Reading Human Nature

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“Human nature” is an interesting topic. People will argue over the definition of human nature, but regardless of what people think or say, it is reasonable to assume that all humans share a psychological and developmental framework to the extent that any two people raised in the same background will ‘turn out’ similar with respect to several behavioral traits or tendencies. Also, a pair of twins separated at birth and raised up in very different cultures are likely to exhibit more differences than similarities owing to the different cultures but perhaps some set of seemingly uncanny similarities owing to their parentage.

The anthropological perspective is that one may understand human nature by examining a diversity of human cultures. The evolutionary perspective suggests that understanding the lifeways of humans as they have lived in certain economic and natural settings over long periods of time will be more useful than understanding the way humans react to recently invented or constructed situations. The “evolutionary anthropology” perspective combines these ideas: One way to understand humans is to examine lots of cultural, economic, and historical settings but to focus on those that that are more “traditional.” Whatever “traditional” means….

The use of ethnography as a way to understanding humans is complicated by many factors. Ethnographies are (almost always) written by outsiders, and we can assume that such works include biases, inaccuracies, and misconceptions. The people under study may hide things or may simply have a different idea than the ethnographer of what to demonstrate. The ethnographer may simply be blind to certain practices, or may attribute normative-ness to the odd, or oddness to the normative. What is viewed may be biased by a biased strategy, and what is recorded may be biased by what is thought important vs. trivial. What is seen, heard, and experienced is typically analyzed and written about at a later time, and this involved multiple transformations. In one case, an ethnographer reported (at a professional meeting) trancing among a certain group of people. The report was detailed and rich in data. I spent considerable time one on one with this researcher because I was interested in both the trancing and the particular people she had worked with, and during this time I discovered that the trancing was never observed. To paraphrase: “I did not see or even know about the trancing. I only observed it later, indirectly, in my data! Isn’t that remarkable!”


There may be ways past these problems, and there may be aspects of ethnography that are more or less confounded by the process of observation and recording. This itself is a major study. If one enters a graduate program in Anthropology with the intention of studying “ethnography” one may end up reading almost no actual ethnographic of traditional cultures. Instead, one may intensely study the process of ethnography itself and look only at ethnographies of current people (not cultures) in settings of transition, economic change, or political repression. Many current ethnographies are ethnographies of the ethnographer.

This is all well and good, but the evolutionary anthropologist still desired to look at humans across a range of economic and environmental settings, with as much ‘modern’ stuff stripped away, accounted for, or factored out. This does not mean that the above mentioned biases should be ignored, but it does mean that the evolutionary anthropologist may take a few more chances than a modern-trained cultural anthropologist.

Recently, a faithful reader (who may or may not choose to uncloak) has asked me a question that a lot of people ask me, or in some cases that I trick them into asking me: What ethnographies should I read? Here, I’d like to give a short list of ethnographies that share certain characteristics, for your edification. Many of these texts can be acquired used, but be aware that there are multiple editions and it is almost always the case that later editions include important critique (addressing the above mentioned issues) that earlier editions may ignore.

Characteristics of the items on this list are:

1) Geographical constraint. These works are all about people living in the tropics or subtropics.

2) Geographical and ecological diversity. These works are mean to represent a continental range and an ecological range. In this area, the list falls short because I chose to ignore certain regions or habitats rather than to recommend ethnographies that I’m less comfortable recommending. In this way, this list is a starting point. We can talk later about filling in some of the gaps (such as the African Rain Forest or the subtropical New World arid regions).

3) Critique. These ethnographies are either much re-written or self-evaluative, or have been the subject of much discussion (regarding the issues and problems outlined above) and thus form the basis for reading extensive and intensive literature on the topic.

4) Economy. These ethnographies tend to focus on “pre-Western” forms or manifestations of the cultures that are examined. These studies represent both foraging lifeways and horticulture, with some effort at representing diversity in horticulture.

South American Humid Tropics: Post plantain horticultural people who were probably foragers recently.

Yanomamo (Case Studies in Cultural Anthropology)

The Canela: Kinship, Ritual and Sex in an Amazonian Tribe (Case Studies in Cultural Anthropology)

African Arid and Woodland/Savanna


The Dobe Ju/’Hoansi (Case Studies in Cultural Anthropology)

Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman

Food producers:

Bunyoro: An African Kingdom (Case Studies in Cultural Anthropology)

Turkana Herders of the Dry Savana: Ecology and Biobehavioral Response of Nomads to an Uncertain Environment (Research Monographs on Human Population Biology)

(Broken Spears: A Maasai Journey)

The Maasai of Matapato: A Study of Rituals of Rebellion (Routledge Classic Ethnographies)

“Oceania” and E. Asia

Grand Valley Dani: Peaceful Warriors (Case Studies in Cultural Anthropology)

Challenging Gender Norms: Five Genders Among Bugis in Indonesia (Case Studies in Cultural Anthropology)

So read these and get back to me.

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2 thoughts on “Reading Human Nature

  1. Thanks ever so much – especially for not saying “A jerk and big blue meany, who regularly infests my blog asked…”

    I am quite lucky to have taken my intro to cultural anthro class (at community college) with an instructor who has actually spent several summers with the Ju/’hoansi. We spent a great deal of discussion on the various bias issues that are inherent to participant observation and which of course, translate to the ehtnographs. Ultimately I don’t see how anyone could develop the relationships necessary to learn about a people, without certain biases cropping up.

    I really appreciate this starting point…I will definitely harass you some more as I move along…

  2. I really enjoy reading your blog, especially the Congo Memoirs (do write a book) and recently the posts on missionaries, and your posts about politics in the US have been quite an eye-opener for me.

    Someone once told me that identical twins separated at birth and raised in very similar environments are likely to exhibit more similarities than when raised together. Could you comment on that?

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