Funding opportunities to work in excd.lab

There are two upcoming calls for funding schemes that would allow postdoctoral researchers to come work with us at Bristol.

The first is the British Academy’s International Partnership and Mobility Scheme. These three-year and one-year awards are for research partnerships between scholars in the UK and scholars in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, the Middle East, Eurasia, South Asia, East and South-East Asia. The awards will allow for a number of different activities (see the link above) although you must be based at your present employing institution for the duration of the award. So – travel, training, workshops, collaboration. I’d be very keen on hearing from applicants who could add capability to the VariKin project.

The second is the Leverhulme Trust’s Early Career Fellowships. We have an internal selection process at Bristol that needs a draft application by early December, so please contact me now if you are interested. These Fellowships are for three years. I would be happy to host researchers interested in any aspect of cultural evolution, linguistic anthropology, or kinship. More broadly the Department has strengths in evolutionary anthropology and scientific archaeology.




the old and the new

Near Buxton, Peak District.

Posts earlier than this one are from my old “Culture Evolves!” blog ( I’ve ported them here for longevity and archiving as they contain nine years worth of blogging activity, give or take the last three years of dormancy! At the very least they will give new members of my research group something to giggle over from the early days of science blogging.

[scrapbook] Tinbergen on differences and similarities

Oooh, aren't those colours nice. Feel free to steal this. There's no need for us all to make this slide over and over again.
Oooh, aren’t those colours nice. Feel free to steal this. There’s no need for us all to make this slide over and over again.

The amount of times I have read this paper … I should be able to quote it chapter and verse by now.

“The naturalist who studies animals in their natural surroundings must resort to other methods. His main source of inspiration is comparison. Through comparison he notices both similarities between species and differences between them. Either of these can be due to one of two sources. Similarity can be due to affinity, to common descent; or it can be due to convergent evolution. It is the convergences which call his attention to functional problems. “

Tinbergen, N. (1963). On aims and methods of ethology. Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie, 20(4), 410–433.

Phyloseminar: Testing hypotheses about cultural evolution

I’m giving a Phyloseminar next Tuesday at 17:00 GMT.

“Testing hypotheses about cultural evolution”

Anthropologists had a name for the non-independence-of-species-problem way back in the 1880s. Solving “Galton’s Problem”, and the promise of comparative methods for testing hypotheses about cultural adaptation and correlated evolution was a major catalyst for the field of cultural phylogenetics. In this talk I will show how linguistic, cultural, and archaeological data is used in comparative phylogenetic analyses. The “treasure trove of anthropology” – our vast ethnographic record of cultures – is now being put to good use answering questions about cross-cultural similarities and differences in human social and cultural norms in a rigorous evolutionary framework.

Phyloseminar is an online videoconferenced series of seminar talks on (you guessed it) phylogenetic subjects. Details about how connect up to join in the live broadcast and ask questions are here. Alternatively, the seminars are recorded so that, no matter your time zone, you can watch them afterwards.

My talk is the second in a mini-series of seminars on Phylogenetics and Language. The first was by Simon Greenhill, previously interviewed on my blog here. You can watch his seminar here (and please do, as I will be building on some of what Simon said). Tom Currie will be giving the final seminar. Many thanks to Erick Matsen for the invitation.

New academic year, new job

This week I started my new position as a Lecturer in Anthropology at the University of Bristol. I’m in the Department of Archaeology & Anthropology (which is quite a mouthful when you’re introducing yourself!). Very happy to be here, “here” being the UK, Bristol, and in a department not too dissimilar to the one where I was an undergraduate (at the University of Auckland), doing the closest to four-field anthropology that the UK currently has. Head of Subject Alex Bentley has dubbed this “Big-A Anthropology”.

This year I’ll be teaching Intro to Social Anthropology, and a third-year survey course in Advanced Issues in Arch & Anth. In the years to come I’ll be adding courses on kinship, linguistic anthropology, and interdisciplinary perspectives on the Pacific.

[scrapbook] On generalizing from case studies

Köbben (1970 and in other papers) was concerned with the folly of making general statements based on case studies.

In his study of the Siriono of Bolivia, Holmberg (1950) concluded that hunting and gathering tribes tended to be underfed and obsessed by food. From his celebrated study of Western European nations during the 1880s and 1890s, Durkheim (1951 [1897]) concluded that in general social isolation tends to drive a person to suicide. Hauser’s study (1959) of the Thai led him to believe that in general the more atomistic a society, the more it would resist modernization. Raulin (1959), studying the people of Gagnia and Daloa, concluded that uprooted peoples would be more interested in modernization than those still at home in the land of their ancestors.

But, Needham, (1954), studying the Punan of Borneo, concluded that hunting and gathering tribes were usually well fed and unobsessed by food. Asuni (1962), studying the people of western Nigeria, concluded that social isolation had nothing to do with suicide. Adair and Vogt (1949), studying the Zuni, concluded that the less atomistic a society, the more it would resist modernization. De Waal Malefijt (1963), studying the Javanese, concluded that up-rooted peoples would be less interested in modernization than would stay-at-homes.

