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University of Manchester

There can surely be little doubt that human society differs quite markedly
from the societies of other animals, including even those species of primates
most closely related to us. Yet the clarification of these differences has been
continually impeded by conceptual ambiguities surrounding the very notions
of ’society’ and ’sociality’. Many biologists, working within a framework of
modem evolutionary ecology, have posited a basic continuity from non-human
to human sociality, taking social organization in both instances to comprise
observable patterns of interaction, co-operation and communication among
individuals of the same species. These patterns of behaviour are understood to
be the phenotypic expression of genetically coded, heritable dispositions
established in the course of evolutionary phylogeny through the mechanism of
variation under natural selection. Thus sociality, in this view, is regarded as an
inbuilt property of individuals, though one that is ’brought out’ only in the
presence of conspecifics. As Mary Maxwell has written, in a characteristically
forthright statement, ’society is not really external to the animal. It is not an
abstract form, superimposed on its members. Rather, it is carried around
biologically (i.e. genetically) in each individual’ (1984: 135). Note the confla-
tion of biology with genetics; this is a matter to which I shall return.
Social anthropologists, by and large, categorically reject such appeal to
biological imperatives - at least when it comes to humans. They have jealously
guarded the study of ’society’ as their special preserve, even doubting whether
the organization of non-human populations deserves to be called ’social’ at all.
Social relations, they say, presuppose the emergence of rules, embodied within
a framework of institutions. Moreover such rules depend upon a distinctively
human mode of reflexive self-awareness, which is also taken to be a precon-
dition for ’culture’ in its widest ethnographic sense. No-one has put this point
more forcefully than Meyer Fortes, in his posthumously published Rules and
the emergence of society:

Society could not, I suggest, have emerged or have continued to exist without
the agency of rules, simply because without rules there can be no ongoing
social relations or language-kind forms of communication; but neither could
society have emerged without the cultural equipment that distinguishes man
from the rest of the animal world (1983: 34).

And yet to pursue the point to its logical conclusion is to collapse the very
distinction between society and culture, which appear to merge into a single
domain of ’sociocultural’ phenomena that have in common, as Sahlins insists,
that they are ’composed and organized by [symbolic] meaning’ (1976a: 117).
It follows that the essence of sociality lies not in patterned interaction but in
its constitution within a matrix of significant symbols.
I shall begin by pursuing the implications of this latter view, as a prelude to
showing why I believe it to be untenable. That does not mean, however, that I
intend to endorse the sociobiological alternative. To the contrary, my criticisms
are levelled at the very logic that sets up these biological and anthropological
views as alternatives in the first place. This is the logic of a discourse,
commonly known as ’Western’, whose ontological foundation is a separation
between subjective and objective domains, the first an inner world of mind and
meaning, the second an outer world of matter and substance. It is of course this
separation that underwrites the conventional academic division of labour
between the ’humanities’ and ’natural science’ and, within the discipline of
anthropology, between its ’sociocultural’ and ’biological’ wings. When social
or cultural anthropologists accuse their biological counterparts of such sins as

’reductionism’, or when, conversely, biological anthropologists accuse their

’sociocultural’ counterparts of adhering to a mistaken assumption of qualita-
tive human uniqueness, the fundamental premisses on which their respective
positions are established, and which are shared by both sides, are merely
reproduced. My own view is that the only way to escape from these sterile
cycles of accusation and counter-accusation is to dissolve the received subject-
object dualism of Western thought, and this means - at least for anthropologists

taking seriously what many non-Western peoples (as well as a persistent

counter-current within Western philosophy itself) have been trying to tell us
for some time.

Organisms and Persons

Let us consider, then, the orthodox position within social and cultural
anthropology, represented in Fortes’s statement, cited above, that ’man’ is to
be distinguished from the rest of the animal world by ’culture’, or in Sahlins’s
assertion that ’the creation of meaning is the distinguishing quality of men -

the &dquo;human essence&dquo; of an older discourse’ (1976a: 102). The existence of

other animals, it is supposed, is wholly encompassed within the physical world
of nature. By contrast, the ’human essence’ of which Sahlins speaks overtops
this world, placing its possessors on a pedestal from which ’nature’ can be
appropriated conceptually, and even transformed physically, in accordance
with their own frameworks of meaning. Implied here is a principle of ranking,
but this is not a ranking within animality, equivalent to that by which we
continue to distinguish between ’higher’ and ’lower’ animal forms. The human
is not said to be higher than the orang-utan as the latter is higher than the
sea-urchin; it is said, rather, to be higher than the animal. The ranking, in other
words, is of humanity over animality (Ingold 1988a: 3-6). Moreover, this
principle of ranking invades the human being itself, splitting it irrevocably into
two mutually exclusive parts: the organism and the person. Whereas the former
is assumed to be biologically ’given’, specified by those features by which it
is identified as an individual of the species Homo sapiens, the latter is situated
on a supra-biological or ideal plane of existence, one that comes into being

through the merging of human individuals into higher-order collectivities. This

split between the organism and the person has a number of implications.
First, since the locus of human distinctiveness is said to lie in that part - the
person - by which the human being exceeds the organism, the human organism
itself appears to be essentially undifferentiated from organisms of other
species. Persons, in conventional social anthropological parlance, are con-
stituted within culture; organisms are constituted within nature: by transferring
all qualitative distinction onto the boundary between culture and nature,
differences within nature are reduced to those of degree. This position is really
no different from that of the biologist who insists, in an idiom more redolent
of the classical doctrine of the Great Chain of Being than of modem evolution-
ary theory, that nature is continuous (natura non facit saltum), and that humans
differ from other animals in degree rather than kind. To present just one recent
example: on the basis of a comparison between the technical accomplishments
of free-ranging chimpanzees and human hunter-gatherers (Tasmanian Aborig-
ines), McGrew draws the conclusion that ’the difference is far from wide, and
the gap between hominid and pongid is narrow and bridgeable’ (1987: 256).
Contrary to impressions, however, this is not to demolish the absolute bound-
ary that separates ’us’ from other creatures. It is merely to draw it in a different
place. Human hunter-gatherers join the chimpanzees as inhabitants of a pristine
world of nature and as the proper objects of detached scientific observation.
’We’, then, are scientists, whose emancipation from nature permits us to make
such observations. To put it crudely: the difference between the chimpanzee
and the hunter-gatherer is made into one of degree by turning that between the

