Vital topics forum in AA: ‘Nature and the human’

The question of ‘human nature’ is a fraught one for many anthropologists, especially those of us who pay special attention to human variation, Darwinian theory, and dynamic approaches to diversity in developmental questions.

The very concept ‘human nature’ can be the theoretical equivalent of the double-bind question, ‘So can you confirm that you no longer are a Creationist?’  Even conceding to respond to the question places us in a position where we wind up between the Scylla of the essentialist fallacy and the Charybdus of the ‘blank slate,’ the Devil of ethnocentric universalism and the deep blue sea of ascribing innate and irreducible differences to human groups.

Nevertheless, former colleague Agustín Fuentes, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame, has brought together a number of prominent anthropologists to ponder the question of ‘human nature’ in a ‘Vital Topics Forum’ in the American Anthropologist (AA): ‘On Nature and the Human’ (abstract here).  As Fuentes lays out the challenge for anthropologists:

Of late, psychologists, historians, political scientists, economists, and even philosophers have been in the public eye speaking about these issues of the human; anthropological voices have been muted in comparison. I propose we take this topic by the horns and advance a new public debate about it.  (Fuentes 2010: 512)

The Forum brings together Fuentes’s thoughts with short pieces by Jonathan Marks, Tim Ingold, Robert Sussman, Patrick V. Kirch, Elizabeth M. Brumfiel, Rayna Rapp and Faye Ginsburg, Laura Nader, and Conrad P. Kottak, some heavyweights from across our field.

Unfortunately, given the illiberal policies on publication access practiced by the American Anthropological Association, the forum is behind a subscription wall, so you cannot access it without going through an academic library (unless you’re an AAA member).  I’m still grousing about the complete absence of open-access journals in our field, as I think any discussion of ‘public outreach’ given the way we’ve locked up our publications is a bit hypocritical.  So, because you likely can’t get to it, I’m going to quote liberally from the original forum and reference each author’s contributions separately.

One of the first important points that gets made by biological anthropologists Prof. Jonathan Marks (UNC – Charlotte) is that, even though the comparative inter-species perspective on human evolution is important, too-simple equations between humans and other living great apes can be misleading.  Marks argues that we have ‘evolved into biocultural ex-apes’ (2010: 513).  His point is that, as Fuentes (2010: 519) clarifies, we are not simply ‘upgraded versions of out ancestors’ but something distinctive.

I don’t think, by any stretch, the Marks is advocating the polar opposite view, that humans are so exceptional that we can essentially disregard our relations to other animals.  Rather, attempting to roll back our species’ recent biological, cultural, cognitive, and social innovations in an attempt to get to what is really ‘human nature’ is misguided.  Or, as Marks puts it (and I’ve long admired his writing stylistically):

To imagine that we are nothing but apes, and to find human nature there (e.g., de Waal 2005; Wrangham and Peterson 1996), actually constitutes a denial of evolution. We evolved; get over it. In a classic midcentury synthesis, George Gaylord Simpson explained the problem with “nothing-butism”: “Such statements are not only untrue but also vicious for they deliberately lead astray enquiry as to what man really is and so distort our whole comprehension of ourselves” (1949:283). Evolution is the production of difference and novelty, and you are not your ancestors. (Marks 2010: 513)

I recently made a similar argument in filming a documentary on sexuality that will be broadcast here in Oz on SBS, supposedly in June: if you strip away everything that makes humans distinctive in reproduction, social relations, and expression as a species, you can’t then say you’ve discovered our ‘sexual nature.’  Likewise, you can’t try to imagine a human without language, culture, learning, sophisticated intelligence, tools and the like, and then say ‘that’s human nature.  We’re nothing but bald apes!’

The thought exercise of stripping human characteristics to discover (or more likely, invent) ‘human nature’ is certain to produce some other imagined non-human species of hominids, likely a hybrid of contemporary biases, comparative guesswork, and plain stabs into the paleoanthropological dark.  Interesting for science fiction, perhaps, but not as scientific theory.  Or, as Marks himself puts it much more acerbically, ‘the quest to imagine a human condition without culture is simply the tortured dream of a hack philosophe’ (2010: 513).

This argument follows from Marks’ critique of some of the most prolific and widely cited contemporary theorists of ‘human nature,’ ones who commit what I referred to above as the ‘essentialist fallacy.’  Marks describes the contemporary trend as a paradox: individuals who believe that they are upholding the theoretical legacy of Darwin are, in fact, operating with a pre-Darwinian concept that a species has an essential and irreducible ‘nature’:

One of the most extraordinary paradoxes of modern science is the way in which a pre-Darwinian concept (deriving the essential properties of the human beast) has been transformed into a Darwinian litmus test: if you don’t believe sufficiently in the idea of human nature, then you must be a creationist (Konner 2002; Pinker 2003). But in an intellectual arena where facts are notoriously difficult to come by, one fact is certain: human nature is a politically contested turf. Anyone who pronounces on it, while simultaneously arguing that their pronouncements are disconnected from society and politics, is not to be taken seriously. (2010: 513)

Marks is collapsing together what I think are two separate and equally important critiques: the first is that arguing any species has a ‘nature’ or essential being is not consistent with the most basic of Darwinian understandings of natural selection, which assume that variation is inherent in reproduction.  To argue that ‘human nature’ is any one thing — violent, cooperative, thoughtful, credulous or whatever — may be rhetorically important but it runs afoul of the most basic invariant of ‘descent with modification’: variation.

