Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Social Distance: An Anthropological Perspective

With the current pandemic of the Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) there has been a lot of discussion about Social Distancing in order to slow the transmission rate between people. And in fact this particular virus may have originated from humans being in close contact with animals like the Pangolin (a zoonosis). We’re being advised to avoid crowds, but nobody (to the best of my knowledge) is advising us to avoid “making” crowds. We need to “think outside the Pyramid” and recognize the singular most important problem facing humankind- global human overpopulation.
The Human Species is a paradox- we evolved to be the most social mammal (the evolution of Language qualifies that statement)- our social cooperation kept our ancestors from following the Australopithecines into extinction in the East African woodlands. We have a Social Imperative to make and live in social groups, but these were small groups where every individual was known- cooperation was the norm while competition was not, because it could be potentially disruptive to the group.
However, after the Domestication Development around 10,000 years ago, human population densities increased to the extent that humans had to adapt by creating social and political structures in order to minimize disruptions. Social competition became the “new normal” creating ranking within the group, and stratification between groups. Nonetheless, over the past millennia, disruptions and violence have been increasing. These include xenophobia in all of its manifestations, and of course violence in all of its manifestations.
Humans are not naturally competitive and violent, and it’s not natural for humans to harm other humans. So “social distancing” has been, and still is being used when it’s employed in war and genocide (dehumanization). And of course that helps us to understand the phenomenon of polarization. The human world has become so crowded that we actively seek social distancing from others- even to the point of fictionalizing differences (aka stereotyping). Crowding stress is a perception tailored by culture and personality. So while we voluntarily congregate in incredibly large crowds, in other situations where we feel a loss of control, stress may ensue.
Machiavelli understood how crowding stress and negative emotions can be used for political gain. And today we see many of the world’s “leaders” use hate, fear, and loathing in order to motivate their political base.
Global human overpopulation is a genuine pandemic. It is the factor in anthrogenic climate change, density dependent diseases (DDD), and density dependent social pathologies (DDSP). The meaning of life is reproduction, but we do have a choice: either voluntary limits or let Mother Nature do it. The current CoV-19 pandemic will fade, but not our overpopulation pandemic….unless.
Population density matters.

Daniel Cring
Ronald Kephart
Anthropologists

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Guest blog: No time for "heroes"

By Dr. Martin Cohen
(Lightly edited)

This will not be taken well by some of you, but I have to write this, perhaps now, before it becomes an offense for which I could be arrested (perhaps later this year). A message to members of our armed forces, a message to tell your children if they are in the armed forces, and a message for all of us to keep in mind in our responses to people in uniform - You are not a hero if you fight, kill, or risk your life, or even die in an unjust war of aggression; no, that makes you a criminal. You are not duty-bound or honor-bound to be a criminal, just because you signed up and wear a uniform. If you are old enough to vote, and old enough be to ordered to kill, then you have the ability to process what you are doing, and you are responsible for your own actions, no matter who ordered those actions or why. 
We essentially established this at the Nuremberg trials, and have demanded our own military ignore it as much as possible. I know this is hard, I have friends with children or other family in the military, I have had numerous students in the military, some still in. And it is particularly hard to write this, because I guess I may be called out on this by friends who served in Vietnam, but really, they are not exceptions to this. We need, at some point to draw the line between hero and dupe, between martyr and criminal. We tend, like teenage girls of the past, to be blinded by uniforms. (By the way, one of the reasons for the development of dress uniforms and non-battle related military trappings and insignia are to take those whose lives are expendable and make them feel special enough to embrace and find meaning as cannon fodder. When the Marines say they are looking for a few good men, they entice recruits with a carefully crafted myth of hyper-masculinity. This has traditionally been reinforced by a certain percentage of women being raised to respond to that myth that makes the man in the uniform particularly special.)
It is a myth that those of us who opposed the war spat on Vietnam vets when they returned. The myth persists, so much so that it has entered the consciousness of some of those vets as a false memory. In fact, many of us, putting aside the criminality of the war, honored the individual for what they had experienced, for what our government made them do. And we were more likely to work for them receiving proper benefits and VA psychiatric care (I eventually worked in clinical research with a number of Vietnam vets at a VA psychiatric hospital). They are not heroes, they are just real, human beings. Some have put it aside, some still suffer today because of what they had done. The "PTSD" expert I knew at the VA insisted it was all about having lived under risk, and while that is part of it, at least anecdotally I got a strong impression it was also often the result of doing and/or seeing unthinkable things that went against all they believed about human life and decency.
At some level, I think many of us understand this - there is no doubt that many German soldiers during WWII fought hard and courageously for their country. Some sacrificed themselves for their comrades or to advance their country's cause in the struggle. I cannot admire these acts as heroic, not just personally, because their country was literally murdering my relatives or that the same soldiers were trying to kill our fathers, but because the cause itself was by any sense of human decency, beyond defensible. In fact, one could (but I wouldn't) argue that somehow those young German men were far more trapped in a role beyond their control than any member of our military is today.
After thousands of years of warfare, it is time to say: NO MORE HEROES!

Martin Cohen is a friend and Anthropologist who teaches in the Los Angeles area.

Monday, September 30, 2019

tRump's liddl' thing...

So, here's my somewhat different take on tRump's liddl' thing. At least, I haven't seen anyone else take it this way.
First, the "dd" replacing "tt" shows phonological awareness of the American English Flapping rule, in which a voiceless alveolar stop (there's only one in "little" although it's spelled with two t's) is replaced by a voiced alveolar flap or tap when it follows a stressed syllable and begins the next syllable. The rule is:
/t/ ⇾ [ɾ] / ˈV ___ V
Second, the omission of the final "e" leaving just "l" is also a sign of phonological awareness: that "l" is functioning here as a syllable nucleus, and the "e" has no value. But then, he has used the hyphen- er, apostrophe- as many writers (e.g. Mark Twain) do to call attention to the omitted letter.
He's still a flaming asshole, though.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

The Joe Biden thing



This is not really a post about Joe Biden.  But we do have a problem here in the USA with personal space, touching, and the like.  So this is an attempt to put the Joe Biden phenomenon, including reactions to it, in a broader perspective than is usually presented.

So first of all: humans are primates.  Primates are, with a couple of exceptions, probably the most social of mammals.  And they are, typically, very touchie-feelie.  in 1979 I visited the Grenada Zoo and Botanical Gardens shortly after the Revolution.  The zoo was neglected, many animals were gone who knows where.  One large cage that had held a group of Grenada monkeys (Cercopithecus mona) had only a youngster in it.  As I approached it came over to the wire and held out its little hand, and took hold of my finger.  It didn't want to bite me; it wanted the touch, the feel, the reassurance perhaps, of a fellow primate, however weird.  When I was ready to leave, it did not want to let go.

Our closest primate relatives, the Chimpanzees and Bonobos (Pan troglodytes and Pan paniscus), behave similarly.  They are rarely far from contact with other members of their group.  They spend lots of time in physical contact, sitting together, grooming each other, the younger ones playing games that often involve ambushing and jumping on an adult.  In times of stress, they hug, kiss, or just reach out to touch each other.  Walking through the forest they will typically have a hand on a companion's shoulder or back.  


No photo description available. Which is to say that if our closest living relatives are like this, then our last common ancestor probably was also, and we probably are as well.  What's different about us is that we have culture, which we can use to mediate and attach symbolic meaning to our proximity, touching, etc.

Left: Female Bonobos groom each other. Jacksonville Zoo.

Human cultures express the ways in which individuals are embedded in their societies in different ways.  Some human cultures emphasize what my colleague and I (and others before us) call Independence Training, or IT.  IT focuses on the individual as an autonomous unit, a "lone ranger," if you will.  Many aspects of US culture support IT, including the ever-present educational directive to "do your own work," distaste for collective bargaining, the "most valuable player" syndrome in sports, the unease with international organizations like the United Nations.  And of course, proxemically, we have among the world's largest "personal spaces."

Of course, all cultures need to produce independent agents, people who can think and act on their own.  But many human cultures don't go as far as the US.  In many cultures there's more emphasis on the complement to IT, which we call DT or Dependence Training.  DT cultures produce people who are happy to acknowledge their being embedded in societies that emphasize not only their individual rights, as in the US, but also their collective responsibilities.  The relationship between people and the larger society is reciprocal; in IT-trained cultures like that of the US, the relationship is more antagonistic.

I sometimes illustrate the difference between IT and DT for my students by asking them to imagine boarding a bus to find just one other passenger already there.  They admit that, typically, in the US they would sit as far as possible from that other person.  In DT-focused cultures, like Grenada, more likely you would sit down right next to that other person, and start chatting.

