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Robin Fox: Biosocial Anthropology as Philosophical Anthropology (Slightly Updated) November 8, 2014

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of Economic Thought, History of the Human Sciences.
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UPDATE: It has occurred to me that my two part argument—leveling a criticism of the philosophers’ portrayal of biosocial anthropology as censure-worthy at the expense of an understanding of the complexity of its ideas and normalizing biosocial anthropology in post-war ideas by re-categorizing it as philosophical anthropology—that I focused less on ideas and their genealogies (especially the Gellner bits) than was satisfactory. Thus, quite soon, I will analyze in depth Robin Fox and Lionel Tiger’s The Imperial Animal (1971) as both philosophical anthropology AND as an outgrowth of the re-configuration of the social sciences in the US and the UK after the Second World War. Hopefully, by the time of my review of Joel Isaac’s Working Knowledge: Making the Human Sciences from Parsons to Kuhn (2013) my views on post-war, Cold War American and UK social sciences will be reasonably apparent.  

In a previous post, I attempted a taxonomy of post-war inquiries which interrogated the connections between the biological and social sciences in various post-war intellectual communities. Bio-social anthropology, biosocial anthropology, sociobiology and social biology were loosely defined. Part of the challenge of discussing these (mostly) post-war inquiries is in going beyond the fraught discussions over the extent that any or all of these inquiries engage in biological reductionism and biological determinism.

What is needed more is a discussion of the ideas themselves and their genealogies and, by extension, their connections to broader themes in post-war and Cold War sciences. The ideas themselves are quite complicated, and many philosophers of science, such as Mario Bunge (though much of his work is among my favorites in philosophy of science), reduce them to caricatures (intelligent distortions—but reductions which worry about their societal implications and evil intent). On a philosophical and ethical level, these ideas are troublesome and distortions—but they are with us and have been with us for some time.  One can talk about the ideational content of (say) public choice theory, without the merits of its practical application.  It seems impossible to talk about Hayek or Keynes outside of their virtues as policy, but this must change as well.


Biosocial anthropology, as noted in the last post, is, especially in the works of Robin Fox, part of a philosophical and social science critique against relativism in the social sciences as well as in epistemology. Such a critique draws strength from the methodological writings of Karl Popper (previously mentioned), but even more so from Ernest Gellner. Gellner is the subject of a remarkable biography by John A. Hall (that is not without its problems, and will be reviewed here shortly). Fox’s appropriation of Gellner’s ideas also points to a rather bifurcated legacy on the part of this diverse social thinker: as a philosophical critic and anthropologist and as a theorist of nationalism. Mary Douglas, whose diverse works have never been much understood by anthropologists, but whose ideas have been appropriated by diverse other fields, was deeply scornful of Gellner’s books on nationalism (as evidenced by her oral history with Alan Macfarlane). Fox seems to prefer Gellner the philosopher to Gellner the theorist of nationalism.  Hall, valiantly tries to unify them. Such an account is incredibly useful, but at odds with my understanding of Gellner.

Although Robin Fox is not the only biosocial anthropologist, he is a challenging writer who outlines some of the central claims of biosocial anthropology. The main argument of biosocial anthropology seems to be this: evolution has granted man certain predispositions as well as default ways of structuring reality and his daily social life.  Fox’s neo-Darwinian perspective depends upon anthropological field research.  According to Fox, neo-Darwinian notions of why certain social behaviors in humans evolve and remain useful helps to  explain their universality.  An easy example of all of this is the incest taboo.

He expands up these claims in a number of works.  Once we have an understanding of the ideas of biosocial anthropology and the implications which biosocial anthropologists themselves draw from them, we can then begin to discuss social biology and other  post-war inquiries into nature, society and their interconnection.  The most important work to be done with this and a series of future posts is one of dis-aggregation.  Ethically dubious or not, biosocial anthropology is a differing community from sociobiology and social biology- different journals and editorial boards as well as very distinctive intellectual genealogies. Social biology was also a response to different and divergent social ills (most notably, the fear of the poor and laboring classes; such is apparent in the work of Alexander Carr-Saunders, subsequent posts will treat the history of post-war British demography and social biology as intertwined, particularly in the work of David Glass.)


How then to discuss the ideas of biosocial anthropology without the recourse to moralism? On way is to connect Fox to trends articulated by his critics; both Fox and his critics are engaged in philosophical anthropology- this is also an interesting way to characterize the work of E.O. Wilson.  Like Joesph Agassi, Robin Fox is very concerned with philosophical anthropology.  His Red Lamp of Incest (RLI) (1980) was published around the same time as Agassi’s Towards a Rational Philosophical Anthropology (1977). Both works are a blend of philosophy and social criticism.

