PBS Answers the Burning Question: What Does Robert Ardrey have to do with Homo naledi?

PBS just aired what’s billed as a NOVA/National Geographic Special entitled Dawn of Humanity on the stunning discovery of a trove of remains of an early human species dubbed Homo naledi in a South African cave.  According to the blurb on its website,

NOVA and National Geographic present exclusive access to a unique discovery of ancient remains. Located in an almost inaccessible chamber deep in a South African cave, the site required recruiting a special team of experts slender enough to wriggle down a vertical, pitch-dark, seven-inch-wide passage. Most fossil discoveries of human relatives consist of just a handful of bones. But down in this hidden chamber, the team uncovered an unprecedented trove—so far, over 1,500 bones—with the potential to rewrite the story of our origins.

There’s nothing surprising about the fact that a story about Homo naledi appeared on NOVA.  What’s really stunning, however, is its content.  To all appearances it appears to have been supplied by an ancient Blank Slater who was frozen like a popsicle some time back in the early 70’s, and then had the good fortune to be thawed out like Rip van Winkle just in time to write the script for Dawn of Humanity.  One can certainly quibble about his take on the significance of Homo naledi, but one thing is certain.  He has favored us with a remarkable piece of historical source material.

It all starts innocently enough.  We are introduced to Lee Berger, who headed the team that discovered Homo naledi.  There are scenes of him strolling across the South African landscape with his two dogs, poking into limestone caverns of the sort where his nine year old son discovered the first fossil remains of Australopithecus sediba, like Homo naledi another creature with a small, ape-like brain that walked upright on two feet.  He points to the places where the remains of several other individuals of that species were later found.  Things continue in that sedate vein until suddenly, at minute 35:15, we are shaken out of our pleasant rut by the announcement that the abundance of the sediba remains,

…might help explain the Australopith’s transition into our genus, Homo.  They might also prove or disprove a highly influential theory about the dawn of humanity.  A theory inspired by the very first discovery of an Australopith fossil.

We are informed that the discovery referred to happened in 1924.  The place was South Africa, and the discoverer was Prof. Raymond Dart of the University of Witswatersrand in Johannesburg.  Miners had sent Dart a chunk of limestone in which was embedded the skull of a hominid child, different and more primitive than any previously discovered.  He named the new species Australopithecus africanus.  At that point, around minute 36:45, we get our first hint that PBS is about to administer a strong dose of propaganda.  Quoting from the script,

Darwin and (Thomas Henry) Huxley predicted that our origins would be in Africa based on comparative anatomy.  You know, they looked at the skeletons of chimps and gorillas and they looked at ours and they went, “Well they’re so close to us, and they’re more close than anything else, so it must have been in Africa.”  And then the sort of second generation of evolutionary biologists shied away from that.  They started to find fossils in Europe.  They started to find fossils in Asia.  And of course that tied in very nicely with the sort of racist, imperialistic thoughts of the day.  They couldn’t abide the thought of it being in Africa.

I rather suspect that the reticence of this “second generation of evolutionary biologists” to immediately accept Dart’s “out of Africa” theory was due to the fact that they had based their life’s work on developing theories about the emergence of early man in the only places where fossil evidence had actually been found up to that time.  It’s really not too hard to imagine that they may have been unenthusiastic about seeing all that work washed down the drain.  Of course, we’ve long been familiar with the tendency of the “progressive” inmates at PBS to instantly seize on such understandable regrets and transmogrify them into something as sinister and criminal as “racist, imperialistic thoughts.”  That’s old hat.  What’s really surprising is that, in what follows, we are treated to a long-winded denunciation of the “Killer Ape Theory.”  At 40:45 we learn,

Raymond Dart was building a theory about how the Australopiths, our apelike ancestors, became human.  His ideas about the dawn of humanity were the touchstone for thinking about our origins for generations.  In the 1940’s, more examples of Australopithecus began to be found, and a key site not only had fragments of Australopithecus, but also the bones of many other fossil animals.  And Dart noted that these bones were broken in a special way.  Dart became convinced they were weapons made by our primitive ancestors.  Was this the key to what first made us human?

At this point, PBS has passed well beyond prissy comments about racism and imperialism to the full blown distortion of history.  In the first place, Dart’s thinking never became a “touchstone” for anything, and certainly not for generations.  He never even published anything about hunting behavior in early hominins until 1949, and what you might call his “seminal” paper on the subject, The Predatory Transition from Ape to Man, didn’t appear until 1953.  Both papers were published in obscure venues, and both were largely ignored.  Dart never claimed that bones that “were broken in a special way” were weapons.  Rather, he claimed that the double-headed humerus, or upper foreleg bone, of a common type of antelope had been the weapon, and the bones that “were broken in a special way” were actually skulls with indentations that appeared to be the result of the use of that bone as a club.

