By way of Five Feet of Fury, an interesting story about challenging some very basic assumptions about psychology:
While the setting was fairly typical for an anthropologist, Henrich’s research was not. Rather than practice traditional ethnography, he decided to run a behavioral experiment that had been developed by economists. Henrich used a “game” — along the lines of the famous prisoner’s dilemma — to see whether isolated cultures shared with the West the same basic instinct for fairness. In doing so, Henrich expected to confirm one of the foundational assumptions underlying such experiments, and indeed underpinning the entire fields of economics and psychology: that humans all share the same cognitive machinery — the same evolved rational and psychological hardwiring.
[. . .]
When he began to run the game it became immediately clear that Machiguengan behavior was dramatically different from that of the average North American. To begin with, the offers from the first player were much lower. In addition, when on the receiving end of the game, the Machiguenga rarely refused even the lowest possible amount. “It just seemed ridiculous to the Machiguenga that you would reject an offer of free money,” says Henrich. “They just didn’t understand why anyone would sacrifice money to punish someone who had the good luck of getting to play the other role in the game.”
The potential implications of the unexpected results were quickly apparent to Henrich. He knew that a vast amount of scholarly literature in the social sciences — particularly in economics and psychology — relied on the ultimatum game and similar experiments. At the heart of most of that research was the implicit assumption that the results revealed evolved psychological traits common to all humans, never mind that the test subjects were nearly always from the industrialized West. Henrich realized that if the Machiguenga results stood up, and if similar differences could be measured across other populations, this assumption of universality would have to be challenged.
Henrich had thought he would be adding a small branch to an established tree of knowledge. It turned out he was sawing at the very trunk. He began to wonder: What other certainties about “human nature” in social science research would need to be reconsidered when tested across diverse populations?
A notion that’s popped up several times in the last couple of months is that the easy access to willing test subjects (university students) introduces a strong bias to a lot of the tests, yet until recently the majority of studies disregarded the possibility that their test results were unrepresentative of the general population.
ESR reviews a new book about hackers:
My usual audience is well aware why I am qualified to review Gabriella Coleman’s book, Coding Freedom, but since I suspect this post might reach a bit beyond my usual audience I will restate the obvious. I have been operating as the hacker culture’s resident ethnographer since around 1990, consciously applying the techniques of anthropological fieldwork (at least as I understood them) to analyze the operation of that culture and explain it to others. Those explanations have been tested in the real world with large consequences, including helping the hacker culture break out of its ghetto and infect everything that software touches with subversive ideas about open processes, transparency, peer review, and the power of networked collaboration.
Ever since I began doing my own ethnographic work on the hacker culture from the inside as a participant, I have keenly felt the lack of any comparable observation being done by outsiders formally trained in the techniques of anthropological fieldwork. I’m an amateur, self-trained by reading classic anthropological studies and a few semesters of college courses; I know relatively little theory, and have had to construct my own interpretative frameworks in the absence of much knowledge about how a professional would do it.
Sadly, the main thing I learned from reading Gabriella Coleman’s new book, Coding Freedom, is that my ignorance may actually have been a good thing for the quality of my results. The insight in this book is nearly smothered beneath a crushing weight of jargon and theoretical elaboration, almost all of which appears to be completely useless except as a sort of point-scoring academic ritual that does less than nothing to illuminate its ostensible subject.
[. . .]
Far too much of the book exhibits this kind of theory-induced blindness. I am inclined to blame not Coleman for it but rather the people who trained and indoctrinated her in how to think and write like a ‘real’ anthropologist. If Coding Freedom is really the sort of book anthropology wants its bright young things to emit, the field is in desperately bad shape — far too inward-looking, over-abstract, mired in self-reference and tail-chasing, obsessed with politicized modes of non-explanation. I would actually prefer the theory that Coleman is a dimwit who has emitted a sort of unintentional parody of real anthropology if I could make myself believe it, but I can’t — her best moments seem too lucid for that.
She is very perceptive, for example, about the central role of hacker humor in promoting social bonding and affirming the culture’s values (I’ve explored this theme myself). Her ground-level reporting about the emotional atmosphere of hacker conferences and demonstrations is acute. Her discussion of how hackers as a culture have bootstrapped themselves to a state of legal literacy in order to fight their corner of the intellectual-property wars gives one of the gifts that ethnography should — to help us see how remarkable and interesting are practices we might otherwise take for granted.
There is even one significant thing I learned from this book, or at least learned to see in a new way. I hadn’t noticed before how ritualized the practice of writing damning comments about bad code is. Coleman is right that they display a level of pointed and deliberate rudeness that their authors would not employ face-to-face, and she is right about how and why the culture gives permission for this behavior.
Even if we have the technology to do it, there are lots of ways for the experiment to go very wrong (without going the Jurassic Park route):
…could they be taught in our schools? Who would rear the first generation? Would human parents find this at all rewarding? Do they have enough impulse control to move freely in human society? How happy would they be with such a limited number of peers? What public health issues would be involved and how would we learn about those issues in advance? What would happen the first time a Neanderthal kills a human child? Carries and transmits a contagious disease? By the way, how much resistance would the Neanderthals have to modern diseases?
What kinds of “human rights” would we issue to them? Would we end up treating them better than lab chimpanzees? Would they be covered by ACA and have emergency room rights?
Unlike the debate over recreating extinct animal species like the dodo or the passenger pigeon, Neanderthals were close relations to modern humans: under most of our ethical and moral systems, they would be people, not animals. Unless we’re so debased that we can countenance restarting the Nazi experiment that we forcefully terminated in 1945, we could not treat neoNeanderthals as anything other than intelligent, self-directing, self-owning beings. By bringing them back from the dead, we’d be taking on the moral requirement to maintain them and sustain them.
We have no way of knowing if a group of neoNeanderthals could peacefully co-exist with humanity, and no way of finding that out without running the experiment. That’s not a decision that can or should be taken by a single person or a group of scientists at a university. This wanders too close to “playing god” of old science fiction stories: those stories rarely turned out well for the non-gods.
Cory Doctorow on a new book by Biella Coleman called Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking:
[Coleman's dissertation has been], edited and streamlined, under the title of Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking, which comes out today from Princeton University Press (Quinn Norton, also well known for her Wired reporting on Anonymous and Occupy, had a hand in the editing). Coding Freedom walks the fine line between popular accessibility and scholarly rigor, and does a very good job of expressing complex ideas without (too much) academic jargon.
Coding Freedom is insightful and fascinating, a superbly observed picture of the motives, divisions and history of the free software and software freedom world. As someone embedded in both those worlds, I found myself surprised by connections I’d never made on my own, but which seemed perfectly right and obvious in hindsight. Coleman’s work pulls together a million IRC conversations and mailing list threads and wikiwars and gets to their foundations, the deep discussion evolving through the world of free/open source software.
History Today tweeted that today is the anniversary of the exposure of the Piltdown Man hoax in 1953:
Once cited as the ‘missing link’ between man and beast and definitive proof of the theory of evolution, the Piltdown Man was exposed as a hoax in 1953. Eoanthropus Dawsoni was ‘excavated’ in 1912 by amateur archaeologist Charles Dawson from a shallow gravel pit in Piltdown, Sussex. Great excitement greeted his find, as at the time fewer than five human fossils had been discovered and most of those were incomplete, their dates uncertain and — almost worst of all at a time of intense imperial rivalry — they were foreign. France and Belgium had long boasted Neanderthal skeletons. Germany had Heidelburg Man. Now here, at last, was the first great British palaeoanthropological find. The Piltdown Man, as he was immediately dubbed, was the ‘first Englishman’ and he caused a world sensation.
[. . .]
