Convocation 2007 Address: Professor Scott MacEachern

Story posted August 29, 2007

"Time-scales"
Scott MacEachern, Professor of Anthropology

Bowdoin College's 206th Convocation was held Wednesday, August 29, 2007, in Memorial Hall, Pickard Theater. Following is the text of Professor Scott MacEachern's address.

Welcome to Bowdoin, and to the beginning of your time at this college. Over the last couple of days, all of you have talked to your faculty advisors — about courses, about potential majors, about the rhythms of life at this place — and it's quite likely that you talked at least a little about your future career plans and what you want to do with your life beyond Bowdoin. Entry into college or university remains one of the great inflection points of modern life, a time when your actions and your decisions may well affect your futures over the long term. This then may be a reasonable time for me to talk about decision-making, and especially about the time-scales over which our decisions may affect our individual and collective futures.

To speak about the future, I want first to talk about the past. Those of you who take courses with me or with other archaeologists here at Bowdoin will soon realize that we have a rather different sense of the long reach of human history than do most other people. For the most part, archaeologists must study cultural processes that take place over centuries or millennia: we don't often have the luxury of examining events that could be encompassed within the short decades of a human life, and the actions of identifiable, individual people are almost always invisible to us. The subject matter of archaeology is a palimpsest of human existence: the slowly accumulated material evidence of daily life on its most humble level and usually manifested by what people have thrown away — their garbage. When asked, as I am occasionally, I tell people that I work on "recent" culture history in Central Africa, and then I specify that by that I mean the last 1,000 – 2,000 years. That answer is perhaps especially appropriate for Africa, the birthplace of humanity, where archaeological evidence of human activity is older than anywhere else in the world, where Westerners are shamefully ignorant of the dynamism and intellectual brilliance of pre-colonial cultures, and where everyone assumes that archaeologists must be working on ancient, shuffling ape-men with obscure Latin names — Australopithecus boiseii, perhaps, or Sahelanthropus tchadensis. But in general, that's the way that archaeologists think: our time-scales are of the long-term.

In the normal course of everyday life, people do not — and probably should not — work at time-scales of centuries or millennia. (Do not, for example, do so when working to term paper deadlines here at Bowdoin.) Such time-scales are more or less irrelevant in our daily affairs. However, in the first years of our new millennium, we are more and more often seeing the effects of failures to understand the long-term impacts of human activities on our natural and cultural worlds. Such failures have always been with us, but the burden of humans on the earth and on each other, and our capacity to damage the earth and each other deliberately or inadvertently, are probably greater now than ever before.

At this point, you are probably anticipating that I'm going to talk about environmental change, and indeed that is an obvious place to start. There are a whole variety of different labels that we use to discuss our worry about modern human impacts on natural environments — global warming and its regional effects, species extinctions and expansions, the transformations of ecosystems and so on. In all of these cases, issues of time-scales play a central role in our understandings. It's not just a question of the magnitude of our impacts on the natural world, but of how fast natural systems respond to human activities, and how quickly we can ameliorate the adverse consequences of those activities. It's increasingly obvious that human actions are changing global climates in significant ways, and that the magnitude of those actions will increase in coming decades.

More worryingly, environmental responses to these kinds of pressures may not be smooth and gradual, but may instead involve relatively abrupt switches between very different environmental states — and archaeological evidence indicates periods of transition between such very different states may not be comfortable times to live in. We may well now, because of our own actions, be entering a period of environmental change comparable to that experienced by humans at the end of the last ice age, about 12,000 years ago. During that period, the land that Bowdoin sits on today was successively buried under hundreds of metres of glacial ice, submerged under seas that extended as far inland as Augusta, covered by sand dunes blowing toward a coastline now dozens of kilometers offshore and finally developing toward modern conditions. (There is some uncertainty about when, during this period, humans arrived on what is now the coast of Maine.) This would have involved very sudden changes in regional ecosystems over century time-scales, and severely stressed any human communities living here at the time. Similarly, the area that I work in in Central Africa is now savanna grassland. Eleven-thousand years ago, it lay at the edges of a greatly expanded Sahara Desert and then a thousand years later was in part submerged under a vast inland sea, now vanished. The effects on human populations living in these areas were similarly dramatic: archaeological cultures appeared, disappeared and transformed with really startling rapidity — the droughts, floods, famines and violence that such change would have entailed are less visible, but we can be pretty sure that they existed.

The shockingly quick reduction of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean, the retreat of the Greenland icecap and the significant increases in sea surface temperatures indicate the potential for environmental change on similar time-scales and of similar magnitudes today. The challenge for us all in the next decades will be to plan for environmental changes that may not peak during our own lifetimes, but may well do so one to two centuries down the road — in archaeological time, you might say. People that you will know and love, your grandchildren perhaps, will in a century's time be dealing with the consequences of decisions we are making right now, and so we had better make the right ones.

