Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Our Culture of Consumption

BlackintheCity.net Commentary (The Murphy Report has been changed to BlackintheCity.net):


A small boy bounces around in his booth at some nameless fast food restaurant that could be anywhere in the US, for that matter anywhere throughout much of the world.

“When will it be ready?” he asks again for the fourth time in less than a minute.

His mother sighs, “Soon honey. Please have a little patience. Your father will bring the food over pretty quick.”

“I wonder what the toy will be?” the boy asks with great anticipation.

For the rest, go to my column.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Constitutional Amendments and the Right to Marry Under the Influence

Murphy Report Commentary:


President Bush and many socially conservative Republicans were at it again this last week, out on the front lines protecting the institution of marriage from renegade activist judges. But the proposed constitutional amendment to limit marriage in the US to a union between a man and a woman failed to receive even 50 percent of the cloture vote in the Senate today (Wednesday), effectively killing this particular attempt at banning gay marriage at the federal level. The lackluster support for the amendment lends credit to the charge by some that the real goal of the amendment (at least at this time) was to energize support in the Republican party’s conservative base.

For the rest, go to my column.

Toilets of Terror III

Murphy Report commentary:


As if waiting before the very gates of hell, the little preschooler stands rooted in front of the toilet stall in a nameless public restroom that could be anywhere in the states. His little heart beats fast as he hears his mother impatiently urge him on.

“Go on, honey. We need to get a move on. I’m going to stay out here and change your sister’s diaper.”

For the rest, go to my column

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Why Pay for the Social Sciences?

Another of my commentaries from the Murphy Report.


While only a minor blip on the radar screen of most Americans, there was a major shakeup of about 8.8 in the world of the social sciences last week. I’m referring to the amendment of the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act (S 2802) proposed by Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-TX. The amendment’s original wording gave preference to NSF (National Science Foundation) funding for research involving “physical science, technology, engineering, or mathematics,” over that of the social sciences - sociology, anthropology, geography, economics, psychology, political science, education, and history [1]. Oddly, in terms of tax dollar funding, Senator Hutchison also included biology (a life science) and geology (a physical science) as part of this “second class” of scientific endeavors.

For the rest, go to my column.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

The Threat of Christian Nationalism

Another of my columns from the Murphy Report.


Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus going on before.
Christ, the royal Master, leads against the foe;
Forward into battle see His banners go!

So go the lyrics to the first verse of Sabine Baring-Gould’s 1865 hymn “Onward Christian Solders.” Growing up as part of the United Methodist Church in Middle America, I recall singing this fairly blatant militant hymn from time to time. Of course I was always told the hymn should be interpreted as a metaphor for the struggle against Satan, sin, and our own personal demons (whatever the long dead author’s original intent). Christianity, I remember being taught, is a religion that strives for peace, understanding, forgiveness, and acceptance – despite its long history of contrary examples.

For the rest, go to my column.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The Irony of Intelligent Design

I recently started writing a column for the Murphy Report. The following is the first paragraph from my first column.

The great irony of Intelligent Design is that its success and development as an intellectual tradition can be neatly framed within a Darwinian evolutionary perspective. After all, our intellectual traditions and all their associated technologies are extensions of our behaviors, and therefore are subject to the forces of evolution just as our genes are. Two examples from different periods of human history will help illustrate this.

Go to the Murphy Report to check out the rest.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Stephen Colbert at White House Correspondents Association Dinner

The following is an Act for Change update. Whether you take any action or not, definitely check out the video of Colbert's performance - it's a biting commentary on the Bush administration and the media's half hearted attempts to hold the administration accountable.



Mainstream Media -- Why the Blackout on Stephen Colbert?

Last week at the White House Correspondents Association Dinner, comedian Stephen Colbert delivered a scathing satirical commentary on the Bush Administration -- right in front of President Bush himself. But unless you get your news from online sources such as the blogs, you probably didn't even hear about it.

If you haven't already watched his performance, watch it online now. Click here:


A transcript can be found here:


It's ironic that at the annual gathering of this nation's elite journalists, the only one with the courage to tell the honest truthwas a comedian. It sure speaks volumes to the media's failure to ask the Bush administration hard questions and hold it accountable. Tell the mainstream media to do their jobs and act as watchdogs, notlapdogs, of the Bush administration. Click here:


Let's go ahead and ask America's major media outlets -- why the silence on Colbert? Were you uncomfortable with his courage in pointing out that you have not really been carrying out the independent watchdog role upon which our democracy depends? Tell the corporate media: honest and much-needed criticism of this administration shouldn't be left to the comedians. Click here:


*** Then, please forward this email to all your friends, neighbors, favorite webmasters or bloggers!!!

THANK YOU for working to build a better world, Will EastonManager, ActForChange.com / Working Assets

P.S. -- Want to support 50 great progressive nonprofit groups fightingthe right-wing agenda? Contribute by clicking here:

http://act.actforchange.com/cgi-bin7/DM/y/emtd0NgDMY0TD50BBhG0EN .

View the groups we're supporting in 2006 by clicking here:


Friday, April 07, 2006

Junk Food Education

The April 7th Lawrence Journal-World story entitled “Bill aims to rid schools of junk food options” discusses the problems of junk food in our nation's schools and the recently introduced federal legislation intended to update the nutrition standards for all food sold/distributed in our public schools. However, the article ignored what I thought to be the fundamental reason why junk food has infiltrated our nation’s public schools over the last twenty years. As the general importance that US society places on public education as slowly waned, along with the associated funding, public schools have, in part, resorted to good ol’ fashioned capitalism to make up the difference.

Deals with junk food manufacturers to place their vending machines on school campuses have proven lucrative. But the consequences have proven unhealthy to our nation’s children, and over the long term the increase in obesity (and associated health problems) that this has helped create will further stress our nation’s increasingly dysfunctional health care system.

I agree with the general sentiment that problems often arise when implementing federal legislation and regulation at the local level, often due to inadequate accounting for local variability. But this doesn’t negate the fact that such federal actions are sometime needed to balance the interests of capitalism with the long-term health and welfare of the nation, albeit in a smart, efficient, and effective manner that is accountable for local needs.

What's Impeachable and Why

On the one hand we have a former president for whom impeachment proceedings were instigated as a result of his sexual indiscretion within the walls of the White House. On the other hand we have a sitting president for whom even censure seems highly unlikely, despite 1) apparently authorizing the disclosure of highly sensitive intelligence information to the media in order to discredit Joe Wilson's views that were contrary to the administration's justifications for the invasion of Iraq, 2) authorizing the wire tapping of private citizens, 3) leading an administration that bungled the response to Hurricane Katrina, and the list goes on and on.

As a private citizen this astounds me. But as an anthropologist I find it intriguing to explore how the nature of contemporary American society and culture allows for such a gross contradiction to occur. Certainly the elevation of a very narrow definition of social morality (i.e., social conservative elements based a great deal on evangelical Christian interpretations of western, Judeo/Christian philosophy and history) to the national level has played a part in this. But it's obviously involves more than this alone, and unfortunately, time does not allow me to expand upon it now. But for those who wish to comment, feel free.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Embracing Inequality to Achieve Equality of Opportunity

And again we have more research results demonstrating differing brain operations between men and women. UC Irvine researchers have reported findings that show the amygdala, a part of the brain "involved in processing emotionally influenced memories," behaves differently in men and women. And this specific finding may shed light on the understanding and treatment of various psychiatric disorders that appear to vary by sex/gender.

As an anthropologist, particularly one that makes heavy use of evolutionary theory, the fact that there are very real differences in the brains of males vs. females, and that these differences influence how each sex perceives and experiences the world around them, is to be expected. By far, the majority of human and pre-human history was spent in relatively small groups with many of the daily tasks for survival and propagation of the species subdivided along the line between the two sexes. Not the least of which would have been childbirth itself.

It would be inevitable that evolution over the long term would have modified the male and female brain differently to adapt to and perform these differing tasks more efficiently and effectively. So it would seem logical that in our modern world we should try to account for these differences in everything from medical treatments, to the design of space, to the structuring of learning environments and teaching methods.

Unfortunately politics and ideology often get in the way of this. The far left (including many feminists) often decries such research and its applications as perpetuating white male dominance or other power imbalances. The far right (including many religious conservatives) sometimes uses this type of research to justify its own various male/female dichotomies (including male "superiority").

And such findings also conflict with the popular "myth" in the US that all people are created equal. The fact is we're not created equal - we differ in various forms of physical prowess, various forms of intelligence, various likes/dislikes, the amount of resources available to the families we're born into, etc. The differences in the male/female brain are just another example of how we're not created equal.

Another US ideal - the goal of providing everyone with equal opportunities for success - is also typically not "true" in the sense that it's often not realized. However this is an ideal that we can strive for, but to do so we have to recognize the fact that we're not all created equal - including men and women. If we proceed on the erroneous assumption that we all have the same potential to succeed in any given situation, there will always be individuals playing with the deck stacked against them.

