Anthropology

Tagged: Theme

Anthropology is the scientific study of the genus Homo, especially its species H. sapiens. Physical anthropology deals with the history of H. sapiens and its immediate evolutionary precursors (some of which in fact coexisted with H. sapiens); cultural anthropology (ethnology) deals with the contemporary diversity of human cultures (see also Sociology). The founding fathers of the science – Sir Edward Tylor (1832-1917) and Sir James Frazer (1854-1941) among them – made the dubious assumption that, by studying the diversity of contemporary societies and describing a "hierarchy" extending from the most "primitive" to the most "highly developed", they could discover a single evolutionary pattern; this assumption is built into much early anthropological sf. Modern anthropologists take care to avoid this kind of thinking, and tend to refer to "pre-literate", "tribal", "traditional" or "non-technological" societies, rather than "primitive" ones, in order to emphasize that there is no single path of progress which all societies must tread.

Anthropological speculations feature in sf in a number of different ways, representing various approaches to the two dimensions of inquiry. There is a subgenre of stories dealing directly with the issues surrounding the physical Evolution of humans from bestial ancestors and with the cultural evolution of human societies in the distant past (see Origin of Man for discussion of such stories); these are speculative fictions that owe their inspiration to scientific theory and discovery but, as they participate hardly at all in the characteristic vocabulary of ideas and imaginative apparatus of sf, they are often seen as "borderline" sf at best, although the evocation of ideas drawn from physical anthropology in such works as No Enemy But Time (1982) and Ancient of Days (1985) by Michael Bishop is entirely science-fictional. The species of fantasy which straightforwardly represents the other dimension of the anthropological spectrum by dealing in the imaginary construction of contemporary societies is also borderline; most such stories are Lost-Race fantasies that tend to make little use of scientific anthropology in the design of their hypothetical cultures.

Some Prehistoric SF fantasies are pure romantic adventure stories – e.g., Edgar Rice Burroughs's The Eternal Lover (stories 7 March 1914, 23 January-3 February 1915 All-Story Weekly; fixup 1925; vt The Eternal Savage 1963) – but the subgenre includes a considerable number of thoughtful analytical works: J-H Rosny aîné's La guerre du feu (1909; cut trans as The Quest for Fire: A Novel of Prehistoric Times 1967; vt Quest for Fire 1982), the first four volumes of Johannes V Jensen's Den Lange Rejse (1908-1922; vols 1 and 2 trans as The Long Journey: Fire and Ice 1922; vols 3 and 4 trans as The Cimbrians: The Long Journey II 1923), J Leslie Mitchell's Three Go Back (1932), William Golding's The Inheritors (1955) and Björn Kurtén's Den svarta tigern (1978; trans by the author as Dance of the Tiger 1978) are the most outstanding.

There were also anthropological speculations in travellers' tales, but they were mostly too early to be informed by any genuinely scientific ideas. One of the most notable of such proto-anthropological speculations is to be found in Supplément au Voyage de Bougainville ["Supplement to Bougainville's Voyage"] (1796) by Denis Diderot, which masquerades as an addendum to a real travelogue in order to present a debate between a Tahitian and a ship's chaplain on the advantages of the state of Nature versus those of civilization. Benjamin Disraeli's The Voyage of Captain Popanilla (1828) also features a confrontation between the innocent and happy life of an imaginary South-Sea-island culture and the principles of Benthamite Utilitarianism. The earliest stories of this kind which embody speculations drawn from actual scientific thought include some of the items in Andrew Lang's In the Wrong Paradise and Other Stories (coll 1886) and a handful of stories by Grant Allen, including The Great Taboo (1890) and some of his Strange Stories (coll 1884). Allen was also the first writer to bring a hypothetical anthropologist from another culture to study tribalism and taboo in Victorian society, in The British Barbarians (1895). Another Satire in a similar vein is H G Wells's Mr Blettsworthy on Rampole Island (1928), in which a deranged young man sees the inhabitants of New York as a brutal and primitive Island culture. Late twentieth-century sf stories which submit humans to the clinical eyes of alien anthropologists include Mallworld (1981) by S P Somtow, Cards of Grief (1986) by Jane Yolen and (although they are Far-Future humans) An Alien Light (1988) by Nancy Kress.

