Science and the Ring Species of Anthropology

I am sitting in the Montreal airport on my way home from this year’s AAA annual meetings. I spent most of my time at these meetings conducting interviews, thus missing much of the actual “action” at the meetings. One of the items that has received the most attention was the session focused on last year’s AAA-science controversy (i.e. #AAAfail), in which the word “science” was removed from the organization’s long-term mission statement. I was able to follow some of the action via twitter (#AAAsci) while on my way to Montreal, and Michigan graduate student Caroline Van Sickle has put together an excellent recap of the twitter coverage. In addition, both the Chronicle of Higher Education and Insider Higher Education have posted stories on the event.

The response I got from people who were at the event was one of frustration. The biggest complaint was that the AAA science session was scheduled at the same time as sessions put on by the Biological Anthropology Section and Evolutionary Anthropology Section of AAAs, making it very hard for a lot of individuals who would have liked to attend the event to do so. But from those who were at the event, it seems the frustration was the result of little progress in the arguments, with the various speakers largely talking to different points on the issue and at times, seemingly undermining the significance of the event altogether.

I think the idea that last year’s re-wording is “no big deal” is wrong, and the wrong path for AAA and members of the association to take. A brief look at the changes made to the statement (you can see the complete set of revisions here) might make it appear to be much ado about nothing. Basically, mentions of the “science of anthropology” or “anthropological sciences” end up being eliminated or swapped with the broader phrase, “public understanding.” But what ends up happening is that the statement goes from using some form of the word “science” four times to not using at all. The discipline is clearly uncomfortable with that word – “science” – and made sure to eliminate it.

Understanding this issue is complex, because the minor/major revisions to the statement need to be placed into a much broader historical and theoretical discussion within the field and academia going back decades. First, I am sympathetic to the argument that science is not the only, or even always the best, avenue for knowledge production. Furthermore, most anthropologists, even many biological anthropologists (particularly in anthropology’s past), aren’t engaging with science. So why should the mission statement say they are?

The folks at Living Anthropologically, following on tweets from Greg Downey, note a kind of victimology inherent in both sides of the debate. Biological anthropologists feel marginalized within the discipline by leadership decisions within the discipline to do things like…remove “science” from AAAs mission statement. Major and historically important anthropology departments, University of Chicago and Columbia University as two examples, have opted to let their training of biological anthropologists wither to nothing. From the other side, biological anthropologists at historically important anthropology departments have opted to leave anthropology and identify themselves as something more scientific, such as those at Harvard University (Human Evolutionary Biology) and George Washington University (Hominid Paleobiology). More humanistic anthropologists, meanwhile, feel marginalized by movements within academia as a whole that seem to privilege (through support, monetary and non-monetary) the teaching and research of those in the science and technology fields over the humanities. At the end of the Living Anthropologically essay, the author calls for the best of both worlds, agreeing with the sentiment expressed by Russell Bernard in the session:

In short, anthropology should be a humanistic science and scientific humanism, embracing science across approaches labelled “interpretivist” or “social constructionist.”

But is that even possible at this point? Falling back to my own comfort zone of evolutionary biology, I think you can conceptualize anthropology as being akin to a ring species. From its common origin as a multidimensional field at the beginning of the 20th century (and Boas-era four-field anthropology in America may be part-myth, part-reality), the discipline has been pulled in opposite directions – one, influenced by the development of postmodernism and an at times valuable dose of internal self-reflection, and the other, influenced by an increasing incorporation of knowledge generated from the biological sciences (and related fields) and modeling itself on practices within the traditional natural sciences. These two ends do not articulate. If you put my work examining anatomical variability in a set of 2 million year old fossil hominids next to that of a contemporary socio-cultural anthropologist studying state-building processes within urban youth, you would find very little in common with respect to content, method, question or theory. It is possible, of course, to trace back both my research and that of my hypothetical colleague back to a common set of questions, but that path will take you through what are now largely ghost towns of anthropological inquiry. The historical center of anthropology, particularly the training of graduate students at the center, has largely been abandoned.

Perhaps this is not a bad thing. As Jonathan Marks pointed out, both in his presentation at the AAA-Science session and later in his keynote address to the Biological Anthropology Session, the history of anthropology, particularly its arguments about what biology does and does not say about humans, is filled with ugly landmarks that should serve, like archaeological tsunami stones, as warning marks against repeating old mistakes. At the very least, the passive and at times active fissioning of anthropology seems the path of least resistance, if not least controversy, as it requires nothing more than what is currently being done.

