Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Hayek in the Amazon: The Two Worlds of the Kayapo and the Waorani


These two photographs are from an article in the January issue of National Geographic about the Kayapo people, who live in the Amazonian rain forest in Brazil.  They live a largely subsistence way of life in 44 villages based mostly on hunting and gathering.  The article is about the village of Kendjam, which has a population of 187. 

Thus, their way of life is very similar to that of our Paleolithic hunter-gatherer ancestors.  But as these pictures indicate, they are also very different from our ancient evolutionary ancestors because they have joined what Friedrich Hayek called the extended order of civilization.  And just as Hayek said that "we must learn to live in two sorts of world at once" (Fatal Conceit, 18), the Kayapo are said to live in "two worlds"--"From shotguns and motorized aluminum boats to Facebook pages, they have shown a canny ability to adopt technologies and practices of the cash-based society at their borders without compromising the essence of their culture" (40).

There is some tension between these two worlds.  Some of the Kayapo worry about preserving their native culture, and they must fight to protect their land from the incursions of loggers, miners, farmers, and hydroelectric dams.  But it's clear that they benefit from "the cash-based society at their borders," and so they have chosen to participate in the extended market order of modern civilization.

Contrary to Hayek's Freudian theory of civilization, I see no evidence here that the Kayapo have had to suppress their genetically evolved instincts for tribal life to embrace the purely cultural traditions of civilization.  It seems clear that their instinctive desire to better their conditions of life has led them to participate in the market order of exchange and specialization while preserving as much of their small village life as they can.

Before their contact with Europeans, these indigenous tribal people had a structure of political rule insofar as they had chiefs who mediated disputes within villages and led them in war against other villages.  But they did not have formal governmental institutions. 

The imposition of government has been both good and bad for them.  It has been good in that it has pacified their life.  One chief explains: "Before contact, we were clubbing each other to death, and everybody lived in fear.  Without doubt, things are much better today because people aren't hitting each other over the head with war clubs" (48).  So it seems that Thomas Hobbes was right about the importance of government in bringing people out of a violent state of nature into a more peaceful state.  Steven Pinker has shown how this governmental pacification process has been the first step in the history of declining violence that has led to modern liberal regimes that foster the gains from peaceful cooperation and trade.

Government has been bad for the Kayapo, however, in that the coercive policies of the Brazilian government for developing the Amazonian rain forest often threaten the Kayapo.  The example featured in the National Geographic article is a hydroelectric dam project managed by Eletrobras, the state-owned power company.

This reminds me of what I saw last summer in the Ecuadorian rain forest.  My wife and I spent a week at Sacha Lodge on the Napo River near the Yasuni National Park and the Yasuni Biosphere Reserve, which is reputed to have more biodiversity--more species of plants and animals--than any other place on Earth.

The most numerous of the indigenous tribes in eastern Ecuador--such as the Quichua and the Shuar people--have adopted the cultural practices of the outside world as introduced originally by the Spanish colonists and Christian missionaries.  But some of the tribal groups--particularly the Waorani--have resisted any contact with outsiders, and some have withdrawn deep into the rain forest to live a primitive life like that of our Paleolithic ancestors.  One of our guides at Sacha Lodge was a Quichua man who identified the Waorani as auca--the Quichua word for "savage."


If violence is any measure of savagery, then the Waorani have lived a savage life.  They are known among anthropologists as the most violent group of people ever studied.  They have engaged in warfare with all groups around them, and they have shown high rates of homicide even within their villages.  By some estimates, over 60% of Waorani deaths have been from homicide.

In 1956, some evangelical Christian missionaries decided that they would enter the territory of the Waorani to bring them the message of Jesus that they should love one another and live in peace.  The Waorani believed that all outsiders were cannibals, who wanted to eat them, and so when the missionaries arrived, the Waorani killed them.  Remarkably, some of the relatives of the slain missionaries returned a few years later to resume their missionary work.

As reported by anthropologists Clayton and Carole Robarchek, most of the Waorani had grown tired of the pervasive violence, and they made attempts to pacify their lives by making peace agreements.  But often, just after reaching an agreement between villages, some passionate young man would attack someone to take vengeance for some past misdeed, and then the uncontrolled violence resumed.  Most of the people desired peace, but they had no way to effectively prevent individuals from violating the terms of any peace agreement.