The failings of the lost-race story as anthropological sf lie not so much in the ambitions of writers as in limitations of the form. These limitations have occasionally been transcended in post-World War Two fiction. In You Shall Know Them (1952; vt Borderline; vt The Murder of the Missing Link) by Vercors a species of primate is discovered which fits in the margin of all our definitions of "humanity"; it becomes the focal point of a speculative attempt to specify exactly what we mean – or ought to mean – by "Man". Brother Esau (1982) by Douglas Orgill and John Gribbin, Father to the Man (1989) by Gribbin alone and Birthright (1990) by Michael Stewart develop similar premises in more-or-less conventional thriller formats, while Maureen Duffy's Gor Saga (1981) uses a "half-human" protagonist as an instrument of clever satire (see Apes as Human). Providence Island (1959) by Jacquetta Hawkes is a painstaking analysis of a society which has given priority to the development of the mind rather than technological control of the environment, thus calling into question the propriety of such terms as "primitive" and "advanced". Aldous Huxley's Island (1962) is somewhat similar, and a pulp sf story with the same fundamental message is "Forgetfulness" (June 1937 Astounding) by John W Campbell Jr writing as Don A Stuart, though this latter skips over any actual analysis of the culture described.

The demise of the lost-race fantasy as an effective vehicle for anthropological speculation has led to a curiously paradoxical situation, in that the format has been recast in modern sf by use of non-technological Alien societies on other worlds in place of non-technological human societies on Earth. Ideas derived from the scientific study of humankind are widely – and sometimes very effectively – applied to the designing of cultures which are by definition non-human. So, while most sf aliens have always been surrogate humans, this has not necessarily been just through idleness or lack of imagination on the part of writers: there is a good deal of sf in which alien beings are quite calculatedly and intelligently deployed as substitutes for mankind. Post-World War Two sf has managed to ameliorate the paradoxicality of the situation by developing a convention which allows a more straightforward revival of the lost-race format: the "lost colony" scenario in which long-lost human colonists on an alien world have reverted to barbarism, often following the fall of a Galactic Empire.

The anthropologist and sf writer Chad Oliver has written a great many stories which deal with the confrontation between protagonists whose viewpoints are similar to ours and non-technological alien societies or human colonies. Notable are "Rite of Passage" (April 1954 Astounding), "Field Expedient" (January 1955 Astounding) and "Between the Thunder and the Sun" (May 1957 F&SF). Like Grant Allen, Oliver has also attempted the more ambitious project of imagining the situation in reverse, with alien anthropologists studying our culture, in Shadows in the Sun (1954). Other impressive sf stories which use "alien" societies in this way are "Mine Own Ways" (February 1960 F&SF) by Richard McKenna, A Far Sunset (1967) by Edmund Cooper, "The Sharing of Flesh" (December 1968 Galaxy) by Poul Anderson, Beyond Another Sun (1971) by Tom Godwin, The Word for World Is Forest (in Again, Dangerous Visions, anth 1972, ed Harlan Ellison; 1976) by Ursula K Le Guin (daughter of anthropologist Alfred Kroeber) and "Death and Designation Among the Asadi" (January/February 1973 If; exp vt Transfigurations 1979) by Michael Bishop. Works which use the lost-colony format to model non-technological human societies include several interesting novels by Jack Vance, notably The Blue World (July 1964 Fantastic as "The Kragen"; exp 1966), Le Guin's Rocannon's World (September 1964 Amazing as "The Dowry of Angyar"; exp 1966 dos; text corrected 1977) and Planet of Exile (1966), Joanna Russ's And Chaos Died (1970), Cherry Wilder's Second Nature (1982) and Donald Kingsbury's Courtship Rite (1982; vt Geta). These human societies are often more different from non-technological human societies than are the alien examples, and the injection of some crucial distinguishing feature – usually Psi Powers – is common. This tends to move the stories away from strictly anthropological speculation toward a more general hypothetical Sociology. The convergence of the roles of aliens and technologically unsophisticated humans is shown off to its greatest advantage in Ian Watson's The Embedding (1973), which juxtaposes an examination of a South American tribe who have a strange language and a correspondingly strange worldview with the arrival in Earth's neighbourhood of an equally enigmatic alien race. This is one of the very few stories to reflect the current state of anthropological science and its intimate links with modern linguistics and semiology; many sf writers prefer to take their inspiration from the scholarly fantasies of such mock-anthropological studies as Robert Graves's The White Goddess (1948); a notable example is Joan D Vinge's The Snow Queen (1980).

