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Peter Peregrine unravels cultural mysteries

AAAS Fellow Peter Peregrine says that anthropology provides a way of understanding others in a world where we are all interacting closely. (Photo: Susan Borowski)

In a building that offers a dizzying view of the Fox River three stories below, Lawrence University anthropologist and AAAS Fellow Peter Neal Peregrine explores the mysteries of humanity; sometimes with his dog, Rowan, at his side. Although he is an archaeologist, there are no artifacts displayed in his neatly organized office. Instead, on the windowsill there are small gifts that were given to him, some by his students, including an Indiana Jones figurine and a statue of St. Peregrine.

"The artifacts are in the anthropology lab," Peregrine explains, as we walk over to view the casts of humanoid skulls and prehistoric tools.

Peregrine, who originally went to Purdue University to study chemical engineering, had switched to English when he became interested in anthropology. "English and anthropology, to me, address the same question: What does it mean to be human? When I found that you could address those same questions from a scientific standpoint, I was very drawn to that," Peregrine says.

"My interest is in cultural evolution," says Peregrine, "which is one basic question: Why aren't all cultures the same? And from that: What explains variations in cultures?"

Science still hasn't obtained satisfactory answers to those foundational questions, according to Peregrine. Although there are many reasons for that, part of it is because anthropologists haven't had the data to look at long-term cultural change.

His current project involves working with the Santa Fe Institute as an external professor testing models of physical and biological systems to see if similar patterns occur in cultural evolution over time. "The underlying assumption," says Peregrine, "is that when you have complex adaptive systems, they all have similar properties regardless of whether they are molecular or physical or organic or cultural in nature."

"The other thing I've been looking at is technology. It's not enough to have someone invent something; the invention must be socially relevant and be adopted by a population in order to spread and become part of the adaptation."

Peregrine notes that surprises happen all the time in anthropology. It had been hypothesized that human societies appear to evolve in a uniform way over time no matter where you look; so Peregrine developed a series of Guttman hierarchical scales to see if this was true. For example, if a culture shows evidence of having Trait C, then Trait A and Trait B will also be present. "I actually didn't think it was going to be the case," says Peregrine. "But in fact that appears to be what happens all over the world in human cultures. To me that whole process is just fascinating."

Peregrine says that anthropology provides a way of understanding others in a world where we are all interacting closely. "That kind of understanding is the only way we're going to be able to get along," he says. "Right here in Wisconsin there lived villages of mixed ethnic groups, mixed language groups that somehow were able to live in integrated, functioning communities. They had a common enemy: They were refugees from Iroquois invasions."

Situations like that offer a model of how we can better live together today, he says, adding that archaeology offers counter-examples as well, because social systems that don't work become extinct as a result.

Noting that employment of anthropologists is expected to increase 21 percent between 2010 and 2020, he remarks that the vast majority of anthropologists today are not employed in academia, but in businesses, the government, and nonprofits. "The real interest of students right now is in forensic anthropology and museum anthropology — helping people by solving crimes or by educating them about cultural differences."

"Anthropology is like cultural translation," says Peregrine. For example, anthropologists were called in to solve the mystery of why some populations in Africa refused to accept the polio vaccine. Somewhere in their culture, the vaccine became thought of as "evil," and anthropologists were brought in to help explain and smooth over the cultural differences.

In addition to writing academic books, Peregrine saw a need to bring anthropology to the masses, so he recently self-published an e-book entitled, What Happened in Prehistory? The book explains five major "revolutions" in human life, from the origin of our genus to the Modern Age.

He has two other books in varying stages of completion. "One is called, Why Anthropology Matters, and the other is called, Americans are WEIRD, which is about how the American culture differs from the majority of world cultures," he explains.

Peregrine hopes to have both e-books published by the end of next year, furthering his mission to broaden the public's interest in the field of anthropology.

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AAAS Fellow Peter Peregrine says that anthropology provides a way of understanding others in a world where we are all interacting closely. (Photo: Susan Borowski)
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