Today is World Anthropology Day, a global celebration of all things anthropological. The American Anthropological Association beta-tested this new holiday last year as ‘National Anthropology Day’, and we had a splendid time celebrating with delicious recipes and reminiscing about Alessandro Volta (and more). But ‘world anthropology day’ is a better fit, not only because it is more inclusive, but because it helps point out just how tight the fit is today between the world and anthropology.
Anthropology — and I’m using the term here to mean the American version of it that I practice — is just about a hundred years old. It’s been stretched, shredded, critiqued, defended, and expanded on like the Winchester Mystery House. And while there have been a lot of fair criticisms of the discipline over the years, it’s fundamental approach and findings seem more relevant than ever. Partially this is because they have stood the test of time, but partially it’s because the world of today needs them now more than ever.
At its heart, anthropology’s core finding still largely stand: Human beings are a single species. There are not naturally distinct ‘races’ some of which are superior to others. For most of history human beings have been, on the whole, connected rather than isolated — most of our customs and cultures were borrowed from other places. All human groups must meet the challenge of making a living, but our culture displays a more or less coherent degree or patterning or structure which cannot be reduced to genetic or environmental factors.
In fact, it’s hard to come up with human universals. Sex matters everywhere — but it can range from a loving affirmation of connection to a thrilling display of mastery over a humiliated other. All cultures make ‘art’ — except for this to work you have to define art so broadly that it just sort of means ‘stuff’. Everyone dies, but everyone does different things with the body. Everyone needs to need, but not eating or only eating certain things are a remarkably common part of culture. And in fact, starving one’s self is a surprisingly common thing to do. Human life is precious, which is why some people insist it must be preserved, while others exult in taking it. Everyone needs to sleep — although I think they have a pill for that now. Even basic things like ‘marriage’ are extremely hard to define when you look at everything in the ethnographic record that looks like marriage.
Anthropology tells us that we basically share a common composition, but have a bewildering variety of learned behavior. It teaches us that people who are different from us are not an inferior species of faux-human, nor are they mad, pathological, or sick. They’re just different.
The world needs World Anthropology Day to remind us of the maddening consequences of these facts: That our way of life is our way of life, and we cherish it because it is ours. It is not, sadly, given to us by the gods, written in the stars, inscribed in our genes, or the inevitable product of the biome we live in at the moment. Anthropology even predicts that its own arguments will not be accepted everywhere — which is perhaps the prediction it nailed best.
It’s hard to live in a world where the transcendental grounding of your values is yanked out from underneath your feet. It is comforting to know that your enemies are monsters driven by irrational and unfathomable hate — after all, Facebook and twitter assure us of this every day! But in fact your enemies, whoever they are, are probably people like you who live culturally rational lives which are coherent and make sense to them. They may understand the world a little bit differently than you, or they may share the same values as you, but weigh them differently. This isn’t to say that you can’t have a principled disagreement with them, or even believe the only way to make the world safe is to dispose of them. But it is to say that these decisions just are your decisions, not something built into the structure of the cosmos. And it is to say that if you take the time, you will understand why your enemies act as they do, even if you do not agree with them.
We live in a world today where cultural difference is more common than ever. This is, as the political scientists say, a ‘multi-polar’ world without a firm center. Thanks to the Internet, ideas and ‘culture traits’ are diffusing at rates that would make Boas’s head spin. Migration and movement is more a part of human history than ever. We used to worry about humans adapt to the environment, but now we worry how the environment is adapting to humans. The enduring topics of anthropology don’t just endure this World Anthropology Day, they are more central to our world than ever.
What the world needs more of us what anthropology has always offered: tolerance, open mindedness, curiosity, and a healthy dose skepticism about our own self-knowledge. It would be easy to fall back on self confidence, moral certitude, and a belief in our right to make others live the way that we would prefer. But perhaps this World Anthropology Day we can take the high road and see where it gets us. It’s a harder road, but ultimately a more worthwhile one. Plus also there’s chocolate mint ice-cream.
Happy World Anthropology Day.