Primates and Humans

The sapient species of the genus Homo has, in the course of its existence, produced many types of society. In some regions these societies have undergone rapid changes from one stage of development to another, higher stage. In other regions societies have remained static or disappeared.

It has often been mistakenly stated that primitive peoples live like most other animals, bereft of implements, possessing no language or articulate speech, and without social organisation. This is certainly nowhere near the truth and is not, and never has been, the case. Humans have congregated in groups wherever and whenever they have existed, and have, as social animals constantly striven to mould and control their  environment in order to satisfy their needs. Humans therefore make and remake their environment and, as a result of this activity in this sphere, make and remake themselves. From the original family groups there have developed various forms of social organisation and therefore, as the claim of the ‘naked ape’ brigade need to be countered, we should proceed to examine the evolution of social life with regard to the great apes and monkeys. Such an analysis will show whether in fact there is anything in common between human and ape social life.

Primate social life patterns of behaviour have certain unique and rare qualities, one of which is that primate life is essentially group life. At this juncture we must state that humans are also primates in the phylogeny of zoological classification.  There are characteristics of a special nature that differentiate primate groups from the rest  of the mammalian phylogeny. Firstly, a primate group is relatively large, averaging about 20 members usually exhibiting relationships that are stable and persistent.  There is no seasonal variation in the composition of the group, which is highly organised and contains both sexes of all ages from birth to death. However, as with certain other animal societies, the individual differences within the group are arranged according to age and sex into a hierarchy dependent on relative dominance. Such a hierarchical arrangement results in a separation of roles and statuses within the group. mong apes today, for instance, the group consists typically of a dominant male with a troop of males who are subordinate to him plus the females with their offspring. In this hierarchically organised troop there occurs o division of labour between the sexes and individuals, including the young, have to forage for their own food.

These features of the primate group, including a large size, stable membership and differentiation of roles, has led to a network of complex behavioural patterns. These complex primate social relationships have led to specialised accommodations exampled by the socialisation of infants during a long period of infancy. Inside the primate troop child rearing is a social affair and is not the sole role of the mother. With non-human primates the mothers are not separated from the rest of the group while the offspring are young, neither do the mothers live in a harem. In reality , the mothers are surrounded by all the members of the group, including the curious juveniles. All the members of the group therefore, including the young and old, are organised into a structured, functioning social system.

Amongst monkeys and apes it is the gibbons alone who live in what has been loosely described as a ‘family’. Gibbons tend to be antagonistic to each other unless they are of course living as a mating pair – but even the pairs live apart from each other. As soon as the young Gibbons reach maturity they leave their parents.

he human family always occurs as a sub-unit within a larger, more complex unit – never in isolation. The lager unit, for example, could be a tribe. Baboons and macaques are especially adapted for terrestrial life rather than the arboreal existence, and allegedly have a form of social organisation that is supposed to resemble that of their human relatives. These are the only primates with an average group size comparable to human hunter-gatherers. Hunter-gatherer communities have an average membership of fifty individuals. With macacques and and baboons the adult male and female roles differ to some degree, as they do at present in most human societies. The adult baboon male adopts the role of defending the troop, whereas the adult baboon female specialises in the rearing of the young. What becomes apparent here is that sexual dimorphic characteristics are more pronounced in terrestrial monkeys, and conversely are least developed in arboreal species.

The sexual dimorphism in adult baboons has only a morphological basis, whereas in humans there are also cultural designations for the roles of males and females. We can stress at this point that there is no biological justification for the inequalities between the sexes in human societies, because those inequalities that do exist are rooted in the class nature of society, not in our genes. In terms of biology and sociology the human family has its procreative basis in a new mating system – there has been a loss of ‘season’ at the oestrus period, the human female having adapted to the monthly period of menstruation. Monthly menstruation is an adaptation closely linked to biorhythms that are dependent on lunar cycles.

Socially there exist concepts involving exogamy, co-operation, marriage, ownership of property, and all these ideas have a concrete base in each society concerned. However, unique to the human group is the use of tools, socially organised labour, thinking, language, and the ability to plan for future events on the basis of an understanding of both past and future. Unlike animal societies or groups, all human groups have an equally long history, whereas many animal groups are only temporary transient aggregations.

It is valuable to consider a reconstruction of the life of the Pleistocene hominids because of their relevance to the later human groups in prehistory. As some anthropologists and ethologists are wont to do there is little to be gained from any unwarranted extrapolations from baboon social life to modern societies, let alone the simpler agricultural communities. In fact – human societies have little comparison with baboon or great ape groups. Unlike humans, no lasting bonds are formed between baboons, and this implies therefore that no base exists upon which to establish stable family groups. Apart from this, we must ask the critical question where is the economic basis for any ape society? Again, human groups tend to be large, stable, and generally exogamous, whereas the tendency in a baboon troop is towards inbreeding and small groups. Human families are related by marriage and kinship ties to other human families, their exogamy having an economic and social determination that makes movement of individuals within the family the exception rather than the rule.

All apes and monkeys are herbivorous and their dietary differences from humans become obvious when one compares the vegetarian baboon with the meat and plant eating hunter-gatherer. Humans are omnivorous, and humans in common with pigs, will eat anything within reason. The diet can be related to the distance travelled by a particular group, whether human tribe or a band of wandering apes. For example, arboreal monkeys have only a small area in which they forage, whereas baboons have a relatively wider range. However, the baboon troop in its entirety forages in an area far too small to provide support for one human hunter. A further example can be seen with the Australopithecines – these primitive hominids were hunters in areas that were thought to be ten times larger than areas foraged by baboons.

Human hunting varies widely with the environmental conditions, and this applies especially to the size of the hunting area. It is the possession of a camp, a home base, that enables the human group, clan or tribe to hunt and forage, thereby exploiting a large area. Such a central base is not possessed by monkeys and apes, and also their hunting of other animals is out of the question due to their movement in a troop. The base or ‘home’ of food sharing humans has no parallel in the non-human primate troops mode of existence. Whether monkey or ape, each individual member of the community has to forage for his or her own food. The female monkey does not even share food with her own offspring.

Revolutionary changes in the primate mode of existence, by the initiation of effective hunting techniques, developed only much later amongst the early upright hominids. From this point forward we are considering the process of the transition to humanity, and will be able to recognise the sharp break that delineates humans from other primates. Humans are not ‘transformed apes’. Humans are unique.

In so far as the arena of biological science is concerned there has been a tendency with some especially when studying the relationship between humans and animals, to overstress the ‘relatedness’ of humans to ‘lower’ animals. Evolution has often been mistakenly regarded as a relatively unbroken flow of lineal, biological process. Stress has been placed upon continuity, the organic world being described in the general terms of a pervasive unity. This is not the case with humans – the prehistory of our species and of other species is littered with breaks and gaps in the fossil, evolutionary and developmental record. The search for the mythical ‘missing link’ is nothing but the hunt for the ‘will o’ the wisp’ without a scientific and historical outlook. Nevertheless, there still exist anthropological theories that totally disregard the application of science to human origins. One particular form of analysis, by Richard Leakey, attempts to push back in time the supposed appearance of ‘homo’, thereby introducing a ‘religious’ concept into the study of anthropogenesis. One wonders if Leakey is on the trail of hominids or of ‘Adam and Eve’.


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