CHAPTER 22. AVOIDING CULTURALISM:
HUMANS ANALYZED IN TERMS OF BIOMES
In the area of studying human beings of the world, progress in the social sciences proceeds by gradually reducing the role of culturalism in the analyses. This is indeed a slow, painful process. Early works of western scholars dealing with the world's peoples and cultures were clearly racists and culturalist.
The real problem is that social scientists want to show how Western values are superior to other values. They want to show this because they themselves believe in these values. The sins of culturalism are especially prominent in Americans because the racist society places more emphasis on patriotism and nationalism. So they want to show how these values are superior.
For instance, the scholars assume that when the east gets to our level of development, they will see the wisdom of western culture and adopt most of its features. They will become like us. The way things are going we are going to become more like them.
Another example of culturalism is that western scholars used to emphasize how the existence of the political state offset the primitive societies from civilization. However, the more we have studied the other societies the more we see that they are more like us than different from us. This reasoning process of western scholars is similar to the reasoning of western social scientists emphasizing how different man is from the animals.
The more we study Africa the more we realize how old the centralized political system is (Schneider 1977:203-204). In Central Africa the cutting system of swidden agriculture was unusually productive of surplus grain. The king's power rested on his control of grain. The state-type organization was well-suited for mobilizing the scarce labor of Africa. Economies of scale may have been introduced by the state.
Just as humans have tried to separate man from the animals, so has the western social scientist tried to separate civilization from more primitive forms. In other words, western scholars want to distinguish themselves from other cultures in positive ways that flatter westerners and supports the social structure and values of the west. One of the clearest examples of this culturalism, is reference to Egypt or the Near East as "the cradle of civilization." This implies that there is only one cradle, and one really superior civilization, and that is western civilization. This culturalism is related to the stress on idealism and culture itself on societies. The simple-mined theory is that the western societies developed their cultures by borrowing from advanced civilizations. The west today is very different from Egypt today. How can western social scientists seriously draw parallels of culture between the two societies, except the parallels created by ecological relationships? Culture develops from the social structure of a society, and this social structure in turn develops from ecological relationships.
Gradually, as the world has become more interdependent, scholars slowly shed more and more of the culturalist assumptions. Many of these assumption, however, remain. The way to rid scholarship of culturalism is to insist on applying the same standards used in studying the non-human animals to the human animal.
The beginning of the analysis of human beings should proceed just as with other animals. The problem here is that humans do not want to do this. Instead, their social evolution takes over and they declare that they are different from other animals. They may be different, but they are still animals. And, in fact, the very refusal of human beings to analyze themselves objectively indicates that they are animals. They still think in primitive, self-justificatory terms.
When analyzing animal behavior, we study animals in relation to their ecology. This is so evident that no one questions it. And we realize that there is a great diversity in animal behavior, that corresponds greatly to their respective ecological environments. But when it comes to the study of humans, these ecological relationships tend to be abandoned in favor of cultural factors. This obviously is related to the desire to prove that one's own society is superior to others, and more specifically is superior in terms of values. We reject this attempt, and specifically insist on the following scientific principles as applied to human societies. We do not assume that one is superior to another, but that values and cultures are reflective of the very ecological relationships that created the societies that carry these values and cultures.
One problem of the social sciences is that they define a type of society, such as hunting and gathering societies, and then try to summarize it in relation to other types of societies, such as agricultural societies. While summaries are useful, we should be aware of the variety before we can summarize it. And the variety in human societies is there because of the variety of ecological areas.
Ecology of Humans in Africa
We are going to illustrate the relationship between ecology and human societies in Africa. We are careful to use the word ecology because we want to avoid the charge of geographical determinism. Ecology includes not only geography, but climate, vegetation, animal life, and even social life. After all, animals are grouped in societies, and these affect their behaviors. As animals, human beings are a part of that ecology. They are not set apart from it, and therefore somehow justified in doing anything they want with nature. Rather they are part and parcel of that nature.
