Date: 21 Mar 2012

Cultural kinship as a computational system: from bottom-up to top-down forms of social organization

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Abstract

A key change in the evolution of our species from a common ancestor with the chimpanzees was the shift to a field of social interaction no longer dependent upon face-to-face interaction for the maintenance of social coherency. Our hunter-gatherers ancestors made a radical shift to social relations based on a culturally constructed system of kinship relations. Unlike biological kinship that reflects the facts of biological reproduction, cultural kinship is a constructed, computational system that enables symbolic computation of kinship relations that are expressed through the kin terms of a kinship terminology. The system of kin terms is analogous to arithmetic as a computational system for computing quantities with symbols instantiated by the counting numbers. The internal logic of a kinship terminology ensures consistency both in kinship relation computations and translation of kin term computations to the perspective of each person who culturally shares the same kinship terminology. The constraint of internal and external consistency does not lead to a single kinship terminology computational system, hence there are a variety of kinship terminology systems across human societies. In this paper I outline a theory for the generative structure of kinship terminology systems and briefly discuss the implications this for explaining structural differences between kinship terminologies and how structure relates to social organization.