I am a bit speechless, but maybe I can express it in blogging (now that I have this outlet).

So the current issue of Anthropology News has an article about biological anthropologists being upset with the Leakey Foundation for having journalist Nicholas Wade as one of their speakers (get the scoop here: Nicholas Wade Speaks to Leakey Audience: Productive Dialogue or Dangerous Advocacy?

That is not what I’m upset about. I agree, biological determinism should be questioned, critiqued, put into context, as necessary. What I’m upset about is this bit, from our AAA president, who states that (here I’m quoting from the aforelinked article):

‘biology is, in many ways, “separated out from the corpus of anthropology.”

Goodman recognizes that this practice, in part, has created an environment in which Nicholas Wade declares that many social scientists feel they needn’t bother at all with evolution or genetics. “They are ignoring the theory that explains all of biology,” says Wade, “of which humans are definitely a part.”

Because anthropologists of various subfields may too often see the foundations of human behavior and diversity through the limited lens of their own discipline, Goodman thinks “we really need a new science in which we look at how all of those things are interrelated…a science of development, a science of intersecting processes.”’

End quote. Read that carefully, boys and girls. The president of AAA (a biological anthropologist in his own right) seems to be suggesting that we need a new approach, a holistic approach, even, to the human condition.

Forgive me, I thought that was Anthropology.

9 thoughts on “?????????

  1. Holy crap, Nicholas Wade holds the future of anthropology in his hands!! Who knew. Well, the few that attended the lecture. Other than that, I have to say it passed without notice in the rest of the world.

    I can’t agree more with you, Donna. I think a major strength of anthropology in the past has always been its ability to look holistically at the world, from biological, cultural material perspectives. It’s certainly what I sell my clients on. When I talk about the value of anthropology, and it’s certainly what they depend on for me to tie together issues of business and culture and the manufacture of material goods. In a lot of ways anthropology has specialized itself almost out of relevance.

    There are two quotes in the article that I find particularly interesting, the first from biological anthropologist Jonathan Marks at UNC Charlotte, who suggests “Somebody needs to get fired over it,” says Marks, who is an outspoken opponent of viewpoints he regards as anti-science or anti-intellectual. “Somehow [the process by which Wade was selected] needs to be made more transparent because it has given the field of anthropology a black eye.”

    Then there’s this quote from the author of the article Rachel Dvoskin

    “Whether Wade is careful enough in his reporting, and whether the Leakey Foundation—by sponsoring his talk—did any lasting damage to the field, it is clear that Wade has succeeded at capturing the public’s ear.”

    Really? Indeed. So this talk is going to cause some massive domino effect? Departments will be closing left and right! Funding for anthropology of all kinds will be pulled from the records! “You anthropologist, close the departmental door and ne’er darken the path of proper science again!”

    Not bloody likely. Nicholas Wade has controversial opinions, Nicholas Wade may or may not agree with Jonathan Marks. However, fortunately for the rest of us. Jonathan Marks does not have the authority to dictate what we hear and read, particularly if it’s something that he personally dislikes. But let’s face it getting a bunch of social scientist riled up is easier than filling a teenager with angst.

    On the other hand, it is interesting to note that Nicholas Wade co-wrote a book some time ago titled “Betrayers of the Truth: Fraud and Deceit In The Halls of Science.” Not that I think people might of been upset by that.

  2. I think the thing about Nicholas Wade is that he was invited by the Leakey Foundation, because he was perceived by people within that foundation to be an effective translator of anthropological information. So I do wag my finger at that, because there are people within physical anthropology lecturing and publishing accessible material that laypeople and anthropologists alike can engage with. I think it’s condescending in the extreme for a journalist to offer himself as a great hope to anthropology, to *finally* be able to tell the rest of the world what those obtuse anthropologists are talking about, anyway.

    We don’t need a translator or a mouthpiece. We need to speak for ourselves. Part of the problem is that we’ve been speaking far more to each other than we have to the public, and that lack of visibility is reflected not only in our departmental funding, but also in the whole streetwalking child that is “culture” these days. We anthropologists let other people walk off with our toolkit, our theories, and are now upset when other people presume to talk to us about what anthropology is really all about.

    Well we shouldn’t let them do that anymore. And we should be upset about it when they do. But that does NOT mean that we need to reinvent the wheel. Just DO ANTHROPOLOGY, dammit. And know enough about our disciplinary history to know WHY we are anthropologists in the first place.

  3. Jonathan Marks’ book “What Does it Mean to be 98% Chimpanzee?” is a very effective critique of biological determinism which I recommend.

