Cultural Relativism

Show me a cultural relativist at 30,000 feet and I’ll show you a hypocrite
–Richard Dawkins

As a bit of background: years ago I was a graduate student in a pretty high-flying humanities department (by high-flying, I mean there was a LOT of theory, theorists and theoretical blather of varying degrees of intellectual rigor). So cultural relativism is something that I know about first hand. The more extreme version Richard Dawkins argues against in River Out of Eden I have encountered (and argued against), as well.
For a long time I’ve been dissatisfied with Dawkins’s line here–there is something willfully oversimple in it, something reminiscent of the kind of anti-intellectualism Dawkins usually decries. Anyhow, here’s the whole passage:
It is often thought clever to say science is no more than our modern origin myth. The Jews had their Adam and Eve, the Sumerians their Marduk and Gilgamesh, the Greeks Zeus and the Olympians, the Norsemen their Valhalla. What is evolution, some smart people say, but our modern equivalent of gods and epic heroes, neither better nor worse, neither truer nor falser? There is a fashionable salon philosophy called cultural relativism which holds, in its extreme form, that science has no more claim to truth than tribal myth: science is just the mythology favored by our modern Western tribe. I once was provoked by an anthropologist colleague into putting the point starkly, as follows: Suppose there is a tribe, I said, who believe that the moon is an old calabash tossed into the sky, hanging only just out of reach above the treetops. Do you really claim that our scientific truth–that the moon is about a quarter million miles away and a quarter the diameter of the Earth–is no more true than the tribe’s calabash? “Yes,” the anthropologist said. “We are just brought up in a culture that sees the world in a scientific way. Neither way is more true than the other.” 
Show me a cultural relativist at 30,000 feet and I’ll show you a hypocrite. Airplanes built according to scientific principles work. They stay aloft, and they get you to a chosen destination. [Obviously this was written before 911 returned a strong element of the mythical to commercial air travel.] Airplanes built to tribal and mythological specifications, such as the dummy planes of the cargo cults in jungle clearings or the beeswaxed wings of Icarus, don’t. [But what of Deadalus?] If you are flying to an international congress of anthropologists or literary critics, the reason you will probably get there–the reason you don’t plummet into a ploughed field–is that a lot of Western scientifically trained engineers have got their sums right. Western science, acting on good evidence that the moon orbits the earth a quarter million miles away, using Western-designed computers and rockets, has succeeded in placing people on its surface. Tribal science, believing the moon is just above the treetops, will never touch it outside of dreams.

Dawkins’ note: I must stress that [this argument] is aimed strictly at people who think like my colleague of the calabash. There are others who, confusingly, also call themselves cultural relativists although their views are completely different and perfectly sensible. To them, cultural relativism just means that you cannot understand a culture if you try to interpret its beliefs in terms of your own culture. You have to see each culture’s belief in the context of the culture’s other beliefs. [But of course, in spite of the sensibleness of this form of cultural relativism, Dawkins finds himself unable to manage it.]

There are loads of questions begged by this little story of Dawkins’, and they all go back the fact that he is a lousy philosopher, and an even worse practitioner of social critique.

For one thing the calabash just out of reach story is implausibly stupid. No one would actually believe that the calabash was just above the treetops. For the simple reason that, climbing to the treetops, as some in this tribe would no doubt be able to do, the tribespeople would find that the moon still seems far away. How far away? Farther than just out of reach.
And, as someone who has made these arguments in graduate school literary theory classes, in the presence of “cultural relativist” anthropologists, I can guarantee you Dawkins colleague answered his question in nothing like the direct manner he portrays for us. The relativist colleague who says Western notions of the moon are no more “true” than tribal ones is probably operating with a vastly different notion of what “true” means than Dawkins is, and before giving anything like a positive answer would have expatiated at quite some length about those differences. A particularly daring relativist might have said something like ” Yes . . .” and continued on for several paragraphs letting you know precisely what was meant by yes.
Some readers may be now comparing me to Bill Clinton in his famous parsing of the meaning of “is.” But that’s far from the case, there is a big, important discourse on what truth is and how we can come to know it–it’s called epistemology, and practically every great philosopher you care to think of has made some contribution to it. This discourse has been driven by the challenges that arise out of cultural difference–the conflicts between reason and faith, between faith and classical learning, between faith and science, between our values and those of other cultures.
When Andrew Brown says that scientists are “bad philosophers” part of what he means is that they are fairly unschooled about this literature, and fairly naive in speaking about truth: they only know their own notion of it, and they judge everyone else’s notion of truth only by their own standards.
As Dawkins does here.
How would entertaining a different notion of truth change how we think about Dawkins’s story?
One might, for instance, try to imagine what significance the scientifically correct information about the moon would have in the calabash society. They probably have no conception whatsoever of the distances involved, a half-million miles would mean absolutely nothing to them. Their knowledge of math might be minimal. The notion that the moon is a big rock would be mere trivia, even if they believed it, because they have no prospect of using that knowledge in any way. So Dawkins’s facts about the moon might be accurate, but they wouldn’t be “truths” in the society in question, because they have no use whatsoever for these facts.
But they might have use for the moon as metaphor, or as a celestial entity having impact on everyone’s life or whatever social uses we might think up.
The calabash notion of the moon does not “work” to get these folks to the moon, but no notion of the moon is going to do that for them. Going to the moon is a function of a whole host of social and cultural structures; it isn’t just a function of a scientifically appropriate notion of the moon.
But that’s not the only work the moon can do, which seems to be a significant blind spot in Dawkins own point of view.

4 thoughts on “Cultural Relativism

  1. Oran – sorry for posting this here, please feel free to delete it, as unrelated to the post. I did make this request over on a thread you were involved with at Nisbett’s site, but wanted to hedge my bet. I would really appreciate it, if you could click to my profile and email me. I can’t find a contact for you and have a request.

  2. Wonderful article. Totally agree. I used to think highly of Dawkins until a month ago I came accross the same little story yo tell here. I was pretty disillusioned that he would through overboard such a uselful intellectual tool as cultural relativism. It was particuarly useful for me when I was a south american gradstudent in the US.I had not read the note about the other sensible people who call themselves cultural relativist, though. I’m only little less disillusioned now.In my head, I’ve been trying to organize my ideas on the subject , but it turns out you said exactly what I wanted to say. I am a geologist, and I think that makes me pretty bad philosopher (social sciences are hoby of mine), so your article came as great relief.Now, I need some reassurance ad bakcground information here: Dawkins is the one using th term “Cultural relativism” confusingly, isn’t he?Greeting form Chile,

  3. The Dawkins piece on cultural relativism was written at a particular time in history when it seems to be important to him to fire a shot across the bows of the humanities and social sciences (see < HREF="" REL="nofollow">this article<> or Ullica Segerstrale’s book on “The Science Wars.”Dawkins’ predilections have always been toward explaining everything via his field of specialty (thus, memes) so he is exceedingly hostile to attempts by the humanities to explain his field, which, in part, is what cultural relativism drives us toward: looking at science as a social institution rather than just as a process of revealing the truth.So, yes, he’s arguing very selectively, with people who take the most extreme sorts of positions opposite him, and even then I don’t think he plays exactly fair with their point-of-view.

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