Archives - Anthropology: Page 11
Author: paul carson (Fri Oct 27, 2006 3:47 pm)
In the late nineteenth century, American anthropology was a hobby practiced by amateurs, and as both Melville Herskovits (1953) and Marshall Hyatt (1990) have emphasized it was dominated by an evolutionary doctrine inherited from biology and steeped in racism. The degree to which a particular society had developed, most believed, could be measured by finding its place along a linear scale with the educated world of European and North America at the top and the most primitive tribe at the bottom.
Into this stale atmosphere, young Boas appeared like a spring breeze. Even before his trip to Baffin Island, he had begun to question the belief in reductive materialism that had dominated his studies in physics. Instead he turned to a general investigation of the interaction between inorganic and organic matter, and in particular the “relation between the life of a people and their physical environment” (Hyatt, 1990). “How far”, he wondered in a question that is echoed in this book, “may we consider the phenomenon of life from a mechanistic point of view?”.
In his lifelong search for an answer to this fundamental question, Boas understood two important features of complex dynamics a half century before they came to be appreciated by significant numbers of physical scientists. The first is nonlinearity, which he quaintly termed “differentiation” that leads to further differentiation. This effect, he wrote,
… may be observed in all specific phenomena of nature. A valley has been formed as the effect of erosion. It is the cause that in the further action of erosion the waters follow its course. Luxurious vegetation is the effect of a moist soil. It is the cause of retaining more moisture in the soil. A household performs joint work, and the joint work strengthens the unity of the household. Leisure obtained by preservation of a plentiful supply of food stimulates invention, and the inventions give more leisure. (Boas, 1928)
In each of these examples, one observes, the whole is more than the sum of its parts. The valley, the forest, the family, the community, each grows to become a robust entity like the tornado or the flock of geese.
Secondly, the crucial role that historical accidents play in the development of a culture was consistently emphasized by Boas throughout his long career, a perspective that is related to modern notions of dynamic chaos. Although genetic, economic, or geographic causes are sometimes proposed as determinants of the practice of mankind, Boas found such reductionist theories inadequate. One must not ignore the interrelated aspects of cause and effect in social dynamics nor neglect the importance of happenstance. Thus his classic Anthropology and modern life (1928) concludes with the statement:
Bestowed by nature, upon chance discoveries or contacts, and therefore prediction is precarious, if not impossible.
Thinking about our own lives, filled as they are with watershed decision, chance meetings and unexpected tragedies, we must admit the truth of this perspective, though some choose not to do so.
One should not suppose that Boas’s early rejection of reductive materialism led him toward beliefs in mysticism or divine intervention. Quite the contrary. Dedicated to the task of understanding “what determines the behavior of human beings”, Boas brought from his training physics a lifelong commitment to scientific accuracy and the “gift of skepticism” for theoretical ideas not based on carefully assembled data. According to Herskovits (1953), he gave to his science.
In addition to massive accumulations of facts, basic methodological and theoretical insights, while many of his critical analyses freed those who succeeded him from the need explore paths which lead to proposition that would confuse, rather than clarify, the aims of the discipline. To thinking of his time he gave a firm scientific support for tolerance toward racial and cultural differences, in terms so well reasoned and documented that much of what he stood for has moved into common thought, its source unsuspected by most of those who follow it.
Based on facts that he carefully observed and methodically recorded, Boas came to believe that anthropology should not aim to discover laws for the development of cultural configurations because such laws do not exist (Hyatt, 1990). Happenstance plays too strong a part. Instead the ethnologist should concentrate upon and attempt to understand the nature of the relationships between known cultural configurations and the individuals from which they emerge: the chemistry of human life.
grow and be kind