Planet Earth

An ethnography: N = 1

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanAug 1, 2012 4:53 AM


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This is an "inside baseball" post for regular readers, but looking through site referrals I've noticed that German Dziebel has started to blog regularly again. For those who don't know Dziebel is the author of The Genius of Kinship: The Phenomenon of Kinship and the Global Diversity of Kinship Terminologies. Here is the summary from Amazon:

This highly acclaimed book brings the cumulative results of a century and a half of kinship studies in anthropology into the focus of current debates on the origin of modern humans in Africa and on an entangled bit of human evolutionary history commonly subsumed under the heading of the "peopling of the Americas." This erudite study is based on a database of some 2,500 kinship vocabularies representing roughly 600 African languages, 140 Australian languages, 500 Austronesian languages, 200 Papuan languages, 350 languages of Eurasia (excluding Indo-Europeans), 440 North and Middle American Indian languages, and 200 South American languages. This valuable reference will take the reader to the dawn of kinship studies in the 19th century Western science in order to elicit the wider context of anthropological interest in kinship systems and the interdisciplinary salience of the phenomenon of kinship. The book also examines the founder of kinship studies in anthropology, American lawyer and Iroquois ethnographer, Lewis Henry Morgan, and the circumstances of his life that generated his interest in human kinship. The study ventures into the intricacies of scientific and quasi-scientific debates in the 19th century, and treats 19th century science as embedded in a myth featuring divinity, humanity and animality as principal characters. This account is divided into four sections, each of which is structured as a triad (philosophy, psychology and physiology; logic, semiotics and reproduction; religion, hermeneutics and evolution; law, grammar and speech). This far-reaching historical journey aims at formulating an idea of what human kinship might be all about, especially in the light of the widespread uncertainties about this question caused by the constructivist turn in anthropology. Eventually our ideas regarding human origins, ancient population dispersals and the homeland of modern humans are inextricably linked to our ideas about kinship. As a book that brings together evolutionary and sociocultural anthropology, The Genius of Kinship will be a critical addition for all Anthropology collections.

For those unwilling to pay $140 for the hardcover or $70 for the Kindle, I suppose that will suffice. To get a crisper image of Dziebel one has to know that he believes that modern humans derive from New World populations. Yes, that is not a typo. The peculiar thing in my experience with Dziebel is that he brandishes his theories as if he was a widely recognized singular genius who has the gravitas to speak ex cathedra on sundry topics. A major reason I banned him from this weblog is that he is highly persistent and prolific when he puts his mind to it, and totally immune to reciprocal interaction aside from that which might flatter his ego or theories. The Dziebel is apparently never wrong! Dziebel does have a mastery of a wide range of topics in terms of factual details, but his theoretical frame and models inferred are so strange and bizarre that it often takes energy to get at what he's saying. He might be a genius in a world of the insane. Or perhaps not. I long ago lost interest, and silencing his voice was influenced by the fact that he had turned into a de facto heckler. In any case, one of the major planks of Dziebel's weblog seems to be to correct/attack/shadow other science bloggers, in particular myself and Dienekes. Of course in classic Dziebel fashion the world revolves around him, so all of Dienekes' ideas are actually garblings of wisdom he long ago imparted to the benighted blogger, while minor details like my putting up a comments policy had to have been triggered by my reading of a weblog (his) which I was only aware of through referrals. If you are bored and enjoy rubber-necking, I highly recommend browsing his posts. Finally, I have to say that for all of Dziebel's heterodoxy and various normative disagreements with me, that's not the most annoying aspect of the way he behaves. He assumes he knows all the details of my life, as well as of Dienekes', and constructs scenarios and root causes of why we behave as we do. I know that this is the bread & butter of anthropologists, but since he hasn't done fieldwork in the lab where I actually spend my days perhaps he should hold off on ascribing to me jealousy of real scientists like himself, who work in the trenches of marketing and advertising. Instead of patiently focusing on substantive differences, crazy as they may be from both perspectives, Dziebel eventually gets frustrated that people don't recognize his awesome genius. He has to brandish his two Ph.D.s and concoct scenarios where all original thought derives from the Mind-of-Dziebel. This is a sharp contrast to a blog like Living Anthropologically, run by Jason Antrosio. If anything the normative chasm between myself and Antrosio is greater than between myself and Dziebel, but Antrosio actually engages on details of substance instead of harping on personal and stylistic peeves, and demanding that his shining genius be recognized, or throwing a fit if that does not occur in due course. I understand that German Dziebel's weblog will not interest many readers, but for those who remember him I invite you to peruse it. Certainly it's a warning to me that one has to always be careful of not letting personal vendettas and healthy self-worth overwhelm interest in genuine topics. Dziebel does have two more Ph.D.s than I do, but I'm willing to bet he reads me a lot more than I read him! Dziebel's sideswipes at people he disagrees with might be secondary to the thrust of his arguments, but perhaps this sort of behavior is why his genius isn't more widely recognized (OK, probably not!). Addendum: Perhaps the thing that annoyed me about Dziebel's style is that the polemic is its shamelessness. He refers to Henry Harpending as a marginal academic anthropologist. Dziebel likes to brandish his two doctorates and credential-smack people, but please note that Henry is in the National Academy of Sciences.

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