The Real Place of Fuzziness in Anthropology

Joel and Lynn Gazis-Sax (
Tue, 13 Aug 1996 10:24:17 -0800

Angeline Kantola wrote:
> Heavens help me for jumping into this fray, but I have to comment...
> In article <>,
> Joel and Lynn Gazis-Sax <> wrote:
> >Many scientists are questioning the ability to measure things in any
> universally
> >predictable manner. Physics and chemistry are currently undergoing a
> revolution
> >thanks to the insights of chaos theory. The gist of this is that there
> are many
> >factors which can affect a phenomenon.
> Aaargh! Chaos theory! OK, show of hands here: who in the audience has had
> graduate-level math and science? Good, good. Alright, now who's read an
> article or a pop-science metaphysics book about chaos theory? Uh huh,
> kinda what I thought.

Ah yes. Another fine example of a so-called scientist acting unscientifically
and making untrue claims about a poster.

> There is *not* a revolution going on in physics and chemistry. We're not
> throwing out mechanics, electricity, magnetism, optics, quantum mechanics,
> relativity (general or special), stoichiometry, electronegativity,
> molecular orbitals, the periodic table, thermodynamics, PV=nRT,
> acids, bases, buffers, aldehydes or ketones (though we might want to
> pitch a few low-molecular-weight amines--P.U.!), Grignard reagents,
> Tanabe-Sugano diagrams, hydrogen bonds, polycyclic aromatics,
> analytical methods or damn near anything else as a result of chaos theory.
>Pardon me, but the fact that scientists are no longer just rejecting
data which is inconsistent with the conclusions they want to find and
for the first time trying to explain all the data strikes me as a revolution.

> Do not be misled. Chaos theory is not some sort of scientifically valid
> fudge factor that means ***anything*** can happen.

Never said it was. Again you are putting words in my mouth. I think
plenty of things can be ruled out fairly decisively by science. (e.g.
ghosts, fire-breathing dragons, orgones, oolites, etc.)

> Chaos theory goes a lot farther than "there are many factors which can
> affect a phenomenon". Multivariate analysis, anyone? There are almost
> infinitely many factors which affect, say, the development of a person
> from birth to adulthood. However, the human organism is anything *but* a
> chaotic system, scientifically speaking.

Au contraire, it IS a chaotic system, otherwise every one of us would
be exactly alike. Ever heard of genotypes and phenotypes? This is
a term we use in anthropology to discuss the difference between what
is in your DNA versus what gets actually expressed in your biological
makeup as you go through life.

How can it be that two individuals with the same DNA turn out so differently?
Or are you one of those people fascinated by anecdotal evidence like the
story of twins who marry a man with the same name, name their first
child the same thing, etc.?

> Apologies for the rant (what the heck is this doing under a header about
> matriarchies, anyway?), but the idea that "Chaos theory means you never
> have to say you're sorry" is really a bad one.

Ask Bryant who loves to take all the topics he can off track so that he
can discuss his "pure vision of science".

I think, Angeline, that you owe me apologies for going off half-cocked
and misinterpreting the point of what I had to say.
> Cheers,
> Angie
> Doctoral Candidate in Biochemistry, at UW
> BS Chem, Stanford, '91

What would I change in the following paragraph?

>Many scientists are questioning the ability to measure things in any universally
>predictable manner. Physics and chemistry are currently undergoing a revolution
>thanks to the insights of chaos theory. The gist of this is that there are many
>factors which can affect a phenomenon. Consistently, I have seen Bryant rule
>out the possibility that other factors other than his pure vision of science
>affect his conclusions.

Looking over it, not a thing. Angeline's rant is nothing more than bad
science, too, bad because she has not looked at what was actually said and
thought it through. If she'd taken the time to read through my entire
comments she would have found some other things that invalidate her
shoddilly reached conclusions:

>>And you can't demand predictability and be comfortable with uncertainty, too. Not
>>unless you accept as basic the chaotic nature of the universe. You can rule
>>some phenomenon out (e.g. the existence of dragons), but many other phenomenon
>>are much more difficult to describe. I think Joseph Campbell nicely summed
>>up the present conflict between "Science" and "Religion" by pointing out
>>that the real conflict was between the Science of the 20th century and the
>>Science of 2000 B.C. In other words, revolutions in our thinking can and
>>do occur. (Needless to say I am perfectly happy with many of the conveniences
>>of 20th century Science such as this computer I am typing on.) But I see
>>a danger in claiming certainty. This is an issue which Religion, with its
>>emphasis on Faith, handles better than our present Science. I do see
>>hopeful directions being taken by chaos theoreticians and others who
>>are calling for the rethinking of classical explanations and intellectulizations
>>of nature (e.g. Stephen Jay Gould's criticism of the "shoehorn".)

It is clear to me that our biochemist does not understand what I am getting
at with these remarks, so let me set her straight so that she may go wiser
in the world. Why do scientists panic when they see the word "rethinking"? In
the early part of this century, physicists rethought their discipline and
gave us quantum physics. Did this mean that Newtonian physics was gone? No.
If anything, it left them with the new challenge of reconciliating the two
forms. Wise scientists realize that the contradictions exist. However, the
two explanations are /useful/. However, someday, someone is going to come
up with an explanation which encompasses both. (Read Thomas Kuhn -- that was
required reading in my grad school days.)

But I digress.

A current problem in anthropology is the notion of "race". The Linnaean system
holds that we can neatly divide organisms into boxes. In the last century,
this was taken to the extreme of speciating mankind. Though the species label
has been since removed, we still have the concept of race which is somewhat
/useful/, particularly for medical anthropologists, some physical anthropologists,
and doctors. The trouble with race is that the boundaries aren't as neat as
some would like them to mean. Race is a very nice concept when you can look
at the opposite extremes. But what about the continuum between individuals?
Just /exactly/ where do you cut the line?

What we have here is a /chaotic/ population with numbers that are in constant
fluctuation. Is race that useful a term? It's clear to me that we need
something else to describe differences which doesn't carry all the hidden
traps (such as pseudo-scientist academicians are fond to employ) and misunder-
standings that have led to a repeated abuse of science.

One of the big troubles is that Science protects itself very nicely. It creates
a language and a community that resists outside criticism. What really frightens
Angeline, Bryant, and others who flaunt their academic credentials is this
review by ALL their peers. I think Science can weather many of the storms
ahead of it just fine. We can stand some better science education of the American
public. Many scientists can stand better science education, too.

Science will be most useful when it can be employed as a methodology for
understanding individuals without automatic shoehorning. Consider how this
leads to misdiagnosis by medical professionals (the scientists most of us
encounter in real life), for example. In some small way, what we now are
learning about the world and the new mode of description which is changing
our thinking, may make our Science a better tool.

Another help would be to eliminate the knee-jerk response that occurs
whenever an "outsider" tries to participate in a discussion about


Joel GAzis-SAx
No emotional need to flaunt any credentials

___ ___
/\ _|_ /\ Joel and Lynn GAzis-SAx
/ /\_|_/\ \
/ / /\|/\ \ \
\ \ \/|\/ / / "If we try to flee from our human condition into
\ \/_|_\/ / the computer, we only meet ourselves there."
\/__|__\/ William Barrett