This chapter refuses to take a double standard. It will apply natural science to human behavior regardless of the consequences. In doing so, we describe the various biomes in sub-Saharan Africa, and then describe the type of human societies associated with these biomes. This is exactly the same process we followed in considering animal behavior.
Following scientific principles applied to the study of non- human animal societies, in studying human societies one should start out with understanding the geology of that area. Thus one will be able to understand complicated weather and vegetation zones when the climactic features are overlaid on the continent. For instance, there are several low areas, known as basins, in Africa. Proceeding west to east, between ten and twenty degrees north latitude, one finds the Djouf, Chad, and Sudan basins. At the equator is the large area known as the Congo Basin. And in the south, there is the Kalahari basin. These basins are located near higher, mountainous plateaus. The Fouta Djallon Mountains and the Ahaggar Plateau occur around the Djouf Basin. The Chad Basin is nearly surrounded by various mountains, including the Ahaggar Plateau. The same is true of the Sudan Basin, except the area to the north is open to Egypt. To the west of this basin is the Ethiopian Massif. The Congo Basin is also surrounded by mountains, including those that contain the famous mounts of Kenya and Kilimanjaro. The Kalahari basin is surrounded on the north and west by the Bihe Plateau, on the east and southeast by the Drakensberg Plateau, and the Cape Ranges to the south.
In Africa there is a close relationship between production modes and types of habitat (Schneider 1977:190). This realization actually connects the principles of ecology that we have discussed in the book so far to the social sciences. More specifically, it emphasizes a primarily materialist conception of causation, rather than a primarily idealistic one. And to this extent, it confirms Marxist views rather than Weberian ones.
Social scientists have a hard time accepting this and immediately start crying "determinism." We have, however, already seen that the social groupings of New World monkeys are somewhat independent of a direct association with their immediate environment. Nevertheless, we never refer to these differences as arising from different monkey cultures. The same applies to man, and yet, you do not hear social scientists complaining about the analysis as applied to New World monkeys. Social scientists have a double standard. Analyses that are legitimately applied to all of nature, are rejected for the study of human beings.
Schneider (1977:192) notes that there is a close association between social system and production system, but goes on to warn of "determinism." He insists on free will approaches, saying "the way people organize their social life is a . . . a matter of choice, and some forms of organization achieve better results in terms of a people's aspirations than do others."
This idea of determinism is just another attempt on the part of liberal, free-will, racist social scientists to deny the influence of ecological forces on humans. This book certainly does not believe in any determinism. Rather it sees a complicated web of interrelationships, including values, affecting human behavior. However, values are more secondary, derivative influences, rather than being primary ones.
The pretense that Marxist influenced social scientists are determinists is just another one of those convenient myths shared by liberal equality of opportunity racists. The approach in this book is not a narrow focus just on a materialistic determinism. Ecological interrelationships are very complicated with many factors involved.
From geology we should always turn to the climate and vegetation zones. Following our general model of climate and vegetation, we first locate the equator. A line from the equator proceeds through the Congo Basin. Here is located much of the rain forest of Africa. This rain forest also extends along the Ivory coast of Africa. Light tropical forest shading into savanna is found to the north and south of the rain forest. At the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn are found the deserts: the Sahara Desert at around 20 to 30 degrees north of the equator, and the Kalahari desert around 20 to 30 degrees south of the equator. Mediterranean climate is located along the Mediterranean Sea and at the Cape of Good Hope.
The next step is to describe the type of fauna found in floristic regions. Just as in our previous climate-vegetation roller-coaster model, we find the kinds of animals closely associated with the kinds of biomes. In the rain forests, in the absence of grass the ungulates are primarily browsers. The animals here are the okapi, bongo, buffalo, bushbuck, and numerous duikers. Elephants, bush pigs, giant forest hogs and small mammals are abundant. The predators include the leopard, golden cat various civets.
