Evolutionary anthropologist and primatologist Robert Sussman, 74, whose research helped to overturn the long commonly held belief that humans are violent and aggressive by nature, died on June 8, 2016 at his home in Creve Coeur, Missouri. He had recently returned home after suffering a stroke.
“I am interested in the evolution of human and nonhuman primate behavior and the ways in which the study of primates can help us understand the biological basis of human behavior,” Sussman explained on his Washington University web page, “though I am in no way a biological determinist and believe that biological anthropology must be grounded in good, general anthropological theory. My interests also include the history of physical anthropology.”
A Washington University faculty member since 1973, Sussman was “A world authority on the behavior and ecology of lemurs from Madagascar,” wrote Washington University obituarist Gerry Everding, “but Sussman’s research interests extended far beyond,” Everding continued, “to the study of primate and human origins and the evolution of modern beliefs about race and racism.
“As a scholar of the eugenics movement and the cultural concept of race, he wrote extensively on anthropology’s role in building the scientific consensus that racial distinctions among humans have no biological basis.”
Originally studied sociology
Sussman “first became interested in anthropology,” Everding wrote, “while studying sociology and race relations at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“Realizing that many of his questions could more appropriately be answered by physical anthropology, he began working with primatologist Jack Prost, who helped Sussman launch his career studying prosimians in Madagascar.”
Sussman’s wife, Linda, a medical anthropologist and research associate in the anthropology department, often accompanied him on fieldwork to conduct parallel studies in her field. In the early years, the couple’s oldest daughter, Katya, also went with them.”
Sussman earned his bachelor’s degree in 1965 and a master’s degree in 1967, both from UCLA, then followed Prost to Duke University, the longtime global hub of lemur research, to pursue a Ph.D. in anthropology.
After teaching for two years at Hunter College in New York, Sussman spent the rest of his career at Washington University in St. Louis, but was often abroad studying nonhuman primates.
“In Madagascar, I am conducting a long-term study of the demography, ecology and social organization of the ring-tailed lemur at the Beza Mahafaly Reserve,” said Sussman in what would be his last update of his Washington University web page. Sussman had cofounded the reserve in 1986.
“We are currently involved in monitoring deforestation with satellite images, and attempting to determine its causes and consequences on the lemurs of the region,” Sussman said.
“In Mauritius,” Sussman continued, “I have worked on the ecology, social organization, and genetics of long-tailed macaques who were introduced circa 450 years ago.”
Sussman was also involved in “in community ecology and conservation of the primates,” he recounted, in Costa Rica and Guyana.”
Man the Hunted
While most of Sussman’s writing was for scholarly publications, he collaborated with Donna Hart, one of his graduate students, to co-author one mainstream success, Man the Hunted: Primates, Predators, & Human Evolution, published in 2005.
Summarized Sussman of the theme in an interview with Best Friends Animal Society cofounder Michael Mountain, “For millions of years [humans were] actually a prey species. It’s as simple as that. [According to the fossil evidence] mankind evolved between five and seven million years ago. We didn’t have any tools until about two million years ago. We didn’t have any tools for hunting until about 600,000 to maybe even 100,000 years ago.
Society evolved from being prey
“We had little teeth, we were a small primate, and there were many, many more predators in the area that we lived in than there are now.
“In general,” Sussman continued, “primates like us who are active during the daytime learn in groups. A major reason they live in groups is for protection from predation. So group living in humans, like other primates, probably evolved because of our propensity to be a prey species. Our cooperation and nurturance and all these things are probably much involved with being a prey species.”
“Women are the core”
Through primate research, Sussman came to recognize that the traditional view of human society as having always been male-dominated is wrong.
“If we look at the primates and at most hunting and gathering societies,” Sussman told Mountain, “women are the core of the society. They pass on the knowledge from year to year, and from generation to generation; they know the home regions better; they’re the ones who actually invent and teach the children how to use tools. They are the center and the core of a nurturing family and the social organization. Most male scientists and male evolution specialists try to ignore that!
Rebutted Demonic Males
“There are lots of books on ‘man the hunter, man the killer,’ Sussman said. “There’s even a book called Demonic Males,” published in 1997 by mainstream primatologists Dale Peterson and Richard Wrangham. Sussman and Joshua Marshack published a rebuttal to it, Are Humans Natural Killers?, in 2010.
“It sort of claims that we are, by instinct, killers because we are predators and because we hunted,” Sussman summarized. “But even predators aren’t by nature ‘killers’ – they don’t usually kill one another. And second, we really evolved as a cooperative, integrated, dependable, and dependent species on each other. And that’s what we should be. We should actually learn that we are a cooperative, congenial group of people – of animals.”
The Myth of Race
Sussman’s most recent book, The Myth of Race: The Troubling Persistence of an Unscientific Idea, was published by Harvard University Press in 2015. It “traces the early origins of racist theories and follows them to the present,” wrote Everding. “Sussman described the book as an attempt to bring together the most important developments in the history of racism. The book was a culmination of his lifelong efforts to reveal the misguided notions that fuel racist beliefs.”