The Hunting Hypothesis

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Robert Ardrey, a former successful playwright, returns once more to the study of man and his origins in his writings on popular biology and anthropology. As in previous works, African Genesis (1961), The Territorial Imperative (1966), and The Social Contract (1970), Ardrey endows The Hunting Hypothesis with a drama that enriches his material and gives it enormous impact. He is a highly impressionistic writer, creating moods to enhance his thesis. He writes in a personal manner from his particular vantage point, and perhaps sometimes to the neglect of more objective research grounded in historical and scientific fact. But Ardrey, as he himself admits, is an iconoclast, and he will not be bogged down in the mire of sluggish traditionalism or pedantry. He prefers a freewheeling eclecticism in forming his hypotheses, an eclecticism that essentially characterizes his style. While he may not be the most reliable of modern scholars, his arguments are nevertheless fascinating, his wit charming, and his stories immensely entertaining.

The Hunting Hypothesis basically poses the question: Why is man man? Ardrey frowns on reductionist scientific and philosophic methods that attempt to account for man’s degeneracy. According to these theories, man was born with nature’s bounty, yet his most notable talent has been to squander it. From evolutionalists to environmentalists, from Rousseau to Marx, the cry has been “back to nature!” to retrieve that primary innocence, that simple, pastoral life where Nature, a beneficent mother, provided her children with riches to their heart’s content. According to these theories, modern man becomes a kind of misfit in a world which could have been utopian but for his evil. Ardrey takes issue with these explanations by dwelling on what he believes to be a consistency in human nature throughout time: that for millions of evolving years, man killed for a living. The hunting hypothesis may then be stated: If among all the members of our primate family the human being is unique, even in our noblest aspirations, it is because we alone through millions of years were continuously dependent on killing to survive.

Having stated his thesis, Ardrey dramatically presents evidence (which he calls jigsaw bits of information) to show man’s killer instinct. But the killer instinct is not presented in the vicious way it sounds. Rather, Ardrey calls it a paradox: he believes that in the roots of man’s propensity for premeditated, organized murder may be found his prepensity for cooperation, self-sacrifice, economic interdependence, loyalty, and responsibility. These qualities, he says, constitute a world view that the vegetarian primate could never have known. He bolsters his argument with different stories, many of them from the findings of reputable anthropologists, who illustrate man’s dependence on hunting.

Ardrey easily dismisses the vegetarian and scavenger hypotheses about early man with some documented conversations he has had with authorities in the field as well as quotations from their papers. This is usually the method he uses to cite professional science. Though not a degree-holding scientist himself, Ardrey covers himself well as a convincing rhetorician and storyteller. His work, after all, does not represent painstaking scientific scholarship, but, as he admits, his own personal convictions about human nature. Accepted as such, his bold subjectivity, roughly framed in a scientific setting, is refreshing. In the plethora of tentative, circuitous pieces of research written nowadays under the guise of objectivity, Ardrey’s work is a welcome alternative.

As part of the drama he presents, Ardrey moves extravagantly through time from twenty million years in the past to four million, to the present, to ten thousand years hence. His descriptions of natural phenomena are spectacular in the grand tradition of a Cecil B. DeMille epic or Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. Indeed, his account of, for instance, the Miocene world, the time of the ape and of various other animal civilizations, shows his amazing ability to bring to life a period of which we have previously had at best only a sketchy image. He draws freely on scientific accounts by experts in the field in order to fashion his theory of man’s past.

In terms of man’s evolutionary experience, Ardrey describes what he believes is the gradual freeing from man’s dependence on stereotyped instinct, and, aided by an enlarging brain, his growing dependence on individual learning. He knowledgeably discusses behaviorist theory and tabula rasa assumptions. Many times he exhibits a flair for Freudian psychology and...

(The entire section is 1924 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Atlantic. CCXXXVII, April, 1976, p. 116.

Book World. April 11, 1976, p. 2.

New Statesman. XCII, July 16, 1976, p. 84.

New York Times Book Review. May 23, 1976, p. 26.

Times Literary Supplement. August 6, 1976, p. 985.