ways of doing this is to rely upon what can be called the principle of anticipated consilience, which says that it is rational to have a prima facie preference for those novel theories commended by previous scientific research which are most likely to be subsequently integrated in explanatorily- or inductively-fruitful ways with the relevant discipline as it expands.  The principle will be reliable simply because the novel theories which are most likely to be subsequently integrated into the mature scientific discipline as it expands are just those novel theories which are most likely to be true.

He then proceeds to incorporate his strawmen into an illustration of how this “anticipated consilience” would work in practice:

To see how this would work, consider, for example, two fairly general categories of proximate explanations for adaptive behaviors in humans, nativist (i.e., bad, ed.) psychological hypotheses which posit some kind of module (namely the imaginary kind invented by Fedyk, ed.) and non-nativist (i.e., good, ed.) psychological hypotheses, which posit some kind of learning routine (i.e., the Blank Slate, ed.)

As the tale continues, we learn that,

…it is plausible that, for approximately the first decade of research in evolutionary psychology following its emergence out of sociobiology in the 1980s, considerations of anticipated consilience would have likely rationalized a preference for proximate explanations which refer to modules and similar types of proximate mechanisms.

The reason for this given by Fedyk turns out to be the biggest thigh-slapper in this whole, implausible yarn,

So by the time evolutionary psychology emerged in reaction to human sociobiology in the 1980s, (Konrad) Lorenz’s old hydraulic model of instincts really was the last positive model in biology of the proximate causes of adaptive behavior.

Whimsical?  Yes, but stunning is probably a better adjective.  If we are to believe Fedyk, we are forced to conclude that he never even heard of the Blank Slate!  After all, some of that orthodoxy’s very arch-priests, such as Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould are/were evolutionary biologists.  They, too, had a “positive model in biology of the proximate causes of adaptive behavior,” in the form of the Blank Slate.  Fedyk is speaking of a time in which the Blank Slate dogmas were virtually unchallenged in the behavioral sciences, and anyone who got out of line was shouted down as a fascist, or worse.  And yet we are supposed to swallow the ludicrous imposture that Lorenz’ hydraulic theory not only overshadowed the Blank Slate dogmas, but was the only game in town!  But let’s not question the plot.  Continuing on with Fedyk’s adjusted version of history, we discover that (voila!) the evolutionary biologists suddenly recovered from their infatuation with hydraulic theory, and got their minds right:

…what I want to argue is that, in the last decade or so, a new understanding of the biological importance of developmental plasticity has implications for evolutionary psychology. Whereas previously considerations of anticipated consilience with evolutionary biology and cognitive science may have provided support for those proximate hypotheses which posited modules, I argue in this section that these very same considerations now support significantly non-nativist proximate hypotheses. The argument, put simply, is that traits which have high degrees of plasticity will be more evolutionarily robust than highly canalized innately specified non-malleable traits like mental modules. The upshot is that a mind comprised mostly of modules is not plastic in this specific sense, and is therefore ultimately unlikely to be favoured by natural selection. But a mind equipped with powerful, domain general learning routines does have the relevant plasticity.

I leave it as an exercise for the student to pick out all the innumerable strawmen in this parable of the “great change of heart” in evolutionary biology.  Suffice it to say that, as a result of this new-found “plasticity,” anticipated consilience now requires evolutionary psychologists to reject their silly notions about human nature in favor of a return to the sheltering haven of the Blank Slate.  Fedyk helpfully spells it out for us:

This means that, given a choice between proximate explanations which reflect a commitment to the massive modularity hypothesis and proximate explanations which, instead, reflect an approach to the mind which privileges learning…, the latter is most plausible in light of evolutionary biology.

The kicker here is that if anyone even mildly suggests any connection between this latter day manifestation of cultural determinism and the dogmas of the Blank Slate, the Fedyks of the world scream foul.  Apparently we are to believe that the “proximate explanations” of evolutionary psychology aren’t completely excluded as long as one can manage a double back flip over the rather substantial barrier of “anticipated consilience” that blocks the way.  How that might actually turn out to be possible is never explained.  In spite of these scowling denials, I personally will continue to prefer the naïve assumption that, if something walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and flaps its wings like a duck, then it actually is a duck, or Blank Slater, as the case may be.

What Made the “blank slate” the Blank Slate?

The Blank Slate affair was probably the greatest scientific debacle in history.  For half a century, give or take, an enforced orthodoxy prevailed in the behavioral sciences, promoting the dogma that there is no such thing as human nature.  So traumatic was the affair that no accurate history of it has been written to this day.  What was it about the Blank Slate affair that transmuted what was originally just another false hypothesis into a dogma that derailed progress in the behavioral sciences for much of the 20th century?  After all, the blank slate as a theory has been around since the time of Aristotle.  A host of philosophers have supported it in one form or another, including John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and John Stuart Mill.  Many others had opposed them, including such prominent British moral philosophers as Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Hume, and Mackintosh.

Sometimes the theories of these pre-Darwinian philosophers were remarkably advanced.  Hume, of course, is often cited by evolutionary psychologists in our own time for pointing out that such human behavioral phenomena as morality cannot be derived by reason, and are rooted in emotion, or “passions.”  In his words, “Reason is wholly inactive, and can never be the source of so active a principle as conscience, or a sense of morals.”  The relative sophistication of earlier thinkers can also be demonstrated by comparing them with the rigid dogmas of the Blank Slaters of the 20th century who followed them.  For example, the latter day dogmatists invented the “genetic determinist” straw man.  Anyone who insisted, however mildly, on the existence of human nature was automatically denounced as a “genetic determinist,” that is, one who believes that human “instincts” are as rigid as those of a spider building its nest, and we are powerless to control them rationally.  Real “genetic determinists” must be as rare as unicorns, because in spite of a diligent search I have never encountered one personally.  The opponents of the Blank Slate against whom the charge of “genetic determinism” was most commonly leveled were anything but.  They all insisted repeatedly that human behavior was influenced, not by rigid instincts that forced us to engage in warfare and commit acts of “aggression,” but by predispositions that occasionally worked against each other and could be positively directed or controlled by reason.  As it happens, this aspect of the nature of our “nature” was also obvious to earlier thinkers long before Darwin.  For example, 19th century British moral philosopher William Whewell, referring to the work of his co-philosopher Henry Sidgwick, writes,

The celebrated comparison of the mind to a sheet of white paper is not just, except we consider that there may be in the paper itself many circumstances which affect the nature of the writing.  A recent writer, however, appears to me to have supplied us with a much more apt and beautiful comparison.  Man’s soul at first, says Professor Sidgwick, is one unvaried blank, till it has received the impressions of external experience.  “Yet has this blank,” he adds, “been already touched by a celestial hand; and, when plunged in the colors which surround it, it takes not its tinge from accident but design, and comes out covered with a glorious pattern.”  This modern image of the mind as a prepared blank is well adapted to occupy a permanent place in opposition to the ancient sheet of white paper.

