I admire Frans de Waal. One of the reasons is the fact that he knows about Edvard Westermarck. In his latest book, Mama’s Last Hug, he even refers to him as, “…the Finnish anthropologist who gave us the first ideas about the evolution of human morality.” In fact, that’s not true. Darwin himself gave us the first ideas about the evolution of human morality, most notably in Chapter IV of his The Descent of Man, and, as I’ve noted elsewhere, a host of scientists and philosophers wrote about the subject before Westermarck appeared on the scene. However, as far as I can tell all of them promoted some version of naturalistic fallacy. In other words, they thought that evolution would result in ever “higher” forms of morality, or that it was possible for us to be morally obligated to do some things and refrain from doing others by virtue of natural selection. Westermarck was the first writer of note after Darwin to avoid these fallacies, and no one of any stature with his insight has appeared on the scene since. To that extent, at least, de Waal is right. Unfortunately, he has an unsettling tendency to state his own moral judgments as if they were objective facts. As one might expect, they are virtually identical with the moral judgments of the rest of the academic tribe. Since Westermarck rightly pointed out that those who do this are victims of an illusion in the first chapter of his first book on the subject, The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas, one wonders whether de Waal understood what he was reading. Continue reading ““Mama’s Last Hug” by Frans de Waal; Adventures in the Rearrangement of History”
There is no more important aspect of human nature than our tendency to perceive others in terms of ingroups and outgroups. Without an awareness of its existence and its power it is impossible to understand either out history or many of the critical events that are happening around us today. A trait that probably existed in our ancestors millions of years ago, it evolved because it promoted our survival when our environment and way of life were radically different from what they are now. In the context of current human technologies and societies, it often appears to have become wildly dysfunctional. We can distinguish ingroup from outgroup based on the subtlest of differences. That worked fine when we all lived in small groups of hunter-gatherers. The outgroup was always just the next group over. Today the same mental equipment for identifying the outgroup has resulted in endless confusion and, in many cases, disaster. The only way out lies in self-understanding, but as a species we exhibit an incorrigible resistance to knowing ourselves.
In my last post I commented on the foibles of an ingroup of intellectuals whose “territory” was defined by ideology. I’m sure they all believed their behavior was entirely rational, but they had no clue what was going on as they reacted to a “turncoat” and “heretic” in the same way that ingroups have done for eons. Had they read a seminal book by Sir Arthur Keith entitled A New Theory of Human Evolution, they might have had at least an inkling about the real motivation of their behavior. Published in 1948, the book was of critical importance, not just because it addressed the question of ingroups and outgroups, but because of Keith’s sure feel for the aspects of human behavior that really matter, and for his forthright and undaunted insistence on the existence and importance of innate human nature. He was certainly not infallible. What scientist is? He believed the Piltdown skull was real until it was finally proved a hoax just before he died. Some of what he had to say about human behavior has stood the test of time and some hasn’t. However, his hypotheses about ingroups and outgroups definitely belong in the former category, along with many others. There is no question that they were closer to the truth than the Blank Slate dogmas that already served as holy writ for most of the so-called behavioral scientists of the day.
Today there are few original copies of his book around, although some are offered at Amazon as I write this. However, it is available online at archive.org, and reprints are available at Alibris.com and elsewhere. It is a must read if you interested in human behavior, and even more so if you are interested in the history of the behavioral sciences in general and the Blank Slate in particular. Unfortunately, most of the accounts of that history that have appeared in the last 50 years or so are largely fairy tales, concocted either to deny or “embellish” the reality that the Blank Slate was the greatest scientific catastrophe of all time. If you want to know what really happened, there is no alternative to consulting the source material yourself. One of the biggest fairy tales is that the man who played the greatest single role in demolishing the Blank Slate, Robert Ardrey, was “totally and utterly wrong.” In fact, Ardrey was “totally and utterly right” about the main theme of all his books; that human nature is both real and important. He insisted on that truth in the teeth of the Blank Slate lies that had been swallowed by virtually every “behavioral scientist” of his day.
Ardrey had an uncanny ability to ferret out scientists whose work actually did matter. Sir Arthur Keith was no exception. What he had to say about Keith and his take on ingroup/outgroup behavior was far more eloquent than anything I could add. For example,
In his last two books, Essays on Human Evolution in 1946 and A New Theory of Human Evolution in 1948, Keith took the final, remorseless step which his thinking had made inevitable. Conscience, he affirmed is simply that human mechanism dictating allegiance to the dual code. Those who assert that conscience is inborn are therefore correct. But just how far does conscience compel our actions in such an ultimate direction as that of the brotherhood of man? Not far. Conscience is the instrument of the group.
Human nature has a dual constitution; to hate as well as to love are parts of it; and conscience may enforce hate as a duty just as it enforces the duty of love. Conscience has a two-fold role in the soldier: it is his duty to save and protect his own people and equally his duty to destroy their enemies… Thus, conscience serves both codes of group behavior: it gives sanction to practices of the code of enmity as well as of the code of amity.
