Open Thread (happy Thanksgiving.)

ct-bildwaaiwyofHello, my friends! Today we get to celebrate (one day early) the American holiday of Thanksgiving.

I don’t really like holidays, Thanksgiving included, though I wish I did. It seems like other people enjoy the holiday aesthetic, the turkeys and cranberries and Pilgrims and whatnot. They act like they do, anyway, but the things people do and the semi-mythic stories connected with the holiday seem so disconnected–why don’t cities have big communal feasts where they exchange gifts with the nearest Native American tribes? (Or if not cities, then churches or fraternal organizations.) I suppose it doesn’t help much that rather few of us today identify with either the Pilgrims or the Indians, and I imagine the Indians have rather mixed feelings about the day.

So what about you? What do you get out of Thanksgiving? Do you enjoy holidays?

picture-14cSome good news: Rates of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia appear to be declining among the elderly (one theory: fat may be protective, so getting fatter has made our old people smarter.)

In the intellectually exciting department: Underwater Stone Age Settlement Mapped Out:

Six years ago divers discovered the oldest known stationary fish traps in northern Europe off the coast of southern Sweden. Since then, researchers have uncovered an exceptionally well-preserved Stone Age site. They now believe the location was a lagoon environment where Mesolithic humans lived during parts of the year.

picture-15cAnd some food for thought: New Study links Church Attendance to ‘Conservative Theology’:

When asked to agree or disagree with the statement “Jesus rose from the dead with a real, flesh-and-blood body leaving behind an empty tomb” 93% of growing church pastors agreed, 83% of growing church attendees agreed, 67% of declining church attendees agreed, and just 56% of declining church pastors agreed.

When asked if “God performs miracles in answer to prayer” 100% of the growing church pastors agreed, 90% of the growing church attendees agreed, 80% of the declining church attendees agreed, and just 44% of the declining church pastors agreed.

And in the Anthropology department: How Gypsies have Moved from Fortune-Telling to Fervent Christianity:

Huge numbers of Gypsies and travellers in England now say they’ve joined a new movement called Light and Life. Those who join have given up drinking alcohol and fortune-telling, and many have even abandoned their traditional Catholic faith.

The Pentecostal movement, which is Gypsy-led, has grown rapidly in the past 30 years – it says up to 40% of British Gypsies belong to it. There’s no way to prove that claim, but most Gypsies and travellers will agree that there is a surge in people joining.

It’s centred on charismatic preaching, praying in tongues and miracle healing.

About 6,000 Gypsies and travellers attended to the Church’s UK convention.

On to Comment of the Week: We had some great posts on “Why are Mammals Brown? (and part 2)

with the thoughts you’d be thinking informs us that:

…seeds from plants that appeal to mammals in general tend to be dull coloured and smell, while seed that appeal to birds tend to be brighter and such. Avocados are an example of an evolutionary anachronism in that they evolved to be eaten by mammal mega fauna [that are now extinct.]

Robert M. Sykes:

Back in the 70s while I was at Union College, I had a biologist colleague who was interested in the vision of insects and birds. He used a tv camera to record flowers and other plants because the tv cameras then in use recorded will into the ultraviolet. Most flowers look quite different in the uv, and even some drab looking stuff (to us) really stand out in uv.

And Dave:

Chickens have five-color vision, so instead of a one-dimensional “rainbow” of hues, they see a three-dimensional hue-space (that is, not counting brightness and saturation).

The downside of this is that they are struck blind the moment the sun dips below the horizon.

