Friday, January 21, 2011

Of Ape and Man: How much can our primitive ancestors inform the origins of human behavior?

While reading Demonic Males by Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson, I was convinced by the lead author and researcher’s anecdotal approach to the scientific study of natural aggression in male apes.  Wrangham’s connection between chimpanzee and primitive human behavior construct a riveting plot journeying through time, culture, and species.  In a quest to discover the origins of human violence, a turn towards our kin-species seems to abstract the nature of violence from many of the complications surrounding current human aggression and elucidate the base motivations for such behavior.  Additionally, the accessibility of the scientific and genetic evidence make Wrangham’s suggestions appear completely plausible.  With his experience among the demonic male chimpanzees and his observations of the peaceful bonobos, Wrangham offers his solution to human violence--a universal, psychological renaissance that would establish a  monarchial, homogeneous (yet, peaceful) one-world order.  Yet, not until the conclusion of my reading, in considering this grave outlook, did certain problematic assumptions that led to this suggestion cause me to question their validity.  
Firstly, the genetic evidence that man and ape are distant evolutionary relatives is not a point of contention for most, yet much of Wrangham’s attention focuses on this intent.  By offering superfluous and redundant scientific evidence of this connection, the reader makes that same as sumptuous jump as the author has made.  Although genetics, anatomy, social characterization and mating habits all link apes to man, no substantial scientific documentation records at what point in history certain evolutionary differentiation took place.  For example, specific chimpanzees communities have recently been discovered to exhibit intra-communal and inter-relational aggression.  Based on common ancestry, Wrangham projects that this phenomenon, also found in human behavior, links humans more closely to the chimpanzee species.  However, evidence of species differentiation producing common evolutionary occurrences would debunk this theory.  Not only does the author fail to mention the possibility that violence in apes and males originated as a distinct responses, but Wrangham enthusiastically concludes that the peaceful variations within the bonobo species result from a preferable evolutionary cycle--a cycle he separates from man’s evolution.  Basically, I cannot make the hypothetical leap from a modern species of apes to our primitive evolutionary primates and back to contemporary behavioral aggression without the connections that show homo sapiens’ specific divergence from either the violent chimpanzee, or the peaceful hominid.  
Another point that is only briefly addressed in Wrangham’s theodicy, remains that human intervention or interruption that may, or may not, have contributed to primate violence.  Bananas were used in some cases to form a bond that would allow for observation of primate behavior, yet the affects of this can really never be known.  For only up until recently, the reality of our primate relatives was believed to be a peaceful, utopian, primitive existence.  Perhaps more credit should be payed to the law of unintended consequences.  Although human interference may not have influenced the behavioral patterns of chimpanzees in any way, there is absolutely no way to be sure.  Therefore, if this behavior was, in fact, an isolated reaction to human intrusion, the observations of violent behaviors would prove much less reliable.  For, an observation noted in both primate and primitive human communities, confirms that clan or tribe size is most closely tied to food abundance.  Where there is more food, there are larger clans.  As the clans grow larger, food becomes more scarce.  The clan must divide in order to provide for all its members.  For a while, a peaceful existence ensues.  Yet eventually, territorial, progenitive, and/or food supply competition erases all memory of the past camaraderie and rivalry establishes a new rift between the clans.  Thus, in supplying the observed apes with a surplus, or spike in bananas, researchers may have artificially instigated this cycle of violence.
Perhaps the most alarming point overlooked by Wrangham is the abundant evidence of a genetic profile with the propensity towards violence.  In humans, this profile has been vaguely identified, but Wrangham provides no evidence of such research among his observed apes.  Such comparisons could reinforce or explain many of the observations detailed in Demonic Males.  Yet, with the plethora of evidence giving rise to genetic dominance, one must consider that some humans posses this profile, while others do not.  If so, does the human link to chimpanzees hold quite as true, or is the peaceful profile in humans somehow a mutation, as presumed with the bonobos.  Interestingly, the demonic male profile would seem to be preferable among chimpanzees, yet the author would suggest that humanity may prefer the profile more akin to the bonobos.  However, insufficient data in the way of genetics leaves the human roots of violence only loosely tied to chimpanzee aggression.
And finally, the disparity between primate and human violence cannot be ignored.  The violence displayed by the chimpanzee species certainly matches certain aspects of human aggression--gang violence, war and raids, female aggression and dominance, etc.--yet, the cognitive processes of humans make our violence an entirely more complex and confused phenomenon.  The very ability to consider the concept of violence separates us inconceivably from our primitive kin.  Although Wrangham addresses some level of cognition (possibly tied to the consumption of roots) that crosses the threshold of primitive aggression, too little emphasis is placed on the significance of such disparity.  Violence in the animal kingdom has always been a result of primitive survival instincts.  Presumably, humans were the only species that chose aggression for what seemed to be an accessory, rather than necessity, to survival.  Yet, arguably, with the introduction of cognitive recognition among humans, perhaps the rules of survival changed.  Perhaps physical survival in humans remained a base motivation for violence, but the emotional survival develops need for aggression as elusive and complex as human emotion.  
To conclude, Demonic Males certainly offers an intriguing perspective on the origins of aggression, but in a series of haphazard assertions, many of Wrangham’s suggestions prove sterile.  However, I would not advocate the absolute dismissal of any avenue of study that could lead to the eradication of human violence.  Thus, I certainly see the benefits of such consideration.  Wrangham points out that removing violence from society will call for a universal overhaul of thought and structure.  I, too, come to a similar conclusion; however, my reasoning does not point directly to the pro-generative success of the “bad boy” gene.  With much to consider, from demonic male chimpanzees to the Utopia experienced by the bonobos, human cognition opens a world of possibility that we may discover, which is unavailable to all other species.  With this gentic “upper-hand,” perhaps such observations offered by Wrangham and his team will point humanity to a more peaceful future.

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