I’m teaching my son to think like a scientist. He is two years old. We frequently go for walks together through the woods and along the coastlines of British Columbia where I allow his curiosity to run free. His current research project is throwing rocks into the ocean (this is just the exploratory phase mind [...]... Read more »
Michael Elazar. (2011) Projectile Motion and the Rejection of Superposition. Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, 169-187. info:/10.1007/978-94-007-1605-6_16
Trench fever seems to be all the rage these days in paleomicrobiology. It seems as though every time Bartonella quintana is added to a panel of pathogens for aDNA screening its found at some level. So far its been found in in a tooth from 4000 before present, in late medieval Venice, 14th century France, [...]... Read more »
Grumbkow, P., Zipp, A., Seidenberg, V., Fehren-Schmitz, L., Kempf, V., Groß, U., & Hummel, S. (2011) Brief communication: Evidence of Bartonella quintana infections in skeletons of a historical mass grave in Kassel, Germany. American Journal of Physical Anthropology. DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.21551
Happy Fourth of July, everyone. The Fourth is actually a pretty important date for the study of Chaco, but in a roundabout (and somewhat controversial) way. It all has to do with a very famous pictograph panel below Peñasco Blanco at the west end of the canyon. While the interpretation of this panel is a [...]... Read more »
Down in Selma, Alabama, a large, robust skeleton nicknamed Mortimer sits on a barrel in Grumbles Alley restaurant. His origin is unclear. Local legend has it that Mortimer was dug up a century ago by a farmer, who bartered the skeleton to the town doctor for medical services. The skeleton is notable because of his stature - Mortimer may have been a 7-foot-tall Indian, according to stories told to a former restaurant worker. Or perhaps he was Montgomery pediatrician John Sumner's great-great-great-grandfather, John Ellis Sumner, a minister who was rumored to have stood at 6'6" and died in Selma in 1856. Sumner was supposedly exhumed and studied because of his extraordinary height, and the family doesn't know what happened to his body.
Mortimer made news over the last couple of weeks because a nurse named JoEllen Roberson travelled to Selma from her home in Columbia, South Carolina, to study the skeleton:
Mortimer, sitting in his usual
spot at Grumbles Alley
(credit: AP photo)
From the video and a photo of the skeleton (right), the skull has all the hallmarks of a male individual: very large mastoid processes, mental eminence, heavy brows, square orbits. There aren't very good pictures of the pelvis, unfortunately, but overall this individual is quite robust and very likely to have been male. Based on what I can see of the nose, this person may have been Caucasian. There's a high, straight nasal bridge and a tear-drop-shaped opening. Still, the cheekbones give me pause, as they're quite high and flared. From the pictures and the low-quality video, I can't rule out Native American.
There's no detail in the video or the news reports on how Roberson "analyzed" the skeleton. It appears that she used a measuring tape and a straight edge(!) to estimate Mortimer's living height. But she didn't use any of the formulas we osteologists use to approximate living stature. Roberson admits that Mortimer may have been taller with flesh on him but for some reason only estimates 1/2" extra (where she got that figure, I have no idea). She doesn't appear to have tried to figure out sex, age-at-death, or age of the skeleton. However, she did take (break?) a toe bone in order to find someone to do a DNA analysis for her, but this hasn't yet been done. My guess is she thought a DNA test would be inexpensive (as it is for living people), but if this bone is from someone who died over 100 years ago and was treated as a medical skeleton (the bones look shellacked or something), DNA may be quite difficult to isolate.
The weirdest part of this story to me is that Roberson sent her measurements (which are not in any way precise, since she didn't use calipers or other osteological equipment) to the Centre for Fortean Zoology, which had apparently expressed an interest in the skeleton of the "giant." The CFZ's trade is primarily in cryptozoology - you know, chupacabras and yetis. I can't imagine these people do actual science, although I can imagine they'd be interested in a skeleton with greater-than-average height. I tried to find an email for Roberson, so that I could ask her for her measurements, but I could only find her business phone number. Maybe I'll call after the holiday, since I'm curious how and what she measured.
