Anthropologies as stories of life

I’ve recently reviewed Tim Ingold and Gisli Palsson’s Biosocial Becomings (2013) for Current Anthropology. The draft text of my review is reproduced here. (Please cite from published version, due June or August 2015).

Biosocial Becomings continues the editors’ broader project(s) of overhauling sociocultural anthropology’s conception of its relationship with biology (defined broadly as an account of all of life) while rejecting the colonizing moves of reductionist biologisms (evolutionary psychology and its various genetic relatives). Although anthropologies of all stripes (and social sciences and humanities more generally) are now deconstructing the opposition between biology and culture, nature and nurture, and related dichotomies that have defined their disciplines’ scope and limits, Ingold and Palsson have been dismantling such borders for decades (e.g., Ingold 1983). They find allies for their holistic project in a motley crew of heterodox biologists and philosophers whose main contention is announced in the book’s first sentence: “NeoDarwinism is dead.” (1). Everything in their project flows from this claim and its echoes throughout the book, so I herein set out its basis for the uninitiated.

Ingold has long been acutely aware of neo-Darwinists’ “disregard . . . for the historical specificity of their provenance” (Ingold 2000a:2). Darwinism developed in the sociohistorical context of mid-nineteenth-century Europe, amid the novel observations of natural philosophers and urgent concomitant questions that birthed this radical turn. The contemporary perspective, subscribed to both outside and inside the academy, was of God-the-creator; this was a reassuringly simple account of omnipotent control, causal agency, and design of a fixed world (and all life within it). Darwin and Wallace were both all too wary of this wider theistic context and its more detailed elaborations by natural philosophers (e.g., Owen 1849). It sat uneasily with recent observations of fossils and apparent extinction, continuity between species, and change in life forms and environments over time. In Darwin and Wallace’s radical account, causal agency and design were now located instead within a slowly shifting nature as selector of variant life forms, and fixity was jettisoned. It was a striking recapitulation of the simple omnipotence of the monotheistic account, and this simplicity lent much to its adoption.

Mendel’s later findings were initially thought to challenge Darwinism, but both were reconciled in the modern synthesis (Huxley 1942), now more commonly “neo-Darwinism,” wherein natural selection was reconfirmed in the lead causal role and corresponded to (in Mendelian-type inheritance) by a statistical population of mutable genes. In a prominent offshoot of neo-Darwinism (the main target of Ingold and Palsson), conflated statistical and molecular genes (Moss 2003) have become tangible entities and, reflecting selection’s efficacy (Gould 2002), are themselves now hustling, strategizing, and becoming increasingly hegemonic (Falk 1991) in their control of life forms. Here then, organisms become merely genetically determined vehicles, accompanied by statements such as Dawkins’ “This is a truth which still fills me with astonishment. Though I have known it for years, I never seem to get fully used to it” (Dawkins 1976:ix). This variety of neo-Darwinism takes on a scientistic status for many adherents (detailed in Ingold’s chapter), escaping its sociohistorical context, becoming instead a transcendental truth, more aptly standing in the place of the monotheistic account and its omnipotence.

As the ultimate force acting on these genes, the natural selection concept has become so central to neo-Darwinism’s focus as to effectively crowd out broader perspectives on life. The Price equation (Price 1970) encapsulates this posture. Its remarkable abstract(ing) simplicity in describing the statistical essence of selection is achieved by parsimoniously bracketing off from consideration all other conditions (or contexts) of and for life and its development. In doing so, it necessarily lacks dynamic sufficiency (Lewontin 1974; Frank 1995). “In the development of a real science about a real and practical world, it is impossible and undesirable to search for an exactly sufficient description. The nature of the physical universe is such that the change of state of every part of it affects the change of state of every other part, no matter how remote.” (Lewontin 1974:8).

