...Well, in one extremely specific anthropological study, anyway.
Since Napoleon Chagnon's landmark 1988 study of the Yanomamo tribe of Venezuela, it's been assumed that aggressive and violent behavior was the key to power, and that men who demonstrated such behaviors ended up the top dogs, with more wives and children. Or, as several headlines insist on cheesily, patronizingly, and oddly putting it, they "get the girl." But a new study of the similarly warlike Waorani of the Amazon basin has strikingly different results. In essence, "Warriors Do Not Always Get The Girl."
The Waorani are rainforest manioc horticulturalists and foragers. Their position in the Amazon is an enviable one that attracts a lot of others, and the Waorani are said to be notorious for killing outsiders vying for resources, with murder also fairly commonplace within the tribe. This appalled the missionaries who encountered the indigenous people in 1959 and quickly set about trying to eradicate the violence of the Waorani's traditional culture, but today it's still the South American tribe with the highest recorded murder rate (in the past five generations 42 percent of deaths of both men and women resulted from murder) and as such an irresistible subject to those anthropologists interested in studying aggression in society. Contrary to old suppositions, says Penn State's Stephen Beckerman, who interviewed people in 23 settlements, the most violent and aggressive members of the tribe have fewer wives and children than Beta males. Oddly, the children of more violent men were found to have shorter life spans.
The reasons for the difference aren't clear - the researchers cite "cultural differences" and "cycles of aggression." But, um, what about the fact that the resources that were the basis of their existence - and the cause of most violence - have been destroyed? After all, their homeland is highly at risk of oil exploration and illegal logging. And isn't some of this just a natural consequence of the eradication of an ancient culture? While portions of the community have held steadfastly to old ways, retreating from society, it's also true that a large number now live as Christians. If the shift means the saving of lives, one can't help but feel ambivalent, but surely anthropology as we and Barbara Pym knew it can't really be studied in a vacuum? But as a green shoot of human nature hope in a violent world? Sure, we'll take what we can get.