EASA2012: Uncertainty and disquiet

Nanterre University, France, 10/07/2012 – 13/07/2012

(W007)

Biological foundations of social anthropology

Location R10 (in V)
Date and Start Time 12 Jul, 2012 at 11:30

Convenors

Aleksandar Boskovic (Institute of Social Sciences) email
Eugenia Ramirez-Goicoechea (Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia, UNED) email
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Short Abstract

The aim of this workshop is to bring together both "social" and "biological" anthropologists, and to discuss a possibility of anthropology understood holistically, where different scholarly disciplines complement each other and increase our understanding of the multifaceted world that we inhabit.

Long Abstract

There is considerable disquiet when it comes to communicating with the "unknown." The situation is even more complex when the "unknown" actually turns out to be quite familiar - something that has been with us for over century and a half, but that, for various reasons, many of our colleagues chose to ignore. Although some forms of dialogue between different fields of anthropology exist from the beginnings of our discipline, and at least since Darwin's seminal work (1859), recent decades have brought increased specialization, gradually leading to increasing gap between various forms of "social" and of "biological" anthropology. The aim of this workshop is to bring together scholars from very different fields, and to discuss a possibility of anthropology understood holistically, where different disciplines complement each other and increase our knowledge of the multifaceted world that we inhabit. In doing so, we follow up on the call by Kuper and Marks, published in Nature (2011), but also on years of critical engagement of scholars (like Ingold and Eriksen) with the excesses of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology. The issues of relationship between race and culture, evolution of forms of behaviour, language and cognitive processes, and the influence of other scholarly disciplines (such as, but not limited to, psychoanalysis) cannot be properly understood without an attempt to further our communication.

Discussant: Adam Kuper

This workshop is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

Human origins: the potential for social anthropology

Author: Alan Barnard (University of Edinburgh)  email
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Short Abstract

This paper highlights the contributions social anthropology can make to the study of human origins. It expands on the conclusions of my recent Social Anthropology and Human Origins (Cambridge University Press, 2011) and Genesis of Symbolic Thought (Cambridge University Press, in press) and suggests areas for interdisciplinary co-operation.

Long Abstract

This paper outlines current developments in the study of human origins and highlights the contributions social anthropology can make. While recognizing the biological basis of the field and our dependence on both the biological sciences and archaeology, I argue that these other subjects alone cannot explain everything.

The paper expands on the conclusions of my recent Social Anthropology and Human Origins (Cambridge University Press, 2011) and Genesis of Symbolic Thought (Cambridge University Press, in press). The former discusses topics such as the difference between primatological and social anthropological methods, the implications 'Dunbar's number' for prehistoric human settlement patterns, how new findings in genetics open up new possibilities for understanding the diversity of human kinship systems, and what fossils can tell us (and what they can't, but social anthropology can). The latter work looks more specifically at the origins of symbolic thought and language in the African Middle Stone Age. It also examines the implications, for social anthropology, of the notion that all modern humanity had its beginnings in a very small Southern or East African population living only some 70,000 years ago. In that book I argue that symbolic thought lies in the domain of social anthropology, and that our contribution (from comparative ethnography) should be no less than that of other disciplines. In the present paper I further argue that we should work more closely with biological scientists to ensure that neither they, nor we, get things wrong through the bounded concerns of our separate disciplines.

Natural selection and anthropocentrism: reflexions on Darwinism

Author: Glaucia Silva (Universidade Federal Fluminense)  email
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Short Abstract

Based on Ingold's ideas, I discuss if Darwinism can be considered as an antidote to the anthropocentrism typical of Western thought, and I propose that teleological language found in common metaphors in popular-science books is an effect of the reductionism of the notion of natural selection.

