Erika Lorraine Milam. Creatures of Cain: The Hunt for Human Nature in Cold War America. 408 pp., 33 b/w illus., app., notes, index. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019.
“Human nature” is nearly as pliable and ambiguous a term as “Cold War” but Erika Lorraine Milam pins down these slippery concepts in Creatures of Cain: The Hunt for Human Nature in Cold War America. Milam successfully crafts an important analysis of the science of human nature that crystallized around questions of aggression in post-war America. Milam’s “Cold War” is less of an international geopolitical event than it is a setting in which US governmental concerns about American society intersected with and funded the work of anthropological experts studying the origins of human behavior. Against this backdrop, Milam sets out to discover how questions of human behavior became important and how the science of evolution gained popular explanatory power to answer them. In Creatures of Cain, Milam examines American social science after World War II and its attempts to make sense of humanity’s species-level relationship with violence. This book spans the late 1950s and the emergence of the “killer ape” hypothesis and ends in the 1980s with the rise of sociobiological explanations for violence.
Creatures of Cain is divided into five parts containing short chapters. Part I, “The Ascent of Man,” follows what Milam calls a “progressive postwar consensus” on the anti-racist and tolerance-building potential of the human sciences. The next section, “Naturalizing Violence,” traces the rise of popular theories of determinist, inherent human violence in the late 1960s that supplanted the previous optimism. Milam brings together the ways in which female biology was constructed in evolutionary models, and the challenges faced by women scientists attempting to write for wider audiences in the third part of the book, “Unmaking Man.” In Part IV, “Political Animals,” Milam shows how different political agendas of the New Left and the New Right both rejected popular scientific theories of human nature and their implications for American society. She closes with “The Death of the Killer Ape.” This final section addresses the emergence of sociobiology, a field that Milam argues both broke interdisciplinary ties that had previously existed between anthropology, zoology, paleontology, and biology, and banished popular writers’ work on human nature from serious science. Milam closes by emphasizing the historical contingencies that continue to give evolutionary biology such broad explanatory power for significant social questions.
Creatures of Cain attends to the divisions of amateur and professional scientific work and their changes throughout the post-war decades. While tracking the trends in academic theories of human nature and the consolidation of distinct disciplines, Milam also highlights the impact of popular books, magazine articles, and films that conceptualized the origins of human aggression. Academic anthropological work was (and continues to be) mirrored in widespread public interest. Creatures of Cain offers numerous examples of American cultural staples unexpectedly embracing anthropological theories. During the 1960s and 1970s, Playboy magazine appears as a forum for the discussion of the study of human nature with reviews, editorials, and copious “Dear Playboy” letters responding to the insights about human violence and sexual behavior that derived from the study of animal behavior. Milam highlights the impact of popular anthropology on other cultural media and discusses the conservative Christian backlash to films with dark messages about the inherent violence of masculinity, such as those of Sam Peckinpah, in her eleventh chapter, “A Dangerous Medium.”
Milam’s actors show that even with progressive intentions, anthropological data brought in from outside the United States was repackaged to transform the cultures and experiences of non-white peoples into abstract lessons about humanity. For example, in a reaction to popular discourse on the inevitability of human aggression, the federally funded Man: A Course of Study (MACOS) program for public schools used the practices of anthropology to train students to see similarities between all human cultures. The field notes of researchers Lorna Marshall and Irven DeVore were edited for distribution to students in the MACOS curriculum, encouraging American school children to think like little anthropologists. Milam sheds light on the debate among MACOS designers regarding the short ethnographic films of the North American Netsilik and the southern African !Kung and Ju/’hoansi peoples that were originally included in the program. MACOS developers worried that their attempt to show students the diversity but ultimate unity of humans could instead lead the students to naturalize racial hierarchies. The !Kung and Ju/’hoansi segments were removed, leaving the Netsilik video, and developers bolstered the animal behavior content. Milam’s attention to MACOS demonstrates federal interest in anthropology’s impact on citizens, but it also emphasizes the ways American anthropology viewed the world outside of the United States as a source for data and how the knowledge gleaned from this data was utilized for the benefit American citizens. From the perspective of the designers, African people were deemed too troubling to be included in MACOS and the erasure of contemporary African peoples is a throughline in Milam’s primary sources. Popular anthropologist Robert Ardrey’s human origins book, African Genesis, “evoked stereotypes of Africa as a timeless, wild, and primitive continent in which our ancient past had been preserved” (91) while National Geographic’s television special, Miss Goodall and the Wild Chimpanzees, presented a “slim, blonde, and unguarded” Goodall among lively chimpanzees in a jungle setting (55).
Creatures of Cain tells a textured story of the study of humanity’s relationship with violence through its popularization and politicization in post-war America. Rather than a single historical case study, or a examination of the specific field practices in anthropology, this book is more closely aligned with works such as Jamie Cohen-Cole’s The Open Mind as a study of how sciences can shape political and cultural identities. Creatures of Cain does not follow a strict chronological order; Milam’s account often returns to significant actors and publications in different sections to show how their work was taken up in various contexts. As a result, it would wrong to characterize Creatures of Cain as simply a book about the science of human aggression and its impact on American politics, or about this scientific theme’s development alongside post-war feminism, or even about the study of violence in the era of nuclear proliferation and the Vietnam War. Instead, Milam’s work speaks powerfully to all of these subjects. The reader is left with an insightful, wide-ranging portrait of the sciences toward which American society has turned in order to explain (and often to proclaim) the seemingly inevitable violence of human nature.