Anthropology Friday: Pygmies and Papuans, by Wollaston pt1

Tapiro Pygmy, Papua New Guinea, from Pygmies and Papuans

Welcome to Anthropology Friday. Today we are reading A. F. R. Wollaston’s Pygmies and Papuans, published in 1912. Wollaston’s primary purpose in traveling to Papua New Guinea was to study the birds (as was Jared Diamond’s,) but he decided to also write about the people he met.

He taught at King’s College, Cambridge, until he was murdered by an insane student in 1930. He was descended, it appears, from a distinguished line of Wollastons.

But enough about A.F.R; on with PNG (though first we’ll be stopping in Java):

“During the month of December, while stores were being accumulated, and the steamer was being prepared for our use, we had leisure to visit, and in the case of some of us to revisit, some of the most interesting places in Java. …

“Some idea of the progress which has been made may be learnt from the fact that, whereas at the beginning of the last century the population numbered about four millions, there are to-day nearly ten times that number. Wherever you go you see excellent roads, clean, and well-ordered villages and a swarming peasant population, quiet and industrious and apparently contented with their lot.

“There are between thirty and forty volcanoes in the island, many of them active, and the soil is extraordinarily rich and productive, three crops in the rice districts being harvested in rather less than two years. So fertile is the land that in many places the steepest slopes of the hills have been brought under cultivation by an ingenious system of terracing and irrigation in such a way that the higher valleys present the appearance of great amphitheatres rising tier above tier of brilliantly green young rice plants or of drooping yellow heads of ripening grain. …

“One of the features of life in the Dutch East Indies, which first strikes the attention of an English visitor, is the difference in the relation between Europeans and natives from those which usually obtain in British possessions as shown by the enormous number of half-castes. Whilst we were still at Batavia the feast of the Eve of St. Nicholas, which takes the place of our Christmas, occurred. In the evening the entire “white” population indulged in a sort of carnival; the main streets and restaurants were crowded, bands played and carriages laden with parents and their children drove slowly through the throng. The spectacle, a sort of “trooping of the colours,” was a most interesting one to the onlooker, for one saw often in the same family children showing every degree of colour from the fairest Dutch hair and complexion to the darkest Javanese. It is easy to understand how this strong mixture of races has come about, when one learns that Dutchmen who come out to the East Indies, whether as civilian or military officials or as business men, almost invariably stay for ten years without returning to Europe. They become in that time more firmly attached to the country than is the case in colonies where people go home at shorter intervals, and it is not uncommon to meet Dutchmen who have not returned to Holland for thirty or forty years. It is not the custom to send children back to Europe when they reach the school age; there are excellent government schools in all the larger towns, and it often happens that men and women grow up and marry who have never been to Europe in their lives. Thus it can be seen how a large half-caste population is likely to be formed. The half-castes do not, as in British India, form a separate caste, but are regarded as Europeans, and there are many instances of men having more or less of native blood in their veins reaching the highest civilian and military rank.”

Papua New Guinea

“Even among those Papuans who are pure-blooded—in so far as one may use that expression in describing any human race—there are very considerable varieties of appearance, but it is still possible to describe a type to which all of them conform in the more important particulars. The typical Papuan is rather tall and is usually well-built. The legs of the low country people are somewhat meagre, as is usually the case among people who spend much of their time in canoes, whilst those of the hill tribes are well developed. The hands and feet are large. The colour of the skin varies from a dark chocolate colour to a rusty black, but it seems to be never of the shining ebony blackness of the African negro. … Short hard hair is also found frequently on the chest and on the limbs, but on the face it is scanty and frequently altogether absent. …

“It may, however, be said without fear of contradiction that no person, who has had experience of Malays and of Papuans, could believe for a moment that they are anything but two very distinct races of men. The origin of the Papuans is not definitely known, and the existence in different parts of the island of small people, who are possibly of Negrito stock, suggests that the Papuans were not the original inhabitants of New Guinea.”


Wollaston’s boat approaches the island

“The shore was low and featureless, and it was impossible to identify the mouths of the rivers from the very inaccurate chart. It was not safe for the Nias to approach the land closely on account of the shoal water, so Capt. Van Herwerden dropped anchor … and sent the steam launch towards an inlet, where we could see huts, to gather information. … they hailed a canoe which ventured within speaking distance, and by repeating several times “Mimika,” the only word of their language that we knew at that time, learnt that we had overshot our destination by a few miles.

“That canoe, it should be noted, was remarkable on account of two of its crew. One of them held aloft an ancient Union Jack; the other was conspicuously different from the scores of men in the canoes about us, who were all frankly in a bare undress, by wearing an old white cotton jacket fastened by a brass button which was ornamented with the head of Queen Victoria. How the flag and the coat and the button came to that outlandish place will never be known, but it is certain that they must have passed through very many hands before they came there, for certainly no Englishman had ever been there before. …

“We were rather amused, when we came to the first bank of shingle, by the natives who were with us bringing us gifts of stones, as though they were something new and rare: probably they thought that as we came, for all they knew, from the sea, we had never seen such things before.”

An interesting observation on the habits/lifestyle of hunter-gatherers vs farmers:

“After spending a night on a sand bank from which we were very nearly washed away by a sudden flood, we paddled leisurely down the river and came in one day again to Obota. Though the two places are so close together and communication between them is very frequent, the inhabitants of Obota are a much better lot of people than those of Wakatimi. The Obota men, who came up the river with us, worked steadily for several days, a thing we never could persuade the Wakatimi men to do, and, a more striking sign of their superiority, the Obota people cultivate the soil, whereas the Wakatimi people never do anything of the kind.”


“The distribution of tobacco in New Guinea is rather a puzzling question. There are many places on the coast where its use was unknown until quite recently, while at the same time the mountain people, for example, in the Arfak Mountains and on the upper reaches of the Fly and Kaiserin Augusta Rivers, have been accustomed to cultivate it and to barter it with their neighbours in the lowlands. The Tapiro pygmy people, who live in the mountains, cultivate tobacco and exchange it with the Papuans of the upper Mimika who grow none themselves. These facts have led some people to suppose that the tobacco plant is indigenous in New Guinea.

“The people of Obota were rich in worldly possessions, for as we walked through the village we saw two Chinese brass gongs and a large porcelain pot, which they told us came from “Tarete.” It may be that at some time a Malay or Arab trader from Ternate came over to this part of the coast, but it is impossible to know; perhaps the things had been stolen and exchanged from one village to another, from the West end of the island, which is often visited by Ternate traders.”

Marginal Horticulture

“As well as coconuts the Mimika people have also bananas, papayas (Carica papaya), water-melons and pumpkins, all of them of a very inferior kind. It cannot be said that they cultivate these fruits; they occasionally get a banana shoot and plant it in the ground by the riverside, where it may or may not grow and produce fruit, but they make no clearings and take very little trouble to ensure the life of the plant. The papayas and the melons and pumpkins are sometimes seen growing about the native dwellings; but they, too, seem to be there more by accident than by any design on the part of the people. At Obota we found a few pineapples, which were probably the descendants of some that were brought to the Mimika by M. Dumas a few years earlier.”

EvX: As we discussed recently, humans likely did not transition directly from pure hunter gathering to pure agriculture within the space of a few years, but rather spent thousands of years developing a wide variety of different cultivation methods. Surely among the earliest was this haphazard variety in which fortuitously sprouted seeds are buried and then left to fend for themselves. Some clever ancient man might also have undertaken to bring water to an already established but thirsty plant.

