Herman Melville as an Anthropologist

In his The Origin of War, Dutch behavioral scientist Johan van der Dennen describes how his “perspective changed dramatically” as a result of Jane Goodall’s revelations about the aggressive behavior of chimpanzees and his own study of the history of human warfare.  In his words,

What gradually emerged was the constancy beneath the superficial differences, the communality beneath the variations; it dawned upon me that all these variations were indeed variations on a common theme, and that this common theme must be something like a universal psychology. There was only one theory which could accommodate this new insight: evolutionary theory.

In other words, he concluded that this “common theme” could only be explained by some innate behavioral trait or traits, e.g., human nature.  He settled on the catch-all term “sociobiology” for this approach, noting that the term in the lay vernacular has undergone relatively rapid and sometimes confusing change over the years, from ethology in the 60’s and 70’s to sociobiology after E. O. Wilson published his eponymous book in 1975 to evolutionary psychology today.  In a footnote that appeared in the first chapter of his book, van der Dennen notes that his study of the history of warfare had not been “hampered by any methodological constraints”:

It was also growing dissatisfaction with the rather static character of the Human Relations Area Files (HRAF) and its virtual monopoly position as a universal data base (though it is incomplete and unreliable: cf. Fedigan, 1986; Knauft, 1991), and the increasing number of discrepancies I seemed to discover between several other inventories and the sources I had uncovered, which prompted the Ethnological Inventory Project. Not hampered by any methodological constraints, I could freely indulge in the fascinating accounts of ‘savages’ reported by missionaries, travelers and adventurers from about the 16th century onward.

One can only hope that the “methodological constraints” he refers to don’t have the effect of tainting any source material used by anthropologists that wasn’t developed in “studies” done by other anthropologists.  That’s a scary thought!  The integrity of the “Men of Science” in the behavioral sciences has not been irreproachable.  They did, after all, collectively subscribe to the “Blank Slate” imbecility for several decades, stoutly insisting that the effect of human nature on human behavior was either insignificant or nonexistent.  They punctuated this insistence on “scientific facts” that any reasonably intelligent ten year old might have informed them were palpable nonsense by vilifying anyone who disagreed as fascist or otherwise politically suspect.  Anyone doubting the fact need only consult that invaluable little piece of historical source material, Man and Aggression, edited by Ashley Montagu.  The “fascinating accounts of ‘savages’ reported by missionaries, travelers and adventurers” were often done by people who were not only well-informed about similar work, but took a highly professional approach to their own reporting.  If their objectivity was also impaired by faith in ideological dogmas, at least they were not the same ideological dogmas that prevailed during much of the 20th century.

In addition to the “missionaries, travelers, and adventurers” cited by Professor van der Dennen, I would add another category; novelists.  Take for example, Herman Melville.  Much of his work is so saturated with accounts of the exotic people and places he visited that some literary critics dismissed him as “a mere traveler.”  His publisher insisted that his first books, Typee and Omoo, be published as novels because he thought no one would believe them as non-fiction.  In fact, they contain a wealth of material of anthropological interest.

Take his first novel, Typee, for instance.  Some of the incidents Melville recorded are certainly fictionalized, but he actually did live among a tribe of that name in the South Pacific.  I doubt that he had any reason to fabricate his account of them, or at least none more weighty than the ideological constraints on modern anthropologists.

As has been the case with most authors since the dawn of recorded history who have had occasion to comment on the subject, and who possess an ounce of common sense, Melville recognized the existence of “inherent” human traits.  In Chapter 27, for example, he describes the “altruism” that has been such a hot topic in academic journals lately, as it existed within the Typee ingroup.

It may reasonably be inquired, how were these people governed?  How were their passions controlled in their everyday transactions?  It must have been by an inherent principle of honesty and charity towards each other.  They seemed to be governed by that sort of tacit common-sense law which, say what they will of the inborn lawlessness of the human race, has its precepts graven on every breast.  The grand principles of virtue and honor, however they may be distorted by arbitrary codes, are the same all the world over:  and where these principles are concerned, the right and wrong of any action appears the same to the uncultivated as to the enlightened mind.  It is to this indwelling, this universally diffused perception of what is just and noble, that the integrity of the Marquesans in their intercourse with each other is to be attributed.


