Linguistic diversity, other views

By Razib Khan | July 24, 2010 9:08 pm

Readers might find these responses of interest. Mostly I just laughed, though some of you may be a bit more serious than I, so if anthro-gibberish drives you crazy, don’t follow the links. As I told “ana” below a lot of the discussion we had was basically just talking past each other. I kept telling her she was vacuous because she was assuming presuppositions which I simply did not share as empirical background descriptions of the world (e.g., a strong form of linguistic relativism where the specific nature of a language shapes cognition). Though at least she was concise. On the other hand, see this small section of Creighton’s response:

I think this is what bothered me the most about Khan’s piece. No discussion of what poverty means, what it is, how it’s defined. I could be completely wrong, but that led me to feel that there was a high degree of Eurocentric neo-colonialism behind Khan’s proposition. Who is saying to who what “median human utility” means? Are we assuming that homeownership, vehicle ownership, and other tangible measures of economic prosperity are involved? Is access to fresh food and water part of this measurement? Khan didn’t discuss poverty at all and he didn’t acknowledge that the neo-colonial policies of certain nations are at least partially responsible for the long-term economic suffering of many of the people he is referring to. I just got the feeling that he was telling the people who belong to small language communities to accept defeat and learn English. It incited me even more that his justification for making this decision was in purely economic terms. Abandoning your heritage will pay out in the end. But will it?

Dhaka smells like human shit. That’s poverty. Most people think that to get rich is glorious, and an understanding of wealth is cross-cultural. Many anthropological types problematize too much for my taste. They confuse the nuance and shading which vary between societies, for the core truths, which are relatively culture-free. For almost all of human history most people lived at the poverty line, because Malthusian conditions were operative. The possibility for wealth, and consumer society, is new. Those who opt-out in modern societies do so for explicit ideological reasons and are aware of the trade offs (e.g., the Amish, Hasidic Jews, people who live in communes).

The point which I tried to emphasize a few times, but generally ignored by my interlocutors, is that people as individuals, and communities, make rational decisions in a world of constrained choices. Quite often, and especially today, language change does not occur from on high (in fact, the top-down imposition of standard national languages on the masses is more a recent feature of post-Enlightenment nationalism; Latin spread in the Roman Empire over centuries among the western peasantry). Most Africans who adhere non-world religions are shifting to Islam or Christianity. There is little explicit coercion in this (though a fair amount of social pressure from elites who find Vodun and other native traditions backward). The moral panic that many Westerners have over the extinction of small-scale societies is not shared by many members of those small-scale societies, who wish to opt-out, often for material reasons. And by material, I’m not talking McMansions, I’m talking having income above subsistence. The level of wealth of a Chinese factory worker, not that of an academic adjunct.

As for my critics, note that I don’t really engage them directly, because the theoretical frameworks we use are so distinct. They misunderstand me, and I misunderstand them (honestly, I have no idea what they’re saying most of the time in the broad sense, aside from the fact that they’re offended). I have as much respect for most American cultural anthropology as I do for Talmudic scholarship; I’m sure they’re bright individuals, but they aren’t doing anything which I think relates to a world outside of the minds of the practitioners.* Contrast that with Jared Diamond, who I think is positively wrong in many of his models (not to mention recent ethical controversies which have erupted), but, who I can understand in terms of what he is saying. Being wrong, and asserting things which turn out false, are essential in the process of building a better model of the world. Extreme projects in cultural relativism, and fixation on semantics, tells us more about the psychology of WEIRD people than anything else.

For a better understanding of how I approach anthropology, and the study of human culture, the first half of D. Jason Slone’s Theological Incorrectness describes it almost perfectly. If you continue to read this weblog, you’ll note that I have a deep interest in culture and history. But, my treatment is not going to resemble much of what would find in cultural anthropology in the United States. In fact, I’ll drive you crazy, and perhaps an r-squared here and there will strike as you positivist gibberish. No one’s paying you to read though.

Oh, and yes, I am Euro-centric. Some things can be stated as objective facts, but obviously where you start from impacts how you judge the import of particular facts. Though I think Epoche is methodologically useful. Or at least the attempt.

