Where Anthropology Went Wrong

Obviously I read a lot of anthropology. It’s a topic near and dear to my heart. Some anthropological works are really good (these I try to share with you here.) Others are drek. (Sometimes I share these, too–but in the spirit of, “Ew, this tastes really weird… Here, try some!” Goodness only knows why people do that.)

In my opinion, anthropology has two main purposes:

  1. To document human cultures, with priority given to those at greatest risk of disappearing
  2. To make human cultures mutually understandable.

I’m reminded here of the response Napoleon Chagnon gave when asked what the Yanomamo thought he was doing, studying their tribe:

“They arrived at their own conclusion, which I thought was very logical: I’m trying to learn how to become human.” –Napoleon Chagnon

So let’s add #3: Learn what it means to be human.

Some anthropologists specialize in #1. Others are talented at #2. A few can do both. Collectively, the enterprise might get us to #3.

For example, many anthropologists have amassed reams of data on kinship structures, marriage taboos, food/wealth distribution, economic systems (eg hunter-gathering, pastoralism, etc.) If you want to know whether the average milch pastoralist thinks cousin marriage is a good idea, an anthropologist probably has the answer. That’s task #1.

But information doesn’t do much good if it just molders away in some dusty back room of a university library, and the average person doesn’t want to read an anthropologist’s field notes. This is where good writing comes in–crafting an enjoyable, accessible ethnography, like Kabloona, which gives the average reader some insight into another culture. That’s task #2.

Anthropology isn’t supposed to be politicized, but in practice it’s difficult not to get sucked into politics. Anthropologists generally become quite fond of the people they’ve studied and lived with for years. Since they prioritize cultures in danger of disappearing, they end up with both practical and sentimental reasons to side against the more powerful groups in the area–no anthropologist wants to see the people he just spent a decade living with starve to death because a mining company moved into the area and dug up their banana farms.

As a result, the anthropologist often becomes a liaison between the people he studies and the broader world he wants to protect them from.

Additionally, like the quantum physicist, the anthropologist changes the society he studies merely by being present in it. He is an outsider, a person with his own ideas about morality, violence, gender relations, education, money, etc., and moreover, entirely alien to the local economic and social system. He cannot simply slip, unnoticed, into village life without disrupting it in some way–this is the existential problem of anthropology, but since it cannot be solved, (and the wider culture has no qualms about disrupting native life in far larger and more damaging ways, like bulldozing it,) as a practical matter it must simply be laid aside.

One thing anthropologists tend not to do is look very closely at the negatives of the societies they study, such as disease, infant mortality, drug abuse, or violence. After all, who wants to produce a book that boils down to, “I studied these people, and they were brutish, nasty, and unpleasant”?

Let’s compare for a moment two classic works: Elizabeth Thomas’s The Harmless People, whose very title lays out her assertion that the Bushmen are less violent and less capable of killing people than other, more technologically advanced peoples; and Chagnon’s Yanomamo: The Fierce People.

Chagnon actually bothered to calculate how many murders his subjects committed, and discovered that the Yanomamo have murder rates much higher than modern first-world nations. For his efforts he has been thoroughly condemned and attacked by his own profession:

When Chagnon began publishing his observations, some cultural anthropologists who could not accept an evolutionary basis for human behavior refused to believe them. Chagnon became perhaps the most famous American anthropologist since Margaret Mead—and the most controversial. He was attacked in a scathing popular book, whose central allegation that he helped start a measles epidemic among the Yanomamö was quickly disproven, and the American Anthropological Association condemned him, only to rescind its condemnation after a vote by the membership. Throughout his career Chagnon insisted on an evidence-based scientific approach to anthropology, even as his professional association dithered over whether it really is a scientific organization.

Thomas does not bother to offer numerical proof of her claims that Bushmen are more peaceful than other groups, but anyone with a mind for numbers can look at the murders she does report, divide by the number of Bushmen, and conclude that homicide rates are most likely higher in Bushman society than ours.

Of course, Thomas has not been castigated and condemned by the AAA for asserting that first world societies are more homicidal than third-world hunter-gatherers without proof.

