Incidental Anthropology: Infant Waste, Tourists, The Evolution of Imaginary Animals and More….

In this long overdue installment of Incidental Anthropology I bring you a few examples of anthropology interest incidentally found in the media.

First, the vexing question of how to handle to infant waste and some ingenious responses: here

Second, how have tourists in American National Parks changed over the last 30 years? Not much: here

Third, how do you test a method of building phylogenic trees without using actual organisms? With invented organisms called Caminalcules: here

Finally, Jeff Bezos has pulled an F-1 rocket engine from the sea floor. Is this an act of respect for the engineers who built the engines or an act of “gonzo space archeology?”  Discussed, here

Local Archaeology vs. the National-Geographic-NSF-sexy funding grab

Mark Dawson’s April 2012 post “Why I Chose not to Get a PhD” post has been one of the more popular postings at   There is also a good comment stream at the end of the post with a number of “attaboys,” and “that’ll tell’em Mark!”  Such posts seem to appeal to the existential angst that afflicts anthropology in a world of budget cuts.


The most recent comments to the post are by Bill who has worked for the National Park Service and US Forest Service.  He writes of the drift of universities in his area away from the nuts and bolts of local heritage preservation.  He writes of the difficulties in getting graduate students (MA and PhD) to work with the wealth of data that has been collected, and the difficulty in getting the local anthropology departments to “throw” MA students at what the NPS and USFS need.  His words are more vigorous than mine:

Take my state [in the United States], our “main” land grant university anthro department just hired a small crew of archs that focus on early hominid sites in Africa, Europe and the Levant and they let the only local-focused arch professor retire w/out back-filling his position w/ another Precontact archaeologist w/ the same local emphasis. That’s reekin’ National-Geographic-NSF-sexy “funding grab” instead of doing what’s right. There has been a “local” arch-prof in that department for almost, if not over, a century and now that’s done. We have two state universities w/, I’d have to say rather “vibrant” CRM-based graduate degree programs w/ lot of local emphasis… but they’re all terminal MA programs. I went for an MA at the “big school” in a similar “terminal MA” CRM program but now there’s no real local emphasis anymore and they didn’t let us even do thesis work….


I would also add that this is not only a problem in Archaeology.  There are many local communities in the US which deserve an ethnographic, linguistic, or other study in the same way that local archaeological sites do–all four fields of anthropology are effected by the quest for NSF funding to study exotic locale.  This tendency translates into job descriptions when big name university when Anthropology Departments seek new Assistant Professor positions.   The logic seems to be, why hire a local grad student who has a family, and is studying the immigrant group down the road, or working for the forest service, when you can hire someone from Harvard who is studying left-handed Lithuanians? Or the social structure of lemurs in Polynesia?  You can always pull the local in with adjunct money, but there will never be another chance to get that Harvard student who might even pull in the big bucks from NSF/National Geographic!!!!

Bill wrote much more about the tribulations (and value) of local archaeology—I urge you to scroll down to the end of the post to see what he has to say.

First Random Impressions of a Caribbean Country: Antigua

Another new country, and region of the world.  This time it is the country of Antigua, in the Caribbean where I am on vacation for 10 days.  Going new places assaults the senses, as you the old categories brought from elsewhere prove inadequate to frame what you hear and see.  That is why it is often interesting and important to write down thoughts when you first arrive, before the comfort of automaticity sits in, and even though, by definition, things are still “impressionistic.”  So here are some notes from the island nation of Antigua, population somewhere between 80,000 and 100,000.  The primary industry is tourism and offshore banking of various sorts.  According to Wikipedia, the island has a respectable gnp/capita of $18,000.  The population is 95% African or “Mixed” race, and 1.7% white.  The whites appear more, though, because of the tourism, which is concentrated around the ports and resorts.


Why on the public bus did the driver play the country-western music station?


Just outside the airport is the Stanford Bank Complex, owned by a rich Texan.  It was shut down a few years ago when the founder was sent to prison in the US for operating a pyramid scheme, and there was little activity in the complex.


There is a Russian-owned mega  yacht in the harbor off our balcony, known as Yacht “A.”  Presumably it has an all female crew of 42.  It cost over $300 million to build, and is registered in Bermuda.


Why is chicken produced in Georgia, USA, the national dish, and not seafood?


It seems that flights to Antigua are segregated by the time of year.  White northerners (mainly apparently Canadian and British) are on the flights now, which is tourist season, while later in the year, it will be Afro-Caribbeans, many of whom seem to have dual citizenships of various kinds.


There is little agriculture on an relatively flat island which has low rainfall, few rivers, but lots of really nice beaches which foreign tourists really like.


People smile a lot, and it is really easy to strike up a conversation in a place where the local language is English.  Antiguans speak English well, with a hint of Caribbean lilt.  But there is also a very strong dialect in the background which I cannot eavesdrop on!  The spicing in the food is nicely done, and my favorite is Conch Soup.


What are the “salient” social categories?  It seems to be Antiguans, Middle class boat people who skipper their own boats, really rich Yachties who have a hired crew.  Then there are the Cruise Ship folk from the north who come in and out for a day or two.


All these white tourists sunburn really easily.


Oh, and one final impression.  Humid weather really slows me down.

The History of the World is But the Biography of Great Genes

- Thomas Carlyle, genetic Historian

Raymond Williams begins his introduction to Keywords by telling of his return to Cambridge following the end of World War II. He recounts meeting a friend he had known through various radical groups in the 1930’s. As they discussed their efforts to establish some continuity between the Cambridge they had known before the war and the Cambridge they were entering after the war, both Williams and his friend realized that much of the language they had had relied upon had shifted, and this shift had rendered much of their pre-war intellectual life unfamiliar.

