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Creatures of Cain

The Hunt for Human Nature in Cold War America


Erika Lorraine Milam


Princeton: University Press, 2019

Hardcover. xiii+398 pages. ISBN 9780691181882. $29.95


Reviewed by Roger Chapman

Palm Beach Atlantic University



Is the human being a “killer ape”? Creatures of Cain explores how this idea was a popular notion in the United States between 1955 and 1975, representing a shift from an optimistic view about human nature to a negative one, a view of biological determinism that was introduced by discussions pertaining to evolution. Author Erika Milam, professor of history at Princeton University, explains that the “evolutionists sought to inscribe in human nature the moral depravity of Cain’s descendants” [2]. The discussion is said to have been driven by the pessimism following two world wars, the Holocaust, and the advent of the nuclear age and its potential for world destruction. The backdrop of the “killer ape” thesis was the Cold War, the global struggle in which both sides engaged in ruthless violence. According to Milam, the “killer ape” theory was rooted “in the texture of American intellectual life during the Cold War” [7] as certain scientist (from primatologists to anthropologists to zoologists) sought to offer a genetic explanation for the overall aggressive human behavior, the assertion that “human origins lay in our capacity to kill” [230] as related to an evolutionary split from the apes.

Milam’s work, which was shortlisted for the John Pickstone Prize of the British Society for the History of Science, is broken down into five sections of three chapters each, plus an introduction and a very short coda, covering from the 1950s through the 1980s. In addition, some thirty illustrations of the period under study augment the overall narrative. The volume is richly based on archival sources from university archives to the US Library of Congress (i.e., the Margaret Mead Papers). Supplementing the primary sources are interviews conducted by the author of fifteen figures involved in the debate under study—from BBC Radio writer Elaine Morgan (a feminist who challenged the “masculine” view of evolution) to Peter Dow (who helped design the 1950s curriculum for MACOS or Man: A Course of Study). Nearly a hundred pages of endnotes cite the work; plus there is an index. Readers with a dry sense of humor will appreciate some of the clever chapter titles (e.g., “Battle for the Stone Age,” “Woman the Gatherer,” “The Academic Jungle,” “The White Problem in America”).

The title of the book is partly inspired by the first illustration shown in the introduction—a drawing of a man (labelled “MANKIND”) having his forehead bloodily etched by the index finger of a hand and forearm (labelled “AGGRESSION”). The drawing originally accompanied a 1976 Newsday editorial titled “The Mark of Cain.” Milam explains, “Just as the biblical story in which Cain slew his brother Abel had introduced murder as a human vice, contemporary evolutionists [of the 1960s and 1970s] sought to inscribe in human nature the moral depravity of Cain’s descendants” [2]. While it is true that Cain is the first murderer mentioned in the Bible, in the story the “mark of Cain” has to do with the protection God placed on him after he was punished by having to roam the earth (which actually did not happen because instead Cain built a city and settled down). The mark was to prevent him from being murdered by others. In other words, the metaphor “Mark of Cain” is being applied differently than its original meaning in the Book of Genesis. Though trivial, it suggests the messiness, hence imprecision, of “marking” humans with universal qualities while claiming such findings as scholarly.

Creatures of Cain explains the evolution of the “killer ape” thesis through to its extinction. It began with postwar scientists acting as public intellectuals (whom their critic colleagues scorned as “visible scientists” and whom Milam refers to as “colloquial scientists”), connecting their research findings to current issues. The presupposition was that by studying animals in nature insights could be gained about the human condition and its unique attributes. The “killer ape” argument is the belief that the human is an evolved ape uniquely advanced due to acquiring a predisposition for violence. This belief was popularized in America by the publication of American playwright and science writer Robert Ardrey’s African Genesis : A Personal Investigation into the Animal Origins and Nature of Man (1961) and Territorial Imperative : A Personal Inquiry into the Animal Origins of Property and Nations (1966); Austrian zoologist Konrad Lorenz’s On Aggression (1963, though originally published in English in 1966); and British zoologist Desmond Morris’ The Naked Ape : A Zoologist’s Study of the Human Animal (1967) and The Human Zoo : A Zoologist’s Classic Study of the Urban Animal (1969). The unraveling of the theory (explained in part five of Milam’s work) occurred when chimpanzees named Passion and Pom (mother and daughter, respectively) were discovered killing infant chimpanzees—this was documented by Jane Goodall while doing field work at the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania—suddenly human beings were not the unique primate the “killer ape” theory supposed.

