The Hunting Hypothesis

“The miracle of man is not how far he has sunk but how magnificently he has risen.”
Published in 1976, Robert Ardrey’s The Hunting Hypothesis came ten years after his landmark volume, The Territorial Imperative. Like the earlier book, it is so full of meaning and relevance that quoting from it is difficult. So I have quoted from the opening pages in the hope that it entices you to ferret out a copy of the book and read it from cover to cover. Those who have read the Socks manuscript, and those who will, I hope, shortly read the published work in all its glory, will surely find the following passages from Ardrey ringing all sorts of bells for them:

“Why is man man?

“As long as we have had minds to think with, stars to ponder upon, dreams to disturb us, curiosity to inspire us, hours free for meditation, words to place our thoughts in order, the question like a restless ghost has prowled the cellars of our consciousness.

“Why is man man? What forces divine or mundane delivered to our natural world that remarkable creature, the human being? No literate, civilised people or illiterate primitive tribe has failed to heed the ghost. The question inhabits us all, as universal in our species as the capacity for speech.  Did we enter this world carried on the back of a sacred elephant? Were we coughed up on a pebbly shore by a benevolent, immaculate fish? How frequently, in our oldest myths, the animal participated in the Creation. Even the garden called Eden had its snake.

“Our primitive perceptions of the contribution of the animal to the human presence have been confirmed by the sciences. But the sciences have not revealed why a sapient species should consistently have been attracted by those explanations of our nature that make a minimum of sense. Even the thoughtful Greeks rejected the quite sensible suggestion of an early thinker, Xenophanes, that if cattle had hands and could paint, they would paint their gods in the likeness of cattle. It was too much for the Greeks, who promptly shelved Xenophanes.

“Perhaps it is a portion of the human paradox that we apply our immense capacities for observation and logic to everything but ourselves. The American geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky has defined those three traits distinguishing the human being as our capacity to communicate, an awareness of death, and our awareness of self. Few would strenuously disagree. Yet what Dobzhansky does not add is a capacity for misunderstanding which rivals our capacity to communicate; an awareness of death which has remained at a virtual standstill sin Cro-Magnon man began painting his dead with red ochre some thirty thousand years ago; and a self-awareness which, despite or because of our hopes and our fears, has become in modern times more and more closely synonymous with self-delusion.

“Not in our powers but in our paradoxes shall we search for the essence of man. There is little that lacks logic in the life of the rhesus monkey or the English robin or the Canadian beaver or, so far as we can judge, the extinct woolly rhinoceros. All make sense; it is Homo sapiens that does not. And perhaps that is why our sciences have so conspicuously failed, despite all their tools and their dedication, to advance very far our knowledge of ourselves. As nature abhors a vacuum, so science fails to enjoy the inconsistent.

“Towards the close of African Genesis (1961) I wrote:

‘Had man been born of a fallen angel, then the contemporary predicament would lie as far beyond solution as it would lie beyond explanation. Our wars and our atrocities, our crimes and our quarrels, our tyrannies and our injustices could be ascribed to nothing other than singular human achievement. And we should be left with a clear-cut portrait of man as a degenerate being endowed at birth with virtue’s treasury whose only notable talent has been to squander it. But we born of risen apes, not fallen angels, and the apes were armed killers besides. And so what shall we wonder at? Our murders and massacres and missiles, and our irreconcilable regiments? Or our treaties whatever they may be worth; our symphonies however seldom they are played; our peaceful acres however frequently they may be converted into battlefields; our dreams however rarely they may be accomplished? The miracle of man is not how far he has sunk but how magnificently he has risen. We are known among the stars by our poems, not our corpses.’”

One comment on “Excerpt from The Hunting Hypothesis by Robert Ardrey

  1. Matt Terry

    Hear hear! I know what you mean, you wish you could write so well. Is this the stuff the phrase “lapidary prose” was invented to describe? Is he science’s Nabokov?

    Thanks for the reminder to re-read that fabulous mind, it’s been too long…

    That last line may be the most beautiful hopeful thought I’ve read.

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