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The knowledge thus obtained has important implications.

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First, it shows that the life, the concerns, and the feelings of a Pueblo Indian or Sudanese Nuer are in fundamental ways not all that different from yours or mine; in other words, what at first seems exotic is really quite mundane. Second, cross-cultural understanding reveals that our own ideas, which we take to be entirely natural, are in many cases somewhat arbitrary social conventions and not natural at all. If looked at from a distance, the way we see the world, which seems mundane, is actually exotic.

To some extent this is recognizable from the study of history. We can look back at the dress styles of the s, which seemed entirely appropriate, normal, natural, at the time, and see them now as weird. Anthropology does this more broadly. It shows that the ideas we take for granted are not necessarily the way things have to be, maybe not even the way they actually are. It is an intellectual field that can be threatening - primarily because its very reason for being is to subvert existing social power structures and to question things we take for granted as natural about the way we are Boas Now, one of the ideas we take for granted most strongly in our society is that races represent natural categories of people.

That is to say, the human species comes packaged a small number of ways, even color-coded for your convenience: black, white, yellow, red. You belong to one of these categories. Your race is a property of your constitution, innate and assigned at birth. And by virtue of being in that category, you have more in common, particularly more of the fundamentally important things in common, with other people in the same category than with people in other categories.

I want to begin by questioning that assumption. The earliest anthropologists in the mids recognized that there was an intimate connection between the way people think about the world and how they classify it.

After all, this is how we make sense of the infinite jumble of things we are exposed to - we decide "this" is a kind of "that," and slightly different from something else, which also a kind of "that," but a different kind of "that. You, for example, give the same name to four different people: your mother's sister, your father's sister, your mother's brother's wife, and your father's brother's wife. Of course, I am describing your aunts. Why should you put all those people in the same category? Your mother's brother's wife and your father's brother's wife aren't even genetically related.

Your mother's sister and father's sister are genetically related to you, but they're on opposite sides of the family. Traditionally, they don't even have your family name; only your father's brother's wife has your family name. Well, the fact is that other people do it differently. They may have one term for an aunt on the father's side of the family and a different word for an aunt on the mother's side of the family. They may have one term for blood relatives and another for spouses of blood relatives.

You might notice also that you differentiate by sex the names of your father's brother and father's brother's wife,- they are your uncle and aunt - but their children, both male and female, are all termed cousins. Why not differentiate male from female cousins as we do uncles and aunts? And we don't even have a word for the person married to your cousin Schneider So people impose order on their social universe by classifying it, by deciding that these people cluster together under this name, and that they're different from those other people assigned a different name.

These classifications sometimes match genetic relationships and sometimes diverge from them significantly. How we classify is not based on nature, not determined by nature, but is a construction of our social minds that we impose on nature to help us organize things, in this case our relatives. How did we come up with these social conventions for classifying our relatives as we do? We don't really know. We do know a bit more about how we came to classify species as we do, and the same general things hold true. Jorge Luis Borges writes of a Chinese encyclopedia that "divides animals into: a belonging to the Emperor; b embalmed; c tame; d suckling pigs; e sirens; f fabulous; g stray dogs; h included in the present classification; i frenzied; j innumerable; k drawn with a very fine camels hair brush; l et cetera; m having just broken the water pitcher; n that from a long way off look like flies.

Why not this way? If you go to the Bible you find that the ancient Hebrews classified animals too: see for example Leviticus, chapter 11 and Deuteronomy, chapter They did it to decide what was ritually clean or unclean, and on that basis, what was edible or inedible Douglas, And their criteria, which are entirely natural, were where the animal lives and how it moves. And so they divided the animals into flying animals, swimming animals, and walking or crawling animals.

These divisions certainly work, although there are some areas where they do not map well onto our modern categories. The bat is classified with the birds, for example; and lizards and mice end up together. Our own modern scientific classification of animals is based on evolutionary relationships, common ancestry - although in fact scientists started categorizing animals this way about a century before they realized that was what they were doing.

We, for example, are mammals.

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That was established in the year , a hundred years before Darwin, by a Swedish biologist named Linnaeus. Mammals constitute a natural category. If you ask biology students, they will tell you we're mammals. Because we nurse our young. Here is something the student probably can not tell you. Do we nurse our young because we are mammals, or are we mammals because we nurse our young?

Let me rephrase the question: Why is milk so important in the great scheme of things that we should take our very name on that basis? Couldn't we come up with the same group using a different criterion, and so why don't we? For example, Aristotle more than two thousand years ago called land animals "Quadrupedia" four-legged , and divided them into those that lay eggs and those that give birth to live offspring. Creating a category of four-legged creatures that give birth to live offspring gives you basically the same constellation of animals as the category of mammals with a few exceptions, like the duck-billed platypus.

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Mammals actually have many features that distinguish them from reptiles, amphibians, fish, and birds - hair, for one thing. Some scientists in the 18th century actually did call this group "Pilosa," or hairy things. But Linnaeus called us mammals, based on an anatomical feature that's only functional in half of our species, and then only rarely. So why did he do that? It turns out to have been a political gesture. In the s, there was major controversy surrounding the practice of wet-nursing.

Many middle- and upper-class women in Europe were sending their babies off to stay with poor women in the country to be fed, rather than nursing the infants themselves. Linnaeus was active in the movement opposing this practice. In fact he wrote a book on the virtues of breastfeeding your own children, how it was natural for mothers to do this, and how therefore wet-nursing was something unnatural and bad.

Up to that time he had been calling mammals simply Quadrupedia, like Aristotle. Now he calls mammals Mammalia, and uses his "objective" scientific classification to make this point. He is saying the natural role of women is to nurse their own children - that is what is right, and that is what your family should do Schiebinger, The point of all this is to show that what a biology student takes for granted as a fact of nature, that we are in our very essence a lactating species, is actually a fact of history - a political stand from the 18th century embedded into biology.

It is true, of course, mammals are a natural unit and the group can be defined by nursing, but having a shared natural property doesn't make a group an objective category, simply "out there" to be discovered. It is not obviously the case that breastfeeding is the key feature that makes us mammals, any more than having a single bone in the lower jaw which all Mammalia have, and only Mammalia have is the key feature that would make us "One-bone-in-jaw-malia.

So: we make sense of our place in the universe by classifying; our classifications are not necessarily derived from nature; and even when they are derived from nature, they encode cultural information.

Heredity, Race, and the Birth of the Modern

Now, if there isn't a natural classification for the things we're interested in, we often come up with one anyway. For example, time is continuous, but we divide it into sixty-minute hours, twelve-hour days and nights, and seven-day weeks, with the days named after skygods. These are arbitrary conventions; we inherited these time divisions from the ancient Babylonians Zerubavel, Here's the paradox.

The classifications that are the most arbitrary, and the least natural, seem to be the ones that matter the most to us. People could be categorized in many ways. There are short people and tall people; people with straight teeth and crooked teeth; with wiry, muscular, or chunky body builds; with freckles; with more or less body hair.

These are natural differences, but they're not very important to us. What is important? Whether you're an American or an Iraqi.

Whether you're a Nazi, a Communist, a Democrat, or a Republican. An Oriole fan or a Yankee fan. Rich or poor. Us or them. These categories of history and of society, the categories of human invention, are far more important to our daily lives than the categories of natural variation in our species. Sure, people look different, but the people who hate each other the most are generally the people who are biologically the most similar --Irish and English, Hutu and Tutsi, Arab and Israeli, Huron and Iroquois; Bosnian, Croatian, and Serb.

Group identifications and animosities, lives and life-and-death struggles, are rooted in cultural, social, political, and economic differences, not in biological differences. Biological difference can be recruited to reinforce them, because that makes human evil appear to be the result of nature, but nature is not at the root here. So returning to the issue of race, how old is the idea that there are, say, four kinds of people, each localized to a continent?


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The ancient Egyptians and Greeks had recognized that people from different places looked different, that the Egyptians were more darkly complected than the Greeks, and less darkly complected than the Nubians, and all of them were lighter than the Scythians. Of course in those days, long travel was done over land, where the physical differences between neighboring peoples were more subtle and gradual.

But by the end of the seventeenth century, most of the world had been visited by Europeans.