February 22. 2011

Adam Kuper
Department of Anthropology
London School of Economics
London, WC2A 2AE


Jonathon Marks
Department of Anthropology
University of North Carolina-Charlotte
Charlotte, North Carolina 28221

I read Anthropologists Unite! NATURE vol. 470 no. 7333 February 10, 2011 page 166 and have a word of cheer and an answer to a prayer. 

The good news is that the chaos in anthropology is no bad thing.  In The Peter Principle, Laurence Peter and Raymond Hull state that a company with an organization and a physical plant that are rationally optimized to the mission is an organization in trouble.   A healthy company is always taking on new tasks and all is tumult. 

In my mind I divide the science into the “humanities,” which study that which is uniquely human and the “hard sciences,” which is everything else.  The reason the hard sciences are hard is that they are free to choose to look at things that can be measured in a generally unambiguous way.  It makes them look godlike.  The study of clouds that look like animals would fall among the hard sciences but is understandably neglected.  Thus anthropology is the roof for all the humanities, and human action is hard to quantify. 

Moral is high among anthropologists and low in the hard sciences.  In my own work I have found that often an anthropologist asked a new question is willing to entertain it.  The hard scientists almost never do.  In medicine moral is high in radiology and low in fertility studies.  I propose a test.  Get together some x-rays and chemical data from your favorite population (and a control population) and call up a radiologist and a fertility specialist and say that your population seems to have unaccountably low fertility; can they help?  The radiologist will eagerly scrutinize the films, check out the brow ridges, bone cortical thickness and pelvimetry and try to assess sexual development and come up with ideas I haven’t thought of.  The fertility expert will be too busy. 

Anthropology is in good shape.

The opportunity is this: you wished to see studies that relate biology with cultural norms.  You wish somebody would examine the question, “What is the biological basis for the ubiquity of ritual?”  (I do not just mean church services.  Choices of food, clothing, architecture, music, speech and on and on can be understood as ritual.)  

Here are my references:
On the Regulation of Populations of Mammals, Birds, Fish, and Insects, Richard M. Sibly et al. SCIENCE vol. 309 no. 5734  JULY 22, 2005 page 607 – 610.
An Association between Kinship and Fertility of Human Couples Agnar Helgason et al., SCIENCE vol. 329 no. 5864 February 8, 2008 page 813 – 816.
Human Fertility Increases with Marital Radius, Rodrigo Labouriau et al. GENETICS vol. 178 no. 1 January 2008 page 601 – 603.
Comment on “An Association between Kinship and Fertility of Human Couples,” Rodrigo Labouriau et al. SCIENCE vol. 322 no. 5908 12 December 2008 page 1634 – 1635.

If you look through them you will see that biologically, adequate fertility requires a minimum degree of kinship between couples, and that degree of kinship is rather close.  Don’t even dream of going out and marrying someone as distant as 10th cousin.  Extinction beckons. 

Until recently nobody dreamed of such an effect.  There is plenty of other evidence, much of it horded up on nobabies.net along with letters like this. 

Since it is difficult to remember your family tree in every direction back for seven generations, maintaining a fertile population has been dicey.  The most persistent fertility has been among people who by dint of poverty or immobility had no choice but to marry cousins. 

People have developed any number of rituals, and to an extent they can serve as a shorthand for a kindred. 

Only nobody knows. 

So there sits the opportunity.  Verify the citations, apply it to almost anybody and you will see it at work.  Publish, and listen to the white lab coat boys gnash their teeth. 


M. Linton Herbert MD 

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