Thursday, December 27, 2007

Get thee to the semiotics department!   posted by Razib @ 12/27/2007 12:21:00 AM

Steve points me to this George Johnson piece. Regular readers of this weblog know that we have had our differences with Jared Diamond. That being said, Diamond's ideas are clear & distinct, you can actually understand (and disagree) with what he is trying to say. A few years back when the Savage Minds weblog was getting into it with Diamond's defenders on the blogosphere one of the main issues seemed to be that it was hard to parse exactly what problem the cultural anthropologists had with Diamond besides the obvious perception from their camp that he was a racist (the post above GNXP authored was actually used to support that contention!). There are two distinct issues at work here, one general and the other rather specific.

First, some anthropologists, generally of a cultural or social bent, have become enamored of the same fashions which are rife within literary scholarship. One could use a catchall term like "Post Modernism" to describe these tendencies, though that's oversimplifying. Roughly, the flight to relativism and the acknowledgment of the subjectivity of scientific methods inevitable in the human sciences have been taken almost to a reductio ad absurdum by cultural anthropologists. The broader dynamic was one reason that Stanford's anthropology department was split in two, separating those who viewed their discipline as a science and those who took a more humanistic tack. In the latter case one could say that the goal is interpretation, not analysis, fine grained description as opposed to smoking out systematic general truths. The trend toward very specific description and disinclination to place the local in the general context leads to intellectual myopia. Imagine a riverine system where you have two groups of scholars. One group uses a method where a researcher takes a very deep core sample at one location. They examine that core and perfectly characterize the sedimentary structure on that location. The other group engages in a broad study of shallow cores and visual inspection across the whole system; they lack detailed specific knowledge but are attempting to sketch out the general dynamics of the system. Obviously there are strengths and weaknesses to both methods, and your needs and goals need to be kept in mind. The generalists will no doubt elide specific details, while those who pour over a specific deep core will accept a trade off between their detailed local knowledge and the broader framework.

And so it is when "thick description" partisans square off against general system-builders. General system-builders will usually be wrong, most theories do not stand up to the test of time, and the vast majority of hypotheses are false. Additionally, they will ignore local detail and over generalize so as to remove outliers from their model. This is not a bug, but a feature! Cultural anthropologists who jump upon inaccuracies in inferred detail (that is, they contend that the hypothesis does not hold in the case of their studied culture) seem to not consider that system-builders by the nature of their topic of study in the human sciences will offer up statistical truths, as opposed to apodictic ones. I suspect that this confusion is in part due to the fact that many cultural anthropologists seceded from the nation of social science just as statistical techniques became ubiquitous in validating assertions of truth. The problem with American cultural anthropology is not that it is not true, but that it can never be wrong! Where as they see the naked & plain error within Diamond's work as a mark of its folly, in truth it is simply the beauty of science that falsities are exposed for what they are. On occassion marginal deviations along the edges of a theoretical construct are even cleaned up in future iterations. Imagine that, scientific progress! Instead of rebutting Diamond's thesis with their own general system cultural anthropologists reject the whole project in its entirety. In the stinginess of their vision I must admit that they remind me of Michael Behe, who implies that what is not known or understood with any level of clarity in the present shall be incomprehensible in a naturalistic sense indefinitely by its very nature.

As for the specific problem with cultural anthropology, it is encapsulated in this quote from the piece above, "Diamond in effect argues that no one is to blame," said Deborah B. Gewertz, an anthropologist at Amherst College. "The haves are not to be blamed for the condition of the have-nots." Does the ethologist blame the sick Wildebeest which is killed by the lion? Does the conversation biologist blame the Dingo for likely having driven the Tasmanian Tiger to extinction? Or does the conservation biologist absolve the Dingo of blame because the arrival of Europeans would likely have heralded the Tiger's doom in any case? Does the particle physicist give thanks to CP violation for allowing the flourishing of our civilization? And so on. These are ridiculous queries because even though a wildlife biologist might, as a human, harbor an affection for the animals of their study, in the end they are animals to study. This sort of objectivity, or at least the attempt, seems anathema to some anthropologists who see themselves as activists and actors who are deeply engaged with the material basis of their scholarship. Despite the cultural anthropologists' rejection of general inferences from data they seem to have no great qualms in making general normative assertions derived from their own axiomatic value system.