* To be fair, a large number of people do take the Talmud seriously, and so the scholarship does have an impact because people take the scholarship seriously. But I don’t think this is like mechanical engineering, where the reason to take it seriously from the outside is not dependent on a normative view of the importance of mechanical engineering. As for cultural anthropology, I don’t think it matters too much, aside from intellectual types who think that it is a form of scholarship with non-trivial empirical basis. I think most American cultural anthropology is about as empirically robust as astrology.

Related: Also see my post Knowledge is not value-free.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy, Culture
MORE ABOUT: Anthropology
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  • Ian

    One question that comes to mind in terms of a linguistic diversity-poverty relationship would be the direction of the effect. Does linguistic diversity promote poverty, or does increasing prosperity favour one language over others, enabling it to drive others toward extinction?

  • Razib Khan

    i suspect the second. poverty is the default human state some sorts of economies of scale and integration into broad trade and information networks are probably critical for economic take off, and common languages probably aid in that. eventually a lingua franca may start replacing local dialects. e.g., in germany and italy dialects are declining as standard german and italian become more and more the everyday speech of many (especially those whose parents are from two different regions, and so only share the standard as a mode of communication).

    i’ll probably do a scatter plot sometime this week. though that’ll show a correlation. i think the key issue here is what are the necessary conditions of a above-subsistence society? something that transcends localism is probably one. language and religion are two primary ones i can think of. the two may be substitutes. in northeast india it seems plausible that the conversion to christianity by groups like the mizos halted their inevitable absorption into the sanskritic matrix of mainstream hindu society (or islamic society in the case of those who converted to islam). in the process they preserve their ethno-linguistic identity, but they did so by hitching their wagon to a rival world religion which offers them tangible resources through missions (mizos have the highest literacy in india along with the peopel of kerala).

  • dan

    Razib, could you give me a couple bullet points on your stance on religion and language again? sometimes your writing is a little over my head and i can’t even remember what i’m supposed to remember for those. the phenomena of religion *stems* from humans’ evolved pattern recognition modules, correct? basically a superstition? And language/culture/religion as it actually manifests itself is vital for survival (the propensity for which was selected for) for tribal reasons (access to group benefits)?

  • Razib Khan

    dan, in this context i’m taking about language & religion somewhat different.

    1) i think language is a pretty straightforward evolved adaptation specified biologically by an integrated set of cognitives.

    2) religion is more complex. i’m not sure it’s adaptive, though it might be. i also think that its roots in cognition are more open-textured and varied than language. there is only one way to do language (though different languages), but there are different modes of religiosity (mystics, theologians, and common devotionalism). religion is a more ill-defined phenomenon than language, and is hard to disentangle from culture. in contrast, language is a necessary precondition for culture. language is clear and distinct as a category. religion is not.

    for the purposes of my discussion re: language, i am claiming

    1) a common language across large spaces fosters economies of scale. in other words, it fosters coordination and cooperative by reducing the friction in flow of information.

    2) a common language also removes some of the raw material for intergroup conflict. conflict is zero sum, #1 is ideally non-zero sum.

    with regards to religion, i’m thinking more #2, though there is some #1. co-religionists often have trust in each other, so it may serve to smooth contracts and reduce transaction costs and risks.

    as an analogy, if everyone uses the same OS, it is easier to write software if you’re a developer. so perhaps people would have more software preinstalled and so get more use of the OS. if there were lots of different OS’s there might be less software per OS because developers had only so much time. i guess today we’re really taking about “apps.”

  • dan

    “what are the necessary conditions of a above-subsistence society?”

    Didn’t the Rushton paper suggest that populations that first came out of Africa were pressured for IQ? Might this be the requirement? I guess I just assumed this was why the Mongols and Euro populations were “more advanced.” Wade’s recent NYT article (which was fantastic) seem to suggest that the tribes indigenous to Africa were basically the “default” version of modern humans and we started to get bigger skulls and more tools as we left Africa. Higher stakes = leaving subsistence behind?

    *cue IQ deniers and people yelling at me about race*

  • Razib Khan

    well, there are obviously lots of conditions. no society was arguably above subsistence before 1850, and 1650 (netherlands) at the earliest. in the context of this discussion re: cultural diversity, you’ve got to control for background variables. so it’s kind of lame to do a scatter plot of language div. vs. income, when africa and india are going to skew the results.

    prolly have to get together a pretty diverse data set.

