Made to Stick

Yesterday’s New York Times had this article, “Innovative Minds Don’t Think Alike,” which quickly became the #1 emailed article on the site.  While a little light, it raises several points that bear reflection. 

First, in discussing the “curse of knowledge,” the difficulty in remembering what the world looked like before you became an expert, I am struck by this as one apt metaphor for culture.  It is so hard to escape from our own ways of thinking, which is why living in another culture, literally becoming a non-expert once again through participant observation, is such a core part of becoming a good cultural anthropologist.  After that experience, or the similar experience of indoctrination into evolutionary theory, anthropologists in general struggle to create knowledge that is useful to people beyond anthropology, to both market it and make it relevant. 
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Marian Radke-Yarrow

I think some of you might appreciate this short piece, The Anthropological Psychologist, on Marian Radke-Yarrow, who pioneered the studies of parenting and depression.  What I find striking is her longitudinal work and her use of observation and description to reach her conclusions.  She passed away this past year. 

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/30/magazine/30Radke-t.html

neuroanthropology and race- getting it straight

This is a response to the post by Doublehelix re: races and human biology emerging out of Daniel Lende’s post on IQ and environment..  The issue of human biological units and intelligence/cognition is very old and seems to keep appearing despite serious problems in the way the positions are most commonly framed.  This is a core factor in discussing neuroanthropology.  It is extremely important to realize that if you are going to use race as a biological unit then you must define it!  I would like to ask Doublehelix to present a definition of human groups that are consistently identifiable by a set of biological characteristics that separates them from other such groups.  There is no argument that human populations, both regional and meta-populations, vary in a number of biological characteristics.  However, are these evolutionary units or of evolutionary relevance?  Are there functional differences across human groups (once you are able to define what you mean by group).

Discovering shared frequencies of alleles in regional and meta-populations is expected via standard models of gene flow.  However, globally humans break the standard models of gene flow by their very low inter-population variation relative to species wide variation (not to discount the reality of a lot of variation across the geographical distribution of our species and huge inter-individual variation)…Doublehelix uses the Risch and other  articles to refute this, but ignores all of the work by many, many others (see below for a sample) that discuss and explain why one might see clustering of some allelic variation as associated with geography, and what that might or might not mean in an evolutionary sense. We are well beyond Lewontin 1972…  Allele frequency clusters are not races or even biological units…the association of function with specific distributions of frequency patterns of various alleles can and should be done, but has to be done with extreme care and we must play by the biological rule book.  If you are comparing biological units they must be biologically, not socially, defined.

The statement “As for the notion that race is not supported by biology, I ask: Why do races differ so profoundly in so many different characteristics, such as IQ, lactose tolerance, the resistance to malaria, skin and hair color, the effectiveness of certain drugs?” is rooted in a severe simplification…for example, lactase production is widespread across 100s of human populations with peaks in Northern European, east African and even middle eastern populations…so what does it say about race?  Malaria resistance via one of the 5 sickle cell mutations occurs with high frequencies in West Africa, but also South West Asia and the Middle East?  What race is that?   Hair color ands type are widely distributed…but not markers of unity…for example if having tight curly black hair unified groups then populations in Papua New Guinea and Nigeria would be linked…they are not.  As for drug differences, this is a very important and complex area of investigation where we actually see some amazing integration of social, physiological and contextual patterns (see recent BiDil research) but not clear patterning of socially defined races as showing any specific identifiable bio-based markers.

 

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New features on Neuroanthropology

Just a quick note because I still have relatives staying with me (so I can’t get to a more serious post on Bruce Wexler’s book, Brain and Culture, to the collective memory conference I attended, or to the piece I’m working on about the equilibrium system and diverse physical training regimens). They go home tomorrow, so I should be able to present something substantive in the near future.

The first announcement is that we’ve added a Bibliography page that will try to keep a running list of the academic resources referenced in the postings.  Although I’m likely to fall behind from time to time up-dating it, my goal is to create a kind of ‘annotated bibliography’ with links back to postings or notes that discuss the readings.

In addition, Daniel Lende has generously put together a page of ‘web resources’ with links to things like news in the neurosciences and tutorials on brain architecture and function.  Especially for those of us in anthropology who are trying to better engage with the brain sciences, I think it will be an invaluable resource.

Finally, I’ve decided that we’re going to start using the icon from bpr3.org for blogs about peer-reviewed research.  You’ll see a small icon along articles that really discuss peer-reviewed research (rather than some of the ones we do about news or academic conferences or the like).  I’ll be happy to take care of providing the code, which I’ll just insert in appropriate posts.  It’s one more way that we can signal to our readers the nature of what we’re doing, and to let people in other fields know how research is being received and discussed among anthropologists.

Sorry I’m making you wait on other posts, but I promise more soon.

Avatars and Cultural Creole

Can video games change the way we think about culture?  Yes!  In the previous posts I’ve explored how the interaction and embodied perception that both designers and players use outlines an area of research for neuroanthropology.  And I’ve dropped plenty of hints that gaming can help us re-think culture.  Today I’ll continue to develop those ideas some more. 

Let’s start with a rather conventional statement on “culture” in relation to this new world of Internet, gaming, and all the rest.  Arturo Escobar, professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (and better, a Colombian!), has a chapter, “Welcome to Cyberia: Notes on the Anthropology of Cyberculture,” which appears in the book The Cybercultures Reader.    Continue reading

IQ, Environment & Anthropology

It might come as a surprise to some people that intelligence is not as hard-wired as some of our teachers made us think back in grade school. 

Richard Nisbett, the long-time director of the Culture and Cognition program at the University of Michigan, wrote a recent editorial in the New York Times entitled, “All Brains Are the Same Color  Nisbett ably goes about dismantling the idea that the IQ differences between blacks and whites are genetic.  He notes that decades of research have not supported the assertion that one of our social races in the United States (for that’s really the only way to define them) is biologically inferior in terms of innate intelligence.  Rather, he argues, intelligence is a matter of environment (the impact of development and access to good education) and a matter of the biased standards that praise a certain type of “intelligence” (success on standardized tests) over another. 
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Have & Have-Nots in Gaming: Linking Back

For those of you who think that there is no connection between my posts on video games and my posts on stress and inequality, I beg to differ.  Clive Thompson’s commentary, “Suicide Bombing Makes Sick Sense in Halo 3” helps us see how.  First he writes: 

The structure of Xbox Live creates a world composed of two classes — haves and have-nots. And, just as in the real world, some of the disgruntled have-nots are all too willing to toss their lives away — just for the satisfaction of momentarily halting the progress of the haves. Since the game instantly resurrects me, I have no real dread of death in Halo 3.

 Here we have a direct connection to being in the “wrong” class mentioned by Sapolsky, in this case, the have-nots who get killed so quickly it makes their head spin.  But Clive found his revenge by blowing himself and his enemy up with a plasma grenade—and believe me, the elite players hate to die needlessly.   Clive then makes a further point: 

Even though I’ve read scores of articles, white papers and books on the psychology of terrorists in recent years, and even though I have (I think) a strong intellectual grasp of the roots of suicide terrorism, something about playing the game gave me an “aha” moment that I’d never had before: an ability to feel, in whatever tiny fashion, the strategic logic and emotional calculus behind the act.

 Understanding that moment in the aha fashion, the feel of it for the player, is central to our understanding.  And there’s the link to the American Dream post, for Bob Herbert highlights the combined effect of the person caught without a dream in an increasingly difficult American reality.