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The Bridge to HumanityReview - The Bridge to Humanity
How Affect Hunger Trumps the Selfish Gene
by Walter Goldschmidt
Oxford University Press, 2005
Review by Andrew V. Jeffery
Apr 24th 2007 (Volume 11, Issue 17)

Humans often deliberately behave in ways which are not conducive to their personal genetic fitness.  They can be altruistic to non-kin, sending support to people in distant lands who will never be in a position to reciprocate, adopting and raising children that are not their own, even sacrificing their lives to save complete strangers.  Further, in the self-interested pursuit of various values, people often limit the size of their families, and their peers frequently place a high value on these behaviors, doing their best to imitate them and pass them on to their own (few) children.  We value altruism, affluence, and education; yet, on average, the poor and the uneducated have higher differential rates of reproduction, while altruism and self-interest can go either way.  Still more paradoxically, these seemingly mal-adaptive values (from a gene's-eye point of view) have actually contributed to the immense fitness and dominance of our species on the planet.

How this has come about is the topic anthropologist Walter Goldschmidt, addresses in The Bridge to Humanity: How Affect Hunger Trumps the Selfish Gene.  Various accounts have been offered concerning what sets us apart from our primate relatives, and indeed, from the rest of the animal kingdom.--our capacity for tool-making, our capacity for language, our capacity for imitation, etc. Goldschmidt's central thesis is that affect hunger, the basic need for recognition and affection from others, is a crucial but overlooked key in the transition to the human capacity for subordinating genetic imperatives.   

Goldschmidt has written a monograph that is short, yet wide-ranging; both readable and erudite.  He draws on, and integrates, extensive knowledge not only from anthropology, but from biology and psychology as well.  He argues for an ecological, evolutionary view of human cultures, while still doing full justice to the plasticity of our constructs.  He illustrates abstract principles with vivid, concrete examples gained over a long and impressive career as a cultural anthropologist; and yet, ultimately, the reader comes away feeling that Goldschmidt has laid too much stress on mammalian features too pervasive to be what really sets us apart.  Affect hunger, as Goldschmidt points out, is biologically rooted in the nurturing bond between mothers and neonates in virtually all mammals, and, to a lesser extent, avians also.  In the case of human children, Goldschmidt writes, "[I]t continues as a wish for acceptance, approval, and influence in the ever-expanding community in which every child is to live." (37)  Hence, it is what makes us social; but it is not affect hunger that distinguishes us from other mammals, it is what we do with it.  Goldschmidt's examples on the comparative "ethnography of infancy" illustrate this.  By inculcating and maintaining certain childcare practices, different cultures manipulate the affective needs of their children, thereby molding their personalities to fit the norms of their societies.  He cites a striking example observed by Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead before the Second World War in a Balinese village:

Among the actions they found was the mothers' regular practice of teasing their babies by fondling their genitals and, after they were aroused, withdrawing their attention and leaving the infant frustrated in its desire for affective response.  They wrote, "the mother continually stimulates the child to show emotion--love or desire, jealousy or anger--only to turn away, to break the thread, as the child, in rising passion, makes a demand for some emotional response."  They said that this leads to a sense of distrust of others and t a Balinese personality characterized by flat affect. (66)

Goldschmidt then connects this to, among others, his own observations of the child-rearing practices of the Sebei people of Uganda, whose mothers enfold their babies in their arms, "the left hand grasping the right wrist, so that neither hand, so that neither hand is contact with the baby." (67)  The Sebei persona is also characterized by a flat affect.  Such psychological engineering in turn may serve some wider function in the ecology of community, which Goldschmidt goes on to discuss in a chapter on culture. 

