Category Archives: Anthropology

Do not read this important message!

Spread the love

Do not read this until you have time for the equivalent of one or two chapters in a book. But if you can settle down for a while and you care about messaging, and your copy of “don’t think of an elephant” is across the room and you don’t feel like getting up, dig in. Also, please respond, tell me what you think. This is a set of thoughts in progress.

Here is my message: Use training in “Framing,” “Race Class Narrative,” or similar ways to improve your communication abilities to become a better producer of messages in the same way an athlete uses strength and aerobic cross training to become a better athlete. Message training is to the hopeful messenger what running 5 miles a day and pumping iron three times a week is to an amateur softball player. You will get better. Continue reading Do not read this important message!


Spread the love

The Third Worlding

Spread the love

One day I returned home and realized I had forgotten the shampoo. It was a devastating revelation.

You are probably thinking, “First World problem,” right? Well, it wasn’t because at the time I was living in the actual co-called “Third World.*”

Home, for me at the time, was one of the most remote non-polar research sites ever. “Going to the store” meant driving across nearly impassible roads for a day, a ride that would cause enough damage to the old Land Rover to require some $500 of repair on average. Then a few days in a sort of city (Isiro, Zaire) where I would spend considerable effort assembling the food and other supplies for a stint as long as I could manage, hopefully 4 to 6 weeks. Basically, as much as the old Land Rover could hold. Then, the trip back. So, going to the store was a week out of my research time, costly, and dangerous (because of the roads).

I had taken a shower the morning of my return to the field, at my friend Bwana Ndgege’s house, and left the shampoo in the bathroom. Yes, devastating.

What I did not know at the time was this. Later that very morning, Bwana Nndege saw the bottle of shampoo in the bathroom. He picked it up and walked out in front of his house, which was located in a part of the city where one might see people waking around on their daily business, but not too many people. Shortly, he saw a man walking down the street, and hailed him over. Bwana Ndege did not know this man.

“Say, do you happen to know the researchers that live in Ngodingodi, a research village down the road past Wamba, on the Mambasa road?”

“There is still a road there?” the man asked.

“Truth be told, not really a road any more, but they go town there with their land rover. The blue one with the different color doors. Know it?”

“No, not really, never heard of any of this,” the man answered.

So, Bwana Ndege handed him the shampoo, and said, “Well, anyway, could you pass this on to someone who might? They left it here this morning.”

“OK, no problem,” the man said, taking the shampoo.

Now, I should mention, that the good people of the Eastern Congo are averse to crime, and are honest. There are, of course, criminals there just like anywhere else, but such is not your average Zairois. At the same time, a bottle of shampoo is a commodity people save up for, feel lucky to have, and desire. Handing this man the bottle of shampoo with only the vaguest instructions or prospects like this would be similar to finding a random person on the street of an American city and handing them a short stack of loose ten dollar bills and asking them to pass it on to someone who might pass it on to someone etc. with the hope that it gets to a city 500 miles away, and to a particular vague address. It just would not work.

So what happened next?

About three weeks after I returned, sans shampoo, I was up in the hilltop research camp working on some notes, when I smelled something different. I asked one of the local people who worked there what that might be. She sniffed the air, and said, “Maybe the nomads?”

There is a local tribe called the Bahama (or Wahama, or just Hama) who rarely pass through with their small herds of cattle. Cattle don’t live in this forest, and can’t survive the parasites, but a couple/few times a year, a Hama man will pass through with a couple dozen head. Probably, some circumstance in his life and business makes passing through a zone where some of his cattle will get sick better than going some other route. One can imagine.

Anyway, she was right. The smell was the cattle coming down the road. We stood on the top of the hill and watched as a couple of dozen long horned Sanga cattle passed by, followed by a few straggling calves and a Hama man driving them. He glanced up the hill and saw me, which caused him to sprint up the path and issue a greeting.

Sanga Cattle. Not the Congo, but nearby Rwanda. From Wilson, RT, “Crossbreeding of Cattle in Africa” DOI: 10.15640/jaes.v7n1a3
“Hey, what’s new?” (Standard greeting in the area: “Habari gani?”)

“No news,” I replied. I asked our local employee to get the water bottle and cup, assuming he wanted a fresh drink. Which he did.

As he appreciatively downed the liquid, he asked me, “Is this Ngodigodi? The place where you white people work?”

