Interview: Anthropological conclusions must be presented to the public. Without that, they are only artificial projects, says Professor Malina

Although a graduate in archaeology at the Philosophical Faculty, Prof. Malina went on to co-found the Faculty of Science’s Department of Anthropology after the revolution. Prof. PhDr. Jaroslav Malina, DrSc., an author of many fiction books and a passionate tennis player and car lover, speaks about the study of human sexuality, the importance of anthropology and the evolution of Masaryk University over the last fifty years.

4 Jul 2019 David Baláš

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In 1993, you came up with the idea of creating a five-volume work entitled ‘The circle of the Ring’, which deals with the history of human sexuality. The first volume of this pentalogy came out in 2007, what is the status of the project now?

The first volume was a thick book with over a thousand pages and weighs about 3.5 kilograms, which is the weight of an average newborn child in the Czech Republic. Its implementation was hellishly expensive, costing over a million crowns, but at that time there were still sponsors. Today, it is a problem to get money for such a large work. For these reasons, I have published the other volumes as black and white scripts. The project has now turned into a free internet encyclopaedia, where all the planned themes are covered under separate entries.

Why is sexuality so important in anthropology?

Anthropology deals with humans, from dawn to dusk, from the time when man first appeared to the present; and also of humans as individuals, from birth to death. In this latter respect, anthropology is applied between two extremes, that is birth, which is still related to sexuality, and death. Thus, if we consider anthropology as a biological-sociological-cultural science, sexuality is one of the most important lines of work for anthropologists.

You have led many Doctoral theses on sexuality. Random examples include ‘Sexual Restraint and Celibate Practice in the Past and Today’ or ‘Role of the Face in Choosing a Sexual Partner in Man’. Is there a great interest among students?

This inexhaustible topic is addressed by many students. For example, sexual patterns of behaviour can be examined for individual ethnic groups. In some areas, they are very different from our Euro-American experience, which allows us to carry out comparative studies. Students are very open, so they are not ashamed to deal with these topics.

Does it seem to you that the approach to human sexuality has changed in recent times?

Our Euro-American civilization finds itself in a vacuum, lacking any self-control or self-reflection. For example, academic papers are emerging that claim that Sekora’s ‘Ferda mravenec’ (Ferda the ant) needs to be removed from libraries because it promotes a masculine stereotype that encourages patriarchal relationships. They say it spoils small children who can’t decide if they want to be boys or girls. In the Czech Republic, there are still only hints, but in Spain, they are destroying entire libraries with literature of this kind, and it has been going on a long time in Sweden. These groups purely pursue gender; biology is a marginal thing to them and they simply ignore it. Everything is in the hands of the individual. In their opinion, everyone should be brought up in a neutral manner so they are not burdened with bias and can freely decide what they want to be.

Could these currents endanger the work of anthropologists as it is done now?

The threat is considerable, and not just for our work. If it goes on like this, it could lead to a collapse of civilisation. From my point of view, this is the third engineering experiment in humans. Nazism addressed it ethnically and racially, while the Communists wanted to raise a new type of person on a social basis. This is the third attempt, and a quite dangerous one. Its main pitfall lies in the fact that the first two attempts proved to be horrific, while this one is presented in a way that appears to accommodate everyone. They claim that every sub-microscopic part of this world has the right to be recognised for what it feels to be. The family, a heterosexual relationship that is the only one able to create new generations, means nothing in their conception. The individual and his or her self-realisation is always to be in first place. I think these people do not even realise that if this theory were to be accentuated then our civilization would have no further generations.

Has anthropology changed our perception of our ancestors?

If we take human evolution, the way it is viewed has changed dramatically. Even in the middle of the 19th century, it was believed that the human race started sometime around half a million years ago. However, new findings in East and South Africa have shown that we can stretch the first people’s line back to 4 million years ago. The notion that people living 30,000 years ago were primitive people has also been refuted. On the contrary, humans 30,000 years ago were as clever we are. Their stone tools are often very sophisticated objects that I would easily compare to the discoveries of Newton or Einstein. Even these inventors and discoverers stand on the shoulders of people who were here before us. For example, one experimental archaeologist was operated on using flint blades originally invented and used 30,000 years ago. It was a colon operation and the doctors didn’t want to do it, but then they found that these tools were much better than the steel blades currently available. They are very sharp and completely immune to the ingestion of foreign substances.

