Killer Apes — or Not?

on October 22, 2010

As I was heading off to bed after posting the previous entry, it occurred to me there’s yet another benefit to describing the expansion of modern humans out of Africa as a slow process of settling in to new environments, rather than a frantic race along the shoreline. But to explain why that is, I have to start a few decades back.

Perhaps the most controversial theory of human nature to come out of anthropology in the 1960’s was the so-called killer ape hypothesis. As summarized by Wikipedia, this hypothesis argued that “war and interpersonal aggression was the driving force behind human evolution. … The ancestors of humans were distinguished from other primate species by their greater aggressiveness. Furthermore, according to the theory, this aggression remains within humanity, which retains many murderous instincts.”

These ideas were far from universally accepted by anthropologists, but they took hold of the popular imagination at the end of the decade because they so perfectly fitted the mood of the time. Both liberals who despaired of the human propensity to violence and conservatives who saw “toughness” as a virtue were more than ready to believe that human history had been primarily shaped by aggressiveness and a struggle for dominance.

The opening sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) was an explicit artistic statement of this theory, with its depiction of an apeman being aroused by the black obelisk to the first stirrings of humanity — and immediately using his new-found intelligence to grab a bone that happens to be lying around and start smashing things. From that modest beginning, he quickly proceeds to standing upright, hunting fair-sized animals for food, and brutally murdering a member of a rival band.

If the director of 2001, Stanley Kubrick, had any reservations about the notion of an intimate connection between violence and higher human values, he’d gotten over them by the time of A Clockwork Orange (1971). In that film, the sociopathic “ultra-violence” of the protagonist is explicitly associated with both his love of classical music and his resistance to an authoritarian society that seeks to deprive him of free will.

Kubrick was not alone in this. A Clockwork Orange was part of a general wave of cinematic violence which crested in the early 70’s as the counterculture declined and the chaos vision fell into disillusionment and cynicism.

By the late 70’s, however, that moment of intense rage had passed. The chaos vision was shorn of its countercultural rebelliousness and joined to the democracy vision in a new dominant partnership that has provided the mainstream values of our culture for the last thirty years. But even after its domestication, chaos retained a dark, violent undercurrent, and the image of humans as hyper-intelligent killer apes has persisted as a justification for bad behavior ever since.

It is there, for example, in the ruthlessness of free market ideology. It is reflected in our endless string of discretionary wars. And the same violent strain is now being displayed increasingly openly as the dominant partnership collapses and chaos is freed from the restraining influence of the failing democracy vision.

And that is precisely why the difference between a short chronology of human expansion and a long chronology seems so crucial.

Anthropologists in general have long since thrown off the influence of the killer ape theory. The latest discoveries from Africa are coming to us in a context that emphasizes art, technology, and human creativity. And yet as soon as the narrative moves out of Africa, it tends to turn back into the same old tale of ruthless violence.

The most extreme form of the short-chronology scenario, which brings modern humans from Africa to Australia in just 10,000 years, offers something of the quality of an invasion. Onward the wave of migration presses, expanding far more quickly that could be justified by population pressure, sweeping aside the Neanderthals of the Middle East as it presses on to a final confrontation with Homo erectus in eastern Asia.

It may be no coincidence that this particular timetable was featured by National Geographic in January 2003, just as American and British forces were massing in the Middle East in preparation for the invasion of Iraq.

In contrast, the latest discoveries from the Middle East and India imply a far more leisurely and peaceful expansion — one in which modern humans gradually settled into new environments rather than plunging through them and were able to coexist with the earlier inhabitants to the point of interbreeding.

That story presents a very different picture of human nature and human potential — as does the entire narrative I’ve been attempting to present in this blog.

The ultimate question, I think, is whether our evolutionary success as humans has been predicated on a simple combination of intellect and violence, as 2001 suggested and as our behavior as a society has continued to affirm.

Or are we the product of an elaborate process of development over the last 3 or 4 million years — one that has consistently shifted its focus while retaining an emphasis on creative problem-solving and the emergence of new mental capacities?


A listing of all my posts on deep prehistory can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

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