Robert Ardrey is the one man the “men of science” in the behavioral disciplines would most like to see drop down the memory hole for good. Mere playwright that he was, he was presumptuous enough to be right about the existence of human nature when all of them were wrong, and influential enough to make them a laughing stock among educated laypeople for denying it. They’ve gone to great lengths to make him disappear ever since, even to the extreme of creating an entire faux “history” of the Blank Slate affair. I, however, having lived through the events in question, and still possessed of a vestigial respect for the truth, will continue to do my meager best to set the record straight. Indeed, dear reader, I descended into the very depths to glean material for this post, so you won’t have to. In fine, I unearthed an intriguing Ardrey interview in the February 1971 issue of Penthouse.
The interview was conducted in New York by Harvey H. Segal, who had served on the editorial board of the New York Times from 1968 to 1969, and was an expert on corporate economics. The introductory blurb noted the obvious to anyone who wasn’t asleep at the time; that the main theme of all Ardrey’s work was human nature.
Equipped only with common sense, curiosity, and a practiced pen, Robert Ardrey shouldered his way into the study of human nature and has given a new direction to man’s thinking about man.
An impact on this scale is remarkable for any writer, but in Ardrey’s case it has the added quality of being achieved in a second career.
As usual, in this interview as in every other contemporary article and review of his work that I’ve come across, there is no mention of his opinion on group selection. It will be recalled that Ardrey’s favorable take on this entirely ancillary subject in his book The Social Contract was seized on by Steven Pinker as the specious reason he eventually selected to announce that Ardrey had been “totally and utterly wrong.” There is much of interest in the interview but, as it happens, Ardrey’s final few remarks bear on the subject of my last post; artificial manipulation of human DNA.
In case you haven’t read it, that post discussed some remarks on the ethical implications of human gene manipulation by none other than – Steven Pinker. According to Pinker the moral imperative for the bioethicists who were agonizing over possible applications of such DNA-altering tools as CRISPR-Cas9 was quite blunt; “Get out of the way.” Their moral pecksniffery should not be allowed to derail the potential of these revolutionary tools for curing or alleviating a great number of genetically caused diseases and disorders or its promise of “vast increases in life, health, and flourishing.” Pinker dismisses concerns about the possible misuse of the technology as follows:
A truly ethical bioethics should not bog down research in red tape, moratoria, or threats of prosecution based on nebulous but sweeping principles such as “dignity,” “sacredness,” or “social justice.” Nor should it thwart research that has likely benefits now or in the near future by sowing panic about speculative harms in the distant future. These include perverse analogies with nuclear weapons and Nazi atrocities, science-fiction dystopias like “Brave New World’’ and “Gattaca,’’ and freak-show scenarios like armies of cloned Hitlers, people selling their eyeballs on eBay, or warehouses of zombies to supply people with spare organs. Of course, individuals must be protected from identifiable harm, but we already have ample safeguards for the safety and informed consent of patients and research subjects.
That smacks a bit of what the German would call “Verharmlosung” – insisting that something is harmless when it really isn’t. Tools like CRISPR certainly have the potential for altering DNA in ways not necessarily intended to merely cure disease. For example, many intelligence related genes have already been found, and new ones are being found on a regular basis. Alterations in genes that influence human behavior are also possible. Ardrey had a somewhat more sober take on the subject in the interview referred to above. For example,
Segal: What about the possibility of altering the brain and human instincts through new advances in genetics, DNA and the like?
Ardrey: I don’t have much faith. Altering of the human being is something to approach with the greatest apprehension because it depends on what kind of human being you want. It is not so long since H. J. Muller, one of the greatest American geneticists and one of the first eugenicists, was saying that we have to eliminate aggression. But now there is (Konrad) Lorenz who says that aggression is the basis of almost all life. Reconstruction of the human being by human beings is too close to domestication, like control of the breeding of animals. Muller’s plan for the human future was dealing with sheep. I happen to be one who works best at being something other than a sheep, and I think most people do.
and a bit later, on the prospect of curing disease:
I see some important things that might be done with DNA on a very simple scale, such as repairing an error in, say, a hemophiliac – one of those genetic errors that appear at random every so often. But that is making a thing normal. It is not impossible that some genetically-caused disease, particularly if it has a one-gene basis, might be fixed. But genes are like a club or political party with all sorts of jostling and jockeying between them. You change one and a bell rings at the other end of the line.
I tend to agree with Ardrey that there is a strong possibility that CRISPR and similar tools will be misused. However, I also agree with Pinker that the bioethicists are only likely to succeed in stalling the truly beneficial applications, and the most “moral” course for them will be to step aside. The dangers are there, but they are dangers the bioethicists are most unlikely to have the power to do anything about.
At the individual level, parents interested in enhancing the intelligence, athletic prowess, or good looks of their offspring will seize the opportunity to do so, taking the moralists with a grain of salt in the process, and if the technology is there, the opportunity to create “designer babies” will be there as well for those rich enough to afford it. Even more worrisome is the potential misuse of the technology by state actors. As Ardrey pointed out, they may well take a much greater interest in the ancient bits of the brain that control our feelings, moods and behavior than in the more recently added cortical enhancements responsible for our relatively high intelligence.
In a word, what we face is less a choice than a fait accompli. Like nuclear weapons, the technology will eventually be applied in ways the bioethicists are likely to find very disturbing. It’s not a question of if, but when. The end result of this new era of artificially accelerated evolution will certainly be interesting for those lucky enough to be around to witness it.