Sunday, February 10, 2013

Reality Check

I like Jared Diamond, he has a way of irritating people. He’s currently making waves for his new book, The World Until Yesterday. I haven’t read it, but, apparently, he’s writing about tribal societies’ penchant for warfare, based—again apparently—on his field work in Papua New Guinea. Now, I know next to nothing about Papua New Guinea, most of what I do know coming from that other Matthiessen, Peter’s, book Under the Mountain Wall, which centered on the ritualized, continual warfare the people there lived under. Peter described a situation very much in line with Diamond’s examples.

Likewise, what I read about Amazonian tribes is that they’re a pretty fierce bunch also engaged in constant warfare. The same is true of the Native American tribes prior to the invasion of the Euroamericans. I know than my ancestors, the early Vikings, were continually fighting with each other. Probably not all tribal societies are warlike—I don’t hear too much about the Inuit attacking each other; but it does (or did) happen—but it looks like the only peaceful ones were ones in obscure, less desirable locations.

The Papuans, joined by other modern tribal peoples, have been vociferous in their condemnation of Diamond—even though he is a supporter, student, and advocate of them—thanks to his pointing out their past history. Tellingly, they object, not so much to his facts—they’re a little foggy on their own—but rather because Diamond doesn’t talk about the depredations of colonial governments in New Guinea; which is like complaining that a book about gold mining has nothing in it about coal mining. They are deflecting the truth about what Diamond is saying by dragging a red herring across the path. Native Americans do the same thing; rather than confront who they really are/were, they deflect the conversation to the depredation by the whites.

The issue is farmers. Those big colonial powers, they’re all farmers, successful, farmers. Successful farmers have slowly spread to cover all available land, and they’ve done it behind advancing armies or hordes. It’s true, they engage, sometimes, in brutal mass warfare and extermination, but in their wake generally comes peace. Farmers don’t like to have their crops destroyed. Certainly, it’s taken farmers themselves a long time to stop fighting among each other, and they aren’t done with it yet; but they’ve come a long way, the world has been getting safer (thanks, Steven Pinker).

Eden, unfortunately, is only a myth. There never was a peaceful, harmonious time in human history. We’re getting better, but we’ve a long way to go. I’m sorry, Papuans, the Dutch were brutal; but that has nothing to do with the reality of tribal warfare. Apples and coconuts, guys.

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