Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

The Development of Meaning: Ontogeny and Culture

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

The Development of Meaning: Ontogeny and Culture

Article excerpt

This article is prompted by a sequence of contributions to this Journal which have been concerned to close the gaps between biology and social anthropology.(1) The nature-culture opposition remains 'the very matrix of Western metaphysics' (Benoist 1973: 20) and to the extent that it defines the division of academic labour, it has become a fundamental obstacle to communication between the natural sciences and the humanities. If any discipline can straddle the gap it should be anthropology, with its four classic sub-fields extending from biology to linguistics. But the schism runs deeply through anthropology itself: the old debates about society and culture have hardened into divergent ideologies of materialism and idealism, and in some academic institutions a partitioning of the subject between science and the humanities is already under way.(2)

In a premature 'choice' characteristic of the 'two cultures' in our society, my own formal education in science ended when I was fourteen years old. As I struggle to make sense of how the temporalities of evolution, human history and the mundane rhythms of our individual lives are interconnected, I am painfully aware that the biology I need to know is separated from the social science I have learned by everything from vocabulary to 'causal structures' (Boyer 1994: 296; Lerner & Hultsch 1983: 46). Anyone seeking to bridge the nature-culture gap, whether in the spirit of amity or conquest, must certainly be bold (Midgley 1995: xiii). The ideological brickbats fly: the natural scientists are castigated for their determinism, for subjecting the human spirit to biologistic 'constraints' of their own devising, for saddling men and women with unattractive 'evolutionary tasks' (see Lancaster 1985: 10), and for urging an imperial thrust of the 'cold, clear Apollonian method' (Wilson 1978: 10) of a reductive science into social complexity. The critical faction in anthropology urges disengagement: students of culture, says Sahlins, need take little interest in biology, beyond recognizing that it places 'a set of natural limits on human functioning' and 'puts at the disposition of culture a set of means for the construction of a symbolic order' (Sahlins 1976: 66). Such dismissive attitudes are ridiculed by natural scientists, who see the interpretation of culture as vacuously detached from the 'real world', bogged down in aimless relativism, and in imminent danger of disappearing into its own subjective reflections. They would argue that relativism rests on tacit acceptance of bio-universals (mating, infant dependency, male dominance, and so forth) without which cultural specificity itself would have little meaning.(3) With the recognition that variation, as cultural anthropology's most distinctive concern, has been 'grossly exaggerated' (Bloch 1991: 184-5), many anthropologists feel, once again, the need to regard human beings as something more than 'Blank Paper' (Midgley 1995: 3-4) on which infinitely diverse meanings can be inscribed. Meanwhile, biologists who acknowledge the potency of human social systems seek a similar rapprochement: 'Our behaviour is caused neither by biology nor by culture, because we are a product of both' (Hinde 1991: 604).(4)

So far, attempts at synthesis have been cast very much within the Darwinian framework, emphasizing codetermination in biological and cultural evolution.(5) These efforts are dogged by the qualitative difference between physical structures ('nature') and the structures of ideas ('cultures'), and by formidable conceptual problems of time and scale: the need to make immense speculative leaps from microbiology to macrosociology, and to reconcile the very gradual evolution of our species and the vertiginous speed of cultural change (see Klein 1989: 344; Stini 1991: 208). There is a vast analytical gap between the cultural diversity of today's human populations and assumptions about the singular genetic constitution of 'modern man' in an 'Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness' (see Symons 1995: 85) some 50-100,000 years ago (Kitahara 1991; Klein 1989: 34). …

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