Anthropology Friday: Scatalogic Rites of All Nations, pt 3/3

Muslims win this one. Netherlands, on the other hand…

Welcome back to Anthropology Friday. Today we’re finishing up with Bourke’s Scatalogic Rites of All Nations: A dissertation upon the employment of excrementitious remedial agents in religion, therapeutics, divination, witchcraft, love-philters, etc., in all parts of the globe, published in 1891.

This has been an interesting work. Every book is a product of its times, and Bourke’s shows the evidence of multiple schools of thought. You might think, from all of his interest in poop, that he had read Freud’s theories about “anal fixations” and the like, but Bourke predates Freud (Freud’s first major publication, on aphasia, also appeared in 1891, but Totem and Taboo, for example, was not published until 1913.) If anything, perhaps Bourke influenced Freud.

More influential in Bourke’s work is James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough, a work of comparative mythology (which probably also later influenced Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces,) which itself drew on the general European interest in folklore typified by the Brothers Grimm (early 1800s) and the fraudulent Ossian Epics (late 1700s.) The late 1800s were a time of intense change as the industrial revolution gathered steam, and the notion that ancient, ancestral traditions needed to be recorded and preserved before they were swept away by the changes of the modern era was widespread, prompting both folklorists at home and anthropologists abroad.

At the same time, the proto-Indo-European language had been described in fairly good detail by 1877 (with the publication of August Schleicher‘s A Compendium of the Comparative Grammar of the Indo-European, Sanskrit, Greek and Latin Languages). Here was a successful model of a cultural item (language) evolving (ie, changing) over time that could be used to map the distribution of the people who used it. The idea that things–cultures, people, animals–evolved (or changed) over time was not limited to Darwin–Darwin himself was drawing on the era’s ideas for his unifying theory of evolution via natural selection. Society itself, it seemed, was evolving–and Marx, that voluminous historian of humanity’s changing economic systems and their effects–praised Darwin’s work.

One of the major themes in anthropology at that time was that primitive forms predate modern ones: that is, that modern day primitive people (ie, non-industrialized) preserved the forms of life that the ancestors of industrialized people once followed. So even though you might not be able to figure out much about what pre-literate Europeans believed just by looking at 3,000 year old artifacts, you could infer what their culture was like by just talking to existing pre-literate peoples and looking at what they believe. Marxist theory plays right into this: Marx believed that a culture’s norms and values flowed from its economic system, and thus all hunter-gatherers would share certain norms, and all industrial societies would share certain other norms.

Bourke seeks in his material evidence for something akin to a scatalogical proto-Indo-European, of rites handed down in different location that can be traced back to some ur-rite or ur-belief. He speaks of “survivals,” little customs that might have great antiquity, perhaps dating back to this great ur-culture. For example, he tries to link the Urine Dance of the Zunis to the French Feast of Fools, since both of these involve a mockery of church customs and the eating of something that could loosely be considered excrement, though in the French case it’s just a sausage whose name could be translated as a synonym for excrement. This, he suspects, is a “substitution” of a more palatable item for the older, ancestral form. Already you see the shades of Freud.

He also cites trivial customs like the antics of children at a particular school in Pennsylvania, which seems far more likely to be just “something the kids made up” than a thousand year old “survival” of some ancient custom.

Modern anthropology takes the opposite view (Marxism excluded.) Modern day hunter-gatherers are not seen as models for our own ancestral hunter-gatherers, except in the most minimal sense (obviously they hunted… and gathered. Certain equations about caloric expenditures vs. food acquisition probably hold.) Modern groups are seen not as existing in some kind of “holding pattern” since time immemorial, but as having their own dynamic cultures that have changed (evolved) over time.

There is probably a little truth to both points of view, though thankfully Bourke doesn’t spend too much of the book searching for an ur-scatalogy and gets on with the documentation of various cultural forms, (a task he attacks with encyclopedic thoroughness, often quoting multiple accounts of the same phenomenon and always citing his sources–though I have left out the cites; you can find them in the original if want them):

“As a plaster for the interior of dwellings, cow-dung has been used with frequency ; …

“The natives of the White Nile, the tribes of the Bari, make “a cement of ashes, cow-dung, aud sand,” with which “they plaster the floors and enclosures about their houses.” … Pliny tells us that the threshing-floors of the Roman farmers were paved with cow-dung ; in a footnote it is stated that the same rule obtains in France to this day. …

“Of the Yakuts of Siberia it is related : ” In dirtiness they yield to none ; for a grave author assures us that the mortars which they use for bruising their dried fish are made of cow-dung hardened by the frost.” …

” The people of Jungeiou . . . collected the dung of cows and sheep . . . dried it, roasted it on the fire, and aftewards used it for a bed.” …

” A storekeeper in Berlin was punished some years ago for having used the urine of young girls with a view to make his cheese richer and more piquant. Notwithstanding, people went, bought and ate his cheese with delight. What may be the cause of all these foolish and mysterious things? In human urine is the Anthropin.” — (Per-sonal letter from Dr. Gustav Jseger, Stuttgart, August 29, 1888.)”

EvX: I told you cheese was suspect

“Whether or not the use of humau urine to ripen cheese originated in the ancient practice of employing exerementitious matter to preserve the products of the dairy from the maleficence of witches ; or, on the other hand, whether or not such an employment as an agent to defeat the efforts of the witches be traceable to the fact that stale urine was originally the active ferment to hasten the coagulation of the milk would scarcely be worth discussion. …

“Schurig devotes a chapter to the medicinal preparations made from human ordure. In every case the ordure had to be that of a youth from twenty-five to thirty years old. This manner of preparing chemicals from the human excreta, including phosphorus from urine, was carried to such a pitch that some philosophers believed the philosopher’s stone was to be found by mixing the salts obtained from human urine with those obtained from human excrement. — (See ” Chylologia,” pp. 739-742.) …

“The Eskimo relate stories of a people who preceded them in the Polar regions called the Tornit. Of these predecessors, they say, ” Their way of preparing meat was disgusting, since they let it become putrid, and placed it between the thigh and the belly to warm it.”…

“After describing the double tent of skins used by the Tchuktchees, Mr. W. H. Gilder, author of ” Schwatka’s Search,” says all food is served in the “yoronger,” or inner tent, in which men and women sit, in a state of nudity, wearing only a small loin-cloth of seal-skin.

“After finishing the meal, “a small, shallow pail or pan of wood is passed to any one who feels so inclined, to furnish the warm urine with which the board and knife are washed by the housewife. It is a matter of indifference who furnishes the fluid, whether the men, women, or children ; and I have myself frequently supplied the landlady with the dish-water. In nearly every tent there is kept from the summer season a small supply of dried grass. A little bunch of this is dipped in the warm urine and serves as a dish-rag and a napkin. These people are generally kind and hospitable, and were very attentive to my wants as a stranger, and regarded by them as more helpless than a native.
The women would, therefore, often turn to me after washing the board and knife, and wash my fingers and wipe the grease fro.m my mouth with the moistened grass. Any of the men or women in the tent who desired it would also ask for the wet grass, and use it in the same way.

” It was not done as a ceremony, but merely as a matter of course or of necessity.

” I do not think they would use urine for such purposes if they could get all the water, and especially the warm water, they needed. But all the water they have in winter is obtained by melting snow or ice over an oil lamp, — a very slow process ; and the supply is therefore very limited, being scarcely more than is required for drinking purposes, or to boil such fresh meat as they may have.

” The urine, being warm and containing a small quantity of ammonia, is particularly well adapted for removing grease from the board and utensils, which would otherwise soon become foul, and to their taste much more disagreeable. …

“The manners of the Celtiberians, as described by Strabo and others, have come down through many generations to their descendants in all parts of the world ; all that he related of the use of human urine as a mouth-wash, as a means of ablution, and as a dentifrice, was transplanted to the shores of America by the Spanish colonists ; and even in the present generation, according to Gen. S. V. Benet, U. S. Army, traces of such customs were to be found among some of the settlers in Florida. …

“The smoke and sparks, although sufficiently disagreeable, were trifles of comparative insignificance. I remember being told, in early infancy, that Santa Claus always came into a house through the chimney ; and, although I accepted the statement with the unreasoning faith of childhood, I could never understand how that singular feat of climbing down a chimney could be safely accomplished. . . . My first entrance into a Korak ‘yourt,’ however, at Kamenoi, solved all my childish difficulties, and proved the possibility of entering a house in the eccentric way which Santa Claus is supposed to adopt.” —(George Kennan, “Tent Life in Siberia,” 12th edition, New York, 1887, p. 222.) …

“In Hottentot marriages ” the priest, who lives at the bride’s kraal, enters the circle of the men, and coming up to the bridegroom, pisses a little upon him. The bridegroom receiving the stream with eagerness rubs it all over his body, and makes furrows with his long nails that the urine may penetrate the farther. The priest then goes to the outer circle and evacuates a little upon the bride, who rubs it in with the same eagerness as the bridegroom. To him the priest then returns, and having streamed a little more, goes again to the bride and again scatters his water upon her. Thus he proceeds from one to the other until he has exhausted his whole stock, uttering from time to time to each of
them the following wishes, till he has pronounced the whole upon both: ‘ May you live long and happily together. May you have a son before the end of the year. May this son live to be a comfort to you in your old age. May this son prove to be a man of courage and a good huntsman.'” …

“The attainment by young men of the age of manhood is an event which among all primitive peoples has been signalized by peculiar ceremonies ; in a number of instances ordure and urine have been employed, as for example : The observances connected with this event in the lives of Australian warriors are kept a profound secret, but, among
the few learned is the fact that the neophyte is ” plastered with goat dung.” …

“In order to infuse courage into boys, a warrior, Kerketegerkai, would take the eye and tongue of a dead man (probably of a slain enemy), and after mincing them and mixing with his urine, would administer the compound in the following manner. He would tell the boy to shut his eyes and not look, adding : ‘ I give you proper kaikai ‘ (‘kaikai’ is an introduced word, being the jargon English for food). The warrior then stood up behind the sitting youth, and putting the hitter’s hand between his (the man’s) legs, would feed him. After this dose, ‘heart along, boy no fright.'” — (A. C. Haddou, “The Ethnography of the Western Tribes of Torres Straits,” in Journal of the Anthrop. Institute, Great Britain and Ireland, six. no. 3, 1890, p. 420. …)

“Fearful Rite of the Hottentots:

“A religious rite of still more fearful import occurs among the same people at the initiation of their young men into the rank of warriors — a ceremony which must be deferred until the postulant has attained his eighth or ninth year. It consists, principally, in depriving him of the left testicle, after which the medicine man voids his urine upon
him. …

“Are you aware of the fact that the habit of giving the urine of a healthy child to a new-born babe has prevailed down to the present day among rustic nurses in New England, if not elsewhere, in America? I can bear personal testimony to this fact from absolute knowledge. … (Personal letter from Rev. H. K. Trumbull, editor of the ” Sunday-School Times,” Philadelphia, April 19, 1888.) …

“The reindeer Tchuktchi feign to be passing urine in order to catch their animals which they want to use with their sleds. The reindeer, horses, and cattle of the Siberian tribes are very fond of urine, prob- ably on account of the salt it contains, and when they see a man walking out from the hut, as if for the purpose of relieving his bladder, they follow him up, and so closely that he finds the operation anything but pleasant.

” The Esquimaux of King “William’s Land and the adjacent peninsula often catch the wild reindeer by digging a pit in the deep snow, and covering it with thin blocks of snow, that would break with the weight of an animal. They then make a line of urine from several directions, leading to the centre of the cover of the pitfall, where an accumulation
of snow, saturated with the urine of the dog, is deposited as bait. One or more animals are thereby led to their destruction.” …

“A PARSI is defiled by touching a corpse. “And when he is in contact and does not move it, he is to be washed with bull’s urine and water.”…

“In the cremation of a Hindu corpse at Bombay, the ashes of the pyre were sprinkled with water, a cake of cow-dung placed in the centre, and around it a small stream of cow-urine ; upon this were
placed plantain-leaves, rice-cakes, and flowers. …

“The Creation Myth of the Australians relates that the god Bund-jil created the ocean by urinating for many days upon the orb of the earth. …

“In the cosmogonical myths of the islanders of Kadiack, it is related that the first woman, ” by making water, produced seas.”

: And with that, let us take our leave of this interesting volume. See you next week!


Anthropology Friday: Scatalogic Rites of All Nations, by John Bourke

“Take wheat and barley, beans and lentils, millet and spelt; put them in a storage jar and use them to make bread for yourself. … 12 Eat the food as you would a loaf of barley bread; bake it in the sight of the people, using human excrement for fuel.” 13 The Lord said, “In this way the people of Israel will eat defiled food among the nations where I will drive them.”

14 Then I said, “Not so, Sovereign Lord! I have never defiled myself. From my youth until now I have never eaten anything found dead or torn by wild animals. No impure meat has ever entered my mouth.”

