Review: The Ecology of Others by Philippe Descola

Descola, Philippe. The Ecology of Others. Translated by Geneviève Godbout and Benjamin P. Luley. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press. 2013. 91 pages.

Reviewed by Sandra Moore
Doctoral student | University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Canada

Download PDF: CH2(1).137-143.Book Reviews

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Many anthropologists are aware that a long-standing controversial debate exists between nature and culture theorists centered on whether or not belief systems about one’s environment are attributable to physical or social influences. This debate continues to be fuelled by academics and institutions that position nature and culture as dichotomous terms firmly positioned on opposite ends of the theoretical spectrum. Physical, or natural, scientists often accept a universal definition of nature, whereas social scientists have diverse definitions of culture and explanations of how cultures interact with nature. As such, the modern understanding of the relationship between nature and humanity tends to be ambiguous, leading to contrasting views of humans as either nature’s conqueror or nature’s saviour (Uggla 2010).

In The Ecology of Others, French anthropologist Philippe Descola discusses what he has come to call the “anthropology of nature” through his analysis of the traditional dualistic view of nature and culture as distinct phenomena. He insists that the complex relationship between humankind and nature cannot be understood by having such a firm divide between the natural and cultural divisions of anthropology, or the natural and social sciences in general, and that the most important academic question for the present century is how to understand the relationship between culture, or humans, and nature, or non-humans. The Ecology of Others is derived from Descola’s 2007 lecture for agronomy scientists in Paris who were concerned about being unable to address or understand the social issues their research was uncovering. In 2013, a revised version of this lecture was published by Prickly Paradigm Press (PPP) at the request of Executive Publisher, and American anthropologist, Marshall Sahlins. This was the ideal publishing venue for Descola to express his critical views on the nature versus culture debate as PPP aims to give serious authors free rein to express their views on various academic and world issues (PPP 2010).

In this brief but well-articulated, book Descola summarizes the history of the nature versus culture debate in anthropology and discusses the need for increased academic interconnectedness between natural science and social science. In the latter half of the nineteenth-century natural and social sciences were clearly delineated in theory, methodology, and practice. Descola surmises that this delineation was beneficial for standardizing knowledge and methodology, but did not facilitate a holistic understanding of situations where natural and social science phenomena were combined.

The Clam Debate: materialism versus mentalism

Descola begins, in the first of the book’s three main sections, by stating that “a good way to understand the status of a scientific problem is to study controversies” (2013:7). One such controversy in anthropology is the Clam Debate of the 1970s between French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss and American anthropologist Marvin Harris. This debate between the two scholars began over a reference to clams mentioned in the Gildersleeve Lecture Lévi-Strauss gave in 1972, at Barnard College in New York. The French anthropologist compared similar details in Bella Bella and Chilcotin myths from British Columbia to prove that how societies select and integrate significant aspects of their habitat into their myths stems from universal mental structures — or natural causes. Harris refuted this claim and instead viewed the similarities in the myths as materialistic, the result of adaptive functions for practical utility — or cultural causes.

Anthropological dualism: nature versus culture

In the second section of the book, Descola explains how this debate continues today with many anthropologists still viewing nature and culture as distinct phenomena. Latour (2007) states that it is often believed that culture is the realm of social or cultural anthropology and nature is the realm of physical or biological anthropology. Descola explains that these dualistic views “continue to form the two poles of an epistemological continuum along which everyone endeavouring to better understand the relationships between humans and non-humans must be positioned” (2013:29). At one end of the continuum are natural scientists who study and explain nature in the singular, and at the other end of the continuum are social scientists who study and explain cultures in the plural (Latour 2007).

To each his own nature: dualism or universalism 

In the final section, Descola encourages readers to think about why this divide exists in anthropology considering that ethnographers who study the same ethnic groups often produce comparable reports regardless of their theoretical inclinations. Descola then explores if anthropology needs a dualistic or universal definition to explain the relationship between humans (culture) and non-humans (nature). A universal definition seems to be an idealistic suggestion due to the pluralistic character of anthropology and the breadth of what the field studies. It would also fail to account for diverse societal explanations about the natural world and how humans interact in it, which allows a society to articulate how their members uniquely behave and adapt to their environments (Moran 2008). Bennett argues,

[i]f Culture — that is, Man — is seen as the despoiler, the destroyer, Nature is revered as pristine, and the preservationist position emerges. If Man is seen as the measure and master of all things, then the incorporational process is seen as “progress” and Nature is viewed as a “resource.” [1993:8]

Separating nature and culture into distinct fields of study around scientific universalism and cultural relativism does not allow for a holistic and context-specific understanding of the relationship between humans (culture) and non-humans (nature). However, accepting a universal definition of how cultures interact with and adapt to nature is equally prohibitive to understanding how diverse cultures, or societies, interact with diverse environments.

