Planet Earth

Against the cultural anthropologists

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanFeb 7, 2013 2:48 AM


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My post below on Jared Diamond and his cultural anthropological critics has attracted a fair amount of attention (e.g., see the Twitter re-tweets of the post). But first I'd like to admit that I think it was wrong in its specific thrust. Though I've seen Stephen Corry of Survival International referred to as an anthropologist, he's certainly not an academic. Corry is an explicit and open advocate, as is Jonathan Mazower. The Guardianpiece which I linked to also was not entirely clear on this point. In other words, the example in that article was not particularly relevant to my broader thesis. But overall my position remains unchanged, because The Guardian was not presented as evidence, but an illustration of a trend which I have long commented upon. Many of the academics who re-tweeted my post focused on the assertion that "cultural anthropology has gone down an intellectual black hole, beyond the event horizon of comprehension, never to recover." Those who agree with my position understand exactly why I would say this. For example, here is a portion of Armand Leroi'scomment:

Razib's post is spot-on. Diamond *is* cavalier with the facts. I recall reviewing Guns & Germ & Steel, and finding its empirical basis utterly ropey. But at least he was doing science -- macro, comparative, science -- of a sort that was -- is? -- practically extinct in cultural anthropology. He was asking the right kinds of questions. He still does....

Taking a different tack, another commenter contends:

There's always room for polemic, but in general it's not the right tactic. Calm refutation is more scientific, and after all that's what counts in the end. For instance, we could do with reasonable discussion of the question what the costs and benefits of getting a state have been - more peace, but also more oppression, which I tried to discuss re Diamond vs Survival Int'l here

This misses the point.

Many (most?) American cultural anthropologists do not consider themselves scientific.

Cultural anthropology as it is practiced in many American universities is not a science, so the standard rules of engagement with science do not apply. Mind you, I have no idea what cultural anthropology is in terms of its systematic definition within a scholarly context. Rather, I know what cultural anthropologists do. Of course the rules of science don't necessarily apply to history, but logic, a striving toward positivistic objectivity, and good faith must still be brought to the table in that case. I don't use the same rules for cultural anthropology. "Calm refutation" has convinced very few Creationists. Science, and scholarship in general, is exceptional in that there is a pretense, sometimes realized, often not, that logic, formal analysis, and inspection of the empirical evidence, are about uncovering the truth about the world out there, rather than personal self-validation or spears in the game of inter-personal signalling and status. There are cultural anthropologists who endeavor reduce the complexity to comprehensibility. Long time readers know I am a fan of Scott Atran, Dan Sperber, Joe Heinrich, Robert Boyd, etc. Here is Dan Sperber responding to a question from me in 2005:

3) When I discuss with those with anthropological backgrounds the ideas I have encountered in your books (EXPLAINING CULTURE) and papers, or Pascal Boyer and Scott Atran's books and papers, they seem confused and have little understanding of what I speak. Is your naturalistic paradigm more common among anthropologists in Europe than in the United States?

No, our common perspective (well illustrated also in the work of a few others, in particular Lawrence Hirschfeld - the four of us used to meet and discuss at my home in Paris in the early eighties) is still very much a minority view among anthropologists everywhere, as are all Darwinian views. On the other hand, I believe that our approach addresses maybe better and cetainly in greater detail than most other Darwinian approaches many legitimate concerns of people with a serious anthropological and ethnographic background. And now L. L. Cavalli-Sforza in 2006:

4) Moving to, in the interests of frankness, less influential books, in "A Genetic and Cultural Odyssey" Linda Stone & Paul F. Lurquin note the relative lack of response to "Cultural Transmission and Evolution" within the social sciences. You seem to chalk this up in part to the lack of comfort with mathematical methodologies within cultural anthropology. Over the past few years a small group of anthropologists, Peter Richerson, Robert Boyd and Joe Henrich seem to be continuing the attempt to model culture using the techniques that have been fortuitous in the biological sciences. Do you think that we are past the high tide of 'interpretative' anthropology and that a more explicitly hypothetical-deductive methodology may come to the fore?

