Anthropology Is Your Ally

Update: Fast forward four years from when I wrote this post on Steven Pinker and the Humanities, and Pinker reappears with Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. It seems that this book grew out of the writing of this earlier “Science is not your enemy,” but now combined with all the charts and graphs Pinker deployed in Better Angels. For a generous anthropological perspective, see Challenging the New Colonialism, and Celebrating the (Almost) Eradication of Polio: An Anthropological Response to Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now by Elizabeth Marino.

Science & Humanities Together

In 2013 Steven Pinker announced “a plea for an intellectual truce” with the humanities. I hopefully imagined it might be something like what Immanuel Wallerstein proposed in The End of the World As We Know It:

We must most of all lower our arrogance decibels. . . . Social science really does have something to offer the world. What it has to offer is the possibility of applying human intelligence to human problems, and thereby to achieving human potential, which may be less than perfection but is certainly more than humans have achieved heretofore. (Wallerstein 2001:156; emphasis added)

Pinker’s Science Is Not Your Enemy received accolades from the usual Pinker promoters. Jerry Coyne wanted to make it required reading and then said Pinker was expounding on Martin Luther King’s moral arc of history. Richard Dawkins recommended Pinker for a Nobel Prize in literature. So much for the arrogance decibels. Science is your Moral Savior, Pinker said so. Or, as John Horgan called it, Kicking the Humanities When They’re Down.

The first critical appraisals came from the political right, Ross Douthat on The Scientism of Steven Pinker and then from the political left, Zack Beauchamp on How Science Can (And Can’t) Fix Politics. Tellingly, these first responses revealed how much the whole episode was about politics, promotion, and ideology.

Later responses rather unanimously agreed that Pinker had added little to anything resembling intellectual debate. Perhaps the most delightful product of all was the expletive-laden rant In Which Steven Pinker Is A Total Ignoramus Who Should Go Read A Fucking Book And Get Himself Some Fucking Education, which may have been re-tweeted more times than Pinker’s original essay. From a practicing biologist, P.Z. Myers wanted to be Repudiating scientism, rather than surrendering to it. As Noah Millman noted in Fighting Scientism Without Theism, Pinker lambasted but did not at all respond to the much more thoughtful piece by Philip Kitcher, The Trouble with Scientism. Jackson Lear put in a response which again accused Pinker of not even bothering to read his Same Old New Atheism: On Sam Harris.

In The Guardian, Steven Poole went more in depth into the history of the term scientism and correctly pegged the main issue: “Pinker’s essay poses as a gesture of reconciliation between the two cultures, but is really a thinly veiled demand for total surrender by non-scientists.”

I found the best overall assessment to be Massimo Pigliucci’s Steven Pinker embraces scientism. Bad move, I think. As Pigliucci concluded:

Pinker really wasted a good chance here. He has the intellectual stature and public visibility to nudge the debate forward in a positive direction. Instead of embracing scientism as a positive label, he should have acknowledged that some criticism of science is well founded and sorely needed. Instead of telling us again platitudes about the benefits of science (while ignoring its darker side) and chastising the humanities for not embracing it wholeheartedly, he could have presented a nuanced examination of where science really is useful to the humanities and where the latter are useful to the sciences–not to mention those several areas where the two can safely ignore each other in pursuit of different goals. Oh well, next time, perhaps.

So instead, here is the essay I wanted Steven Pinker to write. I used copy-and-paste from the Pinker original. Then I changed some of the words.

Anthropology Is Your Ally

An impassioned plea to lower the arrogance decibels

The great thinkers of the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment framed the pursuit of humanistic and scientific knowledge. They contributed to mathematics, physics, and physiology, and were avid participants in debates about human nature, history, and politics. They were inspired by art and the artisan workshop; by literature and tales from faraway lands; by the algebra and the mathematics developed in the Islamic world; by salon debate and weekly sermons. They sounded an early warning against what Adam Smith called the Vanity of the Philosopher:

The difference of natural talents in different men is, in reality, much less than we are aware of; and the very different genius which appears to distinguish men of different professions, when grown up to maturity, is not upon many occasions so much the cause, as the effect of the division of labour. The difference between the most dissimilar characters, between a philosopher and a common street porter, for example, seems to arise not so much from nature, as from habit, custom, and education. (The Wealth of Nations 1776 [1982]:120)

These thinkers–Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Leibniz, Kant, Smith–laid a groundwork for what would be claimed as formal theory and empirical data. They were inventing the very terms of Western thought–what would come to be projected as universal human categories–but without always recognizing their parochial position.

