Friday, February 24, 2012

Jonathan Marks tells archaeologists to "put down those beers"

Biological anthropologist Jonathan Marks writes some of the more insightful and entertaining works in anthropology today. Check out his website for his publications. (By the way, are YOUR publications posted online???).  I particularly like his book reviews; they are concise and pithy, often containing some real zingers that put people and ideas in their place.

I just read his outstanding book review essay on seven books on cultural evolution by evolutionary psychologists and others:

Marks, Jonathan
    2012    Recent Advances in Culturomics. Evolutionary Anthropology 21:38-42.

If you have read some of these works applying biological models to cultural evolution, you will recognize the aptness of Marks' comments (such as the fact that decades ago anthropology solved many of the supposed problems they bring up).

Anyway, to the remarks on archaeologists and beers. Marks ends his essay arguing for the importance of distinguishing good science from bad science (a major theme in his publications), and the need to link anthropology to broader intellectual currents. Such linkages:

"will probably also require some archaeologists to put down those beers and get involved in building the intellectual bridges that will link the natural and social studies of human evolution." (Marks 2012:42).

I am all in favor of building these bridges (check out my past posts indexed with "Archaeology and other disciplines"), but do we really have to "put down those beers"  do do this? I write this from the Texas hill country, where I have very much enjoyed the ales from the "Real Ale" brewery in Blanco, TX.


Anonymous said...

More on Marks.... This is from Matt Cartmill's recent review of Why I Am Not a Scientist: Anthropology
and Modern Knowledge.
By Jonathan
Marks (2009) Berkeley: University
of California Press. Evolutionary Anthropology 19:271–272 (2010)

In the final analysis, Marks is
unlikely to win over any practicing
scientists to his way of looking at science.
Some of the ideas he espouses
deserve a better and more convincing
exposition. If you want to confront a
truly devastating attack on the idea
that increasing human knowledge is
a good thing, go back and read Kurt
Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle. And if
you want to see a judicious and persuasive
account of how the study of
evolution is entangled with norms
and values, try the philosopher Mary
Midgley’s book Evolution as a Religion.
In that book, Midgley criticizes
cultural relativists in words that
could have been written with Marks
in mind:
The weakness of their work is its
spasmodic exaggeration. They tend
to talk sometimes as though the
facts did not exist, as though
spotting a motive behind a
particular line of theory settled the
question of its correctness, or
somehow prevented that question
from ever arising. The weakness of
this kind of extreme relativism has
been shown in many ways, notably
and most simply through the
question of whether such theories
in the sociology of knowledge are
themselves ordinary scientific
theories, or are somehow exempt
from their own scrutiny.3:31
I doubt that science and Jonathan
Marks are going to get back together
anytime soon. Even if science
becomes a reformed character and
gives up all the genuinely vicious
habits that this book documents,
that still won’t be good enough for
Marks. He isn’t going to make up
with science until we scientists agree
to worship in his church, swear fealty
to Cultural Relativism, and bring
up the kids in the faith. I don’t think
we’re ever going to do that, and I
don’t see any reason why we should.

Michael E. Smith said...

@Anonymous - Thanks for the pointer to a very useful and insightful review of one of Marks' books. As that review suggests, Marks' work is "seductive, witty, annoying." The review hits the weak point of his approach - he is too relativistic. Whereas Marks criticizes many scientists for their overly political interpretations and context, he seems blind to the same criticism of his own work. The book review by Cartmill is very good at exploring this issue.

Marks seems (in more recent writing) to not understand that his anti-science stance (that is, his stance against politicized, racist, science) leaves him open to the creationists, postmodernists, and others who attack science on a more fundamental level.

But if you keep this caveat in mind, it is always great fun, and insightful, to read Jon Marks.