Emergency decisions, cultural-sel...
Emergency Decisions, Cultural-Selection Mechanics, and Group Selection [and Comments and Reply] Author(s): Christopher Boehm, Christoph Antweiler, I. Eibl-Eibesfeldt, Susan Kent, Bruce M. Knauft, Steven Mithen, Peter J. Richerson, David Sloan Wilson Reviewed work(s): Source: Current Anthropology, Vol. 37, No. 5 (Dec., 1996), pp. 763-793 Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2744413 . Accessed: 03/04/2012 11:47 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at . http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org. The University of Chicago Press and Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research are collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Current Anthropology. http://www.jstor.org
CURRENT ANTHROPOLOGY Volume 37, Number 5, December I996 ? I996 by The Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. All rights reserved OOII-3204/96/3705-OOOI$3.00 Emergency Decisions, Cultural- Selection Mechanics, and Group Selection' by Christopher Boehm Emergency behaviors of nonliterate groups are taken as a useful starting point for demonstrating that decisions can be integrated more directly into cultural analysis and that the explanatory pay- offs can be far-reaching. The methodological feasibility of study- ing group decisions directly is explored through three exceptional tribal ethnographies with a focus on emergency adaptive problem solving and its implications for both cultural- and gene-selection theory. Urgently discussed decision alternatives become appre- hensible to fieldworkers through open group debate, while the re- productive effects of decisions are readily assessed whenever groups act in unison. Implications for the development of a more effective theory of cultural microselection and a truly processual definition of culture in its guided phase are suggested. With re- spect to long-term genetic evolution, the implications of emer- gency decision making are extended to foragers, exploring special possibilities that enable genetic group selection to become robust when groups are egalitarian and engage in consensual problem solving. Prehistorically, the verdict is that group-selection effects were amplified at the same time that individual effects were sup- pressed. On this basis it is hypothesized that the genetic evolu- tion of human cooperative and altruistic tendencies can be ex- plained in part by selection at the level of groups rather than inclusive fitness. CHRISTOPHER BOEHM is Director of the Jane Goodall Research Center, Department of Anthropology, University of Southem Cal- ifornia (Los Angeles, Calif. 90089, U.S.A.). He was educated at Antioch College (B.A., i959) and at Harvard University (Ph.D., I972). He has taught at MIT (I970-72), Sarah Lawrence College (I972-74), Northwestem University (I974-78), and Northern Kentucky University (I978-9i) and has conducted fieldwork on vocal communication and conflict resolution among chimpan- zees at the Gombe Stream Research Centre and on ethics and so- cial control in Montenegro. His publications include Blood Re- venge (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, i986), Montenegrin Social Organization and Values (New York: AMS Press, i983), and "Ambivalence and Compromise in Human Na- ture" (American Anthropologist 9I:92I-39). His "Egalitarian Be- havior and Reverse Dominance Hierarchy" (CA 34:227-40) earned him the i992 Stirling Prize. The present paper was sub- mitted 25 v 95 and accepted I9 IX 95 the final version reached the Editor's office I5 II 96. I. In reaching the conclusions offered here I was assisted by a grant for the study of egalitarian political process from the H. F. Guggen- heim Foundation. Over the almost two decades during which this With over a century of ethnology behind us, we still have profound unanswered questions about the nature of culture and about how being cultural in a Homo sapi- ens manner has shaped a rather unusual evolutionary career. In addressing both problems I shall move from the ethnographic nuts-and-bolts of several consensual decisions analyzed as discrete cultural-selection events to questions about the immediate effect of group deci- sions on reproductive success and about their ultimate effect on natural selection itself. By placing three sets of well-described emergency decisions under an ethno- graphic microscope, I shall make the empirical case that foragers and tribesmen are in a position to modify their larger cultural patterns deliberately by acting as groups which anticipate large-scale problems and try to cope with them collectively. I shall also argue that such guided cultural selection can have a significant impact upon reproductive success because nonliterate people coping with perturbations in their natural, political, and social environments sometimes make highly realistic choices. I shall suggest, further, that the