Well, this book was the first of my goal progress for 2016. It was definitely one to test my mettle…
Sick Societies: Challenging the myth of Primitive Societies by Robert B. Edgerton was recommended to me, I believe, by Father Richard Simon via his Radio show, Father Simon Says. Anything Father Simon recommends, I read. He’s the smartest, most relatable Priest on the planet, and is so Biblically sound it is as if you are walking the Holy Land with him.
I have no idea why he recommended this book, but it came up enough times for me to write it down, though it’s probably been a year since I wrote it down. Once I downloaded it to my eReader (I use Kobo) I left it alone until I started working on my goal this year. I decided I couldn’t get more books until I read the one I had.
In essence, this is an Anthropology thesis or textbook. The application to life and culture today are pretty obvious, but it is mainly geared toward convincing other anthropologists that they need to stop thinking that primitive, or “folk”, societies are perfect societies, and they need to have some cultural relativism when looking at these societies – looking at them through the moral and ethical glasses of one’s own society. Edgerton describes adaptive and maladaptive practices as beneficial and not beneficial, respectively, to the society or culture as a whole, where as the predominant thought in anthropology was that anything that appeared maladaptive must be adaptive and therefore good for that society or else it would not be practiced.
Edgerton spends eight fairly short chapters debunking that notion, and it made me wonder why it took eight chapters. It seemed pretty obvious by the time I got through the first twenty pages, and I’m not sure I ever needed convincing.
There are scores of interesting stories about primitive societies that exist today throughout the world. I was only familiar with the Yanomamo I had studied in college 25 years ago and, though the book was written right about the time I was in college, I was glad to see that the author avoided the still-unsettled Tasaday question. These stories discuss all sorts of practices by indigenous peoples that seem quite counter-productive – too numerous to even categorize here.
Edgerton reveals a cynical and seemingly agnostic if not purely atheistic bent in his writing, especially his conclusion when he poopoos the fact that 80% of Americans believe that God can work miracles – something he sees as “maladaptive,” while totally ignoring the obviously maladaptive practice of government-sanctioned abortion that, by the time of his writing, had killed more than twenty million people in America alone.
I gave the book three out of five stars for its intellectual pursuit. It’s a bit disappointing to read something that the author feels compelled to put complicated, esoteric words into when a few words of common vernacular would suffice. Without my reader I would have had to keep a dictionary by my side, and I have a pretty extensive vocabulary. Many of his word choices were presumptuous in an obvious manner, as if he intended for the reader to have to pause and look up the word, all while exclaiming how intelligent the author must be.
This is a relatively easy read in length and flow. It is especially lengthy in form because of so many examples being used just to make the same point. And the footnotes are tremendously unhelpful – all they do is cite an author and page, relative to the bibliography in the back which is extensive. No chapter had less than 100 footnotes, most of them saying “Ibid,” and only a dozen or so actually had some description or elaboration on the footnoted item in the main text.
When I finished the last chapter, my eReader said I was barely 60% done. That’s how long the footnotes and bibliography are – nearly half the book.
If this sort of anthropological discussion interests you – the argument between two camps on how to look at primitive societies either relatively or not – then you’ll enjoy it. I did, but I came at it as something that would teach me something Father Simon wanted me to know. If I had to guess, what he wanted me to know was how maladaptive abortion is – but I already knew that and the author seems to not, since there is no mention of it and, of the scores of maladaptive practices he mentions in myriad societies throughout the world and history, one would think he would fin abortion at the top of the list of maladaptive practices for society today.
I walked away from this book at least knowing that this was nothing new. People have been behaving in their own best interests, and not societies’, since Cain slew Abel.