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«CULTURAL AND ORGANIC CONCEPTIONS I N CONTEMPORARY WORLD HISTORY B y MORRIS EDWARD OPLER 0 MOST cultural anthropologists nothing is more apparent than ...»

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CULTURAL AND ORGANIC CONCEPTIONS I N

CONTEMPORARY WORLD HISTORY B y MORRIS EDWARD OPLER

0 MOST cultural anthropologists nothing is more apparent than the inT dependence of the cultural and biological in human history. To attempt

to explain culture and culture change by means of biological factors is to commit the logical and mathematical folly of accounting for something cumulative

and forever changing by a relatively constant and inert element. The truth is that Homo sapiens of the modern type has changed physically hardly a t all in the 30,000 years or more of his existence. It is not merely that organic change is always slow, that, as Rroeber has pointed out, in organic evolution one organ or structure must be laboriously replaced by another if bodily form is to be altered.’ I n man there is this further complication; his very inventions may cushion him against natural pressures which would serve to initiate organic change.

Not only has the basic physical form of the species undergone very little modification during the long period of its existence, but the modern varieties or sub-species (races) have, as archeological evidence attests, existed in their present form since prehistoric times.

Yet, during this period of inconsequential bodily change, a n amazing story of rapid cultural advance and accumulation has unfolded. This is particularly true of the last 6,000 years. From a being who possessed a few crude tools and weapons and who mastered some simple techniques, man, without the benefit of significant bodily change, has become the architect of a cultural edifice of intricate technology and detailed knowledge.

Most social scientists have quietly accepted the evidences of this disjunction between the cultural and the organic and have confined themselves to the study of culture as such without the importation of organic assumptions. But there is little evidence that political theorists, statesmen, politicians or laymen have been seriously affected by the newer point of view.

Indeed, in the years since Dr. Rroeber wrote his article (first published in

1917) calling for a social rather than an organic interpretation of man’s behavior, the gulf between social and political action and the teachings of social science has increasingly widened. After the first World War this country, together with Great Britain, refused to support a proposed racial equality clause in the Covenant of the League of Nations. The 1924 Immigration Bill, often called the “Nordic Bill,” was the supreme triumph of the organicists. It provided for total Oriental exclusion and discriminated against the peoples of southern and eastern Europe. Since 1917 there have been passed in various states, on racial or organic grounds, scores of acts of legislation penalizing porThe Superorganic (The Sociological Press, 1937), p. 3.

–  –  –

tions of our population in matters of sufferage, residence, marriage, education, and land ownership.

Before continuing, there is one subtle distinction which it may be well to explore, the narrow but real difference between the organic point of view and the racist doctrine. Perhaps the most succinct definition of the racist’s creed

has been given by Ruth Benedict :

Racism is the dogma that one ethnic group is condemned by nature to congenital inferiority and another group is destined to congenital superiority. It is the dogma that the hope of civilization depends upon eliminating some races and keeping others pure.

I t is the dogma that one race has carried progress with it throughout human history and can alone ensure future progress. I t is a dogma rampant in the world today and which a few years ago was made into a principal basis of German policy.* It would be rash to suppose that all racists agree in every detail of their belief. The particular physical types on which they choose to lavish their superlatives may differ. There are Celto-maniacs, admirers of the Alpines, and supporters of Mediterranean preeminence, as well as Nordicists. Moreover, there are ditrerences in the degree to which prominent racists have tempered their claims to fit nationalistic aims. Gobineau, the French forerunner of Hitler, was a restless globe-trotter without significant attachment to any one nation, least of all to his native France. His beloved “Aryans,” the “one family alone” responsible for “everything great, noble, and fruitful in the works of man on this earth, in science, art, and civilization” he saw scattered throughout many countries, forming a natural aristocracy wherever they lived.’ It was with this widely distributed “natural” aristocracy, rather than with any national entity that he identified himself, and he hoped for its triumph over the “rabble” everywhere. On the other hand, the principal English contributor to Hitlerism, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, definitely identified the superior “Aryans” with the Germans and greatly furthered the union of race ideas and national aspirations which has had its culmination in the formation of the “folkish” or “race-nationalist” notions of the Nazis. But these fluctuations of emphasis do not disguise the monotony of the racist theme: Always there is the recognition of a superior physical type to which past achievements are due and by which the future must be saved.





The organic view is more comprehensive than this. Its forms are more varied; its true character is more easily masked, even from its proponents; and it is therefore potentially much more dangerous. It includes the racist doctrine but it is not exhausted by it. It is possible to say that all racists are organicists but that not every organicist is necessarily a racist.

According to the organic view, which is held by millions besides Hitler and by many who fancy themselves stout foes of Hitler, progress or evolution in ’R a e, 1940, p. 153. * Gobineau, T h Inqualily of Human RMW,p. xv.

AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGIST

450 (N.S., 46, 1944 organic life results only from struggle, and natural selection is the mechanism by which it proceeds. The mind imbued with the organic conception admits of no break in the combative process when the human level is reached. Struggle, competition among men as among lower animals, is still the task and the test;

survival is still the reward. The pattern is projected as well into social and national life. Here, too, the body is the measure of a man’s worth. Privilege, leadership, and opportunity in community life must be reserved for the “best” physical specimens. The attributes of the body which are deemed most important for continuing competition between organisms-health, vigor, physical might-become the highest goals. This attitude, projected into national and international policy, promotes an aggressive and imperialistic mood, a glorification of national strength, of war and conquest, and a cynical disregard of the rights of weaker neighbors or of those who dwell in undeveloped regions.

