Tag Archives: anthropology

Please Don’t Send in the Clowns

google-search-clowns

By some accounts the United States is undergoing an epidemic of (scary) clown sightings. For those who have been following the current election cycle — for what seems like years — this should come as no surprise. After all, a rather huge (or is it “yuuge”) one wants to be President.

That aside, this creepy game [for want of a better word] began in August in South Carolina, and has since spread to New York, New Jersey, Texas, Oregon, Florida and a host of other States.

I think author Stephen King has a lot to answer for.

Humor aside for a moment. A study on the nature of creepiness published in April 2016, ranks clowns as the most creepy occupation followed by taxidermist and sex shop worker; funeral director and taxi drivers rounded out the top 5. Many psychologists and anthropologists will find this result to be unsurprising — clowns, court jesters, jokers and village fools have been creeping out (and entertaining) audiences for thousands of years.

And, then of course, there’s an even more serious clown show going on at the moment, headed by a truly dangerous one — especially if you’re female:

google-search-clown-car-2

From the Guardian:

The first person to spot a clown, the patient zero in the current epidemic of threatening clowns sightings spreading across the US, was a little boy at a low-income apartment complex in Greenville, South Carolina.

He ran to his mother, Donna Arnold, and told her what he had seen: two clowns in the woods, both brightly dressed and made up. One with a red fright wig and the other with a black star painted on his face. They whispered something to the boy.

“They were trying to lure him to the house,” his mother told me, pointing toward the woods.

A path into the woods led down into a shaded hollow, at the bottom of which was a small pond. Beside it sat a house that seemed abandoned. Someone had boarded up the windows, and the balcony sagged. New bags of potting soil sat near the basement door, though. And a modern security system looked recently installed.

After sunset a car approached the house; a gleaming white, new-model Mercedes that looked as out of place as any clown car. The driver stepped out and said she had recently bought the old house as an investment because it sits on five acres in an otherwise densely populated area. “You think it looks bad now, you should have seen it before I came in,” she said.

While we talked she wore an in-ear headset, so it wasn’t always clear whether she was speaking to me or someone on her phone.

No, she didn’t want to give her name, she said.

Yes, she had heard about the clown sightings.

Read the entire story here.

Images courtesy of Google Search.

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The New Morality: Shame Replaces Guilt

I don’t often agree with author and columnist David Brooks, but I think he makes a very important observation regarding the continued evolution of moral relativism. Importantly, he notes that while our collective morality has become increasingly subjective, rather than governed by universal moral principles, it is now being driven more so by shame rather than guilt.

Brooks highlights an insightful essay by Andy Crouch, executive editor of Christianity Today, which lays the blame for the rise in shame versus guilt in some part on our immersion in online social networks. But, as Crouch points out despite our increasingly shame-driven culture (in the West), shame and shaming is not a new phenomenon.

Yet while shame culture has been with us for thousands of years the contemporary version offers a subtle but key difference. In ancient societies — and still mostly in Eastern cultures — avoidance of shame is about dignity and honor; in our Western world the new shame culture it is about pursuit of celebrity within the group.

From NYT:

In 1987, Allan Bloom wrote a book called “The Closing of the American Mind.” The core argument was that American campuses were awash in moral relativism. Subjective personal values had replaced universal moral principles. Nothing was either right or wrong. Amid a wave of rampant nonjudgmentalism, life was flatter and emptier.

Bloom’s thesis was accurate at the time, but it’s not accurate anymore. College campuses are today awash in moral judgment.

Many people carefully guard their words, afraid they might transgress one of the norms that have come into existence. Those accused of incorrect thought face ruinous consequences. When a moral crusade spreads across campus, many students feel compelled to post in support of it on Facebook within minutes. If they do not post, they will be noticed and condemned.

Some sort of moral system is coming into place. Some new criteria now exist, which people use to define correct and incorrect action. The big question is: What is the nature of this new moral system?

Last year, Andy Crouch published an essay in Christianity Today that takes us toward an answer.

Crouch starts with the distinction the anthropologist Ruth Benedict popularized, between a guilt culture and a shame culture. In a guilt culture you know you are good or bad by what your conscience feels. In a shame culture you know you are good or bad by what your community says about you, by whether it honors or excludes you. In a guilt culture people sometimes feel they do bad things; in a shame culture social exclusion makes people feel they are bad.

