Human Culture

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Human culture image-1.jpg
The Union Jack represents' the unity of formerly warring nations Magically charged canoe prow used in the exchange of “useless” Kula trade goods Python dance” of Bavenda women – returning everyone to the time of origins?

All human societies maintain systems of “anti-biological” kinship All human societies
maintain systems of
Ritual, like pretend play, creates a decoupled world that can overthrow “the tyranny of selfish genes”


Perhaps the most important discovery made in the early days of ethnographic research was the utter strangeness of other peoples – commonly referred to as “The anthropological other”. People in cultures very different from our own, it was found, commonly had:
1. kinship systems with non-biological “parents” and “siblings”

2. economic systems which had nothing to do with biological needs or even luxuries as understood (or rather not understood) by western economists;

3. equally non-pragmatic, anti-biological, and apparently illogical ritual practices;

4. taboos and notions of “pollution” that had nothing to do with hygiene;

5. beliefs about the nature of reality that were self-contradictory, counter-intuitive, and counter-experiential;

6. understandings of selfhood that were as anti-biological as notions of kinship; and

7. a sense of self with disrupted outer boundaries, and fragmented by an excess of inner boundaries.


The "the anthropological other" lived in communities structured by anti-biological systems of kinship and reciprocity, associated with profound distortions of perception, understanding, and self/other awareness. During the early twentieth century, it became increasingly apparent that the convenient colonialist view of dominated peoples as “primitive” could not be sustained, for the “anthropological other” was as far – perhaps further – removed from a biological state of nature as any post-industrial city dweller.

In sum, the strangeness of “other” peoples violated the expectations of any reasonable western observer, and proved those expectations false. The revealed falsity of western assumptions is, implicitly, a second important discovery, for it would seem fair to assume that out own world view may be fully as untrustworthy as those of peoples studied by early anthropologists. Indeed one of the simplest ways to make sense of ethnographic literature is to set out with the assumption that every human culture incorporates a whole pack of lies about human nature, the human condition, and the cosmos as a whole. What Durkheim called “collective representations”. might just as well, as often as not, be termed “collective deceptions”.

Modern science, despite the power and success of its empirical methodology, has not entirely extricated itself from the tangle of collective deceptions that are endemic in western culture – such as individualism, ethnocentrism, sexism, and the valuation of work over play – and has even invented new ones of its own, notably physicalism, cognitivism, logocentrism, and genocentrism, none of which stand up to rational scrutiny [ see collective deceptions in western science ].


The anthropological other

1. Scientific approaches to religion as generic confabulatory responses to anomaly

Human culture image2.jpg
“There must be something
wrong with the camera”

“It’s something real but not
what it appears to be”

It’s from another world -
beyond human knowledge”

Freud and Piaget
Shaman as schizophrenic
“Parasitic meme” theory

Marxist anthropology
Durkheimian anthropology
Victor Turner

Shamanic anthropology
Hermeneutic anthropology

Or:"All cameras take
pictures of UFOs"

Cognitive anthropology
Symbolic anthropology
Evolutionary psychology
Biology and genetics
Cognitive science

Lewis Henry Morgan (1877), founding father of American cultural anthropology, wrote: “All primitive religion is grotesque and to some extent incomprehensible.” The “some extent” of course is a euphemism – he meant totally incomprehensible. Religion is the central issue defining the “anthropological other” and dividing most scientific theories and non-theories. Western theories of religion are confounded not only by the “strangeness” of other peoples’ beliefs and practices (reflecting the “wrongness” of western views) but by the conflict between science and religion which began in the 17th century, reflecting a power struggle between two groups of dominant males (scientists – mainly aristocrats – and clergy: Jordanova, 1980).

There are three basic ways of responding to a photograph of a UFO – that is, to a representation which no one is qualified by experience or knowledge to interpret. Either “there must be something wrong with the camera”, or “it’s something real but not what it appears to be” (an optical illusion or deliberate fraud); or “it’s from another world” (an alien space ship). The study of religion is the study of representations of this sort: texts, reports, ritual performances, and statements of beliefs concerning invisible things which by definition are not directly verifiable. Not surprisingly, all scientific theories of religion fall into one of the three categories above – they are generic confabulatory responses to anomaly (even though some of them may prove useful). During the 20th century, however, it became increasingly clear that “faulty camera” theories of religion were wrong. The “shaman as schizophrenic” for example had to be abandoned because shamans generally proved to be charismatic individuals of superior intellect, artistic talent, and social skills. Consequently, “faulty camera” theories became unacceptable and were replaced by the idea that “All cameras take pictures of UFOs” – in one notable theory, they do so precisely because they are designed not to (Boyer, 1996). The only surviving “disease” concept is Richard Dawkins’ “parasitic meme” or “God virus” hypothesis (1989). For a review of the main theories see Whitehead 2000. (short version) or 2003. (long).

