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Are all people and societies created equal? Anthropologists, scientists, and researchers have asked this question for a long time and throughout different time periods have had different answers. During the mass European colonization of the 1800’s, analysts used biology to explain the subordination of non-European societies. In 1964, Napoleon Chagnon’s observations of the Yanomami led people to believe that evolution and biology were essential to understanding their violent tendencies. Richard Lee and Irven Devore wrote Man the Hunter in 1968 which discredits the female contribution to the development of the human species.
These examples show how the categorization of race, ethnicity, and gender can be used to justify inequality. These justifications are incorrectly based on the foundation that races and genders are inherently unequal. Jared Diamond in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel explains what he believes caused some societies to progress faster than others, which led to the people of those societies dominating the world. European civilizations in the 1800’s were the power houses of the world.
They colonized and enforced acculturation on many societies, and in some instances, even went as far as enslaving the indigenous people. This European domination or ‘success’ was used as evidence that they were naturally better than their subordinate counterparts. Brain scientist, Paul Broca, introduced the Cephalic Index where, through measuring head shape, a higher index suggested superior intelligence.
Caucasians typically scored well which justified the way things were. Racial thinking was used to imply that races were ‘naturally and permanently higher or lower than others… [which then] seemed reasonable to subordinate and restrict the lower ones’ (Eller: 106).
This type of justification could also be paralleled with the American slavery of black people. Edward Drinker Cope wrote that the ‘inferior character of the Negro mind in the scale of evolution made him unfit for American citizenship’ (Haller: 198). Today, it is more commonplace that these ideas were wrong. In these racial systems of inequality, the physical qualities that are being pointed out are simply scape goats to reason. The racist justification of this time is more of an effect of colonialism than a cause. The Europeans wanted to believe they were morally correct in the way they were treating the other races. Ashley Montagu wrote in his book Man’s Most Dangerous Myth that ‘such a conception of race’ has no basis in scientific fact or in any other kind of demonstrable fact. It is a pure myth, and it is the tragic myth of our tragic era’ (8). The racial thinking that ties into the conception of race is a result of taking biological differences to explain cultural differences.
They are essentially caste and class problems being masked as racial inequality. The next topic is another example of racial thinking that stems from the work of one of the most famous and most controversial anthropologists. Napoleon Chagnon started his ethnology of the Yanomami in 1964. He described them as living ‘in a state of chronic warfare’ (Eakin: 3). He believed biology was essential to understanding Yanomami warfare, which led others to believe that evolutionary causes could have been the reason for their violent tendencies. The idea of biological determinism came to fruition, which closely relates to the 19th century European tendencies of racial thinking. Some people started to think that the Yanomami could be violent because of their race, which lends to the idea that people and societies are not created equal.Academic debates ensued as to whether biological determinism was correct. Other scholars believed that Chagnon’s gifts to the Yanomami, which were given to easily acquire information, could be a catalyst for their violence. Some even challenged the accuracy of his findings, calling his gift giving bribery and accusing him of fabricating his data of battles. ‘There is little clarity in regard to the term race’…it is well-nigh impossible to determine with certainty the hereditary traits in mental behavior’ (Boas: 50).
Through his work, Boas concluded that the differences of personality and intelligence were a product of culture, not race. This idea lends to agreeing with those that challenged Chagnon and the idea of biological determination. It is apparent that race is not inherently a cause of inequality, but rather the categorization of race is the cause. The last topic will focus on a different section of inequality, gender.Historically, a large part of the world’s societies have been patriarchal. We can see this in the marriage residence practices. Matrilocality, where the couple lives with or near the wife’s family, is observed in societies almost five times less than patrilocality, where the couple lives with or near the husband’s family (Eller: 155). Richard Lee and Irven DeVore in their book Man the Hunter state that the ‘biology, psychology, and customs that separate us from the apesall of these we owe to the hunters of time past’ (38). Since males were hunters and females were gatherers, we can tell that they attribute virtually all the development and progress of our species to men. This shows just how male dominated the societies up to the 1960’s were. Similar to racial thinking, this outlook on gender could have been used to justify why society was male dominated.Even at the time that Lee and DeVore published their book, female anthropologists had issues with their take which marked the rise of feminist anthropology.
As a response to their book, Annette Weiner revisited Bronislaw Malinowski’s ethnography of the Trobriand Islands. She found the women’s activities and objects as important as the men’s and concluded that they were ‘active participants in the exchange system, and thus I accord them equal place beside’ (Weiner: 11). This also parallels the relationship between male and female in foraging (also known as hunting and gathering) societies. Females gathered a larger portion of the food for their society than males were able to hunt, which caused an egalitarian outcome. Both examples show that men are not naturally above women. It could be that the categorization of gender is what led to the reality of patriarchal society and not the inherent differences between genders.Jared Diamond in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel looks to answer Yali’s question: “Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?” (14) He proceeds to point out that the key to the progression of ancient civilizations was in the domestication of plants and animals. Being able to have a sustainable food supply, as opposed to foraging societies, led to larger populations, which in turn led to power. Two important factors in the ability to domesticate plants and animals were the types of plants and animals available to that society, and the type of environment.
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