Sherlock the Shaman

Over at aeon, Jason Webster has written an essay suggesting that crime fiction filled a cultural void left by retreating religion:

Throughout history, priestly castes have boasted a unique capacity to answer the great riddles of existence, and it is surely more than a coincidence that, during the detective fiction boom of the 1860s, intellectual developments in Britain were profoundly undermining the Church’s traditional monopoly on such matters. In 1859, after two decades of delay, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species. The theory of evolution did not emerge from nowhere; even before Darwin’s ideas went public, many were already moving away from the literal interpretation of the Bible stories. But no single event played such an important part in the shift from a religious to a secular society, and no other book did so much to shake the authority of clerics and their official answers. This left a cultural vacuum, and in a changing world full of new dangers and problems, the fictional detective stepped into the breach.

While I doubt that anyone other than crime fiction cognoscenti would make such a connection and pursue a similar line of historical argument, it’s hard not to admire Webster’s creativity. My only quibble is that Webster conflates shamans with priests when he compares them to fictional detectives. In the subtitle to his story (which is titled “Unholy Mystery”), Webster alternates and confuses the two: “Shamanic powers of insight and the power to bring order out of chaos. Is the detective a priestly figure for our times?”

While there are certainly similarities between shamans and priests, anthropologists usually distinguish between the two. Shamans are associated with hunter-gatherers and other non-institutional societies, whereas priests are associated with agriculturalists and institutional societies. In her article “Signs of the Sacred: Identifying Shamans Using Archaeological Evidence,” Christine VanPool makes a good analytical case for the distinction. Of course some societies (such as the Pueblos) are betwixt and between; in these, the distinctions are blurred.

With this in mind, Webster’s description of what fictional detectives do is not dissimilar from what shamans do:

If nothing else, the detective is a problem-solver; someone who can restore order where there is chaos. Faced with the worst crime (what could be more existentially troubling than a murder?), the detective gives us answers to the most pressing and urgent questions: not only whodunit, but how and why and what it means. He does all this by taking us on a journey, discovering pieces of evidence, seeking out hints and clues. In the best examples of this game, we see everything that the detective sees, yet we are unable to solve the crime ourselves. Only the detective, in a final display of mastery, can reach the correct conclusion. We need him, with his special knowledge and abilities, to make sense of it all.

This reminds me of Stanley Krippner’s contention that shamans were those who “made sense” of symbolism during the long, and surely sometimes bewildering, course of human evolution:

For the shaman, the totality of inner and outer reality was fundamentally an immense signal system, and shamanic states of consciousness were the first steps toward deciphering this signal system.

Epistemology is concerned with the nature, characteristics and processes of knowledge, and in this essay I am suggesting that shamanic epistemology drew upon perceptual, cognitive, affective and somatic ways of knowing that assisted early humans to find their way through an often unpredictable, sometimes hostile, series of environmental challenges. Not only did early humans have to become aware of potentially dangerous environmental objects and activities, they needed to have explanatory stories (enacted as mythic rituals) at their disposal to navigate through the contingencies of daily encounters and challenges. The acute perceptual abilities of shamans, in combination with their intuition and imagination, met their societies’ needs.

In psychological terms, shamans are socially designated practitioners who claim to self-regulate their psychological functions to obtain information unavailable to other members of their social group. Shamans were probably humanity’s original specialists, combining the roles of healers, storytellers, weather forecasters, performing artists, ritualists, and magicians.

To this list, we can now add detectives or Sherlock the Shaman.

TheShamanicDetectiveNote: Those interested in the VanPool and Krippner articles should consult the educational Resource tab above.

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6 thoughts on “Sherlock the Shaman

  1. Cris Post author

    I’ve been out of town for the past week (and missed the floods) and am just getting back to things. I will respond to everyone once I get settled. Did you get my emails?

  2. Joe Miller

    I just read them tonight. I still don’t think it’s accurate to characterize the FCCT as an umbrella hypothesis. The theory doesn’t attribute the origins of many complex phenomena to a single cause like the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis does. That said, I don’t agree with everything the theory postulates. For example, Andrew Whiten has pointed out that the resistance displayed by hunter-gatherers to coercion is best described not as ‘reverse dominance’ but ‘counter dominance’. The former has been infrequently reported by ethnographers while the latter seems to occur on a regular basis. Yet that in itself doesn’t undermine the theory.

