Re: "Culture and Biology"

Robert Snower (rs222@WORLDNET.ATT.NET)
Mon, 22 Jul 1996 04:32:01 +0000

At 08:17 PM 7/21/96 +0000, Dwight W. Read wrote:
>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

RS: "Parameter" is not very appropriate, as we shall see below.


>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.


As in biological evolution, we can get to enormous differences over time,
but we expect these large differences to be the result of a great many very
small differences.
But the process I am suggesting does indeed allow for cultural kinship to
transcend any trace of biological kinship. E.g, true, the law, or the
terminology-makers cannot culturally relate me to the lady down the street.
But I can. I, in a moment, by an act of free will, can hypothesize that
she is my mother. I can pretend she is my mother, and in this blatant
denial of reality, if I am going to do a good job of it, I must rely on
every bit of knowledge and dynamic of the real biological mother-son
relationship at my disposal. If the real relation is little known to me, for
some reason, then I am correspondingly unable to do a job on the hypothesis.
Thus my hypothesis is entirely dependent on a very specific biological
paradigm. (Better than parameter.) Culture construction is a
hypthesis-making business.


>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.


I don't really think there is any ultimately or proximally to it, if this
implies something in the past which mysteriously leaps over time to
influence the present. I think each generation renews the primordial value,
but in its own context. This is the responsibility of ritual, myth,
literature: to keep the dynamic going, prevent it from flickering out. I
am sure the thread can vary from tenuous to powerful. I don't think this
thread yields any predictive ability at all, anymore than a knowledge of
where evolution has been yields a knowledge of where it is going. Perhaps
under some kind of controls, prediction might be worked out.

>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).


As I say, the primordial biology has no predictive value, anymore than
a prevailing gene structure has a predictive value in regard to future
novelty. "Parameter" is probably a bad word for biology's role in culture.
Biology provides the obstacle which culture defeats. E.g. the totemic system
defeated the limitations of biological kinship, castration defeated
biological sexual drive. These are the primordial cultural triumphs,
negating and replacing biological imperatives. Natural selection, at the
individual level, has been routed.
The biological reality, e.g. biological kinship, does not determine the
direction a complex kinship system takes. Rather, the complex kinship
system has drawn its vitality from the biological reality by replacing it.
Does this render biology trivial? As you like, but it is what gives that
complex kinship system its oomph, just as my relationship to my real mother
is what gives that lady down the street her oomph.
One more example of the process I am trying to get across. The child
goes to the zoo every Sunday to see the polar bear. One Sunday it rains.
He stays home and plays.
He hypothesizes that the big lounge chair is the polar bear. The chair now
has all the fierceness and terror-making capabilities of the biological
reality over there at the zoo. The chair is real. The bear is real. And
the child is fully aware the chair is not-the-bear. He is also fully aware
that the chair is not-his-mother. Now what is the difference between these
totally different awarenesses? To achieve one he must imagine his mother.
To achieve the other he must imagine the bear. These differences in his
imagination are the only features which make one awareness different from
the other. (Since neither predicate is present to his observation, only the
real chair as subject.) He consciously chooses, by an act of free will, to
entertain the fact that the chair is not the bear, and to disregard the
equally obvious fact that the chair is not his mother, or not a lot of other
things. He has created a cultural construct (a hypothesis): he is
predicating the imaginary bear of the chair, i.e., pretending the chair is
the bear. He has defeated biological reality (a trip to the zoo to see the
bear). But biology is not being ignored. The biology of his cultural
construct is not trivial. The real biology is the source of a great deal
of emotion, and it is all invested in that big lounge chair. The chair has
drawn its vitality from the real bear by the child's decision to entertain
the awareness that the chair is not the bear, and to disregard the equally
valid alternatives that the bear is not a million other things too. In the
preceding paragraph, the complex kinship system is the lounge chair, and
biological kinship is the bear. Both are real, but the cultural construct
is a pretending--that the complex kinship system is a biological one.

>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.

RS: Prior, yes. Determinative, no. I can't see that the internal
consistency of the kinship system has much relevance to anything, except
perhaps a culture's own prospects:
when the potential of what is rejected accretes to an excessive consistency,
one might anticipate stultification.

>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.

(1 paragraph snipped)

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

>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.)
I am glad for, but do not comprehend, your unrestrained glee. This
sentence, written in response to some remarks of yours you have snipped,
repeats once again a position I have elaborated frequently. "Reflections,"
by the way, are images, not the reality.

>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."
I am eager to attempt to clarify these things if interest can be sustained.
I know these things begin to pall after a while.

Best wished. R. Snower