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Posts Tagged ‘anthropology

“The more we claim to discriminate between cultures and customs as good and bad, the more completely do we identify ourselves with those we would condemn”*…



A new paper, “Coming Apart? Cultural Distances in the United States over Time” aims to see if people of different races, genders, and incomes have become more culturally distant from each other over the past few decades…

The authors use a simple metric for this: how easy is it to predict who you are? For example, if I know your five favorite TV shows, how well does that predict whether you’re male or black or high income? If different groups watched similar shows in the past but now they all watch different shows, this kind of prediction becomes more accurate because we’re moving apart in our tastes. But it turns out we aren’t. The basic conclusion of the paper is that nothing much has happened:


For the most part, these lines are pretty flat. For example, take a look at the red line in the top left panel. It represents the consumption pattern of rich vs. poor, and it’s around 0.9. This means that the rich and poor are very different in the products they buy, but also that they’ve always been very different. The size of the difference, or “cultural distance,” is about the same as it’s always been…

The biggest changes have been in gender issues, party affiliation, religion, and confidence in institutions. This isn’t surprising, nor is the fact that the divergences have been relatively large, since ideology is self-selected. The increasing political polarization of Americans has been a topic of endless discussion over the past decade, and it’s a real thing.

[And] on a less serious side, here are the products [see chart at the head of this post] that most distinguish whether or not you’re white…

Read on for more detail on the ways in which “We’re About as Different From Each Other As We’ve Always Been.”

C.f. also: “What we buy can be used to predict our politics, race or education — sometimes with more than 90 percent accuracy.”

* “The more we claim to discriminate between cultures and customs as good and bad, the more completely do we identify ourselves with those we would condemn. By refusing to consider as human those who seem to us to be the most “savage” or “barbarous” of their representatives, we merely adopt one of their own characteristic attitudes. The barbarian is, first and foremost, the man who believes in barbarism.”  ― Claude Lévi-Strauss, Race et histoire


As we note that what’s true latitudinally is arguably also true through time, we might send magical birthday greetings to John Dee, the  mathematician, astronomer, and geographer who was a consultant to Elizabeth I– and who was born on this date in 1527. Dee was a translator of Euclid, and a friend of both Gerardus Mercator and Tycho Brahe; he revolutionized navigation by applying geometry; and he coined the word “Brittannia” and the phrase “British Empire.”  He had a tremendous impact on architecture and theater– and was the model for Shakespeare’s Prospero.

“So how come such a significant philosopher– one of very few in a country then considered an intellectual backwater– barely features in British history books?  Because of his notorious links with magic” (observed BBC’s Discover).  Dee was indeed involved (most heavily, toward the end of his life) in the Hermetic Arts: alchemy, astrology, divination, Hermetic philosophy and Rosicrucianism (the Protestant answer to the Jesuits, which Dee founded).  Perhaps most (in)famously, Dee put a hex on the Spanish Armada, a spell widely credited at the time for the misfortunes that befell the Iberian fleet (as readers may recall).

In a way that presaged Isaac Newton, Dee’s work spanned the world’s of science and magic at just the point that those world’s began to separate.

220px-John_Dee_Ashmolean source



Written by LW

July 13, 2018 at 1:01 am

“All food is comfort food… maybe I just like to chew”*…


To understand the evolution of macaroni and cheese is to realize that pursuit of the “cheapest protein possible” has been a longstanding quest of the American food system. At times, cheese itself has shared a similar trajectory. Cheesemaking, which began 10,000 years ago, was originally about survival for a farm family or community: taking a very perishable protein (milk) and transforming it into something less perishable (cheese) so that there would be something to eat at a later date. Many of us today think of cheese in the context of tradition, flavor, or saving family farms, but a basic goal—whether a producer is making farm-made cheddar or concocting the cheeseless dairy product Velveeta—has always been getting as much edible food from a gallon of milk as possible…

Macaroni and cheese has been served as long as there has been a United States of America, but in a 20th-century economy driven by convenience packaging and industrialization, it was elevated to an ideal American food: Pasta and processed cheese are very cheap to make and easy to ship and store, and they certainly fill up a belly…

The story of a the versatile dish, popularized by Thomas Jefferson, that satisfied the quest for “the cheapest protein possible”: “A Brief History of America’s Appetite for Macaroni and Cheese.”

* Lewis Black


As we dig in, we might spare a thought for Jimmy Ray Dean; he died on this date in 2010.  First successful as a country singer (he’s in the Country Music Hall of Fame), he later found success as an actor (as Fess Parker’s sidekick in Daniel Boone), a television host (The Jimmy Dean Show, which introduced Jim Henson and the Muppets to the wider world), and as a businessman.  With his brother Don, he founded Jimmy Dean Sausage Company, for which he served for many years as its TV pitchman.

