Category Archives: Teaching

Should You Get a Ph.D.?

I wrote this as a long email to a list this week and, based on the feedback I’ve received, I thought it would be worthwhile posting it here. This is a topic to which I have given a lot of thought over the years, starting as a fellowships tutor at Harvard during my own grad school years and, more recently, as an undergraduate advisor and resident fellow at Stanford. While the specific context that elicited this essay was whether getting a Ph.D. in anthropology is worth the cost given uncertain job prospects, I think that the approach applies more generally.

Choosing to go to grad school is a decision that is fraught with uncertainty and a degree of risk. There are plenty of nightmare stories to go around about great teachers/scholars who get trapped in an exploitative cycle of perpetual adjuncting. However, a Ph.D. can also be a platform from which to launch a productive and rewarding career both within the academy and outside of it. Here are some of the issues that I think any student approaching a Ph.D., especially in anthropology, should consider:

(1) Are you passionate about research and communication of your research? For better or worse, the rewards within the academy accrue to research and publication. Some professional schools have made substantial progress in developing teaching (and clinical) tracks for faculty that reward teaching and other applied work, but this is typically not the case in disciplines housed in colleges of arts & sciences, as anthropology typically is. You need the passion for your research question to get you through the inherent tedium of research and the many obstacles to successful publication. A commitment to research does not mean giving up on teaching or other activities (such as organizational or other applied work). The NSF career awards, for example, require applicants to coherently weave their research interests with their teaching. However, research requires a commitment and, based on my rather unscientific sample, it seems that the people who are most productive in research are the people who are really driven to answer questions and are committed to publishing not because they want the professional rewards, but because they care about communication of their results. You have to be willing to write at night when you’re exhausted after you’ve put kids to bed and your grading is done. You have to write on weekends, etc. A passion for answering questions goes beyond a fascination with ideas, a love of social theory, or a commitment to education. There is a certain obsessive quality to the top researchers — answering questions and communicating your results becomes almost a compulsion. This is what helps you deal with the inevitable (and frequent) obstacles and allows you to succeed.

(2) Are you enrolling in a program that will pay for your Ph.D.? Given all the vagaries of the faculty job market, you do not want to go into debt doing a Ph.D. The financial details of different Ph.D. programs have become more critical than ever. Make sure you are informed! Ph.D. programs should pay their students’ tuition and a livable wage since Ph.D. students perform vital services for research universities. These services include the obvious things like teaching and doing the grunt work of research assistants but includes some less obvious, but perhaps more important, things like providing prestige to their institutions. The Ph.D. graduates of an institution are the people who go on to get prestigious jobs and write important works and garner fancy awards and societal recognition that reflect positively on their mother institution. It is difficult to over-state the importance of prestige for the functioning of the top research universities and Ph.D. students play a fundamental role in constructing this prestige. Many programs will pay for a Ph.D., but they are very competitive, as you can imagine. Big grad factories that provide little in the way of resources to their students — either financial or human capital investments — do no one any favors.

(3) If you choose to matriculate in a Ph.D. program, take advantage of the opportunity to gain some concrete (and portable!) research skills. Anthropologists have developed some really amazing methodologies that can be applied broadly. I think that anthropologists sometimes have an inferiority complex about our methods. It never ceases to amaze me how often I hear our students say that anthropologists don’t have methods! To get a sense of the potentially far-reaching impact of methodological innovation in anthropology, check out the many students of Kim Romney and Russ Bernard as just two examples. Ethnography is a very trendy idea in industry now. Having a slightly more tangible skill in addition (e.g., survey design, statistics, GIS, the use of qualitative analysis software like Atlas.ti or NVivo, social network analysis) improves not only your academic job prospects but your ability to secure a job in an NGO or industry.

(4) Communicate with people outside of your small disciplinary circle. The ability to communicate across disciplines increases the number of job opportunities both within the academy and without. With an anthropology Ph.D., you may expect a job in an anthropology department. However, if you are able to communicate with a wider audience and, crucially, convince people why your research is important, you might be able to land a job in a department of environmental studies or ethnic studies or women’s studies or urban studies or community health or … you get the idea. The academy of the future is far more interdisciplinary and interdisciplinarity places a premium on the ability to communicate across traditional disciplinary lines. Talk to people outside your department, write journalistic pieces for local media outlets, or even write a blog. I’m continually surprised how many people with whom I make professional connections who know me from the blog I write in about four times a year!

(5) Are you mobile and flexible? Many people who get sucked into the vicious cycle of perpetual adjunct teaching get that way because they are tied to a specific geographic location because of partner, family, or other obligations. There are good graduate programs all over the country and there are actually jobs but many would require you to move to some place you might not have considered. This includes overseas. Sometimes you take a job that may not be your ideal if it provides you an opportunity to get the work done that then allows you to trade up. If you are constrained to remain in a very specific geographic location, I would think twice about matriculating in a Ph.D. program.

I suspect that this is a step in the professional development process where we lose a lot of outstanding potential first-gen faculty. Mobility and flexibility are easier if you are an upper-middle-class grad who has been financially buffered by your parents and, importantly, when your social support derives from a mobile nuclear family. I think there are many ways that modern professionals resemble hunter-gatherers more than their more recent agricultural forebears and the key commonality is mobility and flexibility: emphasis on the nuclear family as the unit of production, bilateral kinship, high logistical and residential mobility, an ethos emphasizing individuality over group identity. Hunter-gatherers follow prey across a landscape while professionals follow job opportunities. People who are tied to a locality, whether for livelihood-based reasons or persistent social ties, will find this type of flexibility more difficult.

Getting a Ph.D. can pay off, both intellectually and professionally but it takes some planning and, frankly, quite a bit of luck if you’re going to make it in the academy. What is less up to luck is the fallback. Have a fallback plan; think strategically. It won’t hurt your chances within the academy and, in fact, will probably help. There are great opportunities for anthropology Ph.D.s with excellent research and communication skills. I have former students who work for major conservation NGOs (e.g., WCS, WWF) and public health organizations, and who have even started green businesses. I have friends who have gone into industry and done very well. Sapient and Olson, for example, are two companies I know that get major input from anthropologists and anthropological methodologies. Anthropological insights and, yes, methodologies are in demand if you are willing to look outside of the usual channels for employment for anthropologists.

It’s easy to get depressed by the academic job market (and many other job markets for that matter). However, with a little bit of planning and flexibility, getting a Ph.D. in anthropology (or any discipline really) can be an excellent ticket to a rewarding career both within and outside of the academy.

The Least Stressful Profession of Them All?

In the spirit of critics misunderstanding the life of university researchers that I started in my last post, I felt the need to chime in a bit on a story that has really made the social-media rounds in the last couple days. This kerfuffle stems from a Forbes piece by Susan Adams enumerating the 10 least stressful jobs for 2013. Reporting on a study from the job-site careercast.com, and to the surprise of nearly every academic I know, she listed university professor as the least stressful of all jobs. Adams writes: “For tenure-track professors, there is some pressure to publish books and articles, but deadlines are few.” This is quite possibly the most nonsensical statement I think I have ever read about the academy and it reveals a profound ignorance about its inner workings. This careercast.com list was also picked up by CNBC and Huffington Post, both of which were completely credulous of the rankings.

Before going on though, I have to give Ms. Adams some props for amending her piece following an avalanche of irate comments from actual professors. She writes:

Since writing the above piece I have received more than 150 comments, many of them outraged, from professors who say their jobs are terribly stressful. While I characterize their lives as full of unrestricted time, few deadlines and frequent, extended breaks, the commenters insist that most professors work upwards of 60 hours a week preparing lectures, correcting papers and doing research for required publications in journals and books. Most everyone says they never take the summer off, barely get a single day’s break for Christmas or New Year’s and work almost every night into the wee hours.

All true.

