Social Bonding and Nurture Kinship -
Compatibility between Cultural and Biological Approaches.
Author – Maximilian Holland
Available from Amazon and online at http://maximilianholland.com/
“Social Bonding and Nurture Kinship” is the author’s doctoral thesis from 2004, published in paperback form in 2012.
The aim of the thesis was to “clarify some aspects of the relationship between biology and social bonds. The central task is to demonstrate that, despite clear problems of some past approaches claiming to represent biology, there is non-reductive compatibility between the perspective from cultural approaches documenting processes of social bonding in humans and the perspective from basic biological theory.”
Those aims have been achieved by an exhaustive and painstaking analysis of the full range of nurture relationships in social animals, using the widest possible range of source materials from the fields of biology, ethology and anthropology in particular.
The analysis of the contribution by biology to these matters focused on a detailed examination of the inclusive fitness concept. When combined with the analysis of compelling data from the fields of ethology and anthropology, the author’s conclusion regarding social behaviours was striking.
He wrote : “For a social trait then, we can say that correlations involving genetic relatedness may have been an important factor in its frequency increase and thus its evolution within a population or species. But this does not translate into genetic relatedness being a necessary factor in the expression of a social trait.”
Unfortunately from my personal perspective, the author did not pursue the staggering implications of that position, as it lay outside the aims of the thesis, and I guess that a foray into the lions’ den of evolutionary orthodoxy is possibly not the smartest career move for a doctoral candidate.
But pursue it we shall.
“...genetic relatedness may have been an important factor...” in the development of social traits. That’s almost a truism, it scarcely requires explanation, but because there has been so much misrepresentation by neo-Darwinists in this area, it should be clarified.
The reason genetic relatedness only “may have been” an important factor in the development of social traits is because in some societies, not all societies, infants learn such traits principally from parents and close kin. That is the extent of the genetic component to the matter. The belief that social trait evolution is gene-dependent or gene-driven was demolished in “Social Bonding and Nurture Kinship” by demonstrating that assumptions regarding kinship upon which such beliefs concerning genes are based, are without foundation.
“But this does not translate into genetic relatedness being a necessary factor in the expression of a social trait.”
In other words, the principal factor in the expression of a social trait is society. How can it be otherwise? The term itself, “social trait”, shows this to be so. The only way that this interpretation can be denied is to adopt the Thatcherite position that “There is no society; there are only individuals and families.” In reality, that is the path down which neo-Darwinists have travelled. By refusing to recognise the influence of group dynamics on evolution, they deliberately chose an ideological position that defied the great principles of science by ignoring evidence.
How could that happen? Quite easily, as it turns out.
Because another fascinating element to come out of “Social Bonding” was the author’s exposure of the influence of culture on the observation and interpretation of data by researchers in the field. In short, the cultural background of researchers led them to miss important data and to misinterpret data in regard to kinship realities in those societies under study. The error has been recognised and corrected in the field of anthropology, but that correction is yet to be seen in related fields where discredited assumptions are still being used.
Now for some thoughts of my own.
Not only has the referred to error not been corrected in related fields, theorists in the field of biology deliberately refuse to accept kinship related behaviours that do not fit their inclusive fitness model.
For example, Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (1976) wrote (p 99): “Many social anthropologists are preoccupied with “kinship” in the societies which they study. They do not mean real genetic kinship, but subjective and cultural ideas of kinship.”
Two words stand out in that passage.
“Preoccupied” is clearly a criticism of anthropologists, as it implies a fascination with local kinship beliefs that prevents a valid assessment. And “real” in respect of genetic kinship is a clear case of cultural chauvinism as it implies that Dawkins has a view based on superior knowledge. The assumption of superior knowledge, while valid in one respect, is not appropriate in this context because in social relations, as in all relations in the natural world, what is “real” is what works on the ground. In the case of kin altruism, if a parent nurtures an unrelated child exactly as it would its own child, then to say that the child is not “real” kin is to miss the point entirely. After all, “real” means “existing”, and in this case existing behaviour is the crucial element. It is behaviour that is being analysed after all, not relatedness. Dawkins could have left out “real” without detracting from the meaning, the resulting sentence would have been acceptable, but its insertion betrayed his actual position. And clearly, the anthropologists he referred to were not preoccupied at all; they were recording kinship behaviours that were actually in existence. So it’s the neo-Darwinists that have been preoccupied – their fixation on genes has diverted them from what’s going on in the real world.
It might seem harsh to be so critical of Dawkins for ignoring evidence that was only beginning to be accumulated in 1976, but his cavalier attitude towards this evidence at the time, and his refusal to recant in subsequent editions covering a thirty year period, (indeed, he expanded his criticism in a later edition p 294) shows that he has consistently pushed an ideological line, or at the very least, a line skewed by cultural influence.
What particular cultural influence do I refer to?
It’s no coincidence that the inclusive fitness concept grew out of a society that had enjoyed global domination for one hundred and fifty years, a society in which not only privilege, but society as a whole was maintained by a class structure based on a system of lineal descent. The British regard for lineal descent created a society in which descent was everything, social relationships were built around descent, making it easier to obscure the fact that genetic relatedness is not necessary for the evolution of altruistic behaviours.
The author’s refutation of the generally accepted kinship/altruism link was supported by a comprehensive range of evidence, but my favourite was the quote from a researcher in the Trobriand Islands, whose explanation to local villagers as to how kin altruism and nurturing operates in Western societies had the islanders helpless with laughter. Which takes us to the heart of the matter.
The hilarity of the islanders was due to a blatant defect in the biological definition of kinship. If I can take the liberty to summarise the author’s findings as to the relationship between kinship and altruism, it would be something like this; evolutionary biologists assert that kinship produces altruism, when in reality it’s altruism that creates kinship.
Quite apart from the evidence presented by the author to support this "radical" position, it only takes a few minutes thought to verify. It is not a case of cultural differences throwing up opposing views, because in the West it’s commonplace for non-related benefactors and close family associates to be referred to as “aunt” or “uncle”. Westerners have long acknowledged that altruism-sharing-cooperation creates kinship. It’s not that the biological position is wrong, kinship can produce altruism, but it’s so narrow, so far from the whole truth that it might as well be wrong.
But let’s be frank about this. The reason neo-Darwinists saw a link between genetic relatedness and altruism is because they wanted to see a link and refused to accept contrary evidence, hence the connection to “there-is-no-society” ideology. And in the process they pulled off one of the most shameful episodes in the history of biology.
The lesson to be learnt from this is that contrary evidence cannot be ignored. Any hypothesis must be modified to fit the evidence. And in the case of inclusive fitness, when we take the genetic component out of a gene-based hypothesis, we are left with nothing. So is inclusive fitness dead? No, it can now be seen merely as an aspect of group survival. How ironic is that?!
But of course, there’s a lot more to “Social Bonding” than an opportunity for me to push my favourite barrow. The full range of topics, covered in meticulous detail, were the problems associated with social science theory, the contribution of evolutionary biology to the subject matter based on a thorough examination of inclusive fitness, sociobiological treatments of kinship, kin recognition theory, social behaviours in mammals, social behaviours in primates, attachment theory, ethnographic compatibility, and a summary and discussion.
“Social Bonding and Nurture Kinship” is such a valuable contribution to the ongoing development of this field of enquiry that it deserves to be re-written in a form suitable for popular consumption. It’s that good.