Over at Ethnography.com a late response to my post Against the cultural anthropologists from someone named Michael Scroggins. He accuses me of being “The hyperbolic leader in this round of hippie bashing.” That’s a defensible proposition, but speaking of hyperbole, he says:
The paradigm that informs Chagnon, Diamond and their chorus of supporters in the blogosphere is an adherence to the modern synthesis in evolutionary biology. To be more specific, they are both, more or less, sociobiologists who believe in genetic determinism.
First, the way cultural anthropologists use the term “genetic determinism” is similar to the way propagandists bandy about the terms “fascism” and “communism.” They’re usually not descriptions of real individuals or movements in the modern age, but point to a reality which connotes a particular odious intellectual flavor worthy of shunning, shaming, and asphyxiating. More precisely, there are almost no “genetic determinists” as such who adhere to the proposition that genes determine in some physics-like manner the specific manifestation of human nature. Rather, genes matter, just as culture matters.
The accusation of being a genetic determinist is clearly off the mark for Chagnon, and even less of Jared Diamond (who has written whole books centered upon the premise of biological egalitarianism and the overwhelming power of environmental conditions on the course of human affairs!). Even in the case of Chagnon, a self-identified sociobiologist, the accusation of genetic determinism is a matter of rhetorical flash and slander, the stock and trade of modern cultural anthropology. In Nobles Savages he recounts that his great antagonist Marvin Harris repeatedly references the lie that Chagnon believed in a “gene for war.” This is a lie because Chagnon repeatedly challenged this characterization, but Harris and his fellow travelers apparently repeated the accusation because of its rhetorical bite even when corrected on the record. This seems plausible because a self-described hippie, John Horgan, has reported that not only does Chagnon reject the idea of a gene for war, but believes that war is a cultural artifact! (Horgan wrote about his encounter with Chagnon in The End of War).
And yet the most interesting aspect of the post above is the long rumination on the nature of the gene.
Just pre-ordered a Kindle Edition of Napoleon Chagnon‘s new book Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes — the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists. I didn’t even know this was coming out next week, but The New York Times Magazine has a piece up, The Indiana Jones of Anthropology, which chronicles the controversial the life & times of Chagnon. My previous posts about cultural anthropology were written with no knowledge about the impending publication of this article, or Napoleon Chagnon’s memoir. But the timing is fortuitous. One complaint by rightfully enraged cultural anthropologists (I didn’t deny that I was attacking their profession in the most extreme terms) is that I didn’t really offer an argument. As I said, the reason is that life is short and I’m not interested in convincing anyone.
But here’s a section of the article above which reflects just what I was alluding to:
My post below on Jared Diamond and his cultural anthropological critics has attracted a fair amount of attention (e.g., see the Twitter re-tweets of the post). But first I’d like to admit that I think it was wrong in its specific thrust. Though I’ve seen Stephen Corry of Survival International referred to as an anthropologist, he’s certainly not an academic. Corry is an explicit and open advocate, as is Jonathan Mazower. The Guardian piece which I linked to also was not entirely clear on this point. In other words, the example in that article was not particularly relevant to my broader thesis. But overall my position remains unchanged, because The Guardian was not presented as evidence, but an illustration of a trend which I have long commented upon. Many of the academics who re-tweeted my post focused on the assertion that “cultural anthropology has gone down an intellectual black hole, beyond the event horizon of comprehension, never to recover.” Those who agree with my position understand exactly why I would say this.
Note: An update on this post. I want to be clear that I think Jared Diamond is wrong on a lot of details, and many cultural anthropologists are rightly calling him out on that. But, they do a disservice to their message by politicizing their critique, and ascribing malevolence to all those who disagree with their normative presuppositions. Scholarship is hard enough without personalized politicization, and I stand by Jared Diamond’s right to be sincerely wrong without having his character assassinated. As the vehemence of my post suggests the only solution I can see to this ingrained tick among many cultural anthropologists is to drop the pretense of genteel discourse, and blast back at them with all the means at our disposal. Telling them to stick to facts nicely won’t do any good, these are trenchant critics of Social Darwinism who engage in the most bare-knuckle war of all-against-all when given any quarter. Coexistence in the academy is simply not possible with this particular culture, extirpation is the only long term ESS for the rest of us.
