Things have been building up, haven’t they?
There’s Jared Diamond, dressed like Santa Claus, pushing his new book, telling Stephen Colbert that the people in Papua New Guinea wouldn’t know what to do with an electric can opener, because they don’t have cans. What a card. Never mind that he’s being sued by a guy from there who made the mistake of once speaking to him, so that Diamond could casually accuse him of murder in the pages of The New Yorker. Or that his last book, Collapse, was critically examined by archaeologists who actually work on the collapse of civilization, and found that his grand scheme for understanding it was useless, and had a conference and published a book about it. (Diamond responded by shitting on their book in the pages of Nature, and neglecting to acknowledge the conflict of interests.)
Diamond’s problem is not that he is a dummy, which he manifestly is not. It’s that he has realized that the things he is an expert in are boring, and so he writes about interesting things that he is not an expert in. That can sometimes work. It certainly has worked for his bank account. But he can’t figure out why he hasn’t been acclaimed King of Anthropology by the people doing the work that interests him, and everybody else in the field of anthropology.
The reason is a simple one. With depth of knowledge comes the ability to read critically. My first run-in with him was about 20 years ago, when he was hawking some research that I happened to know far too much about, in particular that it wasn’t so much wrong as fraudulent. We exchanged letters in Nature as the data falsification came to be exposed, but he nevertheless made the fraudulent work the centerpiece of his science bestseller, The Third Chimpanzee.
That convinced me that Diamond is an anti-intellectual, that he thinks he knows more than the experts. Where have we heard that before? Well, from the creationists. From the climate-change deniers. In fact, back in the early 1960s, segregationists were saying in the pages of Science that blacks had not produced any good culture or civilization, in spite of what cultural anthropologists were saying, and various psychologists and biologists added their sober opinions on both sides of the issue. It took the New School anthropologist Stanley Diamond (presumably no relation) to make what should have been an obvious point. Why should anybody give a shit what psychologists or geneticists think about culture or civilization? They are dilettantes in that area.
The expert most qualified to speak in this matter is the competent cultural anthropologist, precisely because [they deal] with the origin and growth of cultural behavior and with the cultural interaction of human groups. Once this plain fact is accepted in the scientific community at large – and it is high time that it was – geneticists and other biological specialists will no longer have to waste their time on this unrewarding problem ...
But anthropology holds a special place among anti-intellectuals, because it has been from its very inception, “a reformer’s science”. That is the concluding thought of effectively the first book on the subject, E. B. Tylor’s Primitive Culture. Nevertheless, a century or so later, the segregationists had developed a unique anti-intellectual slander against anthropology, which they inherited in some measure from the eugenicists decades earlier.
I suspect the eugenicists picked it up from an ever earlier source, the neuroanatomist Grafton Elliot Smith, whose politics weren’t all that bad, but who had an axe to grind against cultural anthropology. You see, Smith believed that “civilization” began in one place, Egypt, and was borrowed or stolen or otherwise adopted elsewhere by imitators and derivatives. Because he was a respected biologist, his ideas got aired, and because they were false and stupid, they were rejected. That didn’t stop him, though, because he knew that, as a real scientist, he was smarter than the so-called experts, who had a different view, “put forth ex cathedra by the majority of modern anthropologists”.
Somehow, there is just something wrong with them dang anthropology perfessers.
The eugenicists picked up this thread, and wove it into the beginnings of a conspiracy theory – Franz Boas had come out against their applied genetics program, and it must have been because of his closed-mindedness, those Hebrews being a stiff-necked race, by their own admission.
But it was the segregationists who took that thread and spun it into a suit – a white one, with a matching hood. The psychologist Henry Garrett, geneticist Ruggles Gates, and their mouthpiece, writer/businessman Carleton Putnam revealed that anthropology had come under the influence of a cabal of Jews and communists, all dovetailing in the person of Franz Boas. It was the commie-Jew-anthropologists who had made the discourse of human diversity political, when it should be dispassionate and apolitical. The scientific segregationists were well financed, from the same funding source as Arthur Jensen, Philippe Rushton, and Thomas Bouchard – the Pioneer Fund. And if you could be objective and scientific about human diversity, you would see the world as they do, ... and reject the civil rights movement.