As time passed and more evidence was disinterred, Piltdown Man became more and more of an anomaly, marginalised in evolutionary theory but remaining on the syllabus. Students were writing dissertations on Piltdown in the 1950s. Then in 1953, following a lecture on Piltdown at the British Museum, South African born Doctor Joseph S. Weiner had an epiphany on the train home to Oxford: Piltdown had to be a fraud.
With his friend and colleague Geoffrey Ainsworth Harrison, who is now the Professor of Biological Anthropology at Oxford, Weiner set about collecting as much evidence as he could before approaching the Head of the Anatomy Department at Oxford, Professor Wilfrid Edward Le Gros Clark. Using the latest scientific techniques, including fluorine measurement and radiocarbon dating, the team proved that the mandible of Eoanthropus Dawsoni had been deliberately stained with potassium bichromate and the teeth filed down. The jaw was later shown to have come from an orangutan.
Do non-Apple fans sometimes think they’re talking to religious fanatics when they talk to Apple users? It’s a silly question, isn’t it? Of course they do, because Apple has become more and more a religious experience rather than a mere technology company:
[Kirsten Bell] wrote in the Christian Science Monitor that a stranger observing one of the launches could probably be forgiven for thinking they had stumbled into a religious revival meeting.
Bell now studies the culture of modern biomedical research, but is an expert on messianic religious movements in South Korea.
She said that an Apple product launch takes place in a building “littered with sacred symbols, especially the iconic Apple sign itself”.
Keynote speeches feature an Apple leader reawakened and renewing their faith in the core message and tenets of the brand/religion.
The tradition of not broadcasting launches in real time is akin to a religious event where it is forbidden to broadcast Sacred Ceremonies.
Instead scribes or its Tame Apple Press act like the writers of the gospels, “testifying to the wonders they behold” in a completely non objective way.
Grant McCracken goes ultra-contrarian in this article at Wired:
It’s easy to assume reality TV is the place where bad TV went to hide when the rest of TV got a lot better. Like that old Wild West town where criminals congregate, reality TV is often perceived as the last, “vast wasteland”: uncouth, desperate, lawless.
But while some shows seem irredeemably bad (Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, anyone?), others offer an indication of good things to come. In fact, by turning all of us into virtual anthropologists, reality TV may lead to the improvement – dare I say it – of Western civilization. Reality TV may even be the next stage in the evolution of television.
In its early days, TV was confronted with a series of problems. It was a new medium struggling to find a place in the world. It had quality-control problems in sound and image. And it was talking to millions of American for whom English was a second language and American culture was still a mystery. TV solved these problems by relying on genre. Once you understood you were watching a “cop show” or a “Western,” the rest was easy.
Genre was like a cheat sheet. It flattened every difficulty: technical, intellectual, cultural, linguistic.
An interesting article in the Wall Street Journal looks at the documented phenomenon of rapidly rising IQ in modern humans:
Advanced nations like the U.S. have experienced massive IQ gains over time (a phenomenon that I first noted in a 1984 study and is now known as the “Flynn Effect”). From the early 1900s to today, Americans have gained three IQ points per decade on both the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scales and the Wechsler Intelligence Scales. These tests have been around since the early 20th century in some form, though they have been updated over time. Another test, Raven’s Progressive Matrices, was invented in 1938, but there are scores for people whose birth dates go back to 1872. It shows gains of five points per decade.
In 1910, scored against today’s norms, our ancestors would have had an average IQ of 70 (or 50 if we tested with Raven’s). By comparison, our mean IQ today is 130 to 150, depending on the test. Are we geniuses or were they just dense?
[. . .]
Modern people do so well on these tests because we are new and peculiar. We are the first of our species to live in a world dominated by categories, hypotheticals, nonverbal symbols and visual images that paint alternative realities. We have evolved to deal with a world that would have been alien to previous generations.
A century ago, people mostly used their minds to manipulate the concrete world for advantage. They wore what I call “utilitarian spectacles.” Our minds now tend toward logical analysis of abstract symbols — what I call “scientific spectacles.” Today we tend to classify things rather than to be obsessed with their differences. We take the hypothetical seriously and easily discern symbolic relationships.
