Rex at Savage Minds – berries, pink things & evolution

Alex Golub, one of the prime movers at Savage Minds, posted a link to an ‘Evolutionary Psychology’ bingo card that’s worth a chuckle.

Original post here.

I enjoyed the bingo card because it is such a great condensation of the usual hackneyed bits that crop up in conversations involving ‘evolution’ and ‘psychology,’ often with people who have serious interest in and understanding of neither evolutionary theory nor psychology. I’m not surprised that untrained individuals subscribe to evolutionary psychology (‘women like men who are tall because they could see prey farther off in the grasslands…’). After all, people close to me (who will remain unnamed) believe that one must inherit every trait or characteristic, however minor, from some relative, even if they are only related at a distance (‘you must get your love of traveling from your father’s brother…’) and into forms of ethnic personality theory (‘Italians are so expressive; Latins are so passionate…’).

The point of criticizing these trite versions of evolutionary psychology, for me, is not to throw out baby, bath water, and basin, but to really expose when pernicious sloppy thinking is masquerading as ‘science,’ especially under the guise of psychology and evolution. For whatever reason — probably because they have a sheen of ‘naturalness’ and being above criticism — these rubrics have become touchstones for some of the most retrograde thinking about sexuality, gender relations, ‘race,’ and other issues. The only way to truly engage them is to offer better accounts of both evolution and human psychology.

So in the meantime, I’m printing out my bingo card for the next salvo from the evolutionary psychologists.

Why We Love, The Time Magazine Version

Too bad Jeffrey Kluger didn’t pay closer attention to Hannibal Lecter.  He might have written a better article on “Why We Love,” out this week in Time Magazine, instead of giving us a flawed view of evolution and brain research.  Still, in furtive glimpses of data, rather than quick quotes and pop theories, another way to think about love glides onto stage. 

As I told my anthropology students yesterday, the initial assumptions we make so often dictate our ideas and our results.  But those assumptions are generally presented as “facts” or assertions of truth, part of an unassailable background.  So here are the ones packed into Kluger’s piece, right there at the beginning: (1) that humans rely on our wits, so “losing our faculties over a matter like sex” needs explaining (in other words, humans are rational, why have primitive passions); (2) that we evolved in a “savanna full of predators,” so getting distracted by love could be potentially dangerous, (3) that our genes have “concerns,” primary among them to make us reproduce as much as possible (“breed now and breed plenty gets that job done”), and (4) that we can extend these sorts of explanations to all “the rituals surrounding” sex, love and relationships (like a bunch of scientists drunk on their own ideas—explanatory expansion gone wild!). 
Continue reading “Why We Love, The Time Magazine Version”

Big Theory and Our Biocultural World

Recent books with widespread public acclaim show that the biological and cultural approaches claimed as proper to anthropology are now part of the common social science agenda.  My question is, where does this leave anthropology?  

Certainly the rather ham-handed combination of biology and culture in these books leaves anthropologists with the familiar refrain of criticism and particularity.  But do we have a genuine alternative?  Do we have a big theory to offer? And if not, are we on track to get one?   

The books in question are Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World and Lee Harris’ The Suicide of Reason: Radical Islam’s Threat to the Enlightenment.  They are both provocative books, with forceful theses and grand-standings authors, a tried-and-tested recipe for popular books in the intellectual vein.  I am not particularly concerned with each of their theses today, but here they are anyways. 

For Clark, it is that the Industrial Revolution was driven by the successful over-reproduction and downward social mobility of the upper classes, complete with their literacy, discipline, and delay of gratification.  For Harris, it is that the West, by being too wed to reason, fails to understand the radical threat represented by how Islam has spread through the world.  I am sure that many anthropologists will use these books as their favorite new targets. 

Rather, what interests me is the style of argument that they use to buttress their main point.  Continue reading “Big Theory and Our Biocultural World”

Video Games and Cultural Perception

First, a shout out to all the faithful readers in cyberspace on the Eve of Christmas.  (Yes, yes, I know, my first post went up a week ago.)  Have a great Holiday! 

Now let me get on with gaming and culture.  Today I want to talk about how gaming illustrates the need to rethink what we mean by the concept “culture.”  The traditional concept of culture is generally seen as something all around us, shaping our every move—Geertz’s system of symbols, where humans are caught up in webs of cultural meaning.  Even in the wake of 1980s and 1990s post-modern critique, we are still left with rather homogeneous and causal views—for example, Bourdieu’s habitus, derived from class and used an explanation for the differing tastes and behaviors of different groups of people; or the emphasis on discourses or ideologies that people cannot escape, so that discourses on gender and race seemingly define who we are and, in making that definition, provide others with power over us. 

Greg has already started the critique.  Here’s what he writes in his post Mirror Effects in Neurons Learned?: 

“The evidence from the brain sciences does not support the assumption that all implicit learning has ideational foundations or backing, but most models of culture really do not allow for motor learning to exist on its own as a relevant category of culture. I know, some will try to call me out on this and argue that late Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of the habitus is really a motor learning theory, but the fact that he has to assume that there is either a sociological structure (class) or cultural structure (a kind of crypto-structuralist cognitive set of categories) behind all action suggests that it is, ultimately, either a sociological- or cognitive-determinist model, not one that allows motor realms any autonomy.”


