Christians, Comic Books, and the Happy and Sad Atheists

If the world you imagine resembles a comic book, it could be there are some flaws in your fundamental assumptions.  So it is with Catholic apologist Ross Douthat, whose fantasies would not be out of place in the literary productions of Dell or Marvel.  However, they’re actually more likely to turn up on the opinion pages of the New York Times.  That’s where  I found his latest, entitled The Return of the Happy Atheist.  It’s actually the second of a pair of replies to another collection of musings about atheism and the decline of belief by Adam Gopnik entitled Bigger than Phil, which recently appeared in The New Yorker.

For Douthat and many others like him, it’s impossible to conceive of atheism as simply a lack of belief in God or gods.  He conceives of atheists as a monolithic outgroup, whose atheism implies all sorts of other ideological connections.  He declares himself in broad agreement with Leszek Kolakowski, according to whom there was once a “cozy world”  for our “movement” back in the days of the Enlightenment, under leaders such as Diderot, Feuerbach, and Helvetius, the latter of whom actually happened to be a deist.  Then, Nietzsche announced the death of God, and since that day, “there have been no more happy atheists… that world was transformed into a place of endless anxiety and suffering.  The absence of God became a permanently festering wound in the European spirit.”

No need to despair, fellow atheists!  Douthat is pleased to announce that “we” have swung from “glad” to “sad” back to “glad” once again.  In his words,

Among polemicists and philosophers alike, there’s what feels like a renewed confidence that all of the issues – moral, political, existential – that made the death of God seem like a kind of “wound” to so many 20th century writers have somehow been neatly wrapped up and resolved and can now be safely put aside.

And why have “we” all suddenly become so happy?  Douthat notes that in the piece by Gopnik that he’s supposed to be writing about, the author claims that, at least in part, it’s because of “the broad prestige, in the past twenty years, of evolutionary biology.”  And here is where things get really interesting.  Douthat continues,

But he doesn’t pursue this idea quite far enough, writing that “the details of the new evolutionary theory are fairly irrelevant to the New Atheism.” which strikes me as quite wrong:  It’s precisely the specifics of sociobiology, of evolutionary psychology, that have helped give atheism its swagger back, because ev-psych promises a theory of human culture in a way that other evolutionary theories don’t.  And with that promise has come a sense, visible throughout atheist commentaries nowadays, that by explaining human culture in scientific terms they can also justify the parts of that culture that they find congenial, ground their liberal cosmopolitanism firmly in capital-S Science, and avoid the abysses that seemed to yawn beneath the 20th century’s feet.  This reading of evolutionary psychology hasn’t quite made Nature itself seem completely “friendly” again, but it has ;made a kind of contemporary scientism seem friendlier to moral visions in general and the progressive moral vision in particular, in a way that has made “if there is no God, all is permitted” feel (to many writers, at least) like a less troubling point against atheism after all.

Amazing!  Apparently David Bentley Hart, who included a fact-free diatribe against evolutionary psychology in his The Experience of God, the latest redoubt of Sophisticated Christians, isn’t just an outlier.  It would seem the unfortunate evolutionary psychologists are doomed to be the whipping boys of ideological zealots of all stripes.  The fact that conservative Christians are now piling on with the rest really stands things on their head.

Evolutionary psychology, referred to in the vernacular as “sociobiology” after E. O. Wilson coined the term, and even earlier, in the heyday of Robert Ardrey and Konrad Lorenz, as “ethology,” although all three terms now have separate “academic” definitions, has long been, and to a large extent still is, the bête noire of the very leftist atheist “progressives” who Douthat claims now embrace it.  Quick, someone run and tell John Horgan and Marshall Sahlins!  Where on earth is this fable about New Atheists enthusiastically embracing evolutionary psychology coming from?  Certainly not from Richard Dawkins, who declared in The Selfish Gene that Ur-evolutionary psychologist Robert Ardrey and Konrad Lorenz were “totally and utterly wrong.”  Jerry Coyne, who also spilled some ink over Douthat’s latest? I don’t think so!  The latest I’ve seen emanating from that realm, Joshua Greene’s Moral Tribes, embraces not EP, but John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism.  His only interest in evolutionary psychology is in thinking up clever ways to circumvent its findings.

