An ethnography: N = 1

By Razib Khan | July 31, 2012 7:53 pm

This is an “inside baseball” post for regular readers, but looking through site referrals I’ve noticed that German Dziebel has started to blog regularly again. For those who don’t know Dziebel is the author of The Genius of Kinship: The Phenomenon of Kinship and the Global Diversity of Kinship Terminologies. Here is the summary from Amazon:

This highly acclaimed book brings the cumulative results of a century and a half of kinship studies in anthropology into the focus of current debates on the origin of modern humans in Africa and on an entangled bit of human evolutionary history commonly subsumed under the heading of the “peopling of the Americas.” This erudite study is based on a database of some 2,500 kinship vocabularies representing roughly 600 African languages, 140 Australian languages, 500 Austronesian languages, 200 Papuan languages, 350 languages of Eurasia (excluding Indo-Europeans), 440 North and Middle American Indian languages, and 200 South American languages. This valuable reference will take the reader to the dawn of kinship studies in the 19th century Western science in order to elicit the wider context of anthropological interest in kinship systems and the interdisciplinary salience of the phenomenon of kinship. The book also examines the founder of kinship studies in anthropology, American lawyer and Iroquois ethnographer, Lewis Henry Morgan, and the circumstances of his life that generated his interest in human kinship. The study ventures into the intricacies of scientific and quasi-scientific debates in the 19th century, and treats 19th century science as embedded in a myth featuring divinity, humanity and animality as principal characters. This account is divided into four sections, each of which is structured as a triad (philosophy, psychology and physiology; logic, semiotics and reproduction; religion, hermeneutics and evolution; law, grammar and speech). This far-reaching historical journey aims at formulating an idea of what human kinship might be all about, especially in the light of the widespread uncertainties about this question caused by the constructivist turn in anthropology. Eventually our ideas regarding human origins, ancient population dispersals and the homeland of modern humans are inextricably linked to our ideas about kinship. As a book that brings together evolutionary and sociocultural anthropology, The Genius of Kinship will be a critical addition for all Anthropology collections.

For those unwilling to pay $140 for the hardcover or $70 for the Kindle, I suppose that will suffice. To get a crisper image of Dziebel one has to know that he believes that modern humans derive from New World populations. Yes, that is not a typo. The peculiar thing in my experience with Dziebel is that he brandishes his theories as if he was a widely recognized singular genius who has the gravitas to speak ex cathedra on sundry topics. A major reason I banned him from this weblog is that he is highly persistent and prolific when he puts his mind to it, and totally immune to reciprocal interaction aside from that which might flatter his ego or theories. The Dziebel is apparently never wrong! Dziebel does have a mastery of a wide range of topics in terms of factual details, but his theoretical frame and models inferred are so strange and bizarre that it often takes energy to get at what he’s saying. He might be a genius in a world of the insane. Or perhaps not. I long ago lost interest, and silencing his voice was influenced by the fact that he had turned into a de facto heckler.

In any case, one of the major planks of Dziebel’s weblog seems to be to correct/attack/shadow other science bloggers, in particular myself and Dienekes. Of course in classic Dziebel fashion the world revolves around him, so all of Dienekes’ ideas are actually garblings of wisdom he long ago imparted to the benighted blogger, while minor details like my putting up a comments policy had to have been triggered by my reading of a weblog (his) which I was only aware of through referrals. If you are bored and enjoy rubber-necking, I highly recommend browsing his posts.

Finally, I have to say that for all of Dziebel’s heterodoxy and various normative disagreements with me, that’s not the most annoying aspect of the way he behaves. He assumes he knows all the details of my life, as well as of Dienekes’, and constructs scenarios and root causes of why we behave as we do. I know that this is the bread & butter of anthropologists, but since he hasn’t done fieldwork in the lab where I actually spend my days perhaps he should hold off on ascribing to me jealousy of real scientists like himself, who work in the trenches of marketing and advertising. Instead of patiently focusing on substantive differences, crazy as they may be from both perspectives, Dziebel eventually gets frustrated that people don’t recognize his awesome genius. He has to brandish his two Ph.D.s and concoct scenarios where all original thought derives from the Mind-of-Dziebel. This is a sharp contrast to a blog like Living Anthropologically, run by Jason Antrosio. If anything the normative chasm between myself and Antrosio is greater than between myself and Dziebel, but Antrosio actually engages on details of substance instead of harping on personal and stylistic peeves, and demanding that his shining genius be recognized, or throwing a fit if that does not occur in due course.

I understand that German Dziebel’s weblog will not interest many readers, but for those who remember him I invite you to peruse it. Certainly it’s a warning to me that one has to always be careful of not letting personal vendettas and healthy self-worth overwhelm interest in genuine topics. Dziebel does have two more Ph.D.s than I do, but I’m willing to bet he reads me a lot more than I read him! Dziebel’s sideswipes at people he disagrees with might be secondary to the thrust of his arguments, but perhaps this sort of behavior is why his genius isn’t more widely recognized (OK, probably not!).