But there’s a big difference between occasionally planting a seed and full-scale agriculture. The latter requires preparing plots of land, removing weeds, planting, watering, tilling, etc. Even a small garden requires a great deal of regular work.

Hunter-gatherers probably didn’t abandon their mobile lifestyles immediately after planting the first handful seeds they wanted to grow. It seems more likely they continued pursuing other ways of finding food while they waited for the plants to grow; it likely took centuries or millennia for the cultural and mental traits found in fully agricultural societies to develop.




A mercifully short note on Lice and the Invention of Clothes

Lice apparently come in three varieties: head, body, and pubic. The body louse’s genome was published in 2010 and is the shortest known insect genome. (Does parasitism reduce genome length?) According to Wikipedia:

Pediculus humanus humanus (the body louse) is indistinguishable in appearance from Pediculus humanus capitis (the head louse) but will interbreed only under laboratory conditions. In their natural state, they occupy different habitats and do not usually meet. In particular, body lice have evolved to attach their eggs to clothes, whereas head lice attach their eggs to the base of hairs.

So when did the clothes-infesting body louse decide to stop associating with its hair-clinging cousins?

The body louse diverged from the head louse at around 100,000 years ago, hinting at the time of the origin of clothing.[7][8][9]

So, did Neanderthals have clothes? Or did they survive winters in ice age Europe by being really hairy?

Behavioral modernity–such as intentional burials and cave painting–is thought to have emerged around 50,000 years ago. Some people push this date back to 80,000 years ago, possibly just before the Out of Africa event (something that made people smarter and better at making tools may have been necessary for OOA to succeed.)

But perhaps we should consider the invention of clothing alongside other technological breakthroughs that made us modern–after all, I don’t think we hairless apes could have had much success at conquering the planet without clothes.

(On the other hand, other Wikipedia pages give other estimates for the origin of clothing, some even also citing louse studies, so I’m not sure of the 100k YA date, but surely clothes were invented before we went anywhere cold.)

Oddly, though, there appears to have been at least one human group that managed to survive in a cold climate without much in the way of clothes, the Yaghan people of Tierra del Fuego. In fact, the whole reason the region got named Tierra del Fuego (translation: Land of the fire) is because the nearly-naked locals carried fire with them wherever they went to stay warm.

Only 100-1,600 Yaghans remain; their language is an isolate with only one native speaker, and she’s 89 years old.

Unfortunately, searching for “people with no clothes” does not return any useful information about other groups that might have led similar lifestyles.

PS: Pubic lice evolved from gorilla lice 3 million yeas ago. I bet you didn’t want to know that. Someone should look for that introgression event.

Native Americans appear to also carry a strain of head lice that had previously occupied Homo erectus’s hair, suggesting that H.e. and the ancestors of today’s N.A.s once met. Since these lice aren’t found elsewhere, it’s evidence that H. e. might have survived somewhere out there until fairly recently.

People who Mysteriously don’t seem to Know the Field they are Researching

First we have Silver Screen Sorting: Social identity and selective exposure in popular film viewing (h/t Degen Rolf):

“In relation to the research suggesting that popular films might impact viewers’ political attitudes, the increasing importance of selective exposure raises the question: are Americans engaging in political sorting in terms of which films they see?

We did find considerable evidence of sorting on popular films. Republicans were more likely to have seen American Sniper, Passion of the Christ, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldier of Benghazi, God’s Not Dead, and Lone Survivor. Surprisingly, Republicans were more likely than Democrats to have seen War Dogs,

A movie that sounds exactly like it was intended for the Republican audience, how is this surprising? Even if the movie isn’t actually one Republicans would like, it has effectively been marketed to them.

a dark comedic take on weapons dealers in the War on Terror.

Dude, they’re Republicans, not humor-impaired. They can still laugh at human foibles in a setting they enjoy watching movies about. BTW, here’s the summary for War Dogs from IMDb:

Two friends in their early 20s (Hill and Teller) living in Miami Beach during the Iraq War exploit a little-known government initiative that allows small businesses to bid on U.S. Military contracts. Starting small, they begin raking in big money and are living the high life. But the pair gets in over their heads when they land a 300 million dollar deal to arm the Afghan Military – a deal that puts them in business with some very shady people, not the least of which turns out to be the U.S. Government. Based on true events.”

Nothing here jumps out at me as “Libs are going to love this total pwnage of the government’s contract-awarding system.”

Anyway, back to the study:

In most cases, we found there was less sorting into movies with liberal themes than expected.

This sort of behavior might explain why conservatives (currently) understand the liberal point of view better than liberals understand conservatives’.

However, Democrats were more likely to have seen Precious, a movie that explores themes of poverty in a predominantly African American community, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

I am amused that they felt compelled to explain the plot/appeal of Precious, which was released recently, promoted by Oprah, was nominated for or won tons of awards, and is famous enough that even I know the plot, but felt no need to explain The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which was released back in 1975. (By the way, it’s about transvestites and sexual debauchery.)

Interestingly, we also saw evidence of sorting on two movies where we did not expect it. Democrats were more likely to have seen both Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Fantastic Beasts and where to Find Them.

How… how do you live in society and study whether people’s movie taste sorts by political affiliation for a living and NOT NOTICE THAT LIBS LOVE HARRY POTTER?

EG, J.K. Rowling slams Donald Trump with Voldemort Diss:

J.K. Rowling took on Donald Trump with her latest tweet heard ’round the world.

After the Republican presidential candidate frontrunner said that all Muslims should be banned from entering America, Harry Potter fans began comparing Trump to Lorde Voldemort, a.k.a. he who must not be named, a.k.a. the most draconian, dastardly villain in all of literature — well at least in Harry Potter’s wizarding world.

But Rowling didn’t agree with the comparison. “How horrible,” Rowling wrote. “Voldemort was nowhere near as bad.”

J. K. Rowling herself hates Trump. Harry Potter fans hate Trump.

From The Guardian we have He who must not be named: how Harry Potter helps make sense of Trump’s world:

At the worldwide Women’s Marches in January, there were plenty of homemade signs that showed Princess Leia as the face of a new resistance, but there were as many Potter ones, such as “Dumbledore’s army”, inspirational quotes from the series and references to Hermione’s role in Harry’s survival. Perhaps these placards had been inspired by an outpouring of affection for the books following the US election in November, as people began to post quotes on Twitter. “Order of the Phoenix, mount up,” wrote Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. There is even a Chrome extension that changes any mention of Donald Trump or his cabinet to the name of a notable Death Eater. Install it, and your browser will instantly refer to Betsy DeVos as Dolores Umbridge, Jeff Sessions as Antonin Dolohov or Rex Tillerson as Draco Malfoy.

I’m going to stop quoting here before I go off on a rant about how Harry Potter isn’t actually about diversity, you idiots, it’s about a genetic elite arguing within itself about whether it should completely wipe out the genetically inferior or merely avoid them at all costs. At no point does anyone suggest that “muggles” is an offensive slur and that the magically different should be allowed into Hogwarts, the magic curriculum should be eliminated because it discriminates against people born without a magical genetic advantage, and that the non-magical need to be fully integrated into Wizarding society.

Oops, there’s the rant.

