What made humans evolve? Of all the animals, what was it about our particular species that brought us to the kinds of poetry, music, art and other transcendent activities we see as uniquely human endeavors?
When Robert Ardrey published The Naked Ape in 1967, he articulated what many people had long
believed: That human beings evolved beyond the other animals because we were better killers than they were. In that reading of the already simplistic doctrine of the survival of the fittest, humans' killing of other animals and even more of each other compelled us into the "hunter/killer intellect," an intellect superior to that of simple herd animals.
Upon reflection and self-observation, however, the theory does not hold up. First of all, look at
us: We don't have claws or talons or horns or armored skin or saber-teeth. Physically, we're little more than grown embryos with hair. Not the best physique for killing.
Then, as the Leakeys discovered, early humans were not hunters; we were rather gatherers of wild grain and scavengers of meat from carcasses already killed.
Finally, there is the fossil and archeological evidence. We simply can't find any evidence of human beings doing violence to other human beings until about 8,000 years ago, whereas identifiably human activities have been going on for around two million years.
In 1981, the late cultural anthropologist Nancy Makepeace Tanner proposed a ground-breaking theory of what caused humans to evolve. She noted that the major physical difference between us and other animal species was human babies. The young of elephants, wolves and even ducks are ready to "run with the herd" after a few hours or days. Human young, however, are dependent for years. And years.
Tanner postulated that the lengthy dependency of human babies would necessitate a human division of labor, with women staying in base camps to nurse children while men went out to gather and scavenge for the core human group. Upon return, strategies of distribution would have to be worked out, with those best at sharing most favored by the women. Stories of what happened in and out of the camp would have to be told, danced, laughed about, then ritualized and preserved for the young to grow into some day. And sure enough, when archeologists began to look for the base camps where humans would care for their babies, there they were.
Besides the sophisticated sharing, communication and preservation of labor and goods, there was another advantage to the base camps. A sprained ankle was no longer a fatal injury. The person could wait and recuperate in the base camp, and then return to work. In short, what advanced humans into culture was not our ability to harm. Quite the reverse: Our survival and advancement as a species depended on how well we cared for babies-for their limitations, vulnerability and sickness-then, by extension, on how well we cared for all the weak.
On Christmas, Christians believe that their God came into the world as a human being-and more importantly, it seems, as a baby, a baby Christians call the Prince of Peace. And now, as then, humans seem to have lost sight of their humanity. Now, as then, some of us have come to believe that invasion and conquest, occupation and domination are what makes us human-or worse, more human than those whom we may have subjugated. In May, 1996, future U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright said on national television that the killing of 500,000 Iraqi children by U.S.-led U.N. sanctions was worth the price. Christmas-and paleoanthropology-tell us that this was not a statement of strength, but a massive, even obscene defection from what it means to be human. "War," observes Christian leader John Paul II, "is always a defeat for humanity."
On Christmas, we're invited to focus on a child and on children, so that we can recall-and be recalled to-what made us human in the first place: care for the weak, care for the vulnerable, care for babies.
It's enough to make many of us peacemakers wish that every day was Christmas.
G. Simon Harak is the Anti-Militarism Coordinator for the War Resisters League (AMC@warresisters.org).