Everyone is familiar with the animals of the great open areas of the savannas of Africa, especially of the Serengeti park. Everyone has seen the television shows of lions, leopards, and cheetahs chasing various large ungulates. There are actually three kinds of savannas in Africa. The driest, and closest to the deserts are known as "Sudan" savanna. Within it there are subsidiary zones of scant grasses and xerophytic shrubs. It is a semi-arid zone of bushland. The middle level is the Guinea savanna which receives more rainfall. And finally there is the Grass savanna which receives the most rainfall. The closer to the rain forest, the more rain, and the more bushes and trees.
The deserts of Africa have the typical species able to survive dry conditions. It has at least three principal types of terrain. The hamadas are elevated plateau lands of rock and stone. The regs are extensive areas of silt, gravel and stone, having a hard surface and laid down by past flood waters. Ergs are seas of sand dunes, which constitute only one part, even if the most well- known, of the desert.
Once we have described the geology, the flora, and the fauna, we can turn our attentions to human beings. However, we are going to consider humans as just another animal.
When studying humans, we first have to study how the ecology of an area determined divisions among humans. These include racial, ethnic, language, and many other divisions. In Africa differences in ecology determined different races of Africans, including the Pygmies and the Bushmen. The ecological differences in Africa also created tribes. This has plagued Africa preventing unity of the various peoples. These tribal divisions are somewhat similar to the divisions between European peoples of different nationalities. In fact, the ecology of Africa produced within the people of that continent so many ethnic divisions that it made it difficult to create social cohesion. Africa is actually relatively underpopulated. There are few populated areas, compared to such continents as Asia and Europe. The reason for this underpopulation seems to be related to the poor soil of Africa that is unsuitable for cultivation or the existence of many insect pests that carry disease to people and cattle. The diseases that have affected Africa include sleeping sickness, yellow fever, malaria, and bilharzia. The sleeping sickness carried by the tsetse fly covers a huge belt of equatorial Africa. Moreover, over three quarters of Africa south of the Sahara is short of water. These factors, in turn meant that peoples were relatively isolated from each other. This resulted in hundreds of ethnic groups and nearly 1,000 different languages.
When studying the development of different societies in Africa, we reject cultural influences as primary. Ecological variables primarily determine the types of societies that develop, and these types of societies in turn primarily determine the type of cultures that develop. The values and ideas of the culture in turn influences society, but this influence is secondary, rather than primary.
That African societies are definitely influenced by the type of ecology in which they developed is apparent when reading social scientific accounts of Africa. Considering African economics, Schneider (1977:190) divides Africa into many ecological zones. In each he describes its associated production techniques. The first area is that of the desert. In the northern section of the Sahara Desert, the main production technique is associated with camel nomads. In the southern part of the Kalahari Desert, the San are hunter and gatherers. The same is true of the nomadic !Kung Bushmen of the Kalahari. The tropical rain forest is inhabited by horticulturalists. An example is the Pygmies. The third zone is constituted by the savanna grasslands. These are inhabited by people who combine horticulture with the raising of cattle, sheep, and goats, although a few peoples, like the Maasai, the Samburu, the Somalis, and the Turkana, were almost exclusively raisers of livestock. Another type of biome in Africa is that of the savanna. The pastoralists are found in the rougher grass savannas. The Jie of Uganda are from the semiarid savannas, the Fulani of northern Nigeria from the savanna, and the Somali of the Horn from an arid areas of coarse grass and scrub bush. Zone 4 is also savanna, but the people were primarily horticulturalists because the presence of the tsetse fly, a carrier of sleeping sickness, prohibited the raising of cattle, which are vulnerable to this disease.
That the type of society largely determines the type of culture is shown clearly in the story of the Pygmies. The Mbuti Pygmies of the Ituri Forest of the Congo (Turnbull 1965:279) are hunters and gatherers with a primary stress on hunting. The dominant leitmotif of the Mbuti is the feeling of identification with the forest as the benevolent provider of life and all good things and the protector from the malevolence of nonforest people. Rituals associated with birth, puberty, sickness, and death all give expression to this value and usually involve physical and symbolic contact with forest substances to symbolize the Pygmy- forest identification.
