You are on page 1of 6

January 30, 2013 Savaging Primitives: Why Jared Diamond s ng By Stephen Corry.

I ought to like this book: after all, I have spent decades saying we can learn f rom tribal peoples, and that is, or so we are told, Jared Diamond s principal mess age in his new popular science work, The World Until Yesterday. But is it really? Diamond has been commuting for 50 years between the U.S. and New Guinea to study birds, and he must know the island and some of its peoples well. He has spent t ime in both halves, Papua New Guinea and Indonesian-occupied West Papua. He is i n no doubt that New Guineans are just as intelligent as anyone, and he has clear ly thought a lot about the differences between them and societies like his, whic h he terms Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic ( WEIRD ). He cal ls the latter modern. Had he left it at that, he would have at least upset only some experts in New Gu inea, who think his characterizations miss the point. But he goes further, overr eaching considerably by adding a number of other, what he terms traditional societ ies, and then generalizing wildly. His information here is largely gleaned from social scientists, particularly (for those in South America) from the studies of American anthropologists, Napoleon Chagnon, and Kim Hill, who crop up several t imes. It is true that Diamond does briefly mention, in passing, that all such societie s have been partly modified by contact, but he has still decided they are best tho ught about as if they lived more or less as all humankind did until the earliest origins of agriculture around 11,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent, as he put s it. That is his unequivocal message, and the meaning of yesterday in his title. This is a common mistake, and Diamond wastes little of his very long book trying to support it. The dust jacket, which he must agree with even if he did not act ually write it, makes the astonishingly overweening claim that tribal societies o ffer an extraordinary window into how our ancestors lived for millions of years ( my emphasis). This is nonsense. Many scientists debunk the idea that contemporary tribes revea l anything significantly more about our ancestors, of even a few thousand years ago, than we all do. Obviously, self-sufficiency is and was an important componen t of the ways of life of both; equally obviously, neither approach or approached the heaving and burgeoning populations visible in today s cities. In these senses , any numerically small and largely self-sufficient society might provide somethi ng of a model of ancient life, at least in some respects. Nevertheless, tribal p eoples are simply not replicas of our ancestors. Britain s foremost expert on prehistoric man, Chris Stringer of London s Natural His tory Museum, for example, routinely cautions against seeing modern hunter-gathere rs as living fossils, and repeatedly emphasizes that, like everyone else, their gen es, cultures and behaviors have continued to evolve to the present. They must hav e changed, of course, or they simply would not have survived. The real problem with Diamond s book, and it is a very big one, is that he thinks t raditional societies do nasty things that cry out for the intervention of state g overnments to stop. It is important to note that, although Diamond s thesis is that we were all once hu nter-gatherers and that this is the main key to them being seen as our window into The World Until Yesterday Is Completely Wro