“Yes, it is,” I replied, bemused that he would know that, since our presence was semi-secretive, in order to avoid drawing attention to our neighborhood, which would in turn potentially mess up the folks who lived around us.

That’s when he pulled out the bottle of shampoo and handed it to me. “Some guy up the road a ways told me to give this to you.”

In sum: First world problem and third world solution.

The thing is, this was not an unusual event. It was normal.

Well, it was a somewhat extreme and amusing, story-generating version of normal. Normal is more like I go to a guy’s store and say I want to exchange money, and he says he can’t but he knows someone who can, and it turns out that is also the guy I’m hoping to get a rebuilt fuel injector from, and he is the sibling of a person who is offering bags of ground cassava for pretty cheap, but they all live in different places but are visiting relatives, and somebody needs a ride across town. Three people, actually, with stops along the way. So, after three hours of driving around with people and stuff, three hours of meeting and greeting, counting out giant piles of near worthless local currency, goods and services being exchanged, a couple cups of tea and a chupa of beer or two, and at the end of the day, I end up completing an important bank transaction in the land without banks, my truck will get fixed, and we can eat for a month, all stuff I would have done in the US in less than 45 minutes, but here, it is a series of social events bound together with a ToDo list, and a full day’s activity.

Yesterday morning my wife stopped at her usual coffee shop to pick up the coffee she ordered in advance on line. The barista’s kid was sick so he was not there, and the shop was closed. But the person working at the adjoining business said, “yeah, he’s out, but I’ll tell him you get a free coffee tomorrow.” Then this morning, she stopped by and a third person who also did not work there said, “are you the person who gets the free crafted press? Here, saving it for you” and so on. A series of trust-based events to fix a supply chain problem, a supply chain problem that is an amateur version of the Big Giant Supply Chain Problem that every human being who lives anywhere that is not the First World experiences daily with all things, where it is simply the way it is, all the time.

A supply chain problem in the US could be called a First World problem, but really, it is something a little different. It is the thin but heretofore persistent veneer of the First World sloughing off in a spot or two, revealing the fundamental Third World nature of human society and economics, underneath it all. The great First World accomplishment is re-organizing the Third World reality so things run more smoothly and everything takes less time. The benefit is that a term like “supply chain problem” is a bemusing neologism rather than a daily descriptor for most Americans. The cost is the dehumanization of the system.

The Republicans broke one of our oldest, most stable, and most useful institutions.
Just hours after the coffee exchange, I happened to see in a newspaper report another neologism: Skimpflation. The New York Times muses: “The quality of many services has deteriorated since the start of the pandemic — a problem that the NPR show “Planet Money” has labeled “skimpflation.”” What the Gray Lady and its commentators do with this concept is to launch on a Biden-Leveling screed meant to keep the fight between the left and the right even-looking, which is a crime that paper commits every day. But what they hit on, accidentally, is the point I’m making here. Two points, really. 1) Third World life is just under the surface, and 2) If you get your expectations in order, this change we are having has some serious benefits; it isn’t all down side.

There is a third point. This is all Trump’s fault. And the Republicans. By ripping apart as many systems as they could, and by encouraging rather than fighting the Covid pandemic, they damaged or broke all the things that matter to most of the people, while leaving the rich intact. We are now more like Zaire/Congo than we ever were. (Like our postal system, on the verge of collapse. Many countries don’t even have a postal system. They just have this guy who happens to be walking down the street, or a muzungu with a working vehicle who happens to be going across town…) The Republican goal is to turn the US into a sea of Third World humanity with the supply chain ever broken, with a small wealthy and somewhat larger and less wealthy ex-patriot-esque community living behind walls in some serious priv. That is what Republicans always wanted, that is what they are finally getting.

The world where that story of shampoo happened unraveled, several times, in the intervening period between then and now. Hundreds of thousands have died violent deaths there, or worse, and there was even a systematic holocaust. A region about a third of the United States with a population of about a fifth of the United States has been living in economic strife and social upheaval because that top-heavy post colonial system eventually blows up. We will have that here as well, if the Third Worlding planned by Bannon, Trump, McConnell and the other Republicans is fully realized.