Marks’ second critique is that the invocation of ‘human nature’ is inevitably political, an argument that I don’t wholly agree with although I would concede that statements about human nature often have a political subtext, even if the person making them may not be aware of the subtext.  Marks (2010: 513) argues that ‘the most consistent scientific invocation of human nature has been to explore, or, rather, to construct, limits to human social progress,’ that arguments asserting human nature are often conservative ‘biopolitics,’ rearguard actions to defend hereditary aristocracy, racial inequality, sexual hierarchy or other social problem as inherently, biologically irreducible.

Professor Tim Ingold, Chair in the Department of Anthropology of Aberdeen University, parses the question of ‘human nature’ into what he argues are fundamentally two different questions: ‘What is a human being? What does it mean to be human?’  The first we typically answer biologically with a discussion  of our species, but the second of which we answer existentially because our self-awareness transcends our biological reality.  In other words, Ingold is pointing out that the question of ‘human nature’ is both biological and philosophical, and one question can’t be reduced to the other.

Ingold, for reasons slightly different from Marks, suggests that some current explorations of ‘human nature’ are profoundly inconsistent with evolutionary theory although they loudly profess to be ‘evolutionary.’  As Ingold writes, the problem is as obvious as the nose on your face (although you’re likely not to notice your own nose if you’re not looking for it), but some scholars:

persist in the search for a universal architecture underwriting the capacities of the human mind while attributing the evolution of these capacities to a theory—of variation under natural selection—that only works because the individuals of a species are endlessly variable. This is not a mistake that anatomists would make. Every human being, for example, has a protuberance in the centre of the face with two holes that allow the inhalation and exhalation of air. We call it the nose. No two noses are alike: they vary among individuals and among populations.  Yet no one conversant with modern biology would attribute these variations to developmentally induced inflections of a universal nasal architecture, identically keyed in to all humans. Did not Darwin finally refute the essentialist doctrine that for every species there exists a preestablished, formal template? Yet this is precisely the doctrine to which evolutionary psychologists appeal in their search for human cognitive universals. They do so because it is an epistemological condition for their science.  (Ingold 2010: 514)

The assumption that all manifest features must arise from predetermined form is a second kind of essentialist fallacy, more developmental than phylogenetic, although Ingold is also critiquing the phylogenetic essential fallacy, that every species has a nature.  The phylogeneitc error is the same fallacy that makes me cringe whenever I hear someone talk about ‘the human genome,’ as if there were only one.  I don’t necessarily agree with Ingold’s assertion that this fallacy is an inherent fatal flaw in the entire psychological exploration of evolution, but maybe I’m just playing the optimist.

Ingold points to the double-barreled name of our species, Homo sapiens sapiens, to highlight that our difference from other species is both biological and historical, ‘doubly sapient’ (2010: 514).  Our exploration of our own nature drives a deeper existential wedge between us and our living relatives: ‘The recognition of the human is the product of what Giorgio Agamben calls an “anthropological machine” that relentlessly drives us apart, in our capacity for self-knowledge, from the continuum of organic life within which our existence is encompassed.’  Although Marks warned against reducing humans to ‘nothing but’ an ape, Ingold suggests that the very asking ‘What is human nature?’ drives us further existentially from other animals.

Ingold’s solution is to shift the frame of the question away from ‘being’:

The first step is to think of humans in terms not of what they are but of what they do. With José Ortega y Gasset, we should say “not that man is, but that he lives” (Ortega y Gasset 1941:213). Humanity, Ortega tells us, does not come with the territory, from the mere fact of species membership or from having been born into a particular culture or society. It is rather something we have continually to work at. What we are, or what we can be, does not come ready made.  We have, perpetually and never-endingly, to be making ourselves. That is what life is, what history is, and what it means to be human. To inquire into human life is thus to explore the conditions of possibility in a world peopled by beings whose identities are established, in the first place, not by received species- or culture-specific attributes but by relational accomplishment. Unlike the incongruous hybrids of biology and culture created by the anthropological machine, real-world humans build themselves, and one another, in the crucible of their common life.

Ingold’s response is both prosaic and philosophically rich, and I think his idea that we think of ourselves as the self-made species, a kind of DIY form of being, is helpful because it highlight the recursion of what we do for who we are.

Prof. Robert Sussman (Anthropology, Washington University) is more positive about the usefulness of the concept of ‘human nature,’ suggesting that we use the concept — not as Marks warned against, to reduce ourselves to ‘nothing but’ apes — but to label our obvious difference from other species.

