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Jared Diamond, Please Stop Propagating the Myth of the Savage Savage!


Jared Diamond is one of the great science synthesizers and popularizers of our era, and he resists the biological determinism that infects so much modern theorizing about our species. That's why I brought him to my school last year to talk about his latest book, The World Until Yesterday, which I praised on this blog. But I wish Diamond would stop propagating the Myth of the Savage Savage.

Jared Diamond and other prominent scholars exaggerate the violence of non-state, "traditional" societies and downplay the violence of "civilization."

In a Q&A in The New York Times Magazine, Diamond says: "In Weird--Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic--societies we take these things for granted that just didn’t exist anywhere in the world until a few thousand years ago. We encounter strangers, and it’s normal, and we don’t freak out and try to kill them."

So the norm before civilization was for humans to kill strangers on sight? Really? That's my question, not that of Times interviewer Amy Chozick. She follows up Diamond's extraordinary comment by saying: "[The World Until Yesterday] has been criticized for saying traditional societies are very violent."

Diamond replies: "Some people take a view of traditional society as being peaceful and gentle. But the proportional rate of violent death is much higher in traditional societies than in state-level societies, where governments assert a monopoly on force."

Diamond is so intent on dispelling the Myth of the Peaceful Savage--the idea that before civilization all people were "peaceful and gentle"--that he has replaced it with an equally absurd idea, the Myth of the Savage Savage. According to this view, before the emergence of centralized governments backed up by professional armies, our ancestors were mired in a Hobbesian war of all against all. Other prominent proponents of this notion include the Harvard Hawks: Edward Wilson, Steven Pinker, Richard Wrangham and Steven LeBlanc. I call them the Harvard Hawks because they favor Hobbesian theories, not hawkish foreign policies.

Of course, some traditional societies—including horticulturalist ones that Diamond has studied in New Guinea--can be terribly violent. And modern WEIRD states have indeed reduced rates of interpersonal violence within their borders by establishing justice systems backed by police (although in the U.S. certain populations, especially the white and wealthy, benefit more from our legal system than others).

But the Myth of the Savage flies in the face of evidence that many societies of hunter-gatherers, or foragers—the most traditional of all traditional people—have had low levels of violence, particularly the organized, group violence called war. See my three posts last summer on studies of modern-day foragers as well as Paleolithic skeletons and Neolithic settlements.

Diamond and other defenders of the Myth of the Savage Savage also gloss over—to put it mildly—the violence of states, especially modern western ones. European nations, as they expanded around the world over the last millennium, often slaughtered and enslaved the "savages" that they encountered. See, for example, my recent column on how Columbus and other Europeans treated Native Americans.

"Civilized" states have also waged wars against other states, erupted into civil wars and slaughtered their own citizens. Look at the Napoleonic Wars, the American Civil War, and all the great wars and genocides of the Twentieth Century, which killed hundreds of millions of people.

Diamond, because of his prominence, has provoked a lot of criticism, from the liberal-left as well as the conservative-right. My sense, after meeting him at Stevens, is that he too quickly dismisses criticism as "nonsense," a term he repeats twice in the Times Q&A.

I urge him to reconsider his views on rates of violence in traditional societies, especially those that predated civilization. He might take a look at War, Peace, and Human Nature, a collection of essays published last year by Oxford University Press and edited by anthropologist Douglas Fry, which dismantles the Myth of the Savage Savage.

Or, since Diamond loves to roam across disciplinary boundaries, he should read A History of Warfare by the great British military historian John Keegan. Keegan credits western societies with inventing the concept of total war, which led to the industrialized carnage of World War I and World War II and the insanity of the nuclear arms race.

I admire Keegan not only for his scholarship but also his optimism. He writes in A History of Warfare, "War, it seems to me, after a lifetime of reading about the subject, mingling with men of war, visiting the sites of war and observing its effects, may well be ceasing to commend itself to human beings as a desirable, or productive, let alone rational, means of reconciling their discontents."

Surely Diamond and the Harvard Hawks—and all of us—can agree with Keegan that, in spite of our enormous capacity for savagery, we also have the capacity to transcend war once and for all.

Further Reading:

Horgan, “Quitting the hominid fight club: The evidence is flimsy for innate chimpanzee–let alone human–warfare“:

Horgan, “Will War Ever End?” (review of Better Angels of Our Nature, by Steven Pinker):

Horgan, “No, War Is Not Inevitable” (review of The Social Conquest of Nature, by Edward Wilson):

Horgan, “Worst Column Ever By Times Pundit David Brooks: ‘When the Good Do Bad’”:

Horgan: “Are We Doomed to Wage Wars Over Water?”:

Horgan, “Margaret Mead’s War Theory Kicks Butt of Neo-Darwinian and Malthusian Models”:

Horgan, “Is ‘Sociobiologist’ Napoleon Chagnon Really a Disciple of Margaret Mead?”:

Horgan, "New Study of Foragers Undermines Claims that War Has Deep Evolutionary Roots":

Horgan, “New Study of Prehistoric Skeletons Undermines Claim that War Has Deep Evolutionary Roots“:

Horgan, "Survey of Earliest Human Settlements Undermines Claims that War Has Deep Evolutionary Roots":

Horgan, "Let's Begin Talking about How to End Wars":

Horgan, "We Need a New Just-War Theory, Which Aims to End War Forever":

Horgan, "How Can We Condemn Boston Murders but Excuse U.S. Bombing of Civilians?":

Horgan, The End of War, McSweeney’s, 2012.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons,

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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