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The Brian Ferguson Interview

I talked with Rutgers University professor of anthropology R. Brian Ferguson about Steven Pinker, Napoleon Chagnon, Marvin Harris, anthropo...

Ferguson interview transcript

00:00
Music: "Hot Pink" by N. G. McClernan
00:05
NANCY MCCLERNAN:
00:09
Welcome to Pinkerite: Steven Pinker, the
00:12
Intellectual Dark Web and Race Science
00:15
I'm Nancy McClernan.
00:17
Brian Ferguson is a professor of
00:20
anthropology at Rutgers University and a critic of Steven Pinker.
00:26
Ferguson has criticized Pinker’s support for the Natural History of Ashkenazi
00:31
Intelligence hypothesis
00:33
and Pinker's claims about prehistoric violence.
00:34
I spoke to him about both issues in this interview.
00:39
The interview was recorded at a diner in Manhattan so you will hear some background noise.
00:45
The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
00:46
I began by asking Ferguson about his early career and relationship with Marvin Harris.
00:55
BRIAN FERGUSON:
00:56
…yeah I went to Columbia University, trained by Marvin Harris Morton Fried and others.
01:00
It was four field anthropology then, which was cultural anthropology, biological
01:05
anthropology and archeology and linguistics. I don't do linguistics but I
01:10
do history. I’ve added history to the
01:12
four fields. Barbara Price was a
01:13
clear-cut cultural materialist. Alot of other
01:15
people who are but they don’t call
01:17
themselves that. But you know I'm
01:19
comfortable with being a loner. Marvin
01:22
was inspirational to me - and I did
01:25
influence him. A big thing for me in my
01:28
intellectual development is his, one of
01:29
his big ideas was emic and etic you know
01:32
so he published a paper on the emic and
01:34
etic distinction and as a graduate student I looked at that paper and I said ‘this
01:38
emic/etic distinction is confounding two different distinctions.’ Which was emic
01:43
being the native’s point of view and the
01:45
etic being the outside observer with
01:48
emic being mental and etic being
01:52
behavioral and I said ‘no, those are
01:55
different’ and I went in to talk to Marvin
01:57
and Marvin at first kind of… he just
02:00
published a paper on this but after
02:02
about a week he came back and said
02:05
‘you're right.’
02:06
And that was really what gave me the
02:10
courage to - if I think something's right
02:13
I'm going to say it's right. But the
02:17
field of culture materialism… it's not
02:20
really a field but I still do it, I still
02:24
find it very useful. My culture
02:27
materialism is different from Marvin’s.
02:28
I wrote a paper called infrastructural
02:31
determinism which laid out exactly how
02:34
it's different and Marvin had mixed
02:36
feelings about that but it was still, it
02:37
was a modification of cultural
02:39
materialism, still within the
02:41
framework. And I think that that's - a part
02:43
of it is cultural materialism isn't
02:47
current and for one reason is that
02:49
anthropologists have gone to smaller
02:54
stories, they looked at - emics is very
02:57
large but besides that - cultural
02:59
materialist was talking about
03:00
cross-cultural comparison and
03:03
generalization. there's not that much of
03:04
that going on in anthropology today and
03:09
when it does go on it tends to be
03:11
using statistical techniques which kind
03:14
of leave me cold, I don't think that they
03:16
really get at what's going on. But if you
03:18
- about the kind the ideas of
03:20
infrastructure, structure and
03:21
superstructure which is the mainframe of
03:24
culturalist material theory I think that
03:25
that is essential for understanding
03:30
variations large-scale variations in
03:33
human culture. What my modification of it
03:35
tried to do was bring in history so that
03:39
you could use that same framework but
03:41
talk about more localized and transient
03:44
phenomena rather than comparing entire
03:47
societies. But it's still cultural
03:50
materialist theory. I can tell you that
03:52
Marvin told me that he never saw
03:56
anyone reading one of his books. I saw
03:59
one on the subway one day and I told him
04:01
And he was thrilled.
04:03
04:04
MCCLERNAN:
04:06
I love the books that Martin Harris
04:08
wrote for a general audience, especially
04:10
"Cannibals and Kings” and “Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches” and after I read them I went
04:15
on to read Harris's academic works. such
04:18
as “The Rise of Anthropological Theory”
04:21
and “Cultural Materialism: the Struggle
04:24
for a Science of Culture.” Ferguson has
04:26
written a book which will be published
04:28
soon, called “Chimpanzees, War and History: are Men Born to Kill”
04:29
and expects that he'll get into an argument with Jane Goodall.