In the CNBC piece, the careercast.com publisher, Tony Lee, lays down some of the most uninformed nonsense that I’ve ever read:

“If you look at the criteria for stressful jobs, things like working under deadlines, physical demands of the job, environmental conditions hazards, is your life at risk, are you responsible for the life of someone else, they rank like ‘zero’ on pretty much all of them!” Lee said.

Plus, they’re in total control. They teach as many classes as they want and what they want to teach. They tell the students what to do and reign over the classroom. They are the managers of their own stress level.

Careercast.com measured job-related stress using an 11-dimensional scale. These dimensions and the point ranges assigned to each include:

  • Travel, amount of (0-10)<
  • Growth Potential (income divided by 100)
  • Deadlines (0-9)
  • Working in the public eye (0-5)
  • Competitiveness (0-15)
  • Physical demands (stoop, climb, etc.) (0-14)
  • Environmental conditions (0-13)
  • Hazards encountered (0-5)
  • Own life at risk (0-8)
  • Life of another at risk (0-10)
  • Meeting the public (0-8)

These seem reasonable enough, but the extent to which they were accurately assessed for at least this first item in the list is another point altogether.

It is important to note that there is enormous heterogeneity contained in the job title “professor.” There are professors of art history and professors of business and professors of law and professors of vascular surgery, and professors of chemistry, and professors of seismic engineering professors of volcanology and … you get the point. No doubt some of these are more or less stressful than others. Many of these involve substantial work in the public eye and meeting the public. Some involve hazardous environmental conditions and physical demands.

However, I will focus mainly on what I see as the most ludicrous statements made by both Lee and Adams: that professors have no deadlines. My life is all about deadlines: article/book submission deadlines, institutional review board deadlines, peer review deadlines, editorial deadlines, and the all-important grant deadlines. There are the deadlines imposed by my students when they apply for grants or fellowships or jobs and need highly detailed letters of recommendation, often on very short notice. Oh, and guess what: grades are due on a particular date at the end of the term. You know, a deadline? And those classes we teach: better have a lecture ready before the class meets. Again, kinda like a deadline. I think that it is worth noting that one is expected to meet these teaching deadlines even when most professional incentives (at least at a research university) are focused around everything in your job description but teaching. There is a trite phrase describing the life of a professor — particularly a junior professor — that seems to have found its way into the general consciousness, “publish or perish.” Notice that it is not “give coherent, interesting lectures and grade fairly and expediently or perish”!

So, yes, there are deadlines and there are very difficult trade-offs relating to the finiteness of time. Honestly, it’s hard for me to imagine how even a casual observer of the university could not see the ubiquity of deadlines for the professor’s life.

In an excellent rebuttal of this list, blogger Audra Diers writes about both the time demands and the economic realities of obtaining a tenure-track job. I will finish up with a few thoughts on competitiveness and “growth potential.” My experience on a variety of job search committees since coming to Stanford is that there are typically hundreds of highly qualified candidates for any given job search. These are all people who have Ph.D.’s and, frequently, already have jobs at other universities. In the anthropology department at Stanford, the majority of faculty joined Stanford from faculty positions at other universities. It is very difficult to get a job at a university like Stanford directly out of graduate school. Inevitably, you are competing against people who have already been assistant professors (or at least post-docs) at other universities and already have a substantial publication and grant-writing record. The differences in salary, teaching loads, and institutional prestige can be substantial. Browsing the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Almanac of Higher Education can provide some numbers. Many people bust it in lower-prestige universities with the hope of eventually getting an opportunity for a job at a place like Stanford or Berkeley or Harvard. This means publishing important work, often while teaching outrageously high teaching loads at universities with primarily teaching missions and that means long hours, juggling many conflicting demands, and enormous individual drive.

If you are a scientist, you are often competing with other scientists for results. Getting yourself in a position to secure such results means successful grant-writing and attracting top students and post-docs to your lab. Now, this competition is often enjoyable and almost certainly drives innovation, but it can be stressful (and deadline filled!). There is nothing quite like the feeling of looking at some journal’s table of contents that’s shown up in your inbox and realizing you’ve been scooped on a problem you’ve spent years working on. There is always that little bit of fear in the back of your head pushing you to publish your results before someone else does.

Where Lee gets the idea that professors “teach as many classes as they want and what they want to teach” is a mystery to me. Universities (and colleges within universities) have rules for the number of courses their faculty are expected to teach. Sometimes, a professor can buy out of some teaching by securing more research funding that specifically budgets for such buy-outs. Within departments, there is the dreaded curriculum committee. My department’s CC decided this year that I should teach all my courses in the Spring quarter. While it’s been nice to have large chunks of research time this Fall, Spring is going to be horrible. This is hardly teaching as much or what I want to teach. Departments have instructional needs (i.e., “service courses”) and someone needs to teach these. Junior faculty are often dumped upon to teach the service courses (e.g., history of the field, methodological courses) that very few students want to attend.

Writes Adams at Forbes, “The other thing most of the least stressful jobs have in common: At the end of the day, people in these professions can leave their work behind, and their hours tend to be the traditional nine to five.” This is just crazy talk. I work every night, some nights are more effective than others, for sure, but, like many professions, I take this as a given for my job.

So being a university professor is hardly a stress-free life. This doesn’t in any way mean that we don’t like our jobs. Being a tenured professor at a major research university is good work if you can get it. The job carries with it a great deal of autonomy, flexibility, and the ability to pursue one’s passion. As a professor, one interacts with interesting, curious people on a daily basis and helps shape future leaders. The job-related stress felt by a university professor is almost certainly not on par with, say, an infantry soldier or police officer, but the job is not stress-free. It never ceases to surprise me of how ignorant about the workings of universities critics often are. This is an instance where there is no obvious political agenda — the study just got some facts badly wrong — but studies like this contribute to disturbing anti-intellectualism (and concomitant disdain for empirical evidence) that has become a part of American public consciousness.

On Anthropological Sciences and the AAA

I guess the time has rolled around again for my annual navel-gaze regarding my discipline, my place within it, and its future. Two strangely interwoven events have conspired to make me particularly philosophical as we enter into the winter holidays. First, I am in the middle of a visit by my friend, colleague, and former student, Charles Roseman, now an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. The second is that the American Anthropological Association meetings just went down in San Francisco and this always induces an odd sense of shock and subsequent introspection.

Charles graduated with a Ph.D. from the Department of Anthropological Sciences (once a highly ranked department according the the National Research Council) in 2005. He was awarded tenure at UIUC, a leading department for biological anthropology, this past year and has come back to The Farm to collaborate with me on our top-secret sleeper project of the past seven years. We’ve made some serious progress on this project since he arrived and maybe I’ll be able to write about that soon too.

The annual AAA meeting is one  that I never attended until about four years ago, coinciding with what we sometimes refer to as “the blessed event,” the remarrying of the two Stanford Anthropology departments. It’s actually a bit of coincidence that I started attending AAAs the same year that we merged but it has largely been business of the new Department of Anthropology that has kept me going back – largely to serve on job search committees. This year, I had two responsibilities that drew me to the AAAs. The first was the editorial board meeting for American Anthropologist, the flagship publication of the association.  I joined the editorial board this year and it seemed a good idea to go and get a feel for what is happening with the journal and where it is likely to head over the next couple years.

My other primary responsibility was chairing a session that was organized by two of my Ph.D. students, Yeon Jung Yu and Shannon Randolph. In addition to Yeon and Shannon, my Ph.D. student Alejandro Feged also presented work from his dissertation research.  All three of these students were actually accepted into Anthsci and are part of the last cohort of students to leave Stanford still knowing the two-department system.

