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.