Developed World Economics for the 21st Century

National economic structure has been the most controversial issue over the past few years throughout the developed world.  Specifically, there has been a great deal of concern about the allocation of wealth and growing income inequality.  This is the primary reason for the Occupy movement that has spread to over 80 countries.  The occupy movements main message is completely justified and accurate; 1% of the human population has an increasingly disproportionate amount of global wealth and this is being caused by corporate influence in government.

As Nick Hanauer said in a recent TED talk (watch here), governments since the 1980s have been selling the public an empty rhetoric: reducing taxes on the richest people in society will create more jobs.  It is hard to think of how any credible economist could think this economic strategy would work, but either way, that has been government strategy in most developed countries for the past three decades and it is steadily ruining the global economy.  This has been the strategy of many countries in the developed world because over this period corporate influence in politics has grown and political candidates are more dependent on wealthy corporations than the citizenry for re-election.

In the pictures below you can see that since 1982 in the United States the average income of the richest 1% has grown disproportionately to the average income of the rest of the population (Fig. 1).  Also, as governments embrace a conservative tax policy, lowering the percentage of tax the wealthiest members of society pay, the higher unemployment becomes (Fig. 2).

What is more troubling are the affects of income inequality on society at large.  Income inequality is inherently divisive and creates more conflict and violence, disproportionate life expectancies, decreased satisfaction in life, increased imprisonment, mental illness and infant mortality, and finally decreased social mobility.

Furthermore, all recent research has suggested that above a certain income level, unnecessarily high levels of income do not make people experientially happier.  That is, as long as you are reasonably comfortable (e.g., can buy a home, feed your family, afford a few vacations), more money, on average, actually makes you no happier in the moment.

Finally, there are several successful market economies in the world (Japan, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark, etc.) that have very low levels of income inequality (Fig. 3).  These countries also have the the least conflict and violence, the highest life expectancies, most satisfaction in life, low levels of imprisonment, mental illness and infant mortality, as well as the highest levels of social mobility in the developed world (Fig. 4).  This final point prompted economist Richard Wilkinson to say that “If an American wants to live the American dream, he should move to Denmark”.

It is important to note that Japan, Sweden, Finland, Norway and Denmark have had largely non-existant occupy movements.  There is just no need for them.

Insane inequality from a historic perspective

In my mind the last three decades of growing income inequality in the developed world have to be understood within an important historical context.  In many ways the 20th century was a great battle over how the emerging global economy was going to be structured.  This caused three large wars (WW1, WW2 and the Cold War).  These three wars comprise what historian Eric Hobsbawn calls the “short 20th century” from 1914-1989.

During the short 20th century three distinct worlds began to emerge: the first world, the second world and the third world.  The first world was the capitalist world, led by the United States.  The second world was the communist world, led by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.).  The third world was largely comprised of former western European colonies whose recently independent governments had not yet committed to either a capitalist or communist economy.

At the end of the Cold War, the second world crumbled.  There are still vestiges of the second world (e.g., China still calls themselves communist) but in practice the entire world is now operating under a capitalist economic system.  There is no economic philosophy challenging capitalist hegemony, however we are starting to see cracks in the system.

From my perspective, I have always held a moderate view on national and global economics.  I don’t believe communism can work, we all can’t expect to make the same amount of money.  People are largely motivated by accumulating wealth and there are jobs in our society that are more difficult, take more effort, benefit society more and require taking greater risks than others.  People who pursue these career paths and succeed should be rewarded.  There is nothing inherently wrong with making money.  On the other side, it is becoming evident that capitalism in its purest form (e.g., United States of America) has extremely negative social consequences.  Any country with polarized extremes of wealth and poverty is going to become a ticking time bomb for social discontent.

The middle road

However, there is an obvious middle road.  This middle road is not an illusion, it is not idealistic, it does not take a major paradigm shift and it does not take three global wars to achieve.  It already exists.  There are successful market economies that redistribute their wealth properly and as a consequence have very little social discontent.  People in these countries measure much better on any quantifiable scale of social happiness than all other developed countries in the world.  People in these countries are also, on average, safer, healthier and more peaceful than any other people in the world.  And they do not have to sacrifice wealth to achieve this.  Japan, Denmark and Norway (for example) are consistently among the most productive and wealthiest countries on the planet.  They achieve this by combining the best aspects of the two dominant economic systems of the 20th century; capitalism and communism.


