A good way to capture someone’s attention is to start off by saying, “I have a few things to get off my chest…”
This is how science writer John Horgan begins his latest post at Scientific American. It works. I was leaning close to my laptop by the end of the first sentence, eager to lap up whatever Horgan was about reveal. And man does he have a goody from the memory vault. (More on that in a minute.) Read More
E. O. Wilson and Jared Diamond have a few things in common. Both are ecologists, popularizers of science, famous best-selling authors, meme creators, and lately, objects of ridicule and academic rage.
Let’s recall that Wilson, before he became the bard of biodiversity, had withstood a furious assault on his reputation after the publication in 1975 of his now classic text on sociobiology. Over his long, illustrious career, Wilson has revived one field, created another, coined the Biophilia Hypothesis, argued for a grand unification of all the branches of knowledge, and tried to find common ground with evangelicals. Lest we forget, he’s also the world’s foremost ant expert.
More recently, Wilson has roiled the field of evolutionary biology and come under attack for his latest tome, The Social Conquest of Earth. The book has been chopped up into a meat grinder by some prominent scientists. Not everyone, though, has been so dismissive. One reviewer in Nature wrote:
Many of Wilson’s ideas in this book will stand the test of time.
That remains to be seen, of course. But what will assuredly stand the test of time is Wilson’s body of accomplishments and his reputation as one of the greats of our time.
Jared Diamond’s polymath talents are similar to Wilson’s and have resulted in similar achievements. Although Diamond is often identified as a geographer, he seems to have spent a good part of his professional career as an ecologist and ornithologist. In the 1990s, he authored two books that propelled him to fame, one of which was the Pulitizer-prize-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel. The book was widely praised by reviewers, but has been pegged as environmentally determinist.
That tag has since stuck to Diamond (he was unfairly savaged by an anthropology blog called Savage Minds in the mid-2000s). It was cemented with his 2005 blockbuster, Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed. Again, anthropologists took Diamond to task for emphasizing environmental factors and not giving enough due to cultural ones. Some have written detailed critiques of the examples he chose for Collapse, which I discussed here. The most famous of these case studies for Diamond’s Collapse thesis is Easter Island, which he first laid out in this 1995 Discover piece.
In recent years, several archaeologists have forcefully challenged the historical (eco-cautionary) narrative that Diamond popularized for Easter Island. If you don’t have time to read the book on that, see this July 2012 National Geographic piece.
UPDATE: Charlie Petit at Science Journalism Tracker has a very complimentary overview of the special package discussed below.
Twenty years ago, landmark legislation passed by the U.S. Congress revolutionized the field of archaeology in America. That much everyone can agree on.
Today, Science magazine publishes a special section that examines NAGPRA’s impact to archaeology. The effects are considerable–for better and worse.
I’m one of the three contributors to the special section. As I was reporting the various stories, I felt as if I was navigating an intellectual and ethical minefield. The issues raised in the stories are as complex as they get when a branch of science must be reconciled with an ugly historical legacy. Things get even more complicated when you consider that some of the profession’s practices–both in the lab and the field–are still considered to be offensive to an entire culture.
I’m going to talk more about this in a follow-up post over the weekend. Meanwhile, go and have a look at Science’s website. The stories are available free of charge (which is unusual for Science. You just have to register). We’re hoping to get a discussion going at the site, so feel free to drop a comment over there.
