Monday, December 23, 2019

Holiday Cheer for this Time of Year

Seasonal Thoughts for 2019

The Genome Gene-He's Out of the Bottle
We’ve struggled through another year
Most rogue genes still intact:
Since CRISPR’s siege upon them
Is still more wish than fact,
So genomes moan as they still yield
To tireless attack.

Yet if the truth is that we fear,
The mutants' sullen ways,
Thinking that they'll yet elude
The numb'ring of their days,
The posse's full with strong intent
Their evil to way-lay.

When Grey Gives into Grin
I grumbly gaze at grey.
  December drears my day,
And makes me moan for May
  When, pleasèd, I plan play!

Give Santa the Credit He Deserves
Santa gets the credit
For all our Christmas joys,
The stockings filled with candy
For children, Moms, and Dads.

This seems to Santa's credit
And all to do with toys.
But first you must make handy
One of your credit cards!

The Pied Piper of 'Omicsland: a Satire (or is it?)
Once upon a time, long, long ago, there were universities in which a number of original thinkers pondered the nature of the universe, and all that is in it.  They did research to unlock secrets of Nature to gain glimpses never seen before.  They strove for knowledge, pure knowledge, for the satisfaction of understanding, and then to use that understanding to relieve some of the ills of the world around them.  The search for this knowledge was called science, and the searchers scientists. 

Scientists were few, but were highly respected.  They may have looked rather disheveled and ragged, or acted a bit oddly, perhaps dribbling food at the dinner-table; and most of them were not rich or privileged--except for the privilege of being able to probe Nature’s nature.  They were rather disinterested in the material things of the world, because their minds were preoccupied with the quest for understanding and knowledge.

But then things changed.  It became necessary for their jobs--their survival--for them to join the choruses, chanting safe slogans du jour, because they had to sing for their very supper: universities realized they could ‘hire’ them without promising a salary, but only an office--like a storefront--from which they could hustle their daily bread, using the purported prestige of their job titles as leverage.

The Pied Piper leads the mice into oblivion (figure taken from the web)
And so, chanting “Me too!  Me too!” the scientists followed a Piper into the ‘Omical Forest.  Only a scraggly few were ever heard from again.  Reports circulated that they had been unable to get enough grants to keep from being sucked deeper into the forest, while the Piper and a few friends reveled in endless gilded feasts. 

When this mass disappearance of scientists was reported, investigators wanted to find out how such presumably intelligent people could have been lured into the darkness. The idea was to publish an analysis of the reasons, so future scientists would not also be lured away.  The analysis would, of course, have to involve many tables and charts, lists and citations (of work written by anyone who might actually read it or make related funding decisions affecting the authors).  And, of course, this was not just a public service: it would be published as a ‘meta-analysis’ of science, and listed prominently on the authors’ own CVs.

Actually, I have heard that now and again this imitative behavior was pointed out to the scientists, so they could see how after years of training to think originally (that is, to be what the word scientists originally meant) they had been lured away from that path by the need to build up ‘objective’ credits so they could get grants or tenure (to enable them to amass more credits).  Whether this explanation could, if it were understood, have corrected or even prevented their behavior isn’t clear, and the odds don’t seem to be very good…..

In any case, one day along came a Proper Piper.  “Let’s stop just feeding our own career-kitty, and think about those who are providing the feed!”  Huh?  They looked at each other in wonder:  “If we did this, we might help people in need, rather than spending so much effort on what we need (or, at least, want)!"  And a small number of these scientists, mainly who were young and still had unsullied minds, dared try to reform the system in this way.  They came to be called Thinkers, an odd cult, one might say.  

Now, whether or not it's true, rumor has it that a few Thinkers did, in fact, separate from the herd.  Unfortunately, I can’t tell you who or where they are, because they remain hidden, knowing that by defying the prevailing System, they would not be well-tolerated.  Posses of Deans, Chairs, and other administrators, journalists, PR-spinners and bureaucrats hunt these Thinkers, their collective enemies, down wherever they can be found.

Meanwhile, as a substitute source of income, the universities admitted far more students than will be able to get jobs, but could ably serve as an additional source of revenue (or, as serfs, to do the lab work that the professors are too busy hustling more grants to do themselves).  This generates what I think Marx and Engels viewed as the exploited army of the unemployed.  I've heard that 'Omicsland is heavily populated with these societal discards.

Of course, all tales of this sort may be fanciful, but there's nothing fancy about them if they're true.  So, if they dared, someone should investigate!

I’m not averse to Christmas
I’m not averse to Christmas
The yearly winter's bash
I only wish that this was
Not mainly about cash!

The world needs an oasis
Away from anger’s clash
But mostly Santa’s gift is
A time when prices slash!!

So I pen a verse to Christmas:
To bird and taters mashed
To cheer and loving wishes--
And shopping frenzies passed!

Sunday, December 22, 2019

On re-reading old books, continued.....

