Strange Odyssey: From Dart to Ardrey to Kubrick and Clarke

He who hath grown wise concerning old origins, lo, he will at last seek after the fountains of the future and new origins.

--Thus Spake Zarathustra, LVI, section 25

In this exercise we attempt to trace the history of "the predatory transition from ape to man" from its early statement in Raymond A. Dart's article by that name, through its modification and popularization in Robert Ardrey's African Genesis, and into the Kubrick-Clarke film 2001 and Clarke's novel 2001.[1]

Dart's "Predatory Transition" seems to be his popular manifesto. He accepted as granted an African genesis for humankind, the role of Australopithecus africanus (or the Australopithecinae in general) as the animal precursor for humans, and the genetic inheritance of at least certain tastes and cultural proclivities. In 1953 these points were far from universally accepted, but Dart was just beginning his argument. After asserting to his satisfaction that "there are no known features on the cultural side other than the deliberate manufacture of tools and the systematic employment of fire, which separate these proto-men...from early man," he goes on to suggest how Australopithecus could have crossed the threshold to Homo.

The carnivorous dietary habits of the South African man-apes have shown the skilled work of biological usefulness, which their competent hands were called upon to do; and have demonstrated the direct relationship which exists between the carnivorous habit and acquiring upright posture. The cerebral powers of these creatures were necessarily enhanced to carry out these striking, hurling and thrusting manual feats that are utterly beyond the skill of living apes....(204-205)

That is, the hunting life provided the selection pressures that resulted in the upright posture (true bipedalism?) and in the enlarged brain. Predation was not merely an accompaniment of the transition from ape to man; it was the cause of that transition.[2]

More important, the "predatory transition" is the cause of humankind's perennial nastiness:

The loathsome cruelty of mankind to man forms one of his inescapable, characteristic and differentiative features; and it is explicable only in terms of his carnivorous, and cannibalistic origin.

The blood-bespattered, slaughtergutted [sic] archives of human history from the earliest Egyptian and Sumerian records to the most recent atrocities of the Second World War accord with early universal cannibalism, with animal and human sacrificial practices or their substitutes in formalized religions and with the world-wide scalping, head-hunting, body-mutilating and necrophilic practices of mankind in proclaiming this common bloodlust differentiator, this predaceous habit, this mark of Cain that separates man dietetically fom his anthropoidal relatives and allies him rather with the deadliest of Carnivora. (207-208)

In short, we are the beasts we are because "man's predecessors differed from living apes in being confirmed killers: carnivorous creatures, that seized living quarries by violence, battered them to death, tore apart their broken bodies, dismembered them limb from limb, slaking their ravenous thirst with the hot blood of victims and greedily devouring livid writhing flesh" (p. 209).

Dart had trouble getting this article published, eventually settling for a new and obscure journal, edited by someone with views on diet and human evolution even stranger than Dart's. (See the Editor's Note, pp. 218-219.) I suspect that one reason Dart had trouble getting his article published was his use of sensational and over-blown rhetoric.

Lack of rhetorical elegance, however, is no argument against Robert Ardrey's African Genesis. Ardrey might confuse "predation" and "aggression" more than he should, and he seems a bit too insistent on the Biblical analogies of Cain and Abel and the loss of a Miocene Eden. Still, he usually writes very well and takes a good shot at Alfred Wallace's great question "How did man get his brains"--i.e., how was it that a structure so complex as the human brain could develop in so comparatively short a time?[3]

African Genesis is, in part, a popularization of some fairly recent and mostly non-controversial discoveries in ethology and anthropology, what Ardrey calls "The New Enlightenment." The rest of the book is a presentation of a slightly modified view of "the predatory transition" and discussions of the philosophical, social, psychological, and political implications of "the Animal Origins and Nature of Man."[4]

Ardrey, then, puts Dart into context, clarifies Dart's theory, and modifies it into a sort of "weapon's transition" theory to account better for the rise and fall of Australopithecus robustus and the rise and possible future destruction of Homo sapiens. We have in African Genesis the assertion that "Not in innocence, and not in Asia, was mankind born. The home of our fathers was that African highland reaching north from the Cape to the Lakes of the Nile" (Ardrey 9). More important, we have the strong suggestions that "that remarkable killer, Australopithecus africanus ... was our last direct ancestor in the animal world ... [and] that man is a predator with an instinct to kill and a genetic cultural affinity for the weapon" (166). We have the direct statement that "The human being in the most fundamental aspects of his soul and body is nature's last if temporary word on the subject of the armed predator. And human history must be read in these terms." We are told that "Weapons preceded man," and we are asked the question "Whether man is in fact a biological invention evolved to suit the purposes of the weapon..." (312).

