Sunday, December 26, 2010

festivus, christamus, and other holidays

EvolutionBeach is on the east coast this holiday season, taking respite from the department madness. Snow is promised for today and I hope it dumps. Bring it on old man winter and let the flakes pile up in drifts that dwarf the house. Fill the air with biting cold and bluster!

I hope you all are having a wonderful holiday of whatever sort you prefer.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Such good timing...

The AAA has such amazing timing -- When a historic bill funding more science and science education gets passed, what is the AAA doing? Busy removing all reference to science from its mission statement. Blargh.

Dreams of a U.S. renaissance in basic research were kept alive today when the U.S. House of Representatives passed the America COMPETES Act, a key funding bill for the physical sciences. The milestone came as a huge relief to supporters of the bill, which only last week seemed likely to die with the current Congress at the end of this year. But after a dramatic rally of support in the US Senate on Friday, the bill found itself back in the House, where it was briskly shepherded through to a final vote this afternoon. The bill now goes to President Barack Obama to be signed into law.

COMPETES is a reauthorization of a three-year 2007 act that followed recommendations in Rising Above the Gathering Storm, a 2005 report from the U.S. National Academies. The report supported increased funding for science education and placed certain science-funding agencies, including the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, on a path to double their funding over ten years, relative to a 2007 baseline.

The bill's passage is a major victory for Congressman Bart Gordon (Democrat, Tennessee), who spearheaded the legislation in 2007 and again this year. Gordon is retiring from the House after three years as chairman of the House Committee on Science and Technology, and says that he sees COMPETES as part of his legacy. "There is nothing I'm more proud of than the America COMPETES bill," Gordon told the House during the floor debate. "I cannot think of anything I would rather be doing in what is likely my final act on the House floor in 26 years of service than sending this bill to the president's desk."

Monday, December 20, 2010

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Words, Culture, and Change

Hector Neff just sent me the link to the Culturomics website. This project (with paper in Science) uses digitized books (from Google Books) representing some 4% of all books ever printed to track word usage over time. Amazing. A whole host of folks were involved -- including Pinker, Nowak and Jean-Baptiste Michel.

We constructed a corpus of digitized texts containing about 4% of all books ever printed. Analysis of this corpus enables us to investigate cultural trends quantitatively. We survey the vast terrain of "culturomics", focusing on linguistic and cultural phenomena that were reflected in the English language between 1800 and 2000. We show how this approach can provide insights about fields as diverse as lexicography, the evolution of grammar, collective memory, the adoption of technology, the pursuit of fame, censorship, and historical epidemiology. "Culturomics" extends the boundaries of rigorous quantitative inquiry to a wide array of new phenomena spanning the social sciences and the humanities.

You can play with the data (and download it!) at Check out, for example, "bell bottoms".


or compare "bowler hat, fedora and baseball cap"


This is a fantastic look at how cultural terms vary over time with all kinds of implications for studying rates of changes, functional contexts, etc. Very cool! Not too many anthropologists on that co-author list!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

RC Dunnell

A couple of more recent photos of RCD doing what he enjoyed: talking about archaeology and looking at archaeology. In this case, discussing plummet variability and a mound up on the bluff near Natchez.. Photos from Natchez, 2010 with Tim Hunt. Thanks to Dan Shepherd





Tuesday, December 14, 2010

More on the Anthropology Mission Statement Debacle...

Razib Khan writes on his Discover Magazine blog about the AAA anti-science movement.

How would you feel as a chemist if professional meetings were dominated by alchemists? If you were a neurologist specializing in traumatic brain injuries who had to go to conferences where they mostly talked about Qi? I’ve personally listened to enough cultural anthropologists who seem to be channeling aliens for whom Michel Foucalt is God as they issue forth a river of impenetrable jargon that I have sympathy for the frustration.

Monday, December 13, 2010

RIP Robert C. Dunnell

More later, but just wanted to share the sad news that Robert Chester Dunnell died today. Very sad.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Science and Anthropology

Science is what makes the world safe for cultural anthropology. Really. It is only because we can sort out ideas that have empirical performance versus those that are opinions, beliefs, culture, linguistic stylings, fancy, flair, speculations, musings, diatribes, claims and proclamations that we provides something for cultural anthropologists to study. The sorting maybe messy and fraught with human confusion, but it works over the long run. Lacking performance values, these ideas must be free to vary as well as the people who have them. Science sorts out ideas, for example, that claim disease is caused by 'vapors' versus those ideas in which disease is caused by infectious agents. It also demonstrates that same-sex parenting produces children no worse off than multiple sex parents or that gay soldiers are no worse off doing their job than heterosexuals. Science makes it possible to tell misanthropes to shut the hell up.

Ruth Benedict has said "the purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences." Not quite. Science does this by allowing us to evaluate claims that human differences are somehow "wrong." Anthropologists get the safer world as a freebee.

And the AAA wants to get rid of science as part of its mission?

