Friday, December 23, 2011

Anthropology & Astronomy or, What do you do when there is only one universe?

For years when I have been asked " And , What do you do (for a living)?" I tell them I am a self employed anthropologist. To which I generally get an expression something like this.

Then I'm asked, "So what? You buy and sell bones?" To which I'll respond that bones and for that matter stones are part of archaeology which is one branch of anthropology. Then I say, "Anthropology is about the study of humanity and how it came to be the dominate species and life form on this planet." For you see, from my point of view, Anthropology is to the social sciences as Astronomy is to the physical science.

I started my college career with plans to be an astronomer and an astronaut (right after Sputnik). A run in with some higher level math pushed me into the social sciences as a major. Anthropology had just been introduced as a major (formally a minor in a soc/anthro department)at Brown. What struck me at the time and what has stayed with me is the similarity between the two fields.

Both are descriptive sciences, not experimental. Both are holistic (you can't get much bigger than the universe and all of the time the universe has existed. In anthropology we are interested in the whole of the history and development of the human species, its distribution, its origin, and its complexities. Both focus on a single entity: the universe as we know vs the planet as we know it. Neither, at the moment has anything to really compare it against.

Astronomy has an evolutionary perspective in its theoretical sister, Cosmology, Cosmology integrates the observations of the observational astronomer with the conclusions and observations of the other physical sciences (chemistry, physics). It looks to these science for clues to explain the observation and it provides a testing ground for their questions.

Anthropology performs a similar role for the human sciences (biology, psychology, and the sociological sciences). We have amassed the greatest collection of observations of human experience in our ethnographies, ethnohistories, and archaeological observations. We have the evolutionary perspective that enables us to expand the boundaries of inquiry back in time as we discover new links and connection between our species and life itself.

We draw upon the discoveries of other social, psychological and life sciences to help explain our observations and these sciences become integrated in a unique way the same as the physical sciences are integrated into Astronomy.

We both have a central concept which helps to explain the order and dynamics of the structures we observe.

For Astronomy it is Gravity.

For Anthropology it is Culture

Finally, for Astronomy the ultimate question is captured in the concept of the BIG BANG and the emergence of the universe. For Anthropology, our Big Bang is the concept of Life and the emergence of Homo sapien.

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