From: Keith Henson (email@example.com)
Date: Mon 02 Jan 2006 - 18:06:55 GMT
I came upon this by accident. It is really worth reading as background to
memetics since understanding the meme's host is essential to understanding
why some memes do better than others.
(Snips and line breaks added to improve readability, worth reading in full
plus the Ferguson reply and response material)
Published in Anthropological Quarterly, 73.1 (2000), 20-34.
THE HUMAN MOTIVATIONAL COMPLEX: EVOLUTIONARY THEORY AND THE CAUSES OF
Part I: Primary Somatic and Reproductive Causes
At the centre of this study is the age-old philosophical and psychological
inquiry into the nature of the basic human system of motivation. Numerous
lists of basic needs and desires have been put together over the centuries,
more or less casually or convincingly. The most recent ones show little if
any marked progress over the older, back to Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan, 6
(e.g. Maslow 1970 ; Burton 1990).
In the absence of an evolutionary perspective, these lists have always had
something arbitrary and trivial about them. They lacked a unifying
regulatory rationale that would suggest why the various needs and desires
came to be, or how they related to one another.
Arguing that the human motivational system as a whole should be approached
from the evolutionary perspective, this study focuses on the causes of
fighting. It examines what can be meaningfully referred to as the 'human
state of nature', the 99.5 percent of the genus Homo's evolutionary history
in which humans lived as hunter-gatherers.
In this 'state of nature' people's behaviour patterns are generally to be
considered as evolutionarily adaptive. They form the evolutionary
inheritance that we have carried with us throughout later history, when
this inheritance has constantly interacted and been interwoven with the
human staggering cultural development.
The causes of 'primitive warfare' remain a puzzle in anthropology, with
explanations ranging from the materialist to cultural and psychological
('sheer pugnacity'). In recent years, the discussion has been largely dominated by what has been presented as a controversy between the evolutionist and cultural-materialist theories.
That the debate has taken this form is due to historical developments
within anthropology. Being one of the principal theoretical approaches in
anthropology, cultural materialism stresses people's desire to improve
their material lot as the basis of human motivation.
Since there is a very substantial grain of truth in this idea, cultural
materialism has had an obvious explanatory appeal. However, its limitations
should have been equally clear, and they were revealed, for example, in the
anthropological study of war during the 1970s.
It was horiticulturalists, the Yanomamo of the Orinoco basin and the
Highlanders of New Guinea, that stood at the centre of the debate. It was
not clear why these horticulturalists fought among themselves, for there
was no real sign that either the Yanomamo or some of the New Guinea
Highlanders experienced agricultural land shortage.
The proponents of the materialist school thus suggested that they fought
over highly valued animal protein. With the Yanomamo, this supposedly took
the form of competition over hunting resources in the forests around their
In New Guinea, the competition was allegedly over grazing grounds in the
forests for domesticated pigs. While this interpretation had some
plausibility, it did not sit quite comfortably with all the
evidence. Indeed, the cultural materialists themselves began to look for
At a more fundamental level, the cultural materialists never seriously
explained, never felt that there was a need to explain, their central
argument: why was it that the quest for material gains was the overriding
motive of human action.
. . . the materialist argument often called for elaborate intellectual
acrobatics, which in extreme cases made cultural materialism famous for the
most contrived explanatory stories.
From the mid-1970, modern evolutionary theory slowly began to win
attention among anthropologists. One of the first anthropologists
influenced by it was Napoleon A. Chagnon, who had already been the
best-known student of the Yanomamo. Chagnon argued (1979a, 1979b, 1988)
that Yanomamo warfare, as well as their internal conflicts, were
predominantly about reproductive opportunities.
In inter-village warfare, women were regularly raped or kidnapped for
marriage, or both. Village headmen and distinguished warriors had many
wives and children, many times more than ordinary people did. Violent feuds
within the village were chiefly caused by adultery.
As we shall see, most of these ideas were true. Unfortunately, however,
Chagnon - who in the 'protein controversy' wholly opposed the idea that
Yanomamo warfare involved competition over hunting territories - gave the
impression that evolutionary theory was about reproduction in the narrow
rather than the broadest sense.
His arguments have thus opened themselves to all sorts of criticisms;
anthropologists have anyhow exhibited considerable resistance to the
intrusion of evolutionary theory, which called for a thorough re-evaluation
of accepted anthropological interpretative traditions.
Many of the criticisms levelled against Chagnon's position have been poorly
informed about the fundamentals of evolutionary theory. For instance, one
critic (McCauley 1990: 3) queried why, if fighting was beneficial for
inclusive fitness, was it not continuous and ubiquitous.
He failed to realize that fighting, like any other behaviour, could be only
one possible tactic for inclusive fitness, depending for its success, and
activation, on the presence of specific conditions.
Another cluster of often-voiced criticisms was that it was not true that
people were motivated by the desire to maximize the number of their
offspring; that the widespread occurrence of infanticide among primitive
people was one example that belied this idea; and that women were sought
for economic as well as sexual purposes, as a labour force (McCauley 1990;
Ferguson 1995: 358-9).
The flaws in these criticisms can be pointed out only briefly here. It is
not that people consciously 'want' to maximize the number of their
children; although there is also some human desire for children per se and
a great attachment to them once they exist, it is mainly the desire for sex
- Thomas Malthus's 'passion' - which functions in nature as the powerful biological proximate mechanism for maximizing reproduction;
as humans, and other living creatures, normally engage in sex throughout
their fertile lives, they have a vast reproductive potential, which, before
effective contraception, mainly depended for its realization on
Infanticide typically takes place when a new-born in conditions of
resource scarcity threatens the survival chances of his elder siblings, as,
for example, of an elder nursing infant; for inclusive fitness is not about
maximizing offspring number but about maximizing the number of *surviving*
The fact that women may sometime also be valued for economic, as well as
reasons is strictly in line with evolutionary theory; people must feed,
find shelter, and protect themselves (somatic activities) in order to
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