Coming into being among the Australian Aborigines

Abstract

IN 1899 Spencer and Gillen, writing about the Arunta tribe of Australia, declared that the natives possessed no knowledge whatsoever of the relationship between coitus and pregnancy, and in the early years of this century this gave rise to an extensive controversial literature. Prof. Ashley-Montagu takes up the subject again, and reprints and discusses in his book all the directly relevant records in ethnographical literature. His thesis is “that in Australia, practically universally, according to orthodox belief, pregnancy is regarded as causally unconnected with intercourse”. The argument and its conclusion assume a distinction between ‘orthodox’ belief and what Prof. B. Malinowski in his foreword calls “random statements of irrelevant opinion”, but no objective criterion is offered by which to distinguish these different kinds of beliefs. The argument is also vitiated by the fact that the author never makes clear what he means by “causally connected”. Thus he accepts (p. 168) the statement of Miss McConnel (which is supported by a myth) that in a Queensland tribe sexual intercourse is regarded as a necessary condition of conception, and then writes, “the important point of course here is that these natives do not regard intercourse as the cause of conception but only as a condition thereof”. Since for the modern scientific investigator coitus is a necessary but not a sufficient condition of pregnancy it is difficult to understand what is the nature of that "causal connection"of which the Australians are said to be ignorant. But the author is not consistent, since (on p. 237) he says that for the Australian native sexual intercourse "positively has no connection with childbirth".

Coming into being among the Australian Aborigines:

a Study of the Procreative Beliefs of the Native Tribes of Australia. By Prof. M. F. Ashley-Montagu. Pp. xxxvi + 362 + 4 plates. (London: George Routledge and Sons, Ltd., 1937.) 21s. net.

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RADCLIFFE-BROWN, A. Coming into being among the Australian Aborigines. Nature 141, 263–264 (1938). https://doi.org/10.1038/141263a0

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