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UNDERSTANDING THE HUMAN EXPERIENCE
A snowmobile race sponsored by the Inuit (Eskimo)
community council in a village on the Hudson's Bay in the Canadian Arctic,
Christmas 1969. Inuit friends urged me to join in a snowshoe race across
the river ice, but, knowing I was inexperienced at this, I was reluctant to
participate. They persisted, however, and, recognizing that they wanted me
to be involved, I agreed. Of course, I was the last one to return, way
behind everyone else in the race. I was very embarrassed, but to my surprise,
people came up to me and congratulated me, saying, "You really tried!"
A month later, when I was on a caribou hunting trip with three Inuit men in a
remote area, we got trapped by a winter storm and had to go several days
without food. This was when I learned that trying was much more important
than winning. While the Inuit like to win, their greater value on trying has
a distinct adaptive function. One way anthropologists learn about other
cultures is "participant observation," being involved in their daily
life, watching what they do, and doing what they do. We seek to learn the
meanings and (more important) the functions of their ways. We Are also
involved in "cross-cultural comparison," comparing their life
experiences with other groups (mostly our own). In the case of the snowshoe
race, I learned about Inuit values on trying, but I also learned about
American values on competition and winning.
There are several key concepts involved in Science and Anthropology which we will use
throughout the course to help us better understand the human experience. Students should
print and bring this summary of Core Concepts to every class, and are expected to
regularly review and be able to use these concepts in class discussions.
Principles for Understanding Natural Phenomena
Science often seems abstract and beyond
the reach of most people in their daily lives, but we have all have to develop
our understandings of Life and the Universe as we grow every day of every year.
Following the basic principles of science can help us develop more valid,
reliable, balanced, and predictive understandings of life around us. Some of
the basic ideas about science that we can all use include:
- Science is the study of natural phenomena (including the human experience)
- The purpose of science is to develop and validate more balanced and predictive understandings of life events and issues
- The principles of science can help us all be more valid and balanced learners
The basic scientific method is controlled
comparison. As we compare similarities and differences across phenomena, we can
determine what relationships and influences exist in life events, and also which suspected
or perceived ones are not valid. The basic ethnological method is
cross-cultural comparison, as we compare different cultural
patterns in order to determine what factors influence the human experience.
Valid and balanced understandings are based on recognition and
control of biases (rather than the
absence of biases) as we ask questions, gather relevant information,
identify relationships and influences, and make and support predictive
interpretations about life events and issues.
The types of biases that influence how valid, reliable, and balanced
our understandings are include:
- Conceptual biases: the way we as a group collectively
organize our mental views, beliefs and perceptions about
life and the universe, which influences what we notice, what we seek
to learn, and how we interpret phenomena.
- Methodological biases: the way in which
we select, gather, and analyze information, which
structures the basic materials we use for developing our understandings.
- Situational biases: the structured local
settings and circumstances around us, which influence what
information and events are and are not available to us in understanding
life and issues.
Personal biases: the individual
experiences and personality that form our personal interests, likes
and dislikes, characteristics, etc., which influence what and how each of us
seeks to learn and understand.
- Chance biases: the random circumstances
and events that cannot be anticipatd and controlled beforehand, but which
provide and deny information for understanding life and the universe.
Biases enter into all of our understandings, from our
perspectives on what we are seeking to learn and in the questions we ask, the information
with which we have to work, the interpretations we make, and the judgements
we make throughout the learning process.
- Can we recognize our biases (rather than assuming we are being
- Why do we have these biases?
- What can we do to ensure that our understandings of other ethnic
behaviors is accurate and balanced?
The principles of science that all of us can use to develop more
valid and balanced understandings of life events and issues include:
- Recognize and control for biases
throughout the learning process
- Keep the facts separate from the
interpretations of those facts
- Interpret what we do know in the
context of what we do not know
Grounded scientific understandings are based on knowing what we do
In gathering relevant, valid, and balanced information
In analyzing relationships and influences
In making interpretations and supporting conclusions
And keeping what we do know in the context of what we do
With this awareness, we can maximize our chances for obtaining more
valid and reliable information, for making grounded interpretations,
and, perhaps most important, qualifying our interpretations to
acknowledge where they are and are not relevant.
HUMAN'S PLACE IN NATURE
Principles for Understanding Evolution of Life Forms
Humans are only one of the millions of life forms on earth. Where do we
stand in the natural order of things? Have we evolved beyond other life
forms? Do other life forms and natural resources exist for our sole use?
Are we separate from Nature and able to control our destiny? Or are
we a part of Nature, and subject to the natural laws of the Universal
systems around us?