None of these Christian gentry seem to have the faintest clue that that basis of evolutionary psychology is merely the recognition that there actually is such a thing as human nature.  The fact that it is now supposed to be “in fashion” is really nothing more than that recognition, following decades in which the so-called behavioral “sciences” were in thrall to the ludicrous ideological orthodoxies of the Blank Slate.  Douthat is much more likely to hit pay dirt in his hunt for atheists whose tastes run to leftist progressivism among the flotsam and jetsam left over from the demise of that orthodoxy than in the EP journals.

None of that matters to the Douthats of the world, though.  EP is too useful to their narrative to pay any attention to the truth.  And it turns out that the narrative in question is nothing more sophisticated than the hoary old naturalistic fallacy.  Quoting once again from the above passage, “…by explaining human culture in scientific terms they can also justify the parts of that culture that they find congenial.”  In other words, hidden in some dark cranny of academia, New Atheists, who are not otherwise identified, are supposed to be busily cobbling the “is” of evolutionary psychology into the “ought” of their nefarious, godless philosophy.  Whatever.  I suppose it’s not much of a stretch if you actually believe the rest of Catholic dogma.

In any case, “we” the monolithic atheist “movement” of today, are now “glad” again, thanks to the crutch of evolutionary psychology combined with a generally benign and prosperous world.  “We” are also no longer embarrassed by Communism, which, of course, “we” foisted on the world.  That revelation came as news to me, an atheist who volunteered to fight Communism in Vietnam at a time when to do so was not considered fashionable.

No time for the “movement” to relax, though, fellow atheists!  The far-seeing Douthat, after scrutinizing related articles in the opinion columns of the New York Times and running across some other articles in popular magazines that clearly reveal that we face “problems that should be obvious to those with eyes to see,” is convinced that the pendulum will soon swing back from “glad” to “sad” once again.  “Dark forces,” he writes, are driving “secular liberalism toward the kind of intellectual crisis that seems to me to lurk, iceberg-like, somewhere out ahead.”

Well, to tell you the truth, as a conservative atheist I wouldn’t mind having a front row seat to watch that ship slip beneath the waves, either.  The only problem is that, according to the Douthats of the world, people like me can’t exist.

John Galt and Human Nature

A terrible and traumatic thing happened on the Monday night before last, particularly for those of us who grew up in Wisconsin during the years of the great Green Bay Packer dynasty built by Saint Vincent Lombardi.  In a call so flagrantly and flamboyantly bad that I have never seen its like, even at the junior high school level, the NFL replacement refs awarded the Seattle Seahawks a touchdown on an obvious Green Bay interception, altering the outcome of the game.  I immediately flew into a (not objectively justifiable) rage, filling the social media with comments to the effect that I would never again support the NFL in any way, shape, or form.  Shortly thereafter, certain mood-altering things began to happen.  The strike was settled, and the regular refs returned in time to call the next game on Thursday night.  The Packers won and the unspeakable Seahawks lost.  The NFL sent some nice people over to adjust my meds.  My whole attitude changed.  I love the NFL again, can’t wait to go to another game, and that traumatic Monday night is but a distant and fading memory.

That in microcosm, is what once happened to the academic and professional experts in the behavioral sciences, albeit the process took a bit longer.  For reasons I have discussed elsewhere, they once denied there was such a thing as human nature, or, if it existed at all, its influence was insignificant.  If anyone disagreed, they flew into a rage and hurled down anathemas on the transgressor.  As most of them tended to occupy points to the left of center on the ideological spectrum, those anathemas typically involved implications that the evildoer occupied the outgroup on the right.  I noted the following examples directed at the most influential of the contrarians, Robert Ardrey, in an earlier post:

His (Ardrey’s) categories and preferences are bound to give comfort and provide ammunition for the radical Right, for the Birchites and Empire Loyalists and their analogues elsewhere.  (Anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer)

Major aggressions of history, including Hitler’s, may be explained superficially by these easy devices of instinct theory, or studied systematically with evidence known to historians and scientists.  (Animal psychologist T. C. Schneirla)

Simple-minded ideas similar to those of (eugenecist Albert Edward) Wiggam concerning racial improvement led Hitler and his friends to try to eliminate one whole section of the human race.  I doubt if Ardrey’s book has any such serious implication as this, but the erroneous notion that fighting over the possession of land is a powerful, inevitable, and uncontrollable instinct might well lead to the conclusion that war is inevitable and therefore a nation must attack first and fight best in order to survive and prosper.  (Psychologist J. P. Scott.  As those familiar with Ardrey’s work are aware, he never had any such “notion”).

