Archive for October, 2011

Anthro vs. Paleo

October 31, 2011 - 3:12 pm Comments Off

Via NPR blogs, an article by a biological anthropologist concerned about the growing-in-popularity “paleo diet”. She makes some very sound points, some that I think are a bit misleading, and overall it provides a fantastic show-and-tell framework for a blog post.

In a few days, the world’s population will reach 7 billion. Only a tiny fraction of this number still makes a living by hunting and gathering, the way all our ancestors did before about 12,000 years ago.

True this. And it’s entirely possible that that ancestral population wasn’t all THAT much larger than the one that still makes its living hunting and gathering now; we came from a pretty small and spread-out initial population, when we appeared as a distinct species. There’s no question agriculture is what allowed us to number in the billions in the first place.

According to a set of claims relentlessly pushed in some books and blogs, as many modern humans as possible should adopt a hunter-gatherer diet. That is, we should eat lean meat and vegetables because our Paleolithic hunting-and-gathering ancestors did. At the same time, we should refuse dairy, grains and sugars because our hunting-and-gathering ancestors didn’t eat these items.

Well, to be fair it’s a bit more complicated than that- the exact claim is that as many modern humans that lead modern lifestyles should adopt such a diet if they wish to remain lean and metabolically healthy, because a high fraction of grains and sugars leads to an overdose of insulin and blood sugar, causing an array of metabolic ills. Ultimately, high fractions of grains and sugars are said to do so because they were much scarcer in the ancestral diet.

Granted, a depressing number of “paleo” adherents really do seem to think it’s possible to re-enact Paleolithic life in modern times and that we really should eat just the way our ancestors ate, so it’s still a fair ding.

You might think that, as an anthropologist, I’d greet this embrace of the human prehistoric past with unalloyed delight, especially in a country where a high percentage of our population is evolution-averse. Like most anthropologists, though, I don’t think there’s good science behind these claims…It’s best to clarify right off that leaders of the paleo-diet movement don’t think monolithically. Lean meat and veggies take center stage, but the emphasis may vary in details such as how much seafood to eat. A look at the current issue of Paleo — a magazine devoted to “modern primal living” — indicates that, in addition to food, paleo-faddists think hard about exercise and lifestyle choices.

“Faddist” dismissal or no, this is fair. “Don’t think monolithically” is if anything an understatement- there’s a huge amount of variation in what people think is “paleo-acceptable” (dairy deserving its very own Thunderdome as a subject), and even faddist isn’t an entirely inaccurate claim. But there’s also a pretty strong backbone of people who start from biochemistry and then go to what imagined cavemen’s dietary patterns must have been like.

Some of them, in fact, take a paleo-lifestyle to startling lengths. In profiling this “modern-day Stone Age subculture” and its leaders, Arthur de Vany and Loren Cordain, the German magazine Der Spiegel interviews disciples who run through the undergrowth and eat wild boar in explicit emulation of their Paleolithic forebears.

Wild boar is delicious and sprinting down game is about as rigorous an exercise program as you can find, should you be able to hack it. Tongue out of cheek, I agree this is a bit extreme but given hobbies like base-jumping don’t exactly see why it’s all that hair-raising. Humans do far stranger things, up to and including in the game of healthfulness.

When I’ve interacted online with paleo-diet fans, though, I’ve found the great majority to be measured and thoughtful. With them, I worried aloud about the consequences of urging even more carnivory than we’ve already got. Largely, but not 100 percent, a vegetarian, I don’t tell others what to eat. But the paleo-movement seems to doom (even if unintentionally) more animals to life and death in factory farms. A greater percentage of grain crops would also be diverted to rich countries’ animals and away from poor countries’ people.

This is both fair, and not. She goes on to clarify a bit…

What I learned is that some paleo-dieters reject the eating of animals from factory farms. Some don’t eat much meat at all, focusing instead on avoiding grains and sugary foods.

“Some” makes it sound like a minority, but just about every source I’ve ever read is pretty firm on the point that factory-farmed meat is not just ethically questionable, but actively nutritionally worse than pastured, humanely raised meat. You are what you eat, and grain-fed and factory-farmed meats tend to have a much lower proportion of omega-3 fatty acids than their freer and happier cousins, with game meats being even better.

