B.A.C. Saunders (1995) What can Caporael Offer Anthropology?. Psycoloquy: 6(07) Group Selection (2)

Volume: 6 (next, prev) Issue: 07 (next, prev) Article: 2 (next prev first) Alternate versions: ASCII Summary
PSYCOLOQUY (ISSN 1055-0143) is sponsored by the American Psychological Association (APA).
Psycoloquy 6(07): What can Caporael Offer Anthropology?

Commentary on Caporael on Group-Selection

B.A.C. Saunders
Centre for Social and Cultural Anthropology
University of Leuven
Tiensestraat 102
3000 Leuven (Belgium)



Anthropology having grown up coeval with Neo-Darwinian biology, it reflects similar deficiencies. Caporael's reworking therefore has significant implications for Anthropology. Her sketch, however, raises questions urgently needing answers if the "paradigm-shift" she is after is to be accepted.


developmental systems theory, group coordination, group selection, hierarchy, human evolution, social cognition, social identity, teleofunctionalism
1. Anthropology has proven particularly receptive to Neo-Darwinism. Many of its grand themes - kinship, colour, incest, bonding and attachment - have relied on it. The shibboleths of Culture and Relativism have grown up colluding with the belief that Neo-Darwinian biology is the really real. Ultimate reality is held in biological bases or propensities, the genitors of essentialist developmental pathways or a phenotype (the 'norm' for the species). Anthropology has been concerned with how the human organism behaves in an environment from which it is separate and independent but to which it has adapted. And in its adaptation, it has produced mindstuff - "meaningful expression" of a superorganic mind which supervenes on or emerges from the genotypical substratum (Sahlins, 1976). In this view, either there is one gene for one "trait", in which case each culture is programmed by its own uniquely characterised genome, thus presenting autonomous, incomparable and incommensurable styles (cultures) and thereby vindicating Relativism. Or Culture is the particular expression of one immortal genome, which evolves and expresses itself in allele-genomes in different cultures (Bornstein, 1989). All variations of these arguments hold in common that a variety of modes of phenotypic adaptation is the outcome as much of genetically programmed ultimate processes as of epigenetic or experientially based proximate processes. Biology deals with the former; anthropology with the latter.

2. Anthropologists who cannot accept working within a Neo-Darwinian framework face inordinate institutional problems not least of which is the obscurantist criteria used for granting research proposals. Recent challenges to Neo-Darwinism (Oyama, 1986; Ingold, 1991; Griffiths and Gray, 1994) and the allied anti-cognitivists (Still and Costall, 1991; Reed, 1987; Noble, 1993) have made little impact on the anthropological establishment - witness the upsurge of neo-Kantian Cognitive Anthropology. Clearly here we have an interesting case for the sociology of knowledge and the philosophy of science. Notwithstanding these disciplinary peccadilloes there is a great need to press harder for recognition amongst anthropologists of developmental systems and process theory, and what Caporael (1995) has called "Sociality Theory."

3. Caporael should be congratulated for synthesising so congenially an abundance of apparently divergent perspectives. In the context of her descriptive paradigm these are anything but divergent: rather they are mutually reinforcing. That being said, I would like to respond to her appeal to critics to test the thesis.

4. First, missing is a clear account of intentionality and action pace, the "invisible hand" of the demic structures. This is emphatically not an attempt to smuggle in individualism: on the contrary it is a plea to find a coherent place for the microdynamics of proper functions, humanly conceived. Without such an account we cannot grasp notions of unintended consequences, which, since Malinowski in anthropology and Durkheim in sociology, have born the burden of functionalism. Caporael may take exception to my anthropomorphic stance, but I have difficulty with her positioning on Mars. I realise this is a rhetorical strategy, but point out its epistemic weakness.

5. Second, following a suggestion of Griffiths and Gray (1994), I wonder how Caporael would account for the persistence of patriarchy in terms of repeated assemblies. Are inequalities and power relations derivative, or are they proper functions? Or are they no function at all? In view of the reliability and durability of patriarchy, a description of the levels of its dynamics should be at the top of the agenda. Without further qualification Caporael's theory might be taken to endorse a Panglossian world.

6. Third, I have some difficulty with the section on Hierarchy. While multiple levels of organisation are involved, there is no argument offered as to why these should be hierarchically organised and not say, heterarchically. What would be the objection to saying "core configurations are necessarily multiple and heterarchical" as distinct from "core configurations have a nested, hierarchical structure"? What are the superordinate considerations - other than scale - that relate the levels? Can scale alone carry so much weight? In so far as hierarchy is involved, I am struck by the similarities between Reductionism and Sociality Theory, the latter being as it were an inversion of the former.

7. Fourth, the core configurations seem to have been derived from sociobiology. But what about other kinds of "centres of gravity" like religion, ethnic or national identity, attachment to place, or the possession of symbolic capital and currency? The problem may be a consequence of the level of generality at which the theory is posed: but then whatever is gained in generality is lost in detail. For example, from the perspective of Sociality Theory, the Holocaust, like Aids, refugees, and the Thirty Years War might be seen as just another hiccup.

8. Fifth, were significant configurations either "core" or "repeatedly assembled" quite as neatly as this theory might suggest, we would have been quicker on the uptake to identify the desirable and undesirable ones and act accordingly. Anthropology has been struggling to describe varieties of configurations since the inception of the discipline. Perhaps the only "repeated assemblies" generally agreed upon might be characterised as "judgements of propriety." Might these be the sort of candidates Caporael is after? If the infant-caregiver dyad is thought of as a significant case then a glance at the cross-cultural bonding and attachment literature will establish just how contentious even the "raw data" are. One cannot simply dismiss past fieldworkers' attempts by ascribing to them a general, blinkered ignorance compared to our own present level of enlightenment. For then we would merely be mouthing old Popperian platitudes, committed to the evolutionary view that Sociality Theory aims to overthrow.

9. Finally, while I can only support the reinstatement of Aristotle's hylomorphic view of proper functions, I would go further than Caporael and suggest a more thorough-going Aristotelianism where all appeal to "invisible hands" is dropped. Instead of looking for "underlying realities" I would be happy just sticking to the appearances. Otherwise we might be in for another recycling of the "Argument from Design."


Bornstein, M. (1989) Cross-Cultural Development Comparisons: The Case of Japanese-American Infant and Mother Activities and Interactions. What We Know, What We Need to Know, and Why We Need to Know. Developmental Review 9:171-204.

Caporael, L.R. (1995) Sociality: Coordinating Bodies, Minds and Groups. PSYCOLOQUY 6(1) group-selection.1.caporael.

Griffiths P.E. and R.D. Gray (1994) Developmental Systems and Evolutionary Explanation. The Journal of Philosophy XCI (6):277-304.

Ingold, T. (1991) Becoming Persons: Consciousness and Sociality in Human Evolution. Cultural Dynamics IV(3):255-78.

Noble, W. (1993) Meaning and the "Discursive Ecology": Further to the Debate on Ecological Perceptual Theory. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour. 23 (4):375-98.

Oyama, S. (1986) The Ontogeny of Information. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Reed, E.S. (1987) James Gibson's Ecological Approach to Cognition. In A.P. Costall and A.W. Still (eds) Cognitive Psychology in Question . Hemel Hemstead: Harvester-Wheatsheaf.

Sahlins, M. (1976) Culture and Practical Reason. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Still, A.W. and A.P. Costall (1991) Against Cognitivism. Alternative Foundations for Cognitive Psychology. New York, London: Harvester-Wheatsheaf.

Volume: 6 (next, prev) Issue: 07 (next, prev) Article: 2 (next prev first) Alternate versions: ASCII Summary