Category Archives: Teaching-Learning-Thinking

Why Critical Thinking, Communication, and the Liberal Arts are Really Important

Blinded by Science

South-facing Caves 1–4 of Mughr el-Hamamah. Cave 5 (right) is located approximately 30 m to the east. Only Cave 2—the main cave—has substantial in situ prehistoric deposits, and test excavations focused on the front chamber of this cave (courtesy Mughr el-Hamamah Project).

Sometimes multitasking gets the best of us. I’ve been working intensively on a research article, preparing figures and tables especially, for journal submission. This is part of my collaborative project with Liv Nilsson Stutz and a wonderful team of twelve more collaborators; the project focuses on the Mughr el-Hamamah site in Jordan, and this will be our first substantial publication on the site’s Early Upper Paleolithic archaeology. The view of the caves in the Ajlun Governate, Jordan, comes from our brief American Journal of Archaeology report on the 2010 National Science Foundation-funded test excavations. While I look forward to sharing our results on this blog soon, I now have a chance to breathe and reflect over what’s been keeping me from blogging this past two weeks. The thought that really sticks with me is the ambiguous nature of science. Although thinking about this thought also makes me pause about the ambiguous nature of my own thought process, the reason is this:

Well, just as I thought we were finally ready to send in our completed, fully formatted manuscript to the peer-review journal all fourteen co-authors agreed on, I received e-mail notification just this past Monday that was one of those good-news/bad-news moments. The e-mail was sent to all users of a leading technical program (i.e. OxCal–courtesy of Christopher Ramsey) that functions to calculate and analyze more precise ages using results from radiocarbon dating. The e-mail announced that a–no, THE–new international consensus radiocarbon calibration dataset was now available. Since our team’s current work emphasizes presentation and analysis of radiocarbon dating results, it hardly made sense to go ahead and submit for publication all of this quantative data based on a calibration reference database that has just become out of date. I duly downloaded the new calibration reference data this past Monday. I spent much of this past week recalculating, rechecking, and reformatting the dates for our site. Since radiocarbon dating is actually hardly romantic, I won’t dwell on this topic–one in which I maintain an otherwise difficult-to-comprehend interest. But you can check out the new open-access calibration issue of the journal Radiocarbon here: The data for the new curve is available here: Anyhoo … Although I was quite concentrated–as only a scientist/professional nerd can be–on radiocarbon calibration throughout this past week, a particular line of thought occasionally managed to intrude into my nerd bubble, creating an overly serious philosophizing bubble inside. To gratuitously extend the blogger-in-the-bubble metaphor, as the urgency of the radiocarbon analysis subsided, the philosophizing bubble just seemed to expand. And a serious point crystallized. There are enormous stakes in using scientific knowledge. After all, hugely consequential public policy and legal decisions hinge on arguments and judgments based on knowledge claimed as scientific. And this is (usually implicitly) considered acceptable because science is supposed to reveal truth. But this really isn’t at all what working scientists experience. Scientific knowledge always has a certain amount of ambiguity.

