Robert Ardrey was a man who had the unusual combination of a brilliant mind, and a rare talent for explaining to a broad audience what he was thinking. The series of books he wrote in the 1960’s and 70’s emphasized a common theme; the effect of innate predispositions, or human nature, if you will, on human behavior. One aspect of our behavior that has had a profound and decisive impact on our history, and may well bring that history to an end one day unless we learn to understand and control it, is the Amity/Enmity Complex, our innate tendency to categorize others of our species into in-groups and out-groups. Ardrey describes it in a chapter of his book, “The Territorial Imperative,” taking the reader through a review of the origins of the idea, salient observations of human and animal behavior that support it, and the logical basis for the hypothesis. If you read nothing else of Ardrey’s writings, read this chapter. If you do so with an open mind, I think some of the constantly reccurring manifestations of the Complex, including such notorious examples as the anti-Semitism that has stained the histories of so many European countries, the racism that has justified slavery and rationalized discrimination in the United States and many other countries, and the religious bigotry now fomenting such violence in the Middle East, although it is hardly unique to that region of the world, will begin to make a lot more sense to you. One would think that the innumerable irrational and devastating wars that have been such a constant and persistent phenomenon in human history would have tipped us off by now when it comes to this aspect of our nature. It seems that, when it comes to understanding ourselves, we are remarkably slow learners.
The Amity/Enmity Complex as an aspect of human moral behavior and most of the other ideas Ardrey presented weren’t really original. He made that clear himself. In addition to his other talents, he had a rare grasp of history, and was well able to follow the intellectual paths leading from his own theories back to their sources. His books were very popular at the time they were published, and enlightened many. They also made him many enemies, because his theories flew in the face of cherished ideological certainties posing as science. Those enemies reacted with a vehemence and bitterness that had little to do with disinterested logic, but which I’m sure Ardrey understood very well himself. One can still trace the effects of their malice on the web today, where Ardrey’s “biographers” continue to bowdlerize his thought as “The Killer Ape Theory.” Ironically, they proved his point. By threatening the shibboleths that made up the ideological boxes they lived in, Ardrey put himself squarely in their “out-groups,” and elicited all the rage that he himself had so clearly described and predicted.
Writing in 1966, Ardrey described the Amity-Enmity Complex as “the resolution of a paradox posed by Darwin, solved by Wallace, explored by Spencer and Sumner, revived and extended by Keith, and for the last twenty years cast aside under the pretense it does not exist. The paradox may be simply stated: If the evolutionary process is a merciless struggle among individuals to survive, with natural selection determining the fittest, then how could such human qualities as altruism, loyalty, charity, and mercy have ever come into existence? If Darwinian evolution presents a picture of dog eat dog, then how did dogs ever get together?”
After describing some of the behaviorist and other psychological myths that, being more in tune with the preferred ideological narratives of the day, suppressed the theory for so long, Ardrey goes on;
“All, of course, are false. What seems to have occurred to no one, excepting possibly Keith, is that the animal is a moral being, and that human morality is a simple evolutionary extension of a form of conduct which has existed in nature for many hundreds of millions of years. But unless we inspect both the history of the falsehood and the history of the truth, we shall not in least part grasp our contemporary predicament.”
He goes on to do just that with compelling arguments based on a profound knowledge of the history of evolutionary thought. In the process, he gives us thumbnails of the ideas of some of the great thinkers who contributed to the development of the theory. One of them already mentioned above, Sir Arthur Keith, is almost forgotten today. It would be well if we recalled some of his words, and took them to heart. In one passage of exceptional insight cited by Ardrey he said,
“Human nature has a dual constitution; to hate as well as to love are parts of it; and conscience may enforce hate as a duty just as it enforces the duty of love. Conscience has a two-fold role in the soldier: it is his duty to save and protect his own people and equally his duty to destroy their enemies… Thus conscience serves both codes of group behavior; it gives sanction to practices of the code of enmity as well as the code of amity.”
It grieves me to think that ideas as seemingly simple and self-evident as this have not become commonplaces of human knowledge. They explain so much, and could help us to understand and control so much that is destructive and self-defeating in our nature. Must we eternally experience the misery, pain and death accompanying each new manifestation of the complex, slowly come to the realization that it is an evil that must be controlled, and then invent some new “ism,” whether racism, anti-Semitism, or what have you, to finally categorize the behavior as an evil and place it in its own out-group in turn? Instead of dealing with each one of these manifestations of a common behavioral trait piecemeal, one-by-one, and applying palliatives after they have already done their damage, would it not be better to finally grasp and understand the unifying phenomenon that is the basis of them all?
Sometimes it takes a long time for our species to grasp the obvious. Actually, we have come a long way since Ardrey’s day. Nowadays one begins to see many of the ideas about human nature he so ably presented accepted as commonplaces in the popular media, often described as if they were novelties of modern research, with no allusion to the fact that they have a history going back to the time of Darwin, or that they were suppressed for so long by ideological obscurantism. Still, it is unfortunate that it has taken us so long to come this far. I am confident that, as long as research into uncovering the secrets of the human mind can go on freely without ideological suppression of inconvenient truths, the recent encouraging progress we have made in understanding ourselves will continue. One must hope so, because we have also been making rapid progress in acquiring the means of self-destruction. Unless we learn to understand and control the Amity/Enmity Complex, it may very well become the reason for our final demise.