Members of the Ik (Uganda) mime a ritual raid-and-escape dance, an element of which is to teach the importance of tending to the injured and vulnerable. All photos courtesy the author


Neither nasty nor brutish

The Ik – among the poorest people on Earth – have been cast as exemplars of human selfishness. The truth is much more startling

by Cathryn Townsend + BIO

Members of the Ik (Uganda) mime a ritual raid-and-escape dance, an element of which is to teach the importance of tending to the injured and vulnerable. All photos courtesy the author

Slabs of sunlight break through the mist, illuminating the bright pastel ripples of Oribo Valley, the valley I’m named after. I’ve been given this name by the Ik people I’m living with, in the remote highlands dividing Uganda, Kenya and South Sudan. The Ik woman I’m interviewing, Nangole (a pseudonym to protect her identity), rubs her baby’s arms and legs to soothe the scabies rash that covers the infant’s skin. She tells me how she came to live here, in a little mud hut with a vista of the valley.

Nangole was born a Turkana, an ethnic group of herders whom the Ik greatly fear. But as a little girl living in Kenya, her village was attacked by roaming Toposa warriors from South Sudan; her father and many others were killed. Starvation and an epidemic afflicted the survivors, so Nangole’s mother and aunt took flight into the mountains of Uganda, with Nangole trailing their heels. High above the plains, mother and daughter found safety in an Ik village. The small community took them in. Nangole grew up in the village and eventually married an Ik man. Today, they have eight children. Her life is a story of refuge – from disease, from hunger, from the cattle-raiding warriors who live on the plains below – and of generosity. The Ik gave her a home.

In the 1970s, The New York Times described the Ik as ‘a haunting flower of evil’ in ‘its corner of civilisation’s garden’. The vilification didn’t start or end there. The physician and science journalist Lewis Thomas in 1973 argued that the ‘unremitting, compulsive repellence’ of these ‘unattached, brutish creatures’ was the result of an ‘exploded culture’ in which each Ik was a ‘one-man tribe’. It was widely argued that the Ik revealed how humans are essentially malicious when stripped of the constraining effects of decent civilisation. They exemplified ‘how little natural goodness lies at the bottom of the human heart’, as the author of that New York Times article, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, put it: a cautionary tale to the civilised world about the fragility of human kindness.

As an anthropologist who has lived with the Ik for more than a year, I am certain that they are neither loveless nor evil, nor do they have a culture of selfishness. So how did a remote and politically weak group of the poorest people on Earth come to be vilified as a ‘paradigm of human nastiness’ by powerful and affluent people in the West?

The Ik were first portrayed as ‘the loveless people’ and as ‘unfriendly, uncharitable, inhospitable and generally mean as any people can be’ by Colin Turnbull, a London-born anthropologist who studied them from 1964 to 1967. His book The Mountain People, first published in 1972 and still available, ascribed the Ik with their now infamous reputation. Turnbull argued that the selfish behaviour that he so vividly described, including desertion of children and mistreatment of the elderly and the weak, was due to their cultural adaptation to conditions of scarcity. In his most hateful excesses, he claimed that they behaved in ways that ‘it would be an insult to animals to call bestiality’, less caring than baboons.

We know from Turnbull’s previous work – The Forest People (1961), a sympathetic portrayal of the egalitarian Mbuti hunter-gatherers of what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo – that his antipathy for the Ik wasn’t based on disparaging racism towards African societies, at least not entirely. However, a paternalistic form of racism shows through most strikingly in advice that Turnbull gave to the Ugandan government, which amounts to advocating cultural genocide. He found Ik behaviour and Ik culture so morally repugnant that he advocated that they be forcibly and randomly ‘rounded up in something approaching a military operation’ without regard to ‘age, sex, or kinship’ ‘in small units of about 10’ and then ‘taken to parts of Uganda sufficiently remote for them not to be able to return’ to their home as a way of eliminating the culture traits, including their language, that he believed led them to be so selfish.