2. Kinship systems

To quote Lewis Henry Morgan again (1871): “I thought kinship was a simple biological fact of life until I met the Iroquois.” The Iroquois have a matrilineal clan system – that is, their society is divided into clans whose members trace their descent from a mythical ancestress, and who own everything in common, even including their children. Societies with clan divisions are known as “segmental societies”. The simplest – and probably primordial – form is the “dual moiety” system. “Moiety” simply means “half” so these systems divide society into two halves – the half you belong to is regarded as your “kin” with whom all sexual relations are considered “incestuous”, and the other as your “affines” (or in-laws by marriage to your “kin”) who will provide you with a spouse. People who live in such systems commonly make the same mistake as Lewis Henry Morgan – they assume their system is a “biological fact of life”, and that all human kind is divided into the same clans as themselves. Foreign visitors who deny this are viewed with deep suspicion.

What most impressed Morgan and other early anthropologists was “classificatory kinship” – that is, within any clan or moiety, everyone has multiple fathers and mothers and non-consanguinial siblings. If the system is matrilineal, you inherit your clan membership from your mother. Your mother’s “sisters” (whether consanguinial or classificatory) will also bequeath the same clan identity to their children, so they too will be your “mothers” and their children will be your “brothers” and “sisters”. The same will apply to your father’s “brothers” who, like him, will all marry women from your clan (i.e. your “mothers”) and so are your “fathers”. Your mother’s “brothers”, on the other hand, will (in a dual moiety system) marry women from your father’s clan, so they are your “uncles” and their children are your “cousins”, one of whom you will marry. The same logic applies to your father’s “sisters” who are your “aunts”.

Biologists and evolutionary psychologists generally ignore kinship systems because they cannot be explained by simplistic Darwinism or “black box” psychology (see modularity theories ). Such complex and artificial systems cannot “evolve” by natural selection and imply a “big bang” origin for human culture [ see also language origins and menstrual sex-strike theory ].

There is no evidence that the nuclear family is any more “biological” than a classificatory system. Fenced-off properties and marriages sanctioned by God and Government suggest a politically-motivated atomization of society. Nation states have a vested interest in breaking up all forms of collectivised identity other than “nationality” and to this we may also attribute western individualism. When a politician talks of “restoring family values” we might question whether he is part of the problem rather than its solution.

3. Economic systems

If biologists are baffled by classificatory kinship, western economists are equally at sea with indigenous economic systems, which commonly take the form of “gift exchange”. The giving of gifts simulates disinterested generosity but, in its more extreme forms, is ruthlessly Machiavellian. In an egalitarian system, if I give you, say, a piglet with a black patch over one eye, then – after a respectable interval such as six months – you must give me a pig with a black patch over one eye. You cannot give me the same pig or reciprocate my gift too quickly, for this would be an insulting “rejection” of my gift. But if you delay too long, this would be an equally insulting refusal to reciprocate. Gifts are widely believed to be invested with supernatural power. Failure to give, accept, or reciprocate a gift risks the direst spiritual sanctions, including disease, disfigurement, or death. So there is no clear boundary between “economic” and religious practices – indeed, ritual sacrifice (giving a gift) and prayer (soliciting a gift) can be understood as a means of drawing spiritual beings into the exchange system (Mauss, 1925).

Competitive gift exchange creates political advantages for successful participants. The classic example is the Kula trade ring in the d’Entrecasteaux Archipelago. Soulava – necklaces of disks, mainly pink spondylus shell – are exchanged for mwali – white armshells made from spiral trochus shells. These “useless trade goods” circle endlessly around a ring of islands. “Male” soulava are traded in a clockwise direction, as they are exchanged for “female” mwali which circle in the opposite direction. The armshells and necklaces are seldom worn. They may be taken out occasionally to be admired and gloated over, but cannot be kept long before they must be returned to the exchange cycle. Goods which have been involved in transactions with famous and powerful individuals acquire corresponding prestige of their own, and carry their trading histories with them like the pedigree of a prized racehorse. Traders endeavour, by magical practices and false promises, to secure the most prestigious items, since the prestige of the trader – and his political leverage within his own community – rises or falls according to the items he trades.

The “monster child” of competitive gift exchange is the potlatch system of northwest coastal America (Mauss, 1925). Here, goods are not so much exchanged as “killed” in orgies of conspicuous wealth destruction, in order to shame political rivals into even more ruinous displays of self-impoverishment. Wealth so “killed” includes mountains of blankets, potlatch coppers, and slaves. The killing is taken literally for the blankets and coppers are thought to be “persons” as surely as the slaves. These homicidal displays take place at feasts, where “honoured guests” may be “invited” to sit near the blistering heat of a fire, whilst precious whale oil is poured through a hopper in the roof to feed the flames. Potlatch feasts are so aggressive that, when the Hudson Bay Company refused to trade with warring native Canadians, the latter agreed to use potlatch as a substitute for war (Feest 1980).

Competitive gift exchange systems challenge the assumptions of western economists, for they do not deal in necessities and have nothing to do with “consumption” as conceived in industrial societies. Typical “gifts” include items of adornment that are never worn, yams that are left to rot in conspicuous displays of non-consumption, or potlatch coppers whose only function is to be given away or “killed” in order to humiliate and ruin one’s rivals.

