Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Anthropology, Violence and Relativism

This last weekend's Wall Street Journal featured a review of anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon's new book Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes -- the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists. The book chronicles Chagnon's decades of research on the warlike Yanomamo people, and the warlike reaction which many other anthropologists had to Chagnon's work:
From the beginning, Mr. Chagnon was astonished by the ubiquitous violence and terror in Yanomamö life. Walking into a village on his first day in the field, he was greeted by "a dozen burly, naked, sweaty, hideous men nervously staring at us down the shafts of their drawn arrows!" The previous day, he soon learned, a second village had abducted seven women from the village Mr. Chagnon was entering, named Bisaasi-teri. Just a few hours before, the men of Bisaasi-teri had wrested back five of the women after a "brutal club fight," provoking threats of retaliation. The villagers had every reason to greet a stranger's arrival with weapons at the ready.

Anthropologists frequently give gifts to the people who haves been kind enough to endure their questions. The Yanomamö helped Mr. Chagnon in a thousand ways, and he thanked them with machetes, medicine and crackers. But sometimes the reason for his generosity was to ensure that his informants wouldn't kill him in his sleep. High among the threats was Möawä, the "tyrannical headman" of Mishimishimaböwei-teri, a thug "who had killed twenty-one men." Mr. Chagnon's relationship with Möawä began with the "selfish," "cruel" and "overbearing" Möawä demanding all the gifts Mr. Chagnon had intended for Möawä's entire village, including medicines for sick children. It ended with Möawä threatening to "bury this axe in your skull!" Parts of "Noble Savages" are among the few white-knuckle reads in contemporary anthropological literature.
For me, though, the most compelling sections involve the author's struggle to gather what would seem like the most basic facts about Yanomamö communities: the names and relationships of their residents, along with birth and death dates.... The genealogies paid off, though, when Mr. Chagnon used them to show that Yanomamö violence had a reproductive payoff. On the whole, he wrote in a 1988 Science article, village men who had killed other people had roughly three times as many offspring as non-killers.

Today, this claim may seem unexceptional. After all, genetic studies suggest that about 10% of the men living in the old Mongol Empire are descended from Genghis Khan, one of history's great killers. Why wouldn't this kind of thing be replicated on a smaller scale? But in the 1980s, Mr. Chagnon writes, "to have the lead article in Science suggesting that 'killers have more kids' was like pouring gasoline on a smoldering academic fire."
By the late 1980s, Mr. Chagnon was under siege, not just intellectually but personally. Opponents leveled ever-increasing charges of racism, data-faking, brutality toward the Yanomamö (such as taking their names) and even complicity in genocide. In 2001, a book by journalist Patrick Tierney contended, sensationally, that a medical-research group that Mr. Chagnon had assisted in 1968 may have exacerbated or even caused a measles epidemic that killed "hundreds, perhaps thousands" of Yanomamö. (This claim seems grossly untrue; in fact, the team provided medical care to victims of the epidemic.) A special seminar held by the American Anthropological Association to discuss Mr. Tierney's book attracted almost a thousand people, who listened to a confusing, sometimes hysterical welter of charges and countercharges, many by people who had not read the work of either Mr. Tierney or Mr. Chagnon. One thing that was not provided: actual data from the Yanomamö that refuted Mr. Chagnon's ideas.

"There have been thirty or more anthropologists who began fieldwork among the Yanomamö after I began," Mr. Chagnon writes, his fury practically spitting from the page. "They all could have easily collected comparable data on [killers] and variations in reproductive success similar to the data [Mr. Chagnon collected]. Not one of them did this." Mr. Chagnon is exaggerating here—anthropologists John H. Moore and R. Brian Ferguson provided data-based critiques, for instance—but only slightly. The majority of the attacks were ad hominem.
What Chagnon had run afoul of was an approach to anthropology which had increasingly come to emphasize advocacy on behalf of "primative" cultures and a belief that cultures that anthropologists studies should not be seen as primative but rather simply different. Chagnon's suggestion that violence was far mor common in Yanomamö society than in our own offended against this set of beliefs.
[A] new group—researchers like Darrell Posey, Alcida Ramos, Roy Rappaport, Peter Wade and the members of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists—saw scholars as advocates for the people they studied, most of whom were poor and had dreadful histories of mistreatment.