Some concepts in Evolution can help us to better understand our place in
- Biological evolution is a change
in the frequency of genes in a
population over time.
- The basic mechanism of biological evolution is
natural selection, where the carriers
of those genes which are more adaptive to environmental conditions
survive and pass on those genes in greater frequency over generations.
- Diversity is adaptive,
because the more different types of traits in a group the
more likely the group will have the necessary potentials to meet
environmental challenges, particularly new and unforeseen ones.
- The two aspects of the phenotype are
morphology (biophysical traits and processes) and
behavior (active/reactive functions
Two important concepts which should be kept distinct are: race,
which refers to the genetic frequencies in a
population at a particular point in time, and ethnicity, which
refers to the behavioral patterns of a group.
(Therefore, different races may share a similar ethnic heritage, and groups
of the same race may have different ethnic heritages.)
- As we compare ourselves with other species on Earth, we can see that humans
share many morphological and behavioral traits with other life forms, from
single cell organisms, to vertibrates, to mammals, to primates and great
- We can also see that humans have some morphological and behavioral traits
that are relatively unique, including brain structures, reproductive behavior,
verbal communication, and abstract and integrative thinking.
- As we trace the course of hominid evolution over the last million or so
years, we can identify those characteristics that ditinguish us as a species:
- Humans are primarily adapted for
- Humans primary means of adaptation is by
Principles for Understanding the Reorganization of Interacting Systems
The concept of adaptation provides many insights into understanding
the driving forces that initiate and direct morphological and behavioral
changes on Earth, including changes among humans around the world today.
Principles for understanding the process of adaptation include:
- Adaptation is the
systems process in how a group's
biobehavioral potentials interact
with its environmental challenges,
which enhances its survival and continuation.
This process involves the biological, ecological, and
cultural systems of a group.
The principle of systems is important in
the anthropological perspective, and includes:
Changes in one part of the system affect other parts and the
balance of the functioning whole
- Components: Asking what are the different parts that
are included in the system
- Interactions: Asking how these different components are
interrelated and mutually influence each other
- Outcomes: Asking what are the results from how all
the interacting components in the system function together
- Cultural adaptation is the systems process in how a group's
behavioral potentials interact with its
environmental challenges, which enhances its survival and continuation.
- A bio-cultural model of adaptation involves a
process of two sets of interacting forces, including:
- The internal potentials that a group
brings to a setting, including its needs (conditions
necessary for its existence) and resources (abilities
which can be used to enhance the group's adaptation).
- Potentials can range from fixed/innate to highly
plastic/developed; and the ultimate criterion
for assessing the plasticity of a trait is how much it can
be changed in interaction with
the environment. (The degree of observed variations can provide
an intermediate estimate).
- A group's potentials are ultimately based in its genetic
heritage (such as the structure of the brain).
- Diversity is adaptive, because the more different
types of traits in a group the more likely the group will have
the necessary potentials to meet environmental challenges,
particularly new and unforeseen ones.
- A major resource for humans is culture. Humans have
extensive potentials for developed behaviors (rather than being
limited to specific fixed behaviors. Plastic behavioral potentials
which can be readily changed in meeting environmental conditions,
and therefore provide a rapid and flexible means of adaptation
(compared to evolving physiological traits over millions of years).
- The environmental challenges
in the group's setting, including constraints (conditions
imposed by the environment which are necessary for existence) and
opportunities (conditions which can be used to enhance
the group's existence).
- Environmental challenges select from among all of a group's
potentials those traits that contribute to the best adaptive balance.
- The basic process of adaptation is
reorganization of the system, as a group's potentials interact
with its environmental challenges. It is the
system that changes, not just traits. Adaptation is a
continuous evolutionary process, where populations evolve
(rather than individuals).
- The ultimate measure of the adaptiveness of a trait is
how much it contributes to the continuation
of the group. (Intermediate measures of the well-being of a group which
promotes continuation are also often used, such as health.) Adaptation
is a relative process, in terms of the more or less optimal internal
functioning of a group and its greater or lesser balance with
- In assessing adaptation, time frames must be kept in mind, since what
is adaptive at one point may be maladaptive under altered conditions, and
what is not adaptive at one time may be more adaptive under altered conditions.
- Understanding the PROCESS of adaptation
can help us better understand contemporary issues. Asking poor questions
can lead to misunderstandings (like "nature or
nurturance?"... the more valid issue is "nature
and nurturance; how much of each?").
Principles for Understanding Ethnic Behavior
The concept of culture is a major perspective in Anthropology
for understading human behavior, and provides many insights into
understanding the wide range of ethnic behavior we can observe
around the world.
Principles for understanding the integrated natural of cultural behavior
- Culture is the whole,
shared behavioral system
of a group of people.
