Monday, August 1, 2011

The Role of a Biological Perspective

To me, the question of what a biological perspective adds to anthropology is an awkward one; anthropology has always been inherently biological. As the product of the Enlightenment’s zeal for natural history and classifying everything under the sun, anthropology’s main and initial goal was to classify the “human primitives” on earth – to catalog and study non-western people. Some of the earliest concerns of anthropology were regarding our evolutionary lineage and physical variation in humans. More sophisticated versions of these and other biological questions continue to drive investigators in this discipline toward very exciting research. Today, the main goals of biological anthropology are to understand contemporary human variation, the ancestry of human and non-human primate species, and the intersection between biology and culture. However, a question I find more interesting for this issue is why the four sub-fields of American anthropology have become so divided. And, in this division, why has biological anthropology gotten such a bad rap?

It seems that in many anthropology programs (with notable exceptions such as University of Tennessee, University of Michigan, and others), biological anthropology is one of the outcast sub-fields, relegated to the shadow of the anthropological superstars, archaeology and cultural anthropology. Some departments that do hang on to their biological sub-field seem to experience confusion or animosity towards the biological perspective. It seems that students (and maybe even faculty) in anthropology departments are reluctant to utilize a biological perspective or take biological anthropology courses because it is seemingly irrelevant to their research questions on culture, identity, or health. Some researchers even seem hostile to a biological approach, assuming that we are trying to explain away all human cultural variation or health problems in terms of biological determinants. For the record, biological anthropologists are not all sociobiologists and we do recognize a political-economic approach (see Goodman & Leatherman 1998; Schell et al. 2007)!

However, it seems to many students that the field of anthropology has somehow developed beyond the need to understand human biological variation, which might be best left to geneticists. This situation seems to stem from general Western thought that divides the sociocultural from the biophysical (Ingold 2001) and the pioneering anthropological work of Franz Boas. As anthropologists had set out to distinguish culture from race, Boas declared that “any attempt to explain cultural form on a purely biological basis is doomed to failure” (Boas 1940: 1656). Of course, Boas was not indicating that biological perspectives should be dismissed entirely, but just that biology could not be the sole lens through which to view human culture. However, this statement seemingly delineated the study of the cultural from the study of the biological. Indeed, early Boasian anthropologists rarely integrated the biological and the cultural into a single synthetic work and this trend has largely continued to today (Borofsky 2002). 

So, back to the question: what does a biological perspective bring to the field of anthropology? Obviously, as a biocultural anthropologist, I think questions about culture, identity, and health cannot possibly be answered without an understanding of how stress, disease, and diet affect our bodies. Of course structural issues are important, those that address how people are able to access healthy lifestyles or not, but we all must also understand how our human biologies are affected by lifestyle and vice versa. 

For example, my own research investigates how individual dietary decision-making both creates identity and has biological consequences. In Appalachia, people often make claims to “comfort food,” “cultural foods,” and “this is how I was raised to eat.” Clearly, people use food to help create their identities in this region. However, these foods affect the biologies of people as high rates of nutrition-related diseases such as obesity, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and cancer can attest. Additionally, Alaska Natives (ANs) experience these same issues, although they are manifested differently. ANs have their own ideas about cultural and traditional foods and eating these items is what makes someone a “true” Eskimo. Even as they continue to construct their native identities from what they eat, they are also transitioning to a more Westernized diet. The increasing intake of energy dense, sugary, and fatty foods is contributing to rising rates of those same diseases experienced by Appalachians: obesity, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and certain cancers. For me, questions about cultural identity or health in these two disparate regions cannot be answered without investigating diet, which inherently leads to biological questions about health and disease. It is important to note that these research projects are not neglecting a political-economic perspective. Structural issues such as access to healthy foods, rates of poverty, and the factors leading to food insecurity are being investigated within this biocultural approach (for example, see BorrĂ© 1991; Crooks 2000; Fazzino & Loring 2009; Hadley et al. 2008).

In short, I think most anthropological questions could be enhanced with a biological perspective or component. Very little about humanity can be studied without understanding how our bodies operate and how our cultural practices interact with our biologies. Additionally, as anthropology and the social sciences continue to come under attack (Mervis 2011), the holism on which our discipline was founded and that continues to make our field unique should not be abandoned now.

Britteny Howell


Mervis, Jeffrey. 2011. Social Sciences Face Uphill Battle Proving Their Worth to Congress. Science. Retrieved on 7-10-11 from

Boas, Franz. 1940. Race, Language, and Culture. New York: Free Press.

Borofsky, Robert. 2002. The Four Subfields: Anthropologists as Mythmakers. American Anthropologist 104(2):463-480.

Borré, Kristen. 1991. Seal Blood, Inuit Blood, and Diet: A Biocultural Model of Physiology and Cultural Identity. Medical Anthropology Quarterly 5(1):48-62.

Crooks, Deborah L. 2000. Food Consumption, Activity, and Overweight among Elementary School Children in an Appalachian Kentucky Community. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 112(2):159-70.

Fazzino, David V., and Philip A. Loring. 2009. From Crisis to Cumulative Effects: Food Security Challenges in Alaska. NAPA Bulletin 32(152-177).

Goodman, Alan H. and Thomas L. Leatherman (eds.). 1998. Building a New Biocultural Synthesis: Political-Economic Perspectives on Human Biology. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Hadley, Craig, et al. 2008. Gender Bias in the Food Insecurity Experience of Ethiopian Adolescents. Social Science & Medicine 66(2):427-438.

Ingold, Tim. 2001. From Complementarity to Obviation: On Dissolving the Boundaries between Social and Biological Anthropology, Archaeology, and Psychology. In S. Oyama, P.E. Griffiths, and R.D. Gray Cycles of Contingency: Developmental Systems and Evolution. Pp 255- 280. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Schell, Lawrence M., et al. 2007. Advancing Biocultural Models by Working with Communities: A Partnership Approach. American Journal of Human Biology 19:511-524.

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