Monthly Archives: April 2013

Does Your Genealogy Reveal Amazing Anthropological Stories?

I gave a talk at the Brookdale Public Library last night as part of the celebration of DNA day. DNA Day, or DNAD for short, was created about the time of the “completion” (more or less) of the Human Genome in 2003, and is set to be on the date of the publication of the famous research on the structure of DNA.

The point of the talk was to link behavioral biology and the anthropological study of kinship with the practice of conducting personal genealogy. There was a time when I did a fair amount of genealogical research, in connection with historic archaeology, which in turn was part of writing environmental impact assessments for publicly funded projects such as sewer systems, power plants, road improvements, and such. It is useful to know something about the people who lived on affected properties (or in affected buildings) back in the 18th or 19th century when assessing the potential significance of cultural resources, and genealogical research is part of that. Also, property research and genealogical research often go hand in hand.

At the time, I noticed a few interesting possible patterns emerging in the genealogical data, though I was never able to devote enough time to any of the projects to really narrow them down. For instance, one pair of families that lived mostly on or near Cape Cod, Massachusetts seemed to intermarry more than one might expect, almost resembling the time honored practice of “sister exchange” in some cases. Also, the two parallel families, who frequently engaged in property related ventures together, seemed to mainly follow two distinct geographically based economic strategies; one family lived mainly in the interior and farmed (among these farms was the first commercial cranberry operation in the US) while the other family lived mainly on the coast and engaged in shipping. Among the latter, one individual held the record for a time in the number of days to leave a Massachusetts port in a clipper ship, sail to Canton to load up with stuff, and return.

For decades, cultural anthropologists fixated on kinship (and associated marriage patterns and inheritance rules) as a central organizing principle in culture. This made sense for a lot of reasons. It seemed that any given culture had a sterotypical system of specifying relationships between people. These systems were not random or even that diverse; all the kinship systems studied across the world could be categorized into a few standard patterns. Perhaps one of the most striking things to European and American (Western) anthropologists was the frequent reference to kinship. In some societies, many individuals were referred to almost exclusively by kinship terms, with individuals’ given names rarely uttered. Social relations beyond just marriage or inheritance seemed to be determined by kin relations. And so on.

Over time, however, a couple of things happened. Three, probably. For one, even though all societies seemed to have a kinship system and all kinship systems could be classified into a short list of patterns, it also seemed that the kinship system observed by different anthropologists visiting a given “culture” at different times and places was sometimes different. Either kinship systems were more diverse or dynamic than previously thought, or their role in organizing society was weaker than imagined, as a system that is in flux would seem a poor starting point for a culture’s organization. Also, anthropologists were confused and confounded by the apparent fact that only some kinship systems mirrored an underlying biological reality very well. Many societies had and “underdetermined” system where, for instance, all the women and men in the generation above “ego” were called mother and father, respectively, even though they could not all be mothers and fathers. Other systems were “overdetermined” whereby individuals seemed to be classified into categories that broke atomistic biological systems down to smaller parts. Finally, it became a pattern in cultural anthropology to build up a way of thinking about culture and then, no matter how useful that way of thinking became, to toss it out and replace it with another. Models of culture among anthropologists were, it turns out, more dynamic than kinship systems within cultures!

About the same time that cultural anthropologists were both figuring out kinship and beginning to discard it as intractable or uninteresting, biologists were busy linking genetic relationships to behavior, a form of study that would eventually take shape in Sociobiology, Behavioral Biology, and Darwinian Anthropology, and Evolutionary Psychology (and no, none of those terms are really interchangeable, though there is overlap). Eventually it would become apparent to many of us that the “overdetermined” kinship systems actually do reflect an underlying biological reality, and we could understand why a patrilineal system with female exogamy and prescribed cross cousin marriage made sense from a behavioral biological point of view. Too bad the biologists and the cultural anthropologists were not more in sync, because we might have had some interesting conversations.

When a married man dies, his wife may become the wife (maybe the second or third wife) of his brother. When a man is married to more than one woman, it is more convenient for many involved in that relationship if at least two of the women are sisters. Under some conditions, more than one man will reside with and father the children of one woman, and in some cultures that is openly acknowledged, while in most, it is not. As mentioned earlier, women are often exchanged between patrilines over time, sometimes in the practice of sister exchange. Cousins, in some cases a particular kind of cousin, are often preferred marriage partners. And so on and so forth. These are all practices that have been identified in a number of societies. These practices are often explicitly defined, even given a name. There is probably a reasonable correspondence between a society’s economic base (or other factors) and whether or not any one of these practices is found. These things are seen all around the world.