In time, all that changed.  The existence and importance of human nature had always been obvious to any reasonably intelligent 10 year old.  The data continued to roll in, and gradually became so weighty that even the experts in the behavioral sciences were forced to agree with the 10 year olds.  A paradigm shift occurred.  A flood of articles began to appear, both in the academic and professional journals and the popular media, all citing the profound importance of human nature as if the matter had never been the least bit controversial.  Oddly enough, it was discovered that evolution had not predisposed us to be fascists and John Birchers after all.  Au contraire, we were all programmed to reside safely and solidly on the ideological left.  Those on the right, finally noticing that their ox was being gored, began throwing pious thunderbolts in the opposite direction.  For example, from an article entitled “Science Demands Big Government” by Dennis Prager, written for National Review Online,

“We have evolved,” the professor (Daniel Lieberman of Harvard) concluded his piece, “to need coercion.”  In order to understand both how silly and how dangerous this comment is, one must first understand the role evolutionary explanations play in academic life — and in left-wing life generally. The Left has always sought single, non-values-based explanations for human behavior.

In the words of Scientific American, “Homo economicus is extinct.”  But the biggest reason for the declining popularity of economic man is that science has displaced economics — which is not widely regarded as a science — as the Left’s real religion. Increasingly, therefore, something held to be indisputably scientific — evolution — is offered as the Left’s explanation for virtually everything.

If we take this claim seriously and use evolution to guide social policy, little that is truly decent will survive. Is there anything less prescribed by evolution than, let us say, hospices? Professor Lieberman writes that humans have evolved to cooperate with one another. But he cannot deny that the basic evolutionary proposition is survival of the fittest. How, then, can an evolutionary perspective demand the expending of energy and resources to take care of those who are dying? And if evolution demands the survival of the species, wouldn’t evolution call for other “coercion” — against abortion, for example?

…and so on, and so on.  Thus, dear reader, we have finally come full circle.  Within a very few years, “human nature” has done a double back flip, all the way from being a tool of fascist imperialism to the “scientific” basis of the nanny state. Silly anthropologists! Silly sociologists! Silly psychologists! Why did you resist the obvious for so long? It turns out that, thanks to “human nature”, we have evolved to be ideally adapted to whatever future utopias you see fit to concoct for us after all!

I rather think Mr. Prager has a point.  Many of the latest books and papers emanating from what used to be called in the vernacular ethology, and then sociobiology, and now evolutionary psychology have a distinctly leftist flavor.  An interesting manifestation of this phenomenon is the increasing incidence of attacks from those quarters on the works of Ayn Rand in general, and her novel Atlas Shrugged in particular.  Its hero is one John Galt, a typical Randian superman; brilliant, creative, resourceful, and scornful of all mediocrity.  A bitter enemy of all stifling egalitarianism and collectivism, he organizes a strike by übermenschen like himself, who all withdraw to a secluded refuge and await the collapse of the bureaucratic nanny state that sought to exploit them.  The Galt icon has long appealed to those who tend to favor “rugged individualism” over collectivism. That preference tends to occur more frequently among those on the right of the ideological divide, and particularly among libertarians. They tend to be somewhat rare among the ranks of professional academics. Lately, “science” has been sending them some depressing news. Their idol, John Galt is a chimera, the fantasy of a woman who was traumatized by a girlhood spent in a totalitarian police state posing as a collectivist worker’s paradise.

The recent wave of Galt bashing has some intriguing connections.  It tends to be associated with that most historically colorful of behavioral hypotheses, group selection. Do a search for Galt at This View of Life, the website of group selectionist David Sloan Wilson, for example, and you are likely to turn up several interesting data points.  An example of the genre, entitled “Ayn Rand vs. the Pygmies; did human evolution favor individualists or altruists”, by Eric Michael Johnson, turned up on the Slate website yesterday.

Johnson begins by firmly planting Rand in the outgroup of the ideologically enlightened;

Ayn Rand’s defense of a human nature based on rationality and individual achievement, with capitalism as its natural extension, became the rallying cry for an emerging libertarian stripe in conservative American politics. Paul Ryan cites Atlas Shrugged as forming the basis of his value system and says it was one of the main reasons he chose to enter politics. Other notable admirers include Rush Limbaugh, Alan Greenspan, Clarence Thomas, as well as Congressional Tea Party Caucus members Steve King, Mick Mulvaney, and Allen West.