hunter-gatherer and the scientist into one of kind. Whereas the social or cultural
anthropologist extends spectators’ privileges to all humans, and seeks to
investigate the variety of resulting worldviews (of which the ’Western scien-
tific’ is but one), the biologist is inclined to restrict them to those humans who
are ’culturally’ - as opposed to ’anatomically’ - modem, and equipped by
rational science to investigate the variety of organic forms in nature (of which
the human is but one). Against the anthropocentrism of the former is ranged
the ethnocentrism of the latter, but the underlying logic, which holds up a
continuous nature to the discriminating gaze of a disembodied reason, is just
the same.

A second implication of the split between the organism and the person is that
the development of the latter comes to be regarded as a process of socialization
or enculturation. Whereas the organism ’just grows’, undergoing its own
autonomous development, the person is ’made’ - very much as we might say
an artefact is made - through the imposition of a specific cultural form upon a

pre-existing and undifferentiated material substrate (consisting, in this case, of

the human organism). Becoming a person, realizing one’s essential humanity,
is then a matter of rising above or exceeding the condition of the organism, and
thereby of finding oneself in the predicament that Collins (1985: 75-6) char-
acterizes as ’body plus...’. Notice how this account of development differs from
that which we are inclined to give for any other animal. The baby elephant, we
say, is - right from the start - all elephant: it does not ’become elephant’ as it
develops because it already is one. In this respect, its destiny or life-course is
already laid out: as Radcliffe-Brown long ago observed, in a classic but much
maligned attempt to draw a thoroughgoing analogy between the processes of
organic and social life, ’a pig does not become a hippopotamus’ (1952: 181).
Yet of the infant of our own species, we tend to suppose that although, being
of human parents, it is from the start (i.e. ’biologically’) a human being, and
can never be anything other than that, nevertheless it is so far short of being
human that its condition may be regarded as on a par with other creatures which
never make it beyond the animal level of existence. The infant, we say, becomes

human; moreover becoming human is a matter of becoming a human of one

kind rather than another, of adopting a particular, culturally defmed life-course.
’One of the most significant facts about us’, writes Geertz, ’may finally be that
we all begin with the natural equipment to live a thousand kinds of life but end
in the end having lived only one’ (1973: 45). This view, that the essence of
humanity lies in cultural diversity, is again fully concordant with the position
of the biological anthropologist who would see his task as the search for human
universals, namely those features (or more accurately, developmental poten-
tials) that are common to human beings as members of a species and which

may therefore be regarded as the products of a process of evolution by natural

selection (Hinde 1991: 591-5).
Following from this is a third implication of the split between organism and
person: the organism - whether human or non-human - appears to be specified
by those attributes contributed to individuals at the point of conception, i.e.
carried in ’genes’. For the non-human animal, which is presumed to be all
organism, this specification lays down the total set of developmental possi-
bilities. For the human being, part organism, part person, the organic specifi-
cation merely establishes the prerequisites for the acquisition of personhood.
It is not a programme for development but a programme for acquiring one:
humans, it is said, are ’programmed to learn’ (Pulliam and Dunford 1980).
Since what is acquired is precisely that component by which the human being
exceeds the organism, coming as it does from an exterior source in society, the
organic component is necessarily given in advance. By this logic, ’biology’,
having to do with the constitution of living organisms, is reduced to ’genetics’,
the calculus of inherited variation. Once more, we find that biological anthro-
pologists are quite ready to connive in this conflation of biology and genetics
(both of them substituting, interchangeably, for the much more venerable
concept of ’human nature’, see Ingold 1990: 209-11). For insofar as the human
being is identified as an individual of a species that has undergone an evolution
in the widely accepted biological sense of the term, through variation under
natural selection, it must be completely specifiable, like any other organism,
independently of the relational context of its development. In other words, it
must be possible to state what an ’anatomically modem human’ is, without
regard to the manifold ways in which such humans become.
In short, biological anthropologists have as great a commitment as have
social and cultural anthropologists to the ideas (a) that the human organism
differs only in degree from organisms of other species; (b) that it forms an
underlying substrate for cultural variation, and (c) that it can be specified in
terms of units of inherited variation. On the one hand, these ideas allow the
social or cultural anthropologist to lay claim to an autonomous area of study,
constituted by the varieties of personhood and subjective experience, without
denying the objective, material foundations of human existence in the natural
world. On the other hand, they enable the biological anthropologist to bring
human beings within the compass of a theory of evolution which presupposes,
but nevertheless cannot comprehend, the process whereby, at a certain histori-
cal juncture, certain humans came to be in the position of being able to
formulate it.

Social and Biological Relationships

There is one further implication of the split between the organism and the

person which is so central to my current concerns that it deserves a more

extended treatment. This has to do with the opposition that is automatically set
up between ’social’ and ’biological’ domains of human existence and relation-
ship. This, of course, is an old anthropological chestnut, which above all has
taxed the minds and ingenuity of students of kinship. Do the social relations
of kinship, they asked, have some biological foundation? Is it the very con-
cordance of the social with the biological connection that makes a relation a
kinship relation? To this, some responded by relativizing the question: biologi-
cal kinship, they said, is culturally constructed, involving folk notions of shared
substance such as blood or - latterly in our own society - magical entities
known as ’genes’. Hence, the problem for the social anthropologist is to
understand the concordance ’between social and physical [biological] kinship
as culturally perceived’ (Barnes 1961: 298, my emphasis). The classic instance
of the problem concerns the correspondence (or lack of it) between ’social’
and ’biological’ fatherhood. The biological father (genitor) contributes - or
more accurately, is said by the people to contribute - a part of the child’s

substance: his semen, for example, may be thought to bind with the mother’s
blood to form the infant’s body (e.g. Strathem 1972: 9-10, on the Melpa of
Highland New Guinea). The social father (pater), by contrast, contributes to
the child’s identity as a moral person, positioned within the categorical frame-
work of the society in question, and bound by its prevailing code of conduct.
Let us consider further the proposition ’biological kinship is culturally
constructed’. Some terms are missing from this compact formulation, and by
adding them we arrive at the following, expanded version: ’biological kinship
(as well as social kinship) is culturally constructed (rather than given in
nature)’. But if both biological and social kinship are framed within a body of
cultural ideas, then so also must be the distinction between them - if any such
distinction is made at all. The proposition can thus be rewritten, still more
explicitly, as follows: ’The distinction between biological and social kinship
is constituted within those systems of cultural meaning that human beings
impose on the physical world’. As will be evident, the very thesis of cultural
construction implies that behind the facade of ’folk conceptions’ there does
indeed lurk such a physical world, i.e. ’nature’, within which human beings
figure as ’mere organisms’. In other words, there must exist a domain of ’really
biological’, biological relations (to be studied by biologists) as distinct from
that of ’culturally perceived’, biological relations (to be studied by social
anthropologists). Challenged to reveal the nature of real biology, most anthro-

pologists remain remarkably coy. As students of society and culture, they say,
it is not their concern. But if pushed, they will tell you that biological biology
(as opposed to culturally constructed, folk biology) has to do, purely and
simply, with the mechanics of procreation.
To return to the problem of fatherhood, the logic of the argument as outlined
above would force us to distinguish between the culturally perceived, ’biologi-
cal’ father, who is supposed, in the folk conception, to have contributed
substance to the child, and the ’really biological’, biological father, who is the
actual source of the child’s paternal genes according to the modern scientific
account of how reproduction works. Long ago, Barnes (1961) proposed just
such a distinction, denoting the former as the genitor and the latter as the
genetic father (these may, of course, be one and the same individual; Barnes’s
point is that the identity of the genetic father is irrelevant for social anthropo-
logical analysis). Likewise, logically, a distinction should be made on the
maternal side between the genetrix and the genetic mother. But at this point,
doubts begin to arise. Surely no relationship could be more primordially
’biological’ than that between mother and infant. It is a relationship that begins
while the infant is still in the womb, and is carried on after birth in the normal
course of maternal nurturance. Disregarding rare applications of modem

reproductive technology, the childbearing mother is also, and necessarily, the

genetic mother. Hence it happens that the child in her womb, towards whom
she develops a growing attachment, also shares a substantial proportion of her
genes. But that does not make the mother-infant relationship a genetic rela-
tionship. It is rather a relationship that, on account of the conditions of its
development, holds between individuals who are, in fact, genetically related.
Indeed, on closer inspection, the very notion of ’genetic relationship’ may
be seen to be perfectly absurd. For genetic kinship refers, and can only refer,
to those attributional affinities that are present among individuals by virtue of
their endogenous constitution prior to their entering into any relationships at
all. Even were we to accept the sociobiological argument that individuals are
somehow predisposed to recognize their close genetic kin and to develop
positive relationships towards them, those relationships nevertheless come into
being, and are sustained, in and through the actions of the individuals con-
cerned vis-d-vis one another; they do not pre-exist those actions. In short,
genetics has to do with (quantitative) coefficients of relatedness, not with the
(qualitative) dynamics of relationship, and however each might be linked as
cause, condition or consequence of the other, they are not the same. Genetic
kinship, then, is kinship cut out from the context of relationships and ascribed
as the common property of individuals regarded as discrete, isolated and
countable entities. When we say that two such individuals are genetically

related, we are, in effect, abstracting their connection from the relational

context of their mutual involvement in the life process, and treating it as a
substantive similarity that precedes and underwrites that involvement. The
characterization of ’really biological’ kinship as genetic is thus the outcome of
a process of decontextualisation, that in turn paves the way for the transferral
of all relationships of kinship from the domain of human beings’ real, physical
existence as organisms to the supra-biological domain of their cultural con-
struction as social persons. Hence, kinship relationships are seen to be in-
scribed in the cultural form that is superimposed upon the substance of
genetically preconstituted human organisms (Sahlins [1976b: 58-60] offers an
extreme statement of this position).

