Friday 11 January 2013

An Open Letter to the Facebook Biological Anthropology Constituency

Thanks to the arcane Facebook rules of engagement, it was a complete fluke that I opened the following message some time after it was sent to me, which occurred on October 22 of last year. I immediately penned a scathing reply, which for some reason Facebook 'disappeared.' [Prolly for the best. I can't afford to lose any friends or readers.] However, this message has festered in me, month after month, and I now find that I can't forbear commenting--the issue raised, so far as I'm concerned, is too big to be ignored. I've left out any direct evidence of the message's origin and author. I think it wouldn't be fair to either.
Hi, Rob.
I'm one of the admins of [name withheld Facebook page]. We are happy to have people's personal blog posts appear in the group provided they fall within a broad definition of news. Most of your posts do, although we have been deleting your posts that are just about you or are not specifically about biological anthropology (again, broadly defined). I wanted to let you know this in the event you see your posts disappear.
But I also want to ask that you refrain from commenting on your own posts simply to move them to the top of the news feed. Your current post, for instance, got a "like" but no comments - except two from you attempting to harangue readers into commenting. In our experience running this group for the past several years, this kind of thing doesn't go over well with other members.So, in sum, please confine your personal blog posts to those that are relevant to biological anthropology. Many of us in this group have our own blogs, and this is the unstated (until now) rule we've followed for the past couple of years.
Thanks, [Name withheld to protect the culpable]
As you might imagine I was somewhat taken aback by this upbraiding [and from a fellow independent scholar, to boot]. There are so many false or misinformed accusations in this message that I can't possibly address them all adequately in a single blurt. I'm [to use a vernacular expression]  pissed! So, I thought I'd just respond to what I see as the main issue with the following open letter addressed to the author as much as any and all biological anthropologists, whether or not affiliated with the Facebook page in question.

Dear Colleague:

I was distressed to receive the above-copied message from the moderator of a prominent biological anthropology Facebook page in late October, 2012. I was very concerned because that moderator was addressing me as if I were aware that I had been violating the code of conduct and content. Nothing could be further from the truth. I trust that you'll take my confession of innocence for what it is: candid truth. Notwithstanding the unfounded allegations, I find that your message entails a very important issue, which remains unspoken. I hope you'll forgive me for giving voice to it.

The estimable moderator first makes reference to the content of the blog posts I had been announcing on the page. I wish I had in front of me a list of the announcements that have been 'disappeared' by the moderators. That's because I'm still in the dark as to what a strictly biological anthropologist thinks is of interest to other biological anthropologists. As a biological anthropologist and a palaeolithic archaeologist, I'm bemused. That's because, although my writing doesn't often concern the hard and soft tissue of Hominini, it does deal primarily with issues that should be of direct concern to your members, whether they happen to be up their particular research alley or not. I say that because most biological anthropologists that I have know regularly trot out archaeological inferences in their introductory and higher level university courses. And, whereas the Subversive Archaeologist speaks directly to the archaeological inferences that inform those university syllabuses, I believe that much of what I concern myself with ought to be of direct interest to those whose primary interest is in hard and soft tissue evolution and not the archaeological record. Show me a biological anthropologist who isn't influenced by archaeological inferences and I'll show you a child in a sweet shop with the wherewithal to purchase, but without any idea what the attractively coloured items actually taste like.

Archaeological inference is crucial to what your sub-discipline is dedicated to. Moreover, in your introductory classes it's a dead cert that you're constantly bringing in archaeological inferences to spice up the content. I'm incredulous that any of you would be so short-sighted as to think that the Subversive Archaeologist isn't directly relevant to your intellectual pursuits, let alone "news" worthy. I hope you'll forgive me for taking umbrage. You do Anthropology a great disservice if you ignore, or downplay, or 'disappear' the knowledge created by the other sub-disciplines when it concerns the same creatures you, yourself, are studying. Anthropology, remember, is a holistic discipline, and the whole cannot be truthfully understood without the cooperation of all four sub-disciplines. Let's take a look at a case in point that is timely.

Ignorance of the anthropology and linguistics of ethnographic southern Africa has meant that the 1000-genome project will have serious problems upholding one of its primary 'conclusions.' I refer to the one whereby the African genomic data tells a story of little interaction between the ancestral Africans and the Neanderthals. This, in turn, is taken to imply that any interbreeding between the Neanderthals and modern humans tool place after modern humans had left Africa on their ineluctable conquest of the Old World. I invite you to visit my recent comments for a full explanation of this claim.

I'd hasten to add that, while I can't consider myself infallible, neither can those archaeologists and palaeoanthropologists of whose work I'm critical. Nor can you and your page's members afford to cherry-pick just those inferences that support their research agenda, while ignoring alternative conclusions. In every case about which I have written the claims I make with respect to others' inferences are not fallacious. Why then would your moderators 'disappear' mine and thereby privilege the status quo if both deal with aspects of Hominini behaviour? 

Can I make another observation that I think is germane in this discussion? This should 'speak' to both biological and archaeological anthropologists. I always crack a smile when I hear the soft-tissue people say that the growth of Broca's area is sure and certain proof that language has emerged and that its importance to Hominini survival is proven by the prominence of Broca's area relative to that which occurred in the earliest bipedal apes. Listen to yourselves! You call yourself evolutionary biologists. In claiming that the growth in prominence of Broca's Area parallels that of language you're forgetting a fundamental axiom of phylogeny--structures that arise for one purpose in evolutionary history are easily co-opted for other functions further down the line. 

Homology tells us that the terrestrial vertebrate's lung is the same structure as the 'swim bladder' of the fish. Thus, the lung didn't arise so that in a subsequent geological epoch vertebrates could emerge from the sea to take breath and colonize the land. In the same way, if one looks at the apparent function of Broca's area in other primates, and the co-lateral functions of Broca's area in modern humans, one can see vestiges of the earliest specialization of that part of the brain. One sees that Broca's area supports mouth and hand movement, both of which can easily be seen as components of increasingly sophisticated ape communication systems that, along the way, became what we now refer to as the 'language' of modern humans. 

The preceding would be a non-sequitur were it not that archaeologists make much of such inferences in their own work, and that work feeds back into the discourse of the rank and file biological anthropologists. Thus, it's commonly taught that language arose with the first swelling of Broca's Area, and that the earliest stone tools are somehow evidence for that linguistic ability. From there it's an easy leap to seeing the Levallois so-called Technique as linguistically driven. And so the Neandertals are viewed as linguistic. And so on.

Biological anthropologists can no more exist without palaeolithic archaeologists than the other way around [Clark Howell is probably turning over in his grave right now]. Since the primary motive of the Subversive Archaeologist is to expose the insufficient reasoning surrounding a host of archaeological inferences of Hominini behaviour, I find it incredible that you and your college of moderators would consider even the most hard-core archaeological discussions of mine to be of no relevance to you or your members. This isn't arrogance. It's common sense! [Pity 'tis, 'tis a pity that sense isn't so common.]

SA announces new posts on the Subversive Archaeologist's facebook page (mirrored on Rob Gargett's news feed), on Robert H. Gargett's page, Rob Gargett's twitter account, and his Google+ page. A few of you have already signed up to receive email when I post. Others have subscribed to the blog's RSS feeds. You can also become a 'member' of the blog through Google Friend Connect. Thank you for your continued patronage. You're the reason I do this.

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