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  • September 17, 2010
  • 09:00 AM

Big Brained Humans: A Dangerous Idea?

by Daniel Bassett in Chew the Fat

Predation is a key driver of biological systems over both ecological and evolutionary timescales. Thus, to understand our role as Homo sapiens within this evolutionary framework we must look to the animal kingdom to find our place. This is important for anyone following an evolutionary eating plan as it gives our species an ecological context, which we can consider when making choices about our lifestyle and diet. In the latest edition of Behavioral Ecology, Shultz & Finlayson utilised a range of studies on vertebrate predators to establish the relationship between prey behavioral and ecological characteristics, and predator diet composition at the population level. Although this focuses on non-human species it is easy to extrapolate information from this data and find our place within the animal kingdom.... Read more »

  • September 16, 2010
  • 12:52 PM

Darwinius massillae, continued…

by zinjanthropus in A Primate of Modern Aspect

I found a new paper in my reader this morning from the crew who published the first description and taxonomic statements about Darwinius massillae, Phillip Gingerich and his colleagues.  This paper is a reply to Williams et al. (2010), which … Continue reading →... Read more »

  • September 16, 2010
  • 11:11 AM

Can Peruvian Coffee Gain a Foothold at Home?

by Krystal D'Costa in Anthropology in Practice

Spurred by questions from readers, I've expanded the coffee series to include two additional posts on this caffeinated drink that will run this week. If this is your first visit to AiP, you can review our coffee discussions here. Monday's post asked, how can we explain the popularity of instant coffee in coffee producing countries? As a follow-up, today we will look at the future of Peruvian coffee among native Peruvian coffee drinkers. As always, thanks for stopping by—and for your questions!
The question of what happens to local culture in the face of globalization is not a new one to anthropology. One view has held that capitalism is a great cultural steamroller, creating homogeneous responses to global markets. But our discussion last time explored an example of cultural contact in which there was a dialogue, and this represents the other side of the coin: the argument that the conditions that permit and encourage international trade, also offers a means maintaining cultural distinction and identity.

In the last post, we discussed the way Lithuania was able to wield a memory of Soviet sausage to comment on the state of their newly formed capitalist state, and create an identity for the nation—this identity seems more domestic the more I think about this issue because the identity really allowed Lithuanians to distinguish themselves from the capitalist processes that were unfolding. Remember that "Soviet" sausages were good, natural, and tasty, while Western-style sausages like salami (that lacked the tasty bits of fat Lithuanians liked) were not as popular and viewed as an inferior product in many ways. I argue that Lithuanians owned sausages in a way that allowed their preferences to hold a majority of the market against Western sausage products. Peruvians have not had a similar relationship with coffee and that has allowed foreign products to dominate general coffee consumption,

But this does not have to necessarily have to be the case. There is a chance for Peruvians to claim their coffee. It will require more than establishing a "Coffee Day." Changes will have to be made at the grower's level—which will certainly not be a simple process. But I found a great case study that suggests that getting growers involved can boost brand awareness locally.
The lives of Peruvian coffee growers and their families are not easy. Coffee growers outside of cooperatives often don't get paid very much for their product. Often they sell beans at market to a middleman, who may sell the beans again to another contact, who may then get the beans to a known roaster and wholesaler. The beans often change hands several times—and for the local grower this means low prices for his product. And that leads to other problems, like the issue of malnutrition:
The basic diet in the indigenous communities and for nearly the entire rural population is based on subsistence products like plantains, manioc and maize. Few can afford a more balanced diet, or meat and milk every day.And on the heels of this is a lack of educational resources. Schools are spread out over great distances, which makes it a hardship to attend. They are inadequately funded and are overlooked for supplies. And malnutrition keeps many students at home. So it all seems to come full circle.

These challenges are not limited to Peruvian growers. Researchers Castillo and Nigh (1998) paint a similar picture among the Mayan growers (Mam) in Chiapas, Mexico, who seem to have followed a similar path as Peruvian growers, first with cacao and then with coffee. The Mam are a Maya-speaking group that is geographically centered in Guatemala with a small group located on the Sierra Madre of Chiapas, also known as the Soconusco. Geography has played a large role in the ways the identities of these groups, which share a heritage, has unfolded. The Guatemalan Mam have been able to preserve political and religious hierarchy and Mam language thanks in part to Guatemalan indigenist practices, however, the Soconusco region has long been involved in widespread trade practices and Mexico has been unable (or unwilling?) to override this history to enact preservation measures.

The Mexican Mam have had a relationship with a commercial product in much the same way that Peruvian growers have with their product. The Mam have been working as exporters since 2000 BCE when the region was conquered by the Aztecs who mined cacao for currency. When the Spanish arrived in the 1600s, Castillo and Nigh report that the plantation systems were already in place:
Early Spanish colonists invested heavily in cacao production during the late 16th and early 17th centuries, expanding the original plantation and introducing Moorish irrigation technology ... Mam Indians probably supplied the skilled labor necessary for the cacao boom that produced some of the first Spanish fortunes in the New World (1998: 137).As a result of this history, Mexican Mam identity has long been tied to capitalist endeavors. When a worldwide depression collapsed the trade market in the 1630s, the Mexican Mam also faded from view until the 19th century when foreign investors revived the region for coffee production, the Mam (this time also including Guatemalan Mam displaced to the Soconusco by seizure of communal lands) once again provided the labor for the production of this commodity, which became a major export product for Mexico:
Thanks to Mam laborers on Soconusco plantations, their owners were able to export 227,040 quintals of coffee to Germany, the United States, England, France, Spain, and Switzerland between 1927 and 1928 (Castillo and Nigh 1998: 138).In the mid-nineteenth century, one of the outcomes of the Mexican Revolution was the redistribution of lands (ejido) to the Mam, which suggested the potential for them to grow and sell coffee for themselves, but for reasons mentioned above, this has historically made for difficult living conditions. Compounded with financial hardship, the Mam also faced systematic attempts at eradicating specific markers of their cultural identity following the Mexican Revolution. For example, Castillo and Nigh provide the following ethnographic account of the "civilization through dress" program as told by a Mam man:
I remember when the law came that prohibited our costume: they tool the weaving from the woman and the short pants from the men, and they burned them in the middle of the plaza. One old man refused; he wouldn't take off his pants, and so the policeman came and threw kerosene on him. We were all in the plaza—I was a child still. He said, "Take it off or I'll set you on fire; you're a stubborn Indian." The poor man tool off his short pants crying" (1998: 139).These types of programs continued until the 1970s, when the international community began to demand that human rights be awarded to indigenous populations. This opened the door for potential growers to receive aid in the form of "technical assistance, credit for agrochemicals, and state-supported channels for marketing" (Castillo and Nigh 1998: 139). However, this did little to change sale practices, which put individual growers at a disadvantage.  

In the 80s, the Catholic Church's local cooperative commission met with Mam coffee growers, and the growers decided to form cooperatives that wouldn't rely on government assistance. Subsequent meetings resulted in the formation of the ISMAM (Indigenas de la Sierra Madre de. Motozintla) cooperative. ISMAM was founded on the basis of a shared memory of what it meant to be MAM: that the ancestors had a connection to the land, and understood how to produce high quality, natural foods. This belief is tied to the organic trade in which ISMAM has rooted itself. The cooperative purchases all the coffee produced by the growers at a set price and is the point of contact for trade with other nations. The result has been that the standard of living for MAM has risen—schools have been built, there is greater financial stability, and the people own their product.