We could be rescued, of course, by a fascist superhero of some kind. Yes, this is Hitler’s playbook being applied. It is a very plausible scenario. Fear creates a movement, spiritual and physical terror, propaganda. Or, as they say in Mein Kampf, “Angst schafft Bewegung, spirituellen und physischen Terror, Propaganda.” Hitler’s program worked because Germany of the time was a broken society with a broken economy and a balkanized government. The White Supremacist program wouldn’t work well in an America that wasn’t beaten and damaged. Lucky for the Republicans, this handy dandy disease came along just in time to put us on the mat and hold us down long enough to create the beginnings of a Third World society, in which a movement could grow, spiritual and physical terror could be applied, and propaganda deployed. MAGA, insurrection, CRT/Replacement Theory.

Perhaps it is time to start stocking up on shampoo.


Note: The term “Third World” is considered inappropriate to refer to countries previously referred to as “Third World.” Untwist your shorts, I did not use that term to mean that in this essay. Thank you very much, re-read if necessary.


Spread the love

The Great British Baking Show Translator

Spread the love

Why do we like The Great British Baking Show? It lacks a chef who’s whole shtick is to be an asshole. The judges are fair, consistent, and open, even if the White Supremacists at The Sun are annoyed when a British-born Bangladesi from Bedfordshire wins. The judging process is meant to be entertaining, educational, and encouraging, if sometimes very baudy. The contestants reflect interesting diversity in both their own backgrounds and their diverse approaches to cooking. There is interesting and evolving interaction between the people on the show. We like the tent and the challenges it creates, especially in some seasons.

And of course, many of us watch the show to see the crashes.

Without further ado, a glossary. Add more to the comments if you’ve got em. Continue reading The Great British Baking Show Translator


Spread the love

Ritualized Language Can Be Inaccurate and Annoying

Spread the love

Rituals are things people do in a more or less consistent matter, often to the extent that the manner of doing is more important, or at least, more persistent, than any possible original reason for doing the thing. Ritualized behaviors are all around us, even in highly modern settings like medicine. As a possibly apocryphal example, I will refer to the story of the oven roast. Grandma had the best recipe for a roast beef, and passed it on to daughters, not by writing it down, but rather, by showing how to roast the beef, and the daughters wrote it down. That recipe was passed on, in written form, to grand daughters, and one day one of the grand daughters roasted the beef for the whole extended family for Sunday dinner. One of the younger folk marveled at the great roast beef, and someone else noted that it was grandma’s recipe.

“But what makes it so good, better than when I cook it,” an in-law said.

“I’m not sure. Maybe it is cutting the end of the roast off before putting it in the oven?” said the granddaughter who had done the roasting that Sunday.

“Yeah, grandma,” said the other granddaughter, causing grandma to sort of wake up and pay attention for a moment. “Why does cutting the end of the beef off before roasting it make it taste so good?”
Continue reading Ritualized Language Can Be Inaccurate and Annoying


Spread the love

Anthropology and Racism with Greg Laden, by Brycearonee

Spread the love

The Promethian Secular Frontier presents this excellent interview, which I enjoyed greatly, with, wait for it …. me!

Promethean Secular Frontier (PSF) is an educational/secular humanist page meant to provide a community for discussion on various topics ranging from the natural sciences (astronomy, physics, geology, biology/evolution, etc), to social sciences (psychology, sociology, anthropology, archeology, etc), to philosophy (religion/theology, epistemological, rationalism, morality, etc). Our goal at PSF is to bring concepts that are different for laymen audiences and make them understandable and easily digestible to people seeking knowledge. PSF also wants to create a community that promotes inquiry, skepticism, critical thinking and secular humanism.

Small correction: I was a faculty instructor at Harvard, but actual professor (later) at University of Minnesota.


Spread the love

What is Freedom?

Spread the love

Once upon a time in the Congo, there was a democratically elected President; Some* called him the “Big Man.” The Big Man was elected every seven years by a majority of 97.8%. The people loved him because before he became President, war was everywhere, and just before that, the colonial overlords and punishers were everywhere. You couldn’t get a break. Then after a brief interlude of a different duly elected president who died in an unfortunate execution, Big Man saw to it that there would be no more wars.

Well, not exactly. He had wars, and the people of the Congo were given the opportunity to get jobs fighting in the wars, but they were all in adjoining countries, and they were all paid for by the United States Congress. So no war without taxes, and that was good.
Continue reading What is Freedom?


Spread the love

History vs Now

Spread the love

At a low but consistent frequency, I see a remark on Twitter or Facebook like: “So, where were all yahoos objecting to the Polio vaccine??!!11!!?? That is a disease we wiped out with a vaccine, that could not have happened if antivax existed then!”

