March 4, 2013 § 3 Comments
I am in the death-throes of finishing a book, so have little time to tend Pandaemonium. Rather than abandon it, however, I thought I would raid the vaults, as it were, for old material that I have not published here. Given that it is book-writing that is keeping me away from blog-writing, it seemed only appropriate that I republish some old book reviews. And given thecurrent controversy over Napoleon Chagnon, both over his new book Noble Savages, and his election to the National Academy of Sciences, I thought I would dig out this review of Patrick Tierney’s book, Darkness in El Dorado, first published in the New Statesmen in 2000. Re-reading it, I would phrase some of it differently, but I think it has held up pretty well.
There have been few scientific disciplines with a history as sordid, fractious and ideologically riven as anthropology. The academic study of the Other has more often than not reflected home-grown political and social aims, and the methods of anthropology have swung violently, and sometimes virtually overnight, as those political and social aims have changed. In the nineteenth century, anthropology developed as the handmaiden of imperialism, providing in racial science, a justification of European superiority and barbarism. ‘What signify these dark races to us?’, the biologist Robert Knox asked in 1850. ‘Destined by the nature of their race to run, like all other animals, a certain limited course of existence, it matters little how their extinction is brought about.’
In the twentieth century, the consequences of racial science led anthropologists to reject naturalistic explanations and to see human behaviour as dictated largely by culture, not biology. The desire to undermine racism led, some suggested, to a new set of myths about human behaviour. Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa became one of the most famous anthropological works of the twentieth century. Mead described an idyllic society, unconstrained by the sexual neuroses that characterised America. Her message was simple: human sexual mores are shaped by culture and it is modern civilisation that has made us neurotic about sex. In the 1980s the Australian anthropologist Derek Freeman suggested that much of Mead’s data was worthless, that Mead had seen what she wanted to see, and that the Samoans had cooperated, telling her what she wanted to hear. Freeman’s critique was been the source of fierce controversy. Many anthropologists accused Freeman of twisting the facts, and of seeing what he wanted to see, as much as he claimed Mead had done. Nevertheless, Freeman’s destruction of Mead’s work was eagerly seized upon by a new generation of anthropologists who, inspired by sociobiology, sought to rehabilitate evolutionary explanations of behaviour. « Read the rest of this entry »
December 21, 2012 Comments Off
This is the third in a series of extracts that I have been running from my book Strange Fruit. The extracts tell the story of ‘Kennewick Man’ and explore what the debate around a 9000-year old skeleton reveals about current ideas of culture and race. The first extract looked at questions cultural ownership, the second at the issue of race. This third extract links the two in a discussion of the relationship between science, myth and history, and the way that politics and prejudice have shaped many scientific claims about the ancient history of North America – and also many of the critiques of such claims .
From Strange Fruit: Why Both Sides are Wrong in the Race Debate (Oneworld, 2008), pp 230-239
Kennewick Man was no wandering European. He was not a white man of any description. He was simply different from all modern peoples. So what does the belief that he was white say about the scientific study of human history?
Scientific stories about the peopling of the Americas have long been shaped by politics, prejudice, and straightforward racism. When Europeans first arrived in the New World they conjured up wonderful tales of Indian origins. For the sixteenth century Dominican priest, historian and archaeologist Diego Duran, Indians were the Lost Tribe of Israel. Ignatius Donnelly, the Irish-American writer, lawyer and politician, suggested that they originated in the fabled lost continent of Atlantis. Others thought that Indians were descended from a wandering group of Europeans or Asians – Egyptians, Vikings, Phoenicians, Basques, Greeks, Mongols, Romans, Persians and Japanese were all deemed suitable candidates. « Read the rest of this entry »
December 18, 2012 Comments Off
I published last week an extract from my book Strange Fruit which looked at the ‘Kennewick Man’ controversy and at what that controversy told us about contemporary ideas about cultural identity and cultural ownership. The Kennewick Man debate gets also to the heart of another major contemporary controversy: that over the meaning of ‘race’. In this extract from Strange Fruit, I look at how discussions about a 9000-year old skeleton laid bare our understanding (and misunderstanding) of race. My own views as to why ‘Both sides are wrong in the race debate’ are set out in this lecture. I will publish a third extract from Strange Fruit later this week that will explore the relationship between science, myth and the debate about human origins.
From Strange Fruit: Why Both Sides are Wrong in the Race Debate (Oneworld, 2008), pp 219-230
‘I’ve got a white man with a spear point in him’, Jim Chatters told the New York Times. From the moment that Chatters defined Kennewick Man as white, the question of race and identity became central to the debate about the skeleton’s origins and ownership. Many Native Americans bridled at the idea that scientists, rather than they themselves, should decide Kennewick Man’s identity and whether or not he was their kin. For many journalists and white Americans, science was rewriting history in their favour. ‘Europeans Invade America: 20 000 BC’ ran the headline in Discover magazine. ‘When Columbus came to the New World in 1492 and led in motion the chain of events that led to the decimation of Native Americans, was he unknowingly getting revenge for what was done to his ancestors thousands of years ago?’, asked the Santa Fe New Mexican. Suddenly Kennewick Man became the focus of an ancient American race war and many wanted to see him as both white and a victim.
