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Too Much Monkey Business | The Nation

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Too Much Monkey Business

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I received the news of paleontologist and popular science writer Stephen
Jay Gould's death, at age 60, in the week I was reading Jonathan Marks's
new book on genetics, human evolution and the politics of science. My
friends and I discussed our shock--Gould had famously "beat" cancer some
years back--and shared charming and ridiculous Gould information, like his
funny-voice contributions to The Simpsons. Postings on leftist
listservs noted that Gould's fulsome New York Times obituary,
which rattled on about his "controversial" theory of punctuated
equilibrium, his SoHo loft and love of baseball, neglected to mention
his extensive antiracist writing and many other radical activities,
including working with the Science for the People group. Rhoda and Mark
Berenson wrote in to commend his strong support for the release of their
daughter Lori, the young American leftist sympathizer long imprisoned as
a "terrorist" in Peru.

With Gould gone, the landscape of progressive English-language popular
science writing is much impoverished. In particular, in an era in which
silly, and most frequently racist and sexist "it's all in our genes"
narratives have become--alas!--purely commonsensical in the mass media,
if not in the academy, we have lost a stalwart and articulate
evolutionary biologist who wrote prolifically against sociobiology's
reductionist framings of human experience. But molecular anthropologist
Jonathan Marks, with his broad history-of-science background, his
take-no-prisoners stance on scientific stupidity and overreaching, and
his hilarious Groucho Marx delivery, can help to fill that void.

What It Means to Be 98% Chimpanzee addresses precisely that
question--the issue of human/higher primate connections--and all its
existential and political entailments. Marks reframes the old C.P. Snow
"two cultures" debate, on the gulf between the sciences and the
humanities, in a new and interesting way. Rather than blaming the
general public for its scientific ignorance--which I must confess is my
own knee-jerk tendency--Marks turns the lens around. He indicts
scientists, and particularly his own confrères in genetics, for
their long history of toadying to elite interests: "Where human lives,
welfare, and rights are concerned, genetics has historically provided
excuses for those who wish to make other people's lives miserable, to
justify their subjugation, or to curry favor with the wealthy and
powerful by scapegoating the poor and voiceless." Marks's conclusion is
that genetics "is therefore now obliged to endure considerably higher
levels of scrutiny than other, more benign and less corruptible, kinds
of scientific pronouncements might."

And scrutinize he does. First, Marks provides us with an accessible
history of the linked Western efforts, since the seventeenth century, to
comprehend the natures of nonhuman higher primates, and to develop
biological taxonomy, both before and since the rise of evolutionary
theory. With word-pictures and actual illustrations of explorers' and
others' accounts of "Pongoes," "Baboones, Monkies, and Apes," he makes
vivid for us the ways in which "the apes, by virtue of straddling a
symbolic boundary, are highly subject to the projections of the
scientist from the very outset of modern science." Not the least of
Marks's virtues are his deft along-the-way explanations, as for instance
the key physiological differences between monkeys and apes (the latter
are "large-bodied, tailless, flexible-shouldered, slow-maturing"). Only
last week, I found myself hectoring a hapless video-store worker about
the absurd conjunction, in the store's display case, of an orangutan
(ape) stuffed animal with a Monkey Business movie poster. Now I
can just hand out 98% Chimpanzee.

The "projection" problem, according to Marks, is far more inherent to
biological taxonomy than heretofore realized. He offers amusing
lightning sketches of scientists past and present, from the
eighteenth-century catfight between Buffon and Linnaeus over whether
intrahuman variation could be categorized biologically--the latter
eventually acknowledging Buffon "by naming a foul-smelling plant after
him"--to paleobiologist George Gaylord Simpson's two-martini lunches in
his 1980s Arizona retirement as he declaimed against contemporary
genetic reductionists. These humanized history-of-science narratives
allow Marks to make clear the uncertainties and arbitrariness of "hard"
science categorizations. While "every biology student knows that humans
are mammals," because human females nurse their young, Marks notes that
"it is not obviously the case that breast-feeding is the key feature any
more than having a single bone in the lower jaw (which all
Mammalia, and only Mammalia, have)." He uses historian
Londa Schiebinger's work to show us how Linnaeus, who had been operating
with Aristotle's four-legged "Quadrupedia" label, switched to
Mammalia because he was active in the contemporary movement
against upper-class women sending their infants out to wet nurses: "He
was saying that women are designed to nurse their own children, that it
is right, and that it is what your family should do."

