Sick Societies’….[1992] Revisted-Is Culture Adaptive?

Robert Edgerton’s ‘Sick Societies’ (1992) Revisited: Is Culture Adaptive?

By Thomas F. Bertonneau
Created 2009-07-16 07:54

A critique of cultural relativism by an ethnologist and anthropologist of longstanding high repute, Robert B. Edgerton’s Sick Societies: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony (1992) has implications not only for how one might evaluate the pre-modern, non-Western folk-societies (primitive societies) studied by professional ethnographers and anthropologists, but for how one might understand both institutions and social practices – and perhaps even political ones – more generally. Sick Societies provoked moderate controversy when it appeared, but probably few remember the book today. Nevertheless, Sick Societies deserves not to disappear into the oblivion of the library stacks. Revisiting it nearly twenty years later indeed holds promise of intellectual profit. Sick Societies might well be a meditation on culture urgently relevant to the current phase of the West’s seemingly interminable crisis at the end of the first decade of the Twenty-First Century.


Adaptation, a Darwinian evolutionary concept, plays a central role in anthropology. The theory of adaptation articulates the anthropologist’s conviction that all societies manage to come to terms optimally with their external environment, and with the internal difficulties presented by communal life, as a people strives to fit itself in its niche. This optimal coming-to-terms will be the case even when it might seem to uninformed or prejudiced outsiders that the beliefs and practices of a given community operate inefficiently or counterproductively and that they therefore fail to meet the requirements of human happiness. Under this view, a modern Westerner’s disdain for magic or witchcraft or for elaborate rituals or proliferating taboos would itself indicate a deformation (“ethnocentrism”) because the objects of that disdain, which the anthropologist or ethnographer properly understands even where the lay person does not, operate by concealed rationality. On this assumption, seemingly irrational commitments and practices would in fact be just as rational as modern Western arrangements, but in a way that Western prejudice makes people liable not to recognize.

From this position, in Edgerton’s words, “it follows that any attempt to generalize about either culture or human nature must be false or trivial unless it is confined to people who live in a specific cultural system.” This would imply, in turn, that “Western science is only a culturally specific form of ethnoscience, not a universally valid way of verification or falsification.”

Edgerton does not directly state, but rather he implies, that, if the idea in the last sentence quoted above were true, as anthropologists and ethnographers by consensus assert, then that truth would hold important implications for anthropology and ethnography themselves. Why, for example, must one validate the tribal belief in magic while withholding validation for the modern Western suspicion about magical thinking? But ethnography does not treat Western self-confidence as adaptive.

The idea that all societies have achieved adaptation, whether apparent to the outsider or not, thus communicates strongly with that longstanding strain in the modern Western mentality of irate rebellion against norms, simply because they are norms, and of seeking to replace the existing order, blamed for all sorrows, with a utopian one. In anthropology, this strain of antinomian rebelliousness can take on a rebarbative character, violating its own ostensible principle that cultures are “incommensurable” by extolling pre-modern and non-Western societies at the expense of modern Western society, the latter now coming under condemnation through a sneaky reintroduction of commensurability. The ethnographer, becoming an advocate for what he studies, declares the ethnic societies to be better adapted than the modern Western society. Adaptation as a concept belongs with the set of ardent convictions called cultural relativism, with the codicil that relativism is never really relative, but always serves the rhetorical purpose of establishing a covert, antithetical hierarchy.

The rhetoric of cultural relativism stems classically from the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), who asserted, with literary flair, the supposed unique sickness of the European civilization of his own day. Rousseau joined his denunciation of civic society with nostalgic speculation about a primitive utopia before the invention of prohibitions and institutions – la société commencée. There is a strong Rousseauvian strain the work of Franz Boas (1858-1942), usually credited with being the founder of modern anthropology, as such.

