Born in 1908, Robert Ardrey was an American playwright and author who grew up on the South Side of Chicago. He attended the nearby University of Chicago, graduating in 1930. It was the very beginning of the Great Depression, which he writes in his autobiography “was the making of me… because it deprived me of any incentive other than to write.” While in college he had taken writing course with the then young and recently famous Thornton Wilder, who in the years ahead, more than anyone else, was his mentor. Ardrey worked at numerous unusual jobs, including pounding away at a piano in an Al Capone era speakeasy. Another was as a guide to the Mayan exhibition at the Chicago Century of Progress Exhibition, which opened in April, 1933. Meanwhile, he wrote drafts of plays and sent them to Wilder, who finally gave his approval when he felt the work was good enough to get produced on Broadway. ……….
During the 1950s, however, as Hollywood’s culture changed for the worse, he got increasingly restless and renewed a long-standing interest in human origins and behavior, something he had first studied as an undergraduate in Chicago. With his family, his wife Helen, and two young sons, Ross and Daniel, he moved to Geneva in the summer of 1956. One of his next projects involved staying in Vienna during the fall of 1956 while the failed Hungarian Revolution took place in Budapest only a few hours away. It was brutally suppressed by Soviet troops. Out of this experience came his last play, Shadow of Heroes, produced in London in 1958 and in New York in 1961. During these same years he was traveling to Southern and East Africa and researching the origins of man and human behavior. This resulted in his first book on the subject, African Genesis, published in 1961. It was highly controversial from its memorable opening lines: “Not in innocence, and not in Asia, was mankind born. The home of our fathers was that African highland reaching north from the Cape to the Lakes of the Nile. Here we came about – slowly, ever so slowly – on a sky-swept savannah glowing with menace.” His thesis, simply put, was that our human ancestors originated as predators in Africa, who had inherited a host of instincts from our animal heritage. Obvious now, not so obvious then. His ideas, in 1961, proved a form of heresy. Dominant social theories in Europe and the United States at the time included behaviorism and cultural anthropology, in which there were no complex instincts and human behavior was solely the result of cultural conditioning and response to environmental stimuli.
In the early 1960s Ardrey and his second wife, Berdine, who was to illustrate his books on human and animal behavior, lived in Rome and traveled extensively in Africa and Europe. He met with a wide variety of scientists and incorporated less familiar sciences like ethology into his own evolving ideas about human behavior. This research resulted in his best-selling The Territorial Imperativepublished in 1966. It, too, had a revolutionary thesis that half a century later no longer seems controversial. The title itself has become part of the language. In it he answered the question he posed to himself at the outset: “The concept of territory as a genetically determined form of behavior in many species is today accepted beyond question in the behavioral sciences. But so recently have our observations been made and our conclusions formed that we have yet to explore the implications of territory in our estimates of man. Ishomo sapiens a territorial species? Do we stake our property, chase off trespassers, defend our countries because we are sapient, or because we are animals? Because we choose, or because we must?” Once again what seemed revolutionary in his work and his analysis now seems common knowledge and a basis for subsequent research in many different disciplines.
In his autobiography he described how he thought of his four books on human and animal behavior. “I had followed an overall plan not unlike a symphony in four movements. The first movement had been man is by his evolutionary nature a predator. It had been an elaboration of Raymond Dart’s original statement concerning the predatory transition from ape to man, that we are men and not apes because for so long we had been dependent on hunting. The second and third movements, The Territorial Imperative and The Social Contract, had been investigations of other inherited behavior patterns originating in the animal world, which I believed of significance to our evolutionary nature. The final investigation, which I was now contemplating, was The Hunting Hypothesis. As in a symphony it returned to the original statement, but broadened and modified in light of all that had been subsequently learned and discovered.”
The Social Contract was published in 1970 and The Hunting Hypothesis in 1976. Also during these years, in 1968, Ardrey published Plays of Three Decades, which included Thunder Rock, Jeb (a very early civil rights play from the 1940s about a returning Negro veteran) and Shadow of Heroes. This volume included a long preface with his thoughts on the theater as he’d lived it from the Great Depression on. In many ways he remained a playwright all his life, and he thought of his autobiography in terms of the three acts of a play. In 1977 he and his wife moved from Rome to the small seaside community of Kalk Bay, thirty minutes south of Cape Town, in South Africa. He died there on January 14, 1980. His ashes and those of his wife are interred in the Holy Trinity churchyard, overlooking False Bay, which faces south toward Antarctica. His story, as he conceived it in his autobiography, was how a boy grew up on the South Side of Chicago, had many fascinating adventures including Broadway and Hollywood, and ended his days at the Cape of Good Hope.
