Arquivo da tag: Cultura

Watchers of the earth (AEON)

Indigenous peoples around the world tell myths which contain warning signs for natural disasters. Scientists are now listening.

Watchers of the earth | Aeon

Native knowledge. A Moken woman stares out to sea. Photo by Taylor Weidman/LightRocket/Getty

Carrie Arnold is a freelance science writer, whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, Scientific American and Slate, among others. Her latest book is Decoding Anorexia (2012). She lives in Virginia.

Edited by Pam Weintraub

Shortly before 8am on 26 December 2004, the cicadas fell silent and the ground shook in dismay. The Moken, an isolated tribe on the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean, knew that the Laboon, the ‘wave that eats people’, had stirred from his ocean lair. The Moken also knew what was next: a towering wall of water washing over their island, cleansing it of all that was evil and impure. To heed the Laboon’s warning signs, elders told their children, run to high ground.

The tiny Andaman and Nicobar Islands were directly in the path of the tsunami generated by the magnitude 9.1 earthquake off the coast of Sumatra. Final totals put the islands’ death toll at 1,879, with another 5,600 people missing. When relief workers finally came ashore, however, they realised that the death toll was skewed. The islanders who had heard the stories about the Laboon or similar mythological figures survived the tsunami essentially unscathed. Most of the casualties occurred in the southern Nicobar Islands. Part of the reason was the area’s geography, which generated a higher wave. But also at the root was the lack of a legacy; many residents in the city of Port Blair were outsiders, leaving them with no indigenous tsunami warning system to guide them to higher ground.

Humanity has always courted disaster. We have lived, died and even thrived alongside vengeful volcanoes and merciless waves. Some disasters arrive without warning, leaving survival to luck. Often, however, there is a small window of time giving people a chance to escape. Learning how to crack open this window can be difficult when a given catastrophe strikes once every few generations. So humans passed down stories through the ages that helped cultures to cope when disaster inevitably struck. These stories were fodder for anthropologists and social scientists, but in the past decade, geologists have begun to pay more attention to how indigenous peoples understood, and prepared for, disaster. These stories, which couched myth in metaphor, could ultimately help scientists prepare for cataclysms to come.

Anyone who has spent time around small children gets used to the question ‘why?’ Why is the sky blue? Why do birds fly? Why does thunder make such a loud noise? A friend’s mother told us that thunder was God going bowling in the sky. Nature need not be scary and unpredictable, even if it was controlled by forces we could neither see nor understand.

The human penchant for stories and meaning is nothing new. Myths and legends provide entertainment, but they also transmit knowledge of how to behave and how the world works. Breaking the code of these stories, however, takes skill. Tales of gods gone bowling during summer downpours seems nonsensical on the surface, but know a little about the sudden thunderclaps and the clatter of bowling pins as they’re struck by a ball, and the story makes sense.

In 1968, Dorothy Vitaliano, a geologist at Indiana University, pioneered the study of cultural myths that told of real geological events. Ancient Sanskrit tales told of entire cities that sunk beneath the waves with all the hallmarks of a tsunami. Plato’s story of the utopian Atlantis, destroyed by the gods in a wreckage of fire, might have referred to a volcano that partially destroyed the Greek island of Thera more than 3,500 years ago.

this story wasn’t simply a saga of angry gods but a geological record of an ancient eruption

Vitaliano published her work in a folklore journal, not a scientific one. It would take another geologist, Patrick Nunn of the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia, to bring the field more fully into the physical sciences. Nunn’s work in the paradisiacal South Pacific gave him the opportunity to immerse himself in the islands’ traditional cultures. A group on Fiji regaled him with a story of Tanovo, the ancient chief of the Fijian island of Ono. One day, Tanovo ran across his main rival, the chief of the volcano Nabukelevu. To intimidate Tanovo, the volcano chief made Nabukelevu rise up and belch gas and burning rock into the air. Tanovo responded by weaving massive baskets to remove the mountain, dropping the debris in the ocean to create new islands. To Nunn, this story wasn’t simply a saga of angry gods but a geological record of an ancient eruption. Pressure from magma can make a volcano expand in size before the release of gas and ash. Geologists knew that small islands around Fiji were the result of volcanic rubble, but Nunn was the first geologist to hear these stories and read between the lines.

The problem was that the best geological evidence Nunn could find dated the last eruption of Nabukelevu to 50,000 years in the past, long before any humans inhabited Fiji. Nunn wrote off the tale as merely a fanciful story, and it would have remained that way if not for a new road being built near the volcano. When construction workers dug out the roadbed, they discovered pottery fragments mixed in a three-foot layer of ash. Further analysis revealed that the fragments were 3,000 years old, dating to 1,000 years after humans first arrived on Fiji.

