Review: What Does It Mean to Be Human? (2nd edition)

Update: The latest edition of Lavenda and Schultz is Anthropology: What Does it Mean to Be Human? For an updated syllabus, see Intro to Anthro 2021. This was a 2012 review of Anthropology second edition. For a current Lavenda and Schultz experience see the YouTube playlist:

Anthropology Second Edition

For a four-field introductory course, the second edition of Robert Lavenda and Emily Schultz, Anthropology: What Does It Mean to Be Human? was a strong choice. You can sometimes find inexpensive copies of the anthropology second edition to run a four fields course. I began using Lavenda and Schultz for the first edition, and I reviewed the draft manuscript for the improved anthropology second edition.

Main reasons to use this anthropology second edition textbook

  • Academic sophistication. Lavenda and Schultz’s anthropology textbook includes some of the best and most up-to-date references in each of the four fields. The authors know their material and continue to publish peer-reviewed work. When they introduce a concept or cite a source, they almost always explain enough about it so a professor can be confident students won’t be misled or require extensive additional lecturing. I don’t know of any other anthropology textbook that coherently references some of the anthropological inspirations for Living Anthropologically–Tim Ingold and Michel-Rolph Trouillot. Lavenda and Schultz include a two-page discussion of Anna Tsing’s Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection, although they wisely confine their discussion to Tsing’s first 18 pages. (For more on using Tsing in anthropology, see What Will Happen in the Future?)
  • Length. The Lavenda and Schultz anthropology textbook offers four-field material in just 15 chapters, 500 pages (including references and indices). During a standard 15-week semester, I’ve been able to assign all the textbook chapters, pairing each with a short article, and also assign a short ethnography.
  • Price. With its shorter length, limited bells-and-whistles, and publication by the not-for-profit Oxford University Press, Lavenda and Schultz is significantly less expensive than even the condensed versions of other anthropology textbooks.

With regard to specific content, I outline below some of the things I like the most in the areas of biological anthropology, archaeology, cultural anthropology, and linguistic anthropology, corresponding to the main themes I’ve been working on for Living Anthropologically.

Biological Anthropology: Human Nature, Race, Evolution

Lavenda and Schultz consistently emphasize human variability and particularity, that there is no fixed human nature outside of history and culture. They see humans as biocultural organisms and see anthropological holism as a perspective where “no sharp boundaries separate mind from body, body from environment, individual from society, my ideas from our ideas” (2012:219). They could at times be more explicit about the people and approaches they are arguing against. They do not mention Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, for example.

On race, Lavenda and Schultz feature one of the more sophisticated discussions in anthropology textbooks, including a section on the “molecularization of race” (60) and a discussion of race, medicine, and DNA testing, including Ron Nixon’s DNA Tests find branches but few roots (63-65). They could have done more to include material from forensic anthropology–the 2009 articles from Race Reconciled would have been an opportune supplement. They also only loosely and briefly connect to discussing racism, which they mostly postpone until a later and complex chapter on social inequality.

In their discussion of evolution, Lavenda and Schultz is one of the few anthropology textbooks to go beyond Stephen Jay Gould’s debate about punctuated equilibrium in 1972. They stress niche construction as particularly helpful for an anthropological approach to understanding evolution (50-52). Schultz published on these matters in Resolving the Anti-Antievolutionism Dilemma: A Brief for Relational Evolutionary Thinking in Anthropology (2009), and it is a welcome contribution to see this expertise brought to the textbook.

For primatology, Lavenda and Schultz stress “flexibility as the hallmark of primate adaptations” (102). Their chapter on primates is, if anything, almost annoyingly un-classificatory, and they explain how “most primatologists would probably caution against taking any single primate species as a model of early human social life” (96)

Lavenda and Schultz was the only anthropology textbook in 2012 to include not just Neandertal admixture information but also news of Denisovan discoveries (139). Lavenda and Schultz were already some of the best at accurately explaining multiregional evolutionary models (see first edition review), and eliminating a misleading graphic from the first edition enhances the account. They see current findings as consistent with John Relethford’s “mostly out of Africa” model (131)


Lavenda and Schultz provide a balanced account of the causes and consequences of plant and animal domestication. They stress there was not a single “motor of domestication,” and then use Zeder and Smith 2009, A Conversation on Agricultural Origins, to talk about early episodes of domestication as auditioning: “people appear to have been auditioning a wide variety of region-specific plants and animals for leading roles as domesticated resources” (189). This is one of the few anthropology textbooks to not discuss Jared Diamond on these matters; later, they dedicate two pages to quoteQuestioning Collapse (328-329).

