Cultural Body-Mind

Daniel Everett is an expert on the Piraha, although he has studied other cultures. It’s unsurprising then to find him use the same example in different books. One particular example (seen below) is about bodily form. I bring it up becomes it contradicts much of the right-wing and reactionary ideology found in genetic determinism, race realism, evolutionary psychology, and present human biodiversity (as opposed to the earlier HBD theory originated by Jonathan Marks).

From the second book below, the excerpt is part of a larger section where Everett responded to the evolutionary psychologist John Tooby, the latter arguing that there is no such thing as ‘culture’ and hence everything is genetic or otherwise biological. Everett’s use of dark matter of the mind is his way of attempting to get at more deeply complex view. This dark matter is of the mind but also of the body.

* * *

How Language Began:
The Story of Humanity’s Greatest Invention

by Daniel L. Everett
pp. 220-221

Culture, patterns of being – such as eating, sleeping, thinking and posture – have been cultivated. A Dutch individual will be unlike the Belgian, the British, the Japanese, or the Navajo, because of the way that their minds have been cultivated – because of the roles they play in a particular set of values and because of how they define, live out and prioritise these values, the roles of individuals in a society and the knowledge they have acquired.

It would be worth exploring further just how understanding language and culture together can enable us better to understand each. Such an understanding would also help to clarify how new languages or dialects or any other variants of speech come about. I think that this principle ‘you talk like who you talk with’ represents all human behaviour. We also eat like who we eat with, think like those we think with, etc. We take on a wide range of shared attributes – our associations shape how we live and behave and appear – our phenotype. Culture affects our gestures and our talk. It can even affect our bodies. Early American anthropologist Franz Boas studied in detail the relationship between environment, culture and bodily form. Boas made a solid case that human body types are highly plastic and change to adapt to local environmental forces, both ecological and cultural.

Less industrialised cultures show biology-culture connections. Among the Pirahã, facial features range impressionistically from slightly Negroid to East Asian, to Native American. Differences between villages or families may have a biological basis, originating in different tribes merging over the last 200 years. One sizeable group of Pirahãs (perhaps thirty to forty) – usually found occupying a single village – are descendants of the Torá, a Chapakuran-speaking group that emigrated to the Maici-Marmelos rivers as long as two centuries ago. Even today Brazilians refer to this group as Torá, though the Pirahãs refer to them as Pirahãs. They are culturally and linguistically fully integrated into the Pirahãs. Their facial features are somewhat different – broader noses, some with epicanthic folds, large foreheads – giving an overall impression of similarity to East Asian features. ‡ Yet body dimensions across all Pirahãs are constant. Men’s waists are, or were when I worked with them, uniformly 27 inches (68 cm), their average height 5 feet 2 inches (157.5 cm) and their average weight 55 kilos (121 pounds). The Pirahã phenotypes are similar not because all Pirahãs necessarily share a single genotype, but because they share a culture, including values, knowledge of what to eat and values about how much to eat, when to eat and the like.

These examples show that even the body does not escape our earlier observation that studies of culture and human social behaviour can be summed up in the slogan that ‘you talk like who you talk with’ or ‘grow like who you grow with’. And the same would have held for all our ancestors, even erectus .

Dark Matter of the Mind:
The Culturally Articulated Unconscious

by Daniel L. Everett
Kindle Locations 1499-1576

Thus while Tooby may be absolutely right that to have meaning, “culture” must be implemented in individual minds, this is no indictment of the concept. In fact, this requirement has long been insisted on by careful students of culture, such as Sapir. Yet unlike, say, Sapir, Tooby has no account of how individual minds— like ants in a colony or neurons in a brain or cells in a body— can form a larger entity emerging from multi-individual sets of knowledge, values, and roles. His own nativist views offer little insight into the unique “unconscious patterning of society” (to paraphrase Sapir) that establishes the “social set” to which individuals belong.

The idea of culture, after all, is just that certain patterns of being— eating, sleeping, thinking, posture, and so forth— have been cultivated and that minds arising from one such “field” will not be like minds cultivated in another “field.” The Dutch individual will be unlike the Belgian, the British, the Japanese, or the Navajo, because of the way that his or her mind has been cultivated— because of the roles he or she plays in a particular value grouping, because of the ranking of values that her or she has come to share, and so on.

We must be clear, of course, that the idea of “cultivation” we are speaking of here is not merely of minds, but of entire individuals— their minds a way of talking about their bodies. From the earliest work on ethnography in the US, for example, Boas showed how cultures affect even body shape. And body shape is a good indication that it is not merely cognition that is effected and affected by culture. The uses, experiences, emotions, senses, and social engagements of our bodies forget the patterns of thought we call mind. […]

Exploring this idea that understanding language can help us understand culture, consider how linguists account for the rise of languages, dialects, and all other local variants of speech. Part of their account is captured in linguistic truism that “you talk like who you talk with.” And, I argue, this principle actually impinges upon all human behavior. We not only talk like who we talk with, but we also eat like who we eat with, think like those we think with, and so on. We take on a wide range of shared attributes; our associations shape how we live and behave and appear— our phenotype. Culture can affect our gestures and many other aspects of our talk. Boas (1912a, 1912b) takes up the issue of environment, culture, and bodily form. He provides extensive evidence that human body phenotypes are highly plastic and subject to nongenetic local environmental forces (whether dietary, climatological, or social). Had Boas lived later, he might have studied a very clear and dramatic case; namely, the body height of Dutch citizens before and after World War II. This example is worth a close look because it shows that bodies— like behaviors and beliefs— are cultural products and shapers simultaneously.

The curious case of the Netherlanders fascinates me. The Dutch went from among the shortest peoples of Europe to the tallest in the world in just over one century. One account simplistically links the growth in Dutch height with the change in political system (Olson 2014): “The Dutch growth spurt of the mid-19th century coincided with the establishment of the first liberal democracy. Before this time, the Netherlands had grown rich off its colonies but the wealth had stayed in the hands of the elite. After this time, the wealth began to trickle down to all levels of society, the average income went up and so did the height.” Tempting as this single account may be, there were undoubtedly other factors involved, including gene flow and sexual selection between Dutch and other (mainly European) populations, that contribute to explain European body shape relative to the Dutch. But democracy, a new political change from strengthened and enforced cultural values, is a crucial component of the change in the average height of the Dutch, even though the Dutch genotype has not changed significantly in the past two hundred years. For example, consider figures 2.1 and 2.2. In 1825, US male median height was roughly ten centimeters (roughly four inches) taller than the average Dutch. In the 1850s, the median heights of most males in Europe and the USA were lowered. But then around 1900, they begin to rise again. Dutch male median height lagged behind that of most of the world until the late ’50s and early ’60s, when it began to rise at a faster rate than all other nations represented in the chart. By 1975 the Dutch were taller than Americans. Today, the median Dutch male height (183 cm, or roughly just above six feet) is approximately three inches more than the median American male height (177 cm, or roughly five ten). Thus an apparent biological change turns out to be largely a cultural phenomenon.

To see this culture-body connection even more clearly, consider figure 2.2. In this chart, the correlation between wealth and height emerges clearly (not forgetting that the primary determiner of height is the genome). As wealth grew, so did men (and women). This wasn’t matched in the US, however, even though wealth also grew in the US (precise figures are unnecessary). What emerges from this is that Dutch genes are implicated in the Dutch height transformation, from below average to the tallest people in the world. And yet the genes had to await the right cultural conditions before they could be so dramatically expressed. Other cultural differences that contribute to height increases are: (i) economic (e.g., “white collar”) background; (ii) size of family (more children, shorter children); (iii) literacy of the child’s mother (literate mothers provide better diets); (iv) place of residence (residents of agricultural areas tend to be taller than those in industrial environments— better and more plentiful food); and so on (Khazan 2014). Obviously, these factors all have to do with food access. But looked at from a broader angle, food access is clearly a function of values, knowledge, and social roles— that is, culture.

Just as with the Dutch, less-industrialized cultures show culture-body connections. For example, Pirahã phenotype is also subject to change. Facial features among the Pirahãs range impressionistically from slightly Negroid to East Asian to American Indian (to use terms from physical anthropology). Phenotypical differences between villages or families seem to have a biological basis (though no genetic tests have been conducted). This would be due in part to the fact Pirahã women have trysts with various non-Pirahã visitors (mainly river traders and their crews, but also government workers and contract employees on health assistance assignments, demarcating the Pirahã reservation, etc.). The genetic differences are also partly historical. One sizeable group of Pirahãs (perhaps thirty to forty)— usually found occupying a single village— are descendants of the Torá, a Chapakuran-speaking group that emigrated to the Maici-Marmelos rivers as long as two hundred years ago. Even today Brazilians refer to this group as Torá, though the Pirahãs refer to them as Pirahãs. They are culturally and linguistically fully integrated into the Pirahãs. Their facial features are somewhat different— broader noses; some with epicanthic folds; large foreheads— giving an overall impression of similarity to Cambodian features. This and other evidence show us that the Pirahã gene pool is not closed. 4 Yet body dimensions across all Pirahãs are constant. Men’s waists are or were uniformly 83 centimeters (about 32.5 inches), their average height 157.5 centimeters (five two), and their average weight 55 kilos (about 121 pounds).

I learned about the uniformity in these measurements over the past several decades as I have taken Pirahã men, women, and children to stores in nearby towns to purchase Western clothes, when they came out of their villages for medical help. (The Pirahãs always asked that I purchase Brazilian clothes for them so that they would not attract unnecessary stares and comments.) Thus I learned that the measurements for men were nearly identical. Biology alone cannot account for this homogeneity of body form; culture is implicated as well. For example, Pirahãs raised since infancy outside the village are somewhat taller and much heavier than Pirahãs raised in their culture and communities. Even the body does not escape our earlier observation that studies of culture and human social behavior can be summed up in the slogan that “you talk like who you talk with” or “grow like who you grow with.”

 

One thought on “Cultural Body-Mind

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s