Category Archives: Anthropology

What the heck is Vocal Fry?

Until a few minutes ago, I didn’t even know what the heck Vocal Fry is. Apparently some people have gotten really annoyed about it, as it is a speech mannerism that has emerged among young folks, who are always annoying, and especially females, who are always annoying. Apparently. (I also did not know that until a few minutes ago! I’m learning a lot of new stuff today!)

It’s been written up in a scientific journal (see below), in popular media, and it was brought to my attention by a facebook post of Debby Goddard’s. But of all the sources I’ve seen, the following video best describes the phenomenon for those who don’t already know what it is:

Speech mannerisms come and go, and they seem to be part of the cultural process of ever-shifting styles. Some have suggested (Trigger warning: Possible Pop Psychology!) that this is an ingroup-outgroup mechanism. If you don’t know the current mannerisms, you can’t sit at the Middle School lunch table with the other cool kids.

Here’s an interesting thing about speech mannerisms: When we Westerners see them in other cultures, we (well, not you and me, but those other Westerners) often glom onto them as markers for primitivism or as indicators of less than fully developed culture or even language. A great example for those who know it is the banter of the men in the film The Feast, a Chagnon film depicting a Yanomamo Feast (more about the feast here). The men are bartering, arguing, making alliances, and showing off, and it is done with a cadence almost as though they were rapping. This is on top of the already highly nasalized language, and with face and hand gestures that vaguely resemble Western children complaining about things. This makes them look like children. Of course, they are talking about important matters of local economy, about death and warfare, about relationships, marriage, and so on. They are not acting like children in their own culture but they are heavily invested in a highly stylized set of vocal mannerisms that are not easy for a Westerner (well, those other Westerners) to interpret.

ResearchBlogging.orgIt has been said that Vocal Fry is the new Valley Speech, and if so we can see the lilting rise at the end of every single sentence replaced with a dropping of tone and glottalization at the end of every sentence, on certain TV ads and in certain sitcoms.

Language log has a discussion here. Slate has something here. And, here it is in Science Now.

The Journal of Voice reports a study, Habitual Use of Vocal Fry in Young Adult Female Speakers.

The purpose of this study was to examine the use of vocal fry in young adult Standard American-English (SAE) speakers. This was a preliminary attempt to determine the prevalence of the use of this register in young adult college-aged American speakers and to describe the acoustic characteristics of vocal fry in these speakers. Subjects were 34 female college students. They were native SAE speakers aged 18–25 years. Data collection procedures included high quality recordings of two speaking conditions, (1) sustained isolated vowel /a/ and (2) sentence reading task. Data analyses included both perceptual and acoustic evaluations. Results showed that approximately two-thirds of this population used vocal fry and that it was most likely to occur at the end of sentences. In addition, statistically significant differences between vocal fry and normal register were found for mean F0 minimum, F0 maximum, F0 range, and jitter local. Preliminary findings were taken to suggest that use of the vocal fry register may be common in some adult SAE speakers.

You can access that paper here.

I think the most interesting finding may be one they are not too sure of based on the available data. Fry has been around a while, and has in the past been reported as a marker for larger scale chunks of speech, like paragraph-size utterances, but the new use is simply to fry-out the ends of sentences. If this turns out to be the case it constitutes an arbitrary re-use of an extant vocalization tool as a purely stylistic form rather than as a marker of meaning, since we probably already could tell where sentences ended. Also, it needs to be noted (as they do in the study) that this particular research does not identify focal fry as a thing done by females of a certain age. This study simply looked at females of a certain age, and did not attempt to identify the demographic parameters of the mannerism’s use.


More about Language here.

Wolk, L., Abdelli-Beruh, N., & Slavin, D. (2012). Habitual Use of Vocal Fry in Young Adult Female Speakers Journal of Voice, 26 (3) DOI: 10.1016/j.jvoice.2011.04.007

Photo of fries by Fklickr user Gudlyf

Palaeowomaen: Barbara Isaac, Women in The Field, and The Throwing Hypothesis

Following on discussion arising from this post, here is a revised discussion of throwing in human evolution.