  • dan

    “religion is more complex. i’m not sure it’s adaptive, though it might be.”

    ah! you are not subscribing to N. Wade’s theory of evolved “universal religion”? I am surprised. I was under the impression you were after bloggingheads although I do remember you linking to the Cell paper about religion being a “byproduct trait.” Isn’t it possible to distill all versions of superstition (Mysticism, Catholicism, etc.) into a ‘universal religion’ as Wade suggests? It seems like it’d be likely a result of pattern recognition being encoded in our lower brain. I’m thinking of the pigeon experiment where they could get the bird to repeat *any* behavior, no matter how ridiculous, for food. Whatever behavior the pigeon had done *right before* the food came out he’d repeat. The repeated behavior would change once it didn’t “work” anymore. Thoughts?

  • Katharine

    “Didn’t the Rushton paper suggest that populations that first came out of Africa were pressured for IQ? Might this be the requirement? I guess I just assumed this was why the Mongols and Euro populations were “more advanced.” Wade’s recent NYT article (which was fantastic) seem to suggest that the tribes indigenous to Africa were basically the “default” version of modern humans and we started to get bigger skulls and more tools as we left Africa. Higher stakes = leaving subsistence behind?”

    I’m not an IQ denier in any sense of the word, but regarding ‘more advanced’ – what of the indigenous populations in South America and nomadic populations in Russia? They got out of Africa and they weren’t much more advanced. In addition, through time, I’m not sure how much advancement there was in those groups of people who remained in Africa, but I’d probably guess that the way they live today is considerably different from the way they lived in our early years as a species.

    ‘More advanced’ is harder to quantify – you can tell in most cases when a society is more advanced than another; clearly ancient China was far more advanced, for example, than many of the nomadic societies around it. However, it’s harder to figure out who’s ‘more advanced’ for smaller gradations of ‘advanced’.

  • dan

    true- but some, in fact, were. it might not be destiny but simply required. species can also *de*volve as well so maybe equatorial pops lost their new gifts. i really don’t know, though, and Razib seems to think it’s not relevant to this idea anyway. I’d probably switch mine to language or food storage now that i think about it. not too familiar with this specific subject. …

  • Razib Khan

    one issue with ‘advanced’ vs. not so. remember i’m focusing on living above subsistence. i’m skeptical that most small-scale societies were too excited with the prospect of being conquered by civilizations where they had to live at, or below, their previous levels of well being (i think in this case it was the elites of small-scale societies who saw an opportunity to live at a more luxurious level). in terms of the median human there was no difference between being a ‘savage’ and ‘civilized.’ in fact, there’s a fair amount of evidence that peasants would run off and go ‘savage’ if they had any opportunity (e.g., there’s frontier), and controlling elites would try and prevent them from doing this (since their lifestyles depended on squeezing rents out of them).

    the situation today is a bit different. a miao slash & burn hunter-gatherer is not facing the prospect of becoming a han peasant. i’m saying that he’s facing the possibility of going to work in a factory, marrying a han woman, and having his children raised as han. this is the sort of dynamic which is going to result in the extinction of languages. if the dynamic of people moving from subsistence to some level above subsistence is going to result in homogenization, then if you oppose that process, you need to give options where it simply isn’t:

    1) maintain distinctive culture, live at subsistence

    2) lose distinctive culture, live above subsistence

    as i noted above, i think mass wealth transfer from people who value such diversity, and are ‘offended’ by its loss, to those who embody the diversity which they value so much, is the most plausible scenario. they could even try and start factories in yunnan by pooling together their funds and enter into investments giving these minorities economic opportunities outside of the han-cultural zone.

  • dan
  • dave

    Fun post. I always enjoy anti-anthropology slams. I spent a fair bit of time around anthro PhDs and I’ve never met a more soft-headed, anti-science group of people. It really was like talking to a group of people about their cult or religion … or people trying to out-obscure each other with their sci-fi or fantasy knowledge. They didn’t seem care much about whether something might be true or false, just that it was interesting or unusual.

    They all had family money, too, interestingly. Which I guess is why they could afford to waste their 20s and 30s like that.

