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Raymond Corbey. The Metaphysics of Apes: Negotiating the Animal-Human Boundary.

RAYMOND CORBEY. The Metaphysics of Apes: Negotiating the Animal-Human Boundary. x+227 pages, 7 illustrations. 2005. Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press; 0-521-83683-2 hardback 40 [pounds sterling] & $65, 0-521-54533-1 paperback 14.99 [pounds sterling] & $23.99.

Humans are animals in the sense that Homo sapiens belongs to the Animal Kingdom; but what makes humans different from other animals? Raymond Corbey's book analyses the ways in which certain ideas have informed and constrained empirical research on human and non-human primates since the seventeenth century, and continues to do so in primatology, palaeoanthropology, archaeology and cultural anthropology. Corbey begins with a quote from Darwin's Notebook M: 'Origin of man now proved.--Metaphysics may flourish.--He who understands the Baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke'. This extraordinary set of statements by Darwin was not published until 1987, and sets the scene for Corbey's philosophical assessment of issues that concern human-like apes, ape-like 'progenitors' of humankind, and Homo sapiens as a species.

In The Origin of Species of 1859, Darwin had not dared evoke the possibility of human evolution, but in 1871, in The Descent of Man, he briefly mentioned that Africa was likely to have been the continent from which 'progenitors' of humankind evolved. This was based on the observation that of all living primates, the chimpanzees and gorillas are most similar to humans in terms of anatomy, and that these apes are distributed in Africa only. Palaeontological research has confirmed Darwin's view of Africa as the Cradle of Humankind, but ethological research on extant apes, and palaeoanthropological work on Plio-Pleistocene hominids, have raised a host of questions about the way in which a diversity of primates, extinct and extant, should be classified and assessed.

Chapter 2 ('Crafting the Primate Order') includes European observations of African chimpanzees and Asian orang-utans in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Linnaeus placed orang-utan apes in the genus Homo. Edward Tyson dissected a juvenile pongid (probably a chimpanzee) and referred to it as a 'Pygmie'. Lamarck suggested that chimpanzees represented a human ancestor, whereas Etienne Geoffrey St Hilaire considered the orang-utan to represent a possible ancestor of Homo sapiens. Such views were thought to insult human dignity.

In chapter 3 ('Up from the Ape'), reference is made to Max Scheler, a contemporary of Sigmund Freud. Chimpanzees were considered as primates that had 'not yet crossed the animal-human boundary' (p. 85). Helmuth Plessner is quoted as saying: 'At a time when a world that had been shaped by Christianity and Antiquity is falling apart, man, now completely abandoned by God, in opposition to the threat of sinking away into animality again examines the essence and purpose of being human' (p. 84). Kenneth Oakley emphasised tool-making as a human characteristic, but Scheler and others judged this to be an insufficiently distinctive attribute.

Chapter 4 ('Homo's Humanness') examines palaeontological evidence, including the discovery of late Pliocene fossils of Australopithecus, a genus first described by Raymond Dart in 1925, based on a juvenile specimen of A. africanus (the 'Taung Child') about 2.5 million years old. Australopithecine skulls generally have cranial capacities close to 500[cm.sup.3]. Younger (early Pleistocene) fossils, described as Homo habilis by Louis Leakey, Phillip Tobias and John Napier in 1964, were associated with greater cranial capacities, closer to 600[cm.sup.3]. The issue is, however, whether there is a clear boundary between Australopithecus and Homo.

On the basis of studies of 'endocasts' (impressions of brains), Tobias has suggested that the capacity for speech was greater in Homo habilis than in australopithecines. This suggestion is based on the recognition of speech areas in modern human brains, and the identification of similar areas in brain endocasts of hominid fossils. One cannot, however, exclude the possibility that australopithecines may have had some form of communication, including the use of sounds. Language in early Homo could have developed from communication systems of the kind used by australopithecines.

Chapter 5 ('Symbolic man in Ethnology') discusses anthropological views, leading Corbey to observe that 'in recent decades, ethnology, struggling with its methodology and disciplinary identity, has been one of the fields in which the animal-human boundary has been profoundly at stake' (p. 144). Chapter 6 ('Pan Sapiens?') begins with a quotation from a song in Walt Disney's film, The Jungle Book: 'An ape like me, shoo-be do-bee do-bee, can learn to be human too' (p. 145). Reference is made to genetic studies which indicate a striking degree of similarity in the DNA of chimpanzees and humans. Some have gone so far as to suggest that these primates should be placed within the same genus.

Raymond Dart described Pleistocene hominid behaviour as aggressive. Research on chimpanzees by Jane Goodall and Richard Wrangham, among others, has included observations of aggression, but the primatologist Frans de Waal has emphasised the importance of behaviours among chimpanzees that relate to the reduction of conflict. Corbey quotes Darwin from the Descent of Man (1871): 'In a series of forms graduating insensibly from some apelike creature to man as he now exists, it would be impossible to fix on any definite point where the term 'man' ought to be used' (p. 168). Whereas Darwin stated that 'this is a matter of very little importance', Corbey recognises this as central to the theme of his book. In the final chapter ('Beyond Dualism'), he admits that there are 'no easy answers', but concludes by saying that his study has placed matters in 'clearer perspective' (p. 199).

This book can be highly recommended to primatologists, palaeontologists, archaeologists and anthropologists interested in how usually theoretical presuppositions influence their interpretations of empirical data. It is well written and informative, with an impressive bibliography. It reflects the wide interests of the author who lectures in the Department of Philosophy at Tilburg University, and holds the Chair of Epistemology of Archaeology at Leiden University in the Netherlands.


Transvaal Museum, Pretoria, South Africa

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Author:Thackeray, J.F.
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2006
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