He missed such obvious bad guys as Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck, but that still covers the field pretty well.  All of them, it would seem, have somehow been infected with bad behavioral alleles.  They are all out of step with our evolutionary past, as represented, Johnson is careful to inform us, by our “good guy” bonobo next of kin, as opposed to the “bad guy” chimpanzees.  Citing a passage from Rand that associates collectivism with “primordial savages,” who are not in tune with up-to-date human nature as represented by the likes of John Galt, Johnson continues,

The Pleistocene epoch, from 2.6 million to 11,700 years ago, was a formative time in our species’ development. The first members of the genus Homo began to walk the great savannas of Africa at the beginning of this epoch. In a little more than 2 million years, we went from loose aggregations of bonobo-like bipeds, traveling upright between patches of forest, to highly integrated societies made up of multiple families and clans. By studying the archaeological record as well as modern-day hunter-gatherers, evolutionary scientists have been constructing a record of how our early human ancestors made this journey. It is clear that John Galt was not present in our ancestral family tree.

To add point to this modern revelation of the behavioral sciences, Johnson presents us with a homily based on observations of the Mbuti, a tribe of pygmy hunters by anthropologist Colin Turnbull.  One of them, a certain Cephu, had somehow managed to get out of step with his inner altruist:

The Mbuti employed long nets of twined liana bark to catch their prey, sometimes stretching the nets for 300 feet. Once the nets were hung, women and children began shouting, yelling, and beating the ground to frighten animals toward the trap. As Turnbull came to understand, Mbuti hunts were collective efforts in which each hunter’s success belonged to everybody else. But one man, a rugged individualist named Cephu, had other ideas. When no one was looking, Cephu slipped away to set up his own net in front of the others. “In this way he caught the first of the animals fleeing from the beaters,” explained Turnbull in his book The Forest People, “but he had not been able to retreat before he was discovered.” Word spread among camp members that Cephu had been trying to steal meat from the tribe, and a consensus quickly developed that he should answer for this crime.

At an impromptu trial, Cephu defended himself with arguments for individual initiative and personal responsibility. “He felt he deserved a better place in the line of nets,” Turnbull wrote. “After all, was he not an important man, a chief, in fact, of his own band?” But if that were the case, replied a respected member of the camp, Cephu should leave and never return. The Mbuti have no chiefs, they are a society of equals in which redistribution governs everyone’s livelihood. The rest of the camp sat in silent agreement.

The concerned reader will be relieved to know that the story has a happy ending:

“Cephu committed what is probably one of the most heinous crimes in Pygmy eyes, and one that rarely occurs. Yet the case was settled simply and effectively,” Turnbull concluded. Among the Mbuti, as with most hunter-gatherer societies, altruism and equality are systems that enhance individual freedom. Following these moral rules helps prevent any one individual from taking advantage of others or even dominating the group as a whole because of unequal privileges. However, just as it is in our society, the negotiation between the individual and the group is always a work in progress. Perhaps that is why, after the Mbuti had feasted on the day’s successful hunt, one member of the group slipped away to give the still moaning Cephu some of the cooked meat and mushroom sauce that everyone else had enjoyed. Later that night, Cephu turned up at the main camp, where he sat on the ground and sang songs with the rest of his tribe. Holding up the world isn’t so trying when there are others who can lend a helping hand.

Johnson assures us that the Mbuti are by no means an anomaly. Citing the work of anthropologist Christopher Boehm, he writes,

Boehm thinks the evolution of human altruism can be understood by studying the moral rules of hunter-gatherer societies. He and a research assistant have recently gone through thousands of pages of anthropological field reports on the 150 hunter-gatherer societies around the world that he calls “Late-Pleistocene Appropriate” (LPA), or those societies that continue to live as our ancestors once did. By coding the reports for categories of social behavior such as aid to nonrelatives, group shaming, or the execution of social deviants, Boehm is able to determine how common those behaviors are.  What he has found is in direct opposition to Ayn Rand’s selfish ideal.

And so, Paul Ryan, Rush Limbaugh, and all the rest of the Randian Tea Partiers are thrust into outer darkness, deniers of the modern science of human nature, on a one-way trip to evolutionary oblivion.  The world has once again been made safe for utopia.  I must admit, though that, influenced no doubt by my inner Rush Limbaugh, a few reservations do occur to me.  In the first place, Atlas Shrugged remains extremely popular, selling hundreds of thousands of copies annually more than a half a century after it first appeared.  If John Galt does not appeal to anything “normal” in human nature, what is going on?  Is a pathological mutation occurring in our “human nature” genes at alarming speed for some reason, perhaps as a weird after effect of nuclear testing?  Are the innate behavioral predispositions of the Rand admirers being trumped by some bizarre artifact of culture and environment?  I suggest a less dramatic explanation.  It lies in human traits that have always been abundantly obvious, except, perhaps to behavioral scientists.