Again, I find myself thinking this is wrong. The study of humans within a common framework, albeit a complex framework that incorporates multiple ways of addressing what it means to be human, is of great value. If it was not, I would not be an anthropologist. We need more people in anthropology working at its center. More people approaching human variation from a biocultural perspective who recognize the role biological variation plays in shaping broader patterns of human variation and the critical role human culture plays in shaping the dynamics, including the evolutionary dynamics, of human populations.

Daniel Segal of Pitzer College suggested that the Society for Anthropological Sciences should be renamed the Society for Defensiveness About Science (or else be disbanded). Segal said that the entire AAA is about science, and that a subset shouldn’t claim the only expertise about science.

This is simply not true. Most anthropologists, at both an undergraduate and graduate level, are not trained as scientists, even if they do get training in critiques of science. Scientific approaches to understanding human variation are aided by a strong reflexivity, the kind of self-critique that is difficult to ask of the authors of such work. But the critique of such work in anthropology should be aimed at making that research better, not rejecting the endeavor altogether.

Researchers who attempt to conduct serious studies of humans in a bio-cultural lens often find themselves attacked from both sides. Anti-science factions point out the obvious absurdity of reducing complex human systems to blunt quantitative metrics, devoid of the “thick description” we anthropologists like. Pro-science factions criticize small sample sizes, poor control over both explanatory and confounding variables, and insufficient theoretical grounding in the construction of both hypothesis and test. And the critics, both sets of them, are at times correct. This quote from the Insider Higher Ed piece captures this sentiment:

One woman in the audience spoke of being criticized by some in her department as “not scientific enough” while others have told her that because she works in part on the issue of the evolution of behavior, “I must be a fascist.”

Training a “center” of anthropology is hard not only because of the theoretical challenges presented by the approach but also because of structural obstacles. The Chronicle article correctly makes reference to the role that money, in the form of funding for research, teaching and mentorship, plays in these debates. The humanities, social sciences and natural sciences tap into different, and differently changing, pools of money for support. The classification of the field within these divisions matters. Additionally, supporting high-end graduate training of socio-cultural and biological anthropology graduate students require different approaches. Ethnology demands high investment in time – allowing for both language expertise and the intensity of contact necessary to carry out outstanding ethnographic work – increasingly discouraged by administrators focused on time to degree. Biological anthropology graduate students typically need less time investment, but more investment in the form of access to high-cost equipment and technology.

“We need to be supporting the array of ambitions of our students,” he [Russell Bernard] said. The future needs to be one in which “we don’t ask them to choose humanism or science, qualitative or quantitative. We support them to get all the skills they need for the array of jobs available,” he said.

“And this means never mistaking quantitative for science or qualitative for non-science,” he said.

There is no easy path forward for anthropology. How can I, with an interest in patterns and process of human evolution over the past two million years, not take human cultural practices seriously? The expansion of the human brain over the past two million years is nothing if not an indication of the role complex human behavioral systems play in shaping the evolutionary landscape of humans. This evolutionary process, meanwhile, plays a major role in shaping patterns of human variation today. Not in the 19th and early 20th century racialized sense, but in a far more subtle, but also more far-reaching manner. Additionally, the increasingly widespread availability of fundamental biological information, such as personal genomic data, make the acknowledgement of our biological selves all the more vital.

About Adam Van Arsdale

I am biological anthropologist with a specialization in paleoanthropology. My research focuses on the pattern of evolutionary change in humans over the past two million years, with an emphasis on the early evolution and dispersal of our genus, Homo. My work spans a number of areas including comparative anatomy, genetics and demography.
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10 Responses to Science and the Ring Species of Anthropology

  1. Pat Shipman says:

    You need to expand your thinking, Adam, to include primate field studies in anthropology. They require long periods of field work, abilities in other languages (in most cases), close observation of subjects, and so on. They are a good analogue for ethnographies. And yet, ethnologists are trained in scientific sampling methods, statistics, quantitative observations and so on. This is NOT to dismiss the importance of observer’s intuition, empathy, and emotional responses to situations. If this style of training and science works in primate studies — and it does — it ought to work for social/cultural anthropologists studying people. I do believe all anthropologists ought to be trained in science as well as in using their intuition to gain insight and frame testable hypotheses.

