Journal of the
Washington Academy of Sciences 2: 125-129 (1912)
Definitions of two primitive social states.
O. F. COOK
Primitive social systems are usually classified by standards borrowed from legal or political science, such as the different systems of inheritance of property or rank. Familiarity with two groups of primitive people, in West Africa and Central America, has suggested the possibility of a different system of sociological classification, based on facts that have a more fundamental relation to the development of civilization.
That a primitive society be matriarchal or patriarchal, or that it be governed by a priestly or a military caste, does not. determine its possibilities of progress, for progressive peoples have shown many differences and have survived many changes in these respects. More important. factors have been contributed by the external environment, but none of these can be considered indispensable. Capable peoples have developed in apparently unfavorable environments, until they were able to choose their own environments. The underlying question of civilization is to know what conditions are really favorable for the development of human talent.
The essentials of civilization, considered as characters of human races, are not transmitted from one generation to mother by prenatal inheritance like the instinctive arts of animals. Human arts and social adjustments have to be acquired by postnatal inheritance, thro the medium of contacts with parents and elders during the years of childhood and youth. It is reasonable, therefore, to believe that any factors or conditions that tend to increase or diminish these contacts are of practical importance in the development civilization.
Two types of social organization may be distinguished by reference to the contacts between parents and children. In the choripedic state the children of different families are kept apart from each other, and remain associated with the parents and older members of the family. In the sympedic state the children of a community are associated in groups with others of similar age. The choripedic state provides complete contacts with the parents, the sympedic state only partial and imperfect contacts.
In his most primitive condition man may be thought of as roaming thru the forests in simple family groups, as the anthropoid apes and some very backward savages still do After set tied agricultural habits are adopted and permanent food supplies assured it becomes possible for the original family group to expand into a community. The dwelling may expand with the family into a large communal house, or the community may live in a cluster of houses, constituting a village. Both of these conditions are found among the natives of Liberia. The Kroo people of the coast live in large communal houses that may shelter two or three score of people. The interior tribes, such as the Veys, Golahis and Pessahs, live in very small, closely clustered houses. The social condition of the children is the same in the two kinds of communities, both representing the sympedic state. Children of nearly the same age spend most of their time playing together or chattering about in little groups, much like the squads or gangs of street children with us.
The social organization of the Kekchis and other related tribes of eastern Guatemala is essentially different from that of the Africans. Although these tropical Indians are even more strictly agricultural than the natives of tropical Africa, they do not associate in communal dwellings or villages. Each family lives by itself, often quite remote from any other. The Kekchis and neighboring tribes were aptly described by Otis T. Mason as "poor relations of the Mayas." Though unusually primitive and unorganized, they are closely related in language and other respects to the tribes that were furthest advanced toward civilization at the time of the Spanish invasion.
When families live isolated on the land, as among the Kekchis, the children have full opportunities to learn all the facts and acquire all the skill that the parents may possess, and transmit these arts in turn to their descendants. Capable parents not only produce more capable children, but give them a more effective equipment for life. It is easy to understand that civilization develops under such conditions, by gradual accumulation of the experience and accidental discoveries of successive generations. Among the Africans, on the other hand, the premature socialization of the children interferes with progress toward civilization. Postnatal inheritance is restricted when contacts between the generations are inadequate. There are smaller chances that progress made by capable individuals will be preserved and transmitted to their descendants.
With this difference of social organization in mind, it becomes easier to understand the striking contrast noted by so many travellers, historians and ethnographers, between the natives of Africa and America. The general distribution and diversity of archaeological remains on the American continent afford evidences of a generally favorable condition for the development of civilization. In tropical Africa, on the other hand, civilization has not only failed to develop but many introduced civilizations have degenerated into barbarism. This is not because the Africans are inferior as individuals to the Indians, for they generally have both physical and mental superiority. But the Indians were able to make more progress because they retained the superior social organization of separate families instead of taking the false step of premature socialization. It is true that many tribes of Indians in different parts of the American continent went over to the communal, sympedic system, but it does not appear that such tribes made progress toward civilization, even as far as the Africans.
The sympedic condition is not confined, of course, to primitive peoples, but supervenes whenever the family organization is weakened by crowding people together in villages or cities, becoming most intensified among urban populations that have ceased to practice any of the agricultural arts. Village-dwelling agricultural or pastoral people may preserve effective contacts between the parents and the children, for the families usually separate for several months of the year, to plant their crops or tend their herds.
Agriculture is to be considered as the basis of civilization, not only because it affords the physical support of civilized man, but because it represents the condition of existence necessary for the development of civilization. Farm life usually supplies both society and solitude, the prime essentials of intellectual progress. All of the highly civilized races seem to have developed their powers during a primitive agricultural stage, preparatory to more conspicuous exploits in other lines of activity, military, political, industrial or artistic. The highest developments of specialized arts are often attained after civilizations reach the urban stage, but urban conditions are finally destructive of civilization.
When people leave the land and become continuously occupied with urban pursuits constructive contacts between parents and children are at an end. The home may still supply fond, lodging and clothes, but other parental responsibilities tire disregarded or transferred to the school. The child really belongs to a group of school children of his own age, rather than to a family group. He spends all his active hours with the other children, thinks their thoughts, speaks their language, and sees the world entirely from their point of view. Under farm conditions the children share in all the activities of their parents, instead of being relegated to an artificial scholastic state, apart from the life of the community.
The school makes for progress when it serves to supplement the parental contacts with other opportunities of learning. Civilization is a synthetic process, as some ethnologists have pointed out, but herding young children together does not advance civilization. Compulsory instruction of parents in the interest of home rearing of children would be a much wiser measure than compulsory attendance at schools. The school becomes an agent of disorganization when it weakens the family relations and gives the child less than be might have obtained from his parents. The juvenile savagery now recognized as a regular feature of our city populations is not a normal state of the children of civilized races, as some educators have inferred, but is a result of the sympedic state, the premature association of the children with each other, and the lessening of contacts with parents and elders.