Many primitive societies believe that maleficent spirits cause all sorts of human misfortune that in the modern West we have learned to attribute to natural causes — cattle dying, crops failing, disease, drought, that sort of thing. A few societies have developed a more peculiar form of supernaturalism, in which evil spirits recede into the background and all misfortune is caused by the action of maleficent human sorcerers who must be found and rooted out to end the harm.
A society like that may be a grim, paranoid place with everyone constantly on the hunt for sorcerers — but a sorcerer can be punished or killed more easily than a spirit or a blind force of nature. Therein lies the perverse appeal of this sort of belief system, what I’ll call “sorcerism” — you may not be able to stop your cattle from dying, but at least you can find the bastard who did it and hurt him until you feel better. Maybe you can even prevent the next cattle-death. You are not powerless.
English needs, I think, a word for “beliefs which are motivated by the terror of being powerless against large threats”. I think I tripped over this in an odd place today, and it makes me wonder if our society may be talking itself into a belief system not essentially different from sorcerism.
Eric S. Raymond, “Heavy weather and bad juju”, Armed and Dangerous, 2011-02-03.
October 1, 2014
February 14, 2014
Readers who are all too familiar with popular works on anthropology may be interested to learn that some recent investigations have involved a completely novel approach. The ordinary anthropologist is one who spends six weeks or six months (or even sometimes six years) among, say, the Boreyu tribe at their settlement on the Upper Teedyas River, Darndreeryland. He then returns to civilization with his photographs, tape recorders, and notebooks, eager to write his book about sex life and superstition. For tribes such as the Boreyu, life is made intolerable by all this peering and prying. They often become converts to Presbyterianism in the belief that they will thereupon cease to be of interest to anthropologists; nor in fact has this device been known to fail. But enough primitive people remain for the purposes of science. Books continue to multiply, and when the last tribe has resorted to the singing of hymns in self-defense, there are still the poor of the backstreets. These are perpetually pursued by questionnaire, camera, and phonograph; and the written results are familiar to us all.
C. Northcote Parkinson, “Palm Thatch To Packard Or A Formula For Success”, Parkinson’s Law (and other studies in administration), 1957.
November 20, 2013
Christopher Taylor linked to this New York Times article by John Tierney about a recent issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society which was devoted to the study of female aggression:
The existence of female competition may seem obvious to anyone who has been in a high-school cafeteria or a singles bar, but analyzing it has been difficult because it tends be more subtle and indirect (and a lot less violent) than the male variety. Now that researchers have been looking more closely, they say that this “intrasexual competition” is the most important factor explaining the pressures that young women feel to meet standards of sexual conduct and physical appearance.
Stigmatizing female promiscuity — a.k.a. slut-shaming — has often been blamed on men, who have a Darwinian incentive to discourage their spouses from straying. But they also have a Darwinian incentive to encourage other women to be promiscuous. Dr. Vaillancourt said the experiment and other research suggest the stigma is enforced mainly by women.
“Sex is coveted by men,” she said. “Accordingly, women limit access as a way of maintaining advantage in the negotiation of this resource. Women who make sex too readily available compromise the power-holding position of the group, which is why many women are particularly intolerant of women who are, or seem to be, promiscuous.”
Indirect aggression can take a psychological toll on women who are ostracized or feel pressured to meet impossible standards, like the vogue of thin bodies in many modern societies. Studies have shown that women’s ideal body shape is to be thinner than average — and thinner than what men consider the ideal shape to be. This pressure is frequently blamed on the ultrathin female role models featured in magazines and on television, but Christopher J. Ferguson and other researchers say that it’s mainly the result of competition with their peers, not media images.
October 18, 2013
I can’t improve on Joey DeVilla‘s introduction to this story: “I don’t think that the skull of homo erectus throws the story of evolution into disarray. However, I do know for a fact that SAYING ‘homo erectus’ in a high school classroom will most certainly put it in disarray.” Here’s the Guardian article by Ian Sample:
The spectacular fossilised skull of an ancient human ancestor that died nearly two million years ago in central Asia has forced scientists to rethink the story of early human evolution.
Anthropologists unearthed the skull at a site in Dmanisi, a small town in southern Georgia, where other remains of human ancestors, simple stone tools and long-extinct animals have been dated to 1.8m years old.
Experts believe the skull is one of the most important fossil finds to date, but it has proved as controversial as it is stunning. Analysis of the skull and other remains at Dmanisi suggests that scientists have been too ready to name separate species of human ancestors in Africa. Many of those species may now have to be wiped from the textbooks.
