Tag Archives: Ethnography

Why do women shop and men hunt?

Or, when the hunting season is closed, watch teh game (the guys), or when there are no sales, admire each other’s shoes (the gals)?

This is, of course, a parody of the sociobiological, or in modern parlance, the “evolutionary psychology” argument linking behaviors that evolved in our species during the long slog known as The Pleistocene with today’s behavior in the modern predator-free food-rich world. And, it is a very sound argument. If, by “sound” you mean “sounds good unless you listen really hard.”

I list this argument among the falsehoods, but really, this is a category of argument with numerous little sub-arguments, and one about which I could write as many blog posts as I have fingers and toes, which means, at least twenty. (Apparently there was some pentaldactylsim in my ancestry, and I must admit that I’ll never really know what they cut off when I was born, if anything.)

Before going into this discussion I think it is wise, if against my nature, to tell you what the outcome will be: There is not a good argument to be found in the realm of behavioral biology for why American Women shop while their husbands sit on the bench in the mall outside the women’s fashion store fantasizing about a larger TV on which to watch the game. At the same time, there is a good argument to be made that men and women should have different hard wired behavioral proclivities, if there are any hard wired behavioral proclivities in our species. And, I’m afraid, the validity from an individual’s perspective of the various arguments that men and women are genetically programmed to be different (in ways that make biological sense) is normally determined by the background and politics of the observer and not the science. I am trained in behavioral biology, I was taught by the leading sociobiologists, I’ve carried out research in this area, and I was even present, somewhat admiringly, at the very birth of Evolutionary Psychology, in Room 14A in the Peabody Museum at Harvard, in the 1980s. So, if anyone is going to be a supporter of evolutionary psychology, it’s me.

But I’m not. Let me ‘splain….
Continue reading Why do women shop and men hunt?

Why did the Tasmanians Stop Eating Fish?

Georges Bank is a very large shallow area in the North Atlantic, roughly the size of a New England state, that serves as a fishing ground and whaling area (these days for watching the whales, not harpooning them) for ports in New England, New York and Eastern Canada. Eighteen thousand years ago, sea levels were globally at a very low point (with vast quantities of the Earth’s water busy being ice), and at that time George’s Bank would have been a highland region on the very edge of the North American continent, extending via a lower ridge to eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and separated by a low plain (covered in part by glaciers) to the rest of New England.1

As sea levels began rising around twelve thousand years ago, George’s bank became a narrower peninsula and eventually an island visible from the mainland. We know that people lived on this island because artifacts of early Native American groups have been dredged up here, along with the teeth of Pleistocene elephants and other items.
Continue reading Why did the Tasmanians Stop Eating Fish?

Reading Human Nature

“Human nature” is an interesting topic. People will argue over the definition of human nature, but regardless of what people think or say, it is reasonable to assume that all humans share a psychological and developmental framework to the extent that any two people raised in the same background will ‘turn out’ similar with respect to several behavioral traits or tendencies. Also, a pair of twins separated at birth and raised up in very different cultures are likely to exhibit more differences than similarities owing to the different cultures but perhaps some set of seemingly uncanny similarities owing to their parentage.
Continue reading Reading Human Nature

Emailing Habits And Diurnal Patterning

i-84b7cba438d712451b55ee58688258ec-E-mailaholic.jpg

Duncan Watts at Yahoo Research in New York City and a few pals studied the time of day at which around 3000 individuals at a European university sent emails over an 83-day period as well as the email habits of over 122,000 e-mailers at a US university over a 2-year period.

They found two distinct types of emailer. They termed the first “day labourers” because they tended to send emails throughout the normal working day between 0900 and 1800 but not at other times. The second group they called “emailaholics” because these people sent emails throughout the waking hours from 0900 to 0100.
source

I tried to have a look at the original paper, but since this story has been slashdotted, I suspect the server on which it resides has turned into a burned out cinder. The methods used to produce this analysis would be very interesting to look at. It looks a little too clean to me!

Amazon Dot Com is a different kind of thing

It is a ground breaking company, it is a bookstore that is mega mega like few other companies are. It is a bookstore that is a huge corporation. Think about that for a second. Think about bookstores in the old days then think about this thing, Amazon Dot Com. A bookstore that is leading the way in mega cloud computing. It has one of the most effective ways ever of interfacing with its customers. It has become the go to place for many people for the purchase of almost anything one can imagine being delivered by mail. Amazon Dot Com is a thing the likes of which we have not seen before.

