Social Anthropology and Human Origins

April 14, 2011

The study of human origins has, apparently, a big problem. A massive, unspoken problem, lurking like a veritable herd of elephants in the room. Or to use a metaphor more appropriate to this book, a social anthropologist cowering under the bed. Except, when the problem is analysed, the only issue with human origins is that a social anthropologist thinks that it should have more social anthropology in it (name a subject area to which that doesn't apply!).

Alan Barnard's aim is to start a discussion about the role that social anthropology should play in the study of human origins. He suggests that as the largest sub-group of the discipline, it should be a relatively simple task to shine the light of social anthropology on our evolution to correct the errors made by all those cold, clinical scientists. As a final coup de grâce, after a very selective review of some of the more recent human evolutionary literature, he concludes that we need to reclassify human origins as a sub-field of social anthropology. Please excuse me if I don't shout "hooray!" at this suggestion, but at the same time, don't assume I have an axe to grind with social anthropology: as part of a Royal Anthropological Institute team, I have designed an anthropology A level that combines both social and biological themes to celebrate what we share while enjoying different opinions and approaches.

Barnard argues that the traditional methods employed by biological anthropologists are not good enough to explain our evolution, as they do not take into account the social or cultural aspects of our evolutionary journey. I am at a loss to reconcile this statement and others like it with the subject I am part of. The study of human origins is no longer the preserve of "us" biological anthropologists: we collaborate with geneticists, climate scientists, primatologists, archaeologists and ecologists.

Barnard suggests that the application of lessons learned from social anthropology could improve the depth of human origins as a field. It is a laudable intention with a fatally limited scope, which he inadvertently points out at the end of chapter 3, stating that social anthropology cannot really offer anything for the study of species other than Homo sapiens - and of course we form only a small part of the evolutionary story of hominins.

This book's thesis unwittingly portrays social anthropology as a subject crying out in the wilderness in search of modern-day relevance: nothing could be further from the truth. It is a vibrant subject with multiple applications across a wide spectrum. The lack, or perceived lack, of social anthropological ideas in the study of human origins is the product of the nature of social anthropological study, based as it often is on the solo participant observation method of study.

While this is a point that Barnard concedes, it makes the conclusion of his book all the more galling for the huge range of scientists working in the field of human origins.

Social Anthropology and Human Origins

By Alan Barnard. Cambridge University Press. 196pp, £48.00 and £16.99. ISBN 9780521765312 and 9299. Published 17 March 2011

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