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Robert B. Edgerton: Sick Societies:
challenging the myth of primitive harmony
(The Free Press: 1992)

“All societies are sick, but some are sicker than others.... Populations the world over have not been well served by some of their beliefs such as, for example, those concerning witchcraft, the need for revenge, or male supremacy, and many of their practices involving nutrition, health care, and the treatment of children have been harmful as well. Slavery, infanticide, human sacrifice, torture, female genital mutilation, rape, homicide, feuding, suicide, and environmental pollution have sometimes been needlessly harmful to some or all members of a society and under some circumstances they can threaten social survival.”
(Edgerton, p.1)

Some ideas go deep, deeper perhaps than explicit ideology...albeit, ideologies tend to build upon such ideas. And this is clearly one such. With the precipitous decline in beliefs stemming from the writings of Marx and Freud, moreover, undoubtedly the dominant ideology on the left (broadly conceived) today is that of so-called “postmodernism” - an explicitly anti-scientific approach rooted in an unstable (yet mutually supportive) alliance between radical scepticism and the set of myths addressed by Edgerton in this carefully-argued & painstakingly-documented book. And, let us not be under any illusions here - whilst radical scepticism may provide the argumentative cutting-edge of postmodernism, it also singularly fails to provide any of the emotional resonance - or ethical backbone - that ideologies require in order to survive. These attributes, however, are possessed in spades by what Edgerton terms “the myth of primitive harmony”...a myth which has some very impressive intellectual champions:


“The idea that cities were characterized by crime, disorder, and human suffering of all sorts, while small, isolated, and homogenous folk societies were harmonious communities goes back to Aristophanes, Tacitus, and the Old Testament. The idea was given renewed prominence nineteenth-century thought by such influential figures as W.H. Morgan, Ferdinand Tonnies, Henry Maine, Fustel de Coulanges, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, and, not least, Karl Marx in the Communist Manifesto. Their writings and those of others led to a consensus that the emotional and moral commitment, personal intimacy, social cohesion, and continuity over time that characterized folk societies were lost in the transition to urban life, where social disorganization and personal pathology prevailed. In the twentieth century, the contrast between folk ‘community’ and urban ‘society’ became one of the most fundamental ideas in all of social science.”
(Edgerton, p.3)

However, it is also worth considering whether it is simply a “tradition” we are dealing with here...or whether it is something which stems directly from our shared human nature? For, although Edgerton does not note this, all complex societies we have adequate records of share something like this idea, and any consideration of the facts of the matter will quickly suggest multiple reasons for its strength. Pre-adapted to lives of mobile hunting & gathering - characterized by fission/fusion face-to-face societies - our traditional values, however, are still largely dominated by belief systems evolved during the long dominance of agrarian societies - read farming - which lauded above all stability...and in which innovative complex urban societies were consequently the natural home of evil. Thus we easily - and foolishly - mistake our understandable desire for face-to-face community for something much more...a reified dream of social concord which we all-too-easily project onto the smaller scale communities most of us no longer live in.

The facts of the matter - that modern societies are the least violence-prone we know, and that innovative urban communities are the natural home for the resurgence of the mobile fission/fusion egalitarianism & individual choice which were suppressed by millennia of agrarian values - have had little impact upon such beliefs...especially upon the left. For, whilst the modern right has made a fetish of our desire for choice - traceable to the fission/fusion mobility of our key ancestors - the left has similarly treated the ideal of their face-to-face intimacy...both seemingly forgetting that these functioned together in setting our social ideals - and that ideals are never actually met with, in the thick of real social relations, and human lives...

Partly for such reasons, and partly due to others more directly stemming from the history of the discipline, anthropologists have come to feed our near-instinctive beliefs in primitive harmony...despite the fact that they know better - or, would do so if a complex of professional allegiances did not combine to obscure their vision:


“For a number of reasons that we will discuss below, many anthropologists have chosen not to write about the darker side of life in folk societies, or at least not to write very much about it. Among themselves, over coffee or a cocktail, they may talk freely about the kinds of cruelty, irrationality, and suffering they saw during their field research, but only a relative few have written about such things, or about  any of the many ways in which people in various folk societies do things that are seemingly harmful to themselves and others.... Indeed, there is a pervasive assumption among anthropologists that a population’s long-standing beliefs and practices - their culture and social institutions - must play a positive role in their lives, or these beliefs and practices would not have persisted.... [But,] sometimes a population like the peasants of Montegrano retains its cherished cultural beliefs, even though they are counterproductive. Sometimes a population like the Siriono that cannot cope effectively with its physical environment, develops little commitment to its culture and few social ties. And sometimes a population like the Ik may be overwhelmed by external events. What these three examples suggest is that some small-scale populations do not effectively solve the problems they face, and sometimes the very culture that should sustain them and enhance their well-being instead produces fear, apathy, isolation, and degradation.... [For,] as much as humans in various societies, whether urban or folk, are capable of empathy, kindness, even love and as much as they can sometimes achieve astounding mastery of the challenges posed by their environments, they are also capable of maintaining beliefs, values, and social institutions that result in senseless cruelty, needless suffering, and monumental folly.... People are not always wise, and the societies and cultures they create are not ideal adaptive mechanisms.”
(Edgerton, pp.5-15)

That such a  truism should need defense, however, merely betrays the fact that anthropology - particularly today - is one of the most politicized of sciences...and that scientists are no more perfect than the rest of us. Edgerton’s account of such matters - and of the methodological divides which also mark the discipline - also provides an exemplary introduction to such matters for those unfamiliar with the discipline and, in rejecting extremist positions in favour of an exacting and pragmatic pluralism, he delivers his readers an exemplary guide to what anthropology ought to be...


“Although some comparativists scorn relativists and interpretivists, who produce ‘nothing’ but accounts of particular cultures (arabesques of allusion and allegory, some critics have implied), and some interpretive anthropologists reject all comparative research, these extreme adversarial positions parody the search for human understanding.... The principle of cultural relativism is not merely a shibboleth, but has helped counter ethnocentrism and even racism. It has also provided an important corrective to ideas of unilinear evolution, which presumed that all societies passed through the same stages of ‘progress’ until they reached near-perfection: namely, one or other version of Western European ‘civilization’. The relativists’ insistence on respect for the values of other people has undoubtedly done more good for human dignity and human rights than it has done harm to science. Even the overheated assertions of the epistemological relativists have been useful, for they remind anyone audacious enough to compare cultures that any sociocultural system is a complex network of meanings that must, indeed, be seen in context and, as much as possible, be understood as its members understand it. What is more, they may be right in arguing that some understandings and emotions are unique to a particular culture.... Relativism, then, has its own value, and not just in cautioning comparativists to proceed at their own risk. The admonitions of functionalists to attend carefully to the linkages among beliefs and practices continue to have value as well. When these perspectives - relativism and functionalism - are brought together to produce finely textured portraits of life in other cultures, the result is not the work of the Devil, but the essential descriptive material without which neither cultural comparison nor evaluation can take place.”
(Edgerton, p.22)

However, such methodological and historical matters are relatively quickly dealt with, and the bulk of the book consists of a careful attempt to discover just what a “sick” society might be, how such an outcome may eventuate, and how we may reliably assess such across the very real cultural divides that separate us. Simultaneously, Edgerton also surveys the anthropological literature in order to highlight - in sometimes horrifying detail - the full range of ways in which societies can be dysfunctional.


“There are many reasons why traditional beliefs and practices may become maladaptive. Some traditional practices that evolved early in human history must have been relatively inefficient solutions to environmental demands, but without rigorous competition from other populations or other belief systems, such practices tend to persist. Besides, because humans do not always make rational adaptive decisions, some of their beliefs and practices may have been maladaptive from the beginning. What is more, when environmental change occurs, practices that once were adaptive may become maladaptive, just as practices that may be adaptive over the short term can have long-term costs. Cultures may also create needs in people that become so imperative that they can become destructive when environmental change occurs. Even when the need for change is clear, human populations, especially small traditional ones, have seldom been sufficiently innovative to improve their cultural patterns. Even if potentially adaptive innovations are introduced, they may not be accepted because populations tend to be so conservative that without severe pressure from other populations, their traditional beliefs and practices will be maintained. Finally, and in some respects most important of all, some of the beliefs and practices that become established in a population are not adaptive responses to environmental demands at all, but are reflections of human genetic dispositions to think, feel, or behave in certain ways.”
(Edgerton, p.46)

Much of the evidence that Edgerton cites, moreover, is rarely discussed in popular treatments of anthropology, which tend to ignore the possibility that “primitive” cultures may vary enormously in their “attractiveness” to their members...leading to substantial variation in their resiliance when faced with external disruptions such as invasions, colonizations, etc. For this is exactly what the comparative evidence strongly suggests:


