C. R. Hallpike
Ship of Fools: An Anthology of Learned Nonsense about Primitive Society
Kouvola, Finland: Castalia House, 2018
C. R. Hallpike’s Ship of Fools should prove to be an embarrassment to the scientific community — the most fascinating, righteous, and gratifying embarrassment there could possibly be.
Armed with his many years of hands-on experience as an anthropologist, Hallpike thoroughly refutes a number of popular scientific theories about primitive societies. These theories, developed by scholars whom Hallpike refers to as fools, invariably follow what I call “Quinn’s Laws of Theory Flaws” — that is, anthropological, social, or political theories fail for at least one of three reasons:
- Their developers are enamored more by elegance than reality.
- Their developers reflexively assume that all people are like them.
- Their developers are secretly pushing a political agenda.
And when Hallpike goes theory hunting in Ship of Fools, he smashes his hapless quarry with the same humungous club, over and over. It’s almost funny, like a Tom and Jerry cartoon, but real. Evolutionary psychologists, neuroscientists, historians, linguists, and other supposed ivory tower experts think they know something about primitive societies, and Hallpike in effect says, “No, you don’t. Trust me. I spent 1965 through 1967 with the Konso in Ethiopia, and 1970 through 1972 with the Tauade of Papua New Guinea. I know primitive societies. Your theory is 100% bunk. Here’s why.”
For a cinematic representation of the beatdowns which take place in this unforgettable book, I will refer you, dear reader, to the first thing anyone would think of when discussing lamentably false theories on primitive societies: Barbra Streisand’s 1979 hit move The Main Event. (But of course!)
Don’t believe me? Click below. I dare you to click below, and vicariously relish the glory that is Ship of Fools.
Hallpike begins with a brief introduction of what it’s like to live in primitive societies. One must get used to profound darkness once the Sun goes down, when “one could put one’s hand in the dark on a cobra looking for rats.” One must get used to not only routine animal sacrifice, but routine animal torture. One must get used to sacrificing hygiene for drinking and cooking due to the great distances one has to travel to find water. One must get used to a lot of things when among the primitives — especially the fact that they are very little like us — a lesson that many PhDs (read: Piled High and Deep) repeatedly refuse to learn.
Hallpike picks the low-hanging fruit first. In his second chapter (entitled “Talking Nonsense about Early Man”), he takes down Sex at Dawn, a 2013 work by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá (whom he humorously refers to as “a psychologist and his wife”). The book posits that before the advent of agriculture some 10,000 years ago, life was a sexual free-for-all for primitive peoples. Then with farming came privately-owned land and property which was passed down to one’s heirs. This ultimately led to monogamy and the control of our sexual urges.
In less than a paragraph, Hallpike points out that if this were true, then one would expect never-ending orgies among primitive peoples today. But, as we will often see in Ship of Fools, the exact opposite is true. Pair bonding in the form of marriage is actually a universal institution among hunter-gatherers. Young people are expected to marry in primitive societies, since this arrangement, among other things, reduces male sexual competition and keeps inter-tribal tensions to a minimum. Ryan and Jethá certainly came up with an elegant theory, but, as Hallpike shows, it’s all myth and no reality. See Quinn’s First Law above. Had the authors consulted an anthropologist beforehand, perhaps they would have thought twice before writing their silly book.
In 2003, evolutionary psychologists Mark Pagel and Walter Bodmer suggested that, unlike all other mammals, humans evolved hairlessness because hairlessness “reduces ectoparasitic loads” and thus could be an advantageous, naturally selected trait. An interesting theory which the authors torpedo with talk of clothing, which can be changed and cleansed of ectoparasites. Since primitive man had the intelligence to make clothing, they conclude, they were equipped to transition from hair to no hair.
Hallpike then takes the authors to task by reminding them exactly how time-consuming and difficult it is for primitive peoples to produce any kind of clothing at all. He’d seen them do it, and insists that in no way could clothing have been prevalent enough among early man to make a difference in natural selection when it comes to reducing ectoparasitic loads. He then, quite directly, shames Pagel and Bodmer for assuming that primitive men wore woven garments just as they do (Quinn’s Law #2):
It is striking, in view of what we have already established about all the difficulties of producing woven clothes, that highly educated scientists can so casually propose the use of them without even considering what they could have been made of. The suggestion that Home erectus could have woven garments is preposterous, and it is equally striking that Pagel and Bodmer do not seem to have noticed that hunter-gatherers in tropical climates, which is where our species evolved, don’t actually wear any clothes because it is far too hot. Our subsequent ability to produce clothes must therefore be entirely irrelevant to the whole question of hairlessness.
Hallpike dissects a number of theories in his second chapter, including ones on the evolution of religion and natural selection for homosexuality. The victim of his first full-chapter takedown is neuroscientist Emma Byrne, who in 2017 suggested that the cathartic and restorative nature of swearing is a primary reason why language evolved in the first place. After all, laboratory experiments have shown that swearing after an injury does reduce pain. So if salty language is such a natural salve, why not extrapolate from that to it being the missing link in the language chain?
A pretty theory, yes, but it falls far short of reality (Quinn’s Law #1) because Byrne simply assumes that primitive man swore just like modern man does today (Quinn’s Law #2). Hallpike assures us that the primitive men alive today certainly don’t, which means our primitive ancestors probably didn’t either. The Konso and the Tauade simply do not have the cultural apparatus to support profane or blasphemous language. Insulting or disrespectful language, sure, even the scatological kind, but there is no taking a god’s name in vain among these people. And while they do practice sexual and excretory modesty like virtually all humans, Hallpike points out that
it would have been quite bizarre for a Konso man to say suda, “sexual intercourse,” if he dropped a rock on his toe, and his response would actually have been a cry of pain, something like “Aieee!”
