Is it the eating of meat that made humans human?

On Books

April 18, 1999|By Michael Pakenham

In this era of bitterly confrontational culture wars, virtually no subject seems immune to ideological foment. Anthropology is particularly vulnerable. In the 1960s, the "Man the Hunter" debate raged on university campuses and in ideological tag-team venues ranging from the Loony Left to the Neanderthal Right.

That had to do with the contention that in the mainstream of human evolution there is a clear line between males, who go out and hunt for the food that sustains the entire race, and females, who gather fruits and berries or stay home and nurse -- this distinction somehow being taken as making males a superior caste and class.

This towering sexism, of course, has been discarded.

Nowadays, with lots else to argue about, I see nothing but folly in a battle between meat and vegetables. Still, vegetarianism is a major issue of contention among many intense people of the 1990s. Rooted often more deeply in the heart than in the mind, it has the capacity to inflame passions. When that concern is then linked with contentious issues of gender, watch out.

I would expect most reasonable people would feel that the question of whether you gobble animal flesh or exclusively nibble fruits and fibrous plant-products is a matter of personal preference best left in the privacy of citizens' lunch boxes.


Unless, meat-eating is the sole, single determinant of whether you are a human or an orangutan -- and sex roles are also involved.

A provocative, eminently digestible book, just out, raises the carnivore question with scientific solidity. It should not ignite a new round of gender frenzy -- but it very well may.

The book is: "The Hunting Apes: Meat Eating and the Origins of Human Behavior" by Craig B. Stanford (Princeton University Press, 253 pages, $24.95).

An associate professor of anthropology at the University of Southern California, Stanford is also co-author with Richard Wrangham of "Chimpanzee and Red Colobus: The Ecology of Predator and Prey," (Harvard University Press, 352 pages, $35), published last June.

Both books are based in large part on six years of field study by Stanford during the early and mid-1990s in the Gombe National Park in Tanzania and in Bwindi-Impenetrable National Park in Uganda. Most of that time was spent observing and recording ape feeding behavior. Stanford also looked carefully at the fossil-record tracks of humans and other primates for the last 2.5 million years.

He does not suggest that present-day practicing vegetarians or their progeny stand in peril of transmogrifying into apes. He does not even dismiss chimpanzees as unworthy. To the contrary, he celebrates them as humankind's very closest cousins; chimps and humans have DNA sequences that are astonishingly (to me, anyway) 98.4 percent identical. That is a far, far closer kinship than we folk have with the other three Great Apes -- orangutans, gorillas and bonobos (which look like small chimps) -- or any other life form.

In comparison with the other three, chimps are geniuses of organization, tool-use, capacity to comprehend symbols and many of those other characteristics that make you so proud of Junior or Li'l Imogene.

Stanford establishes that the first hominid -- our direct Darwinian ancestors -- separated from the predecessors of the Great Apes approximately 6 million years ago. Humans have evolved greatly since then, but apes have remained much as they were.

Next only to the origin of the universe, there is no more profound question faced by science than that of what makes humans human.

Clearly, what set humans apart, in broadest terms, was the growth of the brain, in size and complexity. What distinguishes chimpanzees from other Great Apes, except for their winning smile, is also brain size. And, as Stanford's intense research reveals, what distinguishes chimps from the other apes is that chimps are relatively voracious hunters, killers and meat eaters. Stanford's observations established that chimps eat vastly more meat than has previously been assumed.

A great deal has been learned since the 1960s about the Great Apes and their use of tools, symbols and other behavior, including warfare, that had not been observed in solid scientific fashion before. Knowledge of early life forms has also increased, through discovery and sophisticated interpretation of fossils, tools and other remnants.

Stanford declares that the earliest hominids ate mainly plant food, with little meat. Active hunting and meat-eating and brain-size expansion by the predecessors of contemporary human beings increased slowly from about 1.8 million years ago -- and then "since the time of Homo erectus and the gradual transition into modern humans some 200,000 years ago, human brain size exploded." He concludes that "the intellect required to be a clever, strategic, and mindful sharer of meat is the essential recipe that led to the expansion of the human brain."

Stanford writes clearly and often deftly, and with admirable concision. Though the book is short, it is occasionally heavy slogging, since to make his arguments scientifically convincing, he has to rely on lots of studies other that his own.

But the book is a marvelous exploration of evolutionary hypotheses -- finally touching on the development of politics and markets, all looked at in terms of food acquisition and the role of meat in the diet of both lesser primates and primitive human societies.

Even a careful reading is not likely to inspire a vegan to race off to a sizzlin' steak house. But it's provocative, and fascinating stuff. And it does play havoc with the sentimentality that somehow humans would be more human if they had forever lived on tofu and oat sprouts.

Pub Date: 04/18/99

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