Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Western Illusion of Human Nature

I’m surprised I hadn’t been aware earlier of Marshall Sahlins’ 2008 The Western Illusion of Human Nature, which can be read in a few hours online. Great little pamphlet.* It puts Steven Pinker’s Better Angels in historical perspective, three years before Pinker’s book was published.

I also just learned about Sahlins’ resignation from the National Academy of Sciences last year in response to the body’s election of Napoleon Chagnon and its ties to the US military. Coincidentally, I came across some recent references to Chagnon last week when offering links to a few critical articles about Better Angels, which I’ll reproduce here:
- “Reality Denial: Steven Pinker's Apologetics for Western-Imperial Violence,” by Edward S. Herman and David Peterson (not free of prejudices, but well worth reading)

- “Why Steven Pinker, Like Jared Diamond, Is Wrong,” by Stephen Corry

- “Pinker, Animals, and Hitler,” by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson (I haven't yet read the book, but it sounds rather like Pinker's whole premise is a libel against nonhuman animals: human violence is ultimately rooted in our animalistic impulses - Corry quotes Pinker as describing medieval people/culture as “animalistic” - which have recently been and continue to be “civilized” by primarily white males in Western Europe and the US; I believe Masson talks about Pinker in more depth in his new book, but I haven't read that yet, either)
Here’s an enlightening summary of the Chagnon controversy at Living Anthropologically.

* My criticisms involve the neglect of his debt to Kropotkin, the brief discussion of comparative attitudes toward hunted animals (not to say that it’s wrong – just incomplete, which irked me especially as I’m reading Brian Luke’s Brutal: Manhood and the Exploitation of Animals), and more generally the relative lack of attention to the speciesism at the heart of the ideology he describes.

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