On a visit to Robben Island, a tour group of ecologists peered down on the mat in Nelson Mandela’s prior cell. The apartheid prison forced an examination of South Africa’s troubled social history in the middle of a semester dedicated to exploring South Africa’s marvelous natural history. I asked a friend from Johannesburg if she had ever visited the site before. Responding that she hadn’t, she elaborated hesitantly, “It so often feels that SA is stuck in what happened. … We’re obsessed with our history.” Around the country, in lectures and plays, we heard the same thing: We cannot let the past paralyze us!
How can a people look back at past atrocities without paralysis? This is the global struggle—to move past the sufferings and prejudices of a previous generation or our own past. It’s a societal query, and though it does not demand a biological analogy, I will offer one that feels appropriate.
I have encountered peers and professors who are deeply uncomfortable with studying humans biologically, as animals. This happens to be the essence of my field of study: evolutionary anthropology. Sure, the past 10,000 years have been interesting, but what do the past 3.5 billion have to say about the problems we face today? So, these discomforted individuals often reel when I reference physical underpinnings of social injustices.
Anthropologists look back on history to our own horror. We conclude that human prejudice is ancestral, though some (mostly cultural) anthropologists respond that this is absolutely not the case. They might point to the egalitarian nature of early human society. They may argue that modern institutions produce inequities anew. Female oppression must have begun when patriarchy invaded some early human society. The biologist stops here. Such a root community never existed. A power inequity and a sexual division of labor are part of our evolutionary lineage. What’s worse, the demonic male’s legacy of aggression is still in our DNA for our children to inherit, and their children after—just as the atrocities of a country’s past are too often inseparable from modern identity.
In the wake of apartheid, the new government formed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The TRC set out to uncover the “nature, causes and extent of gross violations of human rights” committed during the worst of the apartheid. A symbolic entity, it offered the opportunity for dialogue between victims and perpetrators. Yet arguably, it paved the way for a more peaceful future. In spite of predictions two decades ago, the world today associates genocide with Rwanda and Sudan, not South Africa. Truth commissions are found across the world. Argentina and Chile are among other nations that created their own to move beyond a troubled past. Can testimonies of own prehistory hold the same restorative power?
The TRC also created an amnesty committee that would hear the testimony of those in the apartheid regime. South Africa finally could look its torturers in the eye and ask, “Why?” This created the most gripping moments of the entire commission, such as when security officer Jeffrey Benzien demonstrated how he water-boarded activists and later broke into tears. When we look at injustice, we cannot only proclaim, “Never, never and never again.” We must also ask, “Why?” How are people able to commit atrocities? We wonder about virtue and human nature. Studies such as the Stanford prison experiment and Milgram’s experiments on obedience and authority reveal how flexible our morals can be. In the past 50 years, we have begun to construct a revolutionary self-image as a xenophobic and patriarchal, yet empathetic and altruistic, organism that is inseparable, but not ruled by its heritage.
Only when we see perpetrators as human are we able to come to grips with a fuller image of humanity. Truth can become a tool to combat modern inequality and a safeguard against future tragedies. The goal is not to change who we are (reminiscent of eugenics), but rather to reconcile our biological predispositions with our visions of how we want the world to be. This can only happen if we are frank about our evolutionary past.
I’m reminded of Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five,” which helps us understand that it is human nature to look back, and that just when we do, we get stuck. Vonnegut draws on a biblical flight from Gomorrah to explain that reflection threatens to turn us into pillars of salt. I don’t think we are fated to this paralysis. The TRC offered a way forward by casting light into the corners of apartheid; learning more about our history frees us. Contrary to popular belief, people are smart. We are all intrigued by the origins of war and gender, slavery and altruism. Like Vonnegut said, that’s human nature.
Ben Finkel, Trinity ’13, is the co-president of Ubuntu. This column is the fifth installment in a semester-long series of weekly columns written by dPS members addressing the importance of social action, as told through personal narratives. You can follow dPS on Twitter @dukePS.