The double bind of global warming

October 7, 2010

Anthropologist Kim Fortun is wicked smart. I’m trying to power through her book Advocacy After Bhopal on the advice of a researcher I queried in my quest to find the right graduate school. (So naturally I’ve stopped to blog…)

Dig the following, on logical paradoxes operating in the real world, p. 12:

A classic example is the statement that a therapist might make to a patient, or a parent to a child: “I want you to disobey me.” To obey the statement is to disobey it; to disobey it requires obeyance. The contradiction is produced by the condensation of messages of different logical types in one experiential fold, from which there is n o escape. [Anthropologist George] Bateson was particularly interested in double binds produced by family interaction. I want to understand the double binds produced by environmental crisis within globalization.  Read the rest of this entry »


On the efficiency of foraging for crickets

October 6, 2010

For those of you just joining us, we’re trying to establish what the prehistoric hunter-gatherer lifestyle was like. The authors of my new favorite book, Sex at Dawn, refer us to work by Utah state archaeologist David Madsen, who has studied the rate of return of foraging for grasshoppers and crickets. Turns out it was a remarkably cheap way to get food. Read the rest of this entry »


Why researchers are keen on graphene

October 5, 2010
This morning researchers Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov won the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics for their discovery of one-atom-thick sheets of carbon called graphene, which gives me a good excuse to trot out my 2007 article about possible future applications of graphene:

Today, Intel and other manufacturers stamp out microchips from dinner plate–size silicon wafers. By creating ever more detailed stamps, they cram chips with increasing numbers of the tiny switches known as transistors. But researchers believe that once silicon circuits slim down to 10 nanometers, which the semiconductor industry predicts will occur after 2020, they will start leaking electricity profusely. Already this year Intel and IBM announced that they would begin adding new materials to counteract leaky currents in their upcoming 45-nanometer transistors.

The question is what material comes next. Read the rest of this entry »


Why hunter-gatherers matter

October 5, 2010

Last time around we noted that Steven Pinker had not constructed an airtight argument that prehistoric hunter-gatherers were more likely to die in war than people living today. In subsequent posts we’ll take up the question of what that prehistoric hunting and foraging life may have been like, with considerable help from the authors of Sex at Dawn. But first a digression on why any of this matters.

A year or two ago I had occasion to speak to an anthropology PhD student about prehistoric hunter-gatherers. We’re talking here about humans who lived before the advent of agriculture some 10,000 years ago and after the birth of anatomically modern humans some 200,000 years ago. Anyway, she made the simple statement that these prehistoric people had lived long, healthy lives. Now, my immediate reaction was not, “hmm, this person is an expert in her chosen field whereas I am not, and I should therefore defer to her and perhaps ask her to tell me more”; no, it was, “pff, that can’t possibly be correct.”

Let’s unpack that “pff,” shall we? Read the rest of this entry »


Sex at Dawn corrects Pinker on hunter-gatherer warfare

October 3, 2010

Please forgive my lack of posts recently. I plan to pick it back up again, starting… now.

So the other day I received a review copy of the book Sex At Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, which I’ve blogged about before. Guess which section called out to me upon scanning the table of contents. If you guessed, “Professor Pinker: Red in Tooth and Claw,” you are correct.

Recall that Sex at Dawn‘s authors, Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá, want to make the argument that prehistoric hunter-gatherers lived in a hyper-sexual paradise, where life was free and easy because people had no private property tying them down and encouraging status competition. Then came agriculture, which harshed everyone’s mellow. Remember this diagram? Read the rest of this entry »


One man’s luxury is another man’s radical performance art

September 27, 2010

My post on gender performativity elicited an interesting comment from a reader named Alex SL:

I remain unconvinced that you can actually suppress gender roles without a 1984-like level of totalitarian suppression. It sure seems as if the vast majority – not all, but the vast majority – of people want to advertise what sex they are, and they want to exaggerate whatever it is that is considered their gender role in their specific society, especially during puberty, in order to be more attractive to the opposite sex.

