PBS Answers the Burning Question: What Does Robert Ardrey have to do with Homo naledi?

PBS just aired what’s billed as a NOVA/National Geographic Special entitled Dawn of Humanity on the stunning discovery of a trove of remains of an early human species dubbed Homo naledi in a South African cave.  According to the blurb on its website,

NOVA and National Geographic present exclusive access to a unique discovery of ancient remains. Located in an almost inaccessible chamber deep in a South African cave, the site required recruiting a special team of experts slender enough to wriggle down a vertical, pitch-dark, seven-inch-wide passage. Most fossil discoveries of human relatives consist of just a handful of bones. But down in this hidden chamber, the team uncovered an unprecedented trove—so far, over 1,500 bones—with the potential to rewrite the story of our origins.

There’s nothing surprising about the fact that a story about Homo naledi appeared on NOVA.  What’s really stunning, however, is its content.  To all appearances it appears to have been supplied by an ancient Blank Slater who was frozen like a popsicle some time back in the early 70’s, and then had the good fortune to be thawed out like Rip van Winkle just in time to write the script for Dawn of Humanity.  One can certainly quibble about his take on the significance of Homo naledi, but one thing is certain.  He has favored us with a remarkable piece of historical source material.

It all starts innocently enough.  We are introduced to Lee Berger, who headed the team that discovered Homo naledi.  There are scenes of him strolling across the South African landscape with his two dogs, poking into limestone caverns of the sort where his nine year old son discovered the first fossil remains of Australopithecus sediba, like Homo naledi another creature with a small, ape-like brain that walked upright on two feet.  He points to the places where the remains of several other individuals of that species were later found.  Things continue in that sedate vein until suddenly, at minute 35:15, we are shaken out of our pleasant rut by the announcement that the abundance of the sediba remains,

…might help explain the Australopith’s transition into our genus, Homo.  They might also prove or disprove a highly influential theory about the dawn of humanity.  A theory inspired by the very first discovery of an Australopith fossil.

We are informed that the discovery referred to happened in 1924.  The place was South Africa, and the discoverer was Prof. Raymond Dart of the University of Witswatersrand in Johannesburg.  Miners had sent Dart a chunk of limestone in which was embedded the skull of a hominid child, different and more primitive than any previously discovered.  He named the new species Australopithecus africanus.  At that point, around minute 36:45, we get our first hint that PBS is about to administer a strong dose of propaganda.  Quoting from the script,

Darwin and (Thomas Henry) Huxley predicted that our origins would be in Africa based on comparative anatomy.  You know, they looked at the skeletons of chimps and gorillas and they looked at ours and they went, “Well they’re so close to us, and they’re more close than anything else, so it must have been in Africa.”  And then the sort of second generation of evolutionary biologists shied away from that.  They started to find fossils in Europe.  They started to find fossils in Asia.  And of course that tied in very nicely with the sort of racist, imperialistic thoughts of the day.  They couldn’t abide the thought of it being in Africa.

I rather suspect that the reticence of this “second generation of evolutionary biologists” to immediately accept Dart’s “out of Africa” theory was due to the fact that they had based their life’s work on developing theories about the emergence of early man in the only places where fossil evidence had actually been found up to that time.  It’s really not too hard to imagine that they may have been unenthusiastic about seeing all that work washed down the drain.  Of course, we’ve long been familiar with the tendency of the “progressive” inmates at PBS to instantly seize on such understandable regrets and transmogrify them into something as sinister and criminal as “racist, imperialistic thoughts.”  That’s old hat.  What’s really surprising is that, in what follows, we are treated to a long-winded denunciation of the “Killer Ape Theory.”  At 40:45 we learn,

Raymond Dart was building a theory about how the Australopiths, our apelike ancestors, became human.  His ideas about the dawn of humanity were the touchstone for thinking about our origins for generations.  In the 1940’s, more examples of Australopithecus began to be found, and a key site not only had fragments of Australopithecus, but also the bones of many other fossil animals.  And Dart noted that these bones were broken in a special way.  Dart became convinced they were weapons made by our primitive ancestors.  Was this the key to what first made us human?

At this point, PBS has passed well beyond prissy comments about racism and imperialism to the full blown distortion of history.  In the first place, Dart’s thinking never became a “touchstone” for anything, and certainly not for generations.  He never even published anything about hunting behavior in early hominins until 1949, and what you might call his “seminal” paper on the subject, The Predatory Transition from Ape to Man, didn’t appear until 1953.  Both papers were published in obscure venues, and both were largely ignored.  Dart never claimed that bones that “were broken in a special way” were weapons.  Rather, he claimed that the double-headed humerus, or upper foreleg bone, of a common type of antelope had been the weapon, and the bones that “were broken in a special way” were actually skulls with indentations that appeared to be the result of the use of that bone as a club.

In any case, next we learn that Dart had been a medic in World War I, and,

..had seen at first hand the barbarity humans are capable of.  It made sense to him that the origins of humanity were steeped in blood.  Raymond Dart’s experience in the World War may have colored his interpretation of what these bones and teeth meant.  You know it gave him a view of sort of the dark side of humanity and the violence of humanity, and he came up with this idea that Australopithecus had figured out that bones and teeth were hard, and could be used as weapons to kill other animals.  The sort of “Killer Ape Theory” of early humans.  Dart believed that the more aggressive and adventurous of our ape-like ancestors abandoned their forest environment and moved into savannahs.  There, they became hunters and predators.  His theory, that this violent transformation gave rise to humanity soon found an audience far beyond the small world of paleoanthropology.

In fact, there is no evidence that all this psychobabble about World War I is anything but that.  Dart’s claims were based on compelling statistical evidence, which is left unmentioned in the program.  In the first place, a large and statistically anomalous number of the humerus bones proposed as weapons had been found in association with the africanus remains.  Damage to the skulls of other animals supposedly inflicted with these weapons was not randomly located, but occurred far more often in locations where one would expect it to occur if it had been inflicted with a bludgeon or club.  Dart’s interpretation of these facts has often been challenged, most prominently by C. K. Brain in his The Hunters or the Hunted?, published in 1981.  Brain noted that twin puncture wounds found on an Australopith skull may well have been left by a leopard.  Sure enough, the skull in question is featured on the program, and the puncture marks described as if they were incontrovertible proof that Dart’s apes had never hunted.  As it happens, however, Brain is a careful scientist, and never maintained anything of the sort.  Indeed, in The Hunters or the Hunted? he describes in detail two important objections to the leopard theory, and while he certainly challenged Dart’s theories, he never suggested that they had been incontrovertibly disproved.  Predictably, these facts are left unmentioned in the program.

At this point I started wondering why on earth PBS would start laying on such thick dollops of propaganda to begin with.  Possible hunting in A. africanus wasn’t really germane to the behavior of a newly discovered species like Homo naledi, the apparent theme of the show, nor to that of Australopithecus sediba, for that matter.  I wasn’t left hanging for long.  At that point, the ancient Blank Slate Rip van Winkle the program had been channeling all along tipped his hand.  After all these years, he had hardly forgotten the shame and embarrassment he and his fellow “men of science” had experienced at the hand of a certain playwright by the name of Robert Ardrey!  Suddenly, at about the 42:50 point, the screen is filled with Ardrey’s image.  Then we see in quick succession images of two Life magazine covers and one of Penthouse, all three of which prominently announce articles he had written.  The narrative continues,

In the 1950’s there was a drama critic and playwright names Robert Ardrey, who became very interested in human origins, and he went to Africa and spoke with Raymond Dart.  And Robert Ardrey, being a dramatist, could write like anything, and he wrote this amazing book published in 1961 called African Genesis (dramatic drumbeat).  African Genesis became a pop-science publishing sensation of the early 1960s.  Ardrey’s ideas, building on those of Raymond Dart, helped frame public debate about the dawn of humanity for the next 20 years.  (Potts cuts in) The very first sentence in that book; I remember it because I read it as a teenager and was enthralled by it, “Not in innocence, and not in Asia, was mankind born.”  And in that one sentence he encapsulated Raymond Dart’s ideas, that it was an African genesis, and that where we came from was not from an innocent creature (dramatic drumroll), but from the most violent of killer apes.

At this point we’re treated to one of the favorite gimmicks of the Blank Slaters of yore.  The program segs to scenes from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.  We are assured that Kubrick was influenced by Ardrey, and then shown the familiar opening scene, with an ape-man smashing everything in sight with a bone wielded as a club.  The only problem is that Ardrey didn’t write the script for the movie.  We find the same trick in that invaluable little piece of historical source material, Man and Aggression, a collection of Blank Slater rants published in 1968 and edited by Ashley Montagu.  Most of the attacks are directed at Ardrey and Konrad Lorenz, but William Golding, author of Lord of the Flies, is thrown in for comic effect in the same fashion as Kubrick.

Next, at about 45:45, there is a schtick about how tartar from sediba’s teeth was examined, revealing that it contained phytoliths, microscopic particles of silica that are found in some plant tissues.  At 48:15 the narrative continues,

Here, at last, is evidence that will help support or disprove Dart’s theory… The tooth evidence from sediba indicates a diet very similar to todays chimpanzees.  While they may have eaten some meat, there’s little to back up Raymond Dart’s theory that they were killer apes.

Here one can but roll one’s eyes.  The plant evidence in sediba’s teeth hardly indicates that its consumption of meat was as the same as, not to mention greater or less than, that of chimpanzees.  Here, too, we find revealed the remarkably anachronistic nature of this whole production.  Left unmentioned is that fact that chimpanzees are, after all, killer apes, too.  They organize hunting parties with the intention of killing and eating other species, and they also carry out organized attacks on other chimpanzees, often killing them in the process as well.  None of this is mentioned in the program.  Indeed, when Jane Goodall first observed and reported the behavior referred to she was furiously denounced and subjected to incredibly demeaning ad hominem attacks by the Blank Slaters.  It’s as if none of this ever happened, and the program is frozen in time back around 1975.  The rest consists mainly of pleasantries about the recovery of the Homo naledi remains.

In reality, the “killer ape theory” that we have just seen dusted off and trotted out for our benefit is largely a Blank Slater propaganda myth.  Modern apes kill, and when they kill they are certainly violent.  They can, therefore, be accurately described as violent killer apes.  The “killer ape” of the Blank Slaters, however, is a nightmare figment of their imagination – a furious, violent creature constantly attacking everything around it, as so gaudily portrayed in Stanley Kubrick’s film.  Nothing in any of Ardrey’s books even comes close to a description of such psychopathic B movie monsters.

The very magazine covers mentioned above, shown as the narrator lays on the propaganda about killer apes, are revealing in themselves.  I happen to have copies of all three of them, and none of the articles by Ardrey they contain has the least thing to say about the “killer ape theory.”  Instead, they all deal in one way or another with the real theme of all Ardrey’s work; the existence of innate human nature.  And that, I strongly suspect, is the real reason the program even mentions Ardrey.

All appearances to the contrary in Dawn of Humanity, the debate about the “hunting hypothesis” is now over for all practical purposes.  It has been decided in favor of Ardrey.  Clear marks of butchering have been found on bones dated to more than 3 million years before the present.  It has been suggested that the bones were scavenged from the kills of other predators, but the idea that it never occurred to early hominins to hunt between that time and half a million to a million years before the present, a period during which early man clearly began using stone tipped and fire-hardened hunting spears, is nonsense.  It is doubly nonsense in view of the observed hunting behavior of chimpanzees.  Even the impeccably politically correct Scientific American admitted as much in an article entitled Rise of the Human Predator, that appeared in the April 2014 issue.  More remarkable still, in a PBS series entitled Becoming Human that aired in 2009, we were informed that,

Homo erectus probably hunted with close-quarters weapons, with spears that were thrown at animals from a short distance, clubs, thrown rocks, weapons like that. They weren’t using long distance projectile weapons that we know of.

The Homo erectus hunt was simple but effective. It fed not just their larger brains, but the growing complexity of that early human society.

Why, then, this grotesque anachronism, this latter day program frozen in time in the early 1970’s?  As I mentioned earlier, the Blank Slaters have forgotten nothing, and forgiven nothing.  They know that the reason for Ardrey’s enormous influence wasn’t the “killer ape theory.”  Rather, the constant theme of all Ardrey’s work was his insistence on the existence of innate human nature.  Virtually all of the “men of science” in the behavioral sciences at the time his books began appearing, at least in the United States, firmly supported the Blank Slate orthodoxy, insisted that virtually all human behavior was a result of learning and culture, and denied the existence of any such thing as innate behavioral traits in human beings.  Ardrey was right, and they were all dead wrong.  A “mere playwright” had shamed them and exposed them for the charlatans they were.

Today books and articles about innate human behavior, and its analogs in other animals, roll off the presses as if the subject had never been the least bit controversial.  The Blank Slate orthodoxy has been smashed, and the one man whose writings were far and away the most influential weapon in smashing it was Robert Ardrey.  As for the “men of science,” they are engaged in a game of bowdlerizing history to hide this inconvenient truth.  The usual tactic is to ignore Ardrey, elevating some pretender to the role of “slayer of the Blank Slate.”  If he is mentioned at all, it is only to briefly note, after the fashion of Steven Pinker, that he was “totally and utterly wrong” based on some alleged inaccuracy in one of his books that had nothing to do with the overall theme.  That’s why I said that artifacts like Dawn of Humanity are valuable because of their historical interest at the beginning of this post.  For such remarkable anachronisms to even appear, someone has to be seriously out of step with the official line.  It has to be someone who knows just how significant and influential Ardrey really was, a fact demonstrated by the very magazine covers that appear on the program.  Insignificant nobodies weren’t invited to write articles for Life magazine in the late 60’s and early 70’s, not to mention Penthouse, and pieces by Ardrey can be found in many other familiar magazines of the day.  Furthermore, that “somebody” has to be so bitter about Ardrey’s demolition of his precious Blank Slate dogmas that his hatred boils to the surface, revealing itself in such remarkable productions as the one described here.  When that happens we occasionally learn something about the Blank Slate debacle that the “men of science” would prefer to leave swept under the rug.  A little truth manages to leak out around the edges.  This time the truth happened to touch on the real historical role of a man named Robert Ardrey.

Robert Ardrey
Robert Ardrey

 

 

 

 

Panksepp, Animal Rights, and the Blank Slate

So who is Jaak Panksepp?  Have a look at his YouTube talk on emotions at the bottom of this post, for starters.  A commenter recommended him, and I discovered the advice was well worth taking.  Panksepp’s The Archaeology of Mind, which he co-authored with Lucy Biven, was a revelation to me.  The book describes a set of basic emotional systems that exist in all, or virtually all, mammals, including humans.  In the words of the authors:

…the ancient subcortical regions of mammalian brains contain at least seven emotional, or affective, systems:  SEEKING (expectancy), FEAR (anxiety), RAGE (anger), LUST (sexual excitement), CARE (nurturance), PANIC/GRIEF (sadness), and PLAY (social joy).  Each of these systems controls distinct but specific types of behaviors associated with many overlapping physiological changes.

This is not just another laundry list of “instincts” of the type often proposed by psychologists at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries.  Panksepp is a neuroscientist, and has verified experimentally the unique signatures of these emotional systems in the ancient regions of the brain shared by humans and other mammals.  Again quoting from the book,

As far as we know right now, primal emotional systems are made up of neuroanatomies and neurochemistries that are remarkably similar across all mammalian species.  This suggests that these systems evolved a very long time ago and that at a basic emotional and motivational level, all mammals are more similar than they are different.  Deep in the ancient affective recesses of our brains, we remain evolutionarily kin.

If you are an astute student of the Blank Slate phenomenon, dear reader, no doubt you are already aware of the heretical nature of this passage.  That’s right!  The Blank Slaters were prone to instantly condemn any suggestion that there were similarities between humans and other animals as “anthropomorphism.”  In fact, if you read the book you will find that their reaction to Panksepp and others doing similar research has been every bit as allergic as their reaction to anyone suggesting the existence of human nature.  However, in the field of animal behavior, they are anything but a quaint artifact of the past.  Diehard disciples of the behaviorist John B. Watson and his latter day follower B. F. Skinner, Blank Slaters of the first water, still haunt the halls of academia in significant numbers, and still control the message in any number of “scientific” journals.  There they have been following their usual “scholarly” pursuit of ignoring and/or vilifying anyone who dares to disagree with them ever since the heyday of Ashley Montagu and Richard Lewontin.  In the process they have managed to suppress or distort a great deal of valuable research bearing directly on the wellsprings of human behavior.

We learn from the book that the Blank Slate orthodoxy has been as damaging for other animals as it has been for us.  Among other things, it has served as the justification for indifference to or denial of the feelings and consciousness of animals.  The possibility that this attitude has contributed to some rather gross instances of animal abuse has been drawing increasing attention from those who are concerned about their welfare.  See for example, the website of Panksepp admirer Temple Grandin.  According to Panksepp & Bevin,

Another of Descartes’ big errors was the idea that animals are without consciousness, without experiences, because they lack the subtle nonmaterial stuff from which the human mind is made.  This notion lingers on today in the belief that animals do not think about nor even feel their emotional responses.

Many emotion researchers as well as neuroscience colleagues make a sharp distinction between affect and emotion, seeing emotion as purely behavioral and physiological responses that are devoid of affective experience.  They see emotional arousal as merely a set of physiological responses that include emotion-associated behaviors and a variety of visceral (hormonal/autonomic) responses, without actually experiencing anything – many researchers believe that other animals may not feel their emotional arousals.  We disagree.

Some justify this rather counter-intuitive belief by suggesting that it is impossible to really experience or be conscious of emotions (affects) without language.  Panksepp & Bevins’ response:

Words cannot describe the experience of seeing the color red to someone who is blind.  Words do not describe affects either.  One cannot explain what it feels like to be angry, frightened, lustful, tender, lonely, playful, or excited, except indirectly in metaphors.  Words are only labels for affective experiences that we have all had – primary affective experiences that we universally recognize.  But because they are hidden in our minds, arising from ancient prelinguistic capacities of our brains, we have found no way to talk about them coherently.

With such excuses, and the fact that they could not “see” feelings and emotions in their experiments with “reinforcement” and “conditioning,” the behaviorists concluded that the feelings of the animals they were using in their experiments didn’t matter.  It was outside the realm of “science.”  Again from the book,

Much as we admire the scientific finesses of these conditioning experiments, we part company with (Joseph) LeDoux and many of the others who conduct this kind of work when it comes to understanding what emotional feelings really are.  This is because they studiously ignore the feelings of their animals, and they often claim that the existence or nonexistence of the animals’ feelings is a nonscientific issue (although there are some signs of changing sentiments on these momentous issues).  In any event…, LeDoux has specifically endorsed the read-out theory – to the effect that affects are created by neocortical working-memory functions, uniquely expanded in human brains.  In other words, he see affects as a higher-order cognitive construct (perhaps only elaborated in humans), and thereby he envisions the striking FEAR responses of his animals to be purely physiological effects with no experiential consequences.

…And when we analyze the punishing properties of electrical stimulation here in animals, we get the strongest aversive responses imaginable at the lowest levels of brain stimulation, and humans experience the most fearful states of mind imaginable.  Such issues of affective experience should haunt fear-conditioners much more than they apparently do.

The evidence strongly indicates that there are primary-process emotional networks in the brain that help generate phenomenal affective experiences in all mammals, and perhaps in many other vertebrates and invertebrates.

It’s stunning, really.  Anyone who has ever owned a dog is aware of how similar their emotional responses can often be to those of humans, and how well they remember them.  Like humans, they are mammals.  Like humans, their brains include a cortex.  It would hardly be “parsimonious” to simply assume that humans represent some kind of a radical departure when it comes to the ability to experience and remember emotions, and that other animals lack this ability, in defiance of centuries of such “common sense” observations that they can.  All this mass of evidence apparently isn’t “scientific,” and therefore doesn’t count, because these latter day Blank Slaters can’t observe in their mazes and shock boxes what appears obvious to everyone else in the world.  “Anthropomorphism!”  From such profound reasoning we are apparently to conclude that pain in animals doesn’t matter.

Why the Blank Slate’s furious opposition to “anthropomorphism?”  In a sense, it’s actually an anachronism.  Recall that the fundamental dogma of the Blank Slate was the denial of human nature.  Obviously other mammals have a “nature.”  Clearly, the claim that dogs and cats must “learn” all their behavior from their “culture” was never going to fly.  Not so human beings.  Once upon a time the Blank Slaters claimed that everything in the human behavioral repertoire, with the possible exception of breathing, urinating, and defecating, was learned.  They even went so far as to include sex.  Even orgasms had to be “learned.”  It follows that the gulf between humans and animals had to be made as wide as possible.

Fast forward to about the year 2000.  As far as their denial of human nature was concerned, the Blank Slaters had lost control of the popular media.  To an increasing extent, they were also losing control of the message in academia.  Books and articles about innate human behavior began pouring from the presses, and people began speaking of human nature as a given.  The Blank Slaters had lost that battle.  The main reason for their “anthropomorphism” phobia had disappeared.  In the more sequestered field of “animal nature,” however, they could carry on as if nothing had happened without making laughing stocks of themselves.  No one was paying any attention except a few animal rights activists.  And carry on they did, with the same “scientific” methods they had used in the past.  Allow me to quote from Panksepp & Biven again to give you a taste of what I’m talking about:

It is noteworthy that Walter Hess, who first discovered the RAGE system in the cat brain in the mid-1930s (he won a Nobel Prize for his work in 1949), using localized stimulation of the hypothalamus, was among the first to suggest that the behavior was “sham rage.”  He confessed, however, in writings published after his retirement (as noted in Chapter 2:  e.g., The Biology of Mind [1964]), that he had always believed that the animals actually experienced true anger.  He admitted to having shared sentiments he did not himself believe.  Why?  He simply did not want to have his work marginalized by the then-dominant behaviorists who had no tolerance for talk about emotional experiences.  As a result, we still do not know much about how the RAGE system interacts with other cognitive and affective systems of the brain.

In an earlier chapter on The Evolution of Affective Consciousness they added,

In his retirement he admitted regrets about having been too timid, not true to his convictions, to claim that his animals had indeed felt real anger.  He confessed that he did this because he feared that such talk would lead to attacks by the powerful American behaviorists, who might thereby also marginalize his more concrete scientific discoveries.  To a modest extent, he tried to rectify his “mistake” in his last book, The Biology of Mind, but this work had little influence.

So much for the “self-correcting” nature of science.  It is anything but that when poisoned by ideological dogmas.  Panksepp and Biven conclude,

But now, thankfully, in our enlightened age, the ban has been lifted.  Or has it?  In fact, after the cognitive revolution of the early 1970s, the behaviorist bias has largely been retained but more implicitly by most, and it is still the prevailing view among many who study animal behavior.  It seems the educated public is not aware of that fact.  We hope the present book will change that and expose this residue of behaviorist fundamentalism for what it is:  an anachronism that only makes sense to people who have been schooled within a particular tradition, not something that makes any intrinsic sense in itself!  It is currently still blocking a rich discourse concerning the psychological, especially the affective, functions of animal brains and human minds.

This passage is particularly interesting because it demonstrates, as can be seen from the passage about “the cognitive revolution of the early 1970s,” that the authors were perfectly well aware of the larger battle with the Blank Slate orthodoxy over human nature.  However, that rather opaque allusion is about as close as they came to referring to it in the book.  One can hardly blame them for deciding to fight one battle at a time.  There is one interesting connection that I will point out for the cognoscenti.  In Chapter 6, Beyond Instincts, they write,

The genetically ingrained emotional systems of the brain reflect ancestral memories – adaptive affective functions of such universal importance for survival that they were built into the brain, rather than having to be learned afresh by each generation of individuals.  These genetically ingrained memories (instincts) serve as a solid platform for further developments in the emergence of both learning and higher-order reflective consciousness.

Compare this with a passage from the work of the brilliant South African naturalist Eugene Marais, which appeared in his The Soul of the Ape, written well before his death in 1936, but only published in 1969:

…it would be convenient to speak of instinct as phyletic memory.  There are many analogies between memory and instinct, and although these may not extend to fundamentals, they are still of such a nature that the term phyletic memory will always convey a clear understanding of the most characteristic attributes of instinct.

As it happens, the very charming and insightful introduction to The Soul of the Ape when it was finally published in 1969 was written by none other than Robert Ardrey!  He had an uncanny ability to find and appreciate the significance of the work of brilliant but little-known researchers like Marais.

As for Panksepp, I can only apologize for taking so long to discover him.  If nothing else, his work and teachings reveal that this is no time for complacency.  True, the Blank Slaters have been staggered, but they haven’t been defeated quite yet.  They’ve merely abandoned the battlefield and retreated to what would seem to be their last citadel; the field of animal behavior.  Unfortunately there is no Robert Ardrey around to pitch them headlong out of that last refuge, but they face a different challenge now.  They can no longer pretend to hold the moral high ground.  Their denial that animals can experience and remember their emotions in the same way as humans leaves the door wide open for the abuse of animals, both inside and outside the laboratory.  It is to be hoped that more animal rights activists like Temple Grandin will start paying attention.  I may not agree with them about eating red meat, but the maltreatment of animals, justified by reference to a bogus ideological dogma, is something that can definitely excite my own RAGE emotions.  I will have no problem standing shoulder to shoulder with them in this fight.

The Group Selectionist and the Blank Slater: David Sloan Wilson Interviews Richard Lewontin

I would rank the Blank Slate debacle as the greatest scientific disaster of all time.  For half a century and more, the “men of science” created and maintained a formidable obstacle in the way of our gaining the self-knowledge as a species that may be critical to our survival.  This obstacle was the denial that human behavior is in any way influenced by innate human nature.  For the time being, at least, the Blank Slate orthodoxy has been crushed.  It would seem however, that the scientific community is still traumatized by the affair.  The whimsical “histories” that continue to be concocted of the affair and of the roles of the key players in it is a manifestation thereof.

For example, Robert Ardrey, the most influential and effective opponent of the Blank Slate orthodoxy in its heyday, has been thoroughly vindicated as far as the main theme of all his work is concerned.  In spite of that, he is a virtual unperson today.  Having shamed the “men of science,” it would seem that it is now beneath their dignity to even take notice of the fact that he ever existed.  Meanwhile, Richard Lewontin, one of the high priests of the Blank Slate, is revered, and continues to win prestigious awards as a “great scientist.”  Among people who should certainly know better, the mere mention of the fact that he was a kingpin of the Blank Slate orthodoxy is greeted with stunned disbelief.

Recently Lewontin was interviewed by David Sloan Wilson, one of today’s foremost defenders of group selection, a topic with a fascinating history of its own in connection with the Blank Slate.  We find that, like the Bourbons who were propped back up as French monarchs by the victorious allies after the defeat of Napoleon, he has learned nothing and forgotten nothing.  He has merely become more circumspect about revealing the ideological motivations behind his “science.”  This becomes obvious when Wilson gets around to asking Lewontin about the connection between The Spandrels of San Marco, a paper he co-authored with Stephen Jay Gould in 1979, and Sociobiology.  Lewontin demurely replies that it may have been “contextually relevant,” but the paper was mainly an attack on naïve adaptationism.  Wilson:  “I’m interested to know that was the primary motivation for the article, not Sociobiology.”  Lewontin:  “Yeah.”  Balked in this first attempt, later in the interview, Wilson becomes a bit more blunt.  (I delete some of the exchange for brevity.  I encourage readers to look at the entire interview.)

DSW:  Dick, I’d like to spend a little bit of time on Sociobiology and also Evolutionary Psychology, because even though that didn’t motivate the Spandrels paper, it still motivated you to be a critic and Steve too.

RL:  Look, when I look at Sociobiology, the book or some of the other books he (E. O. Wilson) has written, it drives me mad.  For example, if you read – I’ll take an extremely nasty example because it’s so clear – it is written that aggression is a part of human nature.  It says that in the book, it lists features of human nature and aggression is one of them.  So then I have said to Ed and others of his school, what do you do about people who have spent almost their entire lives in jail because they refuse to be conscripted into the army?  What do you think the answer is?  That is their form of aggression.

DSW:  Well, OK, that’s facile.

RL:  I don’t know what you can do about it.  If everything can be said to be a form of aggression, even the refusal to be physically aggressive, what kind of science is that? …Because if everything by definition can be shown to be aggression then it ceases to be a useful concept in our scientific discussions.

As it happens, Lewontin uses the same argument in Not In Our Genes, a book he co-authored with fellow Blank Slaters Steven Rose and Leon Kamin in 1984.  It makes no more sense now than it did then.  Obviously, what’s still sticking in Lewontin’s craw after all these years is a series of books on the subject of human aggression that appeared back in the 60’s, the most famous of which was “On Aggression,” by Konrad Lorenz, published in the U.S. in 1966.  In fact, the notion that the anecdote about an imprisoned pacifist demolishes what Lorenz and others actually wrote about human aggression is the sheerest nonsense.  Lorenz and the others never dreamed that any of their theories on the subject precluded the possibility of conscientious objectors in any way, shape or form.  In reality Lewontin is refuting, not Lorenz, but his favorite strawman then and now, the “genetic determinist.”  Lewontin’s “genetic determinist” is one who believes that “human nature” forces people to behave in certain ways and not in others, regardless of culture or environment.  If such beasts exist, they must be as rare as unicorns, because in all my reading I have never encountered one, not even among the most hard-core 19th century social Darwinists.  Lewontin imagines them behind every bush.  For him, all sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists must necessarily be “genetic determinists.”

Lewontin spares Wilson any mention of his obsession with “genetic determinists,” but lays his cards on the table nevertheless.  He’s still as much of a Blank Slater as ever.  For example, at the end of the interview,

My main complaint is… the underlying claim that there exists a human nature, which then the claimant must give examples of, and so each claimant gives examples that are convenient for his or her pet theory.  I think the worst thing we can do in science is to create concepts where what is included or not included within the concept is not delimited to begin with, it allows us to claim anything.  That’s my problem with Sociobiology.  It’s too loose.

Well, not exactly.  Readers who really want to crawl into the mind of a Blank Slater should read Not In Our Genes, the book I referred to above.  There it will be found that Lewontin’s problem isn’t that Sociobiology is “too loose,” but that he perceives it as an impediment to the glorious socialist revolution.  You see, Lewontin is a Marxist, and Not In Our Genes is not a book of science, but a political tract.  In its pages one will find over and over and over again the assertion that those who believe in human nature are stooges of the bourgeoisie.  Sociobiology and the other sciences that affirm the existence of human nature are merely so many contrived, ideologically motivated ploys to defend the capitalist status quo and stave off the glorious dawn of socialism.  For example, quoting from the book,

Each of us has been engaged… in research, writing, speaking, teaching, and public political activity in opposition to the oppressive forms in which determinist ideology manifests itself.  We share a commitment to the prospect of the creation of a more socially just – a socialist – society.  And we recognize that a critical science is an integral part of the struggle to create that society, just as we also believe that the social function of much of today’s science is to hinder the creation of that society by acting to preserve the interests of the dominant class, gender, and race.

Biological determinist ideas are part of the attempt to preserve the inequalities of our society and to shape human nature in their own image.  The exposure of the fallacies and political content of those ideas is part of the struggle to eliminate those inequalities and to transform our society.  In that struggle we transform our own nature.

Those who possess power and their representatives can most effectively disarm those who would struggle against them by convincing them of the legitimacy and inevitability of the reigning social organization.  If what exists is right, then one ought not oppose it; if it exists inevitably, one can never oppose it successfully.

Here, then, we see that Lewontin is being a bit coy when he claims that he only objects to Sociobiology and the other sciences that affirm the existence of human nature because they are “too loose.”  In perusing the book, we find that not only Konrad Lorenz and Robert Ardrey, but also Richard Dawkins, Robert Trivers, and W. D. Hamilton are all really just so many hirelings of the capitalist system.  No matter that Trivers is a radical leftist, and Ardrey almost became a Communist himself in the 1930’s.

It is amusing to read Lewontin’s pecksniffery about the lack of scientific rigor in the work of these “capitalist stooges,” followed in short order by praise for the “scientific” work of Mao, Marx, and Engels.  I can only encourage anyone in need of a good belly laugh to read Engels’ Dialectics of Nature.  Therein he will find the great St. Paul of Marxism lecturing the greatest scientists of his day about all the errors he’s discovered in their work because they don’t pay enough attention to the dialectic.  Lewontin’s confirmation of one important facet of innate human nature, ingroup/outgroup identification, referred to by Ardrey as the Amity/Enmity Complex, by his furious ranting against the “bourgeoisie” in a book that claims there is no such thing as human nature would also be amusing, were it not for the fact that 100 million “bourgeoisie,” give or take, paid with their lives for this particular manifestation of outgroup identification.

If one is determined to cobble together a version of “reality” in which Lewontin figures as a “great scientist” instead of the Blank Slate kingpin he actually was, he will find no better place to look than the pages of Not In Our Genes.  It comes complete with sage warnings against running to the opposite extreme of “cultural determinism,” and anathemas against the proponents of tabula rasa.  To this I can only reply that nowhere in any of his work has Lewontin ever affirmed the existence of anything resembling the innate predispositions that one normally refers to in the vernacular as human nature, and he has consistently condemned anyone who does as politically suspect.  If “good science” were a matter of condemning anyone who disagrees with your version of reality as a hireling of the forces of evil, Lewontin would take the cake.

