Professor Christopher Hallpike
The twentieth century provided the human race with a unique opportunity to study primitive society before it was changed out of all recognition by the forces of modernization. 'Primitive societies' are small-scale and face-to-face, without writing, money or the state, with subsistence technologies, and are primarily organized on the basis of kinship, age, seniority, and gender. In these respects they are quite different from modern societies and require specialist expertise to understand. All our ancestors originally lived in such societies, and human history cannot be properly understood without knowing how they worked. Social anthropology made great strides in achieving this during the century, especially through intensive fieldwork, and made major contributions to ancient and medieval history, classics, religious studies, and archaeology.
Unfortunately, this great enterprise has been largely abandoned over the last thirty years or so as the result of political correctness and post-modernism, and their hostility to Western science and their general indifference to truth - what Roger Scruton has called 'the nonsense factory' of modern academia. The very ideas of social evolution, primitive society, and primitive thought are regarded as wicked and colonialist and so therefore they cannot be true, while science itself is denigrated as Western ethnocentrism. So while sociocultural anthropology loves to describe itself as a 'discipline', it has actually abandoned any semblance of intellectual discipline, with neither a coherent body of theory or any distinctive factual expertise. Instead, it has degenerated into a ragbag of ephemeral topics such as the anthropology of tourism, hair salons, the fashion industry, cyberspace, globalisation, child care, social housing, and the use of recreational vehicles by the elderly.1 The result is that the topic of primitive society has become an intellectual playground for amateur speculators about human origins, especially journalists and Darwinian theorists and their equally credulous publishers, none of whom actually knows anything about primitive society.
Hallpike's work, on the contrary, has been based on the belief that science is about the search for truth, not about promoting equality, or 'social justice', or similar utopian fantasies, and for the last fifty years been devoted to the ethnography and theory of primitive society. He studied anthropology at Oxford under Evans-Pritchard and Rodney Needham, where he was awarded his doctorate in 1968 for a thesis on the Konso of Ethiopia (published in 1972 as The Konso of Ethiopia.), and then went to Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia, as a Post-Doctoral Fellow. During this period he did further fieldwork in Papua New Guinea, among the Tauade, that was published in 1977 as Bloodshed and Vengeance in the Papuan Mountains. From 1973 he was a private researcher in England, and as well as writing up his Papuan material and editing The Kukukuku of the Upper Watut (1968) he made a detailed study of the work of Piaget and developmental psychology, which led to his best-known book, The Foundations of Primitive Thought in 1979.
In 1978 he was appointed Professor of Anthropology at McMaster University, Ontario. It was during this time at McMaster that he broadened his research to social evolution as a whole, published as The Principles of Social Evolution, 1986, and also began his study of the development of moral ideas. On taking early retirement in 1998, and becoming Emeritus Professor, he returned to England, where his research has led to eight more books which will be mentioned later. He has been from time to time a Bye Fellow of Robinson College, Cambridge, and was awarded a D.Litt by Oxford University in 1989.
Despite his interest in fundamental questions, he has always had an extreme aversion to obscure philosophical verbiage, and his work is marked by its clarity, and its close integration of evidence and theory. While his ideas have provoked outrage from fashionable bien pensant liberals, others have found them very stimulating. The first ten years of his career were dominated by fieldwork, and the demands of writing up his data. Although he enjoyed pure ethnographic scholarship, he also used it to combat some of the dominant theories of the day, particularly structural-functionalism and cultural materialism. The Konso had an extremely complex social and ritual organization, and Hallpike showed that it was absurd to try to explain all this as functionally necessary for the survival of their society, or as determined by their economy. On the contrary, it made most sense when seen as a system of beliefs and cultural values that was part of the general East Cushitic world-view the Konso had inherited, together with neighbouring peoples. The book was sub-titled ‘A Study of the Values of a Cushitic People’ to emphasise that the dichotomy between “society” and “culture” was fundamentally mistaken.
In Papua New Guinea by 1970 the materialists were increasingly influential, especially in theories of warfare and ritual. Traditionally, Tauade society had been extremely violent, but it became clear that their warfare and vengeance had nothing to do with land shortage, or other material factors. It was simply generated by their particular social organization, and had no adaptive value of any kind. To emphasise that it was perfectly possible for maladaptive social systems to evolve and prosper, in a milieu of general social inefficiency, the subtitle of Bloodshed and Vengeance in the Papuan Mountains was ‘The generation of conflict in Tauade society’. In the same way, they had a tradition of elaborate dances and pig-killings, but these rituals had no more adaptive value than their warfare. Destructive and wasteful of resources, they exacerbated social tensions and maintained the ethos of agonistic competition.