But eventually the missionaries succeeded.  The Robarcheks report:
"At first they made little progress; 'had they not been women,' (and thus not perceived as threatening), 'we would have killed them right away,' one of our neighbors told us; 'We didn't listen to them.'  It was the returning Waorani women who proved to be the key.  Wiba had lived with the Quichua for a decade, the others for nearly a year.  They described for their kinsmen their lives on the outside: how the kowudi [outsiders] were not cannibals, how there was no raiding, how people did not constantly live in fear of attacks, how there was access to all sorts of tools, medicines, and wonderful goods.  As they began to realize that the feuding could stop, some members of the Upriver band began urging their kin to heed the words of the missionaries" (156).
This new knowledge changed their view of the world in a way that allowed them to fulfill their desires for peace, security, and a better life.  The Robarcheks report that there was a serious drop in the rate of homicide for almost twenty years, although Waorani society was still rather violent, with a homicide rate higher than that for Detroit.  Unfortunately, they say that in recent years the violence has begun to rise.  Hobbes might say that this shows the instability of any peace that is not enforced by governmental pacification.

This shows that Hayek was right in concluding that "people will usually choose civilization if they have the choice" (Fatal Conceit, 134), and that Adam Smith was right in seeing that they do this because of their universal desire for bettering their condition.

And yet a few people might choose to remain in a fully primitive state of nature and refuse any contact with outside civilization.  Apparently, that is true for the Tagaeri and Taromenane people of the Ecuadorian rainforest, who live in an area designated by the Ecuadorian government as the "Intangible Zone."  When most of the Waorani began to have contact with missionaries about fifty years ago, a few Waorani refused to have any such contact, and they moved away and are now identified as Tagaeri and Taromenane.  Very little is known about them because they kill any outsiders who enter their territory.  Their entire population might be no more than a few hundred.

John Tooby and Leda Cosmides have conducted experiments with the Shiwiar people, hunter-horticulturalists who live in the Ecuadorian rain forest south of the Yasuni Biosphere Reserve along the Pastaza river near the border of Peru.  Tooby and Cosmides found that the Shiwiar were proficient at "cheater-detection," and thus showed a cognitive adaptation for reasoning about social exchange or reciprocation, which is one of the cognitive foundations for economic activity and social exchange generally.  This suggests that they have an evolved adaptive instinct for economic trade that prepares them for entering extended market orders.

For me, this illustrates how the history of political philosophy can become an empirical science: a Darwinian science of evolutionary political anthropology supports Hobbes, Locke, and Smith and refutes Rousseau and Marx.


Chip Brown, "Kayapo Courage," National Geographic 225 (January 2014): 30-55.

Salvatore Eugenio Pappalardo, Massimo De Marchi, and Francesco Ferrarese, "Uncontacted Waorani in the Yasuni Biosphere Reserve: Geographical Validation of the Zona Intangible Tagaeri Taromenane (ZITT)," PLoS One, 2013, 8(6): e66293.

Clayton Robarchek and Carole Robarchek, Waorani: The Contexts of Violence and War (Mason, OH: Cengage Learning, 2008).

Lawrence S. Sugiyama, John Tooby, and Leda Cosmides, "Cross-Cultural Evidence of Cognitive Adaptations for Social Exchange among the Shiwiar of Ecuadorian Amazonia," PNAS 99 (August 20, 2002): 11537-11542.

In addition to my recent series of posts on Hayek at the Freiburg workshop, some related posts can be found here, here, herehere., and here.


Tomás said...

"Steven Pinker has shown how this governmental pacification process has been the first step in the history of declining violence that has led to modern liberal regimes that foster the gains from peaceful cooperation and trade."

... and that make peoples, worldwide, to degenerate physically and intellectually because, as everybody knows, there's no absolute progress out there, only trade-offs and compromises.

Everybody knows that every massive slaughter must be performed by the Big Consolidated Government. Like killing 800.000 distant cousins for the sake of some abstract ideal.

Sal said...

"Contrary to Hayek's Freudian theory of civilization, I see no evidence here that the Kayapo have had to suppress their genetically evolved instincts for tribal life to embrace the purely cultural traditions of civilization."

But could such a people have BUILT civilization on their own in the first place?

Industrious people build up an economy, but lazy ones can enjoy the fruits too. But can lazy people build an economy?

That said, all social orders are repressive of natural animal instincts. Even this primitive tribe surely doesn't allow its members to act like wild chimpanzees. They do have rules, taboos, and rituals that instill its members with manner in which natural instincts may be expressed and utilized.