These were Keith’s last words on the subject. If the grand old man had any noteworthy capacities for self-delusion, they escape the eye. And when he died a few years later, at the age of ninety, with him ended truth’s brief history. His thoughts by then were overwhelmed by the new romanticism (the Blank Slate, ed.) when falsehood came to flower: his sentiments were condemned by that academic monopoly which substituted high-mindedness for the higher learning. And as for almost twenty years no one followed C. R. Carpenter (a primatologist who published some “inconvenient truths” about the behavior of monkeys and apes in the field, anticipating the revelations of Goodall and others, ed.) into the rain forest, so for almost twenty years none has followed Sir Arthur Keith into the jungle of noble intentions.
Beautifully said by the great nemesis of the Blank Slate. Ardrey had much else to say about both Keith and the history of hypotheses about ingroup/outgroup behavior in Chapter 8, “The Amity-Enmity Complex” of his The Territorial Imperative. If you’re looking for source material on the history of the Blank Slate, Ardrey’s four books on human nature wouldn’t be a bad place to start. They’re certainly more accurate than Pinker’s fanciful “history” of the affair. Keith himself was certainly aware of Blank Slate ideologues and their “academic monopoly.” However, he had a naïve faith that, if he only told the truth, he would eventually be vindicated. A hint about the extent to which that faith was realized can be gleaned by perusing the Wiki entry about him, which dismisses him into the realm of unpersons with the usual hackneyed claim of the pathologically pious that he was a “racist,” along with a gleeful notice that he was taken in by the Piltdown skull.
When it comes to the bowdlerization of history, by all means, have a look at the Wiki entry on “Ingroups and outgroups” as well. The most shocking thing about it is the thought that its author might actually believe what he’s written. We learn, for example, that “The terminology was made popular by Henri Tajfel and colleagues during his work in formulating social identity theory.” One wonders whether to laugh or despair on reading such absurdities. The idea that the history of what Ardrey referred to as the “Amity-Enmity Complex” began with some inconsequential “study” done by a Polish psychologist back in 1971 is beyond ludicrous. That’s just one of the reasons why its important to read such important bits of source material as Keith’s book. He actually presents an accurate account of the history of this critical aspect of human behavior. For example,
In brief, I hold that from the very beginning of human evolution the conduct of every local group was regulated by two codes of morality, distinguished by Herbert Spencer as the “code of amity” and the “code of enmity.”
Spencer wrote extensively about the subject in his Principles of Ethics, which appeared in 1892, nearly 80 years before the subject “was made popular” in Tajfel’s “study.” Unfortunately, he also noted the fallacies behind the then fashionable versions of socialism in another of his books, and gave reasons that governments based on them would fail that were amply confirmed by the history of the next hundred years. For that, he was viciously condemned as a “Social Darwinist” by the socialist true believers. The moniker has stuck to this day, in spite of the fact that Spencer was never even a “Darwinist” to begin with. He certainly had his own theories of evolution, but they were much closer to Lamarckism than Darwinism. In any case, Keith continues,
As a result of group consciousness, which serves to bind the members of a community together and to separate the community from all others, “there arises,” to use the words of Professor Sumner, “a differentiation between ourselves – the ‘we’ group or ‘in’ group – and everybody else – the ‘out’ group.”
The passage Keith refers to appeared in Folkways, published by Prof. William Graham Sumner in 1906, also somewhat earlier than the good Prof. Tajfel’s study. Of course, studies by learned professors of psychology are not necessary to document ingroup/outgroup behavior. Just read a little history. Look around you. Can one really understand the furious hatred of Trump by so many highly educated academics and intellectuals absent a grasp of this aspect of human behavior? Are racism, anti-Semitism, religious bigotry, hatred of the “bourgeoisie” or other versions of the “class enemy,” or any of the other myriad versions of outgroup identification that have been documented in our history best understood as the acts of “evil” people, who apparently get up every morning wracking their brains to decide what bad deeds they can do that day, or are they better understood as manifestations of the type of innate behavior described by Prof. Keith? I personally lean towards the latter explanation. Given the incredibly destructive results of this aspect of our behavior, would it not be advisable for our “experts” in evolutionary psychology to devote a bit more attention to it, as opposed to the more abstruse types of sexual behavior by which they now seem to be so fascinated? No doubt it would annoy the hardcore Blank Slaters who still haunt academia, but on the other hand, it might actually be useful.
Sir Arthur had much more to say about the evolution of human nature, including that great tool of historical obfuscation, “group selection.” But that’s a matter best left to another day.
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).
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.
