Is Anthropology Science?

Anthropology is being taught at more schools and colleges, yet students and parents still find it difficult to determine whether Anthropology is a science. Puzzled, they often wonder, “What, then, could it be if Anthropology is not a branch of science?” The truth is, Anthropology is a malleable discipline. There are anthropologists who rely greatly on the scientific method, and there are also those who dare to go beyond this method—often relying on practices such as interpretation, empathy, thick description and other techniques.

Image Credit: Pete unseth

What Makes Anthropology Malleable?

Anthropology is malleable because its concerns are extremely broad. For instance, sub-disciplines such as Physical Anthropology, Biological Anthropology, and Forensic Anthropology draw especially heavily from the the anatomical sciences, and indeed from other natural sciences. These sub-disciplines focus almost exclusively on the physical and biological characteristics of humans. On the other hand, sub-disciplines such as Social/Cultural Anthropology, Anthropology of Religion, or Anthropology of Science focus on the sociocultural cues, norms, rules, and practices that characterize a given community, as well as the ways in which the community relates to macro cultures. In fact, one of the key aims of this form of Anthropology is to supply a comprehensive, yet inclusive, definition of culture. Notably, Anthropology of Science, a rather new branch, aims to critically examine the ways in which the scientific community functions—that is, how the community’s values, interests, and preferences dictate what can be considered valid, scientific knowledge. In short, the branch focuses on the social aspects that enable scientific knowledge-making.

How to Differentiate

As one can clearly see, we can differentiate the branches of Anthropology that rely heavily (if not solely) on the scientific method from those that do not by focusing on the concerns of these branches. That is, the former set of branches largely deals with tangible things (such as the human body, artefacts, etc.), whereas the latter deals with intangible things (such as culture). This is not to imply that anthropologists who focus on culture do not rely on the scientific method. In fact, some anthropologists argue that all branches of Anthropology must be based only on the scientific method. In other words, they claim that culture—and indeed other such intangible things—should also be examined only via the scientific method.

Culture, the Scientific Method, and Thick Description

Should anthropologists rely solely on the scientific method, even to study culture—that intangible, diverse thing? What other methods are there, and why are these preferred by cultural anthropologists? As mentioned above, cultural anthropologists also use thick description to present their ethnographic findings. Thick description requires context, and plenty of it. In other words, it is not enough for an anthropologist to simply record a community’s cultural practices. She must also necessarily explain what these practices mean to members of the community, what they derive out of these practices, and the significance of these practices. In effect, the anthropologist must be able to describe to an outsider the meaning a community ascribes to its cultural practices. To do so, the anthropologist must also forge a bond with the community she is studying.

Cultural Anthropology today focuses on presenting people’s own views of their culture. This is a recent, yet very important, development. The absence of people’s own views results in one-sided, prejudiced ethnographies. The scientific method is undoubtedly useful. Yet, to insist on using only the scientific method is to insist on presenting only an incomplete picture—one we can call “thin description.” For instance, a survey or a purely quantitative study of people’s opinion is less informative than a study that marries these with thick description. That is, through thick description, the anthropologist can contextualize people’s opinion; without context and interpretation, the study would merely be of numerical significance.

This is not to discredit the scientific method—more accurately, this is not to suggest that surveys and quantitative approaches are useless to the anthropologist. To be sure, these are important, and sometimes even necessary, tools. Yet, they cannot be the only tools employed in an anthropological study.

Making the Call

So, if you are keen about Anthropology, try to identify what it is that really interests you. If you’re interested in the different ways in which people seek or make meaning, or the ways in which culture influences individuals and vice versa, Cultural Anthropology may be what you’re looking for. On the other hand, if you’re interested in the physical characteristics of the human body, the ways in which lifestyles shape these characteristics, and so on, Physical or Forensic Anthropology may be your discipline. Remember: there is no hierarchy here; whether you rely on the scientific method or active modes of interpretation, what really matters is the earnestness with which you undertake your research. Finally, to answer parents’ question—Anthropology is not only a science but also a salient Humanities discipline. Moreover, nothing is off topic for the anthropologist. As studies in the field of Anthropology of Science show, even science is open to critical anthropological inquiry. It is one of the very few disciplines that critically studies and questions scientific paradigms. For this reason, Anthropology is also a revolutionary discipline.

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What Are Nootropics?

If you think “cognitive enhancement” seems far-fetched, think again. For a while now, scientists and researchers have been actively working to produce “super pills” to facilitate, if not directly achieve, just that—cognitive enhancement. Therefore, it is no surprise to find supermarkets selling memory-enhancing pills and supplements over the counter. Otherwise known as “smart drugs,” nootropics are substances that may enhance memory, creativity, and motivation in healthy individuals. Commercial, mass-produced nootropics are a recent invention; they’ve been around only for three decades or so. Naturally, researchers are yet to fully ascertain their effects. Most cognitive enhancers, therefore, are categorized as stimulants.

don't forget to take your smart pills : iTOUCH, san francisco (2013)
Image Credit: torbakhopper (Flickr user)

Stimulants or Supplements?

