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

Rough and Tumble by Prof. Travis Pickering is an amazing little book. The author’s ostensible goal was to defend the “hunting hypothesis,” according to which hunting played an important role in the evolution of our species. In spite of that, Pickering devotes much of it to furiously denouncing authors who proposed very similar versions of that hypotheses, in some cases nearly a century earlier. I’ve seen this phenomenon often enough now to coin a phrase for it; The Pinker Effect.  The Pinker Effect may be described as proposing a hypothesis combined with a denunciation and/or vilification of authors who proposed the same hypothesis years earlier, often in a clearer, more articulate and accurate form.  The quintessential example is Steven Pinker’s denunciation of Robert Ardrey, in his The Blank Slate, in spite of the fact that Ardrey had presented a better and more accurate description of the Blank Slate debacle in books he had published as many as four decades earlier. Interestingly enough, Ardrey is also one of the authors who presented a very similar version of Pickering’s hunting hypothesis in a book, appropriately entitled The Hunting Hypothesis, back in 1976.  He is bitterly denounced in Rough and Tumble, along with several other authors, including Carveth Read, who proposed a prescient version of the hypothesis in his The Origin of Man as long ago as 1920. What could explain this counterintuitive phenomenon?

I can only speculate that what we are seeing is a form of ritual appeasement of the powers that control the ideology, not to mention the purse strings, of one’s tribe. In this case we are speaking of academia, now controlled by aging leftists.  I suspect that many of them haven’t forgotten the shame and humiliation they experienced when Ardrey, Konrad Lorenz, and several others made a laughing stock of them back in the 60’s and 70’s in the process of demolishing the Blank Slate orthodoxy. This demolition crew included several authors who were also prominently associated with the hunting hypothesis.  Now, nearly half a century later, it would seem that Pickering still doesn’t dare to defend that hypothesis without first performing a triple kowtow before the former high priests of the Blank Slate! The historical background is fascinating.

First, let’s review the striking similarities between Pickering’s version of the hunting hypothesis and those proposed by other authors as much as a century earlier. Keep in mind as you read down the list that he not only borrows their ideas without attribution or even praise, but actually denounces and vilifies every one of them!

Early meat eating

Pickering: Like others before me, I argue that hunting was a primary factor in our becoming fully human – a factor underpinning the completely unique ways in which we organize ourselves and interact with others of our own kind. This means, in turn, that we need to characterize human predation as accurately as possible in order to build the fullest and most realistic understanding of what it is to be human.
Carveth Read: But the ancestor of Man found an object for association and cooperation in the chase. Spencer, indeed, says that a large carnivore, capable of killing its own prey, profits by being solitary; and this may be true where game is scarce: in the Oligocene and Miocene periods game was not scarce. Moreover, when our (ancestral, ed.) ape first pursued game, especially big game ( not being by ancient adaptation in structure and instinct a carnivore), he may have been, and probably was, incapable of killing enough prey single-handed; and, if so, he will have profited by becoming both social and cooperative as a hunter, like the wolves and dogs – in short, a sort of wolf-ape (Lycopithecus).

Early bipedalism

Pickering: “The contrasting (in comparison to Australopithecines, ed.) long legs of Homo (including even those of its earliest species, like Homo erectus) probably made it a more efficient bipedal strider than were the australopithecines. But the anatomy of the ape-man hips, legs, knees, and ankles indicates that its species were also quite capable terrestrial bipeds.”
Raymond Dart: “It is significant that this index, which indicates in a measure the poise of the skull upon the vertebral column, points to the assumption by this fossil group of an attitude appreciably more erect than that of modern anthropoids. The improved poise of the head, and the better posture of the whole body framework which accompanied this alteration in the angle at which its dominant member was supported, is of great significance. It means that a greater reliance was being placed by this group upon the feet as organs of progression, and that the hands were being freed from their more primitive function of accessory organs of locomotion.” (Australopithecus africanus: The Man-Ape of South Africa, published in Nature, February 7, 1925.)

Use of weapons

Pickering: Perhaps in an effort to maintain at least a semblance of behavioral distinction between “us and them,” some scientists still insist on clinging to the remaining (seemingly less consequential) disparities. Hunting with weapons was one such vestige of supposed human uniqueness. But, recently primatologist Jill Pruetz saw to toppling even this minor remnant of presumed human exceptionalism. Using their teeth to sharpen the ends of sticks into points, the chimpanzees of Fongoli, in the West African country of Senegal, fashion what are essentially simple thrusting spears into hollows in trees in an effort to stab and extract bushbabies, the small nocturnal primates who sleep in the holes during the day.
Carveth Read: The utility and consequent selection of hands had been great throughout; but their final development may be referred to the making and using of weapons fashioned according to a mental pattern. Those who had the best hands were selected because they made the best weapons and used them best. (The Origin of Man, 1920)

Debunking of human scavenging

Pickering: Like all scientific hypotheses, these that sought to balance the reality of ancient cut marks with the idea of passive scavenging generated testable predictions. And, time and again, they failed their archaeological tests. In failing, they also effectively falsified the overarching hypothesis of passively scavenging hominins.
Robert Ardrey: I wondered from an early date about the popularity of the scavenger hypothesis. If we were incapable of killing large prey animals such as wildebeest and waterbuck, then how were we capable of stealing their remains from their rightful and more dangerous killers? If we had been concerned with only a few stray bones, then luck could account for it. But the impressive accumulations at early hominid living sites must indicate either that we had been even more adept thieves than we are today, or that the great carnivores in those times were unaccountably lazy at guarding their kills.

Hypothesis of ambush hunting:

Pickering: Along this tactical continuum, hunting from a tree-stand is fairly simple, but it still conveys many benefits to the hunter. In addition to the disadvantaging nature of hunting from above (again, ungulates do not typically look up when scanning for predators), attacking an animal from above also takes the hunter out of potentially harmful physical contact with the prey.
Carveth Read: We may, indeed, suppose that at first prey was sometimes attacked by leaping upon it from the branch of a tree, as leopards sometimes do.
Robert Ardrey: The rare waterhole, the occasionally trickling stream, were the only places where they (other animals, ed.) could come to drink. So water became a natural trap. We did not need the long-striding foot: we could wait with our ambush for the game to come to us.

I could cite many other examples. The fact that Pickering devotes much of his book to denouncing these authors who agree with him seems odd enough, but it’s not so surprising if you happen to be familiar with the history of the Blank Slate debacle.  Let’s review some of the salient details.

Konrad Lorenz and Robert Ardrey were two authors singled out by Pickering as paragons of villainy. To hear him tell it, they both must have wracked their brains each morning to come up with a list of bad deeds they could do that day. Oddly enough, it happens that they were also the twin betes noire of the Blank Slaters of old. They were loathed and hated, not because of anything they had to say about hunting, but because they insisted there is such a thing as human nature, and it is not only significant and important, but extremely dangerous for us to ignore. During a period of several decades before they appeared on the scene, it had gradually become anathema for scientists in fields relevant to human behavior to suggest that we were possessed of innate behavioral traits of any kind. Marxism and the other fashionable egalitarian ideologies of the time required it. Instead, reality was ignored in favor of the myth that all our behavior is a result of learning and experience. The result was what we now refer to as the Blank Slate. During the 60’s and 70’s Ardrey and Lorenz published a series of books that revealed to an amused lay audience the absurd nonsense that passed for “science” among these “experts.” As one might expect, this provoked a furious reaction, as documented, for example, in books like Man and Aggression, edited by Blank Slate high priest Ashley Montagu, which appeared in 1968.  It’s still available for just two dollars at Amazon, and is required reading for anyone with a serious interest in the affair. It didn’t help. The Blank Slate charade slowly began to unravel. As increasing numbers of the more honest members of the academic and professional tribe began to break ranks, it eventually collapsed. Clearly, the shame of the Blank Slaters of old still rankles because, after all these years, Pickering still found it necessary to appease them by coming up with a ludicrously contrived rationalization for claiming that his “good” version of the hunting hypothesis was different from the “evil” version proposed by Ardrey, Lorenz, and company long ago.

