Friday, April 21, 2006

Pencilnecks We

When anthopologists found humanid remains in African caves, among bones of herbivores, the legend of "Man the Hunter" was born. Speculation flowed on how our penchant for stalking and killing animal food shaped our natures and our cultures.

When they noticed some of those human remains had been gnawed and dismembered, the story took a still darker turn: Man the Cannibal.

But some kept looking, and looked more closely. There was a breakthrough moment when one scientist fitted the teeth of a fossilized leopard jaw exactly into the puncture markings on one of the human skulls. Others noticed the pattern of broken skulls was consistent with hyenas chewing into them to get at the brains. Were these human caves littered with remains of human meals, or animal lairs.

Man the hunter, or man the hunted? And with the shift in anthropology comes a shift in sociological speculation about natures and cultures:

Our species began as just one of many that had to be careful, to depend on other group members, and to communicate danger. We were quite simply small beasts within a large and complex ecosystem.

Is Man the Hunter a cultural construction of the West? Belief in a sinful, violent ancestor does fit nicely with Christian views of original sin and the necessity to be saved from our own awful, yet natural, desires. Other religions don't necessarily emphasize the ancient savage in the human past; indeed, modern-day hunter-gatherers, who have to live as part of nature, hold animistic beliefs in which humans are a part of the web of life, not superior creatures who dominate or ravage nature and each other.

Think of Man the Hunted, and you put a different face on our past. The shift forces us to see that for most of our evolutionary existence, instead of being the toughest kids on the block, we were merely the 90-pound (make that 60-pound) weaklings. We needed to live in groups (like most other primates) and work together to avoid predators. Thus an urge to cooperate can clearly be seen as a functional tool rather than a Pollyannaish nicety, and deadly competition among individuals or nations may be highly aberrant behavior, not hard-wired survival techniques. The same is true of our destructive domination of the earth by technological toys gone mad.

Raymond Dart declared that "the loathsome cruelty of mankind to man ... is explicable only in terms of his carnivorous, and cannibalistic origin." But if our origin was not carnivorous and cannibalistic, we have no excuse for loathsome behavior. Our earliest evolutionary history is not pushing us to be awful bullies. Instead, our millions of years as prey suggest that we should be able to take our heritage of cooperation and interdependency to make a brighter future for ourselves and our planet.

I already can hear the Europeans shouting across the Atlantic: "See? Darwin likes us better. Nyah-nyah."

Yet, "if our origin was not carnivorous and cannibalistic, we have no excuse for loathsome behavior" strikes me as sort of silly. Our origin, this seems to say, was in surviving threats from serious -- and real -- enemies in the ecosystem, by cooperation with each other when available, by fighting tooth-and-nail when it wasn't. Appeasing the hyenas never seems to have been a good survival strategy. You don't have to be convinced of yourself as "superior creatures" to want to not have your brains eaten alive.