Dangerous Memes

Homo sapiens is about 200-300,000 years old, depending on exactly where you draw the line between us and our immediate ancestors. Printing (and eventually mass literacy) only got going about 550 years ago, with the development of the Gutenberg press. TV, radio, movies, and the internet only became widespread within the past century, and internet in the past 25 years.

In other words, for 99.99% of human history, “mass media” didn’t exist.

How did illiterate peasants learn about the world, if not from books, TV, or Youtube videos? Naturally, from each other: parents passed knowledge to children; tribal elders taught their wisdom to other members of their tribes; teenagers were apprenticed to masters who already knew a trade, etc.

A hundred years ago, if you wanted to know how to build a wagon, raise a barn, or plant corn, you generally had to find someone who knew how to do so and ask them. Today, you ask the internet.

Getting all of your information from people you know is limiting, but it has two advantages: you can easily judge whether the source of your information is reliable, (you’re not going to take farming advice from your Uncle Bob whose crops always fail,) and most of the people giving you information have your best interests at heart.

Forgoing reproduction tends to be a pretty big hit to one’s reproductive success (source)

The internet’s strength is that it lets us talk to people from outside our own communities; it’s weakness is that this makes it much easier for people (say, Nigerian princes with extra bank accounts,) to get away with lying. They also have no particular interest one way or another in your survival–unlike your parents.

In a mitochondrial memetic environment (that is, an environment where you get most of your information from relatives,) memes that could kill you tend to get selected against: parents who encourage their children to eat poison tend not to have grandchildren. From an evolutionary perspective, deadly memes are selected against in a mitochondrial environment; memes will evolve to support your survival.

By contrast, in a viral meme environment, (that is, an environment where ideas can easily pass from person to person without anyone having to give birth,) your personal survival is not all that important to the idea’s success.

Total Fertility Rate by Country–odd that the Guardian’s anti-fertility message wasn’t aimed at the people with the highest fertility

So one of the risks of viral memes is getting scammed: memetically, infected by an idea that sounds good but actually benefits someone else at your expense.

In the mitochondrial environment, we expect people to be basically cautious; in the viral, less cautious.

Suppose we have two different groups (Group A and Group B) interacting. 25% of Group B is violent criminals, versus 5% of Group A. Folks in group A would quite logically want to avoid Group B. But 75% of Group B is not violent criminals, and would logically not want to be lumped in with criminals. (For that matter, neither do the 25% who are.)

If you think my numbers are unrealistic, consider that the NAACP says that African Americans are incarcerated at 5x the rates of whites,  and if you look at specific subpops–say, black men between the ages of 15 and 35 vs white women over the age of 40–the difference in incarceration rates is even larger (HuffPo claims that 33% of black men will go to prison sometime in their lifetimes.)

In an ideal world, we could easily sort out violent criminals from the rest of the population, allowing the innocent people to freely associate. In the real world, we have to make judgment calls. Lean a bit toward the side of caution, and you exclude more criminals, but also more innocents; lean the opposite direction and innocent people have an easier time finding jobs and houses, but more people get killed by criminals.

Let’s put it less abstractly: suppose you are walking down a dimly-lit street at night and see a suspicious looking person coming toward you. It costs you almost nothing to cross the street to avoid them, while not crossing the street could cost you your life. The person you avoided, if they are innocent, incurs only the expense of potentially having their feelings hurt; if they are a criminal, they have lost a victim.

Companies also want to avoid criminals, which makes it hard for ex-cons to get jobs (which is an issue if we want folks who are no longer in prison to have an opportunity to earn an honest living besides going on welfare.) Unfortunately, efforts to improve employment chances for ex-cons by preventing employers from inquiring directly about criminal history have resulted in employers using rougher heuristics to exclude felons, like simply not hiring young African American males. Since most companies have far more qualified job applicants than available jobs, the cost to them of excluding young African American males is fairly low–while the cost to African Americans is fairly high.

One of the interesting things about the past 200 years is the West’s historically unprecedented shift from racial apartheid/segregation and actual race-based slavery to full legal (if not always de facto) racial integration.

One of the causes of this shift was doubtless the transition from traditional production modes like farming and horticulture to the modern, industrial economy. Subsistence farming didn’t require a whole lot of employees. Medieval peasants didn’t change occupations very often: most folks ended up working in the same professions as their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents (usually farming,) probably even on the same estate.

