Monday, August 6, 2007

What is environmental anthropology? PT. II

What is environmental anthropology? PT. II

So, to pick up where I left off. Anthropologists have inherited the intellectual question of how to related humans to the natural environment. In the earliest stirrings of anthropological thought, this relationship was largely one-sided, with human actions being more or less determined by the surrounding envirionment. The perspective has been appropriately labelled "environmental determinism". This simplistic causal relationship theorized by early thinkers is more sensible when we place it in proper historical context. As voyages of discovery set upon by Western countries shifted into structures of colonialism, more and more information concerning the various peoples being encountered began to filter back to European academics who were grappling with metaphysical questions related to new encounters with reasoning about a "new" knowable earth. An important question was, how to account for diversity among humans. As naturalists had done to the biological sphere, so these men set out to apply classifications to the sphere of humanity. However, data from colonial administrators and various voyagers and tradesmen was sporadic and geographically limited. Therefore, the picture of human diversity that began to develop in Europe was one of categorical examples denoting clear differences between the peoples of different geographical regions. Missing were the mulititudes upon mulititudes of slight variations that marked the transitions between people of one color and those of another. So the questions came, well naturally, why are these people tall, dark, and lean, while these are short and stalky? Why do these people have light hair and eyes, while these ones have hair that is black and dark eyes?

Environmental differences reinforced by geographical distances turned into easy explanations for these variations. Categories were created and from there it took only a small intellectual leap to begin explaining a range of human characteristics by referencing environmental influences. In 1859 Darwin's The Origin of Species added a robust theoretical base for the idea of the environment as a determining factor in the human differences begin encountered. Evolution as a concept became conflated with theories of society that sought to account for other, non-biological differences between human groups. Theories of race and social complexity appeared and lent themselves to moral arguments that allowed for the commodification of human beings as capitalism unfurled across the globe.

The first anthropologists picked up on these themes and began to develop evolutionary schemes to explain humanities progression from savagery to civilization. The environment began to drop away as an explanatory device as concepts of culture started to develop to account for differences. However, this was a culture that was held in check by assumed differences in biological capacity, particularly brain size, which kept it rooted, ultimately, in environmental causality.

With the growth of American Anthropology, under the guidance of its 'father', Franz Boas, cultural explanations, capable of exposing the racist fallacies of environmental determinants for human behavior, came to dominate the discipline.

I'll pick up on American Anthropology in my next post. I think what is most important to realize about this early era of thinking about humans and nature is that it occured within a specific historical context that has given shape to our inquiries ever since. Europe was still dazed from its own Age of Reason, which had raised fundamental metaphysical questions. God, to borrow Neitzsche's wording, was dead (or at least dying) and so there seems to have been a mixture of excitement and utter fear about what the world meant. Combine this with the new force of Capitalism that was also little understood. Put simply, there was a need to understand how all of these new things related to one another. If God was no available to give his blessing to the West's ambitions than nature had better be. So, the West was civilized and making new discoveries about, and gaining new mastery over, nature all the time--things were good. The rest of the world's people were a little slower, still influenced by the whims of nature, and perhaps just not as smart (maybe it was the heat). Anyway, we can see how the context contributed itself to a theory that began to dichotomize nature and civilization. So there was a sense of emerging from and gaining mastery over nature. And, of course, this fit with stories that Europeans had heard in church for a long time.

So, as this all gets rolling in America were facing this new division: culture/nature. We've forgotten about nature for the time being because there is a lots of culture to see and document (Native Americans). I'll try to pick the story up there next time.



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