Tag Archives: The Other Three Fields

Ventriloquists for Darwin

(Here is an occasional piece by Jon Marks at UNCC -R)

An international survey a couple of years ago found that only about half of Americans believe in evolution, placing us 33d in the world, on a list of the nations that believe in evolution the most. I find this troubling, but not because it is another demonstration that Americans are morons. That was known to H. L. Mencken in the 1920s, who referred to the American masses as the “booboisie,” and had even worse things to say about creationists. My problem with these data involves the idea of scientists being interested in what I believe.

I would be apprehensive at the State Department taking an interest in my beliefs, and I am just as apprehensive at the scientific community’s interest in them.

When did science come to be about your beliefs, anyway? I always thought it was about method.

If science is indeed about your beliefs, then I have a bone to pick with evolution. It just seems to attract the weirdest ideologues. Consider the post-Darwinian generations: in the 1890s there were the Social Darwinists. A couple of decades later there were the eugenicists. They were Darwinists too: Charles Darwin’s cousin (Francis Galton) was the movement’s founder, and his son Leonard led the British eugenics society after Galton. It’s hard to miss that connection!

In America, paleontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn and geneticist Charles Davenport led the movement – no conflict of molecules and morphology there! Davenport’s ideas fell into eclipse in America with the accession of the Nazis, and he died in 1944 – as the sitting President of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.
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Announcing the redesigned SLA website

When the Society for Linguistic Anthropology was discussing a site redesign, I volunteered to be an advisor. When they started talking about paying thousands of dollars to a web designer who designed static sites which failed to conform to web standards, lacked an easy to use administrative backend and contained no integrated blog or rss feeds, I offered to do the site for free.

Well, you get what you pay for. The new SLA website may not be pretty, but it does have an RSS feed!

Society for Linguistic Anthropology
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Mmm… brains (and culture!)

Our friends at Culture Matters have spawned. Leave them alone and you never know what they’ll get up to. In this case, a new blog on “neuroanthropology.” This is the kind of think I really like to see, for a couple of reasons. One is that it is precisely the kind of place where there is room to move anthropology and biology forward together. As Greg puts it, it allows us to “think much more seriously about how culture might shape development, allowing us to think seriously about a kind of deep enculturation of the brain, senses, endocrine system, and the like. Researchers in fields that specialize in these topics are increasingly aware of the degree to which developmental variables affect developmental outcomes, creating opportunities for anthropological research to influence a host of other fields.” There is room for a new kind of medical and bio-cultural anthropology for people willing to connect— though it does depend on finding the brain scientists willing to meet the cultural scientists halfway, which is no mean feat.

The other thing i like about it is that it is a specialized scholarly blog; that’s something i’d really like to see more of because it gives me hope for the future of the field to see people openly and enthusiastically sharing ideas, research, new finds and new theories, rather than squirreling them away in the hopes of being first, and honor that seems increasingly less important.


New Research on Death Rates of Overweight People

A report published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association and reported on by the NY Times adds weight to my “thin hypothesis” of well over a year ago: death rates for overweight people in 2004 were lower — 100,000 lower — than for “normal” people.

Linking, for the first time, causes of death to specific weights, they report that overweight people have a lower death rate because they are much less likely to die from a grab bag of diseases that includes Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, infections and lung disease. And that lower risk is not counteracted by increased risks of dying from any other disease, including cancer, diabetes or heart disease.

As a consequence, the group from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Cancer Institute reports, there were more than 100,000 fewer deaths among the overweight in 2004, the most recent year for which data were available, than would have expected if those people had been of normal weight.

One expert, a Dr. JoAnn Manson from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, comments critically that “Health extends far beyond mortality rates… [The public needs to look at] the big picture in terms of health outcomes.” However, that’s what Health at Any Size advocates ave been advocating for year, rather than the simple-minded focus on BMI sorting people into “overweight” and “underweight” categories and automatically assuming these were “unhealthy” — and that the “normals” were “healthier”.

This new report gnaws at the seams of this construction, calling into question the meaning of normalcy and healthiness; although Dr. Manson and her “fat is bad” family are correct that some people experience quality of life issues (another huge construction), many don’t other than people — including doctors — pointing at them and yelling “fat bad, skinny good, you ugly and lazy and nasty”! Meanwhile, I think most people would rather not die this year, and would consider dying to be a sign of poor health (and something that also has some quality of life issues…).

Whither BioAnthro?

A Harvard sophomore has written an article in the Crimson about the demise of the biological anthropology program, which seems to have been killed off by the creation of a new “human evolutionary biology” (HEB) program which “was identical to biological anthropology in every way except that it replaced social anthropology and archaeology requirements with pre-med classes.” The results were predictable, there are now only three biological anthropology majors left.

As someone who graduated from a four fields anthropology program, I’m glad that I had to take courses in biological anthropology, and many of my friends in that program were similarly happy to have taken their share of cultural, linguistic, and archaeology classes. Still, it was clear that the programs were moving further and further apart. The “linguistic turn” in Anthropology long ago moved cultural anthropology further towards the humanities, but more recently the increasing importance of genetic data have placed additional strains on biological anthropologists. My colleagues told me that the amount of specialized training required to handle genetic science placed tremendous demands on them, forcing them to take far more biology courses.

It remains to be seen if the remaining four-field programs will continue to hold together. Another source of pressure seems to come from the success of specialized programs in medical anthropology and science and technology studies. These programs seem to offer a truly interdisciplinary approach to combining science and cultural anthropology whereas traditional four-field programs are increasingly loosing their raison d’être.

What anthropology isn’t (part II)

Its always seemed to me that scientists have a sort of double consciousness: the have a professional commitment to rigor, cynicism, and falsifiability. Scientists are supposed to try to prove their hypotheses wrong, not right. At the same time, part of the aesthetics of science is the beckoning image of a future in which we’ve got it All Figured Out. Faith — and fascination — in science and its potential as a method of knowing also runs deep.

Is it just me, or is this seems to be something that sociocultural anthropologists lack? We think — by which I mean “I find myself thinking” — that an article or paper is ‘good’ if it makes some sort of contribution to the literature, if it’s beautiful to read, or if it answers some pressing question. Of course my friends who are biologists or physicists or (gasp) even archaeologists think all of the above makes papers good, and add one more — papers can be promising. They can gesture to the future and show their arguments or data or methods might lead to it. They can say “we ran five trials and the results don’t really prove anything, but they suggest that in the future we may find that….” or “now that we have proved this method works we can imagine the huge impact it will have if we were actually to use it…” There is a sense, it seems to me, of being part of an imagined community that has a certain forward motion to which you are contributing.

Do anthropologists have a sense of their discipline moving ‘ahead’ or ‘forward’ or making ‘progress’ such that the rhetorical move of the beckoning future appeals to them? Or perhaps they don’t like the ‘scientistic’ assumptions that underlie this approach and prefer something that is more idiographic? Or just more pessimistic?
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Get your Evolution on!

Better than Wikipedia, More Fun than a Speeding Textbook, Able to make puzzling and intriguing connections in a single click… it’s an eyeball, it’s a bodyplan, it’s a rocket ship… no it’s The Real Evolution Debate. This is actually a fantastic article (if somewhat confusing in some of the genealogical details) because of the way it imposes organization on a field that is actually best evoked, recursively, by that tangled bank at the end of Darwin’s Book. Nonetheless, this What is Enlightenment Magazine (!) article has very clear descriptions of some of the fault lines in the existing debate over evolution, from the hardest hard-core Dawkinsonians to the kookiest of the ID camp, with a whole bunch of interesting stuff I’d never heard of in the middle. Just a theory, Indeed!

More Friday Funnies: Occupational Hazards

The Onion has a story I think we can all identify with: Archaeologist Tired Of Unearthing Unspeakable Ancient Evils. Like Edward Whitson, the interviewee, I find lightning-breathing ocelots to be one of the recurring annoyances of anthropological fieldwork.

“All I wanted to do was study the settlement’s remarkably well-preserved kiln,” said the 58-year-old Whitson, carefully recoiling the rope he had just used to clamber out of a pit filled with giant rats. “I didn’t want to be chased by yet another accursed manifestation of an ancient god-king’s wrath.”

