Richard Lee tells a story about the nuclear arms race

2 minute read

Richard Lee is best known to followers of anthropology as one of the co-organizers of the “Man the Hunter” conference in 1966. His fieldwork with the Dobe !Kung helped dispel some old anthropological myths about hunting and gathering peoples, and served as a nucleus for ideas about the evolution of human sociality.

He has written an article in this year’s Annual Review of Anthropology that examines both uses and misuses of hunter-gatherer ethnography in theory-building about human nature: “Hunter-Gatherers and Human Evolution: New Light on Old Debates.”

In the introduction to the article, he recounts a story involving his “Man the Hunter” co-editor, the late Irven DeVore:

Senator William Fulbright of Arkansas, a brilliant US legislator in the 1960s and the founder of the scholarship program that bears his name, was just one public figure struggling to come to grips with the import of Lorenz’s theses. I vividly remember the late Irven DeVore coming into my office at Harvard University. “I just got off the phone with Senator William Fulbright calling from Washington,” Devore said. “He asked me ‘Professor DeVore, if Konrad Lorenz is right, how are we ever to negotiate a nuclear arms reduction treaty with the Soviet Union?’”
DeVore reassured Fulbright that Lorenz’s views were far from universally accepted among anthropologists, that violence in human history was a variable not a constant, and that its causes and expressions were far more complex than could be explained simply by pure animal instinct.
DeVore’s disclaimers appeared to calm Senator Fulbright’s nerves, and in fact the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) went on to successfully negotiate a series of nuclear arms reduction treaties over the years. Nevertheless, the question of violence in human history continued to animate the debate within anthropology, fueled by Robert Ardrey’s “killer ape” hypothesis in his books African Genesis (Ardrey 1961) and The Territorial Imperative (Ardrey 1966). Interest was sustained by Napoleon Chagnon’s (1968) influential ethnography of the “fierce” Yanomamo and more recently by the writings of Wrangham & Peterson (1996), such as Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence. I have labeled this persistent thread within anthropology and related disciplines as the “Bellicose School” (Lee 2014).

I am spending some time reading this review and taking notes, and it bears close reading. Lee’s theme is that many people who use “hunter-gatherers” as a category are actually lumping things that are quite different from each other. If you want to use ethnographic studies of today’s people to say anything about prehistoric people, you need to understand that any living group may be like ancient people in some ways, and very different from ancient people in other ways. Lumping across the entire category of “hunter-gatherers” doesn’t work if some of those living hunter-gatherers have economies, subsistence patterns, and social organization that is unlike anything that archaeology tells us about prehistoric groups.

Here’s a teaser from a box that discusses the work of Steven Pinker:

Despite the apparent magnitude of the Ju/’hoan/!Kung homicide rate, these still represent only 1.0–1.6% of overall deaths, compared to the 8–58% figure referenced in Pinker’s TED Talk.

I’ll hopefully be able to write a bit more about this as I read.


Lee, Richard B. 2018. Hunter-Gatherers and Human Evolution: New Light on Old Debates. Annual Review of Anthropology 47 (online early) doi:10.1146/annurev-anthro-102116-041448