The Pleasure Principle

At the ripe old age of 92, Walter Goldschmidt, professor emeritus of anthropology and psychiatry at UCLA, continues to question what makes humans human. He’s studied California farming communities, land use in British Columbia and agrarianism in East Africa. His latest work, “The Bridge to Humanity: How Affect Hunger Trumps the Selfish Gene” (Oxford University Press, 2005), points out the shortcomings of the Selfish Gene--the explanation of altruism in vogue in behavioral science--as it applies to humans. We did a little research of our own in the Brentwood hills, which this award-winning scholar calls his native habitat.


What is affect hunger and how does it explain human altruism?

I don’t like the word altruism, and I don’t think we are pushed to altruism. I think we’re pushed to wanting to do, and get pleasure out of doing, things that turn out to be good. Mammals have to take care of their young on a one-to-one basis. Well, it’s a job. But it’s also a pleasure. We get pleasure out of doing these things because we have a hunger for affect. Just like we get pleasure out of eating because we have a hunger for food. And there’s some chemical evidence that this satisfaction is neurological. The body produces these things, oxytocins, that are fundamentally opiates.


The Selfish Gene theory says that we engage in this kind of behavior because our genes are programmed to perpetuate the DNA. Why is this insufficient to explain human behavior?

The Selfish Gene was the phrasing of biologist Richard Dawkins for the fact that our genes are not out to protect our lives, that the ultimate aim is to make sure that your seeds could produce--whether you’re a lion or an apple tree or a man. What he’s saying is that the genetic process is inherently selfish. The thing about mammals and humans, in particular, is that we deny our genetic selfishness all the time. Contraception and small families are just an example. As a matter of fact, the best contraceptive is prosperity, in that people have sex to just have pleasure and don’t get all their pleasure from having children. There is apparently an advantage if you can overcome this business of the selfish gene. And all of us mammals have overcome this by creating a desirableness of the social interaction.

At this point in our history, there are no pure primitive cultures left, so what do anthropologists try to study?

Anthropology was never viewed as the study of primitive cultures, it was the only discipline that did study primitive people. But it was always the study of mankind. My doctoral dissertation was on the town of Wasco, just north of Bakersfield. These were farmers. There was nothing pristine about them. I don’t think there is an aboriginal people, and I don’t think there ever was. When Captain Cook first discovered the people in British Columbia and southeast Alaska, they had this ritual called the potlatch. It was a ceremony in which my clan gives everything we’ve got to the rival clan. It started out as a very simple ceremony, and it got wilder and wilder. By the time they were discovered by Captain Cook, they had acquired steel traps so they had fur coming out of their ears. And the more they got, the more they had to give and display.

As anthropolgy, Carlos Castaneda’s “The Teachings of Don Juan” is widely regarded as a hoax. Do you regret writing the foreword to that book?

Yes, I’m a little ashamed of it, but not that much. If you read what I wrote you will see that I was not all that complimentary. What I assumed was that he had taken peyote and he was recording those experiences as if they really happened. In that sense, I thought it was true. My first paragraph reads, in part--"this book is both ethnography and allegory.”

What do people in L.A. and their culture share with, say, a Mongolian herdsman on the Asian steppes?

I don’t think there are cultural commonalities. If you’re asking the question “What are the biological uniformities?” then they’re not cultural by definition. Of course there are basic biological needs and desires, one of which is the need for affect. But what you get your Brownie points for is learning what differs from culture to culture. In the Mongolian nomads, for instance, you get judged by the amount of horses you have and the accuracy with which you can shoot an arrow from horseback.