The Geography of Descent

Tue 11 Nov 2003, 00:00

Radcliffe-Brown proposed to make social anthropology into "a natural science of society". His proposal was debated at the time he made it (in a series of lectures in the Social Science Division of the University of Chicago in 1937 and in the book of this title published posthumously in 1957). It remains controversial now, nowhere more so than in the study of kinship with which he is so closely associated. Anthropology originated in the nineteenth century in part as an effort to explain Darwin's Descent of Man (1871) in social terms. And what exactly is "descent", which has figured so powerfully in the historical development of Anthropology as a discipline based on the study of kinship? The purpose of this lecture is to explore the science and popular culture of descent, focusing specifically on Darwin and his veritable co-workers -- animal and plant breeders all over the British Isles and dominions abroad, but especially in London. The silk weavers of London's East End were among the "odd specimens of the Human species, who fancy Pigeons", as Darwin wrote to a colleague. Darwin drew on the breeders' expertise as a scientific model of nature's scrutinizing eye, while rejecting what they called "the art of propagating life", which seemed to suggest a grand design. More attention to the silk-weavers' art may help to illuminate the complexity of descent that is evident not only in the anthropological study of kinship, but also in the persistence of design-oriented bioengineering despite Darwin's emphasis on random evolution, echoed in Radcliffe-Brown's conviction that "A social system is not purposive" (1957:155).

Professor Gillian Feeley-Harnik, Professor of Anthropology, University of Michigan

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