The aggressive bully or the charming Statesman?

Posted on December 15, 2010

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“Who has higher fertility and more surviving offspring – the aggressive bully or the charming Statesman?” So Christopher von Rueden, described as a doctoral student in anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, summarized the point of his research, publicized by UCSB, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Von Rueden admits that his view of this question has a built-in gendered limitation, as he and his colleagues

focused their research exclusively on Tsimane men because, in this particular society, women tend to be shy and cautious around men to whom they are not related. “Being a 30-year-old man interviewing Tsimane women is a little difficult,” von Rueden said. “It presents a limitation. But I do have colleagues who are investigating women’s social relationships and social status, which merit as much attention as those of men.”

I am always fascinated by the kind of research done by evolutionary anthropologists, even though I think the beginning assumptions made sometimes make the outcomes of research predictable and presents greater complexities for generalization than press reports, at least, acknowledge.

So I hope I can be forgiven, while acknowledging the strength of this new research report, for wondering what it means, anthropologically, to draw the conclusions that

the most significant variables connecting a man’s social status to his reproductive success are the opportunity it affords him to marry a younger wife, and his ability to recruit allies and cooperative partners. The younger his wife, and the more social support he garners for either conflicts or food production, the more surviving offspring a man will have.

How are we to understood these conclusions? as descriptive of the model society; generalizable to some (here undefined) segment of societies (based on unspecified criteria)? or typical of all humanity?

Like many such studies, this new one takes a small social group as a model for generalized human behavior. In this case, the nominated group is the Tsimane of the Bolivian Amazon. Small isolated groups like this tend to be used as models because their economic adaptation is seen as pre-modern, so that their social behaviors are in some sense more transparent. Or as the press release from UCSB puts it:

Because the Tsimane are forager-horticulturists, their society is relatively egalitarian; therefore, one might expect that status would not matter much, when compared to stratified, hierarchical societies where wealth is accumulated in the hands of the few.

It is worth taking a look at the Tsimane experience, as an example of one of the challenges facing anthropology as a generalizing project: the small scale societies on the margins of states that have traditionally provided the fodder for big conclusions are, in fact, rarely if ever so isolated or pristine as to be interpretable as “typical”.

Here’s a summary of Tsimane culture and twentieth-century history from a multidisciplinary research project website:

Until the late 1940s, the Tsimane’ lived like many other pre-contact Amazonian societies. They hunted, fished, gathered wild plants, and practiced slash-and-burn agriculture. They married their cross-cousins, listened to their shamans, drew on myths to explain the universe, and relied on local knowledge to manage their environment. All this changed with the arrival of Protestant missionaries in the early 1950s. Soon after arriving, missionaries started to convert Tsimane’ to the Protestant faith.

Yet again, we are not dealing with a model population untouched by distorting aspects of modernity. The Tsimane Amazonian Panel Study website from which this characterization comes is an investigation, headed by anthropologist Ricardo Godoy, of the way that market expansion affects societies.

In fact, what occupies most of the press report on this study is not the possibility of answering the question of the relative reproductive success of the bully or the statesman. It is, instead, the factors that led to higher numbers of offspring, and here, the link to prestige or dominance– the statesman or the bully– are not entirely clear to me:

The researchers examined four different pathways to increased fertility. Among them were the number of mating partners; the quality of mating partners – their youth, fecundity, and the kin and allies they brought to the relationship; the number of cooperative partners within the community; and deference from competitors. “If you had more prestige in the community, you had more surviving offspring,” von Rueden said. “And the biggest predictors of that – the strongest linking variables – were that you were able to marry at a younger age to a younger wife, and you could rely on more allies and cooperative partners.”

The authors’ summary of the bully/statesman contrast in the abstract of their paper actually is somewhat clearer:

Men who are more likely to win a dyadic physical confrontation, i.e. dominant men, have higher intra-marital fertility for their age, and men with more community-wide influence, i.e. prestigious men, exhibit both higher intra-marital fertility and lower offspring mortality. Both forms of status elicit support from allies and deference from competitors, but high status men are not provisioned more than their peers.

I guess the bottom line is it is better to be well-regarded by others than to try to bully them. These days, I will take my good news in small pieces.

And I suppose I will have to wait until someone asks those shy Tsimane women to explain why children born to “men with more community-wide influence” have “lower offspring mortality”. Because I kind of suspect the answer to questions about how children survive and thrive need to consider women’s agency, not just men’s.