UPDATE:  Whyvert tweeted a link to a great article by Robert Trivers posted at the Unz Review website entitled, Vignettes of Famous Evolutionary Biologists, Large and Small.  Included is a vignette of none other than Richard Lewontin.  As it happens, Prof. Trivers was among those singled out by Lewontin as an evil minion of the bourgeoisie in his Not In Our Genes.  His article includes some very interesting observations on the disintegrating effects of politics on Lewontin’s scientific career.

On the Malleability and Plasticity of the History of the Blank Slate

Let me put my own cards on the table.  I consider the Blank Slate affair the greatest debacle in the history of science.  Perhaps you haven’t heard of it.  I wouldn’t be surprised.  Those who are the most capable of writing its history are often also those who are most motivated to sweep the whole thing under the rug.  In any case, in the context of this post the Blank Slate refers to a dogma that prevailed in the behavioral sciences for much of the 20th century according to which there is, for all practical purposes, no such thing as human nature.  I consider it the greatest scientific debacle of all time because, for more than half a century, it blocked the path of our species to self-knowledge.  As we gradually approach the technological ability to commit collective suicide, self-knowledge may well be critical to our survival.

Such histories of the affair as do exist are often carefully and minutely researched by historians familiar with the scientific issues involved.  In general, they’ve personally lived through at least some phase of it, and they’ve often been personally acquainted with some of the most important players.  In spite of that, their accounts have a disconcerting tendency to wildly contradict each other.  Occasionally one finds different versions of the facts themselves, but more often its a question of the careful winnowing of the facts to select and record only those that support a preferred narrative.

Obviously, I can’t cover all the relevant literature in a single blog post.  Instead, to illustrate my point, I will focus on a single work whose author, Hamilton Cravens, devotes most of his attention to events in the first half of the 20th century, describing the sea change in the behavioral sciences that signaled the onset of the Blank Slate.  As it happens, that’s not quite what he intended.  What we see today as the darkness descending was for him the light of science bursting forth.  Indeed, his book is entitled, somewhat optimistically in retrospect, The Triumph of Evolution:  The Heredity-Environment Controversy, 1900-1941.  It first appeared in 1978, more or less still in the heyday of the Blank Slate, although murmurings against it could already be detected among academic and professional experts in the behavioral sciences after the appearance of a series of devastating critiques in the popular literature in the 60’s by Robert Ardrey, Konrad Lorenz, and others, topped off by E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology in 1975.

Ostensibly, the “triumph” Cravens’ title refers to is the demise of what he calls the “extreme hereditarian” interpretations of human behavior that prevailed in the late 19th and early 20th century in favor of a more “balanced” approach that recognized the importance of culture, as revealed by a systematic application of the scientific method.  One certainly can’t fault him for being superficial.  He introduces us to most of the key movers and shakers in the behavioral sciences in the period in question.  There are minutiae about the contents of papers in old scientific journals, comments gleaned from personal correspondence, who said what at long forgotten scientific conferences, which colleges and universities had strong programs in psychology, sociology and anthropology more than 100 years ago, and who supported them, etc., etc.  He guides us into his narrative so gently that we hardly realize we’re being led by the nose.  Gradually, however, the picture comes into focus.

It goes something like this.  In bygone days before the “triumph of evolution,” the existence of human “instincts” was taken for granted.  Their importance seemed even more obvious in light of the rediscovery of Mendel’s work.  As Cravens put it,

While it would be inaccurate to say that most American experimentalists concluded as  the result of the general acceptance of Mendelism by 1910 or so that heredity was all powerful and environment of no consequence, it was nevertheless true that heredity occupied a much more prominent place than environment in their writings.

This sort of “subtlety” is characteristic of Cravens’ writing.  Here, he doesn’t accuse the scientists he’s referring to of being outright genetic determinists.  They just have an “undue” tendency to overemphasize heredity.  It is only gradually, and by dint of occasional reading between the lines that we learn the “true” nature of these believers in human “instinct.”  Without ever seeing anything as blatant as a mention of Marxism, we learn that their “science” was really just a reflection of their “class.”  For example,

But there were other reasons why so many American psychologists emphasized heredity over environment.  They shared the same general ethnocultural and class background as did the biologists.  Like the biologists, they grew up in middle class, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant homes, in a subculture where the individual was the focal point of social explanation and comment.

As we read on, we find Cravens is obsessed with white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, or WASPs, noting that the “wrong” kind of scientists belong to that “class” scores of times.  Among other things, they dominate the eugenics movement, and are innocently referred to as Social Darwinists, as if these terms had never been used in a pejorative sense.  In general they are supposed to oppose immigration from other than “Nordic” countries, and tend to support “neo-Lamarckian” doctrines, and believe blindly that intelligence test results are independent of “social circumstances and milieu.”  As we read further into Section I of the book, we are introduced to a whole swarm of these instinct-believing WASPs.

In Section II, however, we begin to see the first glimmerings of a new, critical and truly scientific approach to the question of human instincts.  Men like Franz Boas, Robert Lowie, and Alfred Kroeber, began to insist on the importance of culture.  Furthermore, they believed that their “culture idea” could be studied in isolation in such disciplines as sociology and anthropology, insisting on sharp, “territorial” boundaries that would protect their favored disciplines from the defiling influence of instincts.  As one might expect,

The Boasians were separated from WASP culture; several were immigrants, of Jewish background, or both.

A bit later they were joined by joined by John Watson and his behaviorists who, after performing some experiments on animals and human infants, apparently experienced an epiphany.  As Cravens puts it,

To his amazement, Watson concluded that the James-McDougall human instinct theory had no demonstrable experimental basis.  He found the instinct theorists had greatly overestimated the number of original emotional reactions in infants.  For all practical purposes, he realized that there were no human instincts determining the behavior of adults or even of children.

Perhaps more amazing is the fact that Cravens suspected not a hint of a tendency to replace science with dogma in all this.  As Leibniz might have put it, everything was for the best, in this, the best of all possible worlds.  Everything pointed to the “triumph of evolution.”  According to Cravens, the “triumph” came with astonishing speed:

By the early 1920s the controversy was over.  Subsequently, psychologists and sociologists joined hands to work out a new interdisciplinary model of the sources of human conduct and emotion stressing the interaction of heredity and environment, of innate and acquired characters – in short, the balance of man’s nature and his culture.

Alas, my dear Cravens, the controversy was just beginning.  In what follows, he allows us a glimpse at just what kind of “balance” he’s referring to.  As we read on into Section 3 of the book, he finally gets around to setting the hook:

Within two years of the Nazi collapse in Europe Science published an article symptomatic of a profound theoretical reorientation in the American natural and social sciences.  In that article Theodosius Dobzhansky, a geneticist, and M. F. Ashley-Montagu, an anthropologist, summarized and synthesized what the last quarter century’s work in their respective fields implied for extreme hereditarian explanations of human nature and conduct.  Their overarching thesis was that man was the product of biological and social evolution.  Even though man in his biological aspects was as subject to natural processes as any other species, in certain critical respects he was unique in nature, for the specific system of genes that created an identifiably human mentality also permitted man to experience cultural evolution… Dobzhansky and Ashley-Montagu continued, “Instead of having his responses genetically fixed as in other animal species, man is a species that invents its own responses, and it is out of this unique ability to invent…  his responses that his cultures are born.”

and, finally, in the conclusions, after assuring us that,

By the early 1940s the nature-nurture controversy had run its course.

Cravens leaves us with some closing sentences that epitomize his “triumph of evolution:”

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.

At this point, one doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.  Apparently Cravens, who has just supplied us with arcane details about who said what at obscure scientific conferences half a century and more before he published his book was completely unawares of exactly what Ashley Montagu, his herald of the new world order, meant when he referred to “extreme hereditarian explanations,” in spite of the fact that he spelled it out ten years earlier in an invaluable little pocket guide for the followers of the “new science” entitled Man and Aggression.  There Montagu describes the sort of “balance of man’s nature and his culture” he intended as follows:

Man is man because he has no instincts, because everything he is and has become he has learned, acquired, from his culture, from the man-made part of the environment, from other human beings.

and,

There is, in fact, not the slightest evidence or ground for assuming that the alleged “phylogenetically adapted instinctive” behavior of other animals is in any way relevant to the discussion of the motive-forces of human behavior.  The fact is, that with the exception of the instinctoid reactions in infants to sudden withdrawals of support and to sudden loud noises, the human being is entirely instinctless.

So much for Cravens’ “balance.”  He spills a great deal of ink in his book assuring us that the Blank Slate orthodoxy he defends was the product of “science,” little influenced by any political or ideological bias.  Apparently he also didn’t notice that, not only in Man and Aggression, but ubiquitously in the Blank Slate literature, the “new science” is defended over and over and over again with the “argument” that anyone who opposes it is a racist and a fascist, not to mention far right wing.

As it turns out, Cravens didn’t completely lapse into a coma following the publication of Ashley Montagu’s 1947 pronunciamiento in Science.  In his “Conclusion” we discover that, after all, he had a vague presentiment of the avalanche that would soon make a shambles of his “new evolutionary science.”  In his words,

Of course in recent years something approximating at least a minor revival of the old nature-nurture controversy seems to have arisen in American science and politics.  It is certainly quite possible that this will lead to a full scale nature-nurture controversy in time, not simply because of the potential for a new model of nature that would permit a new debate, but also, as one historian has pointed out, because our own time, like the 1920s, has been a period of racial and ethnic polarization.  Obviously any further comment would be premature.

Obviously, my dear Cravens.  What’s the moral of the story, dear reader?   Well, among other things, that if you really want to learn something about the Blank Slate, you’d better not be shy of wading through the source literature yourself.  It’s still out there, waiting to be discovered.  One particularly rich source of historical nuggets is H. L. Mencken’s American Mercury, which Ron Unz has been so kind as to post online.  Mencken took a personal interest in the “nature vs. nurture” controversy, and took care to publish articles by heavy hitters on both sides.  For a rather different take than Cravens on the motivations of the early Blank Slaters, see for example, Heredity and the Uplift, by H. M. Parshley.  Parshley was an interesting character who took on no less an opponent than Clarence Darrow in a debate over eugenics, and later translated Simone de Beauvoir’s feminist manifesto The Second Sex into English.

chimp-thinking

Stephen Hawking Chimes in “On Aggression”

Tell me, dear reader, have you ever heard the term, “On Aggression” before?  As it happens, that was actually the title of a book by Konrad Lorenz published in 1966, at the height of the Blank Slate debacle.  In it Lorenz suggested that the origins of both animal and human aggression could be traced to evolved behavioral predispositions, or, in the vernacular, human nature.  He was duly denounced at the time by the Blank Slate priesthood as a fascist and a racist, with dark allusions to possible connections to the John Birch Society itself!  See, for example, “Man and Aggression,” edited by Ashley Montagu, or “Not in Our Genes,” by Richard Lewontin.  In those days the Blank Slaters had the popular media in their hip pocket.  In fact, they continued to have it in their hip pocket pretty much until the end of the 20th century.  For example, no less a celebrity than Jane Goodall was furiously vilified, in the Sunday Times, no less, for daring to suggest that chimpanzees could occasionally be aggressive.

