Savage Mind's new occasional paper series: first up, The Superorganic

Folks, today I am beginning something new: the Savage Minds Occasional Paper Series. In it, I will present a series of open access, curated texts from the history of anthropological theory. I will keep going until I complete a free anthology suitable for classroom use, or until I get bored. If other minds want to publish in the series, then they can do so too — who knows what projects they may want to cook up…

Here’s a link to the first one: a version of Kroeber’s 1917 article “The Superorganic” that is half the size of the original essay, edited and with an introduction by yours truly.  Please feel free to share widely!

Now to the meat of the paper itself: Alfred Kroeber’s “The Superorganic” is a classic of anthropological theory. Originally published in 1917 in American Anthropologist, the article drew important responses from Edward Sapir and Alexander Goldenweiser. Kroeber included material from the article in his textbook Anthropology: Race, Language, Culture, Psychology, and Prehistory. Kroeber’s interest in the superorganic continued to develop in publications like Configurations of Cultural Growth. “The Superorganic” is central to understanding the thought of one of the founders of anthropology and indeed, the history of anthropological theory itself. And yet it is little read today. Why?

There are many reasons: editors of textbooks and anthologies rely on disciplinary histories of anthropology, often transmitted orally, rather than consulting the findings of professional historians of anthropology. Anthropology’s oral history is often forgetful of the richness and sophistication of early Boasian anthropology. But much of the blame can be laid at the feet of Kroeber himself. The essay is extremely long, and larded with multiple examples used to make the same point.It is written with very purple prose — Matthew Bradley once opined that Kroeber “never used one word when three would do” — and his Victorian styles seems incongruous today.  This is especially true of the sexist and exoticist tone of his language, which is replete with phrases of male achievement and the mind of the ‘savage’. The essay is clearly written and structured, but there is little explicit signposting. When it comes to speaking for a contemporary audience, then, Kroeber is his own worst enemy.

In this occasional paper I present an edited version of “The Superorganic”. The original essay is around 19,000 words. I have cut it down to just under 8,000. The argument has been preserved in its entirety, including Kroeber’s discussion of historical figures such as Gustave Le Bon, because I believe his criticism of their thought is relevant in a world where their intellectual heirs are still active. In a few cases I have altered verbs and nouns for agreement when deleting text caused them to disagree. These are indicated with brackets. The goal has been to respect Kroeber’s argument and stylistic choices while presenting a slimmed-down version which can be taught in a single session in an undergraduate or graduate theory course.

I hope that this will become one of a series of papers which present early anthropological theory in a form that is accessible to everyone. There is today a tremendous amount of material which is open access. Much Boasian thought is now in the public domain, but is difficult to find and inconvenient to read. And frankly, once must already know what is in it in order to know it is worth finding in the first place. By cleaning and curating a selection of open access, I hope to make open access resources better known and to raise awareness of the actual history of anthropological theory.

Like Savage Minds itself, this series is a homebrew’d, DIY project that does not want to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. There may be typos or other errors in the manuscript. In future editions these may be corrected.

One of the ironies of “The Superorganic” is that Kroeber never actually uses the word anywhere in the essay except the title. What, then, is his argument? Kroeber begins the essay by asking the question: what is the nature of cultural evolution, and how does it contrast with ‘organic’ evolution — that is to say, with biological evolution as described by the then-new and ground-breaking science of genetics. It’s a question typical of the Boasians: it is in dialogue with biology, but seeks to understand the autonomy of anthropology as a way of knowing.

Kroeber develops this contrast between the organic and cultural (which he also calls the social, or simply ‘civilization’) by way of a third term: mentality. On the one hand, Kroeber sees the mental lives of individuals as the biological substrate on which culture writes itself. On the other hand, individual psychology is ultimately ‘mechanical’ in the sense that chemistry and physics can be used to understand the biological constitution of the individual which results in their mentality. Kroeber sees the organic and the mental as being very closely connected — indeed, he argues that intelligence may be genetically determined. But if the organic causes the mental, the mental does not, then, cause the cultural. Rather, culture operates on its own level of determination.

Predictably, Kroeber argues that organic racial difference cannot affect the growth of civilization. There are no superior races. But he also argues that individual organic endowment cannot affect civilization. Kroeber makes this argument through a discussion of the role of genius in shaping history. Even the greatest inventions, he argues, will only take root if a culture is prepared to accept them. And if a culture is ready for an innovation, then anyone with above average intelligence may be able to invent it. Both Darwin and Wallace imagined evolution, and neither would have been accepted if society was not ready for the idea. Here Kroeber is at his most deterministic, minimizing the role of individual agency and emphasizing what later anthropologists would call ‘structural factors’ in shaping human conduct.

