Explanation in Anthropology -

Department of Anthropology

070: 410
:  Explanation in Anthropology - outline

Robin Fox

Fall Term. Monday 2 & 3. BIO 302. Stop point 20 (or with permission.) No pre-requisites

This is a preliminary introduction to the idea of the course.

I inherited the title and course description, but it is close enough to what I want to do.

We shall look at how anthropologists go about “explaining” things across the four fields of the discipline. Sometimes the explanation is universal, sometimes very local. To use examples from my own work, “Why do we have incest taboos?” is very different from, “Why do twenty-percent of husbands and wives on Tory Island not live together?” But they are both “why?” questions and seek causal answers, albeit of a very different kind. Sometimes “how?” or “what?” questions have to be answered before the “why?” questions can be posed. “How do we perceive time?” comes before “Why do we perceive time the way we do?” “What kinds of social groups do monkeys live in?” has to precede “Why do monkeys live in different kinds of social groups?” A lot of anthropology is conducted at the “how?” and “what?” stage, which is very necessary, but not as much fun as the “why?” questions.

I have usually avoided teaching my own stuff in courses, but it has been put to me that this is to rob the students of more than fifty years experience in all four fields of anthropology, so I am relaxing that rule and we shall pick topics from areas of my research and use them as the ground reading on which to base explorations into related work by many others. The following are suggested topics: all “why?” questions that can lead us into the heart of many anthropological (and therefore human) puzzles.

Why do we have incest taboos? Why do we have food taboos?

Why are there races? Why do we have sexes? Why do we dream?

Why are some societies polygamous and some monogamous?

Why are there witches? Why do we need myths? Why do bureaucracies fail?

Why is a deal a deal? Why are there fathers? Why is nepotism ineradicable?

Why did the Romans call their maternal nephews “grandson”?

Why do some societies have no words for relatives-in-law?

Why did God forbid the Israelites to boil an animal in its mother’s milk?

Why did the brain evolve so quickly? Why do women have orgasms?

Why do we fall in love? Why is the maternal uncle a privileged relative?

Why do guys like to hang out together? Why is blood thicker than water?

Why do religions fragment into sects? Why are we fascinated by violence?

Why are there wars? Why do we need human rights? Why are there nations?

Why do Tory Island husbands not live with their wives?

Why are there so many languages? Why do complex societies rise, and then fall?

Why do we avoid the long view of time? Why do we prefer intuition to logic?

There are many more possibilities, but we shall choose from these. Some of the reading is from recently published articles and so is on disc and can be easily distributed. Earlier things are in my books, for example:
Kinship and Marriage, Encounter with Anthropology, The Red Lamp of Incest, The Challenge of Anthropology, Reproduction and Succession, The Tory Islanders, Conjectures and Confrontations, The Search for Society.

I have some remaindered copies of the last one, which I shall give out. If I decide you must buy any of the others (probably just Challenge) any royalties will be returned to the department. I will try to find a way to put some of this stuff on the web for you, but I’m new to this.

Just as examples of possible topics:

On the rise and fall of complex societies, we shall read my chapter “The Origins of Social Complexity” in Challenge of Anthropology, which discusses this topic using the examples of the Calusa of SW Florida and the Anasazi of Chaco Canyon NM. We shall watch (some of) a film on “The Mysteries of Chaco Canyon” and discuss theories of its rise and fall, such as the chapter in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, by Jared Diamond. The Calusa based a complex civilization on fishing, and were thought to be the only example of a complex society based on fish as opposed to settled agriculture. We shall look at them (VCR) and at an example from Peru (perhaps watching some of “The Real Temple of Doom” DVD) that seems to show a similar pattern (reading parts of Michael Mooney’s The Maritime Foundations of Andean Civilization.) We shall ask what these examples tell us about why complex societies arose, flourished and inevitably fell.

On the female orgasm, we shall read my chapter “The Female Orgasm: Adaptation or Accident” in Challenge, which argues that it is indeed an accident and serves no reproductive function. We shall watch a film (if I can find it) on the behavior of sperm during orgasm, and look at explanations by those like Desmond Morris, Melvin Konner and Randy Thornhill, who argue that it is functional and hence adaptive. We shall set this in a discussion of the evolution of mating strategies, and perhaps take a final vote on the issue.

A detailed syllabus with the weekly reading and ancillary readings will be given out in the first class. (If it is done in good time I’ll post it.) Each week we shall all read the basic essay, and some of us will also read related work by other anthropologists. There will be presentations and vigorous discussion. Points will be scored for challenging the instructor’s position. Occasionally there will be visual aids (as in the above example.) I don’t know yet what form of exam will be used. Depends on the class. Some combination of take home exam and short term paper perhaps.

