Not long ago, I came across a book that looked interesting, Man the Hunted: Primates, Predators, and Human Evolution, written by two anthropologists, Donna Hart and Robert Sussman. Almost half of the book discussed the many varieties of man-eating predators who for millions of years have enjoyed transforming our delicious ancestors into steaming feces. Would it shed light on the drastic reduction in man-eating predators? Would it explain why we plunged into our disastrous experiment with tool making, which has brought us to the brink of planetary disaster? It did not, but it was both interesting and odd.
In the deepest, darkest auditoriums of academia, the wizards of primatology are engaged in a yowling catfight over the primary factor that influenced the course of human evolution. The choices are: (a) being hunters, or (b) being prey. Apparently, (c) all of the above, is rewarded with a dunce cap and a paddle whack.
The authors believe that the general public, and a sizable mob of halfwit professors, have been stupefied by the trendy Man the Hunter myth. It proclaims that our ancestors were bloodthirsty hunters, and hunting encouraged us to become aggressive, violent, sociopathic killers, and monstrous oppressors of women. Folks entranced by this myth also believe that their human ancestors were never eaten by predators, because they were far too smart to be killed by lions, leopards, or wolves.
The authors are on a mission from God to torpedo the Man the Hunter myth and illuminate readers with the shining truth — Man the Hunted. Our ancestors were slow, weak, and lacked fierce teeth, sharp claws, and long horns. On the ground, they were easy prey. Thus, our evolutionary journey was largely influenced by being yummy meatballs in a hungry cathouse. This encouraged us to live in groups, pay close attention to reality, cooperate with one another, and become smart, lovable, feminist hominids.
Readers discover that it was impossible for our ancestors to consume meat prior to the invention of cooking, because we lack the teeth and digestive system of carnivores. Well, actually, we’re omnivores, like our chimp, bonobo, and baboon relatives, all of whom eat both plant and animal foods, uncooked. Maybe our smaller teeth evolved following the invention of cooked food.
It’s impossible to accurately determine when we began manufacturing spears, controlling fire, cooking food, or using complex language. These interesting and unusual innovations had enormous unintended consequences. They unlocked the entrance to a fantastically dangerous path.
I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that bonobos and chimps, our closest living relatives, have managed to inhabit the same ecosystem for two million years without trashing it. They wisely avoided the temptation to fool around with technology beyond sticks and stones. The book revealed an even more astonishing success story, the crocodiles, critters that have a special fondness for inattentive humans. Today’s crocs are nearly identical to the crocs that lived in the dinosaur era, 200 million years ago. They live in the water, floating close to the surface, and patiently wait for a thirsty critter to stop for a drink — a simple and awesomely brilliant strategy.
Bonobos and chimps provide us with an important lesson. Their territories are separated by the Zaire River, so they’ve never met. The bonobos are like free love hippies, whilst the chimps sometimes act like brutal biker gangs. Why the difference? The two species are almost genetically identical, and they inhabit the same ecosystem. But in bonobo country, there are no chimps, baboons, or gorillas. So, they have more food, less competition, and life is grand. In chimp country, it doesn’t pay to be a gentleman. The most aggressive male is always first in line at the buffet, as well as the primary sperm pump.
The authors lash out at Demonic Males, by Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson, a gospel of Man the Hunter. It discusses species that kill their own kind, like orangutans, chimps, gorillas, and humans. For these species, aggressive behavior could provide some benefits, so this trait has not been discouraged by natural selection. This infuriates Hart and Sussman, because blame is shifted to the females, who shamelessly burn with desire for demonic males, and then give birth to cute little baby demons.
All parties agree that bonobos were dealt an unbeatable hand and won the jackpot. If humans had been dealt a similar hand of luxurious abundance, we’d probably be running around naked in an African paradise, having sex ten times a day. Instead, we got a crap hand — the queen of technology, the joker of excess cleverness, and the ace of self-destruction.
All parties agree that, in theory, humans could mindfully choose to outgrow their rough habits, and transform into adorable sweeties. Our unpleasant behavior is learned, not genetic. The Pygmies, Bushmen, and other hunter-gatherers were generally good-natured. Hunting doesn’t automatically turn us into monsters.
All parties agree that humans are not crazy-violent by nature. Competition, crowding, scarcity, and anxiety trigger our belligerence. So, what the heck is this argument about anyway? Certainly, the demonic male meme has the pungent funk of Judeo-Christian juju, the crabby old sky god who never tires of exterminating city dwellers and other despicable deviants. Where’s the science? Well, the science of human evolution provides us with a few hundred pieces of a 100 billion-piece puzzle, and numerous versions of the story are continuously being rewritten, hence the hissing primatologist catfights.
With brains substantially larger than Homo sapiens, Neanderthals managed to live on this planet for maybe 200,000 years without leaving permanent scars. Scientists sneer at their embarrassing lack of technological innovation (dullards!), and disregard their stunning success at sustainable living (who cares?). Scientists are quirky folks obsessed with stuff like space colonies and computer-driven electric cars. (I was surprised to learn that Neanderthals may have gone extinct because they ate too much meat.)
The book is about genetic evolution, not cultural evolution. Cultural evolution is what has blown the human journey off the rails, ignited the turbo thrusters, and sent us skyrocketing into the dark unknown. Cultural evolution provided shortcuts that gave us spears and hammers far faster than genetic evolution could enhance our anatomical assets. Today, the pace of techno-innovation has grown to furious hurricane force. So, does the hunter vs. hunted catfight really matter? The planet is not being destroyed by naughty genes. Wouldn’t it be wiser to yowl and hiss about our toxic culture instead?
Humans evolved in a healthy, wild, natural world. Our ancestors’ lives were highly adapted to the ecosystem they inhabited. Survival required being constantly alert to the ever-changing sights, sounds, and smells. Humankind still exists because our ancestors were acutely aware. Infants born today have genes that evolved during our hunter-gatherer era, genes fine-tuned for thriving in a tropical savannah amidst hungry leopards, hyenas, snakes, and crocodiles.
But look at us. We now live in a brutally lobotomized ecosystem where being eaten is no longer a normal everyday possibility. We live amidst crowds of strangers. We hunt and forage in supermarkets. We spend the last years of our lives filling diapers. Imagine what we’d look like if we spent the next 100,000 years sitting on our butts, staring at glowing screens, and guzzling soda pop.
Many species of bipedal hominids have evolved over seven million years. Humans are the last of the line. Few of our bipedal cousins survived as long as the chimps have; they flamed out. The happy ending here is that a perfect storm of manmade predicaments seems destined to yank the rug out from under our culture. We won’t have to spend the next 200 years having loud catfights over climate change, contraceptives, or evolution. Humankind will be dealt a very different hand of cards. Will we be lucky?
Hart, Donna and Sussman, Robert W., Man the Hunted — Primates, Predators, and Human Evolution, Westview Press, New York, 2005.
Wrangham, Richard and Peterson, Dale, Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence, Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1996.
Wrangham, Richard, “Out of the Pan, Into the Fire: How Our Ancestors’ Evolution Depended on What They Ate,” Tree of Origin, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2001.