Big Theory and Our Biocultural World

Recent books with widespread public acclaim show that the biological and cultural approaches claimed as proper to anthropology are now part of the common social science agenda.  My question is, where does this leave anthropology?  

Certainly the rather ham-handed combination of biology and culture in these books leaves anthropologists with the familiar refrain of criticism and particularity.  But do we have a genuine alternative?  Do we have a big theory to offer? And if not, are we on track to get one?   

The books in question are Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World and Lee Harris’ The Suicide of Reason: Radical Islam’s Threat to the Enlightenment.  They are both provocative books, with forceful theses and grand-standings authors, a tried-and-tested recipe for popular books in the intellectual vein.  I am not particularly concerned with each of their theses today, but here they are anyways. 

For Clark, it is that the Industrial Revolution was driven by the successful over-reproduction and downward social mobility of the upper classes, complete with their literacy, discipline, and delay of gratification.  For Harris, it is that the West, by being too wed to reason, fails to understand the radical threat represented by how Islam has spread through the world.  I am sure that many anthropologists will use these books as their favorite new targets. 

Rather, what interests me is the style of argument that they use to buttress their main point. 

Here’s a description that comes from the New York Times review on The Suicide of Reason: 

Harris goes on to argue that the Muslim world, since it is governed by the law of the jungle, makes group survival paramount. This explains in part the willingness of Muslims to become martyrs for the larger community, the umma — uniting peoples separated by geographical boundaries, with different cultures, heritages and languages. According to Harris, this sense of solidarity is sustainable only with the weapon of fanaticism, which obligates each member of the umma to convert infidels and to threaten those who attempt to leave with death. That is, the aim of Muslim culture, so different from that of the West, is both to preserve and to convert, and this is what enables it to spread across the globe… ‘The Muslims are, from an early age, indoctrinated into a shaming code that demands a fanatical rejection of anything that threatens to subvert the supremacy of Islam,” [Harris] writes. During the years that this shaming code is instilled into children, the collective is emphasized above the individual and his freedoms. A good Muslim must forsake all: his property, family, children, even life for the sake of Islam. Boys in particular are taught to be dominating and merciless, which has the effect of creating a society of holy warriors.

By contrast, the West has cultivated an ethos of individualism, reason and tolerance, and an elaborate system in which every actor, from the individual to the nation-state, seeks to resolve conflict through words. The entire system is built on the idea of self-interest. This ethos rejects fanaticism. The alpha male is pacified and groomed to study hard, find a good job and plan prudently for retirement: “While we in America are drugging our alpha boys with Ritalin,” Harris writes, “the Muslims are doing everything in their power to encourage their alpha boys to be tough, aggressive and ruthless.”

On Clark’s side, I turn to Nicholas Wade, who wrote on Clark’s research in a long column in the Science section of the New York Times.  The nutshell: 

“Gregory Clark, an economic historian at the University of California, Davis, believes that the Industrial Revolution — the surge in economic growth that occurred first in England around 1800 — occurred because of a change in the nature of the human population. The change was one in which people gradually developed the strange new behaviors required to make a modern economy work. The middle-class values of nonviolence, literacy, long working hours and a willingness to save emerged only recently in human history, Dr. Clark argues. Because they grew more common in the centuries before 1800, whether by cultural transmission or evolutionary adaptation, the English population at last became productive enough to escape from poverty, followed quickly by other countries with the same long agrarian past.

Here’s Wade’s longer summary: 

Generation after generation, the rich had more surviving children than the poor, his research showed. That meant there must have been constant downward social mobility as the poor failed to reproduce themselves and the progeny of the rich took over their occupations. “The modern population of the English is largely descended from the economic upper classes of the Middle Ages,” he concluded.

As the progeny of the rich pervaded all levels of society, Dr. Clark considered, the behaviors that made for wealth could have spread with them. He has documented that several aspects of what might now be called middle-class values changed significantly from the days of hunter gatherer societies to 1800. Work hours increased, literacy and numeracy rose, and the level of interpersonal violence dropped.

Another significant change in behavior, Dr. Clark argues, was an increase in people’s preference for saving over instant consumption, which he sees reflected in the steady decline in interest rates from 1200 to 1800.“Thrift, prudence, negotiation and hard work were becoming values for communities that previously had been spendthrift, impulsive, violent and leisure loving,” Dr. Clark writes.

Around 1790, a steady upward trend in production efficiency first emerges in the English economy. It was this significant acceleration in the rate of productivity growth that at last made possible England’s escape from the Malthusian trap and the emergence of the Industrial Revolution.The criticisms are easy: notions of primitive man, civilization, evolution as the struggle of the fittest, and all the other things anthropologists know how to bring up.  But this sort of argument—the combination of social Darwinism and cultural determinism together—appeals to people.  It’s no longer just evolution or just culture.  Now it’s guns, germs and steel, plus some geography, wrapped together. 

My concern is that we don’t have a well-articulated and well-argued alternative to offer up.  It appears that many readers recognize the inherent biological and cultural dynamics of human life.  They want books that take these dynamics up.  And authors like these meet that audience with explanations that have a veneer of anthropology but little of its substance. 

But what are our alternatives?  On the biological side, one might point to Boyd & Richerson’s Not By Genes Alone.  But in their formal models of biological and cultural evolution, people are specifically absent.  On the cultural side, I might go back to Eric Wolf’s Europe and the People Without History.  But as one Amazon review puts it, Wolf presents “a fairly static reification of the individual. This individual must be unmoving in spiritual and cultural practice, trauma, affection, embrace and rejection, or at least conceived of as stable and reasonable outside of this variability, in order for Wolf’s historical narrative to be a complete explanation.”  In other words, some of what we mean on this blog by examining the biological, embodied and experiential sides of people. 

It is not surprising to me that one of the best alternatives that I know comes from a journalist, not an anthropologist.  In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan uses many of the same skills of an ethnographer, builds interdisciplinary understandings of food and eating, and deliberately traces the production of food from its original sources directly to his mouth.  It is also well-articulated and well-argued. 

So what more does anthropology have to offer?

One thought on “Big Theory and Our Biocultural World

  1. Daniel —

    I tend to agree with you; a large portion of the public seems to be drawn to complex explanations, to multi-causal models, but it is hard to find compelling integrative accounts of… well, anything, in contemporary anthropology. We seem so acutely, so painfully aware of the limits of our knowledge that we are discouraged from writing anything sweeping or synthetic. I was reminded a bit of some of Eric Wolf’s bold discussion of the New World history at conquest and colonization, the subtlety and ambition of his explanations, which so often combined everything from agricultural botany to colonial political science to economic systems theory to Native American cosmology. But Wolf never tried to draw human biology or psychology into the mix.

    This level seems to be the gap, as the reviewer on Amazon writes. The individual winds up being pretty shallow, static, or otherwise impoverished.

    But is the answer grand theory, or just ambitious account? In other words, is one lesson from dynamic systems theory (as from anthropological examples like Wolf), that sweeping theory, if it is causally simplifying, is part of the problem rather than the solution? Can we write ambitious, compelling accounts of ‘big issues’ (that is, other than globalization) in ways that a broad public finds persuasive? Increasingly, as I see the books that are breaking through in popular science, I’m convinced that there is a lot of space for good, well written anthropology; I’m just not sure I can write that deftly (but I’m damn sure going to try).

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