After starting a long and successful career as both a playwright and a screenwriter, Robert Ardrey, always seeking new challenges and adventures, rekindled his long-standing interest in human origins. He traveled to Africa, meeting with the anthropologist Raymond Dart to examine a specimen of Australopithecus africanus. Dart had two deeply controversial theses: that humans evolved from African, and not Asian ancestors, and that early man were carnivorous. These claims sent Ardrey on an investigative journey that spanned from the archaeological digs of Eastern and Southern Africa to the laboratories of Europe. The result was his Nature of Man series.
The Nature of Man series consists of four volumes, published between 1961 and 1976. It majorly undermined standing assumptions in the social sciences, leading to an abandonment of both the “blank slate” hypothesis and the theory of Asian genesis. The first two volumes, both massive international bestsellers, ignited a widespread popular interest in human origins and the science of human evolution. The series has also had a long-standing cultural legacy, inspiring such thinkers, explorers and artists as anthropologist Rick Potts, biologist E.O. Wilson, Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders, author Arthur C. Clarke, screenwriter Sam Peckinpah, and filmmaker Stanley Kubrick.
In collaboration with one of New England’s leading printing presses, limited edition letterpress prints of Berdine Ardrey’s illustrations from the first three books of The Nature of Man series are available for purchase from Arbalest Press.
“With an icy grand compassion for the human case, Robert Ardrey was a master craftsman of controversy and the human story. Admired by many, reviled by some, ignored by none, Robert Ardrey has always stimulated what Homo sapiens is supposed to do best: thinking. Yet, also, there is a mellow music [in his work], which makes it worthy to read and finish in the evening, near a fireplace, when one is thoughtfully proudest about human life.”
Ardrey’s first installment came in 1961 with the smash hit African Genesis. The book ignited a national conversation in America among scientists and laymen alike, and it was quickly translated into dozens of languages, becoming an international bestseller. In 1962 it was a finalist for the National Book Award. At the end of the decade, Time magazine named it the most notable nonfiction book of the sixties.
“African Genesis has, in all probability, been read by more people throughout the world than any other book on human evolution and the nature of man. Its influence has been very great indeed as it fermented an intense debate about these topics, and catalysed a new set of concepts in paleoanthropology.”C. K. Brain
In African Genesis Ardrey propounded ideas about the role of territory in human behavior, hierarchy in social animals, and the instinctual status of the urge to dominate one’s fellows. He argued, in agreement with Raymond Dart, that man evolved from African carnivores, and not Asian herbivores. The contentious book opened with the now-famous sentence: “Not in innocence, and not in Asia, was mankind born.”
Ardrey’s next book, The Territorial Imperative, achieved a popularity that possibly surpassed even that of African Genesis. In the clamor leading up to publication, Time magazine printed excerpts in two back-to-back issues. Upon publication it met with wild popular and critical success. Geoffrey Gorer, reviewing for Encounter, wrote, “Almost without question, Robert Ardrey is today the most influential writer in English dealing with the innate or instinctive attributes of human nature, and the most skilled populariser of the findings of paleo-anthropologists, ethologists, and biological experimenters.”
“[Ardrey] today can claim major credit for having introduced the public to the new field of ethology, the study of animal behavior and its relationship to man.”Ralph Graves
In The Territorial Imperative Ardrey greatly expanded his theses on the influence of territorial behavior in humans. The volume was instrumental in disproving the theory that all human behavior is culturally determined. In overturning the so-called “blank slate hypothesis” Ardrey’s work had an enormous cultural and intellectual impact. Strategic analyst Andrew Marshall and U.S. Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger are known to have discussed the book in connection to military strategy, and The Territorial Imperative was a direct source for Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Kubrick also later cited Ardrey to defend A Clockwork Orange.)
“This is a fascinating, stimulating, fruitful, thought-provoking, and irritating book.”Dr Abraham Maslow, Department of Psychology,
Ardrey’s third installment, dedicated to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, was the most politically motivated of the series. The Social Contract took up the question of how man ought to live, given the inherited evolutionary characteristics that help to determine his behavior, examining in particular social hierarchy in terms of genetic diversity.
Ardrey argued that a diversity of genetic phenotypes leads to inequality, and that inequality, on its own, is not necessarily a social evil. For inequality to be just, however, there must be an absolute equality of opportunity. Ardrey also argued that the presence of inequality does not justify the domination of the weak by the strong. He argued just the opposite, asserting that the strong have a responsibility to protect the weak.
“Ardrey showed that in all societies at any level of the animal world, structures exist to protect the vulnerable, and that this is an evolutionary advantage as it protects diversity, diversity being essential for creativity.”Steve Davis
Ardrey also made an impassioned call for a reasoned respect for nature. In so doing, he foreshadowed the ecological concerns that would arise in his next volume.
“The philosophy of the impossible has been the dominant motive in human affairs for the past two centuries. We have pursued the mastery of nature as if we ourselves were not a portion of that nature. We have boasted of our command over our physical environment while we ourselves have done our urgent best to destroy it.”The Social Contract
In 1976 Ardrey published The Hunting Hypothesis, the last volume in the series, to effusive reviews by such noteworthy figures as the biologist E.O. Wilson, the anthropologist Colin Turnbull, the journalist Max Lerner, and the social scientist Roger Masters.
“In his excellent new book Robert Ardrey continues as the lyric poet of human evolution, capturing the Homeric quality of the subject that so many scientists by and large feel but are unable to put into words. His opinions, like those in his earlier works, are controversial but more open, squarely stated, and closer to the truth than the protests of his most scandalized critics.”E.O. Wilson
In The Hunting Hypothesis Ardrey continued his plea for a reasoned respect of nature. The volume was one of the first books to warn that global warming could be an existential threat to mankind. Colin Turnbull, reviewing for the New York Times, wrote “This is a sober, well-reasoned plea for a sane appraisal of the human situation, of a re-evaluation of man’s nature, of where he has come from and, much more important, where he is going.”
“[The Hunting Hypothesis] is brilliant in its summary of recent findings, it is wonderfully persuasive in its argument about our essential human nature, and it makes a satisfying unity out of Ardrey’s thinking in all his books.”Max Lerner
Many critics took the opportunity of the final book to reflect on Ardrey’s work as a whole. Roger Masters wrote that Ardrey’s “overall contribution to public understanding of an enormous range of scientific research is of the greatest importance.” Anthony Jay wrote, “If I believe that Robert Ardrey’s books are the most important to be written since the war and arguable in the 20th century, it is because he has satisfied to a quite unbelievable degree the demands of the ignorant layman and the requirements of the responsible scientist.The Hunting Hypothesis is not so much a sequel to the three previous books as the culmination of them. He draws on twenty years of wide reading and deep thinking, of predictable objection and surprising corroboration, to produce a unique and beautiful account of the making of man.”
“[Robert Ardrey] has made an incalculable contribution to the science of human evolution. Thousands of people around the world, especially in the United States, were made aware of the fascination and the importance of studies on man’s place in nature [through his writing].”Dr. Phillip Tobias