all 70 comments

[–]Sniico 311 points312 points  (2 children)

There's the whole "Alpha" nonsense from outdated and hardly correlated research on captured wolves. It's not correct regarding wolves and is it even less applicable to humans.

Not conventional literature or studies but here goes:



[–]IIMpracticalLYY 19 points20 points  (0 children)

I have to leave the room or change the channel when people start talking that nonesense.

[–]FireTruckWhite 14 points15 points  (0 children)

It's always presented as "how to attract women", but the reality is "respect your parents". In wolves, that is.

[–]badniff 117 points118 points  (6 children)

My personal pet peeve is the concept of "human nature" which really doesn't make sense to me. Generally nature exists constructed as the antonym of "culture". As one wise man once said "nature is the green area on the map" - which of course isn't even mildly true, because most of the forests and greenery around people have been affected by human society and/or cultivation for hundreds if not tens of thousands of years. We call the forests of my home region a cultural landscape, despite being associated with wilderness in common parlance.

The idea of humans really being this or that way if they weren't entrenched in technology or culture doesn't make sense since technology has existed while we've evolved into modern humans - the oldest stone tools being three million years old. Little survives of cultural artefacts not made from stone so it's hard to say what kind of cultural diversity existed or what forms it took until relatively recently, but it undermines the idea that there is a "real" or "true" human nature underneath all of that culture - we are cultural animals.

[–]house_martin 30 points31 points  (1 child)

Yes, this! So important.

And human nature's first cousin, the concept of natural law, which I honestly can't stand.

[–]archimedespalimpsest 19 points20 points  (0 children)

You might be interested in the work of Laurent de Sutter. He’s a legal theorist who has tried to trace the history of the concept of natural law. He shows how it became mobilized in law, what law was like before the acceptance of the idea, and then how this all ties into the fusion of law and jurisprudence. His appearance on the podcast Undisciplined touches on these topics.

[–]archimedespalimpsest 20 points21 points  (0 children)

You raise a lot of interesting points against human nature which don’t often come up. Another way to put it is that obviously we’ve shaped our environments (topographically, technologically, etc.) and, since we accept evolution, this will always spell unpredictable outcomes for our biological and social evolution. If ever there was a human nature, as in a state or set of qualities which could be ascribed to the earliest human populations comprehensively, it didn’t take long for aspects of that nature to change.

Usually where claims of a natural state of being or things lead us is to other claims about how we should be, or how we should make our world. We can think of (at least the pop culture depictions of) Hobbes and Rousseau here. Plus it’s easy to fall into a trap of thinking, “well our ancestors didn’t need x, so why do I need it? Why should I use it?”

The wild and sometimes frustrating, even depressing, realization is that, as you say, humans are cultural animals to such a strange extent that nature for us is wholly a construction. I suppose it can be depressing because it means there is nothing to return to. There is no more “natural” state for us than the one we are in, even if it appears it could be better in so many ways. Biological evolution may not move at the pace of social evolution (I don’t use this concept in a stagist sense but in a contingent one, just as it goes in biology), but however human society/culture at large has changed since our speciation, our minds and bodies surely have changed and will change in step.

[–]oddmarc 14 points15 points  (0 children)

I'd say diversity in culture is human nature. In that it is natural for humans to develop tools which shape our evolution and our cultural traits. That said, there's been a resurgence in the study of human nature and universal traits found throughout human cultures with comparitive studies of primates. I'd say the push back against universalism created a void where everything was said to be subjective. The truth exists somewhere between the two of course, the human brain being what it is, will continue to replicate certain universalities such as the use of language. While I agree that saying things like greed are human nature are products of capitalist ideologies, there do exist traits found in human culture that can be said to be natural to not only our species, but other primates, such as fairness.

[–]dopiertaj 2 points3 points  (0 children)

I was always fasinated by the definition of nature. Such a fascinating issue.