As it happens, the reason Pickering gives for smearing Ardrey, Lorenz, and the rest, who are conveniently no longer around to defend themselves, is their supposed support for the so-called “Killer Ape Theory.” It is commonly defined as the theory that war and interpersonal aggression were the driving forces behind human evolution. It is usually associated with “genetic determinism,” the notion that humans have an irresistible and uncontrollable instinct to murder others of their kind. None of the authors Pickering denounces believed any such thing. This “theory” was a strawman invented by their Blank Slate enemies. Its genesis is of historical interest in its own right.

Raymond Dart is usually cited as the author of the theory. The basis for this claim is a paper he published in 1953 entitled The Predatory Transition from Ape to Man. The paper is available online. Read it, and you will see that it contains nothing even approaching a coherent “theory that war and interpersonal aggression were the driving forces behind human evolution.” To the extent that an “theory” is present in the paper at all, it is just what the title claims; that pre-human anthropoid apes hunted and ate meat. The problem with the paper, seized on years later by the Blank Slaters to prop up their “Killer Ape Theory” strawman, was that it appeared to have been written by a somewhat unhinged junior high school student who had been watching too many Friday night creature features. Some of the more striking examples include,

Either these Procrustean proto-human folk tore the battered bodies of their quarries apart limb from limb and slaked their thirst with blood, consuming the flesh raw like every other carnivorous beast; or, like early man, some of them understood the advantages of fire as well as the use of missiles and clubs.

A microcephalic mental equipment was demonstrably more than adequate for the crude, carnivorous, cannibalistic, bone-club wielding, jawbone-cleaving Samsonian phase of human emergence.

On this thesis man’s predecessors differed from living apes in being confirmed killers: carnivorous creatures, that seized living quarries by violence, battered them to death, tore apart their broken bodies, dismembered them limb from limb, slaking their ravenous thirst with the hot blood of victims and greedily devouring livid writhing flesh.

To characterize this class B movie stuff as a “theory” is a bit of a stretch. When it comes to human nature, there is nothing in the paper in the form of a coherently elaborated theory at all. The only time Dart even mentions human nature is in the context of a sentence claiming that “recognition of the carnivorous habit as a distinctive australopithecine trait” has implications for understanding it. Based on this flimsy “evidence” that the “Killer Ape Theory” strawman was real, and Dart was its author, Pickering goes on to claim that,

Ironically, it was Robert Ardrey, an American dramatist (and Dart’s mouthpiece in four popular books), who provided the voice closest to cool detachment when he abstracted the “killer ape hypothesis” thusly: ‘Man is a predator whose natural instinct is to kill with a weapon.’ In no subtle way, predation and aggression were coupled as the ultimate propellants of human evolution.

Here we must charitably assume that Pickering has never actually read Ardrey’s books, because otherwise we would be forced to conclude that he is a bald-faced liar. The theme of all Ardrey’s books, which reviewed the work, not only of Dart, but of hundreds of other scientists, was that there is such a thing as human nature, and it is significant and important. The idea that he was nothing but “Dart’s mouthpiece” is beyond absurd. His books are easily available today, and anyone can confirm that fact who takes the trouble to actually read them. In the process, they will see that when Ardrey wrote that “Man is a predator whose natural instinct is to kill with a weapon,” he had nothing even remotely similar to the “Killer Ape Theory” in mind. Pickering himself amply documents in his book that not only human beings but our hominin ancestors were predators, that they killed, and that they did so with weapons. That leaves only the term “instinct” as the basis for all Pickerings fulminations against Ardrey and the rest.

In order to pull off this feat, he had to come up with a fairy tale according to which they all believed that humans were driven to hunt by some kind of a genetically induced rage, directed both against their animal prey and other human beings. He, on the other hand, while generously admitting that some emotions were relevant to hunting behavior, prefers a more cerebral version of hunting behavior characterized by cool calculation rather than emotion. This is really the only significant difference he comes up with between their version of the hunting hypothesis and his own, and apparently is the basis of his conclusion that they were “evil,” whereas he is “good.” According to Pickering, those earlier, “evil” proponents of the hunting hypothesis believed in a version of hunting behavior that was actually more characteristic of chimpanzees. He goes to a great deal of trouble to distinguish their “emotional” style hunting with our own, “cerebral” version. To quote from the book,

Expertise in hunting the large, warily dangerous prey of human foragers and cashing in on its concomitant evolutionary rewards does not mature from the hell-bent approach employed by chimpanzees to dispatch their prey. Application of brute physicality is an efficient means for chimpanzees to kill because they hunt in groups, they concentrate on much smaller animals than themselves, and the rely on their superhuman strength and agility to overpower their victims… A human has no hope of out-muscling, out-running, or out-climbing his typical prey, but, if his mind stays clear, he can absolutely count on out-thinking those animals.

…all the brain power and fine motor control in the world aren’t worth a damn to a human hunter if his brain’s commands are overridden by emotion. Clear thinking in survival situations – and what is a hunting and gathering life if not a daily struggle for survival? – is dependent on control of emotion.

General emotional control in hominins may not have yet developed by the time of Homo erectus. But, the archaeological record of Homo erectus implies strongly that the species applied emotional control, at least situationally, when it hunted…

So much for Pickering’s version of the difference between his ideas and the “Killer Ape Theory” he attributes to Ardrey, Lorenz, et. al. Even as it stands it’s a pathetic excuse, not only for failing to attribute the many “original” ideas in his book about human hunting to the virtually identical versions presented by Ardrey in his The Hunting Hypothesis, not to mention years earlier by Carveth Read in his The Origin of Man, but for actually denouncing and vilifying those authors. However, the “difference” itself is imaginary, as can be easily seen by anyone who takes the trouble to read what Ardrey and the rest actually wrote.

Pickering’s deception is particularly obvious in the case of Lorenz. He made it perfectly clear that he didn’t associate Pickering’s version of “emotion” with hunting behavior. Indeed, he was dubious about associating “aggression” with hunting at all.  For example, in On Aggression, he wrote,

In yet another respect the fight between predator and prey is not a fight in the real sense of the word:  the stroke of the paw with which a lion kills his prey may resemble the movements that he makes when he strikes his rival, just as a shot-gun and a rifle resemble each other outwardly; but the inner motives of the hunter are basically different from those of the fighter.  The buffalo which the lion fells provokes his aggression as little as the appetizing turkey which I have just seen hanging in the larder provokes mine.  The differences in these inner drives can clearly be seen in the expression movements of the animal:  a dog about to catch a hunted rabbit has the same kind of excitedly happy expression as he has when he greets his master or awaits some longed-for treat. From many excellent photographs it can be seen that the lion, in the dramatic moment before he springs, is in no way angry.  Growling, laying the ears back, and other well-known expression movements of fighting behavior are seen in predatory animals only when they are very afraid of a wildly resisting prey, and even then the expressions are only suggested.

