on culture and language [scrapbook]

If it can be shown that culture has an innate form, a series of contours, quite apart from subject-matter of any description whatsoever, we have a something in culture that may serve as a term of comparison with and possibly a means of relating it to language. But until such purely formal patterns of culture are discovered and laid bare, we shall do well to hold the drifts of language and of culture to be non-comparable and unrelated processes.

Sapir (1921) Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech.

on cultural determinism [scrapbook]

Benedict, in Patterns of Culture

” Society in its full sense […] is never an entity separable from the individuals who compose it. No individual can arrive at even the threshold of his potentialities without a culture in which he participates.

It is largely because of the traditional acceptance of a conflict between society and the individual that emphasis upon cultural behaviour is so often interpreted as a denial of the autonomy of the individual. […] Anthropology is often believed to be a counsel of despair which makes untenable a beneficent human illusion. But no anthropologist with a background of experience of other cultures has ever believed that individuals were automatons, mechanically carrying out the decrees of their civilization. No culture yet observed has been able to eradicate the differences in the temperament of the the persons who compose it.”

1989 (1934), p. 253

Starter for 10: Mike Dickison

What with the interdisciplinary thing, I know some delightful and interesting people in quite disparate fields. Starter for 10 is a semi-regular (monthly) series of peer interviews, with questions both serious and trivial for your edification.

This month’s interview is with Dr Mike Dickison, who wears many awesome hats: comparative fossil biologist, teacher of and advocate for effective science visualisation and presentation, ukulele player, and lately, earthquake blogger. I met Mike by sending him fangirl email about Pictures of Numbers, his science-visualisation project, and discovered that not only did we know people in common (as you do in New Zealand evolutionary circles) but we were both moved to tears at bad Powerpoint. If you do nothing else today, watch Mike’s Big Bird presentation – your life will be immeasurably improved.

1. In the little space for “occupation” on immigration cards at airports, what do you write?

Teacher. One of the principal benefits of the PhD has been the ability to put “Dr” Mike on airline boarding passes. Though nobody checks, so I could just as well choose “Reverend” or “Admiral”.

2. Give me your conference tea-break pitch: “…and what do you work on?”

My doctoral research was on the scaling of bones and eggs of giant flightless birds, including why the kiwi has such a disproportionately large egg. Currently I’m interested in working with other scientists on improving data presentation—not complicated issues of visualisation, which get all the attention, but simple visual thinking, which can be challenging for academics used to solving all problems with words.

3. What’s your origin story – how did you end up in your field? Was there a defining moment, or person, or something else that steered you?

Working as a technician in the National Museum of New Zealand, I saw the ornithologist Phil Millener identify bones of pigeons and ducks to species with a quick glance, which seemed almost a supernatural power. I was always fascinated by the art of reconstruction and extrapolation from fossil material. I also believed strongly in the importance of science communication, and worked in exhibition development before leaving to, eventually, teach graphic design and typography. But then I realised that might also involve teaching Microsoft Word for the rest of my life, so I applied for grad school at Duke, which let me hang out for years with some very smart people, and measure bones in museums (my kind of field work). Now I’m back in NZ, and curiously part of my job involves teaching dissertation formatting with, yes, Microsoft Word.

4. Your website (one of them …) is giantflightlessbirds.com. Tell me about your favourite giant flightless bird.

The adzebill (Aptornis) isn’t well-known, but was really peculiar. Extinct, like all the best flightless birds. Something like a giant rail, it had huge cervical vertabrae for muscle attachment, and tendons in its tarsus so well-developed they were enclosed in a bony tube. A digging, chiselling ground predator. [FJ: Looks like it would feed a family for a week] Moa get all the attention, but New Zealand was, and to some extent is, still full of crazy flightless birds.

5. For a month, you get to do a job-swap. What would you do?

Actor in a decent theatre company production of Shakespeare or Stoppard. [FJ: *heart* Stoppard] I nearly answered “making croissants in an artisan bakery” but that would probably ruin croissants for me for life.

6. Too much time, money and intellect has been wasted researching what?

Keeping it just to my own field, there are too many allometric studies of simple scaling trends without a good analysis of what these trends mean and how they might have developed. It’s easy to just plot a measurement against body mass, but that doesn’t say much. Also, while alpha taxonomy is important, and there are huge numbers of undescribed bones sitting in boxes in museums, we need to be looking at overall patterns now—we have enough data. There are plenty of sensible questions, like why do some groups of birds go flightless and not others? Why do some disperse across the Pacific better than others? Why are there no flightless bats? Why didn’t elephant birds get as big as elephants? What kind of bird is Big Bird—wait, I did that one. I think there should be more papers published with questions as titles, but I’m old-fashioned. [FJ: Only if they ANSWER the question though. Hate false advertising.]