It was a great pleasure to sit in the audience and watch Yeon, Shannon, and Alejandro dazzle the audience with their sophisticated methods, beautiful images, and accounts of impressive, extended — and often hardcore — fieldwork. For her dissertation research, Yeon worked for two years with commercial sex workers in southern China, attempting to understand how women get recruited into sex work and how social relations facilitate their ability to survive and even thrive in a world that is quite hostile to them. Her talk was incredibly professional and theoretically sophisticated. For her dissertation research, Shannon worked in the markets of Yaoundé, Cameroon, trying to understand the motivations for consumption of wild bushmeat. Shannon was able to share with the audience her innovative approaches to collecting data (over 4,000 price points, among other things) on a grey-market activity that people are not especially eager to discuss, especially in the market itself. Alejandro did his dissertation research in the Colombian Amazon, where he investigated the human ecology of malaria in this highly endemic region. His talk demonstrated that the conventional wisdom about malaria ecology in this region — namely, that the people most at risk for infection are adult men who spend the most time in the forest — is simply incorrect for some indidenous popualtions and his time-budget analyses made a convincing case for the behavioral basis of this violation of expectations. This was a pretty heterogeneous collection of talks but they shared the commonality of a very strong methodological basis to the research.

At at time when many anthropologists express legitimate concerns over their professional prospects, I have enormous confidence in this crop of students, all three of whom are regularly asked to do consulting for government and/or non-govermental organizations because of their subject knowledge and methodological expertise. Anthsci graduates — there weren’t that many of them since the department existed for less than 10 years — have done very well in the profession overall. I will list just a couple here whose work I knew well because I was on their committees or their work was generally in my area

In addition to these grad students, I think that it’s important to note the success of the post-docs who worked either in Anthsci or with former Anthsci faculty on projects that started before the merger. Some of these outstanding people include:

In a discipline that is lukewarm at best on the even very notion of methodology, I suspect that students with strong methodological skills — in addition to the expected theoretical sophistication and critical thinking (note that these skills do not actually trade-off) — enjoy a distinct comparative advantage when entering a less-than-ideal job market. Of course, I don’t mean to imply that Anthsci didn’t have its share of graduates who leave the field out of frustration or lack of opportunity or who get stuck in the vicious cycle of adjunct teaching. But this accounting gives me hope. It gives me hope for my both my current and future students and it gives me hope for the field. Maybe I’ll even go to AAAs again next year…

Three Questions About Norms

Well, it certainly has been a while since I’ve written anything here. Life has gotten busy with new projects, new responsibilities, etc. Yesterday, I participated in a workshop on campus sponsored by the Woods Institute for the Environment, the Young Environmental Scholars Conference. I was asked to stand-in for a faculty member who had to cancel at the last minute. I threw together some rather hastily-written notes and figured I’d share them here (especially since I spoke quite a bit of the importance for public communication!).

The theme of the conference was “Environmental Policy, Behavior, and Norms” and we were asked to answer three questions: (1) What does doing normative research mean to you? (2) How do your own norms and values influence your research? (3) What room and role do you see for normative research in your field? So, in order, here are my answers.

What does doing normative research mean to you?

I actually don’t particularly like the term “normative research” because it sounds a little too much like imposing one’s values on other people. I am skeptical of the imposition of norms that have more to do with (often unrecognized) ideology and less about empirical truth – an idea that was later reinforced by a terrific concluding talk by Debra Satz. If I can define “normative” to mean with the intent to improve people’s lives, then OK.  Otherwise, I prefer to do “positive” research.

For me, normative research is about doing good science. As a biosocial scientist with broad interests, I wear a lot of hats. I have always been interested in questions about the natural world, and (deep) human history in particular. However, I find that the types of questions that really hold my interest these days are more and more engaged in the substantial challenges we face in the world with inequality and sustainability. In keeping with my deep pragmatist sympathies, I increasingly identify with Charles Sanders Pierce‘s idea that given the “great ocean of truth” that can potentially be uncovered by science, there is a moral burden to do things that have social value. (As an aside, I think that there is social value in understanding the natural world, so I don’t mean to imply a crude instrumentalism here.) In effect, there is a lot of cool science to be done; one may as well do something of relevance.  I personally have little patience for people who pursue racist or otherwise socially divisive agendas and cloak their work in a veil of  free scientific inquiry.  This said, I worry when advocacy interferes with intellectual fairness or an unwillingness to accept that one’s position is not actually true.

I think that we are fooling ourselves if we believe that our norms somehow don’t have an effect on our research.  Recognizing what these norms that shape your research – whether implicitly or explicitly – helps you manage your bias. Yes, I said manage. I’m not sure we can ever completely eliminate it. I see this as more of a management of a necessary trade-off, drawing an analogy between the practice of science and a classic problem in statistics, between bias and variance. The more biased one is, the less variance there is in the outcome of one’s investigation. The less bias, the greater the likelihood that results will differ from one’s expectations (or wishes). Recognizing how norms shape our research also deals with that murky area of pre-science: where do our ideas for what to study come from?

How do your own norms and values influence your research?

Some of the the norms that shape my own research and teaching include:

transparency: science works best when it is open. This places a premium on sharing data, methods, and communicating results in a manner that maximizes access to information. As a simple example, this norm shapes my belief that we should not train students from poor countries in the use of proprietary software (and other technologies) that they won’t be able to afford when they return to their home countries when there are free or otherwise open-source alternatives.

fairness: this naturally includes a sense of social justice or people playing on an equal playing field, but it also includes fairness to different ideas, alternative hypotheses, the possibility that one is wrong. This type of fairness is essential for one’s credibility as a public intellectual in science (particularly supporting policy), as noted eloquently in this interview with Dick Lewontin.

respect for people’s ultimate rationality: Trying to understand the social, ecological, and economic context of people’s decision-making, even if it violates our own normative – particularly market-based economic – expectations.

flexibility: solving real problems means that we need to be flexible in our approach, willing to go where the solutions lead us, learning new tools and collaborating. Flexibility also means a willingness to give up on a research program that is doing harm.

good-faith communication: I believe that there is no room for obscurantism in the academy of the 21st century. This includes public communication. There are, of course, complexities here with regard to the professional development of young scholars.  One of the key trade-offs for young scholars is the need for professional advancement (which comes from academic production) and activism, policy, and public communication. Within the elite universities, the reality is that neither public communication nor activism count much for tenure. However, as Jon Krosnick noted, tenure is a remarkable privilege and, while it may seem impossibly far away for a student just finishing a Ph.D., it’s not really. Once you prove that you have the requisite disciplinary chops, you have plenty of time to to use tenure for what it is designed for (i.e., protecting intellectual freedom) and engaging in critical public debate and communication.

humility: solving problems (in science and society) means caring more about the answer to a problem than one’s own pet theory. Humility is intimately related to respect for others’ rationality.  It also means recognizing the inherently collaborative nature of contemporary science: giving credit where it is due, seeking help when one is in over one’s head, etc. John DeGioia, President of Georgetown University, quoted St. Augustine in his letter of support for Georgetown Law Student, Sandra Fluke against the crude attacks by radio personality Rush Limbaugh and I think those words are quite applicable here as well.  Augustine implored his interlocutors to “lay aside arrogance” and to “let neither of us assert that he has found the truth; let us seek it as if it were unknown to both.” This is not a bad description of the way that science really should work.

What room and role do you see for normative research in your field?

I believe that there is actually an enormous amount of room for normative research, if by “normative research,” we mean research that has the potential to have a positive effect on people’s lives. If instead we mean imposing values on people, then I am less sure of its role.

Anthropology is often criticized from outside the field, and to a lesser extent, from within it for being overly politicized. You can see this in Nicholas Wade’s critical pieces in the New York Times Science Times section following the American Anthropological Association’s executive committee excising of the word “science” from the field’s long-range planning document. Wade writes,

The decision [to remove the word ‘science’ from the long-range planning document] has reopened a long-simmering tension between researchers in science-based anthropological disciplines — including archaeologists, physical anthropologists and some cultural anthropologists — and members of the profession who study race, ethnicity and gender and see themselves as advocates for native peoples or human rights.

This is a common sentiment. And it is a complete misunderstanding. It suggests that scientists can’t be advocates for native peoples or human rights.  It also suggests that one can’t study race, ethnicity, or gender from a scientific perspective.  Both these ideas are complete nonsense.  For all the leftist rhetoric, I am not impressed with the actual political practice of what I see in contemporary anthropology. There is plenty of posturing about power asymmetries and identity politics but it is always done in such a mind-numbingly opaque language and with no apparent practical tie-in to policies that make people’s lives better. And, of course, there is the outright disdain for “applied” work one sees in elite anthropology departments.

Writing specifically about Foucault, Chomsky captured my take on this whole mode of intellectual production:

The only way to understand [the mode of scholarship] is if you are a graduate student or you are attending a university and have been trained in this particular style of discourse. That’s a way of guaranteeing…that intellectuals will have power, prestige and influence. If something can be said simply, say it simply, so that the carpenter next door can understand you. Anything that is at all well understood about human affairs is pretty simple.

Ultimately, the simple truths about human affairs that I find anyone can relate to are subsistence, health, and the well-being of one’s children. These are the themes at the core of my own research and I hope that the work I do ultimately can effect some good in these areas.

Response to Selection

I’m done now with the first week of the Spring quarter. It was a bit challenging because I had to attend the PAA meetings in Washington, DC for the latter part of the week, but Brian Wood ably covered for me on Thursday. I thought that I would use the blog as a tool for summarizing one of the key points I want students to take away from this fist week in which we discussed evolution and natural selection.

We spent a good deal of lecture time talking about adaptation.  Specifically, we discussed how adaptation can serve as a foil to typology and essentialism. Adaptation is local and must be seen within its specific environmental and historical context. Adaptations are dynamic because environments are.

Adaptationist thinking is powerful, but can easily be overdone. This is why I also think it is essential to understand the mechanics of selection, something that I’m afraid is not often addressed in introductory evolutionary anthropology classes.  So, in the very first lecture of class, I throw some quantitative genetics (and, thus, some math) at students.  Of course, these are Stanford students, so I’m confident they can handle a little techie-ness every now and then. We specifically discuss the multivariate breeder’s equation, sometimes known as Lande‘s equation:

\Delta \mathbf{\bar{z}} = \mathbf{G \beta}

,

where \Delta \mathbf{\bar{z}} is the change in the mean fitness of a multivariate trait, \mathbf{G} is the additive genetic variance-covariance matrix, and \beta is the selection gradient on \mathbf{\bar{z}}.

In effect, \beta is a vector pointing in the direction of the optimal change in the phenotype. The matrix \mathbf{G} does two things to this gradient pushing \mathbf{\bar{z}} toward its optimum: (1) it scales the response depending on how much additive variance there is in each trait and (2) it rotates it as a function of the covariances between traits. I won’t get too much into matrix multiplication here (this is a very nice reference too). The key point is that \mathbf{G} is a square k \times k matrix (where k is the number of traits we’re looking at) the diagonal elements of which are variances and the off-diagonal elements of which, g_{ij} represent the covariances between traits i and j.   Selection requires variance. Without sufficient variance, even strong selection won’t change the phenotype much between generations.  But variance isn’t all there is to it. When the covariances are positive, there will be substantial indirect selection, and when they are negative, you have genetic constraints at work. Selection may be pointing in a particular direction, but the structure of the trade-offs could very easily mean that you can’t actually get there.

Let’s consider three quick (toy) examples.  Say we have two traits, maybe “length” and “width” (this could be something less vague and insipid: Lande (1979) looks at brain mass and body mass in a serious two-trait example). We will assume that the selection gradient is \mathbf{\beta} = \{0.5, 0.25\}?. That is, the force of selection is twice as high on length as it is on width, but it is pretty strong and positive on both. We’ll demonstrate the effect of variance and constraint in three ways:  (1) more variance in the trait under weaker selection (\mathbf{G_1}), (2) positive covariance between the two traits (\mathbf{G_2}), and (3) negative covariance between the two traits (\mathbf{G_3}).

 \mathbf{G_1} = \left( \begin{array}{cc} 0.33 & 0.00 \\ 0.00 & 0.67 \end{array} \right)

 \mathbf{G_2} = \left( \begin{array}{cc} 0.33 & 0.33 \\ 0.33 & 0.67 \end{array} \right)

 \mathbf{G_3} = \left( \begin{array}{cc} 0.33 & -0.33 \\ -0.33 & 0.67 \end{array} \right)

The figure below plots the response to selection in the three different types of genetic architecture.  The direction of selection is indicated in the grey arrow. If the variances of the two traits were equal to 1 and there were zero covariances, this is where selection would move the phenotype pair (try it). We can see that the response to selection moves toward width (the trait under weaker selection) even when covariances are zero (black arrow).  Why? Because there is more variance for width than there is for length (0.67 \times 0.25 > 0.33 \times 0.5).  This effect becomes more pronounced when there is positive covariance between the traits (blue arrow) — the selection toward width is 0.33 \times 0.5 +0.67 \times 0.25 = 0.3325. When the covariances are negative, we see something cool (red arrow).  The response to selection is small and moves (almost) entirely in the direction of length. This is because the negative covariance between length and width, when acted on by the strong selection on length, all but cancels out the positive response to selection (-0.33 \times 0.5 + 0.67 \times 0.25 = 0.0025).

selection-constraint-plot

This simple demonstration shows that the response to selection can be complex. Making an argument that some trait would be under selection is not sufficient to say that it actually evolved (or will evolve) that way.  Entirely plausible arguments for the direction of selection are made all the time in evolutionary anthropology.  Here is one from a very important paper in paleoanthropology (Lovejoy 1981: 344):

Any behavioral change that increases reproductive rate, survivorship, or both, is under selection of maximum intensity. Higher primates rely on social behavioral mechanisms to promote survivorship during all phases of the life cycle, and one could cite numerous methods by which it theoretically could be increased.  Avoidance of dietary toxins, use of more reliable food sources, and increased competence in arboreal locomotion are obvious examples. Yet these are among the many that have remained under stadong selection throughout much of the course of primate evolution, and therefore unlikely that early hominid adaptation was a product of intensified selection for adaptations almost universal to anthropoid primates.

Arguing for selection without considering trade-offs can get you into trouble.  Selection in the presence of quantitative genetic constraints (or even differential variance in the traits) can produce counter-intuitive results. (Selectionists, don’t dispair. There are ways to deal with this, but it will have to wait for another post). In the case of Lovejoy’s argument, there are good reasons to think that survivorship and reproductive rate are, indeed, strongly negatively correlated. Which is under stronger selection? Which has more additive variance? How strong are the negative covariances?

When we make selectionist or adaptationist arguments, we should always keep in the back of our minds the three questions:

  1. How strong is the force of selection?
  2. How much variance is there on which selection can act?
  3. How is the trait constrained through negative correlations with other traits?

References

Lande, R. A. 1979. Quantitative genetic analysis of multivariate evolution applied to brain: body size evolution. Evolution. 33:402-416.

Lovejoy, C. O. 1981. The origin of man. Science. 211:341-350.

New Formal Demography Workshop: Migration and Adaptation

We will be having another of our occasional Stanford Workshops in Formal Demography this April 28th-30th. The theme this time will be “Migration and Adaptation,” and we have a terrific lineup of speakers coming. As in the past, the workshop is funded by NICHD and receives substantial suport from the Stanford Institute for Research in the Social Sciences (IRiSS). What is somewhat different this time is that we actually have our own center now, The Stanford Center for Population Research (SCPR). Here’s the basic idea for the workshop:

Mobility is a common form of human adaptation to social or environmental risks.  Forms of human mobility vary with regard to permanency and spatial scale.  For example, foragers or pastoralists may move seasonally in response to resource scarcity and opportunity throughout a more or less stable greater home range. Smallholders and agrarian peasants might be displaced on a more permanent basis as a result of conflict or extreme resource scarcity, migrating internally to cities or other relatively nearby localities perceived to be less risky.  International economic migrants may travel long distances on a more or less permanent basis in search of economic opportunity abroad.

Global climate change is predicted to increase migration rates substantially by the middle of the 21st century.  This increase in migration is likely to result from multiple, interacting causal mechanisms including an increase in adverse weather events (e.g., droughts, floods), an increase in resource-related conflicts, or declining viability of local environments arising from various forms of land-use/land-cover change.  These increases will add to the already substantial movement of human population from rural to urban areas, in response to internal social displacement, and from other economic migration.

Understanding human migration requires the input from scientists from a wide range of disciplines. We are particularly interested in approaches that combine the formalism of demography, on-the-ground social research, and remotely-sensed information of the biophysical environment, the so-called “pixels to people” approach.

In this workshop, we will bring together demographers, anthropologists, economists, and geographers to develop a methodological toolkit for understanding migration as an adaptation to risk.  The specific aim of the workshop is to promote knowledge of methods and perspectives from different disciplines, disseminate information about the growing wealth of demographic data on the biophysical environment and human migration, and to foster collaborative and interdisciplinary work. The format will consist of lectures by invited researchers to an audience of other researchers, selected graduate students, and junior faculty. The three-day workshop will have approximately ten faculty and 20 students, whose travel, lodging, and meals will be covered.  The format provides substantial time for discussion. The workshop will be held at the Institute for Research in the Social Sciences (IRiSS), Stanford 28-30 April 2011.

Confirmed speakers include:

  • James Holland Jones, Department of Anthropology and Woods Institute for the Environment, Stanford University (organizer): Formal Models;
    Population Projection
  • Shripad Tuljapurkar, Department of Biology, Stanford University (organizer): Stochastic Forecasting
  • Eric Lambin, Environmental and Earth Systems Science and Woods Institute for the Environment, Stanford University: Pixels to People
  • David Lobell, Environmental and Earth Systems Science and Woods Institute for the Environment, Stanford University: Global Climate Change and Food Insecurity
  • William H. Durham, Department of Anthropology and Woods Institute for the Environment, Stanford University: Smallholder Responses to Risk and Uncertainty
  • Ronald Rindfuss, Carolina Population Center, University of North Carolina and The East-West Center: Population and Environment; Microsimulation
  • Amber Wutich, School of Human Evolution and Social Change, Arizona State University, Water Insecurity
  • Lori Hunter, Department of Sociology, University of Colorado: Migration and Health
  • David Lopez-Carr, Department of Geography, University of California Santa Barbara: Migration and Fertility on the Forest Frontier

A (rather large) printable flier for the workshop can be found here.  It includes information on how to apply.  Hopefully, we will soon have an all official-like webpage through IRiSS as well, which I will point to when it goes live.

Nicholas Wade on Science and Anthropology

Nicholas Wade, who normally writes really terrific stuff on science in the New York Times, has a brief piece on our Anthropology fracas du jour. It’s good to see an expression of concern for the place of science in anthropology in such a prominent place and by such an important science writer.  I just wish he had gotten a few more things right.  While the Darkness in El Dorado fiasco was not a high point for the AAA, I suspect that this had not one iota to do with the re-wording of AAA’s long-range planning document. Secondly, I was pretty horrified to learn that science can’t be used as a framework for studying gender, ethnicity, and race, nor, apparently, can scientists advocate for indigenous people’s or human rights:

The decision [to remove the word ‘science’ from the long-range planning document] has reopened a long-simmering tension between researchers in science-based anthropological disciplines — including archaeologists, physical anthropologists and some cultural anthropologists — and members of the profession who study race, ethnicity and gender and see themselves as advocates for native peoples or human rights.

I think that this will come as quite an unpleasant surprise to many fine scientific anthropologists who are apparently fooling themselves by attempting to understand race or gender or working to improve the lives of the people with whom they work.

So, I’m left with mixed feelings about this turn of events.  On the one hand, the prominence of a Science Times piece by Nicholas Wade means that debate is likely to continue for a while to come. It would be particularly helpful if this work helped engage what I suspect is a quiet majority of anthropologists who are (1) sympathetic to science maintaining a prominent place in anthropology, and (2) too busy with their work to worry about yet another shrill controversy in the professional society they may or may not belong to (having given up membership because they already felt it didn’t represent their interests). On the other hand, I think we’re going to need to stop being inflammatory and falling back on facile received categories (e.g., “postmodernists,” “sociobiologists,” etc.) at every opportunity if we are going to make this debate productive and fashion a society that is friendly to rigorous scholarship in whatever form it may take. For my part, I am sticking with my view that the best way to promote science in anthropology is to do it, do it well, and communicate with a broad scientific readership.

Back to grading my final exams…

On Husserl, Hexis, and Hissy-Fits

There has been quite a brouhaha percolating through some Anthropology circles following the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Associate in New Orleans last month.  It seems that the AAA executive board, in all its wisdom, has seen fit to excise the term “science” from the Association’s long-range planning document. You can sample some of the reaction to this re-write in blog posts from anthropologi.info, Neuroanthropology, Evolution on the Beach,  AAPA BANDITInside HigherEd, and Fetishes I Don’t Get at Psychology Today. There is also a letter from AAA president, Virginia Dominguez here and you can find the full text of the planning document here. The primary concern has centered on the first paragraph of this document.  Here is that paragraph as it stood before the November meeting:

The purposes of the Association shall be to advance anthropology as the science that studies humankind in all its aspects, through archeological, biological, ethnological, and linguistic research; and to further the professional interests of American anthropologists; including the dissemination of anthropological knowledge and its use to solve human problems.

The new wording is as follows:

The purposes of the Association shall be to advance public understanding of humankind in all its aspects. This includes, but is not limited to, archaeological, biological, social, cultural, economic, political, historical, medical, visual, and linguistic anthropological research.  The Association also commits itself and to further the professional interests of anthropologists, including the dissemination of anthropological knowledge, expertise, and interpretation.

So, anthropology is no longer a science, though there are lots of rather particularistic approaches through which one can pursue anthropology that may or may not be scientific.  Apparently, the executive board has a newfound passion for public communication as well.  I guess we don’t really need an organization that promotes scholarly understanding or the production of new knowledge.  Just look where that’s gotten us!

The new wording has greatly concerned a number of parties, including the Society for Anthropological Sciences.  I am a member of this section and have never seen so much traffic on the society’s listserv.

I will admit to being somewhat dismayed by the Society’s response.  While I am not quite as tweaked by this as many, I nonetheless wrote a longish call for specific action — one that involved good old-fashioned political organizing and attempting to forge alliances both with other sections within AAA and across other scholarly societies with an interest in anthropology (e.g., AAPA, HBA, SAA, HBES).  My call was greeted with a deafening (virtual) silence and I am left to guess why.  Perhaps the membership is suspicious of the imperialist ambitions of a biological anthropologist with the taint of evolution on him?  Perhaps they’ve heard and tried it all before and were simply convinced it would not work?  Perhaps they actually like being an embattled minority and don’t really want to take action to jeopardize that status?

To what extent is the scandal a tempest in a teapot?  I honestly don’t know.  The word “science” has been taken out of the first paragraph but there is nothing inherently anti-scientific about the statement.  After all, “advancing public understanding” can be done through “archaeological, biological, social, cultural, economic, political, historical, medical, visual, and linguistic anthropological research.” Any number of these can be done through a scientific approach to understanding.

The thing that I find completely bizarre about the new wording is the exclusive focus on public understanding.  Public understanding? Really? Judging from my recent search committee and scientific review panel experience, I can only be left with the conclusion that the public must have an insatiable hunger for phenomenology.  This explains why I can never find any Husserl at Barnes and Noble — he must just be flying off the shelves!  You’d think if the goal of our flagship professional organization is really promoting public understanding, that more anthropologists would write in a manner that was generally understandable to, you know, the public.  In his distinguished lecture, the eminent archaeologist Jeremy Sabloff chastised anthropologists for their unwillingness to engage with the general public.  I could not agree with this perspective more, especially if “engaging with the public” entails engaging with colleagues from cognate disciplines, another thing that I think we do a miserable job of, in general.

I was a bit disappointed to read Alex Golub’s write-up of this issue on the Savage Minds blog.  I’m usually a big fan of both this blog and Alex’s posts more generally. However, in this case I think that Alex engages in the kind of ahistorical, totalizing stereotyping of scientific anthropologists that normally gives anthropologists the willies.  Advocates of science are characterized as close-minded automata, utterly lacking any appreciation for ambiguity, historicity, politics, or contested meaning.  For example, he writes

The fact that the model used by ‘scientific’ anthropologists has as much complexity as an average episode of WWE Smackdown — with a distinction between the evil ‘fluff-head’ cultural anthropologists and the good ‘scientific’ cultural anthropologists — should be the first sign that something fishy is going on.

Très nuanced, eh?

The statements made by many scientific anthropologists, particularly those of the generation to enter the profession in the 1960s and 1970s, need to be understood in the historical and political context of the speakers.  I think that it is simply disingenuous to claim that scientific approaches to anthropological knowledge have not become increasingly marginalized within the mainstream of anthropology over the last several decades.  One need only look at what has become to the departments that were home to the vaunted physical anthropology programs of the past to find evidence of this trend. Consider, for example, the University of Chicago, the University of California Berkeley or Columbia University.  And this is just biological anthropology; it does not account for the loss of scientific social and cultural anthropologists (think Gene Hammel or Roy D’Andrade) in elite, Ph.D.-granting programs. The reasons for the marginalization of scientific approaches to anthropology are complex and do not fit neatly into the simplistic narrative of “objective, scientific anthropology … under assault from interpretivists like Clifford Geertz who do not believe in truth.” No doubt, part of the problem is simply the compartmentalization of knowledge.  As scholars become increasingly specialized, it becomes more and more difficult to be both scientist and humanist.  Increasingly, hiring decisions are zero-sum games. The gain of a scientist represents the loss of a humanist and vice-versa. Gone is Eric Wolf’s conception of Anthropology as “both the most scientific of the humanities and the most humanist of the sciences.”

The key is that the declining importance of science in the elite anthropology departments has led to a feeling of embattlement — that is almost certainly counter-productive most of the time — among the remaining scientific anthropologists. Another consequence is that the decline of the place of science within anthropological discourse selects for personalities who thrive on embattlement, so that the reproduction of the field is relatively enriched with young scholars who see no point to professional or intellectual engagement. And so it gets more and more difficult to integrate.  This is the lens through which I view much of the public complaining about the recent actions of the AAA executive board. However, as my colleague Rebecca Bird noted, those of us who still see a place for science in anthropology need to move beyond reactionary statements.  We need to be proactive and positive.

The academy is changing. This can be seen in the increasing number of cross-cutting requests-for-proposals from funding agencies such as NSF (e.g., HSD, EID, CHNS) or NIH and the wholesale re-organization of many research universities (ASU is only the most extreme case; the ascendency of interdisciplinary centers such as the Woods Institute for the Environment or the Freeman-Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford is a more common manifestation of this trend; the Columbia Earth Institute also comes to mind).  In an academy that increasingly values transdisciplinarity and integration of knowledge, I think that anthropologists have an enormous comparative advantage — if we could just get over ourselves.  As I wrote in my 2009 Anthropology News piece:

Four-field anthropology is a biosocial discipline that integrates information from all levels of biological and social organization. To understand human behavior, the four-field anthropologist considers genetics and physiology; the history of the human lineage; historical, cultural and social processes; the dynamics of face-to-face interactions; and global political economy. Each of these individual areas is studied by other disciplines, but no other field provides the grounding in all, along with the specific mandate to understand the scope of human diversity. The anthropologist stands in a unique position to serve as the fulcrum upon which the quality of an interdisciplinary research team balances. Revitalizing the four-subfield approach to anthropological training could move anthropology from the margins of the interdisciplinary, research-based academy of the near future to the core.

I have no interest in disparaging forms of knowledge or excluding particular types of scholars from any social movement, but I think that scientific anthropologists have a particularly important role to play in such a revitalization, if for no other reason than they (presumably) care about more of these levels of organization.  Maybe such scholars could even communicate the subtlety and richness of ethnographic experience that our more humanistic colleagues so value if we could just get beyond the name-calling.

I may be dismissed as being naively optimistic by the old guard of scientific anthropologists (hypothesis 2, above), but I think that I have good reasons to be optimistic about the future of anthropology, despite the many challenges. This optimism stems from the work of individual anthropologists.  I’ll do a quick shout-out to a number of people who I think are doing particularly good work, integrating different anthropological perspectives, and communicating with a broader audience.  This is a very personal and idiosyncratic list — these scholars are people I’ve encountered recently or whose work has been brought to my attention of late. They tend to be focused on questions of health and human-environment interactions, naturally, since these are the issues that organize my research.

If you want to feel good about the future of a scientific anthropology that is simultaneously integrated into contemporary anthropology and communicates with a broader scientific and policy audience (and is generally great and transformative — that key NSF buzz word), check out the work of:

  • Craig Hadley at Emory on food security and psychological well-being
  • Amber Wutich at ASU on vulnerability, water security, and common-pool resources
  • Lance Gravlee at UF on the embodiment of racial discrimination and its manifestations in health
  • Brooke Scelza at UCLA on parental investment and childhood outcomes
  • Dan Hrushka at ASU on how cultural beliefs, norms and values interact with economic constraints to produce health outcomes
  • Crickette Sanz at Washington University on multi-ape ecology of the Goualougo Triangle, Republic of Congo
  • Herman Pontzer at CUNY on measuring daily energy expenditures in hunter-gatherers
  • Rebecca and Douglas Bird on subsistence and signaling among Martu foragers

This list could go on. I won’t even mention the amazing anthropology post-docs, Siobhan MattisonSean Downey, and Brian Wood, with whom I have been so lucky to interact this academic year.

I have plenty more to say on this — particularly how the portrayal of politics and political agendas enters the discourse — but I have final exams to grade!

An Alternate Course Load for the Game of Life

In a recent editorial in the New York Times, Harvard economist and former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, N. Gregory Mankiw provides some answers to the question “what kind of foundation is needed to understand and be prepared for the modern economy?”  Presumably, what he means by “modern economy” is life after college.  Professor Mankiw suggests that students of all ages learn something about the following subjects: economics, statistics, finance, and psychology.  I read this with interest and doing so made me think of my own list, which is rather different than the one offered by Mankiw. I will take up the instrumental challenge, making a list of subjects that I think will be useful in an instrumental sense — i.e., in helping graduates become successful in the world of the twenty-first century. In no way do I mean to suggest that students can not be successful if they don’t follow this plan for, like Mankiw, I agree that students should ignore advice as they see fit. Education is about discovery as much as anything and there is much to one’s education that transcends instrumentality — going to college is not simply about preparing people to enter “the modern economy,” even if it is a necessary predicate for success in it.

People should probably know something about economics.  However, I’m not convinced that what most undergraduate students are taught in their introductory economics classes is the most useful thing to learn. Contemporary economics is taught as an axiomatic discipline.  That is, a few foundational axioms (i.e., a set of primitive assumptions that are not proved but considered self-evident and necessary) are presented and from these, theorems can be derived.  Theorems can then be logically proven by recourse to axioms or other already-proven theorems. Note that this is not about explaining the world around us.  It is really an exercise in rigorously defining normative rules for how people should behave and what the consequences of such behavior would be, even if actual people don’t follow such prescriptions. Professor Mankiw has written a widely used textbook in Introductory Economics. In the first chapter of this book, we see this axiomatic approach on full display.  We are told not unreasonable things like “People Face Trade-Offs” or “The Cost of Something is What You Give Up to Get It” or “Rational People Think at the Margin.” I couldn’t agree more with the idea that people face trade-offs, but I nonetheless think there are an awful lot of problematic aspects to these axioms.  Consider the following paragraph (p. 5)

Another trade-off society faces is between efficiency and equality. Efficiency means that society is getting the maximum benefits from its scarce resources. Equality means that those benefits are distributed uniformly among society’s members. In other words, efficiency refers to the size of the economic pie, and equality refers to how the pie is divided into individual slices.

