Tag Archives: Anthropology

Culture and Tradition

Science Education Researcher Marie-Claire Shanahan, primatologist Eric Michael Johnson, and I joined Desiree Schell on on Skeptically Speaking to have a conversation very apropos this time of year in The West: The concept of Tradition. We said a number of very smart things which you can hear by clicking here and listening to the podcast.

I should mention that all four of us will be at Science Online 2012 in January.


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.

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Driving The Patriarchy: Demonic Males, Feminism, and Genetic Determinism

Behaviors are not caused by genes. There is not a gene that causes you to be good, or to be bad, or to be smart, or good at accounting, or to like bananas. There are, however, drives. “Drives” is a nicely vague term that we can all understand the meaning of. Thirst and hunger are drives we can all relate to. In fact, these drives are so basic, consistent and powerful that almost everyone has them, we share almost exact experiences in relation to them, and they can drive (as drives are wont to do) us to do extreme things when they are not met for long periods of time. While eating disorders are common enough and these affect a hunger drive, it is very rare to find a person thirst themselves to death.
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“Monkeys on our backs” by Richard Tokumei will not even make good toilet paper

Richard Tokumei has written a book that is so bad he is ashamed to put his own name on it. “Richard Tokumei” is the pen name of a ‘writer/editor in Southern California [with] degrees in Humanities and Phychology from the University of California Berkeley” and he has produced a book designed to anger everyone who hears of it in order to create needless sensation and thus, sell copies. Which, once people get their hands on, will make rather low quality toilet paper.
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On the Move

On the Move: How and Why Animals Travel in Groups, edited by Sue Boinski and Paul Garber is a compendium of academic research on … well, on how and why animals travel in groups. Notice of this book is a fitting start to a series of reviews of migration-related books that is part of Migration Week on GLB. (For an overview of the Bigness and Vastness of bird migration in particular, see A Question of Migration.)
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The Paleolithic Prescription: A Program of Diet & Exercise and a Design for Living

A lot of paleolithic diet and exercise books, many how to be a hunter-gatherer guides for the suburbanites, and numerous biologically-based-sounding self-help volumes based mainly on woo have been produced since The Paleolithic Prescription: A Program of Diet & Exercise and a Design for Living was published in 1989. To my knowledge, none of the subsequent books has been as useful or as well done, even if TPP requires some updating.

I’m not recommending the book as a self help guide, but rather, as a way of linking the scientific evidence for human diet and activity, based mainly on work with living foragers, with your own process of making choices. Konner and Shostak, of course, worked and lived with the Bushmen during the Harvard-Kalahari project. Mel wrote the excellent overview of the biology of behavior that if you ever took a class from me I probably made you read: The Tangled Wing: Biological Constraints on the Human Spirit, which is still very much worth reading. Marjorie wrote Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman, also very much worth the read. (Yeah, I made you read that one too.)

The Paleolithic Prescription was based in part on a paper published in JAMA by the same authors. I like the fact that this is a “self help” book for regular people based on a peer reviewed paper in a medical journal, as opposed to some crazy idea some guy got while stoned on eating too many sesame seeds or something.

How did humans get so smart?

There is no evidence that they did, but abundant evidence that they didn’t. One example of this is found in how business in the US handle the inevitability of future rising costs of energy, and along with this collection of individual behaviors, the way the free market, the most intelligent and powerful of human activities, optimizes our economy.
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What is your comfort zone?

Today, I took out the trash. I may or may not have taken the trash out last week, but I can tell you that the last time I did take it out, whenever it was, I had to drag the trash barrel across ice. Yesterday I went to the gym without a coat or jacket. That made me have to decide if I wanted to go to the locker room to stow the contents of my pockets (car keys, etc.) or just keep those things in my pocket. The grass outside is green. We expect snow on Friday.
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Jamie Jones on The Anthropology Maneno

I did not have a chance to write about the Anthropology fracas that erupted several weeks ago, and I probably won’t for a while. But Jamie Jones did.

When I met him Jamie was a grad student in the Anthro department at the small eastern college I got my PhD at. He and I taught together and got along quite well, and we were both co-authors on what turned out the be in the top 20 as measured by citation frequency of papers ever published over the last century (or whatever) in the flagship journal of anthropology, which makes both of us pretty hot. Indeed, we are steeped in Ivy League authority so what we say is important.

So, I’ll tell you one Jamie story then turn the discussion over to him.

The faculty and one student, Jamie, were assembled in the Faculty Meeting Room for the usual interrogation. Jamie was explaining to the faculty what he wanted to do his PhD research on. As I recall he had been working on one project but as if often the case, he had to put that aside for one reason or another. His new proposal involved doing something with Orangutans in relation to Life History Evolution, and the way it looked it would take him a couple of years to get all the data from these slow-reproducing slow-growing elusive forest creatures.

You all know Marc Hauser, from my blog and from the news. He was on the Anthro faculty at the time, and he had this comment on Jamie’s proposal, which he interjected with great enthusiasm:

“Jamie, why don’t you just do the same exact research, test the same exact hypothesis, but use rodents! You can get a dozen generations of rat or mice data with large samples and really kick ass. Orangutans will take you forever. You should drop the primate and use rodents instead!”

Jamie paused for a moment and it was obvious to me that he was very carefully considering what to say in response. If he let Marc’s comment pass, or gain any traction, he would end up studying mice. Marc, at that time, had a lot of influence on the rest of the faculty. In fact, most of them sitting there nodding already. If, on the other hand, he openly disagreed with Marc, there might be a fight. The best option might be to make a short but cogent argument against Marc’s suggestion and hope for the best.

So he paused a little more and then said in a firm but quiet voice, with just a little bit of nervous vibrato (calculated I assume to add humility):

“I want to do this with orangs … because I’m a Primatologist.”


Anyway, here’s Jamie:

Anthropology: A Bittersweet Love Story

For me, anthropology is the science charged with explaining the origin and maintenance of human diversity in all its forms. To achieve this end, anthropology must be unapologetically grand in its scope. How can we explain human diversity without documenting its full extent, through both time and space, and across cultures? This is the thing that drew me to anthropology, the thing that really made me…

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