“A useful index of how committed a population...may be to its traditional beliefs and practices is their reaction to colonial contact. Various ethnographers have observed that people in small, traditional societies may willingly give up one of their apparently important practices after only minimal contact with Christian missionaries or European administrators. Societies throughout highland Papua New Guinea (before Australian contact) required that boys go through initiation ceremonies in which they were forced to drink only partially slaked lime that blistered their mouths and throats, were beaten with stinging nettles, were denied water, had barbed grass pushed up their urethras, were compelled to swallow bent lengths of cane until vomiting was induced, and were required to fellate older men, who also had anal intercourse with them. These ceremonies were generally thought by anthropologists to play a vital role in these societies; but soon after Australian contact took place, several of these societies gave up their violent initiation rituals without apparent reluctance.... Sometimes, however, evidence of people’s dissatisfaction need not be inferred from their reactions to externally imposed change. Some people clearly, even passionately, say that they dislike their society’s customs, or feel guilty about taking part in them. Although men among the Cheyenne Indians of the North American Plains sometimes gangraped an errant wife, as custom dictated, many said that they disliked doing so. Some Yanomamo Indians, whose culture exalted ferocity and perpetuated warfare, frankly admitted that they disliked having to live in fear of violent death.... And FitzJohn Porter Poole reports this about the Bimin-Kuskusmin practice of cannibalism: ‘Many Bimin-Kuskusmin men and women I interviewed, and who admitted to socially proper cannibalistic practices, acknowledged considerable ambivalence, horror, and disgust at their own acts. Many persons noted that they had been unable to engage in the act, had not completed it, had vomited or even fainted, or had hidden the prescribed morsel and had lied about consuming it.’”
(Edgerton, pp.140-1)

And some of these cultures, to many of their own members, appear so unattractive from the inside that death itself is preferable, whilst the members of others make little attempt to sustain and transmit their norms & practices, whilst other (superficially comparable) societies struggle desperately to survive under much worse conditions. Irrespective of our own value judgements, Edgerton is surely correct in identifying such differences in commitment as a problem greatly deserving of attention:


“It is not the case, as some anthropologists have declared, that suicide is always a rare event, nor one that offers no threat to a society’s viability. According to the Bimin-Kuskusmin of highland Papua New Guinea, suicide occurs so often that, according to Poole, ‘its genesis, prevention, and ultimate social costs are of paramount concern to the Bimin-Kuskusmin.’... What is more remarkable, during the twenty-four months of Poole’s field research in the early 1970s, thirty of the fifty-eight deaths that occurred - a startling 57 percent of the total - were suicides. In addition to these actual suicides, many people threatened suicide, and others attempted to kill themselves but failed. For example, while Poole was with these people, eleven women killed themselves, and another sixty-seven women made ninety-three serious threats to do so. In addition, two children between the ages of 5 and 7 attempted suicide.... [But] most suicides were by men in the 23-to-34 age range, who found the demands of their culture for manliness too great to bear. Strength, power, bravery, self-control, and influence over others were highly prized, and men who failed to meet these cultural standards for masculinity expressed ‘resentment’ about the demands the culture put upon them. Women, who killed themselves less often than men, did so primarily because they were dissatisfied with the conditions of married life.... It is evident that an extraordinary number of these people found that life in Bimin-Kuskusmin society was not worth living.”
(Edgerton, pp.146-7)

“Tribal societies and others...have been subjected to such devastation by new diseases, military defeat, economic exploitation, and environmental changes that they appear to be the hapless victims of circumstances that have nothing to do with their own psychological, social, or cultural inadequacy. But it would be a mistake to conclude that populations undergoing culture contact have never contributed to their own demise. The rapid population decline before World War II on Ontong  Java, a Polynesian atoll in Melanesia, was initiated by acculturation and disease, among other things, but according to Ian Hogbin, these people ‘acquiesced’ in their own extinction, by their extreme apathy and fatalism. The disinterest, to gloss a complex psychological condition, of many peoples in their survival as a culture or a society has been noted many times.”
(Edgerton, p.164)

Despite the shocking nature of some of the material reviewed in this book, Edgerton perhaps most impresses in the final sections of the book, when he moves away from the focus upon “sick” societies per se, to attempt to establish the notion of adaptation upon a much more scientific plane than is usual in anthropology. And, in the following excerpt, drawn from the extensive literature upon Plains Indians’ societies, he clearly demonstrates just how a careful comparative method may begin to genuinely show us what cultural practices are adaptive, and (perhaps) suggest why...

