Thursday, October 30, 2014

African Genesis

Some of you may already know that the book that has most influenced the formation of my thinking and philosophy is my raggedy and tattered paperback copy of Robert Ardrey's "African Genesis".

Ardrey was a playwright by profession ("Khartoum" among others), not an anthropologist, but he rubbed shoulders with several of the brighter lights in that field, among whom were people like Louis S. B. Leakey and his wife Mary, and Raymond Dart.  He would cheerfully admit that little of African Genesis was original with him, most of it having come from cocktail party chatter and long talks on the veranda.

The African anthropologists, of course, hold that the human species arose in Africa and sprang from the likes of Australopithecus, so it is not a surprise that Ardrey does so as well.  What makes African Genesis so valuable are those insights that are original with Ardrey.

Ardrey points out — and I can still recall the chill that ran down my spine as I read the words — that the human species has survived only because of our inventiveness — our lethal inventiveness.  Look at our cousins, the chimpanzees and baboons.  Observe their dentition.  Observe their musculature.  Observe their agility.  Compare and contrast with our dentition, musculature, and agility, and remember that we are separated by not so very many eons.  Our DNA is said to be nearly identical with chimpanzee DNA;  A fraction of a percent difference is all that makes us us.  Yet, if you are attacked by a chimpanzee, you had better be armed, quick on the trigger, and deadly accurate.  You will not get a second chance.  Ardrey's challenge to us is to spend one night on the veldt and in the morning still hold that weapons and violence are not an integral part of our genetic makeup.  It can't be done.  No one who experiences the 'night life' of Africa's wilderness comes away with any impression other than 'an unarmed human on the plains of Africa is food'.  Australopithecus passed along its genes only because it could kill with terrible efficiency, and we are its children.

The most important insight Ardrey had for African Genesis was what he called "The Romantic Fallacy".  TRF (for short) holds that human behavior springs from human experiences, and it is a fallacy because there are human behaviors that clearly do not spring from any recognizable human experience, and plenty that mimic animal behavior in species as remote as birds.  Lord Acton brushed against TRF when he said "Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely."  The drive for power exists across all human ethnicities and cultures.  Not everyone seeks power, but every nationality and ethnicity exhibits the syndrome.  How can we humans hold that the single best route to the future is The Golden Rule, and then say that our behavior is shaped by our experience?  We may know intuitively that TGR is a good plan, but we don't act as if we believe it.  We act, in fact, as if we think it's utter nonsense:  we lie, cheat, steal, fight, and even kill to get what we want, and the thing we almost always want is power or privilege.

"That's human nature," is the typical brush-off response.  Yes, it is human nature, but what in human experience drives this behavior?  The answer:  next to nothing.

The truth is that much of human behavior is rooted in genetics and is older than our species itself — we got it from Australopithecus.  We seek power because the alpha male is the one who gets to pass along its genes and the others don't.  That's not absolutely true in our current society, but only because there's so much opportunity for other than alpha males.  We're taught from infancy that we must succeed.  Why?  Because you want a nice house (territory), don't you?  Of course, you do!

To conclude that feminine attraction for wealth and rank, and masculine preoccupation with fortune and power and fame are human abberations arising from sexual insecurity, hidden physical defects, childhood guilts, environmental deficiencies, the class struggle, or the cumulative moral erosions of advancing civilization would, in the light of our new knowledge of animal behavior, be to return man's gift of reason to its Pleistocene sources unopened.

The Golden Rule is a worthwhile philosophy for life, and yes, we ought to follow it, but when someone acts in violation of it, don't say "he must be having a bad day".  He's acting on instinct, even if nobody recognizes it.