Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Activist Paleoanthropology

Research into human evolution at universities is housed within either anthropology or biology departments.  Anthropology departments are inclined to pursue research across disciplines, in keeping with the mantra of "holistic" study of the human condition.  This provides the researcher with great freedom in designing research questions and methodologies.  The researcher (grad student) is also trained in the "4 fields" of anthropology-- biological, cultural, archaeological, and linguistic-- and is encouraged to adopt a philosophy that encompasses all fields.

The trouble is, the four fields really don't agree on a basic philosophy of science.  Archaeologists, and especially cultural anthropologists, are inclined to pursue research agendas aimed at provoking social change, improving conditions for those they see as disenfranchised.  The cultural arm of our program is known as "UMarx" and makes no apologies for its firm grounding in Marxist theory.  I take no issue with the politics of the department-- I agree with their view of who's disenfranchised and who's an oppressor-- but I have struggled with the concept of "science" as "activism".  Hard science values objectivity; research with a social end-goal in mind is necessarily subjective.  How is a biological anthropologist, whose study is rooted in evolutionary biology and other natural sciences, supposed to share a philosophy of science with activists?

I don't have a good answer to this question of methods and intent.  But I have realized that I am a sort of Activist Paleoanthropologist.  It's not enough to contribute to the field of human evolution, as I hope to; I need to share the story with others.  I already do this as a high school teacher, inserting a several-week human evolution unit, which is not in the state standards.  It's only in 4 state standards. Forty-six states don't include it in the biology curriculum--based no doubt on public ignorance of science-- something I hope to work towards changing.  The story of human origins-- the story told by fossils and countless other forms of evidence-- is beautiful and full of meaning, and less than 50% of Americans believe it.  Maybe we need Activist Science, after all.

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