The Most Selfish Culture on Earth-Or Maybe Not

Once Considered Unkind, the Ik Turn out to Be Nice

When anthropologist Colin Turnbull lived among the Ik people of Uganda between 1964 and 1967, he found a bleak, loveless, unkind society where everyone was only out for themselves. Turnbull wrote about his experience in the best-selling 1972 book The Mountain People, an ethnographic follow up to his highly acclaimed The Forest People about the cooperative and socially entwined Mbuti pygmies of the Republic of Congo. The contrast between the two cultures couldn’t have been more shocking. The Ik were held up as evidence that abject self-interest, such as we see in many Western cultures, might be part of the normal human social system. The Ik, then, became the poster children of human selfishness; anyone who read Turnbull’s book was disgusted with their lack of community and care for others. And they seemed the unhappiest people on earth.

The Ik also became iconic because Turnbull’s descriptions of their disreputable behavior made Westerners feel better about themselves. Economically advanced countries in the West could point to the Ik and say, “See, our self-centeredness, our lack of caring for others, our capitalist economy that favors individual gains and self-hoarded wealth is natural.” The unkind Ik made us feel much better about ourselves.

But a new ethnography of the Ik by Catherine Townsend of Baylor University and colleagues conducted 50 years has shown that Turnbull’s experience was an anomaly. He had caught the village amid a devastating famine; their abject selfishness had only been a temporary adaption to hard times.

During two lengthy visits with the Ik in 2016 and 2018. Townsend and her crew used the usual anthropological fieldwork of participant observation — meaning living among unfamiliar people and writing everything down — but the researchers also played the Dictator Game with 120 members of the community. The game works like this: researchers asked subjects if they received a lot of money would they likely share with someone else. They divided subjects into groups and then gave them options. One group was asked would they share with someone they didn’t know; a second group was told the anonymous receiver was in need, that is sick or old. Given that the Ik believe that spirits that can be punishing or beneficent, the anthropologists added the idea that the spirits might be watching and keeping track. In all cases, the possible transactions were going to be anonymous and the subject must consider that he or she would never know who the receiver was (in other words, they would not receive the kind self-congratulating thanks that often motivate giving).

Ad hoc observations and conversation with the Ik showed that they did indeed have all the marking of a cooperative society. In conversation with the Ik, Townsend and her colleagues were told sharing with friends and kin is important and that sharing built relationships that result in reciprocity later. Interviews also highlighted their fear of the spirits and a desire to make them happy. The results of the Dictator game also revealed that people were more than willing to share, especially if the recipient was in need or if retribution from the spirit world was part of the decision making.

The traditional Ik belief system, it seems, operates on cooperation among group members just like most other societies. The researchers concluded that Turnbull had seen the Ik at their worst, during a severe famine when resources were a matter of life or death. During scary times, it seems, humans easily bend toward selfishness and non-cooperation, but we can bounce back to our more natural generous selves with conditions improve. While pivoting to selfishness might have been a critical adaptation at times during the long history of humans, it’s still a shame that we turn inward when times get tough. Instead, reaching out to community members with a spirit of connection and cooperation might serve not only individuals but the group as a whole in the long run.

(Study published in the journal Evolutionary Science)

(Also published on

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