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A Band Wagonload of Monkeys

The Imperial Animal

by Lionel Tiger, by Robin Fox
Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 368 pp., $6.95

Many educated people have lately been taking a passionate interest in books about the continuing influence of our early animal genesis on human social life. This interest in itself deserves study by social scientists and psychologists. Why did so many people buy Ardrey’s The Territorial Imperative, Lorenz’s On Aggression, and Morris’s The Naked Ape, for example, all published during 1966 and 1967, and all referring the human condition back to our animal and nonhuman primate biogenetic programming? My own experience suggests that the readers impressed by these books range from the political right to at least the disillusioned left, so clearly there can be no simple political explanation. But clearly also, for all of these readers there is an appeal, whether of justification or of hope or of despair, in oversimplifying the causes of the problems that beset mankind.

It was perhaps inevitable that professional research and achievement in the ethological study of the social life of birds and mammals, and particularly of the nonhuman primates, should be applied to the social life of humans in an easily grasped, reductionist form, as has every other major breakthrough in our understanding of some aspect of the development of life. This happened to Freudian insight, and it is beginning to happen to Skinnerian psychology. Sometimes, as in Freud’s less professional moments, and recently in Skinner’s, the original investigator may himself apply—or misapply—explanations for one set of facts to other quite different facts. At other times, an “outsider” does so.

Tiger and Fox are respectively a sociologist and a social anthropologist. They discuss the “[bio]grammatical processes” that, in their view, “united mankind into a body of people all speaking the same behavioral language” (p. 233); and they allege that the genetic basis of this language was established when our hominid ancestors became male hunters and female gatherers. But it is worth noting that for evidence they point to the research of primatologists and other ethologists, particularly on baboons, and to some work in physiology. Their use of their own knowledge of the variegated forms of human society is restricted to a few selected examples, is savagely reduced when they deal with hunting societies, and is reduced to absurdity when they deal with complex societies of the ancient world, of medieval periods, or of the industrial era. Or is this my impression because I happen to know more about human society than I do about that of nonhuman primates?

I must confess my own bias at once: I believe, with Durkheim, that each set of connections between events has its own explanations, and that it is as incorrect to explain the part by the whole as the whole by the part—however one defines part and whole. The connections between the one and the other are very complex and require detailed investigation, not facile extrapolation with multiple guessing. Other, related problems arise, which also cannot be handled by simple reduction or by generalized extrapolation.

Hence I am always suspicious of a book that brings to mind the old jingle: “For want of a nail the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe the horse was lost; for want of a horse the rider was lost; for want of a rider the battle was lost; for want of a battle the kingdom was lost”—ergo, the loss of the nail explains the loss of the kingdom and the nature of the political system itself. Nor do I believe that a study of the craft of making nails for horseshoes at that period would explain the political system—though all horses used in political battles were shod with nails.

Too much is explained by too little in this book. The American cabinet, the papal conclave, the order of authority in an army or a bureaucracy or factory may contain elements of domination and submission as does the male hierarchical order in a troop of baboons; and this order may somehow be genetically “programmed” into the basic “biogrammar” of human males—but that hypothesis is surely a starting-point for analysis, not an explanation of behavior in the American cabinet or the army.

Lest it be thought I am exaggerating what Tiger and Fox claim, here are only a few examples from The Imperial Animal: Males, they argue, formed bonds (or “bonded”) during the primeval hunting period. As a result, male “membership” in groups “is its own reward”

…even if the outcome is only a series of bull sessions and a lot of smoke. Often the group is simply an end in itself and seems to exist to satisfy a need to dress up in elaborate insignia of rank; to rank according to a hierarchy of statuses and complex rules…. Usually something else happens too. The group may plot to take over a government, or it may actually be the government and meet in friendly and confident encounters in cabinet chambers or the junta’s headquarters. [P. 96]

Again, “a large number of competing firms [under laissez-faire capitalism] replicates the hunting situation in many respects” (p. 140). But it is “the bosses [who] hunt and calculate, risk and fight, threaten and accommodate, run and pause” (p. 138) like hunters, until labor unions force better redistribution, which also marked the hunting societies (p. 140). In their origins unions were at first almost like outlaw (predatory hunter) bands (p. 14). There is a danger of stagnation “when the predatory infighting has been removed,” and “the cautious experiments at feeding competitive ‘capitalist’ mechanisms into otherwise socialized economies reflect a grudging recognition of the problem” (p. 141).