In the case of treating certain psychiatric disorders, by not recognizing the difference between men and women, certain treatments may be placing one gender or the other at a disadvantage in terms of being a success (or both genders may be placed at a disadvantage because the treatment targets neither brain type very well). A somewhat more controversial case is the structuring of education environments and teaching methods to maximize the differences in the mental wiring between males and females. But again, one or the other (or both) may be placed at a disadvantage by not recognizing the mental differences.

Science, in its purest form, doesn't care about politics or ideology. It cares about what the experimental evidence is saying. And its telling us that there are very real differences in how the brain works between males and females. We must acknowledge these differences, these inherent inequalities, if we ever truly want to achieve equality of opportunity.

US Pandemic Simulation

Livescience has a sobering summary of a US avian flu pandemic simulation that has the flu infecting the entire continental US after only 90 days (starting with 10 highly infectious influenza cases in Los Angeles). In addition to concluding that the production of a modestly effective vaccine ahead of time is preferable to waiting to see what the exact strain turns out to be, the researchers also stated that quarantines, school closures, and travel restrictions are the obvious means to slow the spread.

Of course, disrupting our social and economic networks via such government imposed means (as well as by the pandemic itself), will have drastic consequences from the local to global levels. As a species, we're regionally and globally integrated at a scale never seen before in human history. The disruption of our social and economic networks will probably have longer lasting social, cultural, and economic consequences than the pandemic itself, depending on the severity.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Toilets of Terror II

As a sequel to my earlier March 11 post, Toilets of Terror, I noticed that today's Sunday Comics (April 2) has Opus facing a seemingly possessed public toilet with an automatic flush valve. The majority of the frames depict Opus in various stages of dread and apprehension as he approaches (slowly and delicately so as not to disturb) the porcelain beast. In the next to the last frame, as he oh so gently sets his bottom down, the great beast roars to life, sending spray everywhere while shattering Opus' nerves. In the last frame our poor penguin hero is being wheeled out the door, strapped in a straight jacket screaming: "It's alive! .... Alive, I tell you!!"

I would say that depiction within the Sunday Comics is one sign that a social issue, problem, etc., has probably reached the stage where it is having a widespread affect. And in this case I would venture to say that automatic flush valves are a problem with all ages to varying degrees, though the impact is probably greater for pre-schoolers.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Filling a Need for Quick, Low-Cost Housing

"See a need. Fill a need."

This was a catch phrase from the hit animated movie Robots, referring to what inventors do at their most basic level. And this is precisely what Sanford Ponder, founder of Icosa Village Inc., has done with his invention of the Pod.

Ponder is quoted to have said "If we live in a world where people are forced to live in cardboard boxes, then someone should at least invent a better box." Ponder's "better box" solution, which he's termed the Pod, consists of interlocking triangular panels made from Coroplast (a hybrid polypropylene) that are strong, lightweight, water proof, recyclable, and usable in sub-zero environments.

The individual panels are easily transportable and can be assembled without specialized knowledge or tools. They've proven highly effective as temporary housing in recent disaster relief settings, such as the Kashmir region of Pakistan. And Ponder is also promoting their use in longer term, low-cost housing situations.

By coming up with simple technological solution, Ponder has made it possible to adapt his invention to a variety of social, cultural, environmental, and economic contexts. So I think I would revise the catch phrase of Robots to the following:

See a need. Fill a need, simply.


"I'm also not very analytical. You know, I don't spend a lot of time thinking about myself, about why I do things."

- George W. Bush aboard Air Force One; June 4, 2003

I received one of those George W. Bushisms daily calender for Christmas, and this was the quote that was listed for today. I tell you, most days I don't know whether to laugh or cry after reading the Bushism for the day.

I often wonder how the future will look back not just upon this administration, but how the social, cultural, economic, etc., etc. makeup of the US was such that this guy got elected twice. It may fuel many future dissertations.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

The Gulf Region's Demographic Shuffle

With only two months to go before a hurricane season that the director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami has said will likely be stronger than average, the Bush administration is now saying there may not be enough money available to fully rebuild the Gulf region to meet new federal standards. This includes rebuilding/updating the New Orleans' levees, the cost of which is now estimated to be triple the value originally put forward.

This means that those areas unable to meet new federal regulations, and the requirements of the national flood insurance program, will have a tougher time attracting investors, developers, home buyers, federal/state/local infrastructure development/improvement/repair, etc. It's also true that many of these areas coincide with the areas populated by those with both lower incomes and less power and influence.

A potential travesty is in the making as disenfranchised groups may be pushed out of their homes and neighborhoods in New Orleans and across the gulf states. The demographics of the region may substantially change in the next few years - another symptom of the ever widening gap occurring between the "haves" and the continued increasing "have nots."

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Fighting Childhood Obesity With ... Fidgeting

Mayo clinic researcher Dr James Levine has come up with what I think is a brilliantly clever strategy for fighting childhood obesity - designing an experimental classroom in Rochester, MN to take advantage of a child's seemingly "natural state" of fidgeting. Standard desks and chairs have been replaced by adjustable podiums that allow kids to stand, kneel, or balance on big excercise balls. And instead of constantly being told by teachers to sit still, the students are encouraged to move around if they feel the urge.

The data still aren't all in, but the observations of teachers and administrators are very encouraging thus far. And there appears to be an added benefit - these "free-to-fidget" students appear to actually be more focused than their desk-bound peers.

While this might be surprising to some, it makes sense if you think about it in terms of human history. The reason being allowed to fidget helps a child's focus is probably similar to why daylighting and natural views are prefered by (and, as studies suggest, increase the performance of) students (and people in general) within the built environment.

Prior to and after the advent of modern humans, between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago, Homo sapiens and their ancestors learned by "doing" out on a landscape illuminated primarily by the sun (and not rigidly confined to a sitting position). This did not begin to change until after the advent of urbanization between 8,000 and 12,000 years ago, and it has only been since the late 19th century that the use of "desk learning" and electric lighting have become the norm.

As such, general human physiologies and psychologies require a certain degree of movement for fitness, and are well adapted for operating within view of the natural environment and making use of daylighting (and therefore less well adapted to long periods of confinement, artificial lighting [particularly electric lighting], and being visually disconnected from natural views). And therefore what we typically have are classroom settings (as well as office settings) that work against the evolutonary history of our species. Food for thought for all those associated with education and the built environment.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The "Built Environment" By Any Other Name?

A while back I got into a discussion with a few archaeologists as to what other general terms could be used in place of the phrase "built environment." These particular archaeologists (myself included) subscribe to one of the discipline's multitude of theoretical perspectives known as Darwinian Archaeology - the application of Darwinian theory to the study of the archaeological record.

The core of the discussion focused around the already excepted definitions of terms such as "environment" and "phenotype" in evolutionary theory, and how the use of the term "built environment" could create some confusion in evolutionary studies of the built environment. Personally, I really like this term - its very comprehensive and descriptive - but I do understand other scholars' concerns. What follows below is a summary of my short-lived quest for an alternative term(s), a quest I did not complete. However, I would be interested if anyone wants to comment and make their own suggestions.

The traditional evolutionary definition of phenotype is the manifestation of the genotype as a result of the interaction of the genotype with its surrounding environment (Dawkins 1989:235; Sober 1984:106). The phenotype includes bodily features such as hair and skin, behavior, and the results of behavior that include the manipulation and/or fabrication of individual objects, groups of objects, social systems, etc. (Dunnell 1989; 1995; Dawkins 1982; Leonard and Jones 1987; Michod 1999:139; O’Brien and Holland 1995; O’Brien and Lyman 2000:7; Sober 1984:119).

Phenotypic objects such as artifacts or individual attributes may persist over time differently from the individuals or lineages of individuals that use them. Leonard and Jones (1987) point this out in their discussion of the reproductive success of individuals versus the replicative success of items. Replicative success is simply the “differential persistence through time [of certain items]” (Leonard and Jones 1987:214) and does not say anything about the reproductive success of the individuals using those items. This difference is due in part to the fact that the rate of propagation of traits within a population is often more a result of frequency dependence and environmental conditions than individual reproductive success (Madsen et al. 1999:258; Neff 2001:32).

Phenotypic objects such as artifacts or individual attributes can also be classified as both interactors (“epicenter of effects that a collection of replicators has upon the world” – Neff 2001:26) and replicators (some unit of which copies can be made – Neff 2001:26) (Mitchell 1987; Turner et al. 1997:43), due to an issue of scale. For example, attributes of discrete objects may act as replicators, while classes of discrete objects may be classified as interactors (O’Brien and Lyman 2000:383).

The traditional evolutionary definition of environment is where an organism or group of organisms make its/their living; the environment allows access to resources needed by the organism(s) for survival and reproduction (Gould and Gould 1989:36). According to many researchers, this includes both the physical and social environments (Hejl et al. 1997:400-401; Kummer et al. 1997; Lekson 1990:124). However, I believe that Durham (1991) [and others] would argue that there is no social “environment”, only social systems which are phenotypic traits formed by the interaction of genes and culture with the physical environment (culture acting analogous to genes in that both provide a guide for behavior within a given environment).

