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Book of the Day: Social Bonding and Peer Nurture

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
13th June 2013


“Resolving the decades long divide between cultural versus sociobiological approaches, Social Bonding and Nurture Kinship unites cultural and biological approaches to social life and kinship. The synthesis is non-reductive, respecting the core tenets of both paradigms, and also incorporates psychological attachment theory into the account. Praised by adherents of both cultural and biological perspectives, the strength of Holland’s approach is his unique engagement with and exhaustive survey of theoretical debates and empirical findings across a wide array of disciplines. This rare breadth of scope has allowed Holland to uncover the common ground between disciplines and create the current synthesis. The broad survey also provides students of social behaviour and kinship with a rich and comprehensive resource. This work is a powerful example of how social and physical sciences can inform each other on equal terms, without the danger of one being subsumed by the other. Both approaches emerge stronger as a result.”

My good friend Max Holland, has written a thesis, now a book, offering an integration of nature vs nurture approaches to human anthropology:

* Holland, Maximilian Piers, Social Bonding and Nurture Kinship: Compatibility between Cultural and Biological Approaches (April 4, 2004).

Max explains the purpose of the book:

“For the first time, a synthesis is advanced that overcomes this decades long division; untying the Gordian knot around the relationship between social and biological kinship. Praised by adherents of both perspectives, the strength of the approach is its unique engagement with, and exhaustive survey of, theoretical debates and empirical findings across a wide array of disciplines.

Although anthropologists from Morgan (1870) onwards had long assumed that human kinship patterns are inherently based upon blood ties, from the 1960s this assumption began to be deconstructed within anthropology, most prominently by David M. Schneider. Schneider argued that the anthropological concept of ‘kinship’ (and its study) was based on an unwarranted conflation of the concept of blood ties with that of social ties, a symbolic association uncritically derived from the cultural background of anthropologists’ own societies. In the wake of this and related critiques, cultural anthropologists have largely avoided this assumption from the 1970s and 1980s onwards, and have instead explored local cultural accounts of the basis of kinship. Such accounts have included various notions of ‘shared substance’ (such as the sharing of land, sharing food, and ‘milk kinship’) and also processual approaches that focus more on the ongoing construction of kinship ties through the ‘doing’ of acts of care and nurture (such as ‘nurture kinship’).

Meanwhile on the biological side, with the Modern Synthesis of Darwinian evolution and Mendelian inheritance becoming established by the 1940s and 1950s, another unexamined assumption relating to social behaviour began to be deconstructed. This was the notion that social groups and social behaviour have largely evolved due to ‘species selection’ pressure or ‘group selection’ pressure. The main deconstructive impetus here came from William Hamilton and George Williams, both of whom in the 1960s suggested that gene-level selection is likely to be more influential than group-level selection for most traits, in most circumstances. The evolution of social behaviours (e.g. sterile worker castes in social insects, alarm calls in mammals and birds, food sharing in many species) was however harder to model under the gene-level selection approach, no longer able to invoke simple arguments involving ‘the benefit of the species’. Into this gap Hamilton advanced his ‘inclusive fitness’ theory in the early 1960s. His models were innovative and emphasized that social traits could increase in frequency (evolve) in a population if there was regularly a close genetic correlation between the actor and the beneficiaries of the social act; such that identical copies of an allele would typically achieve a net frequency increase as a result of the behaviour.

