The cover story of the the August number of the New Republic is a piece by Steven Pinker entitled “Strangled By Roots: The Genealogy Craze in America”:http://www.tnr.com/doc_posts.mhtml?i=20070806&s=pinker080607. Pinker ought to be given credit as an academic who writes for a popular audience, and there is no doubt that his work is easy to read and always has a clear take away message. These days, though, he is venturing further and further afield from his area of expertise and one gets the feeling that he is suddenly encountering brand new intellectual territory. Those of us in the social sciences for whom this is well-worn ground are, of course, happy that he has finally gotten the memo, but disappointed that hasn’t read it very carefully.
The overall plot of “Strangled By Roots” will be familiar to any one familiar with evolutionary psychology: a New Field Of Research has been opened up that sheds Scientific Light on a previously untheorized and salaciously quirky bit of human life. The Social Scientists, of course, with their Social Science Models, have got it wrong, but luckily New Experiments have revealed the hidden evolutionary basis of said quirky behavior. Unfortunately — alas! — however adaptive this behavior once was, it no longer suits the rigors of modern life and is currently the source of many social woes.
This time around its kinship. In the article Pinker claims that “for all its fascination, kinship is a surprisingly neglected topic in the behavioral sciences.” While “many social scientists have gone so far as to claim that kinship is a social construction with no relation to biology” others disagree. “Genetics and evolutionary theory,” Pinker says, “predict that the biology of kinship should have biased our thoughts and emotions about relatives in several ways” — for instance, that we like to share resources with them (this helps perpetuate their genes, including the genes we share with them).
Ancient humans, of course, could not do DNA testing to find people who shared genes with them, so “instead we rely on cues that in the evolutionary past tended to correlate with relatedness” such as living together. And indeed, “recent experiments by Debra Lieberman, John Tooby, and Leda Cosmides have shown that two kinds of life experiences are crucial in triggering family feelings towards siblings… one consists of observing the infant being cared for by one’s mother…. the other is having grown up in the same household as the sibling”.
Unfortunately, says Pinker, this previously-adaptive method is now problematic for two reasons. First, an ‘obsession’ with genealogy it is actually a pretty lousy method of reckoning kin in a world where the amount of genetic material you share with collateral relatives plummets exponentially the higher you ascent a family tree to locate a shared ancestor. Second, “successful [nonkin] coalitions often try to co-opt family feelings by tricking the brain into perceiving collateral kin” so that, for instance, the Mafia uses kin-inspired idioms of brotherhood to cement ties between unrelated people. In sum, Pinker writes, “Outside a small family circle, the links of kinship are biologically trifling, vulnerable to manipulation, and inimical to modernity.”
Pinker’s argument sounds plausible at first — especially if you don’t know anything about the centuries-old literature on kinship or lack in-depth knowledge of the cultural complexity of ours species. In Pinker’s case the problem is mostly naivete. “A martian reading a textbook in psychology would get no inkling that human beings treated their relatives differently from strangers,” writes Pinker, as if to demonstrate that this is a sign of how “surprisingly neglected” kinship is as a field. But obviously, the lack of kinship in pyschology textbooks points to a problem with psychology and not to science. Pinker’s failure to review the literature on the topic can be blamed on many things, but our failure to write it is not one of them.
Of course this is just a popular article and so Pinker can perhaps be excused from citing “Nonagnates Among The Patrilineal Chimbu.” But simply because your work lacks a scholarly apparatus doesn’t mean that you don’t have to do your homework. And it is clear that Pinker and his colleagues are slowly trying reinvent the wheel, spoke by spoke. I have not read the research by Lieberman et. al. that Pinker cites, but if they are seriously conducting ‘experiments’ to deduce that people raised together feel related, I wouldn’t be surprised if their next ‘experiment’ proves that human beings eat by first chewing and then swallowing. I understand the impulse to make bench science the gold standard of scientific objectivity, but do we really need grant money going to work of this sort?
But let me get to the main point: there are two main problems with Pinker’s argument. First, there is that we have no evidence of what social organization was like deep in our evolutionary past. Of course we can imagine what they might have been like, but speculation is not science — especially for someone sufficiently serious about intellectual rigor that they feel the need to conduct experiments to prove the obvious fact that people who are raised together feel related. So his claim that feelings of kinship were once nontrivially adaptive in the evolutionary past but no longer are is in fact based on speculation. There is nothing wrong with speculation — indeed, it is all we have to go on with in some cases — but this point needs to be flagged.
The second problem is with Pinker’s claim that kinship is currently no longer adaptive. The problem here is that Pinker, as philosophers say, ‘proves too much’. For, as he himself shows and anthropology has already demonstrated, folk theories of relatedness and accurate biogenetic reckoning are so loosely coupled as to be only tenuously connected. In fact they are so tenuously connected that one wonder why he thinks they are or should be connected at all, except for his assumption (based on speculation) that they must have been in the past. Let’s take a closer look.
What exactly is the phenomenon we are examining here? Throughout the article Pinker vacillates between providing an account of the American craze for genealogy using DNA based testing and a more universal “fascination with ancestry [which] has long been part of the human condition”. But which is it? Americans obsession with roots is clearly distinct and different from obsessions with roots in other times and places. What accounts for this local variation? Pinker cannot simultaneously claim American obsession with roots is both culturally distinct and based on species-wide evolved psychologies.