Edgerton, whose willingness to admit reservations and concede opposing points makes him quite different from Rousseau, argues, not that no folk-societal arrangements are truly adaptive (some are), but that anthropologists and ethnographers have exaggerated adaptation, always taken to signify some type of rationality, into a dogma. The acceptance of that dogma has rendered practitioners of the discipline uncritical of what they actually observe when in the field and, if not exactly incapable of an honest evaluation, then quite reluctant to embrace a strictly neutral type of objectivity. Edgerton’s subtitle names the fixed position: The Myth of Primitive Harmony. In fact, Edgerton writes, “it has never been demonstrated that all human customs or institutions, or even most of them, have adaptive value, but the assumption that this is so is still commonplace among scholars who study,” not only ethnic or primitive cultures, but also, in larger terms, “human evolution.” Edgerton indeed brings against ethnology a universally observed phenomenon: “All populations yet discovered have agreed [that] a steel axe is better than a stone one.”

Against adaptation, as dogmatically construed, Edgerton posits “maladaptation.” The term, he asserts, requires subtlety of explanation, so he throws out a number of complementary definitions and analogies. Thus by analogy, and in Darwinian terms, “a single gene or number of genes that in combination may predispose an individual to depression, schizophrenia, or panic,” would illustrate the idea.

Edgerton’s interest lies mainly elsewhere than in individual psychology, however; so he swiftly reminds his readers that, for example, “a group of related individuals’ refusal to engage in altruistic behaviors, or the absence of well-being among cooperating groups of people engaged in warfare or big-game hunting” would illustrate the idea just as well, if not better. In the discussion of maladaptation, Edgerton writes, “the focus can legitimately fall on categories or corporate groups of people who share common interests and risks because of their age, gender, class, ethnicity, race, occupational specialty, or some other characteristic, or it can encompass an entire society, a kingdom, an empire, or a confederation.” Edgerton imagines that, in certain circumstances, the whole of the human race might prove itself maladapted to some emergent global condition. Nuclear arsenals on hair trigger might well have constituted such a condition, as more than one science fiction scenarist imagined.

Edgerton finally offers three formulaic definitions. In the first of these definitions, maladaptation refers to “the failure of a population or its culture to survive because of the inadequacy or harmfulness of one or more of its beliefs or institutions.” In the second, “maladaptation will be said to exist when enough members of a population are sufficiently dissatisfied with one or more of their social institutions or cultural beliefs that the viability of their society is threatened.” In the third, “it will be considered to be maladaptive when a population maintains beliefs or practices that so seriously impair the physical or mental health of its members that they cannot adequately meet their own needs or maintain their social or cultural system.”

Edgerton’s first definition applies mainly to historical peoples, whose existence today only the physical remains or vestiges of their societies – items of their material culture – indicate. Edgerton’s second definition operates historically but also implicates societies that exist today and are subject to observation; this would include the modern Western societies. Edgerton’s third definition has the same range of application as his second.


In the main chapters of Sick Societies, Edgerton piles up the instances of maladaptation, one after the other, until the quantity of examples seems to make his case all by itself. In about two-thirds of these instances, Edgerton finds himself obliged to discuss, not only the particular maladaptation, but also the deliberate eliding of failed or counterproductive or misery-producing institutions or practices in the field-reports of the ethnographers. Deliberate misreporting and the suppression of unflattering truths occur with alarming frequency in professional accounts of folk-societies, Margaret Mead‘s romantic descriptions of the supposed sexual utopia in Samoa establishing the pattern. Aware of a widespread tendency to excuse the exotic Edgerton directs his analysis to two cases of specifically Western – indeed of American – sub-cultures that demonstrate how maladaptation can result in the destruction of a community. These cases are significant because romantic misreporting has not distorted the relevant facts, which, belonging as they do to the historical record, no one disputes.

The first of Edgerton’s two preliminary cases is that of the Oneida Colony in mid-Nineteenth Century Upstate New York, founded in 1848 by its leader John H. Noyes, and dissolved in a major scandal in 1879. The second of these two cases is that of the “Duddie’s Branch” community in Eastern Kentucky in the mid-Twentieth Century.

The Oneida Colony functioned, in effect, as a large-scale experiment in group-marriage, the governance of which ran to the bizarre. In Edgerton’s words, the Colony’s rules of promiscuous cohabitation “prohibited any lasting emotional attachments (including those between mothers and their children), and required all men, except Noyes and a few other leaders, to practice coitus reservatus,” or non-ejaculatory intercourse. Later on, Noyes imposed new strictures, according to which, “only older men… would be allowed to have sex with young… women,” whereas “young men… could only have sex with postmenopausal women.” These arrangements, which exist elsewhere only in a comedy by Aristophanes, produced so much revulsion that communal order broke down in open rebellion, with Noyes fleeing to Canada in order to evade charges of statutory rape.

