I met my wife-to-be at the end of the last century. One of the things about her I found inspiring was that she is a poet. She encouraged me to try my hand at her craft.
“Just write about something important to you.” she told me, and the poem of the previous post was the result of that long ago effort. She eventually married me anyways.
I’d like to tie up the whole biology and evolution theme of these recent posts with the democracy theme of the website pages. I better start by saying I was an adolescent of the 70’s. It will seem incredible to my younger readers, and this observation is likely strongly coloured by my own level of understanding, but back then science seemed ascendant. In 1969 we had walked upon the moon. (Well, two of us had, but it was seen as a group effort.) Computers were not yet commonplace, but it was clear they would play bigger roles in our lives in the near future. Revelations of warm-blooded dinosaurs and ancient hominids were popularizing evolution, and organized religion seemed helpless to stem the tide.
A particular branch of study was becoming popular thanks to the Austrian author and naturalist, Konrad Lorenz. He wrote two classics, King Solomon’s Ring in 1949 and On Aggression in 1963. He had an interesting past, and I’d like to take that up in a later post, but for this discussion, his works inspired a great number of intellectuals in ethology. This cool word has, of course, a Greek root. Ethology can be translated as the study of character. That’s not quite the whole of it though. The paradigm chain goes something like this: An elephant does not behave like a mouse, and a mouse does not behave like an elephant, and both are better off for that. Same with cats and dogs, or crows and magpies. The behaviour of any successful creature is deeply tied to its physical form. But the forces of evolution give the successful creature its form. And so those same evolutionary forces also shape the animal’s behaviour. And people are animals.
As a teen I read Dr. Carl Sagan‘s Dragons of Eden when it was first published in 1977, and I learned about the oniony structure of the human brain: the central reptilian part, wrapped in the mammalian part, wrapped again in the primate part, the last blanket grown huge in our own, human, case. But, for me, I really didn’t fully grasp the implications until, a decade later, I read The Naked Ape, by Desmond Morris. This book, written in 1967, popularized the paradigm that our present day-to-day behaviour is locked into us by our turbulent evolutionary past. So, when I felt shy, horny, frustrated, ashamed, angry, jealous, or lonely, as I often did, that was because I was built following nature’s blueprint for creatures like me. Those feelings were to guide me, not define me. It was a personal liberation.
But enough about me in the 80’s; let’s go back in the 70’s. The Naked Ape crossed some social taboos, most famously tying the shape of a lady’s breasts and buttocks to the uniquely human enjoyment of front-to-front sex. (Read the book!) The controversial proposal inspired challenges, the best by Elaine Morgan in her terrific book, The Descent of Woman, published in 1972. Morgan made the strong case for an aquatic phase in human evolution that was not captured in the fossil record (because it was aquatic). While she chided Morris for his breast/buttock theory, her work did not take away from the Naked Ape’s thesis. The ideas in the two works are not mutually exclusive, and both stand as solid, though not definitive, interpretations of the fossil record at the time.
The most gifted writer on this topic was Robert Ardrey. He was a playwright who became fascinated with evolution, and turned his keen insight on human behaviour and his considerable literary talent to a Nature of Man tetralogy, African Genesis, The Territorial Imperative, The Social Contract, and The Hunting Hypothesis. Meanwhile, out in the African rocks, Richard Leakey was following in the footsteps of his famous paleoanthropologist parents, Dr. Louis and Mary Leakey; (a career that, as a younger man, he had sought, with some vigour, to avoid). He wrote Origins in 1977. A decade earlier, Louis and Mary had sponsored three young women who each became famous for their field work with primates, drawing insights into human behaviour by studying our less naked relatives. In the 1970’s Jane Goodall wrote about her observations of Chimp behaviour in My Friends the Wild Chimpanzees, and In the Shadow of Man. Dian Fossey worked with mountain gorillas. She was not famous as an author until Gorillas in the Mist was published in 1983, but she was well known from National Geographic programs in the 1970’s, and she was in the news for her outspoken conservationism, for her condemnation of the poaching industry, and her strong stand against the way primates are treated in zoos. The youngest of the three primatologists was Birutė Galdikas, who went to Indonesia to studied orangutans, a task thought impossible at the time. She started her field work in 1971 and wrote a popular cover story for National Geographic in 1975. She was and remains an advocate for environmental issues and ecological preservation of wild habitat, especially in Indonesia.
Now, I will wind this post up by saying this is by no means a complete list of literary ethologists, and I encourage you to search further afield. Also, many good studies in ethology have been done since the 70’s too. One I’ll recommend to you is Richard Leaky’s later work Origins Reconsidered. He explores some very interesting ethological models, even speculating on the nature of the human soul! But the one point I want to leave you with in this post is that in the 70’s there were a lot of general readers in North America and Europe getting a lot of exposure to ethology, in that liberal age.