human rights

Mike Lieber (U28550@UICVM.BITNET)
Mon, 5 Dec 1994 08:47:22 CST

I am a bit confused as to why Bjorn has decided to embark on this thread on
anthro-l. I would have thought that putting the "collective vs. individual"
problem in an anthropological context would elicit the sort of response that
one can expect from scholars whose balliwick is that of human variability.
This is indeed the response that Bjorn has gotten, but it is clearly not the
one that he wanted. If it is clear that the construct of the individual is but
one parochial way of defining personhood, then Bjorn's retort is that
personhood is somehow irrelevant to human rights. But if that is the case,
then what is the subject of human rights? If the individual is an absolute
along with human rights as derived from the concept of the individual, then
why would anthropological knowledge of human variation be of any interest to
Bjorn? If one size fits all, then variability among human communities is an
inconvenient stumbling block on the way to establishing human rights as Bjorn
and many others understand that idea.

Take, for example, the Yanamamo practice of female infanticide. From the
point of view of the individual, this is clearly a violation of individual
rights, and someone should put a stop to it. But if one takes the time and
trouble (and research) to delineate the context--and this is what anthropology
is about--one sees a different picture. Yanamamo live in villages enmeshed in
shifting alliances and enemies constantly at war with one another. They
practice swidden agriculture in the Amazonian rain forest where six month of
rain keeps most land under water. They must plant only on high ground,
severely limiting available arable land. They also hunt in the area around the
villages. It takes about two years until the land is sterile and the game are
exhausted, and the village has to relocate. When the population of a village
reaches about 200, the village splits, usually over the issue of wife stealing.
If they cease the practice of female infanticide, there will be more girls
surviving to adulthood and thus more wives and more children. The population
will grow and the problem will be feeding them, leading to more intensive
hunting and gardening. The game will run out faster as will the land. Village
warfare will now be directed at competition for garden land and game, and since
there are more women to go around, exchange of women between allies will not
cement alliances, as the exchange value of women is now nil. Thus alliances
will be less stable, promoting increasing conflicts with larger death tolls.
This is a rather dramatic example of a very common pattern. More mundane
examples are the many disease control programs in the third world that have led
to overpopulation and death through starvation. The introduction of birth
control in many of the target populations has fallen flat, leading to forced
birth control in places like India and China. The Yanamamo case is a clear
example of subordinating the interest of the individual to the survival of
the "collective." Australian aboriginal groups studied by Birdsell in areas
of very low rainfall have shown the same pattern. So if promoting individual
rights means violating the rights of the "collective", what have you
promoted? And who gave you or anyone else the right to decided whose rights
you will violate and abrogate? Does the end, unexamined as it is, justify the

There is nothing more dangerous in this world than an absolutist with a cause.

Mike Lieber