Here’s my latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall
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
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.