Monthly Archives: July 2018

Lexical Cognitions: Misbegotten altruism, sniping ethnographers, and who actually wrote the Bible? Book recommendations for 24 July 2018

A MILLION new books.

Nearly 2 million new scientific papers.

Every single year.

For as far as the eye can see into the future.

And yet, how many times have you sat down to lunch or into your coach-class seat with absolutely nothing good to read? If your answer, like ours, is “far too often,” then we hope you will enjoy our new occasional blog series, “Lexical Cognitions.” Expect regular coverage of social science, cognitive science, and evolutionary biology, but I doubt we’ll be able to resist throwing in the occasional novel or bit of long-form non-fiction. Our Lexical Cognitions are not ageist: If it’s got words on it, then it’s fair game for Lexical Cognitions, even if it’s old.

Although I’m sure we’ll pan a book or an article from time to time, I’d expect mostly plugs. I doubt we’ll want to spend a lot of time writing about books or articles that we think you shouldn’t waste your time on.

We’ve got three books for you this week.

1.

The first is Richard Elliott Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible? Joseph Billingsley, who is a fifth-year student in our PhD program, calls it “a superb and eminently readable synthesis of scholarly investigation into the origins of Western culture’s most influential book.” Here’s how Joseph described the book to me:

Friedman takes what could be a dull academic treatise and turns it into the intellectual equivalent of a compelling detective story, drawing readers deeper and deeper into the mystery of the Bible’s authorship. Deft in its presentation of close textual analysis, historical context, and above all the logic that ties the pieces of the puzzle together, Friedman’s book brings to life the very human authors of what Christian readers call the Old Testament—their hopes, their fears, their goals, and their tragic history. The insights that have been produced by centuries of Biblical scholarship—so lucidly laid out by Elliott—consistently amaze, and profoundly deepen one’s understanding of how the Western conception of God has emerged. Frankly, it’s too bad that the findings summarized in this book are not common knowledge, but are instead largely limited to scholars and academics.

2.

This week, I have been reading Suzanne Franks’s Reporting disasters: Famine, aid, politics and the media. Franks, who is now a professor of journalism at the City University of London, worked for many years at the BBC, including during the 1980s when the BBC’s news division brought British (and, eventually, global) attention to the Ethiopian famine of 1983-1985.

As Franks tells it, the BBC’s coverage so oversimplified the causes for the famine (which had at least as much to do with civil war as with drought and climate changes) that many viewers came to believe that solving the Ethiopian dilemma was a mere matter of shipping food, medicine, and supplies to a suffering Ethiopian people. The BBC broadcasts, as it happens, are what inspired pop musicians Bob Geldof and Midge Ure to put together the British charity supergroup Band Aid, which recorded their hit “Feed the World” in a single day at the end of November 1984. Feed the World sold 2 million copies (I know mine’s around here somewhere), raising more than $20 million for famine relief.

Months later, Harry Belafonte, Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie put together a charity supergroup on our side of the pond called USA for Africa. Their (objectively much better by any sensible standard) charity single “We Are the World” featured so many musical stars from the American musical galaxy (including Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Kenny Rogers, James Ingram, Tina Turner, Willie Nelson, Ray Charles, Dionne Warwick, Bob Dylan, Cyndi Lauper, Kim Carnes, Bruce Springsteen, Steve Perry, Huey Lewis, and Al Jarreau) that it almost makes one’s ears ring to imagine them all in a studio at the same time.

The pinnacle of the 1984-1985 musical year of miracles for Africa, however, was the one-day trans-Atlantic music festival/orgy of rock-and-roll emotional excess/pledge drive called Live Aid, which took place simultaneously in London’s Wembley Stadium and Philadelphia’s JFK Stadium. Among other notable moments in the history of pop music, Live Aid is remembered today for bequeathing to us what is very plausibly the worst set Led Zeppelin ever performed (three-quarters of Led Zeppelin, anyway, with Phil Collins and Tony Thompson on drums). Nonetheless, it has been estimated that 40% of the world’s televisions were tuned in to Live Aid at some point on July 13, 1985, and it broke all previous fundraising efforts to raise money for African poverty relief. Indeed, between 1984 and 1985, Band Aid, USA for Africa, and Live Aid raised over $200 million for African famine relief and development.

