July 22, 2020 | David F. Coppedge

Evolutionary Anthropologists Fail Big Time

When you treat other people like evolved animals, you are bound to make mistakes.

Uganda’s Ik are not unbelievably selfish and mean (Phys.org). In 1972, an evolutionary anthropologist named Colin Turnbull was totally off in his evaluation of a small tribe in northeast Uganda, Africa, called the Ik or mountain people. But his fake science made him famous!

“The Mountain People,” an ethnography by anthropologist Colin M. Turnbull, made a big splash for an academic work. The New York Times and Time magazine reviewed the book, which inspired a stage play, and physician Lewis Thomas included an essay about the Ik in his bestselling book “The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher.”

Turnbull portrayed these poor people as incredibly mean and selfish. He didn’t take into account that they were starving from a famine at the time. Now, anthropologists led by Cathryn Townsend from Rutgers University are finding out that the Ik are actually kind, generous and cooperative people. They were unfairly maligned by the earlier study.

“One implication of Townsend’s work is that we must always consider the possibility that factors other than culture, including but not limited to starvation, can also shape human behavior,” said senior author Lee Cronk, a professor in the Department of Anthropology in the School of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. “Another implication is that we can no longer use the Ik as an example of a society that has embraced selfishness. Far from being an exception, the Ik are just as cooperative and generous as other people around the world. They do not deserve the reputation they have been given by Turnbull’s book.”

Fishers are one of the poorest professions in Indonesia, yet they are one of the happiest (The Conversation). We’re hearing a lot about “privilege” these days. Leftist radicals, including political scientists, anthropologists and sociologists in academia (who are predominantly evolutionists), divide everybody into classes of oppressors and oppressed. The oppressed, by common presumption, cannot possibly be happy, and should rise up and revolt against the privileged class.

Well, consider the fisher people of Indonesia. They have almost no money or privilege. Everything is against them: the work is hard and dangerous, the pay is very low, and they have to endure hurdles from government regulations and environmentalists. They have limited upward mobility. They must be miserable. That is not what Zuzy Anna found by talking to them and getting to know them.

A number of scholars argue that low income, extreme weather at sea and being far away from family for a long time have turned the profession into one that is dangerous and unattractive.

However, research I conducted in 2018 found this does not apply to Indonesian fishers. Amid poverty and uncertainty about catches, Indonesian fishers seem to be happier than other professions in the agriculture sector.

Ms Anna was surprised. One factor that might explain their happiness, she thinks, is nature therapy:

One reason that might explain this result is the nature of their profession, which allows them to enjoy more time outdoors, on the open sea.

Past studies suggest aspects such as “adventure”, “freedom” and “activities in nature” act as a form of therapy for fishers.

National abortion study finds out-of-touch labels, knowledge gaps, appetite for moral discussion (Phys.org). An in-depth study by sociologists at the University of Notre Dame found that dividing people by polarizing labels of “pro-choice” vs “pro-life” does not accurately reflect how people feel about abortion. Many, in fact, are very concerned about the moral aspects of the issue and want to talk about it, but are rarely asked for their opinions. And a large number do not feel that abortion is good for society, despite what abortion advocates claim about a “woman’s right to choose” and “reproductive freedom” being the key concerns of women. Sociologist Tricia Bruce conducted 217 interviews with people and got them to open up about their knowledge and concerns.

To read American polling statistics and social media rhetoric on abortion is to witness a nation evenly, loudly and politically divided, but new research from the University of Notre Dame finds that ordinary Americans do not actually talk much about abortion, do not fit within binary position labels, have significant knowledge gaps on the topic and—across the board—do not regard abortion in itself as a societal good….

“Another key takeaway from this study is the level of moral seriousness interviewees expressed about abortion as it belies popular rhetoric claiming abortion as a desirable good.”

Freedom of choice adds value to public goods (PNAS). The Chinese communists may not like this paper by an international team of economists, most of them from China. Contrary to Marxist doctrine that utopia comes from centralized control of the means of production and distribution, this paper’s conclusions sound downright conservative. Freedom of choice makes for a better economy:

Public goods, from tangible properties to intangible services, benefit all. They are produced or maintained through widespread participation in public goods provision. Low participation rates are therefore a looming threat that has motivated countless searches for ways to elicit participation. Recent theory suggests that social networks, as woven by personal relationships, are instrumental. We organized a social dilemma game experiment to investigate whether player participation in public goods provision depends on the global characteristics of social networks or the ability to freely choose among local public goods within a player’s network neighborhood. Our results demonstrate the importance of the latter factor, thus favoring bottom-up public goods provision that gives individuals a say in decision-making.

Bottom up? Individual liberty? Local control? How would that sell in Beijing or North Korea?

Over the years, we’ve seen evolutionary anthropologists and sociologists have their theories overturned repeatedly. They were wrong about Easter Island, they were wrong about Samoa, they were totally wrong about “Neanderthal Man,” and they are wrong now about the latest Marxist ideas about what is driving race riots. Remember when Jared Diamond got blasted for treating natives in New Guinea like animals? They sued him for libel! (17 June 2009). You can’t treat other ethic groups like evolved animals.

Evolutionary thinking gives social scientists a bad case of the Yoda Complex, where they come to presume they are better than everybody else. They presume they can study Homo sapiens in some detached way, but would never think of being studied themselves, and having their own biases and worldviews exposed for flaws. We think they should submit to counseling by the Ik people and learn how to be generous and kind. Wouldn’t it be fun to see the Ik write a book about how American sociologists are some of the most unbelievably selfish and mean people they have ever encountered? Oh, the facial expressions we would love to see after that!

Social scientists of all stripes (anthropologists, sociologists, economists, psychologists), if you want to understand people, you have to start with the truth. That truth begins with what Illustra’s recent four-minute film reminds us. Watch it here.


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