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Journal of Political Ecology:
Case Studies in History and Society
VOLUME 6 (1999)
In the Society
of Nature: A Native Ecology in Amazonia by Philippe Descola. 1994
(paperback 1996). Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, pp. xviii+354
pages, subject and plant and animal indices.
Reviewed by William H. Fisher, College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, VA.
Descola's book brought to mind a conversation I'd long forgotten.
Once when canoe fishing during my thesis fieldwork in Brazil I overheard
a Juruna man, whose people have long dwelled along a major Amazonian waterway,
grill a forest-dwelling Kayapo about his tribe's dietary restrictions.
Systematically, the two exchanged information about what fish, fowl and
game animals each consumed or avoided, cheerfully noting areas of agreement
and disagreement. At that moment I imagined a ghostly anthropological
twin seated at the far end of the canoe furiously taking notes. Reflecting
the unyieldingly different approaches within our discipline, if I was
concerned with deciphering the meaning of food taboos, my twin would certainly
be pondering their adaptive implications given the respective environments
of the Juruna and Kayapo. The conversation would serve as very different
grist for our analytical mills. Descola's work echoes this remembered/imagined
scene, as it also concerns itself with the opposition between the different
subsistence potential of the Amazonian varzea and terra firme (he defines
these as riverine and interfluvial biotopes) and the void between ecological
and symbolic approaches in anthropology.
research represented in this volume is as challenging as one might conceive.
Originally published in France in 1986 and completed as a doctoral dissertation
two years before, the work continues to be timely and relevant. Descola
seeks to bridge the gap between ecological and symbolic paradigms that
have separated scholars of Amazon into opposing camps. These opposing
camps rarely have much of interest to say to one another and their exchanges
lack the open willingness to agree to disagree evinced by my Amazonian
hosts' cross-cultural conversation on food taboos. Along with his
mentors, Lévi-Strauss and Godelier, Descola takes any separation
between the technical and the symbolic to be misguided. Rather than fortify
the opposition between materialism and idealism he seeks to demonstrate
the irreducibility of praxis in understanding human ecology.
chosen to demonstrate this proposition are a sector of the Ecuadorian
Achuar people whose dispersed settlements appear to reflect a centuries-old
pattern. More recently, large number of Achuar have begun to cluster in
nucleated settlements to facilitate access to western trade goods and
are excluded from the general analysis. The Achuar (along with the Shuar,
Aguaruna, and Huambisa) are one of the four dialect groups of the Jivaroan
linguistic family that includes some 80,000 people scattered throughout
southern Ecuador and Northern Peru. They live in imposing houses constructed
at a great enough distance apart to make daily cooperation impractical.
Each household is made up of a married group, usually polygynous, and
attached kin. Each household regulates its own activities independently
of one another except in cases of war, house construction, and other sporadic
occasions. While each household is potentially at war with every other,
intermarriage and military alliance usually form the basis of ties between
ten to fifteen households within a contiguous territory strung out along
a watercourse. Independent households, however, are not tied together
by descent, united under chiefs, or grouped into any sort of named community
each household thus appears isolated from other similar units, an understanding
of Achuar society requires a comprehension of the continual transactions
between the Achuar and the sentient natural beings from whom they wrest
life's necessities--through cajoling, threats, force and seduction.
lies the paradox of the Achuar: while their isolated households would
appear to reflect an absence of social ties, in fact, men and women can
do nothing without the correct social etiquette, knowledge, and skill
needed to successfully interact with humans and non-humans. Achuar society
encompasses nature (at least "nature" as constituted in western
conceptions regarding sociality regulate hunting and gardening, which
therefore can never be reduced to a checklist of technical specifications.
Activities conjoin the supernatural, technical and social, as when men
direct their musical incantations at species leaders, invoking their personal
relationship with coquettish game. Descola shows how relations between
hunter and his game are like those between a man and his affines, involving
an identical combination of charm, guile, observation of social niceities,
and force. Likewise, women's garden work lacks none of the perils
of the hunt as women cope with bloodthirsty manioc plants and spells of
rivals aimed at undermining their efforts. As with hunters, gardeners'
success also depends on a set of practices in which invocations to supernatural
and mythological beings are part and parcel of the required mastery over
technical and social knowledge.
takes us through the background necessary to understand the complex social
transactions of what Descola calls "the society of nature."
After a detailed description of the environment and the geomorphological,
pedological, vegetational, and faunal characteristics of riverine and
interfluvial biotopes, Descola introduces the reader to the animated natural
world. The next four chapters describe activities in the house, the gardens,
the forest, and the river, respectively. While the information is extremely
detailed and of high quality, much of the quantitative information is
presented in a narrative style than makes it more rather than less difficult
to grasp the essentials. However, the narrative of these chapters, in
which myths, incantations, symbolic exegesis, species names, and measurements
of labor time and productivity are all interspersed, is meant to bolster
Descola's central contention: these diverse types of data are all
essential to understand Achuar ecology, and the possibility of their analytical
integration lies in an analytical focus on Achuar practical activity.
and determination with which he carried out his fieldwork should itself
be cause for admiration among anthropologists. The distances between settlements,
the need to constantly move between settlements in the absence of easy
transportation, the monolingualism, the small number of Achuar in each
settlement, and the ambitious agenda of data collection made the realization
of the research project daunting. The resulting data are rich as Descola
develops a magnificent interpretation of Achuar natural symbolism and
performed many quantitative measurements.
remains open to question, however, is the extent to which Descola is succeeds
in integrating within a single analytical framework both the material
effects of human-environment interactions and cultural ideas about nature. The
reactions of both "ecological" and "symbolic"
anthropologists make an evaluation of Descola's method particularly
important. On the one hand, cultural ecologists, such as Betty Meggers
(personal communication), feel that, whatever Descola may conclude, his
measurements bear out the cultural ecologists' ideas regarding the different
potentials of riverine and interfluvial environments in the Amazon. Symbolic
anthropologists, on the other hand, greet the work as a refutation of
environmental determinism and a promising new methodology. As trumpeted
in a review of the first 1986 French edition: "It is to be hoped
that the ecological determinists are not so entrenched in their own dogma
as to ignore what he has to say. Certainly there should be enough statistical
information on the size of gardens and harvests, hunting and fishing returns,
and time expended on various activities to satisfy them" (Riviere
1987, 754). Thus, on the one hand, the ecologically minded seem to see
nothing new here, while symbolic anthropologists seem to accept Descola's
conclusions rather uncritically (cf. Viveiro de Castro 1996). That an
innovative combination of ecological and symbolic methodologies merely
succeeds in reaffirming the received wisdom of symbolic anthropologists
while evincing practically no reaction from ecological anthropologists
view reactions from both camps can be explained by their implicit convergence
regarding two basic and interrelated understandings of the relationship
between environment and society: 1) Despite initial nods in the direction
of practice in Descola's book, in common with cultural ecology,
the environment is conceived to be external to society and human activity;
2) Being external, the environment primarily shapes human activity by
constraining or allowing the expression of all its possibilities. These
two propositions combine to produce an either / or impasse that impoverishes
the study of the relationship between human meanings and material transactions
within an environment. The research agenda is reduced to establishing
whether the primary determinants of the patterns of human activity are
either ecological or cultural. The "non-reaction" from symbolic
and ecological anthropologists may be due to this comfortable fit between
Descola's argument and both camps' current assumptions.
reserves his harshest criticisms for adherents of ecological approaches,
whom he labels "distant heirs of Buffon [pressing the indigenous
Amazonian] into service as [an] unwitting illustration of the implacable
determinism of ecosystems" (p.2). His criticisms of symbolic approaches
are considerably more muted, although he allows that "symbolic
morphology...fail[s] to take into account the effect of material determination
on the concrete processes involved in the socialization of nature"
(p. 332, fn.1).
he suggests that practice is irreducible to either environment or culture
Descola does not theorize any key aspects of social practice that would
articulate belief with activity and would be subject to variation or change.