Is there something we can call human nature? Of course there is. Humans generally behave more like each other than they do like chimpanzees or gorillas. And, chimpanzees behave more like other chimpanzees than like gorillas or humans. However, this does not mean that differences among humans, especially in complex behaviors, can be explained mainly by genetic variation. In fact, among humans, most complex behavioral differences, unless specific genes can be identified for them, must be considered caused by what anthropology has defined as “culture. ”  (Sussman 2010: 514)

Sussman approaches the question in such different fashion, in part, because he understands that he is speaking against a different counter-argument.  Whereas both Ingold and Marks seem to be arguing against an overly-universal, essentializing assumption about ‘human nature,’ Sussman is staking out his opposition to those who think that human variation is so great as to constitute fundamentally unbridgeable gaps among types of humans.

Sussman is primarily concerned with the explanation of human differences, and the possibility that these differences will be attributed to their individual (or group) ‘natures.’  He prefers the notion of ‘human nature’ to the assumption that there are distinctive ‘types’ of humans, especially ‘races’:

When attempting to ascribe differences among different individuals or groups to genetically fixed biological capacities, we must be extremely careful, for this implies that these differences are unchangeable. Historically, this has been the ammunition used by racists to impose inhumane treatment on many groups. Cultural, subcultural, and life history–induced differences have been misunderstood and have often formed the basis of prejudices reinforced by pseudoscience and bad biology. As Boas (1916) asserted, “Unless the contrary can be proved, we must assume that all complex activities are socially determined, not hereditary” (Degler 1991:148). Alfred Kroeber also warned that until biological bases for behavioral differences are established and exactly defined, we must assume their nonexistence. If we do not, our work becomes “a vitiated mixture of history and biology” (1915:285). (Sussman 2010: 514-515)

In a sense, Sussman is warning about being baited into an opposite error: the argument of irreducible difference, because of the anthropological commitment to recognizing human diversity in anthropology.  Both essentialist universal and irreducible difference are potential pitfalls of an overly simplistic argument about ‘human nature’: this is the double-bind I refer to in the opening paragraph.  You’re damned to error if you side with either extreme and buy into the either/or rhetoric.

So what about human nature? As I said, I do believe human nature exists. However, for the most part, we have been studying it at the wrong level. Going back to my comparison between humans and chimpanzees, these two species behave differently because of their different natures. But at what level do these differences in nature occur? …

In a similar vein, we might say that humans and chimpanzees are playing different games (chess and checkers but exceedingly more complex). Describing individual behaviors might not help us understand the ultimate rules of the game. It would suggest an enormous number of permutations. Once we knew the rules, however, it might be possible to understand all possible permutations, the totipotentiality of human or chimpanzee behavior, and the contextual meaning of the statistical distribution of those permutations. (Sussman 2010: 515)

In Sussman’s discussion, plumbing ‘human nature’ would be sketching this envelope of ‘totipotentiality’ of our species, the distribution of the realizations of different human capabilities. He discusses both violence and language, pointing out that any one example will not give us ‘the nature’ of humanity; we need to understand various capacities and how they are realized in different contexts, for example, both the capacity for violence and the much greater capacity for cooperation and amicable social interaction.

Although I find Sussman’s piece slightly jarring, in part because I typically wind up in arguments that sound more like the ones being imagined by Ingold and Marks, in fact I’m currently engaged in a project that is more in line with this idea that we ought to chart the ‘totipotentiality’ of our species in order to better understand our ‘nature’ in all its malleability.  For example, only by comparison to modern athletes, my primary interest, can we understand the significance of the robust skeletons of our ancestors; in a sense, we need the outliers, the athletic freaks, the unusual languages, the violent populations, the passivist groups, and all other anthropological extremes, to unravel our own potential, both today and in the past.

Prof. Patrick Kirch, an archaeologist at the University of California Berkeley, offers the Pacific Islands, specifically the emergence of cultural difference from a common underlying Lapita cultural complex (1200-500 BCE) as a comparative case study for how human variation can arise.  In some sense, he elaborates a discussion of how our ‘nature’ depends upon the level at which we look.  Kirch suggests that even the most widespread traits in humans vary in relation to environmental and contextual factors, including the unfolding of our own social relations through community history. For Kirch, to understand our ‘nature’ is to better apprehend how we respond to diverse challenges:

The cultures that subsequently developed on each of these islands all had common origins—hence, their ancestors shared cultural patterns ranging from kinship to cosmogony.  Yet the Pacific Island cultures documented in ethnohistoric records and ethnographic fieldwork varied tremendously. These differences emerged over time as a result of the contingent, historical interactions among each human group and its particular environment (and here I must stress that I mean environment in a “total” sense, including demographic and social factors).  (Kirch 2010: 515)

Kirch specifically cites the example of aggression, describing how an apparently shared cultural substrate in which *toa, a specialist warrior, was recognized among the Lapita.  This aggressive institution and specialist class developed quite differently in the diverse islands of remote Oceania, however, depending upon the environment, history and social dynamics of individual societies.

