As I discuss in (Read 2012), the evolutionary pathway from the non-human primates to Homo sapiens involves a major change in social systems from the systems of face-to-face interaction that non-human primate societies are dependent upon to the relation based social systems of human societies. The driving factor for this qualitative transition stems (among other factors) from the increase in social complexity introduced by the phylogenetic trend in the non-human primates towards increased individualization of behavior, including the formation of coalitions. This trend also involves another trend towards behavior specified more with respect to behavioral capacities, rather than specific behaviors. It is no coincidence that in the great apes we find individualistic behavior comparable to what we find in humans coupled with the beginnings of traditions – patterns of behavior transmitted phenotypically rather than genotypically. What the chimpanzees and other great apes lack, though, is the means to incorporate individualistic behavior into their social milieu without reverting to small social units as a way to deal with the social complexity introduced through individualistic behavior and coalition formation. Chimpanzees live in communities of 50 – 100 or so individuals, but within this community females are largely solitaire in their behavior (except, obviously, for mating and raising of offspring) and males only form small, unstable social units composed of 6 or fewer males.
What our hominin ancestors were eventually able to cognize, due to increase in mental capacity (including an increase in the size of working memory [Read and van der Leeuw 2008]), was the idea that a relation of relation is again a relation. The macaques apparently cognize (in some sense) a mother relation; that is, they distinguish female/offspring dyads according to the difference between the ‘mothering’ behavior of a female towards her offspring and the behavior she may have towards the offspring of other females (Dasser 1988). At some point in hominin evolution leading toward Homo sapiens, our hominin ancestors had the cognitive capacity to be able to recursively construct a new relation from an already known relation through something like Theory of Mind: if I recognize female A as mother, then I can imagine that female A recognizes some female B as mother, and so I have a relation to female B, namely the ‘mother of mother’ relation.
This construction of a new relation from an already known relation provides the link taking us from biological foundations to the beginnings of a constructed (hence cultural) system of kin relations we refer to as genealogical relations. From the recursive construction of new relations based on recognition of a mother relation and, reciprocally, a child relation (and, eventually, a father relation), another revolutionary change took place with the shift from system of genealogical tracing from one person to another to the symbolic, terminological system that enables us to specify a kin relation between two persons directly. Thus English speakers can say that Sam is the grandfather of Sue without reference to any intervening persons. Common to all kinship terminologies is the ability not only to specify kin relations in this manner, but the ability to compute kinship relations from the terminology itself. As numerous ethnographers have reported, when person A meets unknown person B, all they need to determine their kinship relation is a person C for whom each has a known kinship relation. For English speakers, if A meets B for the first time and A and B determine, through their conversation, that A refers to person C as uncle and person B refers to person C as father (hence C refers to person B as son), then A know that to refer to B as cousin from that information alone. As Laurent Dousset (2008) has noted for the Ngaatjatjarra of Australia, this kind of calculation by A and B suffices for A to work out his or her kinship relation to every person in B’s group since each of those persons has a kinship relation to B expressible through a kin term that B uses to refer to that person.
This implies that the evolutionary pathway from non-human primate social systems to human social systems begins, as it must, at the level of biological kin, but ends, through the symbolic kinship terminology systems that enable the computation of kin relations by reference to the logic of the kinship terminology, at a constructed, cultural level. The terminology, as I have shown for wide range of terminologies (Read 2013), not only seems to be logical, but is logically coherent -- as it must be for this kind of computation to be the basis (as it is) of working out kin relationships. Strikingly, we can now account for the great division of terminologies into what Morgan referred to as classificatory terminologies (that is, terminologies that do not consistently distinguish lineal from collateral genealogical relations) and descriptive terminologies (those that consistently make that distinction) by which of two possible ways that sibling relations are conceptualized. One way, familiar to English speakers, is through sibling constructed as ‘child of parent’ (where this refers to the kin term product of the terms child and parent, not to genealogical relations) and the other in which sibling is defined by common parentage. The latter implies that sibling is a primary, not a constructed, kin relation; the former that sibling is a constructed kin term. The latter provides the logic that gives rise to the classificatory terminologies; the former the logic that gives rise to the descriptive terminologies.
What makes all kinship systems easy to learn from the child’s perspective is that all terminologies are based on the same generative logic, but differ at the level of the implementation of that logic, such as whether sibling is a primary kin term or a derived kin term. What makes the classificatory terminologies difficult for English speakers is that the mapping of the terms for a classificatory terminology onto genealogical relations, makes no sense from the perspective of a descriptive terminology, which has a structure that roughly parallels that of a genealogical structure. English speakers try to make the comparison between the terminologies through genealogy, which is confusing, rather than through the structural logic of the two kinds of terminologies, which clarifies the differences between the two kinds of terminologies.
