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Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Primitive People Are More Violent than Civilized People

Posted by on Tue, Feb 5, 2013 at 8:42 AM

This argument is very popular in the evolutionary psychology world. They want us to know, to see, to believe that primitive people (and primitive people usually have brown skin) are, statistically speaking, more violent than civilized ones (people who tend to have white skin). The argument, which Diamond repeats in his new and generally bad book The World Until Yesterday, is that though each Tribal-level battle has low casualties, as a whole (meaning, at the expanded scale of a war), they have higher death rates than state-level (or formal) conflicts. As a consequence, primitive people are more violent than civilized people. Yes, the bombing of Hiroshima killed thousands people in space, but tribal people are far more destructive over time. This is the argument evolutionary psychology types draw so much satisfaction from for reasons that are essentially racist. And racist not because the claim is factually wrong or right (in both case it is really meaningless), but because the claim is there to begin with. The very presence of the claim, the need to make it, the fact that there is a social and political niche for its appearance to fill; the fact it can't go away, the fact of its insistence, and the fact that its related to other claims that are more obviously racist. You have to see the space, and not what appears, as the problem.

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Comments (45) RSS

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45
It's funny how people believe the stuff that TV and pop culture tell them about primitive people, but pay little or no attention to what actually happened proven by the archaeological record and modern primitive people. First, primitive is NOT an insult, though it is used as one. Why can't it just mean what it really means? Second, these people weren't really "violent" to get their food. They didn't just use clubs, and they put an emphasis on a humane kill, but one where you actually kill the animal. Third, they had bonds not only with friends and family, but with the plants, animals, and the rocks. They didn't believe in the drunken notion of humans being superior to animals. However, not all cultures are this way. For example, there is the warrior culture of the Hewa of Papua New Guinea, where people take lives. However, they have something to fight about: their crops, whereas most primitive cultures didn't farm and couldn't understand the idea of land ownership. Cultures similar to the Hewa were actually a small minority of primitive people. To sum it up: primitives weren't starving, weren't dying at 40, weren't lazy, didn't spend their spare time grunting and hitting each other with clubs, and were certainly not stupid.
Posted by SIT (scout-in-training) on February 27, 2013 at 5:23 PM · Report this
44
@41

Your actual argument strikes me as quite a lot less intellectually rigorous than Weber's.

Not least because you refer to his conclusion as his premise.

Even more so, though, because you shy away from engaging with the concept of legitimate force, and thus the consequences of accepting only some forms of force as legitimate, or on the other hand rejecting any and all strictures of "legitimacy" on force, as excercised by any given entity at all.
Posted by robotslave on February 8, 2013 at 9:53 PM · Report this
43
There's nothing racist in pointing out that a society's institutional framework makes a huge amount of difference. Ask any one of these ev-psychs and they'll readily admit that white people were just as violent back in the time when they had no governments.
Posted by I have always been... east coaster on February 7, 2013 at 7:39 PM · Report this
42
Another take on the topic comes from Pierre Clastres. He contends that violence in "primitive" societies was effectively a method to prevent the consolidation of power by particular civilization-oriented societies. War was basically a release valve against political concentration, and it was very effective (hence, many killed). Archaeology of Violence and Society Against the State are two of his titles in English.
Posted by andiaoenpd on February 7, 2013 at 12:58 AM · Report this
41
@38 I wasn't reading Weber, then, because I don't agree with the premise. I simply don't buy that subjugating ourselves to overwhelming force is the only way that people won't descend into an Hobbesian war of all against all. Just because that is the character of current nation-states doesn't mean it has to be the character of future states.

Why would you assume I'm incorrectly drawing on a thinker that I've in no way referenced? Oh right, because it's intellectually lazier than addressing the actual argument.
Posted by Tent_Liberation_Army on February 6, 2013 at 10:21 AM · Report this
40
Right. Jared Diamond is racist and Charles Mudede knows more about historical rates of violence than him and those crazy pinheads who study the issue. This is simply the flip side of Scientific Creationism.
Posted by peterga on February 6, 2013 at 12:41 AM · Report this
sirkowski 39
This is cognitive dissonance, Charles. You love cities because they're more civilized and progressive than traditional tribal rural areas.

Marxists always had a very poor understanding of anthropology (beginning with Karl Marx himself). Especially when it's contrary to their dogma.
Posted by sirkowski http://www.missdynamite.com on February 5, 2013 at 11:05 PM · Report this
38
@37

You've misread your Max Weber; in his formulation, a monopoly on the legitimate* use of force is not something the state has, it's something the state is.