7. Recommend for me (a) a good pop-science book (b) a good history/philosophy/politics book and (c) a poem.

a) It seems an obvious choice, but Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything is the one book I would recommend to a humanities-educated person who wanted to know what was up with science. Bryson makes everything approachable and gets almost nothing wrong. I would love to teach an entire year of General Science with this as the text.

b) Christopher Hitchens’s Letters to a Young Contrarian. I’m not a fan of Hitchens’s recent political decisions, but while reading this I was constantly copying down wise and brilliant lines. [FJ: never knew there was an “Art of Mentoring” series]

c) Auden’s The More Loving One, a poem all scientists can respond to.

8. So, you’re a ukulele player (and author of Kiwi Ukulele) What are you playing at the moment? Any Lady Gaga? Do Radiohead translate?

Almost half my repertoire at the moment is the Mountain Goats, and the rest mostly indie rock. I don’t like Hawaiiian music. There’s a nice ukulele cover of Poker Face on YouTube. No Surprises is my favourite Radiohead song on uke, but Street Spirit and Fake Plastic Trees work well too. The ukulele is the litmus test of a good tune.

9. In the age of Google and Wikipedia, would you consider it worthwhile to write a book [on your field]?

These days I would never write JUST a book about anything. My future book projects will work best as e-books linked to websites, possibly with some video, pretentious as that sounds. (How long, by the way, before we lose the hyphen in e-books, the way we have with email?) [FJ: my prediction is that it’ll take longer for phonetic reasons: ebook looks like it rhymes with eh-duke]

10. Finally, what’s your absolute number one science-presentation peeve? Mine are those horrible excel colours on bar charts.

The Scientist’s Rainbow: using every colour in the visual spectrum to convey a simple one-dimensional gradient. Which promptly disappears as soon as one prints, because, oops, we don’t all have colour printers on our desks yet.

Science-folk: do check out Mike’s Pictures of Numbers for tips/advice/makeovers of charts, graphs and visual information.

Polynesian Lexicon Online

I’ve been meaning to pimp this: POLLEX is online! Simon says:

I’d just like to announce that Ross Clark and I have placed the POLLEX (Polynesian lexicon) database online at http://pollex.org.nz. POLLEX-Online currently contains 55,183 reflexes with 4,746 reconstructions from 68 languages.

An awesome resource for anyone interested in the Pacific, comparative and historical linguistics, and Polynesian culture history. Databases are what will transform linguistics.

on classification [scrapbook]

Darwin, in The Descent of Man

Every naturalist who has had the misfortune to undertake the description of a group of highly varying organisms, has encountered cases (I speak after experience) precisely like that of man; and if of a cautious disposition, he will end by uniting all the forms which graduate into each other as a single species; for he will say to himself that he has no right to give names to objects which he cannot define.

1871, 1st ed. vol 1, p. 226-7

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.

definitions of evolution [scrapbook]

Evolution is not changes in gene frequencies. Genes are part of a network of developmental causes that lead to the manifestation of traits that have general properties in common across individuals while retaining individual differences. Evolution is change in the frequencies of alternative developmental causes that yield variations in developmental trajectories (a phrase that is more cumbersome than ‘‘changes in gene frequencies’’ but nevertheless more correct).

Source: Michel, GF and Tyler, AN. Developing human nature:“Development to” versus “Development from?”. Developmental Psychobiology (2007) vol. 49 (8) pp. 788-799  DOI: 10.1002/dev.20261

Starter for 10: Rod Page

What with the interdisciplinary thing, I know some delightful and interesting people in quite disparate fields. Starter for 10 is a semi-regular (fortnightly) series of peer interviews, with questions both serious and trivial for your edification.

I’m very excited that this week’s interview is with Professor Rod Page, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Glasgow – although see the answer to the second question for what he really does. I met Rod when I was doing my masters on language evolution, and his immensely useful software methods and textbooks made my phylogenetics learning curve much less steep than it could have been! Basically, if it combines computing and evolution, Rod has already thought about it, mashed it up, made it available on iPhylo and Twittered about it before you had your breakfast.

1. In the little space for “occupation” on immigration cards at airports, what do you write?


2. Give me your conference tea-break pitch: ” … and what do you work on?”

I’m interested in joining the dots. It drives me nuts that we have all this information about the phylogeny, geographic distribution, and taxonomy of organisms and we can’t quite seem to bring it all together in one place. Think of it as Google for systematics.

3. What’s your origin story – how did you end up in your field? Was there a defining moment, or person, or something else that steered you?

I ended up in biology because it felt that you could still discover things without requiring lots of money or equipment. For instance, my first paper described a new species of pea crab that I found in Auckland harbour. Then I discovered the joys of programming, which is addictive because you regularly feel like master of the universe … at least for a few seconds. But perhaps the thing which grabbed me most as a graduate student was biogeography. New Zealand in the late 80’s was a hot bed of panbiogeography, with Leon Croizat’s work being rediscovered, and it was an exciting time. The wheels rather came off panbiogeography, but being in New Zealand felt like being in the centre of things.