When reading these thinkers, I often long to travel back in time. First, to simply listen to their ideas in formation, because the guiding principle of anthropology is always to listen. Such listening creates a richly textured account that goes beyond the spoon-fed caricatures we usually receive in what passes for rudimentary intellectual history. Second, to listen to the other voices around them, the women, men, children, and others inspiring thought and reflection but whose voices were too often omitted from final manuscripts. Finally, to engage them with an Introduction to Anthropology that would provide a sense of the ethnographic record, archaeological insights, primatological observations, linguistic diversity.

What would these thinkers do with the knowledge that their works had been conscripted as universals–and then had been projected from the North Atlantic to everywhere?

North Atlantic universals so defined are not merely descriptive or referential. They do not describe the world; they offer visions of the world. They appear to refer to things as they exist, but rooted as they are in a particular history they are evocative of multiple layers of sensibilities, persuasions, cultural and ideological choices tied to that localized history. They come to us loaded with aesthetic and stylistic sensibilities, religious and philosophical persuasions, cultural assumptions ranging from what it means to be a human being to the proper relationship between humans and the natural world, ideological choices ranging from the nature of the political to the possibilities of transformation. There is no unanimity within the North Atlantic itself on any of these issues, but there is a shared history of how these issues have been and should be debated, and these words carry that history. Yet since they are projected as universals, they deny their localization, the sensibilities, and the history from which they spring. (Trouillot 2003:35)

We are all heirs to this structuring of human life and imagination. And while there is much that this heritage has enabled, it has also constricted human possibility, as people become “conscripts of Western civilization” in Talal Asad’s memorable phrasing, or re-worked by David Scott as Conscripts of Modernity.

This is an extraordinary time for understanding the human condition. We now have insights of biology and evolution, but also a much more complete and complex understanding of the archaeological record, and ethnographic documentation of human life and potential. But what these insights most reveal is that we should check our hubris at the door–to be extraordinarily careful and humble whenever we imagine ourselves to be at a pinnacle.

Many people have embraced this sense of humility and working together across the sciences and the humanities. After all, it was the natural sciences that helped us understand that the earth is not the center of the universe; that the human form is not the pinnacle of directional evolution. However, these lessons of history and human interconnectedness have always been hard won and easily forgotten. Seduced by computational software and “big data,” spurious correlations arise everywhere, from the idea that genetic diversity explains economic development to the funding requests for genetic explanations of educational outcomes. Great researchers now spend inordinate amounts of time debunking the output of those who can manipulate statistics but do not understand the context of those statistics–like Brian Ferguson’s work on Pinker’s List.

The main rhetorical tool in these ahistorical and power-denying accounts is to seize the mantle of Science, branding all critique as Anti-Science or science-ignorant. Postulate ideas that go Beyond neo-Darwinism–get branded as an intelligent design freak. Experiment with Developmental Systems Theory–get ready to be ignored or ridiculed. Question Evolutionary Psychology–be prepared to get insulted as a “creationist of the mind.” Remind people that science is a social endeavor–well that’s not good enough when we’re ripping into Stephen Jay Gould!

The problem with the division of camps into Science and Anti-Science is that it does little to elucidate or sharpen judgment on what is the most pressing issue: to discern what is good science, what is bad science, and what really should never have been called science at all–but keeps masquerading the part.

The ultimate boo-word in these debates has become the accusation of post-modernism. Boo! It would seem that much of the academy, the elementary schools, and people everywhere have fallen under the grip of Jacques Derrida. Please, people. Most of what now falls under the boo-word of post-modernism was already inherent in modernism, certainly in Ferdinand de Saussure among others. John Horgan daringly urges us to embrace postmodernism, but again, Horgan’s portrayal of postmodernism is actually more like modernism.

Let’s just acknowledge that science is a social endeavor–and move on. (For a similar take see Humanities! Science is not your enemy, it’s a friend who owes you money at Crooked Timber.)

The peculiar strength of anthropology’s combination of science and humanities is that of truly listening and working with people, what anthropology has perhaps too-mundanely labeled participant observation:

Participant observation is absolutely not a technique of data collection. Quite to the contrary, it is enshrined in an ontological commitment that renders the very idea of data collection unthinkable. This commitment, by no means confined to anthropology, lies in the recognition that we owe our very being to the world we seek to know. In a nutshell, participant observation is a way of knowing from the inside. As science studies scholar Karen Barad (2007:185) has eloquently put it: “We do not obtain knowledge by standing outside the world; we know because ‘we’ are of the world. We are part of the world in its differential becoming.” Only because we are already of the world, only because we are fellow travellers along with the beings and things that command our attention, can we observe them. There is no contradiction, then, between participation and observation; rather, the one depends on the other. (Tim Ingold, Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture, 2013:5)

False glorifiers of Science often confuse this listening and participant observation with a sin called subjectivity. But to search explanations by fully immersing ourselves in the complexity of the world–to take up a position in the world, not apart from it–is the sanest form of science. Acknowledging that the position of science is always a form of participant observation will lead to better science.

Many of our cultural institutions cultivate a philistine indifference to doing real history and practicing real ethnographic engagement. We substitute Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel for reading real historical accounts. We mistake Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday for doing real ethnography. This situation leads to confusion at the most elite levels of our society, as people like Bill Gates participate in the mass-promotion of such accounts.

In part this has been due to anthropology’s unfortunate retreat from a more public engagement. The acquisition of knowledge is hard, and true participant observation with other people presents special difficulties. Confronted by these difficulties, and the need to further develop anthropological theory, anthropology turned inward. To understand the world entailed feats of fieldwork and ingenuity which were not accessible or easily presented.

Nevertheless, anthropology does illuminate human affairs. Let us start with the most ambitious: the deepest questions about who we are, where we came from, and how we define the meaning and purpose of our lives. Anthropology has done the most to reveal and teach the story of human evolution, how humans are a single species of African primate. Humans developed many forms of agriculture, of government, and of record-keeping relatively late in our history, in constant interaction and trade with other human groups.

We now know that there is no such thing as human nature:

Human capacities are not genetically specified but emerge within processes of ontogenetic development. Moreover the circumstances of development are continually shaped through human activity. There is consequently no human nature that has escaped the current of history. . . . This does not mean, of course, that a human being can be anything you please. But it does mean that there is no way of describing what human beings are independently of the manifold historical and environmental circumstances in which they become–in which they grow up and live out their lives.
(Tim Ingold, Against Human Nature, 2006:259,273)

These understandings appeal to a different mode of morality, what Michel-Rolph Trouillot called anthropology’s moral optimism. Anthropology, science, and the humanities does not progress by ridiculing and mocking the beliefs and understandings of others. Rather, anthropology’s moral optimism stems from the radical notion that indeed other ways of life possible:

We owe it to ourselves and to our interlocutors to say loudly that we have seen alternative visions of humankind–indeed more than any academic discipline–and that we know that this one . . . that constructs economic growth as the ultimate human value . . . may not be the most respectful of the planet we share, nor indeed the most accurate nor the most practical. We also owe it to ourselves to say that it is not the most beautiful nor the most optimistic. (Global Transformations 2003:139)

Alternatively, as Tim Ingold has recently described, the purpose of anthropology is “to open up a space for generous, open-ended, comparative yet critical inquiry into the conditions and potentials of human life. It is to join with people in their speculations about what life might or could be like, in ways nevertheless grounded in a profound understanding of what life is like in particular times and places” (Making, 2013:4).

Industry, Science, Progress

If we are to open this space for an inquiry into human potential, it behooves us to take better account of where we are. We can certainly be grateful for the ways in which scientific understanding have improved human life. We can look with optimism at the present and future. But we would be extremely ill-served to misunderstand human history and interconnection, and we need to honestly assess the most pressing issues.

Looking historically, we should recognize that great scientific thinking and great educational systems have in the contemporary world been the result of industrial development, not the pre-cursor to it. And we should not blind ourselves by overestimating the role of science and education in the creation of the industrial world. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb reminds us in Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, it is wealth that leads to education:

Now let’s look at evidence of the direction of the causal arrow, that is, whether it is true that lecture-driven knowledge leads to prosperity. Serious empirical investigation (largely thanks to one Lant Pritchett, then a World Bank economist) shows no evidence that raising the general level of education raises income at the level of a country. But we know the opposite is true, that wealth leads to the rise of education. (2012:203).

Taleb also points us to how little of the major developments in the Industrial Revolution came about because of science–they were the product of tinkerers, amateurs, and artisans.

