Tuesday, 24 July 2012

A book by Marvin Minsky

Marvin Minsky's book The Society of Mind is a classic in the field of artificial intelligence.  It's beautifully structured, but it isn't organised into a single coherent narrative.  Instead, Minsky has divided the book into thirty chapters and an appendix, and subdivided those chapters into single-page essays.  The chapters tend to focus on a single theme, but they don't necessarily follow immediately on from one another.  They do build on one another over the long term, however; a chapter on memory is followed by one on thinking about and classifying arches, only to be picked up a few chapters later by a chapter on memory that links into the chapters on arches and everything else in between.  It feels like it was created organically.  It's very easy to read, and can be digested in bite-sized pieces, and there's no reason not to read it, even if you take your time over it.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Proto-Sticky-Icky: Ancient Cannabis

I mentioned in my last post that Indo-European speakers might have become rich through selling horses, and recruitment to Indo-European-speaking groups might have seemed like a good prospect for members of other groups.  But it's possible that proto-Indo-European speakers became rich and powerful through selling other products, including, perhaps, intoxicants.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

An Overview of Theories of Austronesian Migration

There are several theories as to how the Austronesian language family ended up so widely scattered.  One is a fairly simple migration model: that Austronesian-speaking people and their direct descendents (by and large) moved south from Taiwan through the Philippines and Indonesia before crossing the Indian and Pacific Oceans to Madagascar and Hawaii.  That's a bit of a strawman, but it's close enough to the basic idea of the dominant Austronesian migration model.  There's been considerable work on this model, and it's really nuanced and evidence-based - it's not speculative or unreasonable.  Nevertheless, there are other positions out there.  Migration is complicated, and anthropologists supporting the migration view don't rule out other mechanisms.  The difference between models is more in emphasis.

Monday, 16 July 2012

A short post on Cognitivism

One of the reasons anthropologists rarely present a united front and often direct their ire at good academics - like, say, Steven Pinker - is their inability to agree about the most basic facts concerning Homo sapiens.  They discuss long-term debates like 'structure' versus 'agency', many of which become highly politicised, and work from philosophers (often very bad ones) and concepts (often very vague ones) instead of first principles.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Ancient Alien Chronology I: Pumapunku

One of the things that leaps out at you when consulting alient astronaut materials - if you have a good sense of the chronology of human history, anyway - is that there doesn't seem to be a plausible time scale by which this is all happening.  These aliens seem to have hopped about all over the place at completely different points in time.  A short visit to twelfth century BCE Veracruz to get the Olmecs up and going, a saunter into tenth century CE Java to get Borobudur built, a few cocktail parties in sixth century CE Bolivia to establish the Tiwanaku civilisation.  It all seems a little far-fetched.  Why didn't the aliens go everywhere at the same time?  Why did these extra-terrestrial voyagers, used to super-long-distance travel, find it so hard to cross the Atlantic Ocean?

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Ancient Aliens: Part I

I've been a follower - but not a fan - of the hypothesis that aliens gave the secrets of civilization to humans (otherwise known as "ancient alien theory") for some time.  It's deeply silly.  Like many pseudoscientific theories about the incredibly complex spread of writing, agriculture, and urbanisation, it engages with none of the real evidence, except in a superficial and deliberately exoticising way.  Anything prima facie mysterious is used as evidence that aliens landed and created/inspired whatever it is under discussion, relying on the ignorance of the audience for the claim to work.  This is how pseudoscience works, of course, but it's especially blatant in the ancient alien world.  We're not really dealing with complex scientific principles, after all.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

A Short Rant

The posts I've written so far have addressed things usually unaddressed in anthropology departments.  Indo-European studies, Afrocentrism, and Indian history have their place in anthropology departments, but it seems to me the wrong one.  Instead of studying the subjects themselves (say, the linguistic situation of ancient Egypt), anthropologists study the non-academics who take an interest in them.  Instead of trying to find out as much as possible about pre-Christian Celtic religion, for instance, anthropologists today will research Celtic revivalism in Texas.  There are some excellent academics who take an interest in both - Ronald Hutton is one of those, and he has published on both Druidic religion and neo-pagans today who believe they are following the original.  Hutton takes a suitably sceptical approach to both things.

A Meme Clarification

I want to clarify something about memes, as I have referred to them in two posts in a row.  Much of the criticism of the idea stems from the fact that they aren't "real": Language changes, technologies change, and each time someone uses a word or builds a prison or pours whisky into a tumbler, it is subtly different (in some way) to every previous time.  So "memes" aren't stable things you can point to, and therefore it is unreasonable to speak of an Indo-European expansion if only "memes" expanded.  "Memes" aren't real.