Friday, December 10, 2010

Anthropology in the NY Times

Nicholas Wade reported on the AAA mission statement change in yesterday's NY Times. Interestingly Daniel Linde comments in a PLoS Blog on what Wade reports and largely argues that everyone is making mountains out of mole hills. He states that the mission statement was supposed to be just "internal" and not a public affair. He argues that changing the mission statement just means that we are "moving forward" and that it is just recognizing the previous role of colonialsm. Its a puzzling argument. Why does removing science from a mission statement simply "a field moving forward?" He seems to have fallen into the trap of equating our colonialist ancestors (and their science mission) with science itself. That's just bad logic and sloppy thinking.

To end his blog he quotes, Catherine Lutz who is "most definitely a critical anthropologist" (suggesting that they are the "real" anthropologist and thus the authority on what is and isnt anthropology). She states that "Most departments of anthropology happily work together each day with a diversity of members, some of whom take more humanistic approaches and some of whom take more scientific ones. All of them aspire to rigor and rarely disparage either their colleagues in biochemistry or their colleagues in French literature for not understanding the worlds that they choose to study…"

It's unclear, of course, from where her data for "most departments" comes. At best, I would argue that Departments live under a kind of detante. At worst, the situation consists of a majority rule of one form or another with a disgruntled minority. I suspect true respect is fairly rare given the competition for resources and the vastly different products that come from a "humanities" based anthropology versus any form that seeks a science based discipline. The most happy departments Ive seen have simply opted to pick one area for their focus rather than try to squeeze in such disparate goals.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

AAA, Science and the politics of lame

Alice Dreger follows up her previous discussions on the dropping of science from the AAA mission and nabs some good quotes from Mark Collard.

Meanwhile, the AAA continues to be confused. When questioned about this move the AAA spokesperson (Damon Dozier) stated that:

The removal of any mention of science from the plan's mission statement applies only to the long-range plan -- and not to the organization itself or its larger direction

And that despite the simple closed-minded assertion that resulted in this fiasco,

That's how our process works, and I think it's a very open process.

I've seen these kinds of shenanigan's before. Decisions are made a head of time and others are invited in to "comment" after the fact. Then the commentors are claimed to be subversive and a minority based on that the majority is unaware or doesn't care. It is a great way to demoralize smaller groups with diverse interests and solidify a fascist style administration. Classic thuggery.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Dear AAA Executive Committee...

An open letter from Dr. David Cheetham, one our CSULB lecturers in archaeology and an IIRMES researcher. Dr. Cheetham recently completed his PhD at Arizona State University.

Dear AAA Executive Committee,
I am a relatively young scholar, having recently finished my Ph.D. at Arizona State University. I am also a long-standing member of the AAA---or at least I was until today (I will not be renewing my membership). The current flap with respect to your collective (I assume) move to extirpate science from the mandate of the AAA is an alarming indictment of the profession as it currently stands. My only hope is that some faction within the executive body will speak out against this pending amendment and, if unsuccessful in preventing its activation, will resign in protest and build support from without.
Under the false premise of betterment and backwards (empirically baseless) activism, you are sowing the seeds of the discipline's demise. Perhaps you should take a close look at what the shunning of the scientific paradigm and move to "postmodernism" has done to anthropology in France; it has made it irrelevant and therefore dispensable. If we as anthropologists follow your proposed mandate and never assume an objective stance (as science strives to do), by default we incorporate a "plurality of voices," or "multivocality," or whatever (insert alternate fad/buzz-word here) on all matters cultural. If the cultural world is not knowable from a scientific standpoint, then what purpose does the discipline serve? What has happened to the discipline of anthropology that the very essence of science is completely cast aside for non-empirical perspectives? Of course there should always be room for different paradigms---as there is in any healthy, contributing discipline---but to remove what is arguably the most fundamental of them is, in my opinion, tantamount to a rejection of all. Knowledge is built through the interplay of paradigms and ideas that spring from them, not through avoidance of paradigms that activist elements find objectionable for reasons they cannot properly articulate. That a collective, representative group of anthropologists would even consider such a move is mind-boggling---It saddens me, although it comes as no surprise. I may have chose the wrong profession, but as long as I am in it, I will continue to be guided by what you consider objectionable.
David Cheetham, Ph.D.

Anthropology Vs. Science

For any of you who would rather see an animated recreation of the dialogue between anthropology, the AAA and science, you can now view it here:

AAA responds with a lame plea...

Apparently, we are supposed to believe that removing science was done to be "more inclusive." Orwellian double speak for "we don't give a crap."

From the officers of the AAA to our membership:

Our AAA long-range plan needed updating in order to address the changing composition of the profession and the needs of the AAA membership. At its November 20 meeting in New Orleans, the Executive Board specified, concretized, and enlarged its operational roadmap for investing the Association’s resources towards a sustainable future. Section leadership was consulted prior to the New Orleans Annual Meeting, and the Executive Board acted. Then immediately after the highly attended 2010 AAA Meetings in New Orleans, some criticisms of the plan were circulated electronically that had not been sent our way prior to the Meetings. Among them were thoughtful responses from several quarters, many queries about hearsay, and some suggestions for improvement or change. These responses, however, were amped up by blog headline editors earlier this week: “Anthropology Without Science,” and “No Science Please. We’re Anthropologists.”   We believe that the source of the problem speaks to the power of symbols: we replaced the term “science” in the preface of this planning document by a more specific (and inclusive) list of research domains, while explicitly acknowledging that the Association’s central focus is to promote the production, circulation, and application of anthropological research findings.  Each one of us (the four officers of the AAA) may add or comment on the issues separately, but collectively we care about letting the entire association see the document at hand. We know that comments will continue to come our way and we welcome them from our clearly engaged membership.  