In none of his books did Lorenz ever suggest that hunting behavior in man was any different from that of other hunting animals.  That which Ardrey actually wrote on the subject, as opposed to the “killer ape theory” flim flam that is constantly and falsely attributed to him, is much the same.  For example, from The Hunting Hypothesis, he discusses what might have given us an advantage as nascent predators as follows,

Yet we had some advantages.  There was the innocence of animals, such as Paul Martin has described in North American prey pursued by skilled but unfamiliar intruders from Asia; our Pliocene victims could only have been easy marks.  There was our ape brain, incomparably superior to that of any natural predator.  If the relatively unintelligent lioness can practice tactical hunting and plan ambushes as Schaller has described, then our talents must have been of an order far beyond lion imagination.

In his Serengeti studies George Schaller shows that any predator taking his prey is cool, calculating, methodical.  It is a kind of aggressive behavior radically unlike his defense of a kill against competitors.  Then there is overwhelming emotion, rage, and sometimes a lethal outcome unlike normal relations within a species.  Such would have been the situation between competing hunters in glacial Europe.

Pickering anointed poor Carveth Read and other early authors honorary proponents of the “killer ape theory” even though they were long dead before Dart ever published his paper.  At the beginning of chapter 3 he writes,

The same nauseating waves of cannibalism, unquenchable bloodthirst, cruel misogyny (specifically), and raging misanthropy (generally) that course through the writings of Dart and Ardrey also typify the pre-Dartian ramblings of Morris, Campbell and Read.

Dart may have been a bit over the top in his “seminal” paper, but the above is truly unhinged. Pickering must imagine that no one will take the trouble to excavate Read’s The Origin of Man from some dusty library stack and read it.  In fact, it can be read online.  Even out of the context of his time, this furious rant against Read is truly grotesque.  Read the first few chapters of his book, and you will see that his hypothesis about hunting behavior in early man actually came quite close to the version proposed by Pickering.

In his eagerness to virtue signal to the other inmates of his academic tribe that his version of the hunting hypothesis is “good” as opposed to the “evil” versions of the “others,” Pickering actually pulls off the amusing stunt of using now irrelevant studies once favored by the Blank Slaters of old because they “proved” early man didn’t hunt, to attack Dart, supposed author of the “killer ape theory,” even though the same studies undermine his own hypotheses.  In particular, he devotes a great deal of space to describing studies done by C. K. Brain to refute Dart’s claim that statistical anomalies in the distribution of various types of bones in South African caves were evidence that certain bones had been used as weapons and other tools. It was masterful work on cave taphonomy, in which Brain explored the statistics of bone accumulations left by animals as diverse as hyenas, leopards, owls and porcupines.  Unfortunately, he chose to publish his work under the unfortunate title; The Hunters or the Hunted? The work was immediately seized on by the Blank Slaters as “proof” that early man hadn’t hunted at all, and was really a meek vegetarian, just as Ashley Montagu and his pals had been telling us all along.  Brain was immediately anointed a “good” opponent of hunting, as opposed to the “evil” men whose ideas his work supposedly contradicted.  Pickering apparently wanted to bask in the reflected glory of Brain’s “goodness.”

Of course, all that happened in the days when one could still claim that chimpanzees were “amiable vegetarians,” as Ashley Montagu put it.  It’s worth noting that when Jane Goodall began publishing observations that suggested they aren’t really all that “amiable” after all, she was vilified by the Blank Slaters just as viciously as Pickering has vilified Dart, Ardrey, Lorenz and Read.  Now we find Pickering trotting out Brain’s book even though it “disproves” his own hypotheses.  Meanwhile it has been demonstrated, for example, in careful isotopic studies of Australopithecine teeth, that the species Dart first discovered ate a substantial amount of meat after all, as he had always claimed.  Clearly, they were also occasionally prey animals.  So were Neanderthals, as their remains have been found in predator bone accumulations as well.  That hardly proves that they didn’t hunt.

In short, if you like to read popular science books, beware the Pinker Effect.  I note in passing that C. K. Brain never stooped to the practice of “proving” the value and originality of his own work via vicious ad hominem attacks on other scientists.  He was Dart’s friend, and remained one to the end.

Why the Blank Slate? Let Max Eastman Explain

In my opinion, science, broadly construed, is the best “way of knowing” we have.  However, it is not infallible, is never “settled,” cannot “say” anything, and can be perverted and corrupted for any number of reasons.  The Blank Slate affair was probably the worst instance of the latter in history.  It involved the complete disruption of the behavioral sciences for a period of more than half a century in order to prop up the absurd lie that there is no such thing as human nature.  It’s grip on the behavioral sciences hasn’t been completely broken to this day.  It’s stunning when you think about it.  Whole branches of the sciences were derailed to support a claim that must seem ludicrous to any reasonably intelligent child.  Why?  How could such a thing have happened?  At least part of the answer was supplied by Max Eastman in an article that appeared in the June 1941 issue of The Reader’s Digest.  It was entitled, Socialism Doesn’t Jibe with Human Nature.

Who was Max Eastman?  Well, he was quite a notable socialist himself in his younger days.  He edited a radical magazine called The Masses from 1913 until it was suppressed in 1918 for its antiwar content.  In 1922 he traveled to the Soviet Union, and stayed to witness the reality of Communism for nearly two years, becoming friends with a number of Bolshevik worthies, including Trotsky.  Evidently he saw some things that weren’t quite as ideal as he had imagined.  He became increasingly critical of the Stalin regime, and eventually of socialism itself.  In 1941 he became a roving editor for the anti-Communist Reader’s Digest, and the above article appeared shortly thereafter.

In it, Eastman reviewed the history of socialism from it’s modest beginnings in Robert Owen’s utopian village of New Harmony through a host of similar abortive experiments to the teachings of Karl Marx, and finally to the realization of Marx’s dream in the greatest experiment of them all; the Bolshevik state in Russia.  He noted that all the earlier experiments had failed miserably but, in his words, “The results were not better than Robert Owen’s but a million times worse.”  The outcome of Lenin’s great experiment was,

Officialdom gone mad, officialdom erected into a new and merciless exploiting class which literally wages war on its own people; the “slavery, horrors, savagery, absurdities and infamies of capitalist exploitation” so far outdone that men look back to them as to a picnic on a holiday; bureaucrats everywhere, and behind the bureaucrats the GPU; death for those who dare protest; death for theft – even of a piece of candy; and this sadistic penalty extended by a special law to children twelve years old!  People who still insist that this is a New Harmony are for the most part dolts or mental cowards.  To honest men with courage to face facts it is clear that Lenin’s experiment, like Robert Owen’s, failed.

