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Over at Ethnography.com a late response to my post Against the cultural anthropologists from someone named Michael Scroggins. He accuses me of being “The hyperbolic leader in this round of hippie bashing.” That’s a defensible proposition, but speaking of hyperbole, he says:

The paradigm that informs Chagnon, Diamond and their chorus of supporters in the blogosphere is an adherence to the modern synthesis in evolutionary biology. To be more specific, they are both, more or less, sociobiologists who believe in genetic determinism.

First, the way cultural anthropologists use the term “genetic determinism” is similar to the way propagandists bandy about the terms “fascism” and “communism.” They’re usually not descriptions of real individuals or movements in the modern age, but point to a reality which connotes a particular odious intellectual flavor worthy of shunning, shaming, and asphyxiating. More precisely, there are almost no “genetic determinists” as such who adhere to the proposition that genes determine in some physics-like manner the specific manifestation of human nature. Rather, genes matter, just as culture matters.

The accusation of being a genetic determinist is clearly off the mark for Chagnon, and even less of Jared Diamond (who has written whole books centered upon the premise of biological egalitarianism and the overwhelming power of environmental conditions on the course of human affairs!). Even in the case of Chagnon, a self-identified sociobiologist, the accusation of genetic determinism is a matter of rhetorical flash and slander, the stock and trade of modern cultural anthropology. In Nobles Savages he recounts that his great antagonist Marvin Harris repeatedly references the lie that Chagnon believed in a “gene for war.” This is a lie because Chagnon repeatedly challenged this characterization, but Harris and his fellow travelers apparently repeated the accusation because of its rhetorical bite even when corrected on the record. This seems plausible because a self-described hippie, John Horgan, has reported that not only does Chagnon reject the idea of a gene for war, but believes that war is a cultural artifact! (Horgan wrote about his encounter with Chagnon in The End of War).

And yet the most interesting aspect of the post above is the long rumination on the nature of the gene.

For fields like population genetics, evolutionary psychology and sociobiology, the gene is a unit of calculation in the exact sense formulated by Johannsen in 1909. This is unproblematic if one understands that in this conception, a gene is more rhetorical topic than scientific fact. And, like Geertz noted of “mind”, when deployed in this sense by Diamond and Chagnon, a “gene” is a social concept which explains behavior, values, attitudes and social mores.

The problem comes in considering the gene as a unit which transmits determinate behavioral traits on a one-to-one basis, which is precisely what Chagnon does. Why are the fierce people so fierce? Because they inherit the genes from the most violent males among them. Note also, that in Chagnon’s formulation, women are of little import except as carriers of genetic information.

In contrast, the molecular view of the gene has undergone what can only be called a deconstruction since 1909. In the molecular view, the gene, as a unit, can be located in multiple spots (some quite mysterious) and behave in any number of surprising ways. It is, in the molecular view, far from the kind of determinate factor which Chagnon and Diamond rely upon for their analysis. At best, the molecular gene fuzzily transmits traits, more or less.

For example the definition of a gene given in the 4th edition of Molecular Cell Biology is “the entire nucleic acid sequence that is necessary for the synthesis of a functional polypeptide.” In other words, a gene is a string of macromolecules that code for a protein. Note that the one-to-one correspondence between gene and behavior is absent and in its place has been substituted a definition which leaves open questions of the relation of elementary to complex phenomena.

This characterization is problematic, more or less. And though I am more positively disposed toward evolutionary psychology and sociobiology than most, the bracketing of population genetics into the same class as these to me definitely justifies the label of Left Creationist for Michael Scroggins.* Additionally, molecular genetic biology post-dates Mendelism and the early 20th century work in genetics by decades. And the two individuals most famous for the emergence of molecular genetics, James Watson and Francis Crick, both exhibited attitudes which Scroggins would define as genetic determinist. This is not “Not Even Wrong.” It is “Not Even Aspiring to be Right.”

In any case, cultural anthropology delenda est!

* Note that I am not conceding Scroggins’ characterization in its basis.