“Duddie’s Branch” was an extremely isolated mountain hollow, home to two hundred and thirty-eight incestuously related people, who, while nominally English-speakers, “spoke to one another so rarely that for some time [Rena] Gazaway,” the anthropologist who studied them, “thought that many of them were mute.” The “Branchers” not only could not read or write; they could not even count change. They had no notion of the civic order and could not name for Gazaway the (or any) president of the United States or explain their situation as citizens of a county or state. The Branchers’ poverty and insouciance left them perpetually malnourished, especially the children; people defecated not in outhouses or trenches (they had none), but on the ground outside their shacks, in the perpetual mud where their louse-infested children played. The Branchers found it impossible to reckon kinship both from lacking the requisite terms and “because sexual relations were indiscriminate… and illegitimate births were commonplace.”

Concerning the Oneida Colony, the glaringly patriarchal and sexually exploitative set-up of the community makes it difficult for cultural relativism to mount any kind of rhetorical rescue, especially given Noyes’ final megalomaniacal rule that reserved to him – and to him alone – the jus primi nocti with any adolescent girl who had just experienced her first menses. The regulatory structure of Noyes’ little kingdom cut across every propensity in the sexual side of human nature, exacerbated the predisposition of people to resent unjust shares, and more or less doomed itself to death by internal revolt.

The Branchers, by contrast, lived without internal regulation, and were so symbolically, as well as so materially, impoverished that they only survived through food-welfare from the county and state governments. “There was little interaction,” Edgerton writes, “among households, and none at all as an entire community,” no church or community council or neighborhood picnics on holidays. Families slept in piles on the floor and “girls began to have sexual intercourse as early as the age of six.” The Oneida Colony qualifies as maladapted under Edgerton’s first and second definitions and the Branch community under the third.

While it is next to unimaginable that even a committed cultural relativist would want to touch either the Oneida Colony or the Branchers apologetically with a ten-foot pole, the non-anthropological laity will probably – if only from its vestigial impulse to Christian charity – experience considerable sympathy for another case: that of the Tasmanians. Yet according to Edgerton these people, whose demise came about in part due to heavy-handed European interference, present a case of maladaptation as vivid as any other. At the same time, they present an actual people whose level of cultural development stands remarkably close to that of Rousseau’s speculative société commencée, the supposed happiest era of human existence. Once the ice-bridge that permitted human migration to Tasmania melted, the Tasmanians remained in isolation from all other human contact for somewhere between ten and twelve-thousand years before the arrival of Europeans in modern times.

Not only did the Tasmanians have at least ten millennia to come to terms with their natural environment and learn how to live together happily in a territorially ample multi-tribal community; they also lived in a resource-rich, exploitable landscape that would have yielded a bounty, had only the denizens innovated an instrumentality and devised the social practices to realize the potential. Instead, as Edgerton notes, “when Europeans first made contact with them in the Eighteenth Century, the approximately 4,000 Tasmanians then living had the simplest technology ever reported for any human society.”

On the Australian mainland, where the closest kindred-peoples lived, the tribes had developed “a substantially more complex array of tools, weapons, and other artifacts long before European contact.” As Edgerton puts it, “the Tasmanians put the lie to the myth of Homo Faber.” They also put the lie, once again, to “The Myth of Primitive Harmony.” Tasmanian men dominated and exploited Tasmanian women, delegating almost all of the necessary subsistence labor, some it arduous, to them while taxing themselves hardly at all. Worse: “Despite the risks that women took and their crucial role in the economy, Tasmanian women appear to have been treated harshly by men, and to have been denied access to the choicest foods.” Tasmanian women complained of such maltreatment already to the earliest European travelers, clearly indicating their unhappiness. Now institutions serve to mediate conflicts within a community, but, as Edgerton writes, “unlike the Australians, the Tasmanians had no initiation rituals, only rudimentary religious conceptions and rituals, and no elaborated forms of social organization.


