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Cultural Anthropology and Cultural Evolution: Tear Down This Wall! A Conversation with Robert Paul
Image credit: "Darwin in Love" by Trond, via Flickr
David Sloan Wilson
David Sloan Wilson
is the SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University and Arne Næss Chair in Global Justice and the Environment at the University of Oslo

One of the ironies of modern academic life is that the study of cultural evolution is experiencing a renaissance but some of the most relevant disciplines are not taking part, including Sociology, Cultural Anthropology, and other branches of knowledge classified as “The Humanities”. The reasons for this intellectual Berlin Wall are complex but there is no denying that the wall exists, preventing all but a few courageous individuals from crossing the border.

A major objective of TVOL (featuring articles for the general public) and the Social Evolution Forum (featuring target essays and commentaries at a professional level) is to overcome the barriers among disciplines. One example is TVOL’s special edition titled “Truth and Reconciliation for Social Darwinism”, which includes an interview with the sociologist Russell Schutt on the history of thinking about evolution in that discipline. Another example includes my target essay in SEF titled “The One Culture: Four new books illustrate that the barrier between science and the humanities is at last breaking down”, with commentaries by prominent authors on both sides of the divide.

Among the four books that I reviewed in my SEF essay is Mixed Messages: Cultural and Genetic Inheritance in the Constitution of Human Society, by the sociocultural anthropologist Robert Paul. Paul received his degree in anthropology from the University of Chicago in 1970 and joined Emory University in 1976, where he helped to build its anthropology department. Along the way, he became a licensed psychoanalyst and currently directs Emory’s Psychoanalytic Institute. He is one of a very few cultural anthropologists who is contributing his extensive ethnographic knowledge to the modern study of cultural evolution. This makes him an excellent choice to discuss the history of thinking about evolution in cultural anthropology, complementing my interview with Russell Schutt.

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Our interview took place on October 31 at the headquarters of EvoS, Binghamton University’s campus-wide evolutionary studies program, where Paul was visiting to speak in the EvoS Seminar Series. His seminar was titled “The Concept of Culture in Dual Inheritance Theory: A Cultural Anthropologist’s Perspective” and can be heard online.

David Sloan Wilson: Welcome to EvoS and This View of Life! I’m so happy to be talking with you about the history of anthropology in relation to evolution.

Robert Paul: I’m happy to be here.

DSW: I intend this interview to be wide ranging. I’ve done a similar interview with the sociologist Russell Schutt about the history of that discipline. For both Sociology and Anthropology, the history of evolutionary thinking is very complex and resulted in an apartheid, especially, when it comes to all things cultural. Obviously, evolution must be important for physical anthropology but it is on the cultural side that it ends up being problematic. Since you have a great sense of history, being an elder statesman in the field, please begin at the beginning and give a thumbnail history about how evolution was applied to culture in Darwin’s day. Then we can go on from there.

RP: Thanks for this opportunity, I appreciate it. That’s a fascinating question and one has to remember that for many years, until the modern synthesis, Darwin was only one of many evolutionary theorists and not even the most influential one in many parts of the world, where other forms of evolutionary thinking took precedence over Darwinian thinking. It wasn’t Darwinism that influenced early Anthropology. If you look at three of the great forbearers of contemporary or modern anthropology in the late Victorian era–that is Edward Burnett Tyler, Lewis Henry Morgan, and Herbert Spencer–they all believed in the psychic unity of man. They all believed that humans were all one species, that everybody had the same capacity. They all, also, took for granted, an evolutionary picture that was progressivist and universal. In other words, that the world would pass through stages on its way towards becoming civilized. Therefore, as the modern retrospect of critique has it, they took contemporary European society as the end point; as the progressive goal of evolution, and placed everybody else in relation to it.

Of course, this was the era of high colonialism. There was exposure to all kinds of people, in all different parts of the word, and what to make of these people was the question. There was a tremendous amount of data coming in from missionaries, from colonial officers, from military men, and adventurers. That supplied the “grist for the mill” of these scholars. They were all very interesting thinkers in their way and I am familiar with some but by no means all of their work. They all wrote a great deal.

DSW: Let me break in and ask two questions. First, I think that both Darwin and Wallace, especially Darwin, fell into that mold. I know that Wallace had more of a genuine admiration for the indigenous people that he lived among, compared to Darwin, who had a sort of distaste for them.

RP: I believe that’s true.

DSW: Second, we need to mention Louis Agassiz, who along with others, did subscribe to a separate species school of thought about the races. That school did exist; not everyone believed in the psychic unity of mankind.

RP: That’s what I think is remarkable about these folks [Tyler, Morgan, and Spencer]. That they anticipated that idea, the notion, that we are all one species. Darwin was, in turn, influenced by Spencer — the ‘survival of the fittest’ idea, although fitness is not what we currently think of, as Darwinian or reproductive fitness. But Spencer is a very interesting, complicated theorist.

However, I am particularly interested in the case of Morgan, who set the stage for the whole school of American evolutionary anthropology. Tyler basically looked at the evolution of society in terms of religion, tracing animism through to monotheism (Tyler wrote his big book about animism, using religion as the driver of evolution). Morgan, on the other hand, thought very clearly in terms of stages of technological adaptation. Unfortunately, he used the terms: savagery, barbarism, and civilization, which have a certain implicit bias built into them. If you can get rid of that, a lot of what he said, even if you don’t agree with the idea of stages, was useful. He used fishing as a differentiation between lower and middle savagery, pottery is the transition from savagery to barbarism and so on.

The irony about Morgan, who was an American and no socialist, is that he was read by Marx and Engels, who loved his approach because it was materialist, so they built it into the whole evolutionary scheme of Marxism. The problem with that was that in America anything even smacking of Marxism, from Marx’s time until very recently, was totally anathema. You couldn’t espouse Marxist ideals and succeed in the academy. Therefore, Morgan’s theory, which was based on the technological adaptation of cultures, was viewed as a Marxist theory. Of course, it was extremely useful to archaeologists, because you could determine what materials people used to make their pots for example, what the level of technology was that different peoples used. You could track the evolution of pottery techniques, as it were. This was a significant and sophisticated aspect of Morgan’s work. And then people like V. Gordon Childe, the great archeologist, used this concept, but for a long time was marginalized because he was regarded as a Marxist. That was because he used a version of Morgan’s stages, and relied on his materialism stages, which were regarded as Marxist theories. It was a very constraining political situation, in which many ways of looking at society were taboo.

DSW: That’s really interesting, I don’t want to stop you, keep on going.

RP: As I said, in their [Tyler, Morgan, and Spencer] various different ways, they all saw a progressivist uniform evolution of culture, or civilization: there was a worldwide evolution of the human species. Tyler invented the idea of survivals, which is based on the idea that “savage” peoples are simply people who have not yet progressed, that had been left behind. A survival was an element of earlier cultural forms preserved in later cultural forms. Thus the whole world, could be placed in the universal scheme.

DSW: All of this was what you might call Pre- Darwinian.

RP: Non-Darwinian

DSW: Non-Darwinian. That’s not to say that Darwin opposed it. He might have fit into it in some sense but it would be a mistake to attribute it to Darwin.

RP: Absolutely, Darwin bought into a lot of this when it came to human culture and society but that was not his main thrust. The key ideas of Darwinism — reproduction, variation, natural selection — lack the notion of goal oriented progress, which is what “evolution” often means in the popular mind. Darwin’s theory was not part of the “evolutionary” way of thinking in early anthropology: evolution was uniform and progressive and went by stages towards a higher and higher goal The whole idea of passing through different stages was common to them all — Durkheim too, had the same idea.

DSW: I would like to add Auguste Comte. Does he figure in your mind in the history of anthropology?

RP: Absolutely, Comte contributed many ideas; his view of positivism, of a three-stage system of the ages of man and his attempt to create a science of man. These ideas very much influenced Durkheim who was, I would say, one of two main godfathers of modern cultural social anthropology (the other being Boas). Adolphe Quetelet, a disciple of Comte, came up with the idea using statistics to study social phenomena. Durkheim took that over and used it in his book on Suicide, which opened the door to contemporary quantitative methods in sociology and to a lesser extent in anthropology.

DSW: The reason I mention Comte along with Spencer is that one reason they were treated as so important in their day is because they were offering a secular equivalent to religion. That means a worldview that makes no recourse to religion and yet provides what religion provides- some sense of meaning and purpose and movement. This accounts for their progressive element. That’s why they were invested with such significance in their day and why someone like Spencer is now forgotten.

RP: Almost completely forgotten in anthropology, and wrongly I think. Robert Carneiro, the anthropologist, has spent a great deal of time resurrecting him, complexify-ing our understanding of Spencer. It’s worth reading Carneiro’s study of Spencer, to see how over-simplified our view of Spencer has become.

As I said, Spencer is a very interesting, complicated theorist. On one hand, he believed that society was like an organism and he wrote a number of papers that in contemporary terms we would say relate to Systems Theory. He conceived of society as a system that had interrelated parts, and that it grew and evolved as organisms do, getting more complex. In that sense, he was one of the original “sui generis” thinkers, using that term In the sense society is not the same as the organisms composing it, but its own superorganism. He was in many ways one of the founders of that idea. But at the same time he was an extreme libertarian in his political views. He was absolutely against all government.

DSW: Including imperialism.

RP: Including imperialism. He was opposed to colonialism and imperialism.

DSW: At the same time, that led to his Social Darwinism. Let bad things happen because that is how progress takes place. The strong replacing the weak.

RP: Yes, the high-quality people in society leading it forward, and the other people getting in the way.

DSW: I’ve done numerous interviews that point out the naiveté of this idea. It seems that everyone back then had this idea that the “good society” can be achieved by selecting the good individuals and weeding out the bad ones. There was little awareness of the systemic nature of cooperation. No suspicion that the strongest individuals might have gotten there in a misbegotten way.

RP: Absolutely, and that is one of the complexities about Spencer. He saw society as having its own systematic internal organization, even though at the same time he did believe this about more “fit” individuals. He can be seen as an ancestor of some of the superorganic thinkers who came later, but also as a champion of theoretical individualism.

DSW: if I could break in one more time, something I learned from my interview with the philosopher Trevor Pearce (part of the special edition on Social Darwinism) it that Spencer developed the notion of the environment and the relationship between the organism and the environment. Pearce said that the very word environment was seldom used before Spencer. This can be confirmed using Google Ngram, which charts the frequency of words in their vast electronic library of books. Isn’t that amazing? The word “environment” has become so essential in modern life that we can scarcely imagine not using it!

RP: Absolutely. Our next question is how did we get to the current relationship between evolutionary theory and modern cultural social anthropology? (The British call it social anthropology. Americans call it cultural anthropology). I would say that the main credit goes in the American case to Franz Boas, and in the British case to Bronislaw Malinowski. Both of them very explicitly rebelled against the uniform progressive evolution idea that was current in the early 20th century.

In Boas’s case, this came from having lived with native people for a serious amount of time. As a young man he majored in physics and famously did research on the color of sea water. He was interested in psycho-physics, and he was interested in light and how we perceive things. As part of his studies he went to Baffin Island to study the different effects of light in the Arctic. It’s not easy to live on Baffin Island and he faced enormous environmental challenges. He realized that the Inuit, with whom he was living, had all kinds of ways of dealing with it. This impressed on him the fact that these people were not somehow lower on any chain of anything. On the contrary, they were way ahead of him in terms of understanding how to survive in the Arctic. I think this was a conversion for Boas; he realized that we can’t just place people on a scale in relationship to ourselves with us at the pinnacle. We have to look at them in their situation, at how they see the world, what they are confronting, and what they think and do about it.

DSW: The irony is that from a modern perspective, that is evolutionary. Studying culture in relation to its environment. As a product and adaptation to that environment. The Malinowskian view, and the Boasian view, is closer to what deserves to be known as evolutionary then what was called evolutionary at that time.

RP: I think that’s exactly right. Something important to remember about Boas, which is generally forgotten: Boas was a fan of Darwinian evolutionary theory. He just didn’t like Spencerian theory. He was very well versed in the biology of the day and he was a champion of Darwin. So when you talk about evolution, and say that Boas opposed it, you have to remember which evolution are you talking about in anthropology. Boas didn’t apply what we now recognize as evolution, but he certainly was not opposed to it. That is an important thing to remember about him.

Another thing to bear in mind about Boas is that he came from a school of German thought. Remember, the origins of American anthropology were heavily German: people like Boas, Kroeber, Lowie –, they all spoke German to each other.

