Re: culture as gene-flow regulator: the arunta

Len Piotrowski (
Wed, 18 Sep 1996 21:16:38 GMT

In article <51nbac$> (Robert Snower) writes:


If I follow you correctly, I don't think there is any argument over the
adaptive value of culture. I think the argument is over the genetic
determinism of culture and human social behavior. Be that as it may, there are
some specific issues you raise in your post:

> (Gerold Firl) wrote:

>>Subincision, in this view, would be a method by which the incidence of
>>marital impregnation would be minimized. Since semen is not ejaculated
>>against the cervix, birth control can be achieved very reliably. In
>>female-superior positions, fertilization can be easily avoided.

>I am a fan of the sociobiological approach to hypothesizing about the
>nature of prehistoric culture, using as empirical data the items of
>culture which give evidence of very ancient origin. I think the most
>successful effort of this kind was that of Shapiro's _The Sociobiology
>of Homo Sapiens_(1978).

>It is his thesis that mutilation of male genitalia is one one of these
>items of ancient culture. The specific kind of mutilation is not all
>that important. To try and give a different interpretation to each
>brand--circumcision, piercing, etc., misses the saliency of the
>general phenonmenon, which is so widespread, and survives today in so
>many metaphorical forms--ritual, mythological, literary,

I have a couple of problems with this scenario and with Firl's specific
utilitarian explanation. Interpreting aboriginal subincision as a "general
phenonmenon" guts it of any specific value in the cultural processes it finds
it's expression. Subincision in aboriginal contexts is not an isolated
"trait." It takes it's meaning inside a complex of relations and a series of
rituals that is unique in every respect, including the act and form of the
mutilation. Circumcision, subincision, and body scarification has meaning only
in terms of this social interaction, not with any purported functional

As to Firl's thesis of subincision as an aid to birth control, I think he's
failed to elucidate the evidence for this mechanic ehtnographically. Even
accepting the profound implausibility of his proposal, just how do you manage
to dribble semen into the female to cause fertilization in the first place?

>Equally universal as an ancient item of culture is totemism. What the
>totem happens to be, and other specifics, are relatively unimportant.

Anthropologists over the last century would argue with you about that. All
that we know about "totemism" comes from the careful study of the nature,
variation, and associations of this cultural phenomena with other aspects of
culture by anthropologists, which, to the contrary, have indicated the
non-universal character of it's expression. In fact, there are few definitions
of totemism that are in agreement with each other! With respect to Australian
aborigines, there are/were several different forms of "totemism" recognized by
Elkin, the most normative of which are not manifest in the patrilineal
central desert groups such as the Arunta!

>A third almost universal item of prehistoric culture is the worship
>of their dead--ancestor worship.

Even qualified, this is not true. Although most cultures have customs
associated with burial, they are not all "worshipers" of the dead. Most
significantly, Australian aborigines of the central desert are not known for
such a practice.

>The adaptive value of all of these is the same, i.e., they show the
>same teleology: the origination of society itself, the creation of
>the cooperative group from out of a precedent competitive situation
>where cooperation was limited to the nuclear family. Cooperation on a
>larger scale is enormously adaptive because of the potential it holds
>for the specialization and division of labor, and the practical
>consequences thereof.

This can be distilled down to a simple, yet not vastly informative, conclusion
that culture and society is adaptive. This doesn't help us much to
understand the meaning of aboriginal subincision, or totemism, or burial
ritual in Australian cultures.

>Cooperation (altruism) automatically changes selection on the
>individual level to selection on the group level, and that was the
>result of, and the significance of prehistoric culture.

But this changes the ultimate purpose of sociobiology, to reduce social
behavior to the action of individual genes. I can't imagine how a gene
simultaneously arose in the entire group for "subincision craving," "totemic
craving," and "worshiping the dead craving," to cause your "prehistoric
culture" to emerge and subsequently be retained as an adaptive structure?!

>The ancient
>tribes were very collectivist, each being itself a unit of selection,
>in competition with others. Collectivism yielded great competitive
>advantage over its alternative.

Pure supposition without any specific evidence for the problem at hand. How do
you measure "very collectivist?" What exactly is collectivism, and how is that
really different from sociality?

>So totemism, worship of the dead, ritual circumcision were the
>primordial devices of social collectivism.

So, what of societies without totemism, worship of the dead, or ritual
circumcision, are they not still social, or cultural, or human? If such exists
outside these necessary parameters, then "social collectivism" as dependent on
"primordial devices" is a false metaphor for human culture!

