The Importance of Anthropology: Part One

The vast majority of people have no idea what anthropology is. I know this through personal experience; I hold two degrees in anthropology, and have spent considerable time, when asked, explaining the subject. Before asking the question, many people offer a speculative stab at what it might be. Oh, that’s the study of ants isn’t it? That’s to do with dinosaurs, right? Wrong.

Of course I don’t begrudge people their ignorance. Anthropology isn’t one of those disciplines that has a prominent position at most universities much less the media, unlike physics or astronomy, both of which have been featured heavily on the BBC, thanks to Brian Cox, who is now something of a nerdy sex symbol. I had never heard of anthropology while I was at school and I would back myself in stating that not too many of today’s students will have heard of it either. What a shame that is.

Anthropology is the study of what makes us human – it looks to explain our physical evolution as well as our cultural practices: their origins, development and interaction. It has been described as the most scientific of the humanities and the most humanistic of the sciences. Anyone who has studied anthropology or has any familiarity with it will understand how incredibly important it is. This is especially so in an era where populations are more fluid than they have ever been and there is so much more contact between people of different cultures.

It would have been easy to mention race in the previous paragraph, I did not do so for one simple reason – it does not exist. We know this because anthropology (along with biology and the study of genetics) has taught us so: that there are physical differences between humans is obvious, that some of these differences can be shared by groups of humans is also plain to see, but, the notion that these physical variations can be used taxonomically to discern various subspecies within our genus and that these can be placed in a hierarchical system is without any scientific basis. As is the idea, at the very core of racism, that the variations in human physiology can be connected to behavioral traits both positive and negative. As Anthropologist and Geneticist, Jennifer Raff, in her critique of Nicolas Wades’ preposterous book A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History, makes very clear:

‘Humans are incredibly similar genetically. We only differ by about 0.1 percent of our genome. Compare that to chimpanzees, our closest relative. Individual chimps from the same population show more genetic differences than humans from different continents.’

As does Agustin Fuentes, Primatologist and Physical Anthropologist:

There are no genetic patterns that link all populations in just Africa, just Europe or just Asia to one another to the exclusion of other populations in other places. If you compare geographically separated populations within “continental” areas you get the same kind of variation as you would between them.

Just think if anthropology were taught in schools, this genetic knowledge along with that of the human fossil record could be used to destroy any glimmer of racism before it even had the chance to take hold in the minds of the young. If children were taught this then surely in time the very breath that feeds racism would be stifled to nothing.

If that wasn’t enough, then think of the benefit of teaching children more about different cultures. The emphasis here being the very human need for culture; that culture doesn’t only relate to that which is in a gallery or a section of a newspaper; but that culture lives and breathes in each and every one of us. It is inevitable that future generations will interact with a variety of increasingly diverse cultures and that this contact will lead in turn to a more culturally diverse population, as members of groups marry and raise mix cultured (not race) offspring. We should be careful though not to fall into the trap of cultural relativism, which in some quarters has made something of a comeback. Respecting different cultures is one thing, but being deferential to any of the barbaric practices that are forced onto people in the name of culture is unacceptable. Any cultural institution or practice that is used as a tool of oppression must be fought at all costs.

Over the last few years there has been a resurgence of feminist thinking. I have my problems with identity politics, but one cannot argue with the notion that women are, in far too many areas of life – in far too many cultures, a distinct underclass. While some of those calling themselves feminists argue the finer points of dogma and seem intent on only creating further inter and intra-group schisms, many women (and men) are totally unaware of the powerful role anthropology could play in not only gaining social equality, but, more importantly emancipation.

Part two will follow shortly.

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