You have to hand it to Steven Pinker. At least his book about the Blank Slate drew attention to the fact that it ever happened. It would have been nice if he’d gotten the history right as well. Unfortunately, his description of the affair airbrushes the two men most responsible for ending it completely out of the picture. I refer to Robert Ardrey and Konrad Lorenz. Ardrey played by far the most significant role of any individual in smashing the Blank Slate orthodoxy. He was an outsider, a former playwright, whose highly popular and influential books insisting on the existence and significance of human nature made a mockery of the Blank Slate among intelligent lay people. The academic and professional tribe of “scientists” in the behavioral disciplines never forgave him. The humiliation they suffered during their slow, post-Ardrey return to reality following their long debauch with ideologically motivated myths tarted up as “science” rankles to this day. One can still find occasional artifacts of their hatred in the popular media, as I noted in an earlier post. That probably explains why Pinker dropped Ardrey down the memory hole. It can be understood, at least in part, as a belated defense of his academic ingroup. The result was a ludicrous “history” of the Blank Slate affair that studiously avoided mentioning the role of the individual who played the single most important role in ending it.
Pinker’s rationalization for ignoring Ardrey and Lorenz was certainly crude enough. He managed it in a single paragraph in Chapter 7 of The Blank Slate. The first part of the paragraph reads as follows:
The Noble Savage, too, is a cherished doctrine among critics of the sciences of human nature. In Sociobiology, Wilson mentioned that tribal warfare was common in human prehistory. The against-sociobiologists declared that this had been “strongly rebutted both on the basis of historical and anthropological studies.” I looked up these “studies,” which were collected in Ashley Montagu’s Man and Aggression. In fact they were just hostile reviews of books by the ethologist Konrad Lorenz, the playwright Robert Ardrey, and the novelist William Golding (author of Lord of the Flies). Some of the criticisms were, to be sure, deserved. Ardrey and Lorenz believed in archaic theories such as that aggression was like the discharge of a hydraulic pressure and that evolution acted for the good of the species. But far stronger criticisms of Ardrey and Lorenz had been made by the sociobiologists themselves. (On the second page of The Selfish Gene, for example, Dawkins wrote, “The trouble with these books is that the authors got it totally and utterly wrong.”) In any case, the reviews contained virtually no data about tribal warfare.
That’s for sure! Man and Aggression, published in 1968, was a collection of essays by some of the most prominent anthropologists and psychologists of the day. It’s quite true that it had little to do with tribal warfare, because it was intended mainly as an attempt to refute Ardrey and Lorenz’ insistence on the existence and importance of human nature. As such, it is one of the most important pieces of historical source material relevant to the Blank Slate. Among other things, it demonstrates that Pinker’s portrayal of E. O. Wilson as the knight in shining armor who slew the Blank Slate dragon in Chapter 6 of his book is nonsense. The battle had been joined long before the appearance of Wilson’s Sociobiology in 1975, and the two chapters in that book that had even mentioned human nature were essentially just restatements of what Ardrey, Lorenz, and several other authors of note, such as Robin Fox, Paul Leyhausen, Desmond Morris, Anthony Storr, and Lionel Tiger, had already written, in part, more than a decade earlier.
As can be seen in the paragraph from Pinker’s book, he cites two main reasons for airbrushing Ardrey and Lorenz out of existence. The first is Dawkins’ comment in The Selfish Gene that, “The trouble with these books is that the authors got it totally and utterly wrong.” If you actually read what Dawkins was talking about, you’ll see this comment had nothing to do with human nature, the Blank Slate, or sociobiology. Indeed, it had nothing to do with the theme of Pinker’s book, or any fundamental theme in the work of either Ardrey or Lorenz, either, for that matter. It turns out Dawkins was referring solely to their favorable comments about group selection! In one of the more amusing ironies of scientific history, E. O. Wilson, Pinker’s heroic debunker of the Blank Slate, later outed himself as a far more devoted advocate of group selection than anything Ardrey or Lorenz ever dreamed of! If they were “totally and utterly wrong,” Wilson must be doubly “totally and utterly wrong,” and himself and candidate for the memory hole. I’ve written at length about this dubious rationale for dismissing Ardrey and Lorenz elsewhere.
However, group selection wasn’t Pinker’s only excuse for creating his fairy tale version of the Blank Slate. His other one (or more correctly, two), is contained in the sentence, “Ardrey and Lorenz believed in archaic theories such as that aggression was like the discharge of a hydraulic pressure and that evolution acted for the good of the species.” In fact, Lorenz often does discuss whether particular adaptations are for the good of the species or not. He does so mainly to illustrate his point that, while the innate behavioral traits that can result in aggression in human beings were “good for the species,” in the sense that they promoted the survival of our species as a whole, at the time that they evolved, the same traits may now be “not for the good of the species” in the radically different environment we find ourselves in today. One could say in the same sense that our hands, feet and eyes are “for the good of the species,” because we are better off with them than without them. I can only surmise that Pinker falsely imagined that Lorenz was trying to claim that selection operated at the level of the species. In fact, he never claimed anything of the sort. In the few instances he actually spoke of selection in his book, On Aggression, he was careful to point out that it took place at the level of individuals, or perhaps a few individuals.
