To most parents possessiveness and aggression in young children are self-evident. But Richard Pipes, the historian of the Soviet Union, finds that modern social science has denied these facts or refused to investigate themby Richard Pipes / March 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
For the past century a furious polemic has raged between two schools of thought on human behaviour. On the one side are biologists and, more recently, sociobiologists who view it as determined by a combination of genetic factors and cultural influences, clues to which can be found in the study of animals. On the other side are sociologists and cultural anthropologists for whom human behaviour is wholly, or almost wholly, shaped by our social and cultural environment. Emotions run high because at stake are fundamentally different visions of state and society.
In the second half of the 19th century, psychology was dominated by proponents of the biological school. Under the influence of Darwin, who had shown that human beings, like animals, are driven by instincts, William James formulated a psychological theory in which instinct was the driving force. The most influential champion of this approach was William McDougall, whose widely read Introduction to Social Psychology (1908) provided a catalogue of what he called “the principal instincts and emotions of man.” These included flight, repulsion, pugnacity and acquisitiveness, to which he later added laughter.
In the early years of the 20th century, however, the concept of “instinct,” and its corollary, “human nature,” ran into resistance. By the 1920s, it was totally driven from the field. Franz Boas, the founder of cultural anthropology, led the charge. Raised in a liberal Jewish family in Germany, he made it his life’s task to demolish theories that justified racism. With his disciples, he decoupled sociology from biology, banishing “instinct” and “human nature” from the academic vocabulary. Boas insisted that all human behaviour is conditioned by the environment.
These ideas dominate academic thinking to this day. The current edition of the Britannica refers the reader interested in “instinct” to the entry “animal behaviour.” And as for “human nature,” the computerised catalogue of the Harvard University Library, one of the richest in the world, when asked to provide titles on this subject, responds: “Your search revealed no items”!
For the disciples of Boas, acquisitiveness is a by-product of capitalism. They consider evidence of animal territorial impulses irrelevant to the understanding of human behaviour. Thus the late Cambridge professor Edmund Leach asserted 30 years ago that “no human society, ancient or modern, primitive or civilised, has ever developed customs which correspond at all closely to the stereotype of ‘territorial behaviour.'” Ignoring the record of warfare among primitive…