In short, many—but by no means all, let me hasten to add—of the statements made by Tiger and Fox about complex societies are the sorts of diagnoses that one may find in the correspondence columns of newspapers; one does not need skilled social scientists to “discover” them. There is no reference in detail to the effects of technology and organization, except for general statements that complex technologies, with large populations and resulting elaborate organization, go against the basic “biogrammar” of hominids, whose closely related males went hunting and did a little fighting, while the females collected vegetable foods and bore and raised children.

Since so much of the book is concerned with our genetic inheritance in the form of a hunting-primate “biogram,” I did in fact try to check Tiger and Fox’s use of the findings of primatologists. First, I noted that they nowhere explicitly discuss why they took “our cousins” the baboons, and mainly the Hamadryas baboons, as their model for the nature of ancient hominid society, of which we have only inferential knowledge, rather than great apes, who are structurally and biochemically closer to us. They make much of the manner in which the Hamadryas dominant male, in a one-male group, jealously guards his dependent harem of females by biting on the neck any that shows interest in another male, at least during her highly fertile estrous period: this is repeated several times and presumably connected with statements that women are in (all?) societies punished severely for adultery.

The gorilla, however, is more closely related to us. The dominant male was observed by Schaller to share his females with other males “magnanimously,” even though some were only temporary visitors, and this “helped to promote peace in the group. Eskimo and some other native peoples also found that it caused less dissension to share their wives with visitors than to have them taken by force.” (It is true that Schaller in 400 hours of observation saw only two copulations, and he is not altogether accurate about the Eskimo.)

The social life of the Hamadryas baboon is selected by Tiger and Fox as the prototype of hunting hominids’ social life, presumably on the grounds that hominids dwelt in savanna or open areas, and not in forests like our near cousins the great apes. Nevertheless one would expect them to discuss how far we can rely on a genetic biogrammatic analysis of human behavior that is drawn from baboons: the separation of apes from monkeys and baboons occurred probably more than thirty million years ago, and hominids are derived from the Pongidae (apes), perhaps some two to four million years ago, while “the psychological differences that so clearly separate the behavior of contemporary apes and that of man appear to have evolved long after the separation of the hominid line” (Washburn and Hamburg). I became suspicious when so crucial a step in the argument was skirted without any discussion of expert research on this important relation between the genetic biogrammars of the various nonhuman primates, or how they are considered to be adaptable through learning to different ecological situations.

I became more suspicious of The Imperial Animal as I pursued my reading of the work and opinions of ethologists and students of other primates. Here the manner in which Tiger and Fox cite their authorities is not calculated to allay suspicion. There are a large number of works referred to in footnotes, which give the names of authors and dates of their publications—but not one specific reference to a specific page. I checked on some, and found that the present authors at times cite as certainty what the original authorities stated to be matters of controversy (e.g., E.H. Lenneberg’s Biological Foundations of Language, 1967, where in the preface the author states: “The exact foundations are still largely unknown…. I have considered this book to be the right place to evaluate critically some of the most common claims relating to the biological nature of language”—an argument not discussed in this book).

Again, ten books and articles by Professor N. Tinbergen are listed in the bibliography, and on my count he appears six times in the footnote references. The last of his articles listed is his inaugural professorial lecture at Oxford, printed in Science (1968), 160, pp. 1411-1418. This is cited only once, in a blanket manner, where Tiger and Fox discuss how intra-group competition, taken to be a positive force for a species in aiding the process of natural selection, is often “ritualized.” There is no other reference to this address. But Tinbergen there says that though ethologists are delighted by the public’s response to books like Lorenz’s On Aggression and Morris’s The Naked Ape as showing growing interest in the subject, “the growing pains are at times a little hard to endure,” and he is “apprehensive.”

Tinbergen considers that those books emphasize “our” knowledge rather than “our” ignorance, “and, in addition, present as knowledge a set of statements which are after all no more than likely guesses…[and they] could stiffen, at a new level, the attitude of certainty, while what we need is a sense of doubt and wonder, and an urge to investigate, and enquire.” He continues, “What we ethologists do not want, what we consider definitely wrong, is uncritical application of our results to man.” Tinbergen goes on to discuss what, and how, ethology, as a method rather than as a set of results on other species, may be applied to the study of behavior in man. Since Tiger and Fox knew of the article, elementary scholarship, let alone the search for truth, requires that they should have cited Tinbergen’s clearly expressed qualms and doubts, instead of merely listing the article as if it supported their thesis.