In general, knowledge about the world is–and should be–conditional and contingent. And scientific inquiry distills the fundamentally conditional aspect of knowledge, reminding professional scientists–our moments of most arrogant certainty notwithstanding–that our models and theories about how the universe works … has worked … will work in the future … well, that these models and theories are going to fail to explain, predict, illuminate in some way. Perhaps in some really critical way. And we’ll have to revise our understanding, come up with new models, new relevant questions, and new, logically derived methods. Now, this past week, we found out that the new, more comprehensive, validated reference database shifts our particular radiocarbon date estimates for the Early Upper Paleolithic site at Mughr el-Hamamah by about 0.5% from our initial estimate. This is not a huge deal. In fact, it is rather reassuring that one part of our scientific framework for understanding what humans were doing and when they were doing it tens of thousands of years ago seems to be at the tweaking stage. But there are sure to be more revisions to the radiocarbon calibration data, hopefully minor, in the future. Such revisions may still be consequential enough to alter interpretations about, say, whether a particular archaeologically documented change in human behavior or technology occurred as a consequence of a brief period of climatic change. Where such revisions come from–new samples and new technologies for measurement and analysis–draws our attention to another dimension of knowledge as contingent. How we understand the world depends simultaneously on (1) the technologies we use to probe, prod, and store and analyze and represent information about the world … and (2) the practices we engage in that are structured by and structure our use of those technologies. That we can even argue about what people–who may or may not have been our ancestors–were doing at various points during the last Ice Age depends on a complex tapestry of extraordinary machinery (including accelerator mass spectrometers and number-crunching computer software), symbols that help us to think and communicate efficiently (I’m certainly not taking the time to explain details about the Early Upper Paleolithic now, but my specialist colleagues will immediately fill in a lot of background in their minds, just from that phrase alone), and symbolic systems that help us represent and think through the large numerical values and vast amounts of quantitative information that our technologies allow us to explore. Basically, scientists practice and work really hard so that they can simply see or feel–get a clear or intuitive sense of–whether the technological instruments and materials … and the interrelated symbolic systems of representation yield observations that confirm their existing models and predictions, or whether they require tweaking … or perhaps major revision. Scientists see and feel the world through a joint technological and symbolic special body suit that they constantly have to train at and think about and maintain–and modify, if deemed necessary–if they want to use it well.

And this brings me to the really important philosophical thought. Of course, we all live life through a joint technological and symbolic equivalent of a brain-linked body suit that we constantly have to train at and think about and maintain–and modify, if deemed necessary–if we want to use it well over our long, intensely social lives. It’s just that scientific knowledge production and engagement in the world is symbolically marked in many contemporary cultural contexts. It’s marked relative to everyday engagement in and knowledge about the world, as we develop and act on our identities and interests. The problem is that when scientists finally put together a set of conclusions that supports or reinforces a particular model or theory, the resulting story seems to gain its distinctive scientific authority from extraordinary, impenetrably difficult-to-relate, almost magical process of joint technologically and symbolically dependent inquiry and representation. This is an example of the marked category experienced as qualitatively different from the unmarked everyday one. Yet, the work scientists do is very much like the work we all do in our everyday lives to understand the world … only more (and sometimes alot more) so. We don’t even have to go into the lingering tendency in Western culture to see the product of the mind (that is, what reason allows us to discern from our technologically aided observations and analyses) as independent of and superior to–rather than interdependent with–bodily interaction with technological aids through which we poke and prod, see and hear, sometimes ingest, sometimes act on and change the world around us. Scientists need to be more aware of the similarities that scientific inquiry shares with everyday inquiry … and non-scientists need to be aware of how they use technology AND symbolic systems in culturally structured ways–providing everyday knowledge, with that knowledge contingent on the very technologies and symbolic systems driving and supporting the inquiry–resembling scientific inquiry. And we all need to go with the flow a bit more, understanding that knowledge about the world is not fixed. It is conditional and contingent, for scientists and non-scientists alike.

What is College For?

… and What is Education for, for that Matter?

It seems easier and easier to question the residential four-year college experience–and the liberal arts bachelors degree that legitimizes it. With exorbitant tuition price tags and a highly challenging post-graduate labor market, college may seem an unnecessary luxury. At worst, it may simply be an expensive way for families to encourage self-indulgence in their children who are on the verge of adulthood. Indeed, the fiscal and political pressures on four-year college programs–regardless of whether they are in state universities and colleges or part of private institutions, whether they are highly selective and have high tuition or are more accessible to a wider range of applicants–are enormous. Is college education worth the upfront cost … and does the content and form of that education really buy you a rich source of healthy, lifelong dividend-yielding capital–in the form of maturation, knowledge, problem-solving skills, and values–that will make it a really smart investment?

Continue reading What is College For?