Explanation in Anthropology - syllabus

  • Syllabus and readings.

Challenge refers to Robin Fox, The Challenge of Anthropology, Transaction 1994. (available at Douglass bookstore or Amazon – cheaper usually.) Search refers to Robin Fox, The Search for Society, Rutgers U.P. 1989. (copies will be distributed)“reprint” means I have a reprint of the item or an electronic version (“disk”)

This is a 400-level seminar, and your active participation is essential. A background in anthropology is not required; in fact a diversity of backgrounds is an advantage for the course. We shall approach the issue of “explanation” in anthropology, not in an abstract way, but with a series of “case histories” from the instructor’s work. Each week everyone will read one or two chapters from Search or Challenge, or a chapter or article on disk, as indicated. In addition, individuals will prepare brief reports from the “other readings” which are expansions, related topics, criticisms, or downright disagreements with the position taken in the general reading. You should prepare a brief write-up of each of the “other readings” that you tackle, and these will count towards the grade. A short term paper on one of the topics or a related topic will complete the assignment. For this you should use all the “other readings” on the topic, and others that will be discussed individually. I have most of the books and articles assigned and will lend them out or e-mail them to you. “Film” or “Film clip” means brief excerpts from one or more films for illustrative purposes. (See course outline on anthro. web site under 410.)

Week 1. Sept. 11. Introduction

Outline of the course; initial assignments. Basic issues in explanation, scientific method, interpretation. Popper versus Kuhn on the development of science. Why is it important to be wrong? Why is there Anthropology? What have anthropologists tried to explain? How has this changed? Karl Popper, Conjectures and Refutations. Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Fox, Search Chap. 3 “Darwin and the Donation of Durkheim 1: Liberalism and the Legacy of Locke.” Fox, Search, Chap. 4. “Darwin and the Donation of Durkheim 2: Bradley and the Benison of Bergson.” (These are not assignments – just for your reference, leisure-time reading, and possible term-paper sources.) Totemism, by way of example, as a subject for explanation: utilitarian, sociological, structural, psychological, evolutionary, etc explanations. Claude Lévi-Strauss,Totemism. Fox: “Totem and Taboo Reconsidered” in E. R. Leach ed. The Structural Study of Myth and Totemism. Fox: The Red Lamp of Incest, Chap. 3 “The Primal Horde.” Chap. 8 “The Matter of Mind.” (These again are not assignments – just for your reference.)

Film Clip: Waiting for Harry (Australian Aborigines), Ancient America: The Northwest

Week 2. Sept. 18. Food and Eating

We shall look at how paleo-anthropologists, historians, symbolic anthropologists, ecologists etc. have selected issues for explanation, and how they have tackled them.

Challenge: Chap. 1 “Food and Eating Out.”

Eaton, Shostack and Konner, The Paleolithic Prescription, Chaps. 3 and 4: “The Discordance Hypothesis”: “The Stone Age Diet.”.
Jared Diamond, The Third Chimpanzee, Chap. 11. “Why do we smoke, drink and take dangerous drugs?”
Larry Zuckerman, The Potato, either Chap. 4, “Vive la pomme de terre” or Chap. 10 “Potatoes and Population.”
Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger, Chap. 3 “The Abominations of Leviticus.”
Richard Wrangham et el. “Out of the Pan, into the Fire: How Our Ancestors’ Evolution Depended on What They Ate.” In Frans de Waal (ed.), Tree of Origin. (reprint.)
[Or, “The Raw and the Stolen: Cooking and the Ecology of Human Origins.” Current Anthropology. 40:567-77, 1999 (reprint.) Or “Cooking as a Biological Trait” Comp. Biochem. & Phys. Part A 136, 35-46, 2003 (reprint.)]
Lionel Tiger, The Pursuit of Pleasure, Chap. 5. “Big Mouth.”
W. C. McGrew & A. T. C. Feistner, “Two Nonhuman Primate Models for the Evolution of Human Food Sharing.” Chap. 4 in Barkow, Cosmides and Tooby, eds. The Adapted Mind (1992)

Film clips: Tom Jones, The Human Animal

Week 3. Sept. 25 Sex and Orgasm

1. What are the outstanding features of human mating systems that demand explanation?

Challenge: Chap. 1 “The Conditions of Sexual Evolution”

Robert Trivers, Social Evolution, Chap. 13 “The Evolution of Sex.”
Jared Diamond, The Third Chimpanzee, Chap. 3. “The Evolution of Human Sexuality.”

2. What are the competing explanations of the female orgasm? Can they be reconciled?

Challenge: Chap. 2. “The Female Orgasm: Adaptation or Accident?”

