Anthropology is basically the study of mankind in the past, present and the future. Evolutionary anthropologists would also admit our primate relatives as subjects, and cultural anthropologists would probably go with a definition that included mankind in given societies with particular heritages and customs. The flagship organization for this pursuit is the American Anthropological Association, an organization of about 10,000 academics, museum workers, and expeditionary researchers.
Ordinarily, this is a quiet group that does not much rouse public attention when it engages in internal debates about its mission statement, but in a Tuesday, December 14, 2010, article in the New York Times by Nicholas Wade, it was reported that those in the organization whose work is science-based were understandably incensed when the word “science” was dropped from the association’s long range planning document, and replaced in some cases with the phrase “the public understanding of humankind.”
What’s going on?
According to the organization, not as much as one would think. In a press release, entitled “AAA responds to Public Controversy Over Science in Anthropology,” http://www.aaanet.org/issues/press/AAA-Responds-to-Public-Controversy-Over-Science-in-Anthropology.cfm these changes “have been taken out of context and blown out of proportion” and “On the contrary, the Executive Board recognizes and endorses the crucial place of the scientific method in much…. [but emphatically not all and maybe not even in the majority anymore of]…. anthropological research.” The association regards anthropology as a “holistic and expansive discipline that covers the full breath of human history and culture…..and draws on the methods of both the humanities and the sciences.”
If the reassurances expressed in this press release fairly represent the case, why would scientists in anthropology still be upset? The answer most likely lies in a quote in Wade’s article referencing anthropologists who were aghast at this distancing of the organization from being evidence-based: “How could they [meaning science-based anthropologists at universities where they have to compete with other academic units for funding] justify their department’s existence if their national organization did not regard anthropology as a science?”
What I think this means is that many anthropologists whose work involves physical and biological evidence that generates real data based on measurement, who use robust statistics, and develop testable hypotheses do not want to trade being associated with the Biology Department or the School of Medicine for being likened to university departments associated more with performance art, post-modern literary criticism, political activism, social engineering, and assorted gender and race studies.
This is a real worry because as Dr. Frank Marlowe , President-Elect of the Evolutionary Anthropology Society, an American Anthropological Associate affiliate group, says in Wade’s article: “We evolutionary anthropologists are outnumbered by the new cultural or social anthropologists, many but not all of whom are postmodern, which seems to translate into anti-science.”
This is not to say that university departments which feature any of these latter non-science approaches are not serious or important to someone.
Recent articles in the flagship publication of the American Anthropological Association, American Anthropologist, and in Current Anthropology, another well respected publication of the University of Chicago Press for the Wenner-Gren Foundation, include studies of torture in South Sudan (Deal 2010), Palestinian cultural festivals as protests against Israeli occupation (De Cesari 2010), Intertextuality and Christian ethnotheologies” (whatever that means) (Handman 2010), or the even more cryptic “Clockpunk Anthropology and the Ruins of Modernity (Dawdy 2010).
It’s just that while there may very well now be a voting majority of the kinds of anthropologists who are interested in, and do the kinds of work represented by titles like this within the membership of the AAA, efforts like these are probably not as important to major private and governmental agencies (think NSF & NIH, for example) who are willing to fund empirical research that will yield reasonably plausible and provable ----- or at least seriously debatable----- knowledge about the natural history of our species and its nearest relatives.
And it is the latter group, the funders of scientific research, that have endorsed the academic respectability and drive the advance of anthropology as much as anyone else.
One of the most curious aspects of the seeming demotion of the science-based anthropologist by the humanities and social-science-based anthropologists is the fact that fields like history, psychology, sociology, and even economics probably benefit as much from science-based anthropological studies as do fields like biology and medicine.
What follows is a small sampler of some recent studies where science can inform humanities and social science scholars and even public policy and gender studies.
A question in the History of Religion: Did early Christians in Roman England value their children more & treat them better than did the pagans?
It is often thought that since some Greeks and Romans basically abandoned babies with birth defects and cast off those young boys lacking military potential, that the introduction of a new religion which preached that at least in some matters, little children should have a place of honor (Matthew 19:14, Mark 10:14) would have greatly improved their lot. However, in a study by Lewis (2010) of burials in graveyards used in the times of the Roman occupation of Britain, the bones of Christian babies and young children (which were buried for religious regions in a east-west alignment) showed vastly more signs of anemia, rickets, and scurvy, than those of pagan babies and young children (which were aligned for religious reasons in a north-south alignment). The author attributes the adverse outcomes to the practice of early Christians to go so far as to make even infants engage in penitential fasts and their propensity to keep their babies and young children in swaddling clothes for a much longer time than was customary among pagan families (perhaps in the manner of the Baby Jesus in the Gospels (Luke 2:6-7) although the practice was widespread among many different cultures even then). This longer term swaddling was hypothesized to reduce the Christian child’s exposure to sunshine induced vitamin D production, relative to pagan children who were freed sooner and presumably encouraged to play and exercise outdoors more.