  • Razib Khan

    well, let’s be nice from now on. the neuroanthropology guy had a blow-up because of the dismissive tone of my posts. kind of feel bad about that because he had some stuff i liked. google his website for the post. he doesn’t want me to link to him anymore, so i won’t :-)

    i’ll admit i wasn’t nice. but seriously, someone needs to present a counter-narrative. the discussion though, or engagement, is really hard sometimes, because the neuro anthro larded his post (which is relatively clear, if a bit enraged) with a lot of normative baggage which would be tedious to work back to and flesh out in terms of the disagreements.

  • dan

    i completely agree with dave. anthro people are often anti-science. and it’s kinda fun to be mean, though, right? somebody’s got to!

  • Razib Khan

    dan, i have no idea what you’re talking about. i don’t think it’s fun to be mean at all! :-)

    though seriously, the “discourse” of cultural anthropology does bleed into other disciplines and among the intellectual classes in certain domains (not the natural sciences and economics, but definitely many of the humanities). all disciplines which intersect the domain of humans, including human evolutionary genetics, have normative aspects (this includes even cosmology!). but it really is pretty much pushing the saturation point in modern cultural anthropology. that’s fine, but when non-anthropologists vaguely familiar with their work refer to it it tends to be as if it is a positivist science, with tried & true “facts” (quotations as homage!). additionally, the tendency to problematize and add context and nuance can be highly selective. there’s not as much cognitive firepower contextualizing the rationale for “imperialistic euro-centric” aggression. for normative reasons of course.

  • dan

    as a PSY major i can officially add behaviorism to this list. replace “anthro” with “psychology” in Dave’s comment and that pretty much sums it up. fascinating, fascinating stuff. i literally think about people like this every day. when it comes down to it – there’s really, truly only a select few who hold *nothing* sacred and just go with data. even people who are “into” science always end up defending chiropractic or some other b.s.
    i’m always thinking back to another open thread we had that mentioned the importance of IQ in *combination* with good judgment. it’s hard for me to tell if people like PSY majors simply aren’t informed and don’t know they’re in a cult, aren’t smart enough to dismiss it or just don’t have good enough judgment to understand that neuroscience made it obsolete a decade ago. i remember PSY majors typically have IQ = 100 or so so maybe that’s all we can handle:)

  • onur

    replace “anthro” with “psychology” in Dave’s comment and that pretty much sums it up.

    or with “history” or “sociology”

  • Razib Khan

    my impression is that the ascendancy of Theory in those disciplines is far less extreme than in american cultural anthro (excluding sociology). economic history and cog psycho for example are totally intelligible to me. and, as academic disciplines i think psych and history maintain a level of sympathy toward positivism as an idea which cultural anthropology lacks today. now, i agree that positivism in something like history is not attainable unless you want to stick to pure description and a very low level, but there is a golden mean. it’s not all fiction.

  • dan

    true, i should say i’m referring to behaviorism…’s weird, to say the least. they can design experiments for real scientists pretty well but you’ll never learn a thing about the actual brain. they like to pretend it doesn’t exist – and don’t EVER say to stimuli are associated. it’s “pairing.”

  • Razib Khan

    dan, yeah, but with behaviorism at least you understand why it’s wrong. wrongness is inferior to rightness, but opacity is totally maddening.

  • qrin

    Hey Razib,

    What do you mean by “positivism”? Because I’m thinking of the logical positivists and they were totally wack. I keep seeing you and people agreeing with you bringing it up, but can you tell us what you mean and why you agree with it?

  • Razib Khan

    more broadly. not LP.

    (though most natural scientists have views which are an ad hoc and weird mix of popper and LP from what i can tell)

  • Chris T

    Psych at least is steadily moving to a more empirically based model of the world. Neurobiology and genetics are doing wonders for the field.

  • Rob

    >> The idea that language might shape thought was for a long time considered untestable at best and more often simply crazy and wrong. Now, a flurry of new cognitive science research is showing that in fact, language does profoundly influence how we see the world. <<

  • Razib Khan

    rob, i alluded to that research. but a spate of papers does not a paradigm overturn. if 5 years from now the findings are replicated in a wide range of societies i assume that the paradigm will shift.

  • qrin

    That helps a little bit.

