I have never thought of myself as a midsized bipedal hominid. But last Friday at a free Fort Lewis College lecture, everyone in the audience fit that classification.
We also learned that in the wider world, we are more prey than predator. The title of the talk was: “Man the Hunted.” Wasn’t that a misprint? Shouldn’t it have been “Man the Hunter”?
Now that cultural events are in full swing this September, it’s time to pay close attention to all the free lectures in particular. You never know when you might learn something new or a new way to see yourself.
Last Friday, the Center of Southwest Studies inaugurated the “Common Earth Series.” The lectures and discussions promise thought-provoking environmental topics. This year’s theme is People and Predators: Who’s Eating Whom? Hmmm. Sounds promising.
A pair of well-regarded biological anthropologists launched the series. Donna Hart of the University of Missouri-St. Louis and Robert Sussman of Washington University, presented the arguments found in their 2006 book: Man the Hunted: Primates, Predators and Human Evolution. Hart and Sussman outlined their significant departure from conventional wisdom.
Like many other people, I have “bought” the evolutionary argument that human beings are fundamentally aggressive, warlike and predatory. Hart and Sussman countered popular belief by showing how sketchy the evidence is that supports the theory. They added layers of evidence to suggest human beings, or the midsized bipedalist hominids we are, may well be hard-wired instead to ... cooperate.
“What’s the nature of human nature?” asked Hart when she began to review the old argument for aggression. She even recalled the opening scene from Stanley Kubrick’s film “2001” and its impact on the popular imagination. “When the ape throws a bone that becomes a nuclear weapon,” she said, “that fixed it.” But what’s the evidence that we are fundamentally aggressive and predatory?
Hart and Sussman looked at the fossil record as well as current ethnographic studies to seriously revise the old, traditional thinking. They looked at dentition and gut-track records (phrases new to me) as well as statistics on human deaths around the world from large animal predation. Sussman followed up by asking: “How does this inform us about human evolution?”
“You can take the five o’clock new view of the world, or you can see things differently,” he added.
Questions were asked about mob psychology, cultural propensities to war, eras of high stress, and religious differences that can lead to periods of constant strife. Hart and Sussman fielded the questions by pointing to evidence regarding the cooperative nature of human beings not to mention altruism. They recommended Douglas P. Fry’s book The Human Potential for Peace: An Anthropological Challenge to Assumptions bout War and Violence.
Check out the center’s website for more in the Common Earth Series through September: www.swcenter.fortlewis.edu. See you on the lecture circuit.
Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, artist and critic. Reach her at email@example.com.