On the small and resource-limited island of Mangaia in the southern Cook Islands, archaeological and paleoecological records reveal a historical trajectory of environmental degradation that led to intense competition and endemic conflict among social groups, especially for control of limited irrigation lands. Toa effectively controlled this small society through terroristic practices that included the taking and ritual consumption of human victims…  Does Mangaian history validate a Hobbesian view of intrinsic human nature? In my view no, but it does demonstrate the extent to which human society is capable of sinking into sheer thuggery and terror when environmental conditions deteriorate past a certain threshold.

Now, contrast the role of war and aggression in Mangaia with that of another Polynesian society, Hawai‘i, in which resources were not limited. The Hawaiian archipelago, with 16,000 square kilometers, offered a diverse landscape for both irrigated and dryland agriculture as well as rich marine resources. Here too, the ancient Polynesian social status of warrior, koa, played an important role in society.  But as I have argued elsewhere (Kirch 2010b), the late Hawaiian polities were emergent archaic states, controlled by divine kings….  Aggression was strictly curtailed and channeled into formalized combat between opposing armies whose kings sought to expand their territories. Whereas cannibalism is well documented in Mangaia, Hawai‘i developed highly ritualized human sacrifice for the dedication of the kings’ war temples. The two systems—each tracing its roots back to the same common ancestral origins—could not have been more different. In short, the nature of warfare in any society is not determined by human nature, it is the outcome of contingent historical interactions between society and its environment in the broadest sense. (Kirch 2010: 516)

Together with the piece by Rapp and Ginsburg, Kirch’s offering is the most specialized in the forum.  Prof. Kirch makes the case for including the discussion of archaeology and Oceania in the consideration of ‘human nature,’ but without some of the more over-arching pieces, I think it’s hard to place his piece into the discussion easily.  Coming after Sussman’s call for considering what level of abstraction to search for universal nature, especially with the explicit thread of aggression that runs through the first pieces, Kirch’s specificity works quite well. I’m not sure if the convergence was intentional, but it’s quite intriguing and probably does exactly what Kirch says he is trying to accomplish: show that Oceania provides great comparative material for the discussion of how context influences trait expression.

Prof. Elizabeth Brumfiel, an archaeologist at Northwestern University, offers a general piece like Sussman and Ingold, and like Marks, takes on briefly why some streams of thought seem to get more traction in the public sphere.  She opens by reflecting on how the most basic evolutionary evidence on ‘human nature’ — the enormous adaptability of our species to virtually every terrestrial (and a few aquatic) ecological niche on the planet — is not more widely seen as indicative of a flexible nature:

If there is one great lesson that anthropology teaches, it is that human biology, human psychology, and human behavior are all context dependent. This enormous biological and behavioral flexibility—the ability to adopt different physiological, perceptual, and behavioral repertoires—has enabled humans to survive across the extremes of climate and habitat, from the frozen tundra to the burning desert. Humans are the only biological species to achieve such broad dispersal. This biological and behavioral flexibility enables humans to move from foraging camps to industrial cities and to supplement communication with ancestral spirits with communication via the Internet at speeds that outstrip the rate of natural selection, often within the course of a single lifetime.

Yet this is a lesson that people in the contemporary United States resist. In the glow that surrounds the success of the human-genome mapping project, people in the contemporary United States seem more determined than ever to believe that each facet of human biology and human behavior is hardwired—each trait programmed by a particular gene. Even the premier scientific journal Science shows a willingness to reduce the complexities of human biology and human behavior to elemental and immutable present–absent oppositions. From high blood pressure to math skills: you either got it or you ain’t. (Brumfiel 2010: 516)

It’s an exasperation that I sometimes share: how, in the face of human diversity, can some theorists still so confidently make declarations about all sorts of things being universal?  It’s not that I don’t think things are universal.  Like Sussman, I’m convinced of it.

But the level of the assertion of universals, the willingness to brush away complexity, to brush away developmental dynamics, to ignore outliers and exceptions, as if all of these were merely inconvenient noise in the song of universal ‘human nature’ writ in our genes often seems so manifestly absurd that I have difficulty grasping what motivates this drill-down-at-all-costs reductionism.

Like the problem with ‘nothing butism,’ the intellectual cost of asserting the universal be razing the very data we need to understand ‘human nature.’  If our ‘nature’ is necessarily to be under-determined by our genes, slow to develop so that the environment grips us particularly deeply, and incredibly responsive to diverse demands, social and ecological, then the variation is the nature.

Of course, there are universals: we’re composed of a lot of water, everybody poops, we all make mistakes, we all need someone to love (I’m intentionally being trite)…  If we concede that from the start, can we then not throw out actual human lives and all the evidence of human variation in order to get to some imagined unaltered shared essence?

Like Ingold and Marks, Brumfiel is suspicious of assertions of ‘human nature’ because (like ‘race’) the concept comes with a particular greasy and sordid rap sheet.  Blumfiel points out that earlier generations of biological determinism ‘legitimated and naturalized inequality.’ The new wave of biological reductionism promises to specifically ‘tailor’ medicine or education to our innate differences, but Brumfiel remains dubious.