DSW: Does that mean their evolution was filtered through Hegel?

RP: To some extent it was. But they came out of the school,– well, Boas came out of the school of Neo-Kantian thought that called the south-west German school that was interested in hermeneutics and in Dilthey’s distinction between Geisteswissenschaften and Naturwissenschaften. This is idea that there are sciences that were based on understanding human life, on understanding the human mind and spirit (geist, can be translated either way) that obeyed different rules than the natural sciences. Dilthey advocated a science that stressed the importance of narrative in understanding human life. Boas’s formation in Germany, philosophically and intellectually, was in that tradition. However, Boas’s great contribution was to reject the notion of unilineal uniform evolution. He was not opposed to creating a law-like comparative science of anthropology, but he believed it was a goal for the distant future: We’ll get there one day but we don’t yet have the data. What we first have to do is look at cultures in their own context and compile enough good ethnographies of different cultures; only then will we be in a position to do comparative study.

DSW: it is important to be a-theoretical in that sense.

RP: Exactly, it is important to be a-theoretical to be able to do the — if I can put it this way — the natural history…

DSW: Exactly! I make this point, quite often in my own writing. That was Darwin’s relationship with the natural historians of his day–that they had the empirical knowledge and he was organizing it. That required him to approach the natural historians of his day with great humility and respect. An ethnographer is a natural historian of a human culture.

RP: Exactly, I think Boas is sometimes dismissed as a historical particularist who wasn’t interested in theory. He was interested in theory but he was committed to the idea that you had to have good data. And the data that was used by these evolutionary figures was coming from non-professionals who did not have the relativist perspective he saw as necessary.
He was aware of what it was like to live amongst the people and start to see the world through their eyes, and that revolution has continued in American anthropology. To read Boas today, his works on race and ethnicity, his ethnographic work, is to realize that he really is the fountainhead of modern cultural anthropology. He was very much anti-racist and a lot of his work was dedicated to demonstrating the psychic unity of man, but demolishing the idea of race, showing it to be a sociological category rather than a useful biologic category. He is revered, rightly so, for that reason. And Boas started doing real field anthropology way before Malinowski.

Malinowski, was a very interesting character, ethnically Polish. Of course, there was no Poland at the time; it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He had health problems and went to various interesting parts of the world to try to get healthy. He died relatively young, I think of TB. Like Boas, who was Jewish, Malinowski as a Pole was a marginalized person in European society. He felt like the underdog; unlike Tyler, Spencer, and Morgan. Malinowski was caught in the middle of the World War I out in the Pacific, in British colonial territory. Since he was an enemy alien at the time, he basically went to the Trobriand Islands and hung out there until the war was over. And the result was that he did the most intensive field work that anybody had ever done, as an anthropologist. There had been plenty of people who lived and worked at various times in non-western societies (including Boas of course). Malinowski developed the idea of viewing the world from the native’s point of view. He developed a form of functionalism which takes basic human needs as the drive of culture; the need for sustenance, the need for reproduction, the basic biological needs. Unfortunately, his brand of functionalism lost out to Radcliffe-Brown’s.

DSW: Let’s pause here, because functionalism is a key concept. I regard, cultural multi-level selection as a neo-functionalist theory. It’s very current. Let’s do a good job on functionalism, tracing it to its very roots, which I guess is Durkheim.

RP: There is a classic oral exam question: What’s the difference between Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown when it comes to functionalism? Both of them were influenced by Durkheim. Durkheim had a whole complex theory; he saw society as an independent system that functioned together. Radcliffe-Brown took the idea that since it was a sui generis thing, society, you had to look at each institution, and see what function it played in the totality.

DSW: That was an axiomatic form of functionalism? You took it as an axiom that there was a function and it was your job to figure out what it was.

RP: Just as if you were a physiologist and you look at an organ and ask “what is the pancreas doing here?” If society is like an organism, what parts are various institutions – kinship, religion, etc. — playing in keeping the whole thing going? To this extent Radcliffe- Brown really was a Spencerian as well as a Durkheimian. What role does ritual play in this system? How is that keeping the whole thing going? What he was against was the idea of reducing this to something non-sociological, because Durkheim had said that social life needs its own form of explanation; is a separate field. You don’t explain it in terms of psychology or biological needs. You explain it terms of it contribution to the whole organism and the whole system.

DSW: This is a point of convergence of my interview with Russell Schutt. These fields– sociology, anthropology and the like–had reasons to declare their independence, not just from biology but from psychology, which had nothing to do with evil things done in evolution’s name.

RP: That’s an extremely important point. These important figures were very explicitly and vigorously rejecting the evolutionary point of view in favor of a grounded ethnographic local point of view. But in terms of their own theory, Radcliffe-Brown was on the side of maintaining that society had to be seen in terms of its own organization. It could not be reduced; it had to be seen as independent of psychology and biology.

It’s ironic, if you read Radcliffe-Brown’s studies you find that he uses the idea of “sentiment” all the time. But he made a distinction between your-and-my ordinary, everyday sentiments and those that are prescribed socially. For example, the expectation in some cultures that you are supposed to cry at a funeral. It isn’t necessarily that you feel like crying but that is what you are supposed to do. His functionalism was based on a view of society as a total organism in which you looked at the institutions and saw how they were related to each other and therefore to the whole. Whereas Malinkowski’s functionalism was based on the underlying premise that there were 7 basic needs. I can’t remember what they were, but reasonable ones of what a human organism needs to do to survive. Then there are the local institutions that arise to meet those needs; then the ideological systems–magic, religion, knowledge- that are necessary in order to sustain those institutions. His brand of functionalism rested much more on the bio-psychological substrate.

DSW: It would probably be more conducive to a modern evolutionary perspective?

RP: I think so. Radcliffe-Brown rejected biology or psychology as drivers of culture. He was a brilliant thinker but headed off in a certain direction. But Malinowski’s great contribution was really as a field worker, as an ethnographer. And what he and Boas did together- in Britain and America-established the idea of a professional anthropologist, who lives among the people as a participant observer, who learns to see the world from the point of view of the locals and describes them, so that, one day one could construct larger theories on the basis of this. It was very explicitly anti-evolutionary, for a number of reasons, some good and some bad. It was against imperialism, colonialism and it came from the voice of people who could identify with the marginalized in the world political situation. It was very much opposed to the idea of race. In the popular mind– though I stress not in the mind of Tyler, Morgan, Spencer–it was not just that people could be less developed culturally, but that they could be lower down on a scale of race also. That idea needed to go and Boas especially was extremely influential in making that happen.

DSW: At this point in history that was that concept of race associated with Darwinism?

RP: What is really Spencerism was at that time called Social Darwinism (and still is), it was associated with Darwinism. Darwin was seen as a bad guy, and it is true that he did come to espouse some of Spencer’s ideas about culture and evolution.

DSW: I know from my own reading and other interviews that Darwin’s theory got refracted in so many ways. In Russia this way, in South American that way. That is the cultural story of how this important idea was refracted through all of these different cultures. The fact that they are contradictory with each other is no surprise at all.

RP: No surprise at all. That is what happens to great ideas. . So — cruising along through history—you look at someone like Kroeber; he didn’t invent the term super organic, Spencer used it also. But Kroeber used it to refer to culture having its own internal coherence, or “configuration”. Culture had its own internal dynamics that could not be explained in terms of or reduced to something psychological or biology. He was interested in change over time and the laws of how cultural things rose and collapsed. His work was about societies rising and falling. He was a great thinker, but again he set the tone for seeing culture as not related to either psychology or biology.

This in turn led to people like Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead and others who were interested in the distinctiveness of different cultures. This is very clear in Benedict’s work, and in part it contributes to the founding of a critique of contemporary society. This is another main strand of contemporary cultural anthropology that has been there since Boas; the way we view the world isn’t the only way to do it. It is one way and there are many others. And if you are in the Arctic the Inuit way is the way you want to do it because they know how to do it and we don’t (or at least Boas didn’t).

DSW: This required the assumption that we can understand other ways. They can be comprehended with enough work.

RP: There was no view that “Well it’s all so completely different that we are living in other universes.” On the contrary, in that event there wouldn’t be a field of anthropology. In fact, Evans-Pritchard said the whole business of anthropology is translation. To look at and understand their way of viewing it; and bring it back to us and present it to us in a translated form.

DSW: I was actually going mention Evans-Pritchard myself. And a personal hero, Victor Turner. Please say a bit about them. And also a term that Evans-Pritchard used all the time–a corporate unit. That term has something of the super-organism to it. Has it received much attention?

RP: It is absolutely central to social anthropology. The question of whether social groups are corporate groups, or whether they should be seen as abstractions of collections of individuals. It is a question of whether what we are doing is based on methodological individualism or whether it is based on the view of the super-organism- that the corporate has its own internal functioning and cannot be reduced to the individuals. There are a lot of great thinkers on both sides of that argument, which runs through all of social anthropology, especially the British tradition. Is a clan or lineage a corporate group or is it just a collection of individuals that we happen to call a “clan”?

DSW: This is where the evolutionary distinction between proximate and ultimate causation becomes useful. Where should we go from here? I want to work towards the present and include the tradition of post-modernism and the current challenges for the field of cultural anthropology adopting what you and I know as Dual Inheritance Theory.

RP: Well I’m glad you mentioned Victor Turner. He was one of my teachers.

DSW: Oh really? His Ritual Process is the book that I…

RP: Interesting that you say that, I just assigned part of Ritual Process for part of my class this week. Turner was an interesting guy who was a Marxist, a psycho-analytic thinker, and a Catholic at various stages in his life. He was looking for meaning. Did you know that was also true about Evans-Pritchard and Mary Douglas? They all were or became Catholics. I suppose that, having come back from Africa where they were immersed in a rich ritual life, they all turned to Catholicism because they found secular life and Protestantism to be thin gruel.

DSW: I did not know that at all!

RP: I think Mary Douglas might have started out a serious Catholic. In any case, you have to understand that all this talk about ritual and super organism is taking place within the British context where the Catholics were a persecuted minority. Catholics viewed themselves as much more interested in symbols and rituals, and opposed what they saw as the Protestant iconoclastic denigration of symbolism. Theological concerns were central to the dispute: was the host the actual body and blood of Christ? Is the symbol the real thing or is it just a name for the thing? You have to understand this to see where the Brits are coming from.

Now, Turner was a wonderful thinker in my view, and I’m a great admirer of his work. Since the Radcliffe-Brownian tradition had focused so much on “structure”, he went further and developed the idea of anti-structure; he was interested in the fundamental irreducible sociality of humans.

DSW: For the benefit of our audience, he had two key terms: Structure and Communitas. Communitas was the ethos of moral equality. Ritual was the thing that linked the Structure of society to the ethos of Communitas. Is that a good summary?

RP: Yes. In ritual, especially initiation ritual, which is what Turner was the most interested in. the whole point is that you were in one status and then you move to another status. But in between you are nothing, you are not in the structure, and when you are in that situation you experience anti-structure or communitas, and all other people going through the same thing are just like you. You are reduced to your bare humanity. You see others without status, without class; you see each other as raw humans. And that for Turner is the basis of society, the fundamental irreducible sociality that is not structural but anti-structural…

DSW: This plays very well with the concept of guarded egalitarianism. Which Christopher Boehm calls reverse dominance. The human genetic evolutionary story of being in small egalitarian groups that vigilantly enforced equality.

RP: I agree with Boehm on that. All right, so we want to fast forward to the present. You could say that Geertz was a seminal figure in all of this. An anthropologist and a wonderful writer, Geertz was very much in the school of Boas, of not building towards a grand theory. His point was that if you’ve done a really thick description of the Balinese, that is the desired result. That is what you want to know: what it is like to be in Bali? If you read him you get a good sense of what it is like to be there; but what is beyond that? He wasn’t interested. He was extremely well-informed and had majored in philosophy. He was a real serious thinker, a genius really. But the flood waters opened after him; many of his students rebelled against him. A lot of this was political and had to do with the generation of students in the 60’s and 70’s that were living through a number of extremely important social transformations in American political social intellectual life.

There are several very important strands. One was certainly the civil rights movement, of which Boas had been a champion because he was anti-racist. But intellectually, that was not the most important influence on that generation of anthropologists. The Vietnam war was extremely important; it caused people who would not have otherwise thought critically about colonialism to think about America’s role in the world, and about the role of the west versus non-western to become politically active and critical. Opponents of the Vietnam war resuscitated traditions that stressed the critique of western capitalist society. These critiques were associated with Marxism, which had been pretty much taboo in American academia until then. Suddenly, there is an explosion of this kind of critical thought.

