Monday, September 16, 2013

Was Rousseau's Natural Man an Orangutan?

Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Discourse on the Origin of Inequality illustrates the dependence of political philosophy on the empirical science of evolutionary political anthropology.  This is most evident in the notes to his book, which provide empirical evidence for the assertions in his text, evidence drawn from anthropological reports, comparative anatomy, animal behavior, and geology.

In note j, which is the central note and the longest note, Rousseau complains that the anthropological reports by travellers on which he relies are not trustworthy because the travellers--sailors, merchants, soldiers, and missionaries--are not good scientific observers.  He hopes that someday a rich man will provide the money to support a scientific genius in going on a ten-year voyage around the world, collecting information about human life in all parts of the earth, who then would return to write "the natural, moral, and political history" of humanity (Masters trans., 213). 

Beginning with scientific voyagers like Alexander von Humboldt, Alfred Russel Wallace, and Charles Darwin, Rousseau's proposed scientific research project has been carried out by anthropologists, archaeologists, and evolutionary biologists.  So we are now in a position to judge whether Rousseau's account of human political evolution is empirically confirmed or not.

Was Rousseau right about the state of nature, in which primitive human beings lived as utterly solitary animals, without language, inequality, property, or war?  Was he right that in such a state of nature, "man is naturally good," because solitary individuals free from any dependence on others have no motive to be wicked (193)?

To support his account of savage men in the state of nature, Rousseau cites reports about the Caribs of Venezuela (108, 117, 179), other American Indians in the New World (113), and the Hottentots of the Cape of Good Hope (113).  The frontispiece for the book shows a Hottentot who has renounced his conversion by Christian missionaries, who strips off his European clothing, and who announces that he is returning to his Hottentot relatives: "I renounce also for my entire life the Christian religion; my resolution is to live and die in the religion, ways, and customs of my ancestors" (225-26).  Oddly, this does not support Rousseau's view of the state of nature, because this Hottentot is obviously a social animal with kinship ties and social customs.  The same can be said about the Caribs and the other American Indians.  Moreover, the studies of evolutionary anthropologists over the past two centuries confirm that the first and longest period of human evolution was in hunter-gatherer bands organized around extended family ties.  Thus, Rousseau's conception of the state of nature as utterly solitary with no social structure is clearly wrong.

But then Rousseau suggests in note j that savage man in the state of nature was actually an anthropomorphic animal or an orangutan (204-209).  He quotes one report about the orangutan being "a sort of middle point between the human species and the baboons" (204).  In Malay, orang hutan means "man of the forest," and in Rousseau's time, "orangutan" was a general term for any of the great apes, because no one had clearly distinguished the different species of apes.  It was only much later that scientific observers realized that the orangutans found only in Borneo and Sumatra were a distinct species separated from gorillas and chimpanzees found only in Africa.  And it is only in recent decades, that the bonobo in Africa has been recognized as a distinct species closely related to chimpanzees.

                                                     An Orangutan Mother and Child

                             An Orangutan Male with the Flabby Flanges of a Fully Adult Male

Surprisingly, some of the reports about orangutans in the wild suggest that they might actually be living in Rousseau's state of nature.  John MacKinnon, one of the leading observers of the orangutan, has described this ape as "an anti-social and solitary animal" and "a shaggy, surly bundle of complete inactivity."  He lives by wandering through tropical rainforests in Borneo and Sumatra feeding at widely scattered fruit trees.  The male usually travels alone.  He mates on rare occasions; and although he may form a consortship with a female, this lasts no longer than a few days.  The only stable social bond is between mothers and their infants, and typically adult females are somewhat social in contrast to the utterly solitary males.  Occasionally, males fight for dominance, but generally they avoid violence.  Birute Galdikas, after many years of studying orangutans in the wild, concludes: "Individual orangutans rely on no one other than themselves.  They have been released from dependence on others of their kind.  Paradoxically, they seem to have an inner strength and serenity no member of any gregarious species, including our own, could ever match."  Are these our primal forebears?  If so, we would have to agree with Rousseau that we have descended from peaceful, asocial beings, who were free and equal in being "released from dependence on others."

But notice that while these orangutans are solitary, in the sense that most individuals spend most of their time alone, they are also loosely social, in the sense that they show a social organization.  Mothers caring for their offspring constitute a social unit.  Actually, even Rousseau admits that maternal care for children would be required in the state of nature.  Furthermore, the most recent studies of orangutans in the wild have shown a much more elaborate social structure than was previously reported.  This new research is surveyed in Carel van Schaik's Among Orangutans: Red Apes and the Rise of Human Culture (Harvard University Press, 2004) and in Orangutans: Geographic Variation in Behavioral Ecology and Conservation (Oxford University Press, 2010), edited by S. A. Wich et al.

The strongest social bond among orangutans is between mother and offspring.  She nurses the child for at least seven years, and even after weaning, the child will stay close for a year or two.  Orangutans live in loose communities organized around a dominant adult male who is intolerant of other adult males.  Adult females prefer to mate with the same dominant male, who might provide her protection from infanticidal attacks by subordinate males.  The younger subadult males and females often travel together and play with one another.  Mature females tend to settle close to their mothers and sisters.  This social life allows for social learning that creates cultural traditions that distinguish orangutan communities.  Various skills (such as tool use and building nests) and communication signals seem to be passed from generation to generation through social learning.  A list of cultural variants found in orangutan communities can be found here.

Consequently, we can say that all of the great apes are social animals, including the orangutans.  And, therefore, there is no way to defend Rousseau's view of the state of nature as an utterly asocial state by interpreting it as a depiction of life among our ape ancestors.  Roger Masters is one of the leading scholars of Rousseau's political philosophy.  He says that once he began studying the biology of primate social life, he realized that what Rousseau says about the state of nature is simply false (see his chapter in Stephen Dilley's edited book--Darwinian Evolution and Classical Liberalism).

The lack of evidence for such an asocial state of nature makes one wonder why Rousseau adopted such an idea.  One possibility is that he was following the account of human evolution set forth by Lucretius, who begins with a solitary state without families (On the Nature of Things, book 5, 925-1010). 

But if we throw out this first stage of "nascent man" (141), the later stages that Rousseau sketches are more defensible: "nascent society" with the development of family life (150), "nascent inequality" with the development of agriculture (156), and "nascent government" with the development of political societies (162).  This will be the subject of my next post.


Anonymous said...


Are you paid for your blog posts by private organizations? Some of your posts are rather promotional...

Just curious.

Larry Arnhart said...

No. But if you want to send me a contribution, go right ahead.

I don't know what you mean in saying that some of my posts are "promotional."

Kent Guida said...

Yes, they promote the love of wisdom, and if this were a just world, you would paid handsomely for each one.

David Gordon said...

You in all probability already know this, but there is a paper by A.O. Lovejoy, "Monboddo and Rousseau" in his Essays on the History of Ideas which discusses the issues you raise in this post.