On Bioculturalism and Tilting at Windmills

During the 2017 AAA Annual Meeting, after an excellent neuroanthropology session organized by Daniel Lende and Greg Downey, I mused about a shift in the field. To a packed room, outstanding speakers presented sophisticated theoretical models backed by ethnographic and biological evidence, and no one felt it necessary to justify or even flag bioculturalism. The presenters were simply doing good work, thoughtfully engaged with important issues. Not until the Q&A, when an audience member remarked upon how divergent this is from classical cultural anthropology, did bioculturalism emerge from the subtext. Downey responded, in part, that the biology-culture wars are over. (I’ve expressed a similar sentiment during an interview for Somatosphere.) He elaborated in a follow-up message:

Carlos Delgado/Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA

What I sometimes say about the “biology-culture wars” is that they’re over and we all lost.…But the truth is more complicated. The “biology” of today’s synthesis is such a different beast than the over-reaching, innatist, diversity-blind version of “biology” that was sold previously by sociobiologists, some evolutionary psychologists, and others. Likewise, the “culture” of today’s synthesis is not the heavily politicized “my-scholarship-is-a-weapon” and thin social constructionism of days past. The wars are over, in part, because both combatants got what they wanted—isolation—and it turned out to be unsustainable in the face of real research questions that continually demanded reaching beyond that isolation.

A legitimate space has emerged where we no longer perseverate over what bioculturalism is or does or offers. Instead, we grab the right theory and methods for the question at hand, form teams, and learn from each other. Many have made this possible, including our disciplinary institutions. I particularly credit the Society for Medical Anthropology, Society for Psychological Anthropology, and Human Biology Association; funders like NSF and Wenner-Gren; and graduate programs like those at Emory and UMass Amherst that were training anthropological holism during a period when disciplinary trends favored schism. Now there are too many academic institutions to list without omitting someone important where this kind of work can be pursued with minimal friction. Holistic critical anthropology has even penetrated conservative institutions such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Bank (where the current president is an anthropologist), and NIH.

Faculty and students at the University of Alabama have authored Biocultural Systematics as an Anthropology News column for the past 2 years. We’ll still post occasional pieces on our UA Anthropology Blog Network, but this column is drawing to a close. For our valedictory post, I thought to reflect on how far we’ve come, and what remains before us.

As we rediscover and remodel anthropological holism, perhaps the very construct of “biocultural anthropology” is overfull to the point of bursting, no longer able to contain the scope of integrative, cross-disciplinary work taking place. For instance, when I reflect upon my most recent research collaboration with linguistic, medical, and psychological anthropologist Sonya Pritzker and communication studies researcher Josh Pederson, the term seems constraining. Am I doing biocultural-linguistic-medical-psychological neuroanthropology now? What a cumbersome phrase!

Over the coming years, I see several intellectual projects that will cut to the core of making integrative anthropology theoretically informative and practically useful in the 21st century.

  • Linking big and small data. In an age of big data, anthropologists are most distinctive for our capacity to provide “small data”—deep analysis of a small number of cases that explain what surveys cannot. Yet, we also produce big data, such as through dense experience sampling, lengthy naturalistic video recordings amenable to high-resolution coding, and continuously measured, instantaneous psychophysiology. This “bigness” is about innumerable discrete observations that come from a limited number of individuals, and can be linked to “small data” both quantitatively and qualitatively.
  • Problematizing the self-other boundary with the benefit of new forms of psychobehavioral and physiological data. Anthropologists and other social theorists have long problematized any sharp distinction between the self and the other, but the same new technologies that produce “big data” on the intra-individual level also allow us to make the biology explicit in “embodiment.” For instance, advances in the study of gene expression, as well as neurological, endocrine and immunological state regulation, leave us far better able to investigate how cultural and social context “get under the skin”—and then, how they get back out again.
  • Bringing ontogenetic perspectives to new research problems. Genetic reductionism failed spectacularly as cellular and molecular biologists came to recognize that genotypes become phenotypes through complex developmental processes, including substantial environmental inputs. Similarly, evolutionary theory increasingly is infused with developmental science. Biocultural anthropology must incorporate insights from developmental psychology and biology, as well as from our own field, regarding interactions across the life course among biology, behavior, and culture, none of which are static.
  • Listening. Perhaps this is the most important of all—we need to listen to those who challenge our conclusions, preconceptions, and epistemologies. That means reading authors who we’ve been told are uninterested in participating in a biocultural synthesis, in addition to those who actively reach out. Anthropology is a wellspring of insight about the human experience.

Like abandoned soldiers on an isolated island, furiously holding their square kilometer after the war has ended and the world moved on, there are still biology-culture warriors primed to rage against some transgression or another. I’d have lost interest entirely if it weren’t that some do remarkable scholarship. I don’t mind listening without being heard: “When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams—this may be madness. Too much sanity may be madness—and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!” (Miguel de Cervantes SaavedraDon Quixote).

As for self-definition, the prefixes have become just too much. I’ll stick with “anthropologist.” Thanks for the idea, Papa Franz. Always self-critical, but never again self-conscious, I’ll see you at the meetings.

Jason DeCaro is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama.

Biocultural Systematics is written by members of the University of Alabama Biocultural Medical Anthropology program.

Cite as: DeCaro, Jason. 2017. “On Bioculturalism and Tilting at Windmills.” Anthropology News website, December 12, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.723

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