Call for Papers: Strange Science: Anthropological Encounters with the Fringe

Call for Papers, 2015 American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting, Denver, Colorado (Nov. 18-22, 2015)

Strange Science: Anthropological Encounters with the Fringe

Anthropology has a long history of interactions with non-mainstream or pseudoscientific ideas. In our scholarship, classrooms, and public outreach, we are frequently confronted by advocates of ideas far beyond mainstream scientific understandings. Some of these ideas are directly challenged by anthropological data, such as ‘scientific’ racism, intelligent design, hyperdiffusionism, ancient aliens, 2012 millenarianism, pyramidology, and cryptozoology. Other pseudoscientific ideas are non-anthropological, but encountered in interaction with publics interested in medicine, the environment, or religion: homeopathy, climate change denial, biorhythms, dowsing, etc. What can – and what should – we do about them? What is our obligation to address (or not) these ‘strange’ sciences? And what tools does anthropology – as a ‘strange science’ itself, confronting challenges to its scientific status both from within and without – bring to bear that other disciplines lack?

Archaeologists have long been interested in addressing their publics about the value of scientific reasoning and in particular in countering mythical and often pernicious ideas about the past (Feder 2014). Similarly, biological anthropologists have done much to address the myth of biological race and to confront creationist ideas (Marks 2012). But our encounters with fringe ideas are more numerous and more complex than these, and cross all the subfields. We are also faced with different sorts of challenges: when these ideas come from our students or consultants, how do we maintain respectful social relationships while still making knowledge claims? How do we justify our knowledge claims in an environment ever more given to epistemological skepticism about the authority of science?

The goal of this panel is to address anthropological encounters with ‘strange science’ in the field, in the classroom, and in encounters with colleagues, from the perspective of scientifically-oriented anthropology across all subfields. Within a framework that posits that anthropology can, indeed, make verifiable truth-claims, abstracts are welcome that discuss any anthropological dialogue or engagement with non-mainstream scientific ideas, past or present, including but not limited to those mentioned above.

Please respond to this call by April 3, 2015 by emailing an abstract of no more than 250 words to Stephen Chrisomalis (Wayne State University) at chrisomalis [at] A discussant slot would also be extremely welcome. Please feel free to distribute to any colleagues or students who may be interested. As with any AAA panel, all panelists must be registered AAA members and additionally register for the conference.

New study on co-evolution of language and tool-making

There’s an interesting new study in PLOS One, ‘Shared Brain Lateralization Patterns in Language and Acheulean Stone Tool Production: A Functional Transcranial Doppler Ultrasound Study‘ (Uomini and Meyer 2013) with evidence that potentially bears on questions relating to the co-evolution of linguistic capacities and stone tool-making (for a useful summary, see Michael Balter’s news article in Wired).   The authors scanned the brains of expert flint-knappers both during knapping activities and during a standard linguistic task, showing that the parts of the brain that are activated are common to both activities among the participants.   This is one small piece of a much larger general argument that sees language capacities as much older than many linguists have traditionally accepted, co-evolving along with the Acheulean tool tradition (up to 1.75 million years ago).  In contrast, when I was a student, we all learned without much debate that the ‘Cognitive Revolution’ of 35,000-40,000 years ago was the dividing line for language origins.   Research on Paleolithic language ranges from the utterly wonderful to the utterly ridiculous, mostly because there is no agreement as to what sorts of evidence can be reasonably brought forward in support of different hypotheses, and because all the evidence is, by necessity, inferential rather than direct.  So we will see.

Language evolution lecture

I’m here at the Society for Cross-Cultural Research / Society for Anthropological Sciences joint meetings in Albuquerque, NM. Tonight we will have a keynote address by Nobel laureate / polymath Murray Gell-Mann on ‘The Evolution of Languages’. I’ll be very interested to see what Gell-Mann has to say on this issue that is close to some of my own research interests. Stay tuned.

Thanksgiving link roundup

Today, most of my colleagues are toiling away in an attempt to cook and carve some sort of fowl. Me, well, I’m Canadian, and even though I work over in the Dark Nether Reaches and get to enjoy its three-day week, I live over here in Canada’s Deep South and get to … have a flu shot and catch up on posting some links of interest?

I don’t have much to add about the sad passing of Dell Hymes last week. I didn’t know him but I know many people who did, and no one who purports to be a linguistic anthropologist (or sociolinguist … or anthropological linguist … or …) can possibly be ignorant of his work. The NYT description of him as a “Linguist with a Wide Net” is utterly evocative and has me imagining it literally. He will be missed, but his legacy on the discipline will remain vital for decades.

While Turkey officially switched from the Arabic to the Roman alphabet in the 1920s, at the same time it prohibited the use of letters not used to represent Turkish – which includes the ‘ordinary’ Roman letters Q, W, and X. While sometimes portrayed as a ban on those letters specifically, it is a more general ban on non-Turkish characters, as far as I can tell, which would seem to prohibit all sorts of texts. Ostensibly designed to promote national unity and secular rule, the law has only been applied to Turks of Kurdish descent. As someone who until last year was a resident of a region where texts written in my native language are under severe legal constraints, this has been a matter of some interest and concern to me for a few years now. Mark Liberman tells us more over at Language Log.

