Fábregas-Tejeda on Weidman, 'Killer Instinct: The Popular Science of Human Nature in Twentieth-Century America'

Nadine Weidman
Alejandro Fábregas-Tejeda

Nadine Weidman. Killer Instinct: The Popular Science of Human Nature in Twentieth-Century America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2021. 368 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-674-98347-2

Reviewed by Alejandro Fábregas-Tejeda (Ruhr University Bochum & Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research) Published on H-Sci-Med-Tech (January, 2023) Commissioned by Penelope K. Hardy (University of Wisconsin-La Crosse)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=56881

Give In to Our Beastly Nature, or How the "Pop Science" of What Makes Us Human Rose to Prominence

Nadine Weidman’s Killer Instinct: The Popular Science of Human Nature in Twentieth-Century America offers important clues into how the popular science of “human nature” captured the public imagination. With this book, Weidman delves into the purportedly obscure depths of our human evolutionary history that no civilizing effort can ultimately alter or tame: we, members of the species Homo sapiens, are said to be inescapably violent and selfish by nature; beastly by our line of descent; killers in potentia by an instinct that cuts across cultures, upbringings, and societies, which we desperately try to keep at bay. Where, she asks, did those beliefs and entrenched ideas about our shared nature come from, and why do so many people, within and outside scientific communities, take the reifications of our worst tendencies as set-in-stone biological truths?

The first arc of the book (chapters 1 through 4) unfolds around the persuasive endeavors of Austrian zoologist Konrad Lorenz, pioneer of the science of ethology and winner of the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his imprinting studies of Greylag geese, and Broadway playwright and science popularizer Robert Ardrey, inkslinger of the bestselling volumes African Genesis (1960) and The Territorial Imperative (1966). The counterpoint to Lorenz and Ardrey’s vantage point of humans as aggressive and violent was British American anthropologist Ashley Montagu’s perspective of humans’ “cooperative drive,” introduced in chapter 4 (p. 106). This first arc serves as the backdrop to the so-called Aggression Debate that took place from 1966 to 1976, while the second arc (chapters 5 through 7) encompasses the clashes between Lorenz, Ardrey, and Montagu and the legacies of this polarizing debate embodied in the academic strife over sociobiology in the 1970s.

Chapter 1 covers how ethology rose to public prominence. Weidman shows Lorenz and Ardrey as skillful narrators who “presented a democratic vision of science deliberately calculated to appeal to lay readers” (p. 9). Lorenz inverted the usual epistemic hierarchy of science requiring esoteric expertise and invited everyone to partake in ethology. People inspired by his fabulations could practice ethological observations in their own homes through “animal keeping” (p. 18). By relying on the concept of “instinct,” Lorenz and Ardrey imbued their perspectives with political undertones. Weidman argues that Lorenz framed ethology as a way of uncovering observable “instinctive behavior patterns,” which were held to be invariant, emotion driven, and species specific (p. 23). During his troublesome Nazi period, Lorenz argued against domestication and other trends of Western civilization that led to the loss of instinctive patterns and the blossoming of the killing instinct.

Decades later, Lorenz returned to the instinct concept to advance a new political agenda, covered in chapter 2. Weidman recounts how Lorenz, turned “social prophet” in the nuclear anxieties-ridden postwar world, pushed for explicitly recognizing and accommodating our aggression instinct (p. 49). Instead of letting aggression accumulate and explode in violent outbursts, we should transmogrify it into a productive force for good, thus transforming a looming doom into a happy ending where concord and peace could thrive. Chapter 2 also covers the alliance between Lorenz and psychoanalyst Anthony Storr to borrow epistemic credibility from each other to convince the public that this stance on human nature was correct.

Chapter 3 chronicles how Ardrey became a science popularizer. He juxtaposed Raymond Dart’s paleoanthropological ruminations with ethology by claiming that both supported the same conclusion: something violent—homicidal even—was bequeathed to us by our evolutionary past. (Who can forget the alluring opening scene of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey [1968], substantially inspired by Ardrey’s books?) This had broader political consequences: our natural dictates are socially dampened and organized through the assertion of private ownership, Ardrey contended, so the Cold War should be resolved in favor of Western capitalist democracies. This, after all, was the “true mirror” of how human societies had (supposedly) sprung in the dawn of time (p. 87).

