What am I? Where do I come from? Where do I fit in? These are questions that humans universally ask, and it wouldn't surprise me to learn that they were asked by Homo erectus as well.
The answers to these questions come from the fundamentally human domain of kinship. Of course, all creatures have kinship in a narrow, biological sense: sires, dams, maternal half siblings, and the like. Primates "know" their mothers, and often their mother's elder off spring (half siblings), and even their mother's half siblings (aunts). But that is a narrow sense of the term "kinship." Unlike "kinship" in primatology, "kinship" in humans incorporates paternal relations, residence patterns, reciprocal sets of expectations and obligations, the legal status of marriage, the arbitrary division of the social universe into relatives and non-relatives (when of course we are really all related), and the transcendence of individual lives and deaths through the "extrasomatic" quality of the lineage. Relatedness extends beyond the limits of your birth and death. The fact that different peoples make simultaneous sense of cultural and biological information by weaving it into a coherent framework for understanding everyone's natural place in the order of things was one of the earliest discoveries of anthropology, as well as its oldest research program: kinship. Kinship comprises the intellectual and social rules for making sense of your own place in relation to everyone and everything else. In short, kinship is orienting. It defines the slots into which people are born and become social, symbolizing beings.
Yet no system of kinship is entirely natural; that is to say, none encodes the interpersonal relations established by geneticists. Our familiar American system gives the same term to the brother that your mom grew up with, and to the bozo who happened to marry your dad's sister. One "uncle" is a relative "by blood"; another, by legal convention. Of your eight great-grandparents, only one carries your mitochondrial DNA, and thus represents your "matriline" — as the modern marketers of mtDNA ancestry tests call it (your mother's mother's mother). Yet in the contemporary United States, only geneticists acknowledge that particular relationship to one of your eight great-grandparents as in any way special.
Decades ago, the earliest anthropologists were astonished at the multiplicity of ways that diverse groups of people thought about relatedness. A child might belong to its mother's family or its father's family or both; some roles of a father might be taken over by an uncle; a child might have several fathers; or might not differentiate between siblings and cousins. Or they might differentiate critically between some cousins and other cousins, or between relatives on either side of the family.
However esoteric or bizarre a kinship system might seem, it nevertheless successfully creates an intellectual framework within which you have a good opportunity to survive, cope, cooperate, and breed. More than that, it tells you who you are: daughter of so-and-so, father of so-and-so, descended from a line of so-and-sos, and related to other so-and-sos in certain ways. It answers the existential dilemma, Why continue? Because of the network of obligations and expectations into which you were born, and which you've maintained over the course of your life. You are a part of the past, of the future, and a part of those around you. That is who you are, that is where you came from, and that is your reason for existing — your ancestors, your descendants, and your kin.
That said, however, there aren't too many cultures that believe that they are descended from monkeys or apes. There's sort of one — if we consider post-Darwinian scientific culture to constitute a single, historical, analytic unit. We are significantly related to other species.
But of course, there are many ways to conceptualize a relationship between yourself and other species, aside from a genealogical one. In Transylvania, people change into bats and wolves all the time, but that's not Darwinism. In Chicago, people have special relationships with Bears and Bulls; in St. Louis with Rams and Cardinals, but that's not Darwinism either. Darwinism is about a particular kind of relationship with the animals — a relationship of lineal descent.
But then, there's lineal descent and there's lineal descent. Descent is an aspect of kinship, and it's very meaningful. Very few aspects of language translate well cross-culturally, but if you want to insult someone pretty much anywhere, calling them a "bastard" will usually serve the purpose. After all, it is a direct attack on their descent, implying illegitimacy, the lack of a proper place in the social universe.
Descent is important; indeed it is the bedrock of our most sacred institutions, notably of hereditary aristocracy. Why is Pharaoh on a throne, and not you? Because he has better ancestors. However distinguished you may consider your progenitors, they weren't as good as Isis and Osiris. And that's why you're not the Pharaoh.
The point is that descent is important, some people have better ancestors than others, and raising questions about ancestry is politically relevant. After all, if you want to argue that your ancestors are as good as Pharaoh's, and challenge his right to be there, then you are not only opposing the religious orthodoxy; you are also preaching political revolution. Why are you a peasant? Because your ancestors were peasants. Why are you a slave? Because your ancestors were slaves.