Note that Sidgwick was a utilitarian, and is often referred to as a “blank slater” himself.  Obviously, he had a much more nuanced interpretation of “human nature” than the Blank Slaters of a later day, and was much closer, both to the thought of Darwin and to that of modern evolutionary psychologists than they.  This, by the by, illustrates the danger of willy-nilly throwing all the thinkers who have ever mentioned some version of the blank slate into a common heap, or of ordering them all in a neat row, as if each one since the time of Aristotle “begat” the next after the fashion of a Biblical genealogy.

In any case, these pre-Darwinian thinkers and philosophers could occasionally discuss their differences without stooping to ad hominem attacks, and even politely.  That, in my opinion, is a fundamental difference between them and the high priests of the Blank Slate orthodoxy.  The latter day Blank Slaters were ideologues, not scientists.  They derailed the behavioral sciences because their ideological narrative invariably trumped science, and common sense, for that matter.  Their orthodoxy was imposed and enforced, not by “good science,” but by the striking of moralistic poses, and the vicious vilification of anyone who opposed them.  And for a long time, it worked.

By way of example, it will be illuminating to look at the sort of “scientific” writings produced by one of these high priests, Richard Lewontin.  Steven Pinker’s book, The Blank Slate, is occasionally flawed, but it does do a good job of describing the basis of Lewontin’s Blank Slate credentials.  Interested readers are encouraged to check the index.  As Pinker puts it,

So while Gould, Lewontin, and Rose deny that they believe in a blank slate, their concessions to evolution and genetics – that they let us eat, sleep, urinate, defecate, grow bigger than a squirrel, and bring about social change – reveal them to be empiricists more extreme than Locke himself, who at least recognized the need for an innate faculty of “understanding.”

Anyone doubting the accuracy of this statement can easily check the historical source material to confirm it.  For example, in a rant against E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology in the New York Review of Books, which Lewontin co-authored with Gould and others, we find, along with copious references to the “genetic determinist” bugbear,

We are not denying that there are genetic components to human behavior. But we suspect that human biological universals are to be discovered more in the generalities of eating, excreting and sleeping than in such specific and highly variable habits as warfare, sexual exploitation of women and the use of money as a medium of exchange.

Anyone still inclined to believe that Lewontin wasn’t a “real” Blank Slater need only consult the title of his most significant book on the subject, Not In Our Genes, published in 1984.  What on earth was he referring to as “not in our genes,” if not innate behavior?  As it happens, that book is an excellent reference for anyone who cares to examine the idiosyncratic fashion in which the Blank Slaters were in the habit of doing “science.”  Here are some examples, beginning with the “genetic determinist” bogeyman:

Biological determinism (biologism) has been a powerful mode of explaining the observed inequalities of status, wealth, and power in contemporary industrial capitalist societies, and of defining human “universals” of behavior as natural characteristics of these societies.  As such, it has been gratefully seized upon as a political legitimator by the New Right, which finds its social nostrums so neatly mirrored in nature; for if these inequalities are biologically determined, they are therefore inevitable and immutable.

Biological determinist ideas are part of the attempt to preserve the inequalities of our society and to shape human nature in their own image.  The exposure of the fallacies and political content of those ideas is part of the struggle to eliminate those inequalities and to transform our society.

All of these recent political manifestations of biological determinism have in common that they are directly opposed to the political and social demands of those without power.

The Nobel Prize laureate Konrad Lorenz, in a scientific paper on animal behavior in 1940 in Germany during the Nazi extermination campaign said:  “The selection of toughness, heroism, social utility… must be accomplished by some human institutions if mankind in default of selective factors, is not to be ruined by domestication induced degeneracy.  The racial idea as the basis of the state has already accomplished much in this respect.”  He was only applying the view of the founder of eugenics, Sir Francis Galton, who sixty years before wondered that “there exists a sentiment, for the most part quite unreasonable, against the gradual extinction of an inferior race.”  What for Galton was a gradual process became rather more rapid in the hands of Lorenz’s efficient friends.  As we shall see, Galton and Lorenz are not atypical.

Of course, Lewontin is a Marxist.  Apparently, by applying the “dialectic,” he has determined that the fact that the process was even more rapid and efficient in the hands of his Communist friends doesn’t have quite the same “ideological” significance.  As far as eugenics is concerned, it was primarily promoted by leftists and “progressives” in its heyday.  Apparently Lewontin “forgot” that as well, for, continuing in the same vein, he writes:

The sorry history of this century of insistence on the iron nature of biological determination of criminality and degeneracy, leading to the growth of the eugenics movement, sterilization laws, and the race science of Nazi Germany has frequently been told.

The claim that “human nature” guarantees that inherited differences between individuals and groups will be translated into a hierarchy of status, wealth, and power completes the total ideology of biological determinism.  To justify their original ascent to power, the new middle class had to demand a society in which “intrinsic merit” could be rewarded.  To maintain their position they now claim that intrinsic merit, once free to assert itself, will be rewarded, for it is “human nature” to form hierarchies of power and reward.

Biological determinism, as we have been describing it, draws its human nature ideology largely from Hobbes and the Social Darwinists, since these are the principles on which bourgeois political economy are founded.

Everyone had to be stretched or squeezed to fit on the Procrustean bed of Lewontin’s Marxist dogma. In the process, E. O. Wilson became a “bourgeois” like all the rest:

More, by emphasizing that even altruism is the consequence of selection for reproductive selfishness, the general validity of individual selfishness in behaviors is supported.  E. O. Wilson has identified himself with American neoconservative liberalism, which holds that society is best served by each individual acting in a self-serving manner, limited only in the case of extreme harm to others.  Sociobiology is yet another attempt to put a natural scientific foundation under Adam Smith.  It combines vulgar Mendelism, vulgar Darwinism, and vulgar reductionism in the service of the status quo.

This, then, was the type of “scientific” criticism favored by the ideologues of the Blank Slate.  They had an ideological agenda, and so assumed that everything that anyone else thought, wrote, or said, must be part of an ideological agenda as well.  There could be no such thing as “mere disagreement.”  Disagreement implied a different agenda, opposed to clearing the path to the Brave New World favored by the Blank Slaters.  By so doing it sought to institutionalize inequality, racism, and the evil status quo, and was therefore criminal.

It’s hard to imagine anything more important than getting the historical record of the Blank Slate affair straight.  We possess the means of committing suicide as a species.  Self-knowledge is critical if we are to avoid that fate.  The Blank Slate orthodoxy planted itself firmly in the path of any advance in human self-knowledge for a great many more years than we could afford to squander.  In spite of that, the bowdlerization of history continues.  Lewontin and the other high priests of the Blank Slate are being reinvented as paragons of reason, who were anything but “blank slaters” themselves, but merely applied some salutary adult supervision to the worst excesses of evolutionary psychology.  Often, they left themselves such an “out” to their own eventual rehabilitation by themselves protesting that they weren’t “blank slaters” at all.  For example, again quoting from Lewontin:

Yet, at the same time, we deny that human beings are born tabulae rasae, which they evidently are not, and that individual human beings are simple mirrors of social circumstances.  If that were the case, there could be no social evolution.

