THE WORLD VIEW of a newborn infant is very limited, restricted to little more than its own feelings and the breast and smell of its mother. But the growing child soon discovers a much richer landscape, populated by other adults and children, representatives of other species, manufactured objects, rocks, clouds and stars, as well as a bewildering variety of thoughts, ideas, feelings and perceptions. It is interesting as well as adaptive to try to make sense of the outside and inside worlds simultaneously, to acquire an understanding of ourselves, and such attempts date back at least to the dawn of our species, several million years ago.
Peter Farb has hazarded a compilation - I do not think a synthesis is intended - of the most important recent findings in the social and behavioral sciences and how they relate to the nature and future of humanity. While overall I find the book disappointing, there is much of interest in it. Farb, a male human, has made a conscientious attempt to expurgate his book of any trace of sexism. He argues that "Man" or "Mankind" cannot properly represent the entire human species and introduces the not altogether displeasing alternative, "Humankind." There are occasional delightful variants from usual practice - a family tree of the primates, at the top of which is a woman carrying a briefcase while purposefully striding; or in this exposition: "Imagine, for example, that total control of a society ought to be lodged in some great, revered leader. She issues an edict. . . ." Even Farb's footnotes are indicated by a newly designed typeface combining the traditional biological symbols for woman and man.
The principal sections of the book are devoted to the evolution, adaptations, variety, psychology, and social interactions of the human family plus an optimistic epilogue. There is a nice discussion of hunter-gatherer societies, with anecdotes from the Tasaday and Kung; a description of the efficiency of harvesting wild wheat as our ancestors did; insights into the crushing labor and utter hopelessness of traditional peasant societies; a paean to the diversity of city life; an illuminating chart on the productivity of modern agriculture - in which we find potatoes, rice, and game returning ten times the energy expended in harvesting them, while distant fishing and feedlot beef return only one-tenth the equivalent energy required to obtain these sources of food; a retelling after Vasari of the attempt by Leonardo da Vinci's half-brother to father a close copy of Leonardo; discussions of hemophilia among the royal families of Europe and ADO blood types among the populations of the world; the recounting of some astonishing feats of memory; an interesting speculation that the "dropping out" of affluent counterculture youths in the recent history of the United States has offered otherwise unavailable opportunities to less affluent and minority youngsters; musings on the social function of the Santa Claus myth; the news that Japanese children generally sleep with their parents at least until puberty; accounts of thinly disguised racism in Brazil; the contention that modern agriculture could feed very much larger human populations than exist today, if the world's wealth were redistributed, and a number of striking photographs.
But it is difficult to read five consecutive pages without encountering some error of fact or some example of murky thinking - from page nine which underestimates the antiquity of life on Earth by some 2.5 billion years to page 466 which describes a curious recommendation made to Parliament by a non-existent "British Academy of Sciences." While the evolution of our species is discussed in the first 85 pages, the nature of the evolutionary process is untreated until page 260. On page 26 is the claim that the tendency over the past few centuries towards precocious puberty is evolutionary. On page 33: "Adult males can obviously show no interest in off-spring whose paternity is unknown," a remark about primates which seems to imply that chimps have figured out the connection between sex and childbirth, and which is counterindicated by many examples from human communities. Farb seems to think that Rama is a Greek word for "god"; that all the Neanderthals on the Earth collectively "evolved by degrees" into modern homo sapiens; and that each human gene "may consist of tens of thousands of codes," when there is but a single genetic code. He finds himself arguing that "money is everything"; occupying six pages discussing caste on the Indian subcontinent without even hinting at the Aryan invasion of Dravidian India; and asserting that "humans are not believed to possess any instincts." Incest is discussed with no mention of the many studies in population genetics of its long-term hereditary consequences. In relevant places Margaret Mead is mentioned but Levi-Straus not; Piaget but not Erik Erikson. In the final chapter, after listing a small fraction of the many serious perils which face our species, Farb offers, with little apparent justification, the bland assurance that he does not believe such catastrophes will occur. I hope we will avoid global catastrophe; but it will require more than a well-meaning papering over of imminent crises.
The most irksome aspect of a book with ecumenical pretensions about sexism is its unabashed and unsupported human chauvinism. Farb states that this book is anthropocentric "simply because anthropocentrism is a hallmark of our species." So, on comparable evidence, is warfare, infanticide, and lumbago. But we do not thereby revere lumbago. Farb asserts - when there is at least good anecdotal evidence to the contrary - that only humans and chimps mourn; that the variety of human sexual behavior is unsurpassed by other species; that only humans care for the disabled or elderly; that "no other mammal can equal the stamina and the sustained speed of the marathon runner" (compare with the humpback whale on an abyssal dive or with the 12,500-mile yearly journeys of the arctic tern); and that "moral awareness" is unique to humans (in fact, many primates have incest taboos). All this anthropocentrism has a curiously defensive tone: "No chimpanzee is capable of understanding the difference between holy water and ordinary drinking water." Well, perhaps primates in their graceful leaps from branch to branch have perceptions and metaphors, as well as superstitions, unknown to humans. Frab's exquisite sensitivities on such issues as sexism play uncomfortable counterpoint to his self-congratulatory human chauvinism. The book recalls a remark by the American novelist Ann Druyan which may provide a depressing definition of the title subject: "Man is the only animal which feels compelled to recite endlessly its own uniqueness."
The fact, while many and interesting, are largely unrelated. They do not build to a central synthesis or conclusion. The logic is often confused and the reasoning flawed. There are obvious social benefits from well-mounted attacks on sexism, racism, or rigid class structure. But the arguments in this book are so poorly presented that the attacks fall far short of being compelling.
On page 370 Farb presents evidence which points most reasonably to the conclusion that class structure has definite roots among our primate ancestors. Since primates and other non-human animals also exhibit behavior which might be described as ethical, a plausible conclusion might be that there are two different and conflicting biological traditions in human evolutionary history, one hierarchical, the other cooperative. If this is true it has practical implications and is a fact worth knowing. But Farb, because he does not wish to believe that humans have instincts or that apes have altruism, does not even discuss such a possibility.
I began reading Humankind with good-will and the expectation of great reading pleasure. I finished with the reluctant conclusion that it is terribly earnest and well-meaning, but more episodic than a scrapbook, inattentively reasoned, and fatally marred by its human chauvinism.