Do you think Harvard University ‘killed’ Biological Anthropology?

From Razib first, then John Hawks comes news that Harvard is ‘killing’ the biological anthropology major,

“Overnight, BioAnthro quietly started to fade into that sacred elephant-burial ground where concentrations go to die. All the biological anthropology classes from the tutorials on up have been renumbered to [Human Evolutionary Biology] classes. Students who attempted to get a study card signed for biological anthropology were encouraged by the department to strongly consider HEB. As a result, biological anthropology has gone from a small but lively concentration to one in which at the beginning of this semester only three sophomores still exist.”

I’ve seen this trend happen a lot, but I should clarify something that is not clearly conveyed in the Harvard Crimson op-ed. Most universities do not have a major labelled “Biological Anthropology” or even “Physical Anthropology” nor “Cultural Anthropology” for that matter. Most of our degrees just say “Anthropology.” That is because those specialties are subdisciplines within anthropology… just as microbiology, genetics, or physiology are subdisciplines within biology.

I’ve done some sleuthing and I’ve found out Harvard never offered a specific biological anthropology major. Instead they offered a biological anthropology track. The difference is that the ultimate diploma/degree says just Anthropology, but the coursework is more biological than cultural or archaeological. Does that really make a difference? Its up to you to judge, but to say biological anthropology majors are being phased out is a bit of exaggeration.

In Harvards situation, Human Evolutionary Biology seemed to have more in common with the biological anthropology than biological anthropology had with the rest of anthropology. That is the department’s decisions to be honest. And this is not a unique situtation. This has happened to many institutions, most notably UC Berkeley’s split of everything physical anthropology into the Integrative Biology department and also ASU’s disintegration of the Anthropology department.

That being said, John Hawks gingerly agrees to the complaints;

“that the new [HEB] major has no four-field [anthropology] component…

If I wanted to be a human zoologist, I wouldn’t have gone into anthropology. “

Now, while I have learned some outstanding lessons from my four-field anthropology education, such as cultural relativism (that is really useful in the field), I do approve with of the break into human evolutionary biology. Hawks recommends the following based upon the,

“increasing ethical and sociological components of genetic technology, I think that we should encourage all our students to include sociocultural anthropology in their studies of “human evolution” or “human genetics”.

But I disagree. There’s only so many classes a student could logistically take during their undegraduate education. I’ve come across more students than not have the ethical and social background to deal with physical anthropology. They know how to deal with Native Americans in a excavation and repatriation. But they don’t even know what a haplotype is, or they identify a bone a fibia and the companion a tibula. This shows me that there’s a mistaken focus on what we’re studying, the biology of humans.

The ethical and social aspects can be learned in graduate school or in extracurricular activities and experiences, for all I care. But if they don’t have the basics in sciences, there is something wrong.

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