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

    Posted on August 18th, 2018 Helian No comments

    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.

  • More Egg on Pinker’s Face: E. O. Wilson’s “The Origins of Creativity”

    Posted on March 12th, 2018 Helian No comments

    If you’re expecting a philosophical epiphany, E. O. Wilson’s The Origins of Creativity isn’t for you. His theme is that science and the humanities can form a grandiose union leading to a “third enlightenment” if only scholars in the humanities would come up to speed with advances in the sciences via “thorough application of five disciplines – paleontology, anthropology, psychology, evolutionary biology, and neurobiology.”  Good luck with that.  We can smile and nod as the old man rambles on about his latest grand, intellectual scheme, though.  He isn’t great because of such brainstorms.  He’s great because he combines courage and common sense with an ability to identify questions that are really worth asking.  That’s what you’ll discover if you read his books, and that’s why they’re well worth reading.  You might even say he’s succeeded in realizing his own dream to some extent, because reading Wilson is like reading a good novel.  You constantly run across anecdotes about interesting people, tips about unfamiliar authors who had important things to say, and thought provoking comments about the human condition.  For example, in “The Origins of Creativity” you’ll find a portrayal of the status games played by Harvard professors, his take on why he thinks Vladimir Nabokov is a better novelist than Jonathan Franzen, his reasons for asserting that, when it comes to the important questions facing humanity, “the grail to be sought is the nature of consciousness, and how it originated,” and some interesting autobiographical comments to boot.

    Those who love to explore the little ironies of history will also find some interesting nuggets in Wilson’s latest. The history I’m referring to is, of course, that of the Blank Slate.  For those who haven’t heard of it, it was probably the greatest perversion of science of all time.  For more than half a century, a rigid orthodoxy was imposed on the behavioral sciences according to which there is no such thing as human nature, that at birth our minds are “blank slates,” and that all human behavior is learned.  This dogma, transparently ludicrous to any reasonably intelligent child, has always been attractive to those whose tastes run to utopian schemes that require human behavior to be a great deal more “malleable” than it actually is.  Communism, fashionable during the heyday of the Blank Slate, is a case in point.

    Where does Wilson fit in?  Well, in 1975, he published Sociobiology, in a couple of chapters of which he suggested that there may actually be such a thing as human nature, and it may actually be important.  In doing so he became the first important member of the academic tribe to break ranks with the prevailing orthodoxy.  By that time, however, the Blank Slate had already long been brilliantly debunked and rendered a laughing stock among intelligent lay people by an outsider; a man named Robert Ardrey.  Ardrey wrote a series of books on the subject beginning with African Genesis in 1961.  He had been seconded by other authors, such as Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox, long before the appearance of Sociobiology.  Eventually, the behavioral “scientists” were forced to throw in the towel and jettison the Blank Slate orthodoxy.  However, it was much to humiliating for them to admit the truth – that they had all been exposed as charlatans by Ardrey, a man who had spent much of his life as a “mere playwright.”  Instead, they anointed Wilson, a member of their own tribe, as the great hero who had demolished the Blank Slate.  This grotesque imposture was enshrined in Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, which now passes as the official “history” of the affair.

    Where does the irony come in?  Well, Pinker needed some plausible reason to ignore Ardrey.  The deed was done crudely enough.  He simply declared that Ardrey had been “totally and utterly wrong,” based on the authority of a comment to that effect in Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene.  In the process, he didn’t mention exactly what it was that Ardrey was supposed to have been “totally and utterly wrong” about.  After all, to all appearances the man had been “totally and utterly” vindicated.  As it happens, Dawkins never took issue with the main theme of all of Ardrey’s books; that there is such a thing as human nature, and it is important and essential to understanding the human condition.  He merely asserted in a single paragraph of the book that Ardrey, along with Konrad Lorenz and Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, had been wrong in endorsing group selection, the notion that natural selection can operate at the level of the group as well as of the individual or gene.  In other words, Pinker’s whole, shabby rationale for dismissing Ardrey was based on his support for group selection, an issue that was entirely peripheral to the overall theme of all Ardrey’s work.  Now for the irony – in his last three books, including his latest, Wilson has come out unabashedly and whole heartedly in favor of (you guessed it) group selection!

    In The Origins of Creativity Wilson seems to be doing his very best to rub salt in the wound.  In his last book, The Hunting Hypothesis, Ardrey had elaborated on the theory, also set forth in all his previous books, that the transition from ape to man had been catalyzed by increased dependence on hunting and meat eating.  The Blank Slaters long insisted that early man had never been guilty of such “aggressive” behavior, and that if he had touched meat at all, it must have been acquired by scavenging.  They furiously attacked Ardrey for daring to suggest that he had hunted.  If you watch the PBS documentary on the recent discovery of the remains of Homo naledi, you’ll see that the ancient diehards among them have never given up this dogma.  They insist that Homo naledi was a vegetarian even though, to the best of my knowledge, no one had even contended that he wasn’t, going so far as to actually call out the “unperson” Ardrey by name.  The realization that they were still so bitter after all these years brought a smile to my face.  What really set them off was Ardrey’s support for a theory first proposed by Raymond Dart that hunting had actually begun very early, in the pre-human species Australopithecus africanus. Well, if they were still mad at Ardrey, they’ll be livid when they read what Wilson has to say on the subject in his latest, such as,

    By a widespread consensus, the scenario drawn by scientists thus far begins with the shift by one of the African australopiths away from a vegetarian diet to one rich in cooked meat.  The event was not a casual change as in choosing from a menu, nor was it a mere re-wiring of the palate.  Rather the change was a full hereditary makeover in anatomy, physiology, and behavior.

    and

    This theoretical reconstruction has gained traction from fossil remains and the lifestyles of contemporary hunter-gatherers.  Meat from larger prey was shared, as it is by wolves, African wild dogs, and lions.  Given, in addition, the relatively high degree of intelligence possessed by large, ground-dwelling primates in general, the stage was then set in prehuman evolution for an unprecedented degree of cooperation and division of labor.

    Here, Wilson almost seems to be channeling Ardrey.  But wait, there’s more.  This one is for the real historical connoisseurs out there.  As noted above, in the bit from The Selfish Gene Pinker used for his clumsy attempt to airbrush Ardrey out of history, Dawkins condemned two others for the sin of supporting group selection as well; Konrad Lorenz and Austrian ethologist Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt.  I suspect Lorenz was a bit too close to Ardrey for comfort, as the two were often condemned by the Blank Slaters in the same breath, but, sure enough, Eibl-Eibesfeldt makes a couple of cameo appearances in Wilson’s latest book!  For example, in chapter 12,

    During his classic field research in the 1960s, the German anthropologist Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt demonstrated in minute detail that people in all societies, from primitive and preliterate to modern and urbanized, use the same wide range of paralinguistic signals.  These entail mostly facial expressions, denoting variously fear, pleasure, surprise, horror, and disgust.  Eibl-Eibesfeldt lived with his subjects and further, to avoid self-conscious behavior, filmed them in their daily lives with a right-angle lens, by which the subject is made to think that the camera is pointed elsewhere.  His general conclusion was that paralinguistic signals are hereditary traits shared by the whole of humanity.

    Brilliant, but according to Pinker this, too, must be “totally and utterly wrong,” since Eibl-Eibesfeldt is mentioned in the very same sentence in Dawkins’ book that he used to redact Ardrey from history!  At least it’s nice to see this bit of vindication for at least one of Pinker’s “totally and utterly wrong” trio.  I suspect Wilson is perfectly well aware of the dubious nature of Pinker’s “history,” but I doubt if he will ever have anything to say about Lorenz, not to mention Ardrey.  He has too much interest in preserving his own legacy for that.  I can’t really blame a man his age for wanting to go down in history as the heroic knight in shining armor who slew the Blank Slate dragon. He actually tries to push the envelope a bit in his latest with comments like,

    At first thought, this concept of kin selection, extended beyond nepotism to cooperation and altruism within an entire group, appears to have considerable merit.  I said so when I first synthesized the discipline of sociobiology in the 1960s and early 1970s.  Yet it is deeply flawed.

    During Ardrey’s day, the scientific discipline most often associated in the lay vernacular with resistance to the Blank Slate was ethology.  A few years after Wilson published his book with that title in 1975, it became sociobiology.  Now evolutionary psychology has displaced both of them.  I’m not sure what Wilson means by “sociobiology” here, but I’ve never seen anything he published prior to 1975 that comes close to being a forthright defense of the existence and importance of human nature.  Ardrey and others had published pretty much everything of real significance he had to say on the subject more than a decade earlier.

    Be that as it may, I have no reservations about recommending “The Origins of Creativity” to my readers.  True, I’m a bit skeptical about his latest project for a grand unification of science and the humanities, and the book is really little more than a pamphlet.  For all that, reading him is like having a pleasant conversation with someone who is very wise about the ways of the world, knows about the questions that are important for us to ask, and can tell you a lot of things that are worth knowing.

  • The Damore Affair and the Ghost of the Blank Slate

    Posted on August 12th, 2017 Helian No comments

    So you thought the Blank Slate was dead, did you? Check out this post about the Damore affair by Jerry Coyne at his Why Evolution is True website:

    Salon disses dismisses Google memo as “biological determinism” that can “slip into eugenicist doctrines”

    Coyne is a professor emeritus at the University of Chicago. He’s also a leftist of great honesty and intellectual integrity. You should read him should you believe that such creatures went the way of unicorns long ago.  Among other things, he’s a strong supporter of the University of Chicago’s steadfast stance in favor of freedom of speech.  Coyne takes issue with an article by one Keith A. Spencer entitled, The ugly, pseudoscientific history behind that sexist Google manifesto, condemning Damore. Here’s the money quote:

    The Salon article is “The ugly pseudoscientific history behind that sexist Google manifesto“, and is by Keith A. Spencer, a Salon writer whose scientific training appears to be a B.A. in astrophysics/English at Oberlin (double major) and then subsequent work in the humanities and writing ever since (he also has a master’s degree in literary and cultural studies from Carnegie Mellon).  Although I’m not a credentials monger, perhaps Spencer’s lack of biological training is shown in the way he refutes Damore’s “pseudoscience”: his refutation relies on a single book published in 1984: Not in Our Genes, by Richard Lewontin, Steven Rose, and Leon Kamin (henceforth LRK). I am well familiar with that book, as the first author was my Ph.D. supervisor, and I have to note two things. First, The book not a dispassionate review of the literature: the authors wrote it because they were committed to dispelling biological determinism, and were certainly diehard opponents of evolutionary psychology, then called “sociobiology”. You cannot count on that book to be an objective review of the literature, as it’s a polemic. It should not have been used by Spencer as an authoritative refutation of gender differences.

    Second, the book is outdated. It is now 33 years old, and a considerable literature has accumulated since then. Not one thing is cited from that literature save in support of the absence of two sexes (see below)—Spencer just emits quote after quote from that book. And he uses it to refute three assertions that, he claims, Damore makes—at least implicitly…

    Note that Lewontin was Coyne’s Ph.D. supervisor. I know from other posts that Coyne admires and respects him personally, and reveres him as an educator in the field of evolutionary biology. The fact that he would take issue with Lewontin in this way is, among other things, what I mean by honesty and intellectual integrity.

    But just check out the quote. Here we have someone citing “Not in Our Genes” as a respectable scientific tract. It’s stunning! Even such reliable stalwarts of the Left as Scientific American and PBS threw in the towel and accepted the fact that there actually is such a thing as human nature long ago, flinging Not in Our Genes on the garbage heap of history.  How can one account for such an absurd historical anomaly?  Well, if you read Damore’s manifesto, you’ll notice that he actually uses the term “evolutionary psychology,” and in a supportive fashion, no less.  Of course, the fundamental premise of evolutionary psychology is the reality and importance of human nature, and insisting on that fact is tantamount to waving a red flag in the face of hoary Blank Slaters like Spencer.  These people are like the Bourbons; they’ve learned nothing and forgotten nothing. They still quote their ancient texts as if nothing had happened since those golden days of yesteryear, when the Blank Slate orthodoxy controlled the academy, the media, and the behavioral sciences virtually unchallenged for upwards of half a decade. They also still recall those who smashed their hegemony with unabated bitterness. Foremost among them was Robert Ardrey.  Sure enough, he popped up in a PBS special about Homo naledi as an evil proponent of the “Killer Ape Theory” even though no one, to the best of my knowledge, ever suggested that Homo naledi hunted or even ate meat. For more on that similarly incongruous fossil of the Blank Slate, see my post, PBS Answers the Burning Question:  What Does Robert Ardrey have to do with Homo naledi?

    It’s not hard to find similar artifacts these days.  Indeed, they pop up on both the Left and the Right, as evolutionary psychology has a way of deflating cherished narratives on both ends of the ideological spectrum.  However, those responsible for the mutilation of the behavioral sciences we recall as the Blank Slate were primarily leftist ideologues.  Given the Left’s current all but unchallenged hegemony in the academy, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a concerted attempt to turn back the clock and restore the Blank Slate orthodoxy at some point along the line.

  • Of Ants and Men: More PBS Adventures in Rearranging Blank Slate History

    Posted on November 26th, 2015 Helian 5 comments

    The history of the rise and fall of the Blank Slate is fascinating, and not only as an example of the pathological derailment of whole branches of science in favor of ideological dogmas.  The continuing foibles of the “men of science” as they attempt to “readjust” that history are nearly as interesting in their own right.  Their efforts at post-debacle damage control are a superb example of an aspect of human nature at work – tribalism.  There is much at stake for the scientific “tribe,” not least of which is the myth of the self-correcting nature of science itself.  What might be called the latest episode in the sometimes shameless, sometimes hilarious bowdlerization of history just appeared in the form of another PBS special; E. O. Wilson – Of Ants and Men.  You can watch it online by clicking on the link.

    Before examining the latest twists in this continuously evolving plot, it would be useful to recap what has happened to date.  There is copious source material documenting not only the rise of the Blank Slate orthodoxy to hegemony in the behavioral sciences, but also the events that led to its collapse, not to mention the scientific apologetics that followed its demise.  In its modern form, the Blank Slate manifested itself as a sweeping denial that innate behavioral traits, or “human nature,” had anything to do with human behavior beyond such basic functions as breathing and the elimination of waste.  It was insisted that virtually everything about our behavior was learned, and a reflection of “culture.”  By the early 1950’s its control of the behavioral sciences was such that any scientist who dared to publish anything in direct opposition to it was literally risking his career.  Many scientists have written of the prevailing atmosphere of fear and intimidation, and through the 1950s, ‘60s, and early ‘70s there was little in the way of “self-correction” emanating from within the scientific professions themselves.

    The “correction,” when it came, was supplied by an outsider – a playwright by the name of Robert Ardrey who had taken an interest in anthropology.  Beginning with African Genesis in 1961, he published a series of four highly popular books that documented the copious evidence for the existence of human nature, and alerted a wondering public to the absurd extent to which its denial had been pursued in the sciences.  It wasn’t a hard sell, as that absurdity was obvious enough to any reasonably intelligent child.  Following Ardrey’s lead, a few scientists began to break ranks, particularly in Europe where the Blank Slate had never achieved a level of control comparable to that prevailing in the United States.  They included the likes of Konrad Lorenz (On Aggression, first published in German in 1963), Desmond Morris (The Naked Ape, 1967), Lionel Tiger (Men in Groups, 1969), and Robin Fox (The Imperial Animal, 1971, with Lionel Tiger).  The Blank Slate reaction to these works, not to mention the copious coverage of Ardrey and the rest that began appearing in the popular media, was furious.  Man and Aggression, a collection of Blank Slater rants directed mainly at Ardrey and Lorenz, with novelist William Golding thrown in for good measure, is an outstanding piece of historical source material documenting that reaction.  Edited by Ashley Montagu and published in 1968, it typifies the usual Blank Slate MO – attacks on straw men combined with accusations of racism and fascism.  That, of course, remains the MO of the “progressive” Left to this day.

    The Blank Slaters could intimidate the scientific community, but not so the public at large.  Thanks to Ardrey and the rest, by the mid-70s the behavioral sciences were in danger of becoming a laughing stock.  Finally, in 1975, E. O. Wilson broke ranks and published Sociobiology, a book that was later to gain a notoriety in the manufactured “history” of the Blank Slate out of all proportion to its real significance.  Of the 27 chapters, 25 dealt with animal behavior.  Only the first and last chapters focused on human behavior.  Nothing in those two chapters, nor in Wilson’s On Human Nature, published in 1978, could reasonably be described as other than an afterthought to the works of Ardrey and others that had appeared much earlier as far as human nature is concerned.  Its real novelty wasn’t its content, but the fact that it was the first popular science book asserting the existence and importance of human nature by a scientist in the United States that reached a significant audience.  This fact was well known to Wilson, not to mention his many Blank Slate detractors.  In their diatribe Against Sociobiology, which appeared in the New York Review of Books in 1975 they wrote, “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.

