Over the weekend I read the book symposium in Hau on Philippe Descola’s Beyond Nature and Culture; then I perused the Open Anthropology current issue on the Anthropocene, recently highlighted by Rex. The experience was somewhat jarring—Descola’s ontological perspective renders up an almost placid view of humanity via fairly timeless schemas such as totemism and naturalism; while Jason Antrosio and Sallie Han’s curation of anthropological writings depict humans (finally?) confronting the precarity of our species-being in the face of climate change. Strikingly, though, they both share a confidence in the relevance and purchase of “classic” concerns of anthropology—conceptually, methodologically, and theoretically. And it’s this shared confidence I want to tap in thinking about how multispecies analytics are percolating up in anthropology. Continue reading
“Scientists say…” It’s interesting what natural science research starts making the rounds on social media. Mostly on diet or health broadly, and increasingly concerning climate change. On rare occasion—as over the past few days—some reports surface that offer insight into the circulating clutter itself, as in “cute dog” photos. In this instance, they’re opportunities to glimpse changing understandings of big topics, like domestication and evolution.
Links for two articles recently popped up in my Twitter feed: “The Science of Puppy-Dog Eyes” (NYTimes, 4/21/14) and “The Guilty Looking Companion,” Scientific American (4/20/15), both treating the gazing behavior of dogs and its various effects on humans. The first, by Jan Hoffman, reported on a study published in Science (in a themed-column on evolution), titled, “Dogs hijack the human bonding pathway.” The second, by Julie Hecht, “The Guilty Looking Companion,” builds off an article in Behavioral Processes, on a tangled question: “Are owners’ reports of their dogs’ ‘guilty look’ influenced by the dogs’ action and evidence of the misdeed?” Both suggest a far more agential companion species than many people might’ve suspected, but more importantly they each complicate stock domestication narratives suggesting it was something we simply did to them. They also suggest opportunities for extending social analysis beyond the human. Continue reading
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
One morning, chasing down a lead about research on plant memory from an article published in The Economist, I ended up at the journal Oecologia. This trajectory is increasingly familiar: a news source renders a popular account of life science research, and, trying to learn more, I end up at the academic source. The table of contents quickly overwhelmed me, though, and provoked me to stop for a moment and take stock of what I look for or find interesting in journals on genetics, biology, and botany.
Working on race, I initially began reading science journals as a way to keep up with claims and counterclaims in the polemics over its social construction. But as my focus shifted from people to plants (still keyed in on race), and as I developed an ethnographic project on biodiversity research, I began reading the journal articles to better understand what these plant scientists are up to. Along the way, the items in these reports (concepts, techniques, analytics) shifted, in my view, from socially constructed artifacts to crucial means for comprehending the very subjects that interest my ethnographic subjects. Now my approach to cultural analysis is changing. Continue reading
I guess I’m not surprised the idea of nonhuman cultures still generates disquiet for some cultural anthropologists. But I was a bit taken aback that this long-running argument seemed to be news. After all, there are recent ethnographic examples of what this looks like: Lisa Jean Moore and Mary Kosut characterize their book, Buzz, as “an api-ethnography that considers bees as cultured beings that traffic between worlds of the hive and of the urban landscape” (2013:36), taking “the subjective experience of bees” as one of their foci as they work to interpret bees’ behavior. Somewhat less boldly, Colin Jerolmack’s The Global Pigeon (2013) depicts these birds as part of the social interactional order of public space; though he maintains them at the center of his ethnographic analysis, arguing, by the way, that “pigeons partly domesticated themselves” (9) in colonizing urban space. And of course there’s Eduardo Kohn’s, How Forests Think, winner of the 2014 Gregory Bateson Prize.
But in response to the question about the theoretical foundations for all of this, I’m quite ready to go beyond anthropologist and primatologists like Raymond Corbey and Frans de Waal who’ve been making this case for years. I’m more interested in how nonhuman cultures are being documented and analyzed by natural scientists, because their work opens up new spaces for theorizing culture “beyond the human.” Continue reading
You know, they have it too. Not all species, certainly, but there are enough instances of nonhuman cultures to begin shifting how we think about this key concept.
In the decades since the idea of nonhuman cultures was broached, the notion has taken hold through recognitions that they also learn and transmit social knowledge. As Andrew Whiten and Kevin Laland et al explain, the presence of social learning as well as “traditions and other culturally related phenomena” among nonhumans has “proved to be far more widespread across the animal kingdom than imagined a half-century ago and more complex in their manifestations” (2011: 938). That’s partly because the list of such creatures is sprawling: numerous vertebrates—horses and hyenas, bats and crows, dolphins and dogs, all kinds of cats and rodents, and of course, our closest cousins, the primates—and the most globally dominant invertebrate genera: ants and termites, bees and wasps, and even some spiders. But this also reflects shifting sensibilities among researchers, that what we observe other species doing is not a matter of anthropocentric projection but rather a fairly accurate perception of homologous activities.
Thinking this way requires a simple, mobile analytic that applies widely across species and foundationally to humans, as well. Continue reading
In the late 1990s, the study of kinship got zapped. A similar surge of new thinking is transforming another classic anthropological concept—domestication. In both cases, breaches in the fine lines between biology and culture open up generative possibilities. With kinship, ethnographies of the new reproductive technologies led the way (e.g. Sarah Franklin’s Embodied Progress, 1997). With domestication, multispecies ethnographies are provoking a reassessment of this mainstay of anthropological analysis. And, as with kinship, unsettling the human in relation to “nature” frees up domestication as a means to think differently about anthropology and culture.
Why domestication now? Let’s start with the Anthropocene: it’s not just our carbon based economy driving drastic climate change; the fact that we and our domesticated species comprise 90% vertebrate biomass on the planet matters greatly. Then there’s the giddy question of agency: who’s doing what to whom when it comes to species transformations? Continue reading
[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger John Hartigan]
I’m sitting in the auditorium of LANGEBIO, a national genomics biodiversity lab in Mexico. Perched towards the middle of a room that holds about 220 people, I’m listening to a day-long series of presentations by doctoral plant geneticists. The bare concrete walls bear streamers of sponsors, such as Illumina, Biosis, and Biosistemas Avanzados. Each speaker strides out onto an overly large stage that dwarfs them as much as the giant overhead screen, across which their presentations flash. The featured species are Zea mays and Arabidopsis thaliana (the first flowering plant to have its genome sequenced), along with varieties of yeast—all well-established model organisms upon and through which genetics steadily advances. Continue reading