In summary: Anthropology and Modern Life

This essay is a review of Franz Boaz’s 1962 book of the same title. This book came highly recommended and is the second topic I’m reading on the evolution of human societies (first was The Deep Origin of Societies).

Franz is generally considered a father of American anthropology, and this is one of the early texts that defined the field. It was a really good book and in a few points, here’s what I learnt.

1. Anthropology is the study of us

I used to confuse anthropology with anatomy, but not anymore. Sure, both fields study people, but anthropology is much broader. It’s the study of people in our human groups. As a friend put it, “Anthropology is the study of human lives to understand humans.”

It’s a social science that uses the knowledge from other fields like anatomy, biology, psychology and genetics to understand the evolution of culture, language and human societies in general. It branches out into four fields: biological and cultural anthropology, linguistics and archaeology.

2. Race is a social construct

Two chapters of this book are dedicated to correcting misconceptions about race. It must have been very controversial back in 1928 when it was first released. Race is not a scientific classification and black/coloured people are not an inferior group? Radical.

Race is a classification based on physical variations like skin colour, hair texture, facial features and physical build. But in every one of the races, there are similar variations of people: short and tall, blue and brown eyes, idiots, plebeians and geniuses. Admittedly, we find a higher distribution of certain types of people in certain races, but this is not an inherited property of the group.

3. Multiple factors contribute to a person’s form and capacity

Okay, let’s throw race into the trash. But what about the evident physical differences across the world? How did that come about?

Some of this is ascribed to evolution and human adaptation over the years; for example, how narrower noses are adapted to colder climates. As humans migrated over the world, our bodies changed to better adapt to the differing environments. This adaptation is passed down from parent to child: heredity is based on family lines.

There’s also a huge part of development that’s dependent on the environment. Many people who grow up in more favourable conditions tend to generally have better physical and mental capacity. But once again, this is not an inherited property of the group, and anyone can be an exception.

4. Blame closed group mentality for racism

Even if we’re clear that there’s no biological basis to “x group of people is superior to y group”, this doesn’t remove the current reality of racism. Why do people believe in racial superiority anyway?

After discounting innate animal antipathy, Franz settles on closed group mentality. When humans were wild and scattered in small groups across the world, we hated and killed strangers in self-preservation. Some of that behaviour persists. I don’t fully accept this explanation, but I understand it.

In closed groups, people are taught to adulate a certain way of being and to be repulsed by anything else. For example, if you’re taught to eat with utensils, seeing others eat with their hands can feel genuinely “disgusting”, or if you’re brought up in a moralistic society, any form of body-baring can trigger an automatic reaction like hatred.

If we combine intense cultural differences with the innate need to self-preserve, it’s maybe easy to see how the desire for racial hegemony emerges.

5. Nationalism is dead; long live nationalism

In modern times, the prevalent grouping of people other than by race is by nationality. Nationalism is often considered solely politically (allegiance to the State), but it has a cultural definition. As Boaz puts it, “Neither the bonds of blood nor those of language alone make a nationality. It is rather the community of emotional life that rises from our everyday habits, from the forms of thoughts, feelings, and actions which constitute the medium in which every individual can unfold freely his activities”.

Nations are political inventions to make the most of human capacity. Humans started out thinly scattered, but through peace and war, we’ve increased our group sizes gradually, from hordes to tribes and from states to nations. We do things better when we bring together different ways of thinking.

By definition, a nation is made up of many cultural units, and so the idea of nationalism shouldn’t be restricted to political allegiance to the State. We shouldn’t suppress our cultural differences or aim to create a homogenous culture. Different cultures can express themselves independently while participating in the political unit.

6. Even good eugenics is tricky

Eugenics is the pursuit of perfect humanity. But there’s no such thing.

There seem to be two camps on this one. First, the bad: people that believe that certain groups (usually theirs) are superior and others should be eliminated or fully imbibed. Think German Holocaust, Chinese Uighurs.

This school of thought was dismissed with point 2 above. Human capacity is complex. It’s based on not just heredity but also the environment we grow up in. No group of people is biologically superior so as to warrant the assimilation of others.

Changing the genes of an unborn child is banned because we don’t fully understand what we’re doing yet, although more than one Chinese scientist has gone on to do it anyway

The other school of eugenics is more humanitarian. Some people are hereditarily unfortunate and are less suited for this environment. They’re born with diseases that make their lives (and the people around them) full of pain. In this case, being able to change our biological composition — through, for example, gene-editing — can help to eliminate this suffering.

The technology has kicked off but no one has a clear idea of how this may come back to haunt us. For now, governments are being very careful to regulate it. Changing the genes of an unborn child is banned in the scientific society because we don’t fully understand what we’re doing yet, although more than one Chinese scientist has gone on to edit an unborn baby anyway.

Gene-editing less regulated for people out of the womb and is already being used to heal rare sicknesses. But who will be able to change what? Franz argues that suffering and pain is part of the human experience. It’s a slippery slope when we change something, he warns:

“While, humanely speaking, this may be a beautiful idea, it is unattainable. Many of the works of sublime beauty are the precious fruits of mental agony; and we should be poor, indeed, if the willingness of man to suffer should disappear. However, if we cultivate this ideal, then that which was discomfort yesterday will be suffering to-day.”

7. Culture is usually passed down as automatic reactions

As Franz describes, cultures become stable over time through the imposition of ways of being and thinking on people. These rules are propagated through what he calls “automatic reactions”. People are taught to do things one way and they, without questioning, also pass it on. Doing things differently is considered an offence to society, punishable by law, ostracization or outright violence.

A truly democratic culture/society, on the other hand, encourages individual independent thought: it allows people to question the ideals they’re asked to hold. Culture is not abstract; it is performed. It’s for the people, not the other way around.

8. Generally, humanity tends towards larger groups

Franz accurately guessed that the next step in the evolution of human groups was the federation of nations e.g. the African and European Unions. Also, with increasing migration, modern cities have become very cross-cultural.

In this information age, we’ve gone one step ahead. The internet today is as close as we’ve ever gotten to a global human society. I can’t help but wonder what Franz would have to say about it.

📝 I finished this book with a much better understanding of race, inheritance and a fresh insight on individualism. With Franz’ numerous examples, I learnt about cultural variation and the evolution from primitive to modern societies: what has changed and what vestiges we still hold on strongly to. Thanks to Sophie and Otas for reading my drafts and making recommendations.

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