Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Review of Treason's Harbour

Treason's Harbour by Patrick O'Brian, 1983. Glossy's rating: 9.5 out of 10

Obscurity battles accessibility in this series. On the one hand the plots are captivating in a fully traditional way, the protagonists are good people you want to root for and the jokes are very, very funny. On the other hand the books are full of obscure references and terminology, some of which cannot be clarified even by the OED. Nine volumes into the series I'm still regularly looking things up. A reference work called A Sea of Words by Dean King has been helpful, but it's nowhere near complete. And yes, a lot of the action and humor will be lost on those who refuse to make an effort.

One of the things you can get in return is an intuitive understanding of how the most successful organization of the 18th and 19th centuries, the British Royal Navy, really worked. Through that, one can glimpse insights into efficiency in general. You also get a feel for the mechanics of sailing and artillery, and for the relative roles of intelligence, fussiness, bravery, drudgery and brute force in military success in those times.

19th century intelligence gathering is also fully on display here. It seems that the spying outfits of the Napoleonic era were as likely as the modern ones to employ double agents. Why maintain a spying agency if it's almost guaranteed to contain enemy spies, if almost all of the information it possesses quickly gets turned over to the enemy? Well, if you don't have a spying agency, you end up having no intelligence on your rivals, but these rivals will still plant spies into your non-intelligence-gathering governmental structures, as actually happens in this book.

Some readers may wonder how a man as nerdy as Stephen Maturin can be any good as a liar and a manipulator, i.e. a spy. The answer is simple: he does it consciously. Women and non-nerdy men lie and manipulate intuitively. If nerds are to do it, we have to consciously think through every step, which is what Stephen is in fact shown doing here. Of course Stephen spies for purely altruistic reasons. If he wasn't highly altruistic, he wouldn't have had anything in common with Jack at all, and their close friendship would have been utterly implausible.

Early in this volume there is an enlightening scene of Jack wooing a lady.

"Since Jack Aubrey had never deliberately and with malice aforethought seduced a woman in his life, his was not a regular siege of her heart, with formal lines of approach, saps and covered ways; his only strategy (if anything so wholly instinctive and unpremeditated deserved such a name) was to smile very much, to be as agreeable as he could, and to move his chair closer and closer."

How can he be popular with women without acting like a jerk? Extreme natural masculinity, plus his high status among men, which was mostly earned by his and his ancestors' honest, but extreme masculinity. In short, he's so macho that he doesn't even have to be bad to them.

But enough on personalities. I should really say something about O'Brian's style and what reading these novels generally feels like.

All the discouraging aspects of life are frequently acknowledged here - pain, waste, dishonesty, stupidity, the inevitability of decline and death, the possible meaninglessness of it all. Yet the tone isn't cranky or misanthropic. You never get the sense that the author felt cheated by life or wanted to get back at fate or humanity for anything. This contributes to the otherworldly feeling that the books are narrated by an entity that exists somewhere above man's passions and limitations.

And yet there is a great deal of humor here. Real life is rarely funny. Most people's attempts at humor end up in cartoonishness, i.e. a radical simplification of typical situations' facts, settings, personalities and motivations. It's notoriously difficult to come up with stories that are both humorous and realistic. O'Brian did something even harder than that - the reality in which all of his jokes work is just as complex as ours, yet completely unlike anything he could have experienced directly. It's an amazing achievement.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Review of Yanomamö

Yanomamö, 6th edition, 2013, by Napoleon Chagnon. Glossy's rating: 7.5 out of 10

This is a book about one of the last tribal groups to come in contact with civilization - the Yanomamö of Venezuela and Brazil. A brave American anthropologist named Napoleon Chagnon lived among them for a total of 60 months over the course of 30 years, starting in 1964. Temperamentally similar to explorers of old, he has infused this volume with an infectious sense of adventure.

By the time Chagnon arrived in their part of the jungle, the Yanomamö had already left the stone age by acquiring a number of steel axes through trade with other Indians. They were also cultivating plantains, which came to the Americas after Columbus. Other than that Chagnon found them in a pretty pristine state:

"I looked up and gasped when I saw a dozen burly, naked, sweaty, hideous men staring at us down the shafts of their drawn arrows! Immense wads of green tobacco were stuck between their lower teeth and lips making them look even more hideous, and strands of dark-green slime dripped or hung from from their nostrils - strands so long that they clung to their pectoral muscles or drizzled down their chins. We arrived at the village while the men were blowing a hallucinogenic drug up their noses. One of the side effects of the drug is a runny nose."

He learned their language, became friends with many of them and collected an immense amount of data about their genealogy, history, demographics and nutrition.

They turned out to be one of the best-nourished populations ever described. For example, they were getting more animal protein per capita than their contemporaries in Germany and the UK. And they achieved that while only working (mostly hunting and gardening) 3 hours a day. How were they able to escape the Malthusian trap? Chagnon doesn't talk about that in this book, but I'm guessing that the relatively recent introduction of steel axes helped them do it by allowing them to clear more land for their gardens. Perhaps when Chagnon studied them, their population (about 20,000) hadn't yet caught up with the land's new, higher, axe-assisted carrying capacity.

