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  The Ishmael Community: Questions and Answers

The Question (ID Number 661)...

    I recognize the fact that cultures are subject to a form of natural selection, in which unlivable practices are abandoned or changed by the members of a tribal society over time. However, what I do not understand is how one can look at a tribal society today and make assumptions about their past. Members of a tribe may say, "We have done this since the beginning of time," but the oral tradition changes along with everything else, and it isn't really reliable. In several answered questions, you have replied to a person's inquiry about an unpleasant cultural practice with a response along the lines of, that culture has been proceeding for thousands of years, anything unsustainable to its people would have been eliminated by now. But how can we know whether they will be eliminated in the future? If a practice is eliminated in a tribe, does that render our previous criticism of it "correct" from an evolutionary perspective? Destructive practices must exist for a short time before they are abandoned, so how can we tell if the last few hundred years out of thousands in a tribe's history aren't the most internally destructive, or a radical change from what enabled them to survive before?

    ...and the response:

    What I've said is that the members of aboriginal tribes, wherever they're encountered by anthropologists, express complete contentment with the way things are done in their tribe. The fact that the style of a particular tribe doesn't suit you (or anyone else) is irrelevant; it only has to suit them. In a sense, they're like species: if they're here, it's because they're successful. No species (or tribe) comes into being by failing. If the life lived by the Yanomami of today is not identical to the life they lived five thousand years ago (something that is obviously unknowable), I frankly can't see what difference it makes. Wherever tribal life is untouched by outside forces (like ours), it is extremely stable, which is why they invariably perceive that it has been this way from time out of mind. You speak of practices being voluntarily "eliminated" in tribes. I guess I have ask for some examples of this. The closest I can come to an example is that of the Plains Indians, who at some point in their history, became agriculturalists; but when horses became easily available to them (after being introduced by the Spanish), they abandoned agriculture for the easier life of hunting and gathering. Some "practices" associated with the agricultural life doubtless fell into disuse (since they were no longer relevant to their lives as hunter/gathers), but neither these practices nor agriculture itself were "eliminated" and they were certainly not perceived as "destructive." In other words, it wasn't a matter of "eliminating destructive practices," it was just a matter of adopting an easier way of making a living. It should be noted most emphatically that, while culturally stable, tribal peoples are highly adaptable to changed conditions (as this example shows)--and they wouldn't last long if they weren't. The point is that adapting to changed conditions doesn't mean changing their cultural identity.


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