As part of an anthropologist’s mission is the task, infrequently discussed, of determining what is “unique to humanity as a species.” Defining the human condition, we want to find that which is exclusively human. Not that we’re restrictive in our approaches. We are, in fact, very inclusive on the whole. We simply care about “what it means to be human.” Human beings are our main focus so we should be allowed to concentrate on them, using all those angles we like to use (through time and space, looking at diversity and universalism in culture, language, biology, etc.).
Yet, in this bio-obsessed neo-Darwinian world in which we live, someone’s focus on a single species is sometimes viewed as overly restrictive. In some milieus, “anthropocentrism” (like most other “-centrisms”) is perceived as a fault. In some contexts, especially in mainstream science media, “anthropomorphism” (like some other “-morphisms”) is conceived as a fallacy, a logical error.
As should be obvious, my perspective is somewhat different.
The broad reason I think about these things is a bit personal. I listen to a number of science podcasts and I encounter a number of news items about science. As an anthropologist, I’m particularly interested when science journalists or others are talking about humanity in a broad perspective. To be honest, I get slightly disappointed by the type of approach used in these contexts. In a way, those we hear on these issues tend to oversimplify the type of concept which warrants, IMHO, the most careful attention. Sure, there might be a disciplinary bias in my desire to get some concepts more carefully handled by “science media.” But there’s also a rational dimension to this desire. For instance, “culture” and “intelligence” are terms which are very significant when used with caution but become hindrances when oversimplified. A term like “species,” on the other hand, remains rather useful even in a simplified version. As a kind of hybrid case, “society” can be a fairly simple concept to grasp yet care is needed to understand what particular “social scientists” mean by it.
Clearly, there’s a type of “hard vs. soft” science issue, here. And though the disciplinary gap in science hardness is bridged by scholars themselves, science media outlets are often broadening this gap.
Became motivated to write this post after listening to the broadcast version of the latest episode of Radio-Canada’s science show. This specific episode included a panel on animal behavior, intelligence, and “culture.” This panel came at the end of a conference series on “animal societies” and related issues.
During the radio panel, one scholar dismissed the idea of using so restrictive a set of criteria to define intelligence that it would only apply to humans. The same scholar also dismissed criteria which would be so broad as to include a large number of species. In the end, this scholar’s goal is apparently to define intelligence in a quantitative way so as to encompass just enough species to be meaningful in the type of framework he has in mind.
“Fair enough,” I say. If people like him want to build a quantitative model of intelligence which includes some animal species and not others, there’s no harm in that. Science is model-building and model-testing, not “blind obedience to absolutes.” There wasn’t any discussion of why we would need such a model but, unfortunately, we can expect this kind of oversight in mainstream science media.
What I hope is also “fair enough” is that some anthropologists are attempting to build a meaningful (not exclusively quantitative) model of human intelligence which would, in effect, exclude non-human species. Not trying to say that human beings are “better” or more interesting. Just trying to show where humans and other species differ. Because many of us use do not restrict research to quantitative methods, it matters relatively little if the distance between humans and other species seems rather short. So much hinges on this distance that we can call it “significant.” It’s as much our right as the right to study phenomena which are in some ways similar to human intelligence. In fact, those who study non-human intelligence can help us in defining the outer limits of our field. Division of labor in academia is effective when people are open-minded.
During that same radio panel, another scholar dismissed the distinction between “culture” (“human culture”) and “proto-culture” (“culture among non-human species including proto-human hominids”). This scholar was using an (IMHO) awkward analogy having to do with the transition from horse-drawn carriages to automobiles. (Something to the effect that we didn’t need a new name of automobiles so we don’t need a new name for human culture.) The fact that the analogy isn’t very effective is slightly amusing. More importantly, the dismissive statement displays a “pushy” attitude which I don’t find conducive to interdisciplinary work. Oh, sure, scholars in any discipline might display this attitude on occasion. In fact, I probably said similar things in classroom contexts, in order to make a point about something I was teaching. What I find problematic has more to do with overrepresentation from simplistic approaches to culture in mainstream science media. I don’t necessarily want “equal representation” (that’s not the way science works) but I would be pleased if mainstream science media could occasionally have culture scholars talking about culture.
Maybe it’s just a knee-jerk reaction on my part. That’s why it appears on my blog.