Ape and essence

Marek Kohn snarls at scientists who pretend that chimps can chat

Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence by Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson, Bloomsbury, pounds 16.99

Words like "friendship" or "rape" are taboo in most departments of science, but in primatology they are key terms. The effects are remarkable enough in scientific papers; in popularisations, licence sails merrily into ludicrousness. Guess whose inner monologue this is: "It's Carla...She killed Susan's younger sister four years ago, ripped her apart; dead in the middle of her first pregnancy. What a pleasure it would be to get her."

The thinker's name is Sally, but she's not human. Nor even a chimpanzee. Sally is a hyena, a member of an order of mammals not usually credited with the capacity for vengefulness - not in books aimed at people over 12, at any rate. Not only do Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson put words in animals' minds, but they are convinced that they can read the animals' emotions too. Their conviction arises from observation; 20 years' worth in Wrangham's case.

When chimpanzees attack members of another chimpanzee group, Demonic Males asserts, "their assaults...are marked with a gratuitous cruelty - tearing off pieces of skin, for example, twisting limbs until they break, or drinking a victim's blood". Although it wouldn't make a lot of difference to the victim, there may be an alternative explanation to bloodlust. Chimps co-operate in the kill, but feeding is a free-for-all, with the result that the two activities merge horribly into each other. The best way for an individual chimp to gain from the kill is to tear off parts of the victim: it sounds as though similar moves are triggered in attacks whose goal is not food. But "feeding frenzy" does not have moral force, unlike "gratuitous cruelty", "the mark of Cain", or "demonic". This is about original sin, recast as our Darwinian legacy.

The underlying argument of the book is strong enough to manage without these purple patches, though the seamless way in which they blend into the evolutionary grist suggests complicity on the part of primatology, rather than artfulness on the part of the authors. Demonic Males begins from the proposition that the common ancestor from which humans and chimps are descended was, in fact, very like a chimpanzee. It goes on to argue that the tendency seen in chimpanzee males to form mutually hostile coalitions would have been a persistent theme in subsequent hominid evolution. The principal agents sustaining this theme are not demonic but ecological, notably the density of food plants and the size of primate groups.

One small variable, Wrangham and Peterson suggest, led to the evolution of one species whose "demonism" was "vanquished". During the Ice Ages, the central African forests shrank, eradicating gorillas south of the Zaire river; without gorillas, herbs subsequently flourished. This reliable food supply allowed chimpanzees to travel in more stable groups, which meant they could become the sub-species known as bonobos. Stability allowed the females to spend time together, which allowed them to bond, which gave them power. Female bonding is cemented by sexual activity, which is also a key means of resolving conflict throughout bonobo society. The net result of female power is a lot more sex and a lot less violence.

Wrangham and Peterson suggest that it was a similar twist of ecological fate that turned us away from Bonobo Eden and set us off on a path more like that of common chimpanzees. It's a resonantly mysterious idea, this variable of the Fall, but it distracts us from what may be a vital part of the story. So do flights of rhetorical fancy that put words in non- human minds.

If one's model is a sort of vulgar Darwinism, which sees culture as a veneer on the top of biology in the way that vulgar Marxism saw it as a veneer on the surface of economics, then language and symbolism are not important. But these uniquely human faculties have a profound influence on the character of human violence. Above all, they turn the group into an abstract entity. Chimpanzees can tell allies from enemies in a fight. But, despite a facile remark about seeing male chimps as defenders of "ethnic purity", there is no more reason to think that chimpanzees could grasp the idea of ethnicity than to think that hyenas can talk.

There could never be such a thing as a chimpanzee flag. Nor, according to Wrangham and Peterson, could there be such a thing as a human society in which female bonds are as strong as those among bonobos. Instead, they propose that where possible, power should be shifted from dominant individuals (normally male) to institutions. Frustratingly, that's about as far as they go. Unlike many of those currently aboard the sociobiological bandwagon, Wrangham and Peterson genuinely want to make society better. But, because they lack faith in women's solidarity, their argument follows a path to bathos typical of popular sociobiology: mammoth evolutionary problems, dwarf solutions.

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker