Tag: Anthropology

To study humankind, AAA responds

By Razib Khan | December 13, 2010 1:48 pm

This morning I received an email from the communication director of the American Anthropology Association. The contents are on the web:

AAA Responds to Public Controversy Over Science in Anthropology

Some recent media coverage, including an article in the New York Times, has portrayed anthropology as divided between those who practice it as a science and those who do not, and has given the mistaken impression that the American Anthropological Association (AAA) Executive Board believes that science no longer has a place in anthropology. On the contrary, the Executive Board recognizes and endorses the crucial place of the scientific method in much anthropological research. To clarify its position the Executive Board is publicly releasing the document “What Is Anthropology?” that was, together with the new Long-Range Plan, approved at the AAA’s annual meeting last month.

The “What Is Anthropology?” statement says, “to understand the full sweep and complexity of cultures across all of human history, anthropology draws and builds upon knowledge from the social and biological sciences as well as the humanities and physical sciences. A central concern of anthropologists is the application of knowledge to the solution of human problems.” Anthropology is a holistic and expansive discipline that covers the full breadth of human history and culture. As such, it draws on the theories and methods of both the humanities and sciences. The AAA sees this pluralism as one of anthropology’s great strengths.

Changes to the AAA’s Long Range Plan have been taken out of context and blown out of proportion in recent media coverage. In approving the changes, it was never the Board’s intention to signal a break with the scientific foundations of anthropology – as the “What is Anthropology?” document approved at the same meeting demonstrates. Further, the long range plan constitutes a planning document which is pending comments from the AAA membership before it is finalized.

Anthropologists have made some of their most powerful contributions to the public understanding of humankind when scientific and humanistic perspectives are fused. A case in point in the AAA’s $4.5 million exhibit, “RACE: Are We So Different?” The exhibit, and its associated website at www.understandingRACE.org, was developed by a team of anthropologists drawing on knowledge from the social and biological sciences and humanities. Science lays bare popular myths that races are distinct biological entities and that sickle cell, for example, is an African-American disease. Knowledge derived from the humanities helps to explain why “race” became such a powerful social concept despite its lack of scientific grounding. The widely acclaimed exhibit “shows the critical power of anthropology when its diverse traditions of knowledge are harnessed together,” said Leith Mullings, AAA’s President-Elect and the Chair of the newly constituted Long-Range Planning Committee.

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Live not by visualization alone

By Razib Khan | December 13, 2010 1:54 am

pc1
Synthetic map

In the age of 500,000 SNP studies of genetic variation across dozens of populations obviously we’re a bit beyond lists of ABO blood frequencies. There’s no real way that a conventional human is going to be able to discern patterns of correlated allele frequency variations which point to between population genetic differences on this scale of marker density. So you rely on techniques which extract the general patterns out of the data, and present them to you in a human-comprehensible format. But, there’s an unfortunate tendency for humans to imbue the products of technique with a particular authority which they always should not have.

ResearchBlogging.orgThe History and Geography of Human Genes is arguably the most important historical genetics work of the past generation. It has surely influenced many within the field of genetics, and because of its voluminous elegant visual displays of genetic data it is also a primary source for those outside of genetics to make sense of phylogenetic relations between human populations. And yet one aspect of this great work which never caught on was the utilization of “synthetic maps” to visualize components of genetic variation between populations. This may have been fortuitous, a few years ago a paper was published, Interpreting principal components analyses of spatial population genetic variation, which suggested that the gradients you see on the map above may be artifacts:

Nearly 30 years ago, Cavalli-Sforza et al. pioneered the use of principal component analysis (PCA) in population genetics and used PCA to produce maps summarizing human genetic variation across continental regions. They interpreted gradient and wave patterns in these maps as signatures of specific migration events. These interpretations have been controversial, but influential, and the use of PCA has become widespread in analysis of population genetics data. However, the behavior of PCA for genetic data showing continuous spatial variation, such as might exist within human continental groups, has been less well characterized. Here, we find that gradients and waves observed in Cavalli-Sforza et al.’s maps resemble sinusoidal mathematical artifacts that arise generally when PCA is applied to spatial data, implying that the patterns do not necessarily reflect specific migration events. Our findings aid interpretation of PCA results and suggest how PCA can help correct for continuous population structure in association studies.