Caveats aside though, she has a valid point. There really isn’t enough meat to go around to feed everyone on the planet a meat-rich diet, not farmed meat and most certainly not wild meat. Our ancestors lived at far lower population densities than we do. There’s more than a little privilege inherent in being capable of entertaining living mostly off fresh meat and vegetables at all, especially the more expensive (because it is less efficient to raise) organic, grass-fed, free-range, hormone and pesticide free kinds.

There’s also more than a little privilege in presuming to decide what kind of diet people should eat based on the global population. One reason poorer areas of the world do well on a primarily farmed, primarily grain-based diet, at least in terms of measures like obesity and diabetes, is that they can’t afford to eat as much as they may want, and besides that they spend huge portions of their day on hard manual labor; it isn’t a paleolithic pattern, but it is a pattern that demands massive amounts of glycogen to sustain the activity level. They need dense carbohydrates to get through life. Data entry technicians do not, and they can afford all the food that is satiating and extra treats besides.

Many nutrition scientists give the paleo-diet a thumbs-down. They worry about its dearth of carbohydrates, its cost, its impracticality, and the fact that its boasts for good health are medically unproven.

It’s worth actually reading the article she linked to support her “thumbs-down” claim. It’s actually pretty inconclusive- it notes that there’s very little robust, long-term research on this eating pattern (perfectly true), acknowledges that it’s actually quite good for getting as much or more of your recommended dose of many nutrients as you need, and identifies as its primary concern the amount of fat you’re likely to take in. Which, a valid criticism of our current understanding of the role of fat in various negative health outcomes is that nutrition studies have traditionally been extremely poor at controlling for other variables- a study of “people who eat a lot of fat” versus “vegetarians”, for example, is highly likely to include a lot of people who eat a lot of junk food versus a lot of people who are very conscious of their health. A number of studies that have attempted tighter controls have found a far less tight link between fat intake and negative health outcomes- but again, this is a big area of just not enough research. We don’t really know.

For my part, I’ll focus on the paleo-anthropology.

Our ancestors began to eat meat in large quantities around 2 million years ago, when the first Homo forms began regular use of stone tool technology. Before that, the diet of australopithecines and their relatives was overwhelmingly plant-based, judging from clues in teeth and bones. I could argue that the more genuine “paleo” diet was vegetarian.

She could, but it would be disingenuous. Australopithecines were not modern humans, and there is plenty of evidence that their diet was radically different from ours. Two million years is a lot of time, and our jaw and tooth morphology especially changed dramatically from that of the australopithecines- away from that suited for tons of fibrous plant foods.

More worrisome are persistent attempts to match a modern diet to an “average” Paleolithic one, or Loren Cordain’s insistence that “we were genetically designed to eat lean meat and fish and other foods that made up the diet of our Paleolithic ancestors.”

Here’s where science most forcefully speaks back.

She’s right. There is no single ancestral human diet. We specialized in adaptability, and the available anthropological evidence is all over the map regarding what we ate. This is by far my biggest problem with the paleo movement as a whole. See John Hawks’s archive of posts on the diets of ancient humans and hominids for a picture of just how varied that could be.

First, ancient hunter-gatherer groups adapted to local environments that were regionally and seasonally variable — for instance, coastal or inland, game-saturated or grain-abundant (eating grains was not necessarily incompatible with hunter-gatherer living).

This is, again, a bit disingenuous. Grains period may not have been outside the paleolithic experience, but there’s little question they had absolutely nothing like our domesticated, starch-stuffed cereal crops. Paleo people who act as though any grain seed will kill them are silly, but an ancient hunter-gatherer’s seeds weren’t pretty much just like a plate of pasta, either.

Second, genes were not in control. People learned what worked in local context for survival and reproduction, and surely, just as in other primates, cultural traditions began to play a role in who ate what

Still a few degrees off what I’d consider straightforward truth. Genes don’t control us, especially in cultural foodways, but they sure as hell influence us- the most dramatic example is the persistence of lactase into adulthood that is widespread in some cultural groups but absent in others, and apparently new but rapidly on the rise in still others. Less dramatic but still most definitely there are differences in how well and efficiently we produce amylase, an enzyme that handles the starches found in grains, as well as genetic differences in insulin sensitivity.

