Biocultural breakdown

2 minute read

Harvard undergraduate Stephen Cupps writes in an op-ed that his biological anthropology major is being "killed":

While as a whole, this step [reorganization of the Life Science curriculum] was a well-planned movement to provide smaller concentrations to students, one problem existed: HEB [Human Evolutionary Biology] was identical to biological anthropology in every way except that it replaced social anthropology and archaeology requirements with pre-med classes.
The obvious effect was a flight of pre-med students who would have potentially concentrated in the interdisciplinary biological anthropology to the HEB, which is little more than concentrating in pre-med. Overnight, BioAnthro quietly started to fade into that sacred elephant-burial ground where concentrations go to die. All the biological anthropology classes from the tutorials on up have been renumbered to HEB classes. Students who attempted to get a study card signed for biological anthropology were encouraged by the department to strongly consider HEB. As a result, biological anthropology has gone from a small but lively concentration to one in which at the beginning of this semester only three sophomores still exist.

The complaints seem to be that the new major has no four-field component, and that it includes low-rated introductory courses in biology.

There's nothing special about Harvard; the decline of four-field anthropology has been progressing in many institutions for many years. The long intradisciplinary territory-marking is not all that interesting, but in aggregate these changes clearly mark a decline in the perceived legitimacy of a biocultural approach to human evolution and biology. A comment on the story at the Crimson reinforces this interpretation:

Over the last couple of years, they've been trying to break away from the anthropology department -- in part because they think that either standing alone as a department of Human Evolutionary Biology, or being another part of Organismic and Evolutionary Bio, would give them more legitimacy as mainline natural scientists. That is, many faculty and grad students in the bio anthro wing believe that not being affiliated with social anthro and archaeology will open up more funding opportunities (and potentially more jobs!) for them.

I think it's worth pointing out that, at most institutions, whatever four-field training there is in anthropology is conducted at the undergraduate level. Graduate students have little or no expectation of training outside their subdiscipline, except as necessary for their research topic. So to the extent that new graduate students come in from programs that have no real four-field component, they won't finish their degrees with any such training. That means that new professionals in biological anthropology often don't have an expectation that their work should involve insights from sociocultural anthropology.

Whether you think that's a good thing or a bad thing, it certainly doesn't describe my research agenda. If I wanted to be a human zoologist, I wouldn't have gone into anthropology. Considering the increasing ethical and sociological components of genetic technology, I think that we should encourage all our students to include sociocultural anthropology in their studies of "human evolution" or "human genetics".

The key is to be selective -- although the broad study of anthropology involves many possible directions, a number of core issues from cultural anthropology are fundamental to the field; just as a broad understanding of human evolution and relationships are fundamental. It is a shame that, instead of breaking apart, anthropologists haven't found a new way to organize this subdisciplinary diversity into a cohesive whole.

(HT: Razib)