The Political Animal

Human History as Natural History

Island Fever

Welcome to the Thunderdome

They’re digging out from under Nemo in the Northeast, and it’s another slushy Sunday here in the Midwest. For the nth time in as many years, I’m imagining somewhere warm and green. And that probably means an island.

At the start of this year, as at the start of every year since 1998, John Brockman had contributors to his website at Edge.com answer an Annual Question.  This year he asked, “What *should* we be worried about?” And got 154 answers. John Tooby said “Monsters from the Id.” Bob Sapolsky said “The Danger of Inadvertently Praising Zygomatic Arches.” Matt Ridley said “Superstition;” Arianna Huffington said “Stress.” J. Craig Venter said “What—Me Worry?” And Helen Fisher said, “Men.”

I might have said “Islands.” So many of them are warm and green. But there’s something ominous about confined spaces. And islands are confined spaces surrounded by open water.

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Take Pitcairn, just over 4 ½ square kilometers of volcanic rock in the middle of the Pacific, more than 6500 kilometers from the coast of Panama, and over 3000 kilometers from the coast of Asia. Fletcher Christian and 8 mutineers from HMS Bounty ran ashore there in 1790, along with 12 captive Tahitian women and 6 captive Tahitian men. Mr Christian—who went to school with the poet William Wordsworth—was “mild and generous” himself; and the island was warm and green enough. But after a decade, “reckless Jack” Adams—a Cockney orphan—was the only man left: another had drowned, one had died of asthma and the others were murdered. 10 of the women survived, and they had 23 kids.

Less than a century after "reckless Jack" Adams died fat and pious, 23-year-old Margaret Mead showed up in Samoa. Those islands were green and warm, too; and Mead was idealistic and young. So she asked 25 girls to tell her about free love, then went back to New York and wrote The Coming of Age in Samoa. She was convinced that Samoan women put off getting tied down to a husband because they liked casual sex. But as Malopa’Upo Isaia and Derek Freeman have pointed out since, promiscuous girls in Samoa were often punished—though chiefs, as always, could collect as many women as they liked. Everybody else respected chiefly authority, or was subjected to saisai—tied up like a pig to be roasted in an oven.

When Bronislaw Malinowski started his Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term in September of 1914, he was an unhappy man. He’d come to New Guinea to study people in the warm, green Trobriand Islands; and he didn’t like them. “I see the life of the natives as utterly devoid of interest or importance, something as remote from me as the life of a dog,” he wrote; “work does not go brilliantly but I keep on without pressure and I let the time do the rest.” Then he got honest. “On the whole my feelings toward the natives are decidedly tending to Exterminate the Brutes;” and “I walked on the veranda and had moments of concentration and spiritual elevation, interrupted by violent surges of sexual instinct for native girls.” Trobrianders apparently had some of the same thoughts about each other. People gave up most of their yam crops to their in-laws, and chiefs married as many as 40 wives. Then they hired sorcerers, with the yams, to get rid of subjects they didn’t like.

Nobody who answered John Brockman’s Annual Question this year mentioned Thunderdomes, but it’s occurred to me that most islands are like them. It happens there, and it finishes there. You know the law.  2 men enter; one man leaves.

As long as there's a jet out, it still might be nice to go south.

  

THUNDERDOME CLIP:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pmRAiUPdRjk

PHOTO CREDIT:

I took this picture of Ifaluk Atoll, in the Western Pacific, with chief Pakalmar's permission.

 

Laura Betzig, Ph.D., is a Darwinian historian at work on her fourth book, The Badge of Lost Innocence: A History of the West.

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