Excerpt from The Social Contract – a Personal Inquiry into the Evolutionary Sources of Order and Disorder by Robert Ardrey. It is the third in Ardrey’s quartet of studies of mankind’s animal origins, the others being African Genesis, The Territorial Imperative, and The Hunting Hypothesis. I believe they form a definite progression of ideas, and should thus be read in the order in which they were written. This sequence of ideas about Homo sapiens illustrates also Ardrey’s integrity as a scientist; where subsequent enquiry shows the error of earlier conclusions, he promptly admits it, and changes his hypothesis accordingly. He demonstrates the central merit of the scientific method and thereby shows us an exemplary way to deal with the fatal constrictions of dogma.
The propositions I have put forward are not self-evident. Were they so, then there would be no need for me to write this book, or cause for anyone to read it. Neither do I put them forth as subjects for immediate acceptance or rejection, immediate digestion or expectation of immediate nourishment. Indeed, like uncooked rice, they are quite indigestible. But in the course of this enquiry you and I will do a bit of cooking and see what comes of it. And so, to begin with, I suggest we content ourselves with simply lighting our fire. Let us inspect the dream that has brought to the climactic years of the twentieth century the assurances and rewards of a madhouse.
The philosophy of the impossible has been the dominant motive in human affairs for the last two centuries. We have pursued the mastery of nature as if we ourselves were not a portion of that nature. We have boasted of our command over our physical environment while we ourselves have done our urgent best to destroy it. And we have pursued the image of human equality as citizens of earlier centuries pursued the Holy Grail.
The grand escapade of contemporary man can be denied neither excitement nor accomplishment. Out of our dream of equality we have lifted masses from subjugation, moved larger masses into slavery. We have provided new heroes, new myths, new gallantries; new despots, new prisons, new atrocities. Substituting new gods for old, we have dedicated new altars, composed new anthems, arranged new rituals, pronounced new blessings, invoked new curses, erected new gallows for disbelievers. We have reduced sciences to cults, honest men to public liars. We have even reduced the eighteenth-century vision of human equality, glorious if false, to a more workable twentieth-century interpretation, mediocrity, inglorious if real.
Fundamental though the natural impossibility of equal beings must be to this inquiry, still it is not all. And if we are to glimpse a social contract leading neither to tyranny nor to chaos, then I prefer at first to consider it simply as a fraction of a larger delusion. The philosophy of the impossible rests on an article of faith, that man is sovereign. And the Greeks had a word for it: hubris.
To lift your head too high: it is to challenge the gods and risk a few thunderbolts assaulting your skull. The sceptical Greeks, never excessively infatuated with gods themselves, turned less to supernatural than natural explanations of why the world is the way it is. Yet never, from the early times of the Ionian philosophers down through later excursions and controversies of the lively Greek mind, am I aware of presumptions that man could master nature. Even Protagoras’ celebrated statement that man is the measure of all things seems to have been intended more in praise of the individual than in denial of forces larger than man.
As in Western thought various tides have swept this bay, assaulted that promontory, or, receding, have bared undistinguished flats, so we have turned now to gods, now to God, again to nature and its laws for satisfying answers. Our postures have varied from the compliance of slaves to the confidence of sailors. At our best we sought answers of relevance to man; at our worst we avoided them. But never, till modern times, did men in any significant number presume a human sovereignty much larger than the human shadow. Never did we risk the Greek hubris, and a shattering knock on the head. “The conquest of outer space” for a most enquiring Greek would as a phrase have seemed as dangerous a possibility as it remains, in all fragility, a phrase of small reality today.
The big brag preceded the big bang as a human possibility. Any demonstration that the earth revolves about the sun, while offensive to authorities in charge, did not presume that we could reverse its course. Any proof of a natural law called gravity did not presuppose that man could make apples fall up; designers of supersonic planes, indeed, still take account of the apple. To the frontiersmen of science the discovery of natural laws meant no more than that we had explored certain forces governing the dispositions of man. But for many a hoi-polloi scientific settler who came after the frontier such discoveries meant something quite different. Man could master nature.
Eighteenth century rationalism, while dispensing with the supernatural as a governing force, left a vacuum that not all Encyclopaedists could fill. And so an alliance between nineteenth century optimism, looking to the perfectibility of man, and the early modern scientists (Darwin was not among them) rushed in. And the sovereign rule of materialism came about. Man, with the aid of science, could do anything. As materialist were the social philosophies as the capitalist. Uninhibited by laws natural or divine, we busied ourselves with the building of Paradise.
And no mean thing is this Paradise of the Impossible. Could animals dream, then our material heaven might well be the stuff that their dreams are made of. The small-brained hominid, dragging himself through the millions of years of our evolution, may well have longed for supermarkets. Yet he, I suspect, even facing the hostile African night, had a sense of certainty. And we have none.
A philosophy of the impossible is indeed no philosophy at all. And a paradise lacking a philosophy is one of uncertain future. Aimlessly we prowl our highways, teach or attend our classes, swallow our drugs or our television dinners, quarrel, fornicate, fear our children, sigh for the unfortunate and avoid their presence, envy the fortunate and court their approval, work to forget our meaningless lives, drink to forget our meaningless work, purchase our pistols, deplore all wars, and praise the dignity of man.
It cannot be said that man, installed in his self-made heaven, has lost his dignity. The buffalo, small of brain, peering out of the African bush, commands dignity. Nor can it be said that if we have made mistakes we cannot learn. The amoeba can learn. Back in the 1920s an experiment was arranged in a darkened room whereby an intense beam of light barred the movement of amoebae. Among the brainless students there was one who never learned. On trial after trial it persisted in its efforts to cross the beam of light. But there was one who tried just five times and never moved in that direction again. Not only organisms lacking the least brain or nervous system could learn, but, significantly, there was wide variation in their gifts.
We have our dignity, which is the dignity of living beings. If we have made errors, then—since amoebae can learn—there must be among us those likewise gifted. But what is it that we must learn? In another time we should have taken our troubles to the priest in a certainty of faith. But the faith is gone and the priests are missing. Man—omniscient, omnipotent man—has none to talk to but himself. And, worst of all, it is how we wanted it.
Who will save us? Who will inform us? We turn to science, our sole religion, our one maker of miracles. It is science that adjudicates the rivalries of nations, dictates economic triumphs, decrees disasters. It is science that with cosmic disregard for human fate adjusts the balance of military terror now this way, now that. It is science that saves lives here, destroys them there, perfects new means of postponing the grave, new means of making life unendurable. It is science that with perfect casting has assumed the role of the Unknown God. Yet were I the scientist—not science but the breathing aching scientist who suffers from indigestion and achieves the respect of all but his children—and were I asked to save us, then I think I should put on a false moustache and other appropriate disguise, go out the back door, and vanish like some extinct bird over a former horizon.
Yet is not quite so. For what God has granted, God may take away. And it lies within the power of that present god, the individual scientist, to withdraw from mankind the illusion of sovereignty that science, in partnership with obsolete philosophies, has created. But courage as much as competence must be the endowment of such a rebel god.
Natural law has been variously defined, as it has been variously abused. It might be described, in contrast with civil law, as the kind of law you discover only once you have broken it. Such is the predicament of contemporary Homo sapiens, who, looking about his programme of disaster, asks, “What did I do?” His refuge may lie in social paranoia such as that so favoured by the young. It is somebody else’s fault. But the mature must inquire more deeply. What did we do that was wrong? And there is coming about in our time a generation of scientists who, granted the courage, have the power to answer.