Gad Saad Ph.D.

Homo Consumericus

Wishful and Delusional Ideology Trumps Science: The Noble Savage (Part I).

“All we are saying is give peace a chance.”

Posted May 02, 2011


Dr. Darcia Narvaez recently wrote a post wherein she castigated evolutionary psychologists for promulgating an apparently grossly incorrect view of human nature. In this two-part series, I will provide brief rebuttals to some of her key quotes (at times laced with some well-deserved sarcasm).

Dr. Narvaez: The human genus spent 99% of its existence in foraging hunter-gatherer bands (small-band hunter-gatherer, or HGSB, documented well by anthropologists) with characteristics very distinctive from modern societies. Evolutionary Psychology seems to have forgotten this baseline.

My rebuttal: Evolutionary behavioral scientists have studied an extraordinary range of societies including numerous hunter-gather societies (e.g., the Hadza, the Shuar). Incidentally, here is what Leda Cosmides and John Tooby state in their primer on evolutionary psychology: "The environment that humans -- and, therefore, human minds -- evolved in was very different from our modern environment. Our ancestors spent well over 99% of our species' evolutionary history living in hunter-gatherer societies." It seems that Dr. Narvaez is criticizing Cosmides and Tooby for being unaware about our HGSB past when she seems to have borrowed their sentence verbatim!

Dr. Narvaez: Among prominent Evolutionary Psychologists (EP; a subset of evolutionary psychologists) one of the overarching misunderstandings regards the social environment of the HGSB. Instead, EP typically transposes us and our social environment to the past instead of understanding how different they and their social environment were.

My rebuttal: Cosmides and Tooby add in their primer: "Our species lived as hunter-gatherers 1000 times longer than as anything else. The world that seems so familiar to you and me, a world with roads, schools, grocery stores, factories, farms, and nation-states, has lasted for only an eyeblink of time when compared to our entire evolutionary history." Does this sound as though evolutionary psychologists are unaware of the differences between the EEA and current environments? If anything, evolutionary psychologists repeatedly explain that many ills that we face today are precisely due to the incongruence between the EEA and our contemporary environments.

Dr. Narvaez: Based on anthropological and other records of such simple societies (see references below) I will name several characteristics EP theorists ignore and make one suggestion as to why it might matter to you.

1. There was no hierarchy; there were no leaders. HGSB members were fiercely egalitarian. Even Christopher Boehm (Hierarchy in the Forest) concludes that political egalitarianism, universal among HGSB, is ancient. Yet EP assumes hierarchy and dominance are natural parts of our evolutionary nature.

My rebuttal: The !Kung San constitute the epitome of an egalitarian hunter-gather society. Here is a quote (among many others) regarding the so-called egalitarian !Kung San (Shlain, 2003, p. 112): "Each incremental hunting success moves a man up a notch in the male-dominance hierarchy, and each ascending rung brings with it an increasing number of females willing to have sex with him. Kristen Hawkes calls this the ‘Show-Off Theory' of hunting." Evolutionary psychologists have identified numerous instances wherein food sharing (a form of communal egalitarianism) is used as a form of sexual signaling (cf. Smith & Bird, 2000). An egalitarian society is one in which there is a shunning of institutional hierarchies. This does not mean that members of such societies do not assort, in terms of their mating values, along a strict pecking order. To say that a society is egalitarian is not to say that all members of the society possess the same mating value or the same mating status.

Sex, Time, and Power: How Women's Sexuality Shaped Human Evolution (Shlain, 2003)

Smith, E. A., & Bliege Bird, R. L. (2000). Turtle hunting and tombstone opening: Public generosity as costly signaling. Evolution and Human Behavior, 21, 245-261.

Dr. Narvaez: Instead, political hierarchy (and violence) came about with societies that cultivated crops or settled down (see Fry, 2006, Human Potential for Peace), only in the last 1% of human existence.

My rebuttal: Wishful thinking and John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance" do not trump one of the most ubiquitous facts about the history of humankind, namely that it is paved with rivers of blood and violence. Here are some books that speak to this reality using at times data that precedes agricultural societies by many millennia (e.g., cranial remains demonstrating the brutal slayings of hundreds of people).

Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence (Wrangham & Peterson 1996)

War before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage (Keeley, 1997)

The Dark Side of Man (Ghiglieri, 2000)

Darwin and International Relations: On the Evolutionary Origins of War and Ethnic
(Thayer, 2004)

War and Human Nature (Rosen, 2007)

The Most Dangerous Animal: Human Nature and the Origins of War (Smith, 2007)

Since Dr. Narvaez is a faculty member at the University of Notre Dame (a religiously-founded institution), perhaps she could remind us if the holy texts of the Abrahamic religions contain any violence in them. Let me guess the response: Agricultural societies turned otherwise peaceful Bronze Age individuals into sadistic savages. Otherwise, in their pristine HGSB state, they would have been full of love, playfulness, and compassion toward all living creatures including their fellow conspecifics. Agriculture is apparently the devil.

Dr. Narvaez: Why it matters for your life: Here is one reason. If you think that hierarchy is a human heritage, you are more likely to put up with inequality (and wonder why you are stressed out--see the book, The Spirit Level). Our ancestors did not countenance inequality in resources or status.

My rebuttal: How many more times do evolutionary psychologists have to reiterate that they do not use facts about human nature in support of any political ideology (‘is' does not translate into ‘ought')? Dr. Narvaez's position is tantamount to stating: "If you believe that cancer is part of the human heritage, you are more likely to put up with cancer."

Dr. Narvaez: 2. There was deep collectivism and group identity. No one wanted to be alone. Yet EP assumes detached, territorial, possession-driven individuals much like us today. The individualism of today is a very strange, aberrant form of social relations that is a recent phenomenon.*

My rebuttal: Is Dr. Narvaez genuinely arguing that evolutionary psychologists are unaware of human sociality, communal living, and coalitional psychology? Yes, this is new territory for evolutionary psychologists other than the hundreds of papers that they've already published on these topics.

Dr. Narvaez: In contrast, in HGSB societies, pleasure does not come from possessions or status but from social pleasures of playing, dancing, singing, joking, laughing--the kinds of activities that keep you (your hormones) in a "moral mood."

My rebuttal: The wishful and delusional myth of the Noble Savage rears its ugly head yet again. Steven Pinker (The Blank Slate; 2002) has apparently not done enough to dispel this "new age" delusion. The Yanomami (along with countless other tribes that have spent much of their accumulated history killing one another) just sat around "playing, dancing, singing, joking, laughing." When not frolicking in hippy love, they seemed quite adept at partaking in frequent murderous raids of other tribes (and the rape of the conquered women). The nomadic hordes of Islamic raiders who are currently engaging in the systematic genocide and rape of a whole people in Darfur are simply taking a break from their otherwise peaceful singing, dancing, and frolicking. The 100,000 other examples that I could provide from history are also manifestations of "agricultural societies" having soiled the purity of the "peaceful" Noble Savage when left in his/her pristine hunter-gatherer state. It's too bad that my family did not live as hunter-gatherers in Lebanon. This would have saved us from having to escape the Lebanese civil war under the threat of execution. Had we only had the protective shield of HGSB, we would not have needed to immigrate to Canada, in order to escape near-certain death.

Dr. Narvaez: Why it matters for your life: Your wellbeing is likely to improve when you stop focusing on possessions and money. Those high in materialism tend to be unhappy (see Tim Kasser, The High Price of Materialism). Happiness comes from social play and social activities where you can "lose yourself" in flow with others (see Stuart Brown's Play).

My rebuttal: I was unaware that evolutionary psychologists "taught" people to focus on "possessions and money." Could Dr. Narvaez point to the particular reference wherein such advice might have been offered? Is she aware that evolutionary psychologists have studied the evolutionary roots of play, as well as the evolutionary roots of happiness? Does she know that evolutionists have investigated the Darwinian genesis of art, literature, and music, all expressions of artistic flow? Dr. Narvaez does not see fit to familiarize herself with the relevant literature streams. It is much more fun to simply make stuff up. Better yet, it is best to promulgate a grotesque caricature of the evolutionary psychologist "boogey man."

Dr. Narvaez: 3. Individuals had great autonomy, even children. Children had the freedom to roam and do what they wanted, like adults. Children were considered free beings, reincarnations of relatives or gods, not to be coerced, yet EP assumes the type of family structure that we have today (nuclear family, mom and dad in charge), which is only about 100 years old (see Stephanie Coontz, The Way We Never Were).

My rebuttal: Yes. Evolutionary psychologists use the family depicted on "Leave It to Beaver" as their model of a "perfect" family. Here are some scholarly treatments of family dynamics from an evolutionary perspective:

The Truth About Cinderella: A Darwinian View of Parental Love (Daly & Wilson, 1998)

Family Relationships: An Evolutionary Perspective (Salmon & Shackelford, 2007)

Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants and Natural Selection (Hrdy, 1999)

[I could probably cite at least several hundred other references on evolutionary-based kin dynamics.]

Part II of my rebuttal is coming up shortly.

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