It would be simplistic to assert that Marxists and Freudians produce bad anthropology; I am sure they would have equally negative things to say about people like me. Rather, the dominance of anthropology by adherents of any particular political ideology is problematic.

(Anthropologists also tend not to examine very critically the reasons people might want to change their societies.)

The second big problem with anthropology is that most “primitive” societies have disappeared or are mere remnants of their former selves. 100 years ago, we didn’t know there were people living in the middle of Papua New Guinea (and the folks there, I gather, didn’t know about the rest of us.) There were still cannibals, uncontacted tribes of hunter-gatherers, and igloo-dwelling Eskimo. Atlases still had blank spots marked “unexplored.”

By the time Thomas wrote “The Harmless People,” the Bushmen were disappearing. Indeed, the book’s epilogue, in which a private land owner fences off a watering hole where the Bushmen had formerly drunk in the dry season, leading several tribe members to die of thirst, followed by the remaining tribe members’ removal to a settlement, where all of the vices of alcoholism and violence set in, makes for difficult reading.

What’s a modern anthropologist to do? Sure, you could write an incredibly depressing ethnography on the ways traditional lifestyles are disappearing, or you could write a dissertation on the intersection of hip-hop culture and queer identity. (And you can do that without spending ten years in some third-world village with malaria and no internet.)

The result of all of this is that anthropologists sometimes stick their noses where they don’t belong, for purely political reasons. Take, for example, the American Anthropological Association (them again!)’s statement on race:

In the United States both scholars and the general public have been conditioned to viewing human races as natural and separate divisions within the human species based on visible physical differences.

“Conditioned!” Because there is no evidence that pre-verbal infants notice racial or ethnic differences:

Do babies react differently when they are looking intently at the faces of people of different races?

Psychologist Phyllis Katz has cleverly used habituation to try to answer this question. Katz studied looking patterns among 6-month-old infants. She first showed the babies a series of pictures, each of them was shown a person that was of the same race and gender (e.g., four White women). After four pictures, the babies began to habituate to the pictures, and their attention wavered. Next, Katz showed the babies a picture of a person who was of the same gender but of a different race (e.g., a Black woman), or a picture of a person who was of the same race but of a different gender (e.g., a White man). The logic behind the study was that if the infants didn’t register race or gender, they wouldn’t show a different response to these new pictures– that is, they would continue to show habituation. However, if they registered a difference, the babies should dishabituate, and again look with interest at this new stimulus.

The findings clearly showed that the 6-month-olds dishabituated to both race and gender cues—that is, the infants looked longer at new pictures when the pictures were of someone of a different race or gender. But some other interesting findings emerged. Among these was the finding that for both Black and White infants, the infants attended longer to different race faces when they had habitutated to faces that were of their own race.

Back to the AAA:

Evidence from the analysis of genetics (e.g., DNA) indicates that most physical variation, about 94%, lies within so-called racial groups. Conventional geographic “racial” groupings differ from one another only in about 6% of their genes. This means that there is greater variation within “racial” groups than between them. In neighboring populations there is much overlapping of genes and their phenotypic (physical) expressions. Throughout history whenever different groups have come into contact, they have interbred. The continued sharing of genetic materials has maintained all of humankind as a single species.

This is dumb. This is really, really dumb. Humans and chimpanzees share 96% of their DNA, but that doesn’t make us the same species. Humans and mice share 92% of our DNA.

Put a dog and a wolf together, and if they don’t kill each other, they’ll breed. Dogs, wolves, dingos, and golden jackals can all interbreed and produce fertile offspring, but we still consider them different species.

I’m not saying human races are actually different species. I’m saying the AAA is full of idiots who parrot popular science articles without understanding the first thing about them. If these are your “scholarly positions,” you don’t fucking deserve your PhDs.

Oh, and by the way, humans don’t always interbreed. Sometimes one group just exterminates the other. Just ask the Dorset–oh wait you can’t. Because they’re all dead.

Physical variations in any given trait tend to occur gradually rather than abruptly over geographic areas.

The fact that “blue” and “green” shade into each other on the rainbow does not mean that blue and green do not exist.