Similarly with regard to social complexity and state formation, Lavenda and Schultz argue against a single hypothesis as explaining the rise of states. They take an extended example from the Andes to precisely question a single generative factor for social complexity and state formation: “If the first complex societies on the Peruvian coast were based on a steady supply of food from the sea, rather than agriculture, the notion that village agriculture must precede the rise of social complexity is dealt a blow” (208).

Cultural Anthropology

Lavenda and Schultz feature a strong discussion of the uses of the culture concept. They also include a section asking “Does Culture Explain Everything?” which talks about how Trouillot and others have questioned whether culture has now become a potentially harmful container for enclosing stereotyped people groups (226). They could do more on this point–what Trouillot is talking about is not the concept of culture within anthropology but how culture is now everywhere–a point students will be unlikely to understand from Lavenda and Schultz alone. They do, however, consider the issue, and bravely declare “anthropology is guaranteed to complicate your life” (228).

The first edition had both a chapter and a module on ethnographic methods–the anthropology second edition shrinks this to only a module, a welcome improvement. Interestingly it was at the end of this module, “Anthropological Knowledge as Open-Ended” (241), that one of my students lost patience, wondering if anthropology could ever be more definitive about a set of findings or pronouncements. Fortunately the finding of particularity and possibility–emphasized in the chapter on kinship and marriage–seemed to quell rebellion. This is a particularly powerful anthropology textbook on sex, gender, sexuality, kinship, and marriage. I used sections from Lavenda and Schultz to write Anthropology, Sex, Gender, Sexuality.

Linguistic Anthropology

Lavenda and Schultz emphasize the language-in-practice aspects of linguistic anthropology, considering ethnopragmatics, linguistic inequality, and language ideology. They discuss Chomsky’s approach, but tend to discount it by citing Christine Jourdan’s Pidgins and Creoles: The Blurring of Categories (1991) to question the idea of pidgins-into-creoles (257).

Interestingly, it is in the linguistic anthropology chapter that some of the more poignant statements about socialization and enculturation emerge. One of my favorite quotes here is from Lev Vygotsky: “The social dimension of consciousness is primary in time and in fact. The individual dimension of consciousness is derivative and secondary” (268). But why this quote is buried at the end of the language chapter is a mystery, related to issues that could be improved.

Scope for Improvement

The second edition does not do anything worse than in the first edition, but some adjustments could be made:

  • Dense and concentrated writing. The final chapters on economics, politics, inequality, and globalization are all difficult reading, and they are not what most students expect from an anthropology course. This was especially challenging at the end of the semester, and I plan to try and better break those readings up for the next round.
  • Emphasize main points. Some of the main findings about primates, domestication, state formation, and kinship are rather buried, and I’ve had to deliberately extract them to have students underline and highlight. I’m not sure if this is because Lavenda and Schultz are wary of seeming too politically charged (see the review of the Haviland anthropology textbook for one that gets criticized on that count), but the downside to not foregrounding the findings is losing the sense of “so what?”
  • Integrate side boxes with text. In the instructor-preview edition, I write how “I find the side boxes in Lavenda and Schultz very compelling and well written, especially in comparison to other texts.” This is especially true in this second edition, as passages from Questioning Collapse, Nixon on DNA testing, and sections like “The Anthropological Voice” by Annette Weiner (464) are excellent inclusions. However, it is ironic that my quote was plucked from a section where I suggested better integration of these boxes with the rest of the text.
  • Chapter 7½. Lavenda and Schultz needs a chapter 7.5, or perhaps a module wedged between state formation and the culture concept. There is something about the juxtaposition of state formation–through the Inka Empire–and then the concept of culture that does not give the necessary context for the emergence of anthropology. In fact, the Inka Empire provides the perfect opportunity to discuss the Islamic influence extending into southwestern Europe, the reconquista as prelude to the Conquista, and then the emergence of anthropology from the eventual colonial powers of England, France, and the United States. Without this backdrop–and the kinds of explanations for difference prevalent prior to anthropology–the Boasian concept of culture (what Trouillot terms an anti-concept) just does not make sense.

    For more, see reflections on Eric Wolf, Europe and the People Without History – Geography, States, Empires which attempts to write this Chapter 7½.

  • A Blog. It would be nice to see more of Lavenda and Schultz in the anthropology blogosphere. I wouldn’t want them to try and include all the bells-and-whistles that make other anthropology textbooks so expensive, but they might develop more of an online presence to push their vision for introduction to anthropology courses.

Overall, this anthropology second edition textbook merits serious consideration for a four-field Introduction to Anthropology course and is an ideal complement for use with Living Anthropologically.

To cite: Antrosio, Jason. 2012. “Anthropology Second Edition Review: What Does It Mean to Be Human?” Living Anthropologically website, First posted 3 July 2012. Revised 20 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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