But how murderous are the y exactly. Although he admits to never actually having seen any of this in all his travels. though i t is difficult to see what impact they might really have on rich Westerners or g overnments. though little of it appears parti cularly radical or novel. He then compares the results with figures produced by anthropologists like Chagnon for tribes like the Yanomami. and how to quantify it? Diamond claims that tribes are considerably m ore prone to killing than are societies ruled by state governments. but it is just one demonstration that globalization and change have impacted on Diamond s traditional peoples for just as long as on everyone else. but he does not allow them to spoil his co nclusions. at best. ergo tribal peoples are more violent than we are. is that he thinks t raditional societies do nasty things which cry out for the intervention of state governments to stop. at least) should make more effort to put criminals on a better track. he supports his point both with personal anecdotes from New Guinea and a great deal of data about a very few tribes a good proportion o f it originating with the anthropologists mentioned above. No one agrees on how thi s came about. and ensure they re f acing forward when we cart them around (which is slightly odd because most strol lers and many baby carriers face forward anyway). Pointing out that the average Yanomami Indian. His description of how large a proportion of the world is racking up obesity. he does not let this cloud his principal emph asis: most tribal peoples live in a state of constant war. and all this is well and good. people kill people everywhere. Diamond is certainly in fine fettle when he finally turns to the physiology of o ur recent excessive salt and sugar intake. or murder. takes over a year to consume the same amou nt of salt as can be found in a single dish of a Los Angeles restaurant is a rea l shocker and should be a wake-up call. that there are no reports of any war at all in some societies.the past. and the catastrophic impact it brings to health. He supports this entirely unverifiable and dangerous nonsense (as have others. limb amputations. but necessary. as nobody would deny. logic behind it. and demonstrates the cold. s uch as Steven Pinker) by taking the numbers killed in wars and homicides in indu strialized states and calculating the proportions of the total populations invol ved. His key point is that they kill a lot. They live principally fr om cultivations. at home in Amazonia. and try to rehabilitate rather than m erely punish. was probably imported from the A mericas. of the very old. There are of course lies. damned lies. or the abandonment. questionable. He pleads with us to value old people more and proffers much similar advice. Many of his boldly st ated facts are. sweet potato. be it in war. Let us first give Diamond . Diamond barely slips in th e fact that their main foodstuff. kidney failure. as they probably have for millennia. The real problem with Diamond s book.html) . perhaps a few hundred or a thousand years ago. rather sotto voce. infantic ide. and much more. and it is a very big one. even occasionally thought-provoking. Diamond knows these things. blindness. How much of this actually is fact. and how much just personal opinion? It is of course true that many of the tribes he cites do express violence in various ways . is a vital ly important message that cannot be overstressed. Despite acknowledging. These self-help manual sections of t he book are pretty unobjectionable. He goes much further. Dist urbingly. He believes we (Americans. This he repeats endlessly. and statistics. He feels we should carry our babies more (/newsweek/2012/12/16/bes t-practices-for-raising-kids-look-to-hunter-gatherers. He is convinced he can explain why they do this. But he has come up with a list of practices he thinks we should learn from tradit ional societies. in fact most New Guineans do little hunting. He thinks that the results prove that a mu ch higher proportion of individuals are killed in tribal conflict than in state wars.

what about the much smaller tribe of what we might call Hiroshimans. doubts. which could be seen as a contrivance to support the conceit that tribespeople are the bigger killers? By supposedly proving his thesis in this way. scientists seeking to study violence and war are unlikely to spend their precious fieldwork dropping in on tribes wit h little noticeable tradition of killing. over half Aché vi olent deaths were at the hands of nontribals. not to say controversial.10 percent and then comparing this with eleven tribal Dani deaths during a conflict in 1961.K. perhaps because at least in s ome cases there was no such data. (Though there is an interesting pointer to this cited in Diamond s book: as he says.uk/sto/cu lture/books/non_fiction/article1186612.1 4 percent of the Dani population more than at Okinawa. how much? Awarding Diamond all the above benefits of doubt . but estimates of the proportion of Okinawa citizens killed in the battle. After all. for example. I wi ll. and does not even count any of the mili tary killed in the battle. which saw no fighting on its mainland at all.wsj.org/documents/141/denial_of_genocide. whose death toll was nearl y 50 percent from a single bomb? Which numbers are more meaningful.1 percent of the Japanese people. However. I will also ska te over Kim Hill s role in denying the genocide (http://assets. Similarly. and restricting my remarks to lo oking just at our side of the story: how many are killed in our wars.. Would it not be more sensible to look a t.) both call tribes primitive. Viewed like this. and Germany s popular Stern magazine splashed lde ( savages ) in large letters across its pages when describing the book.the benefit of several highly debatable.com/article/SB10001424127887323277504578189871656766216. and ig nores the hundreds where this has not been examined.co.html) (U.pdf) of the Aché Indians at the hands of Paraguayan settlers and the Army in the 1960s and early 1970s. or at any rate as more savage than we are? If you think I am exaggerating the problem after all. I will also leave aside the fact tha t Chagnon s data. to follow Diamond in calculating deaths in the fi ghting for Okinawa in 1945 as a percentage of the total populations of all comba tant nations he gives the result as 0. But of course the largest nation involved in Okinawa was the U.S. for example. for example. Taking the upper figure gives a result of nearly 250 times more deaths th an the proportion for the Dani violence. by land encroachment or other hostilities from colonist societies. The question is. pass over the likelihood that at least some of these intertriba l wars are likely to have been exacerbated. I stress once again. I am not denying that people kill people everywhere. the Dani violence is worse that the bloodiest Pacific battle o f WWII. to what degree does Diamon d s characterization differ significantly from labeling tribal peoples as primitive savages. Diamond reckons the latter as 0.survivalinternation al. the percentage of people killed who were actually in the areas where the war was taking place? No one knows. Diamond tells us that the proportion of people killed in Hiroshima in August 1945 was a tiny 0.S.thesundaytimes. In saying this. has been discredit ed for decades: most anthropologists working with Yanomami simply do not recogni ze Chagnon s violent caricature of those he calls the fierce people. Diamond does not say primitiv e savage himself then consider how professional readers of his book see it: his rev iewers from the prestigious Sunday Times (http://www.ece) (U.) I will also throw only a passing glance at the fact that Diamond refers only to those societies where social scientists have collected data on homicides. if not caused. range from about 10 percent to 33 pe rcent. from his work with the Yanomami in the 1960s. Seek and you shall find statistics to underscore any conceivable position on thi Wi . say. and how reas onable is it to cite those numbers as a proportion of the total population of th e countries involved? Is it meaningful.) and The Wall Street Journal (http://online.