The question isn’t “Do liberals love Harry Potter?” (Yes, they do, very loudly,) but “Why do liberals think Harry Potter promotes “liberal values” when the books are clearly reactionary meditations on noblesse oblige?”

I’ll let you answer that.

The authors speculate that Fundamentalist Christians don’t like Harry Potter, which is sometimes true but not the biggest factor in HP fandom.

Evidence for sorting was weak on documentaries, even political ones (eg, I own a copy of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth,) but that portion of the study suffered from low N because documentaries aren’t very popular.

In related mysteriously not knowing the field you are studying, Slate Star Codex published the results of their survey on Sexual Harassment Levels by Field, which found that sexual harassment appears to be lower in STEM than in fields like health care or finance.

I’ve been saying this for YEARS, based on my own experiences in heavily male-dominated STEM fields. This is why I stand up and defend the men in my fields: they are among the best.

The why might be due to different cultures in different fields, but cultures are built by people, so the origin is ultimately in the kinds of people who go into STEM vs the kinds of people who go into retail, art, business, or law:

  1. Retail, business, law, etc., all attract aggressive people, and aggressive people are more likely to loudly and aggressively signal sexual interests in others (whether appropriately or inappropriately.)
  2. STEM is full of shy, polite people who worry endlessly about whether they are sexually harassing women just by thinking about them like Scott Aaronson (not to be confused with Scott Alexander,) who was so afraid he might accidentally harass a woman he actually tried to castrate himself.
  3. Hate to say it, but many of the women in STEM just don’t attract as much sexual attention as women in professions where looks are an important factor in getting hired.
  4. Normies have stronger sex drives and higher time preferences than nerds, which leads them to have sex younger, get pregnant more often, catch more STDS, and get into more ill-thought-out sexually aggressive situations

I don’t want to play into the “nerds are asexual” stereotype, because they definitely aren’t, but many normies are sex-crazed maniacs.

Ultimately, is it really any surprise to people that mathematicians don’t sexually harass each other very often?

To be fair to Alexander, I think, deep down inside, he must know that guys like himself aren’t doing a lot of sexual harassment. But he still claims that the results were “surprising.” I guess if you’ve never dealt with humans from outside your own field, but psychology kind of forces you to deal with different kinds of people. Back in Radicalizing the Romanceless, Alexander wrote about a details-slightly-changed-to-protect-the-innocent patient dubbed Henry:

– I had a patient, let’s call him ‘Henry’ for reasons that are to become clear, who came to hospital after being picked up for police for beating up his fifth wife.

So I asked the obvious question: “What happened to your first four wives?”

“Oh,” said the patient, “Domestic violence issues. Two of them left me. One of them I got put in jail, and she’d moved on once I got out. One I just grew tired of.”

“You’ve beaten up all five of your wives?” I asked in disbelief.

“Yeah,” he said, without sounding very apologetic.

“And why, exactly, were you beating your wife this time?” I asked.

“She was yelling at me, because I was cheating on her with one of my exes.”

“With your ex-wife? One of the ones you beat up?”


“So you beat up your wife, she left you, you married someone else, and then she came back and had an affair on the side with you?” I asked him.

“Yeah,” said Henry.

I wish, I wish I wish, that Henry was an isolated case. But he’s interesting more for his anomalously high number of victims than for the particular pattern.

Surprising, perhaps, to people who benefit from promoting the narrative that Stem is some uniquely terrible field.

A Response to Epigenetics and Ethics: Rights and Consequences

Dr. Robison–author of Epigenetics and Public Policy–asks and essential question: Where does the right to swing one’s epigenome end? Or as he puts it:

If epigenetics does introduce scientific novelties to the conventional understanding of biology, then according to the model it also has equally significant ethical and political implications.

What responsibility do I–as an egg-bearing person–have to ensure the health of my children and grandchildren’s epigenenomes? Society affirms my right to smoke cigarettes, even though they may give me cancer down the road–it’s my body and I am allowed to do what I wish with it. But what if my smoking cigarettes today causes cancer in a future, as yet unborn grandchild whom I never meet? What about her right to chose not to be exposed to carcinogens? Who am I to take that from her–and what right has society, the government, or anyone else to tell me what I may or may not do with my own body in the interests of some future people who may never come into existence?

I am summarizing, perhaps badly; you may read the whole post over on Dr. Robison’s blog. (Of course Robison is himself trying to summarize an argument I am sure he lays out in much more detail in his book.)

Here is my hastily written response, in the interest of clear conversational threading:

I’m not sure epigenetics constitutes such a fundamental shift in our understandings of genetics and inheritance as to actually warrant much change in our present policies. For example, you question whether policies should be enacted to restrict a 12 yr old girl’s right to eat what she wishes in defense of her unborn grandchild’s epigenome, but we today don’t even restrict a pregnant woman’s right to drink or smoke. Cocaine is illegal, but last time I checked, women didn’t go to prison for giving birth to crack babies. For that matter, women are allowed to kill unborn babies. I’m not commenting pro or against abortion, just noting that it is legal and most people consider death kind of a big deal. So I don’t think society is about to start outlawing stuff because of its negative effects two generations down the road.

On the other hand, if you look at the data on smoking, rates have definitely been falling ever since the tobacco-cancer link became news. The gov’t didn’t have to outlaw smoking for a lot of women to stop smoking for their children’s health.

But let’s return to the philosophical argument. All men are created equal… or are they? I do not think the Founding Fathers ever meant equality in a genetic sense. They could see with their own eyes that some men were tall and others short, some wise and others foolish, some virtuous and others criminal. They could see see that sons and daughters took after their parents and that a great many people started life in horribly unfair circumstances while others lived in luxury. They could see the cruel unfairness of disease, disability, and early death. Their rejection was not of biological or factual inequalities but of spiritual inequality. They rejected the notion that some men are created special by God to rule over others, and some men are created inferior by God, to be ruled over.

You state, “However, the evidence emerging from epigenetics suggests this is not the case. Instead of individuals of each generation being born with a pristine copy of their biological essence, they are inheriting a genetic endowment riddled with markers of the experiences of their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, and so on. And these inherited epigenetic markers, as more and more research is showing, are having direct effects on the physical and mental health of individuals from causes not actually experienced by these individuals.”

I think there is a mistake here in regarding genetics as “pristine” in some form. What if my mother is an anxious person, and I, through environmental exposure, grow into a similarly anxious person? What if my mother has a gene for anxiety, and I inherit it? What if I possess a de novo genetic mutation that causes me to be anxious? And what if I suffer a genetic deletion in one of my chromosomes that causes anxiety? How is any of this different, functionally, from some trauma my mother suffered (say, a car accident) causing epigenetic changes that are subsequently passed on to me?

What is pristine about Down’s Syndrome, Williams’, or Klinefelter’s? Or just having the random bad luck to get genes for short, dumb, and ugly?

“For example, research in epigenetics shows that the choices and experiences of individuals in one generation are conditioning the basic nature of individuals of subsequent generations, which indelibly affects how those new individuals will exercise their own rights. ”

It can’t be indelible. For starters, you only inherit half of each parent’s genome–thus half their epigenome. So right there’s a 50% chance you won’t inherit any particular epigenetic marker. By gen two we’re talking 25% chance, and that’s not counting the constant re-writing of our epigenomes. However, I don’t think the policy implications for countries are all that different from our current thinking. We can say, for example, “If we have X level of pollution in the water, then Y number of people will get cancer,” and it’s a public health problem even if we don’t know “they’ll get cancer because of epigenetics.”