Virginia R. Dominguez, President
Leith Mullings, President-Elect
Debra L. Martin, Secretary

Thursday, December 2, 2010

RCD: Lifetime Achievement Award

If only as a gesture towards thumbing the nose at anti-science anthropology establishment you might consider helping us nominate Robert Dunnell for the Society for American Archaeology Lifetime Achievement Award. Diana Greenlee has put the announcement out that Bill Dancey and Janet Rafferty are compiling nomination letters in support of RCD.

I hope you will consider writing a letter of support. Here are the key points:

  1. The support letters have to be submitted as signed pdfs, either using an electronic signature or by scanning a signed document.
  2. Letters should be on letterhead.
  3. Please email your letter to Janet at, or send a hard copy via snail mail to Janet Rafferty, P.O. Box AR, Mississippi State, MS 39762. She will convert any non-pdfs and/or scan any hard copy letters
  4. f possible, we'd like the letters by 23 December so that everything can be submitted before the holidays..
  5. Please contact Janet or me with any questions

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Descent of Anthropology...

Discussion about the AAA's decision to remove "science" from its mission statement continues. Julienne Rutherford (a physical anthropologist working at the interesting convergence of the School of Dentistry and the Departments of Oral Biology and Anthropology at the University of Illinois at Chicago) has posted some useful comments about this action. You can find her writing here:   

Michael Smith has also commented on the AAA's mission change:

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Open Source GIS

If you haven't tried it lately, I recommend you give GRASS a whirl. While earlier versions were a mess of imploding modules and inscrutable dialogs, Version 6.4 has many binaries for the major platforms and lots of deep functionality. Check it out at: OS X binaries are available at: (just needs GDAL, Freetype and cairo frameworks to install -- links on the KingChaos site).

You also should check out the newest version of Quantum GIS (QGIS). The latest release (1.6.0) is "Copiap√≥" is getting to be pretty solid.  

While you are at it, download the newest version of Google Earth (6.0) which now boasts 3D trees. Im not sure why we need 3D trees but what the heck. Actually, the better integration of historical imagery makes this a very useful release.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Fluff-heads and Anthropology

Alice Dreger made quite a bit of news last year by exposing the American Anthropological Association Executive Committee witch hunt against Napolean Chagnon.   This year, while attending the AAA meetings (to go to the Evolutionary Anthropology Society section meetings), she got wind of the "ditch science" move the Executive Committee is now undertaking. Not one to back away from saying it like it is, Dreger describes the issue as this one:

In the messages flying back and forth, I was reminded why anthropologists refer to the annual conference as "the meetings," plural: it's because they go and meet with their own actual disciplinary types, in separate groups, so that the real scientists don't have to deal too much with the fluff-head cultural anthropological types who think science is just another way of knowing.

Not all cultural anthropologists are fluff-heads, of course. You can usually tell the ones who are fluff-heads by their constant need to look like superheroes for oppressed peoples, and you can tell the non-fluff-heads by their attention to data. But the non-fluff-head cultural anthropologists are feeling utterly beleaguered in this environment that actively denigrates science and consistently promotes activism over data collection and scientific theorizing.

You can read more about Dreger's take on the debacle in her blog on Psychology Today:

Culture Evolves and Anthropology Does Not.

While the primary association for Anthropology continues to fall into a puzzlingly empty abyss, biologists expand their authority over the core concept that once defined Anthropology: culture. The recent Culture Evolves meeting in London highlights the degree to which anthropology has handed over its raison d'être. An article in the New Scientist describes the goings-on at Culture Evolves. (Note: see Mark Collard's extensive quotes...). Is the last good anthropological treatise on culture going to be Cornealis Osgood 1951?


From lay-a-bed meerkats to fish traditions, all sorts of animal behaviour comes from learning as well as genes. So what makes humans different?

CULTURE: the word conjures images of nights at the opera, airy art galleries and classical architecture. Whether you consider culture and all its trappings to be elitist and intimidating or enriching and the pinnacle of civilisation, there is one point on which most people agree - culture is distinctly human. So it was quite surreal to find myself, last June, in the foyer of the Queen Elizabeth concert hall in London, in a group of 700 people, discussing the cultural lives of orang-utans, meerkats and fish.

The meeting, called Culture Evolves, was held to help celebrate the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society of London. It was an indication of just how far the scientific study of culture has come in recent years. It is little more than a decade since a landmark paper in Nature identified dozens of cultural activities in chimps, catapulting culture out of the exclusively human domain. Since then, culture in non-humans has become a hot topic, with evidence piling up that it can be found right down through the animal kingdom, even as far as insects.