Some thoughts about the Indo-Europeans

I recently acquired The Horse, The Wheel, and Language by the anthropologist David Anthony.  The subject of this large book is the Indo-European expansion, which is a contentious and tricky subject.  Nineteenth century ruminations on the topic produced the Aryan concept, and introduced it into the German academic world at a nationalistic time as the German state coalesced out of the principalities left by the destruction of the Holy Roman Empire, providing one of the roots from which Nazism grew.  Even today many non-academics interested in the subject are white racists searching for their "Aryan" roots.  Connections with fascism may be found among many of the twentieth century scholars of Indo-European religion and society, including, possibly, Georges Dumezil, a French scholar whose claims about Indo-European society gave impetus to structuralism in anthropology - a strange, quasi-cognitivist movement defined by a not particularly scientific method for uncovering universals in social organisation and myth (and more) based on "structures" in the brain.  This was very influential, and it is one of the many schools of thought whose history forms much of useless dreck that one studies on a course in social anthropology.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Memes and Memetics

Meme theory is probably the most well-known of the anthropological theories bouncing around the academy today, but it didn't develop in anthropology departments and is consequently not very well-known by anthropologists themselves.  Since few anthropologists care about the problems meme theory purports to explain, they're also not very interested in approaching it.  This is not entirely true; there are some anthropologists who have looked at meme theory, including especially Maurice Bloch, a Franco-British anthropologist at the London School of Economics.  Dan Sperber, a brilliant anthropologist who has branched out into linguistics (introducing the influential theory of relevance into pragmatics) and much else, has also written extensively about the notion of memes.*  But it is certainly the case that you won't learn anything at all about the idea behind memes - even a debunking of it - on an anthropology course.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Why Anthropology Is Hard

Anthropology with a big-A is the study of human beings.  I'd say that this Anthropology includes studies of everything humans do and every aspect of how they do it, ranging from what we call political science to cognitive psychology to criminology to economics to paleoanthropology to Assyriology.  Fundamentally, all those sub-disciplines are about the same thing, even if they disagree about it.  Despite studying basically the same thing, there are nevertheless a lot of sub-disciplines in existence just for studying people.  That should make it easier and lighten the workload for scholars working in these fields, but to focus on even only one of these sub-disciplines of Anthropology requires an Atlantean burden.

The So-called "Afro-Asiatic Dominion"

This is a good example of the kind of pseudoscience I'm after.  The claim is that at some point, seemingly in the second millennium BCE, there was a vast "Kushite" empire extending from what is now Ghana and Morocco to India and the Caspian Sea, traceable through allusions in the Classical literature and genetics.  There is no support for such an empire, which would be completely unprecedented in world history, and, while I haven't done the calculation, would probably be the largest land empire in the history of the planet.  The evidence in favour of it is very poor.  The author is deeply confused about language families, the history of the Near East, and many other topics about which she pontificates, and she is putting out information that is flat out wrong.  I'm going to try to untangle some of these issues, but not all of them - I want to write a blogpost, not clean out the Augean stables.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

The Idea Behind the Blog

Part of my aim in writing this blog is to provide a sceptical angle on some aspects of anthropology, philosophy, and world history that some people out there might benefit from.  I'm fascinated - and more than a little disturbed - by "ancient alien" theory, the nonsensical, pseudo-scientific, pseudo-historical view that human life or human civilization (or at the very least, aspects of those things) resulted from intervention by extra-terrestrial beings.  I find it fascinating because it's somewhat popular (several History Channel seasons and innumerable drecky books attest to this), and disturbing not only because it is egregiously incorrect about everything it asserts (which it is) but also because the assumptions behind major aspects of it are deeply unscientific and even racist.  So I shall be writing a few things on ancient alien theory.

I'm equally disturbed by any ethno-nationalism, and I intend to tackle some of the pseudo-history produced by Afrocentrists, Aryan-myth-believing racists, and any and all other nutters.  I have no political axe to grind on this front (although I do endorse a species of cosmopolitanism), but I hate the idea of people walking around with such incorrect views about the world.  That's enough justification for me to leap on these topics, which is something I already do.