Perhaps even more important is the recognition that the world has been interconnected for thousands of years. One region does not grow or develop apart from others–the world is an interconnected whole. Slavery was not exactly an “obstacle we set in our own path” (Pinker)–it was a means to produce unequal wealth and power. As Sidney W. Mintz has demonstrated, the sugar plantations of slavery provided the calories that fed the emerging working classes. More than that, the organization of the Caribbean plantation presaged the industrial factory.

Keeping these lessons from history squarely in place, we move to an assessment of the present and future. There are three key issues which threaten to undo all of Pinker’s indices of human flourishing.

The first issue is the enormous rise of inequality, both between and within countries. By almost any measure, inequality has been worsening, and creating bubbles in which some people can declare that “humans are everywhere flourishing” when in fact we have ongoing crises of long-term unemployment, worsening wealth inequalities structured along lines of race and class, and whole regions of the world that have been written out of the global economy, save resource extraction and precarious immigrant labor.

Second, and linked to the issue of inequality, is of course the issue of global climate change. Science has helped us to understand and comprehend the issue–but it would be naive to deny that science and technology have been co-creators in these problems.

Third, the larger and recurrent crises, economic and political, of ever-more destabilizing consequence. The apparent calm in the United States should not blind us to ongoing regional crises as well as the fact that it was only a few short years ago that we seemed on the brink of a global finance meltdown.

Science is absolutely necessary to address these issues. But it’s going to take a lot more than pure science (and in some cases, it will mean addressing the unintended consequences of applied science). It will take political will. Throwing around words like democracy won’t help, when it is questionable whether the United States is a functioning democracy. When one of the most powerful legislative bodies in the world votes 40 times to repeal healthcare legislation–without any chance of success–then more than just science is at stake. And it’s pretty doubtful that raising the arrogance decibels will help.

Science is Complex–And the Public Imagination is Stunted

Anthropologists are often accused of making things overly complicated. And sure, there may be times when anthropology introduces un-needed complexity, but in the vast majority of cases, anthropologists are simply trying to point out that simplifications can be very unhelpful. The world is a complex place. We need to understand it in its complexity. And if Gillian Tett can talk about What Pierre Bourdieu taught me in the Financial Times, we can all buckle down and not be so put off by words like doxa and habitus. The complaint about complexity is misbegotten.

We need to be aware of how much there has not just been a recoil from complex thinking, but how there has been, in David Graeber’s words, a war on the human imagination: “We don’t really have intellectuals in America. We’ve gotten rid of them.” Or, as Tim Ingold warns, “the prostitution of scholarship before the twin idols of innovation and competitiveness has reduced once fine traditions of learning to market brands, the pursuit of excellence to a grubby scramble for funding and prestige, and books such as this to outputs whose value is measured by rating and impact rather than by what they might have to contribute to human understanding” (Being Alive, 2012:xiii).

Moreover, many of the issues of inequality and crisis have manifest in academia. Academia has become more like a winner-take-all star system, with tournament-style payouts of fame and fortune. “In the ever more elongated upper tail of the income distribution, it is the logic of tournaments that determines the distribution of prizes, and tournament winners feel little obligation to sympathize with the losers. As the star system spreads to other occupations, as in academe, the same tendencies show up there as well” (Leijonhufvud 2008:121-122).

We should really understand what’s been under attack lately. It’s been anthropology, the liberal arts, the humanities–remember that whole worst major for your career stuff? And sure, it’s been the politicians and finance magazines doing the attacking, but it’s also been Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins. And it certainly won’t help to repeat factually-inaccurate accounts about the humanities.

So yes, let’s have a truce. Call off the attacks. Lower the arrogance decibels. And then let’s get to work putting science and humanities together to address human problems and fulfill human potential.

The life expectancy of irrelevance tends to be short. More courageous and healthier is the acknowledgment of the many dead ends within the human disciplines brought about or brought to light by current global transformations, including the death of utopia. We might as well admit that all the human sciences may need more than a facelift; most will be deeply modified and others, in their current institutional shape, might disappear. As the world changes, so do disciplines.
–Trouillot 2003:138; see also the follow-up Purpose of Anthropology

To cite: Antrosio, Jason. 2013. “Humanities and Science Together: Anthropology is Your Ally.” Living Anthropologically website, First posted 16 August 2013. Revised 18 March 2018.

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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