Saturday, March 28, 2009

Co-sleeping: It's a mammal thing

In a web article at, posted in February 2009, pediatrician Sydney Spiesel discusses the pros of cons of allowing infants to sleep with their parents. The overall tone of the article is to discourage parents from allowing infants to sleep with them; Dr. Spiesel's conclusion, based on research reported in the journal Pediatrics, is summed up as follows:
Not only are there no good data to support [alleged benefits of co-sleeping], but a new study supports what most pediatricians have been saying all along: There is substantial risk in infant-parent bed sharing, and parents should be aware of this risk before bringing babies to bed to sleep with them.
There are several points to be made about this from an anthropological perspective:
  • Humans are mammals. All or nearly all (I can't think of any counter-examples) mammalian young sleep in contact with their mothers and/or other members of the family group. This allows them to nurse on demand, keeps them warm, and helps protect them from potential predators. If co-sleeping were significantly risky, mammals probably would have gone the way of the dinosaurs, or evolved into something else.

  • In most human cultures, infants co-sleep with their parents. Most of the time, there's no other choice; there's simply no other place for them to sleep. And again, if co-sleeping carried a significant risk for humans, we likely wouldn't be here to discuss it.

  • The idea that infants should sleep apart from their parents is a value specific to some cultures, not a cultural universal. Where this value is strong, as in the USA, Independence Training is implicated. This value is so strong in US culture that infants are even given their own rooms, rooms that are prepared for them (e.g. painted pink or blue, etc.) before they are born.

  • Some infant deaths that appear to be caused by co-sleeping are actually instances of neglect, abuse, or worse. As a colleague points out, parents may be too whacked out on alcohol or other drugs to have a normal level of awareness. And more than a few such cases are instances of outright infanticide that are reported as accidents.
So, from the evolutionary and cross-cultural perspective of anthropology, infant co-sleeping (like nursing in public) appears to be the usual, or as we say in linguistics, unmarked, practice. And judging from a real weighing of the benefits and risks, co-sleeping is better for infants and parents than not co-sleeping. Arguments to the contrary are generally informed more by ethnocentrism than by truly sound research.

For a good summary of this issue by an anthropologist who specializes in research on this topic, see James McKenna's article Cosleeping and Biological Imperatives: Why Human Babies Do Not and Should Not Sleep Alone.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

One time, at banjo camp...

Yes, last weekend was our annual Suwannee Banjo Camp, and I more or less survived. The camp is held at O'Leno State Park, a really nifty place in north central Florida about two hours drive from Jacksonville. The photo below shows where the Santa Fe River disappears into a sinkhole inside the park; it reappears a few miles away before flowing into the Suwannee.

There are screened but unheated cabins, which makes for an interesting time with temps falling into the 40's at night. There's also a dining hall, where campers are fed pretty well by a catering service.

But mostly, there are workshops, each lasting an hour and 15 minutes. As at academic conferences, it's often hard to decide which of two competing workshops to attend. Do you go to Ken Perlman's "Celtic Reels, Clawhammer Style" or Laura Boosinger's "The Art of Singing with Banjo?" I mostly did old-time banjo, and learned some good things from Paul Brown, Bob Carlin, Adam Hurt, and Brad Leftwich; I also did one fiddle session with Brad. Google any of these folks and you'll get an idea of how good they are.

I started attending the camps in 2005, after about 35 years of playing banjo mostly by myself and learning most of what I knew from instruction manuals. I had been living with performance anxiety for many years, limiting myself to playing around the house. As I was about to turn 60 that year I felt that I needed to do something to force myself outward. Banjo camp was my solution.

It was hair-raising at first, playing in front of or along with people who are world famous (the first camp included Pete Seeger's brother Mike, whose group, The New Lost City Ramblers, helped jump-start the revival of interest in traditional American rural music). But it was comforting to learn that my instincts about how the tunes should sound were pretty good, probably a result of listening to them and singing them at Howard Street Elementary School in Hagerstown, Maryland, back in the 1950s before the No Child Left Behind act started leaving children culturally behind.

Being at the camp has helped lower my anxiety, not enough to call myself a performer but enough at least to make it possible for me to demonstrate traditional banjo styles in a course on Appalachian Literature here at UNF.

It's never too late to go to camp.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Prescriptivists gone wild!

Back in the fall 2008 semester, as I was leaving a classroom I had just taught in, I met a student from China who was coming in for the next period. She asked if I could help clear up an issue she had in the English language class she was taking.

And what was this issue? She had been confronted with the following problem:
  • The food tastes _____ (good, well).
She chose "good," and was told that the "correct" answer was "well." Let's think about that for a moment.

What can "the food tastes well" possibly mean? Well is a modifier that usually occurs with verbs and describes the manner in which whatever the verb represents is carried out:
  • Steve Martin plays the banjo very well.
Surely this means that Steve Martin carries out the act of playing the banjo in an admirable manner. So what could "the food tastes well" mean? It can only mean that the food carried out the act of tasting in an admirable manner. But this makes no sense; food can't carry out the act of tasting. Only some entity tasting the food can do that.

This particular problem grows out of the fact that, in spoken English, "adjective" and "adverb" are not well-defined lexical categories. Of course, in standard written English, good is an adjective, and well is usually, but not always (in "I am well" well is an adjective somewhat synonymous with healthy), an adverb. But this distinction exists mostly in the minds of language mavens, not in the minds of native English speakers. I told the student that no native speaker of English would say "the food tastes well," unless they were victims of the kind of linguistic terrorism practiced by language arts and college composition teachers with no knowledge of linguistics. "The food tastes good" is what you say if you want to comment on the quality of the food.

In other words: If somehow I lose my sense of taste, I might be able to say that I can no longer taste well. It will be up to the cannibals to decide whether I taste good or not.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Our new friend

The newest addition to our household is a Colombian Rainbow Boa (Epicrates cenchria), as yet without a proper name.

The problem with "believe in"

People sometimes ask me if I "believe in" evolution. My usual answer is that the question makes no sense. It's like asking if I “believe in” gravity. Gravity, and evolution, are out there, they don't need me to “believe in” them.

Maybe the problem is with the English language. Consider:
  1. I believe that Tolkien created orcs as characters in Lord of the Rings.
  2. I believe that orcs exist.
  3. I believe that orcs are ugly.
  4. I believe that orcs should be killed whenever we encounter them.
When anthropologists talk about non-material culture, we usually distinguish among these by referring to (1) and (2) as beliefs, (3) as a value, and (4) as a norm. Beliefs are propositions about what is true or false; values are about what is good or bad; and norms are about what is right or wrong. Although in English we can use believe to introduce all of these, only (1) and (2) are subject to empirical investigation. We can look for evidence that Tolkien created orcs; we can also look for evidence that they exist. We cannot look for evidence that they are ugly or that they should be killed whenever we meet them.

So no, I don't "believe in" evolution. Nor do I "believe in" trees, or rocks, or raccoons, all of which exist in the world independent of my "belief in" them. I take biological evolution to be a fact of nature, without which the history of life on Earth is incomprehensible.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Independence Training and the Stimulus Package

Recent evidence for the dysfunctionality of the independence-trained side of our national ethos.

We have retired people here in Florida who reject efforts to raise sales or property taxes for education, let alone establish a state income tax, because, as they say, they don't have any kids in school, so why should they help pay for the education of other people's children? No thought of the fact that those other people's semi-literate, semi-educated children might be working at their nursing home some day, and their lives might depend on the fact that one of those kids has learned that "inflammable" doesn't mean "not-flammable."

We actually had some super-conservative troglodytes throw a "tea party" here in Jacksonville late last week. They’re against Governor Crist's accepting the stimulus money, even though we desperately need it to keep things, including education, going. The action was prompted by CNBC reporter Rick Santellis's lunatic rant against President Obama's plan to help people avoid foreclosure and stay in their homes.

Like Norquist, and Limbaugh, and the rest of the socially challenged, they’d rather see the US fail than allow that the government might be able to do something other than drop bombs on brown people.

The idea that government is the problem, that the government should stand back and let everyone rise or fall, without intervention or assistance, is an outcome of a particular mode of enculturation that some anthropologists call Independence Training, or IT for short. IT, which stresses the construction of autonomy and individualism, contrasts with what some of us call Dependence Training, or DT, which focuses on the development and maintenance of social ties of interdependence. These labels were used by psychological anthropologist Francis Hsu to help explain some of the cultural differences between the IT-based US and DT-based China.

In the US, the application of IT as a mode of enculturation begins early: newborn infants are made to sleep apart from their mothers, first in their own crib and preferably in their own room; babies are nursed on a schedule that suits the parents, rather than on demand, and weaned off mother's milk so they can learn to feed themselves as soon as possible. IT is implicated in the parents' lack of health insurance, as well as in the lower wages and less desirable working conditions they likely endure due to lack of a union: IT abhors "collective" activity. If the children attend public school, there is almost inevitably a shortage of materials, modern textbooks, and even teachers, due to the reluctance to use general taxes for education. If these young folks make it to college, they'll likely end up with enormous student loan debt since the expenses of college must be born by individuals rather than by the society.

Of course, for social animals, a certain amount of IT is vital: individual members of the society do have to learn to become autonomous agents. But when IT subverts the nature of society itself, the result is a dysfunctional culture, which is I would argue what we have always had in the US, though it really began to intensify during the Reagan regime.