Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Bruce Chatwin's evolutionary biology

I started reading The Songlines in the belief that it was a travel book. And it is, and for a while that's all it is — Bruce Chatwin's book, published in 1987, is primarily about his time in the Australian desert with Aborigines and the people who work with them.

But about a third of the way in, it starts getting evolutionary, with a sudden digression to recall a visit to Konrad Lorenz in 1974 (I think he was interviewing Lorenz for the Sunday Times.). Chatwin goes to Lorenz's family home in Altenberg, just outside Vienna (a place I have visited in its current incarnation as the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research; I don't think it's appearance has changed much).

The memory is triggered when Chatwin sees an Aborigine act out the travels of the Lizard Ancestor, reminding him of Lorenz's own ability to mimic the animals he studied. For anyone wonkish about animal behaviour, this chapter is worth the price of admission alone. But it is also a jumping off point, from where Chatwin goes into Lorenz's ideas about aggression in and human animal nature. From then on the book is increasingly devoted to Chatwin's own ideas about human evolution.

Chatwin was not a complete amateur in this regard. In the mid 1960s, he abandoned a job as an auctioneer at Sotheby's and went off to do a PhD in archaeology at Edinburgh, which e also dropped out of after two years. There's lots in The Songlines about his visits to important palaeoanthropological sites, especially in South Africa, where he spends time with Raymond Dart and Elisabeth Vrba. He also planned a sort-of-academic book about nomads that he never completed, and large sections of Songlines is given over to fragments from those notebooks, along with quotes, reminiscence, anecdote, and so on (much of which teeters on the verge of outrageous padding).

Chatwin's big idea about human evolution is that predators — or The Beast, as he calls it — provided the selection pressure that made our species smart and social. Out on the savannah, he thinks, the carnivores, especially big cats such as Dinofelis, were so menacing that it was adapt-or-die, and in our case adaptation meant becoming human.

Chatwin runs this idea past Lorenz: "[He] tugged at his beard, gave me a searching look and said, ironically or not I'll ever know:
'What you have just said is totally new'."

I say: baboons*.

Chatwin's ideas about The Beast led him to believe that the violence in our natures arose not for competing with each other, but for defending ourselves against predators. And his travels among nomads lead him to believe that settlements, institutions, states and so on pervert our natures so as to bring out the worst in us. That is to say, he thinks that humanity's natural and good state is to be like Bruce Chatwin.

There's nothing wrong with this just-so-storifying, and he's far from the first or last person to come up with a scientific hypothesis that's comfortingly close to his own temperament. I don't think Chatwin's ideas on human evolution have aged very well —if I had to sum up what evolution has done to human behaviour, I'd say it has made us better at cooperating with members of our own group, the better to compete with members of other groups. (See for example, to pick a couple of examples off the top of my head, the work of Sam Bowles and Robin Dunbar.) And humans seem the most likely culprits for the extinction of Dinofelis, and a host of other large vertebrates, not least in Australia. But this isn't a paper, and he's not an academic, so he doesn't have to meet the standards of academia. (Rather, he shows what you can get away with if you've got a fine prose style and the intellectual confidence that goes with being posh.)

I think Chatwin's 1977 travel book, In Patagonia is more successful, but I'm glad I read the Songlines, particularly for its descriptions (the accuracy of which I'm not qualified to judge) of how songlines work, and how Aboriginal Australians use them. Between the lines, there's also much that speaks to more orthodox ideas about human nature in how these groups coexist with one another, even though they are potential competitors for resources.

And one notebook fragment touched a nerve with me. A much-cited Bedouin proverb goes: "I against my brother, my brothers and me against my cousins, then my cousins and I against strangers." This is often, and correctly, given as an illustration of how people instinctively grasp kin selection.

But Chatwin's version adds another line: I against my brother, I and my brother against our cousin, I my brother and cousin against the neighbours, all of us against the foreigner.

What made me so happy about this is that it shows that social distance and genetic distance are equivalent, because they are both a measure of shared interests, and so influence the benefits of cooperation versus competition. Ideas about social distance are a theme of my reputation book, and one that no doubt/I hope I'll be developing here in future posts


*That is, a smart-but-not-that-smart level of group solidarity and some nasty canines seem quite adequate for dealing with large carnivores.

No comments: