“Cultural Collapse”

Tablet recently had an interesting essay on the theme of “why did Trump win?”

The material-grievances theory and the cultural-resentments theory can fit together because, in both cases, they tell us that people voted for Trump out of a perceived self-interest, which was to improve their faltering economic and material conditions, or else to affirm their cultural standing vis-à-vis the non-whites and the bicoastal elites. Their votes were, from this standpoint, rationally cast. … which ultimately would suggest that 2016’s election was at least a semi-normal event, even if Trump has his oddities. But here is my reservation.

I do not think the election was normal. I think it was the strangest election in American history in at least one major particular, which has to do with the qualifications and demeanor of the winning candidate. American presidents over the centuries have always cultivated, after all, a style, which has been pretty much the style of George Washington, sartorially updated. … Now, it is possible that, over the centuries, appearances and reality have, on occasion, parted ways, and one or another president, in the privacy of his personal quarters, or in whispered instructions to his henchmen, has been, in fact, a lout, a demagogue, a thug, and a stinking cesspool of corruption. And yet, until just now, nobody running for the presidency, none of the serious candidates, would have wanted to look like that, and this was for a simple reason. The American project requires a rigorously republican culture, without which a democratic society cannot exist—a culture of honesty, logic, science, and open-minded debate, which requires, in turn, tolerance and mutual respect. Democracy demands decorum. And since the president is supposed to be democracy’s leader, the candidates for the office have always done their best to, at least, put on a good act.

The author (Paul Berman) then proposes Theory III: Broad Cultural Collapse:

 A Theory 3 ought to emphasize still another non-economic and non-industrial factor, apart from marriage, family structure, theology, bad doctors, evil pharmaceutical companies, and racist ideology. This is a broad cultural collapse. It is a collapse, at minimum, of civic knowledge—a collapse in the ability to identify political reality, a collapse in the ability to recall the nature of democracy and the American ideal. An intellectual collapse, ultimately. And the sign of this collapse is an inability to recognize that Donald Trump has the look of a foreign object within the American presidential tradition.

Berman is insightful until he blames cultural collapse on the educational system (those dastardly teachers just decided not to teach about George Washington, I guess.)

We can’t blame education. Very few people had many years of formal education of any sort back in 1776 or 1810–even in 1900, far fewer people completed highschool than do today. The idea that highschool civics class was more effectively teaching future voters what to look for in a president in 1815 than today therefore seems unlikely.

If anything, in my (admittedly limited, parental) interactions with the local schools, education seem to lag national sentiment. For example, the local schools still cover Columbus Day in a pro-Columbus manner (and I don’t even live in a particularly conservative area) and have special Veterans’ Day events. School curricula are, I think, fairly influenced by the desires of the Texas schools, because Texas is a big state that buys a lot of textbooks.

I know plenty of Boomers who voted for Trump, so if we’re looking at a change in school curricula, we’re looking at a shift that happened half a century ago (or more,) but only recently manifested.

That said, I definitely feel something coursing through society that I could call “Cultural Collapse.” I just don’t think the schools are to blame.

Yesterday I happened across children’s book about famous musicians from the 1920s. Interwoven with the biographies of Beethoven and Mozart were political comments about kings and queens, European social structure and how these musicians of course saw through all of this royalty business and wanted to make music for the common people. It was an articulated ideology of democracy.

Sure, people today still think democracy is important, but the framing (and phrasing) is different. The book we recently read of mathematicians’ biographies didn’t stop to tell us how highly the mathematicians thought of the idea of common people voting (rather, when it bothered with ideology, it focused on increasing representation of women in mathematics and emphasizing the historical obstacles they faced.)

Meanwhile, as the NY Times reports, the percent of Americans who think living in a Democracy is important is declining:

According to the Mounk-Foa early-warning system, signs of democratic deconsolidation in the United States and many other liberal democracies are now similar to those in Venezuela before its crisis.

Across numerous countries, including Australia, Britain, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden and the United States, the percentage of people who say it is “essential” to live in a democracy has plummeted, and it is especially low among younger generations. …

Support for autocratic alternatives is rising, too. Drawing on data from the European and World Values Surveys, the researchers found that the share of Americans who say that army rule would be a “good” or “very good” thing had risen to 1 in 6 in 2014, compared with 1 in 16 in 1995.

That trend is particularly strong among young people. For instance, in a previously published paper, the researchers calculated that 43 percent of older Americans believed it was illegitimate for the military to take over if the government were incompetent or failing to do its job, but only 19 percent of millennials agreed. The same generational divide showed up in Europe, where 53 percent of older people thought a military takeover would be illegitimate, while only 36 percent of millennials agreed.

Note, though, that this is not a local phenomenon–any explanation that explains why support for democracy is down in the US needs to also explain why it’s down in Sweden, Australia, Britain, and the Netherlands (and maybe why it wasn’t so popular there in the first place.)

Here are a few different theories besides failing schools:

  1. Less common culture, due to integration and immigration
  2. More international culture, due to the internet, TV, and similar technologies
  3. Disney

Put yourself in your grandfather or great-grandfather’s shoes, growing up in the 1910s or 20s. Cars were not yet common; chances were if he wanted to go somewhere, he walked or rode a horse. Telephones and radios were still rare. TV barely existed.

If you wanted to talk to someone, you walked over to them and talked. If you wanted to talk to someone from another town, either you or they had to travel, often by horse or wagon. For long-distance news, you had newspapers and a few telegraph wires.

News traveled slowly. People traveled slowly (most people didn’t ride trains regularly.) Most of the people you talked to were folks who lived nearby, in your own community. Everyone not from your community was some kind of outsider.

There’s a story from Albion’s Seed:

During World War II, for example, three German submariners escaped from Camp Crossville, Tennessee. Their flight took them to an Appalachian cabin, where they stopped for a drink of water. The mountain granny told them to git.” When they ignored her, she promptly shot them dead. The sheriff came, and scolded her for shooting helpless prisoners. Granny burst into tears, and said that she wold not have done it if she had known the were Germans. The exasperated sheriff asked her what in “tarnation” she thought she was shooting at. “Why,” she replied, “I thought they was Yankees!”

And then your grandfather got shipped out to get shot at somewhere in Europe or the Pacific.

Today, technology has completely transformed our lives. When we want to talk to someone or hear their opinion, we can just pick up the phone, visit facebook, or flip on the TV. We have daily commutes that would have taken our ancestors a week to walk. People expect to travel thousands of miles for college and jobs.

The effect is a curious inversion: In a world where you can talk to anyone, why talk to your neighbors? Personally, I spend more time talking to people in Britain than the folks next door, (and I like my neighbors.)

Now, this blog was practically founded on the idea that this technological shift in the way ideas (memes) are transmitted has a profound effect on the kinds of ideas that are transmitted. When ideas must be propagated between relatives and neighbors, these ideas are likely to promote your own material well-being (as you must survive well enough to continue propagating the idea for it to go on existing,) whereas when ideas can be easily transmitted between strangers who don’t even live near each other, the ideas need not promote personal survival–they just need to sound good. (I went into more detail on this idea back in Viruses Want you to Spread Them, Mitochondrial Memes, and The Progressive Virus.)

How do these technological shifts affect how we form communities?

From Bowling Alone:

In a groundbreaking book based on vast data, Putnam shows how we have become increasingly disconnected from family, friends, neighbors, and our democratic structures– and how we may reconnect.

Putnam warns that our stock of social capital – the very fabric of our connections with each other, has plummeted, impoverishing our lives and communities.

Putnam draws on evidence including nearly 500,000 interviews over the last quarter century to show that we sign fewer petitions, belong to fewer organizations that meet, know our neighbors less, meet with friends less frequently, and even socialize with our families less often. We’re even bowling alone. More Americans are bowling than ever before, but they are not bowling in leagues. Putnam shows how changes in work, family structure, age, suburban life, television, computers, women’s roles and other factors have contributed to this decline.

to data on how many people don’t have any friends:

The National Science Foundation (NSF) reported in its General Social Survey (GSS) that unprecedented numbers of Americans are lonely. Published in the American Sociological Review (ASR) and authored by Miller McPhearson, Lynn Smith-Lovin, and Matthew Brashears, sociologists at Duke and the University of Arizona, the study featured 1,500 face-to-face interviews where more than a quarter of the respondents — one in four — said that they have no one with whom they can talk about their personal troubles or triumphs. If family members are not counted, the number doubles to more than half of Americans who have no one outside their immediate family with whom they can share confidences. Sadly, the researchers noted increases in “social isolation” and “a very significant decrease in social connection to close friends and family.”

Rarely has news from an academic paper struck such a responsive nerve with the general public. These dramatic statistics from ASR parallel similar trends reported by the Beverly LaHaye Institute — that over the 40 years from 1960 to 2000 the Census Bureau had expanded its analysis of what had been a minor category.  The Census Bureau categorizes the term “unrelated individuals” to designate someone who does not live in a “family group.” Sadly, we’ve seen the percentage of persons living as “unrelated individuals” almost triple, increasing from 6 to 16 percent of all people during the last 40 years. A huge majority of those classified as “unrelated individuals” (about 70 percent) lived alone.

it seems that interpersonal trust is deteriorating:

Long-run data from the US, where the General Social Survey (GSS) has been gathering information about trust attitudes since 1972, suggests that people trust each other less today than 40 years ago. This decline in interpersonal trust in the US has been coupled with a long-run reduction in public trust in government – according to estimates compiled by the Pew Research Center since 1958, today trust in the government in the US is at historically low levels.


Interpersonal trust attitudes correlate strongly with religious affiliation and upbringing. Some studies have shown that this strong positive relationship remains after controlling for several survey-respondent characteristics.1 This, in turn, has led researchers to use religion as a proxy for trust, in order to estimate the extent to which economic outcomes depend on trust attitudes. Estimates from these and other studies using an instrumental-variable approach, suggest that trust has a causal impact on economic outcomes.2 This suggests that the remarkable cross-country heterogeneity in trust that we observe today, can explain a significant part of the historical differences in cross-country income levels.


Measures of trust from attitudinal survey questions remain the most common source of data on trust. Yet academic studies have shown that these measures of trust are generally weak predictors of actual trusting behaviour. Interestingly, however, questions about trusting attitudes do seem to predict trustworthiness. In other words, people who say they trust other people tend to be trustworthy themselves.3

Just look at that horrible trend of migrants being kept out of Europe

Our technological shifts haven’t just affected ideas and conversations–with people able to travel thousands of miles in an afternoon, they’ve also affected the composition of communities. The US in 1920 was almost 90% white and 10% black, (with that black population concentrated in the segregated South). All other races together totaled only a couple percent. Today, the US is <65% white, 13% black, 16% Hispanic, 6% Asian and Native American, and 9% “other” or multi-racial.

Similar changes have happened in Europe, both with the creation of the Free Movement Zone and the discovery that the Mediterranean isn’t that hard to cross, though the composition of the newcomers obviously differs.

Diversity may have its benefits, but one of the things it isn’t is a common culture.

With all of these changes, do I really feel that there is anything particularly special about my local community and its norms over those of my British friends?

What about Disney?

Well, Disney’s most profitable product hasn’t exactly been pro-democracy, though I doubt a few princess movies can actually budge people’s political compasses or vote for Trump (or Hillary.) But what about the general content of children’s stories? It sure seems like there are a lot fewer stories focused on characters from American history than in the days when Davy Crockett was the biggest thing on TV.

Of course this loops back into technological changes, as American TV and movies are enjoyed by an increasingly non-American audience and media content is driven by advertisers’ desire to reach specific audiences (eg, the “rural purge” in TV programming, when popular TV shows aimed at more rural or older audiences were cancelled in favor of programs featuring urban characters, which advertisers believed would appeal to younger viewers with more cash to spend.)

If cultural collapse is happening, it’s not because we lack for civics classes, but because civics classes alone cannot create a civic culture where there is none.


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!

Trying to be Smart: on bringing up extremely rare exceptions to prove forests don’t exist, only trees

When my kids don’t want to do their work (typically word problems in math,) they start coming up with all kinds of crazy scenarios to try to evade the question. “What if Susan cloned herself?” “What if Joe is actually the one driving the car, and he only saw the car pass by because he was looking at himself in a mirror?” “What if John used a wormhole to travel backwards in time and so all of the people at the table were actually Joe and so I only need to divide by one?” “What if Susan is actually a boy but her parents accidentally gave him the wrong name?” “What if ALIENS?”

After banging my head on the wall, I started asking, “Which is more likely: Sally and Susan are two different people, or Sally cloned herself, something no human has ever done before in the 300,000 years of homo Sapiens’ existence?” And sometimes they will, grudgingly, admit that their scenarios are slightly less likely than the assumptions the book is making.*

I forgive my kids, because they’re children. When adults do the same thing, I am much less sympathetic.

Folks on all sides of the political spectrum are probably guilty of this, but my inclinations/bubble lead me to encounter certain ones more often. Sex/gender is a huge one (even I have been led astray by sophistry on this subject, for which I apologize.)

Over in biology, sex is simply defined: Females produce large gametes. Males produce small gametes. It doesn’t matter how gametes are produced. It doesn’t matter what determines male or femaleness. All that matters is gamete size. There is no such thing (at least in humans) as a sex “spectrum”: reproduction requires one small gamete and one large gamete. Medium-sized gametes are not part of the process.

About 99.9% of people fit into the biological categories of “male” and “female.” An extremely small minority (<1%) have rare biological issues that interfere with gamete formation–people with Klinefelter’s, for example, are genetically XXY instead of XX or XY. People with Klinefelter’s are also infertile–unlike large gametes and small gametes, XXY isn’t part of a biological reproduction strategy. Like trisomy 21, it’s just an unfortunate accident in cell division.

In a mysterious twist, the vast majority of people have a “gender” identity that matches their biological sex. Even female athletes–women who excel at a stereotypically and highly masculine field–tend to identify as “women,” not men. Even male fashion designers tend to self-identify as men. There are a few people who identify as transgender, but in my personal experience, most of them are actually intersex in some way (eg, a woman who has autism, a condition characterized as “extreme male brain,” may legitimately feel like she thinks more like a guy than a girl.) Again, this is an extremely small percent of the population. For 99% of people you meet, normal gender assumptions apply.

So jumping into a conversation about “men” and “women” with “Well actually, ‘men’ and ‘women’ are just social constructs and gender is actually a spectrum and there are many different valid gender expressions–” is a great big NO.

Jumping into a discussion of women’s issues (like childbirth) with “Actually, men can give birth, too,” or the Women’s March with “Pussyhats are transphobic because some women have penises; vaginas don’t define what it means to be female,” is an even bigger NO, and I’m not even a fan of pussyhats.

Only biological females can give birth. That’s how the species works. When it comes to biology, leave things that you admit aren’t biology at the door. If a transgender man with a uterus gives birth to a child, he is still a biological female and we don’t need to confuse things by implying that someone gestated a fetus in his testicles. Over the millennia that humans have existed, a handful of people with some form of biological chimerism (basically, an internalized conjoined twin who never fully developed but ended up contributing an organ or two) who thought of themselves as male may have nonetheless given birth. These cases are so rare that you will probably never meet someone with them in your entire life.

Having lost a leg due to an accident (or 4 legs, due to being a pair of conjoined twins,) does not make “number of legs in humans” a spectrum ranging from 0-4. Humans have 2 legs; a few people have unfortunate accidents. Saying so doesn’t imply that people with 0 legs are somehow less human. They just had an accident.

In a conversation I read recently, Person A asserted that if two blue-eyed parents had a brown-eyed baby, the mother would be suspected of infidelity. A whole bunch of people immediately jumped on Person A, claiming he was scientifically ignorant and hadn’t paid attention in school–sadly, these overconfident people are actually the ones who don’t understand genetics, because blue eyes are recessive and thus two blue eyed people can’t make a brown-eyed biological child.  A few people, however, asserted that Person A was scientifically illiterate because there is an extremely rare brown-eyed gene that two blue-eyed people can carry, resulting in a brown-eyed child.

But this is not scientific illiteracy. The recessive brown-eyed gene is extremely rare, and both parents would have to have it. Infidelity, by contrast, is much more common. It’s not that common, but it’s more common than two parent both having recessive brown-eyed genes. Insisting that Person A is scientifically illiterate because of an extremely rare exception to the rule is ignoring statistics–statistically, the child is more likely to be not biological than to have an extremely rare variant. Statistically, men and women are far more likely to match in gender and sex than to not.

Let’s look at immigration, another topic near and dear to everyone’s hearts. After Trump’s comments about Haiti came out (and let’s be honest, Haiti’s capital, Port au Prince, is one of the world’s largest cities without a functioning sewer system, so “shithole” is actually true,) people began popping up with statements like “I’d rather a Ugandan immigrant who believes in American values than a socialist Norwegian.”

I, too, would rather a Ugandan with American values than a socialist Norwegian. However, what percentage of Ugandans actually have American values? Just a wild guess, but I suspect most Ugandans have Ugandan values. Most Ugandans probably think Ugandan culture is pretty nice and that Ugandan norms and values are the right ones to have, otherwise they wouldn’t have different values and we’d call those Ugandan values.

Updated values chart!

While we’re at it, I suspect most Chinese people have Chinese values, most Australians have Australian values, most Brazilians hold Brazilian values, and most people from Vatican City have Catholic values.

I don’t support blindly taking people from any country, because some people are violent criminals just trying to escape conviction. But some countries are clearly closer to each other, culturally, than others, and thus have a larger pool of people who hold each other’s values.

(Even when people hold very different values, some values conflict more than others.)

To be clear: I’ve been picking on one side, but I’m sure both sides do this.

What’s the point? None of this is very complicated. Most people can figure out if a person they have just met is male or female instantly and without fail. It takes a very smart person to get confused by a few extremely rare exceptions into thinking that the broad categories don’t functionally exist.

Sometimes this obfuscation is compulsive–the person just wants to show how smart they are, or maybe everyone around them is saying it so they start repeating it–but since most people seem capable of understanding probabilities in everyday life (“Sometimes the stoplight is glitched but usually it isn’t, so I’ll assume the stoplight is functioning properly and obey it,”) if someone suddenly seems incapable of distinguishing between extremely rare and extremely common events in the political realm, then they are doing so on purpose or suffering severe cognitive dissonance.


*Oddly, I solved the problem by giving the kids harder problems. It appears that when their brains are actively engaged with trying to solve the problem, they don’t have time/energy left to come up with alternatives. When the material is too easy (or, perhaps, way too hard) they start trying to get creative to make things more interesting.


Anthropology Friday: Scatalogic Rites of All Nations, pt. 2

What’s in the bucket?

Welcome back to Anthropology Friday. Today we are continuing with “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.

This book isn’t just a compilation of horrible stories about people eating feces. It also has a history of latrines in different countries (haven’t you ever wondered where the toilet is in an igloo?) and practical applications for waste, like the use of feces for fertilizer or urine for tanning hides (Wikipedia has a good description of the process if you are unfamiliar with it). Back before hand cream was widely available, ladies would rub urine on their hands to soften their skin.

People who didn’t have access to clean water for bathing or washing utensils often made due with urine. This might sound awful, but urine is basically sterile, and so better than nothing. A knife used to cut meat and then left uncleaned will quickly become covered in disgusting, rotting material that you don’t want in your food; a knife cleaned with pee might impart an unpleasant flavor to the food, but it probably won’t kill you.

Surprisingly, one of the locals where clean water was in short supply was Siberia/the Arctic. Not because people lacked for snow, but because collecting enough snow to bathe with and then melting it was a time-consuming process that involved going out into the extreme cold and then using a lot of fuel, which people didn’t always have. So for cleaning: urine.

And then there are folks who’ve gotten so used to cleaning their dishes with pee that they purposefully add it to their drinks for the flavor:

“On the morning of the 8th of May, while struggling with an attack of fever, I received a visit from Gilmoro, who brought me a gourd of milk as an expression of gratitude for saving him at an opportune moment his position. Burning with fever, I drained at one draught a goblet full of the foaming liquid ere the sense of taste could detect the
nauseous mixture ; my stomach, however, quickly rebelled, and rejected in violent retching the unsavory potion, seven eighths of which were simply the urine of the cow ! — a practice, by the by, common to all Central Africans, who never drink milk unless thus mixed.” …

The iconic Fly Agaric aka Amanita Muscaria

EvX: This is more common than I had suspected–and then there are the mushrooms:

Oliver Goldsmith speaks of ” a curious custom ” among ” the Tartars of Koraki. . . . The Russians who trade with them carry thither a kind of mushroom. . . . These mushrooms the rich Tartars lay up in large quantities for the winter ; and when a nobleman makes a mushroom feast all the neighbors around are invited. The mushrooms are prepared by boiling, by which the water acquires an intoxicating quality, and is a sort of drink which the Tartars prize beyond all other.

When the nobility and ladies are assembled, and the ceremonies usual between people of distinction over, the mushroom broth goes freely round, and they laugh, talk double-entendres, grow fuddled, and become excellent company. The poorer sort, who love mushroom broth to distraction as well as the rich, but cannot afford it at first hand, post themselves on these occasions round the huts of the rich, and watch the opportunity of the ladies and gentlemen as they come down to pass their liquor, and holding a wooden bowl, catch the delicious fluid, very little altered by filtration, being still strongly tinctured with the intoxicating quality. Of this they drink with the utmost satisfaction, and thus they get as drunk and as jovial as their betters. …

“The most singular effect of the Amanita is the influence it possesses over the urine. It is said that from time immemorial the inhabitants have known that the fungus imparts an intoxicating quality to that secretion, which continues for a considerable time after taking it. For instance, a man moderately intoxicated to-day will by the next morning have slept himself sober; but (as is the custom) by taking a cup of his urine he will be more powerfully intoxicated than he was the preceding day. It is therefore not uncommon for confirmed drunkards to preserve their urine as a precious liquor against a scarcity of the fungus.

” The intoxicating property of the urine is capable of being propagated, for every one who partakes of it has his urine similarly affected. Thus with a very few Amanita; a party of drunkards may keep up their debauch for a week. Dr. Laugsdorf mentions that by means of the second person taking the urine of the first, the third of the second, and so on, the intoxication may be propagated through five individuals.”— (English Cyclop., London, 1854, vol ii., ” Natural History,” article ” Fungi.” London : Bradbury and Evans.)”

EvX: Europeans have certain genetic adaptations that let them digest alcohol with fewer ill effects (Asians, by contrast, often get quite red while drinking, even if they enjoy the beverage, and people from cultures that never really had alcohol often get quite addicted to it.) I wager the Siberians have some interesting genetic adaptations to mushrooms (and maybe pee) that allow them to eat them with fewer bad effects.

Then we have some more extreme customs:

“Speaking of the remnants of the Hindu sect of the Aghoris, an English writer observes:

” In proof of their indifference to worldly objects they eat and drink whatever is given to them, even ordure and carrion. They smear their bodies also with excrement, and carry it about with them in a wooden cup, or skull, either to swallow it… or to throw it upon the persons or into the houses of those who refuse
to comply with their demands.”

EvX: The Aghoris are definitely a real sect and not something just made up for the sake of a wild story. According to Wikipedia:

The Aghori (Sanskrit aghora)[2] are ascetic Shaiva sadhus. The Aghori are known to engage in post-mortem rituals. They often dwell in charnel grounds, have been witnessed smearing cremation ashes on their bodies, and have been known to use bones from human corpses for crafting kapalas (skullcups which Shiva and other Hindu deities are often iconically depicted holding or using) and jewelry. Because of their practices that are contradictory to orthodox Hinduism, they are generally opposed by other Hindus.[3][4]

the Aghoris maintain that all opposites are ultimately illusory. The purpose of embracing pollution and degradation through various customs is the realization of non-duality (advaita) through transcending social taboos, attaining what is essentially an altered state of consciousness and perceiving the illusory nature of all conventional categories. …

Aghoris base their beliefs on two principles common to broader Shaiva beliefs: that Shiva is perfect (having omniscience, omnipresence and omnipotence) and that Shiva is responsible for everything that occurs – all conditions, causes and effects. Consequently, everything that exists must be perfect and to deny the perfection of anything would be to deny the sacredness of all life in its full manifestation, as well as to deny the Supreme Being.

Aghoris believe that every person’s soul is Shiva but is covered by aṣṭamahāpāśa “eight great nooses or bonds”, including sensual pleasure, anger, greed, obsession, fear and hatred. The practices of the Aghoris are centered around the removal of these bonds. Sādhanā in cremation grounds destroys fear; sexual practices with certain riders and controls help release one from sexual desire; being naked destroys shame. On release from all the eight bonds the soul becomes sadāśiva and obtains moksha.[6]

Back to the book, which has moved on to the Dalai Lama, whoe poop is magic:

“Grueber assures us that the grandees of the kingdom are very anxious to procure the excrements of this divinity (i. e., the Grand Lama), which they usually wear about their necks as relics. In another place he says that the Lamas make a great advantage by the large presents they receive for helping the grandees to some of his excrements, or urine ; for, by wearing the first about their necks, and mixing the latter with their victuals, they imagine themselves to be
secure against all bodily infirmities. In confirmation of this, Gerbillon informs us that the Mongols wear his excrements, pulverized, in little bags about their necks, as precious relics, capable of preserving them from all misfortunes, and curing them of all sorts of distempers. …

“Mr. W. W. Rockhill, for six years secretary of the Legation of the United States, in Pekin, is a member of the Oriental Society, and a scholar of the highest attainments, more particularly in all that relates to the languages, customs, and religions of China and Thibet, in which countries he has travelled extensively.

“The sacred pills presented by him to the author were enclosed in a silver reliquary, elaborately chased and ornamented ; in size they were about as large as quail-shot ; their color was almost orange, or between
that and an ochreous red.

“Through the kindness of Surgeon-General John Moore, U. S. Army, they were analyzed by Dr. Mew, U. S. Army, with the following results : —

“April 18, 1889.

“I have at length found time to examine the Grand Lama’s ordure, and write to say that I find nothing at all remarkable in it. He had been feeding on a farinaceous diet, for I found by the microscope a large amount of undigested starch in the field, the presence of which I verified by the usual iodine test, which gave an abundant reaction.

” There was also present much cellulose, or what appealed to be cellulose, from which I infer that the flour used (which was that of wheat) was of a coarse quality, and probably not made in Minnesota.

” A slight reaction for biliary matter seemed to show that there was no obstruction of the bile ducts. These tests about used up the four very small pills of the Lama’s ordure.

” Very respectfully and sincerely yours,

(Signed) “W. M. Mew.”

EvX: It appears that the current Dalai Lama’s monastery still produces pills of some sort, but I bet they aren’t full of poop. Religions change, sometimes for the better. Nevertheless, I don’t recommend buying and eating random “Tibetan pills” off Ebay that promise they’re made with bits of hair or nail clippings from monks.

Returning to Europe:

“In Ireland, weakly children are taken to drink the ablution, that is, the water and wine with which the chalice is rinsed after the priest has taken the communion, — the efficacy arising from the cup having just before contained the body of our Lord.” … The same cure was also in vogue in England, and in each case for the whooping-cough.”

EvX: This is why infant mortality used to be so high.

“Picart narrates that the Brahmins fed grain to a sacred cow, and afterward searched in the ordure for the sacred grains, which they picked out whole, drying and administering them to the sick, not merely as a medicine, but as a sacred thing. …

” The greatest, or, at any rate, the most convenient of all purifiers is the urine of a cow ; . . . Images are sprinkled with it.

“Very frequently the excrement is first reduced to ashes. The monks of Chivem, called Paudarones, smear their faces, breasts, and arms with the ashes of cow dung ; they run through the streets demanding alms, very much as the Zuni actors demanded a feast, and chant the praises of Chivem, while they carry a bundle of peacock feathers in the hand,
and wear the lingam at the neck.”

EvX: And a the other extreme:

Captain Cook tells us that the New Zealanders had privies to every three or four of their houses ; he also takes occasion to say that there were no privies in Madrid until 1760 ; that the determination of the king to introduce them and sewers, and to prohibit the throwing of human ordure out of windows after nightfall, as had been the custom,
nearly precipitated a revolution. …

” They (the Tartars) hold it not good to abide long in one place, for they will say when they will curse any of their children, ‘ I would thou mightest tarry so long in one place that thou mightest smell thine own dung as the Christians do;’ and this is the greatest curse they have.” …

“Padre Gumilla says that the Indians on the Orinoco have the same custom as the Jews and Turks have of digging holes with a hoe and covering up their evacuations. (See “Orinoco,” Madrid, 17-41, p. 109.) No such cleanliness can be attributed to the Indians of the Plains of North America or the nomadic tribes of the Southwest. …

“Mr. John F. Mann confirms from personal observation that the natives of Australia observed the injunction given to the Hebrews in Deuteronomy. ” From personal observation, I can state that the natives, all over the country, as a rule, are particular in this matter, but it was many years before I ascertained the reasons for this care. Sorcery and witchcraft exist in every tribe; each tribe has its ‘Kooradgee’ or medicine-man ; the natives imagine that any death, accident, or pain, is caused by the evil influence of some enemy. These ‘ Kooradgees ‘ have the power not only of inflicting pain, but of causing all kinds of trouble. They are particular to always carry about with them, in a net bag, a
‘ charm ‘ which is most ordinarily made of rock crystal, human excrement, and kidney fat. If one of these medicine-men can obtain possession of some of the excrement of his intended victim, or some of his hair, in fact anything belonging to his person, it is the most easy thing in the world to bewitch him.” — (Personal letter from John F. Mann, Esq., Neutral Bay, New South Wales.)

“the Lapps, upon breaking camp, made it a point to burn the dung of their reindeer in cases where any of these animals had died of disease ; while it is also related that immigrants to California from the States of Missouri and Arkansas, for some reason not understood, had the singular custom of burning their own excrement in the camp-fire. …

“On the Gold Coast of Africa, the negroes “are very careful not to let a fart, if anybody be by them ; they wonder at our Netherlander that use it so commonly, for they cannot abide that a man should fart before them, esteeming it to be a great shame and contempt done unto them.” — (Master Richard Jobson, a. d. 1620, in Purchas, vol. ii. p. 930.)

“In the Russian sect of dissenters called the “Bezpopovtsi,” “during the service of Holy Thursday, certain of them, known as ‘ gapers ‘ or ‘yawners,’ sit for hours with their mouths wide open, waiting for ministering angels to quench their spiritual thirst from invisible chalices.” — (Heard, “Russian Church and Russian Dissent,” pp. 200, 201.)”

EvX: I think that’s enough for today. See you next week!

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.

Local Optima, Diversity, and Patchwork

Local optima–or optimums, if you prefer–are an illusion created by distance. A man standing on the hilltop at (approximately) X=2 may see land sloping downward all around himself and think that he is at the highest point on the graph.

But hand him a telescope, and he discovers that the fellow standing on the hilltop at X=4 is even higher than he is. And hand the fellow at X=4 a telescope, and he’ll discover that X=6 is even higher.

A global optimum is the best possible way of doing something; a local optimum can look like a global optimum because all of the other, similar ways of doing the same thing are worse. To get from a local optimum to a global optimum, you might have to endure a significant trough of things going worse before you reach your destination. (Those troughs would be the points X=3.03 and X=5.02 on the graph.) If the troughs are short and shallow enough, people can accidentally power their way through. If long and deep enough, people get stuck.

The introduction of new technology, exposure to another culture’s solutions, or even random chance can expose a local optimum and propel a group to cross that trough.

For example, back in 1400, Europeans were perfectly happy to get their Chinese silks, spices, and porcelains via the overland Silk Road. But with the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, the Silk Road became more fragmented and difficult (ie dangerous, ie expensive) to travel. The increased cost of the normal road prompted Europeans to start exploring other, less immediately profitable trade routes–like the possibility of sailing clear around the world, via the ocean, to the other side of China.

Without the eastern trade routes first diminishing in profitability, it wouldn’t have been economically viable to explore and develop the western routes. (With the discovery of the Americas, in the process, a happy accident.)

West Hunter (Greg Cochran) writes frequently about local optima; here’s an excerpt on plant domestication:

The reason that a few crops account for the great preponderance of modern agriculture is that a bird in the hand – an already-domesticated, already- optimized crop – feeds your family/makes money right now, while a potentially useful yet undomesticated crop doesn’t. One successful domestication tends to inhibit others that could flourish in the same niche. Several crops were domesticated in the eastern United States, but with the advent of maize and beans ( from Mesoamerica) most were abandoned. Maybe if those Amerindians had continued to selectively breed sumpweed for a few thousand years, it could have been a contender: but nobody is quite that stubborn.

Teosinte was an unpromising weed: it’s hard to see why anyone bothered to try to domesticate it, and it took a long time to turn it into something like modern maize. If someone had brought wheat to Mexico six thousand years ago, likely the locals would have dropped maize like a hot potato. But maize ultimately had advantages: it’s a C4 plant, while wheat is C3: maize yields can be much higher.

Teosinte is the ancestor of modern corn. Cochran’s point is that in the domestication game, wheat is a local optimum; given the wild ancestors of wheat and corn, you’d develop a better, more nutritious variety of wheat first and probably just abandon the corn. But if you didn’t have wheat and you just had corn, you’d keep at the corn–and in the end, get an even better plant.

(Of course, corn is a success story; plenty of people domesticated plants that actually weren’t very good just because that’s what they happened to have.)

Japan in 1850 was a culturally rich, pre-industrial, feudal society with a strong isolationist stance. In 1853, the Japanese discovered that the rest of the world’s industrial, military technology was now sufficiently advanced to pose a serious threat to Japanese sovereignty. Things immediately degenerated, culminating in the Boshin War (civil war, 1868-9,) but with the Meiji Restoration Japan embarked on an industrialization crash-course. By 1895, Japan had kicked China’s butt in the First Sino-Japanese War and the Japanese population doubled–after holding steady for centuries–between 1873 and 1935. (From 35 to 70 million people.) By the 1930s, Japan was one of the world’s most formidable industrial powers, and today it remains an economic and technological powerhouse.

Clearly the Japanese people, in 1850, contained the untapped ability to build a much more complex and advanced society than the one they had, and it did not take much exposure to the outside world to precipitate a total economic and technological revolution.

Sequoyah’s syllabary, showing script and print forms

A similar case occurred in 1821 when Sequoyah, a Cherokee man, invented his own syllabary (syllable-based alphabet) after observing American soldiers reading letters. The Cherokee quickly adopted Sequoyah’s writing system–by 1825, the majority of Cherokee were literate and the Cherokee had their own printing industry. Interestingly, although some of the Cherokee letters look like Latin, Greek, or Cyrillic letters, there is no correspondence in sound, because Sequoyah could not read English. He developed his entire syllabary after simply being exposed to the idea of writing.

The idea of literacy has occurred independently only a few times in human history; the vast majority of people picked up alphabets from someone else. Our Alphabet comes from the Latins who got it from the Greeks who adopted it from the Phoenicians who got it from some proto-canaanite script writers, and even then literacy spread pretty slowly. The Cherokee, while not as technologically advanced as Europeans at the time, were already a nice agricultural society and clearly possessed the ability to become literate as soon as they were exposed to the idea.

When I walk around our cities, I often think about what their ruins will look like to explorers in a thousand years
We also pass a ruin of what once must have been a grand building. The walls are marked with logos from a Belgian University. This must have once been some scientific study centre of sorts.”

By contrast, there are many cases of people being exposed to or given a new technology but completely lacking the ability to functionally adopt, improve, or maintain it. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, is full of ruined colonial-era buildings and roads built by outsiders that the locals haven’t maintained. Without the Belgians, the infrastructure has crumbled.

Likewise, contact between Europeans and groups like the Australian Aboriginees did not result in the Aboriginees adopting European technology nor a new and improved fusion of Aboriginee and European tech, but in total disaster for the Aboriginees. While the Japanese consistently top the charts in educational attainment, Aboriginee communities are still struggling with low literacy rates, high dropout rates, and low employment–the modern industrial economy, in short, has not been kind to them.

Along a completely different evolutionary pathway, cephalopods–squids, octopuses, and their tentacled ilk–are the world’s smartest invertebrates. This is pretty amazing, given that their nearest cousins are snails and clams. Yet cephalopod intelligence only goes so far. No one knows (yet) just how smart cephalopods are–squids in particular are difficult to work with in captivity because they are active hunter/swimmers and need a lot more space than the average aquarium can devote–but their brain power appears to be on the order of a dog’s.

After millions of years of evolution, cephalopods may represent the best nature can do–with an invertebrate. Throw in a backbone, and an animal can get a whole lot smarter.