perennial ge- netic enigmas of altruism and group selection need to be seriously reconsidered in the light of egalitarian be- haviors which significantly amplify the effective force of group selection. Cultural Selection and Natural Selection Cultural anthropology and evolutionary theory share a curiously chequered past. Over the past century and a half, their relationship has involved a few mad love af- fairs (e.g., Morgan i877), a variety of individual involve- ments (e.g., Kroeber I948, White I959, Steward I955, Goldschmidt i959), and long periods of general indiffer- ence and sometimes protracted hostility. Steward's (i 95 5) sensible and solid cultural ecology finally brought us something like a peasant marriage-a typological compromise theory that many could live with. How- ever, even though the environment was quite decisively brought into cultural analysis, Steward and his immedi- ate "offspring" exhibited little interest in the micro- mechanisms of cultural selection. A key contribution from psychology has been Camp- bell's (I965) application to cultural phenomena of the paper was developed I have benefited from critical or supportive comments by Michael Boehm, Robert Boyd, Gerald Britan, Don- ald T. Campbell, Michael Chibnik, John Comaroff, Jean Ensminger, Raymond Firth, Arnold Green, Bruce Knauft, Steve Lansing, Mer- vyn Meggitt, Alexander Moore, Craig T. Palmer, Peter J. Richerson, Philip Carl Salzman, Elman Service, Estellie Smith, David Turton, David Sloan Wilson, referees for Man, the American Ethnologist, and the American Anthropologist, referees for CURRENT ANTHRO- POLOGY, and the Editor. I thank Christoph Antweiler, who invited me to address the German Anthropological Society on egalitarian- ism as lower-level teleology. Mervyn Meggitt, Philip Carl Salzman, and David Turton were kind enough to share relevant field impres- sions, data, or unpublished research reports. Responsibility for con- clusions and errors remains, as always, my own. 763
764 1 CURRENT ANTHROPOLOGY Volume 37, Number 5, December I996 biologist's blind-variation-and-selective-retention model, one important emphasis being the conservative force of cultural retention (Campbell I975). More recent evolu- tionary approaches have tied culture to gene selection (e.g., Durham I976, Chagnon and Irons I979, Winterhal- der and Smith i992), but they depend heavily upon tri- angulation and model cultural phenomena far too di- rectly upon biological systems that organize themselves. As a result, the microprocesses of cultural selection have been all but ignored. Boyd and Richerson (I985) and Durham (i99i) have pointed out the serious diffi- culties with their study. By settling for these and other useful compromises in which biocultural modeling too often tends to over- whelm the ethnographic data (e.g., Boyd and Richerson I985, I99I Durham I99I Barkow, Cosmides, and Tooby i992), anthropologists and others have remained far from emulating the impressive successes of biolo- gists, who, after Mendel's critical discoveries about transmission units, advanced the study of selection me- chanics and founded the field of evolutionary biology. Indeed, after a century of dependence upon the culture concept, we probably know as much about the precise details of cultural-selection process for provisioned and wild nonhuman primates (Nishida I987, Goodall I986, Hauser I988) as we do for ourselves. I believe this failure can be remedied, but only if we are willing to distance ourselves from the powerful mod- els of biologists and strike out more on our own, with a similar goal of attaining ultimate explanations of human behavior. To do so, we must meet the challenge of studying a cultural-selection process which differs quite sharply from gene selection even though the two are causally connected. Emergency decisions are the place to start. Guided Selection versus Self-Organization Darwin identified the basic vehicles of biological selec- tion in the form of individuals as inheritors and carriers of variable traits, while geneticists have isolated the well-bounded units of information that provide the vari- ation. With recombinable genes as the units of trans- mission, biologists have been able to describe the mechanisms of a remarkably gradual, self-organizing gene-selection process and have done so precisely enough to replicate that process experimentally and model its workings (see E. 0. Wilson I975). By contrast, cultural selection is complicated by ap- parently amorphous or ever-changing "units" of trans- mission and variation that present formidable problems for analysis (see Durham I99I). To compound our prob- lems, anthropologists are gradually facing the fact that cultural processes are partly and significantly purposeful (see Goldschmidt I959, I97I, I976, I993 Bennett I976 Boehm I976, I978, i982a, I99I Campbell I965, I975, I979 Vayda I989 Knauft i99i, I994a Durham I99I). Indeed, humans