Although the physical conditions of the island of Tasmania did not of themselves impose scarcity, the meager material culture did, as did also fierce tribal rivalries, which resulted in raids for women and food and counter-raids for revenge in an endless cycle. “The Tasmanians failed to devise social and cultural mechanisms to control their destructive tendencies.” An unhappy people, their way of life could not withstand contact with outsiders. Edgerton finds similar patterns of maladaptation among or Kalahari Bushmen, the Inuit, and the medieval Icelanders, among others, who all suffered from internal violence driven by social arrangements that exaggerated rather than reduced resentment and capitally failed to address matters of scarcity and fair distribution. The much-romanticized Chumash tribes of California raided their neighbors for slaves and developed a materially impoverished forced-labor-economy that, while discouraging innovation, necessitated the devotion of considerable energy to policing the chattels. Such practices stultified and brutalized the society. But tribal societies are not the only ones vulnerable to maladaptation, as the case of the Aztecs shows.

Aztec achievement at the level of material culture ran high. Their pyramidal remains testify to their engineering audacity. The Aztec elites articulated a social hierarchy, governed by elaborate rituals, on par with those of the Early Bronze-Age, Old-World kingdoms, from which they differed, however, in signally failing to win the friendliness and loyalty of the masses. The bloody order of the Aztec polity – although defended by such relativistic lights of academic anthropology as Marvin Harris and Marshal Sahlins – justly inspires a high degree of popular revulsion. The Aztec elites valued warrior-competency and male-super-dominance above all other values, practiced slavery, human sacrifice, and cannibalism all on a lavish scale, and incessantly raided their neighbors for slaves and victims – the latter also furnishing the viands for the great ritual feasts. Aztec art celebrated these forms of brutality and the Aztec calendar provided a precise schedule for the bloody displays.

Edgerton writes: “The desire for human flesh was so great that many wars were fought for no other reason than the capture of prisoners.” The commoners tilled, planted, harvested, and paid burdensome harvest-taxes to the nobles, who returned almost nothing in the other direction.

The nobles apparently believed in their many superstitions, and this credulity contributed to their downfall when Europeans arrived in the form of Hernan Cortez and his Conquistadors. Montezuma, the Aztec Royal, interpreted Cortez in mythic terms as an avatar of Quetzalcoatl, a god whose return the prophecies foretold. That served Cortez well, but even more so did the fact that the neighbors of the Aztecs, weary of harassment, willingly formed a military auxiliary to back up the handful of Spanish troops. Spanish occupation of Tenochtitlan refuted Montezuma’s claim to divinity, broke the hold of superstition on the elites, and triggered a belated coup-d’état against the Royal by the cadet branch of the aristocracy. The spasm bespoke pure ire, as no possibility existed, once the rebels had assassinated Montezuma, that the commoners would then side with them to expel the interlopers.

Aztec society disintegrated rapidly, as did also Tahitian society, equally warlike if not equally sacrificial or cannibalistic, on initial contact with Europeans. The complex of social structures and ritual practices characteristic of Aztec society, dominated by the haughty elites, ultimately doomed itself because it systematically shut out the masses from the actual commonwealth and aroused the hatred of the neighboring peoples through constant aggression and depredation.

It is worth saying that Spanish colonial society in the New World was almost as brutal and perverse as the societies of the sacrificial kingdoms – Aztec, Inca, or Caribe. The anomaly that redeems Spanish colonial society marginally is that it could produce someone like Bartolomé de las Casas, a man willing to speak out, at no little risk to himself, on behalf of native peoples against the atrocious colonial policies.


Dramatically deformed societies such as those discussed in the foregoing summary of Edgerton’s book represent only a small minority of known human communities, as Edgerton openly allows. Nevertheless, Edgerton writes, “all societies maintain some beliefs and practices that are maladaptive for at least some of their members, and it is likely that some of these social arrangements and cultural understandings will be maladaptive for everyone in the society.” Edgerton reminds his readers that his “insistence that maladaptive beliefs and practices are commonplace must not be construed to mean that humans never make effective adaptations to their environments.”

