Saturday, February 16, 2013


Caution: May include scientific research that doesn't sit with one's liberal ideas

Thanks to books like Jared Diamond's "The World Until Yesterday" and the upcoming "Noble Savages" by Napoleon Chagnon, the places on the Internet I frequent are debating what contemporary tribes tell us about primitive man and, indeed, human nature.

Groups like Survival International (SI) lambaste Diamond and like thinkers in suggesting that tribes are a window into the past, and writing that tribes, ancient and modern, are on the whole more violent than states or societies without a central government.

Their first claim against Diamond is that he says groups like SI deny unpleasant aspects of "traditional" societies. SI they don't, and even link to an article acknowledging infanticide among a traditional society.

But the link is worth reading because the person being interviewed admits there is infanticide, but claims it is rare, tries to explain it away, and labels our culture with the same practice, which is true -- some mothers (and fathers) kill their babies. The question is how often relative to population size, what is the punishment, and what are the motives? And although the link is posed as a Q&A, it is not said who is asking the questions. So they do acknowledge this ugly aspect of traditional societies, but in a way that basically says "Yeah, but..."

So in their link to explain unpleasantness in traditional societies, the article actually tries to explain it away, or minimize it, bolstering Diamond's argument that SI and like groups practice a kind of denial. If you want to know what they really think of tribes, look no further than their blog where they have pictures of happy shiny tribal folk with homilies like "I live in the Earth and the Earth in me." They don't directly say "noble savage," but that is the picture they paint.

They reject the decline in violence a central government brings by pointing out the atrocities of the past. Undoubtedly much of Western expansion was done in an ugly way -- through force, conquering, unintended (or intended) spreading of disease. But this does not discount the decline in violence in today's modern societies.

And nor is it a very persuasive argument to point to the Papua Conflict, decades in the making and execution, and point to this as a sign governments are bad as a rule. And, like most disputes, this one doesn't seem to be just a marching order execution of tribes, but rather a dispute over a resource (land). Do the operators of SI live in a state? If they are so opposed to government, have they left them and live in places without a central one?

SI says it cannot be proved traditional societies are more violent than non, but really what they are saying is "we reject the studies and data that shows they are."

They also say Diamond says traditional people are more violent than we are. This is only true insomuch that when I have a dispute to settle, I can call the cops. Traditional societies cannot. They have to settle their disputes among themselves, either through non-violent means or violent ones (and I guess more often resort to the latter). It is not that they are a more violent kind (how could they be? We are the same species) but that they have to, by virtue of their culture, resort to violence with a greater frequency. This makes sense. This seems to be backed up by people like Diamond that has actually spent time studying and researching these people.

The same could be said of gangs. Gangs are a kind of tribe. They operate outside of Leviathan (government). So they have to settle their own disputes, like ones around territory. The statistic is true that violence is more prevalent among people of color. This does not mean people of color are more violent. Every human being has the same capacity for violence, on the whole. It simply means they have to personally engage in it more frequently because they cannot turn to the police for help.

I accept Hobbes's thesis that without a strong, central government, life is nasty, short, and brutish. I believe the Enlightenment ushered in values that have made my life safer and better. No culture is perfect, but some certainly have objective benefits over another. There's a reason why so many of the ancient skeletons we dig up show signs of physical trauma -- they were constantly fighting over resources: food, land, and women.

I find it odd many feminists I know are critics of Diamond and view him as a new kind of colonialist. What do they think women's rights are in traditional societies?

1 comment:

  1. I loved Guns, Germs and Steel. But it made me feel rather stupid for ever having believed the story about the Book of Mormon.

    I'm not familiar with SI's arguments, but there must be a different way they could defend tribes than by using spurious claims. If you're going to defend a group, do it by first representing them accurately, warts and all. If you gain compassion through lies, you'll lose it when they discover the truth.