Chapter 4 recounts the ascent of the main opposing position to the killer instinct, namely, the “cooperative drive,” which coincided with the former in many important dimensions, such as a staunch biological essentialism that translated into an unquestionable “human nature” (p. 106). Weidman focuses on Montagu’s conviction that the biological nature of humans is altruistic and kind, with a strong penchant for cooperation and mutual aid. Montagu was influenced by the so-called peace biologists of the 1940s, and he later established an important collaboration and friendship with the sociologist Pitirim Sorokin, founder of the “science of amitology” at Harvard University (pp. 110, 261).

Chapter 5 opens the book’s second arc with the bitter ten-year-long Aggression Debate, pitting Lorenz and Ardrey against Montagu (and their respective allies, such as Philip Wylie on the side of the ethologists and T. C. Schneirla and Daniel Lehrman in the opposing camp). Montagu disavowed his previous essentialist ontological commitments and disputed the existence of instincts altogether to deflate the aggressionist position, thus defending a form of unbridgeable human exceptionalism with regard to behavioral plasticity and learning capacities. Ardrey ridiculed him as an extreme, naive “environmentalist” who claimed that behavior was completely untethered from biological substrates. Weidman makes the case that the debate thus shifted from a debate between “rival essentialisms—in which the antagonists could agree on certain basic assumptions”—to “a conflict between extremes, in which the antagonists could agree on nothing” (p. 144).

In the second round of the debate and in the wake of his 1973 Nobel Prize, Lorenz’s Nazi past faced inevitable public scrutiny. The political undercurrents of this altercation were quite thorny. Lorenz and Ardrey were painted as fascists, racists, and social Darwinists, two stubborn genetic determinists who foolishly ruled out all causal roles for environments, experience, learning, and nurture. In turn, Montagu was portrayed as a communist, unhinged environmentalist, and “behaviorist,” in an overall rhetorical strategy deployed to undermine his credibility. Weidman convincingly shows that these influential popularizers (re)enacted the nature-nurture dichotomy in facile political coordinates: the right wing warding off human nature versus the left wing standing for nurture and environmental openness. This ideological framing was “the result of the aggression debate, and not its cause,” Weidman maintains, and “did a disservice to both sides” (p. 184).

The Aggression Debate was never settled, but it lost momentum by 1976. The book’s final chapters deal with the aftermaths of this public confrontation through the controversy surrounding the rise of Edward O. Wilson’s sociobiology. Chapter 6 clarifies the relationship between Wilson’s approach and Lorenzian ethology, as sociobiology became more and more akin to pop ethology, including having a normative bent on how human societies should be organized. Wilson wanted to tap the same reader market that pop ethologists had enraptured, while asserting that sociobiology was “value-free” and “apolitical” (p. 204). Despite these claims of objectivity, Wilson constantly used value-laden terms (such as “slavery,” “despotism,” “rampant machismo,” and “xenophobia”) to describe animal behaviors and activities (p. 212). His pretense of advancing a sociobiology unaccompanied by moral tinges and normative import resolutely misrepresented his actual science.

Weidman demonstrates that in his enterprise to synthesize (and subordinate) the social and human sciences with biological disciplines, Wilson stepped onto “an already polarized battleground” and reignited the antagonistic positions of the aggression quarrel (p. 185). He should not have been surprised by the political backlash and bickering that ensued, Weidman argues. We also learn that Wilson and Ardrey had already clashed on the notion of aggression and the proper locus of group selection before Wilson published his sociobiology trilogy. At the base of this polemic were, as Weidman hints, “all the elements that went into creating sociobiology” some years later (p. 197). Hence, Weidman disputes the traditional historiography according to which Wilson erected sociobiology in order to broach the evolutionary puzzle of altruism. In fact, when sociobiology came under attack by such biologists as Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin, Wilson turned to Ardrey’s work to defend the stronghold of “human nature.” By the late 1970s, “perhaps fearing that too much emphasis on variability and adaptation could be mistaken for environmentalism,” Wilson joined his forerunners in the Aggression Debate asserting the existence of species-typical, genetically determined social behaviors (p. 213).

Chapter 7 accentuates the originality of Weidman’s book within the historiography, when she delineates how gender intersected with these controversies. She covers the criticisms of the Sociobiology Study group (in terms of biological determinism, racism, and classism) and the identification by a group of feminist scientists who formed the Genes and Gender Collective of the sexist biases of Wilson’s proposals (including gender essentialism, trafficking pernicious stereotypes, and justifying the subjugation of women). Weidman traces the convergences and divergences between these two opposing camps and what emerged from these tensions, and she offers a detailed portrayal of Austrian American biologist Ruth Hubbard’s pioneering critique against sociobiology.