(Republished from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Science • Tags: Anthropology, Cultural Anthropology 
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Just pre-ordered a Kindle Edition of Napoleon Chagnon‘s new book Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes — the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists. I didn’t even know this was coming out next week, but The New York Times Magazine has a piece up, The Indiana Jones of Anthropology, which chronicles the controversial the life & times of Chagnon. My previous posts about cultural anthropology were written with no knowledge about the impending publication of this article, or Napoleon Chagnon’s memoir. But the timing is fortuitous. One complaint by rightfully enraged cultural anthropologists (I didn’t deny that I was attacking their profession in the most extreme terms) is that I didn’t really offer an argument. As I said, the reason is that life is short and I’m not interested in convincing anyone.

But here’s a section of the article above which reflects just what I was alluding to:

The A.A.A.’s El Dorado task force was the most ambitious investigation to date but was undermined by a lack of due process. The group went so far as to interview Yanomami in Venezuela but, according to Chagnon, failed to give him an opportunity to respond to its verdicts. As Gregor and Gross put it, what the inquiry most clearly demonstrated was not Chagnon’s guilt or innocence but rather anthropology’s “culture of accusation,” a “tendency within the discipline to attack its own methods and practitioners.”

At least one task-force member had doubts about the exercise. In April 2002, shortly before the group released its report, Jane Hill, the task force’s chairwoman and a former president of the A.A.A. wrote an e-mail to a colleague in which she called Tierney’s book “just a piece of sleaze, that’s all there is to it (some cosmetic language will be used in the report, but we all agree on that).” Nevertheless, she said, the A.A.A. had to act: anthropologists’ work with indigenous groups in Latin America “was put seriously at risk by its accusations,” and “silence on the part of the A.A.A would have been interpreted as either assent or cowardice. Whether we’re doing the right thing will have to be judged by posterity.”

Again, this doesn’t prove anything. But it isn’t as if the perception that cultural anthropology tends to eat its own came out of a vacuum. Personally I find the behavior of Jane Hill even more disturbing. Is it truly the case that on occasion an innocent man must die so that we should respect the law?

Ultimately I have to admit that over the years I’ve been a lot less sure about the evolutionary framework that Napoleon Chagnon works within. Not because I reject evolutionary frameworks, but because the devil is in the details of the logic and data. Chagnon is right, evolution needs to be brought into the discussion. But if so, it has to be done subtly and with due respect for the complexity of the topic. Shouting “Nazi!” is only going to distract from the hard working of figuring the shape of reality.

(Republished from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
 
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My post below on Jared Diamond and his cultural anthropological critics has attracted a fair amount of attention (e.g., see the Twitter re-tweets of the post). But first I’d like to admit that I think it was wrong in its specific thrust. Though I’ve seen Stephen Corry of Survival International referred to as an anthropologist, he’s certainly not an academic. Corry is an explicit and open advocate, as is Jonathan Mazower. The Guardian piece which I linked to also was not entirely clear on this point. In other words, the example in that article was not particularly relevant to my broader thesis. But overall my position remains unchanged, because The Guardian was not presented as evidence, but an illustration of a trend which I have long commented upon. Many of the academics who re-tweeted my post focused on the assertion that “cultural anthropology has gone down an intellectual black hole, beyond the event horizon of comprehension, never to recover.” Those who agree with my position understand exactly why I would say this.

For example, here is a portion of Armand Leroi’s comment:

Razib’s post is spot-on. Diamond *is* cavalier with the facts. I recall reviewing Guns & Germ & Steel, and finding its empirical basis utterly ropey. But at least he was doing science — macro, comparative, science — of a sort that was — is? — practically extinct in cultural anthropology. He was asking the right kinds of questions. He still does….

Taking a different tack, another commenter contends:

There’s always room for polemic, but in general it’s not the right tactic. Calm refutation is more scientific, and after all that’s what counts in the end.

For instance, we could do with reasonable discussion of the question what the costs and benefits of getting a state have been – more peace, but also more oppression, which I tried to discuss re Diamond vs Survival Int’l here www.breviosity.wordpress.com

This misses the point. Many (most?) American cultural anthropologists do not consider themselves scientific. Cultural anthropology as it is practiced in many American universities is not a science, so the standard rules of engagement with science do not apply. Mind you, I have no idea what cultural anthropology is in terms of its systematic definition within a scholarly context. Rather, I know what cultural anthropologists do. Of course the rules of science don’t necessarily apply to history, but logic, a striving toward positivistic objectivity, and good faith must still be brought to the table in that case. I don’t use the same rules for cultural anthropology.