There is one hilarious moment I’d like to share. When accompanying a number of Konso men who were naked and digging a grave one evening while drunk on beer (don’t ask), Hallpike, who is English, was pelted with a number of questions about his native land. Do they have elephants in England? What about leopards? Lions? How about rhinos? After receiving a frustrating series of “no”s, one gravedigger then pointed to his exposed member and asked, “Do they have these in England?” And, of course, everybody laughed.
At this point in Ship of Fools, Hallpike makes a critical shift. Thus far he’s been debunking theories that, while wrong, were at least interesting and made sense within a limited modern framework (Quinn’s laws 1 and 2). After this, however, he focuses mostly on how so-called experts, even other anthropologists, can devise theories about primitive man which secretly promote a political or ideological agenda (Quinn’s Law #3). And those of us on the Dissident Right know exactly how insidious such theories can be.
In 2014 Yuval Harari wrote a book entitled Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind in which he posits that “fiction” — that is, talking about things that do not exist — enables human cultures to be established and maintained. Fictions can be myths and stories, but they can also be concepts such as democracy, rule of law, education, and other political or societal institutions. Only humans can carry on conversations about things they have never seen, touched, or experienced directly.
Harari’s error is to assume that modern-day fictions are simply primitive man’s fictions writ large. A shaman spinning tales about the Sun God is in effect no different from what lawyers, businesspeople, and politicians have to say about the modern world’s complex workings. To achieve this great leveling between primitives and moderns, Harari attempts to downplay the scientific accomplishments of the moderns (especially the white ones, which is where his political agenda comes in). For example, Harari preposterously claims that “the Scientific Revolution” “began in western Europe, a large peninsula on the western tip of Afro-Asia, which up till then played no important role in history.” He also states that primitive man had the same “physical, emotional, and intellectual abilities we have” (emphasis mine), and claims that we could teach primitive man about Alice in Wonderland and quantum physics as easily as they could teach us about their world.
Hallpike correctly calls Harari’s approach amateurish and takes it apart on many fronts, the most prominent one being race realism:
It’s a sweet idea, and something like this imagined meeting actually took place a few years ago between the linguist Daniel Everett and the Piraha foragers of the Amazon in Peru. But far from being able to discuss quantum theory with them, he found that the Piraha couldn’t even count, and had no numbers of any kind. They could teach Everett how they saw the world, which was entirely confined to the immediate experience of the here-and-now, with no interest in past or future, or really in anything that could not be seen or touched. They had no myths or stories, so Alice in Wonderland would have fallen rather flat as well.
Another scientist with an axe to grind is William Arens, who claimed in his 1979 work The Man-Eating Myth that there is no reliable evidence proving that primitive man ever engaged in cannibalism unless out of necessity. Cannibalism is nothing more than a racist and colonialist myth invented by white people to justify their imagined superiority over so-called savages. Arens rests most of his thesis on the fact that there has been very little cannibalism witnessed first-hand by professionals “trained in the craft of ethnography.” This is a convenient excuse, given that by the time most trained scientists were able to study primitive man over a century ago, colonial governments had already suppressed the practice. Arens dismisses as unreliable the many first-hand accounts of cannibalism from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (for example, from sailors, explorers, and the like).
Such an absurd edifice can never fall, but can only stand forever to the humiliation of its architect. Hallpike methodically demonstrates how such a dismissal is unreasonable, unwarranted, and employs ad hominem attacks upon eyewitnesses who are no longer alive to defend themselves. He states how many primitive people he encountered cheerfully admitted to being cannibals in the past, and that the use of tribal informants for information like this is a method that nearly all anthropologists must rely upon when studying early man. Further, Hallpike points out that trained ethnographers like Arens have no trouble believing tribal informants when they discuss other matters, so why all of the sudden should anthropologists be skeptical when the same informers admit to practicing cannibalism in the past?
Hallpike ends Ship of Fools on a powerful note by taking on perhaps his most powerful adversary: Noam Chomsky. Through Chomsky’s concept of Universal Grammar, as well as his culturally relativistic notion of a universally-endowed language organ in the brain, he and other scholars have tried to promote the idea that all languages are equally complex and all cultures are equally modern. This is an example of Quinn’s Third Law if there ever was one, and Hallpike sees through it all as ideologically motivated cant designed to soften the defenses of racism, colonialism, imperialism, and all the other things the Left doesn’t like.
In other words, not only is it completely false, it’s the exact opposite of what’s true, like everything else aboard Hallpike’s ship of fools. Hallpike’s chapter on Chomsky may be the most devastating defense of truth against ideology and dogma I have ever read. It’s so cutting and thorough that I will end this review with Hallpike’s ending for this chapter, since really, I could do no better:
Secular liberals, however, dismiss the idea of God as superstition and believe that we are just another animal species in a Darwinian world, distinguished from other animals in the struggle for survival only by our intelligence. Nevertheless, they still want to cling on to the traditional Western belief in the brotherhood of Man, and they can only do this by a fanatical conviction about human intellectual equality, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Liberal academics, especially during the Cold War, were also accustomed to look down on their colleagues in the Soviet Union, whom they saw as slaves to Marxist ideology. Yet at the same time, of their own free will and without the excuse of secret police, gulags, and firing-squads, they eagerly enchained themselves in liberal political dogma about human intellectual equality that is just as devoid of evidence as Lysenko’s dismissal of genetics as bourgeois science.
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