What do Anthropologists Have in Common?

by Aaron Jonas Stutz

The "Medawar Zone"--as dubbed by ecologist Craig Loehle (1990)--refers to the scientific sweet spot between theoretical and methodological difficulty (horizontal axis) and methodological yield, in terms of increasing knowledge, clarity of description, and power of explanation or prediction (y-axis). Because knowledge and insight require comprehensible theories and effective methods, intellectual progress--however measured, whether by quantity or complexity of phenomena explained or by level of mutual academic understanding of a difficult-to-grasp phenomenon--is often confounded by a tangle of theory and method too simple to address new or more complex phenomena.
The “Medawar Zone”–as dubbed by ecologist Craig Loehle (1990)–refers to the scientific sweet spot between theoretical and methodological difficulty (horizontal axis) and methodological yield, in terms of increasing knowledge, clarity of description, and power of explanation or prediction (y-axis). Because knowledge and insight require comprehensible theories and effective methods, intellectual progress–however measured, whether by quantity or complexity of phenomena explained or by level of mutual academic understanding of a difficult-to-grasp phenomenon–is often confounded by a tangle of theory and method too simple to address new or more complex phenomena.

Anthropologists of very different sorts–whether they focus on genetics, on prehistoric stone tool technologies, or on the ontology of sovereign power–have a similar trick. All anthropologists utilize methodologies that involve zooming out and studying aspects of humanity that we can’t easily grasp within the myopic experiences that we usually have of our lives and surroundings, as we constantly work to discipline our emotions and actions in responding to daily challenges, in setting goals, and juggling competing obligations. In doing so, anthropologists bring into focus surprisingly intimate details about us. With what Claude Lévi-Strauss (1992) called “the view from afar,” anthropologists document, compare, and investigate important biological or cultural structures and processes that are at work on the scales of populations, societies, and beyond. Yet, many of the larger-scale structures and processes that anthropologists document and seek to explain in even broader comparative or evolutionary perspectives involve finer-scale features: bodily biological functions (like giving birth), embodied technological acts (harvesting grain stalks with a sickle), intricately evocative practices (telling myths or performing rites). And each of these embodied human phenomena–spanning the physical boundaries of our bodies, from within cells to contemporary world systems, and reaching across temporal scales, from the nanoseconds of biochemical reactions, to the multi-generational impact of the built environment and landscape on ongoing social interactions and experiences, and even to the biological inheritance of highly conserved genetic regulatory growth systems that have been maintained and tweaked by ongoing natural selection since initially evolving hundreds of millions of years ago in the common ancestor we share with all other animals–is embedded in a dynamic, sometimes shifting non-nested hierarchical relationship to the environmental phenomena, which in turn act at multiple spatial and temporal scales. What is important here is that anthropologists observe biological and cultural features embedded in these complex multiscalar contexts. This is what gives anthropologists a clear focus on the intimate, while also yielding insight into the general. The anthropological view from afar has the peculiar advantage of surprising depth of field.

Continue reading What do Anthropologists Have in Common?

What Evolves in Evolution?

Even before Darwin, it should be remembered, scientists contemplated the notion that different kinds of organisms evolve–that is, have evolved in the past and conceivably continue to evolve. And that the evolution of living organisms has to do with adaptation over many generations of reproduction.

The evidence for adaptation through differential reproduction over the generations–driven by differential fitness of the variety of heritable traits in a population … of bacteria, oak trees, people …–is unambiguous. Yet, the implications for how we think about life remain challenging. In my experience, this is particularly the case on two levels. First, biology students have difficulty–especially initially–staying focused on evolution as a gradual process of complex change in differential reproduction over thousands generations. Second, instructors–especially those who have limited background in biology, say, in teaching an introductory anthropology course–have difficulty, more often than one would expect, in combining clear presentation with effective exercises and discussions that would better help students really own and use accurate knowledge of long-term evolutionary processes and outcomes. The evolutionary process is indeed complex, because what changes (again, over many many generations) is simultaneously:

  • random mutation rarely but persistently altering how bits of DNA function, sometimes increasing the fitness of a given bit in the environment, sometimes decreasing it
  • the characteristics that those more fit bits of DNA build or influence, as they chemically shape phenotypic “vehicles” for their own survival and reproduction (Dawkins 1982a, 1982b)
  • variation in adjoining bits of “neutrally fit” DNA that have succeeded in hanging on for the ride while accumulating harmless mutations
  • the sustained or accumulated, often ecologically structuring impact of DNA’s chemical, usually complex and indirect influence on those phenotypic vehicles that have already been favored by previous generations of natural selection … with the critical, pervasive effect that DNA indirectly but systemically, cumulatively changes its environment over long time-frames (Odling-Smee et al. 2003)
Populations of DNA shape phenotypic "vehicles" that are better or worse fit to their environments. Occasional random mutations in DNA replication produce variations among DNA strands in the vehicles (anatomical, physiological, biochemical, behavioral) that they build or influence. Those DNA strands producing better-fit vehicles will be more likely to survive and replicate. The long-term interesting result about life on Earth is that DNA populations shape complex environments, even as those cumulatively-forming environments structure which DNA variants subsequently survive and replicate. Due to random biochemical copying errors (a.k.a. mutation), DNA maintains a constant potential to change the environment, no matter how resilient an ecological balance has emerged in the environment, through food-web and habitat modifications. Thus, constantly DNA stands in a non-nested systemic hierarchical relationship to its environment.
Populations of DNA shape phenotypic “vehicles” that are better or worse fit to their environments. Occasional random mutations in DNA replication produce variations among DNA strands in the vehicles (anatomical, physiological, biochemical, behavioral) that they build or influence. Those DNA strands producing better-fit vehicles will be more likely to survive and replicate. The long-term interesting result about life on Earth is that DNA populations shape complex environments, even as those cumulatively-forming environments structure which DNA variants subsequently survive and replicate. Due to random biochemical copying errors (a.k.a. mutation), DNA maintains a constant potential to change the environment, no matter how resilient an ecological balance has emerged in the environment, through food-web and habitat modifications. Thus, constantly DNA stands in a non-nested systemic hierarchical relationship to its environment.

The intricacy of this process may best be conceptualized with a series of abstract notions, like populations and allele frequency change. But at the intro level, just trying to get your head around these thoughts can deaden what provokes curiosity about evolution: birth, maturation, aggression, cooperation, sex, and death in nature. BTW, I had to go with the language “more fit bits” once it popped into my head, since it sounds somewhat disgusting, even a bit obscene. BUT … but hopefully you’ll remember the bigger point about why students find it especially difficult to conceptualize the evolutionary process.

Now note that the complexity of evolution is not irreducible. It is reducible to how DNA chemically functions, impacting its environment, and in turn influencing which DNA-chain variants survive and copy themselves more effectively in that environment. While scientific knowledge always philosophically involves doubt and acknowledgment that there are unknown phenomena in the universe, science is also an active stance for seeking explanations for observable phenomena that involve natural causes or processes. (This perspective is, of course, contra what proponents of “intelligent design” try to sell us on, where it is claimed or hoped that God comes in, every once in a while–allowing us to witness biochemical systems or anatomical structures, at least in some organisms, that exhibit such complexity so as to defy the very physics or chemistry according to which those organisms’ genes are naturally supposed to have evolved or operate. Such claims very simply amount to hoping–because of an a priori belief in divine intervention in nature–that repeatable, independently verifiable observations do indeed record phenomena that scientific inquiry will never ever be able to explain. Among other profound philosophical problems with Intelligent Design–the perspective of which takes a seemingly tactical step away from the Biblical literalist point of departure of so-called “Creation Science”–is this: it is really arbitrary which poorly understood observable phenomenon is left open to scientific curiosity and investigation and which is asserted to be so complex that we can decide here and now that said complexity is evidence of an active divine hand in nature. And this makes Intelligent Design not only a willfully ignorant stance, but also very corruptible, highly susceptible to arbitrary appeals to phony scientific authority.)

Getting back to what evolves in evolution, I would emphasize four absolutely key take-homes from the above brief summary of the evolutionary process:

  1. Evolution does indeed happen in populations of organisms whenever there is change in DNA diversity from one generation to the next … and thus, evolution is not really that interesting in the short-term … but it is happening.
  2. IT’S FEEDBACK, PEOPLE: evolution is understood to occur without irreducible complexity, exactly BECAUSE DNA impacts–and thus changes–its own environment, even as random mutation in this theoretically infinitely long biopolymer causes variation in DNA’s very function … including complex interactions among its own chemical products in and around cells … In other words, DNA regulates its own chemical self-copying function–albeit with occasional copying errors (a.k.a. random mutations)–at the same time that it influences other chemical products in its own environment, in which the chemical replication proceeds … so that sometimes DNA has a strong non-nested hierarchical filtering effect on the environment, although most of the time, the environment has a stronger non-nested hierarchical filtering effect on replicating DNA.
  3. Evolution is interesting in the long-term–that is, over thousands or millions of years–because that’s when all the drama of birth, aggression, cooperation, sex and death emerges. The challenge is that it comes from the complex, occasionally shifting non-nested hierarchical feedback between DNA and its environment, and that leads to much more than anthropomorphically titillating drama … evolution has produced spectacular ecological phenomena that have given the planet Earth a richly dynamic but resilient biosphere–one that’s survived all forms of physical change on the planetary level (plate tectonics and volcanic eruption) and solar system level (oscillations in the Earth’s orbit and variations in solar radiation intensity) over a couple of billions of years.
  4. It’s worth being interested in points 1. and 2. BECAUSE if you’re interested in 3., then the first two points help you answer a lot of questions and even ask some new, really smart ones.

This is more than just my two cents, as a college instructor in biological anthropology, for why deeper understanding of evolution is worth the effort and how students might begin to answer AND ask better questions about why life works the way it does. As virtually all biologists would emphasize, everyone agrees that evolution in DNA allele frequencies goes on all the time–and in all forms of reproducing populations, from bacteria to trees to whales. But not everyone agrees on the reasons why long-term evolution is most interesting. In scientific discussion and research there arises all kinds of logically derived, yet diverging views about how to analyze the relationship between boring, short-term allele-frequency changes over a few generations and complex, interesting patterns, which may range from DNA function to organismal development to food webs to major adaptive radiations of species … and even to mass extinctions. Among the best known scientific debates about emergent evolutionary process unfolded in the 1970’s and 1980’s: Does speciation, extinction, and adaptation follow a gradual or a punctuated equilibrium proces (Eldredge and Gould 1972; Gingerich 1984, 1985; Gould and Eldredge 1977)? Are common phenotypic traits in populations best assumed to be adaptations shaped by natural selection or structural connectors or place-holders that really have nothing to do with adaptation (Gould and Lewontin 1979; Mayr 1983)? Have most fixed alleles in populations evolved by random drift, despite being selectively neutral (that is, having no influence whatsoever on vehicles that might favor or disfavor replication in the prevailing environment) (Kimura 1983)? Is the branching history of species best reconstructed by phenetic or cladistic analyses of their traits (Gingerich 1985; Stuessy 1987)? Should species be considered individuals (Vrba 1984; Vrba and Eldredge 1984; Vrba and Gould 1986) or should we really mainly focus on the “long reach of the (selfish) gene” (Dawkins 1982b)? No one said that science is easy, but it should be done right, and these theoretical and technical debates were part of the scientific process of trying to get the answer right: asking the right questions, using the right models, making the right measurements, carrying out the right analyses, so that observations could be replicated by other scientists and the research questions, methods, and conclusions all logically connected. Many of these debates have been eclipsed by the flood of data that has come over the past 25 years or so. Now, thanks to increasing computational power and DNA sequencing technologies, biological researchers have begun developing methods that integrate genetic, ecological, biochemical, physiological, anatomical, and behavioral information. And this helps us better understand the connections between areas of biological inquiry that have been all too often over-specialized.