So let’s broaden the inquiry a bit. Not how does epigenetics impact classical liberalism (which is behind us, anyway,) but how do genetics, epigenetics, heritability, et at all influence our modern sensibilities? Modern liberalism is built almost as a reaction against former racialist notions of “blood”, with a consequent belief that people are, on average, about genetically equal. This butts up against the realization that some people are gifted and talented from birth, which many people quietly rationalize away while knowing they are being a bit dishonest, perhaps on the grounds that this is tantamount to statistical noise.

But the whole notion of “meritocracy” becomes more problematic if we admit that there’s a large genetic (or accidental, or environmental, or anything outside of free will,) contribution to IQ, educational attainment, mental illness, your chances of getting a good job, how other people treat you (because of attractiveness,) etc. Should a person who is dumb through no fault of their own suffer poverty? Should an ugly person be denied a job or a date? There’s an essential unfairness to it, after all.

But by the same token, what are you going to do about it? Declare that everyone under a certain IQ gets free money? What sort of incentives does that set up for society? And what does it do to someone’s self-image if they are Officially Delcared Stupid?

But this is all focused on the negative. What if we find ways to make people smarter, healthier, stronger? I think we’d take them. Sure, we’d have a few hold-outs who worry about “playing god,” (much as today we have people who worry about vaccines despite the massive health improvements public vaccination campaigns have cause.) But in the end we’d take them. Similarly, in the end, I think most people would try to avoid damaging their descendants’ epigenomes–even if not through direct public policy.


Addendum: while I am skeptical of most claims about epigenetics, eg, people claiming that epigenetic trauma can be transmitted for over a century, there do seem to be some things that cause what we can here characterize as multi-generational epigenetic effects. For example, the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES), given to pregnant women to prevent miscarriages back in the 70s, not only causes cancer in the women it was given to, but also in their daughters. (It also results in intersex disorders in male fetuses.) In the third generation (that is, the sons daughters of the fetuses that were exposed to DES their mothers took during pregnancy,) there are still effects, like an increased risk of irregular periods. This is not necessarily “epigenetic” but similar enough to include in the conversation.

Anthropology Friday: Japan pt 4/4

Ise Jingu, a Shinto shrine begun in the 7th century, surrounded by white gravel

Welcome back to Anthropology Friday. Today we are finishing up with Sidney L. Gulick’s Evolution of the Japanese, Social and Psychic, published in 1903. Gulick was a Puritan missionary who moved to Japan shortly after the “opening of Japan” and Meiji Restoration. He wrote at a time when very Japanese society was changing at break-neck speed and very few accounts of Japan existed at all in the West.

I find anthropology interesting on two levels. First, there is the pure information about another culture, and second, the meta-information about the author–what leads the author to highlight particular things or portray a culture a particular way?

As Gulick makes clear, his purposes in writing the book were two-fold: to introduce his audience to a little-known culture and to provide evidence against the theory that different races have particular temperaments by highlighting differences between the Japanese and Chinese. Gulick attributes attributes maters of national character to environmental or economic conditions.

(As usual, quotes will be in “” instead of blocks)

The Development of a sense of moral obligation to those outside one’s own group:

“Are Japanese cruel or humane? The general impression of the casual tourist doubtless is that they are humane. They are kind to children on the streets, to a marked degree; the jinrikisha runners turn out not only for men, women, and children, but even for dogs. The patience, too, of the ordinary Japanese under trying circumstances is marked; they show amazing tolerance for one another’s failings and defects, and their mutual helpfulness in seasons of distress is often striking. To one traveling through New Japan there is usually little that will strike the eye as cruel.

“But the longer one lives in the country, the more is he impressed with certain aspects of life which seem to evince an essentially unsympathetic and inhumane disposition. I well remember the shock I received when I discovered, not far from my home in Kumamoto, an insane man kept in a cage. He was given only a slight amount of clothing, even though heavy frost fell each night. Food was given him once or twice a day. He was treated like a wild animal, not even being provided with bedding. …

“The treatment accorded to lepers is another significant indication of the lack of sympathetic and humane sentiments among the people at large. For ages they have been turned from home and house and compelled to wander outcasts, living in the outskirt of the villages in rude booths of their own construction, and dependent on their daily begging, until a wretched death gives them relief from a more wretched life. So far as I have been able to learn, the opening of hospitals for lepers did not take place until begun by Christians in recent times.

“A history of Japan was prepared by Japanese scholars under appointment from the government and sent to the Columbian Exposition in 1893; it makes the following statement, already referred to on a previous page: “Despite the issue of several proclamations … people were governed by such strong aversion to the sight of sickness that travelers were often left to die by the roadside from thirst, hunger, or disease, and householders even went to the length of thrusting out of doors and abandoning to utter destitution servants who suffered from chronic maladies…. Whenever an epidemic occurred, the number of deaths that resulted was enormous.”[N]

“But we must not be too quick to jump to the conclusion that in this regard we have discovered an essential characteristic of the Japanese nature. …

“How long is it since the Inquisition was enforced in Europe? Who can read of the tortures there inflicted without shuddering with horror? … How long is it since witches were burned, not only in Europe by the thousand, but in enlightened and Christian New England? … How long is it since slaves were feeling the lash throughout the Southern States of our “land of freedom”?… The fact is that the highly developed humane sense which is now felt so strongly by the great majority of people in the West is a late development, and is not yet universal. It is not for us to boast, or even to feel superior to the Japanese, whose opportunities for developing this sentiment have been limited. …

“In the treatment of the sick, the first prerequisite for the development of tenderness is the introduction of correct ideas as to the nature of disease and its proper treatment. As soon as this has been effectually done, a great proportion of the apparent indifference to human suffering passes away. The cruelty which is to-day so universal in Africa needs but a changed social and industrial order to disappear. The needed change has come to Japan. Physicians trained in modern methods of medical practice are found all over the land. In 1894 there were 597 hospitals, 42,551 physicians, 33,921 nurses and midwives, 2869 pharmacists, and 16,106 druggists, besides excellent schools of pharmacy and medicine.[O]

EvX: This might feel a bit unfair to Japan, but Gulick was writing not long before Japan went on a rampage through east Asia and killed 10-14 million people.

Gulick is also correct that uncharitable attitudes toward folks not in one’s family or ingroup were fairly common in the West until fairly recently. The past 200 years or so have seen a remarkable change in ideas about one’s moral obligations toward strangers.

More information about recent treatment of Japanese lepers.

