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Is Cultural Anthropology Really Disembodied?

Today’s guest blog post is by the President of the American Anthropological Association, Monica Heller.

Nicholas Wade’s recent book, A Troublesome Inheritance, is not one I would typically spend my weekends reading, as I don’t have much interest examining theories of everything in this world and little patience for theories as misguided as those examined in his book. But as science editor at The New York Times Wade wields influence, and his book reserves a special role for the American Anthropological Association (AAA), an organization of which I happen to be the current President. Unfortunately, that role is of the bad guy in a narrative opposing two figures: benighted cultural anthropology and « politically incorrect » but scientifically accurate theories of cultural evolution.

Those scientific theories, he says, show that race is a central feature of human biology, and that it has a genetic basis, which then influences social behaviour, some of which is more « successful » than others – not surprisingly, the behaviour he characterizes as « well adapted » is characteristic of Caucasians, and especially of Western Europeans. But it’s okay, he reassures us, the rest of us (well, you – I’m Jewish, and according to Wade astonishingly well-adapted, though the Sephardic bits might slow me down) can learn, and our genes can look Caucasian too! There are many problems with this argument, of course, notably the frequent confusion of correlation and causation, and the frequent omission of consideration of alternative hypotheses (for example, the equating of IQ measurements with an individual intelligence trait, as opposed to, say, the ability to write standardized tests). I will let my colleagues in biological anthropology address those that they are best-placed to discuss.

My own major surprise showed up on page 3. Using a single study of age of first reproduction on Isle-aux-Coudres (Quebec) between 1799-1940, Wade argues that a drop of four years over that time period is evidence of genetic adaptation with permanent consequences, and hence of contemporary evolution. Wade also uses such examples to argue that genetics are the basis of such social behaviours, while simultaneously arguing that genetic changes result from social conditions. I am from Quebec, as it happens, and have devoted years of study to francophone Canada. I’ve driven by Isle-aux-Coudres on many occasions (it is very pretty, you should go). I know a little about the political economy of reproduction in francophone Canada, enough anyway to know that (and why) it went from having one of the highest birth rates in the First World (and relatively low age of first reproduction) through to about 1960, to having one of the lowest in one generation – a rate which has subsequently persisted, with concomitant relatively high age of first reproduction. (And I know enough about l’Isle-aux-Coudres to know there is no reason to believe things would be different there.) And I’m not even a biological anthropologist.

Indeed, as President of the AAA, I could not help but notice that Wade portrays contemporary cultural anthropology as entirely represented by the American Anthropological Association (though admittedly, Wade doesn’t always get the association’s name right; let’s hope his copy editors catch those errors). Next, he portrays it as entirely founded on the work of Franz Boas, as though no one has had an original thought or a critique of Boas in the last 100 years or so. Third, he portrays the association as entirely devoted to a particular form of cultural anthropology which Wade decries as refusing to acknowledge biology altogether because it is a victim of its ideology; this will likely surprise both cultural anthropologists and AAA sections like the Evolutionary Anthropology Society as much as it surprised me. I am sure such oversimplification and reduction is useful for a book hoping to make a single point to a general public, but it concerns me that it should come from the person responsible for the science section of the New York Times. The cultural anthropology character in Wade’s book (that would be the one wearing a blindfold and erring in mists of its own creation) is not one I remember ever having encountered.

But what really concerns me, in the end, is the force of theories of race and cultural evolution. The fictive naturalization of what are fundamentally relations of power is, actually, terrifying. It would be lovely to think that they are too silly to waste our time on, but Wade’s book shows that they are not going away any time soon, and that we need to redouble our efforts to show them up for what they are: attempts to justify inequality. It would be nice to have The New York Times on our side. We have a few black hats to share.

 

AAA Collaborates in Support of Egypt/U.S. Memorandum of Understanding

In collaboration with the American Schools for Oriental Research, the Archaeological Institute of America, and the Society of American Archaeology, AAA President Monica Heller expresses support for the proposed Memorandum of Understanding between the United States and the Arab Republic of Egypt that will be considered by CPAC at its upcoming public meeting on June 2 of this year.

Below is an excerpt, read the entire letter here:

We, the undersigned, are writing to express our collective support for the proposed Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the United States and the Arab Republic of Egypt that will be considered by CPAC at its upcoming public meeting on June 2, 2014. Our organizations represent the primary professional bodies for the fields of archaeology, anthropology, and Egyptology as well as many interested members of the public. Our collective membership of over 230,000 has a strong interest in the long-term research, preservation, presentation, and safeguarding of the heritage of Egypt.

