The Scientific Method and Biological Anthropology

This paper discusses the relationship between the scientific method and physical anthropology. The scientific method is a research process whereby a question or problem is posed, a provisional explanation called an hypothesis is made that is then tested through the gathering of data (e.g. evidence) from observation or experimentation. Data is scientific information from which conclusions can be drawn. The word “data” is plural for “datum”. Since physical anthropology is a scientific discipline, it focuses on gathering quantitative data (e.g. data that can be expressed numerically) and empirical data (e.g. data that can be experienced) through observation or experimentation.  Thus the scientific method is an empirical approach to gaining knowledge from experience through observation or experimentation. The word “empirical” is from the Latin empiricus, meaning “experienced” (Jurmain 2010:16). If a phenomenon cannot be experienced with one’s five senses (sight, touch, taste, hearing and sensation) then it is not empirical.  Science itself is provisional knowledge that is gained and is constantly being refined through the scientific method of observation or experimentation of empirical data. The word “science” is from the Latin scientia, meaning “knowledge” (Jurmain 2010:16).

Physical anthropology is concerned with the human biological and behavioral traits, non-human primates and human evolution (Juramain 2010:3). Physical anthropology also includes the study of human biology from an evolutionary perspective. According to physical anthropologists, culture is composed of learned behaviors that are based on adaptations to the natural environment (Jurmain 2010:4). Since physical anthropology is a scientific discipline, it uses the scientific method in it’s research.

A hypothesis is a provisional explanation of a phenomenon that must be verifiable or falsifiable through testing (from observation or experimentation) (Jurmain 2010:16). Another term for hypothesis is a falsifiable research question. The central problem with the creationism–that God created the world and all life on it relatively recently–is that it is based on faith (rather than empirical evidence) is not open to falsification. Since “creation science” is based on faith, it can not be proven by the scientific method and is therefore not a true science.

A theory is “a broad statement of scientific relationships or underlying principles that has been substantially verified through the testing of hypothesis” (Jurmain 2010:20). In other words, a theory is an explanation that has been verified through the scientific testing.

Scientific testing is the “precise repetition of an experiment or expansion of observed empirical data” that can, in turn, be used to verify, modify or discard a theory (Jurmain 2010:20). Scientific testing strives to be objective but its important to realize that there is bias in all scientific studies (Jurmain 2010:21). Sources of bias include the training or skills of the researcher, the cultural or ethnocentric perspective of the researcher, earlier results, sources of data available, the study question or questions used, what samples can be collected, and sources of resources or funding for the research (Jurmain 2010:21). Ethnocentrism is the inherent bias of one’s own culture. “Ethnocentrism often results in other cultures being seen as inferior to one’s own” (Jurmain 2010:21).

A law is a validated hypothesis or theory that is generally accepted as a statement of fact within the scientific community. A natural law is an observable law relating to natural phenomena.

Where and when did the scientific method develop?

Science, the production of knowledge based on the scientific method, first appeared in Europe during the age of exploration when European explorers first circumnavigated the globe disproving the old belief that the world was flat and were exposed to a great diversity of cultures and new species. In A.D. 1514, Polish mathematician Copernicus challenged the belief that the earth was the center of the universe with the sun, planets and stars rotating in concentric circles around it per the fourth-century B.C. Greek philosopher Aristotle. In the early 1600s Galileo used logic and mathematics to validate the theory of Copernicus. For his trouble, Galileo spent the last nine years of his life under house arrest for contesting the dogma of the Catholic Church. The church claimed that since God made the earth and that human beings were His central concern, He placed the earth in the center of the universe per Aristotle (Jurmain 2010:27).

Cited Works

Jurmain, Robert, Lynn Kilgore, Wenda Trevanthan, Russell L. Ciochon (2010), Belmont, CA: Wadsworth CENAGE Learning, Inc.