At any rate, I'm not sure why Roberson or the owners of Grumbles Alley didn't call a local biological anthropologist - Keith Jacobi at the University of Alabama, perhaps? I'm going to bug my colleagues who work in Alabama and see if someone is interested in checking out the skeleton. Or maybe I'll take a nice little road-trip when I move to Nashville, since Selma is only about 5 hours away. If this skeleton is of a Native American, there are several provisions of NAGPRA that will need to be legally met. If this is a medical (study) skeleton, it's probably legal for Grumbles Alley to own, but it's rather in poor taste to display it and dress it up for holidays and other events.
Mortimer is not the first skeleton to be handed down over the decades, but he would provide some enterprising graduate student or professor with an opportunity to do a case-study to discriminate among forensic, historic, and ancient contexts. A great place to start is Dawnie Steadman's article "The Pawn Shop Mummified Head" in her edited volume Hard Evidence: Case Studies in Forensic Anthropology. It's a great read - students in my forensic anthropology course liked it - and useful for those of us who normally work in one context (I work in "ancient," for example) but are called upon to look at skeletons from the other two contexts.
Finding old skeletons with unknown or unclear provenance is not unusual, particularly as doctors trained in a bygone era pass along the skulls they were required to purchase in med school to their children and grandchildren along with the rest of their estate. It would be great if there were a way the public could alert a local biological anthropologist of the human remains in their possession. Perhaps an enterprising graduate student could set up some kind of clearinghouse of information (particularly on the legality of owning human skeletal remains) and/or a list of biological anthropologists interested in these isolated cases. A website to this effect would be quite useful for people who are unsure what to do with human bones. Or perhaps people should just contact the police, no matter the seeming antiquity of the bones? I'd be interested to hear what my readers think the best course of action is.
... Read more »
D.W. Steadman. (2003) The pawn shop mummified head: discriminating among forensic, historic, and ancient contexts. Hard Evidence: Case Studies in Forensic Anthropology, 212-226. info:/
Strange things are afoot at Catalhoyuk (7400-5600 BCE), one of the earliest and most important Neolithic (i.e., sedentary and agricultural) sites known to archaeology. As I noted in Bones, Burials and Ancestors, mortuary practices at Catalhoyuk were unusual and often involved secondary burial in the floors of homes.
The assumption has always been that these were [...]... Read more »
Pilloud, Marin A., & Larsen, Clark Spencer. (2011) “Official” and “practical” kin: Inferring social and community structure from dental phenotype at Neolithic Çatalhöyük, Turkey. American Journal of Physical Anthropology. info:/10.1002/ajpa.21520
In 2006, University of Oslo archaeologist Sheila Coulson gave an open lecture about her work at a small cave in the Tsodilo Hills of northern Botswana. Although her lecture focused on Middle Stone Age tools recovered from the cave and an unusual rock formation that looked to her like a snake or python, she also [...]... Read more »
Robbins, Lawrence, Campbell, Alec, Brook, George, & Murphy, Michael. (2007) World’s Oldest Ritual Site? The “Python Cave” at Tsodilo Hills World Heritage Site, Botswana. Nyame Akuma, 67(June), 2-6. info:/
This is part 2 of my review of Guy Deutscher's new book Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages. This covers The Language Lens (129-249). Part 1 is here. This review will cover the scientific evidence that Deutscher reviews suggesting that language affects thought, and will end with a shocking proposal.To sum up my review of part one: meh. Okay, we've established that culture can influence language. This is a lot less controversial than Deutscher makes it seem and he spent a large amount of text defending that position. Okay, whatever, time to move on. In part 2 he again begins with historical review explaining why he thinks Whorf was a con man, but also why he thinks the core insights of early linguist relativity deserve closer, honest investigation. He complains that based his Hopi claims on just one lonely informant (p142). We'll see later that Deutscher himself falls for the same trap. He replaces Whorf with the Boas-Jakobson principle that languages differ in what they must convey, not what they may convey” (151). I respect Deutscher for making this a central theme in his book because I think he's right. To parrot his own recitation of Humbolt: any thought can be expressed in any language. It is what our native language forces us to foreground that makes linguistic relativity an interesting topic.Deutscher spends most of the second part of the book reviewing three areas of language that have provided evidence that