reply to Danny Yee

Fri, 25 Feb 1994 23:44:30 CST

Okay, okay. Now I understand your point, and I agree. If we see the
activities of Kapingamarangi fishermen as a subsystem of the larger marine
ecosystem that includes them, the fish, other marine organisms, the coral
forms, etc., then we are likely to see that what might appear as a single
constraint or single sort of constraint to a fisherman is, from the oberver's
perspective, a complex set of interactiions among several different organisms
in specific settings at specific times. Change the interactions or the setting
or both, and the fisherman might see a different constraint. Surely, a marine
biologist is more likely to the complexity of the organization of the
fishermen's environment than a cultural anthropologist. The problem then
becomes one of "translation". What cognitive rules or, more to the point,
scanning routines focus on what parts of this environmental complexity and how
do those routines become (interpreted) percepts of the fishermen? Ideally, the
biologist and the cultural anthropologist work together. Does this get at your
major thrust?

I thought that I was pretty clear about the reasons why the traditional system
of fishing activities gives the appearance of a system with conservation as a
goal. The appearance derives from the fact that no species is threatened with
extinction, no species is overfished, and no part of the environment is
overexploited. The reason the system gives this appearance is that the
relationships among the variables that constrain fishing activity keep changing
(a) over a year's time with changes in seasonal winds, tide patterns, and
water surface, and (b) over the lunar month in all seasons. These so-called
"natural" constraints only kick in, however, when all ritual constraints are
satisfied. Becuase the spirits to which ritual is directed are unpredictable,
these constraints may override the more predictable natural constraints,
forcing the fishermen to either stop fishing or to use a catch technique that
avoids the spirit's wrath (and concentrates on other fish). The outcome of
these constraints is an organization of fishing activity that spreads catch
pressure over 250 or so varieties of fish. It is the ORGANIZATION of FISHING
ACTIVITY that gives the appearance of a system with conservation as its goal.
I thought that I made that rather clear in the book.

Okay, so does that mean that what (an outcome that) seems purposeful from the
point of view of the larger system--its near homeostatic stability--lacks
intentionality of any sort? I'd be a fool to deny that possibility out of
hand. The problem here is one of whose point of view (the observer? the
system?) and at what systemic intentionality is supposed. Bateson used a
term for this sort of situation, characterizing it as "systemic wisdom." New
Age types have jumped on that phase to mystify and romanticize traditional
systems like that of Kapingamarangi Atoll. That is why I avoided using the
phrase in the book, though I really wanted to. I think that this construct,
systemic wisdom, deserves some hard-nosed treatment. What do you think?

Mike Lieber