How, then, are we to understand the relationship between mother and infant

(as distinct from the fact of their genetic relatedness)? Do we conclude that
since the maternal contribution of nurturance is not, in itself, a genetic con-
tribution, it must therefore fall outside the purview of ’really biological’
motherhood, and therefore that - insofar as our intuition nevertheless leads us
to regard it as biological - it can only be so in a specific, culturally perceived
sense? Such a conclusion would be tantamount to denying the biological reality
not only of the relationship between the human mother and her infant but also
of all comparable mother-infant bonds in the animal kingdom! Of what other
animal than the human would we venture to claim that the contribution of
nurture is social or cultural rather than biological? No-one would surely doubt
that the relationship between the human mother and infant is indeed social, but
is it any less ’real’, or any less ’biological’ for that? Would it not make more
sense to argue that it is both ’really social’ and ’really biological’, and as a

corollary, that the social relations of motherhood are biological? We would

find ample support for this conclusion in the ideas of many (if not most)
non-Western peoples, who simply do not recognize anything comparable to
the social/biological distinction as articulated in Western discourse. For them,
the human being is not a two-part entity - half organism, half person - but a
single, undivided and embodied centre of action and awareness, an organism-
person, that neither simply ’grows’ of its own accord, nor is ’made’ like an
artefact, but is rather grown through the active contributions of many people,
including those who may be designated as ’parents’.
It may be, of course, that different kinds of contribution are recognized,
possibly coming from different people. Thus one male may provide the semen
that combines with maternal blood to form the infant’s body. Another male, at
a later stage in the child’s life-cycle, may provide training in adult knowledge
and skills. Conventional anthropological accounts designate the former as
genitor, the latter as pater, as though the first were thought to provide the child

with nothing but a component of its material substance whilst the second acts
as the agent of society in imposing its ideal form. Native thought, however,
erects no such hard and fast distinction between these respective contributions.
Both are delivered within a context of social relationships, both are organically
embodied (the one anatomically, the other in bodily structures of perception
and action), and both furnish the child with the lineaments of a specific personal
identity - an identity constituted in toto as the enfoldment of the entire history
of his or her relationships. In this view, then, personhood is not impressed upon
the organism as form on substance; rather, the organism-person comes into
being as the crystallization of a total process of social life.
In arguing that we should take this view seriously, I am not trying to claim
that it is ’scientifically correct’ to maintain, as the Melpa do (Strathem 1972:
9), that the form of the foetus is fixed through the binding function of semen
in repeated acts of intercourse. At issue, however, is not whether this is true or
false, but whether it is conceivable. We may assert, on the grounds of a
professed knowledge of ’the facts (sic) of life’, that semen cannot possibly
have this binding function, but how many of us could back up the claim with
authoritative embryological evidence? The impossibility is rather assumed as
a ’fact’ that does not need to be demonstrated, for to question the assumption
would be to play havoc with the tidy separation of ’physical’ from ’social’
aspects of paternity - a separation which, as we have seen, is crucial to the
Western account of the genesis of the moral person. The logic of the account
requires that the physical contribution be socially invisible, that it be placed
beyond the bounds of social relationships, and hence that it be expressible in
a decontextualised, ’purely genetic’ idiom. Moreover, the notion of seminal

binding is no more fanciful than the converse doctrine of preformation, of

venerable antiquity in Western thought, according to which every embryo
starts out as a fully-formed homonculus, a miniature adult, which has only to
increase in size until, becoming too big for the womb, it is bom. As Gould
(1980: 201-6) has shown, the idea of the homonculus served for the preforma-
tionists very much as the idea of the genetic programme serves for modem
biology, in providing a complete, endogenous specification of the organism in
advance of its relationships. And this, in turn, serves to take these relationships
(including even that between mother and child - for the specification is already
present in the fertilized ovum) out of biology.
We can now return to the original proposition that ’biological kinship is
culturally constructed’. In its expanded version, elaborated above, it can be
represented as follows:

Social kinship
Culture I

Biological kinship (culturally perceived)

(really biological kinship)

On the left is an opposition between culture and nature; on the right,

subsumed under culture, is an opposition between social and biological kin-
ship. Many anthropologists are well aware that the basic contrast between
physical substance and ideal form, of which the dichotomy between biological
and social kinship is one specific instance, is deeply embedded within the
tradition of Western thought. They are rather less prepared to admit, however,
that their own notions of the cultural construction of biological reality (i.e.
’nature’) rest on precisely the same ontological foundation. The very opposi-
tion that appears on the right of the diagram as the product of a cultural
construction reappears on the left as its precondition! It is because of this, rather
than due to a fortunate accident, that what is perceived as real biology (as
studied by scientists) bears such an uncanny resemblance to the Western folk
account, and it is for this reason, too, that we have constantly to be warned
against confusing the two (Schneider 1984: 111). For the confusion threatens
to dissolve the entire argument in an infinite regress. If the opposed categories
of ’nature’ and ’culture’ are themselves cultural constructs (see MacCormack
1980: 5), then so must be the culture that constructs them, and the culture that
constructs that, and so on ad infinitum. And since, at every stage in this regress,
the reality of nature reappears as its representation, ’real’ reality recedes as fast
as it is approached.

Introducing his distinction between biological paternity according to natural

science (the genetic father) and according to cultural perception (the genitor),
Barnes noted in parentheses: ’Of course I know that in an important sense
science is part of Western culture; but I think the contrast [between genitor and
genetic father] can be easily understood’ (1961: 298). Indeed, the only way to
avoid complete, solipsistic incoherence is to do as Barnes does: to take the
separation between the world as naturally given and as culturally perceived,
and all that this implies about the form of personhood and human uniqueness,
more or less ’on trust’, and to proceed from there. But this also means taking

on trust the distinction between biological and social kinship. It follows that
where people make this kind of distinction, whatever the particular terms or
metaphors they use to talk about human procreation, they will appear to have
’got it right’ as far as their basic ontology goes. People who fail to recognize

or who
repudiate the distinction, on the other hand, will appear to have ’got it
wrong’, since their ideas flatly contradict the logic by which they are ap-
prehended by Western anthropological science as constituting a contrasting,
’non-Western’ worldview. It is thus an illusion to suppose that Western and
non-Western accounts can be compared on level terms, as alternative construc-
tions of reality, since the ontological primacy of the Western account - the
’givenness’ of nature and culture - is implicit in the very project that sets these
up as objects for comparison in the first place.