I’ll provide one excerpt from an interview I did with Steve Lekson, a leading southwestern archaeologist. Lekson, who is the anthropology curator at the University of Colorado’s Museum of Natural History, in Boulder, has spent the last six years repatriating hundreds of human remains and sacred objects. In a recent essay, Lekson talks candidly about how the experience triggered a sort of professional existential crisis. When we met a few months ago in Boulder, I asked him to elaborate:
The worst part, personally, was participating in reburials. The tribes asked us to do that. There was one particularly large reburial, where we arranged to get the money and facilitate what was going to happen. The tribes are legally in the driver’s seat at that point, but we agreed to help out. There were many sets of human remains, many pots. So we needed a backhoe, … chemical toilets, travel arrangements, this was a major logistical operation. The Indians [representing a Pueblo tribe] didn’t want to handle the remains, so the white guys did that. So I’m putting all these dead people down in the ground. And at the end of it, there’s a huge hole 60 to 70 feet long and 8 feet deep, and 10 feet wide, with its floor completely covered with human remains””skeletons. It looked like something out of World War I. Lines and lines of skeletons. And I’m standing next to the Pueblo representatives. I don’t know whether I should apologize or what. Apologizing wouldn’t even begin to cover it. It’s one thing when they’re in a box on shelves. It’s another when they’re looking up at you.
Over at Savage Minds, there’s an interesting post on the merits of anthropologists hanging in the field with jihadists. It quotes Roxanne Varzi wondering how to contextualize jihadi videos:
These strike me as a rich source of information about a culture that is otherwise inaccessible to anthropologists: jihadi martyrs. How would you go about developing a critical anthropological methodology to reading these video texts?
Varzi then says, apparently, that she wouldn’t do it without an ethnographic component. Which makes Adam Fish wonder:
Let me get this right. I gotta hang out, like, deeply, with jihadi terrorists? As an anthropologist I cannot make a statement about jihadi video production practices without having first squeezed my way into their schedule and shared a few meetings over tea with my local jihadist? I’d love to, frankly, but I doubt I can network into their cliques.
Two relevant questions seem to be missing from this discussion. Wouldn’t the Human Terrain program make this a wee bit more problematic and dangerous (methinks jihadists probably know about it). And secondly, even if no Human Terrain anthropologists were working in a war zone, there would still be a huge risk factor. It’s not insurmountable–journalists find a way to talk to jihadists–but it’s there, which Fish seems to ignore.
I just don’t understand why academic anthropologists are so viscerally opposed to the Pentagon’s Human Terrain program. If injecting cultural sensitivity into the military can defuse tensions and reduce conflict in a war zone, isn’t that a good thing? I can appreciate the ethical concerns, but from what little I’ve followed on this, it seems that the profession’s leading body isn’t interested in working with the military to address those concerns. (There are also operational shortcomings but that’s another issue.)
The question Danger Room posed a few months back still stands unanswered:
Are there any conditions under which anthropologists can work with the military?
I recently wrote two stories for Archaeology magazine about the clash of history, science, and culture in the American Southwest. The main piece in the Nov/Dec issue juxtaposes Navajo claims to famous prehistoric sites, such as Chaco Canyon, with new archaeological data. This latest material evidence reinforces the strong scientific consensus that the Navajo didn’t arrive in the Southwest until sometime in the 1500s.
The accompanying web-only piece illustrates how Navajo oral history deeply shapes the views and beliefs of Taft Blackhorse, a Navajo archaeologist who I spent time with while reporting on these stories. I will say that I grew quite fond of Taft and his colleague, John Stein. They were generous hosts and there’s a part of me rooting for them to continue their maverick ways and quixotic quest. That said, I have no doubt that many archaeologists will be shaking their heads in disbelief at some of the statements they make.
Combined, the two stories reveal an interesting dilemma for archaeologists who strive to reconcile data-driven science with information gleaned from a culture’s oral tradition.
I’ll have more to say on all this shortly, as I suspect others will offer their own commentary, some who I know have already read the print story. I look forward to a spirited exchange.
One final thought: while writing these stories, I was reminded of something I once read in an essay by geographer D.W. Meinig, in this classic book:
Any landscape is composed not only of what lies before our eyes, but what lies in our heads.
This story in Nature News about societal collapse in ancient Peru is worth noting, especially for this quote by one of the main researchers:
Dramatic climactic events are always used to explain culture change in the Andes. But this is not satisfying based on what we know about human culture. It paints a picture of culture sitting there, not changing, hit by events over which they have no control. But Native Americans did not always live in harmony with their environment.
