Tunnel Vision: A Review of Pinker’s Blank Slate
By Thomas Hylland Eriksen
The gap between sociocultural anthropology and biological/physical anthropology is deep, but fairly recent. In the 1870s, Tylor enjoyed a fruitful relationship with the Darwinists; he was inspired by, and in turn inspired, Darwin himself. Later generations also engaged in respectful dialogue until, roughly, the end of the SecondWorld War.
After the war, biological approaches to human nature and culture were discredited in public life, only to reemerge with a string of popular books by the likes of Desmond Morris and Lionel Tiger, culminating in the last chapter of E. O.Wilson’s scholarly work Sociobiology (Wilson 1975), where the great entomologist pleads for a reintegration of the social sciences into the mother science, that is to say biology. The relationship between sociocultural anthropologists and some evolutionary biologists (who we may call neo-Darwinists) has been tense and occasionally hostile since then.
Certain developments in recent years nevertheless suggest that the aggression and deliberate mutual misunderstandings typical of the sociobiology debatemay have given way to a more sober and relaxed attitude among social anthropologists confronted with biological explanations of sociocultural phenomena. According to Knight et al. (1999), social and biological anthropologists in Britain had not really spoken to each other between the Royal Society conference about ritualisation among humans and animals in 1965 and a similar, but smaller conference on ritual and the origins of culture in 1994. A few years after this event, a number of social anthropologists contributed to a volume about ‘memetics’ (Aunger 2000; for a scathing critique see Marks 2002b) dominated by Darwinian scholars, and around the same time, a symposium organised by Harvey Whitehouse (2001) brought together different views on the role of evolution in shaping religious beliefs and practices.
Perhaps social anthropology is keen to find its feet again after postmodernism, and is therefore more open to ambitious and robust modes of explanation? Certainly, the new evolutionary psychology appears to more relevant and better informed about cultural variation than the old sociobiology, whosemacho obsession with sex and violence, and na¨ıve search for adaptive functions everywhere in cultural practices, could hardly win the admiration of many sociocultural anthropologists.
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Thomas Hylland Eriksen is a social anthropologist at the University of Oslo and Senior Research Fellow at the International Institute of Peace Research. Thomas has conducted fieldwork in Mauritius and Trinidad, exploring ethnicity, identity politics, nationalism, and minority right