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Oxymoron du Jour: Florida Anthropologists

Homo tropico gubernatorius--powerful but unsophisticated thinker, early evidence suggests. (Image from DonkeyHotey at Flickr/CC)

My colleague Dean Falk in the Anthropology Department here at Florida State has a new book out: The Fossil Chronicles: How Two Controversial Discoveries
Changed Our View of Human Evolution
.
It compares the reception of the first australopithecine ever discovered, Taung Baby, Australopithecus africanus, discovered by Raymond Dart in South Africa in 1924, with the newly discovered “hobbit,” Homo floresiensis, discovered about ten years ago on the Indonesian island of Flores. Falk is an expert on fossil brains and she—Dean is her first name not her title—was the person called in to study the hobbit’s brain.

As she records in her book, the hobbit find was highly controversial—with critics claiming that it must be a diseased human—and very effectively she shows that similar criticisms were leveled against Dart’s find, especially by those who were seduced by the fake Piltdown Man into thinking that humans must first have grown large brains and only then got up and walked. The moral she draws is that new fossil finds of human ancestors don’t come into the world necessarily welcomed. People have all sorts of established views about our past and they don’t like them upset by new evidence, however compelling.

Last week, the reviewer in Nature–and for scientists you simply don’t get any higher – was all over himself with praise. Her “brilliant book” combines science and history, unearthing an unknown piece by Dart that still has modern relevance. The review concludes: “Falk’s book is worth reading just for the unearthing of this otherwise lost manuscript, vital to the history of palaeoanthropology. That it sparkles with scholarship and wit is icing on the cake.” Other reviews are similarly laudatory.

I mention all of this as a prolegomenon to yesterday’s announcement by the governor of Florida, Rick Scott—he who ran a corporation that was fined or paid up in lawsuits over $2-billion for shady behavior (see Columbia/HCA fraud case details at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rick_Scott) and who then spent $70-million of his own money on getting elected—that we have altogether too much anthropology being taught in the state and that we could better use our resources on other subjects.

During an hour-long editorial board meeting this morning with the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Scott said college students should know more when picking a career that may not lead to a job.

“How many more anthropologists do we need?” said Scott, who holds a degree in business and a law degree.

But he didn’t stop there. After also questioning people seeking journalism degrees in an industry that does not have much job growth, Scott went back to criticizing anthropology. He questioned whether state taxpayer money should help students become anthropologists.

“Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists?” Scott said. “I don’t think so.”

My suspicion is that Governor Scott will soon be getting his wish. Somewhere outside Florida will be poaching Dean Falk and she will be joining other former members of our sadly depleted anthropology department in the exodus out of the state. And those of us who are left? Well, speaking for me and my colleagues in the philosophy department, we are just praying that no one tells Governor Scott that there are people on campus whose subject deals with non-job producing topics like the existence of God, the nature of free will, the mind-body problem, the worth of democracy, and a host of like issues, not to mention standards of proper moral conduct.

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