Anthropology & Gun Control: Human Nature, Culture, History


Douglas P. Fry - Beyond WarIn a December 2012 round-up on Gun Violence and Anthropology, I wrote that “some of the most classic arguments against gun control are rooted in shoddy anthropology–ideas about human nature, culture, and history which do not withstand anthropological scrutiny.” Daniel Lende, who has written so sensitively on Newtown and Violence – No Easy Answers, sent an e-mail for clarification.

Lende’s e-mail reminded me of how news of Jared Diamond’s book, The World Until Yesterday coincided with the horrifying scenes from Newtown. Somehow Jared Diamond seemed to be telling us that really the violence in Papua New Guinea was much worse than what we were grieving in Newtown. My own review of Diamond turned to his shoddy use of the ethnographic record, particularly the uncritical use of Napoleon Chagnon, which would then of course get redoubled with the release of Chagnon’s Noble Savages memoir. This all feeds into reflections on gun violence and gun control in the United States–it binges on the shoddy anthropology that underpins current debates.

Shoddy Anthropology, Gun Control, Human Nature

Arguments against gun control often turn on a shoddy anthropology of ahistorical ideas about human nature. In this story, humans have been killing each other since time immemorial. If it’s not sticks, it’s stones, then it’s slings, then bows & arrows, spears, leading up to swords and muskets. Violence is primordial to human nature. Gun control can’t control evil–it will just make it easier for bad human nature to manifest.

Before writing about Jared Diamond on Napoleon Chagnon, I had not realized how pervasively resuscitated this mythology had become, mostly via Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of our Nature (2011). But as angry comment streams everywhere indicate, the Pinker-Diamond-Chagnon triangle is now firmly entrenched. The 2013 War, Peace, and Human Nature: The Convergence of Evolutionary and Cultural Views volume is an empirical and theoretical corrective. But even though anthropology has a much different perspective, plus the empirical evidence and science on our side, this is difficult ideological ground to recapture. Douglas P. Fry’s previous work, Beyond War: The Human Potential for Peace–it just sounds too hippy.

Closely linked to this view is another argument against gun control which posits there are good and evil individuals in the world, and that the people who are going to do evil will find a way to do evil, whether that be from drunk driving or making bombs out of fertilizer. In this view, any legislation is simply an ineffective overlay on top of a society composed of rugged autonomous individuals. Individuals can be changed from within, but they are never changed through legislation.

These ideas about the relationship between human nature, cultural patterning, individuals, law, and society, were effectively demolished in the first founding statements of anthropology, by Franz Boas and very importantly Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture, from the 1930s and before. These are the founding ideas of anthropology, far different from present caricatures which portray Napoleon Chagnon as the natural scientist battling the 1970s rise of Marxists, feminists, and post-modernists.

Shoddy Anthropology, Gun Control, Culture

When the argument against gun control turns away from human nature, it often focuses on ideas of culture, particularly on a “culture of violence.” It’s a very curious turn. This so-called culture of violence, when it does not simply correspond to older caricatures of a “culture of poverty,” usually talks a lot about video games, Hollywood, and The Media, all of which glorify violence. It’s both a very symbolic use of the word culture, but also a very deterministic vision–somehow these video games are leading to violent episodes, despite repeated rebuttals that the same video games in Japan don’t seem to be doing anything.

This is a deterministic version of culture that ignores power and political economy. Curiously, there is usually no mention of the gun advertising which liberals highlight. But there is also no mention of what Charles Blow called Gun Culture. Defending Blow’s use of the term gun culture was one of the big reasons I became involved in writing about gun control. This was a non-deterministic use of culture which did not do what so many other uses of culture terminology did–become a shortcut to evade explanations of power, political economy, and history (e.g. David Brooks is a Cultural Problem).

Shoddy Anthropology, Gun Control, History

Finally, and very briefly because it has been done much better elsewhere, arguments against gun control often depend on shoddy history, a history that assumes statements about militias and muskets in the 18th century are to be read as a guiding package of inalienable rights to massive firepower in the 21st century.

While I have not expected the American Anthropological Association to be able to issue a unified statement about gun control, it is nevertheless the case that many gun control arguments depend on assumptions about human nature, culture, and history that have long been demolished by anthropology since its beginnings a century ago. I am pleased that the AAA did issue a January 2013 Statement on Gun Violence:

We call upon the Congress and the Administration to rescind measures that obstruct the development of empirical knowledge about guns and public safety. Further, we call on the Congress and the Administration to make additional federal funds available, as an urgent national priority, for rigorous peer-reviewed research by experts from diverse disciplinary backgrounds to investigate ways of reducing the tragic loss of life in incidents involving guns.