“Calm refutation” has convinced very few Creationists. Science, and scholarship in general, is exceptional in that there is a pretense, sometimes realized, often not, that logic, formal analysis, and inspection of the empirical evidence, are about uncovering the truth about the world out there, rather than personal self-validation or spears in the game of inter-personal signalling and status. There are cultural anthropologists who endeavor reduce the complexity to comprehensibility. Long time readers know I am a fan of Scott Atran, Dan Sperber, Joe Heinrich, Robert Boyd, etc. Here is Dan Sperber responding to a question from me in 2005:

3) When I discuss with those with anthropological backgrounds the ideas I have encountered in your books (EXPLAINING CULTURE) and papers, or Pascal Boyer and Scott Atran’s books and papers, they seem confused and have little understanding of what I speak. Is your naturalistic paradigm more common among anthropologists in Europe than in the United States?

No, our common perspective (well illustrated also in the work of a few others, in particular Lawrence Hirschfeld – the four of us used to meet and discuss at my home in Paris in the early eighties) is still very much a minority view among anthropologists everywhere, as are all Darwinian views. On the other hand, I believe that our approach addresses maybe better and cetainly in greater detail than most other Darwinian approaches many legitimate concerns of people with a serious anthropological and ethnographic background.

And now L. L. Cavalli-Sforza in 2006:

4) Moving to, in the interests of frankness, less influential books, in “A Genetic and Cultural Odyssey” Linda Stone & Paul F. Lurquin note the relative lack of response to “Cultural Transmission and Evolution” within the social sciences. You seem to chalk this up in part to the lack of comfort with mathematical methodologies within cultural anthropology. Over the past few years a small group of anthropologists, Peter Richerson, Robert Boyd and Joe Henrich seem to be continuing the attempt to model culture using the techniques that have been fortuitous in the biological sciences. Do you think that we are past the high tide of ‘interpretative’ anthropology and that a more explicitly hypothetical-deductive methodology may come to the fore?

I entirely agree that the average quality of anthropological research, especially of the cultural type, is kept extremely low by lack of statistical knowledge and of hypothetical deductive methodology. At the moment there is no indication that the majority of cultural anthropologists accept science – the most vocal of them still choose to deny that anthropology is science. They are certainly correct for what regards most of their work.

The above highlights that cultural anthropologists may not believe in science, but scientists also don’t believe in them. In Theological Incorrectness D. Jason Slone has an excellent ethnography of the intellectual ticks of modern American cultural anthropology. While Scott Atran has pointed out that anthropologists who assert that due to the radical incommensurability of “ways of knowing” one may not be able to make general assertions of cross cultural nature, nevertheless seem to make an exception for their own situations, which often involves outsider scholars embedding themselves in other societies, and writing and thinking about the patterns they see. On a more concrete factual dimension cultural anthropologists hold to the sui generis characterization of Europeans and European culture. Inverting the old white supremacist model, for cultural anthropologists European culture is axiomatically evil. And, whether conscious or not, they also often promote the idea of a noble colored savage (complex non-white civilizations, like China, come in for far less critique than that of Europeans, so one must I think racialize the model, and not simply limit it to small-scale societies).

