Nature vs. Nurture at the Movies: Hollywood Turns on the Blank Slate

If Hollywood is any guide, we can put a fork in the Blank Slate.  I refer, of course, to the delusional orthodoxy that was enforced by the “Men of Science” in the behavioral sciences for more than half a century, according to which there is no such thing as human nature.  Consider, for example, the movie Divergent.  It belongs to the dystopian genre beloved of American audiences, and is set in post-apocalyptic Chicago.  A semblance of order has been restored by arranging the surviving population into five factions based on what the evolutionary psychologists might call their innate predispositions.  They include Candor, whose supreme values are honesty and trustworthiness, and from whose ranks come the legal scholars and lawyers.  The brave and daring are assigned to the Dauntless faction, and become the defenders of the little city-state.  At the opposite extreme is Amity, the home of those who value kindness, forgiveness and trust, and whose summum bonum is peace.  Their admiration for self-reliance suits them best for the agricultural chores.  Next comes Abnegation, composed of the natural do-gooders of society.  So selfless that they can only bear to look in a mirror for a few seconds, they are deemed so incorruptible that they are entrusted with the leadership and government of the city.  Finally, the intelligent and curious are assigned to the Erudite faction.  They fill such roles as doctors, scientists, and record-keepers.  They are also responsible for technological advances, which include special “serums,” some of which are identified with particular factions.  One of these is a “simulation serum,” used to induce imaginary scenarios that test a subject’s aptitude for the various factions.

As it happens, the simulation serum doesn’t always work.  When the heroine, Tris, takes the test, she discovers that she can “finesse” the simulation.  She is a rare instance of an individual whose nature does not uniquely qualify her for any faction, but who is adaptable enough to fit adequately into several of them.  In other words, she is a “Divergent,” and as such, a free thinker and a dire threat to anyone who might just happen to have plans to misuse the serums to gain absolute control over the city.

Alas, there’s trouble in paradise.  The “factions” are groups, and where there are groups, there are ingroups and outgroups.  Sure enough, each “in-faction” has its own “out-faction.”  This aspect of the plot is introduced matter-of-factly, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.  And, of course, since it can be assumed that the audience will consist largely of the species Homo sapiens, it is.  Most of us, with the exception of a few aging behavioral scientists, are familiar with the fact that it is our nature to apply different versions of morality depending on whether we are dealing with one of “us” or one of the “others.”  It turns out that Abnegation is the outgroup of Erudite, who consider them selfish poseurs, and weak and cowardly to boot.  That being the case, it follows that Abnegation is completely unsuited to run the government of Chicago or any other post-apocalyptic city state.  That role should belong to Erudite.

Which brings us, of course, to the “bad guy.”  You’ll never guess who the bad guy is, so I’ll just spill the beans.  It’s none other than Kate Winslet!  She plays the cold and nefarious Erudite leader Jeanine Matthews.  These smarties are planning to overthrow Abnegation and seize control for themselves with the aid of the martial Dauntless, whose members have been conveniently mind-controlled with the aid of one of Erudite’s serums.  Eventually, Jeanine unmasks Tris and her amorous partner, Four, as Divergents.  And with them in her power, she treats them to a remarkable soliloquy, which nearly caused me to choke on my butter-slathered popcorn.  Once Erudite is in the saddle, she explains, they will eliminate human nature.  Using a combination of re-education a la Joseph Stalin and mind control drugs, all citizens will become latter day versions of Homo sovieticus, perfectly adapted to fit into the Brave New World planned by the Erudites.  The utopia envisioned by generations of Blank Slaters will be realized at last!

There’s no need for me to reveal any more of the plot.  It’s a very entertaining movie so, by all means, see it yourself.  Suffice it to say that, if Hollywood now associates the denial of human nature with evil bad guys, then the Blank Slate must be stone cold dead.  Or at least it is with the exception of a few ancient Blank Slater bats still hanging in the more dark and obscure belfries of academia.

