The dangers of Excess and Restraint

Most major criticisms of World Until Yesterday have focused on Diamond’s description of ‘traditional societies’ as violent and dangerous. Diamond, Critics clam, over estimates the dangers of living in a traditional society, underestimates the benefits of living in a modern state, and drastically overlooks the evils of colonization, and the way that colonization shaped the people Diamond considers typical of ‘traditional societies’. If you scroll down long enough, Jason Antrosio has a nice society by society breakdown of how Diamond’s examples of traditional violence are actually people whose lives have been fundamentally and tragically shaped by colonialism. Or (in some cases) the ethnographers that Diamond relies on were just nuts. I like Antrosio’s blog entry a lot, but I think his section on Papua New Guinea could use a little elaboration. So that’s what I’ll do here.

Diamond knows the PNG literature a lot better than works written about other areas, mostly because he knows the people who wrote it and about whom it is written. Most of his sources come from authors who are well-respected for their ethnographic chops: Polly Weissner and Akii Tumu, Malinowski, Jane Goodale, and Roy Rappaport. Some of the other anthropologists he cites are considered problematic in some way, but are generally considered to be excellent ethnographers: Mervyn Meggitt had some issues analyzing his data, and Roy Wagner is currently not on the same planet as the rest of us — but despite these issues most Melanesianists recognize that Meggitt and Wagner produced very detailed and reliable ethnography.

And then there are the Berndts.

None of the sources I’ve mentioned above explicitly focus on warfare or conflict. The source that Diamond does use to describe conflict in PNG, Ronald Berndt’s Excess and Restraint: Social Control Among a New Guinea Mountain People, is also the piece that is the most problematic.

When I was studying for my Ph.D. I bought a copy of Excess and Restraint mostly because there were lots of beautiful, cloth editions for sale at reasonable rates. The reason, I later found out, was that no one took the book very seriously. The book sat there on my shelf for years, looking scholarly but unread, when Warwick Anderson published The Collector of Lost Souls: Turning Kuru Scientists Into White Men. 

Anderson’s book is superb — really superb — and deserves a wide audience. But what’s relevant here is his analysis of Excess and Restraint. Although their work in Australia is very highly regarded, the Berndts’ time in PNG was “a blot on their careers” (p. 23). Anderson writes:

Ronald described obsessively the display of male strength and aggression in initiation rituals, sexual activity, and warfare…. [his] reflections now conjured up the Marquis de Sade. Unfailingly, he dwelt on excess, whether sexual or violent. In a society rife with interpersonal and intergroup conflict, it seems to him that actions exhibiting excess were the only restraint on other sociopathic conduct. If he had considered exchange relations more seriously, he might have found another explanation for social control and cohesion. Instead, his work is a threnody on incontinence and dissipation. (p. 23)

And trust me — in person Warwick is much more vivid in his description of the short comings of the Berndt’s work! Berndt’s over-the-top ruminations regarding warfare also apply to cannibalism:

The Berndts imagined cannibalism as a manifestation of conflict and outlet for aggression, a sign of lack of control. Unfortunately Ronald did not detect any patterns in Fore cannibalism, and asserted they ate any human flesh except the victims of dysentery and kuru sorcery. Later analysts insisted the Fore ate only loved ones after death… But Ronald wanted to focus on what he called the “orgiastic feast,” lingering over gross fantasies of copulation with corpses and other forms of sexual violence towards the dead. Many of his statements perhaps better reveal his own preoccupations than any true pattern of Fore behavior. (p. 24)

Sound familiar? It will to many readers of World Until Yesterday. Diamond’s negative portrayals of pre-contact Papua New Guinea society has many sources, and I don’t think that his work is merely parroting Berndt’s problematic analysis. But I do think that Berndt’s work did play a role in shaping Diamond’s outlook. And it deserves to be mentioned here that Excess and Restraint, the only book on Diamond’s list that focuses on conflict, is also the most problematic one he cites.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

4 thoughts on “The dangers of Excess and Restraint

  1. How about the Greeks between the Dorian invasion and 400 BCE, as described by Thoukidides:

    “in early times the Hellenes and the barbarians of the coast and islands, as communication by sea became more common, were tempted to turn pirates, under the conduct of their most powerful men; the motives being to serve their own cupidity and to support the needy. They would fall upon a town unprotected by walls, and consisting of a mere collection of villages, and would plunder it; indeed, this came to be the main source of their livelihood, no disgrace being yet attached to such an achievement, but even some glory. An illustration of this is furnished by the honour with which some of the inhabitants of the continent still regard a successful marauder, and by the question we find the old poets everywhere representing the people as asking of voyagers- “Are they pirates?”- as if those who are asked the question would have no idea of disclaiming the imputation, or their interrogators of reproaching them for it. The same rapine prevailed also by land.

    “And even at the present day many of Hellas still follow the old fashion, the Ozolian Locrians for instance, the Aetolians, the Acarnanians, and that region of the continent; and the custom of carrying arms is still kept up among these continentals, from the old piratical habits. The whole of Hellas used once to carry arms, their habitations being unprotected and their communication with each other unsafe; indeed, to wear arms was as much a part of everyday life with them as with the barbarians. And the fact that the people in these parts of Hellas are still living in the old way points to a time when the same mode of life was once equally common to all…”

    I don’t think anybody would maintain that Thoukydides’s Hellenes were a society that had been “fundamentally and tragically shaped by colonialism”.

