The Tribe of Man
October 26, 2016 § 4 Comments
Bronislaw Malinowski was arguably the most important anthropologist of the 20th century. Armed with a degree from the London School of Economics, he shipped himself off to the Trobriand Islands in Melanesia and stayed there for several years to study the indigenous culture. His path-breaking research from that period catapulted him into a position of pre-eminence in the field, and influenced generations of anthropologists on both sides of the Atlantic.
And yet, chances are, you haven’t heard of Malinowski. Why should you? we live in a world where all the information in the world is accessible at our fingertips, but the Malinowskis of the world remain hidden in plain sight, lost in a crowd of Kardashians.
I stumbled upon his work (and this important collection of essays) because of my appetite for material concerning world mythology. Reading books of mythology led to reading books on mythology, and then to the books on things that are associated most closely with mythology: literature, language, social history and finally anthropology. Greek mythology led me to Robert Graves, and his bibliographical notes pointed me to Erich Fromm; Fromm, in turn, led me to JJ Bachofen and his fascinating theories of mutter-recht, but there, in an introductory passage in the edition I have, written by Joseph Campbell, was a reference to Bronislaw Malinowski. Weeks later, my attention was arrested by a quote attributed to Malinowski in a different book; it was the work of a minute to seek and order the slim book of essays under review.
The discipline of anthropology has its origins in mid-19th century Europe, and was strongly influenced by Darwin’s theory of evolution as well as by the colonial conquest of most of the rest of the world by European powers. Consequently, primitive cultures were studied, but from far above, as intellectual curiosities, like species of butterflies or finches.
Malinowski’s approach of staying for several years among the people of the culture he was ‘studying’ was therefore novel, and it yielded several interesting insights. I will mention only two.
The first relates to the nature of mythology. In Malinowski’s view, it is not, as the Nature mythology school believed, a set of contemplative reactions to natural phenomena (abstract art and science are not part of the stone age native’s mental makeup), or poetic symbology, or simply a set of stories that signify nothing. Myth is living, breathing reality for the Trobrianders, a functional, pragmatic embodiment of their beliefs, practices and morality. It is as true and tangible to them as any statement we hold to be self-evident and obvious today. It is what Thomas Kuhn would have called a paradigm.
The second relates to the nature of men. As was known by his time, the “savages” of Melanesia didn’t understand the concept of paternity. They attributed the conception of a child in a woman’s womb to the mischief of a ghostly spirit, and didn’t believe that a man had anything to contribute to that process. A modern man would scoff, and consider himself infinitely superior to them.
And yet, Malinowski shows, they had every bit as good a grasp on logic, and cause and effect, as the “civilized” people of the Earth: they simply didn’t know as much as we do, especially in abstract, theoretical subjects. They knew, for instance, when to plant which seed for best effect, or how to read the sky for clues to predict the weather, or where to fish at which time of the year. It is in fact this scientific (a word used advisedly) belief in cause and effect that led them astray: a Melanesian woman had an active sexual life practically every day from the day she stopped being a virgin, yet got pregnant just a few times in her entire life. The event of conception was possibly correlated closer with some food she ate, the phase of the moon, or the passing overhead of storks, than with the act of sex! If you didn’t know the things you know, how many of them would you figure out by yourself?
It is a sobering thought, that what separates me from a stone age tribesman, is not so much how smarter I am, man to man, (or nobler, or better read) but the accumulated body of knowledge and beliefs made available to the two of us by our respective societies: our mythologies, in other words.
Of course, this is not only true of Trobrianders and 20th century anthropologists, but of any two individuals anywhere, and forms the basis of modern liberal beliefs in nurture over nature. It also feeds the belief that there is one single human nature worldwide, and our differences have more to do with cultural reasons than anything innate.
This, to me and others who think like me, is kind of basic and obvious. Conservatives would call it a myth. And so it goes.