Biological necessities as such are not typically given in gift exchange. People produce what they need for themselves and share them with their kin. Necessities are strictly not “economic”. An exception to this is bride wealth – gifts of meat or cattle that a man must provide in order to marry. Among hunting and gathering peoples such as the Bushmen meat must be given in exchange for a bride and must continue to be given to keep her happy (Biesele, 1993). According to menstrual sex-strike theory. (Knight, 1991), meat for marital sex was the ancestor of all economic systems. This primordial utility, however, is lost in hierarchic and competitive societies. Marcel Mauss (1925), after reviewing the economic systems known to anthropologists and historians at the time, concluded that the true function of economic systems is the “creation and destruction of social persons”.

'Where does this leave western economic theories? The widespread assumption that barter is the primordial form of exchange is clearly wrong, for barter only occurs in societies with well-established competitive gift exchange. Barter appears important in western eyes because of our belief that economic processes primarily concern subsistence needs and usefulness. That is why gift exchange and “useless trade goods” appear strange to us. But they are not so foreign as we may think. We only see things the way we do because we have an urban population that cannot produce its own subsistence, cash value unrelated to utility, and a socially alienating industrial system. Anonymous strangers produce what we consume and consume what we produce, and there is no pressing obligation to speak to our neighbours. Many of our “needs” are created by our peculiar way of life, or by the mere existence of the goods that supposedly fulfil them. Television, for example, is made “necessary” by our nuclear family system, our part-time social lives, our long working hours, the fear of letting our children play in the street – and the fact that everyone else is watching it. We are materially dependent on the system we have, but less so on the goods we produce. There is no denying the convenience, comfort, hygiene, health, protection, and other benefits of our industrialised world, but these are not available to all, and the opacity of the system prevents us from seeing just how much of it is devoted to sumptuary goods and services whose primary use is wealth display [ see table of social displays ]. Our Sunday papers may provide a window on the world, but the colour supplement – in its advertising and editorial – is filled with pictures of lifestyle accessories that are not profoundly different from kula armshells or potlatch blankets. These are the things people want to look at, envy, and aspire to possess.

Adam Smith (1776) noted the curious paradox that the usefulness of goods is inversely related to their cash value. Air is free, water nearly so, and food generally affordable. The most precious goods are always useless things like gold and diamonds, and people kill and die in the struggle to acquire them. What determines value is scarcity and the fact that other people want them. Value is a power issue and a reflection of the self as value. The anthropologist Claude Lévi Strauss (1949), quoting extensively from child psychologist Susan Isaacs (1933), noted that: the desire to possess is not an instinct, and is never based (or very rarely) on an objective relationship between the subject and the object. What gives the object its value is the “relation to the other person” (Isaacs, 1933: 223-4). Only food has intrinsic value to someone who is starving. But few objects afford a constant interest at all times and in all circumstances. “What is so desperately desired may be wanted only because someone else has it”. An important object assumes “great value...if another person begins to take an interest in it” (loc cit.)...The desire to possess “is essentially a social response” (ibid. p. 225). And this response should be “understood in terms of power – or, rather, of powerlessness. I want to own it because if I do not it may not be there when I need it...If another has it, he may keep it forever”...All these terms designate the various modalities of one tendency, or of one primitive need, the need for security (Lévi Strauss, 1949: 86).

We should note here that, because of the self as value, “security” does not simply mean the security of bodies, but the security of self-esteem.

The definitive assumption of western economic theory is that rational consumers make optimising choices from limited resources. Economists know that this is untrue, but cannot relinquish it because they have nothing to put in its place. They offer no convincing definition of “wealth” or the difference between “necessities” and “luxuries”, cannot explain why natural pearls are more valuable than seed pearls (even though you need X-rays to tell them apart), cannot understand why the invention of “labour saving” machines drives everyone to work harder (Enc. Brit., “Consumption”) – and seldom question the assumed benefits of “economic growth”.

Wealth is NOT the opposite of poverty, for there is an asymmetry between them. Wealth is always relative, whereas poverty can be relative or absolute. The ladder has a bottom but no top, and even the Sultan of Bahrain could do with a bit more (Whicker, 1992).

Wealth is power. Ultimately, it is the power to get other people to use their brains and muscles on your behalf. So your wealth is their poverty, and you cannot create wealth without also creating poverty – at least in the relative sense of the term. An intensely competitive system, however, also creates absolute poverty. There was no “third world” before colonial exploitation and world trade. Stone Age peoples live in a state of “primal affluence” in the sense that there is nothing they can imagine wanting which they cannot find easily in their environment, and they have far more leisure, sleep, and fun than we do (Sahlins, 1972). The widening gap between rich and poor nations, and rich and poor within nations, is the result of economic forces.

You might say that the industrial revolution has changed the nature of wealth because we can now get machines to do things for us rather than other people’s muscles. But machines themselves create poverty – they force everyone to work harder because we have a competitive system. As land is in fixed supply, the wealth created by “economic growth” is swallowed up by spiralling land prices, until the average family needs 1.5 jobs to pay the mortgage and the nanny who raises their children. The economic “success” of Japan has created one of the worst-housed labour forces in the world, and workers mortgage the lives of their children to get a modest roof over their heads. Industrial competition creates poverty in other ways – devouring energy and resources in an apparently insatiable manner. The demand for growth is a demand for demand. There is a constant need to create new needs and a proliferation of waste. Mountains of mobile phones and other electronic junk are smouldering in China, Ghana, and elsewhere, adding poisonous fumes to the privations of poverty. Even fears of global warming do not persuade us to question the need for “economic growth”. We want to find a “sustainable” way of maintaining “growth” – which may mean a sustainable way of destroying the planet. The reason we need growth is because in a competitive system you either grow or shrink. The system hands out wealth and poverty in equal measure.