Jefferson has an interesting perspective on Noah’s Twitter Deluge:

Torah is clear that Gnon/Hashem selects against density. Cain was a city builder (and farmer vs. shepherd), Abraham was super salty towards the cities he visited because he thought they might kill him to rape his wife. Furthermore, it’s not modernity, but the plenty that comes with it that we are warned against. “You will grow fat and kick,” Moses warned us. As we are relieved of a marginal existence in which our normal signalling is best suited (signaling material plenty indicates a genuine improved survival rate for offspring), holiness signaling replaces physical status signaling. …

And Tim P. clearly put a lot of thought into his response on What if Dems actually Know they’re Lying? His comment is long, so I’m only excerpting a piece of it and you can RTWT there:

…as stated in the OP, obviously a glut of labor (assuming an economy ‘operating at capacity’) will lead to greater opportunities for capital to exploit workers through breaking collective bargaining systems, driving down wages, cutting corners on safety and such, and this phenomenon has no a priori connection to immigrants of a particular ethnic background. It seems sensible to me to include immigration controls as part of a plan to slow the pace of economic change and give people a chance to get their feet under them so to speak. Bernie Sanders called open borders a “Koch brothers proposal” and I tend to agree.

However, I feel it would be a great moral calamity to uproot the lives of millions of people currently living in the US, some of whom have been here for decades, some of whom have no memory of another land or skills with which to make their way abroad. …

Well, happy day before Turkey day, everyone!

Happy November Open Thread

The German town of Wesel, after Allied carpet bombing
The German town of Wesel, after Allied carpet bombing

As our planet whirls away on its axis, shedding leaves in the northern hemisphere and growing them again in the southern, it seems as good a time as any to pause and reflect on things we’re thankful for, and maybe come up with something more original than “toilets” and “not polio.”

This morning I saw a man, in a wheelchair, who had no limbs. No arms, no legs.

There but for the grace of God go I.

Every problem I have in life–in fact, every problem faced by everyone on Earth who isn’t imminently dying–pales in comparison to this guy’s.

I have so much to be thankful for. I am alive. I have no chronic or terminal diseases. I have all of my limbs and they all work as they should. I have a warm home to live in and delicious food to eat. A family to love and that loves me back. Good friends.

It’s easy to take these things for granted, but there are so many people who can’t tick off everything in this list. People who are sick, or disabled, or missing limbs, or homeless, or hungry, or just plain lonely.

So remember to be thankful, grateful, and kind to others.

Okay, on to the discussion questions:

  1. What are you grateful for?
  2. Do you think men and women have different conversation styles? (Explain.)
  3. Propose your own question.
And now I don't remember whom I should credit for finding this graph. Sorry!
And now I don’t remember whom I should credit for finding this graph. My apologies.

Comments of the Week!

There have been tons of comments this week, and I am still reading through/responding to them. So if I haven’t gotten to you yet, it isn’t personal. There are just a lot. There have been some substantial debates among you people.

First, I’d like to direct you to Cord Shirt’s comment/questions last week on Apology Structures and SJWs:

* What (sub)cultures do prefer “I don’t know why I did it”? Why?

* Everyone, what is “the proper apology format” in your subculture, and why?

Since I am a bad representative of whatever culture I come from, I encourage you guys to answer the question, too.

Second, Alex’s response on why POC might not be a terrible term:

I understand you point, but I do think that, at least in the US, there is a meaningful distinction between the white vs. the non-white experience.

For example: Recently in an election debate, Tammy Duckworth, whose background is white/asian, talked about her own and her family’s military service going back to the American Revolution. She herself is a war veteran who lost both of her legs as a US Army pilot. Her debate opponent, a GOP Senator, snidely replied: “I had forgotten that your parents came all the way from Thailand to serve George Washington.”

Rule of thumb: don’t be rude to someone who lost both of their legs defending you.

And some interesting links:

Investigating the Genetic Basis of Social Conformity: The Role of the Dopamine Receptor 3 (DRD3) Gene:

People often change their opinions or behavior to match the responses of others, a phenomenon known as social conformity. … However, little is known about the genetic basis underlying individual differences in social conformity. A recent study demonstrated an association between enhanced dopaminergic function and increased conforming behavior. … this study investigated to what extent this polymorphism affects conforming behavior. Methods: We categorized Han Chinese individuals according to the polymorphism and tested them with a facial-attractiveness rating task. Results: We found that individuals with a greater number of the Gly alleles, which are related to an increased dopamine release in the striatum, were more susceptible to social influence and more likely to change their ratings to match those of other people.

