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From Biosocial Anthropology to Social Biology: Some Thoughts on Intellectual Communities in the Post-war Sciences July 26, 2014

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of Economic Thought, History of the Human Sciences.
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This particular post focuses on biosocial anthropology, sociobiology, social biology and bio-social science. Biosocial anthropology is a very specific intellectual community which has self-ordered around the theoretical and evidentiary contributions of Napoleon Chagnon, William Irons, Lee Cronk, and my personal favorite for heterogeneity and provocation, Robin Fox. This community has always traveled in different circles than those of sociobiologists like E.O. Wilson. Biosocial anthropology is also distinct in emphasis from social biology.

I will also detail the bio-social perspective of Kingsley Davis, which in many ways anticipated the conceptual innovations of biosocial anthropology, but whose bio-social science is unknown. His work is an exercise in “anti-reductionism” (my term)—arguing instead for the distinctiveness of human social evolution as opposed to the development of beings in nature.



Pitirim Sorokin on Fitness and “War Waste” May 25, 2013

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of the Human Sciences.
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Pitirim Sorokin

Питири́м Алекса́ндрович Соро́кин (1889-1968) was considered in many ways to be the anti-Talcott Parsons due to their notorious disagreements over the merits of Parsons’s The Structure of Social Action (1937) as well as his rather tyrannical personality.  Both Sorokin and Parsons were philosophers of history (due to Parson’s late embrace, like Karl Popper, of evolutionary models of societal growth and development) and the separation of their intellectual projects is not as pronounced as is thought.  Sorokin was an evolutionist who was also an “old-school” sociologist insofar as he considered the social scientific heritage of the latter nineteenth century to be quite valuable.  His 1928 Contemporary Sociological Theories is a compendium of the mental furniture of social theory in the long nineteenth century.  Robert Merton, who was always careful to distance himself from Sorokin, betrays Sorokin’s influence in his citation methods and in his adherence to the “spirit” of the argument of his sources, rather than the letter.  Both Merton and Sorokin were lumpers (see Merton’s 1936 paper, “The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action”), but they lumped heuristically.

Sorokin’s Man and Society in Calamity: The Effects of War, Revolution, Famine, Pestilence Upon Human Mind, Behavior, Social Organization and Cultural Life (1946) immediately reminds one of R. A. Fisher’s work, or that of Alexander Carr-Saunders.  All three looked at rates of differential fertility and the impact of social forces (wars, revolution, migration) on the evolution of human civilization.  All considered human evolution to be determined by differing forces than those governing natural selection.  As importantly, Sorokin continued the “war and waste” debate, also referred to as the “military selection” debate, a controversy which marinated through much of the later nineteenth century, but which really had two great stimuli: the Boer War and the First World War. David Starr Jordan as well as Thorstein Veblen were two important interlocutors in this debate.


Otis T. Mason on Technology and the Progress of Civilization May 14, 2013

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of the Human Sciences.
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Otis Mason (April 10, 1838 – November 5, 1908) was at the turn of the century one of the premier theorists  of primitive evolution.  He was a curator at the Smithsonian Institution for much of his career. Anthropologists remember him chiefly for his use of the “culture area concept” and for his contribution to “diffusionist studies.”   A “culture area” is a “region of relative environmental and cultural uniformity, characterized by societies with significant similarities in mode of adaptation and social structure.”

Diffusionism, as argued by the American anthropologist Clark Wissler, contended that cultural traits (gift-giving, technology, language, etc) moved from a given center, which implied that the “center of the trait distribution is also its earliest occurrence.” Wissler contended that cultural areas and geographic traits were “broadly congruent, implying a mild environmental determinism” (Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology, ed. Alan J. Barnard, Jonathan Spencer, 61-62.)*