This post is part of a series about the need for anthropology to directly address gun control and gun violence. The series includes:

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  • It seems to me that the Pinker-Diamond-Chagnon argument would be in favor of gun control. All three are used to defend the Hobbesian leviathan (Pinker in particular), which would generally extend to governments’ exclusive claim to the use of violence. In that light, it’s not clear how you’re arguing against the ends they might recommend, despite arriving via different means.

    Since I find their respective arguments in favor of state authority unconvincing, I end up viewing the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as an originally intended check the power of the leviathan. Rather than requiring invocation of any arguments on individual human nature or culture (as you’ve construed them), this leaves us with a disagreement on the historical component. Whether the original intent provides an effective check is separate question, and one which you seem to dodge by deeming it anachronistic in a utilitarian sense (implying “massive firepower” is a monolith impervious to resistance) rather than a more broad philosophical perspective. Before considering any sort of rejoinder, I’m curious to see what you cite as “much better [arguments] elsewhere”.

    Whatever the result of your references to the historical problems you envision, I’m still curious how you come down differently than the “triangle” on issues of the leviathan.

    • Hi Andrew, thank you for this. The post indeed remains too telegraphic and I obviously ran out of steam. Your clarifications are definitely in order.

      What I intended to convey is that often the anti-gun-control argument rests on the idea of a fundamentally bad human nature: people have been doing bad things since time immemorial, and if you outlaw guns they’ll just do bad things with baseball bats and kitchen knives. My comment was that this argument could now find support in what has recently become the Chagnon-Diamond-Pinker triangle. I honestly do not know if anthropology can successfully make a pro-gun-control argument–I attempted as much in Semi-Automatic Anthropology, but it mostly has always been to say that many of the anti-gun-control statements cannot withstand anthropological scrutiny, and we should be careful about letting our anthropological analyses of “complexity” be used as NRA talking points.

      You are absolutely correct to say–well let’s leave Chagnon out because who knows what he thinks!–that Pinker, and especially Diamond would rightly see their own arguments as supporting gun control. Diamond thesis is that the modern state, especially the European modern state as a force of pacification in the face of non-state societies. He is also pretty clear that he doesn’t see violence as inherent, but simply different for different social circumstances–more in “traditional” societies, less in states. Undoubtedly Diamond would support state gun control.

      On the Second Amendment, it may be that the intent was to check state power. However, and again concentrating on the fodder for anti-gun-control arguments, I am indeed making the utilitarian dodge–the 2nd Amendment currently enables military-style firepower in the hands of the citizens, which can have grave consequences in everyday life, but that military-style firepower would be fairly useless against the leviathan weaponry the state could now mobilize at will.

      I expect you’ll remain unconvinced, but thanks for the comment!

      • Thank you for the clarification. I didn’t really intend to debate the Second Amendment, or even gun control per se. My ultimate position on all of the above (Pinker, Chagnon, Diamond, gun control, and human nature) is influenced by philosophical anarchism, for which I do think anthropology can make a positive argument. Of course, I’d also drag in Christopher Boehm, James C. Scott, and David Graeber to build that case.

        The Second Amendment question is far more toward the proximate end of the debate, and is indeed hard to disentangle from practicality/utilitarian and historical arguments. But it wouldn’t be beneath me to sully Jefferson’s reputation by imposing the “philosophical anarchist” label on him in such a discussion, and I wouldn’t be the first.

        I’m in the precarious position of agreeing with the sentiments of gun control advocates, sharing an unsympathetic view of the NRA, yet disagreeing with the efficacy and and philosophy of gun laws–laws which have their own murky historical underpinnings.

        When it comes to invocation of “fierce”, I’m more persuaded by Richard Lee’s “fierce egalitarianism” than Chagnon’s “fierce people”. It’s hard to imagine hunter-gatherers acquiescing to domination by agricultural states by written rules indicating they should just lay down their weapons and be happy slaves–wage or chattel.