Political apprehensions, as we know, were woven just as deeply into
scientists' evolving modes of categorizing
intrahuman--"racial"--variation. Here Marks tells some familiar stories
in new ways. Many know, for example, about racist University of
Pennsylvania anthropologist Carleton Coon's last-ditch claims, in the
early 1960s, that "the length of time a subspecies has been in the
sapiens state" determines "the levels of civilization attained by some
of its populations." But Marks offers us as well a fascinating sense of
the times. We see, for example, Sherwood Washburn, the Harvard Yankee of
later Man the Hunter fame, and Ashley Montagu, the debonair English
anthropologist redbaited out of the academy and onto What's My
Line
appearances, ending up "on the same side, working to purge
anthropology once and for all of the classificatory fallacy that had
blinded it since the time of Linnaeus.... Coon died...an embittered and
largely forgotten figure, done in, he supposed, by the forces of
political correctness, and more darkly (he allowed in personal
correspondence) by a conspiracy of communists and Jews as well."

The importance of cultural constructions, and their irreducibility to
biological functions, have been hoary apothegms in anthropology
classrooms for a half-century. Awareness of the susceptibility of
scientific practice to the politics of reputation has been with us since
the Kuhnian 1960s. Ethnographic, historical and journalistic work on
bench science from the 1980s forward has focused on the political
framing of, and politicized language use in, hard science research and
on the power of corporate and state funding to determine research
directions and even findings. But Marks takes the "cultural construction
of science" line much further than even most progressive critics of the
contemporary idiocies of sociobiologists--although he does get off some
lovely lines, like "sociobiology, which studies the biological roots of
human behavior, whether or not they exist." He takes the critique home
to his specialty, evolutionary molecular genetics, and demonstrates the
multifarious ways that recent claims about human nature and evolution,
based on DNA evidence, have been misframed, are irrelevant or often
simply stupid.

That we "are" 98 percent chimpanzee, says Marks, is a profound
misframing. First, our biological closeness to the great apes "was known
to Linnaeus without the aid of molecular genetics." "So what's new? Just
the number." Then he points out that the meaning of phylogenetic
closeness depends upon the standpoint from which it is viewed: "From the
standpoint of a daffodil, humans and chimpanzees aren't even 99.4%
identical, they're 100% identical. The only difference between them is
that the chimpanzee would probably be the one eating the daffodil."
Then, the diagnostic genetic dissimilarities between chimpanzees and
humans do not cause the observed differences between them, and are
therefore irrelevant to discussions of the "meaning" of our genetic
ties:

When we compare their DNA, we are not comparing their genes for
bipedalism, or hairlessness, or braininess, or rapid body growth during
adolescence.... We're comparing other genes, other DNA regions, which
have either cryptic biochemical functions, or, often, no known function
at all. It's the old "bait and switch." The genes we study are not
really the genes we are interested in.

Thus all of the wild claims about our "chimp" nature, which have ranged
over the past forty years from male-dominant hunter (early 1960s) to
hippie artist and lover (late 1960s through 1970s) to consummate
competitor (Gordon Gekko 1980s) are entirely politically constructed.
And, Marks adds, in considering the "demonic male" interpretation of
chimp competition as like that of Athens and Sparta, they are simply
argument by analogy: "Maybe a chimpanzee is sort of like a Greek
city-state. Maybe an aphid is like Microsoft. Maybe a kangaroo is like
Gone With the Wind. Maybe a gopher is like a microwave oven."
Just plain dumb.

Using this set of insights, Marks eviscerates a wide array of
contemporary "hi-tech folk wisdom about heredity" claims, from the
"successes" of both the Human Genome and Human Genome Diversity Projects
to the "Caucasian" Kennewick Man, the "genetic" athletic superiority of
black Americans, the genetics of Jewish priesthood and the existence of
a "gay gene." He is particularly trenchant against the Great Ape
Project's use of human/ape genetic similarities to argue for "human
rights" for apes, frequently to the detriment of the impoverished
African and Southeast Asian residents of ape homelands: "Apes should be
conserved and treated with compassion, but to blur the line between them
and us is an unscientific rhetorical device.... our concern for them
can't come at the expense of our concern for human misery and make us
numb to it."

There is much more in 98% Chimpanzee, a real treasure trove of
thoughtful, progressive scientific thought. But I do have a quibble.
While Marks takes an uncompromising equal rights stance when it comes to
female versus male biology, he doesn't delve anywhere near as deeply
into the insanities of contemporary "hi-tech folk wisdom" about
sex--like the "rape is genetic" claims of a few years back--as he does
about race. And they are legion, and just as politically consequential.
Nevertheless, this is an important and refreshing book, the first
claimant to replace the magisterial and out-of-print Not in Our
Genes
, and a fitting monument to Stephen Jay Gould's passing. Now
tell me the one again about the duck with lips.

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