Robert Ardrey: Incidents in the Disappearance of an Unperson

Who was Robert Ardrey?  He was the most important, eloquent, and influential opponent of what is now referred to as the Blank Slate orthodoxy.  You don’t have to take my word for it.  The fact is documented in the major newspapers and magazines of the 60’s and 70’s, the period in which Ardrey published his four major books on the subject.  It is also documented in the testimony of his Blank Slate opponents themselves.  For example, from an essay by Geoffrey Gorer, a patron of George Orwell and a widely read psychologist of the time, entitled “Ardrey on Human Nature,”

Almost without question, Robert Ardrey is today the most influential writer in English dealing with the innate or instinctive attributes of human nature, and the most skilled populariser of the findings of paleo-anthropologists, ethologists, and biological experimenters… He is a skilled writer, with a lively command of English prose, a pretty turn of wit, and a dramatist’s skill in exposition; he is also a good reporter, with the reporter’s eye for the significant detail, the striking visual impression. He has taken a look at nearly all the current work in Africa of paleo-anthropologists and ethologists; time and again, a couple of his paragraphs can make vivid a site, such as the Olduvai Gorge, which has been merely a name in a hundred articles.

…he does not distort his authorities beyond what is inevitable in any selection and condensation… even those familiar with most of the literature are likely to find descriptions of research they had hitherto ignored, particularly in The Territorial Imperative, with its bibliography of 245 items.

The above was published in a historically invaluable little collection of essays by prominent Blank Slaters entitled Man and Aggression, edited by Ashley Montagu, and published in 1968.  It was aimed primarily at Ardrey, with Nobel laureate Konrad Lorenz thrown in for good measure, and novelist William Golding added for comic relief.

For those unfamiliar with what’s been going on in the biological and behavioral sciences during the last hundred years or so, the Blank Slaters believed that there was no such thing as human nature, or, if it existed, its effect on our behavior was insignificant.  For example, from Montagu in Man and Aggression,

Mr. Ardrey deplores the rejection of “instinct” in man, and actually goes so far as to suggest that “a party line” has appeared in American science designed to perpetuate the “falsehood” that instincts do not exist in man.  Mr. Ardrey needs the concept of “open instincts,” of innate factors, to support his theorizing.  But that requirement constitutes the fatal flaw in his theory, the rift in the playwright’s lute, for man is man because he has no instincts, because everything he is and has become he has learned, acquired, from his culture, from the man-made part of the environment, from other human beings.

In other words, the Blank Slaters were what might be referred to as “cultural determinists.” They believed that human behavior was exclusively, or almost exclusively, learned, and determined by culture and experience.  Ardrey referred to this as the “romantic fallacy,” and his analysis of it and of the reasons for its existence is unsurpassed to this day.  In fact, in spite of Montagu’s blustering denial, the Blank Slate did represent a prevailing orthodoxy, or “party line.”  The Blank Slaters managed to enforce this “party line,” so absurd that, as Orwell might have put it, it could only be believed by children and intellectuals, over a period of many decades, in psychology, sociology, anthropology, and the rest of the behavioral sciences in the United States, and in large measure in Europe and the rest of the world as well.  Few of them were as polite as Gorer.  For the most part, their methods consisted of the same combination of vilification and lies used against the great anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, and documented in Alice Dreger’s outstanding essay, “Darkness’s Descent on the American Anthropological Association.”

Such an impudent and obvious perversion of science couldn’t last forever.  Ardrey exposed the hoax in a brilliant and widely read series of four books that appeared in the 60’s and 70’s.  In the process, he touched on many topics which have become commonplaces in evolutionary psychology today, such as ingroup/outgroup behavior, which he referred to as the Amity/Enmity complex, altruism, the biological roots of morality, etc.  In all of his work, his major theme was that there is such a thing as human nature, and it is important.

