Archive for the ‘hostility’ Category

Jared Diamond: Those in stateless societies "enjoy" lives that are murderous and short

April 30th, 2008 2 comments

Jared Diamond has an interesting essay at the current issue of New Yorker, “Vengeance Is Ours“, that is worth considering.  

In the essay, Diamond not only describes the moral and political economy of cycles of personal and inter-tribal vengeance in one of the relatively stateless area of the Papua New Guinean Highlands – cycles of violence that very likely represent typical human dynamics throughout the course of our evolution –  but also, via a contrast with a family story regarding personal vengeance not taken, he presents various thoughts on:

• the evolution of the state,
• the mechanisms by which those who live in states repress and channel our latent tendencies towards violence, and
• the personal satisfactions of taking vengeance, and the personal costs incurred when the right to seek vengeance is surrendered to the state.

Diamond appears to assume the legitimacy of the state, and focusses in the latter part of his essay on the personal costs that each of us incurs by being forced to surrender our “thirst for vengeance” when we are injured or offended and to rely on an impersonal state for “justice”. 

This is interesting, but rather shallow, as it fails to discuss how our state-run justice systems themselves seem to be rather out of control, especially in the US.

Further, Diamond skates too quickly past important issues when he concludes that the evolution of states has been a good deal generally for those who find themselves in them.  Here are a few key quotes:

“State government is now so nearly universal around the globe that we forget how recent an innovation it is; the first states are thought to have arisen only about fifty-five hundred years ago, in the Fertile Crescent. Before there were states, Daniel’s method of resolving major disputes—either violently or by payment of compensation—was the worldwide norm. Papua New Guinea is not the only place where those traditional methods of dispute resolution still coexist uneasily with the methods of state government. For example, Daniel’s methods might seem quite familiar to members of urban gangs in America, and also to Somalis, Afghans, Kenyans, and peoples of other countries where tribal ties remain strong and state control weak. As I eventually came to realize, Daniel’s thirst for vengeance and his hostility to rival clans are really not so far from our own habits of mind as we might like to think.  …

Nearly all human societies today have given up the personal pursuit of justice in favor of impersonal systems operated by state governments—at least, on paper. Without state government, war between local groups is chronic; coöperation between local groups on projects bringing benefits to everyone—such as large-scale irrigation systems, free rights of travel, and long-distance trade—becomes much more difficult; and even the frequency of murder within a local group is higher. It’s true, of course, that twentieth-century state societies, having developed potent technologies of mass killing, have broken all historical records for violent deaths. But this is because they enjoy the advantage of having by far the largest populations of potential victims in human history; the actual percentage of the population that died violently was on the average higher in traditional pre-state societies than it was even in Poland during the Second World War or Cambodia under Pol Pot.

While I think Diamond’s observations here are largely fair, Diamond makes no effort to analyze the failings of modern states, and these failures are significant and cannot be ignored.  Neither, however, can the implications of Diamond’s observations for those who think we would be better off in stateless societies.  However, Diamond is primarily an ornithologist and anthropologist, so perhaps he can be forgiven for not examining more closely the problems of states in a rather short essay that is more concerned about cycles of violence and our modern repression of personal vengeance.

Further, Diamond’s essay only tangentially addresses, but is nonetheless seems a good jumping-off point for considering further, our evolved human nature and the heritage that such evolution has left us in terms of a cognitive system that is prone to suspicion of others, black and white views, self-justification and other characteristics that tended to reinforce our important tribal identities.  These are matters that I think affect each of us and are very much in evidence in the modern, “civilized” world – the world of impassioned disagreements between factions, racial divides, hostility towards “others” (those evil “Islamofascists,” gays, immigrants, liberals, envirofascists, etc.) and our fabulous ability to identify the mistakes and inconsistencies of others while ignoring our own.  As hjmaiere pointed out in a recent forum post (“Hermann Goering on Anthropogenic Global Warming” – naturally I disagreed with him in relevant parts), it is the powerful effects of our tribal nature that rent-seekers (and their political handlers) are so good at identifying and manipulating.