by Donna Hart & Robert W. Sussman
Perseus Books (2300 Chestnut St., Philadelphia,
PA 19103), 2005. 312 pages, hardcover. $29.95.
Reviewed by Merritt Clifton
I first encountered Man the Hunted co-author Donna Hart in the early 1980s, while investigating the U.S./Canada transborder traffic in exotic cats, as a reporter for the Sherbrooke Record. I had already seen and photographed the cats, on the premises of a small private hunting preserve that would now be called a “canned hunt.”
Had interviewed the bad guys
With the help of Montreal activist Anne Streeter, and local sources who chose to be anonymous, I had traced the substantial criminal history of some of the people who were involved.
I had interviewed the bad guys.
Now I needed an informed pro-animal source to comment on the veracity of what I had been told about where the big cats came from, how they were bred, how they were kept, and what would become of them.
Animal rights and humane organizations, at the time, mostly had little institutional knowledge of exotic cats and “canned hunts.” But three different people mentioned that I should talk to Donna Hart, if I could find her.
Turned from activism to academia
Hart was among the former International Fund for Animal Welfare staff and volunteers who had just broken away to form the International Wildlife Coalition. She seemed surprised to be called, surprised to be known, and anxious about being quoted–and fairly obviously had a deeper understanding of predator behavior, in or out of captivity, than any of the hunters, wildlife law enforcement personnel, and animal advocates I had encountered to that point.
Hart left IWC in mid-2000 to pursue an academic career. According to the jacket flap of Man The Hunted, she is “currently on the faculty of the Honors College and Department of Anthropology at the University of Missouri in St. Louis,” just across town from recently deceased Washington University anthropologist and Man The Hunted co-author Robert W. Sussman.
Unconventional scholarly counterpart
Sussman was identified on the jacket flap as “editor emeritus of American Anthropologist, and author of many scientific articles and books on anthropology and primatology,” but that was putting his long career of rebutting Victorian beliefs about human and animal nature in perhaps the driest, most abstract possible manner.
What we truly have in Man The Hunted is a woman who intuitively thinks like a big cat, stalking early human behavior, described by one of the world’s most eminent experts on the evolution of primate social habits.
Humans evolved as a prey species
Hart’s central contention, endorsed but often tested by counter-arguments from Sussman, is that humans have been primarily a prey species, not a predator, through most of our existence. We developed unique attributes, Hart argues, chiefly to avoid being “wolfed down” by bigger, fiercer species. We were more likely to end up as cat food than to die in a non-violent manner.
Sussman, a cautious if controversial scholar, developed his career from the combination of observing lemurs and small monkeys in the wild, with his ability to deduce from fragmentary fossil evidence how our most distant direct ancestors thought and behaved.
Pounces & leaps
I imagine the writing process behind Man The Hunted as a series of stealthy Hart pounces and Sussman leaps to safety in the high branches of scholarship.
As each learned to anticipate the arguments and counter-arguments of the other, they must have acted out many times on the personal and psychological level the evolutionary drama they describe in Man The Hunted.
Series of trials
Writing Man The Hunted, in other words, almost certainly required surviving and learning from a series of trials paralleling the evolution of the almost physically defenseless apes we were, into the intellectually empowered dominant species we became.
Beginning her stalk of historical truth as a fierce animal rights activist with provocative but mostly untested ideas, Hart has sharpened her focus and developed academic discipline. Sussman has scrambled away from conventional wisdom– where group-thinkers hope to survive as predatory critics pick off the old, the young, the sick, and the injured–to claim and defend a stronger branch of the family tree.
Together, Hart and Sussman themselves demonstrate how sustained challenge drives the evolution of thought.
Though human physical evolution is part of their subject, the evolution of thought is their actual central topic: how the experience of predation came to shape human culture.
Among the enduring consequences are societal attitudes toward meat, hunting, choices of mates and leaders, choices of pets, which animals become the icons of athletic teams, which attract donor support as subjects of appeal mailings, and even what humans most often choose to watch on television and read about in newspapers.