Re: Biological = trivial?

Adrian Tanner (atanner@MORGAN.UCS.MUN.CA)
Thu, 25 Jul 1996 16:50:28 -0230

At 04:36 AM 7/24/96 +0000, Robert Snower wrote:
>At 08:40 PM 7/23/96 +0000, Adrian Tanner wrote:
>>I would add that this sense of culture as relatively 'free' in
>>contrast to biologically-determined behaviour can be demonstrated
>>empirically when we observe a wide variation in behavioural forms among
>>human groups, even to the extent (as I will argue below) that some groups
>>are able to entirely do without a particularly common form of behaviour. I
>>am not aware of anything like an equivalent variety of behaviour among
>>members of a single animal species. Notice, I am not claimimg there is not
>>*any* variariation between biological populations of the same species, only
>>that this variety is not a great or as marked as among humans.
>Why these arbitrary rules of the game about "members of a single species"
>except that it is grist for your particular mill? There is plenty of
>diversity in nature, surely.
>A second, logical point: diversity doesn't prove freedom; choice does.
>Freedom can go all the way down to only 'two.'

The reference to the species level is not arbitrary or, as you imply,
unfairly selective, as I should have thought was self-evident. Recall that
we were discussing, among other things, the role of genetics in accounting
for behaviour. Despite some genetic variation within a species, species
members share most of their genetic material in common. Moreover, there is
not a smooth cline (that is, a continuum of genetic material) from one
similar species to the next. Rather there are, in nature, significant gaps
in that genetic continuum between related species. For this reason species
happen to be highly siginificant (as well as convenient) units of study, by
means of which the relationship between genetic diversity and behavioural
diversity can be observed and theorized about.

Thus the observation that behavioural variation with one particular species,
humans, can be observed, empirically, to be much wider than any such
variations within even the closest related animal species, requires the
introduction of a special explanitory principle, one that cannot be reduced
in a simple-minded way to genetics. Whether this principle is called 'social
learning', 'habitas', 'culture', or whatever, it seems to me that the
evidence is quite conclusive that such behavioural diversity is present to a
far greater extent in the human species than it is in any of the animal
ones. Given the implications of language to the process of social learning,
it may also rest on entirely different explanitory principles with humans
than with animals.

>>So, on the issue of the supposed universality of cultural features. The
>>field of cultural anthropology is usually assumed to cover a number of
>>standard subject areas, and introductory texts cover these, as if it was
>>established that they are universal features, found in all known societies.
>>However, cross-cultural definitions of these standard parts of culture are
>>usually either so vague as to be meaningless, or simply incorrect, in terms
>>of including the specific practices of all particular cultures. Now I
>>readily admit the exceptions are generally few.
>I have no doubt you are right about this.
>>When one then turns to the serious scholarly definitional discussions and
>>debates over these topics, you generally find that, if they do truly
>>consider the whole range of ethnographic cases, each in their full social
>>context, it turns out that either (1) the definitions end up as a list of
>>properties, but that some ethnographic cases do not exhibit all the
>>properties on the list, or (2) the definitions are functional in essence (so
>>that a range of institutions are grouped as being all examples of a single
>>feature, even though this functionality is assumed rather than
>>demonstrated), or (3) you simply have to conclude there are some societies
>>which are exceptions - which just do not have the so-called 'universal'
>Yes, but explanations can encompass differences, and even account for them.
>It is always possible to generalize perfectly accurately, if you are willing
>to go general (trivial) enough, e.g., all cultures have people. It becomes
>a question of just how general you have to go to come up with something.
>Another alternative is to talk about just those cultures which do have some
>defined feature, limiting your analysis to these.

With all due respect to you and others contributing to this thread who seem
to think the issue I have raised is just a matter of how general or how
restricted you tailor your observational categories, I still contend there
is a different implication of behaviours that are universal to a species
from those which are non-universal (I will stop talking about obligatory and
free, as I cannot make sense of some of the ways you are using the latter
term). To say, as you do, that 'all cultures have people' is not an
empirical observation of a universal behavioural trait, it is simply the
case because that it what is implied by the term used.

Here is what I mean. Language has been found, empirically, to exist among
all known groups of the human species. We now also know, in broad outline,
that language is related to certain genetically-determined charactersitics
of the human brain and other organs. I am not saying that genetics is all
there is to explaining language, but at least it is fair to say that
genetics accounts for the *universality* of language among humans. Religion
(which I say is not, in principle, a universal human behavioural trait) is,
because non-universal, unlikely to be explained to any extent at all by
reference to genetics. Rather, its actual widespread empirical distribution
(however generally or narrowly defined) among human groups is a phemonon of
a different order from one like language, calling for the inclusion of
different kinds of explanitory principles. This is why the class of
widespread but less-than-universal forms of behaviour are, in my view, of
such great theoretical significance.

>Best wishes. R. Snower

Adrian Tanner
Memorial University of Newfoundland