Guide to Anthropology for Teachers and Students
Aesthetic Realism Explains a Crucial Social Science / By Arnold Perey, Ph.D.

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Two men pausing before resuming garden work. Oksapmin, Papua New Guinea. Photograph © by Arnold Perey.

4. Physical Anthropology of the Present.

The anthropological study or the human body, as the body looks today, is mainly the study of race or national appearance. People of different continents have different outward appearances. The differences arise from the many shades of color people have, the many textures of hair, the way that eyes are shaped, and so on.

Appearances do generally correspond to how separate a population has been from another population, or how close. When two populations are geographically close, they are likely to have physical similarities. The further apart they are, the more evident the differences will be. All this is not very surprising. There is a grand composition of differencess and samenesses, like the many different notes and emotions in a great musical composition, the exciting blending and contrast of brushstrokes and shapes in a stirring painting.

Anthropologists used to point out three main races or populations, sometimes four, and sometimes upwards of a hundred. Each "main" variation on the human theme corresponds to the population of a continent. African, European, Asian, Native American are the most common. But many more populations have been noticed as well, including Dravidian (south India), Inuit (American polar region), Ainu (Hokkaido Island, Japan), Australoid (Native Australian), Polynesian (Pacific Islands), Micronesian (also Pacific Islands), Melanesians (Pacific Islands too); and Alpine Europeans (in the Alps), Mediterranean Europeans (Italy, Greece, and so on), Indic Europeans (Northern India) and many others, and still more.

The differences are very interesting and they show how many different ways the loveliness of the human being can take place. But could there be too much emphasis on difference?

I believe there is. Generally anthropologists have stayed with the differences between cultures and nationalities and kept away from human sameness. That has been the most popular viewpoint so far, but it is not, to my mind, really successful.

Since you are the same as and different from every other human being on earth, the accurate study of physical anthropology has to take that into account. Whenever anthropologists do this we have beautiful, ethical, and accurate observations and there is aesthetic seeing. Aesthetic seeing is present in the United Nations Economic, Social, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) document I quoted before. Man is seen as one and diverse; you are seen as the same as all people, yet different:

Scientists have reached general agreement in recognizing that mankind is one: that all men belong to the same species, Homo sapiens.

...Prom the biological standpoint, the species Homo sapiens is made up of a number of populations, each of which differs from the others in the frequency of one or more genes. Such genes, responsible for the hereditary differences between men, are always few when compared to the vast number of genes common to all human beings

(UNESCO Statement on Race by Social Scientists July 1950)

Human beings differ from their genes outward, yet they have more genes in common with one another than otherwise. How deep this sameness goes an artist of the 19th Century, George Catlin, tells us in his paintings and modern human ethologists like Irenaeus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, who I met in Oksapmin, Papua New Guinea, tell us. George Catlin, painter of the American Indian, felt so clearly he was the same flesh and spirit as they, that we can see their emotions in his paintings of Indians dancing, hunting, sitting in the camp, or composed formally for a portrait by himself. Catlin observed what is true: the mind of an Indian now in Brazil near the source of the Amazon is like your mind. It also has different experiences in it. The feelings of the Indian are the same and different when compared to yours. Catlin felt sameness and difference at once. He was an artist, a scientist.

We have to remember that while man adapted to different environments with different cultures, colors, physiques, and different resistances to diseases (including malaria), that there is one part of the body that is alike all over the world: the human brain. What it can do is magnificent! poetry and mathematics, agriculture and religious speculation.

It must be respected. But when difference is stressed with the purpose of building ourselves up, we have statements like this one, based on contempt, which Adolf Hitler made about 1930:

Almost all the peoples of the world are composed to-day of different racial primary elements. These original elements are each characterized by different mental abilities. Only in the primitive functions of life can men be considered as precisely like each other. (Speeches of Adolf Hitler, April 1922-August 1939, edited by Norman H. Baynes, Vol. I page 464, New York, 1969.)

This is completely inaccurate. What made so many people go along with it? The study of what causes racial prejudice cannot usefully be separated from the study of physical anthropology. I believe that the striking differences between nationalities —while, black, yellow, red—brings out the previous desire we all have to hate and feel superior to whatever is different from ourselves. This drive in man is described for the first time in the third of Eli Siegel's Four Statements of Aesthetic Realism;

There is a disposition in every person to think he will be for himself by making less of the outside world.

The only answer I know to the contempt of one race for another is aesthetics seen fully. In the artistic state of mind different things add meaning to each other because they are different. A red square adds meaning to a yellow rectangle because of their difference in a Mondrian painting. Can a white person learn from a black person and a black person learn from a white person becaurt_they are different? In outline, then, the solution to the race question is in these sentences by Eli Siegel in The Aesthetic Method in Self-Conflict, about two musical instruments needing each other:

Still, it is possible that, as can be seen very often in halls where music is played, the clarinet and drum can play different things at the same time (or, if 
one prefers, play different ways); and it is possible that the difference make for togetherness or harmony. In all beautiful arrangements, difference works with
sameness, separateness with togetherness.

In my field work in New Guinea it was the very difference of the people which excited me to the point of working very hard to understand them; I had not been so interested in the more similar to myself people at home. Very likely it was the striking difference of the Indians he lived among that made Catlin feel the profound sameness with such liveliness that his paintings seem practically to move. Our attitude to difference affects every phase jf our lives.

A large research problem in physical anthropology is, How did man come to have so many different colors and forms? The answer is, Through the normal channels of evolution described by Darwin, de Vries and others, but first by Darwin.

Lately population genetics has been looked at most. Essentially you count the frequency of one or more genes in a population and see if it is increasing or not. You may count, in an Irish village, that 15% of the people have red hair, which means out of 100 hair color genes, around 15 of them are red while the rest are brown, black, blond, or something else. Red hair doesn't seem to be naturally selected, as Darwin might say, but some genes are.

Take a village in Africa half-million years ago, where children were born with various complexions from light to dark. Out of 100 skin color genes, 75 were light and 25 were dark. The gene frequency for dark skin, then, was 25%. However, in the burning tropical sun a light skin is a disadvantage because a dark skin will resist cancer of the skin caused by penetrating ultraviolet rays. The light-skinned children will not do so well. They will not be able to remain healthy when they are adults out in the sun hunting and gathering all day. They will not be able to provide for large families. They will leave fewer offspring. Over the generations, there will be fewer and fewer light-skinned people and more and more darker people. The frequency of the genes is changing in the village population. After many years the gene frequency for dark skin will be something like 99% and that one extra gene won't make too much difference.

Through evolution man and environment come to fit well together. Tropics and darkness, cold climates and lightness go together, at least under primitive conditions. Naturally this all has nothing to do with intelligence or any quality of mind.


Go to Part 5. Linguistics


Copyright © 1975, 2008 by Arnold Perey