The hunt for human nature


Artwork from the Look and Learn series of children’s books c1970. PHOTO/© Look and Learn

We still live in the long shadow of Man-the-Hunter: a midcentury theory of human origins soaked in strife and violence

The Austrian zoologist Konrad Lorenz embodied the ideal of a white-maned sage. Acclaimed by readers in German and English alike for his books King Solomon’s Ring (1949) and Man Meets Dog (1949), he enjoyed worldwide renown as an expert on the behaviour of fowl, fish and beast. These delightful popular introductions to evolutionary theory and animal behaviour circulated through the publishing world accompanied by photographs that depicted Lorenz surrounded by imprinted goslings at his rural research institute at Seewiesen in Germany. At the age of 60, Lorenz published On Aggression (1963). Readers again loved it, although the stark warnings it offered differed from the cheerful tone of his earlier books.

Lorenz asked readers to imagine the perspective of an unbiased observer on another planet – perhaps Mars. He specified that the observer should possess a telescope of sufficient power so as to perceive the ‘migration of peoples, wars and similar great historical events’, but weak enough that it couldn’t identify individuals. What would this Martian naturalist think of the behaviour of humans on Earth? Lorenz insisted that his imagined observer ‘would never gain the impression that human behaviour was dictated by intelligence, still less by responsible morality’.

In the decades following the Second World War, scientific discussions about human origins took on great moral weight. Reckoning with the aftermath of the Holocaust and the popularity of eugenic theories of race around the world, many anthropologists and zoologists embraced an intellectual framework that united all human beings into a common biological order. They sought to reject theories of brutal domination, hierarchical racial taxonomies, and worse. A closer look at evolutionary origins, they argued, would affirm human commonality.

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