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You can tell that this very slight book is supposed to be quite meaningful because it explicitly harkens back to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and is populated with characters whose names are borrowed from great old English authors.  Obviously, this is intended to be a weighty novel of ideas, however brief.

The main issue raised is how we can square human altruism with the Darwinian notion that individuals will always act in their own self-interest.  The story is set in Africa in 1913 as two scientific parties set out to observe chimpanzees.  The narrator is basically on his own, but meets up with a British Expedition being led by Lady Jane Sevile, with whom he proceeds, rather spontaneously and implausibly, to have a torrid affair.

She hopes to demonstrate that altruism is consistent with Darwinism :

    'I have...sought a solution within the theory, and I have arrived at a mathematical extrapolation of
    the most recent genetic data.  We know that the genes of each individual resemble the genes of its
    family members to a degree that varies in direct proportion to the closeness of kinship.  If for an
    organism the fundamental principle of nature consists, as Darwinian theory would have it, in
    augmenting to the maximum the representation of its genes, and resides solely in reproductive
    success, then there exists a great number of cases where an individual, governed purely by instinct,
    would find it in its interest to sacrifice itself for its close relatives, if they are sufficiently
    numerous, because all of them together would have a greater capacity than it alone to propagate its
    own genes.  This is what I would call family selection, or proximal selection, which makes
    altruism a sophisticated form of egoism, that is, of the law.'

    I looked at her with undisguised admiration.

    'Do you mean that in order to favor its own reproductive success, it is in the interest of an
    individual to sacrifice itself for a given number of siblings, or a greater number of cousins?'

    'Exactly.'

    'And that would make human morality and biology compatible, insofar as our consciousness would
    have simply seized upon this instinct to make of it an absolute, positive value, altruism, by
    extending to larger units, such as social class, nation, culture, or, more rarely, alas, the entire
    species and even the whole of all living things.'

This is, of course, so inane on its face that it's pretty hard to take it seriously.  Nonetheless, when their work proves unfruitful, because they are spooking the chimps, and then she falls ill, the narrator goes off and spends a year alone in the jungle observing the animals.  This does afford him the opportunity to see a chimp act altruistically during a leopard attack, but when he returns from his lonely vigil World War I has broken out, and he and the other men of the party are summoned to duty.

It was impossible to find much information about Michel Rio online, so I've no idea if he takes Darwinism seriously, or if his critiques, implicit and explicit, are the point of the book.  I can only note that in WWI Britain and America, with nothing at stake, fought and defeated the Germans--to whom both nations were closely linked ethnically, religiously, and culturally--in order to save France.  Forget the damn monkeys; let's hear someone explain how it was in the best interest of the Anglo-Saxon world to preserve and make possible the continued propagation of French genetic matter.

I'm pretty much of a sucker for African adventure stories, so I enjoyed at least the Tarzan/King Solomon's Mines aspect of this book.  For the rest, let's just assume that the critique of Darwin is, in fact, the point of the book..  As the narrator asks at one point :

    Darwinism postulates the survival of the fittest.  How does one measure fitness ?  By survival.
    Darwinism therefore postulates the survival of the survivors.  Is that not a tautology ?

One wishes Rio had stuck to spinning out the implications of this question and the circular reasoning it exposes at the core of one of the central beliefs of modernity.  If he had, the book might have been a truly powerful challenge to the persistent but ill-founded faith in Darwinism, rather than an interesting but minor adventure tale, which is what it ends up being.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (C+)

  

Websites:

See also:

French Literature
Book-related and General Links:
    -REVIEW : of DREAMING JUNGLES By Michel Rio. Translated by William R. Carlson (William W. Stowe, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of PARROT'S PERCH By Michel Rio. Translated by Leigh Hafrey (1985) ( Lydia Davis, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of ARCHIPELAGO. By Michel Rio. Translated by Margery Arent Safir (1990) (VICKI WEISSMAN, NY Times Book Review)

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