Damon: Not-so-random encounters
Anthropologist applies chaos theory to culture
Photo by Dan Addison
|Anthropologist Fred Damon has released a collection of essays concerning chaos theory and society.
By Mary Carlson
In Tokyo a butterfly flaps its wings, setting in motion tiny atmospheric changes that over time spawn tornadoes in California. The so-called “butterfly effect” is often used to illustrate a main tenet of chaos theory: in some dynamic systems, minute shifts in initial conditions lead to huge changes within the system.
Since the 1960s, chaos theory has wrought dramatic changes in the natural sciences, revealing new insights into the apparent disorder and randomness of such complex systems as global climate, the solar system and birds’ migratory patterns. But what about the social sciences and humanities? Does chaos theory hold equal promise for researchers who focus on human culture and society in all its complex glory?
With the recent publication of “On the Order of Chaos,” a group of essays edited by U.Va. anthropologist Frederick H. Damon and Mark S. Mosko of the Australian National University, the answer is a resounding yes. This pioneering work applies chaos theory in innovative ways to a broad spectrum of cultural systems from Brazil and Peru to Rwanda and New Guinea. In an essay that Damon calls the “most dramatic” of the book, Christopher C. Taylor explains how political and historical analyses fail to adequately explain the extremity of violence during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Applying chaos theory to ethnographic data from interviews that he conducted with survivors, Taylor finds a deep order embedded in the conflict’s surface disorder, which reveals quite a bit about the passion and scope of the violence. Taylor completed his doctorate at U.Va. in 1988 and is now the anthropology department chairman at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
“For a long time,” Damon said, “there’s been a big gap between the sciences and the humanities with waxing and waning hostility. We self-consciously stepped into this.”
Featuring essays by such leading anthropologists as Damon’s U.Va. colleague, Roy Wagner, as well as Jack Morava, a Johns Hopkins University mathematician, “On the Order of Chaos” offers the first focused, comprehensive look at the relevance of chaos theory to anthropology’s unique ethnographic and cross-cultural materials. For years, Damon said, he and co-editor Mosko had been intrigued by the idea of applying chaos theory to human relationships. But they had their doubts.
It wasn’t until Damon had what he calls a “critical conversation” with W. Dexter Whitehead, then director of what is now the Shannon Center for Advanced Studies and a professor of physics, that he and Mosko felt they were onto something big. “Dexter was a major player in advanced studies and very good at putting people together. He and I had an early encounter about this, and it was pivotal for me. It happened at a time when I needed it,” Damon recalled.
Emphasizing the collaborative nature of this work, Damon also credits Morava with supporting his efforts at many points along the way. They not only spent time early on talking about chaos theory, but Morava also contributed an essay examining what he calls the “mathematical formalism” of equations written by anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss in his work on mythology.
Another person who influenced Damon’s thinking is Hank Shugart, a U.Va. professor of environmental sciences with whom Damon taught a course that looked at cultural and social systems among South Pacific peoples. “I would discuss terms like ‘fractals’ with Hank,” Damon noted. “He’s an ecologist who understands that scale is important, that little differences in cultures can create big differences.”
Reflecting on his and Mosko’s long effort to bring chaos theory to anthropology, Damon said, “I believe dialogues like these among the disciplines are very important. This book isn’t an end. Maybe, I hope, it’s a useful beginning.”