“Times Higher Ed”, stop muddying the waters

I don’t want to turn myself into a blogger obsessed with sloppy scientific coverage in the media, but I feel someone ought to note, if only for the record, the absurd and misleading comments by Hannah Fearn in the British Times Higher Education Supplement – the trade journal of UK academics. In one of the lead articles in the 20th November issue she claims that ‘anthropology is at war with itself’ having “split firmly into two factions – social anthropologists and evolutionary anthropologists.” (See here).

Compared to the 1970’s when the AAA infamously debated (and defeated) a resolution denouncing EO Wilson’ s 1975 ‘Sociobiology’ textbook as "an attempt to justify genetically the sexist, racist and elitist status quo in human society,” signs of brutal conflict today are, in reality, conspicuous by their absence…

Two or three field departments chug along smoothly enough – at least on this side of the pond – and few of my colleagues have serious difficulties today with accepting that genetic studies are part of our discipline.

What is more interesting, and relevant to our concerns here, is that of the authorities quoted by Fearn (Mace, Ingold and a few others) only Harvey Whitehouse identifies the ‘mindlblindness’ of late 20th Century anthropology, both social and evolutionary as one of the sources of mutual misunderstanding and confusion.

Curiously, in the very week that that THES published its claims, together with two colleagues at UCL, a material culture specialist (Susanne Kuechler) and a biological/primatologist (Volker Sommer), I was putting the finishing touches to a new, ‘three field’ course on The Anthropology of Mind. From next September, finalist undergraduates in our department – where all students follow a three field program –  will discuss a number of issues where our divergent approaches will, hopefully produce some interesting refractions on old debates.

Meanwhile the THES article is another sign of just how feeble British journalism has become, and, by implication, how terrible is the intellectual training provided by the universities that turn out people like Ms Fearn, who appears to believe that medical anthropology is a  ‘new research subject…’ (sic!). Comically, the only reason I have a copy of the newly revamped Supplement is that the publishers are sending out freebie copies in an effort to make us all see the value of a subscription. Well, that is forty five pounds that will now easily find a better home.

Michael Stewart teaches Anthropology at UCL.


  • Dan Sperber
    Dan Sperber 2 December 2008 (19:19)

    On the one hand, we are all too aware of frequent tensions between those anthropologists who have a naturalistic approach (rooted in cognitive psychology, biology, or both) and those who have a social-sciences-and-humanities approach. On the other hand, Michael is quite right, the war, if there ever was one, is over. On both sides, there are significant minorities aware that the other perspective has merits and willing – even eager sometimes – to collaborate both in teaching and in research. Michael, and Harvey Whitehouse whom he quotes, are right: too in pointing out that the bridge between the biological and the social-cultural is through the study of the mind/brain. The situation is still quite tense, frustrating, often even aggravating? Indeed, but, believe me, it was much worse. At least there is some conversation taking place, and there was none for many, many years.

  • guest guest 3 December 2008 (20:43)

    Nice article Michael, tks. Dan Howitt.