Edgerton confesses to being uninterested, finally, in the question “whether so-called primitive thought is less abstract, more magical, or less able to assess marginal probabilities” than modern Western thought. Edgerton asserts otherwise that, “most people in all societies, including those most familiar with Western science, sometimes make potentially harmful mistakes and tend to maintain them.” Thus as Edgerton writes: “It must be… acknowledged that populations have not always gotten things right,” but rather, “inefficiency, folly, venality, cruelty, and misery were and are also a part of human history” and “human suffering is one result.”

One can hardly read Sick Societies, nearly twenty years after its publication, without speculating how Edgerton’s arguments and observations might apply to the existing condition of the West, governed as it is by dogmatic elites who would implement the antitheses of the market and repeal longstanding norms – I refer to redistribution of wealth, penalization of productivity, and the infliction, via immigration, of pre-modern and non-Western cultural forms on Western societies, under a doctrine that goes by the misleadingly abstract name of “Multiculturalism.” For one thing, the maladaptation theory implies a consistent human nature that bad arrangements can violate. This notion of a consistent human nature is rejected by the reigning cultural relativism, but affirmed by the continuity of the Western tradition from Greek philosophy through the Gospels to Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and the American Constitution.

Self-criticism is central to the Western tradition, from Plato and Aristotle to Immanuel Kant and Edmund Husserl. The currently prevalent self-hatred, urged on the commonality by the elites (who certainly never show any similar hatred of themselves or their own beliefs), differs radically from genuine introspection. One might trace the history of this self-hatred, while cataloguing its destructive results, from Rousseau, who directly influenced the French Revolution and provided theoretical justification for its enormities, through Karl Marx’s inspiration of the Bolsheviks, with their homicidal record, to the deliquescence of civic society consequent on the socialist-and-multicultural policies of existing Western governments. Not least of these inimical governments would be the increasingly radical and dictatorial Democrat-Party regime in the USA, whose idea of economics resembles the magical thinking of primitives and whose social policies, administered by “Czars,” mimic the most non-productive notions of Soviet-era Third-World governments.

We have seen earlier how Edgerton identifies the semantic slipperiness in the standard ethnographic claim that intuitively maladaptive practices operate by concealed rationality, which the professionally uninitiated cannot perceive or understand. It is striking that the advocates and defenders of many-times-tried-and-failed public and national policies, invariably leftwing, make similar counterintuitive claims. High taxation and deficit spending first cause and then deepen economic recessions, but the authors of such programmatic devastation invariably assert that their tax-and-spend schemes “are working” to revive prosperity, even despite the non-appearance of the promised results and the worsening of the general picture. The architects and defenders of borderless-ness claim that the massive unrestricted influx of foreign nationals, many of them linguistically and educationally handicapped, serves a goal of utopian (call it “neo-primitive”) harmony, even despite the visibly demoralizing, because culturally divisive, effects that large-scale demographic intrusions inflict on the host-society.

One cannot blame the current sickness of the West on governments solely, which after all acquire their mandates through majority endorsement at the ballot box. To turn slightly an old observation: everyone in a democratic polity, no matter how wisely he votes, gets the government that the gullible majority deserves. Many widespread traits of Westerners qualify as “sick,” from the willingness of the underclass to live on welfare, letting producers subsidize their destructive habits, to the willingness of elites to defend anti-social behavior, to the unwillingness of the middle class to assert morality, crippled as the bourgeoisie is, spiritually, by a metastatic “White Guilt.” The elites have carefully inculcated same “White Guilt” through the educational system for decades. That again is “sick.”

A friend of mine, a psychologist specializing in corporate culture, recently asked me, in my capacity as a “humanist,” whether I could think of any historical precedent for the current “norm-hatred” of the elites. I could not. I can also not think of any historical society that was as absorbed in diversion as the modern Western society, whether it is the ubiquitous pornography of the Internet or the gangster-ethos of “youth-culture” or the stupidity of TV game shows and glitzy amateur hours and so-called reality-dramas.

Insofar as they abet the laziness caused by enthrallment to diversion, other practices, such as those that encourage “self-esteem” in individuals who have no real claim on it, also qualify as maladaptive and therefore as “sick.” These customs and proclivities satisfy the conditions of all three of Edgerton’s operative definitions of maladaptation.

One response to “Sick Societies’….[1992] Revisted-Is Culture Adaptive?

  1. I have been reading The Longest Mile and am curious to know if anyone lives at Duddies Branch today.

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