In any case, next we learn that Dart had been a medic in World War I, and,

..had seen at first hand the barbarity humans are capable of.  It made sense to him that the origins of humanity were steeped in blood.  Raymond Dart’s experience in the World War may have colored his interpretation of what these bones and teeth meant.  You know it gave him a view of sort of the dark side of humanity and the violence of humanity, and he came up with this idea that Australopithecus had figured out that bones and teeth were hard, and could be used as weapons to kill other animals.  The sort of “Killer Ape Theory” of early humans.  Dart believed that the more aggressive and adventurous of our ape-like ancestors abandoned their forest environment and moved into savannahs.  There, they became hunters and predators.  His theory, that this violent transformation gave rise to humanity soon found an audience far beyond the small world of paleoanthropology.

In fact, there is no evidence that all this psychobabble about World War I is anything but that.  Dart’s claims were based on compelling statistical evidence, which is left unmentioned in the program.  In the first place, a large and statistically anomalous number of the humerus bones proposed as weapons had been found in association with the africanus remains.  Damage to the skulls of other animals supposedly inflicted with these weapons was not randomly located, but occurred far more often in locations where one would expect it to occur if it had been inflicted with a bludgeon or club.  Dart’s interpretation of these facts has often been challenged, most prominently by C. K. Brain in his The Hunters or the Hunted?, published in 1981.  Brain noted that twin puncture wounds found on an Australopith skull may well have been left by a leopard.  Sure enough, the skull in question is featured on the program, and the puncture marks described as if they were incontrovertible proof that Dart’s apes had never hunted.  As it happens, however, Brain is a careful scientist, and never maintained anything of the sort.  Indeed, in The Hunters or the Hunted? he describes in detail two important objections to the leopard theory, and while he certainly challenged Dart’s theories, he never suggested that they had been incontrovertibly disproved.  Predictably, these facts are left unmentioned in the program.

At this point I started wondering why on earth PBS would start laying on such thick dollops of propaganda to begin with.  Possible hunting in A. africanus wasn’t really germane to the behavior of a newly discovered species like Homo naledi, the apparent theme of the show, nor to that of Australopithecus sediba, for that matter.  I wasn’t left hanging for long.  At that point, the ancient Blank Slate Rip van Winkle the program had been channeling all along tipped his hand.  After all these years, he had hardly forgotten the shame and embarrassment he and his fellow “men of science” had experienced at the hand of a certain playwright by the name of Robert Ardrey!  Suddenly, at about the 42:50 point, the screen is filled with Ardrey’s image.  Then we see in quick succession images of two Life magazine covers and one of Penthouse, all three of which prominently announce articles he had written.  The narrative continues,

In the 1950’s there was a drama critic and playwright names Robert Ardrey, who became very interested in human origins, and he went to Africa and spoke with Raymond Dart.  And Robert Ardrey, being a dramatist, could write like anything, and he wrote this amazing book published in 1961 called African Genesis (dramatic drumbeat).  African Genesis became a pop-science publishing sensation of the early 1960s.  Ardrey’s ideas, building on those of Raymond Dart, helped frame public debate about the dawn of humanity for the next 20 years.  (Potts cuts in) The very first sentence in that book; I remember it because I read it as a teenager and was enthralled by it, “Not in innocence, and not in Asia, was mankind born.”  And in that one sentence he encapsulated Raymond Dart’s ideas, that it was an African genesis, and that where we came from was not from an innocent creature (dramatic drumroll), but from the most violent of killer apes.

At this point we’re treated to one of the favorite gimmicks of the Blank Slaters of yore.  The program segs to scenes from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.  We are assured that Kubrick was influenced by Ardrey, and then shown the familiar opening scene, with an ape-man smashing everything in sight with a bone wielded as a club.  The only problem is that Ardrey didn’t write the script for the movie.  We find the same trick in that invaluable little piece of historical source material, Man and Aggression, a collection of Blank Slater rants published in 1968 and edited by Ashley Montagu.  Most of the attacks are directed at Ardrey and Konrad Lorenz, but William Golding, author of Lord of the Flies, is thrown in for comic effect in the same fashion as Kubrick.

Next, at about 45:45, there is a schtick about how tartar from sediba’s teeth was examined, revealing that it contained phytoliths, microscopic particles of silica that are found in some plant tissues.  At 48:15 the narrative continues,

Here, at last, is evidence that will help support or disprove Dart’s theory… The tooth evidence from sediba indicates a diet very similar to todays chimpanzees.  While they may have eaten some meat, there’s little to back up Raymond Dart’s theory that they were killer apes.

