Anthropologists United – Two Responses to Kuper & Marks

Following the controversy late last year over the American Anthropological Association dropping “science” from the association’s long-range plan (while keeping the word in its document, What is anthropology?), Adam Kuper and Jonathan Marks published an essay in Nature entitled, Anthropologists Unite! (pdf here).

Nature recently published two letters that critique Kuper & Marks’ basic point, that anthropologists need to unite again as a field after several decades of culture/biology and post-modern/science splits.

Both letters come from from the biological side of anthropology. The first letter is written by primatologists, who have increasingly situated their research within the framework of primate communities impacted by human communities (often with interactions over millenia). The second comes from evolutionary anthropologists, who emphasize the integration emerging out of evolutionary-inspired work among small-scale societies, experimental and game theory research, and cultural evolution research.

Here are significant excerpts from each letter:

K. Anne-Isola Nekaris, Vincent Nijman & Laurie R. Godfrey, Anthropology: Follow Field Primatologists

Field primatology is one area of anthropology in which a classical cross-disciplinary approach is thriving (Nature 470, 166–168; 2011).

Field primatologists search the archaeological record of tool-using primates to gain insight into their cultures and traditions. Similarly, researchers of primate communication have set up a linguistic framework to investigate its intricacies in the context of the evolution of human language and music…

Field primatologists embrace long-term participant observation, a hallmark of social anthropology. With the decline of natural forests, primate populations are nearly all intimately linked with their human neighbours. Field primatologists study their interactions, balancing the need for primate conservation with the cultural practices of the humans on whom the animals depend…

In short, field primatology is successfully retaining and expanding the spirit of anthropology.

Eric Alden Smith, Michael Gurven & Monique Borgerhoff Mulder (plus 27 other “co-signatories”), Anthropology: It Can Be Interdisciplinary

Adam Kuper and Jonathan Marks’s gloomy portrait of integrative, big-question research in anthropology (Nature 470, 166–168; 2011) does not square with the large body of literature that covers areas such as behavioural ecology, cultural evolution, cognitive anthropology, gender studies, cross-cultural economics, moral psychology and environmental change…

We feel that a genuinely interdisciplinary field of human diversity is emerging, synthesizing ideas and data from the social and behavioural sciences with theory and modelling techniques from evolutionary biology and game theory.

The full submission to Nature, including the names of all the co-signers and the biobliography below, is available here as a pdf. In an online comment at Nature, Eric Alden Smith highlighted literature to back up what they said in the published letter:

Although the state of anthropology is far from ideal, K&M are far off the mark when they write that “Only a handful [of anthropologists] still try to understand the origins and possible connections between biological, social and cultural forms, or to debate the relative significance of history and microevolution in specific, well-documented instances.” This assessment does not square with the robust body of research produced by anthropologists in areas such as behavioral ecology1, cultural evolution2, cognitive anthropology3, gender studies4, cross-cultural economics5, moral psychology6, and environmental change7.

1 Winterhalder, B. & Smith. E. Evolutionary Anthropology, 9:51-72 (2000).
2 Boyd, R. & Richerson, P.J. The origin and evolution of cultures. (Oxford U. Press, 2005); Currie, T.E., et al. Nature 467:801-804 (2010); Powell, A., Shennan, S. & Thomas, M.G. Science 324:1298-1301 (2009).
3 Boyer, P. & Bergstrom. B. Annual Review of Anthropology 37:111-130 (2008).
4 Gurven, M. et al. Human Nature 20(2):151-183 (2009).
5 Borgerhoff Mulder, M., et al. Science 326:682-688 (2009); Henrich, J., et al. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 28(6):795-815 (2005).
6 Marlowe, F., et al. Proceedings of Royal Society of London, Series B 275:587-590 (2008); see also Culture and the Mind Project:
7 Bliege Bird, R., et al. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 105(39):14796-14801 (2008); Hayashida, F. Annual Review of Anthropology 34:43-65 (2005).

Neither of the letters embraces the developments in cultural theory and ethnographic research over the past decades. In my essay A Vision of Anthropology Today – and Tomorrow, I did discuss how a vision of the “Greater Humanities” should be part of a united field, one that occupies the borderlands of different types of inquiry, from primatology and evolutionary science to a focus on society and meaning. I also advocated for greater emphasis on open-access and online work by anthropologists.

Finally, I want to highlight the Anthropology Love Letters again, the collection of essays by anthropologists declaring their love for a field. That unites us as much as anything, and should also be seen as a basic part of our anthropological union.

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2 Responses to Anthropologists United – Two Responses to Kuper & Marks

  1. My comments, “Anthropologists Urged to Unite Behind Archaic Policies and Technology,” are at:

  2. Pingback: Anthropology, Ambushed