You all know about the #AmazonFail maneno1. I suspect that most of what you know is slightly incorrect. I have read three or four blog posts about it, and not long ago I listened to a current NPR report. They neither jibe nor jive. I suspect as more details come out this will be a two part story: A serious socio-political screwup followed by a “glitch” of very significant proportions. I could be wrong about that, but we shall see.

(Here is a very insightful commentary on the situation giving details and links.)

What is important here is this: Whatever rules you were thinking may apply to the conduct of a large corporation and how they must interface with the rest of society do not apply here. Amazon is not a private corporation that can do whatever it wants. It is actually a utility, a public good, part of our economic commons. It is like Google in this respect.

I know, I know, Amazon and Google are private corporations yada yada yada. You can think that if you want, but you’d be ignoring the important reality that all of our public goods and utilities, including the police, the fire companies, the energy suppliers, even the road building agencies of city, county, state and federal governments (in the US) have transited between private and public and sometimes back (or to some combination). What our society needs to get it’s pin-headed collective head around is the nature of this thing, this Amazon and Google (and whatever) thing. And to recognize that it is very real and not just a dot com that will go away when everyone realizes they don’t need it or the loans come due. Which will bring us, ultimately, to the question of OpenAccess and OpenSource. And who owns The Internet. And a few other issues.


1 = big problem.

The Bible as Ethnography ~ 05 ~ The Virgin Birth

i-fc0baa42c324cefa8495fdb0044234b2-dice.jpgI have a cousin in law who tells this story: Her youngest child found out about sex. Then he made the connection that if he existed, his parents must have had sex. So he confronted the parents with this, and mom was forced to admit, yes, of course, this is how babies get “made” and this is simply how things are. The child did not seem too concerned.

Moments later, the child noticed his sister playing in the other room. A thought occurred to him … a light went on, as it were. He turned back to his mother with an expression somewhere between accusation and perplexity.

“You did it twice?!?!?”

Continue reading The Bible as Ethnography ~ 05 ~ The Virgin Birth

The Bible as Ethnography ~ 03 ~ Sometimes a Snake is Just a Snake. But not in this case….

Genesis 2 ends with Adam and Eve being naked yet not ashamed. In Genesis 3, the Serpent, who is wiser than average, tricks Eve into partaking of the forbidden fruit of one of god’s two magic trees. This results in Adam and Eve recognizing their own nakedness, and compelling them to produce the first clothing. The word “naked” in the original Hebrew is either eromim or arumim. The former means naked (no clothes) and the latter means exposure as in exposing lies. The original Hebrew for the “clothing” that they put together, “chagowr” probably means “belt.” The parallel (and probably older) Babylonian/Sumerian story explicitly tells of “sexual knowledge.” Remember, the tree providing the forbidden fruit is the tree of knowledge. The only thing that is clear about this story is that it, the story, is heavily clothed in euphemism.

Origin stories sometimes refer to origins of sexual relations, sometimes prescribing and sometimes proscribing certain practices. The origin story for the Efe (Pygmies) and Lese (horticulturalists) of the Ituri Forest has the first Efe man teaching the first Lese man about sex. He does this by having sex with the first Lese woman. That is an incredibly outrageous concept. Efe men are not allowed to have carnal relationships with Lese women under any circumstances (though Efe women can marry Lese men). This, the Efe/Lese origin story is a kind of beginning and a kind of end for a certain sort of relationship.
Continue reading The Bible as Ethnography ~ 03 ~ Sometimes a Snake is Just a Snake. But not in this case….

The Bible as Ethnography ~ 02 ~ In The Beginning…


Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 (5 – 25) are distinctly different and contradictory origin stories. The biblical origin story represented in this text has long been known to resemble a set of Sumerian stories that mainly deal with a multitude of gods interacting (some of these gods are converted to humans in the biblical version). What is consistent about all of these stories is the relationship between status and labor, in the context of a labor-intensive agricultural system.