One would think that Ardrey has been triumphantly vindicated in our own day.  The Blank Slate orthodoxy he fought so long has collapsed, and many of his ideas and theories have become familiar and widely accepted, not only in the scientific literature, but in the popular media as well.  If so, however, one would think wrong.  As Orwell wrote, “Those who control the present control the past.”  As it happens, the true historical role of Ardrey is a source of some discomfort to the scientists, academics, and public intellectuals who control the message today.  You see, he wasn’t one of their tribe.  Indeed, he was a “mere playwright.”  He may have been right, but he committed the sin of daring to think outside of their ingroup, and to shame that ingroup with the simple truth that there is such a thing as human nature at a time when most of its inmates were dead wrong on that score.  His whole career was a blatant insult to their amour-propre.  He had to be suppressed.  He became an unperson.  He was dropped down the memory hole.

The way in which history has been rewritten is sufficiently absurd, and has been the subject of some of Fate’s more amusing and ironic practical jokes.  To make a very long story short, E. O. Wilson was anointed the new “Father of Evolutionary Psychology,” for writing the same things as Ardrey more than a decade later.  A whole mythology has been invented about the various and sundry “novel theories” set forth in Wilson’s Sociobiology and On Human Nature.  In reality, the only reason both books were so widely read and achieved such notoriety was their insistence that innate behavior existed, and it applied to humans as well as other animals, themes long familiar in the work of Ardrey.  A whole decade has been erased, and today one commonly finds ludicrous assertions about the “first stirrings” of the new science of evolutionary psychology happening in the mid-1970’s.

As it happens, to the extent that any justification is ever given for the dismissal of Ardrey at all, it is often based on his embrace of group selection.  Indeed, he was impressed by the theories of group selectionist V. C. Wynne-Edwards, whose books were popular at the time, but the idea that group selection was somehow essential to the major theme of innate human nature which was central to all his work is absurd.  Nothing daunted, public intellectual Steven Pinker used the group selection red herring to dismiss the entire corpus of Ardrey’s work as “totally and utterly wrong” in the revised version of history presented in his The Blank Slate.  As I mentioned above, Fate occasionally plays some uncommonly funny practical jokes on the revisers of history.  In a perverse show of disdain for the “historical” role of “Father of Evolutionary Psychology” assigned to him by the modern puppet masters, the gallant old man has just defiantly embraced (you guessed it) group selection!  So far I haven’t been able to determine whether Wilson’s faux pas will be allowed to pass in the name of keeping up appearances.  If not, then perhaps we will see him, too, disappear down the memory hole, along with the crowning of some new and improved “Father of Evolutionary Psychology.”

Well, that should be enough to bring those who have missed some of the earlier episodes of this continuing drama up to speed.  With that, let me finally return to the incidents that are the theme of this post.  In fact, they are just a couple of data points for those who happen to take an interest in the arcane details of post-Communist techniques of transforming important historical personalities into unpersons.  Perhaps they will bring a smile to the shade of Trotsky, wherever he may be.

The first turned up in a recent interview of that courageous and recently vindicated anthropologist, Napoleon Chagnon, by Carol Iannone, that appeared in Academic Questions, the journal of the National Association of Scholars.  In a discussion of the now-familiar attacks on his work by the Blank Slaters he remarks,

By 1974 I was attempting to shed additional light on Yanomamö social and political behavior by using Sewall Wright’s widely known coefficients of relatedness and inbreeding.  As I read more work in what was emerging as “evolutionary biology,” I realized that I was trying to do what William D. Hamilton had done in a much more sophisticated way in 1962 in his two classic papers on inclusive fitness, now more widely known as “kin selection” theory.  In 1975, E. O. Wilson published his widely acclaimed book, Sociobiology, and touched off a wave of public reactions from individual academics in the social sciences, including the cynical reaction of one of my former professors, Marshall Sahlins, in a book he hastily rushed to press entitled The Use and Abuse of Biology (1976).  The distinguished English theoretical biologist, Richard Dawkins, immortalized a central argument in Sahlins book by naming it “the Sahlins Fallacy”:  that kin selection could not possibly apply to humans because most languages do not have words for the fractions needed to calculate relatedness.  That’s like saying that rocks cannot fall according to the laws of gravity because rocks cannot calculate their mass.

