Eriksen - Engaging Anthropology 101

Human Nature, Race, and Evolution in Anthropology 101

by Jason Antrosio

Update: I wrote this post in April 2011 as a call-to-action for teaching Anthropology 101 or Introduction to Anthropology. I’ve updated the content links for 2017, but the assessment of anthropology textbooks is from 2011. Although some of the textbooks have improved, in general it seems anthropology did not recognize the economic & political realities that have only been exacerbated by 2017.

“Anthropology should have changed the world” begins Thomas Hylland Eriksen in Engaging Anthropology (2006:1). To fulfill that promise, Anthropology 101 is a great place to start.

Following my review of whether Anthropology 101 textbooks are ready for Neandertals and Denisovans, this post widens the scope to “Human Nature, Race, and Evolution,” themes often treated in the Biological Anthropology segment of a four-field course. I admire four-field textbook authors and know it is difficult to tackle all the material. Still, we can do more to show anthropology’s world-changing potential in Anthropology 101.

Anthropology 101 can take on Pinker and other Pundits

Although Steven Pinker’s popular book The Blank Slate (2003) would seem ripe for anthropological critique, it goes unmentioned in the textbooks. Some make passing reference to Pinker on language, but that’s it. For the most part the textbooks do not critique contemporary pundits, pundits posing as journalists, or pundits posing as academics. No one counters Nicholas Wade for playing up genetic determinism and race.

Jared Diamond almost always gets a positive plug–no Questioning Collapse here. No one takes on David Brooks about culture and cultural chauvinism. They do not tackle Brooks’s mentor, Lawrence Harrison, nor does anyone refer to the book Culture Matters (see blog-post Culture Doesn’t Matter). Only one textbook, from Scupin and DeCorse, tackles Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations (1996).

The theme of human nature is still very much alive in the pundit sphere. We can do more to name these pundits and critique them in Anthropology 101.

Update: See section on Human Nature and Anthropology. Two important books have emerged in 2012: Agustin Fuentes Race, Monogamy & Other Lies They Told You (2012) and the edited volume War, Peace, & Human Nature.

Anthropology 101 can go beyond The Bell Curve to address race and structural racism

Almost every textbook talks about The Bell Curve, the 1994 book infamous for linking race and intelligence. As important as it is to fight this battle, that was 1994. What no textbook does is to talk about how The Bell Curve signaled a revival of race thinking and race studies. No one mentions the 2005 editorial, “A Family Tree in Every Gene” by Armand Marie Leroi. There is almost no reference to genetic ancestry testing or race-based medicine. Almost no discussion of how forensic anthropologists move from estimating probable ancestry to identifying probable race, or “if races don’t exist, why are forensic anthropologists so good at identifying them?” (Sauer 1992).

Many textbooks cite Richard Lewontin to disprove genetic groupings, apparently without realizing that for many biologists, Lewontin is just as associated with “Lewontin’s Fallacy” as he is with deconstructing race. To the degree that contemporary race revivals get talked about, the textbooks treat them as holdovers, isolated incidents of what is yet-to-disappear.

This non-discussion comes with a general non-treatment of structural racism in the United States. Several textbooks do not even talk about political and economic inequality as a dimension of race. Those that do usually include it in a short section later in the textbook, separate from discussing race and human variation. The implication–that race-thinking and inequality will disappear once everyone realizes the anthropological truth–is not helpful for contemporary realities (see blog-post Race Remixed?).

It is time to put the pieces together. It’s time to admit there has been a race revival and to talk about actually existing economic-political inequalities. It will take recognition and political will.

Update: See the resources at Teaching Race Anthropologically but also the cautionary note Social Construction of Race = Conservative Goldmine.

We can recapture anthropology’s holistic promise

Several textbooks emphasize a biocultural approach as fundamental to anthropology, or at least mention the term. Others talk about interactionist or dual inheritance models. However, it is not always clear how this works in practice. For many textbooks, this seems to mean anthropology studies both biology and culture, and so they can merrily go ahead with the four sub-fields.

It is curious how little time most textbooks spend on examples that could fruitfully demonstrate holistic four-field integration. Most textbooks have very little to say about fetal environment. Fetal environment has received popular attention, but it is something biological anthropologists have done for a while: see Daniel Lende’s Fetal Origins: In the Womb, In the News. Most textbooks also do not close the loop with race. Few show how race is a cultural category with biological consequences, a perspective promoted in a tour-de-force by Clarence Gravlee, How Race Becomes biology (2009).

Anthropology can do more to recapture the holistic promise that helped Franz Boas document head form changes in children of immigrants. A recent reappraisal of Boas’s research, Why does head form change in children of immigrants?, is an important example:

Change in Hebrew cranial indices resulted from abandoning the practice of cradling infants in America. U.S.-born Sicilian children experienced an environment worse than the one in Europe, and consequently experienced impaired growth. We conclude that the changes Boas observed resulted from specific behavioral and economic conditions unique to each group, rather than a homogeneous American environment. (Jantz and Logan 2010:702)

Understanding specific patterns of learned behavior, demonstrating dynamic change, interlinking to human biology and developmental plasticity–that’s good anthropology!

