After World War II, the question of how to define a universal human nature took on new urgency. This talk charts the rise and precipitous fall in Cold War America of a theory that attributed man’s evolutionary success to his unique capacity for murder. Scientists who advanced this “killer ape” theory capitalized on an expanding postwar market in intellectual paperbacks and widespread faith in the power of science to solve humanity’s problems, even to answer the most fundamental questions of human identity. The killer ape theory spread quickly from colloquial science publications to late-night television, classrooms, political debates, and Hollywood films. Behind the scenes, scientists were sharply divided, their disagreements centering squarely on questions of race and gender.
Erika Milam is a Professor of History at Princeton University. She specializes in the history of the modern life sciences, especially evolutionary theory. Her research explores how scientists have used animals as models for understanding human behavior, from sex to aggression. She graduated with a biology major from Carleton College and subsequently earned an M.S. in Biology (Ecology, Evolution, and Organismal Biology) from the University of Michigan, where she developed an interest in the history of science. She then completed her Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin in the History of Science. After a postdoctoral fellowship at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, in Berlin, Germany, she taught at the University of Maryland for several years before joining the Princeton History Department in 2012. She is author of the forthcoming Creatures of Cain: The Hunt for Human Nature in Cold War America (Princeton University Press), and Looking for a Few Good Males: Female Choice in Evolutionary Biology (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010). With Robert A. Nye, she co-edited Scientific Masculinities (Osiris, Vol. 30, 2015).
This event is free and open to the public.
This event is part of the New York History of Science Lecture Series.
- The University Seminars at Columbia University
- Columbia University in the City of New York
- NYU Gallatin School of Individualized Study
- The Graduate Center, City University of New York
- The New York Academy of Medicine
- The New York Academy of Sciences