One can easily see through this threadbare charade by merely taking the trouble to actually read Lewontin.  What Pinker has to say as noted above about the degree to which he was “not a blank slater” is entirely accurate.  I know of not a single instance in which he has ever agreed that anything commonly referred to in the vernacular as “human nature,” as opposed to urinating, defecating, being taller than a squirrel, etc., is real.  Throughout his career he has rejected the behavioral hypotheses of ethology (yes, I am referring to the behavior of animals other than man, as well as our own species), sociobiology, and evolutionary psychology root and branch.

It has been said that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.  However, it’s not out of the question that we don’t have enough time left to enjoy the luxury of making the same mistake twice.  Under the circumstances, we would be well-advised to take a very dim view of any future saviors of the world who show signs of adopting political vilification as their way of “doing science.”

On the Continuing Adventures of the “Killer Ape Theory” Zombie

An article entitled “The Evolution of War – A User’s Guide,” recently turned up at “This View of Life,” a website hosted by David Sloan Wilson. Written by Anthony Lopez, it is one of the more interesting artifacts of the ongoing “correction” of the history of the debate over human nature I’ve seen in a while. One of the reasons it’s so remarkable is that Wilson himself is one of the foremost proponents of the theory of group selection, Lopez claims in his article that one of the four “major theoretical positions” in the debate over the evolution of war is occupied by the “group selectionists,” and yet he conforms to the prevailing academic conceit of studiously ignoring the role of Robert Ardrey, who was not only the most influential player in the “origins of war” debate, but overwhelmingly so in the whole “Blank Slate” affair as well. Why should that be so remarkable? Because at the moment the academics’ main rationalization for pretending they never heard of a man named Ardrey is (you guessed it) his support for group selection!

When it comes to the significance of Ardrey, you don’t have to take my word for it. His was the most influential voice in a growing chorus that finally smashed the Blank Slate orthodoxy. The historical source material is all still there for anyone who cares to trouble themselves to check it. One invaluable piece thereof is “Man and Aggression,” a collection of essays edited by arch-Blank Slater Ashley Montagu and aimed mainly at Ardrey, with occasional swipes at Konrad Lorenz, and with William Golding, author of “Lord of the Flies,” thrown in for comic effect. The last I looked you could still pick it up for a penny at Amazon. For example, from one of the essays by psychologist Geoffrey Gorer,

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.

In case you’ve been asleep for the last half a century, the Blank Slate affair was probably the greatest debacle in the history of science. The travails of Galileo and the antics of Lysenko are child’s play in comparison. For decades, whole legions of “men of science” in the behavioral sciences pretended to believe there was no such thing as human nature. As was obvious to any ten year old, that position was not only not “science,” it was absurd on the face of it. However, it was required as a prop for a false political ideology, and so it stood for half a century and more. Anyone who challenged it was quickly slapped down as a “fascist,” a “racist,” or a denizen of the “extreme right wing.” Then Ardrey appeared on the scene. He came from the left of the ideological spectrum himself, but also happened to be an honest man. The main theme of all his work in general, and the four popular books he wrote between 1961 and 1976 in particular, was that here is such a thing as human nature, and that it is important. He insisted on that point in spite of a storm of abuse from the Blank Slate zealots. On that point, on that key theme, he has been triumphantly vindicated. Almost all the “men of science,” in psychology, sociology, and anthropology were wrong, and he was right.

Alas, the “men of science” could not bear the shame. After all, Ardrey was not one of them. Indeed, he was a mere playwright! How could men like Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Moliere possibly know anything about human nature? Somehow, they had to find an excuse for dropping Ardrey down the memory hole, and find one they did! There were actually more than one, but the main one was group selection. Writing in “The Selfish Gene” back in 1976, Richard Dawkins claimed that Ardrey, Lorenz, and Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt were “totally and utterly wrong,” not because they insisted there was such a thing as human nature, but because of their support for group selection! Fast forward to 2002, and Steven Pinker managed the absurd feat of writing a whole tome about the Blank Slate that only mentioned Ardrey in a single paragraph, and then only to assert that he had been “totally and utterly wrong,” period, on Richard Dawkins’ authority, and with no mention of group selection as the reason. That has been the default position of the “men of science” ever since.

Which brings us back to Lopez’ paper. He informs us that one of the “four positions” in the debate over the evolution of war is “The Killer Ape Hypothesis.” In fact, there never was a “Killer Ape Hypothesis” as described by Lopez. It was a strawman, pure and simple, concocted by Ardrey’s enemies. Note that, in spite of alluding to this imaginary “hypothesis,” Lopez can’t bring himself to mention Ardrey. Indeed, so effective has been the “adjustment” of history that, depending on his age, it’s quite possible that he’s never even heard of him. Instead, Konrad Lorenz is dragged in as an unlikely surrogate, even though he never came close to supporting anything even remotely resembling the “Killer Ape Hypothesis.” His main work relevant to the origins of war was “On Aggression,” and he hardly mentioned apes in it at all, focusing instead mainly on the behavior of fish, birds and rats.

And what of Ardrey? As it happens, he did write a great deal about our ape-like ancestors. For example, he claimed that Raymond Dart had presented convincing statistical evidence that one of them, Australopithecus africanus, had used weapons and hunted. That statistical evidence has never been challenged, and continues to be ignored by the “men of science” to this day. Without bothering to even mention it, C. K. Brain presented an alternative hypothesis that the only acts of “aggression” in the caves explored by Dart had been perpetrated by leopards. In recent years, as the absurdities of his hypothesis have been gradually exposed, Brain has been in serious row back mode, and Dart has been vindicated to the point that he is now celebrated as the “father of cave taphonomy.”

Ardrey also claimed that our apelike ancestors had hunted, most notably in his last book, “The Hunting Hypothesis.” When Jane Goodall published her observation of chimpanzees hunting, she was furiously vilified by the Blank Slaters. She, too, has been vindicated. Eventually, even PBS aired a program about hunting behavior in early hominids, and, miraculously, just this year even the impeccably politically correct “Scientific American” published an article confirming the same in the April edition! In a word, we have seen the vindication of these two main hypotheses of Ardrey concerning the behavior of our apelike and hominid ancestors. Furthermore, as I have demonstrated with many quotes from his work in previous posts, he was anything but a “genetic determinist,” and, while he strongly supported the view that innate predispositions, or “human nature,” if you will, have played a significant role in the genesis of human warfare, he clearly did not believe that it was unavoidable or inevitable.  In fact, that belief is one of the main reasons he wrote his books.  In spite of that, the “Killer Ape” zombie marches on, and turns up as one of the “four positions” that are supposed to “illuminate” the debate over the origins of war, while another of the “positions” is supposedly occupied by of all things, “group selectionists!” History is nothing if not ironical.

Lopez’ other two “positions” include “The Strategic Ape Hypothesis,” and “The Inventionists.” I leave the value of these remaining “positions” to those who want to “examine the layout of this academic ‘battlefield’”, as he puts it, to the imagination of my readers. Other than that, I can only suggest that those interested in learning the truth, as opposed to the prevailing academic narrative, concerning the Blank Slate debacle would do better to look at the abundant historical source material themselves than to let someone else “interpret” it for them.