Myōshin-ji garden


“In certain directions, the Japanese reveal a development of æsthetic taste which no other nation has reached. The general appreciation of landscape-views well illustrates this point. The home and garden of the average workman are far superior artistically to those of the same class in the West. There is hardly a home without at least a diminutive garden laid out in artistic style with miniature lake and hills and winding walks. …

“The general taste displayed in many little ways is a constant delight to the Western “barbarian” when he first comes to Japan. Nor does this delight vanish with time and familiarity, though it is tempered by a later perception of certain other features. Indeed, the more one knows of the details of their artistic taste, the more does he appreciate it. The “toko-no-ma,” for example, is a variety of alcove usually occupying half of one side of a room. It indicates the place of honor, and guests are always urged to sit in front of it. The floor of the “toko-no-ma” is raised four or five inches above the level of the room and should never be stepped upon. In this “toko-no-ma” is usually placed some work of art, or a vase with flowers, and on the wall is hung a picture or a few Chinese characters, written by some famous calligraphist, which are changed with the seasons. The woodwork and the coloring of this part of the room is of the choicest. The “toko-no-ma” of the main room of the house is always restful to the eye; this “honorable spot” is found in at least one room in every house…

“The Japanese show a refined taste in the coloring and decoration of rooms; natural woods, painted and polished, are common; every post and board standing erect must stand in the position in which it grew. A Japanese knows at once whether a board or post is upside down, though it would often puzzle a Westerner to decide the matter. The natural wood ceilings and the soft yellows and blues of the walls are all that the best trained Occidental eye could ask. Dainty decorations called the “ramma,” over the neat “fusuma,” consist of delicate shapes and quaint designs cut in thin boards, and serve at once as picture and ventilator. The drawings, too, on the “fusuma” (solid thick paper sliding doors separating adjacent rooms or shutting off the closet) are simple and neat, as is all Japanese pictorial art.

Atlas Cedar bonsai, Golden State Bonsai Federation Collection

“Japanese love for flowers reveals a high æsthetic development. Not only are there various flower festivals at which times the people flock to suburban gardens and parks, but sprays, budding branches, and even large boughs are invariably arranged in the homes and public halls. Every church has an immense vase for the purpose. The proper arrangement of flowers and of flowering sprays and boughs is a highly developed art. … An acquaintance of mine glories in 230 varieties of the plum tree, all in pots, some of them between two and three hundred years old. Shinto and Buddhist temples also reveal artistic qualities most pleasing to the eye.”

EvX: And on that pleasant note, let us end our Japanese journey. See you next Friday.

When did language evolve?

The smartest non-human primates, like Kanzi the bonobo and Koko the gorilla, understand about 2,000 to 4,000 words. Koko can make about 1,000 signs in sign language and Kanzi can use about 450 lexigrams (pictures that stand for words.) Koko can also make some onomatopoetic words–that is, she can make and use imitative sounds in conversation.

A four year human knows about 4,000 words, similar to an exceptional gorilla. An adult knows about 20,000-35,000 words. (Another study puts the upper bound at 42,000.)

Somewhere along our journey from ape-like hominins to homo sapiens sapiens, our ancestors began talking, but exactly when remains a mystery. The origins of writing have been amusingly easy to discover, because early writers were fond of very durable surfaces, like clay, stone, and bone. Speech, by contrast, evaporates as soon as it is heard–leaving no trace for archaeologists to uncover.

But we can find the things necessary for speech and the things for which speech, in turn, is necessary.

The main reason why chimps and gorillas, even those taught human language, must rely on lexigrams or gestures to communicate is that their voiceboxes, lungs, and throats work differently than ours. Their semi-arborial lifestyle requires using the ribs as a rigid base for the arm and shoulder muscles while climbing, which in turn requires closing the lungs while climbing to provide support for the ribs.

Full bipedalism released our early ancestors from the constraints on airway design imposed by climbing, freeing us to make a wider variety of vocalizations.

Now is the perfect time to break out my file of relevant human evolution illustrations:

Source: Scientific American What Makes Humans Special

We humans split from our nearest living ape relatives about 7-8 million years ago, but true bipedalism may not have evolved for a few more million years. Since there are many different named hominins, here is a quick guide:

Source: Macroevolution in and Around the Hominin Clade

Australopithecines (light blue in the graph,) such as the famous Lucy, are believed to have been the first fully bipedal hominins, although, based on the shape of their toes, they may have still occasionally retreated into the trees. They lived between 4 and 2 million years ago.

Without delving into the myriad classification debates along the lines of “should we count this set of skulls as a separate species or are they all part of the natural variation within one species,” by the time the homo genus arises with H Habilis or H. Rudolfensis around 2.8 million years ag, humans were much worse at climbing trees.

Interestingly, one direction humans have continued evolving in is up.

Oldowan tool

The reliable production of stone tools represents an enormous leap forward in human cognition. The first known stone tools–Oldowan–are about 2.5-2.6 million years old and were probably made by homo Habilis. These simple tools are typically shaped only one one side.

By the Acheulean–1.75 million-100,000 years ago–tool making had become much more sophisticated. Not only did knappers shape both sides of both the tops and bottoms of stones, but they also made tools by first shaping a core stone and then flaking derivative pieces from it.

The first Acheulean tools were fashioned by h Erectus; by 100,000 years ago, h Sapiens had presumably taken over the technology.

Flint knapping is surprisingly difficult, as many an archaeology student has discovered.

These technological advances were accompanied by steadily increasing brain sizes.

I propose that the complexities of the Acheulean tool complex required some form of language to facilitate learning and teaching; this gives us a potential lower bound on language around 1.75 million years ago. Bipedalism gives us an upper bound around 4 million years ago, before which our voice boxes were likely more restricted in the sounds they could make.

A Different View

Even though “homo Sapiens” has been around for about 300,000 years (or so we have defined the point where we chose to differentiate between our species and the previous one,) “behavioral modernity” only emerged around 50,000 years ago (very awkward timing if you know anything about human dispersal.)

Everything about behavioral modernity is heavily contested (including when it began,) but no matter how and when you date it, compared to the million years or so it took humans to figure out how to knap the back side of a rock, human technologic advance has accelerated significantly over the past 100,000 and even moreso over the past 50,000 and even 10,000.

Fire was another of humanity’s early technologies:

Claims for the earliest definitive evidence of control of fire by a member of Homo range from 1.7 to 0.2 million years ago (Mya).[1] Evidence for the controlled use of fire by Homo erectus, beginning some 600,000 years ago, has wide scholarly support.[2][3] Flint blades burned in fires roughly 300,000 years ago were found near fossils of early but not entirely modern Homo sapiens in Morocco.[4] Evidence of widespread control of fire by anatomically modern humans dates to approximately 125,000 years ago.[5]

What prompted this sudden acceleration? Noam Chomsky suggests that it was triggered by the evolution of our ability to use and understand language:

Noam Chomsky, a prominent proponent of discontinuity theory, argues that a single chance mutation occurred in one individual in the order of 100,000 years ago, installing the language faculty (a component of the mind–brain) in “perfect” or “near-perfect” form.[6]

(Pumpkin Person has more on Chomsky.)

More specifically, we might say that this single chance mutation created the capacity for figurative or symbolic language, as clearly apes already have the capacity for very simple language. It was this ability to convey abstract ideas, then, that allowed humans to begin expressing themselves in other abstract ways, like cave painting.

I disagree with this view on the grounds that human groups were already pretty widely dispersed by 100,000 years ago. For example, Pygmies and Bushmen are descended from groups of humans who had already split off from the rest of us by then, but they still have symbolic language, art, and everything else contained in the behavioral modernity toolkit. Of course, if a trait is particularly useful or otherwise successful, it can spread extremely quickly (think lactose tolerance,) and neither Bushmen nor Pygmies were 100% genetically isolated for the past 250,000 years, but I simply think the math here doesn’t work out.