The Person and the Self

This conclusion applies not only to the comparative study of kinship rela-
tions but also, and with equal force, to that of the constitution of persons.
Indeed, ever since Mauss placed the ’problem of the person’ on the anthropo-
logical agenda, as one of investigating ’not the sense of &dquo;self ’ (moi) - but the
notion or concept that men in different ages have formed of it’ (Mauss 1985
[ 193 8] : 3), the issue has become mired in exactly the same difficulties that have
bogged down the discussion of kinship, except that the ambiguous status of
psychology rather than biology is now the source of the trouble. The raw
experience of self-awareness is assumed as a universal fact of human nature,
given for every individual - like its biological constitution as a member of the
human species - independently of its involvement in any forms of relationship.
But this level of ’really psychological’ psychology (studied by psychologists)
is said to be of no concern to the social anthropologist, whose professed
objective is to document the variety of ways in which the experiential substance
of selfhood is given form and meaning within the categories of culture. These
different cultural constructs correspond, in Mauss’s account, to the range of
alternative notions of the person, of which ’self’ is both the most recent
historically and of specifically Western provenance.
It is indeed the case that Western thought has arrived at a notion of the self
as a locus of individual experience, through its counterposition to the person
as a being formed within the moral framework of society and its relationships.
Yet this very distinction, between the individual self and the social being,
between the substance of experience and the cultural form that is imprinted
upon it, furnishes the ontological foundation for the anthropological project of
comparing alternative (Western and non-Western) cultural constructions of
psychological reality. Once again, the supposed product of a cultural construc-
tion reappears as its precondition, as shown below:

Social kinship
Person (1) -

[Person (1) {
Self (really psychological)
Biological kinship (culturally perceived)

Here, ’person’ denotes, first, the generic class consisting of alternative

cultural formations of a universal, psychologically ’given’ self-awareness; and
secondly, the corollary of one such formation, which posits the ’self’ as an
unconstructed centre of awareness awaiting formation in terms of socially
received categories. The parallel between this handling of the person/self
dichotomy, and that of the social/biological dichotomy in the analysis of
kinship, should be obvious, and it leaves us with the same dilemma. On pain
of incoherence, we have to take for granted that the sense of self really exists
as a primordial, pre-social datum of experience. Either, then, we must conclude
that in its notion of the self, Western thought has finally and uniquely come to
rest upon a fundamental psychological truth which has eluded the folk of other
cultures, or else we must assume that the same basic dualism of self and person
is universally upheld, and that Western and non-Western accounts differ only
in the idioms of its expression.
Adopting this latter premise, anthropologists might argue - just as they did
in the study of kinship - that their problem is to understand the concordance
between person and self as culturally perceived. Accordingly, the really
psychological self, like the genetic father in kinship study, could be left out of
the equation; only the culturally perceived self (analogous to the genitor) would
be relevant. And in exactly the same way that they looked for conceptual
counterparts to biological and social fatherhood (genitor and pater), anthropo-
logists might seek, and expect to find, indigenous concepts corresponding to
self and person in whatever society they chose to investigate. Thus, Harris
...views of what it is like to be human selves - the positing of humans as
centers of experience - will be found to be part of a local repertoire of
psychologistic thought and practice. Concepts of human beings as authors of
action, persons, will be found within a local body of sociologistic thought and
practice... Situated at the intersection of politico-jural, familial, ritual-moral,
and other domains of the social order, the person as a local social and cultural
construct also articulates those domains with each other (1989: 607-8, my

We may indeed expect to find specifically non-Western understandings of

human experience and agency. However, to attribute these understandings,
respectively, to contrasting psychologistic and sociologistic frameworks of
apprehension is to commit the same kind of error as was made by kinship
theorists who insisted on forcing native concepts of paternity into the terms of
a division between biology and society.

For what non-Western peoples are telling us, in their thought and practice,
is that neither as organisms nor as selves do humans come into being in advance
of their entry into social relationships. Like organisms, selves become, and they
do so within a matrix of relations with others. The unfolding of these relations
in the process of social life is also their enfolding within the selves that are
constituted within this process, in their specific structures of awareness and
response - structures which are, at the same time, embodiments of personal
identity (Ingold 1990: 222, cf. 1986: 207). Thus, personhood is no more
inscribed upon the self than it is upon the organism; rather, the person is the
self, not however in the Western sense of the private, closed-in subject
confronting the external, public world of society and its relationships, but in
the sense of its positioning as a focus of agency and experience within a social
relational field. In this sense, the self (as indeed the organism, for the self is
but the organism regarded as such a focus) is equivalent to what Lave (1988:
180) calls the person-acting, as distinct from the ’person’ of conventional
social theory. The latter, as we have seen, forms part of a comprehensive
system of mental representations for constructing the social world. And whilst
people may indeed consult such internalized representations both in authoring
their own actions and in interpreting the actions of others, they do so not as
self-contained individuals but as beings whose powers of agency are already
constituted through their direct engagement in a world of real persons and
relationships, that is as persons-acting.
With the person-acting, we can no longer leave the biology of the human
organism the biologists or the psychology of the self to the psychologists.
For the person, in this sense, is both organism and self. In other words, it is not
possible to reconcile the anthropological insight that persons are constituted
within social relationships with a biology or a psychology that treats human
bodies and minds as preformed entities, on the excuse that as anthropologists,
our concern is with manifold, culturally perceived realities rather than with the

universal, ’real’ reality of human nature which biologists and psychologists

profess to study. For that would be merely to reproduce the ontological dualism
of Western thought from which we began. Taking non-Western ideas seriously
means putting that dualism in question. For what they suggest is not an

alternative construction of the world, but the possibility of a mode of apprehen-


sion of the world quite other than that conveyed by the notion of construction.
In the following sections, I shall touch on the implications of this suggestion,
first for developmental biology, and secondly for the psychology of learning
and perception.

