Friday, October 26, 2012

Is That You, Grandma?

Popular Archaeology, Tue, Oct 23, 2012
“Was Grandmothering a Key to Human Evolution?”
“Kristen Hawkes, a distinguished professor of anthropology at the University of Utah and senior author of the new study published Oct. 24 by the British journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.”

[Start here. Yo, you.]

It’s a sweet, if slightly myopic, study.

Let me get my disclaimers out of the way. I’m a grandparent. I live with a grandmother. I’m all in favor of grandmothers. I think grandmothers rule the world.

That being said, let’s give a big shout-out for grandfathers.

Kristen Hawkes, it appears, would like to give the credit to grandmothers; and I’m more than willing to giver them all the credit they deserve, but I suspect both sexes had a role in Ms Hawke’s findings.

PA said: “Hawkes, University of Utah anthropologist James O'Connell and UCLA anthropologist Nicholas Blurton Jones formally proposed the grandmother hypothesis in 1997, and it has been debated ever since. Once major criticism was that it lacked a mathematical underpinning – something the new study sought to provide.” They summarized Hawkes proposal as “a famous theory that humans evolved longer adult lifespans than apes because grandmothers helped feed their grandchildren.”

Which begs the question: What were the grandfathers doing? Whittling spears?

The authors came to their conclusions “when they lived with Tanzania's Hazda hunter-gatherer people and watched older women spend their days collecting tubers and other foods for their grandchildren. Except for humans, all other primates and mammals collect their own food after weaning.”
Photo: Martin Shoeller
They never do say what the grandfathers were doing. (Let’s see, the Hazda are hunter-gatherers. The authors observed the women gathering. Do you suppose the men could have been out hunting?)

Hawkes is on to something, but she doesn’t know quite what. In this study they haven’t done research on observable realities but were instead working on creating computer simulations that would verify their assumptions. To no one’s surprise, they succeeded. They mathematically described a possibility and then tweaked it until it worked, demonstrating that possibility could have happened. I have no doubt they’re right.

But what they’re attributing to grandmothers, I’d attribute to structural changes in human society. It wasn’t, simply, that grandmother’s were feeding weaned children and extending their dependence on others for sustenance. The answer lies in what Hawkes herself said: “The [apes] that began to exploit resources little kids couldn't handle, opened this window for grandmothering and eventually evolved into humans."

The operatives words here are “little kids couldn't handle.” What was it about the food these humans were eating that, unlike all other primates, the kids needed adults to gather it for them? Hawkes, et al, don’t broach that question. Primates aren’t unusual in being able to self-feed immediately after weaning, most mammals are similarly equipped. As a rule, once you can reach the fruit, grass, leaves, nuts, by yourself, you’re on your own. Why we should be different, apparently, was of no concern to the authors.

The exceptions are predators like lions and tigers, and bears, oh my. And us. But if you’re reading Ms Hawkes, you’d never know that. As far as Ms Hawkes is concerned, food stops at tubers and roots; although why weaned children would need adults to provide them with said tubers and roots when they are perfectly capable of getting them themselves is never explained. Because the food in question, the food that the “little kids couldn't handle,” was meat. Everything else they could manage just fine, thank you. Meat, though, they had to be ready to go out after. Just like those Hazda grandfathers who are ignored and are nowhere to be found, they’re out hunting what the kids can’t handle. “Leave the little ones home with the women; we’ll go on a walk-about.”
Yes, yes, grandmothers are important in human society and have been forever; but no more so than the rest of the fabric. Grandmothers only became important when we had settled down into predators’ camps, when we had the luxury of community. It wasn't just the grandmothers who raised the little children, it was the whole village. Grandmothers became important when we had the luxury of having them at all. Grandmothers became important when we started bringing food home and sharing it rather than every person for themselves. If grandma had to climb that tree for dinner, tough titties. Grandmothers (and fathers) are a luxury of a meat-eating society. If it wasn’t for that, we’d never have come together around the campfire; we’d still be out grubbing for tubers and roots. It was no vegetarian what captured fire.

I repeat: The driving force behind humans becoming humans was meat. Pure and simple, meat. Nothing but meat. No tubers, no roots, no sweet berries, no saturated nuts. Nope. Meat. Betcha hamburger.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Jessica's Revenge

"Our focus has changed from the search for Jessica to a mission of justice for Jessica," Westminster Police Chief Lee Birk said Friday.

The body of ten-year old Jessica Ridgeway was found yesterday (10/13/12) after a week-long search in the Denver area. The Chief concluded, “We recognize there is a predator at large in our community.”

Colorado seems to have had more than its fair share of horrendous events lately, of which this is just the latest example. I have no doubt that it’s nothing more than a statistical aberration; nonetheless, I’m sure it gives Denverites pause for thought.

Aside from sympathy for the poor parents to whom the unthinkable has happened and for all the people affected by similar tragedies, I worry about the phrase “mission of justice.” I shudder at what that means. Justice for whom? Jessica is dead, there will be no justice for her; justice is for the living. For the parents. For you and me.

Indubitably, we need protection from predators, but can we ever extract justice from them? How would we tell justice from revenge? What form would justice take if not punishment? And what, precisely, would we be punishing them for? Their crime?

I would be more of a fan of free will if I understood it, if someone could explain to me exactly how it works. Do you understand how thinking works? I sure don’t. I cram all the facts and the equations into my head, ask a question, and stare at the wall until something pops into my head. I have no idea where that something comes from or how it manifests itself in my mind’s eye, but it does. Pop! It’s there. I wish I could watch all the little gears whirling around until they come to an answer, but I can’t. I can’t even hear them over my tinnitus. Synapses firing? Poof! I have no idea. They’re soundless, invisible to me. Often as not I’m astounded at what they come up with—that’s not me!—but there they are, cockroaches of the mind creeping under the door. Too late; I blurted it out already. The thought was passed my lips before I’d even thought it. How fair is that?

I don’t understand how the pre-cellular consciousness of a strand of DNA or RNA or whatever could be any more or less conscious than you and I are, give or take a neuron or a feedback-loop or two. The principles, I would imagine, would have to be the same: input, process, output. Data is input and processed and operational directions are sent to the terminal. Consciousness is the input and output devises; processing is done internally. The actual processing can’t be observed by the terminal; there’s no need for its being able to do so. The processing is so fast and transmitted to the terminal at such speed that the terminal has the illusion of doing the processing. If the terminal had to think about how it was processing data, it would crash to a halt. Thinking has to be subconscious to be fast enough. If you truly had to think about what you were going to say, you couldn’t hold a conversation. But you’d never know it. You have to go on thinking your consciousness thought those words up all by itself. Pshaw! Smoke and mirrors. It’s all smoke and mirrors.

What you think is thinking is your processor processing the data it has at hand, which includes memory and current conditions. The processor will tell you whatever it thinks you need to hear. It decides that; you don’t. But for efficiency’s sake, it works best if the terminal thinks it’s doing the thinking. That’s you and me; we think that. So do howler monkeys.

What I’m trying to get at here is what is guilt and what is sin and what is responsibility and what is practical. That’s a lot of baloney to stuff into one casing.

What I’m thinking is that, if all thinking is done at an unconscious level, who’s responsible for it? Does it make any sense to have blame? Who are we going to blame for a lousy processor? Either the processor was lousy to begin with, or it had lousy input, right? Remember, this processor, even if it’s inside us, is basically just a machine mulling over the input, filing things away, making comparisons, evaluating, right? It doesn’t really think, either; it merely processes data at an incredible speed, fast enough to make our neurons zing and our mouths talk.

It’s certainly true that punishment is a whole new stream of data, and it might be enough to change some of the processor’s algorithms, but it’s equally liable to have unintended and undesirable consequences. The algorithms might not be changed to society’s benefit.  It may well be that the cost of justice/revenge is higher than the cost of rehabilitation. That’s when we have to make what is essentially an aesthetic decision: which do we want more, justice or safety?

Necessarily, this is complicated by the fact that most of the solutions to bad processors or bad data require deep changes at the societal level, changes which are not about to appear anytime soon. Poverty, for example, is bad data. Totalitarianism is bad data. Unconscious myth is bad data. Pollution is bad data. Capitalism is bad data. War is bad data. Violence is bad data. Hate is bad data. Racism is bad data. Bigotry is bad data. Misogyny is bad data.  Shall I go on? Until everyone is freed from bad data, how can we not expect processors to run amok?

But doesn’t it make more sense to try and fix the processors rather than smash them or feed them even worse data so that when we release them, they are more of a menace than when they went in for repairs? Of course, we can always enslave them or kill them, if we think it’s hopeless, yes?

Well, then, if we can’t do that, surely fixing them is the better option. That means getting rid of the blame, getting rid of the sin. Then getting rid of the problem.

See what I mean? That’s never going to happen. Not in my life time, and not in your, either. Not so long as we’re trying to find justice instead of cures. I would be happier, not that there was justice for Jessica, but that she didn’t die in vain.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Uncle Ken

Uncle Ken
Seattle Times Oct. 12, 2012

Kennewick Man bones not from Columbia Valley, scientist tells tribes

The beauty of it is that it made no difference to the tribes. They continued blithely on as if KM was still their baby. In their view, belief trumps reality; which, truth be known, is a hallmark of belief. What follows are a few excerpts from the article and my intemperate responses.

“In a historic first meeting of two very different worlds, Columbia Plateau tribal leaders met privately Tuesday with scientist Doug Owsley, who led the court battle to study Kennewick Man.”

“Minthorn [Armand Minthorn of the Umatilla Board of Trustees] said reburial still needs to happen, and that the law should be changed to give tribes better control of sacred remains.”

Oh sure, We should just let you decide what’s sacred and what isn’t and then hand over whatever you say is sacred to you. Capital idea. I’m sure you’ll be impartial; you’ve shown yourself as such already. Not to mention having a good grasp of paleoanthropology.
Doug Owsley
“Ruth Jim, a member of the Yakama Tribal Council, where she is head of the tribe's cultural committee, said it is frustrating that Kennewick Man is still out of the ground. ‘I don't disagree that the scientists want to do their job, but there should be a time limit. The only concern we have as tribal leaders is he needs to return to Mother Earth,’ she said.”

“…the skeleton, which has largely been inaccessible but for two instances, in which a team of about 15 scientists could study it for a total of about two weeks.”

Absolutely, Ruth, two weeks is more than enough time for a thorough study. More than enough. I’m glad you brought that up. And we’re glad that as tribal members you’re concerned about the burial of this person who wasn’t a member of your tribe. Quite thoughtful of you. Unless, of course, this person came from a tribe that liked to donate their bodies to science; you never know, do you? Tell me once more, why does he need to return to Mother Earth?

“Vivian Harrison, NAGPRA coordinator for the Yakama, said it was disturbing to look at the slides Owsley showed, with the bones presented on a platform to be scrutinized from every angle. ‘Really, to me, it's sad. This is a human being and his journey has been interrupted by leaving the ground.’”

Look, Vivian, if you’re squeamish, leave the room. Don’t buy your meat from the slaughter-house. But there’s nothing inherently disturbing about bones. Old bones, new bones, human bones, dog bones. If you’re disturbed, okay, but don’t make us guilty because you’re of a delicate constitution; please get out of the way.

Sure, he’s human; but he’s delighted to be out here telling his story. He says it was stuffy underground and he’s glad for a second chance. He says he’s got a story worth telling. He says he doesn’t care if he ever goes in the ground again. Trust me; the White Buffalo told me this.

“Jaqueline Cook, repatriation specialist for the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, said scientists' finding that the skeleton had been purposefully buried was significant.

“‘It says a lot that somebody took care of him,’ Cook said. ‘To me that says community. And that he is part of the land. And our land.’”

Yo, with you all the way. Someone took care of him. I’d say that says community. And no doubt he’s been a part of our land for 8,500 years. For that we honor him. We owe him a lot. I’m also sure that when you say “our land” you mean all of us, not just the Indians. Surely, we’re all of this Earth together. But I don’t think one has to be buried to be part of the land, do you? I feel I’m part of this land, but I’m not quite dead yet. Close, maybe, but still wiggling my fingers. He gets to be the person that came out of the ground to tell his story. Listen.

“‘The day's presentation was ‘subtly traumatic,’ said Johnny Buck, one of Rex Buck's sons and a member of the steering committee of the Native Youth Leadership Alliance. ‘We have medicine people that took care of bodies. But we never did look so long at them.’”

Was that an argument or simply a statement? What do your customs have to do with these bones? We don’t hang around and stare at dead bodies for months on end, either, as a rule; but there’s nothing saying that sometimes it’s not a good idea. You’re talking as if the bones were yours. You’re trying to make an argument for bones that aren’t yours by describing what you would do with your bones. No one’s saying what you should do with your bones; they’re saying these aren’t your bones. They don’t become your bones by you saying so. Get over it. Why are you still arguing?

“…the Ancient One.”

Aka Kennewick Man. The problem with “Ancient One” is that there are a lot of those guys, one has to distinguish among them somehow. He’s not yours; you don’t get to name him.

We got that straight?


Try and get this straight, too: we’re all one. Go back 8,500 years and everyone is everyone’s ancestor. Kennewick Man is not more ancestral to the Umatillas or the Yakamas than he is to the Hottentots or the Swedes. You guys don’t have special standing. None. I personally know that most of you weren’t born here until after I was. There’s a song about this place: “This land is your land; this land is my land…”
Armand Minthorn
The message is: stop being whinny-butts. Stop thinking you’re special Americans. Get with the program. There’s a big jumble of people out here and you’re just one more jumble. You’re about as special as the Armenians. They could use a reservation, too.

Me? I’ve got reservations about the whole thing.