Saturday, May 30, 2009

Paging Dr. Gupta: "ethnic skin?!?"

If I knew a lawyer, I'd sue Dr. Sanjay Gupta for anthropological malpractice. On his CNN program "House Call" this morning, Dr. Gupta had a segment on skin cancer. To discuss the particular problems this poses for people with dark skin color, Dr. Gupta brought on a "specialist in ethnic skin."

"Ethnic skin?"

We might expect first-year college students to have such a muddled notion of "ethnicity," but a presumably well-educated person like Dr. Gupta? Uncritically applying the prevailing folk model concept of "ethnicity," Dr. Gupta has conflated ethnicity with biological differences, such as skin color. Anthropologists, in constructing scientific descriptions and explanations, take care to separate ethnicity from biology. Ethnicity, for anthropologists, refers to shared cultural features such as language, religion, food preferences, and so on: features that are not specified in the genome, but rather handed down in the process of enculturation. To conflate ethnicity, i.e. culture, with biology is to risk repeating the essentialism that supported Social Darwinism, the genocide of Native Americans, the eugenics movement, the Nazi Holocaust...

Franz Boas demonstrated that culture, "race" (by which he meant strictly biological difference), and language are independent variables in his book Race, Language, and Culture, published in... 1940! Boas used ethnographic case studies to show that biologically similar groups of people can have very different languages or cultures, biologically different groups can have similar languages and cultures, and so on, in any combination. A classic modern example of this involves the Warlpiri people of central Australia, who speak a language with noun declensions using suffixes, like Latin, despite being about as biologically distant from the Romans as possible.

Here's another example: a group of schoolchildren I photographed in Pinar Del Río, Cuba, back in 2002. What ethnic group do they all belong to? My guess: Cuban. Which ones have "ethnic skin?" My guess: none, since there is no such thing.

This is why an introduction to general anthropology should be required for every person on the planet.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorial Day

Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time ago
Where have all the flowers gone?
Girls have picked them every one
When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn?

Where have all the young girls gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the young girls gone?
Long time ago
Where have all the young girls gone?
Taken husbands every one
When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn?

Where have all the young men gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the young men gone?
Long time ago
Where have all the young men gone?
Gone for soldiers every one
When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn?

Where have all the soldiers gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the soldiers gone?
Long time ago
Where have all the soldiers gone?
Gone to graveyards every one
When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn?

Where have all the graveyards gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the graveyards gone?
Long time ago
Where have all the graveyards gone?
Covered with flowers every one
When will we ever learn?
When will we ever learn?

--- Pete Seeger and Joe Hickerson

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The American Way?

Raise one hand if you are genuinely surprised by the revelations of the torture of prisoners in US custody at Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, and elsewhere during the Cheney/Bush years. Raise both hands if you think that this represents a deviation from the normal way the US operates in the world.

If either one or both of your hands are up, then you probably don't know much about US history. Noam Chomsky, Institute Professor of Linguistics at MIT, teaches some things we all need to know in a just-published web article, Why We Can't See the Trees or the Forest: The Torture Memos and Historical Amnesia. In this article Chomsky leads us from the treatment of Native Americans before the founding of the republic down to the present day. In the process, we revisit Cuba and The Philippines, Haiti, Central America, Chile, Viet Nam, and we are reminded that...

...torture has been routinely practiced from the early days of the conquest of the national territory, and continued to be used as the imperial ventures of the "infant empire" -- as George Washington called the new republic -- extended to the Philippines, Haiti, and elsewhere. Keep in mind as well that torture was the least of the many crimes of aggression, terror, subversion, and economic strangulation that have darkened U.S. history, much as in the case of other great powers

And so we should not be surprised by the torture; instead, we should be surprised by

...the reactions to the release of those Justice Department memos, even by some of the most eloquent and forthright critics of Bush malfeasance: Paul Krugman, for example, writing that we used to be "a nation of moral ideals" and never before Bush "have our leaders so utterly betrayed everything our nation stands for." To say the least, that common view reflects a rather slanted version of American history.

If this is not depressing enough, in another web article titled Changing Obama's Mindset, historian Howard Zinn shows us how President Obama, after promising to change the American militaristic worldview, seems to be backpedaling:

Obama was talking about the war in Iraq, and he said, “It’s not just that we have to get out of Iraq.” He said “get out of Iraq,” and we mustn’t forget it. We must keep reminding him: Out of Iraq, out of Iraq, out of Iraq—not next year, not two years from now, but out of Iraq now.

But listen to the second part, too. His whole sentence was: “It’s not enough to get out of Iraq; we have to get out of the mindset that led us into Iraq.”
What is the mindset that got us into Iraq?

It’s the mindset that says force will do the trick. Violence, war, bombers—that they will bring democracy and liberty to the people.

Zinn suggests that we must hold Obama to his original words, not allow him a "blank check," but instead keep up the pressure, keep reminding him of where we as a nation want to go, as the Abolitionists did with Lincoln during the Civil War:
That’s been the story of this country. Where progress has been made, wherever any kind of injustice has been overturned, it’s been because people acted as citizens, and not as politicians. They didn’t just moan. They worked, they acted, they organized, they rioted if necessary to bring their situation to the attention of people in power. And that’s what we have to do today.
Together these two writers, Chomsky and Zinn, remind us that although the US was founded on militarism and an imperialistic worldview, we can change it, if we know our own history and also know where we want to go.

Komodo dragons use poison

Back on May 4, in a post on the new Komodo dragons (Varanus komodoensis) at the Jacksonville Zoo, I repeated the received wisdom that they kill by introducing bacteria into their prey when they bite them. Researchers are now reporting, however, that they really are venomous, and that the poison is similar to that of some snakes:
"The view that the Komodo routinely kills using dirty oral bacteria is wrong," said Dr Stephen Wroe from the University of New South Wales in Australia, a co-author of the report. "The dragon is truly poisonous. It has modified salivary glands that ... allows it to kill large animals through rapid blood loss."
Live and learn.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A Pretty cool new primate!

This is the newly described fossil primate Darwinius masillae. Ida (she's a female) lived around 47 million years ago in what's now Europe, and she was more or less an early monkey, or at least an early monkey cousin.


The amazing thing here is the completeness of this fossil. Until the great human expansion, primates have lived mostly in tropical areas, and their bones don't often make it into the fossil record. Here we have not only bones, but the outlines of the body and even the stomach contents.

She doesn't need all the hype that's being tossed around about her: for example, she's not a "missing link"- there's no such thing as a "missing link" in modern evolutionary theory. (For a more complete deconstruction of the over-the-top publiciy she's receiving in some quarters, see sensible science writer Carl Zimmer's article.)

But she's still pretty awesome.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

New banner photo

Just so you know, the new photo at the top of the page is the view looking more or less north from Black Rock, Maryland, just a few yards off the Appalachian Trail. Hagerstown is down in the valley, but out of the photo to the left. Black Rock is about a 3-mile hike from where I-70 crosses the Appalachian Trail.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Speaking of torture, etc...

John Nichols at The Nation has an encouraging development:

"Over the past several years, serious questions have been raised about the conduct of high ranking Bush/Cheney Administration officials in relation to some of the most basic elements of our democracy: respect for the rule of law, the principle of checks and balances, and the fundamental freedoms enshrined in the Bill of Rights," argues Wisconsin Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, a key member of the House Judiciary Committee. "We must restore Americans' faith that in a democracy, we follow the rule of law and that nobody – even the President and Vice President of the United States – is above the law."

To that end, Baldwin has introduced the Executive Branch Accountability Act of 2009 (H.Res. 417), which calls on President Obama to reject and reverse the illegal actions of the Bush-Cheney Administration and to work with Congress to restore a proper balance between the legislative and executive branches of the federal government.

Let's see what happens...

What's the matter with the US?

This morning, as I often do, I took our little terrier (her name is Tinker Bell but don't be fooled- she's tough!) for a walk in a nearby nature preserve. We were already on the trail when a pack of about ten dogs came running toward us around a bend, followed a few seconds later by the two men who were with them. The dogs were loose, although a few were dragging leashes behind them. They surrounded Tinker Bell and me, and as I did my best to keep my dog, who is always leashed, from freaking out, I said to the guys "there's a leash law; these dogs are supposed to be on a leash."

One of the men (they were both large, middle-aged) said to me "I don't care if there's a law, and get out of here before I whup your ass. And I can do it, too." As I say, he was a large, tall guy, and I'm a small old man who probably couldn't whup a party balloon.

Tinker Bell and I walked on, but as I walked it occurred to me that this was a microexample of what's wrong with America. People really do feel that they can do anything they want to, the law doesn't matter. Hyper-independence training has severed the web of rights and obligations that a society needs to have in place to function well. The obligation to social responsibility is gone, all that's left is the perceived right to do whatever feels good at the time. And might makes the right.

I call this a microexample because we can also point to examples at the macro level. Take the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. This was an instance of what US prosecutor Robert Jackson, at the Nuremberg Trials, called the "supreme international crime":
To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.
We can say the same for invasions of Haiti, Grenada, Panama, and other places. The point is that because we can "whup their ass," and because nobody can stop us, it's ok for us to do whatever we want.

It's the same with the ongoing torture drama. It may be against international law, but we can do it if it suits us. In fact, a disturbing 40% of Americans said in a recent poll that they agreed with the decision to waterboard prisoners taken in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.

And who's going to stop us? President Obama still seems to be resisting the idea of prosecuting the people from the Cheney/Bush gang who enabled and carried out what can only be described as war crimes and crimes against humanity. Perhaps other nations, such as Spain and Germany, will step up and do what we can not.

Hyper-independence training is a mode of enculturation that produces social monsters at the micro and macro levels.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Catching up...

It's been a while since I felt like sitting down and typing: swine flu, torture memos, American Idol... ok, I pay exactly zero attention to American Idol. But still, maybe it's time to catch up with a few random thoughts, all crammed into one posting.

First, I finally got to see the Jacksonville Zoo's new pair of Komodo "Dragons." They are impressive animals, as you can see:



The "dragons" (Varanus komodoensis) are at present Earth's largest lizards, reaching a length of around ten feet (about the size of the one in my photo). They are interesting for a number of reasons. One is their method of killing large prey such as deer, water buffalo, or even humans, by biting them and then leaving them to die from massive infection caused by the bacteria present in their mouths. Another interesting thing about them is that they are capable of sustaining a high energy output, such as pursuing prey, for a longer time than most reptiles. And, finally, captive dragons have been observed "playing" with objects in their enclosures; play behavior is more common in mammals.

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And then there's the torture thing. We have memos written by former Cheny/Bush administration officials declaring waterboarding and other "harsh interrogation techniques" to be legal and usable by US personnel, even though we ourselves have prosecuted people who used these techinques on our own military, and even though they are not allowed under the United Nations Convention Against Torture. We even have on-camera semi-admissions (or in the case of Cheney, bragging) about the approval of and use of torture on people captured in Afghanistan and Iraq from Bush, Cheney, and Rice. And yet, President Obama seems not all that eager to pursue prosecutions of these and other people who clearly broke international law by committing war crimes and crimes against humanity. The usual statement is something like "mistakes were made, but we need to put the past behind us and ensure that those mistakes will not be repeated."

Bullshit. When someone murders somebody, we don't set the murderer free and tell the murdered person's family and friends that "a mistake was made," but "we have to put that behind us and move forward." When a crime of this magnitude is committed, the criminal(s) must be made to account for their behavior. The Cheney/Bush administration committed egregious crimes in our name; we cannot afford to allow them to go unpunished, leaving the pursuit of justice to courts in Spain or elsewhere.

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Another thing. May 1, "May Day," came and went pretty quietly, as it usually does here in the USA. Out in the rest of the world, there were demonstrations, parades, speeches, and so on, in recognition and celebration of working people: International Workers' Day. Here in the US, we do have a Labor Day, but it's held the first Monday in September and has lost, over the years, most of its original content as a celebration of workers and their unions. Indeed, we are among the least unionized of the industrial nations; here unions are suspect as socialist or even communist. This is certainly explainable as an outcome of the US emphasis on independence training.

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Finally... Summer classes at UNF start on Monday, May 11, and I will be teaching a section of Peoples and Cultures of the World (ANT 3212). Let's hope the "swine" flu doesn't cause us to postpone or cancel classes. I need the money.