TED Controversy

Yesterday, TED faced a whirlwind of controversy after it was rumoured that they had censored a talk by entrepreneur and venture capitalist Nick Hanauer.  TED had apparently invited Hanauer to talk, but had decided not to “spread his ideas” because they were “too political”.

He had given a lecture on the causes of wealth disparity and income inequality in the United States.

Curator of the TED conference, Chris Anderson, responded to these allegations and it was clear the situation was a lot more complicated than originally reported.  Anderson claimed that although Hanauer’s talk was on an important and timely issue, it was “explicitly partisan” and because TED only posts one video per day (from a pool of 250+) it would not make the cut for posting on their website.

When Hanauer discovered his video would not be posted, he was upset and sent private emails between himself and Anderson to the National Journal.  The story spread like wildfire.  TED was accused of censorship (which goes against their main message of being a distributor of unique and insightful ideas), and being controlled by corporate and political donors and advertisers.  When Anderson responded to these allegations, he also ended up posting the talk by Hanauer on a new YouTube account “WatchExtraVideo”.

For me, watching this drama unfold was troubling and confusing at times.  I am a big supporter of TED and I love the content they share with the world for free and their philosophy.  I understand that they want to post videos that are “truly special” and don’t want to post talks that descend into “dismal partisan head-butting”, however I thought Hanauer’s talk was very well done and did communicate some unbelievably important facts about the American economy.  And if any idea needs spreading and support from an intellectual entity like TED, it is income inequality in the United States.

That being said, I feel like Hanauer’s reaction to TED rejecting his video was highly inappropriate.  Blaming TED for censoring his talk would be the same as me saying most journals I have submitted manuscripts to have censored me.  Being rejected through a peer-review process is part of being an academic, and it is the best safe guard we have against bad research and plagiarism.  Perhaps Nick Hanaeur is not used to this process since he is not an academic.  Rejection can be tough.

However, TED is about spreading ideas, and if they invite someone to talk on their stage, I feel like they should post the content, and the world can judge whether it is good or bad.  If they still want to engage in a strict peer-review process for their talks, I understand that, but it should be done before they let the presenter on stage.  Or, as Anderson suggested, perhaps they should have a site for the talks that were admitted but didn’t make the cut for their website.  That way the content is out there for the world to see, but not associated with the material that is “TED approved” or what TED deems “truly special”.

You can read Chris Anderson’s response to the criticism TED has received (here) and watch the video by Nick Hanaeur below


The ‘Othering’ Process

Recently I have been in several conversations focused on the notion of ‘the other’.  In all of these conversations the person I was speaking with seemed to take the position that the ‘othering’ process was an innate human behaviour and that the only way to get people to stop ‘othering’ would be for us to find (or be found by) another intelligent species somewhere else in the universe.

Quick note: the othering process is the human tendency to believe that the group (race, religion, ethnicity, culture, gender, country, sexual orientation, species etc.) that they are a part of is inherently the ‘right’ way to be human.  As a consequence of this, people who other consciously, or subconsciously, believe that anyone who is not apart of their group is a threat, an enemy or a liability that must be converted to conform immediately to the norms and standards of their group, subjugated permanently, or eradicated completely.

There are literally countless examples of this phenomenon throughout history that continue into contemporary times.

Back to the main thought, which is that while engaging in conversation about ‘the other’ I found that a considerable number of people think this process is inevitable (i.e. humans must other something).  Using that rationale, it logically follows that the only way for us to stop doing it to each other is if we find another intelligent species to do it to (i.e. we will stop fighting and discriminating against each other and will turn our aggression and prejudice towards another species).  I personally believe the opposite, not only because I am an optimist, but also because I believe I am someone who is consciously aware of the othering process and attempt not to do it, and try and speak out against it when I see it being done.  Now, that does not mean all of humanity will also stop doing it, but it does mean that othering is not something that is inevitable.  In the right social environment and with the right educational background, our tendency to group ourselves and feel some type of animosity towards another group can be overcome.

Why do we other?

