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"Study of kinship categories set for revival"
Why do humans have the conceptual categories they do, like terms for colours, smells, or kinship? Research into kinship systems once flourished, but then became unfashionable. MPI director Stephen C. Levinson signals a revival of kinship studies, but suggests it needs complementing by recent work in the evolutionary modeling of culture. His Perspective in Science on 'Kinship and Human Thought' was published on May 25.
May 25, 2012
Research into the kinship systems of the world's cultures flourished for century from 1860-1960, but then became kinship categories unfashionable. Recent studies, however, have begun to reinvigorate research on the subject, because kinship is crucial to the transmission of human genes, culture, mores, and assets.
Smaller set of kinship categories
Although there are over 6000 languages with each a potentially different system of kinship classification, languages and cultures reduce these to a smaller set of kinship categories.
Two recent papers in Science, Levinson explains, seem to show that "Cultures do not construct kin categories that are hard to define and hard to communicate", but notes that these models "do not tell us where our kinship categories come from". The origins of particular categories of kin rather seem to reflect functional pressures (like primary inheritance from the father’s side or mother’s side) and cultural inheritance over deep time periods.
These models could therefore be usefully complemented by recent work in the evolutionary modeling of culture and biological phylogenetics, since categories show Darwin’s ‘decent with modification’ giving us historical explanations of why we have the categories we have. "But the study of kinship categories seem set for a revival, they epitomize the nature of human concepts as biocultural in nature," Levinson concludes.
Two systems of kin categories and their worldwide distribution
Although kin term systems differ in detail, they mostly belong to a handful of major types. Panel A shows two types that are mirror-images of each other (as shown by the colour coding): ‘Crow’ types are adapted to inheritance in the mother’s line, ‘Omaha’ types to inheritance in the father’s line. Panel B shows the worldwide distribution of the types: some of this patterning is clearly attributable to cultural inheritance.
Link to Levinson's Perspective in Science.See also the personal page of Steve Levinson.