fellow passengers in this world of ours

Had to go on an an unfortunate blogging hiatus in March 2012. I tried to support family, friends, and neighbors contest the ridiculously abrupt school closing announcement. I was also writing something for the National Science Foundation. Or, as we used to call it back in graduate school in 1994, long before this whole science in anthropology got ginned up, the National Science Foundation. Cultural anthropology is part of the NSF. So take that you post-modern fluffheads; or take that you people who don’t think anthropology is a science.

Meanwhile, teaching classes in the middle of all this and came across one of my favorite Tim Ingold quotes, from The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill:

Far from confronting one another across the boundary of nature, both the people who call themselves scientists and the people whom scientists call hunter-gatherers are fellow passengers in this world of ours, who carry on the business of life and, in so doing, develop their capacities and aspirations, within a continuing history of involvement with both human and non-human components of their environments. (2000:38-39)

It’s a profound call for a bit of humility, a bit of empathy and science, things sorely missing from contemporary debates. Especially when I survey the ongoing comment streams about race, intelligence, and education, there seems to be a self-satisfied smugness and assurance of being right. There also seems to be a prevailing sense that innate ability–or intelligence–determines life-position, without considering how much life-position influences ability and intelligence.

Adam Smith, writing in the 1776 The Wealth of Nations knew better:

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. When they came in to the world, and for the first six or eight years of their existence, they were, perhaps, very much alike, and neither their parents nor play-fellows could perceive any remarkable difference. About that age, or soon after, they come to be employed in very different occupations. The difference of talents comes then to be taken notice of, and widens by degrees, till at last the vanity of the philosopher is willing to acknowledge scarce any resemblance. (1776)

The vanity of the philosopher indeed. Smith is also calling for a bit of humility, for a bit of what he termed sympathy in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and what we might more appropriately call empathy today. Except that today, unlike in Adam Smith’s time, residential patterns are so intertwined with the pronounced social inequality that these school-children are quite unlikely to ever play together. There are fewer opportunities for empathy or even sympathy. Their differences come to appear natural at a much earlier age, the degree of difference now taken to be due to the degree of intelligence. Back to Ingold, and how he ends Perception:

And of all the historical products of the human imagination, perhaps the most decisive and far-reaching has been the idea that there exists such a thing as an “intelligence”, installed in the heads of each and every one of us, and that is ultimately responsible for our activities. (2000:419)

I used to wonder if that was an effective way to end the book, but it is precisely what most needs to be said, now more than ever.

Updates and Resources on Empathy and Science

  • See the class notes on Are Humans Intelligent? from Cultural Ecology 2017, which tackles the last chapter of Ingold’s Perception of the Environment.

To cite: Antrosio, Jason. 2012. “Empathy and Science. Or, ‘fellow passengers in this world of ours.'” Living Anthropologically website, https://www.livinganthropologically.com/fellow-passengers-in-this-world-of-ours/. First posted 23 March 2012. Revised 21 September 2017.