Their neighbors are agricultural neighbors, despise and fear the forest. The traditional view of the Pygmy as being dependent on his Negro agricultural "overlords" is false. The Mbuti appears to be subservient while in the villages, but he ridicules the villagers when he is back in the forest.
Even within Pygmy societies there are differences in cultures. And these stem from the differences in the types of ecological activity of the bands. Some bands are archers and others hunt with large nets. The form of hunting that is dominant affects the size and composition of the band, the division of labor, and the nature of relationships with surrounding Negro villagers. Net hunting, especially, requires a large measure of cooperation. A net-hunting band is generally larger than an archer band and demands more cooperation. Accordingly, there are differences in culture between archers and netters. For instance, since there is less need for cooperation among the archers, there is less development of centralized authority. The archers call the person embodying centralized authority the headman, but they only call him by his title when he discusses village food exchange or labor supply. When they are hunting in the forest, they call the headman by his personal name or by a generational term that applies.
As we have stressed, differences between societies are determined largely by ecological factors. And one of the key ecological forces is location, which refers to the degree of isolation of a culture. Sub-Saharan Africans were cut off from the intensive interaction between cultures taking place in the near east. This certainly limited the influence of the invention of the plow on Africa. Other reasons for not inventing or using the plow may be related to ecological forces. In Africa labor is in short supply. Therefore it is more expensive than land. It made more sense to use agricultural techniques like swidden because it economizes on labor rather than on land (Schneider 1977:196). Moreover, plowing requires draft animals and Africa is noticeably absent in these types of animals. They are certainly nonexistent in the rain forests, and in the savanna the tsetse fly prevented the keeping of many draft animals. In other areas, the designation of animals as symbols of wealth worked against their use for pulling plows. Schneider (1977:196) writes that "It may be that many of the technological characteristics of traditional African life will in the end prove to have been strongly influenced or partly determined by basic economic considerations about how best to utilize available resources." There was just no need for plows. They had few people and land was plentiful and this did not create a need for the discovery of the plow. Unfortunately, western scholars take the invention of the plow as proof of the superiority of their societies and cultures. But this culturalism is just not acceptable.
Ecology of Humans in Europe
I had wanted to contrast European patterns with African patterns to show that the same principles apply to both continents. However, a funny thing occurred. I found that the books on Europeans almost entirely ignore their primitive period of tribes and other ethnic groups. I had to go to books specifically on European prehistory to get any adequate idea of European peoples. The authors writing about Europe write as if Egypt and the Near East were a part of Europe. There is a subtle pretense in which the authors imply that Europe is the direct descendant of great cultures, rather than starting out like the Africans in hunting and gathering societies. This is a type of culturalist evolution approach. The implication is that the west is the culmination of a progressive evolutionary development extending back to Egypt.
This amnesia concerning one's own past is a perfect example of culturalism. It also is a great illustration of the culturalist basis of the approach of idealism as compared to materialism. Culture is the expression of the ways of life worked out between the competing groups within a society. It is not something borrowed from another society (unless imposed by force as in colonialism). The stress on idealism permits this culturalist self-praise approach to world and European history.
Contrary to the impression provided by culturalist historians, the earliest agricultural communities did not appear in England until 3474 B.C. (Milisauskas 1978:47). This was about the same time that Africans in sub-Sahara Africa started to cultivate millet and sorghum. But one would never realize this, if one relied on culturalist western histories.
The British Americans hold themselves superior to other Americans. However, when the Roman legions invaded the British Isles the native British were Celts who were divided into "turbulent and rival tribes, ruled by chiefs or kings (Smith 1974:5-6). There were considerable magical observances under a priesthood of druids, which formed an influential class. In other words, the Romans found a relatively primitive society that would have compared to many African societies of the time and would seem inferior to some African societies.
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