One of them was described in the scientific literature back in the 1940’s by Sir Arthur Keith – our tendency to perceive our fellow human beings in terms of ingroups and outgroups.  Robert Ardrey used to refer to it as the Amity/Enmity Complex.  Our species certainly does display altruistic behavior within the ingroup.  It most decidedly does not extend it to the outgroup.  Is it unreasonable to suggest that the legions of Rand fans perceive the bureaucratic parasites who are John Galt’s enemies in Atlas Shrugged as belonging to the latter, and not the former?  It has been proposed, of course, that we merely expand our ingroup to include all mankind.  I suspect this will turn out to be rather more difficult than some of the more sanguine among us expect.  For example, Johnson has clearly revealed his own outgroup to us, as follows:

Paul Ryan cites Atlas Shrugged as forming the basis of his value system and says it was one of the main reasons he chose to enter politics. Other notable admirers include Rush Limbaugh, Alan Greenspan, Clarence Thomas, as well as Congressional Tea Party Caucus members Steve King, Mick Mulvaney, and Allen West.

It’s hard for me to imagine Rush Limbaugh and Mr. Johnson in the same ingroup without a very liberal application of mind-altering drugs.

Another human trait that may explain the Ayn Rand anomaly has been well-described by Mr. Johnson himself; our tendency to despise and punish free riders and exploiters.  The unfortunate Cephu is on the receiving end of this predisposition at the hands of his fellow Mbuti.  Is it outside the realm of possibility that the Galt admirers do not identify him and his fellow rebels as Cephu, but as the punishers of the many Cephus among us, who constantly demand all good things from their ingroup, but are extremely unlikely to ever give anything back in return?

In a word, I rather suspect that Rand does not appeal to her many admirers because they are all evil, nor because they are all pathological mutants.  She appeals to them because she resonates with aspects of human nature which are, perhaps, more pronounced on the right than on the left of the ideological spectrum.  And the point of all this?  Perhaps that, when it comes to the ideological hijacking of science, it’s never all over.  For decades, the very existence of human nature was denied because it seemed to threaten ideological shibboleths.  Finally, that gross imposture collapsed.  But wait!  Just when you thought you were safe, the shibboleths returned, only this time with “human nature” as one of their essential props.  In the past, anyone who suggested that human nature existed and was important became the victim of furious, ideologically motivated attacks.  In the future, we can confidently expect that those who don’t “think right” about human nature, by suggesting, for example, that it might occasionally motivate us to behave as other than benign altruistic and egalitarian cogs in the great, all-encompassing human ingroup will face similar attacks.  Among others, it would seem that the ideological winds are beginning to blow strongly in the face of the likes of Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, and the rest of the “selfish gene” crowd.

Be that as it may, there are no grounds for despair.  After all, it is now at least possible to study human nature without fear of being vilified and slandered for doing so.  The scientific tools at our command for undertaking that study are becoming more powerful every day.  There will always be a few mavericks among the researchers and experimenters for whom the truth is more important than ideological purity.  They will continue to accumulate evidence about the real nature of human beings, whether it happens to favor John Galt or not.  Who knows?  If we collect enough knowledge about who and what we really are, we may eventually become wise enough to survive after all.

UPDATE:  Here’s another take on the same article.

Ayn Rand

Dawkins, Pinker, and Ardrey: The Making of an Unperson

The Blank Slate is absurd.  Consider your own behavior, the behavior of those around you, and the many observable commonalities in human behavior that are obvious if you trouble yourself to read a little history, and it is difficult to grasp how anyone could believe something so palpably ridiculous.  In spite of that, it prevailed for many years as the dominant theory of human behavior among those who passed as experts in related fields.  We have a powerful inclination to believe in comforting fallacies over jarring realities, and nothing so jarred the comforting fallacy that human behavior is so malleable that we can be “re-educated” at will to become perfect citizens of ideal fantasy worlds or systems as the reality of innate human behavioral traits.  So intertwined are our emotions with the whole subject of why we act and think the way we do that the very history of the subject has been amply adjusted to suit preferred narratives.  That is true whether one speaks of the adherents of the Blank Slate or its opponents. 

