Thursday, March 10, 2011

Loving Anthropology

Several weeks ago the authors of the blog Savage Minds challenged their readers to write about Why I Love Anthropology? Anthropology has been so much a part of my life – and for so long – that it’s not particularly easy to sort out all the “whys” of my love for this vast and important field. Yet I am grateful for this challenge because it brings home not only my passion for the peoples (and nonhuman species) – past and present – who we study, but it also my deepens my conviction that anthropology is relevant, indeed essential, as we contemplate the future.

I am the daughter of two academics; Mom, the Sociologist and Dad, the English Professor, spent their careers at two small universities in an Arkansas town. The summer I turned five, my parents spent six weeks at the University of Colorado. During the day, while Dad prepped for his Ph.D. by studying Shakespeare and German, Mom took physical anthropology from Jack Kelso and Chinese Culture from Francis Hsu. Most days, I stayed back in a Denver suburb with my grandma, but whenever possible, I drove along to Boulder to visit campus and the University Museum. There, for the first time, my eyes alighted with the sights of Kachina dolls, Navaho textiles and ceramic pots, decorated with bold geometric designs in white, red and black. I soon found out that artifacts like these help us learn about the first peoples who’d settled in the Southwest. And I discovered that even in the river valley back home, prehistoric inhabitants had built wattle and daub houses, grown maize and beans, hunted deer and other species, and buried their dead in burial mounds (the closest one located within five miles of the family home).

My fascination with ancient times only intensified a few years later when my mother took a course on educational television in human evolution. To further her understanding, she ordered a plastic skull from a biological supply house. For days on end, we sat together at the kitchen counter with toothpicks and model airplane glue, gingerly piecing together the bones of the skull. She’d pronounce the names of each one slowly – sphenoid, parietal – as we carefully assembled one after the other, her hands guiding mine. I’d already learned that some folks regarded information about human evolution as downright “dangerous.” Indeed it was illegal to teach evolution in the Arkansas public schools until the Supreme Court decision of 1968. And yet, my mother assured me that anthropology taught us fundamental lessons about who we are as a species, as human beings, and those lessons implied certain responsibilities. Undaunted by fear-based attempts at censorship, she gathered a group of students together in our home once a week to study physical anthropology.

And she applied anthropology in other ways as well. Anthropology provided her with the basis for understanding that all human groups should be accorded the same equal rights, that no population has an inherent biological superiority to any other. As she became active in the Civil Rights movement (working to desegregate our town and the local state university) and later, the Women’s Rights movement, she demonstrated the applications of anthropology to social justice. By tenth grade, I was taking my first course in physical anthropology and archaeology (a fact which contributed to my early departure from high school) and about six years hence, became a graduate student and Teaching Assistant at the University of Colorado. Speaking now as an early-retired Emeritus Professor, I believe today, more than ever, that anthropology gives context and meaning to our lives in unique ways.

Carl Sagan once observed that “science is much more a way of thinking than it is a body of knowledge.” And yes, I do define anthropology as the “scientific” study of humankind. Anthropology is often identified by the objects, remains and artifacts – the stones and bones – that we study. But anthropology is not really about things, much less dead things. It’s about understanding our lives – and those of our ancestors and nonhuman relatives – in all of their complexities.

Ultimately, anthropology provides us with a set of scientific tools that help us “locate” ourselves in an increasingly complex and ambiguous world. Margaret Mead described her own childhood as one in which she realized that “the past and the future are really ‘aspects of the present’.” And so it was with me. This is the unique perspective that anthropology brings to all its students. Anthropology offers us lenses that we can focus on our species that are universal in time and space. Examining our species through these lenses helps us to interpret how populations have adapted and changed – in both biological and behavioral ways – over millennia. Anthropology teaches us that we will make great errors (as individuals and as a species) when we take on the challenges of the contemporary world – and look to the future –without consideration of evolution, context, heritage and legacy.

One of the most fundamental lessons that anthropology offers is that we humans are - first and foremost – members of the Animal Kingdom. As most species ultimately become extinct, it seems to me that we should occupy this status with a great deal of humility. Much of what are popularly thought of as “human” characteristics or capabilities – symbolic communication, food sharing, compassion, love, consciousness – actually have their bases in our evolutionary heritage and are, therefore, things that we share to varying degrees with many other species. In many respects, anthropology is the exploration of a paradox: we are the same (as other living things, other animals, other primates, and other humans) and, at the same time, we are different. We do ourselves a profound disservice when we fail to recognize our close connections – and responsibilities – to other species. It’s my conviction that we anthropologists have a special obligation to fully participate in ongoing discussions of extending the concept of personhood to other animals.

Perhaps because anthropologists study something seemingly so familiar – ourselves – that many without any training to do so delight in presenting themselves as authorities on subjects pertaining to humanity. Lately, I’ve seen writings by folks in physics, engineering, psychology and theology, which complete erase or grossly misrepresent anthropological research. Some authors, addressing topics as wide-ranging as the evolution of religion – and society in general – to the work of Charles Darwin and the nature of biological evolution, give their audiences skewed and inaccurate information. Such work is as dangerous as it is deceptive and dishonest.

And this is the challenge to those of us who love and study anthropology. We have a special responsibility to communicate the relevance and importance of our subject to our fellow human beings from all walks of life. I love anthropology because it is empowering both in the tools it applies and the knowledge it generates. And if we truly learn more about ourselves by focusing on questions of evolution, variation and adaptation, we inevitably identify meaningful changes that could help us all do better in this world. Now more than ever, if ours and other species are to survive in ways that are truly livable and sustainable, we must continue to learn and live the most important lessons of anthropology.