Another Round of Cultural Anthropology and Population Genetics?

Last month, there was a spirited exchange on and Razib Khan’s Gene Expressions blog “Against the Cultural Anthropologists” about the relationship between cultural anthropology and population genetics.  The “conversation” started with the assertion by Razib that basically, the cultural anthropologists are a bunch of post-modern political malcontents who do nothing productive, and are anti-scientific.  A cultural anthropologist at, Michael Scroggins, responded by kindly pointing out that population genetics is a cover for “hippie bashers” who do not really understand what it means to use “the gene” as a basic unit of analysis.  Helpfully, a number of evolutionary psychologists jumped into the fray to point out that since geneticists do math, and cultural anthropologists do not, we in the social sciences have lower IQs and therefore our poor little genes are doomed to Darwinian extinction.


Thankfully, after the adrenaline charges of such ripostes, we (or I) found that the individuals involved had similar habits of arguing with evidence, theory, and references to founding principles.  It just so happens that all these of these (evidence, theory, and founding principles) are indeed different in the two fields. These are some of the differences I took away from the 100+ comments that poured into the comments sections at both the and Gene Expressions blogs:


Cultural Anthropology Population Genetics
1) Likes Qualitative Description Likes Statistics and quantification
2) Likes Steven Jay Gould Not sure that Steven Jay Gould is relevant to this discussion—and he made a couple of mistakes anyway
3) Believes that cognitive abilities are a social construction Believes that cognitive abilities can in part be explained by genetic inheritance
4) Believes that statistics are often misused in a way that reifies ethnic distinctions Basic principles involve references to Population Genetics texts which describe how to create more precise models based on latest gene sequencing techniques
5) Basic principles involve a reference to Boas, Weber, Durkheim, and Malinowski Really like the work of Luigi Cavalli-Sforza
6) Who is Cavalli-Sforza? Who cares about Boas, Weber, or Malinowski—they’re long dead and out of date—we are about the future.  Durkheim is about religion, and that’s not scientific.  He’s also dead.
7) Statistics don’t work because there is no such thing as a single fixed “ethnic” or “racial” characteristic.  Ever more precision in such circumstances is something of a fool’s errand. Statistics are a fantastic tool, particularly as the number of genes (and there variants) are identified, and the collection of data improves.  This will inevitably lead to greater validity and reliability in the models.
8) Gene flow is a product of culture—you do not generally make a baby with someone who is not from your own culture/class/status group.  So models without that assume random mating aren’t very useful. Gene flow can be evaluated independently from culture/class/status group.  So who cares about cultural anthropological variables?
9) No such simple category as a Nacirema which can be represented in a blood sample A Nacirema is a Nacirema is a Nacirema


Then there were the posters who wrote in the traditions of Evolutionary Psychology, and pointed to studies correlating economic success, genetic fitness, and the heritability of cognitive abilities as measured by various intelligence tests.  These people also didn’t like Steven Jay Gould and tended to correlate the wealth and longevity of societies/individuals wit good genes, and economic success.  These posters tended to have more in common with the Population Genetics folk, but I sense that they were in fact a third view.


Anyway, this set me to wondering what it would take to convince someone like the posters Razib, dad, or the others that Population Genetics should pay more attention to cultural anthropology? I am still convinced that their population models would be strengthened if they were to take into account the nature of inequality (ethnic, racial, class, gender) which does indeed structure who mates with who (a fact self-evident to any junior high school boy or girl).   It could also perhaps be quantified in a positivistic fashion, but then I am concerned that some precision begins to be lost, since by categorizing anything, you tend to lose some proportion of the nuance that in fact, cultural anthropology is quite good at.


As for the posters coming from Evolutionary Psychology, I do still have a really tough time understanding how “intelligence” is not inherently a cultural product. Sure some individuals have better “cognitive abilities” than others, but cognitive abilities are always created relative to pre-existing cultural values.  One cultures “success strategy” is another culture’s irrelevancy.  This applied even to math problems used trans-nationally.  My attitude comes from my experiences with African villagers who were much more capable at navigating their environment than I was.  This applied to cognitive skills like judging the weather, crops, wildfires, wildlife, and navigation by hillshapes—all complex activities which I’m not good at, and are not measured by a pencil and paper i.q. test about math or language. I just can’t imagine how a Harvard student who is a MENSA member and has 1600 SAT scores and a 150 i.q could do those things—though perhaps they maybe some of these really smart people might convince me otherwise.


But then what next?

As an academic, I have started to think about what it would take to write an academic article (not a blog) which would be acceptable to peer reviewers in all three fields.  Frankly, the thought of this exhausts me because it implies a lit review of cultural anthropology, population genetics, and evolutionary psychology.  This implies lots and lots of reading which I have not done yet.


