The last free people on the planet (originally 9 Feb, 2011)

(I am republishing ‘legacy content’ from our PLOS Neuroanthropology weblog, which has been taken down, along with many of the other founding PLOS Blogs. Some of these, I am putting up because I teach with them. If you have any requests, don’t hesitate to email me at: greg.downey @ mq (dot) edu (dot) au. I suspect many of the links in this piece will be broken, but I will endeavour to try to slowly rebuild this content. I originally published this on 9 February 2011.) 

In small pockets around the world live isolated indigenous communities, groups that, even though they have had run-ins with their neighbours or Westerners, prefer to avoid or resist any further contact.  Although we sometime call them ‘uncontacted,’ a more accurate description is probably ‘voluntarily isolated’ or ‘withdrawn’ or ‘evasive.’ Many of these groups have tragic histories of encounters with outsiders — too much ‘contact’ — where they fought to preserve their isolation and, usually, came up much worse off than their more numerous intruders.

Survival International reports that about one hundred groups around the world prefer to be left alone. They refuse to become enmeshed with their neighbours, to give up their ways of life and languages, or to find some way to earn the local currency or trade goods.  All have made it abundantly clear their wishes: stay away.

The BBC is the gift that seems to keep on giving to Neuroanthropology this week.  The striking footage below of an ‘uncontacted’ tribe, from the BBC Human Planet series (‘Jungles’ episode), was shot from one kilometre away using a stabilized zoom lens from a small plane [Another video from Survival International added in 2019 due to broken link].  Like the previous clip I featured on undersea fishing, this footage of remote Indian communities near the Brazilian-Peruvian is haunting, especially with the running commentary provided by Brazilian José Carlos dos Reis Meirelles, an expert in the groups living in this area.

The footage shows people who refuse to come in from the forests. On the BBC footage, Meirelles says, It’s important for humanity these peoples exist… they’re the last free people on this planet.’

Continue reading

The man with 1000 children: the limit of male fertility (Long, slow sexual revolution part 2)

(I am republishing a lot of ‘legacy content’ from our PLOS Neuroanthropology weblog, which has been taken down, along with many of the other founding PLOS Blogs. Some of these, I am putting up because I teach with them. If you have any requests, don’t hesitate to email me at: greg.downey @ mq (dot) edu (dot) au. I suspect many of the links in this piece will be broken, but I will endeavour to try to slowly rebuild this content. I originally published this on 5 April 2014.) 

By Greg Downey; (long read: 5500 words)

Moulay Ismail ibn Sharif succeeded to the sultanate of Morocco after his brother fell from a horse and died in 1672. Twenty-six when he became the Sharifian Emperor, Moulay Ismael “the Bloodthirsty” — as he was called — went on to expand his holding in a remarkable reign. His armies conquered neighboring territories and fought off the Ottomans (eventually forcing them to recognize Moroccan independence), and the emperor went on a building spree to make Meknes a rival to Versailles, with French engineers to help.

Moulay Ismail Ibn Sharif, anonymous engraver 1719 (public domain)
Moulay Ismail Ibn Sharif, anonymous engraver 1719 (public domain)

Moulay Ismael also had a prodigious capacity for cruelty. He legendarily ordered that the walls of Meknes be decorated with the heads of 10,000 enemy soldiers. He also sponsored the Barbary pirates, who engaged the states of Europe in a protracted and costly low-grade war, drove the American colonies to form the first navy in North America, and pushed the English and Spanish from Moroccan territory.

But Moulay Ismael is probably best known to history because of his prodigious capacity to reproduce. The emperor had a thing for children,… well, for having sons, that is.

Continue reading

The long, slow sexual revolution (reposted) with nsfw video

(I am republishing a lot of ‘legacy content’ from our PLOS Neuroanthropology weblog, which has been taken down, along with many of the other founding PLOS Blogs. Some of these, I am putting up because I teach with them. If you have any requests, don’t hesitate to email me at: greg.downey @ mq (dot) edu (dot) au. I suspect many of the links in this piece will be broken, but I will endeavour to try to slowly rebuild this content. I originally published this on 10 January 2012. I have also included at the end some of the most substantial comments from the comment thread.)

A while back, Bora Zivkovic directed me (well, …all his Facebook followers) to the word, ‘sapiosexuality’: the tendency to become ‘attracted to or aroused by intelligence and its use’(thanks, Bora!).

Ironically, although the term may be a bit of a joke, the idea that intelligence is a species-specific aphrodisiac has more than a shred of evolutionary plausibility. Moreover, ‘sapiosexuality’ is a crucial point of reference in the contemporary discussion of human sexual selection, especially to break the stranglehold that Victorian social mores and sexist assumptions have on popular understandings of human sexual evolution.

I was reminded of the term ‘sapiosexuality’ after teaching my annual introductory course on human evolution. Student evaluations are in, and over and over again, student comments lead me to think that, in order to change popular understandings of evolution, we need not simply better data, but also better stories. Especially when tired, old tropes are repeatedly trotted out again in a popular discussion of how ‘evolution’ has shaped ‘human nature,’ even when the data is showing the opposite, we should wonder if evidence alone can ever overturn rusted on bad interpretations. Continue reading

Newtown and Violence – No Easy Answers

(I [Greg] am republishing a lot of ‘legacy content’ from our PLOS Neuroanthropology weblog, which has been taken down, along with many of the other founding PLOS Blogs. Some of these, I am putting up because I teach with them. If you have any requests, don’t hesitate to email me at: greg (dot) downey @ mq (dot) edu (dot) au. I suspect many of the links in this piece will be broken, but I will endeavour to try to slowly rebuild this content. Daniel originally published 7 December 2012.)

I just dropped my two young children at elementary school. They were bright and smiling, one off to practice handbells for a Christmas concert, another to chat with friends before the first bell.

Neither noticed the police car newly parked beside the school. Neither had a penny for my thoughts, of what it must have been like for those parents in Newtown, dropping off beloved children and then not having them only a few minutes later.

Now at my computer, I think of the Connecticut State Police Spokesman Lt. J. Paul Vance, the man who has guided us through much of this tragedy. I remember his assurance on Friday that the police were doing everything to find out not only what happened, but why.

But why.

No Easy Answers Continue reading

Human, quadruped: Uner Tan Syndrome, part 1

(I am republishing a lot of my ‘legacy content’ from our PLOS Neuroanthropology weblog, which has been taken down, along with many of the other founding PLOS Blogs. Some of these, I am putting up because I teach with them. If you have any requests, don’t hesitate to email me at: greg (dot) downey @ mq (dot) edu (dot) au. I suspect many of the links in this piece will be broken, but I will endeavour to try to slowly rebuild this content. Originally published 3 September 2010.)

The photos that accompanied news releases about quadrupedal people living in Turkey, members of a family that allegedly could not walk except on hands and feet, looked staged when I first saw them. Three women and one man scrambling across rocky ground, the women in brightly coloured clothing, the sky radiant blue behind them, their eyes forward and backsides high in the air – like children engaged in some sort of awkward race at a field day or sporting carnival.

Members of a Turkish family with Uner Tan Syndrome

For an anthropologist interested in human motor variation and adaptation, the family looked too good to be true. Subsequent reports and a string of papers confirmed that the families did exist, and they suffered from a condition that came to be called ‘Uner Tan Syndrome’ (sometimes ‘Unertan Syndrome’ or UTS). This story is not new, having already broken and exhausted itself on the waves of internet enthusiasm, but I’ve been wanting to write a sober reflection on the lessons I take from UTS for a while now, and my first major post on our new site seems like a good place. Continue reading

Human (amphibious model): living in and on the water (originally 3 Feb, 2011)

(I am republishing a lot of my ‘legacy content’ from our PLOS Neuroanthropology weblog, which has been taken down, along with many of the other founding PLOS Blogs. Some of these, I am putting up because I teach with them. If you have any requests, don’t hesitate to email me at: greg (dot) downey @ mq (dot) edu (dot) au. I suspect many of the links in this piece will be broken, but I will endeavour to try to slowly rebuild this content.)

At the beginning of the film clip, Bajau fisherman Sulbin sits on the side of a boat on the coast of Borneo, gulping air, handling his speargun.  And then, he drops into the water.  The footage suddenly changes and becomes arresting: silent, dreamy, slow, and so blue.  Sulbin strokes deliberately and descends until he strides along the bottom of the ocean, holding his breath, and hunts for fish through handmade goggles. [I’ve had to get a new version of the video clip, 2019.]

Finally, after a couple of minutes, he spears a fish and heads for the surface.  The narrator tells us that Sulbin could stay down twice as long and dive deeper if necessary.  Most viewers, unfamiliar with free diving, exceptional if they can hold their breath longer than thirty seconds, are quite likely to be shaking their heads by the end of the clip, wondering at the ability of the human body to adapt to life in water.  Life as an amphibious human can appear so alien that it’s stranger than science fiction, but painfully beautiful to watch.

I stumbled across the video clip in part because of my academic interest in free diving [I have had to embed a new video clip. GD 2019]. Earlier this month, I was supposed to attend a free diving workshop in New Zealand with one of the sport’s world record holder, Will Trubridge (or see the story on the Times Online).  The workshop fell through at almost the same time I was diagnosed with multiple hernias, so my first free diving experience likely wouldn’t have worked out – I’m still hoping to do it as part of my ethnographic research on extraordinary human performance in the near future. Continue reading

Anth 207: new open education space – update!

If you follow Neuroanthropology, either here or on Facebook, you may have noticed something new. We’ve had a bit of a facelift to this site and added a page: Anth 207 Neuroanth 101. This new venture is an effort to generate open educational resources for people interested in psychological anthropology: students, teachers, researchers, the curious…

The first video for Anth 207  Neuroanth 101 is already posted: WEIRD psychology.

We’ll be adding more videos slowly, as well as suggested readings, other related resources, reflection questions, and notes. The goal is to start building an open resource for those who want to start learning about neuroanthropology.

Check back, or join the Neuroanthropology Interest Group on Facebook to keep up with new developments.

