Archive for October, 2010

Jared Diamond on the origin of class divisions

October 31, 2010

Yep, it’s agriculture again:

Hunter-gatherers have little or no stored food, and no concentrated food sources, like an orchard or a herd of cows: they live off the wild plants and animals they obtain each day. Therefore, there can be no kings, no class of social parasites who grow fat on food seized from others. Only in a farming population could a healthy, non-producing élite set itself above the disease-ridden masses. Skeletons from Greek tombs at Mycenae c. 1500 B. C. suggest that royals enjoyed a better diet than commoners, since the royal skeletons were two or three inches taller and had better teeth (on the average, one instead of six cavities or missing teeth). Among Chilean mummies from c. A. D. 1000, the élite were distinguished not only by ornaments and gold hair clips but also by a fourfold lower rate of bone lesions caused by disease. Similar contrasts in nutrition and health persist on a global scale today. To people in rich countries like the U. S., it sounds ridiculous to extol the virtues of hunting and gathering. But Americans are an élite, dependent on oil and minerals that must often be imported from countries with poorer health and nutrition. If one could choose between being a peasant farmer in Ethiopia or a bushman gatherer in the Kalahari, which do you think would be the better choice? Read the rest of this entry »

Jared Diamond on our species’ worst mistake

October 23, 2010

That’s right: agriculture.

From a 1987 Discover magazine article:

The progressivist view [that history is a march of progress] is really making a claim about the distant past: that the lives of primitive people improved when they switched from gathering to farming. Archaeologists can date that switch by distinguishing remains of wild plants and animals from those of domesticated ones in prehistoric garbage dumps. How can one deduce the health of the prehistoric garbage makers, and thereby directly test the progressivist view? That question has become answerable only in recent years, in part through the newly emerging techniques of paleopathology, the study of signs of disease in the remains of ancient peoples.

One straight forward example of what paleopathologists have learned from skeletons concerns historical changes in height. Skeletons from Greece and Turkey show that the average height of hunger-gatherers toward the end of the ice ages was a generous 5’ 9″ for men, 5’ 5″ for women. With the adoption of agriculture, height crashed, and by 3000 B. C. had reached a low of only 5’ 3″ for men, 5’ for women. By classical times heights were very slowly on the rise again, but modern Greeks and Turks have still not regained the average height of their distant ancestors. Read the rest of this entry »

The industrialized equivalent of !Kung San dunning?

October 23, 2010

The Washington Post tells me there’s turmoil in France:

Unions vowed that their striking workers would keep disrupting rail and road transportation. Teenagers marched through the streets and pledged to go on boycotting their schools. The government, trying to appear unfazed, urged Parliament to ignore the chaos and speed up the vote on a bitterly contested pension reform.

France remained stuck Thursday in what has become a major test of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservative presidency – the turmoil caused by a nationwide strike and protest movement that has maintained its momentum well into a second month.

Sarkozy’s aides predicted the unrest would soon peter out, particularly as a 10-day school break begins this weekend. Given the government’s majority in both houses of Parliament, they added, final passage of the reform law is assured early next week, in any case. Nevertheless, the major labor unions scheduled two more nationwide strikes and demonstrations, for Oct. 28 and Nov. 6, voicing the hope that by pressing on with the campaign they could force Sarkozy to pull back the bill and start over.

The immediate dispute was over Sarkozy’s decision to raise the retirement age, from 60 to 62[*], in an effort to balance a social security budget that pushes deeper into the red every year. There was no other choice, Sarkozy and his ministers explained, if the retirement system is to retain adequate resources to serve the country’s aging population.

The change would still leave France with one of the world’s most generous pension programs and a retirement age well below those of its European neighbors. But union leaders, backed by the opposition Socialist Party and a growing army of student protesters, object that under Sarkozy’s reform, low-income workers would sacrifice more than their share. They suggest a capital gains tax would be a better place to look for the additional funds.

!Kung San dunning.

*Note that the Post is being somewhat misleading, as full pension benefits had kicked in at age 65, not 60.