Times have changed!  Fast forward to 2015.  Adaeze Uyanwah, a 24-year-old from California, just won the “Guest of Honor” contest from VisitLondon.com. The prize package included a tour of London’s Science Museum with celebrity physicist Stephen Hawking.  During the tour, Uyanwah asked Hawking which human shortcoming he would most like to change.  He replied as follows:

The human failing I would most like to correct is aggression.  It may have had survival advantage in caveman days, to get more food, territory or a partner with whom to reproduce, but now it threatens to destroy us all.

Hello!!  Hawking just matter-of-factly referred to aggression as an innate human trait!  Were there shrieks of rage from the august practitioners of the behavioral sciences?  No.  Did it occur to anyone to denounce Hawking as a fascist?  No.  Did so much as a single journalistic crusader for social justice swallow his gum?  No!  See for yourself!  You can check the response in the reliably liberal Huffington Post, Washington Post, or even the British Independent, and you won’t find so much as a mildly raised eyebrow.  By all means, read on and check the comments!  No one noticed a thing!  If you’re still not sufficiently stunned, check out this interview of famous physicist Mishio Kaku apropos Hawking’s comment on MSNBC’s Ed Show.  As anyone who hasn’t been asleep for the last 20 years is aware, MSNBC’s political line is rather to the left of Foxnews.  Nothing that either (Ed) Schultz nor Kaku says suggest that they find anything the least bit controversial about Hawking’s statement.  Indeed, they accept it as obvious, and continue with a discussion of whether it would behoove us to protect ourselves from this unfortunate aspect of our “human nature” by escaping to outer space!

In a word, while the Blank Slate may simmer on in the more obscurantist corners of academia, I think we can safely conclude that it has lost the popular media.  Is hubris in order?  Having watched all the old Christopher Lee movies, I rather doubt it.  Vampires have a way of rising from the grave.

On the Resurrection and Transfiguration of the Blank Slate

All appearances to the contrary in the popular media, the Blank Slate lives on.  Of course, its heyday is long gone, but it slumbers on in the more obscure niches of academia.  One of its more recent manifestations just turned up at Scientia Salon in the form of a paper by one Mark Fedyk, an assistant professor of philosophy at Mount Allison University in Sackville, Canada.  Entitled, “How (not) to Bring Psychology and Biology Together,” it provides the interested reader with a glimpse at several of the more typical features of the genre as it exists today.

Fedyk doesn’t leave us in doubt about where he’s coming from.  Indeed, he lays his cards on the table in plain sight in the abstract, where he writes that, “psychologists should have a preference for explanations of adaptive behavior in humans that refer to learning and other similarly malleable psychological mechanisms – and not modules or instincts or any other kind of relatively innate and relatively non-malleable psychological mechanisms.”  Reading on into the body of the paper a bit, we quickly find another trademark trait of both the ancient and modern Blank Slaters; their tendency to invent strawman arguments, attribute them to their opponents, and then blithely ignore those opponents when they point out that the strawmen bear no resemblance to anything they actually believe.

In Fedyk’s case, many of the strawmen are incorporated in his idiosyncratic definition of the term “modules.”  Among other things, these “modules” are “strongly nativist,” they don’t allow for “developmental plasticity,” they imply a strong, either-or version of the ancient nature vs. nurture dichotomy, and they are “relatively innate and relatively non-malleable.”  In Fedyk’s paper, the latter phrase serves the same purpose as the ancient “genetic determinism” strawman did in the heyday of the Blank Slate.  Apparently that’s now become too obvious, and the new jargon is introduced by way of keeping up appearances.  In any case, we gather from the paper that all evolutionary psychologists are supposed to believe in these “modules.”  It matters not a bit to Fedyk that his “modules” have been blown out of the water literally hundreds of times in the EP literature stretching back over a period of two decades and more.  A good example that patiently dissects each of his strawmen one by one is “Modularity in Cognition:  Framing the Debate,” published by Barrett and Kurzban back in 2006.  It’s available free online, and I invite my readers to have a look at it.  It can be Googled up by anyone in a few seconds, but apparently Fedyk has somehow failed to discover it.

Once he has assured us that all EPers have an unshakable belief in his “modules,” Fedyk proceeds to concoct an amusing fairy tale based on that assumption.  In the process, he presents his brilliant and original theory of “anticipated consilience.”  According to this theory, researchers in new fields, such as EP, should rely on the findings of more mature “auxiliary disciplines,” particularly those which have been “extremely successful” in the past, to inform their own research.  In the case of evolutionary psychology, the “auxiliary discipline” turns out to be evolutionary biology.  As Fedyk puts it,

One of the more specific ways of doing this is to rely upon what can be called the principle of anticipated consilience, which says that it is rational to have a prima facie preference for those novel theories commended by previous scientific research which are most likely to be subsequently integrated in explanatorily- or inductively-fruitful ways with the relevant discipline as it expands.  The principle will be reliable simply because the novel theories which are most likely to be subsequently integrated into the mature scientific discipline as it expands are just those novel theories which are most likely to be true.

He then proceeds to incorporate his strawmen into an illustration of how this “anticipated consilience” would work in practice:

To see how this would work, consider, for example, two fairly general categories of proximate explanations for adaptive behaviors in humans, nativist (i.e., bad, ed.) psychological hypotheses which posit some kind of module (namely the imaginary kind invented by Fedyk, ed.) and non-nativist (i.e., good, ed.) psychological hypotheses, which posit some kind of learning routine (i.e., the Blank Slate, ed.)

As the tale continues, we learn that,

…it is plausible that, for approximately the first decade of research in evolutionary psychology following its emergence out of sociobiology in the 1980s, considerations of anticipated consilience would have likely rationalized a preference for proximate explanations which refer to modules and similar types of proximate mechanisms.

The reason for this given by Fedyk turns out to be the biggest thigh-slapper in this whole, implausible yarn,

So by the time evolutionary psychology emerged in reaction to human sociobiology in the 1980s, (Konrad) Lorenz’s old hydraulic model of instincts really was the last positive model in biology of the proximate causes of adaptive behavior.

Whimsical?  Yes, but stunning is probably a better adjective.  If we are to believe Fedyk, we are forced to conclude that he never even heard of the Blank Slate!  After all, some of that orthodoxy’s very arch-priests, such as Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould are/were evolutionary biologists.  They, too, had a “positive model in biology of the proximate causes of adaptive behavior,” in the form of the Blank Slate.  Fedyk is speaking of a time in which the Blank Slate dogmas were virtually unchallenged in the behavioral sciences, and anyone who got out of line was shouted down as a fascist, or worse.  And yet we are supposed to swallow the ludicrous imposture that Lorenz’ hydraulic theory not only overshadowed the Blank Slate dogmas, but was the only game in town!  But let’s not question the plot.  Continuing on with Fedyk’s adjusted version of history, we discover that (voila!) the evolutionary biologists suddenly recovered from their infatuation with hydraulic theory, and got their minds right:

…what I want to argue is that, in the last decade or so, a new understanding of the biological importance of developmental plasticity has implications for evolutionary psychology. Whereas previously considerations of anticipated consilience with evolutionary biology and cognitive science may have provided support for those proximate hypotheses which posited modules, I argue in this section that these very same considerations now support significantly non-nativist proximate hypotheses. The argument, put simply, is that traits which have high degrees of plasticity will be more evolutionarily robust than highly canalized innately specified non-malleable traits like mental modules. The upshot is that a mind comprised mostly of modules is not plastic in this specific sense, and is therefore ultimately unlikely to be favoured by natural selection. But a mind equipped with powerful, domain general learning routines does have the relevant plasticity.

I leave it as an exercise for the student to pick out all the innumerable strawmen in this parable of the “great change of heart” in evolutionary biology.  Suffice it to say that, as a result of this new-found “plasticity,” anticipated consilience now requires evolutionary psychologists to reject their silly notions about human nature in favor of a return to the sheltering haven of the Blank Slate.  Fedyk helpfully spells it out for us:

This means that, given a choice between proximate explanations which reflect a commitment to the massive modularity hypothesis and proximate explanations which, instead, reflect an approach to the mind which privileges learning…, the latter is most plausible in light of evolutionary biology.

The kicker here is that if anyone even mildly suggests any connection between this latter day manifestation of cultural determinism and the dogmas of the Blank Slate, the Fedyks of the world scream foul.  Apparently we are to believe that the “proximate explanations” of evolutionary psychology aren’t completely excluded as long as one can manage a double back flip over the rather substantial barrier of “anticipated consilience” that blocks the way.  How that might actually turn out to be possible is never explained.  In spite of these scowling denials, I personally will continue to prefer the naïve assumption that, if something walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and flaps its wings like a duck, then it actually is a duck, or Blank Slater, as the case may be.

What Made the “blank slate” the Blank Slate?

The Blank Slate affair was probably the greatest scientific debacle in history.  For half a century, give or take, an enforced orthodoxy prevailed in the behavioral sciences, promoting the dogma that there is no such thing as human nature.  So traumatic was the affair that no accurate history of it has been written to this day.  What was it about the Blank Slate affair that transmuted what was originally just another false hypothesis into a dogma that derailed progress in the behavioral sciences for much of the 20th century?  After all, the blank slate as a theory has been around since the time of Aristotle.  A host of philosophers have supported it in one form or another, including John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and John Stuart Mill.  Many others had opposed them, including such prominent British moral philosophers as Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Hume, and Mackintosh.

Sometimes the theories of these pre-Darwinian philosophers were remarkably advanced.  Hume, of course, is often cited by evolutionary psychologists in our own time for pointing out that such human behavioral phenomena as morality cannot be derived by reason, and are rooted in emotion, or “passions.”  In his words, “Reason is wholly inactive, and can never be the source of so active a principle as conscience, or a sense of morals.”  The relative sophistication of earlier thinkers can also be demonstrated by comparing them with the rigid dogmas of the Blank Slaters of the 20th century who followed them.  For example, the latter day dogmatists invented the “genetic determinist” straw man.  Anyone who insisted, however mildly, on the existence of human nature was automatically denounced as a “genetic determinist,” that is, one who believes that human “instincts” are as rigid as those of a spider building its nest, and we are powerless to control them rationally.  Real “genetic determinists” must be as rare as unicorns, because in spite of a diligent search I have never encountered one personally.  The opponents of the Blank Slate against whom the charge of “genetic determinism” was most commonly leveled were anything but.  They all insisted repeatedly that human behavior was influenced, not by rigid instincts that forced us to engage in warfare and commit acts of “aggression,” but by predispositions that occasionally worked against each other and could be positively directed or controlled by reason.  As it happens, this aspect of the nature of our “nature” was also obvious to earlier thinkers long before Darwin.  For example, 19th century British moral philosopher William Whewell, referring to the work of his co-philosopher Henry Sidgwick, writes,

The celebrated comparison of the mind to a sheet of white paper is not just, except we consider that there may be in the paper itself many circumstances which affect the nature of the writing.  A recent writer, however, appears to me to have supplied us with a much more apt and beautiful comparison.  Man’s soul at first, says Professor Sidgwick, is one unvaried blank, till it has received the impressions of external experience.  “Yet has this blank,” he adds, “been already touched by a celestial hand; and, when plunged in the colors which surround it, it takes not its tinge from accident but design, and comes out covered with a glorious pattern.”  This modern image of the mind as a prepared blank is well adapted to occupy a permanent place in opposition to the ancient sheet of white paper.