04:37
FERGUSON
04:38
…being trained in archaeology and biological
04:41
anthropology I've been very interested
04:43
in questions of human nature, especially
04:46
on the subject of war, which is my main
04:48
area of research. And I've looked at that
04:52
culturally and archaeologically and
04:55
through various theories of different
04:58
kinds, that humans have an innate
05:00
propensity to make war on others of
05:03
different groups, and I am now finishing
05:07
final edits of a book called “Chimpanzees
05:11
War and History: are Men Born to Kill”
05:14
that should be published within a
05:17
year by Oxford University Press. That
05:19
book looks at the proposition that
05:22
humans share with chimpanzees an inborn
05:26
inclination to kill members of other
05:28
groups, when that can be done without
05:30
risk to themselves. And so what I've done
05:33
over about 20 years on and off research
05:38
is looked at the entire chimpanzee
05:39
record and argued that chimpanzees do
05:43
not have that innate propensity, the
05:46
chimpanzees do sometimes kill members of
05:48
other groups and sometimes in ways that
05:51
looked something like, a lot like, human
05:54
raiding. But when they've done that, when
05:56
you look at the actual cases you see
05:59
that these are situations where they've
06:01
been disturbed by the human presence in
06:03
the area and in specific ways that lead
06:08
to increased competition between
06:10
different groups. So it's not they're
06:13
just waiting for a chance to kill others.
06:16
Chimpanzees
06:17
have gotten along with members of
06:18
other groups. And then I take that to
06:21
what it means about human nature, which
06:25
connects up with work I've done over the
06:27
years about archeology and war, showing
06:31
that - and this is a huge huge area of
06:34
debate right now, the idea that human
06:36
beings - and Steven Pinker endorses this -
06:40
that human beings have a history of - in
06:45
the archaeological record - if violent
06:48
death of somewhere between fifteen to
06:49
twenty five percent of the population or
06:52
sometimes adult male population,
06:55
is an absurd notion that comes from
06:58
cherry-picking reports of the most
07:01
violent cases and not looking at the
07:05
overall findings of archaeology in any
07:08
area: the Near East, North America, Europe.
07:11
If you look at that you find there is
07:13
evidence of warfare, there certainly is
07:15
evidence of violence death which gets
07:17
more recent towards the present, gets
07:20
down to almost non-existence in the
07:22
earliest archaeological records, but is
07:26
nothing like this fifteen to twenty five
07:27
percent which is so frequently repeated.
07:31
So that's what I've been working on and
07:34
that work has brought me into contact
07:36
with other issues of human nature, such
07:41
as issues of race and IQ and that's what
07:47
led me to take up the challenge when
07:51
that paper Natural History of Ashkenazi
07:54
Intelligence came out… I'm heading for a
07:56
whole world of argument - I’m arguing - this
07:59
book “Chimpanzees War and History” is going
08:02
to be the biggest argument that I've
08:05
ever been in. So right now that's the one
08:09
I’m preparing for.
08:10
I mean if you're arguing against
08:13
Richard Wrangham and Jane Goodall you better
08:18
have your head focused on what -
08:19
MCCLERNAN
08:20
Wow you’re going to argue with Jane Goodall?
08:21
FERGUSON
08:22
yeah with
08:23
great respect for her as a scientist, and
08:24
as a scientist another scientist should
08:26
be able to evaluate and disagree with
08:28
their positions and that's what I'm
08:29
going to be doing. That's what I do. So
08:31
I'm just I'm just focused on that right now
08:34
and it’s, I'm having difficulty just
08:37
finding out how many papers are coming
08:38
out with the frequency that they are, on
08:42
this great war, on the war over human
08:46
nature. It's surprising to me that the
08:48
mainstream press has not caught on to
08:50
this yet because it is so contentious,
08:55
but it's entirely within the academic
08:58
world at this at this point. I've talked
09:00
about it, but it's still - it will I
09:02
think come out eventually
09:04
and when it does is just it goes to
09:07
people who study hunters and gatherers
09:11
it goes to people who do archaeological
09:12
work, to people who study chimpanzees
09:14
people, to people who study human evolution.
09:15
All these different fields come together in
09:19
this one great debate that's developing now.
09:23
MCCLERNAN:
09:24
One of Ferguson's most important
09:27
papers, in my opinion, is on the theories
09:29
about why the Yanomami of Brazil make
09:32
war. In the paper he debunks claims that
09:35
evolutionary psychologists such as
09:35
E. O Wilson, Margo Wilson and Martin Daly
09:40
have made, based on the fieldwork of Napoleon Chagnon.
09:43
FERGUSON:
09:44
…well I wrote a paper called
09:45
“Materialist, Cultural and Biological theories of why Yanomami Make War”
09:49
and I give these three different
09:51
positions. And when I came to the
09:54
biological theory - I and I must admit I
09:58
was trying to, you know, stick a needle
10:02
into people here - that there's a lot of
10:06
different biological theories that have
10:07
been offered and the Yanomami is the
10:11
go-to case for most
10:13
biological anthropologists because
10:15
Napoleon Chagnon is the champion of
10:18
sociobiology, so it's natural
10:19
to go to him. He's got his own biological
10:23
theories, but there were other biological
10:25
theories that have referred to the
10:27
Yanomami. So what I wanted to do was to
10:29
look at these other biological theories
10:31
and then go to what Chagnon and
10:34
only use Chagnon, just what Chagnon
10:36
himself, not other people said, to show
10:38
that their theories were completely at
10:41
variance with what Chagnon himself had
10:44
written. So Daly and Wilson, for example,
10:48
said that there was, that when a Yanomami
10:52
man takes a widow with children as a
10:57
wife he demands that her children from a
11:01
previous spouse be killed. Not only in
11:06
all my reading of the Yanomami did I'd
11:08
never find anything about this, Chagnon
11:10
himself explicitly denied it. There's
11:13
other things like E. O. Wilson it's -
11:14
E. O. Wilson, in the introduction to one of
11:20
Chagnon’s Yanomamo books, says that
11:23
tribal warfare is - I can't even
11:27
paraphrase it now but it's something to
11:28
the effect that tribal warfare always has
11:31
territorial acquisition is a gain when
11:32
Chagnon himself says there's absolutely
11:35
no territorial acquisition involved in
11:37
these wars. So what I was trying to do in
11:39
that was to show - and this is one of the
11:43
persistent things I think that people
11:44
who cloak themselves in the mantle of
11:47
Darwin say 'we're doing science and the
11:51
other people are ideologues or politically
11:53
correct' and what I tried to show there
11:58
was that the people who say they're
11:59
doing science and they refer to Chagnon,
12:02
who did an amazing amount of data
12:05
collection, I mean you really cannot take
12:07
that away from Chagnon it was heroic fieldwork
12:10
in many ways, but what they're
12:13
attributing to him isn't what he said
12:15
himself. So if you say ‘we're doing the science’ - get it right.
12:24
MCCLERNAN:
12:27
I asked Ferguson about a paper he wrote
12:30
‘Pinker's List: Exaggerating Prehistoric
12:33
War Mortality.’
12:34
FERGUSON
12:35
Well in ‘The Blank Slate’
12:39
Pinker wrote - and I won't try to
12:42
paraphrase this either but basically
12:43
that Hobbs was right, that life in the
12:45
state of nature was nasty brutish and
12:47
short and everybody's killing each other
12:48
all the time and so in The Better Angels
12:49
of His Nature and I have not read that
12:53
book, I've read the parts that pertain to
12:55
my work, and that's him citing the
12:58
scientific record - what he claims to be
13:01
the scientific record - of the evidence of
13:04
high levels of violent death throughout
13:08
archaeological finds, in the
13:09
archaeological universe. And what he does
13:13
is he takes two lists - the paper I
13:16
wrote is called Pinker's List, there's a
13:18
PDF on the web, anybody can get it - he
13:21
takes two lists that were composed - one
13:23
by Lawrence Keely, who was
13:27
an archaeologist who was one of the
13:28
people who argued - although he was not
13:31
biologically inclined himself - he didn't
13:32
make biological theories, in fact he
13:34
thought biology was useless for
13:35
explaining war, but he was Hobbesian and
13:38
he thought that war had existed
13:40
throughout our archeological past,
13:42
and he provided a list of cases that
13:45
show high levels of violent death. These
13:49
archaeological - what I mean by
13:51
that, these archaeological
13:53
sites, you find 13 skeletons and two of
13:56
them with embedded arrow points or
13:59
crushed skulls that occurred at the time
14:00
of death, things like that, are indication
14:03
that they died violently. So he came up
14:06
with one list and then there's another
14:08
author Bowles
14:09
who with a co-author Choi I'm not sure
14:12
which whether it was both of them, who
14:15
provided this, came up with
14:16
another list of similar cases. So what
14:20
Steven Pinker did was -
14:23
and this is why it's called Pinker's List -
14:24
is he combined these two, the one by
14:27
Bowles and maybe Choi and by Keeley
14:31
into one list and it gave you 21 cases
14:34
where you could say that the average
14:36
violent death in these cases is 15 to
14:38
25% or sometimes higher - up to 60% of the
14:42
population. And I went and looked at all
14:45
the primary sources for all of those and
14:48
what really struck me was - and the
14:52
conclusion was - here you see it, human
14:55
beings have always been involved in very
14:59
high levels of homicide, which he often
15:03
glosses as warfare although he would
15:04
admit to other kinds of homicide too,
15:06
that they were involved in this homicide and
15:10
we've gotten a lot more peaceful since
15:12
then, you know that's part of the whole
15:13
thrust. This was human nature in
15:15
the state of nature, that's where he
15:17
begins "Better Angels of Our Nature” so when
15:20
you look at these two lists, one of the
15:23
21 has no violent death in it at all so
15:26
it's kind of odd that it's there, but of
15:28
the other 20, three of the cases, which he
15:32
got from these two different lists, are
15:33
the same cases counted twice, and that to
15:37
me was a pretty serious error. There was
15:42
a fourth one that I could have said was
15:44
the same case counted twice but I wanted
15:46
to be, I didn't want to overdo it, so but
15:49
at least three, the exact same cases
15:51
counted twice, because they're given
15:53
different names in the different lists.