It would seem the world produced a great many dolts and mental cowards in the years leading up to 1941.  In the 30’s Communism was all the rage among intellectuals, not only in the United States but worldwide.  As Malcolm Muggeridge put it in his book, The Thirties, at the beginning of the decade it was rare to find a university professor who was a Marxist, but at the end of the decade it was rare to find one who wasn’t.  If you won’t take Muggeridge’s word for it, just look at the articles in U.S. intellectual journals such as The Nation, The New Republic, and the American Mercury during, say, the year 1934.  Many of them may be found online.  These were all very influential magazines in the 30’s, and at times during the decade they all took the line that capitalism was dead, and it was now merely a question of finding a suitable flavor of socialism to replace it.  If you prefer reality portrayed in fiction, read the guileless accounts of the pervasiveness of Communism among the intellectual elites of the 1930’s in the superb novels of Mary McCarthy, herself a leftist radical.

Eastman was too intelligent to swallow the “common sense” socialist remedies of the news stand journals.  He had witnessed the reality of Communism firsthand, and had followed its descent into the hellish bloodbath of the Stalinist purges and mass murder by torture and starvation in the Gulag system.  He knew that socialism had failed everywhere else it had been tried as well.  He also knew the reason why.  Allow me to quote him at length:

Why did the monumental efforts of these three great men (Owen, Marx and Lenin, ed.) and tens of millions of their followers, consecrated to the cause of human happiness – why did they so miserably fail? They failed because they had no science of human nature, and no place in their science for the common sense knowledge of it.

In October 1917, after the news came that Kerensky’s government had fallen, Lenin, who had been in hiding, appeared at a meeting of the Workers and Soldiers’ Soviet of Petrograd.  He mounted the rostrum and, when the long wild happy shouts of greeting had died down, remarked: “We will now proceed to the construction of a socialist society.” He said this as simply as though he were proposing to put up a new cowbarn.  But in all his life he had never asked himself the equally simple question: “How is this newfangled contraption going to fit in with the instinctive tendencies of the animals it was made for?”

Lenin actually knew less about the science of man, after a hundred years, than Robert Owen did.  Owen had described human nature, fairly well for an amateur, as “a compound of animal propensities, intellectual faculties and moral qualities.”  He had written into the preamble of the constitution of New Harmony that “man’s character… is the result of his formation, his location, and of the circumstances within which he exists.”

It seems incredible, but Karl Marx, with all his talk about making socialism “scientific,” took a step back from this elementary notion. He dropped out the factor of man’s hereditary nature altogether.  He dropped out man altogether, so far as he might present an obstacle to social change.  “The individual,” he said, “has no real existence outside the milieu in which he lives.” By which he meant: Change the milieu, change the social relations, and man will change as much as you like.  That is all Marx ever said on the primary question.  And Lenin said nothing.

That is why they failed.  They were amateurs – and worse than amateurs, mystics – in the subject most essential to their success.

To begin with, man is the most plastic and adaptable of animals.  He truly can be changed by his environment, and even by himself, to a unique degree, and that makes extreme ideas of progress reasonable.  On the other hand, he inherits a set of emotional impulses or instincts which, although they can be trained in various ways in the individual, cannot be eradicated from the race.  And no matter how much they may be repressed or redirected by training, they reappear in the original form – as sure as a hedgehop puts out spines – in every baby that is born.

Amazing, considering these words were written in 1941.  Eastman had a naïve faith that science would remedy the situation, and that, as our knowledge of human behavior advanced, mankind would see the truth.  In fact, by 1941, those who didn’t want to hear the inconvenient truth that the various versions of paradise on earth they were busily concocting for the rest of us were foredoomed to failure already had the behavioral sciences well in hand.  They made sure that “science said” what they wanted it to say.  The result was the Blank Slate, a scientific debacle that brought humanity’s efforts to gain self-understanding to a screeching halt for more than half a century, and one that continues to haunt us even now.  Their agenda was simple – if human nature stood in the way of heaven on earth, abolish human nature!  And that’s precisely what they did.  It wasn’t the first time that ideological myths have trumped the truth, and it certainly won’t be the last, but the Blank Slate may well go down in history as the deadliest myth of all.

I note in passing that the Blank Slate was the child of the “progressive Left,” the same people who today preen themselves on their great respect for “science.”  In fact, all the flat earthers, space alien conspiracy nuts, and anti-Darwin religious fanatics combined have never pulled off anything as damaging to the advance of scientific knowledge as the Blank Slate debacle.  It’s worth keeping in mind the next time someone tries to regale you with fairy tales about what “science says.”

How a “Study” Repaired History and the Evolutionary Psychologists Lived Happily Ever After

It’s a bit of a stretch to claim that those who have asserted the existence and importance of human nature have never experienced ideological bias. If that claim is true, then the Blank Slate debacle could never have happened. However, we know that it happened, based not only on the testimony of those who saw it for the ideologically motivated debasement of science that it was, such as Steven Pinker and Carl Degler, but of the ideological zealots responsible for it themselves, such as Hamilton Cravens, who portrayed it as The Triumph of Evolution. The idea that the Blank Slaters were “unbiased” is absurd on the face of it, and can be immediately debunked by simply counting the number of times they accused their opponents of being “racists,” “fascists,” etc., in books such as Richard Lewontin’s Not in Our Genes, and Ashley Montagu’s Man and Aggression. More recently, the discipline of evolutionary psychology has experienced many similar attacks, as detailed, for example, by Robert Kurzban in an article entitled, Alas poor evolutionary psychology.

The reasons for this bias has never been a mystery, either to the Blank Slaters and their latter day leftist descendants, or to evolutionary psychologists and other proponents of the importance of human nature. Leftist ideology requires not only that human beings be equal before the law, but that the menagerie of human identity groups they have become obsessed with over the years actually be equal, in intelligence, creativity, degree of “civilization,” and every other conceivable measure of human achievement. On top of that, they must be “malleable,” and “plastic,” and therefore perfectly adaptable to whatever revolutionary rearrangement in society happened to be in fashion. The existence and importance of human nature has always been perceived as a threat to all these romantic mirages, as indeed it is. Hence the obvious and seemingly indisputable bias.

Enter Jeffrey Winking of the Department of Anthropology at Texas A&M, who assures us that it’s all a big mistake, and there’s really no bias at all! Not only that, but he “proves” it with a “study” in a paper entitled, Exploring the Great Schism in the Social Sciences, that recently appeared in the journal Evolutionary Psychology. We must assume that, in spite of his background in anthropology, Winking has never heard of a man named Napoleon Chagnon, or run across an article entitled Darkness’s Descent on the American Anthropological Association, by Alice Degler.

Winking begins his article by noting that “The nature-nurture debate is one that biologists often dismiss as a false dichotomy,” but adds, “However, such dismissiveness belies the long-standing debate that is unmistakable throughout the biological and social sciences concerning the role of biological influences in the development of psychological and behavioral traits in humans.” I agree entirely. One can’t simply hand-wave away the Blank Slate affair and a century of bitter ideological debate by turning up one’s nose and asserting the term isn’t helpful from a purely scientific point of view.

We also find that Winking isn’t completely oblivious to examples of bias on the “nature” side of the debate. He cites the Harvard study group which “evaluated the merits of sociobiology, and which included intellectual giants like Stephen J. Gould and Richard Lewontin.” I am content to let history judge whether Gould and Lewontin were really “intellectual giants.” Regardless, if Winking actually read these “evaluations,” he cannot have failed to notice that they contained vicious ad hominem attacks on E. O. Wilson and others that it is extremely difficult to construe as anything but biased. Winking goes on to note similar instances of bias by other authors in various disciplines, such as,

Many researchers use [evolutionary approaches to the study of international relations] to justify the status quo in the guise of science.

