29 JULY 1972, Page 12

Liam Hudson on the animal kingdom of Tiger and Fox

When, in a hundred years or so, historians come to cobble together some account of the twentieth century's thought, one phenomenon is bound to strike them as outstandingly strange. Our failure, namely, to develop any coherent science of Man — our failure seriously to try. We have biological research it is true; and we have, too, the work of the social scientists. The brain's mechanisms are a little less mysterious now than they once were, fifty years ago. We are starting to learn about the influence of the endocrine glands on what we feel and do. And genetics is now no longer a field given over entirely to illiberal speculation. Quite separately, a mile perhaps across the tarmac, but light years in the only terms that count, there are also the sociologists, ethnographers and anthropologists; and they have brought us a preliminary understanding of how diverse numan societies so often prove to be. But these groups — the biologists and social scientists — themselves form mini-cultures

in their own right, and they communicate with one another scarcely at all.

This is very sad. And in the middle of the sadness lies the discipline, or disciplines, of psychology. Progressively over the last fifty years or so, psychologists have seemed positively to seek out some refuge from what Sigmund Koch has described as the subject's "historically constituted subject-matter." Many have disguised themselves successfully as biologists or even as engineers; others as sociologists. Others still have wondered off out of academic life altogether, into a forest of irrefutable speculation. Huge literatures have waxed and waned; brilliant students have grown into distinguished professors; and yet our knowledge of human nature has advanced only fragmentarily, here and there.

Those self-same historians will have noticed, too, that in some decades we have retreated more resolutely from human relevance than we have in others. The

second world war, for instance, seems to have created in the minds of many psychologists a desire to climb the highest ivory tower they could find. Then, in the 'sixties, ehere were signs of the beginning of the contrary trend: the vacuum was beginning, once more, to draw intrepid spirits towards it. There can be no doubt, either, that one of the impetuses towards orderly thought about human beings has come from ethology — the study of animal behaviour. There has recently been a rash of books — some by biologists, others not — seeking to explain us to ourselves in terms of our animal ancestors. Man as a naked ape; the executive as predator; and now,, in this work by Professors Tiger and Fox, man as the imperial animal.

As it happens, the authors are anthropologists by training, not biologists. But they have both been struck — indeed, overwhelmed — by the parallels between monkeys, primitive man, and ourselves. Earlier studies in this vein have been criticised, rightly I believe, for attempting too much. We can point to the similarities'between the lives of monkeys and of twentiethcentury Western Industrial Man, and in a limited way, this can be both amusing and illuminative. Such parallels remind us that much of what we do may be more nearly instinctual than we realise. But arguments of this sort tend to be self-defeating; because, inexorably, these parallels throw into high relief the differences as well. Monkeys do not write books about monkeys, design computers, compose symphonies. They do not even talk, write or read. As a consequence, the beguiling Darwinian vision of man-as-monkey seems to draw its devotees continually to argue beyond their means — into polemic, or generalisations that simply are not true.

Like several of their precursors, Tiget and Fox offer their readers an impressive surface texture. Obviously, they are know ledgeable, not to say knowing; and they hustle one along in a jokey, elbowing style. Relatively thin on illustrative mate rial, and taking the facts — such as they are — almost entirely as read, they con centrate on their generalisations. They have a thesis, and they do their damnedest to bang it home.

I must confess that I found the exposition offered in The Imperial Animal un convincing. But before attempting to relay its message, and say why I found it lacking, I must perform the reviewer's most elementary duty: that is, to recommend this book to those who I am sure will enjoy it. If you found African Genesis, The Territorial Imperative and The Naked Ape exciting — if they filled you with a sense of basic truths revealed — The Imperial Animal may well have the same effect. To those who have already accepted its thesis, it will almost certainly seem an impressive piece of work. For those to whom.

biological metaphors are anathema, the position is equally simple. This is a book which it would be pointless to open. But for the rest of us in-between, intrigued by the ways in which biological and cultural constraints knit together within the life of the individual, the experience Professors Tiger and Fox hold in store is altogether more frustrating.

First, in broadest outline, the thesis. Tiger and Fox argue that human nature has two 'layers.' There is the "underly ing primate layer" that we share with the monkeys; and the "additions and modifications" that, according to the authors, man's transformation into a hunter brought in its wake. "Agricultural and industrial civilisations have put noth ing into the basic wiring of the human animal ": since we became hunters, noth ing within us has changed. The "basic wiring" the authors refer to consists of ' bonds ' which we hold in common with the apes: the instinctual bonds of woman to child, man to man, man to woman, and so on. They acknowledge that the nature of these bonds has been modified as we have evolved. We have acquired, for instance, a preoccupation with property that monkeys lack. But these bonds constitute in their turn a ' biogrammar ' which influences our every deed; which program mes us — the analogy is intentional and explicit — as a computer is programmed. Ethnologists, hungry for an all-embracing view of mankind, have often seemed to ignore the existence of human cultures al together. Tiger and Fox avoid this solecism. They envisage the relation of the individual's biogrammar to the culture in which he happens to find himself in the light, once again, of a most down-to-earth metaphor: that of the rubber sheet. "The rubber sheet," they say, "can be twisted, tied in knots, stretched over a steel drum, but the diagram remains the same because the points retain their relkionship. . . ."

