Cultural Anthropology and Physics Envy

Repost from the old site.
A Christmas Day New York Times article by George Johnson, A Question of Blame When Societies Fall, has elicited quite a bit of comment in the blogosphere. The article concerns Jared Diamond, anthropologist and popular author of two recent books on cultures, Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. The first deals with why societies succeed, and the second deals with why societies fail.
First of all, I have read neither book, but I did read parts of Collapse, specifically the chapter on the Rwanda genocide. Diamond placed the blame for the genocide on a logical Malthusian theory that population had outstripped food supply which resulted in massacre to reduce the human population so there would once again be enough food and land to go around. It seemed reasonable at the time, and it still does now.
Other than that, I have not read a lot of Diamond. He did some good work on the Proto Indo-European homeland though, which he logically places in the Southern Ukraine.
The article discusses how the politically correct have rendered cultural anthropology into something pretty silly these days. This state of affairs was a culmination of a series of events in the history of anthropological theory over the past century.
In the first half of the 1900’s, there was still a trend in anthropology, the Great Chain of Being, to see European culture as the pinnacle and to judge all cultures in relation to how far they had climbed up the European ladder.
At the same time, Franz Boas and Margaret Mead were working at cross-purposes to the implied White Supremacism of the Great Chain of Being. Kevin MacDonald has done excellent work in showing how Boas and Mead used dubious theory to advance an explicitly anti-racist agenda in anthropology.
Mead herself was conned by her informants in Samoa. Having worked as an anthropologist myself, I am sympathetic to Mead while most are snide in their dismissal of her failures. It’s pretty easy to get conned by your informants, and it’s always a risk in anthropological work. If you think you are above that, go out and do some cultural anthropology fieldwork sometime, and get back to me.
Although Boas and Mead used a lot of fake theory to advance their agenda, we must give them at least some back slaps for trying to divert the anthropological stream of thought in an anti-racist direction. MacDonald and other racialists treat the Boasians as if they were some species of evil. Yet anti-racism is never evil, at least in intentions. It cannot be by its nature.
The Johnson article describes a politically correct conference of cultural anthropologists convened in order to attack Diamond’s books. Diamond appears to be getting it from all sides. Race realists attack him for opposing racialist theories and supporting cultural, as opposed to genetic, explanations for the degrees of success or failure of various cultures.
Diamond’s books were actually written as explicitly anti-racist critique. The winners in world history to did not overwhelm the losers due to superior genes, and the losers did not lose due to inferior genes.
Instead, we have accidents of history and geography for the winners and hostile neighbors, runaway population growth, environmental devastation, climate change, weakened trade partners and failure to resolve societal problems for the losers.
History is reduced to a crap shoot, and there are no good guys or bad guys. For this rather harmless theorizing, Diamond is being excoriated by the PC crowd.
The PC crowd, as usual, tosses out the expected weak, grasping, comical yet pitiful feel-good theories: The winners are at fault for the decline of the losers. The losers failed due to accidents and unintended consequences, not due to deliberate stupidity.
The Rwandan genocide was not a Malthusian human earthquake and resource war, instead it is reduced to an exercise in witchcraft whereby “killing the king” will bring back good luck in ailing harvests.
And at the end of the day, anti-racist Jared Diamond, like anti-racist Robert Lindsay, is another racist voodoo doll for the PC crowd to stick pins in.
Steve Sailer weighs in, defending Diamond, and GNXP tosses out a nearly incomprehensible post about Johnson’s piece. In GNXP‘s post and in the long and equally difficult comments section, GNXP authors and commenters thrash away at cultural anthropology. For examples of the sort of stuff that gets their goat, see these links here, here , here and here.
Wincing through the painful comments section, one sees the GNXP’s main beef with cultural anthropologists – they oppose the GNXP’s favorite subject: the genetics of racial superiority and inferiority. IQ, IQ, IQ, IQ and IQ, g factor, g, Blacks and IQ. Niggers are stupid, niggers are stupid, niggers are stupid and niggers are stupid. Oh yeah, and IQ, g factor and niggers are stupid.