* radicals of all stripes tend to leave this word out when quoting the thing, for some reason.
Posted by robotslave on February 5, 2013 at 7:49 PM · Report this
37
@35 I'd argue that all of the things I mentioned are enabled by the state's monopoly on the use of force, and in that way are all backed by violence. It's more indirect, and in many cases manifests as psychological instead of physical trauma. That doesn't mean it doesn't exist, though. Forcing people to work increasing hours just to 'keep up' and the resulting stress would be an example of this kind of systemic violence as well. It requires a set of rules that compels people to play along, or else suffer consequences ultimately backed by force.
Posted by Tent_Liberation_Army on February 5, 2013 at 6:30 PM · Report this
36
Natural selection is still in full swing in the west. the biological goal would be to have as many births as possible, increasing the chance of emerging super genius. The vast swaths of leftover births serve the genius minority as they push evolving technology towards some kind of singularity. So; the disappearance of our middle class and the eventual emergence of a global government and permanent class system is actually a good thing for humans in the long run.
Posted by carsten coolage on February 5, 2013 at 4:01 PM · Report this
Matt from Denver 35
@ 33, I think you're speaking of things that cannot be classified as "violence."
Posted by Matt from Denver on February 5, 2013 at 3:05 PM · Report this
34
I should add that the effects of social isolation, which must be highly rare in traditional societies, is also something to be considered.
Posted by Tent_Liberation_Army on February 5, 2013 at 2:58 PM · Report this
33
You're basically the only thing that keeps me coming back to the Slog, Charles. Keep up the thought-provoking posts. I don't always agree with you, but your posts are generally thought-provoking, and far better than the inane pop-politics drivel coming from 80% of the contributors here.

I think classifying violence by mere body count is misguided at best. What about mass incarceration and radical material inequality backed by force? How do these affect the quality of lives lived, and not just the length? These are harder things to measure than life expectancy, but need to be factored into the equation for any meaningful dialogue on violence.
Posted by Tent_Liberation_Army on February 5, 2013 at 2:56 PM · Report this
Sargon Bighorn 32
There are civilized societies on Earth?
Posted by Sargon Bighorn on February 5, 2013 at 12:35 PM · Report this
skjaere 31
The more I read about Ev. Psych., the more like BS it sounds. Not only is there a lot of room for "scientific" racism, but there's a heavy reliance on gender essentialism. I don't want to completely write it off, since I do have a friend who is an Evolutionary Psychologist and also a very smart lady, but I feel like it's one of those fields of study where you have to wade through a ton of BS to find anything worthwhile.
Posted by skjaere on February 5, 2013 at 12:00 PM · Report this
30
Primitive people usually have brown skin, and trolls usually have green hair.

Q.E.D., Charles has green hair.
Posted by RonK, Seattle on February 5, 2013 at 11:55 AM · Report this
aureolaborealis 29
The primitive people from whom my parents and, indirectly, I sprang, which is to say Midwestern rural and small-town low-melanin types, have a higher per capita rate of all kinds of violence than most urbanites, I believe. And it gives me great satisfaction to say so, because I'm racist against redneck douche-bags.
Posted by aureolaborealis on February 5, 2013 at 11:55 AM · Report this
seandr 28
Oh, Charles. Comparisons between tribal societies and contemporary civilization are interesting for reasons that have nothing to do with race.

Are humans happier or otherwise better off in modern societies or in smaller groups? What are the implications of social dynamics that no longer resemble the arrangements in which humans involved? Given that all of our ancestors came from tribal societies, this about all humans, not particular races.

Most people have their own notions about these questions, with some seeing smaller communal societies as a more natural fit for humans, and others arguing that technology and education have had an elevating effect.

Your obsession with racism is itself a sad legacy of racism that continues to obscure your view of humans.
Posted by seandr on February 5, 2013 at 11:44 AM · Report this
Supreme Ruler Of The Universe 27
Rwandans were quite civilized. No?
Posted by Supreme Ruler Of The Universe http://www.you-read-it-here-first.com on February 5, 2013 at 11:32 AM · Report this
26
Uhh, Diamond doesn't use the word "primitive;" he uses the word "traditional." Which, given the fact that all humans once lived in such societies, is a perfectly appropriate word to use. And seeing as how the whole book is about what state dwellers (of all races) can learn from hunter-gatherers (of many, though perhaps not all, races), and not the other way around, I think calling him racist is a bit of a stretch.

