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Anthropology FAQs


The following questions and answers convey the range of issues that concern SHESC scholars. They were drawn from Being Human, an exhibit celebrating the launch of the School of Human Evolution & Social Change hosted by the ASU Museum of Anthropology in the fall of 2005.

Does Diversity Matter?

Marco Janssen: Institutional diversity is disappearing. As a consequence of increasing market pressures to enhance efficiency, institutional reform and changes in beliefs and traditions, institutions have become more homogenous. But differences remain in the land and resources from one part of Earth to another, and the loss of institutional diversity also reduces the fit between human activities and their environment. For example, the increasing use of property rights for landowners reduces the ability of pastoralists to move their livestock to suitable grazing areas. And the employment opportunities in cities reduce the labor supply to maintain the irrigation infrastructure.

Due to the reduced fit of humans and their environment, we have less ability to deal with disturbances and surprises. Diversity is key for our ability to cope with our complex dynamic world. Ecologists have shown the importance of biodiversity for the provision of ecological services. But we also need to start realizing the importance of institutional diversity.

Charles Perrings: Yes. Think of the way you manage your own financial resources. Typically, a household will spread its risks by investing in a number of different types of assets: real estate, savings accounts, life insurance policies, stocks and shares. That is, it chooses a portfolio of assets. The diversity of species—biodiversity—can be thought about in the same way. Because different species do different things in the ecosystem, and because they thrive in different conditions, maintaining biodiversity is a way of making sure that even if environmental conditions change the ecosystems that support life on earth will still function. In other words, we can think of biodiversity as humanity’s portfolio of natural assets.

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What makes an environment (un) natural?

Michelle Hegmon: This question pre-supposes Western/European/Modernist concepts, including the separation of humans and culture from nature, and the idea of environment as a static container. Contemporary social theory, which will be an important part of SHESC’s curriculum, will help students to develop a more nuanced approach to these popular terms. First, humans are part of nature, so in one sense everything is natural. Humans and our immediate ancestors, in the simple act of existing, have been part of the transformation of environments for millions of years. Thus, if ‘unnatural’ means ‘not affected by humans,’ then everything is unnatural. Second, environment is everywhere and always a process; we are part of that process and it is part of us. Environment and all of its components including humans are mutually constituitive. Certainly there are cases in which humans have had a heavy-handed role that has resulted in transformations with very negative consequences this is what the study of human impact is about but those cases are not necessarily more or less ‘natural’ than wilderness areas. The short answer to this question is that ‘an environment’ is ‘made’ natural or unnatural by our perceptions and language categories.

Charles Redman: I think most people like to use the term "natural environment" to contrast landscapes that have little apparent evidence of human presence with those that do that they might call anthropogenic or cultural landscapes. Although the dichotomy might be useful in communicating it implies that there are environments that have not been impacted by humans. An ever-increasing proportion of the scientific community rejects this notion and are embarking on how to better understand how humans participate in the environment. This puts the focus of study where it should be. Environments that include humans are natural! Moreover, some "environmentalists" take the somewhat misguided concept of a "natural environment" (i.e., one without human influence) to be an ideal environment to strive for in land management policy. I find this to be an unrealistic approach that diverts our attention from confronting the real issues of environmental sustainability.

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John Anderies: To define what is natural requires a definition of what is unnatural which requires a definition of what is natural. And we are caught in a problem of circularity. There are many such silly words as natural. If you look up natural in the dictionary, it is defined in terms of nature. The definition of nature is, of course, the material world and its phenomena. The boring answer then is that no environment can be unnatural, as then it would not be part of the material world, unless, the environment is a thought environment. But thoughts are phenomena in the material world, and are thus natural. ... Perhaps "nature" is just a cultural bias.

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Is racism ‘natural’?

John Chance: Racism refers to the assumption that human psychocultural capacities are determined by different biophysical traits that are held to be innate. It is usually coupled with the belief in the inherent superiority of a particular group and its right to dominate others. Far from being ‘natural’, racism is a relatively recent phenomenon in human history, first appearing in the European colonies in the Americas. While attributions of inferior status based on cultural characteristics are probably as old as the human species, casting such differences in terms of inferior, biological qualities is the stepchild of European colonialism.

To give but one example, the notion of ‘race’ seems to have been absent among the highly diverse peoples and conquest states of ancient Mexico prior to the European invasion of 1519. In Europe, the Spanish term raza was used originally to designate a breeding line or stock of animals, such as horses, and only later was it extended to human beings. The word ‘race’ did not enter the English language until 1508, and only after 1700 did the term become joined with the idea of innate biological qualities.

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Michael Winkelman: Racism—or more generically the dislike of the ‘excluded other’—appears to be natural in humans, and probably a result of innate dispositions. This aversion to the ‘other’ is the converse of our drive to acquire culture, to engage in mimetic enactments of those around us, and our need to internalize the ‘others’ of our culture as the models for our self. Having an aversion to those who are different from us is probably natural; there are good examples in the animal kingdom of “societies” of the same animals engaging in antagonistic relations with one another, so it is not an exclusively human tendency.

But even if racism is a biologically based disposition, there is no reason to assume that it should or will dictate how we live or lives and relate to others. We have many biological dispositions as humans—free soiling, the tendency for human infants to defecate whenever and wherever they feel like; suppression or smell, the tendency to become oblivious to constant odors in our environment; and non-seasonal sexuality, the potential availability of females across the estrous cycle. But we don’t let biological tendencies to free soiling, repression of smell and constant sexual availability to dictate how we live our lives; we toilet train our children, use bathing, deodorants and perfumes, and impose many cultural restrictions on our sexual drives. There is no reason to think that whatever innate tendencies we have to racism should not be able to be overcome by appropriate socialization.

