Richard J. Perry, Killer Apes, Naked Apes, and Just Plain Nasty People: The Misuse and Abuse of Science in Political Discourse
Watch the news sometime, and notice how many journalists love describing how genes cause things. Count stories claiming we’ve found the gene for addiction, the “warrior gene,” or the gene for some undesirable behavior. Journalists love telling this story. They don’t love science’s more careful approach, its willingness to admit doubt, and they certainly don’t love walking such reports back when new evidence proves sensationalism isn’t justified.
Veteran anthropologist Richard J. Perry returned from retirement to write this book, protesting the way journalists, textbook writers, and others preserve the idea of “biological determinism.” This means the idea that we’re beholden to our genes, that we evolved to behave in a certain way, and smart observers can describe all behaviors in purely genetic terms. This has significant classist and racist implications. It also influences contemporary public policy debates.
Popular culture desperately loves the idea that genes cause, meaning I have some genetic predisposition for X, or some people pass bad genetic tendencies onto their children simply by procreating. Perry writes how eugenicists use half-glimpsed knowledge of genetics to justify excluding certain people from public services or poverty protection, for instance. These beliefs, rendered unfashionable after World War II, nevertheless survive in sociobiology and evolutionary psychology.
But Perry describes how what we know about genetics, and growing knowledge in fields like epigenetics, forbids us to make blanket statements about other people’s fitness, or their right to do something as simple as procreate. We don’t have any evidence that absolute traits have been passed on from humanity’s distant ancestors. We cannot look to Australopithecine justifications to explain modern behaviors, or justify helping disadvantaged populations.
Though Perry’s book runs short, under 200 pages plus back matter, his argument is complex and compelling. He describes how scientists, and non-scientists with little knowledge but remarkable storytelling skill, have woven narratives about human evolution. Considering how little we know about early humanity, these stories are often circular: genetic behaviors must have caveman antecedents. And caveman tendencies must survive, because genes survive.
Perry notes one little-considered implication: this means humans once evolved, then stopped. The scientists Perry criticizes, many of them pseudo-scientists, see humanity entirely in terms of the Pleistocene. (Perry keeps saying Pleistocene.) Somehow, if a condition didn’t exist in our stone-age ancestors, it has no bearing today; people’s behavior can be described and comprehended entirely via inherited traits. As though nutrition, poverty, abuse and oppression have no bearing.
We know that’s not how genes work, though. Genes only represent innate capacity; how genes express themselves depends on a complex range of factors.Perry describes how media critics write the ways we treat people out of the genetic (or epigenetic) equation. If everything descends from Stone-age ancestors, then we cannot help communities expressing maladaptive behavior; we’re better off letting undesirable people die so their bad genes don’t pass on.
This should scare engaged, scientifically and politically literate readers. It creates scientific justification to extend unjust regimes, and moralize kicking the poor. Many evolutionary psychologists would deny their racist tendencies; yet their theses inevitably create biological lineages of bad people doing bad things. It creates in-group goodness and out-group wickedness. The implication is: we’re good people, our genes should survive. I have more right to procreate than you.
The idea that some people deserve better, because of circumstances of birth, smacks of aristocracy and the right of superior people, the Will to Power. Though the once-popular idea that paupers, brown people, and peons should just die has thankfully gone underground, abused science nevertheless justifies draconian policies that entrench the poor and extend their poverty. Perry describes how such ideas got sticking power, and why the science, frankly, sucks.
Perry substantially eschews anthropological terminology, and where he must use it, he carefully defines terms. He doesn’t write for scholars and scientists; he writes to communicate scholarship to interested outsiders. His approach invites both seasoned scientists and interested novices into this very important debate. As a translator, Perry frames the debate, not in ideological absolutes, but the story of how people came to believe such awful things about our descent.
I’d like to believe most serious-minded people feel justifiably offended when anyone suggests the poor are genetically inferior and should just die. But at this writing, many rabble-rousing legislators are actively pursuing ideas of sterilizing the poor to squelch generational poverty. Rather than fixing circumstances, they’d rather kill the poor. That says painfully much about the state of today’s debate, and why books like this are more important than ever.