Author: William Buckner

On the Nature of Patriarchy

By their very nature, it is said, women are the source of nearly all discord and litigation within the community. Through their ceaseless enticements to adultery, their notorious insensitivity to the sensible commands of father, husband, and brother, and their mindless passion for gossip and intrigue—in these and countless other ways women are the bane of a peaceful society. ~Anthropologist Donald Tuzin, describing the ideology of the Ilahita Arapesh ‘men’s cult’ in Rituals of Manhood, 1982. Humans are an anisogamous species. For us, as with all animals, reproduction involves the fusion of gametes—small, highly mobile sperm that joins with the larger, relatively immobile egg. This initial asymmetry between organisms who produce sperm (males) and those who produce eggs (females) contributes to the different fitness strategies individuals of each sex tend to utilize. Sexual conflict is an inevitable consequence of being a sexually reproducing species: the evolutionary interests of males and females do not always neatly align. Being placental mammals, human females gestate, give birth to relatively helpless live young, and nourish their infants through lactation …

Burying a Child

But looking back, always the spirit of joyousness rises before me as her emblem and characteristic: she seemed formed to live a life of happiness: her spirits were always held in check by her sensitiveness lest she should displease those she loved, & her tender love was never weary of displaying itself by fondling & all the other little acts of affection.— We have lost the joy of the Household, and the solace of our old age:—she must have known how we loved her; oh that she could now know how deeply, how tenderly we do still & shall ever love her dear joyous face. Blessings on her. ~Charles Darwin’s memorial of his daughter Anne, who died at the age of 10. April 30, 1851. In her 2004 book The Afterlife Is Where We Come From detailing her fieldwork among the Beng farmers of West Africa, anthropologist Alma Gottlieb recounts the story of an elderly woman named Afwe Zi. Afwe first came to Gottlieb seeking treatment for a persistent cut she had on her leg. …

Explaining Monogamy to Vox

In the first episode of their new Netflix series, entitled Explained, the folks over at Vox set out to explain monogamy. Or at least, that is what the title (“Monogamy, Explained”) appeared to promise. But by the time it was over, very little seemed to have been explained. The central arguments, as I understand them, are that monogamy didn’t exist until after the invention of agriculture, marrying for love didn’t exist until roughly 1700 AD, and the concept of sexual selection was developed by Victorian scientists like Charles Darwin in part to justify traditional gender roles. Vox interviews four experts for their video: relationship advice columnist Dan Savage, historian Stephanie Coontz, author Christopher Ryan, and evolutionary biologist David Barash. Of these contributors, Barash is given the least screen time. He is allowed to provide a brief description of classic sexual selection theory, noting the problem of paternity uncertainty for males, and that because of differences between sperm and eggs, males can have larger fitness payoffs by being more promiscuous than females generally can. The narrator, however, …

The Complicated Legacy of Colonial Contact

“There is…no simple progression from “traditional” to “modern,” but a twisting, spasmodic, unmethodical movement which turns as often toward repossessing the emotions of the past as disowning them.” – Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures, 1973 Intercultural contact can be quite precarious. Interactions between different populations with diverse languages, cultural norms, and social institutions have sometimes led to mutually beneficial exchanges of goods and technology, but they can also precipitate unforeseen conflicts. Early encounters between people in small-scale societies and state representatives and missionaries all too often led to regrettable misunderstandings – or conflicts of interest – that ended in tragedy. In anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss’s memoir Tristes Tropiques (1955), he described the embittered relationship between Protestant missionaries and the native Nambikwara hunter-gatherers of Brazil during the early 20th century. In 1933, soon after the missionaries arrived, the Nambikwara helped the missionaries build a house and plant their garden. In return, the missionaries gave them some unspecified gifts, which the Nambikwara considered inadequate. A few months later, a Nambikwara man went to the mission with a …

Becoming a Man

“In the puberty rites, the novices are made aware of the sacred value of food and assume the adult condition; that is, they no longer depend on their mothers and on the labor of others for nourishment. Initiation, then, is equivalent to a revelation of the sacred, of death, sexuality, and the struggle for food. Only after having acquired these dimensions of human existence does one become truly a man.” – Mircea Eliade, Rites and Symbols of Initiation: The Mysteries of Birth and Rebirth, 1958 “To be a man in most of the societies we have looked at, one must impregnate women, protect dependents from danger, and provision kith and kin.” – David D. Gilmore, Manhood in the Making, 1990 “Keep your head clear and know how to suffer like a man.” – Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea, 1952 There are commonalities of human behavior that extend beyond any geographic or cultural boundary. Every known society has a sexual division of labor – many facets of which are ubiquitous the world over. …

The Behavioral Ecology of Male Violence

“Aggressive competition for access to mates is much more beneficial for human males than for females…” ~Georgiev et al. 1 Understanding patterns of lethal violence among humans requires understanding some important sex differences between males and females. Globally, men are 95 percent of homicide offenders and 79 percent of victims.2 Sex differences in lethal violence tend to be remarkably consistent, on every continent, across every type of society, from hunter-gatherers to large-scale nation states. In their 2013 study on lethal violence among hunter-gatherers, Douglas Fry and Patrik Söderberg’s data showed that males committed about 96 percent of homicides and were victims 84 percent of the time.3 In her study on violence in non-state societies, criminologist Amy Nivette shows that, across a number of small-scale pastoralist and agriculturalist societies, males make up 91-98 percent of killers.4 To illustrate the consistency of this relationship even further: we see the same pattern among chimpanzees, where males make up 92 percent of killers and 73 percent of victims.5 To be sure, there is some cross-cultural variation. While I can find …

Romanticizing the Hunter-Gatherer

O Man, to whatever country you belong and whatever your opinions, listen: here is your history as I believe I have read it, not in the books of your fellow men who are liars but in Nature which never lies. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, A Discourse on Inequality In 1966, at the ‘Man the Hunter’ symposium held at the University of Chicago, anthropologist Richard B. Lee presented a paper that would radically rewrite how academics and the public at large interpret life in hunter-gatherer societies. Questioning the notion that the hunter-gatherer way of life is a “precarious and arduous struggle for existence,” Lee instead described a society of relative comfort and abundance. Lee studied the !Kung of the Dobe area in the Kalahari Desert (also known variously as Bushmen, the San people, or the Ju/’hoansi) and noted that they required only 12 to 19 hours a week to collect all the food they needed. Lee further criticized the notion that hunter-gatherers have a low life expectancy, arguing that the proportion of individuals older than 60 among the …