And because physical traits are inherited independently of one another, knowing the range of one trait does not predict the presence of others. For example, skin color varies largely from light in the temperate areas in the north to dark in the tropical areas in the south; its intensity is not related to nose shape or hair texture.

It’s like the EDAR gene doesn’t exist:

A derived G-allele point mutation (SNP) with pleiotropic effects in EDAR, 370A or rs3827760, found in most modern East Asians and Native Americans but not common in African or European populations, is thought to be one of the key genes responsible for a number of differences between these populations, including the thicker hair, more numerous sweat glands, smaller breasts, and dentition characteristic of East Asians.[7] …The 370A mutation arose in humans approximately 30,000 years ago, and now is found in 93% of Han Chinese and in the majority of people in nearby Asian populations. This mutation is also implicated in ear morphology differences and reduced chin protusion.[9]

Back to AAA:

Dark skin may be associated with frizzy or kinky hair or curly or wavy or straight hair, all of which are found among different indigenous peoples in tropical regions. These facts render any attempt to establish lines of division among biological populations both arbitrary and subjective.

Haak et all's full dataset
Haak et all’s full dataset

Picture 2So that’s why it’s so hard to distinguish an African from a Caribbean Indian, said no one ever.

Genetically, of course, the divisions between the Big Three main human clades are quite plain.


…indeed, physical variations in the human species have no meaning except the social ones that humans put on them.

Unless you need a bone marrow or organ transplant. Then suddenly race matters a lot. Or if you’re trying to live in the Himalayas. Then you’d better hope you’ve got some genes Tibetans inherited from an ancient line of Denisovan hominins their ancestors bred with, present AFAIK nowhere else on Earth, that help them breathe up there.

Today scholars in many fields argue that “race” as it is understood in the United States of America was a social mechanism invented during the 18th century to refer to those populations brought together in colonial America: the English and other European settlers, the conquered Indian peoples, and those peoples of Africa brought in to provide slave labor.

People in the past did bad things, so all of their conceptual categories for understanding the world must have been made-up. And evil. There’s no way a European who just met an African and a Native American could have accidentally stumbled on a valid observation about human populations that were historically separated for a long time.

Anyway, the article goes on and on, littered with gems like:

During World War II, the Nazis under Adolf Hitler enjoined the expanded ideology of “race” and “racial” differences and took them to a logical end: the extermination of 11 million people of “inferior races” (e.g., Jews, Gypsies, Africans, homosexuals, and so forth) and other unspeakable brutalities of the Holocaust.

Hear that? If you think there are genetic variations between long-separated human groups, you are basically Hitler and the only logical conclusion is genocide. Because no one ever committed genocide before they invented the idea of race, obviously:

A 2010 study suggests that a group of Anasazi in the American Southwest were killed in a genocide that took place circa 800 CE.[15][16]

Raphael Lemkin, the coiner of the term ‘genocide’, referred to the 1209–1220 Albigensian Crusade ordered by Pope Innocent III against the heretical Cathar population of the French Languedoc region as “one of the most conclusive cases of genocide in religious history”.[17]

Quoting Eric Margolis, Jones observes that in the 13th century the Mongol armies under Genghis Khan were genocidal killers [18] who were known to eradicate whole nations.[19] He ordered the extermination of the Tata Mongols, and all Kankalis males in Bukhara “taller than a wheel”[20] using a technique called measuring against the linchpin. In the end, half of the Mongol tribes were exterminated by Genghis Khan.[21] Rosanne Klass referred to the Mongols’ rule of Afghanistan as “genocide”.[22]

Similarly, the Turko-Mongol conqueror Tamerlane was known for his extreme brutality and his conquests were accompanied by genocidal massacres.[23] William Rubinstein wrote: “In Assyria (1393–4) – Tamerlane got around – he killed all the Christians he could find, including everyone in the, then, Christian city of Tikrit, thus virtually destroying Assyrian Church of the East. Impartially, however, Tamerlane also slaughtered Shi’ite Muslims, Jews and heathens.”[24] Christianity in Mesopotamia was hitherto largely confined to those Assyrian communities in the north who had survived the massacres.[25] Tamerlane also conducted large-scale massacres of Georgian and Armenian Christians, as well as of Arabs, Persians and Turks.[26]