The phenomenon of othering has its roots in our evolutionary history.  We know from primatological studies that group solidarity is exceptionally important in all of the African apes.  Knowing who is, and who isn’t a member of your group is exceptionally important for reasons intimately connected to survival.  And basic evolution theory states that any behaviour or trait that confers a survival advantage will be selected for; and the stronger the survival advantage, the stronger it will be selected for.  In the case of ‘othering’ behaviour, it probably became an extremely valuable behaviour that would have become permanently fixed within our lineage millions of years ago.  Whenever territory, food, and mates were scarce (which would have been frequently, and in most cases permanently), intra-species competition would have been strong and othering behaviour would have been selected for.  Forming a group can allow you to align yourself with other individuals altruistically to maximize your own (and everyone else in the groups) ability to acquire territory, food and mating opportunities.

However, this comes at a cost.  It forces you to adopt an “us vs. them” mentality.

This mentality is clearly an evolutionary relic that we have inherited.  However, in contemporary times it does far more harm than good, and I struggle to think of how this behaviour would confer a strong selection advantage in the modern world.  Regardless, since natural selection does not really affect our species in the way it affects every other species anymore we are probably stuck with the brain structures that produce it.

So is othering here to stay?

Despite our violent and resource scarce history that has engrained the othering behaviour, I believe it would be irresponsible to argue that we cannot unlearn it and best our instincts.  If we as a species unquestioningly accepted some of the instinctual thoughts, feelings and emotions, our world would look a lot different today.  To give an example of this, a few years ago Professor David Buss attempted to find out how many of his undergraduate students had ever given any serious thought to killing someone.  He requested them to answer (and if necessary elaborate) upon this question.  He discovered that 91 per cent of the men and 84 per cent of the women in his undergraduate courses had had homicidal fantasies at some point in their lives.  However, none of these students had a criminal past and I highly doubt any of them actually acted on their thoughts.  Just because we are programmed to occasionally think, feel and emote in ways that are commonly viewed as archaic and barbaric in contemporary society that does not mean we should (or have to) give in to these primal instincts.  The othering phenomenon is no different.

I believe that if you did a similar experiment to David Buss’s and asked any group of people if they had ever had racist, misogynistic, homophobic, ethnocentric, etc. thoughts the results would be strikingly similar (if not higher) to the murder question.  Thinking of all of humanity as an equal and united whole is a specific philosophical view that must be learned, it is in no way natural for humans to grow up and believe this without being taught.  We are programmed to divide, compare and compete with others that are culturally, genetically or otherwise different and distinct from ourselves.  It maximized fitness for our species over the course of evolutionary time.  However, we are not slaves to our biology.  We do not need to do this, and it is certainly not necessary to do it anymore.

Although the discovery of a highly advanced alien species (or the more likely scenario, being found by a highly advanced alien species) would certainly cause all of humanity to unite instantly and transfer our othering instinct onto that species, I don’t believe it is necessary.  I believe othering can be unlearned and I will remain forever optimistic that our ability to unite will overcome any mechanisms that would see us hate difference, rather than accept and embrace difference.


A Historically Contingent Discrimination

Over the past few weeks I have been giving some thought to the Rights Revolution, which is characterized by the ongoing extension of rights to racial, ethnic and religious minorities, women and homosexuals throughout the world.  This has been on my mind largely because, as many people, I have been following the ongoing American political drama revolving around the issue of gay rights and the legality of same-sex marriage.

The Rights Revolution was necessary because throughout the great majority of human history minority groups and women have been ostracized, discriminated against and have been prevented from acquiring equal access to state institutions.  Regardless of the time period, continent or societal structure, the great majority of humans organized themselves into patriarchal societies that favoured the dominant cultural, racial, ethnic or religious group, depending on the context of the cultural and geographic dynamic.  There are simple evolutionary reasons for these near-universal institutionalized manifestations of sexist, racist and xenophobic behaviours:

  • Humans organized themselves into patriarchal societies for the same reason many primates organize themselves into patriarchal societies; the faster reproducing sex (males) needed to control the reproduction of the slower reproducing sex (females).  This led to institutionalized customs that protected male reproductive interests.
  • Racist and xenophobic institutions manifested as a result of coalition membership.  In early human societies biological (skin colour, eye shape) or cultural (clothing, tattoos, jewelry) differences were the quickest and best indicator of ‘which side’ someone was on.