Descent is political. So is religion. In 1776, Thomas Paine publishes Common Sense, with the goal of articulating the arguments in favor of democracy and against monarchy. But for thousands of years monarchies had been blessed by the spiritual forces of the universe. From China to Peru, imperial leaders were also religious leaders. In 800 AD, Charlemagne's empire would not be just another Roman Empire, it would be blessed as the Holy Roman Empire. And now, in the late 1700s, kings claim to rule by "divine right." And so, a couple of decades after attacking monarchies in Common Sense, Tom Paine attacks the religion justifying those monarchies in The Age of Reason. He has to; if someone tells you that God likes monarchy, and you don't, then you are obliged either to challenge his knowledge of God, or to acknowledge thinking un-Godly thoughts yourself.
Flash forward a few decades, to 1853. There is political turmoil in Europe. Monarchical institutions are gradually giving way to democratic ones; an increasingly upwardly mobile bourgeoisie is competing with the ancient hereditary aristocracy. An obscure aristocrat named Arthur de Gobineau — calling himself a count, like Monte Cristo and Dracula — writes a defense of the hereditary aristocracy. Why do we need the nobility? Gobineau answers: because they are responsible for civilization. Gobineau thus unites descent with civilization: that is to say, you are civilized because you are from civilized stock, or uncivilized because you come from uncivilized stock. The ruling classes may often seem like lazy, decadent, effete twits, but actually they are responsible for all ten global civilizations (that Gobineau identified), and are also conveniently physically distinguished as "Aryan." Faced with the challenge of finding "Aryans" all over the world, Gobineau imaginatively obliges, explaining that Aryan blood brings civilization, which then declines as the Aryan blood is mixed with that of the locals.
Civilization is thus (in modern vocabulary) in the genes; and it is for this reason that Gobineau is widely known as the father of scientific racism, an epithet obviously not wielded as a compliment. The important thing is to recognize Gobineau's argument as a cry for social stability. It's not about the past so much as it is about the future: the world cannot function without its Gobineaus. They are necessary for civilization; and to supplant them, or to threaten their privileged position (which, of course, they have earned, as the bringers of civilization), would be to jeopardize civilization itself.
Contemporary social philosophers offered little in the way of explicit alternatives. Actually, the term "civilization" had been in use for barely a century, and generally referred to a state of near modernity that was universally attainable, often via missionary work. Civilization was the act of being or becoming civilized, not an organic attribute like a mole or a blood type.
Gobineau's ideas were understandably not widely noted among mainstream social philosophers. Initially promoted by proslavery polygenists in America, such as Alabama's Josiah Nott (who believed that whites and blacks were created separately from one another by God, and thus were of different flesh, for they shared no common descent at all), Gobineau's (creationist) arguments for geneticizing civilization would be repackaged a few decades later by the (evolutionary) conservationist and eugenicist Madison Grant.
Descent and ideology — political, religious, whatever — are all intertwined as part of that historical, social, superorganic miasma we call "culture." They always have been. The mistake is to think that somehow today we can tweak one aspect of culture without affecting another aspect.
SCIENCE AND GENETICS
Science, however, stands outside of culture, as an objective means of finding truth.
Of course science doesn't stand outside of culture. It's carried out by people who are cultural actors themselves. It has languages and codes of behavior. It's full of political, economic, ideological, and personal conflicts of interest. It radiates with cultural authority, however, which is why all kinds of people and ideas that have no business being called science or scientific often claim to be so anyway.
If we regard science as a "culture," as C. P. Snow famously suggested some decades ago, then scientists are natives, the ones carrying out the scientific activities. By direct implication it takes anthropology to understand what they are doing. Hence, the "anthropology of science."
The study of how scientific knowledge is produced is one of the most relevant and challenging endeavors of contemporary anthropology. How does science manage to progress, and successfully appeal to value neutrality and objectivity, in spite of the diverse interests of its practitioners? Certainly in the area of biomedicine, financial conflicts of interest are so rife that it is hard to know what claims are credible, even in the peer-reviewed literature. Weapons research is driven by nationalistic political concerns, and much of it is classified information; so how can we look to that as a model of science either?
