Re: Biological = trivial?

Adrian Tanner (atanner@MORGAN.UCS.MUN.CA)
Thu, 18 Jul 1996 16:34:31 -0230

At 10:37 AM 7/18/96 -0400, Ronald Kephart wrote:
>In message <> Adrian Tanner writes:
>> [...] even if ritual's universality should eventually turn out
>> to be an established fact, we have thereby condemned ourselves from the
>> start to studying something that, since universal, must be some aspect of a
>> biological need, and for that reason (and here I venture a totally personal
>> view which is probably simply a matter of aesthetic taste) uninteresting, if
>> not trivial.
>I could not disagree more. To me, the most exciting aspect of both
>(in general) and linguistics (in particular) is the attempt to understand the
>interaction between what is universal (given by biology) and how that
>universality is realized in particular contexts (social, environmental). To
>borrow from my other post this morning, this is what makes anthropology unique
>among the "social sciences", and I really hate to see us lose that uniqueness.
>Of course, we all have to focus far more narrowly than in Boas and Sapir's day;
>there's just too much out there to keep up on. But to dismiss the biological
>component of H. sapiens as "uninteresting" or "trivial" is a shame, in my
>Ron Kephart
>University of North Florida
I was fully aware that my expressed lack of interest in universal cultural
practices runs entirely against the prevailing wisdom. Why it is shameful to
express this view, however, particularly as a matter of personal taste, is
not yet clear to me. My assertion of 'triviality' is basically a reference
to the Durkheimian kind of warning against explaining culture through
reduction to a non-cultural source. I am certainly not asserting the study
of the genetic component of behaviour is trivial, just that this kind of
reductionism is a form of trivialization.

I think I am able to present a good defence as to why widespread, but less
that fully universal, cultural phenopmena are of very great significance,
and that, moreover, this significance has not, to my knowledge, been
adequately acknowledged within our discipline. As for universal cultural
phenomena, I suspect that once the widepread-but-less-than-fully-universal
components have been subtracted from the roster of cultural phenomena, it
will have to be acknowledged that cultures are actually much less
characterized by universal features than they are often assumed to be.

But what of those truely universal features that remain? I am simply saying
that my expectation would be that these are most likely going to be found to
be the features most closely tied to the universal genetic characteristics
of homo sapiens. I support the idea that anthropologists should all be
required, as I was, to study all of the 4 sections of our particular tribe,
including the physical anthropology and the linguistics components, even
though they usually declare their membership in only one of them, so this is
not a narrow-minded attack on those specialties. I read with great interest
the work of others in these areas of reasearch. But I am saying those who
only study the universal in culture, even given all its glorious
surface-level cultural variety, are missing out on one of the particularly
significant aspects of culture, which is its freedom (indeterminancy sounds
more intellectual, and may cover what I am alluding to), including the
freedom to *not* have this or that type of cultural practice.

Adrian Tanner
Memorial University of Newfoundland