February 16, 2011 | David F. Coppedge

Anthropology: a Science in Crisis

Students memorize the different -ologies of science – geology, biology, paleontology and others – often without knowing the history of the fields.  An impression is sometimes given that each branch of science has equal validity.  Some recent articles indicate that anthropology (the study of man) is struggling with internal squabbles and external credibility.
    Anthropology includes a number of subfields, such as paleoanthropology (fossil man), cultural anthropology, biological anthropology, linguistic anthropology, and archaeology, but it also overlaps with psychology, sociology, evolution, political science, economics, history, and more – making it distinct by having roots in science and the humanities.  Perhaps that is a source of its struggles.  By including too much in its big tent, with varying degrees of epistemic support among its sub-branches, anthropology has always been poised for controversy.

  1. Inside out:  “Too simple” and “not so fast” were complaints made about alleged human ancestor fossils by biological anthropologists from George Washington University and New York University.  According to PhysOrg, “the anthropologists question the claims that several prominent fossil discoveries made in the last decade are our human ancestors.  Instead, the authors offer a more nuanced explanation of the fossils’ place in the Tree of Life.  They conclude that instead of being our ancestors the fossils more likely belong to extinct distant cousins.”  Bernard Wood and Terry Harrison chided fellow paleoanthropologists for their jumping to conclusions: “to simply assume that anything found in that time range has to be a human ancestor is na�ve.
        Their article is published in this week’s Nature.1  It should be kept in mind when evaluating the latest claim about human ancestry, such as the claim that a foot bone puts “Prehuman Lucy on a Walking Path” to humanity (e.g., Live Science), or that Lucy, a “human ancestor,” was no “swinger” but walked like us (National Geographic News).  Even in the most favorable possible light (e.g., that Lucy did walk upright), Bernard Wood says it is na�ve to jump to conclusions that Australopithecus afarensis had anything to with human ancestry – an assertion the media invariably make (cf. 06/22/2010).
  2. Upside down:  Science Daily’s coverage of the Nature article included a picture of an orangutan as an instance of false identification of human ancestry.  “Ramapithecus, a species of fossil ape from south Asia, was mistakenly assumed to be an early human ancestor in the 1960s and 1970s, but later found to be a close relative of the orangutan.”  A mistake like that could certainly not be made today… could it?
        The debunkers do not question human evolution itself, but their own more “nuanced explanation” requires believing that sister groups acquired human-like characteristics in parallel.  “The authors suggest there are a number of potential interpretations of these fossils and that being a human ancestor is by no means the simplest, or most parsimonious explanation.”  That would seem to leave a lot of room for speculation, to say nothing of upsetting textbook explanations that have been like gospel truth for decades.
  3. In their own blurs:  The paper in Nature1 behind the above two entries contains a strange mix of confidence in human evolution with diffidence about the details:

    The relationships among the living apes and modern humans have effectively been resolved, but it is much more difficult to locate fossil apes on the tree of life because shared skeletal morphology does not always mean shared recent evolutionary history.  Sorting fossil taxa into those that belong on the branch of the tree of life that leads to modern humans from those that belong on other closely related branches is a considerable challenge.

    A gaping question, though, is how, if the fossils cannot easily be sorted into a tree-like pattern, that one could know that a tree of life exists, without assuming it.  Subtitles in the paper indicative of trouble include Shared morphology need not mean shared history, Simplicity or complexity in phylogeny, Scale in phylogeny reconstruction, Cautionary tales from South Asia and Tuscany, and Implications for palaeoanthropology.
        Moreover, in the conclusion, they stated, “There is no reason why higher primate evolution in Africa in the past ten million years should not mirror the complexity observed in the evolutionary histories of other mammals during the same time period,” thus casting the same doubts on other evolutionary stories as well. 

