Re: Modifying the Body

Robert Snower (rs222@WORLDNET.ATT.NET)
Fri, 19 Jul 1996 04:14:58 GMT

At 08:24 PM 7/17/96 +0000, Dwight W. Read wrote:
>To the question,
>" To whom is kinship "imaginary"?"
>Snower replies:
>>>Kinship in biology, and biological evolution, is defined as "similar genes."
>>Kinship in culture has its basis in out heads. That is why I called it
>>imaginary and magical. It has no biological efficacity to it.
>Snower clarification helps--I originally read his use of "imaginary" in the
>sense of "fictive kin" as the term is used by some cultural anthropologists;
>e.g., Netsilik Eskimo sealing partners are said to be "fictive kin" as
>opposed to "real kin" who are the folks identified by reference to kin
>terms, properly speaking. My questions was based on an erroneous reading of
>Snower's comment.
>Snower continues:
>>The big question is, is cultural (imaginary) kinship transmitted only by a
>>conscious learning process, or is there some machinery we do not know about?
>>How is the fascination with tattoo transmitted from the pre-historic to the
>>Anerican prisoner, college girl, etc? I think it is more than learning.
>>But I refuse to make concessions to Lamarck.

DR says:

>I'm not sure why Snower uses "conscious"--we learn languages without it
>being a "conscious learning process". (Or perhaps Snower simply means by
>conscious that it is a learning process that has to do sensory input to the
>brain.) If we drop the term conscious, then we are left with (a) a brain
>wired in a manner that can take noisy input (e.g., the sounds a child hears)
>and (b) construct an internal model/grammar/structure that underlies the
>noisy input (e.g., internalize a language). There is no reason to assume
>that this kind of learning process is limited to language and kinship is an
>arena where the some process seems to operate; e.g., we get noisy input--the
>way in which a child learns about "kin", terms of addres, terms of
>reference, etc. and internalizes a model with its generative logic.
>Presumably the same would apply to other cultural constructs.

RS says:

I use the word 'conscious' in that sentence for only one purpose:
to eliminate 'unconscious' in the sense of a 'collective unconscious' some
have proposed to account for the transmission from generation to generation
of mental phenomena acquired in the course of ordinary experience via the
We are talking here about a genetic component and a cultural (not
genetic but acquired) component. "A brain wired in a manner" is, I believe
you mean to say, the genetic component of the process. The "noisy input" is
experience, acquired, not genetically transmitted. I can't see that these
terms add anything to, or subtract anything from, my problem.
I will try to restate my problem. People seem to be captivated by
exactly the same specific patterns of weird behavior since time immemorial,
behavior which apparently has no purpose whatever other than the solace and
satisfaction that comes with having in fact performed it, e.g., ceremonial
circumcision, tattooing, body piercing, scarification, rites of passage,
refraining from the foods of certain animals, etc. And survive not only in
our culture, but even more obviously and prolifically in most every other
It is my conviction that all of these items, once upon a time, were
integral components of substantive, meaningful, behavior which comprised an
essential step in the creation of the intensely differentiated society of
Homo sapiens we see manifest today. These items, in the forms they survive
today, so pervasively, no longer perform their original essential functions,
because the long-ago circumstances they were addressing no longer exist.
But yet, in condensed and degraded form, they do indeed survive. What
mechanism of transmission is being exhibited here?
Now, we might explain away the survival of these oddities by laying
them to the propensity to imitate. But we don't imitate fascination, awe,
solace, taste, interest, etc. We bring them to the party. And it is these
which have survived along with the imitated content. The imitation of ritual
content presupposes the interest in it, rather than the reverse, I believe.
So by what mechanism does the TASTE for these survive, the very specific
interest in these very specific forms? There is so much to imitate, in the
arena of experience. Why do so many, for so long, in so many places,
imitate, so unanimously, these? (Whatever the answer, that they in fact do
is fortunate, for alternative windows to cultural pre-history are meager.)

RS said:

>>All socialization is built on kinship. We are the only animal that has its
>>society built on an imaginary kinship, and we thereby transcend family and
>>band, or insect colony, to generate, first the totem based tribe, and
>>ultimately the modern nation. But there is very much a dark side to this
>>process: the ethnic connection as violent and threatening.

DR says:

>Snower seems to assume that "family" or "band" is somehow natural and
>prior--else what is being "transcended"? But "family" is already a cultural
>construct. What we trascend is the limitation of what can be achieved in
>the absence of the richness that is introduced through the capacity to
>define a reality within which social interaction will take place.

RS says:

The formation of families and bands in the case of all creatures, until and
prior to Homo sapiens, requires a genetically based kinship. This
genetically based kinship is of such a nature, in the case of some insects,
(a genetic structure unique to them), that it will sustain a highly
differentiated society. The genetically based kinship in the case of
mammals is of such a nature that it will NOT sustain a highly differentiated
society. (An entirely different chromosomal structure.) But it will sustain
the formation of families and bands. This genetic limitation on the degree
of socialization also applies to Homo sapiens. By means of culturally based
innovation, Homo sapiens was enabled to transcend his genetic limitations,
to develop a very highly differentiated society. I believe this is fairly
standard sociobiology.

Best wishes. R. Snower