1“Very well,” he said, “I will let you bake your bread over cow dung instead of human excrement.” –Ezekiel 4:9-15

I was going to do something serious like Carlton Coon or Totem and Taboo but then I found “Scatalogic Rites of All Nations: A Dissertation upon the Employment of Excrementious Remedial Agents in Religion, Therapeutics, Divination, Witchcraft, Love-Philters, etc., in all Parts of the Globe: Based on Original Notes and Personal Observation, and upon Compilation of over One Thousand Authorities,” published in 1891 by John Bourke and “not for general perusal.”

So we’re reading this instead. (As usual, quote from the book will be in “” instead of blockquotes.)

“I. The Urine Dance of the Zunis

“In the evening of November 17, 1881, during my stay in the village of Zuni, New Mexico, the Nehue-C’ue, one of the secret orders of the Zunis, sent word to Mr. Frank H. Cushing, whose guest I was, that they would do us the unusual honor of coming to our house to give us one of their characteristic dances, which, Cushing said, was unprecedented. …

“To the accompaniment of an oblong drum … they shuffled into the long room, crammed with spectators of
both sexes and of all sizes and ages. Their song was apparently a ludicrous reference to everything and everybody in sight, Cushing, Mindeleff, and myself receiving special attention, to the uncontrolled merriment of the red-skinned listeners.

“The dancers suddenly wheeled into line, threw themselves on their knees before my table, and with extravagant beatings of breast began an outlandish but faithful mockery of a Mexican Catholic congregation at vespers. One bawled out a parody upon the pater-noster, another mumbled along in the manner of an old man reciting the rosary,
while the fellow with the India-rubber coat jumped up and began a passionate exhortation of sermon, which for mimetic fidelity was incomparable. This kept the audience laughing with sore sides for some moments, until, at a signal from the leader, the dancers suddenly countermarched out of the room in single file as they had entered.

“… The Kehue-Cue re-entered ; this time two of their number were stark naked. Their singing was very peculiar, and sounded like a chorus of chimney-sweeps, and their dance became a stiff-legged jump, with heels kept twelve inches apart. After they had ambled around the room two or three times, Cushing announced in the Zufii language that a
” feast ” was ready for them … They then squatted upon the ground and consumed with zest large ” ollas ” full of tea, and dishes of hard tack and sugar. As they were about finishing this a squaw entered, carrying an ” olla ” of
urine, of which the filthy brutes drank heartily.

“I refused to believe the evidence of my senses, and asked Cushing if that were really human urine. ” Why, certainly,” replied he, ” and here comes more of it.” This time it was a large tin pailful, not less than two gallons. …

“The dancers swallowed great draughts, smacked their lips, and, amid the roaring merriment of the spectators, remarked that it was very, very good. The clowns were now upon their mettle, each trying to surpass his neighbors in feats of nastiess. One swallowed a fragment of corn-husk, saying he thought it very good and better than bread…

“The Zunis, in explanation, stated that the Nehue-Cue were a Medicine Order, which held these dances from time to time to inure the stomachs of members to any kind of food, no matter how revolting. This statement may seem plausible enough when we understand that religion and medicine, among primitive races, are almost always one and the same thing, or at least so closely intertwined, that it is a matter of difficulty to decide where one begins and the other ends.”

EvX: Lest you think the author is targeting the Zunis, he follows this up with a similar celebration in Europe:

“Loosely corresponding to this urine dance of the Zunis was the Feast of Fools in Continental Europe, the description of which here given is quoted from Dulaure :

[the following is in French, but the author gives a summary]

“In the above description may be seen that the principal actors (taking possession of the church during high mass) had their faces daubed and painted, or masked in a harlequin manner; that they were dressed as clowns or as women; that they ate upon the altar itself sausages and blood-puddings. Now the word ” blood-pudding ” in French is boudin; but boudin also meant “excrement.” Add to this the feature that these clowns, after leaving the church, took their stand in dung-carts (tombereaux) , and threw ordure upon the by-standers; and finally that some of these actors appeared perfectly naked… and it must be admitted that there is certainly a wonderful concatenation of resemblances
between these filthy and inexplicable rites on different sides of a great ocean. …

“Applying the above remark to the Zuni dance, it may be interpreted as a dramatic pictograph of some half-forgotten episode in tribal history. To strengthen this view by example, let us recall the fact that the army of Crusaders under Peter the Hermit was so closely beleaguered by the Moslems in Nicomedia in Bithynia that they were compelled to drink their own urine. We read the narrative set out in cold type. The Zunis would have transmitted a record of the event by a dramatic representation which time would incrust with all the veneration that religion could impart.

“…The urine of horses was drunk by the people of Crotta while besieged by Metellus. — (See, in Montaigne’s Essays, ” On Horses,” cap. xlviii. ; see also, in Harington, “Ajax” — “Ulysses upon Ajax,” p. 42.)

“Shipwrecked English seamen drank human urine for want of water. (See in Purchas, vol. iv. p. 1188.) In the year 1877 Captain Nicholas Nolan, Tenth Cavalry, while scouting with his troop after hostile Indians on the Staked Plains of Texas, was lost ; and as supplies became exhausted, the command was reduced to living for several days on the blood of their horses and their own urine, water not being discovered in that vicinity. — (See Hammersley’s Record of Living Officers of the United States Army.)”

EvX: Though urine’s salt content makes it iffy for rehydration, it’s basically sterile, so drinking small quantities probably won’t hurt you the way eating feces or arsenic can. (We’ve already seen in previous posts that reindeer are quite fond of the salts found in human urine and that actually consuming feces is still used as a medical treatment for certain intestinal disorders, though typically this is done in some way that allows the suffer not to taste it.)

Speaking of feces:

“The following appeared in an article headed “The Last Cholera Epidemic in Paris,” in the ” General Homoeopathic Journal,” vol. cxiii., page 15, 1886: “The neighbors of an establishment famous for its excellent bread, pastry, and similar products of luxury, complained again and again of the disgusting smells which prevailed therein and which penetrated into their dwellings. The appearance of cholera finally lent force to these complaints, and the sanitary inspectors who were sent to investigate the matter found that there was a connection between the water-closets of these dwellings and the reservoir containing the water used in the preparation of the bread. This connection was cut off at once, but the immediate result thereof was a perceptible deterioration of the quality of the bread. Chemists have evidently no difficulty in demonstrating that water impregnated with ‘extract of water-closet,’ has the peculiar property of causing dough to rise particularly fine, thereby imparting to bread the nice appearance and pleasant flavor which is the principal quality of luxurious bread.”

EvX: W. T. F.

“The very earliest accounts of the Indians of Florida and Texas refer to the use of such aliment. Cabeza de Vaca, one of the survivors of the ill-fated expedition of Paufilo de Narvaez, was a prisoner among various tribes for many years, and finally, accompanied by three comrades as wretched as himself, succeeded in traversing the continent, coming out at Culiacan, on the Pacific Coast, in 1536. His narrative says that the ” Floridians,” “for food, dug roots, and that they ate spiders, ants’ eggs, worms, lizards, salamanders, snakes, earth, wood, the dung of deer, and many other things.”

EvX: If we were to arrange the groups mentioned in the book along a “scale of cleanliness,” I think Muslims would come out as the cleanest (I don’t recall mention of Jewish customs), certain pagan groups as the dirtiest*, and Christians in between. I haven’t studied Islam, yet, but my understanding is that it adopted various aspects of Jewish law which has a strong emphasis on cleanliness, eg, the similar laws of kosher and halal dictate which foods are clean to eat and how they should be prepared. Christianity adopted some of the spiritual elements of Judaism, but abandoned the legalistic parts–including all of the rules on things like “how to make sure your oven is clean.” Christians don’t really believe that you can become morally unclean from touching something physically unclean, like menstrual blood.

*Some pagan groups are very clean.

“The German Jesuit, Father Jacob Baegert, speaking of the Lower Californians (among whom he resided continuously from 1748 to 17C5), says: — ” They eat the seeds of the pitahaya (giant cactus) which have passed off undigested from their own stomachs ; they gather their own excrement, separate the seeds from it, roast, grind, and eat them, making merry over the loathsome meal.” And again : ” In the mission of Saint Ignatius, . . . there are persons who will attach a piece of meat to a string and swallow it and pull it out again a dozen times in succession, for the sake of protracting the enjoyment of its taste.”

EvX: For goodness’ sakes, just give the poor men some more meat!

“The Abbe Domenech asserts the same of the bands near Lake Superior : ” In boiling their wild rice to eat, they mix it with the excrement of rabbits, — a delicacy appreciated by the epicures amongthem” …

“Of the negroes of Guinea an old authority relates that they ” ate filthy, stinking elephant’s and buffalo’s flesh, wherein there is a thousand maggots, and many times stinks like carrion. …

“And another says that the Mosagueys make themselves a ” pottage with milk and fresh dung of kine, which, mixed together and heat at the fire, they drinke, saying it makes them strong” …

“(Tunguses of Siberia.) “They eat up every part of the animal which they kill, not throwing away even the impurities of the bowels, with which they make a sort of black pudding by a mixture of blood and fat.” — (Gavrila Sarytschew, in Phillips’s ” Voyages,” London, 1807, vol. v.)

“Natives of Eastern Siberia ” ate with avidity the entrails of the seal without cleaning in the least the partly digested food from the intestines, the ordure of the seal being as offensive to civilized man as the fasces of men or dogs.” — (Personal letter from Chief Engineer Melville, U. S. Navy, to Captain Bourke.) …

” In Queensland, near Darlington, there is a tract of country covered with a peculiar species of pine, yielding an edible nut of which the natives are extremely fond. . . . The men would form large clay pans in the soil, into which they would urinate ; they would then collect an abundance of these seeds and steep them in the urine. A fermentation took place, and all the seeds were devoured greedily, the effect being to cause a temporary madness among the men, — in fact a perfect delirium tremens. On these occasions it was dangerous for any one to approach them. The liquid was not used in any way.” — (Personal letter from John F. Mann, Esq., Neutral Bay, Sydney, New South Wales.)”

Casu Marzu cheese

EvX: Lest we grow over-proud, let’s remember that anything “fermented” is essentially rotten. Coffee, chocolate, cheese, and bread are all produced via fermentation. Cheese is exceptionally disgusting, because in addition to being inculcated with bacteria and left to rot for a few months, it is first treated with rennet, an enzyme that comes from a calf’s stomach. Rennet makes the cheese coagulate, just as it does while being digested. In other words, cheese is literally rotten vomit.

If that weren’t bad enough, in Sardinia there is a variety of cheese, casu marzu, that is literally full of maggots. When disturbed (such as by someone biting into a piece of the cheese,) the larvae can leap 6 inches into the air.

According to Wikipedia:

Similar milk cheeses notable for containing living insect larvae are produced in several Italian regions and in Corsica, France.[16][17][18]

Several other regional varieties of cheese with fly larvae are produced in Europe. For example, goat-milk cheese is left to the open air until P. casei eggs are naturally laid in the cheese.[4] Then it is aged in white wine, with grapes and honey, preventing the larvae from emerging, giving the cheese a strong flavour. In addition, other regions in Europe have traditional cheeses that rely on live arthropods for ageing and flavouring, such as the German Milbenkäse and French Mimolette, both of which rely on cheese mites.

Civet in a civet-poop-coffee farm

(Lest you get the wrong impression, I love cheese and sometimes make my own.)

Coffee, while also rotten, is normally less disgusting than cheese. Civet Coffee (aka kopi luwak,) is one of the world’s most expensive varieties, clocking in at $100-$500 a pound. It’s made from coffee beans that were eaten and then pooped out by civets. People used to collect the beans from wild civet droppings just found lying randomly on the ground, but since the coffee caught on as a thing for rich people, the civets have been moved into cages where their poops can be more easily collected.

Unfortunately for connoisseurs, civet coffee apparently doesn’t live up to the hype:

Farmed civet poops full of coffee beans

The Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) states that there is a “general consensus within the industry … it just tastes bad”. A coffee professional cited in the SCAA article was able to compare the same beans with and without the kopi luwak process using a rigorous coffee cupping evaluation. He concluded: “it was apparent that Luwak coffee sold for the story, not superior quality…Using the SCAA cupping scale, the Luwak scored two points below the lowest of the other three coffees. It would appear that the Luwak processing diminishes good acidity and flavor and adds smoothness to the body, which is what many people seem to note as a positive to the coffee.”

Tim Carman, food writer for the Washington Post reviewed kopi luwak available to US consumers and concluded “It tasted just like…Folgers. Stale. Lifeless. Petrified dinosaur droppings steeped in bathtub water. I couldn’t finish it.”[17]

As someone who enjoys Target Coffee, I know I’m not much of a connoisseur, but at least I don’t pay $500 a pound for poop coffee.

Let’s continue this discussion next week, with practical (and impractical) uses for urine.

Anthropology Friday: Numbers and the Making of Us, by Caleb Everett pt. 4

Yes, but which 25% of us is grape?

Welcome to our final post on Numbers and the Making of Us: Counting and the Course of Human Cultures, by Caleb Everett. Today I just want to highlight a few interesting passages.


