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.)

“the tribal imagination”

so, i’m still reading robin fox‘s “the tribal imagination” (reviewed in the american interest here). it always takes me forever to finish a book ’cause i’m always reading about a dozen at the one time (bad habit — impatient) — and then there’s all the knitting and baking projects that need to be done, too (you think i’m kidding, right? i’m serious!).

if you remember, i read chapter 3 first (another bad habit) and i talked about that, and chapter 1, here. lemme go back, now, and look at the other chapters i’ve read (i’m reading them in order now!).

first of all, maybe i should say that when fox uses the word “tribes” in this book he’s referring broadly to pre-modern groups of people. he’s not, necessarily, talking about alliances of clans or any more specific definition of the word. he’s just looking at — yeah — groups of people as we were before we lived in any sort of civilization or state. more-or-less. he does sometimes bring up modern tribes, too, though.


chapter 2 is about “human rights.” i liked chapter 2. chapter 2 was good. in it, fox takes a look at what we mean by “human rights” and if any such class of things actually exists in the known universe(s) — like, independently of us making it up. he comes pretty close to saying, no — “human rights” or “rights” don’t exist in nature, altho he hedges a bit by saying that, perhaps, there is a right to participate in reproduction.


i, myself, like to go all the way with this one and have simply concluded (a while ago) that there are no “rights” in life and whatever actions or activities our drives are inclining us to do — well, you just gotta fight for the “right” to do them. sometimes the fight is easy, or there is no fight at all, ’cause everyone more-or-less agrees that, for instance, we won’t just all go around murdering each other all the time. modern humans are kinda silly in claiming that this is because we all believe in everyone’s “right to life” when it’s really just a behavior that has, obviously, been selected for ’cause it works. on the other hand, some “human rights” might be hard to come by, depending on the circumstances. i dunno — the “human (or, maybe, political) right” for everyone to participate in elections. doesn’t come so easy in all places in all times. (and maybe that’s not such a bad thing.)

chapter 4 was also really interesting. it’s entitled: “Sects and Evolution: Tribal Splits and Creedal Schisms.” in this chapter, fox takes a look at the existence of thousands and thousands of religious sects (iirc, 34,000+ christian ones alone, for example) — and he also, amusingly, examines academic sects — and points out that, principally — biologically — the academic sects are no different than the religious ones. heh. here’s a great quote [pgs. 109-110]:

“The school is to the academy, what the sect is to religion. Functionally it is the same thing, and demands the same explanation. In the modern setting of science, with many large research universities, the opportunities for sect formation are almost too tempting. Potentially every department is its own sect, with tenure and grants and lavish resources to fund the prophet and his followers. And it is perhaps remarkable [no it’s not – hbd chick] that despite the influx of women into the universities, almost all the prophets are still men.

“A modern pioneer of ideological dispersal gets his PhD, moves to a new department, sets up his school with the proper flourish of ritual publications, and starts to attract disciples — graduate students — and to disperse them in turn. As Englels fortold, modern communication, now instant with e-mail, texting, and social networking sites, enables the disciples to stay in close touch despite physical dispersal, and this may well prolong the life of scientific sects. Or it may just facilitate great segmentation; we shall have to see how this turns out. But there are several distinct requirements for the process. The prophet has to make certain promises, the main one being novelty. The old prophet could preach a return to ancient and pure ways, but his progressive counterpart has to declare something new. What use is there in science for anything old; it is ipso facto out of date, which is the worst of scientific sins. Try to get graduate students to read anything more than five years old. To do so give them genuine physical pain.

“Thus we find novelty paraded in book titles: ‘Evolution: The Modern Synthesis;’ ‘Sociobiology: The New Synthesis;’ ‘Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind;’ ‘Evolutionary Psychiatry: A New Beginning.’ (Remember that these remarks were first addressed to a meeting of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society.) Very often this newness is simply a reinvention of the wheel, redefined by the prophets as a ‘circular motion-facilitation device’ (or ‘standard social science model,’ or for that matter, ‘meme’). No matter: the claim must be made. The sectarians then go to work on the prophet’s new list of normal science problems, reading only each other’s publications and citing only each other, thus maintaining the purity of sect doctrine. The exception to the ‘nothing older than five years’ rule is the ritual citation, in every paper, of the canonical works of the founders. That these citations are mostly ritual can be seen in the case of the original work of William Hamilton, where early on a mistake occurred in the cited pagination, and this has been faithfully repeated by the disciples down to the very present. Nevertheless, the names and works must be ritually intoned: In the name of Williams, and of Hamilton, and of Robert Trivers, Amen.”

ha! i have to say, i lol’d at that last sentence there. (^_^)

fox explains all this sectarianism that pops up everywhere in human societies by claiming that this is a reflection of a basic biological urge (really basic — like, microscopic organisms even do it) to disperse. sexually reproducing organisms are, apparently, particularly prone to it ’cause the whole point (maybe?) of sexual reproduction is to get, or increase, the genetic variation — and that will work even better if at least some members of the population disperse elsewhere. altho it makes sense to me, i’m not so familiar with this topic so i can’t really comment on it. further reading for another summer vacation maybe. i like his theory, tho, ’cause it’s pretty reductionist, and i like reductionism. ’cause reductionism works (often).

chapter 5 — “Which Ten Commandements?: Tribal Taboo and Priestly Morality” — kinda lost me, even though it was also interesting. fox examined at length the two sets of the ten commandments in the old testament (who knew?! i didn’t.) and how that whole scenario came about. one — the set most of us (christians) are prolly most familiar with — is the set from the movies (here and here) and is a set of moral codes; the other is, apparently, a set of ritual codes. fox argues that the ritual codes were the earlier version that were later replaced by the moral code version.

part of the reason for the initial ritual codes, he claims, was to keep the early hebrew tribes distinct from other tribes in canaan, i.e. you shouldn’t cook the meat of a calf in its mother’s milk, like those other tribes do. iow, these ritual codes were a cultural method of keeping the hebrew tribes hebrew. pretty straightforward stuff — most peoples have cultural rules (norms) to keep them separated from unrelated peoples. that’s (usually) one of the main points of having a culture, after all. fox says that the moral codes were later inserted into the old testament at a time when the hebrews started living in a larger community — when it became more important to not kill your neighbor rather than to be concerned about cooking meat in milk.

i think those were the major points of that chapter, altho i have to admit that it wasn’t the most gripping chapter for me. interesting, but not profoundly so. your mileage may vary.

and … that’s as far as i got when i got distracted by cavalli-sforza, et. al., and inbreeding in italy. (^_^) i’ll (try to) get back to reading fox now. and, of course, i’m also still “reading” todd … and mitterauer … and jack goody … and, omg, i have to start knitting christmas presents!!

previously: what else i did on my summer vacation

(note: comments do not require an email. knit one…)