Political correctness in social anthropology has made the terms ‘primitive society’, ‘social evolution’ and even ‘human nature’ unacceptable, and removed the possibility of open academic debate about them. Written from the perspective of a lifetime’s research, this collection of papers takes a hard look at these taboos, and challenges some fundamental assumptions of post-modern thinking. Including some new material on memetics, evolutionary psychology and Darwinian theory in the social sciences, this collection provides a long-overdue assessment of some key topics in modern anthropology.
When we study anthropology and the other human sciences, there is an obvious temptation to be swayed by our basic philosophical and political beliefs, and the fashionable enthusiasms and taboos of our time. But it should also be obvious that the depth of our personal convictions about, say, human equality, or the dignity of Man, or the need to give everything a materialistic explanation, can provide no guarantee that they are actually true, even if they are supported by a cheering crowd of our contemporaries. Reliance on intellectual fashion and the certainties of the thundering herd does not produce any useful debate, but merely a dialogue of the deaf, and the inability to assimilate, or sometimes even to read, the arguments of those who disagree.
The first set of dogmas that obstruct debate in anthropology are those of ‘political correctness’, and the belief in particular that ‘all cultures are born equal’. There has been a growing mania in the social sciences for perceiving ‘discrimination’ and ‘prejudice’ in any dispassionate discussion of human differences, so that we should not be allowed to talk about primitive society, primitive thought, or social evolution, or, for that matter, about the biological basis of human nature. Sociologists and anthropologists frequently misuse the valid principle that human culture is unique to deny that it can be influenced in any way by biology and psychology. Historically, there is no doubt that Darwinian theory was used to defend eugenics, Social Darwinism, and Nazism, and there are those who exaggerate the genetic basis of human behaviour to justify discrimination on the basis of race and gender. But this cannot be a continuing excuse for unreasoning hostility towards attempts to explain any aspects of human behaviour, society, and culture by reference to biology and psychology.
The other set of dogmas that need deflation are those of the extreme reductionist ‘man is just an animal’ school of thought, which has produced a similar mania to ‘naturalize’ the social sciences and humanities by bringing them under the overall control of the natural sciences, and of biology and Darwinian theory in particular. Those in the sociobiological tradition have no problem with the idea of social evolution, or of primitive society. Their aim, however, is to prove that there is nothing special about Man, and that all human culture and society, and its evolution, must be explained in strictly Darwinian terms.
One of the most striking features of both these types of dogmatists is that they are generally unwilling to listen to criticism, or seriously engage with the facts and arguments produced by their opponents, whom they variously dismiss as ‘colonialists’ or ‘creationists’. They are both, in their different ways, fundamentalists and ‘True Believers’ who simply know that their paradigms must be right.
The papers collected in this volume give detailed reasons and evidence to show why these paradigms are in fact illusions, but they are not simply negative. I have used this opportunity to set out my own view of what anthropology is, why human society is indeed uniquely different from any previous biological or inorganic system that has ever existed, and how it has evolved to its present condition. My earlier reference to the human sciences does not in any way imply that I believe in the possibility of a natural science of society and culture, a notion which is just as absurd as a social science of physics or chemistry. Science is the enterprise of trying to discover the general principles underlying diversity, and basing these principles on reasoned arguments and relevant factual evidence. The very first step of any science requires it to adjust its methods to the nature of what it is trying to explain, and since human sociocultural systems have some unique properties of their own, the attempt to absorb the social sciences into the physical sciences is basically misconceived.
The author is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at McMaster University, Canada; a Doctor of Letters of Oxford University; and sometime Bye Fellow of Robinson College, Cambridge. He has written numerous books, including The Foundations of Primitive Thought, The Principles of Social Evolution, The Evolution of Moral Understanding and, most recently, How We Got Here: from bows and arrows to the space age.