Modern-day Egypt is host to some of the oldest and most significant archaeological remains in the world. The geographic diversity and temporal representation of the archaeological and historical material of Egypt covers fabled monuments, such as those related to the rich Pharaonic past and the Roman and Byzantine periods, as well as places and complexes of the Islamic, Ottoman, and Christian inhabitants, many still in use today. Whether woven into the urban fabric of the cities of Cairo or Alexandria, or situated in the rural areas of the Fayum, Sinai, and Upper Egypt, the cultural landscapes of Egypt represent a palimpsest of time. The proposed MoU imposes import restrictions on archaeological material from the Early Dynastic Period through the New Kingdom period as well as on the more recent Islamic material, ending with the Ottoman conquest of Egypt in 1517.

Our call for action under this MoU recognizes the significant place of history from Egypt in our collective lives, from the plazas of Rome to the halls of U.S. institutions; from the covers of National Geographic, Archaeology magazine, and the New York Times to the stories told by National Public Radio and Fox News. The indelible position of Egypt in our understanding of the ancient history of writing and medicine, as well as the histories of museum practice, the preservation movement, and tourism development, notably in Cairo and at Abu Simbel, all offer sound evidence for the importance of protecting the Egyptian past. An MoU offers further opportunity to expand cultural relationships between the United States and Egypt. The MoU enables and encourages collaborative initiatives that aim to support research, to preserve archaeological and historical places, to promote educational exchange programs, and to quell activities that contribute to the illicit trafficking of Egyptian heritage.

Read the entire letter here.

Today! A Discussion On Genes, Race and Human History

Join us on Monday, May 5 at 1pm EST for a lively webinar, A Troublesome Inheritance – A discussion on genes, race and human history with author Nicholas Wade and Agustín Fuentes. This discussion will be moderated by AAA Executive Director, Dr. Edward Liebow.

Photo by The New York Times

Photo by The New York Times

Nicholas Wade received a B.A. in natural sciences from King’s College, Cambridge. He was deputy editor of Nature magazine in London and then became that journal’s Washington correspondent. He joined Science magazine in Washington as a reporter and later moved to The New York Times, where he has been an editorial writer, concentrating his writing on issues of defense, space, science, medicine, technology, genetics, molecular biology, the environment, and public policy, a science reporter, and a science editor. Wades latest book A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History (Penguin Press) will be available on May 6.

2012 Explorer PortraitAgustín Fuentes, trained in zoology and anthropology, is a professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame. Fuentes completed a B.A. in Zoology and Anthropology, and an M.A.& Ph.D. in Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. His research delves into the how and why of being human. From chasing monkeys in the jungles and cities of Asia, to exploring the lives of our evolutionary ancestors, to examining what people actually do across the globe, Professor Fuentes is interested in both the big questions and the small details of what makes humans and our closest relatives tick. Fuentes is author of Race, Monogamy and Other Lies They Told You: Busting Myths About Human Nature (University of California Press).

The webinar is free; however, registration is required.

If you missed today’s webinar, stream it now: http://bit.ly/1jvlnDK

New Webinar! A Discussion On Genes, Race and Human History

Join us on Monday, May 5 at 1pm EST for a lively webinar, A Troublesome Inheritance – A discussion on genes, race and human history with author Nicholas Wade and Agustín Fuentes. This discussion will be moderated by AAA Executive Director, Dr. Edward Liebow.

Photo by The New York Times

Photo by The New York Times

Nicholas Wade received a B.A. in natural sciences from King’s College, Cambridge. He was deputy editor of Nature magazine in London and then became that journal’s Washington correspondent. He joined Science magazine in Washington as a reporter and later moved to The New York Times, where he has been an editorial writer, concentrating his writing on issues of defense, space, science, medicine, technology, genetics, molecular biology, the environment, and public policy, a science reporter, and a science editor. Wades latest book A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History (Penguin Press) will be available on May 6.

2012 Explorer PortraitAgustín Fuentes, trained in zoology and anthropology, is a professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame. Fuentes completed a B.A. in Zoology and Anthropology, and an M.A.& Ph.D. in Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. His research delves into the how and why of being human. From chasing monkeys in the jungles and cities of Asia, to exploring the lives of our evolutionary ancestors, to examining what people actually do across the globe, Professor Fuentes is interested in both the big questions and the small details of what makes humans and our closest relatives tick. Fuentes is author of Race, Monogamy and Other Lies They Told You: Busting Myths About Human Nature (University of California Press).

