Sunday, February 27, 2011

GfA Fail

Yesterday, while I did some research for a Post I originally intended to write today, I visited the Homepage of the "Gesellschaft für Anthropologie" (GfA), which is the Association for Anthropologists in Germany. There I found a public “statement” of the GfA regarding the debate of evolutionary theory “vs.” Creationism. This statement had a very interesting, and somewhat disturbing back-story:

Back in 2009, due to my raising concerns about the situation of Anthropology on German Universities, I attended to the Congress of the GfA in Munich, so that I could get a better picture about, what exactly Anthropologists in Germany do. On the general Assembly of all GfA-Members, which I attended to as a non-member, a debate was opened whether or net, the GfA should make a public Statement on this issue. During this debate, one person stood up and said, the she would appreciate it, if kids in school were lectured in both “visions” (in German it was “Vorstellungen” –I have no Idea how to translate it properly), Evolutionary Theory AND Creationism.

Now you must know, that German Anthropology contains only of what most of you might describe as “physical” or “biological” Anthropology.
During the arising ruckus, which lead to a statement from myself and after it to the request that only members of the GfA should say something, the debate was more or less aborted.

Well, after almost 2 years, there finally is a statement, which you can read here. You'd probably have no problem reading it, because it’s in English. Why in English you might ask?
Well, because the GfA kindly got the permission to use the Statement of the AAA regarding the debate on creationism. Now let us ignore all the fuss about this “AAA-Fail”* thing, and that the statement itself seams a little bit watered down to me. I’m bothered about something else, which in my opinion leads to the reasons why Anthropology in Germany is on the way to becoming an insignificant part at German Universities.

As I said, German Anthropology is foremost a biological discipline. And we all know which theory is the central, and maybe the only theory in biology. Dobzhansky even said that nothing in biology would make sense without it.

And now, if we look at this statement again or more on the fact that they had to use the Statement of the AAA instead of making their own statement, it seems that there is no one within the GfA with enough competence to actually write something about evolutionary theory, human evolution and creationism. Well, there are people in Germany who would be able to do something like this, in fact they would probably do a great job, but they don’t want to be affiliated with the GfA. How could this happen?

Throughout its history, Anthropology in Germany remained an almost complete descriptive and somewhat atheoretic  discipline. It might claim, that its goal is to understand “the evolution of man in time and space” (or something like that -all those descriptions are horrible), but in reality only a small part of it, tried to do this.

Almost thirty years ago, in 1982 the German anthropologist Christian Vogel, who was a Professor at the University of Göttingen and was one of the establishers of Socio-biology and modern Primatology in Germany, addressed this issue in his Essay “Biologische Perspektiven der Anthropologie: Gedanken zum sog. Theorie-Defizit der biologischen Anthropologie in Deutschland” (“Biological perspectives of Anthropology: Thoughts on the so called ‘Theory-deficit’ of biological Anthropology in Germany”-my translation).

You probably can compare his appeal to the appeal of Sherwood Washburn to the AAPA back in the 1950s.

I read his essay back in 2009 as I prepared myself for the GfA Congress and I wanted to know, how much of the problems Vogel addressed in his paper, were even considered by German Anthropologists. After my visit and my disturbing experiences on the general Assembly, I dare saying, that none of them were considered. In fact, I think things even got worse.

Recently I read some Posts where people tried to describe what they love about Anthropology, or why they love it. And although I would probably have some difficulties to answer this question for myself, I can say for sure, that my fascination is mostly based on the aspects of our own evolutionary history and its implications for our present day life.
And it makes me mad, how these aspects are treated within the GfA. Anthropology deals with some of the most important questions we can ask (“Where do we come from?” “What is human nature” “What defines a human?”) and the GfA abandons these question in favour of being a helper for Archaeologists who want to know what kinds of skeletons they have excavated.** Instead of a flurish discussion about how evolutionary theory could help us to understand ourselves in a much better way, my experiences as student of Anthropology looks like this:
In some of my Psychology-courses (Psychology is one of my minor subjects) people started to groan as soon as I tried to put certain phenomena in a evolutionary perspective.
A friend of mine, who, besides studying Anthropology, also studies Ethnology faced open hostility when he mentioned the word “Socio-biology” in one of his courses.
Some of our (Anthropology) Students have no idea about human evolution or even the basic principles of evolutionary theory, because they think it’s not important for them and our curriculum enables them to ignore courses about this topic.
Every time I tell someone what I study, the first question I’m being asked is: “Ah, and what exactly are you doing there?”***.
And the worst part of all, those people who try to explain evolutionary theory on a public level, have absolutely no Idea about human evolution and always present it in a “march of progress”-like manner, speaking about “missing-links” and “chimpanzee like ancestors”****.

Here, the GfA had the opportunity to make not only a statement against the equal teaching of creationism and evolutionary theory; they had the opportunity to make a statement why Anthropology is an important science, and how it can contribute to modern day issues.

The GfA completely failed at this. Instead they gave a statement about their own incompetence. 

Right now, Anthropology in Germany is a descriptive, atheoretic and almost abiologic “science”, which is doomed to become an insignificant hoard for people who don’t find a place within their own field of science (such as medicine, educational science, psychology etc.) and I don’t want to be represented by this kind of association.
Surely, many people from the GfA will disagree with me on this point. On their next congress, which is in September, they’ll probably say again (as they did in 2009) how important they are and at the same time, wonder why they're the only ones who think that.

In the past months I often tried to compare the situations of Anthropology in Germany (and my own experiences with it) with the events around the AAA last year. And although I don’t think, we can directly compare them; there are some parallels, when it comes to questions what Anthropology exactly should try to achieve.

Looking at both stories, the only thing I learned so far is that you never should rely on scientific associations to define and defend your field of research. If you want to keep aspects of your field which are important to you, then do it yourself and think of means to convince other people, that those aspects are worth to be kept..

*Although I have to admit this story leaves a somewhat bitter taste.
** This is no degradation of Archaeology or prehistoric Anthropology, I just think, that Anthropology can do more then just this.
*** This I wanted to know for a long time: How often do Anthropologists from other countries get asked this question?
**** Besides, most of them are arrogant douchebags.


Vogel, C. 1982. Biologische Perspektiven der Anthropologie: Gedanken zum sog. Theorie-Defizit der biologischen Anthropologie in Deutschland. Z. Morph. Anthrop., 73, 225-236.