The subtitle is “An Anthropological Critique of Sociobiology”, and I actually first read an excerpt in a larger anthology I discussed in the comment to my last post. I wasn’t sure if I would just make another comment or two below that, since this one is a slim volume, but I ended up taking enough notes to merit an entire post (though it’s not especially organized). Marshall Sahlins claims that he wrote it quickly and without the usual scholarly practice of adding lots of citations & endnotes. That’s more fitting for me than his peers, since it’s not like I have access to an academic library to look up his citations anyway. Plus, the whole thing is a shorter & quicker read. He does at least distinguish himself from critics he designates as leftists (even though I know Sahlins as a lefty who denounced the Milton Friedman Institute at his own University of Chicago. In a way, this is keeping with his arguments against the Marxist anthropologist Marvin Harris of “Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches”, who tried explain cultural variation via economics.

Is violence an act of aggression, generosity a sign of “altruism”? Ethnographers of Melanesia as well as psychoanalysts of America will readily testify that aggression is often satisfied by making large and unrequited gifts. For as the Eskimo also say, “Gifts make slaves, as whips make dogs.” On the other hand, a person may well hit another out of a true concern for the latter’s welfare. One man’s altruism becomes some child’s sore behind; and, “Believe me, I’m doing this for your own good. It hurts me more than it hurts you.”

That last example seems tailor-made for Wilson’s sociobiological inspiration, Robert Trivers, and his theory of genetic conflict* and self-deception aimed at being hypocritical & self-serving. As for the former, the Eskimo engaged in plenty of homicide that fits obviously in the “dominance” side of status, and comparing the prestigious competition of gift-giving to such “aggression” is as laughable as the claim that ev-psych critique that women are just as risk-taking when it comes to “cooking an impressive but difficult meal for a dinner party“.
*That theory does get name-checked by Sahlins, but just as an example of Trivers allegedly generalizing from W.E.I.R.D. subjects to all of humanity.

Many anthropologists focus on kinship systems (I recall a Russian with the odd name of “German” arguing for out-of-America based on diversity of that & languages rather than genes). Sahlins introduces one lesson as “Anthopology 101”, discussing how patrilocal residence combined with exogamous marriage results in genetic relatedness declining by half every generation. This for him suffices to show that the inclusive fitness involved in “kin selection” (which, ironically enough, Wilson would later try to minimize relative to its old rival group selection) has nothing to do with kinship as cultures operate and invest actual resources. It occurred to me that the possibility-space for “kinship systems” is not logically limited to ones that have anything to do with biological relatedness, but in practice they are always built on such a component (and when inheritable wealth is at stake steps are taken to ensure relatedness). The late cultural anthopologist Henry Harpending (best known for his work with the anthropology-despising physicist-turned-geneticist Greg Cochran) described one group he did fieldwork on this way “Herero men are from the sociology department and Herero women are from the biology department.” But nobody is like the supercolony in Wilson’s Anthill, with the widest possible scope for kinship to ensure the maximum number of allies vs enemies (the rise of nationalism would require bureaucratic states & mass media, whereas anthropologists focus on more primitive societies). Sahlins admits that the practice of “ghost marriage” bears a certain resemblance to kin selection, but thinks it operates on the “opposite sense” because the dead man “in an absolute or culturally relative sense has been selected against”, as if the egocentric individual was supposed to side with the process of “selection” against their kin. He also refers to daughters in a patrilineal society as “lost” to their male lineage once married off, but this just means they’re not contributing more investment toward that line rather than them actually being “lost” in a genetic sense. He regards it as important that certain Polynesians who regard themselves as equally related to both parents refer to their co-resident siblings as “one blood” rather than being half genetically identical as per inclusive fitness. But the children of one member of that set of siblings would not regard themselves as equally related to their cousins who are “two bloods”, which would be the mathematical implication if the “one blood” really were one. And certainly starting with the theory of inclusive fitness one cannot thereby derive that any particular culture will have a specific kinship system, any more than the modern synthesis permits one to derive the specific genes found in every species.

When Sahlins wrote things like “Birth itself is nothing apart from the kinship system that defines it”, I thought I might have to read some other text to get my head around such a different POV, but then in the same paragraph he wrote “[lines of descent] are relationships imposed upon [the biological nexus], that organize it in the interest of a relative social scheme– and thereby distort it”, which is closer to my understanding. We start out with the biological nexus, which exists among even non-social animals and then culture builds on that rather than being “freely conceptual” or “arbitrary and creative”. Sahlins writes that the difference between male & female lines of descent is irrelevant as far as genetic distance is concerned, whereas a sociobiologist would know the fundamental difference between males & females (sperm is cheap while eggs are expensive) and the implications this gives to investment in offspring and certainty of parentage (even while Sahlins’ anecdotes contain numerous instances where a man could not be the genetic father of at least some of his wife’s supposed children). I can agree that “humans do not merely reproduce as physical or biological beings but as social ones”, and that culture results in inheriting language and religion from their parents. But it does not follow that “they have a coefficient of relationship of 1” and the underlying reality beneath what his mocked sociobiologist would call “mystification” is revealed when a cultural group divides (even if that division is not a direct prediction of genetics). His statement that “human reproduction is engaged as the means for the persistence of cooperative social orders, not the social order the means by which individuals facilitate their own reproduction” would seem hard to reconcile with the point that culture did not always exist but was created by biological organisms (which, having brains, would have attached significance or “meaning” to things they perceived like the color pattern of a poisonous organism even prior to having language) executing their adaptations. Later when he says “I am making no more claim to culture relative to biology than biology would assert relative to physics and chemistry. […] biology is physics and chemistry plus natural selection. […] Culture is biology plus the symbolic faculty” he sounds like Wilson in Consilience (although I think psychology was below the other social sciences, and neuroscience was below that). I see where he’s coming from when he says that the natural sciences like biology impose a constraint on culture, just as gravity imposes a constraint on biology, but I don’t think the analogy quite holds because biological organisms created culture in a way that gravity didn’t create biology (though it would seem necessary for enough matter to agglomerate together to form genetic material). Rather natural selection acts on a constraint as to which genes will be common, and a kind of selection acts on culture (which must persist in brains that are adaptation-executing “Darwin machines“). Through this lens, Wilson does indeed sound silly in an interview when he says biology can account for 10% human social life, just as a biologist would if they said some percent of their discipline was explained by chemistry. The implication just goes the other way, since all biology must be understood as the product of selective processes acting on a chemical substrate carrying genetic information.

This is all from the first two chapters. I’ll leave out most of my thoughts on the other two, because his critique of Wilson & Trivers on the reproduction of fish & birds isn’t quite as relevant to his own anthropological critique, and his history-of-ideas going back to Hobbes is also something I didn’t need an anthopologist for. I will say that even if Darwin can be read as saying things Hobbes already said, Darwin was actually right and the version of “western” culture he exemplified became universal for a reason, so I’m not quite as bothered by him being W.E.I.R.D. than psychologists (who have not been quite as scientifically successful).