October 2008

Barbara J. King


Anthropology for Dummies?

Learning about Anthropology from Anthropology for Dummies is like learning about other cultures by becoming a contestant on TV’s The Amazing Race. On the show, pairs of millionaire-wannabes race around the globe, chasing clues as they seek the big money prize. Weekly, contestants run out of an airport in some world capital into a taxi; shout “rapido” (seemingly no matter the local language) at the driver; pound pell-mell the pavement of a historic city or walk the remote bush in order to carry out an inane task linked in some TV producer’s mind with the “traditional local culture” (eating repulsive bugs or driving an irascible donkey down a path); spend maybe six minutes with a knowledgeable native who takes pity on their confusion and helps them navigate; wax ecstatic about how travel connects people and how we’re all the same under the skin; catch some Zs; then head out next morning to do it all over again.

OK, I watch the show. Even more, I enjoy it. But I know I’m not watching Anthropology.

Amazing as Anthropology is, it’s no race. Doing Anthropology is about taking the time to observe, to listen, to ask, to probe, to figure out things about human dynamics (or human fossils or humans’ closest relatives or humans’ archaeological past) that often aren’t what they seem on the surface.

Anthropology for Dummies strives for the surface.

It’s no big surprise to discover that this new volume in the ever-expanding, wildly successful Dummies series aim for the superficial. Isn’t that the series’ whole point, to simplify for a general reader? Titles range from Biochemistry for Dummies and Intermediate German for Dummies to Gluten-Free Cooking for Dummies and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder for Dummies. I’m going to stick with Anthropology for Dummies.

Now, I’m no academic snob. I think that professors who write textbooks that snag students’ minds by bringing clarity and excitement to their subject should be rewarded for their scholarship just as much as those who write journal articles thick with obscuring jargon. Further, based on his breadth of knowledge and colorful language, I have no doubt that Cameron M. Smith, an anthropologist at Portland State University (who wrote this book along with Evan T. Davies) could create a bang-up textbook.

But he hasn’t. Textbooks invite you into a new subject, but also invite you to realize you’re just dipping your toe into deep waters. Chapters’ ends invite students to explore further: to read more, to read deeply, to access the best sites on the web. In Anthropology for Dummies, no such invitation is forthcoming, because nowhere is a “further reading” section included. In fact, Smith hints it works the other way ‘round: students grappling with the complexities of an introductory textbook should cleave to Dummies:

That’s why I’ve written Anthropology for Dummies -- to share what remarkable things anthropologists have discovered and continue to discover with folks like you who are fascinated with the human species (or at least fascinated with passing your Intro to Anthropology class).

In lieu of further reading, topic by topic, the book offers at its end, “Ten Great Anthropologically Themed Movies and Books.” One of the movies is 1982’s Quest for Fire. Here Smith reveals himself to be a master of understatement by noting, “The film is pretty dramatic, and many archaeologists would cringe at some of the technical details.” Also included is William Golding’s 1954 novel Lord of the Flies. It leads, Smith says, to musing about whether “human nature” is “a product of our surroundings, or is it more deeply rooted in the fact that we’re basically large social primates?” Maybe so, but couldn’t the list devote itself fully to works by anthropologists? I trust the interested reader to handle some serious, if optional, homework (and make a start by offering some suggestions below).

How does Anthropology for Dummies do Anthropology? I approached the book cautiously based on its self-contained framework. As I read, this initial tentativeness intensified like windy gusts intensify into a tropical storm.

If you enjoy perusing dental formulas of Old World versus New World monkeys, or dates for origins of some common domesticated animals, or a list of cultural universals, this book can be fun -- but troublesome. When checklists and facts are a book’s selling point, they had better be accurate. (Would the Amazing Race pass off to contestants racing in South America a suite of North American bugs? I think not.)