Nature vs. Nurture at the Movies: Hollywood Turns on the Blank Slate

If Hollywood is any guide, we can put a fork in the Blank Slate.  I refer, of course, to the delusional orthodoxy that was enforced by the “Men of Science” in the behavioral sciences for more than half a century, according to which there is no such thing as human nature.  Consider, for example, the movie Divergent.  It belongs to the dystopian genre beloved of American audiences, and is set in post-apocalyptic Chicago.  A semblance of order has been restored by arranging the surviving population into five factions based on what the evolutionary psychologists might call their innate predispositions.  They include Candor, whose supreme values are honesty and trustworthiness, and from whose ranks come the legal scholars and lawyers.  The brave and daring are assigned to the Dauntless faction, and become the defenders of the little city-state.  At the opposite extreme is Amity, the home of those who value kindness, forgiveness and trust, and whose summum bonum is peace.  Their admiration for self-reliance suits them best for the agricultural chores.  Next comes Abnegation, composed of the natural do-gooders of society.  So selfless that they can only bear to look in a mirror for a few seconds, they are deemed so incorruptible that they are entrusted with the leadership and government of the city.  Finally, the intelligent and curious are assigned to the Erudite faction.  They fill such roles as doctors, scientists, and record-keepers.  They are also responsible for technological advances, which include special “serums,” some of which are identified with particular factions.  One of these is a “simulation serum,” used to induce imaginary scenarios that test a subject’s aptitude for the various factions.

As it happens, the simulation serum doesn’t always work.  When the heroine, Tris, takes the test, she discovers that she can “finesse” the simulation.  She is a rare instance of an individual whose nature does not uniquely qualify her for any faction, but who is adaptable enough to fit adequately into several of them.  In other words, she is a “Divergent,” and as such, a free thinker and a dire threat to anyone who might just happen to have plans to misuse the serums to gain absolute control over the city.

Alas, there’s trouble in paradise.  The “factions” are groups, and where there are groups, there are ingroups and outgroups.  Sure enough, each “in-faction” has its own “out-faction.”  This aspect of the plot is introduced matter-of-factly, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.  And, of course, since it can be assumed that the audience will consist largely of the species Homo sapiens, it is.  Most of us, with the exception of a few aging behavioral scientists, are familiar with the fact that it is our nature to apply different versions of morality depending on whether we are dealing with one of “us” or one of the “others.”  It turns out that Abnegation is the outgroup of Erudite, who consider them selfish poseurs, and weak and cowardly to boot.  That being the case, it follows that Abnegation is completely unsuited to run the government of Chicago or any other post-apocalyptic city state.  That role should belong to Erudite.

Which brings us, of course, to the “bad guy.”  You’ll never guess who the bad guy is, so I’ll just spill the beans.  It’s none other than Kate Winslet!  She plays the cold and nefarious Erudite leader Jeanine Matthews.  These smarties are planning to overthrow Abnegation and seize control for themselves with the aid of the martial Dauntless, whose members have been conveniently mind-controlled with the aid of one of Erudite’s serums.  Eventually, Jeanine unmasks Tris and her amorous partner, Four, as Divergents.  And with them in her power, she treats them to a remarkable soliloquy, which nearly caused me to choke on my butter-slathered popcorn.  Once Erudite is in the saddle, she explains, they will eliminate human nature.  Using a combination of re-education a la Joseph Stalin and mind control drugs, all citizens will become latter day versions of Homo sovieticus, perfectly adapted to fit into the Brave New World planned by the Erudites.  The utopia envisioned by generations of Blank Slaters will be realized at last!

There’s no need for me to reveal any more of the plot.  It’s a very entertaining movie so, by all means, see it yourself.  Suffice it to say that, if Hollywood now associates the denial of human nature with evil bad guys, then the Blank Slate must be stone cold dead.  Or at least it is with the exception of a few ancient Blank Slater bats still hanging in the more dark and obscure belfries of academia.

For the benefit of the history buffs among my readers, I note in passing that Hollywood never quite succumbed to Gleichschaltung.  They were always just a bit out of step, even in the heyday of the Blank Slate orthodoxy.  Consider, for example, Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 movie Straw Dogs.  It was directly inspired by the work of none other than that greatest of bête noires of the Blank Slaters, Robert Ardrey.  The first to taste of the forbidden fruit was Strother Martin, best known for his portrayal of the sadistic “Captain” in Cool Hand Luke (“What we have here is a failure to communicate”).  He, in turn, passed on Ardrey’s African Genesis to Peckinpah, with the remark that the two seemed to share similar attitudes about violence in human beings.  Peckinpah was fascinated, and later said,

Robert Ardrey is a writer I admire tremendously.  I read him after Wild Bunch and have reread his books since because Ardrey really knows where it’s at, Baby.  Man is violent by nature, and we have to learn to live with it and control it if we are to survive.

That statement, rough around the edges though it is, actually shows more insight into the thought of Ardrey than that revealed by about 99.9% of the learned book reviewers and “Men of Science” who have deigned to comment on his work in the ensuing 45 years.  Specifically, Peckinpah understood that Ardrey was no “genetic determinist,” and that he believed that aggressive human predispositions could be controlled by environment, or “culture.”  As it happens, that is a theme he elaborated on repeatedly in every one of his books.  The theme of Straw Dogs was taken directly out of The Territorial Imperative.  According to Ardrey,

There is a law of territorial behavior as true of the single roebuck defending his private estate as it is of a band of howling monkeys defending its domain held in common.  Huxley long ago observed that any territory is like a rubber disc:  the tighter it is compressed, the more powerful will be the pressure outward to spring it back into shape.  A proprietor’s confidence is at its peak in the heartland, as is an intruder’s at its lowest.  Here the proprietor will fight hardest, chase fastest.

In Straw Dogs, Peckinpah’s diminutive hero, timid mathematician David Sumner, played by Dustin Hoffman, travels from the sheltered campus of an American university to be with his young wife, Amy, in her native village in England.  To make a long story short, she is raped by three of the locals.  Eventually, these muscular miscreants are joined by other townspeople in besieging Sumner in his territory, his house, in the mistaken belief that he is knowingly harboring a murderer.  Ardrey’s territorial boost takes over with a vengeance, and Sumner draws on unimagined reserves of strength, courage, and resourcefulness to annihilate the attackers one by one.  As badly behind the PC curve as any Disney film, Hollywood eventually repented and in 2000 churned out an alternative version of Straw Dogs, in which all the violent behavior was “learned.”  By then, however, getting in step meant getting out of step.  Even the Public Broadcasting Network had given the Blank Slate the heave ho years earlier.

Straw Dogs was hardly the first time Hollywood took up the subject of nature versus nurture.  For those whose tastes run more to the intellectual and profound, I have attached a short film below dealing with that theme that predates Peckinpah by almost a quarter of a century.