Note that Sidgwick was a utilitarian, and is often referred to as a “blank slater” himself.  Obviously, he had a much more nuanced interpretation of “human nature” than the Blank Slaters of a later day, and was much closer, both to the thought of Darwin and to that of modern evolutionary psychologists than they.  This, by the by, illustrates the danger of willy-nilly throwing all the thinkers who have ever mentioned some version of the blank slate into a common heap, or of ordering them all in a neat row, as if each one since the time of Aristotle “begat” the next after the fashion of a Biblical genealogy.

In any case, these pre-Darwinian thinkers and philosophers could occasionally discuss their differences without stooping to ad hominem attacks, and even politely.  That, in my opinion, is a fundamental difference between them and the high priests of the Blank Slate orthodoxy.  The latter day Blank Slaters were ideologues, not scientists.  They derailed the behavioral sciences because their ideological narrative invariably trumped science, and common sense, for that matter.  Their orthodoxy was imposed and enforced, not by “good science,” but by the striking of moralistic poses, and the vicious vilification of anyone who opposed them.  And for a long time, it worked.

By way of example, it will be illuminating to look at the sort of “scientific” writings produced by one of these high priests, Richard Lewontin.  Steven Pinker’s book, The Blank Slate, is occasionally flawed, but it does do a good job of describing the basis of Lewontin’s Blank Slate credentials.  Interested readers are encouraged to check the index.  As Pinker puts it,

So while Gould, Lewontin, and Rose deny that they believe in a blank slate, their concessions to evolution and genetics – that they let us eat, sleep, urinate, defecate, grow bigger than a squirrel, and bring about social change – reveal them to be empiricists more extreme than Locke himself, who at least recognized the need for an innate faculty of “understanding.”

Anyone doubting the accuracy of this statement can easily check the historical source material to confirm it.  For example, in a rant against E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology in the New York Review of Books, which Lewontin co-authored with Gould and others, we find, along with copious references to the “genetic determinist” bugbear,

We are not denying that there are genetic components to human behavior. But we suspect that human biological universals are to be discovered more in the generalities of eating, excreting and sleeping than in such specific and highly variable habits as warfare, sexual exploitation of women and the use of money as a medium of exchange.

Anyone still inclined to believe that Lewontin wasn’t a “real” Blank Slater need only consult the title of his most significant book on the subject, Not In Our Genes, published in 1984.  What on earth was he referring to as “not in our genes,” if not innate behavior?  As it happens, that book is an excellent reference for anyone who cares to examine the idiosyncratic fashion in which the Blank Slaters were in the habit of doing “science.”  Here are some examples, beginning with the “genetic determinist” bogeyman:

Biological determinism (biologism) has been a powerful mode of explaining the observed inequalities of status, wealth, and power in contemporary industrial capitalist societies, and of defining human “universals” of behavior as natural characteristics of these societies.  As such, it has been gratefully seized upon as a political legitimator by the New Right, which finds its social nostrums so neatly mirrored in nature; for if these inequalities are biologically determined, they are therefore inevitable and immutable.

Biological determinist ideas are part of the attempt to preserve the inequalities of our society and to shape human nature in their own image.  The exposure of the fallacies and political content of those ideas is part of the struggle to eliminate those inequalities and to transform our society.

All of these recent political manifestations of biological determinism have in common that they are directly opposed to the political and social demands of those without power.

The Nobel Prize laureate Konrad Lorenz, in a scientific paper on animal behavior in 1940 in Germany during the Nazi extermination campaign said:  “The selection of toughness, heroism, social utility… must be accomplished by some human institutions if mankind in default of selective factors, is not to be ruined by domestication induced degeneracy.  The racial idea as the basis of the state has already accomplished much in this respect.”  He was only applying the view of the founder of eugenics, Sir Francis Galton, who sixty years before wondered that “there exists a sentiment, for the most part quite unreasonable, against the gradual extinction of an inferior race.”  What for Galton was a gradual process became rather more rapid in the hands of Lorenz’s efficient friends.  As we shall see, Galton and Lorenz are not atypical.

Of course, Lewontin is a Marxist.  Apparently, by applying the “dialectic,” he has determined that the fact that the process was even more rapid and efficient in the hands of his Communist friends doesn’t have quite the same “ideological” significance.  As far as eugenics is concerned, it was primarily promoted by leftists and “progressives” in its heyday.  Apparently Lewontin “forgot” that as well, for, continuing in the same vein, he writes:

The sorry history of this century of insistence on the iron nature of biological determination of criminality and degeneracy, leading to the growth of the eugenics movement, sterilization laws, and the race science of Nazi Germany has frequently been told.

The claim that “human nature” guarantees that inherited differences between individuals and groups will be translated into a hierarchy of status, wealth, and power completes the total ideology of biological determinism.  To justify their original ascent to power, the new middle class had to demand a society in which “intrinsic merit” could be rewarded.  To maintain their position they now claim that intrinsic merit, once free to assert itself, will be rewarded, for it is “human nature” to form hierarchies of power and reward.

Biological determinism, as we have been describing it, draws its human nature ideology largely from Hobbes and the Social Darwinists, since these are the principles on which bourgeois political economy are founded.

Everyone had to be stretched or squeezed to fit on the Procrustean bed of Lewontin’s Marxist dogma. In the process, E. O. Wilson became a “bourgeois” like all the rest:

More, by emphasizing that even altruism is the consequence of selection for reproductive selfishness, the general validity of individual selfishness in behaviors is supported.  E. O. Wilson has identified himself with American neoconservative liberalism, which holds that society is best served by each individual acting in a self-serving manner, limited only in the case of extreme harm to others.  Sociobiology is yet another attempt to put a natural scientific foundation under Adam Smith.  It combines vulgar Mendelism, vulgar Darwinism, and vulgar reductionism in the service of the status quo.

This, then, was the type of “scientific” criticism favored by the ideologues of the Blank Slate.  They had an ideological agenda, and so assumed that everything that anyone else thought, wrote, or said, must be part of an ideological agenda as well.  There could be no such thing as “mere disagreement.”  Disagreement implied a different agenda, opposed to clearing the path to the Brave New World favored by the Blank Slaters.  By so doing it sought to institutionalize inequality, racism, and the evil status quo, and was therefore criminal.

It’s hard to imagine anything more important than getting the historical record of the Blank Slate affair straight.  We possess the means of committing suicide as a species.  Self-knowledge is critical if we are to avoid that fate.  The Blank Slate orthodoxy planted itself firmly in the path of any advance in human self-knowledge for a great many more years than we could afford to squander.  In spite of that, the bowdlerization of history continues.  Lewontin and the other high priests of the Blank Slate are being reinvented as paragons of reason, who were anything but “blank slaters” themselves, but merely applied some salutary adult supervision to the worst excesses of evolutionary psychology.  Often, they left themselves such an “out” to their own eventual rehabilitation by themselves protesting that they weren’t “blank slaters” at all.  For example, again quoting from Lewontin:

Yet, at the same time, we deny that human beings are born tabulae rasae, which they evidently are not, and that individual human beings are simple mirrors of social circumstances.  If that were the case, there could be no social evolution.

One can easily see through this threadbare charade by merely taking the trouble to actually read Lewontin.  What Pinker has to say as noted above about the degree to which he was “not a blank slater” is entirely accurate.  I know of not a single instance in which he has ever agreed that anything commonly referred to in the vernacular as “human nature,” as opposed to urinating, defecating, being taller than a squirrel, etc., is real.  Throughout his career he has rejected the behavioral hypotheses of ethology (yes, I am referring to the behavior of animals other than man, as well as our own species), sociobiology, and evolutionary psychology root and branch.

It has been said that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.  However, it’s not out of the question that we don’t have enough time left to enjoy the luxury of making the same mistake twice.  Under the circumstances, we would be well-advised to take a very dim view of any future saviors of the world who show signs of adopting political vilification as their way of “doing science.”

Troublesome Nick and the Timid Echoes of the Blank Slate

You can still get in trouble for saying things that are true, or, for that matter, even obvious.  Consider, for example, Nicholas Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History.  I haven’t yet read the book, so have no comment on whether any of the specific hypotheses therein are scientifically credible or not.  However, according to the blurb at Amazon, the theme of the book is that there actually is such a thing as human biodiversity (hbd).  So much is, of course, not only true, but obvious.  The problem is that such truths have implications.  If there are significant genetic differences between human groups, then it is unlikely that the influence of those differences on the various metrics of human “success” will be zero.  In other words, we are dealing with a truth that is not only inconvenient, but immoral.  It violates the principle of equality. 

It is only to be expected that there will be similarities between the reaction to this particular immoral truth and those that have been observed in response to other immoral truths in the past.  Typical reactions among those whose moral emotions have been aroused by such truths have been denial, vilification of the messenger, and the invention of straw men that are easier targets than the truth itself.  All these reactions occurred in response to what is probably the most familiar example of an immoral truth; the fact that genes influence behavior, or, if you will, that there actually is such a thing as “human nature.”  In that case, denial took the form of the Blank Slate orthodoxy, which perverted and derailed progress in the behavioral sciences for more than half a century.  The messengers were condemned, not only with the long since hackneyed accusation of racism, but with a host of other political and moral shortcomings.  The most familiar straw man was, of course, the “genetic determinist.”

Predictably, the response to Wade’s book has been similar.  Not so predictable has been the muted nature of that response.  Compared to the vicious attacks on the messengers who debunked the Blank Slate, it has been pianissimo, and even apologetic.  It would almost seem as if the current paragons of moral purity among us have actually been chastened by the collapse of that quasi-religious orthodoxy.  Allow me to illustrate with an example from the past.  It took the form of a response to the publication of E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology in 1975.  Entitled Against “Sociobiology”, it appeared in the New York Review of Books shortly after Wilson’s book was published.  As it happens, it didn’t have just one author. It had a whole gang, including such high priests of the Blank Slate as Steven Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin. The message, of course, was that all right-thinking people agreed that the book should be on the proscribed list, and not just a mere individual. Anathemas were rained down on the head of Wilson with all the pious self-assurance of those who were cocksure they controlled the message of “science.” For example,

 The reason for the survival of these recurrent determinist theories is that they consistently tend to provide a genetic justification of the status quo and of existing privileges for certain groups according to class, race or sex. Historically, powerful countries or ruling groups within them have drawn support for the maintenance or extension of their power from these products of the scientific community.

 Wilson joins the long parade of biological determinists whose work has served to buttress the institutions of their society by exonerating them from responsibility for social problems.

and, of course, the de rigueur association of Wilson with the Nazis:

 These theories provided an important basis for the enactment of sterilization laws and restrictive immigration laws by the United States between 1910 and 1930 and also for the eugenics policies which led to the establishment of gas chambers in Nazi Germany.

Now, fast forward the better part of four decades and consider a similar diatribe by one of the current crop of the self-appointed morally pure.  The paragon of righteousness in question is Andrew Gelman, and the title of his bit is The Paradox of Racism. True, Gelman doesn’t leave us in suspense about whether he’s in the ranks of the just and good or not. He can’t even wait until he’s past the title of his article to accuse Wade of racism. However, having established his bona fides, he adopts a conciliatory, and almost apologetic tone. For example,

Wade is clearly intelligent and thoughtful, and his book is informed by the latest research in genetics.

