Douglas P. Fry - Beyond War

Shoddy Anthropology & Gun Control: Human Nature, Culture, History

Update: See Fran Barone’s Guns, America, and Anthropology (March 2013) for hard-hitting analysis. After reading Barone’s post and going through an extensive back-and-forth in the comment stream, I’ve realized I need to better articulate the position that the Second Amendment does not, all by itself, preclude reasonable gun reform. See also Public Anthropology and Bill Gates: We Cannot Abandon Humanity.


Douglas P. Fry - Beyond WarIn a December 2012 round-up on Gun Violence and Anthropology, I wrote that “some of the most classic arguments against gun control are rooted in shoddy anthropology–ideas about human nature, culture, and history which do not withstand anthropological scrutiny.” Daniel Lende, who has written so sensitively on Newtown and Violence – No Easy Answers, sent an e-mail for clarification on my rather telegraphic statement. But as clarification became a lengthy e-mail reply, decided to try it as a blog-post.

Lende’s e-mail reminded me of how news of Jared Diamond’s then forthcoming book, The World Until Yesterday coincided with the horrifying scenes from Newtown. Somehow Jared Diamond seemed to be telling us that really the violence in Papua New Guinea was much worse than what we were grieving in Newtown. My own review of Diamond turned to his shoddy use of the ethnographic record, particularly the uncritical use of Napoleon Chagnon, which would then of course get redoubled with the release of Chagnon’s Noble Savages memoir. But in other ways this all does feed into reflections on gun violence and gun control in the U.S., a binging on shoddy anthropology that underpins current debates.

Shoddy Anthropology, Gun Control, Human Nature

Arguments against gun control often turn on a shoddy anthropology of ahistorical ideas about human nature. In this story, humans have been killing each other since time immemorial. If it’s not sticks, it’s stones, then it’s slings, then bows & arrows, spears, leading up to swords and muskets. Violence is primordial to human nature. Gun control can’t control evil–it will just make it easier for bad human nature to manifest.

Before writing about Jared Diamond on Napoleon Chagnon, I had not realized how pervasively resuscitated this mythology had become, mostly via Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of our Nature (2011). But as angry comment streams everywhere indicate, the Pinker-Diamond-Chagnon triangle is now firmly entrenched. The 2013 War, Peace, & Human Nature: Convergence of Evolution & Culture volume is an empirical and theoretical corrective, but I fear this will be too little, too late, and too oriented to library collections. Even though anthropology has a much different perspective, plus the empirical evidence and science on our side, this battle seems basically lost. Douglas P. Fry’s previous work, Beyond War: The Human Potential for Peace–it just sounds too hippy.

Closely linked to this view is another argument against gun control which posits there are good and evil individuals in the world, and that the people who are going to do evil will find a way to do evil, whether that be from drunk driving or making bombs out of fertilizer. In this view, any legislation is simply an ineffective overlay on top of a society composed of rugged autonomous individuals. Individuals can be changed from within, but they are never changed through legislation.

These ideas about the relationship between human nature, cultural patterning, individuals, law, and society, were effectively demolished in the first founding statements of anthropology, by Franz Boas and very importantly Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture, from the 1930s and before. These are the founding ideas of anthropology, far different from present caricatures which portray Napoleon Chagnon as the natural scientist battling the 1970s rise of Marxists, feminists, and post-modernists.

Shoddy Anthropology, Gun Control, Culture

When the argument against gun control turns away from human nature, it often focuses on ideas of culture, particularly on a “culture of violence.” It’s a very curious turn. This so-called culture of violence, when it does not simply correspond to older caricatures of a “culture of poverty,” usually talks a lot about video games, Hollywood, and The Media, all of which glorify violence. It seems to be both a very symbolic use of the word culture, but also a very deterministic vision–somehow these video games are leading to violent episodes, despite repeated rebuttals that the same video games in Japan don’t seem to be doing anything.

This is a deterministic version of culture shorn of power and political economy. Curiously, there is usually no mention of the gun advertising which liberals highlight. But there is also no mention of what Charles Blow called Gun Culture. Defending Blow’s use of the term gun culture was one of the big reasons I became involved in writing about gun control, as I felt this was a non-deterministic use of culture which did not do what so many other uses of culture terminology did–become a shortcut to evade explanations of power, political economy, and history (e.g. David Brooks is a Cultural Problem).

Shoddy Anthropology, Gun Control, History

Finally, and very briefly because it has been done much better elsewhere, arguments against gun control often depend on shoddy history, a history that assumes statements about militias and muskets in the 18th century are to be read as a guiding package of inalienable rights to massive firepower in the 21st century.

While I have not expected the American Anthropological Association to be able to issue a unified statement about gun control, it is nevertheless the case that many gun control arguments depend on assumptions about human nature, culture, and history that have long been demolished by anthropology since its beginnings a century ago. I am pleased that the AAA did issue a January 2013 Statement on Gun Violence:

We call upon the Congress and the Administration to rescind measures that obstruct the development of empirical knowledge about guns and public safety. Further, we call on the Congress and the Administration to make additional federal funds available, as an urgent national priority, for rigorous peer-reviewed research by experts from diverse disciplinary backgrounds to investigate ways of reducing the tragic loss of life in incidents involving guns.

Tagged With: , , , , , , , , ,