I’m sort of surprised it’s taken SM this long to have a full-on rant about the shortcomings of sociobiology/ evolutionary psychology/ evolutionary biology — perhaps I’m the only person who is habitually irritated by this field, or perhaps we are all so irritated by it that we’d rather just not go there. At any rate a couple of “different”:http://www.anthroblog.tadmcilwraith.com/2005/05/29/homogenization-of-cultures/ “people”:http://www.discover.com/issues/may-05/departments/discover-dialogue/ have pointed out a “recent interview”:http://www.discover.com/issues/may-05/departments/discover-dialogue/ with “Mark Pagel”:http://www.ams.rdg.ac.uk/zoology/pagel/. I have never read anything he is written, and a quick look at his homepage indicates that he is a fairly prominent scientist. Nonetheless, the interview drove me nuts. Here’s why.
Obviously I have nothing against biology or evolution, and in fact I’ve argued on SM in the past for “the value of a ‘four field’ approach”:/2005/05/16/four-sick-fields/. So I am not one of those dreaded ‘cultural studies postmodernists’ boogiemen that people habitually invoke to make humanists look bad. I don’t have an issue with evolutionary biology in principle, but I do have an issue with it when the analytic models it uses to make sense of human behavior are so blunt.
Let’s do a little ‘anthro 101’ on the assumptions about ‘human nature’ in this interview. For instance, when Pagel claims that “we really aren’t very different from other animals” because, like them, we “engage in warfare” and “forage for food.” We are, obviously animals, and I have no idea how one might want to define ‘warfare’ or what counts as ‘warfare’ in other species but it should only take a second to realize that the rest of this post could be about taking that assertion apart into very small pieces. Equally: ‘forage for food’? Has that been how human communities have supplied themselves with food for the past couple thousand years? Foraging happens, of course. But then again so does prancing around in antlers — and while we’re like deer in that respect, I wouldn’t say that this is defining feature of humans.
Ditto with “We choose mates on the basis of characteristics that we think will be related to our success in reproducing”: If by ‘mate’ you mean ‘marriage’ then in fact you might not be the one doing the choosing if your family has anything to say about it (imagine you are a woman in a culture where women lack agency). And of course the range of marriageable people is defined by culturally specific notions which animals really lack (baboons do not have to marry their cross-cousins). If by ‘mate’ you mean ‘sex’ then ‘choice’ implies a little more rationality than goes into the decision sometimes. If by ‘choose mates on the basis of their sucess in reproducing’ you mean ‘get laid’ then yes, you hit on the person who you think will go home with you (unless, of course, you have a biologically innate ‘fear of strangers’). Like I said, I don’t doubt that we’re animals. But the point is this: the more choices about ‘mates’ matter in terms of ‘resources’ (stable social relationships which channel money, power, calories, etc.) the more likely they are to be regulated by the ways of being human that are the least like the behavior of other animals.
I’m not even going to go into the claim that there is ‘more cultural diversity’ in the tropics because there is ‘more biomass’ and hence more ‘resources.’ As someone who studies a country widely touted as being the most culturally diverse place on the planet (Papua New Guinea), I assure you that it’s not the biomass that makes people speak 700 different languages. And for the record, just because there’s a lot of biomass does not mean it’s all edible.
But what I find most annoying about the interview is the implicit model of ‘cultural groups’ or ‘human groups’ that Pagel uses. Here we have the familiar, but mistaken, idea that ‘cultures’ are internally homogenous and brightly bounded. Basically he appears to use the term ‘culture’ as synonymous with ‘nation state.’ Given the way this approach treats ‘cultures’ as discrete objects, it’s no wonder Pagel can imagine that “Human cultural groups have behaved as if they were different species.” And (of course) each of these externally bounded internally homogenous groups speaks exactly one language. So you can count up cultural diversity by counting the number of languages, right?
Wrong. Ernest Nagel’s analysis of the logic of structure functionalism (in, iirc, The Structure of Science) points out that it is really, really hard to draw clear lines between ‘societies’ and their environment in the same way you can between an organism and its environment. Trying to define the ‘health’ (or ‘goal state’) of a ‘human group’ that it might be trying to improve or at least keep in equilibrium is also difficult. Referring, as Pagel does, to “human groups” such as “Britain, America, and China” is cripplingly problematic. What is ‘China’ again? Does it include Xinjiang? Tibet? People who are ethnically Han? But then what about China’s 56 officially recognized ethnic minorities (‘Han,’ like ‘white’ to most Americans, isn’t a ‘culture’ it’s ‘what normal people are’)? So then is the nation state of China one group or many? If you ‘one’ then you may have a ‘group’ but not a ‘cultural’ one. And at any rate how long has it been since Michael Mann pointed out that “human being are social, not societal”:http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/052131349X/qid=1117398924/sr=8-2/ref=sr_8_xs_ap_i2_xgl14/102-6229466-0987309?v=glance&s=books&n=507846 and that while networks of power might be empirically distinguishable, they certainly aren’t coterminous with the borders of a polity. Twenty years? And how long has it been since the Boasians demonstrated that culture traits flow across political, social, and economic boundaries so fluidly that I can read newspapers “printed in characters invented by ancient Semites on material invented in China by a process invented in Germany” and “thank a Hebrew deity in an Indo-European language” that I am “100% American”:http://www3.azwestern.edu/psy/dgershaw/lol/American.html? A century or so?
And speaking of 100% ‘American’, did any of the Canadians who read that last paragraph notice that according to Pagel they’re in the same ‘cultural group’ as citizens of the United States?
I don’t take issue with the project of understanding human evolution as a whole, but I do take issue with attempts to explain human behavior that don’t actually take into account what we know about it. I’m sure that if gave an interview in Discover Magazine about the genetic constitution of plants (one of Pagel’s specialities) based on my impressions of the flora in my fieldsite in Papua New Guinea, Pagel would be horrified at my pretensions to scientific expertise. Well you know what? The feeling is mutual. Interviews like Pagel’s (and I’m not making any claims about his work, because I haven’t read it) run roughshod over decades of research by social science and rely instead on their common-sense notions how humans behave. This is simply not good enough to build a rigorous theory of anything on.
If you’re interested in the relevance of the Boasian theories of cultural boundaries today, I highly reccomend Ira Bashkow’s excellent article “A Neo-Boasian Conception of Cultural Boundaries”:http://www.anthrosource.net/doi/abs/10.1525/aa.2004.106.3.443?prevSearch=allfield%3A%28Bashkow%29 and the other papers in that issue of American Anthropologist. If you’d like a global history of human society with a more nuanced, authoritative, and complete account of the growth of human interconnection across the past 40,000 years, I’d suggest “The Human Web”:http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0393925684/qid=1117400274/sr=2-1/ref=pd_bbs_b_2_1/102-6229466-0987309.
Update: Having browsed quickly through some of Pagel’s work it’s clear to me that his published stuff is much more nuanced than this interview. Nonetheless, I wish he were more lucid when speaking to a popular audience.