However, most of these practices are explicitly or implicitly either prohibited or frowned upon, or simply ignored and unacknowledged, in Western society. Western society is one place where a fair number of people engage in systematic genealogical research. What this means is that when people do this genealogical research, they may be missing something, missing patterns, revealed by the relationships in their ever growing and ever more detailed family trees.

The other day, Amanda, Julia and I watched a film made by my sister, set in a geologically complex, active, and interesting part of the world. As someone with more than a passing knowledge of geology, I was enjoying the background as much as the foreground in that film. I especially appreciated the amazing thrust fault that showed up in many of the scenes, not to mention the broken ancient peneplains raised up by mountain building. At one point I stopped the film, rewound, and made everyone else notice these details! (I know, that must have been annoying.)

This is how I feel about Americans doing genealogy. As an anthropologist and behavioral biologist, I want those folks to at least have a chance to notice some of the interesting things they must be seeing here and there in their research.

After my talk audience members shared their observations. In fact, each of them could point to things in their genealogies that at first perplexed them, but that now they suddenly felt a better understanding of.

And, as individuals, they will never look at their cousins in the same way again.

Image from Wikipedia Entry on Kinship

The Truth About Global Warming’s Famous Slowdown

Dana Nuccitelli writes:

The rate of heat building up on Earth over the past decade is equivalent to detonating about 4 Hiroshima atomic bombs per second. Take a moment to visualize 4 atomic bomb detonations happening every single second. That’s the global warming that we’re frequently told isn’t happening.

That’s Dana’s opening paragraph in the inaugural blog post in a new two-person blog called Climate Consensus – The 97% which started up today at The Guardian. The other blogger is my friend John Abraham.

Both of these authors are climate scientists. Dan is famous for his work at Sketpical Science Blog, and John is famous for his wrangling with Lord Viscount Fakir Christopher Mockable-ton of the United Kingdom. This is going to be a good blog.

Click here to see the first post and learn about how global warming is really, honestly, truely continuing despite all this crap you may hear about a hiatus.

Does last Saturday’s record low at MSP signal the end of global warming?

No, it does not

We’ve had a winter-like spring here in Minnesota, and it was darn chilly on Saturday. In fact, we had a record low of 21F.

Paul Douglas, of Weather Nation did some digging: He tells us that while that was the first record low since 2004, there have been 42 record highs since Januray 1st of that year. The highs win. The Twin Cities is warming, and in this regard, we are not atypical! Global warming is real, folks.

Congressional Republican #Fail

Every disaster in the US has at least three Congressional representatives associated with it (2 Senators, one House rep). Those representatives have at least two roles: 1) Causing/avoiding the disaster or making it less/more bad, to begin with, by way of their efforts in congress; and 2) Helping or not helping once the disaster happens.

The three representatives for the West Texas disaster, in which scores (apparently) were killed, helped to make the disaster happen by, among them, failing to support OSHA or voting against OSHA funding. This is part of the reason that the plant has not been expected in so long most of the workers there were probably not even working there then.

The three representatives for the West Texas disaster have harmed other people in the US, in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, for instance, by voting against and helping to delay Sandy Aid.

Now, the three representatives are pushing hard to get lots of aid for West Texas. Ironically, some of the money they are demanding will go to other things than aid for the current disaster. The Sandy Aid package also contained things that were not directly related to the Sandy disaster. I’m not sure if a disaster bill has been passed any time in the last century or so that did not include some “earmarks” … were it not for earmarks, the congress would really accomplish nothing at all for years on end. .. it is a system that is broken, but works. Nonetheless, the West Texas reps have decided that this system would no longer be used for people in districts other than their own, but would be used for their own district.

The Boston Bombers: Something for everybody

Well, not everybody. First lets talk about some losers. Someday a brave journalist will ask the FBI why they had one of the suspects in sight a couple of years ago but this still happened. Chances are there is a very good answer and we should not be mad at the FBI for this, but at the moment, even asking the question will get people screaming at you. Someday a brave journalist will work out the details of how the State and Boston Police managed to miss the guy hiding in the boat a short distance form their dragnet. Chances are there is a very good reason for this, and we should not be mad at the cops, but at the moment, even asking the question will get people screaming at you. Someday (well, this is already happening a little) people will ask questions about the value of online entities such as 4Chan and Reddit as a venue for crowd sourcing police work. While these two groups of Ineternetters were busy accusing innocent people of being mass murderers and terrorists, but before they were shown to be abysmally wrong and having acted abysmally inappropriately, there were bloggers and commenters extolling the virtues of things like the “4Chan Think Tank” (makes me laugh) and handing out knighthoods to Redditors. In this case, crowd sourcing was not demonstrated to be a good thing. It is demonstrated to be a very bad thing. Then there’s Twitter. I for one am tired of hearing about how major news media has been replaced by Twitter. Now, don’t get me wrong; I’m not standing up here for major news media. They’ve got mondo problems. But Twitter was an utter failure during this event, for the most part. A great ocean of misinformation flooded the Internet mostly via Twitter, and served no good purpose at all.