Race-ing the environment

October 20, 2010

From Polluted Promises, p. 13:

Race, numerous studies tell us, is the most potent variable in predicting where hazardous waste facilities are located — more powerful than poverty, land values, or homeownership. Three out of every five African Americans and Hispanics and roughly 50 percent of Asian/Pacific Islanders and Native Americans live in communities containing at least one uncontrolled toxic waste site. The percentage of African Americans or Latinos in a census tract significantly predicts whether that tract hosts a toxic waste facility. African Americans are more than three times more likely than whites to die from asthma, and the hospitalization rate for African Americans with asthma is three times that for whites. Moreover, a National Law Journal investigation from 1992 discovered that in minority areas, it took 20 percent longer to put hazardous waste sites on the national priority lists than it did in white areas, and penalties under hazardous waste laws were about 500 percent higher at sites having the greatest white population than penalties at sites with the greatest minority population. Such environmental disparities are widespread throughout the United States, but the South has had particularly lax environmental policies. As a result, the region (which houses m ore than half of the nation’s African American citizens) claims eight of the ten states ranked worst in terms of pollution, poor health, and environmental policies. In the EPA’s southeastern region, three out of the four largest hazardous waste landfills in the region sit in majority black areas.

See also Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty 1987-2007.

We’re called climate hawks now — pass it on

October 20, 2010

In foreign policy a hawk is someone who, as Donald Rumsfeld used to put it, “leans forward,” someone who’s not afraid to flex America’s considerable muscle, someone who takes a proactive attitude toward gathering dangers. Whatever you think about foreign policy, is that not the appropriate attitude to take toward the climate threat? Does it not evoke a visceral sense of both peril and resolve, the crucial missing elements in America’s climate response?

Read David Roberts. And then SCREEE! to your heart’s content.

Do the !Kung San like to share?

October 19, 2010

Not according to David Kaplan:

Everyone who has worked among the Bushmen has commented upon the continual dunning [badgering] and constant pressures to share that go on. Here is Patricia Draper (1978:45):

The give and take of tangibles and intangibles goes on in the midst of a high level of bickering. Until one learns the cultural meaning of this continual verbal assault, the outsider wonders how the !Kung can stand to live with each other. . . . People continually dun the Europeans and especially the European anthropologists since unlike most Europeans, the anthropologists speak !Kung. In the early months of my own field work I despaired of ever getting away from continual harassment. As my knowledge of !Kung increased, I learned that the !Kung are equally merciless in dunning each other.

Both Wiessner (1982:79) and Marshall (1968:94) have commented on the fact that the persistent pressures to share have led the !Kung to limit their work effort, since in working harder they would likely expose themselves to demands to share the fruits of their additional labors. To refuse to share opens oneself to accusations of stinginess or worse. Here are Wiessner’s (1982:79) observations:

In reciprocal relations, one means that a person uses to prevent being exploited in a relationship … is to prevent him or herself from becoming a “have”…. As mentioned earlier, men who have killed a number of larger animals sit back for a pause to enjoy reciprocation. Women gather enough for their families for a few days, but rarely more. . . . And so, in deciding whether or not to work on a certain day, a !Kung may assess debts and debtors, decide how much wild food harvest will go to family, close relatives and others to whom he or she really wants to reciprocate, versus how much will be claimed by freeloaders.

The !Kung, we are told, spend a great deal of time talking about who has what and who gave what to whom or failed to give it to whom (Wiessner 1982:68). A lot of the exchange and sharing that goes on seems to be as much motivated by jealousy and envy as it is by any value of generosity or a “liberal custom of sharing.” In his survey of foraging societies, Kelly (1995:164-65) notes that “Sharing… strains relations between people. Consequently, many foragers try to find ways to avoid its demands …. Students new to anthropology..,. are often disappointed to learn that these acts of sharing come no more naturally to hunter- gatherers than to members of industrial societies.”

Score this round for Steven Pinker.

If you’re lost, read this. And this.

“Independence is for Neanderthals.”