And yet why does this even matter? After all, the faculty of fine arts may espouse theories of aesthetics incomprehensible to scientists, but that is of little concern. The problem is that cultural anthropologists do not insulate themselves from the academy, and their cosmic Manichean intellectual framework bleeds out into the public forum. Despite the fascination with contextualization, complexification, “thick description,” and skepticism of a striving toward final objective knowledge, the young people anthropologists educate with bachelors degrees are quite clear and specific in many truths that their internalize. For example, that European imperialism is in some way a special evil, the original sin of the white race. Despite all the focus on “thick description” these individuals who went through an undergraduate program in cultural anthropology will be naturally confused at the fact of the naked imperialism of the Manchu dynasty in China contemporaneous with the rise of Europe, in the 17th to 19th centuries. They will not know of the genocide of the Oirat Mongols in the 18th century (some of whom fled to Russia, and founded modern Kalmykia on the Volga), or the disastrous Muslim rebellions of the 19th century prompted by ethnic conflict. After all, European colonialism is the apple of ultimate discord, no? Few thinkers would assert that oppression or unpleasant historical facts are only a function of European interference, but as a matter of reality detailed explorations of the topic are almost always presented in a Eurocentric context. The interactions of non-white peoples are of little concern without the European eye, or the shadow of European colonialism.

So it is clear I have strong disagreements with the way cultural anthropology as a scholarly field is organized and oriented. This is in large part due to my own interest in culture as a scientific subject. I believe this also motivates the attitude of someone like L. L. Sforza, and many scientists who re-tweeted my original post. This is a domain of knowledge which is nominally interesting to many! Cultural anthropology should be a fertile, exciting, and insightful topic, but it most certainly is not. So what is it? Works such as Higher Superstition have already tackled the ludicrousness of much of what falls under the rubric “Post Modern,” and this applies to cultural anthropology as well. There’s no point in reviewing that here. Rather, I want to focus on the issue that cultural anthropologists as a culture are a nasty lot with each other and those who tread into their territory, because they have totally erased the line between being advocates for their causes, and being observers of the world around them. Every conflict has grave consequences, with the personal, political, and scholarly are totally enmeshed.

Someone like me, who espouses a broadly conservative world view, is obviously the enemy. Thankfully I’m too small a fry to become the target of an organized academic mob assault which someone like Jared Diamond is subject to. But there are many small fry who aspired toward an anthropological career, but were found to be on the wrong side of the right side of some normative consensus, and were thrown to the outer darkness from the Elect. Academic politics is nasty and disappointing, but the sort of stuff I hear about anthropology departments often has a Maoist flavor, as “capitalist roaders” are smoked out, and deviationists chastised. In departments where the biological anthropologists are relatively well integrated there are strange tales of the exotic goings on of cultural anthropologists behind closed doors. Privilege. Oppression. Colonialism. Patriarchy. Heteronormativity. These are terms common in modern Left thought, but they are also widely used by cultural anthropologists. In sum, the field has become more political movement and social advocacy collective, than a scholarly enterprise. This is not true in all cases, but it is true in enough cases that there is an unfortunate dead rot at the heart of cultural anthropology as an academic domain of inquiry. The nastiness of academic anthropology is a function of its hyper-politicized nature.

Many cultural anthropologists need to move to staff positions at organizations like Survival International. They don’t belong in the academy. Those who remain should be scattered across other disciplines, such as economics, psychology, sociology, etc. The reason I post about cultural anthropology now and then isn’t that I want to argue or discuss with cultural anthropologists. Rather, I want to aid in spreading the message the discipline should be extirpated from the academy, just as Creationists have been extirpated from biology. They don’t belong at universities. Cultural anthropologists don’t know much about the world in any systematic sense, but they know what they believe about how the world should be organized. Let them do their organizing in their proper environment. Like exotic species without natural predators these political operators only cause mischief in academic halls.

This is obviously an assertion that will make me the target of invective. But I don’t care. As I said earlier, I’m a conservative, so I’m already fair game for attacks, because I’m on the side of evil in the eyes of many of these “scholars.” Second, I’m rather confident that I know a great deal about descriptive cultural variation, and wouldn’t learn much from anthropologists anyhow (the undergraduates who graduate with degrees in the field are singularly information poor). Additionally, unlike most American cultural anthropologists, who are white and native born (look at the officers for the Society for Cultural Anthropology), by my minority racial identity, and status as a naturalized American, I have deep and long standing personal experience with inter-cultural variation in a visceral and emotional sense. Frankly, I’ve long known that a lot of what cultural anthropologists said was bullshit before I read my first word of Scott Atran, because I’ve lived in the life I’ve lived. And that’s why I speak, and will continue to speak. An intellectual hegemony is bound to fail, and sometimes it helps to give it a push.

