Kinship back on track: Primatology unravels the origin and evolution of human kinship
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Kinship back on track: Primatology unravels the origin and evolution of human kinship


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From the book : Evolutionary Psychology 6 issue 4 : 557-562.



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Published 01 January 2008
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Language English
Evolutionary Psychology – 2008. 6(4): 557562
Book Review
Kinship Back on Track: Primatology Unravels the Origin and Evolution of Human Kinship A review of Bernard Chapais,Primeval Kinship: How Pair Bonding Gave Birth to Human Society.MA, 2008, 368 pp., US$39.95, ISBN 978Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 0674027824 (hardcover) Linda Stone, Department of Anthropology, Washington State University, Pullman, WA. Email: Lstone@wsu.eduPrimatologist Bernard Chapais has written a bold, new book that promises nothing less than the unveiling of the original, earliest form of human society and an account of how it developed over evolutionary time. The book indeed fulfills this promise, presenting a persuasive, wellargued, logical evolutionary scenario based on empirical data and a sound comparative method. The key to Chapais’s work is the use of the lens of primatology, the viewing of human kinship and social organization as one variant within the larger primate order. This lens is decidedly phylogenetic; Chapais asserts that the main contribution of primatology to sociocultural anthropology is the light it can shed on the origins of human behavior. With adroit analysis of the rich primate data that has accumulated over recent decades, he is able to decipher the “deep structure” of human social organization, showing how it is unique and (what will be even more interesting to readers outside primatology) how it is not unique when compared to the social organization and kinship of other primate groups. This book liberates anthropology from its problematic past with the topic of social evolution, something formerly denigrated as a futile, or at best purely speculative, quest. The book also carries implications for the sociocultural study of kinship and the debates over the role of biology in that study. Chapais’s model has its own evolutionary past. It descends with modification from a line of anthropologists, most notably Claude LéviStrauss and Robin Fox “….to whom [the book] would have been dedicated but for the human mind’s inclination to favor one’s close kin” (p. xiii). The book takes inspiration from LéviStrauss’ insight that the origin and essence of human society was reciprocal exogamy, the systematic exchange of mates (marriage partners) between or among human groups. This idea followed upon Edward Tyler’s assertion in the nineteenth century that early humans faced the choice to marry out or be killed out. For LéviStrauss, it was the incest taboo that mandated the search for mates outside one’s own kin group, thus setting up potentials for alliances between groups based on affinal ties. Such alliances could be perpetuated over time through reciprocal exogamy, itself ensured through rules of crosscousin marriage. For LéviStrauss, the incest
Kinship back on track
taboo, marriage and reciprocal exogamy were all of one piece and together constituted the emergence of human society, distinguishing humans from all other animals, and marking the transition from nature to culture. Chapais retains from LéviStrauss the idea that reciprocal exogamy is uniquely human and the essential core of human society. The idea that a human incest taboo, as such, was necessary to spur exogamy was long ago dismissed when, among other reasons, it became understood that all nonhuman primates practice incest avoidance and that typically one or both sexes disperses upon maturity to mate within other groups. Given his ahistorical, structuralist position, missing from LéviStrauss’ ideas on reciprocal exogamy was any reference to time, or any recourse to an evolutionary framework. The beginning of such a framework was provided by Chapais’s more immediate predecessor, Robin Fox. Chapais’s book will considerably revive and enhance the work of Fox, which has been largely ignored over the past three decades. Fox (1975, 1980) was a ground breaker in the study of the evolution of human kinship and in the use of primate data in this effort. His comparative method foreshadows that of Chapais: he broke down human kinship into its essential component parts, or building blocks, and explored the extent to which these exist, even if only in rudimentary form, among nonhuman primates. This brought Fox to his ingenious suggestion that human kinship evolved as a combination of its two building blocks, “alliance” (relatively stable breeding bonds) and descent (producing distinct kin groups). For Fox, some primate groups exhibit alliance and others exhibit descent but no primate group contains both of these together. For example, hamadryas baboons have alliance (they consist of a single adult male polygynously mating with several females) but no descent. By contrast some species of Old World monkeys show descent (distinct matrilines that are cohesive, ranked and that transmit rank to offspring) but no alliance since mating within these groups is basically promiscuous. The uniquely human step, then, was the combination of descent with alliance such that the