Learning from cultural anthropology as opposed to unlearning from cultural anthropology

On my other weblog one of the commenters, who I have nicknamed Syme (others call him Bentwig), proudly boasts about his training anthropology. Those who know me personally are aware that for me this is often a red flag for an individual who is willing to furiously declare that up is down if Edward Said stated that this was so in a footnote somewhere, or that black is the palest color if Michel Foucault averred this offhand in an interview. I exaggerate in the generality, though in the case of Syme/Bentwig there is a common tendency to proudly attempt to forestall arguments with comments of the form “Edward Said said….” or “According to Foucault.”

Of course, arguing from the authority of others isn’t always bad…but with far too many people with undergraduate anthropology backgrounds seem to engage in this sort of argument-by-citation and refutation-by-declaration-of-theory. Perhaps a contrast of interest are people educated in philosophy. There’s not much they know in thick detail, but they often exhibit analytic acuity when presented with startling and novel information. In contrast, many people with anthropological training may express befuddlement and then proceed to fury when confronted with facts which are outside of their domain and foreknowledge.

Enough punching down. Alex Mesoudi, a scholar in the field of cultural evolution, is publishing book chapters as preprints. The author of Cultural Evolution: How Darwinian Theory Can Explain Human Culture and Synthesize the Social Sciences, Mesoudi’s first submission, The study of culture and evolution across disciplines, should be read by anyone who is interested in the material on this weblog.

Mesoudi reviews the history of the field, from the rise and fall of human sociobiology in the 1970s to the birth of evolutionary psychology in the 1980s, and the gradual but consistent waxing of lesser-known disciplines such as cognitive anthropology and human behavioral ecology (out of which comes cultural evolution). A consistent binding feature of these disciplines is that they attempt to understand human cultural expression as a function of naturalistic processes, in particular, evolutionary ones. This is in contrast to the shift away from analysis to interpretation and description in much of cultural anthropology across the same time period, with the ultimate secession of much of the field from “science.” If you want to read a good primer on the division between scientific and non-scientific anthropology, I recommend Dan Sperber’s Explaining Culture or the anthropological introduction to D. Jason Slone’s Theological Incorrectness. Scott Atran also tackles the issue in In Gods We Trust. The reason this is necessary is that to understand and take in cognitive anthropology, you often need to unlearn or dampened tics obligate in cultural anthropology.

The flight of much of American cultural anthropology from crisp and powerful analytic frameworks, and toward linguistic obscurantism, to me explains the relative poverty of cognition of those students with only an undergraduate training. Without field-work and graduate courses and reading there’s not even the ability to obtain the deep knowledge required to enable feats of “thick description.”

In any case, the genius of the tradition in which Mesoudi operates under is that it allows for powerful analysis and prediction of cultural patterns and dynamics. Using similar formal frameworks, the idea is to do to culture what population genetics has done to biological evolution: produce a machine to generate predictions and test them with empirical data.

Here’s a taste of how researchers in this field think of “cultural patterns”:

Boyd and Richerson (1985) developed models showing that transmitted culture is favored when environments change moderately quickly, too fast for genes to track, but not so fast that the culturally transmitted behavior is out of date (see also Aoki et al., 2005). Transmitted culture also evolves when individual learning is costly (Boyd and Richerson, 1985). Under such conditions, however, social learning evolves but does not increase the average fitness of the population. This phenomenon became known as “Rogers’ paradox” after Alan Rogers, the first person to clearly point it out (Rogers, 1988). The fact that social learning does not enhance average population fitness is not inherently paradoxical, but does contradict the common claim that humans are so ecologically and demographically successful because of transmitted culture.

Rogers’ paradox occurs because the success of social learning is frequency-dependent. When rare, social learners do well because they forego the costs borne by individual learners. But when common, and environments change, social learners will be copying other social learners’ out-dated information. At equilibrium, social and individual learners have equal fitness, which will be equal to the fitness of a population entirely composed of individual learners (which is fixed, because their learning is not dependent on others). Thus, social learning evolves, but does not enhance fitness in a way that could be described as the ‘secret to our success’.