Crouch argues that the omnipresence of social media has created a new sort of shame culture. The world of Facebook, Instagram and the rest is a world of constant display and observation. The desire to be embraced and praised by the community is intense. People dread being exiled and condemned. Moral life is not built on the continuum of right and wrong; it’s built on the continuum of inclusion and exclusion.

This creates a set of common behavior patterns. First, members of a group lavish one another with praise so that they themselves might be accepted and praised in turn.

Second, there are nonetheless enforcers within the group who build their personal power and reputation by policing the group and condemning those who break the group code. Social media can be vicious to those who don’t fit in. Twitter can erupt in instant ridicule for anyone who stumbles.

Third, people are extremely anxious that their group might be condemned or denigrated. They demand instant respect and recognition for their group. They feel some moral wrong has been perpetrated when their group has been disrespected, and react with the most violent intensity.

Crouch describes how video gamers viciously went after journalists, mostly women, who had criticized the misogyny of their games. Campus controversies get so hot so fast because even a minor slight to a group is perceived as a basic identity threat.

The ultimate sin today, Crouch argues, is to criticize a group, especially on moral grounds. Talk of good and bad has to defer to talk about respect and recognition. Crouch writes, “Talk of right and wrong is troubling when it is accompanied by seeming indifference to the experience of shame that accompanies judgments of ‘immorality.’”

He notes that this shame culture is different from the traditional shame cultures, the ones in Asia, for example. In traditional shame cultures the opposite of shame was honor or “face” — being known as a dignified and upstanding citizen. In the new shame culture, the opposite of shame is celebrity — to be attention-grabbing and aggressively unique on some media platform.

Read the entire column here.

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Bestial or Human?

Following the recent horrendous mass murders in Lebanon and Paris I heard several politicians and commentators describe the atrocities as “bestial“.  So, if you’re somewhat of a pedant link me you’ll know that bestial means “of or like an animal“. This should make you scratch your head because the terror and bloodshed is nowhere close to bestial — it’s thoroughly human.

Only humans have learned to revel and excel in these types of destructive behaviors, and on such a scale. So, next time your hear someone label such an act as bestial please correct them, and hope that one day we’ll all learn to be more bestial.

And, on the subject of the recent atrocities, I couldn’t agree more with the following two articles: the murderers are certainly following a bankrupt ideology, but they’re far from mindless.

From the Guardian:

During Sunday night’s monologue he [John Oliver, Last Week Tonight show on HBO] took advantage of the US cable channel’s relaxed policy on swearing. “After the many necessary and appropriate moments of silence, I’d like to offer you a moment of premium cable profanity … it’s hardly been 48 hours but there are a few things we can say for certain.

“First, as of now, we know this attack was carried out by gigantic fucking arseholes … possibly working with other fucking arseholes, definitely working in service of an ideology of pure arseholery.

“Second, and this goes almost without saying, fuck these arseholes …

“And, third, it is important to remember, nothing about what these arseholes are trying to do is going to work. France is going to endure and I’ll tell you why. If you are in a war of culture and lifestyle with France, good fucking luck. Go ahead, bring your bankrupt ideology. They’ll bring Jean-Paul Sartre, Edith Piaf, fine wine, Gauloise cigarettes, Camus, camembert, madeleines, macarons, and the fucking croquembouche. You just brought a philosophy of rigorous self-abnegation to a pastry fight, my friend.

Read the entire article here and anthropologist Scott Atran’s (University of Michigan) op-ed, here.

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Human Civilization and Weapons Go Hand in Hand

There is great irony in knowing that we humans would not be as civilized were it not for our passion for lethal, projectile weapons.

From the New Scientist:

IT’S about 2 metres long, made of tough spruce wood and carved into a sharp point at one end. The widest part, and hence its centre of gravity, is in the front third, suggesting it was thrown like a javelin. At 400,000 years old, this is the world’s oldest spear. And, according to a provocative theory, on its carved length rests nothing less than the foundation of human civilisation as we know it, including democracy, class divisions and the modern nation state.

At the heart of this theory is a simple idea: the invention of weapons that could kill at a distance meant that power became uncoupled from physical strength. Even the puniest subordinate could now kill an alpha male, with the right weapon and a reasonable aim. Those who wanted power were forced to obtain it by other means – persuasion, cunning, charm – and so began the drive for the cognitive attributes that make us human. “In short, 400,000 years of evolution in the presence of lethal weapons gave rise to Homo sapiens,” says Herbert Gintis, an economist at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico who studies the evolution of social complexity and cooperation.

