The end of four-field anthropology at Harvard

The Harvard University Gazette reports cheeringly on the breakup of the anthropology department.

Earlier this month, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) made official what scientists worldwide have known for years: Harvard is a hotbed of research and teaching in the field of human evolutionary biology the study of why were the way we are.
As the first university to create a graduate program in what was then called physical anthropology, Harvard has long been a leader in the study of human evolution, says Jeremy Bloxham, dean of science in the FAS. Through its use of techniques from biochemistry, engineering, and genetics, the modern field of human evolutionary biology has become increasingly aligned with the sciences. It seems only natural that we should foster our tremendous strength in this area by creating a dedicated Department of Human Evolutionary Biology.

It’s an interesting question. Is “human evolutionary biology” a field of study? If you were going to cover the areas of human evolutionary biology with a faculty, what specialties would you have to include? I wrote about the “biocultural breakdown” at Harvard two years ago, as some undergraduates complained that their training was suffering from increasing specialization of human biology. But the “human evolutionary biology” major was a growing success – one paralleled by programs at many other institutions, which combine anthropology and biology in a variety of ways.

Academic departments have a dual mission. First, they are homes and support structures for faculty research interactions – the original “collegium”. By putting faculty with similar research interests in nearby offices, departments are a physical statement about who should be talking to each other. Second, departments organize the training of students. A department’s graduate curriculum is a baseline for becoming a professional. The undergraduate curriculum is supposed to give a grounding in the field and practical training for later work.

If biological and cultural anthropologists remain interacting colleagues – as fortunately they are here at Wisconsin – then the allure of a four-field (or in our case, three-field) program remains strong. Anthropology really does make sense – my work involves cultural as well as biological change, and uses archaeological and linguistic evidence.

But as we’ve seen in many universities during the last 15 years, interactions within departments sometimes are weak or nonexistent. I think of each of these cases like an experiment. Some collapsed under their own weight – the faculty who thought they’d be happy once they left those terrible colleagues suddenly discover they can’t stand each other, either.

A few of the schisms seem to be converging on market reality in the university. A lot of students want a biological training that isn’t biology.

The anthropology-biology combination has been gaining ground because it makes sense as preparation for medical/pharmacy/dental school, biology education, or biotech. Renaming the program something with “biology” in the title certainly doesn’t hurt that appeal. The faculty that can provide that service have an interesting opportunity.