Two small quibbles with the chapter. First:

Bouckaert et al. (2012) reconstructed the cultural evolutionary history of the Indo-European language family, finding that it originally spread along with farming practices from present-day Turkey around 8,000 years ago.

Bouckaert et al. used valid phylogenetic methods, but it seems quite clear that these models have difficulty predicting the protean and punctuated character of many population expansions, which reshape the distribution and relationship of languages. Since 2012 a substantial amount of ancient DNA work has strongly pointed to the likelihood that the distribution of extant Indo-European languages in Europe is due to an expansion out of the Pontic steppe 5,000 years ago (with later secondary migrations into Southern Europe after 4,000 years ago). Though the Anatolian origin may still be preserved if one argues that the Pontic expansion was a secondary one, clearly most of the diversification of the Indo-European languages occurred in the period between 3000 and 1000 BC, in a 2,000-year radiation. The “Indo-European question” ultimately showed to me the limitations of phylogenetic methods because they are sensitive to particular assumptions within the model (e.g., continuous endogenous demographic expansion).


Note that this is different to Wilson’s (1976) earlier speculations that genetic differences might explain behavioral differences between groups of people. Tooby and Cosmides explicitly disavowed this, instead arguing that people everywhere are genetically far too similar to explain any behavioral variation directly (which concurs with modern genetic data: Feldman, 2014). Genes instead generate a set of universal responses to predictable environmental variation.

Considering the very rapid changes in cultural types across time and between closely related lineages, it seems hard to credit that most behaviorally based cultural variation is due to genetic variation (e.g., walk down a street in Finland and walk down a street in Italy, and see how differently the comportment of the typical passerby is). But, it seems quite possible, probably likely, that there are going to be some behavioral differences due to different distributions in polygenic quantitative traits. The question is more the extent of magnitude. That will depend on the phenotype and between population pair.

Also, there is clearly variation within the cultural evolution community on this issue. I know this from personal communication. Joe Henrich admits the possibility in The Secret of Our Success, without taking a position.

But, with those quibbles out of the way, go and read The study of culture and evolution across disciplines. I think it’s great that Mesoudi is putting out preprints for his book chapters. Makes his research accessible, and this is one field where more publicity would be good (shout out to Paul Smaldino, who apparently inspired Mesoudi on this track).

Most people have always thought human sacrifice was bad

A few days ago a minor controversy about the cultural context of human sacrifice in Mesoamerica cropped up. A writer at Science, wrote a piece, Feeding the gods: Hundreds of skulls reveal massive scale of human sacrifice in Aztec capital. The article was good. But it elicited some emotional responses from readers. As one sees in the earliest writings of the Spanish, the Aztec penchant for human sacrifice often results in a moralistic reaction.

The writer of the piece took to Twitter to disagree with the moralistic tone of many who read her article. It being Twitter, her original series of comments were easy to misinterpret or exaggerate, and she had to post a follow-up clarifying some issues. Below is a response to one of her original assertions.

Basically, I agree that our feelings about sacrifice today are irrelevant to understanding it. To understand human history and something scientific that relates to humans it is important to set aside feelings, at least for the moment. That being said, let me remind the reader that this is not the attitude of many science writers when a story has a “social justice” angle. We all know if a science article has a social hook which appeals to emotional or moralistic impulses in the readership, it will probably be injected into it for purposes of clicks and adding an extra layer of meaning and relevance. For various reasons, Aztec human sacrifice is better presented in a dispassionate manner, as Mesoamerican human sacrifice doesn’t lend itself easily to a standard social justice narrative (i.e., the “villains” are not white).

The Aztec Empire, or the Triple Alliance if you prefer, was built on brutality. From what we can tell it was an analog in the New World to what the Assyrian Empire had been in Eurasian antiquity: a polity bound together through brutal coercion.

