Is neuroanthropology just “social theory with technical jargon,” giving us “street cred”? Are we doing anything “different from interpretive anthropology with its system of symbols”? Why invoke brain biology, we haven’t spent years studying the minutiae of brain circuitry and chemical interactions like real brain experts. Why even bother with the mention of neurotransmitters and such, which bastardizes the rich contribution that anthropology makes to understanding ourselves.
These are some of the comments I’ve seen about our site, some on the Internet, some in emails. In an initial answer to that, I pointed to Greg’s introduction, of listening to our informants and building explanations based on ethnography as well as to some of the limitations we bump up against in the dominant forms of social theory today.
Greg wrote, “When I was doing fieldwork on the Afro-Brazilian martial art-dance, capoeira, my informants kept talking about how their participation in the art affected them. They would claim that they could see things in their peripheral vision better, that they were calmer in conflicts, that they walked different, that they could balance better, and a host of other collateral effects, outside of practice… And then, it struck me: were these stories plausible? Could capoeira really change them? And what kind of anthropology would I be doing if I asked those questions? I… became convinced that, if anthropology was ever going to deliver on the promises of the ‘embodiment’ literature, we were going to have to actually learn a hell of a lot more about how the body and the brain worked.”
I also invoked the role of science and biology in anthropology. I turned to John Hawks’ recent blog post on the phylogenetic origins of syphilis in humans: “This is truly an anthropological topic — the science of origins is confounded with the subsequent cultural interactions of these populations… Studying the origins of these epidemics gives us insight about the relationships of global cultural interactions and ecological disruption for new emerging diseases. Syphilis did not merely originate and spread. It also fundamentally changed its nature, with increased virulence and sexual transmission. These changes were adaptive in the context of 16th century global contacts and ecological changes.”
But then I read some excerpts from Drew Faust’s new book, This Republic of Suffering, in the most recent Harvard Magazine. The Editors describe how during the Civil War, the United States “embarked on a new relationship with death”: “The ghastliness of the war impelled a search for meaning, a quest to justify what had been wrought, and challenges to religious faith that mark the beginnings of a modern, skeptical outlook on a newly fearsome and cold cosmos.”
In the pages that followed, building on letters, newspapers and photographs, a rich view of the everyday war emerges—terrible and haunting. Faust wrote clearly and directly about meaning, men trying to “make sense of what they had wrought.” Cultural concepts seep in, dishonor and pollution, as does psychology—men becoming “hardened” and the necessity of dealing with the “afterwards” of battles.
Then her historical narrative comes through: “In acknowledged that decent burial and identifiable graves warranted such effort and expense, the United States affirmed its belief in values that extended beyond the merely material and instrumental. Soldiers were not, as Melville articulated and so many Americans feared, ‘operatives,’ simply cogs in a machinery of increasingly industrialized warfare. Citizens were selves—bodies and names that lived beyond their own deaths, individuals who were the literal lifeblood of the nation… by the end of the century the Dead had become the vehicle for a unifying national project of memorialization.”
In good writing, ethnographic detail, and appeal to humanistic concepts, Faust weaves a powerful narrative. Why insert neurobiology at all? Could a “neuro-anthropology” add anything more than what Faust has already done?
I was left acknowledging that all I could see was a neuroanthropology of post-traumatic stress disorder, something a friend is doing with Gulf War vets, a look at the hardening of men and the importance of meaning and the impact of trauma. It is an important topic, but in that moment it didn’t seem quite enough compared to the grand scope of what Faust offered.
But then I asked myself: In these specifics, whether PTSD, repressed memory, or balance, are we taking the first steps towards an offer of something more? I hope so.
Faust writes, “The war’s staggering human cost demanded a new sense of national destiny, one designed to ensure that lives had been sacrificed for appropriately lofty ends.” Why such a demand? Faust points to the massive scale of death, two percent of the nation’s population dead as a direct result of the war. “The fallen had solved the riddle of death, leaving to survivors the work of understanding and explaining what this great change had meant.”
In Faust’s work, going back and forth between very visceral experiences and national endeavors, I do see a need for anthropology. Greg trusts his informants enough to go to neuroscience to understand what they are showing him about human life. John documents the intricate relations between the facts of disease and large-scale cultural interactions. Anthropology spans this grand view.
But it would be incredibly trite to try to bring Faust’s narrative, and the lives of Civil War soldiers, down to some mere accounting in neurobiology. It is ridiculous, the wrong scale entirely. So why the talk of opioid receptors and mirror neurons on this site?
