In response to Chronicle 317, Gabriel Andrade has pointed out that Boas’ skeptical empiricism was not only a reaction to racialism but above all a rejection of the originary speculations of early evolutionary anthropologists, notably J. F. McLennan (1827-81) and Lewis H. Morgan (1818-81), the dominant figure in American anthropology in the late 19th century. These highly unparsimonious unilinear models of human evolution cast discredit on the idea of a unitary definition of the human, and along with it, the conception of anthropology as a science that takes as its point of departure an originary model of its emergence, constructed by means of the “scenic imagination.”
In his first major work on family structures, Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family (1868-70), Morgan designates the most primitive level of human organization as that of “promiscuous intercourse,” which he describes as:
Seven years later, in his magnum opus Ancient Society (1877), Morgan expands his discussion of the stages of human social evolution to include four different criteria: invention (of material techniques), government, family, and property. In the “family” category, the lowest form Morgan discusses is the “consanguine” family, in which all members of the same generation are designated by the same terms, with the men and women of my own generation called brothers and sisters, and sons and daughters indistinguishable from nephews or nieces. Extrapolating yet farther back, Morgan once again claims that
Designating the first stage of human organization by “promiscuous intercourse”–an idea inherited from McLennan, although Morgan disagrees with the latter about the place of the later stage of polyandry–suggests, against Darwin’s own admonition that sexual jealousy must have been present in humanity from the beginning, that the first humans enjoyed a Rousseauian freedom from mimetic conflict. The absence of sexual constraints at the outset allows human potential to realize itself through their gradual imposition, but this model implies that the apes from which humans evolved had no constraints of their own, although it avoids emphasizing this implication through the use of the metaphor of “infancy.” Thus early humans are described as apprentices preoccupied with learning such fundamental techniques as fire and language rather than with mutual (adult) interactions. Morgan’s only reflection on language origin appears in a footnote on p. 36, where after remarking on the current abandonment of speculation on this subject “by common consent,” he returns to Lucretius’ suggestion that the first language must have been gestural.
The “infantile” state of Morgan’s early humans spares them from Hobbesian conflict, which, as we have seen, even their “sexual promiscuity” is not presumed to provoke. McLennan, more concerned with mimetic rivalry than Morgan, had derived man’s primordial promiscuity from a complex and dubious speculation: because early humans’ survival depended crucially on (male) “braves and hunters,” they presumably engaged in female infanticide, resulting in a scarcity of women; as a consequence, their choice was either to quarrel over women and separate, or “in the spirit of indifference, [indulge] in savage promiscuity” (Primitive Marriage, Chicago 1970 , p. 68-69). But when McLennan explains this possibility by the fact that “savages are unrestrained by any sense of delicacy from a copartnery in sexual enjoyments,” he too evacuates the Hobbesian problem, suggesting that those who quarreled and separated, cut off from the group, would simply die out, leaving those less prey to mimetic desire to survive and multiply. Thus because of his failure to equate the origin of humanity with that of interdiction, McLennan is obliged to make modern humans descend from those proto-humans farthest from mimetic crisis, that is, those who are the least human.
We may sum up our analysis as follows: Rather than understanding human social order and communication as resulting from the breakdown of their proto-human forms, early evolutionary anthropology implies that our animal ancestors had neither social order nor language, yet refuses to take the next step of defining the human by their emergence. Instead, it paints a picture of originary humanity that, consciously or not, owes more to the Bible than to ethnology, in which representation and interdiction begins with the human, but not the human with representation and interdiction. Humanity emerges from its “infancy” by a gradual, unconscious process within which language and other modes of representation arise, not as solutions to ethical crises but as by-products of increasing intelligence, just as the entire sequence is a movement from darkness to light, from primitive to barbarian to civilized society. As Morgan puts it,
Franz Boas, the product of an intellectual tradition, as exemplified by his mentor Rudolf Virchow, hostile to Darwinist determinism, reacted with justified skepticism to the linear evolutionary schemas of McLennan, Morgan, and others. However guilty Boas may be of having thrown out the anthropological baby with the pseudo-evolutionary bathwater, the baby could hardly have survived weighted down with these sweeping gradualist speculations. Boas’ stricture that in human history, as a result of the diffusion of cultural elements across social boundaries, “equal causes” do not produce “equal effects” is a simple but damning indictment of Morgan’s methodological claim that a human community’s degree of savagery or barbarity is all we need to know in order to predict its family structure, technology, and mode of social organization.
It must be noted, however, that what makes cultural diffusionism a uniquely human phenomenon is that, unlike their animal ancestors, humans communicate through representations. Of course Boas was not unaware of this difference, but he felt no obligation to explore its conditions of emergence; no more than Morgan or McLennan does he conceive the origin of humanity as a scenic event. The historical role of Boas’ empiricism is to sweep away his predecessors’ imprudently content-rich models of human evolution, leaving an empty space at the origin in which the singularity of representation can be more easily perceived. In this respect, Boas may be regarded as a necessary precursor of generative anthropology.