Posted by: Chris | February 10, 2013

Anthropology and Science

Roughly two years ago, the American Anthropological Association caused a commotion when it excised references to anthropology from its mission statement and long range plan.*  Some of practicing anthropologists were understandably appalled by this decision and the AAA eventually walked back the implications of the change to amount to “abortions for some, miniature American flags for others.”  But perhaps the initial stance (or at least the initial interpretation) was correct: many anthropologists do not operate as if their field were a science and the change simply reflected this reality.   Science is concerned with the “why,” understanding how processes operate and seeking unifying explanations for natural phenomena.  It is also definitionally positivist and dispassionate.  A good swathe of anthropology, on the other hand, concerns itself merely with the “what” with an ample helping of the “should,” simple travelogues of disconnected anecdotes used to motivate advocacy and normative harangues.

I bring this up because Jared Diamond has once again upset the anthropology community with a major publication.  Razib Khan and subsequent links have a good summaries of the issue.  I think part of the dispute boils down to linguistics.  Diamond is an evolutionary biologist (to a certain extent) and discusses other subjects in the same fashion.  Thus, traditional societies are treated like the coelacanth or the crocodile: living fossils that shed light on past societies.  In a certain respect, this is quite literally true.  Hunter-gatherer groups have changed less than agricultural ones over the past 10,000 years and thus better resemble human societies as they existed until recently.  But to the ears of an anthropologist, this cold analysis comes of as judging and precipitates worries that it could lead, through a series of convoluted steps, to the repression of native peoples.  Which is of course why those segments of anthropology are not scientific.  Facts are not to be disputed, but their motives maligned.

The best example of this comes from a review of Diamond’s previous book Guns, Germs, and Steel that was billed and bills itself as a thorough factual debunking of Diamond’s work.  But on examination, no contrary facts are ever leveraged by the author, Jason Antrosio, a professor of anthropology at Hardwick College, and much of the dispute boils down to ethics rather than truth.  I should admit at this stage to rather liking Guns and, to a lesser extent, Collapse, which the review also attacks, despite their occasional falsehoods.  But none of those questionable facts (like Diamond’s inaccuracies about Norse Greenlandic diets) are ever brought up.  Instead, against Diamond’s geographic arguments for why Eurasians had the titular guns, germs, and steel, Antrosio rants about the evils of imperialism:

What Diamond glosses over is that just because you have guns and steel does not mean you should use them for colonial and imperial purposes. Or handing out smallpox-infested blankets from sick wards. One of the supposed values of Western civilization is to care for the sick, not to deliberately spread disease. “Pizarro had the capacity and resources to behave with remarkable brutality in the New World. But the mere capacity to behave brutally does not absolve him from having done so” (Errington and Gewertz, Excusing the Haves and Blaming the Have-Nots in the Telling of History, 2010:340).

Diamond has almost nothing to say about the political decisions made in order to pursue European imperialism, to manufacture steel and guns, and to use disease as a weapon.
He also accuses Diamond of glossing over the role of Cortes’ etc. native allies in their conquest of the Americas, which (a) Diamond mentions repeatedly and (b) is not even remotely germane to the question the book seeks to answer, namely why Cortes was landing in Mexico in the first place.  Most revealingly, he also calls Guns a “one-note riff” because it focuses so completely on the downstream effects of “early adoption of agriculture, the big domestic animals, and the longitudinal gradient facilitating trade and interaction,” which is of course exactly what a scientific endeavor is supposed to do.
But Antrosio seems to prefer obscurantism and politicization to understanding.  He praises, as an alternative to Diamond’s macro-history, a similar book by Marxist historian Eric Wolf called Europe and the People Without History, which he argues better answers the question “why Europe” than does Diamond.  That Antrosio repeatedly elides (or misunderstands?) that Diamond’s book actually is actually investigating “why Eurasia” and thus ends right as Wolf’s book picks up is another hint that his review is actually a polemic against European colonialism rather than Diamond or his work.  But even his treatment of Wolf in a separate review is cursory and politicized.  He argues that Wolf demonstrates that political consolidation in Europe between 800 and 1400 explains why Europeans, long residents of the backwater of Eurasia, stood astride the globe within 500 years:

The second factor Eric Wolf turns to is political consolidation. Here after A.D. 1000, there was an

intensification and extensification of cultivation. This was particularly true of areas north of the Alps, where the introduction of triennial rotation by means of the heavy horse-drawn plow resulted in an absolute increase of the surplus product. Clearing of the dense forest cover of continental Europe and plowing up of the European plain expanded the arable from which surpluses could be taken. Both processes took place under the aegis of tribute-taking overlords, and both, in turn, increased the political power of the dominant class. Increased production of surpluses further enhanced the military capability of this class, which rested upon the ability to sustain the high cost of war horses and armor. (1982:105)

Here Wolf is obviously discussing things related to Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel: horse-drawn plows, agriculture, war horses and armor. And it is true that you need non-human animal muscle power and certain technologies to increase surplus production. However, Wolf explains this all under the heading of “political consolidation”: the key factors are political and economic. Plows, non-human animal muscle power, and armor were available across Eurasia. What needs to be explained is how they were coming together in the northwest part of the continent during this period, and under the aegis of relatively small-scale polities. Here again, the key motivations were political and economic–Wolf describes how these polities used war abroad, commerce, and enlarging the central domain…

Wolf proceeds to discuss state making and expansion. Interestingly, this seems driven in part by what has been called a crisis of feudalism around A.D. 1300: “Agriculture ceased to grow, perhaps because the available technology reached the limits of its productivity. The climate worsened, rendering the food supply more precarious and uncertain. Epidemics affected large numbers of people debilitated by a poorer diet. . . . The solution to the crisis required an increase in the scale and intensity of war” (1982:108-109). In other words, to a certain extent there were both internal strengths–and weaknesses–that spurred increased militarization and the search for new frontiers.

Wolf’s thesis, at least as filtered through Antrosio, certainly seems meritorious.  But Antrosio is unconcerned with the merits of Wolf’s argument, except insofar as it provides cocktail anecdotes to impress the uneducated (“did you know Muslim conquerors took Europeans as slaves?!”).  Instead, his review descends into a meta-analysis on Wolf’s place in anthropology and other writers with similar thoughts and how they are more pure than the popular heretic that is Diamond.  This all might be true, but a more scientifically-minded person would continue to probe, to try to understand.  For instance, why did Europe experience such remarkable political consolidation and expansion of capital between 800 and 1400?  Why were did these processes not occur with the same effects in China or India or Turkey?  Charles Tilly, who literally wrote the book on the determinants of state-making in Europe, argues that incessant conflicts between polities spurred political and economic development in Europe during the first half of the second millenium AD.  As to why Europe had much more inter-state wars than comparable regions of Eurasia, Paul Kennedy blamed the continent’s rough geography, which prevented the formation of a hegemonic empire in Europe as had occurred in the remainder of littoral Eurasia, the same argument cited, by the way, in the epilogue of, yes, Guns, Germs, and Steel.  The combination of Wolf, Tilly, and Kennedy help elucidate for instance why, despite the cannon being invented in China and quickly adapted by the Islamic empires, by 1453 Mehmed II had to hire European engineers to design his bombards for the siege of Constantinople and by 1500 the cannonry on Spanish galleons far outclassed that of anything that plied the East China Sea.

But, like many of his cultural anthropologist colleagues, Antrosio is more concerned with non sequitor obscurantism and open political advocacy to want to understand the world as it is or was.

*Among other things, the elevation of science dismisses other ways of knowing like shamanism and reading goat entrails:

These facts alone, however, do not explain the entire picture, and I am leaning toward a quiet applause for the distancing of the discipline from “science” – especially as a cultural anthropologist. This is not to say that we should ignore the rigorous methodologies that we utilized, but instead, to include others not traditionally represented. When we examine the term “science”, we uncover a distinctly Western framework for explaining the world around us. “Science” has become privileged globally, and for many, represents the pinnacle of human achievement.
Historically not included under the rubric of “science”, however, are the thousands of distinct indigenous knowledge systems that exist around the world. Indigenous knowledge is only recently being understood and accepted by those in the West (and in anthropology) as the equally complex (and equally valid) indigenous counterpart to Western science. For the AAA, maintaining the use of the term “science” in their mission statement serves to maintain the colonizing, privileging, superior positionality of anthropology that continues to plague the discipline.
The “science-free” mission statement allows for the inclusion of a number of perspectives and approaches that have been and remain marginalized, not only in anthropology, but in much of their social and economic existence. In short, the old mission statement privileged “science” over and above the knowledge systems of the very people we have been studying and working with for generations. It is well past the time for this to change. Do anthropologists still use science? Of course, and science may well offer the most appropriate methodology for many. Still, we must also recognize that there are other means to knowing, exploring, and explaining.

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