It was only with industrialization that people and their professions began uncoupling; a person could now hold multiple different jobs, in different fields, over the span of years.

Of course, there were beginnings of this before the 1800s–just as people read books before the 1800s–but accelerating technological development accelerated the trends.

But while capitalists want to hire the best possible workers for the lowest possible wages, this doesn’t get us all the way to the complete change we’ve witnessed in racial mores. After all, companies don’t want to hire criminals, either, and any population that produces a lot of criminals tends not to produce a whole lot of really competent workers.

However, the rise of mass communication has allowed us to listen to and empathize with far more people than ever before. When Martin Luther King marched on Washington and asked to be judged by the content of his character rather than the color of his skin, his request only reached national audiences because of modern media, because we now live in a society of meme viruses. And it worked: integration happened.

Also, crime went up dramatically:

While we’re at it:

Integration triggered a massive increase in crime, which only stopped because… well, we’re not sure, but a corresponding massive increase in the incarceration rate (and sentences) has probably stopped a lot of criminals from committing additional crimes.

Most of these homicides were black on black, but plenty of the victims were white, even as they sold their devalued homes and fled the violence. (Housing integration appears to have struck America’s “ethnic” neighborhoods of Italians, Irish, and Jews particularly hard, destroying coherent communities and, I assume, voting blocks.)

From the white perspective, integration was tremendously costly: people died. Segregation might not be fair, it might kill black people, but it certainly prevented the murder of whites. But segregation, as discussed, does have some costs for whites: you are more limited in all of your transactions, both economic and personal. You can’t sell your house to just anyone you want. Can’t hire anyone you want. Can’t fall in love with anyone you want.

But obviously segregation is far more harmful to African Americans.

Despite all of the trouble integration has caused for whites, the majority claim to believe in it–even though their feet tell a different story. This at least superficial change in attitudes, I believe, was triggered by the nature of the viral memetic environment.

Within the mitochondrial meme environment, you listen to people who care about your survival and they pass on ideas intended to help you survive. They don’t typically pass on ideas that sacrifice your survival for the sake of others, at least not for long. Your parents will tell you that if you see someone suspicious, you should cross the street and get away.

In the viral environment, you interact far more with people who have their own interests in mind, not yours, and these folks would be perfectly happy for you to sacrifice your survival for their sake. The good folks at Penn State would like you to know that locking your car door when a black person passes by is a “microaggression:”

Former President Obama once said in his speech that he was followed when he was shopping in a store, heard the doors of cars locked as he was walking by, and a woman showed extremely nervousness as he got on an elevator with him (Obama, 2013). Those are examples of nonverbal microaggressions. It is disturbing to learn that those behaviors are often automatic that express “put-downs” of individuals in marginalized groups (Pierce et al., 1977). What if Obama were White, would he receive those unfair treatments?

(If Obama were white, like Hillary Clinton, he probably wouldn’t have been elected president.)

For some reason, black people shoplifting, carjacking, or purse-snatching are never described as “microaggressions;” a black person whose feelings are hurt has been microaggressed, but a white person afraid of being robbed or murdered has not been.

This post was actually inspired by an intra-leftist debate:

Shortly after the highly successful African-star-studded movie Black Panther debuted, certain folks, like Faisal Kutty, started complaining that the film is “Islamophobic” because of a scene where girls are rescued from a Boko Haram-like organization.

Never mind that Boko Haram is a real organization, that it actually kidnaps girls, that it has killed more people than ISIS and those people it murders are Africans. Even other Black African Muslims think Boko Haram is shit. (Though obviously BH has its supporters.)

Here we have two different groups of people with different interests: one, Muslims with no particular ties to Africa who don’t want people to associate them with Boko Haram, and two, Black Muslims who don’t want to get killed by folks like Boko Haram.

It is exceedingly disingenuous for folks like Faisal Kutty to criticize as immoral an accurate portrayal of a group that is actually slaughtering thousands of people just because he might accidentally be harmed by association. More attention on Boko Haram could save lives; less attention could result in more deaths–the dead just wouldn’t be Kutty, who is safe in Canada.

Without mass media, I don’t think this kind of appeal works: survival memes dominate and people take danger very seriously. “Some stranger in Canada might be inconvenienced over this” loses to “these people slaughter children.” With mass media, the viral environment allows appeals to set aside your own self-interest and ignore danger in favor of “fairness” and “equality” for everyone in the conversation to flourish.

