Anthropology & Origin Myths

Having come to anthropology after a long and winding road, and having arrived at the destination only to find lots of dissension and bullshit, I find this assessment refreshing and accurate:

It is now possible to sum the effects of the taboo on culturally informed discussions of origins which has been imposed upon us for most of the twentieth century. When Alfred Kroeber (1901:320) declared that “all search for origin in anthropology can lead to nothing but false results,” and when similar statements were made on both sides of the Atlantic for the next fifty years, the effect was not to prevent people from believing in evolutionary theories. The effect was, rather, to allow the public access only to theories of a particular — culturally uninformed — kind.

By remaining aloof from evolutionary debate, social anthropologists of virtually all schools in the West have allowed this dire situation to come about. From the very beginning, the cultural specialists’ abstention did not produce any decline in popular interest in questions of human origins. It simply caused a lack of interest in social anthropology which — on this as so many other philosophically important issues — seemed to have nothing to say.

Every society must have its origins myth, and if it cannot obtain it from one source, it will obtain it from another. Finding the social anthropologists silent, the wider public has turned, for the lack of an alternative, to social Darwinists, neo-Darwinists and most recently sociobiologists — in other words, to people who (to exaggerate only slightly) know nothing about culture at all.

To this (not necessarily ignominious) list, which comes from Chris Knight’s Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture (pp. 69-70), we can now add — as “most recently” — evolutionary psychologists. While I don’t share Knight’s fervent suasions and am skeptical of his apparent genius, this assessment strikes home. Modern cultural anthropology has, unfortunately, mostly boxed itself into a position of theoretical, historical, and non-explanatory irrelevance.


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4 thoughts on “Anthropology & Origin Myths

  1. Joe Miller

    The only qualm I have with Knight’s own “origin myth” is his reliance on promiscuous horde theory. I don’t see any reason to believe that the earliest human kinship systems entailed marriage between groups as opposed to individuals as per Engels’ and Levi-Strauss’ account.

  2. Cris Post author

    While I am quite enjoying the book and find it invigorating, I am also quite skeptical. As I’ve stated before, it’s an umbrella hypothesis. While ingenious, it’s intricate and if any of the moving parts fail (or are questionable or can’t be proven or falsified), then the whole intricate thing crumbles. His slavish adherence to Marx and Engels is rather remarkable and renders many of his interpretations suspect. The same can be said for his reliance on Levi-Strauss. His treatment of ocher is simply wrong on the facts, and it massively over-interprets the evidence. These are just a few examples. I am, nonetheless, very much enjoying his jeremiad. In Levi-Straussian terms, I’m finding Knight “good to think with.”

  3. Joe Miller

    “His treatment of ocher is simply wrong on the facts, and it massively over-interprets the evidence.”

    This part of the book is outdated. He has since incorporated the findings of Christopher Henshilwood et. al into the theory. The latest iteration is presented in “Female reproductive synchrony and male behaviour: from monkeys to Neanderthals and modern humans” by Power, C, V. Sommer and I Watts.

    As whether or not Knight is presenting an umbrella hypothesis or a theory, it’s best to keep in mind that he isn’t trying to explain everything about humans on the basis of a single overarching, one-size-fits-all explanation. Instead, he focuses on a particular phase of human evolution — the immediate build-up to the speciation event that gave rise to modern Homo sapiens. The theory isn’t necessarily an umbrella hypothesis just because it’s intricate. The theory of natural selection would be an umbrella hypothesis as well if that were the case. It all depends upon whether or not the predictions that it makes are falsifiable.

    I’ve found his emphasis on play and language to be illuminating in many respects. I think that’s one of the areas where the theory works best.

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