Planet Earth

In the academic trenches

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanMar 12, 2013 1:09 AM

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An email from a long time correspondent who recounts some graduate school interview experiences:

Hi, Razib. Last week I attended a 2-day long interview for grad school, during which I spoke with about 15 faculty, all of whom were biological anthropologists, though of varying specialities. During these informal meetings, the topic of bio vs cultural anthropology came up a few times and a couple of professors spoke very candidly about the divide that exists between the two disciplines and their desire to have bio anthropology split from the rest of anthro. A very common argument was the one you've made: that many cultural anthropologists have become glorified activists. This sort of ran counter to the attitude I encountered during my undergrad [identifying information redacted] wherein a 'four field' approach was pumped up. I thought this was an interesting little quirk. Basically, when bio anthropologists are amongst only their own (the grad program is separate from the 3 other subfields), they speak openly about the need for separation from cultural anthro because of the latter's non-scientific ways, but when some of those same bio anthropologists are in the same building as their cultural anthro colleagues, they tout a holistic approach to the field as a whole. I suppose this is to cultivate a positive attitude in the young minds of students interested in all subfields, but it doesn't seem crazy to think it could have a little bit to do with cultural anthro's domination of department politics. Anyway, long story short: your name popped up! It was referenced by a paleoanthropologist who was particularly keen on bashing of cultural anthro. I just thought it was a little amusing and that you should know that the biological anthropologists are with you! Although, I'm sure you know that based on the twitter conversation you had with John Hawks the other day.

The broader concept of finding "patterns of culture" isn't worthless. And I'm pretty sure that the biological anthropologists above wouldn't be ashamed to be on the same faculty as someone like Joe Heinrich, who is asking serious questions with sound and transparent methods. Then there is someone like Michael Scroggins, who can write with a straight face that "in this conception, a gene is more rhetorical topic than scientific fact", who makes a big point of pointing out that I used the term gene in a singular. Are there really people who reduce everything to linguistic analysis? Why yes! Cato had the right of it in some ways. Perhaps sadder is the fact that Scroggins' ruminations are awesomely persuasive to his colleagues. I'll leave you a typical example of "Scrogging":

Gould poses two philosophical problems for population genetics that a narrow reading of Mismeasure of Man fails to capture. First, Punctuated Equilibrium posits that stasis is the default state of change in evolution. That is, change mainly happens in great bursts which create immense morphological variation (speciation) for a short period of time. Following this things settle into a long period of stasis. There may be some variation in phylogenetic change, but it has no real physical or functional importance – though we all know it has tremendous social importance. This is well supported in the fossil record. Obviously this is a great difficulty for any field which posits gradual phylogenetic change as the main mechanism of evolution, and then seeks to rank groups accordingly. The second challenge Gould poses is simpler. Where in population genetics (particularly historical population genetics) is the theory of development? What it has is a variation of recapitulation theory. Embryonic members of a given population are assumed to develop unproblematically into adult members of that population. How do you move from the gene (pick a definition) or some sub-part of the gene to the development of an individual within a social milieu? From the unit of analysis taken by population genetics (some part of a gene) you simply cannot make assertions about complex phenomena like the display of “IQ.” Though that has never stopped some of them from trying….

Needless to say I am not particularly persuaded by confused garblings of Stephen Jay Gould's ideas....

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