The puzzle of how humans became civilised has received new impetus from studies of the evolution of social organisation in other primates. These challenge the long-held view that political structure is a purely cultural phenomenon, suggesting that genes play a role too. If they do, the fact that we alone of all the apes have built highly complex societies becomes even more intriguing. Earlier this year, an independent institute called the Ernst Strüngmann Forum assembled a group of scientists in Frankfurt, Germany, to discuss how this complexity came about. Hot debate centred on the possibility that, at pivotal points in history, advances in lethal weapons technology drove human societies to evolve in new directions.

The idea that weapons have catalysed social change came to the fore three decades ago, when British anthropologist James Woodburn spent time with the Hadza hunter-gatherers of Tanzania. Their lifestyle, which has not changed in millennia, is thought to closely resemble that of our Stone Age ancestors, and Woodburn observed that they are fiercely egalitarian. Although the Hadza people include individuals who take a lead in different arenas, no one person has overriding authority. They also have mechanisms for keeping their leaders from growing too powerful – not least, the threat that a bully could be ambushed or killed in his sleep. The hunting weapon, Woodburn suggested, acts as an equaliser.

Some years later, anthropologist Christopher Boehm at the University of Southern California pointed out that the social organisation of our closest primate relative, the chimpanzee, is very different. They live in hierarchical, mixed-sex groups in which the alpha male controls access to food and females. In his 2000 book, Hierarchy in the Forest, Boehm proposed that egalitarianism arose in early hominin societies as a result of the reversal of this strength-based dominance hierarchy – made possible, in part, by projectile weapons. However, in reviving Woodburn’s idea, Boehm also emphasised the genetic heritage that we share with chimps. “We are prone to the formation of hierarchies, but also prone to form alliances in order to keep from being ruled too harshly or arbitrarily,” he says. At the Strüngmann forum, Gintis argued that this inherent tension accounts for much of human history, right up to the present day.

Read the entire article following the jump.

Image: M777 howitzer. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Bicyclist Tribes

If you ride a bike (as in, bicycle) you will find that you probably belong to a specific tribe of bicyclist — and you’re being observed by bicyclist watchers! Read on to find out if you’re a Roadie or a Beach Cruiser or if you belong to one of the other tribes. Of course, some are quite simply in an exclusive “mayo jaune” tribe of their own.

From Wall Street Journal:

Bird watching is a fine hobby for those with the time and inclination to traipse into nature, but the thrill of spotting different species of bicyclists can be just as rewarding. Why travel to Argentina to find a black-breasted plovercrest when one can spy a similarly plumed “Commuter” at the neighborhood Starbucks? No need to squint into binoculars or get up at the crack of dawn, either—bicyclists are out and about at all hours.

Bicyclist-watching has become much more interesting in recent years as the number of two-wheeled riders has grown. High gas prices, better bicycles, concern about the environment, looking cool—they’re all contributing factors. And with proliferation has come specialization. People don’t just “ride” bikes anymore: They commute or race or cruise, with each activity spawning corresponding gear and attitudes. Those in the field categorize cyclists into groups known as “bike tribes.” Instead of ducks, hawks and water fowl, bicyclologists might speak of Roadies, Cyclocrossers and Beach Cruisers.

To identify a bike tribe, note distinguishing marks, patterns and habits. Start with the dominant color and materials of a cyclist’s clothing. For example, garish jerseys and Lycra shorts indicate a Roadie, while padded gloves, mud-spattered jackets and black cleats are the territory of Cyclocrossers. Migration patterns are revealing. Observe the speed of travel and the treatment of other cyclists. Does the cyclist insist on riding amid cars even when wide bicycle paths are available? Probably a Roadie. Is the cyclist out in the pouring rain? Sounds like a Commuter. The presence of juveniles is telling, too; only a few tribes travel with offspring.

The Roadie

No bike tribe is more common in the United States than the Roadie. Their mien is sportiness and “performance” their goal. Roadies love passing other bike riders; they get annoyed when they have to dodge pedestrians walking with dogs or small children; they often ride in the middle of the road. They tend to travel in packs and spend time in small bicycle shops.

The Commuter

Commuters view a bicycle first and foremost as a means of transportation. They don’t ride without a destination. It’s easy to confuse Commuters with other tribes because others will sometimes use their bicycles to get to work. Even more challenging, Commuters come in all shapes and sizes and ride all different types of bicycles. But there are some distinguishing behaviors. Commuters almost always travel alone. They tend to wear drabber clothing than other tribes. Some adopt a smug, I’m-saving-the-world attitude, which is apparent in the way they glare at motorists. Commuters are most visible during rush hour.