Peruvian growers have started to move in this direction according to a few sources that I have found online (see here, here, and here). They have also come to the realization that they must join together to face the global market, and gain domestic recognition. It's not a foolproof plan: initiatives by the Pangoa Coffee Cooperative had to be abandoned when coffee prices fell in 1998.

My research has been largely documentary, and I don't have a sense for the current state of Peruvian growers (which is why I invite those with inside knowledge to share their thoughts with us), but it seems that co-ops may offer coffee a domestic foothold in places where ... Read more »

  • September 16, 2010
  • 11:05 AM

Repost: Which is more safe: home birth or hospital birth?

by Kate Clancy in Context & Variation

I am slowly re-posting some work from my lab blog. This one received quite a bit of traffic. I actually have a follow-up in the works, so watch for it!You have probably seen the buzz about the recent American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology article (Wax et al 2010) on home birth safety, and the editorial in the Lancet that took the article’s shaky meta-analysis to crazytown: “Women have the right to choose how and where to give birth, but they do not have the right to put their baby at risk,” they write.I have a lot of thoughts about this study and how it has been covered, by medical doctors and by the media. My main issues revolve around: 1) what these statistics mean from a personal versus a public health perspective, 2) maternal recovery and mortality, 3) the problem with criminalizing home birth, 4) the literature around birth experiences and the process of birth and resources for women, and 5) how we should look at this topic in the future.What do these statistics mean?According to the Wax et al (2010) meta-analysis, the difference in infant mortality between hospital births and home births is 0.2% versus 0.9% (other people have already done a nice take-down of the cherry-picking of older studies that have received significant criticism, yet were included). While headlines have screamed that this is a three-fold difference, it makes sense for us to pay attention to the absolute values. Infant mortality, in hospital or home births, is under one percent. We can’t even say that one in one hundred babies die in childbirth in developed countries any more (at least not as a whole – for now I’ll side-step some major differences relating to social disparities and race). If you are pregnant and considering where you want to give birth, I’m not sure how this slight difference could really sway you one way or the other. The problem is that the editors of the Lancet (and others) are conflating public health recommendations with personal recommendations… and shaming women in the process.From a public health perspective, I suppose I can grudgingly understand why the difference in infant mortality in home versus hospital births matters. But you cannot take population-wide statistics and apply them to individuals. To do so is to ignore inter and intrapopulational variation, and to take a women’s decision about her body out of the context in which it should be understood.Another thing to notice, Wax et al (2010) found that “neonatal outcomes of planned home births revealed less frequent prematurity, low birthweight, and assisted newborn ventilation.” So of the more than 99% of babies who were fine, home birth babies tended to be healthier. This of course could be a bias of who chooses a planned home birth versus someone who does not, so I am not assuming the directionality to be that the home birth predicts healthier kids. But I wouldn’t be surprised if further analysis showed both directions to be causal; that is, that women more likely to have healthier kids choose to plan a home birth, but also that because home births have fewer interventions those kids are more likely to be healthy.What about maternal health?What the Lancet editorial and Wax et al (2010) mention only briefly, is that for maternal mortality and morbidity in low-risk births, to me, home births (and, I would contend, birth center births) are the clear winner. By not being in the same room as epidural medicine (it’s right behind you in big cabinets, just waiting for you to say “ow”*), single beds with little room to maneuver, continuous fetal monitoring and an IV under your skin as soon as you’re admitted, you avoid interventions that often carry their own significant risks and precipitate a cascade of other interventions.Many women in the US don’t want to give birth in hospitals because being in a hospital increases the risk of maternal mortality and morbidity and, perhaps more importantly, slows recovery time. I say the recovery time issue may be more important, because while the US is embarrassingly bad at keeping mothers alive, the numbers are still better than in infant mortality (though, obviously, this makes sense from a life history perspective). The US is ranked 40th in the world in terms of maternal mortality – that means 39 countries do a better job keeping women alive during childbirth. Our incidence of maternal mortality is increasing, not decreasing, with the latest figures for 2008 being 17 deaths out of 100,000 births (Canada, for instance, has 7/100,000). Developed countries with higher rates of home birth have lower rates of maternal mortality.Criminalizing home birthAnother problem I have is that part of the reason they cite home births as unsafe is that so few of them are staffed by certified midwives (only one third according to the Lancet editorial). The only reason more home births are not staffed by certified midwives is that organizations like the American Medical Association and others have lobbied to keep home births illegal in many states. Midwives cannot legally help a family give birth at home where I now live, in Illinois. Instead, I have been told by local homebirth supporters that there is an underground movement of lay midwives who try to help women stay out of hospitals, if it’s what they want. Is this a safe way to give birth if you are low-risk? Maybe, maybe not. I’m not sure I would be keen on a home birth that did not have a Certified Professional Midwife or Certified Nurse Midwife attending, who also had a good relationship to a doctor at the nearest hospital. But I also would not want to give low-risk birth in a hospital, even if I had a midwife, because of the major risks you incur just by stepping into a hospital (like infection). Women in states like mine are stuck between a rock and a hard place: give birth at home and risk not having someone with the right qualifications (and potentially face legal action), or risk giving birth under conditions where you may have interventions you don't want, and treated like something less than human (which I'll get to more in the next section).By criminalizing home birth, medical doctors and their lobbyists force women who don’t want a medical birth to find less-than-perfect alternatives. So when Lancet editors and others criticize US women for not having the right people at their home births, I call shenanigans: they were complicit in making the laws that prohibit it in the first place.Birth experiences in hospitals, birth centers and the homeThere is a huge literature already on the medicalization and pathologization of femaleness, and I encourage you to devour it all, from Emily Martin’s The Woman in the Body to Robbie Davis-Floyd’s Birth as an American Rite of Passage.So the other issue I want to make sure to include here is that pregnant patients don’t have the same rights as non-pregnant patients in a hospital (link to pdf), to refuse treatment, to leave, to contest a decision; hospitals can and do get court orders to force pregnant women to receive treatments they have refused. On the one hand, I can understand that sometimes decisions need to be made quickly during labor. On the other hand, I think there is a problem when we place a fetus’s rights above that of its mother’s. This recent story of police violence against a pregnant woman links to several problems with pregnant patient rights. Here are examples of court-ordered interventions. And here is more information on pregnant patient rights.These are other reasons many women find the idea of a hospital birth frightening, and thus choose home birth or a birthing center. And if you read Davis-Floyd and others, you will see the interviews of women who have had hospital births how they were disempowered by the experience. This isn’t to say there aren’t many, many women who aren’t totally satisfied with hospital births, and would never consider home birth. It’s just to say that to acknowledge differences in infant mortality risk that are not necessarily meaningful to an individual making a decision about this, in the absence of all this other information, is disingenuous on the part of the editorial writers at the Lancet.Future work on this topic... Read more »

Editorial staff. (2010) Home birth--proceed with caution. Lancet, 376(9738), 303. PMID: 20674705  

  • September 16, 2010
  • 10:02 AM

Science proves that your friends are more important than you!

by Greg Laden in Greg Laden's Blog

The other day a friend of mine bumped into some news that concerned her. She could have asked a random person about this to find out more information, but there was a bit of information that came with the news indicating that I might know more than the average person about it. So, she asked me, and as it turns out, I did not know anything. But, having heard the news from her, I noticed a different bit of information that came along with it that told me exactly who would know everything about it, so I sent along a question .... "What's going on with the [deleted]?" I got back a message almost immediately. Read the rest of this post... | Read the comments on this post...... Read more »

  • September 16, 2010
  • 08:54 AM

Intelligent Design's Legal Status after Dover

by Greg Laden in Greg Laden's Blog

First, there was plain and simple creationism, a Christian idea that, in an ideal Christian world, would be taught as part of any science dealing with the past, including biology (evolution), geology, and presumably history.