Troublesome Nick and the Timid Echoes of the Blank Slate

You can still get in trouble for saying things that are true, or, for that matter, even obvious.  Consider, for example, Nicholas Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History.  I haven’t yet read the book, so have no comment on whether any of the specific hypotheses therein are scientifically credible or not.  However, according to the blurb at Amazon, the theme of the book is that there actually is such a thing as human biodiversity (hbd).  So much is, of course, not only true, but obvious.  The problem is that such truths have implications.  If there are significant genetic differences between human groups, then it is unlikely that the influence of those differences on the various metrics of human “success” will be zero.  In other words, we are dealing with a truth that is not only inconvenient, but immoral.  It violates the principle of equality. 

It is only to be expected that there will be similarities between the reaction to this particular immoral truth and those that have been observed in response to other immoral truths in the past.  Typical reactions among those whose moral emotions have been aroused by such truths have been denial, vilification of the messenger, and the invention of straw men that are easier targets than the truth itself.  All these reactions occurred in response to what is probably the most familiar example of an immoral truth; the fact that genes influence behavior, or, if you will, that there actually is such a thing as “human nature.”  In that case, denial took the form of the Blank Slate orthodoxy, which perverted and derailed progress in the behavioral sciences for more than half a century.  The messengers were condemned, not only with the long since hackneyed accusation of racism, but with a host of other political and moral shortcomings.  The most familiar straw man was, of course, the “genetic determinist.”

Predictably, the response to Wade’s book has been similar.  Not so predictable has been the muted nature of that response.  Compared to the vicious attacks on the messengers who debunked the Blank Slate, it has been pianissimo, and even apologetic.  It would almost seem as if the current paragons of moral purity among us have actually been chastened by the collapse of that quasi-religious orthodoxy.  Allow me to illustrate with an example from the past.  It took the form of a response to the publication of E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology in 1975.  Entitled Against “Sociobiology”, it appeared in the New York Review of Books shortly after Wilson’s book was published.  As it happens, it didn’t have just one author. It had a whole gang, including such high priests of the Blank Slate as Steven Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin. The message, of course, was that all right-thinking people agreed that the book should be on the proscribed list, and not just a mere individual. Anathemas were rained down on the head of Wilson with all the pious self-assurance of those who were cocksure they controlled the message of “science.” For example,

 The reason for the survival of these recurrent determinist theories is that they consistently tend to provide a genetic justification of the status quo and of existing privileges for certain groups according to class, race or sex. Historically, powerful countries or ruling groups within them have drawn support for the maintenance or extension of their power from these products of the scientific community.

 Wilson joins the long parade of biological determinists whose work has served to buttress the institutions of their society by exonerating them from responsibility for social problems.

and, of course, the de rigueur association of Wilson with the Nazis:

 These theories provided an important basis for the enactment of sterilization laws and restrictive immigration laws by the United States between 1910 and 1930 and also for the eugenics policies which led to the establishment of gas chambers in Nazi Germany.

Now, fast forward the better part of four decades and consider a similar diatribe by one of the current crop of the self-appointed morally pure.  The paragon of righteousness in question is Andrew Gelman, and the title of his bit is The Paradox of Racism. True, Gelman doesn’t leave us in suspense about whether he’s in the ranks of the just and good or not. He can’t even wait until he’s past the title of his article to accuse Wade of racism. However, having established his bona fides, he adopts a conciliatory, and almost apologetic tone. For example,

Wade is clearly intelligent and thoughtful, and his book is informed by the latest research in genetics.

Wade does not characterize himself as a racist, writing, “no one has the right or reason to assert superiority over a person of a different race.” But I characterize his book as racist based on the dictionary definition: per Merriam-Webster, “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” Wade’s repeated comments about creativity, intelligence, tribalism, and so forth seem to me to represent views of superiority and inferiority.

That said, I can’t say that Wade’s theories are wrong. As noted above, racial explanations of current social and economic inequality are compelling, in part because it is always natural to attribute individuals’ successes and failures to their individual traits, and to attribute the successes and failures of larger societies to group characteristics. And genes provide a mechanism that supplies a particularly flexible set of explanations when linked to culture.

Obviously, Gelman hasn’t been asleep for the last 20 years.  Here we find him peering back over his shoulder, appearing for all the world as if he’s afraid the truth might catch up with him.  He’s aware of the collapse of the Blank Slate orthodoxy, perhaps the greatest debunking of the infallible authority of “science” of all time.  He allows that we might not merely be dealing with a racist individual here, but a racist truth. He even acknowledges that, in that case, something might actually be done about it, implicitly dropping the “genetic determinism” canard:

 Despite Wade’s occasional use of politically conservative signifiers (dismissive remarks about intellectuals and academic leftists, an offhand remark about “global cooling”), I believe him when he writes that “this book is an attempt to understand the world as it is, not as it ought to be.” If researchers ever really can identify ethnic groups with genetic markers for short-term preferences, low intelligence, and an increased proclivity to violence, and other ethnic groups with an affinity for authoritarianism, this is something that more peaceful, democratic policymakers should be aware of.

Indeed, unlike the authors of the earlier paper, Gelman can’t even bring himself to summon up the ghost of Hitler.  He concludes,

 Wade’s arguments aren’t necessarily wrong, just because they look like various erroneous arguments from decades past involving drunken Irishmen, crafty Jews, hot-blooded Spaniards, lazy Africans, and the like.

In a word, Gelman’s remarks are rather more nuanced than the fulminations of his predecessors.  Am I making too much of this apparent change of tone? I don’t think so. True, there are still plenty of fire-breathing Blank Slaters lurking in the more obscure echo chambers of academia, but, like the Communists, they are doing us the favor of gradually dying off. Their latter day replacements, having seen whole legions of behavioral “scientists” exposed as charlatans, are rather less self-assured in their virtuous indignation. Some of them have even resorted to admitting that, while it may be true that there is such a thing as human biodiversity, the masses should be sheltered from that truth. Predictably, they have appointed themselves gatekeepers of the forbidden knowledge.

I note in passing the historical value of the attack on Wilson mentioned above.  Like many similar bits and pieces of source material published in the decade prior to 1975, still easily accessible to anyone who cares to do a little searching, it blows the modern mythology concocted by the evolutionary psychologists to account for the origins of their science completely out of the water.  According to that mythology, it all began with the “big bang” of Wilson’s publication of Sociobiology.  The whole yarn may be found summarized in a nutshell in the textbook Evolutionary Psychology by David Buss.  According to Buss, Sociobiology was “monumental in both size and scope.” It “synthesized under one umbrella a tremendous diversity of scientific endeavors and gave the emerging field (sociobiology) a visible name.”  And so on and so on.  At least that’s the version in my 2009 edition of the book.  “History” might have changed a bit since Wilson’s embrace of group selection in his The Social Conquest of Earth, published in 2012.  We’ll have to wait and see when the next edition of the textbook is published.