All of which presents an enigma. If culture is so prevalent in the animal kingdom, why are we the only creature with traditions as complex or diverse as the cha-cha or the Japanese Noh drama? This question was debated at the meeting, with interesting answers emerging, some of which even hint at where human culture will go from here. "[The research] looks set to transform our understanding of ourselves," says meeting co-organiser Andrew Whiten of the University of St Andrews, UK.

A word about definitions before genteel readers start choking on their afternoon tea: nobody is proposing that animals have anything close to what you might call "high culture". If you want to understand what biologists mean when they refer to animal culture, forget Rimbaud, classical concerts and art appreciation: think instead about all the things humans do that go under the umbrella of cultural diversity - traditions such as languages, cuisines, fashion, ritual and games. An animal species in which distinct groups display such socially learned traditions may be said to possess culture - although some biologists still prefer not to use the C word.

The idea that culture is not exclusively human has been hotly contested for at least half a century, with proponents citing classic examples, like one troop of Japanese macaques who developed a tendency to wash their sweet potatoes in the sea before eating them. Others, however, doubted whether such traditions could be equated with culture. Things came to a head in 1999 when Whiten teamed up with a group of luminaries in the world of primatology to catalogue chimp local traditions (Nature, vol 399, p 682).

Chimp customs

Trawling through reports from over 150 years of observation of chimpanzees from seven different sites, the researchers identified 65 categories of behaviour, 42 of which varied between populations. A few of these differences could be explained by ecological factors - in four sites where there was a high risk of being attacked by predators, for example, the chimps did not build sleeping nests on the ground as they did in other places. When such instances were removed, that still left 39 areas in which different communities had distinct behaviours. These ranged from the construction and use of specific tools for termite fishing or cracking recalcitrant nuts, to idiosyncratic courtship routines and particular styles of grooming - some groups do it with one arm clasped overhead, for example. Ruling out the possibility that these behaviours were either genetically predetermined or learned by individuals through trial and error, the team concluded that they must be passed on from one animal to another via social learning, and therefore constituted cultural traditions.

The combination of so much evidence, big-name authors and publication in Nature finally persuaded many animal behaviourists to embrace the idea that culture is not exclusively human. Before long, many more creatures had gained admission into the culture club. In 2001, Hal Whitehead from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, and Luke Rendell from the University of St Andrews, UK, published a paper in which they identified a variety of cultural traits in whales and dolphins, including specific songs, migratory traditions and foraging techniques (Behavioral and Brain Sciences, vol 24, p 309).

Then in 2003, Carel van Schaik at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, and colleagues, catalogued 24 cultural traditions in orang-utans. These ranged from the practice of making "dolls" from bundles of leaves to blowing raspberries at each other before bedtime (Science, vol 299, p 102). The same year Susan Perry of the University of California, Los Angeles, revealed culture in capuchin monkeys in Costa Rica, which have some truly bizarre traditions, like poking each other in the eye and sniffing one another's hands (Current Anthropology, vol 44, p 241).

Orang-utan cultural traditions range from the practice of making 'dolls' from bundles of leaves to blowing raspberries at each other at bedtime

It is clear to see why social learning would be beneficial to these species. An animal that can copy behaviour already acquired by a compatriot can pick up new skills more quickly. This is particularly advantageous in fast-changing environments, where behaviours that are hard-wired into the genes would soon become redundant. But what about more "cognitively challenged" animals - would they have the brainpower to cash-in on social learning?

It has long been known that some birds learn their songs from one another, but many researchers were sceptical that they would use social learning beyond this one specific trait. There is now convincing evidence that they do. For example, Tore Slagsvold of the University of Oslo, Norway, described at the Culture Evolves meeting how he transferred the eggs of blue tits to the nests of great tits, and vice versa. He found that the fostered chicks acquired foraging behaviours characteristic of their adoptive parents. Since both species inhabit essentially the same natural environment, this indicates that the way in which they exploit it is largely determined by culture rather than a genetic predisposition (Proceedings of the Royal Society, B, vol 274, p 19).

That's not all. Fish also learn techniques from their peers to navigate many of life's problems, from deciding what to eat and where to find food, to recognising and avoiding predators. Moving even further down the animal kingdom, there is even some evidence of social learning in insects including crickets and bees, leading some to claim that they, too, may have their own cultural traditions (Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, vol 61, p 1789).

Within just 11 years of Whiten and colleagues' seminal Nature paper, it has now become clear that the fundamental building block of culture - social learning - is widespread in the animal kingdom. A conundrum remains, however. If a fish with a brain the size of a petit pois is sophisticated enough for social learning, how come millions of years of evolution have only produced one species with traditions as diverse as the tango, brutalism and dim-sum?

One possible explanation, explored at the meeting, springs from the growing realisation that learning by copying is not the unalloyed good it was once thought to be. Although social learning is an efficient way of picking up information, if used indiscriminately it can be arbitrary or even harmful. An inability to abandon learned traditions could mean that animals get locked into using an inefficient strategy when environmental conditions change. Worse still, local traditions may even emerge that confer no benefits and simply put you at a disadvantage, which seems to have happened among some Kalahari meerkats.

Life is tough for these animals, and pups rely heavily on social learning to work out what is edible and how to avoid being eaten themselves, but the tendency to copy also extends to another habit with no apparent benefits. Alex Thornton at the University of Cambridge has discovered that some groups consistently get up later than others, even though this lay-a-bed tradition gives less time for foraging (Proceedings of the Royal Society B, vol 277, p 3623).

Judging when and who to copy should therefore be vital. Is this where humans steal a march over other animals? Unlike many other species, we do not merely copy our parents, but instead consider everyone around us as potential role models. This should give us more opportunities to acquire useful traditions, provided that we can work out who is most likely to possess good information.

It turns out that we are particularly skilled at making this distinction. Adults are known to choose the most successful, prestigious and knowledgeable individuals to copy. Even children are highly selective of who to trust, rather than blindly copying the people they know best, as had previously been believed. "By age 5, kids prefer information from reliable informants to familiar ones," saysPaul Harris of Harvard University, who presented work on the topic at the Culture Evolves meeting.

All of this is very sensible and clever, but there's a problem: "Every single one of these effects have previously been observed in fish," says Kevin Laland at the University of St Andrews, who studies social learning in guppies. We might like to think that we are more discriminating than a fish, but perhaps what really sets us apart from other species is not who we learn from, but how we learn.

"In animals, social learning occurs through observation," says Gergely Csibra of the Central European University in Budapest, Hungary. We, however, have a more active system of instruction that includes both teachers and learners. He has dubbed this "natural pedagogy" and believes it evolved in the human line in response to technological advances. Around 2.6 million years ago, our ancestors began making tools. As tools increased in complexity the technology became more "opaque", says Csibra. This meant that learners could not simply copy by observing, so knowledge came to be passed on by explicit demonstration, either using non-verbal techniques or the evolved trait of language. As a result, he asserts, only humans are psychologically adapted to assume the roles of both teacher and pupil (New Scientist, vol 2545, p 42).

Further evidence that the complexity of human technology pushed us to become better social learners comes from another distinctly human quirk: over-imitation. Unlike chimps and other social learners, young children copy every single step performed by a demonstrator, even ones that are clearly irrelevant. Various experiments by Derek Lyons at the University of California, Irvine, have ruled out the possibilities that kids over-imitate because they think it is expected of them, or from a desire to be like the adult demonstrator, or simply because they want to. "Over-imitation is involuntary," he says. He concludes that when children are taught a new procedure they automatically encode all the actions as causally meaningful (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol 104, p 19751). This may sometimes lead to the reproduction of irrelevant actions, but in a world where cultural artefacts are often complex, on balance it is a useful adaptation.

All of which suggests a kind of positive feedback loop, in which the complexities of early technology pushed us to evolve better methods of social learning. These improved learning abilities then accelerated cultural transmission, ultimately pushing us towards greater and greater cultural complexity.

Runaway evolution

As powerful a driver of cultural development as technology may have been, there is inevitably a great deal more to it than that. Francesco d'Errico at the University of Bordeaux, France, andChris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London recently turned to the archaeological record to track cultural change in prehistory. They found that cultural developments such as innovations in the way stone tools are created happened in leaps and bounds, rather than in a more gradual, steady trend. That may be because our psychology also includes a strong conservative streak.

Harris finds, for example, that children will preferentially imitate people who conform to social norms. This trait makes it difficult for new traditions to get off the ground, and outside forces may therefore be required to tip the balance in favour of innovation, d'Errico and Stringer conclude. From their study, three broad factors seem to be key: changes in climate, population growth and high levels of cultural exchange. Agriculture, for instance, is thought to have emerged 10,000 years ago partly as a result of increasing population pressure in the eastern Mediterranean.

If these factors shaped cultural evolution in the past, can we make any predictions about the future? With increasing opportunities for cultural exchange via the internet and globalisation, perhaps we should expect to see runaway cultural evolution? "There are countervailing forces," says Mark Collard from Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada, who spoke at the Culture Evolves meeting about what causes cultural complexity. On the one hand, he points out that the internet and globalisation allow social information to be shared by large numbers of people across the world who could never have connected before. That could lead to a breakdown in cultural barriers as different traditions merge together and begin to lose some of their individuality. Look at any social networking site, however, and you'll see that people still form distinct cliques - more so than ever, in fact, since it's now much easier for individuals to hook up with others who share their passions, no matter how far-out these may be. "The internet allows groupishness," says Collard.

Throughout human evolution, people have used traditions and cultural practices to distinguish themselves from other camps. "Humans have a long history of erecting barriers," says another conference delegate, evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel of the University of Reading, UK. Cliques on the internet are no different, each propagating their own distinct trends and fashions. Our tendency for groupishness may be a somewhat unappealing trait in many circumstances, but it may just be the saving grace that allows our amazing cultural diversity to flourish in the future.

Kate Douglas is a features editor for New Scientist

Friday, November 26, 2010

Whither Anthropology as a Science?

There must have been some buzz this past week at the AAA meetings in New Orleans. Peter Peregrine sent an email out to members, past and present, of the Society for Anthropological Sciences (SAS) (for which Peregrine is President). Quite rightly, he was massively alarmed about a motion the Executive Committee of the AAA has taken in revision of the Association's mission statement. In essence, the committee has expunged all references to Anthropology as a science as part of their "Long Range Plan." He has called for a response to the AAA in the form of a resolution for the SAS. I assume there will be other responses as well. Here is what is being proposed:

Mission Statement in the new LRP (additions underlined; deletions in strikethrough)

Section 1. The purposes of the Association shall be to advance anthropology as the science that studies public understanding of humankind in all its aspects, through This includes, but is not limited to, archeological, biological, ethnological, social, cultural, economic, political, historical, medical, visual, and linguistic anthropological research; The Association also commits itself and to further the professional interests of American anthropologists, including the dissemination of anthropological knowledge, expertise, and interpretation. and its use to solve human problems.

Section 2. To advance the science of anthropology the public understanding of humankind, the Association shall: Foster and support the development of special anthropological societies organized on a regional or functional basis; Publish and promote the publication of anthropological monographs and journals; Encourage anthropological teaching, research, and practice; act to coordinate activities of members of the Association with those of other organizations concerned with anthropology, and maintain effective liaison with related sciences knowledge disciplines and their organizations.

Section 3. To further the professional interests of anthropologists, the Association shall, in addition to those activities described under Section 2: Take action on behalf of the entire profession and integrate the professional activities of anthropologists in the special aspects of the science; and promote the widespread recognition and constant improvement of professional standards in anthropology.

When I first read this, I thought "well, that is at least being honest." In many ways, Anthropology has survived in some of its least flattering forms due to the impression that many people that "doing Anthropology" is somehow necessarily "scientific." One might think, for example, "why are these people 'specialists' and getting paid to do this?" if science didn't have something to do with it. Here, science is confused with "systematic" but the gist is basically the same (i.e., assuming something systematic produces some regular and recognizable product). Of course, so much of what anthropology does do really isn't science, not even in its most empiricist and "systematic" form. Looking over the set of papers presented at the AAAs, one sees largely an ad hoc assortment of viewpoints, beliefs, assertions, claims, stories, tales, re-envisionings, interpretations, polemics, rallies, hubris, hue, and so on. Little of it is even empiricist in its crass form and even less is "systematic" in any recognizable way.

But on second thought, the idea that the people who believe that anthropology cannot or should not be a science can entirely co-opt the entire discipline is pretty outrageous. This kind of gerrymandering of the mission basically makes it necessary for those who believe that there are ways of generating theory-laden falsifiable accounts of the world in terms of culture (and other basic anthropological concepts) must work under a different banner than anthropology. But why should this be - we (science focused individuals) are anthropologists in the best sense of the discipline and its tradition. The anti-science theme is something early anthropologists fought against -- and is a relative late comer to the party.

And to make things worse, this new "mission" for anthropology seems only to further its the association's self-perpetuation interests without providing any particular reason for existing in the first place. The mission statement is insular, self-fulfilling and largely pointless. Deleting the goal of "solve human problems"? Uh, isn't this defining the mission of the AAA as simply promoting anthropology to simply replicate itself in whatever random form it happens to take? While ideas are all conceptually equal, some have more use than others when goals such as "solve human problems" are explicit. So removing this clause simply means that everyone doing anything is all okay. While this might not seem like such a big deal (i.e., who cares?), the reality is that resources are always finite and decisions have to be made. Plus, the "everything goes" kind of mentality seems to breed idiotic, political minded, self-congratulatory, post-hoc rationalized initiatives like the AAA Executive Committee's earlier witch hunt after Napoleon Chagnon.

Personally, I decided long ago to never send another dollar towards the AAA -- the journal sucks, the meetings consist of endless parade of dour, self-serious blathering and the association is a platform for mindless PC agenda and attacks on the folks struggling to make anthropology have a purpose. This change in the mission largely serves to confirm my earlier feelings about the AAA. Still, I cannot help but feel even more abandoned and disrespected by many of my academic colleagues.

Related link:

Want to tell the AAA Executive Committee what you think about this? Email them by clicking here....

Other discussions on this issue:

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Evolutionary and Interpretive Archaeologies: A Dialogue

While I am not sure what the dialogue is going to consist of, colleague Ethan Cochrane and co-editor Andrew Gardner are on the brink of publishing a new edited volume entitled " 512w2voCzeL._SL160_.jpgEvolutionary and Interpretive Archaeologies: A Dialogue" (December 1, 2010, Left Coast Press). From what I remember, this book started as a colloquium series while Ethan was teaching at UCL. Given the radically (and explicit) different epistemologies (falsification vs. plausibility as a means of evaluation), I am not sure what the common ground for this dialogue will be (i.e., is it just claiming that plausibility is "good enough"?). If the book serves to demonstrate the critical differences between these kinds of explanatory products, it will be of use. I look forward to reading it.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Statues That Walked now on Amazon (Pre-order)!

While we are still doing edits on the manuscript, our Rapa Nui/Easter Island book has now become available on Amazon for pre-orders. Pre-order your copy here! Order now and we will throw in a free set of steak knives or a personalized signed note!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Structure From Motion

Part of our interest in acquiring a UAV is to expand our ability for quickly generating high resolution topographic data. Traditionally, this process is time-consuming and (as a result) expensive. I've spent a number of summers collecting elevation data over archaeological deposits (Easter Island, Panakton, Greece, Harappa..) and even after weeks of tedious point collection (and thousands of points measured across the ground), the resulting topographic map is less-than-desirable. The problem is one of data density -- 1000 points can be collected pretty quickly (esp. with a modern total station) but over any sized area the density of the points is pretty low per unit area. Take a 100x100 meter area -- it would take 10000 points to have a point every meter. 1000 points is only a 10% sample of that. Now one can be "smart" and sample more densely in areas with greater changes in topography but then some of the algorithms for building the iso-contours will produce odd "artifacts" -- many assume even coverage of points. Even with 10000 points, you end up with a fairly crude representation of the surface - which might work at the scale of the entire deposit, but is too crude for examining any specific area. To make matters worse, in order to increase resolution by say 2x (i.e., to get 50 centimeter resolution), you have to quadruple the sample size.

New developments in laser scanning and LiDAR provide a great means for changing the data generation to cost relationship. However, the technology is pretty new and not entirely cheap. Ultimately, LiDAR provides a great solution for mapping landscape scale features (e.g., entire states) and produces information about the bare ground (so can provide topographic data under tree canopies -- often where we know the least about the archaeological record [e.g., bayous]). But for a project specific survey LiDAR can be overly expensive or simply impossible (since getting plane to some places with the right set up for laser scanning is not always possible -- e.g., Easter Island). Here, land-based laser scanners are handy but these cost about $100,000 to start and typically require trained operators. Renting them can be as much as $20K a month.

From a cost perspective, generating topographic information using "structure from motion" based techniques is quite appealing. This approach makes use of basic imagery collected from inexpensive cameras. Surfaces are calculated based on shared points in photos, determining the position of the camera from images and calculating where the points that are shared must be in space in order that they were captured by the camera. It is an ingenious technique - using some cool math. Noah Snavely, a PhD student (now an assistant professor at Cornell) at the University of Washington developed some of the basic software for doing this (originally part of a "photo tourism" project in which photos taken by tourists of locations can be combined to build a 3-D model of the scene - without knowing before hand where the cameras were placed and under a variety of lighting and other conditions). This project has morphed into Photosynth, the free Microsoft project that automates this project and is Silverlight based.

From a topographic perspective, the "structure from motion" approach is pretty slick - using just a bunch of photos made on cheap digital cameras, one can produce detailed representations of surfaces. Actually, the product is a 3D point cloud that has excellent relative accuracy. Increasing resolution simply means more photos - and whole swaths of areas can be covered with just a click of the shutter. Getting absolute position requires georectification - a separate process (which I can detail elsewhere). Commercial products, though, can take geotagged photos and create a georeferenced point cloud. We have a license for Microsoft's Geosynth - a professional version of Photosynth that can take HD video and geotags to produce high density georeferenced point clouds.

One of the problems with Geosynth, however, is that it doesn't produce some basic products such as a simple (georeferenced) photomosaic. Instead, there focus is on creating "synths" -- a cool product but entirely unintegrated with other kinds of spatial tools (e.g., GIS). Last week, we saw a demo of another software package that produces mosaics using the same kinds of algorithms as Geosynth -- 2d3's TacitView. 2d3 is a small software company located in Irvine. TacitView (and TopoMap, their 3D product). The software is slick and well-done - a great interface and the products are well-suited for integrating into GIS software. We are going to do a demo of this software soon to see how it compares to Geosynth.

Thursday, November 11, 2010


We finally made the plunge and send out a PO for a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle). Of course, we are not talking about a GlobalHawk or a Predator drone (but man, those would be cool -- do field mapping on the other side of the planet from a desktop... drool). We are looking to get a (1) robust (2) self piloting (3) portable (4) minimally dangerous to others (5) robust (6) really robust (7) affordable platform for generating high resolution imagery of land surfaces that can be turned into georectified orthophotos (ideally with multi-spectral capability) and high resolution topographic information. The UAV we want has GPS guidance, returns to launch location, and will allow systematic coverage of a landscape. This rules out most helicopter solutions that specialize in "overhead" type coverage. While there are *many* fixed-wing based UAVs out there for potential sale, most of them tend to be military oriented and thus too expensive or unattainable (i.e., why bother with a university when uncle sam will buy a billion dollars worth of your product).

We initially had made a deal with DraganFly to buy their Tango platform. In fact, we went so far as to do a PO for their fixed wing system. However, we found out a number of details (1) DraganFly isn't really making Tango type platforms, at least for the near future as they are focusing almost entirely on the helicopter type units (2) when they list "gps guidance" in their specs what they really mean is that they have a "solution" for gps guidance provided by another company that requires an entirely separate license and other negotiation. In other words, they simply can't deliver a fixed wing system. Bogus.