It's unlikely that endemic warfare played a significant role in safeguarding them from Malthusian forces. The vast majority of the people killed in their wars are men, yet women are the limiting factor in population growth.

According to Chagnon's data, about a quarter of adult Yanomamö men die violently. They raid each other's villages for women and engage in blood feuds.

"A captured woman is raped by all the men in the raiding party and, later, by the men in the village who wish to do so but did not participate in the raid. She is then given to one of the men as a wife."

Marital infidelity also reliably leads to violence. And of course women goad men into fighting, calling them cowards if they don't prosecute their wars actively enough. The raids are ambushes of the unarmed, not battles. However, they do engage in several forms of duels which sometimes turn deadly. In one of those men take turns hitting each other's chests with fists. No defense is allowed. In another they hit each other over the heads with giant poles. Duels, combined with the preference for ambushes over battles, suggest a split verdict on these particular savages' nobility.

Chagnon determined that Yanomamö men who had killed fellow men had 2.6 times more wives and 3.1 times more children than Yanomamö men who had not killed. He got a lot of grief for this and similar findings. An anthropologist named Marvin Harris objected to them because as per Karl Marx, humans only ever fight for economic resources. Fighting for women was felt to be too Darwinian, and as all leftards know, Darwin's theories now only apply to frogs and butterflies, not humans. Harris had a lot of supporters, and collectively they got more space in this volume than malaria, dysentery, man-eating jaguars and every other source of annoyance that Chagnon had to encounter in his professional life.

The Yanomamö are clearly being selected for the quality they call waiteri (fierceness). Yet women of Old World backgrounds do not generally find Amerindian men attractive. Predictably, most of the Amerindian component in New World mestizo populations comes through the female line. This implies that Caucasoids and Negroids have had even more selection for machismo than these guys - a stunning thought to anyone who's read this book.

At least among some Caucasoids this machismo is now held in check by self-control, social trust and a long-term outlook. There's little evidence of any of that among the Yanomamö. They steal, exploit the weak and betray "allies" much more often than people in civilized societies. Every possible social advantage is exploited right now, with little thought given to the possibility of establishing long-term mutually beneficial relationships based on reciprocity.

Their pottery is shoddily made and quickly broken. Their boats are meant to be discarded after several uses. They walk the jungle barefoot and often get thorns in their feet, which in addition to causing pain, can stop an entire hunting or raiding party. Yet in spite of the abundance of natural sources of leather all around them, they never got around to inventing shoes.

Their mathematical vocabulary is limited to "one", "two" and "many". Their standard way of indicating the distance to a location is to point with a finger to the place in the sky where the sun will most likely be when they get there. They eat the ashes of their dead.

All of this makes their commonalities with us especially interesting since they hint at possible human universals. They believe in the afterlife, complete with heaven and hell. Every one of the 200 or so Yanomamö villages has its own patriotism, and they consider non-Yanomamö to be barely human. The idea of eating their pets (dogs, for example) seems deeply immoral to them. Yes, I know that East Asians eat dogs, but they aren't their pets. The favorite food of the Yanomamö is the most sugar-rich substance known to them - honey.

They show signs of sexual modesty. Men tie their stretched foreskins to a string around their waists. If the phallus accidentally becomes untied, they drop everything they were doing (even a duel) to quickly tie it back up. Why? Chagnon doesn't elaborate, but I would guess that the purpose of tying one's penis is to make it conspicuously inoperative, i.e. temporarily closed for business. Conspicuous availability is obscene. When the Yanomamö are given pants by missionaries, they don't tie their penises under them. Similarly women, even though naked except for feathers and the odd string, close their legs while standing up from a sitting position. Again, since the use is obscene, open availability for use is obscene too.

As Chagnon studied them, the Yanomamö became more and more integrated into civilization. Catholic and Protestant missionaries gave them modern tools and established schools for their children. Brazilian gold prospectors brought modern diseases. On the one hand, throughout this process the Yanomamö clearly wanted more, not fewer machetes, axes, guns, outboard motors, matches, aluminum pots, etc. On the other hand Chagnon is right to point out that the civilization that gave them all of those things is in the long run unlikely to afford them the kind of social status that many Yanomamö enjoyed before contact. What can they contribute in return for such status? Even Mexican Indians, who have had millenia of Malthusian agriculture to develop a capacity for hard work, are pretty low in their country's social hierarchy. Muscle work doesn't pay much. 

20th century decolonization produced the opposite dilemma. In the vast majority of cases it reduced the material standard of living of the decolonized peoples, as well as their life expectancy. Yet it gave them something to be proud of, has improved their perceived status, their self-conception. If we only look at it from their perspective, was one thing worth the other? I'm inclined to say yes. 

Since civilization itself doesn't appear to have gained anything from pulling the Yanomamö into its bosom (for example, there are no signs of oil in their jungle), it seems to me that, overall, civilizing them was probably a bad thing to do.