Re: culture as gene-flow regulator: the arunta

Robert Snower (
Fri, 27 Sep 1996 04:52:44 GMT (Len Piotrowski) wrote:

>The word "ancestry" references phylogeny, a wholly different level of
>abstraction from ontogeny.

Much behavior has its genetic component. The social behavior of
animals is largely genetically based. Is it radical to theorize that
the behavior patterns represented by totemism, kinship constructions,
rituals of reproductive control, had genetic components? I find
evidence that my ontogeny, and yours, include some of these features
as genetic components. E.g., Freud's "The Infantile Recurrence of

>>(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.

This does not really respond to the curiosity I mentioned.

>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 am not prepared to press this one. What I do want to press:
biological relatedness (and infertility) is evolution's device for
generating sociality. "Fictive" relatedness is Homo sapiens' device
for generating sociality. Sociality (cooperation) is going to be
selected for, whether or not the kinship is real, if it generates a
differential reproductive success which is real. Totemism and fictive
kinship terminology are such devices. (The supplementary point I was
making: identification via a common totem provides an equality of
relatedness which the real thing--biological kinship--cannot match,
and thus a level of cooperative behavior the real thing cannot match,
because it avoids the competition generated by unequal coefficients of
relatedness. A fictive terminology can do the same.)

>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.

As you say, it is only a theory. But I do not think non-human primate
evidence weighs in against it. Wilson makes the point a number of
times that mammalian sociality is for the most part weak, and not
highly differentiated, until the human. Then too, sexual receptivity
of the female is sharply limited in other species, perhaps reducing
the value of competitive behavior, and enhancing its alternative. I
think a case can be made that, unlike the insects, the genetic
constitution of mammals, and especially humans, makes a highly
differentiated sociality beyond a nuclear family impossible, until the
very special devices we have been discussing succeeded in defeating
the mandates of this genetic constitution.

>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?

See above. It seems to me the one word which applies to the evidently
enormous diversity of prehistoric culture is 'collectivist'--sexually
restrictive and economically redistributionist. On the other hand,
modern cultures talk about, as innovations, freedom, the individual,
self-interest, the free market, privacy, rights, etc., etc. A denial
of the pre-historic, but not a very clean one: a novelty unto itself.

Best wishes. R. Snower