And @22, his conclusion that hunter-gatherer societies are on average, more violent than state societies is not based on his personal feelings about "social bonds"-indeed, Diamond repeatedly acknowledges and praises the social bonds of hunter-gatherer societies as superior to those prevalent in state societies. Rather, it is based on statistics from modern states and multiple studies of several disparate hunter-gatherer societies. Before you call someone "fucked up" for his evidence-based conclusions, maybe you should actually look at the evidence.
Posted by Marooner on February 5, 2013 at 11:28 AM · Report this
25
@21 Didn't mean to suggest that Darwinism doesn't play a role in the developed world, but one can see it's dimished role and the ability for many to come closer to escaping its influence. Isn't that one of the reasons that the film "Idiocracy" didn't last long in theaters? Too close to home. And sure, sexual selection may be more important, but that doesn't stop idiots from making babies while smar folks wait for the perfect mate/time/situation. Again: "Idiocracy."
Posted by carnivorous chicken on February 5, 2013 at 11:19 AM · Report this
24
This "we are living in a post-war age" argument reminds me of the economists and businessmen who proclaimed in the late nineties/early aughts that catastrophic financial disruptions were a thing of the past. In this case, it only takes one black swan nuclear exchange to turn the hypothesis on its head.
Posted by matt! on February 5, 2013 at 11:05 AM · Report this
23
as a participant in civilization, i'm ok in asking questions akin to "is all this really worth it". asking whether advanced civilized culture reduces overall violence is important. bc if it turned out that i was increasing the likelihood of my kids suffering a violent miserable death by living in a society with advanced tech and complicated laws, i'd strip naked and take them to kamchatka.
Posted by nonotford on February 5, 2013 at 10:57 AM · Report this
22
Having taken a couple of paleontology and anthropology courses in the course of my undergraduate days, I'm totally unqualified to hold forth on the subject, but that never stops anyone else here, so...

I would posit that "primitive" societies have much stronger social bonds than modern, industrial society. Families are multigenerationally integrated for survival, work, recreation and communication. This is, after all, where the oral tradition comes from.

The earliest hominids tended to live in nomadic bands of 25 or so, a type of bonding that survives in primitive societies of modern Homo sapiens sapiens, but where agriculture is possible, this is likely to have developed into somewhat larger villages. The culture and religion is likely to be quite elaborate, although the material goods to express them might be simple.

Primitive people are closer to each other, more involved in their own culture and cultural expression than we are, less isolated, and more interdependent. These are all things that tend to accompany more peaceful outcomes, not less.

We're the fucked up ones. The authors of that book, even more so.
Posted by Brooklyn Reader on February 5, 2013 at 10:55 AM · Report this
21
Carnivorous chicken - actually Natural Selection is still very much alive in the western world, selection just isn't as heavily based on mortality. Remember, selection is based on reproduction, not death. So, in a society like ours with low reproductive rates and low mortality, sexual selection has the ability to act more aggressively than it might if mortality were higher. Maybe, as there isn't much evidence of recent human evolution toward massive secondary sexual structures.
Posted by PhD Student UIdaho on February 5, 2013 at 10:51 AM · Report this
20
Racists cherry-pick information all the time to sustain their dismal world view but it doesn't make this information less worthwhile. Evolutionary psychology allows to debunk many reactionary point of views such as the inevitability of violence or greed so the space you discuss doesn't have to be that chosen by bigots to further their claims.
Posted by anon1256 on February 5, 2013 at 10:50 AM · Report this
19
Again, to differ from Mudede's book review, but Diamond has always been a douche (or to use The Taibbi's fave term, a "douchey").

He excels at doing those intros for books by hedge fundster types, but that's it --- far too weak on scholarship, which was why he won the Pulitzer, for his ardent support of the commercial/predatory capitalist status quo!

'Nuff said. . . .

A recent history of American multinational sponsored murder (and some Canadian multinational-sponsored as well) and mayhem in South America, especially during the 1980s, but to this very day, blows away another of Diamond's moronic capitalist predator theses.

Recommended reading:

Thy Will Be Done, by Gerard Colby with Charlotte Dennett

(And that Canadian documentary, banned in the USA, on the CIA's long-running MK ULTRA program of unwitting and deadly human experimentation.)
Posted by sgt_doom on February 5, 2013 at 10:49 AM · Report this
18
Wow, my English teacher is spinning in her grave right now.
Posted by spoons on February 5, 2013 at 10:44 AM · Report this
17
There is something about a blog trolling it's own readers that makes me laugh every time Charles posts something.
Posted by spoons on February 5, 2013 at 10:43 AM · Report this
16
This argument is really interesting to me. On one hand, it doesn't appear that there is really any argument about the statistics on this, the problem is is asking the question at all. But, by the same token, as a scientist I don't see a problem with asking the question. There are legitimate reasons to ask it if we want to understand the evolution of culture and understand human violent tendencies. Still, evolutionary psychology as a field has its own issues with even being scientific, so there is a major facet of the racist problem. There is a difference between asking a question legitimately and with understanding, and asking it blindly based on assumptions. I haven't read Diamonds book, but I would hope that he asks it with some degree of understanding of the context in which he is asking.
Posted by PhD student UIdaho on February 5, 2013 at 10:41 AM · Report this
15
"Eat the wrong gerry?" Yikes. I meant berry. But I guess it could still apply, given some Papuan's ritual fellatio...
Posted by carnivorous chicken on February 5, 2013 at 10:35 AM · Report this
14
Interesting given that part of Diamond's thesis in "Guns, Germs and Steel" was that "primitive people" -- specifically in one example, Papuans -- are actually smarter than those in the developed world. Life and death hang in the balance; eat the wrong gerry = you die. Not so in the developed world; poisonous berries are off the shelf in supermarkets. Darwinism is still at workin places such as Papua so the smart are more likely to survive, not so in the west where idiots can thrive.
Posted by carnivorous chicken on February 5, 2013 at 10:33 AM · Report this
Matt from Denver 13
@ 11, I think that was true during the Civil War, a mere 150 years ago, as well.
Posted by Matt from Denver on February 5, 2013 at 10:32 AM · Report this
12
Notice how there is no attempt by Charles to reckon with the figures given in the book or the decades of research that have indeed lead scientists to the shocking conclusion that modern societies are less prone to violence than hunter-gatherers. The conclusion is "racist," therefore the science is bad.