Donald Symons, The Evolution of Human Sexuality, Chap. 3. “The Female Orgasm: Adaptation or Artifact?”
Melvin Konner, The Tangled Wing, Chap. 12 “Lust” pp. 287-96. 0r: Why the Reckless Survive, pages 181-85 “Is Orgasm Essential?”
Randy Thornhill et al. “Human Female Orgasm and Male Fluctuating Asymmetry.” Animal Behavior, 50: 1601-15, 1995. (reprint.) or “Human Female Copulatory Orgasm: A Human Adaptation or Phylogenetic Holdover?” Animal Behavior. 52 853-5, 1996

Film clips:

  • (Woody Allen) All You Wanted to Know About Sex (sperm)
  • (Desmond Morris) The Human Animal: The Biology of Love (orgasm)
  • (Helen Fisher) Anatomy of Sex (love)

Week 4. Oct. 2. Incest: Avoidance and Taboo

Again, what are the competing explanations for the incest taboo?

Challenge. Chap. 3. “The Evolution of Incest Inhibition.”

Robin Fox, The Red Lamp of Incest, chap 2. “Between Brother and Sister.”
-------------, Kinship and Marriage, Chap. 2 “The Incest Problem.”
Turner and Maryanski, Incest: Origins of the Taboo. Chap. 1 “The Golden Age of Promiscuity.” Chap.2 “Avoiding Incest.”
Joseph Shepher, Incest: A Biosocial View, Chap. 6 “Contributions to the Development of the Sociobiological Theory of Incest.”
William Arens, The Original Sin, Chap. 5 “The Nature of the Solution.”
James Twitchell, Forbidden Partners, Dreadful Pleasures, (vampires as incest fantasies)

Film clip:

  • ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore
  • Dracula

Week 5. Oct. 9. Aggression, Violence and War

1. What are the roots of human violence and aggression? What is the role of imagination and ritualization? Is aggression a disease or a normal process?

Challenge. Chap. 5. “Aggression Then and Now.” Chap. 6. “The Human Nature of Violence.” 

Search. Chap 6. “The Violent Imagination.” Chap. 7. “The Inherent Rules of Violence.”

Peter Marsh, Aggro: The Illusion of Violence (selections)
Anne Campbell, Men, Women and Violence. (selections)

2. Contrasting views on the nature of history, and the causes of war.

Challenge. Chap.8. “Has War a Future? Or Goodnight Eirene.” 
Challenge, Chap. 7. “Violence, Ideology and Inquisition: Encounter with Seville.”
Fox: “Biology, History and Social Organization” RAND Seminars (reprint/disk)
Robert Hinde et al. Responses to above in Encounter (reprint)
Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (Selections – or article in The National Interest) (reprint/disk)

Film clip: John Wayne/John Ford (Documentary), Dead Birds, Waterloo, Gettysburg, Alexander

Week 6. Oct. 16. Male Bonding . 

Is there a specific need for males to bond? What role do females play? Is it explained by the evolution of hunting and war? How does it manifest itself in literature?

Fox, “Male Bonding in the Epics and Romances.” From The Literary Animal, Imber and Wilson eds. (2005) (Expanded version on disk.)

Fox, “Sexual Conflict in the Epics.” In Conjectures and Confrontations (1997) 
Lionel Tiger, Men in Groups (selections)
Tiger and Fox, The Imperial Animal, Chap. 4 “Bond Issue Two: Man to Man.”
Robert Trivers, Social Evolution, Chap. 9 “Parental Investment and Sexual Selection.”
R. Blumenschine and J. Cavallo, “Scavenging and Human Evolution” Scientific American 1992 (reprint)

Film clips: Excalibur, Troy, The Thirteenth Warrior, The Four Feathers, The Full Monty

Week 7. Oct. 23. Human Rights.

Differing views (very!) on the sources and nature of human rights.

Search, Chap. 2 “Inhuman Nature and Unnatural Rights.”
Fox “Human Nature and Human Rights” in The National Interest 62, Winter 2001-2, or in R. J. Woolsey, ed., The National Interest on International Law and Order, and on disk.

Francis Fukuyama “Natural Rights and Human History” and William F. Schultz (Director of Amnesty International) etc., “The Ground and Nature of Human Rights.” National Interest, 63 (2001-2) or NIonILandO (reprints)

Week 8. Oct. 30. Visiting Husbands on Tory Island

Why do a fifth of Tory Island (Ireland) husbands and wives not live together? 

Challenge Chap. 9 “Principles and Pragmatics on Tory Island.”