But there are winners. Twitter also won the day, in a small way, in that the Boston Emergency Management Services and the Boston PD used it effectively (it seems) to convey information to a lot of people. My daughter had just arrived in Boston in time for the mayhem, and I was able to use those twitter streams to text her information as she hunkered down in the airport trying to salvage her plans, for instance.

Another winner was the police authorities, despite the shortcomings mentioned above. They did in fact get the two guys. Unfortunately, they did so with loss of life and with injury among their own, which underscores the fact that when the police “win” they often do so at an unthinkable cost.

But none of that is what I originally meant by “something for everybody.”

After the bombing and before the killing and capture of the suspects, people wondered what sort of person or entity was behind this. Some people were quite loud with their speculation, and every single case of blithering blathering of this sort that I observed had only one message: Arab or Middle Eastern Terrorists did this, bomb them now! The people who wondered if this was domestic terrorism or something else speculated more quietly, often privately. Almost all the conversations I engaged in of this sort during the “manhunt” were in private.

So, the speculation included “Islamic Middle Eastern Terrorist” and “Home grown Timothy McVeigh style terrorist” and my favorite, and to my knowledge I was the only one who said this, “Kids who are jerks and thought this would be rad.”

Turns out everybody was right.

The two terrorist suspects are from the “Middle East” if you define that region somewhat more broadly than is usually done. They were Islamic. But they were also relatively American. And they were two kids who seemed to think this would be rad.

A brief digression for perspective: Those not from working class Greater Boston Area (especially Cambridge, Somerville, Watertown and Belmont) should know that the percentage of average boys and girls one runs into on the street, in the store, or in school who are green-card holding individuals, or who were born in another country, is very large there. Well, in certain neighborhoods it might be low, but not where these folks lived. I lived a few blocks from where the big shootout happened. I once house sat just up the street from the house with the boat in the back yard. I also lived near the Cambridge location where relatives of the bombers lived. And so on. During my time living in the Boston area, my landlords and at least of my immediate neighbors (upstairs, downstairs, or next door) included people not born in the US 100% of the time, with the minor adjustment that although my neighbors near the house with the boat were, I think, all American born, the home owner was from Asia.

The two suspects were also kids who lived in the Boston area who might well have been 4Chaners or Redditers or bloggers (anyone know yet?) and at least one had a twitter account that looked just like a lot of teen age or 20-something dumb-ass MRA’s accounts, nothing special other than being a jerk like a lot of guys are. There is a reasonable chance that religion together with the whole Y-chromosome thing and other factors combined in a bad way with some sort of socio-(or whatevero)-pathy and that if any one of these elements was missing we’d have had a different result. Minor crime sprees, serial date rape, that sort of thing. But the truth is these guys were dumb-ass American dudes with Middle Eastern connections, Islamic religion and something badly wrong with them, but not so badly wrong, necessarily, as to wonder and worry about how easy it is for two dumb-ass dudes to go from being miscreants to murderers.

We don’t really know, yet, who Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev really are/were. The were born in what might be the most obscure of the this-or-that-istans, Kyrgyzstan. That makes them Asians, but since they are ethnic Chechens, putting their heritage in the Caucasus, they are Caucasians! Kyrgystan is a democracy-ish country with Islam as the main religion with a sprinkling of Russian Orthodox. It is a former Soviet state.

Tamerlan shares a name with Timur the Lame (aka Tamerlan), the mongol conquerer who was known as one of the most terrible of the terrible, and had ancestral connections to Genghis Khan. He conquered vast regions and he was the guy who burned down a remote monastery in Georgia, a locality now known as Dmanisi, where important hominid finds were made. I mention this because my daughter has lived and worked at Dmanisis, with her mom, for years, and they were stuck at the airport during the manhunt for namesake Tamerlan. Everything is connected to everything else.

But I digress. The Tsarnaev family moved to the US in 2002. The kids were born in 1993 and 1986, so they spent a fair amount of time in their homeland and also Russia, and a fair amount of time in the US. They were classified as refugees and were permanent residence of the US. They went to Ringe and Latin (I lived in that high school district for a few years … if it wasn’t for Academic Nomadism, Julia would have been Dzhokhar’s classmate). They were each involved in sports of combat in school (wrestling or boxing). One of them went to Bunker Hill for some college. In other words, they were very typical Bostonians.

Except for one or two details, perhaps.