Saturday, February 16, 2013


I am rereading Charles C. Mann's 1491, liking it even better the second time.  After following the vitriol of the Greenberg/Ruhlen historical linguistics arguments over the last decades; remembering the sneers from my Mesoamerican professor when the first whispers came out of Cactus Hill* in the 1970's; the very nasty things said in the Mead/Freeman controversy; and the heaped calumny on the HBD folks, I am not surprised to read again about refusals to consider pre-Clovis, the condescension toward the High-Counters (and likewise in return), and half a dozen other discussions (Solutrean, Indo-European Urheimat, Yanomami) that seem to be carried on via eye-rolling and insult as primary intellectual offerings, I just have to ask:
Are Anthropologists just bigger jerks than other people? Do they just have an especially hard time considering other points of view?  Did they all go to those kindergartens where they were encouraged to express their unique personalities rather than take turns and share?
Stories:  I took half-a-dozen anthro courses at college.  I liked the professors better than average.  But I now recall only in retrospect how much of course time was devoted to attitude-training and political training.  There are no races, only clines, plus an extended discussion of how white people were actually more like apes** than black people were. Just so you knew. Same professor - a bit ironic, that. The Caribbean Cultures course was very much a colonial exploiters vs. peaceful, complex dark people exercise.  At the time, as a northern boy at college in the suspect South, I rather approved of their taking the time to make darn sure than none of those rural hillbillies left W&M with any ignorant political ideas.

Don't get me wrong, there was a lot of very cool stuff, and the Mesoamerican and linguistics courses carried no hint that I recall of any modern political or social implications - though when I provided one in a discussion of pottery decoration it was warmly received.  But one of the central values of the discipline, I believe, is to understand different-looking people and cultures and try to see them in context.  Other anthropologists seem to not be included.

Perhaps this is only because these are the academic debates I know about.

*I don't remember the actual site sneered at.  I am guessing it was Cactus Hill
**More hair, similar skin color


sykes.1 said...

First, 1493 is not as good as 1491.

As to the possibilities that the Solutreans made it to American, Evo and Proud points out that there would have a continuous tundra from southwestern France all the way to Alaska with much the same flora and fauna. They just had to walk, and it might have taken a few thousand years.

And there were caucasians in western China few thousand years ago.

jaed said...

My theory is that anthropology has a bad case of science-envy. (Also the case with sociology.) Physicists do enough eye-rolling, but that isn't the primary mechanism of progress in scientific fields.

In fields like anthro - which aren't scientific in the modern sense: they're observation and interpretation, despite much protest that we are, too, scientific! we are!!! - the final backstop of experimentation and demonstration isn't available in these fields of study. Accordingly, status markers assume much more importance and a lot of effort is devoted to showing that so-and-so has high status, is suspected of being a racist, has been recognized as the foremost in the field, "has been discredited", etc., etc. as a way of supporting or undercutting so-and-so's research. (Physicists rant about each other also, but no one thinks this says anything about the quality of their research, and the ranting tends to take place in private because everyone recognizes that it's not part of the physics. Anthro, not so much.)

Texan99 said...

It's hard to get as excited about the disputes when you've lived long enough to see several elaborate structures crumble -- in anthropology as well as physics, not to mention medicine, biology, and geology. When I was a kid we didn't even have plate tectonics. Remember when all respectable doctors knew that ulcers were caused by stress?

Earl Wajenberg said...

For many years, I followed a newsletter put out by one man, William Corliss, called "Science Frontiers." I would be doing it still, but he died at an advanced age about a year ago. He was a dedicated anti-dogmatist and devoted his energies to keeping people aware of how shaky a lot of widely accepted theory is. What gave him some weight was that all the sources he cited were from the mainstream science literature.

The whole pre-Clovis controversy was one of his staples, along with unconventional cosmologies, non-standard variations on evolutionary theory, you name it.

If you google "William Corliss" and "Science Frontiers," you'll quickly get to his old web site, which has lots of back issues posted.