But while environmental pressures may exercise a Darwinian-like selective pressure on cultures and variations in child-rearing that differently exploit the mammalian drive for affect, these practices are not encoded in our genes, they are learned behaviors.  This is where Goldschmidt needs to place more emphasis on imitation--not that he doesn't mention it, he does, and what he says about it is important--but he still doesn't devote the attention to it that it deserves, relative to the attention he places on affect.    He writes, "Imitation is essential to culture," and goes on to relate how human infants can imitate a variety of facial expressions within weeks or even days after birth. (50)  But he does not explicitly link this point either to his discussion of "mirror neurons," even though there he states, "The transfer of information from one living being to another is an essential quality of culture...," (31)[1] nor to his observation that our nearest surviving cousins, the apes, while capable of learning words, have no capacity at all for acquiring grammar or syntax. (24)  But before language really took off, the human capacity for imitation was the main way in which information would have been transferred from one being to another, and our vastly superior capacity for imitation (ironically, humans are far better than apes at aping) plays an undeniable role in the phylogeny and ontogeny of language and culture.  

Goldschmidt defines culture as, "the shared perception of the universe and its contents, seen as a systematic whole, including the perceptions of self and the delineation of behavioral propriety." (77)  While this will work well for an anthropologist studying an isolated, homogenous society, it seems too intellectual and optimistic for a postmodern era.  As Goldschmidt later notes, "multiculturalism is an inevitable product of urban life." (115)  And while a heterogeneous society may still accept a politically and legally based definition of itself as a unity, the prospect of "a shared perception of the universe" becomes ever more unattainable.  In at least some contexts, 'culture' might be better understood as the whole body of information and behaviors transmitted by language and imitation within a population, whether this body of information produces a unified vision or not.  In those relatively isolated, pre-urban cultures a unity of vision is likely because the transmission of information is mostly vertical (parent to child) or diagonal (close kin like uncles, aunts, and older cousins); but in urban environments horizontal transmission of ideas, values, and behaviors from an ever-wider body of peers comes to predominate. (These different paths by which information may be culturally transmitted, and their implications for cultural evolution, are ably and accessibly discussed in Susan Blackmore's The Meme Machine, OUP, 1999; see esp. Ch. 11, "Sex in the Modern World." )   

Goldschmidt refuses to downgrade social constructs as somehow "less real" than physical phenomena.  In so doing, he avoids the fallacy of what philosopher Daniel Dennett calls "greedy reductionism;" (Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Simon & Schuster, 1995; 82-3) but there are times when he takes this too far.   "Souls," he writes, "do not obey the laws of thermodynamics, being the product of human belief, and so we need not look for logic and reason in their actions." (132)  This is fine if one is treating the soul as a purely imagined entity, but questionable as a statement about the self as a socially constructed identity with real effects in the world; and the trouble is that Goldschmidt seems to equivocate here, not only between these two senses of 'soul', but also between these mind as an activity of the brain, the last of which is an entity that definitely does have to obey all the physical laws.  One at least wants to say that the soul, in the psychological sense, must have some "logic" all its own; but Goldschmidt's way of putting it raises specters of the kind of social science he ostensibly disavows: a humanism disconnected from its evolutionary roots, one that makes the difference between Man and animal magical.  This tendency is also betrayed in the author's preface, where he writes, "This books shows how our hominid ancestors broke a fundamental law of evolution, namely, that every physical and behavioral trait of every living thing is ultimately motivated to maximize the survival advantage of its progeny…" (vii) One wants to ask, can a fundamental law of nature really be broken?  So, although Goldschmidt the anthropologist has tried to give biology its due, traces of "Cartesian Theater" seemingly to remain, a difficulty that might have been avoided if he had paid some attention to Dawkins's other Big Idea, the meme

 

© 2007 Andrew V. Jeffery

 

Andrew V. Jeffery, Green River Community College

 



[1] The discovery of mirror neurons might well serve to answer one of the criticisms frequently leveled against the theory of memetics originally proposed by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene, namely, the complaint that the mechanism for copying and storing memes was unknown.  (It is curious that in a book essentially about cultural evolution, that uses the phrase "the selfish gene" in its sub-title, and correctly attributes the phrase to Dawkins, there is no reference at all to the theory of cultural evolution Dawkins himself proposed in the final chapter of that earlier book.)


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