I – and other social scientists and anthropologists – publically defended E. O. Wilson and the academic freedom to extend the arguments of W. D. Hamilton, G. C. Williams, and other theoretical biologists in explanations of some human social behavior regardless of how antagonistic cultural anthropologists such as Sahlins were to these ideas.  And of course, this made me very unpopular among those cultural anthropologists who yet subscribe to the view that all human behavior is learned and “cultural” and none of it is the consequence of our evolutionary past.  In short, there is no such thing as “human nature” – there is just a “cultural nature.”

Here, Chagnon has embraced what I sometimes refer to as the “Big Bang Theory of Evolutionary Psychology,” the notion that, “in the beginning, the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.  And the E. O. Wilson said, ‘Let there be evolutionary psychology,’ and there was evolutionary psychology.”  It is one of the central bits of scaffolding propping up the revised history of the field.  Of course, the contention that, “In 1975, E. O. Wilson published his widely acclaimed book, Sociobiology, and touched off a wave of public reactions from individual academics in the social sciences,” is absurd.  Just buy yourself a copy of Man and Aggression for a penny, or whatever the current rate is at Amazon, and you’ll find it documented that this “wave of public reactions from individual academics in the social sciences” had already been “touched off,” at least as early as 1968, and by none other than Robert Ardrey.

I deeply admire the courage and perseverance of Chagnon, not to mention E. O. Wilson’s brilliance and defiance of academic fashion.  However, here the former is simply parroting the contrived “history” of the Blank Slate approved by his tribe.  I won’t speculate on whether he has simply never read the work of Ardrey, and, isolated among the Yanomamö, wasn’t aware of the very active controversy about human nature during the period from the publication of Ardrey’s African Genesis; A Personal Investigation into the Animal Origins and Nature of Man in 1961 to the supposed “invention” of the idea that there is such a thing as human nature by Wilson in 1975, or whether he is simply suffering from some variant of Orwellian doublethink. In any event, his comment demonstrates the extent to which the Wilson fantasy has been transmogrified into “historical fact.”  I simply set it forth as the first of my two data points touching on the disappearance of Robert Ardrey.

If, to paraphrase Marx, we can look on the first of my two anecdotes as tragedy, the second is better characterized as farce.  It turns up in an interview entitled Richard Dawkins: By the Book, that recently appeared in the New York Times.  In this ramble through Dawkins’ favorite authors, he replies to the question, “Who are your favorite contemporary writers and thinkers?” as follows:

I’ve already mentioned Dan Dennett.  I’ll add Steven Pinker, A. C. Grayling, Daniel Kahneman, Jared Diamond, Matt Ridley, Lawrence Krauss, Martin Rees, Jerry Coyne – indeed quite a few of the luminaries that grace the Edge online salon conducted by John Brockman (the Man with the Golden Address Book).  All share the same honest commitment to real-world truth, and the belief that discovering it is the business of scientists – and philosophers who take the trouble to learn science.  Many of these “Third Culture” thinkers write very well.  (Why is the Nobel Prize in Literature almost always given to a novelist, never a scientist?  Why should we prefer our literature to be about things that didn’t happen?  Wouldn’t, say, Steven Pinker be a good candidate for the literature prize?)

Yes, that would be rich indeed!  A Nobel Prize to reward a man who somehow managed to write a whole book about the Blank Slate that devoted only a single paragraph to the man the Blank Slaters themselves admitted was their most important and influential opponent, and then only to dismiss him, quoting another author, as “totally and utterly wrong.”  But wait, there’s more!  Do you know who Pinker used as his authority for the assertion that Ardrey was “totally and utterly wrong?”  You guessed it, dear reader!  It was none other than Richard Dawkins!

There’s nothing to be surprised about in all this.  The revision of history is proceeding as planned.

