PopAnth — Hot Buttered Humanity

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PopAnth — Hot Buttered Humanity
Popular anthropology for everyone.


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We live in a world of bio-politics, in which the genomes of disempowered people are subject to malicious slanders. In 2005, the leading science journal in the US published a paper that argued that a particular mutation in a brain gene was responsible for the intellectual backwardness of Africans.[1] It caused a ruckus, and nearly every aspect of its reasoning has since been shown to be flawed, but it was published in Science.

This wasn't just a one-off event. Just last year, Science actually recommended as an "Editor's Choice" a study by two economists that blamed global poverty levels on the genetic measurement of heterogeneity–with Ethiopia being too genetically diverse, Bolivia not being diverse enough, and the US being just right.[2]

Why are studies that blame human biology for global inequality still being taken seriously? It's partly the legacy of the nature and culture debate. This dichotomy is by now trite, and we need to transcend it. First, however, it is important to remember just why it is there in the first place. We need to understand why it was important to separate nature and culture before we can move on to unify them.

There are three senses in which nature and culture are used as important, though false, oppositions. The first sense of the "nature-culture dichotomy" involves comprehending the patterns of diversity within the human species itself, and the political implications of that diversity–and goes back to the original introduction of "culture" in English science, by Edward Burnett Taylor.

When Tylor published Primitive Culture in 1871, European domination of other peoples was widely taken to be a fact of "nature" –a constitutionally superior form of human exploiting or extirpating a constitutionally inferior form.

The abolition of slavery in America was still a pretty new situation. By locating primitiveness in other people's lifeways, rather than in their genomes, Tylor voided that rationalization for the terrible colonial practices of the age.

Granted, he replaced it with the ethnocentric ranking of those lifeways, but in the great scheme of things, ethnocentrism is much better than genocide.

Edward Burnett Taylor brought culture to English science. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Edward Burnett Taylor brought culture to English science. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

As a first-line defense against the bio-politics of scientific racism, then, the nature-culture dichotomy has had value. No, it's not "nature" –the imaginary action of inferior brain alleles, or any other bogus invocation of genetics; it's global political-economic history, and the systematic oppression of the poor.

The fact is, it would be nice if everyone took Introductory Anthropology, and just acknowledged the mental equivalences of all the peoples of the world, and we could move on to ameliorating their political and economic inequities.

Perhaps the best way to finally effect that change is to stop arguing about the pseudo-science of racial mental qualities, and look instead, every time it comes up, at the bio-political frame that surrounds and suffuses it.[3]

The second sense in which the division between nature and culture is both important and illusory is in the sense that "nature" connotes the environment, devoid of human presence and effects; and "culture" connotes the technological impact of people upon that pristine condition.

Separating them helps to call attention to anthropogenic effects, like climate change or genetic modification of foods–in which humans have agency and the environment is largely a passive victim of human exploitation and avarice.

But the bigger picture of history and prehistory shows that both terms oversimplify the relationship between them. Humans have been transforming their environments technologically for millions of years, since the invention of stone tools and fire, and have reciprocally had to adapt to them.

Our thumbs, for example, are longer, wider and stronger than those of a chimpanzee; perhaps the only test of strength in which you could defeat a chimpanzee is in the children's game of "thumb-wrestling." That comes from 2.6 million years of technology.

Niagara Falls was an industrialized eyesore a hundred years ago, until the nascent environmentalist movement acted to restore it, or at least to make it look restored. And as advocates for genetically modified foods always point out, humans have been messing with the gene pools of their food supply for thousands of years. (On the other hand, Monsanto isn't exactly human, and that begs the question of the scope, goals, and consequences of such modification today.)

Indeed, anthropologists and biologists have begun to incorporate these ideas as "niche-construction theory," in which humans are the most extreme examples of species transforming their environments in ways that mutually transform the species, via the Darwinian imperative of survival and reproduction.

And anthropologists have turned their attention increasingly to the ways in which Homo sapiens interacts with other species in ways that are far more bi-directional than this dichotomy implies.

And finally we get to the third, and most persevering use, of the false dichotomy, the Aristotelian idea that just as it is a dog's nature to bark, and a bee's nature to sting, it is human nature to do something else. But what? It is human nature to walk and talk, but that seems like a trivial statement.

What people generally seek in such a statement is validation for our own conduct. After all, the statement that "X is human nature" more or less implies that "not-X is either inhuman or unnatural" –assuming in the first place that is possible to isolate human behaviors apart from culture.

It isn't hard to find statements like "it is human nature to be polygynous" (based, for example, on sexual dimorphism in body size) or "it is human nature to be monogamous" (based, for example, on the lack of sexual dimorphism in canine teeth).

The fact that you can't find anyone saying that it is human nature to be polyandrous should immediately tell you that once again, we are in the realm of bio-politics; for if it is human nature to be all of the above and more (which it is), then once again, the statement devolves into triviality.

The scientists who have been most aggressively keeping this line of primitively scientific thinking alive are the evolutionary psychologists, of whom there are plenty of critiques and lampoons. They sully Darwin's good name, give the creationists ammunition, and torment very concept of scientific rigour.

But somehow they don't go away. Their favorite subject for conclusions about human nature is sex: sex roles, sexual preferences, mate choice–and it all revolves around the assumption that sex is for reproduction, and that men and women are fundamentally different in their natures by virtue of their different survival and reproductive regimes.

Nearly a century ago, the creationists had a field day with this Darwinian (i.e. Victorian) logic. Consider this thought by William Jennings Bryan–yes that William Jennings Bryan, the one who guest-prosecuted John T. Scopes in Tennessee in 1925 for the crime of teaching evolution–from The New York Times on February 26, 1922:

Darwin explains that man's mind became superior to woman's because, among our brute ancestors, the males fought for the females and thus strengthened their minds. If he had lived until now, he would not have felt it necessary to make so ridiculous an explanation, because woman's mind is not now believed to be inferior to man's.

Dragging Darwin's name through the mud by invoking it for sexist, racist or other immoral discourses is a problem for anyone concerned with the teaching of human evolution. That's what the creationists do, and we have enough problems with them without adding pseudo-science to our side.

To confuse human (cultural) sexuality and (natural) reproduction is classically pseudo-scientific. Of course sexuality is for reproduction–if you're a lemur. If you're a human, sexuality is far more than for reproduction; that is what evolution has done for human nature. Evolution has made sexuality very cultural, and very divorced from the reproductive function it principally serves in other primate species.

Seen in this light, the argument that heteronormativity is human nature carries no weight; alternative sexualities are simply other ways of being non-reproductively sexual, that is to say, of being human. But if you imagine sex to be biological, rather than bio-cultural, you're probably not going to have much of it.

Step Two is to recognize the falseness of the nature-culture dichotomy. But Step One is to make sure everybody understands what we have learned in over a century of anthropology, and why it's time to move on to Step Two.

Perhaps the best way to finally effect that change is to stop arguing about the pseudo-science of racial mental qualities, and look instead, every time it comes up, at the bio-political frame that surrounds and suffuses it.

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Elvis the Chimp, Monkey Jungle, Florida. Photo by Steve Martin on Flickr [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]
Elvis the Chimp, Monkey Jungle, Florida. Photo by Steve Martin on Flickr [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]