The Development of the Organism-Person

It is a fundamental tenet of modem biology that questions concerning
development should be kept separate from questions concerning evolution.
This is not to say that developmental and evolutionary processes are unrelated,
for as Hinde remarks, ’evolutionary change depends on changes in develop-
mental processes, and developmental processes evolve and must therefore be
adapted’ (1991: 585). Nevertheless, according to the orthodox account, the
evolution of developmental processes is not itself part of any process of
development. That is to say, the life history of every organism must be
underwritten by a unique specification which is itself given independently of
the context of its development. It is this context-free specification or, more
strictly, the frequency of its constituent elements across generations in popu-
lations of individuals, that undergoes evolutionary change. The elements of the
specification correspond, of course, to what are now called genes. Macro-mole-
cules of DNA are supposed to encode for each individual a complete pro-
gramme, which is then expressed - in ways dependent upon the conditions of
the environment - in the ontogeny of the organism.
I have intention of denying the existence of the gene, or its importance
as a regulator of physiological and developmental processes. I would point out,
however, that it is the structure of evolutionary theory, not the molecular
structure of the genome, that dictates the latter’s role as a carrier of encoded
information. The theory requires a vehicle that would import form into the
organism, and DNA seemed to fit the bill. Yet in reality, genes exist nowhere
except inside organisms, and the reactions that they set in train depend entirely
on that organismic context. Only within the particular contexts of their activa-

tion, therefore, can genes be said to specify, or to be programmatically ’for’,

anything at all. In other words, far from serving as vehicles for injecting
meaning into the organic world, genes take their meanings from the relational
properties of that world itself. More generally, organic form is not revealed or
expressed but rather originates within processes of development, and every
developmental system is constituted as a nexus of relations between manifold
reactants both within the organism (including the genome) and beyond it, in
relevant aspects of its environment (Oyama 1986: 34). Indeed the boundary
between organism and environment is itself an emergent property of a devel-

opmental process that cuts across it; hence the development of the organism is
also the development of an environment for that organism (Costall 1985: 39).
Now what goes for organisms in general also applies to human organisms
in particular. The Melpa may be wrong when they attribute to semen the
property of binding the form of the foetus. But they are certainly right, where
’scientific’ genetics is wrong, in recognizing that the human organism does not
initially receive its form as an injection, but rather that such form is generated
and conserved only within the total relational context of embryological devel-
opment. Moreover for human organisms, as indeed for organisms of many
other animal species, the presence and contribution of other individuals of the
same species is vital for normal ontogenetic development, in both pre- and

postnatal periods of the life cycle. Hence the social process of becoming a
person, the development of those powers of consciousness, self-awareness and
intentionality by means of which each one of us is able to play an active and
responsive role in shaping the lives of ourselves and others, is part of the
biological process of becoming an organism (Ingold 1990: 220). Furthermore,
this process does not stop at some arbitrary point when we are deemed to have
reached maturity. It rather carries on throughout the whole course of life -
indeed it is life.
If, contrary to the foregoing argument, we were to continue to uphold the
distinction between that part of the human being residing in the organism, and
that part contributed by society, whilst recognizing that the human organism
nevertheless undergoes development, it would be logically necessary to distin-
guish also between the field of relationships implicated in the development of
the organism and the field of relationships in terms of which the individual is
’placed’ as a member of certain wider social groupings. Yet in practice, such
a distinction cannot possibly be sustained. For example, the capacity for speech
is said to be innate, an intrinsic property of the human organism, whereas the
particular language a person speaks comes to him or her from the community,
having its source in society. The child’s acquisition of a mother-tongue,
however, is inseparable from the development of its powers of speech, and
takes place within the same relational matrix. A similar argument could be
made for the acquisition of craft skills, or what have more generally been called
’techniques of the body’ (following the classic work of Mauss 1979 [1934]:
97-123). There are different ways of walking, just as there are different
languages. But learning to walk is, in itself, learning to walk in one way rather
than another. Thus it is absurd to claim that the relationships that form the
context for the child’s learning to speak or to walk are either biological or
social. They are obviously both.

Let me suggest another example. Walking is said to be an innate skill,

whereas the ability to ride a bicycle is said to be acquired. But what, really, is
the difference between them? I do not know whether an infant, deprived of all
contact with walking caregivers, would start walking of its own accord. This
is not an experiment that one could humanely carry out. In practice, every
infant, if it is to survive at all, must from birth be surrounded by walkers. It
also exists in a terrestrial environment which affords the possibility of bipedal
locomotion and, for many vital purposes, requires it. These are constants of
the developing infant’s environment. One cannot learn to cycle, on the other
hand, without a bike to ride, and unless the environment includes roads or paths
that are negotiable by these means. These are not reliably present in every
child’s environment, though in our society they are very nearly so, to the extent
that we are inclined to think it just as natural that all children beyond a certain
age can ride as it is that they can all walk. Only the handicapped, we think,
cannot do both of these things. The point I want to emphasize through this
comparison is that the difference between these two skills, of walking and
cycling, is not that we are ’bom with’ one whereas the other is a product of
enculturation. Both skills are developed through the active involvement of an
agent - the child - in an environment that includes already skilled caregivers,
as well as a variety of objects and a certain terrain. Both, then, emerge as

capacities of the organism-person. If walking is universal whereas cycling is

not, this is because the environment of development for the former is general,
whereas the environment of development for the latter obtains only under
limited circumstances.
The same argument, moreover, would apply were we to compare the capacity
to speak with the capacity to speak, say, English (rather than Japanese or any
other tongue). Every child’s environment includes speaking caregivers, but
only for some children are they speakers of English. Indeed, it is only by
artificially separating out the more general from the more particular aspects of
the total developmental system within which the skills of speaking emerge that
’speech’ can be identified as a universal capacity as distinct from the speaking
of one language rather than another. Human children are not ’bom with’ an
innate programme (something like a ’Language Acquisition Device’) for
assimilating an acquired one (in the form of the rules of syntax for a particular
language). For speaking, like cycling, is an embodied skill,’ not the output of
an internalized system of mental rules and representations. It follows that those
differences that we are inclined to call ’cultural’, such as the ability to speak
one language rather than another, since they emerge - as personhood emerges
within the process of the development of the human organism in its environ-
ment, are themselves biological. English speakers are biologically different

from Japanese speakers, not because they have different genes, but because
they have undergone different processes of development and consequently
embody different skills.