Although Agassi does not like Neo-Darwinian reasoning (“The Philosophical Weakness of Neo-Darwinism”), he would certainly like the questions Fox is trying to answer- Agassi just does not like the answers.  Fox’s RLI is an inquiry into man’s nature and its origins.  This corresponds  to Agassi’s assertion that philosophical anthropology is “the question what is man, and the different answers to it, and the debate between them.   It is supposed to offer a general view of man, an overview, a metaphysical foundation for the various sciences of man.”  Fox is a Popperian and against relativism; so is Agassi. So, it would be good to compare them to reveal their deeper project; a project that has been missed by ethicists and philosophers of science.

My suggestion of classification of Robin Fox’s work as philosophical anthropology (like Agassi’s) is also historically significant given the attempts at philosophical anthropology contemporaneously articulated by Hans Blumenberg (Work on Myth, 1979).  How much Blumenberg can be considered a thinker interested in the biological vs. strictly conventional nature of man I do not know, but it would be an intriguing way to reinterpret this work given his debt to Arnold Gehlen.

In his Towards a Rational Philosophical Anthropology Agassi wishes to promote his idea, also articulated elsewhere, that man is ‘semi-rational.’ He is not wholly all the time rational; he is not irrational; logic and metaphysics play a key role in his life; both logic and metaphysics play a key role in the construction of scientific knowledge- which Agassi underscores in Faraday as a Natural Philosopher (1972). Man is a metaphysical and cultural being; he also descended from the animal kingdom, as Darwin reminds us.  Agassi remarks, “The extremist rejection of all that is distinctly human on the ground that man is a mere machine is parallel to the extremist rejection of all that is distinctly human  on the ground that man is a mere animal.  In conformity with my against-all-or-nothing attitude, I reject both of these views” (92.)  For Agassi, man is both spiritual and base, speculative and material. Too far a reductionism of man into animal “show the curious concern for the future of mankind that betrays the doubt as to human culture…..Is culture and civilization a movement away from true human nature?”

If culture is a movement away from human nature- does that lessen its value; does this idea then make culture destructive, counter-productive? Conversely, if culture is a natural extension of human nature- it does not necessarily follow that this either good or bad- does that lessen or accentuate the value of culture? The autonomy of culture does not necessarily add to its worth. The functionality of culture or of the appropriateness of various features of culture and their connection to biology raise much the same issues.  If culture serves a biological function- does this legitimize culture (and its distinctiveness) or not?

In RLI, Fox underscores the constraints which biology imposes upon culture with the awareness that this will lead to accusations of determinism.  In one of his clearest passages (but least interesting), Fox concludes, “That we learn to be uneasy about incest and categories and  throw ourselves readily into the business of exogamy and exchange is not because of fear of dire consequences or reprisals…but that we are the kind of creature that evolved to do these things because these things were the pattern of our evolution, and our bodies, minds and social behaviors are these things….We reproduce what produces us” (197).  Looking back upon societal instability and discontent, Fox underscores that much social dislocation occurs or the “social pathologies that keep the social sciences in business” and the advent of feminism, changing sexual mores, drifts away from monogamy, the increased rates of divorce, far from being pathological are instead products  of the biological “pattern” “reasserting itself.” Biology, according to Fox, the evolutionary components of our nature, do not determine us- these elements “emanates from us like the web from the spider and is our sustenance and our cocoon,” “the pattern must hold, with all of its flexibility” (215.)

Thus, for all of Fox’s discussions of biosocial anthropology being a critique of relativism (of the Boasian flavor), of evolutionary biology allowing anthropological science to form testable predictions through which to interrogate empirical data gained from research in the field, of evolved behaviors serving discrete social functions, he is not arguing that culture is reducible to biology.  Rather, he contends, in a manner much like Agassi, that man is biological, whatever our ethical quandaries about such a fact.  Man for both Agassi and Fox is both cultural and biological, material and metaphysical. The fact that he is neither one nor the other, but both, must be respected for what it tells us about human nature and the culture with which he surrounds himself. For both Fox and Agassi, reduction of biology to culture and vice versa is not the issue to be addressed; the key issue is the acknowledgment of the material and metaphysical sides of man; neither Fox or Agassi are interested in the importance of one or the other, and one over the other, but rather the dynamic importance of both.



1. Christopher Donohue - November 8, 2014

Reblogged this on Vice versa.

2. Craig - March 13, 2021

Who are the modern proponents of the Biosocial Approach you allude to? At my university in the anthropology department there is a distinctive relativist vein which I am not entirely jiving with, – yet. I am curious about other perspectives, such as the Biosocial perspective. I have picked up Robin Fox’s “The Search for Society” and am reading through it now. Google searches are surprisingly not very helpful in finding more regarding Biosocial Anthropology, however. Can you help me?

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