It turns out that the history behind Pinker’s comment that “Ardrey and Lorenz believed in archaic theories such as that aggression was like the discharge of a hydraulic pressure” is a great deal more interesting. I seriously doubt that Pinker even knew what he was talking about here. His knowledge of the “hydraulic theory” was probably second or third hand. In the first place, Lorenz never had a “hydraulic theory.” He did have a “hydraulic model,” and referred to it often. An animated version of the model, which he first presented at a conference in 1949, may be found here. Lorenz never referred to it as other than an admittedly crude model, but one which illustrated what he actually saw in the behavior of many different species. Anyone who is capable of raising fish in an aquarium or ducks and geese in their backyard, can read Lorenz and see for themselves that, whether Pinker thinks the model is “archaic” or not, it does nicely illustrate aspects of how these species’ actually behave.
This begs the question of how this simple and accurate model became transmogrified into a “theory.” It turns out that the “authority” the Blank Slaters of old most often used to “refute” Lorenz’ “hydraulic theory” was one Daniel Lehrman, a professor at Rutgers and a purveyor of behaviorist flim flam of the first water. His A Critique of Konrad Lorenz’s Theory of Instinctive Behavior appeared in The Quarterly Review of Biology back in 1953. By all means, have a look at it. To read it is to marvel at how delusional the Blank Slaters had become by the early 50’s. Lehrman denied the existence of instincts, not only in the great apes and human beings, as Ashley Montagu did in the 60’s, but in rats and geese, no less! For example, according to Lehrman, the innate egg retrieving behavior of geese described by Lorenz was not innate, but was a result of “conditioning” while the goose was still in the egg! He cited studies according to which the neck movements used by the goose to retrieve the egg actually began developing a few days after the egg was laid when the “head is stimulated tactually by the yolk sac.” Apparently it never occurred to Lehrman that he was merely kicking the can down the road. Why would the fetal goose move its head one way rather than another in response to this “conditioning?” Indeed, why would it move it’s head at all? As Lorenz put it, there must have been an innate “schoolmarm” to teach the goose these things. Lehrman gives several other examples, explaining innate developmental feedback mechanisms in terms of behaviorist “conditioning.” The following is another example of his “devastating” arguments against Lorenz:
Now, what exactly is meant by the statement that a behavior pattern is “inherited” or “genetically controlled?” Lorenz undoubtedly does not thing that the zygote contains the instinctive act in miniature, or that the gene is the equivalent of an entelechy which purposefully and continuously tries to push the organism’s development in a particular direction. Yet one or both of these preformistic assumptions, or their equivalents, must underlie the notion that some behavior patterns are “inherited” as such.
Quick! Someone run and tell the computer programmers! Everything they’ve done to date is clearly impossible. Are they trying to claim that their video games actually exist in miniature in the software they’re trying to peddle? Lehrman next gives a perfect illustration of what George Orwell was talking about when he spoke of “Newspeak,” in his 1984. Newspeak was a version of the language that would make it impossible to even conceptualize “Crimethink.” As Lehrman puts it,
To lump them (behavioral traits) together under the rubric of “inherited” or “innate” characteristics serves to block the investigation of their origin just at the point where it should leap forward in meaningfulness.
Elsewhere Lehrman makes a similar case for actually expunging the words “innate” and “instinct” from the behavioral science dictionary. To borrow Orwell’s terminology, he considered them “doubleplus ungood.” In retrospect, I think we can see perfectly well at this point what kinds of “investigation” really were blocked for upwards of half a century by the high priests of the Blank Slate, and it certainly wasn’t the kind that was dear to the heart of Prof. Lehrman. But what of the “hydraulic theory?” Here’s what Lehrman has to say about it:
Lorenz (1950) describes in some detail a hydraulic model, or analogy, of the instinct mechanism, including a reservoir of excitation and devices for keeping it dammed up (innate releasing mechanism) until appropriate keys unlock the sluices. Hydraulic analogies have reappeared so regularly in Lorenz’s papers since 1937 as to justify the impression that they are not really analogies – they are actual representations of Lorenz’s conception and channeling of “instinctive energy.”
Got that? You’d better not hum the tune to the Rolling Stone’s “She’s Like a Rainbow” too often, or you’ll find yourself accused of proposing a “theory” of the transformation of women into rainbows. The same goes for “Like the Dawn,” by the “Oh Hello’s.” Heaven forefend that you ever describe a cloud as like a camel, or a whale, or a unicorn, or you might find yourself accused of proposing a “theory” of the transubstantiation of clouds. That, my friends, was the magical process by which Lorenz’ simple model was transmuted into Pinker’s mythical “archaic hydraulic theory.”
So much for Pinker’s “fake but true” history of the Blank Slate. To my knowledge he has never yet shown the slightest remorse for the violence he has done to the history of what is probably the greatest scientific debacle of all time, not to mention to the legacy of the two men most responsible for restoring some semblance of sanity to the behavioral sciences. I would caution those who expect that he ever will not to hold their breath. As for Lehrman, he became a member of any number of prestigious learned societies, and received any number of prestigious awards and decorations for his brilliant contributions to the advancement of “science.” It would seem that, just as no good deed goes unpunished, no bad deed goes unrewarded.
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.