Long Abstract

The work discusses neo-Darwinism, based on the contributions of Tim Ingold, questioning:

(a) whether the teleological language found in common metaphors in popular-science books constitutes an effect of the reductionism implicit in the idea of natural selection;

(b) whether the assumption that evolution takes place on strictly random bases necessarily presupposes the existence of a wastage underpinning biological variety;

(c) to what extent the random nature of evolution is challenged by recent discoveries in epigenetics and biochemistry;

(d) whether Darwinism can be acknowledged as an antidote to the anthropocentrism characteristic of Western thought.

Lastly, it posits that the reductionist view and the stochastic premises underlying neo-Dawinism are a hindrance on a dialog between biologists and social anthropologists, presumably found with greater frequency in the work of the former than the latter. A third hurdle, anthropocentrism, is common to both, though.

Missing the link: from the study of variation to the study of variability

Author: Alessandro Lutri (University of Catania)  email
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Short Abstract

Missing the link:

from the study of variation to the study of variability

The aim of this paper is to suggest 1) thinking at natural factors as the possibilities and not only as constrains; 2) placing the anthropological explanation in the interstitial space between the psychological and sociological knowledges.

Long Abstract

Missing the link:

from the study of variation to the study of variability

The anthropological knowledge of the XX century was assumed as given the social and cultural condition of human beings, analizing how the human groups building and differentiate their social existence. This heuristic programm was founded in a ontological and epistemological difference between the psychological and sociological study (the former analizing the mental facts, and the last how work the societies), and anthropological study (social and cultural) of social existence of human groups.

The aim of this paper is to suggest that anthropological knowledge should recognize importance of: 1) thinking at natural factors (biological, neurophysiological) as the possibilities and not only as constrains (even if the phylogenetic limits of cultural variability are undeniable), which, together with social factors (demographic size, degree of intergroup sociality, cultural inputs, etc.), explain in a plausible way the several ways to being in the world and to reach the social and cultural condition; 2) placing the anthropological explanation in the interstitial space between the psychological and sociological knowledges, studying with people how a invidual facts (ideas, belief, practice, memory) could be shared or contrasted in a human group; 3) engaging in contemporary pubblic discussions about the great questions of social life (what it means to be a human being or person, of moral conduct and the freedom in people's relations with others, the origin and the end of life, etcetera), with more plausible anthropological explanations about the variability of human existence.

Biological foundations of social anthropology: how the problem was understood in Slovene anthropology?

Author: Vesna V. Godina (University of Maribor)  email
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Short Abstract

In my presentation I will anaylse how a problem of biological foundation of social in general and of social anthropology in particular was elaborated in anthropology of Prof Božo Škerlj, the goodfather of Slovene physical anthropology, and in anthropology of Prof Stane Južnič, the godfather of Slovene social, cultural and poloitical anthropology.

Long Abstract

Both, Prof Božo Škerlj, the godfather of Slovene physical anthropology, and Prof Stane Južnič, the goodfather of Slovene social, cultural and political anthropology elaboarted in several occassions a problem of biological foundations of social in general and of social anthropology in patricular. In my presentation I will analyse bacis charahsteristc of Škerl's and Južnič's understanding of the problem of biologocal foundations of social anthropology, compare both understandings and show some practical consequences of Škerl's as well as of Južnič's understanding of the problem of biological foundations of social anthropology.

The great divide: physical and social anthropology in Serbia

Author: Bojan Zikic  email
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Short Abstract

Physical/biological anthropology is perceived by social anthropologists in Serbia as the discipline which contributed to establishing ethnology as “national science” or “science of the Folk” in the first half of 20th century. I explore and present facts about that in order to display the reasons why the two branches of anthropology took divergent paths.

Long Abstract

The "anthropologization" of Serbian ethnology, which occurred during late 1970s and 1980s, largely ignored physical/biological anthropology due to its perceived role in constituting what has (and still is considered by some) as a "national science". The term "national science" usually connotes intra- or interdisciplinary studies of national features in culture, society, language, history, heritage etc. in Serbian academia, but in Serbian anthropology those "studies of National" are reviewed with strongly criticism at least since 1980s, due to the awareness of the ramifications of using the results of science explorations alongside the causes dangerously close to nationalism. Serbian anthropology of today is inspired by social constructivism and it foresees phenomena such as "nationality", "ethnicity", "folk" etc. largely as cultural artifacts, whereas Serbian ethnology saw those terms - or better: their contents - as something natural, something that really exists, which is biologically rooted and perpetuated so.