The irony, according to Brumfiel, is that ‘such proposals may well accentuate, rather than eradiate, inequality by (1) devoting enormous sums of money to isolating and treating the individualized genetic components of biological and social malfunction rather than addressing the already identified environmental components of these problems, and (2) creating, in some cases, different medical, educational, and other social “tracks” for individuals falling into different “biologically” defined groups.’  We know that research on the diseases of the poor is notoriously under-funded while the illnesses of affluence — erectile dysfunction, skin blemishes, baldness, ‘undersized’ breasts, the side effects of over-eating, even pathologized normal conditions — are better studied and addressed.  Do we have more confidence that genetic-based medical research will be more egalitarian?

Profs. Rayna Rapp and Prof. Faye Ginsburg (personal page), both cultural anthropologists at New York University (and Ginsburg also Director of the Program in Culture and Media), utilize the forum to offer an internal critique, calling for anthropology to become more aware of disability in its consideration of human variation. They ask why, given that anthropology is ‘well-known’ for its capacious and ever-expanding framework for understanding “human nature,”’ the field does not more centrally grapple with disability:

Like most of these authors, we hope to address both the discipline and broader audiences in our current research on cultural innovation and the emergence and social consequences of the category of learning disabilities in the United States. We are tracking how kinship, caretaking, and the life course are reconfigured when a child is diagnosed with a disability. As these families begin to recognize their commonalities and needs with others who share their difference, a new kinship imaginary is emerging, expressed through a variety of idioms. If social mores once dictated that family members with disabilities be hidden from view and stories about them silenced, our research strongly suggests that this cultural script is being revised on a daily basis, creating a sea change felt across multiple locations, from the intimacy of kinship to the public worlds of educational policy, scientific research, and popular media.  (Rapp and Ginsburg 2010: 517)

At first read, I though that this offering was the most specific of all the short essays, but the longer I have reflected, the more I realize that Ginsburg and Rapp are drawing attention to a subtle way in which normativity has slipped into even the cross-cultural breadth of our field: we still assume that our subjects are able-bodied, and that to be able is the normal state of humans.

In fact, as soon as it’s articulated, we know it’s not the case.  As I sit here and write this, I’m waiting to hear back about a surgery I need to undergo and nursing a spider bite that’s making me limp; my daughter is asleep on the couch with the tennis on because she’s recovering from glandular fever; and my wife, the one individual in this casualty ward who is not sporting anything serious, woke up with a headache, claiming that it augured a change in the weather (unfortunately, no such change – it’s absurdly humid and hot at the moment).

The point is not that we are ‘disabled’ but that disability studies remind us of the various states of human beings, that our diversity is not entirely cultural, genetic, gender, ethnicity and class, but also life cycle-related, health-inflected, and ability-linked.

As Rapp and Ginsburg (2010: 517) remind us, ‘disability has a distinctive quality: it is a category anyone might enter in a heartbeat, challenging lifelong presumptions of stable identities and normativity.’  Disability reminds us that, although we may be a self-made species, we can be unmade at any time; and this, too, is part of the human condition.  (Similarly, we need to realize that childhood and senescence are both part of human nature, not just prelude and extended denouement of true human being.)

Coincidentally, this concern has come up for me with responses to some of my recent blog posts, especially my discussion of human quadrupedalism and Uner Tan Syndrome.  As on a few of my other posts on unusual conditions, some commenter invariably writes something like, ‘Oh, yeah, this is interesting, but these people are freaks.  Human nature is what’s normal.’

Although I understand the statistical argument, like Sussman, I think Rapp and Ginsburg are encouraging us to see the ‘totipotentiality’ of human existence as definitive of human nature, including those who have some limitation on that potentiality or a very different range of potential. Recent discussions of ‘neurodiversity,’ for example, encourage us not to simply see conditions like autism, Downs syndrome, or manic-depression as ‘illness’ but also as a part of human variation.  Simply dismissing someone’s existence as ‘freakish’ or an inconsequential ‘outlier,’ with no significance for human being, is certainly anathema to an anthropological concern for the range of human life.

The last two essays seem to me to have a different tone than the earlier pieces.  In a cheeky intervention, Prof. Laura Nader, a cultural and legal anthropologist at the University of California Berkeley, plays upon the irony that we have designated ourselves Homo sapiens SAPIENS, and asks, is this as good as we get, or have we already started to slip? She wonders what this almost defensive assertion that we are the ‘wise wise (hu)man’ species might say about our current state of being.

First, apart from noticing the obvious self-adoration, I was curious as to why humans use the term sapiens to refer to themselves, and later sapiens sapiens, and whether the sapiens (intelligent) part is still evolving or de-evolving. So for a time I went about asking people, “When did homo sapiens peak?” Three answers will suffice here. The biological anthropologist and the ecologist (interview, T . Milleron, 2000) said, “Just before agriculture was discovered”—some tens of thousands of years ago—because, prior to agriculture, humans were ecologically in balance with the planet. With agriculture began the increasing overutilization of natural resources, activity that now threatens the globe. A second answer came from a political scientist who said, “Homo sapiens peaked with Mozart,” indicating that for him artistic accomplishment was the most important measure. A third said that H. sapiens had not yet peaked, indicating that the species was still evolving, becoming smarter and more intelligent with the passage of time.  (Nader 2010: 518)