Read the entire article following the jump.

Image: Bradley Wiggins, Winner 2012 Tour de France.

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The Exceptionalism of American Violence

The United States is often cited as the most generous nation on Earth. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most violent, having one of the highest murder rates of any industrialized country. Why this tragic paradox?

In an absorbing article excerpted below, backed by sound research, Anthropologist Eric Michael Johnson points to the lack of social capital on a local and national scale. Here, social capital is defined as interpersonal trust that promotes cooperation between citizens and groups for mutual benefit.

So, combine a culture that allows convenient access to very effective weapons with broad inequality, social isolation and distrust, and you get a very sobering picture — a country where around 70 people are killed each day by others wielding guns (25,423 firearm homicides in 2006-2007, based on Centers for Disease Control statistics).

From Scientific American:

The United States is the deadliest wealthy country in the world. Can science help us explain, or even solve, our national crisis?

His tortured and sadistic grin beamed like a full moon on that dark night. “Madness, as you know, is like gravity,” he cackled. “All it takes is a little push.” But once the house lights rose, the terror was lifted for most of us. Few imagined that the fictive evil on screen back in 2008 would later inspire a depraved act of mass murder by a young man sitting with us in the audience, a student of neuroscience whose mind was teetering on the edge. What was it that pushed him over?

In the wake of the tragedy that struck Aurora, Colorado last Friday there remain more questions than answers. Just like last time–in January, 2011 when Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others were shot in Tucson, Arizona or before that in April, 2007 when a deranged gunman attacked students and staff at Virginia Tech–this senseless mass shooting has given rise to a national conversation as we struggle to find meaning in the madness.

While everyone agrees the blame should ultimately be placed on the perpetrator of this violence, the fact remains that the United States has one of the highest murder rates in the industrialized world. Of the 34 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the U.S. ranks fifth in homicides just behind Brazil (highest), Mexico, Russia, and Estonia. Our nation also holds the dubious honor of being responsible for half of the worst mass shootings in the last 30 years. How can we explain why the United States has nearly three times more murders per capita than neighboring Canada and ten times more than Japan? What makes the land of the free such a dangerous place to live?

Diagnosing a Murder

There have been hundreds of thoughtful explorations of this problem in the last week, though three in particular have encapsulated the major issues. Could it be, as science writer David Dobbs argues at Wired, that “an American culture that fetishizes violence,” such as the Batman franchise itself, has contributed to our fall? “Culture shapes the expression of mental dysfunction,” Dobbs writes, “just as it does other traits.”

Perhaps the push arrived with the collision of other factors, as veteran journalist Bill Moyers maintains, when the dark side of human nature encountered political allies who nurture our destructive impulses? “Violence is our alter ego, wired into our Stone Age brains,” he says. “The NRA is the best friend a killer’s instinct ever had.”

But then again maybe there is an economic explanation, as my Scientific American colleague John Horgan believes, citing a hypothesis by McMaster University evolutionary psychologists Martin Daly and his late wife Margo Wilson. “Daly and Wilson found a strong correlation between high Gini scores [a measure of inequality] and high homicide rates in Canadian provinces and U.S. counties,” Horgan writes, “blaming homicides not on poverty per se but on the collision of poverty and affluence, the ancient tug-of-war between haves and have-nots.”

In all three cases, as it was with other culprits such as the lack of religion in public schools or the popularity of violent video games (both of which are found in other wealthy countries and can be dismissed), commentators are looking at our society as a whole rather than specific details of the murderer’s background. The hope is that, if we can isolate the factor which pushes some people to murder their fellow citizens, perhaps we can alter our social environment and reduce the likelihood that these terrible acts will be repeated in the future. The only problem is, which one could it be?

The Exceptionalism of American Violence

As it turns out, the “social capital” Sapolsky found that made the Forest Troop baboons so peaceful is an important missing factor that can explain our high homicide rate in the United States. In 1999 Ichiro Kawachi at the Harvard School of Public Health led a study investigating the factors in American homicide for the journal Social Science and Medicine (pdf here). His diagnosis was dire.

