Archive | May, 2014

Guess who’s coming to dinner? Nine billion of your closest friends.

31 May

Humans eat, poop, and die just like all other animals. How’s that for a Saturday morning happy thought? All of the other wonders that “make us human” begin there: culture, art, religion, language, science, etc. You can’t travel to the stars on an empty tummy, so like the humble clam or hummingbird, we must consume energy in order to thrive and, most importantly, reproduce.


You Are Here.

You Are Here.


And, over the last 10,000 or so years, we’ve gotten exceedingly good at transforming nature to meet our caloric needs. So good that we practically can’t stop reproducing! For better or worse, we have a lot of people to feed. We’re likely going to need all of the ingenuity, intelligence, and experimentation that led us into this mess to get back out of it. How do we sustainably feed 9 billion people by the year 2050? The National Geographic Society is working on it, and you can help. Here’s their fundraising mailer:


“When I say food, what do you think of? Your favorite comfort food? Social gatherings? Family traditions? Food is such a central part of our lives. It’s also a critical issue facing our planet.

When we think of environmental threats, we tend to think of energy use, water and air pollution, or industrial waste. But the truth is, our growing need for food and the environmental challenges posed by agriculture are some of the biggest challenges we need to address.

This year, National Geographic is exploring how we can feed two billion more people by 2050 without harming the planet. You can support National Geographic’s programs, including our work toward finding better ways to produce and consume food in ways that don’t harm the planet…

Here’s a sample of the kind of work our grantees are doing, supported by your donation:

  • Helping farmers develop tools for designing sustainable agricultural systems based on the diversity and stability of local ecosystems, in places like Malawi, where agriculture has been winnowed down to the production of primarily one crop – corn.
  • Discovering, recording, and using traditional knowledge about medicinal and edible plants from cultures as diverse as the Sioux in South Dakota and native Jamaicans in the bio-diverse parish of Portland.
  • Examining the trade-offs of organic farming versus genetically modified crops for farmers and the environment in places like India.

Your gift will help us continue National Geographic’s programs, including exploring ways to double the availability of food to feed a predicted population of nine billion, while simultaneously cutting the environmental harms caused by agriculture.

Discovering low-input, high-output food cultivation practices and disseminating them to small farmers across the planet will both reduce agriculture’s significant contribution to climate change and provide a healthier diet for millions of people.

It will also add to our knowledge about how what we put into our bodies contributes to how we feel and function on a daily basis, and ultimately the length of our life” (


If you would like to contribute to National Geographic’s research, here is a link to make a donation. Thanks!


Return of the Jidaigeki

22 May

I’ve mused about the connections between Star Wars and anthropology before; 1) because those connections are culturally relevant, but 2) mostly just because I like Star Wars. A lot. (If you don’t, please bear with me until we return to more “strictly speaking” anthropological topics).




Found an excellent 8-minute video called “How are Samurai Films Responsible for Star Wars?!?” this morning. It succinctly situates Star Wars in the context of 20th Century Japanese and American film history, including plenty of cross-cultural references. Highly recommended if you’re interested in Star Wars, Japanese culture, filmmaking, storytelling, etc. (Do be aware, it contains “strong language”).



Is Cultural Anthropology Really Disembodied?

17 May

American Anthropological Association President Monica Heller comments on Nicholas Wade’s race book which, evidently, demonizes cultural anthropology.

Welcome to the AAA Blog

Today’s guest blog post is by the President of the American Anthropological Association, Monica Heller.

Nicholas Wade’s recent book, A Troublesome Inheritance, is not one I would typically spend my weekends reading, as I don’t have much interest examining theories of everything in this world and little patience for theories as misguided as those examined in his book. But as science editor at The New York Times Wade wields influence, and his book reserves a special role for the American Anthropological Association (AAA), an organization of which I happen to be the current President. Unfortunately, that role is of the bad guy in a narrative opposing two figures: benighted cultural anthropology and « politically incorrect » but scientifically accurate theories of cultural evolution.

Those scientific theories, he says, show that race is a central feature of human biology, and that it has a genetic basis, which then influences social…

View original post 639 more words

Humans are special because…

15 May

As I’m overly fond of saying, humans are special. Just not for the reasons we traditionally thought we were: created separately from “animals,” center of the universe, all that anthropocentric stuff. I read the following passage in Michael Pollan’s book Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation and found it funny. Maybe you will too:


“‘Homo sapiens is the only animal that…’

How many flattering clauses have philosophers tacked on to that cherished construction, only to watch them eventually crumble? One by one, the faculties on which we thought we could stake the flag of our specialness science has shown belong to other animals as well. Suffering? Reason? Language? Counting? Laughter? Self-consciousness? All have been proposed as human monopolies, and all have fallen before science’s deepening understanding of the animal brain and behavior…perhaps an even sturdier candidate would be this: ‘Humans are the only species that feels compelled to identify faculties that it alone possesses'” (Pollan 2013:55-56).


Anthropology: The scientific study of “the only species that feels compelled to identify faculties that it alone possesses.”

New book on race by Nicholas Wade: Professor Ceiling Cat says paws down

14 May

I read Nicholas Wade’s “Before the Dawn” and enjoyed parts of it. Unfortunately, his chapter on race contained surprising misconceptions about what “race” is and isn’t. It seems that he has expanded that discussion (along with its flaws) into a full-length book. I look forward to seeing further rebuttals to Wade’s conclusions.

Why Evolution Is True

Nicholas Wade, who contributes science pieces for The New York Times, has a new book out called A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History. Its thesis is not only that human “races” are biological realities, but that differences in the structure of human societies, as well as behavioral differences between ethnic groups, are based largely on genetic differences produced by natural selection.  So, for instance, Wade imputes the high achievement to the Jews to selection that operated on “our” (since I’m a cultural Jew) ancestors, the high achievement of Western societies to diffusion of “smart” genes from the upper classes to lower ones, and so on. He gives related “natural selection” arguments for the dysfunctionality of African societies compared to those of Europe, and why Asian populations never produced the technical innovations of the West.

The Daily Caller summarizes the reactions, which have been mixed. The most over-the-top review…

View original post 992 more words

Year of the Sheep

10 May

Read a fascinating Washington Post article this morning called “Chinese couples rush to get pregnant before dreaded Year of the Sheep.” In summary, many Chinese couples are feverishly trying to conceive and have children in 2014 – the Year of the Horse, following the Chinese lunar calendar – rather than 2015, the inauspicious Year of the Sheep. (Incidentally, 2015 is also the year I turn 40. 1975 was a Year of the Rabbit). Believers in the Chinese zodiac associate Sheep with following, rather than leading, bad luck in business, unhappy marriages…bad stuff. Little wonder some seek to avoid that fate for their children!



For me, the most interesting aspect of the article is the power that cultural traditions can have on reproductive (biological) decisions. Among other things, this suggests some possibilities for limiting overpopulation – more voluntary, and less draconian, than China’s “one child” policy. Presumably, if people can avoid reproducing in “inauspicious” years, we could do the same for leap years, odd numbered years, etc. Any combination of “less-than-ideal” years for childbirth could reduce population growth. And potentially stigmatize children born in those years. I admit, it’s not a perfect solution. Even in contemporary China, Sheep years have “no discernible effect on national demographics.”


In biology, reproductive fitness is everything. Cultural influences, Chinese zodiac or anything else, that can stem the tide of overpopulation are worth considering. What do you think?