The "TRUTH" for Anthropology

Sat, 27 Apr 1996 01:39:00 PDT

Pastore (in a very interesting posting) comments:

"Lets throw all the parts, and I mean all the parts, of a computer on
a table. Does that make a computer? No. It must be organized, and
functioning. And then what happens? You have something larger than
the some of the parts. What is that something? In this case, it is a
computer. Before it was just a mess of parts.


So why am I calling the third thinking methodology "expanding"? Well,
because when the cohesive theory bound all the components of the
computer to function, the WHOLE became more, and SOMETHING ELSE than
the mere sum of the parts. It expanded to be something else.

How does that get us anywhere? Well maybe a little closer. Culture
must be a vital component of a FUNCTIONING Anthropology. Given the
variables of differing cultures and their mulitplicity, and their
respective perceptions of their varying realities, it would seem that
a WHOLE Anthropology will need new concepts for multiple 'empirical'
methodologies --free of the singularity that a supposed
'universality' imposes. If the cohesive theory is to emerge it must
start there at the beginning. The science itself, like all sciences,
will then evolve as its cohesive ideas, and concepts are articulated
in its new terminology. No?"

Let me try to relate his comment to the comments about a synthesis between
biological anthropology and cultural anthropology.

The latter seems to depend quite heavily upon an assumption that culture is
analogous enough to a genetic system so as to allow for the kind of theory
that has been effective when looking at evolution from a genetic perspective
to also have applicability when we are considering culture. Just as the
biological phenotype is seen as the sum of traits which can (presumably) be
linked to specific alleles, culture (some have suggested) can be seen as a
sum of traits that can be "inherited" (though not by an identical mechanism)
in the same way that traits are inherited via transmission of alleles.
In this argument (as I understand it) cultural inheritance is not said to be
genetic (hence it does not occur at the level of the genotype) but is a
consequence of learning (hence can be thought of as part of the phenotype).
The argument seems to be dependent upon two main assumptions: (1) that
culture can reasonably be thought of as the sum of "small" units of some kind
and (2) that the learning process (which has several modalities, such as
parent to child, peer to peer, etc) is the primary one of importance in
understanding the inheritance of culture.

Pastore's comment about the computer makes me think of an alternative
scenario for "culture" that raises questions about the adequacy of the "sum
of parts" and "inheritacne of parts via learning" model. Unlike the
trajectory that must be posited for the evolution of the brain, where the
"parts" had to already exist (selection acts on existing genetic material),
or be introduced independently of the future utility of the putative brain
(mutations are random), with the current structure a consequence of the
historical past and independent of presumed future state of affairs (natural
selection is not teleological), the trajectory for the development of a
computer is quite different. This is reflected in Pastore's comment that it
is more than a sum of parts. The computer's parts are selected and put
together in such a way that an intended effect (computational power) can be
achieved. Even more, the parts themselves are produced in accordance with
the intended effect. Innovations in CPU chips are the antithesis of
mutation; they are deliberate and purposeful.

If we were to account for the trajectory of the "evolution" of the computer,
we would need (I suggest) two parts: (1) an adaptive scenario (Why some
designs have "survived" and others not) and (2) an intentionality scenario
(what is driving design, hence change in design, such as the RISC technology
for CPU design). If this is valid, then the second part seems to suggest a
necessary divergence from a "natural selection" model as "intentionality" is
excised from evolutionary theory.

What does this have to do with culture? This comes back to the question of
what is culture. Is culture, in effect, a sum of parts whose particular
configuration is the consequence of "selecting" out parts or combination
of parts that do not have "fitness," or does intentionality play a
significant and major role in what we refer to as culture? Are the units of
culture the equivalent of the computer, or are the units of culture the
equivalent of trait/allele? I think the former--and the work I do on the
structure of kinship terminologies supports this contention through arguing
that these are logically coherent systems, hence cannot be considered as a
"sum of parts" but have a design (namely their logic). (There are a number
of guises under which this general idea has appeared; e.g., arguments about
the necessity of taking into account the cognitive/decision making/"free
will" etc. all seem to be aimed at something like the intentionality

This second senario places any notion of "universality" at an ever deeper and
level. While Pastore is referring to anthropological epistomology, it may be
more useful to shift the argument over to what constitutes culture; that is,
the notion of "universality," in the form of supposed universal laws,
founders at the level of intentionality unless the "univeral law" is set at
the level of the propensity of the human mind to engage in intentionality.
In this sense, I suggest, the notion of "multiple truths" may be more
reasonalby considered. The "multiplicity" then arises not because of some
unwillingness to agree that, ultimately, there is a single external reality,
but as a way of expressing the "multiplicity" of truths upon which
intentionally created cultures are based.

D. Read