But the constitution stood in the way of implementing basic Christian teachings in public schools in the United States, though that battle took decades. Just as creationists were being driven off he landscape, a sort of Battle of the Bulge occurred, in the form of Intelligent Design. Read the rest of this post... | Read the comments on this post...... Read more »

Rosenau, Joshua. (2010) Leap of Faith: Intelligent Design's Trajectory after Dover. UNIV. OF ST. THOMAS JOURNAL OF LAW . info:/

  • September 16, 2010
  • 08:38 AM

Tracking Notharctus, Wyoming’s Prehistoric “Lemur”

by Laelaps in Laelaps

Despite all the overhyped nonsense which surrounded the debut of the 47-million-year-old primate Darwinius masillae (“Ida” to her fans) last year, I have to admit that the first-described specimen was a gorgeous fossil. It was a paleontologist’s dream – a complete, articulated skeleton with traces of hair and even intact gut contents. Never before had [...]... Read more »

Gregory, W.K. (1920) On the structure and relations of Notharctus, an American Eocene primate. Memoirs of the AMNH, 3(2), 49-243. info:/

  • September 15, 2010
  • 02:52 PM

Public perceptions of energy consumption and savings

by Greg Laden in Greg Laden's Blog

There are two quick and fairly easy approaches to reducing US emissions of CO2 by several percent. These reduction would be at the household level, possibly decreasing the household cost of energy by between 20 and 30 percent (or more, depending on the household) and decreasing national total CO2 emissions by around 10% or so.

But these approaches are nearly impossible to implement. Why? Because people are ignorant and selfish. Read the rest of this post... | Read the comments on this post...... Read more »

Attari, S., DeKay, M., Davidson, C., & Bruine de Bruin, W. (2010) From the Cover: Public perceptions of energy consumption and savings. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(37), 16054-16059. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1001509107  

  • September 14, 2010
  • 02:05 PM

Peruvian Coffee: Matching Consumption With Production

by Krystal D'Costa in Anthropology in Practice

Spurred by questions from readers, I've expanded the coffee series to include two additional posts on this caffeinated drink that will run this week. If this is your first visit to AiP, you can review our coffee discussions here. This post will consider the question that readers have raised: how can we explain the popularity of instant coffee in coffee producing countries? As a follow-up, on

... Read more »

Klumbyte, Neringa. (2010) The Soviet Sausage Renaissance. American Anthropologist, 112(1), 22-37. info:/

  • September 13, 2010
  • 07:32 PM

Shelter Dogs: Taking the Dog's-Eye View

by Jason Goldman in The Thoughtful Animal

At least one dog can be found in forty percent of US households, and forty percent of those owners allow their dogs to sleep on their beds. To put this in perspective, in a family with five children, two of them can be expected to become dog owners, and one of them will probably allow the dog to sleep on his or her bed. In an undergraduate lecture class of two hundred, eighty of those students come from homes with at least one pet dog. So as you might expect, dogs are a big business! In 2007, the pet industry was worth about $40 billion in the US, with dogs responsible for the largest share of that expense.

As well as providing pleasure and comfort, though, dogs can also be a source of pain and distress to humans. In the United States, dogs bite around 4.7 million people per year. In fact, by age twelve, an average American child has a 50% chance of having been bitten by a dog. In that same group of two hundred undergrads, one hundred of them have probably been bitten by a dog. Each year, around 2 million dogs are destroyed terminated executed euthanized killed in shelters.
Read the rest of this post... | Read the comments on this post...... Read more »

Wynne, C. (2009) Editorial. Behavioural Processes, 81(3), 355-357. DOI: 10.1016/j.beproc.2009.04.007  

  • September 13, 2010
  • 07:33 AM

Through the Language Glass (Part 1)

