All posts by Rex

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

Geneticists think Nicholas Wade’s “A Troublesome Inheritance” is wrong

Ouch. Just….: Ouch. Over 130 geneticists have signed a letter to the New York Times saying that Nicholas Wade’s book A Troublesome Inheritance is inaccurate and misrepresents their work. This includes the authors of articles that are central to Wade’s argument. When the very scientists your book relies on announce that that book is wrong? Ouch. Read below the fold for the gory details. Continue reading

Competing Responsibilities: An Interview with Susanna Trnka and Catherine Trundle

(former Mind Thomas Strong recently participated in a conference on ‘competing responsibilities’ organized by Susanna Trnka and Catherine Trundle. What follows is an interview between Tom, Susanna, and Catherine on the conference theme, which dove-tails wonderfully with Bree Blakeman’s recent blogging on the concept of responsibility. Transparency: By chance I’m going to the next round of the conference in Wellington, so this is something I’ve been thinking about as well -Rx)

TS: Could you both introduce yourselves, and talk about how you came around to the question of responsibility?

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A good article on ‘uncontacted tribes’

Over at the BBC’s “Future” website, science journalist Rachel Nuwer has a 2,000 word piece up entitled Anthropology: The sad truth about ‘uncontacted tribes’. The piece focuses on Latin America, but is refreshing because it manages to avoid the usual clichés about ‘stone age innocents’. “Today’s so-called uncontacted people all have a history of contact, whether from past exploitation or simply seeing a plane flying overhead,” Nuwer writes. “It is almost always fear that motivates such hostilities and keeps isolated groups from making contact. In past centuries and even decades, isolated tribes were often murdered and enslaved by outsiders.”

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“The Most Wonderful Shade of Brown”

Anthropologists are good at critiquing other anthropologists and themselves. We have a lot to be guilty about and we do a good job of pointing that out. The politics of anthropology, and the politics of the politics of anthropology are a major part of what we do. In fact, we’re so good at doing it that I think at times we forget what we have actually done wrong. We spend more time reading dismissals of our ancestors than we do the ancestors themselves.

One of my most memorable moments in graduate school was when Fredrik Barth — who I have a lot of respect for — came to give a talk to our department. The highlight for me was when he was describing how much he enjoyed spending time with people in Papua New Guinea during his fieldwork there. They were, he said, friendly and “the most wonderful shade of brown.” I think he was trying to be provocative and he succeeded — there was an audible gasp from the brown anthropologists in the room, as well as from pretty much everyone else.

And then there is Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf. Continue reading

The Graduate Advisor Handbook: Take Its Advice

Shore, Bruce M. 2014. The Graduate Advisor Handbook : A Student-centered Approach. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

I’m a big fan of the University of Chicago Press’s series on academic life (disclosure: this may be because I went there for graduate school). Their series on writing, editing, and publishing  features several of my favorite titles, and their younger series on ‘the academic life’ has also gotten off to a good start. So I was optimistic about Bruce Shore’s The Graduate Advisor Handbook: A Student-Centered Approach. Having read it (disclosure: I received a free review copy), I don’t feel like it’s the Final Statement In Human History About Advising Graduate Students. But I do strongly recommend that you read it, especially if you are new faculty or a new graduate student trying to get a grasp of what good advising looks like. Continue reading

Books for (re)starting school I: Your recommendations?

It may feel like summer to academics in the northern hemisphere, but the start of the school year is right around the corner. For some people, this will mean the beginning of an exciting new career in college or graduate school — for a lucky few it will mean the start of a career in college or graduate school as a professor. For many more, it is a time to find new ways to do familiar things better.

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Argue with people, not abstractions

It is the simplest thing in the world to do, but so often we fail to do it: argue with actual people, not abstractions. And yet when we end up taking issue with an idea, a concept, a school, or a theory — rather than the actual people behind them — almost invariably the level of the conversation drops.

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Mana: How an Austronesian concept became a video game mechanic

Today The Appendix (“a quarterly journal of experimental and narrative history”) published my piece “The History of Mana: How an Austronesian Concept Became a Video Game Mechanic“. I’m very happy with the piece (tho there are a few typos I want to fix), which is meant to be accessible to a broader audience — i.e. ‘public anthropology’. I wanted to blog about it here in order to get people to read it and to draw attention to a great young journal with a lot of energy behind it. But more importantly, I wanted to talk about how this article happened, and what the production process says about public anthropology and scholarly workflow. Continue reading

“An anti-nominalist book”: Eduardo Kohn on How Forests Think

Earlier this month I sat down with Eduardo Kohn to talk about his amazing book How Forests Think. We started out discussing his intellectual influences and ended up ranging widely over his book, the status of Peirce as a thinker, what ‘politics’ means, and a variety of other topics. Thanks to the hard work of our intern Angela, I’m proud to post a copy of our interview here. I really enjoyed talking to Eduardo, so I hope you enjoy reading it!

Wisconsin and the Amazon

RG: Thanks so much for agreeing to talk. I really enjoyed How Forests Think. When I started it I was a little on the skeptical side, but I ended up thinking it was a mind-blowing book. I thought we could begin by discussing the background for the book and your training. I see the book as mixing biology, science studies (especially Donna Haraway and Bruno Latour), and then some sort of semiotics. It seems like there are a lot of influences there. You got your PhD at Wisconsin, so how did that work out? Can you tell me a little about your background?

