Taking on (socio-)biologists

Did the human beings who moved into the plains of Russia where they had to survive on milk did so because of wanderlust (?)? Were they pushed out by people with better weapons and military tactics? What sort of kinship systems did they produce? What political, religious, and moral systems did they develop? Actually, we may have some information about this by looking, precisely, at the texts that some of these people left us 5,000 or 6,000 later in the Avesta and the Rigveda.

Two of my favorite students, Michael Scroggins and (Dr.) Gus Andrews, have been manning (peopling? personing?) the defenses of cultural anthropology against Razib Khan (who “has an academic background in the biological sciences and has worked in software”).  One of Khan’s blog is published under the banner of Discover magazine, the popular science magazine I subscribe to (and which I have quoted in my blog).

Khan once wrote that “I want to aid in spreading the message [cultural anthropology] should be extirpated from the academy” (in bold no less).  Scroggins countered with a broad side against Khan now countered by Khan (and the exchanges continue).  Most of the commenters to Khan’s reply support him against “the anthropologists” except for Andrews who has joined the defense.  Not surprisingly, the issue has been simplified to a question of “believing,” or not, in genetic determinism.  Scroggins more subtle arguments about the production of knowledge have been, mostly, left aside–and particularly the production of anthropological knowledge which, perhaps like the production of biological knowledge, might be left to anthropologists (why not claim the scientific autonomy that is generally granted to the other sciences?).

I have been encouraging my students to engage the (socio-)biologists like Boas did more than a century ago.  Most of our publics are now hostile (including in the social sciences), and many of our colleagues have retreated unhelpfully from modernity into (literary) critical ivory towers.  Particularly to the extent that we might want to influence policy, quite like other scientists have done, then we must be on the offensive.  But how? With what weapons?

When I was in graduate school the University of Chicago, from 1968 to 1972, we laughed when we heard that some of our faculty, when conducting fielwork in the 1930s or 1940s, had been asked to take with them calipers and other anthropometric tools used by the first Boasians to counter the dominant socio-biological theories of the late 19th century.  We were told that none of them ever used these tools. I, personally, have never held them in my hands.  By our advisers’ graduate student times, the arguments had been won and we, a generation later, did not have to become experts in biological theory.

We were wrong.

And we dismissed, with superior shrugs, the publication of E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology: The new synthesis (1975).  Marshall Sahlins did tackle it (1976) but some of us thought that it was not even worth the effort.  Sociobiology would die of its own.

We were naive, as well as wrong.

And then we went foolish when some of us took literally the metaphor “culture is text.” This metaphor could be used to focus our attention to the detail of semiotic processes, to the very practical act of “writing” (composing, producing) a career, to the production of culture and, indeed, its historical evolution from inescapable pasts to unpredictable futures.  Texts, when they are inscribed in history, are anything but abstractions.  Take the moment when a few human beings became lactose tolerant and spread this tolerance across northern Europe and, later, the Americas.  This development in the history of humanity, granting for the moment the underlying genetic biology, is a significant challenge to any of the disciplines concerned with what makes homo sapiens different.  It implies that biological evolution of the species has not stopped; and it suggests that some events in human history can impact this evolution in unimaginable ways.  Who could have predicted, 10,000 years ago, that the bunch of probably quite sick people who had to drink milk would be so successful, 10,000 years later, that they would impose their language (heavily transformed on the basis of linguistic processes) onto about all human beings over the globe?

Archeologists will have to weigh in.  Did the human beings who moved into the plains of Russia where they had to survive on milk did so because of wanderlust (?)? Were they pushed out by people with better weapons and military tactics?  What sort of kinship systems did they produce?  What political, religious, and moral systems did they develop?  Actually, we may have some information about this by looking, precisely, at the texts that some of these people left us 5,000 or 6,000 later in the Avesta and the Rigveda.

We do need to take the (socio-)biologists very seriously.  I suggest we not do so as political adversaries or on ideological grounds.  This has not worked.  It will not work.  And it would not have worked for Boas if he had not taken the (socio-)biologists with their own tools, with a deep knowledge of their discipline, as well as of the disciplines that would demonstrate the limits of their attempts to deal with human behavior from their perspective.  Which is why, I believe, Boas insisted that anthropologists also understand archeology (history), linguistics (semiotics), and evolutionary biology.  Of course, he insisted that we take on (socio-)biologists through ethnography, that is through the demonstration that what is most distinctive about humanity is not that, for example, we are driven by sexual instincts to mate and reproduce, but that, as Lévi-Strauss summarized, human beings distinguish between parallel and cross-cousins.  Move forward and wonder how the New York Metropolitan area, in the 1990s, would produce both Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift?

Then we can move the conversations with the audiences of (socio-)biologists from the realm of biological abstractions to the realm of, precisely, those facts that are both glaringly human and inexplicable, in their actual detail, in biological terms.  Not that biology is not involved, but that, as Lévi-Strauss once wrote, it has been transformed into something else plausibly labeled “culture” about which (socio-)biologists can say as little as we can say about their field.

One thought on “Taking on (socio-)biologists”

  1. I am with you up to the last sentence. I think a well-read anthropologist can make comments about socio-biology, and a well-read socio-bioloigst can make comments about culture. So far though from the postings to Ethnography.com it seems we are pretty much talking past each other. It is my impression that Michael is the better read of the writers there, but the people from Genetics obviously disagree.

    I can’t help but wonder what a good reading list on the history of genetics might look like from Genetics and Anthropology. From Anthro, I would expect and emphasis on the use of Genetics as a tool to reinforce dominant ideologies (Gould and Marks come to mind). Genetics would probably include an emphasis on how population and molecular genetics became mathematical and biochemical disciplines, respectively. I would hope that both would include Darwin, but I’m not sure…

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