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 »
February 24, 2013 § 22 Comments
Iain McGilchrist has written a response to my post about his book The Master and his Emissary and about the RSA workshop that discussed it. Since it is a long reply, Iain asked me whether I could publish it as a post, rather than as a comment, which I am happy to do. I have appended my own response at the end. (And just to avoid any confusion, while I have set up the discussion in the form of two open letters, Iain’s piece was written as a straightforward essay, not in letter form.) I am slightly puzzled, as I observe in my reply, by the tone of Iain’s piece. He seems to suggest in places that my original was written in bad faith and that I seem not to have not read his book or the RSA document. Whether I have adequately understood either is, of course, a matter for debate. But my post was written in good faith, and while critical of Iain’s thesis was also, in my eyes at least, respectful of his work. I wrote it to engage in the kind of debate for which I had hoped that Iain himself had written his book, and the RSA had held its workshop. I am publishing Iain’s essay in the spirit of such debate, I have written my response to it in that spirit, and I hope that people will engage in that spirit with both sets of arguments.
When Jonathan [Rowson, Director of the RSA’s Social Brain Centre] and I agreed to attempt this short publication we did so with a degree of foreboding. We knew that the attempt to abbreviate an argument that is, for the most part, carefully articulated, and already somewhat compressed, in its original 350,000 word form, was inviting difficulties. One such difficulty was that in further compression much would be lost: subtlety, nuance, complexity of argument, qualification of expression, and that I would be taken as saying something cruder than I am. Another was that the casual reader might be lead to think that they could substitute an acquaintance with the paper for a careful reading of the book. Yet we were encouraged by the advice of many readers from many academic disciplines and from many walks of life to think that it was worth risking such casualties in order to engage readers who otherwise might not have come across it at all, trusting that, at least before passing judgment, they would be led to do the book justice by reading it for themselves.
But perhaps even the RSA document is too long for today’s reader. Our fears would appear to have been more than justified. It is a little dispiriting that most, if not all, the comments and objections that KM raises are addressed, sometimes at considerable length, in the course of the document. Of course, those responses might still not satisfy KM, but at least if he had read them the debate would be at a higher level. « Read the rest of this entry »
February 21, 2013 § 14 Comments
In November the RSA in London held a workshop to discuss Iain McGilchrist’s book The Master and his Emissary. The RSA has now published Divided Brain Divided World, a report of that workshop, together with a long conversation between McGilchrist and Jonathan Rowson, Director of the RSA’s Social Brain Centre.
McGilchrist’s book deals with the social, political and philosophical implications of the lateralisation of the brain, that is, its division into two hemispheres, left and right. The difference between the two hemispheres is not, McGilchrist suggests, as much pop psychology would have it, that the left hemisphere primarily processes language, and the right visual imagery and spacial representation. The difference, for McGilchrist, lies in the manner in which each hemisphere analyses the world, rather than in what it analyses.
‘For us as human beings’, McGilchirst argues, ‘there are two fundamentally opposed realities, two different modes of experience; that each is of ultimate importance in bringing about the recognizably human world; and that their difference is rooted in the bihemispheric structure of the brain’. What opposed realities or modes of existence? ‘The left-hemisphere tends to deal more with pieces of information in isolation, and the right hemisphere with the entity as a whole, the so-called Gestalt’: « Read the rest of this entry »
February 17, 2013 § 7 Comments
In my last post, on The Enlightenment’s “Race Problem”, I questioned the idea that the modern roots of the idea of race lie in the Enlightenment. The relationship between race and the Enlightenment is, I argued, far more complex than much contemporary discussion allows for. It was the transformation of Enlightenment attitudes through the course of the nineteenth century that helped mutate the eighteenth century discussion of human variety into the nineteenth century obsession with racial difference. This is the story of that transformation.
In March 1800, Captain Nicholas Baudin proposed to the French Institut National a journey of scientific exploration to New Holland (as Australia was then known). The Institut agreed to sponsor the expedition and asked the newly-formed Société des Observateurs de l’Homme for help in preparing instructions for the study of the ‘physical, intellectual and moral’ bearing of the indigenous peoples.
The Société provided two memoirs of instruction for Baudin’s voyage. The first, Considerations on the Diverse Methods to Follow in the Observation of Savage Peoples was written by the philosopher and educator Joseph-Marie Degerando. The second, An Instructive Note on the Researches to be Carried out Relative to the Anatomical Differences between the Diverse Races of Men, was penned by Georges Cuvier. Cuvier was one of the founders of the science of palaeontology and would become France’s most distinguished scientist of the early nineteenth century. Where Degerando was a child of the French Revolution, and a great believer in education as a motor of social change, Cuvier was deeply conservative in both his politics and his science, a lifelong opponent not just of revolution, but also of evolution. In the space between the respective views of Degerando and Cuvier emerged the nineteenth century concept of race. « Read the rest of this entry »
February 13, 2013 § 3 Comments
In an essay this week in New York Times, the philosopher Justin Smith tells the story of Anton Wilhelm Amo, a West African student and former slave who defended a philosophy dissertation at the University of Halle in Saxony, written in Latin and entitled On the Impassivity of the Human Mind. A dedicatory letter was attached to the dissertation from the rector of the University of Wittenberg, Johannes Gottfried Kraus, who, Smith observes, ‘praised the “natural genius” of Africa, its “appreciation for learning”, and its “inestimable contribution to the knowledge of human affairs” and of “divine things”. Kraus placed Amo in a lineage that includes many North African Latin authors of antiquity, such as Terence, Tertullian and St. Augustine.’
Smith contrasts Kraus’ attitude with that of the Scottish philosopher David Hume who in 1742 would write:
I am apt to suspect the Negroes, and in general all other species of men to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was any civilized nation of any other complection than white, nor even any individual eminent in action or speculation.
Hume’s attitude expresses what Smith calls ‘the Enlightenment’s race problem’:
Scholars have been aware for a long time of the curious paradox of Enlightenment thought, that the supposedly universal aspiration to liberty, equality and fraternity in fact only operated within a very circumscribed universe. Equality was only ever conceived as equality among people presumed in advance to be equal, and if some person or group fell by definition outside of the circle of equality, then it was no failure to live up to this political ideal to treat them as unequal. « 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 »