sometimes make relatively far-reaching choices that are both deliberate and realistically in tune with major problems perceived in the environment. To further complicate our task as builders of culture theory, nonliterate humans may select adaptively significant courses of action as entire groups (see Boehm I978). Fortunately, cultural selection is far more immediate than gene selection and therefore easier to investigate directly. Furthermore, group decisions provide a special arena for study. Using three unusually rich case histo- ries, I shall demonstrate that immediacy and collectivity provide a substantial advantage for anthropologists in- terested in identifying specific mechanisms. In doing so I set aside the still quite mysterious self-organizing side of cultural microprocess to concentrate on purposeful decisions by which groups cope realistically with seri- ous environmental problems. An Evolutionary Definition of Decision Making When decisions are made, the following variables and factors are assumed to be at work: genotypic disposi- tions (LeVine I973, Ruyle I973 see also Pulliam and Dunford I980, Lumsden and Wilson I98I, Konner i982, Boehm I989) that set up behaviors readily learned by our species, cultural values (Kluckhohn i952, Pugh I977) that reflect attitudes about the desirability or un- desirability of various behaviors, activities, qualities, or objects, and cognitive assessments-the perception of a situational context of problem solving, the creation of strategic goals, and the pondering of decision alterna- tives. In attempting to describe and explain emergency deci- sions as instances of sophisticated, guided cultural se- lection, I shall set aside genotypic dispositions, even though as powerful causative factors (for example, hun- ger) they obviously underlie many important cultural values. I focus on values and strategic goals, on specific decision alternatives, and on environmental contexts as conceptualized by the evolutionary actors and by scien- tists. This analysis of cultural-selection mechanics will demonstrate (i) that as instances of realistic problem solving certain kinds of group decisions are readily sus- ceptible of direct description (2) that identification of the decision makers' intentions is feasible (3) that com- peting alternatives can be discerned, along with choices being made among them and (4) that the practical out- comes can be measured realistically as being useful, neutral, or detrimental in terms of satisfaction, survival, or overall reproductive success. Problems of Approach and Method Individual-decision modeling has long been part of cul- tural anthropology (Firth I95I, Barth I959, Quinn I975 see also Vincent I978), and evolutionary anthropologists have increasingly emphasized the importance of deci- sion-making behavior (e.g., Goldschmidt I959, Prattis
BOEHM Emergency Decisions and Group Selection 1 765 I973, Bennett I976, Britan and Denich I976, Boehm I976, Meggitt I977, Rutz I977, Chibnik I980, Jochim I98I, Johnson I983, MacLachlan I983, Mithen I989a, Vayda I989, Durham I99I). Meanwhile, biologists such as Pulliam and Dunford (i980) and Lumsden and Wilson (i98i) have identified individual decisions as a critical interface between genes and culture. However, the trail is merely blazed, because anthropologists who work in- tensively with decision models in ecological, economic, political, and social anthropology rarely investigate deci- sion processes directly. Basically, they carefully observe the resulting behavior and then use a decision model inferentially to organize their explanations (e.g., Barlett I980, Boster I984, Smith I99I). Such studies are sophis- ticated and useful, but without effective direct investi- gation (see Mathews I987) this critical component of cultural process remains mysterious. One problem is that informants simply cannot answer questions about motives and contingencies that they work with intuitively (Ortiz I967, Gladwin and Mur- taugh I980). However, our questions tend to be so unso- phisticated (Western and Dunne I98I) or so clumsy (Briggs I984) that we often fail to elicit responses that may well be there. Furthermore, much individual deci- sion making is so routinized as to appear unthinking as outsiders we fail to perceive the active problem solv- ing that is inherent in normal daily activities (see Boehm I978) and therefore fail to investigate it. Fortunately, the collective decisions of small, locally autonomous nonliterate communities provide a special research arena in which decision process becomes un- usually conscious and obvious. If one can get past the veiled rhetoric (Bloch I975, Bailey I98I), the decision altematives can be read with confidence (e.g., Boehm I983). Here I examine three instances of collective deci- sion making with regard to serious threats emanating from external politics, the natural environment, or the internal