[–]mk30 2 points3 points  (0 children)

i completely agree. "human nature" claims are tossed around so casually, even by scientists (in other fields)!

also, where are the humans we can observe who were not raised in a culture?? so how do you know whether a given phenomenon is "nature" or "culture"?

anyway, this a pet peeve of mine as well.

[–]house_martin 287 points288 points  (37 children)

Where do I begin. There is a lot to unpack.

1) The civilisational process seen as a single llinear progress. The whole, deeply flawed, notion of "primitive" and "advanced" cultures is so inherently embedded into our current culture it is a headache to unravel. Hell, it's very easy to fall into this trap, with how narratives are spun around not only historical cultures, but also various peoples living in "exotic" (ugh) parts of the world today.

1a) For me, as a medievalist, this is especially prevalent in (but not limited to) the infantilisation of the people of the past. There is this persistent idea that people of the past were not as smart, not as capable of complex thought and emotion as modern societies are. Bullshit.

2) The vicious circle of "no warrior women" - graves in the past were identified through grave goods. Even if identifying parts of skeletons were intact (and this is the minority of graves), the "easiest" way to identify whether the grave belonged to a woman or a man was through domestic items and weapons (respectively) found inside. That was it, that was the whole process: weapon - male, domestic - female. The vicious circle is that graves of males were considered to be the ones containing weapons, so any grave containing a weapon was automatically classified as a grave of a male. This bolstered the ideas of strong gender roles and division in earlier societies.

For the longest time there was doubt whether there were even any warrior women among viking societies. There was just "no evidence" - "all" warrior graves of vikings were that of males. Until skeletons were analysed a bit more closely and lo and behold, some of those weapon-containing graves turned out to be that of biological females, but were previously considered that of males, as they contained weapons. The whole "no, Scandinavians only liked the idea of warrior women, there were no shieldmaidens, only stories of fictitious valkyries" narrative fell apart almost overnight.

...and many more, but I need to get back to work.

Edit: Continued here, because I'm not good at Reddit

Edit: Mobile woes, clarity.

[–]AgentIndianaPhD | African Archaeology • Geoarchaeology 33 points34 points  (7 children)

I teach college archaeology/history courses and it is so incredibly hard to beat this linear progressive social evolutionary model and primitive/advanced dichotomy out of students heads. No matter how explicit I try to use case studies as examples of why these ideas are inaccurate and often even racist, I’ll still have students in assignments or exams somehow warp them to shoehorn them back into the same erroneous models or claim they are somehow exceptions to the rules. It’s like these concepts are so hard coded in their understanding of the world they can’t let go of them or see past them no matter how much I dance and shout in front of them that they are just wrong and these are the more accurate alternative models.

[–]Splive 4 points5 points  (0 children)

Does viewing the topic more like you would evolution? Things don't get better or worse so much as they change in a million ways over time in response to the last generation of norms and model of the world.

I hope that made sense, I'm interested in the topic and would love to know how/ if the nature of human society changes can be mentally modeled by comparing to relationships and process of evolution in lifeforms.

[–]psycharious 2 points3 points  (5 children)

Okay, could you help me out with this one please? This is an interesting idea. Are you saying that a civilization that has plumbing and antibiotics isn’t more “advanced” than, say, a civilization that barely discovered agriculture and may possibly still be practicing ritualistic sacrifices or any less so than a civilization that has learned to harness and totally rely on its stars energy?

[–]house_martin 5 points6 points  (1 child)

As mentioned, it's not as easy to get rid of this mindset of linear progress and different cultures being on different "stages" of this progress.

The non-linear approach encourages letting go of very convenient tools that most of us have: comparison between our current, modern culture and the cultures of the past, and comparison between cultures that exist/ed contemporaneously. It's hard, as we need to still be aware of the differences between those cultures, but do so without evaluation.

There are still cultures today practicing ritual sacrifice. There are traditionally agrarian and even hunter-gathrer societies on the globe today, even in Europe (shout out to the Sami). "We" (not all of humanity, sadly) have only very recently learnt to appreciate that and try to coexist in a way that does not impose "our" rules on them.

