Did human evolution favor individualists or altruists?
By Eric Michael Johnson
Black-and-white colobus monkeys scrambled through the branches of Congo’s Ituri Forest in 1957 as a small band of Mbuti hunters wound cautiously through the undergrowth, joined by anthropologist Colin Turnbull. The Mbuti are pygmies, about 4 feet tall, but they are powerful and tough. Any one of them could take down an elephant with only a short-handled spear. Recent genetic evidence suggests that pygmies have lived in this region for about 60,000 years. But this particular hunt reflected a timeless ethical conflict for our species, and one that has special relevance for contemporary American society.
The Mbuti employed long nets of twined liana bark to catch their prey, sometimes stretching the nets for 300 feet. Once the nets were hung, women and children began shouting, yelling, and beating the ground to frighten animals toward the trap. As Turnbull came to understand, Mbuti hunts were collective efforts in which each hunter’s success belonged to everybody else. But one man, a rugged individualist named Cephu, had other ideas. When no one was looking, Cephu slipped away to set up his own net in front of the others. “In this way he caught the first of the animals fleeing from the beaters,” explained Turnbull in his book The Forest People, “but he had not been able to retreat before he was discovered.” Word spread among camp members that Cephu had been trying to steal meat from the tribe, and a consensus quickly developed that he should answer for this crime. ...
At an impromptu trial, Cephu defended himself with arguments for individual initiative and personal responsibility. “He felt he deserved a better place in the line of nets,” Turnbull wrote. “After all, was he not an important man, a chief, in fact, of his own band?” But if that were the case, replied a respected member of the camp, Cephu should leave and never return. The Mbuti have no chiefs, they are a society of equals in which redistribution governs everyone’s livelihood. The rest of the camp sat in silent agreement.
Faced with banishment, a punishment nearly equivalent to a death sentence, Cephu relented. “He apologized profusely,” Turnbull wrote, “and said that in any case he would hand over all the meat.”
Turnbull wrote two well-known books on Africa, The Forest People (about his beloved Mbuti pygmies) and The Mountain People (about the Ik, whom he demonized as "the worst people on Earth" and demanded that they be culturally exterminated).
Turnbull found the Mbuti to have social institutions more humane and more sophisticated than anything that existed in western civilization. As described in The Forest People, Mbuti children are never pitted against one another. People live in harmony not because they are coerced to do so by laws, the threat of violence, or other external impositions, but because of an internal desire for unity, reciprocity, and social equality ... Mbuti teenagers, he wrote, practice sex freely and yet have no unwanted pregnancies ... In addition, for Turnbull, the Mbuti's apparent subordination to the neighboring farmers was only playacting. The Mbuti pretended to be inferior when they were, in fact, far superior in almost every way.
He proposed to the Ugandan government that the Ik society should be eliminated, that individuals should be rounded up and dispersed over an area wide enough to make sure they never found each other again. The Ugandan government and the anthropological community were outraged
On most mornings in 1957, the Scottish anthropologist Colin Macmillan Turnbull would wake up in his hut next to his young Mbuti assistant, Kenge, their legs and arms intertwined in the way that Mbuti men like to sleep with each other to stay warm. At four foot eight, Kenge was more than a foot and a half shorter than Colin, so Colin could hold him easily with his long legs, arms, and wide hands, keeping them both warm in the damp forest nights.
Turnbull hated the Ik. The Pygmies, and even Joseph Towles [Turnbull's African-American boyfriend] (who had begun his training as an anthropologist), empowered him. But because he could do little to stop the famine and social behaviors that emerged in that context, the Ik threatened his role as protector or saviour. Because they did not seem to respect him or care for him, the Ik never gave him the sense of self-worth he derived from Joseph and other underdogs. And because the Ik never gave him someone like the Pygmy young boy, Kenge, whom he could love and idolize, he grew angry and lonely.
You might expect from my extracts that Grinker's biography of Turnbull is a devastating takedown, but the bulk of it is pretty much hagiograpy, which goes to illustrate a lot about cultural power. Grinker got his initial draft rejected by his editor on the grounds that a straight man shouldn't be writing a biography of a gay hero. So, he gayed up his manuscript and got it through.
In the intellectual realm, one way power is exercised is in rewriting the past. For example, Francis Galton was, by any objective standard, one of the more creative geniuses in human history, but he is routinely demonized today. In contrast, this Turnbull fellow was a trainwreck, whose influence in the latter half of the 20th Century is of interest mostly from a clinical standpoint of figuring out why so many intellectuals went so far off the tracks. But, that's not a subject of approved interest today.
More seriously, a gay athropologist, Jacques Lizot, introduced sodomy to the boys of the tribe. This is the worst, but least publicized aspect, of the Yanomamo story.
Now, it's not fair to Chagnon to mention his name in the same posting as Turnbull, but he's still a good example of how a formidable man might influence his research subjects.