social environment. The immediate objective is to identify alternatives for choice as units of selection, to see how people select such units under emergency conditions, and to evaluate their common plans for ac- tion in terms of their realism and their efficacy. The Advantage of Studying Emergency Decisions Over the evolutionary long haul, epochs of unusual en- vironmental stress are thought to produce relatively short-term selection pressures that may decisively mod- ify a gene pool (see Gould and Eldredge I977). In more immediate terms, according to Leibig's "law of the mini- mum" under ecologically stable conditions certain criti- cal resources (such as water) set vital limits for natural selection of surviving populations (see Odum I993). Ob- viously, cyclical dire shortages or unpredictable dips in such critical resources will greatly intensify selection. We are speaking here of self-organizing gene selection and the effects of very immediate ecological crises. Such crises are also relevant to cultural selection of the purposeful or guided type. Hurricanes, locust swarms, droughts, and epidemics can have radical ef- fects on human populations, as can predatory political behavior, and sometimes people manage to cope with readily identifiable emergencies by quickly modifying their patterns of behavior. The source of cultural guid- ance to be exemplified here is the emergency decision meeting, in which an entire local community recognizes a threat and assembles to discuss alternatives for com- mon action, using a distinctive communication style that is decidedly urgent (see Williams I957). Decisions of egalitarians frequently involve private deals between power brokers or arm-twisting and the co-option of dissidents (e.g., Barth I96I) sometimes they end with absence of agreement (see Jones I97I) or even group fission. However, when people are faced with a serious emergency and think that they can best cope through cooperative action, they are likely to enter into a relatively open and comprehensive group negotiation process that approximates the idealized consensus mod- els often elicited from natives (and sometimes taken too literally). Alternatives are first laid out and evaluated and then selected, rejected, modified, or combined to form a strategy the entire group can agree to. This decision-making phase of the cultural problem- solving process yields a practical policy, and with open debate it is not difficult to identify the values, goals, and specific alternatives involved. It zemains to observe whether the policy is actually followed and what are its practical effects. For anthropologists interested in whether nonliterate people are essentially proficient or clumsy in fending for themselves as evolutionary actors, this provides a special opportunity. In evaluating them as emergency problem solvers we can readily track their coping behavior in situations in which reproductive suc- cess is threatened very directly and group extinction is possible. For Mursi pastoralists, the microcontent of a single decision debate is revealed verbatim, and we are able to see how this involves trade-offs between several clearly perceived problems with the natural and political envi- ronments. Similarly, the pattern of Mae Enga decision making with regard to warfare and problems with natu- ral resources is described in detail. Finally, we learn how a series of problems identified and discussed in Tikopian fonos (public assemblies) after a very destructive hurri- cane were realistically resolved. These ethnographically rich case studies help make the case that we can identify specific mechanisms, embedded in group decision pro- cess, that are critical to the understanding of cultural- selection mechanics and their influence upon human biological evolution. Three Descriptions of Ecological Decisions WARFARE DECISIONS OF THE MAE ENGA Describing Mae Enga raiding and warfare in highland New Guinea, Meggitt (iT771 makes it clear that even
766 i CURRENT ANTHROPOLOGY Volume 37, Number 5, December I996 raiding parties of ten or fewer men must make their decisions in concert with the rest of their clan because they need that backing. His description reveals group meetings as the locus of a selection process in which various military alternatives are envisaged, debated, and chosen. He also makes it clear that individual decision making is largely overridden by that of the group through conscious manipulation of minorities by the majority (see also Sackschewsky I970). Meggitt (I977:76) states that it is only the men who meet, very quietly, and that anyone who has passed through the bachelor's association is eligible it is taken for granted that everyone will choose to participate. Pooling of information is important (pp. 77-78): The men who initiated the conference, or their spokesman, briefly indicate their view of the clan's position and the action they favor. Thus, they