Re: culture as gene-flow regulator: the arunta

Len Piotrowski (
Fri, 20 Sep 1996 21:47:17 GMT

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


>I am replying, at the moment, only to portions of your response, if
>that is acceptable. rs


>>[snip] 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

We don't. But to compare meanings entails grounding in context first.

>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,

Because it's a bunch of pseudo-scientific nonsense passed off by Firl as the
linchpin in a purported functionalist adaptationist explanation of
aboriginal culture.

>or whether it is subincision, or
>circumcision, etc., etc.?

The Australian aborigine practice both customs.

> These things so obviously have a
>significance trandscendent to their specific loci, and transcendent to
>the details of the category of genital mutilation.

I'm not from the show-me state, but I still need something more than this.

>>>[snip] 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."

I think, on the contrary, it takes on even more interest in the PM debate.

>>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)

Interesting, but problematic for the central Australian desert people. I don't
think you can simply equate ritual as religion, or an ancestor myth as worship
of the dead.


>Sociobiology has no ultimate purpose.

It has a theory of genetic determinism of human behavior which is expressed in
both academic and professional contexts, and as a social agenda.

> 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.

I think we are in general agreement here.


>> 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.

I have my own idea of collectivism, but as applied to any cultural group it is
a very rare thing indeed. It would apply to groupings without social order,
just the opposite of sociality, such as mass movements, riots, panic, traffic,
concerts, ball games, etc. Thus "social collectivism" in my dictionary is

>>>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.

Hard to say any of your devices are ancestral to all culture, known and
prehistoric. Not even all the Australian aborigines share totems. No other
cultures are known to practice subincision, and the meaning associated with
subincision among aborigines is different from circumcision among the same
aborigines. As for worship of the dead, that is hardly a universal trait.
Based on what we know now, none of these "devices of social collectivism" can
be identified as universal to human culture.

>>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'm speaking of classificatory kinship.

>don't think "fictive" kinship is.

Classificatory kinship isn't necessarily "fictive," and is certainly not so in
the ethnographic case under consideration.

>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.

That's an explanation for an empirical fact that needs testing. It is not true
a priori from the final form that this process actually occurred.

> 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.

I don't follow from the empirical fact of the lack of expression of the
"devices of social collectivism" that this necessarily means they are only
hidden or transmogrified. I don't understand the psychological basis for
"sensitivities" towards these "devices of social collectivism" and just how
"mimetic acquisition" is an alternate explanation for the appearance of these
"sensitivities." Must have something to do with deep structuralism? At any
rate, "empirically based intuitions" is a sort of PM/positivist hybrid I'm
afraid to unravel right here and now.

>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.

However, Australian aboriginal society is not organized on the tribal level,
and doesn't participate in totemic feasts, and doesn't use totems as fictive
kinship terms. I would think Levi-Strauss' structuralism would help inform
your concept of "sensitivities" and deep structure, though.

>>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. ... 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.

We disagree profoundly on this one, especially with respect to the central
desert aborigines!


>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

My point is that social cohesion and sexual competition are accounted for by
the kinship system and marriage/residence rules which, for the Australian
aborigine, is not dependent on particular forms of the totem systems,
or customs associated with the rites of passage. As to the breaking of the
hymen as equivalent to "Female circumcision" as theoretically associated
with patriarchy, I must balk. The ritual is performed in secret by females
with dire social consequences for the welfare of the group if the males should
interfere (the converse is true for male rituals). Not all aboriginal groups
that practice subincision also practice these female rituals, and both
patrilineal and matrilineal systems appear to be involved. There is no
patriarchical authority over women's rituals, but, instead, there is a sexual
segregation of mythic and liminal space, acts, and meanings. The interesting
question is why and what this separation means for the participants.


>>>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?

I don't understand the specific level descriptives (denial of selection on the
individual level, denial of prehistoric culture), how they relate as examples
of processual mechanisms, nor how they relate in a progressive series of
relationship, presumably of cultural evolutionary advancement?

>>>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.

I am not lost in my metaphor, I'm lost in yours and can't see any familiar landmarks!