Species, Race, Slavery: SF Literature and Defining Humanity

June 13, 2016 Amanda Rees No comments exist

Author: Amanda Rees


By their works, you shall know them…according to Vercors (the war-time pen name of French writer, Jean Bruller). His 1952 novel, Les Animaux dénaturés, opens with the death of a baby in Guildford. The father, who has arranged for the infant’s birth to be registered and for him to be baptised – thus ensuring that both Church and State recognise the child’s existence – is the killer: the mother, on the other hand, is a member of the species Paranthropus erectus (a genus of extinct hominins). So, is the father a murderer?


Bruller’s novel sits firmly in what was, even in the early fifties, a well-established tradition of palaeofiction, a particular branch of SF dealing with the relationship between the present and the past, rather than the future – Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear (1980) is probably the best known example, while William Golding’s The Inheritors (1955) is probably one of the most disturbing. HG Wells, Jules Verne and Jack London, among many others, had explored the dramatic possibilities of contact/conflict between different versions of the human species and questioning the range of human/e behaviour. What makes Bruller’s story stand out, however, is his focus on science in the courtroom and the political deployment of expert testimony, both topics of abiding interest to STS studies and the history of science.


Basically, the narrator (the father of the dead infant) is part of a team excavating a paleoanthropological field site in New Guinea. The team is led by a maverick husband and wife team, and an Irish Benedictine monk with a prelediction towards orthogenesis/directed evolution (sound familiar?). They find a skull that looks a little bit like that of Peking man, a little bit like that of Neandertal man – but it’s not a fossil. Its owner was very recently dead – and its friends come visiting the visiting scientists. An entire race of these para-human ‘tropis’ – identified as Paranthropus, the genus first identified by Robert Broom in South Africa in 1938, and given global fame by the Leakeys’ discoveries at Olduvai Gorge in 1959 – is found living, okapi-like, in the Guinean forests. So are they human or animal? And on what grounds can the distinction be drawn?


Female Tropi – as imagined in SKULLDUGGERY (1970)

At the field site they deal immediately with the obvious: what do they look like? Well, like apes – although the (male) narrator finds the females very disturbing: “they have real hips and very feminine breasts … a graceful, delicate appearance – rather appealing, almost sensual: but the face is terrible … forehead low and receding, the browline jutting, the nose almost non-existent”, but they are “very gentle and only ask to be tamed”. They chip stones, make fire, bury their dead, and seem to communicate through “a small number of articulate cries” – but though they smoke meat, they don’t cook it (an interesting distinction), they cannot ‘see’ pictures and they have no names. Father Dilligham is wracked with fear for both their souls and his own.


Ham is the tropis’ downfall: they learn to say it and to draw a ‘H’ in order to obtain it. Ham and the radio draw them to the camp, where the scientists film them – “one purely spectacular for release to the general public, the other scientific, for documentary records and research”. Crucially, however, it shows the tropis being taught to perform simple tasks – and the film attracts the attention of those in search of a “marvellously cheap and docile form of manpower”, especially useful in Australia where labour power is short and immigration is limited.


So – are they imports or immigrants? The corporation that holds a concession over the field-site’s land asserts control over the adult tropis and their present and future progeny: publically, the argument is made that “there is no human species, there is only a vast family of hominids in a descending colour scale, with the White Man – the true man – at the top of the ladder, and at the bottom the tropi and the chimpanzee”, meaning that it is now necessary to scientifically establish the status of the intermediate groups “improperly called human”. In that immediate post-war period, as UNESCO and anthropology were struggling with their statements on race, Bruller was forcing his audiences to confront the possibility that human beings would still treat other humans – depending on racial likeness – like livestock.


The issue, for Bruller, wasn’t whether the tropis were human – it was a question of forcing powerful human groups to commit in public to a particular definition of humanity. Inclusive or exclusive? Was it, should it, be based on species or race? Bruller’s narrator kills his own son in order that his son’s brothers might live free: his next act is to turn himself in to the police. Is he a murderer? On trial for his life, he watches as experts from the Royal College of Natural History, the Royal Society of Palaeontology, the Imperial College of Anthropologists are all deployed in the courtroom to discuss the physical definition and delination of humanity.

Paranthropus boisei
Paranthropus boisei

Humans have an appendix, tropis have a monkey’s thumb and a dinosaur’s earbone. But their foot! Such a foot has never been in the human lineage – “Only look at their astralagus! Ever seen an ape with an astralagus like that?” Expert witnesses are not cross examined – instead, prosecution and defence respectively and repeatedly call on alternative viewpoints, causing the Judge to reach a wonderfully STS conclusion: facts is facts – but human opinion about facts is not necessarily a veridical representation of the external world:


“Doubt cannot reside in the facts themselves. They are what they are and the tropi is what he is. His nature is a given fact that is not dependent upon us. I consider, if doubt there is, it resides only in the understandable confusion caused by learned disputes”


And from opinion, the Judge moves to the importance of faith: as his wife points out, all human beings have superstitions, but no other animal species is known to be fantastical. If the tropis share our metaphysical minds, then they are belonging to us: a conclusion that’s ironic on a number of levels, given the efforts of some high-profile commentators to dismiss the role of religion in the history of science.


Fundamentally, the jury can’t reach a verdict, and it is left to Parliament to vote on the legal status of tropis. As a result, the narrator escapes the death penalty: undoubtedly he killed his son, but since tropis did not become human until the Act of Parliament made them so, he did not commit murder.


As Bruller’s Judge makes clear, the existence of facts is undeniable – but facts do not speak for themselves. They are interpreted by human beings, who approach them with their own personal set of assumptions, orientations and world views, which are only imperfectly filtered by the positivist/hypothetico-deductive approach – and we know this to be the case, because the only other fact we’re certain of is that scientists can, and do, disagree vehemently about their interpretation of the ‘external’ world. We can only wish that STS studies could be as clear as novelists in communicating this point – because as Bruller also demonstrates, the implications of scientific testimony are often as much about interpretations of morality and justice as they are about fact.

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Skullduggery (1970) – an adaptation of Les Animaux dénaturés starring Burt Reynolds

Further reading:

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