The latest fossil is the only intact skull ever found of a human ancestor that lived in the early Pleistocene, when our predecessors first walked out of Africa. The skull adds to a haul of bones recovered from Dmanisi that belong to five individuals, most likely an elderly male, two other adult males, a young female and a juvenile of unknown sex.
David Lordkipanidze at the Georgian National Museum, who leads the Dmanisi excavations, said: “If you found the Dmanisi skulls at isolated sites in Africa, some people would give them different species names. But one population can have all this variation. We are using five or six names, but they could all be from one lineage.”
If the scientists are right, it would trim the base of the human evolutionary tree and spell the end for names such as H rudolfensis, H gautengensis, H ergaster and possibly H habilis.
The fossil is described in the latest issue of Science.
“Some palaeontologists see minor differences in fossils and give them labels, and that has resulted in the family tree accumulating a lot of branches,” said White. “The Dmanisi fossils give us a new yardstick, and when you apply that yardstick to the African fossils, a lot of that extra wood in the tree is dead wood. It’s arm-waving.”
September 14, 2013
Anthropologists assure us that wherever we find man he speaks. Chimpanzee-lovers notwithstanding, no animal other than man is capable of laughter. And, although some undiscovered tribe in the Brazilian jungle might conceivably provide an exception tomorrow, every present-day society uses alcohol, as have the majority of those of the past. I am not denying that we share other important pleasures with the brute creation, merely stating the basic fact that conversation, hilarity and drink are connected in a profoundly human, peculiarly intimate way.
There is a choice of conclusions from this. One would be that no such healthy linkage exists in the case of other drugs: a major reason for being on guard against them. More to the point, the collective social benefits of drinking altogether (on this evidence) outweigh the individual disasters it may precipitate. A team of American investigators concluded recently that, without the underpinning provided by alcohol and the relaxation it affords, Western society would have collapsed irretrievably at about the time of the First World War. Not only is drink here to stay; the moral seems to be that when it goes, we go too.
Kingsley Amis, Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis, 2008.
July 15, 2013
Brendan O’Neill on a modern phenomenon:
Normally when a white, middle-class, well-educated Brit wants to rub shoulders with a noble savage, he heads off to Kenya to gawk at the Masai dutifully dancing for his chin-stroking entertainment, or he spends a couple of weeks in Palestine to watch brown people picking olives under the yoke of Israeli intimidation. Not Owen Jones. The Independent’s Left-wing columnist has found an altogether cheaper way to mix with earthy, “authentic” tribes: by hopping on a train to Durham and spending a few hours in the company of that grizzled, largely defeated caste of people known as Miners.
At the weekend Mr Jones spoke at the Durham Miners’ Gala, and the whole thing revealed how anthropological the modern radical Left has become, the extent to which youthful Leftists now treat working-class people as exotic creatures in a political zoo to be photographed and patted. The gala was embarrassingly described by that high priest of chattering-class values, Giles Fraser, as being all about “the banners, the bands and the beer”, a means for former mining communities “colourfully to proclaim [their] nobility”. They’re the salt of the earth, these rough-handed northerners, and no mistake! According to a Sky News report, Mr Jones “spoke for the people”. What people? The London-based media professionals he hobnobs with?
Mr Jones and his media friends treated Durham’s miners the same way other middle-class youngsters treat villagers they happen upon in a rural bit of Rwanda: as intriguingly and effortlessly decent, noble creatures who one must simply be photographed standing next to. They tweeted pics of themselves with these cute creatures. In his speech, Mr Jones referred to the miners as “ordinary working people” (ordinary: “regular, normal, customary” — OED) and said these poor, grafting folk are often “faceless, forgotten, ignored”. Not any more — now they’re all over Twitter and Facebook and are having their nobility celebrated in the Guardian, courtesy of their middle-class, Dickensian patrons down in London.
It’s so extraordinarily patronising. To these anthropological daytrippers, Durham is little more than a Potemkin village, existing primarily as a symbol of something or other rather than as a real place. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that Mr Jones takes this borderline caring/haughty approach to working people. After all, by his own admission his entire career in radical journalism was triggered by feelings of pity for the working classes, or, as he calls them, “the vulnerable” who inhabit “conquered” communities.
March 21, 2013
“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.”
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.
January 28, 2013
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.
January 23, 2013
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.
November 25, 2012
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.
November 21, 2012
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.
October 25, 2012
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.
October 4, 2012
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.
September 23, 2012
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.
September 2, 2010
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.