“Before the introduction of horses...the true grassy plains of North America were largely unoccupied except for small bands of Indians who occasionally entered the area on foot to hunt buffalo before returning to their settlements beyond this treeless, arid region where horticulture was seldom practicable. But as wild horses spread north...horticultural tribes moved into the area from the east, while foraging peoples came from the north, west, and south. In one hundred years or so, a distinctive culture had arisen, one based on almost total dependence on horse and buffalo.... The demands imposed by this life of equestrian buffalo hunting were compelling...but much of Plains culture - militarism, war bundles, warrior societies, and the vision quest - did not arise de novo in response to the demands of Plains life, but already existed among the Indians who came from the Eastern woodlands. It is true that the foraging societies that entered the Plains typically lacked these cultural traits and tended to adopt them  after entering, but they did not all do so. For example, the foraging Commanche of the southern Plains might be considered the most successful of all Plains tribes because they possessed the largest number of horses, yet they did not adopt warrior societies or develop the Sun Dance (at least not until 1874, when their culture was badly disorganized by white American settlements and military action). Similarly, many of the formerly horticultural tribes that had clans before entering the Plains allowed these kinship units to decline in importance, perhaps because they were not an efficient organizational mechanism for people who lived most of the time in small, mobile bands. But two prominent Plains tribes, the Crow and Gros Ventre, retained clans after some two hundred years of Plains life.... [So,] despite the strong constraints imposed by Plains ecology, the tribes of the Plains were not as alike as peas in a pod. They were very much alike in their material culture, economy, and even many of their values and religions, but otherwise their social institutions and cultures remained distinctive. The importance that some of these people attached to age-grades, clans, or the Sun Dance were not necessarily maladaptive, but they were clearly not essential for survival in the Great Plains. They were neutral.”
(Edgerton, pp.190-2)

Robert Edgerton’s Sick Societies is a marvellous book, skillfully tackling perhaps the most egregiously neglected - and crucially important - questions in anthropology, which also have an important bearing upon political judgements in this era of cutural relativism and various forms of multiculturalism. Rather than relying upon reflexive P.C., Edgerton demands that we take the historical and comparative anthropological record seriously, and attempt to learn from these in order to make more informed judgements upon the full variety of human cultures. That this will demand the abandonment of the simplistic myths of “primitive harmony” is no real sacrifice, to my mind. As I noted earlier in this review, this myth is clearly falsified by the record - which Edgerton demonstrates in sometimes shocking detail - and is perhaps best seen as the mirror-image of the neo-liberal idealization of markets, choice, and mobility...

We can clearly do better. Ideals are best taken in carefully measured doses - and balanced against alternative goods - lest they beget the monsters of ideology. In so comprehensively demolishing this one, and in sharpening the notion of cultural adaptation, he has done us all a valuable service...should we choose to listen to him.


“People in small-scale societies often consciously try to find answers to their problems, but under what circumstances and to what extent they make rational decisions about the problems that confront them is a vexed question.... [However,] the bulk of available evidence suggests that people in all societies tend to be relatively rational when it comes to the beliefs and practices that directly involve their subsistence, yet as we have repeatedly seen, nonrational beliefs sometimes reduce the efficiency of economic practices.... [But,] the more remote these beliefs and practices are from subsistence activities, the more likely they are to involve nonrational characteristics.... And even when people attempt to make rational decisions, they often fail. For one thing, no population, especially no folk population, can ever possess all the relevant knowledge it needs to make fully formal decisions about its environment, its neighbors, or even itself. What is more, there is a large body of research involving human decision-making both under experimental conditions and in naturally occurring situations showing that individuals frequently make quite poor decisions, especially when it comes to solving novel problems or ones requiring the calculation of the probability of outcomes, and these are precisely the kinds of problems that pose the greatest challenges for human adaptation.... They also do not readily develop new technology, even when environmental stress makes technological change imperative.... Moreover, all available evidence indicates that humans, especially those who live in folk societies,  base their decisions on heuristics that permit and even encourage them to develop fixed opinions, despite the fact that these opinions are based on inadequate or false information.... People complain incessantly about various things in their lives; sometimes they may try something new, but only rarely do they attempt any fundamental change in their beliefs or social institutions. Large changes, if they occur at all, are typically imposed by some external event or circumstance - invasion, epidemic, drought. In the absence of such events, people tend to muddle through by relying on traditional solutions; that is to say, solutions that arose in response to previous circumstances.”
(Edgerton, pp.196-201)




John Henry Calvinist