For the benefit of the history buffs among my readers, I note in passing that Hollywood never quite succumbed to Gleichschaltung.  They were always just a bit out of step, even in the heyday of the Blank Slate orthodoxy.  Consider, for example, Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 movie Straw Dogs.  It was directly inspired by the work of none other than that greatest of bête noires of the Blank Slaters, Robert Ardrey.  The first to taste of the forbidden fruit was Strother Martin, best known for his portrayal of the sadistic “Captain” in Cool Hand Luke (“What we have here is a failure to communicate”).  He, in turn, passed on Ardrey’s African Genesis to Peckinpah, with the remark that the two seemed to share similar attitudes about violence in human beings.  Peckinpah was fascinated, and later said,

Robert Ardrey is a writer I admire tremendously.  I read him after Wild Bunch and have reread his books since because Ardrey really knows where it’s at, Baby.  Man is violent by nature, and we have to learn to live with it and control it if we are to survive.

That statement, rough around the edges though it is, actually shows more insight into the thought of Ardrey than that revealed by about 99.9% of the learned book reviewers and “Men of Science” who have deigned to comment on his work in the ensuing 45 years.  Specifically, Peckinpah understood that Ardrey was no “genetic determinist,” and that he believed that aggressive human predispositions could be controlled by environment, or “culture.”  As it happens, that is a theme he elaborated on repeatedly in every one of his books.  The theme of Straw Dogs was taken directly out of The Territorial Imperative.  According to Ardrey,

There is a law of territorial behavior as true of the single roebuck defending his private estate as it is of a band of howling monkeys defending its domain held in common.  Huxley long ago observed that any territory is like a rubber disc:  the tighter it is compressed, the more powerful will be the pressure outward to spring it back into shape.  A proprietor’s confidence is at its peak in the heartland, as is an intruder’s at its lowest.  Here the proprietor will fight hardest, chase fastest.

In Straw Dogs, Peckinpah’s diminutive hero, timid mathematician David Sumner, played by Dustin Hoffman, travels from the sheltered campus of an American university to be with his young wife, Amy, in her native village in England.  To make a long story short, she is raped by three of the locals.  Eventually, these muscular miscreants are joined by other townspeople in besieging Sumner in his territory, his house, in the mistaken belief that he is knowingly harboring a murderer.  Ardrey’s territorial boost takes over with a vengeance, and Sumner draws on unimagined reserves of strength, courage, and resourcefulness to annihilate the attackers one by one.  As badly behind the PC curve as any Disney film, Hollywood eventually repented and in 2000 churned out an alternative version of Straw Dogs, in which all the violent behavior was “learned.”  By then, however, getting in step meant getting out of step.  Even the Public Broadcasting Network had given the Blank Slate the heave ho years earlier.

Straw Dogs was hardly the first time Hollywood took up the subject of nature versus nurture.  For those whose tastes run more to the intellectual and profound, I have attached a short film below dealing with that theme that predates Peckinpah by almost a quarter of a century.

“Grounds of War” – A New Paper on Territoriality with Remarkable “Similarities” to the Work of Robert Ardrey

Robert Ardrey was a brilliant man.  After a successful career as a playwright, he became an anthropologist, and wrote a series of four books in the 60’s and 70’s refuting the absurd orthodoxy of the Blank Slate that prevailed at the time.  In other words, to the tune of vociferous abuse from the “men of science” in psychology, sociology, anthropology, and the rest of the behavioral sciences, he insisted that there actually is such a thing as human nature.  The abuse was an honor Ardrey well deserved, because he proved to be a very potent antidote to the Blank Slate nonsense, perhaps the most remarkable perversion of science of all time.  Indeed, he was the most influential and effective opponent of the Blank Slate in its heyday.  That fact was nicely documented by the Blank Slaters themselves in an invaluable little collection of essays entitled Man and Aggression.  The book, which appeared in 1968, was edited by arch-Blank Slater Ashley Montagu, and was aimed mainly at Ardrey, with a few barbs reserved for Nobel laureate Konrad Lorenz, and with novelist William Golding thrown in for comic effect.  As I write this, used copies are still available at Amazon for just a penny.  In case you happen to be hard up for cash, here’s a quote from the book taken from an essay by psychologist Geoffrey Gorer:

Almost without question, Robert Ardrey is today the most influential writer in English dealing with the innate or instinctive attributes of human nature, and the most skilled populariser of the findings of paleo-anthropologists, ethologists, and biological experimenters… He is a skilled writer, with a lively command of English prose, a pretty turn of wit, and a dramatist’s skill in exposition; he is also a good reporter, with the reporter’s eye for the significant detail, the striking visual impression. He has taken a look at nearly all the current work in Africa of paleo-anthropologists and ethologists; time and again, a couple of his paragraphs can make vivid a site, such as the Olduvai Gorge, which has been merely a name in a hundred articles.

…he does not distort his authorities beyond what is inevitable in any selection and condensation… even those familiar with most of the literature are likely to find descriptions of research they had hitherto ignored, particularly in The Territorial Imperative, with its bibliography of 245 items.

Of course, we now live in more enlightened times, and the Blank Slate collapsed under the weight of its own absurdity years ago.  In a word, the life work of Robert Ardrey has been heroically vindicated, no?  Well, not exactly.  You see, the “men of science” could never forgive Ardrey, a mere playwright, for shaming them.  Indeed, Steven Pinker, one of the tribe, went to the trouble of writing a remarkable revision of history entitled, appropriate enough, The Blank Slate, in which he actually performed the feat of completely ignoring Ardrey, other than in a single paragraph in which he claimed, on the authority of Richard Dawkins, that Ardrey had been “totally and utterly wrong!”  It’s like writing that Einstein was “totally and utterly wrong” about relativity because he didn’t think right about quantum theory.  I won’t go into the specious reasons Pinker used to fob off this gross imposture on his readers.  I’ve gone into them in some detail, for example, here and here.  Suffice it to say that Ardrey’s support for the theory of group selection had much to do with it.

Fast forward to 2014.  Two Oxford academics by the names of Monica Duffy Toft and Dominic Johnson have just published a paper in the journal International Security entitled Grounds of War; The Evolution of Territorial Conflict (hattip hbd-chick).  And what is it about that title that brings Ardrey to mind?  Ah, yes, as those familiar with his work will recall, he wrote a book entitled The Territorial Imperative, published back in 1966.  As it happens, the “similarities” don’t end there.  Allow me to point out some of the others that appear in this “original” paper:

Toft & Johnson:  Territorial behavior—or “territoriality”—is prevalent not only among humans, but across the animal kingdom. It has evolved independently across a wide range of taxonomic groups and ecological contexts, whether from the depths of the ocean to rainforest canopies, or from deserts to the Arctic tundra. This recurrence of territoriality suggests evolutionary “convergence” on a tried and tested strategic solution to a common environmental challenge. Organisms have tended to develop territoriality because it is an effective strategy for survival and maximizing “Darwinian fitness” (reproduction).

Ardrey:  Territorial behavior in animals, of the past few decades, has attracted the attention of hundreds of competent specialists who have recorded there observations and their reasoned conclusions in obscure professional publications.  The subject is very nearly as well known to the student of animal behavior as is the relation of mother and infant to the student of human behavior.  Furthermore, many of the concerned scientists, as we shall see, believe as do I that man is a territorial species, and that the behavior so widely observed in animal species is equally characteristic of our own.

Toft & Johnson:  Across the animal kingdom, holders of territory (or “residents”) tend to have a higher probability of winning contests, even against stronger intruders. Territoriality is thus heavily influenced by who was there first.

