The Ape-Man Within by L. Sprague de Camp – Book Review

A fascinating journey in anthropology and the human mind

By Tudor Vieru on March 8th, 2010 14:00 GMT
I must say, after reading a number of books on anthropology and the human mind, I thought I knew what to expect of such literature. I mean this in the sense that, after a while, you kind of get used to various styles of writing, and start seeing the point authors are trying to make even before they finish their phrases. This was completely untrue for the latest book I've read, “The Ape-Man Within.” Authored by famous writer L. Sprague de Camp, and published by the skeptical and inquiry publishing house Prometheus Books, the book is a work of art as far as the wit of the author, and the amazing volume of information contained, go.

The fact that de Camp has had a rich life experience, and that he is a man of great intellect clearly transpires from the way his book is written. There is no beating around the bush, just straight up facts and ideas. At various points in his chapters, when he ventures into guess or assumptions, he makes these things very clear at the start of the sentence, so as not to leave room for discussions later on. This is a very intelligent approach, because people who may not agree with what he has to say may pick on these assumptions to bring down the entire argument of his book.

The World of Humans

I was also left with a bitter-sweet taste after reading The Ape-Man Within, as I am left every time I read a work covering these fields of science. As a human being, I naturally believe that some things are correct and some are not, and anthropology books have the habit of taking everything you believe, and taking it apart piece by piece, analyzing it, and showing you precisely why your entire way of thinking is wrong. And this is precisely the reason why many people simply do not enjoy readings such books, or prefer to combat them every way they see fit. In the ninth chapter, called “And Hate Alone Is True,” de Camp shows precisely why this happens.

Moving on to the ideas expressed by the author himself, we are being treated from the very first pages with the history of the concept of “evolution,” starting from the controversy Charles Darwin elicited when he first published his great work, “On the Origin of Species.” He then goes on to highlight the types of humans that have until the time of publishing been found, and to detail their body types and so on. He also brilliantly identifies the reasons why most humans even now fail to accept that we shared a common ancestor with primates. In spite of the evidence, the brain is simply unable to accept the knowledge, simply on account of the good opinion we have of ourselves.

The fact that we view ourselves as special individuals has been identified by de Camp and others as the main source for the world's religions, each calling humankind the “children of God,” or some variation along these lines. But we'll get to that later. The author also goes on to highlight the history of the most ancient humans, beginning from the times when our ancestors were traveling in extended families, to when the first tribes appeared, and so on. While writing about this might make no sense to the casual reader, the reasons become apparent later on, when the book tells us about the influence that the habits formed around those times have on our minds even today.

This is the main reason why people do not accept scientifically proven truths such as global warming. Our ability, as a species, to think ahead usually does not exceed a year, as this is the time our ancestors needed to foresee, in order to be at a certain location in time for harvesting wild plants. Given that the extended families moved from camp to camp over a given territory, and that they did so once every year, it stands to reason that the brain did not have to learn how to plan for many years ahead. And this is precisely what global warming asks of people, to think of the distant future. Our brains are unfortunately unable to do this efficiently without training.

Related to these types of issues, de Camp also showed the mechanisms that the human mind employs to protect itself, sometimes even against logic. He illustrates that some would go to extreme lengths to protect their erroneous beliefs, and how people would cling on to everything they can to promote their own hatred, even if unwillingly. From this perspective, one might argue that the book is offensive, and indeed, it can be considered as such. But the cleverness of it all – and this goes for most anthropology-related books as well – is that by arguing against the findings, you prove that you are subjected to them more than you are willing to admit.

Separation and its Consequences

Another important aspect that the author places emphasis on is the fact that humans have an innate tendency to separate themselves into groups, and exhibit hate against other groups. This can be done according to race or color (as evidenced in Chapter 4 – The Breeds of Man), by ethnicity, religious orientations, geographical area, historical background, political views, language and so on. The differences between the “in-groups” and the “out-groups” are what gave rise to most of the world's conflicts, and will most likely continue to do so in the foreseeable future.

While reading these pages, I stopped to contemplate whether this is true in real-life for me, and for some of my closest friends. Upon analyzing our behavior, as a group, from an outside perspective – as in really stopping to think about it rationally, I understood that we were indeed behaving in an exclusive manner. That is to say, we were very likely to disapprove of other groups, either silently or openly, but to let some of the same “errors” slide if they were made by someone in our group. I also noticed the same things happening in other groups of friends, with which we had contact, but only on a casual, no-strings-attached type of level. Conflicts were always a possibility in these circumstances, but we engaged in none because all members of all groups took pride in being civilized people.

Obviously, this does not apply in the case of larger, more powerful, and more influential groups, such as Christians and Muslims, followers of the two main “heresies of Judaism,” as de Camp puts it. Fanatics from these two groups place their own above anything else, and tap into people's never-ending supply of hate in order to further their leaders' agendas. All their talks of salvation and doing the work of the Lord/Allah does not stand up to any sort of rational question. The messages are simply hate words disguised in paragraphs quoted inappropriately, or misinterpreted, from the Qur'an and the Bible.

