Re: culture as gene-flow regulator: the arunta

Len Piotrowski (
Mon, 30 Sep 1996 18:23:19 GMT

In article <52jj21$> (Robert Snower) writes:


> (Len Piotrowski) wrote:
>>As I've discussed earlier, the mere use of animal and plant terms to
>>associate aspects of meaningful human behavior is not disputed. What's
>>disputed is the classification of these propensities as "totemic."

>Levi-Strauss has it wrong. He has made the same mistake as those who
>presume there are genes for concepts. Regardless of the distinction
>between "the savage mind" and the scientific one, if there is such a
>distinction, there is a distinction to be made between the
>direction of biological process, and the process of logical thought.

I cannot discover your connection between social classifications based on
animal and plant names and a "distinction" between " biological process" and
processes of logical thought" that help in an understanding of Levi-Strauss
definition of "totemism." I believe his structuralism informs this
understanding more than you assume. But as far as a definition of 'totemism'
goes, he merely notes the propensity to use animal and plant names/metaphors
in human social contexts. In the study of 'totemism' he includes the
necessity of a kinship system. In this respect, 'totemism' is not a thing but
a classificatory construct to distinguish a particular form of human conduct.

>For Levi-Strauss totemism is on a par, developmentally, with any other
>instance of classification in general. Therefore it, nor any other
>specific, can be seen as 'origin.'

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. This does not seem to me to be
phenomenologically that different from the fact of the aborigine Wadjina in
their representations of the dreamtime.

>I see process as proceeding from
>some very specific primordial origin to its metaphors, a point of
>view whose paradigm was generated beginning with the "associationist"
>tradition of the British empiricists, then Wm. James, Freud, James
>Joyce. That is how biology works, how the genes, and their mutations,
>work. It is not a relation from particular to universal, nor universal
>to particular.

Ideas are not genes, and the processes involving them are not biological.
Despite this (agreement?) I fail to understand your critique of Levi-Struass'
criteria for "totemism."

>>> . . . 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?

>>>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.

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

Not so! Thus my Ik example.

>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