So, how about some gaming autonomy?  Let me turn once again to my trusty Game Informer in its January 2008 edition.  In yesterday’s post, I talked about how games offer us an immersive and interactive experience.  I want to expand on that post by focusing specifically on how designers utilize something close to the concept of “culture” as one part of how to make games immersive and involving.  In the feature article on the first person shooter Tiberium, which builds off the real-time strategy franchise Command & Conquer, the article goes: 
Continue reading “Video Games and Cultural Perception”

Video Games: The Neuroanthropology of Interaction

By Daniel Lende 

We’re getting near Christmas, so today I want to talk about something fun—video games.  I also want to make the case over today and tomorrow for video games as a great place to apply neuroanthropology.  Writing these two blogs will also be my lame gift to myself, a way to vicariously enjoy a genre that can be entirely too addictive for me.  No Bioshock for Daniel this Christmas.  I’ve sworn off games until the summer…  (You do know, of course, that addiction is generally characterized by relapse, so if I start writing about Bioshock, Crysis, or The Witcher in the near future, feel free to give me crap about that.) 

This week I read cover-to-cover the new Game Informer, “The World’s #1 Computer and Video Game Magazine.”  In the Connect Opinion piece, Geremy Mustard has written an article “Small is Beautiful” on developing small-sized games for the Xbox Live Arcade.  As he noted, the “development process for XBLA games is not all that different from making any other game—except it’s smaller.”  In particular, the games are capped at 50 megabytes.  “That is not very much space—it is about the same size as just a few minutes of compressed video.” 

Mustard then highlights what he sees as the crucial challenge that this limited size places on the game developer:  

“With smaller file sizes game designers are forced to focus on the true essence of a game. What makes it fun? What makes it unique? Why would I want to play this? These are questions that any design team needs to ask throughout production. When making games for more casual audiences, other questions may include: How fast does the game hook the player? Is it simple to pick up and play? Is it deep enough to play again and again? We found it very helpful to let various types of gamers play the game [Undertow] at different stages of production and watch their reactions. When were they frustrated? Obviously, the more times developers can iterate a game to reduce frustration and increase enjoyment, the more fun that game will be. The fact that everyone on our team still loves playing Undertow tells me that we may have found that elusive fun factor.”

 In other words, the developers are focused on the on-going interactive experience with the game—that is the crucial thing for them to both develop and understand.  They do that by asking themselves questions, having different types of people play to get feedback, and following a certain cultural script they surely have for “the true essence” of a particular type of game.  (On a side note, some companies are also turning to “neuromarketing” to get insight into this process.) 
Continue reading “Video Games: The Neuroanthropology of Interaction”

On Stress-Part One-Sapolsky

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchBy Daniel Lende 

In my research in Colombia, I dealt with teenagers across the spectrum—kids from good families with futures they could see, kids who had gone through more shit than most people will see in their lifetimes.  One kid, let’s call him Rafa, came from a small town outside of Bogotá, his family not in the best circumstances.  In my talking with Rafa, he dwelled on the horrible process of social exclusion that he went through—first the whispers and bad looks, then problems at school, the violence and rejection at home, and the final demand from a coalition of men, powerful and dangerous men, that he simply leave.  Sure, Rafa was no saint himself, but that’s not the point.  The dwelling on what other people did, that was the hard thing in his life when I met him.  He didn’t deal with that in the best way either, finding support in hate-filled ideologies and drug-using friends.  I don’t think many adults had ever just taken the time to talk with him, to get to know him.  And he still got kicked out of the school, a school that took in kids that had had problems elsewhere, during that year I knew him.  I remember that administrative meeting well.  No teacher spoke up for Rafa, and I didn’t count as the anthropologist.  So Rafa ran out of chances once again.  Except that is the wrong expression—he ran into chances that bopped him around like the ball on a roulette wheel, only to end up on zero.  It was people that did that. 

So that’s the ethnographic moment. 

Let’s turn to some other research. Robert Sapolsky’s work is widely known.  His best-selling book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, is now in its third edition, and his Perspectives piece in Science has been cited 485 times according to Google Scholar.  He is acclaimed in biological anthropology circles because of his concern with mechanism, the elegance of his naturalistic studies with baboons in Kenya, and his consideration of the heavy stress-related costs of inequality.  The back cover of the Zebras book summarizes the core argument of the book, “When we worry or experience stress, our body turns on the same physiological responses that an animal does, but we usually do not turn off the stress-response in the same way—through fighting, fleeing, or other quick actions.  Over time, this chronic activation of the stress-response can make us literally sick.” 

Michael Blakey is better known for his critical archaeology work and his leadership with the New York African Burial Ground.  The work I will discuss, Blakey’s chapter “Beyond European Enlightenment” in the edited volume Building a New Biocultural Synthesis, has been cited 5 times according to Google Scholar.  His earlier chapter “Psychophysiological Stress as an Indicator of Disorder in Industrial Society” in the book Diagnosing America: Anthropology and Public Engagement has been cited all of once.  But it is Blakey’s work that has turned my mind around in the past few days in ways that Sapolsky never quite has.  These two posts will explore why the blurb on Sapolsky’s book is wrong and why that is important to what neuroanthropology can do. 

Today I will start with Sapolsky’s recent Science review “The Influence of Social Hierarchy on Primate Health.”  The article begins with the familiar “socioeconomic gradient,” where the “stepwise descent in socioeconomic status (SES) predicts increased risks of cardiovascular, respiratory, rheumatoid, and psychiatric diseases; low birth weight; infant mortality; and mortality from all causes.”  Sapolsky then provides a traditional review of the stress response—there are physical and psychosocial stressors, and both activate an “array of endocrine and neural adaptations.”  These adaptations are generally mobilized in response to challenges to homeostasis.  In response to “an acute physical challenge,” the stress response works through mobilizing energy, increasing cardiovascular tone, and inhibiting unessential anabolism; in other words, the classic “fight-or-flight” framing of stress.  Chronic activation, particular by chronic psychosocial stressors, can increase or worsen health problems ranging from “hypertension, atherosclerosis, insulin-resistant diabetes, immune suppression, reproductive impairments, and affective disorders.” 

Continue reading “On Stress-Part One-Sapolsky”