Here is one tale from Aztec history that is well known:

In 1323, they asked the new ruler of Culhuacan, Achicometl, for his daughter, in order to make her the goddess Yaocihuatl. Unknown to the king, the Mexica actually planned to sacrifice her. The Mexica believed that by doing this the princess would join the gods as a deity. As the story goes, during a festival dinner, a priest came out wearing her flayed skin as part of the ritual. Upon seeing this, the king and the people of Culhuacan were horrified and expelled the Mexica.

Note that the legend is recounted whereby the other native peoples of Mexico were horrified by the Aztec behavior. This highlights the reality that human sacrifice seems to elicit negative reactions generally. It’s not arbitrary. In Carthage Must Be Destroyed the author spends a great deal of time exploring the reality of child sacrifice in that society. A practice in decline in the Phoenician homeland, for some reason it reemerged in the western Mediterranean much more vigorously. Classical observers found the practice grotesque, and their descriptions of Carthaginian child sacrifice were suspected by many scholars as being scurrilous. Fortunately, or unfortunately, the truth has been established by the discovery of bones of children in urns. The key point to note is that ancient observers were just as judgemental as modern people.

Though human sacrifice persisted in some form in many antique societies, it is clear that what was once a common occurrence in the Bronze Age world became rarer with time, until it was no longer socially or ethically acceptable. Researchers in the field of cultural evolution have explored the emergence and decline of human sacrifice. Though there are no current definitive conclusions, it seems likely that it crops up in societies which have transitioned toward being highly inegalitarian. But, it declines again in societies which scale large enough to the point where more abstract ideological and political systems must bind groups of people together. The Classical Western world, India, and China, all seem to be marked by a recollection of normative human sacrifice (e.g., Iphigenia), and a turn away from it.

The inequality aspect is important. Though some people willingly gave themselves as human sacrifices, there are recurrent themes of low-status individuals within the group (e.g., slaves) or outsiders (prisoners of war) being given to the gods. There is debate as to the nature of the Aztec “flower wars”, but one traditional explanation is that they were driven by the need for victims of human sacrifices.

In other words, Aztec human sacrifice can be contextualized in a generalized framework. But that is not where the writer of the original piece went on the Twitter thread. Rather, she seems to have bracketed the practice by modern social and political considerations, “centuries of colonial oppression and destruction.” To be frank, it is a strongly Eurocentric narrative where everything before European colonialism is viewed as a prologue to the true story. The only story that matters. The context of Aztec human sacrifice that matters to many people steeped in this way of thinking is what the Spaniards did to the native peoples of the New World after the conquest of the Aztec Empire. Like ethical tachyons the present blasts back into the past, and reshapes our whole perception of it in current terms. The Aztec tendencies toward brutality, oppression and grotesque customs such as human sacrifice, are inconvenient to this framework.

The cultural conditioning isn’t that of a Western individual who lives in a consumer society at the tail end of a two-century path of growth, domination, and maturation. Rather, the cultural conditioning is of a whole class of intellectuals steeped in understanding all social and historical relations as but mirrors of the one which defined the 19th and 20th century. This viewpoint also asserts that this period, these people, are sui generis. It is profoundly Eurocentric to the bones.

To me when considering the ethical and historical frame of human sacrifice two facts jump out to me. First, it’s an empirical fact that at certain levels of social complexity human sacrifice seems to emerge, and at later levels of social complexity tends to be dampened and abolished.  The reason that it tends to be dampened and abolished is probably the reason that the Spanish found it easy to obtain native allies against the Aztec Empire: human sacrifice is a costly and brutal way to foster social cohesion. Across societies, there has been a general tendency to abandon the practice and create psychologically satisfying substitutes which don’t have the bloody downsides.

The second aspect is more primal: humans don’t like to die. It is true that humans will sacrifice themselves, or in the case of Carthaginian nobles, their own children, in exigent circumstances. Human nature exists, and many aspects are universal. The abhorrence of human sacrifice doesn’t emerge out of particular and unique elements of Western colonial culture,  it has cropped up in many societies, and I would suggest that the shoe is on the other foot here: those who argue for human sacrifice have to make the argument for it is necessary. And that is why so often humans who are sacrificed are those who can least choose to give their own lives. Slaves, children, prisoners, and criminals.