    As we know in retrospect, the Blank Slaters were facing a long, losing battle against recognition of the obvious.  By the end of the 1990s, even the editors at PBS began scurrying off the sinking ship.  Finally, in the scientific shambles left in the aftermath of the collapse of the Blank Slate orthodoxy, Steven Pinker published his The Blank Slate.  It was the first major attempt at historical revisionism by a scientist, and it contained most of the fairytales about the affair that are now widely accepted as fact.  I had begun reading the works of Ardrey, Lorenz and the rest in the early 70s, and had followed the subsequent unraveling of the Blank Slate with interest.  When I began reading The Blank Slate, I assumed I would find a vindication of the seminal role they had played in the 1960s in bringing about its demise.  I was stunned to find that, instead, as far as Pinker was concerned, the 60s never happened!  Ardrey was mentioned only a single time, and then only with the assertion that “the sociobiologists themselves” had declared him and Lorenz “totally and utterly” wrong!  The “sociobiologist” given as the source for this amazing assertion was none other than Richard Dawkins!  Other than the fact that Dawkins was never a “sociobiologist,” and especially not in 1972 when he published The Selfish Gene, the book from which the “totally and utterly wrong” quote was lifted, he actually praised Ardrey in other parts of the book.  He never claimed that Ardrey and the rest were “totally and utterly wrong” because they defended the importance of innate human nature, in Ardrey’s case the overriding theme of all his work.  Rather, Dawkins limited that claim to their support of group selection, a fact that Pinker never gets around to mentioning in The Blank Slate.  Dropping Ardrey, Lorenz and the rest down the memory hole, Pinker went on to assert that none other than Wilson had been the real knight in shining armor who had brought down the Blank Slate.  As readers who have followed this blog for a while are aware, the kicker came in 2012, in the form of E. O. Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth.  In the crowning (and amusing) irony of this whole shabby affair, Wilson outed himself as more “totally and utterly wrong” than Ardrey and Lorenz by a long shot.  He wholeheartedly embraced – group selection!

    Which finally brings me to the latest episode in the readjustment of Blank Slate history.  It turned up recently in the form of a PBS special entitled, E. O. Wilson – Of Ants and Men.  It’s a testament to the fact that Pinker’s deification of Wilson has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.  The only problem is that now it appears he is in danger of being tossed on the garbage heap of history himself.  You see, the editors at the impeccably politically correct PBS picked up on the fact that, at least according to Wilson, group selection is responsible for the innate wellsprings of selflessness, love of others, at least in the ingroup, altruism, and all the other endearing characteristics that make the hearts of the stalwart leftists who call the tune at PBS go pitter-pat.  Pinker, on the other hand, for reasons that should be obvious by now, must continue to reject group selection, lest his freely concocted “history” become a laughing stock.  To see how all this plays out circa 2015, let’s take a closer look at the video itself.

    Before I begin, I wish to assure the reader that I have the highest respect for Wilson himself.  He is a great scientist, and his publication of Sociobiology was an act of courage regardless of its subsequent exploitation by historical revisionists.  As we shall see, he has condoned the portrayal of himself as the “knight in shining armor” invented by Pinker, but that is a forgivable lapse by an aging scientist who is no doubt flattered by the “legacy” manufactured for him.

    With that, on to the video.  It doesn’t take long for us to run into the first artifact of the Wilson legend.  At the 3:45 minute mark, none other than Pinker himself appears, informing us that Wilson, “changed the intellectual landscape by challenging the taboo against discussing human nature.”  He did no such thing.  Ardrey had very effectively “challenged the taboo” in 1961 with his publication of African Genesis, and many others had challenged it in the subsequent years before publication of Sociobiology.  Pinker’s statement isn’t even accurate in terms of U.S. scientists, as several of them in peripheral fields such as political science, had insisted on the existence and importance of human nature long before 1975, and others, like Tiger and Fox, although foreign born, had worked at U.S. universities.  At the 4:10 mark Gregory Carr chimes in with the remarkable assertion that,

     If someone develops a theory about human nature or biodiversity, and in common living rooms across the world, it seems like common sense, but in fact, a generation ago, we didn’t understand it, it tells you that that person, in this case Ed Wilson, has changed the way all of us view the world.

    One can but shake one’s head at such egregious nonsense.  In the first place, Wilson didn’t “develop a theory about human nature.”  He simply repeated hypotheses that Darwin himself and many others since him had developed.  There is nothing of any significance about human nature in any of his books that cannot also be found in the works of Ardrey.  People “in common living rooms” a generation ago understood and accepted the concept of human nature perfectly well.  The only ones who were still delusional about it at the time were the so-called “experts” in the behavioral sciences.  Many of them were also just as aware as Wilson of the absurdity of the Blank Slate dogmas, but were too intimidated to challenge them.

    My readers should be familiar by now with such attempts to inflate Wilson’s historical role, and the reasons for them.  The tribe of behavioral scientists has never been able to bear the thought that their “science” was not “self-correcting,” and they would probably still be peddling the Blank Slate dogmas to this day if it weren’t for the “mere playwright,” Ardrey.  All their attempts at historical obfuscation won’t alter that fact, and source material is there in abundance to prove it to anyone who has the patience to search it out and look at it.  We first get an inkling of the real novelty in this particular PBS offering at around minute 53:15, when Wilson, referring to eusociality in ant colonies, remarks,

    This capacity of an insect colony to act like a single super-organism became very important to me when I began to reconsider evolutionary theory later in my career.  It made me wonder if natural selection could operate not only on individuals and their genes, but on the colony as a whole.  That idea would create quite a stir when I published it, but that was much later.

    Which brings us to the most amusing plot twist in this whole, sorry farce; PBS’ wholehearted embrace of group selection.  Recall that Pinker’s whole rationalization for ignoring Ardrey was based on some good things Ardrey had to say about group selection in his third book, The Social Contract.  The subject hardly ever came up in his interviews, and was certainly not the central theme of all his books, which, as noted above, was the existence and significance of human nature.  Having used group selection to declare Ardrey an unperson, Pinker then elevated Wilson to the role of the “revolutionary” who was the “real destroyer” of the Blank Slate in his place.  Wilson, in turn, in what must have seemed to Pinker a supreme act of ingratitude, embraced group selection more decisively than Ardrey ever thought of doing, making it a central and indispensable pillar of his theory regarding the evolution of eusociality.  Here’s how the theme plays out in the video.

    Wilson at 1:09:50

    Humans don’t have to be taught to cooperate.  We do it instinctively.  Evolution has hardwired us for cooperation.  That’s the key to eusociality.

    Wilson at 1:13:40

    Thinking on this remarkable fact (the evolution of eusociality) has made me reconsider in recent years the theory of natural selection and how it works in complex social animals.

    Pinker at 1:18:50

    Starting in the 1960s, a number of biologists realized that if you think rigorously about what natural selection does, it operates on replicators. Natural selection, Darwin’s theory, is the theory of what happens when you have an entity that can make a copy of itself, and so it’s very clear that the obvious target of selection in Darwin’s theory is the gene. That became close to a consensus among evolutionary biologists, but I think it’s fair to say that Ed Wilson was always ambivalent about that turn in evolutionary theory.

    1:19:35 Wilson:

    I never doubted that natural selection works on individual genes or that kin selection is a reality, but I could never accept that that is the whole story. Our group instincts, and those of other eusocial species, go far beyond the urge to protect our immediate kin. After a lifetime studying ant societies, it seemed to me that the group must also have an important role in evolution, whether or not its members are related to each other.

    1:20:15 Jonathan Haidt:

    So there’ve been a few revolutions in evolutionary thinking. One of them happened in the 1960s and ‘70s, and it was really captured in Dawkins famous book ‘The Selfish Gene,’ where if you just take the gene’s eye view, you have the simplest elements, and then you sort of build up from there, and that works great for most animals, but Ed was studying ants, and of course you can make the gene’s eye view work for ants, but when you’re studying ants, you don’t see the ant as the individual, you don’t see the ant as the organism, you see the colony or the hive as the entity that really matters.

    At 1:20:55 Wilson finally spells it out:

    Once you see a social insect colony as a superorganism, the idea that selection must work on the group as well as on the individual follows very naturally. This realization transformed my perspective on humanity, too. So I proposed an idea that goes all the way back to Darwin. It’s called group selection.

    1:22:20 Haidt:

    Ed was able to see group selection in action. It’s just so clear in the ants, the bees, the wasps, the termites and the humans.” Wilson: “The fact of group selection gives rise to what I call multilevel evolution, in which natural selection is operating both at the level of the individual and the level of the group… And that got Ed into one of the biggest debates of his career, over multilevel selection, or group selection.

    1:23:20 Pinker:

    Ed Wilson did not give up the idea that selection acted on groups, while most of his fellow biologists did. Then several decades later, revived that notion in a full-throated manifesto, which I think it would be an understatement to say that he did not convince his fellow biologists.

    At this point, a picture of Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth, appears on the screen, shortly followed by stills of a scowling Richard Dawkins.  Then we see an image of the cover of his The Selfish Gene.  The film describes Dawkins furious attack on Wilson for daring to promote group selection.

    1:24:10 Wilson:

    The brouhaha over group selection has brought me into conflict with defenders of the old faith, like Richard Dawkins and many others who believe that ultimately the only thing that counts in the evolution of complex behavior, is the gene, the selfish gene. They believe the gene’s eye view of social evolution can explain all of our groupish behavior. I do not.

