Creatures of Cain: The Hunt for Human Nature in Cold War America

American Museum of Natural History (July 2012)

American Museum of Natural History (July 2012)

My current project explores how and why Americans came to believe that we could learn as much about human nature by studying primates and other animals as we could by studying ourselves. Throughout the 1960s and '70s, cultural anthropologists like Margaret Mead enjoyed considerable celebrity and were happy to supply answers to questions of human behavior and nature. By the mid-1970s, however, organismal biologists  largely succeeded in grabbing the spotlight as reliable providers of scientific knowledge about human nature, as evidenced by the spectacular popularity of Jane Goodall’s research on chimpanzees in Gombe, Tanzania. 

Constructed as a series of chronologically parallel stories, Barely Human investigates the political, gendered, and racialized landscape in which this conversation about human nature took place. During these key decades between the UNESCO statements on race in the early 1950s and the highly visible fights over human nature as defined by sociobiology starting in the mid-1970s, concerns over natural aggression in humans loomed large. On the one hand, science and technology seemed to offer power and control over nature; on the other, the cold war seemed in danger of exterminating all civilization. Like many of their generation, scientists worried that the speed at which we invented new technologies of war had long ago outstripped our natural capacity to deal with them. In the words of psychologist Charles Osgood, “Modern Man, with his head in the sky, still has Neanderthal feet that are stuck in the mire” (An Alternative to War or Surrender, 19). 

This research was supported by a Scholar’s Award from the Science, Technology & Society program at the National Science Foundation (SES-1057586), and a year of blissful writing at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin.