Sunday, July 29, 2012

Archaeology as Intelligent Design

Not much to say here. I got a kick out of this bit from the Creation Institute on how archaeology should serve as a model for other sciences.  It's moronic, and I feel bad for the folks at Western University.  On the plus I am used to seeing researchers in other disciplines spout helpful advice on how historical fields like archaeology should be more like their specialty.  Usually it’s evolutionary biologists, but the occasional physicist and mathematician drops by to whip us into shape.  So when somebody suggests that cosmology and biology should be more like archaeology normally I would be pathetically grateful.   Except in this case it is the Creation Institute, holding archaeology up as an awesome example of “Intelligent Design in Action.”  I only hope nobody else finds out about this accolade.

 So what have we got?    
Archaeology is the study of artifacts that have been designed for a purpose. Our uniform experience of intelligent causes allows us to make inferences about design, even without knowing the identity of the designers. Since ID principles are used in archaeology as they are in various other sciences, what's the problem with applying the theory in biology?
I was going to work through it line-by-line, starting with the definition of “archaeology.”  But where do you go with something like “Since ID principles are used in archaeology as they are in various other sciences, what's the problem with applying the theory in biology?” It’s not interesting, and I can’t even get angry about it.  If your dataset is the material products of human behaviour (e.g., you are an archaeologist), then, yes, you are probably dealing with the products of some sort of intelligence. And we are pretty sure humans exist.

I gather archaeology has been trotted out before as an example of Intelligent Design.  It is listed on TalkOrigins as Claim CI191
Just as sciences such as archaeology and forensics can detect design, so it is a valid scientific practice to detect intelligent design in nature. The success of those sciences shows that the methods of intelligent design work in practice.
The response to this claim dates from 2003.  The argument (or assumption) was also extensively addressed by Northstate Science in 2007.  But, since this is the Creation Institute, the critiques have been studiously ignored.  This article is simply a repetition of the same argument.

Beyond the odd non sequitur of “archaeologists study things that are intelligently designed, so why shouldn’t every science assume intelligent design”   I gather ID advocates trot out archaeology as an example of disciplines that use the “explanatory filter,” which is the assumption that events that have a sufficiently low probability of occurring naturally must be the result of design (Scott 2004:121-122).  Apparently this is how archaeologists identify artifacts.  If has a low probability of occurring naturally, it must be an artifact.

This isn’t actually how archaeologists identify artifacts—there is a fair amount of accumulated knowledge and research (see Northstate Science--Bad Analogies At Evolution News and Views--), including ethnographic and historical comparisons, experimental work, and straight-up analysis, such as studying use-wear and polishes.  To be fair, there are some artifact classes that where it really does come down to assessing the probability that a potential artifact might have been produced naturally— expedient tools and eoliths for example.

But if you have a whole site or deposit where you are having to use eliminative reasoning to identify artifacts (i.e., your sole basis for identifying artifacts is that there is a low probability that they could have been produced naturally), you are in trouble. A lot of people are going to say you don’t have artifacts, or a site.  Some well-known examples of whether purported artifacts are real or natural (i.e., artifacts or geofacts) are deposits at Pedra Furada in Brazil, the Calico site in California, and Pendejo Cave in Utah (yes, that is its name).  None of these sites made it over the bar.  When you do need to resort to “explanatory filter”reasoning, it is most probably because you have a problem—your data is crap.  

Scott, Eugenie C.
2004   Evolution vs creationism: An Introduction.  Greenwood Press, Westport CT

Friday, July 27, 2012

Human nature and the Aurora shootings.

Time Ideas has published an opinion piece on mass murder being the result of an essential male nature, “The Overwhelming Maleness of Mass Homicide.” The author, Erica Christakis writes
We’ve been down this path so many times, yet we keep missing the elephant in the room: How many of the worst mass murderers in American history were women? None [presumably Christakis is counting women mass murderers among the "best" mass murderers]. This is not to suggest that women are never violent, and there are even the rare cases of female serial killers. But why aren’t we talking about the glaring reality that acts of mass murder (and, indeed, every single kind of violence) are overwhelmingly perpetrated by men? Pointing out that fact may seem politically incorrect or irrelevant, but our silence about the huge gender disparity of such violence may be costing lives.
She goes on to approvingly quote Steven Pinker and his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, and then, unsurprisingly, to argue that the tendency to mass murder is part of male human nature.
We shouldn’t need Steven Pinker, one of the world’s leading psychologists and the author of the book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, to tell us the obvious: “Though the exact ratios vary, in every society, it is the males more than the females who play-fight, bully, fight for real, kill for real, rape, start wars and fight in wars.”
I don't know if Christakis considers herself an evolutionary psychologist or if she just likes the basic argument of evolutionary psychology, that of a cultureless human nature. She seems to share their fascination with sex differences. And shares many of the problems with that approach.

One problem is the tendency to leap to sweeping conclusions about human nature on the basis of poorly-understood data and minuscule statistical effects. Another is that we end up with vacuous, ahistorical explanations that do not contribute to our understanding.

In this piece she uses sex and gender interchangeably, but what she is talking about is sex--biology; not society, not culture, and not gender. She is arguing that mass murder is a biological part of male nature, and always has been (citing Pinker here). Besides the quote from Better Angels, her evidence is the fact (and it is a fact) that in the US, most mass murderers are men. The problem is, while that tells us something significant about mass-murderers, it tells us very little about men.

If Christakis is interested in the relationship between mass-murder and male nature, the relevant question is not “what percentage of mass murders are committed by men?”, but “what percentage of men commit mass murders?” I don’t know the answer to the second question, but my offhand answer would be “very small, several decimal places very small.” If you think of that number, then obviously not committing mass murder is a part of male nature, (and always has been). Being male is in no way a predictor of being a mass-murderer. Now, one could argue that it is male nature to have a 0.00whatever% chance of being a mass-murderer. That might be true, but with those numbers it is little better than saying everything some male does is part of male biology. Even assuming it’s true, it’s true in a trivial and uninteresting way, and we are right back at seeing mass murder as a random event. Something else is going on besides human nature.

If Christakis wants to talk about males and mass-murder, she needs to consider gender rather than just sex. I have no background in mass-murder research. But there is research on it. I did a quick skim. There are different kinds of mass-murder, there are different psychological make-ups, and there are a variety of social and historical conditions. In brief, it’s complicated. Blowing off this research and the complexity and variation of the phenomenon for a simplistic appeal to human nature gets us nowhere.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Some archaeologists find a woman’s body

Objibwa at Daily Kos has published a letter noting that archaeologists found a woman’s body in the Sonoran Desert. They built a small memorial.
 Dear friend
The president and members of congress sentenced a woman from Guatemala to capital punishment for crossing an imaginary line in search of work.  The sentence was carried out on June 30 in a remote section of desert 50 miles southwest of Tucson.  The woman was struggling to hike up a hill, collapsed face down on the ground, and died.  Her body was found two days later by a University of Michigan archaeology team that returned on July 15 to create a memorial.  It appears she was in her early 30s and her name is unknown.
Professor Jason DeLeon showed us the place where she died - a dark stain marked the ground. He has hiked that trail many times in his work to preserve migrant artifacts (items left behind on the journey) and he often rested in the shade of the mesquite tree where they were building the shrine.  The view looking down the hill from there is starkly beautiful, but she was heading uphill and not able to focus on the scenery. 
Most of the archaeologists were students, spending part of their summer working on the Undocumented Migrant Project (UMP). The UMP is a long-term archaeological/ethnographic research project studying clandestine border crossing by migrants, and being carried out by Jason De León. This is an important project, and I can’t do it justice here, but it has been written up in Nature and Archaeology among others. De León’s blog has details of the project and links to media coverage. When I start fretting about the pointlessness of archaeology, this is one the projects I think about to feel better.

One of the indications that this is important research is an unfortunate one—it drives people nuts. I think Jason probably gets an order of magnitude more hate mail than any anthropologist in history. When I checked last night, a write-up of the UMP on Huffington Post had 1,910 plus comments (28 monotonous and depressing pages of vituperation) almost all of which seem to have accumulated within a day of the article going up. Undocumented labor is a real phenomenon, an important phenomenon, and by any reasonable standards is worth, indeed requires, study. But people get outraged that it gets studied. Why?

I think the UMP packs a double-whammy.

(1) Moral panic about undocumented immigration. Obviously anything to do with undocumented labor inspires strong reactions. For example, some of commenters object that this study “humanizes” undocumented migrants as if it is a given that this is a bad thing to do. This topic is a post in itself (a long one), but I think we can probably take the urge to demonize undocumented workers as a given, especially in the current political climate.

(2) Popular ideas about archaeology. Most of the commenters are outraged that it is archaeologists studying undocumented migration. One discomforting factor is that the UMP is studying modern refuse (”trash”). For people whose main exposure to archaeology is television, that is probably disturbing enough. I’ve certainly run into this sort of push-back when studying sites that people think are too late or too mundane. But studying the refuse of undocumented immigrants compounds the outrage. The public value of archaeology is that it is in large part the study, and creation, of heritage. Heritage is basically the identity-creating parts of the past, those bits of history that played a role in creating us (as a people or nation or whatever) today. Archaeologists studying undocumented migration implies that migrant labor is part of our heritage, our history, and our national identity.

The trouble is, it is. Demonization and fear won’t help. Careful study and understanding will.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Neandertals, hide-scraping, and domestic goddesses

"Neanderthal man not only hunted, they did chores 
around the house as well, according to new research. 
  The Courier-Mail" (From the Herald Sun)
In 1995 Archaeology Magazine had a small article by Diane Gifford-Gonsalez called “The Drudge on the Hide” (Gifford-Gonsalez 1995:84). She talked about popular reconstructions of prehistoric life in representations like museum dioramas and illustrations, and pointed out the ubiquity of crouching women doing something boring, usually scraping hides. Hence “the Drudge on the Hide.” Men, on the other hand, are doing things like returning from the hunt with game slung over their shoulders, painting, or talking animatedly. And at least one child will be chasing, or being chased by, a dog.