(Republished from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Science • Tags: Anthropology, Cultural Anthropology 
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Note: An update on this post. I want to be clear that I think Jared Diamond is wrong on a lot of details, and many cultural anthropologists are rightly calling him out on that. But, they do a disservice to their message by politicizing their critique, and ascribing malevolence to all those who disagree with their normative presuppositions. Scholarship is hard enough without personalized politicization, and I stand by Jared Diamond’s right to be sincerely wrong without having his character assassinated. As the vehemence of my post suggests the only solution I can see to this ingrained tick among many cultural anthropologists is to drop the pretense of genteel discourse, and blast back at them with all the means at our disposal. Telling them to stick to facts nicely won’t do any good, these are trenchant critics of Social Darwinism who engage in the most bare-knuckle war of all-against-all when given any quarter. Coexistence in the academy is simply not possible with this particular culture, extirpation is the only long term ESS for the rest of us.

It’s happening again, another issue of Jared Diamond vs. the anthropologists. Part of this is surely personal. Diamond has been trading in glib and gloss for years, and profitably so, in both financial and fame terms. There is also a deep scholarly divide. Diamond’s way of viewing historical development is reminiscent of, if not equivalent to, materialism. That is, external material forces (geography) and broad macro-historical dynamics (the transition across modes of production) loom large in his thinking. In contrast, many cultural anthropologists disagree with this paradigm, and see it as outmoded, old fashioned, and false. Not that I can decrypt what they believe, because clarity is not something that seems to be valued by cultural anthropologists in most domains.


I say most, because there is one area where many of them are quite clear: they are the beacons of toleration and justice. And they get to define what toleration and justice is. For all cultural anthropology’s epistemological muddle, its political priors are crisp and dinstict, and strangely insulated from the critique and deconstruction so valued by the discipline in all matters. From The Guardian piece above:

“It’s a profoundly damaging argument that tribal peoples are more violent than us,” said Survival’s Jonathan Mazower. “It simply isn’t true. If allowed to go unchallenged … it would do tremendous damage to the movement for tribal people’s rights. Diamond has constructed his argument using a small minority of anthropologists and using statistics in a way that is misleading and manipulative.”

In a lengthy and angry rebuttal on Saturday, Diamond confirmed his finding that “tribal warfare tends to be chronic, because there are not strong central governments that can enforce peace”. He accused Survival of falling into the thinking that views tribal people either as “primitive brutish barbarians” or as “noble savages, peaceful paragons of virtue living in harmony with their environment, and admirable compared to us, who are the real brutes”.

But Survival remains adamant. “The clear thrust of his argument is that there is a natural evolutionary path along which human society progresses and we are simply further along it,” said Mazower. “That’s extremely dangerous, because it is the notion that they’re backward and need to be ‘developed’. That thinking – and not that their way of living might be just as modern as any other way of living – is the same thinking that underpins governments that persecute tribal people.”

Diamond’s reasoning, he said, was “pernicious” and “leads to the kind of remark the former president of Botswana made about the Kalahari bushmen: ‘How can you have a hunter-gatherer living in the age of computers? If the bushman wants to survive he must change, otherwise, like the dodo, he will perish’.”

But that is unlikely to satisfy Survival, which believes tribal societies are societies like any other with their own sets of faults and virtues and which need to be able to make their own choices without interference or encroachment on their land.

“If Diamond’s book had been published in the 18th or 19th century, they would have been called ‘primitive savages’,” said Mazower. “He’s just dressed that up with a lot of pseudo-scientific language and some unexceptional stuff about what we can learn from them.”

Many cultural anthropologists believe that they have deep normative disagreements with Jared Diamond. In reality I think the chasm isn’t quite that large. But the repeated blows ups with Diamond gets to the reality that cultural anthropology has gone down an intellectual black hole, beyond the event horizon of comprehension, never to recover. It has embraced deconstruction, critique, complexity (or more accurately anti-reductionism) and relativism to such a great extent that whereas in many disciplines social dynamics and political power struggles are an unfortunate consequence of academic life, in cultural anthropology the fixation with power dynamics and structures has resulted in its own self-cannibalization, and overwhelming preoccupation with such issues. Everyone is vulnerable to the cannon blast of critique, and the only value left sacred are particular particular ends (social justice, defined by cultural anthropologists) and axioms (white males are oppressive patriarchs, though white male cultural anthropologists may have engaged in enough self interrogation to take upon themselves the mantle of fighting for the rights of the powerless [i.e., not white males]) which all can agree upon.

