Post World War II, scientists studying origins, sensed a moral mission to tell the story in order to encourage us to be better people. The close-knit hunter-gatherer clans that represented all humanity co-operated for survival and were chock full of moral lessons for us all. But was it true?:
Readers and reviewers lumped Morris, Ardrey and Lorenz together as promoting a powerful new vision of humans as animals. (To be fair, each author saw different moral systems and imperatives emerging from their research, but these nuances mattered less to readers than their shared zoomorphic vision.) The view of humans as specialised animals carried implications for who among the scientists could truly judge what it meant to be human. If our ecological past determined human nature, then reconstructing the biological processes that had created humanity required a retrospective view. No longer defined by the rise of agriculture or true language, the conditions that gave rise to human nature now included our ability to avoid predators, to hunt, to kill and to survive on the dangerous open plains of the savannah. Lorenz, Ardrey and Morris shared the underlying view that aggression, violence and murder helped to shape human nature. Their work thus posed a pressing existential question: how had humans ever managed to cooperate? The answer, it seemed, would be found by scientists with expertise in animal behaviour. Erika Lorraine Milam, “The hunt for human nature” at Aeon
Of course, that makes the researcher the human and the research topic not humans but animals. How does that work for equality? Author Milan thinks it’s a wash:
The political malleability of moral lessons from humanity’s deep history demonstrates that biological essentialism need not be reductionist or dehumanising, nor is there any consistent analogy between biology and ideology. Although biological theories of human nature have been used to debase some members of society as less valuable than others, they have also been used to promote egalitarian conceptions of humanity as a whole. Erika Lorraine Milam, “The hunt for human nature” at Aeon
Yes, their theories have sometimes been used to promote equality but on what grounds? That we are “evolved animals” who need coercion? The key question about equality is always “equality with what?”
This long, thoughtful essay surveys many trends in writing about early humans over the last century. The only sure thing is, those early humans can’t be brought back and interviewed.
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See also: World’s oldest known painting, 40,000 years old, found in Borneo jungle
Pleistocene human remains show many deformities
No one evolved faster than the Neanderthal