Humans vary biochemically as much as they do physically, and some of it absolutely has to do with evolved adaptations to different dietary strategies.

I’m left wondering what’s the payoff to be had for pushing a popular diet as rooted in a mythically homogeneous, predictable human past. The lure of a good story may play a role. It’s a mighty powerful image: our ancestors roaming over the landscape, perfectly in tune with their bodies and the environment. Some of my anthropologist colleagues refer to this pining for a pristine past as a paleo-fantasy.

On this point I’m in absolute agreement with her. I’ve seen some damn bizarre ideas put forth as what our pure and natural ancestral state was- most especially the idea that that was ever a single state to begin with- and I find equally amazing the idea that “cavemen” were all fantastically healthy and athletic. Modern hunter-gatherers aren’t- it’s a very hard lifestyle, and it will wear your body out even if heart disease and diabetes aren’t among your problems.

It’s not paleo-fantasy that’s going to help us negotiate a healthy future, the 7 billion of us together, on this environmentally-endangered planet.

No, but all 7 billion of us don’t and won’t live in a unitary culture, lifestyle, or diet any more now than we did 50,000 years ago, and it’s pretty high-handed to tell a wealthy first-worlder in a northern climate with a sedentary job that he should eat like a third-world subsistence farmer- or, for that matter, to tell the farmer that he should stick with that lifestyle because it’s better for his health and cheaper to sustain. I don’t think there’s any particular danger that the whole world is going to start eating “paleo” and endanger the environment any more than I think there’s a particular danger that spinning classes are going to take the planet by storm.

I seem to have spent more time agreeing with her than not, but the areas of not are still pretty nontrivial. Paleolithic peoples’ diets may have been much more varied than Loren Cordain thinks, varying by season and locale, but that still doesn’t mean that because some populations ate a lot more tubers and wild seeds than others, that’s pretty much just like a diet based on bread, pasta, and potatoes is good for any modern human that doesn’t burn off all the extra glucose going through hours and hours of strenuous daily activity. Because australopithecines were primarily vegetarian, doesn’t mean the hominids that we became didn’t become much more dependent on animal flesh, whether on land or sea, and that those changes aren’t reflected in our morphology and our biochemistry.

Genes may not determine our destiny, but that likewise doesn’t mean that someone whose ancestors had been eating cereal grains for nine thousand years and has three times the amylase production of someone whose ancestors had been hunting, fishing, and dairying somewhere frozen for the same length of time will have exactly the same metabolic experience eating a bowl full of rice- or for that matter a glass of milk and a bear steak.

We can’t sustain the entire planet on wild boar and fiddlehead ferns, but that doesn’t mean that an individual person whose primary concerns are his serum triglycerides, waistline, and blood sugar numbers should consider himself identical to someone whose primary concerns are the monsoon season, his subsistence income, and the early arthritis in his elbows and knees when it comes to deciding what he should eat or how he should move.

Ingredients For A Successful Horror Movie

October 28, 2011 - 6:04 pm Comments Off

In the spirit of an earlier post on what makes comic book movies successful versus what makes them fail, and the season in general: how to make a horror movie work. (Or fail.)

1. Use characters that are relatable. Contrary to the belief of many writers and studio executives, making the characters they intend you to care most about white twenty-something virgins does not actually make them all that relatable. Audiences will relate better to someone of a different gender, class, or race if they act like normal humans would in the situation you intend to put them in; fear of being eaten by monsters is amazingly easy to empathize with across cultural lines as long as the viewers are able to recognize something of themselves in the characters. Asshole frat kids who drive out to $threateningly rural place for ostensibly recreational reasons and react to being picked off one by one by splitting up individually to shine a flashlight on the threat are not relatable. Families who react to being brutally threatened by supernatural beings by moving somewhere apparently safer are. For that matter, real asshole frat kids looking for a place to drink and have sex are far more likely to stay in the city than decamp to the woods in West Virginia; you can’t make a liquor run at oh dark thirty at Throatcutter Lake. The characters don’t need to be perfect or even be heroic, they just need to be reasonably rational and have reasonably believable emotional reactions. Making us spend twenty minutes watching them bitch at each other first is not a substitute for these things.