The question of diversity in science, and more specifically, success for women, is often discussed in relation to bench or lab oriented fields. If you read the blogs that cover this sort of topic, they are very often written by bench scientists, for bench scientists, and about bench scientists. Which makes sense because most scientists probably are bench scientists.

Here I want to do two separate but related things. I want to discuss certain aspects of the nature of fieldwork in my area in the 20th century that have had a strong effect on the way women have pursued their careers (or not). Although I characterize this as the situation of the 20th century, this does not mean that the situation has or has not changed substantially since then. Simply put, I’m not discussing the current career related situaton for women in field paleoanthropology here in this post.

The second thing I want to do is to talk about a successful female social scientist with a strong connection to fieldwork in palaeoanthropology, as well as theoretical and administrative contributions. This person is also someone who straddles the boundary between classic mid- to late-Twentieth Century patterns of professional activity (in these field sciences) and more recent patterns. I’m speaking here of Barbara Isaac.

The link between these two topics is a bit tenuous but it is also meaningful. There is nothing stereotypical about Barbara Isaac’s career, and there is nothing short of admirable about her as a person and a scholar. My intention here is to not make strong links between these two parallel topics.
Continue reading Palaeowomaen: Barbara Isaac, Women in The Field, and The Throwing Hypothesis

Latest Bigfoot News

Robin Lynne of DNA Diagnostics has put out a press release indicating that

…A team of scientists can verify that their 5-year long DNA study, currently under peer-review, confirms the existence of a novel hominin hybrid species, commonly called “Bigfoot” or “Sasquatch,” living in North America. Researchers’ extensive DNA sequencing suggests that the legendary Sasquatch is a human relative that arose approximately 15,000 years ago as a hybrid cross of modern Homo sapiens with an unknown primate species.

The study, it is said, will report on 20 whole mitochondrial genomes and 3 whole nuclear genomes taken from “purported Sasquatch samples.” My efforts to ascertain from DNA Diagnostics exactly from where and in what manner these samples were obtained were not fruitful, but it is said that a colleague of Robin Lynne, Melba S. Ketchum, has property on which it is claimed

…that there are up to 10 Bigfoots living … she feeds them a variety of foods including Blueberry muffins, which they are particularly fond of.

So, that’s where the samples must be from.

According to the DNA study, the hybrid known as Bigfoot is the result of interbreeding between males of a non-human hominid and female humans. This is interesting because the only other anthropological information of which I’m aware regarding the mating patterns of Bigfoot suggest that the elusive hairy forest dweller is hypergynous in the other direction. Here, I refer to the case of the Almas known as Zana, a Central Asian bigfoot who lived in the village of T’khina in Abkhazia, Republic of Georgia, who joined a human family (first as a captive, then later as a domestic servant) who bred with a human male named Edgi Genaba, and who gave birth to human children who seemed, well, mainly human. (Important note: Many of Zana’s children are said to have died in infancy, suggesting a certain degree of incompatibility between the two species.)

As we await confirmation of the reported DNA results, let us keep an eye on Bigfoot’s blog for his opinion. He blogs under the pseudonym “Sasquatch” at Teen Skepchick.

Update: Palaeoanthropologist Lee Berger has offered, on twitter, a substantial award for convincing evidence of the DNA of Bigfoot:

UPDATE: There is now an interview with my old friend Todd Disotell on The Bigfoot Show about this find.

UPDATE: Skeptisquatch has issued THIS STATEMENT.

UPDATE: Film at 11!

We eagerly await the results!


Photo of Bigfoot by Flickr User gabegross

For more information on Bigfoot and his relationship to the Origin of the Skeptics Movement, you should read my novella, Sungudogo. Click here to learn more about Sungudogo.