I entirely agree that the average quality of anthropological research, especially of the cultural type, is kept extremely low by lack of statistical knowledge and of hypothetical deductive methodology. At the moment there is no indication that the majority of cultural anthropologists accept science - the most vocal of them still choose to deny that anthropology is science. They are certainly correct for what regards most of their work. The above highlights that cultural anthropologists may not believe in science, but scientists also don't believe in them. In Theological Incorrectness D. Jason Slone has an excellent ethnography of the intellectual ticks of modern American cultural anthropology. While Scott Atran has pointed out that anthropologists who assert that due to the radical incommensurability of "ways of knowing" one may not be able to make general assertions of cross cultural nature, nevertheless seem to make an exception for their own situations, which often involves outsider scholars embedding themselves in other societies, and writing and thinking about the patterns they see. On a more concrete factual dimension cultural anthropologists hold to the sui generis characterization of Europeans and European culture. Inverting the old white supremacist model, for cultural anthropologists European culture is axiomatically evil. And, whether conscious or not, they also often promote the idea of a noble colored savage (complex non-white civilizations, like China, come in for far less critique than that of Europeans, so one must I think racialize the model, and not simply limit it to small-scale societies). And yet why does this even matter? After all, the faculty of fine arts may espouse theories of aesthetics incomprehensible to scientists, but that is of little concern. The problem is that cultural anthropologists do not insulate themselves from the academy, and their cosmic Manichean intellectual framework bleeds out into the public forum. Despite the fascination with contextualization, complexification, "thick description," and skepticism of a striving toward final objective knowledge, the young people anthropologists educate with bachelors degrees are quite clear and specific in many truths that their internalize. For example, that European imperialism is in some way a special evil, the original sin of the white race. Despite all the focus on "thick description" these individuals who went through an undergraduate program in cultural anthropology will be naturally confused at the fact of the naked imperialism of the Manchu dynasty in China contemporaneous with the rise of Europe, in the 17th to 19th centuries. They will not know of the genocide of the Oirat Mongols in the 18th century (some of whom fled to Russia, and founded modern Kalmykia on the Volga), or the disastrous Muslim rebellions of the 19th century prompted by ethnic conflict. After all, European colonialism is the apple of ultimate discord, no? Few thinkers would assert that oppression or unpleasant historical facts are only a function of European interference, but as a matter of reality detailed explorations of the topic are almost always presented in a Eurocentric context. The interactions of non-white peoples are of little concern without the European eye, or the shadow of European colonialism. So it is clear I have strong disagreements with the way cultural anthropology as a scholarly field is organized and oriented. This is in large part due to my own interest in culture as a scientific subject. I believe this also motivates the attitude of someone like L. L. Sforza, and many scientists who re-tweeted my original post. This is a domain of knowledge which is nominally interesting to many! Cultural anthropology should be a fertile, exciting, and insightful topic, but it most certainly is not. So what is it? Works such as Higher Superstition have already tackled the ludicrousness of much of what falls under the rubric "Post Modern," and this applies to cultural anthropology as well. There's no point in reviewing that here. Rather, I want to focus on the issue that cultural anthropologists as a culture are a nasty lot with each other and those who tread into their territory, because they have totally erased the line between being advocates for their causes, and being observers of the world around them. Every conflict has grave consequences, with the personal, political, and scholarly are totally enmeshed. Someone like me, who espouses a broadly conservative world view, is obviously the enemy. Thankfully I'm too small a fry to become the target of an organized academic mob assault which someone like Jared Diamond is subject to. But there are many small fry who aspired toward an anthropological career, but were found to be on the wrong side of the right side of some normative consensus, and were thrown to the outer darkness from the Elect. Academic politics is nasty and disappointing, but the sort of stuff I hear about anthropology departments often has a Maoist flavor, as "capitalist roaders" are smoked out, and deviationists chastised. In departments where the biological anthropologists are relatively well integrated there are strange tales of the exotic goings on of cultural anthropologists behind closed doors. Privilege. Oppression. Colonialism. Patriarchy. Heteronormativity. These are terms common in modern Left thought, but they are also widely used by cultural anthropologists. In sum, the field has become more political movement and social advocacy collective, than a scholarly enterprise. This is not true in all cases, but it is true in enough cases that there is an unfortunate dead rot at the heart of cultural anthropology as an academic domain of inquiry. The nastiness of academic anthropology is a function of its hyper-politicized nature. Many cultural anthropologists need to move to staff positions at organizations like Survival International. They don't belong in the academy. Those who remain should be scattered across other disciplines, such as economics, psychology, sociology, etc. The reason I post about cultural anthropology now and then isn't that I want to argue or discuss with cultural anthropologists. Rather, I want to aid in spreading the message the discipline should be extirpated from the academy, just as Creationists have been extirpated from biology. They don't belong at universities. Cultural anthropologists don't know much about the world in any systematic sense, but they know what they believe about how the world should be organized. Let them do their organizing in their proper environment. Like exotic species without natural predators these political operators only cause mischief in academic halls. This is obviously an assertion that will make me the target of invective. But I don't care. As I said earlier, I'm a conservative, so I'm already fair game for attacks, because I'm on the side of evil in the eyes of many of these "scholars." Second, I'm rather confident that I know a great deal about descriptive cultural variation, and wouldn't learn much from anthropologists anyhow (the undergraduates who graduate with degrees in the field are singularly information poor). Additionally, unlike most American cultural anthropologists, who are white and native born (look at the officers for the Society for Cultural Anthropology), by my minority racial identity, and status as a naturalized American, I have deep and long standing personal experience with inter-cultural variation in a visceral and emotional sense. Frankly, I've long known that a lot of what cultural anthropologists said was bullshit before I read my first word of Scott Atran, because I've lived in the life I've lived. And that's why I speak, and will continue to speak. An intellectual hegemony is bound to fail, and sometimes it helps to give it a push.

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