what’s missing from “the tribal imagination”

inclusive fitness.

well, it’s not exactly absent entirely from the book — for instance, fox does talk about some inclusive fitness-related things like how the laws in many traditional societies regarding revenge for the killing of family members closely match what you would expect if you had run some calculations from an inclusive fitness p.o.v. [pg. 44]. but he does seem to be missing out on a couple of subtler points related to inclusive fitness, mating patterns and human societies.

for one, like i said in a previous post, i don’t think fox is correct in saying that democracy (of the universal, parliamentary sort) is unnatural to humans. sure it is uncommon — wildly uncommon in fact. but that’s only because in most human societies in most times in most parts of the world, people have been inbreeding — inbreeding at levels at which democracy just doesn’t work. in fact, it prolly didn’t even occur to them to try.

on the other hand, in the area of the world where humans, curiously, quit inbreeding to any large extent, democracy and ideas like universalism flourished (relatively speaking). that’s because the degree of genetic relatedness within european populations changed. as steve sailer put it:

“The resulting broad but shallow regional blood ties help explain why Western cultures were able to organize politically on a territorial basis without always being looted by self-interested clans.”

broad but shallow regional blood ties. that’s something that fox seems to be overlooking (at least in his book): that democracy, universalism, etc. — all the things that makes western society what it is — are enabled by our broad but shallow regional blood ties AND, therefore, that inclusive fitness is still in play. it hasn’t gone away. it’s just operating in a different sort of environment — not one of clans and tribes but one of individuals and (up until recently) nuclear families.

fox seems to think inclusive fitness applies more to inbred societies [pg. 53]:

“Thus rights involving inclusive fitness are more likely to be respected currently in fundamentalist Islamic societies than in Western democracies.”

well that’s because, of course, people are more inbred in most islamic societies and so they are more driven to support fellow family and clan members. however, in the west, europeans and their decendents are driven to support EVERYBODY in a universal fashion — because of the broad but shallow regional blood ties. it’s still inclusive fitness we’re talking about here. it’s just that the shared genes in other individuals that we are driven to aid are spread out across a wider population. (although those drives are arguably getting misapplied when european peoples want to include very unrelated peoples in their universalism. but evolved behaviors know no logic, so … oops.)

i guess what i’m trying to say is that i get the impression that fox views inclusive fitness more as just kin selection rather than a concept that needs to be applied in all directions and to be considered in light of all degrees of inbreeding. maybe i’m wrong about that, but that’s what i get from my reading (so far) of “The Tribal Imagination.”

the other subtle point that’s missing from the book is the fact that not all groupings of family members — like grandfathers-grandsons — share the same coefficients of relatedness. this is due to the differential inheritance of the sex chromosomes (x and y). so, in the case of grandfathers-grandsons, because of the way the x and y chromosomes are inherited, maternal grandfathers are more related, on average, to their grandsons than paternal grandfathers are. (actually, fox did mention the differential inheritance of the sex chromosomes at one point in the book, but afaics he seems to have gotten the inheritance pattern wrong — unless i’m mistaken. in any case, he doesn’t follow through to work out the social, inclusive fitness implications of these differences.)

so what? well, these inheritance patterns seem to matter in an inclusive fitness sort-of way. on average, family members who share more genes are more altruistic towards one another.

what implications should this have for human societies at large? well, if a society practices a certain type of inbreeding — say father’s brother’s daughter (fbd) marriage (like many muslim societies today) — then the coefficients of relatedness will become amplified in certain ways throughout extended families and clans.

in other words, not all inbred societies are created equal.

anthropologists like fox have noted that different marriage patterns result in societies with differing characteristics — fbd marriage gets you societies with warring, segmented clans while societies with mother’s brother’s daughter (mbd) marriage are characterized by clans with broader, external alliances. but what about the behaviors of clan members toward one another as considered from an inclusive fitness p.o.v. given that the degrees of relatedness between the members is different? (some day i’ll finish calculating those coefficients of relatedness, i promise!) you would think that the attitudes toward family members and drives toward altruism and other social behaviors would be different under different marriage patterns. fox didn’t discuss that in “The Tribal Imagination.” i was hoping he would. *sigh*

those are my only complaints about “The Tribal Imagination.” otherwise, it’s a terrific read and i recommend it to all!

previously: what else i did on my summer vacation and “the tribal imagination” and “hard-won democracy”

(note: comments do not require an email. chickens against altruism.)

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