When, in one of my articles here, I used the same technique – quoting a single verse from the Bible to support one of my arguments with some Christians – many jumped up in the comments section to let me know that I cannot take words out of context. Funny they should say that, given that their entire system of belief – which includes perceiving all Muslims as heathens, and every other religions for that matter – is based on such crass manipulations of a historically inaccurate book. In tune with this, de Camp too gives a short history of the early days of Judaism, moving up to the days when Christians first appeared, and on to the conditions that give rise to the Islamic faith.

He emphasized the exact notions that were removed or adapted from the initial faith (Judaism) to produce its secondary heresies, which went on to encompass a large portion of the world's population. Imagine how the crusades would have looked like if the Chinese were Christians. They would have conquered the entire world, and spread their civilization throughout. This means that everyone at this point in time would be a speaker of the Chinese language, and also carry some of their physical traits.

If you shivered at the thought, then you are one of those who consider that “us” is better than “them.” This is again a matter of identification with a group, and under this reasoning, speaking Chinese would be bad because this language is not yours. But ask American citizens, and most have no problem with the wars of conquest their country leads in Iraq and Afghanistan, which seek to spread the Western culture, capitalism, corporatism and religious views into the Middle East. They don't have a problem with this precisely because it's their language that is promoted, and their culture. Therefore, the “us” is always correct, regardless of prisoner abuse and atrocities committed in these countries, and “they” (the Iraqi and Afghani people) are wrong, and should be thought a lesson.


Throughout his book, de Camp creates relationships between various aspects of the human mind, our way of thinking, the evolutionary conditions that led to our current behavior, and the reasons behind our everyday actions, to paint a picture of the average human that is not at all pleasing. That is not to say he's wrong. On the contrary, the painful truth is all too real, maybe even too much so for some. The issue is that not many individuals are willing to read such statements with their mind opened to the possibility that they could be mistaken in the first place.

A lot of individuals peer through what is written down in an article or a book, see they have nothing to relate to, and then label that work as being misleading, false, or (as in the Dark Ages), burn it and its author at the stake. This mechanism for keeping people in check, which de Camp also mentions as one of the main reasons why organized religion exists, functioned relatively well, with many nobles and clergyman retaining all the knowledge and privileges, and ruling over all others with an iron fist. The irony of it all was that this (tortures, death, and oppression) was performed in the name of some god, depending on religious orientation.

This approach to social anthropology, that the author masters skillfully, is extremely caustic and disturbing, because it strikes at the very core of our species. Most people are used to judging and criticizing others, but fail to do the same thing for them and their group. This is clearly shown in The Ape-Man Within to be a remnant from the times when the extended family was the main support for each and every one of our ancestors. It takes an iron will, and the right motivation, to allow your inner-self to be battered by questions. This is made even more difficult by the fact that your mind often refuses to think about things that may prove it wrong. Its defense mechanisms are amazing.

This book really got to me. And I'm not saying that just to fill the lines, but because I really felt it. In my case, it fell on other anthropology-related knowledge that I accumulated over the years, and everything began falling into place. But I'm not gonna lie, doing this is not simple. In fact, it's extremely difficult, and I've had a long way to go with my own way of thinking until I finally managed to get a grasp of what these authors were trying to say. The very fact that it took so long for me and other to succeed, while others never do, is proof in itself that the mental limitations de Camp and others speak about are true.

Where I'm getting at is that you really need to have an opened mind in order to be able to analyze yourself. Catch-phrases such as “think outside the box,” or “get out of your head,” have never been more true. Once the vast majority of people are able to do so, we could indeed progress to a new level, and stop being so adamant on rejecting things we don't approve of. As I've told many people who posted comments saying that global warming does not exist, I am not a fan of the idea. I don't want to see this happening. But as long as logical evidence shows that the phenomenon is real, I will believe scientists over politicians and businessmen. If indeed it turns out to be a trick, and climate change is as far off as critics say, then I will gladly accept it, provided that strong evidence exists to support these claims.

About this book:

“He writes with a clarity and wit that make history, sociology, archeology, geography, paleontology, anthropology and what-have-you read like easy conversation. He lets you know when he is guessing, or someone else is, and, whether you accept his findings or not, he traces a story that is as authentic as he can make it and keeps you entertained as well as informed.
[…] You may not always agree with him but he gets you to think. He may not always inspire belief but he provides lots of fun and information.” Jerusalem Post

“An author of considerable erudition, de Camp writes with concision and wit. He admirably summarizes the current knowledge about our origins, and speculates convincingly about why we do some of the things we do. He also summarizes well the historical context of events such as the most recent war in the Balkans. This book is suitable for any intelligent reader with some high school education.”
Humanist in Canada

Book information

Author: L. Sprague de Camp
Title: The Ape-Man Within
Book Binding: Cloth
Pages: 266
ISBN: 0-87975-951-8
Publication Date: 1995.
The Ape-Man Within highlights the roots of our current behavior, as based on that of our ancestors
   The Ape-Man Within highlights the roots of our current behavior, as based on that of our ancestors