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh are investigating the cultural evolution of language, arguing that language change is patterned by the biological constraints of the human brain – in other words, language changes to accomodate itself to the sorts of brains we possess. They are examining this idea experimentally using an artificial language of simple syllables used to describe alien-looking fruit … which is not as bizarre as I may have made it sound. Edinburgh is doing a lot of exciting work these days in linguistics, what with Jim Hurford, Simon Kirby, and Geoff Pullum (among others) housed there.

Relatedly, Marc Changizi claims (following up on work he has been doing for the past several years) that there are strong cognitive / evolutionary constraints on the graphemes (discrete written units) of writing systems, creating similiarites across writing systems that reflect the cultural evolution of graphemes to accomodate the needs and capacities of the human brain. I have more doubts about this one, which I may talk about in more detail – basically my concern is that the cross-cultural analysis is weak and inadequately accounts for borrowing (Galton’s problem). But it’s interesting work that deserves some attention. Hat tip to The Lousy Linguist for both this item and the previous one).

Lastly, Alun Salt has recently published a very interesting paper, ‘The Astronomical Orientation of Ancient Greek Temples‘ arguing for a more rigorous statistical approach to archaeoastronomy and establishing solar orientations. He’s not the first to use statistical analysis in archaeoastronomy but he does note with some dismay that there is generally insufficient concern with quantitative reasoning among archaeoastronomers to be able to apply statistical tests effectively. Salt highlights some of the complexities in making these determinations – leap second daters, take note! More important than the article itself, though, is its venue, the open-access PLoS ONE. Although ‘cheap’ by open-access standards, the fact that authors must pay ‘only’ $1350 to cover publication costs is, I think, problematic in humanities and social science disciplines where grants are small and getting proportionally smaller.

To my American friends, good luck with your birds, and thanks for reading!

Ig Nobel 2009

The annual Ig Nobel awards “for achievements that first make people laugh, then make them think” were given out last night, and once again, anthropology has been well-represented. Catherine Bertenshaw Douglas and Peter Rowlinson won the award for veterinary medicine for their demonstration that cows that are humanized by giving them names produce more milk than those that remain, uh, anonymous. Although they are veterinary scientists their work appears in the interdisciplinary anthropological journal Anthrozoös. Meanwhile, the Ig Nobel for physics went to the biological anthropologists Katherine Whitcome, Liza Shapiro and Daniel Lieberman for their work (which appeared in Nature a couple of years ago) explaining why pregnant women don’t tip over. This is extremely important as it bears directly on the evolutionary costs and benefits of bipedalism, among other issues.

See the full list of winners here.

Bertenshaw, Catherine and Peter Rowlinson. 2009. Exploring Stock Managers’ Perceptions of the Human-Animal Relationship on Dairy Farms and an Association with Milk Production. Anthrozoös, vol. 22, no. 1, pp. 59-69.
Whitcome, Katherine, Liza J. Shapiro & Daniel E. Lieberman. 2007. Fetal Load and the Evolution of Lumbar Lordosis in Bipedal Hominins. Nature, vol. 450, 1075-1078.

Steve #1032

I am extraordinarily pleased to announce that I have been officially inducted into the roster of Steves at Project Steve, maintained by the National Center for Science Education. As Steve #1032, I join at least 1031 of my peers who, in addition to holding doctorates in fields related to evolution, are named Steve, Stephen, Steven, Esteban, Stephanie, etc. My sole duty as a member of this illustrious society is to promote, through undogmatic scientific inquiry, teaching and research about the origin and evolution of life. To which end, I can do no better than to quote from the NCSE itself:

Evolution is a vital, well-supported, unifying principle of the biological sciences, and the scientific evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of the idea that all living things share a common ancestry. Although there are legitimate debates about the patterns and processes of evolution, there is no serious scientific doubt that evolution occurred or that natural selection is a major mechanism in its occurrence. It is scientifically inappropriate and pedagogically irresponsible for creationist pseudoscience, including but not limited to “intelligent design,” to be introduced into the science curricula of our nation’s public schools. (NCSE, 2008)

What happens in Vegas

In a couple of hours I’m off to Las Vegas for the 2009 Society for Anthropological Sciences conference, where I’m presenting a paper entitled, “Frequency dependent biases in the transmission of communication technologies”. If any of my readers are going to be there (unlikely though that may be), it’ll be … well, it will be more compelling than the abstract that follows below makes it seem:

Frequency dependent biases in the transmission of communication technologies

Frequency dependent bias is a form of horizontal cultural transmission bias in which the frequency of a cultural trait influences the likelihood that others will adopt it. Previously seen as a unitary phenomenon, frequency dependence in fact consists of three separate types, each involving distinct decision-making processes and having different patterns of acceptance, retention, and abandonment. In particular, communication technologies, whose popularity determines their utility, exhibit unusual characteristics of cultural transmission. A brief case study from the phylogenetic history of written numerals demonstrates the usefulness of considering the different effects of frequency for the adoption of new communication technologies. More broadly, the prevalence of frequency dependent phenomena in various cultural evolutionary contexts suggests the need to evaluate decision-making processes more rigorously when evaluating the adoption and retention of cultural traits.

I’ll try to put together something interesting in the way of a blog post while I’m away, provided I don’t get sucked in by the charms of the city. Catch you on the flipside!