15:55
So unless you look at it, it seems like a
15:58
different case. And then of the other
16:01
cases - some of them are completely
16:03
legitimate for his purpose - I'm not
16:04
saying all of them are questionable, but
16:06
what I did when I looked at the
16:08
primary sources was found that two of
16:12
the remaining 14 cases were of an
16:18
individual who died, violently,
16:20
and individuals can die
16:23
violently for - execution is something
16:26
that happens in tribal societies, or
16:28
individual homicides, things like that.
16:31
So that narrows it down more. And then a
16:33
number of the other cases that are cited
16:35
are cases that if you go to the original
16:39
sources, are identified in the original
16:41
sources as being exceptionally violent,
16:45
not typical. So one of the things you
16:48
hear an awful lot about today not - since
16:51
Pinker's book came out - is findings in
16:53
the archaeology of central California,
16:55
where there's a lot of violent death and
16:59
there is, but from the beginning people
17:02
have known that this area has more
17:05
violent deaths than practically any
17:07
place else in North America - not practically - well yet practically any
17:10
place else in North America. Why that's
17:13
true was an interesting question but
17:15
it's not typical, and that's the way it's
17:18
presented, as being typical. There seems
17:22
to be a turning point as I, as I read not
17:26
just what's published, unpublished things
17:28
have been sent to me for review, within
17:30
the past year I've seen three
17:32
independent scholarly works which tell
17:36
]me that there's a turning point going
17:38
one in this debate. And the turning point
17:40
is this: that they are not arguing, people
17:43
who are talking about the archaeological
17:45
evidence, are no longer making the claim of 15 to 25 percent violent death in the
17:50
archaeological record. That claim is
17:52
still out there, some people have made it
17:54
before still make it, but these new
17:55
studies are not saying that, what they're
17:58
saying is that there could be violent
18:01
death an archaeology doesn't reveal it.
18:04
And they make arguments which I think
18:08
are arguable but the turning point is
18:11
that they're no longer claiming this
18:13
very high death rate. This seems to be
18:15
something that, well I like to think that
18:18
my paper Pinker's List had something to
18:20
do with it, but it's not being made in
18:23
new studies. What they're saying is the
18:26
absence of evidence is not
18:28
evidence of absence. It may have gone on
18:30
otherwise - okay you can argue that. But
18:32
that's very different from saying
18:34
we know that 15 to 25% of people died violently.
18:38
18:39
MCCLERNAN:
18:40
Ferguson also talked about his critique
18:42
of a hypothesis that was promoted by
18:43
Steven Pinker and Nicholas Wade.
18:47
Ferguson's critique is called
18:48
“How Jews Became Smart: Anti-Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence.”
18:52
FERGUSON:
18:53
The basic hypothesis was that Ashkenazi Jews
18:58
have 18 inherited physical conditions
19:03
that are bad for the health, some fatal
19:05
some just uncomfortable. Why do they have
19:10
so many of them? And there has been debates
19:13
about that for many years long before
19:15
before I was born. Well maybe not that
19:19
far. And the argument that Natural
19:24
History of Ashkenazi intelligence made
19:27
was that these may have been selected
19:30
for because in heterozygotes - that means
19:33
people who have one copy of the gene but
19:35
not both copies of the gene - these genes
19:39
confer higher intelligence and that in a
19:43
period from about 800 to 1650 AD, Eastern
19:51
European Jews were confined to high
19:55
cognition occupations such as
19:58
money-lending, which is not that simple
20:01
either but okay leave that go. And so
20:04
having one copy of the gene gave them
20:06
higher intelligence and that offset the
20:09
deaths or other diminished reproduction
20:12
from having two copies of the gene or
20:15
otherwise. So this was a hypothesis and
20:19
it was a pretty stark hypothesis because
20:21
it was proposing that particular
20:22
conditions would confer a five-point IQ
20:27
increase. That's a lot. It's testable. It
20:31
was proposed in the journal which was
20:36
formerly called The Eugenics Review and
20:41
it got a tremendous amount of attention.