How, then, could culture have originated if it is such a unique phenomena? Kroeber is careful to emphasize that there is no answer to this question, but suggests that human evolution led to a ‘saltation’ in which culture as a qualitative distinct phenomena appeared. This position anticipates current work on culture as an emergent phenomena. It is also important to emphasize that in asking this question, Kroeber clearly sees the importance of biological anthropology and human evolutionary history to cultural anthropology.

Finally, Kroeber argues that the legitimacy of anthropology (or history, these terms are used interchangeably in a way that modern readers may find strange) is tied to the existence of culture. It is always possible to assign ‘mechanical’ causes to behavior because humans are organic. But in doing so, he argues, we miss the cultural dimension of conduct that makes human lives so unique. At the same time, Kroeber argues, art and literature conveys truths that are enduring, but which are aesthetic and not scientific. Thus Kroeber argues that history/anthropology represents a third way of knowing the human which avoids the organic reductionism of science, but which is more concrete than literature. Here Kroeber’s argument is ambiguous, and addresses several questions that future anthropologists will grapple with: Is anthropology a unique discipline because it has a unique subject matter? Or does anthropology have a unique method? Why not prefer a biological reduction of human action? Kroeber occupies several positions here, and the loose ends in this section of his argument would be taken up by future thinkers.

Kroeber is famous for having claimed that anthropology is the “most humanistic of the sciences and the most scientific of the humanities” and yet, ironically, this bon mot never appears in his writings — it was a favorite saying of his that has been passed down to us from anthropology’s oral history. Hopefully the publication of an accessible version of this essay will give readers the opportunity to move beyond this wonderful, epigrammatic summary of Kroeber’s thought and experience the original in all its richness.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

14 thoughts on “Savage Mind's new occasional paper series: first up, The Superorganic

  1. One quick note, folks: the paper right now is being hosted at Scribd while I wait for it to get deposited in my institutional repository. Sorry about that. Please feel free to share it widely, including dumping it in whatever archive works for you.

  2. Great idea! So hard to find good materials that draw students into particular debates or key ideas. I hadn’t thought of this sort of idea, but I should look at my psychological anthropology reader and see what opportunities there are. A really interesting and challenging intellectual service you’re doing for the community — thanks, Alex!

  3. rex, here’s where i think about the accidents of training. because my systems teachers came out of the structural-functionalist tradition (including its turnerian turn plus a good dose of gramsci and raymond williams) and later work moved me far away from the american cultural anthropology canon, kroeber–and to be fair, nearly all american anthropologists before turner–seems an unlikely choice for anything i’d create for a reader, particularly for classes. i’m only saying that to point out the diversity of our discipline. good idea!

  4. On the contrary DJ — this was designed to introduce you to the anthropology you always wanted to do but never knew existed! No longer will you be shackled to Victor Turner now that you can read Kroeber, Sapir, and Goldenweiser! 😀

    Seriously, though, if you don’t teach courses where the/a cannon is taught, then this won’t appeal (although courses on agency, structure, innovation etc. might be interested). I think that’s pretty clear.

    Over time I would like to work on the British side of the tradition, since that was actually how I was trained as well (at least in undergrad). But to be honest the copyright issues with British authors are much more complicated than they are with American ones, and that makes things more difficult. I’m hoping if the project gets some momentum behind it, it will be easier to approach various institutions that hold the rights to, say, obscure grey literature written by Raymond Apthorpe and put that up. But HAU may beat me to it. We’ll see. I certainly don’t mean to slight the Brits or other national traditions and imply the American one is somehow more important or better. It is just easier to access and, frankly, cries out for an editor more.

  5. @ rex actually, i think that much in the american canon (other than the purple prose, but then again, i assign geertz who also erred on the side of what i’ll euphemise as ‘writerly-ness’) could get at the kinds of things that i do want my students–who are studying to be musicians, not academic anthropologists–to grapple with in the brief flirtation with anthropology that i can offer them. but i am constrained by things like the availability of articles, concerns of readability, and the limitations of my own training. so i’m glad to see this blog venture occasionally into questions of how we might teach the discipline, particularly to people who don’t know that they need what anthropology can offer

  6. Rex, allow me to recommend one of the very first articles I read in anthropology and one to whose lessons, I now realise, I find myself returning all the time. Franz Boas, “Linguistics and Ethnology,” in Dell Hymes, ed., Language in Culture and Society, 1964, pp. 15-26.

