Raymond Dart is a very significant figure in the study of human evolution and in the development of the Alexander Technique. Dart was born in Australia in 1893. By 1924 he was working as an anatomist at a University in South Africa. He had been interested by some baboon skulls a student had shown him and requested more be sent from the limestone quarry in Botswana. The chunks of rock supposedly arrived as Dart was dressing in white tie and tails to be best man at a wedding. The rocks deserved this honour for one lump contained a child’s skull and the cast or mineral impression of its braincase, now thought to be between one and two million years old. The fossil is known as the Taung Child (from the name of the quarry). Dart named it Australopithecus afarensis (Southern ape of Africa). This find, a miracle of good fortune, in its preservation and the special qualification of its discoverer, was significant in several important ways.
First, for Dart personally, there followed more than a generation of academic rejection of his conviction that this fossil represented a human ancestor. Most authorities, at that time, looked to Asia for human origins and, anyway, the Taung Child was considered to have too small a brain to belong to the human line of descent. For Dart it was features of the skull, including the jaw and teeth, and the upright bipedal posture which were more telling than brain volume. A figure of 750cc had been put forward as the necessary minimum brain volume for recognising human qualities. A generation later Dart’s view became accepted.
A deeper significance is that this fossil gets us away from the simplistic and false idea that humans are descended from apes. Dart’s insight led to a recognition of modern apes as specialised creatures and that looking at evolution and descent requires us to imagine the whole functional morphology of any given creature, from its teeth to its toes. In his later years Dart became a feted and revered figure by the young researchers of the 1960’s onwards. In his writings he comes across as a refined intellect and a meticulous scientist, but there is one emphasis in his work that appears to be exaggerated. Certain features of his finds led him to stress the predatory hunting and violent behaviour of Australopithecus, and this picture was coloured sensationally by the popular writer Robert Ardrey whose African Genesis (1961) promoted ‘the Killer Ape’ hypothesis. For Dart, the impulse to interpret finds as tools or weapons was an expression of his interest in understanding human development as the development of skill, and of skill as refined movement, and movement and function as the expression of structure. Anatomy was for him more than bits of bone but on more than one occasion he will speak in such terms as “Man is a creature of fear” (Skill and Poise, p 53). This is always related to the challenge of being upright and to the fear of falling but there is something more emotionally pervasive, I find, in Dart’s sense of fear.
Dart encountered Alexander’s work, in South Africa in 1943, through Irene Tasker, one of the earliest teachers authorised by Alexander. Dart was already fifty. He tells how he had “a series of daily demonstration of Alexander’s self-analytical technique. She… revealed to me how my own malpostured habits of sitting, standing, walking and lying down could be bettered, by her manipulating my moving body concurrently with my consciously inhibiting that wrongful ‘intermeddling with reflex details’ of such activities, mentioned by Sherrington” (SP p 122). The reference is to Charles Sherrington, the famous English physiologist who researched the nature of reflexes and their contribution to voluntary movement. Once Irene Tasker departed for England shortly afterwards, Dart, both for himself and his infant son who had movement impairment, soldiered on in the slow and patient exploration of his structure and functioning in movement, his ‘malpostured habits’ as he called them. He even included his daughter’s ‘night terrors’ as another manifestation of malposture. Fear is the key.
In the 1940’s, following his introduction to the Alexander Technique, Dart wrote three articles for Journals in South Africa which brought together what he had learnt through his own practice with the Alexander Technique with his own expertise in human anatomy, evolution and development. This was another fortuitous conjunction. Just as the limestone block in 1924 had required months of patient removal of rock to expose the find, so now Dart took great pains to unearth what was going on in himself, and thereby to give a developmental foundation to the Alexander Technique. He also found a way of bringing an understanding of the dynamics of anatomy alive through self-exploration in movement and stillness.
One place to start describing his findings would be with the idea of torsion, of twisting. Compression and tension are relatively simple – pushing and pulling. We can move on then to shearing – the sliding of one object against another (someone pulling the rug from under your feet) and then to twisting, to a rotational movement. If you consider a wheel you will grasp why nature does not, normally, like torsion. A wheel cannot be physically connected to the part it connects with. Unless it can spin freely it must rotate back. In the human being, as in any animal, bones are not fixed to each other, but there is the surrounding envelope of tendons, ligaments, blood vessels, muscles, nerves and skin. There are exceptions among unicellular creatures but nature does not use wheels, and avoids torsion. But, Dart realised, the human upright stance (a crucial feature for him in his description of Australopithecus) depends on torsion, depends on the spiralling of the musculature around the body which is achieved by the subtle co-ordination of muscular contraction throughout the whole organism. A muscle, at one place, can contract and draw one bone towards another, flexing or extending like a hinge. A look at an anatomical drawing of the skeletal muscles will show you what I am talking about. The spirals are there. A muscle, though, can only contract and draw one bone towards another, flexing or extending like a hinge. Dart saw that the spirals of the human being were a particularly distinctive property of our uprightness. They come about through a complex co-ordination of muscular contraction throughout the organism to turn flexing and extending, simple contraction, into the spiralling structure and functioning. Spirals, twists, were the basis, first, of our uprightness, and secondly, of the skilled movement our uprightness made possible. You can’t play a flute with four feet on the ground.
For the human being, exercising any skill relies on the healthy activity of those unconscious processes we can call reflexes which maintain the freely poised uprightness. And in the working of these processes, as Dart fully realised, the inhibitory working of the neuromuscular system was as important as the more obvious work of muscular contraction. Dart had in the 1930’s written of the relaxation of unwanted muscles as the key to skilled performance. So Dart is focusing in on the area of our life, of our physiology and our structure, where our will, our voluntary intentional action, disappears into unconscious bodily movement. He is exploring the features – such as the way we achieve uprightness, our fear, the emotions which affect our voluntary activity – which can interfere with the free poise of our movement. What the Alexander Technique brought him he describes as a way of “clearing the ground”. “In conscious attempts to execute movements, the brain or mind, instead of clearing the ground, as it were, for that movement by inhibiting all unnecessary movement and allowing the movement to take place by the free (or uninhibited) operation of the attitudinal and body-righting reflexes involved in the twisting movement, is obsessed with the determination or will to perform the movement despite the reflexes involved therein” (Skill and Poise p 93). The reflexes specified are those which respond to change in the position of the head in space or relative to the body, and to disturbance of the relationship of parts of the body to each other and to space. These are the reflexes which are vital for our poise, our mobile balance, our safety as upright creatures – and as the foundation for skilled movement. But alarm and hurry and preoccupation and habit lead us to become fixed and limited.
So Dart set off on his “self-analytical” practice, of relaxing unwanted muscles, focusing on the simplest basic elements of any movement, cultivating what he calls a memory for the “feel of a movement” by repetition and sustaining interest and attention. All this on the back of the few crucial weeks of lessons with Irene Tasker. Work lying down takes on a crucial role for Dart in allowing the releasing of fixed postural twists because, lying down, we need not fear falling. From release we can move into poised, skilful movement. Dart speaks of his years of “equilibrational education” which, he admits would have been “time-consuming, humiliating and disappointing to those who expect rapid and obvious physical returns for the labour and mental effort involved” (Skill and Poise p 98).
Raymond Dart’s fascination with, and knowledge of, human structure and functioning were the basis on which his personal self-education could rely as he tried to master the way our intentions animate the physical instrument of the body. He helps us understand both why we need to ‘clear the ground’ and why such clearing is a slow revelation.