In the academic trenches

By Razib Khan | March 11, 2013 9:09 pm

An email from a long time correspondent who recounts some graduate school interview experiences:

Hi, Razib. Last week I attended a 2-day long interview for grad school, during which I spoke with about 15 faculty, all of whom were biological anthropologists, though of varying specialities. During these informal meetings, the topic of bio vs cultural anthropology came up a few times and a couple of professors spoke very candidly about the divide that exists between the two disciplines and their desire to have bio anthropology split from the rest of anthro. A very common argument was the one you’ve made: that many cultural anthropologists have become glorified activists. This sort of ran counter to the attitude I encountered during my undergrad [identifying information redacted] wherein a ‘four field’ approach was pumped up. I thought this was an interesting little quirk. Basically, when bio anthropologists are amongst only their own (the grad program is separate from the 3 other subfields), they speak openly about the need for separation from cultural anthro because of the latter’s non-scientific ways, but when some of those same bio anthropologists are in the same building as their cultural anthro colleagues, they tout a holistic approach to the field as a whole. I suppose this is to cultivate a positive attitude in the young minds of students interested in all subfields, but it doesn’t seem crazy to think it could have a little bit to do with cultural anthro’s domination of department politics.

Anyway, long story short: your name popped up! It was referenced by a paleoanthropologist who was particularly keen on bashing of cultural anthro. I just thought it was a little amusing and that you should know that the biological anthropologists are with you! Although, I’m sure you know that based on the twitter conversation you had with John Hawks the other day.

The broader concept of finding “patterns of culture” isn’t worthless. And I’m pretty sure that the biological anthropologists above wouldn’t be ashamed to be on the same faculty as someone like Joe Heinrich, who is asking serious questions with sound and transparent methods. Then there is someone like Michael Scroggins, who can write with a straight face that “in this conception, a gene is more rhetorical topic than scientific fact”, who makes a big point of pointing out that I used the term gene in a singular. Are there really people who reduce everything to linguistic analysis? Why yes! Cato had the right of it in some ways. Perhaps sadder is the fact that Scroggins’ ruminations are awesomely persuasive to his colleagues. I’ll leave you a typical example of “Scrogging”:

Gould poses two philosophical problems for population genetics that a narrow reading of Mismeasure of Man fails to capture.

First, Punctuated Equilibrium posits that stasis is the default state of change in evolution. That is, change mainly happens in great bursts which create immense morphological variation (speciation) for a short period of time. Following this things settle into a long period of stasis. There may be some variation in phylogenetic change, but it has no real physical or functional importance – though we all know it has tremendous social importance. This is well supported in the fossil record.

Obviously this is a great difficulty for any field which posits gradual phylogenetic change as the main mechanism of evolution, and then seeks to rank groups accordingly.

The second challenge Gould poses is simpler. Where in population genetics (particularly historical population genetics) is the theory of development?

What it has is a variation of recapitulation theory. Embryonic members of a given population are assumed to develop unproblematically into adult members of that population.

How do you move from the gene (pick a definition) or some sub-part of the gene to the development of an individual within a social milieu? From the unit of analysis taken by population genetics (some part of a gene) you simply cannot make assertions about complex phenomena like the display of “IQ.” Though that has never stopped some of them from trying….

Needless to say I am not particularly persuaded by confused garblings of Stephen Jay Gould’s ideas….

MORE ABOUT: Anthropology

Comments (17)

  1. Yeah, once he said that I just focused on Tony. He’s, at least, willing to open his mind a little bit…Scroggins, well, he’s not willing to budge much.

  2. NotthefakeLevi

    Both sides are engaged in the same sort of war, even though I side with the biologically oriented folks. The cultural folks believe the bio folks are using “genes” as a black box. Whereas the bio folks believe the cultural folks are using “culture” as a black box.

