Too Much Monkey Business

Too Much Monkey Business


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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