And in chemistry, activation energy is the amount of energy you have to put into a chemical system before a reaction can begin. Stable chemical systems essentially exist at local optima, and it can require the input of quite a lot of energy before you get any action out of them. For atoms, iron is the global–should we say universal?–optimum, beyond which reactions are endothermic rather than exothermic. In other words, nuclear fusion at the core of the sun ends with iron; elements heavier than iron can only be produced when stars explode.

So what do local optima have to do with diversity?

The current vogue for diversity (“Diversity is our greatest strength”) suggests that we can reach global optima faster by simply smushing everyone together and letting them compare notes. Scroll back to the Japanese case. Edo Japan had a nice culture, but it was also beset by frequent famines. Meiji Japan doubled its population. Giving everyone, right now, the same technology and culture would bring everyone up to the same level.

But you can’t tell from within if you are at a local or global optimum. That’s how they work. The Indians likely would have never developed corn had they been exposed to wheat early on, and subsequently Europeans would have never gotten to adopt corn, either. Good ideas can take a long time to refine and develop. Cultures can improve rapidly–even dramatically–by adopting each other’s good ideas, but they also need their own space and time to pursue their own paths, so that good but slowly developing ideas aren’t lost.

Which gets us back to Patchwork.

Anthropology Friday: No Angel by Jay Dobyns, pt 1

Today’s selection for Anthropology Friday is Jay Dobyns and Nils Shelton’s No Angel: My Harrowing Undercover Journey to the Inner Circle of the Hells Angels. (If you aren’t familiar with American motorcycle culture, I recommend starting with my post, Do Biker Lives Matter? Harleys, Exit, and Thedic Signaling.)

From the Amazon blurb for No Angel:

Here, from Jay Dobyns, the first federal agent to infiltrate the inner circle of the outlaw Hells Angels Motorcycle Club, is the inside story of the twenty-one-month operation that almost cost him his family, his sanity, and his life.

Getting shot in the chest as a rookie agent, bartering for machine guns, throttling down the highway at 100 mph, and responding to a full-scale, bloody riot between the Hells Angels and their rivals, the Mongols…

Reminiscent of Donnie Brasco’s uncovering of the true Mafia, this is an eye-opening portrait of the world of bikers… one that fully describes the seductive lure criminal camaraderie has for men who would otherwise be powerless outsiders. Here is all the nihilism, hate, and intimidation, but also the freedom–and, yes, brotherhood–of the only truly American form of organized crime.

So what do all of these books on criminals have to do with anthropology? Traditional anthropology looks at pre-industrial societies such as Hadza hunter-gatherers or reindeer-herding Sami. With the rapid spread of industrialization, anthropologists feared that information about our own human past and the variety of forms societies can take would soon diseappear.

In more recent years, anthropologists have become interested in the forms different groups and sub-cultures take within industrialized societies. In Bury Me Standing: the Gypsies and their Journey, for example, Isabella Fonseca writes about the not-so-nomadic Gypsies of modern Europe; in Nuclear Rites: A Weapons Laboratory at the End of the Cold War, Hugh Gusterson writes about nuclear scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

After our long look at Siberia, I wanted to find something different. If people can write about Gypsies, why not the poor of our own society?

I began this project thinking of criminals as aberrations, people in whom something had gone wrong or who had decided to abandon normal social norms. Now that I am at the end (typing up my notes,) I realize that many criminals as respected, integrated members of their societies whose behavior could be, under different circumstances, not only normal but beneficial. What is the difference, after all, between a criminal who sells illegal drugs and an honest business man who sells alcohol and tobacco? Between a gang member who kills a rival gangster for invading his turf and a soldier who kills an invading enemy?

Many thieves and violent criminals are kind and loving to their own families. Pablo Escobar, the notorious Colombian drug lord, had a devoted wife, loved his children, and gave away so much money to Colombia’s poor that 25,000 people attended his funeral. And even Mafia bosses, for all their crimes, have families and are treated with the respect in their own neighborhoods. (The fact that the locals often like or sympathize with the local criminals can interfere greatly in police efforts to track down and arrest those same criminals.)

Note: this is not all criminals. Drug dealers and serial killers have very different motives. Drug dealers want to make money. Serial killers want to kill people. Some criminals are, indeed, aberrant, psychotic people. Many are impulsive, low-IQ, or unable to succeed in life without resorting to crime. And most have a very low regard for the lives of others.

For obvious reasons, there aren’t a whole lot of ethnographies of criminals or criminal organizations, but Dobyns’s account of infiltrating the Hells Angels (no apostrophe) comes close.

Let’s begin with a bit of reflection about getting shot when he was a rookie cop (As usual, I’ll be using “” instead of blockquotes for readability):

If anything, the shooting proved that my job, and therefore my life, was not glamorous in any way. Pathetically, I’d imagined that undercover life would be like Miami Vice–full of cigarette boats, fast cars, expensive clothe, and perfect tens in bikinis sitting in my lap while I negotiated with drug kingpins. Instead, I confronted toothless strippers and disgruntled Vietnam vets, and did deals with jonesing tweakers in trailer parks while getting shot by a broke-dick ex-con who lived with his mom. …

“In the years between the shooting and the summer of 2001, I’d done and seen things that citizen simply don’t do or see. I’d been in another shoot-out, I’d had an inhuman number of guns shoved in my face, I’d bought and sold tons of drugs, and I’d made hundreds of solid collars. I’d worked African-American gangbangers and Italian mobsters with Chris; the Aryan Brotherhood with Special Agent Louis Quinonez, and bikers from Georgia to Colorado with a bunch of different partners, including one of my ATF mentors, Vincent Cefalu.”

Bullhead City with Colorado River in foreground

On to his next assignment, in a city worth describing:

“Bullhead City is near the southern tip of Nevada, ten hours from where I lived in Tucson. It’s a broken-down town full of semi-employed mechanics who’ve shacked up with women who are–or were–“dancers.” It’s a meth capital teeming with high-school dropouts, and it’s all set down in a brown and tan valley that looks more like Mars than Earth. Across the brown Colorado River is Laughlin, Nevada, Bullhead’s dusty twin sister, with her winkling strip and brand-name outfits: Flamingo, Golden Nugget, Harrah’s. …

“By the end of the following week I was holed up in Bullhead at Gretchen’s Inn, a contemptible riverside hideaway off Route 95. From the outside it looked harmless, but from the inside it was something else. A fleabag meth flophouse, busted locks on the doors and windows that wouldn’t close, people screwing all day and night. I slept with my arms folded over my chest and one of my beloved Glock 19s in my hand.”

EvX: I’ve been a bit afraid of very cheap hotels ever since reading about a horrible crime that happened in one that I’m not going to link to because I don’t want to look it up again. So far I’ve managed to structure my life so that I can avoid bad neighborhoods, pretending more or less that they aren’t there when I’m not looking at them. But of course they are there, broken-down places full of drugs and broken dreams.

According to Wikipedia’s climate data, Bullhead City’s average high temperatures (average, not record) from June through September are 107.7, 112, 110, and 103.7 degrees F.

But back to the story, where our undercover cop needs to buy some guns:

Sugarbear’s informant, Chuck, would take me to Mohave Firearms for some introductions…

“Here’s what I said:

“What’s up? This’s a nice place you got here, looks like you know your business. Yeah, Jay’s my name, but everyone calls me Bird … Yeah, I ride. You see a patch on my back? Well, then I’m not a One Percenter*, so quit asking… But listen, I got another business, maybe you can help me out? I need guns. Small ones, big ones, fast ones, slow ones. No papers. …

“The next day he sold me two .45s, no papers, no forms. All cash. It was too easy.

“Through the years I was often amused by how quickly suspects decided to trust me.”

EvX: Note: I cut a lot from this conversation. This just gives you some of the flavor. Dobyns needs to convince these guys that he’s a genuine buyer of illegal guns, not, oh, an undercover cop. And he does.

*A 1%, if you aren’t familiar with the term, is a member of an outlaw motorcycle club such as the Hells Angels.

Back to the story: working class Americans like their guns. Some of them really like them:

“Varvil proceeded to let us into his gun vault, a fifteen-by-twenty-foot room off the cluttered garage. Every wall of the room was lined with guns of every kind from damn near every decade of the twentieth century and probably two dozen countries.”

The Prison Run:

“Thousands of bikers stage up and slowly ride out to the prison complex in a massive pack of chrome, steel, leather, and denim to pay their respects to those unfortunate enough to be doing hard time. As the ragged column crawls past the yard, orange jumpsuited inmates caged behind thousands of feet of curlicued razor wire stand at parade rest while the bikers file past, saluting, hooting and hollering. To establish some semblance of order, the law comes out in a show of force. Helicopters, interpersonnel vehicles, cruisers, motorcycles, SUVs, paddy wagons–the whole fleet.”

EvX: Here are some great pictures of the Prison Run, and here is a great article:

“They talk about rehabilitation. They call it a “justice” system. But in reality this place is designed to destroy a man. The system has been designed to break, not to better a person. A man’s most valuable possession is his freedom. In this place they take that away. …

“For the last 24 years the Florence Prison Run has been a show of support by the Brothers still on the outside for all of the Brothers who are unfortunately under the care of the state on the inside. … The inspiration for the run was the incarceration of a brother. Running the prison was a way for the locked up Brother to feel and hear the presence outside and know, without a doubt, that he was remembered.”

