"I can repeat the question, but am I bright enough to ask it?"


2003

"What are the pressing scientific issues for the nation and the world, and what is your advice on how I can begin to deal with them?"


While the findings of anthropologists indicate that we should be tolerant of cultural variation, taking anthropology seriously as a science also indicates that we should not mistake exotic beliefs for science. The fact that people have diverse systems of belief does not give them all equal claims on truth.

Robert Aunger

Mr. President,

The appointment of an anthropologist such as myself to the post of science advisor would be unusual, but perhaps opportune, as some of the lessons anthropologists have drawn from their investigations over the past century have some bearing on the times. Anthropology has always been identified with the concept of culture, and recent events suggest that the need to understand how different belief systems arise and perpetuate themselves has become urgent. But let me first explain how anthropologists use the culture concept as a way of identifying how humankind is different from the rest of Creation, because this not only contains its own lesson, it sets the stage for the argument about how one cultural group comes to differ from another.

Culture is what we have that other creatures don't. However, as we have learned more about other animals, the number of features unique to our way of life has diminished considerably. For example, we used to think that no other animal learned an idiosyncratic way of performing some behavior that makes their group characteristically different from other groups—what anthropologists call "cultural traditions." Now we know that chimps—and probably a number of dolphin and whale species—do have socially acquired traditions. So we can no longer say that such traditions are unique to us.

Grammatical language is still on the list of quintessentially human characteristics, but its status on the list is highly contested because some say that chimps can be taught by human care takers to speak (or use sign language) in grammatical fashion. Thus, some species have near-human abilities to make complex judgments. Our first lesson: We should therefore consider these animals as being worthy of moral rights equal to their cognitive and emotional capacities.

The best we can say nowadays is that people have complex culture. This means primarily that we have organizations (or designed, special-purpose social groups), and technology (especially machines), which have no parallel in the rest of the animal kingdom. What is important about this, in light of recent events, is that organizations and technology have allowed human cultures to diversify in ways seen in no other animals.

Human groups exhibit specific ways of life that have emerged during the individual history of that group. As a result, the human population, unlike any other, can be divided into groups that live according to quite different sets of rules. This sometimes makes it hard for members of one group to sympathize with the members of other groups, or even to comprehend what the rationale for some "exotic" behavior like a witchcraft trial or an elaborate "rite of passage" into adulthood might be.

The anthropological enterprise would be unnecessary if people everywhere lived according to the same set of rules. At the same time, anthropology would be impossible if it weren't the case that individuals can learn to live successfully amongst those whose culture is different from their own. Aspects of culture may reflect the idiosyncratic history of each group, but they make sense within the confines of that history. Our second lesson can be drawn from this fact: Just as we should understand and respect other animals, so too should we honor other cultures, because just as species diversity is important to the survival of the biosphere, so too is cultural diversity necessary for the health and longevity of the human species. The world will only become a safer place when we realize that each and every culture is an invaluable inheritance of knowledge tested against local conditions over a long period of time.

While the findings of anthropologists indicate that we should be tolerant of cultural variation, taking anthropology seriously as a science also indicates that we should not mistake exotic beliefs for science. The fact that people have diverse systems of belief does not give them all equal claims on truth. Intelligent Design theorists, for example, argue that because the natural world is complex, a supernatural agent must have designed it. There are two problems with this argument. First, scientific theories for the emergence of complexity exist, such as Darwinian evolution and complexity theory. Second, even if such theories did not exist, the conclusion that only supernatural causes can explain such complexity does not follow, since a scientific explanation for complexity could arise tomorrow. Our final lesson: The teachings of Intelligent Design theorists therefore belong in programs of religious, not scientific, instruction.

I believe these lessons from anthropology should play an important role in deciding our future scientific policies. I respectfully hope you will agree.

Sincerely,

Robert Aunger
Department of Anthropology
University College, London
Author of The Electric Meme: A New Theory of How We Think.

John Brockman, Editor and Publisher
Russell Weinberger, Associate Publisher

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