And people were literally having to figure out what the hell to do about the draft. My roommate, who was a graduate student, went to Canada; threw his dog and clothes in his car one night and never came back. Serious existential life choices were being made. But it had the intellectual effect of bringing to the fore an intellectual critique of the West with a power and a kind of rawness and immediacy that had never been there before.

DSW: I want to rewind a little bit and look at the role of anthropology in World War II. As I understand it, in WWII many anthropologists were in the service and were studying the people of Pacific Islands. Maybe just say a little bit about that.

RP: Yes; Melanesia and Micronesia had gone successively through Spanish, German and ultimately Japanese control. When the Japanese lost the war, they fell into American hands. America was the effective military government of Micronesia. Many anthropologists cut their teeth being sent to some Micronesian island. The way they would train you in anthropology was to hand you a big thick ethnography and say “go thou and do likewise”. Just write about everything that you see there. I could name a whole bunch of people who did that.

DSW: So was that insidious? Ideological? Or just historical?

RP: It was both. There were anthropologists who came down on both sides of that. But I would say most of the anthropologists who had been through the second world war couldn’t understand the anti-Vietnam sentiments. They took the view that “it is another war, we are fighting it, this is just what you do”. And the vehemence with which they saw the opposition to the war created a cultural break. I would say from then on there was a sense that the anthropology that had been done, up through Geertz, was politically suspect. Then at the same time there was an openness to French thought which Foucault…

DSW: Let’s spend some time on this. The French strain of thought is obviously important.

RP: Post modernism, at least the French variety, comes out of post-structuralism which of course as the term suggests comes out of structuralism. Levi-Strauss was a major figure in all of this. He was a link between the Durkhiemian tradition and the post-modern turn. Levi-Strauss is hard to encapsulate. He was a universalist, he was interested in seeing how the human mind works, which he thought was always logical and rational; for him, the notion that “primitives” were irrational, or that myth was irrational, was wrong. He believed you could find the underlying basic rational structure underlying the seemingly bewildering or bizarre surface forms of culture.

He is very important; if you read his paper “Social Structure” (that was back in 1950) you see that he was interested in information theory, communications theory and cybernetics and how this could explain the culture of the mind. Few anthropologists agree with Levi-Strauss much anymore but there was a period when everybody had to read him. And the idea that myth and language, like the genetic code, are based on binary oppositions is very powerful idea, a potential unifying idea. To me it’s a forerunner of Dual Inheritance Theory. If you look at cultures, it is undeniable that they categorize things in terms of, for example, the sky things vs the earth things, male vs female, day vs night, right vs left. It’s a very widespread way of thinking. What Foucault took from Levi-Strauss and post-structuralism is the view that individuals are unimportant. What is important is the discourse, the strands within a cultural system. If you looked historically at the genealogy of these strands, they came and they went in no particular order. One episteme followed another episteme. Just before 1600 you could talk about the relationship between astrology and magic but after 1600 you didn’t talk that way anymore. One was now in he era of the Enlightenment, Descartes. And as for why that happened — that’s an irrelevant question for Foucault.

DSW: So could you call that non-functionalist?

RP: Yes, even anti-functionalist. Geertz too was anti-functionalist. I sometimes have jokingly thought, not totally jokingly, that what the French did was take American cultural relativism, repackage it with some fancy French terms and import it back to us with a hefty sticker price. You arrive at someone like Derrida, who can undercut the basis of any positive assertion. The post-structuralists realized that if you look at any binary opposition, the two terms are not identical: if you say A vs B, A is privileged over B. or if you say X and Y, X is somewhat privileged, in your mind, over Y. If you say male and female, male is privileged over female. If you say yang and yin, and so on. There is a fundamental inequality built into all of this. So there is now an emphasis on inequality. Of course it’s a good idea that there should be equality. But there is also the result that you could see any system of thought and find the inequality in it, and thus de-legitimize it.

DSW: Is this where power becomes a central concept?

RP: Yes; with Foucault, the real question is who controls this knowledge? One of his many contributions is the idea that knowledge is power. Whoever controls the discourses has the power. It’s not that there is a cabal of masterminds who are sending this out but rather that it permeates the entire system. It is hegemonic- in the current sense of the world- that people buy into it. Why do people in Kansas keep voting for the people who are oppressing them? They are listening to FOX news, it’s in the air, so they just accept it. The whole point of Foucaultian critique thus becomes to unmask the power dimension of the discourses. This replaced both Marxism, which was seen as too simple-minded, and thinkers like Geertz, who were seen as ideologically conservative, in league with the western power in the form of social science.
Geertz, for instance, had served in the navy in the war. He went to Indonesia and he spent many years in Java and Bali and he wrote 6 books about them. But they were produced in the context, if not in the spirit, of the “new nations”, the then-current development idea; based essentially in a progressivist, even Spencerian model. This was the idea of “these people are here on a progressive scale, and we [the west] are here and so we want to figure out how to get them here.—to see them “develop”” Geertz was critical of this mind-set but also was in it. Many anthropologists were. Looking back, the next generation, since the 80’s, were critical of the previous generation for not seeing the importance of power relations and criticizing them. They were seen as too involved in the system to critique it and the whole point of anthropology became critical. It became a critique of power relations, of neoliberalism, globalism, and capitalism, all of which were obviously forms of inequality.

DSW: This ends up including a critique of science itself.

RP: Well, science is then easily seen as just one more handmaiden of western domination as a system that thinks it is above history and discourse, but is in fact a form of discourse. It is from there that one can deconstruct science. Now, how far you want to take that, there are a range of opinions; but it is certainly a very strong strain in modern cultural anthropology — the idea that science is an attempt to fix absolutes where there are none. To find hard realities when in fact the world is constructed, it’s a social construction, and science is itself a social construction.

DSW: In my mind, that ends up being a denial of objective reality, do some people take it that far?

RP: Sure, Levi-Strauss said that the Saussurerian notion, that the connection between the symbol and the thing is arbitrary; which means that symbols only having meaning in terms of other symbols. It’s their relationship among themselves, not with the actual world, that is important. Therefore, since you are always seeing the world through a socially constructed and arbitrary screen, all you are seeing is screen, you are not seeing reality. Different people see things differently and that’s the end of story. What that means is that ethnography becomes in effect an end in itself. The goal of cultural anthropology is not to construct cultural theory or social theory or to integrate it into other theories but to do good – and critical –ethnography.

