Nature Notes: Talking ’Bout Evolution

When we examine infrahuman cultures, say, those of primates, we do find some progressive cultures

   The two recent gang-rape incidents in India and the beheading of a Sri Lankan woman in Saudi Arabia, a so-called friendly nation, has caused me to wonder if we are making any progress at all. We are supposed to be culturally evolving and perhaps some of us are, but these atavistic acts by men makes me wonder.
    It reminds me of the retort supposedly attributable to Thomas Huxley on the presentation of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution: “We may have come from monkeys, but some of us haven’t come far enough.” Has the human species finished evolving in the physical and mental sense, and is now only advancing, or regressing, via cultural evolution?
    When we examine infrahuman cultures, say, those of primates, we do find some progressive cultures. For example, in the great Congo Basin in central Africa, the bonobo, a very close relative of the chimpanzee, has a society that is as matriarchal as it is patriarchal. There is an equality between female and male that has only rarely been obtained in the world’s various human cultures. On the other hand, in chimpanzee circles, the males are clearly dominant. However, even in those infrahuman animal societies where the males are dominant, and there are many, there is no such thing as “gang rape,” or even rape for that matter. There is a time and place for sex and it doesn’t take place without the female’s readiness and consent.
    Indeed, there is as much matriarchal rule in animal societies, such as in those of the white-tailed deer and African elephant. Ironically, it is men that are poaching and detusking elephants in many parts of Africa, including Kenya, at this very moment. It is men that are killing the rhinoceroses for their horns worth millions to other men. It is the male wildlife managers that have been championing the killing of does rather than bucks in order to reduce deer populations where deer are considered a “nuisance,” such as on eastern Long Island.
    While there are still human cultures where a man may have more than one wife, say as in some Islam-dominated countries or in South Africa, monogamy or serial monogamy, one-after-the-other abetted by divorce laws, is the majority rule across the globe. Many of us romantics and monogamists are pleased when we hear of infrahuman species that are monogamous, such as ospreys, mute swans, great horned owls, and a few others. Where monogamy is concerned, birds may be more highly evolved than mammals.
    We associate love with monogamy, but there is all kinds of love — maternal, paternal, fraternal, and so on. When one elephant in a matriarchy passes on, the others are said to grieve. Elephants are long livers and thus may be associated with each other for years and years in a herd, providing for long and continuous day-to-day relationships. We also have many examples of pets missing their masters, such as the recent case where a dog was found cold and shivering at a church where his owner’s funeral took place 10 miles from the man’s home. The dog had been missing for several days.
    Think of all the internecine struggles resulting in hundreds of daily human deaths throughout the world. The so-called infrahuman species very rarely have members that fight to the death of one or the other. If they had weapons of mass destruction would they use them? Probably not. Yes, lions, tigers, wolves, orcas, and other mammalian carnivores prey on animals of other species and sometimes on their own, but they kill to eat, not to leave their victims untouched lying on the arena floor.
    What species makes and distributes pornographic films and pictures? What species creates and markets video games that focus on mass killings in horrific ways with horrific weapons? What species sells and maintains young women as sex slaves? What species is famous for its indulgence in a worldwide network of pedophilia? Only one. You guessed it, Homo sapiens.
    Yes, there are cases where foxes in a hen house will slaughter many fowl in a short time and eat only a few, but this is unusual. American buffalo hunters would kill 100 in one day, not for the meat, mind you, but for the furry and leathery pelts. Raping and killing for sport are not that different in motivation.
    That biologist who said, “we haven’t come far enough” more than a century and a half ago was spot on. We do have a long way to go. We could learn a lot from the infrahumans, but will we choose to do so? That is the question.