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.

Can Cultural Anthropology Scrogg Population Genetics?

James Mullooly invented the word Scrogg, meaning something along the line of “anthropologist who catch geneticists playing fast and loose with the data.”  In my experience, Scrogging is fairly easy to do on open-source turf of the Biological Sciences journals where there are often places for comments.  These comments are typically reviewed by editors, and while not strictly “peer-reviewed,” would in my mind contribute to the academic record of aspiring academics.  The editors I have had contact here and here were fair and open to critiques of articles which were well-done technically, but missed out on a more social scientific perspective, as do many articles about human population genetics.  The editors were  quick to respond to me—it seems the biological sciences are much quicker than the social scientific journals at making editorial decisions.


I got away with two Scroggings because population geneticists wrote about a group that I knew just a little about, the Mlabri of Thailand.  But I knew enough to know that lab-based geneticists who missed key points, and did not cite standard ethnographies.  I am sure that there are many sociologists, anthropologists, and others who have similar experiences with geneticists writing about groups with which they are familiar.  What I would encourage you to do is to go into Google Scholar, and PubMed and search for genetic studies of ethnic groups you are familiar with as a result of your field and library work.  Then evaluate carefully how the data (typically blood samples) was handled on its way to the lab.  Does the “sample” reflect social relations on the ground?  Is it consistent with historical, geographical, and anthropological data with which you are familiar?  If not, the article deserves a carefully written Scrogg highlighting how conclusions might have been different if anthropological data were also considered.

Scrogging by cultural anthropologists should result in a number of well-reasoned postings.  More to the point, it is hoped that geneticists will be more careful about how they handle data, and editors more consistently solicit ethnographers and cultural anthropologists as peer reviewers.  While scrogging, of course, be as narrow, precise, and gracious as possible given the circumstances.  The point is not to embarrass, but to highlight the importance of cultural anthropology and qualitative data in evaluating populations.

Max Weber, Cavalli-Sforza, Ethnicity, and Population Genetics

Ok, below is a complicate and attenuated definition of ethnicity by the classical sociologist Max Weber.  Variations of this definition are found in many anthropology and sociological textbooks, though he is by far not the only source of wisdom.  But be aware that as with most classical literature, it is often difficult to read.  But for the purposes of this discussion with Population geneticists, I want to highlight Weber’s emphasis in beliefs about heredity and blood relationships in determining endogamy and exogamy.  All ethnic groups encourage the youth to have babies with people who are “like us,” however defined.  The result indeed is that in a rough way, genes are inherited within “ethnic groups,” or at least there are belief systems indicating that this happens.  I wrote about this a bit earlier at here.  Note, this version is suitable for use with undergrads—it is easier to read than what follows.

Anyway, I like the broad brush analysis of blood alleles, and glotto-chronology that people like Cavalli-Sforza use to map deep history and very general relationships (OK I know that glotto-chronology is also known for its limitiations).  This is the only effective way of studying such migrations, given the paucity of archaeological and historical data.  Ok, so fine.

But we know a lot more from the studies of people like Weber (and his successors) about the overwhelming role that ideology, inequality, racism, etc. play in structuring mating habits.  A sampling of Max Weber’s thoughts appears below in all its complexity.  My question for the people following in Cavalli-Sforza’s tradition like Razib Khan is, how would you go about including such “variables” as Weber describes in mathematical models?  My feeling is that given the inherently fluid nature of such definitions, and the compromises necessary to simplify research questions so that they fit into something that is “countable,” are a step too far.  And as a result, you get the reactions of myself, and most social scientists that we should not depend too much on such quantitative data which inherently simplifies social complexity—ethnographic data is at least as important.

Anyway: Here is Weber’s description/definition of ethnicity.  Links to the original articles are below.  There version here is a translation I participated in, and appeared in the peer-reviewed Journal of Classical Sociology in 2010.

“When the most extreme consequences of stratification are pressed, the Stand evolves into a closed ‘caste’. That means, apart from the conventions and legal guarantees, rituals develop guaranteeing Stände-related distinctions. This is achieved by restricting any physical contact of members of higher castes with members of castes regarded as “lower,” and protects the higher caste …Therefore, the individual castes partly develop distinctive cults and gods.

As a result of these consequences, the Stände-related stratification only then lead to the development of castes where underlying differences can be found which are held to be “ethnic”. Particularly the “caste” is the normal form of Gemeinschaft communities which are the precursors of the Gesellschaft type-societies created who live along the lines of “ethnicity,” and therefore believe in blood relationship, and restrict both exogamous marriage and social intercourse. These aspects can be found among pariah peoples around the world….

Ethnic and caste segregation also differ regarding their effects. Ethnic coexistence, which implies mutual rejection and disdain, also permits any ethnic community to value its personal honor as the highest. However, caste stratification is accompanied by a ‘vertical social gradation’, and acknowledges a socially accepted higher “honor” to the benefiting privileged castes and Stände. This is typically explained by arguing that ethnic differences were transformed into differences of “function” within a politicized Gesellschaft-like social order (warrior, priest, and craftsmen who are politically important for war, and building trades, and so on). Even the most despised pariah people somehow cultivate what is peculiar to them, in the same manner that ethnic and ‘Stände’-related communities do. They especially continue to cultivate the belief in their own unique “honor” (as do the Jews).

However, Stände which are both despised and negatively privileged show a specific deviation regarding the “sense of dignity” …But to understand this, it is necessary to focus on the position of the privileged. Their “sense of dignity” is the subjective precipitation in social honor and of conventional demands which a positively privileged “Stand” requires for the deportment of its members. As a result, it can be said that the positively privileged ‘Stände’ sense of dignity, naturally relies on its “who they are”, they do not rely on transcending values, but they refer to their own “beauty and excellence”. Their kingdom is “of this world”, and they live for the present and justify their privilege by referring to a glorious past.

Naturally the negatively privileged status group can only draw its sense of dignity by referring to a future which lies beyond the present, and is temporal or transcendent. In other words, this sense of dignity is nourished from the belief in a providential “mission”, or a specific honor before God as the “chosen people”. Therefore, the idea arises that “the last will be the first” beyond this life, or that in the present life a messiah will arrive who will shine a light upon the honor of the pariah people (Jews) or ‘Stand’, which has before been concealed from the world. These simple facts are the source of a pariah ‘Stände’s’ character of religiosity. …

This is to say that the ethnic origin of Stände formation is by no means a normal phenomenon. On the contrary, since objective “racial differences” are not based on every subjective “ethnic” mutual feeling, a racialized justification for ‘Stände’-related stratification is ultimately tested with concrete individual cases. Quite frequently, the ‘Stand’ itself creates ‘pure-breds’ [or stereotypes] which are an anthropological type. The Stand functions on a highly exclusive manner and is based on a selection of individuals who are personally qualified for membership (e.g. the Knighthood), based on their martial, physical, and psychological eligibility.

So, from a practical point of view, the stratification by Stände goes hand in hand with a monopolization of ideal and material goods or opportunities, in a manner which we have come to know as typical. Besides the specific honor of Stand, which always bases itself upon distance and exclusiveness, there are all sorts of material monopolies”


Thank you for reading this far!  It is work to read this far.  (Now those of you who are mathematically inclined know how we feel when we deal with your elegant mathematical formulations!)  Anyway, if you want to read more, please look at the entire translation of Weber’s work at the Journal of Classical Sociology (2010), as well as our commentary, which is also there.  In my view, a meeting of minds between the population geneticists, and the sociologists/anthropologists would be useful for understanding such matters.  I’m just not sure how it is going to happen.


An afterthought and a comment for Razib Khan:

Razib Khan over on one of Michael Scroggins posts linked two blogs of his from Discover Magazine.  I read them, and appreciated that he was careful in his discussion of race, even though he did not cite the relevant anthropologists or sociologists (Note to Razib: Need Weber in there, or perhaps Cornell and Hartmann’s textbook Ethnicity and Race).  I believe he even used the term “social construction” at one point, which hearkens back to the work of Weber and others.

Razib continues

“the biology is more interesting than the sociology, which can be decomposed pretty easily.”


Ok I will let him have his own opinion on what is “more interesting,” but I look forward to his deconstruction of a classical text like Weber, or even a more contemporary approach like Cornell and Hartmann.  Weber of course is difficult to read, but generations of sociology undergrads have somehow gotten through.  Cornell and Harmann though is well-written and hardl