mode of descent would determine the direction of alliances; in other words we come right back to exogamy. Once descent and alliance are in place, humans are able to invent exogamy and bring about the systematic exchange of mates among groups of kin. Using primate data unavailable to Fox at the time of his writing, Lars Rodseth, Richard W. Wrangham, Alisa M. Harrigan and Barbara B. Smuts (1991) claimed that hamadryas baboons actually show a case of both alliance and descent, in Fox’s terms, existing together. Not only are these primates organized into onemale polygynous units, as Fox described, but above this level they are loosely organized into clans and bands on the basis of common descent through males. Fox (1991) conceded that this would be a case of alliance and descent in one primate system; however, in his original (1975) article he had already said that were such a system found among primates, it would further his larger point that human kinship is not a purely cultural construction, devoid of biological and evolutionary roots. Rodseth and his colleagues further showed that in groups with both alliance and descent, females regularly transfer out of their natal clans at maturity. Hence, in terms of behavior, exogamy is not unique to humans. As for affinity, these authors point out that some primates may exhibit a kind of rudimentary onesided affinal tie. If, say, a female disperses into another group and forms a stable mating relationship with a male in that group, she might recognize her mate’s kin, her “inlaws.” But the reverse does not occur: her male mate does not recognize the female’s natal kin, from who she is cut off once she disperses. So, strictly speaking, what is unique to humans is thebilateralaffinal
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tie between groups that mate exogamously. For this, the evolving human line needed to acquire the ability to maintain lifelong social relationships with their dispersing male and female offspring. Only with this ability can exogamy truly link separate groups of consanguineal kin. With this background, Chapais begins his own construction of the evolution of human kinship and society. He follows Fox in decomposing kinship into distinct building blocks; but whereas Fox suggested only two components, Chapais breaks down human kinship into twelve. Together they constitute what he calls “the exogamy configuration,” which is the deep structure of human society. In the spirit of LéviStrauss and Fox, Chapais sees “exogamy” as more than mere outbreeding: “… exogamy refers to the binding aspects of marriage and, more specifically, to the betweengroup binding, regardless of the nature of the entities that are bound, whether families, lineages, clans, tribes, nations or others” (p. 12). Chapais’s 12 components include several that are found among various primate species: multimalemultifemale group composition, kingroup outbreeding, uterine kinship (recognition of kinship to and through the mother), incest avoidance, and stable breeding bonds. Other components mark the “deep structure” of human society but do occur among some primates in an embryonic or very simple form, such as agnatic kinship (recognition of kinship to and through the father), post marital residence patterns (philopatry patterns in primates), and descent (unilineal descent groups). Only a few of the twelve components are unique to humans and not found in any shape or form among primates: the tribe, the brothersister kinship complex, and matrimonial exchange. Chapais further claims that in terms of behavioral regularities, the exogamy configuration, albeit in primeval form, may have emerged in our ancestral lineage before the development of human language. In other words, and in contrast to the ideas of many earlier writers, language was not needed to push forward the exogamy configuration, although it did lead to a more elaborate, institutionalized version of it. Chapais’s book traces the sequential order in which the components of the exogamy configuration most likely emerged in our evolution. The book provides a stepbystep analysis of how, since theoHomPnasplit, hominids moved from a chimpanzeelike base (multimalemultifemale groups, sexual promiscuity and male philopatry) to the human deep structure of kinship and social organization. We begin, then, with what Chapais calls the male kin group. With male philopatry, males are staying in their natal groups while females typically move out and join other groups to breed. This leaves an agnatic structure of male kin in local groups, although this structure is not recognized by the group’s members; it lies dormant. Human kinship emerges, in part, with the activation of this dormant agnatic structure. Crucial to Chapais’s evolutionary sequence is the development of pairbonding (relatively stable mating bonds between males and females; what Fox called “alliance”) in the human line. Pairbonding promoted a number of changes ultimately leading to the exogamy configuration. Indeed, Chapais likens the consequences of this new mating system on hominid society to “the effect of bipedal locomotion on the use of the hand” (p. 27). Among the changes fostered or further developed by pairbonding are fatherhood, or fatheroffspring recognition, and agnatic kinship, or recognition of relations through the father. Pairbonding and fatherhood further strengthened sibling ties. Pairbonding was also crucial for the bilateral recognition of affines, “inlaws,” in a process that built upon