However, the same statements and evolutionary explanations cannot be made for the institutionalized discrimination of homosexuals.  Although people of homosexual orientation have been intensely discriminated against in most areas of the world during the past few centuries, this phenomenon was never ubiquitous throughout all of human history.  Furthermore, although racist and sexist behaviour – as well as their institutionalized manifestations – can be explained using evolutionary theory, the same cannot be done for analogous homophobic behaviours.  In fact, evolutionary theory predicts that all patriarchal human societies would approve of people of homosexual orientation, as it reduces competition for a scarce resource – the slower reproducing sex.

Homosexuality as historically contingent

So what does this mean?  I think it means that homophobic behaviour and the institutionalization of discrimination and prejudice against people of homosexual orientation is a historically contingent phenomenon that happened to become pervasive and global due to the disproportionate power of societies influenced by Abrahamic religious philosophy.

Unlike institutionalized sexism and racism, institutionalized homophobia was not pervasive throughout all of human history.  In fact, homosexual orientation was embraced and promoted by many societies on all inhabited continents.

In the Ancient World, there is evidence throughout Eurasia, the Americas, and Africa from art, burials and literature that homosexual orientation was practiced and embraced.  In one of the first known examples of human literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh, several of the main characters were openly homosexual.  There is strong evidence that Ancient Egyptian society accepted a range of sexual orientation, with the first historically recorded homosexual couple, Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum, living around 2400 B.C.E.  Throughout the 1st millennium B.C.E. many Mediterranean city-state governments supported a wide variety of homosexual orientation and several Greek intellectuals argued that homosexual love was the ‘highest form’, while heterosexual sex was simply lustful and utilitarian.  Also, two of the greatest leaders and warriors of the 1st millennium B.C.E, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, were bisexual.

Ethnographic evidence also strongly suggests that homosexual orientation was accepted or tolerated in many cultures throughout the pre-modern world.  In one survey, published in John Bancroft’s Adolescence and Puberty, of 42 different pre-industrial culture groups, homosexuality was accepted in 21% of the culture groups (an astronomically higher figure than the percentage of egalitarian or ethnically tolerant pre-industrial culture groups).  This is unsurprising when considered in the context of early European reports of American, African and Asian cultures during the first colonial expansion.  In pre-European contact sub-Saharan Africa, homosexual orientation was explored in a variety of forms and was embraced in several different societies of varying complexity.  In the Americas various people in indigenous civilizations like the Aztecs, Mayans and Zapotecs, experimented with homosexuality and some homosexual males were believed to have powers that ordinary shamans could not possess.

So why did discrimination against homosexuals become the cultural norm in the modern world?

Unfortunately for those who care about equal rights for all humans, all of the cultures described above did not become the dominant socio-political and economic group in the modern world.

Although the early dominant culture groups in western and central Eurasia largely embraced the heterosexual-homosexual continuum of human nature (thinking discontinuously helps to understand human sexuality as well!), this long tradition of acceptance of sexual variation was permanently eradicated after the western world became dominated by Abrahamic religious philosophy.  Abrahamic religious philosophy taught that homosexual behaviour was sinful, and as a result many early Roman Christian emperors believed Rome’s decline was a punishment from God for previously condoning homosexual behaviour.  As a result, it was not uncommon for homosexuals to become the target of lynchings and hate crimes.  After Rome collapsed, Christianity persisted and became a unifying cultural concept for all European kingdoms throughout the medieval period.  Most European monarchs not only believed homosexuality to be unnatural and sinful, but also made it punishable by death.  These homophobic memes, inspired by the Abrahamic religions, spread throughout the world during the European colonial era.  Europeans socio-political entities were disproportionately powerful on a global scale, and as a result their memes possessed cultural capital.  Understanding this phenomenon is integral to understanding institutionalized discrimination against homosexuals that is currently being practiced in the United States and throughout much of the world.

This is what I mean when I say that institutionalized homophobia is historically contingent.  In no way did Abrahamic religious philosophy directly and irreplaceably contribute to Europe becoming the most dominant socio-political and economic region of the planet.  However, as a by-product of an intensely homosexual culture dominating the social, political and economic modern world, the Rights Revolution is not just about eradicating discrimination against women and racial, ethnic and religious minorities, but it is also about eradicating discrimination against non-heterosexuals.

