Re: culture as gene-flow regulator: the arunta

Robert Snower (
Tue, 24 Sep 1996 21:49:34 GMT (Len Piotrowski) wrote:

>>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.

My "universal devices," as components of a primordial culture, do not
necessarily show up in their literal forms in all cultures, anymore
than, e.g., gills show up in adult mammals. These components, the
theory holds, are universally in the ancestry for all cultures. As
gills are in the ancestry of all lungs. (Aside: I would be
interested to know what the different meanings attached to
circumcision and subincision by the aborigines are.)

>>Literal biological kinship is certainly an independent phenomenon.

>I'm speaking of classificatory kinship.

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

Real biological kinship can have a sense of being fictive. The
kinships with uncles, cousins, etc., is stressed in so many cultures,
according to the theory, just because they are fictive versions of the
maternal and paternal kinship of the nuclear family--thus serving to
expand the cohesiveness of this primordial relatedness by taking its
place, and avoiding the otherwise sociobiologically adverse effect on
sociality (altruism) of unequal and lower coefficients of relatedness,
which, in their inequality, increase, rather than decrease

>> 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.

Substitute "clues" for "sensitivities," in my remarks, and yours. I
come out better.

>>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.

My initial comment responds to your noting the absence of totem
feasts, etc.

>>>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.

I have no reason or evidence to disagree with you here.

> 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.

I concur with your balking. For "breaking of the hymen" no doubt
should not be taken as equivalent to "female circumcision." This
woman's ritual is perhaps something to keep the girls busy while the
boys are being terrified by the serious business of the male rite.

>>>>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?

The processual mechanism: novelty is always an alternative, isn't it?
Therefore a denial. (E.g., a mutation is the denial of something, a
mutant gene is alternative to the gene it replaces.) I think it is
better to leave the question of "advancement" out of it. The theory
holds no brief for "cultural evolutionary advancement." Prehistoric
culture was something new, alternative to what it replaced. Which
proved adaptive. Western culture is something new, alternative to
what it replaces. Which is proving itself (culturally) adaptive.

>>>>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!

Best wishes. R. Snower