anthropology  Comments Off on Holism
Dec 042016


A friend posted this recently on facebook: “As long as vegans are telling us to wear polyester fleece and fake fur, which are appalling for the environment and polluting all water courses to the detriment of all sea life, they haven’t a leg to stand on.” This leads me to a discussion of holism. The words “holism” and “holistic” get used a lot without fully understanding the basic idea behind the words. Perhaps, rather cryptically I’ll begin by quoting Carl Sagan: “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” He’s getting at an important point that relates to holism – namely, to be truly holistic you cannot see any task or problem in isolation. Or to give you my life mantra: CONTEXT IS EVERYTHING.

American anthropology as created by Franz Boas was an attempt at a holistic understanding of humans divided into 4 areas – biology, language, history, and culture. Not a bad start, although not complete by any means. Unfortunately it was downhill from there. Soon you had people who specialized in evolution, primate behavior, archeology, sociolinguistics, non-Western cultures . . . and on and on into finer divisions. The more you specialize, the more you lose track of the big picture. I’m a big picture kinda guy. That’s how I got sucked into anthropology. In principle it’s about the big picture, although these days it rarely is. The problem is that the big picture is really BIG, and getting even bigger by the moment. So, more and more academics choose to specialize in narrower and narrower subjects because the whole looks like it will swallow you alive. Nowhere is this clearer than in medicine.

Back when I was a boy you went to the local GP (General Practitioner) when you were sick. Your GP handled the regular stuff and didn’t hand you off to a specialist very often because most problems are not that difficult to diagnose. I went to a specialist once in my entire boyhood, when I got a cricket injury and needed expertise that was beyond my GP’s knowledge. The great advantage of going to my GP was that he knew my complete medical history and had treated me for all sorts of things from measles to cuts. He was a holist; he could see the big picture. Nowadays, in the US in particular, but also in Argentina, you pick the specialist to go to when you have a problem, rather than having your GP see you first and making the decision. You bypass that first step. Often that’s all right. If you have a persistent stomach pain and go to a gastroenterologist, chances are you’re on the right track. But what about a headache, or a chest pain? What if you have had a hard game of tennis and feel pain in your arm, and go to an orthopedist for a solution? Or it goes away after a rest, so you forget about it? What if it were a mild heart attack brought on by exercise? The orthopedist could completely miss it, by focusing only on arm bones and muscles. A GP might miss it too, but would be more likely to see the big picture than the specialist.

When it comes to problems in our everyday world we often get the same myopia, hence my opening quote. In the narrow view of things, wearing fake fur instead of real fur appears on the surface to be saving animals’ lives, but when you look at the big picture you see that the production of fake fur is potentially very damaging to the environment which can harm animals just as much as, if not more than, if you straight out farmed them, and then killed them for their fur. Many, many issues strike me as similar. I know many lacto-vegetarians who won’t eat meat because it harms animals but have no problem with drinking milk or eating cheese. What they don’t understand is that cows do not just freely give up their milk out of the goodness of their hearts. They have to be bred continuously so that they keep producing milk (for their babies). But the dairy farmers take the calves, sell them for veal, and keep the milk. Milk production kills calves. Drinking milk kills calves. Or take the case of electric bikes in China. Many big cities do not allow petrol driven motorbikes in the inner city, but they allow electric bikes. Electric bikes don’t pollute the cities. But . . . coal-fired electric plants that provide electricity to the cities to power the electric bikes pollute the countryside. So there is no net reduction in pollution, just a shift in its location.

These and similar problems are why we need to be thinking more holistically than we do. In fact, we ought to be thinking globally about problems such as pollution, but we are impeded by governments who have neither the will nor the motivation to think holistically because they are confined by so many parameters that force them into narrow mindsets. I’m not sure that there is much we can do about governments, but we can do something about our own mentality.

I’m not always very successful at holistic thinking, but I try. The world is very complex, and I am certainly not in a position to understand its workings in detail. What I try to do is to investigate a range of fields – biology, history, religion, chemistry, art, mathematics, music . . . etc etc. I probably don’t know much about any of them, but I do manage to make connexions that would not be possible if I just stuck to one and delved it deeply. I’m probably the jack-of-all-trades who is master of none, but it suits me.