When Alexander the Great conquered much of the known western world during the 1st millennium B.C.E., his dominant cultural group institutionalized the acceptance of a range of sexual variation.  Had the European states that powered the globalization of the world throughout the modern era been culturally accepting of homosexuality, contemporary debates about the legality of same-sex marriage would be non-issues.


So when Obama openly acknowledged support of marriage equality (Yay! Watch below):

Think about the historical contingency of this support, and realize that we have the ability to eradicate the damage that was done by the homophobic hegemony that is Christianity.

In fact, as the erosion of Christianity’s monopoly in western culture has continued (from the French Revolution to contemporary times), so has acceptance and decriminalization of homosexuality.  In this case, correlation and causation are intimately connected (pun intended).

The Discontinuous Mind

Since Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace independently co-discovered the theory of evolution, the idea that all life evolved from a single common ancestor has been met with considerable resistance throughout the world.  In the past I’ve heard several explanations as to why one of the greatest scientific theories of all time has been met with such resistance and most people seem to converge on two different factors:

1)   Religion – specifically Christianity and Abrahamic religious philosophy

2)   Incredulity – evolution is simply too far-fetched of an idea for most people

These reasons obviously play a role in resistance to the idea of evolution.  Many religious people (especially people who adhere to Christianity, Islam or Judaism) feel as though this theory attempts to explain away their god and their belief system.  Many others are incredulous and simply don’t want to understand it or feel like it is an idea out of a science fiction novel.  However, these explanations for why so many people are resistant to the idea of evolution slightly miss the mark for me.  I think it is a problem that requires a deeper and more universal explanation.

The discontinuous mind

The problem, at its heart, is most likely rooted in “the discontinuous mind”.  The discontinuous mind is the human brains natural proclivity to think that the world can be divided and subdivided into categories (i.e., discontinuously).  By doing this we make great attempts to force the world into qualitative classes.  This is a big conceptual limitation when attempting to understand how evolution occurred and how evolution can explain the diversity of life on our planet.

The discontinuous mind doesn’t just prevent people from understanding evolution.  It pervades almost every facet of human culture and society and although it has practical utility in some cases, it has also produced confusion and has been used to justify discrimination.  A good example of the discontinuous mind at work is our species attempt at racial classification.  In countries that have historically been populated by peoples from diverse backgrounds (e.g., United States of America, South Africa), governments have sought to categorize their population by background.  These classification schemes were used to extend rights and opportunities to people of certain backgrounds and prevent others from acquiring the same rights and opportunities.  However, these governments frequently ran into logistical issues with categorization.  In the United States of America the government established three main racial groups: white, black and native American.  In South Africa, the main racial groups were: white, black and coloured.  Problems arose when governments were forced to categorize people of ‘mixed’ ancestry or when populations arrived that didn’t fit neatly into the established classification scheme.  What were these pro-white governments to do with a ‘white’ person who had a black grand parent?  Were they still to be considered white?  Questions like this arose and caused problems because these governments employed a discontinuous mode of thinking on a world that is continuous.

What does this have to do with resistance to the idea of evolution?

Just as people in the past (and many still today) have conceptualized categories of humans (races) that are static and unchanging throughout time, people have also conceptualized species that are static and unchanging throughout time.  As a result, most people learning about evolution accept that there are evolutionary mechanisms that can bring about changes within species, however they have difficulty understanding how a species can become an entirely new species over time.

When attempting to understand this, someone who thinks discontinuously usually asks the following questions:

How does a species start?

How can there be a first member of a species?

Who was the first human?

How can you go from a single celled organism to a multiple-celled organism to a fish to a lizard to a mammal?

I’ve encountered all of these questions (and many others).  Every time I hear a question like this I realize that this person thinks discontinuously, which means they are going to be enable to understand basic evolutionary theory and will also be unimpressed and confused with my responses to their questions.

“A species does not ‘start’”

“There is no first member of any species.”

“There was no ‘first’ human.”

“Very gradually over billions of years via accumulated advantageous mutations producing a biological ratcheting of complexity.”

The taxonomic classification system is partially to blame for the fact that some people have a hard time understanding that there was no ‘first’ member of any species.  This is because taxonomy arose from the discontinuous thought of the first naturalists who believed that species were unchanging discrete units.  However, modern biologists understand that the taxonomic system does not actually reflect biological reality in its truest form.  It is actually a socially constructed system of knowledge that is an inadequate but necessary conceptual tool used to understand levels of biological diversity.  In this way the discontinuous mind produced a system of knowledge that is now employed by academics that think continuously.

Explaining continuity as key to understanding evolution

In reality, our species, like all other species on the planet evolved gradually and continuously.  The divide between Homo sapiens sapiensHomo rhodesiensis, Homo antecessor, Homo erectus, and Homo ergaster is partly artificial.  There was no first member of any of these species.  There was not one generation when a family of Homo rhodesiensis gave birth to a child that was a member of Homo sapiens sapiens.

So how could this be?

Let’s use a concept employed in the book The Ancestor’s Tale to help conceptualize this difficult fact of evolution: a theoretical time machine.  Today there is one member of our species Homo sapiens sapiens, us.  The reason we are all classified as one species is because of the biological species concept.  With this concept species are members of a population whose fertile sexually mature members can actually or potentially interbreed to produce fertile offspring in nature.  If you were to enter our theoretical time machine and head back say, 500 years, you (a Homo sapiens sapiens) would still be able to interbreed with any other human on the planet.  Although there has been genetic change within our species over the past 500 years, there has not been enough time for mutations to accumulate within our species to prevent successful interbreeding.  Now step back in the time machine and head back 5,000 or even 20,000 years.  Although a great deal of genetic change has still occurred over that time span, you would still be able to produce offspring with a Egyptian pharaoh or a Paleolithic hunter and gatherer (whether you classified that offspring as a ‘hybrid’ would depend on the socially constructed system of knowledge employed to classify organisms).

However, if you were to head back 500kya or 1mya you would be entering a world with different species.  So much time would have elapsed that there would likely be one of two types of genetic barriers between you and Homo rhodesiensis or Homo erectus.  In one scenario, there would be a genetic barrier preventing you from producing fertile offspring with the other human.  There would be sufficient genetic similarity for you and one of these extinct species to produce an offspring, but enough genetic dissimilarity that that offspring would be infertile.  You may be familiar with this phenomenon in the contemporary spatial realm between species like tigers and lions (who produce infertile ligers (or tigrons)), or between species like a donkey and a horse (who produce infertile mules).  In the second scenario, there would be a genetic barrier preventing you from producing any offspring at all.  There would be so much genetic difference that your gametes would no longer be compatible on any level.

Remember, this is a thought experiment to help conceptualize how evolution can produce different species.  Scientists will never be able to test what extinct hominids our species would have been able to interbreed with and what hominids there would have been genetic barriers to interbreeding with.

So, with a slow, gradual accumulation of genetic change evolution can produce millions of species without any of them having a discrete origin.  In other words, we are all intermediates.  Over thousands and hundreds of thousands of years depending on numerous factors a species can turn into a different one, however it will never happen in one generation.  There will never be a situation when one species gives birth to a different species.  In this way, it is best to say that our ability to use language to classify the world is inherently insufficient.  Species exist as a biological concept that is useful (and perhaps necessary) to employ in order to make sense of the diversity of life.  However, in reality it is a discontinuous way to categorize a world that is inherently continuous.

The human mind thinks this way, perhaps innately.  We must learn to think continuously.  A person who teaches evolution or encounters someone who fails to grasp basic evolutionary concepts must first help that person think continuously.  The discontinuous mind, beneath the potential religiosity or incredulity, prevents the idea of evolution to take hold.  People who think discontinuously struggle to make sense of a world that is not static, unchanging and discrete.

Sharing a Divided World

Throughout my time in anthropology (as an undergraduate and now a graduate student) I have acclimatized to the environment within the discipline, however it wasn’t easy at first.  I knew I was really interested in aspects of the subject, but like most people I had a hard time understanding what anthropology was and what its goals were.  Looking back on this period in my academic development I feel like it took me longer to find a home within the discipline and longer to understand what it means to be an anthropologist because of the way the discipline is organized and how the discipline is divided.


Every undergraduate anthropology department is structured slightly differently.  At one end of spectrum departments emphasize a four-field approach (biological, cultural, archaeological and linguistics) and ensure all undergraduates get at least introductory training in all aspects of anthropological inquiry.  While at the other end of the spectrum there are departments that are essentially organized into the same subject in name only.  In these departments students can go through their undergrad training only specializing in the sub-field of the subject they want to.  It is likely that students in these departments will take courses outside of anthropology that more closely align with their interests (i.e., biological anthropologists will take biology courses, cultural anthropologists will take sociology or cultural studies courses, etc.).