    And finally, at 1:25, after Wilson notes Pinker is one of his opponents, Pinker reappears to deny the existence of group selection:

    Most people would say that, if there’s a burning building, and your child is in one room and another child is in another room, then you are entitled to rescue your child first, right?  There is  a special bond between, say, parents and children.  This is exactly what an evolutionary biologist would predict because any gene that would make you favor your child will have a copy of itself sitting in the body of that child.  By rescuing your child the gene for rescuing children, so to speak, will be helping a copy of itself, and so those genes would proliferate in the population.  Not just the extreme case of saving your child from a burning building but for being generous and loyal to your siblings, your very close cousins.  The basis of tribalism, kinship, family feelings, have a perfectly sensible sensible evolutionary basis.  (i.e., kin selection)

    At this point one can imagine Pinker gazing sadly at the tattered remains of his whole, manufactured “history” of the Blank Slate lying about like a collapsed house of cards, faced with the bitter realization that he had created a monster.  Wilson’s group selection schtick was just too good for PBS to pass up.  I seriously doubt whether any of their editors really understand the subject well enough to come up with a reasoned opinion about it one way or the other.  However, how can you turn your nose up at group selection if, as Wilson claims, it is responsible for altruism and all the other “good” aspects of our nature, whereas the types of selection favored by Pinker, not to mention Dawkins, are responsible for selfishness and all the other “bad” parts of our nature?

    And what of Ardrey, whose good words about group selection no longer seem quite as “totally and utterly wrong” as Pinker suggested when he swept him under the historical rug?  Have the editors at PBS ever even heard of him?  We know very well that they have, and that they are also perfectly well aware of his historical significance, because they went to the trouble of devoting a significant amount of time to him in another recent special covering the discovery of Homo naledi.  It took the form of a bitter denunciation of Ardrey for supporting the “Killer Ape Theory,” a term invented by the Blank Slaters of yore to ridicule the notion that pre-human apes hunted and killed during the evolutionary transition from ape to man.  This revealing lapse demonstrated the continuing strength of the obsession with the “unperson” Ardrey, the man who was “totally and utterly wrong.”  That obsession continues, not only among ancient, unrepentant Blank Slaters, but among behavioral scientists in general who happen to be old enough to know the truth about what happened in the 15 years before Wilson published Sociobiology, in spite of Pinker’s earnest attempt to turn that era into an historical “Blank Slate.”

    Dragging in Ardrey was revealing because, in the first place, it was irrelevant in the context of a special about Homo naledi.  As far as I know, no one has published any theories about the hunting behavior of that species one way or the other.  It was revealing in the second place because of the absurdity of bringing up the “Killer Ape Theory” at all.  That straw man was invented back in the 60s, when it was universally believed, even by Ardrey himself, that chimpanzees were, as Ashley Montagu put it, “non-aggressive vegetarians.”  That notion, however, was demolished by Jane Goodall, who observed chimpanzees both hunting and killing, not to mention their capacity for extremely aggressive behavior.  Today, few people like to mention the vicious, ad hominem attacks she was subjected to at the time for publishing those discoveries, although those attacks, too, are amply documented for anyone who cares to look for them.  In the ensuing years, even the impeccably PC Scientific American has admitted the reality of hunting behavior in early man.  In other words, the “Killer Ape Theory” debate has long been over, and Ardrey, who spelled out his ideas on the subject in his last book, The Hunting Hypothesis, won it hands down.

    Why does all this matter?  It seems to me the integrity of historical truth is worth defending in its own right.  Beyond that, there is much to learn from the Blank Slate affair and its aftermath regarding the integrity of science itself.  It is not invariably self-correcting.  It can become derailed, and occasionally outsiders must play an indispensable role in putting it back on the tracks.  Ideology can trump reason and common sense, and it did in the behavioral sciences for a period of more than half a century.  Science is not infallible.  In spite of that, it is still the best way of ferreting out the truth our species has managed to come up with so far.  We can’t just turn our back on it, because, at least in my opinion, all of the alternatives are even worse.  As we do science, however, it would behoove us to maintain a skeptical attitude and watch for signs of ideology leaking through the cracks.

    I note in passing that excellent readings of all of Ardrey’s books are now available at Audible.com.

  • PBS Answers the Burning Question: What Does Robert Ardrey have to do with Homo naledi?

    Posted on September 19th, 2015 Helian No comments

    PBS just aired what’s billed as a NOVA/National Geographic Special entitled Dawn of Humanity on the stunning discovery of a trove of remains of an early human species dubbed Homo naledi in a South African cave.  According to the blurb on its website,

    NOVA and National Geographic present exclusive access to a unique discovery of ancient remains. Located in an almost inaccessible chamber deep in a South African cave, the site required recruiting a special team of experts slender enough to wriggle down a vertical, pitch-dark, seven-inch-wide passage. Most fossil discoveries of human relatives consist of just a handful of bones. But down in this hidden chamber, the team uncovered an unprecedented trove—so far, over 1,500 bones—with the potential to rewrite the story of our origins.

    There’s nothing surprising about the fact that a story about Homo naledi appeared on NOVA.  What’s really stunning, however, is its content.  To all appearances it appears to have been supplied by an ancient Blank Slater who was frozen like a popsicle some time back in the early 70’s, and then had the good fortune to be thawed out like Rip van Winkle just in time to write the script for Dawn of Humanity.  One can certainly quibble about his take on the significance of Homo naledi, but one thing is certain.  He has favored us with a remarkable piece of historical source material.

    It all starts innocently enough.  We are introduced to Lee Berger, who headed the team that discovered Homo naledi.  There are scenes of him strolling across the South African landscape with his two dogs, poking into limestone caverns of the sort where his nine year old son discovered the first fossil remains of Australopithecus sediba, like Homo naledi another creature with a small, ape-like brain that walked upright on two feet.  He points to the places where the remains of several other individuals of that species were later found.  Things continue in that sedate vein until suddenly, at minute 35:15, we are shaken out of our pleasant rut by the announcement that the abundance of the sediba remains,

    …might help explain the Australopith’s transition into our genus, Homo.  They might also prove or disprove a highly influential theory about the dawn of humanity.  A theory inspired by the very first discovery of an Australopith fossil.

    We are informed that the discovery referred to happened in 1924.  The place was South Africa, and the discoverer was Prof. Raymond Dart of the University of Witswatersrand in Johannesburg.  Miners had sent Dart a chunk of limestone in which was embedded the skull of a hominid child, different and more primitive than any previously discovered.  He named the new species Australopithecus africanus.  At that point, around minute 36:45, we get our first hint that PBS is about to administer a strong dose of propaganda.  Quoting from the script,

    Darwin and (Thomas Henry) Huxley predicted that our origins would be in Africa based on comparative anatomy.  You know, they looked at the skeletons of chimps and gorillas and they looked at ours and they went, “Well they’re so close to us, and they’re more close than anything else, so it must have been in Africa.”  And then the sort of second generation of evolutionary biologists shied away from that.  They started to find fossils in Europe.  They started to find fossils in Asia.  And of course that tied in very nicely with the sort of racist, imperialistic thoughts of the day.  They couldn’t abide the thought of it being in Africa.

    I rather suspect that the reticence of this “second generation of evolutionary biologists” to immediately accept Dart’s “out of Africa” theory was due to the fact that they had based their life’s work on developing theories about the emergence of early man in the only places where fossil evidence had actually been found up to that time.  It’s really not too hard to imagine that they may have been unenthusiastic about seeing all that work washed down the drain.  Of course, we’ve long been familiar with the tendency of the “progressive” inmates at PBS to instantly seize on such understandable regrets and transmogrify them into something as sinister and criminal as “racist, imperialistic thoughts.”  That’s old hat.  What’s really surprising is that, in what follows, we are treated to a long-winded denunciation of the “Killer Ape Theory.”  At 40:45 we learn,

    Raymond Dart was building a theory about how the Australopiths, our apelike ancestors, became human.  His ideas about the dawn of humanity were the touchstone for thinking about our origins for generations.  In the 1940’s, more examples of Australopithecus began to be found, and a key site not only had fragments of Australopithecus, but also the bones of many other fossil animals.  And Dart noted that these bones were broken in a special way.  Dart became convinced they were weapons made by our primitive ancestors.  Was this the key to what first made us human?

    At this point, PBS has passed well beyond prissy comments about racism and imperialism to the full blown distortion of history.  In the first place, Dart’s thinking never became a “touchstone” for anything, and certainly not for generations.  He never even published anything about hunting behavior in early hominins until 1949, and what you might call his “seminal” paper on the subject, The Predatory Transition from Ape to Man, didn’t appear until 1953.  Both papers were published in obscure venues, and both were largely ignored.  Dart never claimed that bones that “were broken in a special way” were weapons.  Rather, he claimed that the double-headed humerus, or upper foreleg bone, of a common type of antelope had been the weapon, and the bones that “were broken in a special way” were actually skulls with indentations that appeared to be the result of the use of that bone as a club.

