With a shelter of legalistic and formalistic rationalism, we similarly build an image of the world and society where all problems can be settled by a courtroom approach whose logic is artful maneuvering, and we do not realize that the universe is no longer composed of what we are talking about.
Nor was he a complete cultural determinist. Like many thinkers of his generation, he felt that culture has contributed just as much as biology to differences among human populations. This is not, however, the same as believing that biology has created only skin-deep differences. He made this clear in a speech at our university 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)
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.
Lévi-Strauss, C. (1985). Claude Lévi-Strauss à l’université Laval, Québec (septembre 1979), prepared by Yvan Simonis, Documents de recherche no. 4, Laboratoire de recherches anthropologiques, Département d’anthropologie, Faculté des Sciences sociales, Université Laval.
Lévi-Strauss, C., (1955). Tristes tropiques, Paris.