Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Pupularizers and Poletergeists

I'm reading The End of Magic by Ariel Glucklich,* which I stumbled on while looking for another book in the library stacks.  Glucklich, a philosopher by training, went to India to do fieldwork on magic as it is practiced there.  He has some interesting ideas, and some interesting stories to tell, but a lot of the time he gets so much wrong that I'm not sure it's worth finishing the book.  For example:
Culture has come along only very recently to buffer humans from nature and to redirect nature’s impact on the physical person. Obviously, culture surrounds a Madison Avenue executive more snugly than a !Kung bushman or a Mongolian nomad [100]. 
Wow.  Just wow.  I can't tell from the context what time scale Glucklich has in mind when he says that culture has come along "only very recently."  Compared to the age of the universe, yes; compared to the age of the human species, no.  In fact it's arguable that "culture" is as old as Homo sapiens, and defines us as a species.  It's older, if you suppose, as seems reasonable, that Neandertals had culture, and possibly older varieties of genus Homo.  For that reason, there is no reason to claim that "culture surrounds" a modern urban human being any "more snugly" than it does people from other cultures: a !Kung bushman is every bit as shaped and enabled by her culture as a Mad Ave exec.  I suspect Glucklich means technology here: the Mongolian nomad has no skyscrapers, no air conditioning, no superhighways, no Internet; but he still has a material culture and a technology that other animals don't.  And he also has language, customs, religion, kinship systems, and other non-material but still very pertinent aspects of culture, that fit him no less snugly than his New York counterpart.
But all three are still animals in many important respects. Biology still shapes much of who they are, despite the effects of culture, as popular books on ethology by Konrad Lorenz and Desmond Morris and the more technical works of E. O. Wilson have demonstrated. Even cultural psychologists and anthropologists like Jerome Bruner and Clifford Geertz acknowledge this fact [100-1].
Of course, "all three are animals" in every respect.  But they are human animals.  Without human biology, they wouldn't have culture.  Culture is an expression of biology, but human biology gives us a flexibility that most species don't have.  I suspect, especially from that reference to E. O. Wilson, that Glucklich buys into sociobiology and  "evolutionary psychology," which have little to do with whether human beings are animals; at least he seems to assume that evolutionary psychologists' polemical propaganda against their critics is valid when it accuses them of thinking that human beings are not shaped or limited by our biology at all.  (Wilson's Sociobiology, his "more technical work," mostly marshalled evidence from insects -- his specialty -- and other species.  His closing chapter on human beings was full of speculations but "demonstrated" next to nothing about us.  His succeeding book on human beings not only was less technical, it walked back from the more confident -- and mistaken -- claims about human beings he'd made before.  Like so many advocates of sociobiology and EvoPsych, Glucklich claims that his pet sciences have achieved more than they really have.)

Glucklich likes to throw around magical categories like "evolution," and his conception of evolution is often more Lamarckian than Darwinist.  The book is full of typos -- I use two of the more entertaining ones in the title of this post -- and dubious assertions.  Does Glucklich realize that he too is a "pupularizer"?  But I think I'll soldier on and see where his analysis of magic goes.

*Published by Oxford University Press in 1997.