When the Homo Naledi discovery was announced I was excited to see that the initial publication was in an open access journal, eLife. In fact to me this was a huge relief for, now that my adjunct teaching days are done and I am gainfully employed in the museum sector, I no longer have access to journals through a university library. (But, then again, I won’t have to rewrite my human evolution lecture. So there’s that.)
One day at work I decided to abstain from my usual time wasting behaviors of Facebook and reading the comments section of the Washington Post, and instead invest my downtime in reading the Naledi piece. Look at me! I’m reading an article for fun! Truly this is one of the most liberating experiences of being outside the academy: now I read scholarship for pleasure.
I was proud of myself for making it all the way to the end, feeling like I got it. Okay, so I skimmed over some of the anatomy stuff, but not all of it. Nothing I can’t handle with a dictionary nearby. With no one to impress with my studiousness except my fellow librarians (who are all, of course, very studious), I looked forward to sharing a bottle of wine with my wife (a biologist and “real” scientist) and telling her all about the findings. We frequently have animated discussions about human evolution, so it came as a surprise when she didn’t want to talk about Homo Naledi rather what grabbed her attention first was that the authors had chosen to go OA.
Jessica has established herself an open access skeptic in our previous kitchen conversations, which unfolded something like…
Her: So where did they publish? Didn’t you say it was the cover of Nature?
Me: No. Cover of National Geographic. Lee Berger had a NGS Explorer grant.
Her: Where then? Science?
Me: No, they went open access. Something called eLife.
Her: Really?! Wow. But why? *gives side eye*
Are cultural anthropologists going to get serious soon about evolution? When I first learned anthropology, back in the mid-1980s, “cultural evolution” (Lewis Morgan and E.B. Tylor) was always an early lesson in intro courses, basically on how not to think about culture. Or as an illustration of European ethnocentrism, with their culture as the more complex evolutionary development from simpler, primitive societies. But now I teach Darwin’s Origin of the Species in my intro grad theory course and to my undergraduates, as well. There’s no better way to engage the importance of yet problems with talking about underlying commonalities across species lines. As well, if we’re going to talk about “life itself” in relation to biopower and biopolitics, we have to become fluent with the underlying grammar of biology, and that’s evolutionary theory. Perhaps the “biocultural synthesis” will promote this kind of fluency; certainly Hicks and Leonard make a powerful argument for this in their recent article in Current Anthropology, “Developmental systems and inequality: Linking evolutionary and political-economic theory in biological anthropology.” They see an opportunity “to balance the importance of our long evolutionary history with our social and cultural complexity as explanatory frameworks for understanding modern human variation and health.”
But the challenges here are manifold. Continue reading
“The methods of ethnology” is among the two most taught and anthologized essay by Franz Boas, the founder of American anthropology, and I include it here to give you a sense of who Boas was and what he thought. Boas is famous for doing ethnography, not talking about it. As a result it is extremely difficult to find explicit theoretical statements from him regarding what anthropology is or should be. There are three main texts that represent Boas at his most explicit: “the study of geography” is Boas’s earliest and most general statement, followed by “limitations” in the 1890s. “Methods” was written in 1920, and represents Boas’s views at the time that he had finally achieved institutional dominance in anthropology.
The Methods of Ethnology, by Franz Boas, edited and with an introduction by Alex Golub