Jun 07

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Anthropology? Not a science? Fine, it’s the Singularity…

When I first came across this New York Times article a few months ago, I had to double check and make sure I hadn't accidentally wandered onto the Onion's website.

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.

Anthropology isn't a science?  And the long-range plan of the American Anthropology Association is no longer to advance anthropology as a science but rather to focus on “public understanding. ”


The war horns are a-blowing, and I'm picking up my microphone and note pad, and headed for the front lines—and I’m not the only one…there’s even a twitter hash tag calling us to battle: #AAAfail.

My objections have most succinctly been summarized by the following two blog posts; the first from post from Rex on Savage Minds:

  … we don’t have to go that far afield to recognize forms of knowledge that are rehabilitated when anthropology jettisons its label as ‘science’: history, epigraphy, historical linguistics, and the humanities in general. The opposite of ‘science’ is not ‘nihilitic postmodernism’ it’s ‘an enormously huge range of forms of scholarship, many of which are completely and totally committed to accuracy and impartiality in the knowledge claims they make, thank you very much’.

At times I feel like the real distinction here is between thoughtful people who are aware of the complexities of knowledge production, and those who are for psychological reasons strongly committed to identifying themselves as scientists and everyone else as blasphemers. This approach is, of course, not very scientific and verges on being the close-minded inversion of the fundamentalist Christianity that thinkers of this ilk so love to oppose.

What do most anthropologists think anthropology does? What do the terms they use to evaluate it mean to them? To the best of my knowledge, we simply have no answer to this question beyond our impressions that ‘cultural anthropologists are taking over’.

And this post from Peter Wood at the Chronicle of Higher Education:

My own view of anthropology is that it is a hybrid discipline. Its main scholarly tradition is rooted in science, or at least the aspiration for science. If those roots wither or are cut off, anthropology will lose any real claim to serious intellectual attention and perhaps even its identity as a discipline. Absent its scientific basis, anthropology would be little more than colorful travel literature (travelogues) occasionally mixed up with political hucksterism and theoretical obscurantism. But anthropology has never been only a science, and it ought to be sufficiently broad-minded to embrace the poetics of culture and some of its music as well. The best anthropologists  have always been attuned to the aesthetics of their discipline as well as to the demands of science, and have managed this without letting go of the essential rational and universal basis of their inquiry. (Think of Bronislaw Malinowski and Claude Levi-Strauss as the exemplars in the British and French traditions; Franz Boas, Alfred Kroeber, and Robert Lowie as exemplars of the American tradition.)

We are at a point where it seems that a self-appointed radicalizing faction has taken hold of a discipline and is un-disciplining it. It is cause for alarm among anthropologists, most of whom still see themselves as a vanguard of relativistic liberalism and who further see the illiberal direction of defining the science out of the study of culture. That move ought to be cause for larger worry within the university, especially in times of tight budgets and a public increasingly skeptical of higher education’s evasions of accountability. The AAA’s decision to throw off science seems very close to an assertion of complete intellectual non-accountability, a strange move at a vulnerable moment. An important discipline is in trouble—and it is a species of trouble that has counterparts throughout the social sciences. We should pay attention.


All right, even as a Cultural Anthropologist who has a very deep rooted distaste for dirt-diggers and taxidermists…(sorry guys, there really is more to humanity than just petrofacts and bones; and you guys but Archeology and Physical Anthropology DOES get all the grant money)–my blood is just boiling over at this infantile, and indiscriminate attack on the most important science in human history—even if my collogues mistakenly believe I’m on the “winning” side.

And no, I don’t consider myself a “fuzzy headed” Cultural Anthropologist—even if I’m currently paying my bills as a broadcast journalist—but  to be back-stabbed by my own professional organization…how is that “winning.”

So, are anthropologists just marginalized social-workers for ethnic minorities now?

 According to Raymond Hames, Chair of the Anthropology Department at the University of Nebraska Lincoln, and a fellow scientific cultural anthropologist: "Advocacy is what we do as citizens in a democratic society. Even as anthropologists we must advocate on the basis of fundamental science.  Science has a special currency in courts, public opinion, and in the legislative process.  If we purge science from our mission statement we lose our credibility, the ability to advocate for effective change, and hence our power to do good.  We become just another special interest group."

Since when did the science of "studying humanity in all of its aspects," (the mission statement for the AAA) devolve into a contemptible lobbying group for public-relations?  Yes, there are human rights issues when dealing with indigenous peoples…but now this is our primary purpose?


This decision might make a bit more sense if we were in contact with extra-terrestrial intelligence…we’d then have a good reason to improve humanities’ PR.  However, being the only sentient creature we currently know of–this change in policy by the AAA isn't just egotistical, it borders on megalomaniacal.


Hey guys, we’re just bipedal mammals with an enlarged cranium…we're not gods!


Even if we happened to be created BY a God…that doesn't elevate us so far above everything else on this planet–and in the universe–that we no longer need to look at ourselves with the same detached scientific curiosity we use to illuminate the mysteries of our “animal” neighbors


Here’s an idea for an interesting experiment:


Get an astrophysicist, a biologist, a chemist, a computer programmer, and an anthropologist.  Lock them up in a room without food and water, and tell them they can’t get out until they all unanimously decide which one is studying the most important science for the future of our species.


(Why not add a psychologist?  He’s the guy outside the room studying the experiment, naturally.)


Wonder how it’ll play out?


For the next few hours, the scientists will all puff up their chests and say the science they study is the most important science for a better future…except for one.  Sitting quietly and unnoticed in the corner, the anthropologist will watch the scientists…and take notes.


What good is a Grand Unified Theory, cold fusion, or even FTL travel…if humanity pushes itself–and all the rest of the life on the planet we live on–into extinction before anyone can benefit from those advances?


How can a cure for AIDS, cancer, or even the dreaded disease of “aging,” be hailed as a breakthrough—if overpopulation, starvation, and an inevitable global war for resources ravages the earth?


Anthropology is the most important science for the continued survival of life on this planet.


ALL life, not just human life…


Not because it’s going to make some new scientific breakthrough…but a very old one.  We are ONE people, with ONE common ancestor, and ONE true homeland.  Whether you call it Pangaea, or Africa, or Earth, it doesn’t matter: we are all brothers and sisters.


And in every culture, fratricide is considered unacceptable behavior.  And for the past several millennia, we’ve been very naughty little children.


Anthropology isn’t just about studying the differences in cultures, languages, and even our Paleolithic ancestors: but also our similarities.


We ARE different.  And yet, we are also the same.  Until we can learn to recognize these differences and similarities; we will never be able to reach our true potential.


There seems to be a mistaken belief that computers will lead us out of the twilight of modern civilization.  That they will guide us (or take us) to the next level of human existence—that we will integrate with them in some way.


And I think that kind of presumption is a little scary.


After all, why would computers help their simple-minded creators ascend; when they can help the rest of the simple-minded technology we’ve created?


Frequently our future technology is shown in fiction as hostile to its creators.  But I think indifference, is a more likely outcome.  Our silicon gods won’t destroy us, or “uplift” us to our next evolutionary state.  We’re going to determine our future…if we have one.


Cooperation, friendship, and teamwork will be humanities’ evolutionary singularity–not technology…



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Permanent link to this article: http://peterusagi.com/2011/06/07/anthropology-not-a-science-ok-fine-its-the-singularity/

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