So far this post has focused primarily on the interests of innocent people, but criminals have interests, too–and criminals would like you to make it easier for them to commit crime.

Steve Sailer highlighted the case of social justice activist and multiple award winner Simon Mol (quotes are from Mol’s Wikipedia article):

Simon Mol (6 November 1973 in Buea, Cameroon – 10 October 2008) was the pen name of Simon Moleke Njie, a Cameroon-born journalist, writer and anti-racist political activist. In 1999 he sought political asylum in Poland; it was granted in 2000, and he moved to Warsaw, where he became a well-known anti-racist campaigner. …

In 2005 he organized a conference with Black ambassadors in Poland to protest the claims in an article in Wiedza i Życie by Adam Leszczyński about AIDS problems in Africa, which quoted research stating that a majority of African women were unable to persuade their HIV positive husbands to wear condoms, and so later got caught HIV themselves. Mol accused Leszczyński of prejudice because of this publication.

Honorary member of the British International Pen Club Centre.

In 2006 Mol received the prestigious award “Oxfam Novib/PEN Award for Freedom of Expression”.

In February 2006, further to his partner’s request for him to take an HIV test, Mol declined and published a post on his blog explaining why not:

Character assassination isn’t a new phenomenon. However, it appears here the game respects no rules. It wouldn’t be superfluous to state that there is an ingrained, harsh and disturbing dislike for Africans here. The accusation of being HIV positive is the latest weapon that as an African your enemy can raise against you. This ideologically inspired weapon, is strengthened by the day with disturbing literature about Africa from supposed-experts on Africa, some of whom openly boast of traveling across Africa in two weeks and return home to write volumes. What some of these hastily compiled volumes have succeeded in breeding, is a social and psychological conviction that every African walking the street here is supposedly HIV positive, and woe betide anyone who dares to unravel the myth being put in place.

On the 3rd of January 2007 Mol was taken into custody by the Polish police and charged with infecting his sexual partners with HIV. …

According to the Rzeczpospolita newspaper, he was diagnosed with HIV back in 1999 while living in a refugee shelter, but Polish law does not force an HIV carrier to reveal his or her disease status.

According to the police inspector who was investigating his case, a witness stated that Mol refused to wear condoms during sex. An anonymous witness in one case said that he accused a girl who demanded he should wear them that she was racist because as he was Black she thought he must be infected with HIV. After sexual intercourse he used to say to his female partners that his sperm was sacred.

In an unusual move, his photo with an epidemiological warning, was ordered to be publicly displayed by the then Minister of Justice Zbigniew Ziobro. MediaWatch, a body that monitors alleged racism, quickly denounced this decision, asserting that it was a breach of ethics with racist implications, as the picture had been published before any court verdict. They saw it as evidence of institutional racism in Poland, also calling for international condemnation. …

After police published Mol’s photo and an alert before the start of court proceedings, Warsaw HIV testing centers were “invaded by young women”. A few said that they knew Mol. Some of the HIV tests have been positive. According to the police inspector who had been monitoring the tests and the case: “Some women very quickly started to suffer drug-resistant tonsillitis and fungal infections. They looked wasted, some lost as many as 15 kilograms and were deeply traumatized, impeding us taking the witness statements. 18 additional likely victims have been identified thereby”. Genetic tests of the virus from the infectees and Simon proved that it was specific to Cameroon.

In other words, Simon Mol was a sociopath who used the accusation of “racism” to murder dozens of women.

Criminals–of any race–are not nice people. They will absolutely use anything at their disposal to make it easier to commit crime. In the past, they posed as police officers, asked for help finding their lost dog, or just rang your doorbell. Today they can get intersectional feminists and international human rights organizations to argue on their behalf that locking your door or insisting on condoms is the real crime.

Critical criminology, folks.

Further thoughts on the end of America

I do feel, quite deeply, that America is changing rapidly; a certain old essence is disappearing, even faster than when I was young.

In such cases I think of my father, an old-stock American, Vietnam vet, lover of God, Guns, and Glory–basically all your red state stereotypes.

While chatting with parents down at the local playground, one of the moms claimed to “love” her HOA. Why? I inquired, distressed, because all mine does is wreck the landscaping and eliminate parking. After a moment’s thought, she responded that the HOA prevents people from leaving their trash cans out overnight and stops them from painting their houses strange colors.

Goodnight! Who joins an organization just to meddle with their neighbors?