Seven publications are listed under Professor S. L. Washburn’s name, and five on which he collaborated with others. In the work of this distinguished primatologist I found the same doubts Tinbergen had expressed. In one article he and Professor Hamburg emphasize the importance of learning as well as biological factors among the nonhuman primates, and the great influence of environment and ecology, while stressing that the differences in the social life of these nonhuman primates need much more study before we can generalize. They conclude that “the full description of natural behavior will raise many problems of interpretation that can only be settled by experiment.” This article is not specifically cited by Tiger and Fox although the entire book in which it appears is.

An essay by Professor J. H. Crook on “The Socioecology of Primates,” published in 1970 in Social Behaviour in Birds and Mammals (edited by Crook), was possibly not available to Tiger and Fox when their book went to press. In it, Crook concludes:

Almost all complex social behavior in nonhuman primates is under multifactorial control, cannot be fitted without distortion into any simple unitary explanation, and all hypotheses regarding causation must be taken as tentative at the present time. While the zoological perspective in social science is of major importance (Tiger and Fox, 1966), syntheses must await more critical research on the determinants of group characteristics. [Pp. 154-5]

Moreover, as against insistence by Tiger and Fox on male dominance and submission, Crook cites Gattlan for the authoritative statement that “clearly…attempts to analyse the social dynamics of primate groups in terms of dominance have proven inadequate.” More attention will have to be turned to roles, the social repertoire of an animal as a complete set of behavior styles, which are not fixed and immutable but which change through some kind of sorting process still to be understood.

A zoologist, Dr. John F. Eisenberg, reviewing Tiger and Fox’s book in Science (January 21, 1972, p. 289), suggests that it was conceived in the humanistic (presumably “non-scientific”) tradition, with a strong line of common sense running through it. He takes up their argument that the “agricultural leap backward” occurred only about 10,000 years ago and industrialism only 200 years ago, but that our brain is still “the old primate brain with an overlay of gray matter wrinkled into self-consciousness by the hunting transformation…. In our economic behaviour, as in so much else, we are still Palaeolithic hunters.” By contrast, Dr. Eisenberg says,

…in a recent publication (“Competitive and aggressive behaviour,” chapter 6 in Man and Beast, J. F. Eisenberg and W. S. Dillon, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1971) E. O. Wilson presents an argument which he summarizes in the statement, “There is every justification from both genetic theory and experiments on animal species to suppose that rapid behavioral evolution is at least a possibility in man. By rapid I mean significant alteration in, say, emotional and intellectual traits within no more than ten generations—or about 300 years.” The viewpoints presented by Tiger and Fox on the one hand and by Wilson on the other bracket the dilemma of human sociobiology. We simply do not know, at present, what biological limits are present within the “writing pattern” of man’s brain.

Wilson’s work was not available to Tiger and Fox. I cite it, as I did Crook, to show how very uncertain are the foundations on which Tiger and Fox have erected their biogrammatic synthesis, a synthesis in which they discuss most current social problems—with compassion, as the publishers say, but without the hardheadedness that is also attributed to them.

Dr. John Eisenberg implies that Morris’s and Ardrey’s books are less valuable than this book by Tiger and Fox because the latter is “unique” in drawing “heavily on the combined knowledge of anthropology and sociology”—subjects he presumably has not studied in detail. To correct my confessed bias, I have followed the authors a few steps into the literature on ethology, and found there many more doubts among the authorities than they admit. I am, so far as my own skills are concerned, equally dubious about their use of sociological and social anthropological authorities. From the vast corpus of Dr. Margaret Mead’s works, for example, they cite three, and refer to them only in support of their thesis, often when she also argues the contrary.

They argue that males undergo initiations into groups more often, and more severely, than females, for biogrammatical reasons: here they cite a study by Dr. Audrey Richards of initiation of girls among the Bemba to prove that female initiation is concerned with mating, without pointing out that her study discloses that Bemba initiation of girls is very important and complex, while there is no initiation of boys.