An intriguing instance of the latter is the case of Robert Ardrey.  He was arguably the most influential opponent of the Blank Slate who ever took up a pen.  He is also an unperson.  It is a remarkable fact that Steven Pinker, who wrote a book entitled The Blank Slate, purporting to describe the history and nature of a phenomenon he accurately described as a secular religion, could only bring himself to mention Ardrey’s name in a single paragraph.  Even then it was only to distance himself from the man, as if from an untouchable.  Speaking of Ashley Montagu’s Man and Aggression, a collection of essays by Blank Slaters directly aimed at Ardrey and, to a lesser extent, Konrad Lorenz, he wrote, apparently in the persona of Dawkins’ poodle,

Some of the criticisms were, to be sure, deserved: Ardrey and Lorenz believed in archaic theories such as that aggression was like the discharge of a hydraulic pressure and that evolution acted for the good of the species. But far stronger criticisms of Ardrey and Lorenz had been made by the sociobiologists themselves. (On the second page of The Selfish Gene, for example, Dawkins wrote, “The trouble with these books is that the authors got it totally and utterly wrong.”)

This statement must seem remarkable to anyone who has bothered to read Ardrey and Lorenz, not to mention Dawkins.  To the best of my knowledge, Lorenz’ ideas about the “discharge of hydraulic pressure” never appeared in Ardrey’s work, and Lorenz himself only mentioned the hypothesis as an afterthought to an earlier paper.  It by no means played any central or significant role in his thought or intellectual legacy, and no role in Ardrey’s work whatsoever.  As for Dawkins’ claim that “the authors got it totally and utterly wrong,” it was based entirely on his rejection of theories of group selection proposed by Wynne-Edwards that Ardrey mentioned approvingly in The Social Contract.  It is hard to believe that Pinker ever troubled himself to actually read Ardrey’s books, not to mention those of many other thinkers whose work he freely bowdlerized to fit his narrative in The Blank Slate.  If he had, he would have noticed that the common theme of all of them was that the Blank Slate was wrong, that innate predispositions profoundly influence human behavior, with the caveat that they influence it less than in perhaps any other species, their actual expression being heavily influenced by culture and environment, and that, far from implying anything “deterministic” about either our behavior or our future, we can and should alter our behavior based on a recognition of the reality of human nature.  In a word, the basic themes of The Blank Slate appeared in Ardrey’s work more than a quarter of a century earlier, but expressed more clearly, certainly more entertainingly, and without Pinker’s regrettable tendency to pontificate about the role of thinkers whose work he has either not read or not understood. 

As for group selection, the notion that it played some kind of a central role in Ardrey’s work, or even in The Social Contract, the one of his books in which it is mentioned, is nonsense.  The phrase in Dawkins’ book to which Pinker refers reads as follows (Dawkins is speaking of claims about the significance of his subject):

These are claims that could have been made for Lorenz’s On Aggression, Ardrey’s The Social Contract, and Eibl-Eibesfeldt’s Love and Hate. The trouble with these books is that their authors got it totally and utterly wrong. They got it wrong because they misunderstood how evolution works. They made the erroneous assumption that the important thing in evolution is the good of the species (or the group) rather than the good of the individual (or the gene.)

I haven’t read Eibl-Eibesfeldt’s book, but as far as Lorenz and Ardrey are concerned, the one who got it “totally and utterly” wrong here is Dawkins.  Neither of them “assumed that the important thing in evolution is the good of the species.”  Apparently, writing as a young man far less prominent than he is today, Dawkins completely missed the point of their work.  Both of them understood the genetic basis of evolution, and were well aware of the controversy regarding group selection, which Dawkins hardly “discovered.”  Human and animal behavior, rather than evolution, was the central theme of their work, a fact that Dawkins apparently missed completely.  It’s difficult to understand his attack on them as other than an attempt to gain notoriety and promote his book by tweaking the tails of two individuals who were both a great deal more prominent than he at the time, and who both had many enemies in the orthodox scientific community.  To get an idea of the basis for Dawkins remark, consider what he said about Ardrey a bit later in The Selfish Gene.  Speaking of the theory of group selection he writes,    

To put it in a slightly more respectable way, a group, such as a species or a population within a species, whose individual members are prepared to sacrifice themselves for the welfare of the group, may be less likely to go extinct than a rival group whose individual members place their own selfish interests first. Therefore the world becomes populated mainly by groups consisting of self-sacrificing individuals. This is the theory of ‘group selection’, long assumed to be true by biologists not familiar with the details of evolutionary theory, brought out into the open in a famous book by V. C. Wynne-Edwards, and popularized by Robert Ardrey in The Social Contract.