To begin to understand the origins of the several decades of stand-off between biology and cultural anthropology, Holland notes the differences between Hamilton’s early papers (by far the most widely cited, but containing mistakes) and his later ones (more accurate, but less well known). Hamilton’s early rough models were developed, refined and made more general in subsequent work in the late 60s and early 70s, especially with the collaboration of George Price. Later formulations of inclusive fitness theory can be used to model the evolution of traits at multiple levels of selection, including gene-level and group-level. In the discussion sections of his early papers, Hamilton pointed out that the necessary criterion of correlation between replica genes might readily come about through location and proximity based cues straightforwardly available under conditions of ‘limited dispersal’ and the consequent grouping of genetic relatives. Particularly influentially, he also however suggested that the necessary genetic correlation might be enhanced if organisms could evolve an ability to perceive and distinguish genetic identity and make their social acts dependent upon this distinction. Although this position was later clarified by Dawkins, and Hamilton’s own later papers argued that direct recognition of genetic identity would in fact be unlikely to evolve and indeed be selected against under many conditions, the concept of organisms’ expression of social behaviours being contingent upon the actual recognition of genetic relatedness appealed to some researchers and led the field of ‘kin recognition’ research. It has also strongly shaped the simplified formulations of what Hamilton’s theory predicts.

In the mid 1970s, these two disciplines; cultural anthropology and biology, began to come into contact more directly around human kinship. Following the initial dissemination of Hamilton’s theories within biological circles, the idea of ‘socio-biology’ emerged and some, such as Ed Wilson and Richard Alexander began to enquire as to the potential application of these theories to the human species, and to human social patterns, calling for work to be conducted in this area. From these beginnings, the sub-school of Darwinian anthropology emerged, with various attempts to align human kinship data with the biological theory.

The heuristic plank of many of these early sociobiologists was to assume that Hamilton’s theory predicts that evolved behavioural tendencies cause human behaviour to assume the form that maximizes inclusive fitness. In short, rather than understanding Hamilton’s theory as specifying one necessary condition governing the potential evolution of certain social traits, common formulations treated Hamilton’s theory as a prediction about the form that the expression of social behaviour will take. Such formulations were typically further simplified into a prediction that humans are expected to moderate their altruistic and selfish behaviour in accordance with degree of genetic relationship.

To support such supposed ‘predictions’ about human behaviour, the evidence that this biologically orientated school drew upon was of course that which had been produced by sociocultural anthropology, the discipline which had accumulated the most detailed accounts of the varieties of human social patterns. However, most of these accounts had been produced under the period when sociocultural anthropologists themselves had typically assumed that human kinship patterns are essentially correlated with blood relatedness. Thus the concepts and descriptions given in these early anthropological accounts did seem to resonate with the biologists’ ideas; that human social ties and social acts appeared to ‘be based on blood’ (i.e. genetic relatedness). It was exactly such unexamined assumptions, concepts and descriptions that Schneider (within anthropology) was deconstructing.

The biologists were not generally aware that the anthropologists were at this very time increasingly critiquing this ‘blood ties’ presumption within their corpus of kinship studies, hitherto so common. This timing was thus unfortunate, and the position being adopted by the biologists – taking the newly vacated seat of former anthropological kinship thinking – unsurprisingly found itself under critique from the anthropology camp, notably in Marshall Sahlins’ The Use and Abuse of Biology (1976). Much of the clash can thus be understood in terms of anthropologists wishing to distance themselves from their own previous mistakes about kinship, and also defensiveness in the face of the suggestion of key sociobiologists that “the humanities and social sciences shrink to specialized branches of biology” (Wilson 1975). However, the bottom line was that the Darwinian Anthropology approach could not satisfactorily account for the full range of human findings, since it was increasingly clear that human kinship patterns are not necessarily correlated with genetic (or ‘blood’) ties. Due to these failures, in the late 1980s, this first wave of human sociobiology was waning; in its wake a related school, evolutionary psychology was emerging with a new emphasis; on identifying and describing the behavioural adaptations that are suggested by an evolutionary perspective on humans.

Hamilton’s theory was still a central tenet for the evolutionary psychologists however, and the common interpretation of the theory’s predictions remained largely unchanged; that animals tend to be altruistic toward those with whom they share a lot of genes. The evolutionary psychology school has largely avoided revisiting the data on human social ties and kinship, although in the few cases where it has done so, it has typically adopted the same interpretation of inclusive fitness that Richard Alexander and the Darwinian anthropologists had previously. It has assumed that Hamilton’s theory predicts that human social behaviour is expected to maximize inclusive fitness via biasing social acts towards genetic relatives.