Some background on why ATF wanted to infiltrate the Angels:

“At the time ATF had some real interest in the Angels. … This kind of case is built around existing police reports, warrants, affidavits, arrests, convictions, financial document, and public records. Slats [one of the ATF agents] sought to prove that the Angels were a criminal organization, indictable under RICO …

“the Angels had been in Arizona for a little under five years… before them the state’s top One Percenters were the Dirty Dozen. The Dozen had been violent and well-established. …

“The Angels came onto their turf when Ralph “Sonny” Barger, the iconic godfather of the Hells Angels, “retired” his forty-year presidency in Oakland, California. He’d served a prison term in the Phoenix area and had fallen in love with the climate and the state. … The Dirty Dozen were in a hard spot… They were tough, but they lacked the resources… of the Hells Angels. The Dozen’s members were given a choice: Disappear or patch over to the Angels. Most enthusiastically chose the latter. …

“These facts were significant. For a club to go from nonexistent to the main show in town in under five years proved… that the Angels were wielding their influence ably and willfully. These are the types of bricks that RICO cases are built with.”

EvX: In other words, regardless of whatever else the Hells Angels were up to, if they used violence or the threat of violence to force the Dirty Dozen out of Arizona, then they could be indicted under RICO.

That “regardless,” though, haunted me throughout the book. What were the Hells Angels up to, besides controlling territory? Selling drugs? Buying guns? I have some answers, but we’ll get to them later.

A certain curious difficulty:

some biker investigators assimilate and sympathize with their adversaries. Some even form their own clubs. This has always been a mystery to me. Cops don’t mimic mafia dons or dress as Crips and Bloods and form up neighborhood sets, so why would some choose to create their own motorcycle clubs patterned after criminal syndicates? …

Instructions for riding with the Angels:

“We’ll be at the back, keeping up. We gotta keep up. They blow a light, we blow a light. They get traffic stopped, we get traffic stopped. Mesa rides like the Blue Angels on Memorial Day. Other charters hate riding with ’em ’cause they’re such fucking road Nazis. Stay eighteen inches off the wheel in front of you. And stay back. Never, ever cross the line of a full patch’s front wheel. You pass one of these guys and there will be hell to pay.”

Murder at the local Hells Angels clubhouse:

There was a bar on one side with a small triangular stage wedged next to it. A twelve foot long Death Head painted on one wall, an adjacent wall covered with trophies and memorabilia. …

“At least on person had already been killed on the floor of the Mesa clubhouse. … On October 25, 2001, a forty-something woman named Cynthia Garcia was partying with the boys at Mesa. During the course of that night she had the drunken balls to insult the Angels on their home turf… she was beaten unconscious by patched members Mesa Mike and Keven Augustiniak and a prospect, Paul Eischeid…

[They] hauled the body, which was still technically alive, into the carport and dumped it in the trunk of a car. They drove Garcia out to the desert. … They stabbed her repeatedly. They took turns trying to cut off her head, which they wanted to leave on a fencepost for the vultures. …

“Cynthia Garcia, a mother of two, had made a bad decision, and she was dead for it.”

EvX: one theme that comes up constantly in these books–here, in Donnie Brasco’s The Way of the Wiseguy, and eponymousy in Bourgeois’s In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio is respect.

Some people say that North West Europe has a Guilt Culture, while many Asian countries have a Shame Culture. I’m not exactly sure what the difference is, but in a guilt culture, people are told that God is watching them even when they are otherwise alone and will know if they have sinned. God knows if you pick your nose. God knows if you don’t wash your hands after using the toilet. And God definitely knows if you kill someone, even if no one else finds out.

By contrast, high-crime groups (including groups that hail from NW Europe) seem to have what I’m going to call Respect Cultures. In Respect Cultures, one’s social standing is of paramount importance, and disrespect can be grounds for murder.

The danger here is three-fold:

  1. People from Respect Cultures are often at the bottom of the American totem pole–cause and effect unclear, but this seems like a bad combination either way.
  2. People in Respect Cultures believe in rigid hierarchies in which they do not treat social inferiors as equals.
  3. People in Respect Cultures will not hesitate to use violence to secure or increase their position.

More hierarchical societies obviously lean toward Respect Cultures, while more egalitarian societies lean toward Guilt Cultures. In atomized, egalitarian cultures, individual behavior is kept in check via internalized norms that one should not violate the “social contract.” By contrast, in hierarchical societies, your behavior is dictated by your position within the social pecking order. You have certain obligations to the people above you (often monetary) and obligations to the people below you (such as organizing economic opportunities or providing for their safety.)

For criminals, respect is absolutely vital, because respect translates into other criminals staying out of your turf. You respect a criminal because he can kill you; you disrespect him if you think you can kill him.

More on riding motorcycles:

“The Mesa boys rode like fearless banshees on crack. Jesus Christ himself could not have ridden a motorcycle better, faster, or tighter than Mesa… they kept no more than eighteen inches off the wheel in front of them–and they were often closer than that. By the time the lead riders had banked into a turn, the guy three bikes back had already leaned his shoulder into the thin air. They moved like a snake chasing a rabbit through its burrow. They blew lights and ignored traffic. The rabbits–everyone who wasn’t on a chromed-out Harley-Davidson, everyone who was ensconced in the “cage” of a car or truck, everyone unfortunate enough to be a pedestrian, everyone who was not a Hells Angel–ran scared. …

“Hells Angels live for their club and their brothers. One of there credos is “Step down or aside for no man, no law, no God.” They are free men unto themselves. At the root of this liberty is the experience of riding a bike. Their Harley Davidsons are the vehicles of their emancipation. Emancipation from society’s rule and expectations; from a life of work and obligations, from other men, wives, girlfriends, and family. … The things that the rest of us depend on for safety and consistency were never there for these men. They’re outcasts. The way they see it is, why should they return any favors?

“For these men it is the smallest of steps from outcast to outlaw.”

EvX: I wish the book had gone into more detail on what made these men “outcasts” in the first place.

“The irony is that while their appearance and lifestyle are clearly set up in opposition to those of us who live straight lives, they are hardly distinguishable from one another. Their individuality is confined by a rigid conformity. All wear the same kind of clothing, ride the same brand of bike, adhere to the same set of club rules. All must report once a week to “church” meetings, and all must pay monthly dues. The cuts [biker vests] forever remain the property of the club, as do the “skin patches,” the tattoos that each new member must receive. If for whatever reason a brother quits the club, then the Hells Angels are bound to go to his residence and remove every article of clothing, furniture, and memorabilia that contain ay reference to the Hells Angel–not merely to punish and divest him, but because the stuff simply is not his. … if he leaves on bad terms, then those tattoos are carved off–in some cases taken back with a cheese grater, or with a clothes iron on the linen setting. …

“the Hells Angels’ rules were legion and covered damn near everything … The Hells Angels have rules that govern their bikes, their appearance, their behavior, their old ladies, their engagement in criminal activity, their handling of rivals.”

So what’s the whole point?

“If you become a Hells Angel, everything else about you becomes moot. You’re no longer John J. Johnson–you’re a brother. A soldier. A unit of fear. … Drinks become free, and pussy is never more than a dick’s length away. … You’re suddenly capital-R Respected. If you’re done wrong by someone, the whole club is duty-bound to do wrong back to that person.”

EvX: This, right here, I think is it.

Throughout the book, I kept asking, “but what is the point?” The contrast with Brasco’s description of the Mafia is stark. The Mafia has a point: to make money. Drug lord Frank Lucas, in Original Gangster, had an obvious goal: to make money. But the Hells Angels are not obviously making much money. Perhaps they are, but are being very careful about not showing it off. Or perhaps some of them are, just not the ones Dobyns hung out with.

No, I don’t think money is the main point, though they probably make money when the opportunity presents itself. Rather, the Hells Angels and other groups like them are in it to control resources and territory. Drinks, women, bikes, and highways. That’s what they want, and by being the biggest bad-asses around (and pushing out any competing bad-asses, like the Dirty Dozen,) that’s what they get.

This is good place to wrap up for the week. See you next Friday.

What is Cultural Appropriation?

White person offended at the Japanese on behalf of Mexicans, who actually think Mario in a sombrero is awesome

“Cultural appropriation” means “This is mine! I hate you! Don’t touch my stuff!”

Cultural appropriation is one of those newspeak buzz-phrases that sound vaguely like real things, but upon any kind of inspection, completely fall apart. Wikipedia defines Cultural Appropriation as “the adoption or use of the elements of one culture by members of another culture.[1]”, but this is obviously incorrect. By this definition, Louis Armstrong committed cultural appropriation when he learned to play the white man’s trumpet. So is an immigrant who moves to the US and learns English.

Obviously this not what anyone means by cultural appropriation–this is just cultural diffusion, a completely natural, useful, and nearly unstoppable part of life.

A more nuanced definition is that cultural appropriation is “when someone from a more powerful group starts using an element of a less powerful group’s culture.” The idea is that this is somehow harmful to the people of the weaker culture, or at least highly distasteful.

To make an analogy: Let’s suppose you were a total nerd in school. The jocks called you names, locked you in your locker, and stole your lunch money. You were also a huge Heavy Metal fan, for which you were also mocked. The jocks even tried to get the Student Council to pass laws against playing heavy metal at the school dance.

