Not All Cultural Anthropologists are Evil!

Yes, it’s true, there are a lot of leftover Blank Slaters around.  They live on in the hermetically sealed halls of academia as sort of a light echo of the Marxist supernova.  Still, I count myself lucky to have witnessed the smashing of the absurd orthodoxy they once imposed on the behavioral sciences.  Few people pay any attention to them anymore outside of their own echo chambers.  That makes it all the more refreshing to see shoots of new life sprouting in the once desiccated wasteland of cultural anthropology.

Consider, for example, the work of anthropologist Joe Henrich, currently a professor of psychology and economics at the University of British Columbia.  As a young graduate student in 1995, Henrich landed in Peru and began studying the Machiguenga, an indigenous people who live by hunting and small-scale farming.  In the process, he turned up some very interesting data on the importance of culture in human affairs.  As noted in an article entitled, We Aren’t the World, that appeared recently in the Pacific Standard,

While the setting was fairly typical for an anthropologist, Henrich’s research was not. Rather than practice traditional ethnography, he decided to run a behavioral experiment that had been developed by economists. Henrich used a “game”—along the lines of the famous prisoner’s dilemma—to see whether isolated cultures shared with the West the same basic instinct for fairness. In doing so, Henrich expected to confirm one of the foundational assumptions underlying such experiments, and indeed underpinning the entire fields of economics and psychology: that humans all share the same cognitive machinery—the same evolved rational and psychological hardwiring.

The particular game that Henrich used was the Ultimatum Game (click on the hyperlink for a description), and as the data accumulated, it revealed some rather profound behavioral differences between the Machiguenga and the average North American or European.  Again quoting from the Pacific Standard article,

To begin with, the offers from the first player were much lower. In addition, when on the receiving end of the game, the Machiguenga rarely refused even the lowest possible amount. “It just seemed ridiculous to the Machiguenga that you would reject an offer of free money,” says Henrich. “They just didn’t understand why anyone would sacrifice money to punish someone who had the good luck of getting to play the other role in the game.”

Obviously, “the same evolved rational and psychological hardwiring” was not the most parsimonious explanation for this “anomaly.”  It was, of course, culture.  As Henrich and his collaborators continued their research,

…they began to find research suggesting wide cultural differences almost everywhere they looked: in spatial reasoning, the way we infer the motivations of others, categorization, moral reasoning, the boundaries between the self and others, and other arenas. These differences, they believed, were not genetic. The distinct ways Americans and Machiguengans played the ultimatum game, for instance, wasn’t because they had differently evolved brains.

As they say, read the whole thing.  I find stories like this tremendously encouraging.  Why?  In none of Henrich’s papers that I have looked at to date is there any suggestion that anyone who disagrees with him is either a racist or a fascist.  In none of them do I detect that he has an ideological ax to grind.  In none of them do I detect an implicit rejection of anything smacking of evolutionary psychology.  Quite the contrary!  In a conversation with an interviewer from, for example, Henrich explicitly embraces human nature, suggesting that its evolution was driven by culture.  For example, from the interview,

Another area that we’ve worked on is social status. Early work on human status just took humans to have a kind of status that stems from non-human status. Chimps, other primates, have dominant status. The assumption for a long time was that status in humans was just a kind of human version of this dominant status, but if you apply this gene-culture co-evolutionary thinking, the idea that culture is one of the major selection pressures in human evolution, you come up with this idea that there might be a second kind of status. We call this status prestige.


A commitment to something like anti-nepotism norms is something that runs against our evolutionary inclinations and our inclinations to help kin and to invest in long-term close relationships, but it’s crucial for making a large-scale society run. Corruption, things like hiring your brother-in-law and feathering the nest of your close friends and relatives is what really tears down and makes complex societies not work very well. In this sense, the norms of modern societies that make modern societies run now are at odds with at least some of our evolved instincts.

I love that reference to “evolved instincts.”  Back in the day the Blank Slaters used to dismiss anyone who used the term “instinct” in connection with humans as a troglodyte.  “Instincts” were for insects.  Humans might (but almost certainly did not) have “predispositions.”  Politicians and debaters are familiar with the gambit.  It’s basically a form of intellectual one-upmanship.  Of course, neither then or now was anyone ever confused by the use of the term “instinct.”  Everyone knew perfectly well in the heyday of the Blank Slate what those who used it were talking about, just as they do now in the context of Henrich’s interview.  The pecksniffery associated with its use was more or less equivalent to a physicist striking intellectual poses because someone he disagreed with used the term “work” or “power” in a matter different from their definitions in scientific textbooks.

In short, the work published by Henrich et. al. does not appear to conform to some ideological party line in the interest of some future utopia.  It’s intent does not appear to be the enabling of pious poses by the authors as “saviors” of indigenous people.  One actually suspects they have written it because it is what they have observed and believe to be the truth!

This sort of work is not only very refreshing, but very necessary.  Science advances by way of hypotheses, or what some have called “just so stories.”  Truth is approached by the relentless criticism and testing of these “just so stories.”  The havoc wrought in the field of cultural anthropology and many of the other behavioral sciences by the zealots of failed secular religions destroyed their credibility, greatly impairing their usefulness as a source of criticism and testing for the hypotheses of evolutionary psychology, which have been proliferating in such abundance of late.  Work like this may eventually restore some semblance of balance.  It’s high time.  There is no form of knowledge more important to our species than self-knowledge.  It is not hyperbole to say that our survival may depend on it.