Anthropology 101 in 2011

Update: I wrote this post in 2011 while reviewing the textbook Anthropology: What does it mean to be human?. This post was a call-to-action for teaching Anthropology 101 or Introduction to Anthropology. I’ve updated the content links, 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 and political realities that have only been exacerbated over the past decade–see Purpose of Living Anthropologically for more.

“Anthropology should have changed the world” begins Thomas Hylland Eriksen on the first page of his 2006 Engaging Anthropology. To fulfill that promise, Anthropology 101 is a great place to start.

Following on my review of whether Anthropology 101 textbooks were ready for Denisovan and Neandertal admixture, 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, 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.

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.

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.

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. 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 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!

Anthropology 101 can Demonstrate Evolutionary Complexity & 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.

Anthropology 101 can connect to the anthropology blogosphere

Anthropology 101 textbooks contain very few references to anthropology blogs or internet resources. Most 2011 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 page.

To cite: Antrosio, Jason. 2011. “Anthropology 101: A 2011 call-to-action on Human Nature, Race, Evolution.” Living Anthropologically website, First posted 18 April 2011. Revised 2 June 2021.

Living Anthropologically means documenting history, interconnection, and power during a time of global transformation. We need to care for others as we attempt to build a world together. This blog is a personal project of Jason Antrosio, author of Fast, Easy, and In Cash: Artisan Hardship and Hope in the Global Economy. For updates, subscribe to the YouTube channel or follow on Twitter.

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