For example, there is about 25% overlap between the human genome and that of grapes. (And we have fewer genes than grapes!) So some caution should be exercised before reading too much into percentages of genomic correspondence across species. I doubt, after all that you consider yourself one-quarter grape. … canine and bovine species generally exhibit about an 85% rate of genomic correspondence with humans. … small changes in genetic makeup can, among other influences, lead to large changes in brain size.

On the development of numbers:

Babylonian math homework

After all, for the vast majority of our species’ existence, we lived as hunters and gatherers in Africa … A reasonable interpretation of the contemporary distribution of cultural and number-system types, then, is that humans did not rely on complex number system for the bulk of their history. We can also reasonably conclude that transitions to larger, more sedentary, and more trade-based cultures helped pressure various groups to develop more involved numerical technologies. … Written numerals, and writing more generally, were developed first in the Fertile Crescent after the agricultural revolution began there. … These pressures ultimately resulted in numerals and other written symbols, such as the clay-token based numerals … The numerals then enabled new forms of agriculture and trade that required the exact discrimination and representation of quantities. The ancient Mesopotamian case is suggestive, then, of the motivation for the present-day correlation between subsistence and number types: larger agricultural and trade-based economies require numerical elaboration to function. …

Intriguingly, though, the same maybe true of Chinese writing, the earliest samples of which date to the Shang Dynasty and are 3,000 years old. The most ancient of these samples are oracle bones. These bones were inscribed with nuemerals quantifying such items as enemy prisoners, birds and animals hunted, and sacrificed animals. … Ancient writing around the world is numerically focused.

Changes in the Jungle as population growth makes competition for resources more intense and forces people out of their traditional livelihoods:

Consider the case of one of my good friends, a member of an indigenous group known as the Karitiana. … Paulo spent the majority of his childhood, in the 1980s and 1990s in the largest village of his people’s reservation. … While some Karitiana sought to make a living in nearby Porto Velho, many strived to maintain their traditional way of life on their reservation. At the time this was feasible, and their traditional subsistence strategies of hunting, gathering, and horticulture could be realistically practiced. Recently, however, maintaining their conventional way of life has become a less tenable proposition. … many Karitiana feel they have little choice but to seek employment in the local Brazilian economy… This is certainly true of Paulo. He has been enrolled in Brazilian schools for some time, has received some higher education, and is currently employed by a governmental organization. To do these things, of course, Paulo had to learn Portuguese grammar and writing. And he had to learn numbers and math, also. In short, the socioeconomic pressures he has felt to acquire the numbers of another culture are intense.

Everett cites a statistic that >90% of the world’s approximately 7,000 languages are endangered.

They are endangered primarily because people like Paulo are being conscripted into larger nation-states, gaining fluency in more economically viable languages. … From New Guinea to Australia to Amazonia and elsewhere, the mathematizing of people is happening.

On the advantages of different number systems:

Recent research also suggests that the complexity of some non-linguistic number systems have been under appreciated. Many counting boards and abaci that have been used, and are still in use across the world’s culture, present clear advantages to those using them … the abacus presents some cognitive advantages. That is because, research now suggests, children who are raised using the abacus develop a “mental abacus” with time. … According to recent cross-cultural findings, practitioners of abacus-based mathematical strategies outperform those unfamiliar with such strategies,a t least in some mathematical tasks. The use of the Soroban abacus has, not coincidentally, now been adopted in many schools throughout Asia.

The zero is a dot in the middle of the photo–earliest known zero, Cambodia

I suspect these higher math scores are more due to the mental abilities of the people using the abacus than the abacus itself. I have also just ordered an abacus.

… in 2015 the world’s oldest known unambiguous inscription of a circular zero was rediscovered in Cambodia. The zero in question, really a large dot, serves as a placeholder in the ancient Khmer numeral for 605. It is inscribed on a stone tablet, dating to 683 CE, that was found only kilometers from the faces of Bayon and other ruins of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. … the Maya also developed a written form for zero, and the Inca encoded the concept in their Quipu.

In 1202, Fibonacci wrote the Book of Calculation, which promoted the use of the superior Arabic (yes Hindu) numerals (zero included) over the old Roman ones. Just as the introduction of writing jump-started the Cherokee publishing industry, so the introduction of superior numerals probably helped jump-start the Renaissance.

Cities and the rise of organized religion:

…although creation myths, animistic practices, and other forms of spiritualism are universal or nearly universal, large-scale hierarchical religions are restricted to relatively few cultural lineages. Furthermore, these religions… developed only after people began living in larger groups and settlements because of their agricultural lifestyles. … A phalanx of scholars has recently suggested that the development of major hierarchical religions, like the development of hierarchical governments, resulted from the agglomeration of people in such places. …

Organized religious beliefs, with moral-enforcing deities and priest case, were a by-product of the need for large groups of people to cooperate via shared morals and altruism. As the populations of cultures grew after the advent of agricultural centers… individuals were forced to rely on shared trust with many more individuals, including non-kin, than was or is the case in smaller groups like bands or tribes. … Since natural selection is predicated on the protection of one’s genes, in-group altruism and sacrifice are easier to make sense of in bands and tribes. But why would humans in much larger populations–humans who have no discernible genetic relationship… cooperate with these other individuals in their own culture? … some social mechanism had to evolve so that larger cultures would not disintegrate due to competition among individuals and so that many people would not freeload off the work of others. One social mechanism that foster prosocial and cooperative behavior is an organized religion based on shared morals and omniscient deities capable of keeping track of the violation of such morals. …

When Moses descended from Mt. Sinai with his stone tablets, they were inscribed with ten divine moral imperatives. … Why ten? … Here is an eleventh commandment that could likely be uncontroversially adopted by many people: “thou shalt not torture.” … But then the list would appear to lose some of its rhetorical heft. “eleven commandments’ almost hints of a satirical deity.

Technically there are 613 commandments, but that’s not nearly as catchy as the Ten Commandments–inadvertently proving Everett’s point.

Overall, I found this book frustrating and repetitive, but there were some good parts. I’ve left out most of the discussion of the Piraha and similar cultures, and the rather fascinating case of Nicaraguan homesigners (“homesigners” are deaf people who were never taught a formal sign language but made up their own.) If you’d like to learn more about them, you might want to look up the book at your local library.

Anthropology Friday: Numbers and the Making of Us, part 2

Welcome to part 2 of my review of Caleb Everett’s Numbers and the Making of Us: Counting and the Course of Human Cultures.

I was really excited about this book when I picked it up at the library. It has the word “numbers” on the cover and a subtitle that implies a story about human cultural and cognitive evolution.

Regrettably, what could have been a great books has turned out to be kind of annoying. There’s some fascinating information in here–for example, there’s a really interesting part on pages 249-252–but you have to get through pages 1-248 to get there. (Unfortunately, sometimes authors put their most interesting bits at the end so that people looking to make trouble have gotten bored and wandered off by then.)

I shall try to discuss/quote some of the book’s more interesting bits, and leave aside my differences with the author (who keeps reiterating his position that mathematical ability is entirely dependent on the culture you’re raised in.) Everett nonetheless has a fascinating perspective, having actually spent much of his childhood in a remote Amazonian village belonging to the Piraha, who have no real words for numbers. (His parents were missionaries.)

Which languages contain number words? Which don’t? Everett gives a broad survey:

“…we can reach a few broad conclusions about numbers in speech. First, they are common to nearly all of the world’s languages. … this discussion has shown that number words, across unrelated language, tend to exhibit striking parallels, since most languages employ a biologically based body-part model evident in their number bases.”

That is, many languages have words that translate essentially to “One, Two, Three, Four, Hand, … Two hands, (10)… Two Feet, (20),” etc., and reflect this in their higher counting systems, which can end up containing a mix of base five, 10, and 20. (The Romans, for example, used both base five and ten in their written system.)

“Third, the linguistic evidence suggests not only that this body-part model has motivated the innovation of numebers throughout the world, but also that this body-part basis of number words stretches back historically as far as the linguistic data can take us. It is evident in reconstruction of ancestral languages, including Proto-Sino-Tibetan, Proto-Niger-Congo, Proto-Autronesian, and Proto-Indo-European, the languages whose descendant tongues are best represented in the world today.”

Note, though, that linguistics does not actually give us a very long time horizon. Proto-Indo-European was spoken about 4-6,000 years ago. Proto-Sino-Tibetan is not as well studied yet as PIE, but also appears to be at most 6,000 years old. Proto-Niger-Congo is probably about 5-6,000 years old. Proto-Austronesian (which, despite its name, is not associated with Australia,) is about 5,000 years old.

These ranges are not a coincidence: languages change as they age, and once they have changed too much, they become impossible to classify into language families. Older languages, like Basque or Ainu, are often simply described as isolates, because we can’t link them to their relatives. Since humanity itself is 200,000-300,000 years old, comparative linguistics only opens a very short window into the past. Various groups–like the Amazonian tribes Everett studies–split off from other groups of humans thousands 0r hundreds of thousands of years before anyone started speaking Proto-Indo-European. Even agriculture, which began about 10,000-15,000 years ago, is older than these proto-languages (and agriculture seems to have prompted the real development of math.)

I also note these language families are the world’s biggest because they successfully conquered speakers of the world’s other languages. Spanish, Portuguese, and English are now widely spoken in the Americas instead of Cherokee, Mayan, and Nheengatu because Indo-European language speakers conquered the speakers of those languages.

The guy with the better numbers doesn’t always conquer the guy with the worse numbers–the Mongol conquest of China is an obvious counter. But in these cases, the superior number system sticks around, because no one wants to replace good numbers with bad ones.

In general, though, better tech–which requires numbers–tends to conquer worse tech.

Which means that even though our most successful language families all have number words that appear to be about 4-6,000 years old, we shouldn’t assume this was the norm for most people throughout most of history. Current human numeracy may be a very recent phenomenon.

“The invention of number is attainable by the human mind but is attained through our fingers. Linguistic data, both historical and current, suggest that numbers in disparate cultures have arisen independently, on an indeterminate range of occasions, through the realization that hands can be used to name quantities like 5 and 10. … Words, our ultimate implements for abstract symbolization, can thankfully be enlisted to denote quantities. But they are usually enlisted only after people establish a more concrete embodied correspondence between their finger sand quantities.”

Some more on numbers in different languages:

“Rare number bases have been observed, for instance, in the quaternary (base-4) systems of Lainana languages of California, or in the senary (base-6) systems that are found in southern New Guinea. …

Several languages in Melanesia and Polynesia have or once had number system that vary in accordance with the type of object being counted. In the case of Old High Fijian, for instance, the word for 100 was Bola when people were counting canoes, but Kora when they were counting coconuts. …

some languages in northwest Amazonia base their numbers on kinship relationships. This is true of Daw and Hup two related language in the region. Speakers of the former languages use fingers complemented with words when counting from 4 to 10. The fingers signify the quantity of items being counted, but words are used to denote whether the quantity is odd or even. If the quantity is even, speakers say it “has a brother,” if it is odd they state it “has no brother.”

What about languages with no or very few words for numbers?

In one recent survey of limited number system, it was found that more than a dozen languages lack bases altogether, and several do not have words for exact quantities beyond 2 and, in some cases, beyond 1. Of course, such cases represent a miniscule fraction of the world’s languages, the bulk of which have number bases reflecting the body-part model. Furthermore, most of the extreme cases in question are restricted geographically to Amazonia. …

All of the extremely restricted languages, I believe, are used by people who are hunter-gatherers or horticulturalists, eg, the Munduruku. Hunter gatherers typically don’t have a lot of goods to keep track of or trade, fields to measure or taxes to pay, and so don’t need to use a lot of numbers. (Note, however, that the Inuit/Eskimo have a perfectly normal base-20 counting system. Their particularly harsh environment appears to have inspired both technological and cultural adaptations.) But why are Amazonian languages even less numeric than those of other hunter-gatherers from similar environments, like central African?

Famously, most of the languages of Australia have somewhat limited number system, and some linguists previously claimed that most Australian language slack precise terms for quantities beyond 2…. [however] many languages on that continent actually have native means of describing various quantities in precise ways, and their number words for small quantities can sometimes be combined to represent larger quantities via the additive and even multiplicative usage of bases. …

Of the nearly 200 Australian languages considered in the survey, all have words to denote 1 and 2. In about three-quarters of the languages, however, the highest number is 3 or 4. Still, may of the languages use a word for “two” as a base for other numbers. Several of the languages use a word for “five” as a base, an eight of the languages top out at a word for “ten.”

Everett then digresses into what initially seems like a tangent about grammatical number, but luckily I enjoy comparative linguistics.

In an incredibly comprehensive survey of 1,066 languages, linguist Matthew Dryer recently found that 98 of them are like Karitiana and lack a grammatical means of marking nouns of being plural. So it is not particularly rare to find languages in which numbers do not show plurality. … about 90% of them, have a grammatical means through which speakers can convey whether they are talking about one or more than one thing.

Mandarin is a major language that has limited expression of plurals. According to Wikipedia:

The grammar of Standard Chinese shares many features with other varieties of Chinese. The language almost entirely lacks inflection, so that words typically have only one grammatical form. Categories such as number (singular or plural) and verb tense are frequently not expressed by any grammatical means, although there are several particles that serve to express verbal aspect, and to some extent mood.