The idea that anthropology is hidebound in a leftist anti-science conspiracy resurfaced in 2000 in a book called “Taboo” by a writer named Jon Entine. I crossed swords with him after he asked for my comments on his book manuscript and didn’t like the comments I gave him.
And that brings us to this Sunday’s New York Times.
A journalist named Emily Eakin writes a puff piece on Napoleon Chagnon, whose memoir is being published soon. Chagnon is renowned in anthropology as the counter-example of good fieldwork. This is the anthropologist who worked with the Yanomamo, got them angry at one another (by broadly violating their taboos about names of dead relatives in order to collect his genealogical information), armed them (with machetes), and then reified the ensuing violence in his monograph “The Fierce People” – removing history, politics, and his own field methods from his analysis of their violence. It was a great undergraduate read, but it isn’t taken very seriously as scholarship. Why? Because he removed history, politics, and his own field methods from his analysis of their violence.
Like some other fuzzy thinkers in the late 1970s, Chagnon believed the voice of Darwin had spoken to him, and adopted the tenet that only by studying ants could we become better ant-hropologists , and followed E. O. Wilson in trying to reinvent anthropology based on the idea that to do human science properly, you must begin by pretending we aren’t human.
Well, that was a long time ago, and since then, the worst elements of sociobiology have metastasized into evolutionary psychology. Evolutionary psychology is a brilliant coinage, because you don’t need to know much about either psychology or evolution to practice it, which makes evolutionary psychology particularly attractive to morons. But in order to do evolutionary psychology, which has no discernible scholarly standards, you have to begin first by dismissing the field that studies the actual evolution and diversity of humans and their lifeways, namely anthropology. And you do that by the exceedingly judicious citation of things that you agree with, and consequently wish were true.
First, Napoleon Chagnon showed that the Yanomamo are inherently violent, and they stand as synecdoche for all human societies, especially ancient ones. But what about the scholarly literature that showed how terribly flawed Chagnon’s analysis was? Ignore it, or blame it on the commies and Jews who control anthropology.
Second, Margaret Mead was bamboozled, and everything she ever said and did is wrong, as that fine objective scholar Derek Freeman showed. Not true either. The remaining tatters of that argument are disproved by Paul Shankman in the latest issue of Current Anthropology.
And third, anthropologists think there are no human races, because they are fluffy liberals, led by the geneticist Richard Lewontin (and don’t ask about his politics or ancestry)! Actually, Lewontin’s famous 1972 paper on “the apportionment of human diversity” came after well over two decades of biological anthropologists (i.e., from the sciencey end of anthropology) coming to empirically reject the idea that race is a basic biological structure of the human species, while nevertheless studying the actual patterns of human biological diversity. As far as I can tell, the idea that anthropologists believe everyone is the same goes back to a throwaway line in Kurt Vonnegut’s classic 1969 novel “Slaughterhouse-Five”:
I was a student in the Department of Anthropology. At that time, they were teaching that there was absolutely no difference between anybody. They may be teaching that still.
Another thing they taught was that nobody was ridiculous or bad or disgusting.
Another thing they taught was that nobody was ridiculous or bad or disgusting.
Probably not a good idea to take that passage at face value. Vonnegut did do graduate work at the University of Chicago in anthropology, but most of the book takes place on the planet Tralfamadore. It’s not really an autobiography.
And as you can tell if you’ve read this far, anthropologists do think some people are ridiculous, bad and disgusting. Top of the list: people who degrade science by using it rhetorically to naturalize social inequality.
Some respectable scholars, like Johan Bolhuis and Kate Clancy, have recently tried to talk some sense into evolutionary psychologists, by suggesting ways to make the field more rigorous. But I don’t think the evolutionary psychologists are listening. The New York Times sought a soundbite from that great anthropologist Steven Pinker, who obliged: “Pinker said that he was troubled by the notion that social scientists should suppress unflattering information about their subjects because it could be exploited by others.”
So here is my point to the evolutionary psychologists and race reifiers. This is bio-politics. What is “sociobiology” for ants is “sociopoliticobiology” for people. And you had better smarten up, because if you are repeating anthropological arguments made first by Nazis and segregationists, then you are indeed political, and you are politically bad - in addition to being anti-science.