In other words, until we know for certain that nootropics do what their manufacturers claim they can, they will be categorized only as stimulants, not as supplements. In fact, since nootropics are enhancers that do not address any particular medical condition, they may be categorized only as stimulants by regulatory authorities even if they are found to be effective. This, however, does not prevent manufacturers and marketers from presenting nootropics as supplements. At the same time, we must remember that the consumption of concentration-enhancing stimulants is not a new trend. To enhance cognition, students have been known to consume drugs typically prescribed for those diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD or ADD).

Adderall is one such drug—perhaps one of the most abused prescription stimulants among the US student community—whereas Ritalin is another (although not as ubiquitous as the former). Students usually take adderall and other stimulants to boost their academic performance. Prescription stimulants are also consumed by those who need to clock long hours at work, as these stimulants tend to increase alertness, wakefulness, and energy levels.

Worryingly, these drugs can be purchased without prescriptions. What’s worse, their demand and popularity have also led to the proliferation of black markets in the vicinity of schools and colleges. Many FDA-approved prescription stimulants continue to be abused by otherwise healthy individuals, purportedly for their capacity to enhance cognition and alertness. Most of these drugs, we must remember, are not intended to be used as cognitive stimulants; rather, they are designed specifically for those with learning disorders or difficulties, or other conditions—be they mental, psychosomatic, or neurobiological. Cognitive enhancers, or nootropics, on the other hand, are designed specifically for healthy individuals. They do not treat or address any particular mental condition or disorder. Whether or not they can actually enhance our cognition without adverse effects, only rigorous testing will tell.

How Are Nootropics Different from Other Stimulants?

Firstly, newer nootropics do not contain chemicals, at least not as much as drugs prescribed for those diagnosed with learning or neurobiological disorders. For instance, the main active ingredient in adderall is amphetamine, which is addictive and has been found to have a number of adverse effects on long-term users. Newer nootropics, on the other hand, contain vitamins and lipids derived from common foods. Manufacturers claim that these newer nootropics also include antioxidants, omega-3s, natural vitamins, and many plant-based ingredients.

Nonetheless, as mentioned above, it remains unclear whether nootropics can enhance cognition without entailing adverse effects. On the other hand, nootropics, much like probiotics, may have no effect whatsoever on those who consume them. In all fairness, however, probiotics have been known to enhance digestion in healthy individuals. Nonetheless, since both nootropics and probiotics are aimed at healthy individuals, it is difficult to gauge the extent to which—if at all—these substances benefit their consumers.

Nootropics: Potential for Abuse or Addiction

We are not yet sure whether nootropics can be addictive. Theoretically, newer nootropics should be less addictive in comparison to prescription stimulants, especially since the former do not contain compounds that we know are addictive. At the same time, however, these newer nootropics contain substances whose effects we are not yet aware of. For instance, according to this report, some nootropics contain relatively untested ingredients, such as ginseng root and bacopa, a medicinal herb. Since they include untested ingredients, it is difficult to predict what adverse effects these newer nootropics will have. The only way to find out is through rigorous sampling and testing, which, as we know, is in itself a dubious process that often raises ethical and humanitarian questions, and rightly so.

Are Nootropics Necessary?

Let’s not forget: nootropics are aimed at healthy people. They claim to enhance cognition and alertness. They are a product of a culture that feverishly values productivity. Students, for instance, abuse adderall because the ultra-competitive academic world leaves them little choice. This is not to suggest that healthy students who consume adderall in their pursuit of high academic performance are blameless; rather, it is to point out the salience of sociocultural factors in encouraging addictive behavior. That is, healthy students and young professionals resort to adderall because our culture values and rewards incessant productivity very highly. In this context, we must wonder if nootropics are at all necessary, especially since they are manufactured for healthy individuals. Don’t we already have caffeine (which, let’s not forget, is also addictive)?

Are Probiotics Really Effective?

Probiotic foods have never been more popular. For instance, as of 2015, Americans spent over 36.6 billion USD on probiotics, yet the efficacy of probiotics remains hotly debated. Mostly sold as health supplements, probiotics are foods filled with live, friendly bacteria and yeast. Advocates argue that probiotics cleanse our gut by eliminating unhealthy and potentially harmful bacteria and microorganisms. This has led to the proliferation of such foods as probiotic ice creams and yogurt. It is also argued that probiotics can be used to counter the negative effects of antibiotics, which sometimes tend to eliminate good bacteria from our digestive system. In effect, when consumed properly, probiotics will enable the human body to maintain a healthy balance between good and bad bacteria, or so the advocates argue.

Image Credit: Bicanski (Flickr user)

On the other hand, skeptics point out that most probiotics have not been subjected to enough thorough clinical trials. Therefore, they argue that claims about the benefits of probiotics are rather unfounded. Some observers even claim that probiotics have no effect whatsoever on the human body. What’s worse, very few probiotics have been tested, let alone approved, by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Why There Is Very Little Evidence

Probiotics have flown under the FDA’s radar mainly because it is unclear whether they are a form of medication. While they are almost unanimously regarded as supplements, probiotics are hardly ever presented as a form of medication. This is primarily because probiotics do not treat or alleviate any particular medical condition, and supplements that do not treat specific conditions are typically not subjected to the FDA’s extensive screening process.

