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Can anthropology contribute to understanding today's world? How can knowledge about our origins as upright apes help our species solve its current challenges? Are there grounds for hope for ourselves and Planet Earth? As Homo sapiens, we have the cognitive and emotional capacity to understand our limitations and strengths. Can we tap into our strengths to find pathways ahead for our beleaguered species? A better question: Will we do so?
In Our Beleaguered Species: Beyond Tribalism, Dr. Zelman explores how we became tribalistic when our ancestors were defenseless social primates living in small scattered groups, and how our very different interconnected world of today calls for using our other gifts from evolution. These include adaptability, creativity, symbolic language, and concern for the well-being and fair treatment of those outside our particular circles. To build a viable future for ourselves and other living things, we must nurture and treasure this portion of our evolutionary legacy. As members of a social species with the ability to deceive and harm as well as love our neighbors, we have the means to create havoc or harmony. Over the years, using our culture-language complex, we have done both.
Tribalism in its several guises (racism, religious sectarianism, sexism, and more) is a major obstacle to furthering human well-being and reducing destruction of lives and resources that comprise the web of life on our shared planet. Today, having transformed the world of our ancestors, the challenges we face require using our diversity to build a balanced, global approach. We must move beyond tribalism. The author outlines prescriptions for such an endeavor, using a broad anthropological perspective and drawing from studies of the brain and behavior, environment, economic and political institutions, institutionalized inequalities, and the humanities. In her final chapter, she describes some ways we might regain a sense of our place in nature, not above it, and construct a sense of meaning from this understanding.
With a Ph.D. in anthropology in 1974 from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Dr. Zelman taught anthropology and sociology in several small colleges before 1982. In midlife she retrained and worked as a speech pathologist until 2007. Since retirement, she has renewed her passion for the anthropological approach to pursue long-standing questions and issues. As participant and student of life itself, in addition to writing, she presents courses as a volunteer at Washington University's Lifelong Learning Institute.