Many individuals and movements are seeking solutions to the problems created by consumerism and economic growth, ranging from Fair Trade to Buy Nothing Day. Whether these prove to be mere pinpricks or signs of coming change remains to be seen. An interesting precedent was set by the King of Bhutan who, in 1972, made Gross National Happiness (GNH) the goal of government planning and development in his country, as opposed to Gross National Product. Thailand followed his example in 2006, and Ecuador adopted the notion of buen vivir as the goal of its own sustainable development. The governments of Australia, Canada, China, France, and the United Kingdom are also developing indexes of GNH (according to Wikipedia). The 3rd International Conference on Gross National Happiness Towards Global Transformation (November, 2007) was entitled “World Views Make a Difference”. Perhaps that is one justification for websites like this one.

4. Ritual

One recurring feature of ritual practice which contributes more than most to the “strangeness” of the anthropological other is supposed menstruation, child bearing, and breast feeding by men. Male menstruation is the more common form. Among the Sambia of New Guinea a man is not a true “warrior” unless he “menstruates” every full moon by inserting abrasive blades of grass up his nostrils and applying a violent sawing motion until a copious nosebleed results (Herdt, 1981). In secret male rituals in Australia, men “menstruate” by cutting open the underside of the penis. Across vast areas of North and South America, Africa, Australasia, and Melanesia, men menstruate by nose bleeding, vomiting, or gashing their arms or genitals, in a regular cycle governed by the moon (Knight, 1991). Mythological and ritual evidence even suggests something similar may have existed in Asia and Europe. Ideologically, menstruation is taken to be a sign of “feminine weakness”, so why should men want to purify or strengthen themselves for battle by menstruating?

The underlying logic can be found in the equally pervasive “Rule of women” myths (Knight, 1991). Men will tell you (if you are a man) that the sources of their ritual power – their menstruation, sacred flutes, bull-roarers, churingas, and other spiritually potent objects – were all originally “women’s things”. Or they will say that their blood, once they have sung over it, is magically transformed into the same blood that “those old women” shed when they created culture. According to the myths, women created the present world order by menstruating and other powerful acts, and this allowed women to dominate men “as we do to women now”. One day, however, men rebelled and stole all the “women’s things”. This accounts for male dominance and secret ritual practices which have prevailed since that time. An important feature of male menstruation is that men menstruate “properly” – which is synchronously – whereas women are prevented from doing so by menstrual seclusion – often in a hut at the opposite end of the village from the men’s “sacred” house. This prevents women from regaining their former ritual power.

“Rule of women” myths have a certain persuasive logic to them. It is most unlikely that men would have invented a system with contractual marriage committing them, at least in principle, to long-term sexual fidelity and provisioning of their wives and children. This is the significance of bride wealth, the likely ancestor of all economic systems [see menstrual sex-strike theory ]. A need for male investment in childcare may have been the core reason for the emergence of human culture. [For other aspects of ritual see selfhood, spiritual experience and the theory of anti-structure and Suggested reading ]

5. Taboos

Taboos have very little to do with morality as conceived in “higher religions” or the legal systems which developed with the rise of bureaucratic civilizations. Rather, they are obligations and prohibitions relating to the foundations of a humanly-conceived cosmos, the breach of which, it is believed, would incur catastrophic consequences for the offender, the community, or the universe as a whole. Consequently taboos effect social control even in egalitarian and acephalous (“headless”) societies which lack hierarchy, chiefs, priests, elders, or any other acknowledged source of authority.

The rainforest Temiars of peninsular Malaysia (Jennings, 1995) recognise at least nine distinct categories of taboo, including such oddities as not laughing at butterflies (an example of misik), not jumping up and down in the open air (also misik), not leaving bamboo poles sticking out of houses (jolung), and not naming one food whilst eating another (’ε-deeh). The Temiars believe that if you spill the blood of a game animal on a footpath it will turn into an invisible tiger and gnaw at the heart- soul of any passer-by (the prohibition against doing this is classed as genhaa’).

Taboos are far too numerous to review briefly, but those of central importance would seem to be “blood taboos” – rules relating to the blood of game animals (Temiar genhaa’), the metaphorical “blood” of kinship (Temiar gεεs), human blood, and especially the menstrual and parturitional blood of women (Temiar sabat). One blood taboo is found in all known human societies – the incest taboo (Temiar gεεs). This prohibits sexual behaviour with your own “blood” – that is, your kin, however defined (whether clan membership or nuclear family). Lévi-Strauss (1949) noted that what distinguishes “nature” from “culture” is that nature is universal whereas culture is variable and governed by rules. The fact that the incest taboo, uniquely, is both universal and variably defined by rules suggests its primordial significance in the establishment of human culture. Together with the exogamous marriage rules, the incest taboo ensures that marriage and all other sexual relationships normally occur between non-kin. A curious feature of matrilineal kinship is that a father and his daughter belong to different clans, so that sexual relations between them are not classed as incestuous. They are still regarded as abhorrent, however, because they violate the equally sacred obligation of bride-wealth payment.

