Thursday, October 8, 2009

The anthropology of anthropologists

Holly posted a thorough and informative discussion of the Ardipithecus fossil find that has splashed across the media and occupies the bulk of an issue of Science. She discussed the nature of the findings and also noted some of the stir that the 15-year period of Great Secrecy (GS) surrounding these finds has led to.

I (Ken) added a comment to her post, concerning the GS. Here I provide a brief note on the GS, which I think applies regardless of the degree to which the finds are as transformative as is being currently proclaimed, at least by the media, about which I'm not a competent judge. In time, I predict that the bony points of contention will not be nearly as important as they now seem to be.

In point of fact, much of the hoopla surrounding Ardipithecus is about anthropologists more than it is about the anthropology. It's about our mundane struggles for attention, credit, career recognition, grants, and the like, and very little about when our ancestors started taking long walks (without the aid of orthotic inserts in their shoes).

It's hard to remember, with all the breathless announcements, documentaries, commentaries, and so on that these finds have been quietly sitting in the ground for 4+ million years. We didn't know about them. Darwin didn't know about them. Aristotle didn't know about them. Moses didn't know about them. Human life has motored along, increasing our knowledge incrementally, even without this find, and if the GS meant that some of us professors mis-stated things to our human evolution students in ways we might not have done had we known about Ardi, well, we're doing that today in relation to the next Great Secret Find.

So, the fuss is primarily about interpersonal relationships among the science tribe, not about any form of great knowledge gap. A century from now (or even just a few months from now?) the GS will have melted into nothing. In fact, when we're all dead and gone, it will provide fuel for a future generation of historians to make their careers talking about the finds and the GS (which students will no longer know of or care about, except that they'll be in gossip boxes inserted to help sell text books).

The GS matters only to the very worldly spats among competing anthropologists. Its titillating nature will help sell journals and documentaries and TV ads, helping our economy in many subtle ways, such as by continuing to employ journalists and professors, and bringing in tuition as students are drawn to the food-fights that serve the dual purposes of being entertaining and satisfying the Science credits for degree requirements for students wishing to avoid physics and chemistry. The controversy feeds our emotionally competitive nature, too.Those not involved don't like it when somebody else hides what they know and then gets a big splash.

But let's keep it in perspective. There is no urgency in reporting finds like these, no matter how important to our reconstruction of the human story, and 15 years make no difference in the long run. The Ardi story is not about them, it's about us.


1 comment:

Holly Dunsworth said...

Nice, Ken. (Wish there was a "like" button, like on Facebook)