    In any case, next we learn that Dart had been a medic in World War I, and,

    ..had seen at first hand the barbarity humans are capable of.  It made sense to him that the origins of humanity were steeped in blood.  Raymond Dart’s experience in the World War may have colored his interpretation of what these bones and teeth meant.  You know it gave him a view of sort of the dark side of humanity and the violence of humanity, and he came up with this idea that Australopithecus had figured out that bones and teeth were hard, and could be used as weapons to kill other animals.  The sort of “Killer Ape Theory” of early humans.  Dart believed that the more aggressive and adventurous of our ape-like ancestors abandoned their forest environment and moved into savannahs.  There, they became hunters and predators.  His theory, that this violent transformation gave rise to humanity soon found an audience far beyond the small world of paleoanthropology.

    In fact, there is no evidence that all this psychobabble about World War I is anything but that.  Dart’s claims were based on compelling statistical evidence, which is left unmentioned in the program.  In the first place, a large and statistically anomalous number of the humerus bones proposed as weapons had been found in association with the africanus remains.  Damage to the skulls of other animals supposedly inflicted with these weapons was not randomly located, but occurred far more often in locations where one would expect it to occur if it had been inflicted with a bludgeon or club.  Dart’s interpretation of these facts has often been challenged, most prominently by C. K. Brain in his The Hunters or the Hunted?, published in 1981.  Brain noted that twin puncture wounds found on an Australopith skull may well have been left by a leopard.  Sure enough, the skull in question is featured on the program, and the puncture marks described as if they were incontrovertible proof that Dart’s apes had never hunted.  As it happens, however, Brain is a careful scientist, and never maintained anything of the sort.  Indeed, in The Hunters or the Hunted? he describes in detail two important objections to the leopard theory, and while he certainly challenged Dart’s theories, he never suggested that they had been incontrovertibly disproved.  Predictably, these facts are left unmentioned in the program.

    At this point I started wondering why on earth PBS would start laying on such thick dollops of propaganda to begin with.  Possible hunting in A. africanus wasn’t really germane to the behavior of a newly discovered species like Homo naledi, the apparent theme of the show, nor to that of Australopithecus sediba, for that matter.  I wasn’t left hanging for long.  At that point, the ancient Blank Slate Rip van Winkle the program had been channeling all along tipped his hand.  After all these years, he had hardly forgotten the shame and embarrassment he and his fellow “men of science” had experienced at the hand of a certain playwright by the name of Robert Ardrey!  Suddenly, at about the 42:50 point, the screen is filled with Ardrey’s image.  Then we see in quick succession images of two Life magazine covers and one of Penthouse, all three of which prominently announce articles he had written.  The narrative continues,

    In the 1950’s there was a drama critic and playwright names Robert Ardrey, who became very interested in human origins, and he went to Africa and spoke with Raymond Dart.  And Robert Ardrey, being a dramatist, could write like anything, and he wrote this amazing book published in 1961 called African Genesis (dramatic drumbeat).  African Genesis became a pop-science publishing sensation of the early 1960s.  Ardrey’s ideas, building on those of Raymond Dart, helped frame public debate about the dawn of humanity for the next 20 years.  (Potts cuts in) The very first sentence in that book; I remember it because I read it as a teenager and was enthralled by it, “Not in innocence, and not in Asia, was mankind born.”  And in that one sentence he encapsulated Raymond Dart’s ideas, that it was an African genesis, and that where we came from was not from an innocent creature (dramatic drumroll), but from the most violent of killer apes.

    At this point we’re treated to one of the favorite gimmicks of the Blank Slaters of yore.  The program segs to scenes from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.  We are assured that Kubrick was influenced by Ardrey, and then shown the familiar opening scene, with an ape-man smashing everything in sight with a bone wielded as a club.  The only problem is that Ardrey didn’t write the script for the movie.  We find the same trick in that invaluable little piece of historical source material, Man and Aggression, a collection of Blank Slater rants published in 1968 and edited by Ashley Montagu.  Most of the attacks are directed at Ardrey and Konrad Lorenz, but William Golding, author of Lord of the Flies, is thrown in for comic effect in the same fashion as Kubrick.

    Next, at about 45:45, there is a schtick about how tartar from sediba’s teeth was examined, revealing that it contained phytoliths, microscopic particles of silica that are found in some plant tissues.  At 48:15 the narrative continues,

    Here, at last, is evidence that will help support or disprove Dart’s theory… The tooth evidence from sediba indicates a diet very similar to todays chimpanzees.  While they may have eaten some meat, there’s little to back up Raymond Dart’s theory that they were killer apes.

    Here one can but roll one’s eyes.  The plant evidence in sediba’s teeth hardly indicates that its consumption of meat was as the same as, not to mention greater or less than, that of chimpanzees.  Here, too, we find revealed the remarkably anachronistic nature of this whole production.  Left unmentioned is that fact that chimpanzees are, after all, killer apes, too.  They organize hunting parties with the intention of killing and eating other species, and they also carry out organized attacks on other chimpanzees, often killing them in the process as well.  None of this is mentioned in the program.  Indeed, when Jane Goodall first observed and reported the behavior referred to she was furiously denounced and subjected to incredibly demeaning ad hominem attacks by the Blank Slaters.  It’s as if none of this ever happened, and the program is frozen in time back around 1975.  The rest consists mainly of pleasantries about the recovery of the Homo naledi remains.

    In reality, the “killer ape theory” that we have just seen dusted off and trotted out for our benefit is largely a Blank Slater propaganda myth.  Modern apes kill, and when they kill they are certainly violent.  They can, therefore, be accurately described as violent killer apes.  The “killer ape” of the Blank Slaters, however, is a nightmare figment of their imagination – a furious, violent creature constantly attacking everything around it, as so gaudily portrayed in Stanley Kubrick’s film.  Nothing in any of Ardrey’s books even comes close to a description of such psychopathic B movie monsters.

    The very magazine covers mentioned above, shown as the narrator lays on the propaganda about killer apes, are revealing in themselves.  I happen to have copies of all three of them, and none of the articles by Ardrey they contain has the least thing to say about the “killer ape theory.”  Instead, they all deal in one way or another with the real theme of all Ardrey’s work; the existence of innate human nature.  And that, I strongly suspect, is the real reason the program even mentions Ardrey.

    All appearances to the contrary in Dawn of Humanity, the debate about the “hunting hypothesis” is now over for all practical purposes.  It has been decided in favor of Ardrey.  Clear marks of butchering have been found on bones dated to more than 3 million years before the present.  It has been suggested that the bones were scavenged from the kills of other predators, but the idea that it never occurred to early hominins to hunt between that time and half a million to a million years before the present, a period during which early man clearly began using stone tipped and fire-hardened hunting spears, is nonsense.  It is doubly nonsense in view of the observed hunting behavior of chimpanzees.  Even the impeccably politically correct Scientific American admitted as much in an article entitled Rise of the Human Predator, that appeared in the April 2014 issue.  More remarkable still, in a PBS series entitled Becoming Human that aired in 2009, we were informed that,

    Homo erectus probably hunted with close-quarters weapons, with spears that were thrown at animals from a short distance, clubs, thrown rocks, weapons like that. They weren’t using long distance projectile weapons that we know of.

    The Homo erectus hunt was simple but effective. It fed not just their larger brains, but the growing complexity of that early human society.

    Why, then, this grotesque anachronism, this latter day program frozen in time in the early 1970’s?  As I mentioned earlier, the Blank Slaters have forgotten nothing, and forgiven nothing.  They know that the reason for Ardrey’s enormous influence wasn’t the “killer ape theory.”  Rather, the constant theme of all Ardrey’s work was his insistence on the existence of innate human nature.  Virtually all of the “men of science” in the behavioral sciences at the time his books began appearing, at least in the United States, firmly supported the Blank Slate orthodoxy, insisted that virtually all human behavior was a result of learning and culture, and denied the existence of any such thing as innate behavioral traits in human beings.  Ardrey was right, and they were all dead wrong.  A “mere playwright” had shamed them and exposed them for the charlatans they were.