Some languages, such as modern Arabic and Proto-Indo-European also have a “dual” category distinct from singular or plural; an extremely small set of languages have a trial category.

Many languages also change their verbs depending on how many nouns are involved; in English we say “He runs; they run;” languages like Latin or Spanish have far more extensive systems.

In sum: the vast majority of languages distinguish between 1 and more than one; a few distinguish between one, two, and many, and a very few distinguish between one, two, three, and many.

From the endnotes:

… some controversial claims of quadral markers, used in restricted contexts, have been made for the Austronesian languages Tangga, Marshallese, and Sursurunga. .. As Corbett notes in his comprehensive survey, the forms are probably best considered quadral markers. In fact, his impressive survey did not uncover any cases of quadral marking in the world’s languages.

Everett tends to bury his point; his intention in this chapter is to marshal support for the idea that humans have an “innate number sense” that allows them to pretty much instantly realize if they are looking at 1, 2, or 3 objects, but does not allow for instant recognition of larger numbers, like 4. He posits a second, much vaguer number sense that lets us distinguish between “big” and “small” amounts of things, eg, 10 looks smaller than 100, even if you can’t count.

He does cite actual neuroscience on this point–he’s not just making it up. Even newborn humans appear to be able to distinguish between 1, 2, and 3 of something, but not larger numbers. They also seem to distinguish between some and a bunch of something. Anumeric peoples, like the Piraha, also appear to only distinguish between 1, 2, and 3 items with good accuracy, though they can tell “a little” “some” and “a lot” apart. Everett also cites data from animal studies that find, similarly, that animals can distinguish 1, 2, and 3, as well as “a little” and “a lot”. (I had been hoping for a discussion of cephalopod intelligence, but unfortunately, no.)

How then, Everett asks, do we wed our specific number sense (1, 2, and 3) with our general number sense (“some” vs “a lot”) to produce ideas like 6, 7, and a googol? He proposes that we have no innate idea of 6, nor ability to count to 10. Rather, we can count because we were taught to (just as some highly trained parrots and chimps can.) It is only the presence of number words in our languages that allows us to count past 3–after all, anumeric people cannot.

But I feel like Everett is railroading us to a particular conclusion. For example, he sites neurology studies that found one part of the brain does math–the intraparietal suclus (IPS)–but only one part? Surely there’s more than one part of the brain involved in math.

About 5 seconds of Googling got me “Neural Basis of Mathematical Cognition,” which states that:

The IPS turns out to be part of the extensive network of brain areas that support human arithmetic (Figure 1). Like all networks it is distributed, and it is clear that numerical cognition engages perceptual, motor, spatial and mnemonic functions, but the hub areas are the parietal lobes …

(By contrast, I’ve spent over half an hour searching and failing to figure out how high octopuses can count.)

Moreover, I question the idea that the specific and general number senses are actually separate. Rather, I suspect there is only one sense, but it is essentially logarithmic. For example, hearing is logarithmic (or perhaps exponential,) which is why decibels are also logarithmic. Vision is also logarithmic:

The eye senses brightness approximately logarithmically over a moderate range (but more like a power law over a wider range), and stellar magnitude is measured on a logarithmic scale.[14] This magnitude scale was invented by the ancient Greek astronomer Hipparchus in about 150 B.C. He ranked the stars he could see in terms of their brightness, with 1 representing the brightest down to 6 representing the faintest, though now the scale has been extended beyond these limits; an increase in 5 magnitudes corresponds to a decrease in brightness by a factor of 100.[14] Modern researchers have attempted to incorporate such perceptual effects into mathematical models of vision.[15][16]

So many experiments have revealed logarithmic responses to stimuli that someone has formulated a mathematical “law” on the matter:

Fechner’s law states that the subjective sensation is proportional to the logarithm of the stimulus intensity. According to this law, human perceptions of sight and sound work as follows: Perceived loudness/brightness is proportional to logarithm of the actual intensity measured with an accurate nonhuman instrument.[3]

p = k ln ⁡ S S 0 {\displaystyle p=k\ln {\frac {S}{S_{0}}}\,\!}

The relationship between stimulus and perception is logarithmic. This logarithmic relationship means that if a stimulus varies as a geometric progression (i.e., multiplied by a fixed factor), the corresponding perception is altered in an arithmetic progression (i.e., in additive constant amounts). For example, if a stimulus is tripled in strength (i.e., 3 x 1), the corresponding perception may be two times as strong as its original value (i.e., 1 + 1). If the stimulus is again tripled in strength (i.e., 3 x 3 x 3), the corresponding perception will be three times as strong as its original value (i.e., 1 + 1 + 1). Hence, for multiplications in stimulus strength, the strength of perception only adds. The mathematical derivations of the torques on a simple beam balance produce a description that is strictly compatible with Weber’s law.[6][7]

In any logarithmic scale, small quantities–like 1, 2, and 3–are easy to distinguish, while medium quantities–like 101, 102, and 103–get lumped together as “approximately the same.”

Of course, this still doesn’t answer the question of how people develop the ability to count past 3, but this is getting long, so we’ll continue our discussion next week.

Review: Numbers and the Making of Us, by Caleb Everett

I’m about halfway through Caleb Everett’s Numbers and the Making of Us: Counting and the Course of Human Cultures. Everett begins the book with a lengthy clarification that he thinks everyone in the world has equal math abilities, some of us just happen to have been exposed to more number ideas than others. Once that’s out of the way, the book gets interesting.

When did humans invent numbers? It’s hard to say. We have notched sticks from the Paleolithic, but no way to tell if these notches were meant to signify numbers or were just decorated.

The slightly more recent Ishango, Lebombo, and Wolf bones (30,000 YA, Czech Republic) seem more likely to indicate that someone was at least counting–if not keeping track–of something.

The Ishango bone (estimated 20,000 years old, found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo near the headwaters of the Nile,) has three sets of notches–two sets total to 60, the third to 48. Interestingly, the notches are grouped, with both sets of sixty composed of primes: 19 + 17 + 13 + 11 and 9 + 19 + 21 + 11. The set of 48 contains groups of 3, 6, 4, 8, 10, 5, 5, and 7. Aside from the stray seven, the sequence tantalizingly suggests that someone was doubling numbers.

Ishango Bone

The Ishango bone also has a quartz point set into the end, which perhaps allowed it to be used for scraping, drawing, or etching–or perhaps it just looked nice atop someone’s decorated bone.

The Lebombo bone, (estimated 43-44,2000 years old, found near the border between South Africa and Swaziland,) is quite similar to the Ishango bone, but only contains 29 notches (as far as we can tell–it’s broken.)

I’ve seen a lot of people proclaiming “Scientists think it was used to keep track of menstrual cycles. Menstruating African women were the first mathematicians!” so I’m just going to let you in on a little secret: scientists have no idea what it was for. Maybe someone was just having fun putting notches on a bone. Maybe someone was trying to count all of their relatives. Maybe someone was counting days between new and full moons, or counting down to an important date.

Without a far richer archaeological assembly than one bone, we have no idea what this particular person might have wanted to count or keep track of. (Also, why would anyone want to keep track of menstrual cycles? You’ll know when they happen.)

The Wolf bone (30,000 years old, Czech Republic,) has received far less interest from folks interested in proclaiming that menstruating African women were the first mathematicians, but is a nice looking artifact with 60 notches–notches 30 and 31 are significantly longer than the others, as though marking a significant place in the counting (or perhaps just the middle of the pattern.)

Everett cites another, more satisfying tally stick: a 10,000 year old piece of antler found in the anoxic waters of Little Salt Spring, Florida. The antler contains two sets of marks: 28 (or possibly 29–the top is broken in a way that suggests another notch might have been a weak point contributing to the break) large, regular, evenly spaced notches running up the antler, and a much smaller set of notches set beside and just slightly beneath the first. It definitely looks like someone was ticking off quantities of something they wanted to keep track of.

Here’s an article with more information on Little Salt Spring and a good photograph of the antler.

I consider the bones “maybes” and the Little Salt Spring antler a definite for counting/keeping track of quantities.

Inca Quipu

Everett also mentions a much more recent and highly inventive tally system: the Incan quipu.

A quipu is made of knotted strings attached to one central string. A series of knots along the length of each string denotes numbers–one knot for 1, two for 2, etc. The knots are grouped in clusters, allowing place value–first cluster for the ones, second for the tens, third for hundreds, etc. (And a blank space for a zero.)

Thus a sequence of 2 knots, 4 knots, a space, and 5 knots = 5,402

The Incas, you see, had an empire to administer, no paper, but plenty of lovely alpaca wool. So being inventive people, they made do.

Everett then discusses the construction of names for numbers/base systems in different languages. Many languages use a combination of different bases, eg, “two twos” for four, (base 2,) “two hands” to signify 10 (base 5,) and from there, words for multiples of 10 or 20, (base 10 or 20,) can all appear in the same language. He argues convincingly that most languages derived their counting words from our original tally sticks: fingers and toes, found in quantities of 5, 10, and 20. So the number for 5 in a language might be “one hand”, the number for 10, “Two hands,” and the number for 20 “one person” (two hands + two feet.) We could express the number 200 in such a language by saying “two hands of one person”= 10 x 20.

(If you’re wondering how anyone could come up with a base 60 system, such as we inherited from the Babylonians for telling time, try using the knuckles of the four fingers on one hand [12] times the fingers of the other hand [5] to get 60.)

Which begs the question of what counts as a “number” word (numeral). Some languages, it is claimed, don’t have words for numbers higher than 3–but put out an array of 6 objects, and their speakers can construct numbers like “three twos.” Is this a number? What about the number in English that comes after twelve: four-teen, really just a longstanding mispronunciation of four and ten?

Perhaps a better question than “Do they have a word for it,” is “Do they have a common, easy to use word for it?” English contains the world nonillion, but you probably don’t use it very often (and according to the dictionary, a nonillion is much bigger in Britain than in the US, which makes it especially useless.) By contrast, you probably use quantities like a hundred or a thousand all the time, especially when thinking about household budgets.

Roman Numerals are really just an advanced tally system with two bases: 5 and 10. IIII are clearly regular tally marks. V (5) is similar to our practice of crossing through four tally marks. X (10) is two Vs set together. L (50) is a rotated V. C (100) is an abbreviation for the Roman word Centum, hundred. (I, V, X, and L are not abbreviations.) I’m not sure why 500 is D; maybe just because D follows C and it looks like a C with an extra line. M is short for Mille, or thousand. Roman numerals are also fairly unique in their use of subtraction in writing numbers, which few people do because it makes addition horrible. Eg, IV and VI are not the same number, nor do they equal 15 and 51. No, they equal 4 (v-1) and 6 (v+1,) respectively. Adding or multiplying large Roman numerals quickly becomes cumbersome; if you don’t believe me, try XLVII times XVIII with only a pencil and paper.

Now imagine you’re trying to run an empire this way.

You’re probably thinking, “At least those quipus had a zero and were reliably base ten,” about now.

Interestingly, the Mayans (and possibly the Olmecs) already had a proper symbol that they used for zero in their combination base-5/base-20 system with pretty functional place value at a time when the Greeks and Romans did not (the ancient Greeks were philosophically unsure about this concept of a “number that isn’t there.”)

(Note: given the level of sophistication of Native American civilizations like the Inca, Aztec, and Maya, and the fact that these developed in near total isolation, they must have been pretty smart. Their current populations appear to be under-performing relative to their ancestors.)

But let’s let Everett have a chance to speak:

Our increasingly refined means of survival and adaptation are the result of a cultural ratchet. This term, popularized by Duke University psychologist and primatologist Michael Tomasello, refers to the fact that humans cooperatively lock in knowledge from one generation to the next, like the clicking of a ratchet. In other word, our species’ success is due in large measure to individual members’ ability to learn from and emulate the advantageous behavior of their predecessors and contemporaries in their community. What makes humans special is not simply that we are so smart, it is that we do not have to continually come up with new solutions to the same old problems. …

Now this is imminently reasonable; I did not invent the calculus, nor could I have done so had it not already existed. Luckily for me, Newton and Leibniz already invented it and I live in a society that goes to great lengths to encode math in textbooks and teach it to students.

I call this “cultural knowledge” or “cultural memory,” and without it we’d still be monkeys with rocks.

The importance of gradually acquired knowledge stored in the community, culturally reified but not housed in the mind of any one individual, crystallizes when we consider cases in which entire cultures have nearly gone extinct because some of their stored knowledge dissipated due to the death of individuals who served as crucial nodes in their community’s knowledge network. In the case of the Polar Inuit of Northwest Greenland, population declined in the mid-nineteenth century after an epidemic killed several elders of the community. These elders were buried along with their tool sand weapons, in accordance with local tradition, and the Inuits’ ability to manufacture the tools and weapons in question was severely compromised. … As a result, their population did not recover until about 40 years later, when contact with another Inuit group allowed for the restoration of the communal knowledge base.

