Book Review: Our Common Denominator: Human Universals Revisited by Christopher Antweiler.

Author:Quest, Linda
Position:Book review
 
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Antweiler, Christoph. Our Common Denominator: Human Universals Revisited. Translated by Diane Kerns. New York: Berghahn Books, 2016. xiv + 350 pages. Hardcover, $120.00.

Dr. Christoph Antweiler, a cultural anthropologist grounded in natural history, has specialties in social reproduction, cultural selection, and the evolution of 'social evolution' itself. His analytical tables and exposition are masterful and survive translation in German and English. He distills and synthesizes with precision, and discerns when to ease up on isms, back off from absolutes, and avoid absurdity. He pursues human universals, or our common denominator, with rigor and perceptiveness--visiting the humanities, cultural and social sciences, and natural sciences--with over 700 indexed authors in psychology, philosophy, history, prehistory, linguistics, sociology, ecology, and primatology. Over 1,400 in-text parenthetical citations are tied to the extensive bibliography. Antweiler admits to feeling somewhat of a dabbler (an occupational hazard for a synthesist); however, he scores high as a detective.

Universal features pertain to societies, not to individuals or to human beings as members of a species or to humanity in general. Antweiler cautions against putting causal assumptions into definitions and against dichotomizing nature and convention. Rather, he allows for discovery, such as the emergence and function of ultrasociality, that is, humans living in large groupings that last and expand due to group social experiences. Antweiler provisionally lays aside non-Western publications, although his achievements in logical presentation--and ties to economics and politics--demonstrate the feasibility of doing what he proposes to do. Antweiler expresses indebtedness and inspiration to the "masterpiece" of Donald Edward Brown, Human Universals (1991) (p. 32). Brown is a mainstream anthropologist who delved into cultural relativism and cultural diversity. His work was also emphatically endorsed by Francis Fukuyama, a world-class political scientist.

Antweiler's stated goal is an interdisciplinary perspective, designed for persons who make decisions and policies in the public domain as well as others who want a general overview of human universals. Academic users might be graduate students facing comprehensive exams and diverse specialists who interrogate them. Other beneficiaries include persons whose accidental, assigned, or incidental readings have left them intrigued...

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