Apparently it’s Eric Michael Johnson week here at Neuron Culture. Last Friday Johnson, who studies evolutionary anthropology and the history of science, wrote about the Allure of Gay Caveman. Today he published a magnificent cover story at Times Higher Education, “Ariel Casts Out Caliban,” that explores the long-running argument over whether humans are more like “killer apes” (a role played most recently by chimpanzees) or the more “peaceful” bonobos.
I love this piece partly because Johnson has the courage to draw heavily, right from the start, on history and even Shakespeare to set up a look at a recent PLoS Genetics paper comparing the genomes of these two great apes.
In 1607, after being held captive by the Portuguese in West Africa’s Congo Basin for nearly 18 years, the English sailor Andrew Battell returned home with lurid tales of “ape monsters”. The larger of the two creatures Battell described, according to the edited volume later published by travel writer Samuel Purchas, Purchas His Pilgrimes, “is in all proportion like a man”, but “more like a giant in stature…and has a man’s face, hollow-eyed, with long haire upon his browes”. These marauding beasts “goe many together, and kill many (villagers)…they are so strong, that ten men cannot hold one of them”. Battell’s narrative, much of which was received second hand and sure to be highly imaginative, was nevertheless one of Western society’s earliest introductions to our evolutionary cousins, the great apes.
Johnson then goes on to Shakespeare, suggesting the interesting possibility that Shakespeare may have drawn on recent ape discoveries in writing The Tempest, before drawing on some superbly colorful historical and literary quotes to show how the study of both other apes and pre-human ancestors such as Australopithecus africanus have repeatedly helped bolster a vision of humans as blood-thirsty folk who rose to dominance through violence. We g0, in fact, from Skakespeare to Kubrick. Johnson offers one of the best explications I’ve read of the famous bone-to-spaceship scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey
But by then the myth of the killer-ape had caught hold and Dart’s conjuration [of man’s rise through violence] had mesmerised millions. Already popular in comic books and adventure novels, now moviegoers witnessed the origin story of this monster in the opening sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Choreographed by Dart’s student Phillip Tobias, the scene depicts a ragged australopithecine who raises a discarded femur against his brother and employs it to commit the world’s first murder. Afterwards, in an ecstasy of violence, this would-be Cain hurls the bone skywards where, in a multimillion-year jump, it becomes an orbiting spacecraft. The metaphor is unmistakable: through aggression, selfishness and the tools of violence lay the secret to humanity’s success.
A key maxim in journalism is that you must justify the decision to publish any story by answering two questions: Why this story? Why now? If you can’t answer them both, you usually can’t sell the story. In this story, Johnson answers the second question — that is, he provides topicality — by providing a wonderful read of a recent PLoS Genetics study of the genomes of 186 primate species that seems to strengthen the argument that we’re closer to bonobos.
But the PLoS study, as valuable as it is, really serves almost as a coda to this article, which is eminently worthy based on just the first question above: Why this story? The recent PLoS Genetics study merely supplements and brings to date Johnson’s deeper historical look at how our views of human nature color our analyses of scientific findings about chimps, bonobos, gorillas, and other close relatives. This is rich, gorgeous, highly skilled writing, and I hope people take heed, for it shows how powerfully a historical and literary perspective can illuminate the way we do and interpret science now, whether the interpreter is a scientist or someone who tries to understand science. (The former being merely a highly schooled subset of the latter.) As Frans de Waal notes at one point in the article,
“Ever since Raymond Dart, anthropologists have been seriously invested in a theory of humans as aggressive, tying human progress to warfare and all of our accomplishments to defeating so-called ‘lesser’ tribes.”
Virtually everyone does this. Scientists, anthropologists, primatologists, politicians, polemicists, writers, and normal people have always drawn on findings from anthropology, archeology, ethology, and, now, genetics, to support particular views of human nature. Yet we all insist we’re just reading the evidence cleanly. The best try to also read the data the other way, too, against the grain of their own vision, to test their ideas as if they were trying to disprove them. Yet people inevitably tend to invest in interpretations of other species, and our relations to them, in a way that reflects their investment in the nature of our own species.
In the chimp v bonobo wars, of course, there’s always a danger the correction will lean too far the other way. Reading many of the entries in the ongoing chimp v bonobo tug of war, one can often sense a writer’s or a scientists’s investment in seeing humans as more peaceful than … well, than perhaps we really are. At one level — the level Johnson is working at here — it can be illuminating to argue we’re more like bonobos than we’ve tended to think, and certainly the vision of man as killer ape has needed checking. We’re not chimps. Yet we’re not bonobos, either. And I suspect that getting bogged down too long in an argument over which one we most resemble invites what may prove an unwinnable, endless argument — something like arguing whether a lemon is most like a lime or an orange.
Students of human nature, read Johnson’s article and learn more about us all. Students of writing, read it and learn the ringing depth that history and literature can add to writing about science.
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History and Science – like long lost brothers (or sisters …