    I’m just wondering what your beef is with cultural anthropology. Since you wrote a post called “knowledge is not value free” and you acknowledge up there in a comment that all sciences dealing with humans have some degree of normativity involved, you’re clearly not denying that norms are a part of human understanding. Do you think that the ideal is for sciences to be purely descriptive, even if it’s not possible, and we should consider normativity as an intrusion and seek to minimize it where we can? Do you think that norms are ok, but cultural anthropology has exceeded some threshold? Are you just angry at anthro jargon and wacky postmodernists?

    I guess my question is this: does your problem with cultural anthro have more to do with its not being a positive science or is it more a problem with certain theoretical trends (and is your problem with theoretical trends normativity or something else)?

    Also, isn’t any such meta-discussion of what a discipline ought to be studying a normative one? I take it sociology, anthropology, and similar sciences engage in this discussion more often because 1. they’re newer as distinct fields of intensive research and 2. they are studying people and cultures, which is problematic for observation (the observer being a person in her own culture, and the observation having effects on the observed). Thus the preponderance of theoretical business.

  • dan

    the problem is that they’re ideological rather than just going on evidence even when they’re fortunate to actually HAVE evidence available to them – which is rare for that field. they’re the spreaders of the “fact” that “race doesn’t exist” for example. not only is it not a hard science but they are not objective about their theories either – basically left wing dorks spreading worthless “theories.”

  • Razib Khan

    Do you think that the ideal is for sciences to be purely descriptive, even if it’s not possible, and we should consider normativity as an intrusion and seek to minimize it where we can?

    i think we should strive on occasion to push toward objectivity, and understand that there is a real world out there, even if we filter it through norms. sometimes in complex fields like anthropology that striving is exhausting, so i don’t presume that that attempt can be constant. but at least make the pretense that objectivity is important, and that one can push in that direction through proper method, even if there is not pure objectivity. for me the litmus test for this is when cultural anthropologists start acting like literary theorists and say retarded things about natural science, where objectivity is easier because the domain is more clear and distinct.

    science works through a synthesis of rational system-building, empirical testing of systems, observation, etc., and finally skepticism of systems and the data collected. streams in different disciplines can go too extreme in one direction. many economists have become too rationalistic. many molecular biologists ignore rational system-building because they’re so deep in the empirical weeds. in cultural anthropology the normative loading of subject domain because of its very nature has led to a fixation on skepticism and malleability of knowledge to the point where it’s out of kilter.

    but there’s another issue, and that’s the fact that skepticism of truths can be very selective. when people talk about “justice” and “human rights” in these notionally relativist domains all of a sudden facts because clear and distinct. interrogation can be selective, and skepticism a cudgel against one’s ideological foes. reality which a moment ago was so strongly biased so that intersubjectivity is paramount all of sudden becomes very liberal progressive.

    re: jargon. as someone who is accused of using too much jargon, i am careful to not glass-house. but i share a chomskyite skepticism of some of the jargon and the value they add. why not use “discussion” instead of “discourse.” a lot of the words used in science describe things which are outside of the ken of common experience. they’re phenomena that are hard to perceive in a gestalt fashion. that doesn’t seem so in much of the talk in the humanistic disciplines.

    finally, many cultural anthropologists have a hostility toward science, or as they would say “science.” economists have a physics envy which is highly problematic, but cultural anthropologists seem to have an antipathy to natural science as just ‘another superstition.’ i’ve heard of way too many stories form people majoring in biological anthropology about the contempt and hostility they’ve received from the cultural components of their department, and, i’ve communicated with way too many people with cultural anthropology backgrounds who have a weird internalized hostility toward science because they view it as fundamentally an imperialistic eurocentric agenda or something. it’s silly, and a waste of time. you can beat someone over the head with a shovel, or, you can dig a hole and do some good. same with science.

    p.s. i don’t agree that newness of field entails methodological reflection. it’s the subject domain. ethology is a new field, newer than cultural anthropology, but they don’t philosophize much. no one gives a shit about animals, they’re not people :-)

  • Otto Kerner

    By the way, I was an anthropology major briefly in the 90s and came to similar conclusions despite my late-teenage naïvité … but I’ve tried in vain these years to put it as succinctly as “I have as much respect for most American cultural anthropology as I do for Talmudic scholarship; I’m sure they’re bright individuals, but they aren’t doing anything which I think relates to a world outside of the minds of the practitioners.” Thanks!

