Great debate not divide

December 4, 2008

Anthropology is not at war with itself, nor are its practitioners given to mud-slinging. The depiction of "The great divide" (20 November) trivialises the serious intellectual debates that lie at the heart of the discipline. It is because anthropologists are such a considerate bunch that these debates can flourish without becoming mired in the factionalism of warring "camps".

No anthropologists I know of are hostile to science. A great many, however, are hostile to scientism. Science is a patchwork of knowledge that comes in an astonishingly diverse array of forms. Scientism is the doctrine that scientific knowledge takes but one form that has an absolute claim to truth. One instance of scientism is the dogma that natural selection is not only necessary but also sufficient to explain the evolution of life.

Fundamentalist adherents of this dogma dismiss their critics as anti-scientific, anti-evolutionary heretics, even though most are practising scientists. If there is a war on, it is between the cult of scientism and those who are prepared to adopt a more open-ended approach to scientific inquiry.

The difficulty of the issues at stake should not be underestimated. Anthropology is poised on a knife-edge, not only between the intellectual demands of the humanities and the natural sciences, but also between understandings generated from within the academy and those forged by people, the world over, in the practical conduct of life. The crossroads at which anthropology stands is one for the entire academic project, and the directions it takes will have implications right across the disciplinary spectrum.

Tim Ingold, University of Aberdeen.

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