The Tribal Imagination: Civilization and the Savage Mind by Robin Fox:
I have just finished reading The Tribal Imagination: Civilization and the Savage Mind by Robin Fox.  (Harvard University Press, Cambridge 2011)  It is an impressive accomplishment and I highly recommend it.  Be warned that this is not your usual contemporary book.  Mostly nowadays an entire book will be so repetitious that a single paragraph would carry the entire burden.  This book is heavily freighted with thought.  They don’t hardly make ‘em like that any longer. 

The key perspective of the book is that humans evolved over a long time and the conditions under which evolution forged our brains and minds were very different from the post industrial conditions so many of us live under today.  And yet the time since we left our traditional roots has been so brief that there has not been time for evolution to make changes that might fit us more for urban life. 

But the book is much more than that.  It goes down intellectual avenues that I would have assumed would be familiar to me, having received an Ivy League liberal arts education.  I’ve heard of them, but have never had even a brief formal introduction to many.  He analyzes them and puts them in perspective. 

He does not emphasize but goes along with the received wisdom that inbreeding suppresses genetic diversity and is a Bad Thing.  Maybe, say I, to a degree.  But inbreeding also expresses recessive genetic traits and any which are truly deleterious are expressed and effectively selected against.  And the longer the inbreeding, the more thorough this cleansing of the gene pool.  And maybe there is a long term advantage of keeping genes together so they can be fine tuned against each other.  But that is only a cavil.  In fact on page 93 he gives a law of how human groups fragment in a way that controls genetic diversity, and even – knock me over with a feather – calculates just how far kinship can decline before a group is likely to subdivide.  It turns out that 4th cousin is just about the limit, spot on with the Icelandic data on fertility. 

Of course Professor Fox is pretty much the world’s authority on kinship and marriage, in fact his first book and still the most important book in all the study of humans, is about just that.  He understands better than anyone the intricacies of how marriages have been adjusted to a given level of kinship. 

It is a delight to read, but I found myself getting rather giddy.  I found myself repeating, “And if you don’t maintain that kinship, your population will die out.”  It was like looking at a landscape already so complex as to take all of your mental powers to visualize it and then having that landscape illuminated from two different directions – No, my analogy is falling apart.  It is already illuminated from multiple directions, I am only adding one – and trying to visualize the result. 

I shall not attempt to review the book properly.  What can you say about a book that includes a chapter, “Shellfish and Civilization” and then makes it stick?  I only applaud.

And of course I fervently pray that the professor will one day glance back at his work and add an element like, “There is an overwhelming biological need to maintain this kinship.  Without it fertility fails and extinction supervenes.”  The proof is already in the literature. 

He does seem to ask all the right questions.  One powerful question is this: the transition from a kinship regime with a closed mine to a citizen regime with an open mind is rare and rewards us greatly in terms of material well being.  Why does there seem to be a constant urge to return to the old Closed Mind?  Well I dare say it is because only the Closed Mind makes babies in the long run. 

We can have it all, of course, the stability and emotional gratification of a traditional society along with the entertainment and crass wealth of a developed one.  It just demands that we understand the fertility kinship link.  I mean we can have it if there is still time, of course.

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