Re: culture as gene-flow regulator: the arunta

Gerold Firl (
18 Sep 1996 20:08:56 GMT

In article <>, (Len Piotrowski) writes:
|> In article <51muh4$> (Gerold Firl) writes:

|> >This post will put forth a hypothesis about some of the cultural
|> >adaptations of the australian arunta as they relate to the problem of
|> >gene-flow regulation in the difficult circumstances of the desert
|> >outback.

|> Didn't know there was such a problem. Could it be you just made one up for the
|> sake of the exercise?

It's only a "problem" from the point of view of people or peoples who
are trying to survive in thr resource-poor australian interior. Given
the extremely low population densities of the arunta, specialized
adaptations are required to maintain genetic variability.

>From the standpoint of population biology, genetic variety is
necessary to cope with environmental change.

|> >Some salient facts:
|> >In arunta ideology, conception is divorced from copulation. conception
|> >is thought to result from the quickening influence of the local totem
|> >spirit upon the mother. Husbands and wives have sexual relations, but
|> >marital fidelity is not insisted upon, and at the periodic festivals
|> >when large groups of the sparsely populated interior congregate, sexual
|> >licence is encouraged. Arunta men undergo the process of subincision,
|> >where the penis is slit from root to head through the urethra; semen
|> >thus is not ejaculated so much as dribbled.

|> Salient citations?

Elman Service, _profiles in ethnology_.

|> >Analysis:
|> >Given the low population density of the australian desert, gene flow
|> >rates are low; that is, it takes a long time for genes to travel
|> >throughout the population. This can be a problem; it essentially
|> >decreases the genetic variety available to cope with environmental
|> >changes, leading to lower levels of fitness at the population level. I
|> >propose that the features of arunta culture listed above are functional
|> >adaptations which increase the velocity of genetic diffusion.

|> The population density of the Australian desert is low because it can't
|> support a larger population. Gene flow rates are low (citation?) presumably
|> because of infrequent contact among distant groups (of Arunta I suppose).

Among the sparse populations of the australian interior, there are
comparitively few mates to choose from, and cousin marriage is very
common. Most people in any given area are fairly closely related.

|> "salient fact" must be true despite your theory, or else you've got access to
|> two bodies of data, one before "sexual licence" was encouraged and one after
|> (who encouraged it by the way - the "sexual licence craving" gene?).
|> Otherwise, your low gene flow evidence cannot be used to both pose the problem
|> and then represent the solution. If "sexual licence" ... "increase the
|> velocity of genetic diffusion" how come your gene flow rates don't already
|> show increased gene flow?

I don't understand what you're saying here. Perhaps you can clarify?

|> Where on earth did you get the semen dribble idea?

I don't recall the source; it was from an ethnographic study I read as
an undergrad. If you think about it, it makes sense however; the
urethra is open at the base of the penis. In male-superior positions,
semen can dribble down to the vagina, but that is a far cry from being
ejaculated directly against the cervix, wouldn't you say?

|> >Subincision, in this view, would be a method by which the incidence of
|> >marital impregnation would be minimized.

|> Evidence and citation please? Otherwise, pure speculation ignoring the
|> meaningful and ritualistic aspects of the situation.

It is speculation, but what I'm saying is that subincision has a
meaning which exists at a physical level, at the level of biological
survival. I don't have any citations; as I said, this is my own
hypothesis. The evidence is before you; judge it if you can.

|> >Since semen is not ejaculated
|> >against the cervix, birth control can be achieved very reliably. In
|> >female-superior positions, fertilization can be easily avoided.

|> Evidence and citation please? What prevents ejaculation, what suggests the
|> female-superior position as practice, and what would be different about
|> sexual practices at macro-band gatherings versus familial band contexts? Would
|> have to theorize that either ejaculating males copulated more and/or female's
|> assumed an inferior position at macro-band gatherings, a "salient" fact not
|> supported by the evidence.

My suggestion that male superior positions would be more common at the
ritual gatherings was a *prediction*, based on the hypothesis that
subincision exists as a method to avoid impregnation by closely related
local males in favor of males from more distant regions.

You seem to misunderstand the meaning of the terms "male superior" and
"female superior" positions, as they relate to coitus. I realize that
for you, everything is political, but sometimes a cigar is just a

|> >The idea that children are the offspring of the local totem, rather
|> >than the biological father, would be a means of minimizing jealousy and
|> >avoiding sexual competition between men.

|> A tautology based on negative evidence. There is no jealousy or sexual
|> competition, so why the need to explain it, let alone account for the lack of
|> a behavior as a functional adaptation?

Are you claiming that there is no jealousy or sexual competition among
the arunta? On what basis do you make such a claim?

|> The entire band is descended from an
|> ancestor (not necessarily totemic in the strictest sense), including the
|> biological mothers. So what is suggested in this relation which emphasizes a
|> male "trait" (jealousy) rather than something else (group cohesion)? The
|> gathering of the macro-band serves to join the various bands, each with a
|> separate piece of the overall story of their mythological account for the
|> world: the Dream Time. Instead of minimizing a non-existent individual
|> selfishness, the social and ideological arrangement accentuate the positive
|> effects of group cooperation, maintenance, and solidarity.