The GNXP’ers have a damned one track mind. Everything is coded in the genes. From 1840-1900, when the Irish were as criminal as the Blacks of today, no doubt the Irish criminal gene was expressing away. Yet now it has curiously receded. Jews got the money gene, except in Eastern Europe in the late 1800’s when they had the poverty gene.
The Germans had the Nazi gene in the 30’s and 40’s, yet it has now nearly vanished. Everything in human behavior and society, in politics and economics and everything in between, is due to our genes. Culture is a sideshow, laughable in its meaninglessness to our enterprise.
The GNXP comments thread here was particularly painful to read, as they spend most of their time slamming cultural anthropology as utterly lacking in any scientific enterprise.
I beg to differ, and I will offer you some examples from my work as a cultural anthropologist in which science and the empirical method was important in my work. I spent 1 1/2 years working with a local Indian tribe on a government grant doing linguistic and anthropological work.
First, a bit of a defense of the cultural anthropologists: They have to work with these cultures. They go live with them, or work with them intimately. The members of these cultures are called informants.
One thing anthropologists learn very quickly is that you must suspend all moral judgments about the culture you are studying. Why? Because otherwise you will not get anywhere with them. It’s a strictly utilitarian decision. This is part of the reason why nowadays anthropologists are so reluctant to attack various cultures and peoples: we still need to work with these folks! If we attack them, they won’t work with us anymore.
As a painful example, the Indian tribe that I worked with was very suspicious of anthropologists, and many actively disliked the whole enterprise of Whitey coming out and studying the Indians. A mythology had sprung up whereby the evil White anthropologists had come out to the Indians, harmed the Indians, deliberately told lies about them, and basically just screwed them over.
The anthros hated Indians, and their agenda was to lie about them to make them look bad. This is the BS the revered Indian elders had told their gullible children.
One professor, Robert F. G. Spier, who had done his PhD dissertation on the tribe wanted to know what the tribe had thought of his work. I told him they had not even read it, and to tell the truth, many tribal members were hostile to him, as they were to all anthropologists. He was crushed, but he said, cynically, that he understood. Just to show you what we are up against.
Now, with all the hostility these Indians have towards the well-meaning anthros of the past, you can see how we need to tread carefully around our informants. Our rep is bad enough as it is. It’s painfully important to show love and compassion towards the people that we study.
In the course of my work, I read through all of the anthropological data assembled by the anthros of the past. There was a ton of great info in there. When I presented my findings to to top Indians in order to turn the work into a book – an ethnography of the tribe, the whole project was cruelly shot down.
The elders had created a myth whereby they had outsmarted the evil White anthros by telling them a pack of lies, thereby getting back at them and thwarting their whole wicked Whitey project. All the anthropological work was contaminated. Even if it were not all lies, we could not tell where the lies began and the truth ended. Not one word could be written.
The project was shelved; I was crushed, angry, embittered and cynical, yet with my background in psychology, I sadly understood the defenses working behind the Indians’ views.
At this point, my project became a scientific one. Was it actually true that the Indians had told the anthros a pack of lies to get one over on the evil White man? I worked on this question for months (while doing many other things). I read a lot more material and talked to anthropologists all over the country. I read and re-read the materials and compared them to each other.
My hypothesis was: No, the Indians had not lied to the anthros. This hypothesis had to be rejected. There were clearly cases of lying, but they were easily spotted and isolated. I fleshed out most of them and just accepted the rest as the best truth we could find. The various ethnologies by anthros trotting through every couple decades lined up extremely well.
The few questions that the Indians questioned so ferociously – “Did the Indians eat rattlesnakes, gopher snakes and skunks?” was one – were identified as painfully obvious cases of psychological defenses. Nowadays, the Indians think eating skunks is terrible, as skunks stink. The meat doesn’t stink, but it is oily yet edible. The aboriginal Indians may well have eaten skunks, but probably not often.
We need to consider that aboriginal Indians probably readily ate any decent-tasting small animal that they could easily capture and kill. Skunks are easy to kill, and the meat is ok enough to eat if you are hungry.
Modern Indians recoil at the idea of eating gopher snakes and rattlesnakes, as one lives in the dirt and “tastes dirty”, and the other is poisonous. I concluded that both snakes were eaten, and that gopher snakes do not taste dirty, as this is illogical thinking based on the notion that if something lives in the dirt it must taste like the dirt.
