The Organic Analogy and Biology

By Jessica Hebert

The organic analogy is an analogy that compares society to a physical organic being. This analogy is used by the social theorists Spencer and Durkheim to make sense of society, but is used in biology to compare living organisms to societal components.

Within this analogy Spencer, a social theorist, compares the individual parts of a society to certain organs within one organic body. He shows how societies can sometimes continue to function without certain elements, organs. For example, if a human loses an arm they can still continue to function. On the other hand, humans wouldn’t be able to function without other organs like the heart. Spencer also compared societal complexities to organic life. Societies that are more complex can be compared to complex life-like mammals or the human body, while societies that are simple can be compared to single-celled organisms or cute little amoebas. This is important because the idea is the more complex a society becomes the more specialization occurs so you end up with specific organs for certain jobs rather than multi-functioning parts of a creature. I am not sure what organs Spencer felt fit which aspects of society best, but I’m sure this would be enjoyable to draw a picture of especially considering my complete failure to understand biology.

This brings me to my second point. I have seen this analogy used often, but most memorably in when learning biology. In contrast to Spencer, the analogy was using society to understand the functions of the internal parts of a cell. Every year in science class and then for the final time in high school biology, I heard this analogy being used to explain the function of the different parts of cells. I remember most that the Golgi apparatus is the post office, and the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell.

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The analogy was being used in this way because it is assumed that the students would better be able to understand the function of portions of a cell by comparing it to portions of a city. This is where I feel both the social theorists and biology teachers have made a mistake. Now, to understand a cell there needs to be a simultaneous understanding of how a city functions as a whole. There needs to be a fundamental understanding of biology and how organic beings function for Spencer’s analogy to be of any use. If biology is making assumptions to compare society to biology, and sociologists are making assumptions on top of that to compare biology to society, it becomes even more convoluted as the assumptions falsely reinforce each other.

I argue instead of understanding the functions of a cell in the context of a society or the functions of a society in the context of an organism there should be a strive to avoid analogies like this that create confusion and are incomplete in themselves. To use these analogies you have to criticize connections in two separate worlds and make connections which manage to make understanding more complex and oversimplified at the same time. The analogies of course don’t fit perfectly, but even if they did they just make understanding a cell or society more complex than it needs to be. Instead of comparing one to each other they should be explained without analogy. Instead there should be a focus on understanding what a mitochondria does for the cell itself without pretending a cell is a city just to turn it back into a cell again. I may not have had a simple phrase to throw on  but instead understood really what went on inside the cell without having to also understand what a post office does, (which is a lot more than move and sort packages, but just assume these assumptions are accurate for sake of argument.)  

The same applies for Spencer’s analogy. There is less error if a kinship system stays a kinship system rather than having to debate which system of a larger organic body to which it is most similar. Even if the analogies were to fit perfectly, it creates an extra step that needs to be debated and assessed in an attempt to simplify, it only makes the understanding more complex since there would have to be an equally complete of biology as well as society. Analogies don’t help anyone in these cases when there is desire to truly deeply understand a concept and should be avoided. At least I know the mitochondria is the powerhouse of cell, whatever that means. 

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Diffusionism & Hmong Culture

The Hmong people are group of people who came to the United States because of the Vietnam War. Due to the movement, many cultural traditions did not transition well. Because some customaries could not be done in the United States, the Hmong people had to borrow traits that were customary in the United States in order to carry on what they could do.
An example of this is the sacrificing of black dogs. From my parents views on dogs, they were not valued as much as they are in the United States. Since there is no high value of dogs in the Hmong culture then, it was not look down upon to use a black dogs for spiritual sacrifices. Now that the Hmong people are in the United States, that custom could not carry over because of the values that Americans had for dogs. So instead of using dogs now, they are able to use black dog stuff animal instead. Even though the Hmong people do not use real dogs now the belief is transferred into the black dog stuff animal. This is an example of the diffusionism that has happened with the Hmong people. Since chickens, cows and pigs are more seen as food compare to dogs, that custom of using them for rituals still happen because of the same value American culture and Hmong culture share.
Another example of diffusionism in the Hmong culture is the Bride wealth that occurs. During the wedding process, it was customary for the groom’s side of the family to give some sort of payment to the bride’s family such as silver, animals, and other valuables. Since coming to the United States, the value of bride wealth has alter because money today in American society is more value than animals so the Hmong people has changed their value of bride wealth which has cause some commotion within the culture because the value of what bride wealth was in Laos and Thailand cannot compare to what bride wealth should be in the United States.
These two examples are of diffusionism that has happened within the Hmong culture after coming to the United States.

Living Off-Grid and Cultural Relativism

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Since discussing Franz Boas and his creation of the idea of cultural relativism I have been thinking of what I could relate cultural relativism to that was modern. I decided to use it in relation to an activity or belief that is sometimes subject to stereotypical generalization. Many things came to mind but I decided to go with off-grid living. This is a practice that seems to be becoming more and more popular. The picture above shows a driveway that is part of a semi-off-grid property. There are a large variety of reasons that some people choose to live a life off of the grid.

