Ontology, reproduction, and what anthropologists didn't know about how babies are made
Mwenza Blell (Newcastle University)
Paper short abstract:
This paper explores how the ‘virgin birth debates’ can be construed as a conflict between two indigenous ontologies addressing the material facts of conception.
Paper long abstract:
This paper explores how the 'virgin birth debates' can be construed as a conflict between two indigenous ontologies addressing the material facts of conception. These two ontologies reflect realities at different scales and different ways of conceptualising variation in outcome (without variation in input). The attribution of greater truth and importance to the microscopic and a fixation on biological paternity on the part of anthropologists arise from the context of early 20th century European scientific study of humanity. This focus on the truth in what is invisible (microscopic particles) did not extend to invisibility where explanations have a supernatural character. The combination of power, concepts like 'the primitive' and an ontology that sought to deny the validity of alternative views led anthropologists to regard alternative ontologies of human conception as 'ignorance'. The Trobrianders, at the centre of the debates, can be understood, on the one hand, to have grasped something which eluded the anthropologists and, on the other, to take a more macroscopic view of reproduction. The differences in ontology between these anthropologists and research subjects can be partly explained in terms of human reproductive ecology: differences in levels of subfecundity between the two groups in conflict. Recent evidence indicates that levels of fecundity observed in Europe in the 20th century are likely outliers in human experience. For the Trobrianders, as with most humans, observation would show a far weaker correlation between heterosexual penetrative sex and pregnancy than would have observed by European anthropologists of the early 20th century.
'Grounding': when multiple ontologies meet material facts