Wade does not characterize himself as a racist, writing, “no one has the right or reason to assert superiority over a person of a different race.” But I characterize his book as racist based on the dictionary definition: per Merriam-Webster, “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” Wade’s repeated comments about creativity, intelligence, tribalism, and so forth seem to me to represent views of superiority and inferiority.

That said, I can’t say that Wade’s theories are wrong. As noted above, racial explanations of current social and economic inequality are compelling, in part because it is always natural to attribute individuals’ successes and failures to their individual traits, and to attribute the successes and failures of larger societies to group characteristics. And genes provide a mechanism that supplies a particularly flexible set of explanations when linked to culture.

Obviously, Gelman hasn’t been asleep for the last 20 years.  Here we find him peering back over his shoulder, appearing for all the world as if he’s afraid the truth might catch up with him.  He’s aware of the collapse of the Blank Slate orthodoxy, perhaps the greatest debunking of the infallible authority of “science” of all time.  He allows that we might not merely be dealing with a racist individual here, but a racist truth. He even acknowledges that, in that case, something might actually be done about it, implicitly dropping the “genetic determinism” canard:

 Despite Wade’s occasional use of politically conservative signifiers (dismissive remarks about intellectuals and academic leftists, an offhand remark about “global cooling”), I believe him when he writes that “this book is an attempt to understand the world as it is, not as it ought to be.” If researchers ever really can identify ethnic groups with genetic markers for short-term preferences, low intelligence, and an increased proclivity to violence, and other ethnic groups with an affinity for authoritarianism, this is something that more peaceful, democratic policymakers should be aware of.

Indeed, unlike the authors of the earlier paper, Gelman can’t even bring himself to summon up the ghost of Hitler.  He concludes,

 Wade’s arguments aren’t necessarily wrong, just because they look like various erroneous arguments from decades past involving drunken Irishmen, crafty Jews, hot-blooded Spaniards, lazy Africans, and the like.

In a word, Gelman’s remarks are rather more nuanced than the fulminations of his predecessors.  Am I making too much of this apparent change of tone? I don’t think so. True, there are still plenty of fire-breathing Blank Slaters lurking in the more obscure echo chambers of academia, but, like the Communists, they are doing us the favor of gradually dying off. Their latter day replacements, having seen whole legions of behavioral “scientists” exposed as charlatans, are rather less self-assured in their virtuous indignation. Some of them have even resorted to admitting that, while it may be true that there is such a thing as human biodiversity, the masses should be sheltered from that truth. Predictably, they have appointed themselves gatekeepers of the forbidden knowledge.

I note in passing the historical value of the attack on Wilson mentioned above.  Like many similar bits and pieces of source material published in the decade prior to 1975, still easily accessible to anyone who cares to do a little searching, it blows the modern mythology concocted by the evolutionary psychologists to account for the origins of their science completely out of the water.  According to that mythology, it all began with the “big bang” of Wilson’s publication of Sociobiology.  The whole yarn may be found summarized in a nutshell in the textbook Evolutionary Psychology by David Buss.  According to Buss, Sociobiology was “monumental in both size and scope.” It “synthesized under one umbrella a tremendous diversity of scientific endeavors and gave the emerging field (sociobiology) a visible name.”  And so on and so on.  At least that’s the version in my 2009 edition of the book.  “History” might have changed a bit since Wilson’s embrace of group selection in his The Social Conquest of Earth, published in 2012.  We’ll have to wait and see when the next edition of the textbook is published.

Be that as it may, the fact is that the reason for the original notoriety of Sociobiology, and the reason it is not virtually forgotten today, had nothing to do with all the good stuff Wilson packed into the middle 25 chapters of his book that was subsequently the subject of Buss’ panegyrics.  That reason was Wilson’s insistence in the first and last of his 27 chapters that there actually is such a thing as “human nature.” There was nothing in the least novel, original, or revolutionary in that insistence. In fact, it was merely a repetition of what other authors had been writing for more than a decade. Those authors were neither obscure nor ignored, and were recognized by Blank Slaters like Gould and Lewontin as their most influential and effective opponents. They, and not any novel “scientific synthesis,” were the reason that such worthies paid any attention to Wilson’s book at all. And, much as I admire the man, they, and not Wilson, were most influential in unmasking the absurdities of the Blank Slate, causing it to stumble and eventually collapse. Those facts were certainly no secret to the authors of the article.  Allow me to quote them by way of demonstration:

From Herbert Spencer, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” to Konrad Lorenz, Robert Ardrey, and now E. O. Wilson, we have seen proclaimed the primacy of natural selection in determining most important characteristics of human behavior.

Each time these ideas have resurfaced the claim has been made that they were based on new scientific information.

 The latest attempt to reinvigorate these tired theories comes with the alleged creation of a new discipline, sociobiology.

In a word, the Blank Slaters themselves certainly perceived nothing “novel” in Sociobiology. By the time it was published the hypotheses about human nature they objected to in its content were already old hat. They were merely trying to silence yet another voice proclaiming the absence of the emperor’s new clothes. Again, just do a little searching through the historical source material and you’ll find that the loudest and most influential voice of all, and the one that drew the loudest bellows of rage from the Blank Slaters, belonged to one of Wilson’s predecessors mentioned by name in the above quotes; Robert Ardrey. Of course, Ardrey was a “mere playwright,” and it’s a well-known fact that, once one has been a playwright, one is automatically disqualified from becoming a scientist or writing anything that counts as science ever after. Add to that the fact that Ardrey was right when all the scientists with their Ph.D.’s were wrong about human nature, and I think it’s obvious why making him anything like the “father of evolutionary psychology” would be in bad taste. Wilson fits that role nicely, or at least he did until his flirtation with group selection escalated into a full scale romance.  Ergo, Ardrey was declared “totally and utterly wrong,” became an unperson, and Wilson stepped up to fill his ample shoes.  Alas, if past history is any guide, I fear that it eventually may become necessary to drop poor Nick down the memory hole as well.  True, at least the man isn’t a playwright, but he isn’t sporting a Ph.D., either.  Really, how “scientific” can you be if you don’t have a Ph.D.?   In any case, the mythology that passes for the history of evolutionary psychology began “just so.”   

Was There a Time Before the Blank Slate?

Yes, dear reader, there was.  It’s quite true that, for half a decade and more, the “Men of Science” imposed on the credulity of mankind by insisting that something perfectly obvious and long familiar to the rest of us didn’t exist.  I refer, of course, to human nature.  It was a herculean effort in self-deception that confirmed yet again George Orwell’s observation that, “There are some ideas so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them.”  In the heyday of the Blank Slate orthodoxy, such “Men of Science” as Ashley Montagu could say things such as,

…man is man because he has no instincts, because everything he is and has become he has learned, acquired from his culture, from the man-made part of the environment, from other human beings.

and

The fact is, that with the exception of the instinctoid reactions in infants to sudden withdrawals of support and to sudden loud noises, the human being is entirely instinctless.

and do it with a perfectly straight face.  It was an episode in our history that must never be forgotten, and one that should be recalled whenever we hear someone claim that “science says” this or that, or that “the science is settled.”  The scientific method is the best butterfly net our species has come up with so far to occasionally capture a fluttering bit of truth.  However, it can never be separated from the ideological context in which it functions.  As the Blank Slate episode demonstrated, that context is quite capable of subverting and adulterating the truth when the truth stands in the way of ideological imperatives.

In the case of the Blank Slate, as it happens, those imperatives did not derail our search for truth for some time after Darwin first grasped the behavioral implications of his revolutionary theory.  And just as those implications were obvious to Darwin, they were obvious to many others.  The existence and selective significance of human nature were immediately apparent to anyone with an open mind and rudimentary powers of self-observation.  Indeed, they were treated almost as commonplaces in the behavioral sciences for decades after Darwin until they finally succumbed to the ideological fog.

For example, at about the same time that J. B. Watson and Frank Boas began fabricating the first serious “scientific” rationalizations of the Blank Slate, there was no evidence in the popular media of the rigid ideological orthodoxy that became such a remarkable feature of their coverage of anything dealing with human behavior in the 60’s and 70’s.  The later vilification of heretics as “racists” and “fascists” was nowhere to be seen.  Indeed, one Dr. Grace Adams, who held a Ph.D. in psychology from Cornell, was actually guileless enough to contribute an article entitled Human Instincts to H. L. Mencken’s The American Mercury as late as 1928!  Apparently without the faintest inkling of the hijacking of the behavioral sciences that was then already in the works, she wrote,

The recognition of the full scope and function of the human instincts will appear to those who come after us as the most important advance made by psychology in our time. (!)

How ironic those words seem now!  The very term “instinct” became toxic during the ascendancy of the Blank Slate, when the high priests of the prevailing orthodoxy insisted on their own rigid definition of the term, and then proceeded to exploit it as a handy tool for “smarter than thou” posturing and scientific one-upmanship.  Adams’ article includes some interesting remarks on the origin of the word “instinct” in the biological sciences and the later, gradual redefinitions that occurred when it was taken up by the psychologists.  In particular, she notes that, while the biologists of the time still used the term to describe behaviors that were unaffected by either “experience or volition,” and were “purely mechanical processes lying completely outside the province of consciousness,” psychologists preferred a much more flexible definition.  Referring to the great American ur-psychologist William James, Adams wrote,

So it was obvious, to him at least, “that every instinctive act in an animal with memory must cease to be ‘blind’ after being once repeated.”  In this way, according to James, an instinct could become not only conscious but capable of modification and conscious direction and change.

Or, as we would say today, the expression of “instincts” could be modified by “culture.”  Adams notes that, as early as 1890,

James was able to state complacently that there was agreement among his contemporaries that the human instincts were: sucking, biting, chewing, grinding the teeth, licking, making grimaces, spitting, clasping, grasping, pointing, making sounds of expressive desire, carrying to the mouth, the function of alimentation, crying, smiling, protrusion of the lips, turning the head aside, holding the head erect, sitting up, standing, locomotion, vocalization, imitation, emulation or rivalry, pugnacity, anger, resentment, sympathy, the hunting instinct, fear, appropriation or acquisitiveness, constructiveness, play, curiosity, sociability and shyness, secretiveness, cleanliness, modesty and shame, love, the anti-sexual instincts, jealousy, and parental love.  (Italics are mine)

Turn the page to the 20th century, and we already find two of the prominent psychologists of the day, James Angell and Edward Thorndike, squabbling over the definition of “instinct.”  According to Adams,

Angell, accepting James’ argument that instincts once yielded to are thereafter felt in connection with the foresight of their ends, expands this idea into the statement that “instincts, in the higher animals, at all events, appear always to involve consciousness.” And he makes consciousness the essential element of instincts. Thorndike, on the other hand, remembers James’ admission that instincts are originally blind and maintains that “all original tendencies are aimless in the sense that foresight of the consequences does not affect the response.”  For him the only necessary components of an instinct are “the ability to be sensitive to a certain situation, the ability to make a certain response, and the existence of a bond or connection whereby that response is made to that situation.” While the ideas of neither Angell nor Thorndike are actually inconsistent with James’ two-fold definition of an instinct, they lead to very different lists of instincts.