However, that doesn’t mean Chomsky isn’t on to something. For example, Johanna Nichols (another linguist,) used statistical models of language differentiation to argue that modern languages split around 100,000 years ago.[31] This coincides neatly with the upper bound on the Out of Africa theory, suggesting that Nichols may actually have found the point when language began differentiating because humans left Africa, or perhaps she found the origin of the linguistic skills necessary to accomplish humanity’s cross-continental trek.

Philip Lieberman and Robert McCarthy looked at the shape of Neanderthal, homo Erectus, early h Sapiens and modern h Sapiens’ vocal tracts:

In normal adults these two portions of the SVT form a right angle to one another and are approximately equal in length—in a 1:1 proportion. Movements of the tongue within this space, at its midpoint, are capable of producing tenfold changes in the diameter of the SVT. These tongue maneuvers produce the abrupt diameter changes needed to produce the formant frequencies of the vowels found most frequently among the world’s languages—the “quantal” vowels [i], [u], and [a] of the words “see,” “do,” and “ma.” In contrast, the vocal tracts of other living primates are physiologically incapable of producing such vowels.

(Since juvenile humans are shaped differently than adults, they pronounce sounds slightly differently until their voiceboxes fully develop.)

Their results:

…Neanderthal necks were too short and their faces too long to have accommodated equally proportioned SVTs. Although we could not reconstruct the shape of the SVT in the Homo erectus fossil because it does not preserve any cervical vertebrae, it is clear that its face (and underlying horizontal SVT) would have been too long for a 1:1 SVT to fit into its head and neck. Likewise, in order to fit a 1:1 SVT into the reconstructed Neanderthal anatomy, the larynx would have had to be positioned in the Neanderthal’s thorax, behind the sternum and clavicles, much too low for effective swallowing. …

Surprisingly, our reconstruction of the 100,000-year-old specimen from Israel, which is anatomically modern in most respects, also would not have been able to accommodate a SVT with a 1:1 ratio, albeit for a different reason. … Again, like its Neanderthal relatives, this early modern human probably had an SVT with a horizontal dimension longer than its vertical one, translating into an inability to reproduce the full range of today’s human speech.

It was only in our reconstruction of the most recent fossil specimens—the modern humans postdating 50,000 years— that we identified an anatomy that could have accommodated a fully modern, equally proportioned vocal tract.

Just as small children who can’t yet pronounce the letter “r” can nevertheless make and understand language, I don’t think early humans needed to have all of the same sounds as we have in order to communicate with each other. They would have just used fewer sounds.

The change in our voiceboxes may not have triggered the evolution of language, but been triggered by language itself. As humans began transmitting more knowledge via language, humans who could make more sounds could utter a greater range of words perhaps had an edge over their peers–maybe they were seen as particularly clever, or perhaps they had an easier time organizing bands of hunters and warriors.

One of the interesting things about human language is that it is clearly simultaneously cultural–which language you speak is entirely determined by culture–and genetic–only humans can produce language in the way we do. Even the smartest chimps and dolphins cannot match our vocabularies, nor imitate our sounds. Human infants–unless they have some form of brain damage–learn language instinctually, without conscious teaching. (Insert reference to Steven Pinker.)

Some kind of genetic changes were obviously necessary to get from apes to human language use, but exactly what remains unclear.

A variety of genes are associated with language use, eg FOXP2. H Sapiens and chimps have different versions of the FOXP2 gene, (and Neanderthals have a third, but more similar to the H Sapiens version than the chimp,) but to my knowledge we have yet to discover exactly when the necessary mutations arose.

Despite their impressive skulls and survival in a harsh, novel climate, Neanderthals seem not to have engaged in much symbolic activity, (though to be fair, they were wiped out right about the time Sapiens really got going with its symbolic activity.) Homo Sapiens and Homo Nanderthalis split around 800-400,000 years ago–perhaps the difference in our language genes ultimately gave Sapiens the upper hand.

Just as farming appears to have emerged relatively independently in several different locations around the world at about the same time, so behavioral modernity seems to have taken off in several different groups around the same time. Of course we can’t rule out the possibility that these groups had some form of contact with each other–peaceful or otherwise–but it seems more likely to me that similar behaviors emerged in disparate groups around the same time because the cognitive precursors necessary for those behaviors had already begun before they split.

Based on genetics, the shape of their larynges, and their cultural toolkits, Neanderthals probably did not have modern speech, but they may have had something similar to it. This suggests that at the time of the Sapiens-Neanderthal split, our common ancestor possessed some primitive speech capacity.

By the time Sapiens and Neanderthals encountered each other again, nearly half a million years later, Sapiens’ language ability had advanced, possibly due to further modification of FOXP2 and other genes like it, plus our newly modified voiceboxes, while Neanderthals’ had lagged. Sapiens achieved behavioral modernity and took over the planet, while Neanderthals disappeared.


The Empathy Trap

People think memetic viruses are just going to ask politely about infecting you, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses: “Hello, can I talk to you today about the importance of WWIII with Russia?”

No. Mind-viruses are not polite. They USE you. They use your empathy and compassion to make you feel like a shit person for rejecting them. They throw dying children in your face and demand that you start a war to save them.

They hijack your sense of yourself as a good person.

I call this the empathy trap.

For example:

Why did this take Stone Cold’s breath away? Why is it shocking?

It’s a basically true statement– the 3/5ths compromise originated in 1783 and was still around in 1789, when the 2nd Amendment was proposed–but soare “California became the 31st American state when I was deemed 3/5ths of a person,” “Napoleon invaded Russia when I was deemed 3/5ths of a person” and “The New York Times was founded, the safety elevator was invented, Massachusetts passed the nation’s first child employment laws, the first telegrams were sent, and Jane Eyre was published when I was deemed 3/5ths of a person.”

A lot happened between 1783 and 1861.

As unpleasant as the 3/5ths compromise is to think back on, we should remember that it was not passed because proponents thought black people only counted as “3/5ths of a person,” but because they didn’t want slave owners using census counts of non-voting slaves to get more votes for their states in the federal government. The 3/5ths compromise actually reduced the power of the slave-owning states relative to the non-slave owning states, in exchange for a break on taxes.

So this isn’t shocking because it’s factually true (I can come up with a whole list of equally true but unshocking statements) nor because the 3/5ths compromise was evil.

Perhaps it is shocking because it points out how old the 2nd Amendment is? But there are many other equally old–or older–things we find completely mundane. Mozart was writing operas in the 1790s; US copyright law began in the 1790s; Edward Jenner developed his smallpox vaccine in 1796; Benjamin Franklin invented the “swim fin” or flippers back in 1717. I don’t think anyone’s throwing out their flippers just because the concept is older than the entire country.

No; it’s shocking because “I was deemed 3/5ths of a person” appeals immediately to your sense of empathy.

Do you respond, “That doesn’t matter”?

“What do you mean, it doesn’t matter that I was considered only 3/5ths of a person? That matters a lot to me.”

“Oh, no, of course, I didn’t mean that it doesn’t matter like that, of course I understand that matters to you–”

Now you’re totally off-topic.

In order to see that this is a non sequitor, you first have to step back from the emotion. Push it aside, if you must. Yes, slavery was evil, but what does it have to do with the 2nd Amendment? Nothing. Reject the frame.