This would be a reasonable lament were it true. I recently read, in Chernov’s Washington: A Life, that George Washington was anti-vax, before he changed his mind based on evidence made clear to him, and then became pro-vax. That was in relation to smallpox, and the “vaccine” was actually “variolation,” which is to modern vaccines what a camel is to a modern RV. Same idea, different technology. Continue reading History vs Now


Spread the love

Italian Ate

Spread the love

The Italians are among the most amazing people anywhere in the world. Ask any Italian. But make sure the person you ask is not a Sicilian, or they will kill you.

OK, enough of the Italian jokes. Point it, where I grew up, there was a large and vibrant Italian community. Loud, even. When our state elected the first Italian ever elected to high office as governor, the Italian community rejoiced, and so did everyone else because he was a great governor (a trait that does not necessarily run in family lines, I quickly add). Continue reading Italian Ate


Spread the love

Music and expertise among hunter gatherers: Distant Echos with Yo Yo Ma

Spread the love

Distant Echoes is a very special documentary. I remember well when first came out. I briefly met Yo You Ma at the time, because he came to my Anthropology department for the first showing. The documentary was shown around for a brief time, then disappeared from the world (except for those of us who had pilfered copies to show in our classes). I just discovered it is now available, so I’m telling you about it.

I want to make this point, which is touched on here. Hunter gatherers, such as the Ju/’howansi in this film, typically have experts among their society, on various things. Medical/magico, various crafts (I knew an Efe knot tier everyone revered), making various tools or pottery, and music. As far as I know all hunter gatherer societies do a fair amount of music, and typically everyone participates. Music (singing and some instruments, always dancing) is practiced by everyone, but variation in talent exists, and it is (obviously) known of.

You hear Irv DeVore mentioned in the documentary. He was my advisor, and I was his last PhD student.

Yes, that is Richard Lee, and he and DeVore are the editors of the famous “Man the Hunter” volume.

By the way, you can’t figure out what the heck hunter gatherers are doing by watching. Or, often, asking. You have to immerse, learn, and do. That fact is not unique to foragers, it is true of all things that are hard to do universally. But for some reason people are surprised to find that this is true with foragers, and in this manner, a lot of bad anthropology has been done.

Enjoy:


Spread the love

Framing Is Greater Than Fishing

Spread the love

Framing is a concept important in understanding how language works. It originated in anthropology, developed in sociology, re-employed in anthropology and linguistics, and is now a major part of communication science. It is the new thing. Framing is a verb that has come to mean correctly, or effectively, communicating a message in a way that is convincing. It isn’t, really. Framing is part of normal day to day linguistic communication, and I assure you, it is possible to “frame” something in an utterly disastrous way. So, “I did framing today” does not guarantee you did not screw up your message. “I was a good framer today” means you believe you didn’t screw it up, and maybe did a great job!

Here, I want to look at one example of communication to critique it from the perspective of framing, to give an idea of what framing is all about.

Have a look at this bumper sticker:

A bumper sticker from the National Center for Science Education (NCSE).

Framing is always part of linguistic communication. Linguistic communication is a symbolic process, by which meaning is generated in a recipient, meaning that originated from another linguistic being, by reference to a commonly understood system of symbols and symbolic relationships. If I say the word “fish” you might think of some aquatic vertebrate animal easily available to your mind, maybe a trout. That is not because the word “fish” sounds, looks, or feels inherently fishish, but because we are communicating in a language in which “fish” is a shared symbol.

Which of the following words is not a word for “fish”?

se i?a
seekor ikan
hove
eng Geess

You would not know that the first three mean “a fish” while the fourth one means “a goat” unless you also know Samoan, Indonesian, Shona, and Luxembourgian. The link between the thing and the word is arbitrary. That is what makes the word a symbol for a fish, instead of, say, an icon for a fish (which would look at least somewhat like a fish, and might be hard to say out loud using voice).

But what if I meant the verb “fish” instead of the noun? Go get a fishing pole, a worm, and the other gear, and try to catch a fish. You would probably know the difference between the noun and the verb because of other parts of the sentence. Like I might say, “Hey you, go fish” (verb) as opposed to “Hey you, look at that fish” (noun).

The difference here is typically thought of as grammatical. The actual symbol being used is not really “fish” but rather the collection of words arranged in such a way to be identified as a noun, or a verb, or some other thing. This can be less obvious in English which tends to disassociate the grammatical elements compared to some other languages. (This is probably a feature of both Romance and Germanic languages generally). Thinking of words as distinct sets of letters set off by surrounding white space is a hindrance for English speakers when it comes to understanding the symbolic nature of language.