If. and b ecause it is now illegal to kill people like this.K. but I cannot omit a resp onse to the fact that. then your chances of being killed by your compatriots might even exceed those caught in Mexican drugs wars. their old at the end of their lives. leaving them only with what food or wa ter might be spared. not inevitable but likely. Nazi concentration camps. alcoholism. or those who took up arms against colonial rule in British Kenya. It all depends on what your question is. and if you have r ecently been pushed out of the forest interior into riverine villages by encroac hment from oil exploration or missionaries. your average lifespan will be shorter than in a ny country in the world except for some African states and Afghanistan. though usually very quiet. and what he leaves out or skates over. whom you believe.s. would not resul t from your own choices. Or. from diabetes. leave alone millennia). or even hastening it deliberately. what about delibe rately withholding food and fluids from patients judged near the end? Specialist nonprofits reckon there are about a million elderly people in the U. some tribes abandon. or Chicago s South Side. So how different is what we industrialized folk get up to from some tribal practices? Are we all sava ges too? Contrasting tribal with industrialized societies has always been more about poli tics than science. med ical practice of giving patients strong doses of opiates really strong doses when i llness and age have reached a threshold? The drugs relieve pain. What does any of this really tell us about violence throughout human history? Th e fanciful assertion that nation states lessen it is unlikely to convince a Russ ian or Chinese dissident. But what about the widespread. Such misery. modern societies have left such behavior behind. In such circumstances there would undoubtedly be much more homicide in Aguarunaland than that faced by well-heeled American college professors. but also much l ess than that confronted by inmates in Soviet gulags. exactly where you are standing when you ask it. many inside hospitals. but they also s uppress the respiratory reflex. I do not have the author s 500 pages to expand. It will not be very persuasive either to W w . If you e scape being murdered. for example. and moving on in the sure knowledge that death would quickl y follow. or similar. an d most of all. or apartheid S outh Africa. If you find yourself born a boy in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Really? So let us forget the 40 million or so dead in the Great Chinese Famine o f the early 1960s. in the cen ter of the world s richest nation. Brazilia n favelas. and we should be extremely wary of those who use statistics t o prove their views. Diamond explains the logic of it. but from those made by the state over the last couple o f hundred years. Again. or abando ned. and again he tells us that. as he repeatedly tells us. you may end up dead anyway. Diamond is no fool and doubtless knows all this the problem is in what he choos es to present and emphasize. Diamond comes out unequivocally in favor of the same pacification of the natives hich was the cornerstone of European colonialism and world domination. leading directly to death. or Tibetan. so I will leave aside the problem of infanticide (I have looked at it in other contexts). you are an Aguaruna Indian in Peru. dru g addiction. with a history of occasiona l revenge raiding stretching back the small handful of generations which compris e living memory (no Aguaruna can really know the extent to which such raiding wa s going on even a few generations ago. because of munificent state governments ability to organize efficient food distribution. alone wh o are malnourished or even starving.

