“The most interesting thing about cultures may not be in the observable things they do—the rituals, eating preferences, codes of behavior, and the like—but in the way they mold our most fundamental conscious and unconscious thinking and perception.”
—Ethan Watters, “We Aren't the World”1
The Machiguenga, who live in a part of Peru close to the borders of Bolivia and Brazil, enjoy lives many of us would envy. Each family member has the freedom to choose what they work on and when to work. They balance their lives, men as planters and hunters and women as harvesters and cooks, with time for relaxation and fun. Given their relative isolation and self-sufficiency, the tribe has little need for cash.
Most Western scientists who visit this living Eden do so to conduct pharmacological research. UCLA anthropology graduate student Joe Henrich's interest in visiting the Machiguenga, however, was very different.2 Henrich wanted to explore whether human beings were psychologically hardwired to respond universally. In particular, he was interested in knowing whether concepts like fairness and cooperation were basic to all cultures, from Western industrialized societies to more isolated exotic ones like the Machiguenga.
Henrich devised an ultimatum game that is similar to what game-theory buffs and economists call the prisoner's dilemma. The game involved ...