Addendum: Perhaps the thing that annoyed me about Dziebel’s style is that the polemic is its shamelessness. He refers to Henry Harpending as a marginal academic anthropologist. Dziebel likes to brandish his two doctorates and credential-smack people, but please note that Henry is in the National Academy of Sciences.

MORE ABOUT: German Dziebel

Comments (15)

  1. Dziebelism for dummies: Climate, geology, and genetics have colluded for hundreds of thousands of years to deny us of all evidence of early modern man in the Americas, but I’ll believe in Out-of-America anyway, because my brilliant kinship/linguistic analysis tells me so, and I look down upon brutish sciences like population genetics, archaeology, and physical anthropology that contradict me.

  2. Hallie Scott Kline

    I remember reading Dziebel’s posts here—I was stunned!—and recall that Cochran rode in to rescue us that day. I didn’t realize Dziebel was banned. It makes sense that he should be, but if he has a blog I must take a peek at the madness. Who could resist?

  3. gcochran

    Dziebel is of course crazy. But lots of people are crazy: generally it isn’t as striking because we’re more used to it – it’s a common kind of crazy, maybe even a traditional kind. Like cultural anthropology or Freudian psychology. Or libertarianism. It takes a special kind of guy to formulate his own personal brand of craziness rather than buying one off-the-shelf.

  4. “I’m willing to bet he reads me a lot more than I read him!”

    As I mentioned at West Hunter, Dziebel has cited the case of the macrobat-microbat clade or “flying ape theory” as an example of how genetic taxology can go wrong. But for pretty much everyone else such a pseudo-controversy is just further confirmation for why you should rely on genetic analysis. It’s another instance where he doesn’t seem to realize just how marginal a position is and how much of a burden of proof there is to get others to reconsider a standard theory.

  5. Anybody can get a PhD if they have enough money and can stick around long enough. Getting two implies a form of career constipation.
    I remember laughing at a PhD candidate who bragged about getting two BSc’s.
    “You took twice as long, spent twice as much money, to reach the same place I got with just one BSc ?”
    Qualifications aren’t like experience points, where you can grind at the lower levels and expect to level up. You can’t trade in 50 GCSE’s for BSc, and you can’t trade two PhD’s for a professorship.

  6. I remember Dziebel from this blog as well, but last week I was browsing through Dienekes’ blog and saw that he had made some ridiculous out-of-America comment; it was the first time in a long time that I’ve seen him show up. Guess he’s got some time on his hands lately.

    Dziebel is a strange fellow because he’s definitely the type of guy that could fool others if given the unrestricted opportunity–like a cult-leader or something. I, personally, believe that his positions are not taken for the right reasons: i.e., he is eager to find a way to ‘make a name’ in (what he calls) science, so he takes up radical positions that he knows are damn near indefensible. But when he’s called out on, he claims that taking up unorthodox positions is a part of science. He’s engineered quite a game here on the internet.

  7. In another age, The Dziebel would’ve been a prophet to some benighted, doomed tribe, with some arcane cosmology that constantly struggles for internal consistency but seeks none with the rest of the world. And he’s a dualist — ’nuff said. There was some crazy shit about “mind” and epigenetics years ago. Dziebel was hilarious on biology.

    I thought I missed him there for a second. Turns out I don’t.

  8. pconroy

    In this Dienekes post:

    I mentioned that I thought the OOAmerica Theory couldn’t work. Then blogger Terry Toohil chimes in saying that most commenters didn’t believe in it.

    Dziebel responded with:


    But for OOAmerica, you would have to have the Native Americans arrive in Western Europe as Solutreans or something?!

    They would arrive to Europe at the time when we know modern humans arrived to Europe, around 40,000

    Now I consider myself very open to ideas, and had speculated previously that Beriginians/Aleuts/Artic Native Americans might have spread back to East Asia 10,000 or more years ago and contributed to the classical East Asian phenotype. But 40,000 years ago in Europe is a bridge way too far…

  9. No fair, my pithy comment about The Dziebel got spam filtered or something. Basically, he’s a dualist who knows nothing about biology, and there is no “off” position on his bullshit switch.

  10. Justin Giancola

    I’ll go on record saying it’s lively having him around. He’s like the Diogenes of the group.

  11. #10, public masturbators sometimes spray on others 🙂

  12. Mitchell Porter

    I lay claim to out-of-Antarctica. Though I’d be interested in prior art; it sounds theosophical.

  13. Mitchell Porter
  14. pconroy

    @11 – Literally LOL’d 😉

  15. Didn’t William James Sidis have some kind of Out-of-America theory 90 years ago?


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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