Mitochondrial memes are passed down from your parents and other trusted members of your family and community. You don’t typically have to be convinced of them; children tend to just believe their parents. That’s why you believed all of that business about Santa Claus. Meme viruses, by contrast, come from the wider community, typically strangers. Meme viruses have to convince you to adopt them, which can be quite a bit harder. This is why so many people follow their parents’ religion, and so few people convert to new religions as adults. Most religious transmission is basically mitochondrial–even if the Jehovah’s Witnesses show up at your doorstep fairly often.

To spread faster and more effectively, therefore, meme viruses have to convince you to lower your defenses and let them spread. They convince you that believing and spreading them is part of being a good person. They demand that if you really care about issue X, then you must also care about issue W, Y, and Z. “If you want to fight racism, you also have to go vegan, because all systems of oppression are intersectionally linked,” argues the vegan. “If you love Jesus, you must support capitalism because those godless commies hate Jesus.” Jesus probably also supported socialism and veganism, depending on whom you ask. “This photo of Kim Kardashian balancing a wine glass on her ass is problematic because once someone took a picture of a black woman in the same pose and that was racist.” “Al Qaeda launched an attack on 9-11, therefore we need to topple Saddam Hussein.” “A Serbian anarchist shot some Austro-Hungarian arch duke, therefore we need to have WWI.” “Assad used chemical weapons, therefore the US needs to go to war with Russia.”

Once you are sensitive to this method of framing, you’ll notice it fairly often.



Come read “The Code Economy: A 40,00 Year History” with us

I don’t think the publishers got their money’s worth on cover design

EvX’s Book Club is reading Philip Auerswald’s The Code Economy: A 40,000 Year History looks at how everything humans produce, from stone tools to cities to cryptocurrencies like bitcoin, requires the creation, transmission, and performance of “code,”  and explores the notion that human societies–and thus civilization–is built on a mountain of of encoded processes.

I loved this book and am re-reading it, so I would like to invite you to come read it, too.

Discussion of Chapter 1 Jobs: Divide and Coordinate, will begin on May 23 and last as long as we want it to.

Here’s Amazon’s blurb about the book:

What do Stone Age axes, Toll House cookies, and Burning Man have in common? They are all examples of code in action.

What is “code”? Code is the DNA of human civilization as it has evolved from Neolithic simplicity to modern complexity. It is the “how” of progress. It is how ideas become things, how ingredients become cookies. It is how cities are created and how industries develop.

In a sweeping narrative that takes readers from the invention of the alphabet to the advent of the Blockchain, Philip Auerswald argues that the advance of code is the key driver of human history. Over the span of centuries, each major stage in the advance of code has brought a shift in the structure of society that has challenged human beings to reinvent not only how we work but who we are.

We are in another of those stages now. The Code Economy explains how the advance of code is once again fundamentally altering the nature of work and the human experience. Auerswald provides a timely investigation of value creation in the contemporary economy-and an indispensable guide to our economic future.

Anthropology Friday: Japan pt 3


Welcome back to Anthropology Friday. Today we are continuing with Sidney L. Gulick’s Evolution of the Japanese, Social and Psychic, published in 1903. Gulick was a Puritan missionary who moved to Japan shortly after the “opening of Japan” and Meiji Restoration. He wrote at a time when very Japanese society was changing at break-neck speed and very few accounts of Japan existed at all in the West. (As usual, quotes will be in “” instead of blocks)


“Many writers have dwelt with delight on the cheerful disposition that seems so common in Japan. Lightness of heart, freedom from all anxiety for the future, living chiefly in the present, these and kindred features are pictured in glowing terms. And, on the whole, these pictures are true to life. The many flower festivals are made occasions for family picnics when all care seems thrown to the wind. There is a simplicity and a freshness and a freedom from worry that is delightful to see. But it is also remarked that a change in this regard is beginning to be observed. The coming in of Western machinery, methods of government, of trade and of education, is introducing customs and cares, ambitions and activities, that militate against the older ways. Doubtless, this too is true. If so, it but serves to establish the general proposition of these pages that the more outstanding national characteristics are largely the result of special social conditions, rather than of inherent national character. …

“Yet the Japanese are by no means given up to a cheerful view of life. Many an individual is morose and dejected in the extreme. This disposition is ever stimulated by the religious teachings of Buddhism. Its great message has been the evanescent character of the present life. Life is not worth living, it urges; though life may have some pleasures, the total result is disappointment and sorrow. Buddhism has found a warm welcome in the hearts of many Japanese. For more than a thousand years it has been exercising a potent influence on their thoughts and lives. Yet how is this consistent with the cheerful disposition which seems so characteristic of Japan? The answer is not far to seek. Pessimism is by its very nature separative, isolating, silent. Those oppressed by it do not enter into public joys. They hide themselves in monasteries, or in the home. The result is that by its very nature the actual pessimism of Japan is not a conspicuous feature of national character.

“The judgment that all Japanese are cheerful rests on shallow grounds. Because, forsooth, millions on holidays bear that appearance, and because on ordinary occasions the average man and woman seem cheerful and happy, the conclusion is reached that all are so. No effort is made to learn of those whose lives are spent in sadness and isolation. I am convinced that the Japan of old, for all its apparent cheer, had likewise its side of deep tragedy. Conditions of life that struck down countless individuals, and mental conditions which made Buddhism so popular, both point to this conclusion.”

EvX: See: Hikikomori:

In Japan, hikikomori (Japanese: ひきこもり or 引き籠り, lit. “pulling inward, being confined”, i.e., “acute social withdrawal“) are reclusive adolescents or adults who withdraw from social life, often seeking extreme degrees of isolation and confinement. Hikikomori refers to both the phenomenon in general and the recluses themselves. Hikikomori have been described as loners or “modern-day hermits“.[1] Estimates reveal that nearly half a million Japanese youth have become social recluses.[2]...

According to government figures released in 2010, there are 700,000 individuals living as hikikomori with an average age of 31.[10] Still, the numbers vary widely among experts. These include the hikikomori who are now in their 40s and have spent 20 years in isolation. This group is generally referred to as the “first-generation hikikomori.” There is concern about their reintegration into society in what is known as “the 2030 Problem,” when they are in their 60s and their parents begin to die.[10] Additionally, the government estimates that 1.55 million people are on the verge of becoming hikikomori.[10] Tamaki Saitō, who first coined the phrase, originally estimated that there may be over one million hikikomori in Japan, although this was not based on national survey data. Nonetheless, considering that hikikomori adolescents are hidden away and their parents are often reluctant to talk about the problem, it is extremely difficult to gauge the number accurately.[11]

I suspect this is becoming a problem in the West, too. But back to Gulick:

Work Ethic

“The Japanese give the double impression of being industrious and diligent on the one hand, and, on the other, of being lazy and utterly indifferent to the lapse of time. The long hours during which they keep at work is a constant wonder to the Occidental. I have often been amazed in Fukuoka to find stores and workshops open, apparently in operation, after ten and sometimes even until eleven o’clock at night, while blacksmiths and carpenters and wheelwrights would be working away as if it were morning. Many of the factories recently started keep very long hours. Indeed most of the cotton mills run day and night, having two sets of workers, who shift their times of labor every week. Those who work during the night hours one week take the day hours the following week. In at least one such factory, with which I am acquainted, the fifteen hundred girls who work from six o’clock Saturday evening until six o’clock Sunday morning, are then supposed to have twenty-four hours of rest before they begin their day’s work Monday morning; but, as a matter of fact, they must spend three or four and sometimes five hours on Sunday morning cleaning up the factory. …

“But there are equally striking illustrations of an opposite nature. The farmers and mechanics and carpenters, among regular laborers, and the entire life of the common people in their homes, give an impression of indifference to the flight of time, if not of absolute laziness. The workers seem ready to sit down for a smoke and a chat at any hour of the day. In the home and in ordinary social life, the loss of time seems to be a matter of no consequence whatever. Polite palaver takes unstinted hours, and the sauntering of the people through the street emphasizes the impression that no business calls oppress them.”

