The Imperial Animal
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 …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.