Knight (1991) presents evidence that a second blood taboo – the hunter’s “own kill” rule – was at one time also universal and of equally foundational importance to human culture. This taboo prohibits hunters from eating meat which they have killed themselves, and requires them to surrender it to their wives for cooking and distribution. This is clearly related to bride-wealth traditions. Following the presumed male “counter-revolution”, as related in “rule of women” myths, men have resorted to various expedients for circumventing the own-kill rule – such as using another man’s arrow, claiming that “God” ate the meat, or by substituting “propitiation rites” in which hunters apologise to the animal for killing it (or claim they didn’t do it), and compensate their victim by giving it some of its own meat to eat. Because sexual intercourse is universally equated with “eating”, and kinship with “blood”, the own-kill and incest taboos are metaphorical equivalents – both mean “never eat your own blood” (Knight, 1991).

Menstrual taboos are also widespread. Whilst menstruating, women are commonly isolated, and all contact with men or their husbands’ food is forbidden. In conjunction with male menstruation rituals, the implication is that male blood is “sacred” whereas female blood is “polluting”. This principle is still vestigially present even in post-industrial societies – one reason why some Christian clergy are unwilling to accept the ordination of women may be the fear of contact between menstrual and sacramental blood. Blood taboos – manifestly present in the Old Testament – are intimately and universally related to gender politics.

6. Beliefs

Segmental societies – those with classificatory kinship and gift exchange – typically have animistic belief systems. “Animism” is the belief that non-human entities – including animals; plants; yams grown in magical gardens; spirits; natural objects such as mountains, stones, rivers, and waterfalls; and artefacts such as sumptuary trade goods, a warrior’s weapons, and the roof beams of houses – are social persons with human attributes such as intelligence, articulate speech, emotions, and culture.

It has been argued (Boyer, 1996) that animistic beliefs are counter-intuitive on the grounds that children have “domain specific learning modules” (see modularity theories ) and have been show in cross-cultural studies to develop their own intuitive physics, biology, psychology , etc. and so cannot conflate distinct domains such as people, living kinds, natural objects, and artefacts (Atran, 1990). Against this claim may be set evidence of spontaneous teleological thinking in children (and adults) – for example, when seeing a deer for the first time they may ask what the antlers are “for” (Keleman, 1999).

What is more certainly counter-intuitive, however, is the perspectival nature of many animistic beliefs (Viveiros de Castro, 1998). That is, non-human agents not only have human attributes (animism) but also perceive themselves and the world from a human perspective (perspectivism). So, for example, where we would see a beaver living in its lodge, the beaver sees itself as a human living in a human village. A jaguar lapping the blood of its prey sees itself as a human drinking manioc beer – fermented, enculturated drink; and a vulture sees maggots in rotting meat as grilled fish – cooked, domesticated food.

Non-humans also see their social orders as human, with chiefs, shamans, exogamous clans, ritual ceremonies, etc. They see their fur, feathers, beaks, and claws as human tools, cultural artefacts, or ritual adornments. And, just as they see themselves as human, they see us as non-human. Beings that eat humans – carnivores and spirits – see us as prey animals; beings that we eat see us as carnivores or spirits. Further, these human-centred perspectives are not simply appearances in conflict with reality. They are reality. Multiple beings live in multiple parallel universes, all of which are equally real.

Paradoxically, animals that see themselves as human are, at the same time, actual humans wearing actual animal costume (in their perspective and ours). So, if a jaguar takes off his jaguar suit, we too would see him as a human. And if the jaguar greets us and we reply, we acknowledge a common identity and become jaguars ourselves. If a person dons a ritual animal mask or costume, this is not conceived of as a disguise. On the contrary, the person is actually transformed into an animal. Masking creates rather than conceals an identity. This is all logically incoherent and yet the belief persists in people who regularly butcher and dissect animal carcases. Animal costume, apparently, transforms bodies all the way through.

There is ample evidence that perspectival beliefs were at one time prevalent in Europe, and still survive in the animal transformations and talking animals of fairy tales, and the personalised animal toys we give to our children. As late as the 17th century it was believed that witches transformed themselves into owls or hares, and werewolves were a reality. In the Scottish islands “silkies” are seals that come ashore at full moon, take off their seal suits, and dance in the moonlight as beautiful naked maidens. If a man steals one of their suits, he can force its owner to marry him, though she will desert is she ever finds her animal costume again.

If “Rule of Women” myths are taken as suggesting a valid hypothesis, then animistic and perspectival beliefs suggest that women created culture by impersonating animals.

7. Selfhood

Ape societies are made up of apes, but human societies are made up of “social persons” who are much more than just human minds and bodies. The creation of uniquely socialised beings is central to the functioning of enculturated human societies. Kinship systems, economic systems, ritual, taboos, and beliefs are all inevitable features of a single cohesive system which profoundly alters self/other consciousness, inflating self-perceptions by erasing ego boundaries, whilst fragmenting the psyche from within.