I wish there was somewhere to cleanse Mudede's idiotic ranting from the Slog, but alas...
Posted by zarathrusta on February 5, 2013 at 10:32 AM · Report this
Urgutha Forka 11
Is the death rate comparison of tribal level wars vs. "civilization" level wars taking modern medicine into account?

A thousand years ago, a battlefield injury was probably going to be ultimately fatal, even if it was just a minor injury, due to infection, gangrene, blood poisoning, etc.

Nowadays, our soldiers can suffer catastrophic injuries but remain alive due to advanced medical techniques.

Not sure if Diamond accounted for that or not. I'd assume he did - he's a smart guy - but I didn't read the book.
Posted by Urgutha Forka on February 5, 2013 at 10:28 AM · Report this
Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn 10
"Primitive people usually have brown skin".

There's your racism, right there. Grow past that prejudiced opinion and the violence of primitive people no longer becomes a slur against brown people.
Posted by Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn http://youtu.be/zu-akdyxpUc on February 5, 2013 at 10:24 AM · Report this
Leishalynn 9
I understand the argument of the bigoted space that needs filling, though. For example, everyone and their mother said something about "lowering military standards" to allow women to fight in combat.
Posted by Leishalynn on February 5, 2013 at 10:19 AM · Report this
TheMisanthrope 8
I've heard Chaz speak, and it's hard to understand him with the bullshit that comes through his mouth.

I posit that primitive cultures may be considered more violent in both their lifestyle and interpersonal ways because they actually have to be violent in order to catch their food. However, they are not less aggressive.

In fact, I posit that "civilization" is more aggressive, and we have more destructive and creative outlets to dispose of our aggression than primitive people than just violence and shouting.

Have I reached Chaz level trolling yet?
Posted by TheMisanthrope on February 5, 2013 at 10:17 AM · Report this
7
I've heard Charles speak .... it's hard to understand him with that bone through his nose.
Posted by Ian Smith on February 5, 2013 at 10:09 AM · Report this
6
Is it racist to claim Africa as the place of human origination??? Damn, wouldn't the world be a better place if Adam and Eve had been created white people in some civilized place, like say, Boston...;-D
Posted by pupuguru http://www.godsweed.org on February 5, 2013 at 9:58 AM · Report this
5
@1, I think Diamond is using the rather standard definition of civilization. That is, cultures that build cities. And in the building of cities, you end up with things like police forces (police is derived from the word polis, iirc). And courts. And codes of laws. You know, all those things that make people safer.

As opposed to nomadic or semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer societies.

I can see why various immature anarchists would take an issue with the argument. Not sure where Mudede's getting the racist idea from. People from all races live in cities and civilizations. And every race has lived as hunter-gatherer barbarians in the broader historical sense, which is what Diamond is generally talking about.
Posted by GermanSausage on February 5, 2013 at 9:55 AM · Report this
4
Evolutionary psychology gets a bad rap because it gets co-opted by racists and trolls and other asshats... but isn't there legitimate evolutionary psychology? I recall Robert Wright's "The Moral Animal" as a good read (until the last third or so when he starts a weak argument for utilitarianism).
Posted by Not a troll on February 5, 2013 at 9:52 AM · Report this
Purocuyu 3
Why is the claim meaningless? Can we not say, Americans have a society that differs from Austria in X way, without it being racist? Can we not say, cultures that suppress female rights have XYZ results? Why not? Of course we could
Of course Diamond can. And of course it isnt racist.
Posted by Purocuyu http://littlevictorygarden.tumblr.com on February 5, 2013 at 9:49 AM · Report this
2
I'd be more inclined to say that violent people are less civilized than non-violent people.
Posted by dextrose dave on February 5, 2013 at 9:48 AM · Report this
Matt from Denver 1
If you can show me their definition of "civilization," I might go along with this. But without that, I cannot.
Posted by Matt from Denver on February 5, 2013 at 9:35 AM · Report this

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