naively or not. according to h im. where the Indonesian invasion and occupation has been respons ible for a guessed 100. Was Diamond s disappointed friend in New Guinea unaware of the high probability of carrying infectious diseases? If this really were a recently discovered band. and how they are actually treated by them. Or. as I do. The state is responsible for killing mo re tribespeople in West Papua than anywhere else in the world. With this. Diamond adds his voice to a very influential sector of American academia which i s. for example. to say the least.org/news/6598) . are they more savage. he echoes imperial propaganda by claiming tribes welcome it. who sits in a commanding position in t wo American. West Papuans are safer in Ind onesian villages only if they are prepared to accept subjugation to a mainstream society which does not want them around. He is a prestigious academic and author. H e is very much in favor of strong states and leaders. such a visit was . and have failed anyway. than we are? Jared Diamond has powerful and wealthy backers. It asserts. and asserted the ir right to live as they choose often successfully. I ought to like this book. Diamond comes out unequivocally in favor of the same pacification of the natives. he actually writes of. he in effect attacks decades of work by tribal peoples and their supp orters. is the bringing of peace. and he believes efforts to minimize inequality are idealistic. only to discover that half of them had already chosen to move to an Indonesian village and put on T- shirts. like almost all supposed first contacts in New Guinea where a playacting industry has grown up around such deception? In either event. willingly abandon[ing] their jungle lifestyle. not only does Diamond fail to mention Indonesian atrocities. that we have much to learn from tribal peoples. the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Conservation Internat ional (CI). had suffered genera tions of genocidal attacks and slavery. striving to bring back out-of-date caricatures of tribal people s. and where state-sponsored torture can now be viewed on YouTube (http://ww w. more violent. Are they backward. he waxes. and a friend who recou nted that he. Although his book is rooted in New Guinea. as well as what they want from them. whose record on tribal peoples is. questionable.survivalinternational. Diamond backs up his sweeping assault with just two instances : Kim Hill s work with the Aché. corporate-governmental organizations (they are not really NGOs at all). which is highly unlikely. traveled half way around the world to meet a recently discovered ba nd of New Guinea forest hunter-gatherers. the continued low level of violenc e in Indonesian New Guinea under maintained rigorous government control there. Furtherm ore. He thinks that govern ments which assert their monopoly of force are rendering a huge service because most small-scale societies [are] trapped in warfare (my emphasis). The political dimensions concerning how tribal peoples are portrayed by outsider s. The biggest advantage of state government. As I said. This would be comic were it not tragic. irresponsible.000 killings at least (no one will ever know the actual n umber). a Pulitzer Prize winner no less. was it rather a contrived tourist visit. and immensely rich.est Papuan tribes. which was the cornerstone of European colonialism and world domination. are intertwined and inescapable: i ndustrialized societies treat tribes well or badly depending on what they think of them. who have opposed the theft of their land and resources. to say the least. Th is is a breathtaking denial of brutal state-sponsored repression waged on little armed tribespeople for decades. but it actually turns out to propose nothing that cha llenges the status quo. from yesterday . because lif e there was safer and more comfortable. These erudite and polymath academics claim scientific proof for their damagin . The Aché.

g theories and political views (as did respected eugenicists once). they risk p ushing the advancement of human rights for tribal peoples back decades. h umbler. In my own. it kills th em. The principal cause of the destruction of tribal peoples is the imposition of nation states. opinion. This does not save them. Were those of Diamond s (and Pinker s) persuasion to be widely believed.newsweekdailybeastreprints. http://www.com © 2013 The Newsweek/Daily Beast Company LLC . this is both completely wrong both factually and morally and extremely dangerous. Yesterda y s world repeated tomorrow? I hope not. and experience.