by Chris in The Lousy Linguist

The publisher Henry Holt and Company was kind enough to send me a review copy of Guy Deutscher's new book Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages which bills itself as "demonstrating that language does in fact reflect culture in ways that are anything but trivial" but which also goes beyond that and purports to demonstrate that language affects thought, if only via habits of mind.This is part one of a two part review. I expect to post Part 2 next Monday, Sept. 20th. My division into two reviews follows the book's own division:Part 1: The Language Mirror (pages 1-126)Part 2: The Language Lens (129-249)Part 1: The Language MirrorThe general goal of the first part of the book is to establish that language does in fact reflect culture; that it is a mirror in some non-trivial ways of the culture of the speakers. However, Deutscher begins the book by clearly debunking many tired canards about specific languages reflecting crude stereotypes about its speakers. Is French really the most logical language, as my PhD advisor was fond of jokingly claiming? No, it is not (sorry JP, haha).Overall, Deutscher is a clear and enjoyable writer to read. He does a good job of reviewing basic, but important facts about language and linguists. Facts that need to be understood by the reader if the rest of the book is to be appreciated. These includes arbitrariness of the sign, cultural transmission, abstraction, and categorization.So how dose languages mirror their speakers?Deutscher spends 95 pages (38% of the whole book and 75% of Part 1) arguing that the inventory of color terms in a language reflects the state of the culture's need to distinguish one color from another as well as its exposure to a wide range of hues (particularly, artificial). The basic facts, which have been established by about 150 years of empirical findings, are these:All languages have a set of color terms (words that name colors).Languages do not share the same color terms (e.g., some have no word for blue and what gets labeled as blue in one language may differ from what what gets labeled as blue in another).Color terms are not arbitrary (each term refers to a coherent subset of the visible spectrum)Acquisition of color terms is predictable (i.e., language acquire names for color terms in a predictable order.The predictable order of acquisition is this:black & white > red > yellow/green > blueWhat this says is that all languages have terms for black and white. If a language has a third color term, it refers to red. If that language has a fourth color term, it refers to either yellow or green. And so on. See WALS for more.Deutscher goes to great lengths to establish these facts. Maybe too great. I felt he beat this horse a bit too long and hard. The average reader may disagree. Ultimately, we get no satisfying answer as to why this pattern exists (that's science's fault, just haven't figured it out yet, but Deutscher build this up pretty high to give us such a weak landing).And this brings me to my first critique of Part 1: This is just too light weight for me. I was expecting a more rigorous scientific work, and what I got was Gladwell-lite. The first three of the five chapters of Part 1 read more like pop biography than serious cognitive science. They each begin by introducing us to an historical 19th Century figure who was crucial in the emerging field of color term research. Deutscher describes each man's lost contribution with the affection of a smitten history student trying to re-fight battles that ended before his grandfather was born. It's a particular genre of history that is not uncommon (think Ken Burns' The Civil War), but I found it beside the point. Can we please get down to the business of how language affects thought, I kept thinking. Worse, despite his lengthy explications, he never quite convinced me that color terms was the crucial topic he needs it to be in order to justify such lengthy discussion. His own obsession with color term research leads him to over-emphasize the topic, to the detriment of many other crucial topics (which he does in fact get to, but a little too late and a dollar short).He's also a little too fond of his own Writing 101 skills. Several times he concocts little explanatory vignettes, but then rather takes it too far, going on not for a paragraph or two, but a full page. He also tends to give us these tantalizing teasers about future chapters (like "X would have to wait until Y before..."). I found these a bit tiresome. A bit too much like Behind The Music documentaries which tease you before each commercial break.Deutscher has been criticized for treating Benjamin Lee Whorf too harshly (see my review of his NYTs article here for specifics). At one point in this book he call Whorf the most notorious of the [linguistic relativity] con men. This is odd, to me, because in Part 1 Deutscher repeatedly channels Whorfs own claims and even language. If you were to read Whorf's original 1940 essay Science and Linguistics (pdf), one of his early drafts of the linguistic relativity hypothesis, you'd have to conclude that he and Deutscher are best pals, simpatico. They both make the same distinction between folk theories and science; they both emphasize the need to question one's own pre-conceived notions, and both concoct straw men to argue against.Both Deutscher and Whorf sketch for us the basic assumptions of the common man (Deutscher actually uses the phrase Joe the Plumber, Peirs the Ploughman, or Tom Piper's son to represent this straw man at one point). But I couldn't help but shake my head at some of the things Deutscher thinks you and his readers are running around thinking, like "primitive people speak primitive languages" (page 99; this is an echoing of Whorf as well). I have no doubt that SOME people think this, but is this the average person? Deutscher needs this straw man to create the space of need that he fills. Joe the Plumber NEEDS Deutscher to save him from his ignorance.In a similar vein, Deutscher also uses some questionable assumptions. On page 101 he seems to assume that our contemporary notions of aboriginal languages comes from Tintin and Westerns...huh? Frikkin Tintin? I had to Google that. And Westerns? Does Deutscher think it's 1955?The portion of Part 1 I liked most was the last 20 pages or so where he really starts to get into the meat of how language and culture intermix. If only this were the FIRST 20 pages, but alas.He finally starts to get into really interesting issues of culture and language when he discusses complexity and language. I found it a little confusing that he would claim, and strongly so, that "No one has ever measured the overall complexity of even one single language, not to mention all of them. No one even has an idea how to measure the overall complexity of a language" (page 105). Then he claims that it is inherently impossible to compare the complexity of two languages (page 109).My position is that this is simply false and it is odd for Deutscher to have published those sentences. What Deutscher is doing, I think, is defining his own version of what it means to "measure the overall complexity of a language" in such a way that the many attempts to do so, dating back to the 1940s, don't count. He's playing a rhetorical game like politicians do when they pledge to cut taxes in such a way that when they fail to do it later on, they can wiggle out beneath their words to make it look like they lived up to them nonetheless. Linguists and logicians have long been interested in measuring linguistic complexity. Deutscher makes it look like this is not so. He may not like these attempts. He may wish to debate their merits, but they do exist. All you have to do is Google "measuring linguistic complexity" and you get a whole host of results, like these:Gruber, J. & Gibson, E. (2004). Measuring linguistic complexity independent of plausibility. Language, 80, 583-590.Juola, Patrick, Assessing Linguistic Complexity, Duquesne University.McWhorter, John (2001). The world’s simplest grammars are creole grammars. Linguistic Typology 5, pp. 125–66Bane, Max. ... Read more »

Guy Deutscher. (2010) Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages. Metropolitan Books. info:/

  • September 10, 2010
  • 05:40 PM

Spontaneous fermentation: the role of microorganisms in beer

by Katie Kline in EcoTone

Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, was once quoted as saying: “In wine there is wisdom, in beer there is Freedom, in water there is bacteria.” While there is certainly some truth to this quote, especially considering water quality in the 1700s, it should be noted that beer’s long history is also fraught with microorganisms—both helpful and harmful in the eyes of the brewer.

... Read more »

  • September 9, 2010
  • 09:19 AM

Human sacrifices, uranium, and corals

by Uncharted Atolls in Uncharted Atolls

The development of shrines and temple architecture associated with chiefdoms and early states is thought to be a slow process.  In Mesoamerica, a sequence of architectural evolution took 1300 years, according to archaeological evidence.  However, this may not always be … Continue reading →... Read more »

  • September 8, 2010
  • 08:54 AM

Autistic Toddlers Like Screensavers

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Young children with autism prefer looking at geometric patterns over looking at other people. At least, some of them do. That's according to a new study - Preference for Geometric Patterns Early in Life As a Risk Factor for Autism.Pierce et al took 110 toddlers (age 14 to 42 months). Some of them had autism, some had "developmental delay" but not autism, and some were normally developing.The kids were shown a one-minute video clip. One half of the screen showed some kids doing yoga, while the other was a set of ever-changing complex patterns. A bit like a screensaver or a kaleidoscope. Eye-tracking apparatus was used to determine which side of the screen each child was looking at.What happened? Both the healthy control children, and the developmentally delayed children, showed a strong preference for the "social" stimuli - the yoga kids. However, the toddlers with an autism spectrum disorder showed a much wider range of preferences. 40% of them preferred the geometric patterns. Age wasn't a factor.Intuitively this makes sense because one of the classic features of autism is a fascination with moving shapes such as wheels, fans, and so on. The authors conclude thatA preference for geometric patterns early in life may be a novel and easily detectable early signature of infants and toddlers at risk for autism.But only a minority of the autism group showed this preference, remember. As you can see from the plot above, they spanned the whole range - and over half behaved entirely normally.There was no difference between the "social" and "geometrical" halves of the autism group on measures of autism symptoms or IQ, so it wasn't just that only "more severe" autism was associated with an abnormal preference.They re-tested many of the kids a couple of weeks later, and found a strong correlation between their preference on both occasions, suggesting that it is a real fondness for one over the other - rather than just random eye-wandering.So this is an interesting result, but it's not clear that it would be of much use for diagnosis.Pierce K, Conant D, Hazin R, Stoner R, & Desmond J (2010). Preference for Geometric Patterns Early in Life As a Risk Factor for Autism. Archives of general psychiatry PMID: 20819977... Read more »