Trying to completely abolish that is probably not any more hopeful an enterprise than trying to eradicate addictions, egoism, nepotism or lying. Sure, you want to minimize the negative consequences of these things, and you want to discourage them as far as realistically possible, but you will never have a 100% success because it is just too much part of what we are. Should we not be happy enough once everybody has equal rights instead of twisting our own nature beyond breaking point? Equality is already an enormous accomplishment that many cultures in the world still would have to achieve; me not being able to wear a skirt and makeup without being ostracized seems like a “luxury problem” in comparison.

It’s taken me a while to articulate a proper response, given that I did not actually advocate a top-down enforcement of androgyny by the state. Read the rest of this entry »


Michael Nelson on scientists as advocates

September 21, 2010

Over at Age of Engagement, Matt Nisbet interviews Michael Nelson, associate professor of environmental ethics and philosophy at Michigan State University, about the role of scientists in a democracy. Here’s an excerpt:

You argue that scientists have a “special responsibility” to engage in advocacy.  Can you explain?

I shutter [sic] when I think about the implications of stripping scientists – those who might know more about some given topic then anyone else – of their citizenship.  I do not think people know what they are saying or implying when they say scientists should not be advocates, or when scientists justify their lack of advocacy or criticize their peers on this basis.  I can hardly imagine anything more undemocratic, unhealthy, and un-American than knowingly stripping someone of their citizenship, or knowingly giving it up. Read the rest of this entry »


Ralph Nader on the two freedoms

September 21, 2010

Chris Hedges writes at Truthdig:

“The corporate state is the ultimate maturation of American-type fascism,” Nader said. “They leave wide areas of personal freedom so that people can confuse personal freedom with civic freedom—the freedom to go where you want, eat where you want, associate with who you want, buy what you want, work where you want, sleep when you want, play when you want. If people have given up on any civic or political role for themselves there is a sufficient amount of elbow room to get through the day. They do not have the freedom to participate in the decisions about war, foreign policy, domestic health and safety issues, taxes or transportation. That is its genius. But one of its Achilles’ heels is that the price of the corporate state is a deteriorating political economy. They can’t stop their greed from getting the next morsel. The question is, at what point are enough people going to have a breaking point in terms of their own economic plight? At what point will they say enough is enough?

via @ericmjohnson.


Malcolm Gladwell gives me a talking point on race and IQ

September 15, 2010

From his December 2007 New Yorker article, “None of the Above“:

[T]he question of whether Asians have a genetic advantage in I.Q. … has led to great excitement among I.Q. fundamentalists in recent years. Data showing that the Japanese had higher I.Q.s than people of European descent, for example, prompted the British psychometrician and eugenicist Richard Lynn to concoct an elaborate evolutionary explanation involving the Himalayas, really cold weather, premodern hunting practices, brain size, and specialized vowel sounds. The fact that the I.Q.s of Chinese-Americans also seemed to be elevated has led I.Q. fundamentalists to posit the existence of an international I.Q. pyramid, with Asians at the top, European whites next, and Hispanics and blacks at the bottom.

Here was a question tailor-made for James Flynn’s accounting skills. Read the rest of this entry »


Kessler and McKenna preach to the choir on gender attribution

September 15, 2010

I guess there was a time when the following was radical, from Gender: An Ethnomethodological Approach, p. 38:

[W]e propose that there is a strong possibility that in some nonindustrial cultures gender role is seen as the basis of gender attribution just as in our culture genitals are seen as the basis. In some cultures, as far as members were concerned, the invariant criteria for being seen as male or female (i.e., attributing a male or a female gender to someone) was the role one performed. Thus, a person with a vagina who performed tasks that persons with penises were assigned at birth (e.g., going to war) would be cognitively grouped with those persons with penises and seen to be of the same gender. The genital would have no importance in the gender attribution. Read the rest of this entry »