Update: See the content sections Human skulls: Boas head shape studies revalidated and How race becomes biology for more references.

Anthropology 101 can Demonstrate Evolutionary Complexity and Debate

In almost all the Anthropology 101 textbooks, the history of evolution follows a similar trajectory. Our hero, Charles Darwin, discovers natural selection. The malaria-ravaged Alfred Russel Wallace pushes Darwin into publishing. Meanwhile, Gregor Mendel quietly unlocks the secrets of heredity by planting peas in his monastery. Then Watson & Crick discover DNA, forging the way for the modern synthesis. The only debate is whether organisms change gradually or via Stephen Jay Gould’s punctuated equilibrium. Then some stuff about how creationism is not science but it’s OK to be religious.

No mention of disagreements between Wallace and Darwin about the capacities of savages. No mention of the racist treatment Darwin apparently endorses in The Descent of Man. Nothing on how genetic sequences were misinterpreted as a code, program, or instructions, leading to the idea that genetic sequences are a Book of Life (Kay 2000). No mention of contemporary contributions to evolutionary theory like niche construction or development systems theory or Evo-Devo (Carroll 2005). No mention of contemporary depictions of genes as agile and flexible, such as popular accounts like The Agile Gene: How Nature Turns on Nurture (Ridley 2004).

Punctuated equilibrium is from 1972. Anthropology 101 can do better, especially since some of the newer evolutionary developments are amenable to anthropology. Celebrating a heroic Darwin has not changed public acceptance of evolution. We can portray the real-and-complex Darwin. We can reveal the real-and-complex debates within evolutionary theory. Let’s stop flogging the creationist horse and instead get people excited to explore descent with modification.

Update: See section on Evolution and natural selection, anthropologically for more references.

Anthropology 101 can connect to the anthropology blogosphere

Anthropology 101 textbooks contain very few references to anthropology blogs or internet resources. With the exception of Barbara Miller, who blogs at anthropologyworks and has an anthropologyworks Facebook page, the textbooks seem oblivious to this dimension of anthropology. Most textbooks have a dedicated page hosted by the textbook provider and a companion Website. But these approaches often lock-in learning, not expand out. Does anyone really visit the companion website?

We can open Anthropology 101 to the vibrant people who get excited about anthropology. Some of the people I follow are on the Anthropology Blogs 2017 page.

Good Anthropology 101 Textbooks

It is difficult to tackle all the material of four-fields anthropology in an Anthropology 101 textbook, but we could do more to realize the promise of world-changing anthropology. For each issue above, at least one textbook shows it can be done. On race, the Ember-Anthropology textbook comes close to closing the loop, citing William Dressler’s Health in the African American Community (1993). Miller also comes close, using Environmental Pollution in Urban Environments and Human Biology (Schell and Denham 2003). Haviland-Anthropology makes a concerted effort to incorporate a biocultural perspective throughout their textbook. Ember-Anthropology spends time on maternal environment and infant development.

For critiquing contemporary pundits, the Kottak textbook includes lots of selections from the New York Times, especially articles by the reliably accurate John Noble Wilford. Lavenda and Schultz emphasize niche construction, a very helpful feature. Emily Schultz’s article, “Resolving the Anti-Antievolutionism Dilemma” (2009) leads the way on how anthropology can intersect with evolution. As mentioned, Barbara Miller participates in the anthropology blogosphere, and helpfully promotes links to anthropology in the news.



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  • Actually there are five fields. Or should be: http://soundingthedepths.blogspot.com/

    • Jason Antrosio

      Hi Victor,
      Thank you for the comment–interesting blog and link. If by five fields–I’m guessing here–you mean applied anthropology, I would side with people who see an applied dimension to each of the four sub-fields. I would also push for more interaction across all subfields, and so don’t want to create another. I use four sub-field language more to highlight anthropology’s potential holism and inclusiveness rather than to delineate sub-sections.

  • Helga Vierich

    I agree. I have corresponded with Steve Pinker about the flaws in his thinking – especially about what hunter-gatherer life was like… but I also had a run-in with Laurence Keeley via email for his cherry-picked examples and about other issues… and Pinker and others have really gone to town using Keeley’s stuff. What can we do about it? Do some of us actually have to sit down and take these guys apart? Diamond makes some outrageous statements, as does John Gray. Is there some way of getting back the science and the holism of our discipline and getting it out of the clutches of ideological fads like post-modernism?

    • Jason Antrosio

      Hi Helga,
      Thank you for the comment. Glad to hear you have dealt with some of these purveyors of cherry-picked examples. I’m not sure what the solution is, except to have someone write a book that is as popular as The Blank Slate!

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