The first big advance, the one that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom, was language itself. Yes, other animals can communicate–whales and birds sing; bees do their waggle dance–but only humans have full-fledged, generative language which allows us to both encode and decode new ideas with relative ease. Language lets different people in a tribe learn different things and then pool their ideas far more efficiently than mere imitation.

The next big leap was the development of visual symbols we could record–and read–on wood, clay, wax, bones, cloth, cave walls, etc. Everett suggests that the first of these symbols were likely tally marks such us those found on the Lebombo bone, though of course the ability to encode a buffalo on the wall of the Lascaux cave, France, was also significant. From these first symbols we developed both numbers and letters, which eventually evolved into books.

Books are incredible. Books are like external hard drives for your brain, letting you store, access, and transfer information to other people well beyond your own limits of memorization and well beyond a human lifetime. Books reach across the ages, allowing us to read what philosophers, poets, priests and sages were thinking about a thousand years ago.

Recently we invented an even more incredible information storage/transfer device: computers/the internet. To be fair, they aren’t as sturdy as clay tablets, (fired clay is practically immortal,) but they can handle immense quantities of data–and make it searchable, an incredibly important task.

But Everett tries to claim that cultural ratchet is all there is to human mathematical ability. If you live in a society with calculus textbooks, then you can learn calculus, and if you don’t, you can’t. Everett does not want to imply that Amazonian tribesmen with no words for numbers bigger than three are in any way less able to do math than the Mayans with their place value system and fancy zero.

But this seems unlikely for two reasons. First, we know very well that even in societies with calculus textbooks, not everyone can make use of them. Even among my own children, who have been raised with about as similar an environment as a human can make and have very similar genetics, there’s a striking difference in intellectual strengths and weaknesses. Humans are not identical in their abilities.

Moreover, we know that different mental tasks are performed in different, specialized parts of the brain. For example, we decode letters in the “visual word form area” of the brain; people whose VWAs have been damaged can still read, but they have to use different parts of their brains to work out the letters and they end up reading more slowly than they did before.

Memorably, before he died, the late Henry Harpending (of West Hunter) had a stroke while in Germany. He initially didn’t notice the stroke because it was located in the part of the brain that decodes letters into words, but since he was in Germany, he didn’t expect to read the words, anyway. It was only when he looked at something written in English later that day that he realized he couldn’t read it, and soon after I believe he passed out and was taken to the hospital.

Why should our brains have a VWA at all? It’s not like our primate ancestors did a whole lot of reading. It turns out that the VWA is repurposed from the part of our brain that recognizes faces :)

Likewise, there are specific regions of the brain that handle mathematical tasks. People who are better at math not only have more gray matter in these regions, but they also have stronger connections between them, letting the work together in harmony to solve different problems. We don’t do math by just throwing all of our mental power at a problem, but by routing it through specific regions of our brain.

Interestingly, humans and chimps differ in their ability to recognize faces and perceive emotions. (For anatomical reasons, chimps are more inclined to identify each other’s bottoms than each other’s faces.) We evolved the ability to recognize faces–the region of our brain we use to decode letters–when we began walking upright and interacting to each other face to face, though we do have some vestigial interest in butts and butt-like regions (“My eyes are up here.”) Our brains have evolved over the millenia to get better at specific tasks–in this case, face reading, a precursor to decoding symbolic language.

And there is a tremendous quantity of evidence that intelligence is at least partly genetic–estimates for the heritablity of intelligence range between 60 and 80%. The rest of the variation–the environmental part–looks to be essentially random chance, such as accidents, nutrition, or perhaps your third grade teacher.

So, yes, we absolutely can breed people for mathematical or linguistic ability, if that’s what the environment is selecting for. By contrast, if there have been no particular mathematical or linguistic section pressures in an environment (a culture with no written language, mathematical notation, and very few words for numbers clearly is not experiencing much pressure to use them), then you won’t select for such abilities. The question is not whether we can all be Newtons, (or Leibnizes,) but how many Newtons a society produces and how many people in that society have the potential to understand calculus, given the chance.

I do wonder why he made the graph so much bigger than the relevant part
Lifted gratefully from La Griffe Du Lion’s Smart Fraction II article

Just looking at the state of different societies around the world (including many indigenous groups that live within and have access to modern industrial or post-industrial technologies), there is clear variation in the average abilities of different groups to build and maintain complex societies. Japanese cities are technologically advanced, clean, and violence-free. Brazil, (which hasn’t even been nuked,) is full of incredibly violent, unsanitary, poorly-constructed favelas. Some of this variation is cultural, (Venezuela is doing particularly badly because communism doesn’t work,) or random chance, (Saudi Arabia has oil,) but some of it, by necessity, is genetic.

But if you find that a depressing thought, take heart: selective pressures can be changed. Start selecting for mathematical and verbal ability (and let everyone have a shot at developing those abilities) and you’ll get more mathematical and verbal abilities.

But this is getting long, so let’s continue our discussion next week.

Anthropology Friday: Original Gangster, by Frank Lucas pt. 3/3

Frank Lucas in his chinchilla skin coat, photo from Narcos Wiki.

Welcome back to Anthropology Friday, featuring Frank Lucas and Aliya King’s Original Gangster: the real life story of one of America’s most notorious drug lords. At his height, Lucas’s net worth was, by his account, around 52 million dollars, much of it stashed in off-shore bank accounts and American real estate. But at this point in our story, Lucas was still Bumpy Johnson’s driver.

One evening, Bumpy, Lucas and a few others were eating dinner:

At Well’s, I sat a few booths away from Bumpy. …

The chimes at the door rattled and in came a tall, lanky young man with a shock of red hair styled in a straightened conk. He made his way to Bumpy’s table and then stopped, waiting for permission from Bumpy before sitting down.

Bumpy smiled, just barely, and tilted his head to the side in a gesture that meant “have a seat.” …

The two of them spoke briefly. I wasn’t close enough to hear anything but I could tell it was a friendly, personal conversation. They didn’t look like they were in any kind of business together.

The guy took one sip of his coffee, looked at his watch, and stood up.

“Gotta go. Good to see you, Mr. Johnson.”

Always good to see you. Careful out there, Red,” said Bumpy…

Just like all of Bumpy’s associates, the guy called Detroit Red didn’t speak to me… But I knew him. I knew they called him Detroit Red and I always recognized the bright red hair he had. Years and years later, he would become Malcolm X.

I assume I don’t need to tell you about Malcolm X. He’s pretty famous–even I’ve seen the movie about him.

Bumpy decides to put Lucas in charge of a “numbers” spot, keeping track of gamblers. He explains to Lucas the different kinds of gamblers and how the operation works:

“[This guy] Can’t afford to play more than a quarter a day. But he plays it. He’d skip lunch before he missed playing his number. …

“This is a sensitive operation. It’s illegal–God only knows why–so you have to watch out for the police. Avoid the good cops. Pay off the crooked ones. …

“Spot like this one? Right next to the subway line. Brings in at least a hundred grand a week.”

Lucas’ January 1975 federal mug shot.

As crimes go, gambling is pretty mild and makes decent money, but Lucas finds it boring and itches to expand into something more exciting. While watching a news report about American servicemen in Vietnam getting hooked on the local heroin, described as purer and cheaper than the heroin available in the US. Those words stuck in his brain, but Bumpy nixed his idea to go to Thailand and buy drugs straight from the source, bypassing the Mafia. In the meanwhile:

[Frank’s third child] was born in the spring. And by the fall of 1960, I was in a situation that would make it much harder for me to go see him.

I got arrested for conspiracy to sell drugs and sentenced to thirty months in the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg… Doing jail time was no big deal to me. But what made it a little complicated was that they had blacks and whites desegregated. Around the time I went into Lewisburg, they’d passed some law that made it illegal to segregate prisoners. So, for the first time in the common areas and in the mess hall, black folks and white folk were together. I’m not so sue that was a good idea back then ’cause, for the most part, blacks and whites in jail were like the Bloods and Crips today.

And at Lewisburg, there were more white boys. We were outnumbered at least three to one, which just added to the tension when they started mixing us up.

I started this whole project hoping to find something on race and prison gangs (unfortunately, my local library didn’t have anything that looked promising on the subject.) Even within the genre of crime stories, it appears that most people aren’t very comfortable discussing racial conflict, but I doubt a stranger who started his memoir with a Klan slaying is any stranger to racial animosity.

With Bumpy’s passing, Lucas became one of the top gangsters in Harlem and could finally pursue his dream of importing heroin directly from Thailand. With military planes flying in and out of the area due to the Vietnam war, it wasn’t hard to arrange for a few more things to be shipped in their holds. The drugs arrive and Lucas arranges for a crew to unload it from the plane:

Doc and his boys moved everything out. They would take it to the second location to prevent the first crew from knowing too much about the operation. I always wanted to have more than one layer to my business proceedings. And with a project like this, it was even more important.

My work was now done. Doc and Glynn would make sure the product was prepared for the streets and sold. I didn’t touch any part of that process. … I was no longer a drug dealer. I didn’t deal with any junkies. I didn’t touch any drugs, and I was several layers removed from the streets. I was an entrepreneur; I simply dealt with supply and demand. Some folks import tea from China, art from Paris, or fabric from Italy. I imported heroin.

Both Mafia bosses and Frank Lucas used this technique of putting multiple layers of employees between themselves and the street-level handling, processing, and selling of the product (or street-level gambling operations, extortion, etc.) The Bosses call the shots, but with enough plausible deniability to make them difficult to prosecute (which is why they are often prosecuted on money-laundering charges, instead.)

With Frank Lucas managing the supply chain, the streets of New York were flooded with cheaper, more potent heroin–leading to thousands of deaths.

For years, I would use this to keep my mind off the guilt of what the heroin was doing to the people in my community. Joseph Seagram made sure the streets had beer, wine, and liquor. And I’m sure he didn’t feel bad about the winos and alcoholics in the street. Down in North Carolina, where I was from, R. J. Reynolds had tobacco fields everywhere. Made sure the streets were flooded with cigarettes… I know R. J. Reynolds didn’t feel bad about folks dying of lung cancer left and right.

I was Frank Lucas. I supplied the streets of Harlem with heroin. It was my profession. And, like war, it came with casualties.

Lucas goes to visit the poppy fields in Thailand:

I’m telling you, I felt like we crossed every river in Asia on our way. From the Ruak River to the Mekong, we trekked out on foot for miles and miles. ….

And across the land, there was nothing but poppies–everywhere. I was in complete shock.

Now, when I say there was nothing before me but poppy field, you really have to understand what I’m trying to tell you. I’m talking about land the size of all five boroughs in New York City combined. And there was nothing but the poppy seed plants–the plant that heroin is made from–stretching from one end to the other. I looked up and noticed that the entire field was covered with dark netting. The netting made it impossible to see the fields from the sky so that traveling military planes wouldn’t know what was going on there. But the sun could still shine through…

I asked my guide how the area had become the headquarters for heroin… In the 1960s, there was an anticommunist group of Chinese people who had settled near the border of China and Burma. They ended up getting support from the American CIA… The Hmong people traded in heroin, an with the CIA tuning a blind eye to their illegal activities, the region exploded. …

According to Wikipedia:

While the CIA was sponsoring a Secret War in Laos from 1961 to 1975, it was accused of trafficking in opium (an area known as the Golden Triangle). …

During its involvement, the CIA used the Meo (Hmong) population to fight Pathet Lao rebels. Because of the war against Pathet Lao rebels, the Hmong depended upon poppy cultivation for hard currency. The Hmong were very important to CIA operations and the CIA was very concerned with their well-being. The Plain of Jars had been captured by Pathet Lao rebels in 1964, which resulted in the Laotian Air Force not being able to land their C-47 transport aircraft on the Plain of Jars for opium transport. The Laotian Air Force had almost no light planes that could land on the dirt runways near the mountaintop poppy fields. Having no way to transport their opium, the Hmong were faced with economic ruin. Air America was the only airline available in northern Laos. “According to several unproven sources, Air America began flying opium from mountain villages north and east of the Plain of Jars to Gen Vang Pao’s headquarters at Long Tieng.”[2]

The CIA’s front company, Air America was alleged to have profited from transporting opium and heroin on behalf of Hmong leader Vang Pao,[3][4][5] or of “turning a blind eye” to the Laotian military doing it.[6][7] This allegation has been supported by former Laos CIA paramilitary Anthony Poshepny (aka Tony Poe), former Air America pilots, and other people involved in the war. … However, University of Georgia historian William M. Leary, writing on behalf of Air America, claims that this was done without the airline employees’ direct knowledge and that the airline did not trade in drugs.

Finally Lucas get a bit sloppy, shows off a bit too much wealth, and more than just crooked cops (who had long known about his business and been extorting him for money) come down on him. His house is raided and they find nearly $600,000 in cash (Lucas claims there was far more, but they stole it, including the key and subsequently contents of his safe deposit box in the Cayman Islands.) He was sentenced to 70 years in prison, but for providing evidence that lead to 100 other drug-related convictions, he was placed in the Witness Protection Program. His sentence was was soon reduced to five years plus lifetime parole.

After some more in-and-out with the legal system, he was released from prison in 1991.

