BOOKS: Man the Hunted

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 2005:

Man the Hunted:
Primates, Predators, & Human Evolution
by Donna Hart & Robert W. Sussman
Perseus Books (2300 Chestnut St., Philadelphia,
PA 19103), 2005. 312 pages, hardcover. $29.95.

I first encountered Man the Hunted co-author Donna Hart more
than 20 years ago, 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
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.

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
Washington University anthropologist and Man The Hunted co-author
Robert W. Sussman. Sussman is further identified as “editor emeritus
of American Anthropologist, and author of many scientific articles
and books on anthropology and primatology.”
That is putting it all 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.
Her central contention 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.
The early human perspective is represented by a man whose
whole career has developed from his ability to deduce from
fragmentary fossil evidence how our distant ancestors thought and
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.
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 scambled 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.

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