What Are Supplemental Probiotics?

Most probiotic foods are considered supplemental because the human body is home to a wide variety of microorganisms—mainly germs and bacteria—that enhance digestion, reduce toxin levels, and ensure intestinal well-being. Contrary to popular belief, not all bacteria are harmful. In fact, these friendly microorganisms are an essential component of the human body. Supplemental probiotics, therefore, as the name suggests, aim to supplement and enhance the digestive functions of the friendly bacteria already present in the human body. Yet, it remains unclear exactly what aspects of digestion supplemental probiotics aid.

More interestingly, supplemental probiotics are not only natural but are also a form of live food, which makes it all the more difficult for regulatory bodies to classify them. Moreover, probiotics have different effects on different people, and without rigorous study, it is very difficult to ascertain the efficacy of supplemental probiotics. Doctors have been urged to recommend only those probiotics that have been tested and approved by the FDA. Nonetheless, most supplemental probiotics are sold over the counter, typically without a prescription. Probiotics, it is claimed, can alleviate a wide range of conditions, from digestive discomfort to eczema and other skin conditions. Probiotics are also presented as supplements that can prevent viral infections and allergies. In addition, it has been argued that probiotics can improve oral health.

The Negative Effects of Probiotics

The negative effects of probiotics have not been fully examined. Yet, they are known to cause digestive discomfort—ironically enough, the very condition they sometimes tend to alleviate. Adverse effects typically include gas and/or bloating. Therefore, it is best to consult a physician before consuming probiotics. It is equally important to look for the FDA approval before purchasing probiotics over the counter.

Oumuamua: The Interstellar Messenger

Oumuamua, or 1I/2017 U1, was first spotted in our solar system on October 19, 2017. This was a remarkable occasion: it was the first time astronomers had detected an object from another solar system in our own. However, Oumuamua is no longer detectable, and in all likelihood, it may never return once it leaves our solar system. The interstellar object was discovered by Robert Weryk at Haleakala Observatory, Hawaii. Fittingly enough, “Oumuamua” is a Hawaiian word that roughly translates to “first distant messenger,” and it succinctly represents the significance of the object’s spotting. Oumuamua’s journey to our solar system is remarkable to say the least. One only needs to think of the distance (in terms of interstellar space) it must have traveled before briefly gracing our solar system, as well as the duration of its extraordinary interstellar journey—rather, its extraordinary ongoing interstellar journey. Unfortunately, however, we are yet to ascertain for just how long Oumuamua has been on this interstellar journey.

Even naming this interstellar object turned out to be quite a difficult task, especially since there were no precedents or naming conventions scientists could draw from. In fact, the “1I” in “1I/2017 U1” connotes just this: a new convention, it indicates that Oumuamua is the first interstellar object to be spotted in our solar system (the “1” represents the incidence, whereas the “I” stands for “Interstellar”).

The interstellar object is believed to have reached our solar system from the Lyra constellation, more particularly from somewhere near Vega (the brightest star in this constellation). This, however, is only a conjecture, and it remains to be seen whether we can accurately trace its origin and trajectory. Nonetheless, scientists state that Oumuamua may have entered our solar system around 1837. It wasn’t spotted earlier on account of its distance from the Sun. Being too far away from the Sun, Oumuamua could not reflect enough light, which in turn made it undetectable.

However, once Oumuamua was close enough to the Sun, it remained largely unaffected by the Sun’s gravity. That is, Oumuamua was traveling too fast to be drawn in by the Sun’s gravitational pull. In fact, Oumuamua’s speed is one of the surest signs that it really does come from outside our solar system. Moreover, it is also quite surprising that Oumuamua turned out to be an interstellar asteroid. This is not only because there are more interstellar comets than there are interstellar asteroids but also because Oumuamua is unusually large and elongated for an asteroid. In fact, Oumuamua is the most elongated asteroid in our solar system. Citing these factors, two Harvard scientists have suggested that Oumuamua could be a probe sent by an intelligent alien civilization.

Could Oumuamua Be an Alien Probe?

Admittedly, there is very limited data about Oumuamua. Unfortunately, this has resulted in the proliferation of outlandish theories. The chances of Oumuamua being an alien probe are very minimal. Since it cannot entirely be ruled out, it is exciting to think about this possibility. However, it is quite irresponsible for two top scientists to publish a paper on this topic without issuing the necessary caveats: (i) that the chances of Oumuamua being an alien probe are very slim and (ii) that the paper is speculative, at best. Moreover, by sensationalizing (inadvertently or otherwise) this remarkable event, the paper may divert the general public’s attention. For, the paper also claims that “Oumuamua may be a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth vicinity by an alien civilization.” In other words, the paper is in bad taste; it capitalizes on the shock value of this remote, but exciting, possibility as well as the authors’ own credentials. Scientists should should not exaggerate the plausibility of their hypotheses. In this case, the hypothesis is not one that is remotely possible; it is merely one that is not entirely wrong.