Learning and Perception

Now to return to my earlier argument: if becoming a person is integral to
becoming an organism, then we can no longer regard the development of the
person as a process of socialization. Classically, socialization has been seen as
a matter of learning how to categorize others in the social environment as

persons of certain kinds, with distinguishable roles, and towards whom certain
forms of action are appropriate. This view rests on a theory of indirect
perception, long dominant in cognitive psychology, according to which the
perceiver cannot access the world directly, but has to figure it out, or to
’construct’ the world (including the world of other persons) from data received
through the senses. These senses, for example of vision, hearing and touch,
along with their associated neural pathways, are said to belong to the organism,
given in advance as part of its biological nature. But the classificatory schemata
by which received sense data are cognitively organized into meaningful pat-
terns are supposed to come from society. Learning - the acquisition of these
schemata - is thus separated from social life, which requires that they are
already ’in place’ as a precondition for meaningful engagement with others.
The unsocialized infant is an asocial individual, locked in a private world of
meaningless sensation.
I believe that learning is better comprehended in terms of a theory of direct
perception. Such a theory, pioneered by J. J. Gibson in his so-called ’ecological
psychology’ (Gibson 1979), regards seeing, hearing and touching not as
passive reactions of the organism to stimuli bombarding its sensory receptors,
yielding bodily sensations as the raw material for a mental constructional act
of perception; they are rather to be understood as processes of actively and
intentionally attending to the world, of seeking out what it affords for the
pursuit of current action. Learning to perceive, then, depends not on the
acquisition of a schema for constructing others, but on the acquisition of skills
for direct perceptual engagement with them (Ingold 1991 a). In other words,
learning - as Gibson puts it ( 1979: 254) - isan education of attention’, a matter
notof enculturation but of enskillment. That we learn to see, hear and touch
must be obvious to any craftsman, musician or lover. And just as the acquisition
of language is inseparable from the development of powers of speech, so it is
through the development of perceptual skills that we learn to know others in
the particular ways that we do - not indirectly, by constructing them as such,

but directly by attending to those subtle cues that reveal the nuances of our
relationships towards them. Thus the pattern of a person’s social relationships
becomes incorporated into the very structure of his or her perceptual system:
ways of perceiving are a sedimentation of a past history of direct, mutual or
inter-agentive involvement.
In short, both the skills of action (walking, speaking, craftsmanship) and
those of perception (seeing, hearing, touching) emerge within the process of
development of the organism-person. And far from furnishing the particular
individual - initially closed to the world - with a set of relationships based on
membership of more and more inclusive collectivities, this process has as its
precondition the individual’s immersion, right from birth (if not before) in a
social relational field. Every normal human infant comes into being already
situated within such a field, and as it grows older, developing its own structures
of awareness and patterns of response, so it emerges as an autonomous agent
with the capacity to initiate further relationships. Becoming a person is thus a
matter of gathering social relations into the structures of consciousness: the
movement in development, as Vygotsky put it, is ’not from the individual to
the socialized, but from the social to the individual’ ( 1962: 20, see Ingold 1990:
221 ).

Sociality and Relationships

This conclusion brings me back to our initial problem concerning the nature
of sociality. My argument leads me to reject both the orthodox biological view,
that sociality is built into the individual human biogram, as an innate property,
and the orthodox social anthropological view, that it resides in the force of the
collectivity as opposed to individual natures. In my view, sociality is the
constitutive quality of relationships (Ingold 1989: 498-9). For it is in and
through relationships that persons come into being and endure in the course of
social life. It might be helpful to think of social relations as forming a
continuous topological surface or field, unfolding through time. Persons, then,
are nodes in this unfolding, and sociality is the generative potential of the
relational field in which they are situated and which is constituted and recon-
stituted through their activities. Power, trust, domination and exchange are all
terms that refer to aspects of sociality (Ingold 1990: 221).
In a recent article, Michael Carrithers has attempted to reconcile the view of
persons as situated within nexuses of social relations with a Darwinian account
of the evolution of sociality as, in his words, ’a trait of individuals’( 1990: 192).
He does so by resuscitating the classical distinction between persons and

