“Argumentum ab Papuan”

I propose the naming of a fallacy: argumentum ab Papuan.

Argumentum ab Papuan happens when someone tries to construct an argument about human nature based off a handful (or fewer) ethnographic accounts of tiny, obscure tribes (or chimps).

These arguments are questionable because:

  1. Ethnographers sometimes get things wrong. Sometimes they lie; sometimes people lie to them; sometimes mistakes are made.

For example, ethnographers have been fond of calling the Bushmen of the Kalahari the “harmless people” while castigating westerners for their high rates of violence, but if you actually count up the dead bodies, the Bushmen have much higher murder rates than Westerners.

Margaret Mead famously wrote a book titled “Coming of Age in Samoa” about the free-love sex lives of Samoan teens that turned out to be, apparently, a bunch of lies told to her by giggling 14 year olds.

I recently saw someone misinterpret something in the ethnographic literature as implying that the men in a particular tribe carried on life-long, mutually enjoyable homosexual relationships with each other, when actually they occasionally kidnapped boys from neighboring tribes and raped them.

2. Sometimes people do stupid things. Overall, on the grand scale of the arc of humanity, most of the stupid ideas get weeded out and good ideas stick around. Usually. But on the short term, people make plenty of mistakes.

We can look at our own society and identify plenty of stupid things people do that we would never take as indicative of society as a whole, much less humanity as a whole. Small, isolated tribes are not immune to bad ideas, either. When we’re talking about a group whose entire membership is smaller than your average furry convention, (eg, Midwest FurFest drew nearly 11,000 people last year, while the Hadza number only 1,300,) we should be cautious about over-extrapolating from a few reported behaviors or activities. We might just be looking at the opinions of a handful of people whom the rest of the tribe disagrees with, or a practice that is soon abandoned because people decided it was a bad idea. The Papuans with the pedophile rape gangs, for example, actually abandoned the practice because they decided it was really kind of mean.

3. Different strokes for different folks: what works great in one place or culture may not be useful at all in another.

The Inuit/Eskimo build houses out of snow; this does not mean you should build houses out of snow. Bonobos do their bonobo thing; you are not a bonobo and bonobo social hierarchies are not your social hierarchies. The meaning of an act may change over time, too. Headcoverings were more common back when people washed their hair less often and lice were a problem; with the adoption of modern hygiene, headcoverings have taken on symbolic meanings related to modesty and religion. Social norms that were useful for people who had no technological means of long-distance communication may not be useful for people who have telephones, and vice versa.

And I don’t know about you, but there are many cultures in this world that I am not willing to live in and do not have any desire to imitate. No running water? No penicillin? No epidurals? No refrigeration? No general norm against raping women and children? Forgive me if I am not eager to imitate this culture.

This is not to say that we cannot learn anything from each other. I absolutely believe there is a lot we can learn by studying other groups of people, whether small or large, stone age or space age. But we should be careful about making overly broad arguments from too little data or missing the big picture because we were overly focused on small exceptions. There will always be some weird group of people that does some weird thing; without some broader context, this doesn’t necessarily say anything about the rest of us.

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9 thoughts on ““Argumentum ab Papuan”

  1. Sometimes even in the HBD community, you get delusional fools who spread romanticized falsehoods about groups like hunter-gatherers, such as Agnostic’s clearly BS claim that hunter-gatherers lacked anxiety, depression & sexual hang-ups (claiming that these are caused by agriculture) for example. Even though, its well documented that neuroticism in general (depression, anxiety, suicide, etc) is mostly heritable and that its even more common among Neanderthals (who never farmed) & hunter-gatherers (such as the Inuit) than other humans and had less satisfying sex-lives (it speaks volumes how only 40% of males that has ever lived managed to reproduce, and most of that was since the Neolithic Revolution).

    Any thoughts?

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    • On net, I think our society’s current levels of neuroticism (something like 20% of women are on psychiatric medication) can’t be normal, but I wouldn’t over-rate how happy our ancestors were; as you point out, a lot of them suffered in some pretty awful ways. So people aren’t crazy when they back-rationalize and conclude that if modern life makes people feel bad, then people who didn’t have to deal with the modern world must have felt pretty good, but I agree that they go too far when depicting the past as some kind of paradise.

      (I don’t think science is advanced enough yet to say what Neanderthals felt. I know we have some genes from them that correlate with things like depression, but IMO, this might have been more of a “hibernation instinct,” and Neanderthals didn’t feel bad about it the way we do because they could just curl up in their caves and sleep when they felt like it.)

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  2. “No epidurals” is a deal breaker really?
    Most of the time I am convinced that suffering is necessary. Pain is the mother of progress.

    Hard times create strong men. Strong men create good times. Good times create weak men. And, weak men create hard times.

    Historically this has many examples. And in my personal life it’s been true too. Learning for us seems to be impossible without suffering and pain

    Learn on other mistakes mantra doesn’t work as others mistake don’t hurt as much.

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    • I take it you haven’t had a natural childbirth.

      There is nothing to learn from childbirth. It is simply being trapped in a body that is in horrific pain with no way out. It is like having a limb amputated without anesthetic. For hours. Sometimes days.

      I don’t think you’d go through surgery without anesthetic just because you wanted to “learn.” The lesson you’d learn from that is that anesthetic is good. The lesson I learned from natural birth is that natural birth is horrific.

      Before modern medical care, women routinely died in childbirth. Epidurals are part of the “not dying in a pool of blood, vomit, and feces on the floor of your hut” package and I am absolutely in favor of them.

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  3. “castigating westerners for their high rates of violence” – are these supposed high rates of violence adjusted to account for non-Whites?

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  4. I could make a stronger case that deriving any universal notion of human nature from isolated tribes is *supposed* to be highly misleading because of the very different selective pressures. If you have neighbors with organized militaries with metal weapons, you either have them or end up enslaved/dead. No such neighbors? That is playing history on easy mode.

    A better case would be that we are not like that but our ancestors were. Still not entirely true. Genetic drift. But beyond that I think even the Stone Age level competition of theirs had to be less than ours, because our case created an arms race and theirs didn’t.

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