Apocalypto Roundup

I haven’t seen Apocalypto yet, but there has been a lot of buzz on the blogosphere, so I thought I’d present some of the highlights.

Benjamin Zimmer at Language Log says:

Originally the buzz surrounding the film was mostly about Gibson’s choice to shoot the entire film in Mexico with local actors speaking Yucatec Maya. Now, of course, observers are more interested in speculating if the film will be dead-on-arrival at the box office thanks to Mel’s notorious anti-Semitic rant and DUI arrest last July. But linguistic issues are still getting some attention in the Apocalypto coverage, for instance in this Associated Press article describing the mixture of excitement and ambivalence among the Yucatec Maya community about a major Hollywood movie filmed in their indigenous language.

He then goes on to discuss the “foreboding Greek title,” after which he links to this post by John Lawler:
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Got Lactose Intolerance?

The New York Times has a nice, short, editorial about the complex dynamic between culture and evolution. The piece emphasizes a point in Monday’s story about a recent article in Nature analyzing lactose intolerance in Africans.

A team of scientists has now discovered that an important human genetic trait — a tolerance in adults for the milk sugar called lactose — might have developed in several East African ethnic groups 2,700 to 6,800 years ago. That is astonishingly recent.

It may also be the first genetic example of what researchers call convergent evolution in humans. In other words, lactose tolerance among African raisers of livestock arose independently of the same adaptive trait in northern European pastoralists. But there is something still more surprising about this discovery. The genetic change came about because of cultural change. The shift to cattle raising some 9,000 years ago gave an immediate survival advantage to adults who could digest milk, an ability infants usually lost as they aged.

We are used to the idea that species evolve because of changes in their natural environment. But part of the natural environment of humans is culture itself, and it is striking to think that genetic adaptation in humans has been driven, at least in part, by how humans have chosen to live.

Bruce Trigger

Just a brief note that the archaeologist Bruce Trigger passed away this weekend. He was sixty-nine years old. His, A History of Archaeological Thought was one of the best textbooks I ever read on any subject.

A few short notices on the blogsphere are all that I found (here and here), nothing yet in the papers. However, the recent publication of the festschrift The Archaeology of Bruce Trigger did offer an occasion for some comments on his legacy:

Indiana Jones’s adventures in archaeology had nothing on McGill Professor Bruce Trigger’s, whose achievements were celebrated recently with the launch by McGill-Queen’s University Press of The Archaeology of Bruce Trigger. Armed with his keen intellect and theoretical empiricism, Trigger, in a career spanning almost 50 years, didn’t need a bullwhip or the Raiders of the Lost Ark to make his mark on how archaeology is practiced around the world.

The book, edited by Ronald F. Williamson and Michael S. Bisson, contains articles written by an international Who’s Who of archaeologists outlining Trigger’s influence. It originated in a 2004 symposium at the Annual Meeting of the Society of American Archaeology. “There were at least 600 people there. I’ve attended these events for 30 years and I’ve never seen anything like it,” recalled McGill anthropologist Michael Bisson. “It was so easy to get contributors.” His co-editor, Ronald Williamson, a former student of Trigger’s and now president of Archaeological Services Inc. in Toronto, said, “Just look at Bruce Trigger’s bibliography. No other scholar has one like it. He’s a role model for all of us. An unattainable one, but a role model nonetheless.”

In a field full of almost arcane specialists, Trigger was truly a Renaissance man. His work ranges from ancient Egypt to the aboriginal cultures in northeastern North America. His two-volume The Children of Aataentsic (1976) was a revolutionary study of the Huron. It was groundbreaking because it placed the Huron at the centre of a reconstruction of the past and depicted them as a living, breathing people who were not merely the sum of their pot shards, but active participants during a process of colonization. Trigger’s ability to contextualize early cultures within European interpretations both predicted and contributed to the current thinking about including minorities who are outside the power centres of Western thought. The culmination of this approach is evident in his 1989 A History of Archaeological Thought, which traces how the discipline evolved from the politics of power. It has become the definitive textbook for students of the distant past.