Does anthropology predict any further developments?

As regards contemporary humans, we now have the ambition to predict future biological-physical development based on present patterns of human development. At present, however, we cannot fully predict this development, as there is still no data on the impact of modern technologies, such as mobile phones, computers, and so on. There are only partial studies so far, but these are only ephemeral issues. For example, it is now being investigated whether constant clicking and typing on mobiles will affect our motor skills, and whether this could appear as a hereditary element in future generations. However, at least one generation will be needed to discover something scientifically valid. But so far, it looks like we will stay as we are.

What do you think is the greatest benefit of anthropology?

Anthropology should ensure that the results of its work are comprehensible to the public. In that, I see the main meaning and benefit. The same is true of archaeology. I was joking recently about how much ‘grey matter’ archaeologists have. They are constantly digging in the ground and then have no time to do something about it and introduce it to the public. For these disciplines, it is particularly important that they make public contact, as everyone is interested in the past of humans and of humanity itself. If we do not formulate these findings in a language comprehensible to the public, translate them into real life situations, then these disciplines become more-or-less unnecessary.

To me, this implies that it is not possible to talk about socially important discoveries in anthropology, such as when scientists find a cure for various diseases.

Anthropology is not a discipline based on discoveries, as in the case of chemistry or microbiology. It is about gathering many materials, building on the work of predecessors, linking information and seeking analogies around the world. It is a cumulative work in which many museums have to be visited. Some discoveries that appear socially important may not really appear so. In some fields, it is clear that if you learn it well and apply it well then it has meaning; in anthropology, we find ourselves in moving sands, wondering if the work has any meaning. Without a public response, these become merely artificial projects providing employment.

You originally studied archaeology at the Philosophical Faculty; how did you get into anthropology?

It seemed to me that archaeology was quite one-sided and focused only on artefacts. I felt that dead cultures had to be revived, not just in the form of stone tools but also how the people who used them lived, how they used them and so on. Here, there is an overlap with anthropology, so it just seemed like a better course to take. I also studied western anthropological literature in the 1960s and 70s, and that contributed a lot. To some extent, you could say that I came to anthropology through self-study.

Did you have any natural science background?

In addition to archaeology, I attended courses on mineralogy and petrography. I dealt with stone tools and petrography allows you tell what a stone is and where that stone comes from. This is particularly important because we can then create theories. For example, after finding that a flint artefact found in our town in Vestonice was of Baltic origin, questions arise as to how it moved such a distance. Although they were simple hunting groups, there must have been some channels of communication. This was another breakthrough in the lives of paleontological people of 30,000 years ago. So this is a case where I got to use natural science methods and ways of thinking.

What was the social mood during your studies? Did it project into your studies?

The 1960s, when I was studying, was still marked by the need to present my knowledge of scientific communism, historical materialism and political economy. At the same time, however, it was the period that came to be known as the 'golden sixties'. At that time, there was a wonderful feeling of creativity that manifested itself in teaching, science, art and culture in general. In August 1968, there was an invasion of "fraternal armies" and our world returned to totalitarian domination, albeit "softened" after the 1950s…

The post-revolutionary changes made it possible for you to re-establish the Department of Anthropology here at the Faculty of Science, together with Jan Beneš and Vladimír Novotný, in the early 1990s. How did that come about?

Both I and my colleague and friend Beneš, who is a biological anthropologist, had been thinking since the 1960s that, if the time comes, we would try to establish a department. We created a number of study programs, where we combined both social and biological lines of anthropology. This had to be done over three successive stages, from Bachelor to Doctoral studies. We did that in the early 1990s. Beneš was the vice-dean of the faculty so, from an administrative point of view, it went well. Even the atmosphere at the faculty was favourable.

What was the central goal that the department was supposed to aim for?

In particular, we wanted to preserve a ground plan of holistic anthropology. This has been, and continues to be, successful; even under new management the Institute is still following this course. We also ensured good contacts with foreign countries, and followed and used the latest methods. This included obtaining the newest grants, which has made it possible to subsidise the course.

Why is it so important to emphasise the connection of both branches of anthropology?

Social anthropology or biological anthropology alone only provides a one-sided view; however, human beings are influenced by both culture and biology. Studying only one of the two parts necessarily loses the context. Moreover, the more we go into the past, the stronger the biological side becomes; and the closer we are to the present, the more we are influenced by culture and social phenomena. However, both components overlap.