    Today books and articles about innate human behavior, and its analogs in other animals, roll off the presses as if the subject had never been the least bit controversial.  The Blank Slate orthodoxy has been smashed, and the one man whose writings were far and away the most influential weapon in smashing it was Robert Ardrey.  As for the “men of science,” they are engaged in a game of bowdlerizing history to hide this inconvenient truth.  The usual tactic is to ignore Ardrey, elevating some pretender to the role of “slayer of the Blank Slate.”  If he is mentioned at all, it is only to briefly note, after the fashion of Steven Pinker, that he was “totally and utterly wrong” based on some alleged inaccuracy in one of his books that had nothing to do with the overall theme.  That’s why I said that artifacts like Dawn of Humanity are valuable because of their historical interest at the beginning of this post.  For such remarkable anachronisms to even appear, someone has to be seriously out of step with the official line.  It has to be someone who knows just how significant and influential Ardrey really was, a fact demonstrated by the very magazine covers that appear on the program.  Insignificant nobodies weren’t invited to write articles for Life magazine in the late 60’s and early 70’s, not to mention Penthouse, and pieces by Ardrey can be found in many other familiar magazines of the day.  Furthermore, that “somebody” has to be so bitter about Ardrey’s demolition of his precious Blank Slate dogmas that his hatred boils to the surface, revealing itself in such remarkable productions as the one described here.  When that happens we occasionally learn something about the Blank Slate debacle that the “men of science” would prefer to leave swept under the rug.  A little truth manages to leak out around the edges.  This time the truth happened to touch on the real historical role of a man named Robert Ardrey.

    Robert Ardrey

    Robert Ardrey

     

     

     

     

  • Stephen Hawking Chimes in “On Aggression”

    Posted on March 2nd, 2015 Helian No comments

    Tell me, dear reader, have you ever heard the term, “On Aggression” before?  As it happens, that was actually the title of a book by Konrad Lorenz published in 1966, at the height of the Blank Slate debacle.  In it Lorenz suggested that the origins of both animal and human aggression could be traced to evolved behavioral predispositions, or, in the vernacular, human nature.  He was duly denounced at the time by the Blank Slate priesthood as a fascist and a racist, with dark allusions to possible connections to the John Birch Society itself!  See, for example, “Man and Aggression,” edited by Ashley Montagu, or “Not in Our Genes,” by Richard Lewontin.  In those days the Blank Slaters had the popular media in their hip pocket.  In fact, they continued to have it in their hip pocket pretty much until the end of the 20th century.  For example, no less a celebrity than Jane Goodall was furiously vilified, in the Sunday Times, no less, for daring to suggest that chimpanzees could occasionally be aggressive.

    Times have changed!  Fast forward to 2015.  Adaeze Uyanwah, a 24-year-old from California, just won the “Guest of Honor” contest from VisitLondon.com. The prize package included a tour of London’s Science Museum with celebrity physicist Stephen Hawking.  During the tour, Uyanwah asked Hawking which human shortcoming he would most like to change.  He replied as follows:

    The human failing I would most like to correct is aggression.  It may have had survival advantage in caveman days, to get more food, territory or a partner with whom to reproduce, but now it threatens to destroy us all.

    Hello!!  Hawking just matter-of-factly referred to aggression as an innate human trait!  Were there shrieks of rage from the august practitioners of the behavioral sciences?  No.  Did it occur to anyone to denounce Hawking as a fascist?  No.  Did so much as a single journalistic crusader for social justice swallow his gum?  No!  See for yourself!  You can check the response in the reliably liberal Huffington Post, Washington Post, or even the British Independent, and you won’t find so much as a mildly raised eyebrow.  By all means, read on and check the comments!  No one noticed a thing!  If you’re still not sufficiently stunned, check out this interview of famous physicist Mishio Kaku apropos Hawking’s comment on MSNBC’s Ed Show.  As anyone who hasn’t been asleep for the last 20 years is aware, MSNBC’s political line is rather to the left of Foxnews.  Nothing that either (Ed) Schultz nor Kaku says suggest that they find anything the least bit controversial about Hawking’s statement.  Indeed, they accept it as obvious, and continue with a discussion of whether it would behoove us to protect ourselves from this unfortunate aspect of our “human nature” by escaping to outer space!

    In a word, while the Blank Slate may simmer on in the more obscurantist corners of academia, I think we can safely conclude that it has lost the popular media.  Is hubris in order?  Having watched all the old Christopher Lee movies, I rather doubt it.  Vampires have a way of rising from the grave.

  • E. O. Wilson’s “The Meaning of Human Existence:” Doubling Down on Group Selection

    Posted on December 31st, 2014 Helian 3 comments

    It’s great to see another title by E. O. Wilson.  Reading his books is like continuing a conversation with a wise old friend.  If you run into him on the street you don’t expect to hear him say anything radically different from what he’s said in the past.  However, you always look forward to chatting with him because he’s never merely repetitious or tiresome.   He always has some thought-provoking new insight or acute comment on the latest news.  At this stage in his life he also delights in puncturing the prevailing orthodoxies, without the least fear of the inevitable anathemas of the defenders of the faith.

    In his latest, The Meaning of Human Existence, he continues the open and unabashed defense of group selection that so rattled his peers in his previous book, The Social Conquest of Earth.  I’ve discussed some of the reasons for their unease in an earlier post.  In short, if it can really be shown that the role of group selection in human evolution has been as prominent as Wilson claims, it will seriously mar the legacy of such prominent public intellectuals as Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker, as well as a host of other prominent scientists, who have loudly and tirelessly insisted on the insignificance of group selection.  It will also require some serious adjustments to the fanciful yarn that currently passes as the “history” of the Blank Slate affair.  Obviously, Wilson is firmly convinced that he’s on to something, because he’s not letting up.  He dismisses the alternative inclusive fitness interpretation of evolution as unsupported by the evidence and at odds with the most up-to-date mathematical models.  In his words,

    Although the controversy between natural selection and inclusive fitness still flickers here and there, the assumptions of the theory of inclusive fitness have proved to be applicable only in a few extreme cases unlikely to occur on Earth on any other planet.  No example of inclusive fitness has been directly measured.  All that has been accomplished is an indirect analysis called the regressive method, which unfortunately has itself been mathematically invalidated.

    Interestingly, while embracing group selection, Wilson then explicitly agrees with one of the most prominent defenders of inclusive fitness, Richard Dawkins, on the significance of the gene:

    The use of the individual or group as the unit of heredity, rather than the gene, is an even more fundamental error.

    Very clever, that, a preemptive disarming of the predictable invention of straw men to attack group selection via the bogus claim that it implies that groups are the unit of selection.  The theory of group selection already has a fascinating, not to mention ironical, history, and its future promises to be no less entertaining.

    When it comes to the title of the book, Wilson himself lets us know early on that its just a forgivable form of “poetic license.”  In his words,

    In ordinary usage the word “meaning” implies intention.  Intention implies design, and design implies a designer.  Any entity, any process, or definition of any word itself is put into play as a result of an intended consequence in the mind of the designer.  This is the heart of the philosophical worldview of organized religions, and in particular their creation stories.  Humanity, it assumes, exists for a purpose.  Individuals have a purpose in being on Earth.  Both humanity and individuals have meaning.

    Wilson is right when he says that this is what most people understand by the term “meaning,” and he decidedly rejects the notion that the existence of such “meaning” is even possible later in the book by rejecting religious belief more bluntly than in any of his previous books.  He provides himself with a fig leaf in the form of a redefinition of “meaning” as follows:

    There is a second, broader way the word “meaning” is used, and a very different worldview implied.  It is that the accidents of history, not the intentions of a designer, are the source of meaning.

    I rather suspect most philosophers will find this redefinition unpalatable.  Beyond that, I won’t begrudge Wilson his fig leaf.  After all, if one takes the trouble to write books, one generally also has an interest in selling them.

    As noted above, another significant difference between this and Wilson’s earlier books is his decisive support for what one might call the “New Atheist” line, as set forth in books by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens.  Obviously, Wilson has been carefully following the progress of the debate.  He rejects religions, significantly in both their secular as well as their traditional spiritual manifestations, as both false and dangerous, mainly because of their inevitable association with tribalism.  In his words,

    Religious warriors are not an anomaly.  It is a mistake to classify believers of particular religious and dogmatic religionlike ideologies into two groups, moderate versus extremist.  The true cause of hatred and violence is faith versus faith, an outward expression of the ancient instinct of tribalism.  Faith is the one thing that makes otherwise good people do bad things.

    and, embracing the ingroup/outgroup dichotomy in human moral behavior I’ve often alluded to on this blog,

    The great religions… are impediments to the grasp of reality needed to solve most social problems in the real world.  Their exquisitely human flaw is tribalism.  The instinctual force of tribalism in the genesis of religiosity is far stronger than the yearning for spirituality.  People deeply need membership in a group, whether religious or secular.  From a lifetime of emotional experience, they know that happiness, and indeed survival itself, require that they bond with oth3ers who share some amount of genetic kinship, language, moral beliefs, geographical location, social purpose, and dress code – preferably all of these but at least two or three for most purposes.  It is tribalism, not the moral tenets and humanitarian thought of pure religion, that makes good people do bad things.

