“I’ve never seen a Chinese monkey” (Essentialism & Human Variation)

I taught my first undergraduate anthropology class seventeen years ago, which is sometimes hard for me to believe. In that time, I’ve had over two thousand students enrolled in my courses, many of whom have left an impression on me. I hope I make a good impression on them too, though sometimes I have my doubts. A few years ago, a student asked me what my name was as they started to fill out the line after “Instructor” on the front page of their exam blue book. That was about halfway into the semester. You can’t reach them all, I suppose.

During my fourth year of teaching “Introduction to Biological Anthropology,” we got about two-thirds into the semester, and I paused to take the class’ pulse on how things were going. I asked them if they had any general thoughts about the class, such as what ideas they found interesting (or not), things they wished we could discussed more in depth, etc. I have since forgotten most of the students’ comments, except for one.

I remember that he wasn’t exactly the best student, and that he had struggled with most of the graded assignments. Nonetheless, I still learned something from him that day. He told the class that he thought evolution was an interesting idea, but he was skeptical about it applying to humans because, as he said, “Well, I’ve never seen a Chinese monkey.” This all occurred a long time ago, but I remember that at first I was puzzled by what he meant. And then it clicked.

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One Hundred Percent American (for the time being)

“All is flux.” – Heraclitus

“Todo cambia.” Mercedes Sosa

 

Below is a classic 1937 essay by the cultural anthropologist Ralph Linton. I think it is as relevant today – as divisions seem to be growing – as it was when it was first written. Linton was reminding us of some of the ways that our world is interconnected, and that it has been that way for a very, very long time. Eric Wolf summarized things this way: “the world of humankind constitutes a manifold, a totality of interconnected processes, and inquiries that disassemble this totality into bits and then fail to reassemble it falsify reality (1982:3).” (Note: Jason Antrosio wrote an excellent post on Wolf’s take on this interconnected world, and how seats of power have shifted over the centuries. What we see now is merely a snapshot in time).

Despite all of the different places of origin of our inventions, foods, traditions, languages, genes, and people, they don’t remain fixed or separate indefinitely. Some come and go, or are adopted in new places, forming new combinations and identities. “All things flow,” said Alfred North Whitehead. 

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An interconnected globe. From: “The history of our world in 18 minutes,” by David Christian

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“One Hundred Percent American”

by Ralph Linton, 1937

There can be no question about the average American’s Americanism or his desire to preserve this precious heritage at all costs. Nevertheless, some insidious foreign ideas have already wormed their way into his civilization without his realizing what was going on. Thus dawn finds the unsuspecting patriot garbed in pajamas, a garment of East Indian origin; and lying in a bed built on a pattern which originated in either Persia or Asia Minor. He is muffled to the ears in un-American materials: cotton, first domesticated in India; linen, domesticated in the Near East; wool from an animal native to Asia Minor; or silk whose uses were first discovered by the Chinese. All these substances have been transformed into cloth by methods invented in Southwestern Asia. If the weather is cold enough he may even be sleeping under an eiderdown quilt invented in Scandinavia.

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Colin Kaepernick and the Clash of Values

“Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.”    – Dalai Lama

Los Angeles Rams v San Francisco 49ers

Colin Kaepernick (right) and teammate Eric Reid kneeling during the national anthem (Source)

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A lot has been written about the San Francisco 49ers’ Colin Kaepernick and his decision to kneel during the national anthem before his team plays its games. For those who haven’t heard, in August of this year, Kaepernick opted not to stand during the anthem to protest police violence against minorities in the US. In his words:

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color…To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

The practice has since been taken up by dozens of other players in the league, and spread to the NBA and WNBA, US women’s soccer, high school athletes across the country, a high school football referee, cheerleaders, even a few singers of the anthem itself.

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The spread of national anthem protests (source)

Reactions to the protests have been mixed, with some people supporting Kaepernick’s right to peaceful protest, others being outraged, and still others being sympathetic to his cause but disagreeing with his methods. One mid-September poll found that Kaepernick had become the most disliked player in the NFL, “disliked a lot” by 29% of 1,100 Americans asked. That number was up from 6% in August, before his protestations began. He has received death threats, and a handful of NFL executives from teams around the league have expressed disdain for him, referring to Kaepernick as a “traitor” who “has no respect for our country.” Continue reading

Three Bases to Go

(This one is for me, but you might enjoy the link to the song.)

This storm it came up strong
It shook the trees
And blew away our fear
I couldn’t even hear

Jackie, rounding the bases. Three more bases to go.

 

 

Primates and the Day of Atonement

“As far as possible without surrender/  be on good terms with all persons.”

– Max Ehrmann, Desiderata

 

Our kids were home on Wednesday last week, as our school district observed Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement in Judaism. I’m not a theologian and can’t claim to have anything beyond a superficial understanding of Yom Kippur, but as we walked past the local synagogue in our neighborhood, surrounded by parked cars, I speculated about how and why such a tradition might have arisen.

From my understanding, Yom Kippur is primarily concerned with seeking forgiveness from God for any transgressions accrued in the last year. However, I was more curious about another related aspect of the holiday, which is that – prior to the day itself – people are also encouraged to seek forgiveness from others they have harmed.

I can see parallels here to my own Roman Catholic childhood and the sacrament of Penance. Of course, as a boy I was just doing what the adults told me to do, going through the motions – perfunctorily confessing to a priest about fighting with my siblings. But I never contemplated why something like Penance might exist, aside from the obvious one of avoiding Hell (that fear seems a lifetime ago).

Most religious traditions and societies probably have concepts like forgiveness, reconciliation, and atonement built into them to some degree. These likely have deep roots, and we can even find some of the basic building blocks of these among other species of primates. Most primate species are highly social, group-living animals, which has a list of pros and cons. The benefits of being social include having more eyes and ears to detect predators, the ‘selfish herd’ idea (less chance for me to be eaten), defense (against conspecifics for territory, against predators), more models of adult behavior (socialization), easier to find mates and food, and (in some species) reaping the benefits of specialized division of labor.  

However, all things in biology have tradeoffs. If you’re going to live in a group, chances are next to nil that there will not be at least some internal conflict. It’s certainly not all-conflict-all-the-time, but the degree of internal conflict depends on circumstances. Two individuals may want similar things most of the time, but they cannot maintain perfectly overlapping interests indefinitely.

Among baboons, social life is rife with conflict as individuals vie for status. In an interview with Robert Sapolsky, he described the impact social stress can have on baboon life, while drawing a comparison to humans:

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“A Way Out of Hell”

I first watched Richard Attenborough’s 1982 film “Gandhi” when I was a teenager. I’ve seen it several times since, but there is one particular scene that has always stood out. To me, it is as powerful as any film scene I’ve encountered.

For background, the scene takes place during a period of rioting between Muslims and Hindus. Brokenhearted by the violence, Gandhi vowed to fast until the fighting stopped or until he dies, whichever comes first. Due to the reverence that people held for him, Gandhi’s fasting helps to bring the riots to a halt. As he lay in bed, weak from hunger, a group of Hindu men hand over their weapons and pledge not to engage in further violence.

As they leave with Gandhi’s blessing, a solitary man with a crazed look barges in. I don’t think I can do the rest of the scene justice, so it is probably better just to watch.

A few months ago, I finally decided to ask someone well-versed in Gandhi’s biography if they knew whether the events in the scene happened as they were portrayed. Kindly, a historian answered my question, although their response was indirect. Instead, they cited the phrase, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” This is often attributed to Gandhi and can be found on bumper stickers, internet memes, and t-shirts. However, there is no record that he ever spoke or wrote those words. Gandhi did say something along those lines, but it’s not exactly made for a t-shirt: 

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“The United States has a moral obligation to help Laos heal”