War on the Climate?!

Charles M. Blow has an op-ed in the New York Times today entitled Farewell, Fair Weather. He opens by outlining how the United States has experienced more extreme weather than other places in recent decades. Blow then says that we are to blame, and things will probably get worse.

Okay, I’m nodding along, it’s a reasonable argument to make, and he highlights work by the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the recent White House report (as he notes, released “years late and under pressure”). The Associated Press piece on that report had scientists’ comments like these: “a litany of bad news in store for the U.S” and “It basically says the America we’ve known we can no longer count on. It’s a pretty dramatic picture of all kinds of change rippling through natural systems across the country. And all of that has implications for people.”

Charles Blow then comes to his main argument: “This increase [in extreme weather] is deadly and disruptive — and could become economically unbearable.” Okay, I’m nodding again.

But then comes the kicker: “This surge in disasters and attendant costs is yet another reason we need to declare a coordinated war on climate change akin to the wars on drugs and terror. It’s a matter of national security.”

WTF!!!! Sorry for the language, but we all know how successful the war on drugs and the war on terror have been. Not very. But at least these have some identifiable bad guys–drug dealers and terrorists. Now we’re going to go get those evil climate changers?! Or bash the ozone layer back into submission, because it’s dared to get uppity?

Drugs, terror, the climate–these all require systemic change, and the war model just isn’t the right metaphor for that. The Us vs. Them and Brute Force assumptions don’t work well for systemic change. Obviously I think anthropology can help, but at the very least an economic model recognizes both supply and demand in the market and a political model implies the need for negotiation and consensus to help create concerted action. About the best I can say is that declaring a war might help in getting people to think about making sacrifices. But it won’t make us more secure when the change is already among us. Bush flew over New Orleans as if it were a war zone. What did that do?

British educational leader advocates The Matrix

The Telegraph yesterday ran with an article, Brain downloads ‘will make lessons pointless,’ about some comments made by Chris Parry, former Rear Admiral and the CEO of the Independent Schools Council. Parry believe that ‘”Matrix-style” technology would render traditional lessons obsolete,’ because we’ll soon be beaming knowledge into kids brains. Parry told the Times Educational Supplement: “It’s a very short route from wireless technology to actually getting the electrical connections in your brain to absorb that knowledge.”

Okay, you all need to help me: do I feel this under ‘hokum,’ ‘malarky,’ or ‘balderdash’? Rear Admiral Parry, sir, will the wireless technology use the brain’s Bluetooth or WiFi receptors? Which part of the brain’s RAM will you use when you install the new ‘human operating system’?

Okay, Admiral Parry, repeat after me: The brain is not a computer.

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On ‘uncontacted Indians’

I normally don’t mix my audiences much, writing straight-up applied anthropology over at Culture Matters and saving this blog exclusively for neuroanthropology, but there’s a fascinating story circulating based on some photographs taken from the air of ‘uncontacted’ Native Americans in Brazil. I did a couple of radio interviews yesterday on the story, so I decided to blog on it over at Culture Matters.

If you’re interested in the love of the myth that there are groups that have ‘never seen a white person’ (of course, we’re not as interested that they haven’t seen an African or a Swiss Army knife or a Rottweiler or a blender…), check it out: ‘Uncontacted Indians?!’ — contact an anthropologist!

Gotta shuffle before you walk

So, when is it really efficient to get up and move around on two feet? I know that’s what you’re thinking this morning — and your answer is probably, if someone would bring me a cup of coffee in bed, well, that might shift the whole equation. But a recent piece by Sylvester and Kramer asks this question of a model for the shift to bipedal locomotion in primates.

As most folks who do research on or teach about human evolution will tell you, we spend a lot of time and energy thinking about bipedalism. Because it emerges earlier in the fossil record than the really large brains of later hominids, bipedalism seems to be a key adaptation, a kind of evolutionary watershed that opened up environmental niches that weren’t available to other primates.