  • September 6, 2010
  • 12:54 PM

Repost: Premenstrual syndrome: understanding origin and variation

by Kate Clancy in Context & Variation

I am reposting some of my LEE blog posts over here to highlight some of my research blogging. Hope you enjoy the ladybusiness anthropology!If you are female and post-menarcheal (that is, you’ve had your first period), you have probably had at least one person tell you that you are PMSing – either jokingly, or with an unpleasant edge. You may have expressed anger or irritability; you may have simply stood up for yourself. Or, you may have no idea what prompted the statement.Maybe you were angered further by this comment, because you have never experienced any shifts in mood in your premenstrual phase (the several days leading up to your period). Maybe you were embarrassed because, whether or not the comment was at the time accurate, you do feel different right before your period. There is a lot of variation in the emotional experience of the premenstrual phase, from no changes, to dysphoria (that’s mild depression) or anger and irritability, increased creativity, well-being and happiness, to a whole host of other feelings. Part of this variation is a small minority of women who do experience negative symptoms strong enough to interfere with their daily lives, often called premenstrual syndrome. A syndrome refers to the association of symptoms and/or signs that often occur together, but that does not mean the etiology, or origin, of this syndrome is the same for everybody, and that does not mean everyone has the same disease if they have the same set of symptoms. This distinction is important because there are several syndromes out there relevant to women’s health (polycystic ovary syndrome and chronic fatigue syndrome come to mind), yet it is a classification that says, to me, “hey, we don’t know what causes this and in fact it may be a whole bunch of different things going on for different people, but this is what we have so far.”Despite the fact that the experience of the premenstrual phase is varied, and the negative symptoms some number of women experience are categorized by a syndrome which does nothing to explain its etiology, there appear to be only two games in town in treating PMS: hormonal contraceptives (HCs) and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). And the most studied potential origin of PMS is progesterone withdrawal.Now, a twenty-eight day, ovulatory menstrual cycle looks like this:Notice the estradiol (that’s a kind of estrogen) peak just before ovulation, and the swell of progesterone (pro-gest, so supporting gestation should you conceive) in the second half of the cycle. Progesterone is secreted by the corpus luteum, which is left behind by the follicle that erupts from your ovary when you ovulate. If that egg is not fertilized, to wend its way through the fallopian tube and invasively implant its way through your endometrium, then that corpus luteum and progesterone doesn’t have much of a purpose. Without a signal that pregnancy has occurred, the corpus luteum degrades, progesterone concentrations decline, and your nicely primed endometrium sloughs off to be able to make another plush surface for the next attempt.Allow me to briefly wax anthropological before moving on in my discussion of these premenstrual symptoms. This twenty eight day cycle with its nice estradiol peak and progesterone swell and ovulation smack dab in the middle? It’s pretty much a farce.Those are real luteal progesterone concentrations from healthy, normal, reproductively-aged women from past studies of mine in one population of women in rural Poland (the follicular phase is the first half of your cycle, luteal phase the second). And the next image is from a whole bunch of other studies showing population variation in progesterone. Regular menstrual cycles, and yet luteal phases that range from 9-17 days. Mid-luteal progesterone concentrations varying by several orders of magnitude. You are looking at data ONLY of healthy women, in a homogenous rural environment, and ONLY cycles where they ovulated. And yet, look at all that variation.So hormone concentrations, menstrual cycle lengths, experiences of the menstrual cycle and menses themselves, vary so much so that the idea that there is such a thing as one normal cycle for everyone is patently false. Women’s reproductive functioning only makes sense in the context of its environment, and if it is responding logically (high stress, low function, and vice versa), it’s pretty safe to say that woman is normal.Okay, so back to PMS and progesterone withdrawal. You may have noticed something in the preceding images: progesterone concentrations decline in the days leading up to menses in all ovulatory cycles. In a physiological process with so much variation it’s hard to determine universals, this is one of them. So I suppose it makes sense, then, that researchers think progesterone withdrawal has something to do with premenstrual symptoms. Further, post-partum depression or the maternity blues occurs soon after parturition, when a mother goes from having huge quantities of progesterone (orders of magnitude higher than in a regular menstrual cycle) to zero, once that placenta that was making all that yummy progesterone is birthed.At the same time, if these symptoms are not universal, if in fact some women have positive experiences of their premenstrual phase (and post-partum period), and to top it off progesterone withdrawal is a major feature of the menstrual cycle for most women… then perhaps the idea that progesterone withdrawal is the trigger only serves to further pathologize a population that is historically overpathologized and understudied. That is, does it make sense to consider a universal feature of the menstrual cycle the culprit for a set of symptoms that affect about five percent of the population?Let’s unpack the data a bit more, then, and cut these folks some slack… at least to start. There are two kinds of work going on in the literature: the first is the identification of the mechanism of how progesterone withdrawal could be producing effects in the brain, and what most folks are focusing on is the fact that progesterone concentrations are tied to allopregnanalone (ALLO) concentrations in the brain (this makes sense, since ALLO is a kind of progestin and progesterone is its precursor). The second is to identify whether it is how rapidly progesterone declines that produces negative symptoms (this certainly does vary, if you look at how different women’s mid-luteal progesterone concentrations are), the overall concentration, or the estradiol to progesterone ratio.Several studies indicate an association between decreased ALLO concentrations and premenstrual syndrome and post-partum depression [1-6]. Gracia et al [3] also note lower ALLO concentrations in those individuals suffering from PMS who are responsive to SSRI treatment, versus unresponsive individuals. So it does seem like those with lower concentrations of ALLO (and thus lower progesterone at that time as well) are perhaps more likely to have PMS. However, it also looks like reduced ALLO isn’t the only explanation for PMS: 1) only 63% saw improvement with SSRI treatment, and 2) the women in this study (n = 46) were grouped into tertiles by their ALLO concentrations, and the highest tertile (the women with the highest ALLO concentrations) did not show improvement. So it seems it is possible to have PMS without low ALLO relative to your population.The second issue, that it may not be total levels of progesterone/ALLO triggering PMS symptoms but rather something about the rapidity of decline (an understandable hypothesis to start from given what we know of post-partum depression) is not as frequently studied. But I did find one study that examined this and managed to review a few articles I hadn’t yet found: Beckley and Finn [1] described work that suggested more rapid decline in progesterone concentrations was associated with depression-like behaviors in rodents, and themselves found similar results both when creating progesterone withdrawal conditions with supplementation, and when using finasteride (which inhibits progesterone metabolism; also known as Propecia).... Read more »

Brinton RD, Thompson RF, Foy MR, Baudry M, Wang J, Finch CE, Morgan TE, Pike CJ, Mack WJ, Stanczyk FZ.... (2008) Progesterone receptors: form and function in brain. Frontiers in neuroendocrinology, 29(2), 313-39. PMID: 18374402  

Chapman, J., McIntyre, M., Lipson, S., & Ellison, P. (2009) Weight change and ovarian steroid profiles in young women. Fertility and Sterility, 91(3), 858-861. DOI: 10.1016/j.fertnstert.2007.12.081  

Ellison PT, Panter-Brick C, Lipson SF, & O'Rourke MT. (1993) The ecological context of human ovarian function. Human reproduction (Oxford, England), 8(12), 2248-58. PMID: 8150934  

Jasieńska G, & Ellison PT. (1998) Physical work causes suppression of ovarian function in women. Proceedings. Biological sciences / The Royal Society, 265(1408), 1847-51. PMID: 9802241  

Panter-Brick C, & Ellison PT. (1994) Seasonality of workloads and ovarian function in Nepali women. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 234-5. PMID: 8154716  