Terms like “efficiency” and “maximum benefits” are presented as unproblematic, as is the idea that there is a necessary trade-off between efficiency and equality.  Because it is an axiom, apparently contemporary economic theory allows no possibility for equality in efficient systems. Inequality is naturalized and thereby legitimized. It seems to me that this should be an empirical question, not an axiom. In his recent book, The Bounds of Reason: Game Theory and the Unification of the Behavioral Sciences, Herb Gintis provides a very interesting discussion of the differences between two highly formalized (i.e., mathematical) disciplines, physics and economics.  Gintis notes, “By contrast [to the graduate text in quantum mechanics], the microeconomics text, despite its beauty, did not contain a single fact in the whole thousand page volume. Rather, the authors build economic theory in axiomatic fashion, making assumptions on the basis of their intuitive plausibility, their incorporation of the ‘stylized facts’ of everyday life, or their appeal to the principles of rational thought.”

If one is going to learn economics, “the study of how society manages its scarce resources” — and I do believe people should — I think one should (1) learn about how  resources are actually managed by real people and real institutions and (2) learn some theory that focuses on strategic interaction.  A strategic interaction occurs when the best choice a person can make depends upon what others are doing (and vice-versa). The formal analysis of strategic interactions is done with game theory, a field typically taught in economics classes but also found in political science, biology, and, yes, even anthropology. Alas, this is generally considered an advanced topic, so you’ll have to go through all the axiomatic nonsense to get to the really interesting stuff.

OK, that was a bit longer than I anticipated. Whew.  On to the other things to learn…

Learn something about sociology. Everyone could benefit by understanding how social structures, power relations, and human stocks and flows shape the socially possible. Understanding that social structure and power asymmetries constrain (or enable) what we can do and even what we think is powerful and lets us ask important questions not only about our society but of those of the people with whom we sign international treaties, or engage in trade, or wage war. Some of the critical questions that sociology helps us ask include: who benefits by making inequality axiomatic? Does the best qualified person always get the job? Is teen pregnancy necessarily irrational? Do your economic prospects depend on how many people were born the same year as you were? How does taste reflect on one’s position in society?

People should definitely learn some statistics. Here, Professor Mankiw and I are in complete agreement.

Learn about people other than those just like you. The fact that we live in an increasingly global world is rapidly becoming the trite fodder of welcome-to-college speeches by presidents, deans, and other dignitaries. Of course, just because it’s trite doesn’t make it any less true, and despite the best efforts of homogenizing American popular and consumer culture, not everyone thinks or speaks like us or has the same customs or same religion or system of laws or healing or politics. I know; it’s strange. One might learn about other people in an anthropology class, say, but there are certainly other options. If anthropology is the chosen route, I would recommend that one choose carefully, making certain that the readings for any candidate anthropology class be made up of ethnographies and not books on continental philosophy. Come to grips with some of the spectacular diversity that characterizes our species. You will be better prepared to live in the world of the twenty-first century.

Take a biology class. If the twentieth century was the century of physics, the twenty-first century is going to be the century of biology.  We have already witnessed a revolution in molecular biology that began around the middle of the twentieth century and continued to accelerate throughout its last decades and into the twenty-first. Genetics is creeping into lots of things our parents would not have even imagined: criminology, law, ethics. Our decisions about our own health and that of our loved ones’ will increasingly be informed by molecular genetic information. People should probably know a thing or two about DNA. I shudder at popular representations of forensic science and worry about a society that believes what it sees on CSI somehow represents reality. I happen to think that when one takes biology, one should also learn something about organisms, but this isn’t always an option if one is going to also learn about DNA.

Finally, learn to write.  Talk about comparative advantage! I am continually blown away by poor preparation that even elite students receive in written English. If you can express ideas in writing clearly and engagingly, you have a skill that will carry you far. Write as much as you possibly can.  Learn to edit. I think editing is half the problem with elite students — they write things at the last minute and expect them to be brilliant.  Doesn’t work that way. Writing is hard work and well written texts are always well edited.

Post-Tenure Teaching Project

I’ve had this idea for a couple years now and thought that I would put it down on paper as it were. When I first got to Stanford (in fact, when I was being recruited for the job), I was asked if I would teach a class on Human Nature. I remember thinking to myself, “Sweet, this’ll be easy!” You see, I taught for Irv DeVore’s famous class, Science B-29: Human Behavioral Biology more times than I care to recollect. This is a topic for another blog post altogether, but Irv co-taught this class with various luminaries throughout the years including Bob Trivers, Mel Konner, Terry Deacon, and Marc Hauser. When Irv retired, Richard Wrangham took his place, co-teaching with Marc Hauser. Anyway, the key point for the current thread is that if there was one class I was qualified to teach when I came to Stanford, it was a class on Human Nature.

Shortly after I arrived in the summer of 2003, I had a lunch meeting at the faculty club with Bill Durham and Rob Robinson, the director of the program for which I would teach my Human Nature class. I remember being curious about why there would be a program director there. Wasn’t I just teaching the class for Anthropological Sciences? Well, no. It seems that the Human Nature class that everyone wanted would be part of the compulsory freshman program, Introduction to the Humanities (IHUM). “Humanities?!” I exclaimed. “You do realize who you’re talking to here, no?” To say that I was not well prepared to teach a course introducing freshmen at Stanford to the Humanities would be a rather large under-statement. Everyone assured me that everything would be fine. I just needed to find the right co-instructor. I had a very nice meeting with Don Kennedy who was the Stanford President when IHUM was introduced and who was the only scientist to co-teach a class before me (an enviable class on the environment with Richard White). That helped me to conceive of how I might teach such a class and formulate at least a semi-coherent plan for putting the class together.

The details of the class that I ended up teaching for two years should be saved for another post. I found a terrific humanist with whom to share lectures and had a terrific group of IHUM fellows do the hard work of sections, grading papers, etc. When my co-instructor, who was a lecturer at Stanford at the time, moved to a tenure-track position in the History department at San José State University, the class just sort of ended.

Since I stopped teaching that class, I’ve thought from time to time that it would be fun to try the idea again, this time really sticking to the core ideas in the study of Human Nature. One day, I was listening to the Fairport Convention (1969) recording of the seventeenth century English folk song, Matty Groves. While I am no expert folklorist, I am nonetheless struck by the observation that so many of these old folk songs (English and otherwise) are simply riddled with sex, honor, jealousy, loyalty, betrayal, lust, murder, … In short, they are studies in Human Nature. What a great conceit for an IHUM class on Human Nature!

We could go through various folk songs and analyze what they tell us of people’s ideas of Human Nature. What are the commonalities across cultures and through time? How do these ideas relate to current scientific and philosophical work on Human Nature? The thing that would really make this class come together would be performative. These are folk songs, after all, that were meant to be sung. Maybe I could overcome my own performance anxiety and put my under-used guitar to good use and sing a song myself? As I said, a post-tenure project.

I won’t go into too many details here, but I will do a little analysis of Matty Groves, providing some interpretations of the lyrics and pointing to directions that I might take in such a class. The idea is generally to give a flavor of the content of this class. There is a lot of contextual information that is implicit in the song about the social organization of mediaeval/early modern English society. This is definitely something we would want to talk about extensively in class, but I will gloss that for now.

A holiday, a holiday, and the first one of the year.
Lord Donald’s wife came into church, the gospel for to hear.

And when the meeting it was done, she cast her eyes about,
And there she saw little Matty Groves, walking in the crowd.

Remember that holidays used to be holy days. The reason you got out of work, if you were so lucky, was so you could go to church. And what better venue for looking for a little action could there be than church?