language affects thought: spatial coordinates, grammatical gender, and color terms (familiar from part 1). The general point I want to make about his evidence is that it is far weaker than he maintains. But is is interesting. A brief set of reactions:Spatial Coordinates -- everything is embodiedMost of his argumentation about the affect of spacial coordinate terms on thought stems from Levinson's evidence from speakers of the Australian language Guugu Yimithirr which is famous for giving us the word “kangaroo.” Speakers of GY do not generally use ego-centric terms like "right" and "left" but rather use cardinal direction terms like "east" and "west." As a result, Deutscher claims, they remember information about situations differently than speakers of English. They have, so the argument goes, a perfect pitch for direction and they are always attuned to where north is. Deutscher's claim is that only the linguistic repetition of such terms can possibly account for this. Hence, their language affects what they pay attention to and what they remember, hence language affects thought.I've never found this line of research all that convincing regarding linguistic relativity and Deutscher does not really add much to the debate. Like Deutscher's complaint above regarding Whorf's one lonely Hopi speaker, it turns out there are not many native speakers of Guugu Yimithirr left and haven't been for a while. These experiments on directional language involve very few speakers, and most of them have both cardinal direction and ego-centric direction in their dialect. If we're going to complain about Whorf's restricted subject pool, we must complain about Levinson's too.But more to the point, I believe all direction terms are ultimately ego-centric insofar as they are embodied. The terms "north" and "south" are not magically universal. They are based on a human being's body and orientation (i.e., ego-centric). Don't believe me, ask yourself, what does "north" mean in space? What does "north" mean to an amoeba? Mostly what Deutscher does in his discussions of direction terms is reiterate the point he belabored in Part 1: culture affects language. Yeah, we got that already.The rise of similarity judgmentsThat is until he discusses the table experiments. These experiments show subjects tables with objects on them and ask them to arrange them in accordance with a target. Basically, they ask for similarity judgement. How can you make this table arrangement similar to the previous table. This methodological paradigm has become prominent in psycholinguistics and cognitive linguistics, especially studies testing linguistic relativity. In fact, all of the studies Deutscher discusses are similarity judgment studies of one sort or another. The point is that I show you one target thing, then two test things and ask, which test is MORE SIMILAR to the target than the other? Ultimately Deutscher himself problematizes spatial coordinate terms so much, they fall flat and remain unconvincing as a base of evidence for linguistic relativity.Grammatical GenderMost languages have terms for classifying things. Some languages have more elaborate classifier systems than others. In German, the term for the fork is die Gabel, marked by feminine die. Ultimately, most languages with elaborate classifiers have systems that can be described as incoherent in so far as most things given one classification have no inherent properties that signify that classification (there is nothing inherently feminine about a fork). However, Deutscher provides evidence that speakers of languages with grammatical gender will evoke properties of things in keeping with their gender classifier, suggesting that the classifier is causing them to imagine a fork would speak with a female voice, for example. But these experiments mainly test vague associations of imagination, not linguistic causality, as Deutscher admits.Color TermsIt is not until chapter 9 Russian Blues that Deutscher really delivers the goods. It is this chapter which provides the most interesting evidence for the effect of language on thought. Pity it is only about 15 pages of the book. The whole book should have been more like this. The facts he discusses involve the basic point that the brain sees what it wants to see. It turns out our perception of color has little to do with any objective feature of the thing we're looking at (he explains this fact brilliantly in the Appendix which I highly recommend, and frankly, should have been the first chapter, not relegated to the attic of an appendix). The point is that our brains change the input. As our eyes take in objective photons, our brain photoshops the input (a great analogy from Deutscher which really brings the point home).The experimental results Deutscher discusses involve more similarity judgements, albeit with a twist. Instead of relying solely on the similarity judgments, researchers studied the more objective reaction time. They showed people different color patches and asked them to judge the sameness. Despite the various and