Ancient Chinese texts record that General Ran Min ordered the extermination of the Wu Hu, especially the Jie people, during the Wei–Jie war in the fourth century AD. People with racial characteristics such as high-bridged noses and bushy beards were killed; in total, 200,000 were reportedly massacred.[27]

I’m stopping here. This stuff is politicized drek. It obviously is irrelevant to the vast majority of anthropology (what do I really care if the Inuit are part of the greater Asian clade when I’m just trying to record traditional folk songs?) But this drivel gets served up as the “educated opinions of scholars in the field” (notably, not the field of human genetics) to naive students and they don’t even realize how politically-based it is.

I don’t think anthropologists all need to agree with me about politics, but they should cultivate a healthy interest in science.


Anthropology (yes!) Friday: The Life and Adventures of William Buckley, 32 years a wanderer amongst the Aborigines…

William Buckely
William Buckely

Hey everyone, today we are reading The Life and Adventures of William Buckley: 32 years a wanderer amongst the Aborigines of the then unexplored Country Bound Port Phillip, the province of Victoria. (That is a long title.)

Buckley, a British soldier caught stealing a bolt of cloth, was shipped out to their penal colony in Australia, ran away to the bush, nearly died, and was rescued by the Aborigines, who taught him how to live off the land. He lived with them for 32 years (from 1804 through 1835,) without sight nor sound of another Englishman, and had likely given up hope of ever returning to civilization when colonists finally arrived in the area. In 1852 he dictated his life’s adventures to John Morgan, who wrote the book, and wow is it Hobbesian.

We’ll start with Buckley’s first encounter with the Aborigines:

Approximate location of Buckley's wanderings
Approximate location of Buckley’s wanderings

“…I thought I heard the sound of human voices; and, on looking up, was somewhat startled at seeing three natives standing on the high land immediately above me. They were armed with spears, and had opossum skins thrown over their shoulders, partially covering their bodies. Standing as they did, en an elevated position, armed too, and being myself totally defenceless, I confess I felt alarmed … They were however soon upon my track, and shouting what I considered to be a call for me to come out, I resolved to do so; indeed I could not have remained there long on account of the water.

“With but faint hopes of meeting with good treatment at their hands, I crawled out from my shelter, and surrendered at discretion. … After seizing both my hands, they struck their breasts, and mine also, l making at the same time a noise between singing and crying: a sort of whine, which to me sounded very like premeditated mischief. Pointing to my hut, they evinced a desire to examine it, so we entered. … One made up a large fire, another threw off his rug and went into the sea for crayfish, which, on his return, he threw alive into the flames, at the same time looking at me with an expression as much as to intimate that they intended to grill me next, by way of a change of diet. I can afford to smile, and even laugh now at the recollection; but, at the time, I assure the reader, I was by no means satisfied with the prospect before me, or with my visitors. At length my suspense ended, by their taking the fish, fairly dividing them, and handing to me the first and best portion.”

EvX: In his defense, the Aborigines in the area did practice cannibalism, though I think of the ritual variety.

Buckley parts ways with his new acquaintances, nearly dies of thirst, then encounters some more Aborigines:

Buckley's escape from the convict ship and discovery by the Aborigines, by Tommy McRae, Aborigine artist
Buckley’s escape from the convict ship and discovery by the Aborigines, by Tommy McRae, Aborigine artist

“Whilst searching for the gum already mentioned, I was seen by two native women, who watched me unperceived. … Presently they all came upon me unawares, and seizing me by the arms and hands, began beating their breasts, and mine, in the manner the others had done. After a short time, they lifted me up, and they made the same sign, giving me to understand by it, that I was in want of food. The women assisted me to walk, the men shouting hideous noises, and tearing their hair. When we arrived at their huts, they brought a kind of bucket, made of dry bark, into which they put gum and water, converting it by that means into a sort of pulp. This they offered me to eat, and I did so very greedily.