Instead, praxis remains subordinate to and derivative of a total symbolic
structure. In the end, Descola's viewpoint is static and his method
is additive; that is, symbolic interpretation is supplemented with time
allocation and productivity measurements.
essential measurements aim to show that resources would be available for
all Achuar to inhabit the riverine zone and maintain current settlement
and subsistence patterns (implying that those who remain in the interfluve
environment do so because of cultural choice). He also aims to show
that in both the riverine and interfluvial habitats Achuar, irrespective
of gender, do not work as much as they could and still, they do not eat
all the food they produce, i.e., they overproduce. Descola also shows
that productivity is a function of skill and labor intensity rather than
time because all Achuar workers, both male and female, riverine and interfluve
inhabitants limit their work to between 4 hours and 6.25 hours/day. While
female gardening effort varies between averages of 1 hour 25 minutes and
2 hours 52 minutes per day, this variation is not correlated with the
ratio of productive to dependent members in a household.
the problems with the measurements is that both Descola and ecological
anthropologists appear to assume that an environment's productive potential
exists in the absence of any human activity. If one takes a deterministic
view, different productive potentials should give rise to or at least
permit the appearance of different social and cultural forms. However,
the crux of Descola's argument is that while biotopes and their
productive potentials are different, this has not produced differences
in Achuar social forms or culture. The problem is that while Descola documents
some differences in productivity between the riverine and the interfluve
habitats, in the symbolic realm he asks us to assume what must be documented,
i.e., that culturally and socially the two areas are indistinguishable.
that 1,250 Achuar inhabit 2,800 km2 of riverine habitat while 750 inhabit
the 8,500 km2 of interfluvial forest and that riverine men spend almost
as much time fishing as they do hunting, while their interfluve counterparts
spend more than twice as many hours per day in the hunt. The claim that
these differences are unimportant rests on an acceptance of facts that
Descola does not document at all, namely that there exists no significant
cultural or social differences among Achuar inhabiting the two habitats.
At a point where we ought to be able to look at the relationship between
practical activity, the environment, and culture, we are asked to accept
without question the view that a uniform symbolic ordering of the world
exists among people interacting with different environments, performing
different activities (e.g., different fishing techniques and proportion
of fish in the diets in both areas), and subject to no common political
or social organization above the level of what Descola calls the "endogamous
nexus," the neighboring houses from whom spouses and allies are sought.
One might reasonably ask why such a situation, apparently existing for
centuries, has not given rise to a great deal of cultural variation.
distinguishing between different sorts of practice, Descola implies that
all meanings and activities and socialization experiences are equally
important in their overall contribution to the "total social fact"
of Achuar ecology. The structured improvisations of practice seemed to
be derived from but not to contribute to the total social fact of ecology. Thus
when Descola contrasts the riverine and interfluvial Achuar, the notion
of practice disappears from his account and he relies on standard measurements
of subsistence effort set against a presumably uniform cultural backdrop
shared by all Achuar. The main theoretical problem, of course, has less
to do with documenting productivity or environmental variation and more
to do with perceiving and documenting variation in the symbolic structuration
of the world and the dialectic between cultural understanding and practical
activity. Formulation of any concept of social or cultural variation is
dogged by inattention to the difference between the cognitive or structuralist
model of the world and the organized movements of calories and nutrients
within an ecosystem and the inability to theorize the meaning of variation
in either sphere.
is one curious exception in which Descola claims that a quantitative measurement
hints at a cultural principle. This occurs when Descola discovers through
time allocation studies that both men and women work only a few hours
a day, regardless of their competency and efficiency, and regardless of
their riverine or interfluvial location. In the absence of any native
testimony on the subject, he infers the existence of a shared "representation
of a limit on labor that should be expended" (p. 295). While the
range of average hours worked varies less than 2.5 hours, it is unclear
if the argument would hold if, for example, variation was found to be
in the 3 hr. range or some other quantity. Descola apparently rejects
any number of hypotheses in which the amount of labor expended may be
an epiphenomenon of other aspects of the labor process, including the
division of labor and the meshing of one person's effort with other
social activities. If the time quantity in question shows similarities
across riverine and interfluvial environments, Descola assumes the similarity
must be eminently cultural in origin. This logic by which quantity of
labor time measured by the investigator is reified into a cultural representation
of the Achuar must be carefully examined because on it rests Descola's
argument that production is ultimately constrained by cultural rather
than ecological factors. He suggests that the limiting of work that one
may legitimately perform may "constitute a determining factor for
explaining what is customarily called the homeostasis of productive forces
in archaic societies" (p. 295). The danger of tautology seems great:
a quantitative result (hours worked) becomes construed as a cultural principle,
and, assuming the form of a principle, it becomes a cultural mechanism
whereby production (i.e., hours worked) is limited and homeostasis created.
assessment of the relative contribution of culture and the environment,
as previously stated, rests on a notion of the environment as something
external to society. The interpretation of his quantitative data thus
seem to contradict his careful examination of the way natural processes
form a part of society and the interpretation offered by the Achuar themselves.