clever variations on this theme, they all relied on subjective judgements of similarity. And this is where they fail to extricate themselves from the problem of strategizing.Unfortunately they all share the critical flaw that making a similarity judgment is a logical reason act and may be mitigated by strategizing. Deutscher discusses this fact, but doesn't realize that none of the fixes work. A similarity judgment is always a logical process susceptible to the effects of strategizing. This will be a major issue in my Shocking Proposal at the end. You see, regardless of how clever the test, as long as you are basically asking a subject to make a similarity judgment, you are asking them to reason about the task. So your results will be tinged by the strategizing of human subjects as they logically try to game the system. This is well known in psycholinguistics and difficult to avoid. So how do you objectively test what colors a person considers blue?A Shocking ProposalThe paradigm already exists. How can you objectively prove that English speakers really do consider aspirated /kh/ and unaspirated /k/ both the same phoneme? You condition them to fear aspirated /kh/ by shocking them every time they hear it (measuring their galvanic skin response). Once they are conditioned, you then play them unaspirated /k/ (with no shock) and check to see if you get the same GSR spike (in anticipation).Okay, now apply this to color terms. Condition subjects to fear center of the category blue, then show them gradations. What causes the GSR spike? That's what they consider blue. now do that with speakers of 40 different languages.If the hippies on the human subjects review board let you do it, there's your dissertation.... Read more »
Guy deutscher. (2010) Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages. Metropolitan Books. info:/
This will be the first in a series of posts looking at the technical and practical aspects of studying ancient pathogens, or paleomicrobiology. First let’s look at why its worth spending time, money and a lot of creativity on old germs. There are many reasons why directly studying ancient microbes is worthwhile. From a historical [...]... Read more »
Drancourt, M., & Raoult, D. (2005) Palaeomicrobiology: current issues and perspectives. Nature Reviews Microbiology, 3(1), 23-35. DOI: 10.1038/nrmicro1063
Furuse Y, Suzuki A, & Oshitani H. (2010) Origin of measles virus: divergence from rinderpest virus between the 11th and 12th centuries. Virology journal, 52. PMID: 20202190
Nelson, M., Dinardo, A., Hochberg, J., & Armelagos, G. (2010) Brief communication: Mass spectroscopic characterization of tetracycline in the skeletal remains of an ancient population from Sudanese Nubia 350-550 CE. American Journal of Physical Anthropology. DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.21340
The Basketmaker III period (ca. AD 500 to 750) is a very important time for understanding the prehistoric Southwest. Maize agriculture had been introduced earlier, although exactly how early is still a matter of debate, and it was definitely well-established by the immediately preceding Basketmaker II period, but Basketmaker III saw the introduction of beans, [...]... Read more »
Wills, W., & Windes, T. (1989) Evidence for Population Aggregation and Dispersal during the Basketmaker III Period in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. American Antiquity, 54(2), 347. DOI: 10.2307/281711
An amusing semi-anthropological study was published in JAMA by Ludwig and Levine in 1965. It was based on extensive interviews with 27 "postnarcotic drug addict inpatients" who were treated at a hospital in Lexington, Kentucky. The specific drugs of interest included peyote (from the peyotl cactus plant), mescaline, LSD, and psilocybin. The current availability of each drug, most popular methods of intake, slang terms, psychoactive properties, and subcultural norms were discussed. Hallucinogens were sometimes combined with narcotics, barbituates, amphetamines, or marijuana, depending on the specific demographic group. Basically, there were the junkies, the potheads, and the psychonauts:There appear to be three main patterns of hallucinogenic drug use. First, there are the people who are primarily and preferentially narcotic drug addicts who have used the hallucinogenic agents on one or several occasions mainly for "kicks" or "curiosity." They seldom seek these drugs and tend to use them infrequently, as for example when these agents come their way through a friend or at a party. Rarely do they take the hallucinogenic agent alone but tend to take it after a "fix" with heroin, hydromorphone hydrochloride, morphine, or some other narcotic drug to which they are addicted at the time.The next group sounds like your everyday 1960s hippie stereotype:Second, there are the group of people, aptly described by one of the informants as the "professional potheads," who have had extensive experience with various drugs. The most commonly used drug by this group of people is marijuana (hence the name "potheads"), but amphetamines and barbiturates are also popular. Many have had some experience with the narcotic drugs, but on the whole they tend to avoid the opiates. "Creative" and "arty" people, such as struggling actors, musicians, artists, writers, as well as the Greenwich Village type of "beatnik," tend to fall in this category. The "frustrated," "curious," "free thinkers," "nonconformists," and "young rebels," who are seeking a temporary escape also comprise this class of hallucinogenic users, according to our informants. Although the "professional potheads" enjoy the euphoric effects produced by smoking marijuana, they also tend to relish and seek out the feelings of greater insight, inspiration, and sensory stimulation and distortions which the hallucinogens may produce. They are in constant search of agents to rouse them from their apathy, to make life more meaningful, to overcome social inhibitions, and to facilitate meaningful conversations and interpersonal relationships.Especially enjoyable was the description of the drug parties frequented by these types:Hallucinogenic agents are used by these people mainly on weekends (often "four-day weekends") or on special occasions, such as parties. It is rare for users to take drugs alone. They are mainly taken with friends or at intimate gatherings of people. The parties are of all varieties. Frequently, little conversation takes place while people are under the influence of these drugs, but they claim to experience a greater closeness and rapport with the other members of the group. One patient described having attended "basket weaving" and "lampshade making" parties where all members, under the influence of these drugs, squatted on the floor and silently attended to their tasks. At another type of party, overt sexual activities were carried out. Folk singing was also common. To quote another patient, "Mostly the people sit around trying to dig each other . . . everybody is sitting around and waiting, like on New Year's Eve, for something to happen."Finally were a small number of hard core exclusive users of hallucinogens in search of an expanded consciousness, whether it be religious, spiritual, or cosmic:Third, there are a small number of people who take the hallucinogenic agents repeatedly over a sustained period of time to the exclusion of all other drugs. The frequency of drug use during these periods of time is variable. One patient took peyote four times a day over a two-year period, while another patient took it two out of every three days over a three-month period. One patient took mescaline every day for two separate 15-day periods, while another took mescaline every two to three days over a six-month period...Generally, these patients seemed different from those in the second group, who primarily smoke marijuana. They did not take these drugs in a group for social purposes but used them mainly as a means of attaining some personal, esoteric goal. One patient talked of having achieved an increased sensitivity to nature and a greater insight into himself after prolonged peyote usage. While living by himself on Big Sur in California, he claimed to have achieved a "Christ-like state of mind" and a greater feeling of altruism. Another patient stated that as he kept taking mescaline, he was able to control his experience and attained a state of mind in which "every little thing is projected large," where he was able to see the negative and positive aspects of everything, and where "everything is real." A third patient, of Mexican extraction, kept taking peyote to "find God."In the last several months, there have been a spate of articles on the return of psychedelics for psychotherapeutic purposes. Maia Szalavitz has covered some of the most recent developments: 'Magic Mushrooms' Can Improve Psychological Health Long Term and A Mystery Partly Solved: How the 'Club Drug' Ketamine Lifts Depression So Quickly.Last year, a Neurocritic post (Ketamine for Depression: Yay or Neigh?) was part of a Nature Blog Focus on hallucinogenic drugs in medicine and mental health, inspired by the Nature Reviews Neuroscience paper, The neurobiology of psychedelic drugs: implications for the treatment of mood disorders, by Franz Vollenweider & Michael Kometer. For more information on this Blog Focus, see the Table of Contents.The secret history of psychedelic psychiatry was discussed over at Neurophilosophy. Neuroskeptic covered ... Read more »
The “Chacoan era” is a period of about 100 years in the eleventh and early twelfth centuries AD during which Chaco Canyon was at the center of some sort of system that covered a large portion of the northern Southwest. The exact nature and exact extent of that system are endlessly debated, but the period [...]... Read more »
Windes, T., & Ford, D. (1996) The Chaco Wood Project: The Chronometric Reappraisal of Pueblo Bonito. American Antiquity, 61(2), 295. DOI: 10.2307/282427
