The ape in Achilles' heel

The Chosen Primate
February 10, 1995

Franz Kafka drew attention to a common factor in our "life as apes": "Everyone on earth feels a tickling at the heels; the small chimpanzee and the great Achilles alike".

Over the past century and a half, many have accepted Darwin's prediction that knowledge of a baboon would provide more insight into being human than the writings of Locke, but the most ardent advocates of the biological model have (seemingly inexorably) reached grimmer and more hierarchical conclusions than Kafka. Moreover, as Adam Kuper shows in this elegant and surprisingly wise book, the biological school has to contest its inheritance of the Darwinian mantle with those who stress culture as a determinant of behaviour.

Darwin argued that man "still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin", but he also noted that man has "exalted powers", which, many would argue, place "the chosen primate" in a unique position to controvert that "indelible stamp". As Kuper notes, humans and chimpanzees are identical in 98.4 per cent of their DNA nucleotide sequences and in 99.6 per cent of their amino-acid sequences, yet what does this tell us about "human nature"?

He prefers to emphasise "the interplay of cultural and biological factors in human history" and he reinvents Darwin as a lens through which to view this new mediation. Along the way he treats the reader to concise and enlightening vignettes of those thinkers on culture, genetics, gender, and a host of other related topics, whose fundamental intellectual dynamic has been a recognition of man's primate identity and its disputed implications. Kuper has a journalistic flair for characterisation and he animates intellectual history in a manner that will appeal to the general reader.

Kuper surveys the (pre-Australopithecus-ramidus) fossil record and demonstrates how little can be established with certainty. Although his book comes with a mysterious assurance that it is "a sorely needed antidote to the excesses of nihilistic postmodernist theory", in fact it is nothing of the sort. Relativists will find much of comfort in it, and indeterminists will note Kuper's assertion in his discussion of the Margaret Mead/Derek Freeman imbroglio that "facts do not always speak for themselves and sometimes they refuse to talk straight at all".

Kuper considers the pitfalls of comparison between human and other primates in relation to Sherwood Washburn and the ongoing debate about the historical predicament of the !Kung Bushmen of the Kalahari. Washburn memorably described human ethology as "the science that pretends humans cannot speak". It is in the transformative effects of language that man's "exalted powers" lie. With the coming of language there was an exponential change in the snail's pace of biological development. After the Upper Palaeolithic period - if Lewis Binford is correct - the culturalists can wave two fingers at the biologists: language henceforth shapes consciousness and human nature (from "Palaeoculture" to "culture").

For a short(ish) book there is much to digest. There are good critiques of the "Neolithic Revolution" and of the functionalist presuppositions of "ecological anthropology", followed by accounts of two strands of the Darwinian legacy - eugenics and intelligence testing - that demonstrate "(t)here are no neutral theories about human beings". Kuper records that the US Army's Alpha IQ test in the First World War quizzed respondents about the name of the leading Brooklyn baseball team and the manufacturerers of American revolvers; not surprisingly Margaret Mead was able to show in her master's thesis that the scores of Italian immigrant children reflected the length of time they had lived in the US.

The chapter on E.O. Wilson and sociobiology is outstanding, a useful supplement to Marshall Sahlin's earlier critique. Here Kuper's personal knowledge of most key figures adds extra interest and insight.

There are several minor objections to Kuper's series of summaries: his passing reference to Foucault, for instance, suggests a false intentionality at variance with his later work. Bibliographical information is in some cases deficient, such as the lack of references to historians' works in Kuper's succinct recapitulation of the effects of the Irish potato famine of 1845-47 on marriage patterns and family structure. In the final chapter, Kuper looks to the future, but his consideration of the centrality of technology has no place for new reproductive technologies and for virtual reality, which are destined, surely, to reconfigure our conceptions of human nature and cultural diversity. Likewise a consideration of the reverse traffic in man/ape parallelism - the case made in Paola Cavalieri and Peter Singer's The Great Ape Project - would have been valuable. Finally, there is nothing on the discursive mechanics of the politics of "naturalisation". In certain respects this debate was prefigured in Malinowski's essay on myth in 1926. It is a curious omission.

That said, at a time when Desmond Morris can transfix half the nation with his version of science, Kuper's approachable and balanced assessments of what are frequently "imaginative constructs with clear ideological purposes" are enlightening. Kuper says he wrote the book because he could not find a dispassionate synthesis, merely works by prophets "possessed by a Big Idea". Kuper is no prophet, thankfully, and most of his smaller ideas should be welcomed.

Christopher Pinney is lecturer in South Asian anthropology, School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

The Chosen Primate: Human Nature and Cultural Diversity

Author - Adam Kuper
ISBN - 0 674 12825 7
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £22.25
Pages - 269pp

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