IS ANTHROPOLOGY A SCIENCE?
Robert Snower (rs219@IDIR.NET)
Mon, 22 Apr 1996 21:00:51 -0500
I deleted the article which prompts this because my hard disk is getting so
full, so I cannot credit the author, but I shall proceed anyway. It was
about anthropology maybe not being a science, but that did not matter,
because a lot of things of value were not sciences. I would like to address
that. Also I read comments faulting anthropology for not dealing with
important current situations, like daycare, and the dissolution of families,
which I would like to address, also.
Anthropology deals with empirical data, and tries to make sense of it via
unifying theory which is testable--for adequacy as much as accuracy--
against that data. This makes it a science, surely. Its predictive
abilities are pretty much zero, but this is really to be anticipated,
because, like economics, and unlike physics, it deals in jillions of
contingencies which cannot be given as invariable.
The reason it says so little about the current problems mentioned above is
because it has nothing to say, beyond recording them. Its unifying
hypotheses, such as they are, simply have no application.
That is really the big weakness of anthropology. Cultural anthropology,
that is. People do not question the scientific credentials of physical
anthropology, because it has its unifying theories.
And weak the anthropology theories are, indeed. As a result, many
anthropologists have come to hold theorizing in general in contempt, and to
exalt the data gathering function to foolish heights. But data collecting
comprises the most primitive level of any science. Like the Babylonians who
recorded the movements of the stars on thousands of tablets, but had to wait
for Ptolemy, thence Copernicus, thence Kepler, thence Newton, thence
Einstein, to come up with stories to make sense of the data. Such stories
are what Einstein called free creations of the mind. Properly, they guide
the data observing and gathering more than the observing and gathering are
responsible for generating them. Without strong hypotheses unifying the
data, and GUIDING the data searching process, a science is going to remain
in disarray. Imagine biology without evolution and genetics theory: just a
lot of fun stories about plants and animals, and a lot of people having fun
with butterfly nets and movie cameras.
I think we have had enough of data gathering for a while. To an amateur,
the marvelous works of Frazier, Jane Harrison, and Jessie Weston (I have to
mention this last, a favorite of mine, author of From Ritual to Romance)
alone offer sufficient data that we might log off for a while, stay home
from far away places, and go to theory building. To me, clearly not to
others, the early efforts to make something of kinship, were tentative steps
in the right direction. For me, French obscurantism is not on the right
track. Nor the opposite extreme, such as the hilarious protein theories of
Marvin Harris. I think sociobiology is on the right track. We are due for
a synthesis of physical and cultural anthropology, comparable to the "Great
Synthesis" (Isn't that what they call it?)of genetics and evolution theory
that dominates biology today.
I am under the impression sociobiology has a bad name, still, in
anthropology and elsewhere. It is condemned by the intellectually retarded
as evolution, and kept out of the grammar and high schools. It is condemned
by the intellectually gifted as politically incorrect, and kept out of the
graduate schools. It is chiefly represented, when it comes to
anthropological data, by the perfectly awful last chapter of Wilson's
fine Sociobiology, and some worse follow-ups about why we lose our hair, and
commit infanticide. But sociobiology has something to offer. I think Mark
Shapiro's The Sociobiology of Homo Sapiens is a great book, and great
theory, giving us a story that successfully knits together the wide range of
data anthropology deals with. It is actually about culture, not genetics.
It is also the least mentioned anthropological work which has come under my
purview. I would really like to hear other opinions about it, and if you
don't know it, get hold of it--it is in print, and cheap.
R. Snower email@example.com