2. Don’t cheat your audience with cheap or gotcha scares. Having the audience jump three feet out of their seats because a squirrel jumped onto the back deck to hysterical soundtrack reaction may goose their adrenals but it only annoys them in the end; having them twitch because a barely glimpsed demonic entity just jogged up the stairs in the background, behind the main character, will raise their tension levels and keep them there. You can get an amazing amount of mileage out of this without needing to actually do much, let alone spend much on effects- just make sure that anything meant to startle the audience is actually something worth being alarmed about.

3. No budget? No problem. Spend what you have on uknown but talented actors and let them, and your script, be the workhorses. Make everything just a little bit off and leave plenty of loose ends to tug at scattered around, and work whatever setting you have available, and you shouldn’t need much of anything in the way of effects. The original Wicker Man is a monument to this principle. There are all sorts of reasons the remake was no improvement despite a much bigger budget.

4. Do not have a twist ending simply for the sake of having a twist ending. If you’re going to do a twist successfully, the movie needs to be essentially two entirely different films, scene by scene, depending on whether you know what’s going on yet or not. If the movie doesn’t read completely differently, in both the acting and the writing, before and after the revelation, then you have failed and should never have tried for it in the first place. Lots of good horror movies are perfectly good with no twists whatsoever, and the ones that have them depend on them heavily to work their spook. A failed twist will do nothing other than piss off your audience. See Haunted or Shutter Island for examples of how to do twists properly.

5. Throw the sorting algorithm of mortality out the window, then throw a can of gas and a match out after it. This is related to point one, because writers and studios have a tendency to kill characters off in rough order of how much they think their presumed young, white, and male audience member will either feel they want to have sex with them, or simply how well they identify with them. Audiences over the age of twelve have all caught on and it creates just as much suspense as waiting for rain in the Amazon. If you plan to mow down large portions of your cast, let who is likely to live and who is not be completely unpredictable; your killer has no reason to care about the race or sexuality of your characters and neither should you. Killing off characters in order of likability may have some sense of justice satisfied, but it is not scary; having people die regardless of how likable or assholish they are is.

6. Having people be helpless because the situation they are in is completely over their heads is scary. Having people be helpless because they are complete morons is very, very boring.

7. You have two endpoints of Killer Motivation Effectiveness: completely motiveless (complete monster, which is in itself frightening because it’s unreasoning and completely unpredictable), and elaborate development and motivation. Midpoints, in which the killer kills for superficial or ad-hoc reasons, are vastly less effective than either of these extremes. If you have the time to spend on motivation and the villain/monster is the most interesting feature of the movie, do, otherwise treat the monster as a force of nature rather than a character.

8. Using foreign motifs can be very creepy if your audience is totally unfamiliar with them. Using foreign stereotypes that the audience is very familiar with is much more likely to be awful rather than effective. Either may amuse the living hell out of the culture you borrow from.

9. Related to point 2, your soundtrack can only enhance whatever mood you’ve already created, not create it by itself. If your soundtrack is having hysterics because some leaves are blowing in the dark but nothing else is really happening, the effect is dissonant in the confusing way, not the creepy way.

10. In order for your audience to buy what you’re selling, you need actors who can actually sell it. One character actor who can look believably terrified and cover a range of fear-related emotions is worth ten actors whose primary skill is being good-looking and whose emotive range can be distilled to vacant, confused, angry, orgasm, and scream.

11. The buttons that humans have usually exist for good but mundane reasons. We’re freaked out by dolls and puppets and masks and distortions to the face because we’re programmed to carefully search faces, and abnormal patterns ring atavistic alarm bells. The dark, dense forests, caves, and cramped quarters are frightening because we’re visual animals and not being able to see where we’re going or what might be coming is likewise intrinsically scary. We’re freaked out by the possibility of injuries to the eyes and hands because those are our two primary points of contact with the world. Adult-like children and child-like adults are likewise inversions of very old biological and cultural scripts. You can get a lot of extra mileage out of your scary thing by first asking why it should scare anyone, and then if you have some good reasons, pushing those buttons as hard as you can.