Jimmy on the right



Written by LW

June 13, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.”*…


A New Orleans levee, lit from above [source]

400,000 years ago, humans and Neanderthals discovered fire. This ignited a relationship between people and photons that changed the course of mankind—and continues to evolve to this day…

* Martin Luther King, Jr.


As we remove our sunglasses, we might spare a thought for Roger Bacon; he died on this date in 1292.  A philosopher and Franciscan friar, Bacon was one of the first to propose mathematics and experimentation as appropriate methods of science.  Working in mathematics, astronomy, physics, alchemy, and languages, he was particularly impactful in optics: he elucidated the principles of refraction, reflection, and spherical aberration, and described spectacles, which soon thereafter came into use. He developed many mathematical results concerning lenses, proposed mechanically propelled ships, carriages, and flying machines, and used a camera obscura to observe eclipses of the Sun.  And he was the first European give a detailed description of the process of making gunpowder.

He began his career at Oxford, then lectured for a time at Paris, where his skills as a pedagogue earned him the title Doctor Mirabilis, or “wonderful teacher.”  He stopped teaching when he became a Franciscan.  But his scientific work continued, despite his Order’s restrictions on activity and publication, as Bacon enjoyed the protection and patronage of Pope Clement…  until, on Clement’s death, he was placed under house arrest in Oxford, where he continued his studies, but was unable to publish and communicate with fellow investigators.

Statue of Roger Bacon in the Oxford University Museum





Written by LW

June 11, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Our civilization is flinging itself to pieces. Stand back from the centrifuge.”*…


Art work by Banksy (title unknown). Source: Flickr

For centuries, we have been telling ourselves a simple story about the origins of social inequality. For most of their history, humans lived in tiny egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers. Then came farming, which brought with it private property, and then the rise of cities which meant the emergence of civilization properly speaking. Civilization meant many bad things (wars, taxes, bureaucracy, patriarchy, slavery…) but also made possible written literature, science, philosophy, and most other great human achievements.

Almost everyone knows this story in its broadest outlines. Since at least the days of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, it has framed what we think the overall shape and direction of human history to be. This is important because the narrative also defines our sense of political possibility. Most see civilization, hence inequality, as a tragic necessity. Some dream of returning to a past utopia, of finding an industrial equivalent to ‘primitive communism’, or even, in extreme cases, of destroying everything, and going back to being foragers again. But no one challenges the basic structure of the story.

There is a fundamental problem with this narrative.

It isn’t true.

Overwhelming evidence from archaeology, anthropology, and kindred disciplines is beginning to give us a fairly clear idea of what the last 40,000 years of human history really looked like, and in almost no way does it resemble the conventional narrative. Our species did not, in fact, spend most of its history in tiny bands; agriculture did not mark an irreversible threshold in social evolution; the first cities were often robustly egalitarian. Still, even as researchers have gradually come to a consensus on such questions, they remain strangely reluctant to announce their findings to the public­ – or even scholars in other disciplines – let alone reflect on the larger political implications…

An important essay from David Graeber and David Wengrow: “How to change the course of human history (at least, the part that’s already happened).”

* Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451


As we rethink our roots, we might spare a thought for W. Lloyd Warner; he died on this date in 1970.  A sociologist and anthropologist, he is remembered for his studies of social class structure, in which he was a pioneer in applying anthropology research methods to the study of contemporary urban social communities.  Probably best-remebered for his (5 volume) study Yankee City, he was the first sociologist to use a six-fold classification scheme in attributing social class: Warner recognized three distinct groups – upper, middle and lower classes – each sub-divided into upper and lower sections… a rubric still very much in use.

An empiricist in a time when the social disciplines were increasingly theoretical, fascinated with economic and social inequality in a time when Americans were eager to deny its significance, and implicitly skeptical of the possibilities of legislating social change at a time when many social scientists were eager to be policymakers, Warner’s work was unfashionable in its time.  His interest in communities — when the social science mainstream was stressing the importance of urbanization — and religion — when the fields’ leaders were aggressively secularist — also helped to marginalize him.  But recently, more positive assessments of his work have emerged (e.g., Grant McCracken‘s, here).



“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language / And next year’s words await another voice”*…


A crescent-shaped, wooden neck ornament from Easter Island made some time in the first half of the nineteenth century. The artifact, decorated with two bearded male heads on either end, contains a line of rongorongo glyphs along its bottom edge. Courtesy: British Museum

Of all the literatures in the world, the smallest and most enigmatic belongs without question to the people of Easter Island. It is written in a script—rongorongo—that no one can decipher. Experts cannot even agree whether it is an alphabet, a syllabary, a mnemonic, or a rebus. Its entire corpus consists of two dozen texts. The longest, consisting of a few thousand signs, winds its way around a magnificent ceremonial staff. The shortest texts—if they can even be called that—consist of barely more than a single sign. One took the form of a tattoo on a man’s back. Another was carved onto a human skull…

Rongorongo is the only script native to the Pacific. Like so much else, it makes Easter Island unique….  Where did the rongorongo script come from? What do its texts communicate?…

The full, fascinating story at “Language at the End of the World.”

