Human Origins, or how PBS Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Hunting Hypothesis

Back in the 60’s and 70’s of the last century, the “experts” in human behavior were making some remarkable noises. For example, from Ashley Montagu,

…for man is man because he has no instincts, because everything he is and has become he has learned, acquired, from his culture, from the man-made part of the environment, from other human beings.

…the fact is, that with the exception of the instinctoid reactions in infants to sudden withdrawals of support and to sudden loud noises, the human being is entirely instinctless.

and Kenneth Boulding,

It is, indeed, the existence of large excess capacity in the human nervous system which it seems to me vitiates the arguments of those who seek to find in “instinct” any explanation whatever of human behavior beyond the most elementary and primitive acts of the newly born.

In a word, they claimed that there was no innate wiring in our brains that predisposed us to behave one way or another, or, if there were, it played an insignificant role compared to culture and learning. In particular, all of our social behavior was purely the product of environment and experience. No matter that any reasonably intelligent teenager could have observed her own behavior for an hour or two and respectfully pointed out to them that they were sucking canal water. The ideological narratives fashionable at the time required them to maintain the façade with a bold face, and so they kept oohing and aahing about the emperor’s new clothes for decades before the truth finally caught up with them. His outfit included some particularly gaudy and colorful stuff about human origins.

It turns out, you see, that not everyone had swallowed the behaviorist dogmas. A number of writers had the effrontery to insist that the role of the innate on human behavior was both real and important. In making their case, they pointed to commonalities between human behavior and that of other animals, and observed that our own behavioral idiosyncrasies had likely undergone evolutionary change during the transition from ape to human along with our brains. In particular, they suggested that certain of the behavioral traits we observe in our species today may have come about as a result of our increased reliance on animal food, the so-called Hunting Hypothesis.

Unfortunately, these ideas were decidedly politically incorrect as far as the ingroup of “experts” were concerned. Their ideological dogmas required that we be evolved from saintly ancestral hominids who were uniformly kind, unaggressive, and, other than occasionally sucking the marrow out of bones left around by careless hyenas, vegetarian. They responded by behaving precisely as their opponents might have predicted; they exhibited all the traits that characterize human behavior towards outgroups, demonizing and heaping scorn on those who disagreed with them. The Hunting Hypothesis became the object of their particular animus.

Decades passed, and they kept defending the party line at all hazards, insisting that we had evolved from kind, unaggressive, vegetarian ancestors that were “just like chimpanzees.” Alas, the chimpanzees didn’t play along. Eventually, Jane Goodall took the time to conduct a long term study of chimpanzees in their natural environment, and had some unsettling news for the “experts.” Chimpanzees hunted, they ate meat, they engaged in brutal attacks against neighboring groups, using sticks as weapons, and they were anything but “unaggressive.” They tried to shout her down, ridiculing her as a “mere secretary,” and a “waitress,” but their time was running out. Meanwhile, fire-hardened hunting spears had been found in association with Homo Erectus remains, and it did not seem entirely plausible that they had been used as toothpicks.

Eventually, towards the end of the 1990’s, the weight of evidence began to tell. In a relatively short time, the remnants of behaviorist dogma collapsed, and a remarkable paradigm shift occurred. Interesting manifestations of the change, stunning in its scope, can be found in the “before” and “after” programs about prehistoric man presented by the Public Broadcasting Network.

For example, here is the “scientific truth,” about Homo erectus, circa 1997, as it was set forth in the series, “In Search of Human Origins.” It turns out he did have a taste for meat, but wouldn’t dream of harming a flea. You see, he was a scavenger:

Propelled by a need for meat, Homo erectus with his big brain and powerful body was now on an even playing field with other carnivores. He was an intelligent and active scavenger.

In a situation where timing counts, another scavenger could be here in seconds. Homo erectus was well-served with an effective butchery tool. With tools like these and the ability to cover ground quickly, Homo erectus was better off than earlier ancestors, but survival still depended on the luck of getting their first.

Even with their ability to scavenge well, Homo erectus parents must have been pushed to the limit to provide for themselves and their offspring.

You can say that again! Little more than a decade later, PBS was singing an entirely different tune. Suddenly, the “scavenger” narrative is nowhere to be seen. No matter that Robert Ardrey published “The Hunting Hypothesis” in 1977, and Carveth Read had published a similar view of human origins as early as 1920. If we are to believe PBS, it was triumphantly discovered some time after 1997 that Homo erectus was a hunter after all. In the “Becoming Human” series that began airing in 2009, we learn,

Homo erectus probably hunted with close-quarters weapons, with spears that were thrown at animals from a short distance, clubs, thrown rocks, weapons like that. They weren’t using long distance projectile weapons that we know of.

The Homo erectus hunt was simple but effective. It fed not just their larger brains, but the growing complexity of that early human society.

Surprise, surprise! Nowhere in any of the program is there any mention of the fact PBS had imposed on the credulity of its viewers with an entirely different version little more than a decade earlier. I had to smile in spite of myself at this bit:

Humans have this wonderfully calm temperament compared to chimpanzees, say. Where did it come from? We were drawn to a common place, the fireplace.

What!? Compared to chimpanzees? How could that be? As Ashley Montagu had told us with a completely straight face in the not too distant past,

The field studies of… Goodall on the chimpanzee… as well as those of others, show these creatures to be anything but irascible. All the field observers agree that these creatures are amiable and quite unaggressive.

Just wait a bit, Dr. Montagu. Dr. Goodall will have some unpleasant news for you about the “amiable” chimpanzees.

The 1997 program had also quoted Robert Brain to the effect that South African anthropologist Raymond Dart had been wrong to suggest, based on one of the earliest published examples of cave taphonomy, that australopithecines may also have been hunters. Without ever addressing Darts statistical arguments, Brain suggested that the real culprits for the assemblage of bones in Dart’s Sterkfontein cave sites were actually leopards and porcupines:

Yes, you know, there’s no question that this kind of shallow scoop marks on a bone is normally only caused by porcupine gnawing.

and, referring to puncture wounds in the skull of an australopithecine child,

Well, interestingly enough, the spacing of those two holes is matched almost exactly by the spacing of the lower canines of a fossil leopard from the same part of the cave.

Brain would have done better to listen to old man Dart. Today we find him in full row back mode, trying to salvage his professional credibility. For example, from the abstract of a paper in which his name appears at the end of the list of authors,

The ca. 1.0 myr old fauna from Swartkrans Member 3 (South Africa) preserves abundant indication of carnivore activity in the form of tooth marks (including pits) on many bone surfaces. This direct paleontological evidence is used to test a recent suggestion that leopards, regardless of prey body size, may have been almost solely responsible for the accumulation of the majority of bones in multiple deposits (including Swartkrans Member 3) from various Sterkfontein Valley cave sites. Our results falsify that hypothesis and corroborate an earlier hypothesis that, while the carcasses of smaller animals may have been deposited in Swartkrans by leopards, other kinds of carnivores (and hominids) were mostly responsible for the deposition of large animal remains.

In other words, for a period stretching over several decades, regardless of whether one accepts the behavioral implications of Ardrey’s hunting hypothesis or not, the “experts” were wrong, and the people they had worked so hard to vilify and demonize were right. Is it really asking too much to suggest that, instead of pressing ahead as if nothing had happened, they recognize the fact, and explain to the rest of us how they propose to insure that it doesn’t happen again?

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

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