Nader reviews a number of different opinions, some quite pessimistic, about the prognosis for the self-aware primate:

Nobel Laureate Albert Szent-Gjorgy, a biologist who discovered the powers of vitamin C, wrote The Crazy Ape (1970), a short book about a strange animal: “In much of the world half the children go to bed hungry and we spend a trillion on rubbish—steel, iron, tanks. We are all criminals” (New York Times 1970:43). (Nader 2010: 518)

In a sense, I read Nader as posing a different question of the relationship between ‘human’ and ‘nature.’  She asks about the relationship of humanity to the ecological world our species inhabits, considering the possibility that humanity has broken from nature in such a way that we are degrading the environment beyond its ability to recuperate or sustain us.  Here, she asks what human nature will look like in the future, with the current moment placed into a much longer trajectory, including its consequences.

For the biological anthropologist and ecologist that Nader cites, the trajectory is already downward, the ecological collapse set into motion long before our ancestors could have conceived of what would happen.  She asks ominously:

How would one explain to an anthropologist from Mars that over the past one hundred years more of nature has been destroyed than in all prior history? Indeed, how would we explain “nuclear renaissance” to our ancestors who developed sophisticated renewable energy sources? Perhaps H. sapiens is not getting dumber, only getting dumbed.

Although I always find rhetorical questions a bit of a hermeneutic challenge, I think Nader’s provocation is ultimately to consider some of the arrogance in the existential pondering about ‘human nature,’ which can assume that this ‘nature’ is not an inherent problem.  How could the ‘wise’ animal not take these questions to heart?

Finally, Prof. Conrad Kottak, of the University of Michigan, in a wide-ranging critical piece, explores the changing situation of humans, especially shifts he has witnessed in his fieldwork.  There, the increasing pervasiveness of the cash economy and the growth of overall population numbers seem to bring about a change in the very nature of humans, making him worry about what future anthropologists will say about our species.

He also briefly meditates on the way humanity and inhumanity is explored in the movie Avatar, pointing out that audiences are polarized even by their reception of the film.  But perhaps the take-away quote is the way he opens his essay:

What’s constant? What changes? All anthropologists ponder these fundamental questions. What’s human nature; how do humans vary across cultures? How and why do cultures change? Is globalization making people more, or less, alike? To the last question, one might argue either way. McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, IBM, FIFA, and Nike are worldwide brands. There is more transnational movement of people and their products now than ever before. People everywhere are more familiar with otherness, and in many settings difference has become a matter for pride and political mobilization. There may be as much diversity within contemporary nations as between them.

People living in the United States, for example, are more diverse ethnically and (arguably) more divided politically than ever before. The media, intertwined with commerce and politics, promotes both unity and diversity. The centripetal role of an internationally available CNN is balanced by the centrifugal force (within the United States) of such niche media as Fox News and MSNBC, which promote political polarization.  (Kottak 2010: 518)

Kottak describes how his career has taken him to diverse places, to face human variation that he finds especially challenging more in the country of his birth than it sometimes seems in his extensive overseas fieldwork.  Kottak wonders how human beings can believe some of the ideas that seem to be treated seriously in Western media.  He asks what can possibly unite us if we are so deeply divided even within the borders of a single country.

His concern about cultural change also extends to worrying ‘a lot about the spread of selfishness, the erosion of community and civility, and the perhaps diminishing ability of local cultures to adapt to, resist, and survive the powerful forces and threats they face from outside’ (Kottak 2010: 519).

His is a bleak fear that I think many cultural anthropologists avoid considering.  Told that our subdisciplinary fate was tied to fast-assimilating ‘small-scale’ societies, we’ve managed to adapt and find seemingly endless pockets of culture to explore.  But Kottak points to the gorilla in the room, the fact that indigenous languages are disappearing, that culturally-distinct minorities are frequently faced with a stark choice between maintaining their ways of life or seeking employment and material gain in a world increasingly dominated by a cash economy.  In Brazil and Madagascar, where Kottak has done his field research, the decision is posed starkly:

In both countries, I’ve been struck by the growing number of young people abandoning traditional subsistence in favor of seeking jobs for cash, but work is scarce, fueling migration. They enter the informal economy—often illegally. In Brazil, men who would have fished as their grandfathers did instead work locally in construction or tourism or they migrate. The lure of cash is strong. I never will forget my first sight of dozens of villagers in Madagascar destroying an ancestral resource, digging up a large rice field in search of precious stones, tourmalines, to sell. This is the most vivid illustration from my own field experience of the encroachment of cash on a subsistence economy.  (Kottak 2010: 519)

Kottak, like Nader, asks where the world-making species is heading, what world our nature might make. In a sense, they wonder about the ‘humanity’ left in ‘human nature’ if that nature is being changed by the conditions we are creating, conditions that might be undermining our capacity for empathy.  Fuentes explains the convergence of the two commentators on this forecasting:

We should also consider where living and creating, as humans, is taking us. Laura Nader chides our taxonomic arrogance and opines that, because of our actions, we may be “getting dumbed,” displaced from our self-enshrined pinnacle of sapiens. Conrad Kottak invokes Avatar, globalized corporate brands, and the lure of cash in rural–urban migrations to puzzle out how our diverse and rich social scripts will read in the not-too-distant future.  (Fuentes 2010: 519)

Both try to imagine what an archaeology of the present will look like to future scholars.  How will the next generations of anthropologists reconstruct our life worlds when they sometimes seem so paradoxical, illogical, and disparate?