Artist's interpretation of Buckley's apperance
Artist’s interpretation of Buckley’s apperance

“They called me Murrangurk, which I afterwards learnt, was the name of a man formerly belonging to their tribe, who had been buried at the spot where I had found the piece of spear I still carried with me. They have a belief, that when they die, they go to some place’ or other, and are there made white men, and that they then return to this world again for another existence. They think all the white people previous to death were belonging to their own tribes, thus returned to life in a different colour. In cases where they have killed white men, it has generally been because tkey imagined them to have been originally enemies, or belonging to tribes with whom they were hostile. In accordance with this belief, they fancied me to be one of their tribe who had been recently killed in a fight, in which his daughter had been speared also. …

Wathaurong people, from the tribe Buckley joined
Wathaurong people, from the tribe Buckley joined

“I remained with them all that night, but in great anxiety, not knowing their intentions; I thought several times of endeavoring to make my escape, but in my weak state, it was impossible. The women were all the time making frightful lamentations and waillings–lacerating their faces in a dreadful manner. All this increased my anxiety and horror, which was added to in J the morning, When I saw the frightful looking demons they had made themselves. They were covered with blood from the bounds they had inflicted, having cut their faces and legs into ridges, and burnt the edges with fire sticks sticks. …”

EvX: Once Buckley learned their language, he figured out that all of this lamenting was for “his” sake, since they believed him to be their family member whose death they were still sad about, and whom they thought had returned from the dead after suffering such horrible traumas that he had clearly lost his memory, forgotten how to speak their language, and become a half-starved idiot who didn’t know how to gather food.

Once the mourning ends, there proceeds a great deal of singing, dancing, and celebration:

“The reader, in these colonies, will be aware that what I had witnessed was nothing more than a great Corrobberree, or rejoicing, at my having come to life again, as they supposed. After eating some roots I lay down by the side of my new friends, and although so recently highly exited, yet I enjoyed a sleep undisturbed by dreams, either of the past, the preset, or the future.”

r331409_1494994EvX: So Buckely is basically “adopted” into the Wathaurong tribe, taking the place of the dead man everyone believes him to be. “His” sister and brother-in-law take charge of him, making sure he has food and water, teaching him to hunt and speak, etc.

Unfortunately, the Wikipedia page on the Wathaurong people doesn’t say much about their traditional culture or lifestyle beyond:

Wathaurong, also called the Wathaurung and Wadawurrung, are an Indigenous Australian tribe living in the area near Melbourne, Geelong and the Bellarine Peninsula. They are part of the Kulin alliance. The Wathaurung language was spoken by 25 clans south of the Werribee River and the Bellarine Peninsula to Streatham. They were sometimes referred to by Europeans as the Barrabool people. They have inhabited the area for at least the last 25,000 years, with 140 archaeological sites having been found in the region, indicating significant activity over that period.

Personally, I am extremely skeptical of any group sticking around in the same spot for 25,000 years, but I’m not in the mood to go hunting down the relevant archaeological journals to see if someone has proved conclusively how to distinguish Wathaurong artifacts from those of their neighbors and that those same artifacts were being produced in the area 25,000 years ago (or someone could dig up an ancient skeleton and test its DNA to see who it matches.) Regardless, someone was living there.

From here the book is dominated by accounts of violence, eg:

“in the mean time, the women behind the huts were all fighting with clubs and sticks. Presently the men, excepting the two with me, rushed toward them, in order to separate the combatants, after which they brought roots which they roasted and offered me. What the fight was about I could not understand, but think it must have originated in the unfair division of the food.”

“At break of day, I heard a great noise and talking; at length I saw that a quarrel had ensued, for they began to flourish their spears as a token of hostilities I should here observe, that these spears are very formidable weapons, about twelve feet long, sharp at one end; others are about half that length, being made of a kind of reed with pointed sticks joined to them; these are sharpened with hard cutting stones, or shells. …

“After a little time, and a great deal of challenging bluster, the two tribes commenced fighting in reality. When my relations, for so for convenience, I suppose, I must sometimes call them, saw what was going on, they led me a short distance off, where they remained
with me, looking at the conflict. It was any thing but play work–it was evidently earnest. One man was speared through the thigh, and removed into the bush, where the spear was drawn, A woman of the tribe to which I had become attached, was also speared under the arm, and she died immediately. At last peace was restored, and the parties separated, except about twenty of the tribe to which the woman belonged who had been killed…”