But what about this difference: I say to you “go, fish!” as you stand on the dock next to a boat loaded up with angling gear. This might compel you to get in the boat and start hunting for fish. But if instead of standing on the dock, we are inside sitting around a table and we have a bunch of playing cards in play, and I say “go fish!” we are probably playing the card game by that name, and your next move is to look for a card in the deck.

The difference between being on the dock and looking in the deck is a matter of framing. The symbolic utterance is “go fish” but it has multiple possible meanings. But there is something else involved in this act of symbolizing, that allows you to be more likely to correctly interpret my words. In this case, it is the physical context (out by the lake vs inside at the table) and the presence of certain artifacts (the paraphernalia of angling vs a deck of cards). That additional information keys the frame to either being about an outdoor activity involving fish or an indoor activity involving a deck of cards.

In the symbolic structure represented in the NCSE bumper sticker, what is the meaning of the three elements “EVIDENCE”, “>”, and “Misinformation”?

I believe you are supposed to take the “>” as a greater than sign, so EVIDENCE is greater than Misinformation. The details of the typeface (bold vs. not bold) reinforces this. The additional symbol, the Darwin’s Phylogeny drawing in the earthy sphere tells us this bumper sticker is about science and evolution, and is anti-misinformation, but never mind that for now. Just given the two words and the greater-than sign tell us all we need to know.

Or does it? Stick with the assumption that the symbols are symbols, ie., arbitrary in meaning. If so, why is “>” greater than? If this bumper sticker is meant to convince mathematicians that evidence is greater than misinformation, then yes, that makes sense, the meaning is clear, but this is also a waste of good paper and glue, because mathematicians, or sciency people who have some affinity to math, already know that. But what if the person interpreting this symbolic entity happens to be primarily a computer expert who programs in the scripting language bash? That might sound like a small, obscure, group, but it is not. Raise your hand if you know enough bash to know what two words with a “>” between them means! In bash, greater than is symbolized by “-gt” and the “>” symbol means something totally different. Like this, for example:

cat EVIDENCE

means spew the contents of a file named “EVIDENCE” to what is called “standard output,” which means onto the screen, normally. However,

cat EVIDENCE>Misinformation

means redirect from standard output, and copy the contents of a file named “EVIDENCE” to the end of the file called “Misinformation” and if that file does not exist, create “Misinformation” and fill it with the contents of “EVIDENCE”.

From the bash point of view, evidence is the basis for misinformation. This bumper sticker is, maybe, saying that evidence is bullpucky, or creates bullpucky, or the basis for bullpucky. This would be an example of the framing stepping big time on the message.

Here, the framing is pre-done, or primed, in advance. A person who is likely to see a “>” as a mathematical symbol understands the bumper sticker as meant. A person who spends all day with bash scripts may well get the same meaning, but their brain may alternatively go right to “>” as the redirect symbol, and figure that evidence becomes misinformation, or that misinformation is made out of evidence. That would be a bumper sticker fail.

On top of this, consider that even though the meaning of symbols is arbitrary, icons also exist as part of our linguistic communication. So, that green thing that looks like an arrow might be showing us that EVIDENCE becomes, or goes to, Misinformation. That is still a matter of framing, but in this case, more the absence of a key to set the frame up properly. The recipient of the message is simply trying to interpret what starts out as nonsense (as do all symbols until our brains figure them out), by giving a meaning of implied directionality to the thing that looks like an arrow, and coming up with a reasonably comfortable interpretation of the message. Evidence leads to misinformation.

I love the NCSE. I’m a big supporter. They have helped me greatly in the past. This bumper sticker, though … might be lesser than other options.


*Framing was originally formulated in the work of Anthropologist Gregory Bateson, though not everyone acknowledges (or knows) that. This was picked up and greatly expanded by Erving Goffman, and his work was sufficiently significant to attribute the origin of framing to him, though he was building on Bateson. Framing then spread as an idea across anthropology, linguistics, and philosophy, and was noticed by linguist George Lakoff and evile Republican strategist Frank Luntz, and applied to communication strategy. Biographies of the framing concept will vary, but this is my story and I’m sticking to it.