Be that as it may, the fact is that the reason for the original notoriety of Sociobiology, and the reason it is not virtually forgotten today, had nothing to do with all the good stuff Wilson packed into the middle 25 chapters of his book that was subsequently the subject of Buss’ panegyrics.  That reason was Wilson’s insistence in the first and last of his 27 chapters that there actually is such a thing as “human nature.” There was nothing in the least novel, original, or revolutionary in that insistence. In fact, it was merely a repetition of what other authors had been writing for more than a decade. Those authors were neither obscure nor ignored, and were recognized by Blank Slaters like Gould and Lewontin as their most influential and effective opponents. They, and not any novel “scientific synthesis,” were the reason that such worthies paid any attention to Wilson’s book at all. And, much as I admire the man, they, and not Wilson, were most influential in unmasking the absurdities of the Blank Slate, causing it to stumble and eventually collapse. Those facts were certainly no secret to the authors of the article.  Allow me to quote them by way of demonstration:

From Herbert Spencer, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” to Konrad Lorenz, Robert Ardrey, and now E. O. Wilson, we have seen proclaimed the primacy of natural selection in determining most important characteristics of human behavior.

Each time these ideas have resurfaced the claim has been made that they were based on new scientific information.

 The latest attempt to reinvigorate these tired theories comes with the alleged creation of a new discipline, sociobiology.

In a word, the Blank Slaters themselves certainly perceived nothing “novel” in Sociobiology. By the time it was published the hypotheses about human nature they objected to in its content were already old hat. They were merely trying to silence yet another voice proclaiming the absence of the emperor’s new clothes. Again, just do a little searching through the historical source material and you’ll find that the loudest and most influential voice of all, and the one that drew the loudest bellows of rage from the Blank Slaters, belonged to one of Wilson’s predecessors mentioned by name in the above quotes; Robert Ardrey. Of course, Ardrey was a “mere playwright,” and it’s a well-known fact that, once one has been a playwright, one is automatically disqualified from becoming a scientist or writing anything that counts as science ever after. Add to that the fact that Ardrey was right when all the scientists with their Ph.D.’s were wrong about human nature, and I think it’s obvious why making him anything like the “father of evolutionary psychology” would be in bad taste. Wilson fits that role nicely, or at least he did until his flirtation with group selection escalated into a full scale romance.  Ergo, Ardrey was declared “totally and utterly wrong,” became an unperson, and Wilson stepped up to fill his ample shoes.  Alas, if past history is any guide, I fear that it eventually may become necessary to drop poor Nick down the memory hole as well.  True, at least the man isn’t a playwright, but he isn’t sporting a Ph.D., either.  Really, how “scientific” can you be if you don’t have a Ph.D.?   In any case, the mythology that passes for the history of evolutionary psychology began “just so.”   

Massimo Pigliucci on Hume and Human Nature

Massimo Pigliucci recently posted an article at his Scientia Salon website exploring the connection between the philosophy of David Hume and the concept of human nature.  Entitled Human Nature, a Humean Take, it’s an interesting artifact of current perceptions in academia of human nature in general and the Blank Slate episode in particular.  Pigliucci is a biologist and philosopher at the City University of New York.  He prides himself on the latter specialty, and will occasionally use it as a bludgeon against his intellectual opponents.   His article begins with the following:

Human nature is a funny thing. Some scientists, like biologist E.O. Wilson and linguist Steven Pinker are pretty convinced it is a real thing, and that it seriously constrains what we are going to do with our lives (the entire discipline of evolutionary psychology, or sociobiology as it was known in its first incarnation, is predicated on it).

Then again, plenty of philosophers I have talked to in recent years seem to be genuinely surprised that one could still talk about such a thing in all seriousness.  Surely that quaint idea went out the window after decades of criticism of genetic determinism, they say.  This, of course, despite the fact that there is a long and venerable tradition in philosophy of perfectly comprehensible talk about human nature.

The first of these two paragraphs is amusing because one of Pigliucci’s pet peeves is “scientism,” and he has singled out Pinker for criticism as one of the foremost proponents of that ideology.  In spite of that, here we find him rattling off Pinker’s “Big Bang” revision of the history of the Blank Slate as if there was nothing in the least controversial about it.  Score one for Pinker.  His fairy tale is all there, complete with the guileless assertion that “sociobiology” was the first incarnation of the discipline of evolutionary psychology.  Of course, as anyone who’s been around long enough is aware, EP didn’t begin with the “Big Bang” of E. O. Wilson’s publication of Sociobiology.  “Ethology” was the vernacular term of choice for what later became evolutionary psychology more than a decade before sociobiology was ever heard of.  To swallow Pinker’s version of history, you have to perform a lobotomy on the 20th century, deleting a period of about a decade and a half starting around 1960, and pretend that the contributions of the likes of Konrad Lorenz, Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, and, last but by no means least, that greatest of all the unpersons of evolutionary psychology, the “playwright,” Robert Ardrey, were either insignificant or, as Richard Dawkins put it in The Selfish Gene, “totally and utterly wrong.”

In the second paragraph of the above quote, we find Pigliucci all unaware that the “philosophers” who were “genuinely surprised” that there is, in fact, an entire academic discipline that does take the notion of human nature “in all seriousness,” are actually leftover Blank Slaters of a type it’s becoming increasingly hard to find outside of the academic echo chamber.  He also seems unaware that the “decades of criticism of genetic determinism,” really amounted to nothing more than the deification of a propaganda slogan.  For all I know, there may actually be “genetic determinists,” but if so, they must be as rare as hen’s teeth.  I’ve never actually seen one.  If any of my readers ever happen to run across the genuine article in a circus sideshow or some similar venue, I would be most grateful if they’d spread the word.

Pigliucci continues,

Indeed, even people like Pinker seem to be sending somewhat mixed messages about the whole concept: on the one hand he vehemently (and justly) attacks the idea of a “blank slate” (though I don’t actually know too many people who hold onto it in anything like the original, strong, Lockeian version. On the other hand, however, he claims — huge data sets in hand — that human beings have been able to yield to the “better angels” of our nature and have progressively built societies characterized by less and less violence.

This is certainly an odd assertion, following on the heels of his assertions that he knows other philosophers who don’t believe in human nature.  I daresay that their version of the “blank slate” is likely to be a great deal “stronger” than Locke’s.  In the first place, it’s ridiculous to link the “blank slatism” of Locke with that of such later thinkers as John Stuart Mill, or the “blank slatism” of Mill with that of such latter day ideologues as Ashley Montagu or Richard Lewontin.  To do so denies to each of them their right to be taken seriously as individual thinkers.  Locke’s “blank slatism” followed from his religious principles.  Mill’s is probably best described as due to the misfortune of writing his Utilitarianism before his thought could be informed by Darwin’s great theory.  For many of the 20th century versions, “blank slatism” was a necessary prop for the assorted utopian social schemes they happened to favor.  Locke’s version was probably not as “strong” as theirs, or, for that matter, as that of Pigliucci’s “philosophers.”  For example, quoting Locke,

Nature, I confess, has put into man a desire of happiness and an aversion to misery: these indeed are innate practical principles which (as practical principles ought) do continue constantly to operate and influence all our actions without ceasing.

 Principles of actions indeed there are lodged in men’s appetites.