Richard Dawkins used the Ik as an example in his bestseller The Selfish Gene

At his most reflective, Turnbull described Ik society as ‘a functional non-social system’ and Ik culture as an ‘adaptive infrastructure’ that ensured the group’s survival in ‘extremely adverse environmental conditions’. One can see that Turnbull’s descriptions of Ik society come close to the state of nature imagined in 1651 by Thomas Hobbes – ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’ – though, contra Hobbes, Turnbull attributes the blame to civilisation, rather than to human nature:

The Ik have ‘progressed’, one might say, since the change that has come to them has come with the advent of civilisation to Africa and is therefore a part of that phenomenon we so blandly and unthinkingly refer to as progress.

After being reviewed in mainstream media such as The New York Times and Time magazine, The Mountain People reached a broad general audience. It even became the basis of a play performed in London by the Royal Shakespeare Company that also subsequently toured the United States.

Turnbull’s argument that Ik culture had become selfish as an adaptation to conditions of scarcity was taken up uncritically by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who used the Ik as an example of a selfish human culture in his bestselling book The Selfish Gene (1976). Even today, Turnbull’s depiction of the Ik continues to serve as a favourite folktale in the myth of humanity’s cultural capacity for selfishness. For example, the book The Age of Sharing (2016) by the sociologist Nicholas A John describes the Ik as ‘living in a state of distrust and discord’. It uses the Ik as an example to cast doubt on whether sharing is really as widespread in hunter-gatherer societies as anthropologists commonly report.

But for all its impact on the public imagination, the empirical basis for Turnbull’s intuitions never faced a commensurate level of scrutiny. Turnbull himself didn’t have long-term experience with the Ik, and there were no other researchers working in the area who could corroborate his story. Even today, only a very small amount of linguistic and anthropological research has been done with the Ik community because visiting this remote and insecure part of the world is challenging. The research that does exist points to substantial empirical and ethical flaws in Turnbull’s work.

The research that brought me to first converse with Nangole back in 2016 has shown that the Ik have a culture that encourages sharing – not selfishness. I began this research under the direction of the Human Generosity Project, which aims to understand the interrelationships between biological and cultural influences on generosity. It was a priority for us to investigate generosity among the Ik because they had this curious reputation for being selfish. Along with my team members Lee Cronk, Athena Aktipis and Daniel Balliet, we used our collective anthropological and psychological expertise to make sense of the observations I brought back from the field. As a result, I can emphatically say that the selfishness described by Turnbull is not characteristic of Ik people today, even though they live in hardship. The Ik behaviour described by Turnbull, although likely to have been at least partially real, was not their normal way of life but rather the result of an extraordinary event.

Elderly Ik women share a meal

Ik conventional wisdom tells them that one couldn’t survive without sharing. Tomora maráŋ is an Ik adage meaning ‘It’s good to share.’ The dry, ‘hunger season’ in Ikland is a time when people must come together to help each other by sharing foraged foods with those most in need. The Ik also face a constant threat of violent attack by raiding warrior groups. As an unarmed and habitually peaceful people, the Ik are largely defenceless against attacks and thefts of food and land. Their only defence is to rely on one another for help.

The spirits bring misfortune to those who fail to share and reward those who are especially generous

It is the duty of men to band together to defend an Ik village from attack, while the women must lead the escape of precious children to the relative safety of hiding places on the mountain slopes. It’s important to the Ik that in these escapes, the injured and the vulnerable are tended to and guided. They even have a ritual dance in which they mime and demonstrate the appropriate helping behaviour during an enemy attack, so that it’s practised by all.

Members of the Ik perform a ritual mimesis of a warrior attack, the escape and tending to injuries

Scientists researching human cooperation and competition often use economic games to test how people make financial decisions. The Dictator Game is a simple economic game that’s considered to be a measure of generosity. In a standard Dictator Game, a player is given an endowment of money and the opportunity to share some, none, or all of it with an anonymous person in their community. The results of playing Dictator Games with Ik research subjects show that they are, approximately, just as generous as the crosscultural average. What’s more, when the instructions for the game are altered slightly in order to evoke familiar culture traits of generosity, Ik participants tend to give more generously. For example, the Ik believe that the landscape is inhabited with spirits called ʝáwika, which literally means children of the earth. They are believed to bring misfortune to individuals who fail to share with others and to reward those who are especially generous. When we reminded participants in our Dictator Game of the role of ʝáwika by asking them questions about the spirits at the start of the game, the participants tended to make more generous decisions in the game.