As human beings we are likely cognitively biased toward viewing our own species as special. This crops up in taxonomy, where Carl Linnaeus placed us within our own genus though subsequent cladistic systematics implies that we form a monophyletic lineage with the other great apes. The Great Chain of Being suffused early evolutionary thinking, and even after our descent from pre-human primates was acknowledged our morphogenesis was conceived in a teleological light, we were the crown jewel of biological processes. The Modern Synthesis banished this sort of teleological thinking from evolutionary biology, killing the batch of orthogenetic theories which reigned supreme circa 1900. In the first half of the 20th century anthropology was an ideological discipline which also expressed a teleology, the evolution of human societies expressed a trend which culminated with the Europeans, anthropologists were an arm of the supremacist Zeitgeist in the West. The Nazi abomination showed anthropologists that such activism was illegitimate. But instead of turning from activism and ideological pursuits anthropology simply inverted itself, it became a handmaid of the counter-cultural elite, pushing relativism and lack of positive assertion as virtues except in their rejection of the West and a general suspicion of the culture of European man. The disaster of racial science as the handmaid to the racial state did not draw anthropologists to the conclusion that aspiration toward objectivity should be their goal; rather, they switched sides en masse and hitched their wagon to the cultural winners in the academy.

Though this secured their place in the humanities departments, it also made them a laughing stock in the eyes of other scientists. Here was what L. L. Cavalli-Sforza stated when I interviewed him:
I entirely agree that the average quality of anthropological research, especially of the cultural type, is kept extremely low by lack of statistical knowledge and of hypothetical deductive methodology. At the moment there is no indication that the majority of cultural anthropologists accept science - the most vocal of them still choose to deny that anthropology is science. They are certainly correct for what regards most of their work.

Anyone who is familiar with Cavalli-Sforza knows he is a humanist; he has a passion for humanity and wishes to understand our species to the best of his ability. It is clear that he does not perceive that cultural anthropologists share the same passion for understanding, as opposed to their own admittedly subjective interpretations. The evolutionary geneticist James F. Crow stated upon controversial research on human evolution & behavior:
I hope that such questions can be approached with the same objectivity as that when we study inheritance of bristle number in Drosophila, but I don't expect it soon. There are too many strongly held opinions. I thought Lahn had a clever idea in thinking that the normal alleles of head-reducing mutants might be responsible for evolution of larger heads in human ancestry. Likewise, I think that Cochran et al. are fully entitled to consider the reasons for Jewish intelligence and I found their arguments interesting. In my view it is wrong to say that research in this area -- assuming it is well done -- is out of order. I feel srongly that we should not discourage a line of research because someone might not like a possible outcome.

Is man but a fly? Why not? I can give you my ethical and moral rationales for why man is not a fly in an ontological sense, but scientifically we are of the same essence, the same atomic units, many of the same genetic switches, and so forth. The insight that man is an animal was one Charles Darwin popularized in the 19th century, but cultural anthropologists reject this truth because they reject all truths except the ones they feel privileged to assert from their perches as conscious and enlightened folk (but is not being enlightened itself an expression of a hegemonic mindset?). It is difficult to take a system of scholarship which seems to promote obscurity and subjectivity as goods seriously. Study of human societies is more difficult than breaking down a molecular genetic pathway; but that is no excuse to give up the quest for clarity, precision and prediction. We're a complex species, and there are many contingent variables which clog up any system. But I see no reason that that justifies reading societies like a work of fiction; presenting arguments as clever word games which rise and fall based on prose opacity and the fads of the day. Cultural anthropology's adherence to critique is not the problem, criticism is a necessary antidote to sloppy thinking, rather it is its promotion of critique as the sin qua non of the discipline and insulation from falsification by saying nothing positive at all. They should leave criticisms of Jard Diamond's grand system of the world to those who actually believe that such activities are not scandalous in the first place!