The Tauade had no form of verbal counting beyond one, two, and many, and while reflecting on this one day, sitting on a mountainside, it occurred to Hallpike that a child in their society would not need to develop its mathematical abilities beyond the most elementary level, even as an adult. Since primitive societies generally are without literacy, schooling, machines, and all the complexity of modern industrial society, it should therefore be possible, in this intellectually undemanding milieu, for children’s ways of thinking to be able to survive essentially unchanged into adulthood, whereas the intellectual demands of living in our kind of society will force individuals to develop more advanced cognitive skills.
So while writing up Bloodshed and Vengeance, Hallpike also made an intensive study of Piaget’s work on how the thinking of children develops, and could see that many of the ideas common in primitive society had close parallels in the thought of children at Piaget’s ‘pre-operational’ level of cognitive development. This rejected the anthropological dogma that collective representations cannot be explained by individual psychology and showed that instead there has to be an interaction between individual thought processes and the collective representations that these individuals produce over time in every society. The book was considered even more outrageous for comparing primitive thought with that of children, but The Foundations of Primitive Thought, published in 1979, set out all the evidence for this in 500 pages, and was translated into German, Italian, and Spanish. It naturally provoked a furious reaction from some anthropologists, whose egalitarian sentiments were affronted by it, but others found that it shed a whole new light on the traditional problems of primitive thought.
After On Primitive Thought, the wider reaches of social evolution in general cried out for investigation. It had become increasingly obvious to Hallpike that the traditional British (and American) hostility to the very idea of social evolution, in which he had been schooled at Oxford, did not rest on any serious intellectual arguments, but merely on prejudice. (Professor Ingold has recorded that while at Cambridge he was actually forbidden to read Sahlins’ and Service’s Evolution and Culture!) In a post-colonial world it was now politically incorrect to talk about ‘primitive’ societies – they had simply made different life-style choices in the course of time – while humanistic anthropologists preferred to think of history as the free invention of the human spirit, and resented any suggestion that it might be constrained by laws of any kind. The only anthropologists who had always favoured the idea of social evolution were the Marxists and the materialists, and they were joined by Darwinists who believed that it was possible to apply the model of variation and selection to human society as well as biology.
The Principles of Social Evolution (1986) rejected all this, particularly the belief that institutions survive and spread because of their adaptive advantages. In fact, especially in small-scale societies with simple technologies, a wide variety of forms of life can all work perfectly well. So the most common practices need not be adaptively superior at all, but may simply be the easiest to think of or to operate, or the result of universal human proclivities. Rather than the survival of the fittest, we commonly have the survival of the mediocre, and these forms may survive because of the lack of effective competition in an undemanding social environment. Their real evolutionary significance may lie in their latent structural properties, which may appear when circumstances are appropriate. This is particularly true of religious and military institutions and kinship structures; when these are combined in the right way significant new forms such as the state may emerge. It was also argued that a limited number of social and cosmological principles, ‘core-principles’, guide the evolution of each society, and Indo-European and Chinese society were compared in detail to demonstrate this.
With the completion of this book, Hallpike was drawn back to developmental psychology, in this case of moral ideas. This gave him the opportunity for a complete demolition of cultural relativism, as the prelude to an explanation of what ethics is really about, rather than what philosophers in their studies think it should be about. It was shown that moral ideas are derived from the demands of social life, but can still be on very different cognitive levels. The development of moral ideas as revealed by Piaget and Kohlberg, and by cross-cultural psychology, was examined in detail, and the rest of the book showed how this developmental scheme can be supported by the ethnography of hunter-gatherers, tribal farmers, early states, and the new philosophical thinking of the Axial Age and the world religions. The Evolution of Moral Understanding was eventually published in 2004.
In 1997, Hallpike was able to return to the Konso for a few weeks, and the wealth of new material he discovered enabled him to write a completely revised edition of the 1972 book, and resolve a number of problems and puzzles that had remained. There is apparently no longer a market for traditional ethnographies of this kind, and it was only published in 2008.
The next few years were spent writing How We Got Here, also published in 2008. This brings together the ideas of all his previous books to produce a comprehensive account of social evolution, and which also provides a more complete and concise theory of how it occurs than anything hitherto. It is notable, in particular, for a detailed investigation of the origins of modern science – an essential basis of modern industrial civilisation – which is intended as a conclusive refutation of those materialists and Darwinians who have produced theories of social evolution. Materialist and Darwinian attempts to explain Man in essentially animal terms are shown to be pseudo-science, which cannot understand that the development of human culture was something fundamentally new in the history of the world. How We Got Here is intended for the general educated public, because everyone should understand how our extraordinary society evolved, and to show that anthropology can make an essential contribution to this.
