Anthropology as a Candle in the Dark

20 Dec

It’s been 16 years since the astronomer Carl Sagan died on December 20, 1996.  Dr. Sagan might seem like an unusual hero for an anthropologist, but he was, and is, mine.  His blend of skepticism and wonder were unparalleled and inspiring.  I dedicated my doctoral dissertation to him because, without such inspiration, I would never have taken on something so challenging or seen it through to completion:

Dedicated to Carl Sagan (1934-1996)

Who first opened my eyes to the wonders of the Cosmos

and our extraordinary species Homo sapiens.

So many of Sagan’s works hit me like a flash of enlightenment, making knowledge fun and accessible.  They created a confidence that reality is knowable, and that we have a reliable method of growing our understanding of humans and everything else in the cosmos: science.  Carl Sagan had a charming way of encouraging rationality and skepticism without belittling people.  (Oh, how I wish he was still here on the eve of December 21st to kindly and eloquently explain why doomsday scenarios are such “baloney”).

Sagan also sparked my ongoing fascination with everything.  As some of you probably know, it can be difficult to choose a college major when you have a passionate interest in everything.  Eventually, I chose anthropology because of its emphasis on people (my “favorite animal”) and its holistic perspective: “The study of the whole of the human condition: past, present, and future; biology, society, language, and culture” (Kottak 2012).

A holistic perspective is integral to anthropology.  It is anthropology’s greatest strength.  Whether examining human behavior or our planet as a whole, considering things in the context of the “big picture” makes understanding possible.  Perspective changes everything!  The images and words of Sagan’s (1994) book Pale Blue Dot illustrate this very effectively:

Blue Dot with arrow

Image Source:

“From this distant vantage point, the earth might not seem of any particular interest.  But for us, it’s different.  Look again at that dot.  That’s here.  That’s home.  That’s us.  On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.  The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam” (Sagan 1994:8).

Click here to see an animated presentation of this quote.

Just as looking at the planet Earth from a different point of view changes our perspective, the discipline of anthropology offers a different vantage point from which to view humanity.  Anthropology isn’t just about far away people and places – we can apply the holistic perspective of anthropology to both global and local issues.  It can change the way we view the world, help us develop a greater appreciation for being human, and demonstrate the power of culture to shape the future.

That’s why I love talking, teaching, and writing about anthropology so much.  How about you?  What motivates your interest in the science of humanity?

Happy Holidays!

3 Responses to “Anthropology as a Candle in the Dark”

  1. jayfancher 07/19/2013 at 8:48 am #

    A 10-minute video that shows Carl Sagan at his inspirational best:

  2. jayfancher 07/25/2013 at 11:50 am #

    A Wired article called “Making Science Matter: Why Cosmos is More Important Than Ever”:

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