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Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

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Farewell to the myth of the noble savage

Napoleon Chagnon was right about war in small-scale societies

Here's my latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:

 

A war within anthropology over the causes of war itself seems to be reaching resolution. The great ethnographer of the gardener-hunter Yanomamo Indians of Venezuela, Napoleon Chagnon, has long been battling colleagues over whether men in prestate societies go to war over protein or women. Next month he'll publish a memoir, "Noble Savages," detailing (as the subtitle puts it) "My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes-the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists." This is a good time to look back at how his argument has fared.

In the 1960s, cultural anthropologists led by Marvin Harris argued that conflict among prestate people was mostly over access to scarce protein. Dr. Chagnon disputed this, arguing that Yanomamo Indians' chief motive for raiding and fighting-which they did a great deal-seemed to be to abduct, recover or avenge the abduction of women. He even claimed that Indian men who had killed people ("unokais") had more wives and more children than men who had not killed, thus gaining a Darwinian advantage.

Such claims could not have been more calculated to enrage the presiding high priests of cultural anthropology, slaughtering as it did at least three sacred cows of the discipline: that uncontacted tribal people were peaceful, that Darwinism had nothing to say about human behavior and culture, and that material resources were the cause of conflict.

Sure enough, Dr. Chagnon, who is now at the University of Missouri, was subjected to an escalating series of political assaults, abetted by some indigenous peoples' champions and Catholic missionaries with whom he had also fallen out after he exposed their tendency to supply shotguns to Yanomamo Indians to lure them into settlements. He was eventually exonerated, most recently in an exhaustive study by the historian and bioethicist Alice Dreger of Northwestern University-but not before his reputation had been dragged through mud.

Meanwhile the science has been going Dr. Chagnon's way. Recent studies have confirmed that mortality from violence is very common in small-scale societies today and in the past. Almost one-third of such people die in raids and fights, and the death rate is twice as high among men as among women. This is a far higher death rate than experienced even in countries worst hit by World War II. Thomas Hobbes's "war of each against all" looks more accurate for humanity in a state of nature than Jean-Jacques Rousseau's "noble savage," though anthropologists today prefer to see a continuum between these extremes.

A Darwinian explanation of warfare would imply that similar kinds of violence might have evolved in other group-living animals. In recent years, Richard Wrangham of Harvard University has described chronic intergroup violence among chimpanzees. In a paper, he and Luke Glowacki note that both nomadic human hunter-gatherer bands and chimpanzee troops practice lethal attacks on neighboring groups. But they do so, according to the paper, "only in carefully selected contexts (local 'imbalances of power') that impose little risk of harm on the aggressors"-unlike modern warfare.

In the Andaman Islands, for example, one ethnographer's description eerily recalls the way primatologists describe chimpanzee violence: "The most elementary form of warfare is a raid (or type of raid) in which a small group of men endeavor to enter enemy territory undetected in order to ambush and kill an unsuspecting isolated individual, and to then withdraw rapidly without suffering any casualties."

But what is the motive for such killing? Robert Walker of the University of Missouri, Columbia, and Drew Bailey of Carnegie Mellon University last year published a survey of "Body Counts in Lowland South American Violence" and concluded that motives include revenge for previous killings, jealousy over women, capture of women and children and, less often, theft of material goods.

Come to think of it, sounds just like the Trojan War.