At some point in your teenage years, you probably kept a compass and straightedge in your backpack, learned the ways to prove two triangles are congruent, and knew what a secant was. It all had a taste of the classical about it: Euclid, Archimedes and Pythagoras had figured everything out and passed it down to us. But geometry may be more democratic than it seems. As a group of native Amazonians showed, you don't need to go to school to explain Euclid.French researcher Veronique Izard and her colleagues wanted to know if an understanding of Euclidean geometry is intuitive. It makes sense for humans and other animals to have a basic sense of shapes and distances, so we can find reachable fruits and flee approaching predators. But our eyes often deceive us. So do children, or remote tribespeople, instinctively understand that two parallel lines never cross? Or how many points define a line?The researchers traveled to the Amazon and recruited children (ages 7 to 13) and adults from a group called the Mundurucu. They had no education in geometry, and their language doesn't include any words to describe concepts such as parallel lines or right angles. But the Mundurucu face challenging navigational tasks every day, just moving around their environment. The researchers quizzed them on basic Euclidean tenets.Instead of points and lines, researchers described villages and straight paths. They asked two sets of questions, one concerning the geometry of a plane (described as a flat world that extends forever) and the other about a sphere (a "very round world"). For a visual aid, they used either a tabletop or a half a calabash.Participants were also shown two corners of a triangle and asked to demonstrate, with their hands, what the missing corner would look like and where it would be.The Mundurucu did great on their geometry quiz. The children performed just as well as the adults, and overall the Mundurucu did almost as well as American adults and French children that took the same quiz. All groups did better on questions about a flat plane than questions about the surface of a sphere, maybe because the former is more similar to what we observe in our daily lives.To find out whether this kind of knowledge is truly innate, or something that develops over time, the researchers repeated the quiz with American kids just 5 and 6 years old. The kids did OK, but not as well as older children or adults. They especially had difficulty completing the triangles.The results suggest that we're not born with an understanding of geometry. Rather, we learn as we grow how angles and lines work in the world. It would be interesting to see how another untrained group, one with less navigational experience than the Mundurucu, would handle the same questions. If a person grows up in a static and unchallenging environment, does he or she have a less intuitive grasp of distances and perspectives? Might the laws of the world be a little more mysterious?Some of the questions the Mundurucu correctly answered had to do with abstract ideas, such as infinitely extending lines. This showed that they weren't just describing basic physical relationships they'd observed, but extending their knowledge of the world to larger mathematical concepts. Euclid may have come up with the terms and the postulates, but the Mundurucu show that anyone at all, using their eyes and their understanding, could have invented geometry.Izard, V., Pica, P., Spelke, E., & Dehaene, S. (2011). From the Cover: Flexible intuitions of Euclidean geometry in an Amazonian indigene group Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108 (24), 9782-9787 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1016686108... Read more »
Izard, V., Pica, P., Spelke, E., & Dehaene, S. (2011) From the Cover: Flexible intuitions of Euclidean geometry in an Amazonian indigene group. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(24), 9782-9787. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1016686108
A few months ago in a post about the ilium and cannibals, I relayed a quote by Dr. Raymond Dart who was the first to recognize (and name) the hominid genus Australopithecus, back in 1925. I'd also mentioned that he was described [in a reference that escapes me] as "blood-thirsty." This macabre descriptor came to mind again, as I'm reading his (1948) description of the MLD 2 mandible, of a juvenile A. africanus from Makapansgat cave in South Africa (figure is from the paper):"[Individuals represented by MLD2 and another skull fragment] met their death by manually applied violence. The fractures exhibited by the mandible show that the violence, which probably occurred in fatal combat, was a localized crushing impact received by the face slightly to the left of the midline in the incisor region, and administered presumably by a bludgeon... this youth probably met his fate at the hands of a kinsman more expert than himself in the accurate application of directed implements" (p. 393-394)This rather fanciful hypothesis may reflect Dart's alleged bloodlust, and the condition of the fossil likely reflects damage that occurred after death during the sometimes abusive process of fossilization.
