As many of you know, I’m studying Anthropology in school. I’m moving more and more towards the Evolutionary Biology/Primatology angle because I’m looking for a potential evolutionary explanation for fanaticism. Part of taking Anthropology at Florida Atlantic University entails taking courses in Cultural Anthropology.
Now, for the most part, I very much enjoy these courses. They are largely fascinating and informative and I’m glad to be in them. However, I find certain ideas, revolving largely around cultural relativism, to be incredibly annoying. The main reason is simply this:
It seems as if some Cultural Anthropologists do not accept the idea that reality has existed for a lot longer than we humans have been around.
One of the classes I’m currently taking is “The Anthropology of Nature”. For the most part, I love this class, and the teacher is shaping up to be one of my more favorite teachers, even while I disagree with things she’s said in class.
And there’s been a lot of that since school started about a month ago.
The main thing I’m not able to get around is this whole idea that nature is a cultural construct.
How is something that has existed for at least 13.77 billion years (make no mistake: the universe is indeed part of nature) a “human construct”? Indeed… how is something that was around for 4.5 billion years before we humans graced it a “human construct”?
Planet Earth is somewhere on the order 4.5 billion years old. This is not a faith-based belief or a random hypothesis; it is a widely-proven fact. For around 4.5 billion years, the nature that we live on existed quite happily without the need for any humans to come along and “construct” it. The earth didn’t suddenly become an artificial human construct some 150,000 years ago when we first evolved here. It existed before we showed up, and it will very likely continue to exist after we either leave it or go extinct.
Many of the anthropologists quoted in class appear to be ignorant of this.
Another one is the idea that these scientifically-evidenced facts are “abstract constructs”. DNA was used as an example.
In actuality, DNA is an actually existing substance that you can indeed see with your own two eyes. In pictures, of course, but nevertheless, we humans did not invent DNA. DNA does indeed contain the building blocks for all earth-based life.
And yes, of course, there are religions and cultures that do not believe this. They believe God made Adam from the dirt and Eve from one of his ribs, or the Way gave birth to unity, which gave birth to duality, which gave birth to trinity, which gave birth to all the creatures on earth, including us. But we also have an independent toolkit we can use to actually study the physical world and determine its age and how it got here. We also have a supplemental toolkit we can use to distinguish fact from “baloney”. Creation myths largely do not hold up to that scrupulous studying.
There is a reason I’m seriously sick of people calling the scientific method and what we’ve learned using it “cultural constructs”. It’s because there is quite literally no better method ever devised to study the natural world and universe. Indeed, I challenge anyone to find one… then go find James Randi and collect $1,000,000.
A couple years ago, Sam Harris rather infamously called religion a “failed science”.
At first, I vehemently disagreed with him (partly because I’m really not a fan of his), but if you think about it, it actually makes sense:
Back before the scientific method, the supernatural world was how we understood the natural world. Natural events, like volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, earthquakes, thunderstorms, hurricanes, tornadoes, monsoons, etc were blamed on the “warring” or “angry” gods. Each part of nature was created and controlled by gods or spirits or such, from the grand universe itself all the way down to things like human actions and emotions.
Of course, now we know better. We know how volcanic eruptions and earthquakes are caused (the moving of the continental plates and the pressure in the center of our planet). And the things we don’t know (the origin of life, the origin of the observable part of our pocket of the universe, etc) are questions we are continually trying to find the answers to, in order to learn and know.
One of my all-time favorite ideas is that reality is true whether you believe in it or not. You don’t have to believe in evolution for it to be a fact. You don’t have to believe in the existence of DNA in order for it to exist. You don’t have to believe in the shifting of the continental plates in order for them to shift. You don’t have to believe in the spheroid shape of the earth in order for it to be a spheroid. You don’t have to believe that we orbit the sun in order for us to orbit the sun.
Nature trucks on regardless of our beliefs. And to this day I have not seen or heard of a better method to establish exactly how nature works than science.
Science cannot answer all questions, of course. There are questions about the nature of our existence that are inherently off limits to science. But they are off limits to science because they are inherently subjective questions, and are thus off limits to objective (read: scientific) inquiry. The purpose to life is one of these kinds of questions that can only be answered by each individual person on an individual basis. The meaning of my life will not be the same as the meaning of your life… unless the meaning of your life is 42, in which case… we agree…
However, a question like “how did we human beings get here?” is a question about the nature of reality, and thus it is a scientific question. It has an objective answer that can be obtained through objective methodology. Evolution, of course, is the objective answer to this question, arrived at by the scientific method.
“Does God exist” is also a question about the nature of reality, and thus can theoretically be answered by science. That doesn’t mean it will be answered of course, just that it can be… in theory, at least.
Another problem with the “cultural construct” thing is this seeming idea that when two different cultures refer to the same thing in different ways, they are referring to two different things.
I mean, I know the Inuit have a good 50 different words for snow (that is… depending on how you define the word “word”). This doesn’t change the fact what we’re all referring to is “precipitation in the form of flakes of crystalline water ice that fall from clouds”.
Or… how a particular culture views and defines a particular natural object doesn’t change what that object actually is. A tree is still a tree. The sky is still the sky. Water is still water. You can call it whatever you want and define it however you want; it goes along just nicely with or without our names and meanings for it.
And one last thing: in science, a theory is “a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, inferences, and tested hypotheses”. It is not a drunken wild rambling that some fool thought up at the bar right before blacking out. Scientifically speaking, “theory” is about the highest you can get in science. The difference between “hypothesis” and “theory” in science is a bit like the difference between a “bill” and a “law” in government; the difference being the methods used to upgrade one to the other, or reject the hypothesis/bill.
In other words, “I have a theory that he cheated on you” is not actually a theory in any scientific sense (though it could be if you used the scientific method to establish the truth of the statement). “Humans evolved from an ancient primate ancestor via a number of processes including natural selection, sexual selection, and genetic drift” is.
Want an example of a theory we take for granted literally every single second of our lives?