Despite this heartwarming global outpouring of concern for the world’s poorest and neediest, however, real questions linger even to this day about whether this massive fundraising effort created more problems than it solved by prolonging Ethiopia’s civil war. Franks’s book is a very important exercise in Monday-morning quarterbacking about disaster journalism, and about activism in the absence of an expert’s grasp of critical facts.

3.

The third review for this week comes from William McAuliffe, another fifth-year student in our program. Will just finished The Mountain People, Colin Turnbull’s ethnography of a small-scale society in Uganda called the Ik. The book sent Will off in some directions that should fascinate anyone interested in anthropology, behavioral ecology, or social behavior more generally. Here’s Will:

While acknowledging that he was observing a group going through a dire famine, Turnbull nevertheless described the Ik in vitriolic terms–they were sadistic, unwilling to care for suffering family members, and uninterested in intimate social interactions. He recommended that the government should forcibly disband the Ik in the hopes of saving the individuals while killing the culture. Although the book enjoyed popularity among laypeople, it immediately drew harsh criticism from the anthropological community. Turnbull’s work was critiqued mostly on ethical grounds but also out of a suspicion that he had been biased against the Ik from the start. This suspicion was ostensibly confirmed in 1985, when a linguist named Bernd Heine reported that he could not corroborate most of Turnbull’s observations. Heine pointed out that Turnbull had a poor command of the Ik language, and had even mistakenly used many non-Ik as key informants. These shortcomings caused him to misunderstand many basic aspects of Ik life, including their religious beliefs, knowledge of flora, and customs for ratifying and dissolving marriages. Heine went so far as to suggest that Turnbull had projected his own malevolent sentiments onto his research subjects. In a 2013 documentary called Ikland, a small group of filmmakers visited the Ik and found them to be amicable. (Interestingly, the documentary also vilifies the Turkana, a neighboring pastoralist group that Turnbull got along with quite well.)  Echoing Heine, the filmmakers concluded that Turnbull must have provoked any antisocial behavior he observed.

However, neither the film nor Heine presented evidence that the cruel behavior that Turnbull had observed in the 1960s was actually a fabrication. An unexplored alternative possibility was simply that the society had changed for the better. In a recent issue of Ethnos, Rane Willerslev and Lotte Meinert (2016) began to set the record straight by reading passages from The Mountain People to the Ik and asking them whether they rang true. In a partial vindication of the book’s contents, many Ik informants agreed that extreme callousness did indeed arise among their ranks during famines. When there was literally not enough food to go around, they argued, everyone had to look out for number one. But when times improved, people forgave each other and cooperative relations resumed. Willerslev and Meinert pointed out that the correlation between famine and antisocial behavior is not unique to the Ik, and is in fact common in small-scale societies where food is eaten right away rather than stored (either because it is not easily kept fresh or because competing groups might try to steal it). In such societies, people tend not to develop alliances that impose obligations to share food in a reciprocal manner. Rather, people simply demand to have some of each other’s leftovers, and acquiescence is not registered as a favor. Unfortunately, when famine strikes there are no leftovers, nor allies to call on for help.

I appreciated this discussion of general trends among small-scale societies in part because it represents a departure from the overly personal tone that characterizes most reactions to The Mountain People. Many of Turnbull’s critics seemed eager to vindicate the Ik as a dignified people. To do so, they seemed to feel as though they needed to discredit Turnbull’s observations entirely. But understanding the Ik from a nomothetic rather than an idiographic point of view obviates the temptation to label them as either good or bad. Rather, their suffering merely points up the horrors of poverty, and the inability of a demand-based sharing system to facilitate survival during the worst of times.

Happy reading!

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