Saturday, May 05, 2007

The Death of a Concentration: We Don't Need No Stinkin' Biologists, or Do We?
I don't think it is possible to study human evolution without taking cultural evolution into account and that means cultural (or social, or sociocultural or whatever you wish to label it) anthropology and archaeology. It goes without saying that understanding things like the fate of the Neanderthals, or the peopling of the Pacific or North America can't be understood without the other subfields of anthropology - even given the powerful insights that genetics and molecular biology can bring to bear on the subject.

It's a comment on another comment regarding Harvard's decision to create a new life sciences curriculum that left the biologica anthro division sort of orphaned. Most of the links relate to the place of bioanth within the broader anthropological curriculum.

North American anthropology has always been something of a mutt, combining what in other parts of the world had been distinct disciplines. Stocking, I think, explained the American situation as arising from us having what seemed to be holdover stone age peoples (Amerindians) right here to study as cultural anthropologists; hence, in a very real sense cultural anthropologists and archaeologists were studying the same thing: Native Americans. This was unlike the European situation where the ancient cultures were all extinct. How true this is, I shall not comment further, since I only studied this subject very superficially.

Nevertheless, the three (I say three, some say more) subdisciplines -- sociocultural, bioanth, and archaeology -- have always coexisted somewhat shakily. Sociocult has always had the upper hand, and the other two have mostly been hangers-on. That's where I think Stocking has a good point: US scholars see themselves as primarily sociocults (with some exception given to bioanth) working with inferior data. You see this all over archaeology; I'd wager every initial Archy 101 lecture begins with something like "But we only have a very small and imperfect set of data to work with. . . ."

The Washington archy program in the 1980s and early 1990s tended towards more discomfort with sociocult (admission: I was quite comfortable with that). This was mostly due to RC Dunnell who tended to view archy as having its own unique data, to which theories designed for living people were imperfectly used, rather than the reverse.

Does 'Anthropology' still have meaning? My opinion: I think they really ought to split, with sociocult moving over to sociology, archaeology moving over to either history or (my favored) geology/geography, and bioanth setting up shop in either zoology or some division of genetics/evolution. Yeah, many will complain, saying Anthropology is so special because it is such a holistic discipline and it is necessary to combine purely biological knowledge with culture in order to fully understand, blah blah blah. Specialization happens though; bioanths and archeologists need to see themselves as something other than sociocults working with inferior data.