Darwinian theory does not concern humans as persons, but humans as orga-
nisms and... can [therefore] coexist with very different notions of the human

person constructed in different cultural and social circumstances The


distinction between person and organism, in other words, accommodates the

claim of sociocultural anthropologists that, in principle, any human organism
can participate in any social or cultural arrangement, while it leaves room for
the biologists’ principle that humans, too, have arisen through natural selection
(1990: 192).
I believe this view to be quite fundamentally mistaken, since it allows the
participation of persons in social relations only by removing the arena of such
participation from the real world in which people dwell, situating it instead in
a notional world of symbolic constructs. I do not, of course, mean to deny that

people construct notional worlds in different circumstances, but I insist that

those who would undertake such projects of construction must already dwell
in a world of other persons and relationships (Ingold 1991a: 15). One does not
dwell as an isolated individual, for dwelling involves a constitutive engage-
ment with the environment: through such engagement, the person becomes.
It is critical here to specify more what I mean by relationships.
Although relationships entail series of interactions over time between the same
persons (Hinde 1987: 24), there is more to any relationship than the sum of its
constituent interactions. The essence of the relationship is the temporal move-
ment that binds successive interactions as moments of a single process. Time,
therefore, is intrinsic to relationships. Moreover, to recapitulate an earlier
point, as relationships unfold in the course of purposive social action, they are
enfolded in the consciousness of persons, that is, in the structures of the self.
The connection between social relations and consciousness should thus be
understood in terms of unfolding and enfolding, rather than in terms of cause
and effect (Ingold 1986: 248). Otherwise put, we start with process rather than
with entities and events. That process is social life.
This view of sociality, and the theory of direct perception on which it is
founded, suggests that it is possible for persons to engage with one another on
the basis of shared perceptual experience prior to the objectification of that
experience in terms of collective representations encoded in language and
validated by verbal agreement. Thus sociality is possible in the absence of both
language and the kind of objective self-consciousness that (probably) depends
on language. Yet clearly, a crucial dimension of human social life lies in what
has been called the ’normative orientation of conduct’ (Hallowell 1960: 346),
its regulation and judgement in terms of commonly held, ideal standards. To
understand the role that this plays, we could compare social life to the practice
of a craft skill, for both involve active engagement - with the material in one

case, with persons in the other; and both depend on the fine-tuning of percep-
tual skills.
The craftsman monitors his movement so as to bring the result into line with
a preconceived image of form. But his role is not, simply and mechanically, to
execute the form, to translate a cultural image into physical reality. The
movement issues from himself as agent, not from the image, and the form of
the resulting object, however much it may resemble the image, arises out of
the movement itself. Thus there is not just one process going on, of transcrip-
tion from image to object; rather there are two going on at once: on the one
hand the craftsman’s direct, skilful engagement with the material; on the other
hand his monitoring of that engagement against an ideal standard. Likewise in
social life, only persons act. Notional collectivities such as cultures and
societies do not act, though it is sometimes a convenient shorthand to speak as
though they do (a shorthand used both by anthropologists and, often enough,
by the people they study). Thus social life, as craft activity, is not a simple
process of transcribing the ideal form of relationships into behavioural reality.
Again, two things are going on - the intentional action and the intentional
monitoring of that action (cf. Giddens 1979: 39-40) - and whilst they may take
place concurrently or interchangeably, they must always be distinguished. In
summary we have:
(i) the direct engagement of persons with one another as intentional agents in
contexts of action wherein real social relationships are generated and repro-
duced ; and
(ii) the discursive representation and interpretation of the experience of that
engagement to oneself and others (who may or may not be the same as the
ones you were immediately involved with in the action being interpreted).

This is also the difference between tacit and explicit knowledge, and between
direct and indirect perception.


What the evolutionary implications of this argument? I shall conclude


by drawing attention to four points. First, we can learn nothing about the
evolution of sociality from sociobiological approaches which purport to be as
applicable to insects as to humans, for these have nothing to say about agency
and intentionality, viewing behaviour only in terms of its reproductive conse-
quences. Granted that intentional agency is as much a feature of non-human
primate as of human life, such approaches are surely as irrelevant to primato-
logy as they are to social anthropology. They cannot therefore throw any light
on the evolution of the peculiar sociality of our own species. Secondly, the

evolution of sociality is inextricably bound up with the evolution of conscious-

ness. I do not know at what point we can begin to speak of animals as conscious

agents, but my guess would be that the most significant evolutionary division
is between vertebrates and invertebrates. There is no doubt that this is much
more important than the division between humans and apes.

Thirdly, language and related human capacities that are said to depend on
language actually evolved within a context of intense sociality. By showing
how sociality can exist before language and collective representations, we can
also show how the latter emerged in a social context. Thus sociality in this view
provides the bridge between non-human primate and human worlds which is
necessary if we are to construct a plausible evolutionary account. Finally, we
have to think again about the validity of orthodox distinctions in biology
between ontogeny and phylogeny, development and evolution. This distinction
prevents us from being able to ask questions about the relation between agency
and structure, questions that are unavoidable once we think of evolution in
terms of the transformative potentials of the relational field within which

development occurs. If being a person is an aspect of being an organism, if

social life is integral to organic life, and if cultural differences are themselves
biological, then surely history is part and parcel of the process of evolution. If
that is so, and if - as has so often been said - ’men make their own history’,
then we must surely find a room for agency in any encompassing theory of
Such a theory cannot, obviously, be one that traces patterns of persistence
and transformation to shifts in relative gene frequencies. For it will require a
conception of evolution much broader than the Darwinian one currently
embraced by the majority of biologists. Central to this conception is the
organism-person as an intentional and creative agent coming into being and
undergoing development within a context of environmental relations, includ-
ing social relations with other organism-persons, and through its actions
contributing to the context of development for those others to which it relates
(Ingold 1991b: 221). In this account, behaviour will be seen to be ’caused’ not
by genes, nor by culture, but by the agency of the whole organism in its
environment. Moreo ¡er, evolution will not be regarded as the ’product’ of a
mechanism - natural selection - that stands outside of time and change. Rather,
causation will be found to be immanent in the evolutionary process itself. To
develop an evolutionary theory that would meet these requirements is perhaps
the greatest challenge for the biology of the next century.

An earlier draft of this paper was presented at the symposium ’Mind, brain and society’
atthe annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, University
of Swansea, August 1990. A revised version was subsequently presented to the Anthropo-
logy Seminar at the London School of Economics. I am grateful to participants on both
occasions for their helpful discussion and comments.


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