Trouble in Paradise

Sick Societies: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony.
by Robert B. Edgerton.
Free Press. 209 pp. $24.95.

Nothing has lent greater intellectual credibility to the prevailing academic ethos than the principle of cultural relativism, first adumbrated in the work of early-20th-century anthropologists and now entrenched in most anthropology departments nationwide. This widely shared understanding—known in scholarly circles as “functionalism,” “interpretivism,” or “adaptivism”—assumes that the ills besetting the modern urban world are at root unnatural, the result of the exploitation, corruption, and civil strife characteristic of our times. Following Rousseau, cultural relativists among anthropologists have proceeded to search for a more authentic human nature in primitive or “folk” societies, where, in simpler circumstances, cultural conventions supposedly harmonize with their environment. As for such common “folk” customs as infanticide, clitoral excision, ubiquitous warfare, foot binding, etc., these, while perhaps repulsive to Western mores, are held to be sensible and legitimate practices that cannot be subjected to our culturally biased judgment.

Supporting the contentions of the cultural relativists is a library of anthropological literature written by such luminaries as Robert Redfield, Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and Bronislaw Malinowski, all of whose books have made a profound impression on both the academic world and the popular imagination. Among its other effects, cultural relativism’s heavy stress on the compatibility of primitive societies with their natural surroundings has helped engender today’s hysterical environmentalism, with its demand that we abandon our economy and embrace a way of life more typical of folk communities.

All the more reason, then, to welcome Sick Societies, by the noted UCLA anthropologist Robert Edgerton. This book explodes the assumptions of cultural relativism by scrutinizing its underlying scholarship. In particular, and in colorful detail, Edgerton examines a variety of folk cultures that have persisted in maintaining traditional practices which are maladaptive: that is to say, “practices that are inefficient at coping with environmental demands or are harmful to the people’s health and well-being.” While Edgerton confines himself to establishing the existence, and indeed the prevalence, of maladaptation, his book not only performs the valuable task of demolishing the relativist myth, it also provides a scholarly vehicle through which to reassert the West’s cultural superiority.

In his introductory remarks, Edgerton generously extends his congratulations to the work of his relativist colleagues. “The relativists’ insistence on respect for the values of other people,” he writes, “has undoubtedly done more good for human dignity than it has done harm to science.” Harm, nevertheless, it has done. Edgerton attributes the success of the “adaptivist paradigm” to several factors, including a “benevolent conspiracy” on the part of anthropologists to put the societies they study in a good light. Further, he suggests that “interpretivism,” which holds that cultures can in no way be objectively evaluated but instead must be appreciated for their intrinsic virtues, is really only a sort of intellectual onanism. While effective in advancing the relativist world view, this approach has disserved scientific integrity and, in fact, has gravely slandered the cultures under examination. Interpretivists “make the people they study falsely incomprehensible and thus dehumanized.”

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Maladaptive behavior is a feature common to all cultures, but Edgerton points to a number of factors which make it far more pervasive in isolated, primitive societies. Where there is an absence of rigorous intercultural competition, populations tend to stick with traditional solutions to common problems even if they are visibly unhappy with the quality of these solutions. The inherent conservatism of most societies, conspicuous in cults of ancestor worship, not only works to prevent technological innovation but breeds suspicious attitudes toward any form of change. Worse still, because these societies have such a limited scientific understanding, they often make erroneous causal inferences, superstitiously attributing all manner of ills and disasters to witches, devils, or unappeased goddesses.

But living in perpetual terror of wrathful ghosts is as nothing to the day-to-day difficulties and misery of many folk societies. Poor health is a common feature, whether one is living in a mosquito-infested swampland or the balmy, breezy South Pacific (where until recently the average life expectancy was thirty years). In one particularly gruesome example, Edgerton depicts the surgical practices adopted by the Mae Enga of Papua New Guinea to treat arrow wounds:

A specialist used a bamboo knife to make an incision under the victim’s armpit and then broke a rib with a wedge so that he could insert two fingers into the thorax, collapsing a lung in the process.

Sick Societies also discredits the widespread view that folk peoples are somehow born ecologists who know better than to mistreat the land that provides their sustenance. Folk communities were not only responsible for the deforestation of the entire Middle East, but can be blamed for driving mammoths, saber-toothed tigers, and other big game to wholesale extinction.

A particularly tragic feature that predominates in most folk societies is their rigid and clearly defined social stratification which is, among other things, commonly abusive of women. Wife-beating and institutional gang-rape are shared by the Cheyenne of North America with the Gusii of Western Kenya. In many folk societies, females are arbitrarily denied adequate access to animal protein; in one community, this led women to supplement their meager diet with human flesh. It would be both factually mistaken and morally callous, although in keeping with the dictates of cultural relativism, to suggest that women become inured to or even enjoy this sort of treatment. A saying popular among Pokot women goes: “We cannot rule men, we can only hate them.”

Other factors help to immiserate folk communities. The Inuit are beset by a homicide rate comparable to that of any inner-city ghetto; in the tribal highlands of Papua, New Guinea, warfare accounts for between 20 and 30 percent of all deaths. Long before the Europeans colonized Africa, political exploitation was well known to the Zulus. Slavery supplied the bulk of labor for the West African Asante empire. Thomas Hobbes’s depiction of life in the state of nature as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” is closer to folk society than any of Rousseau’s eloquent declamations.

To be sure, maladaptive practices have also flourished, and continue to exist, in the West. Edgerton suggests, for example, that our excessive emphasis on individualism has “brought about such a loss of community that the consequences now threaten our common well-being.” But he insistently draws sharp qualitative distinctions among cultures. After all, it is only in the West where painless medical techniques prevail, where women have real political and economic opportunities, and where the specter of warfare no longer haunts everyday life.

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“Multiculturalism”—today’s variant of cultural relativism—is now a central byword in the political vocabulary of undergraduate students and university administrators alike. In their enchanting tales of folk societies, anthropologists have helped to encourage the politics of multiculturalism by suppressing the dark, the unsettling, the often disgusting and violent facts. The sobering stories told by Robert Edgerton serve to remind us of the danger posed by academic theories to our sense both of others and of ourselves.

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