ReferenceDart, R. (1948). The adolescent mandible of Australopithecus prometheus American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 6 (4), 391-412 DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.1330060410... Read more »
Dart, R. (1948) The adolescent mandible of Australopithecus prometheus. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 6(4), 391-412. DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.1330060410
“It has long been recognized that any interpretation of prehistoric religious behavior should be based on concrete archaeological evidence. Yet evidence for Paleolithic belief systems is extremely scanty, and that which does exist is usually enigmatic — or as [Mircea] Eliade has expressed it, semantically opaque” (Freeman & Echegaray 1981).
Three lines of evidence are typically [...]... Read more »
Freeman, L., & Echegaray, J. (1981) El Juyo: A 14,000-Year-Old Sanctuary from Northern Spain. History of Religions, 21(1), 1. DOI: 10.1086/462884
Photo credit here.
Readers may find that the title for this post triggers a certain refrain by Chicago (or BoysIIMen, depending on how old you are). Apologies in advance to those of you who may find yourself humming the chorus on your drive home or while walking through the halls of your workplace or campus. Or while grocery shopping. Or brushing your teeth. (The power of suggestion is a curious thing.) Of course, you may question how sorry I really am considering that I made a conscious decision to use this particular title for the post. And depending on how annoyed you become at the persistence of this suggestion, or how annoying you find Chicago, you may not easily forgive this seemingly small transgression.
But I imagine you come here, Reader, because we are friends in a strange, disembodied way. And I would hope you would be able to overlook any resulting disturbance to our relationship—eventually. Reconciliation—“the settlement of conflicts or inconsistencies and the restoration of peaceful or amicable relations”—as a means of managing social predicaments in a widespread practice (1). Reconciliation has been crafted into finely tuned rituals that help shape and maintain relationships. It has been institutionalized and sanctioned as a form of mediation. But saying “I’m sorry” seems to be an easier process for some, requiring the use of other non-verbal signs dependent on the right circumstances for others. Are all apologies the same? How do we judge the authenticity of reconciliatory actions? And why do we even need to bother?
Social groups come in all shapes and sizes, but
members need to get along. © Disney
You’ve Got a Friend in Me
Reconciliation has been documented in many of our nonhuman primate cousins, where it primarily takes the form of soft grunting and grooming. For example, a female baboon who has attacked a lower ranking female may approach her victim and grunt softly to show that the aggressive episode has ended (2). While it is difficult to trace the development of reconciliatory actions through the evolution of the primate taxa, research suggests that reconciliatory actions may have evolved from signals used to communicate intent across a range of social situations (3).
It seems to be a necessary element of group life—which, though riddled with benefits (e.g., increased access to resources, protection from predators), is prone to conflict as members compete for resources and contend with personality differences. Those conflicts, in turn, generate stress and tension. Think about your own responses to stress following interpersonal conflict: you may have experienced a burst of adrenaline, found yourself shaking your knee or tapping a finger impatiently on the table, or felt your cheeks flush as your temperature rose. Among female Rhesus macaques, heart rates increase and remain elevated following conflicts, and self-directed behaviors, such as scratching, yawning, and shaking, also increase (4). Stress prepares us to deal with the potential fallout regarding conflict. It’s an adaptive response to crisis situations.
However, social groups rely heavily on cooperative efforts. To reap the benefits of group life, relationships must remain intact—group life would become very difficult if stress persisted unchecked. There are several outcomes that may follow a conflict: the matter may simply be resolved, or it may be that the aggressor persists, or the victim may regroup and launch an aggressive attack in response. Conflict can therefore create anxiety for both the aggressor and the victim. Reconciliatory actions remove ambiguity about what may happen next, telling both parties that it’s okay to resume contact with each other. Reconciliation indicates that the conflict is over.
Thus conflict rarely remains a divisive intragroup factor. In fact, instead of driving group members apart, conflict tends to bring members together as they seek to repair relationships:The evolutionary advantages of reconciliation are obvious for animals that survive through mutual aid: Reconciliation ensures the continuation of cooperation among parties with partially conflicting interests. At the same time, it should be realized that reconciliation was never predicted of even remotely considered by evolutionary theorists … In many social animals, however, both parties stand to lose if escalated fighting damages relationships” (5).
Grooming at the NC State Zoo.
