French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss is remembered as one of the leading postwar figures of antiracism. He personally encountered racism in 1940 when his Jewish origins cost him his teaching post. As an anthropologist in Brazil, he saw first-hand the dispossession of native peoples in the name of progress. In a UNESCO booklet, Race and History (1952), he pleaded for the preservation of all human cultures, saying that even the most ‘primitive’ ones deserved to survive.
This is the Lévi-Strauss we remember. There was, however, a later stage in his intellectual development that remains largely unknown to most of us, if only because little came of it.
We can see hints of these later views in his 1952 publication, which shows him already deviating from the postwar antiracist consensus:
There are [cultural] contributions that are systemic in character, i.e., corresponding to the specific way each society has chosen to express and satisfy human aspirations as a whole. These ways of life are undeniably original and irreplaceable, but since they represent so many different choices that are exclusive [to each society] it is hard to see how a civilization could benefit from another one’s way of life, unless it renounced being itself.
By the early 1970s, he had become convinced that the emerging world system would eventually liquidate all cultures, and not simply those of the upper Amazon. He also felt that antiracism was moving away from its role of defending the dispossessed and the politically marginalized. In fact, it was becoming the very thing it used to denounce.
These ideas found their way into a lecture he gave to UNESCO in 1971, ironically to launch the International Year for Action to Combat Racism. In this lecture, he attacked the idea that “the spread of knowledge and the development of communication among human beings will some day let them live in harmony, accepting and respecting their diversity ”:
Nothing indicates that race prejudices are decreasing, and everything suggests that after brief local lulls, they resurge elsewhere with increased intensity. Hence the need felt by UNESCO to periodically restart a fight whose outcome seems at the very least uncertain.
But are we so sure that the racial form of intolerance results primarily from false ideas that such or such a population has about the dependence of cultural evolution on biological evolution? Don’t these ideas simply provide an ideological cover for more real conflicts based on the desire to subordinate and on the relative strengths of competing groups (rapports de force)?
In addition, he argued that cultural intermixture is advantageous only if a certain distance is kept between cultures:
[Humanity] will have to relearn that all true creation implies some deafness to the call of other values, which may reach the point of rejecting or even negating them. One cannot at the same time melt away in the enjoyment of the Other, identify oneself with the Other, and keep oneself different. If fully successful, complete communication with the Other will doom its creative originality and my own in more or less short time. The great creative ages were those when communication had increased to the point that distant partners stimulated each other but not so often and rapidly that the indispensable obstacles between individuals, and likewise between groups, dwindled to the point that excessively easy exchanges would equalize and blend away their diversity.
He also maintained that many cultural differences have, over time, produced biological differences:
We cannot insist too much on one fact: although [natural] selection has allowed living species to adapt to the natural environment or to better resist its transformations, with humans the environment has ceased to be primarily natural. Humans derive their distinctive characteristics from technical, economic, social, and mental conditions that, through the operation of culture, create an environment specific to each human group.
… Among early humans, biological evolution may have selected for pre-cultural traits like capability to stand upright, manual dexterity, sociability, symbolic thinking, and ability to vocalize and communicate. It was culture, however, once it came into being, that consolidated these traits and propagated them. When cultures specialize, they consolidate and favor other traits, like resistance to cold or heat for societies that have willingly or unwillingly had to adapt to extreme climates, like dispositions to aggressiveness or contemplation, like technical ingenuity, and so on. In the form these traits appear to us on the cultural level, none can be clearly linked to a genetic basis, but we cannot exclude that they are sometimes linked partially and distantly via intermediate linkages. In this case, it would be true to say that each culture selects for genetic aptitudes that, via a feedback loop, influence the culture that had initially helped to strengthen them.
His lecture ended on a grim note. The population explosion, combined with competition for increasingly scarce resources, will push diverse populations together under conditions less than optimal for peaceful coexistence. Meanwhile, governments will continue to respond with an “ideological struggle against racism”, in the naïve belief that the rising level of tension is being caused by a rising level of ignorance.
… the path that mankind is going down is building up tensions such that racial hatreds provide a pretty poor picture of the regime of heightened intolerance that may become established tomorrow, without even having ethnic differences to serve as a pretext. To circumvent these perils, those of today and those, ever more redoubtable, in the near future, we must persuade ourselves that their causes are much deeper-rooted than those causes that may simply be put down to ignorance and prejudice. We can place our hope only in a change in the course of history, which is much harder to bring about than progress in the course of ideas.
He pursued this line of reasoning during the discussions that followed, as this account makes clear:
Lévi-Strauss felt that UNESCO was going astray by wanting to reconcile two opposed tendencies: civilising progress leads to growth in populations, which encourages cultural exchanges, but the latter lead to the obliteration of cultural diversity, while at the same time demographic saturation causes its inevitable share of intolerance and hostility towards peoples that have become rivals. In this situation, Lévi-Strauss came to maintain the right of every culture to remain deaf to the values of the Other, or even to contest them. This amounted to replacing the conception – defended by UNESCO – of humans spontaneously open to the Other and brought to cooperate with their fellow humans, by a conception of humans naturally inclined to be if not hostile, then at least reserved towards the Other.