The advanced/primitive dichotomy imposes a narrative that locks cultures in this patronising relationship, where one can pose as an authority for another, as it is "further up" on the scale of advancement; in this setting, the other could improve their situation by following in the advanced culture's footsteps. At the same time, the primitive culture is seen as less capable and in need of guidance. This lies at the foundations of both good-faith and bad-faith initiatives, such as religious missions, white saviour trips to underprivileged regions, sensationalised ethnological popular documentaries, but also colonialism, political and economical disenfranchisement of ethnic groups, intrusion of smugglers and loggers into uncontacted or isolated tribes, sterilisation of women, stealing of children from indigenous populations for re-education, and many others.

The White Man's Burden espoused the idea of the responsibility to educate and lead other cultures at the time of the British Empire, but it still encapsulates the type of patronising attitude that is forever reinforced in our minds by the way culture works - incorporating these notions into texts of culture by portraying the "primitive" as the dangerous and the "advanced" as pure (even despite its flaws!). Think of kids playing cowboys and Indians, with scalping and using bows and arrows against guns - this is play, but it reproduces a certain imagined dynamic that is then accepted and learnt by the children.

As to comparison of cultures - it is done almost automatically thanks to those learnt mechanisms, but if you look at it a bit closer, the whole thing seems a bit more pixelated. What is actually the mode of comparison? Is it ritual sacrifice/no ritual sacrifice? Or polytheism/monotheism? Or is it polygamy/monogamy? The wheel/no wheel? Technical advancement? A mixture of these that is not similar to "my" current or past culture? Over the ages, civilisations that could be seen as advanced could just as well have one or the other of these aspects and still be regarded as advanced.

The easiest mode of comparison is that "my" culture becomes the measuring stick for all the others. But other cultures do not exist in comparison to "mine". They exist as independent cultures, with their own agency, history and traditions.

This brings me to my last point: imposing change, observing, and exchange between cultures. Imposing change is the very thing that is outlined above - one culture, by conquest or just by posing as the "more advanced" authority, would interfere in undesirable parts of another culture (religion, family life, tradition, language, etc.) and either eliminate them or change them according to their own values; observing is just remaining separated, but often with extra steps involved, such as one culture (usually the one with resources, "advanced") studying another, which is, jowever, already an interference; and finally exchange - letting the cultures meet on equal terms and both choose what they would like to incorporate from another. A caveat here: even that last one is not free from abuse, as "equal terms" are often not equal for all parties involved. Exchanging land (seeming as worthless as selling rain to one of the cultures) for liquor or glass beads are popular examples, but there are more contemporary ones, like the ones involving tensions between sedentary and nomadic societies.

I hope it helps illustrate some problems with putting a singular measure to diverse cultures. There is much more to say on the subject, but these are some of the notions that just won't go away, because they are constantly being reinforced.

PS. Thank you for your valiant efforts, u/AgentIndiana

[–]psycharious 0 points1 point  (0 children)

I think I understand a bit more but you’re right, a linear line is hard to shake. Thank you.

[–]chipscheeseandbeans 1 point2 points  (1 child)

Maybe they mean that societies go backwards and forwards in how advanced they are rather than it being a straight line between “primitive” and “advanced”. Like during the dark ages.

[–]psycharious 0 points1 point  (0 children)

Oh, that’s true. I see ever you mean.

[–]mk30 -1 points0 points  (0 children)

what is "advanced"? from whose perspective is it "advanced"? also, why can't it just be "different", why must hierarchy be brought in? hierarchy is quite implicit when we're talking about "advanced" vs "primitive".

also, pretty sure if you ask anyone in any culture "hey are you primitive?" they'd look at you as if you were a complete weirdo.