This view of the social order is, as Tiger and Fox point out, drawn from topology. What they do not go on to acknowledge is that, in practice, such a model permits such a bewildering diversity of outcomes that, in all probability, we could never put it to the empirical test. Presented as it is here, without a detailed specification, it can without question be used to explain anything whatever.

This air of explaining too much and too easily, pervades the whole book; and after a chapter or so, the reader is forced into a decision about how he is to read. He can Skim quickly, wincing every now and then, and taking the argument on trust. Or he can try to read critically. But if he does this, he finds himself worrying — quite soon, intolerably — about the holes in the fabric, and the state of the evidence that is being used to prop it up. Repeatedly, the authors offer outrageous generalisations — usually unsupported, and often unsuppor • table — which they then by implication half-retract, slipping away from the point they themselves have made by means of a joke or an allusion. Polemical suppleness of this sort can only be demonstrated by long and boring documentation. Happily perhaps, a reviewer can do no more than give a little of its flavour.

Take, as an example, the use Tiger and Fox make of the argument about sex and politics. "We are wired," they have already told us, "for hunting — for the emotions, the excitements, the curiosities, the regularities, the fears, and the social relationships that are needed to survive in the hunting way of life." The preoccupation of the "human primate male" is "to get to the top of the male hierarchy and so control the females of his own group in order to exchange them for females of another group — thus achieving sexual satisfaction and political advantage." Further: "the primate male is playing the eternal game of genetic politics when he consorts with, dominates, and impregnates his sister. The human male plays this basic game, but with a twist — he dominates, controls and copulates with someone else's sister. But even copulation is not really the issue — it is control."

Well, what is one to say? On the face of it, this is a very silly set of propositions indeed. The idea, if we are expected to take it literally, that men work hard because they want to control women is not merely silly but bizarre. So, not unnaturally in reading on we look for some unusually sophisticated qualification; some neat verbal thrust which will return us to the world we recognise as our own. But instead we confront a generalisation even more confusing than the ones we have just left: "In man," the authors explain, " copulatory and political success are usually coincident, but logically separate." What on earth can that mean? Is it a reference to a survey of politicians' private lives; one that most of us don't know about? Or a shifty joke, perhaps? Or merely an equivocation? From the context — the reader is invited to inspect it for himself on page ninety — one cannot tell.

Having mused sourly, but briefly, about . the state of an academic discipline that could permit such fatuities from its students, let alone its professors, I ploughed on in search of a clue. There followed page after page of generalised chat about the political dominance of men and the natural submissiveness of women; but eventually, on page 111, I found what I thought might be my answer. What the authors offer there is at once a muddle, and an equivocation and a joke — and then allow the matter to slide: "The possession of a female or females can be viewed as one more valida tion of male status, which is an end in itself, because, once achieved, the women follow /Anyway. Whatever the advocates of student power do want — and it is not always clear — one thing they plainly do not want is access to their professors' wives. But then the whole thing might well be different if their professors had managed to monopolise not only decisions about the curriculum, but the majority of sr the female undergraduates as well."

This pattern of brazen assertion upholstered with vague generalities and witty asides characterises this book's intellectual style. It is not a satisfactory one. And the failure is galling precisely because e the topics picked upon are worthy of sharper treatment. Enthusiasts for The Imperial Animal may protest that this is to bring dreary, scholarly considerations to bear on a work of popularisation, the quality of which lies in its evocation of an attitude. This may be so. Yet, at this point, there is a second, and finally more compelling objection that asserts •itself. Time and again, the tone of what Tiger and Fox write has seemed to me to ring false. Some turns of phrase, it is true, are admirably succinct: "There is no question that both violence and love are indeed learned. But they are learned as language is learned — easily." There are many more moments, on the other hand, when the authors' words convey an air of tough-minded but hollow candour. For instance: "The job of reproducing is easy and fast and also immensely pleasurable. But reproduction, like justice, must not only be done, it must be seen to be done." Or: "As gossip is to ladies and gambling to gentlemen, flirting is to both together. This is the great erotic tune-up . . . " Or again, this: "More tempestuous is the father-daughter bond. A quick look at the reported cases of incest shows that this is the most common of all incestuous encounters. This is understandable enough, because one enhancing spice of some sexual relationships seems to be a touch of that ritual neck-bite dominance the hamadryas baboon or the ambitious sultan appears to show."

Both in context and out, the heartiness of these remarks is unconvincing; and the quality of personal relationships they hint at is one, less of lusty 'bonding,' more of anxious self-assertion. Wittingly or not, the professors project themselves — less than entirely persuasively — as redblooded he-men. The words "immensely pleasurable," " tune-up," "spice " all carry with them echoes from Playboy magazine. So perhaps, then, to complete my reviewer's round of obligations, I should attach a necessary qualification to my comment about this book's readership. It will appeal to those among us who would like to like Hugh Hefner's journal, and who yearn for occasions from which women are excluded. It will grate on those of us who are more androgynous. And militant feminists, it will incense. I think it was meant to.