Robert Ardrey
Robert Ardrey

On the Origins of Morality

In his book, The Territorial Imperative, that greatest and most ignored of “evolutionary psychologists,” Robert Ardrey, wrote,

To account for man’s undoubted moral nature, a variety of suppositions have been advanced:  that man is at constant war with the evolutionary process; that his mind has delivered him exemption from evolutionary law, and that natural selection takes place now only in the field of ideas; that intervention, divine or cultural, has created a gap between man and other animals.  All or some of these suppositions, to a degree you cannot guess, combine to provide your children with their education and to provide you, in your daily life, with dubious solutions to the problems which surround you.

All, of course, are false.  What seems to have occurred to no one, excepting possibly (Sir Arthur) Keith, is that the animal is a moral being, and that human morality is a simple evolutionary extension of a form of conduct which has existed in nature for many hundreds of millions of years.

The Territorial Imperative was published in 1966.  Today, Ardrey’s assertion about the existence of morality in animals does not seem nearly as far fetched as it did then.  See, for example, Wild Justice, by Bekoff and Pierce.  As for Ardrey’s assertion about “a simple evolutionary extension of a form of conduct which has existed in nature for many hundreds of millions of years,” it sounded even more far fetched in 1966, but he was probably right about that, too.

After all, the predispositions that give rise to the subset of our behavioral traits we associate with morality are just that; a subset of the whole.  They are not necessarily any substantial differences in kind or mechanism between them and any of the rest of the grab bag of mental traits that contribute to what is commonly referred to as “human nature.”  Not having a will or purpose of its own, the process of evolution didn’t somehow decide along the way to create a separate, distinct category for moral behavior, and then completely neglect it until finally deciding to tack it on as an afterthought in modern humans.  The distinction between the behavioral traits associated with morality and the rest is more artificial than natural.

Consider, for example, the ability to distinguish friend from foe, behaving in one way towards the former, and in a starkly different way towards the latter.  It is an ability possessed even by insects.  Presumably, such behavior appeared on the scene before the advent of self-awareness.  Obviously, it persisted thereafter.  It seems plausible that the emotions and other mental machinery responsible for recognizing and favoring friends, already in existence for countless millions of years, eventually became part of the behavioral baggage of intelligent, self-aware creatures.  In such creatures, capable of recalling and examining their own emotions, it is plausible that the “sentiments,” as David Hume put it, associated with this emotional response to friends were conceptualized as “good.”  Conversely, the “sentiments” produced by the mental machinery responsible for recognizing and promoting negative responses towards enemies would have  been conceptualized as “evil.”  I am not claiming that the emergence of what the average philosopher would agree to call “morality” happened in exactly this way.  However, I am suggesting that it may well have emerged as a result of the conscious regard by intelligent creatures of emotions that had already existed for a very long time.

Moral judgments have always been, at bottom emotional.  These emotions are experienced with such force in human beings that the categories they give rise to in our perception, namely, “good” and “evil,” tend to appear to us as objects, or things-in-themselves.  Indeed, only when these categories transcend their emotional origins in the imaginations of individuals to become independent things can one speak of a rational justification for insisting that they apply, not just to the individual who experiences the emotions, but to others as well.  This illusion has obviously worked well enough in the context of small groups of hunter-gatherers, promoting their survival, else I should not be around to write this.  In our own day, however, it shows every sign of becoming a disastrous liability.

Assuming we value the survival of our species, it is high time we recognized the illusion for what it is.  We should stop, once and for all, cobbling together “scientific” moral systems.  No science can be based on the identification and elaboration of objects that don’t exist.  Recognizing human morality for what it is, including the ultimate evolutionary origins of everything we understand as moral behavior, does not entail any radical change in the “moral landscape.”  We are moral creatures.  We will not jettison moral standards or begin to act amorally because we happen to finally perceive the truth about what morality actually is.  We will not all become “moral relativists,” nor will moral restraints on our behavior suddenly disappear, causing us all to become “bad.”  We are moral animals and will continue to be moral animals.  We will not suddenly stop acting according to our nature any more than a leopard can suddenly shed its spots.  All I am suggesting is that we keep morality within its proper sphere, and recognize it for what it is.  It may be necessary for us to lean on our flimsy powers of reason to regulate our collective actions in spheres where morality doesn’t belong.  However, that is better than leaning on an illusion.


