May 04, 2004
Going native

John Derbyshire's reading history seems to have intersected with mine at at least one point: we've both read An African in Greenland. I read it about 10 years ago, and it was indeed fascinating. It was very refreshing to read a travel book that wasn't by a Westerner encountering an alien, and poorer, society. This was a lateral move, so to speak, so the author didn't feel any need to either condescend to or romanticize his subjects.

One important point that Derbyshire seems not to realize is that alcohol was unknown to the Inuit before colonization, so it's had just as terrible an effect there as it has on native American and Australian societies. Scandinavian booze, more than the Scandinavian welfare state, brought about many of the troubles that he observes. (Such a thesis is probably less agreeable to a conservative Englishman.) However, I think he's also seeing the difference between a hunter-gatherer society and an agrarian one.

This is what's wrong with Derbyshire's dinner guest's stupid thesis. I wouldn't even bother taking it apart, except that a lot of people seem to have this idea that life in the tropics is just easier than it is in the colder latitudes, so this makes its inhabitants more indolent and libertine. They seem not to notice the fact that nearly everybody in the tropics lives not by picking fruit but by farming, and farming in the jungle is just as hard as farming anywhere. Moreover, anybody who did try to live by picking fruit would die of kwashiorkor. Protein must be obtained by hunting, fishing or livestock raising, which is almost always a male thing. So much for women not needing men there.

And, indeed, I know of no evidence that cultures in warmer places are more libertine than those in colder ones. I think Europeans got this idea when they went exploring because they encountered polygamous people with little clothing. But as the book illustrates, such cultures can be very conservative in their way. (Derbyshire's friend also seems to have forgotten that monogamy was an import from southern Europe to northern Europe.)

Generally speaking, however, hunter-gatherer societies such as the Inuit are looser and less rule-bound than agricultural ones like that Watyi. So that may have also accounted for some of the differences that shocked Kpomassie. Hunter-gatherers tend to live in small, isolated bands of relatives; you don't have to worry about what the neighbors think when there aren't any neighbors to speak of. They also don't have serious property or political organization, so there's less concern with lineage and inheritance. As with us moderns, family matters a great deal to people's personal attachments. But who your father is (or whether it's known who your father is) doesn't usually determine the course of your life the way it does in, say, the Old Testament.

Kpomassie writes of observing (partly) a wife-swapping between two male friends. This wasn't your '70s wife-swapping; it denoted a serious and permanent bond between the men, with the implicit promise that each would care for the other's wife if the other should die. (What the women thought of it was not recorded.) But the idea of men sharing a woman was unheard of for Kpomassie, even though his father had five wives. To the Inuit, having a child whose paternity isn't 100% certain doesn't seem to be a big deal. To the Watyi, it is. Where would such a child fit into the social structure?

In many ways, modern life has actually brought us back to the social environment of the stone age. We're mobile, even nomadic; our personal lives tend to be governed by relationships rather than rigid rules; we live in a sea of strangers, which socially speaking is almost like living in the unpeopled wilderness. It is this resemblance, perhaps, that Derbyshire and his friend are trying to get at. The social changes that industrialization brought about are as great as those that agriculture brought about, and they aren't finished yet.

Posted by Camassia at May 04, 2004 03:58 PM | TrackBack
Post a comment
Hi! I'd love to know your thoughts, but please read the rules of commenting:
- You must enter a valid email address
- No sock puppets
- No name-calling or obscene language


Email Address:



Remember info?