Re: Single cause theories

Harriet Whitehead (whitehea@WSUNIX.WSU.EDU)
Thu, 20 Apr 1995 08:39:42 -0700

Diane's points are well stated and well-taken. However, lets slow this
thing down a bit. Nick Corduan replies by stating,

> For instance, to follow up on the incest idea, there is no humanity-wide
> since-the-beginning sentiment against incest. If this were the case, then
> why would it have been necessary to pass spirtual and legal edicts against it?
This sort of reply is jumping from one frying pan into another. Nick
seems to be suggesting that a multiple cause approach would simply sweep
aside any "causes" coming from the area of "humanity wide sentiment." Why
should it? A muliple cause approach would take this level of it into
consideration as well, rather than being dismissive.

The main problem with "human nature" arguments about any phenomena is
that people take them as statements of invariant, universally present,
universally causative agencies of some sort. And indeed, the theorist
often misguidedly states it that way. But there are no features of human
nature that are (a) universally expressed, (b)equally strong in every
individual, (c) context independent, (d) entirely free from contradiction
by other human tendencies. Take something as widespread as capacity for
fear. You will find some people who lack it. Not the majority, but some.
You will find contexts where people systematically rise above fear, even
though having the capacity for it and indeed feeling it in that context. You
will find some phenomena that provoke
great fear in whole groups of people and none whatsoever in others. ETc.
Yet I challenge you to get through writing an entire ethnography of any
human group without, at some point, even unconsciously embedding the
assumption that a capacity for fear is simple human nature and requires
no further explanation. Jump from this relatively easy example to the
trickier ones like "sentiments against incest," and you'll see a
magnification of some of these issues. Sentiments against incest may, for
instance as some argue, have a developmental aspect - e.g. they only
arise between people reared together in childhood. This automatically
lets out *the parents* in a family - like the father who is the most
common perpetrator of incest cross-culturally (I believe) as well as in
our own culture; and it may be those parties toward whom the legalistic
and ethical rules are directed (for other reasons.) Secondly, carefully
designed contexts can 'over-ride' the usually present sentiments against
incest. The Trobriand Islanders, if we are to believe Malinowski, are so
uptight about brother-sister incest that they keep brothers and sisters
apart after infancy, thus ironically interfering with the presumed
'natural' development of anti-incest feelings between then and having to
rely even more heavily upon 'rules,' which people then fantasize about
breaking, do break, etc. In those rare reported cases of prescribed
brother-sister marriage (ancient Egypt maybe) we need to hear not just
that it happened but the details of the context - were the pairs raised
apart? were they permitted to go on to other sex partners after a few
token copulations? - in order to assess whether the case itself disproves
any 'human natural' dimension to the incest taboo. And of course we need
to know in what way these more 'natural' or spontaneous sentiments kick
in, come on line, shape themselves up out of commonly occurring contexts,
etc. EAch "strong tendency" (a better word then "human universal") has
its own unique properties.
Examples could be multiplied to illustrate the complexity of the
human nature issue, but none of them can be used, in my opinion to simply
dismiss the human nature level of the final explanation.

Harriet Whitehead
Anthropology WSU