Anthropologists Say Sayonara To Science


Nicholas Wade reports in the New York Times:

`Science` Is Cut from Anthropology Group`s Guiding Plan, Deepening a Rift

Anthropologists have been thrown into turmoil about the nature and future of their profession after a decision by the American Anthropological Association at its recent annual meeting to strip the word “science” from a statement of its long-range plan.The decision has reopened a long-simmering tension between researchers in science-based anthropological disciplines — including archaeologists, physical anthropologists and some cultural anthropologists — and members of the profession who study race, ethnicity and gender and see themselves as advocates for native peoples or human rights.

… Until now, the association’s long-range plan was “to advance anthropology as the science that studies humankind in all its aspects.” The executive board revised this last month to say, “The purposes of the association shall be to advance public understanding of humankind in all its aspects.” This is followed by a list of anthropological subdisciplines that includes political research.

… Dr. Peregrine, who is at Lawrence University in Wisconsin, said in an interview that the dropping of the references to science “just blows the top off” the tensions between the two factions. “Even if the board goes back to the old wording, the cat’s out of the bag and is running around clawing up the furniture,” he said.

He attributed what he viewed as an attack on science to two influences within anthropology. One is that of so-called critical anthropologists, who see anthropology as an arm of colonialism and therefore something that should be done away with. The other is the postmodernist critique of the authority of science. “Much of this is like creationism in that it is based on the rejection of rational argument and thought,” he said.

The flames have been fueled by blogs, like one in Psychology Today by Alice Dreger, a historian and medical ethicist. Reporting on an American Anthropological Association meeting in New Orleans, she wrote, “Non-fluff-head cultural anthropologists are feeling utterly beleaguered in this environment that denigrates science and consistently promotes activism over data collection and scientific theorizing.”

This implied dichotomy between anti-science anthropologists who write about race, ethnicity, or gender and scientific anthropologists who don`t study those topics is a bit misleading. The are also anthropologists who study race, ethnicity or gender scientifically (several of whom are on my blogroll). The work of Darwinian anthropologists of sex differences like John Tooby and of ancestral differences like Henry Harpending are the hidden key to this controversy. The anti-science anthropologists fear that if anthropology is allowed to be a science, then all sorts of politically incorrect scientific knowledge about humanity will emerge. The pro-science leaders try, publicly, to pooh-pooh those fears.