Just to name a few, there are those who live off-grid for environmental reasons. They might want to take steps to reduce their carbon footprint by using independent energy sources like solar or wind and maybe grown their own food in a sustainable way. Another person might live exactly the same way except for worries of global economic or governmental collapse. There are also people who believe a zombie apocalypse may be coming, and try to prepare for it by living off the grid. Spirituality is another reason people might live off-grid to help them connect with nature. Others might live off-grid because they were raised in that type of environment and continue to live that way.

I have heard of a question people who live off-grid are sometimes asked: are you gun toting or granola? Granola apparently means an environmentalist who lives off-grid. This question is obviously not open-ended and very limited as to the reasons why someone would live off-grid. But whether living off-gird for reasons of environmental sustainability, economic worries, governmental insecurity, zombie apocalypse, spirituality, or many other reasons, lacking a culturally relative mindset can lead to quite inaccurate, stereotypical conclusions.

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Weber and his Possible Obsession with Shoes and Inspirational Quotes

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Though I am unsure of the origin of the sayings, I remember my mother always quoting things like “until you walk a mile in another person’s shoes”. And now aside from my mother, when I hear or read something similar, I think Weber. Maybe this is the reason I felt a likeness towards his ideas when I first read about Weber.

Let me explain. Weber focuses on naturalistic accounts of behavior, meaning he sticks to the naturalistic tradition, not the positivist. Naturalistic tradition is the belief that we cannot justify or explain another person’s actions or motives in ways that cannot be understood by human agent. He argues that a person’s explanation for their behavior cannot be thought of as incidental to the behavior. Unlike Durkheim, who believes society imposes behavior through a collective conscience (collective conscience being the shared values and beliefs of a society that influences the behavior of people), Weber stressed the importance of a person’s stated motives being included in part of the analysis. This belief leads to Weber not making generalizations about human behavior but instead, seeking Verstehen.

The idea of seeking Verstehen which Weber uses means obtaining a deeper, more empathetic, understanding of human behavior. Verstehen lead me to the idea of not judging someone until you have walked a mile in their shoes. Both ideas focus around empathetic tendencies as well as reaching an understanding for an individual’s behavior. I think they resonate well with each other because they imply that just because the same actions are executed by different people, does not necessarily mean both people had the same reasons behind their actions.          

Likewise to “walking a mile in someone else’s shoes”, in Weber’s explanation as to why Protestants have a high work ethic, I made a connection to quotes like “see the ball, be the ball”.  The doctrine of predestination for Calvinist’s says that a person’s eternal destiny is decided even prior to birth and only a small number of people (the “elect”) are expected to go to heaven. Anyone who accepts this understands that there is nothing for them to do to change their fates. Weber argued that people have a desire to know whether or not they are part of the “elect” which leads people to look for signs of God’s favor. He also mentions that due to the uncertainty that the doctrine of predestination gives, people who follow it will be driven to find evidence of God’s favor. With looking for evidence came working hard as well as going to church and doing other good things. This makes sense because though a person would not be able to know if they are an “elect” or not, they do know an “elect” would do certain things like going to church, and in keeping their own chances of becoming an “elect” open, they too would do things an “elect” person does. I find that Weber’s explanation for the Protestant work ethic and quotes like “see the ball, be the ball” and “monkey see, monkey do” apply nicely to his idea since both the quotes and the Protestant work ethic have an underlying quality of idolizing something in order to be more like the person/object being idolized.

Lastly, while thinking about Weber’s explanation for the Protestant work ethic, I saw a similarity in how a student may work towards becoming an A student. In a similar way to a Protestant doing thing an “elect” would do in order have a possible better chance of becoming an “elect”, a student may emulate an A student, doing things an A student does (like studying more or asking questions in class, etc.) to have a better chance of becoming an A student.  

-Madeline Baumeister

Boxed and Labeled

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Idiographic study is looking at individual facts and evaluating these facts on a much deeper level. This is the way Boas did how much of archeological work. He wanted very precise work to be done not only for his own personal studies but for his student’s studies as well.

I think that archeological work today might be a bit different if it wasn’t for Boas and his inventive new ways of thinking about people in the world not just as things that needed to be categorized and labeled, but as human beings with different thoughts and ideas about everyday life. In Boas’ time archeological work being done tended to be more about just placing people in certain categories, these categories contained people and cultures that were grouped together based off of certain similarities. “Culture is a thing, a thing in itself that cannot be reduced to other factors of life.” (Moberg:145) This simple yet effective quote tells of culture being something that is bigger than it seems, we as a society cannot group and categorize cultures especially the people in those cultures and try to place them into small boxes.

Culture is an every changing phenomenon that cannot be contained. Boas took the standards of his time and flipped them upside down, instead of looking at nonwestern cultures as something strange and out of the ordinary, Boas looked at the nonwestern cultures with the same respect he held for his own culture. Each and every culture in the world is very different, from the people who participate in the practices, rituals, and beliefs to the anthropologist who is studying a culture. To explain the picture associated with this post, each of the masks are different and have their own special meaning. Just like the masks people are different in their own special way, thus meaning that we as a society need to look less at the outside but more on the inside to find a deeper meaning to the world around us.

-Helena Biehn