The 81st Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2012)

Categorising evolution: moving beyond the binary


Biological Anthropology, University College London

Saturday All day, Plaza Level Add to calendar

Essentialism (the belief that objects and concepts have unchangeable, deeply intrinsic qualities) and the dichotomies that often result from such a thinking pattern shape the assemblage of concepts with which we humans perceive our surroundings. Consequently, we tend to pigeonhole our world into dualistic categories such as black/white, animal/human, male/female, heterosexual/homosexual, nature/culture, body/machine or good/bad – an inclination that is particularly well reflected in Cartesian Western philosophy. Such a binary approach is certainly practical, as it allows us to decide and communicate quickly and also provides some sense of security. A social anthropologist might not hesitate to understand dualisms as social constructs or “adaptive prejudices” that do not necessarily describe physical or biological realities correctly. A biological anthropologist, on the other hand, works much more readily within dualistic frameworks – and therefore encounters conceptual problems with phenomena such as hybrids, intersexuality, bisexual sexual behaviour or humans who depend on pacemakers. As a case study, I analysed how a traditional binary construct (apes versus humans) is subject to shifting boundaries in reports of UK newspapers over the last two decades. My analyses reveal that when scientific findings deconstruct existing dualistic categories, that these are not dropped, but simply readjusted – in both the popular as well as the academic discourse. This finding questions the objectivity of evolutionary theory and highlights the need to develop a non-dualistic framework of scientific thought.

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