It's not just in the natural world that we sometimes need to think about long time-scales: it is equally important when we think about long-term cultural processes and about relationships between nations and peoples in different parts of the world. It may also be more difficult to think about cultural processes than about environmental changes, as we are constantly distracted by the immediate concerns of day-to-day life and political developments. Our understandings of these cultural processes are also more open to manipulation: it may for example be convenient or attractive to have people think about modern social and political relationships as if they were fixed in time, unchangeable, part of the "natural order of things."

One example of this, moving back to Africa and to the social sciences, and this has to do with how the continent of Africa — a hugely diverse place, home to about 50 nations and thousands of different ethnic groups — is portrayed in the West, and also with the modern understandings of human evolution and development. Let's take the last issue first. There is a continual tension in anthropology, in psychology and in related social sciences, between cultural and biological explanations for human behaviours. To what extent are our actions influenced by the social and cultural environments that surround us from birth, and to what extent by our evolutionary and genetic heritage? Any thoughtful researcher on these topics will immediately object that I have drastically over-simplified this question, and that nature and nurture can't be separated — and I entirely agree. However, over the last decades media and public perceptions have switched dramatically in favour of evolutionary and biological explanations for human behaviour, in part because of the extraordinary explosion of scientific information on the human genome, its history and its role in influencing human development in all kinds of ways. If you open a newspaper or a general interest magazine or if you browse the Web, you might be forgiven for thinking that our biology really is our destiny.

A significant amount of work by geneticists, evolutionary psychologists and biological anthropologists takes place in Africa. Africa is, as I have already said, the continent where humanity evolved and from where humans spread across the globe. We are, in an evolutionary sense, all Africans, and so there are important things that can be learned by studying the populations that remained on that continent. Much more dangerously however, Africa has traditionally been portrayed in Europe and North America as the "Dark Continent" — timeless, unchanging and cut off from the flow of global history. This is still an extremely popular notion in Western popular culture, and we sometimes also see it among researchers who specialize in the study of African genes, or African foraging behaviours, or African disease burdens, but who know very little about African people, or their history or cultures.

Most perniciously, research results are fed back to the general public through the media, where the image of "timeless Africa" remains dominant. To give one example, popularizations of recent genetic research on southern African hunter-gatherer populations — the people often referred to as "Bushmen" — refer to them as "the most ancient peoples in the world," "relics of the past," even "genetic Adams and Eves," although these people, who do have a dynamic cultural history extending into the deep past, live as much in 2007 as we do and are equally participants in the modern world.

At a time of Western pessimism and frustration over the lack of political and economic change in Africa, there is then a great temptation to search for evolutionary explanations for the state of the continent, and its widespread poverty and lack of security: Africans are poor not because of the last five centuries of foreign exploitation of the continent or because of modern economic and political inequities, both self-inflicted and global, but because of some innate evolutionary or even biological factors in their being. In 2007, books are published making precisely that argument and, it appears, having some influence on Western commentators and policy-makers concerned with the continent. Evolutionary explanations are substituted for more realistic explanations rooted in the recent past — because, conveniently enough, biological causes of human inequities are presumably less solvable, less demanding of Western resources and commitments, than are historical causes. This is similar to claims that modern environmental change is an entirely natural phenomenon, one rooted in climatic cycles over the long term and thus more or less immune to human intervention. In many ways, the simplest problems for us to deal with are the ones we think insoluble, because we are not challenged to do anything about them.

So, after wandering space and time for 15 minutes or so, we come back to Bowdoin, and the question that you all have at this point: What is this guy getting at? Just this: for the next four years the faculty and staff here at Bowdoin are going to do our best to give you the intellectual tools to think widely, carefully and productively about your world, your place in it, and your futures both individual and collective. Note the term "widely": the issues I have mentioned today — and I could have talked about many others — are not going to be solved by hyper-specialisation, but by informed and concerned citizens who are not afraid to learn new things, or to venture into unfamiliar fields of knowledge, and who can maintain their critical balance while doing so — and I think that a Bowdoin education prepares you very well for those roles. More than that, you will have the time to think about the kinds of issues that I have mentioned today and, I hope, to cultivate the habit of a long-term perspective, a consciousness of your actions and their potential results down through decades and even centuries. I would urge you to try and cultivate that consciousness, somewhat unusual as it is: in a massively inter-related and dynamic modern world, a modest understanding of the long term may be a very valuable tool.

As a group of Bowdoin first-year students just finishing Orientation, you are probably at this point rather stressed, somewhat confused and perhaps a little homesick for the well-known life you have left behind. That may be an appropriate description for the world and its human inhabitants as we move through the twenty-first century, as well. An archaeological perspective may be useful in trying to deal with that century to come, and in leaving a reasonable world for our descendants to inherit in the centuries afterward. You've come to a good place to think about these questions: go to it.

Thank you.

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