A second-hand treasure

Finding classic ethnography in second-hand bookstores or charity shops is one of my great pleasures. This weekend I rumbled a copy of Te Rangi Hiroa Sir Peter Buck’s “The Coming of the Maori” for the bargain sum of £2.50.

It’s a bit mildew-spotted on the outside but in great condition inside.



I wonder who Barbara was to get such a scholarly and interesting present from her Dad in 1958? (That’s my bookstamp there, yes, isn’t it great? I like ferns. A gift from my ever-thoughtful sweetheart.)



One of the plates at that back: a collection of woven flax kits (kete). I remember trying to do even the most basic weaving as a kid and being astonished at the fine detail that skilled weavers can produce. The middle-left is particularly lovely.

Te Rangi Hiroa was an amazing man – an anthropologist, politician, doctor, health campaigner, and served in the armed forces – and all this at a time when discrimination against Māori people in public life was routine in New Zealand. The article linked here mentions the epilogue from “Vikings of the Sunrise” where Te Rangi Hiroa considers the passing of a traditional Polynesian way of life:

“The old net is full of holes, its meshes have rotted, and it has been laid aside.

What new net goes afishing?”

I had not realised before that this was where Witi Ihimaera took the title of his book of short stories “The New Net Goes Fishing”. Those stories were classic high-school reading when I was growing up, and I can see how the stories resonated with Te Rangi Hiroa’s theme.

An ethnography of grant review

Over the last couple of weekend lunches I’ve read Michéle Lamont’s  How Professors Think: Inside the Curious World of Academic Judgment. Here’s the (slightly hype-y) blurb from Harvard University Press:

Excellence. Originality. Intelligence. Everyone in academia stresses quality. But what exactly is it, and how do professors identify it? In the academic evaluation system known as “peer review,” highly respected professors pass judgment, usually confidentially, on the work of others. But only those present in the deliberative chambers know exactly what is said. Michèle Lamont observed deliberations for fellowships and research grants, and interviewed panel members at length. In How Professors Think, she reveals what she discovered about this secretive, powerful, peculiar world.

I think “peculiar” is the most apt of the adjectives in that last sentence, because Lamont didn’t really address the interface between the grant-review process and the outcomes – it was more concerned with the processes of deliberation and the construction of norms of quality that go on. A really interesting read, particularly if you are US-based social scientist (the “study population”). I found myself itching to know more about the cultural differences that might occur, between for example the US, the UK, and Europe; or between the social sciences as construed in the book (from economics to English literature) and the behavioural and life sciences (psychology, biological anthropology, biology). But those are interests motivated by my own disciplinary and geographic situation.

I took two things away from the book: the first, Lamont’s message that quality/excellence are a bit ineffable, but that in general people “know it when they see it”, regardless of disciplinary background. The second was that there are two levels of the process that the applicant has no control over: the  mix of people and perspectives on a grant review committee, and the alchemy of how they reach their decisions about what is quality and deserves to be funded and what is not. These seem to be almost completely unpredictable, and would encourage me, if a grant proposal were rejected somewhere or sometime, to resubmit it elsewhere.

The book is very readable, with a great mix of synthetic commentary and verbatim quotes from the reviewer participants. Gave me a real insight into the decision-making criteria used by more interpretive disciplines/individuals, too.

Note: have been travelling and busy, but a return to regular postings next week. Starter for 10 will go monthly from now on, too.

on science and science fiction

There’s an engaging conversation in Nature this week with four science-fiction writers who concentrate on the life-sciences in their writing:

The biologists strike back.

I have this tremendous block about sci-fi. I have dabbled on the fringes and read Neal Stephenson and Iain Banks like everyone else, but virtually no classic sci-fi. Genre fiction intimidates me, I think, because it has its own rules and hierarchies. The other part of my block is self-preservation in the face of gateway drugs: because I’m fascinated by the communication of scientific ideas, I feel like indulging in a sci-fi reading habit would just be the end of it all and I’d never read anything else.

But perhaps that’s a cop-out? I’ve got a whole list of recommendations from various sources. I just need to start, I guess.

evolution 2007

Radio silence for the last couple of weeks as I was in New Zealand at the Evolution 2007 meeting. Yes, there is internet access on my small island home, but I’m not one of those superstars who can multitask a big conference and blogging. So before it all dribbles out of my brain, here’s a brief rundown. [link to program pdf]

Russell Gray and I organised a symposium on Cultural Phylogenetics. There are pictures, but they will have to wait another day.

Our speakers (Mark Pagel, Michael Dunn, Simon Greenhill, Quentin Atkinson, Russell, and myself) spoke on different aspects of applying phylogenetic and comparative methods to interesting and cool questions in linguistics and anthropology. Click on the picture for an overview of the talks.


Given that it was early on a Sunday morning we had a great turnout (80-120 people) over the three hours. Really fabulous to have the hardcore evolutionary biologists come along to see some novel applications of “their” methods, and it seemed to be well-received!

The conference had about 900 people in attendance with up to eight simultaneous sessions going on for the four full days, so it was hectic running about from room to room to catch talks. Luckily most of what I wanted to hear was fairly systematically (haha) grouped, so I got to attend a number of talks on phylogenetic theory and methods, behavioural/social evolution, sexual selection, coevolution, and teaching evolution. The last day also had a great session on molecular anthropology, most of which was concentrated on questions about Pacific dispersals and human migrations.

Conferences really are great for making your brain swim 24/7 in a soup of ideas, whether they’re directly related to your work or not. It’s simply stimulating being around loads of other people who like to ask questions and think of clever ways to answer them.

While I was away I read Evolutionary Pathways in Nature: A Phylogenetic Approach by John Avise. It’s a collection of short essays that tackle questions about different critters, from spider-web building to the tracking of the AIDS virus in humans. What they have in common is that moledular phylogenies have been used to help with the detective work. It was a fun book to dip into (it’s the book the ultra-geeky biologist has in the loo), but the theme was only a thin thread on which to peg the various stories. Although the Introduction and Appendix gave a little background to phylogenetics and molecular systematics, a complete newcomer would no doubt be confused. Sadly (or perhaps not…) I think the popular science book on phylogenetics remains to be written.

book rec

I absolutely reccommend This Thing of Darkness by Harry Thompson to anyone looking for a juicy and riveting read this summer. It tells the story of Robert Fitzroy's two journeys captaining the Beagle to South America and beyond, the second with Darwin on board. The friendship between the two men, and the testing of that by their diverging views on religion and the natural world, are wonderfully explored. Having been recently converted to the maritime novels of Patrick O'Brien, this pushed all those tall-ship buttons also. The other characters are brilliantly fleshed out from historical fact, especially the Fuegians Fitzroy brought back to England.

science events + weird crustaceans

(I’m sure there’s a pun in there)

Didn’t get a ticket to the Dawkins event next week at LSE (The Selfish Gene: Thirty Years On) as it appears all of London was keen to go also. There’s a video hook-up, so I’ll queue for that if it doesn’t look too arduous. Melvin Bragg (who’s chairing the above) is also doing a TV feature on Twelve Books That Changed The World which’ll feature Richard Dawkins (presumably to talk about Origin), to screen on ITV, Sunday, 23rd April.

On the weird crustacean front, it’s the Fabio Lobster.