Bigfoot Hoax Turns to Tragedy

I am very sorry, but it is hard for me to feel too badly about Randy Lee Tenley getting killed on Highway 93 on Sunday night in Montana. I do, however, feel badly for his family (if he has one) and for the two teenagers who hit him with their cars. A 15 year old driving down the highway at night hit him first, which caused some swerving around of various vehicles, and that’s when a car driven by a 17 year old ran him clean over.

Randy Lee Tenley had dressed himself up in a “Ghillie Suit” which is a form of camouflage used by snipers and other soliders so that they look like a bush. Standing up and walking around in such a thing makes you look like bigfoot. But, the point of a Ghillie Suit is to disuse the visibility of the lines you would normal make (our eyes are good at following lines) so that you blend in, or, essentially, disappear. So, when you walk out into traffic in the middle of the night wearing a Ghillie Suit, you look like nothing and some kids driving down the road who did not need to have killing someone be part of their lives forever run your sorry ass right over.

The story is here.

A Ghilie Suit being properly used. Photo by Flickr user vuokrakamera (http://goo.gl/b4jHY).

A word or two about tobacco, and some neat and new research

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgOver the last few weeks I’ve run into a few misconceptions about tobacco, as well as some interesting news, so I thought I’d share. If you already know some of this, forgive me, not everyone else does.

First, tobacco, Nicotiana tabacum, is a member of the Solanaceae family of plants, which from a human perspective has got to be one of the most interesting plant families out there. It includes Belladonna, peppers, potatoes, and tomatoes. So, from this one family of plants, you can kill your neighbor, have a nice meal, and a smoke a cigar afterward.
Continue reading A word or two about tobacco, and some neat and new research

The argument that different races have genetically determined differences in intelligence

The presumption being examined here is that humans are divisible into different groups (races would be one term for those groups) that are genetically distinct from one another in a way that causes those groups to have group level differences in average intelligence, as measured by IQ. More exactly, this post is about the sequence of arguments that are usually made when people try to make this assertion.

The argument usually starts out noting that there are dozens of papers that document group differences in IQ. I’ll point out right now that most of those papers are published in journals with editorial boards staffed in part or in total with well known racist scientists such as J. Philippe Rushton. That fact is not too important to what I have to say here, but since the usual argument about race and IQ starts out with “Hey, look at all these papers in these great journals” it is worth noting.

Heritability of IQ measures is then proffered, often in reference to the famous “twin studies” which show a high heritability for IQ. Heritability is a measure derived from covariance between relatedness and some phenotype. Heritability is not genetic inheritance. It is scientifically incorrect and probably academically dishonest to assume or insist that a high heritability value means that something is genetic. It often is, but it need not be. The truth is, that there are many things that could have a high heritability value but that we know are not genetic, so we don’t make a heritability estimate. There are other things for which we have strong a priori biological arguments that hey are genetic, and we thus make heritability estimates as part of the research on those things. Then there are things that we don’t know the cause of, and in those cases, making an estimate of heritability is useful as an exploratory tool. But, and this is important, arriving at a high value for heritability does not indicate genetic inheritance.

If you apply the methodology of the twin studies to language, you would find that having the capacity of language is of a similar heritability of having one head (as opposed to zero or two heads, for instance): Undefined. The number of heads does not vary, and heritability is a measure of covariation (I use the term “covariation” in a non-technical sense here). If you apply these methodologies to what language someone speaks, the heritability for that trait is very high, much much higher than for IQ. If you apply the same method to heritability of geography (the lat/long of where someone lives), it is even higher, especially for babies or people living in traditional societies.

Does everyone understand why that is the case? Familial or cultural causes may be very strong but not genetic. Using this method, if high heritability means that IQ is genetic, then so is which language you speak and so is what part of the world you live in.

The smoke and mirror part of this is equating heritability with inheritance. We speak the language we speak because it is the language of the culture we grow up in, not because of a gene for speaking French vs. a gene for speaking Sumerian.