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cognitive abilities already present in primates. Chapais then provides a fascinating discussion of how consanguineal and affinal kinship recognition may have led to the formation of intergroup “appeasing bridges.” These bridges fostered peaceful relations between local groups, setting the stage for a later systematic exchange of mates that would unite affines within alliances. Drawing a parallel with our physical evolution, Chapais suggests that several steps in the evolutionary sequence of human society worked through preadaptations. Just as, for example, the grasping hand was a preadaptation for tool use, so, too, elements of human kinship and social organization were preadaptations for later stages of human society. For example, cofeeding was a preadaptation for passive food sharing within family units. Pair bonding was a preadaptation for paternal care of offspring (and did not itself evolve as a parental care strategy). Also significantly, uterine kinship, or recognition of kinship to and through the mother, a capacity widely exhibited among many female philopatric primate species today, was a preadaptation for agnatic kinship in the male kin group. Uterine kinship among primates most likely works through an association mechanism: an offspring comes to recognize and differentiate others on the basis of their associations with its mother. This capacity was, then, already in place by the time pairbonding and fatherhood emerged, working as a preadaptation for recognition of kinship through the father. Similarly, social partnerships among nonhuman primates were preadaptations for strong partnerships based on mate exchange. Several of Chapais’s claims will be controversial in the field of biological or evolutionary anthropology; for example, his claim that pairbonding predated, and did not evolve as a strategy for, paternal investment in offspring (Mulder, 2008) and his assertion that a primeval form of the exogamy configuration was in place before, and not dependent on, language. But within these fields Chapais’ basic approach and theoretical bearings will be seen as standard. In the study of kinship within cultural anthropology, by contrast, the theoretical implications of the book are more profound and far reaching. Indeed,evimPral kinship may instigate a longoverdue shift away from the position of strong cultural relativism that has dominated kinship studies for nearly forty years. This position derives in large part from David Schneider (1984) who claimed that the anthropological concept of kinship was based on Eurocentric ideas of biological reproduction or genealogical connections, that “kinship” in other cultures often is constructed on other bases (residence, rituals and so on), and that kinship is therefore an invalid crosscultural category. Hence, “kinship” can only be studied and understood from within each culture separately, that is, through a framework of cultural relativism. Chapais claims that a lack of fit between genealogical kinship and cultural kinship categories is irrelevant to his discussion of the origins of human kinship: “…even when culture negates or ignores the genealogical content of a kinship bond, for example that of motherhood, it does not necessarily preclude that bond from generating preferential relationships that do map onto genealogical kinship” (p. 54) There is, then, against Schneider, a true “genealogical unity of humankind” regardless of diverse cultural ideologies of human relationships. In my view, Schneider and his followers were trying to do more than assert that anthropological kinship concepts are often mismatched with cultural kinship categories; they were attempting also to remove biology (especially human reproductive biology) from the study of kinship. In the case of Schneider, this removal was needed to keep culture (symbols and meanings) as a separate analytical domain (Stone, 2004). It was not that
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biology did not exist, but that it was irrelevant to the understanding of kinship within any culture. Some of his followers went even further to claim that not only kinship but also notions of human reproductive biology are themselves cultural constructions and therefore the idea of a metacultural, scientific biology is thoroughly irrelevant to our understanding of “kinship” or human social life (Yanagisako and Collier, 1987). Notions of biological reproduction were, to these anthropologists, only important in terms of how they were understood by local people themselves. It is here that I see Chapais’s work as turning a corner in kinship studies within cultural anthropology. My opinion is that afterPrimeval kinship,it will be extremely difficult for anyone to argue that human kinship (or for that matter fatherhood or marriage) isonlyor purely a cultural construction, lacking any biological roots in our primate heritage. This reopens the possibility of a scientific and comparative study of kinship that has been subdued for decades. Chapais provides a way to understand cultural variations in kinship not as negations of the validity of anthropological concepts or as impediments to any comparisons or generalizations, but as diverse themes on a common, evolved stem pattern or deep structure of human society. This innovation from primatology provides, then, a productive way to integrate both biology and culture in the study