Rants and Raves

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Thursday, September 28, 2006

The Pleasures of Anthropology

My first M.A. was in Anthropology, and while I didn't work in the field I have no regrets. It's a fascinating study and as a field of investigation, vitally important, though underappreciated. If knowledge in the physical and strictly biological science is lost, it can be rediscovered. But knowledge of a vanished human culture is gone - forever.

The four divisions of Anthropology are: Social/ Cultural (the common understanding of the Anthropologist (guys who go on extended camping trips with interesting primitives, learn the language fluently in a few months and are offered the chief's beautiful daughter), Physcial (guys who study prehuman bones and living apes and aren't offered the chief's beautiful daughter), Archeology (guys who dig up dead civilizations and realize that the chief's beautiful daughter died a long time ago), and Linguistics (guys who study the relationship of language to culture and might be equipped to chat up the chief's beautiful daughter).

Archeologists and Linguists are said to represent the opposite personality poles among Anthropologists. Archeologists are very, very careful about speculating from the data they have. Probably because they are always aware that the next spadeful of dirt might destroy their beautiful theory. Linguists however, are known for wildly extravagant theoretical speculation. Language doesn't leave fossils and in the absence of documentary evidence, which has only existed for a very short period of the history of humanity, who's to say you're wrong?

One nice thing about Anthropology is that, though like most so-called "social science" the practitioners are pretty solidly on the political Left, they generally aren't involved in creating or recommending any grand experiments in social engineering, like you find in Sociology.

One thing you get from a study of Anthropology is the realization that, 1) human nature is the same everywhere, and 2) within that shared human nature, there are a lot of different ways to be human.

This was a point of contention in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The existence of people living at the level of European prehistory was a challenge to Western intellectuals. Two competing theories arose to explain why the whole world hadn't advanced to the level of civilization (Eastern and Western) at about the same pace: the racialist and the environmentalist explanations.

The racialist explanation held that primitive peoples hadn't achieved civilization because they didn't have it in them. The environmentalists held that it was their environment that retarded their development. The most extreme racialist view was a cornerstone of Nazism, the environmentalist view was embodied in Marxism.

The racialists (I'm avoiding the hot-button term "racist" for now. I'm describing it as a theory rather than a hateful attitude) had a hard time explaining the existence of ancient civilizations in Central America and highland Peru and were forced to resort to diffussionist explanations - i.e. they got it from pre-Colombian Western explorers. This poisoned any rational investigation of possible pre-Colombian trans-Atlantic diffusion for a long time after.

Something Anthropologists really don't want to think about these day is that about half the participants in the Wantsee Conference (the one that decided on the "Final Solution" to the "Jewish Problem") had social science doctorates, mostly in Anthropology.

However the environmentalists, for the best of motives, unwittingly supported the efforts of the even more murderous Marxist regimes. In attempting to explain differences among peoples that might appear to result from innate ability, they attributed everything to the absolute plasticity of human nature. For example, it's now pretty well accepted that Margaret Mead went to Samoa and found what Franz Boaz told her to find - not from conscious fraud but from a deeply-held preconception of what human nature is, or more precisely, isn't.

This was an attempt to combat the racialist hypothesis, but the result was to lend support to the intellectuals in power who wanted to lay bloody hands on humanity and mold it into their concept of the ideal human.

The racialist hypothesis was discredited by the horrors of Nazism. Environmentalism was challenged when members of traditional societies under study became educated and started getting university degrees in, among other things, Anthropology. Their objection was basically, "Hey, you guys got it all wrong, we're not like that at all. If there is no human nature common to us all, and everything about being human comes from our environment, then you've denied our common humanity. Members of very different cultures might as well be members of different species."

What has emerged today is the realization that there is a human nature common to all mankind, that does not change over historical time, but that common nature can be expressed in a lot of different ways. And of course, because this is so common-sensical, they had to invent a very pompous term for it, the "psychic unity of mankind".

What they still shy away from like the plague, is any attempt to investigate what cultural choices lead to the relative degree of advancement, stasis or even retrogression of a culture. About that, more later.


  • At 11:18 AM, Blogger spitfire_79 said…

    I was thrilled to read your article published on the Atlasphere site, and even more thrilled to see that you're an Okie! Hope you don't mind me re-posting your article on my blog (Xanga). Not sure how this works in the web world but it resonated so with me; wanted to pass it along. Very nice to have chanced upon your blog. I'll be keeping up.

  • At 3:04 PM, Blogger Canker said…

    I also am happy to have read your blog.
    I am also amused and interested that we both chose to rave about The Gods of The Copybook Headings for similar reasons and at similar times.
    Here's a reference to my entry:


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