Testimony during one of the trials from a grieving mother whose son overdosed on heroin began to make Lucas realize that he couldn’t just wash his hands of the results of his “business.” Tired of prison and the drug trade, Lucas was faced with the prospect of finding legal ways to make money:

As soon as I got out, my brother Larry asked me about working with him on an oil deal. He knew a man who was trying to import oil from Nigeria to Texas.

“He’s got a great connection,” said Larry. “He’s just trying to raise money.” … “Nothing illegal here, Frank. He just needs investors. Everything’s on the up and up.” …

I met with the guy and I was impressed with him right way. I agreed to start doing some fund-raising for him and try to get his oil business off the ground. Even though I wasn’t in the drug game anymore, I still knew people with money. I ended up raising close to a million dollars in three months… ‘The profits from the oil business started coming in quickly. It wasn’t big money. It was nothing like I’d experienced years before… But I did pull in about a hundred grand every few months. And I did it legally–for the very first time in my entire adult life.

Lucas soon found other ways to make money, like turning his life’s story into a book and then a movie.

At the memoir’s end, he approaches the premier of the movie about his own life, considers for a few minutes, and turns away:

In some small measure, my absence from the premier [of the movie about him] was out of respect to the many people, in Harlem and beyond, who suffered from the heroin industry that I helped to expand. …

Today, I write this book and outline all my successes and my failings in honor of every single person affected directly or indirectly by the evils of the heroin trade. … I’m seventy-eight years old today and I still have a lifetime of regret.

And every single word in this book is dedicated to those I impacted in any way.

Does he mean it? I suppose that is between him and God. Can a man of no conscience develop one? Can a man with psychopathic disregard for the lives of others (and his own) become a loving husband, father, and son? And can a man redeem himself for such crimes?

And from a societal perspective, what should be done with people like Lucas? Is there some alternative scenario where he didn’t enter a life of crime? Lucas certainly didn’t enter crime because he lacked the intelligence or talents necessary for other occupations, but because he was far too ambitious for the honest employment options open to him. Even if better jobs had been available, would he have wanted to pursue them, or would all of those years of school and training have been too tedious beside the allure of immediate money?


Anthropology Friday: Original Gangster, by Frank Lucas pt. 2

Welcome back to Frank Lucas and Aliya King’s Original Gangster: the real life story of one of America’s most notorious drug lords. (Given that I’d never heard of Frank Lucas before reading this book, I’m not sure how notorious he actually is, but I’ll grant that I can’t name a whole lot of drug lords off the top of my head.)

To recap: at the age of 14, Frank Lucas arrived–penniless and homeless–in NYC. He began stealing food and quickly progressed to drug dealing and armed robbery:

I was crazy. I didn’t care about anything except where my next dollar was coming from and how I was going to spend it… I heard through the grapevine that I had at least five contracts out on my life. From the grocery-store owner to the group of gangsters I’d robbed at the gambling spot,* people were straight up making deals and promising money to anyone who would kill em dead in the street.

*Not a good idea.

I should mention here that I was all of seventeen years old.

I wasn’t afraid to die. More than that, I just didn’t care about dying. I was young, tough, good-looking, and strong. I was prepared to do whatever I had to do to live. If that meant killing anyone who tried to kill me, so be it.

I have a friend who was homeless for many years. During that time, he never held up a liquor store or so much as picked a pocket. He ate at soup kitchens and slept in homeless shelters, and while the food was dull and the environs terrible, he didn’t starve and he is very much still alive. Of course, the charity situation in NYC in the 40s may have been different, but I have not heard of their homeless just starving to death. Theft is not necessary for survival.

On the other hand, Frank Lucas was homeless for a far shorter time than my friend, and ended up with far more money.

For several weeks, I was a wanted man. But if you’d run into me at one of my Harlem hangouts you’d never have known it by looking at me. I was calm, cool. and collected. I woke up every morning ready to kill on sight. …

I continued robbing whoever and wherever, getting my money up, and I was still dating any woman I wanted.

Lack of fear is one of the signs of psychopathy (especially since psychopaths experience low emotional affect in general.) As Wikipedia puts it:

People scoring 25 or higher in the PCL-R, with an associated history of violent behavior, appear on average to have significantly reduced microstructural integrity between the white matter connecting the amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex (such as the uncinate fasciculus). The evidence suggested that the degree of abnormality was significantly related to the degree of psychopathy and may explain the offending behaviors. …

Additionally, the notion of psychopathy being characterized by low fear is consistent with findings of abnormalities in the amygdala, since deficits in aversive conditioning and instrumental learning are thought to result from amygdala dysfunction, potentially compounded by orbitofrontal cortex dysfunction, although the specific reasons are unknown.

Back to Lucas:

I think we need to recap right here before I go any further. I come up to Harlem in the mid-1940s, just barely a teenager. I start robbing and stealing, move on to selling heroin, and within a few years, I’d made and lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. … And I took it straight to the gambling and pool halls throughout my neighborhood and lost every penny.

Here are the 20 items from Robert Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist:

Glib and superficial charm
Grandiose self-estimation
Pathological lying
Cunning and manipulativeness

Need for stimulation
Impulsivity / Irresponsibility
Poor behavioral controls
Lack of (realistic) long-term goals
Many short-term marital relationships / Sexual promiscuity

Lack of remorse or guilt / Lack of empathy
Shallow affect (superficial emotional responsiveness)
Failure to accept responsibility for own actions

Parasitic lifestyle
Early behavioral problems / Juvenile delinquency
Revocation of conditional release
Criminal versatility

Lucas does eventually get married, love his wife, provide for a couple of his many children, and feel remorse for selling the heroin that killed many people. But that’s later. At 17, he was wondering if he could get in on the murder-for-hire business:

I wondered if Icepick needed a little help in the kill-for-hire business. I would have killed someone for twenty-five thousand dollars. … It’s the mind frame I was in at the time. … It was kill or be killed, as far as I was concerned.

Icepick Red was wanted by the police for walking up to people in the streets and sticking icepicks into their chests, presumably in exchange for money. Lucas tries to talk to Icepick, but Icepick (who does not come across as the sanest guy) won’t even acknowledge his presence. (Later in the book, one of Lucas’s wives–upon realizing that he was going to be a terrible father–has an abortion, and Lucas has the temerity to object that killing fetuses is immoral.)

I wanted to find a picture for you of Icepick–or even the original newspaper article about him–but so far nothing specific has come up. I did, however, find an article confirming that icepicks were a popular murder weapon about this time:

Just when it seemed the ice pick served no purpose, a Brooklyn organized-crime syndicate, known as Murder Incorporated, found a deliberately sinister use for the otherwise antiquated tool. Historians estimate that the gangster ring carried out 400 to 1,000 contract killings. In more than a few cases, the victim met with his death at the end of an ice pick.

According to newspaper accounts, two young Brooklyn “underworld characters” were found dead in a vacant lot in New Jersey in 1932. Their bodies, each stabbed at least 20 times with an ice pick, were stuffed into sewn sacks. One victim had only one cent in his pocket.

In 1944, a jury found Jacob Drucker guilty of the murder of Walter Sage, a Brooklyn moneylender whose body was found “riddled with ice-pick holes” and strapped to a slot machine frame.

“Let me put it to you this way,” said a former New York City police detective. “An ice pick stabbed through the temple and through the brains was not uncommon in homicides.”

Back then, mobsters used ice picks not only because the tool was easy to get and did the job … but also because an ice pick instilled fear. It was employed to send a message, said the detective, Thomas D. Nerney, 72, who joined the New York Police Department in 1966 and worked in virtually every homicide squad in the city before retiring in 2002.

“Murder is not only to take somebody’s life away, but to terrorize,” Mr. Nerney said. …”That was the message that went out to the people who didn’t comply with the rules of the Mafia.”

Ellsworth Raymond “Bumpy” Johnson (10/31/1905 – 7/7/1968)

A little later, Lucas and Icepick Red got into a tense situation over a game of pool, when Bumpy Johnson stepped in (and, according to Lucas, saved his life):

I’d never seen him before. But anyone living in Harlem knew the name Bumpy Johnson. I’d read his name in the paper a few time and I knew that if anyone in Harlem wanted to do any kind of big business, he had to come see Bumpy Johnson first. Or die. …

I only knew the basics about Bumpy stuff I’d heard in the streets. He was from South Carolina. And I’d heard that he wasn’t a typical gangster. He worked the streets but he wasn’t of the streets. He was refined and classy, more like a businessman with a legitimate career than most people in the underworld. I could tell by looking at him that he was a lot different than most people I saw in the streets. …

From that day until the day he died, my place was at the right side of Bumpy Johnson. I went where he went. I did whatever he told me to do. I listened, I observed, and I learned. I didn’t ask questions. I only followed commands and order. And I learned everything about how the King of Harlem ran his enterprises.

Stephanie St. Clair

There’s some debate over how much Lucas actually worked for Bumpy. Bumpy’s wife, Mayme, tells the story differently. (Here’s an interesting story about Bumpy from Mayme’s POV.)

I’m not sure if Icepick Red was a real person, or multiple people rolled into one character, but Bumpy was definitely real. He moved to Harlem in 1919, and became an enforcer for Stephanie St. Clair, herself, fascinating. St. Clair, born in 1886 in Martinique of French and African parentage, became one of Harlem’s only female mob bosses. According to Wikipedia:

After the end of Prohibition, Jewish and Italian-American crime families saw a decrease in profits and decided to move in on the Harlem gambling scene. Bronx-based mob boss Dutch Schultz was the first to move in, beating and killing numbers operators who would not pay him protection.

Saint-Clair and her chief enforcer Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson refused to pay protection to Schultz, despite the violence and intimidation by police they faced. St. Clair responded by attacking the storefronts of businesses that ran Dutch Schultz’s betting operations and tipping off the police about him. This resulted in the police raiding his house, arresting more than a dozen of his employees and seizing approximately $12 million (about $216 million in 2016 currency). Saint-Clair never submitted to Dutch Schultz like many others in Harlem eventually did.

After Saint-Clair’s struggles with Schultz, she had to keep clean and away from police, so she handed off her business to “Bumpy” Johnson. Eventually her former enforcer negotiated with Lucky Luciano, and Lucky took over Schultz’s spots, with a percentage going to “Bumpy”. The Italians then had to go to “Bumpy” first if they had any problems in Harlem.

Luciano realized that the struggle with the Five Families was hurting their business, so Schultz was assassinated in 1935 on the orders of The Commission. Saint-Clair sent an insulting telegram to his hospital bed as the gangster lay dying. By the 1940s, “Bumpy” Johnson had become the reigning king in Harlem, while Saint-Clair became less and less involved in the numbers game.

Let’s return to Lucas’s account:

If you wanted to do business in Harlem, you went through Bumpy. And you paid him a percentage of your profits for the benefits of being in business in the neighborhood. It was like property tax–hazard insurance. If you didn’t want your hardware store, beauty salon, or grocery to go up in flames in the dead of night, you collected your fee every month and passed it off to one of Bumpy’s associates…

I saw a variety of celebrities come into his brownstone to visit. I saw the actor Sidney Poitier in the sitting room one afternoon, talking with Bumpy. On other occasions, I saw people like Billy Daniels and Billy Eckstine in the formal dining room for dinner. Of course, I never had conversation with these people. That wasn’t my place…

years later, I’d hear about how Bumpy Johnson was supposedly a big time drug dealer. I put my life on this statement right here: I didn’t know nothing about Bumpy and drugs. He never whispered a word to me about it and I was with him from first thing in the morning till late at night. I’m not saying he wasn’t. I’m just saying that if he was, he did it all without me hearing a word about it. …

Bumpy didn’t just shake down businesses in Harlem. If anyone made any money doing anything illegal, Bumpy was owed a piece of that, too. Soon after I started working for him, some guys from Harlem pulled a job off out in the Midwest, robbed some diamonds from somewhere. And they sent Bumpy his share of the heist. That kind of thing happened quite often.

The story of Icepick Red comes to an end after Icepick murders one of Bumpy’s associates and rapes the deceased’s wife. Bumpy sends Lucas and some of his other men to do what the police couldn’t: bring Icepick in. Bumpy proceeds to chain Icepick to a pipe and sic a couple of jars of fire ants on him. Icepick is eaten alive.

(Despite Icepick’s crimes, Lucas expresses horror at the nature of his murder, noting that he wishes he had just shot Icepick when they cornered him.)

Whether Icepick was real or a composite, I still wonder it took someone like Bumpy–not the police–to bring him down. Was it only in the 90s that the police got serious about stopping criminals, instead of occasionally beating them up and then returning them to the streets?

I’m running low on time, so that’s all for today. See you next Friday!

AF: Original Gangster: The Real Life Story of one of America’s Most Notorious Drug Lords, by Frank Lucas

Welcome to the final volume in our exploration of the anthropology of crime, Frank Lucas and Aliya King’s Original Gangster. Unlike the other book in this series, this one is actually (co)authored by the criminal himself. This provides a unique perspective, but also introduces the question of whether the author is entirely honest–but since I have no way to independently verify his story, I’ll just be reporting matters as he tells them.

