Savaging Primitives: Why Jared Diamond’s ‘The World Until Yesterday’ Is Completely Wrong
By Stephen Corry
Tribal societies are static
This is nonsense. 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, self-sufficiency is and was an important component of the ways of life of both; equally obviously, neither approach or approached the heaving and burgeoning populations visible in today’s cities. In these senses, any numerically small and largely self-sufficient society might provide something of a model of ancient life, at least in some respects. Nevertheless, tribal peoples are simply not replicas of our ancestors.
Britain’s foremost expert on prehistoric man, Chris Stringer of London’s Natural History Museum, for example, routinely cautions against seeing modern hunter-gatherers as “living fossils,” and repeatedly emphasizes that, like everyone else, their “genes, cultures and behaviors” have continued to evolve to the present. They must have changed, of course, or they simply would not have survived.
It is important to note that, although Diamond’s thesis is that we were all once “hunter-gatherers” and that this is the main key to them being seen as our window into the past, in fact most New Guineans do little hunting. They live principally from cultivations, as they probably have for millennia. Diamond barely slips in the fact that their main foodstuff, sweet potato, was probably imported from the Americas, perhaps a few hundred or a thousand years ago. No one agrees on how this came about, but it is just one demonstration that “globalization” and change have impacted on Diamond’s “traditional” peoples for just as long as on everyone else. Disturbingly, Diamond knows these things, but he does not allow them to spoil his conclusions.
How much of this actually is fact, and how much just personal opinion? It is of course true that many of the tribes he cites do express violence in various ways; people kill people everywhere, as nobody would deny. But how murderous are they exactly, and how to quantify it? Diamond claims that tribes are considerably more prone to killing than are societies ruled by state governments. He goes much further. Despite acknowledging, rather sotto voce, that there are no reports of any war at all in some societies, he does not let this cloud his principal emphasis: most tribal peoples live in a state of constant war.
He supports this entirely unverifiable and dangerous nonsense (as have others, such as Steven Pinker) by taking the numbers killed in wars and homicides in industrialized states and calculating the proportions of the total populations involved. He then compares the results with figures produced by anthropologists like Chagnon for tribes like the Yanomami. He thinks that the results prove that a much higher proportion of individuals are killed in tribal conflict than in state wars; ergo tribal peoples are more violent than “we” are.
There are of course lies, damned lies, and statistics. Let us first give Diamond the benefit of several highly debatable, not to say controversial, doubts. I will, for example, pass over the likelihood that at least some of these intertribal “wars” are likely to have been exacerbated, if not caused, by land encroachment or other hostilities from colonist societies. I will also leave aside the fact that Chagnon’s data, from his work with the Yanomami in the 1960s, has been discredited for decades: most anthropologists working with Yanomami simply do not recognize Chagnon’s violent caricature of those he calls the “fierce people.” I will also skate over Kim Hill’s role in denying the genocide of the Aché Indians at the hands of Paraguayan settlers and the Army in the 1960s and early 1970s. (Though there is an interesting pointer to this cited in Diamond’s book: as he says, over half Aché “violent deaths” were at the hands of nontribals.)
I will also throw only a passing glance at the fact that Diamond refers only to those societies where social scientists have collected data on homicides, and ignores the hundreds where this has not been examined, perhaps because—at least in some cases—there was no such data. After all, scientists seeking to study violence and war are unlikely to spend their precious fieldwork dropping in on tribes with little noticeable tradition of killing. In saying this, I stress once again, I am not denying that people kill people—everywhere. The question is, how much?
Awarding Diamond all the above ‘benefits of doubt’, and restricting my remarks to looking just at “our” side of the story: how many are killed in our wars, and how reasonable is it to cite those numbers as a proportion of the total population of the countries involved?
Is it meaningful, for example, to follow Diamond in calculating deaths in the fighting for Okinawa in 1945 as a percentage of the total populations of all combatant nations—he gives the result as 0.10 percent—and then comparing this with eleven tribal Dani deaths during a conflict in 1961. Diamond reckons the latter as 0.14 percent of the Dani population—more than at Okinawa.
Viewed like this, the Dani violence is worse that the bloodiest Pacific battle of WWII. But of course the largest nation involved in Okinawa was the U.S., which saw no fighting on its mainland at all. Would it not be more sensible to look at, say, the percentage of people killed who were actually in the areas where the war was taking place? No one knows, but estimates of the proportion of Okinawa citizens killed in the battle, for example, range from about 10 percent to 33 percent. Taking the upper figure gives a result of nearly 250 times more deaths than the proportion for the Dani violence, and does not even count any of the military killed in the battle.
Similarly, Diamond tells us that the proportion of people killed in Hiroshima in August 1945 was a tiny 0.1 percent of the Japanese people. However, what about the much smaller “tribe” of what we might call “Hiroshimans,” whose death toll was nearly 50 percent from a single bomb? Which numbers are more meaningful; which could be seen as a contrivance to support the conceit that tribespeople are the bigger killers? By supposedly “proving” his thesis in this way, to what degree does Diamond’s characterization differ significantly from labeling tribal peoples as “primitive savages,” or at any rate as more savage than “we” are?
If you think I am exaggerating the problem—after all, Diamond does not say “primitive savage” himself—then consider how professional readers of his book see it: his reviewers from the prestigious Sunday Times (U.K.) and The Wall Street Journal (U.S.) both call tribes “primitive,” and Germany’s popular Stern magazine splashed “Wilde” (“savages”) in large letters across its pages when describing the book.
Seek and you shall find statistics to underscore any conceivable position on this. Diamond is no fool and doubtless knows all this—the problem is in what he chooses to present and emphasize, and what he leaves out or skates over.
As Corry notes, many of the claims for warlike Indians come from Napoleon Chagnon's study of the Yanomami people. For more on that subject, see Review of Fierce People and The Yanomami Scandal.
Finally, for more on Diamond's work, see Diamond Wrong About Easter Island and Educating Tony About Genocide.