According to Wikipedia, “The brain includes several distinct dopamine pathways, one of which plays a major role in reward-motivated behavior. Most types of reward increase the level of dopamine in the brain, and many addictive drugs increase dopamine neuronal activity.”

So, do people get addicted to social approval? But on the other hand:

“Inside the brain, dopamine plays important roles in executive functions, motor control, motivation, arousal, reinforcement, and reward, as well as lower-level functions including lactation, sexual gratification, and nausea. … Dopamine contributes to the action selection process in at least two important ways. First, it sets the “threshold” for initiating actions.[37] The higher the level of dopamine activity, the lower the impetus required to evoke a given behavior.[37] As a consequence, high levels of dopamine lead to high levels of motor activity and impulsive behavior; low levels of dopamine lead to torpor and slowed reactions.”

Maybe dopamine just helps people do quick, on-the-fly adjustments, like change a rating in light of new information they’d just received. Lower dopamine people might just be changing their ratings more slowly, or not absorbing the new information at all.

Paleolithic Site in Northern Iran Much Older than Previously Thought:

According to Vahati Nasab, the researchers also traced the cultural deposits of human activity around Hill No. 8. “We found that during the Palaeolithic era the hill labelled as No. 8, had been a lower embankment in a shallow and wide lagoon. The first season of excavations dated the lower strata of the open site as belonging to between 40,000 and 60,000 years ago,” he concluded.
(That is super old for anything outside of Africa!)

How Chimpanzees Cooperate: if Dominance is Artificially Constrained:

Suchak et al. report an observational study replicating a basic finding from experimental research: Chimpanzees are skillful at recognizing situations in which they need a collaborative partner to acquire food and then collaborating to obtain it

However, experimental research has also found that: (i) chimpanzees would rather acquire food individually than cooperatively, (ii) their cooperation breaks down if the outcome is a single cache of resources that must be peaceably divided by cooperators, and (iii) they do not punish free riders or reward contributors asymmetrically.

So chimps are bad at cooperating under anything but highly controlled experimental conditions. However, I should note that chimps do sometimes hunt cooperatively; chimpanzee cooperation is probably best studied in the context of existing chimp social bonds (eg, parent-child, sibling-sibling, or friend-friend,) as these pairs already do cooperate to some extent in the wild.

It was easily one of the most unearthly and chilling visions that had ever struck the land that would soon become Canada.

Eight or nine lurching figures: Their eyes vacant, their skin blue, unable to talk and barely alive.

It was sometime before 1850 at a remote Arctic hunting camp near the southwest edge of King William Island, an Arctic island 1,300 km northwest of what is now Iqaluit, Nunavut. And these “beings” had seemingly materialized out of nowhere.

“They’re not Inuit; they’re not human,” was how a woman, badly shaking with fright, first reported their arrival to the assembled camp. …

The figures, of course, were the last survivors of the Franklin Expedition. They had buried their captain. They had seen their ship entombed by ice. They had eaten the dead to survive.

It’s a fascinating article.

Okay, now I’m opening the floor. Have at it.

Religion’s Remarkable Memetic Conservation

As a means of memetic conservation, religions are amazing.

The Catholics still release all of their official documents in Latin, a language that disappeared in its natural habitat about 1,500 years ago (and conducted all of their rituals around the world in Latin until 1964).

Many Protestants, while not quite as archaic, prefer the now fancy sounding language of the King James Bible, with its “Thou”s and “art”s. (And many other Christian denominations preserve other archaic languages, like Koine Greek in the Greek Orthodox Church, Coptic in Coptic churches and Church Slavonic in, I guess, Slavic churches, and German among the Amish.)

Islam preserves the 7th century Arabic of the Qu’ran (apparently “written” Arabic and “spoken” Arabic are quite distinct, somewhat like if everyone in Italy spoke “Italian” but wrote in 7th century church Latin.)

Diasporic Judaism preserved Hebrew for almost 2,000 years after the destruction of the Temple, and managed to do a good enough job that it has been revived and is now the official language of Israel. (I think Arabic is, too.)