It’s been a month since I finished the book, and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. It’s an interesting read, for sure, but I am ambivalent about giving criminals more attention–on the other hand, the book has already been made into a movie, so what’s one more reader?

Lucas’s story begins in 1936, when, at the age of six, he witnesses his cousin’s head blown off by the KKK. He soon began stealing food to help feed his impoverished family, and left home at the age of 14. I forget why, exactly, he decided to set off on his own, but he quickly ran into trouble, was arrested and put into a chain gang. With a little help he managed to escape and made his way to New York City, where a helpful bus driver got him to his final destination:

“Right here! Go. Get off! This is Harlem.”

I stood on 114th Street and 8th Avenue and looked to my right and to my left. There was nothing but black people as far as I cold see. And there were all kinds of black folks: men and women of all ages and sizes, some who looked dirt poor (but not as poor as me) and some who looked straight-up rich.

I threw out my hands and screamed out as loud as I could, “Hello, Harlem USA!”

Harlem, 1765

Harlem has an interesting history of its own. The British burned down the small, Dutch town during the Revolutionary War. New York City expanded into Harlem, and after the Civil War, the area became heavily Jewish and Italian. By the 30s, the Jews had been replaced by Puerto Ricans (the Italians lingered a little longer.)

In 1904, black real estate entrepreneur Phillip Payton, Jr., of the Afro-American Realty Company, began encouraging blacks to move from other New York neighborhoods to Harlem (which had particularly low rents then because of a housing crash.) According to Wikipedia:

The early 20th-century Great Migration of blacks to northern industrial cities was fueled by their desire to leave behind the Jim Crow South, seek better jobs and education for their children, and escape a culture of lynching violence. During World War I, expanding industries recruited black laborers to fill new jobs, thinly staffed after the draft began to take young men. … In 1910, Central Harlem was about 10% black. By 1920, central Harlem was 32.43% black. The 1930 census showed 70.18% of Central Harlem’s residents as black… As blacks moved in, white residents left. Between 1920 and 1930, 118,792 white people left the neighborhood and 87,417 blacks arrived.

Between 1907 and 1915 some white residents of Harlem resisted the neighborhood’s change, especially once the swelling black population pressed west of Lenox Avenue, which served as an informal color line until the early 1920s. Some made pacts not to sell to or rent to black Others tried to buy property and evict black tenants, but the Afro-American Realty Company retaliated by buying other property and evicting whites. …

Soon after blacks began to move into Harlem, the community became known as “the spiritual home of the Negro protest movement.” … The NAACP chapter there soon grew to be the largest in the country. Activist A. Philip Randolph lived in Harlem and published the radical magazine The Messenger starting in 1917. … W. E. B. Du Bois lived and published in Harlem in the 1920s, as did James Weldon Johnson and Marcus Garvey.

Mount Morris brownstones, Harlem

You know, some books are written in a way that lends themselves quoting, and some are not. This book had a great deal of interesting material about crime and particularly Lucas’s development as a criminal, but most of it went into too much depth to easily quote. (I do longer quotes for books out of copyright.) This passage works, though:

I never even thought about getting a regular job. That just wasn’t me. From the moment I saw my cousin’s head blown away in front of me by the Klan, I had no faith in doing things the “right” way. … I watched my parents break their backs for next to nothing because they tried to play by the unfair rule of the sharecropping system. Just seemed like trying to do things the so-called right way got you nowhere…

There were two Harlems back then. There were the high-society folks, the people who lived in the fancy brownstones overlooking Central Park or up on Mount Morris. … I didn’t notice these people. I knew they were there, but it was like they were in black and white. …Those people up on Mount Morris had solid educations, which gave them a hell of a lot more options than I had. …

The underworld was in full, living color. The prostitute and their pimps, the number runners and their clients, the drug dealers and, most especially, the gamblers, who always had lots of money. They spoke a language I could read, write, and understand fluently.

Just to recap, our author showed up in Harlem at the age of 14 or so with the clothes on his back and not enough money to ride the bus. He found a warm place to sleep with the other homeless and began stealing food. This progressed to stealing money, and as the author puts it:

A few months after I started stealing anything not nailed down in Harlem, I was introduced to the heroin trade.

On the history of Heroin ™:

Hoffmann, working at Bayer pharmaceutical company in Elberfeld, Germany, was instructed by his supervisor Heinrich Dreser to acetylate morphine with the objective of producing codeine, a constituent of the opium poppy… Instead, the experiment produced an acetylated form of morphine one and a half to two times more potent than morphine itself. The head of Bayer’s research department reputedly coined the drug’s new name, “heroin,” based on the German heroisch, which means “heroic, strong” (from the ancient Greek word “heros, ήρως”). …

In 1895, the German drug company Bayer marketed diacetylmorphine as an over-the-counter drug under the trademark name Heroin. It was developed chiefly as a morphine substitute for cough suppressants that did not have morphine’s addictive side-effects. Morphine at the time was a popular recreational drug, and Bayer wished to find a similar but non-addictive substitute to market. However, contrary to Bayer’s advertising as a “non-addictive morphine substitute,” heroin would soon have one of the highest rates of addiction among its users.

Like Frisbees and Kleenex, Heroin was once a brand name that has become synonymous with the product.

Lucas isn’t out to take heroin. He wants to sell it–probably a less risky and more profitable venture than robbing people at gunpoint. But by now he’s attracted some unwanted attention.

In the underworld environment, cops are the natural enemy of a drug dealer. It was my job to just stay out of their way, but that rule only applies to cops trying to do their job. Crooked cops have no rules and no ethics. And some of them get a badge just so they can have a license to beat people up and rob them.

If I ever turned a corner and saw Diggs and his partner, Pappo, my stomach sank and my temper jumped a few degrees. …

“You got a reason to have your hands on me?” I’d say.

“We can make one up if you don’t shut the fuck up,” they’d say.

An incident at 133rd Street and Seventh Avenue during the Harlem Riot of 1964.

Diggs and Pappo beat him up a lot, until one day Lucas went a little crazy and threatened to kill them, after which they left him alone.

If I recall correctly, Lucas was only about 17 at this time, so this was around 1947, maybe into the early 50s.

Obviously Lucas has interacted with a lot of police officers, since he’s been arrested a few times and spent many years in prison. He doesn’t have much negative to say about honest cops, but crooked cops–who not only beat him, like Diggs and Pappo, but also extorted money from him–earn his ire.

Of course, Lucas was actually a criminal, but why did he attract so much attention from police officers who were content to beat him up a bit and then let him back out on the streets? If the crooked cops knew he was dealing, why didn’t he attract the attention of honest police officers before becoming a multi-millionaire drug lord? Were the crooked cops just more attuned to criminal activity (being, essentially, criminals themselves)? Was there just not enough solid evidence to convict Lucas in a court of law, but more than plenty to randomly harass him? Does arresting people require a lot of paperwork?

Lucas was eventually arrested and sent to prison (in 1975, though his 70 year sentence was eventually reduced to 5 plus parole.) Throughout the period Lucas was operating–primarily the 1960s and early 70s–heroin, crack, and crime hit NYC like a sledgehammer. How much was Lucas’s fault is debatable (though it was surely a lot.) But the attitude of “let’s just beat up the criminals a bit and then put them back on the streets” couldn’t have helped.

It’s getting late, so let’s continue this next Friday.

Anthropology Friday: The Way of the Wiseguy by Donnie Brasco, pt. 3/3

An FBI surveillance photograph of Joseph Pistone, Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero and Tony Rossi.

Welcome to the final installment of The Way of the Wiseguy, by Joseph D. Pistone aka Donnie Brasco. Brasco infiltrated the mob between 1976 and 81, providing the FBI with a great deal of evidence that lead to, according to Wikipedia, “over 200 indictments and over 100 convictions of Mafia members.”

Between Donnie Brasco and Dobyns’s No Angel (about his infiltration of the Hells Angels), you may be wondering how any organization can protect itself against infiltration. I suspect that any organization that takes in new members is vulnerable. Even if you have to know a guy who’s already in the organization to get in, people who are already in the organization can turn state’s evidence and start working with the government. (Therefore I recommend not organizing to commit crimes.)

However, several factors probably make an organization significantly harder to infiltrate:

1. Conduct business in a language other than English (or the local language, wherever the organization is)

2. Only accept members from an isolated group that feels little connection to the broader culture

3. Difficult to fake entrance requirements (such as killing someone.)

The Mafia is not America’s only organized criminal organization. We have all sorts of criminal gangs from virtually every ethnic group. Most criminal organizations draw heavily from people who are isolated from the mainstream culture–folks who either don’t see their way to success in mainstream culture or don’t care if they prey on it.

I enjoyed this book; unfortunately it is still under copyright and the author is still alive, so I’m not quoting as much as I’d like to. I encourage you to pick up the book and read it yourself.

But let’s let Pistone talk. On the Wiseguy Way–and getting what you want out of life:

Say you’re out for a night on the town… And the maitre d’ says, “sorry, you have no reservation.” …Here’s what ninety-nine percent of the population would do–they would turn right around and leave.

Now here’s what wiseguys would do. …

Wiseguys never ever make restaurant reservations. They just show up at some five star joint and give the maitre d’ some made up name. When no reservation is found, that’s when wiseguy do their wiseguy thing. …

“What do you mean, no reservation?” Lefty demanded, his voice rising… “Check again.” … pretty soon all of us were angry and yelling and making a fuss… “No table? How can there be no fucking table? Check the fucking book again.”

Within minutes, we had the best table in the house. …

… they satisfied our demand, however irrational it was, imply to get us to stop making a fuss. Most people don’t like fusses…

The fact is, most people don’t have the stomach for confrontation that wiseguys have. Wiseguys are absolutely unafraid to confront people, even if they know they are dead wrong about something. For wiseguys, a wrong can be turned into a right simply by arguing your point loudly and forcibly. The value of getting in someone’s face and knocking them off-balance cannot be overstated. Wiseguys know this–wiseguys understand the currency of fear. …

you pretty much get what you ask for in this life, and most people are too timid to ask for what they want.

Personally, confrontations make me almost physically nauseous. I have trouble telling a waiter my order is incorrect, much less making a fuss over anything.

The Wiseguy Strut:

You can spot a wiseguy a block away from the way he walks. … They walk around like they own the streets, which, in effect, they do. … in their neighborhoods, on their streets, wiseguys basically announce themselves as wiseguys. It is a badge of honor to be connected in their neighborhoods, and, as a result, they are respected and even admired by their neighbors…

Of course, if you don’t respect them, you might get killed, but matters seem to go beyond that:

Ordinary people in wiseguy neighborhoods get something in exchange for showing mobsters this respect. Neighborhoods that are dominated by wiseguys are also considered to be under the protection of these wiseguys. There are far fewer robberies, rapes, or muggings in wiseguy neighborhoods than in even the safest precincts of the city. … You would have to be one stupid burglar to come into a mobbed-up neighborhood and knock up the corner bar. … There isn’t a police force in the world that deters crime as well as the presence of wiseuys. ….

Pistone may at times exaggerate, but I think he is basically correct that roughing up a business that has paid protection money to the mob is a mistake.

In our next book we’ll be reviewing, Frank Lucas’s Original Gangster, there’s a story about a man named Icepick Red. The police were after Red because he kept putting icepicks into people, killing them. Frank, then a teenager In Harlem, saw Red around the neighborhood fairly regularly and even interacted with him, but the police somehow couldn’t find him. Finally Red killed a guy who worked for “Bumpy” Johnson, a Harlem crime boss. Bumpy’s men immediately got Red, brought him in, and Bumpy had fire ants eat him alive.

Bumpy’s methods might not be Constitutional, but he did what the police, for some reason, had failed to do.

I suspect the same holds for Italian mobsters.

Wiseguys do not come into neighborhoods and make those neighborhoods worse. … Wiseguys take great pride in knowing that their street are safe and clean and filled with happy citizens walking their dogs, pushing their kids, living their live–and respecting the wiseguys.

This mutually beneficial relationship between laypeople and the mobsters that live among them is the reason it is so hard for law enforcement agencies to root out wiseguys. … If there is any police activity in a certain neighborhood, any extended surveillance by feds in parked cars or vans, the citizen of that neighborhood are going to know about it, and they are going to make sure the wiseguy know about it, too.

Sure, if your choice is between Bumpy Johnson and Icepick Red, you pick Bumpy.

So here’s a question: did mob-controlled neighborhoods actually have lower crime rates (mob-related deaths perhaps excluded) than non-mob controlled ones, and what were the effects of Pistone’s infiltration (76-81) and the Mafia Commission Trial (85-86) on local crime? Certainly the crime rate rose steadily from the 1950s onward, bounced around a bunch post 1970, and finally peaked in 1990. Did cracking down on the Mafia help crime rates go down 4 years later? Or does Stop and Frisk deserve the credit? (Or does some other factor deserve the credit?)

