THE BLOG
03/13/2013 06:05 pm ET Updated May 13, 2013

Biophobia, Not. Biology and Science in Anthropology

Written by Alan Goodman

In Noble Savages, his recently published and much publicized book, Napoleon Chagnon asserts that for well over a century a "widespread biophobia is built into cultural anthropological theory, which results in deep contempt for biological ideas" (p. 381). My view as a biological anthropologist and former American Anthropological Association (AAA) president is that Chagnon's characterization is based on illogical extrapolations and is factually incorrect.

I write to correct this misrepresentation because it dismisses the richness with which anthropologists regularly and deeply engage with a range of biological sciences and biologies themselves. As well, Chagnon's claim of biophobia is his launching point for his even greater misrepresentation of anthropology as 'anti-science'. The trope of anti-science reverberates in the popular press.

Chagnon is right when he notes in Noble Savages that anthropologists have often been critical of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology (explaining observed behaviors as a result of genes that were selected in the distant past to maximize reproductive fitness). Chagnon may be sensitive to these criticisms because he is a sociobiologist. However, these criticisms are hardly limited to anthropologists, and furthermore, the critiques are based on logical alternatives and data, that is, on scientific grounds.

Similar to how Chagnon extrapolates from his data on homicide to the inherently violent nature of Paleolithic humans, he extrapolates from a critique of sociobiology to widespread biophobia. However, this extrapolation is not evidence based. Contra Chagnon, in anthropology today one finds a broad and growing engagement in nearly all subfields of anthropology with the natural and biomedical sciences and non-human and human biologies. These engagements are likely not the types that Chagnon would recognize, but they are undeniable. The following are examples of diverse ways that cultural anthropologists increasingly intersect with human biologists and human biology.

  • Starting with an example from Noble Savages, Chagnon asserts that his "most outspoken anthropologic critic" (p 386) was the late Marvin Harris. Chagnon writes that Harris's materialist counter hypotheses for homicide, limited protein sources, is "biology-free" (386). Marvin Harris's career is noted for his insistence on evidence and materialist explanations that combined understandings of cultural practices, ecology and biological needs, most notably the need for adequate nourishment. When Chagnon fails to see biology and science in Marvin Harris's work, he shows how blind he is to biology and science that is anything but his type of science.
  • Harris's work helped launch nutritional anthropology and furthered the development of the parent subfield of medical anthropology. Paraphrasing anthropologist Eric Wolf, these fields are concerned with the daily struggles for food, nutrition and health of real people in real places. When Harris was writing, the predominant focus of nutritional anthropology was on the quest to obtain adequate macronutrients, especially protein and calories. Today, working along side nutritional scientists, public health professionals and biomedical scientists, nutritional and medical anthropologists continue to focus on access to macronutrients and micronutrients. Others are engaged with "overconsumption" and its health consequences, including obesity and diabetes. For example, David Kozak observed how the Pima accepted their doctor's explanations for their diabetes as "in our blood" and how this explanation contributed to a surrender to the disease. Similarly, in Making the Mexican Diabetic (2011), Michael Montoya engages ethnographically with genetic explanations for diabetes in a specific cultural setting.
  • Harris also had a hand in the clarifying the cultural and historical specificities of racial classifications. Many anthropologists including Audrey Smedley, Faye Harrison, former AAA president Yolanda Moses, and current AAA president Leith Mullings have helped to develop a critical understanding of race and racism. These cultural anthropologists have long been in deep dialogue with geneticists and biological anthropologists such as Jeff Long, Janice Hutchinson, and Michael Blakey. A very public and tangible result is the AAA's RACE: Are We So Different? Project. Through diverse personal stories, history and science, the RACE Project shows how the folk idea of race emerges historically and is made real (reified) through the invocation of natural history and eventually genetics and evolution. Interestingly, race is biological but not in the way most individuals think it is. The collaborative efforts point toward how race, rather than being in our genes, becomes biological because the stress of living in a racialized and racist society gets under the skin and health suffers.
  • Perhaps the clearest example of the interest in biology in anthropology is the rise in the number of faculty positions that use the term "biocultural." Richard Thomas, head of AAA's member services, has researched the use of "biocultural" in faculty position descriptions. It was almost never used in the Association's newsletter Anthropology News before 2004 and now is commonplace.

Biophobia and Anti-Science, not.

Chagnon takes two illogical leaps. He first equating a critique of sociobiology to widespread biophobia and then equates biophobia with widespread anti-science. However, the evidence does not support these leaps of logic. Furthermore, critiques of sociobiology are neither biophobic nor anti-science. They are legitimate scientific practices.

I hope we are ready to recognize and move past false charges of biophobia and anti-science. Anthropology today is an inclusive discipline that rests on respect for ethics, the people we work with and explanations that follow from evidence. Rather than navel gaze at false controversies, wouldn't we prefer to learn about insights that come from paying close attention to the daily lives of diverse individuals and communities?

Dr. Alan Goodman, professor of biological anthropology at Hampshire College, teaches and writes on the health and nutritional consequences of political-economic processes such as poverty, inequality and racism.

His work includes studies in the American Southwest, and he directs a long-term project on under nutrition and child development in Mexico and Egypt. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts.

He is also an associate director of the New York African Burial Ground Project and past president of the American Anthropological Association (2005-2007).

Subscribe to the Culture Shift email.
Get your weekly dose of books, film and culture.