It’s happening again, another issue of Jared Diamond vs. the anthropologists. Part of this is surely personal. Diamond has been trading in glib and gloss for years, and profitably so, in both financial and fame terms. There is also a deep scholarly divide. Diamond’s way of viewing historical development is reminiscent of, if not equivalent to, materialism. That is, external material forces (geography) and broad macro-historical dynamics (the transition across modes of production) loom large in his thinking. In contrast, many cultural anthropologists disagree with this paradigm, and see it as outmoded, old fashioned, and false. Not that I can decrypt what they believe, because clarity is not something that seems to be valued by cultural anthropologists in most domains.
My attitude toward most cultural anthropologists is similar to Jerry Coyne’s sentiment toward theologians. So I’m going to share two examples of why I have these feelings, without commenting.
First, here’s a transcript of This American Life’s Doppelgänger:
This is my comment of the month:
Pontifications about “Western culture” bother me. The people who use the term seem to assume that “we” are part of “Western culture” and know what it is. No explanation is necessary. But if you stop and think about it, in what sense are a Hungarian peasant farmer and a Morgan Stanley executive part of the same “culture”? How far does this culture extend? In space? In time?
When someone like Marshall Sahlins (famous cultural anthropologist) talks about Western culture, he quotes figures like Hobbes and Kant … as if Western “culture” were epitomized by philosophy and not by such pragmatic matters as kinship, economics, religion, cuisine. Probably because if you started talking about specifics, any semblance of uniformity would collapse.
I’ve also noticed that the post-modern school of anthropology is remarkably culture-bound, even in this limited philosophical sense. There are thinkers one must have read and are allowed to quote (Marx, Foucault, Derrida, Bourdieu) — who all happen to be European white males. It reminds me of Christians debating (volleys of scripture texts from each side), Muslims disputing (Quranic verses and hadith), and Chinese scholars quoting Confucius or famous poets.
No one is citing Ibn Khaldun.
Anthropologists have been thrown into turmoil about the nature and future of their profession after a decision by the American Anthropological Association at its recent annual meeting to strip the word “science” from a statement of its long-range plan.
The decision has reopened a long-simmering tension between researchers in science-based anthropological disciplines — including archaeologists, physical anthropologists and some cultural anthropologists — and members of the profession who study race, ethnicity and gender and see themselves as advocates for native peoples or human rights.
During the last 10 years the two factions have been through a phase of bitter tribal warfare after the more politically active group attacked work on the Yanomamo people of Venezuela and Brazil by Napoleon Chagnon, a science-oriented anthropologist, and James Neel, a medical geneticist who died in 2000. With the wounds of this conflict still fresh, many science-based anthropologists were dismayed to learn last month that the long-range plan of the association would no longer be to advance anthropology as a science but rather to focus on “public understanding.”
Aspiring to Know like a white man
If you don’t know about the controversy surrounding Chagnon and the Yanomamo, see Wikipedia. This sort of flare up, as implied by the article, has less to do with the removal of the word “science” than the general tension within anthropology which has simmered and boiled over decades. As someone with a natural science background I naturally have a subjective perspective here, in that I hear from biological anthropologists all the time about weird confusions and bizarre experiences which they’re subject to from cultural anthropologists who emphatically deny that they are scientists. At one point in college I considered adding an anthropology major, obviously focused on the biological field. I went into the anthropology advising office to explore this possibility, and I definitely got the impression the advisor was not happy when I explained my interest in evolution and biological questions. Later an acquaintance who was a biological anthropology major intimated to me that the science and non-science oriented anthropologists did not get along, and the advisor was a non-science type who was rumored to discourage people who were more science-oriented. All that seemed weird enough to me that I never did major in anthropology.