Another area of anti-scientific prejudice and pseudo-academic idiocy is to be found closer to home for me.  I took a master's degree in anthropology, and I am scrambling together funds to start a PhD next year.  My interests are in fairly down-to-earth things (things mundane, but with greater importance than at first appears), and my PhD proposal is about researching marriage alliance in eastern Indonesia.  This is something that is worthwhile and interesting in its own right, and very much at the core of anthropology - just not the anthropology departments of today.  The name "anthropology" is becoming more and more a label for a brand of "critical theory"-based social not-really-science predicated on either radical bullshit philosophy or left-wing political activism.  I'm interested in understanding human beings and their products naturalistically, not in changing all of society to fit a utopian dream, and it's surprising and ultimately frightening to me that social anthropology, once a technical discipline concerned with sociological problems not dealt with by other disciplines (like marriage alliance in Indonesia, which is hardly covered by, say, political science), has become a redoubt of kooky bad philosophy that other departments would and do reject as unbecoming of academia.  That doesn't mean I want to keep the subject in stasis, or that I want to revert to a previous incarnation of anthropology.  I'd rather that social anthropology were a productive part of the human sciences: connected to and contributing to psychology, history, linguistics, primatology, &c, and with a focus of its own, on pre-industrial societies, to complement sociology's focus on industrial and post-industrial societies (for the purposes of division of labour more than anything).

In any case, "critical theory" and continental philosophy is mostly bullshit, so I shall be covering these as well as other more traditional sceptical topics.

I intend to leaven this gritty bread with some more nourishing material, however.  I don't want to simply debunk or destroy the precious myths of "critical theorists", white racists, and other nutballs.  I'd much rather write engaging posts about truly fascinating things.  I'm interested in a heck of a lot of things, and I have some measure of expertise in a few of them, and it is on these things that I will concentrate.  Human kinship, Austronesian-speaking society, ancient Indonesia, early long-distance voyaging, Presocratic philosophy, epigraphy - yep, I have more than enough to say about these things to warrant writing a blog on them.  I may also write a few things about the arguments against the existence of deities.  This is hardly an uncommon topic in the blogosphere, but there are still some fresh angles left to cover, or at least make more prominent, and it's interesting to me regardless.

If there's any particularly strange claim made by a woo-woo merchant out there that you'd particularly like to see addressed, don't hesitate to let me know about it in the comments. :)

Monday, 2 July 2012

Video Games and World History

I have a strong interest in writing systems, and I rather like a website called Ancient Scripts.  It's a fantastic site (even though many of the pundits in the comments are madder than a bag of cut snakes), and I have supplemented my understanding of writing systems by using it as a reference.  I think it would be fair to say that I have quite a good grasp of writing systems.

In any case, I'm not a gamer, but I had the time and opportunity to play Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception, a game of the Indiana-Jones-esque adventuring tradition involving gunfights, a pseudohistorical plot, and lots of lovely exotic locales.  The plot takes the player to Yemen by way of France and Syria in a search for the "lost city" (classic!) of Iram, supposedly sought after by Francis Drake and T. E. Lawrence (but which was likely nothing more than an Arab literary trope).  The game places the city of Iram in Yemen, and I was surprised to find a series of puzzles involving the Sabaean script, a script from pre-Islamic south Arabia and used in the Sabaean and Minaean kingdoms.  An example of the script may be found on Ancient Scripts; it's quite chunky and blocky, and as an abjad (a consonantal alphabet where vowels are usually unrepresented), it has a small number of characters (29, in fact).  This makes it a good choice for use in a game like Uncharted, where the player uses a journal (I think it was T. E. Lawrence's) to solve puzzles by manipulating blocks or stepping on the right succession of plates ("In Latin Jehovah begins with an 'I'!").

The Sabaean kingdom is claimed to be the Biblical Sheba, where, yep, the Queen of Sheba reigned.  The game's plot reveals that a curse was placed on Iram, presumably a part of Sabaea, by none other than King Solomon himself, the Biblical Hebrew warlord, hence the city's disappearance from history.  That's all absolute nonsense, of course, but what impressed me was the fact that the game repeatedly referred to correct representations of the Sabaean script and got its provenance and associations correct.  Yes, it's a silly story, but I'm hopeful that some players of the game (which has been slated as, ahem, a little bit xenophobic) would see these puzzles as an impetus for learning a bit about the history of south Arabia and maybe even its place in Indian Ocean trade.  That's probably far too hopeful, but in any case, it's nice to see epigraphic esoteria in unlikely places.

The game was quite fun to play, as well.

A First Post: Indian History

This is the inaugural post for my blog, West's Meditations.  This is a blog about history, philosophy, and anthropology - and really anything else I find interesting.  My main interests are in ethnology, especially with regard to Indonesia and the Pacific, and world history, although I have many more deep-seated interests besides these.  The subject I have chosen to discuss is early Indian history, something about which I was, until fairly recently, ignorant.  A number of things generated my interest in it, but the two most important factors were reading about early history in western Indonesia (including the Kutai inscriptions) and about the Indo-European expansion (specifically M. L. West's book, Indo-European Poetry and Myth, which naturally cites the Vedas at every turn).  I was surprised by much of what I learned about India, and just how little is known about the early history of it compared to other parts of earth.