Monday, July 10, 2006

Violent Man

Interesting review of a book on primitive man and his penchant for violence:

Primitive peoples, it appears, were nasty, brutish, and short, not at all the cuddly children of nature depicted by popular culture and post-colonial academic studies. The author writes on science for the New York
Times and too often wades in where angels fear to tread. [3] A complete evaluation is beyond my capacity, but there is no gainsaying his representation of prehistoric violence.

That raises the question: Why, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, does popular culture portray primitives as peace-loving folk living in harmony with nature, as opposed to rapacious and brutal civilization? Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel, which attributes civilization to mere geographical accident, made a best-seller out of a mendacious apology for the failure of primitive society. Wade reports research that refutes Diamond on a dozen counts, but his book never will reach the vast audience that takes comfort in Diamond's pulp science.

Why is it that the modern public revels in a demonstrably false portrait of primitive life? Hollywood grinds out stories of wise and worthy native Americans, African tribesmen, Brazilian rainforest people and Australian Aborigines, not because Hollywood studio executives hired the wrong sort of anthropologist, but because the public pays for them, the same public whose middle-brow contingent reads Jared Diamond.

Nonetheless the overwhelming consensus in popular culture holds that primitive peoples enjoy a quality - call it authenticity - that moderns lack, and that by rolling in their muck, some of this authenticity will stick to us. Colonial guilt at the extermination of tribal societies does not go very far as an explanation, for the Westerners who were close enough to primitives to exterminate them rarely regretted having done so. The hunger for authenticity surges up from a different spring.
The author doesn't quite tie it all together, but it is thought-provoking.

3 comments:

greg said...

Brings to mind an excellent study of Native American "environmental" practices by Shepard Krech, "The Ecological Indian". Review here.

Excerpt here.

And speaking of Jared Diamond and his slightly less-than nuanced thesis, here's VDH's opinion of his most recent work.

Stephen said...

Greg, you are really bringing the thunder today.

greg said...

Believe it.