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.