Spread the love

Maybe don’t use the term “Greater Minnesota”

Spread the love

In Minnesota we have an epic “rural-urban” divide. Most epic about it is the degree to which it is oversimplified. Our “rural” area is incredibly diverse. A big chunk of it consists of a gazillion acres of corn, and among the corn, the farmsteads and small villages that serve the corn. A somewhat larger area consists of a the very large wet spot left behind by the receding glaciers, also known as the “lakes region” but that is more marsh than lake, and within which we find a gazillion “cabins” ranging in size and fanciness from actual cabin to small castle. I would include in this zone the large state and national parks and preserves and other lands, and good portions of Native American lands. A somewhat smaller area is the mining zone which some call “the range” (but there are many “ranges” and even rangers are usually not in agreement on the exact geography, and by the way, this is not a mountain range … no mountains at all.) Continue reading Maybe don’t use the term “Greater Minnesota”


Spread the love

Graphic Fearless Primatology (book)

Spread the love

Check out Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas by Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks*, a graphic style book** about Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas. These were, as you probably know, the three women that dispersed around the world to study major great ape species (chimps, gorillas, orangs, respectively) in order to better understand human evolution.

Example page:

These are three reasonably good biographies (and a fourth, of Louis Leakey, linked to all three life stories), presented in an entertaining (and graphic, as in drawing) fashion. Adults will enjoy it, suitable for children.


**I struggled with what to call it. It is “graphic novel” format but it is not a novel, It is non fiction. So, is it “graphic non fiction”? The material from the publisher calls it “nonfiction graphic novel” which is clearly not a phrase I want to use unironically. Suggestions welcome.


Spread the love

Making Racism Uncomfortable

Spread the love

In his book, “The Conduct of Inquiry: Methodology for Behavioural Science,”* Philosopher Abraham Kaplan wrote “Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.” There are other versions of this hammer-nail link. In the normal course of things, the human mind is prepared to hammer new information into ready made spaces, an efficient but not always accurate way to think. That the brain works this way was not lost on the 19th and early 20th century philosopher, Charles Sanders Peirce. Peirce saw the human mind as an ever developing collection of “habits” formed of new experiences. A novel experience, usually involving some sort of linguistic or symbolic interaction, is associated with an emotional state that could not be confused with comfort (any other emotional state might due) until that kind of experience stopped being that way, and became habit-formed. Because of this individualized developmental process, individuals have ways of thinking that are normal, comfortable, generally unexamined, and the product of the culture in which we formed (and are still forming). Culturally embedded sexist and racist thinking are examples of this.

When new information comes along, the most comfortable thing to do is to place it into an existing framework. Over recent years, we seem to have gotten good at doing this using only headlines flashed across social media. So, if a headline has the words “gene” and “intelligence,” we conclude that more evidence for a genetic basic of intelligence, probably organized in categories of race, has been found. It does not matter that the article may have shown contrary evidence for a gene-intelligence link, and it seems to never matter that most modern research about genes and abilities do not make any reference to human divisibility into genetically discrete groups that could be called “races.” In our minds we have spaces for races and a need for genes, and a hammer at hand to put things in their place. The article headlines reinforce our pre-existing racist beliefs.

When a liberal-minded anti-racist thinker encounters evidence of race-based biology in humans, excuses are made. People of African descent can be celebrated for their amazing prowess in sports, and Jews (as good a “race” as any) have evolved and passed on among themselves measurably high levels of intelligence. And so on. Liberal guilt is assuaged when we hand out a few well placed goodies. This passive, seemingly (but not really) harmless version of race based thinking probably keeps a certain amount of racism alive in places where it should have withered in antiquity.

This is part of Adam Rutherford’s message in his new book, “How to Argue With a Racist: What Our Genes Do (and Don’t) Say About Human Difference.”*

This book does not really tell us how to argue with a racist. Well, it covers Part I of doing so. Don’t bring a knife to a gun fight, and don’t bring half baked notions and shoddy data to a debate with a white supremacist who is up on his Stormfront reading. Rutherford’s book can prepare you with key data, clear concepts, and a rich reference to the relevant literature. You’ll need to find the techniques of argument elsewhere.

Rutherford trashes the commonly held framework for race, genetics and DNA. The concept of race itself, that humans can be divided into a number of categories (“White,” “Black,” “Whatever”) does not come close to reflecting the underlying genetic and historical reality of our species. I’ve made this argument countless times, and I’ve read most of the other stabs at it as well, and Rutherford’s version is the best, and most up to date. Beyond this, Rutherford takes to task, with engagingly presented detail and impeccable logic, some of the key myths about race, such as the aforementioned kudos to African-heritage athletes, and more generally, the racialization of sports.