Genesis 1 is very systematic, resembling a post-hoc construction of events, and its main practical purpose may be to justify the sabbath. Genesis 2 gives some meaty ethnographic details, including specific geographical reference points (though reconstruction based on this is probably beyond the realm of possibility), reference to irrigation as a practice, and reference to sex. Both of these texts make reference to “seeds” and “fruit” as key features of plants, to an ocean and to whales, and to a variety of other animals. The second text makes specific reference to cattle.
Continue reading The Bible as Ethnography ~ 02 ~ In The Beginning…

The Bible as Ethnography ~ 01 ~ Introduction

As a child in Catholic school, and later in public school and being sent off to “release time” religious instruction, I had the opportunity to read most of the Old and New Testaments of the standard bible. Later, in junior high school, I became interested in comparative religion, and read it all again, together with some other texts that are not normally considered part of the Bible. Then all that fell to the wayside as I went off to do different things.
Continue reading The Bible as Ethnography ~ 01 ~ Introduction

Why the Hobbits of Flores Were Probably Not Broken People

There is a new paper out suggesting that the Flores hominids, known as Hobbits, were “human endemic cretins.”From the abstract of this paper:

… We hypothesize that these individuals are myxoedematous endemic (ME) cretins, part of an inland population of (mostly unaffected) Homo sapiens. ME cretins are born without a functioning thyroid; their congenital hypothyroidism leads to severe dwarfism and reduced brain size, but less severe mental retardation and motor disability than neurological endemic cretins. We show that the fossils display many signs of congenital hypothyroidism, including enlarged pituitary fossa, and that distinctive primitive features of LB1 such as the double rooted lower premolar and the primitive wrist morphology are consistent with the hypothesis. We find that the null hypothesis (that LB1 is not a cretin) is rejected by the pituitary fossa size of LB1, and by multivariate analyses of cranial measures. We show that critical environmental factors were potentially present on Flores, how remains of cretins but not of unaffected individuals could be preserved in caves, and that extant oral traditions may provide a record of cretinism.

Continue reading Why the Hobbits of Flores Were Probably Not Broken People

The Potato and Human Evolution

ResearchBlogging.orgFallback foods are the foods that an organism eats when it can’t find the good stuff. It has been suggested that adaptive changes in fallback food strategies can leave a more distinct mark on the morphology of an organism, including in the fossil record, than changes in preferred food strategies. This assertion is based on work done by the Grants and others with Galapagos Island finches, by Richard Wrangham and me with hominids, and by Betsy Burr and me with rodents. Continue reading The Potato and Human Evolution

Life history trade-offs and human pygmies

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research

Every few years a paper comes out “explaining” short stature in one or more Pygmy groups. Most of the time the new work ads new information and new ideas but fails to be convincing. This is the case with the recent PNAS paper by Migliano et al.

From the abstract:

Continue reading Life history trade-offs and human pygmies

Oral traditions effectively warn people about tsunamis and reduce mortality

From a UC Santa Cruz Press Release:

The infamous Indian Ocean tsunami that struck on December 26, 2004, caused tragically high mortality–from 10 to 90 percent of the population at various locations. Yet in 1930 a tsunami of similar size, generated by an earthquake near the Ninigo Islands, struck northern Papua New Guinea and killed just 0.1 to 1 percent of the population on the coast there.Why were these islanders living earlier in the century better protected?…

Continue reading Oral traditions effectively warn people about tsunamis and reduce mortality

The Bible as Ethnography ~ 05 ~ The Virgin Birth

i-fc0baa42c324cefa8495fdb0044234b2-dice.jpgI have a cousin in law who tells this story: Her youngest child found out about sex. Then he made the connection that if he existed, his parents must have had sex. So he confronted the parents with this, and mom was forced to admit, yes, of course, this is how babies get “made” and this is simply how things are. The child did not seem too concerned.Moments later, the child noticed his sister playing in the other room. A thought occurred to him … a light went on, as it were. He turned back to his mother with an expression somewhere between accusation and perplexity.”You did it twice?!?!?” Continue reading The Bible as Ethnography ~ 05 ~ The Virgin Birth

The Bible as Ethnography ~ 04 ~ Agricultural Transitions

In Genesis 4, we see specific reference to herdsmen and farmers as distinct groups, represented by Abel and Cain, respectively. God indicates a preference for the results of herding over planting, and the sibling troubles that ensue result in the world becoming a difficult place to farm, and humans becoming more nomadic, as herders. This is interesting, because it seems like a dramatic shift from reference to irrigation agriculture to herding. Given the usual role of origin stories, we may be seeing a layering of blame in this case. If this is the origin story of cattle keeping nomadic pastoral people, one has to explain the distinction from farming, and if possible, develop a disdain for the practice of farming, typical at least in Africa of herding cultures.
Continue reading The Bible as Ethnography ~ 04 ~ Agricultural Transitions