Napoleon Chagnon’s “Noble Savages” – The Life of an Anthropological Heretic

Supposedly Otto von Bismarck once said, “Laws are like sausages.  It is better not to see them being made.”  The same could as well be said of science.  However, for those who insist on watching the process, Napoleon Chagnon’sNoble Savages” is a must read.  The book relates the author’s experiences as an anthropologist, a field long dominated by a particularly unsavory crew of sausage makers.  Indeed, there is some question about whether they ever intended to make any real sausages at all.  Instead, for many decades now, they have been busily engaged in concocting imaginary ones, which have the advantage of tasting much better than the real ones.  In point of fact, they don’t invent sausages, but human beings, which, unlike the real ones, are never aggressive, and always nice.  One might refer to them as Homo nihilum.

Chagnon was never cut out to be one of these fanciful anthropologists.  He lacked imagination.  On top of that, he was naive.  In a word, he told the truth.  Chagnon devoted his career to studying the Yanomamö, an indigenous people of South America.  It was obvious to him from the start that they were not particularly nice, and were decidedly not invariably benign and unaggressive.  He lacked the skills that are carefully acquired by most anthropologists, such as the ability, when one holds up four fingers in front of their face, to truly believe that they are seeing five.  In a word, he had the bad taste to blurt out what he had seen in learned journals and academic conferences.  This unwonted candor so shocked his fellow anthropologists that they actually began acting like Yanomamö themselves, confirming some of Chagnon’s hypotheses in the process; they reacted with furious hostility and aggression towards a perceived member of an outgroup.  The shibboleth of human “niceness” that Chagnon had so clumsily demolished happened to be one of the main ideological props, not only of their ingroup, but of the ingroup of a whole host of related ideologues as well.  In their alternative universe, humans are never, ever naturally aggressive.  The somewhat discordant fact that warfare has been a ubiquitous feature of human existence since before the dawn of recorded time is explained away as merely the unfortunate artifact of some pathological derailing of human culture in the distant past.  In order for us all to become “nice” again, all we need to do is eliminate these pernicious cultural engrams from our brains by such time-honored techniques as denying the obvious.  Ironically, their furious and ruthless attacks on Chagnon provided a perfect example of the very behavior they were so determined to deny.  They debunked their own myth.  As Chagnon put it,

This virtual Noble Savage is a construct based on faith:  in that respect anthropology has become more like a religion – where major truths are established by faith, not facts.


Despite the skepticism widely shared in the now politically correct anthropological profession, the ethnographic and archaeological evidence overwhelmingly indicates that warfare has been the most important single force shaping the evolution of political society in our species.

Having so egregiously upset the apple cart by observing that human beings are not necessarily all that “nice” after all, Chagnon could not leave well enough alone.  Instead, he rubbed salt in the wound.  As any good progressive can tell you, such human conflict as does exist must be caused by “greed” for money, property, and related appurtenences of the social means of production.  Alas, it turns out that this notion, too, belongs in the realm of faith, not facts.  In the author’s words,

Conflicts over the possession of nubile females have probably been the main reason for fights and killings throughout most of human history:  the original human societal rules emerged, in all probability, to regulate male access to females and prevent the social chaos attendant on fighting over women.

I suggest that conflicts over the means of reproduction – women – dominated the political machinations of men during a vast span of human history and shaped human male psychology.  It was only after polygyny became “expensive” that these conflicts shifted to material resources – the “gold and diamonds” my incredulous colleagues alluded to – and the material means of production.  By that time, after the agricultural revolution, the accummulation of wealth – and its consequence, power – had become a prerequisite to having multiple mates.

Chagnon simply would not desist.  Next, he went after another of the favorite sacred cows of the “progressives”; the notion of egalitarianism:

Pre-state societies – tribesmen like the Yanomamö – are described by many anthropologists as egalitarian:  everyone is more or less interchangeable with any other person of the same age and same sex, so status differentials are essentially determined by age, sex, and occasionally the ephemeral characteristics of leaders.  This is definitely not the case among the Yanomamö.  If my teachers (and anthropology textbooks) got anything wrong, it was their misunderstanding of the notion of egalitarianism:  they stubbornly insisted on tying it to “differential access to material resources.”  Among the Yanomamö, tribesmen differ in their ability to command and order others around because of differing numbers of kinsmen they can deploy in their service, whether they are unokai (men who have killed or been involved in a killing), and other nonmaterial attributes.