The simplifying perspective so attractive to selectionists is, at the same time, precisely the perspective that occludes attention to the plural, messy, contingent, contextual, relational, and distinctive conditions of living organisms and their development. This illustrates the different explanatory focuses of more reductionist and essentializing accounts of lifeworlds and more holistic and emergent accounts (Ruse 1989). Meanwhile, since Darwinism’s origins, new observations and different conditions (e.g., the ongoing mass extinction of lifeworlds) have emerged and led to different questions and priorities. In short, the perspective, the field of view, and the pressing questions have moved. The narrow selectionist perspective is no longer a satisfying or illuminating account of all of life.

This brief genealogical sketch, elements of which are found throughout the book, of course resonates with the epistemological stance of (among many others) Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Ortega y Gasset, Sapir, Bachelard, Canguilhem, Kuhn, Foucault, and Gibson (let us approximately refer to it as one of perspectivism, in the Nietzschean sense). Since this stance also overlaps considerably with philosophical and cultural relativism, it is one very familiar to sociocultural anthropologists.

Ingold and Palsson’s approach then learns from perspectivism(s) and encourages an anti-essentializing, holistically conceived, emergent, processual, and always-already-relational account of the messy, entangled, co-constructive contexts of developmental systems of life. It is this that they refer to as “biosocial becomings.” Their approach is consonant with the epistemology of developmental systems theory (DST) as well as other systems-inspired approaches (Bateson 1972; Deleuze and Guattari 1987). Oyama (1985; Oyama et al. 2001) reflexively describes DST as not in fact a theory, but modes of approaches and sets of perspectives. In short, an undisciplined, motley crew. It is these perspectives that the book recommends to sociocultural anthropologists to rebut reductionist neo-Darwinism.

The common themes of DST (Oyama et al. 2001) correspond to all that has been occluded; life processes necessarily go on in and through a context of many interacting factors, an ensemble, all entwined with and co-constructing each other. The continuation through time of these interacting factors (some of them themselves organisms) makes them part of the inheritances of other organisms developing in the system (inheritance is not just genes). Since all these factors interact to construct the organism (itself permeable, entwined, and relational), there is effectively distributed influence on development (thus genes cannot be privileged as the only locus of control). The distinction between life in developmental flow and life in evolutionary flow breaks down somewhat, since, in both cases, it is the total entwined system of life (at once the developmental system and the environmental niche) that moves forward through time.

DST’s pluralist account of the various intertwined influences on development that can usefully be considered as inheritances includes (as well as traditional genes) epigenetics, niche construction, and behavioral, cultural, and symbolic factors (e.g., Jablonka and Lamb 2005; Oyama et al. 2001); these are glossed as “multiple inheritance.” Biology/culture, nature/nurture, and other essentializing dichotomies dissolve; all such separate factors are inherently entwined aspects of the developmental system. Furthermore, because the evolution of regularly arising developmental capacities (“traits” in traditional accounts) of organisms can (conceptually) and does (observably) sometimes occur without any genetic change (e.g., the chapters by Ingold, Fuentes, and Ramirez), the central claim of gene-centric neo-Darwinists— that genetic change is the necessary correlate of evolutionary change—is immediately refuted.

What further themes does the book’s approach open up that resonate with ongoing discussions of sociocultural anthropologists? The diverse and fertile chapters contain several common strands: rejecting essentialized natures and emphasizing the always-in-process, interactive, contingent co-construction (development and ontogeny) of organisms’ capacities highlights the processual and relational aspects of becoming human (inspiring this volume’s title). These harmoniously resonate with, for example, accounts of Amerindian ontologies, such as those of Gow, Viveiros de Castro, Descola, and related discussions of processual becoming, such as nurture kinship (Holland 2012), as well as broader ontological themes in anthropology (e.g., Viveiros De Castro 2012). Several of the chapters here explore resonance with Bourdieu’s accounts of practice. These processual and relational themes are most prominently explored in the chapters of Ingold, Palsson, Praet, Vaisman, and Mangiameli.