It seems that the term “environment” is often used loosely in evolutionary studies. This is primarily due to two aspects of evolution. The first is that the phenotype itself, its fitness, and heritability are determined by the interaction of genes/culture with the environment and other phenotypic traits or artifacts (Madsen et al. 1999:257; Michod 1999). The other phenotypic traits (which may include tangible elements such as modified natural objects and constructed artificial objects as well as less tangible entities such as social systems) are often lumped together with the “natural” surroundings under the general term “environment”. The second aspect is that the nature of the environment can change depending on the scale of what is being looked at. For example, Hejl et al. (1997:424-425) states the following: “The environment of genes consists of organisms, that of organisms consists of social systems or the physical surroundings, and that of social systems consists of the genetic constraints of past evolutionary history.”

From the above distinction (and blurring) of phenotype and environment, it would seem that the “built environment" (consisting of both the physical form and the behavior associated with its design, construction, occupancy, remodel, and demolition/abandonment), is a potential problematic term. The physical forms of the built environment technically meet the above definition of environment in that they “provide a place where humans make their living by providing access to at least some of the resources needed for survival and reproduction”. However, the built environment should probably be viewed more as phenotypic traits that are the result interactions of genes/culture with the environment as well as players in the development, fitness, and heritability of other phenotypic traits through their interaction with genes/culture and the environment. Therefore, the use of an alternative term in place of “built environment” is perhaps warranted.

Most studies of the built environment, which are also non-evolutionary in nature, tend to either focus on the physical forms themselves, the behavior of the occupants, or the behavior of the designers/builders. Sometimes the studies focus primarily on these phenotypic elements alone, and sometimes they examine these elements in relation to the surrounding environment, and sometimes they examine these elements in relation to other phenotypic systems, such as religion (though obviously not from a Darwinian evolutionary perspective). In some ways, many of these studies could be thought of as providing potential specific historical trajectories or solutions in larger evolutionary questions.

Given the above specific description of the built environment as phenotype and the above characterization of non-evolutionary studies of the built environment, I believe that most non-evolutionary scholars of the built environment could at least understand why the built environment should be considered as part of the phenotype from and evolutionary perspective. In fact, John Fitchen, an important scholar of the built environment, wrote the following in his 1986 text on pre-industrial building construction: “Building construction is analogous to animals ‘constructing’ their ‘dwellings’, and in fact has historically drawn upon these examples to help solve various problems” (pp. 22-26).

Given the above background/justification, most non-evolutionary scholars (and certainly Darwinian evolutionary scholars) of the built environment should at least be open to the use of an alternative term. The question then becomes what term to use. I personally do not think that architecture or architectural phenotype are acceptable alternatives to “built environment” (why is the subject of another post, but the jist is that I don't think its as encompassing a term). I have a few terms that I leaning towards: 1) Built Forms per Lawrence and Low 1990; 2) Designed Space; or 3) Constructed Space. This new term would refer to both the physical form and the behavior associated with its design, construction, occupancy, remodel, and demolition/abandonment.

In a future post I may cover more specifically various definitions of the built environment.


Dawkins, R.
1982 The Extended Phenotype: The Gene as the Unit of Selection. W. H. Freeman, Oxford.

1989 [1976] The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York.

Dunnell, R. C.
1989 Aspects of the Application of Evolutionary Theory in Archaeology. In Archaeological Thought in America, edited by C. C. Lamberg-Karlovsky, pp. 35-49. Cambridge University Press, New York.

1995 What is it that Actually Evolves? In Evolutionary Archaeology: Methodological Issues, edited by P. Teltser, pp. 33-51. The University of Arizona Press, Tucson.

Durham, W. H.
1991 Coevolution: Genes, Culture, and Human Diversity. Stanford University Press, Stanford, California.

Fitchen, J.
1986 Building Construction Before Mechanization. The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Gould, J. L. and C. G. Gould, editors
1989 Life at the Edge: Readings from Scientific American Magazine. W. H. Freeman and Company. New York.

Hejl, P. M., R. Falk, H. Hendrichs, and E. Jablonka
1987 Complex Systems: Multilevel and Multiprocess Approaches. In Human By Nature: Between Biology and the Social Sciences, edited by P. Weingart, P. J. Richerson, S. D. Mitchell, and S. Maasen, pp. 387-426. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, Mahwah, New Jersey and London.

Kummer, H., G. Gigerenzer, L. Daston, and J. B. Silk
1987 The Social Intelligence Hypothesis. In Human By Nature: Between Biology and the Social Sciences, edited by P. Weingart, P. J. Richerson, S. D. Mitchell, and S. Maasen, pp. 157-180. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, Mahwah, New Jersey and London.

Lawrence, D. L., and S. M. Low
1990 The built environment and spatial form. Annual Review of Anthropology 19:453-505.

Lekson, S. H.
1990 Cross-Cultural Perspectives on the Community. In Vernacular Architecture: Paradigms of Environmental Response. Ethnoscapes Volume 4, edited by M. Turan, pp. 122-145. Avebury, Aldershot.

Leonard, R. D. and G. T. Jones
1987 Elements of an Inclusive Evolutionary Model for Archaeology. Journal of Anthropologicial Archaeology 54:491-503.

Madsen, M., C. Lipo, and M. Cannon
1999 Fitness and Reproductive Trade-Offs in Uncertain Environments: Explaining the Evolution of Cultural Elaboration. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 18:252-281.

Michod, R. E.
1999 Darwinian Dynamics: Evolutionary Transitions in Fitness and Individuality. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey.

Mitchell, S. D.
1987 Competing Units of Selection? A Case of Symbiosis. Philosophy of Science 54: 351-364.

Neff, H.
2001 Differential Persistence of What? The Scale of Selection Issue in Evolutionary Archaeology. In Style and Function: Conceptual Issues in Evolutionary Archaeology, edited by T. D. Hurt and G. F. M. Rakita, pp. 25-40. Bergin and Garvey, Westport, Connecticut and London.

O’Brien, M. J., and T. D. Holland
1995 Behavioral Archaeology and the Extended Phenotype. In Reconstruction Theory: A Behavioral Approach to the Archaeological Record, edited by A. E. Nielson, J. M. Skibo, and W. H. Walker. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.

O’Brien, M. J. and R. L. Lyman
2000 Applying Evolutionary Archaeology: A Systematic Approach. Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers, New York.

Sober, E.
1984 The Nature of Selection: Evolutionary Theory in Philosophical Focus. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London.

Turner, J. H., L. Cosmides, G. Hodgson, S. J. Shennan, M. Borgerhoff Mulder, B. Giesen, A. M. Maryanski, J. Tooby, and B. M. Velichkovsky
1997 Looking Back: Historical and Theoretical Context of Present Practice. In Human By Nature: Between Biology and the Social Sciences, edited by P. Weingart, P. J. Richerson, S. D. Mitchell, and S. Maasen, pp. 17-64. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, Mahwah, New Jersey and London.

Monday, March 27, 2006

The President's Simplistic Use of Faith

Kevin Phillips is making the media rounds promoting his book "American Theocracy" and you can hear one of his stops with Terry Gross here. I have yet to read it, but I've put this expose of "radical religion, oil, and borrowed money" high on my must read list. And from what I've heard it's definitely not a quaint little bed time story to put you at ease for a blissful night of slumber.

With regards to the President's seemingly over-reliance on his own personal evangelical Christian faith, I wrote a commentary piece on this that appeared in the June 16, 2004 Albuquerque Tribune. A version of it appears below.

Not by Faith Alone

Benjamin Franklin once wrote, "The way to see by faith is to shut the eye of reason."[1] In other words, blind faith in some religious doctrine alone is woefully inadequate for framing one's worldview. Such a narrow perspective, formulated in the absence of other viewpoints, provides a limited understanding of the world. And yet this is precisely our president's perspective.

President Bush is an evangelical, born again Christian. By his own admission, he feels he was called by God to be president.[2] He sees the world in terms of black and white, good and evil. In his worldview, the United States is on a divine mission to shine the light of democracy on the rest of the world, freeing it from the grip of terrorism. And if you aren't with us, then you're with the terrorists.

This line of thinking solidified for our president after 9/11, and now forms the basis for much of our unilateralist foreign policy. Our president is confident in his stance, but this confidence stems from shutting out conflicting viewpoints and relying on his own interpretation of divine guidance.
When Bob Woodward asked the president if he sought his own father's advice on Iraq (a prudent course of action considering Bush senior's war with Iraq), the president responded, "You know, he is the wrong father to appeal to in terms of strength. There is a higher father that I appeal to."[3] He was so confident and comfortable that he didn't even ask most of his top advisors what they thought prior to making his final decision.[4]

Is it any wonder that much of the world - including atheists, agnostics, other Christian denominations, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Native American religious practitioners, etc. - is troubled by our president's actions? The leader of the most powerful nation on earth is formulating his policies within the narrow framework of one religious doctrine - evangelical Christianity. I think we should all be a bit nervous.

I'm not trying to degrade religion here. In fact, from an evolutionary standpoint, religion has been adaptable for individuals and groups in a variety of ways.