– Robert Ardrey: About.
The Nature of Man Series
The Nature of Man series consists of four volumes – African Genesis, The Territorial Imperitive, The Social Contract & The Hunting Hypothesis – published between 1961 and 1976. It majorly undermined standing assumptions in the social sciences, leading to an abandonment of both the “blank slate” hypothesis and the theory of Asian genesis. The first two volumes, both massive international bestsellers, ignited a widespread popular interest in human origins and the science of human evolution. The series has also had a long-standing cultural legacy, inspiring such thinkers, explorers and artists as anthropologist Rick Potts, biologist E.O. Wilson, Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders, author Arthur C. Clarke, screenwriter Sam Peckinpah, and filmmaker Stanley Kubrick.
In African Genesis Ardrey propounded ideas about the role of territory in human behavior, hierarchy in social animals, and the instinctual status of the urge to dominate one’s fellows. He argued, in agreement with Raymond Dart, that man evolved from African carnivores, and not Asian herbivores. The contentious book opened with the now-famous sentence: “Not in innocence, and not in Asia, was mankind born.”
In The Territorial Imperative Ardrey greatly expanded his theses on the influence of territorial behavior in humans. The volume was instrumental in disproving the theory that all human behavior is culturally determined. In overturning the so-called “blank slate hypothesis” Ardrey’s work had an enormous cultural and intellectual impact. Strategic analyst Andrew Marshall and U.S. Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger are known to have discussed the book in connection to military strategy, and The Territorial Imperative was a direct source for Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Kubrick also later cited Ardrey to defend A Clockwork Orange.)
Ardrey’s third installment, dedicated to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, was the most politically motivated of the series. The Social Contract took up the question of how man ought to live, given the inherited evolutionary characteristics that help to determine his behavior, examining in particular social hierarchy in terms of genetic diversity. Ardrey argued that a diversity of genetic phenotypes leads to inequality, and that inequality, on its own, is not necessarily a social evil. For inequality to be just, however, there must be an absolute equality of opportunity. Ardrey also argued that the presence of inequality does not justify the domination of the weak by the strong. He argued just the opposite, asserting that the strong have a responsibility to protect the weak. Ardrey also made an impassioned call for a reasoned respect for nature. In so doing, he foreshadowed the ecological concerns that would arise in his next volume.
In The Hunting Hypothesis Ardrey continued his plea for a reasoned respect of nature. The volume was one of the first books to warn that global warming could be an existential threat to mankind. Colin Turnbull, reviewing for the New York Times, wrote “This is a sober, well-reasoned plea for a sane appraisal of the human situation, of a re-evaluation of man’s nature, of where he has come from and, much more important, where he is going.”
– Robert Ardrey: Nature of Man Series.
African Genesis: A Personal Investigation into the Animal Origins and Nature of Man
In 1955 on a visit to South Africa, Robert Ardrey became aware of the growing evidence that man had evolved on the African continent from carnivorous, predatory stock, who had also, long before man, achieved the use of weapons. A dramatist, Ardrey’s interest in the African discoveries sprang less from purely scientific grounds than from the radical new light they cast on the eternal question:
Why do we behave as we do? Are we naturally inclined towards war and weapons?
From 1955 to 1961, Ardrey commuted between the museums and libraries and laboratories of the North, and the games reserves and fossil beds of Africa trying to answer that question. Eventually, his investigation expanded to include nationalism and patriotism, private property and social order, hierarchy and status-seeking, even conscience. All revealed roots in our most ancient animal beginnings and parallels in primate societies.
African Genesis is at once the story of an unprecedented personal search and a story of man that had never before been told. It is a shocking book in that it challenges assumptions of human uniqueness that color every segment of modern thought and every aspect of our daily life.
While evolutionary science has advanced markedly since Ardrey’s times, his insights on human behavior have a timeless quality and African Genesis remains a classic reference for anyone exploring life’s biggest questions.
– Robert Ardrey: African Genesis.