We ended up going with Gatewing, a Belgian startup company that has created a UAV system ideally suited to our purposes: generating systematic imagery to be used in creating orthophotos and terrain maps. Their system is the "X100" and meets all of our requirements -- and will ship on December 13th! Whoohooo. At any rate, this platform should gives an excellent means for generating topographic maps of study areas and for producing detail photographic imagery. We look forward to working with Gatewing and exploring this UAV's capability.


Monday, November 1, 2010

Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B

Ethan just let me know that the special issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B -- edited by James Steele, Peter Jordan and Ethan Cochrane is now available online.

Cultural and linguistic diversity: evolutionary approaches

Cover image

Recent work has shown that language and other human cultural practices can be considered as evolutionary systems operating on the Darwinian principle of 'descent with modification'. An emerging field of interdisciplinary science builds on phylogenetic and other methods adopted from biology, and adapts them to explain the transmission histories of suites of cultural traits (whether languages, social structures, or artefacts). This theme issue asks what social processes lead to coupled and decoupled transmission of different cultural traits or suites of traits, and how their transmission histories can be estimated retrospectively using quantitative methods. Understanding the factors affecting descent histories is central to explaining how cultural diversity arises and how it is maintained. These questions are of interest and relevance not just to social science and evolutionary theory, but also to planners working on topics such as endangered language maintenance.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

RHX Status Update

We've got the basis for the RHX environmental chamber -- temperature and humidity controller as well as a Mettler XP56 balance. The XP56 has a 50 gram capacity and weighs to 1 microgram. We've insulated the acrylic environmental box to help with the temperature control. A cheaper version of the box could probably be made of sealed styrofoam with a little window -- but we had access to an already constructed glove box. Temperature is controlled to 0.1 degrees C using 3 thermoelectric peltier coolers. For the humidifier we use a commercial cigar humidor.

On another front, we finally got a solid date for a Plumbate sherd -- 1153 BP.


Tuesday, October 5, 2010

A bit of a diversion

Over the past several months, Mark Collard has posted a number of YouTube videos on topics related to science, evolution and general irreverence. They are all humorous and great diversions from otherwise bleary days. I thought I'd aggregate them plus some others for your watching/listening pleasure.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Posing Questions for a Scientific Archaeology

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away (well, it was Seattle) there were a group of students in an archaeology graduate program (at the University of Washington) who shared a particular kind of training offered by a curmudgeonly but deeply logical professor (Robert C. Dunnell). These students all spent significant amounts of time preparing proposals for conducting their doctoral research. The challenge they faced was dictated by their advisors: conduct archaeological research that will generate falsifiable answers to questions about the archaeological record. This task is harder than it seems since the first task, asking appropriate questions, has been a quagmire for archaeologists since the origins of the discipline. Yet, to finish their PhDs in this particular program, these students naively took on this challenge and spent years (in many cases) developing their proposals.

In the end, most of the students finished their PhDs by conducting the research that was proposed. The resulting tomes can be found in the UMI repository and in some cases as published volumes. One of the important contribution of their work, however, isn't entirely in the end product. In the end, the results of the research are all determined by the questions being asked and the proposals generated dictating the research design. These documents rarely see the light of day in a publication sense yet are the fundamental basis upon which data are generated and conclusions drawn. Indeed, not all of the students completed their research (largely due to the difficulties involved in actually making the required measurements) but even so, the proposals for the work stand alone as significant accomplishments. In science, asking the right questions is the 99% of the problem.

With Terry Hunt (University of Hawai'i) and Sarah Sterling (Portland State University), I put together an edited volume of these proposal. This book was published back in 2001 by Bergin and Garvey. You can still buy it new off of ( for an absurd amount of money ($119) or you can get it used for as little as $10.00. You can even preview the book at

The table of contents of Posing Questions.:


Chapter 1: Posing Questions for a Scientific Archaeology - Terry L. Hunt, Carl P. Lipo and Sarah L. Sterling

Chapter 2: Groundstone Wedge Tool Form and Function: Experimental Analyses in Northern South American “Axes” - Kimberly D. Kornbacher

Chapter 3: The Engineering and Evolution of Hawaiian Fishooks - Michael T. Pfeffer

Chapter 4: Projectile Point Variation in Evolutionary Perspective: An Example from the Central Mississippi River Valley - Kris H. Wilhelmsen

Chapter 5: Social Complexity in Ancient Egypt: Functional Differentiation Reflected in the Distribution of Standardized Ceramics - Sarah L. Sterling

Chapter 6: Community Structures in Late Mississippian Populations of the Central Mississippi Valley - Carl P. Lipo

Chapter 7: Dietary Variation and Village Settlement in the Ohio Valley, A.D. 400 - 1650 - Diana M. Greenlee

Chapter 8: Resource Intensification and Late Holocene Human Impacts on Pacific Coast Bird Populations: Evidence from the Emeryville Shellmound Avifauna - Jack Broughton

Chapter 9: Evolutionary Bet-Hedging and the Hopewell Cultural Climax - Mark E. Madsen



Given that Terry Hunt, Sarah Sterling and I hold the copyright, I'm going to link a PDF of this volume. I am releasing this under a Creatives Commons Licence. You can download the book here (about 17 megs).

Creative Commons License
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