To practice "a politically committed and morally engaged anthropology," as Nancy Scheper-Hughes later put it, Ph.D.s needed to transform themselves from dweeby academics into "alarmists and shock troopers," fighting "the layers of acceptance, complicity, and bad faith that allow the suffering and the deaths to continue." Mr. Chagnon's theory of the formation of society, his major contribution to the discipline, was like fingernails on the blackboard to these new anthropologists. They feared that his depiction of violence as central to social identity in groups like the Yanomamö would be used to cast indigenous peoples as savages, who could be forced into reservations "for their own good."
I'd recently run into this same controversy in another backlash, in this case against Jared Diamond's latest book The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?. I've read two of Diamond's books, the best-selling Guns, Germs and Steel and also Collapse, his discussion of societal collapses due to ecological problems. I had a pretty mixed reaction to both. Diamond is a geographer and is seeking to tell very large, sweeping stories in which developments in human societies are almost exclusively the result of their resources and environment, not of the actual content of their cultures. I think there's a lot to take issue with in his approach, and he has a tendency to gloss over inconvenient details. However, his latest book has been attacked from an interesting quarter. In The World Until Yesterday he seeks, among other things, to discuss the evidence (also written about by Steven Pinker) that the level of violence (measured in terms of the percentage of people who meet a violent death) has declined in modern societies as compared to earlier ones. The Guardian describes the controversy thusly:
A fierce dispute has erupted between Pulitzer prize-winning author Jared Diamond and campaign group Survival International over Diamond's recently published and highly acclaimed comparison of western and tribal societies, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?

The controversy threatens to expose a deep rift in modern anthropology, with each claiming the other has fallen into a delusion that threatens to undermine the chances for survival of the world's remaining tribal societies.

On a book tour of the UK last week, Diamond, 75, was drawn into a dispute with the campaign group after its director, Stephen Corry, condemned Diamond's book as "completely wrong – both factually and morally – and extremely dangerous" for portraying tribal societies as more violent than western ones.

Survival accuses Diamond of applying studies of 39 societies, of which 10 are in his realm of direct experience in New Guinea and neighbouring islands, to advance a thesis that tribal peoples across the world live in a state of near-constant warfare.

"It's a profoundly damaging argument that tribal peoples are more violent than us," said Survival's Jonathan Mazower. "It simply isn't true. If allowed to go unchallenged … it would do tremendous damage to the movement for tribal people's rights. Diamond has constructed his argument using a small minority of anthropologists and using statistics in a way that is misleading and manipulative."

In a lengthy and angry rebuttal on Saturday, Diamond confirmed his finding that "tribal warfare tends to be chronic, because there are not strong central governments that can enforce peace". He accused Survival of falling into the thinking that views tribal people either as "primitive brutish barbarians" or as "noble savages, peaceful paragons of virtue living in harmony with their environment, and admirable compared to us, who are the real brutes".

He added: "An occupational hazard facing authors like me, who try to steer a middle course between these two extremes, is the likelihood of being criticised from either direction."

But Survival remains adamant. "The clear thrust of his argument is that there is a natural evolutionary path along which human society progresses and we are simply further along it," said Mazower. "That's extremely dangerous, because it is the notion that they're backward and need to be 'developed'. That thinking – and not that their way of living might be just as modern as any other way of living – is the same thinking that underpins governments that persecute tribal people."
Stephen Corry's full critique can be readin the original here.

