Almost all of what we have to say about nature is actually about culture.
Trees in the wild are nature, but human beings’ relation to those trees is an artifact of culture as surely as a painting or a piece of music. That relationship varies greatly depending on place, time, systems of belief and symbology, so that one community’s God-given warehouse of raw building material is another’s Mother and still another’s sanctuary. The thing is, we humans sometimes fail to notice this. Describing wild places and the beings that live in them, we may tell ourselves a little white lie, that instead of portraying our own cultural attitudes and assumptions, we are merely being factual, rational and scientific.
A friend sent me a wonderful book, Our Inner Ape, by primatologist Frans de Waal. It explores popular and scientific views of primates, exposing the cultural biases and blind spots that have led so many scientific popularizers, from Desmond Morris on, to argue that aggression and violence are inbuilt human drives inherited from the most aggressive and territorial of apes and chimpanzees. Says who? Here de Waal refutes Richard Wrangham’s contention that modern humans inherited chimpanzees’ proclivity for violence in a “continuous, five-million-year habit of lethal aggression”:
For this to be true, our earliest ancestor would need to have been chimpanzeelike and we must have been on the warpath ever since. There is no evidence for either assumption. First, since the split between humans and apes, apes have undergone their own evolution. No one knows what happened during those five to six million years. Due to poor fossilization in forests, our record of ape ancestry is sketchy. The last common ancestor of humans and apes may have been gorillalike, chimpanzeelike, bonobolike, or different from any living species. Not too different, of course, but we certainly have no proof that this ancestor was a warmongering chimpanzee. And it’s good to keep in mind that only a handful of chimp populations have been studied, and not all of them are equally aggressive.
The book is well worth reading for many reasons, but my favorite is de Waal’s penetrating analysis of our cultural tendency to root aggression in the animal kingdom and claim altruism as our own, uniquely human and intentional creation. He marshals many examples of caring, self-sacrificing and generous behavior in primates, including tales that involve no blood ties whatsoever. Halfway through, I put the book down and had a good long think about how the undermining claims of so much popular sociobiology—that we are prisoners of a biological inheritance that makes us selfish, aggressive, and brutal—would have to change if it were widely recognized that both our belligerent tendencies and our kind ones have their correlates in the animal kingdom. I got pretty annoyed, actually, at the extent to which the pugnacious primate ancestor has been ratified by public opinion. As an expression of culture, what does it say about us that—having no certainty as to our true ancestors—we opt to tie our lineage to primate raiders and warmongers?
Franz de Waal makes the point that our biases have affected scientific study as well, privileging the study of bellicose species while prudishly eschewing attention to bonobos, for instance, who lubricate almost every social interaction and avoid almost every conflict with sex. His accounts of scientists who couldn’t bring themselves to notice the role of sex in bonobo society (even though they “initiate sex on average once every one-and-a-half hours and with a far greater diversity of partners than do chimps, who have sex only once every seven”) makes funny reading.
Indeed, bonobos have numerous strategies to reconcile those in conflict and create or restore a sense of community. Happily, de Waal has made this subject one of his research concentrations. I’ll end with another passage from the book that speaks to cultural bias masquerading as science:
As a young scientist, I once asked a world-famous expert on human violence what he knew about reconciliation. He gave me a lecture on how science should focus on the causes of aggression, since causes hold the key to elimination. My interest in conflict resolution suggested to him that I took aggression for granted, something he did not approve of. His attitude reminded me of the opponents of sex education: Why waste time of improving behavior that should not even exist?
This just in: when it comes to conflict, birds do it, bees do it, even chimps up in the trees do it, and I have a strong hunch that human conflict is here to stay, along with human altruism and kindness. Instead of the usual man-as-ape tale, which makes you want to chain yourself up (or rip someone limb-from-limb), this book will amuse and enlighten you, restoring your faith in our freedom to choose which side of our natures we want to feed.