“we left this place, and joined a friendly tribe, about fifty in number, and on the evening of our meeting had a Corrobberree. The next day we all started together to meet another tribe; but on joining, from some cause or other, they quarrelled, commenced fighting, and two boys were killed. I could not then understand what all these quarrels were about, but afterwards understood that they were occasioned by, the women having been taken away from one tribe by another, which was of frequent occurrence. At other times they were caused by the women willingly leaving their husbands, and joining other men, which the natives consider very bad.”

“After the skirmish just mentioned was over, the tribe to whom the boys belonged retired farther into the bush, when we made our huts, as I have described, with boughs and bark. Suddenly in the night, the others came upon our party and drove us away. The bodies of the two boys who were killed were laying in one of the huts, so they cut off their legs and thighs, carrying them away; the remains of their bodies our people burned in the usual manner…”

“On our arrival at the battle ground, about twenty miles distant, we found five different tribes all collected together, and ready for action. The fight commenced immediately, and it lasted about three hours, during which three women were killed, for, for strange to say, the females in these quarrels generally suffered the most. These continual contests alarmed me, for the contending parties were always pointing toward me, as if I had been their origin, and I again began to think I should be sacrificed as a peace offering. Quiet was at length restored, and the tribe we had joined separated from the others, and came toward where I was standing. ”

Waddies made by the Aranda people (wikipedia)
Waddies (Aboriginal war clubs) made by the Aranda people

“we were unexpectedly intruded upon by a very numerous tribe, about three hundred. Their appearance, coming across the plain, occasioned great alarm, as they were seen to be the Waarengbadawa, with whom my tribe was at enmity. … The women ran with their children into the bush, and hid themselves, and being a living dead man, as they supposed, I was told to accompany them. On the hostile tribe coming near, I saw they were all men, no women being amongst them. They were smeared all over with red and white clay, and were by far the most hideous looking savages I had seen. In a very short time the fight began, by a shower of spears from the contending parties. One of our men advanced singly, as a sort of champion; he then began to dance and sing, and beat himself about with his war implements… Seven or eight of … our opponents, then got up also, and threw their spears at him; but, with great dexterity, he warded them off, or broke them every one, so that he did not receive a single wound. They then threw their boomerangs at him, but he warded them off also with ease. After this, one man advanced, as a sort of champion from their party, to within three yards of him, and threw his boomerang, but the other avoided the blow by falling on his hands and knees, and instantly jumping up again he shook himself like a dog coming out of the water. At seeing this, the enemy shouted out in their language “enough,” and the two men went and embraced each other. After this, the same two beat their own heads until the blood ran down in streams over their shoulders.

“A general fight now commenced, of which all this had been the prelude, spears and boomerangs flying in all directions. The sight was very terrific, and their yells and shouts of defiance very horrible. At length one of our tribe had a spear sent right through his body, and he fell. On this, our fellows raised a war cry, on hearing which, the women threw off their rugs, and each armed with a short club, flew to the assistance of their husbands and brothers; I being peremptorily ordered to stay where I was, my supposed brother’s wife remaining with me. Even with this augmentation, our tribe fought to great disadvantage, the enemy
being all men, and much more numerous.

“As I have said in the early part of this narrative, I had seen skirmishing and fighting in Holland; and knew something therefore, of what is done when men are knocking one another about with powder and shot, in real earnest, but the scene now before me was much more frightful, both parties looking like so many devils turned loose from Tartarus. Men and women were fighting furiously, and indiscriminately, covered with blood; two of the latter were killed in this affair …

“Soon after dark the hostile tribe left the neighbourhood, and, on discovering this retreat from the battle ground, ours determined on following them immediately, leaving the women and
myself where we were. On approaching the enemy’s quarters, they laid themselves down in ambush until all was quiet, and finding most of them asleep, laying about in groups, our party rushed upon them, killing three on the spot, and wounding several others. The enemy fled precipitately, leaving their war implements in the hands of their assailants and their wounded to be beaten to death by boomerangs, three loud shouts closing the victors triumph.”

