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Introduction To The Idea Of General Descent


Wanglei Wangshu and his grandson of the Konyak Naga tribe, India. Photo credit: Peter Bos.


In the 1980 comedy movie The Gods Must Be Crazy, the story begins in the cockpit of a small airplane flying high over the Kalahari Desert in Southern Africa. The pilot is drinking a Coca-Cola from one of those classic glass bottles, and after slurping down the last sip, he nonchalantly opens the little window next to him and drops the empty bottle from the plane.

Far below on the desert floor, a bushman elder named Xi is roving about in search of food and water-bearing roots, when he suddenly hears the whirring whistle of a falling object and, seeing it land nearby, goes over to investigate. To his amazement, he finds the pilot’s Coca-Cola bottle half-buried in the sand. With narration that sounds straight out of a nature documentary, the movie tells the story of Xi’s and his tribe’s relationship with this strange, mysterious object.

Though original—and funny—the movie employs an old stereotype about tribal peoples, especially hunter-gatherers such as the Kalahari Bushmen. To wit: in their primitive ignorance, they can’t fathom the essence of even the simplest products of our more advanced Western culture.

But perhaps the joke’s on us.

For it happens that tribes around the world—including the tribe cast in The Gods Must Be Crazy—have dropped at our feet a product of their own. And, like the Coca-Cola bottle to the bushmen, it’s a product that has remained to our Western minds an impenetrable enigma.

In the eyes of those who’ve encountered it, this product has taken the form of strange, mysterious data: a peculiar principle of equivalence or sameness between grandparents and grandchildren, showing up in their behaviors towards each other, their personal names, and most commonly the real, spoken relationship terms that they apply to one another. As an example, here are the words of anthropologist James Boyd Christensen summarizing such data among a tribe in Tanzania, Africa:

The kinship terminology permits alternating generations to refer to each other as ‘brother’ or ‘sister,’ and a young man may tease his grandfather about marrying his wife. The identification of alternate generations with each other is rather strong, and grandparents tend to take the part of the children against parents. When a parent would slap or strike a child, the grandparent might say “Why do you beat me?”

For centuries, anthropologists, explorers, missionaries, and even government officials have collected this same kind of data around the world. They’ve tilted their heads and blinked at it. They’ve nudged it, shaken it, and flipped it around in various directions. And they’ve grunted out all sorts of guesses as to its origin and import. Yet, despite recording, pondering, and publishing it countless times, they’ve never managed to grasp what this data actually signifies. Like the airplane flying high above the Kalahari, the truth has simply gone over their heads.

[Cue the bushman Xi chuckling to himself.]

All the while, it turns out that this data—this principle of sameness between grandparents and grandchildren that’s been recorded in tribes throughout the world—is nothing other than the outward expression of a very definite idea, a belief. Sure, it might seem perplexing that something as relatable as an idea could’ve remained veiled to anthropologists for so long. But it’s an excusable offense, for this idea is unlike anything ever conceived by modern Western people.

What is this idea?

Well, imagine believing that you reappear in the world every two generations. No, really, put it in your mind that what makes you who you are descends through your children, but skips them, and is reborn—and often multiplied—in your grandchildren. I don’t mean that this or that aspect of you is reborn; I’m talking about the die-hard conviction that somehow, independent of any and all aspects, certain of your grandchildren are you—reproduced. Imagine being convinced that you reappear like this, if you’re a man, in the persons of all your sons’ sons, and if you’re a woman, in the persons of all your daughters’ daughters. Your mind has just been implanted with the idea of general descent.

This idea is definitely nothing you’ve heard of. If you google it, you won’t find a wiki page on it, any news articles or books about it, or indeed any results at all. If you ask anthropology professors about it, they’ll say they’ve never heard of it. The reason why you won’t find anything about this idea is that nobody except me—and now you—knows about it. That’s right, I’m not here writing to you about something that’s already been discovered; you’re currently reading the words of the person who discovered it. And, being thrust into that position (really more tripping and falling into it)—and subsequently working for ten years to excavate the idea—I must choose how to reveal it. Which, if you’ve been following, I’ve decided to do by sharing it with you right here at the Fiery Blog.

