Claude Levi-Strauss did not see the West as superior
France celebrated the 100th anniversary yesterday of the birth of one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century. This was not just a centenary. It was a genuine birthday. Claude Levi-Strauss, the father of structuralism and modern anthropology, born on 28 November 1908, is still alive. His work, after going out of fashion several times, is more alive than ever.
In an extraordinary career, which took him from the Amazon rainforests to US academia, by way of King's Lynn, Levi-Strauss stood anthropology on its head by refusing to see Western civilisation as superior and unique. He was the first man to argue scientifically that the minds and cultures of so-called "primitive" or "savage" peoples were not inferior - or even different - to those of the allegedly "civilised" West. His work developed the idea of "structuralism", broadly speaking, the idea that patterns of thought and behaviour are determined by characteristics of the human brain which remain fixed wherever it may live.
His arguments influenced a new approach to the understanding - or some say over-analysis - of art and literature, which remains influential to this day. He was also one of the first modern thinkers to challenge the notion of "progress" and to warn of the likely fate of mankind if we continue to ravage the planet.
After studying law and philosophy at the Sorbonne, the 23-year- old Levi-Strauss set out on a completely new path after a late- night conversation with Lewis Daly, a British crypto-zoologist, or expert on mythical creatures. Their conversation was in, of all places, King's Lynn in Norfolk in 1931.
The young Frenchman, born into a French-Jewish artistic family in Brussels, took an academic job in Brazil. His pre-war …