That is, there is a tension in Descola's analysis between his naturalistic
observations and symbolic analysis and his use of measurements and notion
of environmental constraints. In his use of "ecological limits"
the environment becomes transformed into an abstract constraint or potential,
little more than a substrate upon which social regularities may take hold
a blow against environmental determinism Descola resurrects the environment/culture
opposition and merely reverses the arrow of causality. Thus in his discussion
of manioc "overproduction" in both riverine and interfluvial
biotopes, Descola concludes that there is no advantage to be gained by
cultivating the fertile alluvial plain. "So whether in the area
of labor or in the domain of resources management, under-exploitation
of productive capacities is determined by social and cultural specifications,
not by ecological limits" (p.313). Now presumably any kind of human
activity is determined by cultural specification rather than ecological
limits even "overexploitation," environmental destruction
and activities whose environmental outcomes are hard to discern. Such
an assertion as Descola's, if made at the beginning of a study,
would only suggest that all human activity is meaningful activity. As
a conclusion Descola's statement is more properly interpreted as
an assertion of the superordinate role of human meaning over environmental
factors within human ecology, rather than as an assessment of the interplay
of meaning and environment.
in common with environmental approaches that Descola criticizes he shares
an adherence to "limiting factors" approach in which limits
can be defined in the absence of concrete human activity. Thus he only
needs to prove that nutrition within the riverine and interfluvial biotopes
is above some postulated minimum to assert the unimportance of environment
as opposed to biology. For instance, the "average daily protein
intake is 76 g/person in the interfluve houses, compared to 119 g in the
riverine houses. It is true that 43 grams seems an enormous difference,
but only if such a deficit causes the interfluve Achuar to fall below
the fatal threshold of 27.45 g, which is not the case" (317).
parts company with determinists in his consistent (and apparently literal)
use of "choice" throughout his work. He seems to be suggesting
that when absolute impoverishment or starvation does not loom humans have
choices in how to apportion their activities and, when possible, they
will try to realize their values in accordance with cultural understandings.
Thus we can see Achuar ecology as a result of a persuasive and pervasive
symbolic ordering of the world which Achuar choose to follow. Limits are
important because in their absence the preexisting symbolic model may
be given free reign and is apparently stable as well.
be sufficient to recall Godelier's response to the idea that every
society chooses its culture, "Indeed! Societies and cultural systems
are not individuals; they are not invented by any one person" (Godelier
1994, 103). That is not to say, however, that choices are never made.
Individual households (or their head or groups of brothers, etc.) chose
to live in riverine or interfluve districts. Why they do so may be an
interesting question (it is the one Descola chooses to highlight on p.
62) and yet it is clear that this question need not be answerable with
reference to environmental variables. Warfare, attachment to place, proximity
to familiar trading partners, in short, more or less historical factors,
all spring immediately to mind as reasons why a particular Achuar may
want to live in a particular spot. In fact, Descola seems to me to use
a sleight of hand to argue with cultural ecologists, namely, environmental
variables must explain everything (i.e., they must constrict human choice
so that cultural models become irrelevant), or they explain nothing as
cultural imperatives are formed "largely independent of material
constraints" (p. 285)!
in the final chapters, Descola's conclusions are not predicated
on a consideration of practice but on the lack of material constraint
on the expression of Achuar symbolism. Rather than adding to our understanding
of symbolism, the plethora of ecological data seem to be meant to bludgeon
environmental determinists into submission or to hoist them on
their own petard of measurements as it were by demonstrating that
ecological limits do not exist. In the process, though, the materiality
of culture, the ability of practical activity to change the world, and
the human propensity to reflect on our own activity and its results are
muted. The exegesis of Achuar cosmology and the ecological measures remain
unreconciled. In the end, the result of a work that begins with a desire
to overcome the opposition between ecological and symbolic approaches
seems to be precisely to strengthen the opposition between them.
Levins, Richard and Lewontin, Richard.
Lewontin, Richard and Levins, Richard.
Vivieros de Castro, Eduardo B.