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Interview with Robert Ardrey

Robert Ardrey is a talkative, expansive man in his mid-60s with a not especially large store of modesty, even though his many critics often suggest he has much to be modest about. He's the author of such best-sellers on human evolution as "African Genesis" and "The Territorial Imperative," and the thesis he develops in his work is that man evolved as a fighting animal, makes many of his decisions for aggressive reasons and finds the defense of his home territory more important and more absorbing than anything else - even sex.

A great many anthropologists take Ardrey's theories with a grain of salt, a stifled cough and a rolling upward of the eyeballs, so it is interesting to hear him defend his books against their detractors. They're his territory, and he's got to stake them out and protect them. The best thing he's got going for him, he says, is that he got into anthropology 20 years late.

"I spent from 1936 to 1956 as a playwright and a screenwriter," he was saying the other day, "and then, right in mid-career, I switched to anthropology. I know more people who are in friendly awe of me - to just stop one career and start another. I call myself anthropology's Rip Van Winkle."

His first income as an anthropologist came to 50 cents an hour, he remembered, when he was a lecturer at the Chicago world's fair: "I was hired as a guide and spent all day directing people to the rest rooms. They knew I was a graduate of the University of Chicago and asked me if I knew anything about the Mayas.

'Certainly!' I said, Anything to get a change of pace. "The only problem was, at the time I thought they said the Mayers, not the Mayas. Of course, I didn't know anything about them, either. But I figured I could look it up. When I found out they meant the Mayas - and a little about the Aztecs, too - I went right to Robert Redfield at the university and begged him to fill me in. And I got to be the best lecturer at the fair, mainly because I had such a loud voice. Once I lectured for five hours straight and kept a dozen members of my original audience - and that's a hard audience to keep, because they're standing all the time, you see."

Ardrey was in Chicago over the weekend for a variety of events, including a lecture for members of the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations and a preview of "The Animal Within," a new film he's written. Stills from the film will illustrate a new Ardrey book of the same title, due in the fall.

"What I learned as a screenwriter was how to tell a good story," he said. "That's got me praise and it got me into trouble with my books about anthropology. On the one hand, they're jealous. On the other hand, they say, 'Thank God somebody who knows about this stuff can write.' People like L. S. Leakey were grateful to me for getting the word about his work in Kenya to the public."

Other anthropologists were not as grateful, however, including Ashley Montagu, who has described Ardrey as blind to evidence, prejudiced, wrong-headed and misleading.

"Poor Montagu," Ardrey sighed, protecting the territory. "That's why it was such an advantage to me that I got into anthropology 20 years late. First, because in the meantime I learned to be a very good professional writer. Second, because I would have just been wasting my time. Most of the things they were saying in those days were wrong. They were misled. Poor Montagu can never start over, because he's invested his life in it. It's too late for him to be wrong."

His new film, Ardrey said, is going to be a bit tough to sell: "It's about the first 50 million years of human evolution. It's exciting, but they say if you want to commit suicide, do something original. 'African Genesis' is now on its 12th hardcover printing, but in the first year, it only sold 12,000 copies. With a movie, you can't wait a year. Now a film like 'Chariots of the Gods,' that went over because it was science fiction. But 'The Animal Within' is pure science. I don't know . . ."

He wrote the film, which was produced by veteran documentary maker David Wolper and features actors in makeup portraying the ages of man. "We have great scenes," he said, "like Peking Man trying to catch fire during a thunderstorm. And scenes from the everyday life of Cro-Magnon Man and Neanderthal Man. We made up actors to look very much like them. We had a lot of trouble, though, with Austrolapithecus, an early man with a very small head. We found a lot of actors with no brains, but they didn't have small heads."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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