Marván ML, Díaz-Erosa M, & Montesinos A. (1998) Premenstrual symptoms in Mexican women with different educational levels. The Journal of psychology, 132(5), 517-26. PMID: 9729845  

O'hara, M., & Swain, A. (1996) Rates and risk of postpartum depression—a meta-analysis. International Review of Psychiatry, 8(1), 37-54. DOI: 10.3109/09540269609037816  

  • September 5, 2010
  • 11:10 PM

Do the Chaco Effigy Vessels Portray Kachinas?

by teofilo in Gambler's House

One noteworthy thing about George Pepper’s interpretations of the effigy vessels found at Pueblo Bonito is his attempt to link them to specific Hopi kachinas.  He does find a general similarity in facial and body decoration between one of the partial vessels, found in Room 38, and one kachina and notes at the end of [...]... Read more »

  • September 5, 2010
  • 01:34 PM

About Those Effigy Vessels

by teofilo in Gambler's House

Okay, I said I would say more about George Pepper’s description of the effigy vessels from Chaco, so here goes.  One interesting thing that he notes is that these are the northernmost examples of human effigy vessels found in the Southwest.  I believe this is still the case over a hundred years later; in general, [...]... Read more »

  • September 5, 2010
  • 09:50 AM

2 legs good, 4 legs better: Uner Tan Syndrome, part 2

by gregdowney in Neuroanthropology

Beginning in 2005, reports by Prof. Üner Tan of Cukurova University in Turkey alerted the world to a number of families in which some members walked quadrupedally. This is the second part of a (so far) two-part post on Uner Tan Syndrome. Although you’re welcome to read the first part, I’ll give you the one sentence summary if you just want to push on and a piece of video clip on the cases. I should warn you though, before you read the first part, that the whole thing is sort of like the straight set-up for this piece, which is a bit of a googly (kind of like a knuckleballer for all you non-cricket followers):
Üner Tan described four consanguineous Turkish families with fourteen individuals who habitually walked bipedally; subsequent genetic research showed that some of the families had defects in a gene known to be essential in cerebellar formation, but not all of the cases had the gene, and at least one family member with the gene walked normally, leading most researchers to argue UTS was genetically heterogeneous in origin; some theorists, including Tan, argued that quadrupedalism was either ‘reverse evolution’ or an atavism, but not everyone was buying that explanation (including me for reasons I didn’t make entirely clear in the first post).
Well, that was — technically — one sentence.
Nova preview: The Family that Walks on All Fours
But if you read that first post, I know what you’re saying: ‘Bloody loooong post, mate, laffed mi head off at the picture… but eef thas what yous blokes do at Newroant-whatevs, well, I’m not heaps intristed.’ (Apparently, you have a bogan Australian accent, at least in my head.)
Photo by Eadweard MuybridgeAu contraire – we’re just getting started! We’ve still got bipedal dogs and goats, kids who only get down on all four when in a hurry, Johnny Eck (aka the ‘Half Boy’), capoeira training in Brazil and some other surprises up our sleeve. We’ll show you how we roll at Neuroanthropology, with lots of weird SFW videos and obscure case studies!
One of the things that we try to bring to ‘neuro-’ to make it truly ‘neuroanthropology’ is a much more open consideration of human variation. This can sometimes take us to some extraordinary case studies, not simply out of a fascination with the exotic, but because a comparative look at extreme cases – like Uner Tan Syndrome – helps us to better understand human potential. So let’s go back to Prof. Tan…

More and more quadrupeds
One of the great things about Prof. Üner Tan is that he was not contented just to have a rare genetic condition named after him. (Which would be pretty cool, so if anyone needs a name for one of these things, mine’s available.) Instead, Prof. Tan seemed to search obsessively for other cases in which people walked quadrupedally.
The diversity of underlying conditions was already a problem for explanation, as I’ve discussed in the previous posting because no single genetic anomaly could be found in all the cases (see also, Tan and Tan 2009: 910). But as the number of cases grew, even though Üner Tan kept referring to them as ‘Uner Tan Syndrome,’ the more it became clear that he was not simple on the trail of a single ‘syndrome.’ Rather, he found a range of people who wound up quadrupedal. Moreover, they had become quadrupedal in different ways and for diverse reasons.
For example, Prof. Tan sent me a pre-print version of a ‘Letter to the Editor’ in the journal, Movement Disorders, describing the case of a 12-year-old boy who, about two years earlier, had begun to run on hands and feet. Unlike the prior cases, this boy was a ‘facultative’ quadruped, only using his arms to get about when in a hurry; like the other cases, the boy demonstrated a range of developmental problems (he didn’t speak) and cerebellar symptoms: ‘limb dysdiachokinesia, dysmetria, past-pointing, excessive rebound, kinetic tremor, trunk titubation, and inability in tandem gait’ (Tan et al. 2010). Unlike the other Uner Tan Syndrome cases who had never learned to walk upright, he could walk bipedally, but then at adolescence became more comfortable moving about quadrupedally in certain circumstances.
Clearly, the 12-year-old had some neurological issues, but unlikely the same degree of defect that produced the profound intellectual and motor deficits in the first four families (which were themselves the product of at least three different abnormalities). Moreover, by adding ‘facultative’ (that is, voluntary) quadrupedalism as a category of Uner Tan Syndrome, Prof. Tan himself was starting to focus much more on a single symptom, not a cluster, and allowing for that ‘symptom’ to be intermittent and voluntary. Don’t get me wrong, I’m in agreement we should consider facultative and habitual quadrupedalism together for theoretical purposes, but I’m not the one with the syndrome named after me, so I don’t have anything at stake if we undermine its credibility qua ‘syndrome.’
Two more subsequent cases, children 4- and 8-years-old, also had facultative quadrupedalism, getting about bipedally when walking slowly but switching to all four when moving fast. Tan and Tan (2009) found that the children could even ‘gallop’ when trying to sprint, not just using the diagonal-sequence, alternating gait that was found in the original set of families but bounding with the legs or arms moving in unison. These two children were otherwise normal, with no neurological abnormalities, except for a positive Babinski reflex, a foot response which usually indicates neurological problems, and an inability to balance when ‘tandem walking,’ walking heel-to-toe in a straight line (like a test sometimes given to suspected drunk drivers in the US).
All three of these children didn’t have the other hallmarks of Uner Tan Syndrome found in the first four families: no consanguineous marriages (their grandmothers were sisters), no other intellectual deficits, no abnormality in trunk stability, normal language abilities and coordination (Tan and Tan 2009).
Moreover, Tan also found some cases where the patients had no symptoms other than quadrupedal walking, such as a 36-year-old man in Adana, Turkey, with no cognitive deficits or cerebellar problems who walked quadrupedally, due in large part to a leg paralyzed by childhood polio and his refusal to wear a prosthesis (Tan 2007). Three more similar cases followed of neurologically normal individuals who walked quadrupedally due to polio-induced paralysis of their right legs (what’s with the right leg?; see Tan and Tan 2009: 911).
In other words, Prof. Tan was content to call anyone moving quadrupedally an example of Uner Tan Syndrome, even though the etiology of the condition was clearly different, accompanying subordinate symptoms were wildly different, and the primary diagnostic itself varied from voluntary behaviour to inescapable condition.
Uner Tan even pointed to the work of photographer Eadweard Muybridge, famous for his pioneering versions of moving pictures, in which he documented diverse people in everyday activities. Muybridge photographed an English child with a paralyzed leg who, like the last cluster of subjects examined by Tan, also walked on all four. I found the following short film clip by Keith Phillips on YouTube, based on Muybridge’s photos of the quadrupedal child:
Muybridge in Motion, a quadrupedal child
Tan repeatedly argues that these examples all demonstrate ‘reverse evolution’ or the unmasking of an ancient vestigial capacity for quadrupedal movement still hidden in the human nervous system. But, as he has found more and more cases, some with no genetic and minimal neurological abnormalities (except for, say, poliomyelitis), I think that the evidence points to a much more interesting possibility: in some cases, whether due to injury, cerebellar deficit or even something more exotic or elective — like circus or capoeira training — humans can develop in their seemingly unsuitable bodies a remarkable capacity to move about on all four. These human quadrupeds demonstrate how activity patterns can shape our bodies, how even defining traits of our species can be absent or developed in distinctive configurations.
Strange bipeds
The cases of some strange bipeds, however, help to build the circumstantial case against the idea that the quadrupedalism found in the cases of Uner Tan Syndrome is simply an atavism or a form of ‘reverse evolution’. Although these cases do not prove the absence of an ancient, masked ability to move quadrupedally, they do show that novel and evolu... Read more »