So … despite lingering and often intellectually challenging and productive debates about philosophical approaches to the complex process of evolution, we have to stay focused on key ideas. That is, clear ideas that facilitate our integrating different questions about how DNA-environment feedback–fundamentally involving DNA replication–structures the big picture emergent phenomena. And putting aside debates about whether species are individuals or genes should demand more of our scientific concern, I’d emphasize one clear idea that helps us to getting back to basics, about how DNA-environment feedback can shape diversity in patterns of birth, maturation, aggression, cooperation, sex, and death. Even as populations of DNA strands evolve (keep that image in your mind clearly), they co-evolve with the environments they shape–and in turn, shape their fitness as replicating molecules. Thus, DNA is always evolving, but what we see evolving with DNA is a matter of scale at which we observe and investigate, whether we focus in on biochemical details of DNA function in cells, speciation and extinction, or the resilience or fragility of the whole biosphere that has shaped our evolution, even as we humans impact it.


Dawkins, R. (1982a). The extended phenotype: the long reach of the gene. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

Dawkins, R. (1982b). Replicators and Vehicles. In King’s College Sociobiology Group (Ed.), Current Problems in Sociobiology (pp. 45–64). New York: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from

ELDREDGE, N., & Gould, S. J. (1972). Punctuated equilibria : an alternative to phyletic gradualism. In Schopf, Thomas J.M. (Ed.), Models in Paleobiology (pp. 82–115). San Francisco: Freeman, Cooper and Co.

Gingerich, P. D. (1983). Rates of Evolution: Effects of Time and Temporal Scaling. Science, 222(4620), 159–161. doi:10.2307/1691072

Gingerich, P. D. (1984). Punctuated Equilibria-Where is the Evidence? Systematic Zoology, 33(3), 335. doi:10.2307/2413079

Gingerich, P. D. (1985). Species in the Fossil Record: Concepts, Trends, and Transitions. Paleobiology, 11(1), 27–41. doi:10.2307/2400421

Gould, S. J., & Lewontin, R. C. (1979). The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series B. Biological Sciences, 205(1161), 581–598. doi:10.1098/rspb.1979.0086

Gould, Stephen Jay, & Eldredge, N. (1977). Punctuated Equilibria: The Tempo and Mode of Evolution Reconsidered. Paleobiology, 3(2), 115–151. doi:10.2307/2400177

Kimura, M. (1983). The Neutral Theory of Molecular Evolution. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Mayr, E. (1983). How to Carry Out the Adaptationist Program? The American Naturalist, 121(3), 324–334. doi:10.2307/2461153

Odling-Smee, F. J., Feldman, M. W., & Laland, K. N. (2003). Niche construction: the neglected process in evolution. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Stuessy, T. F. (1987). Explicit Approaches for Evolutionary Classification. Systematic Botany, 12(2), 251–262. doi:10.2307/2419319

Vrba, E. S., & Eldredge, N. (1984). Individuals, Hierarchies and Processes: Towards a More Complete Evolutionary Theory. Paleobiology, 10(2), 146–171. doi:10.2307/2400395

Vrba, E. S., & Gould, S. J. (1986). The Hierarchical Expansion of Sorting and Selection: Sorting and Selection Cannot Be Equated. Paleobiology, 12(2), 217–228. doi:10.2307/2400492

What is Anthropology Good For?

The biocultural evolutionary perspective in Anthropology encourages students at all levels to answer really broad questions, getting at really complex phenomena. Here, I present the learning focus--that is, what students by the end of the semester should be able to understand and explain to themselves and others--that I include on my Anthro 101 syllabus ... on the first page. The ideas and methods of inquiry involved in Boasian Four-Field Anthropology are diverse, and all contribute to answering these "fairly big questions." Here, it is worth considering how creative inquiry, problem-solving, documentation, discussion, and critical reflection over answers to these questions constitute both an interdisciplinary science of humanity AND a life-long approach to addressing problems of organizational effectiveness or environmental impact in our complex, rapidly changing world. Anthropology is good for promoting problem-solving, tolerance, curiosity, and understanding today ... and well into the future.