So Then

October 27, 2011 - 4:46 pm Comments Off

It always bites when your time is eaten up in ways that aren’t even remotely interesting, or at least that don’t make good stories to tell later. Last weekend and this upcoming are wrapped up in having guests, and while these guests are awesome, reporting on activities mostly takes the form of “And then we cooked a bunch of different awesome food, and watched some movies, and played a ton of games, and also played with the puppy”. Yesterday vanished into the void when Kang had a seizure in the wee small hours, followed by my staying up with her until our vet’s office opened in case she had another or showed some other symptom that indicated a real emergency, such as muscle tremors or dropping blood pressure or fever. Nothing very interesting there, either- she is five years old with no prior history and no history of idiopathic epilepsy in her lines or in the breed in general, so the vet thinks the likeliest explanation is she is now a bit reactive to bee and wasp stings and the seizure was a delayed reaction to a sting she probably managed to get earlier that evening. I didn’t know this was a common thing in dogs, but apparently it is.

Tank is doing fine. He’s a normal puppy and we’re going through normal early puppyhood stuff, mostly housebreaking and the long slow process of teaching him how to hang out in the house with the people without necessarily needing full attention on him all the time. He’s making slow but steady progress, mostly owing to being nine weeks old and having the attention span and bladder capacity of a baby tamarin. He’s already up over thirty pounds without much baby fat on him, and judging between that and those tree-trunk legs is liable to become a BIG dog even by Akita standards. Perhaps there’s something to that polar bear genes thing after all.

So yeah, this week is largely going down to Interesting Blogger Fail, largely due to lack of interest or blogging. If you feel really badly about going away with nothing amusing, try this instead.

Overtaken by events

October 26, 2011 - 4:11 pm Comments Off

Content tomorrow.


October 21, 2011 - 3:47 pm Comments Off

*peers* Are you there? We’re not. Blizzcon started today. We’re alternately playing with Tank*, eating popcorn, and making fun of Chris Metzen.

So here’s someone else’s snark to fill your time:

A: What do you think of Ron Paul’s budget plan to gut all research?

B: We’ve all played Civ IV. Sure, you’re strapped for cash now, but cutting back will kill your tech tree, and the next thing you know “China has completed Space Ship Stasis Chamber” and Julius Caesar is trying to eat your face.

New blogger, old friend. Not much there yet but there will be.

*One of the things that cemented his name was friend and guildmate Vertel commenting, on hearing of the wasp attack, “Bear tanks with his FACE. …. Actually that kinda works.” He always has resembled a polar bear cub more than anything else…

Bad-Breath Distance of Poe's Law

October 20, 2011 - 4:25 pm Comments Off

In an administration that’s rapidly becoming known for tone-deafness, or at least tone-deafness once in office that was nowhere in evidence during the campaign, I think this is my personal high-water benchmark, just barely edging out the open-source enemies list.

The new benchmark: The Obama re-election campaign is soliciting artists to create posters. Well and good. The theme of the posters is to be the Obama administration’s support for, and creation of, jobs. So far, this makes sense; artists helped the first campaign out quite a bit, including Shepard Fairey’s iconic “Hope” image, and they have correctly identified the issue that Americans will likely be most concerned with in the upcoming election year: jobs.

Only two problems with it.

a) The campaign does not intend to pay the artist or artists who come up with posters they’ll use. Their sole compensation of any kind- only granted to artists who create posters the campaign will use- will be a copy of their own work, signed by Obama. This is estimated to be worth maybe around $200, by the campaign itself, which means the estimate is likely to be overly generous. Lest you think that the doors the campaign work will open for the artist are solid gold all on their own, there’s problem

b) The campaign does not necessarily intend to credit the artist(s) for their work, or at least has said nothing on the issue, but DOES explicitly intend to claim all license in perpetutity for any work submitted to the contest whether the design is ever used or not. So there’s no possibility whatsoever that the artist could profit from their own design in cash, and potentially no possibility the artist would even gain in reputation from their work.

So, to recap: In order to glitz up Obama’s message about supporting and creating jobs for Americans, Obama wishes some Americans to work for him for free with not even a guaranteed hope of so much as potentially in any way gaining future jobs from the non-job. That’s a messaging fail it takes some genuine talent in the field of arrogance and tone-deafness to achieve, it’s not a mundane fail.