This moment eventually sets Williams off to write Keywords. In the book, he focuses on a small number of words, which are common across several academic disciplines and in general use but whose meanings have evolved over the last few centuries as they have picked up specialized use and travelled into new contexts. As Williams notes:

One central feature of this area of interest was its vocabulary, which is significantly not the specialized vocabulary of a specialized discipline, though
it  often  overlaps  with  several  of  these,  but  a  general  vocabulary  ranging  from strong,  difficult  and  persuasive  words  in  everyday  usage  to  words  which,
beginning  in  particular  specialized  contexts,  have  become  quite  common  in descriptions of wider areas of thought and experience. This, significantly, is the
vocabulary  we  share  with  others,  often  imperfectly,  when  we  wish  to  discuss many of the central processes of our common fife.

Both the terms culture and genetics entered their respective disciplines and assumed specialized use in the same period of time, though the intervening years have pushed them far enough apart to set them in opposition to one another.

Culture is the original term Williams set out to trace, and it has the longest and most tortured history. This is no surprise and has been widely discussed, argued over, and generally made a point of contention within anthropology over the last hundred years.

However, the term genetic has an equally interesting history:


Genetic sometimes presents difficulties because it has two senses: a general  meaning, which has become relatively uncommon in English though it is  still  common,  for  example,  in  French,  and  a  specialized  meaning,  in  a
particular branch of science, which has become well known. Genetic is an  adjective from genesis, L, genesis, Gk – origin, creation, generation. It came  into English in eC19, at first with the sense of a reference to origins, as in Carlyle: ‘genetic Histories’ (1831). It still had this main sense of origin in  Darwin, where ‘genetic connection’ (1859) referred to a common origin of
species. But genetic carried also the sense of development, as in ‘genetic definitions’  (1837)  where  the  defined  subject  was  ‘considered  as  in  the  progress  to  be,  as  becoming’,  and  this  was  present  again  in  ‘the  genetic development of the parts of speech’ (1860). In 1897 genetics was defined in distinction from telics, to describe a process of development rather than a
fully developed or final state. Developments in eC20 biology showed the need for a new word. Bateson in 1905 referred to the ‘Study of Heredity’ and wrote: ‘no word in common use quite gives this meaning . . . and if it were desirable to coin one, “Genetics” might do’. From this use the now normal scientific description became established: ‘the physiology of heredity and
variation . . . genetics’ (Nature, 1906). But the older and more general sense of development was still active, as in ‘genetic psychology’ (1909), which we would now more often call developmental psychology, without reference to biological genetics. Moreover the earliest sense also survived, as in ‘genetic fallacy’ (1934) – the fallacy of explaining or discrediting something by reference to its original causes.

In normal English usage, genetic now refers to the facts of heredity and variation, in a biological context (genetic inheritance, genetic code, etc.). But in addition to the residual English uses genetic also often appears in
translations,  especially  from  French,  where  the  sense  is  normally  of formation  and  development.  Thus  genetic  structuralism  (Goldmann)  is  distinguished  from  other  forms  of  STRUCTURALISM  (q.v.)  by  its
emphasis  on  the  historical  (not  biological)  formation  and  development of structures (forms of consciousness). It is probable that in this translated use it  is  often  misunderstood,  or  becomes  loosely  associated  with  biological genetics.



You can see where development diverged from the term genetic and came to be related to a more static view of an adult organism. This is certainly the case in biology today where a field like population genetics neither has, nor for the bulk of work done in the discipline, needs a theory of development.

Development has a long and winding history in biology, as Gould outlined in his 1977 Ontogeny and Phylogeny. This book is indirectly responsible for fields like evo-devo and DST, both of which pose a serious challenge to work stemming from the modern synthesis like population genetics. As an aside, Gould’s book is worth the time to read if only for the first few chapters in which he demonstrates how recapitulation theory entered social theory in the 19th century and continued deep into the 20th.

One could argue what someone like Cavalli-Sforza (and much more so his followers) practice is exactly history in Carlyle’s sense of “genetic Histories.” Their aim, as with Carlyle, and Galton after him, is to discover human origins as traced through the history of great men, or in this case, great genes. In this way genetics, through population genetics, has again taken up a concern with the telic.

It is a nice piece of anthropology trivia that the Bateson referenced in the quote above is none other than Gregory Bateson’s father.

Max Weber for Geneticists: Why the UC Davis Genetics Folks thinks they are better than UC Berkeley’s Genetics Folks (and Harvard’s)


I’m pretty happy about my post about Max Weber, and Luigi Cavalli-Sforza.  Getting geneticists to at least acknowledge the existence of the patron saint of Sociology is big thing!


From an academic standpoint, Weber is one of my favorite topics, even though no one else seems to agree with me.  I’ve been writing about the Old Dead German for years, usually to piss and moan about people from UC Berkeley.  For any of my fellow UC Davis Aggies (like Razib Khan), or for that matter anywhere else in the world who also complain a lot about the pretentiousness of UC Berkeley, this is the essay that tells you why you think Berkeley games the ranking game:  Why I think that Chico State is a Better College than UC Berkeley.  It also tells you why you why Davis and Berkeley students repulse each other in the mating game–definitely a topic for geneticists.


Trust me, by the end of the essay, not only will you be laughing at UC Berkeley. You will also be joining me in the Max Weber fan club, and trying to figure out how to apply complex regression equations that will tell the world about how the Neandertals over at UC Berkeley manage to hide UC Davis’ honor from US News and World Report.