What kinship systems may share with languages is the capacity of the brain to work out structural logic, either in the form of a non-consciously understood grammar in the case of languages, or in the form of the computational logic (which is much like the logic of an addition table or a multiplication table for numbers) for kinship terminologies. Whether this is better understood as a ‘module’ or simply as part of the general capacity of the brain I leave to others more knowledgeable than I about these matters.
In sum, I quite agree with Salazar’s comment: “Everything looks as if kinship systems were the ‘missing link’ in human biocultural evolution: the half-biological half-cultural connection that would enable humans to transcend the limits on social life imposed by natural selection, i.e. the limits on cooperation imposed by reciprocal altruism and kin selection, but without the need for a fully-fledged cultural system…” Kinship does not require a ‘fully-fledged cultural system’, for with the evolution of kinship systems we have the evolutionary origin of a cultural system.
Dasser, V. 1988. ‘Mapping Social Concepts in Monkeys’. In: R.W. Byrne & A.Whiten (eds) Machiavellian Intelligence: Social Expertise and the Evolution of Intellect in Monkeys, Apes, and Humans. New York: Oxford University Press, 85–93.
Dousset, Lawrence. 2008. ‘The 'Global' Versus the 'Local': Cognitive Processes of Kin Determination in Aboriginal Australia’. Oceania 78:260-279.
Read, Dwight W. 2012. How Culture Makes Us Human. Primate Social Evolution and the Formation of Human Societies. Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press.
Read, D. 2013. ‘A New Approach to Forming a Typology of Kinship Terminology Systems: From Morgan and Murdock to the Present’. Structure and Dynamics 6 (1).
Read, D., and S.E. van der Leeuw. 2008. ‘Biology is Only Part of the Story ...’. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 363:1959-1968.
I think they tend to agree more than others because they begin with strong agreement on very precise fundamental definitions and most of the rest follows logically and almost mechanically; which is not to say that there are not leaps of genius and intuition but that even the most once such a leap occurs those who follow can easily bridge the chasm using well defined steps. The less consensus there is on fundamental definitions the less consensus there will be in any discipline. Thus we find mathematics (where consensus on fundamental definitions is strong) exhibiting strong agreement elsewhere, less so with physics, less with biology, less with history, less still with sociology, psychology, philosophy and so it goes. In a field like mathematics there the fundamental constructs are very simple and well defined (e.g. integers, vectors, operations, etc), but on the other end of the spectrum in a field like philosophy, the most fundamental constructs are perhaps the least well defined and agreed upon (e.g. reality, knowledge, truth, etc.) The level of consensus in each field is directly related to the precision of their fundamental definitions and their agreement with regards to them.
First of all, I apologize for my terribly late answer and really want to thank for your comment, and this overall exciting discussion.
For the first point, the fact that believers trust more believers of other religions than atheists of their own ingroup is not a definitive point against the "ideological distance" idea, as belief in a Big God may be felt as central enough in how someone considers his or her own behavior and life to make a believer feeling closer to a believer of another religion than to an atheist.
My point was mainly to ask what more detailed mechanism or reasoning ends in distrusting atheists, on the basis of supernatural policing's consequences, and the references you gave me addressed my concerns quite well. Nevertheless, testing if unpredictability of behavior or uncertainty about a predicted behavior can occur independently or not, and if these mechanisms may be at play in other judgments of trust (not only based on expectations from belonging to a certain group), seem an exciting issue to me.
For my second point, I felt that in your book, the exclusive existence of Big Gods in Big Groups settings was an argument for your point, whereas neither you needed it to make it, nor it seemed convincing, for the reasons you developed in your comment, and what bothered me was only the use of it in your argumentation.
I was not considering the "Big Gods for Big Groups" argument as Big Gods being a byproduct of social complexity, but more that Big Groups would be a necessary condition of the existence of Big Gods, for kind of "technical" reasons like the number of transmissions the concept of a High God would need to be maintained, or even kind of "crafted" by successive additions of properties, which would imply a critical size of people talking about that god, quite independently from the complexity of the group. This hypothesis does not imply that Big Groups wouldn't benefit from Big Gods, and would explain only why Big Gods are not found in small groups, not why they are more frequent under certain environmental conditions.
Out of curiosity, do cross-cultural or historical researches show (so far) signs of Big Gods that would have disappeared (without being replaced by another form of social monitoring)?
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