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.
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.
I know. You think I’m too obsessed with Robert Ardrey. Perhaps, but when I stumble across little historical artifacts of his existence, I can’t resist recording them. Who else will? Besides, I have moral emotions, too. I’m not sure where I sit on the spectrum of Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations, but when I consider Ardrey’s shabby treatment in the “official” histories, they all start howling at once. Ardrey shouldn’t be forgotten. He was the most significant player in the events that come to mind when one hears the term “Blank Slate.”
What was the “Blank Slate?” I’d call it the greatest scientific debacle of all time. The behavioral sciences were derailed for fifty years and more by the ideologically motivated denial of human nature. Unfortunately, its history will probably never be written, or at least not in a form that bears some resemblance to the truth. Perhaps the most important truth that will be redacted from future accounts of the Blank Slate is the seminal role of Robert Ardrey in dismantling it. That role was certainly recognized by the high priests of the Blank Slate themselves. Their obsession with Ardrey can be easily documented. In spite of that he is treated as an unperson today, and his historical role has been denied or suppressed. I have discussed reasons for this remarkable instance of historical amnesia elsewhere. They usually have something to do with the amour-propre of the academic tribe. See, for example, here, here and here.
If there are grounds for optimism that the real story will ever see the light of day, it lies in the ease with which the elaborate fairy tale that currently passes as the “history” of the Blank Slate can be exposed. According to this official “history,” the Blank Slate prevailed virtually unchallenged until the mid-70’s. Then, suddenly, E. O. Wilson appeared on the scene as the knight in shining armor who slew the Blank Slate dragon almost single-handedly with the publication of Sociobiology in 1975. As I’ve noted in earlier posts, there’s a great deal of source material in both the academic and popular literature whose existence is very difficult to account for if one takes this sanitized version of the affair seriously. I’ve occasionally cited some of the numerous examples of articles about or by Ardrey, both pro and con, in popular magazines including the highbrow Encounter, the more professionally oriented Saturday Review, the once popular Life, the “recreational” Penthouse, and many others, all of which appeared long before the publication of Sociobiology. I recently stumbled across another amusing example in one of Jack Nicholson’s earlier flicks, and probably one of his best; Five Easy Pieces.
I hadn’t watched the film since 1970, the year it was released. I thought it was entertaining at the time, especially the iconic restaurant scene with the uncooperative waitress. However, I certainly didn’t notice any connection to the Blank Slate. It was a bit early for that. However, I happened to watch the film again a couple of days ago. This time I noticed something. There was the ghost of Robert Ardrey, with an amused look on his face, waving at me right out of the screen.
The great debunker of the Blank Slate turns up around 1:20:25 into the film. Bobby (Jack Nicholson), his somewhat trashy girlfriend, Rayette, and a few other family members and guests are gathered in the living room of Bobby’s childhood home. A pompous, insufferable woman by the name of Samia Glavia is holding forth about the nature of man. The dialogue goes like this:
Samia Glavia/Irene Dailey: But you see, man is born into the world with his existent adversary from the first. It is his historic, lithic inheritance. So, is it startling? Aggression is prehistoric. An organism behaves according to its nature, and its nature derives from the circumstances of its inheritance. The fact remains that primitive man took absolute delight in tearing his adversary apart. And there is where I think the core of the problem resides.
John Ryan/Spicer: Doesn’t that seem unnecessarily apocalyptic?
Glavia: I do not make poetry.
Rayette: Is there a TV in the house?
Glavia: I remarked to John, that rationality is not a device to alter facts. But moreover I think of it as an extraneous tool, a gadget, somewhat like… the television. To look at it any other way is ridiculous.
Rayette:There’s some good things on it, though.
Glavia: I beg your pardon? (Condescendingly)
Rayette: There’s some good things on it sometimes.
Glavia: I have strong doubts. Nevertheless, I am not discussing media. (Icy, condescending smile)
Susan Anspach/Catherine van Oost: I think these cold, objective discussions are aggressive.
As Catherine leaves the room, Glavia rants on: There seems to be less aggression, or violence, if you like, among the higher classes, and loftier natures.
Nicholson/Bobby Dupea: You pompous celibate. You’re totally full of shit.
Great shades of Raymond Dart! “Aggression” was a key buzzword at the time in any discussion of innate human nature. Naturalist Konrad Lorenz had published the English version of his On Aggression a few years earlier. Ardrey had highlighted the theories of Dart, according to which Australopithecus africanus was an aggressive hunting ape, in his African Genesis, published in 1961. The scientific establishment, firmly in the grip of the Blank Slate ideologues, had been furiously blasting back, condemning Ardrey, Lorenz, and anyone else who dared to suggest the existence of anything as heretical as human nature as a fascist and a Nazi, not to mention very right wing. (sound familiar?) See, for example, the Blank Slate tract Man and Aggression, published in 1968.
