Saturday, November 13, 2010

On Anthropology in the 21st Century

The technological innovations of the past two centuries have given humans more power with more scope than some could have ever imagined. The world, as a result (and as many have noted), is getting smaller: smaller in that one no longer needs the vagaries of chaos theory to explain how a very tiny change on one side of the globe can produce enormous effects on the very other side. One needs only follow the supply chain of bluefin tuna, from the marketplaces of Tokyo to the sushi bars of New York to the fishing boats on the Adriatic, to know that globalization has the immediate impact of making the networks that connect us denser with fewer nodes in between. The Greek philosopher Empedocles believed the world started as one, fractured, and would return into one. It’s a belief that some physicists see as likely, but more to the point it could describe the human experience. Evolutionary theory shows us that all the scattered tribes of humankind arose from a common ancestor. Today, the forces of globalization will thrust us back together, perhaps genetically as well as economically as races mix and possibly disappear.
The point is that we cannot afford, in so many ways, to misunderstand one another at this crucial juncture—for just as our power to do good has increased, so has our capacity to harm one another. One of the most centrally joyous things about studying anthropology is reconciling the incredible diversity of the human experience with the unity that is also found in that variety. Both of these conditions—our differences as well as our similarities—must be understood and taken advantage of, if humanity is to capitalize on its enormous promise. Anthropologists are incredibly well poised to communicate effectively the gravity of our differences and similarities, and to demonstrate to others the incredible value that lies in each.
We are incredibly similar. By virtue of its scope, anthropologists will inevitably come to strong conclusions about the things that bind us all. Cultural universals have been objects of interests to anthropologists from Claude Levi-Strauss to Donald Brown. Many of our faults are common: male rape as intimidation is universal. So are some of our virtues: rape is also proscribed by all cultures. Everyone tells stories and jokes, everyone has a name, and, yes, everyone poops. Our biological affinities extend so far beyond the scientific requirement for sharing a species—the ability to produce fertile offspring. The newly emerging field of evolutionary literary criticism looks at the stories from all over the world and finds similar themes and morals more often than not (Gottschall), borrowing comparative techniques from anthropology. These common strands in the human experience must be studied and emphasized, in order to combat those ills caused by the very evils that plague people from all cultures, from violence to greed to ignorance. The highest barrier to peace is ignorance, and the thing people are most ignorant about is how much they share with their neighbours across the borders of class, race, and state.
We are incredibly different. Anthropologists have catalogued our differences in size, shape, color, kinship structure, religion, worldview, and so much more. What they have found is a treasure trove of diversity which requires incredible agility of mind to comprehend as coexisting. This treasure trove is both metaphorical and literal. The benefits brought to humans from learning about ways of life different from their own are both abstract and concrete. Identity originates from difference, and with the incredible diversity anthropologists have catalogued, from the Trobriand Islands to the Amazon Rainforest, they have also expanded the realm of choice available to humanity, in the mind and the market. Structurally, the same argument Mill uses in On Liberty to defend free speech can be applied to argue that civilizations can only benefit from the anthropological project of studying persons different from oneself and conveying their way of life to others: negative innovations will be rejected or learned from and positive ones embraced. This process shows a remarkable resemblance to natural selection, substituting lessons from other cultures for the process of random mutation. We can only benefit.
The new century will undoubtedly bring exciting new developments in all the four fields of anthropology: the explosion of our technological abilities will surely lead to advances in the understanding of gene-culture evolution, novel documentations of foreign cultures, new discoveries in archaeology, and powerful analyses of the relationship between linguistics and neural structures. But the call of anthropology in the twenty-first century will be in its fifth field, in its role as steward of the idea of a common but differentiated “human” experience. This call is so loud because the challenges of this new century will be unlike any previous; the spectres of climate change, ocean acidification, and environmental degradation weigh especially heavily on my mind. These challenges and others will require us to think not in terms of country versus country or religion versus religion but as a species. The world wars of this century will not be between physical alliances and armies but a test of our ability to work together—humanity versus itself. On the one hand we must be cognizant of the things we share, in order to better communicate and recognize common challenges. On the other hand we must undoubtedly protect and draw upon the ingenuity of human diversity to protect ourselves from the slew of challenges sure to confront us.
The very enterprise, heady as it is, of anthropology is to study the human experience, and in doing so subject oneself to all the kinds of mental acrobatics required of a participant observer. But as Bertrand Russell said, “To learn to conceive the universe according to each system is an imaginative delight and an antidote to dogmatism... there is genuine knowledge in the discovery of what is involved in making each of them consistent with itself and with known facts.” The most rewarding thing occurs in this experience; standing somewhere between oneself and the other, one possesses a perspective rather than an identity, absent of personality but retaining humanity. From this vantage the mission is clear and of the present. As the world gets smaller it is the blessed responsibility of anthropology to guide the confluence of cultures towards cooperation rather than conflict, towards understanding rather than revulsion, towards a human future.

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