Bonobos are not “a kind of West African chimpanzee” (they live in Democratic Republic of Congo smack in the middle of the continent, and are socially quite different than chimpanzees). Gorillas don’t only live in “harems” (a term no anthropologist I know has used for years), as many groups contain two silverback males. The famed “Lucy” (a type of australopithecine) was not discovered in 1972, but 1974. The earliest Homo sapiens does not date to 100,000 but 200,000 years ago, a headline-grabbing paleoanthropological update that’s a few years old now. Some pages after this error, the text says that the best early Homo sapiens fossils are “dated to around 150,000 years ago.” All this is meant to un-confuse students who struggle with the material in an introductory college class?

And that’s only in my own subfield, where I can spot errors easily.

Next let’s consider that blurry realm beyond black and white, where it’s interpretation that matters. I’ll steer clear of railing at headings like “Screeching and howling: Non-human animal communications,” though humor at the expense of accuracy isn’t so amusing. (Many non-human animals utilize complex communication systems.) There’s enough confusion here to go around. On page 5, Smith introduces physical (or biological) anthropology by saying it “focuses on humanity as a biological phenomenon -- just another member of the 200+ primate species on Earth today.” At this, I cringed. Biological anthropologists work within an evolutionary framework, but most are interested in understanding the discontinuities as well as the continuities between humans and other primates. Doesn’t the whole enterprise of studying what it means to be human collapse if we take the “just another primate” viewpoint? I’d argue, too, that “biological” is better put as “biocultural,” and that the difference exceeds a semantic nicety. From its very dawn, the human story from one of cultural as well as biological adaptation to the local environment. Lo and behold, move on to page 38 and humans have, after all, become “the biocultural” animal. So which is it?

Internal consistency is not a strength of this book. Smith claims we’re just another primate, but then writes that “all other animals survive mainly through their biology and by relying on instinct rather than… cultural information.” It’s your grandmother’s anthropology, not today’s, that rests on a divide between animal instinct and human culture. Evidence of cross-generational learning in monkeys and apes (about who’s kin, who’s dominant, how to warn others of predators, how to make and use a tool, and even in some cases about how a social partner may be in need of empathy and compassion) is strong.

I like Smith’s readiness to take on issues like ethnocentrism, and at times the examples are memorable and effective: “Say you’re an American tourist visiting Bali, Indonesia, and you observe a kite festival. From your perspective -- which is that kites are flown for recreation -- you may conclude that the Balinese are just playing… But actually the Balinese attach deep religious significance to the annual kite festival, in which the kites represent Hindu deities. The tradition holds that agricultural success depends on how well teams from each village fly their kites. Because you don’t know this -- and can only understand what the Balinese are doing based on what kite flying means in your own culture -- your view that the kites are just toys is an ethnocentric interpretation.”

Smith writes too of more egregious results of ethnocentrism, and racism (“the history of racial typing”), in short bursts. But can racism be dealt with by a surface approach? Can any author define and describe Marxism in six lines of type? Can asserting that “sex is a relatively straightforward matter of biology” but “gender can be very complicated” do any kind of justice to the complexities of transgender, and of thinking beyond sex-as-biology?

It’d be so much easier to forgive oversimplification of all these topics if only further reading were recommended! There’s a bounty from which to choose. For the complexities of ape communication and culture, read something by Frans de Waal, maybe Our Inner Ape. For race and biology, one of Jonathan Marks’s books, like What it Means to be 98% Chimpanzee, would do nicely. People interested in Native American culture could follow up with Shepard Krech’s The Ecological Indian. To challenge sex-as-biology, no book is better than Anne Fausto-Sterling’s Sexing the Body. Intrigued by the cutting-edge realm of anthropology-and cyber-world-studies? Read Tom Boellstorff’s Coming of Age in Second Life.

Speaking of cyber-world, good anthropology websites abound as well. I’ve recommended John Hawks’s site here before, and recently have come to enjoy Savage Minds.
Bottom line: Just as The Amazing Race is an enjoyable show, if not taken as a primer on how to travel and see the world, Anthropology for Dummies can offer some fun moments. But consult it only if you’re in the mood for a skate on the surface. And know that communicating Anthropology to the public needn’t skate on ice this thin.  

-- Barbara J. King awaits the fall conference season in Chicago (AAR) and San Francisco (AAA).