How the Scientist Got His Just-So Story
A case of scientific racism? An anthropologist studied living Kalahari Bushmen for clues to the evolution of cognition.
Human beings are long, long past any evolutionary stage anthropologists could claim they were going through 400,000 years ago when our ancestors allegedly learned to control fire. (Michael Balter in Nature asserts that date, even though evidence of cooking goes back millions of years in the evolutionary timeline; 6/17/09.) So what are anthropologists doing listening to the campfire stories of living tribesmen to draw inferences about our evolutionary past?
Laura Geggel at Live Science writes,
Telling stories around a campfire may have served as one of the first forms of “social media,” helping humans create and spread culture, reports a new study on the Kalahari Bushmen in Africa.
These firelight tales, rarely told during the day, can reinforce social traditions, encourage harmony and equality, and create a sense of community when the stories tell of people living far away or in the spirit world, the researchers added.
University of Utah anthropologist Polly Wiessner didn’t need to travel to Africa to find this out. She could have gone to any campground in America to hear wild and wacky stories around evening campfires. Africans are not a whit less human than anyone else (as can be demonstrated by our interfertility and the intellectual achievements of many Africans). Besides, Wiessner used “educated Bushmen” to help translate the stories. What is it that made her think tribespeople in Botswana and Namibia were somehow closer to our evolutionary ancestors (and thus less evolved) than Europeans or Americans? Is this a case of scientific racism?
Wiessner apparently deduced in her “exploratory study” that since some Kalahari still live by hunting and gathering, they are like human ancestors hundreds of thousands of years ago. That appears to be a highly dubious inference, unless one believes that these Africans represent an evolutionary throwback or atavism. While she agrees that all humans have the capacity to bond with storytelling, it’s clear from PhysOrg‘s coverage that she intended to do some storytelling of her own about human evolution:
Wiessner suggests that firelight stories, conversations, ceremonies and celebrations sparked human imagination and “cognitive capacities to form these imagined communities, whether it’s our social networks, all of our relatives on Earth or communities that link us to the spirit world.” She says they also bolstered the human ability to “read” what others are thinking – not just their thoughts or intentions, but their views toward other people.
When did the spark ignite? When did the bolstering begin? Clearly, she’s implying it happened way, way back when—long before modern humans evolved.
She also concluded that since the tribes’ subject matter changed from economics during the day to the spirit world at night, that somehow the light of campfires lit up the social bonds of early humans. “What I found was a big difference between day and night conversation, the kinds of information transmitted and the use of imaginary thought,” she said. Could she not find the same difference at any English pub or Japanese sushi bar? All people talk about business during the day, and less so at night. So what?
The paper, which PNAS published without rejection, appears to tell more about Weissner’s storytelling ability than those of her fully-modern-human subjects. Why did PNAS allow her to say, “Control of fire and the capacity for cooking led to major anatomical and residential changes for early humans, starting more than a million years ago,” with not a single peer reviewer objecting? This points to an insidious racism throughout academia that minorities might consider invidious.
Quick! Call Al Sharpton and the other anti-racism activists. Sic ’em on the evolutionary anthropologists—some of the most shameless racists on earth (8/10/14), who continue to imply that people in undeveloped countries are inferior to themselves. They’ve done this to Neanderthals for years—intelligent humans who, in absentia, have been unable to defend their reputations against the N-word (5/06/14). Now they’re doing it to living third-world human beings! Outrageous. Remember how Jared Diamond got in trouble for a similar racist “study” that his highly-intelligent subjects in New Guinea sued him over? (5/17/09). Yet here is Michael Balter again, who exposed that story, pretending that another anthropologist is doing legit science. And it’s not just Wiessner; look—she has Nature, PNAS, PhysOrg and Live Science all praising her “study” as if it were science, not racist storytelling.
Bible-believing creationists see all human beings as descendants of Adam and Eve. Racism is excluded; we are all created in the image of God. We’ve fallen from the original state of innocence, and gone our separate ways in our journeys away from the light (Acts 17:22-31), but Christians preach unequivocally that Christ died for every man, woman and child on earth. That’s why we go out into all the world (Acts 1:8, Matthew 28:19-20) to bring the good news of the gospel to remote jungles, deserts and caves: we know that, despite the Fall, the Flood and Babel, we are “created equal” in God’s sight. The final book of Revelation portrays a glorious celebration around the throne of God of people from every tribe, people group, and language (Revelation 7:9-10).
Christians are the ones who respect truth (John 18:37-38) and evidence (I Corinthians 15:1-11), deploring those who turn aside to myths (II Timothy 4:1-4), exposing those who make up stories out of their own imagination (II Corinthians 10:5). How ironic that today, Christians are the ones routinely portrayed as anti-science, while the evolutionary scientists are the primary unscientific purveyors of imagination-based tales in the intellectual world. What’s the essential difference, we ask, between Wiessner’s tale and the campfire stories of her Kalahari subjects?
What’s funny, after the outrage we should feel over Wiessner’s implied racism, is that hers is just another evolutionary just-so story, concocted out of imagination rather than proof. Only this time, it’s a just-so story about storytelling! “How the anthropologist got her just-so story” indeed. Touché.