The scientific study of heredity in particular, however, has the most subtle and insidious conflict of interest, for it lays claim to the voice of scientific authority in matters of descent, that most precious element of symbolic human capital. If we take the discovery of Mendelian genetics in 1900 as the maturation of the field, we can have a look at the very first textbook of Mendelism, called Mendelism, and published in 1905 by Reginald C. Punnett, and we will note a very curious punch line. Here is that book's last sentence:
Permanent progress is a question of breeding rather than of pedagogics; as our knowledge of heredity clears, and the mists of superstition are dispelled, there grows upon us with ever-increasing and relentless force the conviction that the creature is not made but born.
That is not so much a statement of fact as a statement of faith. The study of genetics doesn't tell us that the creature is born, not made. It tells us how the creature is made; that is to say, it studies the transmission of biological features. But it certainly doesn't tell us that the biological features are the most important ones, which is obviously a highly self-interested statement for a geneticist to make.
The idea "that the creature is not made but born" is not what the field of genetics is about at all. It's a highly ideological assumption about the human condition, and frankly, if that's what genetics is about, then it is a faith-based initiative, like creationism, and probably shouldn't be taught in schools. Genetics is the study of the intergenerational biological transmission of features. As such, it is no more important than ecology or anatomy or any of a host of other naturalistic disciplines; and its subject matter is not really the guiding beacon of your life.
To understand the political issues at stake here, we have to go back to the origins of large-scale social inequality, which has arisen over the last 10,000 years or so, as humans began settling down and acquiring possessions, which it didn't make much sense to acquire before settling down, since it would just be more stuff to pack up and take when they moved on. With sedentism comes possessions, with possessions comes wealth, and with wealth comes inequality. Which brings us back to the question we asked earlier: How come you're not the Pharaoh?
Or more broadly: Why are there great disparities in wealth? Why are there haves and have-nots? Why is there inequality?
To which there are two broad categories of answers. The first answer is that the fact of inequality is to be explained by historical injustice, that is to say, by human agency — of the greedy and evil sort. In this scenario, then, we work for social justice to ameliorate the disparities of wealth and power that we see and experience.
The second answer is that there is inequality, to be sure, but that inequality is not an expression of injustice, but rather is a manifestation of an underlying disparity of innate qualities. This is a modern version of Arthur de Gobineau's answer. People have what they deserve, and if you don't have much, well, tough. You don't deserve it. In this scenario, by contrast, we work to demonstrate the existence of the natural inequality that we have hypothesized to explain the social inequality we observe. And what better way to demonstrate the existence of an invisible fact of nature than scientifically?
Science is relevant in this second answer to a much greater extent than it is in the first answer, where working for justice was the goal. The second answer almost pleads with science to identify and locate that invisible natural hierarchy that rationalizes the social hierarchy. And it would be impolite — nay, downright rude — for science not to try and oblige.
The trick here is to remember that natural science isn't necessarily important to the idea of building a just society. When segregationists argued in 1962 that black children and white children shouldn't be in the same schools because the black race was 200,000 years less evolved than the white race, not only wasn't the relevant science very competent, but it didn't matter. All citizens are entitled to equal rights, irrespective of their biology or innate abilities. (Although it would be nice to get the biology and measurements of innate abilities right, too, obviously.) Ironically, decades later, animal rights activists inverted the fallacy, arguing that chimpanzees might be entitled to human rights because they are so smart — as if rights ought indeed to be allocated on the basis of a presumptive measurement of innate intellectual ability.
This asymmetry in the role of science in explaining the origins of social inequality — history or biology — is why one rarely hears of positive claims "proving" the same general intelligence or innate abilities of disparate peoples. That side tends to be reactive against the claims of every generation to have finally "explained" social inequality naturalistically. In one generation it is the size of the head; in another, the shape; or the averaged scores in a standardized test; or the percentage of the "feeblemindedness allele" in the different gene pools; or the microcephalin allele. The Nobel laureate James Watson probably said it best in 2007, as the Sunday Times (London) reported:
He says that he is "inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa" because "all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours — whereas all the testing says not really", and I know that this "hot potato" is going to be difficult to address. His hope is that everyone is equal, but he counters that "people who have to deal with black employees find this not true." He says that you should not discriminate on the basis of colour, because "there are many people of colour who are very talented, but don't promote them when they haven't succeeded at the lower level." He writes that "there is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically. Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so."