Thursday, November 12, 2009

Lévi-Strauss and gene-culture co-evolution

With the recent death of Claude Lévi-Strauss, there has been an outpouring of praise for his contributions to anthropology, notably the struggle for a more politically conscious anthropology and the shift from biological determinism to cultural determinism. This praise tells us more about the praisers than about Lévi-Strauss himself. In truth, he scarcely resembled the image presented in most of his obituaries, having denounced in his book Tristes tropiques the intrusion of a “utopian spirit” into his field.

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.


Tod said...

I dare say Lévi-Strauss communicated exactly what he meant to in his writing, as one would expect from a litterateur. I'm sure he thought gene-culture co-evolution went without saying.

He could hardly avoid noticing - even if he didn't make a thing of it - that "with two-tenths of a percent of the world’s people, Jews have won well over 20% of the Nobel Prizes".

Lévi-Strauss: He Changed How We See Culture, but Ignored His Own.
"As Durkheim, who began life as David Emile, was the son of a rabbi before being the father of sociology, so Lévi-Strauss was a Versailles rabbi’s grandson before fathering structuralism. Marx, long before them, had been descended from long lines of rabbis on both sides of his family, and Freud, also descended from rabbis, had been taken hand in hand to the synagogue by his father."

Peter Frost said...


Lévi-Strauss wrote a lot, but I recall reading only one passage where he alluded to his Jewish background. He was criticizing a tendency among some Jews to see the Holocaust as the ultimate human tragedy, and not as one of many. My impression is that he saw himself as a 100% Frenchman, not because he was ashamed of his Jewishness or feared antisemitism, but because he identified with French culture and the high status it gave intellectuals.

He loved academic debate and adored the kind of arcane philosophizing that is possible even among relatively ordinary French people.

Tod said...

I was surprised to read of his close association with Franz Boas.

In an interview N.Chomsky talked about the attraction that "arcane philosophizing" has for intellectuals in countries like Egypt.

He said he thought Lacan - who he knew - was playing with the French elite; seeing what he could get away with. Elsewhere Chomsky says he considered him "an amusing and perfectly self-conscious charlatan".

Anonymous said...

My apologies for going OT but remembered your long series on estrogen and water systems and the possible feminization of men and wanted to point this out: another phthalate study hit the news yesterday.

I'll leave comments about the study itself to experts, but one thing jumped out at me in the following quote from one of the researchers who said,

"The question of homosexuality always comes up in connection with these studies," she told "And there is no data linking play toys (which ones a child chooses) or early behavior to later sexual preferences or sexual identity."

While I realize the researchers weren't purporting they had found a link or correlation between childhood play and later sexual orientation in boys, she's just flat out wrong when she states there is not a relationship between type of childhood play (which, of course includes the type of toys preferred by a kid) and later sexual orienation. Baily has done a lot of work in that field.
So, she undercuts her credibility.

Since you've looked into the estrogen link, thought you might want to look into the phthalate findings and do a post or two in the future. Would be interested in your analysis.

Ben10 said...

Gene culture coevolution is a 'duh'.
Two hundred years ago It was called 'lamarckian evolution', the process by which information is passed to the offspring not by genes, but by 'culture' in a broad sense.
Obviously animals with no brains cannot pass much information by culture, it's all in the DNA.
But for mammals and especially humans, lots of information is passed culturally.

Sheri Van Chocstra said...

My last pair of Levi-Strauss genes shrank too much, so I couldn't wear them any more.

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