Another much-used narrative framework for the establishment of hypothetical human societies is the post-disaster scenario (see Disaster; Holocaust; Post-Holocaust; Sociology). Most fictions in this area deal with the destruction and reconstitution of society, and are perhaps of more general sociological interest. Where they bear upon anthropology is not so much in their envisaging different states of social organization but in their embodiment of assumptions regarding social evolution. Interesting speculations are to be found in such novels as William Golding's Lord of the Flies (1954), Angela Carter's Heroes and Villains (1969) and Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker (1980), and in the Pelbar series by Paul O Williams, begun with The Breaking of Northwall (1981). By far the most richly detailed of such accounts of technologically primitive future societies is Le Guin's tour de force of speculative anthropology, Always Coming Home (1985), which describes the tribal culture of the Kesh, inhabitants of a post-industrial California.

It is ironic that in the real world cultural anthropology's field of study is rapidly being eroded. No other science suffers so dramatically from Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle: the effect the process of observation has on the subject of that observation. Cultural anthropology may soon become a largely speculative discipline, looking forward to a possible future rebirth if and when the possibilities mapped out in sf are realized; this point is neatly made by Robert Silverberg's story "Schwartz Between the Galaxies" (in Stellar 1, anth 1974, ed Judy-Lynn del Rey).

There is, of course, a much broader sense in which a great deal of sf may be said to embody anthropological perspectives. Sf must always attempt to put human individuals, human societies and the entire human species into new contexts. Sf writers aspire – or at least pretend – to a kind of objectivity in their examination of the human condition. Such an attitude is by no means unknown in mainstream fiction, but it is not typical. The attitude and method of sf writers are easily comparable to the difficult but fundamental task facing anthropologists, who must detach themselves from the inherited attitudes of their own society and immerse themselves in the life of an alien culture without ever losing their ability to stand back from their experience and take the measure of that culture as objectively as possible. Because of this, workers in the human sciences might find much to interest them in the study of sf. It is not surprising that the first sf anthology compiled as a teaching aid in a scientific subject (see SF in the Classroom) was the anthropological Apeman, Spaceman (anth 1968) edited by Leon E Stover and Harry Harrison; a later example is Anthropology through Science Fiction (anth 1974) edited by Carol Mason, Martin H Greenberg and Patricia S Warrick. A collection of critical essays on the theme is Aliens: The Anthropology of Science Fiction (anth 1987) edited by Eric S Rabkin and George Edgar Slusser.

Further to the last point, it is worth taking note of the fairly considerable body of sf which represents a "speculative anthropology" with no analogue in the science itself, dealing with H. sapiens not as it is or has been but as it might be or might become. The ultimate example is, of course, Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men (1930), which describes the entire evolutionary history of the human race and its lineal descendants, but there are many other works which deal with the possibilities of future developments in human nature. Now that the advent of Genetic Engineering promises to deliver control of our future Evolution into our own hands, discussions of the physical anthropology of the future have acquired a new practical relevance. This point was first made by J B S Haldane in his prophetic essay Daedalus, or Science and the Future (1924); it is elaborately extrapolated in Brian M Stableford's and David Langford's future history The Third Millennium (1985) and in many other works which wonder how human beings might remake their own nature, once they have the power to do so. [BS]

see also: Pastoral; Ruins and Futurity; Superman.

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