Sanskrit plays the same role for Hinduism, Jainism, and some Buddhist sects. The oldest known work in Sanskrit, the Rigveda, was composed a bit over 3,000 years ago, though I do not know if modern Sanskrit speakers find the Rigveda any more intelligible than I find Beowulf. [note: see the comments for a better explanation of the origins of the Rigveda.]

According to the Wikipedia,

Theravada Buddhism uses Pali as its main liturgical language, and prefers its scriptures to be studied in the original Pali. In Thailand, Pali is written using the Thai alphabet, resulting in a Thai pronunciation of the Pali language.

… In some Japanese rituals, Chinese texts are read out or recited with the Japanese pronunciations of their constituent characters, resulting in something unintelligible in both languages.[1]

(Apparently the Tamil language is also important in Hinduism.)

If you want to preserve a language, write some religious texts in it and then insist that everyone has to learn your language in order to participate in your worship services and go to Heaven.

On top of this, the Christian Bible preserves the Jewish scriptures that predate it. You’re probably so used to this that you don’t even really notice it, but it’s actually pretty weird. So you’re going along in your Christian Bible study, learning about Jesus and whatnot, and then there are these obscure bits of Judean political history from 1,000 BC or something. Like that time King Ahab wanted to buy a field but the farmer wouldn’t sell it to him, so the queen had the farmer executed and then he took it. Or that time in Judges when Ehud assassinated King Eglon.

The Bible also preserves the Jewish Law, which, of course, Christians don’t actually follow. EG:

When men fight with one another, and the wife of the one draws near to rescue her husband from the hand of him who is beating him, and puts out her hand and seizes him by the private parts, then you shall cut off her hand. Deuteronomy 25:11-12

Okay, so if your wife tried to physically drag you out of a fight by your testicles you would probably be in horrible pain as a result, but it doesn’t seem like the sort of situation that comes up very often. But remember, the law also bans pork. I can understand why the Jews think it’s important that their religious book still have all of the notes about not eating bacon or boiling goats in milk or wearing mixed fibers, because The Law is still really important to them. But why on Earth do Christians?

Then take a festival like Purim. Purim is kind of like the Jewish Halloween, but with more Bible and no devils. Kids dress up in costumes, eat a bunch of sweets, go to synagogue, listen to the story of Queen Esther, and everyone makes a bunch of noise to “blot out the name” of some Persian court official who tried to massacre the Jews about 2,500 years ago.

Of course, if there weren’t a holiday devoted to the subject, no one would remember the guy’s name at all; at this point, we’re not even sure if the story is true.

The fact that Judaism is considered a “major world religion” at all is because a chunk of it is inside Christianity; there actually aren’t that many Jews. More people practice some form of Voodoo/Vodun than Judaism, but when’s the last time you saw Voodoo listed as a major world religion?

I got laughed at in school for listing Voodoo as one of the 5 major world religions.

The Christmas rituals (gifts, tree,) also date back thousands of years to ancient Roman and German pre-Christian practices.

And, of course, there’s morality. Obviously many liberal branches of religion toss out moral precepts and adopt new ones as they see fit, but the presence of a line in the text explicitly banning (or encouraging) something seems to have a long-term effect. (Take snake-handling Christian sects, which take the line in the Bible about Christians being able to drink poison and handle snakes without getting killed very seriously.)

Personally, I think the Gospels have a very socialist feel to them. Of course, I am applying a completely anachronistic political label to something that predates “socialism” by nearly two millennia, but I think you know what I mean. All of that business about “give away allof your earthly goods to the poor and come follow me,” or “it is easier for a rich man to fit through the eye of a needle than to enter Heaven,” or the disciples holding all of their property in common in the Book of Acts.

As a result, Christianity has created many charitable or even socialist movements over the past two thousand years, and will probably keep doing so. The “Christian Communists” of the 1800s, like the Shakers, are one set of examples.

