[OPE-L] Godelier and origins of human society

From: Rakesh Bhandari (bhandari@BERKELEY.EDU)
Date: Sat Nov 25 2006 - 23:23:37 EST

The analysis below suggests that even primitives 
and preliterate peoples are just as human as 
bourgeois man in that they not only live in 
society but also must produce society in order to 

Godelier, it may be remembered, was the author of 
Perspectives on Marxist anthropology, a 
controversial essay on the Asiatic Mode of 
Production and essays on the material and the 
mental- he is no longer a Marxist.

As Jack Goody writes New Left Review essay on 
Godelier's latest book 
"Among the discoveries that have made short work 
of Lévi-Strauss's story of the foundations of 
society have been the findings of primate 
studies, to which Godelier devotes a sensitive 
and imaginative chapter. What these have shown is 
that both chimpanzees and bonobos (pygmy 
chimpanzees in the Congo), our nearest biological 
relatives, already live in 'societies' that 
exhibit a kind of sketch of human constraints: 
young females find sexual partners outside their 
immediate natal group, while young males must 
wait their turn until adults are willing to yield 
partners to them. Enforcing at once cooperation 
and hierarchy, these patterns appear to be the 
product of mechanisms of natural selection, 
though they coexist with homosexual pleasures 
among males and females alike, less obviously 
attributable to the same functions. The passage 
from nature to culture with homo sapiens thus 
cannot have been a sudden, discontinuous 
transformation, but must have been more 
evolutionary in nature. The critical novelty in 
human society, Godelier argues, is that males 
assume a parental role, something unknown among 
these primates, where only mothers look after 
children-fathers being unaware of their 
connection with them...

"Humans, however, are the only species 
co-responsible with nature for their own 
evolution. In the past they rarely acknowledged 
their own role in creating rules of kinship, but 
now they can scarcely do otherwise, as laws and 
customs governing relations between and within 
the sexes are in full mutation, with the spread 
of single parenting, homosexual marriage, 
artificial insemination and the prospect of 
cloning all now crowding onto the public agenda. 
In the last lines of his book Godelier reiterates 
that 'what separates human beings definitively 
from primates, their cousins in nature, is that 
they not only live in society but can and must 
produce society in order to live'. It is one of 
the underlying messages of this work that in 
confronting the unexpected in that task today, 
the sang-froid of the anthropologist is needed."


Here also is a bit of a precis of Godelier's last book.

Comparative Studies in Society and History  (2006), 48: 326-358
Maurice Godelier and the Metamorphosis of Kinship, A Review Essay
Robert H. Barnes

Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, Oxford

Godelier next turns to a long exposition of 
Lévi-Strauss' argument trying to establish that 
the incest prohibition gives rise to exogamy, 
which in turn gives rise to exchange of women. Of 
the three logical possibilities, men exchange 
women, women exchange men, or as in Euro-American 
and other cognatic societies, one family gives a 
man, the other a woman, and there is no question 
of one sex exchanging the other, Lévi-Strauss 
retains only the first. Godelier denies 
criticizing Lévi-Strauss either for considering 
male dominance to be universal, or for the idea 
that alliance rests often on the exchange of 
women between groups represented by men, but for 
the idea that the social subordination of women 
is based on unconscious structures of symbolic 
thought, in the last analysis on the structure of 
the brain, and that male dominance is the 
universal precondition of kinship relations. As 
opposed to Freud, Lévi-Strauss' interpretations 
immediately demonstrated the operational value 
and efficacy for a certain number of kinship 
systems. Lévi-Strauss devoted much less attention 
to the forms of descent, which are themselves 
highly specific cultural institutions, than to 
alliance. Lévi-Strauss' statement that, "the 
incest prohibition is less a rule which forbids 
marrying the mother, sister or daughter, than a 
rule which requires giving the mother, sister or 
daughter to another" (Lévi-Strauss 1969: 552), 
creates the illusion that these three forms of 
exchange are equivalent. Godelier knows of no 
examples of a man exchanging his mother in order 
to acquire a wife. Lévi-Strauss's assertion 
therefore does not engage with the facts. By 
leaving aside agonistic exchanges and inalienable 
goods, Lévi-Strauss neglects some of the most 
important aspects of political and religious 
power in society.

Whereas in 1950, Lévi-Strauss took the position 
that "language could only arise at one go" and 
denied that it might appear gradually 
(Lévi-Strauss 1950: 16), by 1967 he had changed 
his position, and the sudden appearance of 
language had been replaced by a progressive 
evolution (Lévi-Strauss 1967: 451). On another 
point, too, Lévi-Strauss changed position. Human 
society no longer rested simply on exchange. Now 
in addition to things that were exchanged, there 
were things that were not exchanged, "Not that in 
society everything is exchanged,Š but if there 
were no exchange, there would be no society" 
(Lévi-Strauss 2000: 494).

Whatever may remain of Lévi-Strauss's attempt to 
link exchange with the incest prohibition, 
Godelier (2004: 461-62) proposes an alternative 
view corresponding to six criteria:

    1. It is necessary to separate the analysis of 
the prohibition of incest from the other 
prohibitions pertaining to sexual practices.
    2. The prohibition of incest pertains to 
forbidden sexual unions before it does to 
prohibited marriage ties.
    3. The prohibited sexual practices pertain to 
heterosexual and homosexual relations.
    4. The prohibition of incest is found 
associated with prohibitions pertaining to 
relatives by alliance, either because the 
prohibitions pertaining to consanguines are 
"extended" to affines, or because prohibitions of 
another type apply to certain affines in 
complementing prohibitions pertaining to 
    5. The prohibition of incest presupposes the 
development of conceptual thought and diverse 
means of communication, proto-languages and 
articulated languages. These developments did not 
appear as a Big Bang, but rather as a process 
taking place in the long extent of human 
evolution. These processes were for the most part 
unconscious, although the prohibitions themselves 
were conscious social facts.9
    6. There is no reason to suppose that 
primitive humanity lived in isolated biological 
families (as assumed by Lévi-Strauss) or hordes 
(as assumed by Freud) before living in society. 
There is no reason to postulate for the distant 
ancestors of men and their descendants the 
logical or historical priority of consanguineous 
families living in a state of permanent sexual 
promiscuity rather than the development of proper 
forms of society.

To establish his own position on the evolution of 
society, Godelier turns to a long survey of 
modern studies of chimpanzees and bonobos, and he 
concludes that these animals live naturally in 
multimale and multifemale societies like humans. 
These societies are characterized by the 
separation of the sexes and subordination of one 
sex to the other, and their sexuality includes 
heterosexual, homosexual, and autoerotic forms. 
There is no trace of primitive promiscuity among 
the chimpanzees and bonobos. These animals are 
able to act on nature in making tools and 
selecting food sources, but they cannot modify 
the organization of their society. Like other 
primates, humans did not give themselves society, 
but in contrast to them they developed the 
ability to transform their manner of living in 
society and to invent new forms of society.

Human beings produce society in order to live. 
Unlike chimpanzees and bonobos, humans do not 
leave the raising of children exclusively to 
females. In most human societies, males and 
females cooperate not only in raising children 
but in procreation of children. Human sexuality 
has pushed the distinction between the sexuality 
of desire and the sexuality of reproduction 
farther than is found in any other species of 
primate. Human sexuality is egoistic, but even 
extreme permissiveness must stop at the doors of 
the families, the groups which are directly 
responsible for raising children. Crossing these 
limits is to commit what is called "incest" 
(Godelier 2004: 491). It should be remarked that 
by saying so, Godelier is in effect proposing his 
definition of incest. Human families exist in two 
types. There are those composed solely of 
consanguines, such as the Na of Yunnan and the 
Nayar of Malabar, and those (the majority) 
structured by alliance (between husband and wife) 
and descent and filiation (between parents and 
children). Sexual permissiveness in the last case 
endangers not only ties of consanguinity, but 
also those of affinity. As demonstrated by 
reference to brother/sister marriage in Roman 
Egypt (which is similar to the behavior of gods), 
societies have two choices to make: (1) to marry 
without exchange or with; (2) to unite like gods 
or not like gods. There are no societies where 
marriage takes place only between very close 
relatives. Brother/sister marriage does not 
authorize other forms of close marriage or sexual 
relations. There is no society where an 
individual may satisfy all of his desires. Where 
close kin sexual unions prohibited in other 
societies are authorized in one society, such 
unions are not considered incestuous. They bring 
the couple closer to gods and take their 
legitimacy from a political and religious 

Godelier's (2004: 494-95) then lists twelve theoretical conclusions:

    1. There is no society which permits 
individuals to satisfy all their sexual desires.
    2. Two possibilities exist to assure the 
continuity of groups which make up a society 
which for survival depend on the birth of 
children who will continue their physical and 
social existence: to exchange between themselves 
sexual partners, generally women, but sometimes 
men, or not to exchange at all and to reproduce 
among themselves.
    3. To exchange does not necessarily mean to 
form a marriage alliance. The exchange of 
substances is not an exchange of persons and does 
not transform itself into a social alliance (as 
in the case of the Na).
    4. To form a marriage alliance does not 
necessarily mean to exchange, giving to others 
and receiving from others, but sometimes as well 
to keep for oneself and to ally among one's own 
    5. Everywhere where exchanges take the form of 
the exchange of persons and give place to diverse 
forms of alliance, the units of procreation and 
the raising of children combine ties of affinity 
and ties of filiation and descent, thus ties of 
consanguinity. Allies, by their union, engender 
    6. Wherever there are unions resting on the 
exchange of persons and formalized by an 
"official" alliance, the sexual permissiveness 
authorized to individuals stops at the doors of 
the units of procreation and the raising of 
children. They are prohibited between the 
individuals of different sex and generation who 
make up these units and are considered as 
incestuous except if, on the other hand, they are 
regarded as unions making humans closer to gods.
    7. In consequence, and logically, in the 
societies prohibiting sexual unions between near 
kin, humans are not authorized to imitate gods. 
Relations of humans with gods are invoked either 
to prohibit them or to permit relations between 
near kin. Unions among humans always bring into 
question the whole of society and cosmos.
    8. There is no possible biological foundation 
to prohibiting sexual unions with the 
consanguines of affines or the affines of 
consanguines. Only social reasons could explain 
such prohibitions (which have no genetic 
consequences for the human species). It is 
necessary therefore for such unions to menace 
social cooperation and the ties of solidarity 
created between two groups of kin for them to be 
prohibited. However this situation indicates as 
well that the development of exchanges of 
partners giving place to alliances is a trait 
specific to human kinship.
    9. No society known functions solely on the 
basis of endogamous unions between very close 
kin. Even in societies where such unions are 
authorized, other unions exist which obey other 
principles, unions with very distant consanguines 
or unions with non-kin, strangers; and these 
unions could themselves give rise to exchanges.
   10. Even in societies where certain unions 
between close consanguines are not only 
authorized but sought after, other unions between 
consanguines are forbidden. It is necessary 
therefore to conclude that there exists no 
society that functions without one form or 
another of what is called the prohibition of 
   11. The prohibition of unions between certain 
categories of consanguines is universal, but does 
not imply that the prohibition of the union of 
brother and sister is universal and that the 
exchange of women or men between two groups of 
kin should be everywhere the foundation of 
   12. The reciprocal giving of substances (sperm) 
between groups of kin does not necessarily 
produce alliance between groups.

Of all the inventions which have slowly separated 
humans from other primates and profoundly 
restructured the division of labor between men 
and women, one perhaps has more importance than 
the ability to manufacture and use tools and 
weapons, that is the domestication of fire. For 
men, unlike animals, fire is a weapon and a tool. 
Specifying the social conditions of sexual unions 
and the membership of the resulting children to 
groups were two problems which societies had to 
confront and resolve. Godelier proposes the 
hypothesis, contrary to Tylor and Lévi-Strauss, 
that our ancient ancestors already lived in 
families and that the very slow learning of new 
material and social relationships between the 
sexes created new relationships between adults 
and children as well as between groups where 
children were born and raised.

Man is the only animal species which has become 
co-responsible with nature for its own evolution. 
Humanity is the only social species which 
consciously and socially manages its sexuality. 
The two principles, to keep and to share, apply 
to all domains of life, including the provision 
of food. Even in the capitalist West not 
everything is available for sale. Societies and 
individuals are under two obligations, to 
exchange and to keep and transmit. Lévi-Strauss 
is wrong, Godelier says, to attempt to explain 
father's brother's child marriage among Arabs as 
an exchange of the right to keep, that is to keep 
marriage between close consanguines. 
(Lévi-Strauss 1988: 147). In this case the right 
to keep is distinct from the obligation to give.

Neither kinship relationships nor the family are 
the basis of society. Kinship relations, contrary 
to Fortes, are not necessarily the domain of the 
purest sentiments of altruism. They may also give 
rise to hatred and enmity. Kinship does not 
permit by itself creating a material and social 
dependence among all individuals and all groups 
in a society. It is no longer possible to claim 
that "primitive" societies, lacking castes, 
classes, and the state, were based on kinship. 
"But such a claim does not mean, as Leach would 
have it, that kinship is nothing but a language 
or a veil, or worse, an invention of 
anthropologists and therefore the West" (Godelier 
2004: 517).

Chinese filial piety was a feudal imposition on 
domestic life and Australian section systems, far 
from being typical of Australia, spread only 
recently in western Australia and are primarily 
concerned with ordering even non-kin for ritual 
purposes. Social relationships having nothing to 
do with kinship penetrate kin relationships. The 
social becomes kin. First all that becomes 
kinship transforms into relations between the 
sexes, and finally all that is kinship impresses 
itself on the sexual body of individuals from 
birth and becomes an attribute of their sex. The 
difference of sex becomes a difference of gender.

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