Going Draper

3 minute read

Last week, Nature ran a commentary by Adam Kuper and Jonathan Marks, titled, “Anthropologists unite!”

Kuper’s 1999 book, Culture, The Anthropologist’s Account, documented the decline of the culture concept as a unifying principle of the field. Marks’ current book, Why I Am Not a Scientist, documents the long loss of prestige and status of anthropology within the sciences. I expected these two authors to be perfect Virgils to guide us down into last fall’s antiscience Inferno.

The descent through the first few circles reminds us just how we’ve come to this place: the Mead-Freeman controversy, the reaction to sociobiology, and the division of several large U.S. anthropology departments during the 1980’s and 1990’s. They entertainingly portray Clifford Geertz as a Pied Piper leading “some disciples…down to a relativist dead end.”

This is no mere PR problem. American anthropology has sunk down a rabbit-hole of irrelevance. As they put it,

[T]he silence of the anthropologists has left the field to blockbusting books by amateurs that are long on speculation and short on reliable information. Anthropologists hardly bother any longer to take issue with even the most outlandish generalizations about human nature. Not their business.

Drained of new ideas, anthropology became reactionary, then merely flaccid. Anthropologists have assumed a “sadder but wiser default position”.

Kuper and Marks thickly describe the spectre haunting anthropology, but their essay fails as a manifesto. There’s no message of redemption, no call to action. At least, nothing that’s likely to motivate us to shake off our chains:

So there is a need for a truly comparative science of human beings throughout their history, and all over the world. This requires more interdisciplinary team research in anthropology. A good start would be for anthropologists to read each other's papers, to attend each other's conferences and to debate concrete cases and specific hypotheses. But there is no future in a return to the feuding parties of the 1980s.

Patch the ivory tower and assume the position? Cue Roger Sterling: “That’s your pitch?”

Anthropologists may disagree about the message of the Mead-Freeman controversy, but non-anthropologists learned one clear lesson: Even the most famous ethnographic observations may be products of self-deception or outright fabulism. Worse, anthropologists seem unable to forthrightly say the difference – demonstrated again and again in this debate and later ones (such as Tierney’s Darkness in El Dorado). It’s one scandal after another.

Should we be surprised that anthropology stands impotent while “blockbusting books by amateurs” dominate the public discussion of humanity and its history? The top-selling anthropology book on Amazon today is the new Kindle short, “Homo evolutis”, a credulous argument that a new species of human will soon dawn upon the Earth. The number one anthropology-related program on television is “Ancient Aliens”.

Anthropologists have rendered themselves impotent to write stories that anyone wants to read, to tell stories that anyone wants to hear! Jargon replaced rigor. The public is left wide-eyed at “techno-futurists” sketching outlines of our impending speciation, and pseudoscientists telling us how spacecraft shaped the Nazca lines.

Next to Kuper and Marks’ essay in my browser window, Nature has placed an ad for their special issue honoring the “International Year of Chemistry.” Can anyone imagine an “International Year of Anthropology?” Many of today’s anthropologists would argue that its weeds are what make the field such a vibrant, holistic discipline. But “discipline” entails that something systematic is taught to practitioners. Maybe in 1948 anthropology could have earned its International Year, a time when students arguably had a common ground, common body of knowledge, and common goals. I fear there may be now be little left to the common ground of North American anthropology besides its origin myth.

Still, I have hope.

More and more, young anthropologists are working outside the hidebound system, engaging with today’s changing cultures, and developing media skills to tell their own stories. They do not all call themselves bloggers, but most are writing online in one form or another. They do not all call themselves scientists, but they see our common interest in promoting scientific understanding. You see, they’re building careers in a world where the anthropology “brand” long ago lost its respect.

And so, they’re rebuilding it as entrepreneurs. No whining, and no splitting up departments to vainly cut out the dead weight. They’re just doing good work. Anthropology will be, more and more, what they do. They’re not afraid to call BS, and they’re ready to back it up. Reacting faster and more nimbly than institutions, as they demonstrated last fall, they see the emptiness of “official position statements” and “long-term planning documents”. They value openness, freedom, and self-definition.

They haven’t gone John Galt. They’ve gone Don Draper.

And so I have hope.