I’m not sure whether producer Bob Rafelson or screenwriter Carole Eastman or both were responsible for the lines in question, but there’s no doubt about one thing – whoever wrote them had been well coached by the Blank Slaters. Their favorite memes were all there. The grotesque, exaggerated “Killer Ape Theory?” Check! The socially objectionable nature of the messenger? Check! Their association with the “exploiting classes, or, as Samia Glavia put it, “the higher classes and loftier natures?” Check! As a final subtle touch, the very name “Glavia” is Latin for a type of sword or spear, a weapon of “aggression.”
I’m sure there are many more of these artifacts of reality out there, awaiting discovery by some future historian bold enough to dispute the “orthodox” account of the Blank Slate. According to that account, nothing much happened to disturb the hegemony of the Blank Slaters until E. O. Wilson turned up. Then, as noted above, the whole charade supposedly popped like a soap bubble. Well, as the song goes, “It ain’t necessarily so.” Ardrey and friends had already reduced the Blank Slate to a laughing stock among the lay public long before Wilson happened along. The “Men of Science” knew the game was up. Still, they couldn’t bear to admit that a “mere playwright” like Ardrey had forced them to admit that the elaborate Blank Slate fairy tale they had been propping up for the last 50 years with thousands of “scientific” papers in hundreds of learned academic and professional journals was a hoax. They needed some “graceful” way to rejoin the real world. They seized on Wilson as the “way.” Any port in a storm. As a member of the academic tribe himself, he made it respectable for other “Men of Science” to disengage themselves from the Blank Slate dogmas. Be that as it may, as anyone who was around at the time and was paying attention was aware, the man who was the real nemesis of the Blank Slate was Robert Ardrey. If you’re looking for proof, I recommend Five Easy Pieces as both a revealing and entertaining place to start your search.
Why is all this important? Because the Blank Slate affair was a disfiguring and corruption of the integrity of science on an unprecedented scale. It clearly demonstrated what can happen when ideological imperatives are allowed to trump the scientific method. For half a century and more it blocked our path to self-understanding, and with it out ability to understand and cope with some of the more destructive aspects of our nature. Under the circumstances it might behoove us to at least get the history right.
Once upon a time, half a century ago and more, several authors wrote books according to which certain animals, including human beings, are, at least in certain circumstances, predisposed to aggressive behavior. Prominent among them was On Aggression, published in English in 1966 by Konrad Lorenz. Other authors included Desmond Morris (The Naked Ape, 1967), Lionel Tiger (Men in Groups, 1969) and Robin Fox (The Imperial Animal, co-authored with Tiger, 1971). The most prominent and widely read of all was the inimitable Robert Ardrey (African Genesis, 1961, The Territorial Imperative, 1966, The Social Contract, 1970, and The Hunting Hypothesis, 1976). Why were these books important, or even written to begin with? After all, the fact of innate aggression, then as now, was familiar to any child who happened to own a dog. Well, because the “men of science” disagreed. They insisted that there were no innate tendencies to aggression, in man or any of the other higher animals. It was all the fault of unfortunate cultural developments back around the start of the Neolithic era, or of the baneful environmental influence of “frustration.”
Do you think I’m kidding? By all means, read the source literature! For example, according to a book entitled Aggression by “dog expert” John Paul Scott published in 1958 by the University of Chicago Press,
All research findings point to the fact that there is no physiological evidence of any internal need or spontaneous driving force for fighting; that all stimulation for aggression eventually comes from the forces present in the external environment.
A bit later, in 1962 in a book entitled Roots of Behavior he added,
All our present data indicate that fighting behavior among the higher mammals, including man, originates in external stimulation and that there is no evidence of spontaneous internal stimulation.
Ashley Montagu added the following “scientific fact” about apes (including chimpanzees!) in his “Man and Aggression,” published in 1968:
The field studies of Schaller on the gorilla, of Goodall on the chimpanzee, of Harrison on the orang-utan, as well as those of others, show these creatures to be anything but irascible. All the field observers agree that these creatures are amiable and quite unaggressive, and there is not the least reason to suppose that man’s pre-human primate ancestors were in any way different.
When Goodall dared to contradict Montagu and report what she had actually seen, she was furiously denounced in vile attacks by the likes of Brian Deer, who chivalrously recorded in an artical published in the Sunday Times in 1997,
…the former waitress had arrived at Gombe, ordered the grass cut and dumped vast quantities of trucked-in bananas, before documenting a fractious pandemonium of the apes. Soon she was writing about vicious hunting parties in which our cheery cousins trapped colubus monkeys and ripped them to bits, just for fun.
This remarkable transformation from Montagu’s expert in the field to Deer’s “former waitress” was typical of the way “science” was done by the Blank Slaters in those days. This type of “science” should be familiar to modern readers, who have witnessed what happens to anyone who dares to challenge the current climate change dogmas.