This makes sense because we know how a person acquires language, so no one even tries to measure heritability of which language someone speaks. (Same with heritability of geographic location. It would be an absurd measure.) But people make the assumption that intelligence is inherited. Why do they make that assumption? Because lots of people for a long time wanted to, and in some cases, needed to believe this so, and thus it has become part of our culture. It is part of our uncriticized received knowledge, along with other racialized ideas and various sexist ideas, and so on. But recent research (meaning over the last 30 years) has shown us that other than in the case if inherited neuro-developmental diseases, it is impossible to imagine how intelligence can be inherited in such a way as to explain the variability we see in the most inter-group differences. Maybe a little, but not that much. That there is some genetic component is not impossible, but it is very hard to maintain the idea that it is genetic and ethnic, or genetic and racial, or genetic and explanatory of more than a few IQ points in most people. There are no genes, there are no developmental mechanisms, that have been identified. So, to many the issue of inheritance (not heritability, but inheritance via genes) of intelligence is not really an issue.

However, there are many who still need to hang on to this belief. Why they need to hang on is itself an interesting question. I can’t say for a given individual but I’ve been engaged in this conversation for 30 years and in my experience it is very often because of a desire to support a racialized model of human behavior.

The evidence for the usual IQ/Group/Race/Ethnicity/Genetic model we see is always given first as group differences. When the language and geography analogs are brought up, we always see the twin studies brought in. But twins are raised together in the same environment. So they have the same language, the same cultural customs, the same geography etc. That they have the same IQ is not surprising.

There is an interesting set of interactions between familial effects and environmental effects with any of these twin studies results, but it has to be understood that heritability is not inheritance. If you have a genetic mechanism that is real (not inferred or made up) that integrates with a developmental process that can manifest a phenotype based on a genotype (that is real, not made up or inferred) then you can translate heritability to genetic inheritance, roughly. We seem to see this in a number of psychological conditions/diseases, for instance, and obviously we see it for a lot of physical traits. If on the other and you have familial effects that would cause offspring to resemble their parents without genes then cultural/social/familial context is more likely to be the explanation.

Variation in IQ across groups in a single society (like in the US) (which is not the same as a single culture) is known to be primarily caused by SES and home environment, and is indicated by such things as parents’ educational level. Educational levels of Americans have been going up for a hundred years. So has IQ. IQ can jump up in a generation if one generation is educated and changes home environment and SES etc., and thereafter those offspring and grand offspring have higher IQ’s. No new alleles were introduced to cause those changes. Cultural differences were introduced, and we have a concept of the mechanism by how that works.

The difference in IQ across time within a given population is sometimes much greater than the difference in IQ across the usual groupings of people (i.e., “race”). When scientist seek societal, cultural, nutritional and educational explanations for differences in IQ they find them easily. When scientists who have this need for group differences to be genetic seek those genetic explanations for differences in IQ they have to invent new and shall we say “interesting” statistical techniques to justify how their usually cooked data underlie their biologically implausible explanations. The latest is “there are thousands of genes and there are so many we can’t see the pattern,and that is the pattern.” Funny that. The number of genes with tiny variants that “must be” the cause of variation in IQ is going up and up and up and the number of genes that are estimated actually exist in the human genome has gone way down. At this point, we are very close to saying that individual variation in IQ is best explained by … which individual you measured the IQ in!

Let me explain that in another way, which is an analogy though it looks like a statistical argument (don’t mistake the two). If I show you two points on a graph, I can describe a line indicating their relationship with the formula Y = mX + b (the formula for a line). I can use the same formula to describe the line representing a scatter of points, but the line might be a poor describer of the scatter. How bad it is may be indicated by a statistic (a correlation value or a “R” value or something). But, if I change the formula to Y = m1X1 + m2X2 + b then I get a curvy line that may match the points better. But it will still be imperfect. But, if I add even more coefficients so there is one coefficient per point, then I go back to a (nearly) perfect describer of the line once again. Because, I’ve drawn a line (more or less) that starts with the first point, then goes to the second point, then to the third point, etc. etc.

