In anthropology, we recognize that there are many ways of knowing things. For instance, you might know that fingernails are softer than metal because as a child you accidentally stapled through your fingernail while doing an art project (a coauthor of this textbook once experienced this). This would be an example of knowledge you gained through experience. You might also know that inserting a knife into an electrical outlet is dangerous and could greatly harm you. Hopefully you learned this not from personal experience but through instruction from parents, teachers, and others in your social group. The degree to which humans rely on and benefit from the experiential knowledge of others is an important characteristic of what makes us human.
A unified way of knowing that is shared by a group of people and used to explain and predict phenomena is called a knowledge system. Human knowledge systems are diverse and reflect the wide range of cultures and societies throughout the world and through time.
Science and religion are both knowledge systems. Yet they differ in important ways. The type of knowledge gained from science is often called scientific understanding. As we have explored in the previous section, scientific understanding can change and relies on evidence and rigorous, repeated testing. Religious or spiritual ways of knowing are called belief, which is different from scientific understanding because they do not require repeated testing or validation (although they can rely on observations and experiences). Instead, belief relies on trust and faith.
Different individuals, cultures, and societies may place more value on one type of knowing than another, although most use a combination that includes science, empiricism, and religion. In fact, Bronisław Malinowski (1884–1942), an important anthropologist of the early twentieth century, concluded that all societies use both religion and science in some way or another, because they are both common ways that humans experience the world.
In contemporary societies such as the United States, science and (some) religions conflict on the topic of human origins. Nearly every culture and society has a unique origin story that explains where they came from and how they came to be who they are today. These stories are often integrated into the culture’s religious belief system. Many anthropologists are interested in faith-based origin stories and other beliefs because they show us how a particular group of people explain the world and their place in it. Anthropologists also value scientific understanding as the basis for how humans vary biologically and change over time. In other words, anthropologists value the multiple knowledge systems of different groups and use them to understand the human condition in a broad and inclusive way.
It is also important to note that scientists often depend on the local knowledge of the people with whom they work to understand elements of the natural or physical world that science has not yet investigated. Many groups, including Indigenous peoples, know about the world through prolonged relationships with the environment. Indigenous knowledge systems—specific to an Indigenous community or group—are informed by their own empirical observation of a specific environment and passed down over generations.
While religion and Indigenous knowledge systems may play a complementary role in helping anthropologists understand the human condition, they are distinct from science. The anthropological subdiscipline of biological anthropology is based on scientific ways of knowing about humans and human origins. In this volume, we will exclusively explore what science tells us about how humans came to be and why we are the way we are today. Therefore, you do not need to believe in evolution to master this material, because belief is not a scientific way of knowing. For this textbook, you only need to understand the scientific perspectives of evolution.
Throughout our lives, each of us work to reconcile our worldview with the different ways we have of knowing things. This is part of our lifelong intellectual journey. It is also, in our opinion, one of the most exciting parts of learning. We are pleased you have joined us on this journey of knowledge about humanity and yourself!