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Monday, September 8, 2008

"Usefulness"

I know that I have not written on here in a long time, but reading this last post and the ensuing comments, I could not NOT say anything... 

Particularly as anthropologists, we often work with populations that do not have adequate resources, let alone anything near what we have essentially been handed on a silver platter. Yes, we may have studied hard, worked a part-time job (or two) during college, and sacrificed going out every weekend, but there are people in the world who have struggles that I don't think any of us (meaning, those who write this blog) could ever begin to contemplate. The very notion of questioning where my next meal will come from is something I cannot even understand. There are people - in the U. S., in Europe, Africa, Asia, all over the world - that have nothing, that work endless hours in sweatshops, in terrible work conditions, make next to nothing, and have families to care for. YET, many times, anthropological work focuses on individuals in these types of situations, and the authors of that work gain fame, notoriety, income, and all sorts of other things...while these populations essentially benefit little, if at all. I'm not saying this is every case, or even most cases, but I have witnessed it happening, first-hand. And of course, there are people in this field who may say, well I study non-human primates, or I study bones, and this issue does not pertain to me. Well to you I ask, who is your field guide? What country are you doing work in? Who is helping you in the field? My point is, I do not think it is at all right to use data collected in such a capacity, for your own academic advancement (or whatever) and think that you do not owe something to the people who you worked with, studied, or who helped you in the field (or elsewhere, but typically, this situation arises in anthropological fieldwork). And I do not mean this in a condescending way, just think - if you had a penny to your name and slept on the street, and some researcher came in and made observations about your life, and then just left, to go on to use the data about you and your family in some article that got published, and this researcher then used this to her/his advantage, how would you feel? I know how I'd feel - used.

As educated individuals supposedly "aware" of our world, we have a responsibility to our own and future generations to make the world a better place. I count myself in this "supposedly aware" population, because I am terrible at keeping up with current events, knowing what is going on in the world, and often wrestle with the hypocrisy in my own thoughts, but I just want to put them out there. I don't think the problem lies in designating "useless" and "useful" professions - but in seeing that whether you are an academic, a doctor, a lawyer, a mail carrier, a firefighter, a teacher, a garbage collector - you will face choices every day of your life that affect others. You can make the choice to do something to help someone, and it doesn't mean you have to become the next Mother Theresa to do so.

The question is not, "What are academics doing to make the world any better?" but "How can I, myself, make a difference?" I refuse to give up on what many people consider - and have told me as much - are "foolish," optimistic dreams of ending suffering and hate through education, understanding, hard work, and compassion. Is it "foolish" to believe that we can cure AIDS in our lifetime? Is it "foolish" to believe that we can end genocide? Is it "foolish" to believe that we can restore several places on Earth to their former beauty and majesty, instead of the wastelands these areas have become as a result of pollution? I do not think so.  And I say "we" because I think that all of us have in ourselves this ability to see past ourselves. I even believe that maybe I could do this, if I could stop being so selfish and petty. 

Eleanor Roosevelt once said, "The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams." Dreams may be just that - dreams - but if you never have one to begin with - if you never have a hope that things could be better, that things could improve - what is the point in living? A world without beautiful dreams, without hopes, without the spark of compassion and idealism that are so important to humanity - is one I refuse to live in.

Maybe my reaction seems an exaggeration, but I'm so tired of hearing others - and myself, worst of all - foolishly think that problems like this "aren't ours" or "this doesn't concern me, I'd like to do research about X or Y my whole life" and cannot see beyond the view from the ivory tower - or even the edge of our own desks. We all live on this planet together, we depend on one another because this is a global community - and as "educated" people - as people in general - we cannot afford to ignore this fact. 

Research for research's sake is great, and I do not think that curiosity is a "stupid" or "bad" reason to engage in intellectual discussion and research...but what if just 10% of that energy was put into using (or re-directing?) so-called "ivory tower" research to address world hunger, disease, or about a billion other serious issues in the world today? University and research institutions are a resource that could really be valuable in coming to at some sort of real, tangible solution to at least some of them...but of course, in reality, I am far more optimistic than that.

Um...I did this instead of reading for Ling...so I encourage heavy cynicism. And for people to get angry. Maybe break things. On my head.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Apes prefer cooked foods, and many children don't get to eat

A while ago I commented on a paper by V. Wobber and others (2008), in which the team ran some tests to see whether great apes prefer cooked foods. In fact, that was the title of the paper: "Great apes prefer cooked foods," like something ripped from the headlines on the Planet of the Apes. Or perhaps in the movie Dunston Checks In, which of course nobody remembers (and rightfully so). The paper comes to mind again because John Hawks recently blogged about it.

The motive behind the paper is the question of how long it took early hominins to adopt food-cookery after the control of fire--an interesting question, as this new dietary niche probably is responsible for myriad changes that occurred in human evolution. Nevertheless, I lamented then that the paper was a bit silly. Hawks's post made me think of another qualm with this paper--a problem that arises often for me. Specifically, 'how important are some aspects of biological anthropology in light of the current state of the world, how is what we study relevant?' I've battled with this as I am working toward a degree in this field--will anything I do make a difference (hopefully a positive one) for anyone or anything?

The relvance here comes from the paper's Methods sections: apes were variously given carrots, apples, potatos, and beef prepared in different ways, cooked and raw. For the research question, the methods more or less make sense. But one has to wonder that since there are starving people all over the world, children (even in developed nations like the USA) who go to bed hungry at night, have anxieties because they don't know when and where their next meal will come from--in light of all this, does it really matter whether apes prefer cooked foods? You're going to let an ape choose between mashed or diced carrots, when there are people--probably right outside the zoos and facilities where these experiments were run--who don't get a choice on whether they'll eat, let alone what they'll eat? This, in a world where great apes themselves are hunted because the people living around them don't have adequate alternate protein sources . . .

I know that the food from these experiments would not have solved the problem of global hunger, or even satisfied a single person for maybe more than a day or two. And I do my fair share of throwing foodstuffs away (it's the American way). But it raises a great question about priorities, about what's ultimately important. I can only hope that my future research will be so important and beneficial to justify the carbon footprint I'll make traveling for research, the resources I'll consume in the name of science.

Reference
Wobber V, Hare B, Wrangham R. 2008. Great apes prefer cooked foods. J Hum Evol 55: 340-348.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Something snappy goes here

Newest Hawks' post says this: (oh, the quote refers to how his language evolution theory might apply to music)
A graduate student raised that issue after my talk this spring, and it is a very interesting one. I don't have a lot else to say right now, because the work is still underway.
If I remember correctly, that "graduate student" was either Big Chief or Zach (I believe there was some confusion at the time about who would get credit). Please correct me if I'm wrong. Otherwise, kudos for being smart!



P.S. on a completely separate note, I absolutely HATE studying for anatomy exams.