Crafting Gentleness

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Our Kinder, Gentler Ancestors

Our Kinder, Gentler Ancestors
Ardi casts doubt on the notion that we have an innate killer instinct

By Frans de Waal

Are humans hard-wired to be ruthlessly competitive or supportive of one another?
The behavior of our ape relatives, known as peaceful vegetarians, once bolstered the view that our actions could not be traced to an impulse to dominate. But in the late 1970s, when chimpanzees were discovered to hunt monkeys and kill each other, they became the poster boys for our violent origins and aggressive instinct.

I use the term "boys" on purpose because the theory was all about males without much attention to the females of the species, who just tagged along evolutionarily. It was hard to escape the notion that we are essentially "killer apes" destined to wage war forever.
Doubts about this macho origin myth have been on the rise, however, culminating in the announcement this past week of the discovery of a fossil of a 4.4 million year old ancestor that may have been gentler than previously thought. Considered close to the last common ancestor of apes and humans, this ancestral type, named Ardipithecus ramidus (or "Ardi"), had a less protruding mouth equipped with considerably smaller, blunter canine teeth than the chimpanzee's impressive fangs. This ape's canines serve as deadly knives, capable of slashing open an enemy's face and skin, causing either a quick death through blood loss or a slow one through festering infections. Wild chimps have been observed to use this weaponry to lethal effect in territorial combat. But the aggressiveness of chimpanzees obviously loses some of its significance if our ancestors were built quite differently. What if chimps are outliers in an otherwise relatively peaceful lineage?



Post a Comment

<< Home