And then one day, the biggest jock in the school shows up wearing a “Me-Tallica” shirt, and suddenly “Me-Tallica” becomes the big new thing among all of the popular kids. Demand skyrockets for tickets to heavy metal concerts, and now you can’t afford to go see your favorite band.

You are about to go apoplectic: “Mine!” you want to yell. “That’s my thing! And it’s pronounced Meh-tallica, you idiots!”

SJWs protest Japanese women sharing Japanese culture with non-Japanese. The sign reads “It wouldn’t be so bad w/out white institutions condoning erasure of the Japanese narrative + orientalism which in turn supports dewomaning + fetishizing AAPI + it is killing us”

How many cases of claimed cultural appropriation does this scenario actually fit? It requires meeting three criteria to count: a group must be widely discriminated against, its culture must be oppressed or denigrated, and then that same culture must be adopted by the oppressors. This is the minimal definition; a more difficult to prove definition requires some actual harm to the oppressed group.

Thing is, there is not a whole lot of official oppression going on in America these days. Segregation ended around the 60s. I’m not sure when the program of forced Native American assimilation via boarding schools ended, but it looks like conditions improved around 1930 and by 1970 the government was actively improving the schools. Japanese and German internment ended with World War II.

It is rather hard to prove oppression–much less cultural oppression–after the 70s. No one is trying to wipe out Native American languages or religious beliefs; there are no laws against rap music or dreadlocks. It’s even harder to prove oppression for recent arrivals whose ancestors didn’t live here during segregation, like most of our Asians and Hispanics (America was about 88% non-Hispanic white and 10% black prior to the 1965 Immigration Act.)

So instead, in cases like the anti-Kimono Wednesdays protest photo above–the claim is inverted:

It wouldn’t be so bad w/out white institutions condoning erasure of the Japanese narrative + orientalism which in turn supports dewomaning + fetishizing AAPI + it is killing us

SJWs objected to Japanese women sharing kimonos with non-Japanese women not because of a history of harm to Japanese people or culture, but because sharing of the kimonos itself is supposedly inspiring harm.

“Orientalism” is one of those words that you probably haven’t encounter unless you’ve had to read Edward Said’s book on the subject (I had to read it twice.) It’s a pretty meaningless concept to Americans, because unlike Monet, we never really went through an Oriental-fascination phase. For good or ill, we just aren’t very interested in learning about non-Americans.

The claim that orientalism is somehow killing Asian American women is strange–are there really serial killers who target Asian ladies specifically because they have a thing for Madame Butterfly?–but at least suggests a verifiable fact: are Asian women disproportionately murdered?

Of course, if you know anything about crime stats, you know that homicide victims tend to be male and most crime is intraracial, not interracial. For example, according to the FBI, of the 12,664 people murdered in 2011, 9,829 were men–about 78%. The FBI’s racial data is only broken down into White (5,825 victims,) Black (6,329,) Other (335), and Unknown (175)–there just aren’t enough Asian homicide victims to count them separately. For women specifically, the number of Other Race victims is only 110–or just a smidge under 1% of total homicides.

And even these numbers are over-estimating the plight of Asian Americans, as Other also includes non-Asians like Native Americans (whose homicide rates are probably much more concerning.)

Call me crazy, but I don’t think kimono-inspired homicides are a real concern.

Kylie Jenner Accused of Cultural Appropriation for Camo Bikini Ad

In practice, SJWs define cultural appropriation as “any time white people use an element from a non-white group’s culture”–or in the recent Kylie Jenner bikini case, “culture” can be expanded to “anything that a person from that other culture ever did, even if millions of other people from other cultures have also done that same thing.” (My best friend in highschool wore camo to prom. My dad wore camo to Vietnam.) And fashion trends come and go–even if Destiny’s Child created a camo bikini trend 16 yeas ago, the trend did not last. Someone else can come along and start a new camo bikini trend.

(Note how TeenVogue does not come to Kyle’s defense by pointing out that these accusations are fundamentally untrue. Anyone can make random, untrue accusations about famous people–schizophrenics do it all the time–but such accusations are not normally considered newsworthy.)

“Cultural appropriation” is such a poorly defined mish-mash of ideas precisely because it isn’t an idea. It’s just an emotion: This is mine, not yours. I hate you and you can’t have it. When white people use the phrase, it takes on a secondary meaning: I am a better white person than you.


Gay marriage didn’t win; traditional marriage lost

From the evolutionist point of view, the point of marriage is the production of children.

Let’s quickly analogize to food. Humans have a tremendous variety of customs, habits, traditions, and taboos surrounding foods. Foods enjoyed in one culture, like pork, crickets, and dog, are regarded as disgusting, immoral, or forbidden in another. Cheese is, at heart, rotten vomit–the enzyme used to make cheese coagulate is actually extracted from a calf’s stomach lining–and yet the average American eats it eagerly.

Food can remind you of your childhood, the best day of your life, the worst day of your life. It can comfort the sick and the mourning, and it accompanies our biggest celebrations of life.

Eh, I’d be happy giving him a microstate and seeing how he does running it.

We eat comfort food, holiday food, even sacrificial food. We have decadent luxuries and everyday staples. Some people, like vegans and ascetics, avoid large classes of food generally eaten by their own society for moral reasons.

People enjoy soda because it has water and calories, but some of us purposefully trick our taste buds by drinking Diet Coke, which delivers the sensation of drinking calories without the calories themselves. We enjoy the taste of calories even when we don’t need any more.

But the evolutionary purpose of eating is to get enough calories and nutrients to survive. If tomorrow we all stopped needing to eat–say, we were all hooked into a Matrix-style click-farm in which all nutrients were delivered automatically via IV–all of the symbolic and emotional content attached to food would wither away.

The extended helplessness of human infants is unique in the animal kingdom. Even elephants, who gestate for an incredible two years and become mature at 18, can stand and begin walking around shortly after birth. Baby elephants are not raised solely by their mothers, as baby rats are, but by an entire herd of related female elephants.

Elephants are remarkable animals, clever, communicative, and caring, who mourn their dead and create art:

But from the evolutionist point of view, the point of elephants’ family systems is still the production of elephant children.

Love is a wonderful, sweet, many-splendored thing, but the purpose of marriage, in all its myriad forms–polygamy, monogamy, polyandry, serial monogamy–is still the production of children.

There are a few societies where marriage as we know it is not really practiced because people depend on alternative kin networks or women can largely provide for themselves. For example, 70% of African American children are born out of wedlock; and among the avuncular Apache:

In the Southwest United States, the Apache tribe practices a form of this, where the uncle is responsible for teaching the children social values and proper behavior while inheritance and ancestry is reckoned through the mother’s family alone. (Modern day influences have somewhat but not completely erased this tradition.)

source: BBC News

Despite the long public argument over the validity of gay marriage, very few gay people actually want to get married. Gallop reports that after the Obergefell v. Hodges ruling, the percent of married gay people jumped quickly from 7.9% to 9.5%, but then leveled off, rising to only 9.6% by June 2016.

In contrast, 46% of US adults are married.

Even this number, though, is in sharp decline: in 1960, 72% of adults were married; by 2010, only 51% were.

The situation is similar throughout the Western world. Only 51% of Brits are married. In Italy, the crude marriage rate (the number of new marriages per 1,000 people), has fallen from 7.35 in 1970 to only 4.21 in 2007. Only 58.9% of Japanese are married.

Declining marriage rates across the developed world have been accompanied by declining fertility rates and rising illegitimacy rates:

Graph showing children per woman rate over the years 1960 – 2009 in USA, China, India, Germany, Russia population rates.
H/T: Share of Births to Unmarried Mothers by Race

As Wikipedia notes:

Only 2% of [Japanese] births occur outside of marriage[35] (compared to 30-60% in Europe and North America) due to social taboos, legal pressure, and financial hurdles.[32] Half of Japan’s single mothers live below the poverty line, among the highest for OECD countries.[36][37][38][39]

In other words, the Japanese welfare state, while generous, does not encourage single motherhood. Wikipedia also provides a discussion of the causes of declining Japanese marriage rates:

The annual number of marriages has dropped since the early 1970s, while divorces have shown a general upward trend.[29] …

The decline of marriage in Japan, as fewer people marry and do so later in life, is a widely cited explanation for the plummeting birth rate.[29][30][31][32] Although the total fertility rate has dropped since the 1970s (to 1.43 in 2013[33]), birth statistics for married women have remained fairly constant (at around 2.1) and most married couples have two or more children. Economic factors, such as the cost of raising a child, work-family conflicts, and insufficient housing, are the most common reasons for young mothers (under 34) to have fewer children than desired. …

Between 1990 and 2010, the percentage of 50-year-old people who had never married roughly quadrupled for men to 20.1% and doubled for women to 10.6%.[41][42] The Welfare Ministry predicts these numbers to rise to 29% of men and 19.2% of women by 2035.[43] The government’s population institute estimated in 2014 that women in their early 20s had a one-in-four chance of never marrying, and a two-in-five chance of remaining childless.[44]

Recent media coverage has sensationalized surveys from the Japan Family Planning Association and the Cabinet Office that show a declining interest in dating and sexual relationships among young people, especially among men.[44][45][46] However, changes in sexuality and fertility are more likely an outcome of the decline in family formation than its cause.[47][48] Since the usual purpose of dating in Japan is marriage, the reluctance to marry often translates to a reluctance to engage in more casual relationships.[30]

In other words, marriage is functionally about providing a supportive way of raising children. In a society where birth control does not exist, children born out of wedlock tend not to survive, and people can easily get jobs to support their families, people tended to get married and have children. In a society where people do not want children, cannot afford them, are purposefully delaying childbearing as long as possible, or have found ways to provide for them without getting married, people simply see no need for marriage.