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  • Daniel Lende

    Jason, thanks for writing this. It resonates with a lot of thoughts I’m having as well, hence the email. I guess I’d add two things here. One, the Western obsession with origins. Amidst some really good and profound questioning over Newtown, we had at the same time this farce of a controversy over Diamond and Chagnon. So boring and so prominent it made me want to gag (and, yes, thank you for getting other messages out there!). Where does human violence come from, from which mythical past that we want to conjure? As if once we understand that, we understand human violence. And of course neglect the more vital questions, of just how our “civilization” has played such a central role in violence over millenia… Because that’s where we actually live.

    Still, I’ll count that debate about even since (1) for anthropology, any publicity is good publicity (Rick Scott hates us?! well, that says something), and (2) the Jon Marks piece was a tremendous piece of writing that once again articulated what you, Greg, myself, and others have been arguing. That anthropology as an interpretive science really matters. Might not be apparent quite yet, but I really believe the other side is on the wrong side of history. They’re stuck in their Newtonian world, we’re trying to cobble together an Einstein/quantum approach to understanding ourselves. And cobble is definitely a Darwinian and Levi-Straussian metaphor combined.

    So two. Well, I gotta give both Chagnon and Diamond kudos. One of the mistaken assessments of why their work matters is that they didn’t get the facts right. Empirically, they didn’t cut it as anthropologists, and somehow that should undercut what they’ve done. But actually both deserve credit for their empirical engagement. As Marks outlines, it’s their interpretive framework that really undercuts them. (And, for Chagnon and his Science paper, some really, really bad evolutionary science… just can’t even believe that made it through peer-review; shouldn’t have happened, but hey, ideology and selective use of peer reviewers FTW).

    But that’s not my point. In writing and thinking about Newtown and Diamond/Chagnon, I’ve really come to the conclusion that the vast majority of anthropological critique just doesn’t get it. We’re (anthropologists) so focused on whether they got it “right” out there. That completely misses the point.

    What is compelling about their work is not that they are telling us a story about people out there, they are telling us a story about ourselves. And they tell that story effectively. They take people outside themselves – other people, other places – and yet speak to that desire to understand, to improve, to become better. Yes (dammit), even something of moral optimism.

    I deeply believe that anthropologists can tell these same stories, but that we haven’t quite figured it out yet. We haven’t gotten back to what Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict could do, just with the lessons learned of reflexivity and the science wars wrapped up in what we want to say. In what we should say.

    Hey, there is a reason why your Four Fields Manifesto is one of your most popular posts…

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  • Well, I’m a little disappointed. This article uses the word “shoddy,” like, nine times. Yet it fails to earnestly explore or refute the “shoddy” anthropology in question.

    To begin with, I believe the most “classic argument” against gun control has nothing to do with anthropology, but rather draws from the 2nd Amendment of the US Constitution’s Bill of Rights: “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Firearm ownership is, quite literally, an established right — included in the everlovin’ Bill of Rights. Given that, it’s not the responsibility of firearm owners to argue against gun control, but rather it’s gun control advocate’s responsibility to explain why it’s cool to violate peoples’ established rights.

    Secondly, though the author labels it “ahistorical,” is it not a fact that humankind has engaged in violence for a long time? Like, well before the invention of the firearm? If so, how does it make sense to deduce that firearms are the root of violence?

    Thirdly, I’m a little distraught at the author’s oversimplification of the “good vs evil” dynamic, as well. Granted, these words are of little objective value, but what if we exchange them for something more measurable like, “violent vs passive?” Do some people not have measurably more violent tendencies than others? Is it really so unfair to say that people who’re feeling violent will find ways to do violence, with or without a firearm, as they have in the past and through modernity? (Remember, America’s largest massacres were committed with explosives and vehicles, not firearms.)

    I admit that today’s firepower is unimaginably more powerful than the firepower wielded during the 18th century. Of course, that’s why the framers drafted a Constitution that COULD BE AMENDED. Yet, I have yet to hear many gun control advocates call for a Constitutional amendment prohibiting, say, homemade atomic bombs (I could get behind such an amendment.) Instead, I only see blatant violations of the Constitution, abridging the right of The People to keep and bear arms, written by people with questionable understandings of violence and firearms themselves, who go so far as to ban weapons based on what they LOOK LIKE rather than what they can do.

    — Ashkuff | | How to use anthropology, in business and ADVENTURE!!!!