There were other empirical questions: What was the religion of the Indians? Nowadays, the local Indians were passionate Christians, and believed in something called the Great Spirit, the Great Creator, or the Creator. But was that an aboriginal belief? Once again, the question lingered over months of intensive research, hypothesis-testing and scientific back and forths.
I finally concluded that the aboriginal Indians were animists for whom the world, and everything in it, was alive with electric energy. The rocks, the trees, everything…a life force flowed through it all. The Indians used various magical items to tap into this magical world of spirits.
Curiously, animism is not incompatible with modern science.
As particle physics says that we are all part of everything else, and any two particles in contact will tend to spin together for the rest of their existence, there is a spinning and buzzing subatomic tapestry that links us all together as one. My body does not end where yours begins, and I am still connected to my ex-girlfriend Tracy from 1978, if she is still alive, as our particles continue to spin in tandem.
When an Indian died, a ceremony was held to see the spirit off to the Land of the Dead, which lay to the West. This ceremony was observed by Edward Curtis in 1878, 28 years after major contact, so it was probably aboriginal.
The aboriginal Indian God was described to me by a fellow anthropologist, Sylvia Broadbent, as a Deus Obtusa, or Lazy God . It was not important at all in their lives, but it did create the world, after which it did not do much of anything, except perhaps every once in a while when it got off its ass to yawn and intervene trivially in our affairs a bit before heading back to the cosmic bong hits.
Sydney Lamb concurred that aboriginally, California Indians did not believe in a Christian-type “Great Creator” God.
After 1850, the Gold Rush hit these Indians hard, and by 40 years later, 93% of them were dead. In the meantime, they were exposed to Christianity, and many were converted. At the same time, I believe, the California Indians were exposed to the Plains Indian notion of the Great Creator. Nowadays, you will find most US Indian tribes believe in a Great Creator. Aboriginally, perhaps only the Plains tribes did.
I believe that the Great Creator belief of the Plains diffused out as a general “Indian” belief in God, and rapidly Christianizing Indians all over the US picked up on it and adapted it for their own. The reason for this diffusion was the Christianization of the Indians and their exposure to the omniscient and omnipresent God of Christianity.
In order to adopt this new Christian God to the Indian World, the Great Creator concept was adopted via cultural diffusion from Plains tribes. At this point, most US Indians are passionate Christians, and most will insist that they always believed in a “Great Creator”. If you dispute this, you ask for a fight. The truth, I believe, is as described above.
Along the same lines, some of the Indian stories I was working with were the characteristic myths of the California Indians, dealing with various animal Gods. These myths explained how various things came to be, how the Earth was created, how fire was discovered, etc.
The myths date back to a time before there were people, when various animals, in the form of “Animal Gods”, and not the animals themselves as we now know them, roamed the Earth. This was the time of Stinkbug, Turtle, Coyote, Mountain Lion, Bear, Bobcat, Duck, and many other “Animal Gods”.
I talked to a high-ranking Karuk Indian and asked him whether he actually believed all this stuff. He got very angry (as Indians often do when you challenge their beliefs) and insisted it was all literally true. Then I set off on a quest to see to what extent the California Indians had actually believed in these animal myths aboriginally.
After a while, the best response I found came from a brilliant linguist named Sydney Lamb at Rice University, who told me that the aboriginal Indians didn’t really believe any of that stuff. Instead, those stories were more like the Saturday morning cartoons, or fairy tales you tell to little kids.
What is curious is how stories that were aboriginally seen as “Saturday cartoons” have now been adopted as literal truth by much more scientific-minded modern Indians, and that these modern Indians also insist that this literal belief was also held aboriginally.
There were other questions. The existence of a Yokuts tribe called the Dalinchi. The local elders passionately insisted that this was not a tribe, but was merely the name of a village, and got angry when I suggested otherwise. Looking through old mission records, a linguist friend of mine found Yokuts Indians who gave their tribe as Dalinchi. They probably would not have done so if that was only a village name.
The existence of a Yokuts tribe called Dumna was questioned, and locals stated that it did not exist, in part because cynically, the locals wished to claim Dumna land as their own, mostly so they could build a casino on it.