  7. Glenn:
    I’m teaching a course now on Method and Theory for Religion graduate students. As you can imagine, a better part of the bibliography comes from Anthro., since until Boas, Anthro, History, and Religious Studies overlapped in theories. My question: I want to give my students early 20th Century essays by Anthros, on the value of oral history as indigenous interpretation of their past. What articles come to mind ? Since you know well the Lowie collection at Berkeley, are there any texts that might be available online ?
    Your recent blog on Mashco-Piro was most interesting. Another area of ‘uncontacted’ is the northern border Brazil with the Guyanas. Specifically, the Zo’e who have now gained the reputation of the most filmed ‘isolated’ group of the Amazon. In watching a recent production by a Spanish ethnographic film-maker, it is remarkable how the Zo’e seemed so ‘comfortable’ with the distance separating them from non-indigenous intruders. How long that will last is anyone’s guess. But they, like other tribal peoples in the same area, have actively refused to increase level of contact; they know of other peoples even more ‘isolated’ than they who also have heard about the existence of non-indigenous peoples and want to maintain their isolation. Difficulty of access supports them. Colombia’s policy of refusing authorization to anthros, missionaries, & companies seems on the one hand to be just, but on the other, leaves the world ignorant of why their voluntary isolation – is it because of past historical traumas (e.g., cases of the Awa/Guaja, or even Hohodene) or recent epidemics. What do you think ? If a peoples (e.g., the Mura, Nukak, or any number of peoples once contacted in the past) refuse contact because of traumatic experiences, is field research to understand why, – permissible and desirable, or not ? Wouldn’t that knowledge be helpful in creating distinct policies for such situations ?

  8. Dear Robin,

    Thanks for writing. First, with regards to early anthropological essays, I think it’s always important to let students read these early texts, since they often only come into contact with the great names in the field through secondary sources, which summarize their theories within some larger overall framework but often miss the particular style and philosophy of these important pioneers in our field. I think one of the most interesting and earliest works that deals specifically with oral history as a method in an anthropological context is James Mooney’s 1896 treatise on the Apache Ghost Dance. Some of the early SW archeologists like Cushing also used living peoples’s oral history as a window into the past, so it might be interesting to look at some of that material, both in terms of the methods of collecting the information and how it was applied to interpreting the archeological record.

    Though it’s only indirectly relevant to your question, I always give my ethnobotany students Harrington’s great “Ethnobotany of the Tewa” from 1917 (the full authorship is Robbins, Harrington and Freire-Marreco, Bureau of American Ethnology bulletin 55). It’s interesting to watch Harrington tie himself up in knots trying, at the same time, to recognize Tewa people’s profound understandings of the botanical world, and yet also finding fault with their supposedly inferior abstract knowledge, in reference say to higher-order plant classification. It makes for an interesting exercise in understanding the limitations and prejudices inherent in different historical/intellectual moments. I always make students read parts of the plant dictionary in the back, where it quickly becomes apparent how fundamentally important various tree species are, not only for subsistence and economy but also for the Tewa’s historical occupation of the landscape. Botany becomes a specific kind of window onto landscape and the historical and mythical past.

    With regard to isolated peoples, each South American country has its own unique and varied history with regards to indigenous peoples and their rights, and these varied historical policies directly affect their approach to the specific case of isolated peoples. Brazil has had the clearest and most consistently implemented policies through various generations of SPI and FUNAI. The current approach is to protect isolated peoples as much as possible, to initiate contact only as a last resort. For recently contacted peoples, FUNAI tries to do as much as possible to convince them to continue living as they did prior to contact. In the case of the Zoé, and likewise the Enanwene, there has been a conscious effort to get people to give up introduced habits, especially clothing. At least part of the argument FUNAI uses with these groups is precisely what you note: so that they can charge money to film crews to film supposedly “pristine” peoples, and use that money to further maintain their post and operations. This is of course a highly ambiguous situation, in essence forcing people to live in imposed isolation. While it may seem preferable to the kind of demographic and ethnocidal apocalyptic disaster that groups like the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, Waimiri and Surui suffered in the 70s and 80s, one wonders how long groups like the Zoé and Enawene, especially their youth, will continue to acquiesce.

    When indigenous groups make clear efforts to avoid contact, it seems perfectly justifiable, indeed necessary, for governments and indigenous rights organizations to do all they can to respect this choice. However the Mashco-Piro, after years of vehemently avoiding contact, seem to be “flirting” with contact over the past few years, staying just close enough to get certain goods and food they want, but not quite close enough to catch a cold or, worse, be captured and forced into contact. It is indeed a very tricky situation, especially since Peru lacks the kind of organized institution with clear policies and relevant experience such as FUNAI in Brazil.

    Thanks for your comment and I hope to continue this discussion with you and others,


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