Sex at Dawn corrects Pinker on hunter-gatherer warfare

October 3, 2010

Please forgive my lack of posts recently. I plan to pick it back up again, starting… now.

So the other day I received a review copy of the book Sex At Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, which I’ve blogged about before. Guess which section called out to me upon scanning the table of contents. If you guessed, “Professor Pinker: Red in Tooth and Claw,” you are correct.

Recall that Sex at Dawn‘s authors, Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá, want to make the argument that prehistoric hunter-gatherers lived in a hyper-sexual paradise, where life was free and easy because people had no private property tying them down and encouraging status competition. Then came agriculture, which harshed everyone’s mellow. Remember this diagram?

Hold on a minute, says Steven Pinker in the following TED video. True, the 20th century’s wars and genocides may have “led to a common understanding of our situation, namely that modnerity has brought us terrible violence and perhaps that native peoples lived in a state of harmony that we have departed from, to our peril.” But it’s just not so. Pinker claims to show that “our ancestors were far more violent than we are, that violence has been in decline for long stretches of time, and that today we are probably in living the most peaceful time of our species’ existence.”

Pinker’s central piece of evidence for ancestral violence is this chart (also found on page 57 of The Blank Slate), showing the percentages of male deaths due to warfare in eight pre-state societies compared with modern Europe and the US:

The data comes from Lawrence Keeley’s War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage.

Leaving aside the perversity of not including the foreign victims of US aggression on such a chart, Ryan and Jethá argue that Pinker misleads us when he says the numbers apply to “foraging or hunting and gathering societies.”

From Sex at Dawn, p. 185:

Only one of the seven societies cited by Pinker (the Murngin) even approaches being an immediate-return foraging society … The Murngin had been living with missionaries, guns, and aluminum powerboats for decades by the time the data Pinker cites were collected in 1975 — not exactly prehistoric conditions.

None of the other societies cited by Pinker are immediate-return hunter-gatherers, like our ancestors were. They cultivate yams, bananas, or sugarcane in village gardens, while raising domesticated pigs, llamas, or chickens. Even beyond the fact that these societies are not remotely representative of our nomadic, immediate-return hunter-gatherer ancestors, there are still further problems with the data Pinker cites. Among the Yanomami, true levels of warfare are subject to passionate debate among anthropologists… The Murngin are not typical even of Australian native cultures, representing a bloody exception to the typical Australian Aborigine pattern of little to no intergroup conflict. Nor does Pinker get the Gebusi right. Bruce Knauft, the anthropologist whose research Pinker cites on his chart, says the Gebusi’s elevated death rates had nothing to do with warfare. In fact, Knauft reports that warfare is “rare” among the Gebusi, writing, “Disputes over territory or resources are extremely infrequent and tend to be easily resolved.”

From the Knauft paper that Ryan and Jethá cite:

The violence that does occur erupts suddenly, is often devastatingly extreme, and subsides with parties tending to act as if little had happened. The general desire is to reestablish amity and peaceful coexistence as quickly as possible. The most legitimate and frequent context of lethal violence is the killing of a person as a sorcerer — for allegedly causing the sickness death of someone else in the community. Such killings tend to be accepted without responsive action even by the closest kin of the person killed. The general perception is that the real source of anger was the sorcery suspect and that violence was a regrettable but necessary way of expunging that person and reestablishing community good company. In sociological terms, this violence acts as a strong leveling mechanism which precludes the emergence of assertive leaders and reinforces commitment to norms of sociality and sharing.

So, not war, but kinda freaky nonetheless.

Summing up: Has Pinker made his point that we are living in the most peaceful era of our species’ history? He has not. And by conflating contemporary “native peoples” with our prehistoric ancestors, he’s muddied the waters to boot. But have Ryan and Jethá made their point that prehistoric humans enjoyed lives of peace and plenty? I’ll have to keep reading to find out…

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