Across cultures and stretching back through time, religion has aided people in cooperating together as cohesive units through the establishment of moral codes, social structures, and strong social bonds.[5] It often helps establish a sense of family and community, as well as providing ties to the past and a sense of continuity. But problems arise when competition with others turns destructive.

The leader of the most powerful nation on earth has the obligation to acknowledge this and account for the cultural and religious mix that is our world. Otherwise we cannot avoid these destructive interactions.

Any leader that makes decisions based largely on an appeal to his/her own perception of God is bound to make a general mess of things by offending or oppressing those who have different (or no) conceptions of a higher being; hence the Founding Father's wise implementation of the separation of church and state.

For example, we're now all familiar with the president's use of the term "crusade" in describing our war on terrorism and how it made the Muslim world nervous and distrustful of our actions. This was a first rate blunder that could easily have been avoided.

Equally bad was the following. Recounting a conversation with President Bush, former Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas quoted the president in a June 24, 2003 article in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz as saying, "God told me to strike at al Qaeda and I struck them, and then he instructed me to strike at Saddam, which I did, and now I am determined to solve the problem in the Middle East."[6]

The world is not black and white, or at least the world's definitions of black and white are not the same. At a global scale then this dichotomy blends to many shades of gray with distinctly dark and light ends. A president who decides to send troops to war in a relative vacuum, based on an appeal to one religion's narrow interpretation of a higher father, is able to make that decision far too easy for my taste.

I'm not calling for the president to abandon his faith. Nor do I think that one can divorce himself/herself from his/her own spiritual beliefs when looking at the rest of the world. But instead of closing both "eyes of reason" to see by faith, perhaps the president would be wise to keep one eye open and examine the multiple perspectives of any issue before making a decision.


[1] Benjamin Franklin, "Poor Richard's Almanack," 1758; from George Seldes, ed., The Great Quotations, Secaucus, New Jersey: The Citadel Press, 1983, p. 259.

[2] PBS Frontline: The Jesus Factor. Written, Produced, and Directed by Raney Aronson. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/jesus.

[3] Fineman, H. and T. Lipper. 2004. The Gospel According to George. Newsweek, April 26, 2004, pp. 18-21.

[4] Thomas, E. 2004. "I Haven't Suffered Doubt." Newsweek, April 26, 2004, pp. 22-25.

[5] Wilson, D. S. 2002 Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London.

[6] Regular, A. 2003. `Road map is a life saver for us,' PM Abbas tells Hamas. Haaretz, June 24, 2003. http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/pages/ShArt.jhtml?itemNo=310788.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Using "The Force" to Investigate Structural Forces

As an anthropologist, engineer, and all around geek, it doesn't get a lot better than this:

Yoda Helps Unlock Cathedral Mysteries

Here we have the use of computer animation and structural analysis to 1) de-mystify certain design/construction secrets of 12th/13th century European Cathedrals, 2) shed additional light on the social systems surrounding cathedral construction, 3) provide an investigative tool for contemporary structures, and 4) a means to develop more innovative and efficient designs for the future. Very cool indeed - check it out.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Journey Back to the Gunslinging Days of the Wild West

The carrying of concealed guns will now be legal in the state of Kansas after the House and Senate both overrode Governor Sebelius' veto. Though I'm not an anti-gun activist, I tend to be critical of our nation's love affair with firearms. In popular culture, we tend to heavily romanticize firearms, while downplaying the realities involved in their use. Handguns are highly effective, destructive tools designed for the harming and killing of other people - that's their function.

Everything else being equal, the more guns out their on the street, the more likely innocent people will get hurt. But of course, everything else isn't always equal and this is where proponents of conceal/carry laws gain some ground. It is true that criminals will carry handguns on them no matter what the law says (though I think one could make an argument that stricter gun control laws would decrease the percentage of criminals carrying handguns), and as a result there are certain settings (i.e., driving a cab) where carrying a handgun could statistically increase your safety as opposed to decreasing it. And to be fair, the law will provide some restrictions as to where you can and cannot carry concealed guns. However, I think opening up conceal/carry to everyone does not increase everyone's net safety.

I say this because human beings are not always rational creatures, particularly when addicted to drugs or acting in the heat of the moment. Senate sponsor Phil Journey, R-Haysville, was quoted as saying "Many criminals are rational human beings, and when they realize there is a good chance that they could get shot committing a violent crime, they'll probably decide to do something else." For a segment of the criminal population this may indeed be true, but a meth addict wouldn't think twice about whether or not he/she could get shot. In such highly charged situations, the potential for a firefight would increase with the presence of multiple concealed weapons.

And I think this increase in the firefight potential is not just because of the presence of additional handguns, but also because of the what I perceive to be the limited training required to carry a concealed weapon. The required eight hour training course doesn't approach anywhere near the kind of training undertaken by law enforcement, and yet it is suppose to provide the average person on the street the necessary tools to react quickly, efficiently, and rationally in a highly dangerous, adrenaline pumping situation? I think not, and this is where I have the real problem with conceal/carry.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Gay Marriage Opposition Dropping

The Associated Press reports that the American public's opposition to gay marriage is dropping. It's inevitable that the definition of marriage will change over time, as this is the norm for cultural phenomena.

See an earlier post of mine - "Marriage Metamorphosis" in my 02/19/06 archive.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Bush's Battle with Science

"Present policies are set to damage a whole generation of young research workers, and the negative impact on recruitment of the next generation of scientists will be seen for years to come."

This is the last line out the "A Reporter At Large" piece in the March 13th New Yorker, by Michael Specter and entitled "Political Science: The Bush Administration's War on the Laboratory." This statement I quoted from the New Yorker piece is actually from a commentary by Paul Nurse (Nobel laureate and president of Rockefeller University) that appeared in a recent issue of the journal Cell. He was referring to the Bush administration's policies and their affects on American science.

This administration has consistently shown again and again that it is driven by ideology, and not by empirical data (i.e, reality). This same article also quotes the former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop: "But you have to weigh the facts, and this Administration doesn't seem to take that approach. One thing that I have learned is that belief doesn't change reality." However, that is precisely the guiding principal of this administration - belief/ideology makes reality.

On March 11, 2004, a commentary piece I wrote along these lines appeared in the Albuquerque Tribune, and I have included it below. I specifically looked at the administration's ignorance and distortion of anthropology and history to further its own agenda in the Middle East.

COMMENTARY: Democracy's Dark Side

Terrorism can breed in free states, Mr. President. If you took a deeper look at history and anthropology, you'd know that.

By Marcel Harmon

President Bush's blatant disregard and lack of respect for the sciences also afflicts his foreign policy.

On Feb. 18, the Union of Concerned Scientists issued a report accusing the Bush administration of systematically distorting scientific research to further its own political agendas.

This report focuses primarily on the physical and biological sciences, but it appears to me the administration is also guilty of ignoring and distorting anthropology and history.

Vice President Dick Cheney recently demonstrated this in his speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland:

"Nurturing democracy, especially in the Middle East, is essential to halting terrorism. Democracies do not breed the anger and the radicalism that drag down whole societies or export violence. Terrorists do not find fertile recruiting grounds in societies where young people have the right to guide their own destinies and to choose their own leaders." He cited Turkey as prime example of democracy in the Muslim world.

Eloquent words, but they seem overly idealistic and ignore reality. Take, for instance, the November 2003 attacks in Istanbul, Turkey, that killed more than 50 people and injured more than 700. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s this Muslim democracy was subject to attacks from domestic Kurdish, Islamic and Marxists terrorists, some of which assisted in recent attacks.
Apparently, democratic Turkey is fertile enough ground for these homegrown terrorists. As is the United States, easily the world's prime pillar of democracy. Remember Timothy McVeigh? Surely you haven't forgotten the Unabomber or the attacks against Planned Parenthood and abortion clinics.

Democracy in and of itself, even if it covers the entire planet like a warm blanket, will never eliminate the catalysts of terrorism. Why? A major reason is that evolution has shaped humanity to interact in groups that range in size from nuclear families to nations. Such groups are defined by ethnicity, religion, age and politics.

They often compete, sometimes violently, leading to sharp distinctions of "us" versus "them." The larger the group, the greater the chance for internal subgroups to develop "rifts" via the generation of new ideas, religions and philosophies. These disassociate themselves from the "us" and sometimes take drastic actions. Anti-abortion extremists are a perfect example, motivated by a homegrown morality rooted in the Christian right, fighting to save unborn children and acting against their fellow citizens and the law by blowing up abortion clinics.

Why don't Bush and Cheney make the obvious connection? Perhaps because they are not seeking any scientific input. Searching Web sites, I was only able to find one relatively high-ranking U.S. government individual at either the White House or the State Department with any higher-level education in anthropology.

Second, the science doesn't fit the picture this administration wants to paint - to gain public support - of an idealized Middle East full of perfectly functioning democracies that "do not breed anger and radicalism." It was necessary to ignore, twist and oversimplify elements of history and anthropology to push Bush's policies in the Middle East and particularly in Iraq.

Learning about other groups and cultures, and thereby gaining an understanding of the "other" - as individual people going about their day-to-day lives - allows one to focus more on our similarities rather than our differences. In this country, it should also cause us to think about how we affect other nations - like the amount of resources we consume relative to other parts of the world.

Political policies should take such issues into account, and this is certainly something anthropologists can help us do - if our leaders let them. As the leader of the free world, Bush should adapt political policy to new scientific findings, as well as to existing, accepted scientific knowledge. He should not "dumb down" our government's scientific capacity in order to fit his personal world view or preconceived political agenda.

The Un-Educators

Our illustrious Kansas State Board of Education is at it again - that is, the socially conservative, ideologically driven majority members. On Wednesday (3/15/06), the majority approved a requirement that schools would need to obtain parental permission before receiving any sex education. The general process is termed "opt-in," where forms must be sent home to parents who must then fill them out and send them back. This contrasts with the less cumbersome "opt-out" procedures that require forms to be turned in specifically if you do not want your kids to participate.

The social conservatives tout this as a means for "empowering parents" with regards to control over their own students' education. This seems a bit ludicrous and disingenuous to me, though.

If fixing a perceived power imbalance between schools and parents was really their goal, then it makes more sense to push some form of "opt-out" procedure as opposed to "opt-in." The former creates far less of a burden on our already overworked and underpaid educators, in just paperwork alone.

But this "power imbalance" doesn't really exist. School boards, administrators, and teachers are generally receptive to community/parent concerns (and note here that I do say generally as there are certainly exceptions); probably more so than ever before, if for no other reason than to simply protect themselves from litigation or other forms of community wrath.

And by the way, most schools already implement some type of formal or informal "opt-out" procedure as a means to accommodate individual parent/family concerns/beliefs, whether its sex-ed, holiday celebrations, or the like. It just requires that parents pay attention to their kids' lives and be proactive to a degree.

So to me this appears more as a ploy for the social conservatives to push their own ideological agenda as opposed to "empowering parents" or acting in the best interest of Kansas' students. Maybe these particular board members should worry more about stopping the continued decline of US student performance relative to the rest of the world than trying to keep them ignorant of what a condom is.

Monday, March 13, 2006

The Severe Weather Welcoming Wagon

I knew the welcome would come, but it was still a heart pounding surprise nonetheless. After moving back to Kansas three months ago (after an absence of about 13 years), I was awaiting with some trepidation the greeting I would receive from the midwest's/great plain's spring/summer severe weather season.

Well, yesterday it came a little early and for some reason decided against bringing flowers as a welcoming gesture. Heck, there wasn't even a welcome wagon - more like a freight train that tore through Lawrence, rumbling and shaking my own house for 30 seconds or so. And it was gone before I got myself to the house's central bathroom. So I count my blessings, both in terms of the minimal damage my rental house received and the fact that no one in Lawrence was seriously hurt (but the damage is extensive). Tragically, though, others in Missouri were not so fortunate.

Now the official word is that tornados weren't actually part of the welcoming committee (at least here in Lawrence) - just extremely strong straight winds and microbursts. But there were many unofficial accounts of people spotting a tornado or two. Whatever the case, mother nature officially welcomed me back to the state. And the adrenaline rush overlying a tinge of fear brought back memories of growing up in a state where severe weather is simply a part of what must be faced on any given day during the spring and summer.

The trepidation I mentioned earlier really wasn't for myself, or even my wife who also grew up here. I've got two small kids now, one old enough to realize the danger and he'll have to come to terms with it. I think that's the basis of my real fear - having to help get him past the initial shock and fear of living in a place where whirling winds of terror could potentially pluck you from the ground and hurl you to points unknown; to get past that to the point of simply accepting it as a normal part of life.

And since he, his sister, and my wife were visiting my inlaws over the weekend, he missed his first real experience with severe weather. So this "initiation" is yet to come. But he'll get through it. One of the basic coping mechanisms of our species is adapting to our surrounding environments, no matter the conditions. From living in a war torn environment, to the supposed constant threat of terrorism - we tend to find ways to get by (albeit sometimes in ways that do long term damage to our psychies).

And speaking of living under the constant threat of terrorism, I would recommend today's Unger report (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5259865), where he makes a humorous yet pointed comparison between living under the threat of tornadoes vs. the threat of terrorism.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Toilets of Terror

My four year old is afraid of toilets with automatic flush valves - you know those little black cylindrical pieces of technology attached to toilets and urinals that are SUPPOSE to sense when you back away a certain distance and flush. In fact, sometimes it seems he's downright terrified of using public restrooms that have them (which tends to be most public restrooms).

Let's face it, four year olds can't remain still even when they're sitting on the toilet. And the smaller the individual, the greater the chance of moving enough of one's body outside of the sensor's field of view, causing a "premature" flush. So what happens when a small child wiggles most of his/her body just outside of the sensor's field of view - FLUSH!!! The sudden, unexpected splash of water along with the WHUSHING noise in the small enclosed stall sends most little ones into a sudden panic. Not to mention the unsanitary consequences of being splashed by toilet water.

It happened to my son again yesterday in a public restroom when he was trying to have a bowel movement. And so what happened (besides being terrified)? He refused to go and held it until he got somewhere he was comfortable with. Again, another unhealthy consequence.

And this isn't just a problem for pre-school aged children - it continues into elementary school. Surely not you say, as such facilities must use sensors specifically designed for children's smaller bodies and more constant motion. However this is apparently not the case. If such "children specific" sensors do exist, then they either are not being specified and/or installed correctly during the design/construction of schools, or if they are being installed then the sensors need to be redesigned themselves.

I know this because part of what I do for a living is conduct built environment ethnographies (sometimes labeled post occupancy evaluations). My partner and I are wrapping one up for an elementary school, and fear associated with unexpected flushing is a reality for many of the students. The younger and smaller the student the more likely it is be a problem, and on average it appears to be more of a problem for the elementary school-aged girls than the boys.

Fear of the restroom is associated with emotional distress, embarrassment, and ridicule from other students. This results in avoidance of using restrooms, general physical discomfort, and potentially serious health and hygiene consequences (for more information see http://www.schoolsanitation.org/ and www.freshschools.org).

All of this has a very REAL NEGATIVE impact on student learning. And this is compounded by the fact that adults have a tendency to ignore or downplay children's restroom concerns. The phrase "just hold it" is embedded in our adult cultural lingo. But these same concerns, if expressed by a fellow adult (or ourselves), would immediately be taken note of.

What's the solution? Well, I obviously can't lay out a detailed solution here. But in general adults, particularly those adults that deal with children on a daily basis (i.e., parents, teachers, etc.) must recognize that these fears are real and valid. My own four year old opened my eyes to this (as well as the research done by my partner, Bob Leonard, on this).

And the building construction industry must recognize this as well. Plumbing fixture manufacturers must re-examine these automatic flush sensors to see if they can be redesigned specifically for children - and they may have to design multiple models for different ages and physical sizes. Architects, consulting engineers, contractors, and facility managers must educate themselves on this topic, and building owners have to recognize the need for child friendly plumbing fixtures in those facilities frequented by children (from McDonalds to schools).

Life can be tough enough for kids. Do they really have to be terrified of toilets?

Friday, March 10, 2006

Aliens, Community Myth Building, and Our Evolutionary Past

A few days ago I posted a piece (Pancake Races and Community Myth Building) that discussed in part how small communities can make use of unique histories, legends, festivals, etc., to help bind the community together and promote it to the rest of the world (or at least along the closest interstate). The International UFO Museum and Research Center and associated annual UFO Festival of Roswell, NM is another great example of this.

The piece I wrote below, a version of which appeared in the August 19, 2004 issue of the Albuquerque Tribune under the title of "An Alien Concept" showcases the festival in part.


“It's life, Captain, but not life as we know it.”

This observation of Mr. Spock’s slowly rose from the depths of my subconscious as I stared at the sight before me. In the hands of my almost three-year-old son was the torso of an olive green alien mounted on the end of a pencil. As he gleefully twirled the pencil in his hands, the alien’s abnormally long arms whirled about, periodically sticking to its body.

My family and I were in the gift shop of the International UFO Museum and Research Center in Roswell, NM, during the town’s annual UFO Festival (the first week of July). Though Carlsbad Caverns (Carlsbad, NM) was our final destination, curiosity compelled us to stop on our way through, and we were now in the famed museum, housed in a converted movie theater.

We ventured through a variety of exhibits – the renowned Roswell UFO Incident, actual archaeological excavations of UFO “crash sites,” and many more, all under the watchful “eye” of a saucer shaped UFO suspended from the ceiling, complete with flashing lights. And then we came upon an exhibit whose topic vexes all archaeologists – “Ancient Cultures and their Connections to Extraterrestrial Life Forms.” Sigh.

An immense wall hanging of a famous Mayan image dominates this exhibit, catching one’s eye from across the room. The original image, dating from A.D. 683, was beautifully carved onto a stone slab covering a Mayan king’s sarcophagus. Various ET enthusiasts have colorfully interpreted this image as depicting an early astronaut at the controls of a spaceship. But more, shall we say, conventional archaeological explanations interpret it as showing the king at the moment of his death descending into the Underworld[i], [ii].