I grant that some anthropologists are responding to Jared Diamond in more measured tones, and occasionally even clear sentences. But by and large the reason that the discipline is properly thought of as an obscure, if vociferous, form of politics rather than a politicized form of analysis is that professional character assassins are thick on the ground in cultural anthropology. Jared Diamond may be wrong on facts, but he has the right enemies. Once he’s taken down, the kommissars may come for us all! (well, punctuated by the appropriate bursts of internal purges)

(Republished from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
 
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My attitude toward most cultural anthropologists is similar to Jerry Coyne’s sentiment toward theologians. So I’m going to share two examples of why I have these feelings, without commenting.

First, here’s a transcript of This American Life’s Doppelgänger:

Eventually I found my way to this guy who I was really excited about, someone who I thought might have my answer. He was– get this– an anthropologist who lived and worked in China for 40 years where he studied food, and specifically, meat. When I talked to him, though, he made two points.

Point one, my question about this happening in Asia was racist. Even just asking the question was racist because it plays on ignorant stereotypes about other cultures eating things that we perceive as weird.

Point two was that Ron Meek– my guy from the pig plant– Ron was pulling my leg. And he was getting away with it because I was a dumbass. He told me more than once that I should, quote, “find something worthwhile to do with myself.”

When we ended our conversation, he told me that he was refusing to even dignify what I was doing by appearing on the radio or by letting me use his name.

OK. So to respond to his points one by one, first, am I racist against Asians? Well, I’m half Chinese. My mom’s Chinese. Like anyone, I’ve had the occasional issue with my mother. But this has not been one of them.

We grew up eating chicken feet and fish eyes. And I think it’s possible to raise the question of who eats what without being racist.

His second point, though, that Ron Meek was pulling my leg– I mean, the guy was still an expert on meat in China. So I called Ron back.

On cultural anthropologists and Jared Diamond:

(Republished from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Science • Tags: Anthropology, Cultural Anthropology 
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This is my comment of the month:

Pontifications about “Western culture” bother me. The people who use the term seem to assume that “we” are part of “Western culture” and know what it is. No explanation is necessary. But if you stop and think about it, in what sense are a Hungarian peasant farmer and a Morgan Stanley executive part of the same “culture”? How far does this culture extend? In space? In time?

When someone like Marshall Sahlins (famous cultural anthropologist) talks about Western culture, he quotes figures like Hobbes and Kant … as if Western “culture” were epitomized by philosophy and not by such pragmatic matters as kinship, economics, religion, cuisine. Probably because if you started talking about specifics, any semblance of uniformity would collapse.

I’ve also noticed that the post-modern school of anthropology is remarkably culture-bound, even in this limited philosophical sense. There are thinkers one must have read and are allowed to quote (Marx, Foucault, Derrida, Bourdieu) — who all happen to be European white males. It reminds me of Christians debating (volleys of scripture texts from each side), Muslims disputing (Quranic verses and hadith), and Chinese scholars quoting Confucius or famous poets.

No one is citing Ibn Khaldun.

The attitude that the commenter is pointing to is one reason I’ve been beating the drum about taking the end of the age of white supremacy seriously. Sloppy default positions predicated on a Western/non-Western model will be as useful as the heuristics of the Confucian bureaucrat in the wake of defeat by the British during the Opium Wars within the generation. A post-colonial mindset takes the Western/non-Western dichotomy for granted as the primary axis around which all power relations are organized. But in a world where whites are declining in relative power this is no longer so useful.

