Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: The New York Times, Section 7; Page 4; Column 3; Book Review Desk, March 11, 2001
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Necessary Discipline

To the Editor:

In her essay on the controversy over Patrick Tierney's "Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon" ("Academic Warfare," Feb. 11), Judith Shulevitz quotes Franz Boas's celebrated definition

of anthropology incompletely. Boas did not define the discipline as simply "the biological history of mankind in all its varieties." This was in fact only one of anthropology's four fields of inquiry as Boas framed them in a 1904 essay ("The History of Anthropology"), the other three being "linguistics applied to people without written languages; the ethnology of people without historic records; and prehistoric archaeology."

Though anthropologists have long since abandoned the definition's focus on preliterate societies, the "four field" approach outlined by Boas (linguistic, sociocultural, archaeological and physical) has held remarkably constant in the shaping of British-American anthropology as a discipline over the past century. Boas himself made seminal contributions to all four fields but foresaw a time when anthropology would split apart on its subdisciplinary fault lines; even in 1904 he discerned that there were "indications of its breaking up." The Tierney affair may indeed help prove Boas's prediction true, nearly a hundred years after its pronouncement.

Benjamin G. Zimmer