Fast forward to 2016. A paper entitled The phylogenetic roots of human lethal violence has just been published in the prestigious journal Nature. The first figure in the paper has the provocative title, “Evolution of lethal aggression in non-human mammals.” It not only accepts the fact of “spontaneous internal stimulation” of aggression without a murmur, but actually quantifies it in no less than 1024 species of mammals! According to the abstract,
Here we propose a conceptual approach towards understanding these roots based on the assumption that aggression in mammals, including humans, has a significant phylogenetic component. By compiling sources of mortality from a comprehensive sample of mammals, we assessed the percentage of deaths due to conspecifics and, using phylogenetic comparative tools, predicted this value for humans. The proportion of human deaths phylogenetically predicted to be caused by interpersonal violence stood at 2%.
All this and more is set down in the usual scientific deadpan without the least hint that the notion of such a “significant phylogenetic component” was ever seriously challenged. Unfortunately the paper itself is behind Nature’s paywall, but a there’s a free review with extracts from the paper by Ed Yong on the website of The Atlantic, and Jerry Coyne also reviewed the paper over at his Why Evolution is True website. Citing the paper Yong notes,
It’s likely that primates are especially violent because we are both territorial and social—two factors that respectively provide motive and opportunity for murder. So it goes for humans. As we moved from small bands to medium-sized tribes to large chiefdoms, our rates of lethal violence increased.
“Territorial and social!?” Whoever wrote such stuff? Oh, now I remember! It was a guy named Robert Ardrey, who happened to be the author of The Territorial Imperative and The Social Contract. Chalk up another one for the “mere playwright.” Yet again, he was right, and almost all the “men of science” were wrong. Do you ever think he’ll get the credit he deserves from our latter day “men of science?” Naw, neither do I. Some things are just too embarrassing to admit.
It’s heartening to learn that there is a serious basis for recent speculation to the effect that the science of animal cognition may gradually advance to a level long familiar to any child with a pet dog. Frans de Waal breaks the news in his latest book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? In answer to his own question, de Waal writes,
The short answer is “Yes, but you’d never have guessed.” For most of the last century, science was overly cautious and skeptical about the intelligence of animals. Attributing intentions and emotions to animals was seen as naïve “folk” nonsense. We, the scientists, knew better! We never went in for any of this “my dog is jealous” stuff, or “my cat knows what she wants,” let alone anything more complicated, such as that animals might reflect on the past or feel one another’s pain… The two dominant schools of thought viewed animals as either stimulus-response machines out to obtain rewards and avoid punishment or as robots genetically endowed with useful instincts. While each school fought the other and deemed it too narrow, they shared a fundamentally mechanistic outlook: there was no need to worry about the internal lives of animals, and anyone who did was anthropomorphic, romantic and unscientific.
Did we have to go through this bleak period? In earlier days, the thinking was noticeably more liberal. Charles Darwin wrote extensively about human and animal emotions, and many a scientist in the nineteenth century was eager to find higher intelligence in animals. It remains a mystery why these efforts were temporarily suspended, and why we voluntarily hung a millstone around the neck of biology.
Here I must beg to differ with de Waal. It is by no means a “mystery.” This “mechanization” of animals in the sciences was more or less contemporaneous with the Blank Slate debacle, and was motivated by more or less the same ideological imperatives. I invite readers interested in the subject to consult the first few chapters of Robert Ardrey’s African Genesis, published as far back as 1961. Noting a blurb in Scientific American by Marshall Sahlins, more familiar to later readers as a collaborator in the slander of Napoleon Chagnon, to the effect that,
There is a quantum difference, at points a complete opposition, between even the most rudimentary human society and the most advanced subhuman primate one. The discontinuity implies that the emergence of human society required some suppression, rather than direct expression, of man’s primate nature. Human social life is culturally, not biologically determined.
Ardrey, that greatest of all debunkers of the Blank Slate, continues,
Dr. Sahlins’ conclusion is startling to no one but himself. It is a scientific restatement, 1960-style, of the philosophical conclusion of an eighteenth-century Neapolitan monk (Giambattista Vico, ed.): Society is the work of man. It is just another prop, fashioned in the shop of science’s orthodoxies from the lumber of Zuckerman’s myth, to support the fallacy of human uniqueness.
The Zuckerman Ardrey refers to is anthropologist Solly Zuckerman. I invite anyone who doubts the fanaticism with which “science” once insisted on the notion of human uniqueness alluded to in de Waal’s book to read some of Zuckerman’s papers. For example, in The Social Life of Monkeys and Apes, he writes,
It is now generally recognized that anthropomorphic preoccupations do not help the critical development of knowledge, either in fields of physical or biological inquiry.
He exulted in the great “advances” science had made in correcting the “mistakes” of Darwin:
The Darwinian period, in which animal behavior as a distinct study was born, was one in which anthropomorphic interpretation flourished. Anecdotes were regarded in the most generous light, and it was believed that many animals were highly rational creatures, possessed of exalted ethical codes of social behavior.
According to Zuckerman, “science” had now discovered that the very notion of animal “intelligence” was absurd. As he put it,
Until 1890, the study of the social behavior of mammals developed hand in hand with the study of their “intelligence,” and both subjects were usually treated in the same books.