    I think back on the forensic archeology seminars I have been to which seem to show rates of violent death on the order of 1/10–equal to Stalin’s Russia or Hitler’s Europe or (perhaps) Mao’s China, and exceeded only by Pol Pot’s Cambodia. And I wonder: what are the mechanisms that in pre-state societies are supposed to limit decentralized deadly force as a way of “settling” disputes, and why don’t we use them–why do we resort to our police and our courts if we could live as peacefully without them?

  2. “Thoukidides”

    This from the self-styled utopian who thinks it’s only just that the urban poor have substandard food, and finds “metis” in the hand skills of 13-year-old mill workers.

  3. My main problem with Diamond’s book is that it’s boring. The only parts I found interesting were his first person accounts of his experiences in New Guinea. Otherwise I found little to nothing that was really new or particularly insightful.

    He’s right about violence, though. At least up to a point. Many indigenous peoples, including hunter-gatherers, are deeply involved in institutionalized violence. Or at least they were, before being “pacified” by their far more violent colonialist “masters.”

    I find it astonishing that any anthropologist would dispute that. While working on my own book, I came across an especially interesting essay by Paul Roscoe, The Hunter-gatherer Spectrum in New Guinea ( According to Roscoe, the ethnographic record reveals the presence of several hunter-gatherer groups in the not too distant past. And, “Contradicting a common stereotype that war is attenuated or absent among hunters and gatherers, fighting was endemic.” In fact, “Warfare was generally intense, and most of these groups were head-hunters.” This is fully consistent with many more recent ethnographic reports describing horticulturalists as well.

    The problem with this disturbing issue of violence is that too many anthropologists tend to see it as an either-or proposition, and also that too many anthropologists tend to lump all indigenous and especially all hunter-gatherer groups into the same general mix. The fact is that there are a great many differences between different groups, which means there is NO substitute for broad-based comparative research.

    My own research has led me to the conclusion that, despite the very real and very serious violent activities of so many indigenous peoples (and early civilizations) both today and in the recorded past, our MRCA among “modern” humans was NOT a violent group, or more accurately lacked traditions that reinforced either interpersonal or institutionalized violence. As a result, I have argued against people such as Pinker, Wrangham, etc., that violence is bred into our genes, as appears to be the case among chimps. I doubt also that it’s bred into chimps either, for the very simple reason that we do NOT find such behavior typically among bonobos, who have a very similar biological history, but apparently very different traditions.

    The difference between chimps and bonobos argues very strongly against any strictly biological interpretation of violence, at least as far as our distant ancestors are concerned. Nevertheless, imo biological interpretations cannot be ruled out completely, because Darwinian factors definitely come into play when certain contingencies are considered.

    Bottom line: it’s really much better to argue on the basis of facts than on the basis of some sort of “ethics,” and on this point I completely agree with Chagnon.

  4. @DocG

    Thanks for the link. For those who might not click on it, I offer the following paragraphs.

    New Guinea’s foragers can be divided into two major types according to the source of their meat protein. In the first type, meat sources were either very limited or primarily comprised of terrestrial and arboreal game – wild pigs, cassowaries, marsupials, rats, birds, and a large number of smaller fauna. In the second type, large amounts of meat protein were typically procured, primarily in the form of aquatic resources – in particular fish, shellfish, and sometimes crocodiles. Some groups in this latter type procured the majority of their aquatic resources indirectly through trade, usually in exchange for sago.

    These differences in subsistence correlated strongly with differences in demography, social organization, and cultural forms.
    Groups that procured limited amounts of meat protein or that relied primarily on terrestrial and arboreal game markedly resembled the classic hunter-gatherer societies typified by the !Kung, Inuit, Mbuti, and many Australian Aboriginal groups. At contact, their population densities were usually below 1/; their settlements were small, typically between 10 and 40 inhabitants; and they were mostly semi- or fully-nomadic, shifting residence every few weeks or months. Political life was relatively egalitarian: inequities in power and influence were uncommon, though fighting prowess, hunting ability, ritual expertise (including sorcery), and/or economic generosity brought prestige. Mobility was an important conflict resolution mechanism. Ritual life was comparatively unelaborated, and there was little visual art – though other aesthetic pursuits such as dance and song were sometimes highly developed. Contradicting a common stereotype that war is attenuated or absent among hunters and gatherers, fighting was endemic.

    Groups that depended on aquatic resources rather than terrestrial and arboreal game typically exhibited a cultural complexity rivaling that of agriculturalists in New Guinea and they strongly resembled other aquatically adapted, hunter-gatherer societies such as the Native American communities of the Northwest Coast. Densities were significantly higher than among their terrestrially adapted counterparts, ranging from 1-6/sq km. Settlement size was usually on the order of one hundred to several hundred people, with some Asmat conurbations numbering well over a thousand. Settlements were relatively permanent, with lifetimes of at least three years and, more usually, a generation or more. Hierarchy was often pronounced, with some villages even exhibiting descent-group ranking. Male prestige was achieved in much the same way as among terrestrially adapted groups, but in contrast to the latter, leaders usually enjoyed a significant degree of power. Most of these groups also had developed highly elaborate ceremonial and visual art. Some, such as the Asmat, Karawari, Kwoma, and Purari are among the most famous of New Guinea’s ritual artists. Warfare was generally intense, and most of these groups were head-hunters.

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