may argue that now is the time to launch a full-scale at- tack on the neighboring clan with the aim of occu- pying a specific section of its territory. The major Big Man then solicits responses from the audience. Ideally, everyone present has a voice and, being among his own clansmen, can speak with complete freedom. Moreover, anyone who possesses pertinent information has a moral obligation to contribute so that the group may reach the best possible decision in the circumstances. Most men . . are ready to make their points at length and with elaborate ora- torical flourishes. Only young bachelors and some very old men are likely to hold back and say little unless directly questioned. The task of the Big Man at this stage is to ensure that all have a chance to of- fer their opinions and facts in full, and . . [to make] no attempt to cut off any but obviously irrelevant speeches. Only in this way, it is believed, can each clans- man truly ascertain the thoughts of his fellows and the evidence behind them. So instructed, he can cleave to or modify his own ideas, and his reactions in turn affect those of others. Naturally, the Big Men and fight leaders have their own opinions of an ap- propriate outcome of the discussion but none of them, especially in the early sessions, reveals much of his hand or tries patently to push for the accep- tance of his suggestions. Not until hours of argu- ment have clarified the issues and carefully dis- sected the facts are these men likely to signal unequivocally their own positions, and even then those, including the major Big Man, who perceive that tide running strongly against them may well go along with the emerging majority view. Thus, step by step the slow process of constant feedback inches toward the possibility of general agreement on a cor- rect course of action. Then, when the Big Man be- lieves that consensus is close at hand and that fur- ther talk will add nothing of value, he incisively summarizes the main arguments, indicates which have been rejected, and finally announces the deci- sion reached by the clan. Sometimes, of course, given the gravity of the is- sues and the likelihood of deep differences over the interpretation of inherently ambiguous evidence, real consensus is impossible to achieve. For in- stance, although most of the assembly, including the Big Men, agree that, on the basis of available infor- mation, war is the only feasible choice, a significant minority may hold out against this view. When it is clear that no amount of exhortation will change their opinion, the Big Man announces that the pro- war majority will proceed with preparations for an at- tack but he warns them that, having overruled the opposition, they must be ready to pay most of the costs-in particular, compensation for allied and en- emy deaths will fall mainly on them. At the same time he reminds the cautious minority that those who do not fight in support of the clan's interests cannot expect to enjoy the fruits of victory-enemy land that the clan may seize or any homicide pigs coming to the clan. The dissidents acknowledge the force of the warning while emphasizing their own prerogative of contributing few or no pigs to the ho- micide compensation. To understand the decision-making process and the rela- tion of words to deeds, it is important to examine not only the debate but the unanimity of action that follows (P. 79): even as both parties are making clear their positions, everyone knows that, because the clan's survival may be at stake, once combat begins the doves will almost certainly be in their accustomed places fight- ing strenuously alongside the hawks. Moreover, many of them will probably join in the payments of homicide compensation, not merely to establish claims to whatever wealth the clan may secure but also, and equally important, to maintain their own reputations and that of the group. If the majority feel very strongly about their "dove" position, they may warn the hotheads that they will even have to pay compensation for anyone slain. If a group of hotheads does go against majority opinion to escalate a conflict from raiding to an at- tack in force, the Big Men remind them that the compensation payments will be theirs alone but when the counterattack comes the entire group will, in fact, back them. Although these warfare decisions sometimes end in disagreement, the emergency nature of the problems militates toward a consensus (p. 80): I should emphasize that such deep and irreconcilable divisions of opinion do not emerge often when clans- men assemble to determine whether or not they should go to war. Given the crowding of the com- pact clan territories along the narrow valleys, the men of any clan are usually quick to agree that the actions of an expanding adjacent group are a serious threat to their security. Only the few really obtuse men must have their attention drawn by Big Men