    It would be interesting if you did a point by point analysis of the theory’s claims and predictions similar to the one Langdon performed on the AAH. I’m sure the theory’s latest iteration stands up to scrutiny far better than the AAH. Better yet, why not take up the matter with Knight himself? He’s always responded to my emails in a timely fashion, so a correspondence might prove fruitful for the both of you.

  3. Cris Post author

    We’ll just to agree to disagree; I think Chris Knight’s “theory” in Blood Relations is structurally and substantively close enough (to the aquatic ape and similar hypotheses) to warrant being called an “umbrella hypothesis.” Even before reading the Langden article on aquatic apes and “umbrella” hypotheses, I had my own term for these kinds of efforts: I called them “Ur theories.” Like Nietzsche, I’ve always been suspicious of systematizers — where there are systems, there are underlying agendas (this again paraphrases Nietzsche, who actually said “the will to a system is a lack of integrity”).

    I’m not interested in refuting Knight; I’m quite enjoying his ideas and find them provocative and useful to think with and about. He is very good on some issues and very bad on others (to cite but one example, his radical division of “nature” from “culture”). I think it revealing that his magnum opus is so little known, and that almost no one in anthropology cites the book or his theory. I consider myself to be very broadly informed in the field, and was surprised that I had never heard about or encountered his ideas before you brought them to my attention. I’ve asked several (well-read) colleagues about Knight and his work, and almost no one seems to know. While lack of professional attention is not damning, it is revealing. And now that I’m almost done with the book, I can understand why his ideas have not been accepted by the larger community and aren’t much discussed.

    The reason why Langden did a point by point refutation of AAH is because that hypothesis was so widely known. Knight’s work isn’t so I don’t see any need for a refutation. Refutations and rebuttals are worthwhile only if the target is in need of a takedown and the target is a source of persistent, widespread, and important error. Given that Knight isn’t known popularly and isn’t a source of professional discussion or error, I don’t see any need.

    As I’ve said before, there are just too many moving parts, it’s too intricate, too perfect, too deficient on data (in parts), too speculative on data (in parts), too ingenious, and too ideological. Having said all that, I really like it.

  4. Joe Miller

    “We’ll just to agree to disagree; I think Chris Knight’s “theory” in Blood Relations is structurally and substantively close enough (to the aquatic ape and similar hypotheses) to warrant being called an “umbrella hypothesis.”
    Could you explain your misgivings and objections in more extensively? Your criticisms have been too vague thus far, and I’m genuinely interested in what you have to say about the particulars of Knight’s engagement with the ethnographic record, for example.

    “Like Nietzsche, I’ve always been suspicious of systematizers — where there are systems, there are underlying agendas (this again paraphrases Nietzsche, who actually said “the will to a system is a lack of integrity”).”
    I don’t see why this is relevant when Knight and the other proponents of the theory are forthright about their biases from the beginning.

    Nietzsche has become a bête noire for me over the past six years. Closely reading his works during my late teens and early twenties provided me with the impetus for self-discovery, though his influence subsequently proved difficult for me to shake off. It was ultimately my desire to see if the arguments he presents in The Genealogy of Morals could be validated empirically that lead me to anthropology in the first place. I quickly found that every last testable assertion he makes in that book were undeniably wrong. The rest of his oeuvre proved to be equally faulty. I still respect him at 24, but he is at best unhelpful on the issues most salient to me now.

    “He is very good on some issues and very bad on others (to cite but one example, his radical division of “nature” from “culture”).”
    This dichotomy is admittedly problematic in many respects, but it is still a useful heuristic when studying the workings of language. There is a sense in which language and phenomena like it are predicated upon a logic that isn’t (and simply can’t be) utilized by other species, and as such requires a great deal of work to explain. The combinatorial nature of language is a good example.;10/88/20130520

    “While lack of professional attention is not damning, it is revealing. And now that I’m almost done with the book, I can understand why his ideas have not been accepted by the larger community and aren’t much discussed.”
    His ideas are most well known among those who study the origins of language. I found out about the theory through an anthology that included articles by Robin Dunbar and Michael Tomasello. Dunbar himself jointly published an anthology with Knight and Camilla Power in 1999. He also helped revise the latter’s dissertation, which is well worth reading, btw*. Moreover, they contributed an entry on the social conditions of language evolution to “The Oxford Handbook of Language Evolution”, which was published in 2012. Knight has recently edited an upcoming title on “The Social Origins Of Language” that’s to be released this spring. It will include pieces by several prominent researchers such as Daniel Dor (his “Language as a Communication Technology: A Proposal for a New General Linguistic Theory”** is amazing), Nick Enfield (who is one of my favorite contemporary scholars in any field) and Chris Sinha.

