Anthropology means the study of man, anthropos. Man means in this context humans, male and female, young and old. I first encountered anthropology in two forms, the study of human origins and the study of other societies, especially distant ones who had not acquired all the complications and vices of urban industrial society. Stones and bones are the evidence used by paleoanthropologists to study early humans going back millions of years. Archeologists study the stones, bones and artifacts left by humans in the past 10 thousand years. You might consider sociology to be a division of anthropology that studies contemporary societies at close range.
One of the tools of anthropology is ethnography, descriptions of kinship, language, organization and dynamics of local groups. You could argue that all human studies are studies of human nature and that anthropology should grow to embrace all other disciplines or all disciplines should incorporate anthropology. Since anthropology existed as a department within universities, competing for funds, students and recognition, the discipline has remained a specialty, more or less confined to a limited set of tools and assumptions. European colonization of distant countries led to studies of the local flora and fauna, using descriptive taxonomies, drawings and hand written notes. A similar approach was taken by early anthropologists in their studies of human groups.
The desire to discover truly innate features of human nature has been a main feature of anthropology and the arguments that prevailed in the 20th century. While ethnographies reveal a remarkably diversity of human expressions, underlying themes emerge that are common to all. My strategy is to use Anthropology resources, selecting the best ideas that are most compatible with 21st century understanding, avoiding polemics and historical references. Anthropology, like all other disciplines, involves critically disputatious humans who invested much of their time and energy arguing with each other.
Ideas useful in the 21st century idea developed with increasing, multidisciplinary sophistication. You could divide essential ideas into two groups. The first group involves general principles that can be applied in every situation. The second and largest group involves science and technology complete with a growing repertoire of concepts and techniques that promise to make older approaches to understanding human conduct obsolete. One essential idea is that human nature is animal nature, somewhat modified in the past one million years Another idea implicit in all viable explanations is that the details of human systems change continuously and technologies evolve. The critical disputatious nature of humans does not change. The basic dynamics of competition, copying and conflict do not change. We can now state with confidence that every group organizes around kinship and ad hoc affiliations. Every group has technologies of tool making, food production and distribution. Every group has levels of dominance and submission. Every group has rules about social interactions, privileges, marriage, child care and property. Every group has internal conflicts and conflicts with neighboring groups. Every group has methods of resolving conflicts without killing. When conflict resolution fails, humans kill each other. Killings tend to multiply since humans seek revenge for harm done to members of their local group. We also recognize that humans are best suited for living in small groups and become dysfunction in predictable ways when groups get larger.
I have often referred to Joseph Campbell’s writings. He has a special place as a scholar who expressed a deep understanding of human nature. Newsweek magazine stated that “Campbell has become one of the rarest of intellectuals in American life: a serious thinker who has been embraced by the popular culture.” I first encountered Campbell by listening to a taped series of lectures he gave at the Esalen Institute starting in 1965. I read his series of books on human myths, the four volume Masks of God, published in a paperback edition in 1970. Campbell’s popularity increased a year after his death in 1987, by the broadcasts on PBS of interviews with Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth. This series is still available on DVD from PBS and is re-broadcast regularly
Campbell wrote:" The first long season of human habitation of the earth was of tribes moving apart, losing contact with each other, entering new territories, and there coming to know as neighbors only the local animals and plants, waters, rocks, valleys, hills, all experienced as living presences with powers and interests of their own. The motherland had been the beautiful high plain of equatorial east Africa, Mount Kenya on the horizon, northward to Ethiopia and southward to the Cape, where, as early a 4 to 5 million years ago there were among the grazing herds an increasing number of manlike bipeds: some in the way of beast of prey, running down and tearing part their quadruped neighbors; others, vegetarians wearing down their teeth on gathered roots, nuts, fruits and leaves."
Campbell revealed that religions and myths were two aspects of the same human tendencies to tell stories and to achieve group cohesion though stories, beliefs, art, celebrations, rituals and rules. With his expansive world view and detailed historical knowledge, he was able to lift his audience out their cognitive boxes and allow them to see the great panorama of human rituals and myths. His message was to move beyond historical constraints and local beliefs, to expand cognitive horizons, and to seek your own bliss. Campbell’s Historical Atlas of World Mythology is a treasure, a special opportunity to view human nature through the eyes of different disciplines and to study a photographic collection of human expressions and artifacts from all over the world. Campbell embraces geology, paleontology, archeology, anthropology, psychology, literature and religious studies. He created a comprehensive view of human history.
The Atlas reveals the extraordinary variations of human expressions in different groups over time. Humans can be bizarre. They invent cruel expressions in the form of initiations, funerals and sacrifices. They kill each other with reckless abandon. They paint and pierce their bodies. They wear jewelry and costumes that suggest their superstitions and beliefs. They seek intoxication and celebration.