The only way I can follow the campaign’s thought process here is that it genuinely has no idea that 2012 will be at all different than 2008. In 2008 Obama gained grassroots support from people like Fairey because he represented a potential wind of change blowing out the Bush administration people had become so dissatisfied with; in 2012 people will have had four years of Obama to chew over, and right now they only like him somewhat more than they liked Bush on his way out. Fairey decided to make the poster and not try to sell it to the campaign because he was a street artist and he supported Obama, and he thought they wouldn’t want to be associated with him; now the campaign is asking artists to do the same, in competition with each other, based on the idea that they’d obviously be just thrilled to. To advertise how great Obama is at creating jobs.

The sad thing is, I fully expect whoever the Republican nominee turns out to be to do something just as stupid within about a month of winning the nomination…

Phnglui mglw nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah nagl fhtagn

October 19, 2011 - 6:34 pm Comments Off

I have been sitting here trying to figure out what the hell I can possibly say about this article other than “………DUDE!” and am forced to conclude there is very little.

So…. DUDE!!.

Here are the salient facts.

1) There is a fossil bed in Nevada of Ichthyosaur vertebral discs arranged in geometric, linear patterns. The animals these belong to, for reference, were bus-sized, air-breathing, very sharp-toothed more or less reptilian critters that slotted nichewise about where the big, heavy-hitting toothed whales do today.

2) Not all of the vertebra are likely to be from the same animal, or killed at the same time. The water was apparently very deep at the site. There are other bones at the site, suggesting some kind of trauma to the animals before death and not something like a toxic algal bloom (which would also require shallow water), but only the vertebral discs appear to have been rearranged after death.

3) The arrangements really resemble the patterns of suckers on a cephalopod’s tentacle, seem to be carefully fitted together, in a double line patterns, also like a cephalopod tentacle.

This plus the fact that modern octopuses sometimes keep bone middens they like to play with, and can kill* big, fast, predatory animals, has led one paleontologist to suggest that the origin of the strange and apparently inexplicable fossil bed was the bone midden of a hundred-foot-long super-intelligent cephalopod who was killing ichthyosaurs and arranging their bones into a self-portrait for fun. Cephalopods leave very little fossil trace behind, so a physical record of the critter would be nearly impossible to find.

“They worshipped, so they said, the Great Old Ones who lived ages before there were any men, and who came to the young world out of the sky. Those Old Ones were gone now, inside the earth and under the sea; but their dead bodies had told their secrets in dreams to the first men, who formed a cult which had never died. This was that cult, and the prisoners said it had always existed and always would exist, hidden in distant wastes and dark places all over the world until the time when the great priest Cthulhu, from his dark house in the mighty city of R’lyeh under the waters, should rise and bring the earth again beneath his sway. Some day he would call, when the stars were ready, and the secret cult would always be waiting to liberate him.

- H.P. Lovecraft, Call of Cthulhu

*Though I find the narrator’s description of that poor little spiny dogfish as a voracious super-predator kind of awkward. They’re inoffensive schooling sharks that eat small fish and, yes, the occasional octopus- LITTLE ones. They are also being badly overfished, but apparently sharks with a poisonous spine are not as cute as, say, tuna.

It Was a Dark And Stormy Night In Gotham

October 18, 2011 - 4:53 pm Comments Off

I think most of you are already familiar with the Bulwer-Lytton contest, which if not you should immediately go become familiar because it will provide you with many hours of hilarity. The general idea is a challenge to writers to come up with the opening lines of the worst novel imaginable, or at least the very worst opening lines possible. As you only need to deliver the first few lines, the results range all over the place from criminal punning to rampant absurdity to prose so purple it glows neon, and in any case the results all tend to be hysterically funny.

Well, Topless Robot has come up with a similarly spirited contest for the Batman comics: Try to out-Miller Frank Miller. For those who are unaware or simply don’t follow comics, one of the early breakout efforts in comics by Frank “Sin City”, “300″, “whoreswhoreswhoreswhores” Miller was writing Batman comics. He went from retooling the character from a more than vaguely silly man who went around with a young boy dressed as a bat to a much darker and grimmer version of the character that was widely recognized as brilliant, to eventually descending into what most of what even his fans would term self-parody.