Robert Ardrey, in The Social Contract, used the group-selection theory to account for the whole of social order in general. He clearly sees man as a species that has strayed from the path of animal righteousness. Ardrey at least did his homework. His decision to disagree with orthodox theory was a conscious one, and for this he deserves credit.

Dawkins disingenuousness here is staggering.  Let’s assume that he actually read The Social Contract.  In that case, he either completely failed to comprehend what he was reading, or he is deliberately misrepresenting Ardrey’s work.  In the first place there’s the incredible arrogance of the comment that group selection was “assumed to be true by biologists not familiar with the details of evolutionary theory.”  This is to completely ignore that group selection had long been a matter of scholarly debate well before Dawkins published his book, that the parties of any significance on either side were both well aware of “his” theory of the selfish gene, and they either supported or opposed it using sophisticated evolutionary arguments.  Other than that, The Social Contract was not about group selection, nor was the subject central to the theme of the book.  Ardrey brought up the subject, not as an “assumption,” but as an admittedly controversial hypothesis that might explain, for example, the prevalence of alpha males within groups from generation to generation.  Ardrey must have scratched his head at reading Dawkins nonsense to the effect that he “used the group-selection theory to account for the whole of social order in general.”  There is no basis whatsoever for that remark in any fair reading of Ardrey.  He did not believe, nor did he ever claim, either implicitly or explicitly, that “man as a species has strayed from the path of animal righteousness.” 

Other than that, Dawkins was “completely and utterly wrong” to claim that Ardrey, Lorenz, Wynne-Edwards, or any of its other serious proponents was “completely and utterly wrong” about group selection.  That is apparent from the fact that the hypothesis of group selection hardly disappeared after Dawkins published his book.  It continues to be a contentious and controversial issue to this day.  However, the question is not whether group selection can or cannot actually occur.  The question is whether there could have been any possible basis for making the claim that the hypothesis was “completely and utterly wrong” in 1972, when Dawkins published his book.  In fact, there was insufficient knowledge of the complexity of  gene interaction and expression, not to mention a detailed physical understanding of the causes of such complex behavioral traits as altruism and moral behavior, and not to mention the lack of mathematical tools sufficiently precise to model the relevant processes, both then and now, to justify such a claim.  Thus, Dawkins implicit assertion that he was as infallible as the pope regarding group selection is ridiculous, and Pinker’s recognition of Dawkins as an infallible pope is even more absurd.

That such obscurantist versions of the “truth” can appear as easily among the supposed opponents as among the defenders of the Blank Slate is a testimony to the degree to which our emotions cloud the discussion of human nature.  Scientific detachment is difficult to achieve in studying both ourselves and our species.  We are so influenced by preferred narratives about the way things ought to be that we often can’t perceive the simplest truths about the way they really are.  And what of Ardrey?  One can only assume that, by pointing out that the “scientific” orthodoxy of the Blank Slate was palpably absurd, he insulted the gravitas of the entire professional scientific community, whether pro- or anti.  After all, he was a mere playwright (like Shakespeare, who Darwin loved to quote).  His was an act of unforgiveable lese majeste.  Hence, it was necessary that he disappear.  He became an unperson.

To those interested in knowing the truth, I can only suggest that they read the source material.  Those who trouble themselves to actually read Ardrey will find that group selection and the “good of the species” were virtually irrelevant to the central themes of his work.  Again, those themes were that the Blank Slate is wrong, that innate predispositions profoundly influence human behavior, and that their actual expression is strongly dependent on culture and environment.  They appeared in his books long before the publication of Sociobiology, which in its essentials is a mere echo of Ardrey.  Ardrey’s own explanation of the existence of Blank Slate in African Genesis was at once more concise, more entertaining, and less philosophically flatulent than Pinker’s The Blank Slate, which appeared almost half a century later.  It would also never have occurred to Ardrey to write a long book about such a subject that studiously ignored the role of individuals who played key historical roles relevant thereto. 

