The Search for Society
By Robin Fox
Publisher: Rutgers University Press
Review Author: Richard J. Morris
Robin Fox’s The Search for Society is a collection of the author’s essays, most of them previously published. This patchwork of intellectual history, theory, fact, and speculation is not so much a systematic introduction to Fox’s thought as his Darwinian Manifesto. Anthropologists, he proclaims, have gone astray, and he alone of the tribe has had the courage to say so. Instead of focusing resolutely on the central question — What is man? — his colleagues, led by Durkheim and other Pied Pipers, have wandered off into the mists of liberal ideologies when they should have marched to the uncompromising drum of science. Worse, they have beguiled us with utopian visions which ignore the central fact of human nature: We are the product of natural selection.
As Fox sees it, a straightforward Darwinian approach to human society and culture bypasses the philosophical acrobatics of Hobbes, Locke, or Rousseau. We are social because we have evolved as social animals. There is no great mystery here; baboons, wolves, and prairie dogs have done as much. What makes us unique is culture — not because we alone have had the talent to invent it, but because it has proved adaptively advantageous in our diaspora from the African heartland. What most anthropologists have refused to see is that culture is not a catalog of lifestyles; it is what has made our survival as a species possible. Culture is an instrument of natural selection: It is biological.
Fox does not make the mistake, often laid at the door of sociobiologists, of postulating the existence of cultural chromosomes: There is no gene for presiding over the NEA. Instead, he claims that once man became dependent on culture for survival, “mutation and natural selection operated to improve the organ most necessary to cultural behavior, the brain.” The obvious conclusion is that man’s large and efficient brain, the begetter of folkways beyond number, is itself begotten of culture. The thought is enough to send orthodox anthropologists screaming into the night.
The image of being the bad boy of social science is one Fox fosters in his Introduction, a model of self-serving insulation from criticism. Anthropology is, he declares, so dogmatically ideological that his opponents are incapable of rationally discussing his position. Such a pre-emptive silencing of debate has been called by logicians “poisoning the wells.” Fox then disposes of the logic-chopping fraternity with a schoolboyish grin, confessing to an incorrigible inclination since grammar school “to let cleverness of writing substitute for soundness of argument.” Truly, a disarming frankness: the fallacy of Warts-and-All.
Indeed, much about this book is delightfully boyish. There is the enthusiasm with which Fox regularly jumps from suggesting something may be true to his unsupported statement a few lines later that it must be so. There is his impatience with fuddy-duddy philosophers who complicate life by intellectualizing it; life is meant to be fundamentally unproblematic. His imagination is vivid: His account of what Paleolithic men were, or were not, thinking 40,000 years ago is incredible.
Moreover, analogy is his natural element. As Fox sees it, “For many animals killing is reasonable within the framework of their experience.” Essentially — cerebrally — says Fox, we men are Upper Paleolithic hunters: Our naturally selected brains haven’t changed since the Late Stone Age. As such, killing, aggression, and co-operation come naturally to us, as does making up rules to regulate these innate propensities. Back in our paleolithic Eden, when natural selection held untrammeled sway in our lives, we did what we ought to do: We copulated, and hunted and killed both animals and men in order to survive. There was an immediacy to life that we have lost. Our original sin, it seems, was pride of the imagination: We have invented prodigious fantasies of civilization replete with swarming humanity, bumbling bureaucracies, and interfering intellectuals. The inhumanity of killing, sadism, and evil in general consists, Fox claims, not in these innately human behaviors, but in the scale on which we now perpetrate them. In the appropriate context for which they were designed, there is nothing inhuman about them. Indeed, he says, the sooner we stop talking about good and bad, the better.
An unwillingness to accompany Fox into the distant past should not prevent our relishing the book’s flavor of more recent times, gaslit though they be. In the Epilogue to his Time Machine (1895), H.G. Wells prefigured Fox’s fin de siecle pessimism. Like Fox, Wells’s time-traveler “thought but cheerlessly of the Advancement of Mankind, and saw in the growing pile of civilization only a foolish heaping that must inevitably fall back upon and destroy its makers in the end.” Throughout Fox’s quest for a biosocial “morality” one finds a characteristically 19th-century faith in science — that scientism which believes that the truth or falsity of philosophical and moral statements must rest on scientific statements — and an equally 19th-century devotion to “healthy” violence and aggression. This is indeed a book for the 90s, but of a century ago.
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Tate was a critic, poet, novelist, and intellectual of the first rank. Neglect of his work today is due in large part to his conversion to Catholicism.