Review: a simplistic overview of a complex debate

Because of its brevity, The Ecology of Others provides a simplistic overview of a complex issue and long-standing debate in anthropology. With only 91 pages, Descola fails to elaborate on many of the concepts, history, and ideas that he discusses. He explains in his foreword that as his original lecture was not written for anthropologists he was unconcerned with discussing such a controversial subject because he knew that the “audience was mainly unaware of the intricacies of the anthropological and philosophical debates about the place of Humankind in Nature” (2013:ii). Unfortunately, the target audience for this book may be aware of these intricacies and a book this brief is unlikely to encourage most readers to definitively make up their minds about the place of humankind in nature, though it may be a thought-provoking catalyst to explore the literature in this area further.

Descola declares that natural science is frequently accepted as the archetype of valid knowledge, but he does not delve deeply into how this belief negates the value of interdisciplinary research which combines research in natural science with social science to address lived experiences and social interactions with nature among diverse cultures. Understanding how cultures identify and form relationships with their natural environments is increasingly important in contemporary times as environments are rapidly being altered by human changes. Kopina and Shoreman-Ouimet (2013) emphasize that many of the environmental issues we deal with today, such as climate change and pollution, have universal impacts, but how diverse cultures perceive, react, and adapt to these issues is not universal. Addressing these universal environmental issues will require collaboration between natural and social scientists to ask how we can, as an international community, holistically address global environmental issues combining widely accepted universal scientific views of nature with the diversity and realities of cultural views. The nature versus culture divide is a controversial debate, but Descola’s proposed mitigation strategy for addressing the problem through a paradigm shift from dualistic to monistic views on nature and culture may be even more controversial among anthropologists today.

Descola explains the nature versus culture debate from both ends of the spectrum in an engaging, narrative tone, and he is correct in stating that the biggest question of the current century will be how to understand the diverse and complex relationships between humans and nature. However, he focuses primarily on the views of historical figures in anthropology and does not focus on insights from contemporary researchers who are currently working on addressing this question from interdisciplinary perspectives. Such an interdisciplinary approach to this question is necessary, considering the world’s pressing and diverse environmental issues and the changing structure of societies. In 1900 only sixteen cities existed in the world; a century later, their number expanded to over five hundred (Moran 2008), and to support these rapidly growing cities humankind has been increasingly expanding into and altering natural spaces and extracting non-renewable natural resources. Globally, as we continue to address issues brought on by human changes, Descola argues that it will “become increasingly difficult to continue to believe that nature is a completely separate domain from social life” (2013:81).

Conclusion

Descola believes that all cultures are culturally conditioned to have some form of differentiation between humans and nature, or non-humans. Since cultural views and understanding of the non-human elements of their environment vary, different forms of knowledge regarding nature emerge. Even within cultures different forms of nature knowledge develop, such as the theoretical divide between science and spiritualists in Western society. Science is not always willing to take into account personal perceptions and interactions with nature, and spiritualists are not always willing to believe empirical scientific data. Combining these two forms of knowledge could have immense benefit to holistically comprehending natural phenomena and developing a strong global ecological consciousness to combat environmental issues. Anthropology is ideally suited to be the field to spearhead holistic studies incorporating biological, cultural, and social aspects of the relationships between humans and non-humans if it can move past the opposing views on the continuum of “nature naturing” and “nature natured” (Descola 2013:85). However, developing a universal explanation that holistically explains human and nature interactions is not a feasible or relevant approach to moving past this dualistic view. As interdisciplinary and trans-disciplinary research opportunities continue to be developed, and accepted by, scholars and institutions, Descola’s vision of a new academic worldview, in which the relationships between humans and non-humans are analyzed and explained from diverse perspectives combining nature and culture, may not be as idealistic as it seems.

References

Bennett, John W.
1993 Human Ecology as Human Behavior: Essays in Environmental and Development Anthropology. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers.

Kopnina, Helen, and Eleanor Shoreman-Ouimet, eds
2011 Environmental Anthropology Today. New York: Routledge.

Latour, Bruno
2007 The Recall of Modernity: Anthropological Approaches. Stephen Muecke, trans. Cultural Studies Review 13(1):11–30.

Moran, Emilio F.
2008 Human Adaptability: An Introduction to Ecological Anthropology. 3rd edition. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. Prickly Paradigm Press (PPP) 2010 Home Page. http://www.prickly-paradigm.com, accessed December 1, 2014.

Uggla, Ylva
2010 What is This Thing Called ‘Natural’? The Nature-Culture Divide in Climate Change and Biodiversity Policy. Journal of Political Ecology 17(1):79¬91.

Publication Information
Volume 2, Issue 1 (2015)
ISSN 2292-6739 (Online)

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