Monday, July 28, 2014

Some People Find Human Domestication an Upsetting Notion

A while back I mentioned some new work on human domestication by Jim Chatters, famous (notorious?) for his part in the Kennewick Man controversy. I disagreed with his conclusions, but my reaction was nothing compared to that of some others. The letters page of the July 25 issue of Science features the following, signed by 13 eminent American professors:
As anthropologists, archaeologists, and biologists, and as members of the National Academy of Sciences, we were startled to read J.C. Chatters’ statement that the cranial morphology of early Native Americans “represented a human ‘wild type’,” whereas more recent native American cranial morphology reflected a “domesticated” form. . . . We are deeply offended by Chatters’ implicit comparison of early Americans to the wild ancestors of today’s domesticated animals.

We are disheartened to learn that there are those who continue to believe that cranial morphology carries implications of a presumed “wild” state. By doing so, they demean the very people they attempt to understand.
Now I ask you, what is this all about? Why did 13 important academics take time out from their presumably busy lives to organize this protest of a minor bit of anthropological research? Was this really the worst thing happening in the world last month, the thing they felt the most need to speak out against?

Ok, I get it, anthropologists these days are hyper-sensitive about anything that might be offensive to the communities they want to study.

But what is offensive about Chatters' work? Is it the very notion of human self-domestication? If so, they are a little late to this party, since debate about self-domestication has been going on for at least 20 years, and the concept has spread far enough to appear in the New York Times and Slate. And if they are offended by the concept, why? Are they trying to deny that humans have continued to evolve since we spread across the globe? Because statistical genomics makes it all but certain that our evolution has in fact speeded up, not slowed down.

I suspect that what offends them is the notion of “wild” humans; they probably think this points back to Victorian racism, when “wild men” were those primitive tribes that needed to be missionized, imperialized, and generally brought under white, western control. If so, they have lost touch with the culture. These days, to be wild is a good thing. This is the era, as I just said in another context, of The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig. Imagine a poll with the question, “would you rather that a potential date thought of you as wild or domesticated?” Would 90 percent of Americans answer “wild”, or just 80 percent? We love wild animals, especially savagely dangerous ones. I am waiting, as I have said, for those guys who live in cabins in Idaho to discover this research and proclaim themselves throwbacks to pre-domesticated humanity. The notion that there is something offensive about being considered wild is the real Victorian idea here.

Not to mention that this protest seems made in ignorance of actual Native Americans. The Indians I know would be very happy to hear that they are more like wolves than they are like Europeans. Especially, some of them would add, like anthropologists.

No comments: