As the science of humankind, anthropology strives to give a comprehensive and coherent view of our own species within material nature, organic evolution, and sociocultural development. Facts, concepts, and perspectives converge into a sweeping and detailed picture of human beings within earth history in general and the primate world in particular. To give meaning and purpose to both evidences and ideas, theoretical frameworks are offered.
Influenced by the critical thinkers of the Enlightenment and ongoing progress in the special sciences, especially the writings of Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and Karl Marx (1818-1883), the earliest anthropologists were evolutionists. Our biological species, past and present societies with their cultures, and languages were seen as the outcome of evolution.
In physical/biological anthropology, the human animal is compared to the prosimians, monkeys, and apes. Fossils and genes link our species to the four great apes (orangutan, gorilla, chimpanzee, and bonobo). DNA evidence substantiates our very close relationship to these pongids. Furthermore, human beings are seen as the result of hominid evolution in terms of emergent bipedality, implement making, and a complex brain capable of using symbolic language as articulate speech. Of course, interpretations of the hominid fossil record differ among anthropologists, as do the taxonomic classifications of the unearthed specimens and explanations for the success or extinction of hominid species and their activities.
Anthropologists have interpreted social behaviors and material cultures from different theoretical orientations: evolutionism, historical particularism, diffusionism, structuralism, functionalism, configurationalism, and relativism (among other theoretical approaches to understanding and appreciating societies and cultures). Cross-cultural studies reveal both the similarities and differences among human groups, resulting in important generalizations.
In the middle of the 20th century, two major anthropologists were instrumental in reviving the evolutionary perspective: Leslie A. White and Marvin Harris. If used correctly, then the evolutionary framework gives meaning and purpose to all the facts and concepts in anthropology. A dynamic interpretation of our species, societies, and cultures is in step with the scientific findings in modern geology, paleontology, biology, sociology, and psychology. Overcoming postmodernism and with a growing awareness of global convergence, the forthcoming neo-Enlightenment will return to science, reason, and critical realism.
Theories in anthropology deal with the origin of our species, the development of societies and their cultural elements (for example, technologies, kinship systems, and magicoreligious beliefs and practices), and the emergence of symbolic language as articulate speech. New areas of specialization in applied anthropology include forensic anthropology, forensic psychology, multiculturalism, and action anthropology.
As a comprehensive discipline, anthropology has been and remains open to relevant facts, concepts, and theories from the other sciences, for example, ecology, climatology, social psychology, and natural philosophy. More discoveries of fossil hominid specimens and their artifacts, as well as more precise DNA analysis techniques, will set limits to the number of probable explanations for the evolution and diversity of humankind. No doubt, new light will be shed on prehistoric migrations and historic wars.
Combining scientific knowledge with philosophical reflection, anthropologists may even speculate on the future directions of human biosocial evolution. Until now, anthropologists have focused on our planet. However, in the years to come, new areas of biosocial research will emerge as human beings adapt to life in outer space and on other worlds.
- Barnard, Alan. (2000). History and theory in anthropology. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Boyd, Robert, and Richerson, Peter J. (2005). The origin and evolution of cultures. New York: Oxford University Press.
- McGee, Jon, & Warms, Richard L. (Eds.). (2000). Anthropological theory: An introduction (2nd ed.). Mountain View, CA: Mayfield.
- Moore, Jerry D. (2004). Visions of culture: An introduction to anthropological theories and theorists (2nd ed.). Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.
- Perry, Richard L. (2003). Five key concepts in anthropological thinking. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.