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 Who cares about Boas, Weber, or Malinowski—they’re long dead and out of date—we are about the future.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.

10 thoughts on “Another Round of Cultural Anthropology and Population Genetics?

  1. tony, i wish you’d numbered those bullets! :-)

    some clarifications

    1) i am moderately sympathetic toward durkheim, and am interested in a neo-functionalist treatment of religion. additionally, i’m a big fan of cognitive anthropological treatments of religion (see: scott atran).

    2) gene flow CAN be evaluated independently, because genes are independent and separable entities. but i *do* care about cultural anthropological variables. quite often the gene flow statistics are tools to understand cultural anthropological variables (see: phylogeography, estimates of endogamy, etc.).

    3) the last bullet is a category error or not even wrong type assertion. pop geneticists don’t care about population labels in a deep way, only an instrumental way.

  2. u should have coffee with the pop gen person at chico state. they could clarify many of these issues or lend u texts they have.

  3. @Razib I have to agree re: Scott Atran and cognitive anthro, though I disagree re: Durkheim. IMHO, Tarde offers a much better account of the mechanics of sociality than Durkheim. Sperber,Suchman, and Garfinkel owe much to Tarde, whose approach is much more consonant with the cognitive approach to culture. Given your interest in functional accounts of religion, have you checked out Pascal Boyer?

    @Tony, I feel your pain with regard to interdisciplinary work. If you can pull off this article, I’d be delighted to read it.

    I’ve been learning a ton through this exchange and hope it continues!

  4. Given your interest in functional accounts of religion, have you checked out Pascal Boyer?

    yes. i’ve read *religion explained*

  5. As a cultural anthropologist, I have trouble with the idea that “cognitive abilities are a cultural construct”. That is, I think I know what you mean, but when you put it that succinctly its easy to be misinterpreted, and Khan has repeated that misinterpretation in his various writings on anthropology so it might be good to flesh that out some.

    My understanding is that cognition is an interaction between human brains and cultural meanings within specific social structures. That doesn’t reduce thought to what goes on in the brain on one hand, or dismiss the brain as something which passively holds culture on the other. And, the two can’t really be separated. As Geertz points out, culture predates evolutionarily modern man – so our brains evolved to use culture. I once met a girl who had been locked in a basement by abusive parents and raised by dogs, and was essentially a feral child. Without exposure to human culture during her early years, her brain didn’t develop to the point where she could talk, or engage in any complex cognition. Brains and culture both need each other to function.

    But, sure, what we think about, the contexts in which we think, and the criteria by which our thoughts are judged are all inherently cultural. Karen Ho discusses this really well in Liquidated, where she describes Investment Banks as institutions which instill a specific rationality of business decision making in bankers, which they then reproduce in their work.

    And, of course, certain cultures develop different sets of cognitive abilities to develop. Edmund Carpenter describes encountering people who can smell animal urine from several yards away, and identify what animal it is and how fresh it is. That’s useful if you track animals to feed yourself, but, as someone who’s spent several years living in Brooklyn and Beijing, I am so happy not to have developed such finely tuned olfactory senses. And I doubt those same people could steer with their knees while speeding down a highway, smoking a cigarette, tuning the stereo and carrying on a conversation.

    Most anthropologists don’t address the neurological basis of cognition, but that’s not to deny the role of brains. And if brains shape cognition, why wouldn’t there be genetic based variation in cognitive abilities? The only examples I can think of are genetic disorders which lead to developmental disorders – phenylketonuria, down syndrome, etc..

  6. @justaguy. My understanding of human cognition is also that it is an interaction between human brains. The brains start out as biological constructs with very real neurological structures and limitations. But the neural nets that develop across the lifetime as a result of cognition are the result of communicative/cultural interactions which come from outside the cranial case. So is the adult’s brains a product of culture or biology? The answer of course is both. But then why do we study cognition (and even mirror neurons) by studying only flashes on a fMRI. Nothing wrong with this by itself, but it really is only half the story. Where did the “knowledge” or cognition that gives meaning to the interacting individual? The answer is of course culture. And this applies to whether you are answering the culturally grounded questions on an IQ test, or a monkey watching another monkey grasp a banana and causing the fMRI machine to light up when measuring blood flow to the areas of the brain having to do with eating, and/or those having to do with violence (i.e. throwing the banana). This is the gist of the article I wrote about mirror neurons, in which I try to point out the importance of culture in understanding brain development. It is due to be published in January 2014, though I hope that it is available online earlier.

    This is a bit away from Population Genetics, but I sense that that the same divide between Cultural Anthro and Pop Genetics, but I sense that some of the same epistemological questions are involved. I do indeed look forward to discussing these things with Population Geneticists at Chico State at some point. However, I also know that there is still a big epistemological divide between the social sciences and natural sciences, especially when it comes to the nature of “social constructions.” It is something of a red flag word for the positivism of the natural sciences.

    I also like your answer about the capacity to smell different types of urine at a distance, an the habits of NYC/Beijing drivers. It is a good example of why “intelligence” is grounded in culture.

  7. @KbH: Thanks, I hope that I can pull of the article too. But it is still a few years off, I’m afraid! I have two big projects on my plate at the moment–both books. Having said that, books in my experience are quicker and easier than 40 page articles which attempt to bridge gaps between the natural and social sciences!

  8. sorry, i’m late to the party but thanks to you as well Tony. It was a fun debate and it’s nice that you are a little more open minded than Michael.

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