of kinship. Although this approach may be opposed by many within cultural anthropology, it will be extremely refreshing and welcome to many others, (including, one may presume, readers of this journal). Chapais follows both LéviStrauss and Fox in specifying that human mate exchange was a matter ofmen exchanging women; women became objects of exchange between or among men in male kin groups. On this issue LéviStrauss had declared that, worldwide, women are “the most precious possession” and therefore appropriate as reciprocal gifts that effectively build social alliances. Chapais moves beyond this to provide a credible answer from evolutionary theory as to why it was females (and not males or both males and females) who were exchanged. Since females, relative to males, contribute a much greater reproductive effort or parental investment (in pregnancy, birth, lactation, and offspring care) they are the scarcer, more valuable, reproductive resource; hence males, to enhance their own reproductive success, will compete for and attempt to monopolize women. “Thus LéviStrauss’s argument about the prominent value of women to men transculturally can hardly be more compatible with evolutionary theory, in particular with sexual selection theory” (p. 249). Chapais, however, does not address the crucial question that all of this raises:How(by what mechanism) did hominid males secure control over their kinswomen such that they became possessions of men and objects of exchange, mere pawns in a male game of alliance building? He does discuss how the combination of pairbonding, female dispersal, and tolerance between intermarrying kin groups are prerequisites for female exchange, but still this does not explain how females “agreed” or were coerced to cease dispersing to breed all on their own, which they had been perfectly capable of doing before, to migrating and outbreeding under the direction or at the whim of males. Robin Fox had provided a possible answer to this question: Females ceded to males the monopoly over mate assignment (at least in outward appearance) because they were dependent on males for meat from the hunt. Chapais does not incorporate this idea nor does he make use of the ideas of others, for example Barbara Smuts (1995) or Marvin Harris (1993), on the evolutionary origins of male control over females. Chapais’s failure to address this question, even speculatively, is surprising since he
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so meticulously covers other issues related to human social origins. Another related question is: Assuming that Chapais and his predecessors are right that males were exchanging females, does this mean that the birth of human kinship, the full emergence of the exogamy configuration, was simultaneously the birth of a distinctively human form of female subordination to males? And, if so, does this imply that human female subordination has an evolutionary, biological basis in our hominid heritage? Chapais does not take up this problem, but if his evolutionary scenario carries these implications, many anthropologists will want to see them spelled out – and many others will find it controversial, to say the least. Primeval kinship powerful arguments concerning the origin and presents evolutionary path of human kinship. It reopens old questions, long abandoned, about the origins of human society, and addresses them with a brilliant synthesis of recent primate data. Chapais has demonstrated that primatology is now positioned to make significant contributions to the study of human kinship. This work will undoubtedly open further debate and inspire further research. It effectively dispels the view that human kinship is a purely cultural construction or that kinship can be understood outside the framework of our primate legacy. References Fox, R. (1975). Primate kin and human kinship. In R. Fox, (ed.),liaiBsoco  anthropology(pp. 935). New York: John Wiley and Sons. Fox, R. (1980).The red lamp of incest. New York: Dutton. Fox, R. (1991) Reply to Rodseth, L., Wrangham, R.W., Harrigan, A.M., and Smuts, B.B.,  “The human community as a primate society.”Current Anthropology,32, 242243. Harris, M. (1993). The evolution of human gender hierarchies: A trial formulation.  In B. Miller (Ed.),Sex and gender hierarchies (pp. 5779). Cambridge, England:  Cambridge University Press. Mulder, M. (2008). Bonding as key to hominid origins: Primatology meets sociocultural  analysis in a controversial account of human evolution. A review of Chapais,  B. (2008),bonding gave birth to human society.Primeval kinship: how pair  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press,Nature,454,2930. Rodseth , L., Wrangham, R.W., Harrigan, A.M., and Smuts, B.B. (1991). The human  community as a primate society.Current Anthropology,32,221241. Schneider, D.M. (1984).A critique of the study of kinship. Ann Arbor: University of  Michigan Press. Smuts, B.B. (1995). The evolutionary origins of patriarchy.Human Nature, 6,132. Stone, L. (2004). The demise and revival of kinship. In R. Parkin and L. Stone (Eds.),  anthropological reader AnKinship and family: 241256). (pp. MA: Malden,  Blackwell Publishing. Yanagisako, S.J., and Collier, J.F. (1987). Toward a unified analysis of gender and  kinship. In J.F. Collier and S.J. Yanagisako (Eds.),Gender and kinship: Essays  toward a unified analysis(pp. 1450). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
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