In each post, I’ll show you concrete evidence of this idea of general descent in a unique tribe or group of tribes around the world—with each post forming a link to those next to it in terms of what was actually going on with the idea. In every case, you’ll see evidence that’s been recorded, published, and disseminated widely throughout libraries and book collections worldwide, but without anyone involved—or any readers since—decoding the picture behind the data. That is, until now.

Now, I should point out that general descent is nothing like ideas of reincarnation. After all, according to it, in addition to reappearing two generations later in more than one individual, your rebirth occurs very often while you’re still alive. Thus, it’s not a belief that your soul returns in some other form after you die, but the belief that new, younger versions of you are produced two generations after you—whether you’re alive or not. Indeed, general descent isn’t about people’s souls or a spiritual belief at all but rather, to those who’ve subscribed to it, more akin to a scientific idea about human nature, for it arises as an explanation of a real-life phenomenon.

What real-life phenomenon would lead tribes to believe that people are replicated every two generations?

It certainly wouldn’t be physical resemblance or shared mannerisms between grandparents and grandchildren, seeing that these individuals by no means always look or behave the same, nor are they the only relatives in whom similarities are likely to appear.

The answer, instead, is a certain persistent coincidence—a naturally occurring law—that manifests itself in how every husband and wife and their grandchildren stand in relation to each other socially. You may be familiar with the fact that in tribal societies, whether hunter-gatherer, agricultural, or pastoral, a person belongs by birth not just to a family but to a larger, usually more prominent network of kindred—which we’ll call here a “clan.” (This clan isn’t to be confused with the hunter-gatherer’s localized “band,” which in some hunter-gatherer tribes lines up approximately with the kin organization but in others is quite distinct.) The clans that make up one tribe can differ considerably from those that make up another. For example, they might differ in their size and number, in whether they possess names and emblems or remain all but invisible to the naked eye, in whether their members are dispersed throughout the tribe or live locally segregated, and in perhaps the biggest question of all: whether the clans continue themselves via “patrilineal” or “matrilineal” descent—that is, whether people in the tribe belong by birth to their father’s or mother’s clan. But despite how they might differ from tribe to tribe, the clans of just about every tribe in the world share one basic trait in common: namely, the members of each clan, being made up of close and distant kin, abide by a rule known as “exogamy,” or marriage outside the clan. This rule against marriage between kin, which has likely been around as long as behaviorally modern humans have, almost always extends out of the clan and forbids members of closely related clans from marrying as well. As a result, every man and woman who join together as husband and wife stand in a certain inborn social relationship with one another: simply put, they belong by birth to different, marriageable clans.

So what is this naturally occurring law that I speak of above? As real as the law that an object thrown upward always comes down, it’s the law that this inborn social relationship belonging to each husband and wife—that is, their birth in marriageable clans—always happens to repeat itself in their grandchildren. In other words, a couple’s sons’ and daughters’ children aren’t born in the same clan, or closely related clans, or just any clans in relation to each other; they’re always born in clans that are marriageable, just like the husband and wife two generations prior. To be clear, I’m not talking about whether or not these grandchildren, who are first-cousins (cross cousins), might actually be permitted to marry; that varies from tribe to tribe. I’m speaking purely of their having been born into clans which are deemed marriageable. This naturally occurring law—which, despite being practically universal in tribal societies, has remained unknown to modern anthropologists and scholars—is illustrated in the following figure showing: 1) a husband and wife, 2) their children, and 3) their grandchildren.

Proof of the law’s existence in tribes around the world is found in the sheer inevitability with which the law works its way down the generations. Below, I show the process in patrilineal and matrilineal tribes side by side—the law’s route being distinct in each. (The letters represent each person’s clan of birth).