They deal more kindly with each other, and are more humane, than many who study essays on virtue and benevolence… I will frankly declare, that after passing a few weeks in this valley of the Marqauesas, I formed a higher estimate of human nature than I had every before entertained.

Of course, these innate foundations of human morality are dual in nature.  As Sir Arthur Keith pointed out long ago, and Robert Ardrey reiterated in a chapter of his African Genesis, it is our nature to apply very different standards of morality depending on whether we are dealing with ingroups or outgroups.  This rather important fact isn’t discussed nearly as often as altruism in the academic journals.  It is generally passed over in silence, because it is not in accord with generally approved standards of human “niceness.”  Melville, however, not being a “Man of Science,” was ignorant of such fine distinctions.  Immediately following the above, he added,

The strict honesty which the inhabitants of nearly all the Polynesian Islands manifest towards each other, is in striking contrast with the thieving propensities some of them evince in their intercourse with foreigners.  It would almost seem that, according to their peculiar code of morals, the pilfering of a hatchet or a wrought nail from a European is looked upon as a praiseworthy action.

Those familiar with the Margaret Mead/Derek Freeman kerfluffle may be interested in Melville’s comments on conjugal arrangements among the Typee:

The males considerably outnumber the females.  This hold true of many of the islands of Polynesia, although the reverse of what is the case in most civilized countries.  The girls are first wooed and won, at a very tender age, by some stripling in the household in which they reside.  This, however, is a mere frolic of the affections, and no formal engagement is contracted.  By the time this first love has a little subsided, a second suitor presents himself, of graver years, and carries both boy and girl away to his own habitation.  This disinterested and generous-hearted fellow now weds the young couple – marrying damsel and lover at the same time – and all three thenceforth live together as harmoniously as so many turtles… Infidelity on either side is very rare.  No man has more than one wife, and no wife of mature years has less than two husbands, – sometimes she has three, but such instances are not frequent.

Melville witnessed few arguments, and the degree of unanimity among the Typee on most topics would be familiar to anyone who has noticed the “carbon copy” nature of opinions on political matters among the modern denizens of the ideological ingroups of the left and right.

There was one admirable trait in the general character of the Typees which, more than anything else, secured my admiration:  it was the unanimity of feeling they displayed on every occasion.  With them there hardly appeared to be any difference of opinion upon any subject whatever.  They all thought and acted alike.  I do not conceive that they could support a debating society for a single night:  there would be nothing to dispute about.

As for that ubiquitous feature of human existence, warfare, Professor van der Dennen would not have been surprised by Melville’s observations.  Another tribe, the Happar, also occupied the island home of the Typee, who attributed to them all the usual hateful qualities commonly associated with the outgroup.  For some time after his arrival, Melville had witnessed nothing of the “clamors of war,” and was beginning to think the fierce reputation of the Typee among the neighboring tribes was a myth.  However,

…subsequent events proved that I had been a little too premature in coming to this conclusion.  One day about noon, I had lain down on the mats with several of the chiefs, and had gradually sunk into a most luxurious siesta, when I was awakened by a tremendous outcry, and starting up beheld the natives seizing their spears and hurrying out, while the most puissant of the chiefs, grasping the six muskets which were ranged against the bamboos, followed after, and soon disappeared in the groves.  These movements were accompanied by wild shouts, in which “Happar, Happar,” greatly predominated.

The mayhem done in this particular campaign was not great:

The total loss of the victors on this obstinately contested affair was, in killed wounded and missing – one forefinger and part of a thumbnail (which the late proprietor brought along with him in his hand), a severely contused arm, and a considerable effusion of blood flowing from the thigh of a chief, who had received an ugly thrust from a Happar spear.

In a later battle, the Typee brought back several Happar killed.

There are many other worthy contributions to the anthropological literature among the writings of “missionaries, travelers and adventurers,” not to mention novelists like Melville.  Some of the best can be found in the two great British quarterlies of the first half of the 19th century, the Whig Edinburgh Review and the Tory Quarterly Review.  The editors held their authors to very high standards of accuracy and detail.  Occasionally one finds interesting differences between these accounts and the later descriptions of the “Men of Science.”  In view of affairs such as the collusion of the American Anthropological Association in the smear and slandering of anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon and geneticist James Neel, whose findings in their study of the South American Yanomamö people were apparently deemed politically unsuitable in some quarters, not to mention the debacle of the Blank Slate, I would be disinclined to automatically favor the latter.

Herman Melville