DSW: But don’t ethnographies have to make statements of fact? That this happened, not that. That they see it this way, and not that way. Don’t ethnographies rely upon the existence of objective knowledge?

RP: Indeed; so here you enter into the territory of the critique of ethnography. The whole idea of Writing Culture, which was a very influential book, by James Clifford and George Marcus (1980) was: that we in the west get to write about them but we act as though we are just seeing things as they are. Whereas in fact we are “positioned” and they are positioned, and we “see” from a position of power and privilege. So therefore we have to undercut and critique the whole idea of the objective description of cultures. So then how do you do ethnography? Well, you include texts, you ask the native to do the observation, or you record the dialogue and the interviews that you had without trying to turn them into a conceptual frame. All this led Marcus to say in effect “We ethnographers are now learning to do what the journalists already know how to do”. I find that idea quite amazing — that anthropology is an immature form of journalism. We used to think it was the other way around. Well, sic transit gloria mundi.

Now I want to mention another major strand that is important in this story. In addition to Vietnam and Civil Rights, there were Feminism and Gay Rights, which of course are historically linked to Civil Rights. These develop the notion that differences, binarisms like male and female, are culturally constructed and any hint that they have a grounding in biology is denied. You don’t have to be an anthropologist to see that out in the world. It was a very powerful motivator within anthropology to insist, as a kind of an absolute as it has become among many anthropologists, that everything pertaining to gender is socially or culturally constructed. So it became not only empirically wrong but morally wrong to say that there was actually a difference between men and women.

DSW: The idea that there can be real biological differences plus a huge overlay of socially constructed differences is too much of a nuance, I guess.

RP: Well I have experienced that myself. The way I see it, we know that humans-hominids- evolved in a cultural niche for hundreds of thousands of years. We are very, very cultural. Someone like Marshall Sahlins would say that in the course of this evolution, culture made biology unimportant. However, I think that it is only partly true. It is true that in order to achieve the adaptability that humans have— the adaptability to move into the arctic –instead of having to grow fur, kill an animal that has fur and wrap it around you — you must have the possibility of cultural learning, of cultural variation so that you can adapt quickly to any environment. In order to do that, instinct, as a well-organized innate adaptation to a particular environment, has to give way to a cultural system “Here is how you make a harpoon, here is how you make a kayak.” That’s not biologically transmitted, that’s culturally transmitted. At the same time, we didn’t stop being animals. We didn’t stop being organisms that have to eat, that have certain requirements, that have to reproduce sexually. As I see it, our biological imperatives are all still there but they need to be completed and complemented by whatever culture you are brought up in. We need both cultural and genetic information to construct ourselves; in effect, we have always been cyborgs.

DSW: You have segued nicely to Dual Inheritance Theory. Back in the 1970’s, several people trained primarily in biology, including Robert Boyd and Peter Richardson, Ed Wilson and Charles Lumsden, and Luca Cavalli-Sforza, began to think about culture as an evolutionary process. This was a new stream of thought that you encountered early, facilitated it, and hired some of these individuals into your department.

RP: Well, I was trained in the 60’s at the University of Chicago. Which was a wonderful department in many ways. I had the privilege of studying with people like Victor Turner, Clifford Geertz, and David Schneider. I was in the last graduate class that had to take exams in the 4 fields of anthropology. After that, if you were a cultural anthropologist you just did cultural. We were required to takes classes in each of those things. My introduction to cultural theory was with Clifford Geertz, so a I got it from the mouth of the master. But in addition, my introduction to archeology was from Lewis Binford. And Clark Howell taught us paleo-anthropology. They didn’t have much of anything to say to each other but I was sitting there going “how does this all fit together?” You had to put all this together in your own mind.

But essentially, I was trained in a tradition of cultural and social anthropology where I was familiar with the writings of not only the people who taught me, but with figures like Levi-Strauss and in the British tradition of Radcliffe-Brown, Fortes. and many others. What was exciting to me when I was a graduate student was the idea of symbolism, which I liked because my undergraduate degree was in history and literature. I was then most interested in the humanities; I really am still a humanities guy. So I was interested in symbolism and this was Geertz’s great contribution: symbols are not some vague thing that can’t actually be grasped. They are real, they exist out there in the world.

DSW: Culture is something that can be studied.

RP: That it can be studied and understood and interpreted and shown to have internal logics that construct meanings that lead to values and purposes and actions. Remember that these people had been influenced by Parsons; Schneider, Geertz and many others were all products of Parsonian training. Parsonian theory is theory of action. What Parsons had basically done was to take Durkheim, Weber, and others and combine them to make his own theory of structural-functionalism. But in my first year as a grad student I went to Dave Schneider, after I had taken several classes and I said “all this Durkheim, all this stuff, is about big systems. That’s very well and good, but I’m interested in real people, in how it’s meaningful to them” And he said “you’re interested in culture and personality. And you’re lucky because the world’s best culture and personality scholar will be coming here next year.” That was Mel Spiro. They had just hired him. So when Mel arrived and hung out his shingle, I knocked on his door and said “I’m supposed to be your student.” The first seminar we had with him was on the anthropology of religion and we read Durkheim’s Elementary Forms, and lot of Weber, including the Protestant Ethic. And Freud. We read Totem and Taboo, Group Psychology, Future and Illusion, and Civilization and its Discontents. And he said, “You write your paper on Freud”. I thought this is fascinating, this is great! so I declared myself a psychological anthropologist. And this set me apart already from the cultural people, because they wanted nothing to do with Freud or any form of psychology.

DSW: You had made a link between the individual mind and culture?

RP: Exactly. So then my interest focused more clearly on how all these things are connected. My first job was in City College in New York. Then I moved from there to Queens. So I spent my first several years in the milieu of New York anthropology, which was totally different from Chicago and in fact very much opposed to it. The anthropologists there had descended from a figure I haven’t mentioned yet, Leslie White who was the grandfather of culturology, very much going back to Morgan and Spencer and Tyler. He was interested in energy capture as the driver of cultural evolution — a great universal theme. He trained a great many people who then spread out. Michigan and Columbia were the centers of this form of thinking. Marvin Harris and people like that.