It's true that looking at violence in terms of the percentage of people who die violently can lead to some seemingly odd conclusions. Ten people out of a tribe of one hundred being killed may represent a higher overall death rate than Europe experienced during World War II, but the sheer scale of World War II's destruction makes us tend to revolt against the idea. On the other hand, if your whole world is one hundred people, ten dying must loom rather large. Those questions of comparison aside, it's also clear that Pinker in particular indulges in some real howlers. However, the overall thesis that modern societies have lower levels of violence than primative ones seems to be pretty well supported by evidence, and the crux of the critique being presented seems to boil down to two points:

1) Societies are simply different and it's not nice to judge one as less advanced or more violent than another, however accurate such an assessment may be.
2) If we talk about some societies as being less advanced or more violent, that will give us an excuse to oppress them.

These seem like very bad critiques of Chagnon's and Diamond's work, and to suggest that the approach of many cultural anthropologists fails both as science and as moralizing.


Alan said...

Its funny that those holding the view "If we talk about some societies as being less advanced or more violent, that will give us an excuse to oppress them.", are more than willing to call conservatives less advanced and hence oppress them.

cminor said...

Interesting. I was intrigued by the ending of the Chagnon review, which suggested the previous dispossession of the tribe. Scratch the surface, there may be a savage (and not a noble one, either) in us all.

Joseph Moore said...

Good stuff, thanks. One question: where do you see the relativism in this? It seems clear that the problem is that primitive tribes *must* be better than us - a clear, if nonsensical, moral position. Relativism would simply state that our concern over murder is merely a social construct of our own society and has no standing as better or worse than the Yanomami's practice of killing each other. Not that this kind of thinking is going to be reigned in by constructs such as 'logic', 'consistency' and 'making an ounce of sense'.

Darwin said...


One of the things about this whole spat is that there are quite good critiques to make of Chagnon and and Diamond's work -- among them that primative tribes who are still around a primative tribes now are arguably not representative of all neolithic tribal societies, in that one of the notable things about all the other neolithic tribal societies is that they developed into more modern societies while those that remain primitive obviously didn't for some reason. Diamond tends to assume that's simply because the peoples that are still primitive didn't have the physical resources available to them that other peoples did. So, for instance, he argues in Guns, Germs and Steel that the only reason that the American Indians didn't have civilizations on the level of those in Europe is because they didn't have as many domesticatable animals and plants as were available in Europe. I'm really not sure one can make that assumption. It seems pretty reasonable to me that primitive tribes now are in various ways _not_ the same as primitive tribes 10,000 years ago.

All that said, when it comes to violence in tribal societies, Chagnon's findings fit pretty well with what we know of the primitive ancestors of the West based on examining burials for signs of death by violence, etc.

Joseph Moore,

I wasn't necessarily taking Correy's claim to be that primitive societies were better than ours, but rather that each society is different and thus cannot be judged by the standards of another. He doesn't want to deal with any factual claim that a society is less technologically advanced than ours or that it is more violent than ours, he simply wants to say they are different and leave it at that. That was what struck me as a very relativistic position.

Survival International said...

Joseph Moore and Darwin,

The crux of our critique of Diamond and Chagnon is not that "it's not nice to judge one as less advanced or more violent than another, however accurate such an assessment may be."

The crux of our critique is that both Diamond and Chagnon's data (and, incidentally Stephen Pinker's) is flawed.

The Daily Beast article linked to above explains why Diamond's data is flawed.

As for Chagnon's data, he is but one of dozens of other anthropologists who have spent many years working with the Yanomami. Many of them vehemently disagree with his characterization of the tribe as extremely violent - their findings show otherwise.

Here's the other side of the coin:

Many of Chagnon's defenders cite his commitment to 'science' in his defence. It is certainly not 'scientific' of these champions to take one man's word that an entire people is 'sly, aggressive, and intimidating', 'fierce', 'continuously making war on each other', and living in a 'state of chronic warfare'.