An important argument of Weidman’s book is that “there was nothing inevitable or automatic about the ascent to popularity of a science of animal behavior”; indeed, pop ethologists were “active agents in their own ascent” (pp. 18, 6). They deliberately capitalized on their authorial personae and sociopolitical context to gain fame, power, and far-reaching influence. The leitmotif of the popularization of the sciences of human nature in the hands of nonspecialists touches on an unsettled issue for contemporary science communication. For Ardrey, “dramatists and generalists must be in charge, the public must be the judge, popularization must be its vehicle, and the elite scientists must take a back seat” (p. 94). What are the arguments for embracing or resisting this viewpoint in the context of the democratization of science debates of the twenty-first century?

Another leitmotif of Weidman’s book is what I rephrase as the “gendered nature of human nature.” We see it, for instance, in Montagu’s assertion that women had a particular place in society “as a result of their natural superiority in nurturance,” a claim that “continued to do political work ... deriving prescriptions for human society from assumptions about human nature” (p. 131). The gendered dimension also factored importantly during the Aggression Debate, especially with respect to the issues of male bonding through violence and traditional division of labor, assumptions that were subjected to feminist criticism. In chapter 7, Weidman articulates very well the gendered assumptions of all of these discussions and their roles in the dispute over sociobiology.

In general, Weidman deserves praise for her rigorous historiography. The book reads so well and smoothly that it could be approached by anyone, although it will certainly appeal more to a wide range of academics, including historians of biology, practicing behavioral scientists, anthropologists, psychologists, philosophers of the behavioral sciences, historiographers of popular science, science communicators, sociologists of science, scholars interested in the rhetoric and narrative structure of scientific texts, and historians of the human and social sciences. Perhaps the book’s approachability and wide appeal is an outcome of Weidman having read so many science popularizers while preparing this work.

I have few criticisms of this excellent piece of scholarship. The narrative of the first pages of chapter 4 feel disconnected from what comes before, and this chapter’s pacing is not as engaging as other parts of the book. Weidman never quite discusses what differentiates “pop science” knowledge from run-of-the-mill scientific knowledge, even though this is one of the book’s stated objectives. Epistemological discussions beyond the historical narration of how certain beguiling actors advanced their claims, secured allies and trustworthiness, and enraptured the public would have been useful. Indeed, the central question laid out in the introduction—“How did the creators of this genre make their knowledge?”—gets only a partial answer in this book (p. 2). For instance, Weidman hints that, in popular knowledge making about human nature, debates of contrasting positions that purport to account for the same explananda are never fully settled, given that the empirical evidence available is never enough to adjudicate controversies about human nature that tend to rely heavily on readers’ previous intuitions and axiological and ideological commitments. These theses could have been fleshed out more. We still lack a thorough exploration of the epistemology of pop science (perhaps a common ground for philosophers of science and historians to collaborate on in the future).

Furthermore, I would have enjoyed reading Weidman’s reflections on our present juncture beyond fleeting mentions of evolutionary psychology and popular primatology in the final pages of the book. The issue of what constitutes human nature (or the lack thereof) is still a topic of contention over which much ink is spilled. Weidman’s book provides a good background to this vexing problem, revealing its long-standing historicity and the contexts and motives that have guided scientists to pose the question in the first place. This book has so much to contribute to contemporary debates that it is a shame this facet was not explored further.

At any rate, Weidman’s book is a solid account of how and why the concept of a universal human nature radically changed its political valence within a couple of decades, from providing “a bulwark of liberalism” in the 1950s to being tied in the 1970s “to the support of the status quo and considered a roadblock to any social change” (p. 264). This is something we ought to remember and foreground more often. A lesson for us is that, given that the nature-nurture dichotomy still haunts us, we should avoid polarization and facile political coordinates. It is in our hands to stop reenacting the vices of the past.

Citation: Alejandro Fábregas-Tejeda. Review of Weidman, Nadine, Killer Instinct: The Popular Science of Human Nature in Twentieth-Century America. H-Sci-Med-Tech, H-Net Reviews. January, 2023. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=56881

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