Dietz Volker. (2002) Do human bipeds use quadrupedal coordination?. Trends in neurosciences, 25(9), 462-7. PMID: 12183207  

Dietz V, & Michel J. (2009) Human bipeds use quadrupedal coordination during locomotion. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 97-103. PMID: 19645886  

Herz J, Boycott KM, & Parboosingh JS. (2008) "Devolution" of bipedality. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 105(21). PMID: 18487453  

Humphrey, Nicholas, Stefan Mundlos, & Seval Türkmen. (2008) Genes and quadrupedal locomotion in humans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science , 105(21). DOI: 10.1073 pnas.0802839105  

Susanne M. Morton,, & Amy J. Bastian. (2007) Mechanisms of cerebellar gait ataxia. The Cerebellum, 6(1), 79-86. DOI: 10.1080/14734220601187741  

Tayfun Ozcelik, Nurten Akarsu, Elif Uz, Safak Caglayan, Suleyman Gulsuner, Onur Emre Onat, Meliha Tan, & Uner Tan. (2008) Mutations in the very low-density lipoprotein receptor VLDLR cause cerebellar hypoplasia and quadrupedal locomotion in humans. . Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105(11), 4232-4236. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0710010105  

Ozcelik, Tayfun,, Nurten Akarsu,, Elif Uz,, Safak Caglayan,, Suleyman Gulsuner,, Onur Emre Onat,, Meliha Tan,, & Uner Tan. (2008) Reply to Herz et al. and Humphrey et al.: Genetic heterogeneity of cerebellar hypoplasia with quadrupedal locomotion. . Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105(23). DOI: 10.1073 pnas.0804078105  

Thelen, E.,, & Ulrich, B. D. (1991) Hidden skills: A dynamic systems analysis of treadmill stepping during the first year. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 56(1), 1-98. DOI: 10.2307/1166099  

  • September 4, 2010
  • 09:11 AM

Normal? You're Weird - Psychiatrists

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Almost everyone is pretty screwed up. That's not my opinion, that's official - according to a new paper in the latest British Journal of Psychiatry.Make sure you're sitting down for this. No less than 48% of the population have "personality difficulties", 21% have a full blown "personality disorder", and 7% have it even worse with "complex" or "severe" personality disorders.That's quite a lot of people. Indeed it only leaves an elite 22.5% with no personality disturbances whatsoever. You're as likely to have a "simple PD" as you are to have a normal personality, and fully half the population fall into the "difficulties" category.I have difficulties with this.Where do these results come from? The Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey, which is a government study of the British population. They phoned up a random sample of several thousand people, and gave them the SCID interview, in other words they asked them questions. 116 questions in fact.48% of people answered "yes" to enough questions such that, according to their criteria, they had "personality difficulties". They defined "personality difficulties", which is not a term in common use, as being "one criterion less than the threshold for personality disorder (PD)" according to DSM-IV criteria.So what? Well, as far as I'm concerned, that means simply that "personality difficulties" is a crap category, which labels normality as pathological. I can tell that most of people with "difficulties" are in fact normal because they are the literally the norm. It's not rocket science.So we can conclude that "personality difficulties" should either be scrapped or renamed "normal". In which case the weird minority of people without any such features should be relabelled. Maybe they are best known as "saints", or "Übermenschen", or perhaps "people who lie on questionnaires".This, however, is not what the authors say. They defend their category of Personality Difficulties on the grounds that this group are slightly more likely to have a history of "issues" than the elite 22.5 percent, e.g. homelessness (3.0% vs. 1.6%), 'financial crisis' (10.1% vs. 6.8%), or having had treatment for mental illness (11% vs 6%).They say:The finding that 72% of the population has at least some degree of personality disturbance is counterintuitive, but the evidence that those with ‘personality difficulty’ covering two out of five of the population [it's actually closer to half], differs significantly from those with no personality disturbance in the prevalence of a history of running away from home, police contacts, homelessness... shows that this separation is useful from both clinical and societal viewpoints.Well, yeah...but no. The vast majority (90+%) of people with Personality Difficulty had no history of these things. It's true that, as a group, they have higher average rates, but all this tells you is that some of them have problems. I suspect they're the ones right at the "top end" of this category, the people who are almost into the next category up.Here's what I think is going on:The "difficulties" group and the "none" group are essentially the same in terms of the levels of crap stuff happening to them - because they are the same, normal, everyday people - except that a small % of the "difficulties" group do have some moderate degree of problems, because they are close to being "PD".This does not mean that the "difficulties" category is good. Quite the reverse, it means it's rubbish, because it spans so many diverse people and lumps them all together. What you should do, if you insist on drawing lines in the sand, would be this:Now I don't know that that's how things work, but it seems plausible. Bearing in mind that the categories they used are entirely arbitrary, it would be very odd if they did correspond to reality.To be fair to the authors, this is not the only argument in their paper. Their basic point is that personality disturbance is a spectrum: rather than it being a black-and-white question of "normal" vs."PD", there are degrees, ranging from "simple PD" which is associated with a moderate degree of life crap, up to "complex PD" which has much more and "severe PD" which is worst of all.They suggest that in the upcoming DSM-V revision of psychiatric diagnosis, it would be useful to formally incorporate the severity spectrum in some way - unlike the current DSM-IV, there everything is either/or. They also argue that with more severe cases of PD, it is not very useful to assign individual PD diagnoses (DSM-IV has no less than 10 different PDs) - severe PD is just severe PD.That's all fine, as long as it doesn't lead to pathologizing 78% of the population - but this is exactly what it might do. The authors do admit that "the SCID screen for personality disorder, like almost all screening instruments, overdiagnoses personality pathology", but provide little assurance that a "spectrum" approach won't do the same thing.Yang M, Coid J, & Tyrer P (2010). Personality pathology recorded by severity: national survey. The British Journal of Psychiatry 197, 193-9 PMID: 20807963... Read more »