Ardrey:  We may also say that in all territorial species, without exception, possession of a territory lends enhanced energy to the proprieter.  Students of animal behavior cannot agree as to why this should be, but the challenger is almost invariably defeated, the intruder expelled.

Toft & Johnson:  Territoriality does not necessarily lead to violence. Indeed, biologists regard it as a mechanism that evolved to avoid violence.  By partitioning living space according to established behavioral conventions, animals can avoid the costs associated with constant fighting. Furthermore, although discussions of territorial behavior tend to focus on aggression, territorial behavior has two distinct components: attack and avoidance. Residents tend to attack in defense of their territory (fight), intruders tend to withdraw (flight).

Ardrey:  The territories of howler (monkey) clans are large, the borders vague.  But clans have only to sight each other in this no man’s land and total warfare breaks out.  Rage shakes the forest.  That rage, however, takes none but vocal expression… Should intrusion occur, these voices joined will be the artillery of battle.  And strictly in accord with the territorial principle, the home team will always win, the visiting team will always withdraw.

I could multiply such “similarities” into the dozens.  Far be it for me, however, to charge the two authors with anything so crude as plagiarism.  Indeed, Toft and Johnson actually do take care to cite Ardrey.  Here’s what they have to say about him:

The idea that evolution helps to explain human territorial behavior is not new. Robert Ardrey’s popular book The Territorial Imperative, published in the 1960s, championed the role of territorial instincts in human conflict. This account, however, suffers from some now outdated views of evolution, for example, the idea that behaviors are “hard-wired,” or that they evolved because they helped the group or the species as a whole.

Here we find Toft and Johnson squawking to order like two Pinkeresque parrots.  One must charitably assume that neither of them has ever actually read Ardrey, because otherwise one cannot construe this bit as other than a mendacious lie.  This is what the two have to say about what they mean by the term “hard-wired”:

As with many other human traits, territoriality might be loosely considered not as “hard-wired” but as “soft-wired”—a component of human nature but one that is responsive to prevailing conditions. Power, rational choice, domestic politics, institutions, and culture are of course important as well in explaining territorial conflict, but evolutionary biology can provide additional explanatory power.

I’m not sure if Ardrey ever even used the term “hard-wired,” but if he did it certainly wasn’t in the sense that Toft and Johnson use it.  He constantly and repeatedly insisted on the “soft-wired” nature of human behavioral predispositions.  For example, from The Territorial Imperative:

The open instinct, a combination in varying portion of genetic design and relevant experience, is the common sort in all higher animal forms.  As beginning with the digger wasp we proceed higher and higher in the animal orders, the closed instinct all but vanishes, the open instinct incorporates more and more a learned portion.  In man it reaches a maximum of learning, a minimum of design.

There are many similar passages in Ardrey’s work.  Turning to the next charge, I know of nothing therein that suggests that he ever believed that selection actually took place at the species level.  He did occasionally point out the obvious truth that various behavioral traits tend to benefit a species as a whole rather than harm it, but the claim that this amounts to support for species-level selection is nonsense.  Readers can check this for themselves by reading, for example, the last page of Chapter 3, section 2 of The Territorial Imperative.  Ardrey did support theories of group selection.  So did Darwin.  So did E. O. Wilson in his latest book, The Social Conquest of Earth.  Does that fact also disqualify those two from any claim to their own ideas?  What’s next?  Will Toft and Johnson come up with an “original” theory of evolution by natural selection.  Perhaps they could even write a book about it.  Allow me to suggest the title On the Origin of Species.  They could follow that with their own versions of Wilson’s Sociobiology and On Human Nature.

The saddest thing about it all is that Toft and Johnson are likely to get away with this revision of history a la Dawkins and Pinker.  After all, the academics and other “men of science” hate Ardrey.  How dare he be right when almost all of them were embracing the mirage of the Blank Slate!  How dare a mere playwright do such a thing?

Robert Ardrey
Robert Ardrey