A question in Foreign Affairs & Diplomacy: Is the practice of giving food as foreign aid equally likely to improve the health & nutritional status of the majority of populations living under democratic vs. authoritarian regimes?
While it may seem to be a stretch, there has been a study testing just such a proposition among our primate relatives (Jaeggi, Stevens & Van Scheik 2010). It turns out that the alpha males among chimpanzees held in captivity, despite being particularly fierce hunters of monkeys in the wild, permit and even encourage food-sharing and other acts of reciprocity among members of their troop, while their closest relatives, the bonobos, despite being a generally matriarchal species who less frequently hunt other primates in the wild, have dominant males who are particularly despotic in captivity, especially around the sharing of food, to the point of sometimes precluding its wider distribution, leading to progressive nutritional impoverishment despite increases in food supply. Therefore it is not at all improbable that before sending foreign aid in the form of food, it would be wise to determine whether one was dealing with a chimp or bonobo kind of political hierarchy in captivity. (Think Kim-Jong-Il and the question of food aid to North Korea, which goes first and foremost to that country’s massive military and party apparatchiks).
A question in Government, Political Science & Economics: Is the military-industrial complex an entirely new concept or something that has a kind of evolutionary basis in prehistoric weapons production?
There is abundant evidence from strike markings on the bones of humans and large prey animals that Paleolithic men used stone tipped spears to lethal effect. This is still the case with many indigenous people in remote locations who have not mastered metallurgy and still survive as hunter-gatherers and defend territories or raid the territory of others. While it may be hard to prove whether or not there was a formal separation of the weapons producers from the weapons users in ancient times, Williams, Gordon & Richmond (2010) have shown through kinematic analysis of the limb and wrist motions of modern day “knappers” (modern day hobbyist makers of stone tools, usually including a fair number of archeologists or anthropologists) that the anatomical mechanics of making these stone tools expertly just happen to be the same ones that optimize spear-throwing. This suggests that it could well be that the original “military-industrial complex” was not differentiated into manufacturers vs. warriors but rather composed of men who coevolved both to make and use the weapons efficiently, because proficiency in both was essential to survival, particularly in small family groups and tribes which could not spare stay-at-home manpower during hunts or warfare.
A question in Gender Studies: Did women have any health advantages when compared to men in medieval times?
There is little doubt that over the course of history, a great many women died in childbirth while their husbands went on to remarry, and that the maintaining of fires for cooking and heating seemed to have disproportionately left women exposed to the chance of fatal burns, and even that that menstruation and perhaps unfairly shared food supplies left many women chronically anemic and prone to fatal illness. This is apart from fatalities of women visited upon them by their husbands as part of domestic violence or by strangers during wartime rape rampages and pillaging. The question arises: Were there particular times or historical events when being a woman conferred a particular health or survival benefit? The answer would seem to be that only in relatively recent centuries, and even then seemingly only when the men were at war, have women typically outlived men and this scarcely seems to make up for millennia of their excess morbidity and mortality. However, Sharon DeWitte (2010) has excavated and examined remains in the medieval cemetery in Smithfield, England, that suggest a different outcome during the course of a major epidemic: the Black Plague. It was pretty clear that there was something operating at least at that time, that made adult men die at a rate almost 50% higher than women.
A question in Psychology: Are there differences in behavioral genetics between indigenous peoples who more quickly become stable and generally law-abiding agriculturalists and those who those who remained significantly longer hunter gatherers living outside the mainstream economic and legal system?