One can find a whole menagerie of latter day Blank Slaters whose versions are a great deal “stronger” than this by thumbing through the pages of Man and Aggression, edited by Ashley Montagu, which appeared in 1968.  As for the claim that Pinker is sending a “mixed message” in his The Better Angels of our Nature, it’s nonsense unless you believe that one must either be a Blank Slater or one of those unicorn-like Genetic Determinists. Apparently Pigliucci really believes these two extremes are the norm, and imagines himself in the benevolent role of providing adult supervision.  For example,

Because of my original training as an evolutionary biologist interested in nature-nurture issues, I guess I never understood the (alleged) dichotomy. My basic take is that human behavioral traits (“human nature”) are the result of a continuous and inextricable interaction between our genes and our environments — which means that it makes no sense to ask what percentage of what we do is “caused” by genes and what percentage by the environment. If you add the well established concept, in evolutionary biology, of phenotypic plasticity — the idea that different sets of genes help produce wider or narrower ranges of behaviors in response to the quality of environmental inputs, and that the majority of these environmental inputs are nowadays the result of cultural forces — you’ve got a fairly solid framework to argue that yes, there is such a thing as human nature, but no, it isn’t unchangeable.

You might think that this would reassure both the scientists who insists (rightly) that human beings are not infinitely malleable blank slates, and the humanists who are (again, rightly) weary of the sinister socio-political implications of strong biological determinism. Everybody wins, can we go home now?

In fact, as far as human nature is concerned, no such dichotomy has ever existed outside of the fevered imaginations of Pigliucci’s Blank Slate “philosophers.”  If he would trouble himself to read the first chapter of any undergraduate Evolutionary Psychology textbook, he will notice that the point is usually forcefully made that no such dichotomy exists.  Certainly such Pinkerian unpersons as Lorenz and Ardrey constantly insisted there was no such dichotomy, as did E. O. Wilson.  When Pigliucci claims that “percentages make no sense,” he is simply misrepresenting the claims of the users of the mathematical techniques he alludes to.  Finally, when he claims that, “yes, there is such a thing as human nature, but no, it isn’t unchangeable,” he reveals a deep misunderstanding of what is actually meant by the term, “human nature.”  The term is both meaningless and useless unless one is referring to a bag of behavioral traits whose ultimate cause is to be found in our genes.  The fact that the expression of those traits can take on an infinity of different forms does not imply any change in that ultimate cause.  The only way in which “human nature” can change is via genetic change.

Which brings us to David Hume.  He was a brilliant thinker, and what he had to say about human nature is one of the best refutations of “scientism” I am aware of.  Anyone who thinks science has made philosophy irrelevant needs to read him.  The question is, why was he relevant?  I think the best answer to that question was given by Jonathan Haidt in his The Righteous Mind.  Indeed, Haidt is now at NYU, and Pigliucci could do worse than to jump on the subway and ride down to the other end of Manhattan for a visit.  Here’s what Haidt has to say about Hume in a sub-heading entitled The Birth of Moral Science beginning on page 114 of the hardcover version of his book:

Hume’s work on morality was the quintessential Enlightenment project:  an exploration of an area previously owned by religion, using the methods and attitudes of the new natural sciences.  His first great work, A Treatise of Human Nature, had this subtitle:  Being an Attempt to Introduce the Experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects.  Hume believed that “moral science” had to begin with careful inquiry into what humans are really like.  And when he examined human nature – in history, in political affairs, and among his fellow philosophers – he saw that “sentiment” (intuition) is the driving force of our moral lives, whereas reasoning is biased and impotent, fit primarily to be a servant of the passions.  He also saw a diversity of virtues, and he rejected attempts by some of his contemporaries to reduce all of morality to a single virtue such as kindness, or to do away with virtues and replace them with a few moral laws.

Haidt continues with a quote of the great philosopher himself,

Morality is nothing in the abstract Nature of Things, but is entirely relative to the S3entiment or mental Taste of each particular Being; in the same Manner as the Distinctions of sweet and bitter, hot and cold, arise from the particular feeling of each Sense or Organ.  Moral Perceptions therefore, ought not to be class’d with the Operations of Understanding, but with the Tastes or Sentiments.

For someone writing long before Darwin, it’s hard to think of anyone, philosopher or scientist, who came up with an insight more brilliant than that.  For the reasons for that statement, by all means, read Haidt’s book.  Unfortunately, Pigliucci, who piques himself on his profound philosophical insight, can’t leave it at that.  He insists on teasing something more out of Hume.  Eventually, after ruminations which I leave the interested reader to peruse for himself, he gets from point A, the actual writings of Hume, to point B, which he states as follows:

At any rate, the basic, somewhat Humean (or Hume-inspired) outline of what I’m thinking about is that human nature — i.e., what it is to be human, as opposed to, say, being chimpanzee — evolves both genetically and culturally, with the two constantly interacting with each other, and yet, I think, with the cultural component becoming more and more independent of the genetic one.

One must hope that Hume would have disavowed this fanciful interpretation of his work.  The “cultural component” would not exist without its genetic ultimate cause.  This amounts to the same thing as claiming that, because culture has enabled our legs to perform intricate and unprecedented dances, and to jump unprecedented distances, and to climb Mount Everest, our legs are therefore becoming independent of their genetic origins.  In other words, it’s nonsense.  Pigliucci continues,

Consider, as a controversial example, Pinker’s own theory in The Better Angels of Our Nature, that violence has more or less steadily gone down throughout human history (yes, despite two world wars in the 20th century!) at the least in part because of our ability to talk to each other and originate and spread (philosophical) ideas about democracy, justice, and so on. If Pinker’s outline is even remotely close to the truth, then we have a situation where pre-existing feelings of intra-group fairness and cooperation, which we inherited from our primate ancestors, gradually, via cultural evolution, got more elaborated and became applied more broadly, generating what Peter Singer refers to as our enlarging circle of empathy and moral concern.

The idea is that if, indeed, we are making moral progress (as Singer suggests, and as Pinker-style data seem to confirm), then this in an important sense counts as a change in human nature, but it is one achieved largely via cultural evolution, itself grounded in our specific genetic heritage as social primates.

In other words, by enlisting Hume in a cause I daresay the great philosopher would have strenuously objected to were he still among us, Pigliucci ends by claiming that there actually is something as un-Humean as “moral progress,” and that the fictional existence of such a thing counts as a “change in human nature.”  He tops it off with the non sequitur that this “change in human nature” is “achieved largely via cultural evolution, itself grounded in our specific genetic heritage as social primates.

What can I say?  I suppose that, first of all, I must congratulate Steven Pinker.  His imaginary “history” of the Blank Slate has apparently been swallowed, even by someone who is one of his most eloquent academic opponents.  In other words, his fiction is well on the way to becoming the “truth.”  And who is likely to ever question the “truth?”  After all, most serious history is now written by academics, and what academic is ever likely to draw down the ire of the rest of his tribe by insisting that the “men of science” were full of crap for more than half a decade, but were finally forced to admit they were wrong by a playwright?  Good luck with that.

Other than that, apparently the concept of “human nature,” a vernacular term understood by virtually every member of our species above the age of 10 as something constant and unchanging in our behavioral repertoire, is not so understood in academia, or at least not universally.  It remains to find a ten-year-old with sufficient influence and charm to explain the concept to the academics.

