When Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859, it was the most explosive event of the century in the realm of scientific theory and political ideology. Nineteenth-century Social Darwinism had its chilling soundbites, "natural selection" and "survival of the fittest", and the worst press of all when the Nazis built the death camps. The images still haunt us: the shire horses, pirouetting Teutonic blondes in their white gymslips, the fighting stag beetles, and the sewer swarms of rats to be exterminated.
But Darwin hasn't gone away, his body of thought developed these days into more palatable terms like "evolutionary psychology" and "socio-biology"; Pope Pius XII gave Catholics permission to accept evolutionary theory in 1950, and 46 years later his successor John Paul II accepted that the theory of evolution is "more than just a hypothesis". Its adherents have tended to be pillars of the political Right who will use it to explain why men don't iron, why women suffer in the workplace, and why Bill Clinton cannot behave as other mere mortals.
In Marek Kohn's ambitious and absorbing new book, he has attempted to make a case for modern Darwinist theory as a more liberal and enlightening tool in our attempts to find a solution to the question: Does Man have a universal Nature? While social Darwinism concentrated on the primacy of the group, with inevitable consequence in fields as different as ethnicity, nationalism and bogus archaeology, Kohn starts from within and works out. This is a history of the relationship between culture and biology, a look at the way the human mind developed up to and beyond a period about 50,000 years ago when something strange happened and the pre-historic hominine began its transformation into homo sapiens, which is us lot. How did our ancestors view a world without symbols, language or deities? And how did these figures come about? What does a primate of the Acheulean period scavenging or courting in some far-off savannah tell us about ourselves today? Is there something primeval about something as modern and male- bonded as the attempts by the US military to stop women from serving in the armed forces? Is Darwinism, even in its updated forms, merely a message of despair, pessimism and limitation? Or does it provide important paths and lessons for an eco-threatened, increasingly pharmacopoiac world teetering on the brink of the Millennium?
To the Darwin sceptic, it might seem that this is a case of merely changing "what's in it for us?" into "what's in it for me?" And one of Kohn's achievements in this book is to remain unconvinced while unveiling a body of ideas on this subject that obviously deserve attention. The book seems immaculately researched, teeming with players on the evolutionary scene, from the more recognisable like anthropologist Margaret Mead and TV geneticist Steve Jones; to Chris Knights, working in the field of early symbolism and culture; and palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould who is sceptical about the application of evolutionary theory to human behaviour.
For every theory there is a counter theory: for example, the brain trebled in size over the three million years before the emergence of homo sapiens, accelerating fast towards the end of that period in response to the expanding number of tasks set by themselves and each other in the larger and larger social groups.
Robin Dunbar is quoted by Kohn as the proponent of a "grooming theory" by which language evolved as a way of showing interest in more than one individual, thus saving time for the more essential tasks. Such "grooming" sets out a preference and commitment, argues Dunbar, but then Camilla Power believes in contrast that the ability "to chatter to three people at once" in fact reduces the indication of commitment to each "grooming" partner to a third.
Similarly, the study is strong on the effect of Darwinism's shady past on recent developments within its territory: the influence of feminism and gender studies which have eroded the myth of "Early Man the Hunter" and emphasised the importance of females in early groups, notably in areas of high nutritional vegetation. Against the warlike biker gang of gorillas and chimpanzees, are now the hippy communards of the bonobos, apes who are altogether more sexually right on, hot on female genital-genital rubbing and power.
Connecting the whole thread of the text, which ranges across several million years and combines academic discourse with a chatty intimacy that extends to references to Jurassic Park and A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, is the handaxe, early man's first reliable tool, a stone blade crafted for hundreds of thousands of years by our proto-human ancestors. Snapped from flint originally, they were used not just for animal butchery - unmodified flakes of flint could be just as useful - but for hacking sticks or clubs from branches, opening up beehives, digging into logs to get at larvae, peeling off bark and shredding pith. Entirely utilitarian and entirely basic, handaxes still tell us much about our ancestors and ourselves, argues Kohn. The development over as much as 200,000 years of an handaxe with two faces and a triangular shape leads him to a theory of sexual and reproductive worth. They are also crucial to our earliest notions of symmetry and from them comes our further ability to construct symbols and form communication. For language to come, trust is necessary, simply because, in line with the story of the boy who cried wolf, interactive signals need above all to be reliable. And Kohn sees early man as a kind of gas meter, stuck with a limited supply of coins and trying to run on a high-efficiency programme but forced by circumstances to adapt and to expand unnecessary energy in the process.
As We Know It is a work of popular science that teeters towards the unpopular end of the publishing spectrum. As Kohn admits himself in one particularly cheerful interlude, the problem with pre-historical material is that it is both sketchy and humdrum. A bunch of australopithecines deciding to have sex is not the Algonquin Club, and as far as the source material is concerned, one is sometimes reminded of Peter Ackroyd's latest opus The Plato Papers where a Greek philosopher stranded far into the future uses incomplete data to prove, among other things, that The Origin of Species is a brilliant comic satire by Charles Dickens. This may explain why the book's highlights move from the speculative and the theoretical to vividly anecdotal interludes: like a visit to a demonstration of modern- day flint-knapping at the Salisbury home of Phil Harding, one of Britain's finest practitioners. "So Phil sat and knapped, while I stood filming him with a camcorder. At this particular point in history the video camera stands for technological sophistication in a way that other objects in the scene do not; the trains which passed the garden every so often, for example, or the boots on our feet. But if the technological distance from Phil's workboots to my camcorder is like the distance from the Moon to Earth the Boxgrove hominid's handaxes are as far away as Saturn." Actually, Boxgrove, one of the world's great handaxe sites, is reachable on the A441.
There's a big market for books like this, a market which is fuelled by the enveloping guilt of all those of us who kicked science into touch at the age of 16, and realise that we don't ask enough questions about ourselves, about our origins and development as a species and as developed, rational humans. It is salutary to remember while you're sipping your breakfast tea that there was time before Longitude when sailors didn't know where they were; and that without the painstaking, centuries-long development of The Calendar you wouldn't have known when The Eclipse was happening. Like Simon Winchester's philology masterpiece The Surgeon of Crowthorne, the most successful of these books are thrillers, strong on storyline and limited in range. It is no discredit to Marek Kohn that his is a book which, judged simply as a good read, struggles at times under the colossal weight of its scope and arguments.
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