Wednesday Round Up #16

My Octopus Teacher

Gordon W. Hewes — a four-field anthropologist with an encyclopedic, visual sensibility. He was interdisciplinary before it was cool.

There’s No Homunculus In Our Brain Who Guides Us

The cognitive-map theory has inspired decades of experiments and become a ubiquitous and widely used concept. Edward Tolman, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, introduced the concept in a famous 1948 paper “Cognitive Maps of Rats and Men.” Three decades later, the neuroscientist John O’Keefe tried to put an electrode in the amygdala of a rat but inserted it instead into the hippocampus, the bilateral brain region deep in the temporal lobe, critical to memory formation. O’Keefe’s instrument began recording the firing pattern of a single cell that strangely seemed to correspond to the rat’s physical location in space. For O’Keefe, these “place” cells were evidence that the hippocampus was the site of Tolman’s cognitive map.

But the cognitive map has also been called the theory that refuses to die. The idea that there is an innate geometric representation of the environment in our brains has dissenters in brain science, anthropology, and psychology. As the neuroscientist Richard Morris points out in The Hippocampus Book, maps are things that people look at to extract information. “Adopting this term for the neural activity of a region of the brain seems to carry with it the mental baggage that there must be some cryptic homunculus that is ‘looking at’ the map to do likewise,” he wrote.2 There is no mechanistic explanation of how humans extract information from this map but because the map is such an easily understood concept, it lives on as a “beguiling metaphor.”

The Fog of the Pandemic Is Returning

The first major change to beset the testing system is entirely because of Trump. Two weeks ago, the CDC changed its official guidance about when Americans should get a coronavirus test. The agency had once maintained that everyone who was exposed to the virus should get tested for it. Now it altered this advice: If someone was exposed to the virus but did not yet have symptoms of COVID-19, they did not necessarily need a test, the guidance said.

New Climate Maps Show a Transformed United States

Taken together, some parts of the U.S. will see a number of issues stack on top of one another — heat and humidity may make it harder to work outside, while the ocean continues to claim more coastal land. The table below ranks the most at-risk counties in the U.S. if all of the perils were combined. You can also sort by individual climate risk to see how each one stacks up, with higher numbers being worse in all categories. The projections are for 2040-2060 under RCP 8.5.

A Biden victory cannot bring normal back

The liberal centre raises hell about the falsehoods of Trump and Johnson, which are undeniably flagrant. However, the brazen fabrications of yesterday – most obviously, those that led to the catastrophe in Iraq, for which there has never been a proper reckoning – did much to pave the way for those of today. And yet only last month, Colin Powell, who personally presented the fallacious case for the invasion of Iraq to the United Nations, was paraded as a star turn at the Democratic National Convention.

Likewise, when Tony Blair recently popped up to warn Johnson against flouting international law by breaching certain aspects of the Brexit withdrawal agreement, the lack of self-awareness on display was breathtaking. It’s not that Blair’s point was wrong, but the fact that he was the one making it allowed the Tories to issue the obvious riposte that their transgression of international law would pale in comparison to his.

Even if the liberal centre were in a stronger position to highlight the cynicism and dishonesty of Trump and Johnson, that wouldn’t be enough without changing the political conditions that gave rise to them. After all, neither Trump nor Johnson came out of nowhere. Trump inherited an apparatus of invasive state surveillance and militarised borders from a predecessor who himself presided over mass deportations, while in Britain, it was New Labour that first indulged bogus moral panics about asylum seekers and laid the foundations for today’s hostile environment.

Both Biden and Starmer might win elections simply by appearing to offer their respective electorates a steady hand. But mounting, interrelated crises stare us in the face: environmental, economic, social and political. Addressing any of them would require, for starters, radically curbing the prerogatives of capitalist vested interests wedded to a destructive status quo. It’s not enough just to install more competent and polite managers, and otherwise leave the same arrangements in place.

Evolutionary Anthropology in the Time of COVID-19

It is imperative that we see this pandemic as a biosocial event. Though SARS-COV2 is a biological entity that has specific biological, deleterious, pathological impacts on the human respiratory system (among others), the biological information is meaningless without the social, historical, political, and economic context. Fuentes gives the example of hand washing. If you understand the structure of the coronavirus, you would see how just some soap and water lifts the outer layers and can save billions of people. But that knowledge of biology is completely useless when there is no access to running water like in a refugee camp or a homeless encampment, or even in some of the Indigenous reservations here in the United States.

A Whistleblower Says Facebook Ignored Global Political Manipulation

The 6,600-word memo, written by former Facebook data scientist Sophie Zhang, is filled with concrete examples of heads of government and political parties in Azerbaijan and Honduras using fake accounts or misrepresenting themselves to sway public opinion. In countries including India, Ukraine, Spain, Brazil, Bolivia, and Ecuador, she found evidence of coordinated campaigns of varying sizes to boost or hinder political candidates or outcomes, though she did not always conclude who was behind them.

“In the three years I’ve spent at Facebook, I’ve found multiple blatant attempts by foreign national governments to abuse our platform on vast scales to mislead their own citizenry, and caused international news on multiple occasions,” wrote Zhang, who declined to talk to BuzzFeed News. Her LinkedIn profile said she “worked as the data scientist for the Facebook Site Integrity fake engagement team” and dealt with “bots influencing elections and the like.”

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