So, you're claiming that the arunta have no such thing as selfishness
or jealousy (exclusively "bad" traits, held by "bad" people,
apparently) and their gatherings exist only to celebrate the joyous
rituals of noble solidarity; shucks, lenny, I didn't realize you were
such a romantic. How quaint.

Certainly the great ritual gatherings function as you describe. That is
one level of operation. I am describing another level which operates in
parallel. Culture exists on many different levels. For some reason, you
try to pretend that the only thing that matters is the purely symbolic
and abstract, the world of "meaningfull" interaction you endlessly
skate and worry. That world is important; no question about that. But
it's not the only game in town. In fact, it must take a back seat to
the primary world of physical survival. If semiotic culture does not
operate in such a way as to enhance social fitness, at the culture-wide
level, then there is a very good chance that it will become extinct.
That has been the fate of many (most?) cultures in history. Competition
between cultures has been the primary source of the selection pressures
which drive cultural evolution.

|> >The promiscuous sexual activity at large gatherings would accelerate
|> >genetic mixing, since matings would occur between individuals who were
|> >ordinarily more widely separated than typical marriage partners.

|> Hardly, since marriage partners are chosen from the same gathering. This
|> vision of sexual promiscuity is belied by the strict division between the
|> sexes of various ritual ceremonies conducted at these gatherings. Do you have
|> citations?

Among the arunta, cousin marriage is the typical pattern. Partners are
generally found in the local group. (same citation as before)

|> >Predictions:
|> >Large-gathering copulations have a higher incidence of male-superior
|> >positions, leading to higher fertilization rates.

|> However, you have no evidence that any of this is true for the Arunta.

I have no evidence for my predictions, of course. They wouldn't be
predictions if I had evidence for them ahead of time (?!) The other
ethnographic data is ethnographic data; what gives you the ability to
claim that there is "no evidence" for it? The fact that you know
nothing about it?

|> It
|> would be quite unusual for sexual position to change from band territories to
|> macro-band locations.

You think so? I guess that if they did change, then you would agree
with my hypothesis, wouldn't you?

|> The dribble semen hypothesis (is this verified?) would
|> hardly be ameliorated by dribbling from above, let alone act as the equivalent
|> to ejaculation. There is no suggested evidence that higher rates of
|> fertilization occur at macro-band gatherings, or that they are the result of
|> "sexual licence." There is no evidence that "sexual licence" even exists.

At least, not within your fevered imagination. I'm going by what e.
service writes; if you know better, in your exalted and infallible
wisdom, please do share your knowledge with the rest of us.

|> Grandiose theories constructed from the imagination which reduce complex social
|> interactions to the determinants of genes have the ring of scientific validity
|> but on closer examination are only contortions of unknown and unverified
|> facts and speculations explicated by reductionist processes that ignore the
|> holistic and meaningful aspects of what is known about human social behavior.

It's not a question of the "determinants" of genes; human culture
adapts to the circumstances. In the australian desert, we adapt to the
lack of water, the heat, the scarcity of food supplies, *and* the low
level of genetic variability within the local group.

I don't see myself as "reducing" the scope of culture, but as enlarging
it. I would find it quite amazing if culture could evolve mechanisms
for coping with such subtle constraints as genetic diffusion rates.

|> >Young men on walkabout get laid a lot.

|> Sorry, I don't see it!

You don't see what? Do you have any actual information to contribute,
or are you just making noise?

|> >Summary:
|> >Complex, abstract, spiritual aspects of human culture are intimately
|> >related to the problems of physical adaptation, and are amenable to an
|> >evolutionary analysis. Some of the unusual aspects of arunta culture
|> >should be expected to appear in other low density cultures, such as the
|> >eskimos, where the benefits of enhanced rates of gene-flow have been
|> >found to outweigh the costs of lower paternity-confidence.

|> I didn't hear mention in this entire story anything about the complex,
|> abstract, and spiritual aspects of the Arunta, only semen dribble and
|> purported gene flow problems despite even the current effects of the "sexual
|> licence" process upon the very data said to be in need of gene flow
|> enhancement!?

Why don't you tell us about it then?

|> I may be wrong, but I think you will find few who are convinced by this
|> presentation of sociobiology's methodological salvation for anthropology.

"Salvation"? Hardly. If the scope of anthropology can be enlarged by a
better understanding of biological constraints, that would be a plus,
but hardly "salvation". You don't need to feel threatened.

Disclaimer claims dat de claims claimed in dis are de claims of meself,
me, and me alone, so sue us god. I won't tell Bill & Dave if you won't.
=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=---- Gerold Firl @ ..hplabs!hp-sdd!geroldf