Fox: The Tory Islanders: A People of the Celtic Fringe. Chap. 7 “Family, Marriage and Household.” 
Meyer Fortes: “The Developmental Cycle in Domestic Groups.” (reprint)

Film clip: Globetrekker Ireland – Tory Island

Week 9. Nov. 6. Complex Societies

Why do some simple societies move to complex organization? Why do they then always collapse? Do they need an agricultural surplus to develop? The role of seafood. Anasazi and Calusa. (with a glance at Norte Chico.)

Challenge: Chap. 11 “The Origins of Social Complexity.”

Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Chap 4 “The Ancient Ones: The Anasazi and their Neighbors.”
Darcie McMahon and William Marquardt, The Calusa and their Legacy. (Selections)
William Marquadt, “The Emergence and Demise of the Calusa” in Brose, Cowan and Mainfort eds. Societies in Eclipse (2001) (reprint) Michael Mosely, The Incas and Their Ancestors (Selections)
Charles Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, Chap. 6 “Cotton (or Anchovies) and Maize.”


  • The Mystery of Chaco Canyon.(Selections)
  • The Domain of the Calusa. (Selections)
  • Digging for the Truth: The Real Temple of Doom (Selections.)

Week 10 Nov. 13. Break. Use this week to get ahead with reading. There will be a short writing assignment due on Nov. 20.

Week 11. Nov. 20. Meanings of Myth

Diverse ways (psychological, structural, social, astronomical etc.) of explaining the origin, function and persistence of myth making. Special attention to the Trickster figure. 

Challenge: Chap. 15. “Myth and Mind: With a Note on the Fragmentation of Trickster.”

Fox. Reproduction and Succession, Chap. 4 “The Virgin and the Godfather.”
Claude Lévi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology, Chap 11 “The Structural Study of Myth.”
Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God (selections)

Film clip: Shane, Excalibur, Ferris Bueler’s Day Off

Week 12. Nov. 27. Mind in Adaptation

What happens when we think? Why does it happen that way? What is rationality?

Challenge. Chap. 14 “Prejudice and the Unfinished Mind.”

Commentaries in Psychological Enquiry 3:2 1992 (reprints)

Film clip: Star Trek (Plato’s Stepchildren) 

Week 13. Dec. 4. Religion and Magic

1. Frazer and the explanation of religion/magic. Comparative and cross-cultural methods.

Challenge, Chap. 10. “The Golden Bough and the Descent into Anthropology.”

Sir James Frazer, The Golden Bough (selections)
Using: T. H. Gaster ed. The New Golden Bough
Mary Douglas, Sabine MacCormick eds. The Illustrated Golden Bough

On the comparative method:
Fox: “Lewis Henry Morgan and the Reason for Anthropology.” (disk: introduction to Morgan’s Ancient Society.)

On the cross-cultural method:
E. B. Tylor, “On a Method of Investigating the Development of Institutions.” JRAI 1888 (reprint) (the original)
Whiting, Kluckhohn and Anthony, “The Function of Male Initiation Ceremonies at Puberty.” In Newcomb and Hartley eds. Readings in Social Psychology 1958 (reprint)
Or: Whiting, JWM, “The Effects of Climate on Certain Cultural Practices” in Goodenough ed., Explorations in Cultural Anthropology (1964) (reprint)
Whiting and Child, Child Training and Personality, Chap. 8 “A Test of Negative Fixation.”

2. Explaining the Ten Commandments. Sympathetic magic and the flood.

Fox: “Which Ten Commandments?” In Society (Jan.-Feb. 2006) Reprint, and expanded version on disk.

Film clip:

  • The Wicker Man
  • Excalibur
  • Apocalypse Now
  • The Ten Commandments

Week 14. Dec. 11. Intuition, Stereotypes and Reason

A full circle to Totemic and other social categories. Why are totems so often taboo? How do we remember? Why do we dream? The evolution and role of emotions.

Search Chap. 8. “The Passionate Mind: Brain, Dreams, Memory, Evolution and Social Categories.”
Fox: Red Lamp Chap. 7. “The Matter of Mind.”

E. Durkheim and M. Mauss, Primitive Classification (R. Needham trans. See his introduction)

Week 15. Dec. 18. Roundup: The Big Picture

How does the explanation of the past and present contribute to our assessment of the human future? I’ll give the pessimistic view; you prepare the optimistic one.

Search Chap. 10. “Consciousness Out of Context: Evolution, History, Progress and the Post-Post-Industrial Society.”

Fox The Violent Imagination (selections inc. “The Trial of George Washington” “What the Hunter Saw” “Design Failure: a Post Tutorial Dialogue” “Psalm One Hundred and Fifty One” etc. (Copies will be distributed.)
Fox: Conjectures and Confrontations “What the Shaman Saw: Incident at Lascaux circa 15,000 B.P.” (reprint)

Calusa Indian Cat-Headed  Figure