I would grant that there is something one can term “Western” culture. Or at least one can make an argument about what it is, and what unifies it. But, I think the commenter is spot on in pointing to the reality that the enthusiastic promoters of deconstruction, problematization, and “thick description,” take Western culture for granted as a useful and self-evident category or term. The standard rules don’t apply when it comes to what is invariably their culture. Which of course makes them very similar to Orientalists of old, if I may say so.

(Republished from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Science • Tags: Anthropology, Cultural Anthropology, Culture 
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Anthropology a Science? Statement Deepens a Rift:

Anthropologists have been thrown into turmoil about the nature and future of their profession after a decision by the American Anthropological Association at its recent annual meeting to strip the word “science” from a statement of its long-range plan.

The decision has reopened a long-simmering tension between researchers in science-based anthropological disciplines — including archaeologists, physical anthropologists and some cultural anthropologists — and members of the profession who study race, ethnicity and gender and see themselves as advocates for native peoples or human rights.

During the last 10 years the two factions have been through a phase of bitter tribal warfare after the more politically active group attacked work on the Yanomamo people of Venezuela and Brazil by Napoleon Chagnon, a science-oriented anthropologist, and James Neel, a medical geneticist who died in 2000. With the wounds of this conflict still fresh, many science-based anthropologists were dismayed to learn last month that the long-range plan of the association would no longer be to advance anthropology as a science but rather to focus on “public understanding.”

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Aspiring to Know like a white man

If you don’t know about the controversy surrounding Chagnon and the Yanomamo, see Wikipedia. This sort of flare up, as implied by the article, has less to do with the removal of the word “science” than the general tension within anthropology which has simmered and boiled over decades. As someone with a natural science background I naturally have a subjective perspective here, in that I hear from biological anthropologists all the time about weird confusions and bizarre experiences which they’re subject to from cultural anthropologists who emphatically deny that they are scientists. At one point in college I considered adding an anthropology major, obviously focused on the biological field. I went into the anthropology advising office to explore this possibility, and I definitely got the impression the advisor was not happy when I explained my interest in evolution and biological questions. Later an acquaintance who was a biological anthropology major intimated to me that the science and non-science oriented anthropologists did not get along, and the advisor was a non-science type who was rumored to discourage people who were more science-oriented. All that seemed weird enough to me that I never did major in anthropology.


The article I linked to above is reporting on a controversy which already came and went. See these posts:

- No Science, Please. We’re Anthropologists

- Whither Anthropology as a Science?

- The place of science in anthropology

The above posts do veer into the ad hominem territory and express a lot of petulance. But I think I know where it comes from. How would you feel as a chemist if professional meetings were dominated by alchemists? If you were a neurologist specializing in traumatic brain injuries who had to go to conferences where they mostly talked about Qi? I’ve personally listened to enough cultural anthropologists who seem to be channeling aliens for whom Michel Foucalt is God as they issue forth a river of impenetrable jargon that I have sympathy for the frustration.

Alex Galoub naturally has a different perspective. I have had friendly internet encounters with one of the other principals of the blog, Kerim Friedman, and in 2004 I was curious as to when they were going to add a biological anthropologist to round out Savage Minds. At the time he said they were looking into it, but reviewing their author list 6 years on it doesn’t look like they ever found anyone. Why? I think it has less to do with discrimination than the simple fact that they don’t know any biological anthropologists well enough to invite them to the blog. In any case, the blog is a conventional one focused on cultural anthropology, so it’s probably best to keep things “in house,” so to speak.

Here’s a response from an “anthro” “blogger” who “is” definitely “on t”he ‘side’ which “de-privileges” “science”:

This email illustrates that some anthropologists are taking these changes seriously, however, I’m not sure that the email argues their case very effectively. To be sure, there are innumerable aspects of American anthropology that utilize science: much of archaeology, forensic and biological anthropology, for example, all lean heavily on distinctly science-based methodologies. Further, as a new instructor in the discipline, I can provide evidence of the lengths to which the discipline goes to frame “anthropology as science” in most introductory text books. There is good reason to maintain representation by “science”, primarily because of the lofty reputation that it holds not only in academia, but culturally in the US and globally.