EK: The way I got into anthropology was through research, by which I mean fieldwork.  And I was always trying to find ways to do more fieldwork. I saw Wisconsin as an extension of this. When I was in college I did some field research in the Ecuadorian Amazon, I had a Fulbright to go back and do research after college, and only then did I go to grad school.   Although How Forests Think aims to make a conceptual intervention in anthropology, I think of our field as a special vehicle for engaging intensely with a place in ways that make us over and help us think differently. Continue reading

Carl Hoffman > Jared Diamond

Carl Hoffman is a travel writer who has recently turned his attention to New Guinea, where he produces grisly stories of cannibalism, murder, and The Smell Of Men. Jared Diamond is a scientist with decades of experience visiting New Guinea whose books attempt to humanize the people who live there. As an expert on Papua New Guinea, I was really surprised  to find that I was much more impressed with Hoffman’s understanding of Melanesia and its people than I was Diamond’s. So how could I like a cannibalism-obsessed journalist more than a scientist who admired Papua New Guinean’s parenting skills? Continue reading

What happened at the Fuentes-Wade Webinar

On 5 May 2014 The American Anthropological Association hosted a webinar in which Ed Liebow, the Executive Director of the American Anthropological Association, hosted a debate between Augustín Fuentes and Nicholas Wade. Fuentes is a professor of anthropology at Notre Dame, and Wade is a science journalist and author of A Troublesome Inheritance. This post describes what happened there, for people who don’t want to stream the whole thing. Our fearless intern Angela transcribed the webinar, and I double-checked the transcription in key places where the recording was difficult to hear. I’ve occasionally cleaned up speech, but the quotations here are as direct as we could manage — indeed, this post is designed to let people hear the participants speak for themselves. Continue reading

Some Questions Only Seem Reasonable Because You Don’t Know The Answer

As scholars and/or scientists, we believe that no question is out of bounds. Is the bible a literal description of the creation of the universe? Does owning guns make people safer? Scientists think these questions can and should be investigated by anyone who feels like doing so. We disagree, then, with the people who think that some questions should be off limits. There are many reasons why: they seem so unintuitive they couldn’t possibly be true; they challenge existing authorities; the truth is not in the interests of the powerful, and so forth.

But scholars also believe that certain questions are not worth asking. Sometimes, its for the same reasons that I’ve listed above — after all, academics are people too. But there is another reason that scholars and scientists roll their eyes when certain questions get asked, or certain answers are proposed: history.

People have been asking questions for a long time, and have been coming up with good answers for just as long. Specialists in a field remember this history: we were taught it as students, and we make it as researchers. We’ve seen answers to questions come and go — often after the real answers are more or less established.

Consider, for instance, the settlement of Polynesia. How did all of those islands in the Pacific get populated when they were in the middle of the ocean? Polynesian voyaging is one of the great triumphs of our species, and the prehistory of the Pacific is now relatively well understood. But that doesn’t stop people from asking the question afresh. A few years ago I was talking to someone about their recent trip to Morocco, where they noted that Berber languages sounded suspiciously like Hawai‘ian. Could Polynesians have migrated from the old world?

Sure they could have. Or they could have migrated from the Americas — Thor Heyerdahl proved that the voyage was possible. In fact, it was once a going theory that they migrated from Egypt. So if you are a non-academic and google for Polynesian origins in the Middle East, you will in fact find books on this subject.

It’s just that those books are out of date and wrong. Polynesians could have come from Egypt or Morocco. However, they did not. And as for similarities in language, well, with a little ingenuity, and given languages with reasonably compatible phonologies, you can find a ‘cognate’ between two unrelated languages about once out of every two words you try.

Isn’t the earth obviously flat? Couldn’t vaccines be dangerous? Why do people ignore the clear evidence the Bible gives us about the creation of the world? People ask these questions all the time, and feel slighted when professors respond by rolling their eyes and assigning remedial reading rather than taking them seriously.

Sure, we could be wrong. Our explanations could be mistaken, and it takes people being mavericky to shake us up from time to time. But — let’s face it — most of the time when people start demanding new answers to settled questions, this demand only seem reasonable to them because they don’t know how good our established answer is. When we dismiss new answers to old questions, we are not abandoning the fundamental tenet of open inquiry. We just want to get back to doing research on problems without good answers. Is complacence and self-certainty a danger? Yes. Is reinventing the wheel in the name of open mindedness a scientific virtue? No.

Get ready for Nicholas Wade’s “A Troublesome Inheritance”

Nicholas Wade’s new book, A Troublesome Inheritance, drops on Amazon today. Wade, a science writer for the New York Times, has been critical of cultural anthropology in the past — and the feeling has pretty much been mutual. Inheritance is set to create a ground swell of indignation in the anthropological community because it is one of the most biologically reductionist writings to come out in years. The AAA has, to its credit, been on top of the issue and has hosted a showdown between Wade and Augustín Fuentes. Expect more coverage from us, including a couple of guest blogs, in the next couple of months.

Anthropologists of a critical bent take deep personal satisfaction in denouncing racism and reductionism wherever they find it. These days, its rare for something as blatant as Wade’s book to appear with the blessing of a major press. So… yeah. I’m guessing that it’s going to be on.

I personally prefer to use claims, reasons, and evidence to criticize authors. When books like this appear, however, its easy for passions to get inflamed and for people to make personal attacks: Jared Diamond’s comb-over is ugly, Charles Murray’s male pattern baldness makes him look like Princess Leia, etc. We also tend to make arguments of guilt from association: Madison Grant was wrong and so are you. Both of these rhetorical maneuvers don’t do justice to the uniqueness of an author’s position or engage its particulars directly — and thus are unanthropological.

As this moves forward I hope people punch above the belt. It shouldn’t be hard, since Wade is such an easy target.