Consider runners. Rutherford documents the fact that there has not been a record-fast white person in the Olympics since the entirely non-white American running team boycotted the Moscow Olympics in 1980, and that was a fluke year. For endurance running, in subsequent years, it has been mainly Kenyans and Ethiopians who have won the vast majority of high stakes marathons. If you start with the assumption that there is a gene for “fast” or a gene for “endurance,” you’ll quickly find one for each of these traits, and the innate causality argument presents itself. But if you broaden the argument to full interrogation of the human species, to use the genetic model to explain fastness or endurance across the wide world of sports, the argument quickly dissipates. If certain genes lent great fast, or long distance, running prowess to dozens of specific populations around the world, why do only two such populations produce these runners?

This is how scientists are supposed to operate. We observe variation in something, then try to understand the variation. When an explanation explains only a tiny amount of the overall variation, it probably fails. A genetic argument for rapid or powerful muscles predicts that several different populations should dominate in certain sports, not just one or two out of hundreds. A parallel genetic argument regarding lung capacity, or adapting to living at high altitude, predicts that several different populations should dominate the marathon. But they don’t. Rutherford does what scientists do, and observes another possible source of variation that could explain why Kenyans and Ethiopians seem to always win marathons. Turns out, it is cultural. (You’ll find details in the book.)

How to Argue With a Racist provides a good summary of the history of “race science,” a term Rutherford asks us to stop using (there are no races, and this isn’t science). The author explores arguments about physicality, sexuality, morality, athleticism, and intelligence. I would like to have seen the section on IQ expanded, since it is important for documenting how nefarious race science has been especially in apartheid era South Africa. Here is where our role as variation explainers is possibly clearest. The full range of modern IQ values for any large American population is of the same magnitude of the range of historical IQ means over time, with the earliest values being low and modern values being high. (The “Flynn Effect.”) The same is true with human stature, by the way. Populations of US immigrants, as well as several European nations, gained considerable height and IQ points over nearly a century of time. Yet, the cemetaries are not full of non-reproducing short dim people. We did not genetically evolve tall stature and IQ’s of 100 on average. Genetics does not explain variation in IQ (or stature) over time, so we might wonder how well genetics explains either of these traits across space synchronously.

Also not mentioned by Rutherford is the racist physical anthropology of J. Philippe Rushton, and I’m not sure why. Perhaps Rutherford is not as comfortable with bones as he is with genes (human biology is subdivided into these areas). The short version of that story is that Rushton was in a long line of physical anthropologists who got very good at massaging brain size estimates so that they would correlate with largely useless statistics about intelligence, morality, and sexuality, across the three main “races” of White, Black and Asian. In this case, though, the variation in brain size isn’t simply explained better by a non race based explanation. The variation is made up, introduced by “adjusting” the already iffy data.

Another concept not covered by Rutherford is the role of culture and childhood. Interestingly, Rutherford does mention Henry Harpending, who was a member of the famous Kalahari Project led by Irven Devore (my PhD advisor) and Richard Lee, to study the ways of the Ju’/hoansi bushmen of Namibia and Botswana. Harpending was the geneticist on that project. Later in his career, he wrote a paper and a book dismantled by Rutherford on the intellectual superiority of the Jewish people. He was also known for making rather startling statements about race (I will not repeat here my conversations with him, but I can verify Rutherford’s impression of Harpending’s running commentary.) Another person on that same research project was Mel Konner, husband of Marjorie Shostak (author of Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman).* I believe it was Konner who first fully articulated the role of childhood in making a little human into a big one. (See his book The Evolution of Childhood: Relationships, Emotion, Mind*)

Childhood is a special derived feature of humans. It is deadly, costly, and often annoying. Clearly, such a trait must be maintained by strong selection. The things that make our fully formed brains so impressive, such as the use of language, human style “theory of mind,” and so on, arise in a typical individual during this period of slowed down maturation. We humans reach maturity years later than we should (compared to other apes) because of this costly childhood phase. We are who we are as individuals because of our culture, and childhood is the delivery mechanism for culture. If we want to explain variation across individuals or across geography in human behavior, look to culture and its development first, and if there is much left unexplained, consider genes. This is, by the way, how we can make two seemingly contradictory statements unironically: There is no such thing as race; yet race is an important human concept. Genetically, no races. Culturally, race is a possibility (but not a necessity).

