Are We Just Making Major Contributions to Minor Needs?

day of the dead, by aplkmars on flickr

This evening in Houston, Catharina introduced me to a Smithsonian TV series called Light of the Mind, in which anthropologist Wade Davis speaks with Nepalese monks. One of his guests, a French microbiologist turned Buddhist monk, says that western science has made “a major contribution to minor needs,” such as healing cuts and bruises, or helping us keep our teeth and hair until we turn 100–but that Buddhism helps us with major needs, such as understanding suffering and preparing for death. And I think:

So much of anthropology is also this:
a major contribution to minor needs.

I’ve been studying ethnicity, ethics, ecology — and so many of the articles are bullshit. We sit and we theorize: does everyone have an ethnicity? Is it ‘natural,’ or constructed to fill the needs of society? Then we read about ethics – is it even ethical to study other people? And in ecology – how many calories do Yanomami warriors consume each day?

I’m sorry?

And on the side, I read stories by Frederick Buechner, who does as these monks do: speaks life and helps us to understand suffering and death. His essays are like a fresh mozzarella and tomato sandwich, a glass of wine, a mouth full of tears – after months’ worth of (anthropological) sawdust and hardtack. So this question:

How can people who purport to study humans spend so much time collecting meaningless statistics and constructing surveys that make a major contribution to understanding the things that are of least value?
How can we make even a minor contribution to major needs? What are the major needs of our people?

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