The "Great Synthesis"

Bradley David Hume (bdhume@INDIANA.EDU)
Sat, 27 Apr 1996 10:02:21 -0500

As a historian of anthropology and biology who lurks on this list I
would like to express my uneasiness about oversimplifying the importance
of synthesizing cultural and physical anthropology. There were scientific
as well as social, historical, and biographical reasons for the separation
between the two fields. The hint about Morton and Broca in an earlier
post neglects the far more important events and debates which took place
during the earlier 1900s through the interwar years -- see Elazar Barkan's
_The Retreat of Scientific Racism_ or Daniel Kevles's _In the Name of
Eugenics_ or even Hamilton Cravens's _The Triumph of Evolution_ for
good discussions of the scientific and disciplinary concerns in the
context of the times.

Carl Degler has recently argued that the scientific conception of culture
triumphed perhaps due more to its ideological success and the disciplinary
organization of Boas at Columbia (and, one would have to add, Malinowski's
success at the LSE and in the formation of the International Africa
Institute) than for its scientific legitimacy. Whether one chooses to
read too much into the intellectual handwringing of a Clifford Geertz or
not, this strikes me as an unfortunate oversimplification.

The point, however, is that the overzealous equation of heredity and
ability which led to eugenics and helped provide a forum for the critique
in culture theory are hardly questions that have been satisfactorily
resolved by the latest generation of sociobiological spinoffs: evolutionary
psychology, the evolutionary theory of culture, etc. We are engaged in
our own set of kulturkampfe. Let's not once again try to overlook
scientific uncertainties in the name of resolving social disputes or
easing our consciences over perceived threats to "THE" scientific
method or revolts against reason. We have not come much further in
setting up Darwinian histories of "warfare" or hard-wired recognition
of "cheaters" and we should still be worried about the dangers of

Brad Hume
History and Philosophy of Science
Indiana University