The book is a cautionary tale on what can happen when scientists seek to make their work “relevant” for social science and tailored for popular culture (such as for interviews in Playboy). Milam warns that too great a reliance on science for explaining human nature is a legacy of the history of the “killer ape” theory. Overall, the debate is part of the larger ongoing debate that will probably never end, the “nature versus nurture” question. At stake with too much siding with “nature” is the possibility to rationalize any negative status quo as being biologically determined, which in its extreme form implies humans are “programmed for Armageddon” [231|. In 1974, when E.O. Wilson published Sociobiology, he aroused a spirited response from the paleontologist Stephen Gould. Speaking against biological determinism, Gould scoffed, “With Konrad Lorenz as godfather, Robert Ardrey as dramatist, and Desmond Morris as raconteur, we are presented with the behavior of man, ‘the naked ape,’ descended from an African carnivore, innately aggressive and inherently territorial” [246|. For Gould and those who rejected the “killer ape” thesis, this was a type of fatalism, if not an excuse, to not do anything to improve society and its institutions. The excuse would blame war and violence on biology, naturalize economic inequality, and rationalize sexism and institutional racism, etc. Indeed, Ardrey thought blacks and whites were two different subspecies and reasoned a “high likelihood that integration is impossible” [179, Ardrey’s own words]. A belief in biological determinism, Gould argued, has political implications, forcing society to either choose totalitarianism to deprogram the collective “killer ape” or to “remain nasty and vicious within democracy” [246]. Margaret Mead, who was skeptical of a universal human nature, earlier opined in 1955, “Whatever man has invented, man can change” [22], adding, “War can become as obsolete as dueling.”

The book is also a cautionary tale about interpreting evidence. Contrary to the subtitle, Milam’s work does not deal much with the Cold War. Those carrying out the Cold War were not giving any major attention to the “killer ape”—it is safe to say the theory was not a driving factor in decisions about US foreign policy. Obviously, the Cold War was occurring while scientists were engaged in their debate, but it is safe to say their research had a life of its own (despite those “colloquial scientists” who were looking for their fifteen minutes of popular culture fame, not to mention royalties from popular books). Scientists attempted to unveil “the universal human nature” by integrating three kinds of evidence: (1) the fossils of extinct hominids, (2) studies of existing indigenous people living in primitive hunter-gatherer clans, and (3) observations of animals out in the wild (especially gorillas, baboons, and chimpanzees). Certain paleontologists, bent on tracing the source of human aggression, determined that certain fossilized bones fragments represented early weapons until it was later theorized that those fragments probably were the consequence of extracting bone marrow for food. That anecdote could serve as a warning of how historians choose backdrops for their narratives.

Creatures of Cain is likely to become a classic in history of science studies. The work is beautifully written and has layers of rich detail, much of which could be mined for gaining insights on contemporary debates. Those who are curious about why during the COVID pandemic there were skeptics refusing to get vaccinated for protection from the coronavirus could gain insight from Milam’s narrative, which documents a trend of public access to science (whether or not the public has the appropriate skills and judgment to derive wise conclusions). Despite any justified criticism of “colloquial scientists,” it seems a poor idea to have scientists only communicating with scientists with the general public reading over their shoulders and misinterpreting a substantial portion. This is why, for instance, climate change for some Americans remains a debate.



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