Currently, Social Anthropology is also studied at the Faculty of Social Studies. Is there any collaboration between the two faculties?

No. During the time when Hana Librová was still in charge, there was some communication between the faculties, but at present, it is no longer possible. The reason is, unfortunately, that social anthropology at the Faculty of Social Studies has a completely different direction and focus than I think appropriate. But that would be a long chat.

Has Masaryk University changed since your studies?

Over those fifty years, it has changed positively in some things and negatively in others. The great thing is that the university is now open to the world. I fully support the existence of Erasmus and other programs that allow students to explore the surrounding world. The negative side, on the other hand, is the increase in red tape. When I started here, the level of bureaucracy and number of bureaucrats was about one-tenth of what it is now, even though student numbers are not so different today. However, this phenomenon is related to bureaucratisation of society as a whole, in which the university is no exception.

Has the study structure changed?

It hasn’t changed much. But in our country, at the Institute of Anthropology, its perception has changed. As I said before, it is now understood as an holistic science, covering biological-socio-cultural issues. Under the previous regime, socio-cultural anthropology was proscribed because its research put forward other opinions on social development. It was opposed to seeing a world that represented historical and scientific materialism. Anthropology under the previous regime survived only in its biological form. The restoration of anthropology in its more meaningful, holistic form was only made possible by the post-revolutionary events.

How would you describe the current Faculty of Science, which is celebrating 100 years since its foundation this year?

From the position of an anthropologist, I consider the Faculty of Science to be a free-thinking research and educational refugium, in which some tendencies now appearing particularly at so-called humanitarian universities do not yet have a place. In this context, I recommend my students read anti-utopia / dystopic works of fiction , such as ‘My’ by Evgeny I. Zamjatin, ‘1984’ by George Orwell or ‘Brave New World’ by Aldous Leonard Huxley, each of which gives an appalling portrait of a mechanised and dehumanised future world.

Literature appears to be your passion. You have also written a number of fictional publications in addition to your professional anthropological publications. Does prose give you more creative freedom than your professional literature?

By moving from a specialist field to another area, one renews the power to go back. As for the question of whether fantasy in fiction or poetry is more developed than in scientific work, I’m not sure. It’s more fun to write fiction and poems than to wade through those stone tools or primeval pots. The story of the German mathematician David Hilbert, who was asked where one of his most gifted students ended up after simply disappearing from mathematical circles, is quite appropriate. Hilbert replied that he started writing poetry; he said he had too little imagination for mathematics. It is, of course, exaggerated, and it depends very much on the level one moves in, whether in fiction or in science.

You have based some of your books on an unnamed university in Brno. Is Masaryk University an inspiration for you?

Basically, I write about things I’ve experienced. It is about an academic environment so there will be characters that colleagues may find a little familiar.

In 1993, you also founded the Universitas Masarykiana Foundation (since 2004, the Universitas Foundation), which allows beginners to start publishing. What made you do that?

We wanted to restore the half-forgotten traditions of Masaryk University. Until 1989, the founding figures - Masaryk, Engliš and Jirásek - were taboo. Engliš was the first Rector, but he was forgotten under communism and sent somewhere ‘outside this world’. It is for such reasons that we established several book editions. One of these is called the ‘Edition of the Personality’, of which about 27 volumes have been published already. The first volumes were dedicated to these people, the founders, without whom the university would not exist.

Another purpose of this foundation is to link science and art. It’s quite an inspirational thing. As an example, the Rectorate foyer is decorated with the sculpture ‘Curiosity’ by Olbram Zoubek, and other sculptures have been installed at the various faculties. This contact with art can be very inspiring for scientists.

Do you have any other hobbies besides literature and scientific activities?

Clearly, they are cars and sports. Despite all my achievements in science and art, I am most proud of my achievements in tennis, which I play practically every day. My goal now is to beat the 200km per hour barrier. I also enjoy table tennis. When I started the lecture ‘Introduction to Anthropology’, which is an elementary subject for the first year, I told my students jokingly that if there is a really good subject at the institute, it is ping-pong. They looked at me in surprise. When I asked them if anyone played ping-pong, a number put their hands up. So I offered that if someone beats me this year, I would pack up and leave. Well, I’m still here.

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