In patrilineal tribes, we see that given a husband and wife of clans and b respectively, their children are born in the husband’s clan (a), as are their sons’ children in the next generation, while their daughters’ children are born in whichever clans their daughters marry into (b, c, d, etc.)—in short, marriageable clans to clan a. In matrilineal tribes, we see that the process is the exact opposite.

A tribe, by the way, is well familiar with how the law works—indeed more familiar than we can ever be. The mystery to the tribe isn’t in the technical details, but in the larger question of why the law exists at all—as if there must be some hidden, greater significance to the law, beyond it being merely the result of natural circumstances.

Even so, you may wonder how the belief that people actually reappear in their grandchildren could possibly arise as an explanation of this law, i.e. seeing that these particular grandparents and grandchildren don’t even always belong to the same clans, as was shown above. But this last fact—this partial discontinuity of clan within the law—turns out to be precisely the feature of the law that’s directly responsible for the belief’s rise. For it constantly reminds the tribe that, even though it manifests itself in everyone’s clan of birth, the law is separate and distinct from the clans, and therefore any deeper reason behind the law—any more meaningful explanation for it than mere natural circumstances—must be sought in something other than the clans. And what’s the only other tangible thing in the equation? The people themselves.

By this means, the law ultimately causes a tribe to become convinced of something remarkable: that the reason why the law exists—why a husband and wife’s inborn social relationship to each other always repeats itself in their sons’ and daughters’ children—is that what’s really being repeated are the husband and wife themselves. In other words, the tribe discovers, or at least believes it discovers, that every husband and wife’s sons’ sons and daughters’ daughters are the husband and wife—little reproductions of them—with all respective differences in their physical appearance or mannerisms being due to other causes.

This rise of the idea of general descent as an explanation of the above law tells us another important fact about the idea. Namely, it didn’t originate in one place long ago and spread outward from that single point, but instead has been springing up independently in tribes all over the world. And it’s been arising like this probably from the time humans first began organizing themselves on the basis of kin, and, in a few little enclaves around the world, continues to arise in the same fashion to this day. In future posts I’ll show you that, springing into existence in this manner throughout the world, the idea has left us a trail of evidence millions of miles long.

But here at the Fiery Blog, we won’t just look at evidence of the idea’s existence.

For it so happens that this idea that people are reborn every two generations, after arising, does more than exist. Having sprung into the minds of a tribe, the idea subsequently engages in what is by far the most dynamic process any new thing—including an idea—can engage in: it falls into contradiction with reality.

Now, let’s backtrack for a moment. We just saw that the idea arises in a tribe as an explanation of a real law that manifests itself between husbands and wives and their grandchildren. Thus, we saw that whether or not the idea is the correct explanation, it nevertheless fits with reality—that’s what makes it arise. So how does the idea, once arisen, fall into contradiction with reality? What does it fall into contradiction with? The answer, however, isn’t so much a matter of what—but of who. For, after the idea arises in the minds of husbands and wives, it begins to collide and clash with men and women in a completely different connection: the relation of brother and sister. It’s an ill fit that, over time, gives rise to three major contradictions in people’s lives. I’ll show you one of these contradictions right here.

Illustrated below, it’s the contradiction that a brother’s and sister’s “little selves” according to general descent—that is, the sons’ sons of the brother and the daughters’ daughters of the sister—often happen to be born in marriageable clans to one another. In each instance, it’s as if the original brother and sister were not siblings, but husband and wife.

Clearly, if it’s genuinely believed within a tribe that a man’s sons’ sons and a woman’s daughters’ daughters are the man’s and woman’s reproductions, then to the tribe it would only seem right that these respective grandchildren of a brother and sister are born as brothers and sisters themselves. It’s only logical. Or, if not as biological siblings, then at least born in the same or closely related clans—whose members within the same generation usually regard each other as siblings in a looser sense. But members of marriageable clans? Even if they never actually married, their birth in this social relationship in the presence of the idea of general descent would represent, in the eyes of most tribes, some degree of an abomination. That’s more or less the gist of this particular contradiction: that in its clash with opposite-sex siblings, the idea runs up against a tribe’s social norms. The other two contradictions each have their own special department and impact on a tribe.