Though I’m disappointed by the prominence such misguided interpretations have in popular culture, the museum still manages to reach the eleven-year old within me. That boy who use to love watching the documentary series “In Search Of…” narrated by Leonard Nimoy, and reading the science fiction of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. Maybe I was just feeling nostalgic; or was it more than that?

Modern society is fascinated by the potential for alien life. “Little green men” permeate the modern world, from literature (Frank Herbert’s “Dune,” Douglas Adam’s “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”), television (“The X-Files,” The Star Trek franchise), and movies (“Men in Black,” “Signs”), to pseudo-science (Ancient Astronauts hypotheses, UFO abductions), to actual scientific searches for ET (SETI, NASA Astrobiology Institute). But why? Why do we care whether or not we’re alone in this vast Universe?

I suggest that this fascination has its roots in our species’ deep evolutionary past, most of which our ancestors spent roaming the landscape in small bands of hunter-gatherers. According to anthropologist Pascal Boyer[iii], during this time our brains’ mental systems became specialized in performing the different tasks required to survive and interact with others in social groups.

Such tasks would have included detecting the presence of animate agents (predators or prey), detecting what others are looking at, figuring out their goals, etc. In other words our brains incorporate a high degree of agency in how we perceive and process information.

Hearing the snapping of a branch, a Paleolithic hunter-gatherer would have increased his chances for survival by immediately assigning the noise to the action of a potential predator, and then taking the appropriate precautions. Similarly, a modern office worker assigns the sound of typing keystrokes in the next cubicle to that of his office mate.

On one level gods, ghosts, and religions are by-products of how our brains are wired. This imperative need to assign agency to the world around us occurs in our “cerebral cellar,” below our conscious understanding. As a result, our actions and perceptions of the world often appear to be the result of intuitions. Religious and supernatural beliefs are a way to explain and justify our intuitions about events and human behaviors whose cause we can’t directly observe or understand.

Modern astronomy’s understanding of the cosmos (as well as science in general) is only a relatively recent addition to human thought. But, as astronomer E. C. Krupp[iv] has pointed out, the cosmos has been an important part of humanity’s past, helping our ancestors mark the changing seasons and orientate themselves on the landscape, critical for their survival.

As a result of our brain’s agency component, the cosmos became associated with the supernatural as a way to explain the actions of celestial bodies. Modern pseudo-scientific views of UFOs and ETs are the latest “by-products” of the way our brains are wired, melding elements of science and the supernatural to explain the cosmic unknown.

This coexistence of religion, science, and pseudo-science in our modern world may even represent a turning point in the evolution of our species. Because scientific thought tends to run counter to our natural intuitions, it is as foreign to our brains as religion is familiar. This in part explains why science is much more recent and has less of a foothold than religion does. But perhaps sometime in the distant future evolution will have rewired the human brain giving science the advantage, leaving pseudo-science and religion as sidebars of history.

A more romantic explanation for our ET fascination centers on our ancestor’s hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Whether traversing their local environments or moving to new areas as the human race enveloped the planet, they probably often wondered what or who was over the next rise. We became accustomed to exploring and encountering the unknown. Wondering whom or what lies beyond our planet is just another version of finding out what lies over the next ridge.

In fact, our ancestors were probably much closer to encountering an “alien” than any modern UFO abductee. And I’m not talking about ancient astronauts here. Prior to 30,000 years ago, there is evidence that anatomically modern humans lived near Neanderthals in parts of Europe and the Middle East. Staring face-to-face into the eyes of an intelligent, though not quite human life form, our ancestors experienced the next best thing to meeting those little green men, or large mauve hermaphrodites, or whatever ETs are.

Back in the gift shop my son opts for a toy space shuttle with operable wheels instead of the alien pencil. Later I smugly tell my wife that our son represents an important link in the evolutionary chain of our species, where science is gradually gaining on religion and pseudo-science in our grasp to understand that which we can’t explicitly perceive.

My wife slowly turns her head to me, rolls her eyes and says, “Don’t be such a dork. You know he has an obsession for anything with wheels.” Well, yes, I can be a dork, but that doesn’t mean we can’t both be right on this one.


[i] Michael D. Coe 1999. The Maya, Sixth Edition. Thames and Hudson, London, pp. 134-138.

[ii] Linda Schele and David Freidel 1990. A Forest of Kings. Quill William Morrow, New York, p. 220.

[iii] Pascal Boyer 2001. Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. Basic Books, New York.

[iv] E. C. Krupp 1983 Echoes of the Ancient Skies: The Astronomy of Lost Civilizations. Plume Book, New American Library, New York.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Yellow Cab - A Must Read

If you want a witty, thoughtful, and brilliantly written set of essays and poetry on the taxi cab industry and its cliental, then pick up a copy of the recently released book - Yellow Cab, by Robert D. Leonard. An anthropologist with an engaging writing style, Leonard began moonlighting as a cab driver in Albuquerque, NM to supplement his salary as a professor at UNM. Being an anthropologist, he couldn’t help but observe and engage the people around him, making notes along the way.

The end result was this wonderful book of funny, sad, and wickedly strange stories of New Mexico nights from the perspective of a cabbie. And yes, the author is my friend and business partner. So if you think this biases me too much, then follow the link to the review from one of my previous posts – “Prof moonlights as cabbie.” Also take a look at a profile/book review of Leonard by Jim Belshaw that appeared in the March 8th Albuquerque Journal - http://www.abqjournal.com/belshaw/439766opinion03-08-06.htm.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Pancake Races and Community Myth Building

Early last week I was driving through southwest Kansas, and happened to roll through the town of Liberal on International Pancake Day. Unfortunately I was a few hours early for the American half of the pancake race, and couldn't stay and watch the throng of apron-clad women racing with frying pan in hand.

For those of you wondering how the heck one actually races with a pancake or why pancakes get their own special day (as opposed, to say, french toast), let me briefly bring you up to speed. Historically, women in England are said to have made pancakes on the last day before the start of Lent (Shrove Tuesday) as a means of consuming accumulated cooking fats before they began their own period of self-denial.

Legend has it that in 1445, a frazzled woman from Olney, England was so intent on frying up her pancakes that she lost track of time. Upon hearing the church bells calling everyone for service she rushed out the door, still clad in her apron, and ran to the church with frying pan in hand, thus becoming the first "pancake racer." And over the years it developed into a Olney tradition.

Jumping ahead to 1950, the Liberal Jaycees saw a picture of Olney's pancake race in a national magazine. They became intrigued with the Olney tradition - so much so that the Jaycees fired off a letter to the vicar of Olney challenging them to a race. As a result, Pancake Day and its associated race became an international event with Liberal and Olney competing against each other.

Since then Liberal has created a number of locally "flavored" celebrations and activities associated with the race, successfully weaving Pancake Day into its own history and intellectual traditions. Pancake Day is now part of the great story of Liberal, KS, gaining itself a significant amount of international attention as well as economic benefit. If you're interested in learning more, check out http://www.swdtimes.com/pancakeday/index2.html.

Granted, if you're not from the general region you may very well have never heard of the event, but anyone growing up in Kansas, SE Colorado, NE New Mexico, or the panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas is well aware of this seemingly strange, yet intriguing race. I certainly recall hearing about it every year growing up in southcentral Kansas.

The story of Liberal's adoption and incorporation of the Pancake Day tradition is something other rural communities should take note of. In a time when such communities are increasingly struggling to maintain their viability and vitality - to keep their young people from leaving (let alone attracting new people) and the community dying - they need to find an edge.

Building themes, events, celebrations, etc., around unique and interesting local traditions, stories, or myths, or adopting them from elsewhere as Liberal has done here can help provide such an edge. The key is to construct a community "myth" or "tradition" that the locals can feel proud of and functions to help bind the community together, and at the same time is fascinating enough to draw attention and visitors from outside the community. While such "myth building" isn't the answer in and of itself for a struggling rural community, it can be part of the solution.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Theory vs. Hypothesis: What's the Difference?

A version of this commentary originally appeared in the June 29, 2005 Albuquerque Tribune.

I have this theory. Well, it’s really more of a hypothesis. Theory, hypothesis – what’s the difference you and many others might ask? And that’s precisely my point. I see a general lack of understanding of how these terms are used by the sciences versus their use on a day-to-day basis by the general public.

In the sciences, a theory is a particular framework used to describe and understand the world around us. Such a framework is only recognized as a theory after a firm empirical basis for its body of knowledge has been established. This is done through such things as extensive and long-term experimentation and observation.

A theory is often initially generated from a hypothesis – a proposed explanation for an observed phenomenon or set of phenomena. This differs from conjecture, which is at best an untested guess based on anything from common sense, to religious mysticism, to that ache in your grandmother’s knee.

But people generally use these three terms interchangeably to refer to any type of speculation. So your eccentric friend’s “theory” that Elvis, JFK, and Princess Diana are all alive and well, residing in Nevada’s Area 51 awaiting transport to their home world in the Alpha Centauri star system is only a theory in the layman’s sense of the term.

