Are we just psychotic apes, or are we human?

The idea that humans are, in truth, psychotic apes who would brutally smash each other were it not for the thin trappings of culture has long been a sci-fi staple, and with reason.


What would happen if, say, culture was suddenly stripped from a group of kids? To William Golding the answer was simple; the ape would swiftly emerge – a battle in which the strongest would win by force. His Lord Of The Flies (1954) drew due criticism for its portrayal of feral teenagers. Surely the control we have over the beast within isn’t that poor?

Robert A Heinlein disputed the point. His counterblast to Golding, Tunnel In the Sky (1955), portrayed a group of kids cut adrift on a wild alien world by the failure of a ‘star gate’. And yes, Heinlein thought of the Star Gate first… Ahem. Anyway, instead of fighting each other like animals they worked like Trojans to keep their culture and society going. It was a classic Heinlein ‘coming of age/frontier celebration’ tale, with the usual Heinleinian twists at the end.

For obvious reasons there’s no way of collecting science data on this question, but the issue has exercised sociologists because the answer tells us a great deal about our true nature.

Looking around – certainly in New Zealand – I wonder sometimes whether the answers can be found within our own society. I hear, surprisingly often, of ‘feral’ kids who have no respect for anything, whose first recourse is to threats and violence, and who don’t seem to be able to be rehabilitated.

Last year I heard a story about a kid going on a damage spree in a greater Wellington suburb – vandalising cars, breaking into schools, defecating on desks, and smashing public and private property over a wide area.

Why? Apparently he’d got angry over something earlier in the day. The rampage that followed was literally ape behaviour – this is what chimps do, including the defecation – and I couldn’t help thinking that the trappings of civilisation and society were running very, very thin. And when I see that behaviour emerging generally in other ways, often only slightly disguised behind intellectualised justifications, it worries me that this might be true in general, one way or another, for all humans. I hope not, but it’s a worry.


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016

9 thoughts on “Are we just psychotic apes, or are we human?

  1. I would agree with Heinlein. Without the proper upbringing, how would the human know that they should control themselves? Lord of the Flies is a perfect example! Despite knowing that there should be control, without the proper guidelines, they didn’t even care.
    Terrific article.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! It’s intriguing how the ‘veneer of civilisation’ has been such a theme in science fiction. And yet – reversing that idea – once ingrained it’s not lost. The Japanese combatants who hid on remote Pacific islands after the Second World War and were found sometimes years later never lost their sense of civilised society despite ‘living rough’ for years.

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  2. After all these years I could still argue this topic both ways. I often run into humanity where it wasn’t expected, but it’s equally true that I see a person’s humanity dissolve with little provocation. If pressed, I’d say the animal within is always there, kept under control by higher order elements of the intellect. So, why then does the animal resurface? The reasons, or variables, (possibilities?) are too many to list. Defect in the intellect? Defect in the upbringing? Crumbling of society’s obligations? So often in this country the worst of society are in some way disenfranchised. It’s much like our crumbling infrastructure. We build it and act like it’ll last forever without maintenance. Education is no different. Whoa. I think I went off on a tangent…

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    1. Not at all – education demands constant attention, and seldom gets it. New Zealand’s system, ‘Tomorrow’s Schools’ is 30 years old now… more like ‘Yesterday’s Schools’. On the matter of humanity in general, I have a hypothesis that an awful lot about the human condition – including human behaviour and that veneer of civilisation – is explained by the Dunbar Number. More on that soon.

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  3. I think there is a reason we invented angels and demons – they reflect the contradictory elements of the human psyche. When a poor environment is superimposed over a personality with poor control, violence is often the outcome. Perhaps if we recognize this duality in our natures, we’ll be more likely to try and control it.

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  4. Here in Western Australia there is a mixture of both ‘feral’ and non-feral. Sadly, children are not parented by people who follow the ‘old’ ways of respect – and in some cases, they were not either. At this point in time we do not have the situation where people – or teenagers – have to band together for common good. Digital devices, useful as they are, do not help. Sad but true.
    Another thought-provoking post, Matthew, thanks


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