In classificatory kinship, the possession of multiple sets of parents and siblings does not simply erode the boundaries of the uterine family, it erodes the boundaries of the self. Radcliffe-Brown (1931) noted that the personalities of classificatory siblings are virtually identical, and an offence by one is believed to cast collective blame on all. If one person takes revenge on another, that is an individual affair motivated by a sense of justice and related to the self as value. But if a member of one group offends a member of another, and this is taken collectively, then any member of the offended group may punish any member of the offending group. This is not something peculiar to segmental societies – it happens in all societies and accounts for the way human violence so easily escalates. Success and insult are equally collectivised – a victorious football team or a swathe of Olympic medals feeds local or national pride and political stature.

The mutability of ego boundaries is particularly self-evident in segmental societies. Kinship and gift exchange are inseparably intertwined with animistic beliefs. In both, individual identities are conflated and inflated. Just as siblings are conceptually interchangeable, so are individual members and their groups (Mauss, 1925). Collectivities are continuous with their dead ancestors, culture heroes, and as yet unborn children. Social persons (individual or collective) are identified with their gifts, and inanimate objects become sentient agents. Exchanges are accompanied by complex ceremonial and magical preparations. The valuables themselves not only have personal names, but are believed to be sentient and articulate beings, frequently with magical powers of their own. Sumptuary trade objects are so personalised that people name their children after them. Sacrifice and prayer assume economico-moral reciprocities, and animism fills the universe with personalized forces, immaterial kinship, and supernatural exchange relationships.

A further paradox of perspectival belief is that all otherness is perceived as non-human. Persons of opposite gender, affines, enemies, and strangers, are equally conceived as animals – even though, contrary to perspectival cosmology, they look perfectly human. In a state of ritual otherness, everyone may be transformed into animals – in their own eyes as well as the eyes of others. The Avatip of New Guinea, in their ritual acts of homicide, were transformed into “hunting dogs” and their victims into “prey animals” which can be legitimately killed and eaten (Harrison, 1993). Outside the ritual context, the same men – now in human form – are horrified by the idea of cannibalism, and deny that they would ever commit such an abhorrent act. This is another context where eating may be conflated with sex – among the neighbouring Asmat, killing begins with the sinister announcement “Your husbands have arrived!” (ibid). Cannibalism may be universally abhorred because it is metaphorically incestuous – “eating your own blood” (Leach, 1964: 42-7; Sahlins, 1976: 170-6).

Dehumanising the other is, of course, a human universal. In Europe, for example, British people may be referred to as “Roast Beefs”, French people as “Frogs”, and Germans as “Krauts”. This equation of people with their food may be merely an example of unflattering metonymy, but, in warfare, it makes it easier for people to kill each other. The dehumanization of enemies may also sexualize them, for in modern warfare the raping of “enemy” women is far from rare. Lévi-Strauss (1949) notes cases where the incest taboo makes such extreme demands for “otherness” that marriage requires overt warfare because only an “enemy” can be a legitimate spouse.

One illustrative example of inflated identity has been dubbed “the heroic I” (Sahlins, 1981). A chief will refer to his people, and the legendary doings of their ancestors and mythic heroes, using the first person singular throughout. A Maori chief, for example, may say “I pulled up New Zealand from the seabed with my fishhook,” when in fact this deed is attributed to the culture hero Maui. There is a partial parallel in the European “royal we”, implying that the entire collectivity of a nation’s subjects is represented in the singular person of the monarch. Dumont (1980) has argued that all “holistic hierarchies”, such as the Roman Catholic church, are characterized by this concept of “encompassment”. Thus, in the Hindu caste system, the Brahmans and Kshatriyas (priests and warrior aristocrats) represent “the whole” of society, whereas the lower castes – the Vaishyas, Shudras, and Untouchables – represent “the parts”. This makes it seem natural and right that “the parts” should serve “the whole” in return for spiritual and military “protection”.

One of the supposed paradoxes of ethnography is the peculiar fact that the inflationary sense of self noted by Sahlins, Mauss, and others is regularly associated with fragmented or discontinuous self-perceptions (Rumsey, 2000). Marilyn Strathern (1988) implicates gift exchange in this fragmentation of the self. Following Mauss (1925), who gives prolific examples of reified metaphor associated with gift exchange, and Marx – who argued that we create ourselves through processes of production and exchange – she argues that the equation of persons with things and things with persons leads to “partible personhood” and dissociable gender. Some anthropologists have considered that Sahlins’ “heroic I” is incompatible with Strathern’s “partible persons” (Rumsey, 2000), but if the “heroic I” represents a collectivity it is plainly divisible, for individuals can move to other groups or die; and the chief’s gifts, being equally continuous with himself, are parted from him when given.

Most people in the secular west are quite confident that they have bodies. What they may be less sure of is whether or not they have a spirit. In segmental societies, however, people may have this the other way round. Maurice Leenhardt (1949: 164), an early analyst of Melanesian personhood, reports a discussion of the local impact of colonialism with an elderly New Caledonian sculptor, Boesoou. Summing up, Leenhardt says: “In short, we introduced the notion of spirit to your way of thinking?” to which Boesoou retorts: “Spirit? Bah! You didn’t bring us the spirit. We already knew the spirit existed. What you’ve brought us is the body.”