Secular “religions” can be memetically conservative, too. Take the American “Thanksgiving”–every year, people get together with their families to eat turkey (the ritual feast) and watch football because approximately 400 years ago, some Pilgrims had a good harvest and so didn’t all die in the winter. Most of us probably aren’t even related to the Pilgrims, but we do it anyway.

Conservatives, as I’ve noted, treat the Constitution kind of like a religious founding document.

Much of the time, the explicit justification for religious rituals has little to do with why people actually observe them. Most Americans don’t really care about the Pilgrims one way or another; I bet most Jews don’t care about Haman anymore, either. Most Catholics probably think it’d be fine if the church just started publishing official documents in Italian, and even atheists give each other gifts on Christmas. The function of these rituals is often very different from their form–Thanksgiving is really about family togetherness, not Pilgrims. Likewise, the current push to get rid of Columbus day and replace it with Indigenous Culture Day isn’t really a statement that indigenous peoples were better than Columbus (after all, the Aztecs were cannibals.)

The functions of religion are myriad, but marking important life transitions, assuaging fears of death, teaching morality, and binding the community together are all obviously significant. Perhaps religion functions better when the memes are older than when they are newer. Perhaps it doesn’t really matter whether or not you can understand the liturgy, but a liturgy that gives you the impression of being connected to your ancient ancestors may function better than one that doesn’t; a generic “Thanksgiving is a time to be with our families,” may not work as well as a “Thanksgiving is a celebration of the feast between the Pilgrims and the Indians.”

Do you have any other good examples of this phenomenon?

What is Thanksgiving?

Holidays don’t come naturally to me.

Much like religion and nationalism, I don’t really have the emotional impulses necessary to really get into the idea of a holiday dedicated to eating turkey. Maybe this is just my personal failing, or a side effect of not being a farmer, but either way here I am, grumbling under my breath about how I’d rather be getting stuff done than eat.

Nevertheless, I observe that other people seem to like holidays. They spend large amounts of money on them, decorate their houses, voluntarily travel to see relatives, and otherwise “get into the holiday mood.” While some of this seems to boil down to simple materialism, there does seem to be something more: people really do like their celebrations. I may not be able to hear the music, but I can still tell that people are dancing.

And if so many people are dancing, and they seem healthy and happy and well-adjusted, then perhaps dancing is a good thing.

The point of Thanksgiving, a made-up holiday, (though it does have its roots in real harvest celebrations,) is to celebrate the connection between family and nation. This is obvious enough, since Thanksgiving unifies “eating dinner with my family” with “founding myth of the United States.” We tell the story of the Pilgrims, not because they are everyone’s ancestors, but because they represent the symbolic founding of the nation. (My Jamestown ancestors actually got here first, but I guess Virginia was not in Lincoln’s good graces when he decided to make a holiday.)

In the founding mythos, the Pilgrims are brave, freedom-loving people who overcome tremendous odds to found a new nation, with the help of their new friends, the Indians.

Is the founding mythos true?

It doesn’t matter. Being “literally true” is not the point of a myth. The Iliad did not become one of the most popular books of all time because it provides a 100% accurate account of the Trojan war, but because it describes heroism, bravery, and conversely, cowardice. (“Hektor” has always been high on my names list.) Likewise, the vast majority of Christians do not take the Bible 100% literally (even the ones who claim they do.) Arguing about which day God created Eve misses the point of the creation story; arguing about whether the Exodus happened exactly as told misses the point of the story held for a people in exile.

The story of Thanksgiving instructs us to work hard, protect liberty, and be friends with the Indians. It reminds us both of the Pilgrims’ utopian goal of founding the perfect Christian community, a shining city upon the hill, and of the value of religious tolerance. (Of course, the Puritans would probably not have been keen on religious tolerance or freedom of religion, given that they exiled Anne Hutchins for talking too much about God.)

Most of us today probably aren’t descended from the Pilgrims, but the ritual creates a symbolic connection between them and us, for we are the heirs of the civilization they began. Likewise, each family is connected to the nation as a whole; without America, we wouldn’t be here, eating this turkey together.

Unless you don’t like turkey. In which case, have some pie.