The traditional anthropological view of egalitarianism is remarkably Eurocentric and ethnocentric, that is, the argument that tribesmen are egalitarian because nobody has “privileged” access to “strategic” material resources.  Such a view erroneously projects our own political and economic views into the Stone Age.

Perhaps the most unforgivable sin of all was Chagnon’s embrace of sociobiology/evolutionary psychology.  As he put it,

Our training had emphasized the role that culture played in human social relationships while completely ignoring the evolution of human behavior.  The view from anthropology was that psychologists studied human behavior and anthropologists studied culture.  Ever since Durkheim, cultural anthropology was skeptical about not only psychology and biology, but any theory that emphasized the biological underpinnings of behavior.

He goes on to describe his own embrace of what is known to the layman as human nature, and the furious attacks such ideas drew from the ideological zealots of the “progressive” left, noting,

One of the pro-sociobiology participants that I frequently ran into at these debates, Robert Trivers, said to me at one of them:  “I’ve finally figured out what they mean by a ‘balanced’ debate.  For every clear demonstration of how effective a sociobiological explanation is of some phenomenon, it must be ‘balanced’ by a completely nonsensical appeal to B.S., emotions, and political correctness.

Of course, this particular flavor of ideologically inspired obscurantism is known to aficionados as the Blank Slate episode in the behavioral sciences.  It is interesting how his status as, in spite of his heresies, a member of the academic tribe, has shaped Chagnon’s consciousness of the affair.  For example, he is unfamiliar with anything that happened before E. O. Wilson’s publication of Sociobiology in 1975, has apparently never read Robert Ardrey and is unaware of his significance, particularly in shaping the consciousness of a large audience outside of academia, and seems unaware that, for the time being at least, the Blank Slaters have lost control of the message outside of the ivory towers.  For example, the “mainstream media” has embraced the basic premises of evolutionary psychology as if there had never been the least controversy about the subject.  This was decidedly not the case in the 1980’s and 90’s.  Furthermore, Chagnon seems to think that Blank Slate ideology was less pervasive in other branches of the behavioral sciences, such as psychology, than in cultural anthropology.  This was certainly not the case in the United States, though it may have been true to some extent in Europe and elsewhere.  In a word, he takes a very cultural anthropology-centric view of the affair.  As a  result he can certainly see clearly enough what’s going on in his own field.  However, the impact of the Blank Slate orthodoxy transcends any one academic baliwick, and he may not see this big picture quite as well.

In any case, all these heresies goaded the ideologues who called the tune in anthropology into a frenzy.  As usual, they were none too picky about the ways they chose to strike back.  There were, of course, the usual accusations of racism and fascism, and the familiar bowdlerization of anything faintly smacking of evolutionary psychology as “genetic determinism.” A collection of slanders was published by a particularly vile reptile by the name of Patrick Tierney and, to its eternal shame, was uncritically received by the august members of the American Anthropological Association.  Those interested in the details of this episode are encouraged to read, “Darkness’s Descent on the American Anthropological Association,” by Alice Dreger.  The attacks continue unabated to this day.  A typical example of the genre, full of the usual pious grandstanding, by one Lori Allen, another “expert” who was never there may be found here.  By all means read her essay.  After you reach the 99th ad hominem attack on Chagnon, it may start to dawn on you why I insist on the importance of understanding morality for what it really is.  In general, people like Ms. Allen can no more justify the legitimacy of their copious striking of pious poses than the man in the moon.

In the end, Chagnon had the consolation of being elected to the National Academy of Sciences, at which one of his more persistent attackers, Martin Sahlins, resigned.  Good riddance!  May many more of Sahlins’ fellow obscurantists pursue the same course.  It reminds me of the words from my favorite German version of Haydns Creation, after God says, “Let there be light!” (see Google translate.  The original libretto was actually in English, but I like the German translation a lot better)

Erstarrt entflieht der Höllengeister Schar
In des Abgrunds Tiefen hinab
Zur ewigen Nacht.

