I came across Hannah Fearn’s article The Great Divide, about the battle between social anthropologists and evolutionary anthropologists, (in Times Higher Education; Nov 20:2008) several days after it had been published and decided to let the comments percolate a bit. It’s not a very good article in the sense of offering any substantial definition of the controversy.

It revolves around Fearn’s awkward formulation:

Put crudely, social anthropologists describe and compare the development of human cultures and societies, while evolutionary anthropologists seek to explain it by reference to our biological evolution.

I will forgive the tautological miscue, “explain development by reference to evolution” and forgive the superficial “describe and compare,” while I chuckle to myself about a half century’s worth of controversy in anthropology, hapening just among social anthropologists!

I suppose in jockeying for grants and assistants and for promoting prominence in curricula, there might be lots of snobbery acted out between socios and evos, but nothing in the article points to how actual distinctions of difference have been hashed out in anthropology, the philosophy of science, and the application of theoretical meta-science in anthropology. This, doh, only reveals once again that most scientists don’t have to be expert in the philosophy of science. (If they were, they would be adept at playing the devil’s advocate against their own ‘brand.’)

The concise way to settle this controversy isn’t given enough weight in the article. It’s a controversy about what part of the elephant the different blind researchers are touching is the “best part of all.”

Obviously, both evolutionary and social anthropologists generate hypotheses and then deploy stable evidence and secure suppositions from within a proven methodological and self-consistent verification regime yada yada yada. I would guess there are evolutionary anthropologists who propose that quantifiable research, based in strict nomothetic frameworks, utilizing only biological scale evidence, offers a more veracious result. Whatever. There is no ground to stand on with such a claim, or, maybe one can visualize the elephant standing on the bio-anthropologist’s head in such cases.

Because we could classify entire classes of inquiry to be both worthwhile and also immune to the minds, tools, and procedures, of evolutionary anthropology, there is sometimes no possible discussion about what is a more appropriate road for investigation. (Roughly the instructive point is: what kind of investigation best matches what one wishes to know.) This, basically, is a kind of didactic point of meta-science. I also suppose it is today ironic that evolutionary anthropologists work in the same field that has such sturdy offshoots oriented around a critique of science and scientism. But, nevertheless, an anthropologist could become interested in making an account for the existence for some evolutionary or another kind of reason of just these kinds of divides!

Anyway…the comments to the article are better than the article but nothing there really acknowledges the actuality of a philosophy of the various schemes (sub-disciplines,) of anthropology.

(Note my own interest in all of this issue from my low position as a lay reader, albeit one whose reading tends these days to focus on subject matter more in the camp of evolutionary anthropology. However, I have a long-standing fascination with meta-science and, specifically, the problems of verification and what conceptual structures are necessary to truth claims.)

My mentor Mulla Nasrudin shall have the last word:

See: Philosophy of Anthropology and sociology; Turner and Risjord.

A favorite volume I recommend:

Anthropology In Theory; Moore, Sanders, ed. Blackwell | Amazon (Editor Henrietta Moore is a preeminent scholar on the philosophy of anthropology.

December 15 (add)

Nicholas Baumard’s article Neuroanthropology or Ethnographic Neurosciences, at Culture and Cognition, can be read as a practical view on the controversy.

Oliver Morin supplies a single comment, from which its first of two paragraphs is:

Interesting point. I am afraid things are likely to evolve in exactly the opposite direction: methods and skills are more bankable than theory in many fields. Using a specific, easy to identify method gives an immediate appearance of professionalism. Theories are much more common, and their quality is much more difficult to control. Even if a theory has powerful implications about, say, the way the brain processes a sentence, if it makes no predictions in terms of localization or cell activity (many excellent theories of syntax do not provide such predictions), it won’t be considered neuroscience, even though no one can deny that your object of study is the human brain. The shiny “neuro” label is much praised and envied, so scientists try to control what gets the label and what does not in the cheapest and easiest possible way.

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