Sunday, December 15, 2013

Lévi-Strauss in Tokyo

Claude Lévi-Strauss has been called the father of modern (social) anthropology. He lived to be 100 years old, passing in 2009. I recommend his Tristes Tropiques, a memoir of time in the jungles of Brazil (full text in English). The lectures in the book below were delivered in Tokyo in 1986.
Anthropology Confronts the Problems of the Modern World

(p. 98-99) And who knows whether aggressive or contemplative dispositions, technical ingenuity, and so on, are not partly linked to genetic factors? None of these traits, as we apprehend them at the cultural level, can be clearly linked to a genetic foundation, but we cannot rule out a priori the distant effects of intermediate links. If such effects are real, it would be true to say that every culture selects genetic abilities that, by retroaction, influence the culture and reinforce its orientation.


botti said...

Interesting. Anthropoloigist Peter Frost noted that following his death many suggested Levi-Strauss was a cultural determinist. Frost notes a speech Levi-Strauss gave at Université Laval in 1979:

… I would not feel truly anthropologist or structuralist if I did not accept that all questions should be discussed, and the question of the respective share of nature and nurture in human culture seems to me one of the most important ones we can and ought to ask ourselves. This issue has been made sterile for years and years by the false categorizations of physical anthropology related to the belief in the existence of human races.

However, we must not forget that, as anthropologists, the aspects of the question that will always appeal to us will be much less the genetic determination of culture or cultures than the cultural determination of genetics. By this I mean that a culture always will be made much less by its members’ gene pool than it will contribute to shaping and altering this gene pool.

The selection pressure of culture—the fact that it favors certain types of individuals rather than others through its forms of organization, its ideas of morality, and its aesthetic values—can do infinitely more to alter a gene pool than the gene pool can do to shape a culture, all the more so because a culture’s rate of change can certainly be much faster than the phenomena of genetic drift. (Lévi-Strauss, 1979, p. 24-25)

Frost notes the somewhat contradictory nature of these comments:

"He is clearly referring here to the concept of gene-culture co-evolution. But just what are these genetic traits that cultures have shaped differently in different human populations? He doesn’t seem to mean minor physiological processes, like an improved ability to digest milk or carbohydrates. In fact, he seems to be referring to mental and behavioral traits, especially when he mentions ‘ideas of morality’. Is he saying that there has been selection for differences in moral capacity among human populations?

And if cultures have shaped different gene pools differently wouldn’t these gene pools be ‘races’? Did Lévi-Strauss think through this line of thought? Perhaps in denying the race concept he was simply making the kind of ritual denunciation that most anthropologists make … and only half-believe.

It is probably too late to find out what he really meant. This is not a line of thought that he seems to have pursued in his other publications, at least none I am aware of."

Diogenes said...

i heard Heizo Takenaka say that many japanese companies still practice promotion and pay raises by seniority only. americans might wonder how motivated japanese salarymen are as a result. the answer is that there is social pressure on those who aren't "pulling their weight". this way of doing things has the advantage that interests are aligned. no competition means more teamwork.

Diogenes said...

"...all the more so because a culture’s rate of change can certainly be much faster than the phenomena of genetic drift."

before the great war germany was known as a nation of poets and philosophers. in the time of the western roman empire the germans were illiterate and filthy. now the greeks, who once called them barbarians, are looked down on by the germans as lazy and stupid.

the pirhaha have no words for numbers other than one, two, many according to dan everett, but when educated in brazilian schools have no more trouble with arithmetic than other brazilians.

Rudel said...

"were it not so caused hereditarians would be shown to be the fools that they are."

It's not so much a nature versus nurture argument but rather what percentage or better yet, what exactly the complex interactions between genes and culture are. Clark's argument was simply that prosperous English freeholders were smarter and could afford more smart children than the poor peasants (who couldn't afford to reproduce or had higher infant mortality rates) and the aristocracy (who tended to die in battle) and that these children had enough free time to invent efficient machinery.

There will no doubt be even more sophisticated research into the effects of culture on natural selection.

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