Serbian ethnologists used physical features to explain cultural traits of people they have been studied and vice versa, in an effort to show that there were distinct physical, biological, social, and cultural characteristics which, taken together, could tell one nation/ethnic community from another in the Balkans. Physical/biological anthropology contributed unwillingly to the constitution of ethnology as a "national science" in Serbia, and that is the reason why contemporary social anthropologists in the country are a bit reluctant when it comes to including it into their educational and research programs.

Sonic affinity: aural environments and the musical brain

Author: Javier Campos Calvo-Sotelo (UCM)  email
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Short Abstract

The human musical brain is shaped by the action of surrounding sounds, generating aural profiles and aesthetic patterns in complex reflective processes. The ability to unconsciously interiorize auditory signals is the result of an adaptative evolutionary mechanism, and derives into a sonic affinity.

Long Abstract

Further research is needed in the interdisciplinary field of study of certain soundscapes assumed to be generative and influential contexts where human aural cultures are shaped and developed. In particular there is a dearth of works centered on the psycho-physiological interaction between those soundscapes and the resultant musical phenomenon.

Whether geophysical, biological or anthropogenetic, all regular sound spectrums entail an embodied cognition for human beings, which we think is probably due to a perceptual principle based on the concept of auditory mimetism. The mechanism, in turn, would correspond both to a defensive and offensive function within the logic of evolution and survival.

To explain this interesting topic we propose the sonic affinity hypothesis, which holds that the human musical brain is decisively conditioned by the constant and dialectical conjunction of immediate surrounding sounds received from the earliest formation of the ear and continuing throughout the individual's lifetime, generating correlated sonic profiles and aesthetic patterns in complex reflective processes. The ability to perceive and unconsciously interiorize so many auditory signals -like an all-pervasive and empathetic sound-matrix- very probably starts in the prenatal phase of childhood.

In this paper we start by considering several pieces of evidence that prove a close interconnectedness between certain authors, musical styles and instruments, and the aural environments which would have influenced their production. This is the case of some pitch, timbre and temperamental features peculiar to Mozart, Beethoven or Rossini, as well as to minimalism, heavy metal, techno, rap, and also several preindustrial musical cultures.

An evolutionary explanation of garrulousness and repetition in the utterances of the elderly

Author: Robin Palmer (Rhodes University )  email
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Short Abstract

Garrulousness, usually involving repetition, is one of the commonest phenomena of subclinical aging. Natural scientists and the caring professions have noted this phenomenon but do not explain these usually connected traits beyond the marginalisation of the elderly in Western societies. This paper suggests a less circumstantial approach from an evolutionary and comparative-ethnographic perspective.

Long Abstract

As populations in the developed West and East age, gerontology becomes more relevant as a focus for scientific and social scientific research. Anthropologists in any of our four fields have generally shown little interest in the elderly in any of the kinds of society they have studied, whether contemporary or pre-historic. This paper harnesses the power of evolutionary explanation and comparative ethnography to explain the prevalence of garrulousness, involving repetition, in the utterances of the elderly.

While there may be many cases of quiet and even catatonic elderly people, the majority seem to become more garrulous in old age, keen to reminisce and telling the same stories over and over again. Isolation of the elderly in nursing homes may explain the garrulousness of Western elders, but this does not obtain where they are part of the family, nor does it explain the element of repetition.

The contention of this paper is that the two traits are linked and are as genetically programmed as the tendency towards longevity in the species. All three have been highly adaptive in the case of a species that for tens if not hundreds of millennium depended on its unique socio-cultural mode of adaptation yet was also not immune to natural selection. In static or only slowly changing societies, in which the generations overlapped, those who obtained and remembered still useful information from the elders had a survival advantage over those who did not. Only under conditions of rapid technological change is it irrelevant and irritating.

