Re: Tribes

Mike Salovesh (t20mxs1@CORN.CSO.NIU.EDU)
Sun, 18 Aug 1996 02:07:29 -0500

Thomas Kavanagh beat me to the punch in his reply to R. Snower's citation
out of *The sociobiology of Homo sapiens*, by Mark Shapiro. What Shapiro
says in the quotations given to us is something anthropologists learned
was fruitless a long time ago.

Shapiro seems to assume at least the following, none of which amounts to
a testable statement:

1. Shapiro assumes that at some time in the past of H. sapiens,
only women knew for certain that they had an undisputed biological
connection to their offspring. In a trivial sense, that's true of nearly
everybody today -- but most of the time most of us can have a pretty good
guess at the facts of paternity AS A STATEMENT OF PROBABILITIES.
Logically, the proposals of sociobiologists shouldn't require much more
than that. In their analysis, male investment in children is already a
matter of probabilities, directly measurable by the proportion of shared
genes. On the face of it, it makes sense for a male to invest something in
offspring that are more likely than not to be his biological kin even in
the absence of certain knowledge.

Besides, sociobiology is supposed to be about social animals in
general. I wouldn't care to bet that vervet monkeys base their behavior
on their understanding of paternity. The sociobiologists tell us that
doesn't matter; what counts is inclusive fitness even if none of the
animals involved knows anything about it.

2. Shapiro assumes that the nurturing of offspring is done only
by females. Well, sorry, but field observations of non-human primates
show that this is highly variable from species to species and within any
given species. We just don't know whether primordial, male H. sap did or
did not provide food for children after they were weaned; we don't know
who carried babies for what proportion of the day; we don't know anything
about the size or the daily practices of social groups.

3. Shapiro assumes the absolute universality of "totemic"
symbolism in all groups of early H. sap. Good God, we don't even have
any reasonable evidence that ANY early H. sap did the kind of thinking or
symbolizing that writers like Frazier would have called "totemism".


Aww, nuts, that's enough. On these points alone, the quotations from
Shapiro clearly show his incompetence to say anything about the origins of
any form of early human social organization.

But Thomas Kavanagh's reference to those who originated what he calls
"19th century unilineal cultural evolutionism/Freudian evolution" as
"classic -- AND DISCREDITED -- nineteenth century writers" (my emphasis)
is another kettle of fish.

To say that Morgan, Lubbock, Tylor, Maine, and Frazier are discredited is
to adopt a series of attitudes dating back to around the turn of this
century. Don't depend too closely on Boas, Kroeber, and their descendants
for this discrediting. For example, Kroeber, in his both brilliant and
stupid JRAI article on classificatory systems of relationship, obviously
thought he had devastated Morgan. Far from it: he revealed to anyone who
cared to read both Morgan and Kroeber that Kroeber never read Morgan. He
completely misunderstood what Morgan meant by "classificatory system"
and proceeeded to demonstrate that his warped misapprehension was pretty
bad thinking. Morgan would have agreed, for far different reasons. But
he never laid a glove on what Morgan actually said.

The writers appearing on Kavanagh's list of 19th century evolutionists, in
the main, were lots more empirically oriented than Boas's legend about
them would have it. (Just as Boas was much more evolutionary in his
orientation than later legends would have it.) The whole point to the
fantastic cross-cultural survey that underlies Morgan's *Systems of
consanguinity and affinity . . . * was to bring speculation face to face
with empirical reality. Tylor actually tested prehistoric tools by using
them to cut meat in a butcher's shop, and his virtual invention of both
mathematical and social statistics was a brilliant attempt to wrest
higher-level significance from mountains of local ethnographic reports.
Sir Henry Maine, in *Ancient Society*, was following the traditional
practices of his profession: the law. His analyses are very solidly
grounded in known practices of ancient Roman law that are fully attested
in the historical record. He didn't just think up Roman law out of thin
air: the historical record provides a solid empirical base for his
analysis of principles of patri potestas, for example, and his
cross-cultural and cross-temporal analyses of actual legal systems still
provide a strong basis for current definitions of both the term "corporate
group" and the analytical significance of the idea.

Tell me that the basic theoretical framework largely shared among "Morgan,
Lubbock, Tylor, Maine, or Frazier" and other 19th century evolutionists
has been discredited and I'll go along. But to say that the work of these
authors "had no basis in empirical ethnography" just ain't so.

Those Dead White European Men had their shortcomings, sure. But given
the setting of their times and places, they did pretty creditable work.
They haven't been discredited at all!

Try one comparison, if you will. I think it's particularly appropriate to
think of the work of Enrico Fermi in the month of August, more or less at
the anniversary of the horrible devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by
atomic bombs in August, 1945. Fermi's early work led to his becoming a
major influence on the way physicists thought about the atom long before
he supervised building the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction.

We've come a long way in the 50-plus years since the fully public
empirical demonstration of Fermi's work that wiped out so many lives. I
remember hearing Fermi lecture on atomic structure, ca. 1947 or 48, and
the atom he was talking about consisted of a limited number of varieties
of finite particles. Each of those particles had a known mass, and the
mass/energy of an atom could be equated with the total mass/energy of its
constituent particles. Today's view of atoms is so far different from the
classical view to which Fermi contributed so much that the theoretical
framework he used has been both discredited AND discarded. There simply
wasn't room in Fermi's model, as such, for baryons or kleptons or charm or
quarks, or the dozens and dozens of varieties of subatomic entities (I
hesitate to call them particles) physicists talk about today.

Fermi's physics -- his practice of physics, not his theoretical models --
has not been discredited. I don't expect it ever will be. For his time
and place, the work was magnificent and important. What's more, it
contained the possibility of its own self-correction.

And those DWEM's Kavanagh recalled to us did the same kind of thing.
The best among them -- obviously, to me that means Morgan and Tylor and
Maine -- were very interested in the possibility of empirical
support for or falsification of their thinking. All of them presented
themselves as beginners who were opening up new views of the social
universe. They all hoped that those who would come along later would
modify or even discard their views because they would have a better handle
on the evidence. The EMPIRICAL evidence.

The real trouble with Mark Shapiro, at least in those portions quoted
here by R. Snower, is that he shows no concern for empirical ethnography
at all. He's writing "just so" stories, and deserves no more credence
than Rudyard Kipling's Just-So Stories explaining why the elephant has a
trunk. Dressing up those stories in the trappings of sociobiology adds
nothing that is any more trustworthy than Kipling. What Snower quoted to
us is also pretty bad sociobiology. But I'll let sociobiologists worry
about correcting that -- I think their whole approach is wrong, for
purely anthropological reasons.

-- mike salovesh, anthropology department <>
northern illinois university PEACE !