Reply to CSULB History Department Statement:
Issues in European Social History
The History Department has released a statement condemning my work. While not rising to the defamatory level of their claims on my work on Jewish involvement in U.S. immigration policy, they once again indicate that they have not read my work, at least not in the detail required to comment on it intelligently.
The History Department states, “He argues that Europeans have been historically monogamous without explaining his method for reaching such a sweeping conclusion.”
I have published three papers in refereed journals (MacDonald, 1983, 1990, 1995a) as well as several responses to commentators on my work on European monogamy (MacDonald, 1991, 1995b, 2001).
MacDonald, K. B. (1983). Production, social controls and ideology: Toward a sociobiology of the phenotype. Journal of Social and Biological Structures, 6, 297–317.
MacDonald, K. B. (1990). Mechanisms of sexual egalitarianism in Western Europe. Ethology and Sociobiology, 11, 195–238.
MacDonald, K. B. (1991). On the concept of limited polygyny: A reply to Frost. Ethology and Sociobiology, 12, 169–177.
MacDonald, K. B. (1995a). The Establishment and Maintenance of Socially Imposed Monogamy in Western Europe. (This article was the subject of commentaries by Laura Betzig, Monique Borgerhoff Mulder, James A. Brundage, Ulrich Mueller, Frank Salter, John M. Strate, and David Sloan Wilson.) Politics and the Life Sciences, 14, 3–23.
MacDonald, K. B. (1995b). Focusing on the Group: Further Issues Related to Western Monogamy. Politics and the Life Sciences, 14, 38–46. (This is my reply to the comments mentioned in the previous reference.)
MacDonald, K. B. (2001). Theoretical Pluralism and Historical Complexity in the Development and Maintenance of Socially Imposed Monogamy: A Comment on Kanazawa and Still. Social Forces 80(1), 343–347.
Of particular relevance is the MacDonald (1995a) article appearing in Politics and the Life Sciences. This article was published with comments from seven peers and included a rejoinder by me (MacDonald, 1995b). The peers are all quite prominent in their fields, and included two anthropologists (L. Betzig, M. Borgerhoff-Mulder), two political scientists (J. Strate, F. K. Salter), a historian (James A. Brundage), an evolutionary biologist and theorist of group selection (D. S. Wilson), and a sociologist who studies European demographic history (Ulrich Mueller). There were quite a few positive comments on my work in these exchanges, with only two really negative comments, by Betzig and Borgerhoff-Mulder. (Frankly, I think that I nailed them in my rejoinder.) James Brundage, who had endowed chairs in both history and law at the University of Kansas, is a social historian (now emeritus) whose work was cited in my article and with whom I corresponded while writing the article. His comments were mainly directed at expanding my argument and he certainly didn’t have any problems with my methodology. In researching this article I also corresponded with other historians of the family such as Barbara Hanawalt, David Herlihy, and Lawrence Stone. As in my work on Jewish history, I relied on mainstream, well-recognized sources.
The point here is that my methodology is quite apparent from reading these articles and no one ever complained about my methods. For example, since the evolutionary theory of sex implies that elite males are least likely to be monogamous, I read biographies of all the English kings to get a picture of their legitimate and non-legitimate relationships and to see how many children they had, including the bastards. Once again, the History Department presumes to judge my work without having read it.
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The History Department states, “he asserts that European culture has been typified by individualistic, democratic, and republican societies, a claim that ignores centuries-long history of European feudalism and ignores the historical development of numerous European states.”
The comments of the History Department fail to note that my theory about European individualism proposes that individualism is highly contextually sensitive. I am certainly not claiming that European culture is completely different from other cultures in the sense that Europeans have no tendencies at all toward collectivism. (This point reemerges in Separation and Its Discontents where a major theme is that individualism gives way to collectivism in the context of perceived between-group resource competition.) Indeed, as I point out in “What makes Western culture unique?” the Germanic tribes that inhabited Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire had a clan-type social organization that was not individualistic, presumably the result of group-based resource competition stemming from an earlier period.