The totality [of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology] is a myth of origin that is compelling precisely because it resonates strongly with Euro American presuppositions about the nature of the world.

…in the social sciences (with the exception of primatology and psychology) sociobiology appeals most to right-wing social scientists.

These are certainly compelling examples of bias. Now, however, Winking attempts to demonstrate that those who point out the bias, and correctly interpret the reasons for it, are just as biased themselves. As he puts it,

Conversely, those who favor biological approaches have argued that those on the other side are rendered incapable of objective assessment by their ideological promotion of equality. They are alleged to erroneously reject evidence of biological influences because such evidence suggests that social outcomes are partially explained by biology, and this might inhibit the realization of equality. Their critiques of biological approaches are therefore often blithely dismissed as examples of the moralistic/naturalistic fallacy. This line of reason is exemplified in the quote by biologist Jerry Coyne

If you can read the [major Evolutionary Psychology review paper] and still dismiss the entire field as worthless, or as a mere attempt to justify scientists’ social prejudices, then I’d suggest your opinions are based more on ideology than judicious scientific inquiry.

I can’t imagine what Winking finds “blithe” about that statement! Is it really “blithe” to so much as suggest that people who dismiss entire fields of science as worthless may be ideologically motivated? I note in passing that Coyne must have thought long and hard about that statement, because his Ph.D. advisor was none other than Richard Lewontin, whom he still honors and admires!  Add to that the fact that Coyne is about as far as you can imagine from “right wing,” as anyone can see by simply visiting his Why Evolution is True website, and the notion that he is being “blithe” here is ludicrous. Winking’s other examples of “blithness” are similarly dubious, including,

For critics, the heart of the intellectual problem remains an ideological adherence to the increasingly implausible view that human behavior is strictly determined by socialization… Should [social]hierarchies result strictly from culture, then the possibilities for an egalitarian future were seen to be as open and boundless as our ever-malleable brains might imagine.

Like the Church, a number of contemporary thinkers have also grounded their moral and political views in scientific assumptions about… human nature, specifically that there isn’t one.

Unlike the “comparable” statements by the Blank Slaters, these statements neither accuse those who deny the existence of human nature of being Nazis, nor is evidence lacking to back them up.  On the contrary, one could cite a mountain of evidence to back them up supplied by the Blank Slaters themselves.  Winking soon supplies us with the reason for this strained attempt to establish “moral equivalence” between “nature” and “nurture.”  It appears in his “hypothesis,” as follows:

It is entirely possible that confirmation bias plays no role in driving disagreement and that the overarching debate in academia is driven by sincere disagreements concerning the inferential value of the research designs informing the debate.

Wait a minute!  Don’t roll your eyes like that!  Winking has a “study” to back up this hypothesis.  Let me explain it to you.  He invented some “mock results” of studies which purported to establish, for example, the increased prevalence of an allele associated with “appetitive aggression” in populations with African ancestry.  Subtle, no?  Then he used Mechanical Turk and social media to come up with a sample of 365 people with Masters degrees or Ph.D.’s for a survey on what they thought of the “inferential power” of the fake data.  Another sample of 71 were scraped together for another survey on “research design.”  In the larger sample, 307 described themselves as either only “somewhat” on the “nature” side, or “somewhat” on the “nurture” side.  Only 57 claimed they leaned strongly one way or the other.  The triumphant results of the study included, for example, that,

Participants perceptions of inferential value did not vary by the degree to which results supported a particular ideology, suggesting that ideological confirmation bias is not affecting participant perceptions of inferential value.

Seriously?  Even the author admits that the statistical power of his “study” is low because of the small sample sizes.  However statistical power only applies where the samples are truly random, meaning, in this case, where the participants are either unequivocably on the “nature” or “nurture” side.  That is hardly the case.  Mechanical Turk samples, for example are biased towards a younger and more liberal demographic.  Most of the participants were on the fence between nature and nurture.  In other words, there’s no telling what their true opinions were even if they were honest about them.  Even the most extreme Blank Slaters admitted that nature plays a significant role in such bodily functions as urinating, defecating, and breathing, and so could have easily described themselves as “somewhat bioist.”  Perhaps most importantly, any high school student could have easily seen what this “study” was about.  There is no doubt whatsoever that holders of Masters and Doctors degrees in related disciplines had no trouble a) inferring what the study was about, and b) had an interest in making sure that the results demonstrated that they were “unbiased.”  In other words, were not exactly talking “double blind” here.

I think the author was well aware that most readers would have no trouble detecting the blatant shortcomings of his “study.”  Apparently to ward off ridicule he wrote,

Regardless of one’s position, it is important to remind scholars that if they believe a group of intelligent and informed academics could be so unknowingly blinded by ideology that they wholeheartedly subscribe to an unquestionably erroneous interpretation of an entire body of research, then they must acknowledge they themselves are equally as capable of being so misguided.

Kind of reminds you of the curse over King Tut’s tomb, doesn’t it?  “May those who question my study be damned to dwell among the misguided forever!”  Sorry, my dear Winking, but “a group of intelligent and informed academics” not only could, but were “so unknowingly blinded by ideology that they wholeheartedly subscribed to an unquestionably erroneous interpretation of an entire body of research.”  It was called the Blank Slate, and it derailed the behavioral sciences for more than half a century.  That’s what Pinker’s book was about.  That’s what Degler’s book was about, and yes, that’s even what Cravens’ book was about.  They all did an excellent job of documenting the debacle.  I suggest you read them.

Or not.  You could decide to believe your study instead.  I have to admit, it would have its advantages.  History would be “fixed,” the lions would lie down with the lambs, and the evolutionary psychologists would live happily ever after.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Damore Affair and the Ghost of the Blank Slate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Whimsical History of the Blank Slate

As George Orwell wrote in 1984, “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”  The history of the Blank Slate is a perfect illustration of what he meant.  You might say there are two factions in the academic ingroup; those who are deeply embarrassed by the Blank Slate, and those who are still bitterly clinging to it.  History as it actually happened is damaging to both factions, so they’ve both created imaginary versions that support their preferred narratives.  At this point the “official” histories have become hopelessly muddled.  I recently ran across an example of how this affects younger academics who are trying to make sense of what’s going on in their own fields in an article entitled, Sociology’s Stagnation at the Quillette website.  It was written by Brian Boutwell, Associate Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at St. Louis University.

Boutwell cites an article published back in 1990 by sociologist Pierre van den Berghe excoriating the practitioners in his own specialty.  Van den Berghe was one of those rare sociologists who insisted on the relevance of evolved behavioral traits to his field.  He did not mince words.  Boutwell quotes several passages from the article, including the following:

Such a theoretical potpourri is premised on the belief that, in the absence of a powerful simplifying idea, all ideas are potentially good, especially if they are turgidly presented, logically opaque, and empirically irrefutable. This sorry state of theoretical affairs in sociology is probably the clearest evidence of the discipline’s intellectual bankruptcy. But let my colleagues rest assured: intellectual bankruptcy never spelled the doom of an academic discipline. Those within it are professionally deformed not to recognize it, and those outside of it could not care less. Sociology is safe for at least a few more decades.

