A few reflections on Sick Societies



All societies are sick, but some are sicker than others…. There are some customs and social institutions in all societies that compromise human wellbeing…. For a number of reasons …many anthropologists have chosen not to write about the darker side of life in folk societies, or at least not to write very much about it... The message of this book is not that traditional beliefs and practices are never adaptive and that they never contribute to a population’s well-being; and I am not claiming that people never think rationally enough to make effective decisions about meeting the challenges posed by their environments. To do so would be absurd…what I am calling for is a moratorium on the uncritical assumption that the traditional beliefs and practices of folk populations are adaptive while those of modern societies are not and a commitment to examining the relative adaptiveness of the beliefs and practices of all societies. The goal is a better understanding of human adaptation not just in particular societies but over the course of human history.

That's from Sick Societies, by Robert B. Edgerton, which is a very interesting book. The subtitle "the myth of primitive harmony" is misleading. Not all societies in the book are stereotypically "primitive." He includes both jungle foragers and Appalachians living in hollers. Harmful maladaptations include physical mutilation, cannibalism, food and sex taboos, initiation ceremonies that make the worst Frat hazing look tame, and belief in witchcraft and divination (yes, some foraging societies persecute and sometimes kill people that they believe are witches).


The Netsilik Inuit believed that when a pregnant woman first felt labor pains, she had to be confined to a small snow house if it was winter or a tent during the summer. The woman herself was considered to be unclean, and a newborn child was thought to give off a particularly dangerous vapor at birth. Because the entire community was thought to be in great danger, no one was permitted to assist the woman in giving birth. If the birth proved to be difficult, a shaman might be summoned to drive away evil spirits, but no one was allowed to touch the woman.87 This taboo might have served as a population control measure because it probably increased infant mortality, but it also endangered the mother, and there is no evidence that the Netsilik had any desire to reduce the number of fertile and sexually attractive women in their society.

The Gebusi of Papua New Guinea are one of many small-scale societies whose fear of witches has been maladaptive. A very small society of about 450 people in a lowland rain forest area of southcentral New Guinea, the Gebusi were still beyond the influence of missions or government officials when Bruce Knauft studied them between 1980 and 1982.34 They were a remarkably noncompetitive, self-effacing, mutually deferential people who actively encouraged nonviolence. Yet they believed that all illness was caused by witchcraft, and their resulting attacks against presumed witches were so violent that their homicide rate was one of the highest ever recorded. Nearly one-third of all deaths among them were homicides, and almost all of the victims were suspected witches. Keith Otterbein has suggested that their practice of executing people thought to be witches was an adaptive “group survival” strategy because it controlled the malevolence of witches; but Knauft points out that their killing can hardly be considered adaptive because the population, small to begin with, was “dying out at an exceedingly rapid rate,” and their extremely high homicide rate continues to be an important cause of their population decline.35

For me, it is quite fascinating. Having grown up around very traditionalist people I derive a certain level of comfort from traditionalism. But at some point it's clear that I'll always be an outsider, as my parents were. When it comes to committing heart and soul to ancient traditions whether social, dietary, or religious…I baulk. In the end traditionalism fails for me because in every tradition there is maladaptive beliefs and behaviors bundled together with ancient wisdom. Members of these traditions who have grown up with them from birth are often unable to see this.

Traditional solutions and long-standing beliefs and practices tend to persist not because they are optimally beneficial but because they generally work just well enough that changes in them are not selfevidently needed. Given all that we know about the sometimes astoundingly bad judgment of “rational” planners in modern nations, it seems unlikely that people in smaller and simpler societies that lack our scientific and technological sophistication would always make optimally adaptive decisions even should they try to do so...Psychologist Donald Campbell has suggested that this may be so because people have evolved to be conservative, to respect established ways and responsible leaders; for Campbell, conservatism is a survival mechanism.43 Similarly, sociologist Joseph Lopreato was so impressed by the human predilection for conforming to rules and forcing others to do likewise that he posited a genetic need for conformity….ith the partial exception of subsistence activities, for every man or woman in a folk society who has been able to explain why something believed or done is beneficial, there have been thousands (in some societies this includes everyone) who provide no more by way of explanation than “it is our custom” or “we’ve always done it this way.” 


This has happened even when I've tried to climb up the family tree into our own past. A problem here is there are lots of trees to climb. I've climbed a lot of them so far and have been pretty disappointed, so I take what I like and leave. Unfortunately this is in itself somewhat maladaptive itself as it leaves me without the community and sense of belonging that usually accompanies such traditionalism.

postpartum depression are thought to include the stress of the event for the mother and family (including fears of being an inadequate mother), individual psychological characteristics of the woman, and changes in levels of estrogen and progesterone. Yet despite the frequency and seriousness of postpartum depression in the United States, the phenomenon appears to be quite rare in non-Western societies.112 For example, when Sara Harkness asked Kipsigis women in Kenya about their emotions following child birth, they unanimously denied that they felt sad or cried during the early weeks after giving birth. In fact, they declared that such things never occurred.113 For these Kipsigis women, despite hormonal changes, postpartum depression did not exist; giving birth was a happy event, one looked forward to by women who received positive social support throughout their pregnancies and after the birth of the child. The reasons why American culture (and the cultures of Western European countries) has made giving birth a depressing event presumably have to do with psychosocial stress. The Kipsigis and other societies have not made giving birth a stressful occurrence.

I've often thought that Jewish people are lucky because they have a strong secularized diaspora. I have some Jewish blood myself, but found that even that community still seems to be based on ties of kinship that render me an outsider. Is there an equivalent for Southerners out there somewhere? Maybe in Austin or Atlanta? I'm not a big fan of hot weather unfortunately.