June 30, 2014

Robin Fox

Dear Robin Fox:
I have read the collection of essays in your honor, The Character of Human Institutions, Robin Fox and the Rise of Biosocial Science, Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick 2014 with much joy.

It gets off to a rousing start with Lionel Tiger’s “This Guy, Fox,” the title hinting that you are a constitutional revolutionary.  He starts with reference to your book Kinship and Marriage, which goes to my own preoccupation with kinship and fertility.  The fact that acquaintances assumed from your immersion in charts and graphs that you were an engineer is delightful.  In science I say data above all.  He has other charming details while describing the naissance of your field.  And the others proceed in splendid succession.  And you have two daughters contributing; is that not a first among works of Festschrift?  Of course I enjoyed, “Understanding laughter.”  I’ve tried standup comedy and can assure you I’m not good at it.  Next time I’ll brush up on that paper.

As the pages turn it becomes ever more evident that your friends are a happy lot as well as being immensely fond of you.  How proud you must be.  Of course I was particularly taken with Adam Kuper “Darwin and Cousin Marriages in England.”  He gives the sequence.

  1. The English middle class married cousins.
  2. England became the superpower.
  3. The question arose whether this marrying with cousins might be causing infertility and insanity.
  4. The issue was studied and it was found that the reverse was true.
  5. The English stopped marrying cousins.
  6. The empire disintegrated.

I am often told, when my logic reaches some conclusion my listener detests, “Just because B followed A doesn’t mean A caused B.”  And that is certainly true.  On the other hand those who learn from history are doomed to be dragged along kicking and screaming as history’s worst decisions are repeated by those who did not learn.

All animals learn from experience.  Humans are remarkable for our ability to learn from the experience of others.  Doesn’t this mean that failing to engage questions raised by the sequence of historical events is dehumanizing?

Alan Macfarlane’s “Image of the Good Imperial Education” strikes a personal note.  My younger brother tells me we three boys were brought up to live in the Victorian age.  They’ve done well.  I should think anybody with such an education should be pretty flexible.  English boys got sent off to school at an early age.  This seems rather melancholy, but in the book there are a number of mentions of the Westermark Effect, whereby children brought up together seldom marry.  I wonder whether this ties in with the prevalence of cousin marriages. 

And it goes on and on.  It is a marvelous collection of essays by bright people for bright people.  It deserves wide notice.


Linton Herbert

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