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:
- 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.