    Finally, in a passage worthy of New Atheist Jerry Coyne himself, Wilson denounces both “accommodationists” and the obscurantist teachings of the “sophisticated Christians:”

    Most serious writers on religion conflate the transcendent quest for meaning with the tribalistic defense of creation myths.  They accept, or fear to deny, the existence of a personal deity.  They read into the creation myths humanity’s effort to communicate with the deity, as part of the search for an uncorrupted life now and beyond death.  Intellectual compromisers one and all, they include liberal theologians of the Niebuhr school, philosophers battening on learned ambiguity, literary admirers of C. S. Lewis, and others persuaded, after deep thought, that there most be Something Out There.  They tend to be unconscious of prehistory and the biological evolution of human instinct, both of which beg to shed light on this very important subject.

    In a word, Wilson has now positioned himself firmly in the New Atheist camp.  This is hardly likely to mollify many of the prominent New Atheists, who will remain bitter because of his promotion of group selection, but at this point in his career, Wilson can take their hostility pro granulum salis.

    There is much more of interest in The Meaning of Human Existence than I can cover in a blog post, such as Wilson’s rather vague reasons for insisting on the importance of the humanities in solving our problems, his rejection of interplanetary and/or interstellar colonization, and his speculations on the nature of alien life forms.  I can only suggest that interested readers buy the book.

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

    Posted on November 19th, 2014 Helian No comments

    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.

  • Frans de Waal’s “The Bonobo and the Atheist”: The Objective Morality of a Subjective Moralist

    Posted on October 12th, 2014 Helian No comments

    Franz de Waal’s The Bonobo and the Atheist is interesting for several reasons.  As the title of this post suggests, it demonstrates the disconnect between the theory and practice of morality in the academy.  It’s one of the latest brickbats in the ongoing spat between the New Atheists and the “accommodationist” atheists.  It documents the current progress of the rearrangement of history in the behavioral sciences in the aftermath of the Blank Slate debacle.  It’s a useful reality check on the behavior of bonobos, the latest “noble savage” among the primates.  And, finally, it’s an entertaining read.

    In theory, de Waal is certainly a subjective moralist.  As he puts it, “the whole point of my book is to argue a bottom up approach” to morality, as opposed to the top down approach:  “The view of morality as a set of immutable principles, or laws, that are ours to discover.”  The “bottom” de Waal refers to are evolved emotional traits.  In his words,

    The moral law is not imposed from above or derived from well-reasoned principles; rather, it arises from ingrained values that have been there since the beginning of time.

    My views are in line with the way we know the human mind works, with visceral reactions arriving before rationalizations, and also with the way evolution produces behavior.  A good place to start is with an acknowledgment of our background as social animals, and how this background predisposes us to treat each other.  This approach deserves attention at a time in which even avowed atheists are unable to wean themselves from a semireligious morality, thinking that the world would be a better place if only a white-coated priesthood could take over from the frocked one.

    So far, so good.  I happen to be a subjective moralist myself, and agree with de Waal on the origins of morality.  However, reading on, we find confirmation of a prediction made long ago by Friedrich Nietzsche.  In Human, All Too Human, he noted the powerful human attachment to religion and the “metaphysics” of the old philosophers.  He likened the expansion of human knowledge to a ladder, or tree, up which humanity was gradually climbing.  As we reached the top rungs, however, we would begin to notice that the old beliefs that had supplied us with such great emotional satisfaction in the past were really illusions.  At that point, our tendency would be to recoil from this reality.  The “tree” would begin to grow “sprouts” in reverse.  We would balk at “turning the last corner.”  Nietzsche imagined that developing a new philosophy that could accommodate the world as it was instead of the world as we wished it to be would be the task of “the great thinkers of the next century.”  Alas, a century is long past since he wrote those words, yet to all appearances we are still tangled in the “downward sprouts.”

    Nowhere else is this more apparent than in the academy, where a highly moralistic secular Puritanism prevails.  Top down, objective morality is alive and well, and the self-righteous piety of the new, secular priesthood puts that of the old-fashioned religious Puritans in the shade.  All this modern piety seems to be self-supporting, levitating in thin air, with none of the props once supplied by religion.  As de Waal puts it,

    …the main ingredients of a moral society don’t require religion, since they come from within.

    Clearly, de Waal can see where morality comes from, and how it evolved, and why it exists, but, even with these insights, he too recoils from “climbing the last rungs,” and “turning the final corner.”  We find artifacts of the modern objective morality prevalent in the academy scattered throughout his book.  For example,

     Science isn’t the answer to everything.  As a student, I learned about the “naturalistic fallacy” and how it would be the zenith of arrogance for scientists to think that their work could illuminate the distinction between right and wrong.  This was not long after World War II, mind you, which had brought us massive evil justified by a scientific theory of self-directed evolution.  Scientists had been much involved in the genocidal machine, conducting unimaginable experiments.

    American and British scientists were not innocent, however, because they were the ones who earlier in the century had brought us eugenics.  They advocated racist immigration laws and forced sterilization of the deaf, blind, mentally ill, and physically impaired, as well as criminals and members of minority races.

    I am profoundly skeptical of the moral purity of science, and feel that its role should never exceed that of morality’s handmaiden.

    One can consider humans as either inherently good but capable of evil or as inherently evil yet capable of good.  I happen to belong to the first camp.

    None of these statements make any sense in the absence of objective good and evil.  If, as de Waal claims repeatedly elsewhere in his book, morality is ultimately an expression of emotions or “gut feelings,” analogs of which we share with many other animals, and which exist because they evolved, then the notions that scientists are or were evil, period, or that science itself can be morally impure, period, or that humans can be good, period, or evil, period, are obvious non sequiturs.  De Waal has climbed up the ladder, peaked at what lay just beyond the top rungs, and jumped back down onto Nietzsche’s “backward growing sprouts.”  Interestingly enough, in spite of that de Waal admires the strength of one who was either braver or more cold-blooded, and kept climbing; Edvard Westermarck.  But I will have more to say of him later.

    The Bonobo and the Atheist is also interesting from a purely historical point of view.  The narrative concocted to serve as the “history” of the behavioral sciences continues to be adjusted and readjusted in the aftermath of the Blank Slate catastrophe, probably the greatest scientific debacle of all time.  As usual, the arch-villain is Robert Ardrey, who committed the grave sin of being right about human nature when virtually all the behavioral scientists and professionals, at least in the United States, were wrong.  Imagine the impertinence of a mere playwright daring to do such a thing!  Here’s what de Waal has to say about him:

    Confusing predation with aggression is an old error that recalls the time that humans were seen as incorrigible murderers on the basis of signs that our ancestors ate meat.  This “killer ape” notion gained such traction that the opening scene of Stanley Kubrick’s movie 2001:  A Space Odyssey showed one hominin bludgeoning another with a zebra femur, after which the weapon, flung triumphantly into the air, turned into an orbiting spacecraft.  A stirring image, but based on a single puncture wound in the fossilized skull of an ancestral infant, known as the Taung Child.  It’s discoverer had concluded that our ancestors must have been carnivorous cannibals, an idea that the journalist Robert Ardrey repackaged in African Genesis by saying that we are risen apes rather than fallen angels.  It is now considered likely, however, that the Taung Child had merely fallen prey to a leopard or eagle.

    I had to smile when I read this implausible yarn.  After all, anyone can refute it by simply looking up the source material, not to mention the fact that there’s no lack of people who’ve actually read Ardrey, and are aware that the “Killer Ape Theory” is a mere straw man concocted by his enemies.  De Waal is not one of them.  Not only has he obviously not read Ardrey, but he probably knows of him at all only at third or fourth hand.  If he had, he’d realize that he was basically channeling Ardrey in the rest of his book.  Indeed, much of The Bonobo and the Atheist reads as if it had been lifted from Ardrey’s last book, The Hunting Hypothesis, complete with the ancient origins of morality, Ardrey’s embrace of de Waal’s theme that humans are genuinely capable of altruism and cooperation, resulting in part, as also claimed by de Waal, from his adoption of a hunting lifestyle, and his rejection of what de Waal calls “Veneer Theory,” the notion that human morality is merely a thin veneer covering an evil and selfish core.  For example, according to de Waal,

    Hunting and meat sharing are at the root of chimpanzee sociality in the same way that they are thought to have catalyzed human evolution.  The big-game hunting of our ancestors required even tighter cooperation.