  • Chris T

    Part of why social sciences tend toward inscrutability is their tendency to declare the definitions of words as entirely subjective. Thus we get Creighton’s piece where he attacks your use of the word ‘poverty’ as meaningless and a result of ‘cultural imperialism’. Instead of defining the boundaries and terms of a rational debate, he makes it nigh impossible to make any logical or empirical argument.

  • Razib Khan

    Instead of defining the boundaries and terms of a rational debate, he makes it nigh impossible to make any logical or empirical argument.

    right. don’t think he’s saying it’s meaningless, he’s just problematizing it and making its definition an object of contention and debate. on the margins one can quibble as to the utility of the world poverty in the first world. but i’m talking about being above subsistence, so it’s pretty simple to calculate and discern what i’m talking about.

    the contrast between economics and modern american cultural anthropology is illustrative of the problem. in economics i think that the workers have traditionally focused a little too much on methodological individualism and rationalism; in large part for reasons of tractability. i think the deviations form the predictions are too big to think that the assumptions and approximations baked into the model can be ignored and still retain a model which is robust and useful.

    in contrast in modern american cultural anthropology the focus on “thick description” has gotten out of control. not only is the description thick, but the terminology is totally opaque. i don’t even know where to start criticizing because i have no idea how the discipline is working, it’s a total black box, only the elect priesthood can decipher it (that’s part of the reason for an analogy to talmudicists). now, if this discipline was purely a matter of academic interest, that’s fine. but many of these workers are activists of various sorts, and, they appeal to their scholarship as informing their activism. not as big of an issue as the disasters of modern economics when it intersects with public policy, but modern economics is correctable (e.g., bounded rationality, behavioral econ, experimental econ, a rethinking of the foundations and utility of macroeconomics, etc.) in theory because there’s some clarity (even opaque math is understandable if you’re smart and apply yourself, though i agree with some of the critics who wonder if economics has gained returns on some of the more extreme math they’ve used as a discipline, as opposed to “signalling”).

    finally, i keep saying ‘american cultural anthropology.’ the naturalistic anthropological tradition of dan sperber i’m a big fan of.

  • Pamthropologist

    Does Discover Magazine read your posts and these comments? I am a little shocked that you feel comfortable attacking an entire academic discipline while openly admitting that you haven’t engaged with it in any meaningful way. Its hard to have respect for any of the opinions posted here with statements like [Anthropologists are] basically left wing dorks spreading worthless “theories.” Is that passing as a valid critique on this blog?

    I guess the answer is “yes”. I am off to get the library to cancel our subscription to Discover. Their standards are clearly far lower than I had supposed.

    BTW, I have a Ph.D. in Anthropology. My mother worked at McDonald’s and I went to school undergraduate and graduate on scholarship money. I don’t claim to be a “scientist” and never have. As a cultural anthropologist, I consider my task to be interpretive. Not believing that any academic discipline can be predictive of human behavior–because of the complexity–I see my task to teach students in America about the other ways people have of being in the world. It seems you share those views as your judgements about the things people believe are largely interpretive without any empirical evidence. However, unlike you, I wouldn’t dream of making general pronouncements about “core truths” without some evidence. Anthropology seeks that evidence through engaging with people rather than make assumptions as to their motivations. You seem to start from that which you label “core truths” which I take to be your own personal “core truths”. How goes that search for you own personal wealth? Having much success? At least you have escaped the smell of human shit–although I assume your own shit is still with you. Inescapable, really.

    I feel that I am “political” (liberal? left?) to the extent that I value my data sources–those, that you call “weird”. Since my task is to understand the ways they see the world, I seek to have their lives and their place in the world respected by….well, people like you..who seem to take particular pleasure in disrespecting them. I feel that understanding the people who share the world with us is important and relevent. Is that too dense for your understanding? Should I make all my “I’s” small letters so that you can better understand?

  • Razib Khan


  • Razib Khan

    I feel that understanding the people who share the world with us is important and relevent. Is that too dense for your understanding? Should I make all my “I’s” small letters so that you can better understand?

    well, don’t i have a valid world view too? i guess disrespect must be disrespected? who are you judge after all?

