Re: tribes

Robert Snower (rs222@WORLDNET.ATT.NET)
Fri, 16 Aug 1996 22:05:44 +0000

At 01:44 PM 8/16/96 +0000, thomas w kavanagh wrote:

>Fried's initial argument recognized that from the time of Lewis Henry
>Morgan and the founding of anthropology, the word "tribe" has been used to
>refer to the units of primitive peoples. However, there has been no
>detailed consensus about the actual meaning of the term.
>In making that point, Fried used three modes of argument. The first
>compared a variety of dictionary and anthropological definitions, listing
>their attributes tribe as biological population, as linguistic unit, as
>political unit, and so forth, piling definitional inconsistency upon
>inconsistency. The second mode contrasted particular definitional
>attributes with counterexamples of "tribes" that failed to exhibit those
>criteria. The third mode simply pointed out the difficulties in drawing
>boundaries around cultural or political units. From all this confusion,
>Fried drew a seemingly inescapable conclusion: tribes, at least as
>ill-defined by anthropology, did not exist.

I find most interesting the conjecture about pre-historic origins of
society, and, since Mark Shapiro (The Sociobiology of Homo Sapiens, 1978) is
apparently little known among anthropologists, I will present his view of
"tribe" for the general edification of all.
For him "tribe" was an innovative stage in the general evolution of society
from the more primordial to the less primordial. Kinship is the defining
factor. For he has adopted the sociobiological premise that kinship is the
primordial basis of all social (altruistic) behavior. He takes as his
starting point the nuclear family. One step beyond the nuclear family is
the family of biologically related persons which includes siblings, and
their families. Shapiro, still depending on kinship as the criterion, now
introduces "tribe" as his first unit in the evolution of a society whose
biological kinship link among its members has become too weak to maintain a
solidarity based on a firm sociobiological basis (inclusive fitness). From
here on out, I quote his own words.

" . . . In the absence of the certainty of paternity, and without
genealogical records, their maternal provider, as infants, and as children,
of the necessities of life, was the only criterion available. But this
criterion for the identity of the members of a family, and of the members of
the primordial sibling society, was not applicable to the society which
first transcended the boundaries of sibling kinship.

"However, this new transendent society succeeded in finding its criterion of
identity in exactly the same place, i.e., in its common source of food and
warmth, but now in the adult source of them, rather than the infantile. The
primitive adult's provider of food and warmth was the animal whose flesh
supplied his food, and whose skin supplied his warmth. Whereas the memory
of a common provider was available as the key to sibling identity, the
contemporary experiencce of a common provider was available as the guide to
tribal identity--the communal hunting, killing, eating, and skinning of the
same animal. But of course the shared animal, unlike the shared mother, has
no interest to delegate, or genetic connection by which to delegate it, to
those who eat from it, and are warmed and clothed by it. So this interest,
and this genetic connection, were attributed to it--to the shared animal.
And when this attribution of interest and kinship was accepted as fact, when
the imaginary was accepted as real, then it served as well as fact. [I omit
something here which is important, but the reader will be at a loss to
understand out of context.] . . . now the young tribesman's allegiance was
to the totem animal, and in virtue of the allegiance he devoted his
competence to the service of that kinship interest which he truly believed a
certain species of animal held vested in the tribe. . . . If the animal had
the disadvantage of harboring an imaginary interest and an imaginary kinship
connection, it had the great advantage of not confining that interest and
genetic connection to the boundaries of sibling kinship, and of bestowing
them beyond those boundaries impartially.

"The imaginary kinship connection between the animal and tribe is proved the
same way as the real one between mother and siblings was remembered, by the
criterion of the common meal, and to make a community affair of consuming
the parts of the animal, or drinking its blood, established the connection.
But the animal was consumed only on the most special of occasions, and then
only under the auspices of the tribal authorities. Upon all other occasions
its eating was strictly forbidden. For, once the kinship connection had
been estaablished, a studious refraining from eating served the same purpose
as the original ceremonial eating, namely, to celebrate a creature in whose
impaaginary interest the sons of the tribe deboted their competence to the
tribe. To eat the totem alone, apart from the company of the tribe, was to
disavow and reject that kinship connection which the communal consumption
affirmed. To studiously refrain from eating it alone became as much to
acknowledge and ratify the import of the shared consumption as to eat it

"Thus, the animal to which allegiance had been owed on the basis of its
being the literal provider of food and warmth to the tribe became the object
of respect on the basis of its being a figurative provider of them, and the
sternest measures were taken against the unsanctified slaughter and
consumption of it. . . .

"The sons of the tribe remain motivated, in their devotion to cooperation
among others, precisely as they were motivated in stage B, and according to
the same criterion, that of kinship. But now they BELIEVE they are EQUALLY
related to the larger group. They are guided accordingly in their devotion
to cooperation among others. The fact that they are WRONG means they have
sacrificed a real genetic advantage. But they have also gained a real one,
the one accruing from the wider cooperation imposed. Herein lies the
adaptive value of the modification from the incest restriction to the
prohibition of endogamy, endogamy as defined by the criterion of the totem.
And herein lies the explanation of the belief: it prevailed because it was
adaptive--to all parties concerned." [Cannot be understood out of contest.]

Best wishes. R. Snower