Are people or humanoids prevalent in our population and why? (FRANS DE WAAL)

Are people or humanoids prevalent in our population and why? (FRANS DE WAAL)

With its gas chambers, mass executions, and willful destruction, World War II was human behavior at its worst. Moreover, when the Western world took stock after the dust had settled, it was impossible to ignore the savagery that had been committed in the heart of Europe by otherwise civilized people. Comparisons with animals were ubiquitous. Animals lack inhibitions, the argument went. They lack culture, so it must have been something animal-like, something in our genetic makeup that had burst through the veneer of civilization and pushed human decency aside.

This “veneer theory,” as I call it, became a dominant theme in the postwar discussion. Deep down, we humans are violent and amoral. A stream of popular books explored this issue by proposing that we have an uncontainable aggressive drive that seeks an outlet in warfare, violence, and even sports. Another theory was that our aggressiveness is novel, that we are the only primates that kill their own kind. Our species never had the time to evolve the appropriate inhibitions. As a result, we don’t have our fighting instinct under control as much as “professional predators” like wolves or lions. We’re stuck with a violent temper that we’re ill-equipped to master.

It is not hard to see the beginnings here of a rationalization of human violence in general and the Holocaust in particular.

Robert Ardrey, an American journalist, inspired by speculations that Australopithecus must have been a carnivore who swallowed his prey alive, dismembering them limb from limb, slaking his thirst with warm blood. Drawn from studies of a few skull bones, this was an imaginative conclusion, but Ardrey based his killer ape myth on it. In African Genesis, he painted our ancestor as a mentally deranged predator upsetting the precarious balance of nature. In Ardrey’s demagogic prose, “We were born of risen apes, not fallen angels, and the apes were armed killers besides. And so what shall we wonder at? Our murders and massacres and missiles, and our irreconcilable regiments?”

It’s hard to believe, but the next wave of pop biology managed to go beyond this. Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene taught us that since evolution helps those who help themselves, selfishness should be looked at as a driving force for change rather than a flaw that drags us down. We may be nasty apes, but it makes sense that we are, and the world is a better place for it.

A tiny problem—pointed out to no avail by nitpickers—was the misleading language of this genre of books. Genes that produce successful traits spread in the population and hence promote themselves. But to call this “selfish” is nothing but a metaphor. A snowball rolling down the hill gathering more snow also promotes itself, but we generally don’t call snowballs selfish. Taken to its extreme, the everything-is-selfishness position leads to a nightmarish world. Having an excellent nose for shock value, these authors haul us to a Hobbesian arena in which it’s every man for himself, where people show generosity only to trick others. Love is unheard of, sympathy is absent, and goodness a mere illusion. The best-known quote of those days, from biologist Michael Ghiselin, says it all: “Scratch an altruist, and watch a hypocrite bleed.”

We should be happy that this dark, forbidding place is pure fantasy, that it differs radically from the actual world in which we laugh, cry, make love, and fawn over babies. Authors of this fiction realize this and sometimes confide that the human condition is not as bad as they make it sound. The Selfish Gene is a good example. Having argued that our genes know what is best for us, that they program every little wheel of the human survival machine, Dawkins waits until the very last sentence of his book to reassure us that, in fact, we are welcome to chuck all those genes out the window: “We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.”

And so the end of the twentieth century emphasized our need to rise above nature. This view was advertised as Darwinian, even though Darwin had nothing to do with it. Darwin believed, as I do, that our humaneness is grounded in the social instincts that we share with other animals. This is obviously a more optimistic view than the one proclaiming that we “alone on earth” can overcome our basic instincts. In the latter view, human decency is no more than a thin crust—something we invented rather than inherited. And each time we do anything less than honorable, veneer theorists will remind us of the dreadful core underneath: “See, there’s human nature!”

For millions of years before, our ancestors may have led an easygoing existence in small groups of hunter-gatherers who had little to fight over, given how thinly populated the world was then. This would by no means have kept them from conquering the globe. It’s often thought that survival of the fittest means wiping out the unfit. But one can also win the evolutionary race by having a superior immune system or by being better at finding food. Direct combat is rarely the way one species replaces another. Thus, instead of annihilating the Neanderthals, we may simply have been more resistant to the cold or have been better hunters.

 

 

 

 

Our Inner Ape 
Frans De Waal



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