Unemployed men outside a soup kitchen opened by Al Capone in Chicago during the Depression, February 1931

Back to Pistone:

One of the most famous bosses of all time, for instance, was Al Capone, the notorious gangster who ruled Chicago in the ’20s and early ’30s. Capone consolidated his authority by whacking seven members of the Irish-American O’Banion gang in the fabled St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929. His incredible power over the gangs and illegal trades of Chicago was broken only when the feds nabbed him… He truly thought of himself as a shrewd entrepreneur who ran a sweeping and profitable empire…

In the end, mob bosses are just that–bosses. They oversee a variety of business endeavors, supervise a big team of employees, and settle disputes with other enterprises. … If this sounds pretty boring, that’s because it is.

Pistone’s description of a typical day in the Mafia sounded so boring I wondered why they don’t just give up and get regular jobs.

(I would like to have read about some of the Irish gangs like the O’Banion, but this project has already gone on long enough.)

In search of Respect:

I walked into the back of Jilly’s social club and encountered a roomful of wiseguys with grim mugs. … they we there to gill me on my identity: was I really who I said I was, Donnie Brasco? …

The wiseguys grilling me realized they wouldn’t need to put a bullet in my head. After about six hours, the meeting was over, and I walked back into the main room of the social club with three of the lower-level wiseguys who had grilled me. …

What I did, the minute we left the back and walked into the main room, was pick out the one guy out of the three who wasn’t a made man.

Then I fucking coldclocked him. …”You call me a snitch, you piece of shit?”…

You see, the worst thing you can say about a wiseguy is that he is a snitch. Once they pulled me in the back and interrogated me on the assumption I was a snitch, they left me no choice but th react the way I did. If I hadn’t been upset that I had been called a snitch… that might even have aroused more suspicion. By reacting the way I did, I gained a lot of credibility in the eyes of the members of the Colombo crime family. And the reason this is so can be explained in a single word:


The foundation of the entire Mafia is respect. … Wiseguys talk all the time about respect, about giving it and getting it in proper measures.

Pistone notes that he Mafia is less powerful today because the feds, from the 60s through the 80s, gained weapons to use against it, from bugs planted in home to the 1970 RICO act. In 1985, the feds arrested the bosses of all five NY crime families. Additionally, the mob’s basic culture began to change:

The new generation of mobsters just isn’t as devoted to the old Sicilian way of doing things. “Now you had wiseguys with no sense of the history of the Mafia or of its customs and traditions. The organized part of organized crime became just a shadow what it was…”

“the old-timers were involved in importing and distributing drugs. There was simply too much money at stake for them t keep their hands clean. But they did take a dismal view of drugs and people who used drugs … they mad sure to keep narcotics out of their neighborhoods, and certainly they did not use drugs themselves. There was a certain orderliness to the mob drug trade. Today, that caution is out the fucking window. The new wiseguys are far more interested in the money they can make off drugs than they are in keeping it out of their neighborhood or even their own bodies. Lots of wiseguys become addicts and get careless and sloppy. … These are guys who basically have no respect for the old ways of doing things, for the traditions and custom that had kept the Mafia in business for a century. Instead, they believe in instant gratification, making as much money as they can, plying their drug in previously nice neighborhoods and basically acting like common crooks. …

You have more wiseguys turning stool pigeon in the last ten or twenty year than in all the previous decades of the Mafia’s history. … Old wiseguys would get pinched, bite the bullet, button their lips, and do their time. Today, the fist thing a wiseguy does is sing.

You know, it almost sounds like the guy who devoted years of his life to taking down the Mafia is complaining that this new generation of mobsters isn’t keeping up the Mafia’s code to criminal success…

What we’re talking about here is a new breed of wiseguy who is neither as smart nor as forward-thinking as his predecessors. …

The Mafia has more or less lost its stranglehold on the unions. … a lot of it is because new wiseguys do not have the smarts and wherewithal to cultivate the union people like the old wiseguys did.

Wikipedia has an interesting passage within the etymology section on Mafia:

The word mafia derives from the Sicilian adjective mafiusu, which, roughly translated, means ‘swagger’, but can also be translated as ‘boldness’ or ‘bravado’. … In reference to a woman, however, the feminine-form adjective mafiusa means ‘beautiful’ or ‘attractive’.

Large groups of Italian migrant workers, primarily from the south of the country, first arrived in the US due to a US labor shortage. A result of the US Civil War, the end of slave labor, and the hundreds of thousands killed in the war. …

As migrant laborers from Sicily arrived for work they created their own labor system called the ‘padrone’ system based on the ‘boss’ systems which already existed during this period. … A ‘padrone’ or boss was the middle man between the English speaking businessmen and the laborers from Sicily who were unable to speak the language. He was in charge of the labor group including where they would work, the length of their employment, how much they were paid, and living quarters.

Labor laws were non existent during this period and the padrone system like the boss systems were not immune to corruption. … As the 19th century turned into the 20th century the migrant laborers from Sicily and the padrone system became synonymous with distrust. Strong leaders or padroni who were mafiosi became known as the American counterpart ‘mafia boss’, labor contracts became known as mafia contracts…

Modern society is complex, involving large groups of people trying to make their way in huge communities. You can’t possibly learn all of the skills necessary to build modern human cities. Almost everything necessary for human life–like food–requires networking together far more people than you could ever meet and get to know. Which means opportunities for middle men, fixers, bosses, networkers, headhunters, and all the other guys who “know a guy” stepping in to link the parts together to get things done–which, of course, can have its downsides.


Anthropology Friday: The Way of the Wiseguy, by Donnie Brasco (pt 2)

Welcome back to Anthropology Friday. Today we’re looking at Joseph D. Pistone aka Donnie Brasco’s The Way of the Wiseguy. In case you missed the movie, Pistone was an undercover FBI agent who infiltrated the New York Mafia (particularly the Bonnano family) from 1976-1981. The Way of the Wiseguy is not Pistone’s most famous work, but a collection of anecdotes from his years undercover, perfectly suited to a study of the culture of crime.

But enough from me. Let’s let Pistone speak:

The Mafia could not exist without its rules and codes of conduct, which are rigidly enforced and never open to question. In life, you break the social contract–such as speeding… you get a fine. … But when you’re a wiseguy facing wiseguy justice, there is no lawyer to defend you, no procedure in place to protect your rights. … Wiseguys wake up every day, aware that this may be the day that they get killed… It is a simple fact of life in the wiseguy world.

Wikipedia has an interesting list of the Mafia’s “10 Commandments”:

In November 2007, Sicilian police reported discovery of a list of “Ten Commandments” in the hideout of mafia boss Salvatore Lo Piccolo, thought to be guidelines on good, respectful, and honourable conduct for a mafioso.[133]

  1. No one can present himself directly to another of our friends. There must be a third person to do it.
  2. Never look at the wives of friends.
  3. Never be seen with cops.
  4. Don’t go to pubs and clubs.
  5. Always being available for Cosa Nostra is a duty – even if your wife is about to give birth.
  6. Appointments must absolutely be respected. (probably refers to formal rank and authority.)[134]
  7. Wives must be treated with respect.
  8. When asked for any information, the answer must be the truth.
  9. Money cannot be appropriated if it belongs to others or to other families.
  10. People who can’t be part of Cosa Nostra: anyone who has a close relative in the police, anyone with a two-timing relative in the family, anyone who behaves badly and doesn’t hold to moral values.

Back to Pistone: Why Wiseguys Will Kill You:

Wiseguys do not like rape. If you rape someone who is a relative of a made guy or someone with some ties to the mob, you are in big trouble… Wiseguys have a pretty low threshold for what is and isn’t decent, but the crime of rape is one of the few transgressions that does not meet that threshold. …

The thing is, wiseguys do not go around killing people for no good reason. Like I said, if you read in the paper about some guy getting whacked, it’s a really good bet he was either a made guy who somehow fucked up. or some poor guy who get in over his head with wiseguys… or … a guy who did something that is not tolerated in the orbit of wiseguys. It is very unusual for people with no mob dealings or no connection to the mob to wind up dead at the hands of a mobster.

If, however, you are a wiseguy or a guy with some association to the mob, and you do certain things, you will get whacked. …

Not sharing money from illegal activities will get you killed. … If you are a wiseguy, everything you gain illegally, all your extorted monies, must be shared with our captain and your partners in your crew. …

Talking to cops will get you killed. …

Laying your hands on another wiseguy will get you killed. It’s a pretty simple rule–you never go after another wiseguy without the full and clear blessing of the bosses.

So the Mafia and Radical Feminists have something they agree on. The word “rape” originally meant “theft,” and we may suppose that the Mafia does not look kindly on the theft of their women.

Mafia Economics:

There is no such thing in the Mafia world as a sluggish economy. You will never hear mobster say they had a weak fiscal quarter. This series of payment that mobsters make to their superiors is absolutely relentless and irrespective of the stat e of the legitimate economy. …

And so it goes–the money comes in, the money flows up. No Mafia boss is out there earning money and distributing it downward to his loyal subordinates. … this system keeps the hands of the higher-ups as clean as possible. …

So what is it that wiseguys do with all that cash they get to keep? Depends on the wiseguy. Some become degenerate gamblers and waste every dime betting on horses. Some are cheap bastards and save as much as they can. … Some of the younger wiseguys are drug addicts who spend a bundle getting high. Some are family men who take their kids to Disney World. …

So how do they make their money?

Of all the various scams and operations orchestrated by wiseguys, none is as profitable and as dependable as illegal gambling. … the world is full of degenerate gamblers. Absolutely crawling with guys who would bet their grandmother’s last set of dentures on the outcome of the Florida-Florida State game. … people who are addicted to gambling do it every single fucking day they can. … the gambling never, ever stops. There is always–always–something for a degenerate gambler to bet on. …

How come legal gambling establishments haven’t driven wiseguys out of the gaming business? … Sure, it’s nice to go to Atlantic City and take in a show and have a fine dinner and then play the slots… But there is a catch and a pretty big one–you got to pay taxes on whatever you win. …

You see, these sicko gamblers, in their warped and twisted minds, always believe that the next hand they play, the next game they bet on, will be the Big Score, and none of them want to pay taxes on the Big Score. …

Which brings us to another mob endeavor that is inexorably linked to gambling–the time-honored practice of loan-sharking. .. That interest–called the “vigorish, or “vig,” is not computed monthly, as with most loans. It compounds every single week. Many degenerate gamblers wind up with no option but to turn to a Mafia loan shark–better known as a shylock–to secure the cash they need to pay off gambling debts. … Gamblers end up owing thousands to their bookie and thousands more to their shylock. … You are flirting with all sorts of evil shit if you string along a bunch of bookies and shylocks for too long.

This is interesting for three reasons: 1. I don’t understand gambling. Back when I was 10 I spent a couple of dollars on lottery tickets, won dollar, spent it on another ticket, won nothing, and realized this was a waste of money. That was the beginning and end of my fascination with gambling.

2. Pistone’s “degenerate gambler”. What distinguishes a regular gambler from a degenerate? Indeed, what is degeneracy? I know people who enjoy poker, but they aren’t in debt to the mob and their lives seem pretty functional.

Degeneracy, I propose, is behavior which leaves you with less control over your life. Having a glass of wine (or beer) at supper is not degenerate; drinking until you cannot safely get home is. Eating food is obviously necessary for life, but excessive eating (or dieting!) can have terrible effects on your health. Buying the occasional lottery ticket is not degenerate; spending money you can’t afford on lottery tickets and ending up in debt to the mob is.

3. As we discussed back in Parsis, Travelers, and Economic Niches, the mob here isn’t just committing random violence and robbing people–these are shadier versions of real businesses. If people need loans or want to gamble, then chances are someone will find a way to offer those services–even if it’s illegal. (We can probably throw in prostitution.

So if you’re the government, and you’re trying to decrease the power of groups like the Mafia, perhaps even quicker and more effective than spending years on risky infiltration schemes is just legalizing whatever it is that people are trying to do. Prohibition, of course, is the textbook example of an outlawed behavior fueling mob violence and the motivation for that violence disappearing once Prohibition ended.

Back to Pistone: Wiseguys have fairly normal family lives:

Wiseguys tend to be respectful of and gentlemanly towards the women in their lives. …

wiseguys love their mothers to death. Making a crack about another wiseguy’s mother is an offense that might get you whacked. Even the most brutal wiseguy will be a teddy bear in the presence of the woman who raised him. …

Believe it or not, wiseguys also treat their wives with decency and respect. That might seem like a ridiculous statement, considering that nine out of ten wiseguys have a girlfriend on the side. … Whatever they do when they are at the club or out on the town, wiseguys make fairly decent husbands when they re at home. …

They are excellent providers. you will met very few mobsters who are deadbeat dads or husband. Father of the year, they ain’t but a wiseguy who allows his family situation to spiral out of control will not be viewed kindly by his superiors in the mob. …

I figure normal family lives are part of what makes the Mafia stable. If Mafia guys can provide for their families and raise lots of children, then they’ll end up with plenty of future mobsters. If Mafia guys were unstable and couldn’t provide for their families, then the Mafia would have to constantly recruit new members from outside its own kin networks, which could make it less stable.

That’s all for today; I’ll see you next Friday.