Yang M, Coid J, & Tyrer P. (2010) Personality pathology recorded by severity: national survey. The British journal of psychiatry : the journal of mental science, 193-9. PMID: 20807963  

  • September 4, 2010
  • 08:33 AM

the original Whorf

by Chris in The Lousy Linguist

Guy Deutcher's NYT's article on how language affects thought continues to get buzz, as surely his book Through The Language Glass will when people read it (it was just released 3 days ago and is currently #234 on Amazon's book rank). One common reaction amongst bloggers is that Deutscher gives Whorf himself unfairly harsh treatment, and ultimately mis-represents Whorf's own opinions.For example, Kathryn Woolard, SLA President, says "Whorf’s own statements of his theory look little like the caricature that opens the NYT article and much more like the position that Deutscher himself offers as reasonable and compelling. Far from holding that “the inventory of ready-made words” in a language “forbids” speakers to think specific thoughts, Whorf argued that patterns of grammatical structures, often the most covert ones at that, give rise not to a language prison but to a “provisional analysis of reality” and habits of mind, very much as Deutscher concludes."Mark Liberman says "And in fairness to Whorf, he mostly ... suggested that linguistic differences would have exactly the sorts of minor biasing effects on perception and memory that Boroditsky and others have found."Greg Downey says "The one thing that turns me off to Duetscher’s writings is his pretty harsh bashing of Benjamin Whorf, who, in my opinion, is one of the most interesting anthropological linguists."However, we don't need to rely on these secondary sources to stand up for Whorf, we can read one of Whorf's original papers that started this kerfluffel (60 years ago): Science and Linguistics (pdf). Happily for the lay reader, that paper is neither very science-ee nor linguistic-ee, nor is it very long. It's actually quite readable. It's basically a series of thought experiments and casual language facts. If you can read Deutescher's article, you can read Whorf's.So let's take a look at what Whorf said in his own words.Whorf begins the article by describing what he calls "natural logic": Every normal person in the world, past infancy in years, can and does talk. By virtue of that fact, every person — civilized or uncivilized — carries through life certain naive but deeply rooted ideas about talking and its relation to thinking. Because of their firm connection with speech habits that have become unconscious and automatic, these notions tend to be rather intolerant of opposition. They are by no means entirely personal and haphazard; their basis is definitely systematic, so that we are justified in calling them a system of natural logic (emphasis added).He then goes on to describe what natural logic says about the difference between language and thought. Namely that "Natural logic says that talking is merely an incidental process concerned strictly with communication, not with formulation of ideas. Talking, or the use of language, is supposed only to “express” what is essentially already formulated nonlinguistically. Formulation is an independent process, called thought or thinking, and is supposed to be largely indifferent to the nature of particular languages.[...] Natural logic holds that different languages are essentially parallel methods for expressing this one-and-the-same rationale of thought and, hence, differ really in but minor ways..."So Whorf claims that the average person is walking around (in 1940, mind you) believing that language and thought are independent processes and that thought is the same across all people, it's only languages that differ, and only slightly. Personally I find this a simplistic straw man argument. I'm not convinced all that many people held this view. Nonetheless, Whorf spends the rest of the article attacking his own straw man. A little too easy. But let's see what he actually says.Whorf then says that because people hold this view of natural logic, we are unable to see its flaws, that it is a part of our background assumptions and hence invisible to our thinking. This becomes a crucial part of his argument. We are unable to to imagine possibilities outside of natural logic: What it might well suggest to us today is that, if a rule has absolutely no exceptions, it is not recognized as a rule or as anything else; it is then part of the background of experience of which we tend to remain unconscious. Never having experienced anything in contrast to it, we cannot isolate it and formulate it as a rule until we so enlarge our experience and expand our base of reference that we encounter an interruption of its regularity (emphasis added). This rung quite hollow with me. He uses a couple of examples that undermine his very point. He asks us to imagine a person who could only see blue. That person would be unable to discover that they could only see blue because they wouldn't know what it was not see something else. Then he writes about gravity: The phenomenon of gravitation forms a rule without exceptions; needless to say, the untutored person is utterly unaware of any law of gravitation, for it would never enter his head to conceive of a universe in which bodies behaved otherwise than they do at the earth’s surface (emphasis added).Huh? Neither the blue-only example nor the gravity-ignorant example are convincing precisely because we stand (as they did in 1940) as examples of the opposite. Humans only perceive a limited range of the electromagnetic spectrum (not as limited as blue only, but limited nonetheless). Yet we managed to discover our limitations! Same with gravity. Note the qualifier Whorf added "untutored person." How did the tutored person get that way? At some point, she was tutored by someone else, but there was someone who first grasped that gravity must be a force. More to the point, Whorf assumes a model of the average person wherein imagination does not exist. I agree that people can be biased by their beliefs about the world, but we are not as trapped by them as Whorf seems to believe.Next, Whorf lists two fallacies of natural logic:It does not see that the phenomena of a language are to its own speakers largely of a background character and so are outside the critical consciousness and control of the speaker.It confuses agreement about subject matter, attained through use of language, with knowledge of the linguistic process by which agreement is attained.The first one I've already addressed, but the second one is interesting. Basically, it says that we mistake what it means when we agree through language. If we agree on directions to the movies, then we assume there is some objective fact we've discovered about the world, otherwise we would not have come to agree. I think there is something to this. And this is why it's difficult to break past our biases (essentially, agreement masquerades as objectivity). But again, Whorf takes it too far and writes, in all caps to be sure we all understand that this is an important point: THIS AGREEMENT IS REACHED BY LINGUISTIC PROCESSES, OR ELSE IT IS NOT REACHED.But surely there are examples of non-linguistic agreement in the world? Imagine two strangers are passing each other in a tight hallway, and they both move a bit to make way. Have they not agreed to not collide? Yes there are cultural attitudes bound to this situation, but they need not be linguistic. I think evolutionary biologists could list cooperative strategies that non-humans engage in to survive and because they are non-humans, they cannot be linguistic strategies, right? Do we need to claim that agreement and cooperation are different to save Whorf's point?Whorf continues by claiming it was the expansion of comparative linguistics that really led to the ability to think outside the box and that led to recognition that our perception of the world is not the same  thing as the world itself. This really is the crucial paragraph in the paper:When linguists became able to examine critically and scientifically a large number of languages of widely different patterns, their base of reference was expanded; they experienced an interruption of phenomena hitherto held universal, and a whole new order of significances came into their ken. It was found that the background linguistic system (in other words, the grammar) of each language is not merely a reproducing instrument for voicing ideas but rather is itself the shaper of ideas, the program and guide for the individual’s mental activity, for his analysis of impressions, for his synthesis of his mental stock in trade. Formulation of ideas is not an independent process, strictly rational in the old sense, but is part of a particular grammar, and differs, from sligh... Read more »

Benjamin Lee Whorf. (1940) Science and Linguistics. MIT Technology Review, 42(6). info:other/

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