The Territorial Imperative: A Personal Investigation into Animal Origins of Property and Nations
A territory is an area of space which an animal guards as its exclusive possession and which it will defend against all members of its kind. In this revolutionary book Robert Ardrey takes a concept familiar to every biologist, brings together for the first time a fair sampling of all scientific observations of this form of behavior, and demonstrates that man obeys the same laws as does many other animal species.
With African Genesis Mr Ardrey stirred up enough storm to last an author, one would think, for a lifetime. In The Territorial Imperative, however, he explores more deeply and incisively man’s evolutionary nature and threatens even more forcefully some of our most precious assumptions. In a time when we attribute to man either no instincts at all, or instincts too weak to be of significance, Mr Ardrey’s conclusions concerning the instinctual force exerted on human life by territory will undoubtedly raise an even greater storm.
The author concludes, for example, that a common cause for war lies in our ignorance of man’s animal nature – in particular, in the aggressor’s ignorance of the enormous animal energies which his intrusion will release in a seemingly weak territorial defender. In a quite different vein, he concludes that family loyalty and responsibility, in men no less than in gibbons or beavers or robins, rests on joint attachment to a private territory. Perhaps the author’s most far-reaching, most controversial conclusion is that morality – our willingness to make personal sacrifice for interests larger than ourselves – has its origins in dim evolutionary beginnings, is as essential to the life of the animal as to the lives of men, and could probably not exist in the human species without property either privately or jointly defended and the ultimate command of the territorial imperative.
Like its predecessor, The Territorial Imperative is a work of wit, of literary wealth, of high adventure. Again the author draws on his inexhaustible knowledge of animal ways, and again his wife presents her intriguing sketches of animal life. But this time Mr Ardrey takes his readers on far deeper excursions into the ancient animal world, and on far deeper penetrations of the contemporary human wilderness.
While evolutionary science has advanced markedly since Ardrey’s times, his insights on human behavior have a timeless quality and The Territorial Imperative remains a classic reference for anyone wishing to begin an adventure exploring life’s biggest questions.
– Robert Ardrey: The Territorial Imperative.
The Social Contract: A Personal Enquiry into the Evolutionary Source of Order and Disorder:
“Violation of biological command has been the failure of social man. Vertebrates though we may be, we have ignored the law of equal opportunity since civilization’s earliest hours. Sexually reproducing beings though we are, we pretend today that the law of inequality does not exist. And enlightened though we may be, while we pursue the unattainable we make impossible the realizable.”
In his two previous books, Robert Ardrey exploded a series of philosophical landmines. African Genesis (1961) introduced his new evolutionary approach to an understanding of men. Then came The Territorial Imperative (1966), whose title is now a common phrase in our language. The Social Contract is the third in the series, and it denies that men are created equal – but that they deserve absolute equality of opportunity.
Robert Ardrey maintains that since the publication of Rousseau’s Social Contract two centuries ago, men have wasted social resources, converted much of education into a process of brain-washing, committed themselves to one political insane asylum after another, all in pursuit of a goal that is a natural impossibility in any sexually reproducing species.
Discarding the myth, Robert Ardrey combines his wealth of knowledge of animal ways with the new insights of modern biology and the newest revelations concerning human evolution to probe perplexing contemporary problems: the revolt of the young, the status struggle and the role of leadership, population control, urban overcrowding, violence in civilized life.
This brilliant classic offers a powerful challenge to accustomed thought.
– Robert Ardrey: The Social Contract.
The Hunting Hypothesis: A Personal Conclusion Concerning the Evolutionary Nature of Man
“For millions of years we have survived as hunters. In the few short millennia since our divorce from that necessity there has been no time for significant biological change – anatomical, physiological, or behavioral. Today we have small hope of comprehending ourselves and our world unless we understand that man still, in his inmost being, remains a hunter.”
From this premise, supported by the accumulated research and observations of two decades of anthropological investigation, Robert Ardrey guides the reader on a remarkable journey of discovery through twenty million years of man’s prehistory: from the days when his ancestors first emerged from the forests of Africa during the benevolent warmth and rains of the Miocene, through the unremitting drought of the Pliocene, and the dramatic climactic shifts of the Pleistocene, down to those few thousand years past when man emerged at last onto the stage of recorded history, a fully evolved hunting animal.
In this, Ardrey’s fourth book on the subject of man’s origins and nature, the author addresses himself with bold logic and insights to that basic question that haunts the cellars of our conscious mind: Why is man man?
– Robert Ardrey: The Hunting Hypothesis.
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