  4. The Geico fallacy:  Another PhysOrg had a paradigm-debunking headline, “Earliest humans not so different from us, research suggests.”  The subtitle reads, “That human evolution follows a progressive trajectory is one of the most deeply-entrenched assumptions about our species.  This assumption is often expressed in popular media by showing cavemen speaking in grunts and monosyllables (the GEICO Cavemen being a notable exception).  But is this assumption correct?  Were the earliest humans significantly different from us?”  The rhetorical answer is: negative.
        Indeed, John Shea of Stony Brook University says his colleagues have all been wrong about the measurement of “behavioral modernity,” the assumed identifier of when Homo sapiens emerged from animal to thinking man.  “There are no such things as modern humans, Shea argues, just Homo sapiens populations with a wide range of behavioral variability,” the article ended, casting doubt on the epistemic foundations of human evolution theories.  “Whether this range is significantly different from that of earlier and other hominin species remains to be discovered.”
  5. Demotion from science:  In a kind of manifesto, Anthropologists, unite!, an appeal went out from Adam Kuper and Jonathan Marks to rescue anthropology as a science in last week’s Nature.2  They were responding to a change of mission announced in December:

    In December 2010, The New York Times reported that the term ‘science’ had been dropped in a new long-range plan of the American Anthropological Association (AAA).  Where once the association had dedicated itself “to advance anthropology as the science that studies humankind in all its aspects”, it now promised rather “to advance public understanding of humankind in all its aspects”.

    Clearly, Kuper and Marks did not like this development.  “Anthropology isn’t in the crisis that parts of the media would have you believe,” Nature assured readers in damage control mode, “but it must do better.”   One internal memo stated, “we evolutionary anthropologists are outnumbered by the new cultural or social anthropologists, many but not all of whom are postmodern, which seems to translate into antiscience.”  So it appears the evolutionary anthropologists are the most concerned about appearing to be scientific.  Within the ranks, some are asking all over: “What is anthropology?”  The authors observe that “anthropology is a nineteenth-century discipline that fragmented, spawning a variety of specializations” with “relationships [that] are often distant.”
        The evolutionary anthropologists are miffed at their postmodern cousins: “Some do seem to feel that if only they could spare the time they would be able to knock some evolutionist sense into cultural anthropology,” Kuper and Marks complained, “But they are too busy.”  Busy doing what might be a good follow-up question: busy doing science?  The authors’ roster of embarrassing studies, from Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa (1928) to later questionable depictions of the Yanomami as sex tyrants, and ostensibly racist theories about intelligence, have marred the field.  Recent interdisciplinary efforts, they said, have left anthropologists in a “sadder but wiser default position,” in a “head-down posture,” afraid to embarrass the field further.  Human evolution suffers the most: “Only a handful 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.”

Man is undoubtedly a dauntingly complex subject of study.  “To be sure, it is not easy to make general statements about human nature, or even to define it,” Kuper and Marks said, especially when human biology has been “co-evolving with technology for millions of years.”  “The most fundamentally hard-wired human adaptations – walking and talking — are actively learned by every person, in each generation,” they noticed.  “So whatever human nature may be, it clearly takes a variety of local forms, and is in constant flux.”  Maybe anthropologists should study fluid dynamics or chaos theory if they want to be scientists.


1.  Bernard Wood and Terry Harrison, “The evolutionary context of the first hominins,” Nature 470 ( 17 February 2011), pp. 347�352, doi:10.1038/nature09709.
2.  Adam Kuper and Jonathan Marks, “Anthropologists, unite!”, Nature 470 (10 February 2011), pp. 166�168, doi:10.1038/470166a.

Kuper and Marks made some pretty damaging admissions in their piece that was intended to shore up the scientific status of anthropology.  They thought that interdisciplinary programs might help; but can shared ignorance rise above ignorance?  Look at what they admit:

The obvious conclusion is that interdisciplinary research is imperative.  Yet too few biological anthropologists attend to social or cultural or historical factors.  A minority of cultural anthropologists and archaeologists do apply evolutionary theory, or cognitive science, or adopt an ecological perspective on cultural variation, or play about with the theory of games, but they feel that they are isolated, even marginalized.  And they do not feature in the front line of current debates about cognition, altruism or, for that matter, economic behaviour or environmental degradation, even though these debates typically proceed on the basis of very limited reliable information about human variation.

So where is the science in anthropology?  Is there anything in the above articles that points to something objective, true, and credible?  No; it is a hodgepodge of debunked ideas, ignorance masquerading as explanation, embarrassing episodes, and complex questions evading simplistic answers.  It is clearly a fallible human activity prone to category errors and misplaced priorities.
    If anthropologists were consistent, they should study themselves as a cultural tribe in evolutionary terms.  That would lead to a quick implosion of any pretences to being objective scientists on some higher plane than the rest of us.  To gain credibility, they should ditch evolution, which tries to explain walking and language emerging by mistake (01/26/2011), and study the Anthropology chapter in a good text on systematic theology, as long as it is consistent with the Operations Manual that came from the Manufacturer.

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