There was a lot of anthropological work on the Dumna, especially a great book by Frank Latta, but most crucially once again, my linguist professor friend found old mission records where Indians gave their tribe as Dumna.
The local Indians asked me to draw a map of tribal boundaries. Between other work, I spent a few months on this, poring over all sorts of maps, new and old, and old ethnologies and reports. I eventually mapped out a tentative boundary for the tribe. As with most California tribes in this area, it didn’t go very far, and it didn’t go down to the San Joaquin River where they wanted me to draw the line. Close? Yes, but not to the river.
Why did they want me to draw the line to the river? So they could build a casino there! The tribe got angry at my conclusions as I had discovered the “wrong facts”, and for a bit it seemed my job was on the line. I insisted that I was a scientist, and scientifically, I could not compromise by scientific ethics for a political agenda. They seemed to accept the basic morality of my stubborn stand, and backed down.
The various empirical questions that I dealt with in the course of my work as a cultural anthropologist are bolded above.
I do resent GNXP and to a much lesser extent Sailer (who is mostly just guilty of ignorance and thinking in the same way one “skims” a book) saying that cultural anthropology is not a science, that the scientific method is not used, that we make no hypotheses, nor do we test them, nor we do we make tentative conclusions that we continually readjust in the face of new evidence.
I defy any of the arrogant hard science types in this comments thread to tell me that I was engaging in something other than the scientific method above.


Gayton, Anne. (1948). Yokuts and Western Mono Ethnography, Volume II: Northern Foothill Yokuts and Western Mono. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Anthropological Records 10:1-290
Heizer, Robert F. (1974, 1993). The Destruction of the California Indians. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press.
Kroeber, A.L. (1953, 1967) Handbook of the Indians of California. Berkeley, CA: California Book Company.
Latta, Frank F. (1949, 1999). Handbook of the Yokuts Indians. Exeter, CA: Brewer’s Historical Press, Salinas, CA: Coyote Press.
Spier, Robert F.G. (1954) PhD Dissertation on the Chukchansi Yokuts. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.
Spier, Robert F. G.. (1978) Handbook of the North American Indians, Volume 8, California. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institute.
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3 thoughts on “Cultural Anthropology and Physics Envy”

  1. Great stuff Robert!
    It’s pieces like this that keep the readership here. I believe any talk about creator Gods vs say God as Larry Flynt is mumbo jumbo. It meant something when Christians were rampaging across the planet. Maybe will again if Christians ever get their nuts handed to them like the natives did.
    Physics as the gold standard of science? Well could be. Again, more prestigious when physics was blowing away (darker) people with all kinds of new gadgets. Why anthropology should have to kneel before physics is a mystery to me. Why ANYONE should have to respect the opinions of a physicists more than say a bus driver is beyond me. Physics is a hella elegant piece of work, at least for simple things like light. But gets impossibly messy for other things. The quantum world seems everybit as ridiculous as high high level mathematics. Just glad we have ghettoes for this things- the universities.

  2. Don’t even get me started on that “pretend” scientist over at GXNP, the self-hating in denial Indian himself, Razib. With his little bachelors of science degree in biology, he attempts to pass himself off as some kind of hard-core scholar, aka Richard Dawkins or Carl Sagan. He uses basic statistics in an attempt to give anything he says a scientific air. Seems to work on laymans, who wouldn’t even know what standard deviation is.
    In reality, he is just a basement dwelling web page designer with serious social insecurities issues. He found an outlet for it sometime ago, and it has been his life ever since.
    I was banned from his “site” some after the insurgency in Iraq started. It appears that someone with both military experience, and time spent in the Middle East, as well as language fluency, need not air an opinion that contradicts that of the “gifted one.” Turns out, I was right. He was singing my tune three years latter, just like many an American did. 😀
    He actually tried to explain away the U.S invasion of Iraq, and the Iraqi populations actions and responses, through genetics and statistics. I.E, they are stupid and backward on a genetic level, here is the standard deviation of their supposed I.Q, hence why America must invade, etc, etc, etc.
    What a fucking effeminate little shit this guy is…

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