EvX: This seems like an apt time to plug The Birth of Sake, a documentary available on Netlfix. Here’s the trailer:

Trust, suspicion, and change

“Two other strongly contrasted traits are found in the Japanese character, absolute confidence and trustfulness on the one hand, and suspicion on the other. It is the universal testimony that the former characteristic is rapidly passing away; in the cities it is well-nigh gone. But in the country places it is still common. The idea of making a bargain when two persons entered upon some particular piece of work, the one as employer, the other as employed, was entirely repugnant to the older generation, since it was assumed that their relations as inferior and superior should determine their financial relations; the superior would do what was right, and the inferior should accept what the superior might give without a question or a murmur. Among the samurai, where the arrangement is between equals, bargaining or making fixed and fast terms which will hold to the end, and which may be carried to the courts in case of differences, was a thing practically unknown in the older civilization. Everything of a business nature was left to honor, and was carried on in mutual confidence.

“A few illustrations of this spirit of confidence from my own experience may not be without interest. On first coming to Japan, I found it usual for a Japanese who wished to take a jinrikisha to call the runner and take the ride without making any bargain, giving him at the end what seemed right. And the men generally accepted the payment without question. I have found that recently, unless there is some definite understanding arrived at before the ride, there is apt to be some disagreement, the runner presuming on the hold he has, by virtue of work done, to get more than is customary. This is especially true in case the rider is a foreigner. Another set of examples in which astonishing simplicity and confidence were manifested was in the employment of evangelists. I have known several instances in which a full correspondence with an evangelist with regard to his employment was carried on, and the settlement finally concluded, and the man set to work without a word said about money matters. It need hardly be said that no foreigner took part in that correspondence. …

“This confidence and trustfulness were the product of a civilization resting on communalistic feudalism; the people were kept as children in dependence on their feudal lord; they had to accept what he said and did; they were accustomed to that order of things from the beginning and had no other thought; on the whole too, without doubt, they received regular and kindly treatment. Furthermore, there was no redress for the peasant in case of harshness; it was always the wise policy, therefore, for him to accept whatever was given without even the appearance of dissatisfaction. This spirit was connected with the dominance of the military class. Simple trustfulness was, therefore, chiefly that of the non-military classes. The trustfulness of the samurai sprang from their distinctive training. As already mentioned, when drawing up a bond in feudal times, in place of any tangible security, the document would read, “If I fail to do so and so, you may laugh at me in public.”

“Since the overthrow of communal feudalism and the establishment of an individualistic social order, necessitating personal ownership of property, and the universal use of money, trustful confidence is rapidly passing away. Everything is being more and more accurately reduced to a money basis. The old samurai scorn for money seems to be wholly gone, an astonishing transformation of character. Since the disestablishment of the samurai class many of them have gone into business. Not a few have made tremendous failures for lack of business instinct, being easily fleeced by more cunning and less honorable fellows who have played the “confidence” game most successfully; others have made equally great successes because of their superior mental ability and education. The government of Japan is to-day chiefly in the hands of the descendants of the samurai class. …

“Passing now from the character of trustful confidence, we take up its opposite, suspiciousness. The development of this quality is a natural result of a military feudalism such as ruled Japan for hundreds of years. Intrigue was in constant use when actual war was not being waged. In an age when conflicts were always hand to hand, and the man who could best deceive his enemy as to his next blow was the one to carry off his head, the development of suspicion, strategy, and deceit was inevitable. The most suspicious men, other things being equal, would be the victors; they, with their families, would survive and thus determine the nature of the social order. The more than two hundred and fifty clans and “kuni,” “clan territory,” into which the land was divided, kept up perpetual training in the arts of intrigue and subtlety which are inevitably accompanied by suspicion.”

EvX: You can almost hear the HBD argument being made…

“Modern manifestations of this characteristic are frequent. Not a cabinet is formed, but the question of its make-up is discussed from the clannish standpoint. Even though it is now thirty years since the centralizing policy was entered upon and clan distinctions were effectually broken down, yet clan suspicion and jealousy is not dead.”


“The foreigner is impressed by the constant need of care in conversation, lest he be thought to mean something more or other than he says. When we have occasion to criticise anything in the Japanese, we have found by experience that much more is inferred than is said. Shortly after my arrival in Japan I was advised by one who had been in the land many years to be careful in correcting a domestic or any other person sustaining any relation to myself, to say not more than one-tenth of what I meant, for the other nine-tenths would be inferred. Direct and perfectly frank criticism and suggestion, such as prevail among Anglo-Americans at least, seem to be rare among the Japanese.”

EvX: This, I gather, is still true.

That’s enough for now. See you next Friday.

Thoughts on the Causes of Polyandry and Polygyny

Warning: speculation

Toda woman and two men (though the Wikipedia doesn’t claim that these are her husbands.)

While polygyny (the practice of having multiple wives) is fairly common throughout the world, its inverse, polyandry (multiple husbands) is quite rare. Off the top of my head, I’m familiar with only two polyandrous societies: the Inuit (Eskimo) of Canada and the Toda of India. (Note: while this article uses the present tense for ease of writing,we are actually discussing historical situations. Modern social norms in both of these groups are probably different.)

What inspires similar marriage customs in such dissimilar environments?

The Inuit live in one of the world’s most extreme environments, where death is little more than a blizzard or failed hunt away. It’s an environment where private property effectively doesn’t exist because no one can consistently secure enough food to survive–without sharing, your neighbors will die, and if your neighbors die, so will you.

When every family faces the strong and constant threat of starvation, excess children are killed; since women do not do the heavy work of hunting seals and caribou in Inuit society, female children are more likely to be killed than male

The result is a skewed sex ratio upon adulthood: more males than females. In a society with strong norms about sharing, men who cannot secure a wife of their own accept that they must share or go without.

Inuit man ice fishing, using two-handed line technique

While the Toda live in a much lusher environment than the Inuit, I have the impression that land scarcity (due to encroachment by their neighbors) was an issue. If a population is already eating all of the food produced by its land and cannot obtain new land or make the land more productive, then the population cannot grow; each couple can only afford to raise two children. A woman who marries young can have a dozen children; even if disease takes half of them, that’s still 4 more children than she and one husband can support. The result, again, is infanticide. But if a woman takes 3 husbands (typically brothers), the situation is ameliorated: she can now afford to raise 4 children.

So polyandry: limited resources=> infanticide=> not enough women to go around.

Polygyny, by contrast, seems to happen more often in cases where men (or at least some men) can afford to raise a great many children. Often they achieve this by taking resources from other men (eg, an emperor can afford a large harem because he taxes peasants, or a warlord may just take wealth directly,) but sometimes they luck into great abundance, like the early Mormons.


Of course, some men practicing polygyny can force other men to practice polyandry.

(Previous posts on the Inuit here, here, and here; Toda here.)