One can only hope that future historians have the intelligence and probity to recognize the true significance of Ardrey’s role.  He was a man of many hypotheses, and was quick to admit it when he was wrong.  However, regarding the key theme of his work, the profound influence of the innate on human behavior, he was right, and his detractors were wrong.  None were better than he at grasping the “big picture,” in the spirit of E. O. Wilson’s Consilience.  In the intervening years since his last book was published, we have witnessed what amounts, for the most part, to a triumphant vindication of his work.    As we have seen, his reward has been relegation to the status of an unperson. 

No doubt many others who recognized important truths about the human condition consigned themselves to oblivion, or bowdlerization, in the process.  Would you like to know what Hume, or Mill, or Huxley, or Spencer, or Read, or Keith, or Lorenz, or Ardrey really had to say about the subject?  There’s only one way to find out for sure.  Read them yourself.

“Sports Fandom” and the Unpersons of Evolutionary Psychology

I had to smile when I read an article on the website of the journal Evolutionary Psychology entitled “The Evolutionary Significance of Red Sox Nation: Sport Fandom as a Byproduct of Coalitional Psychology.” Here’s a blurb from the abstract:

Sport fandom has received considerable attention from social scientists, yet few have considered it from an evolutionary perspective. To redress this gap, we develop the hypothesis that team sports exhibit characteristics that activate mechanisms which evolved to facilitate the development of coalitions in the context of small-scale warfare.

What charming naiveté! Of course, according to the current narrative in the field, time did not exist before 1975. Then there was a “big bang” in the form of the publication by E. O. Wilson of Sociobiology, and all Evolutionary Psychology followed from that. In a way it’s almost unbelievable that the authors don’t know about the massive firestorm Konrad Lorenz unloosed among the orthodox back in the day when the “blank slate” was flying high by suggesting a hypotheses identical to theirs, and suggesting that, if true, it might be used as a means of controlling innate aggression.  For example, in On Aggression he wrote,

It was probably in highly ritualized but still serious hostile fighting that sport had its origin. It can be defined as a specifically human form of nonhostile combat, governed by the strictest of culturally developed rules.

…human sport is more akin to serious fighting than animal play is; also, sport indubitably contains aggressive motivation, demonstrably absent in most animal play.

The most important function of sport lies in furnishing a healthy safety valve for that most indispensable and, at the same time, most dangerous form of aggression that I have described as collective militant enthusiasm.

A typical, if somewhat jaundiced and ridiculous, orthodox response to such heretical ideas from a “right thinking” expert of the day may be found  in an essay published in 1968 by psychologist John H. Crook:

The behavior of crowds watching “conventionally” competitive sports often indicates the arousal of aggressive attitudes rather than their happy sublimation. Further, the behavior of players cannot always be recommended. The wanton destruction of train interiors by British football team supporters on the way to an “away” fixture certainly reveals a release of social tensions in what would appear to be highly convivial surroundings.

One can find many similar tart responses to Lorenz’ hypothesis in the work of the “experts” in human behavior of the day.  Oblivious to the work of the “great ancient ones” before the Wilson Big Bang, the authors of Red Sox Nation continue,

We propose that an evolutionary hypothesis—that sport fandom is the by-product of an evolved coalitional psychology—can address these issues and provide a more satisfying account of sport fandom than has been offered previously. More specifically, we hypothesize that although sport fandom may not provide net reproductive benefits in modern environments, it is the by-product of a suite of cognitive and affective adaptations that would have generally increased inclusive fitness during human evolutionary history. These adaptations would allow individuals to effectively form and maintain coalitions with others, especially men, in the context of inter-group conflicts, often based on recurrent episodes of overt aggression.

The claim that much modern group behavior can be understood as a manifestation of a coalitional (or “male warrior”) psychology has been developed and empirically supported in several recent studies (e.g., Bugental and Beaulieu, 2009; Johnson and van Vugt, 2009; van Vugt, De Cremer, and Janssen, 2007; Yuki and Yokota, 2009). We extend this logic to sport fandom and argue that specific aspects of coalitional psychology can yield sport fandom in appropriate contexts.

…and so on. It’s as if one had gone back in a time machine to the Soviet Union of the 1950’s and was listening to a Communist apparatchik tell you with a perfectly straight face that he’d never heard of a man named Trotsky.

Sorry guys, but your hypothesis is not novel. The Communists aren’t the only ones who had “unpersons.” The behavioral scientists of the 21st century have them as well, and the list includes the names “Konrad Lorenz” and “Robert Ardrey.”