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Anthropology and Human Nature

Anthropology and Human NatureAs an academic discipline, anthropology was born relatively recently, with a key period of institutionalization in the 1880s-1930s. By that time, debates about human nature already had a deep history, but were moving out of the philosophical and religious arena into an emerging scientific arena and the theory of evolution. Anthropology has been inevitably intertwined with these debates, but was supposed to provide empirical and field-based observations.

In general, anthropology’s cross-cultural and historical comparisons lead anthropology to stress flexibility and human potential–that there is not an essential core of nature outside the influences of particular histories and developmental environments.

Please find below a recent collection of anthropological writings around approaches to human nature–and please let me know what I’m missing.

Are You Hardwired For Compassion? How About Cruelty?, Barbara J. King
No, students are not hardwired for hazing (or anything else). A discourse that readily invokes a hard-wired human nature does no justice to the complexity of human behavior and its causes.

NPR 13.7 Cosmos and Culture, 23 February 2012

Recent Advances in Culturomics, Jonathan Marks
To be useful, and to have any kind of a shot at being accurate, any biocultural synthesis must incorporate anthropological knowledge, not colonize it or cherry-pick from it. In particular, the study of human social evolution must confront the realities of empirical diversity in human social forms, for the relationship between the familiar and the natural is a complicated one. That relationship is precisely what anthropological data illuminate and cannot be taken for granted. The bio-cultural model is also going to have to transcend the question of whether this is or isn’t science and confront the unique epistemologies in human evolutionary studies. It won’t do to call anthropologists creationists, or anti-science postmodernists, for it is actually no great embarrassment to reject crappy science. Indeed, the opposite–believing anyone who claims to speak for science–is far worse.

Ten points for evolutionary psychology, Jonathan Marks
1. There is no Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness. “Pleistocene Africa” covers a lot of time and turf.
2. The Descent of Man is Darwin’s worst book, full of sexist Victorian claptrap. Even William Jennings Bryan knew that.

Anthropomics, 2 February 2012

Taking back Epigenetics, Zachary Cofran
Of course, genes code for how a cell should behave, but we have this tendency to want to extrapolate from the cell to the organism . . . It’s abundantly clear that phenotypes arise out of an inextricably complex series of interactions–between genes, proteins, cells, tissues, environments, etc. These interactions do not occur solely at the genetic (or narrow-sense epigenetic) level.

Lawn Chair Anthropology, 30 January 2012

Biology: The Science of Exceptions, Patrick F. Clarkin
Animal behavior is quite complex, and leaves lots of room for individual variation. If there is no single way of being a bonobo, then there is no single way of being a human either. What is ‘normal’ is a matter of statistical abstraction.

The Blob, Maurice Bloch
Representations of the human blob have to be compatible with the multiplicity of empirically inseparable processes within which we exist. All living things are caught in two processes, phylogeny and ontogeny. When we are dealing with our species we have to add a third process: that of history. This I have included and revised in the discussion of cultural interaction. We must keep, at least in the back of our minds, all three processes otherwise we are forgetting the specific nature of the human animal. Instead, we move into a hazy land, where nothing can be situated in nature, and where mysterious words, such as those which I have merged together to create the blob proliferate, without anyone being able to explain how they relate to each other. This, of course, is inevitable when we are in the never-never land of culture without minds and bodies or in the never-never land of minds and bodies without culture and history.

Vital topics forum in AA: ‘Nature and the human’, Greg Downey
Ultimately, I believe anthropology is fundamentally about human diversity, whether that’s cultural, linguistic, evolutionary, biological, historical (or pre-historical) or even inter-species, in relation to our closest cousins. This diversity, although it may make us feel less comfortable making blanket statements about ‘human nature’, is a great resource that needs to be pushed more centrally into the public sphere discussions of human nature. But we don’t have to stand in for the data–we can present the cases that confound our own ability to make blanket statements to the public–rather than assume that we have nothing to say. We can let the facts do the heavy lifting rather than feel the need to come up with something simple to say about them.

Neuroanthropology, 17 January 2011

On Nature and the Human, Agustín Fuentes, Jonathan Marks, Tim Ingold, Robert Sussman, Patrick V. Kirch, Elizabeth M. Brumfiel, Rayna Rapp, Faye Ginsburg, Laura Nader and Conrad P. Kottak
A major contribution of anthropological work has been to challenge a unitary theory of the human. In this American Anthropologist vital topics forum, a range of prominent anthropologists contribute to this challenge and provide musings on the human. The essays in this forum reflect diversity and unity of anthropological thought on human nature. Some note humans’ connection to other primates, and others emphasize our distinction from ancestral patterns. Several reflect on cultural change, globally and locally, while others problematize what we might mean by, and who we include in, a “human” nature. The perception of humans constructing and being constructed by the world and the warning to be cognizant of our approaches to defining ourselves are central themes here. Our goal is to initiate a discussion that might reshape, or at least influence, academic and public debates.

Questions of Anthropology, Rita Astuti, Jonathan Parry and Charles Stafford (editors)
Anthropology today seems to shy away from the big, comparative questions that ordinary people in many societies find compelling. Questions of Anthropology brings these issues back to the centre of anthropological concerns. Individual essays explore birth, death and sexuality, puzzles about the relationship between science and religion, questions about the nature of ritual, work, political leadership and genocide, and our personal fears and desires, from the quest to control the future and to find one’s “true” identity to the fear of being alone. Each essay starts with a question posed by individual ethnographic experience and then goes on to frame this question in a broader, comparative context.

Berg, 2007.

Susan McKinnon and Sydel Silverman, Introduction. In Complexities: Beyond Nature and Nurture, 2005
The essence of human nature is a brain that has been selected for adaptability and plasticity. It is also in the nature of humans to be fundamentally and intensely social and to exist–always and everywhere–within networks of social relations and webs of cultural meanings that they both shape and are shaped by (17).

Against human nature, Tim Ingold, 2006
Are cultural differences superimposed upon a universal human nature? The appeal to an essentialist concept of human nature is a defensive reaction to the legacy of racist science left by Darwin’s argument in The Descent of Man. Humans are made to appear different in degree from their evolutionary antecedents by attributing the movement of history to a process of culture that differs in kind from the biological process of evolution. The specifications of evolved human nature are supposed to lie in the genes. However, human capacities are not genetically specified but emerge within processes of ontogenetic development. Moreover the circumstances of development are continually shaped through human activity. There is consequently no human nature that has escaped the current of history.

Maurice Bloch, Where did anthropology go? Or the need for ‘human nature’. In Essays on Cultural Transmission
This book brings together recent work by Maurice Bloch which explores thehighly controversial territory between the cognitive and social sciences. The essays are of broad, theoretical interest and aim to combine naturalistic approaches to cognition with a recognition and respect for the cultural and historical specificity of ethnography. All the essays illustrate Bloch’s characteristic approach to the relation between anthropology and cognitive science, where cognitive science is used to criticize anthropological assumptions concerning such key topics as religion, kinship, belief, ritual, symbolism and art.

Berg, 2005.

Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Anthropology and the savage slot: The poetics and politics of otherness. In Global Transformations: Anthropology and the Modern World
Anthropology did not create the Savage. Rather, the Savage was the raison d’être of anthropology. Anthropology came to fill the Savage slot in the trilogy order-utopia-savagery, a trilogy that preceded anthropology’s institutionalization and gave it continuing coherence in spite of intradisciplinary shifts. This trilogy is now in jeopardy. The time is ripe to attack frontally the visions that shaped this trilogy, to uncover its ethical roots and its consequences, and to find a better anchor for an anthropology of the present, an anthropology of the changing world and its irreducible histories (28).

Human Nature and Anthropology, Jason Antrosio
Anthropology’s search for human nature emphasized capacities and cultures. But humans are always in process–there is no human nature.

Living Anthropologically, 14 February 2012


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  • BDNf

    Lots of interesting stuff in there! But in a list where everybody insists on the importance of diversity, maybe there lacks a bit of diverging opinions. ;-)

  • Jason Antrosio

    Hi BDNf, thank you for the comment. Indeed, Maurice Bloch may be a lone outlier here, and even he is very concerned with understanding particularities. But if you want divergent opinions, just head over to the bestseller lists!

  • dontbegrumpy

    This list is way too biased. Bloch “where did anthropology go?” is missing. Also, you should include Sperber, Boyer, Astuti, Atran, Whitehouse and a lot more cognitive anthropology.

    • Jason Antrosio

      Hi “dontbegrumpy”, thank you for your comment. I have definitely read the Bloch essay and meant to include it, but hestitated because I didn’t have an article abstract and some of the pdfs of that essay floating around are incorrect links. I put in “The Blob” instead. However, I’ve now included Bloch’s piece as a link to the collected essays. Despite the provocative title and argumentation, I think Bloch’s eventual point, for a “continual insistence on the actual life of specific people in specific places” (2005:18) is not so different from many of these other perspectives.

      Thank you too for the suggestions–I’ve now included a volume coedited by Rita Astuti on the “Questions of Anthropology” but I will admit I haven’t stayed up as much on Sperber and some of those other authors since graduate school. I’d be happy to include some more suggested references.

      I’m not making a claim to comprehensively represent the field–I’m trying to put some stuff up that is interesting, certainly with a perspective, and hopefully get some response. I would also add that this is not meant to be a research site but be mostly toward things that engage public issues.

      Thanks again and hope for more interchange!

      • dontbegrumpy

        Thanks for the reply. I think it is difficult to write a list like this mainly because social anthropology has rarely related with the disciplines that have ‘human nature’ as their own domain like cognitive sciences, neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, etc… To make the list more engaging, I would include Pinker’s ‘the blank slate’, (although I am personally quite unsympathetic with his arguments) and Tooby and Cosmides’s ‘the adapted mind’.

        • dontbegrumpy

          I would also add cognitive anthropologists Scott Atran and Douglas Medin “native mind and the cultural construction of nature”.

          •!/JasonAntrosio Jason Antrosio

            Hi again, and thank you for returning to this thread. I’m reluctant ot include things like Pinker on the anthropology list–several of the things there have tried to engage with evolutionary psychology and other approaches, although it may still be quite unsatisfying. Thank you for the Atran and Medin suggestion–I’ll have to keep an eye on that for future reading and updates.