These facts alone, however, do not explain the entire picture, and I am leaning toward a quiet applause for the distancing of the discipline from “science” – especially as a cultural anthropologist. This is not to say that we should ignore the rigorous methodologies that we utilized, but instead, to include others not traditionally represented. When we examine the term “science”, we uncover a distinctly Western framework for explaining the world around us. “Science” has become privileged globally, and for many, represents the pinnacle of human achievement.

Historically not included under the rubric of “science”, however, are the thousands of distinct indigenous knowledge systems that exist around the world. Indigenous knowledge is only recently being understood and accepted by those in the West (and in anthropology) as the equally complex (and equally valid) indigenous counterpart to Western science. For the AAA, maintaining the use of the term “science” in their mission statement serves to maintain the colonizing, privileging, superior positionality of anthropology that continues to plague the discipline.

The “science-free” mission statement allows for the inclusion of a number of perspectives and approaches that have been and remain marginalized, not only in anthropology, but in much of their social and economic existence. In short, the old mission statement privileged “science” over and above the knowledge systems of the very people we have been studying and working with for generations. It is well past the time for this to change. Do anthropologists still use science? Of course, and science may well offer the most appropriate methodology for many. Still, we must also recognize that there are other means to knowing, exploring, and explaining.

I assume you’re back now that you’ve cleaned up after vomiting? This is fundamentally Another Way of “Knowing.” There’s really not much that can be said here. If the author above really believes what they’re saying, of course the analogy between cultural anthropologists and practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine won’t be seen as a slam at all in its impact. But I want to open the conversation up and assert that there’s more than just a division between biological (and archaeology) and cultural anthropology. There are Others Ways of Knowing in cultural anthropology. Alex in his post alluded derisively to Marvin Harris. Harris was a ‘cultural materialist.’ Many of the neo-functionalist arguments you hear today seem to go back to Harris. I don’t agree with a lot of what Harris says, in fact, I think he’s wrong a lot of the time, but I know what he was trying to say. Honestly I can’t really say that with a lot of the cultural anthropological DiScouRsE.

Too often when I argue with the sort of cultural anthropologist who is strongly influenced by what we would broadly (and sometimes inaccurately) term ‘post-modernist,’ and buys strongly into the thesis that we look through the glass so darkly that objectivity is well nigh impossible, one is invariably pummeled by a gale-force blast of obscurantism. But there is a curious tendency at work: obscurity, complexity, and subtly, are on stark display when they wish to deny a positive assertion you make, but such nuance recedes when they make clear statements as to what is just, right, and true. In the end I feel that I’m wasting my time with a bizarro-world lawyer. People who work for amnesty international at least are clear in what they’re trying to do, and what they believe. That I can respect.

GodfreyKneller-IsaacNewton-1689But there are other ways to study cultural anthropology. My own preference is for the small but feisty sect which uses the ‘naturalistic’ approach. Dan Sperber outlines his framework in Explaining Culture, but personally I find D. Jason Slone’s exposition by parody of conventional cultural anthropology ‘discourse’ in the first half of Theological Incorrectness the most entertaining introduction I’ve ever encountered. The Cognition & Culture weblog expresses the general outlook of the naturalistic school, which is promiscuously interdisciplinary, but chaste enough in jargon that even a civilian like me can make do!

Last summer Greg Downey blew a gasket when I stated “I have as much respect for most American cultural anthropology as I do for Talmudic scholarship.” I was honestly a little surprised that my Orthodox Jewish readers didn’t object in the comments to the comparison! But in general I still stand by that sentiment. The broader influence of the silliest manifestations of extreme epistemological relativism seems to have waned after the Sokal affair and the publication of Higher Superstition. But it clearly persists in some pockets. Scientific anthropologists throw fits because they know that they’re being locked in an asylum where in the inmates are in charge, and frankly no one cares anymore.

Note: I am currently taking a break in the middle of War in Human Civilization to read First Farmers: the origins of agricultural societies, and am struck by the fact that archaeologists were swayed by fashion so often. And yet despite this weakness in this field, archaeologists by and large at least speak in concrete, if often boring, ways. So that you know what they’re saying, wrong or right.

(Republished from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Science • Tags: Anthropology, Cultural Anthropology 
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Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

"I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com"