“It seems that Barry and I have different opinions on who (at least in this instance) is doing the political work, but nonetheless I think we are both in full agreement that politics has no place in science, and that scientific investigation should be kept clear of meddling for political purposes.
So, happy to get back on track.
I certainly agree that politics muddies and muddles the scientific endeavor. In reading these “On Human Nature” pages from the beginning, I’m struck by how as Barry and Doug’s disagreement escalated until the third parties spoke up. Upon hearing the “public opinion,” Barry and Doug turned it around, deescalated, and even reconciled. This does my heart good! How did other readers feel about this outcome? As an anthropologist, I might add that this cyberspace case parallels how band living foragers handle much of their conflicts, as well—without violence, by talking it out before the court of public opinion or with the help of those expressing the “public opinion”—one of the many examples of the human potential for peace.
Since a small part of the discussion involves what I am alleged to have written, I offer a couple of thoughts “from the horse’s mouth,” so to speak. Barry, first of all, thank you for your positive comments about my book, “The Human Potential for Peace: An Anthropological Challenge to Assumptions about War and Violence.” One of the key points in the book, as you mention, is that in science we should look at the evidence. So, one of my main goals in the book is to carefully examine the actual anthropological data. This approach may sound so obvious as to be unworthy of mention. However, there is a litany of examples, some presented in the book, of how preconceived notions, much more than an actual careful look at the data, affect interpretations about war, peace, and human nature. The task of separating out the evidence from speculation, assumption, and pre-existing beliefs is central to gaining an understanding human nature regarding war, peace, and other issues. Basically in the book I am arguing that looking at the actual evidence from archaeology, cross-cultural research, and, especially, the patterns of social life among nomadic hunter-gatherer societies shows the most advocated perspective on human warfare to be really out of whack with reality. As you know, since you’ve read the book, I present an alternative, evidence-based, model of human aggression that is not as neo-Hobbesian as the views floating about in other quarters.
A quote by Carl Sagan goes to the core:
“At the heart of science is an essential tension between two seemingly contradictory attitudes—an openness to new ideas, no matter how bizarre or counterintuitive they may be, and the most ruthless skeptical scrutiny of all ideas, old and new. This is how deep truths are winnowed from deep nonsense. Of course, scientists make mistakes in trying to understand the world, but there is a built-in error-correcting mechanism: The collective enterprise of creative thinking and skeptical thinking together keeps the
field on track.”
—Carl Sagan, “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection,” 1987
Doug, in response to Barry’s suggestion to read my book, you cited Craig T. Palmer’s recently published review of “The Human Potential for Peace.” I note with interest how cautiously you worded your comments in referring to Craig Palmer’s review. Sometimes when someone oversells an idea it raises a red flag or two, right? If your cautious wording about Palmer’s review reflects a nagging little skepticism (can this really be true?), then you had good reason to trust your intuition, because a comparison of what Palmer’s claims I have written with what I have actually written is revealing. There is not much “gray area” here—one simply needs to compare both texts, point for point. We started with the problems of politics intruding into science. Something is certainly intruding into objective science in this case.
The book review editor of “Evolutionary Psychology” encouraged me to respond to the Palmer review. Since you refer to Palmer’s review without the benefit of having read what I have actually have written in “The Human Potential for Peace,” then, in the spirit of Carl Sagan’s quote, you might find my response to the review of at least passing interest. I hope you enjoy my tongue-in-cheek!
“Craig Palmer has written an attention grabbing book review, wherein among other similar types of praise, he proclaims that my argument has achieved “a pinnacle of absurdity.” He also nominates me for the coveted Polemicist Prize (or PP for short). But I must correct a misperception because I shouldn’t accept credit where credit is not justly due. In truth, I didn’t actually make the “absurd” argument that “the widespread existence of human violence is somehow evidence for the enormity of the human potential for peace.” I wholeheartedly agree with Palmer that this is a pretty ridiculous argument. Although I might quibble whether such an argument is really “a pinnacle of absurdity” or just somewhere high on the absurdity ridge, determining its exact absurdity altitude doesn’t much matter in this case: No one will find this argument in my book!
Dear reader, I realize that now you face a dilemma: Who are you going to believe? Palmer proclaims that Fry has achieved the “pinnacle of absurdity” but Fry, humbly, denies being worthy of that accolade.
And here, unfortunately, is another bag of laundry to sort out. I’ve declined the “pinnacle of absurdity” award because, as anyone who looks at my book can see, I don’t actually make the silly argument that Palmer says I do, but do I deserve the Polemicist Prize? What exactly are the “issue poles” that Palmer thinks I polarize anyway? Hobbes versus Rousseau? Evolutionary psychology versus cultural determinism? War versus Peace? Here is the quote from my book which may have given Palmer the idea to try to dismiss me, or, I mean, to “nominate” me as a polemicist:
“In this book, we are confronted in the broadest terms with two rival interpretations of human nature and the potential for peace. According to the first view, humans (especially human males) are a bloodthirsty mob, prone to be violent and warlike by nature. Advocates of this view attempt to link chimpanzee and human violence, discuss sex differences, and recount a litany of barbarity, atrocity, and brutality as incontrovertible evidence that this portrait of humanity is accurate. The validity of this view may seem rather obvious. However, a different—but not polar opposite—perspective is taken here.”
Oops. I hope the PP judges don’t notice that last sentence!
Ok, I’ve had my fun. In a more serious vein, I’m disappointed that readers of “Evolutionary Psychology” didn’t receive a book review that covered the topics most relevant to their interests. A reader of Palmer’s review would never suspect that a substantial part of the book deals with evolutionary topics (chapters 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, and 18). This is a pretty amazing omission from a book review written especially for “Evolutionary Psychology.” A reader of Palmer’s review would never imagine that the book presents a model of human aggression based on data from nomadic forager studies—an innovative approach to conflict that leads to really different conclusions than either the “Yanomamo model” or the “Chimpanzee model.” Palmer doesn’t touch these topics—again, amazing omissions. I also must wonder why Palmer does not even mention that the book contains a mathematical reanalysis of the famous and controversial Yanomamo unokai data. (I show my math.) And, unfortunately, a reader of Palmer’s book review would never suspect that the book applies evolutionary theory and is pro-science. It argues that we need to base our evolutionary models of aggression on actual data—on evidence. It also argues that we would be wise to re-examine our assumptions, as best we can, in order to do better science! In short, the topics presumably of most interest to the “Evolutionary Psychology” readership are simply omitted from Palmer’s review. An interesting question for readers to ponder is: What is really going on here?
As of this writing I know of two other online reviews of my 2006 book that cover some of the evolutionary issues not touched upon by Palmer. Both reviews are positive, but not totally so. Although there is much more I could say about Palmer’s review, I won’t. Instead, I’ll maintain a faith that readers can and will make up their own minds about Palmer’s review. I’ll simply suggest that readers interested in the evolution of aggression, a nomadic forager model of the evolutionary past, or a critique of some widely held yet faulty evolutionary assumptions will find useful information about the book in the other reviews. One is by psychologist Peter K. Smith of Goldsmiths College, University of London (His review begins on page 30 of the linked PDF file.) The other review is written by biological anthropologist Agustin Fuentes of the University of Notre Dame. Here also is a link to a description and table of contents of the book itself.