Wednesday, 19 September 2007


An interesting episode of Tribe last night. I was initially suspicious of the series, because it sounded like it was going to be either a set of lurid depictions of hunting and weird drug visions, or else a sort of elegaic look at disappearing noble savages who live a life of peace and harmony amongst the birds and the butterflies in the forest. Actually it's neither of those things - it's just a glimpse into communities of people who happen to live very different lives to us, but constantly surprise us as to how similar we all are. In that, I find it one of the few generally life-affirming programmes on TV.

It was fashionable at one stage for anthropologists such as Margaret Mead to proclaim that cultural patterns vary so much from culture to culture that in some societies it is the women who hunt and fight while the men stay at home and cook, in others sexual promiscuity is encouraged, and in others everybody is pacifist. In fact, even were it not for the masses of evidence to disprove those ideas, documentaries like Tribe give the lie to them; the people in those obscure, isolated societies are unusual only in one aspect - that they do not conform to any of the preconcieved notions of 'strangeness' that we might expect. In fact, we wouldn't find them any different in attitude or character to the people we meet from day to day in highly developed Western societies.

I recently came across reference to Donald Brown's list of Human Universals, a set of qualities found in all human societies, and that range from "abstractions in speech and thought" to "gossip" to "males more prone to lethal violence" to "hairstyles" to "disapproval of stinginess" to "thumb sucking" and "husband older than wife on average". The list is a huge one, and its contents really should be banal but are in fact fascinating because they essentially disprove the still-fashionable concepts of cultural relativism and societal moulding.

I remember when I went to stay with my friend Daisuke's family in Shikoku, the least developed of Japan's main islands: a place of craggy mountains and deep forests where exiles used to set up home in feudal times. As we sat around eating yaki-niku one night, Daisuke's dad suddenly blurted out that "everywhere you go, the culture is different, but the people are the same". True, and something that should be more commonly acknowledged.


Andrew Fry said...

That was a very interesting list. I could certainly spend some time debating what each listed item encompasses and the greater definition of each. One thing I found intriguing was that there are several items listed under magic, but none listed under science.

noisms said...

True, and I wonder if they qualify as the same thing in the list: one of Levi-Strauss' ideas, if I remember correctly, was that magic is a science-equivalent in that both basically fulfil the same function - explaining the mysterious things that happen around us and the existential questions we have.

Bilbo said...

I also found the list fascinating, and was surprised at its range. I never considered the number of hypothetical universals before. I agree with Andrew that each item would be worth considering in depth. Plenty of ideas here for future pondering in my own blog. Thanks for sharing this!