Yes, it’s a fairly narrow slice of audience that will find this funny, but for those people some of the results are absolutely hilarious. Our favorite:

Joker has Commissioner Gordon hostage in the old Axis Chemical Plant. GDB goes down to local orphanage in the middle of the night and takes all the ones old enough to stand on their own for more than 10 seconds. He dresses them in domino masks and red tights, then piles them into a new Batmobile made from a garbage truck. They sing “The Wheels On The Bus” as Batman speeds towards the plant, and Batman tells them to “Shut the fuck up or I’m going to come back there!” 10 minutes later, Joker is walking around on the top of the Axis administration building. Hearing a loud noise, he looks down and receives a painful blow to the face. He shakes it off and looks down at what he’s been hit with: a mashed toddler in a red diaper with an “R” on it. The Joker, sensing that he’s no longer the craziest part of this deadly game of cat and mouse, starts to run for the green helicopter where the henchmen are waiting. As he runs, he dodges a steady rain of orphan Robins. Back in the Batmobile, GDB loads another screaming round into the Robinator.

…But they’re all good.

Tribal Bonds

October 17, 2011 - 8:21 pm Comments Off

This is not how I arrived at the subject to begin with, but the more I thought about the tribal nature of humans and the way we form, bond with, and defend our tribes, the more it stood out to me that humans are completely insane, by ape standards.

We hear a great deal about the violence in human nature, and how it is connected to our heritage as social primates, but we seem to hear very little about how, as compared to the vast majority of other primates including and perhaps especially our nearest ape relatives, we are astonishingly sweet-tempered, peacemaking, and gregarious. Even people who are from emphatically different social backgrounds, who are strangers to each other, and who may in fact pointedly dislike some other social groups that they interact with, can far more often than not be trusted to tolerate each other in close quarters- in city crowds, at the market, perhaps most markedly on public transportation where their movement is restricted in addition to being obligated to tolerate the Other. It does happen that violence breaks out, but we consider it an individual (or cultural, or sub-cultural, however fairly or unfairly) aberration when it breaks out, and it is indeed aberrational enough that mass transit and other mass conglomerations of humans who are strangers to one another go smoothly and without so much as a shove for billions of people around the globe, daily.

Were you to attempt to do the same thing with chimps, dismemberment (and for that matter castration, eye-gouging, and face-mauling) would be a daily hazard of life. Chimps and other troop-living social primates are violently xenophobic; at the most peaceful end of the stick are bonobos, who put on a shrieking agonistic display when they encounter strange groups. (Bonobos are almost never found alone. Chimps who are found alone by strangers are often lucky to escape alive.) At the other end are chimps, who sometimes deliberately and methodically exterminate entire neighboring communities for no apparent provocation.

While humans do have their history of violence and occasional outright attempts to exterminate “other” groups, we prefer to kill people we know well enough to have constructed a reason for the grievance- indeed, we generally need a grievance, whether real or manufactured, to kill at all, and we require some quite extensive conditioning (which is a large part of the point of military training) to be willing to kill strangers that have not, personally, done anything to us. Even then a large part of that needs to be powerful ideas bound in defense rather than simple aggression- otherwise veterans actually WOULD be psychopathic killers the way some like to make them out to be*.

If you remain unconvinced that humans stand at odds with their primate brethren in regards to our attitude toward strangers, consider that is a popular hobby for our species to deliberately cross into the territory of strangers with the express purpose of observing and meeting them, and it’s an industry that accounts for billions of dollars a year. Even the most conquest-minded human cultures generally like to meet a strange group on peaceful terms before going about their business- if only to scout them accurately. This tactic only works as often as it did throughout history because nonviolent meetings between two groups who are strangers to one another are far more the norm than not- and was something completely novel to some of the cultures that encountered it shortly before a steep decline.

Not only do we tolerate strangers readily as long as they’re not presenting a direct threat, we help them- we build cultural edifices to reinforce and codify an impulse already apparent in even very young children to respond to someone else’s distress with concern and attempts to help. Suffice to say, a civilization of chimps or langurs probably would not feature a Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, or respond to giant natural disasters in even disliked foreign nations with massive outpourings of physical and financial aid. Even when we criticize the aid-giving impulse when it is unthinking and is exercised more to make the giver feel better than to actually effect useful help, it’s a telling feature of human psychology that the idea of helping a stranger who needs help is soothing and makes us feel good about ourselves. Yes, a great deal of this is culturally created and reinforced, but features that are truly unnatural to us do not become such common cultural constructs.