In response, Boutwell writes,

Intellectually bankrupt? Those are strong words. Can a field survive like this? It can, and it has. Hundreds of new sociology PhDs are minted every year across the country (not to mention the undergraduate and graduate degrees that are conferred as well). How many students were taught that human beings evolved about around 150,000 years ago in Africa? How many know what a gene is? How many can describe Mendel’s laws, or sexual selection? The answer is very few. And, what is worse, many sociologists do not think this ignorance matters.

In other words, Boutwell thinks the prevailing malaise in Sociology continues because sociologists don’t know about Darwin.  He may be right in some cases, but that’s not really the problem.  The problem is that the Blank Slate still prevails in sociology.  It is probably the most opaque of all the behavioral “sciences.”  In fact, it is just an ideological narrative pretending to be a science, just as psychology was back in the day when van den Berghe wrote his article.  Psychologists deal with individuals.  As a result they have to look at behavior a lot closer to the source of what motivates it.  As most reasonably intelligent lay people have been aware for millennia, it is motivated by human nature.  By the end of the 90’s, naturalists, neuroscientists, and evolutionary psychologists had heaped up such piles of evidence supporting that fundamental fact that psychologists who tried to prop up the threadbare shibboleths of the Blank Slate ran the risk of becoming laughing stocks.  By 2000 most of them had thrown in the towel.  Not so the sociologists.  They deal with masses of human beings.  It was much easier for them to insulate themselves from the truth by throwing up a smokescreen of “culture.”  They’ve been masturbating with statistics ever since.

Boutwell thinks the solution is for them to learn some evolutionary biology.  I’m not sure which version of the “history” gave him that idea.  However, if he knew how the Blank Slate really went down, he might change his mind.  Evolutionary biologists and scientists in related fields were part of the heart and soul of the Blank Slate orthodoxy.  They knew all about genes, Mendel’s laws, and sexual selection, but it didn’t help.  Darwin?  They simply redacted those parts of his work that affirmed the relationship between natural selection, human nature in general, and morality in particular.  No matter that Darwin himself was perfectly well aware of the connections.  For these “scientists,” an ideological narrative trumped scientific integrity until the mass of evidence finally rendered the narrative untenable.

Of course, one could always claim that I’m just supporting an ideological narrative of my own.  Unfortunately, that claim would have to explain away a great deal of source material, and because the events in question are so recent, the source material is still abundant and easily accessible.  If Prof. Boutwell were to consult it he would find that evolutionary biologists like Stephen Jay Gould, geneticists like Richard Lewontin, and many others like them considered the Blank Slate the very “triumph of evolution.”  I suggest that anyone with doubts on that score have a look at a book that bears that title by scientific historian Hamilton Cravens published in 1978 during the very heyday of the Blank Slate.  It is very well researched, cites scores of evolutionary biologists, geneticists, and behavioral scientists, and concludes that all the work of these people who were perfectly familiar with Darwin culminated in the triumphant establishment of the Blank Slate as “scientific truth,” or, as announced by the title of his book, “The Triumph of Evolution.”  His final paragraph gives a broad hint about how something so ridiculous could ever have been accepted as an unquestionable dogma.  It reads,

The long-range, historical function of the new evolutionary science was to resolve the basic questions about human nature in a secular and scientific way, and thus provide the possibilities for social order and control in an entirely new kind of society.  Apparently this was a most successful and enduring campaign in American culture.

Here, unbeknownst to himself, Cravens hit the nail on the head.  Social control was exactly what the Blank Slate was all about.  It was essential that the ideal denizens of the future utopias that the Blank Slaters had in mind for us have enough “malleability” and “plasticity” to play their assigned parts.  “Human nature” in the form of genetically transmitted behavioral predispositions would only gum things up.  They had to go, and go they did.  Ideology trumped and derailed science, and kept it derailed for more than half a century.  As Boutwell has noticed, it remains derailed in sociology and a few other specialties that have managed to develop similarly powerful allergic reactions to the real world.  Reading Darwin isn’t likely to help a bit.

One of the best books on the genesis of the Blank Slate is In Search of Human Nature, by Carl Degler.  It was published in 1991, well after the grip of the Blank Slate on the behavioral sciences had begun to loosen, and presents a somewhat more sober and realistic portrayal of the affair than Cravens’ triumphalist account.  Among other things it gives an excellent account of the genesis of the Blank Slate.  As portrayed by Degler, in the beginning it hadn’t yet become such a blatant tool for social control.  One could better describe it as an artifact of idealistic cravings.  Then, as now, one of the most important of these was the desire for human equality, not only under the law, but in a much more real, physical sense, among both races and individuals.  If human nature existed and was important, than such equality was out of the question.  Perfect equality was only possible if every human mind started out as a Blank Slate.

Degler cites the work of several individuals as examples of this nexus between the ideal of equality and the Blank Slate, but I will focus on one in particular; John B. Watson, the founder of behaviorism.  One of the commenters to an earlier post suggested that the behaviorists weren’t Blank Slaters.  I think that he, too, is suffering from historical myopia.  Again, it’s always useful to look at the source material for yourself.  In his book, Behaviorism, published in 1924, Watson notes that all human beings breathe, sneeze, have hearts that beat, etc., but have no inherited traits that might reasonably be described as human nature.  In those days, psychologists like William James referred to hereditary behavioral traits as “instincts.”  According to Watson,

In this relatively simple list of human responses there is none corresponding to what is called an “instinct” by present-day psychologists and biologists.  There are then for us no instincts – we no longer need the term in psychology.  Everything we have been in the habit of calling an “instinct” today is the result largely of training – belongs to man’s learned behavior.

A bit later on he writes,

The behaviorist recognizes no such things as mental traits, dispositions or tendencies.  Hence, for him, there is no use in raising the question of the inheritance of talent in its old form.

In case we’re still in doubt about his Blank Slate bona fides, a few pages later he adds,

I should like to go one step further now and say, “Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.”  I am going beyond my facts and I admit it, but so have the advocates of the contrary and they have been doing it for many thousands of years.  Please note that when this experiment is made I am to be allowed to specify the way the children are to be brought up and the type of world they have to live in.

Here, in a nutshell, we can see the genesis of hundreds of anecdotes about learned professors dueling over the role of “nature” versus “nurture,” in venues ranging from highbrow intellectual journals to several episodes of The Three Stooges.  Watson seems to be literally pulling at our sleeves and insisting, “No, really, I’m a Blank Slater.”  Under the circumstances I’m somewhat dubious about the claim that Watson, Skinner, and the rest of the behaviorists don’t belong in that category.

What motivated Watson and others like him to begin this radical reshaping of the behavioral sciences?  I’ve already alluded to the answer above.  To make a long story short, they wanted to create a science that was “fair.”  For example, Watson was familiar with the history of the Jukes family outlined in an account of a study by Richard Dugdale published in 1877.  It documented unusually high levels of all kinds of criminal behavior in the family.  Dugdale himself insisted on the role of environmental as well as hereditary factors in explaining the family’s criminality, but later interpreters of his work focused on heredity alone.  Apparently Watson considered such an hereditary burden unfair.  He decided to demonstrate “scientifically” that a benign environment could have converted the entire family into model citizens.  Like many other scientists in his day, Watson abhorred the gross examples of racial discrimination in his society, as well as the crude attempts of the Social Darwinists to justify it.  He concluded that “science” must support a version of reality that banished all forms of inequality.  The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

I could go on and on about the discrepancies one can find between the “history” of the Blank Slate and source material that’s easily available to anyone willing to do a little searching.  Unfortunately, I’ve already gone on long enough for a single blog post.  Just be a little skeptical the next time you read an account of the affair in some textbook.  It ain’t necessarily so.