For me it was a lesson in the obliviousness of privilege. I had never noticed that before—my eye just automatically wondered to the most prominent and animated parts of the reconstruction, and that usually wasn’t the women (unless, I’ll be honest, they were sexualized). This representation was so crude, so obvious, and everwhere--but I didn’t notice until someone pointed it out. Since Gifford-Gonsalez’ article, reconstructions seem to have improved. I have, for example, seen many more pictures of prehistoric women standing up and moving around. But the “Drudge on the Hide” seems to be firmly entrenched in popular consciousness.

I bring this up because of the coverage of an article that just came out in PLoSOne—”Neandertal Humeri May Reflect Adaptation to Scraping Tasks, but Not Spear Thrusting” (Shaw et al. 2012). To sum, Neandertals had much more developed right arms compared to their left. Modern humans have this assymetry as well, just not at the same scale. As far as handedness goes, Neandertals are like a population of tennis or cricket players (um, sort of). An influential explanation is that this assymmetry is due to Neandertal hunting techniques—close range hunting with thrusting spears. Shaw et al. make the argument that the overdeveloped musculature was actually produced by hide-scraping, rather than spear-thrusting, and they experimentally test this.

The article has been getting some well-deserved publicity. It is after all an interesting article with a significant finding, and a lot of interesting questions come out of it. Some of the coverage reflects this. It also appears to be a good article if you want masturbation jokes in your comments section. But a lot of the coverage is fascinated with the idea that Neandertal men were doing what is obviously “domestic” (i.e., women’s) work. There is nothing about gendered division of labour in the article, but that is the first place many reporters went. So we have headlines and articles replete with “domestic gods”, “domestic divas”, “domestic chores”, “new men” (“new Neandertals”) and even metrosexuality (?!). To be honest, I am really not sure the notion of “domestic” had that much meaning to Neandertals.

This is from Field and Stream (ok, no surprise there).
Now, as it turns out, scientists also believe Neanderthals were pretty good domestic divas, and they've got the huge right arms to prove it. 
So there you have it: Neanderthal men got so buff and manly not by running wild and free across the plains hunting with their Neanderthal buddies, but by staying home and helping out the wife with domestic duties. Some things never change. 

This is the headline from The Telegraph (no surprise there either).
Neanderthals' macho image may be wrong: Neanderthals have traditionally been seen as a race of macho hunters but in reality they spent much of their time carrying out domestic chores, a study has found.   
 From The Independent we have the following: 
Neanderthal man's 'life of domesticity 
Neanderthal man may have preferred domestic chores to a rugged hunter-gatherer lifestyle, researchers have said.
From (oh god) The Daily Mail (no surprise again, but you already knew that) we have the headline:
Neanderthal man 'was a domestic god': Powerful arms came from making clothes, not hunting mammoths
And from the U.K. Metro we get
Neanderthals weren't just hairy brutes - they were domestic gods at home: He has long been portrayed as a grunting, hairy brute who slaughtered mammoths with his bare hands. But the image of the Neanderthal took a battering yesterday when it was shown he was a multi-tasking domestic god.
And last, but certainly not least (mainly because of the illustration of the neandertal and vacuum cleaner...and the metro reference), from The Herald Sun in Melbourne we get:
Neanderthal man was a bit... metro 
AFTER a hard day’s woolly mammoth hunting, Neanderthal man could have been forgiven for putting his feet up by the fire in his cave. But not for long. For, contrary to his brutish image, it appears the hairy hunter was a bit of a whizz on the domestic front.
A Neanderthal new man, in fact. Scientists now believe the Neanderthals spent most of their time carrying out domestic chores. 

Thanks guys.  Good job all around.

I don't have a whole lot to add to this. Hide-scraping is a pretty obscure activity. Nobody scrapes hides today, not really. But somehow the mere mention of the words kicks off a remarkably repetitive set of associations. 

Gifford-Gonsalez, Diane
1995  "The Drudge-on-the-Hide", Archaeology Magazine 48(2):84

Shaw, Colin N., Cory L. Hofmann, Michael D. Petraglia, Jay T. Stock, and Jinger S. Gottschall
2012  "Neandertal Humeri May Reflect Adaptation to Scraping Tasks, but Not Spear Thrusting." PLoS ONE 7(7). July 18

Obligatory Introductory Post

I am an archaeologist, and this blog will mainly be about archaeology. I am going to try and keep it non-technical and topical. It's going to take me a while to figure out exactly what I want to do. Basically this is a place to write what I want, because I want. I get to do plenty of the other kind of writing in my work.

I think that covers it for the moment.