That last line provided some fodder for an interesting exchange in the comments thread of the story. I really wish Savage Minds would take up this meme some day. By happenstance, the death of this giant in anthropology is relevant to a wider discussion, which Rex duly notes over at Savage Minds:
First, LÃ©vi-Strauss taught us that culture is a force in its own right.
Yesterday, in response to a story in the NY Times, entitled “Sudan Court Fines Woman for Wearing Trousers,” Andy Revkin posted this meta thought at Dot Earth about the future of women in the developing world and how that ties into humanity’s prospects for sustainability:
In a broader sense, then, there appears to be simmering tension over “who wears the pants.” How that gets worked out probably will help determine whether there is a relatively smooth journey toward more or less 9 billion people on a finite planet in the next few decades.
An astute Dot Earth reader offers an excellent anecdote about women in Saudi Arabia. It speaks to the importance of culture in all this. (Savage Minds: where are you? You’re missing a golden opportunity.) Here’s the kicker from the comment (which should be read in full):
So changing a cultural or religious taboo is not something outsiders can impose upon a society without fierce resistance. The change, if it comes at all, must come from within, and the pioneers will pay a painful price.
[UPDATE: See comment # 5 for clarification and added detail about the Childs talk that I discuss below. Now I wish more SW archaeologists would weigh in...but most of them don't read blogs, as far as I can tell.]
Craig Childs advising archaeologists on how to write for a popular audience is about as useful as Steven Spielberg advising them on how to make movies. (So you don’t like Indiana Jones…well, here’s how you can make your own movies…)
There are very, very few scientists who have the inclination, much less the ability, to write for both an academic and general audience. In fact, I’d argue it’s damn near impossible to pull off. I’m not sure I’d even suggest archaeologists waste their time trying unless they had a passion to write. And they knew how to use the literary tool box.
Then there is this fact: scienitsts who have demonstrated the requisite motivation and writerly skills usually devote the majority of their time to communicating with a popular audience. They cease being active scholars.
Via Gambler’s House, I hear that Childs cites Steve Lekson as a shining example of archaeologist as popular communicator. No, that wouldn’t be accurate. I say that as a big fan of Steve’s. What Lekson does is write grand narratives that help archaeologists broaden their perspectives. (And instead of being appreciative, they criticize him for it.)
To really communicate to a popular audience, Lekson has to take it to the next level and start emulating Jared Diamond, E.O. Wilson, Carl Safina, Oliver Sachs, Carl Sagan, et al. These are the real popular communicators of science; they are synthesizers, storytellers and literary talents. They are also a rare breed; if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll know whether you have what it takes to join that club.
Instead, what I would suggest is that archaeologists learn from Gambler’s House and become bloggers. And they need not possess the literary chops to reach a wider audience. Just look at the success of Real Climate. It’s an influential group blog, comprised mainly of climatologists. They play a big role in the public climate debate.
Another good example would be Savage Minds, an anthropology group blog. They don’t have the same reach as Real Climate, but that’s because their areas of interest don’t intersect with controversial political and policy issues.
Still, the success of both sites suggests it is possible to communicate to your fellow scientists and the outside world. Maybe in a few years, Gambler’s House will be returning to Pecos to give a talk on how it’s done.
Meanwhile, if GH could write a post about the elephant in the big tent at Pecos, I’d be much obliged.
Mysterious disappearances of adventurous young wander seekers seem to captivate journalists, Hollywood and the public.
So of course there was a lot of buzz when National Geographic Adventure announced recently that it had identified the skeleton of Everett Ruess, who had disappeared 75 years ago in the Southwest’s Four Corners region.
Not so fast, says Kevin Jones, Utah’s state archaeologist:
I’m not convinced that it’s him. A lot of people threw aside their skepticism with the announcement of the DNA tests. They don’t realize that DNA is just another line of evidence, and can yield mistakes as well.