Re: culture as gene-flow regulator: the arunta [LONG]

Len Piotrowski (
Thu, 19 Sep 1996 19:43:05 GMT

In article <51pkso$> (Gerold Firl) writes:


>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.

As I've mentioned before, low population densities are due to a homogeneous
environment - one NOT characterized by environmental change. Why isn't the
current gene flow adequate for it's place?

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

No environmental change, no necessity to cope, no genetic variety!

>|> >[snip]

>|> Salient citations?

>Elman Service, _profiles in ethnology_.

Thought so, since you practically quote him word for word. _Profiles_ is not a
primary source, and what is know of the Arunta (now extinct) comes largely
from Spencer & Gillen who wrote about them in 1896!

>|> >[snip]

>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.

You confuse an ethnocentric idea of cousin marriage, and cause of few
marriageable partners. All Arunta, by kinship, are related to all other
Arunta. In fact, most Australian aborigines, regardless of their origin, can
and, by proscribed custom, do relate to each other preeminently by kin
relationship. Because of this system of kin relationship in concert with the
primary lineal family unit and exogamous marriage rules and defined
residence patterns, three basic types of social organization are expressed:
moieties, sections, and subsections, not necessarily related as a "genetic"
series. The working out of these rules and social customs necessarily restrain
the choice of marriage partners to kin outside the local group, which restrict
suitable, socially defined sources of mates from the cross-cousins of your
non-lineal relation's local group. In the case of the patrilineal and
patrilocal Arunta and central desert people, this is the mother's mother's
brother's daughter's daughter in the simplest structural arrangement. However,
the expression of sections and subsections among these various groups
restricts even more the available mating pool.

>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?

Your gene flow problem is pure conjecture. There is no necessary relation
between the purported "sexual licence" and the asserted "gene flow problem."

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

>I don't recall the source;

There is none that I'm aware.

> it was from an ethnographic study I read as
>an undergrad. If you think about it, it makes sense however;

Not to me!

> the
>urethra is open at the base of the penis.

Wrong! The penis is slit to the urethra! No where has it been documented that
the uretha is slit!

> 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?

Nothing to stop ejaculation, even if you believe this fantastic idea. As I've
said before, how is fertilization accomplished by dribbling on the
female's crotch? Just curious, mind you, I don't believe any of this for a

>|> >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.

There is no evidence documented by anyone! You're "meaning" at a physical
level is irrelevant.

>|> >[snip]


>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.

Hogwash! Since you can't prove it, it must be a valid prediction? What kind of
science is this?

>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

I'm not confused, Firl. Does "male superior" equate for you with "female
inferior," or are you smoking another kind of cigar?

>|> >[snip]

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

No evidence. Hard to explain something you can't identify, eh?


>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.

It's getting quainter by the minute. You're projection of your own
socio-cultural norms on another culture is quite joyous to behold.

>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.

Meaningful interaction is something different from culture or Culture. Your
abstruse reference to levels of operation doesn't help much either.

>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.

That's problematic.

>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.

Not necessarily, although if cultural selection and individual selection
are in direct opposition, funny things may happen. But I am of the school of
thought that conceives cultural selection as reducing or even eliminating the
effects of individual selection.

>That has been the fate of many (most?) cultures in history.

Problematic and generally untrue in my prehistoric neighborhood.

>between cultures has been the primary source of the selection pressures
>which drive cultural evolution.

Problematic and untrue in many instances.

>|> >[snip]

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

Untrue! Marriage partners, by definition, are not found in the local group,
and are, by definition, a special class of cross-cousins, the exact makeup of
which depends on many other factors besides locality!

>|> >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?

This is odd scientific behavior. The proposal of a problem that doesn't exist,
and a solution with out any evidence, disguised as a "prediction," as if this
confers on the whole exercise some form of validity and legitimacy. The
ethnographic record is just that, a record of a culture. The Arunta no longer
exist as an ethnographic entity, and thus, only the record can be tested. With
that and the record of the rest of Australia to work from, your "prediction"
has no support.

>|> 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?

Hardly! Does the selection of marriage partners outside the local group
falsify your contention that subincision is genetically determined?

>|> 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.

Claims by the original ethnographic authors such as "sexual licence," and
unknown paternity have been challenged by later scholars, such as
Levi-Strauss. The highly formalized, proscribed moral and ethical behavior of
aborigines towards one another belie any such free, and easy relationship
amongst persons not belonging to the local group.


>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.

Determinant genes of human behavior is the nub of the problem. That's the
sociobiological agenda. No one has denied culture an adaptive role. But I have
a particular problem with your hypothesis, even if you substitute a cultural
selection processes behind the subincision-free love model of aboriginal life.

>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.

That's a bias that attributes inferior faculty to the Other. Even given the
lack of knowledge of underlying mechanism (afterall, the Western world hasn't
been aware of it for all that long), effects are still apparent. The kinship
system of even this admittedly elemental lifestyle is quite, even amazingly,

>|> >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?

Young aboriginal men don't "walkabout" and they don't get laid.

>|> >[snip]
>|> 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?

Why don't you! You're the one who claimed to be explaining the "complex,
abstract, and spiritual aspects of the Arunta?"

>"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.

I'm not threatened. Anthropology is already intimately aware of the
controversial relationship of biology and culture. It's just not ready to
capitulate everything to the product of the genes.