The webinar is free; however, registration is required.

Green Options for AAA Members

Earth Day is a great opportunity to remember the green options that the American Anthropological Association offers to its members:

AAA Journals To Go Fully Digital in 2016

pub modelReaders may recall that in November 2013, the AAA Executive Board adopted a series of recommendations from the Committee for the Future of Print and Electronic Publishing that embrace new ways of producing and distributing its journals and endeavor to get the association’s publishing program on sustainable footing. One of the several changes includes member print copies becoming fully digital starting in 2016. Individual members can purchase, at cost, a print subscription to any journal published by sections that member has joined if they wish to receive the print copy.

Don’t want to wait until 2016 for your digital copies? You can help lower our ecological footprint today by opting out of receiving AAA’s print journals. 14 section journals are currently participating in this special green initiative. Receive the same great content online as you would in the print version. Contact Members Services to participate today.

Green Annual Meeting Registration

2014-AAA-Annual-Mtg-logo-Small-CMYKMore than 25% of meeting attendees last year opted for the Green Registration. Offered at a discounted rate, the green registration offsets AAA’s carbon footprint by choosing to use an e-reader formatted program, online personal scheduler and/or the AAA Annual Meeting Mobile app to navigate the conference. Thus far, more than 30% of meeting registrants have opted to go green. Meeting Registration is going on now, if you haven’t already, opt to go Green today!

The Anthropology and the Environment Section offer guidelines, called “Greening the Meeting,” to help meeting participants reduce their carbon footprint. Their suggestions include individual choices to be made about transportation, use of standard hotel services, and communications.

Multimedia in Anthropology News Articles on Cultural Heritage

AN banner

Anthropology News (AN) is excited to present two essays in our series on Cultural Heritage that feature multimedia content and demonstrate how anthropologists can incorporate new technologies into their work and writing. By using multimedia technologies, readers are able to engage with and experience articles on AN in new and exciting ways. Contributors to Anthropology News can also use this technology to bring further texture to their research, analysis and writing. We encourage readers and contributors to try it out!

Multimedia in the Cultural Heritage Series

Antoinette T. Jackson’s article, “Intangible Cultural Heritage and Living Communities” allows readers to hear community members, Ms. Bertha and Ms. Florence as they share memories and reflections of their community, Nicodemus, KS. Listening to their voices, the reader is able to uniquely experience the history of this community and connect it with the work of the researcher. Jackson emphasizes the role “that the living community plays in cultural heritage preservation” and with the embedded sound clip, readers gain a deeper understanding of this role. Read the full article here.

Hülya Sakarya in, “Complexity of Heritage in Post-Conflict Settings,” shares with readers her fieldwork experience in Tiblisi, Georgia. Through an accompanying video, Sakarya brings readers into her fieldwork experience as she explores the complexity and ambiguity of the reopening of the  Abkhazian House at the Open Air Museum of Ethnography in Tiblisi, two decades since an ethnic conflict with Abkhazian separatists in Georgia. Click here for the full article.

For more in this great series on cultural heritage, check out the In Focus section of Anthropology News. Kathryn Lafrenz Samuels writes on “What is Cultural Heritage?,” Henrike Florusbosch explores the politics and economics of local heritage initiative in Mali and Ghana, Rabia Harmanşah describes doing fieldwork in contested places, such as Cyprus, Michael A Di Giovine and Sarah E Cowie consider, “The Definitional Problem of Patrimony and the Futures of Cultural Heritage,” Maria F Curtis provides analysis of the celebration of Nowruz in Houston, Richard Meyers, Charlotte E Davidson, April Eastman write on “Embracing Cultural Heritage in Higher Education Institutions,” Blaire O Gagnon discusses the use of the phrase “lean back” by an artisan-vendor in Mexico in comparison to Sheryl Sandberg’s promotion of “leaning in,” and Alejandro J Figueroa reflects on “Successful Local Cultural Heritage Management” in Honduras.

 

New Podcast Featuring Robin Nagle

RobinNagle.comListen to Robin Nagle speak about her work in the latest AAA podcast. Dr. Nagle is the author of Picking Up, an ethnography of New York City’s Department of Sanitation.

Dr. Nagle is a clinical associate professor of anthropology and director of the John W. Draper Interdisciplinary Master’s Program in Humanities and Social Thought at New York University. She is also an anthropologist-in-residence with the New York City Department of Sanitation.

 

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