For those who haven’t by now skipped to the sports pages, you may be wondering if my initial hypothesis regarding people’s lack of understanding of the scientific definitions is actually more of a conjecture. After all, I haven’t presented any data or observations to base it on.

Unfortunately, there is plenty of supporting data. Just look at any media story regarding the very public debate between Evolution and Intelligent Design (ID) – a debate that’s been playing out across the country. A comment by William Harris, a member of the Kansas Science Standards Committee, exemplifies this equal time argument for including ID in high school curricula: “Public science education is an institution. It appoints a teacher to be a referee among ideas. . . . Nobody would tolerate a football game where the referee was obviously biased.”[1]

In other words, we need to expose our students to all competing ideas, giving equal time and weight to each one. And after all, that does seem to be the most democratic thing to do. Right? What could be more American than that?

The problem with this line of reasoning is that Evolution and ID are NOT “scientifically” equal. Yes, Darwinian Evolution is a theory, but it’s a scientific theory. It has survived rigorous scientific testing for over 100 years and forms the scientific foundation of modern biology. Scientific debate regarding Evolutionary Theory centers on the details of how it occurred, not if it occurred.

At best, ID is a hypothesis – a supposition that a certain level of complexity belies an intelligent creator. At worst it’s mere conjecture. But if it is a hypothesis, it’s a poor one because it seeks to answer the ultimate question of why there is life – a question more suited for philosophy and religion than the empirically based sciences.

That there are “gaps” in our current knowledge of how life evolved doesn’t mean such phenomena are too complex to be explained by anything but an intelligent creator, whether that creator be Yahweh, Mother Earth, or some mad alien scientist from Alpha Centauri with too much time on his hands. The history of modern science is replete with examples of filling in such gaps.

Because of all this, the academic debate surrounding ID should play out at the university level, the traditional setting for debating new scientific hypotheses.

And this is why it’s important for the general public and primary school board members in New Mexico to have some understanding of the various meanings of theory and hypothesis. Otherwise, our high school science curricula are created in a state of scientific ignorance – doing our children and society as a whole a disservice. Of course this is all just a theory of mine – er, I mean hypothesis.


[1] Ellen Goodman. Round 2: Fighting Darwin. IndyStar.com: The Online Edition of the Indianapolis Star. May 12, 2005. http://www.indystar.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20050512/OPINION/505120387/1002.

The Tapestry of Our Collective Minds

Threads of thought
pass from person to person,
weaving a cultural tapestry
across space and time.

Each individual thread
is a stream of connected thoughts,
a lineage of ideas,
a phylogeny of connected minds.

This tapestry of woven phylogenies
has many colors, many patterns, many textures,
and many different threads –
wool, cotton, and rayon.

A father teaches his son to throw a ball,
to build a tree house,
to get the girl,
to change the oil,
to use a tool.

A school teaches its pupils to read,
to write,
to add and subtract,
to expand their horizons,
to hone their “tools.”

A society teaches its members to work together,
to tell a joke,
to struggle against the “other,”
to conform,
to reproduce their society,
to be a “tool.”

The tapestry constantly grows,
constantly changes.
New threads are introduced,
as others die out.
Time and space
are forever filled
with this ever-changing tapestry.

But as it grows,
so does it decay.
Older sections lose their cohesion.
Threads unravel, sections disintegrate,
leaving strands of thread here and there –
disconnected, discontinuous,
only telling a part of the story of “Once Was.”

These disconnected threads,
these disconnected thoughts
from our tapestry’s past
are at times recycled,
combined with newer threadsand woven once again.
Woven into newer sections that spill off…into infinity.

And to understand the distant minds of long ago
that stretch back along these threads of thought,
we reweave the stories –
stories lost over time,
stories lost across space,
rewoven from the disconnected threads
and from the threads of thought we know today,
forming the tapestry of “As it Might Have Been,”
instead of “As it Actually Was.”

This is the tapestry of our minds
stretching across time and space,
woven from the streams of our collective thoughts,
the many lineages of ideas,
the phylogenies of our connected minds.

The Archaeological Hazards of our Future's Past

Theron checked the map again on his hand-held electronic interface unit, or HEU. The HEU was interfacing with Wendy, the crew’s nickname for the main computer back at base camp. The map had been compiled from the various remote sensing surveys conducted since the start of the expedition a few weeks ago. For the past several years, Theron and his crew from the Central Archives Archaeological Division had been excavating in the southeast portion of what had once been the state of New Mexico, part of a union of fifty states located primarily on the North American continent. Little was known of this union prior to its fragmentation over 600 years ago, but the work of Theron and countless other archaeologists over the past twenty years was beginning to rectify this.

While rummaging through the archive’s myriad of antiquated electronic and print documentation, much of which was very fragmentary in nature, Theron had come across the initials “WIPP” on a map printed in the dead language of English. The lone reference he found to these initials was incomplete, and all that he could translate were the middle two initials – “Isolation” and “Pilot”. Theron found this intriguing. Was this some type of prototype facility built away from the contemporary populations of the day? What secrets might it contain?

It was decided that, for this season, Theron’s team would focus on the WIPP complex. Initial remote sensing surveys indicated a facility located over 2500 feet below ground, embedded in a massive salt formation, with miles and miles of corridors, much of which appeared to have been filled in to varying degrees by the salt. In addition, there appeared to be four vertical shafts, also long since filled in, running from a previous ground surface down to the facility. The team had borrowed a “smart worm”[1] from the Archive’s Geological division to bore down to the facility adjacent to one of the vertical shafts. A smart worm is a self guided, independent drilling device with a menagerie of electronic sensors in its nose to “see” ahead so it doesn’t drill through something dangerous, or in this case, something of archaeological significance.

Today they would reach one of the old tunnels in the facility, and Theron’s anticipation was growing. On the map before him was displayed a rough outline of the facility. At various locations around the perimeter were what may have been different types of electronic markers, all emitting different types of signals – some acoustic, some magnetic, and one other type of signal that no one on the team was familiar with. Recordings of this unknown signal had been sent back to Central Archives for analysis, but with the backlog, who knew when anyone would get to it.

Two days ago, a marker near the old ground surface had been detected that was not emitting a signal of any kind. This had been retrieved using the smart worm. Emblazoned on this marker were several symbols, two of which had caught Theron’s initial attention. One was a human skull with two associated human long bones crossing each other, no doubt a warning of some kind. The other one seemed vaguely familiar to Theron, but he couldn’t place it. It was a small circle surrounded by three triangles, equidistant from each other, each with one point extending towards the circle. Perhaps when the smart worm penetrated the facility they would have some answers. Ten years ago, a place known as Fort Knox had been excavated. This had turned out to be a heavily fortified vault that had stored vast quantities of gold. There had been a great deal of electronic sensors and warning signs of various kinds associated with that facility, and Theron was quite hopeful that this WIPP complex would be of a similar nature.

Ann, Theron’s chief crew manager, came running up to tell him that the smart worm had made the initial penetration and was retrieving a metal canister of some kind. After thirty minutes, the smart worm emerged from the abyss and into daylight. Slowly, the white metal canister came into view. The salt appeared to have protected the canister from any type of corrosion; at least none was visible to the naked eye. Then Theron saw it. There were the triangles and circle again, printed in a deep red against a square of bright yellow. The meaning of this symbol still eluded him, scurrying in the dark crevices buried deep within his mind.

Ann scanned the canister with her HEU, using a mixture of x-rays, magnetic, radar, and electrical waves. An image slowly formed on the screen showing what appeared to be a bunch of old tools, equipment, and maybe some type of clothing. The image was oddly fuzzy as if something was interfering with the scanning signals, and Ann smacked the side of her HEU in a failed attempt to clear up the image. “That’s strange,” she said. “My HEU must need a new imaging collator.”

Well, it wasn’t gold, but finding what appeared to be simple, common items buried deep below ground was very interesting in and of itself. Theron gave the go ahead to open it up. In the mean time he was going to jog his memory concerning this strange symbol. Using his HEU, he took a picture of the symbol, and then accessed Central Archives through Wendy to do a quick and dirty search. Within a few minutes a couple of documents were downloaded to his HEU. As he began to read, the meaning of the symbol emerged from the deep crevices of his mind.

“Radiation.” “Danger.” “Death”. Slowly a deep dread began to form in the back of his mind and expand to encompass him in a cloud of fear and worry, much as the radiation was expanding out of the canister to envelope his crew. Nuclear energy and weaponry had not been a part of the human equation for a very long time, and few people were aware it ever had been. The canister that had been retrieved contained transuranic waste, and unfortunately for Theron and his crew, this particular canister happened to be one of the very few containing waste that would emit deadly levels of penetrating radiation.

Immediately he put a halt to the work and evacuated the area. He called in a medical evac team from Central Archives, but for most of the crew the damage had been done. By the time the medical team arrived, many of the crew were already experiencing severe signs of radiation sickness. The sound of his crew retching filled Theron’s ears as he stared at the clumps of his own hair resting in his hands. Many would die before the end of the day; many others would die within a few years, including Theron.