    While it’s still somewhat obscure, the theory has been slowly gaining recognition over the years. I think this is because of the concurrent sea-change that linguistics and psychology are undergoing. It entails a movement away from the cognitivist paradigm exemplified by Noam Chomsky and Dan Sperber and towards a more “sociocentric” perspective, which is represented by Sarah Hrdy, Philippe Rochat and Michael Tomasello. This shift was initiated during the late nineties and early 2000’s when linguists and psychologists began to draw inspiration from the insights of Vygotsky and Wittgenstein. The increasingly widespread adoption of this perspective has created a more favorable environment for models like the one Knight proposes. I would also attribute the attention that the theory has started to garner to the prominence now accorded to the ochre record.

    “Refutations and rebuttals are worthwhile only if the target is in need of a takedown and the target is a source of persistent, widespread, and important error.”
    I enjoy them because they help to consolidate my thoughts on the relevant issues. At the very least It’s an excuse to dig deep into the literature on the disparate societies he mentions.

    This post is already far too long as is, so I’ll end by disclosing my own ideological commitments. I’m a left anarchist, and as such I feel that humans are at their best when they can freely associate with each other on an equitable basis. I think that the archeological and ethnographic records bear out this assertion.

    Knight’s model offers the best available explanation as to how our species was able to evolve and flourish, though it has a few short comings stemming in part from Knight’s Trotskyist beliefs. These beliefs are reflected in Knight’s insistence that the earliest kinship systems consisted of exogamous group marriages based on matrilineal descent. This doesn’t comport with what ethnographers have written about the kinship systems of extant foragers and other small scale societies, which are often bilateral and cognatic***. The members of these societies are free to reside with whomever they please and join other groups should tensions within their current group run too high. It seems to me that anatomically modern humans evolved under similar conditions, though I don’t have enough room to substantiate that claim here.

    This state of affairs necessitates a few revisions of Knight’s model, though for now I’ll only concentrate on the postulate that men would have given up the meat they obtain from large game animals to the members of their wives’ natal groups under the earliest kinship systems. Instead, men must relinquish such meat (or honey, in some cases) to whoever lives in the band they are presently associated with, regardless of whether or not they are genetically related. This means that children who live in these cultures have more providers than even Knight’s theory predicts, since they aren’t reliant upon even their fictive kin for meat. These large support networks allow men and women to live away from their biological kin if need be without compromising the well being of their offspring. This grants them a degree of freedom that Knight’s model wouldn’t allow for, considering that the rigid exogamous exchange of males between groups that Knight predicts would limit mothers’ alloparental options to either their own natal group or their husbands’.

    I think that women had achieved such solidarity with each other during the time that Knight concentrates on, that they were no longer dependent upon maternal kin for support in raising children. Women would synchronize with each other with such regularity that they could trust each other for support against abusive and philandering males, and thus enforce the myriad rules that Knight exhaustively details.

    This is only a very rough sketch of what I’d like to do with Knight’s theory, but I think I’ve gotten the gist of it across.


  5. Larry Stout

    I will take liberties with pertinence by mentioning an oddment of personal experience that, with a little stretch of the imagination, involves both something quasi-shamanistic and…detection.

    For some years I worked behind the scenes in designing and making custom stained glass window panels for my wife’s little online cottage industry. We both made an array of gratuitous panels with which to populate the thematic pages of the website, including quite a number on American Southwestern themes, one of which was an adaptation of a Hopi spirit effigy (popularly “katsina”, aka “kachina”) dubbed “Maize Spirit”. This and a few others went on display in the lobby window of a Taos, New Mexico, inn. After a brief period of display, “Maize Spirit” disappeared (as spirits are wont to do), stolen by person or persons unknown (we were reimbursed by the inn’s insurer), but the mystery of the thief continued to puzzle and amuse us for quite a long time — right up to the present, in fact. Was the piece taken by someone from the Taos Pueblo (people with a rep for privacy, secretiveness, and exclusion), who may have been deeply offended that something sacred had been defiled by representation at the hands of someone not of “the people”? Did someone from the Pueblo just have to have it (perhaps regarding it as proprietary), and has it since adorned a Pueblo window or wall? Or was it just an unscrupulous tourist who whisked it off to…Des Moines? Where is our “Maize Spirit” as I write this? People love mysteries, and trying to puzzle them out. Shamans are said to be good at it.

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