Does it Matter if Evolutionary Anthropologists are Conservative?

In an article entitled “How Conservative are Evolutionary Anthropologists?,” recently published in the journal Human Nature, anthropologists Henry Lyle and Eric Smith of the University of Washington note that,

The application of evolutionary theory to human behavior has elicited a variety of critiques, some of which charge that this approach expresses or encourages conservative or reactionary political agendas.

Based on a survey of graduate students in anthropology, they triumphantly conclude that those who take an evolutionary approach (EA) to the subject are safely liberal, and as free of any taint of conservatism as their non-EA peers.  This begs the question, “So what?”  Does an evolutionary approach to anthropology become true or not true depending on whether the scientists taking that approach are liberal or conservative?  What if they had found the opposite to be the case?  Would that have discredited the whole field?

The accusation that an evolutionary approach to the study of human behavior implies a conservative and reactionary point of view is, of course, nothing new.  It is typically motivated by ideology, not science, and reflects the leftist world view of the accusers rather than the conservatism of those they attack.  Leftist ideologues have long been engaged in preparing utopias for the rest of us, most of which require radical and rapid changes in human behavior.  The projectors of these schemes reject innate behavior because they imagine it would render us unsuitable as inmates of their utopias.  As the collapse of Communism demonstrated, they imagine right, but that has hardly deterred the diehards among them.  Beyond a certain age, ideologues tend to become too “conservative” and “reactionary” to change.  Thus, such attacks will likely continue, at least until the current generation of leftists dies off.

Lyle and Smith are familiar with the quaint version of the “history” of these attacks from the left, as invented by Pinker and others.  As usual, this “history” begins with the publication of E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology.  In their words,

The roots of this controversy lie in the “sociobiology debate” of the 1970s and 1980s, one of the most divisive and politicized debates in the social sciences.  This debate was sparked by the release of E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology:  A New Synthesis.

Of course, anyone who has bothered to take a cursory glance at the historical source material is well aware that plenty of “sparks” were flying long before Wilson ever published Sociobiology.  For example, the most significant and influential proponent of the “evolutionary approach” in the 1960’s was Robert Ardrey.  Here are some of the “scientific criticisms” he was subjected to at the time:

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”).

These and many similar examples may be found in Man and Aggression, edited by Ashley Montagu, and published in 1968.  Latter day experts in the behavioral sciences have found it convenient to ignore these earlier “roots” of the controversy because a) Ardrey was right about the innate aspects of human behavior, b) the academic and professional “experts” of his day were almost universally and disastrously wrong, and c) Ardrey was a “mere playwright” before he started writing about anthropology.  Hence the revised version of history preferred by Lyle and Smith.

Things have changed drastically since Ardrey’s day.  The evolutionary approach is now main stream, as is evident from the flood of books and publications in academic journals on the subject, and its matter-of-fact acceptance in movies, TV, and the news media, as if it had never been in the least bit controversial.  In the end, the version of reality preferred by the ideologues of the left collapsed under the weight of its own absurdity.  That doesn’t mean that they won’t still be around for a long time, though.  After all, true believers in the divine right of kings were still extant more than 100 years after the French Revolution.  Apparently, Lyle and Smith believe the best way of dealing with their latter day analogs is to pander to them, protesting, for example, that,

Promotion of feminist, progressive, and/or anti-racist positions by EAs is certainly not rare or absent.

I suggest that it would be more effective to point out that, a) the nostrums proposed by leftist ideologues, such as Communism and the kinder, gentler version of socialism adopted in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in the decades immediately following World War II, have been remarkably ineffective in promoting “human flourishing,” that, b) while they have not empowered or enriched the poor and downtrodden, they have been highly effective at empowering the leftist ideologues who promised to “save” them, that, c) as pointed out by Jonathan Haidt and others, the “conservatives” and “reactionaries” reviled by the leftists have proven to be a great deal more genuinely charitable towards the less fortunate than they, and, d) under the circumstances their striking of pious poses is not only inappropriate but ridiculous.  In science, as in football, sometimes the best defense is a good offense.

…and One More Thing about Mencken

Occasionally Mencken’s American Mercury would include a section called the “Soapbox,” where lucky readers might find their letters to the editor.  One of them, signed by “A Reformed Psychologist” from Utica, NY, read as follows:

The great problem of psychology, during the next fifty years, will be to account for the fact that presumably rational beings once believed in some of the psychologies prevailing today.

The same could have been said fifty years later, when presumably rational beings believed,

The genetic contribution to man’s nervous system is virtually complete at birth.  Almost everything that happens thereafter is learned.  It is this consideration which inspires the modern anthropologist to declare that man has virtually no instincts, and that virtually everything he knows he has learned from his environment.  (Kenneth Boulding, Man and Aggression, p. 87)

The field studies of Schaller on the gorilla, of Goodall on the chimpanzee, of Harrisson on the orang-utan, as well as those of others, show these creatures to be anything but irascible.  All the field observers agree that these creatures are amiable and quite unaggressive.  (Ashley Montagu, Ibid., p. 12)

…human nature is what man learns to become as a human being.  As we trace the details of man’s evolutionary history we see that it is with the development of culture that man’s brain began to grow and develop in a simultaneous feedback interaction with culture as an organ of learning, retrieval, and intelligence.  Under the selection pressures exerted by the necessity to function in the dimension of culture, instinctive behavior would have been worse than useless, and hence would have been negatively selected, assuming that any remnant of it remained in man’s progenitors.  In fact, I also think it very doubtful that any of the great apes have any instincts.  On the contrary, it seems that as social animals they must learn from others everything they come to know and do.  Their capacities for learning are simply more limited than those of Homo sapiens.(Ashley Montagu, Ibid., p. 15)

If the Reformed Psychologist of 1933 were resurrected in our own time, he would likely be very disappointed.  No apology has been forthcoming from the psychologists, not to mention the anthropologists or sociologists, either for the silliness retailed as “science” cited above, or the earlier silliness of the Reformed Psychologist’s own time.  We have neither heard an apology, nor has there even been a serious attempt by behavioral scientists to study and understand their own behavior.  That’s why I have to smile whenever I hear them refer to themselves as “men of science.”  If they were truly “men of science” surely it would occur to them that they owe the rest of us a convincing explanation of how they could have been so wrong about so many things for so long.  But failure to provide an explanation for why they foisted nonsense that was palpably false on the rest of us as “science” for so long is not the worst of it.  The worst of it is that they vilified and shouted down anyone who disagreed with them as fascists, racists, Nazis, right-wing reactionaries, John Birchers, and any number of other unsavory epithets, as documented in that invaluable little piece of historical source material, Man and Aggression, and many other easily accessible books and other documents.  Are we to understand that this, too, was “good science”?  Under the circumstances, a certain degree of skepticism regarding theories coming from those quarters would seem justified.