“If the level of crime is an indicator of the health of society,” Kawachi wrote, “then the US provides an illustrative case study as one of the most unhealthy of modern industrialized nations.” The paper outlined what the most significant causal factors were for this exaggerated level of violence by developing what was called “an ecological theory of crime.” Whereas many other analyses of homicide take a criminal justice approach to the problem–such as the number of cops on the beat, harshness of prison sentences, or adoption of the death penalty–Kawachi used a public health perspective that emphasized social relations.

In all 50 states and the District of Columbia data were collected using the General Social Survey that measured social capital (defined as interpersonal trust that promotes cooperation between citizens for mutual benefit), along with measures of poverty and relative income inequality, homicide rates, incidence of other crimes–rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, and motor vehicle theft–unemployment, percentage of high school graduates, and average alcohol consumption. By using a statistical method known as principal component analysis Kawachi was then able to identify which ecologic variables were most associated with particular types of crime.

The results were unambiguous: when income inequality was higher, so was the rate of homicide. Income inequality alone explained 74% of the variance in murder rates and half of the aggravated assaults. However, social capital had an even stronger association and, by itself, accounted for 82% of homicides and 61% of assaults. Other factors such as unemployment, poverty, or number of high school graduates were only weakly associated and alcohol consumption had no connection to violent crime at all. A World Bank sponsored study subsequently confirmed these results on income inequality concluding that, worldwide, homicide and the unequal distribution of resources are inextricably tied. (see Figure 2). However, the World Bank study didn’t measure social capital. According to Kawachi it is this factor that should be considered primary; when the ties that bind a community together are severed inequality is allowed to run free, and with deadly consequences.

But what about guns? Multiple studies have shown a direct correlation between the number of guns and the number of homicides. The United States is the most heavily armed country in the world with 90 guns for every 100 citizens. Doesn’t this over-saturation of American firepower explain our exaggerated homicide rate? Maybe not. In a follow-up study in 2001 Kawachi looked specifically at firearm prevalence and social capital among U.S. states. The results showed that when social capital and community involvement declined, gun ownership increased (see Figure 3).

Read the entire article after the jump.

Image: Smith & Wesson M&P Victory model revolver. Courtesy of Oleg Volk / Wikpedia.

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Social Skin

From Anthropology in Practice:

Are you inked?

I’m not, though I’ve thought about it seriously and have a pretty good idea of what I would get and where I would put it—if I could work up the nerve to get in the chair. I’ll tell you one thing: It most certainly is not a QR code like Fred Bosch, who designed his tattoo to link to something new every time it’s scanned. While the idea is intriguing and presents an interesting re-imagining of tattoos in the digital age, it seems to run counter to the nature of tattoos.

Tattoo As Talisman and Symbol

The word “tattoo” derives from the Tahitian word “tatau” (wound) and the the Polynesian root “ta” (drawing), which neatly summarizes the history of the practice (1). Humans have been inscribing their bodies (and the bodies of others) for thousands of years for self decoration, to display affiliation, and for punitive reasons. The oldest example of a tattooed individual is 5,200 year-old Ötzi the Iceman, who was found in 1991 in the area of the Italian-Austrian border. He had several tattoos on his back, right knee, and around his ankles, which researchers believe may have served medicinal purposes—possibly a form of acupuncture before acupuncture existed (2). Tattoos have also been found on Egyptian mummies dating to 2000 B.C. And sculpted artifacts and figurines marked by body art and piercings provide clues that tattooing was widely practiced from 500 B.C. to – 500 A.D. (3).

Tattoos have been used to signify occupation, patriotism, loyalty, and religious affiliation. For example, there is a rich maritime tradition of tattoos, including initials (both seamen’s own and those of significant others), anchors, mermaids, fish, ships, and religious symbols (4). It seems that most seafarers in the 18th and 19th centuries entered the ranks of the tattooed with initials—possibly for identification purposes—before adding different imagery (5), reflecting what was popular at the time: seafarers born after the American Declaration of Independence displayed more patriotic symbols (e.g., flags, eagles, stars, the words “Independence” and “Liberty,” and the year 1776 than those born prior). And there are also some interesting superstitions tied to them suggesting that tattooing has been an important means of exerting control over one’s situation (6):

H-O-L-D-F-A-S-T, one letter on the back of each finger, next to the hand knuckle, will save a sailor whose life depends on holding a rope.

A crucifix on the back will save the seaman from flogging because no boatswain’s mate would whip a cross, and if he did, the cross would alleviate the pain.