Verzweiflung, Wut und Schrecken
Begleiten ihren Sturz,
Und eine neue Welt
Entspringt auf Gottes Wort.

I may be an atheist, but sometimes a good oratorio hits the spot.  Other than that, I can only say I admire Chagnon for his courage, both in enduring the rage of his fellow “scientists,” and in working in conditions in which his life and safety were anything but secure for many years in the pursuit of knowledge.  And, by all means, read the book.

UPDATE:  Hattip to her ladyship for the hbd-chick-lanche.  😉

Napoleon Chagnon and Robert Ardrey

History.  You don’t know the half of it.  Not, at least, unless you have the time and patience to do a little serious digging through the source material on your own.  A good percentage of the so called works of history that have appeared in the last 50 years have been written by journalists.  Typically, these take the form of moral homilies in which the author takes great care to insure the reader can tell the good guys from the bad guys.  They are filled with wooden caricatures, crude simplifications, pious observations, and are almost uniformly worthless.  The roles are periodically reversed.  For example, Coolidge, universally execrated by all right-thinking intellectuals in the 1930’s, has just been stood upright again in a new biographical interpretation by Amity ShlaesCharles Rappleye, one of my personal favorites among the current crop of historians, documents how Robert Morris morphed from good guy to bad guy back to good guy again in the fascinating epilogue to his biography of the great financier of our War of Independence.

Occasionally, major historical figures don’t fit into anyone’s version of the way things were supposed to be.  In that case, they just disappear.  Robert Ardrey is a remarkable instance of this form of collective historical amnesia.  Ardrey was, by far, the most effective opponent of the Blank Slate.   For those unfamiliar with the term, the Blank Slate was an ideologically induced malady that enforced a rigid orthodoxy in the behavioral sciences for several decades.   According to that orthodoxy, there was no such thing as human nature, or, if there was, it was insignificant.  The Blank Slate was bound to seem ridiculous to anyone with an ounce of common sense.  In a series of four books, beginning with African Genesis in 1961 and ending with The Hunting Hypothesis in 1976, Ardrey pointed out exactly why it was ridiculous, and what motivated its adherents to maintain the charade in spite of the fact.  They have been fighting a furious rearguard action ever since.  It has been futile.  Ardrey broke the spell.  The Blank Slate Humpty Dumpty was smashed for good.

Enter Napoleon Chagnon.  The great cultural anthropologist has just published his Noble Savages, in which he recounts his experiences among the Yanomamö of South America.  Over the years, he, too, has fallen afoul of the Blank Slaters for telling the truth instead of adjusting his observations to conform with their ideological never never land.  He, too, has been the victim of their vicious ad hominem attacks.  One would think he would revere Ardrey as a fellow sufferer at the hands of the same pious ideologues.  If so, however, one would think wrong.  Chagnon mentions Ardrey only once, in the context of a discussion of his own early run-ins with the Blank Slaters, as follows:

My field research and analytical approach were part of what anthropologist Robin Fox and sociologist Lionel Tiger referred to as the “zoological perspective” in the social sciences, a reawakening of interest in man’s evolved nature as distinct from his purely cultural nature.

For the record, Fox and Tiger were unknowns as far as the “reawakening in man’s evolved nature as distinct from his purely cultural nature” is concerned until they published The Imperial Animal in 1971.  By that time, Ardrey had published all but the last of his books.  Konrad Lorenz had also published his On Aggression in 1966, five years earlier.  The Imperial Animal was an afterthought, published long after the cat was already out of the bag.  At the time it appeared, it impressed me as shallow and lacking the intellectual insight needed to grasp the ideological reasons for the emergence of the Blank Slate orthodoxy.  Chagnon continues,

I hadn’t fully realized in the late 1960s that the mere suggestion that Homo sapiens had any kind of “nature” except a “cultural nature” caused most cultural anthropologists to bristle.  What Tiger and Fox – and a small but growing number of scientific anthropologists – were interested in was the question of how precisely evolution by natural selection – Darwin’s theory of evolution – affected Homo sapiens socially, behaviorally, and psychologically.