    I also agree with Jon Marks that there have been some horrendous abuses of “science” in the name of anthropology in the past. That does not excuse us from the responsibility to do the best we can in the modern world to carry out meaningful studies of humans or biological anthropology today. What it means, to me, is that we need to train students in being sensitive to their inherent biases and opinions and how those might influence our field. One aspect of this sort of sensitization is training students to form very concrete and clear hypotheses, to collect objectively repeatable data (which can include the age-old technique of sitting down & listening to people and asking questions), to spell out exactly what we mean and what we think our work means.

    Science should not be removed from anthropology but instead should guide and temper our work at every stage. At least, that’s my prejudice and inherent bias. Otherwise, are we doing anything but trading experiences with each other?

    • Adam Van Arsdale says:

      Hello Pat,

      Thanks for the response. You are definitely right that primatologists have many parallels with ethnologists in the nature of their field work. Primatologists also demonstrate the breadth of training and experience within just the subfield of biological anthropology. I would also argue that quantitative methods should be part of any behavioral study, whether it be focused on humans or non-human primates. The number of ethnographies I encounter that give no mention to basic demographic aspects of the subject in question is something I find alarming. But I am not sure everything lends itself nicely to the kind of hypothesis testing and refutation we associate with science, and I don’t think all of anthropology needs to be fit into that mold. An important, and undersold aspect of science is the creativity inherent to how we ask questions, how we utilize comparative perspectives, and how we go about constructing hypothesis tests. The work of ethnography can certainly aid in the development of scientific creativity by providing detailed and critically examined observation. I think ethnographic work done in a rigorous theoretical framework, especially when it is based on long and intensive time spent in the field, is far more valuable than simple “trading experiences” because it consists of experiences that I can never have (and often would not want to). I don’t disagree that those of us working in an evolutionary framework should use science as our guide at every stage, but just to play the other side, I think you can say that given our subject is humanity, it is also important that we are guided by as deep an understanding of humanity as possible.

  2. Hi Adam,

    Thank you for this thoughtful commentary and for the links back to my post. I’ll be looking forward to reading more of your work.

    You say that the “historical center of anthropology, particularly the training of graduate students at the center, has largely been abandoned.” This may very well be true. However, I see signs people are re-capturing that center. With regard to your examples just before that statement, I see the work of someone like Lawrence Schell (among others) as bridging issues like state formation, environmental racism, and pollution to biological processes and differential biological outcomes.

    I think we do need to pull together toward that center, and here’s a couple suggestions toward that goal. When you speak of “postmodernism” it’s important to note that for most cultural anthropologists this was at most a “dose of internal self-reflection.” If Writing Culture could be seen as an important marker of that era, it’s important to note that many of us grew up in departments that were very critical of this approach. Rex’s post at Savage Minds, On detesting Writing Culture at a young age nicely captures that, while recognizing the importance of that critique.

    On the other hand, for us cultural anthropologists it is vital to note how many biological anthropologists do get criticized from without for not being “scientific enough,” for actually trying to inject a dose of awareness about the importance of human learning and consciousness into the analysis. We need to support that effort, recognizing the resistance often mounted from elsewhere in the sciences.

    I guess what I’m saying here is that if we recognize that anthropology is sometimes confronted from both sides as “not postmodern enough” and “not science enough” we may be able to re-find that center of empirical-yet-aware study of human behavior.

    Thanks again,

    • Adam Van Arsdale says:

      Hi Jason,

      Thanks for responding. I agree that there are some emerging and some long-standing areas of anthropology at the center that have obvious life going forward. The study of human health and environment is an area where I think there is a tremendous amount of potential development of cross perspective work. The study of human behavior is obviously much more controversial and it is hard to integrate the different theoretical perspectives, evolutionary vs. non-evolutionary, that go into behavioral studies. But I still think there are very few places where this kind of work can be done. As a concrete example, when I was a graduate student at Michigan (four-field, woo-hoo!), we had Clarence Gravlee ( give a talk in the department. I think his work is a great example of the productive knowledge that can come out of seriously integrating cultural and biological approaches. At least from my perspective as a grad student, he wasn’t taken seriously by the ethnologists because he didn’t do real ethnography (and in some cases because he committed the sin of opening himself up to biological interpretations of human difference), and he wasn’t taken seriously by bioanths because he didn’t do real biology (and in some cases because he committed the sin of opening himself up to cultural explanations of human biological difference).

