Re: "Culture and Biology"

Robert Snower (rs222@WORLDNET.ATT.NET)
Sun, 21 Jul 1996 04:46:02 GMT

At 09:32 PM 7/20/96 +0000, Dwight W. Read wrote:

>Culture (whatever it is) ultimately has
>its origins in biology (it didn't come from nowhere), hence in some sense it
>is biological. I said in my post that this is trivially the case, where
>"trivial" was meant in its mathematical sense of a "trivial logical
>deduction"; i.e., once you accept that evolution is driven via natural
>selection it is trivial (in a logical sense) to then deduce that culture is
>ultimately biological (and biology is ultimately chemical, which is
>ultimately ....). I did not mean that it is trivial from the viewpoint of
>how anthropologists and others perceive of culture -- and where evolution
>via natural selection is generally NOT taken as a premise relevant to
>cultural phenomena.

I say:
No argument here.

DR says:
>Howver, what can be achieved
>culturally (e.g., via kinship terminologies) is neither bounded by, nor
>determined by "biological parameters"--we have groups that have no
>difficulty in denying biological reality at the level of a constructed
>cultural reality.)

I say:
"Constructed cultural reality" needs a dynamic to sustain it. You can't
pass a law that the lady down the street is my mother. Because the
emotional value is not there. Likewise, kinship terminologies will not work
in a vacuum. They must have emotional content, or the terminology-makers
are wasting their time. Working kinship terminologies presuppose this
dynamic, not the other way around.

This dynamic, I say, comes from biology. In the case of kinship, the many
diverse and convoluted systems and terminologies we see around the globe owe
their vitality, their day to day ability to prevail, to a precedent kinship,
and that precedent kinship owes its vitality to its precedent, and so forth,
each one perhaps simpler and more prototypical than the more recent, and the
process does not stop until we get to biology.

In this sense the constructed cultural reality, no matter how removed in
content from its roots, demonstrates a biologial connection which is a good
deal less trivial than the kind described above.

This point of view implies a transmission problem, as we discussed before.
Your phrase above, "denying biological reality" has a meaning for me which
gets to the heart of the transmitting process. It is in the rejection of
precedent=reality that we get a reflection of this reality, and thereby an
imaginary version of it. New content, old emotion. (This is getting
abstruse again. Denial is invariably the source of the imaginary. Cf.
Gilbert Ryle: our imagining 'red' is our comprehending specifically that
some sense impression is in fact NOT red. How else could we comprehend that
fact?) Anyway, it all jibes with the imaginary quality of ritual: totemic
kinship is not real kinship, circumcision is not real castration, tabooing
is a denial of the doing and thereby an imaginary doing.

This standpoint holds that every cultural datum carries protypical
biological meaning in it, because its very creation comprises, ultimately, a
denial of that biological prototype. The cultural datum, like the imaginary
number, presupposes the real thing.
And "real" here is biology.

You said in a previous post to me:

>Let me try a simple example (though it is stretching it a
>bit to consider it an example of what Snower is talking about). Consider
>our use of the kin term Aunt/Uncle to refer to spouse of parent's siblings.
>There is no apparent purpose for so doing and it is not consistent with our
pattern of using the "-n-law" suffix. In terms of Snower's argument, we
would argue that the usage had an original, essential function, which no
longer exists, and apparently we continue to use the term in this manner
only for some sense of "satisfaction."

I agree that this is stretching a bit what I am trying to say. Current
rituals are reflections of a utilitarian past. Rituals are metaphors,
images, magic. Their "usage"
never had an original, essential function. What they are metaphors of,
i.e., the reality of which they are the denial, has the original, essential