While playing these games, it became evident that many cases of apparent stinginess were in fact cases of acute need. A middle-aged mother of nine, who decided not to share a cash prize, later plucked out a drooping breast to squirt her watery mother’s milk on the ground in a plea for a little extra money to help feed her children. Faced with food shortages, epidemics and enemy attacks, the Ik deal with such tribulations through sharing and mutual aid. Those who are most in need are the most entitled to receive help. On the other hand, it seems that Ik people who have in the past struggled through the most severe need and misfortune tend to be the most generous in economic games. Nangole was one of the most generous, giving away 85 per cent of her prize.

There’s no clear scientific reason why people such as Nangole are so generous, but a possible explanation suggests itself. Someone who has suffered through hard times might be keenly aware that misfortune can come to a person as the result of bad luck, not because she is intrinsically undeserving or irresponsible. She is also likely to have experienced the altruism of others in her own time of need. As a child, Nangole experienced two extremes of human potential. First, attack from warriors, fear, hunger and hardship. But then she was taken in and fed by strangers. As an adult, Nangole has come to re-enact the generosity that the Ik showed her.

What, then, should we make of Turnbull’s lurid depiction of the Ik? As is clear from his own writing, drought and famine during the years 1965-66 pushed the Ik into a state of physiological and psychological exhaustion. They had been gradually forced out of territory in what is today parts of Uganda, Kenya and South Sudan, including their primary hunting ground in the Kidepo Valley, which had been turned into a game reserve by the British colonial government in 1958. This made it more difficult to acquire enough food when a severe drought hit.

During Turnbull’s visit, famine led to the deaths of several Ik children and elders whom he knew. Ik elders today remember the year 1966 as one of devastating hunger. This suggests that the societal collapse witnessed by Turnbull was due not to Ik culture but rather to Ik individuals losing the physical capacity to cooperate because of extreme famine. Diminished cooperation is a tragic fact of life that occurs in all societies hit hard by prolonged famine.

The evidence strongly indicates that the selfish behaviour that Turnbull observed was a byproduct of famine and not a cultural adaptation to conditions of chronic scarcity. Famines place extreme stress on societies and shouldn’t be understood as indicative of how things normally work. For instance, there is historical evidence of human-flesh consumption during the Irish Potato Famine of the late 1840s, and cannibalism has been documented in many other historical famines around the world. But the Irish today are not labelled as cannibals and we don’t think of Irish culture as cannibalistic. It makes no more sense to use the Ik as an example of how culture encourages selfish behaviour than to cite the Irish who lived through the Famine.

Notice the internal contradiction in Turnbull’s description of Ik culture as a ‘non-social system’ arrived at via an ‘adaptive infrastructure’ that ensures survival at the group level. It is the antithesis of what culture is, and of its purpose in the world. Culture is information that is socially transmitted, entirely dependent on social relations between people. Any hypothesised absence of social relations would indicate the absence of culture, not its outcome. Turnbull’s flawed interpretation might have been partly the result of an over-reliance on culture as the inevitable explanation for behaviour in the social anthropology of his time, which caused him to overlook the physiological effects of famine.

While some anthropologists expressed reservations, others were more credulous. The physical anthropologist Carleton Coon is quoted on The Mountain People’s dust jacket describing it as ‘a masterpiece’ and ‘a magnificent if ghastly tale’. The irony is that Coon was normally deeply suspicious of cultural explanations of human behaviour. Writing at a time when the discipline of anthropology had already begun to grapple critically with its own history of creating pseudoscientific racial typologies, Coon was a contrarian who propounded an evolutionary typology of human races in which he claimed that Caucasians (white people) had evolved into Homo sapiens earlier than Africans. He typically viewed social and cultural anthropologists such as Turnbull as ideological enemies because reformers in anthropology had proposed culture as an alternative to racist taxonomies for explaining differences in behaviour between population groups.