For an example of the difference between racism and organicism I call attention to the opinions of a professor of physical anthropology in an American University.

Professor Earnest Albert Hooton of Harvard is admittedly interested in questions of race, but he firmly denies that he is a racist. Speaking over America’s Town Meeting of the Air in late 1939 he said: “We may be sure that no race has a monopoly of virtues or vices, and that there are no hierarchies of....

”4 But Hooton has also written, “.. we mankind by total racial ability.

must rid ourselves of the false prophets of cultural salvation and the witless preachers of human equality. The future of our species does not hang upon forms of government, economic adjustment, religious or social creeds, and purely environmental education. The future of man is dependent upon biology.. ”6 The organic point of view was never more boldly and more uncompromisingly put.

This theme, disaffection for culture and highest regard for the organic, is

maintained throughout the book. I n one place the author complains:

Education is cultural and not organic. We have, it is true, something called physical education-childish grownups teaching games to growing children.... Etymological mistakes may be of no importance, but biological mistakes are. Our education is a failure, our social scheme a farce, and our mechanical science a peril. Man’s culture is a vampire dummy which has sucked the organic vigor from its maker....6

I n another place but in the same vein, he writes:

We all know what this world needs-not better machines, not more cunningly devised social institutions, not the fabrication of higher ethical and social codes, but better human beings: man, woman, and child, in every stratum of its population and in every country. Human evil is not a product of human institutions, but of human.’ beings. The evil human being is the inferior biological organism...

‘Shoztld W e Ignore Racial Diferences, p. 12.

’Itnil., p. 228.

Ibid., p. 5.

Why Men Behave Like Apes, p. xxv. (I

CULTURAL A N D ORGANIC CONCEPTIONS I N HISTORY 45 1

OPLER] It is important to recognize the general acceptance of such views because a smug and self-righteous tendency has set in to exculpate ourselves from responsibility for the “thinking with blood” that has made the world a shambles.

Too many books and articles are being written which are content to find a purely German ancestry for organic thinking. It is reasonable enough to record the contributions to the historical growth.of Hitlerism of Arndt, Fichte, Ranke, List, Bernhardi, Treitschke, Nietzsche, Wagner, Van den Bruck, Spengler, and the rest. But the work of those of other nationalities in this well-plowed field must not be overlooked.

At the very time when the Germans whose views are being so roundly condemned wrote and preached, Englishmen such as Francis Galton, H. S.

Chamberlain, Carlyle, J. R. Green, Cecil Rhodes, Kipling, William Inge, Karl Pearson, and Arthur Keith were voicing sentiments which, in principle, are much the same. To the identical stream of thought Boulainvilliers, Gobineau, Lapouge, Le Bon, Broca, Maurras, Carrel, and many other Frenchmen added their offerings. Lombroso, Pareto, Ferrero, and Sergi are among the names which remind us of Italian interest in organicist and racist constructs. Even the smaller nations have important representation in the movement : Adolphe Pictet was Swiss and Hermann Wirth was a Dutchman.

An imposing array of apologists from the United States, too, have joined in building the theoretical foundations of organicism and racism. The giants of the past, Samuel George Morton, Charles D. Meigs, H. Holz, J. C. Nott, and George Gliddon were champions of slavery who sought to give the trading in blacks a scientific white-wash. Their arguments, discredited “facts,” and rationalizations have outlived them and have become part of the American tradition; echoes of what they wrote can still be heard during any session of congress today. More recently such figures as Homer Lea, Charles C. Josey, William McDougall, Henry Fairfield Osborn, Madison Grant, H. H. Laughlin, T. L.Stoddard, and C. B. Davenport have added their influence and writings to the organicist cause. This is but a meager sampling from a long list of authors in all western countries who have stood fast for biology against culture. What we need is a history of the development of the organic view which treats it as a world-wide and not as a national phenomenon.

To understand why so many thinkers, some of them able men, have been attracted to the organic camp and to organic rather than to cultural explanations, one must have a clear conception of the nature of man and of the nature of culture. Organicism is the modern revolt against culture, man’s regressive attempt to return to the womb of biology. I n this sense, the rise of the Nazis and the present war itself are simply a phase of the overshadowing struggle between the two world conceptions, the organic and the cdtural.

It has become trite for a social scientist to say, “Man is a cultural animal.” Yet these few words point to the most poignant contradictions and strains AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGIST 46, 1944 452 [N.S., which provoke man to irrational and cruel behavior. Man can never ignore his animal origin, the importance of his body, or the needs of his body. The necessity to take nourishment, to eliminate waste, to satisfy the sex drive, to protect the body from the elements and from other inimical animals, and to heal the ravages of disease and wound, return man time and again to the humble primary factors which identify him with other living beings.

But if man is an animal, he is a unique animal. And it is by virtue of capacity for culture and the acquisition of culture that he is unique. The capacity for culture is a function of an accent on plasticity, on the development of general adaptability instead of specific structures, on the reduction of the importance of instinct. The inauguration of culture was heralded, we may believe, by the invention of tools and symbols. The tools, crude enough a t first, were extra-organic means of doing what man had been forced to accomplish by the power of his own body to that moment. The symbols (generally understood vocal labels for familiar objects and processes) made possible communication (speech, language) and the conservation of whatever gains accumulated from tool-making and experience. Thus tools and symbols (or invention and communication, to phrase it in terms of process) can be considered the building blocks of culture.



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