Selling anthropology to a mass audience

A number of the writers in the collection talk about the need to publicize anthropology, ironic in a journal that’s locked behind a subscription wall, in an organization that makes very little of what it publishes openly accessible.  I’ve groused about this a few times, but maybe the recent firestorm over the rewording of the American Anthropological Association’s mission statement by executive committee (especially dropping the word ‘science’) has distracted us from the fact that the executive committee seemed to emphasize the need for advancing ‘public understanding’ of anthropology.

If in fact the AAA’s executive committee is interested in advancing ‘public understanding,’ I can think of no better way that a publicly accessible publication, perhaps featuring accessible forums like this example by Fuentes and colleagues on ‘vital topics’. Sign me up for that one!  (Public visibility could also be improved by such a publication if anthropologists could agree to pitch some of their research as ‘discoveries.’)

The pubic relations problem for anthropologists, according to some of the commentators in the forum, is also a rhetorical one. According to Marks, for example, given our awareness of the essentialist fallacy and inherently skeptical of the biopolitics of any proclamation about human nature, scientifically-minded anthropologists have a very hard time making the sorts of sweeping species-wide statements that seem to come as (second) nature in other fields:

Scientifically minded anthropologists have to be most suspicious of studies purporting to naturalize human social relations, for they tend to be ideologically the strongest while epistemologically the weakest. For example, I don’t see how one can talk sensibly about xenophobia as human nature without confronting the constructed aspects of human groups. I also don’t know what it means for evolution if 80 percent of people surveyed, or societies visited, answer a question in a particular way. Instead, the anthropologist in me focuses on the other 20 percent and wonders whether they are to be regarded as mutants or as apes.  (Marks 2010: 513)

In our field, with so much attention to outliers and minority groups, anthropologists wonder how any science that purports to study human nature can move forward to universalizing statements while disregarding exceptions:  for other scholars, a science of humanity without universalizing statements seem impossible.

Likewise, Brumfiel worries that anthropological attention to holism and complexity makes for watered down public presentations: ‘Anthropologists may understand that biology, language, and behavior are mutually constituting. But I am afraid that this message is too subtle for public consumption’ (Brumfiel 2010: 516).  I couldn’t agree more, but with a caveat.

The intellectual tendency to ‘complexify’ everything is deadly for public discussion; if anthropologists are always saying, ‘It’s complicated,’ this can come across to the public as meaning one of two things, a) ‘I could explain it, but you won’t understand it,’ or b) ‘I can’t explain.’  If Steven Hawking can find a way to explain theoretical physics and cosmology to a general audience, we can certainly find a way to explain anthropology.  If we can’t, we shouldn’t try to get into the ‘public understanding’ business.

But we should also pick times to seek to confound overly-simplistic folk ‘anthropologies,’ like the public discussion of ‘human nature.’  (I think that Daniel’s recent columns on the Tucscon shootings have been just that, an attempt to short circuit an overly-quick ‘common sense’ story that doesn’t really seek to explain, but to reach a pat familiar answer: ‘Jared Loughner is paranoid schizophrenic or violent lunatic.’ ‘Jared Loughner is evil.’)

But I think we need to be strategic about the move to simplify and resorting to complexity, not making one or the other our default mode of explaining.  Like Brumfiel, I think that our data itself can carry a lot of the load for us:

In addressing nonanthropologists, I would use cross-cultural and historical data to argue that human nature is variable in its biological, psychological, and behavioral dimensions and is always context dependent. I would emphasize that, even within societies, individuals are molded biologically, psychologically, and behaviorally by their experiences.  And finally, I would affirm that broad, flexible social institutions are needed to encourage all individuals to explore and cultivate their strengths and compensate for their weaknesses. These are superior to social institutions that classify individuals into narrow categories and treat them accordingly, even when such categories are established by “biological” criteria. (Brumfiel 2010: 516-517)

Ultimately, I believe anthropology is fundamentally about human diversity, whether that’s cultural, linguistic, evolutionary, biological, historical (or pre-historical)m 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 the 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.


More publications by Prof. Jonathan Marks

More publications by Prof. Faye Ginsburg

References in authors’ quotes

Boas, Franz. 1916.  Eugenics. Scientific Monthly 3:471–479.

de Waal, Frans. 2005 Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are. New York: Riverhead.

Degler, Carl N.  1991. In Search of Human Nature: The Decline and Revival of Darwinism in American Social Thought. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kirch, Patrick V.  2010b.  How Chiefs Became Kings: Divine Kingship and the Rise of Archaic States in Ancient Hawai‘i. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Konner, Melvin.  2002.  Seeking Universals. Nature 415(6868): 121.