A seaman who could stand to have a full rigged ship tattooed on his chest would automatically make a good topman.

Crucifixes tattooed on each arm and leg would save a man who had fallen in the water and found himself among 775,000 hungry white sharks, who would not even bother smelling him.

That last point might be a bit of a fisherman’s tale (what if it’s 774,000 white sharks?), but it serves nicely to show how deeply enmeshed tattooing has been with certain occupations.

Early Christians got tattoos of religious symbols. Tattoos were purchased by pilgrims and Crusaders as proof that they had made it to Jerusalem, serving as a symbol of witness and identification. The Church largely did not approve even though there was biblical authorization for the practice: While there is evidence that “God’s word and work were passed on through generations through tattoos inscribed on the bodies of Saints, like the stigmata on St. Francis of Assisi,” the idea that the unmarked body is representative of God’s image and should not be altered was persistent (7).

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Tattoo Galleries.

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Book Review: The Social Animal. David Brooks

David Brooks brings us a detailed journey through the building blocks of the self in his new book, The Social Animal: A Story of Love, Character and Achievement. With his insight and gift for narrative Brooks weaves an engaging and compelling story of Erica and Harold. Brooks uses the characters of Erica and Harold as platforms on which he visualizes the results of numerous psychological, social and cultural studies. Placed in contemporary time the two characters show us a holistic picture in practical terms of the unconscious effects of physical and social context on behavioral and character traits. The narrative takes us through typical life events and stages: infancy, childhood, school, parenting, work-life, attachment, aging. At each stage, Brooks illustrates his views of the human condition by selecting a flurry of facts and anecdotal studies.

The psychologist in me would say that this is a rather shallow attempt at synthesizing profoundly complex issues. Brooks certainly makes use of many studies from the brain and social sciences, but never dwells long enough to give us a detailed sense of major underlying implications or competing scientific positions. So too, the character development of Erica and Harold lacks the depth and breadth one would expect — Brooks fails to explore much of what typically seems to motivate human behavior: greed, ambition, lust, violence, empathy.  Despite these flaws in the execution of the idea, Brooks’ attempt is praiseworthy; perhaps in the hands of a more skilled social scientist, or Rousseau who used this technique much more effectively, this type of approach would gain a better grade.

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Human Culture, an Evolutionary Force

From The New York Times:

As with any other species, human populations are shaped by the usual forces of natural selection, like famine, disease or climate. A new force is now coming into focus. It is one with a surprising implication — that for the last 20,000 years or so, people have inadvertently been shaping their own evolution.

The force is human culture, broadly defined as any learned behavior, including technology. The evidence of its activity is the more surprising because culture has long seemed to play just the opposite role. Biologists have seen it as a shield that protects people from the full force of other selective pressures, since clothes and shelter dull the bite of cold and farming helps build surpluses to ride out famine.

Because of this buffering action, culture was thought to have blunted the rate of human evolution, or even brought it to a halt, in the distant past. Many biologists are now seeing the role of culture in a quite different light.

Although it does shield people from other forces, culture itself seems to be a powerful force of natural selection. People adapt genetically to sustained cultural changes, like new diets. And this interaction works more quickly than other selective forces, “leading some practitioners to argue that gene-culture co-evolution could be the dominant mode of human evolution,” Kevin N. Laland and colleagues wrote in the February issue of Nature Reviews Genetics. Dr. Laland is an evolutionary biologist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

The idea that genes and culture co-evolve has been around for several decades but has started to win converts only recently. Two leading proponents, Robert Boyd of the University of California, Los Angeles, and Peter J. Richerson of the University of California, Davis, have argued for years that genes and culture were intertwined in shaping human evolution. “It wasn’t like we were despised, just kind of ignored,” Dr. Boyd said. But in the last few years, references by other scientists to their writings have “gone up hugely,” he said.

The best evidence available to Dr. Boyd and Dr. Richerson for culture being a selective force was the lactose tolerance found in many northern Europeans. Most people switch off the gene that digests the lactose in milk shortly after they are weaned, but in northern Europeans — the descendants of an ancient cattle-rearing culture that emerged in the region some 6,000 years ago — the gene is kept switched on in adulthood.

Lactose tolerance is now well recognized as a case in which a cultural practice — drinking raw milk — has caused an evolutionary change in the human genome. Presumably the extra nutrition was of such great advantage that adults able to digest milk left more surviving offspring, and the genetic change swept through the population.

More from theSource here.

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