Re: culture as gene-flow regulator: the arunta

Robert Snower (
Tue, 01 Oct 1996 03:48:10 GMT (Len Piotrowski) wrote:

>Classification does not have an independent 'being' outside of a cognitive
>system that created it. As such, it has no 'origin' like a physical object or
>thing, However, as part of a constructed system of knowledge in which it
>_represents_ or stands for a pattern, it can attain theoretical significance
>as an empirically verifiable and testable fact. . . .

>I fail to understand your critique of Levi-Struass'
>criteria for "totemism."

Both Levi-Strauss and I see the constructed system of knowledge as a
hypothesis. He sees the anthropological significance of that
hypothesis in its parallels, its correlations, with real nature, or
with our real modes of thought. When all such correspondences have
been discerned, anthropology has concluded its task, and everybody can
go home. I see the correspondences of the hypothesis with nature,
etc., as utterly devoid of interest. We are not dealing with a
scientific hypothesis, where the interest is properly in empirical
verification. We are dealing with a pretense, a metaphor of reality,
whose value lies in its departure from that reality. It is a fiction,
admittedly. The measure of its value is not degree of correspondence,
but degree of success--success in being selected for, in prevailing,
over alternatives. Anthropology's task is to reveal the course of
this process.

>>>> . . . It seems to me the one word which applies to the evidently
>>>>enormous diversity of prehistoric culture is 'collectivist'--sexually
>>>>restrictive and economically redistributionist.

>>>The first, "sexually restrictive," essentially describes all cultures and thus
>>>has no value in setting prehistoric cultures apart from any other culture.
>>>Secondly, "economic redistribution" is only characteristic of certain complex
>>>cultural forms usually associated with the appearance of chiefdoms. Sharing
>>>food, resources, shelter, etc. appears to be a primary and universal function
>>>of all primary social units, even among non-human primates. Thus, I fail to
>>>see these two dimensions as significant in segregating classes of culture, let
>>>alone levels or stages in the development of Culture in general.

>>Your citicisms are very much on the mark here. I stand by the
>>'collectivism.' The two specifics were very bad, the one, as you say,
>>not sufficiently unique, the other not sufficiently typical.
>>Pre-historic culture is collectivist in the literal sense of being
>>classificatory in all things, whether sexual, economic, or
>>philosophical. The normative bias was in favor of a subordination of
>>the individual to the category.

>You don't think that any person before the appearance of Western civilization
>was capable of individual thought and action?

It is not a question of capability. It is a question of values. Of
what people see fit to think and do.

>>>>On the other hand,
>>>>modern cultures talk about, as innovations, freedom, the individual,
>>>>self-interest, the free market, privacy, rights, etc., etc. A denial
>>>>of the pre-historic, but not a very clean one: a novelty unto itself.

>>>I think you're implying that modern culture is somehow different from
>>>prehistoric culture along these dimensions. Some, like free market system,
>>>or ideological concepts of "freedom" and "privacy", etc., may indeed be
>>>inventions of highly integrated cultural systems that can't be implemented
>>>any where else. But some like innovation, self-interest, and rights are
>>>clearly not novel to one cultural type or another. I don't dispute that there
>>>are differences in cultural development and that these differences create
>>>systems in which unique forms and processes can emerge, while also prohibiting
>>>or restricting other possible choices. I just don't see how the dichotomy of
>>>denial fits into what we currently know of the empirical cultural record.

>>Take 'innovation' out: you misread the sentence.

>OKay, but keeping 'innovation' in mind, your thesis becomes even less
>convincing. If you allow that precursor cultures and their members can make
>innovations, than you must allow for an independent will to think, which you
>claim is a difference in kind to be found in Western civilization. I hold that
>it is a difference in degree only, influenced by other environmental factors.
>The expression and integration of freedom, self-interest, and rights in modern
>culture are just as socially contingent and hegemonic on individuals as the
>aborigine's dreamtime.

I can't put my finger on anything much to disagree with here. Perhaps
I don't understand you.

>> "Self-interest" has
>>become normative. It is a virtue. This is unique.

>Not so! Thus my Ik example.

Juat a tiny speck of diversity. An archaic bud that never bloomed,
enduring unchanged down through the ages, as a monument to its own
failure. The faint glimmer of a future for which it cannot claim any
responsibility. Like me.

>>Capitalism is the
>>economics of self-interest. Democracy is the politics of
>>self-interest. Similarly, "rights [individual]" has become uniquely

>None of these 'ideas' are particularly unique, nor restricted to Western

They are amazing fantastic constructions, definitive of 'historic,' as
against pre-historic, culture. I am surprised you did not take issue
with that characterization of democracy.

Best wishes. R. Snower