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Tim Ingold and Gisli Palsson (eds), Biosocial Becomings: Integrating Social and Biological Anthropology, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2013, 281 pages, £55.00 hardback, ISBN 9781107025639.
Biosocial Becomings begins with the bold declaration that ‘Neo-Darwinism is dead’ (page 1). Instead, this collection of anthropological essays, edited by Tim Ingold and Gisli Palsson, argues for human life to be understood as a process of becoming. Humanity, the editors argue, is neither pre-given through biology, nor learned through culture, but instead fashioned through the processes of life itself. In making these claims, the book aims to question and counteract entrenched divisions between cultural and biological anthropology, developing a unified approach to understanding social and biological dimensions of human life beyond the somewhat ingrained dualisms of biology-culture within evolutionary biology and biological anthropology itself. Whist traditional Darwinian approaches to evolution can be insightful, the problem with such methods, the editors argue, is that they assume that humans as a species are an evolved system: a paradigm which does not allow room to explore how we are continuing to become human. Instead, Ingold asserts that an organism is best imagined ‘topologically, as a knot or tangle of interwoven lines, each of which reaches onward to where it will tangle with other knots’ (page 10). Human life and the process of becoming human thus take on manifold forms and the manifesto of this book is based around this premise.
The essays in the collection present different ways to understand biology and life beyond traditional nature-culture dualisms. Chapters Three, Four and Five examine the realm of biological theory to develop an argument for a relational understanding of human becoming that goes beyond static neo-Darwinian theory. In Chapter Three Augustin Fuentes demonstrates how the integration of innovative perspectives on evolutionary theory with ideas from both biological and social anthropology can provide ‘effective toolkits with which to examine patterns and processes of human becoming’ (page 42). This chapter is sprinkled with fantastic examples and one which particularly catches the eye is that of bipedalism. Bipedalism, the development of upright locomotion on two feet, is popularly considered to be one of the most significant adaptations for being human. The term bipedal itself derives from the Latin bi-pes (having two feet) and has been generally regarded, in evolutionary terms, as the optimal and terminal point in the locomotory evolution of human beings. Traditional approaches to evolution employ relatively static and reductionist considerations relying on functional and optimal modelling. Such models apply natural selection as ‘the principal architect of function’ and assume bipedalism to be the finished human product, a completely evolved system (page 47). Yet, as this chapter elucidates, fossil discoveries in the last three decades combined with emerging ideas in cultural anthropology have strongly questioned the evolutionary intention of bipedalism, suggesting instead that walking was not the optimum developmental goal that led to our locomotive ability. Instead, walking can be viewed as just one of the processual outcomes of a life within a broad ecology and numerous morphological adaptations. In addition, recent work in bio-behavioural research has shown that we have not reached our locomotory end point; our legs are still adapting. Anyone who has run a marathon will know that extensive training alters their muscle (and skeletal) morphology, as does wearing shoes, playing on concrete, or dancing in the street. The function of the feet and legs of contemporary human beings is forever shifting. In essence, as this chapter demonstrates, bipedalism is not the endpoint for being human, it is a point on the road to becoming human.
Chapter Four delves into the world of epigenesis ‘the directional molecular process of genetic activation, expression, revelation, suppression and regulation’ (page 65), a process Ingold terms ‘the complex, self-regulating process of life-in-the-making’ (page 14). Eugenia Ramirez-Goicoechea, the author of the chapter, presents a sophisticated case for biosocial becoming, arguing that ‘our anthropogenic built environments may induce certain epigenomic states and changes in our local biologies and at the population level, through the recurrence, institutionalisation and modification of our material-symbolic practices’ (page 69). If it is the case, as the author demonstrates, that genomic expression is dependent on epigenetic processes which are themselves sensitive to environmental fluctuations, then the material-symbolic worlds in which we are ‘hominized and humanized organisms’ (ibid.) must also be taken into to account in the process of becoming human. Ramirez-Goicoechea critically reviews gene-centred literature, which considers the organism as a passive recipient of evolutionary forces, and argues for the importance of human material-symbolic productions in the construction of human development niches. The author then correlates these niches with differences in health and with a political economy of inequality and deprivation in some populations.
In chapter Six Noa Vaisman offers a particularly interesting, though at times bleak, account of an Argentine court’s attempt to identify the parentage of Guillermo Gabriel Prieto, one of many infants abducted during the last military dictatorship in the country. After abduction, Guillermo was provided with new parents, new identity papers and a new date of birth. In 1992 his ‘biological’ parents mounted a legal investigation to ‘identify’ their biological son, but Guillermo refused to provide a blood sample for DNA testing. In the wake of his refusal the Argentine Supreme Court searched his house and collected enough ‘biological material’ in the form of shed-DNA to ascertain his genetic origins. The acquisition and use of shed-DNA pushes relational thinking further, as Vaisman calls for a conceptualization of humans beings as ‘assemblage[s] of environment-organism-human’ (page 113). Drawing on the book’s manifesto, this chapter thus shows that a human (or any organism to that matter) can no longer be thought of as a discrete bounded entity set against the environment, but should instead be envisaged as a locus within a field of relations.
The following chapters of the book move towards more traditional cultural anthropology investigations. Here case studies from Morocco, Ghana and Swaziland provide empirical platforms to ripen the theoretical aspirations of the book. In Chapter Nine Vito Laterza, Bob Forrester and Patience Mususa use a detailed ethnographic case study following the passage of wood through a sawmill in Swaziland to empirically develop Tim Ingold’s theory of phenomenology of lines, flows and materials (see Ingold, 2007 and 2011). Using Ingold’s idea of ‘meshwork’ (Ingold 2007), the authors demonstrate that materials are also constitutively biosocial.
Hayder Al Mohammad continues to develop Ingold’s meshwork hypothesis in Chapter Eleven. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork in Basra, the author introduces a sense of instability to the meshwork by drawing attention to ‘the contingency of being enmeshed’ and the ‘simultaneous and dialectical movements of ravelling and unravelling’ (page 212). More specifically, using ethnography developed with the phenomenology of Heidegger, he considers what it might mean for a life to fall out of that meshwork.
This book challenges the discipline of anthropology to realign itself beyond the categories of ‘social’ and ‘biological’ and to open up an innovative space for engagement with life beyond dogmatic binaries. Challenging the stubborn dualism of biology and culture may not be seen as particularly novel or bold to some scholars in human geography and the humanities, where repeated critiques of this paradigm is now the established norm. Scholars familiar with Ingold’s work in particular will find few surprises in this collection. Yet, this book offers much to bite on; the case studies are empirically rich and give life to a theoretically heavy endeavour in an open and accessible way.
Despite the gallant opening sentence to the collection, neo-Darwinism is not dead. Indeed, science connected to the neo-Darwinian lobby still receives an enormous amount of funding. Outside of the humanities, particularly within some branches of biology and the biosciences, reluctance to engage in interdisciplinary discussions on neo-Darwinism has left a distressing rift between biology and anthropology in the recent past. However, increasing numbers of bioscientists are calling for a new approach to understanding biological organisms, and the discipline appears to be at somewhat of a tipping point. This could lead to a more relational and processual form of thinking in line with that of the authors of this edited collection. Central to this transformation will be the ‘transition to a vocabulary and a conceptual toolkit in which the resources of biology and socio-cultural analysis can be brought together to the detriment of neither’ (Moss, 2014). Biosocial Becomings begins this transition for cultural and biological scholars within discipline of anthropology. While much work is to be done to develop a toolkit that transcends disciplinary boundaries, this collection is perhaps one of the first steps along this road.