Boas, Darwin, Science, and Anthropology

  • Lewis H
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After WWII cultural evolutionary thought was being revived by people like Leslie A White, seeking "laws of cultural development" so critique Boas, even though he actually gave a good approach that mirrored pragmatic approaches of William James and John Dewey (381). -The Criticism of Franz Boas' View of Science and Evolution: White wanted a science of culture, modeled after physics, and Boas was seen as taking a historicist model and being anti-Darwin (by White) even though Boas knew his work well (and Darwin was a historicist) and noted that Darwin must study the individual to do evolution, not abstract types - just like anthropology (382). - Boas' Understanding of Science: his 1887 paper "The Study of Geography" as historicist, but really that you can do the science of geography without physics - different phenomena call for different approaches - just like Mayr says (383). -Boas, Darwin, and Pragmatism: pragmatists sought to expand a modernist discourse that tested hypotheses to solve problems (384); it had antifoundationalism (no absolute begin/end for science/truth), pluralism and diversity as inescapable facts of life, contigency and chance marks life and universe, focus on individual versus 'the whole' - case study approach (385-386). Boas would note in 1887 that evolution operates on individuals and episodes of evolution are historical in nature and generalized laws govern those human differences, even as our mental powers develop (387). -Boas' Early Cultural Anthropology: Boas always had a point to the collection of facts - to test propositions, such as his observation of Alaskan needlecases to test deductive speculations about art, or to dispel the idea that Indigenous languages were made of 'unstable' sounds and 'primitive' (388). In the same light, Boas was unwilling to classify the Kwakiutl kinship organization as a imposition of our way on others...contra White (389). -The Study of Process and the Individual: In 1880s and 1890s Boas stressed pressing to record Indians before culture changed, but by 1920s argues for looking at dynamics of culture change and individuals in it - so can't just do standard list of inventions, institutions and ideas - WHR Rivers does look at individual variations in norms and following of rules (389-390). -Regularities and Laws: Boas thought we could see laws governing the activities of the human mind, but not of general culture rules a la CE (ex: sequence of development for kinship systems) (or what Mayr calls proximate and ultimate causation) - and it's why we can't preduct evolution for the future (390). By 1938, Boas did see some regularities, such as "Thus the solidarity of social groups and their antagonism toward the outsider; the forms and motives for coordination and subordination; imitation of, and resistance to, outside influences; competition between individuals and between groups; division of labor; amalgamation and segregation; attitudes toward the supernatural. . . . From these studies a cultural morphology may be constructed and a social psychology developed, based on the variety of manifestations of these categories" (392). In after comments: Ingold says he wrote about this in 1986 and believe Boas would have embraced post-modernism with a relish - Lewis rebuts it well.

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  • ANT2108
  • Anthropology
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  • history

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  • Herbert S Lewis

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