A paper earlier this year took the earlier work further and used a series of simulations to show how the nature of the gradients varied. In light of recent preoccupations the results are of interest. Principal Component Analysis under Population Genetic Models of Range Expansion and Admixture:

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Genetics, Genomics, History

The study of humankind: questions, answers, and good faith

By Razib Khan | December 12, 2010 4:59 pm

John Hawks, Anthropology in transition:

Of course, by the 1980’s, anthropology was already disowning many of the central figures of its early development. If they had not themselves been tools of the colonialist oppressors, they were dupes of their knowing research subjects. Lewis is quite correct — many students of anthropological theory were no longer required to read extensively of early anthropologists. Alfred Kroeber became more well known as the oppressor of Ishi than for his synthetic work.

Still, I argue that anthropology is a science, even while I acknowledge that many anthropologists are not scientists. How can we have a coherent, rational study of humankind without much of its subject matter being ultimately humanistic in content? I don’t think our situation is very different from most of the social sciences. Psychology, political science and sociology all encompass some body of normative and descriptive theory that is not especially subject to empirical testing. In each field, quantitative data may actually settle some questions, but not others. Nevertheless, our understanding of many empirically tractable issues is enhanced by considering historical, narrative, or normative information.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Uncategorized
MORE ABOUT: Anthropology

What is this "Western culture" you speak of?

By Razib Khan | December 11, 2010 7:25 pm

This is my comment of the month:

Pontifications about “Western culture” bother me. The people who use the term seem to assume that “we” are part of “Western culture” and know what it is. No explanation is necessary. But if you stop and think about it, in what sense are a Hungarian peasant farmer and a Morgan Stanley executive part of the same “culture”? How far does this culture extend? In space? In time?

When someone like Marshall Sahlins (famous cultural anthropologist) talks about Western culture, he quotes figures like Hobbes and Kant … as if Western “culture” were epitomized by philosophy and not by such pragmatic matters as kinship, economics, religion, cuisine. Probably because if you started talking about specifics, any semblance of uniformity would collapse.

I’ve also noticed that the post-modern school of anthropology is remarkably culture-bound, even in this limited philosophical sense. There are thinkers one must have read and are allowed to quote (Marx, Foucault, Derrida, Bourdieu) — who all happen to be European white males. It reminds me of Christians debating (volleys of scripture texts from each side), Muslims disputing (Quranic verses and hadith), and Chinese scholars quoting Confucius or famous poets.

No one is citing Ibn Khaldun.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture

Verbal vs. mathematical aptitude in academics

By Razib Khan | December 10, 2010 2:12 pm

It isn’t too difficult to find GRE scores by intended major online. In reviewing articles/posts for my post below on anthropology I noted the distinction made between quant & qual methods, and aversions to regressions and scatter plots (or the supposed love of biological anthropologists for these tools). That got me wondering about the average mathematical and verbal aptitudes of those who intend to pursue graduate work in anthropology. I removed some extraneous disciplines which I don’t think add anything, and naturally I created three scatter plots, quantitative score vs. verbal score, writing score vs. verbal score, and writing score vs. quantitative score.

I was more interested in the spatial relationships between disciplines. But, I was a but surprised by the low correlations between quant and verbal scores at the level of disciplines. On the individual level there’s naturally some correlation. People who score very high in one are unlikely to score very low in another. That’s why the variance in scores of a simple 10 word vocabulary test can predict 50% of the variance in general intelligence. In any case, here are the r-squareds:

quant-verbal = 0
writing-verbal = 0.81
writing-quant = 0.08

So 81% of the variance in writing scores on the scale of disciplines can be explained by verbal scores. Below are the three scatter plots:
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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Data Analysis

"The" unbearable "whiteness" of "science"

By Razib Khan | December 10, 2010 1:59 am

Anthropology a Science? Statement Deepens a Rift:

Anthropologists have been thrown into turmoil about the nature and future of their profession after a decision by the American Anthropological Association at its recent annual meeting to strip the word “science” from a statement of its long-range plan.

The decision has reopened a long-simmering tension between researchers in science-based anthropological disciplines — including archaeologists, physical anthropologists and some cultural anthropologists — and members of the profession who study race, ethnicity and gender and see themselves as advocates for native peoples or human rights.