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What makes a tradition traditional?

Takeyuki (Gaku) Tsuda: There are no undisputed objective standards that can be used to determine whether a certain cultural practice is truly traditional, because cultural tradition itself constantly changes as it is reinterpreted, reinvented, and modified from generation to generation. Although sociocultural anthropologists in the past have had debates about cultural ‘authenticity,’ there is really no past cultural referent point from which present artifacts, practices, or belief systems can be judged as traditional.

The more important issue is how a certain society internally and subjectively perceives specific practices and cultural forms as traditional. Frequently, ‘tradition’ becomes a social construction based on perceptions of how things were supposedly done in the past. Individuals often invoke such respected notions of tradition to justify and obtain support for their current agendas and practices. Politicians (especially conservative ones) frequently claim that their policies uphold and defend traditional religious, moral, and family values, although these have been subject to constant change. Lawyers and judges often base their arguments and rulings on legal precedent, although even the most revered legal traditions (like the U.S. Constitution) are constantly amended and reinterpreted according to changing times. Various groups ranging from anti-abortion activists to terrorists claim to act in the name of traditional religious beliefs codified in the Bible or the Koran, although there is constant debate and disagreement over the meaning of these ancient religious texts. Although societies do not agree on what is truly traditional, if a specific practice can be cloaked in the aura of tradition, it is legitimized as proper and moral because it is supposedly consistent with how people have always done things.

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Nora Haenn: The word ‘traditional’ connotes something of long-standing, but this is a misnomer. People invent traditions all the time. Histories can also be invented to give weight to a new tradition. In this way, traditions become traditional when a relevant group of people comes to agreement on their existence as such.

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Why do some people live longer than others?

Kelly Knudson: Human lifespans can vary dramatically according to genetic, environmental and nutritional factors, among others. Interestingly, we see this kind of variability in ancient populations as well. For example, in the Andes around 1,500 years ago, some people were living long and healthy lives with little signs of violence or disease, while other populations from the same time period show high levels of violent injury and many people who died as young adults. In many cases, social and political factors, such as warfare and conquest, caused these differences. By combing data from lots of different sources, bioarchaeologists can look at the impact of a variety of different internal and external factors on human health over hundreds of years.

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What make societies vulnerable?

Marco Janssen: We are fundamentally changing the way we interact with our environment and our ability to cope with unintended consequences. Humans have always had impact on their environment. Some ancient societies even collapsed due to the overuse of natural resources. But in previous times, these severe consequences of the destruction of natural resources were only experienced on the local or regional scale. And, besides the failures, there are also many successes. People have discovered, by trial and error, ingenious arrangements to sustain long term use of natural resources. Nowadays, failures of local and regional scale also have consequences at the global scale. SARS spread rapidly to different continents, carbon emissions of the U.S. contribute to the sea level rise that affects the small island states. The increasing connectivity of human activities and biophysical processes makes our world more vulnerable to collapses at a global scale.

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David Abbott: People of the ancient past are often dismissed as irrelevant because they left no written records to tell their story. The Hohokam people inhabited the Salt River valley long before Euro-American and Hispanic settlers reached the area, and the gleaming Phoenix metropolis is built upon the vestiges of their once thriving communities. The Hohokam remain connected to their present-day descendants, the O’odham, through oral histories but, otherwise, it is archaeologists who labor to give them a voice. We are now learning that Hohokam achievements were remarkable: hundreds of miles of canals that irrigated tens of thousands of planted acres, a sophisticated division of labor, a trade and ritual network that extended over an area larger than Arizona, and life in the Sonoran Desert sustained for a millennium. In contrast, our modern presence in the fragile desert has existed for just a few generations; can it be sustained? The wisdom of one thousand years of experience informs the Hohokam voice. Are we willing to listen?”

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Christopher Boone: One condition that I believe can lead to vulnerablity and possibly total collapse of societies. Here it is: Societies are vulnerable when human injustice is perpetuated.

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Are all humans in some way related?

Donald Johanson: All humans are closely related biologically and culturally, a distinctive combination in the world of animals. All humans have been crafted by traditional Darwinian evolution through the process of natural selection. However, unlike any other creature humans have become totally dependent on culture—it is our mechanism for survival. Genetic and fossil evidence for human evolution points to a common, geologically recent, African ancestry for all Homo sapiens. Outwardly each one of us appears unique yet we carry 99.9% of the same genes. What stronger evidence do we need for a commonality for our species?

Studies of our closest living relatives, the chimpanzees, confirm a common evolutionary ancestor, some 7-10 million-years-ago. Anatomically chimps and humans are surprisingly similar, and many of the observable differences reflect our unique modes of locomotion. Other distinct features can be seen in brain and tooth size, but all-in-all chimps and humans are variations on the same theme. Investigations of chimp behavior have also pointed out remarkable resemblances in facial expressions, emotions and other behaviors. Finally, recent sequencing of the chimp genome shows that chimps and we share more than 98% identity in our DNA.

There is no doubt that all humans are astonishingly closely related. We have evolved to be the most creative, but at the same time the most destructive species on mother Earth. Humans are, like all other life, products of the natural world and it is time we understand this relationship and carefully look after our responsibilities to the planet.

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