EvX: After a while I got tired of recording battles and decided just to count them:

Fights: 34
Deaths: 60

I can’t promise that I caught 100% of them; some sections of the book were badly scanned and hard to read. Also, the numbers only reflect the deaths Buckley specifically reported. In instances where he merely said something like “a few people died,” or “many people died,” I recorded only that a fight had occurred, not deaths. So the real death toll must actually be much higher than my accounting.

To be fair, these occurred over the course of 32 years, but Buckley began trying to avoid fights later in the book, so there may have been many more fights his tribe was involved in that didn’t make it into the book.

Consider, for quick comparison, how many people you have personally seen murdered or killed in battle. Chances are none–only 4/100,000 people are murdered in the US every year, and most other Western countries have even lower rates.

Luckily for Buckley, his status as already dead meant that no one thought it worth bothering to kill him again.

Buckley blames the constant warfare on fights over women, but a certain aspect of magical thinking frequently at play in animist religions is also clearly present: any death, even by natural causes, is believed to have been caused by human malice. As I noted back in my previous Anthropology Friday on the Aborigines, they had quite complicated explanations for how someone could have secretly snuck into another tribe’s camp and magically killed them without anyone else noticing. As a result, any death, even by wholly natural causes, could lead to the members of one tribe deciding to exact murderous revenge on another tribe, which would naturally endeavor to return the favor.

In a recent interview, Napoleon Chagnon, the anthropologist famous for studying the Yanomamo, (who are famous for being very violent,) stated:

The important thing that I’ve discovered about the Yanomamö is the answer to the question of a lot of highly educated people in our society who say, “Oh, it would be so wonderful if we could just go back to an earlier time when life was so much simpler, and pleasant, and neighbors cooperated…” And what I found is the further back in time you go, the more that unpleasant things are ubiquitous in your environment. Violence is just around the corner, and wishing for a return to the noble savage past is possibly one of the biggest errors that one might make philosophically. I don’t think life in the state of nature was nearly as pleasant as a lot of people would like it to be.

One example I give from my travels across the United States: I happen to have been invited on a trip into the Grand Canyon by the man who was then Governor of Arizona, Fife Symington, and we had the park ranger, the archeologist for the Grand Canyon area, along with us, and he took us into parts of the Grand Canyon that most tourists don’t see. One of the most astonishing things we saw, Pueblo houses built into the edge of the Grand Canyon, with a 1,000-foot drop below, and these houses were occupied by prehistoric Indians who were so terrified of their neighbors that they’d climb down vines and ropes with their kids on their back, and firewood under their arm, and the day’s catch in their baskets, because they were just terrified of their neighbors. And that’s the way the Yanomamö live. Even the missionaries who have lived among the Yanomamö the longest have pointed out repeatedly to me and other people that these people are terrified of neighbors. It’s like Hobbe’s war of “all against all” in many respects, and Rousseau is way off the mark. …

PINKER:  What about standing back and saying—at some point they must figure this out—”We’re avenging that death, which was caused when they avenged the previous death, and the cycle of violence keeps going on. Is there some way that we can extricate ourselves from this cycle?” Did that thought occur to them? Because they must at some point do the math and realize, well, not every killing could be in revenge.

CHAGNON:  You are asking a profound question here. And the answer to that is best explicated in an incident that happened to me when the Yanomamö began being aware of Venezuelans, for example. It was a territorial capital 200+ miles away, and some of the missionaries sent young guys to the territorial capital to learn practical nursing to come back to the village and treat snake bites, and scratches, and wounds, and things like that, and to give them malaria pills. And they taught them how to use microscopes.

But one of these guys came back and he was just terribly excited when he told me that he discovered policia. I was like, “Well, what’s policia?” “They will grab people and haul them off and put them in these little separate houses, if they do something wrong. And I think we need policia, because my brother killed a man from Iwahikorobateri five years ago, and I’m always worried that the Iwahikorobateri are going to come and kill me, because he’s my brother.” And he thought that if they had law, law would be a good thing. …

PINKER:  So you discovered kind of a Yanomamö Hobbes, who discovered the Leviathan.

