Summer 2008 - Volume 11 Number 3
|Reviews||The Bridge to Humanity: How Affect Hunger Trumps the Selfish Gene
New York: Oxford University Press, 2006
Anthropology is well understood to be the study of human beings. It dimensions are many and its scope is almost unlimited. Anthropologists study such topics as the physical origins and evolution of humanity, often concerning themselves with the history not only of Homo sapiens, but with our lengthy pedigree among primates and more specifically with our close cousins, the standard chimpanzee and the bonobo. Anthropologists also probe into our cultural and social heritage, inquiring into the emergence of government and the state, family and kinship systems and spirituality and religion. No matter how broad or focused their studies, however, two ongoing conversations seem always to crop up, sometimes in professional circles and sometimes with the attentive public. The two issues at stake can be easily summarized:
Which matters most in explaining human behaviour, nature or nurture?
Is human nature fundamentally competitive or co-operative?
The first is commonly thought to be an empirical question, which can be answered by means of the scientific method. It has, however, profound implications for abstract philosophy and concrete social policy. If human nature is fixed, then attempts to improve behaviour through education and therapy are futile; alternatively, if we are the products of our environment, there is hope that, as individuals and as a species, we can intervene in our own development to promote personal and societal improvement.
The second also has an empirical base, but it, too, is of profound interest to moralists, political theorists and governmental authorities. If humanity is inherently selfish, the argument goes, then competition is natural and social programs to assist the underprivileged and the dispossessed merely perpetuate problems by temporarily salvaging the dregs of society and sullying the gene pool. Often cast in the model of a crude social Darwinism or eugenics, this view lends support to those who believe that the “fit” should survive and “the Devil take the hindmost.” Contrarily, if poverty and criminality are the result of social conditions, we are justified in providing generous opportunities for poor and “at-risk” people, and we are obliged to provide even the least of our local and global communities with respect and with the means for self-respect.
Although there are still extreme naturists who scoff at claims for the plasticity of human nature and insist that “it’s all in our genes,” and although there are still extreme nurturists who insist that “social engineering” can be used to construct the kind of society we want by constructing a brave new world of our choosing, I am pleased to say that most sensible anthropologists, as well as scholars and researchers in related disciplines from evolutionary psychology to genetics in one direction, and from sociology to the humanities in another are now quite willing to answer the first question by saying: Nature or nurture? It’s both, and they are intertwined and inseparable!
As for the question of the normative character of human nature, the answer is a little more difficult. This is mainly because the people who ask it are often not so much interested in an empirical answer as they are seeking support for their own political, religious, ethical or moral views. They really want to know if people are generally good (and therefore to be trusted and encouraged) or generally evil (and therefore to be feared and punished) only in order to support their ideological and material interests. Socialists and social workers commonly tend to the belief that human nature is good or, if not, it is at least malleable. Capitalists and captains of industry find the harsh interpretation of human nature and an assumption that competitive individualism is “hard-wired” into humanity. Apart from differences in terms of generating social improvement more expeditiously by means of the carrot of reward or the punitive application of the stick, more subtle differences are apparent. Do we stand with Freud, for example, and regard repression of libidinal drives as essential to the maintenance of civilization? Or, are we nascent Marcusians, who think that repression is harmful and that we would thrive if only we liberated ourselves from distortive and destructive restraints placed upon our innocent pursuit of happiness?
These admittedly gross overgeneralizations nonetheless form the main structures of debate when the contributions of anthropologists to our common concerns and social decisions are taken into account. And it is here that Walter Goldschmidt’s inquiry into “affect hunger” makes a real contribution to resolving large but mostly phony public disputes, but also serious professional disagreements among anthropologists in particular and social scientists in general.
Now aged ninety-five, Goldschmidt’s career overlapped those of iconic figures such as Franz Boas, Margaret Mead, Raymond Firth, Claude Levi-Strauss, Bronislaw Malinowski and Alfred Radcliffe-Brown. And, of course, he has survived them all. As a young man, he did field work with the Hupa and Nomlaki Indians in Oregon and with mobile pastoralists and sedentary farmers in East Africa. He eventually completed his doctoral work in 1937, with a study of the impact of industrialized agribusiness on small towns and farming communities in the San Joaqin Valley in California. Turned into a book, As You Sow, it remains a classic in “applied anthropology” (known to others as sociology. Still active (he can be reached by phone, fax or e-mail at the University of California at Los Angeles), he hold the title of Professor Emeritus, I suggest that he might suitably be considered an Anthropologist Emeritus for the entire profession.
Although he is best known for his work in “comparative functionalism,” an approach that posits that society’s basic mode of production sets the specific problems that human communities must overcome in order to survive and to flourish, and that much of value can be learned from studying how these societies respond to the challenges that their more-or-less universal problems of survival, Goldschmidt is also recognized as one of the few cultural anthropologists who also deeply understands biology. He is therefore unusually competent and suitably placed to enter the discussions of nature and nurture, and competition and cooperation that were mentioned above.