It is particularly striking that a sculptor – whose art involves the representation of bodies – should be so confused about his own body. Leenhardt points out the “exploded” two-dimensional character of Melanesian art. This “cubist” style (which has parallels in Africa and North America, and was briefly imitated by Picasso and Braque) represents bodies as fragmented planes showing multiple viewpoints simultaneously. Leenhardt links this to the disarticulated sense of body revealed by Melanesian language, and attributes it to a “childlike” and “primitive” lack of depth perception (the “faulty camera” theory typical of late 19th and early 20th century thinking). He is probably nearer the mark when he observes that Melanesians appear to lack any intrinsic “ego” – rather, their sense of self is multiple, defined by multiple exchange relationships, as the hub of a wheel is defined by its spokes. Western employees likewise switch personae to fit in with different economico-moral relationships. Leenhardt also hints that ego boundaries are erased in ritual: “When the time of the living being is mingled with the time of the ancestor” (1949: 157). Melanesian art might be better understood as a systematic assault on the boundaries of bodies.

The historian of religion Mircea Eliade (1949) similarly claimed that the function of ritual is the “collapse of history”, returning participants to the time of origins – whether this is the Australian Dream Time or the Last Supper. Turner (1982) observed that, during Ndembu initiation ceremonies, the young initiands, after being stripped naked and smeared with mud and so rendered “invisible”, and after a series of painful and humbling ordeals, entered an egoless world of intimacy and communion, which he called communitas [ see spiritual experience and the theory of anti-structure ]. He went on to study this phenomenon in various religious traditions, including Asian and European monastic orders. There is an obvious parallel between communitas and the egoless “oceanic experience” of mysticism described by Freud and Piaget.

All the structural features of segmental societies rest on a system of reified metaphors. Ritual and taboo reveal central metaphors equating kinship with blood, sex with eating, and human with animal. In gift exchange, metaphors of shame such as “loss of face” or “loss of weight” are believed to be physical realities of disfigurement and emaciation. Magic would seem to be a technology of reified metaphors conflating parts with wholes, representations with realities, and causality with intention. Our powers of creating metaphor presumably derive from pretend play, where one thing is made to represent another by resemblance, and ritual pantomime is clearly dependent on role-play, which in turn is related to “theatre of mind” and the ability to run multiple minds in parallel. This requires dissociation and hence hypnotic ability [ see self/other consciousness ]. Human cultures could be defined as systems of “wholly-believed-in role-play”, which also happens to be a widely accepted definition of hypnotic trance (Whitehead, 2003).

The reifications that characterize animistic and perspectival beliefs have been shown to be counter-intuitive. By the age of four years, children from various cultural backgrounds know the difference between appearance and reality (Flavell et al., 1983; Gopnik & Astington, 1988). They know that you cannot turn a lion into a tiger by shaving off its mane and painting it with stripes. Even three-year-olds tend not to accept a costume change, such as dressing a horse in a zebra outfit, as a change of identity (Keil, 1988), so why should anyone accept that a human in a jaguar costume becomes a jaguar?

From an even earlier age children engage in pretend play, and seldom confuse the pretend world with reality – the two are “decoupled” (Leslie, 1987) [ see modularity theories ]. This is a survival imperative without which pretend play could never have evolved. A child pretending that stones are sweets had better not swallow the stones believing they are sweets – or jump out of a window believing she can fly.

Children also do not conflate ontological domains such as persons, living kinds, artefacts, and other inanimate objects – which is the defining feature of animism. Intuitive notions of biological kinds have been shown, in American (Keil, 1986) and Yoruba (Jeyifous, 1985) children, to have an essentialist character: a tiger without legs is still a tiger. It has perhaps lost “its” legs, or failed to develop them, but it is still conceived of as having legs by nature. This is not the case with artefacts, such as a table without legs, or a wheelchair which was never intended to have legs in the first place (Atran, 1990: 59).

Perspectival beliefs clearly invert all these intuitive distinctions, voiding bodies and objects of essence and content. Masquerade and make-believe create realities. Persons, living kinds, and things become mutable surfaces that vary with perspectival relationships, determined from the outside in, and identities can shift at the drop of a hat. Such inversions and conflations cannot be described as “primitive”, since they violate the ontological intuitions which normal children develop regardless of their cultural background. Nor could any simplistic Darwinism, as espoused by evolutionary psychologists, explain how or why an ape might evolve an inflated, fragmented, or mutable body image.

The evidence reviewed here suggests that human culture was first established by transforming human beings into “social persons”, and did so by making them mutable – and profoundly destabilizing their perceptions of self, others, and the world. This could not have evolved by genetic point mutations, since it confers no adaptive advantage on any individual, but can only have benefitted a community as a whole. The implication is a “big bang” origin for human culture, and the likeliest means for achieving such a transformation is some kind of collective masquerade or ritual pantomime as theorised by Durkheim (1912). Pretend play, role-play, dissociation, theatre of mind, and hypnotic ability, presumably constitute a “package” of biologically-evolved abilities, without which “the human revolution” could not have occurred.