Of course there are corners of America where people still mind their own business, but we are increasingly squashed into corporate-molded cities where neighbors spend more time worrying about their property values than interacting.

Anyway, I tracked down the book I referenced in the previous post: Childcraft, Volume 11: Music for the Family, with copyrights from 1923-1954 (presumably the copy I hold hails from ’54, as its photos are that era, but the text may be somewhat older.)

Most of the book is children’s songs, but there is a section at the end with biographies of famous composers: Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert,Chopin, Verdi, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Grieg, Humperdinck, MacDowell, Debussy, Sousa, and Gershwin. Here are a few excerpts:

Handel:

“No!” said Father Handel sternly. My boy shall never be a musician!”

In that day in Germany, musicians were often treated like servants. Father Handel wanted his son to be an important man, not a servant. It was splendid to be a barber-surgeon–like Father Handel–and be called to the castle to trim the duke’s mustache or treat his indigestion. It was even more splendid to be a lawyer, and earn rich fees for giving advice to a prince or a king. But little George Frederick Handel wanted only to be a musician.

Haydn:

In the same year that George Washington was born, an Austrian peasant family named Haydn celebrated the birth of a fair-haired baby boy. They named him Joseph.

Joseph’s father made wheels for wagons and coaches. His mother was a cook for noble families. both parents loved music. In the evenings, by candlelight, the family often sang songs of the people, or folk melodies…

At one time Haydn played a joke on the powerful Prince Esterhazy, who had hired him as music director. The prince kept his musicians at a palace in the country. He seldom allowed them a vacation. Many of the musicians longed to visit their families. Haydn wished that he might  help them. But he did not see what he could do. He did not dare speak directly to the prince about it.

One day Haydn announced that he had written a new symphony. Prince Esterhazy and his court gathered in the great hall of the palace to listen. As the orchestra began the final movement, one by one the players blew out the candle on their music stands and left the hall. Finally only two violinists were playing. They they too departed, and only the director remained.

Haydn turned and bowed to the prince. “Your Grace,” he said, “I call this the Farewell Symphony.”

The prince looked perplexed, then began to smile at Haydn’s musical prank.

“I can take a hint from old Haydn,” he said “The musicians may start their vacation tomorrow.” As you may imagine, all the musicians were grateful to their beloved “Papa Haydn.”

Mozart:

By the time Wolfgang was twelve years old, he had played in many great cities of Europe. He was the favorite of queens and princesses. Princes and kings gave him money and jewels. Many musicians envied the young Mozart, because it was then the custom to teat musicians like servants.

It would seem that Mozart’s early life was just one gay adventure. But the boy grew very wise about kings and queens, princes and princesses. He learned that kings and noblemen were just like ordinary people. Some were wise and just. Others were stupid and cruel. Some princesses were gracious and kind. But others had very bad manners, and sometimes young Mozart told them so. He knew that many ordinary persons had better manners and were better people than some of the nobility.

Mozart began to believe that bad and stupid kings had no right to tell people what to do. These were dangerous thoughts, for king often punished person who had ideas about freedom. Mozart put hi ideas into music, rather than speech.

When Mozart grew to manhood, he wrote operas which poked fun at king and noblemen. One of these operas is the Marriage of Figaro, which had many lilting melodies. Another is Don Giovanni, in which we hear the lovely “Minuet.”

Beethoven:

The music Beethoven wrote shows that he loved people, because it is written for all the people, and not merely for king and princes. But Beethoven also felt that cruel people had bought much evil into the world. he was happiest when he could be outdoors, in rain or sunshine, and listen to the songs of Nature.

Chopin:

The Patriot Composer of Poland

Father Chopin began a merry Polish folk tune on his flute. Little Frederic sat still and listened. Soon a tear rolled own his cheek and dropped on his blouse.

The music of the flute rose higher. It danced like a happy peasant girl. It trilled and shistled like the song of a bird. Little Frederic’s chin began to tremble. He opened his mouth wide and began to cry.

Father and Mother Chopin loved Frederic deeply. But they also loved music, and they were sad because their little son seemed to dislike it so. …

Upstairs, the boy who should have been asleep lay awake listening. He squeezed his pillow tight against his eyes to keep the tears back. How could they ay he he hated music! His tears were not tears of pain, but of joy. Frederic loved music so much that the sound of it made him weep. But he was so young that he could not find the words to tell his parents how he felt. …

Young Chopin began to compose his own music almost as soon as he could play the piano. His compositions were influenced by the kinds of music his parents loved best. His father had come from France, and often played the music of that country on his flute. Frederick liked the French music, but most of all he loved the  songs his mother sang–songs of his native Poland. It is the Polish music he wrote that is most popular.