Humans are tribal creatures and tribal bonds are central to our existence, but we are vastly more flexible than our troop-living brethren when it comes to what we can define as our tribe and make our home, and what kinds of tribes we form. Other primates have single-sex dispersal patterns in which inbreeding is prevented by one sex or the other staying in its birth troop all its life while the other finds a new one to slowly court and eventually join; human cultures across the globe have customs relating to one or the other or both leaving and joining new groups or households, with no set pattern other than that leaving home and setting up a new one always has at least *some* suite of custom to help everyone know how to handle the transitions gracefully. More than that, and more crucially to our eventual capabilities, we don’t seem to have a mental size limit on “tribe”; a group of about one hundred and fifty people seems to be about as big as our oldest ancestral communities were (and maybe not even as big as that, when Homo sapiens sapiens first appeared and began spreading it was apparently at low population numbers and low density**), we’re completely mentally capable of defining groups as big as several billion at a time as “us”.

Once the world becomes bigger than just 150 or so faces with a still-countable and memorizable list of rarely encountered neighboring faces, we tend to break our worlds down further into tribes just because that’s the way our worlds work. Nations have regional and ethnic cultures and sub-cultures and tribes; someone born and raised in the United States will almost definitely identify him or herself as a member of the American tribe, and also potentially a member of the New York tribe, Texan tribe, hillbilly tribe, hispanic tribe, Unitarian tribe, hipster tribe, geek tribe, corporate tribe, soldier tribe, guys tribe, old lady tribe, surfer tribe, hacker tribe, or any number of other things, often all at the same time with no cognitive dissonance except in the cases of two tribes who perceive each other to be members of larger meta-tribes that do not like one another. (For example, a keen athlete in the hacker tribe may have a bit of a sense of conflict between the larger Nerd and Jock tribes- but probably not a very disturbing one.)

What makes this system of identities and allegiances far more helpful to our ability to have a global civilization than affiliation to a single troop would is that multiple tribal identifications give us multiple potential instant alliances with strangers, even strangers who may belong to tribes some of our tribes aren’t very friendly with. Pop culture may not be the world’s deepest hobby, but its eddies and pools can create shared references that transcend age, race, and class. So can the brotherhood of soldiers or law enforcement or medicine, or political bugaboos, or parenting, or any other common interest or experience that cuts across lines of inborn affiliations and creates new shared identities. If anything one of the greatest boons of the internet has been turbo-accelerating this process, as anyone who shares a language and an interest can now find others like them and form newer, larger tribes that cut across even more lines than ever historically possible before.

The productive point of diversity as a virtue isn’t to have as many different kinds of outlooks, languages, musics, and foods as possible, though those things can be nice. The point is to reduce intertribal conflict by creating more options for affiliation- something we as a species are naturally gifted at. We may lament our wars and how pointless they may often seem, but given our starting point we are specialists in making friends and new families for ourselves.

*There is an argument to be made that the customs of warfare are essentially an evolving set of terms on how well we may know one another, and how we must treat each other, when we intend to kill as many of each other as possible. We like our violence familiar and at least somewhat predictable, no matter how hideous the prediction.

**Perhaps this belongs somewhere other and longer than a footnote, but density and type of terrain seem to be a huge factor in whether the groups of humans we still call the “band and tribe” level are aggressive and warfare-oriented or peaceful and open-handed. In low densities over low-resource environments with unpredictable concentrations of resources, it pays to give generously to neighboring communities in hopes they’ll have better fortunes than you when famine strikes, and vice versa. In higher densities over rich areas with defensible points of resources, it pays more to be more aggressive. Sea coasts and bays are fantastic static, defensible resources, and it is probably not a coincidence that many of the world’s most dedicated and skillful conqueror cultures originated from islands or areas of rich coastline. Specializing in warfare and raiding your well-off farming and fishing neighbors is another highly successful model that requires concentrations of resources to work well. Likewise, no matter how much or little warfare in their history, the cultures with the most rigid hospitality customs tend to be desert-dwellers.

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October 16, 2011 - 2:47 pm Comments Off

Just because they got me.
I brew beer. What’s your contribution to society?