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The Biases of Writers

July 8, 2010

I heard somewhere that all writers are propagandists: Once they get their premises by, they’ve got you.

About a year ago someone recommended The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris to me.  I picked it up from the library a few weeks ago feeling kind of sick of fiction for a while.  I started to read it one day, got tripped up by some goofy statements in the first few pages, read another chapter, and set it aside.  I haven’t picked it back up since then.  I’ll give it another shot, but I don’t know (for sure) whether I’ll finish it or not.

I can admit that I have biases too.  That should be obvious.  My  biases might clash with the author’s biases enough that I don’t finish the book.  I don’t know.  It might be that 1967 was simply “a different time.”  I don’t know.

One of the strangest features of previous studies of naked-ape behaviour is that they have nearly always avoided the obvious. The earlier anthropologists rushed off to all kinds of unlikely corners of the world in order to unravel the basic truth about our nature scattering to remote cultural backwaters so atypical and unsuccessful that they are nearly extinct. They then returned with startling facts about the bizarre mating customs, strange kinship systems, or weird ritual procedures of these tribes, and used this material as though it were of central importance to the behaviour of our species as a whole. The work done by these investigators was, of course, extremely interesting and most valuable in showing us what can happen when a group of naked apes becomes side-tracked into a cultural blind alley. [All emphasis is mine, not Mr. Morris’.] It revealed just how far from the normal our behaviour patterns can stray without a complete social collapse. What it did not tell us was anything about the typical behaviour of typical naked apes. This can only be done by examining the common behaviour patterns that are shared by all the ordinary, successful members of the major cultures-the mainstream specimens who together represent the vast majority. Biologically, this is the only sound approach. Against this, the old-style anthropologist would have argued that his technologically simple tribal groups are nearer the heart of the matter than the members of advanced civilisations. I submit that this is not so. The simple tribal groups that are living today are not primitive, they are stultified. Truly primitive tribes have not existed for thousands of years. The naked ape is essentially an exploratory species and any society that has failed to advance has in some sense failed, `gone wrong’. Something has happened to it to hold it back, something that is working against the natural tendencies of the species to explore and investigate the world around it. The characteristics that the earlier anthropologists studied in these tribes may well be the very features that have interfered with the progress of the groups concerned. It is therefore dangerous to use this information as the basis for any general scheme of our behaviour as a species.*

I want to get at each of the bold parts.

… into a cultural blind alley.

I find this one weird simply because I don’t understand what he means by “blind alley.”  I assume he means something like dead end, or, more exactly, something that doesn’t work.  And this is why I’m confused; in what was is the life of a “primitive” person a way that doesn’t work? It’s worked this long, and it will (presumably) work long into the future.

This, and some other things I’ll get to, show me Mr. Morris’ bias toward … hmm—how can I put this?  Toward This is the best we’ve ever had it; how dare you suggest anything is wrong!

… represent the vast majority.

Until very recently, in terms of geological time, hunter-gatherers weren’t only the vast majority—they were the only ones around.

… technologically simple tribal groups are nearer the heart of the matter …

Mr. Morris says this in a way that suggests it’s wrong, bad anthropology, etc. But, as far as I know, this is what anthropologists still believe.  And—again, as far as I know—in the last fifty years the

Hai guis. Im unevolved. :P

general view of “primitive people” has become more positive.  It’s generally taught, leading me to believe that it’s the dominant view, that primitive people work less, are better fed, have high food security, and so on.

… any society that has failed to advance has in some sense failed …

Again, pure bias. He’s unfurling the banners and yelling “Isn’t modern society great!” with this.  Knowing me, it’s no wonder I’m having trouble convincing myself to keep reading.

That’s the one that bugs me most, I guess.  Judging the people of another culture based on the standards of your culture, and then declaring that culture a “failure” seems like one of the stupidest things a scientist can do.  Sure, he’s a zoologist and isn’t, by profession, to show cultural sensitivities.  He studies animals, people being just one.  But scientific study is supposed to be free of biases (although, of course, the reality is much different).

On page 23:

It is worth re-iterating here that, in this book, we are not concerned with the massive cultural explosions that followed, of which the naked ape of today is so proud-the dramatic progression that led him, in a mere half-million years, from making a fire to making a space-craft. It is an exciting story, but the naked ape is in danger of being dazzled by it all and forgetting that beneath the surface gloss he is still very much a primate. (`An ape’s an ape, a varlet’s a varlet, though they be clad in silk or scarlet.) Even a space ape must urinate.

But we made a spaceship! I get so tired of seeing this and other arguments like it.  So what?  So fucking what.  I get it.  You like modern society.  I think it’s going to kill itself.  We disagree.  I think I’m right.  Your reasons for thinking you’re right are dumb.  (Spotting biases is easier when they’re this blatant, donchathink?)

Page 39:

If the organisation of our earthier activities-our feeding, our fear, our aggression, our sex, our parental care-had been developed solely by cultural means, there can be little doubt that we would have got it under better control by now, and twisted it this way and that to suit the increasingly extraordinary demands put upon it by our technological advances. But we have not done so. We have repeatedly bowed our heads before our animal nature and tacitly admitted the existence of the complex beast that stirs within us.  If we are honest, we will confess that it will take millions of years, and the same genetic process of natural selection that put it there, to change it. In the meantime, our unbelievably complicated civilisations will be able to prosper only if we design them in such a way that they do not clash with or tend to suppress our basic animal demands.

This part is weird to me.  Part of the bolded sentence is simply more bias (our civilizations need to prosper!—because, seriously, what else are they going to do?), but the last half of it makes sense.  Of course any way of living must agree with our animal demands.  But, I dare say, the way most people live now doesn’t have that in its favor.

*If interested, you can read this book online for free.  Here’s Google’s cached HTML version of it. I’m just glad I thought about finding the quotes I was looking for online first, instead of typing them all out by hand like I usually do.

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