But it’s really hard to figure out when exactly it started or why; theories about the reasons for bipedalism include a wide range of explanations, from avoiding too much contact with the sun in open savanna to walking on branches while supporting the body overhead on other branches, from predator spotting to low-fruit foraging from the ground. While it’s clear bipedalism has created all sorts of opportunities, it’s not clear which one of them was necessarily the decisive one that sealed the deal and made bipedalism work for ancestors to modern humans.

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The Emerging Moral Psychology

Dan Jones writes on The Emerging Moral Psychology in April’s Prospect Magazine, an article I came across through The Situationist. He could just have easily called it the emerging moral neuroanthropology, for here is his opening, “Philosophers, psychologists, neuroscientists, economists, primatologists and anthropologists, all borrowing liberally from each others’ insights, are putting together a novel picture of morality… The picture emerging shows the moral sense to be the product of biologically evolved and culturally sensitive brain systems that together make up the human ‘moral faculty’.”

Jones takes us through “hot morality,” morality guided by intuitions and emotions and not universal laws, drawing on the work of Jonathan Haidt. Then we get “the tale of two faculties,” highlighting the dual processing view (emotion and cognition) of Joshua Greene. Finally we get “A Moral Grammar” via Marc Hauser. Hauser gives us a moral code based on three principles derived from 5000 people who have taken the Moral Sense Test worldwide via Internet (no snarky comments as Greg might say):

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Maurice Bloch and Everyday, Relevant Anthropology

Maximilian Forte over at Open Anthropology recently covered an interview with Maurice Bloch that appeared in Eurozine. In his summary, Forte highlights certain parts of the interview in a way which struck me as quite relevant to neuroanthropology. Interestingly, Forte had a similarly positive reaction to Bloch’s statements, even though his Open Anthropology project is focused on a different sort of public engagement and synthetic approach than what we do here.

Here’s why, captured in one of the more striking lines from Bloch: “I would consider that all human beings are anthropologists: all are concerned with the general theoretical questions about the nature of human beings, about explanations of diversity and similarity. Of course I’m not worried about the continuation of this form of anthropology.”

What about anthropology in its present, institutional form? There, things are not so clear. Bloch makes this provocative statement, “anthropologists have not been addressing those questions that are burning questions for human beings. Other people have done it and have not made use of what anthropologists have learned… I think we should engage with the general questions that people are ask, rather than spending our time navel gazing.”

On the applied side, particularly with regards to development and anthropology, Bloch tells us that the anthropologists’ “role is one of caution. Because we have learned that easy answers don’t work. So we anthropologists will always have a negative role [in public debates] and I think that’s right.” In contrast, however, the development and conservation experts who come in with big money, big ideologies and big power do not necessarily want to hear the “it’s complicated” anthropology message.

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Monkeys and robots teaming up — worried?

As Daniel discussed in January in Monkey Makes Robot Walk!, a number of researchers are working on brain-machine interfaces by attaching prostheses to monkeys. Science Daily carries a new story, Mind Over Matter: Monkey Feeds Itself Using Its Brain, about a University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine experiment in which a monkey successfully used a human-like prosthetic limb to feed itself. As the Science Daily story reports:

Using this technology, monkeys in the Schwartz lab are able to move a robotic arm to feed themselves marshmallows and chunks of fruit while their own arms are restrained. Computer software interprets signals picked up by probes the width of a human hair. The probes are inserted into neuronal pathways in the monkey’s motor cortex, a brain region where voluntary movement originates as electrical impulses. The neurons’ collective activity is then evaluated using software programmed with a mathematic algorithm and then sent to the arm, which carries out the actions the monkey intended to perform with its own limb. Movements are fluid and natural, and evidence shows that the monkeys come to regard the robotic device as part of their own bodies.

According to the team, this is the ‘first’ example of the ‘use of cortical signals to control a multi-jointed prosthetic device for direct real-time interaction with the physical environment (’embodiment’)’ (from the abstract to the Nature article) (I’m always dubious about such ‘firsts,’ especially as this team has been announcing work on this project since at least 2004; but the research is still fascinating even if not a ‘first’).

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