Why is Lord Donald’s wife on the make? Chances are that she is much, much younger than her husband. As Mildred Dickemann, and many others, have observed, strongly hierarchical societies are highly hypergynous. Women marry up in social status and marry older men. Chances are, Lord Donald’s wife had no say in her own marriage as it was arranged by her father and emissaries for Lord Donald. For a sense of the degree that status structured this society, it is interesting to note who remains unnamed in the song. Really the main character in the narrative, “Lord Donald’s Wife” as well as “the servant.” My interpretation is that Lord Donald’s wife is bored and not attracted to her brutal, high-status husband who is probably old enough to be her father. The holiday, during which her husband is away, provides her with an opportunity to explore the field. My understanding of human reproductive psychology tells me that young women, despite the mid-century folklore, want to have sex too. Yep, it’s not just boys. There is an interesting Gail Collins’s essay on Twilight in which she writes “This sure sounds like trouble to me: A generation of guys who will settle for nothing less than a porn star meets a generation of women who expect their boyfriend to crawl through their bedroom window at night and just nuzzle gently until they fall asleep.” I agree there is trouble, but I have serious doubts that a whole generation of girls only want to nuzzle and fall asleep.

“Come home with me, little Matty Groves, come home with me tonight.
Come home with me, little Matty Groves, and sleep with me till light.”

“Oh, I can’t come home, I won’t come home and sleep with you tonight,
By the rings on your fingers I can tell you are Lord Donald’s wife.”

Again, note that Lord Donald’s wife has no identity other than that of the Lord’s wife. Her status as such is communicated by conspicuous display of jewelry. Matty is no fool. He knows that there is real danger here…

“What if I am Lord Donald’s wife? Lord Donald’s not at home.
For he is out in the far cornfields, bringing the yearlings home.”

…but the lord’s wife was very persuasive. A rich and powerful lord can afford a beautiful wife (even in a dowry society — the details of this apparent paradox are fodder for lecture, of course). It’s also possible that Matty and Lord Donald’s wife knew each other from childhood.

Note also that wealth came from the land in this agrarian society. Even a rich and powerful lord brings the yearlings home from the far cornfields.

And a servant who was standing by and hearing what was said,
He swore Lord Donald he would know before the sun would set.

And in his hurry to carry the news, he bent his breast and ran,
And when he came to the broad mill stream, he took off his shoes and swam.

A loyal (unnamed) servant may just move up in the hierarchy of servants.

Little Matty Groves, he lay down and took a little sleep.
When he awoke, Lord Donald he was standing at his feet.

Saying “How do you like my feather bed? And how do you like my sheets?
How do you like my lady who lies in your arms asleep?”

Things like beds, sheets, and pillows were luxury goods Matty had probably never experienced as a peasant boy.

Imagine walking into your own bedroom and finding your spouse in bed with a lover. Crimes of passion account for an amazingly large fraction of homicides in a variety of societies. Lord Donald’s anger is probably compounded by the fact that his wife is not only his reproductive partner, but is his property in a very real sense.

“Oh, well I like your feather bed, and well I like your sheets.
But better I like your lady gay who lies in my arms asleep.”

Cheeky boys get spanked.

“Well, get up, get up,” Lord Donald cried, “get up as quick as you can!
It’ll never be said in fair England that I slew a naked man.”

Lord Donald is rightly concerned about his reputation because this is the key to his continued social status. Gossip among peers can destroy the social standing of even the very rich. And, of course, what else do elites have to occupy their time than gossip? Certainly not work or anything else productive.

Rules concerning combat are frequently a central component of honor cultures. Why is that? Concepts like honor, duty, and loyalty and the degree to which they generalize would be major topics for the class.

“Oh, I can’t get up, I won’t get up, I can’t get up for my life.
For you have two long beaten swords and I not a pocket-knife.”

“Well it’s true I have two beaten swords, and they cost me deep in the purse.
But you will have the better of them and I will have the worse.”

“And you will strike the very first blow, and strike it like a man.
I will strike the very next blow, and I’ll kill you if I can.”

Again, a steel sword would have been a serious luxury good. No peasant would have owned such goods nor have had any training in their use. Lord Donald is honorable in the sense that he refuses to slay the naked Matty Groves, but the magnanimity of his offer must be weighed against the serious asymmetry in human capital that is embodied in this duel. Would you know how to use a longsword in a duel? I assume that the weapon in question is some form of longsword since it is “beaten.” Consider also the fact that stature (along with strength) is very much determined by status. One of the most amazing demonstrations of this fact is provided in a plot of the secular trend in men’s stature in the United States published in the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Human Growth and Development (Ulijaszek et al., eds., 1998). Overlain on this plot of the secular trend are the heights of the first 36 presidents (through Nixon) as well as various other period-specific averages. All US presidents but three (Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, and Harry Truman) were substantially above the median period stature (though James Madison was just above the median). Compare this to a sample of working class in 1830 or British class IV in 1885.

Not a happy situation for Matty. Of course, what are Lord Donald’s options? His social standing would take an express ride to the basement if word got out that his wife was sleeping around — and with a peasant boy no less!

So Matty struck the very first blow, and he hurt Lord Donald sore.
Lord Donald struck the very next blow, and Matty struck no more.

Sucks to be a peasant in a highly stratified agrarian society. Here’s this guy who is seduced into the bed of a noble woman, against his better first judgement, who finds himself slain because of some bad luck and his social position.

And then Lord Donald he took his wife and he sat her on his knee,
Saying, “Who do you like the best of us, Matty Groves or me?”

And then up spoke his own dear wife, never heard to speak so free.
“I’d rather a kiss from dead Matty’s lips than you and your finery.”

Herein lie the clues to Lord Donald’s age and brutality, I think. Of course, we have the prima facie evidence of his brutality in the Lord having just slain his wife’s lover before her eyes. But is this really any more than could be expected from the age and society? I don’t think so. But one thing is utterly clear: she doesn’t want him anymore. Surely she has to know what she has coming when she speaks in such an impudent manner. “Never heard to speak so free”: Remember, she’s nameless. Nameless people don’t speak freely in the presence of nobility. Lord Donald appears to be giving her an out, which is actually quite remarkable. I don’t think that this would necessarily be expected in this society. She could easily have blamed the whole affair on (the now dead) Matty Groves. But, instead, she chose to take a principled stand and, oh, does it cost her.

Lord Donald he jumped up and loudly he did bawl,
He struck his wife right through the heart and pinned her against the wall.

This is pretty horrible. But the question remains: what were his options? This was a violent society — as all pre-modern societies (and most modern ones) are. Lord Donald’s social standing was greatly jeopardized by this incident. It’s unclear to me how it could have ended otherwise given his wife’s newfound freedom. Men’s control of women’s sexuality is a major theme in hierarchical societies — a theme that could fill several quarters worth of classes and would occupy a central place in my proposed class.

“A grave, a grave!” Lord Donald cried, “to put these lovers in.
But bury my lady at the top for she was of noble kin.”

Just in case you had forgotten for a second that this was an intensely stratified society. Even in the context of a double homicide, we need to maintain appearances…

I find all three main characters in this narrative sympathetic to some degree or another. All of them are victims of their social position. Of course, there are better and worse forms of victimhood. Most obviously, Lord Donald lives. He led the most privileged life but he was not immune from intense and potentially overwhelming social expectations. Lord Donald’s wife found herself trapped in a loveless marriage (what is love? what is it for? how universal is it?) to a man to whom she is not attracted with no possibility (because of her social position) for even same-sex friendship for lack of peers. And poor Matty. He is the most hapless really; a total victim of his circumstances.

So this is the general idea for my future IHUM class: An analysis of Human Nature through folk songs. There is lots of potential for higher-order analysis here too. Things having to do with the nature of cultural transmission and how ideas are transformed across time and space. This class would be a blast, particularly if we could have a performance aspect to it.