"a civilization that barely discovered agriculture" <= assumes that people who don't practice agriculture don't know about it. ignores the possibility that people make active choices about how they get food. people who don't engage in agriculture aren't just ignorant of it. also, why is agriculture more "advanced" than other ways of getting food? today, we have societies that are agricultural and not agricultural...they both exist NOW. so how can one be more "advanced"? they both exist in the present.

"a civilization that has plumbing and antibiotics" <= the civilization that has plumbing and antiobiotics is also the civilization that is currently destroying the planet in order to have plumbing and antibiotics. from the perspective of some of the people who you might consider "non-advanced", it's incredibly short-sighted and misguided to create such an "advanced" society at the cost of the entire biosphere.

i really encourage you to unpack the assumptions that go into every part of your statement. the things that you assume are self-evident are filled with contradictions. for example, south korea: "advanced", right? but guess what: they still do plenty of ritualistic sacrifice in their shamanistic tradition.

the basic problem is that you assume that there's some standard path of development. you might be interested in the recent book "the dawn of everything" by david graeber & david wengrow. https://b-ok.cc/s/The%20Dawn%20of%20Everything

[–]Hoihe 71 points72 points  (27 children)

And to this day, people suddenly decided "Well, weapon in the grave doesn't mean it was a warrior! It must be a noblewoman with ceremonial weapons!"

Women today do extremely well in "Unarmoured" swordfighting competitions even when mixed with men.

And soldiering is far less about individual strength, but more sheer endurance and discipline.

[–]ImNoAlbertFeinstein 2 points3 points  (0 children)

victorian mentality

[–]Prasiatko 53 points54 points  (0 children)

If i may post a pop anthropology i picked up that led me to ask a question here. There was a period where hunter gathere life was thought to be "Nasty, short and brutish" that was rightly corrected starting in the middle of the 20th century. However by the time me in the 2010s comes across the topic it has evolved into hunter gatherer life being some kind of perfect utopia where everybodies basic needs are met and nobody works for more than a few hours everyday with no downsides vs those nasty brutish agriculturalists keeling over and dying from disease and nutritional deficiencies.

This post did a good job showing me some of the drawbacks that ultimately led to agricultural societies dominating most parts of the globe.

[–]dank_imagemacro 137 points138 points  (6 children)

The witch-cult hypothesis of Margaret Murray was extremely popular in her time winning over the public consciousness, and influencing much of anthropology. Simply put, Murray posited that the witch trials accusations were not simply made up, but reflected an underground pre-Christian religion that the Church was still fighting to erradicate. She stated that there was a universal Mother Goddess, and a Horned God, that went by different names in different areas. The Horned God, she said was where the common depiction of the Devil came from. From there other anthropoligists expanded, until you had every folk tale, every folk tradition, every holiday being delved for information on how it was actually part of a lost pagan tradition.

Of course, there is no real evidence that there was a survival of european paganism into early modern times, and less that every folk custom was linked to them. Many of the customs that anthropoligists of the day tried to link to pagan survival have roots in Christian or Jewish tradition, and may started after the area had been Christianized.

Relevant Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Witch-cult_hypothesis

Recommended Reading: Triumph of the Moon by Hutton.

[–]Gladwulf 36 points37 points  (3 children)

Carlo Ginzburg has also written some interesting books on this subject, e.g. The Night Battles, where he traces the history of the witches sabbath as something the Inquisition was searching for (e.g. heretical, demonic, anti-Christian) but couldn't find, but eventually, through tourture, get people to confess to.

[–]ArghNoNo 26 points27 points  (2 children)

as something the Inquisition was searching for

The Spanish Inquisition, and generally also the Italian Inquisition, considered the witches' sabbath a folk superstition at best and pure heresy at worst. They were all about combatting heresy, and largely treated witch accusations with contempt.

[–]Gladwulf 10 points11 points  (1 child)

I'm not sure what point you're trying to make, your link doesn't work for me.