I actually wrote such an “inter-disciplinary” article between 2007 and 2013 about mirror neurons which made reference to the fields of social psychology, neural sciences, and philosophy of mind.  My article tried to explain to neural scientists studying mirror neurons why their articles would be enriched by an understanding of one hundred years of study by sociologists of the “Looking Glass Self.”  Believe, me the scientists didn’t want to hear what I had to say, and the rejections from anonymous reviewers of the article were nasty, demeaning, and contemptuous in ways much worse than anything Razib said about cultural anthropology.  After all Razib only said cultural anthropologists should be kicked out of the academy and go work for Cultural Survival.  Big deal.


Having said that, I still am tempted to begin such an article, even though it sounds exhausting at this point.  I would need to read much more about Population Genetics, including some of the references Razib posted.  Also some of the critiques of Gould.  I hate to say it, but I also need to get a firmer grip on what the Evolutionary Psychologists have to say about the nature of intelligence.


Anyway, I guess in a backhand way, this blog is a thank you to Michael, Razib, dad, justaguy, Chuck, German, Sam, KbH and the others who posted in February and March on half a dozen different posts at both Gene Expressions, and  You have given me much to think about in the future.  Blogging fast and furious as we did has an important place to play in academia, as does the slow nasty conservative business of peer-reviewed research.  Indeed, I believe that such blogging will in the long run make the more careful and slow business of peer review stronger, particularly when it facilitates such truly-interdisciplinary efforts.

Musings about the Theft of Culture from Anthropology


Some years ago, I asked the question, “Who Stole Culture from Anthropology?” in a brief essay in  Anthropology News in 2006. I raised the question because many anthropologists had complained to me since about 1987, about how they had trained “too many” anthropologists with the result that they were unemployed.  The discipline seemed to be in a perpetual depression, wallowing in its own insecurities, seemingly like no other.  This bothered me though, in part I guess because I was a victim of this insecurity.  Indeed, it was in 1987 that I first applied for graduate study in Anthropology because I thought the subject of culture—which anthropology has a special claim on—was among the noblest.  My application was rejected, and I was told by some old grizzled anthropological veteran that I was lucky not to be going into the field since, after all, there were too many anthropologists, and no one really cared about culture anyway.

But when I looked around me, I  found that many many people were “doing” the core subject of anthropology, culture.  At the university, these people were found in almost any department except anthropology.  Thus there are classes on culture and marketing, multi-cultural classrooms, genetics and culture, multi-cultural social work, culture and the law, and in my own discipline of sociology classes like popular culture, and cultural contacts/conflicts.

Many of these courses are well-done, but they do not keep culture at the center of what is taught.  Nor do they keep ethnographic observation, or cultural anthropology at the center of things.  Rather, they are expressions of their own disciplines, which is perhaps as it should be.  Thus, a class on culture and marketing focuses on how to sell in modern multi-cultural societies, the multi-cultural classroom course focuses on delivering a curriculum to a diverse audience.  Social workers learn how to offer services to people who have different understandings of “the system”, and biologists speculate about how culture selects for particular genes and not others.  In sociology, where we have the closely related concept of “society” and a strong emphasis on survey research, culture is often reduced to a box checked on a survey form.  But missing are the traditions of anthropology, including emphasis on field work, ethnographic writing, four fields approach, and the rich traditions of people like Malinowski, Boas, and Durkheim.

Chico State where I teach is right now engaged in an overdue dividing up of the “general education” curriculum.  Consistent with trends in higher education, we are developing seven (or eight or ten) pathways which students can select for their general education program.  There will presumably be pathways for internationalization, sustainability, communities, technology, health, and a range of other subjects which cut across disciplines.  Culture probably will not be there, though I suppose it should be.  But I wonder, if it was there, would our student body be served any better?  The range of courses they would be required to take would come from almost anywhere except anthropology, and it is still unlikely that our undergraduates would be required to read any of the anthropological greats, or listen to someone who has experienced the loneliness and anomy of anthropological fieldwork.

Cindy van Gilder once asked on this blog when anthropology’s wayward child—that is culture—would come home.  When will anthropology’s child ever finish flirting with the Business School, Education School, Sociology Department, or Biology Department?  Or in other words, when will Cultural Anthropology be given the same weight in the curriculum of the different disciplines as Accounting in Business, Classroom Management in Education, Statistical Methods in Sociology, and Genetics in Biology.  When this happens, maybe all those under-employed Ph.D.s from Anthropology will begin to claim their discipline back.