* T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets


As we dedicate ourselves to de-cyphering, we might spare a thought for Edward Sapir; he died on this date in 1939.  One of the foremost anthropologists and linguists of his time, Sapir was a founder of ethnolinguistics– the consideration of  the relationship of culture to language– and he was a principal developer of the American (descriptive) school of structural linguistics.  Even more than the specifics of the cultures he studied, Sapir was interested in the more abstract connections between personality, linguistic expression, and socially-determined behavior.



“The Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose”*…


Complex nature

Albert Einstein said that the “most incomprehensible thing about the Universe is that it is comprehensible.” He was right to be astonished. Human brains evolved to be adaptable, but our underlying neural architecture has barely changed since our ancestors roamed the savannah and coped with the challenges that life on it presented. It’s surely remarkable that these brains have allowed us to make sense of the quantum and the cosmos, notions far removed from the ‘commonsense’, everyday world in which we evolved.

But I think science will hit the buffers at some point. There are two reasons why this might happen. The optimistic one is that we clean up and codify certain areas (such as atomic physics) to the point that there’s no more to say. A second, more worrying possibility is that we’ll reach the limits of what our brains can grasp. There might be concepts, crucial to a full understanding of physical reality, that we aren’t aware of, any more than a monkey comprehends Darwinism or meteorology. Some insights might have to await a post-human intelligence…

Abstract thinking by biological brains has underpinned the emergence of all culture and science. But this activity, spanning tens of millennia at most, will probably be a brief precursor to the more powerful intellects of the post-human era – evolved not by Darwinian selection but via ‘intelligent design’. Whether the long-range future lies with organic post-humans or with electronic super-intelligent machines is a matter for debate. But we would be unduly anthropocentric to believe that a full understanding of physical reality is within humanity’s grasp, and that no enigmas will remain to challenge our remote descendants…

Martin Rees (Lord Rees of Ludlow), cosmologist and astrophysicist, Astronomer Royal since 1995, past Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, and former President of the Royal Society, on the limits of human understanding (and how we might transcend them): “Black holes are simpler than forests and science has its limits.”

For a “companionable” take on the character of the knowledge that we do (seem to) have, see “Is Quantum Theory About Reality or What We Know?“; and for an argument that we should stop worrying about the limits of human knowledge, and start worrying about wasting the knowledge we already have, see here.

* J. B. S. Haldane, Possible Worlds and Other Papers (1927)


As we prepare to call (an artificially-intelligent) friend, we might send acutely observant birthday greetings to an astute student of the human animal, anthropologist Margaret Mead; she was born on this date in 1901.  Best-known for her studies of the nonliterate peoples of Oceania, she was 23 when she first traveled to the South Pacific, to conduct research for her doctoral dissertation. The book that resulted, Coming of Age in Samoa, was– and remains– a best-seller.




Written by LW

December 16, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Food is culture, habit, craving, and identity”*…


Brian Fagan is an archaeologist, a profession that we associate with dust and soil and stone, but here he attempts to capture the history of fishing in ancient civilization. It is not just fish that elude the historian: fisherfolk have always lived on the margins — of land and in recorded history (and still do). ‘To a scholar,’ writes Fagan, ‘the illiterate fishing people of the past are elusive, and their trade is a challenging puzzle of clues.’ So assembling a history of fishing means, well, fishing among archaeology, anthropology, history, marine biology and oceanography and paleoclimatology — ‘to mention only a few’.

Fagan has to fish deeply sometimes and into unexpected places. He investigates the ears of several-thousand-year-old men buried in what is now Israel, which show damage consistent with diving in cold, deep water. He uncovers the giant middens of mollusc shells that appear all over the planet, because though molluscs yield a tiny amount of protein — they are ‘small meat packages sealed in heavy inedible shells’ — they are easy to catch. ‘To knock a limpet from a rock,’ wrote Darwin, ‘does not require even cunning, that lowest power of the mind.’ Darwin was wrong: the ability to subsist on shellfish allowed humans to live through the lean seasons. It enabled survival.

Fishing, writes Fagan, “has created the modern world”…

The ways in which fishing– more than agriculture and husbandry– were central to the rise of civilization, from social organization to technology: “Holy mackerel! Civilization begins with fishing.”

* Jonathan Safran Foer


As we spread our nets, we might recall that it was on this date in 1910 that French chemist, engineer, and inventor Georges Claude switched on the first public display of neon lights– two large (39 foot long), bright red neon tubes– at the Paris Motor Show.  Over the next decade, Claude lit much of Paris.  Neon came to America in 1923 when Earl Anthony purchased signage from Claude, then transported it to Los Angeles, where Anthony installed it at his Packard dealership… and (literally) stopped traffic.

Claude in his lab, 1913




Written by LW

December 3, 2017 at 1:01 am

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