Here’s the summary that I’ll be giving today in my Topics of African Prehistory course pertaining to the assigned reading Wrangham, R. 1987. “The Significance of African Apes for Reconstructing Human Social Evolution.” In Warren G. Kinzey (Ed.) The evolution of Human Behavior: Primate Models. It’s long by summary standards, but when have I been known to be succinct? In fact, I would have loved to make this even longer, but I don’t want to talk my classmates to death.
“Life is a copiously branching bush, continually pruned by the grim reaper of extinction, not a ladder of predictable progress. Most people may know this as a phrase to be uttered, but not as a concept brought into the deep interior of understanding. Hence we continually make errors inspired by unconscious allegiance to the ladder of progress, even when we explicitly deny such a superannuated view of life.” – Stephen Jay Gould, Wonderful Life, 1989
On June 30, 1860, “Darwin’s Bulldog” T.H. Huxley met Bishop “Soapy Sam” Wilberfoce in a debate on one of the most hotly contested topics ever to be put before mankind: are we evolved, or are we divine creations? While no one is quite certain as to the outcome of the debate, it is perhaps one of the most celebrated events in the history of the evolution idea, for when the Bishop rhetorically asked whether it was through his grandmother or grandfather that he was descended from a monkey, Huxley delivered this devastating rejoinder; “If then the question is put to me would I rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature and possessing great means and influence and yet who employs those faculties and that influence for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion – I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape.” Such wit did not halt the debate then and there, but as Huxley’s work Man’s Place in Nature, Darwin’s The Descent of Man, and various cartoons from Punch at the time make clear, it could no longer be denied that Homo sapiens had very close relations to the living gibbons, orangutans, gorillas, and chimpanzees, their lives providing insight into our own.
The relationship between men and apes is now taken as a “given” (and rightly so), but the question of just what living apes can tell us about our past must be asked. While the fossil record seemingly refused to give up hominid remains for some time, there is today a greater diversity of fossil hominids now known than in Huxley’s time, and what we know about living apes must be reconciled with these discoveries if we’re to accurately portray what our ancestors (even our common ancestors) may have been like. Indeed, we should not forget that our own species did not evolve from chimpanzees or gorillas but rather shared common ancestry with them in the past, and they have been evolving since the time of their separation just as we have. As Richard Wrangham rightly criticizes the approach of trying to crown a living species as the archetype for our ancestor, noting “The ideas these models generate are plausible and even thought provoking, but their value is limited by their initial assumption: they assume that the social organization of human ancestors was similar to that of living species.”
Given this potential pitfall, Wrangham suggests a behavioral sort of cladistics, surveying the social behavior of extant gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos in order to find the presence (or absence) of shared social behaviors. If certain behaviors exist within all the groups mentioned, then there would be reason to believe (at least in terms of parsimony) that such behaviors were inherited from a common ancestor rather than evolved multiple times. Concerning the closed or semi-closed social groups detailed in II A 2. (Grouping Patterns) of the outline, it appears that humans, chimpanzees, and gorillas all have closed or semi-closed social groups, making the behavior a shared trait that may have been shared by the common ancestor of all the groups. On the other hand, however, we have the data presented in II B 4. (Male-Male Interactions) where the variety of interactions precludes us from being able to tell what sort of behavior pattern our common ancestor exhibited in terms of male interactions.
Now that we understand the application of Wrangham’s methodology to living primates, we should consider the overall strengths and weaknesses it may have. One of its strengths may be the ability to recognize the possession of common behavior in the apes despite different ecologies. If humans, chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas all share certain behavioral characteristics despite living in different habitats or inhabiting different niches, the overall case is stronger for that trait being inherited from a common ancestor rather than convergent evolution. Convergent evolution can be problematic, however, as it sometimes seems to defy parsimonious explanations. Perhaps the common ancestor did not exhibit the behaviors now expressed as much carry a capacity for them through variations in populations (being that it is populations that speciate and change, not an entire species as a whole), and being that we are dealing with behavior and not morphology in this case, it might be easy to accentuate some similarities/differences while hiding others. For example, if we undertake cladistics in the traditional sense, let’s say describing a skull, the process is relatively straightforward; either a structure or trait is present or it is not. Behavior, however, can be more variable, and even in Wrangham’s description of Group Patterns there can be seen some potential for disagreement. Indeed, is there are large significance between a closed group and a semi-closed group? Again, given that we’re talking about behavior and not a morphological trait that is usually clearly present or absent, researchers would do well to be mindful of how they delineate what they consider significant behaviors and how they are measured in terms of this method.
Wrangham does not hold his method up as the one and only answer, however, and he concedes that it is more of a “quick” and “weak” starting point to determine possible similarities rather than a way to obtain ultimate answers. In fact, as he notes in the introductory paragraphs, the study of behavioral ecology weighs heavily on the issues herein discussed, although it is a discipline still in development. Even beyond modern ecology, paleoecology will have a very significant role to play in determining what our ancestors were like, especially because habitat does much to shape the bodies and behaviors of organisms through evolution. Indeed, living species can give us valuable insights into our past, but if the information gleaned is determined to be the product of convergence or is found not to be consonant with the data from the fossil record, developing understanding will have to accommodate such discoveries. Ultimately, the discovery and determination of our common ancestors with chimpanzees and gorillas will weigh heavily on this issue, but at the present time the information is overall insufficient and (as ever) there are more questions than answers. For the present, however, the behavior of living African apes can provide a sufficient framework for comparison, and Wrangham’s methodology provides a quick way to spot potential similarities that can then be checked through the study of ecology and the fossil record.