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  • Émile Durkheim and the Birth of the Gods: Clans, Incest, Totems, Phratries, Hordes, Mana, Taboos, Corroborees, Sodalities, Menstrual Blood, Apes, Churingas, Cairns, and Other Mysterious Things by Alexandra Maryanski
  • Brian T. Connor
Émile Durkheim and the Birth of the Gods: Clans, Incest, Totems, Phratries, Hordes, Mana, Taboos, Corroborees, Sodalities, Menstrual Blood, Apes, Churingas, Cairns, and Other Mysterious Things
By Alexandra Maryanski
New York: Routledge. 2018. 341 pages.

Durkheim theorized in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life that totemism was both the originating form of religion and a driving force that connected people through non-kin relationships. The rituals and practices surrounding these sacred objects brought largely individualistic members of a clan together in moments of collective effervescence, thereby building solidarity amongst members of the clan. While Durkheim's ideas on the sacred and solidarity continue to inspire cultural analyses of society, his totemic principle and the evolutionary nature of this theory have been widely criticized or ignored in sociology (196–7). With a theory so strongly linked to social evolution, is there a way for non-social science to help validate Durkheim's theory?

Alexandra Maryanski's Émile Durkheim and the Birth of the Gods seeks answers to this, but does so by asking two guiding questions. First, Maryanski wants to know how Durkheim's research and teaching led him to consider totems as the basis of religion and solidarity in early human societies. Second, she gathers evidence from evolutionary biology, archeology, primatology, and other fields largely outside the realm of social science to evaluate Durkheim's arguments on the origins of solidarity via the totemic principle. The two questions are loosely related, but put together provide an engaging social history surrounding Durkheim, his intellectual development, and the potential validity of the totemic principle and "origin thesis" of solidarity (xvii).

The first two-thirds of the book are a social biography of Durkheim and his work. Thankfully this section of the book is not just providing one more generic biographical sketch of Durkheim in an already saturated marketplace of biographies. Maryanski uses Durkheim's biography to help answer why he argued that religion was the base of all social organization, and that totemism was the originating form of religious practice. The focus in the latter half of these chapters is most relevant for the larger analysis, as they isolate key concepts like totems, hordes, solidarity, etc. and their place in Durkheim's larger theory. To show this, Maryanski often breaks her focus on Durkheim to introduce the people whose work and mentorship were essential to Durkheim's career. While readers of Durkheim's The Elementary Forms may be aware that much of the claims were built on Spencer and Gillen's The Native Tribes of Central Australia, Maryanski adds context by showing how a telegraph operator and zoologist could team up to create this work (131–2). Another example focuses on W. Robertson Smith and his work on ancient religions and totems, which led to Durkheim's "revelation" in 1895, which eventually led him to reject his initial work on mechanical solidarity in The Division of Labor. These departures add welcome contextualization that help readers understand why Durkheim chose things like totemism and female exogamy as essential components of The Elementary Forms.

This biography culminates into a concise analysis in chapter 11 on The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. Maryanski begins this chapter with a brief summary of the works that led Durkheim to believe that totemism was the originating form of religion. From there, Maryanski outlines the major sections and themes of the book. The biographical details pay off at this point, as the reader comes to see how myriad works and debates shaped (or reconstructed, as in the case of solidarity) his views on totemism, exogamy, incest, kinship, hordes, and more. Beyond providing a strong ending point for the biographical section of the book, this chapter provides an accessible introduction to Durkheim's main arguments in The Elementary Forms that could be useful for both undergraduate and graduate theory courses.

The final third of...


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