Cultural foundations of biological anthropology: challenges of holistic anthropology in studying associations of context and biology

Author: Irena Martinovic Klaric (Institute for Social Research in Zagreb)  email
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Short Abstract

Apart from reviewing the history of bio-cultural research I will discuss major challenges in integrating multiple theoretical orientations and methodologies of biological and cultural anthropology in implementing holistic anthropological research.

Long Abstract

Livingstone's research of sickle cell anemia and malaria in West Africa (1958) is considered by the majority of biological anthropologists as a classic in bio-cultural synthesis. Livingstone came with an elegant solution to the question why the protective sickle cell anemia allele was absent from West Africa where malaria was holoendemic by linking biology (genetics, evolutionary theory, disease ecology) with anthropology (archeology, linguistics, subsistence regimes, settlement practices). Bio-cultural approaches developed further since the 1960s and 1970s with the initiative of the Adaptability Project of the International Human Biological Program that stressed the importance of analyzing the influence of physical environment on human biological variation and opened the door for researching the interaction between human biology with biotic and cultural environments. A very productive avenue in bio-cultural synthesis became evident from the mid 1990s onwards in the work of Dressler and colleagues who employed a cognitive theory of culture to study the relationship between culture, individual behavior and health. Despite notable efforts of more sophisticated operationalization of cultural phenomena in biocultural reseach, biological anthropologists still tend to emphasize the 'bio' more than the 'cultural', perhaps because we are more skilful in measuring the biological than the cultural. In this talk, apart from briefly reviewing the history of bio-cultural research, I will discuss the challenges I face in my current research that focuses on the issues of integrating biomarkers with ethnographic research to understand how contextual factors become inscribed "under the skin" to shape the health and well-being.

Giving up or giving in? Reflections on the role of anthropology in the 'neuro-cultural turn'

Authors: Thomas Stodulka (Freie Universität Berlin, Germany)  email
Julia Schmidt (Freie Universität Berlin)  email
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Short Abstract

Cross-Cultural Psychology and Cultural Neuroscience are increasingly leading the public discourse on ‘culture’ while social and cultural anthropologists refrain from research on the biological foundations of cultural phenomena. With this talk we want to initiate a discussion about our discipline’s possible contributions to newly emerging research agendas.

Long Abstract

Social and cultural anthropologists seem to have strong objections to studying biological foundations of human cultural practices. Other disciplines like Cultural Psychology, Cross-Cultural Psychology, Evolutionary Psychology, and Biological Anthropology seem both more open and more progressive in this respect.

Due to 'culture's' growing popularity beyond our discourses within Social and Cultural Anthropology, particularly Cultural and Cross-Cultural Psychology have emerged as increasingly popular research fields, gaining influence in Psychology per se as well as in related disciplines of the sciences. Their 'research subjects' are ultimately defined as being 'culturally' either (European / North American) individualists or (Asian) collectivists. The varieties of "cultures" are thus narrowed down both geographically (as psychological research designs predominantly draw on East Asian vs. US-American samples) and epistemologically (by reducing culture to a fixed set of quantifiable variables).

Furthermore, functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI) is arising as the new methodo-technology in order to locate "culture in the brain" within rapid-assessment research paradigms of an exponentially developing Cultural Neuroscience. Despite their culture reductionist approaches Cross-Cultural Psychology and Cultural Neuroscience do not only dictate interdisciplinary scientific discourses, but also highly influence public perceptions of 'culture' in the mass media.

Triggered by the experiences of our own interdisciplinary research on the experience of envy in different 'cultures' by actually trying to integrate anthropological, sociological, psychological and neuroscientific methods, we would like to self-reflexively address these 'cultural predicaments' and ultimately ask: where are the voices of social and cultural anthropologists in the dominant discourse on their field of expertise?

This workshop is closed to new paper proposals.