DSW: So that was ecological?

RP: Some of it was; and it was materialist, in the Marxist sense. White was essentially a Marxist. In his theory, as in Marx’s, the base is the mode of production and this creates the relations of production and finally, and least importantly, there is an ideological superstructure. From this perspective, Levi-Strauss and Geertz were just studying superstructure, the least important part of the system. What’s important is the adaptation on the ground, how are the Incas making a living, how are the Aztecs making a living. Why are they sacrificing so many people, what’s going on? The driver of cultural systems is the economic system.

Suddenly I was confronted with all of that. And at the same time, another school of thought in New York was led by Eric Wolf, who was a different sort of Marxist. Finally, there were stirring the beginnings of sociobiology. What I did from the Chicago perspective was considered uninteresting from the New York perspective. By way of survival, I had to learn what these people were doing; and I thought this was interesting too. In my own mind I wanted to figure out a way to put together these various strands of thought; without undercutting and abandoning my primary set of interests in cultural symbolism. My first book was called the Tibetan Symbolic World. It was an analysis of the symbol systems of texts and rituals of Tibet. And that is what I’m still most interested in — ritual and symbolism — what does it mean? How can you interpret it? What are symbols all about?

But being in dialogue with these New York school anthropologists, I had to learn their way of thinking. An important moment in my development was a visit to Mel Spiro, who, after he left Chicago, started the anthropology department at San Diego. He invited me out there for a semester. I started reading a lot of evolutionary theory because psychoanalysis seems to be the bridge between biology — for the drives — and symbolism for dreams and fantasies. How do you get from instincts to dreams? You have to know something about both the drives and about the symbolism. So I got interested in this nexus of theories. A reviewer of my Tibet book had said it would appeal to people interested in evolutionary theory, structuralism and psychoanalysis. I think it was intended as a dismissal– if you are interested in such nonsense, go ahead and read this book.” But I thought “yeah, that is in fact what I’m doing.” So it was at that point that I read a lot of the early cultural evolutionary theory literature.

I had always been interested in nature, living nature, and hence in biology. And the core theory in biology is evolution. Then when I came to Emory I had the opportunity to help set up a department of anthropology which was half biological and half cultural, with the project of having a conversation across those borders. At one point we hired Joan Silk, a fine primatologist now doing well at ASU. And into the bargain, there was the trailing spouse, who was Robert Boyd, who is also doing very well there now. When I started talking to him and reading his work, I realized this was congruent with what I’d thought along: that culture is a system of symbols that is transmitted over time; that DNA is also a system of encoded meanings, and that both are transmitted across generations over time. That’s it. This is a theory I can work with. But these theorists I was reading were all coming at these ideas from biology. But I am coming at it from Levi-Strauss, Geertz, Radcliffe-Brown – all which I still adhere to. That is my tradition. So how can we put all this together? I started to think about that and in 1987 edited a collection of papers by all the members of the Emory department in the journal Cultural Anthropology. It was about various attempts to bridge that gap between culture and biology. That was where I first published an article that made explicit use of the idea of of Dual Inheritance.

DSW: What year was that again?

RP: 1987.

DSW: That’s early on. When was Boyd and Richerson’s book (Culture and the Evolutionary Process)?

RP: 1985. But because Boyd was there, I had several long conversations with him. And he said “This is compatible with Freudian theory” So the different pieces of the puzzle fell into place for me: evolution, psychoanalysis, culture. That stew has been brewing in my mind since 1987, or really the early 80’s as a way of trying to integrate how to think about human society. Dual Inheritance seems to me not a theory, it’s a fact. Just like evolution is a fact, it’s not a theory. Then there is a theory about it, and that’s what I wanted to contribute to. Knowing that most of these people didn’t come from where I was coming from, with a cultural anthropological background, made me realize I had something to contribute. Once I started reading ethnography and looking for the evidence of dual inheritance, a pattern emerged. As you may know, I had a detour in my career, I became a dean at Emory between 2000 and 2010. I had a 10 year stint as an administrator, during which I didn’t write anything. But I read, and when I stepped down they gave me some leave time, and I said “I’m going to write a book.”

DSW: Which became Mixed Messages. Awesome. It is one of the four books that I reviewed in my One Culture target essay, which is published with commentaries in the Social Evolution Forum. Let’s end with just a couple minutes on how you think an integration can take place, now that we have Dual Inheritance theory, which integrates things in your own mind. Then we have the sociological task of getting all these threads together to create more of a consensus, more of a conceptual unity then currently exists. Do you see a way that that can happen? Or are you pessimistic?

RP: I won’t say that I’m pessimistic, but I’m not overly optimistic either. One way forward is the ASU model, which is, if I might say it this way, post-disciplinary. For most of my own career at Emory I had my appointment in the Institute of Liberal Arts, one of the few existing interdisciplinary PhD programs in the country. Of course I’ve been committed to interdisciplinary scholarship, for obvious reasons: the kind of work I do requires me to bring together things from humanities, psychology, biology. Then two years ago I moved into the anthropology department. I don’t see cross-fertilization between biological and cultural thinking happening in anthropology departments very much, though there is more at Emory than in many other departments.

What I see happening in anthropology departments is biological anthropologists saying to cultural anthropologists “we’re now realizing how important culture is” and cultural anthropologists saying “we don’t talk to you”. That strikes me as absurd. The problem with biological anthropologists is that they don’t have the training I had to do cultural and social anthropology. So they need to collaborate with someone in cultural anthropology, or else they need to recreate it. So, ironically, kinship theory is more alive in biological anthropology than in cultural anthropology these days. It may be that evolutionary anthropology will have to rediscover and incorporate much of what was done in cultural anthropology, and rethink it in contemporary terms. I think that could conceivably happen. One of the obstacles there is that most biologists still don’t think in terms of dual inheritance. In fact, most don’t think in terms of culture at all.

DSW: Correct. Sociobiology was an original application to anthropology that was a not Dual Inheritance.

RP: While I admire E.O. Wilson greatly, I think he did more damage to the relationship between cultural and biological anthropology then almost anybody else, because his initial rather bald reductionism and dismissal of culture and society as variables made sociobiology seem like the evil empire to many cultural anthropologists.

DSW: That is another conversation! He attempted to address that with his subsequent books on cultural evolution.