We typically think of such scenarios as the musings of science fiction writers, but the vast quantity of waste our world produces, along with its varying hazardous nature, suggests that some variation of this story may in fact be inevitable. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that the US alone generates roughly 13 billion tons of waste each year. Recycling, composting, incineration, and the reduction of waste generation itself, are all gradually increasing in their use, but contained storage is still the dominant means of dealing with much of the waste we generate.

Initially, one might think that archaeologists would be thrilled with this. After all, their future intellectual progeny will have a wealth of middens to explore. Ah, but then there’s that “little” problem of pollution, in all its various guises, that current and future generations will have to face from the production and storage of waste on a scale that the individual mind can only hope to comprehend. And in case it didn’t come across in print, my use of the word “little” in quotes was meant to convey sarcasm – mass quantities of sarcasm oozing a gooey and toxic mix of understatement, irony, and contempt. The fact of the matter is we do not have a clear, long-term vision of how to limit the production of waste, how to safely destroy it after it has been produced, or how to safely store it until it has either naturally decomposed or no longer poses a threat to humanity or the environment [2][3][4]. In some cases this may take well over a million years.

The question of what to do with our waste is something that anthropology in general, and archaeology in particular, can help answer. Very practical and useful applications of archaeology have been used to study and address the problems of waste. In the case of landfills, archaeologists are able to provide a unique view of what is actually going on inside working landfills and document the variability of this across regions [5]. Through such research, archaeologists can 1) clarify the national estimates of what we are actually putting into landfills, 2) document the links between moisture level and the rate of decomposition, and 3) establish the pathway of migration for heavy metals within a landfill. All of this is important for verifying the effectiveness of current landfills and formulating their future design standards.

Even more important are the contributions that can be made to the contained storage of radioactive waste. Within the US alone, the combined total of such waste includes over 265 million tons of uranium mill tailings (ore extraction residue), 472 million cubic feet of low level waste (radioactive clothing, tools, paper, filters, and the residue from cleaning nuclear reactors), 11.3 million cubic feet of transuranic waste (clothing, tools, etc., contaminated with radioactive elements heavier than uranium, such as plutonium), and high level waste that consists of 52,000 tons of spent fuel rods from nuclear reactors and 91 million gallons of waste generated from plutonium production [6][7]. Half-lives for radioactive waste range from a fraction of a second to billions of years, though the longer the half-life the less intense the radioactivity. An element is typically considered harmless after ten half-lives.

Currently, the US has one “permanent” operating storage facility for radioactive waste – the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), near Carlsbad, New Mexico, which has been designed to house transuranic and low-level waste. A facility to “permanently” house high-level waste is currently being constructed at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, though the state of Nevada and environmental groups are fighting the federal government to keep it from going into operation. And currently, there are no working ideas on how to eliminate or safely store uranium mill tailings, which simply sit out on the landscape. In the US, the EPA has set the time limits for public and environmental health regarding such facilities at 10,000 years [8][9]. Longer times were not considered because the EPA felt there were too many uncertainties beyond that point. Uncertainties relative to what? I typically have little idea what's going to happen the next day. One wonders how the number of 10,000 was finally agreed upon, and what was used to estimate degrees of certainty.

No matter how one views the politics of radioactive waste, there are problems of long-term containment that must be addressed. It would be preferable to destroy the waste as it is created, but there are currently no means to safely do this for radioactive waste (and the “safe” nature of the incineration of other types of waste is highly debatable [10]). So whether we are talking 500 years, 10,000 years, or one million years, the future unknowns regarding containment structure material performance and the environmental/social/political contexts of these containment facilities are two areas that archaeology and anthropology can help address.

Examples of this include the archaeological analyses of long-term material performance being conducted at the University of Sheffield in England and the Smithsonian Center for Materials Research and Education in Suitland, Maryland [11]. Glass currently plays a major roll in the containment packaging of radioactive waste, and glass that has spent hundreds to thousands of years buried in the earth can provide clues as to how the modern packaging might fare over the next 10,000 to one million years. Variations in the composition of the glass and the associated environment greatly affect the type and amount of decay that occurs. And the metals that provide historical glasses with color, such as cobalt in medieval blue glass, can stand proxy for the radioactive elements in nuclear waste. Their leaching into the surrounding soil provides an indication of how radioactive particles might disperse. It’s only a rough approximation, but the deep time nature of the data provides an important supplement to the data obtained from engineering simulation tests of current glass packaging materials.

In addition to materials research, archaeology and anthropology can 1) provide assistance in envisioning potential future scenarios of accidental human intrusion and 2) help develop markers to be used as warnings against such intrusions [12]. In the early 1990’s, anthropologists and sociologists composed part of the panels that did just this for the WIPP facility. Factors that must be considered in developing these future scenarios include institutional memory, predicted changes in language and cultural makeup, forms of written communication, patterns of regional migration, population density, technological advancements, resource use and availability, and developments in the physical environment that could compromise the effectiveness of markers (as well as the facilities themselves).

The envisioning of such scenarios and the design and placement of warning markers to account for all potential scenarios is an extremely daunting process. In the potential cases of language, institutional, political, and general cultural discontinuity over a large span of time, an important issue is the type of visual symbol(s) that should appear on the markers. Carl Sagan once suggested that a simple skull and crossbones be used [13]. Such a simple symbol can be justified through cross-cultural studies demonstrating a common notion that contact with corpses is “polluting”[14]. Corpses can be a source of pathogens, so from an evolutionary standpoint, it makes sense that there is a universal human tendency to avoid or carefully handle them. However, the cultural reasons that are often linked to such avoidances vary substantially across space and time, and such a symbol by itself may not effectively communicate the desired warning. And in addition to the warning itself, there would ideally be some sort of way to communicate the nature of the danger, which would require more than one simple symbol.

Perhaps an even more substantial result of such efforts is the realization that the future is extremely uncertain and almost impossible to predict [15]. Even with the limitations that are placed on the future by the conditions of the present, there are still an almost infinite number of potential future scenarios. About the only thing that can be said with a relative degree of certainty is that things will change. The only true way to limit these potential hazards of the future is to eliminate or at least minimize the production of such wastes in the present and near future. The development, perfection, and expansion of alternative fuel sources, such as solar, wind, geothermal, hydrogen fuel cells, cold fusion, and the like, offer viable alternatives to fossil fuels and fission. Such a transition would reduce much of the production of radioactive wastes. And though waste production is cited less when arguing for a reduction to or stop in the continued manufacturing and proliferation of nuclear weapons, it is none-the-less a very important one. The less WIPPs and Yucca Mountains our future generations will have to deal with, the better.


[1] e.g. Martin J. Pasqualetti. 1997 Landscape Permanence and Nuclear Warnings. The Geographical Review 87(1):73-91.

[2] Michael E. Long. 2002 Half-Life: The Lethal Legacy of America’s Nuclear Waste. National Geographic July:2-33.

[3] Peter Montague. 1992 “Low-level” Radioactive Waste – Part 1: Fifty Years of Failure. Rachel’s Hazardous Waste News #302 September 9; http://www.ejnet.org/rachel.

[4] Martin J. Pasqualetti. 1997 Landscape Permanence and Nuclear Warnings. The Geographical Review 87(1):73-91.

[5] W. L. Rathje, W. W. Hughes, D. C. Wilson, M. K. Tani, G. H. Archer, R. G. Hunt, and T. W. Jones. 1992 The Archaeology of Contemporary Landfills. American Antiquity 5(3):437-447.

[6] Michael E. Long. 2002 Half-Life: The Lethal Legacy of America’s Nuclear Waste. National Geographic July:2-33.

[7] Peter Montague. 1992 “Low-level” Radioactive Waste – Part 1: Fifty Years of Failure. Rachel’s Hazardous Waste News #302 September 9; http://www.ejnet.org/rachel.

[8] Michael E. Long. 2002 Half-Life: The Lethal Legacy of America’s Nuclear Waste. National Geographic July:2-33.

[9] Martin J. Pasqualetti. 1997 Landscape Permanence and Nuclear Warnings. The Geographical Review 87(1):73-91.

[10] Committee on Health Effects of Waste Incineration, Board on Environmental Studies and Toxicology, National Research Council. 2000 Waste Incineration and Public Health. National Academy Press, Washington, D.C. http://www.nap.edu/catalog/5803.html.

[11] Philip Ball. 2002 Archaeologists Advise on Nuclear Waste Disposal. Report from the December, 2002 Materials Research Society Meeting, Boston, MA. Nature News Service, Macmillan Magazines Ltd

[12] Martin J. Pasqualetti. 1997 Landscape Permanence and Nuclear Warnings. The Geographical Review 87(1):73-91.

[13] K. Trauth, S. C. Hora, and R. V. Guzowski. 1993. Expert Judgment on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. SAND92-1382 UC-721. Albuquerque, N.Mex.: Sandia National Laboratories.

[14] Pascal Boyer. 2001 Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. Basic Books, New York.

[15] Martin J. Pasqualetti. 1997 Landscape Permanence and Nuclear Warnings. The Geographical Review 87(1):73-91.