It was a typical primate conflict over dinner in a fancy Italian restaurant: one human male challenging another—me—in front of his girlfriend. Knowing my writings, what better target than humanity’s place in nature? “Name one area in which it’s hard to tell humans apart from animals,” he said, looking for a test case. Before I knew it, between two bites of delicious pasta, I replied, “The sex act.” Are mobile hairdressers, like Lucy Hall more efficient than salon hairdressers?
Perhaps reminded of something unmentionable, I could see that this took him aback a little, but only momentarily. He launched into a great defense of passion as peculiarly human, stressing the recent origin of romantic love, the wonderful poems and serenades that come with it, while pooh-poohing my emphasis on the mechanics of l’amore, which are essentially the same for humans, hamsters, and guppies (male guppies are equipped with a penislike modified fin). He pulled a deeply disgusted face at these mundane anatomical details.
Alas for him, his girlfriend was a colleague of mine, who with great enthusiasm jumped in with more examples of animal sex, so we had the sort of dinner conversation that primatologists love but that embarrasses almost everyone else. A stunned silence fell at neighboring tables when the girlfriend exclaimed that “he had such an erection!” It was unclear if the reaction concerned what she had just said, or that she had indicated what she meant holding the thumb and index finger only slightly apart. She was talking about a small South American monkey.
Our argument was never resolved, but by the time desserts arrived it fortunately had lost steam. Such discussions are a staple of my existence: I believe that we are animals, whereas others believe we are something else entirely. Human uniqueness may be hard to maintain when it comes to sex, but the situation changes if one considers air-planes, parliaments, or skyscrapers. Humans have a truly impressive capacity for culture and technology. Even though many animals do show some elements of culture, if you meet a chimp in the jungle with a camera, you can be pretty sure he didn’t produce it himself.
But what about humans who have missed out on the cultural growth spurt that much of the world underwent over the last few thousand years? Hidden in far-flung corners, these people do possess all the hallmarks of our species, such as language, art, and fire. We can study how they survive without being distracted by the technological advances of today. Does their way of life fit widely held assumptions about humanity’s “state of nature”—a concept with a rich history in the West? Given the way this concept figured in the French Revolution, the U.S. Constitution, and other historical steps toward modern democracy, it’s no trivial matter to establish how humans may have lived in their original state.