The Tribal Imagination: Civilization and the Savage Mind

April 21, 2011

In the most heartfelt and important chapter of this book, Robin Fox laments the loss of Lewis Henry Morgan's vision, the "high mandate" to explore the universal history of humankind. For Fox, Morgan's Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family (1871) is "the most ambitious and impressive work of social science of the nineteenth century, or for that matter, the last two hundred years".

With the tools to identify and analyse the forms of gentile (ie, clan) society, anthropology as defined by Morgan was uniquely equipped to understand the mechanics of what Fox sees as the "most vital change in human history" - the shift from clan-based organisation of societies into early state political formations. Yet who these days apart from a bunch of bolshie Marxists ever reads Morgan's great work? Fox ranks Morgan's discovery of classificatory kinship as equal in importance to Darwin's grasp of natural selection. How could it have been discarded and forgotten?

In explanation, Fox offers a wry overview of the disintegration of anthropology through the 20th century. The "queen of sciences" at the start of the century, by the end it had become a pursuit for dilettantes. With the wholesale rejection of Morgan's evolutionary schema, we are left as blind men examining the elephant, unable to grasp the whole. Even if Morgan got the particulars of his grand schema wrong (and he got an awful lot right), that doesn't excuse abandoning the foundational questions of the discipline.

With his fluency across the social/biological rift, Fox himself might have become the culture hero showing the way to anthropology's reunification. His Achilles heel is relentless adherence to an ethology stuck in the dark ages prior to the selfish-gene revolution. Despite his lip service to Richard Dawkins, Fox never really gets it. The gene-centred perspective highlights conflict in male versus female strategies because the sexes get their genes into the next generation by different means. There is nothing wrong with observing male strategies and coalitionary alliances of men in groups, unless you wilfully refuse to see the corresponding counter-strategies and coalitionary alliances of women in groups.

Fox's female strategy blind spot means he never discusses Kristen Hawkes and colleagues' "grandmother hypothesis" or the cooperative breeding models for hominin evolution outlined in Sarah Blaffer Hrdy's Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding. These surely deserve mention in any re-evaluation of Morgan because they underpin the modern vindication of matrilineal priority.

There are several engaging essays in this volume, loosely organised around the theme of factors involved in the "rise of civilisation". Subjects range from Arab cousin marriage to the differing versions of the Ten Commandments, to Fox's familiar topic of incest avoidance. Most are collected from previous publications, and it's easy to dip in and out.

The transition from "tribal" to "civilised" produced the earliest literature, commemorating the defeat by patriarchal heroes of clan society in myths of dismemberment of (fundamentally female) monsters, embodiments of an ancient principle of blood solidarity. Fox loves this manly warrior ethic, and many will enjoy his anthropological perspective on chivalric tales and opera plots down the ages. Exasperatingly, however, he imagines that Iron Age warrior bonding equates to the environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA) in which we became human.

The cultures producing this epic literature subsisted on farming and pastoralism. This entails stratification and wealth inequalities, in addition to male versus female strategic trade-offs of mating and reproduction that are very different from those of hunter-gatherers. Among African hunter-gatherers, who truly can teach us something about the EEA, we find assertive gender egalitarianism and sanctions against anyone, especially male, who gets too big for his boots - the very opposite of praise for individualistic boastful heroes. This works through female secret ritual collectives mocking, mimicking and taunting male secret ritual collectives in playful but deadly earnest battles of the sexes - a kind of ritual warfare that keeps the gender peace.

We cannot draw a straight-line graph from chimpanzee-style male dominance to the hero-dominated Iron Age of chariot warfare. The prehistory of modern humans comprises a U-shape curve of egalitarianism and counter- or reverse-dominance, prior to the historically recent re-emergence of rank. Unless we understand what so radically transformed humans from chimps, in terms of refusal to accept being dominated - and what women and children had to do with it - I doubt we do understand the "tribal imagination".

The Tribal Imagination: Civilization and the Savage Mind

By Robin Fox. Harvard University Press. 432pp, £22.95. ISBN 9780674059016. Published 31 March 2011

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