The belief that, at base, human nature is selfish serves only to justify selfish human behaviour

It is hardly surprising that Coon, with his barely concealed white supremacism, cheered on a portrayal of a remote African society as ‘ghastly’. But he wasn’t alone. Margaret Mead, a pioneer of cultural anthropology and a progressive in her time, praised The Mountain People as a ‘beautiful and terrifying book of a people who have become monstrous beyond belief’. The renowned anthropologist Ashley Montagu – who was so instrumental in dismantling the scientific guise of 20th-century racism that he was expelled from academia by McCarthyites – described the Ik as ‘a people who are dying because they have abandoned their humanity’. It’s possible that the paternalistic nature of Turnbull’s racism is what lulled politically progressive scholars who were nonetheless naive about their own biases. This should alert us to the stealthier guises that racism can take, because it is inscribed into the Hobbesian myth of the origins of ‘Western civilisation’: that a social contract conjured our better angels and delivered us from the state of nature. The guiding light of civilisation is now here to save us all from our naturally selfish selves.

Social Darwinism is the apotheosis of the myth of human selfishness. The ideology fomented the eugenics movement in Europe and the US, and typically applies the crude mantra of ‘survival of the fittest’ to human societies and racist typologies. Despite widespread recoil after the Second World War, social Darwinism continues to crop up in justifications of social inequality, especially when selfishness and cruelty are seen as natural and inevitable. But even in the Victorian era, the myth of selfishness manifested in subtler forms. Thomas H Huxley, the English biologist known as ‘Darwin’s bulldog’, believed that the evolutionary struggle for existence characterised the ‘savage state’ of humans, but that the progress of a few centuries of civilisation had bestowed us with morals that enable us to restrain our cruel base nature to some degree. For Huxley, the glorification of competition exemplified by social Darwinism represented the ever-present threat that humans could descend back into the state of nature imagined by Hobbes. The current popularity of the writings of the cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker on the purifying role of enlightened civilisation indicates that this old Hobbesian narrative still has enormous cultural resonance in the Anglo-American world.

The Hobbesian myth of selfishness ultimately relies on the racist rendering of societies that don’t conform to its idealised notion of enlightened civilisation. But if we can learn anything from the Ik about culture and civilisation, it is that even when conventions of generosity collapse due to extreme stress conditions – as occurred – it’s possible for them to completely re-emerge within 50 years, notwithstanding chronic conditions of scarcity and deprivation. The resilience of Ik generosity in the face of perennially harsh conditions, extreme famines, epidemics, attacks from hostile warriors and political marginalisation within state-level civilisation is cause for optimism, not despair. Even the Ik attitude towards neighbouring warrior groups is uplifting because they decline to treat them essentially as enemies, hoping instead to foment peace. We have seen how they treated Nangole and her mother, but there are many other cases of friendships and trade relationships that exist between the Ik and other ethnic groups.

Ik women selling calabashes to Turkana women on the Kenyan side of the border

Meanwhile, we should be wary of the myth of selfishness. Stressing the role of competition in evolution over that of cooperation is not a sign of hard-headed objectiveness. It is a sign of biased, magical thinking that can lead us seriously astray. The desire to avoid romanticism might be what drives the impulse to overcorrect. But uncritical acceptance of the idea that cut-throat competition is the inevitable response to nature’s cruelties is driven by a mythical storyline that doesn’t stand up to empirical testing. In its worst form, this myth undergirds social Darwinism, eugenics and delusional Right-wing politics. At its most innocuous, it supports a chauvinist folk belief that love and kindness are a luxury that only the rich or the enlightened can afford. None of this is conducive to good science or to a reflective, open society. The belief that, at base, human nature is selfish serves only to justify selfish human behaviour. The truth is that evolution has bequeathed us with the capacity to be generous and kind.

Nangole’s baby gurgles contentedly, now drifting to sleep in his mother’s arms. Her lilting voice as she recounted her life story seems to have worked as a lullaby, along with her soothing touch. His little limbs have flopped into a relaxed state. Not far away, a group of small children are kicking around a plastic bottle. The chatter of neighbours reaches us from their nearby homestead, mingled with the song of birds celebrating the morning’s rainfall.

Like an apparition, an old lady with a blanket over her shoulders appears at the entranceway of the hut, muttering unintelligibly. She hobbles outside and moves over to stoke the fire, setting water to boil in a rusty iron pot. It is Nangole’s mother, annoyed that her daughter has forgotten to make tea on such a chilly morning. Nangole laughs at her theatrical remonstrations. Although her mother never fully acquired the Ik language and never remarried, she is alive, and a valued member of Nangole’s family. The story of ‘the loveless people’ is indeed a cautionary tale but, as with all great myths, its moral transcends the intentions of its narrators.

Ik children playing together