4. And why are you trying to forget about lice? You say so on your old webpage …

Lice have been good to me, but empirical work is hard! All the tracking down collectors, storing specimens, keeping track of data, difficulties sequencing decent genes, struggling to align what sequences we did get, making sense of ropey trees at the end. Methodology is much more fun, especially for somebody like me who is easily distracted by shiny baubles.

5. Do you have a favourite quirky academic paper? Mine is the one about the homosexual necrophiliac duck.

I don’t have a paper, but the “Chicken chicken chicken” talk is a favourite. I show this to undergraduates in tutorials about how to give talks.

6. Professor-level-question: what three things are strikingly different in your field now from when you first started out?

Dub dub dub (WWW). It’s changed everything. That and large scale sequencing. Put another way, biology has become overwhelmingly digital. Some parts of biology have been quicker to adjust to this than than others. [FJ: *sigh* the revolution is still to come in anthropology and linguistics]

7. For a month, you get to do a job-swap outside of academia. What would you do?

Design book covers.

8. Who’s your favourite fictional scientist?

Isadore Nabi [FJ: I think I will start calling myself an “Intrepid Investigator” too]

9. Too much time, money and intellect has been wasted researching what?

Rather than pick something specific, I worry that there’s a poor correlation between amount of money thrown at a subject and the amount of progress made. Results don’t scale linearly with money. I’m underwhelmed by “big science” approaches in biodiversity.

10. Recommend for me (a) a good pop-science book (b) a good history/philosophy/politics book and (c) a poem.

Book: “Envisioning Information” by Edward Tufte ISBN 978-0961392116 – Perhaps not strictly “pop-science”, but just an awesome book, both visually and intellectually. [FJ: EVERYONE should read Tufte]

Philosophy: “The Gentle Art of Philosophical Polemics” by Joseph Agassi ISBN 978-0912050638 – Fierce criticism as a mark of respect, makes me feel good about saying “well this sucks” all the time. [FJ: This arrived in my pigeonhole today, looking forward to it!]

Poem: Robert Burns Tam o’ Shanter “Nursing her wrath to keep it warm” – glorious line.

Although Rod’s disciplinary interests are firmly within biology, much of what he blogs about at iPhylo has crossover appeal – at the moment he’s reviewing iPad apps for reading scientific articles.

A game from 3000 years ago

I came across this great paper today*:

CONNAUGHTON, S. P., TACHÉ, K., & BURLEY, D. V. (2010). Taupita: A 3000-year-old Shell Game in the Lapita Cultural Complex of TongaJournal of Social Archaeology, 10(1), 118-137. DOI:10.1177/1469605309354400  [link]

Abstract: Recent excavations at the archaeological site of Nukuleka on Tongatapu in the Tongan Archipelago have yielded the largest Lapita collection of perforated Ark (Anadara) shells known to date. In this article, we focus on the unusually large collection of modified Ark shells from Nukuleka in an attempt to unravel the ambiguity that surrounds their functional interpretation. Former interpretations of perforated Anadara as shell net weights may only explain one possible cause of their construction. We proffer, through relational analogy, that we are witnessing a 3000-year-old Lapita shell game.

These shells-with-holes in the 3000-year old archaeological record for Lapita have long been thought of as weighting material for fishing nets. But! The authors describe how during the field season on Tonga the local field assistants would, in their breaks, play a shell-based game (Taupita) – and the “debris” from this game matched that of the so-called net weights. Some lovely experimental archaeology later, and while they can’t discount the idea that the shells were used as net-weights, it’s certainly just as plausible that they were the pieces in a ancestral game resembling Taupita.

From the paper: Left: Playing Taupita Right: Anadara antiquata shells

This is groovy. I often mention in talks that one of the reasons for using phylogenetic methods on cultural and linguistic data is for the purposes of “virtual archaeology” – being able to infer something about social life in the past in the absence of appropriate material culture from archaeology. But there are of course some aspects of human behaviour and social life that combine both of these things: they leave some trace through artifacts, but there are missing pieces of the puzzle in terms of cognition, communication, or other cultural/behavioural aspects that remain outstanding. Games are a really good example – and often overlooked by both anthropologists and archaeologists. In the discussion the authors say:

As a community of archaeological scholars in pursuit of ‘big’ questions and larger anthropological themes, we sometimes lose sight of the day-to-day aspects of a society, including leisure time games which are rarely mentioned (but see Culin,1975; DeBoer,2001). Games are a social mechanism that can provide a unique opportunity to develop a skill, educate, make a tool,and/or potentially create a better understanding of one’s self. Games are also fun and part of the human experience.

Pacific anthropology has pulled its weight here, I think (no pun intended) – from the earliest late 19th century descriptions games were frequently mentioned, and there were detailed descriptions of string figures in a number of classic Pacific ethnographies, many published by the Bishop Museum. Honor Maude’s wonderful book on Nauru comes to mind here. I’d love to see more comparative and historical work on games – let me know if you have suggestions.

*So great I wanted to blog about it straight away, causing me to deviate from the master plan for today … but at least now I won’t go and do unnecessary research for this post all afternoon?