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21st century understanding, avoiding polemics and historical references.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.