Re: culture as gene-flow regulator: the arunta

Robert Snower (
Thu, 19 Sep 1996 22:15:21 GMT

I am replying, at the moment, only to portions of your response, if
that is acceptable. rs (Len Piotrowski) wrote:

>> (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 . . .

>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

Why do we have to divide the anthropological world into isolated
ethnographic islands, each having absolutely nothing to do with the
other? These endearvors to analyze the trees without any attention
whatever to the woods are bound to be unproductive. Who cares whether
the semen dribbles or not, or whether it is subincision, or
circumcision, etc., etc.? These things so obviously have a
significance trandscendent to their specific loci, and transcendent to
the details of the category of genital mutilation.

>>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!

It is not a cut and dried matter. On the other hand, it is one of the
great recurring threads in anthropology since its very beginning.
It has been downplayed, and denied, in recent anthropology, in the
general rush to get away from the "evolutionary."

>>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.

"According to most theories of early religion, a great deal, if not
all, of religious inspiration has been derived from [death]--and in
this orthodox views are on the whole correct." (Malinowsky, 1925)

>>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?!

Sociobiology has no ultimate purpose. But I know what you mean.
According to the theory I am pushing, these are cultural constructs.
Adapive, yes. So they prevailed. And had the effect of throwing
natural selection from the individual level to the group level. They
surely did not arise as discrete entities coincidentally, any more
than, say, Chomsky's universal grammar arose as discrete entities
coincidentally. Or the eye arose as the coincidence of a discrete
retina, cornea, etc.

>>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.

> What exactly is collectivism, and how is that
>really different from sociality?

That's a good question. A subtle distinction. But you know there is
a difference, don't you? See below.

>>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!

These are components of an ancestral past we all share, universally,
many remnants of which survive--in ritual, myth, literature, religion,
obscenity, taste, etc. If it were in fact established substantively
that a cultural exists independently of such a past, then, obviously,
the theory has been falsified.

>>Totemism: kinship is the sociobiological construct which generates

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

Literal biological kinship is certainly an independent phenomenon. I
don't think "fictive" kinship is. That a society can exist as an
example of differentiating off and deemphasizing a specific of the
primordial, I would not take as a falsification. In modern-type
cultures we have to scrounge far deeper than with the Australian
societies to find remnants of all three of the above components. If
this were not the case, the theory would be self-evident. On the
other hand, you will say this "differentiating" argument makes
falsification impossible. But the point is, all people have
sensitivities in them in regard to these things which cannot be
credibly accounted for by mimetic acquisition. Therefore we must
yield to our empirically based intuitions, and go from there.

>>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.

Levi-Strauss is a leader of the 'rush' I mentioned above. I prefer
Shapiro's account of the totem feast as a fictive stand-in for the
maternal-infant relationship, with its employment as a guide to the
identity of an otherwise anonymous infant, thence as a guide to the
identity of the tribe.

>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.

The shared totem identity is not in addition to, but *creates* the
group membership. Kinship terminology can also create kinship, where
it did not exist before.

>>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?

You can comprehend the notion of a "fictive," i.e., imaginary kinship,
thereby extending a real social cohesion. I am asking you to
comprehend the notion of a fictive quelling of sexual fertility,
thereby diiminishing a real sexual competition. (Female circumcision
is derivative, according to the theory, probably connected to

>> 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 culture.

>You've lost me on that one.

Still lost?

>>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

See, you are not lost at all.

Best wishes. R. Snower