Rogue Primate by John A. Livingston

(reviewed by Ken Kittlitz (kittlitz at

Looking at the world from other perspectives, especially perspectives that do not mesh well with one's normal views, is an invaluable aid to critical thinking. John Livingston's Rogue Primate puts forth ideas that many will find disturbing and difficult to believe, but backs them up with arguments that are at the least worthy of consideration.

Examining the relationship of humans to the "natural" world, Livingston makes the uncomfortable observation that man, the great domesticator, practiced first on himself. Like our domesticated animals, and unlike virtually all wild animals, we live in crowded conditions, are sexually promiscuous. and accept a great deal of homogeneity in our environment. More telling, we are dependent, not on other beings as our domesticates are on us, but on our ability to construct ideologies and belief systems through which we view the world. Chief among these has been our ability to figure out how to do things (start a fire, cooperatively hunt an animal, grow crops, etc.). More recently, particularly in the Western world, our ideologies have accepted competition and struggles for dominance as inevitable, indeed praiseworthy, aspects of existence.

Livingston agrees that these may well be the norm, for us, but points out that this belief system infects how we view the lives of other animals. "Believing is seeing", he states, probably with considerable justification: our perspectives, and the perspectives of the society in which we live, have an immense effect on our observations and conclusions. Livingston counter-argues that relationships among wild animals can perhaps be better viewed as comprising an overall community rather than a conglomeration of inter-species, inter-group and inter-animal struggles; some of his observations to this end are quite convincing, but I think he goes too far when he takes the community analogy to the point of stating that a rabbit does not really mind being caught and eaten by a predator.

Indeed, while Livingston probes some of the beliefs society holds without question (competition, the right of the human enterprise to come before all else), he too falls into the trap. At numerous points he describes human beings as "unnatural", and the description is not meant as a compliment. Like many others, he assumes that "natural" is ipso facto good, and its opposite bad, a view that, in my opinion, should be as carefully examined as any other. Nevertheless, Rogue Primate is a stimulating, challenging book, one that will make you see your beliefs in a new light. This can be a painful process, as Livingston eloquently admits:

          "Just as ships' bottoms pick up layers of barnacles over time,
           so, through their lives, human societies and individuals
           become encrusted with layers of cultural and ideological
           sediment. ... The cemented coating clings as though
           chemically bonded to me and screams bloody bloody murder at
           my slightest advance..." (pp. 178-179).
   Rogue Primate
   John A. Livingston
   Key Porter Books Ltd.
   70 The Esplanade
   Toronto, Ontario 
   Canada M5E 1R2