The de-essentializing of once-familiar dichotomies invites comparison and contrast with the work of Haraway, Franklin, Rabinow, Rose, and Strathern (chapters by Palsson, Chatjouli, Vaisman, and Al-Mohammed). Resonance with multispecies ethnography is also discussed in several chapters (Palsson, Vaisman, and Praet). Finally, phenomenological questions are productively taken up here, especially by Al-Mohammed and Palsson (see also Ingold 2000b, 2001). Several other resonances are explored in the book’s diverse contributions, all of which are innovative and fertile testaments to the productivity and pluralism of the core approach. Fuentes and Ramirez’s chapters discuss DST’s implications for biological anthropology. As Fuentes notes, stepping from simplifying abstractions into a more holistic approach “adds an extra layer of complication” (50) that may entail new methodological habits for some biological anthropologists at the same time that it poses new and potentially productive questions. Fuentes’s research has been at the forefront of exploring these questions in biological anthropology.

For all anthropological traditions, Palsson reiterates that “Such a broad perspective should not be seen as a fixed baseline or an end in itself but as a starting point for further work, as a tentative framework inviting novel conceptual and theoretical development and elaboration” (248). I have every expectation that such elaborations will prove yet more fertile as Ingold and Palsson’s project moves forwards. Their statement “Neo-Darwinism is dead” should be considered an invitation to life.


Bateson, Gregory. 1972. Steps to an ecology of mind: collected essays in anthropology, psychiatry, evolution, and epistemology. New York: Ballantine Books.

Dawkins, Richard. 1976. The selfish gene. London: Oxford University Press.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. 1987. A thousand plateaus: capitalism and schizophrenia. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minneapolis Press.

Falk, Raphael. 1991. The dominance of traits in genetic analysis. Journal of the History of Biology 24(3):457–484.

Frank, Steven A. 1995. George Price’s contributions to evolutionary genetics. Journal of Theoretical Biology 175:373–377.

Gould, Stephen J. 2002. The structure of evolutionary theory. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Holland, Maximilian. 2012. Social bonding and nurture kinship: compatibility between cultural and biological approaches. North Charleston, SC: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

Huxley, J. 1942. Evolution: the modern synthesis. London: Allen & Unwin.

Ingold, Tim. 1983. The architect and the bee: reflections on the work of animals and men. Man 18(1):1–20.
———. 2000a. The poverty of selectionism. Anthropology Today 16(3):1–2.
———. 2000b. The perception of the environment: essays on livelihood, dwelling and skill. Abingdon, VA: Routledge.
———. 2001. From complementarity to obviation: on dissolving the boundaries between social and biological anthropology, archaeology and psychology. In Cycles of contingency: developmental systems and evolution. Susan Oyama, Paul E. Griffiths, and Russell D. Gray, eds. Pp. 255–279. Cambridge,
MA: MIT Press.

Jablonka, Eva, and Marion J. Lamb. 2005. Evolution in four dimensions: genetic, epigenetic, behavioral, and symbolic variation in the history of life. Vol. 5. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Lewontin, Richard C. 1974. The genetic basis of evolutionary change. Vol. 560. New York: Columbia University Press.

Moss, Lenny. 2003. What genes can’t do. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Owen, Richard. 1849. On the nature of limbs. London: John Van Voorst.

Oyama, Susan. 1985. The ontogeny of information: developmental systems and evolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Oyama, Susan, Paul E. Griffiths, and Russell D. Gray. 2001. Introduction: What is developmental systems theory? In Cycles of contingency: developmental systems and evolution. Pp. 1–11. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Price, George C. 1970. Selection and covariance. Nature 227(1):520–521.

Ruse, Michael. 1989. Do organisms exist? Integrative and Comparative Biology 29(3):1061–1066.

Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. 2012. Cosmologies: perspectivism. HAU: Masterclass Series 1:45–168.


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