In 2011 he published a collection of his most seminal papers giving a broad view of his anthropological ideas in On Primitive Society, and Other Forbidden Topics. These refute a number of fashionable dogmas, in particular, the attempt to deny the existence of primitive society, social evolution, and primitive thought, which should actually be central topics of modern social anthropology. Some of the papers are also directed against simple-minded materialist theories that ‘man is just an animal’, and some new papers on evolutionary psychology, memetics, and the theory of inclusive fitness, and on the weakness of adaptive explanations, show the limitations of attempts to apply Darwinian theory to human society and culture.
For a long time Hallpike had become increasingly irritated by atheist Humanists telling everyone that they could be just as moral as Christians, or even better, and by their egregious ignorance of what religion was about. So in January 2016 he published Do We Need God to be Good? An anthropologist considers the evidence. This points out that, of course, there is no reason why atheists should think that murder, rape, theft, and fraud are morally acceptable, because the prohibition of these types of behaviour does not require religion at all, but comes from our social experience and our human need to live in a stable and protective social environment. But the Humanists' belief in a purely material, Darwinian universe can provide no foundation at all for their favourite ideals of human rights, human dignity, and liberal values. These all emerged from Christian civilisation as it faced the political and economic challenges of the last few centuries. The Christian tradition ascribes to Man a unique status in a divinely ordered cosmos, and without this religious world-view there are inevitable tendencies for ethical thought to develop either an extreme worship of the individual, as in the modern West, or an extreme worship of the state, or of power itself. These reflections led to a complete revision of his earlier book on moral development, and in December 2016 he published Ethical Thought in Increasingly Complex Societies: Social Structure and Moral Development. This, in particular, emphasised the great importance of world-views in the development of all ethical systems, and the extraordinary ethnocentrism of Western moral philosophy in this respect.
In 2018 he published Ship of Fools. An anthology of learned nonsense about primitive society. This is a set of critical essays about the theories of Emma Byrne on the evolutionary importance of swearing, Harari's Sapiens, Girard's notions about scapegoating as the origin of human society and religion, William Arens' bizarre claim that cannibalism is a myth, and the belief of linguists, especially Chomsky, that all languages are equally complex. The thing that unites the crew of this particular ship is that they either know nothing about primitive society and have made no effort to learn or, even worse, knowingly distort the facts.
Darwinism, Dogma, and Cultural Evolution, published in 2020, is a very concise explanation of why it is logically impossible for a Darwinian evolutionary model, based on natural selection, to be applied to the evolution of human culture and society. Instead this requires a constructivist model involving the accumulation of necessary conditions based on human selection and self-organization. Sociobiology and evolutionary psychology are shown to be dependent on entirely imaginary scenarios of the life of early man, and the postulation of equally imaginary "mental modules". In fact, it is developmental psychology that reveals how human thought has evolved.
In 2021 there appeared On the Wilder Shores of Life: Living With Primitive Tribes, which is an account of fieldwork fifty years ago in Ethiopia and Papua New Guinea. Intended for both anthropologists and the general reader, it is written to entertain as well as to inform, but it is definitely not a "safe space" for the mentally fragile.
1. For example, in the otherwise excellent "Introducing" series we can find Introducing Anthropology: a graphic guide. Merryl Wyn-Davis. London: Icon Books. 2013.
"Anthropology originated as the study of 'primitive' cultures. But the notion of 'primitive' exposes presumptions of 'civilized' superiority and the right of the West to speak for 'less evolved' others. With the fall of Empire, anthropology became suspect and was torn by dissension from within. Did anthropology serve as a 'handmaiden to colonialism'? Is it a 'science' created by racism to prove racism? Can it aid communication between cultures, or does it reinforce our differences? Introducing Anthropology is a fascinating account of an uncertain human science seeking to transcend its unsavoury history."
Two of the first authorities quoted in it say:
"First, it is hard to say what [anthropology] is the study of; secondly, it is not at all clear what you have to do to study it..." Tim Ingold, Professor of Anthropology, University of Aberdeen.
"What makes anthropology anthropology is not a specific object of enquiry, but the history of anthropology as a discipline and practice." Henrietta Moore, Professor of Social Anthropology, London School of Economics.