Frederic’s mother told him that Poland had once been a proud and free country. Then neighbor nations had taken away its freedom. The Polish people remembered the days when their country was free, and sang songs about the land they loved. Frederic used these national songs in his compositions for the piano. …

Chopin’s love for his country speaks through his music, like a beautiful language which the people of all countries can understand. Chopin’s stirring music still has the power to make strong men and women of any country weep, just as a little boy wept over a Polish folk tune many years ago.

Etc.

Now let’s take a look at Mathematicians are People, Too: Stories from the lives of the great mathematicians (copyright 1990). (I would like to note that this is not a bad book; I am just trying to highlight the change in political tone/emphasis over the decades.) It covers Thales, Pythagoras, Archimedes, Hypatia, Napier, Galileo, Pascal, Newton, Eurler, Lagrange, Sophie Germain, Gaus, Galois, Amalie (Emmy) Noether, and Ramanujan.

There is a sequel which I have not yet read, published in 1995, which covers Euclid, Omar Khayyam, Fibonacci, Descartes, Fermat, Cardano, Maria Agnesi, Benjamin Banneker, Mary Somerville, Ada Lovelace, Babbage, Sonya Kovalesky, Neils Abel, George Polya, and Einstein.

Hypatia:

But Hypatia was not only a well-known scientist and mathematician’ she also became a highly respected philosopher. Her father had taught her to be open-minded about ideas. Like many Greeks, he believed people should keep questioning rather than settle on one version of truth as final. He introduced her to a variety of religions, and she learned to value the good in each. Because of this, he taught her students to ask lots of question, even about ideas that government or religious leaders said they should not question. Eventually, this caused trouble for Hypatia.

Hypatia got caught in the middle of a struggle between two leaders in Alexandria. Orestes, prefect or governor of Alexandria, was Hypatia’s friend. They enjoyed talking together and often wrote letters about the latest ideas. Cyril was the archbishop of Alexandria, the head of the Christian church in that city. He was suspicious of anyone who did not accept his religious views. Conflict developed between the two men and their followers, and Cyril became convinced that Hypatia was behind it. …

An angry mob of religious fanatics, fired up by false rumors of Hypatia’s teaching, kidnapped her one day as she rode through town on her chariot. They dragged her through the streets to the cathedral, where she was brutally murdered and he bones burned. Her death marks the end of the great age of Greek Mathematics. …

Although Hypatia made many important contributions to mathematics and science, few women have adopted her interests–until recently. Some historians believe that Hypatia’s horrible death may have discouraged other women from becoming mathematician. Still others believe that Hypatia’s life–not her death–is the perfect symbol of what women or men can achieve when they work hard and stand up for what they believe is right.

(A lot of mathematicians in this book, including Pythagoras, Hypatia, and Archimedes, were murdered. Apparently mathematician is a much more dangerous profession than composer.)

Lagrange:

Lagrange’s influence was beginning to be felt throughout the scientific communities of Europe. King Frederick of Prussia had formed a prestigious college of mathematics in Berlin. Frederick sent this rather impressive invitation to Lagrange: “The greatest king in Europe must have the greatest mathematician in Europe in his court!”

Clearly, Frederick was not as modest as Lagrange, but he was an avid supporter of science and mathematics. …

Lagrange was quick to praise persons who had encouraged or influenced him. He applauded when Napoleon ordered a tribute to Lagrange’s father, still living in Italy. He acknowledged the greatness of Euler, He mourned with the chemist Lavoisier was sentenced to death by guillotine. And just as he recognized those who had affirmed him, he was quick to encourage younger mathematicians.

Once, while teaching at the Ecole Polytechnique, he received and impressive paper from Monsier LeBlanc. … After some research, he discovered that the mystery student was really a young woman named Sophie Germain. Only men were allowed at the Ecole, so Sophie had borrowed lecture notes from friends and asked them to smuggle her paper in among theirs. Lagrange went immediately to her home and made her feel like a true mathematician, helping launch her important career.