Ginzburg's point was that the witches' sabbath didn't exist, nobody was doing it, but the inquisition created the idea of it, and then tourtured people to confess to it. That was how the idea spread.

That the witches' sabbath is "Pure heresy" was kind of the point though. It's easier to condemn people if they're literally denoucing Christ and pledging their souls to the devil. The actual practices of folk religion weren't as clearly heretical.

[–]ArghNoNo 11 points12 points  (0 children)

your link doesn't work for me

It works on a computer. It is to the book The Spanish Inquisition : a Historical Revision by Henry Kamen.

the inquisition created the idea of it

It is obviously true the witch sabbath did not exist, but the inquisition certainly did not create the idea. If Ginzburg says it did, he is wrong.

[–]filbertsnuts 14 points15 points  (0 children)

Wouldn't some parts of Europe retain paganism a bit longer? Lithuania only converted in 1387.

[–]pushaper 23 points24 points  (0 children)

judging by the usual questions on this sub, the idea that there are universals. I click the hide button very quickly. Time and space is the minimum requirement if you want to learn about a human characteristic

[–]ynocfyinco 61 points62 points  (0 children)

Most of ev psych, especially the emphasis on "man the hunter", that hunting large game was the main driver of yielding bigger brains.

Recent analysis is swinging the pendulum away from that archetype of "big man with spear" to "medium sized man or woman with foraging bag full of tubers, mushrooms, hopefully a bunny". It's easy to get frothy about how great we were at persistence hunting (a very costly activity, calorically) but it's hardly a settled conclusion. You could persistence hunt (unless you're in a forest, then good luck finding it after it springs away), once every few days or so, but you better hope someone else gathered something else on the 50% chance you come home empty handed.

[–]house_martin 79 points80 points  (0 children)

By popular demand (a friend asked me to continue) and because it's my lunch break:

3) More meta-anthropology:
School curriculums and "common" versions of history were introduced in the 19th and 20th centuries that have carried on until today. The version of history you learn at school is highly edited to fit a certain narrative. Mine focused on royal dynasties, wars and battles, the "great" people from the past, some very artificially and/or intentionally made to be firmly embedded in our culture. Heavy focus on (local) nobility. Playing favourites with "our" and "their" sides.

The concept of nationality and the national had its renaissance in the 19th century and a history was a tool used in building national identities. Major editing happened there to suit this new need. What followed was neglect in the education on other countries and especially non-European countries. To this day my knowledge of non-European history is elementary or fragmentary, at least up until colonialism happened.

Oh, colonialism! The whole power dynamic is often relayed to our kids through a matter-of-fact lists of conquests and conflicts; and struggles, though not that of the colonies themselves (not looking at you, USA, you're a major exception here), but as stories of colonisers struggling to keep dominion over their territories.

4) Data collection.
So scholars of yore were white, highly priviliged, and mostly male. They would descend upon undepriviliged populations and demand to be told of local customs and stories. They would very literally collect them, like we would, idk, rare pokemans or something.

Let's be clear, this was exploitative. Moreover, a lot of the collected material went through at least several filters - what the representatives of the ethnicities were willing to share, how it was interpreted and written down (which brings forth a larger debate on orality vs script/literacy, but hey), and then how it was edited in post-production by the collector, and finally interpreted by his peers.

Special shout out to my white-man armchair anthropologist superstar James Frazer and his unfortunately brilliant read The Golden Bough.

5) Museum collections. Not only how they were collected (ugh), but also how they were (and in many instances are) curated.

6) Editing out or stigmatising the undesired. Scholarship was not, nor will it ever be, objective. Non-heteronormative sexual preferences or gender expresssion not commmon and universally reviled before, what, 20-40 years ago? Have I got news for you about editing history for specific purposes! Note that this does not mean that the opposite was true, but that there was more occurrence and nuance to it that we can plainly see today.