In recent decades, of course, popular books largely based on the ethological investigations of Konrad Lorenz, e.g., King Solomon’s Ring (1949) and On Aggression (1966), and including best-sellers such as African Genesis (1961), The Territorial Imperative (1966) and The Naked Ape (1967) swung the anthropological pendulum distinctly toward the belief that humanity was innately aggressive and possessive. Subsequently, E. O. Wilson’s monumental work, Sociobiology (1975), made the same basic case, albeit in somewhat subtler terms and Richard Dawkins’ immensely successful tome, The Selfish Gene (1976), captured much attention and has become the focal point for unceasing and sometimes acrimonious debate. Despite criticism from notables such as the aforementioned Ashley Montagu in Man and Aggression (1968) and The nature of Human Aggression (1976), as well as salvos from scientists such as Stephen Jay Gould in The Mismeasure of Man (1981) and Richard Lewontin who wrote Not in Our Genes (1985) with Steven Rose and Leo Kamin, it is probably fair to say that the case for inherent behavioural traits slanting toward the acceptance of violence as an unalterable aspect of human nature has narrowly prevailed.
The Selfish Gene provides both a metaphor and a hint of the mechanism through which our species’ undeniable capacity for mayhem can be explained. Walter Goldsmidt, however, presents a fresh and immediately persuasive counter-argument. The Bridge to Humanity begins with a clear, concise and cogent rehearsal of the issues at stake in the nature-nurture controversy. Fair-minded and respectful to both sides, he is nonetheless plain-spoken about the “public interest” in the debate and its obvious relevance to such current social issues as racism. In his opening chapter, he affirms the obvious (but too often overlooked) fact that nature and nurture “is not an either/or issue, but a matter of interrelationship.”
Goldschmidt carries on to review not so much the human genome, but our more distant ancestry, identifying key inheritances including warm-bloodedness, life birthing and sociabilityessential parts of human nature that predate humans and indeed all primatesbut which are the fundamental elements of human “nature.” To these is added the capacity for learning (“neuroplasticity” or, more generally, “genetic indeterminacy”), which identifies the gap between encoded genetic instructions and behavioural performance. It is here that cultural adaptations emerge to modify or even cancel the rigidly interpreted effects of genetic determinism.
Evolutionary markers from bipedalism, our structurally imperfect S-shaped spines, our large crania, opposable thumbs and all the other biological traits that make us what we are amount, metaphorically to an “evolutionary gamble” in which our species inherited the results of a preference for intelligence over brute strength. Hence music, hence language, hence technology, hence rites and rituals … though necessarily in that order.
At this point in his well-structured and well-expressed but otherwise unsurprising summary of the steps along the path to humanity, Goldschmidt introduces his principal novelty.
Supported by our knowledge of body chemistry rather than a vaguely humanistic impulse of either a religious or a romantic sort, he argues adroitly for the importance of “affect hunger,” the well-known mammalian need for physical displays of affection that have empirically verifiable roots in the infant’s need for “tactile stimuli (to produce) a normal growth of dendrites and a full complement of synapses on its nerve cells. From here, Goldschmidt offers a logical progression from the care and nurturing of infants to “affect hunger” in adults and complete cultures. What is true, for practical developmental reasons for the child is true also for grown-ups in complex social formations.
Bringing the results of a variety of anthropological case studies of communities, Goldschmidt traces how human evolution has eventually led to what theologians typically call the “soul,” and how those scientists (who are willing tentatively to accept the term) explain it not as a spiritual entity “breathed into” the human body by a transcendent deity, but an essential feature of evolving human nature. The “soul,” then, is a currently evident adaptation which humans have developed not in opposition to nature, but as an extension of it. Taking his cue from Aristotelian empiricism rather than Platonic idealism he approvingly quotes Jonathan Lear’s summary of Aristotle’s view of the soul: it “is not a special ingredient which breathes life into a lifeless body; it is a certain aspect of the living organism.”
Goldschmidt has problems with the scientific basis for the concept of the “selfish gene” that reduces all individual and cultural acts to a primal desire to maximize the passage of genetic material to subsequent generations. Even accepting the veracity of such a model, however, Goldschmidt provides a convincing case for an alternative explanation of human thought and behavior. Genetics may shape us and be an essential part of human nature, but it (as biology generally) is not co-extensive with it. Moreover, culture does not simply put a gloss of diversity on a universal biological form. Wholly within the empirical tradition, Goldschmidt allows for the emergence of what we are sometimes pleased to call our “better angels,” but which are equally or better described in secular terms as altruism, self-sacrifice, mercy, justice and what St. Paul (or his English translators) called charity. Our enduring hope, if not our unambiguous faith, is that we still have some way to go in our evolutionary development, for as our behaviour as individuals, communities and nations abundantly display, the trumping of the selfish gene is far from complete.
Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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