    On the other hand, I also read Wade’s book, too. Also after having heard about it on NPR. I disagreedwith the biological determinism of his approach. However, he does summarize well the state of the field, and I learned a lot by reading it about the development of language, etc.

    The larger problem I think is that as Donna wrote, anthropology and sociology try to pretend that the biological critique is so outlandish that they need not respond. This is not the case. Many people find the biological critique compelling which is why publishers are so receptive, and popular outlets so charmed by books like Wade, or for that matter the socio-biology of E. O. Wilson.

    We need to be equally charming. Part of what this means is that Marks’ book needs to be more widely read. But we also need to dust off many of the critiques of social Darwinism that have emerged over the last 100 years in order to re-interpret the very real (and very interesting) data that is emerging from molecular biology.

  4. “equally charming.” I like that, Tony.

    Yes, we do need to be that. And I think it’s especially important for us to keep hammering at the idea that biology and culture interact in humans, that neither biology nor culture alone make *everything* happen, but are rather factors in a complex whole. We are constantly learning more about how those factors interact, and what that interaction looks like in real life. Being scared off by the extremes on both ends, or not commenting because they are extreme, leads the greater public to believe that we who hold to theories of moderation and complexity agree with the extremists, when in reality we’d like for them to shut up and stop pretending that they speak for everyone.

  5. Maybe what Alan Goodman was saying is that bio-anthro has become co-opted by a reductive agenda, and has become intellectually distanced from what we all agree anthropology ought to be.
    Have a look at the book that Alan co-edited with a medical/cultural anthropologist and a historian, called “Genetic Nature/Culture,” based on a Wenner-Gren Conference. Here at the University of Edinburgh, there is no biological anthropology; the only course on human evolution is taught in archaeology; but the social anthropologists are all quite interested in what most of us would regard as biological anthropology, and were delighted to have me lecture to them on molecular anthropology a couple of weeks ago; and are going to turn out for my public lecture tomorrow called “Is that and ape in your genes?”
    The problem with Nick Wade is that he thinks (following prominent biological anthropologists such as Henry Harpending, and a long line of thought going back to Charles Davenport, who died in 1944 as the sitting president of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, long after his work in human genetics had been thoroughly discredited) that genetics exists in opposition to anthropology. A different viewpoint, made in the Goodman-Heath-Lindee volume, is that there is an area of overlap between anthropology and genetics, and that it is quite possibly a very fruitful avenue to explore – but you won’t find it if you adopt the position that differences in group-level human behaviours are genetically based, and that anthropologists are fluffy-headed Marxist post-modernists who don’t think that there is a reality. I wish that viewpoint were an exaggeration, but it is really what Harpending and Wade believe. Personally, I think there is a reality, but it’s just quite different from what Harpending and Wade think it is.
    You might also have a look at the latest Current Anthropology, in which Joe Alter from Pittsburgh tries to raise some “biological” issues in a “cultural” context. I have a comment on it, and the next comment is by primatologist Craig Stanford from USC, who starts off with the ex cathedra pronouncement that anthropology is a subdiscipline of primatology. If that’s true, then IMHO it is so only in the sense that we are all subdisciplines of particle physics.
    “Mark” mentions that I lack the authority to dictate what you hear and read, and something about my personal tastes. I wouldn’t want that authority, and this isn’t about personal tastes at all; this is about minimal competency and ideologically-driven reportage. Wade lacks the first, and possesses the second.
    In fact, the only reason it is even in the Anthropology News is that when I wrote to the Leakey Foundation to inquire about the decision-making process by which they came to sponsor Wade as a spokesman for the field of anthropology, they did not have the minimal courtesy to respond. As it happened, the anthropology advisory committee of the New York Academy of Sciences had been unhappy with Wade’s representation of the field in the NYT for quite some time, and had brought me into their discussions. Anyway, when the Leakey Foundation learned from Rachel Dvoskin that I had copied my letter to some other people, they got a little edgy and wanted to know to whom I had sent it – but still wouldn’t actually respond. It kind of makes you wonder whether the outfit is being run by Scooter Libby…

  6. If that is what Alan Goodman is saying, then he didn’t express it well. It sounded like he was saying that we (anthropologists) need to come up with a whole new discipline to achieve holism. If what he was trying to say was that we (anthropologists) should reclaim holism, and reject reductionism, then I agree. But we’ve got enough other disciplines and administrators questioning the utility of anthropology (HTS notwithstanding), without the president of AAA advocating for the reinvention of the wheel.

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