David Hume
David Hume

Of Genetic Determinists and Unicorns

There are and have been legions of cultural determinists, that is, people who believe that all human behavior, or all that really matters, is a product of learning, experience, and culture.  For example, a whole gang of them self-identify in that invaluable little fragment of historical source material, Man and Aggression, a collection of essays edited by arch-Blank Slater Ashley Montagu and published back in 1968.  Presumably, genetic determinists are the opposite; those who believe that our behavior is “all in our genes.”  For all I know, such beings may actually exist, or have existed once upon a time.  If so, however, they must be as rare as unicorns, for I have never actually seen one, or even found an artifact of one in the literature.

We are a diligent species, though, and the search for them goes on.  Those on the quest include the usual suspects among the left over Blank Slaters, “modern” cultural determinists who accept the idea that genes might influence behavior, but react with fury or scorn if anyone dares to suggest a specific example or says anything mildly supportive of evolutionary psychology, and, well, others, people who for one reason or another become queasy at the thought that those nasty little snippets of DNA might be missing with their free will.

One lucky prospector by the name of Nathaniel Comfort, a professor in the Department of the History of Medicine at Johns Hopkins, recently imagined he’d struck pay dirt.  And who can blame him?  He stumbled across an article by Bruce Grierson at the Pacific Standard website entitled, Is the Will to Work Out Genetically Determined?  I must admit that the thought of someone so naïve as to pen such a title in this day and age is, as one of Evelyn Waugh’s “bright young things” might have put it, terribly shy-making.  It’s something like watching a politician from the sticks guilelessly telling an ethnic joke in his first speech on the floor of Congress.  However, if you actually read the article, it’s clear enough Grierson isn’t the real thing.  For example, he writes,

There’s increasing evidence that the will to work out is partly genetically determined.

Well, if the will to work out is “partly” genetically determined, then it must be “partly” culturally determined as well.  In other words, while Grierson did commit the sin of using the naughty word “determined,” he can’t really be a “genetic determinist” unless he’s also a “cultural determinist” at the same time.  If you actually read the article, you’ll find that Grierson is actually a freelance writer who’s just written an inspirational book, entitled What Makes Olga Run, about Olga Kotelko, a 94-year old athlete whose favorite pastime is working out.  Olga also appears in his article, along with the speculation that her DNA might have something to do with her affinity for staying in shape.  Such speculation might have been “out there” among the more puritanical Blank Slaters of the 1960’s, but wouldn’t raise many eyebrows today.

However, for whatever reason, Prof. Comfort saw red when the phrase “genetically determined” popped up on his radar screen, for all the world as if he were one of the hoary Blank Slaters of yore.  I doubt that he actually is one, because his writing lacks that faint, characteristic stench of Marxism.  For all that, he struck a pious pose that would have done any of them proud, and proceeded to scribble a fiery denunciation of the evil “genetic determinist” on his Genotopia website, sporting the sanctimonious title, Genetic Determinism:  Why We Never Learn – and Why it Matters.  With a stern shake of the head he writes,

What’s troubling here is the genetic determinism… Reducing a complex behavior to a single gene gives us blinders:  it tends to turn social problems into molecular ones.

Untroubled by the fact that nowhere in his article does Grierson come anywhere near “reducing a complex behavior to a single gene,” he charges on to accuse him of guilt by association with the popular science writers who coined the term “warrior gene,” referring to an allele of the monoamine oxidase A (MAOA) gene.  That gene, which is associated with the breakdown of certain neurotransmitters in the brain, is indeed responsible for increased levels of aggression in response to provocation, according to several papers that have appeared in the literature over the years.  I read a couple of the ones most often cited, and both of them emphasized the prominent role of environment in moderating the influence of the gene.  Neither of them makes the claim that the gene “determines” behavior, or anything close to it.  Many other papers on the subject are referenced at the Wiki page on the gene, in case the interested reader wants to go searching for a stray genetic determinist on his own.  Ignoring the actual content of these papers, Comfort thunders on,

The best science writers understand and even write about how to avoid determinist language.  In 2010, Ed Yong wrote an excellent analysis of how, in the 1990’s, the monoamine oxidase A (MAOA) gene became mis- and oversold as “the warrior gene.”  What’s wrong with a little harmless sensationalism?  Plenty, says Yong.  First, catchy names like “warrior gene” are bound to be misleading.  They are ways of grabbing the audience, not describing the science, so they oversimplify and distort in a lazy effort to connect with a scientifically unsophisticated audience.  Second, there is no such thing as a “gene for” anything interesting.  Nature and nurture are inextricable.

As far as the “best science writers” are concerned, you can say that again.  They’re well aware by now of the vigilance of the pathologically pious among us for any language that might justify a delicious rant about “determinism.”  As for admonishing popular science writers to stop writing catchy headlines, good luck with that.  Beyond that, of course, is the stubborn fact that neither Grierson nor the authors of the MAOA papers ever claimed that “nature and nurture are extricable.”

More troubling is Comfort’s insistence that there is no such thing as a “gene for” anything interesting.  If I were a pedant, I could come up with all kinds of good-sounding reasons for denouncing people who use the term “gene for.”  However, it would be at the expense of deliberately blinding myself and my readers to some important facts about evolution.  Allow me to quote from Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene at length on the subject:

For the purposes of argument it will be necessary to speculate about genes ‘for’ doing all sorts of improbable things.  If I speak, for example, of a hypothetical gene ‘for saving companions from drowning’, and you find such a concept incredible, remember the story of the hygienic bees.  Recall that we are not talking about the gene as the sole antecedent cause of all the complex muscular contractions, sensory integrations, and even conscious decisions, that are involved in saving somebody from drowning.  We are saying nothing about the question of whether learning, experience, or environmental influences enter into the development of the behavior.  All you have to concede is that it is possible for a single gene, other things being equal and lots of other essential genes and environmental factors being present, to make a body more likely to save somebody from drowning than its allele would.  The difference between the two genes may turn out at bottom to be a slight difference in some simple quantitative variable.  The details of the embryonic developmental process, interesting as they may be, are irrelevant to evolutionary considerations.

That is, at least in my experience, the sense in which the term “gene for” is normally used.  One wonders what on earth Comfort is thinking when he claims that “there is no such thing as a ‘gene for’ anything interesting.”  If that’s true, how was it possible for evolution to happen?  Did cosmic rays set off sprays of ionizing radiation that just happened to hit whole gene complexes in just the right places, all at the same time?

But Comfort isn’t through with the unsuspecting Grierson yet.  It turns out he is also a villain for daring to suggest that some pill might be invented to channel dangerous drug and other addictions into a “good” addiction to working out.  Comfort pontificates that Grierson’s fall from a state of grace into such potentially mortal sins is the entirely predictable result of sliding down the slippery slope from the original sin of “determinism.”  I’m no partisan of the pharmaceutical companies myself, but this strikes me as a bit overwrought.

What can I say, other to inform Prof. Comfort that the glittering trinket he dug up is actually fool’s gold?  On the other hand, I personally would be willing to part with a quarter at a circus side show to see a genuine genetic determinist if one is ever actually discovered.  If the truth be told, though, I would rather see a unicorn.