War & the Noble Savage
A Critical Inquiry into Recent Accounts of Violence amongst Uncivilized Peoples
I experienced an explosion of insight, elegant thinking, and funny writing.
Christopher Ryan, author of Sex at Dawn
War & the Noble Savage approaches its contested subject matter with elegance, wit and a keen critical intellect, and exposes the role of our modern culture wars in our imaginings of the prehistoric past. Its thrilling historical sweep offers a fresh perspective on our chaotically evolving present.
Mike Jay, author of The Atmosphere of Heaven and The Air Loom Gang
An excellent job on a most central topic.
Dale Pendell, author of Pharmako/Poeia
Lucid explanation and intelligent analysis. (8/10)
Over the past decade or so, works such as Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate and Lawrence H. Keeley’s War Before Civilization have attacked the idea that indigenous and prehistoric societies were more peaceable than modern states. This brief study surveys this recent literature, digging beneath polarized surfaces using less publicized anthropological scholarship.
The debate’s age-old frame, emerging from an opposition between Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “Noble Savage” and Thomas Hobbes’ vision of primitive life as “nasty, brutish and short,” is analyzed afresh, and related fields, such as studies of chimpanzee violence, are reviewed. Also included is a look at the closely entwined recent controversy over whether tribal cultures have an ecological record as spotless as that often attributed to them.
Always at stake is the inevitable drama of Progress: has the modern world degraded human freedom and the environment, or does it represent an emancipation from millennia of conflict and ignorance?
- Pages: 88
- Format: A5 perfect-bound book (2009)
- ISBN 0955419611
- ISBN-13 9780955419614
- Format: PDF eBook (2010)
- ISBN 095541962X
- ISBN-13 9780955419621
- The Origins of the Noble Savage: Marc Lescarbot, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, early ethnography and Victorian racism
- Solitary, Poor, Nasty, Brutish & Short: The primitive errors of Thomas Hobbes
- The Violent Past & the Political Present: Hobbes versus Rousseau in modern anthropology and genetics
- The Tribal Zone: Perceptions and reflections on the violent edge of Empire; analyzing war mortality statistics
- The Remains of the Past: Discerning prehistoric social structures; the Palaeolithic expanse and the limits of archaeological perception
- Ape Cousins & Hard-Wired Violence: Primatological problems and the perils of geneticism
- Complexity & Conflict: Raymond C. Kelly’s thesis on the coevolution of warfare and social structure
- The Ecologically Noble Savage: Megafauna extinctions and the search for “conservationist intent”
- Appendix I: Society Against the State: Pierre Clastres and societies against the state
- Appendix II: The Stoned Ape Hypothesis: Terence McKenna’s mushroom hypothesis and the palaeoanthropology of the ’60s
This title is no longer in print.
It’s available for free in a number of automatically-generated alternate formats (e.g. plain text, EPUB, Kindle) at archive.org.
You can also download the original print layout as a PDF e-book.
This is from my talk, based on some of this book’s arguments, given at The October Gallery in London on 27th October 2009. Thanks to Mark Pilkington for the recording.
Audio available on SoundCloud:
My book reviews
- War Before Civilization by Lawrence H. Keeley
- The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker
- The Better Angels of our Nature by Steven Pinker
- The Myth of the Noble Savage by Ter Ellingson
- Archaeology of Violence by Pierre Clastres
- The Lucifer Principle by Howard Bloom
My blog posts
- Revisiting hunter-gatherer war with Azar Gat
- The Monkey Psyche
- The Myth of the Noble Savage
- Undoing Yourself and Original Sin
- ‘Proving communal warfare among hunter-gatherers: The quasi-rousseauan error’ by Azar Gat – A rejoinder to Raymond Kelly’s argument against war among mobile hunter-gatherers
- John Horgan interviews R. Brian Ferguson – An excellent video interview that introduces most of the key issues in studying primitive war
- R. Brian Ferguson – Includes downloads of most of his key writings on the history and anthropology of war
- Secrets of the Tribe – A fascinating documentary on the anthropological conflicts and scandals surrounding the Yanomami
- ‘Sex and Violence in Amazonia’ by Steve Beyer – A clear summary of the controversy over Chagnon’s studies of Yanomami violence, with details of recent research that calls sociobiological conclusions into question
- ‘The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race’ by Jared Diamond – PDF download of this interesting article on agriculture
- tobyspeople.com – Jason Godesky’s fine blog, including the archives of anthropik.com – many valuable articles on primitivism and prehistory here
- ‘On the Origins of War’ by John Zerzan – A history by a noted primitivist
- ‘Horizon Anarchism’ by Dale Pendell – A Burning Man talk on contemporary anarchist possibilities
- Stephen Pinker on the myth of violence – Pinker’s talk to TED on the history of violence
- ‘A History of Violence’ by Stephen Pinker – An essay covering the same argument as the above talk
- ‘Human Universals’ by Donald E. Brown – A compendium of apparently universal cultural elements, cited by Pinker
- ‘Swingers’ by Ian Parker – An interesting New Yorker piece on bonobos
- The Egalitarians—Human and Chimpanzee by Margaret Power – A critical review by anthropologist Jim Moore
- The Stoned Ape Hypothesis – A collection of Terence McKenna quotes covering his theories of evolution
- ‘The Ecologically Noble Savage Debate’ by Raymond Hames – PDF of this useful survey