Such comments, which are ubiquitous in the literature of the Blank Slate era, make it hard to understand how de Waal can still be “mystified” about the motivation for the “scientific” denial of animal intelligence. Be that as it may, he presents a wealth of data derived from recent experiments and field studies debunking all the lingering rationale for claims of human uniqueness one by one, whether it be the ability to experience emotion, a “theory of mind,” social problem solving ability, ability to contemplate the past and future, or even consciousness. In the process he documents the methods “science” used to hermetically seal itself off from reality, such as the invention of pejorative terms like “anthropomorphism” to denounce and dismiss anyone who dared to challenge the human uniqueness orthodoxy, and the rejection of all evidence not supplied by members of the club as mere “anecdotes.” In the process he notes,
Needing a new term to make my point, I invented anthropodenial, which is the a priori rejection of humanlike traits in other animals or animallike traits in us.
It’s hard to imagine that anyone could seriously believe that “science” consists of fanatically rejecting similarities between human and animal behavior that are obvious to everyone but “scientists” as “anthropomorphism” and “anecdotes” and assuming a priori that they’re of no significance until it can be absolutely proven that everyone else was right all along. This does not strike me as a “parsimonious” approach.
Not the least interesting feature of de Waal’s latest is his “rehabilitation” of several important debunkers of the Blank Slate who were unfortunate enough to publish before the appearance of E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology in 1975. According to the fairy tale that currently passes for the “history” of the Blank Slate, before 1975 “darkness was on the face of the deep.” Only then did Wilson appear on the scene as the heroic slayer of the Blank Slate dragon. A man named Robert Ardrey was never heard of, and anyone mentioned in his books as an opponent of the Blank Slate before the Wilson “singularity” is to be ignored. The most prominent of them all, a man on whom the anathemas of the Blank Slaters often fell, literally in the same breath as Ardrey, was Konrad Lorenz. Sure enough, in Steven Pinker’s fanciful “history” of the Blank Slate, Lorenz is dismissed, in the same paragraph with Ardrey, no less, as “totally and utterly wrong,” and a delusional believer in “archaic theories such as that aggression was like the discharge of a hydraulic pressure.” De Waal’s response must be somewhat discomfiting to the promoters of Pinker’s official “history.” He simply ignores it!
Astoundingly enough, de Waal speaks of Lorenz as one of the great founding fathers of the modern sciences of animal behavior and cognition. In other words, he tells the truth, as if it had never been disputed in any bowdlerized “history.” Already at the end of the prologue we find the matter-of-fact observation that,
…behavior is, as the Austrian ethologist Konrad Lorenz put it, the liveliest aspect of all that lives.
Reading on, we find that this mention of Lorenz wasn’t just an anomaly designed to wake up drowsy readers. In the first chapter we find de Waal referring to the field of phylogeny,
…when we trace traits across the evolutionary tree to determine whether similarities are due to common descent, the way Lorenz had done so beautifully for waterfowl.
A few pages later he writes,
The maestro of observation, Konrad Lorenz, believed that one could not investigate animals effectively without an intuitive understanding grounded in love and respect.
and notes, referring to the behaviorists, that,
The power of conditioning is not in doubt, but the early investigators had totally overlooked a crucial piece of information. They had not, as recommended by Lorenz, considered the whole organism.
And finally, in a passage that seems to scoff at Pinker’s “totally and utterly wrong” nonsense, he writes,
Given that the facial musculature of humans and chimpanzees is nearly identical, the laughing, grinning, and pouting of both species likely goes back to a common ancestor. Recognition of the parallel between anatomy and behavior was a great leap forward, which is nowadays taken for granted. We all now believe in behavioral evolution, which makes us Lorenzians.
Stunning, really for anyone who’s followed what’s been going on in the behavioral and animal sciences for any length of time. And that’s not all. Other Blank Slate debunkers who published long before Wilson, like Niko Tinbergen and Desmond Morris, are mentioned with a respect that belies the fact that they, too, were once denounced by the Blank Slaters as right wing fascists and racists in the same breath with Lorenz. I have a hard time believing that someone as obviously well read as de Waal has never seen Pinker’s The Blank Slate. I honestly don’t know what to make of the fact that he can so blatantly contradict Pinker, and yet never trouble himself to mention even the bare existence of such a remarkable disconnect. Is he afraid of Pinker? Does he simply want to avoid hurting the feelings of another member of the academic tribe? I must leave it up to the reader to decide.
And what of Ardrey, who brilliantly described both “anthropodenial” and the reasons that it was by no means a “mystery” more than half a century before the appearance of de Waal’s latest book? Will he be rehabilitated, too? Don’t hold your breath. Unlike Lorenz, Tinbergen and Morris, he didn’t belong to the academic tribe. The fact that it took an outsider to smash the Blank Slate and give a few academics the courage to finally stick their noses out of the hole they’d dug for themselves will likely remain deep in the memory hole. It happens to be a fact that is just too humiliating and embarrassing for them to ever admit. It would seem the history of the affair can be adjusted, but it will probably never be corrected.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.