CHAGNON:  Right.

We’ll return to both Buckley and Chagnon’s interview (which I must credit with inspiring me to read Buckley’s account) later… Perhaps in Part 2.

Community round-up, Comment of the Week, Open Thread, and Similar Matters

Cognitive Bias Codex--you'll need to zoom in
Cognitive Bias Codex–you’ll need to zoom in

I’ve been thinking of doing some form of regular “comment of the week” to highlight particularly good comments, along with “most interesting things I read elsewhere.” And sure, it can be an Open Thread, too, though really, you’re pretty free to treat every thread like an Open Thread. 🙂 This would be in addition to the regular posts, not in place of them. Which day do you think would be better: Wedensday or Saturday?

So this week’s Comment of the Week award goes to Ertuğrul Aşina, for adding yet more information to my post on the Turkic Peoples:

There are Turks in Turkey, like my family, that still uses their Asian family names. Mine are called Aşinas, which probably is a corrupted form of Ashina Clan and Meteçanyus which is likely to refer to Moduchanyu. … My paternal family hails from a pretty isolated town of northern Turkey, where almost everyone looks like blonde Asians and talk in a manner that rest of the Turks don’t really understand easily. …

I encourage you to read the whole comment.

(L-R) Daniel C. Dennett, Napoleon Chagnon, David Haig, Steven Pinker, Richard Wrangham, John Brockman, with thanks to Edge.org
(L-R) Daniel C. Dennett, Napoleon Chagnon, David Haig, Steven Pinker, Richard Wrangham, John Brockman, with thanks to Edge.org

In other news, I read a fabulous interview with Napleon Chagnon, Blood is their Argument. (Also staring Steven Pinker, Richard Wrangham, Daniel C. Dennett, David Haig, and Richard Dawkins.) Chagnon wrote Yanomamo: The Fierce People, in which he showed–via extensive demographic data–that the Yanomamo tribesmen who had the most children were also the ones who had killed the most other people.

For this significant accomplishment, of course, he has been “vilified by other anthropologists, condemned by his professional association (which subsequently rescinded its reprimand), and ultimately forced to give up his fieldwork. Throughout his ordeal, he never wavered in his defense of science. In 2012 he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.”

But back to the interview:

STEVEN PINKER:  You’re one of the last of the classical ethnographers, someone who goes in to study a relatively uncontacted, technologically traditional hunting people.  That’s not the way a lot of anthropology is done these days. I remember a conversation at a faculty lunch with a professor of anthropology, and I asked him what tribe he studied. He said he studied the nuclear engineers of Los Alamos Labs in New Mexico.

I believe he is referring to Hugh Gusterson’s Nuclear Rites: A Weapons Laboratory at the End of the Cold War, thought it is actually set at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. (That is a really easy thing to mix up.)

… Can you just tell us what’s it like to go out and study an uncontacted people in the middle of the Amazon Rainforest? Do you pack a steamer trunk full of bug spray and peanut butter, and hire someone to drop you off and say, “Pick me up in six months?”

NAPOLEON CHAGNON:  Well, remarkably, Steve, that’s pretty much the way some of it happened. But when I first walked into the Yanomamö village thinking I was going to do the perfunctory one-year field research or maybe less, go back to my university, write my doctoral dissertation, publish a book maybe, after two or three years of thinking about it, then return to the tribe ten years later and do the expected thing about,  “Woe is me, what has the world and technology done to my people?” But the minute I walked into my first Yanomamö village I realized that I was witnessing a really precious thing, and I knew I would have to come back again and again, and I did.

There is too much great information in this interview to excerpt. You’ll just have to RTWT.

Some interesting graphs:

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cvz3gn9wcaq682uSince this is the first week I’m trying this, I’ll stop here with the links/graphs and open the floor to discussion:

I don’t think it mere coincidence that all of the men in the picture above are, well, men. Aside from Jane Goodall and HBDChick, are there any significant [living] women doing ground-breaking work in anthropology/human evolution/genetics/related fields?