- The behaviors involved in human culture are largely highly plastic,
and therefore can be readily developed in adapting to
- Culture is an integrated
system, where every trait mutually interacts with every
other trait directly or indirectly.
- The systems perspective is important in the
questions to ask about a culture:
- What are the components or traits of the cultural system?
- How do these different traits interact and mutually influence
- What are the outcomes or adaptive functions that result
from these interacting traits?
- Also, how do changes in one part of the system affect other parts and
the balance of the functioning whole?
- Cultures are relative,
so that each culture has to be considered in the context of its
own behavioral system.
- It can be misleading to look at others' ways as "similar"
or "different" than our own, because we are limiting our
understandings by our own exerience rather than theirs.
- To gain more valid understandings, we need to consider a particular culture
as distinct in terms of how their behavioral system is organized.
- The levels of cultural experience include:
- The meanings (what people believe and
how they feel about their life and ways), and
- The adaptive functions (how behavioral traits
contributes to the group's continuation).
- The adaptive functions of cultural traits which contribute to the
group's continuation include:
- Biological functions: those behaviors
that promote the physical well-being and reproductive success of the
- Subsistence/Economic functions: those
behaviors that contribute to meeting a group's basic material needs
which support its way of life
- Social functions: those behaviors that
foster cohesion within a group and that minimize conflicts and
disruptions among its members
- Psychological functions: those behaviors
that support a meaningful identity, a constructive sense of purpose,
and productive orientation towards life among members of the group
- Ecological functions: those behaviors
that facilitate a productive balance with the group's external
Principles for Understanding Our Misunderstanding
One of the most important concepts in Anthropology is
ethnocentrism. The long history of humans
misunderstanding other humans is obvious, and this misunderstanding
often leaves to severe forms of discrimination and genocide. While
contemporary events make us all aware of such abuses, we can recognize
the underlying problems in our own society where we experience many forms
of prejudice every day.
Principles for understanding the underlying causes of ethnocentrism, and,
more important, how to recognize and control for this bias, include:
- Ethnocentrism is making false
assumptions about others' behavior based
on our own limited experience.
- This is beyond the normal definition of "believing your own culture is the
best," (which carries the implication that we are flawed for
seeing life through whatever we have already experienced). Since our
own experience is the basis of our "reality", everybody is
ethnocentric, and it is impossible not to assume false negative
and false positive interpretations of other cultures.
- It is natural to be ethnocentric, but it is not OK
- The basic problem with ethnocentrism is that it
leads us to misunderstand others. We see their ways in terms of
our life experience, not in terms of their context. A severe
form of ethnocentrism is seen in racism and, in the extreme, "ethnic
cleansing." But even when people have benign intentions, they still
may convey to others that they are not "normal" and thus cause
hurt or ill feelings. Underlying all this is that we do not understand
their experience, and therefore may be prone to misjudge their ways.
- This presents a paradox: we assume (and therefore
misunderstand others) because we do not even understand that
we do not understand, and so we aren't even aware that we can develop more
valid and balanced understandings about how they experience life.
- SO WHAT CAN WE DO? The scientific
principle that grounded understandings is not based on the absence of
biases but rather on the recognition and control of biases applies
to ethnocentrism. Since it is impossible not to be ethnocentric,
the best way we can control for ethnocentrism
We do not have to agree with others' ways, and have the right to our own
ways. But having valid understandings of the meanings and functions of others'
behavior can help in maintaining constructive understandings, whether on
an interpersonal, societal, or international scale.
- To recognize our ethnocentrism when it happens, by being aware
of reactions (both ours, which tells us
about ourselves, and theirs, which also tells us about our own
- To ask valid questions that will lead to valid understandings,
- "What are the meanings of the
behaviors to them?"
- Even more important, "What are the adaptive
functions of their behaviors in their adaptation?"
(remembering that the functions may be in a very different part of
culture than the meanings).
- This is the question which usually gives us the deepest insights
into cultural behavior).
- Interethnic encounters can be an opportunity for
understanding the broad potentials humans have for being human, for
understanding ourselves. This awareness keeps us open to new ways
in which we ourselves can adapt to life challenges, since all human potentials
are also available for us in adaptation.
For a more comprehensive discussion of this issue, see
These ideas emerge again and again in trying to gain a more accureate and balanced understanding of others' ethnic behavior,
and can help us better understand the variations of the human experience in both our own and other societies around the world.
Expanding our understandings of our own and others' human behavior involves critical thinking. For more guidelines on this process, see:
What Makes a Good Learner?
* No personal information is collected on this and other course-related pages.
© Ken Barger, 2011