Jun 13 2012

Reading Swanton’s Some Anthropological Misconceptions

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“Some Anthropological Misconceptions” , where the author (John R. Swanton, my new hero) lays the smack down on E.B. Tylor and Herbert Spencer for completely mis-applying Darwin’s theory of Evolution to cultures, with examples.

…as in biology we had a sequence of living forms ascending from the single-celled animals, through multiple-celled invertebrates, vertebrates, and mammals to man, and geological evidence that these had appeared on the earth successively beginning with the simpler, it was naturally assumed that among the races of makind we should find the same conditions, that is, certain ‘more primitive’ races, others less primitive, and others still less primitive, until we came to those peoples who were the custodians – or the victims – of European civilization. Such a view was indeed natural and also justifiable as a general working hypothesis, but its application was accompanied by a strangely one-sided view and a blindness to other plain teachings of biology quite astonishing. For one of the plainest lessons regarding biological evolution is that among the species of a genus or the varieties of a species the most generalized are those which probably stand nearest to the type from which all are descended. Instead of allowing themselves to be guided by this fact our anthropological predecessors took the ground that that was highest developed which approached nearest to the standards of European civilization, that to which they themselves belonged, and that most primitive which diverged farthest from it. Thus western civilization existed among peoples prevailingly fair, therefore the most primitive races must be dark. Other features were also deemed to be ‘primitive’ in proportion to their divergence from European standards. Still stranger results were produced by applying the same standard to cultural features. It was confidently asserted that primitive man was a cannibal, that he tattooed, deformed his head, pierced his nose and ears, was promiscuous in his sexual relations, was divided into totemic clans or rather ‘hordes,’ and practised a multitude of other customs because these particular customs and usages are the least prominent in the west European cultural center. The idea was carried so far that theories of origin were based upon cultural elements, but selected as original because they were the ones strangest to a European.

1917, he wrote this. There’s more. But daaaaamn.

He gets into the whole “animism” thing ala Tylor and Spencer in terms of dreams and dreams of the dead, as well. Tylor and Spencer basically assert that “primitive man” (based on the abovementioned criteria) would dream and deduce that the soul leaves the body, ergo, there is a soul, and some of the dead ones show up in dreams, therefore indicating survival, which thus requires development of a religion to explain everything, etc. etc. etc.

Per Swanton:

All of these theories are, it will be seen, particularistic. Each selects one particular feature from the mass of phenomena and arranges the rest in a series ending with the dominant belief of civilized men. As in the other cases, some element of belief particularly strange to so-called ‘civilized’ people is selected to start the series and each chain of evolution leads dutifully up to either the monotheism or the atheism of western Europe. As in the other cases our answer to these theories is taht the selection of one feature rather than another lacks validity, and that the arrangement of the evolutionary steps is arbitrary.

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