There are two prevalent explanations as to how reconciliation functions to repair disruptions to the social order: relationship-repair and benign-intent. The latter suggests that reconciliation facilitates short-term objectives. Let’s say you’ve argued with a colleague, and then find that you need to obtain meeting notes from this person to complete a deliverable. Reconciliation would allow you access to the resources you need for your agenda. In this model, the relationship is secondary—something to be manipulated to serve an end.
Relationship-repair proposes that reconciliation preserves important social bonds, which ultimately enhances reproductive fitness (everything comes down to sex, it seems). This is the more popular of the two ideas because it lends itself to the cooperative view of social life and the preservation of group cohesion:Animals who are regularly supported in agonistic confrontations, protected from harassment, or allowed to share access to desirable resources are expected to gain short-term benefits that are ultimately translated into fitness gains. Thus, relationships with allies, protectors, and tolerant group members would be particularly valuable (6). And there is evidence to support that this is indeed the case (7): Monkeys tend to reconcile with kin more frequently than with non-kin, even after the higher rate of interaction between these connections are accounted for.
Male chimpanzees will reconcile with members of the band with whom they have formed alliances, particularly when they have worked with those alliances to defend the troop against neighbors.
Female gorillas will reconcile with selective partn... Read more »
de Waal, FB. (2000) Primates--A Natural Heritage of Conflict Resolution. Science (New York, N.Y.), 289(5479), 586-90. PMID: 10915614
Schlenker, B. and Darby, B. (1981) The Use of Apologies in Social Predicaments. Social Psychology Quarterly., 44(3), 271-278. info:/
Silk, J. (2002) The Form and Function of Reconciliation in Primates. Annual Review of Anthropology, 31(1), 21-44. DOI: 10.1146/annurev.anthro.31.032902.101743
A palaeoanthropologist wants to dig up Shakespeare in a bizarre attempt to use his teeth to show he smoked pot. Yeah, not gonna happen.... Read more »
J.F. Thackeray, N.J. van der Merwe, & T.A. van der Merwe. (2001) Chemical analysis of residues from seventeeth-century clay pipes from Stratford-upon-Avon and environs. South African Journal of Science, 19-21. info:/
The holy grail of archaeology is to discover the earliest evidence of symbolic thought in humans. Generally speaking, symbolism means that one thing represents or stands for another. In its most basic form, symbolic thought is iconic: an object in the world (e.g., rock) is related to an idea in the mind (e.g., person).
Because this [...]... Read more »
d'Errico, Francesco, & Nowell, April. (2000) A New Look at the Berekhat Ram Figurine: Implications for the Origins of Symbolism. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 123-167. info:/10.1017/S0959774300000056
A fireball erupts as civilians shriek and run for cover. A security officer burns and a gas mask-wearing man dashes through the smoke. Men beat each another with bats and stones. Shots are fired and grenades hurled as a city centre descends into chaos. Is this a scene from a warzone? No – this is … Continue reading »... Read more »
Alesina, A., Di Tella, R., & MacCulloch, R. (2004) Inequality and happiness: are Europeans and Americans different?. Journal of Public Economics, 88(9-10), 2009-2042. DOI: 10.1016/j.jpubeco.2003.07.006
In the spring of 1892, an expedition headed by Warren K. Moorehead traveled through northwestern New Mexico to collect archaeological specimens for the Chicago World’s Fair to be held the next year. Moorehead was a young man from Ohio who had already conducted considerable excavations there that had drawn the attention of Frederic Ward Putnam [...]... Read more »
Moorehead, W. (1908) Ruins at Aztec and on the Rio La Plata, New Mexico. American Anthropologist, 10(2), 255-263. DOI: 10.1525/aa.1908.10.2.02a00080
When it comes to stone tools, archaeologists make a basic distinction between “chipped-stone” and “ground-stone” tools. Chipped-stone tools are generally those that need to be sharp, such as projectile points, knives, scrapers, and drills, and are typically made of hard stone that keeps an edge. Some ground-stone tools, such as axes, are also sharp, but [...]... Read more »
Cameron, C. (2001) Pink Chert, Projectile Points, and the Chacoan Regional System. American Antiquity, 66(1), 79. DOI: 10.2307/2694319
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