Slavery of Africans did not breed better athletes, repression and widespread murder of Ashkenazim did not breed professors and Fed chairs, the genetic variation we see in humans is best explained by distance across geographic space and not by bounded internally consistent races, and there are very few cases of variable human traits that map neatly onto underlying simple variation in genes.

Rutherford’s book also addresses genealogy, both the kind you get when you do documentary research into your family tree, and the kind you get when you spit in a tube and send it to a commercial DNA analysis place. In some ways, that might be the most important part of the book, because of the extreme popularity of this exercise, and its link in some quarters to white supremacy. You will be amused, shocked, and amazed by this discussion, and you won’t believe some of it even though it is really true. Rutherford is a geneticist, and he understands and does a great job explaining the concept of genetic isopoint. An example: All living Europeans (as a quasi racial group that includes, for example, Albanians, Brits, Poles, and Ukrainians, etc.) have as ancestors every person who lived in Europe at the time of William the Conqueror.

The global isopoint is much more recent than people think, being only a few thousand years in the past, and post dating the earliest, and even some of the latest, regional origins of agriculture. Everyone alive at that time was either the ancestor of everyone alive today or the ancestor of no one alive today. So, the idea that an African foraging population split off into different regions, some of which developed agriculture or this or that civilizations, others remaining as foragers, etc. is simply not an accurate way to describe genetic history. Stephen Miller in the White House and a Maasai Woman in a traditional village in Tanzania share a set of isopointal ancestors about 3-5 thousand years ago, like it or not. And I’m sure she does not. I know you don’t believe this, but just read the book and come back and complain if you like. As the descendant of royalty, I don’t care.


Spread the love

Browner Nation USA

Spread the love

My family recently moved into what was long known to be the bestest of all public school districts in Minnesota, and also, long known to be the whitest in the Twin Cities area. We moved here because it is where my wife works, and we got lucky, tricking the owner of a run down old town house to sell it to us for about 30% off market value. So, whitest, most privileged, in what is considered to be a white state by people who have heard of Minnesota but never been there.

Every morning I go to the bus stop with my blond and pale-skinned Nordic son, who goes to the elementary school in this district. He is the token white kid born in the USA at that bus stop. The other kids are: Indian, of an Indian family, he was born in the US but none of his family were. Ironically, he has a thick Indian accent while his older brother, born in India, talks like a standard American teenager. Funny how that works. Two kids whom I had guessed were from Indonesia, not really English speakers a year ago when they moved here, but now are very American-English savvy. “Yes, everyone thinks they are Indonesian” their born-in-China mom told me. “But I’m Chinese and my husband is from Somalia.” Indonesia is, of course, about half way between the two, so that makes total sense. Then, one kid from Russia, speaks very little English, but it is fun to hear her speak Russian every day with one or two additional English words thrown in. Today it was “Bla bla bla kid’s play area bla bla bla.” Then, the little girl who speaks mostly French, just moved here from Quebec. My son’s school is white-minority, but probably plurality, with Asian (mostly south Asian) probably being second, with African-American, African-from-Africa, and Hispanic rounding out most of the rest. But, as noted, about half of the “white” kids are not from the US, or at least, their parents are not.

How many teachers and administrators are there in the school system who are not white? I’ve personally never met one but there is a rumor of an African American woman in the High School admin, and one of the teachers at my son’s Elementary school is African American, and maybe another one is kinda Hispanic. Not the Spanish Teacher, Mrs O’Reilly, though. She’s Irish American.

We hear about how “America will be not white majority in” some future year kinda far off. Most recent projections say 2045, but don’t believe it. It will be sooner. And, now there is a report that non-Hispanic white kid ratio has risen to about 50-50. From what I see, don’t believe that easier. That transition is happening too fast for demographers, who are always a few years behind in their data, to measure. The results of the 2020 census will be very interesting!

White supremacy is one of this country’s major problems. It is rearing its big ugly head these days for the reasons cited above. I think that problem will get worse before it gets better. But, in 20 years from now when the US is a very brown nation, most of the White Supremacists will learned to shut up, or will have died off. Or both.

We’ve been here before. This was once a white minority sub continent. Our brief history of mighty whiteness was a mixed bag, to be sure.

See: Older People Projected to Outnumber Children for First Time in U.S. History (2018)

Children of color projected to be majority of U.S. youth this year (2020)


Spread the love