Wednesday Round Up #74

So this week it’s the food crisis, then neuroscience and anthropology, and finally language. Enjoy.

I will be on vacation next week, so won’t post the Wed round up until Saturday August 8th. So you’ll just have to wait a couple days while we’re camping.

Top of the List

Vaughan Bell, A War of Algorithms
Mind Hacks provides overview and commentary on the latest in artificial intelligence and the potential to wreak war and the need for limitations

Adam Henne, Whale Relations
Looks like a good new blog by an anthropology, Nature/Culture, with a focus on the environment and anthropology. I had wanted to discuss this recent NY Times magazine piece on whales. Adam did it for me.

Peter Deeley, The Religious Brain: Turning Ideas into Convictions
Scribd article looking at how cultural beliefs actually work their impact on specific people

Kay Redfield Jamison, The Importance of Restlessness and Jagged Edges
The psychologist and author of An Unquiet Mind shares her This I Believe: “I believe that curiosity, wonder, and passion are defining qualities of imaginative minds and great teachers; that restlessness and discontent are vital things; and that intense experience and suffering instruct us in ways less intense emotions can never do.”

Ed Yong, Your Brain on Oprah and Saddam (and what that says about Halle Berry and your grandmother)
Or even the researcher himself – he found a neuron that responded specifically to him during the research, despite having never met the volunteer previously. But really, the change is from the idea of a single neuron encoding singular info to groups of neurons encoding info through patterns of activity

The Food Crisis

-Many thanks to Craig Hadley for highlighting these selections-

Grain, The Other “Pandemic”
It’s not just the financial crisis and swine flu sweeping the world – the food crisis is killing a lot more people

Bapu Vaitla et al., Seasonal Hunger: A Neglected Problem with Proven Solutions
PLoS Medicine article about what we can do about the main cause of acute hunger and undernutrition, seasonal shortages due to dwindling stocks, high prices, or scarce jobs

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Lose your shoes: Is barefoot better?

1984 Women's 3000 meter

1984 Women's 3000 meter

In 1984 at the Los Angeles Olympics, the women’s 3000-meter final was marred by controversy when American Mary Decker fell after making contact with Zola Budd, a runner from South Africa who represented Britain (due to the boycott of South African sport).

Although Budd had been setting the pace, she faded to seventh in the end and was booed by the partisan LA audience (Decker would later say that she was inexperienced at running in a pack and, as the trailing runner, was responsible for their contact). Maricica Puica of Romania won the event, and Britain’s Wendy Sly took the silver in a final that was seared into my memory by the televised replays of a stricken Mary Decker, hip injured from her fall, shattered and crying on the infield.

In all of the drama, one of the things that left the greatest impression on me as a high school student and sometime athlete was the simple fact that Zola Budd ran without shoes, an almost unimaginable idea to me at the time. Budd was one of a handful of famous barefoot runners, including Abebe Bikila, the Ethiopian marathoner who won his first Olympic gold in 1960 without shoes, Tegla Loroupe, the Kenyan women’s running legend and multiple world record holder, and Ken Bob Saxton, aka ‘Barefoot Ken Bob,’ a marathoner and guru to the shoeless.

I’ve been thinking about barefoot running for a while, oddly enough since I started writing about bare-knuckle punching in no-holds-barred fighting (or ‘mixed martial arts’ like the Ultimate Fighting Championship in its early days). Barefoot running, even more than bare-knuckle boxing, reveals the ways that very simple technologies, if used consistently enough, become part of the developmental niche of the human body, shaping the way that our bones, muscles, tissues, and nervous system develop.

Although this post is not strictly neuroanthropology, I thought I might share some of what I’m working on, in part because I’m interested to hear any feedback people have. In particular, this will focus on how hard it is to sort out what’s ‘natural’ when activity patterns, incredibly variable, are necessary ingredients in the development of biological systems. But also, as it will become clearer in the post, the ways that our nervous system adapt to different situations, such as having heavily padded feet or being barefoot when we run, illustrates well how even unconscious training is a form of phenotypic, non-genetic, adaptation.

Before I go any further, though, if you have anything to say in response to this, I would love to read it. This is my first attempt to put down some thoughts that will be in a chapter of an upcoming book…
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Public Anthropology by Biological Anthropologists

Skin A Natural History“Public anthropology” is often presented as primarily an effort of cultural anthropology. For example, the University of California Press Series in Public Anthropology focuses on ethnographies. Yet a broader public anthropology is inherent in its own description:

The California Series in Public Anthropology draws anthropologists to address major issues of our time in ways that readers beyond the discipline, find valuable. Many anthropologists write on narrow subjects in self-contained styles that only coteries of colleagues appreciate. The Series strives, instead, to analyze important public concerns in ways that help non-academic audiences to understand and address them.

Rob Borofsky echoes this broad conception when he writes, “Public anthropology seeks to address broad critical concerns in ways that others beyond the discipline are able to understand what anthropologists can offer to the re-framing and easing–if not necessarily always resolving–of present-day dilemmas.”

Biological anthropologists do public anthropology. They write for broad audiences and address social problems and public concerns. Their books move from the very body we live in to the importance of human variation, the origins of violence to assumptions about human nature and reproduction. Biological anthropologists have provided advice and information on caring for your child, looked at how our present-day environment can shape human health and behavior, and shown how to engage in primate conservation.

Here are those books, the ones that show public anthropology in action. The title links to the Amazon book listing. These books are recent, accessible, competitively priced, and compelling – all useful for increasing their public reach.

Public Anthropology Books by Biological Anthropologists

Sarah Blaffer Hrdy (2000), Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species. Ballantine Books.
Hrdy “unblinkingly examines and illuminates such difficult subjects as control of reproductive rights, infanticide, ‘mother love,’ and maternal ambition with its ever-contested companions: child care and the limits of maternal responsibility.”
98% Chimp
Nina Jablonski (2008), Skin: A Natural History. University of California Press.
“This amply illustrated rhapsody to the body’s largest and most visible organ showcases skin’s versatility, importance in human biology and uniqueness… Penn State’s anthropology chair, Jablonski nimbly interprets scientific data for a lay audience, and her geeky love for her discipline is often infectious.”

Jonathan Marks (2005), What it Means to be 98% Chimpanzee: Apes, People, and their Genes. University of California Press.
“So why should one venture through the 307 remaining pages of this book, if the main message is obvious from the start? I can see two good reasons. First of all, because it is fun… The second reason is that the subject of this book is extraordinarily important. Many scientists and physicians deal daily, in one way or another, with human variation and its consequences. However, only seldom do we have the time to reflect on the assumptions underlying many concepts, even apparently simple ones, in this area.”

James J. McKenna (2007), Sleeping with Your Baby: A Parent’s Guide to Cosleeping. Platypus Media.
“Cosleeping is one of the most delicious experiences in parenting, and Dr. McKenna’s carefully researched and thoughtful advice separates the myths from the marvelous reality.”

Dale Peterson & Richard Wrangham (1997), Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence. Mariner Books.
“Contradicting the common belief that chimpanzees in the wild are gentle creatures… they suggest that chimpanzee-like violence preceded and paved the way for human warfare.”

Meredith Small (1999). Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent. Anchor.
“How we raise our children differs greatly from society to society, with many cultures responding differently to such questions as how a parent should respond to a crying child, how often a baby should be nursed, and at what age a child should learn to sleep alone… [This book] will be especially meaningful to those swept up in the wild adventure of parenting.”

E.O. Smith (2002). When Culture and Biology Collide: Why We Are Stressed, Depressed and Self-Obsessed. Rutgers University Press.
“This book will be completely accessible to laypersons, and yet equally thought provoking for scientists.”

Karen Strier (1999), Faces in the Forest: The Endangered Muriqui Monkeys of Brazil. Harvard University Press.
This book “outlines the fight against extinction of the wooly spider monkey. Muriquies remain one of the most endangered primates, but the detailed profile drawn up by the author and her fellow researchers has provided crucial information in their fight for survival. In all areas Strier has carried out impressively thorough and precise research, outlined here in a very readable form, accessible to specialist and laymen alike.”

Other Recent Popular Books by Biological Anthropologists

Why limit ourselves to just eight? After all biological anthropologists have written many popular books. Here is a wider listing, ones that might not hew to a strict definition of “major issues” and “critical concerns” that comes with public anthropology. But these are certainly books that interest a broad public.

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Engaging & Dispatching Memetics

Engaging Anthropology
I am reading the book Engaging Anthropology: The Case for a Public Presence by the anthropologist Thomas Hylland Eriksen. Quite enjoying it – definitely recommended.

I’ve just finished his section on Memetics and the Anthropologists. He systematically dismantles meme theory from an anthropological point of view, just like Greg did in his post, We Hate Memes, Pass It On. (Greg’s version is snarkier…) Eriksen also ties in the popular success of meme theory to a consideration of how anthropology can gain public relevance. This description resonates with much that we do here on this site.

Memetics may be beyond salvation as a theoretical project. However, it raises a few questions which are just right for anthropology seen as an endeavour of public relevance. It sees human culture as part of nature yet rejects the simplifications of human sociobiology, and it asks highly pertinent questions about cultural transmission, cultural diffusion and cultural change. The notion of contagion is useful and has not been properly explored in cultural studies, including anthropology.

But – I repeat- without an understanding of the human subject, no advance will be made, and of course, context is everything. Curiously, in attempts at applying memetics, the biology itself seems to suffer. In Ingold’s words, the genotype exists ‘in the mind of the biologist’ (Ingolg 2000: 382). The ambition of offering a simple and straightforward analytic account of the human mind has led to an untenable abstraction (62-63).

Eriksen pushes us to make generalizations and to take cross-cultural analysis seriously, to examine these big questions of cultural change and diffusion. But he ties that into a grounded understanding of the person, the human subject. Those subjects, or people, are always found in specific contexts, and these local environments help shape culture and subjectivity (beyond the generalizations of, say, contagion). Biology comes in as a crucial mediator here, from helping to understand the contours of cultural change to being a crucial player in the relations of subject and environment. At least that is how I read it. Memetics fails because it is not anthropological, neither grappling with the rich tradition of research on cultural change and meaning nor with the actual realities of people and their lives.

Eriksen then relates his analysis of memetics and anthropology to a larger public project.

The lesson from the experiment of memetics is that we have to do better: those of us who feel that memetics is insufficient have to come up with a better alternative than merely stating that things are more complicated than this. Saying ‘things are more complicated’ is like having endless meetings to avoid making a controversial decision.

The anthropologist’s account of human nature has to be holist – it must include the recipe, the ingredients, the oven and the cook – and it must supersede the conventional culture/nature divide. Looking in the direction of biology, it is likely to find more by way of inspiration in ecology than genetics. It must also take human experience seriously as an area of enquiry. These general delineations notwithstanding, several paths are possible and might shed light on the human condition. The field is open: with a handful of exceptions, there have been few attempts since the Second World War to develop a theory of human nature which draws on biological knowledge without succumbing to the temptations of easy fixes (63).”

Just to be clear, by recipe, ingredients, oven and cook, Eriksen means DNA, development, the environment, and subjectivity (or an actor). So I would certainly agree with a holistic approach that supersedes the conventional culture/nature divide. In biology, I actually hope that both ecology and genetics play a role. But I would point out that neuroscience is actually the closest to many of the areas that interest him as an anthropologist – experience and behavior, interactions with the environment, possible biological dynamics that help shape culture, and so forth. In other words, neuroanthropology.

To be honest, neuroanthropology probably has a branding problem, rather like cognition and culture. The term doesn’t shout out “public relevance.” But as a site to explore the proper combination of recipes, ingredients and cooks, and to gain an online presence, well, it’s a good start. Next stop, a theory of human nature. Right?

In any case, here’s the Google Book link to Engaging Anthropology. The “Memetics and the Anthropologists” section starts on page 57. Just do a search for memetics; it looks like you can read the entire section online to get Eriksen’s excellent analysis of the weaknesses of memetics.

And for more on Thomas Hylland Eriksen, he is a professor at the University of Oslo. He also runs a rich website called Engaging with the World, where you can see how he’s put his words into practice.

Wednesday Round Up #73

This week we’ve got synesthesia and drug categories, alongside the top selections and the anthro and neuro placeholders.

Top of the List

Aaron Traister, It’s Hot! It’s Sexy! It’s … Marriage!“Am I the only person who actually enjoys being hitched these days?”
A funny read with a substantive point, well, at least for this married guy.

Petra Boynton, The New Scientist, Female Ejaculation, and Six Things Science Has Taught Us about Sex
“The problem with the New Scientist piece and scientific research that focuses purely on the physiological is it taps into the women-are-mysterious narrative that unhelpfully underpins so much media coverage. “

Lindsey Tanner, Kids’ Lower IQ Scores Linked to Prenatal Pollution
Not good news. And of course pollution is unequally distributed in the environment.

Lauran Neergaard, Unraveling How Children Become Bilingual So Easily
Good summary of language learning by an AP journalist

Natalie Angier, When ‘What Animals Do’ Doesn’t Seem to Cover It
An informed discussion of what the term “behavior” actually means

Ed Yong, Why Information Is Its Own Reward – Same Neurons Signal Thirst for Water, Knowledge
I’m thirsty just thinking about it!

Cathryn Delude, Adult Brain Can Change within Seconds
“The brain is constantly recalibrating the connections through short-term plasticity mechanisms.” Or more provocatively, where already established connections meet with already established sociocultural phenomena?


David Eagleman, Synesthesia
Actually the lab page of the Baylor neuroscientist – but what I want to highlight is the video on synesthesia about half way down the page.

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Top Ten Ways for Anthropologists to Make A Difference

(1) Critique. Our default position, but sometimes it does work. (Just not as well or as often as we hope.)

(2) Develop basic knowledge of problems. Rather than keeping to analysis, embrace our role as being able to speak directly about the causes and consequences of significant problems.

(3) Investigation. Take critique and go after something that matters to the public, whether that’s a community or the effects of a misguided policy.

(4) Advocacy. Use our understanding and our position as scholars to help advocate for change, to both represent the local point of view and to speak from our status as an expert. (Yes, expert – that research you did and the degree you have help grant that in the eyes of others.)

(5) Involve the community in your research. Besides making for better research and applied outcomes, including the community in your work yields direct and indirect benefits, through salaries, skill development, idea exchange and more.

(6) Have concrete community or applied outcomes. Start by making these outcomes a goal from the beginning, along with more traditional outcomes like peer-reviewed articles. Then do community-based research to make sure your applied outcome is relevant.

(7) Focus on developing or changing policy. Yes you can. As anthropologists we know plenty about unintended consequences, we also know a lot about what works locally. Put that to use.

(8) Get the word out. Communicate your work in an effective and popular way. Write an op-ed or a blog post or, gasp, a popular book. Remember that communication can also be informal. As anthropologists we can act as conduits, communicating among different constituencies in the field, different parties at the negotiating or policy table, and even different fields’ perspectives on a problem.

(9) Help develop organizations. Organizations do make a difference. They can bring people together in common cause and provide a framework through which to work. Indeed, organizations can take all the points made here and ramp them up to the next level.

(10) Create interventions or programs. Have a good idea? What about your community partners? Then try it out to see if it might work. Other fields do it. We can too. Do some investigation, get community involvement, and also check on what other fields recommend. And then see if our anthropology ideas make a difference. Remember, it’s always good to evaluate how effective your program is!