Anthropological Controversies in 2008

All academic disciplines have their controversies. Often, they act as stimuli to additional exploration and research. Anthropology, which studies humankind in all its diverse manifestations over many millennia, has its share of partially-answered questions and unsolved mysteries.

One of these is the perennial question: What is human life, and how and where did it begin? Evolutionary theories speculate that humans and apes share a common ancestor. If that is so, when did the lineages first diverge?

DNA evidence suggests that the hominid-gorilla split occurred about eight million years ago. Fossil evidence discovered in Ethiopia in 2006 of the hitherto unknown species Chororapithecus has led its discoverers to date the hominid-gorilla split at over 10 million years ago, and the hominid-orangutan split to twenty million years ago, not fourteen million as previously thought. Chororapithecus is a serious threat to the theory that the common ancestor originated in Asia and later spread to Africa. Some claim that this species is not the common ancestor at all, but an unrelated ancient ape, which would make the find irrelevant to previous time-lines.

Sexual habits are a popular topic in any field. Increasingly, the concept of human monogamy is being challenged. Is it all a matter of hormones and neurotransmitters? What are the genetic factors? Is the fight to impregnate the female supposed to be a man vs. man conflict, or a head-to-head battle between competing sperm racing for gold within the same female? Is monogamy (or polymating) an evolving biological imperative, or a social construct imposed on human nature?

The answer may be elusive, but it determines the lens through which observers view family and marital structures. The growing popularity of the belief that human monogamy is an unnatural state has huge implications for the security of pair bonds, the familial affiliations of children, and the spread of sexually-transmitted disease. Humankind continues to be at least partially self-engineered by human beliefs.

Ethical controversies flourish in any scientific study. How far should anthropologists go in their efforts to study other cultures? The presence and influence of observers is inevitably disruptive to a population. When these observers decide to intervene directly (for instance, trying to change local customs, digging up graves, getting involved with local disputes, importing foreign micro-organisms, attempting to cure disease, or interbreeding) the effects can be devastating.

A National Geographic special aired on March 17 is already under fire for violating the rights of indigenous people of Palau. Another recent controversy concerns blood samples which were taken from members of the Yanomami tribe in Brazil without informing the donors that their contributions would be kept indefinitely for experimentation. Yanomami religious tradition prohibits the keeping of bodily matter after the donor’s death. Because of their isolation, the Yanomami people have become one of the most-studied group in the world, and those studies have had their impact on the traditional culture.

This issue keeps coming up in the Star Trek series of TV episodes and films. The Prime Directive for the space explorers is one of zero tolerance for interference in the affairs of the inhabitants of other planets. However, crew members keep transgressing that boundary, for reasons of justice, compassion, personal preferences, blind chance, or ignorance. Once the extra-planetary visitors have landed, life is never the same.

Anthropology is a dynamic field of study that keeps re-inventing itself as new data comes in. The philosophical question, “What is the nature of man?” is far from being answered. Controversies are an inevitable part of the journey towards greater understanding.

Sources and resources:
Anthropology blog: mystery skulls
“backyard phenomena blog: what is human?
This blog contains other relevant entries as well.
wikipedia entry re. Yanomamo tribe
Dr. Barry Starr’s article (Department of genetics, Stanford University)