Greg makes a good point about considering “what sorts of claims [by his informants] were plausible, and what mechanisms might be creating the effects that they described.” He’s also described how neuroanthropology helps us get beyond Bourdieu’s body, providing us the ability to address whether theoretical claims are plausible or not. Helping to understand our informants, to understand the mechanisms and processes involved in everyday life, to critically address social theory, and to better understand how humans make sense and meaning—these are rich areas for neuroanthropology.
But is it all neurobiology in the end? Turtles all the way down or up, as the case may be?
William Wimsatt’s book Re-Engineering Philosophy for Limited Beings provided me with some conceptual tools that helped in this recent dilemma. He confronted me first with a different view of reductionism: “One important mistake is the belief that reductionist or analytic methods eliminate or analyze away what is being analyzed or reduced. This produces a false opposition between those working at different levels of organization, or between those using ‘humanistic’ and ‘scientific’ approaches to the phenomena. The aim of what are called reductionist explanations in science is not to atomize phenomena to the lowest possible level, but to be able to articulate and understand entities, events, and processes at diverse levels, and to give explanations involving heterogeneous relations among them in producing complex phenomena. We can get a robust and lasting appreciation of processes at higher levels of organization in their own terms that is not compromised by having lower-level accounts. And large parts of our reasoning are profoundly heuristic at our working levels, as we craft and modify our procedures. It is here that we must start.”
And so we are starting on this blog. We recognize that brain processes are involved in phenomena that interest us as anthropologists. We are not reducing those phenomena to brain chemistry, but recognizing that the brain is involved in what interests us. Often times, the level of brain organization involved will be at levels not generally recognized in an overly atomized brain science, for example, how Greg is analyzing the emergent properties of balance. But certainly the brain is involved in balance, and that has crucial implications for how to understand the practice of capoeira and the lives of its practitioners. Hence neuro-anthropology. In this work, as Wimsatt writes, we are dealing with “a heterogeneous, multi-level [system], with converging overlapping branches, and patterns of intersecting order, residents, and connections at various levels, but no single stable foundational bedrock that anchors everything else. Yet this multiple rootedness need not lead to ‘anything goes’ perspectival relativism, or an anti-naturalist worship of common sense, experience, or language. It yields a kind of multi-perspectival realism anchored in the heterogeneity of ‘piecewise’ complementary approaches.” Wimsatt offers some sage advice, using a cartoon of two “pith-helmeted types” standing in a giant footprint as one of them says, “I guess you’re right. It was just one of those wild reports.” Wimsatt continues: “you can see that they just parked in a giant footprint. Hard for them to see, but just what we don’t want to miss: so fundamental that it affects everything in sight, but hard to find a place to stand to view it—or to see where it is not. Here a specialist’s knowledge may not help, because it may lead us to focus too closely… As with the cartoon, it may sometimes be better to stand back from the search.” One mistake we all make is to assume that our giant footprint is the one that matters, for example, the impact of brain biology in everyday life or the role of culture in everyday life. From certain theoretical positions, each can be seen as this enormous giant footprint that affects everything in sight. So why not keep to those independent perspectives?
Wimsatt makes a nice point here: “The micro-theory in condensed matter physics in which my kitchen table is mostly empty space between electron orbitals did not make it any less solid, real, or impenetrable to my finger. It can be both, once the qualities of the detectors appropriate to these two levels are taken into account. Physical continua behave as continuous to macroscopic detectors in a scale-dependent way that changes and breaks down at lower levels. There is only a conflict only if we try to see them on the analogy of the mathematical continuum of the real numbers, which is scale-independent, showing the properties of continua on all size scales.” Many of the phenomena that interest anthropologists are scale-dependent. But, as Wimsatt intimates, they are also “detector” dependent, and I would say, also “actor” dependent. Detection and action, two basic phenomena mediated through our bodies and brains and environments, provide us with a scale, or a system, that depends on both neural activity and history. Perhaps we can only approach it in a piece-meal fashion now, in work represented on this blog and elsewhere. And perhaps that is enough. For now, at least. For more on Faust’s book, there is a review in the NY Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/27/books/review/Ward-t.html?ref=review; and here’s the Harvard Magazine excerpts: http://harvardmagazine.com/2008/01/in-my-mind-i-am-perplexe.html Amazon link to Wimsatt’s book: http://www.amazon.com/Re-Engineering-Philosophy-Limited-Beings-Approximations/dp/0674015452/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1201440486&sr=1-1