UPDATE: After a quick consultation with partner-in-online Daniel Lende, we’ve decided to go whole hog with the new look, new feel, and all-neuroanthropology message. I’ve done a quick rename to ‘Neuroanthropology 101’ with the goal of making it clear what we’re doing, and hopefully making a space to which other neuroanthropologists will want to contribute.

Almost Here! The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology

It started on this blog. In 2007, Greg and I co-founded Neuroanthropology. Five years later our book is out! “The Encultured Brain” will be published by MIT Press this Friday, August 24th, 2012. You can already order itat Amazon!

The brain and the nervous system are our most cultural organs. Our nervous system is especially immature at birth, our brain disproportionately small in relation to its adult size and open to cultural sculpting at multiple levels. Recognizing this, the new field of neuroanthropology places the brain at the center of discussions about human nature and culture.

Anthropology offers brain science more robust accounts of enculturation to explain observable difference in brain function; neuroscience offers anthropology evidence of neuroplasticity’s role in social and cultural dynamics. This book provides a foundational text for neuroanthropology, offering basic concepts and case studies at the intersection of brain and culture.

“The Encultured Brain” is really two books in one – the approach Greg and I have built to neuroanthropology, and other researchers using neuroanthropology in their own work. So at under $40 on Amazon, it’s a great deal!

#1: Our comprehensive take on neuroanthropology – an introduction to the field and the book, an in-depth statement on what neuroanthropology is, the evolutionary background to this approach, an outline for future research, and our own expert examples on balance and addiction.

#2: Nine case studies by other researchers, covering memory, PTSD, primates, skill acquisition, humor, autism, male vitality, smoking, and depression. These additional chapters really push “The Encultured Brain” into a new space, for they show how scholars are already using neuroanthropology to address an array of research problems.

Greg and I both hope you go order The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology

Neuroanthropology Now on Facebook

Neuroanthropology now comes in two forms on Facebook!

The Blog – With Extra Content

If you want to follow everything that we’re doing on the Neuroanthropology PLOS blog, and you also want short, fun posts that Greg and I have specifically written for Facebook, then head over to the Neuroanthropology Blog Facebook Page. I just stuck the great photo featured here up on Facebook – just a sample!

Neuroanthropology Interest Group

An active interest group – with lots of shared links and discussion – is growing quickly on Facebook. Here you can share and discover news stories and journal articles, and engage with like-minded people who want to explore the intersection of neuroscience and anthropology.

So two choices for more Neuroanthropology:

Link to Neuroanthropology Blog on Facebook

Link to Facebook Interest Group

Neuroanthropology.net at 1,000,000

Neuroanthropology.net just broke through the 1,000,000 visits mark! We’ve done that in three years. Our very post came in December 2007.

Even though Greg and I have moved over to Neuroanthropology PLoS, this site has continued to generate impressive traffic since September 1st. Here are some of the posts that got us over the top:

We agree it’s WEIRD, but is it WEIRD enough?
-Greg dissects the excellent study by Henrich et al. that took psychologists to task for basing claims about universal psychology using samples of college students

Inside the Mind of a Pedophile
-Absolutely incredible comments on this post, as readers continue to debate pedophilia, the people who have done it, and the children and families who have suffered from it

Forever at War: Veterans’ Everyday Battles with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder
-Veterans suffering from PTSD share what it’s like to have PTSD, and what they want other vets and the broader public to know about PTSD

Life without language
-Author Susan Schaller’s work with a profoundly deaf immigrant who grew up without sign language, and an exploration of what it is like to live without language

The new linguistic relativism: Guy Deutscher in the NYTimes
-Does language shape how you think? A re-examination of language and thought

Edge: Getting at the Neuroanthropology of Morality
-The new scientists of morality are actually doing neuroanthropology, and not evolutionary psychology

The dog-human connection in evolution
-Dogs made us more human

It’s hard to believe that we’ve had 1,000,000 onsite visits in three years, plus all the other people who’ve read this site through Google reader or other rss feeds. When we started, we never expected to have such success with this site. So thank you!

And now we’re doing the same great stuff over on Neuroanthropology on PLoS. Here are five of our top posts since September 1st:

Anthropology, Science, and Public Understanding
-The American Anthropological Association dropped the word “science” from the mission statement included in the association’s long-term plan, and the media and blogosphere erupted. Here’s the post that kicked off Neuroanthropology’s extensive coverage of the controversy

An Interview with Mark Changizi: Culture Harnessing the Brain
-Cognitive scientist Mark Changizi gives us his inside view of how culture and brain evolved together, with an inside glimpse into his forthcoming book Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man

Food for thought: Cooking in human evolution
-Did cooking make us human, giving us the necessary energy to have super brains?

Anthropology, Science, and the AAA Long-Range Plan: What Really Happened
-The New York Times portrayed anthropologists as split into warring tribes over the word “science.” Here’s what actually happened with the AAA controversy

The Culture of Poverty Debate
-The controversial Culture of Poverty idea has made a comeback. Here’s coverage of the good and bad about the media reports and research on the renewed look at the links between culture and poverty