On anthropology (I)

Sapiens is a digital magazine whose mission is to bring anthropology to the public. It has a pop-up window that asks you whether you are ‘a human’ and would like to subscribe, otherwise you are ‘not a human’. I found it funny and witty, but also odd.

I recently watched Camilla Power say that anthropology encompasses all other sciences, including biology. I interpreted this to mean that knowing ourselves (as humans) is a prerequisite to knowing everything else, so I was convinced. I have long regarded biology as more important than anthropology due to the overarching fact that we are animals. However, when listening to Camilla, I thought of the lack of objective self-criticism that I have encountered in my interactions with biologists and other ‘hard scientists’. 

Imagine that Darwin, who nearly became a priest, had not considered the possibility that he and his family are apes. This lack of humility or self-examination, though bad for science, is interesting in itself precisely because it is human. In some quarters of psychology it is called a defence mechanism. Because our nature appears objectionable, we project it onto others whom we attack or defend against. Dehumanisation is often a tribal, ‘us versus them’ phenomenon, and as anthropologists we are very interested in it. We do not want to be dragged by it but observe and describe it. 

The following Sapiens article, however, fully succumbs: ‘How Elders Make Us Human: An anthropologist responds to the suggestion that older people sacrifice themselves for the sake of the economy in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic’. Is Sapiens aware that this suggestion was made by a Homo sapiens? Perhaps not. According to the author, Jayur Madhusudan Mehta (assistant professor of anthropology at Florida State University), the quality of being human is very important indeed. You really don’t want to be a Homo neanderthalensis or any other dumb species or subspecies that does not care for its elders. Because he fails to care, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is basically an animal in the pejorative sense of the word.

Let us, however, assume that both author and magazine are aware that Dan Patrick is a human, and they are just engaging in some kind of moralising previous to the 2020 US presidential election. This introduces a number of logical problems. Firstly, of course, there is the fallacy of deriving an ought from an is, which scientists are not supposed to commit: the fact that elders have had a role in the evolution of our species does not imply anyone should do anything. Nor does it imply they should always have such a role, or that other roles are any less admirable. When salmon swim upstream to lay their eggs and then die of exhaustion, should the resulting generation of salmon feel guilty rather than proud? I really can’t see Dan’s suggestion as a failure to recognise the role of elders. As Jayur himself writes: 

Homo sapiens are unusual in the animal kingdom in the sense that our females live such a long time after they stop being able to give birth—it has been estimated that women live a third of their lives after menopause, while female chimpanzees, for example, rarely survive long after the end of their fertile period (emphasis mine) 

This means that as a grandmother, you help your offspring to have more offspring, contrary to the expected natural tendency of dedicating the last third of your life to having more of your own offspring. Why would grandmothers do that? Supposedly because they are paid back in the form of an increased reproductive success at some other level, perhaps that of genes. (We should also remind ourselves that postmenopausal women are still fully capable of sexual action.) Therefore, there is no need in principle to return any favours, as the author defends. Jayur uses the fact of a biological mechanism to justify political and personal decisions today, as if the mechanism wasn’t so deeply rooted after all; as if primates needed to be reminded that they are primates, or salmon prevented from being salmon. 

But of course humanity is more complicated than that. What Jayur is really claiming is that there is a certain contract of reciprocal altruism between the generations. As I have argued, this contract is not exactly cooperative, because cooperation does not entail ‘helping’ to the extent that we do in the case of elders. Consider, for instance, the Toraja people of Indonesia, who take out their parent’s corpses and give them dinner. Sapiens illustrates this with a picture of an old woman in a wheelchair carried by a young man – not exactly the kind of helper that makes us evolutionarily fitter:

The “grandmother hypothesis” proposes an explanation: During humanity’s evolution, grandmothers (and grandparents more generally) contributed to the family’s resources, allowing for parents to forage farther and reduce the amount of time between their children, creating larger families.

But the woman in the wheelchair is probably not contributing much. On the contrary, she is at that stage of getting the help back from those she has helped in the past. So, what Dan Patrick would maybe say is that enforcing this contract, at a time when her children (let alone her grandchildren) are under ecological or economic stress, is not a sign that they are so important to her. There seems to be a different kind of incentive for helping our elders so badly, a mystery that may shed light on why the new generations are not so up for the job. Still, Jayur insists that we are inhuman:

tough times gave an evolutionary advantage to families whose women lived beyond menopause and provided a selective boost to communities in which elders had longer lives

But the people in question have lived their long life already, which they may have even risked for their children and grandchildren. Right now, families need a different kind of ‘selective boost’, and it is only logical that their job in these circumstances would be to risk catching a flu, especially if they are unable to help anyone anymore. It is also interesting that Jayur equates selection at the level of (competing) families with the level of species:

Put another way, humanity’s evolutionary fitness was enhanced by caring for elders because providing this care improved our ability to have more children

This not only makes the biology-textbook mistake that salmon sacrifice their lives for the good of the species; it contradicts the idea that ‘tough times’ are the driver of this behaviour. Surely, making lots of children is just what salmon do, whereas one focuses on surviving and having some children when times are tough. Thus, ironically, this article promotes the Darwinist argument that our survival depends on the blind, continued increase of our numbers, when this may be the reason we have pandemics and economic crises in the first place.

(to be continued)

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