Köbben, A. 1973 [ 1970] Comparativists and Non-Comparativists in Anthropology. In A Handbook of Method in Cultural Anthropology, Eds. Naroll, R. & Cohen, R. pp. 581- 596.

There’s an interesting discussion of Köbben’s approach to comparison, along with other 20th-century Dutch anthropologists in this chapter:

de Wolf, J. J. 2002. Conditions of comparison : a consideration of two anthropological traditions in the Netherlands. In  Anthropology, by comparison. Eds. Gingrich, A. and Fox, R.G. London; New York : Routledge.

[scrapbook] the fundamental and the freakish

From Adam Kuper’s Huxley lecture:

Kuper, A. 2008. “Changing the Subject About Cousin Marriage, Among Other Things.” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 14, 717-735.

Malinowski never delivered a Huxley lecture, but I will give him the last word in mine. In a note for a never completed textbook he remarked that when he came into anthropology the emphasis had been on the differences between peoples. ‘I recognised their study as important, but underlying sameness I thought of greater importance & rather neglected. I still believe that the fundamental is more important than the freakish’ (cited in Young 2004: 76).

“The fundamental is more important than the freakish”.  A good essay topic?


[scrapbook] On the value of comparative anthropology

From: Burton, M, C Moore, J Whiting, A Romney. 1996. “Regions Based on Social Structure.” Current Anthropology 37 (1) (February 1): 87–123.

I often go back to this paper. The analyses themselves are interesting (bottom-up culture regions based on the data rather than geography) but problematic (correspondence analysis on non-phylogenetically-controlled data). But the remarks in the Reply are excellent arguments for comparative analysis.

Scholarly work is by necessity done slowly and carefully. We cannot have an instantaneous image of all of the world’s contemporary societies ready for comparative analysis. There will always be a long lag time from the collection of data to the time when systematic analysis is possible. If our profession allows the findings of long-term projects to be ruled out of court as “old-fashioned,” it will discourage the collection of systematic data in large long-term projects. In our view the trendiness of anthropology is one of the major problems of our field.

And then to end:

The distrust that many anthropologists show toward comparative research is based on misinformation, logical errors, or perceptions of methodological problems that either have been corrected or are in the process of being corrected. While there are always changes in scientific standards over time, the value of cumulative empirical research, which necessarily has a long gestation period, outweighs any possible costs to the use of data that may not have been collected according to a currently fashionable theoretical program. There is no need for false dichotomies between text and numbers, between old data and new data, between description and comparison, or between microscopic and macroscopic approaches.

Upcoming talk: Coevolution in counting and culture

I’m giving a talk tomorrow (Tues 21 Feb) at the University of Bath, for the AI folk in the computer sciences department. My thanks to Joanna Bryson for being adventurous and inviting an anthropologist to speak to CompSci folk!

Counting coconuts for the chief: coevolution in language and culture

Across the world, languages vary in their ways of enumeration. Some languages, but not others, have dedicated linguistic mechanisms for counting certain objects and/or large numbers. Numeral classifiers are words or affixes to nouns that are used for counting certain classes of objects, such as “animate things” or “coconuts”. Specific counting systems go a step further and count specific classes of objects by units greater than one, such as (e.g.) pairs or twenties. Examining Oceanic languages, Bender and Beller have advanced the idea that numeral classifiers and specific counting systems are object-specific, refer to culturally-salient semantic domains, and are often used to enumerate large quantities. Here we test their hypothesis that these linguistic features may have co-evolved with aspects of socioecology, specifically, norms of redistribution such as chiefly tribute that are found in socially stratified societies. We use comparative data across a sample of Austronesian ethnolinguistic groups, lexical phylogenies of these languages as a model of population history, and statistical methods from evolutionary biology to (a) reconstruct the most likely model of history of counting systems and social structure and (b) test for causal co-evolutionary processes. Using phylogenetic approaches not only allows us to control for Galton’s Problem but allows us to test these language-culture coevolutionary hypotheses in a framework that delivers estimates of the processes of cultural change. These results speak to broader issues regarding the flexibility of human numerical cognition, as well as shed light on the specific development of counting systems within the Austronesian cultural context.

Details here.

[scrapbook] Morgan’s Question.

From LH Morgan’s introduction to “Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family“:

The tables, however, are the main results of this investigation. In their importance and value they reach far beyond any present use of their contents which the writer may be able to indicate. If they can be perfected, and the systems of the unrepresented nations be supplied, their value would be greatly increased. The classification of nations is here founded upon a comparison of their several forms of consanguinity. With some exceptions, it harmonizes with that previously established upon the basis of linguistic affinities. One rests upon blood, the preponderance of which is represented by the system of relationship; the other is founded upon language, the affinities of which are represented by grammatical structure. One follows ideas indicated in a system of relationship and transmitted with the blood ; the other follows ideas indicated in forms of speech and transmitted in the same manner. It may be a question which class of ideas has been perpetuated through the longest periods of time.

It strikes me that I am working on both Morgan’s Question and Galton’s Problem.