Life Histories (of nonhumans)

Rooting around among accounts of nonhumans—as I regularly do in listening to my biological anthropology colleagues and, more widely, in the pursuit of multispecies ethnography—I was surprised to come across “life history” as an analytic. My associations with the term have always involved humans. Indeed, I availed myself of this standard ethnographic method during the course of my fieldwork in Detroit, when the “hillbillies” I was studying turned violent. I had to find more tranquil sources, so I began talking with older residents of the neighborhood, asking them to tell me their life histories so I could compile an “insiders” view of that part of Detroit. But ethnographers don’t have a monopoly on this method.

Turns out, life history plays a significant role in evolutionary theory—that which some oppose to cultural analysis altogether. Life history theory sizes up organisms’ trade-offs between reproduction and survival—it’s a means for gauging a species’ response to ecological challenges via its sexual strategies. Its units of analysis are a set of traits—birth size, growth patterns, time to maturity, and a variety of aspects of reproduction (age, number and size of offspring, rates of survival, etc.)—that respond in some manner to environmental changes and dynamics. If you’re following the surge of new developments in epigenetics, this analytical perspective might seem suddenly newly applicable or at least relevant to social accounts of humans. But my interest here is in how life histories in the natural sciences are provoking means of rethinking sociality across species.

Part of this development is technological—the miniaturization of recording devices—plus the rise of big data; combined together offering the capacity to generate and analyze vast amounts of information, rendering the daily lives of insects and tiny mammals quite legible. Much as Michel Foucault relates in Discipline and Punish: the individual is a product of writing and recording, though in that case via the simple technology of the file or folder. But there’s another point to be gleaned here. It’s not just the scale of perception but the ability to direct it towards discerning patterns of behavior; which in turns permits an attention to the social aspects of these lives. I first took note of this in a New York Times article by Natalie Angier (May 13, 2014), on the extent of sociality among spider—never an order much known for being social. Angier explained, “The new work on social spiders is part of the expanding field of animal personalities research, which seeks to delineate, quantify, and understand the many stylistic differences that have been identified in a vast array of species, including monkeys, minks, bighorn sheep, dumpling squid, zebra finches and spotted hyenas”. The key finding—“the personality is powerfully influenced by the other spiders in the group”—echoes one made by Claude Lévi-Strauss in The Savage Mind (1962). That’s interesting enough, but more provocative is the matter of how the homology between “life histories” in the cultural and natural sciences might start opening up a wider dialogue about biocultural dynamics.

Starting here, for instance, with another New York Times article, this by James Gorman (“No Glass Ceiling for Worker Bees”) in the section “Sciencetake.” Here’s the lead: “The honeybee hive would not seem to be the place to look for individuality, flexibility in job duties and social mobility.” Not unless, one might add, these are prominent categories of our neoliberal era that one brings to this study. But that snarky aside is a sidelight to the findings Gorman is relating: that these eusocial creatures are hardly biological or genetic automatons; rather daily life (foraging activity, for instance) reveals less determinism and more plasticity or variation than previously assumed—as in cultural accounts of humans. But also, that “individuality”—a hallmark of humanism—is hardly exclusive to humans. The reported research, by Gene E. Robinson, reflects “an increasing appreciation of the role of the individual in social insects.” This is notable not just as an apparent rupture of human exclusivity, but because it extends or transposes a long-standing anthropological question about the role of society in crafting and delineating individuality. And if anthropological questions have bearing on nonhumans, then the answers produced quite possibly will lead to revisions in how we analyze sociality among humans.


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