Re: culture as gene-flow regulator: the arunta

Len Piotrowski (
Wed, 25 Sep 1996 20:17:18 GMT

In article <529l0q$> (Robert Snower) writes:


>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.

I don't know of an equivalent ontogeny in culture that would make this a
useful homology.

>These components, the
>theory holds, are universally in the ancestry for all cultures.

The word "ancestry" references phylogeny, a wholly different level of
abstraction from ontogeny. If by ancestral cultures you really mean lineal
development, than most of what you refer to as cultural change is not

> 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.)

They are contextually different events. The acts, persons, places, and objects
associated with both circumcision and subincision are different, separated in
an extended time sequence, and embedded in a much larger, extended ritual of
transforming male adolescents into full adults by integration, in stages, into
the full mysteries of the group.

>>>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

I fail to grasp the significant difference here with Classificatory kinship.
The process of classifying kin into groups of relation may be associated with
a familiar terminology to simplify identifying group relations in everyday,
face-to-face interactions, like naming all the cousins in a local group as
"brothers" and "sisters," or all the aunts and uncles in the local group
"mothers" and "fathers," but these naming conventions are only "fictive" in
the sense that they do not represent true biological relationship. They
however are acted upon as if they are true biological relations in social

The nature and structure of this Classificatory kinship system depends on the
system of kinship relations actively governing social relations in the group,
and therefore, is an empirical matter. Some of these name classes do not
correspond to the "maternal and paternal kinship of the nuclear family." And
too, since the Classificatory kinship systems represent actual social acts
and relations by situating people, they do not appear to be "fictive" in
any sense except perhaps in the literal use of certain labels. At any rate, it
is this system of acts and relations that I refer to.

>--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

Haven't quite convinced myself I understand this one entirely. "Primordial
relatedness" - does that refer to the "maternal and paternal kinship of the
nuclear family?" If so, are you saying that Classificatory kinship systems
take the place of "maternal and paternal kinship of the nuclear family" in
order to avoid the adverse effect of "lower coefficients of relatedness" and
reduce competition between "nuclear families?"

I'm not prepared to accept this evolutionary theory of the emergence of
human social structure, largely because it hasn't been satisfactorily shown
that the "primordial relation" was a nuclear family (most applicable non-human
primate evidence is to the contrary) nor are there known examples of human
groups without a Classificatory kinship system.

>>> 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.

OKay. But it still does not hold that because you cannot induce a pattern that
it must be just hidden. Whatever the "clues" may be to these hidden devices,
the psychological basis for them remains a mystery, and thus any other method
of acquisition, including "mimetic," may account for there appearance and
distribution. And "empirically based intuitions" I can only guess refer to a
kind of social-psychological inductivism whose explanation requires an
invariance that can't be proven.

>>>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.

Since central desert aborigine's totemic customs don't parallel Shapiro's
account of a fictive kinship system, I cannot relate it to your overall model
for Classificatory kinship development, in particular or general.


>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.

I would step into the breach and suggest that the female ritual has a meaning
just as profound and terrifying a business as the male rite.


>>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?

By this do you propose that "denial of selection on the individual level"
produce novel (random, mutant) cultural characters just like "denial of
prehistoric culture?" This still begs the question: what denies individual
selection in culture (ie., what is your social-psychological metaphor that
replaces natural selection as a potent force in culture change), and what is
different about this process in prehistoric and modern cultures?

>Therefore a denial. (E.g., a mutation is the denial of something, a
>mutant gene is alternative to the gene it replaces.)

This 'denial' refers to the emergence of a (perhaps) 'novel' forms, not to
their retention (which is the process of selection your striving at). Negation
of the individual, or the nuclear family, seems to be a cultural act
which posits a preformist mechanism for the emergence of 'negation' as
cultural fact. 'Negation' as a mutation agent cannot prove it's value to
cultural selection until there is a cultural process of selection to adopt it.
But the selection process doesn't exist until 'negation' brings it into being
as a denial of the primordial relation.

I am open to an account of the cultural mutation-selection process as mutually
coupled, that is cultural mutations can be coupled to selection, and selection
processes can be coupled to mutations. But I have a problem with the
accounting of this relationship as a causal sequence involving 'negation'
and the subsequent emergence of cultural selection to retain this mutation

> 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.

Tough to avoid it in general theories of Cultural Evolution. Using the
evolutionary paradigm, some prehistoric cultures and Western culture in
particular may not have been alternatives to what they replaced unless you
propose an advantage of one sort or another. It is in the weighing of that
advantage that improvement of fit is employed. The evolutionary presentation
of those fossil advantages present a picture of steady advancement from the
"primordial relation" to that of modern "Western culture." Hard to disengage
the implication of "greater adaptiveness" from that model.