    Since the cultural folks, as you adroitly point out, tend to reject quantified methods almost on principle, the bio folks IMO have a legitimate gripe in pointing out that vague gestures to the mechanism of cultural influence do virtually nothing to explain precisely how culture matters.

    This is very much akin, though less contentious, as the sides in psychology. Each side tends to add what I call “yeah but” paragraphs at the end of their articles. The bio/cultural researcher will write 10-15 pages detailing how biology/culture influence X trait then tack on a boilerplate “Yeah, but culture/genes matter too” as if that’s taking the other side seriously.

    • tonywaters

      I think you’re right about the “yeah but” paragraphs!

      Having said that, I don’t think that one method should be privileged over the other. The method should be what is appropriate to the problem. The “problem” I see often with quantitative papers is that they tend to privilege the “elegance” of the math/method, that the context becomes defined away.

      In my view, this happens with a lot of population genetics studies, but that’s another story.

      • razibkhan

        elegance is not the right word. you are referring i assume to papers presenting empirical results using abstruse stat genetic methods. the problem here isn’t that they’re elegant, it’s that they are opaque. genuine data-free theoretical population genetics (e.g., modeling waves of advance) is marked by a value toward elegance, but i’m pretty sure that’s not what you are talking about.

        • tonywaters

          “Elegant methods” is what I heard when studying various mathematical solutions to problems in Sociology and Biology years ago.

          Quite often the math was opaque to many of us, and when it became clearer, we found out that the minor point made with the elegant was not that interesting overall. But yes, the new use of regression analysis was very very cool.

          In the article in PLOS Biology I critiqued I assume that the methods to analyze the DNA they used were indeed incredibly cool and sophisticated. But in that case, they did not make all they could of the data because they didn’t step back from the lab bench and ask what it meant in a Mlabri Village which they had never visited. And as a result, they get my snarky correction published next to their article.

          • razibkhan

            is what I heard when studying various mathematical solutions to problems in Sociology and Biology years ago.

            that was many years ago, when biology was data poor. so thinkers pushed in the domain of theory. today we are data rich. instead of analytic solutions we might also make recourse to brute force simulation.

            interestingly, the paper you were responding to would be shockingly data poor today. e.g., they had 9 autosomal markers. i regularly “play” with 500,000 autosomal markers.

          • tonywaters

            I criticized the paper for not paying attention to on the ground
            collection of data. It wouldn’t have mattered if they had 9 autosomal
            markers, or 500,000–the conclusions would have still been flawed
            because the populations compared were not relevant to the question

    • razibkhan

      Since the cultural folks, as you adroitly point out, tend to reject quantified methods almost on principle,

      i obviously appreciate quantitative rigor and formal modeling. *but i’ll take qualitative clarity* my point, which i’ve repeated over and over is that much of modern cultural anthropology devolves into opaque and obfuscation inducing jargon-fests. it takes license with qualitative description by blasting away any semblance of clear and distinct meaning.

      • tonywaters

        Cultural Anthropology is not the only field with opaque jargon fests. Population genetics has the same problem, at least for those of us without years of computer modeling experience.

  3. Melissa

    Sucks for those of us who legitimately want to do things like data-rich ethnographies. Oh well, back to the economics department for me…

    • tonywaters

      Anthropology doesn’t mind “data rich ethnographies.” But they do not equate “data” with only “statistics.” If you want to read a good ethnography which has little statistics, and is funny, have a look at Nigel Barley, “The Innocent Anthropologist.” You could add “numbers” to his work productively, but the strength is still in the “thick description.”

  4. toto

    I like how Robert Wright (author of the piece that you link to) “garbles” SJGould, and evolution in general, in pretty much the opposite manner as Soon-to-be-Dr. Scroggins. If you take Scroggins’ reasoning to the letter, evolution becomes impossible. By contrast, Wright’s evolution is a barely disguised version of the mystical complexifying force. Also, in both cases, the “magical factor” happens to be social interactions.

  5. ablababla

    Razib, which program was the correspondent actually talking about?


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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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