  • dan

    Pam, please answer just one question: do you think there’s a biological basis for race?

  • Spike Gomes

    Razib, I want you to imagine working everyday with the people like the above Pam.

    Even if they don’t convert you, or even make much of a dent in you, you start to have some really strong feelings about a system that pretty much sustains their existence.

  • Razib Khan

    re: pam, i strongly wondered if her comment was a joke/parody. but i looked her up, she’s for real. in fact, googling her email pops up a statement that she finds a video about ‘academic 2.0′ ‘offensive.’ i’m glad that the these cultural kommissars have marginal power in the states :-) am i the only one who found the quotations around scientist funny btw in light of what i’ve been indicating?

  • sogrom

    dan, are you the one writing by the name of “Daniel” at Dienekes’ anthropology blog?

  • J.

    R: “am i the only one who found the quotations around scientist funny ”

    Yeah, I thought it was funny too. You had just mentioned upstream how they would say “science”.

    Pam: “I don’t claim to be a “scientist” and never have.”

    Well good! It’s settled then.

    Pam: “Not believing that any academic discipline can be predictive of human behavior–because of the complexity”

    Your admitted non-scientific “beliefs” (religion?) vs actual science that can predict human behavior. Which side to take?

  • dan

    sogrom – no.

  • Chris T

    It strikes me that Pam seems to see Anthropology as studying humanity’s differences. There does not seem to be any attempt to figure out what the commonalities between human cultures are, which is entirely necessary to make sense of anything else. There is no framework to evaluate anything by. Anthropological theory is opaque, because it is essentially random and there is no underlying principle.

    All major scientific disciplines have an underlying framework that must be understood to make any sense of the field. Without evolution, biology becomes an uninterpretable jumble of information. Without general relativity and the standard model physics becomes a hodgepodge of isolated theories. Geology is reduced to producing descriptions of the world without plate tectonics. Cultural anthropology never took the critical step of figuring out what all cultures shared and therefore creating an underlying theory to make the differences understandable.

  • Razib Khan

    chris t, i think because there’s no underlying principle there’s an elision between is/ought distinctions. one of the objections (see neuroanthropology) to my attitude is that many anthropologists get deeply involved in the weeds and become human rights activists and advocates. that’s fine, but you don’t need a phd in anthropology to become a human rights activist and/or advocate; humanitarianism does not rise or fall on the shoulders of cultural anthropology. i think cultural anthropologists try to have it all ways. i don’t sit around criticizing the scholarly pretensions of amnesty international or exxon. they’re agendas are their agendas.

  • J.

    Apparently Pam has struggles with her own worldview. Here’s her latest blog entry:

    There’s at least a couple levels of irony in that post. Is stupidity a “core truth”? Hmmmmmm….

    See her “about me”:

    I have a Ph.D. in Anthropology with a specialization in Africa. I have taught at a variety of educational institutions but since 1991, I have taught full time at a Community College on the outskirts of Houston. I teach a diverse student population many of whom are first generation college-goers. Academic discussion and anthropological issues can seem to them to be exotic and meaningless endeavors. And they may be right.

  • Razib Khan

    J., let’s avoid to pointing and laughing at this point. starting to feel bad.

  • sogrom

    sogrom – no.

    I am glad to hear that. That idiot led to the activation of comment moderation by Dienekes because of his trolling activity. Such trolls should be shot at the head.

  • Razib Khan

    lol. dienekes turned on moderation? i might actually check out his comments for the first time since 2004!

  • Bob C.

    I’ve majored in chemistry, astronomy, geology & the earth sciences, AND archaeology & physical/cultural anthro. Every discipline has its limitations, and it’s arrogant to dismiss everything that can’t be expressed in equations. String theory has nifty, UNTESTABLE equations… Larry Niven, the archetypical hard science- fiction writer, shows a fine grasp of anthro & psych principles in creating human societies on vastly differing colony worlds, in the plethora of hominid types on Ringworld, and even in the behaviors of his various aliens. Language is a factor in those well-crafted tales. A numbers-only approach stultifies the imagination and leaves one a step closer to that OTHER discipline (Q. what do engineers use for birth control? A. their personalities…).


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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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