20:44
Nicholas Wade brought it to the readers
20:47
of the New York Times twice. Now one
20:49
question is why is an untested hypothesis getting so much attention?
20:53
You would think that if they found evidence for it -
20:57
but there was no evidence. This
20:59
was an untested hypothesis. Steven Pinker
21:02
helped legitimize this. Well what struck
21:04
me was that him saying that it was good
21:07
science and when you actually look at
21:11
the science, it's not good science. I mean
21:15
they get the wrong diseases in some
21:18
cases, they, if you look at their
21:20
proposition that these different
21:22
diseases - just just the idea that these
21:24
diseases boost IQ - if you look at their
21:28
the actual science of it, that’s not what
21:31
it says. So you don't say that something
21:34
that's not good science is good science
21:38
without diminishing your own credibility.
21:40
The whole thing is always ‘we're doing
21:43
the science, our opponents are
21:45
politically correct, head-in-the-sand
21:50
ideologues.’ I've always believed and
21:54
everything I write you have to accept
21:56
what the evidence is. You can't just say no.
22:00
And one of the things that - it no
22:03
longer surprises me because I'm so used
22:05
to it - is when people are arguing with me
22:07
on the biological side or arguing with
22:09
my position, they simply don't cite my
22:11
work, they pretend it's not there. And it
22:16
strikes me as you're not being honest - if
22:21
someone comes up with a very strong
22:22
critique of your position and you
22:25
pretend it hasn't happened, when
22:27
everybody knows it's out there, it's not
22:29
like in some obscure journal, it's cited
22:30
by a lot of other people, when you just
22:32
pretend it's not there, you're not being honest.
22:36
You have to confront the critics. I do.
22:39
But if you just say, like Chagnon’s claim
22:45
that killers have more children than non
22:47
killers continues to be cited, when that
22:50
is the most thoroughly disproven claim I
22:54
think an anthropology, it's just that
22:57
there's no one can look at the arguments
22:59
against that and still pretend that it's
23:02
valid. Yet they just ignore all the
23:04
arguments against it and go on blithely by citing it.
23:09
MCCLERNAN:
23:11
The hypothesis was presented
23:13
in a paper called “Natural History of
23:15
Ashkenazi Intelligence" which was written
23:18
by Gregory Cochran, Jason Hardy and Henry Harpending.
23:21
It turns out Harpending, who
23:24
died in 2016, has his very own extremist
23:27
entry in the Southern Poverty Law
23:30
Center's website. Ferguson's next project
23:33
is on the origins of New York gangsters.
23:36
FERGUSON:
23:37
The next project which I'm already on
23:40
now is the origin of gangsters in New
23:43
York. It comes out of my work on the police for many years.
23:46
MCCLERNAN:
23:47
Did you see the movie “Gangs of New York”? And what did you think of it?
23:49
FERGUSON:
23:50
If you look at the video “Real Gangs of New York”
23:53
I'm in that and - when I still had color in my hair.
23:56
The movie had a kind of poetic validity to it but it was,
24:03
it wasn't supposed to be historic. It was
24:05
based on a book by Herbert Asbury
24:06
called 'Gangs of New York' and what I'm
24:08
trying to do - Herbert Asbury was
24:12
also an inspiration - is a great writer
24:14
who showed this world to us. I'm trying
24:16
to write a better version, a more
24:21
historical version of where gangsters
24:24
came from, so that's that's the next project.
24:27
MCCLERNAN:
24:28
So will that be for a popular audience?
24:29
FERGUSON:
24:30
It’s got potential for that but
24:31
then the book on hunters and gatherers
24:32
afterwards will not be.
24:33
MCCLERNAN:
24:34
Well but I’m looking forward to it.
24:37
FERGUSON:
24:38
OK
24:39
MCCLERNAN:
24:40
Thanks to Brian Ferguson for the
24:42
interview and for his work in
24:44
anthropology and his work debunking
24:46
claims promoted by Steven Pinker. And I
24:49
look forward to his upcoming books on
24:51
chimps and on gangs of New York. This is
24:57
Nancy McClernan for Pinkerite. You can
24:59
also find Pinkerite at Pinkerite dot com
25:02
and on Twitter at Pinkerite1. Thanks for listening.
25:06
[Music]