The Imperial Animal


The Imperial Animal, by Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1971, xii + 308 pp.)

The furor in the popular press over B.F. Skinner's BEYOND FREEDOM AND DIGNITY is disconcerting because, when not indulging his grandiose fancies, Skinner remains a notable scientist. Unfortunately, the public has no way to distinguish plausible, limited applications of operant conditioning [1] from utopian schemes and science fiction. But the limits are inherent: by definition, an "operant" is an emitted act, which can be reinforced/conditioned/shaped only after it has spontaneously appeared. We have to ask, then, what makes the act appear for the first time. What makes the pigeon peck or the infant coo? How far can we expect to distort or encumber these characteristic behaviors before the animal will rebel or break down? In the human context, what are the limits of—and what are the conditions that limit—the well known flexibility of man's behavior and the countless variations of his culture?

The authors of THE IMPERIAL ANIMAL do not claim to know the limits of contemporary human adaptability, but they declare that the limits exist and that we ignore them at our peril. They believe they can show where the limits came from and how they have been genetically "wired into" the typical newborn babe as dispositions to learn certain practical and social behaviors very easily.

Canadian sociologist Lionel Tiger and British anthropologist Robin Fox have put their heads together in an American university (Rutgers) to consider the implications of zoology and evolutionary biology for the emergence of common themes from human cultures the world over. They derive the gross outlines of a human behavioral "biogram" from observations of the subhuman primates (particularly wild hamadryas baboons and laboratory rhesus monkeys) and from theory about the hunting ethos of Upper Paleolithic man. A thorough index and a forty-two-page multidisciplinary bibliography, deftly marshalled by three hundred consolidated footnotes, alert the reader to the fact that this is no hit-and-run operation. Though THE IMPERIAL ANIMAL is informally written and easily read, Tiger and Fox intend to be taken seriously.

This reviewer is best prepared to react to their use of psychological research. Citing more than a dozen psychologists, from Beach to Yerkes, Tiger and Fox depend significantly on H.F. Harlow; wherever I was familiar with the work, I found myself nodding agreement. From linguistics, they effectively adduce Chomsky's universal "deep structure" of language as the analog of a universal deep structure of social behavior, which they profess to discern amid superficial variations of culture. Freudian concepts are employed with restraint. Beyond that—and taking anthropology and sociology for granted—the authors confidently wield the works of animal ethologists, physiologists, psychiatrists, philosophers, historians, political scientists, and a few popular writers. Karl Marx gets special mention for putting his finger on alienation, while Robert Ardrey's territorial rug is gently but firmly pulled from under him.

The main thesis of THE IMPERIAL ANIMAL is that we dare not overlook a million years of behavioral evolution when trying to understand what makes a being or a society human. For all but the last hundredth of that very long time, people lived in nomadic hunting bands of about fifty persons, "where culture itself became a selection pressure." The recent great leaps—"backwards," the authors wryly note—into agriculture and industrialization "have put nothing into the basic wiring of the human animal." The very brain that builds computers, bureaucracies and metaphysical systems evolved during the first part of the hunting period; finding itself now pressed by a four-thousand-fold increase in population and by the dire advent of obliterative weaponry, the hunting brain tries precariously to cope with the threat of extinction. Its vast symbolizing power remains indissolubly linked with ancient social, emotional, and intellective preferences, which we must recognize and learn to use in species-compatible ways, if we are not suddenly to bring the million-year human episode to an untimely end. Genetic man still wants: autonomy, trading, competition, influence, risk, defensive might, adventure, hierarchy, cooperation, esteem in return for contributing to the community, a fair and sufficient share, and opportunities to intervene benignly in the lives of others. In addition to preferences she shares with genetic man, genetic woman also wants: children, protection, and face-to-face social cohesion. Genetic child still wants: crucial infant development in an intense mother-child relation, secure exploration, spontaneous learning, and (if a male) successful initiation into manhood. These inborn preferences are balanced by an inborn capacity to learn new and often anti-primate behaviors. The result is a wide variety of human cultures imperfectly but crucially disciplined by an ancient ethos.

Tiger and Fox impose their thesis on human relations, politics, economics, education, medicine, and war with a will that some may find brash. To show the broad relevance of their theme, they repeatedly toss all possible contemporary positions into the air like so many oranges—and then turn away to the next topic. Again, specialists may be irritated by their failure to evince universal expertise; for example, while discussing alienation ("not only from the fruits of their labor but also from the roots of their biology"), Tiger and Fox ignore recent articulations of the concept of alienation. [2] In the long view that is taken by THE IMPERIAL ANIMAL, such details may be judged trivial; the value of the book is not in specific answers, but in providing a fresh point of view, from which specialists may apply their own expertise more effectively.

Many of Tiger and Fox's opinions will be applauded—different ones, no doubt, by different readers. [3] These self-styled "biological Fabians" have some pungent things to say about: behaviorism, feminism, laissez-faire, busing, egalitarianism, Thoreau, utopian dissent, bureaucracy, progressivism, pacifism, Romanticism, homosexuality, maternity nurseries, psychiatry, and mankind's prospects of peace and freedom. I will not spoil the ending by telling you how it all comes out—or if it does—but I predict you will lay the book down more convinced than ever that the purportedly Blank Slate is doing a great deal of its own writing.

Dr. de Mille is a consulting research psychologist and author living in Santa Barbara, California.


[1] For example: David L. DeVries and Stephen F. Jablonsky, APPLYING OPERANT CONDITIONING PRINCIPLES TO THE MANAGEMENT OF ORGANIZATIONS, Report No. 102. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Center for Social Organization of Schools, 1971.
[2] See: Melvin Seeman, "The urban alienations: Some dubious theses from Marx to Marcuse" JOURNAL OF PERSONALITY AND SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY, 1971, 19, 135-143.
[3] Professor Max Gluckman seems to have been particularly irritated by THE IMPERIAL ANIMAL. See: Max Gluckman, "A Band Wagonload of Monkeys" NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS, Nov. 16, 1972, 39-41.