On December 15th, I waxed nostalgic about reading old text or other academic books.  We're moving soon, downsizing as Father Time and retirement dictate.  The most painful aspect of that process is purging our once-swollen bookshelves.  Realistically, most books that we've read, academic or fiction etc., wouldn't have been read again.  They have, nonetheless, served as a kind of esthetic 'wallpaper', something upon which to gaze comfortingly each day.  Many were read not just years, but decades ago.  Dusty they may be on the shelf, and in our memories, but they serve a purpose like nothing else can do.  Perhaps you have a similar feelings about the books on your shelves, as you may about the paintings on your walls.

Anyway, from time to time, I pull one of these venerable books from the shelf, blow off the dust, and read it again.  It's part curiosity, part nostalgia, and part the reality that if I read it years ago I hardly remember what was in it.  That, by the way, is a great benefit of having an imperfect memory: You can go back again!  Indeed, I pity those with long-enduring and detailed memories in this respect, because for me most re-reading is either totally, or mainly, new.  Even hefty tomes like War and PieceAnna Karenina or Origin of Species, which I've read and re-read, seem largely new and fresh each time.  A gift of amnesia, one might say!

To me one aspect of reading, especially for non-fiction, is to muse about the authors' lives.  They may no longer be with us, but their memories live on as fresh as ever, when one reads their work. The experiences, though factually long past, exist anew, having been safely preserved between the covers.  Even the inner life of the author, especially in narrative non-fiction, comes alive again.  And, oddly, or spookily, this is so even if both the authors, and all those about whom they write, are in reality no more.  Of course, in this context one must think of his or her own temporary state.....  If what we write--tomes, emails, letters (or blog posts!)--still exists, will the authors--will we--come alive for others?

Fresh and young.....
In this context, I wrote the other day about re-reading an anthropological theory book by Leslie White, an inspirational professor from my graduate school days.  Since that post, and because we're downsizing, I have re-browsed another book that I was ready to purge: The Savage and the Innocent, by David Maybury-Lewis, published in 1965--now about 55 years ago! 
This very readable ethnography is a compelling description of adventures he and his wife Pia had when studying and living with remote Brazilian natives called the Shavante.

I have never done fieldwork in a remote site like the Brazilian rainforest, so narratives of such experience have been very compelling as a substitute.  Indeed, sometime around 1980 I met the author, who was then Chair of Anthropology at Harvard, where I had other friends there and had gone from my then-location in Houston, to give a talk about my work on the demography of 'anthropological' populations, including ones like the Shavante.  For painful personal reasons, it was a difficult day for Maybury-Lewis, so I only got a quick 'hello' from him.  But the idea of putting a face to the author of this most-readable book, was for me a notable privilege.

Upon re-reading his book after several decades, as I noted above, I find it 'transporting', taking me (again) to places the likes of which I have almost never actually seen, much less lived in.  The author, and I'm sure all the people in the village he visited, exist no more.  Oddly, or amazingly, they can't experience themselves as they were then, but I can!  In some magical way, figuratively speaking, reading his book it is like rehydrating a preserved museum specimen and giving it new life.  Of course, the fact that the author and his study subjects can take on a new life in my mind, presumably doesn't mean they can take on, or re-experience, their lives, though this is something to ponder.

The magic is no different, in this kind of case, than for fictional characters like Anna Karenina herself, or Ebenezer Scrooge--or even Scrooge McDuck for that matter.  That is, in a sense, most strange and wonderful.  Life's physical limits do not place limits on the life one can, in a real sense, experience.  Let us revel in that mysterious ability!

So, I hope we all get a book for Christmas--and if nobody gives you one, well, the next day sneak out and go to Barnes & Noble.....

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Are there 'laws' of social science. . . . . or is this just science-envy?

Many in the social sciences try to formulate all sorts of 'laws' of society, culture, and the like.  For decades, social sciences (including much of anthropology) have tried to make generalizations, implicitly or otherwise, of this sort.  My old graduate school professor, Leslie White, a terrifically thoughtful and interesting scholar, tried mightily to liken culture and its change ('evolution') to a force for the use and dispersion of energy--in a way, to make it a branch of chemistry or physics.  Sure, humans are made of chemicals and must follow laws of physics, energy, and so on.  But I think it didn't catch on or get us anywhere, certainly not as more than a vague generalization, after the fact. But White, as did other anthropologists, characterized a hierarchy, a kind of inevitable parade, of world cultures--from hunter-gatherers, to early agriculturalists, on to nation-states.

The burden, or scourge, of science envy?
Sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists and others have tried their damnedest to 'legalize' their field, to make it respectably precise, quantitative, and law-like.  That is, having the kind of bedrock basis, a set of universal dynamic premises, as are found in physics or chemistry--or even biology.

Ever since I was a graduate student in anthropology (but coming from a math and science background), I have thought that this was a kind of pretense, a bad case of physics-envy.  In the decades since then, I  have seen this take various forms and technophilifications.  Simple descriptions and informal attempts at generalization about world cultures, as in the above sort of hierarchy, have seemed to me forced.

There are those who, under various terms like post-modernism, argue against this sort of thing, often noting that what is written is, or perhaps necessarily is to be understood in the eye and careerism of the writer.  Their idea has been something akin to suggesting that we should accept the difference and not try to force things, indeed, instead to read social 'science' (or, for some, any science) as a social structure, to 'deconstruct' the explanations and behavior of scientists to show what they are really up to, vis-à-vis what they say they are doing.  They are not like physics and chemistry, and should learn to live with that fact!