Unfortunately, the Western colonial narrative looms so large for many moderns that other cultures and other histories are erased in all their complexity. They gain depth and richness only as handmaids to the deconstruction and critique of the Western colonial narrative.

Why Darwinian metaphors work for start-ups

Peter Thiel is a deep thinker. I say that because some of my friends in the Bay Area whom I respect for being punctilious practitioners of cognitive hygiene nevertheless exhibit awe in relation to their conversations with him (for what it’s worth, most do not agree with his politics). Though Thiel has the standard educational qualifications and cognitive abilities of America’s ruling class, I think the key aspect is that people perceive in him a deep cunning which is very unnerving. This cunning is why he is a successful entrepreneur, and not an affluent lawyer on staff at a major tech firm.

Zero To One has many insights for the typical reader, though perhaps less so for those steeped in economic history, endogenous growth theory, or evolutionary biology. The novelty is in a situation of scientific ways of viewing in the world in the business and tech landscape of Silicon Valley.

But one way of talking that Thiel expresses skepticism of is the “Darwinian” language of competition employed by many people in business. I think here he misses the mark because he conceives of Darwinian processes in purely biological terms. As it is, a lot of the ideas in the field of cultural evolution, which models inter-group human dynamics, dovetails with recommendations in Zero To One.

Probably the biggest takeaway for me was the importance of asabiyyah in the likelihood of the long-term success of a firm. But anyone who has worked at a start-up knows this intuitively. Financial alignment of interests are necessary, but not sufficient. Culture matters.

Why our society might go “splat!” on the windshield sooner than we think

Ray Kurzweil likes to talk about the fact that humans are bad at modeling exponential rates of growth. In this case, he’s talking about the rate of change in information technology. Whatever you think about Ray’s general ideas as outlined in books such as The Singularity Is Near, I think it’s a pretty good insight that needs reiteration.

More generally in social processes, I think humans living at any given time are not very cognizant of nonlinearities, and the sorts of exogenous shocks that might happen in their lifetimes. And why would we be? The evolutionary psychological model for why we’re bad at conceptualizing rapid change is that until recently not much changed for most people at most times.

That is, humans were animals which lived near the Malthusian limit at a stationary state. The rate of change did increase during the Holocene, but even with ancient Egypt consider how different the life of a peasant in the Old Kingdom was versus the New Kingdom. Over 2,000 years not much had changed. Even at the elite levels, not much had changed (in fact, the Egyptian religion maintained cultural continuity from ~3000 BC to ~500 AD, with the shutdown of the temple at Philae). Now consider the 2,000 years between ancient Rome and the modern West. Or, consider the 300 years between the Augustan Age and revival of the Empire under the Tetrarchy, and contrast that to the present year and 1717.

The modern world is strange because great changes in technology and social values can occur over and over across a single lifetime. Someone born in 1896 would mature and develop a world-view conditioned by the “long 19th century,” which lasted until 1914. Then they’d experience the “shock” of the “War to End All Wars.”

Arguably the period between the Congress of Vienna in 1815 and outbreak of World War I in Europe in 1914 was marked by evolution, rather than revolution, in social and political structures. 1848 did not prefigure a tumult equivalent to the French Revolution or the period of the Napoleonic Wars. Italy and Germany were unified ultimately under conservative nationalists. Darwinism, abolitionism, and women’s rights arguably were movements who were seeded during the Enlightenment and exhibited long pregnancies until the point that they erupted to prominence.

Between 1914 and 1920 a whole world fell away. The Empire of the Tsars collapsed, and was replaced by the chiliastic Bolshevik regime. Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire were dismembered and their monarchies were overthrown, while Germany transformed from a conservative monarchy to a liberal republic.

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