And is an obsession with genealogy a cultural universal? Pinker moves rather to quickly from ‘experiments’ proving the importance of siblingship and shared biogenetic substance to a focus on lineage. How, evolutionarily, does this slippage occur? And does it occur? Pinker should provide some evidence of the universality of this train, but in fact the only main ‘non-Western’ sources that he draws on are ‘the Bible,’ a description of cousin marriage in Iraq published in The American Conservative, and scenes from The Godfather. The best thing that can be said of this ‘evidence’ is that its juxtaposition of Abrahamic genealogy and Muslim marriage helps remind us how ‘Western’ the Islam is — Isaac and Jacob, after all, married their cousins.
But are the begats of the bible a failed attempt at biogenetic reckoning? As Nancy Jay writes in Throughout Your Generations Forever: Sacrifice, Religion, and Paternity, the genealogies in the Hebrew Bible (and the Gospel of Matthew, for that matter) manage to portray men producing male heirs without any female intervention whatsoever — thus Abraham begets Isaac, who begets Jacob who begets Isaac. Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah — who did the physical begetting, let’s not forget — completely disappear. It is for this reason that reform Jews add the matriarch back into their daily prayers. Even if you dislike Jay’s mix of furniture-chewing feminisim and stratospheric social theory (I think it is delightful, personally) the point has been made by researchers ranging from Emrys Peters to Andrew Shryock to J. David Schloen: kinship in this area of the world not only fails to reckon genetics accurately, the whole point of it is to elide how reproduction actually works and emphasize agnatic ties to the exclusion of collateral ones.
For an even clearer example of this fact, consider the material from Sport of Kings, Rebecca Cassidy’s delightful ethnography of British thoroughbred breeding. Although ostensibly about improving the performance of their horses, Cassidy demonstrates that breeder’s theories of blood and pedigree have rather more to do with the British class system than optimizing their horse’s time. Here we have a cultural system in which hundreds of years of breeding have failed to produce increased performance in their horses but have done a wonderful job of reproducing the social structures of the world of high-end racing. This is an example of a group explicitly attempting accurate biogenetic reckoning which end up doing something else altogether.
Both of these examples suggest what all anthropologists have long known — that there is a ‘hidden force’ at work in people’s obsession with relatedness. But that force is culture, and distinct and recognizable cultural formations influence thinking about relatedness.
Consider the Simpsons, for instance. In classic ‘eskimo’ style kin reckoning (what Americans use) Bart and Lisa are siblings, and Ling, Selma’s daughter is his cousin (Selma is Marge’s sister, thus making Ling Bart’s mother’s sister’s daughter or, as we say in the business, his MZD). But in a ‘Hawaiian’ style system all members of the generation above you (the ‘ascending generation’) are classified as siblings themselves, so Selma would be Bart’s mother and Ling would be his sister. In an Iriquois-style system Selma would be Bart’s mother and her children would be his siblings but Abbie (Homer’s sister) would be considered his aunt and her children his cousins. Why? Because Iriquois-style kinship practices bifurcate merging, in which same-sex siblings are identified but cross-sex siblings are not. Father and father’s brother are both called ‘father’ and mother and mother’s sister are both called ‘mother’, but mother’s brother is called ‘uncle’ and father’s sister is called ‘aunt’.
And of course people can even have elaborated theories of relatedness that aren’t tied to genetics at all. James Leach has shown that on the north coast of New Guinea imagine people being grown, like plants, out of the territory where they live. For them relatedness is about rootedness in land. The Malay fishermen studied by Janet Carsten explicitly understand themselves to be related by shared nurturance, not biogenetic substance. These sorts of examples could be multiplied.
They say that everything looks like a nail to a guy holding a hammer, and Pinker’s obsession with evolutionary adaptiveness means that refuses to see this bigger picture. He claims that it is a “paradox” that kinship should be so out of step with his hypothesis about biology and kinship. But the big question is not why our systems of relatedness are bad reckoners of biology, but why Pinker thinks that they are or ought to be reckoners of biology at all. Relying on an unproven assumption about our deep past, Pinker imputes a goal to kinship systems which they themselves have never claimed to try to solve. To a scientist — who prefers elegant, parsimonious explanation — it appears not that there is a ‘paradox’ between the data and Pinker’s hypothesis to be explained away, but simply that his hypothesis is incorrect.
In fact, given the data, it makes much more sense to say that culture organizes biology, rather than the other way around. Or, to be more specific, that there is a complex interaction between folk theories of relatedness and genetics. Saying this is not a call for postmodern epistemological nihilism or wooly-headed feel-good relativism, but a demand for serious research. The problem is that we are not likely to get it from Steven Pinker and his colleagues. However titilating Pinker’s brand of pop evolutionary psychology is, it lacks what he prides himself on most — scientific rigor and a reliance on the extant data on human social organization. This work is being done and it is important — however it is being done by anthropologists, biologists, and researchers in a host of other fields. We’ve been doing it for over a century now…. ever since we got the memo.