University of Cambridge > Talks.cam > Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science > Creatures of Cain: the hunt for human nature in Cold War America

Creatures of Cain: the hunt for human nature in Cold War America

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After the Second World War, the question of how to define a universal human nature took on new urgency. This talk charts the rise and precipitous fall of a theory that attributed man’s evolutionary success to his unique capacity for murder amid the tense social climate of Cold War America. The scientists who advanced this ‘killer ape’ vision of humanity capitalized on an expanding postwar market in intellectual paperbacks and widespread faith in the power of science to solve humanity’s problems, even answer fundamental questions of human identity. The killer ape theory spread quickly from colloquial science publications to late-night television, classrooms, political debates, and Hollywood films. Behind the scenes, however, scientists were sharply divided. Then, in the 1970s, the theory unravelled altogether when primatologists discovered that chimpanzees also kill members of their own species. This discovery brought an end to definitions of human exceptionalism marked by violence. Some evolutionists reacted by arguing for a shared chimpanzee-human history of aggression even as other scientists discredited all such theories as sloppy popularizations. The legacy of the killer ape persists today in Americans’ conviction that fundamental questions of human nature are resolvable through science.

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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