Xenophobia – in the very moderate form that Lévi-Strauss gave to it, that of insensitivity to the values of the Other – is here transformed from a fact of modifiable culture into a fact of ineradicable nature. As a result, for Lévi-Strauss the UNESCO project became partially ineffectual, as one cannot hope to change unalterable human nature by action taken on its social element, through education and the fight against prejudice.
These words shocked the listeners. One can easily imagine how disconcerted UNESCO employees were, who, meeting Lévi-Strauss in the corridor after the lecture, expressed their disappointment at hearing the institutional articles of faith to which they thought they had the merit of adhering called into question. René Maheu, the Director General of UNESCO, who had invited Lévi-Strauss to give this lecture, seemed upset. (Stoczkowski, 2008)
Eight years later, Lévi-Strauss recalled this event at another conference. He spoke even more candidly this time, calling antiracism a “trap”:
I believe we have fallen into traps. I remember, if you will let me inject a personal note into this debate, that in 1952 I produced at UNESCO’s request a small booklet called Race and History in which I exalted collaboration between cultures, and in which I showed that it was only to the extent that cultures collaborated with each other willingly or unwillingly that larger, more solid ensembles would arise.
When UNESCO organized in 1971 the year against racism, I was asked to deliver the opening speech. So I said to myself: “No, all the same it’s not possible. We can’t go on year after year repeating nice sentiments and telling ourselves we’re going to further the progress of humanity this way.” And so instead of doing the same thing, like what I had done in 1952, I decided, and I assure you with no ulterior political motive, that I was going to do the opposite. I was going to show that the problems of nature and nurture were, after all, problems that existed, that it was not absolutely forbidden to look into them, and that it was not by affirming in the most sterile way that there were no differences between human groups and individuals that we would further the progress of humanity.
I need not tell you that this set off a huge scandal but I had no feeling of doing anything different from what I had done nearly twenty years before. I wanted to show that we were facing difficult problems and that for me to stick my head in the sand and refuse to look at them was no way to solve them (Lévi-Strauss, 1985, pp. 43-44)
Lévi-Strauss stressed the need for a new paradigm. Through it, we would be better able to examine the reality of human differences and thus be better positioned to face the oncoming “difficult problems.” As his other remarks at the conference make clear, he believed it would be developed by British and American evolutionary biologists, particularly those associated with the nascent field of sociobiology. In line with his 1971 lecture, he spelled out the form of this new paradigm: gene-culture co-evolution.
But it was not to be. I suspect he had been taken in by the sociobiology-bashing of the late 1970s. In reality, very few sociobiologists were interested in the subject, and most studiously avoided it. This avoidance became an article of faith for John Tooby and Leda Cosmides, who would form the vanguard of this field of study. They considered “implausible the notion that different humans have fundamentally different and competing cognitive programs” (Tooby & Cosmides, 1990, p. 30). After all, Richard Lewontin had proven that human racial variation was nonexistent, or almost so:
Human groups do not differ substantially in the types of genes found, but instead only in the relative proportions of those alleles. … What this means is that the average genetic difference between one Peruvian farmer and his neighbor, or one Bornean horticulturist and her best friend, or one Swiss villager and his neighbor, is 12 times greater than the difference between the “average genotype” of the Swiss population and the “average genotype” of the Peruvian population (i.e., the within-group variance is 12 times greater than the between-group variance) (Tooby & Cosmides, 1990, p. 35).
Ironically, Tooby and Cosmides were skeptical about Lewontin’s findings. I remember attending a talk where John Tooby argued that genetic variation within human groups was greatly inflated by disease polymorphisms and other junk variability. But none of this left a paper trail, probably because that was how they wanted it. They dreamed of getting tenure-track positions and didn’t want trouble. In any case, they had no idea that people like Lévi-Strauss were willing to step forward and take the flak with them.
Eventually, in the late 1990s, a small group of anthropologists began to propound something similar to what Lévi-Strauss had predicted. The term ‘race realism’ was bandied about and it seems to have stuck.
But by then Lévi-Strauss could do little to help. He was nearing his 90th birthday and needed assistance just to go to the bathroom.
Lévi-Strauss, C. (1985). Claude Lévi-Strauss à l’université Laval, Québec (septembre 1979), prepared by Yvan Simonis, Documents de recherche no. 4, Laboratoire de recherches anthropologiques, Département d’anthropologie, Faculté des Sciences sociales, Université Laval.
Lévi-Strauss, C. (1996). Race, histoire et culture, http://www.unesco.org/courier/2001_12/fr/droits2.htm
Lewontin, R.C. (1972). The apportionment of human diversity. Evolutionary Biology, 6, 381-398.
Stoczkowski, W. (2008). Claude Lévi-Strauss and UNESCO, The UNESCO Courrier, no. 5, pp. 5-8.
Tooby, T. & L. Cosmides. (1990). On the universality of human nature and the uniqueness of the individual: the role of genetics and adaptation, Journal of Personality, 58, 17-67.