Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Congressman King's precursors

As reported here and elsewhere, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) recently claimed that we owe "civilization" to the Europeans; nobody else contributed significantly.  This idea is straight out of the playbook of the 19th-century evolutionists, who claimed that contemporary humans were stuck at different points on a unilineal evolutionary ladder leading from "savages" to "barbarians" and, finally, contemporary Western "civilization."  One of the leading purveyors of this notion was Lewis Henry Morgan (1818-1881), an early American anthropologist.

The paradigm of unilineal evolutionism was debunked for biology by Darwin himself, who imaged evolution as a tree with many branches rather than a straight ladder.  The debunking of the cultural myth was largely begun Franz Boas (1858-1942), another American anthropologist who stressed the importance of particular histories of cultures and societies over their ranking on some grand, ethnocentric scheme.

But the idea that societies and cultures could be ranked on a unified scale from "primitive" to "advanced" remained in the general folk model of many Americans and Europeans.  This is a slide I use in some of my classes to illustrate Theodore Roosevelt's investment in the idea.

And this idea is still alive and breathing.  Rep. King's thinking is in a direct line of descent from Morgan, and Roosevelt.  The maybe puzzling but definitely sad thing about this is that not only is King not alone, but somehow, with so little knowledge of human nature and history, he manages to maintain a high position in our government.  One would have thought that the demythologized view of humans ought to have become dominant by now.

We need anthropology, its knowledge and perspective, more than ever.

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