      • Hi Adam,

        Thank you for the reply. Lance Gravlee’s work is something I’ve been plugging a lot on my blog, and I can’t recommend enough the “How Race Becomes Biology” piece. I thought I’d throw in another name to expand that center a bit!

        I may be talking to the wrong people, but all the ethnology-types I know–who have either read Gravlee previously or through my recommendation–have responded very positively. I would be disappointed to hear if his work was not taken seriously by bioanths. In any case, that would be an example of precisely why we need to reclaim that center.

        Thank you again,

  3. Zach Throckmorton says:

    Hi Adam,
    Thank you for the insightful commentary on #AAAfail. I especially appreciate the historical perspective and the analogy; both are very useful approaches to understanding what amounts to, at least in my mind, a paradigm shift that is occurring within our field.

    I think another view that is productive to understanding changes within anthropology is comparative – what happened with other broad academic disciplines and what are their dynamics today? For example, the previous century witnessed a tremendous explosion of data and hypothesis generation in the biological sciences. Perhaps most starkly, there simply were not Departments of Genetics when Boas fathered anthropology, but now specific departments for genetical research exist on many university campuses. How do geneticists interact with whole organism biologists like zoologists?

    Given my interactions with genetics graduate students here at UW-Madison, the answer is they (often) simply don’t. I was nervous when I started taking genetics graduate courses but quickly saw how little many of the genetics graduate students knew about organismal biology, and even evolutionary biology. This frequently crippled their work. We talked about this issue on occasion, and the genetics students attributed the disconnect largely to specialization. I.e. there’s simply not enough time, as you alluded to in your post. But some of them do bridge the ever-widening gap between hyperspecialization in genetics and big picture biology; a friend does super interesting work on genetic mechanisms of adaptation in mice.

    And I think that’s what we anthropologists, especially those of us who are about to or have recently started our careers. There are connections that can still be made. We’re all still asking what it means to be human. The wider the gap, the more challenging the bridge’s construction, but it’s something to consider.

  4. Greg Downey says:

    I agree with the other posters that this post is really well done. Thanks, Adam, for sharing it. It’s part of my vicarious enjoyment of #AAA2011 from my home in Australia.

    The metaphor of the ring species is an excellent one, and I’m really glad you bring it up. I’m pretty optimistic though about the potential for ghosttown reoccupation in the core of our discipline, perhaps because optimism, to me, is both a strategic choice and my assessment of the shifting of disciplinary realities (read: figuring out where the money is). So many of our species-mates in the ring, to me, are happy to be incompatible and make little attempt to get any gene flow re-established that might arbitrage away the intra-specific divergence, to continue the metaphor, but they don’t realize that selective pressures may favor the renewed hybrid (okay, so maybe I just ran over the cliff’s edge with your metaphor).

    Some of this entrenched intra-disciplinary animosity is a generational problem, and, if we continue to push for greater conversation and demonstrate concretely the advantages of intra-disciplinary cross-fertilization in work like that of Gravlee or Marks or field primatology or medical anthropology or neuroanthropology, the big tent approach is likely to carry the day. I see so much wrong with the ‘attack-the-neighbor-down-the-hall’ posture toward intra-anthropological relations, but I suspect it’s likely to remain quite storng until there’s a major generational shift in departments.

    For example, from my perspective as a socio-cultural anthropologist with biological leanings in Australia (a rare breed here), collaborative approaches are more likely to a) get funded by national funding bodies (I believe), b) capture public attention, c) draw large undergraduate enrollments (the financial lifeblood of our department), and d) attract international PhD students (at least in the near term, until the paradigm becomes more pervasive). In the current climate in tertiary education, these issues are all more important than ye olde rivalry with my fellow nearing-retirement embittered colleagues. The younger, entrepreneurial anthropologists can see the way that the climate is changing, and my impression is that they recognize the days of making a career by being a bitter fellow-anthropologist-basher are probably numbered.

    To me, the synthesis vision of anthropology is part of what makes our ‘brand’ strong (as I’ve argued elsewhere). This strength converts into the major external supports — grants, undergrads in seats, PhD students, public relations — more easily than some of the more esoteric, specialist streams in our discipline. I don’t pick fights with my colleagues, especially my senior colleagues, when they attack synthetic work; I just smile to myself knowing that we’re in this for the long haul, converting students and persuading our junior colleagues that there’s no reason to go back into the same trenches for the old wars.