Kroeber, Alfred L. 1915 Eighteen Professions. American Anthropologist (n.s.) 17(2): 283–288.

New York Times. 1970.  He Doubted Man’s Survival in a World Run by “Idiots.” New York Times, February 20: 43.

Ortega y Gasset, José. 1941. History as a System and Other Essays towards a Philosophy of History. New York: Norton.

Pinker, Steven.  2003.  The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Penguin.

Simpson, George Gaylord. 1949.  The Meaning of Evolution. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Szent-Gjorgy, A.  1970.  The Crazy Ape. New York: Philosophical Library.

Wrangham, Richard, and Dale Peterson.  1996.  Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Target article
Fuentes, A., Marks, J., Ingold, T., Sussman, R., Kirch, P., Brumfiel, E., Rapp, R., Ginsburg, F., Nader, L., & Kottak, C. (2010). On Nature and the Human American Anthropologist, 112 (4), 512-521 DOI: 10.1111/j.1548-1433.2010.01271.x

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10 Responses to Vital topics forum in AA: ‘Nature and the human’

  1. Hi Greg,

    Thanks for the post. A few additional points on the open-access issues you raised:

    1. I am not currently a member of AAA, and when having trouble getting access to a recent Anthropology News article through my institution’s subscription received the following response from a librarian:
    “We tried to get this through Anthrosource but AAA has embargoed the latest 10 years online. AAA members get access as part of their membership and apparently AAA thought it was important to keep this as an incentive for membership (short-sightedly in my opinion).”

    2. There is at least one open access anthropology journal, although it has some obvious weaknesses:


  2. Stephanie L. says:

    hello Dan — This has virtually nothing to do with the discussion here, however: you might wish to call your librarian’s bluff. The most recent issues of both American Anthropologist [112.4(2010)], & Anthropology News [51.9(2010)] are available via institutional subscription without an AAA membership: the former through Scholar’s Portal, & the latter through Wiley Online. I am a postgraduate student at the University of Ottawa, Canada (not in Anthro.), but I am not a member of AAA. Nonetheless, within the last hour I accessed & downloaded material from the two aforementioned journal issues.

    [Don’t get me wrong : I am very strongly in favour of open-access, & recognize that a plethora of d-bases with different moving walls fails to rectify the problems inherent in the current system. Still, for interim, try another d-base].

  3. Jason Antrosio says:

    Thank you for an excellent summary of an interesting forum. Your final comment regarding diversity is interesting because it may be related to the Ulf Hannerz article in the same AA issue, “Diversity Is Our Business.” Hannerz argues for adopting “Diversity Is Our Business” as our brand:

    “Perhaps provocatively, in drawing on a characteristic current vocabulary, I would argue that anthropology needs to cultivate a strong brand. Those who feel ill at ease with that term, thinking that in its crassness it sullies their noble scholarly pursuits, can perhaps just as well continue to call it ‘public image’ or even just ‘identity,’ but in times of not just neoliberal thought but also of media saturation and short attention spans, it may be that ‘brand’ is a useful root metaphor, a word to think with in the world we live in” (2010:543).

    I wondered if you had read the article, and what you or others thought of Hannerz’s argument.


    • gregdowney says:

      One of the downsides about being home sick is that my hard copies are in my office mailbox, awaiting my return. But I’ve read the piece, since you suggested it, and it’s such a good suggestion that I’m writing my next post on it.

      Short answer: Hannerz only gets the answer part right, but he’s at least asking some serious questions about our disciplinary PR problem. I think he’s still not fully comfortable with the idea of disciplinary branding, and it shows, but he’s on the right track. I think ‘Diversity is our business’ is a good brand, and I used almost exactly the same phrase in an interview with The Australian to explain anthropology, but I think he’s not pulling in the four field holism of this (not surprising given his position), nor is he making enough of the ethnographic dimension of the brand.

      So it looks like I’m going to have to write a piece on Brand Anthropology tm! Thanks so much for the comment, Jason.

      • daniel.lende says:

        In the whole “science” controversy, anthropologists seemed to respond well to what I said to the CNN reporter. They ended up shortening my actual words to something shorter, and snappier:

        We do science, and more.

        Or, to stress the field, Anthropology is science and more.

        That could also be part of disciplinary branding.

        And the other one, the ethnographic side, I think is best captured by some version of saying we study “the real world.” We’re not stuck in laboratories, or the Ivory Tower, we’re out there in the real world, and ethnography is a great gut-check to all that academic theorizing.

        No snappy line is coming from that right now. “We study the real world” might work…

  4. Agusitn Fuentes says:

    Thank you Greg! Insightful comments, great critique and a real call to action. This is exactly what we hoped this piece would do. I agree with your notes about open access…at least there are many ways to get this piece in pdf on the web…hopefully even more soon. I’d like to think that maybe your call and comments might push for greater open access. This format, vital topics, will recur in the AA in the future. Think of good ideas/topics and let us know!

  5. Pingback: Brand Anthropology: New and Improved, with Extra Diversity! | Neuroanthropology

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