Rousseau Revisited


The views that we citizens of modern industrial societies hold of tribal peoples with traditional lifestyles have spanned a spectrum between two opposite extremes. At the one extreme, some citizens of state governments view tribal peoples as primitive brutish barbarians, from whom we can learn nothing, and who deserve to be dragged into the modern world, conquered, driven off their land, or exterminated.  At the opposite extreme, a school of thought going back to the French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau views traditional peoples as noble savages, peaceful paragons of virtue living in harmony with their environment, and admirable compared to us, who are the real brutes.  An occupational hazard facing authors like me, who try to steer a middle course between these two extremes, is the likelihood of being criticized from either direction.  This risk is illustrated by Stephen Corry’s savaging of my book The World until Yesterday, on behalf of his organization Survival International.

So that readers can understand Corry’s remarks, I’ll briefly summarize my book’s scope.  It’s based on studies of 39 traditional societies around the world by anthropologists and other observers, and illustrated by my own observations of dozens of New Guinea tribes over the last 49 years.  I compare traditional and modern societies with respect to eight issues faced by any society, whether tribal or modern: land division, dispute resolution, childhood, old age, dangers, religion, language, and health.  For each of those issues, I survey the spectrum of tribal practices: for instance, my chapter on peaceful dispute resolution is followed by discussions of tribal wars.  I seek to explain why practices vary among tribal societies, and I seek to identify practices that I think we could profitably modify or adopt for our own use.

Corry writes that my views are “completely wrong – both factually and morally – and extremely dangerous.”  That assessment by Corry is unique.  Not even the most negative previously published reviews have come anywhere close to that condemnation.  Among the dozens of expert anthropologists and New Guineans who reviewed my manuscript, not one noticed that my book was completely wrong and dangerous.  What is bugging Corry?

Corry is especially exorcised about my conclusion, shared with many other authors, that tribal societies are on the average more violent than societies with state governments. He names examples of state violence, such as that by Indonesia in West Papua, by China in Tibet, and in Soviet and Nazi concentration camps. Yes, of course there are many horrendous examples of state violence, as well as of tribal violence.  But the question to be answered is: on the average, where is violence highest?

Frequencies of violent deaths have been calculated for many tribal and state societies, studied by four different methods: observations by scientists, observationsby others, oral histories, and archaeology.  Each method has its own advantages and its own pitfalls, which I discuss.  Four scholars – Samuel Bowles, Lawrence Keeley, Steven Pinker, and Richard Wrangham – have extracted the resulting numbers. They all conclude that the percentage of a population meeting a violent death per year, averaged over a long period of alternating war and peace, is on the average considerably higher in tribal societies than in state societies.  This statement about averages does not deny that there are some peaceful tribal societies and some violent state societies, and that absolute death tolls are much higher in state societies because of their much higher populations. 

Many people are initially surprised by this conclusion.  Anyone unfamiliar with the facts could be excused for expecting that modern high-tech warfare with large armies would produce higher, not lower, percentage death tolls.  The reasons for the initially surprising conclusion become clear when one reads accounts of tribal societies.  Tribal warfare tends to be chronic,  because there are not strong central governments that can enforce peace, while even the nations with the highest war-related death tolls in the 20th century (such as Russia, Germany, and Poland) were mostly at peace and only intermittently at war.  In tribal warfare the fighting is carried out by all able-bodied men of any age, not just by a small professional army of young men. Killing of women and children is common in tribal warfare, but exceptional in state warfare.  Tribal victors kill their captives and don’t take prisoners, because they can’t be readily imprisoned or exploited.

Corry dismisses those well-established and understandable facts as “merely political opinion, backed by questionable and spurious data.”  I’m merely the most recent in the long line of scientists whom Survival International has attacked for not succumbing to the myth of the noble savage.  But something more must be fogging Corry’s judgment than just his passionate views about warfare, because his attack on my book is much more broadly-based and error-laden.  He repeatedly attributes to me and attacks the straw man that “tribal peoples aren’t replicas of our ancestors”: of course it’s more complicated than that, and my book explains why.  He goes to the extreme of asserting, “Many scientists debunk the idea that contemporary tribes reveal anything significantly more about our ancestors, of even a few thousand years ago, than we all do.”  Obviously that’s nonsense: modern hunter-gatherers, influenced as they are by neighboring food producers, are still small-scale politically decentralized societies, much more similar to the small-scale politically decentralized societies of the past than to our large-scale politically centralized modern urban industrial societies.  Corry notes that the arrival of the sweet potato in New Guinea within the last millennium has impacted recent traditional New Guinea farming societies, but he seems unaware that archaeology has revealed farming societies in New Guinea going back to about 7000 years ago, growing indigenous New Guinea crops such as taro and bananas.  As an example of how far afield Corry ranges in his denunciations, he denigrates as “immensely rich” the two U.S.-based environmental organizations (World Wildlife Fund-U.S. and Conservation International) which Corry notes that I serve.  Yes, I’m proud to serve those two wonderful organizations, and both have annual budgets considerably under $200,000,000, which are trivial budgets for organizations dedicated to solving the environmental problems of all of the continents and oceans.  But those organizations are still far more effective, clear-thinking, better known, and free of posturing than are Corry and his organization.  Why does Corry lower himself by such jealous sniping?

Clearly, Corry’s passionate condemnation of my book is driven by something other than the facts.  I don’t know him personally, so I can only guess, extrapolating from similar views held by some others.  Many of us, including both Corry and me, are outraged by mistreatment of traditional tribal peoples.  Sometimes the perpetrators justify their behaviour by citing tribal practices that we condemn, such as warfare, infanticide, widow strangling, and abandoning the elderly. Hence some well-meaning defenders of traditional peoples, including apparently Corry, feel it necessary to deny the existence of those practices, despite the abundant evidence for their existence.

That’s a very bad idea – “extremely dangerous,” to use Corry’s words where they really belong.  If you object to the mistreatment of traditional people on the mistaken grounds that they are supposedly not guilty of warfare and those other things, the truth will eventually come out, as it is likely to come out in any case of disputed facts.  When it does come out, then your badly chosen objection to the mistreatment of tribal peoples will have been demolished..  Mistreatment of tribal peoples should be condemned not because you claim that they are peaceful when they really are not.  It should instead be condemned on moral grounds: the mistreatment of any people is wrong.  That’s what makes Corry’s views so dangerous.  It saddens me to see him espousing a policy in which I believe, but discrediting that policy by invalid arguments.