‘If a Caucasoid Kennewick Man and his tribe roamed the Cascade rain-shadow dry interior of Washington State 9,000 years ago’, the conservative magazine Frontpage observed, ‘we must then ask a painful question: what happened to them? Why did they vanish while Native American tribes took over the land that once was theirs? Did white-skinned early Americans lack the skill or luck to survive? Or were they killed off by darker-skinned invaders in an act we today would define as racism and genocide (especially if its victims were not of European ancestry)?’ It concluded that while ‘On today’s university campuses, the fashion is to depict Euro-Americans as evil and Native Americans and most Hispanics as the virtuous survivors of white colonial exploitation, rape, and genocide’, Kennewick Man ‘might prove the opposite—that the true Native Americans were white, victims of murderous genocide by the ancestors of today’s Indians who seized their land. The European invasion of the past five centuries, in this potential revisionist history, merely reclaimed land stolen 9,000 years earlier from their murdered kin.’ « Read the rest of this entry »
December 15, 2012 § 2 Comments
I published recently a transcript of a radio documentary I had made that explored the question of ‘Who owns culture?’. Perhaps the most fractious of recent debates around this question has been over ‘Kennewick Man’, an ancient skeleton found on the banks of the Columbia River in America’s Washington State. The 9000-year old skeleton became the focus for two major controversies: What is race? And who owns history? I tell the story of Kennewick Man in my book Strange Fruit: Why Both Sides are Wrong in the Race Debate. I am publishing here an extract that lays out part that story, looking at the question of the ownership of culture and history and of the clash between scientific rationality and cultural identity. I will publish a second extract next week that delves into the debate about race posed by Kennewick Man.
From Strange Fruit: Why Both Sides Are Wrong in the Race Debate (Oneworld, 2008), pp190-195, 204-213, 216-218
Will Thomas was waiting for the start of the annual hydroplane race on the Columbia River, near the town of Kennewick, in Washington State, USA. Larking around with his friend Dave Deacy, he decided to amuse himself by wading through the water. A few yards in, his foot hit something round. ‘Hey, we have a human head’, he joked. But that was exactly what it was – a brownish skull, covered in mud. It was 29 July 1996 – and the beginning of an extraordinary story of skulls and bones, history and politics, race and science. « Read the rest of this entry »
December 11, 2012 Comments Off
I mentioned in my last post the attempts by the UN, UNESCO and WIPO to give certain groups, particularly indigenous groups, control over traditional culture, and of the dangers inherent in such an approach. I am publishing here the transcript of a BBC Radio 4 Analysis programme that I wrote and presented in 2004 which explored the issue of ‘Who owns culture?’. You can listen to an audio of the programme, too.
‘Who owns culture?’, Analysis, BBC Radio 4,
29 July 2004
Taking part in the programme, in order of appearance, were Jack Lohman, Director of the Museum of London; Lola Young, cultural consultant; Michael Brown, Professor of Anthropology, Williams College, Massachusetts, and author of Who Owns Native Culture?; Robert Foley, Professor of Human Evolution, University of Cambridge; Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum; Norman Palmer, Professor of Law, Art and Cultural Property, London University; and Adam Kuper, Professor of Anthropology, Brunel University.
March 4, 2012 § 14 Comments
Is race a biological reality? Or is it a social construction? It is a debate that shows no sign of being resolved. The more that we know of the genetics of human differences, ironically, the more fractious the debate seems to get, and the more entrenched the various positions seem to be.
The latest issue of the magazine American Scientist contains a review by the biologist Jan Sapp of two books that insist that race has no biological validity. Sapp agrees. ‘The consensus among Western researchers today’, he suggests, ‘is that human races are sociocultural constructs’. Nevertheless ‘the concept of human race as an objective biological reality persists in science and in society. It is high time that policy makers, educators and those in the medical-industrial complex rid themselves of the misconception of race as type or as genetic population.’
The distinguished evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne, who possesses impeccable liberal and anti-racist credentials, took umbrage at the review. ‘If that’s the consensus’, he snorted, then ‘I am an outlier’. Coyne insists that ‘human races exist in the sense that biologists apply the term to animals’. The equally distinguished biological anthropologist Jonathan Marks responded with what he himself described as a ‘rant’ against Coyne. ‘I have really had it with anti-intellectualism masquerading as biological science’, Marks fumed, claiming that Coyne ’isn’t interested’ in what anthropologists have learnt about human population differences and comparing Coyne’s view on race with that of Creationists on evolution.
Why are we still having these kinds of debates? Why has a deepening understanding of genetics, and of the human genome, not helped to answer the questions, even among those who insist that their views derive solely from the facts? « Read the rest of this entry »
September 3, 2011 § 4 Comments
In June I wrote a post questioning Brazil’s ‘no contact’ policy towards uncontacted Amazonian tribes. A version of that blog post was published as an essay in Göteborgs-Posten. The essay (like my post) attracted a lot of critical comment. It led to a short debate last week on the pages of the newspaper between myself and Dan Rosengren, associate professor of social anthropology at the Institute for Global Studies at Göteborgs University. The Swedish version of the debate is not available online, but here is an English translation.
Kenan Malik recently wrote about the immorality in denying ‘unknown tribes people’ the progress of civilization, and in doing so expresses antiquated notions belonging to the 19th century. His premise is that modern society is superior to indigenous people. If Malik had bothered to study the matter he would have realized that the isolation of these groups is a result of their previous contacts with the industrialized society. A contact which, in the early 20th century, led to the extinction of nearly 80 percent of the indigenous people in the western part of the Amazon forest in order to provide rubber for car wheels to the industrialized society. This is normally called genocide, but in this case it is tantamount to ‘the progress of industrialization’. « Read the rest of this entry »