    • Hi Ashkuff, thank you for the comment. I’m the author, and I’m sorry you are disappointed. The post tries to tackle some of the arguments I’ve heard to not make any modifications to current gun laws, and I would maintain they are rooted in understandings of human nature, culture, and history that have been debunked by good anthropology. However, I do share Andrew’s sentiment in the comment stream:

      I’m in the precarious position of agreeing with the sentiments of gun control advocates, sharing an unsympathetic view of the NRA, yet disagreeing with the efficacy and and philosophy of gun laws–laws which have their own murky historical underpinnings.

      I will also admit that I don’t have a lot of patience for arguing about the scope of the 2nd amendment, when it is quoted out of its context of militias and states: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

      • Once again, I’m left in the quandary of hearing that these arguments “have been debunked by good anthropology,” while hearing very little support for this assertion. Let’s start with with your mention of the “ahistoricity” of violence before firearms. Have any good archaeological citations debunking Viking raids?

        We can, at least, agree upon our lack of sympathy for the NRA. I stopped paying dues a long time ago. They sent me this one letter that caused me to roll my eyes so hard, it hurt.

        Though mention of Militias and States offer some useful explanatory context, it doesn’t change the fact that, Constitutionally, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed. (Historically, militias often consisted of private citizens carrying privately owned weapons.)

        — Ashkuff | | How to use anthropology, in business and ADVENTURE!!!!

        • Hi Ashkuff, I think you are playing a bit fast and loose with the argument here. I *am not* saying that there was not violence before firearms. Far from it! However, I have been dealing with the ahistoricity of violence ideas (see the new volume on War, Peace, and Human Nature).

          The point is rather that it does matter what kinds of weaponry technologies are being used. It seems to me that if you follow your arguments above, there would be no basis for laws regulating grenades or flamethrowers. Yet we do have such laws. We have always regulated firearms, and I don’t see any 2nd Amendment impediment to making most Semi-Automatic Weapons illegal, as was done in Australia. And that would be a law based not on what weapons look like but on what they can do.

          • Hi Ashkuff, exactly that, it’s the “time immemorial” argument. Yes, people have been doing violent things, but it’s not eternal, and it’s not the same in all places: it’s *historically and culturally variable.* That’s anthropology!

            We don’t need Constitutional Amendments for grenades or even regulating fireworks. We just have laws. That’s the whole point–is there any Constitutional reason to negate a law that would make illegal semi-automatic weapons, modeled on the Australian legislation?

          • Maybe violence isn’t eternal. Then again, neither is human history itself. We haven’t been around very long. What we CAN say, however, is that violence has been happening a very long time, among lots of people all around the world, well before and without firearms. Indeed, suggesting that violence is historically and culturally variable only strengthens the point that violence is NOT the doing of firearms.

            Yes, we do in fact have laws in lieu of constitutional amendments. In fact, we’ve had LOTS of unconstitutional laws in the past! Didn’t make them okay. If you’re gonna legislate, that’s fine. But play by the rules.

            And yes, there is a Constitutional reason to negate a semi-auto ban: that would flagrantly infringe upon the right to keep and bear arms, as described in the Constitution’s 2nd Amendment. I’m… I’m not sure how to say it any clearer than that.

            — Ashkuff | | How to use anthropology, in business and ADVENTURE!!!!

          • Hi Ashkuff, once again I never said that violence is the doing of firearms. That would be absurd. I only said it’s historically and culturally variable, that legislation can be a factor, and that the kinds of weaponry matters. That’s anthropology.

            If you think the 2nd Amendment encompasses the right for individuals to possess semi-automatic weapons, that’s fine. I disagree, but that’s where we’ll have to leave it. Cheers.

          • I must’ve misunderstood then. If we can agree that violence isn’t the doing of firearms, then why are we trying to control firearms… instead of… you know… controlling violence? Victimization? Lackluster mental health support? Etc.?

            Maybe I missed something, but I fail to see any anthropology in your last comment, other than the phrase “culturally variable.”

            If you believe semi-automatic firearms don’t qualify as “arms,” then… uh… I guess that’s your right?

            — Ashkuff | | How to use anthropology in business and ADVENTURE!!!!

          • Violence is not the doing of firearms, but the type of armaments do have an influence on the kind of things that are made possible. Australia had mass shootings, then came together to legislate a semi-automatic weapons buyback. Since then, no more mass shootings. Didn’t stop violence, but it seems to have had an effect on certain kinds of violence.