RP: I know that but I would say that there remains an allergic reaction that cultural anthropology had to that book and others like it…

DSW: Sure, Marshall Sahlins leading the way…

RP: Marshall Sahlins started out as a student of Leslie White, as an evolutionary thinker. He went to France, and studied with Levi-Strauss and came back an anti-evolutionist and underwent his major conversation. So he had a particular animus. But the feeling is much more widespread. I think cultural anthropology has to overcome that animus, and evolutionary scholars have to recognize that there is such a thing as culture and society and that many very smart people have been thinking about it for years, in terms of signs and symbols.

I think that institutionally, it would be good if we could overcome the divide within the discipline of anthropology. But it might be better if there were interdisciplinary centers of learning like they are trying to do at ASU, in which you have economists and neuroscientists and cultural anthropologists talking to each other. There was an interesting study–I can’t give a citation–I just heard it from a sociologist friend of mine. What I recall is that somebody set out to look at institutions where the most Nobel prizes and American Academy members came from. The key variable was that they were at universities that had built into their institutional life regular occasions for meetings with people not from one’s own discipline.

DSW: That’s interesting. For the newly formed Cultural Evolution Society, we asked the founding members what societies they belonged to. That resulted in the most amazing social network graph, which I will add to this interview. The members of this one new society collectively belong to over 450 other societies. In the graph, each node represents a society and each line between nodes represents a person who belongs to both societies. The arm-like structure of the graph provides a picture of isolation among the major branches of human-related-knowledge. The fact that all of these people belong to a single new society is a giant step toward integration. It would be a tragedy if cultural anthropologists stayed away from the CES because of the barriers of the past. Hopefully they will join in.

Societal affiliations among 450 scientific societies. Enlarge

RP: I hope so. Certainly in our department we train students who are able to easily cross that boundary. I hope there are other places that are starting to do that. As late as the end of the 19th century there were no fields of anthropology, sociology, or psychology. There was just philosophy. It broke up into these disciplines because knowledge is so complex and became more and more specialized. But we are at a point in intellectual history where scholarship and the institutions that support it need to reconfigure themselves and make the connections that we couldn’t make back then because we didn’t have the natural history, we didn’t have the data. But now we do; and we need to start putting it all together.

DSW: What a perfect way to end, thank you so much!

3 Comments

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3 Comments

  1. JoseAngel says:

    A great interview. And it was high time someone gave Herbert Spencer his due, after a century of Spencer-bashing!

  2. Helga Vierich says:

    I loved this interview; it brought back so much from my undergraduate training! I am a big fan of integration and the four-field approach: in 1980 I had to petition to do a Ph.D. in all four fields, but it was worth it. This was at the University of Toronto and Richard B. Lee was my thesis supervisor. I have been following the development of the Cultural Evolution Society with great interest.

    One can slay most ideological dragons by means of careful science; they are just conservative ideas from another time. But in this case, we are dealing with ideas already slain, the Walking Dead: Social Darwinism is morphing into “scientific racism”. Something is animating these ideas. 

It is not too difficult to see what it is, since states – and even empires – are still with us. Various states are still displacing, even killing off, inconvenient people. We have the highest ratio of humans to resources ever seen in our species, and the resources are all in decline. Resources like free land, oil, coal copper, water, – even marine fish and trees – are in shorter supply, and more expensive to exploit. Social stratification is at all time high, and the evidence is mounting that poverty is a destroyer of human potential, and resiliency, and well being, not a result of it. So those who want to defend stratification as a form of meritocracy are back – and Social Darwinism stalks the intellectual landscape once more.
 
Meanwhile, despite this resurgence of the Walking Dead, mechanisms of social change based on scientific data and the vanguard of enlightenment about the evolution and nature of human beings, continue to spread. This has become associated with more liberal and democratic ideologies, which, within the current industrial version super-organic network (consisting of that highly educated culture-area we like to call our Global Industrial Civilization) are working just fine. There is a sweeping consensus in favor of recognition of the “psychic unity of mankind”, for just treatment, for all human beings. 

A recent essay, in praise of Noam Chomsky, expressed it well:
    

“…One doesn’t have to indulge in academic verbiage in order to express one of the central impulses of the Enlightenment: its recognition of the value of the individual. This is classical liberalism… this essentially anti-authoritarian appreciation of the dignity and freedom of the individual. This is also, you may notice, morality. Respect and compassion for “the other,” the other person, the other sex, the other race, the other nationality: this is the kernel of true liberalism and true morality, as encapsulated by the Golden Rule. Express yourself freely as long as you don’t harm others, and express yourself so as to do good to others: liberalism and morality…
    
Certain Enlightenment thinkers of the eighteenth century subscribed to this moral liberalism, but, given the time in which they lived, they were periodically susceptible to illiberal sentiments, such as contempt for Africans or women or wage-laborers. Or they tried to justify imperialistic policies. Contrary to what many postmodernists might think, this doesn’t invalidate the Enlightenment itself; it merely shows that humans are human, products of their society, and sometimes unable to live up to the implicit conceptual content of their philosophies.”[http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/05/22/the-value-of-noam-chomsky/]

    So, even though we KNOW, now, that cultural change is, literally, adaptive, even though we KNOW, now, that modeling energy use and sources is only a small part of the cultural whole, and even though we have, now, massive and growing evidence that it is almost always a complicated dance of genes, culture, and environment that contribute to the heritability of human physical and behavioral traits, yet all of this has not yet pulled the plug on the Walking Dead.



    Perhaps, to do that, we need a more powerful transformative metaphor for human equality, to effect a shape shifting of the mind? A new paradigm.


    Our models of the cultural side of the feedback loop that led to the human species, however, is just beginning to get some real traction in the last few decades and progress is slow. It is hampered by pre-Enlightenment philosophies of human nature which many people still incorporate, often unintentionally, in their scientific paradigm. So even the Walking Dead ideologies have their uses, to establish counterpoints and illuminate the difficulties ahead when we set off along the road less often followed by generations past.

  3. J.Baldwin says:

    I’d just like to add my endorsement of Professor Paul’s book, Mixed Messages. As a professor of communication, I say it was the best communication book I read last year. My already dog-eared copy is sitting on my desk as I type. Any scholar interested in cultural processes, i.e. webs of significance in Geertz’s terms or the ritual view of communication as James Carey put it, ought to read it.