Human beings are alternately ashamed and amused by the spectacle of their closest connections on the scala naturae. Behavior that we find unremarkable in dogs and cats—sexual promiscuity or self-abuse—seems grotesque in chimpanzees and baboons. Looking at apes and monkeys in the zoo is a little too much like looking at ourselves in a fun-house mirror. We begin to wonder if the distorted image is the real us.
The idea of comparing the human species with other primates is not an entirely new idea. As Reynolds points out in his tortuously written but valuable study. Lord Monboddo made a stab at it in the late 18th century (and earned the contempt of Dr. Johnson). Actually, the idea is a great deal more ancient than Reynolds suspects. In Aristotle’s system of classification, man is put at the top—after the monkeys—and Galen the physician, when he could no longer dissect human corpses, turned to the barbary ape as the next best thing.
What we can learn about human nature—as opposed to anatomy—is another matter. Early studies of apes came to astonishing conclusions about aggression and promiscuity on the basis of limited and artificial experiments. Field studies have proved far more valuable, but even these can be manipulated to supply the correct results. In one school of thought often described as “conservative,” primate studies reveal that early man was a violent and aggressive animal that staked out and defended territory against outsiders and within his little band was engaged in a constant struggle to maintain a dominant position in the social hierarchy. In the opposing view, which we may as well call “liberal,” early man was nonaggressive—like the chimpanzee, a species supposedly not interested in territory or status. Data can be quoted in support of any version of either hypothesis.
Of course, these extremes are caricatures, but Reynolds—a pronounced “liberal”—puts the case almost that starkly. His own version is that primates employ aggressive behavior sparingly and with restraint within their social group as a means of maintaining cohesion, a position not far removed from that of the arch-conservatives Konrad Lorenz and his disciple Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt. Reynolds’ great contribution is the synthesis of an enormous amount of research that tends to show the universality of basic human emotions and facial expressions, as well as a high degree of similarity (continuity?) with lower primates.
Reynolds’ most provocative chapter is on the relationship between primate grooming and human wealth. Grooming behavior is not primarily cosmetic or even hygienic in primates. In some species it is “the most frequent kind of social action.” Some of it is between maternal care-givers; in other circumstances it takes place between males. Typically, high-status males are appeased and placated by their inferiors. Grooming between the sexes always increases in the mating season. He makes the point that grooming can be successfully solicited and that this pattern of behavior underlies another pattern that is closer to the human: the request for food or other objects. Except for mothers, “adult males are the target for requests by both males and females.” Since grooming and food transfer create networks of exchange, the human phenomenon of wealth and economic exchange may well be rooted in precisely such simian patterns of behavior. In this context, the old adage “I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine” takes on the character of natural law.
The implications of such ethological data for economic theory are enormous. In the first place, exchange can be plausibly viewed as an essentially behavioral relationship, independent of objects. Secondly, exchange can be interpreted as a much more complex affair than a profit-loss transfer, since grooming and food transfer can be conducted in more than one context; e.g., maternal nurturing of children on the one hand or coercion of inferiors on the other. Still, Reynolds’ study may go a long way to support what seemed to be the weakest aspect of George Gilder’s Wealth and Poverty: his insistence on making gift-giving and reciprocity the basis for capitalism.
Reynolds’ emphasis on continuity leads him to conclude that the human represents merely an “increase of malefemale care giving and more exclusive sexual relationships within a social organization similar to a multimale troop,” e.g., of chimpanzees. He points out—rather brilliantly—that it is easier to derive human social organization from a multimale troop than from a single-male harem organization (of, for example, the hamadryas baboons used by Fox and Tiger in The Imperial Animal), because in a multimale group, “cooperative relationships among unrelated adult males already exist.” He therefore rejects the naturalness of the nuclear family in favor of “matrilines and semipromiscuous mating of the multimale troop.”
But surely that is not a reasonable conclusion from his own evidence. As Robin Fox pointed out, the essence of the human family is that it combines—uniquely—two different systems of primate relatedness: the mother-child bond of chimpanzees and the male-female pair bond of many baboons. Whenever or however it was that hominid females captured hominid males in a permanent alliance for the rearing of children, it is now a feature universal to mankind. While it is true, as Reynolds argues, that the nuclear family nowhere exists as the highest level of social organization, autonomous extended families are found. In fact, one of the most striking features of many primitive societies is the high degree of autonomy enjoyed by family groups—an odd development if the multimale group were the origin of our social system.
All in all, Reynolds has produced a significant book. It is to be regretted that some editor did not terrorize him into writing a readable prose, relegating his endless bibliographical quibbles to the footnotes and equipping his book with a usable index instead of a page and a half summary of topics.
[On the Evolution of Human Behavior: The Argument From Animals to Man, by Peter C. Reynolds; University of California, Berkeley]