            I’ve come to the conclusion that without additional empirical data (partly prevented by the firearms industry), we can’t make a pro-gun-control argument from anthropology. But we can talk about some of the bad arguments against gun control.

            I didn’t say semi-automatic firearms don’t qualify as arms. There are many other things that also qualify as arms–automatic weapons would, but they are illegal. Why doesn’t the 2nd Amendment let me buy an M-16?

            We’ve always regulated weapons, and times have changed since muskets and militias in the 18th century.

          • Trading one form of violence for another hardly strikes me as something worth emulating. ESPECIALLY if it limits the best means of self-defense for the elderly, disabled, and frail. (For self-defense, I’d hardly expect the chair stricken to trade semi-autos for my boxing classes.)

            I at least agree that we don’t have enough data to make anthropologically-informed arguments favoring of gun control.

            The 2nd Amendment protects the right to keep and bear arms. Yet, you don’t believe the 2nd Amendment includes semi-automatic firearms. Was I wrong to deduce that suggests you don’t believe semi-autos count as arms? If so, then how does the 2nd Amendment NOT cover semi-auto firearms?

            Right. We do, in fact, already have lots of Constitutionally-questionable legislation out there, regarding weapons, free speech, and others alike. But like I said, that doesn’t make any of it okay.

            To answer your question, the 2nd Amendment DOES protect your right to purchase an M-16. Heck, my neighbor used to own one. I, as a civilian, have rented and fired them before at the range.

            Lastly, yes. Times have changed since the 18th century. That’s why the framers drafted a Constitution that changes. So why not play by the rules and amend the Constitution, instead of ignoring and treading all over it?

            — Ashkuff | | How to use anthropology, in business and ADVENTURE!!!!

          • Hi Ashkuff, we may have to leave this at a 1st amendment right to disagree. However, last I checked, fully-automatic weapons, like M16s and AK47, which are certainly arms, are illegal. The 2nd amendment is about militias and state power, and in that context I should have a right to an AK47, a bazooka, and an RPG, to defend against predatory states. My point, again, is that we have always made laws about what is reasonable as “arms” and it would be perfectly constitutional to draw different lines than are in place today. Making laws is part of the Constitution, as are court challenges, of course, but putting limitations on the scope of rapid-fire weaponry would not be against the Constitution.

          • For the third time, just because there’s already questionable legislation in place, that doesn’t make any of it Constitutional. To me, your argument reads like: “we’re already bending the rules, so why not bend them even more?” This is a dangerous thing to do to the same document that protects our freedom of speech.

            By contrast, I’d rather see an amendment overhauling weapons policy, conducted according to the rules as described in Article 5 of the Constitution itself. Clean. Straightforward. Above all, entirely Constitutional.

            And, for the record, depending on your state of residence, you *can* in fact own an M16, AK-47 and bazooka. In fact, my old roommate used to own a modified AK-47! Yet, I don’t believe any of these states suffer higher muggings at bazooka-point. (Like their artistic appearance, you seem to confuse weapons’ names with their destructive capacity.)

            In light of this thread’s heat, however, I feel I should mention that, though I vehemently disagree with much of this particular post, I generally like your blog. Specifically, I like the concept of “living anthropologically” itself. Just FYI.

            — Ashkuff | | How to use anthropology, in business and ADVENTURE!!!!

          • Alright, so Ameican Anthro Assoc. and Huffington Post recently published an article of mine about the anthropology of gun ownership. I cited this blog, among others. Though I challenged some of your points, I’d be honored if you guys returned the favor, visited our comment thread, and critiqued my points, at

            — Ashkuff | | How to use anthropology, in business and ADVENTURE!!!!

          • Hi Ashkuff, thank you for the mention. I did see and read your piece. I’ve been thinking and working on a longer response, but it might not be for a bit. I’ll ping you when it happens. Thanks!

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  • Al West

    I just read this article again after a some time, and I feel obliged to point out that Steven Pinker is very clear in his book that warfare is not an innate feature of mankind, and depends on a number of features. He’s not arguing in favour of an innate instinct for violence – only that some aspects of violent behaviour depend on innate mechanisms, and that violence is not something all humans try to avoid all the time. Given that it responds to a lot of variables, it isn’t taken as ‘ahistorical’. If anything, Pinker’s point is a historical one, ultimately, and I think he’d be quite happy to endorse gun control on the basis of the arguments in his book (caeteris paribus). But I think you’d have to ask him, honestly.

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