To cut to the chase, here are the lists of Angell,

Angell, by making consciousness the mark that distinguishes an instinct from a reflex, has to narrow the number of instincts to fear, anger, shyness, curiosity, sympathy, modesty (?), affection, sexual love, jealousy and envy, rivalry, sociability, play, imitation, constructiveness, secretiveness and acquisitiveness.

…and Thorndike,

But Thorndike admits no gap between reflexes and instincts, so he must both expand and subdivide James’ list. He does this in a two hundred page inventory (!) which he regrets is incomplete. He adds such activities as teasing, tormenting, bullying, sulkiness, grieving, the horse-play of youths, the cooing and gurgling of infants and their satisfaction at being held, cuddled and carried, attention-getting, responses to approving behavior, responses to scornful behavior, responses by approving behavior, responses by scornful behavior, the instinct of multiform physical activity, and the instinct of multiform mental activity. The “so-called instinct of fear” he analyzes into the instinct of escape from restraint, the instinct of overcoming a moving obstacle, the instinct of counterattack, the instinct of irrational response to pain, the instinct to combat in rivalry, and the threatening or attacking movements with which the human male tends to react to the mere presence of a male of the same species during acts of courtship.

In a word, the psychologists of the 20’s were still quite uninhibited when it came to compiling lists of instincts.  It is noteworthy that Thorndike’s The Elements of Psychology, which originally included extensive discussions of human “instincts” in Chapters 12 and 13, continued in use as a textbook for many years.  Indeed, Thorndike was one of the many psychologists of his day who seem surprisingly “modern” in the context of the early 21st century.  For example, again quoting Adams,

And Thorndike points out that a complete inventory of man’s original nature is needed not only as a basis of education but for economic, political, ethical and religious theories.

And, in a passage that, in light of recent developments in the field of evolutionary psychology, can only be described as stunning, Adams continues,

For Colvin and Bagly the chief essential of instincts is that “they are directed toward some end that is useful.” But they do not mean useful in a selfish or materialistic sense, for they are able to describe an altruistic instinct which is as real to them as the predatory instinct. And Kirkpatrick conceives of man being by native endowment even more noble. Indeed he credits to the human being a regulative instinct “which exists in the moral tendency to conform to law and to act for the good of others as well as self, and in the religious tendency to regard a Higher Power.”

Writing in the June and August, 1928 editions of the Mercury, H. M. Parshley elaborates on the connection, noticed decades earlier by Darwin himself, between “instincts” and morality:

Ethics certainly involves the consideration of motives, values, and ideals; and a scientific ethics requires genuine knowledge about these elusive matters.

As if anticipating Stephen J. Gould’s delusional theories of “non-overlapping magisterial,” he continues,

…in my “opinion, the chief support of obscurantism at this moment is the notion that motives, values, and ideals, unlike material things, are beyond the range of scientific study, and thus afford a free and exclusive field in which religion and philosophy may disport themselves authoritatively without challenge.

Parshley continues with a comment that we now recognize was sadly mistaken:

The biological needs are clear enough to see and we know a great deal about them – quite sufficient to establish the futility of asceticism and give rise to a complete distrust of any ethics that involves us in serious conflict with them.  Science has done this, and, I think, it will never be undone.

Parshley’s naïve faith in the integrity and disinterestedness of science was to be shattered all too soon.  Indeed, without recognizing the danger, Adams was already quite familiar with its source:

For many years the iconoclastic Watson strove to explain instincts in suitably behavioristic terms. But neither his definition nor his classification need concern us now, for in 1924 Watson repudiated everything he had previously said about them by declaring that “there are no instincts,” and furthermore, that “there is no such thing as an inheritance of capacity, talent, temperament, mental constitution and characteristics.” With these two statements Watson cast aside the biological as well as the psychological notion of mental inheritance.

For Adams, the behaviorist creed of Watson and Boas was just a curiosity.  She didn’t realize they were already riding on the crest of an ideological wave that would submerge the behavioral sciences in a sea of obscurantism for decades to come.  Marxism was hardly the only dogma that required their theories to be “true.”  The same could be said of many other pet utopias that could generally be included in the scope of E. O. Wilson’s epigram, “Great theory, wrong species.”  The ideological imperative was described in a nutshell by psychologist Geoffrey Gorer in an essay entitled The Remaking of Man, published in 1956:

One of the most urgent problems – perhaps the most urgent problem – facing the world today is how to change the character and behavior of adult human beings within a single generation.  This problem of rapid transformation has underlaid every revolution (as opposed to coups d’etat) at least from the time of the English Revolution in the seventeenth century, which sought to establish the Rule of the Saints by some modifications in the governing institutions and the laws they promulgated; and from this point of view every revolution has failed… the character of the mass of the population, their attitudes and expectations, change apparently very little.

Up till the present century revolutions were typically concerned with the internal arrangements of one political unit, one country; but the nearly simultaneous development of world-wide communications and world-wide ideologies – democracy, socialism, communism – has posed the problem not merely of how to transform ourselves – whoever ‘ourselves’ may be – but how to transform others.

This imperative shattered the naïve faith of Adams and Parshley in the inevitability of scientific progress with astonishing rapidity.  Later, during the heyday of the Blank Slate, Margaret Mead described the triumph of the “new ideas,” just a few short years after their articles appeared in the Mercury:

In the central concept of culture as it was developed by Boas and his students, human beings were viewed as dependent neither on instinct nor on genetically transmitted specific capabilities but on learned ways of life that accumulated slowly through endless borrowing, readaptation, and innovation… The vast panorama which Boas sketched out in 1932 in his discussion of the aims of anthropological research is still the heritage of American anthropology.

And so the darkness fell, and remained for more than half a decade.  The victory of the Blank Slate was, perhaps, the greatest debacle in the history of scientific thought.  Even today the “men of science” are incapable of discussing that history without abundant obfuscation and revision.  Still, the salient facts aren’t that hard to ferret out for anyone curious enough to dig for them a little.  It would behoove anyone with an exaggerated tendency to believe in the “integrity of science” to grab a shovel.

American Mercury

Alas Poor Evolutionary Psychology: Take 2

Back in 2002, Robert Kurzban, who writes a blog for the journal Evolutionary Psychology, wrote a review of Alas, Poor Darwin:  Arguments Against Evolutionary Psychology, by Steven and Hilary Rose.  The Roses, ideological zealots and leftover Blank Slaters who have devoted their careers to scientific obscurantism, had regurgitated all the usual specious arguments against human nature, which had already become hackneyed by that time.  Anyone with a passing interest in human behavior likely knows most of them by heart.  They include the claim that the hypotheses of EP are unfalsifiable, that evolutionary explanations of human behavior serve evil political ends rather than science, etc. etc., usually topped off with that most ancient and threadbare red herring of them all, that anyone who dares to say anything nice about EP is a “genetic determinist.”  In his review, entitled, “Alas Poor Evolutionary Psychology:  Unfairly Accused, Unjustly Condemned,” Kurzban demolishes them all in turn, writing in his conclusion,

There are now a collection of dialogues in the popular press between evolutionary psychologists and their critics. The discussions all seem to have the same form: Critics assert that evolutionary psychologists are wrong in believing behavior is genetically determined, that every aspect of the organism is an adaptation, and that discovering what is informs what ought be. Evolutionary psychologists reply that they never made any of these claims, and document places where they claim precisely the reverse. The critics then reply that evolutionary psychologists are wrong in believing behavior is genetically determined, that every aspect of the organism is an adaptation, and that discovering what is informs what should be.

The contradictions between what evolutionary psychologists have said and what their critics have said they said are as clear as they are infuriating. All of the correctives that I have presented here have been discussed before, and all of them are in the pieces cited by the critics of evolutionary psychology. It is unfathomable how the Roses and the other contributors to Alas Poor Darwin could have come away from the primary literature with their impressions of genetic determinism, panglossian adaptationism, and so on.

I suspect that Kurzban fathomed the reasons well enough, even then.  Such attacks on EP are not scientific refutations, but propaganda, designed to prop up pseudo-religious ideological shibboleths that happen to be badly out of step with reality.  Even then, they already had all the familiar trappings of propaganda, including the “Big Lie”; endless repetition while studiously ignoring counter-arguments.  Nothing has changed in the ensuing decade.  “Genetic determinism” is still as much a fixture in the screeds of left-over Blank Slaters as ever.  Pointing out the absurdity of the charge is as futile as trying to refute the charge of “fascism” by carefully explaining the theory of the corporate state.  Razib Khan, who writes the Gene Expression blog for Discover magazine, notes that he was just denounced as a “genetic determinist” for daring to even question the scientific credentials of cultural anthropologists, in a couple of posts that didn’t so much as take up the question of the connection between genes and behavior.

All this points up a fact that is as true now as it was in the days of Galileo.  “Science,” understood as a disinterested and cautious search for truth inspired by a spirit of skepticism, can still be as easily derailed by secular religious zealots as it was by the more traditional “spiritual” variety who intimidated Galileo and still fume against Darwin.  The puerile myths of the Blank Slate represented the prevailing orthodoxy in the behavioral “sciences” for decades, propped up, not by a tolerant and open spirit of academic freedom, but by vilification and intimidation of anyone who dared to step out of line.  Evolutionary psychologists are hardly the only victims, but they are probably the most prominent.  They have the misfortune of representing an idea that happens to tread on far more ideological toes than most.  Blank Slate orthodoxy is hardly unique in that regard.

For example, one of the common hypotheses of evolutionary psychology that there may be an innate component of human morality immediately elicits a “territorial defense” response from the legions of those who spend their time devising new moral systems for the edification of mankind.  Most of them spend their time cobbling elaborate proofs of the existence of the Good just as their intellectual forebears once concocted proofs of the existence of God.  Consider, for example, the case of the author of the Atheist Ethicist blog, who has demonstrated that, because a equals b and b equals c, it therefore follows that anyone who dares to claim that there is “an evolutionary basis for morality” is immoral.  To make a long story short, the “ethicist” believes that those insidious evolutionary psychologists are not limiting themselves to studying the “is” of human moral behavior, but have a disquieting tendency to lap over into the “ought,” a territory which he has reserved for himself and his revolutionary moral system of “desire utilitarianism.”  He does not actually name any specific examples of the most egregious of these evildoers, but no doubt we can trust him given his unique moral qualifications.

It isn’t difficult to find similar examples illustrating why the ideologically inspired find EP such a tempting target.  However, the fact that it is is a stroke of very bad luck for our species.  After all, EP is a field devoted to expanding our understanding of our selves, and there is no more critical knowledge than self-knowledge.  For example, what if the greed of evil corporations, or the imperialist pretentions of certain uniquely evil races, or “frustration” don’t turn out to be completely adequate and all-encompassing explanations of human warfare after all?  Is it really possible to know with absolute certainty that innate behavioral traits play no role whatsoever?  If they do, the failure to discover and understand them may threaten our very survival.  I happen to prefer survival to the alternative.  For that reason, it seems to me that the time for refuting such charges as “genetic determinism” with patient, reasoned arguments is past.  It is high time to begin fighting back against the ideological zealots with the same weapons they have long been using against their victims.