Debate Magazine

Anthropology’s Creation Myths

By Cris

Having come to anthropology after a long and winding road, and having arrived at the destination only to find lots of dissension and bullshit, I find this assessment refreshing and accurate:

It is now possible to sum the effects of the taboo on culturally informed discussions of origins which has been imposed upon us for most of the twentieth century. When Alfred Kroeber (1901:320) declared that “all search for origin in anthropology can lead to nothing but false results,” and when similar statements were made on both sides of the Atlantic for the next fifty years, the effect was not to prevent people from believing in evolutionary theories. The effect was, rather, to allow the public access only to theories of a particular — culturally uninformed — kind.

By remaining aloof from evolutionary debate, social anthropologists of virtually all schools in the West have allowed this dire situation to come about. From the very beginning, the cultural specialists’ abstention did not produce any decline in popular interest in questions of human origins. It simply caused a lack of interest in social anthropology which — on this as so many other philosophically important issues — seemed to have nothing to say.

Every society must have its origins myth, and if it cannot obtain it from one source, it will obtain it from another. Finding the social anthropologists silent, the wider public has turned, for the lack of an alternative, to social Darwinists, neo-Darwinists and most recently sociobiologists — in other words, to people who (to exaggerate only slightly) know nothing about culture at all.

To this (not necessarily ignominious) list, which comes from Chris Knight’s Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture (pp. 69-70), we can now add — as “most recently” — evolutionary psychologists. While I don’t share Knight’s fervent suasions and am skeptical of his apparent genius, this assessment strikes home. Modern cultural anthropology has, unfortunately, mostly boxed itself into a position of theoretical, historical, and non-explanatory irrelevance.


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