Because I am an evolutionist, the key issue as I saw it was how to understand the decline of extended kinship patterns. In congruence with the entirely mainstream sources that I relied on, I present the view that both the Church and the aristocracy had interests in overcoming extended kinship and that they pursued these interests effectively. The History Department basically glosses over the first half of my presentation where I present my understanding of the forces that acted to eradicate extended kinship social organization. For example:
The eradication of large, powerful kinship groups was in the interests of both the Church and the aristocracy. A higher degree of centralized state power by itself has a tendency to lessen the importance of extended kinship relations, especially if that power protects the interests of individuals. From an evolutionary perspective, extended kinship groups have costs and benefits. The benefits accrue from the protection and support provided by the wider kindred, but these benefits entail costs in terms of: 1.) increased demands by kin for reciprocated services; 2.) the fact that kin will tend to prevent any individual from rising too much above the others in the kinship group; and 3) the difficulty of establishing oneself in a kinship structure which is far from egalitarian. As a result, individuals are expected to avoid becoming enmeshed in extended kinship groups when their interests are protected by other institutions i.e., the benefits of extended kinship are removed, but the costs remain. In general individuals tend to seek the protection of the extended kinship group when centralized power fails, and they correspondingly flee the extended kinship group when state power is sufficient to protect their interests. [Stone, L. The Family, Sex, and Marriage in England: 1500-1800, New York: Harper & Row, 1977.]
The picture one gets is the gradual development in the West of an aristocracy based on the simple family and freed from obligations to collateral kin dominating a peasantry characterized by the simple family and embedded in a society of neighbors and friends, not an extended kinship group. This social structure was an achievement of the late Middle Ages. Extended kinship relations were not important among the peasantry in late Medieval England or France. [Hanawalt, B. The Ties that Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England, New York: Oxford University Press, 1986; Barthelemy, D. Portraits "Kinship," in A History of Private Life, Vol. II, P. Aries & G. Duby (eds.) Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988.]
In my view then, the Western tendency toward individualism is relative, not absolute. It is fairly fragile, and it depends on contextual factors. My perspective is therefore entirely compatible the fact that different societies have quite different histories in the development of individualist political institutions. And, as indicated by the above quote, individualistic marriage, family, and kinship structure is quite compatible with feudalism even though feudalism is certainly not democratic or republican. My view is that once the individualistic kinship patterns were in place, it was a fairly short step to individualist political institutions.
The conclusion of the argument is that “these changes [toward individualism] occurred much more quickly and much more thoroughly than in other parts of the world,” and that this suggests (note this is a fairly weak claim) that a biological tendency toward individualism deriving from European pre-history is part of the explanation.
I could be wrong about this, of course. However, when one looks at what is going on in Iraq and many other parts of the world, it would seem that it is not at all a simple matter to create individualistic social and political forms for most humans. For one thing, the level of consanguineous marriage in Iraq and other Muslim countries is much higher than it ever was among the peoples of Western Europe. In Europe people naturally gravitated to a world of friends and neighbors and exogamous marriages based on personal attraction when the costs of extended kinship relationships exceeded the benefits. But the fundamentally collectivist, extended family social structure so typical of the rest of the world seem to be deeply engrained and not easily altered.
We’ll see what happens. It’s interesting that consanguineous marriages were typical of historical Jewish society. For example, fully half of the marriages of the descendants of Mayer Amschel Rothschild were with first cousins, and the marriage of his youngest son to his niece was much commented on at the time. Consanguineous marriages were a prominent trend among the Jewish haute bourgeoisie throughout the 19th century and into the 20th (W. E. Mosse. The German-Jewish Economic Élite 1820–1935: A Socio-cultural Profile. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1989, 161ff). The fact that such marriages have declined among Jews in Western societies does indicate that assimilation to individualist norms may occur over time.