What does Anthropology mean to you? I have often asked Anthro 101 students–virtually all of whom are first or second-year undergraduates at Oxford College of Emory University–to write a brief answer to this question on the first day of the semester. Not surprisingly, the answers reveal a range of familiarity with the discipline, from complete prior ignorance of the discipline’s existence (!!!) to keen interest in some area of Anthropology, with an intention to become and Anthro major. Occasionally, students at the start of their first Anthro course actually articulate that they are interested in figuring out how the it all fits together: where does inquiry into human biology and evolution connect with ethnographic research on cultural diversity and cultural difference? Still, even the most interested and informed students coming out of high school usually have developed a focus on one subfield within Anthropology. It is most often biological anthropology, followed by archaeology and cultural anthropology tied in a moderately distant second place. This probably reflects the dominance of intended pre-meds among our students, but it probably also reflects the more successful reach of human evolution and primatology documentaries and books with an evolutionary perspective. For the vast majority of undergraduates, then, the idea of a coherent Anthropology discipline with a conceptual foundation in biocultural evolution is not anywhere on the radar screen. Of course, as I have argued in my initial posts, the idea of such a coherent discipline is rarely encountered because anthropologists do not agree on what that coherent discipline might be … and whether we can commit to a coherent program of inquiry and debate over our shared biocultural inheritance and our diverse, ever-changing, and mutually shaped biocultural identities.

Indeed, many professional anthropologists don’t even have their own particular version of the biocultural perspective … or care about Anthropology as a coherent academic discipline. This, despite the fact that we continue to invest in the Boasian umbrella structure of four-field Anthropology in university, four-year, and two-year departments across North America, reaching the largest number of undergraduates in our introductory courses that cover the definition and some basic examples of biocultural connections (most often having to do with race or health). And this, despite the wider success–especially for producing educational materials effective at the high school level–of the truly bioculturally grounded American Anthropological Association’s public education program on race. I mean, doesn’t this actually suggest that the four-field departmental structure–in which most North American Anthropology faculty work–possesses at least a kernel of a good idea, which gets some interesting knowledge and perspectives across to a large number of undergraduates in liberal arts degree programs? I mean, isn’t the popularity of introductory Anthropology courses–and at many undergraduate colleges, Anthropology majors, minors, and interdisciplinary degree programs–an indication that students are gaining at least some significant transferable learning, communication, and critical thinking skills that prepare them for a wide range of professional careers and make at least some of them marginally more tolerant, open-minded, and engaged in social issues of fairness, justice, well-being, and sustainability? It’s as if the disciplinary structure of Anthropology–which we’ve inherited from Franz Boas’s late-19th century scientific and humanistic vision, and which supports the intellectually intriguing idea of our shared, intertwined biocultural identities–is succeeding despite the best efforts of most academic anthropologists.

Problem? Well, it depends on your point of view and interest. But I think it’s a huge problem. And it seems that cultural and biological anthropologists blogging on the topic agree. In fact, this particular post was motivated by my reading a recent essay by Ryan Anderson on his Anthropology in Public blog (which I got to via John Hawks). This bit from Ryan’s post “Anthropology: It’s Not Just a ‘Promotion’ Problem” really hit home:

What we currently produce is this: THE TENURED ANTHROPOLOGIST.  Today’s tenured anthropologist is made to do RESEARCH, attend ACADEMIC CONFERENCES, get GRANTS, write ACADEMIC BOOKS, and publish in TOP TIER ACADEMIC JOURNALS.  They also train future TENURED ANTHROPOLOGISTS.  All of this sums up the main purpose of this being.  This is what graduate programs train students to become.  This is what all new PhDs want to be someday.  Well, most of them.

In other words, most anthropological writing remains highly technical and of interest to other specialists within our various anthropological subfields. It may even be rare for archaeologists studying prehistoric hunter-gatherers to be read by archaeologists studying historical empires, and vice versa. Meanwhile, we get frustrated that the most successful books on our research topics are written by journalists or Jared Diamond. And shortsighted criteria for hiring and promotion leave us with very little time to think through why our research and resulting insights have broader relevance for students and members of the public … and here, I mean broader relevance for substantially changing how people think, learn, communicate, and engage in the world.