 

“Five Easy Pieces” and the Ghost of Robert Ardrey

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.

Robert Ardrey

Frans de Waal on Animal Smartness and the Rehabilitation of Konrad Lorenz

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.

…And One More Thing about James Burnham: On Human Nature

There’s another thing about James Burnham’s Suicide of the West that’s quite fascinating; his take on human nature.  In fact, Chapter III is entitled “Human Nature and the Good Society.”  Here are a few excerpts from that chapter:

However varied may be the combination of beliefs that it is psychologically possible for an individual liberal to hold, it remains true that liberalism is logically committed to a doctrine along the lines that I have sketched:  viewing human nature as not fixed but plastic and changing; with no pre-set limit to potential development; with no innate obstacle to the realization of a society of peace, freedom, justice and well-being.  Unless these things are true of human nature, the liberal doctrine and program for government, education, reform and so on are an absurdity.

But in the face of what man has done and does, it is only an ideologue obsessed with his own abstractions who can continue to cling to the vision of an innately uncorrupt, rational and benignly plastic human nature possessed of an unlimited potential for realizing the good society.

Quite true, which makes it all the more remarkable that virtually all the “scientists” in the behavioral “sciences” at the time Burnham wrote these lines were “clinging to that vision,” at least in the United States.  See, for example, The Triumph of Evolution, in which one of these “men of science,” author Hamilton Cravens, documents the fact.  Burnham continues,

No, we must repeat:  if human nature is scored by innate defects, if the optimistic account of man is unjustified, then is all the liberal faith in vain.

Here we get a glimpse of the reason that the Blank Slaters insisted so fanatically that there is no such thing as human nature, at least as commonly understood, for so many years, in defiance of all reason, and despite the fact that any 10 year old could have told them their anthropological theories were ludicrous.  The truth stood in the way of their ideology.  Therefore, the truth had to yield.

All this begs the question of how, as early as 1964, Burnham came up with such a “modern” understanding of the Blank Slate.  Reading on in the chapter, we find some passages that are even more intriguing.  Have a look at this:

It is not merely the record of history that speaks in unmistakable refutation of the liberal doctrine of man.  Ironically enough – ironically, because it is liberalism that has maintained so exaggerated a faith in science – almost all modern scientific studies of man’s nature unite in giving evidence against the liberal view of man as a creature motivated, once ignorance is dispelled, by the rational search for peace, freedom and plenty.  Every modern school of biology and psychology and most schools of sociology and anthropology conclude that men are driven chiefly by profound non-rational, often anti-rational, sentiments and impulses, whose character and very existence are not ordinarily understood by conscious reason.  Many of these drives are aggressive, disruptive, and injurious to others and to society.

!!!

The bolding and italics are mine.  How on earth did Burnham come up with such ideas?  By all means, dear reader, head for your local university library, fish out the ancient microfiche, and search through the scientific and professional journals of the time yourself.  Almost without exception, the Blank Slate called the tune.  Clearly, Burnham didn’t get the notion that “almost all modern scientific studies of man’s nature” contradicted the Blank Slate from actually reading the literature himself.  Where, then, did he get it?  Only Burnham and the wild goose know, and Burnham’s dead, but my money is on Robert Ardrey.  True, Konrad Lorenz’ On Aggression was published in Germany in 1963, but it didn’t appear in English until 1966.  The only other really influential popular science book published before Suicide of the West that suggested anything like what Burnham wrote in the above passage was Ardrey’s African Genesis, published in 1961.

What’s that you say?  I’m dreaming?  No one of any significance ever challenged the Blank Slate orthodoxy until E. O. Wilson’s stunning and amazing publication of Sociobiology in 1975?  I know, it must be true, because it’s all right there in Wikipedia.  As George Orwell once said, “He who controls the present controls the past.”

Relics of the Blank Slate, as Excavated at “Ethics” Magazine

There’s a reason that the Blank Slaters clung so bitterly to their absurd orthodoxy for so many years.  If there is such a thing as human nature, then all the grandiose utopias they concocted for us over the years, from Communism on down, would vanish like so many mirages.  That orthodoxy collapsed when a man named Robert Ardrey made a laughing stock of the “men of science.”  In this enlightened age, one seldom finds an old school, hard core Blank Slater outside of the darkest, most obscure rat holes of academia.  Even PBS and Scientific American have thrown in the towel.  Still, one occasionally runs across “makeovers” of the old orthodoxy, in the guise of what one might call Blank Slate Lite.

I recently discovered just such an artifact in the pages of Ethics magazine, which functions after a fashion as an asylum for “experts in ethics” who still cling to the illusion that they have anything relevant to say.  Entitled The Limits of Evolutionary Explanations of Morality and Their Implications for Moral Progress, it was written by Prof. Allen Buchanan of Duke and Kings College, London, and Asst. Prof. Russell Powell of Boston University.  Unfortunately, it’s behind a pay wall, and is quite long, but if you’re the adventurous type you might be able to access it at a local university library.  In any case, the short version of the paper might be summarized as follows:

Conservatives have traditionally claimed that “human nature places severe limitations on social and moral reform,” but have “offered little in the way of scientific evidence to support this claim.”  Now, however, a later breed of conservatives, knows as “evoconservatives,” have “attempted to fill this empirical gap in the conservative argument by appealing to the prevailing evolutionary explanation of morality to show that it is unrealistic to think that cosmopolitan and other “inclusivist” moral ideals can meaningfully be realized.”  However, while evolved psychology can’t be discounted in moral theory, and there is such a thing as human nature, they are so plastic and malleable that it doesn’t stand in the way of moral progress.

This, at least, is the argument until one gets to the “Conclusion” section at the end.  Then, as if frightened by their own hubris, the authors make noises in a quite contradictory direction, writing, for example,

…we acknowledge that evolved psychological capacities, interacting with particular social and institutional environments, can pose serious obstacles to using our rationality in ways that result in more inclusive moralities. For example, environments that mirror conditions of the EEA (environment of evolutionary adaptation, i.e., the environment in which moral behavioral predispositions presumably evolved, ed.)—such as those characterized by great physical insecurity, high parasite threat, severe intergroup competition for resources, and a lack of institutions for peaceful, mutually beneficial cooperation—will tend to be very unfriendly to the development of inclusivist morality.

However, they conclude triumphantly with the following:

At the same time, however, we have offered compelling reasons, both theoretical and empirical, to believe that human morality is only weakly constrained by human evolutionary history, leaving the potential for substantial moral progress wide open. Our point is not that human beings have slipped the “leash” of evolution, but rather that the leash is far longer than evoconservatives and even many evolutionary psychologists have acknowledged—and no one is in a position at present to know just how elastic it will turn out to be.