“Marriage” ceases to mean what it once did, reserved for old-fashioned romantics and the few lucky enough to afford it.

Mass acceptance of gay marriage did change how people think of marriage, but it’s downstream from what the massive, societal-wide decrease in child-bearing and increase in illegitimacy have done to our ideas about marriage.

Anthropology Friday Hofsinde Gray-Wolf’s Indian Warriors and their Weapons (1/4) Ojibwe

Robert Hofsinde Gray-Wolf

Hello everyone, today we’re continuing with Hofsinde Gray-Wolf’s series of books about Native American culture. Today we are reading Indian Warriors and their Weapons.

I am sure every anthropologist has a cultural first love; for me, it was Indians. (Yes, I know, Indians have many cultures.) Such childish love, of course, must eventually encounter adult realities: Indians no longer live like their romanticized ancestors, just as whites no longer live like characters out of a Little House on the Prairie novel. But it is still good to remember what once was and how people once lived. There has been a great deal of forgetting, lately, and I don’t think that is a good thing at all.

(As usual, I’ll be using “” instead of blockquotes for readability.)

From Indian Warriors:

historical range of Ojibwe-language speakng peoples

“The Indians known today as the Ojibwa, or Chippewa, originally called themselves Anishinabe. …

“The Ojibwa lived in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, and they were the largest tribe in that region. Others were the Fox, Sioux, and the Cheyenne Indians, and the Iroquois invaded the territory from time to time, too. Each of these tribes wanted the best hunting and fishing areas, as well as possession of streams where wild rice grew, and they were willing to fight for these rights They also went on the war trail to get revenge or to gain personal honor …

“After the Ojibwa obtained firearms from the French around 1664, they drove the Cheyenne and the Sioux west across the Mississippi River. They drove the Fox to the south. A battle is recorded in which twenty-seven Ojibwa fought off more than one hundred Sioux.”

EvX: According to Wikipedia:

The first historical mention of the Ojibwe occurs in the French Jesuit Relation of 1640, a report by the missionary priests to their superiors in France. Through their friendship with the French traders (coureurs des bois and voyageurs), the Ojibwe gained guns, began to use European goods, and began to dominate their traditional enemies, the Lakota and Fox to their west and south. They drove the Sioux from the Upper Mississippi region to the area of the present-day Dakotas, and forced the Fox down from northern Wisconsin. The latter allied with the Sauk for protection.

By the end of the 18th century, the Ojibwe controlled nearly all of present-day Michigan, northern Wisconsin, and Minnesota, including most of the Red River area. They also controlled the entire northern shores of lakes Huron and Superior on the Canadian side and extending westward to the Turtle Mountains of North Dakota. In the latter area, the French Canadians called them Ojibwe or Saulteaux.

The Ojibwe (Chippewa) were part of a long-term alliance with the Anishinaabe Ottawa and Potawatomi peoples, called the Council of Three Fires. They fought against the Iroquois Confederacy, based mainly to the southeast of the Great Lakes in present-day New York, and the Sioux to the west. The Ojibwe expanded eastward, taking over the lands along the eastern shores of Lake Huron and Georgian Bay.

“In spring and summer the foliage of trees and bushes helped to shield the warriors as they approached their enemies, so these seasons were the usual ones for making war. An Ojibwa small war party was usually made up of volunteers, who gathered under a good leader…

“The Ojibwa early allied themselves with the French. First they supplied them with furs, and later they fought with them against the English. An Ojibwa could get a good flintlock gun at a French trading post for two beaver pelts. The English, however, were not as generous with their allies, the Iroquois and the Sioux.

“Personal bravery was not lacking among the Ojibwa. In one case, which is recorded, a small group of hunters were attacked by a large number of Sioux. Telling his companions to flee, one of the Ojibwa took a stand behind a fallen tree, and there he held back the Sioux as he sent arrow after arrow in their direction… His friends managed to escape, but at last one of the Sioux warriors’ arrows found its mark, killing the Ojibwa. When the escaping Ojibwa returned to their own village they raised a war party, as was customary, and they avenged the death of the lone Ojibwa soon after. …

Hereby it is manifest that, during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war, and such a war as is of every man against every man. — Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, chapter 13, 1651

Five Ojibwe chiefs photographed in the 19th century.

EvX: 1651 is a long time ago, but note that Europeans had first encountered Native Americans just over 150 years before–plenty of time for accounts of native lifestyles to be widely read in Europe.

“During the spring and summer the Ojibwa held their dances as well as making war…

“At these dances the Ojibwa appeared in their finest costumes. In early days they painted designs on their garments. Later they embroidered them with moose hair, and finally they decorated them with the imported trade beads. By the early 1800s costumes were made of black and dark-blue velvet and broadcloth. On the dark background flower-and-leaf designs, made with beads of light and dark green light blue, shades of red and pink, white, and lavender, and yellow, looked striking and colorful.”

EvX: Before we leave the Ojibwa, here’s a bit more from Wikipedia:

The Ojibwe, Ojibwa, or Chippewa are an Anishinaabeg group of indigenous peoples in North America. … In Canada, they are the second-largest First Nations population, surpassed only by the Cree. In the United States, they have the fourth-largest population among Native American tribes, surpassed only by the Navajo, Cherokee, and Lakota-Dakota-Nakota peoples. …

The majority of the Ojibwe people live in Canada. There are 77,940 mainline Ojibwe; 76,760 Saulteaux and 8,770 Mississaugas, organized in 125 bands, and living from western Quebec to eastern British Columbia. As of 2010, Ojibwe in the US census population is 170,742.[1]

Ojibwe are known for their birch barkcanoes, birch bark scrolls, mining and trade in copper, and cultivation of wild rice. Their Midewiwin Society is well respected as the keeper of detailed and complex scrolls of events, oral history, songs, maps, memories, stories, geometry, and mathematics.[2]

The Ojibwe people set the agenda with European-Canadian leaders by signing detailed treaties before they allowed many European settlers into their western areas. In 1745, they adopted guns from the British to defeat the Dakota people in the Lake Superior area, pushing them to the south and west. …

They developed a form of pictorial writing, used in religious rites of the Midewiwin and recorded on birch bark scrolls and possibly on rock. The many complex pictures on the sacred scrolls communicate much historical, geometrical, and mathematical knowledge. The use of petroforms, petroglyphs, and pictographs was common throughout the Ojibwe traditional territories. Petroforms and medicine wheels were a way to teach the important concepts of four directions and astronomical observations about the seasons, and to use as a memorizing tool for certain stories and beliefs.

example of an Ojibwa / Ojibwe Indian birch bark scroll piece or Wiigwaasabak with drawings

It would be nice if Wikipedia added some dates or sources for this paragraph, but the page on Midewiwin notes:

Early accounts of the Mide from books written in the 1800s describe a group of elders that protected the birch bark scrolls in hidden locations. They recopied the scrolls if any were badly damaged, and they preserved them underground. … The historical areas of the Ojibwe were recorded, and stretched from the east coast all the way to the prairies by way of lake and river routes. Some of the first maps of rivers and lakes were made by the Ojibwe and written on birch bark.

The Teachings of the Midewiwin were scratched on birch bark scrolls and were shown to the young men upon entrance into the society. Although these were crude pictographs representing the ceremonies, they show us that the Ojibwa were advanced in the development of picture ‘writing.’ Some of them were painted on bark. One large birch bark roll was ‘known to have been used in the Midewiwin at Mille Lacs for five generations and perhaps many generations before’,[6] and two others, found in a seemingly deliberate hiding place in the Head-of-the-Lakes region of Ontario,[7] were carbon-dated to about 1560 CE +/-70.[8]

Back in the main Wikipedia article on the Ojibwe, it is claimed:

Often, treaties known as “Peace and Friendship Treaties” were made to establish community bonds between the Ojibwe and the European settlers. These established the groundwork for cooperative resource-sharing between the Ojibwe and the settlers. The United States and Canada viewed later treaties offering land cessions as offering territorial advantages. The Ojibwe did not understand the land cession terms in the same way because of the cultural differences in understanding the uses of land. The governments of the US and Canada considered land a commodity of value that could be freely bought, owned and sold.

The Ojibwe believed it was a fully shared resource, along with air, water and sunlight—despite having an understanding of “territory”. At the time of the treaty councils, they could not conceive of separate land sales or exclusive ownership of land. Consequently, today, in both Canada and the US, legal arguments in treaty-rights and treaty interpretations often bring to light the differences in cultural understanding of treaty terms to come to legal understanding of the treaty obligations.[11]

You hear this notion that “Indians had no concept of land ownership” quite often. But if so, why bother to go to war against the Dakotas, and push them out of their lands? If I maybe a bit cynical, perhaps it’s a matter of “I understand this concept perfectly well when it is beneficial, and am suddenly unable to understand it when it is not.”

To be continued…