I have just finished reading “Why I am not a scientist” by Jonathan Marks. I came across the book while going through the library stacks looking for another title and decided to pick it up because of a story a friend had recently told me. This friend, who is also an archaeologist, had recently gone on an interview and described the process as going well until the question and answer portion of his presentation. One of the more senior members of the department asked him whether he would describe himself as a “scientist or more of a humanist”. Looking across the room, he immediately saw how dangerous this question was as many of his onlookers clearly sided with one position or the other. After an uncomfortable pause he stammered an answer in which he attempted to skirt the issue. It was at this moment he felt he lost the respect of his audience and his chances at getting the position. Based on this experience, my friend looked back over three other interviews he had this summer and thought he could recognize the same question being asked in more subtle ways: e.g. “How important is hypothesis testing within your project?”, “In what ways can your findings be applied beyond your study area?”, “How can your interpretations be proved wrong?”, “What funding sources would you apply for to further your project?”. While the science/culture wars of the 80s and 90s have decreased in their virulence, these experiences, as well as conversations with other friends and colleagues, suggest they still fester away in many academic departments.
With this in mind, I was drawn by the title of Marks’ book and picked it up thinking it might help me better articulate my own position if I was put in a situation similar to the one that sunk my friend’s chances at finding employment. I found the book particularly intriguing as the author is a physical anthropologist whose research is focused on genetics. This was not a cultural anthropologist arguing against applying the scientific method to studying culture – instead, this was a researcher who spent their days looking at genetic code, tracing human evolution, and investigating biologic change through time. I hoped that this background would provide Marks with a powerful point of view on the place of science within anthropology.
While the first chapter was interesting, I was eventually let down by “Why I am not a scientist” as it became a history of science’s failings and misuses in the hands of racists, bigots, sexists, and other politically motivated actors rather than a nuanced look into the intellectual basis of our discipline. Nonetheless, there were some useful aspects of the book as well – particularly the author’s definition of science as a particular mode of knowledge acquisition, legitimation, and propagation. After running through the traits that are normally used to define science (e.g. hypothesis testing, calls for universality, creation of laws, claims to authority), all of which he rejects as being unique to scientific thought, he suggests that science is best defined as a epistemological project in which the material realm of experience and action is delineated from other non-material phenomena and agents. Marks argues that science strives to separate the world into the material and non-material in two ways – first, methodologically they attempt to distance their research from the effects of morality, politics, power, and other aspects of “culture”. Scientists often pride themselves as agents acting in a “rational” world beyond the corrosive effects of the irrational, non-material, and ultimately deleterious powers of religion, money, politics, and the like. Second, scientists understand their subject matter as likewise divorced from the irrational and immaterial world. Epistemologically speaking, science is premised on an understanding of the world as being divisible between the physical and metaphysical. Hybridization between the two is ontologically dangerous and epistemologically incomprehensible to science.
While he does not cite Bruno Latour, anyone that has read “We have never been modern” will recognize the similarities between Marks’ definition of science and Latour’s understanding of modernity in that both are projects of imposing division onto the world of experience. While not as refined as Latour, Marks’ work is far more accessible and provides a point of view that is easier to articulate. In the end, Marks rejects the label of “scientist” as he believes that the walls drawn by science between the material world and everything else is untenable and do not accurately reflect real-world knowledge acquisition. The rest of the book attempts to prove this point by showing how science is a human endeavor and is therefore always situated in a world of competing interests which act to subsume the scientific process into the realm of culture.
For me, the most interesting aspect of Marks’ rejection of the label “scientist” is not his concern with scientific methodology but instead on his epistemological understanding of human experience as being one that is holistic and indivisible. Methodologically there is little to no difference between Marks and those that we would normally define as scientists. Marks continues to create and test hypotheses through the systematic acquisition of data, the value of this research is based on its replicability by others and ability to be falsified, and his goal is to create widely applicable narratives that accurately describe past phenomena. The important division between Marks and a “real” scientist is that he understands his subject matter – humanity – as being indivisible in terms of material/immaterial, nature/culture, or physical/metaphysical. Even our most basic building block – our genetic code – is influenced by millennia of human actions, choices, and history and are therefore inseparable from the scientifically inaccessible realms of belief-systems, power struggles, ethical codes, and other aspects of human culture.
Marks’ writings have helped me think through how I engage with the archaeological record and what I think are viable methods of creating and evaluating knowledge about the past. I hope that such contemplations are useful not only for answering tough questions during an interview but also as guide for how I will conduct myself as an archaeologist in the future. I am still not sure how I would answer the “are you a scientist or humanist” question, but I now feel a little more capable of having an interesting discussion about the role of science within archaeology and my own work.
I would be very interested in how other archaeologists view their work in terms of the science/humanist division. I think many of us who were not involved in the culture wars of the 80s and 90s pay too little heed to the division that remains in our discipline, particularly within the more senior levels, and assume that one can switch between being a scientist or humanist depending on our needs, or that the division between the two is permeable enough to allow us to be both/neither at once. While I do not immediately reject these claims, my friend’s experience suggests that these positions need to be well-thought out and articulated if one hopes to find success within the academic world.