If you’ve read along this far, not only am I grateful that you’re this interested or curious. I would also suggest that the question of what Anthropology (and similar disciplines that also reach across the humanities-life science/qualitative-quantitative data divides and have overlapping research interests, such as Psychology, Sociology, and Linguistics) is good for is something that actually grabs you. You care about curiosity, scientific inquiry, critical self-reflection, and rigorous liberal education, with a foundation in improving your reading, writing, and critical thinking skills, integrating effective, evidence-based logical argumentation. We have to remember that with the potentially conflicting interests of undergraduate education (which helps universities and colleges to pay the bills through tuition) versus success in research (which brings in the prestige, grant money, endowed chairs, and other donor money), there are a number of logical symbolic story lines that align the attention and interests of otherwise critical Anthropology faculty members with the still-too-often shortsighted aims of deans and provosts and trustees, so that we prioritize research, publishing books and peer-reviewed articles, and sending out new PhD’s into the world. We want the best trained, most interesting, cutting-edge thinkers (or their highly recommended recent PhDs or post-docs) as faculty members in our own departments. And our administrations want faculty who will contribute to the university or college brand. Fortunately, there are so many good anthropology instructors out there–or like me, anthropologists in love with the discipline enough to work their asses off to become good teachers over time–managing great teaching material. So the other interest of having a good undergraduate courses and popular majors is also often achieved. But not in the service of a clear curricular and intellectual vision.

Now it should be clear that I think Anthropology on the undergraduate level is especially good at engaging students in developing really important transferable communication and critical thinking skills, while encouraging curiosity, critical self-reflection, and a commitment to engaging in society (rather than just consuming goods and services while avoiding democratic responsibilities). Anthropology is good for higher liberal arts education. Anthropology is good for encouraging life-long learning, open-mindedness, and democratic engagement.

But all academic disciplines should be able to engage students and the public in such general learning goals, influencing our basic communication and thinking skills and our commitment to tolerance and community engagement. I would go further and suggest that the biocultural perspective brings in something unique about Anthropology’s idea content and practical methods of inquiry. I would argue that at any level, students of Anthropology learn to rely on more varied methods of inquiry, with more varied, complex kinds of evidence, in order to figure out how parts in complex human systems influence one another and create larger patterns of organization and change. In doing so, Anthropology students can be much more creative, but also much better at documenting and explaining their questions, methods, results, and insights, while reinforcing a commitment to such collaborative, critical inquiry. The problem is that many of us in Anthropology end up becoming incredibly specialized in terms of knowledge and methodological expertise, barely able to speak with–let alone inspire collaboration with–colleagues in complementary areas of inquiry. I am not saying that I should be able to carry out ethnographic research as well as I can draw and describe an archaeological stratigraphic profile, but I should be able to provide my cultural anthropological colleagues with thoughtful, critical comments on their work, and vice versa. And although I am primarily a Paleolithic archaeology expert, I should be able to teach undergraduates the basics of ethnographic field methods … and do so in an inspired way, because of an engaged interest in my students’ inquiry into questions about the symbolic structure of social practices in interesting contexts. Anthropology needs a commitment to ideas, creative methodologies, discussion, and complex scientific problem solving for approaching BOTH very particular aspects of biocultural inquiry AND ALSO the really big picture of biocultural evolutionary emergence.

Perhaps the most effective way of illustrating the diversity and comprehensiveness of Anthropological inquiry across the subfields is in figures. Here, I summarize some of the big questions of the biocultural perspective, taken from the main content-based learning goals of my Anthro 101 syllabus (above left), along with a table outlining key areas of inquiry in the different subfields, and the methods involved in that inquiry (below). It shouldn’t be surprising that Anthropology has the potential for extraordinary insight into humanity, our biocultural origins, and our constantly changing biocultural identities … with all of the broader relevance for understanding any complex human organizational system and its impact on the environment.