And that would be cheating.

And that would be pretty close to what some of the more recently implemented statistical models of genes and IQ do. If I include every allelic variation in humans (hypothetically) and correlated that to individually measured IQ, I’ve drawn a line from one human’s genetic value (along one axis) and IQ value (along another axis) to the next person, the next person, and then the next person so on down the line. At this point, ladies and gentlemen, we show that IQ correlates (almost) perfectly with fingerprint.

The next argument in favor of the genetic inheritance of intelligence is often to link IQ to head size or brain size. However, much of the data related to this research is very made up or cooked, and the causal arrow is problematic. Also, a third or fourth level factor in IQ is diet, which may affect brain size. Separately, a primary factor in skull shape and bone thickness is also diet (though in totally unrelated ways) which in turn is ethnic/regional… Bottom line, the system is complex, but the data do not support the assertion unless you make a big part of the data up, and Rushton has famously done so.

Another argument that is often made to salvage the genetic determination (by racial group) of intelligence is the between national data that has been more recently assembled and foisted on us. This is no different than ethic groups in the US. IQ is a standard measure, and groups vary in this value. Other measures will also result in variation. The variation is there, and the group level distinction is there. But finding more examples of that does not lead towards the conclusion that this is racial or genetic. Across nations we see a lot of measures that we know change (often in predictable directions) over time with industrialization or various other transitions. National IQ, fertility, various health measures, and so on all do this. And, of all these measures, the most suspect in terms of quality of data is IQ (excepting some more obscure health related data). These IQ comparisons don’t tell us much.

The final argument in favor of the inheritance of IQ via genes passed on from parent to offspring is usually to cite the twins separated at birth studies. These studies, however, simply do not show this. These twins are not separated at birth in the way most people think they are. Usually, the twins knew each other as they grew up, and/or knew commonly held family members. They lived in the same culture, usually in the same city, often in the same neighborhood, and sometimes even in the same physical house. They went to the same school and had the same diet. Separated at birth in these studies usually means grandma and grandpa took one of the twins to raise because mom and dad were strapped. Grandma and grandpa may have lived down the street. The kids may have attended the same school, even the same classes, and spent a lot of time together outside of school.

I was separated (though not from birth) from my older brother, because he lived on the second floor of a two family house, and I lived on the first floor. By the exact criteria of the twin studies, we would be counted as separated because it happened early enough in my life. But, that household I grew up in was a single household that happened to be set up in a two family house. The two floors were connected by an internal rear stairway that led to locked doors (had we locks). I was rather shocked to realize at one point as a child that we were the only family in my neighborhood with two kitchens. (Or two bathrooms, for that matter.)

There may be a small component of intelligence that is inherited, but it seems to be swamped by other factors. The insistence that genes determine intelligence and that these genes are divided up in our species by groups that are often defined racially is usually misguided, and is scientifically wrong. The supra-ultimate argument, after the final argument, brought up in this sort of conversation is usually that the anti-racist argument is a Politically Correct argument, yada yada yada. But it is actually a scientific argument, and the racialized intelligence argument is not. Making the latter a politically incorrect argument.

Which is kind of funny.

Tradition!!!!

i-bd270ae2df5d82618e27c3a480cd153e-290px-Kyle-cassidy-steampunk.jpgTradition. Not just a song from Fiddler on the Roof.

You know the refrain: “The Papa, the Papa! Tradition.” It’s a great play but it is firmly rooted in the patriarchy, as “tradition” often is.

There are many ways to define “tradition” and we can look it up somewhere and have a flameware over dictionary meanings if you want. But instead I’ll tell you what I think the word means, roughly, generally, and subject to revision.

Continue reading Tradition!!!!