Trigger, who has been seriously ill, said at the book launch hosted by MQUP publisher Philip Cercone, “This last year has been one of the happiest of my life. First of all, I’ve been able to spend time with my wife and family, which is always very pleasant. In June, I was made Professor Emeritus and now this book, The Archaeology of Bruce Trigger, is evidence in print of my colleagues’ appreciation.”

The last chapter of the book, “Retrospection,” written by Trigger himself, is a very personal autobiographical essay about how his early childhood preoccupations led to his life’s work. He writes of his sense of wonder at seeing pictures of Ancient Egypt in a book his father shared with him. When asked what it was about the ancient world that fascinated him, he replied, “I guess it was the mystery. My career has been about resolving mystery.”

Indiana Jones denied tenure

Read the “departmental memo”:http://mcsweeneys.net/2006/10/10bryan.html over at McSweeny’s. This comes via 3 Quarks Daily, which has their own “excellent analysis”:http://3quarksdaily.blogs.com/3quarksdaily/2006/11/indiana_jones_a.html of Indy’s depressingly imperialist epistemological practice — something I’ve “blogged about before”:/2005/06/21/the-indiana-jones-thing/.

Oriental Open Access

Last night I was searching for some information about a new volume a friend of mine edited that was recently published by the “Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago”:http://oi.uchicago.edu/, best known as the home of Indiana Jones or Robert Braidwood, depending on who you are. I not only found the volume, but discovered that the OI is providing “it’s entire catalog”:http://oi.uchicago.edu/OI/DEPT/PUB/SRC/Elec_Publications.html open access. This is great news. Philology is a very small discipline and the dilemmas of scholarly publishing are nowhere as clearly articulated as when your sales rep is trying to pitch “The Hittite Dictionary, Volume S, Fascicle 1, sa- to saptamenzu”:http://oi.uchicago.edu/OI/DEPT/PUB/SRC/CHD/CHDS.html to librarians from small liberal arts colleges with rapidly-disappearing budgets.

For anthropologists who are detail junkies, these publications are all fantastic to page through. Many of the entries in the Hittite dictionary are incredibly Borgesian for someone who doesn’t study Hittite (“said of the thigh of a sheep in a quasi-recipe: ‘the client kisses the thigh of the sheep which has been cut open (and) stuffed (with pomegranite and chopped meat)'”). But a few of the pieces from the press articulate very well with the work of non-philological anthropologists including, most obviously, archaeologists and middle eastern types. “Changing Social Identity with the Spread of Islam: Archaeological Perspectives”:http://oi.uchicago.edu/OI/DEPT/PUB/SRC/OIS/1/OIS1.html looks good, for instance. And of course the whole point of writing this entry is really to plug my friend’s book, “Margins of Writing, Origins of Cultures”:http://oi.uchicago.edu/OI/DEPT/PUB/SRC/OIS/2/OIS2.html, which is the proceedings of a conference which was unique for combining the work of anthropologists (mostly Chicagoans like Michael Silverstein, John Kelly, etc.) with that of philologists (Theo van den Hout, Peter Machinist, and Seth Sanders, the editor and my homie). It’s sort of Benedict Anderson in the ancient middle east — language and ethnic identity at the birth of alphabetic writing. Very cool and highly reccomended if go for those sorts of issues and are ready for the power of a fully armed and operation philological monograph.

And now for something completely different …

Archaeology. Courtesy of ex-Python Terry Jones, who has a piece in the Sunday Times on recent archeological finds regarding the so-called “Barbarians” of Northern Europe:

The Romans kept the Barbarians at bay for as long as they could, but finally they were engulfed and the savage hordes overran the empire, destroying the cultural achievements of centuries. The light of reason and civilisation was almost snuffed out by the Barbarians, who annihilated everything that the Romans had put in place, sacking Rome itself and consigning Europe to the Dark Ages. The Barbarians brought only chaos and ignorance, until the renaissance rekindled the fires of Roman learning and art.

It is a familiar story, and it’s codswallop.

He goes on to discuss helmets and shields, wooden roads, iron ploughshares, and other finds showing that Celts and other Northern peoples hadn’t just been waiting around to be civilized by the Romans.