WASHINGTON (UPI) -- Traditionally, the New Year has been a time to reflect on the future. In addition to personal concerns, people wonder about the world their descendants will inhabit. As 2003 dawns, a handful of anthropologists are sifting through their data trying to determine when and if a peaceful world order will emerge.
Like "Hamlet," there's a story within the story, and it reflects the struggle for a science of culture inside anthropology. Robert Graber, professor of Anthropology and Sociology at Truman State University in Kirksville, Mo., organized a panel of scholars to present and discuss their research on the political unification of the world at the 101st annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in New Orleans last month. The small group included some big names in anthropology, such as Robert Carneiro, the eminent curator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, and Melvin Ember, president of the Human Relations Area Files at Yale.
Carneiro conducted landmark research on the origin and development of the state, and Ember -- with his wife, Carol -- formulated a cross-cultural model for predicting warfare in pre-state societies. (Full disclosure: Graber invited me to participate because I published a paper on the possibility of a world order in 1973).
But American Anthropological Association program editors rejected Graber's proposal, exposing a rift within the discipline.
"We have the perception that our kind of work with a fairly definite scientific emphasis isn't as welcome as it once was because of recent corrosive postmodern influences on cultural anthropology especially," Graber told me. Biological anthropologists, archaeologists and -- to some extent -- linguists now tend to have their own meetings, he said. The postmodernist trend in cultural anthropology is to see science as just another way to tell a story. And if no account of events has priority, then isn't it ethnocentric -- even imperialist -- to claim that science is a special form on inquiry?
Graber and his panelists joined with members of the Society for Anthropological Sciences in organizing alternative conclaves at a hotel a few blocks away from the AAA meetings. (I was unable to attend the Nov. 22 session). The exiles dubbed their meetings the "Salon des Refusés," after a group of artists who organized their own show in Paris in 1863 after being rejected by the official Academy Salon.
Of course, anthropology is not like chemistry, and cultures are not like compounds. In the social sciences, variables are slippery and out of the observer's control. Nevertheless, I had the good luck to study under two men who devoted their professional lives to applying scientific principles to cultural anthropology: Marvin Harris (1927-2001) and Raoul Naroll (1920-1985).
In 1967 Naroll used the long-term increase in the geographic extent of empires to predict a world state within 400 years. Under Naroll's supervision, I measured rate of growth of the largest world empires from Mesopotamia to 1971 and projected it into the future, calculating that -- if past trends continue -- a single polity would control the entire inhabitable area of the earth by the year 3500. However, I fully expected that with advances in transportation and communications past trends would not continue, but rather would accelerate, and the real date will be sooner.
In 1978 Carneiro measured the rate of decline in the number of autonomous political units over time, from an estimated maximum of 600,000 in 1500 B.C. to the fewer than 200 that existed in the late 20th century, and estimated the emergence of a world state about 300 years from now. The projections of Naroll and Carneiro, then, are closely in accord.
"The process that will inevitably lead to a world state is not rectilinear, but there will be a number of ups and downs," Carneiro said in a phone interview. Although the number of autonomous political units has diminished over the millennia, it has increased during the past century. Carneiro said Graber has reminded him that in 1900 there were 55 such polities in the world, whereas by 1992 the number had risen to 186, and by 2000 it had reached 192. This proliferation of states is the result of decolonization by the European empires and the breakup of the Soviet Union. Carneiro does not foresee any more such fragmentation, and he predicts that eventually the number will be decreasing again.
Carneiro cast doubt on the idea that the United Nations would be a way-station to world government. In 1949 anthropologist Leslie White declared that if a world state was to be reached, "it will not be the work of frock-coated diplomats in a United Nations opera bouffe." Twenty years later Dean Acheson, who had been Secretary of State in the Truman administration, put it even more strongly. "It is idiotic to think of the U.N. as an approach to world government," Acheson said.
Carneiro said he used to think that the only engine of political integration is the one that has been going on for thousands of years -- strong states incorporating weak ones either through conquest or amalgamation. He said it seems more possible now than 20 years ago for economic ties to bind the world together, but he still thinks that politico-military means are more likely.
It seems unlikely right now that the European Union is much of a step toward real political integration, he said. He wondered whether a world state, once achieved, might break down before it's established for good.
But are human beings programmed to live in such a structured world?
"I think there would be a lot of bridling against it," Carneiro said. Lower- and mid-level states that were incorporated by force would be trying to break away.
Carneiro surmised that a world state would come about by imposition, and by its very nature would be very tyrannical for the first 300 or 400 years. "Eventually, if we project the process far enough -- 1,000 years into the future -- the rough edges would be knocked off."
In his New Orleans presentation, Carneiro said Albert Einstein also foresaw a world state as totalitarian and despotic, but nevertheless as the lesser of two evils. "Do I fear the tyranny of a world government?" Einstein wrote. "Of course I do. But I fear still more the coming of another war." Not everyone would accept Einstein's tradeoff.
In New Orleans, Graber said the number of states will continue to increase in proportion to population during the next 200 years to a likely stable maximum of about 350, followed by a final deproliferation into a single entity that will grow ever more state-like.
Peter N. Peregrine of Lawrence University, Melvin Ember and Carol R. Ember -- using archaeological data to chart the size of states over time -- plotted a line that suggests a world state will not emerge for another 3,000 years.
Paul Roscoe of the University of Maine said it's unclear exactly what constitutes "global unification," and predictions of when it will occur depend very much on the definitions of polities and states that researchers bring to the table. Thus the traditional definition of a state as one that exercises a monopoly of physical force within its borders is not always adequate. Roscoe said that as far as economic resources are concerned, "it could be argued that Bill Gates and Microsoft, with an army of lawyers rather than warriors, exert greater political control over more people on earth than does the current nation-state of Papua New Guinea, where the current government has little control over anybody or anything beyond a couple of major urban centers."
Because of the multivariate forces of economics, religion, ethnicity, and nationality, Roscoe suggested, "perhaps there is no global unification, only global unifications."
Amber Johnson of Truman State University asked: "What would a world state do?" She argued that the primary function of a state is in the domain of external affairs. But, she asked, if the primary function of a state is to control its borders and interact with neighboring states, what border would a "world state" control and what other state would it interact with? "What would hold it together if there were not an 'other' to make us distinguish between 'us' and 'them'?"
Therefore, Johnson said, whatever form a "world state" takes cannot be predicted simply on the basis of what came before. "We are not likely to anticipate truly new forms of organization until the conditions for their emergence are already in existence," she concluded.
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