Students of the Blank Slate orthodoxy will see that all the main shibboleths are still there, if in somewhat attenuated form.  The Blank Slate itself is replaced by a “long leash.”  The “genetic determinist” strawman of the Blank Slaters is replaced by “evoconservatives.”  These evoconservatives are no longer “fascists and racists,” but merely a nuisance standing in the way of “moral progress.”  The overriding goal is no longer anything like the Marxist paradise on earth, but the somewhat less inspiring continued “development of inclusivist morality.”

Readers of this blog should immediately notice the unwarranted assumption that there actually is such a thing as “moral progress.”  In that case, there must be a goal towards which morality is progressing.  Natural selection occurs without any such goal or purpose.  It follows that the authors believe that there must be some “mysterious, transcendental” origin other than natural evolution to account for this progress.  However, they insist they don’t believe in such a “mysterious, transcendental” source.  How, then, do they account for the existence of this “thing” they refer to as “moral progress?”  What the authors are really referring to when they refer to this “moral progress” is “the way we and other good liberals want things.”

By “inclusivist” moralities, the authors mean versions that can be expanded to include very large subsets of the human population that are neither kin to the bearers of that morality nor members of any identifiable group that is likely to reciprocate their good deeds.  Presumably the ultimate goal is to expand these subsets to “include” all mankind.  The “evoconservatives” we are told, deny the possibility of such “inclusivism” in spite of the fact that one can cite many obvious examples to the contrary.  At this point, one begins to wonder who these obtuse evoconservatives really are.  The authors are quite coy about identifying them.  The footnote following their first mention merely points to a blurb about what the authors will discuss later in the text.  No names are named.  Much later in the text Jonathan Haidt is finally identified as one of the evoconservatives.  As the authors put it,

Leading psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who has stressed the moral psychological significance of in-group loyalty, expresses a related view: ‘It would be nice to believe that we humans were designed to love everyone unconditionally. Nice, but rather unlikely from an evolutionary perspective. Parochial love—love within groups—amplified by similarity, a sense of shared fate, and the suppression of free riders, may be the most we can accomplish.

In fact, as anyone who has actually read Haidt is aware, he neither believes that “inclusivist” moralities as defined by the authors are impossible, nor does this quote imply anything of the sort.  A genuine conservative would doubtless classify Haidt as a liberal, but he has defended, or at least tried to explain, conservative moralities.  Apparently that is sufficient to cast him into the outer darkness as an “evoconservative.”

The authors also point the finger at Larry Arnhart.  Arnhart is neither a geneticist, nor an evolutionary biologist, nor an evolutionary psychologist, but a political scientist who apparently subscribes to some version of the naturalistic fallacy.  Nowhere is it demonstrated that he actually believes that the inclusivist versions of morality favored by the authors are impossible.  In a word, the few slim references to individuals who are supposed to fit the description of the evoconservative strawman concocted by the authors actually do nothing of the sort.  Yet in spite of the fact that the authors can’t actually name anyone who explicitly embraces their version of evoconservatism, they describe the existence of “inclusivist morality” as a “major flaw in evoconservative arguments.”

A bit later, the authors appear to drop their evoconservative strawman, and expand their field of fire to include anyone who claims that “inclusivist morality” could have resulted from natural selection.  For example, quoting from the article:

The key point is that none of these inclusivist features of contemporary morality are plausibly explained in standard selectionist terms, that is, as adaptations or predictable expressions of adaptive features that arose in the environment of evolutionary adaptation (EEA).

Here, “evoconservatives” have been replaced by “standard selectionists.”  Invariably, the authors walk back such seemingly undistilled statements of Blank Slate ideology with assurances that no one believes more firmly than they in the evolutionary roots of morality.  That, of course, begs the question of how “these inclusivist features,” if they are not explainable in “standard selectionist terms,” are plausibly explained in “non-standard selectionist terms,” and who these “non-standard selectionists” actually are.  Apparently the only alternative is that the “inclusivist features” have a “transcendental” explanation, not further elaborated by the authors.  This conclusion is not as far fetched as it seems.  Interestingly enough, the authors’ work is partially funded by the Templeton Foundation, an accommodationist outfit with the ostensible goal of proving that religion and science are not mutually exclusive.

In fact, I know of not a single scientist whose specialty is germane to the subject of human morality who would dispute the existence of inclusive moralities.  The authors limit themselves to statements to the effect that the work of such and such a person “suggests” that they don’t believe in inclusive moralities, or that the work of some other person “implies” that they don’t believe such moralities are stable.  Wouldn’t it be more reasonable to simply go and ask these people what they actually believe regarding these matters, instead of putting words in their mouths?

Left out of all these glowing descriptions of inclusive moralities is the fact that not a single one of them exists without an outgroup.  That fact is demonstrated by the authors themselves, whose outgroup obviously includes those they identify as “evoconservatives.”  One might also point out that those who have “inclusive” ingroups commonly have “inclusive” outgroups as well, and liberals are commonly found among the most violent outgroup haters on the planet.  To confirm this, one need only look at the comments at the websites of Daily Kos, or Talking Points Memo, or the Nation, or any other familiar liberal watering hole.

While I’m somewhat dubious about all the authors’ loose talk about “moral progress,” I think we can at least identify some real progress towards getting at the truth in their version of Blank Slate Lite.  After all, it’s a far cry from the old school version.  Throughout the article the authors question the ability of natural selection in the environment in which moral behavior presumably evolved in early humans to account for this or that feature of their observed “inclusive morality.”  As noted above, however, as often as they do it, they are effusive in assuring the reader that by no means do they wish to imply that they find any fault whatsoever with innate theories of human morality.  In the end, what more can one ask than the ability to continue seeking the truth about human moral behavior in every relevant area of science without fear of being denounced and intimidated as guilty of one type of villainy or another.  That ability seems more assured if the existence of innate behavior is at least admitted, and is therefore unlikely to be criminalized as it was in the heyday of the Blank Slate.  In that respect, Blank Slate Lite really does represent progress.

Of course, there remains the question of why so many of us still take seriously the authors’ fantasies about “moral progress” more than a century after Westermarck pointed out the absurdity of truth claims about morality.  I suspect the answer lies in the fact that ending the charade would reduce all the pontifications of all the “experts in morality” catered to by learned journals like Ethics to gibberish.  Experts don’t like to be confronted with the truth that their painstakingly acquired expertise is irrelevant.  Admitting it would make it a great deal harder to secure grants from the Templeton Foundation.

UPDATE:  I failed to mention another intriguing paragraph in the paper that reads as follows:

The human capacity to reflect on and revise our conceptions of duty and moral standing can give us reasons here and now to expand our capacities for moral behavior by developing institutions that economize on sympathy and enhance our ability to take the interests of strangers into account. This same capacity may also give us reasons, in the not-too-distant future, to modify our evolved psychology through the employment of biomedical interventions that enable us to implement new norms that we develop as a result of the process of reflection. In both cases, the limits of our evolved motivational capacities do not translate into a comparable constraint on our capacity for moral action. The fact that we are not currently motivationally capable of acting on the considered moral norms we have come to endorse is not a reason to trim back those norms; it is a reason to enhance our motivational capacity, either through institutional or biomedical means, so that it matches the demands of our considered morality.

Note the bolded wording.  I’m not sure what to make of it, dear reader, but it appears that, one way or another, the authors intend to “get our minds right.”