Technically Animals

by stephenpalmersf

A couple of things recently have caused me to ponder once again the way we consider the evolution of humanity. For decades, if not centuries, this activity has been the preserve of men – at least, those in the sciences. It could be argued that women novelists have brought a huge contribution to our understanding of ourselves. The first thing that made me ponder was the broadcast yesterday and today of the excellent David Attenborough-narrated radio documentary The Waterside Ape, which examined theories and ideas of human evolution in association with water – mostly in the form of coastal regions. There was much talk of Elaine Morgan and her work: she was the author of the controversial The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis and The Descent Of Woman. The second thing was a very brief post on an SFF forum, in which an entirely physical (warmth, food, shelter, land) list was given as the sole requirements for human beings before anything else could be taken into account.

Do we still imagine that human beings are basically animals with intelligence tacked on? I think a lot of men believe that, and it shows in some of the more ridiculous theories proposed for the course of humanity’s evolution, of which one of the worst was Raymond Dart’s hunter theory. That theory is rightly mocked now, but the fact that it arose and was taken seriously is an indication of how blinkered male thinking dominates so much of our perception of ourselves. And we only need to think of B.F. Skinner to see the extremes to which such male thinking can go.

My reply to the forum post was to point out that in fact a list of physical requirements is only half the list. We also need as absolute necessities: family, community, love, meaning. A human being with only the former or only the latter is not going to survive.

It is all these social requirements that women scientists and thinkers often put forward. Women, of course, being the “compassionate,” “social” and “soft” gender are good at such things – or so men imagine. Men, apparently, are the scientific, reasoning, realistic gender.

I think this is not only nonsense, it is dangerous nonsense. We are almost entirely social beings. The whole point of consciousness is that, via the mental model of reality which we all carry in our minds, instincts are reduced to almost nothing; and although we do have animal instincts, they are far more prevalent in the very early years, when they are needed – when there is as yet no conscious mind. Why dangerous nonsense? Because it obscures, I would argue often deliberately, the truth of humanity – that we are social animals above all else. To bring into play animal traits that were last relevant 2 million years ago is a ploy intended to keep men where they want to be: top dog. Ignoring the social truth of humanity is ignoring women.

I just hope the steady influx of women into positions of influence in science is going to banish once and for all these ‘human animal’ notions of humanity. Nothing can be understood until we understand the human condition. That is not an animal condition: it is something else entirely.