During the last 10 years the two factions have been through a phase of bitter tribal warfare after the more politically active group attacked work on the Yanomamo people of Venezuela and Brazil by Napoleon Chagnon, a science-oriented anthropologist, and James Neel, a medical geneticist who died in 2000. With the wounds of this conflict still fresh, many science-based anthropologists were dismayed to learn last month that the long-range plan of the association would no longer be to advance anthropology as a science but rather to focus on “public understanding.”

discprofile1
Aspiring to Know like a white man

If you don’t know about the controversy surrounding Chagnon and the Yanomamo, see Wikipedia. This sort of flare up, as implied by the article, has less to do with the removal of the word “science” than the general tension within anthropology which has simmered and boiled over decades. As someone with a natural science background I naturally have a subjective perspective here, in that I hear from biological anthropologists all the time about weird confusions and bizarre experiences which they’re subject to from cultural anthropologists who emphatically deny that they are scientists. At one point in college I considered adding an anthropology major, obviously focused on the biological field. I went into the anthropology advising office to explore this possibility, and I definitely got the impression the advisor was not happy when I explained my interest in evolution and biological questions. Later an acquaintance who was a biological anthropology major intimated to me that the science and non-science oriented anthropologists did not get along, and the advisor was a non-science type who was rumored to discourage people who were more science-oriented. All that seemed weird enough to me that I never did major in anthropology.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy

The great northern culture war

By Razib Khan | December 3, 2010 1:58 pm

A new paper in The New Journal of Physics shows that a relatively simple mathematical model can explain the rate of expansion of agriculture across Europe, Anisotropic dispersion, space competition and the slowdown of the Neolithic transition:

The front speed of the Neolithic (farmer) spread in Europe decreased as it reached Northern latitudes, where the Mesolithic (hunter-gatherer) population density was higher. Here, we describe a reaction–diffusion model with (i) an anisotropic dispersion kernel depending on the Mesolithic population density gradient and (ii) a modified population growth equation. Both effects are related to the space available for the Neolithic population. The model is able to explain the slowdown of the Neolithic front as observed from archaeological data

The paper is open access, so if you want more of this:
fareq

Just click through above. Rather, I am curious more about their nice visualization of the archaeological data:

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy, History

Men at work: hoes, ploughs, and steel

By Razib Khan | December 2, 2010 6:51 pm

800px-Maler_der_Grabkammer_des_Sennudem_001
Ancient Egyptian farmer ploughing a field


Recently several weblogs have pointed to a new working paper on the role of plough-based agriculture vs. hoe-based agriculture in shaping cultural expectations about male and female labor force participation specifically, and the differentiation of gender roles more generally. My first reaction was: “doesn’t everyone know this already?” I am a cursory reader of the anthropological literature and the assumption that a shift from relatively extensive hoe-based agriculture (e.g., slash & burn, gardening, etc.) to a more intensive plough-based mode of production seems to suffuse the literature. Before touching on the major points in the paper itself I did a quick literature search, on the order of five minutes, and found something from 1928 which already assumed the major parameters which are now being mooted today, The Division of Work According to Sex in African Hoe Culture. I read the whole paper, and it remains surprisingly relevant (though some of the terminology and frameworks are a bit dated naturally). Here’s a selection:

Eduard Han, to whom the ethnological study of economics owes a considerable number of important discoveries which have been published repeatedly and in varying forms, seems to have paid scarcely enough attention to the good work of the scholars who preceded him in the fight for the recognition of the outstanding position of women in the lower forms of soil cultivation. Steinmetz and quite recently Koppers,’ have pointed out that Buckland already attributed to the female sex the invention of the most ancient method of soil cultivation, or hoe culture…Here we find, in particular,a clearer statement of the arguments of Grosse, Bachofen, and others about the connexion of matriarchal society and lower forms of soil cultivation. Matriarchy and hoe culture are assigned to definite chronologically determined stages of civilization (older forms of the so-called ‘two class culture’, and later ones of ‘bow culture’). Koppers, of the Austrian branch associates matriarchy and hoe culture with these two civilizations….

It is not our business here to study in detail the researcheson the zones of culture,which may be regardedas successfulup to a certain point, though we shall have to refer to them incidentally. It suffices to state that a connexion between woman and hoe culture, nay more, between that social system where the woman rules, matriarchal society, and primitive soil cultivation is universally acknowledged to exist.

Ignore some of the terms and concepts which might seem loaded or outmoded today. Rather, observe that in 1928 a distinction between hoe-based and plough-based agriculture was widely accepted in terms of the cultural consequences. Why? Just take a look at an old-fashioned plough vs. hoe (at least old-fashioned compared to the sort of mechanized devices you can find in catalogs today):

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy, Economics

The inevitable social brain

By Razib Khan | November 24, 2010 12:35 am

ResearchBlogging.orgOne of the most persistent debates about the process of evolution is whether it exhibits directionality or inevitability. This is not limited to a biological context; Marxist thinkers long promoted a model of long-term social determinism whereby human groups progressed through a sequence of modes of production. Such an assumption is not limited to Marxists. William H. McNeill observes the trend toward greater complexity and robusticity of civilization in The Human Web, while Ray Huang documents the same on a smaller scale in China: A Macrohistory. A superficial familiarity with the dynastic cycles which recurred over the history of Imperial China immediately yields the observation that the interregnums between distinct Mandates of Heaven became progressively less chaotic and lengthy. But set against this larger trend are the small cycles of rise and fall and rise. Consider the complexity and economies of scale of the late Roman Empire, whose crash in material terms is copiously documented in The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization. It is arguable that it took nearly eight centuries for European civilization to match the vigor and sophistication of the Roman Empire after its collapse as a unitary entity in the 5th century (though some claim that Europeans did not match Roman civilization until the early modern period, after the Renaissance).

It is natural and unsurprising that the same sort of disputes which have plagued the scholarship of human history are also endemic to a historical science like evolutionary biology. Stephen Jay Gould famously asserted that evolutionary outcomes are highly contingent. Richard Dawkins disagrees. Here is a passage from The Ancestor’s Tale:

…I have long wondered whether the hectoring orthodoxy of contingency might have gone too far. My review of Gould’s Full House (reprinted in A Devil’s Chaplain) defended the popular notion of progress in evolution: not progress towards humanity – Darwin forend! – but progress in directions that are at least predictable enough to justify the word. As I shall argue in a moment, the cumulative build-up of compelx adaptations like eyes strongly suggest a version of progress – especially when coupled in imagination with of the wonderful products of convergent evolution.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Biology, Evolution, Genetics

Did cavemen eat bread?

By Razib Khan | October 19, 2010 2:39 am

cavebread

Food is a fraught topic. In How Pleasure Works Paul Bloom alludes to the thesis that while conservatives fixate on sexual purity, liberals fixate on culinary purity. For example, is it organic? What is the sourcing? Is it “authentic”? Obviously one can take issue with this characterization, especially its general class inflection (large swaths of the population buy what they can afford). Additionally, I doubt Hindus, Muslims and Jews who take a deep interest in the provenance, preparation, and substance of their food are liberals. What Bloom is noticing is actually a general human preoccupation which somehow has taken on a strange political valence in the United States. Somehow being conservative in this country has become aligned with a satisfaction with the mass-produced goods of the agricultural-industrial complex.* Some conservatives such as Rod Dreher have pushed back against this connotation, lengthily in his book Crunchy Cons.

Stepping away from politics, we are a diet obsessed culture broadly. Apparently Christina Hendricks is going on a diet, her aim being to lose 30 pounds. Diet fads come and go. The Atkins approach has faded of late, with the Paleolithic diet coming into fashion. A totally separate market segment, that of raw food, remains robustly popular. This was obvious when Richard Wrangham came out with Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human; raw food enthusiasts would call in to talk shows where he was a guest, sometimes irritated that Wrangham was claiming that cooking was central to the emergence of modern humanity. His contention that raw food practitioners were healthy precisely because they don’t process as much of their nutritional intake because of the relatively coarse character of what they were consuming was clearly discomfiting to many of them. This is because it is at variance with some of the rationale for their diet. They are not cooking the food in part because they believe that that removes a great deal of nutritive value.

ResearchBlogging.orgI was thinking about this while reading What is Global History? Offhand the author mentions bread-making as early as 20,000 years go in the process of asserting that many of the preconditions for an agricultural mode of production were already in existence before the end of the last Ice Age. I was surprised by this fact, having never encountered it before. Unfortunately there wasn’t a footnote which I could follow up on, so I thought no more of it. Imagine my curiosity when I stumble upon this paper in PNAS, Thirty thousand-year-old evidence of plant food processing:

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy

Völkerwanderung back with a vengeance

By Razib Khan | October 17, 2010 3:50 am

800px-European_Middle_Neolithic

The German magazine Der Spiegel has a rather thick new article out reviewing the latest research which is starting to reintroduce the concept of mass folk wanderings into archaeology. The title is How Middle Eastern Milk Drinkers Conquered Europe. In the story you get a good sense of the recent revision of the null model once dominant within archeology that the motive forces of history manifested through the flow of pots and not people. This viewpoint came to ascendancy after World War II, and succeeded an older method of interpretation which presumed a tight correlation between race and culture. It repudiated the idea that the flow and change of pottery styles and extant patterns of linguistic dialects may have been markers for the waxing and waning of peoples.

Obviously a pots-not-people model had some major exceptions even during its heyday. The demographic explosion of European peoples after 1492, and especially the Anglo peoples after 1700, occurred within the light of history. Even if it hadn’t it would be ludicrous on the face of it to assert that the modern American population were derived from the indigenous populations, and that they had simply adopted the language, religion and folkways of the British conquerors of North America. But outside the presumed aberration of the European imperialist and colonial venture of the modern era the details on the ground were obscure enough that a model could be imposed from without.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy

Polygamy and human evolution: maybe it's agriculture

By Razib Khan | October 1, 2010 12:11 pm

Eric Michael Johnson has a fascinating piece in Psychology Today, Sex, Evolution, and the Case of the Missing Polygamists. I want to spotlight a few paragraphs:

Keep in mind that in terms of interpreting such genetic evidence we are of necessity confined to a fairly recent time depth (and remember, by “recent” someone like me means the last 10,000 years or so). For this time period multiple lines of evidence do indeed suggest that humans were moderately to extremely polygynous and that women were moving between groups more than men were.

However, humans have been around for far longer than 10,000 years, with conservative estimates placing the emergence of modern Homo sapiens at about 200,000 years ago. A genetic record extending back 10,000 years is remarkable, but it’s essentially adding only three more novels to our existing timeline. There is also something very important to consider that dramatically influenced human behavior within the last 10,000 years: the invention of agriculture. Prior to about 12,000 years ago all humans were hunter-gatherers and lived a migratory existence. With the advent of farming some human societies began to remain sedentary for the first time in our history. This change had serious impacts on human life and behavior. Just as Alzheimer’s dramatically altered the content of Agatha Christie’s work, so agriculture radically transformed human society and, by consequence, sexual behavior.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy, History
MORE ABOUT: Anthropology, Sex

The naked years

By Razib Khan | September 9, 2010 4:19 am

manchangeWhen I talk about sexual selection I usually make sure to have an accompanying visual of a peacock to go with the post. But really I could have used a dandy as an illustration, or perhaps in our day & age “The Situation”. Unlike the peacock much of what passes for human “plumage” is not a result of native biological processes, but rather refashioning the materials of other organisms or synthetics into a sort of second skin (or skins with all our layers). In other words, clothes. These artificialities are so essential to our own identity as individuals that they often mark out our tribal affiliations, in pre-modern and post-modern contexts. Whole industries exist to cater to both our utilitarian needs and aesthetic sensibilities in regards to how we dress ourselves. The definition of a cyborg usually connotes a synthesis of biological with electronic. Perhaps that is because our artificial extensions in the form of clothes have seamlessly merged with our self-images, to the point where it would be ludicrous to perceive ourselves as merged entities. If you encountered many of your acquaintances or friends naked not only would embarrassment ensue, but I suspect one might initially not recognize them. A naked physique without distinctive aspects of clothing one associates with someone strips away individual identity.

ResearchBlogging.orgBut clothing has not been the eternal condition of man, recall that Eve met the fig leaf after an unfortunate sequence of events. In all likelihood our common ancestor with bonobos and chimpanzees were predominantly hirsute, as are most mammals. A mammal without fur is like a fish without scales and birds without feathers. Not impossible, but atypical. But at some point we did lose our fur. When? A 2004 paper offered up an intriguing possibility, that ~1.2 million years ago our lineage became hairless. How did they come to this inference? The authors noted that the consensus sequence of the MC1R locus in humans among dark skinned peoples  coalesced back to this period (i.e., the last common ancestor of the MC1R genes which exhibit the ancestral type, which confers dark skin). Once our ancestors lost their fur then they would have been exposed to solar radiation, and so the necessity of dark skin. When did this naked dark ape cover his shame? (yes, I censored one of the images above to make this post “work safe” above the fold) A new paper in Molecular Biology & Evolution offers up a precise date using another proxy, Origin of clothing lice indicates early clothing use by anatomically modern humans in Africa:

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy, Genetics, Human Evolution

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?

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy, Culture
MORE ABOUT: Anthropology

10,000 years ago there were no "Southeast Asians"

By Razib Khan | July 24, 2010 3:34 pm

Mexico Ancient WomanMexico: Ancient woman suggests diverse migration:

A scientific reconstruction of one of the oldest sets of human remains found in the Americas appears to support theories that the first people who came to the hemisphere migrated from a broader area than once thought, researchers say.
Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History on Thursday released photos of the reconstructed image of a woman who probably lived on Mexico’s Caribbean coast 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. She peeks out of the picture as a short, spry-looking woman with slightly graying hair.

Anthropologists had long believed humans migrated to the Americas in a relatively short period from a limited area in northeast Asia across a temporary land corridor that opened across the Bering Strait during an ice age.

But government archaeologist Alejandro Terrazas says the picture has now become more complicated, because the reconstruction more resembles people from southeastern Asian areas like Indonesia.

I think this gets at the fallacy:

But Gillespie cautioned against comparing a reconstructed face from 10,000 years ago to modern populations in places like Indonesia, which have also probably changed over 10 millennia.

“You have to find skeletons of the same time period in Asia, or use genetic reconstructions, to make a strong connection, and cannot rely on modern populations,” she wrote. “Do we have any empirical data on what Southeast Asian women looked like … 10,000 years ago?”

A few years ago some scholars asserted that Kennewick Man resembled “South Asians.” I’m open to the possibility of a more complex peopling of the Americas, but until we get ancient DNA (something that is very difficult in the USA), it seems rather strange to make assessments of phylogenetic descent based on phenotypic similarities between one ancient specimen and modern populations.

Image Credit: AP Photo/ Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution
MORE ABOUT: Anthropology

Knowledge is not value-free

By Razib Khan | July 20, 2010 3:52 pm

This isn’t The New Yorker, and I’m not writing twenty page essays which flesh out all the nooks and crannies of my thought. When I posted “Linguistic diversity = poverty” I did mean to provoke, make people challenge their presuppositions, and think about what they’re saying when they say something.

I think knowledge of many languages is awesome. I am weak at language acquisition myself, but, as someone with an interest in Bronze Age Near Eastern history I’m obviously invested in people having some comprehension of Sumerian and Akkadian (not to mention Hittite or ancient Egyptian). And I’m not someone who has no interest in the details of ethnographic diversity. On the contrary I’m fascinated by ethnic diversity. Like many people I enjoy reading monographs and articles on obscure groups such as Yazidis (well before our national interest in Iraq) and the Saivite Chams of Vietnam. Oh, wait, I misspoke. I actually don’t know many people who have my level of interest in obscure peoples and tribes and the breadth of human diversity. If you’re the type of person who reads monographs on Yazidis not because it pertains to your scholarly specialty, but because you’re interested in a wide range of facts and topics, and would like to have discussions with someone of similar disposition (me), contact me with your location and if I swing through town we can have coffee or something. I’m interested in meeting like minds who I can explore topics with (and here I’m not talking about someone who is a Hakka and so knows a lot about the history of the Hakka; I’m not Hakka and I know something about the Hakka and I’m not an Oirat I know something about the Oirat, and so forth). All things equal the preservation of linguistic diversity is all for the good, and not only does it enrich the lives of humanity as a whole, it enriches my life in particular because of my intellectual proclivities. But all things are not equal.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy, Culture
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