African Genesis obviously raises questions about human nature and the human condition that we must all consider. The reception that the book received is also of interest as is the mini "scientific revolution" revolving around the view of the Australopithecinae as the "missing link."

The truth or falsehood of African Genesis, however, is of little importance in examining its function as "a skeleton key to 2001."[8]

To me the importance of African Genesis was immediately obvious from the first viewing of the film: there were Australopithecus, a bone weapon (humerus or femur?), predation, and murder. There was, most of all, that famous matched cut of the bone weapon giving way to (or becoming) an orbiting satellite. What better visual metaphor for "the predatory transition"? What better way to suggest that all our magnificent toys are even yet the products of a bone-weapon technologyÑ and that man-the-space-quester isn't all that much ahead of predatory and murderous man-apes?

Several of these points (as I later discovered) were also obvious to a few other viewers of the film.9 To most of my friends and colleagues and students, though, they were far from obvious, and they did not become even clear until A. C. Clarke started "to mine the debris from 2001" and produced first his novel and later The Lost Worlds of 2001.[10]

Comparing Ardrey's African Genesis with Clarke's 2001 is quite useful for learning the scholarly sport of source hunting, and we can have a good deal of fun discussing whether the opening clause of the novel is a sort of note crediting Ardrey's influence by echoing one of Ardrey's lines. (African Genesis, p. 268: "For millions upon millions of years the world had known nothing but drought"; 2001: "The drought had lasted now for ten million years....") We also can argue such esoteric questions as whether the "osteodontokeratic" (bone-tooth-horn) culture Clarke describes (28) was derived from Ardrey (198-199), from Dart's monograph on the subject, or from some other source.[11] Or, we can look at the interesting suggestion by a student, that the most important work for understanding 2001 is Clarke's own Childhood's End.

While playing Mighty Source Hunters of the American Plains, we should consider a couple of Ardrey's ideas in "The Bad Weather Animal" chapter:

The primate experiment from its Eocene beginning had centered on the enlarged brain. The protagonists facing each other on the stark Pliocene stage [field apes and forest apes] were the possessors of the largest, most complex brains that natural selection had so far evolved. Would either protagonist survive? Or would evolution's experiment with beings of superior intelligence come to tragic failure? It was the crisis of the mind itself. And we know that but for a gift from the stars, but for the accidental collision of ray and gene, that intelligence would have perished on some forgotten African field. (African Genesis, 261)

Higher and higher rose the mortality rate among Eden's outcasts: dead of hunger; dead of dispute; dead, in the dead of night, of a famished leopard's ambitions. Always before us lay the spreading savannah, but we could live on the antelope no more than on grass [sic]. A single commandment, unheard and unseen, overhung the birth of every infant: kill, and eat meat, or die. And we died. We died by the family, by the troop, by the race. We surrendered our flesh to the vulture, our bones to the hyena. And then the lightning struck.

Accident, incredible accident, befell us. In some scrawny troop of beleaguered not-yet-men on some scrawny, forgotten plain a radiant particle from an unknown source fractured a never-to-be-forgotten gene, and a primate carnivor was born. (264-65)

We should also note Ardrey's almost mystic belief that order and obedience are basic to the scheme of things (110, 133, 352, 353)--and his almost Nietzschean hope for a Superman:

We are a transitional species, without doubt. We are a pioneer creature testing the potentialities of the enlarged brain. The first species to be blessed by such a mutational marvel, we must be forgiven if sometimes we use it badly. Lacking instinctual authority for our mind's decrees, we must not be embarrassed if all too often human thought amounts to little but a faint, fizzling sound. We are simply doing the best we can. And if we do not behave too badly, then we shall pass on the power of thought, one day, to a descendant species who may count it a part of their animal endowment. They, not we, can found kingdoms on its strength. (338)[12]

The mechanical aspects of the source hunting game are over now. In The Lost Worlds of 2001 Clarke's log tells us explicitly that he finished reading African Genesis on 2 October 1964 and that he was especially struck by how much the "gift from the stars" idea corresponded to the plot line he and Kubrick had been moving toward since May (Lost Worlds 34; see also entries for 20 and 21 November, 34-35, and 68, 108-109). The job now for students of 2001 novel and film, is to use Ardrey as an aid in mature criticism. At the same time all of us critics must start to consider why the idea of "the predatory transition"--or Ardrey's weapons transition--would be anathema to so many in 1953 or 1961 and acceptable at least in art in 1968 to the present.[13]


1 Raymond A. Dart, "The Predatory Transition from Ape to Man," International Anthropological and Linguistic Review, 1 (1953): 201-219; Robert Ardrey, African Genesis (1961; rpt. New York: Dell, 1963); 2001: A Space Odyssey, dir. Stanley Kubrick, MGM, 1968; Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey (New York: New American Library, 1968).