Well, a riposte by social science can include assertions that people are, after all, physical beings and that their cultures are their ways of living in the physical as well as social world, the latter of course also being 'physical' and therefore there must be some regularities, limits, or 'laws' of social life.

So are there, or must there be, rules, constraints, causes, or regularities, ineluctable truths that are formal enough to be called 'laws' when it comes to behaviors, societies, and cultures?  Maybe it is just not as mature as the classical 'hard' sciences.  How can we know the answer--what kind of evidence could we bring to bear?  Or should social science professors' careers and activities be judged in different terms?

If social-science fields don't have legitimate analogs to the laws of the physical sciences, then what are the causes of the societal regularities that we observe, from language to courtesies and so on, that clearly lubricate human life if not, indeed, being fundamental to it?  Can they have no 'cause'?   Can the 'causes' be unique to each circumstance--and if so, is that in itself a 'law', and if so,  how does the law work or get enforced?

These are not new questions.  For the past two or more centuries (or, maybe, going back at least to Plato and Aristotle et al.) these sorts of questions have been asked.  Surely life, of individuals and above all of societies, in humans and other species, has orderly patterns!  Do these not reflect 'causes' of some sort?  If so, are they in some way 'universal' in their nature even if locally ad hoc in their results?

Can there be a real 'science' of society?  This has nothing to do with whether there should be departments with such names in universities!  Human society is, after all, built on layers of pretense.  But if no such science is possible, how is it that societies, chaotic in many ways, do have regularities!  These include social and family relations, property rules, boundaries, governments, status and wealth stratification, wars, borders and on and on.  Every society has at least some form of these attributes.

If social sciences are not really 'sciences' in the sense of physics and chemistry, which are based on rather simple universals, then what are they based on?

The questions are not new. They were written about by the ancients.  But I think that, other than various kinds of bureaucratic aspects of academic life, the questions are still largely unanswered.  Perhaps they are not yet well-posed questions--perhaps social and cultural causation needs some other kind of approach than imitation of physics.  But if that.....what?

Sunday, December 15, 2019

On reading old academic books. . . . .

In some academic areas, knowledge changes fast enough that a textbook or monograph can become obsolete in only a few years.  Can one trust, say, a 10-year-old chemistry or physics text?  If it is for a freshman class, perhaps.  For senior majors?  Maybe mostly, but perhaps even by then such students, and perhaps graduate students even more so, need something that reflects new knowledge or discovery.  Maybe historians read them, but in the context of history, not the book's subject itself.

What about, say, books for English majors, such as ones of or about Shakespeare plays, or Victorian poets?  And what about a subject like anthropology?  Do these books really become obsolete?  What would that even mean in such cases?

I have been re-reading one of the books I used as a graduate student, in the 1970s, written by a professor of mine, an ethnologist named Leslie White.  He was a leader in the cultural anthropology of his mid-20th century time.  But does anybody read his book today, except perhaps as an historian of anthropology itself?  I rather doubt it.  But why?

For some sciences, old books, even old text books, may no longer be trustworthy.  I have no idea how much, say, physics, chemistry or even biology undergraduate texts really need revision as often as they get it. But I do dare to assert that much of the publishing that takes place is about careerism and supplementary income for professors and profiteering by publishers.  It is part of the system that we have allowed to develop over at least the past century.

How truly obsolete are older books in the social sciences or other similar fields?  In this instance, White's The Science of Culture was published in 1949!  It was already about 20 years old when I was a graduate student in his class.  Inspiring as it was then and still seems upon re-reading, I wonder whether anthropology has made sufficient discoveries, if that is even a relevant term for such a field, to obsolesce his book and force students to read (that is, to buy) new books? 

Of course, there will be new data here and there, some new ideas about how things are, and perhaps a survey course of (in this case) cultural anthropology should include populations studied more recently, and (perhaps) new 'theories' of culture.  Descriptions of current populations, like native Americans, may require new books, though they supplement but don't obsolesce older ones. One can question how much of the theorizing in fields like this is mainly careerism by faculty members needing to get tenure, promotion, and pay raises.  Is mentioning such mundane matters fair, or too cynical?  I think it is more than fair, indeed, central to what happens in academe, especially in 'softer' fields like cultural anthropology.  I think in many ways it is the name of the game today.

But I find White's book, to take this as but one example, to be relevant beyond just being a reflection of the history of ethnological thought.  The concepts discussed, too much to go into in this brief blog post, seem totally relevant and intellectually interesting today.  It is ideas about how things are, as viewed not just by us but by peoples living in very different cultures from ours.  It is not just a descriptive history nor list of what things were seen in this or that study.  It is not 'obsolete', even if I bet that it is not read by anyone except (perhaps) the odd historian here or there.

Maybe this is more about anthropologists (one might say the ethnography of anthropology) than anthropology as a subject, and maybe that view is far more widely applicable a way of understanding than most professors in the game would like to admit....