Here one can but roll one’s eyes.  The plant evidence in sediba’s teeth hardly indicates that its consumption of meat was as the same as, not to mention greater or less than, that of chimpanzees.  Here, too, we find revealed the remarkably anachronistic nature of this whole production.  Left unmentioned is that fact that chimpanzees are, after all, killer apes, too.  They organize hunting parties with the intention of killing and eating other species, and they also carry out organized attacks on other chimpanzees, often killing them in the process as well.  None of this is mentioned in the program.  Indeed, when Jane Goodall first observed and reported the behavior referred to she was furiously denounced and subjected to incredibly demeaning ad hominem attacks by the Blank Slaters.  It’s as if none of this ever happened, and the program is frozen in time back around 1975.  The rest consists mainly of pleasantries about the recovery of the Homo naledi remains.

In reality, the “killer ape theory” that we have just seen dusted off and trotted out for our benefit is largely a Blank Slater propaganda myth.  Modern apes kill, and when they kill they are certainly violent.  They can, therefore, be accurately described as violent killer apes.  The “killer ape” of the Blank Slaters, however, is a nightmare figment of their imagination – a furious, violent creature constantly attacking everything around it, as so gaudily portrayed in Stanley Kubrick’s film.  Nothing in any of Ardrey’s books even comes close to a description of such psychopathic B movie monsters.

The very magazine covers mentioned above, shown as the narrator lays on the propaganda about killer apes, are revealing in themselves.  I happen to have copies of all three of them, and none of the articles by Ardrey they contain has the least thing to say about the “killer ape theory.”  Instead, they all deal in one way or another with the real theme of all Ardrey’s work; the existence of innate human nature.  And that, I strongly suspect, is the real reason the program even mentions Ardrey.

All appearances to the contrary in Dawn of Humanity, the debate about the “hunting hypothesis” is now over for all practical purposes.  It has been decided in favor of Ardrey.  Clear marks of butchering have been found on bones dated to more than 3 million years before the present.  It has been suggested that the bones were scavenged from the kills of other predators, but the idea that it never occurred to early hominins to hunt between that time and half a million to a million years before the present, a period during which early man clearly began using stone tipped and fire-hardened hunting spears, is nonsense.  It is doubly nonsense in view of the observed hunting behavior of chimpanzees.  Even the impeccably politically correct Scientific American admitted as much in an article entitled Rise of the Human Predator, that appeared in the April 2014 issue.  More remarkable still, in a PBS series entitled Becoming Human that aired in 2009, we were informed that,

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.

Why, then, this grotesque anachronism, this latter day program frozen in time in the early 1970’s?  As I mentioned earlier, the Blank Slaters have forgotten nothing, and forgiven nothing.  They know that the reason for Ardrey’s enormous influence wasn’t the “killer ape theory.”  Rather, the constant theme of all Ardrey’s work was his insistence on the existence of innate human nature.  Virtually all of the “men of science” in the behavioral sciences at the time his books began appearing, at least in the United States, firmly supported the Blank Slate orthodoxy, insisted that virtually all human behavior was a result of learning and culture, and denied the existence of any such thing as innate behavioral traits in human beings.  Ardrey was right, and they were all dead wrong.  A “mere playwright” had shamed them and exposed them for the charlatans they were.

Today books and articles about innate human behavior, and its analogs in other animals, roll off the presses as if the subject had never been the least bit controversial.  The Blank Slate orthodoxy has been smashed, and the one man whose writings were far and away the most influential weapon in smashing it was Robert Ardrey.  As for the “men of science,” they are engaged in a game of bowdlerizing history to hide this inconvenient truth.  The usual tactic is to ignore Ardrey, elevating some pretender to the role of “slayer of the Blank Slate.”  If he is mentioned at all, it is only to briefly note, after the fashion of Steven Pinker, that he was “totally and utterly wrong” based on some alleged inaccuracy in one of his books that had nothing to do with the overall theme.  That’s why I said that artifacts like Dawn of Humanity are valuable because of their historical interest at the beginning of this post.  For such remarkable anachronisms to even appear, someone has to be seriously out of step with the official line.  It has to be someone who knows just how significant and influential Ardrey really was, a fact demonstrated by the very magazine covers that appear on the program.  Insignificant nobodies weren’t invited to write articles for Life magazine in the late 60’s and early 70’s, not to mention Penthouse, and pieces by Ardrey can be found in many other familiar magazines of the day.  Furthermore, that “somebody” has to be so bitter about Ardrey’s demolition of his precious Blank Slate dogmas that his hatred boils to the surface, revealing itself in such remarkable productions as the one described here.  When that happens we occasionally learn something about the Blank Slate debacle that the “men of science” would prefer to leave swept under the rug.  A little truth manages to leak out around the edges.  This time the truth happened to touch on the real historical role of a man named Robert Ardrey.

Robert Ardrey
Robert Ardrey

 

 

 

 

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