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.