Science in Christian Perspective



James 0. Buswell, III, M.A.

From: JASA 6 (December 1954): 13-14.

A noticeable advance in anthropology is that which S. L. Washburn, chairman of the department of anthropology at the University of Chicago, has called the "new anthropology, "I

Having passed through its "initial descriptive phase", physical anthropology is now entering its tianalytic stage" stimulated by recent advances in evolutionary theory, and by focusing of genetic and other sampling and measurement techniques upon probbems of process and cause rather than upon those of description and classification only.

"For many years," Wasiiburn points out, "physical anthropology changed little and was easy to define. Physical anthropologists were those scientists' interested in human evolution and variation. who used measurements as their primary technique. The main training of a physical anthropologist consisted in learning to make a small number of measurements accurately... The assumption seems to have been that description (whether morphological or metrical), if accurate enough and in sufficient quantity, could solve problems of process, pattern, and interpretation. . .

"During the last fifty years, although excellent descriptive data were added, techniques improved, and problems clarified and defined, little progress was made in understanding the process and pattern of human evolution- The strategy of physical anthropology yielded diminishing returns, and, finally, application of the traditional method by experts gave contradictory results. After more than a century of intensive fact-finding, there is less agreement among informed scientists on the relation of man to other primates than there was in the latter part of the nineteenth century... With regard to race, agreement is no greater. . ."2

The transition is more graphically portrayed in a table which analyzes the old and the new physical anthropology under the headings of Purpose, Theory, Technique, and Interpretation.3

The purpose of the old:

          c. Description of difference enough. 

Purpose of the new:

Theory of the old:
Theory of the new:

        a. Theory is critical, and the development of consistent, experimentally verified hypotheses a major objective.

Technique of the old:

Technique of the new:

Interpretation of the old:

           a. Speculation. 

Interpretation of the new:

Washburn has injected a caution, however, lest such an itemized table lead one to infer that the change is one with a clear and definite beginning and a sharp abandoning of the old methods. He makes it plain that the differences are "in degree only", maintaining a very real continuity in the over-all trend. But it is a great trend and is taking place swiftly. "Actually," he observes, "the physical anthropology of 1950 will seem much more like that of 1900 than it will like that of 1960."4

What implications may we as Christians draw from this advance in physical anthropology? To your reporter, it seems that there is every reason to survey the trend as one in the direction of a much more objective and less prejudiced study of the data at hand. For example, Washburn contrasts the old and new ways of evaluating super-orbital ridges:

"As viewed traditionally, if one was interested in brow ridges, the procedure was to classify the structures and then to draw conclusions on the interrelations of races or fossil men. That is, the classification gave a tool to be used in the analysis of evolution, and variation. It was, in this sense, final knowledge. But in a different sense, the classification merely outlined the problems to be investigated. No description of the types of browridges gives understanding of the reasons for any of them. The classifications show what kinds exist, under what circumtances they are found, and so pose a series of problems which need investigation. To traditional physical anthropology, classification was an end, something to be used. To the new physical anthropology, classifications merely pose problems, and methods must be devised to solve thern."5

This is just an indication of the way in which more and more of the problems of man's variations and prehistory are being handled. Partly responsible is the increased realization that the various divisions of anthropology must cooperate in order to progress. Washburn points out that "one of the main implications of the new point of view is that there is a far more detailed interrelationship between the different parts of anthropology than under the old strategy. A dynamic analysis of the form of the jaw will illuminate problems of evolution, fossil man, race, growth, constitution, and medical application. . . By its very nature, the investigation of process and behavior has a generality which is lacking in purely descriptive studies."6

Similarly, William Howells has observed that "A physical anthropologist, instead of yawning at the preoccupations of archeologists with minutiae which he cannot understand, can only be impressed more and more every year by how necessary to him is the information from archeology which alone can keep him from going completely off the track at certain points in problems dealing with human paleontology, or with early population spreads and movements, which might in turn be important to the understanding of the genetics and evolutionary processes of hu man populations in general."7

This is all indicative of a changed attitude from that of scientific generalizers of 50 and 75 years ago. The cock-sure solution through cropping up in elementary and popular treatments, is seldom in evidence in the scholarly journals and summaries which have seriously come to grips with the problems. Such attitudes of honest and objective inquiry, although truly enough biased by evolutionary preconceptions, give the Christian a real opportunity to contribute to his field with equal authority, Supernaturalistic preconceptions notwithstanding, if he is willing to similarly come to grips with the same bodies of data.

I have pointed out elsewhere specifically the possibility of prosecuting the study of physical, as well as cultural anthropology "without involving oneself needlessly in the evolutionary hypothesis."8

It would seem that present trends in physical anthropology should make this easier for the Christian anthropologist, despite the continuing necessity to assess almost all investigation as representing the prevailing evolutionary contrast.


1. Washburn, in Kroeber, Anthropology Today, Chi. U. Press, 1953
2. Ibid., pp. 714-715
3. Ibid. p. 716
4. Ibid., p. 715
5. Ibid., p. 717
6. Ibid., p. 726
7. Howells, W. W., The Study of Anthropology" American Anthropologist, Vol. 54, No. 1, 1952, p. 2.
8. "Anthropology and the study of evolution" Journal of the A.S.A., Vol. 6, No. 3, Sept. 1954, p. 8.