Holland reviews and deconstructs all these theoretical debates in the process of framing his own position on the theory. Holland’s central position is that, whilst Hamilton’s theory does entail that genetic association is a necessary criterion for the evolution of certain kinds of social behaviour, this does not entail that genetic association is a necessary condition for the proximate expression of these social behaviours. Turning attention to what he argues is the more parsimonious interpretation of Hamilton, Holland asks; to what extent are social behaviours proximately expressed via straightforward location and proximity based cues; cues that in evolutionarily typical environments, would be reliable correlates of genetic relatedness? To what extent does the evidence support the hypothesis that context-based cues (such as shared developmental environment, co-feeding, co-sleeping and the familiarity that these shared conditions create) are what mediate social bonding, social acts and kinship? If the evidence supports this position, the central insights of Hamilton’s idea can be preserved, whilst rejecting the notion that the expression of social bonds and social acts is predicted to be directed towards ‘blood’ ties per se.

The theoretical developments and findings of ‘kin recognition’ research are reviewed and it is suggested that the evidence overwhelmingly points to social acts in mammals being mediated by context-based cues and familiarity. To gain insight into possible proximate conditions of social bonding and behaviour in humans, Holland reviews the primate evidence, again finding that context-based cues overwhelmingly mediate social and emotional bonds in these species, and the social acts associated with such bonds. Before turning to the ethnographic data on patterns of human social bonding and kinship, a review of Bowlby’s psychological attachment theory of social and emotional bonding is conducted, noting its applicability to both non-human primates and humans, and further notes are gathered on the contextual-cues that mediate bonding.

The ethnographic evidence is then reviewed, both historical accounts and theories, as well as more recent ethnographies that document the varied cultural meanings and processes associated with kinship and social bonds. Taken in addition to the preceding surveys of primate bonding and attachment theory, in sum it is argued that there is much evidence for substantial continuity between humans and closely related species in many of the basic conditions and processes mediating the expression of social bonding, and none are contingent upon genetic relatedness per se. These mediating mechanisms include developmental association and proximity, food sharing, co-sleeping arrangements, commonality of care-givers, and familiarity between individuals. Indeed the anthropological concept of ‘nurture kinship’ is invoked to remind us of an existing conceptual formulation of the extent to which kinship ties can be created via processes of sharing and care-giving, independently of blood ties. Numerous ethnographic accounts, from all continents, are reviewed in support of the position that such processual forms of kinship are widespread in humans.

Thus Holland draws the unifying link between the biological theory and the cultural anthropological evidence. In this formulation, the biological theory should properly be treated as an account of the selection pressures that govern the historical evolution of certain forms of social behaviour. It thus should not be interpreted to make reductive or deterministic predictions in respect of the correlation between the expression of social behaviours and genetic or ‘blood’ relationships (or other deterministic outcomes). Holland suggests that biologists as well as attachment theorists might increase their understanding of human social bonding and behaviour by familiarizing themselves with the diverse ethnographic accounts that cultural anthropologists have produced.

In concluding, the work points to the continuing need to remain vigilant to the temptation to derive putative human universals from potentially narrowly derived cultural models of human nature. To illustrate, Holland gives examples of the friction that results when different cultural conceptions and practices of kinship come into contact.

Providing, as it does, a rigorous yet non-reductive account of the connections between biology and social science, Holland’s contribution makes room for future kinship research to move beyond old debates and, echoing Schneider’s earlier call, to go on to illuminate the influence of variables such as “ecology, economy, demography etc., to which kinship systems must adapt” (Schneider 1984).

As an early review has stated, Holland’s Social Bonding and Nurture Kinship, will (with any luck) put paid to prevailing misapplications of inclusive fitness theory in evolutionary psychology and Darwinian anthropology. It will also help cultural anthropologists defend against fallacious reductionist claims, and focus anew on the diverse influences on human kinship. It will also encourage biologists to consider the role that highly flexible social bonding mechanisms have played in the evolution of primate and human social life.”

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