    • Adam Van Arsdale says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Greg! Your point about optimism as a “strategic choice” really resonates with me. While I would like to, I’m not sure I fully buy into it. From my experience, which admittedly are quite limited, I think we as anthropologists do a great job of selling four-field anthropology to undergrads. The kind of cross/multi-disciplinary approaches we teach undergrads are exciting and pose an exciting alternative to traditional natural science, social science, and humanistic approaches. I think we run into more of a structural impediment at the graduate level. Our field is disproportionately populated, and not necessarily wrongly so, by people trained at the graduate level in large departments. I am one of them, a graduate from Michigan. I think the big departments that form a significant fraction of the training for future Ph.D.s is not set up to embrace the center. The nature of academics is that the “new” and “controversial” is valued, in the form of publication and reputation, over the “old” and “conventional”. As such, graduate departments tend, more than small departments, to be populated by people at the ends of the ring. Just look at the history of the departments I mention above (Columbia, Chicago, Harvard, GWU) as well as Duke, Stanford, Berkeley, and a multitude of others. On top of this, I think funding sources exacerbate rather than undercut this structural reality.

      I do think there is potential to repopulate the center, particularly on issues related to health, genetics, and categorical notions of difference….but I am not sure where the move to the center will come from. By that I mean I am not sure if particular departments will come to redefine and repopulate a center (and there are certainly departments that are already doing this) or if the push will primarily come from discussions that undercut structural issues and involve conversations among graduate students or something else entirely.

      But I am optimistic…if not hopeful.

  5. Daniel Segal says:

    I just saw this, so I am tardy responding.

    The claim in the above that “Most anthropologists, at both an undergraduate and graduate level, are not trained as scientists….” shows a misunderstanding of my argument and of science.

    My point is the point we have learned from philosophers and historians of science since Kuhn: science is plural; there are scientific methods, but no singular scientific method.

    What is happening is that many of us are trained in interpretive sciencesand the narrow-minded positivists think that only their positivism is science, so they declare that the rest of us are non-science and/or anti-science. This is the effort of the false friends of science (as in this blog post) to cut down and dismiss alternative scientific approaches.

    If one is studying cats and dogs, one needs one kind of science. But take the study of “blacks” and “whites” or other racialized groupings. As Du Bois showed in chapter six of DUSK OF DAWN, a person’s race can very much be a contingent or contextual fact–so that his grandfather was of one race in the Caribbean and another in New England and then a third race under a third social circumstance in his life. For the study of constructed things (“races”), we need a different science than for the study of non-constructed things (“species”).

    The sort of narrow-minded dogmatism that insists on a singular science is a betrayal and perversion of the open-mindedness that all sciences require.

    • Adam Van Arsdale says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Daniel. I wish I had been able to attend the AAA science event to more fully contextualize your comments there.

      I think there are two issues to what you bring up; one related to what we think we are doing as academics and on related to what students think they are doing. Both relate to the question of what science is.

      On the latter point, I come across a lot of undergraduate anthropology students who explicitly associate themselves with anthropology as a rejection of more “scientific” disciplines and the ways of knowing practiced by them. Most students get a poor education in the fundamentals of natural science inquiry and are ill-positioned to mount strong attacks against it. Likewise, most undergraduates trained in the natural sciences are ill-equipped to level criticisms against work done in the social science and humanities. Anthropology is wonderful because it potentially creates a disciplinary framework in which those voices can interact productively.

      As for those of us in the profession, I don’t reject the idea of many scientific methods. Indeed, I think creativity is fundamental to the scientific process because how else could science possibly address the myriad of diverse topics it seeks to. But I think the example you bring up from Du Bois is a definitional issue more than a methodological critique. Fundamental to scientific pursuits is that there is a transferability in them, if not in the form of repeatability (which is often impossible) in the form of mutually recognized and accessible definitions. Race means different things in different places, which is why, in the absence of proper contextualization it can be (and has been) an extremely poor categorical starting point for scientific inquiry. Keeping with the example of race, Rick Kittles work showing the widely differing frequency of African genetic ancestry markers in African-Americans is demonstrative of this point. Science is strengthened by a critical inquiry of its basis, without a doubt, and I don’t mean to suggest anything otherwise.

      I don’t consider myself a false friend of science. I do strive to be critical of intellectual inquiry in whatever form it takes.

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