reply to Danny Yee

Wed, 23 Feb 1994 15:05:12 CST

I think that Danny Yee's point about the desireability of having a marine
ecologist's description of the Kapingamarangi ecosystem for comparison with
that of the Kapinga fishermen's description is well taken. How (and the
ways and the extent to which) one maps into the other would be interesting and
revealing. But do not be lulled into thinking that the comparison would be
anything other than two cultural accounts with probable areas of overlap.
I do not agree that the omission of the marine ecologist's description from
my ethnographic account is an outcome of either a cybernetic or cultural
account. In the introduction where I discuss the cybernetic framework for
the collection of data, I very explicitly addressed the problem of identifying
constraints on fishing activities. Given that it is always the application of
constraint that creates any kind of order, the question then becomes, whose
orderly universe are we interested in? Are we primarily after those
constraints that make the observer's universe more orderly or are we after the
constraints that make the Kapingamarangi fishermen's universe more orderly?
Now, some of those constraints may overlap, but certainly not all of them.
Constraints applicable to the observer's universe may not exist in the
local fisherman's universe, and vice versa. For example, fisheries experts
have shown that yellow fin tuna operate in a very narrow range of water
temperatures and that this range varies within a day in the depth at which it
is located. This fact is correlated with the observation that fishermen use
a trial-and-error method for locating the depth at which tuna can be gotten.
So, does water temperature count as a constraint on tuna fishing activity?
My answer is unequivacably yes for the observer's universe of explanation and
no for the Kapinga fisherman's universe. Even if fisheries experts went to
the atoll and explained water temp, it would still not be a constraint unless
and until fishermen regulated their activity to take water temperature into
account. If, for example, fishermen started to attach thermometers to their
fishing lines to locate the right depth, then water temperature would count as
a constraint on fishermen's activity. Then water temp would be a *difference
that makes a difference*, i.e., it would be INFORMATION in the formal sense
of that term. Since it is the fishermen's universe that I am trying to
describe, then it makes no sense to import (or intrude) into their system of
activity those constraints that are part of the observer's explanatory system.
Surely a marine biologist's description of the Kapingamarangi marine ecosystem
would be interesting, and at some level of comparison useful. But it would not
help us in any way to describe the Kapingamarangi ecosystem as those people
understand it. The anthropological theory of ethnocentrism and the cybernetic
theory of the observer (see Maturana) dovetail very nicely here. _More Than a
Living ..._ does not pretend to be anything more than a cultural account of
native fishing activity and its systemic entailments in the larger social order
informed by a cybernetic (particularly Batesonian) framework. I do not think
think that either a cultural account or a cybernetic approach can be faulted
for not being a work of a marine biology. In my weaker moments, I'd even
like to be a marine biologist (but I get over it quickly). I'd be delighted
to see a marine biologist research the atoll ecosystem and I'd be eager to
compare our stuff. But it wouldn't change one word of what is already in the
book. It would just be another book, and I'd have Danny Yee write the
foreword to it (and do the entire index, hee hee!).

Mike Lieber