October 19, 2010

From an interview about “food resilience“:

Gardening is important, but so is trade. Neanderthal stone tools, interestingly, are all found within a few miles of where the rocks originated. And the tools didn’t change very much over time. But Homo sapiens that lived at the same time had tools made from rocks that were clearly traded over long distances. And Homo sapiens’ tools changed and developed rapidly. We traded our ideas along with stuff. Any Neanderthal tribe that met a sapiens tribe was a single tribe against an entire species. I’m a Homo sapiens, and I follow Homo sapien traditions. I aim for appropriate self-reliance, not for independence. Independence is for Neanderthals.

Six problems income equality would help solve (Update: Did I get completely suckered by The Spirit Level?)

October 19, 2010

Update [10/19/10]: Read the following post with a big grain of salt. A commenter has pointed out some serious sounding criticisms of the book from much of the post is excerpted.

I’ve threatened a couple of times to blog about income inequality as a way of addressing climate change. Robert Frank’s most recent column in the New York Times gives me an excuse to begin laying out the argument, which I’ve cribbed from a handy little book called The Spirit Level: How Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger.

Frank gives us the context:

During the three decades after World War II, for example, incomes in the United States rose rapidly and at about the same rate — almost 3 percent a year — for people at all income levels. America had an economically vibrant middle class. Roads and bridges were well maintained, and impressive new infrastructure was being built. People were optimistic.

By contrast, during the last three decades the economy has grown much more slowly, and our infrastructure has fallen into grave disrepair. Most troubling, all significant income growth has been concentrated at the top of the scale. The share of total income going to the top 1 percent of earners, which stood at 8.9 percent in 1976, rose to 23.5 percent by 2007, but during the same period, the average inflation-adjusted hourly wage declined by more than 7 percent.

He also spells out the first problem that income equality would help solve:

Read the rest of this entry »

David Buss defends evolved sex differences (exclusive!)

October 15, 2010

This week Scientific American ran an article of mine, “Student Surveys Contradict Claims of Evolved Sex Differences.” Here’s the gist:

For more than three decades evolutionary psychologists have advanced a simple theory of human sexuality: because men invest less reproductive effort in sperm than women do in eggs, men’s and women’s brains have been shaped differently by evolution. As a result, men are eager for sex whereas women are relatively choosy. But a steady stream of recent evidence suggests this paradigm could be in need of a makeover.

A highly cited 1993 paper on evolved sex differences (linked to below) served as the story’s jumping off point and foil. Evolutionary psychologist David Buss of the University of Texas at Austin, a co-author of that paper, kindly responded to a query of mine while I was writing the story, laying out his objections to the evidence I cited in the article. I knew I wasn’t going to have room to do justice to his views, so I asked him if I could post his comments to this blog. He did me one better: he wrote a direct response to my article, which I’m reprinting below in its entirety. Read the rest of this entry »

The affluence of the !Kung San has been greatly exaggerated

October 12, 2010



Kalahari Desert CC: Elmar Thiel

As I’ve mentioned before, we’re trying to establish what kind of life prehistoric hunter-gatherers may have lived. Because we don’t have any prehistoric hunter-gatherers on hand, we’re first going to see what we can learn from the modern version. Specifically, let’s take a look at the !Kung San Bushmen (Bushfolk?) of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa.

The !Kung are hunter gatherers, adapting to their semi-arid environment by gathering roots, berries, fruits, and nuts that they gather from the desert, and from the meat provided by the hunters. … !Kung men are responsible for providing the meat, although women might occasionally kill small mammals. Game is not plentiful and the hunters sometimes must travel great distances. Meat is usually sparse and is shared fairly among the group when a hunter is successful. Every part of the animal is used; hides are tanned for blankets and bones are cracked for the marrow. Typical game sought in the hunt includes wildebeest, gemsbok, and giraffe; they also kill various reptiles and birds, and collect honey when it is available. The men provide household tools and maintain a supply of poison tipped arrows and spears for hunting. Read the rest of this entry »


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