>Totemism: kinship is the sociobiological construct which generates

Kinship and totemism are independent phenomena, as illustrated by the
diversity of arrangements in Australian societies.

> Totemism is a "fictive kinship:"

No it's not!

>kinship to those who are not necessarily even related, as is in fact
>the case in many "ancient" kinship systems.

There are some cultures in which the complexity of kinship relations are
ameliorated by the use of totemic names. But this is not the same as saying
they are fictive kin classifications, or that they extend kinship
relationships. In fact, among Australian aborigines, there are some local
groups whose kinship system bears no relation to the totemic system, and some
local groups who belong to more than one totemic group while still occupying a
single nexus in an extended kin network!

>Totemism is thus a social
>construct--an imaginary kinship.

Not true! When you speak of "totemism" you confuse two problems illustrated by
Levi-Strauss. There is a frequent and normative process of human beings to
identify and associate themselves with plants, animals, and natural features.
Examples are numerous from both anthropology and everyday life. Something
may be primordial there, but is it the basis of "social collectivism?" I don't
think so. This identification has nothing necessarily to do with the relations
between people, and more, perhaps, to do with the relations of people and
nature, then anything else.

The second problem with "totemism" is the specification of group membership
through kinship, which may or may not be made with the aid of animal, or plant
terms. However, the use of a mnemonic device does not stand for or substitute
for a kinship system. A kinship system exists independently of the signs used
to refer to it. "Totemism," in it's strictest sense, exists only in those
cases where there is a "coincidence of the two orders." For many of the
central desert aborigines this coincidence does not exist. However, for many
scholars of totemism, the mere manifestation of an animal or plant or natural
feature as icon in the social life of a culture identifies it as "totemic."
The problem is much more profound than that.

>With great adaptive value. It, and
>an alternative device, ancestor worship, are the bases of kinship
>systems, whose adaptive value is in their expansion of the
>cohesiveness of kinship.

There is no dependent relation between cultural expressions of "totems,"
"ancestor worship," or genital mutilation with any particular kinship system,
or, for that matter, a necessary relation of these "devices" with all kinship

>Ritual circumcision, etc: the competition of natural selection on the
>individual level is, in the final analysis, a sexual competition,
>that for reproductive success.

I can't comprehend how ritual circumcision is competitive of anything. All
boys go through the ritual. All girls do not, unless you would attempt to
equate hymen breaking with circumcision. However, the mutually exclusive
rituals and customs defining the two events belie this simple comparison. So
where's the sexual competition?

> Thus, the process of natural selection
>in the conventional mode renders cooperation beyond the nuclear family

By "conventional" I take it you mean selection for individual fitness, versus
group selection. I think you've gone beyond the purview of sociobiology.

>Altruism, group selection, was a great problem for
>Darwin. Sociobiology, with Hamilton's inclusive fitness, solved that
>problem in the case of insects. For insects it was solved by a
>biological infertility (of the workers). In Homo sapiens it was
>solved by an imaginary infertility--a social construct: ritual

Pure speculation, especially as there is no evidence relating circumcision or
subincision with any cross-culturally comparable data on fertility. Also, the
meanings attached to the participants of these events have nothing to do with
altruism, group selection, or inclusive fitness.

>It doesn't matter that you are not really infertile, or
>really not kinfolk. That is the amazing thing about social
>constructs. Sexual competition became bad, collectivism became good.

There is no sexual competition because of a kinship system emphasizing
exogamous marriage rules which is emphatically expressed independently in
Australian aboriginal cultures of any particular totemic system, burial
custom, or program for initiation of adolescents into adulthood.

>The markers of prehistoric culture are the above.

I don't even see them as universal markers of ethnographic cultures, let alone
prehistoric cultures.

>As prehistoric
>culture represents the denial of selection on the individual level;
>historic (literate) culture, in turn, represents a denial of
>prehistoric cultural.

You've lost me on that one.

>A rebirth of individualism. Western culture
>is its main exponent. But Western culture is not a return to natural
>selection on the individual level, to the old sexually based
>competition, obviously.

I don't know about that. Can't say I actually recognize evidence for the
pan-progress of grand Cultural psyches from a me-first, survival of the
fittest state, through a mechanistic device driven sociality, back to the Me
Generation, especially since I witnessed the birth of the Me Generation! :-)
My social-psychological metaphor for meaningful human interaction doesn't
offer a means for this to manifest itself in such a deterministic way as you



"If you can't remember what mnemonic means, you've got a problem."
- perlstyle