Sophie Germain:

When Sophie was very young, her parents had welcomed her interest. They allowed her to use her father’s library whenever she wished. But soon they decided that she was studying too much. They agreed with the popular notion that “brainwork” was not healthy–maybe even dangerous–for girls. They told Sophie that he could not study mathematics anymore.

But Sophie would not give up. Night after night she crawled out of bed and studied after everyone else had gone to sleep. …

“Oh, Father, I’m so sorry, but I just can’t stop,” Sophie cried. “These problems are so fascinating! When I work on them I feel like I’m really alive.”

“But, Sophie,” her mother said softly, “remember, you’re a girl. It isn’t good for you to fill your mind with numbers.” …

With that her parents gave up. Sophie was allowed to study to her heart’s content. Fortunately, her father had an excellent library. As wealthy citizens, the Germain family knew many educated people in Paris and throughout France.

When Sophie was young, however, traveling and visiting were restricted by the political turmoil in France. The French Revolution began in 1789 when she was thirteen, and Paris was an unstable and dangerous city… Sophie’s parents shielded her from the fighting and conflict. She eagerly filled her time reading and learning. …

In 1816 mathematicians and scientists around the world heard about Sophie Germain. In that year she won the grand prize from the French Academy for her work on the law of vibrating elastic surfaces…

Sophie Germain enjoyed only a brief moment of recognition for a lifetime of dedicated study. The barriers to women in mathematics certainly hampered Germain’s development–but they did not prevent her from following her quest.

Galois:

Galois could have coped with normal disappointments, but so many setbacks took their toll on him. Bitterness filled him He began to distrust all teachers and all institutions. He tried starting his own school, but no one enrolled. Then, because he wanted to fight injustice, he got involved in politics. He joined the Republicans, a forbidden radical group. They spoke out for justice, especially for the poor, and for freedom of the press. They wanted a better standard of living for the common people, instead of for the wealthy few.

Galois ended up in prison for his political activities, then got killed in a duel at the age of 20.

My goal isn’t to dissect the truth of these stories (often children’s biographies are at least a bit fictionalized), but to examine what the authors chose to highlight. We are often don’t even notice the political beliefs of our own age (“Of course they did it that way. It’s only natural,”) but can easily see the politics of another age.

The cover of the Childcraft book on music features two children holding a book (on the book’s cover are two more children, holding a book…) Mathematicians are People, Too, features Amalie Noether happily studying math while her flustered mother (dressed like a maid) looks on in consternation. Volume two has African American Benjamin Banneker on its cover. (Silly me, I would have put Euclid and Newton on the covers and probably not had as many sales.)

It took a bit of digging to find the full list of mathematicians in Volume 2–the book’s blurb on Amazon only lists Omar Khayyam, Albert Einstein*, Ada Lovelace, and “others.” Clearly, during the production of Volume 1, the authors were thinking about how to emphasize women in mathematics; by Volume 2, they wanted to emphasize diversity. The publishers didn’t even think it worthwhile to list Euclid!

*I love Einstein as much as the next guy, but he’s not a mathematician.

To be fair, there are probably more people looking for biographies of Ada Lovelace or Einstein than of Euclid, though personally I spend a fair amount of time thinking “When do we start Euclid? Is there a children’s version of his Elements?” and not much time thinking, “When do we start Ada Lovelace?”

So one of the major difference between these two works lies not in the explicit phrasing of the stories, but in the frame of the particular people they chose to highlight. Why Benjamin Banneker? Unlike Omar Khayyam, he didn’t contribute very much to mathematics, and we have not exhausted our list of great mathematicians such that we need to go searching for obscure ones. Surely Turing, Erdos, von Neuman, al-Khwarizmi, or Aryabhata contributed far more–but perhaps that doesn’t matter, as the book’s target market can hardly understand advanced math in the first place. Banneker was chosen because the authors believe that it is important to have an African American character in order to appeal to African American readers.

The conclusion of Hypatia’s story is more explicitly political–Hypatia wasn’t killed because she was a female mathematician and her story certainly hasn’t discouraged women from doing math–if the authors thought it did, they wouldn’t have put it in the book!

Do the political messages in children’s books matter? Do they create culture, or are they created by culture? Chickens and eggs. Either way, culture has changed. Politics have changed. People have changed. Technology has changed.

1950s civics class didn’t happen in a vacuum–and I don’t think the political culture that created it is coming back.

“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.

Interestingly:

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.

Also:

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.”


EvX
: 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.