2 James D. Watson, The Double Helix (1968; rpt. New York: New American Library, 1969), 30-31.

3 For Wallace on brain development, see Loren Eiseley, "The Real Secret of Piltdown," collected in his The Immense Journey (New York: Random House, 1957); my quotation is from Eiseley.

4 For Ardrey on the rise of man (and it's always man, the male, with Ardrey), see especially pp. 28-31 and ch. 9, "The Bad-Weather Animal"; for Ardrey's disagreements with Dart, see pp. 258-66; for matters philosophical, social, psychological, and political, see ch. 6, "The Romantic Fallacy" and ch. 11, "Cain's Children."

5 E.g., see Montagu's review of Ardrey's The Social Contract, Chicago Sun-Times, Sunday, 4 Oct. 1970, section 6, p. 18.

6 R. Leakey discovered the skull in August, 1972 and announced his find at a meeting at the London Zoo, 9 Nov. 1972; see SciAm, June 1973, pp. 39-40 and the popular press on and off since then: e.g., Newsweek 20 Nov. 1972, 24 Dec. 1973, p. 102, 15 July 1974, pp. 72, 75, 77.

7 Articles on "Australopithecus," vol. 2, 439; "Man, Evolution of," vol. 11, 423; "Hominidae," vol. 8, 1023, 1027-29; "Homo erectus," vol. 8, 1030-33; "Homo sapiens," vol. 8, 1045--all in "Macropeadia."

8 I crib this phrase from Don Daniels, "A Skeleton Key to 2001," Sight and Sound, 40 (Winter 1970/71), 28-33. Daniels does not recognize the influence of African Genesis but does a fine job explicating the film.

9 See e.g., Jerome Agel, ed. The Making of Kubrick's 2001 (New York: NAL, 1970), pp. 180, 183, 204 (IV.A), 217-222 (part of the excellent review by The Harvard Crimson), and 271.

10 The "debris" quotation is from Agel, p. 311. The Lost Worlds of 2001 (New York: NAL, 1972). Some sections of Report on Planet Three (New York: NAL, 1972) are also relevant: pp. 101-102 ("When the Aliens Come") mention Ardrey, aggression, and territoriality; p. 137 has a reference "to the work of Dart, Brrom, and Leakey on our African ancestors and Lorenz's studies of aggression" and notes that "we are carnivorous predators--the deadliest that this world has ever seen."

11 Dart, "The Osteodontokeratic Culture of Australopithecus Prometheus," Memoir, Transvaal Museum, No. 10, Jan. 1957.

12 For Nietzsche on the Superman see especially Thus Spake Zarathustra, Prolog, sections 3-4; XXIII, section 3; and XLIII. For man as "the best beast of prey," see Zarathustra, LVI, section 22. For Kubrick's vision of human banality in 2001 see Nietzsche on "the last men," Zarathustra, Prolog, section 5.

13 Outside of art, needless to say, the whole idea of innate aggression is still a matter of intense debate. To mention only a few authors and titles:

Konrad Lorenz, On Aggression (1963; English trans., 1966); Hannah Arendt, On Violence (1969); Harry Kaufmann, Aggression and Altruism (1970); Ashley Montagu, ed., Man and Aggression (1968, 1973); Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority (1973). Indeed, even the philosophical underpinning of discussions of Human Nature or Animal Behavior has been attacked by those who reject a typological approach to biological questions: e.g., James C. King, The Biology of Race (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971), pp. 6-8; Robert B. Lockard, "Reflections on the Fall of Comparative Psychology," American Psychologist, 26 (Feb. 1971), 168-179; and Jerry Hirsch in several articles: "Behavior Genetics and Individuality Understood," Science, 142 (13 Dec. 1963), 1436-42: "Behavior-Genetic, or 'Experimental,' Analysis," American Psychologist , 22 (Feb. 1967), 118-130; "Behavior-Genetic Analysis and Its Biosocial Consequences," Seminars in Psychiatry, 2 (Feb. 1970), 89-105. Note also Stanley Kubrick's Clockwork Orange (1971), based on the novel by Anthony Burgess: in the world of Clockwork Orange both human nature and nurture are depraved.