Three thousand five hundred anthropologists left the capital yesterday, so we can begin behaving naturally again, without danger of being written up in some terrible paper, now that the Friday to Tuesday meetings of the American Anthropological Association have ended.
It's doubtful, even when they were in town, that they had time to fool with Washingtonians, since several hundred talks were given in those few days, and the professionals barely had time to eat. They were here to report to each other, not to gather new examples of folly.
"Fifteen minutes," said Ed Eames, professor at Baruch University in New York. "You have only 15 minutes to make your talk, no matter how much work it may summarize." His topic yesterday was India in the days of the British.
The night before he attended, along with the other thousands, the Distinguished Lecture given by Marshall Sahlins on "The Anthropology of History," touching on such matters as divine kingships.
Eames sat on the front row with his seeing eye Labrador. Anthropologically speaking, it is curious the number of Americans who cannot clearly see a large black Labrador lying in front of a human, and especially cannot judge the extent of the dog's paws, which were twice trodden on and four times bumped into by people getting to their seats. One anthropologist managed to bump the paws twice, in incidents 15 minutes apart, but fortunately stumbled headlong over another man's feet and recovered only in time to avoid hitting the floor face first. No further trouble from him.
One thing anthropologists do is demonstrate to you that almost everything you thought you understood about human life is either false, or else subject to huge qualifications never thought of.
In modern medicine, for instance, strong elements of primitive magic remain ("Magical Beliefs and Practices Among Modern Western Surgeons"). Another pleasant belief exploded was that Japanese business management would benefit American corporations. It probably will not ("Culture and Employee Behavior: The Japanese System"), because it works only within the total cultural climate of Japan, where views of hierarchy, loyalty and so forth are very different from our own.
Our daily language, which to us seems clear and free of bias, is not necessarily either, and many of our ideas, which seem self-evidently true, are formed partly because of the structure of our grammar ("Whorf's View of the Linguistic Mediation of Thought"). We say, for example, "10 days" and "10 men" because we treat plurals the same in our language, yet one term deals with a nontangible abstract of time, which is not at all like a plural of physical bodies. We carry over to our thinking about time the notion that it is real in the same sense that human bodies are. Other languages are structured differently, resulting in different thought about time.
Our uninformed views of history are also open to correction. A beautiful film on the Ona Indians of Tierra del Fuego suggested, or strongly asserted, that the Onas were far better off before modern "civilization" hit them in recent decades. In 1900 there were perhaps 4,000 Onas on the island, oblivious to agriculture but expert in hunting the guanaco (a small camel-like creature) and gathering other food. Still pictures show them seemingly radiant and content in their great guanaco cloaks. Since civilization, the decline of population was disastrous. Many Onas were killed for a bounty of a couple of dollars a head. They stole sheep. They did this because the fences of encroaching civilization affected the wild-roaming guanacos and therefore the Ona food supply, and their culture did not include such concepts as private property of animals. Now there is not even one Ona left alive.
The anthropologists as a group consider themselves a bulwark against racism, and many formal talks and sessions dealt with, for example, the Indians of Guatemala. There were also news sheets distributed on the exhibition area (full of displays by various presses that publish books on anthropology) about the proposed resettlement of the Navajos in our own country, a particularly thorny situation since tension between the Hopi and the Navajos led to a decision to divide land between them. Which sounds sensible, except that one tribe has increased far more than the other on jointly owned lands, and some of those who are to be displaced have known no other home and it seems heartless to uproot them; besides which, the cost appears to be becoming astronomical.
One thing anthropology does, in other words, is to examine human affairs minutely, often disclosing unsuspected aspects that are not even hinted at on the surface. What really happens, for example, when an effort is made to reduce births in a seemingly overcrowded country like India? Well, things do not go as smoothly as might be thought. "The Forced Sterilization Program Under the Indian Emergency: Results in One Settlement" is a typical topic examining in some detail the effects of a government social-control venture.
The anthropological conventions must be almost singular in adhering to schedules, to the point that if a talk is scheduled for 8:45 a.m. in a certain room of the Washington Hilton Hotel, that is when the talk is given, not at 9 and not at 8:30. Talks were given in many rooms at 15-minute intervals from 8 to 5 with a break for lunch. After cocktails and supper, yet other seminars were held. This diligence and punctuality might suggest anthropologists are not human, until of course you see some lunkhead blunder on to a dog's paws.