    This conclusion is familiar to those who have actually read Ardrey, but was anathema to the “Men of Science” as recently as 15 years ago.  Ardrey was, of course, never a journalist, and his conclusion that Australopithecine apes had hunted was based, not on the “single puncture wound” in the Taung child’s skull, but mainly on the statistical anomaly of numbers of a particular type of bone that might have been used as a weapon found in association with the ape remains far in excess of what would be expected if they were there randomly.  To date, no one has ever explained that anomaly, and it remains carefully swept under the rug.  In a word, the idea that Ardrey based his hypothesis entirely “on a single puncture wound” is poppycock.  In the first place, there were two puncture wounds, not one.  Apparently, de Waal is also unaware that Raymond Dart, the man who discovered this evidence, has been rehabilitated, and is now celebrated as the father of cave taphonomy, whereas those who disputed his conclusions about what he had found, such as C. K. Brain, who claimed that the wounds were caused by a leopard, are now in furious rowback mode.  For example, from the abstract of a paper in which Brain’s name appears at the end of the list of authors,

    The ca. 1.0 myr old fauna from Swartkrans Member 3 (South Africa) preserves abundant indication of carnivore activity in the form of tooth marks (including pits) on many bone surfaces. This direct paleontological evidence is used to test a recent suggestion that leopards, regardless of prey body size, may have been almost solely responsible for the accumulation of the majority of bones in multiple deposits (including Swartkrans Member 3) from various Sterkfontein Valley cave sites. Our results falsify that hypothesis and corroborate an earlier hypothesis that, while the carcasses of smaller animals may have been deposited in Swartkrans by leopards, other kinds of carnivores (and hominids) were mostly responsible for the deposition of large animal remains.

    Meanwhile, we find that none other than Stephen Jay Gould has been transmogrified into a “hero.”  As documented by Steven Pinker in The Blank Slate, Gould was basically a radical Blank Slater, unless one cares to give him a pass because he grudgingly admitted that, after all, eating, sleeping, urinating and defecating might not be purely learned behaviors, after all.  The real Steven Jay Gould rejected evolutionary psychology root and branch, and was a co-signer of the Blank Slater manifesto that appeared in the New York Times in response to claims about human nature as reserved as those of E. O. Wilson in his Sociobiology.  He famously invented the charge of “just so stories” to apply to any and all claims for the existence of human behavioral predispositions.  Now, in The Bonobo and the Atheist, we find Gould reinvented as a good evolutionary psychologist.  His “just so stories” only apply to the “excesses” of evolutionary psychology.  We find the real Gould, who completely rejected the idea of “human nature,” softened to a new, improved Gould who merely “vehemently resisted the idea that every single human behavior deserves an evolutionary account.”  If anyone was a dyed-in-the-wool habitue of the Blank Slate establishment in its heyday, it was Gould, but suddenly we learn that “Several skirmishes between him and the evolutionary establishment unfolded in the pages of the New York Review of Books in 1997.”  I can only suggest that anyone who honestly believes that a new “establishment” had already replaced the Blank Slate prior to 1997 should read Napoleon Chagnon’s Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes – The Yanomamö and the Anthropologists, published as recently as last year.  No matter, according to de Waal, “The greatest public defender of evolution this country has ever known was Stephen Jay Gould.”

    Perhaps one can best understand the Gould panegyrics in connection with another of the major themes of de Waal’s book; his rejection of Richard Dawkins and the rest of the New Atheists.  De Waal is what New Atheist Jerry Coyne would refer to as an “accommodationist,” that is, an atheist who believes that the atheist lions should lie down with the religious sheep.  As it happens, Gould was the Ur-accommodationist, and inventor of the phrase “nonoverlapping magisterial,” or NOMA to describe his claim that science and religion occupy separate spheres of knowledge.  One can find a good summary of the objections to NOMA from the likes of “New Atheists” Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Coyne on Prof. Coyne’s website, Why Evolution is True, for example, here and here.

    It’s hard to understand de Waal’s bitter opposition to atheist activism as other than yet another example of Nietzsche’s “climbing down onto the backward pointing shoots.”  Indeed, as one might expect from such instances of “turning back,” it’s not without contradictions.  For example, he writes,

    Religion looms as large as an elephant in the United States, to the point that being nonreligious is about the biggest handicap a politician running for office can have, bigger than being gay, unmarried, thrice married, or black.

    And yet he objects to the same kind of activism among atheists that has been the most effective antidote to such bigotry directed at, for example, gays and blacks.  For some reason, atheists are just supposed to smile and take it.  De Waal accuses Dawkins, Harris and the rest of being “haters,” but I know of not a single New Atheist that term can really be accurately applied to, and certainly not to the likes of Dawkins, Harris or Coyne.  Vehement, on occasion, yes, but haters of the religious per se?  I don’t think so.  De Waal agrees with David Sloan Wilson that “religion” evolved.  I can certainly believe that predispositions evolved that have the potential to manifest themselves as religion, but “religion” per se, complete with imaginary spiritual beings?  Not likely.  Nevertheless, De Waal claims it is part of our “social skin.”  And yet, in spite of this claim that religion “evolved,” a bit later we find him taking note of a social phenomenon that apparently directly contradicts this conclusion:

    The secular model is currently being tried out in northern Europe, where it has progressed to the point that children naively ask why there are so many “plus signs” on large buildings called “churches.”

    Apparently, then, “evolved religion” only infected a portion of our species in northern Europe, and they all moved to the United States.  Finally, in his zeal to defend religion, de Waal comes up with some instances of “moral equivalence” that are truly absurd.  For example,

    I am as sickened (by female genital mutilation, ed.) as the next person, but if Harris’s quest is to show that religion fails to promote morality, why pick on Islam?  Isn’t genital mutilation common in the United States, too, where newborn males are routinely circumcised without their consent?  We surely don’t need to go all the way to Afghanistan to find valleys in the moral landscape.

    As it happens I know of several instances in which my undergraduate classmates voluntarily had themselves circumcised, not for any religious motive, but because otherwise their girlfriends wouldn’t agree to oral sex.  One wonders whether de Waal can cite similar instances involving FGM.

    Oh, well, I suppose I shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth.  Anyone who believes in a “bottom up” version of subjective morality can’t be all bad, according to my own subjective judgment, of course.  Indeed, de Waal even has the audacity to point out that bonobos, those paragons of primate virtue extolled so often as role models for our own species do, occasionally fight.  Along with Jonathan Haidt, he’s probably the closest thing to a “kindred spirit” I’m likely to find in academia.  The icing on the cake is that he is aware of and admires the brilliant work of Edvard Westermarck on morality.  What of Westermarck, you ask.  Well, I’ll take that up in another post.

  • “On Aggression” and the Continuing Vindication of the Unpersons

    Posted on May 8th, 2014 Helian 2 comments

    The vindication just keeps coming for the unpersons of the Blank Slate.  First Robert Ardrey’s “Territorial Imperative” is confirmed in an article in the journal International Security.  The authors actually deign to mention Ardrey, but claim that, even though their “novel ideas” are all remarkably similar to the main themes of a book he published almost half a century ago, it doesn’t count.  You see, unlike all the other scientists who ever lived, Ardrey wasn’t infallible, so he can be ignored, and his legacy appropriated at will.  Shortly thereafter, Ardrey’s “Hunting Hypothesis” is confirmed yet again, and in the pages of Scientific American, no less!  The article in question bears the remarkably Ardreyesque title How Hunting Made Us Human.  It does not mention Ardrey.

    Now another major theme from the work of yet another unperson whose life work and legacy don’t count because Richard Dawkins said he was “totally and utterly wrong” has been (yet again) confirmed!  The unperson in question is Konrad Lorenz, a Nobel laureate who dared to suggest that genes might have some influence on human aggression in his book, On Aggression, published back in 1966.  According to the authors of a recent Penn State study there is now some doubt about whether Lorenz was “totally and utterly wrong” after all.  Here are some blurbs from an account in the Penn State News:

    Aggression-causing genes appeared early in animal evolution and have maintained their roles for millions of years and across many species, even though animal aggression today varies widely from territorial fighting to setting up social hierarchies, according to researchers from Iowa State University, Penn State and Grand Valley State University.

    If these “mean genes” keep their roles in different animals and in different contexts, then perhaps model organisms — such as bees and mice — can provide insights into the biological basis of aggression in all animals, including humans, the researchers said.

    Do you think Lorenz will get any credit?  Dream on!  After all, he wasn’t infallible (what was it he was wrong about now?  The “hydraulic theory” or something), and it’s a “well known fact,” as Stalin always used to say, that any scientist who wasn’t as infallible as the Almighty should be ignored and forgotten and his work freely appropriated.  Or at least that’s the rule generally applied by the modern “historians” of the Blank Slate to scientists whose existence is “inconvenient” to their narrative.

    BTW, the title typically used for articles about the study is very amusing.  In most cases, it’s simply copied from the one used in the Penn State News; “Wasps use ancient aggression genes to create social groups”.  Move along people!  There’s nothing interesting here.  It’s just a dull study about wasps.

    No matter, studies on the influence of genes on human behavior continue to stream out of the Academy, demonstrating that, for the most part, such work can now be done without fear of retribution.  That, and not any vindicated or unvindicated scientific hypothesis, is the real legacy of Ardrey, Lorenz, and the other great unpersons of the Blank Slate.