What do these contradictions cause a tribe to do?

Does the tribe stand by and let the integrity of its brother-sister connection be trampled in different directions by general descent? Or does the tribe choose its ancient tie between siblings over the idea, and abandon the idea as incompatible with reality?

The answer is neither. Instead, the members of the tribe do what anyone worthy of the name humans would do in the presence of an idea they truly believed: they change reality. That is, they take society in hand and, using a combination of genius and might, transform it in order to solve the contradictions and hence bring reality into harmony with the idea. And when I say ‘transform society,’ I don’t mean it figuratively; I mean they literally invent new ways of organizing human beings and controlling their interactions. You’ll see here at the Fiery Blog that many of the most widespread social institutions that anthropologists and others have recorded in tribes around the world are none other than products of this universal, worldwide effort to resolve the contradictions associated with the idea of general descent.

Here’s an example: The institution known as the “moiety system” has been documented in many tribes around the world, indeed on every continent except Europe; yet its purpose has remained a mystery. By far the most prevalent version of the system can be described as the permanent division of a tribe—that is, the distribution of the tribe’s clans—into two great exogamous, intermarrying halves of the tribe, or ‘moieties.’ These two moieties aren’t geographical or territorial halves of the tribe; rather they have a purely social existence. The way they work is simple: given a person’s birth in a clan assigned to one moiety, he or she is forbidden from marrying into any clan of the same moiety, but is allowed to marry into any clan of the opposite moiety. Below is a basic representation of the organization.

The mystery of this institution to anthropologists has always been: Why? Why would a tribe establish such an organization? For what reason would humans expend the energy? And these questions are warranted, for even though the moiety system is simple, it would be no easy institution for a tribe to implement. It involves, in essence, curtailing the clans’ independence, and forcing them to interact according to a single, tribe-wide scheme in one of the most important matters of life. Thus, there has to be some cause behind its existence—some need that makes itself felt in a tribe, which the moiety system fulfills.

This need is nothing other than the contradiction we just looked at in the previous section—that a brother’s and sister’s “little reproductions” (i.e. their respective sons’ sons and daughters’ daughters) are often born in marriageable clans to each other. A tribe, either by its own ingenious invention or by borrowing that of a neighboring tribe, establishes the moiety system for the express purpose of resolving this particular contradiction, ending it once and for all. How the moiety system resolves the contradiction is demonstrated below (for the sake of simplicity, in a patrilineal tribe):

We see that in a patrilineal tribe organized into moieties, group-affiliations occur down the generations in a very orderly fashion. What’s of interest to us here are the affiliations of a brother’s and sister’s respective sons’ sons and daughters’ daughters—i.e. their re-embodiments according to general descent. They’re still often born of different clans from one another (it requires more to prevent that); but now, these different clans always belong to the same moiety, and therefore will never be marriageable clans. In other words, as soon as a tribe organizes itself into exogamous moieties, the contradiction seen previously is completely and utterly resolved. Kaput.

Do you want to see more?

Here at the Fiery Blog, I’ll take you on a journey through the tribal world and show you crystal clear evidence of this idea of general descent and its transformation of human society by means of its three contradictions.

Think of the Fiery Blog as an anomaly—a glitch in the universe—a place where you can peek into one of humankind’s deepest secrets and gain knowledge that, officially speaking, doesn’t even exist. Here, I’ll use anthropologists’ and others’ own communications to tell you a true epic story of an idea and its effect that has unfolded millions of times throughout the world—almost assuredly among your and my own ancestors—yet which has never been told before. Anywhere.

Make sure to pack some extra clothes, and I look forward to seeing you here for the journey!


[References for this post]



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