Latin America still possesses significant populations of indigenous peoples who live in locations adjacent to well settled territory but still live by subsistence hunting, fishing, and wild roots and fruits, and have generally resisted attempts to include them into the modern mainstream of agriculture, commerce and law, even as other indigenous peoples in the region have long adopted agriculture or other occupations and have become well integrated. While explanations based on cultural beliefs about the sacredness of the land, the enduring value of being seen as tribes who value bravery in hunting and battle, and taboos about intermarriage or fear of insulting the memory or traditions of their ancestors have all been invoked as explanations, could there be a biological basis that distinguishes those indigenous peoples who have acculturated at some level to modernity and agriculture versus those who, given a choice, would still wander the jungle or undeveloped grasslands? The Guarani (whose name comes from the word “warrior” in Spanish, and Kaingang peoples of Central South America (both living primarily in Paraguay and parts of Brazil) were among the last peoples to acculturate in the sense of adopting the agricultural lifestyle assigned them by the colonial Spanish or Portuguese conquerors of their countries, and rarely showed any inclination or success in well-ordered agriculture until the last century, with the exception of some benign communally run plantations founded by the Jesuits during the latter 1600s and early 1700s. (It should be noted however, that these same Guarani maintained a particularly fierce home army that, led by Jesuits who were themselves veterans of wars In Europe, was able to repulse attacks by modern-fire-armed Portuguese slave capturing gangs numbering in the hundreds to low thousands for decades). Given that it is now recognized that some genes contribute to behavioral propensities or special skills, (without necessarily predestining choice of occupation or one’s worldview) Tovo-Rodrigues et al (2010) analyzed the frequency of dopamine receptor D3 alleles among these two tribes compared to other Amerindian and mixed Amerindian-European populations in Latin America and noted a markedly higher frequency of molecular markers for traits such as novelty-seeking, hyperactivity, and impulsivity, particularly among the Guarani. It turns out, that these genes and the traits with which they are associated, are extremely common worldwide (and almost predictive) of members of warrior and hunter-gatherer cultures. This is not intended to indicate that these peoples are somehow inferior to those without these alleles, although it could be appreciated that with them they might not be as adaptable to the sometimes tedious, focused and long-time-commitment demanding nature of modern agriculture, but rather that this genetic endowment may represent special adaptations to a people who formerly had constantly be on the move, be brave in confronting dangers, and be less predictable to enemy tribes or animal predators who were seeking to do them harm.
In sum, there is lot that science has to offer to the rest of anthropology, but in short, it is very likely that unless the concerns of science-based anthropologists are surely assuaged the organizational cleft between them and “holistic”, humanities-based anthropologists is going to widen. It is very likely that the scientists will soon more closely identify with groups like the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, the American Society of Primatologists, the Human Biology Association, as well as organizations in archaeology, biology and medicine that have special interest groups that welcome anthropologists, rather than the American Anthropological Association.
Good riddance, might some cultural anthropologists say!
But the latter may be forgetting that the scientists will take their entrée to funding sources with them as they leave.
Tony Stankus, FSLA, Life Sciences Librarian, Science Coordinator, & Professor
Editor-in-Chief, Science & Technology Libraries
University of Arkansas Libraries MULN 233 E
365 North McIlroy Avenue
Fayetteville AR 72701-4002
Dawdy, Shannon Lee. 2010. Clockpunk anthropology and the ruins of modernity. Current Anthropology 51 (6): 761-793.
Deal, Jeffrey L. 2010. Torture by Cieng: Ethical theory meets social practice among the Dinka Agaar of South Sudan. American Anthropologist 112 (4): 563-575.
DeCesari, Chiara. 2010. Creative Heritage: Palestinian geritage NGOs and defiant acts of government. American Anthropologist 112 (4): 625-637.
DeWitte, Sharon N. 2010. Sex differentials in frailty in medieval England. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 143: 285-297.
Handman, Courtney. 2010. Events of translation: Intertextuality and Christian ethnotheologies of change among Guhu-Samane, Papua New Guinea. American Anthropologist 112 (4): 576-588.
Jaeggi, Adrian V., Jeroen M.G. Stevens & Carel Van Svhaik. 2010. Tolerant food sharing and reciprocity is precluded by despotism among bonobos but not among chimpanzees. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 143: 41-51.
Lewis, Mary E. 2010. Life and death in a civitas capital: Metabolic diseases and trauma in the children from late Roman Dorchester, Dorset. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 142: 405-416.
Tovo-Rodrigues, Luciana, Sidia Callegari-Jacques, M. Petzle-Erler, Luiza Tsuneto, Francisco Solzano, & Mara H. Hutz. 2010. Dopamine receptor D4 allele distribution in Amerindians: A reflection of past behavior differences? American Journal of Physical Anthropology 143:458-464.
Wade, Nicholas. 2010. Anthropology group tries to soothe tempers after dropping the word “Science.” New York Times CLX (55,254): A23.
Williams, E.M., A.D. Gordon & B.G. Richmond. 2010. Upper limb kinematics and the role of the wrist during stone tool production. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 143: 134-145.