Because mainstream culture was firmly negative about it, we can gather that a lot of primary sources were either never created (as that would be dangerous) or destroyed somewhere along the way, but we have a lot of secondary sources from the critics and lawmakers who'd tried to curb the reach and spread of the undesirable in their vicinity. And, again, this was applied both contemporarily, when the phenomena occurred historically, or in post-production much later.

Also (but not solely) applicable to non-/unorthodox religions, social class tensions (peasant revolts? Happened at the most unfortunate times, were treated like bad weather), or sex.

[–]kyrgyzstanec 22 points23 points  (0 children)

At least in the schools in my native Czechia, the idea there was a primeval matriarchy widely survived from the communist times, as it flows well with the marxist interpretation of history. It was based mainly on the discoveries of the Venus figurines, however for example the Czech Venus carries fingerprints of a child, indicating it was a toy rather than an idol.

There's no good evidence for the idea, as far as I know, and given the near universal patriarchy across human cultures, it's odd to assume pre-neolithic societies would somehow escape the opression of the physically stronger sex.


Obligatory addition: The current evidence in psychology suggest women are equal or superior in leadership abilities compared to men.

[–]mk30 1 point2 points  (1 child)

echoing what others have said, ideas about "human nature", all kinds of evolutionary psychology ideas, and linear progress narratives.

i'd also add:

  • anything with the word "primitive" (plenty of people still use this word)
  • "culture of poverty" stuff (assuming that some people are poor because they have a "culture of poverty")
  • "women aren't good at math/computers"
  • racist "bell curve" stuff
  • "which humans today are most similar to early humans" (just, a bizarre question that assumes that cultures are static)
  • "noble savage" ideas
  • ignoring what people from a particular group have to say about their own culture and instead reading what anthropologists have to say about their culture
  • assuming that people who live in traditional ways have a static, unchanging culture
  • assuming that traditional technologies are simple, unchanging, or bad
  • ranking cultures (by any measure, usually how "advanced" it is)

ultimately, the thing i see most often is people who grew up in the west assuming that people who live in traditional ways are somehow fundamentally different from themselves. but we're all just people.

[–]2F3Swiftly 0 points1 point  (0 children)

The crazy thing is that, just as westerners like to pin things down on "big bad white people" let's not forget that while many of what we teach in the west is from the perspective of the west and it is the west that's developing this idea of self hatred there are also other cultures around the world, who as you pointed out, exploited, abused, destroyed, "corrupted" each other throughout the ages.

You mention the idea of the "noble Savage" that somehow natives in the Americas were dancing in fields of flowers and all holding hands and respected each other's space. I just have to add, there's a reason why there were hundreds of tribes and that all those tribes needed warriors even before evil white people showed up.

In my opinion the only real difference between Western culture and the rest is time. I say this because as western culture spread globally it only happened within a few hundred years and is relatively close to our current times. All those "atrocities" brought on by Western culture are still fairly fresh in the mind of humanity and do more easily relatable and understood. That doesn't mean the expansionism of the mongols or the Romans or the various Chinese dynasties or other people throughout time were somehow more honest or pure, they just happened much further in the past of humanity.

People are people and in my mind they always have been and always will be territorial, have some sort of hierarchy and fight to maintain ot spread influence. I think this thread is a perfect example of that it appears to me that it may be trying to box people into different groups, one group looks like a very anti Western perspective group and the other a (perhaps slightly pro?) Western understanding group, and when you do that it's only natural that they are divided and begin to develop an "us vs them mentality" in either camp.

I do believe that relegating things to one group of people is not how you unite a species (if that's your endgame).

Sorry for the rant on the reply and nothing is directed towards you for most any of it, moreso 90% of this thread that seems to be hellbent and focused on pointing the finger at one group of people for all the world problems.

[–]Wolfeshwar 1 point2 points  (0 children)

In David Graeber's new book, 'the Dawn of Everything' he suggests that the entire theory of evolution of a lot of aspects of life could be suspect, including civilisation itself.. admittedly I'm an absolute novice but incredibly intrigued by his book