At my undergraduate institution there was essentially a three-field approach with all first and second year courses for archaeology, biological anthropology and cultural anthropology being mandatory.  For me, this was an extremely confusing organization, not because this is an inherently bad way to organize anthropology, but because of the obvious theoretical divide between the sub-fields and the tension between the professors.  There were times when I felt like I was majoring in three different subjects at the same time.  Cultural anthropologists knew very little about biological anthropology, and would actively go out of their way to ridicule the field and occasionally insult the people who studied it.  To be fair, there were times when I realized the reverse was occurring.  Many biological anthropologists rarely took the time to understand cultural anthropological theory or apply it in their research, and I’ve even met biological anthropologists who thought social construction was meaningless ‘word salad’.  Although I think it is fair to say that biological anthropologists were more open to understanding and applying cultural theory.  Regardless, this made me feel as though I was majoring in three divided subjects, instead of one unified scientific study of humanity.

For me this divide within the department created real issues, and in some ways erected barriers to my own professional development as an aspiring anthropologist.  I knew I was interested in human evolution and primate behaviour and actively sought out ways to pursue these interests and learn as much as I could.  However, during one of my first presentations at an undergraduate symposium I was made to feel incompetent by a cultural anthropologist who, I came to realize, simply did not respect anything any biological anthropologist was studying.  However, at the time I took his disrespect for my presentation as a personal attack.  The event was scarring as an undergraduate who was attempting to find a niche within a subject that seemed impossibly large, and theoretically impenetrable.

Shaping students

What I have come to realize now is that professors who are products of a divided subject, shape students and create barriers between the subfields.  Students in their first or second year who may be open to employing their knowledge holistically and understanding everything anthropology has to offer quickly find themselves aligned with a professor or two within their subfield, forever barricaded on isolated intellectual islands.  For me, I became a biological anthropology graduate student who felt like cultural anthropology was alien, uninviting and unaccepting of people who struggled with their language and theory.  In my experience, professors had attempted to mask (or protect) their ideas with jargon and any attempt to understand their language was met with hostility and condescension.  I felt like most people within the discipline, and most developing anthropology undergrads enjoyed living on their divided intellectual islands.  Disintegration wasn’t just happening, it was being actively pursued.

This creates anthropologists who do not even understand their own subject.  How can you study the social without grounding in ecology, evolutionary theory and a basic understanding of genetic variation?  Consequently, how can you study past human populations, our primate relatives or human evolution without grounding in cultural theory?  I would argue that any attempt would be seriously impeded without integrating perspectives.  This became evident to me when I was placed in an office with several cultural anthropologists during the first year of my Masters degree.  We were all smart, ambitious and well read.  We were all anthropology graduate students.  But we didn’t speak the same language.  We didn’t understand each other at all.  Evolutionary theory was foreign to them, and I didn’t know how to approach an understanding of social theory.  However, I will say that throughout the year I made a genuine effort to understand the conversations they were having.  My lack of understanding was not met with hostility and condescension, as it had in my undergraduate program, but with an appreciation that I wanted to learn and approach anthropological issues holistically.

More talking

This experience made me realize what I had always thought was best for the discipline of anthropology.  We need to talk more with each other and make an effort to approach problems with a bio-cultural perspective.  Departments should still attempt to keep anthropology together in a meaningful way, however that cannot be done if there are professors within those departments that disrespect and ridicule everyone who is not within their sub-discipline.  Students are going to naturally gravitate towards certain aspects of anthropology (as I did) but that does not mean that the other aspects of the subject should feel alien, uninviting and impenetrable.  Departments and the professors working within them should create an environment where those other areas remain thought provoking and accessible.  In an environment like that, anthropology would remain united, and interdisciplinary anthropological research would provide our subject with a stronger voice throughout academia.

Anthropology is the scientific study of all aspects of humanity throughout space and time.  Its goal should be to better understand where our species came from, how we evolved, how we structure ourselves socially, how we produce knowledge and where we are going in the future.  Without a concerted effort to continue understanding these issues anthropology would fracture permanently and become subsumed into the structure of other disciplines.