Re: "Culture and Biology"

Dwight W. Read (dread@ANTHRO.UCLA.EDU)
Sun, 21 Jul 1996 13:17:23 -0700

Snower replies:

>"Constructed cultural reality" needs a dynamic to sustain it. You can't
>pass a law that the lady down the street is my mother. Because the
>emotional value is not there. Likewise, kinship terminologies will not work
>in a vacuum. They must have emotional content, or the terminology-makers
>are wasting their time. ...
>This dynamic, I say, comes from biology.

If I am readying Snower correctly, he is taking the position that there is
an already determined biological framework of emotional saliency that is a
given against which, say, kinship, must operate. If true, this indeed would
imply that cultural constructs such as kinship are constrained by biological

If this were true (and assuming the biological framework is a prior with
universal applicability) then we would find relatively limited variation in
kinship terminologies and in all instances we should find those persons
culturally constructed as kin are those persons with whom we have emotional
content already. However, kinship terminologies are capable of convincing
folks that they should have emotive ties to persons for whom they haven't
the slightest idea of any biological connection. Kinship terminologies can,
indeed, tell you that "the lady down the street is my
mother"--classificatory terminologies group under the same kin term a rather
disparate set of persons from a biological perspective, for example. In
saying this, I am not denying the prior existence of emotional ties that
arise from a biological level, nor that such prior ties have no effect.
Indeed, as I stated in a previous posting, kinship as determined by kinship
terminmologies is grounded, ultimately, in biological relations. I read
Snower as arguing, though, that "ultimately" is really much more proximal.
I would argue, however, that the evidence quite convincingly demonstrates
that the linkage between the biologcal substratum and the culturally
constructed reality can (a) be tenuous and (b) the culturally constructed
reality can only be predicted very poorly from the biological substratum
(e.g., Groups who culturally deny the biological reality of the male role in
procreation as a more extreme example). If so, then it does appear to be an
"ultimately" type of connection.

Snower continues:

In the case of kinship, the many
>diverse and convoluted [???!!!] systems and terminologies we see around the
globe owe
>their vitality, their day to day ability to prevail, to a precedent kinship,
>and that precedent kinship owes its vitality to its precedent, and so forth,
>each one perhaps simpler and more prototypical than the more recent, and the
>process does not stop until we get to biology.
Either Snower is merely restating what I stated previously:

empirical level abstraction abstraction
biological relations ------------> genealogy ---------------> kinship

or he is asserting as self evident that the right hand of the sequence is
essentially determined by the left hand of the sequence. If the latter,
then the problem arises of trying to explain a variable (the right side)
with a constant (the left side).

Snower continues:

>In this sense the constructed cultural reality, no matter how removed in
>content from its roots, demonstrates a biologial connection which is a good
>deal less trivial than the kind described above.

Recall that I clarified my use of the word "trivial" to mean "trivially
deduced from natural selection that cultural phenomena are ultimately have a
biological base." The real problem that is arising here is, I think , not
the one of the biology versus culture, but of what constitutes culture. In
the case of kinship terminologies I can demonstrate the precise sense in
which they are abstract constructs whose strucutural features are a
consequence of their underlying logic (which is NOT biological!) as an
abstract system of symbols. (e.g., It is necessary, from a logical
viewpoint, that Aunt/Uncle in our terminololgy include within their domain
the spouses of consanguineal uncles and aunts, respectively, contra the kind
of emotive argument that has been made previously and which Snower would, I
think, favor.) AS such the terminology is a product of the mind with its
specific structural properties arising out of the logic of how abstract
structures are constructed/generated. That structure, along with culturally
specified rules of how individuals are mapped into kin term categories,
constructs a kinship universe within which individuals operate and these
kinship categories have very real emotive content. Snower would argue that
the emotive content is prior and determinative of who can be a member of a
kinship category; the structural analysis demonstrates that empirically this
is not the case in the sense that motively constructed categories will not
lead to logically consistent structures that can be generated from a few,
"atomic" elements and structural equations. Of course, it could be argued
that emotive ties one has to some category members becomes, in effect, a
model for emotive ties one should have to all other members of the category
and the former may be biologically grounded, but I don't think this is
Snower's argument.

Snower continues:

> Anyway, it all jibes with the imaginary quality of ritual: totemic
>kinship is not real kinship, circumcision is not real castration, tabooing
>is a denial of the doing and thereby an imaginary doing.

I read this as just saying that empirical reality <> cultural reality.
Hopefully no one on this list is making the equation, empirical reality =
cultural reality. Of course, Snower is also making a claim that in some
sense biological relations are the "real kinsihp" and "cultural kinship" is
not "real kinship." If the yardstick is the external world and what is
instrumental with respect to, say, genetics, then the claim is certainly
true. "cultural kinship" provides a lousy model for understanding genetic
transmision. But Snower wants to deny the possibility that we are not just
dealing with external realtiy, we also are dealing with "constructed
reality" -- the latter is highly efficacious when it comes to affecting how
individuals will act and behave, no matter how "imaginary" it may be.

>This standpoint holds that every cultural datum carries protypical
>biological meaning in it, because its very creation comprises, ultimately, a
>denial of that biological prototype.

Snower does not take into account the way in which there can be abstraction
from the empirical, external, to the constructed, mental; e.g. arithmetic is
an abstraction that ultimately rests on our perception of individuated
"things" in the external world. Creating of the concept of number does not
deny "individuated thinginess"; rather, I suggest that it signals a shift
from the empirical plane to the conceptual plane.

Snower continues:

>I agree that this is stretching a bit what I am trying to say. Current
>rituals are reflections of a utilitarian past.

Well, I am glad to know that "rituals ARE reflections of a utilitarian past"
(my emphasis). At least the question of what rituals are has now been
definitively answered. (However, among other things, referring to a
"utilitarian past" has the problem of using an undefined referent --
utilitarian past -- to define ritual.)

Snower continues:

>Rituals are metaphors,
>images, magic. Their "usage"
>never had an original, essential function. What they are metaphors of,
>i.e., the reality of which they are the denial, has the original, essential

If I understand this correctly, it seems that this is a contradiction about
grounding culture in biology in a proximal sense, for the linkage from
ritual to biology via metaphor and denial of reality makes the
ritual/biological connection very tenuous. I am not sure how the "reality
of which they are the denial" has an essential function. E.g., in the
example of "red" quoted by Snower, I would understand the denial to lie in
saying, roughly, that to call this "red" is to deny that it is some other
color (i.e., red exists as a concept only in a contrastive, not in an
absolute, sense). If this is a correct reading of the example, then I am
unable to see what would constitute the "original, essential function."

D. Read