Long-term studies of nonhuman primates and primate social organizations were affecting cultural anthropology.  Many earlier anthropological “truths” were beginning to crumble, such as claims that Homo sapiens alone among animals shared food, made tools, or cooperated with other members of the group who were genetically closely related.  More generally, findings from the field of ethology and animal behavior were beginning to work their way into the literature of anthropology.  Predictably, cultural anthropologists began to resist these trends, often by denigrating the academics who were taking the first steps in that direction or by attempting to discredit the emerging contributions by criticizing the most sensational work, often by nonexperts (for example, Robert Ardrey’s African Genesis).

So much for Robert Ardrey.  His shade should smile.  Chagnon’s rebuke of “sensationalism” is positively benign compared to Steven Pinker’s declaration that Ardrey was “totally and utterly wrong” in his book, The Blank Slate.  Both charges, however, are equally ridiculous.  Pinker’s “totally and utterly wrong” was taken on hearsay from Richard Dawkins, who based the charge on, of all things, Ardrey’s kind words about group selection.  The idea that the Blank Slaters attacked Ardrey as an easy target because of his “sensationalism” is also nonsense.  By their own account, they attacked him because he was their most influential and effective opponent, and continued as such from the time he published African Genesis at least until the appearance of E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology in 1976.   Why the dismissive attitude?  Call it academic tribalism.  The fact that the “nonexpert” Ardrey had been right, and virtually all the “experts” of his time wrong, has always been a bitter pill for today’s “experts” to swallow.  It is a lasting insult to their amour propre.  They have been casting about trying to prop up one of their own as the “true” dragon slayer of the Blank Slate ever since.  Until recently, the knight of choice has been E. O. Wilson, whose Sociobiology, another afterthought that appeared a good 15 years after African Genesis, was supposedly the “seminal work” of today’s evolutionary psychology.  Alas, to the bitter disappointment of the tribe, Wilson, too, just embraced the group selection heresy that made Ardrey “totally and utterly wrong” in his latest book, The Social Conquest of Earth.  No doubt it will now be necessary to find a new “father of evolutionary psychology.”  In my humble opinion, the choice of Tiger and Fox would be in poor taste.  Surely the tribe can do better.

And what of Ardrey?  He was certainly sensational enough.  How could he not be?  After all, a man whose reputation had been gained as a playwright thoroughly debunking all the “experts” in anthropology and the rest of the behavioral sciences was bound to be sensational.  He was a man of many hypotheses.  Anyone trolling through his work today would have no trouble finding other reasons to triumphantly declare him “totally and utterly wrong.”  However, let’s look at the record of the most important of those hypotheses, many of which had been posed by other forgotten men long before Ardrey.

The fact that human nature exists and is important:  Ardrey 1, experts 0

The fact that hunting became important early in human evolution:  Ardrey 1, experts 0

The fact that humans tend to perceive others in terms of ingroups and outgroups:  Ardrey 1, experts 0

Understanding of the ideological origin of the Blank Slate:  Ardrey 1, experts 0

Realization that the behavioral traits we associate with morality are shared with animals:  Ardrey 1, experts 0

The list goes on.  Ardrey set forth these hypotheses in the context of what the Blank Slaters themselves praised as masterful reviews of the relevant work in anthropology and animal ethology at the time.  See for example, the essays by Geoffrey Gorer that appeared in Man and Aggression, a Blank Slater manifesto published in 1968.  And yet, far from being celebrated as a great man who did more than any other to debunk what is arguably one of the most damaging lies ever foisted on mankind, Ardrey is forgotten.  As George Orwell once said, “He who controls the present controls the past.”  The academics control the message, and Ardrey is dead.  They have dropped him down the memory hole.  Such is history.  As I mentioned above, you don’t know the half of it.

Robert Ardrey
Robert Ardrey