Ardrey Would Give Social Darwinism A Basis In Fact

AFRICAN GENESIS, by Robert Ardrey. Atheneum Press. $6.95.380 pp.

"Our Heavenly Father invented man because he was disappointed in the Monkey." --Mark Twain.

CLEARLY human bodies are the result of evolutionary forces working on the lower animals. But what about human behavior? In African Genesis, Robert Ardrey attempts to prove that modern man has evolved from a prehistoric African killer ape, and has preserved not only the physical but also the psychological qualities of that ape.

It is a controversial thesis, and a controversial book, which tries to provide social Darwinism with a basis in biological fact. Much of African Genesis is pure speculation, much is bad interpretation of well-known phenomena, and more than a little of it is simply untrue. But it is all interesting, and if Ardrey's most startling argument, that man has always been a weapon-bearing predator, should prove true, then our conceptions about the innate nature of man may have to be drastically revised.

Ardrey develops his case like a good lawyer, beginning with the least objectionable points of his argument, and gradually working toward more volatile matters. He opens with a discussion of the drive for territorial possession as it appears among all animals, but most especially man's closest animal relations, the primates.

It is not difficult to show that animals compete for space. Naturalists have been observing it for over 30 years. C.R. Carpenter, in 1940, after observing gibbons in Siam, was led to conclude that "possession and defense of territory . . . may be a fundamental biologic need. Certain it is that this possession of territory motivates much primate behavior." It is equally easy to demonstrate the survival value of territorial possession to animals in terms of providing economic advantages, and safe breeding places for offspring. This last is especially important to primates, since their young are dependent upon the parents for a considerable period after birth.


Primates are social animals; they live in groups. The organization of these societies is complex, and poorly understood. One thing is certain, however--the society increases the survival chances of the individual. Cut off from his troop, the individual baboon will not last very long. It is easy to see why: physiologically, he is poorly equipped for solitary life in the African veldt. Compared to his greatest predator, the leopard, the baboon not very big, or very strong, or very fast. To exist, he has developed society--as an instrument of defense.

Primate society seems to be related to two basic drives, the territorial compulsion, and the dominance drive. Every animal society has a status system for its members, and primates are no different. Even among barnyard hens one invariably eats first, another fourth.

Dominance creates the structure of the society; sex and prestige are accorded its members on the basis of their rank. In some bird societies ranking is specific and numerical, but among the primates it is more subtle and can be described only as a tendency of some members of the society to exert their influence more often the others.

Having established these three points--territorial compulsion, society, and dominance drives--Ardrey attempts to apply them to man. He is not successful. It is hard to dispute his suggestion that primate territoriality may underlie man's feelings of nationalism and patriotism, but his specific interpretations of human behavior are oversimplified.

In the Soviet Union, for example, Ardrey feels the hierarchy of the Communist Party is just what we might expect under the circumstances. Individuals have no opportunity for the "expression of individuality" through possession of private property, so they turn to dominance, and create an intense ranking system, their only means of attaining status.

Such a view is drastically simplified. It overlooks the fact that in animal societies, dominance, territory and status are generally interrelated, and there is no reason to assume human societies are less complex. These compulsions do not exist in a vacuum; a frustrated man cannot shunt his energy from one drive to the next until he finds an outlet.

Furthermore, many primate societies are strictly communist; territory is owned in common, and individual members of these groups have not found it necessary to assert their dominance to a marked degree. Indeed, compared to bird societies, where territory is held on an individual basis, primates have a much more subtle and flexible dominance pattern.

BUT there is another, and more significant flaw in Ardrey's thesis. It must be clear to any careful observer that we are, in the words of Piel, editor of the Scientific American approaching a "propertyless" society. "The ownership of property," observed Piel, "is no longer the primary source of power, even economic power in our society. . . ." He goes on to note how modern consumers mortgage their homes, buy their cars on time and rent a good deal of what they need. He concludes that "the typical consumer owns no property in the classical meaning of the term."

Since they have persisted through many species of animals distantly related to man, Ardrey concludes that drives of territoriality and dominance are ancient. He now turns to more recent, and more specialized additions to man's behavioral inheritance. He studies the first man.

Scientists now generally agree that the first man-like animals emerged in Africa about a million years ago. The man-apes were short, erect creatures combining features of both men and apes. They were terrestrial, carnivorous animals, and they have been named Australopithecus africanus. The first of their fossils was discovered 1924.

Australopithecus, like all higher primates, is unspecialized. He is physiologically equipped with no defenses; even the sharp canine teeth of his ape ancestors, Proconsul, are gone. His brain is only slightly larger than that of an ape. The most natural question to ask is, how could such a generalized defenseless creature exist?

No doubt he formed societies for protection like the modern baboon. That is only part of the story, for baboons are herbivorous. Australopithecus was a flesh-eater, and he needed to kill in order to survive. But a four-foot, ninety pound ape-man is a poor match for a large animal--unless he is armed.

There is some evidence that Australopithecus used a bone club, fashioned from the lower part of an antelope but the proof is not conclusive. It satisfies Ardrey, and he jumps to a definition of man as a weapon-maker. The weapon, he claims, is "the hallmark of our culture."

This predatory vision of man's development is a violent one, but Ardrey tends to look upon all evolution as a harsh process. He claims death is the agent of natural selection, and mutation, the agent of adaptation. Actually, most selection is more gentle. Mutations are rare. Fluctuations in the gene pool of a species, caused by new gene combinations resulting from individual matings, are responsible for most adaptive changes in a species.