They cite my own work on what I called “rituals of rebellion” and on medieval English rebellions in arguing that when there is too much submission of subordinate males to superiors, the subordinates let off steam ritually. But they do not refer at all to my analysis of the sociotechnical background of such behavior. For example, the Bantu chiefs redistributed back to their people the tribute and trade goods they gathered. Together with other anthropologists, I related this to the limitations of what the rich can do with their surplus wealth if it consists of simple consumption goods that are not storable. In turn I related this to the cycle of rebellion in primitive societies. Tiger and Fox explain this redistribution casually, but casually, as a survival of the exchange that developed in the biogram of hunting-gathering hominid groups, since exchange is not reported even between sexes and adults and infants in other primates!

The evidence does not support their discussion of the effects of the biogram’s relatively “fragile bonds” of mating on marriage for all hunters; and when other types of societies are brought into consideration, their statements about the varieties of marital relationships, between societies and between individuals in the same society, can only be described as abysmally inadequate. They argue that accusations of witchcraft (often against close relatives) show that “the normal functioning of the social network has broken down, that mistrust and suspicion, deceit and accusation, have taken over from reciprocity and mutuality,” without giving any analysis of the genuine conflicts of interest and of organizing principle that are at work in the groups in question, although elsewhere in their study they argue that these groups give intensive “primate” support to all members.

I could continue listing examples of the biased and selective “basis” for many statements that are presented as facts. But since Tiger and Fox are intelligent and educated, presumably with much wrinkled gray matter in the forebrain, and since they are predatory hunters after arguments and facts, they necessarily raise many interesting issues, sometimes in an original way. This is often “the strong line of common sense” to which Dr. John Eisenberg refers. But one invariably gets lost in the extravagance of connecting simplified social forms with a simplified or alleged hunter-primate biogram.

One of their main arguments, as my citations from their work have shown, is that the behavior entailed in this biogram is frustrated by many of our present social arrangements, so that the result is “alienation”; and they do make interesting points in the course of this argument. For example, they point out that in our schools children are required to sit still to learn at an age when physiologically they should be allowed to move freely to learn. They then go on to say that it is “too simple, but not untrue, to say [that in our educational system] the boy loses early in the game because he is expected to behave like a girl, while the girl loses later in the game because she is expected to behave like a boy,” an analysis which does provoke thought, to say the least.

They make other valuable points. Yet one always ends with doubt. Their description of the almost universal division of labor between the sexes, and its long continuance, seems overwhelming: until one notes that they do not touch at all on analyses that have shown that tribal and early societies commonly, by belief and symbol, exaggerated the physical differences between men and women, and that these distinctions, within biological limits, have been attenuated with the economic advancement of society.

At one point Tiger and Fox tell us that competition between men over a woman entering their group can break up the group—because of the biogram; elsewhere we learn that the presence of an attractive woman in a group may stimulate male creativity—because of the biogram. Possibly both are true, but one would like a discussion of the conditions in which these contrary processes operate. Though emphasis is constantly on the biogram of the hunter-warrior, at one point they claim that hunter-warriors had to yield rights to allow contributions to the “genetic” pool from the intelligent so that the forebrain could develop. This generosity to intelligent breeders in the group of hunters is said to be in the biogram, but we cannot know how the strong agreed thus to give sexual precedence to the weaker, if possibly more intelligent.

Nor in their discussion of modern breeding do they question why those who seem “successful” in modern conditions should breed less than those who seem less successful. Man’s “species-specific” biogram is to be unspecific. I was reminded of W. H. R. Rivers, who tried to validate his reconstruction of the history of melanesian society by postulating the principle of “the disappearance of the useful arts.” According to this principle, if an artifact did not occur where he presumed there had been contact between peoples, one could say it had been there but had disappeared. If absence can prove the same thing as presence, anything goes.

It is a pity that Tiger and Fox were not more restrained and less ambitious in their effort to bring together the findings of ethology and social science. The work of scholars I have cited suggests that so far it cannot be done so sweepingly. It is possible perhaps for selected aspects of behavior: there are suggestions of this in the book, but the reader who picks them out has to check the references which are presented as the basis for categorical statements.

But restraint is not usually the way to write a popular work. As I see it, Tiger and Fox have jumped onto a band wagonload of monkeys—and as presented here, those monkeys are full of scientific mischief. They are also full of political mischief. We know how dangerous in other ways was the vulgarization of Freud. No wonder Tinbergen was apprehensive.

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