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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.

 

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.

Scientists Respond to The New York Times

For the third time in three years, The New York Times has published an article by Nicholas Wade (12/20/10, 12/13/10, and again on February 18, 2013) that includes misrepresentations of the American Anthropological Association’s views on science, ethics, and the role of debate in the advancement of knowledge. Some have found their way into the recent article by Emily Eakin in The New York Times Magazine Section (2/17/13). In light of these misrepresentations, we present for the record the exact wording of core guiding documents of the Association.

The American Anthropological Association’s Statement of Purpose (Mission Statement) last amended in 1983 reads as follows: “The purposes of the Association shall be to advance anthropology as the science that studies humankind in all its aspects, through archeological, biological, ethnological and linguistic research; and to further the professional interests of American anthropologists, including the dissemination of anthropological knowledge and its use to solve human problems.”

The AAA’s Long Range Plan, revised April 22, 2011, states: “The American Anthropological Association will support the growth, advancement and application of anthropological science and interpretation through research, publication, and dissemination within a broad range of educational and research institutions as well as to the society at large.”

Furthermore, while AAA does not take sides in intellectual disputes among individual members, the Association remains committed to ethical practice and to robust debate about disciplinary ethics. The Long Range Plan states: “The AAA will reinforce and promote the values associated with the acquisition of anthropological knowledge, expertise, and interpretation. This includes a commitment to the AAA Code of Ethics.” The new version of that code, now entitled AAA Statement on Ethics: Principles of Professional Responsibility, was released in 2012. The Statement reflects the multiyear efforts of two different working groups and an Association-wide discussion of draft versions. The final version was adopted by vote of the membership in 2012.

Finally, the Association continues to view lively debate as key to knowledge production. Disagreements about what is good science and what is bad science do not translate into an attack on science.

AAA’s Video Round Up

A flurry of interesting videos have made their way across the AAA desks this week. Embracing people and race, here are our favorites:

The Anthropology department of the Univeristy of North Carolina – Charlotte is actively engaged in the RACE: Are We Do Different? exhibit that has opened this past week in Charlotte, NC at Discovery Place. Check out these two clips from the local television broadcast News 14 Carolina. The first clip features AAA’s very own Janet Levy. Dr. Levy is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology.

 The second clip features AAA’s very own Jonathan Marks. Dr. Marks is an Anthropology Professor at the University of North Carolina – Charlotte.

 

The next video was highlighted on The Clog, a blog by Charlotte’s Creative Loafing. This blog featured the RACE: Are We So Different? exhibit in a post titled “We’re All Pink Underneath“. To prepare readers for the exhibit, the blog highlights The New York Times video U.S.: Young and Mixed in America.

In this video, The Huffington Post features video footage of one of the last uncontacted tribes in the Amazon. Click here for the complete Huffington Post article.

Do you have a favorite video? Add the video link to your comment. We might highlight it in our next video round-up!

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