Along with the manifold military problems facing the troops in Afghanistan, there are some social issues that tend to boggle the minds of the western soldiers:
Western forces fighting in southern Afghanistan had a problem. Too often, soldiers on patrol passed an older man walking hand-in-hand with a pretty young boy. Their behavior suggested he was not the boy’s father. Then, British soldiers found that young Afghan men were actually trying to “touch and fondle them,” military investigator AnnaMaria Cardinalli told me. “The soldiers didn’t understand.”
[. . .]
Sociologists and anthropologists say the problem results from perverse interpretation of Islamic law. Women are simply unapproachable. Afghan men cannot talk to an unrelated woman until after proposing marriage. Before then, they can’t even look at a woman, except perhaps her feet. Otherwise she is covered, head to ankle.
“How can you fall in love if you can’t see her face,” 29-year-old Mohammed Daud told reporters. “We can see the boys, so we can tell which are beautiful.”
Even after marriage, many men keep their boys, suggesting a loveless life at home. A favored Afghan expression goes: “Women are for children, boys are for pleasure.” Fundamentalist imams, exaggerating a biblical passage on menstruation, teach that women are “unclean” and therefore distasteful. One married man even asked Cardinalli’s team “how his wife could become pregnant,” her report said. When that was explained, he “reacted with disgust” and asked, “How could one feel desire to be with a woman, who God has made unclean?”
It’s a telling point that western troops were committed to Afghanistan without being fully briefed on the social customs of the people for whom and among whom they’d be doing their jobs. Ignorance isn’t a solid basis for any kind of trust, and without gaining the trust of locals, the troops will always be at a severe informational disadvantage.
An idea that seemed fairly common in the 1960s and 70s appears to be regaining credibility:
When two drunken men fight over a woman, alcohol and stupidity may not be the only things at work. Sadly, evolution may have shaped men to behave this way. Almost all of the traits considered to be masculine — big muscles, facial hair, square jaws, deep voices and a propensity to violence — evolved, it now seems, specifically for their usefulness in fighting off or intimidating other men, allowing the winner to get the girl.
That, at least, is the contention of David Puts, an anthropologist at Pennsylvania State University, in an upcoming paper in Evolution and Human Behavior. Dr Puts is looking at how sexual selection gave rise to certain human traits. A trait is sexually selected if it evolved specifically to enhance mating success. They come in two main forms: weapons, such as an elk’s horns are used to fight off competitors; and ornaments, like a peacock’s tail, which are used to advertise genetic fitness to attract the opposite sex.
Researchers have tended to consider human sexual selection through the lens of the female’s choice of her mate. But human males look a lot more like animals designed to battle with one another for access to females, says Dr Puts. On average, men have 40% more fat-free mass than women, which is similar to the difference in gorillas, a species in which males unquestionably compete with other males for exclusive sexual access to females. In species whose males do not fight for access to females, males are generally the same size as, or smaller than, females.
Radley Balko links to this interesting article by Steven Pinker, which shows something that on the surface appears to fly in the face of the facts: we’re not becoming more violent, we’re becoming more peaceful:
Our seemingly troubled times are routinely contrasted with idyllic images of hunter-gatherer societies, which allegedly lived in a state of harmony with nature and each other. The doctrine of the noble savage — the idea that humans are peaceable by nature and corrupted by modern institutions — pops up frequently in the writing of public intellectuals like, for example, Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, who argued that “war is not an instinct but an invention.”
But now that social scientists have started to count bodies in different historical periods, they have discovered that the romantic theory gets it backward: Far from causing us to become more violent, something in modernity and its cultural institutions has made us nobler. In fact, our ancestors were far more violent than we are today. Indeed, violence has been in decline over long stretches of history, and today we are probably living in the most peaceful moment of our species’ time on earth.