To what extent have post-industrial societies emancipated themselves from this world of ontological inversions and reified representations? The way we readily identify with our national, ethnic, or religious group suggests that our ego boundaries may be fully as malleable as those found in animistic societies; and the fact that we effortlessly adjust our persona according to social situation (Goffman, 1959; Turner, 1982) indicates that our powers of dissociation – our ability to divide consciousness and run multiple minds in parallel – is unabated.

Of course we have the same biological endowments as people in any other contemporary society, and it is undoubtedly the case that our culture depends on and manipulates us by means of these same endowments. But we do not have an animistic or perspectival world view, and we have an essentialist understanding of people, animals, and things. This is more in line with the ontological intuitions of childhood, suggesting, perhaps surprisingly, that we are more “primitive” than people who live in segmental societies. In effect we have re-discovered the physicality of bodies (Whitehead, 2002) because there is ample evidence that perspectival beliefs were prevalent in pre-Christian Europe, some of it mentioned above.

From his study of masking in the ancient world, Napiér (1985) inferred a prevalence of “surface” as opposed to “interior” selfhood. For example, in classical Greek theatre there was no concept that an actor can play a part without a mask, and even Aristotle, in his profound analysis of drama, never questioned the necessity of masks. The Greek word prosopon had the simultaneous meanings of manifestation, mask, a part in a play, face, figure, and person. The Latin persona had a similar range of meanings. The English word “person” reflects an age when appearance and reality were less differentiated than they are today. The four humours that provide the rationale for Vedic as well as classical Greek medicine derive from the older theory of four elements – earth, fire, earth, and water – which were held to be composed of “qualities” – wet, dry, hot, and cold. This effectively dissolves the materiality of matter, inverting the intuitive relationship between properties and substance.

An early reaction against animistic world views is suggested by the Biblical Exodus account of Israelite captivity in Egypt, and consequent abhorrence of all things Egyptian, including pharmacy, pantheism, and magic. The Old Testament prophets repeatedly rail against the tendency of their people to backslide into pagan ways of thought, and the proscription of graven images in the Koran and Old Testament implicates a deep distrust of reified representation. Whereas in perspectivism human, animal, and spirit are equally insubstantial, and any agent can be all three simultaneously depending on its carnivorous relationship to the observer, the “higher religions” ascribe primacy to spirit. Spirit is the basis from which all else derives.

When Christianity first arrived in Rome, the senate was willing to welcome the Christian God into its ever-growing pantheon, until it was realized that Roman and Christian ontologies were incompatible. This new monotheistic faith denied the reality of appearances and social rank. Slaves could be more divinized than Caesar; bread and wine became flesh and blood with no change in perceptible properties; and `grace' transformed the essence of a person with no need for masks and costumes. This was an essentialist worldview, but still very different from modern physicalism.

The deep hostility of the early church to theatre reflected a profound incompatibility of ontologies relating to the status of representation. Matter, however, remained insubstantial: medieval medicine retained the Galenic/Arabic notions of four qualities, elements, humours, and temperaments, along with alchemical beliefs in transmutable matter and bodies that could be immortalized. It was not until the Renaissance that bodies started to become more essentially physical, and not until the time of Robert Boyle that alchemy finally became obsolete (Singer & Underwood, 1962). Physicalism as we now know it developed in the 17th century, particularly with Galileo’s insistence that science should not address the whole of experience, but only those things that can be counted, weighed, measured, and treated mathematically (Drake, 2001).

A fundamental problem with physicalism is that it cannot accommodate consciousness – so much so that Daniel Dennett (1991) and others have denied that consciousness exists. Physicalism is a product of culture, and arguably no more rational or realistic than perspectivism. [See collective deceptions in western science and human cooperation.


Suggested reading on human culture

Knight, C. (1991) Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture (New Haven & London: Yale University Press)

Lévi-Strauss, C. (1949) The Elementary Structures of Kinship (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode 1969) – first four chapters

Mauss, M. (1925) The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies trans. W.D. Halls (London: Norton reprinting by Routledge 1967)

Turner, V. (1982) From Ritual to Theatre: the Human Seriousness of Play (New York: PAJ Publications)

Whitehead, C. (2000) ‘Anthropological psychologizing and what we need to do about it’ 20th Annual Conference of the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness: Tucson, Arizona, 5-9 April – deals with anthropological theories Download PDF_TOP

Whitehead, C. (2002) ‘Cultural and political origins of the “hard problem”’ Toward a Science of Consciousness: Tucson 2002, sponsored by the Centre for Consciousness Studies, University of Arizona: Tucson, 6-13 April – poster dealing with the development of physicalism from perspectivism Download PDF_TOP

Whitehead, C. (2003) ‘Social mirrors and the brain', PhD Thesis, University College London: INTRODUCTION and CHAPTER 1 'The anthropological other'. Download PDF_TOP

Whitehead, C. (2004) ‘The social brain and the origins of human self-consciousness’ Invited presentation for the Radical Anthropology Group, University of East London, 23 November – a short overview of topics on this page Download PDF_TOP


Copyright © 2005 Charles Whitehead. All rights reserved.

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