TODAY, SELF-HELP BOOKS and relationship gurus invoke evolution to explain everything from marital infidelity to the paleo diet. Our early ancestors' survival needs echo through our ideas today. But this is not the first time our hominid ancestry's role in our culture and character has played a major role in Western popular culture.
Following the nightmare of the Second World War, the idea of a universal humanity had great appeal. The Holocaust and the atom bomb had proven that human beings have not only destructive impulses but a devastating ability to carry them out. But were these impulses something we were born with, or were they created by our culture? Answering this question became a driving focus of popular anthropology. With Creatures of Cain, the Princeton historian Erika Lorraine Milam explores this period of intellectual debate.
The high-minded internationalism of the postwar period sought to promote a sense of brotherhood, as in the "Family of Man" exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in 1955 -- photographs showing the lives of people around the world. (This still, rather parochially, treated the nuclear family as the center of all cultures.) Anthropology hadn't covered itself in glory in the previous 50 years: Some of its biggest names, such as Earnest Hooton and Eugen Fischer, had gone all in on the "race science" that drove Nazism and eugenics. The S.S. doctor Josef Mengele even received funding from the Rockefeller Foundation before he went to Auschwitz. So after the war, many scholars believed the path to peace (and academic redemption) was to celebrate the universal family of man, playing down differences and pointing to humankind's immense achievements, from agriculture to rocket science. Violence was aberrant and abhorrent; our true nature was to cooperate. Some scientists, such as Margaret Mead, even argued that behavior, whether cooperative or competitive, was entirely learned. We are made by our cultural environment, so cultures could create peace.
In the '50s and '60s, magazines like National Geographic and Scientific American published stories on various "Stone Age" cultures still alive in the world, from the Kalahari Bushmen to the tribes of New Guinea. The stories highlighted the idea that such peoples represented the lives of our hominid ancestors and focused on how they lived in harmony with nature. There was also a sense of urgency to study these groups before they were changed by contact with the rest of the...