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A Troubling Tome

Greg Laden

Throughout A Troublesome Inheritance, Wade frames his argument with a review of human evolution from a chimplike ancestor. Unfortunately, his depictions of evolution and his characterization of our hunter-gatherers ancestors are glib and inconsistent.

Wade claims that both chimpanzees and humans “inherited a genetic template” for social behavior from their common ancestor and asks why humans “should ever have lost the genetic template for . . . social behaviors.” But it has not been demonstrated that chimpanzee social behaviors differentiate because of genetics.

Chimpanzee subspecies are very different from each other genetically. In 1999 Henrik Kaessmann, Victor Wiebe, and Svante Pääbo reported in Science that “comparison to humans shows the diversity of chimpanzee sequences to be almost four times as high . . . as the corresponding values of humans.” That same year, Richard Warangham, Jane Goodall, and their colleagues published a Nature paper characterizing a great diversity in chimpanzee culture, including 39 distinct behavioral patterns, that could not be sorted out on the basis of subspecies and that were observed to be highly variable within subspecies. In short, chimp genetic variation has not been shown to correlate with cultural variation. Unlike humans, chimpanzees do have true races, but racial differences just don’t explain cultural differences among chimps.

Elsewhere, Wade refers problematically to the “nomadic life of hunter- gatherer bands.” Making no reference to actual studies, he uses a broad brush to paint a hunter-gatherer culture unsubstantiated by any recognizable ethnography. His descriptions of how hunter-gatherers deal with social transgressions and interpersonal violence instead recall the writings of 19th century armchair anthropologists. Wade does not appear familiar with the primary and current literature on foragers, and he makes the additional mistake of accepting psychologist Steven Pinker’s mischaracterization of the data on the high rate of violence among hunter-gatherers. The archaeological record shows periods when violence rates spiked in some ancient groups, but skeletal remains from ancient foragers are rare and so the data are sparse. We who study living hunter-gatherers generally have the impression that they are violence averse. There is a good chance that changes in levels of violence in past human societies have been multidirectional and complex.

Pressing his thesis on the links between genes and behavior, Wade states that the transition to agriculture meant that “the aggressive and independent nature of hunter-gatherers, accustomed to trusting only their close kin, had to yield to a more sociable temperament and the ability to interact peaceably with larger number of people.” Wade seems to have invented a form of hunter-gatherer and characterized it to fit his expectations of (inconveniently unproven) genetically determined social behavior. Having lived on the outskirts of peaceful horticultural settlements with very peaceful hunter-gatherers in Central Africa during the first Gulf War, I have quite different impressions of the alleged evolution toward peacefulness. My anecdotal experience doesn’t dismantle Wade’s argument, but it points to a historical complexity that he overlooks.

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