It's important to keep in mind that IT versus DT is a continuum, and many, maybe most, cultures fall somewhere in-between.  I think it's fair to say, though, that most traditional cultures around the world are heavily DT.  The most intensely IT-focused cultures are those that have most strongly embraced capitalist modes of production.  Capitalism itself, as a mode of production, encourages IT by turning people into commodities, like boxes of cereal, that can be dealt with individually.  And capitalism hates unions, which are DT social organizations, because they threaten the ability of businesses to maximize their profits.

Bringing it back to Grenada, where I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the 1970s.  As a typically IT-raised US American, there were things I had to get used to in this new, DT-centered culture.  When I met someone, female or male, if we shook hands the handshake lasted a lot longer than I was used to.  In fact, we might keep holding hands through the beginnings of our conversation.  Sitting on a bench during meetings, the person(s) next to me would likely be pressed against me, even if there was enough room to separate.  A woman sitting next to me might put her hand on my leg to maintain contact while we talked.  On a crowded bus to school, boys or girls might end up sitting on my lap to make make room for more.

Importantly, these interactions were not typically sexualized.  In the US, any interaction that involves physical contact, especially between the sexes, is assumed to be sexual, and will likely be reported as such to the authorities.  In most other places, these sorts of things are just unremarkable parts of the ebb and flow of daily interaction.

 And, as primate societies go, US culture is more than a little dysfunctional in that it subverts the essence of primatehood: the social glue created by touching, feeling, being close, and so on.

This post is not really about Joe Biden, but...  Joe is clearly living in the wrong culture.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

The never-ending assault (rifles)

The US's "independence day" is July 4, 1776, although the war for independence didn't formally end until 1783. New Zealand's "independence" from Great Britain arrives in stages, but culminates in 1947. My point is, within a week of the mass shootings at two mosques in NZ, a relatively young nation, they have officially banned the ownership of assault-style weapons. Meanwhile, after 236 years of "independence" and decades of carnage, we still do not have the courage to do the same. We are still not an adult country; we remain a nation of adolescents, fixated on our deadly toys.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Trump's "natural instinct for science"

According to an article on the Intelligencer website, tRump says that his "natural instinct for science" convinces him that the science on climate change is incorrect.

I want to write something serious about this, but seriously... I will say that this stage of our attitude toward science has been brought to us, in part, by postmodernism, which in some of its guises argues that science is just another subjective way of knowing about the world. But it's also been brought to us by the US mode of enculturation we call independence training, which encourages everyone to believe that they, independently, can have an opinion about something that's as valid as anyone else's.
And to be fair, while we probably do have an internal program for making sense of the world, it's only the beginning of science. Our IT-driven educational system, supported by the larger culture, mostly beats it out of us by middle or high school. Some manage to overcome this; not tRump, though.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Thoughts on Kavanaugh

Friday night on Real Time, Bill Maher wondered aloud to the panel whether we are swinging the pendulum of justice too far, from never believing women who claim they've been assaulted to always believing them.  A neutral middle ground, maybe?  My opinion is that believing women should be the default option.

Over the years, decades, centuries, even millennia, we have emerged from cultures that systematically oppressed, exploited, mistreated, abused, and (to be frank) hated women.  For many of us, this culture was Indo-European, originally centered (probably) in Anatolia in what is now Turkey and spreading during the last 6-8,000 years or so to the southeast and northwest as far as parts of the Indian subcontinent and Scandinavia.  The Indo-Europeans were, essentially, farmers; as they spread they replaced or pushed into marginal habitats the foraging and other peoples who stood in their way.  It is the introduction of farming, especially the extensive farming required to support rapidly growing populations, that typically leads to reduced status of females in human cultures.

But this is not the only way of being human.  Foraging and horticultural societies do not typically share this sort of ideology; women and men tend to be relatively equal in status and often share leadership and other important group statuses.  These are what we anthropologists call small-scale societies, in contrast with the large-scale agricultural and, more recently, industrialized ones.  What I am leading up to is to suggest that the way we have treated women in our society is not the only way of being human.  In evolutionary terms, it is a derived, rather than primitive, trait, but it has a deep history.

We instituted affirmative action programs for minorities to counterbalance the effects of several hundred years of slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, and more subtle discrimination, especially for African Americans but also women and others.  Bill Maher, in suggesting that maybe we don't have to always believe women's accounts of sexual abuse, is like the people who claim that affirmative action is no longer necessary because discrimination is illegal.  I'm saying that we should believe them by default, because there are thousands of years of abuse to overcome.

Social Distance: An Anthropological Perspective

With the current pandemic of the Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) there has been a lot of discussion about Social Distancing in order to ...