These stories, in synch with archaeological finds, provided evidence of ‘geological events we don’t have access to any other way. There are not many examples of wholly invented myths – ancient humans were not like modern fiction writers. The point of these stories was to pass knowledge along,’ Nunn explained.

Brian McAdoo, a tsunami scientist at Yale-NUS in Singapore, began his career plumbing the depths of the ocean in high-tech submersibles to understand the earthquakes that triggered tsunamis. In 1998, a magnitude 7.1 earthquake struck off the northern coast of Papua New Guinea, triggering a tsunami estimated to have killed more than 2,000 on the island. The quake was comparatively gentle for such a deadly tsunami, which led McAdoo to begin looking at the social and cultural factors that made some geological disasters deadlier than others. His research introduced him to local tribes who told him traditional stories about earthquakes and tsunamis from the past.

‘A lot of the people we talked to said that their grandmothers would tell these stories about how their grandmothers survived a tsunami,’ McAdoo said.

As McAdoo was delving into the mysteries of Fijian stories in the southwestern Pacific, other scientists were using a similar strategy to study seismic events in the Pacific Northwest. Brian Atwater, an employee of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) in the 1970s and ’80s, was tasked with mapping the earthquake risks across Northern California, Oregon, and Washington. To do that, Atwater needed information about previous earthquakes that had struck the area. Written records dated back only about 200 years, so Atwater, now at the University of Washington in Seattle, initially relied on information that he could glean from the soil and rocks.

His work sent him into areas where native peoples had lived for thousands of years, and they told the government scientist their own myths about gods who walked the earth, stomping their feet and making the ground shake, as well as giant waves that swept over the land shortly thereafter.

In 2007, Atwater identified a massive earthquake that spawned an equally massive tsunami, decimating villages and forever altering the landscape of the Pacific Northwest. When his team dated the debris from the earthquake, he discovered it had occurred around the year 1700.

‘It was a horrible thing – the burial of a house and no doubt its occupants. It’s a really sobering experience to sift through those artefacts’

When Japanese seismologists heard of this date, they immediately contacted Atwater about a rogue tsunami that no one could explain. The Japanese, of course, were long familiar with tsunamis, having coined the word. They knew that the wall of water always followed an earthquake, and people living along the coast had learned to seek higher ground when they felt the ground start to shake. Yet in the 12th year of the Genroku era, or 1700 CE, a tsunami had hurtled itself into Japan’s eastern shore, but without an accompanying earthquake.

Modern seismologists guessed that the tsunami must have been spawned by an earthquake on the other side of the Pacific, but they couldn’t be any more specific. Atwater’s work gave them the missing information: in the Cascades, the Juan de Fuca plate dives beneath the North American plate, but it doesn’t move smoothly. The rocks get stuck, and tension builds. When the stress becomes too high, the fault ruptures and the plates move – a process that humans describe as an earthquake. Based on the precise recordings of the Japanese tsunami, the researchers provided a much more precise date for the earthquake that devastated the Pacific Northwest. Sometime around 9pm on Tuesday, 26 January 1700, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake hit as the plates violently released the stress pent up in the rocks.

‘It was a horrible thing to contemplate – the burial of a house and no doubt its occupants, as well as so many other parts of their lives. It’s a really sobering experience to sift through those artefacts,’ Atwater said.

Linking traditional Native American stories to historic records of a Japanese tsunami was considered an exception, not the start of a fruitful geological collaboration. It seemed that McAdoo, Nunn and Atwater’s explorations would be confined to the fringes of geology.

Then the 2004 tsunami struck.

A century before, a tsunami had slammed into the Indonesian island of Simeulue, killing hundreds and leaving even more homeless. The event was seared into the memory of those who survived, determined to pass their hard-earned wisdom along to their children. Their instructions were devastatingly simple: if the water recedes after an earthquake, run immediately to high ground. They didn’t invoke gods or the supernatural, but these types of warnings likely formed the kernel of later myths and traditional stories, Nunn says. During the tsunami of 2004, their efficacy was clear. On Simeulue, with a population of more than 80,000, only seven people died. Before the roar of the waves drowned out human voices, the island was filled with shouts of ‘Smong! Smong! Smong!’, the local word for a tsunami.

Such stories regularly cropped up in the weeks and months following the tsunami. Residents of remote villages knew exactly what to do and survived with relatively few casualties. As the stories gained in popularity, the idea that they had valid geological merit began to grow.

‘The 2004 tsunami completely changed how science looked at disasters. There were more conversations between social scientists, natural scientists, and engineers, which led to more insights on how and why these disasters happened,’ McAdoo said.

Most recently, a paper in Science published in August 2016 revealed geological evidence for a massive ancient flood in China that had long been rumoured to have spurred the formation of the country’s first imperial dynasty. Around 4,000 years ago, the stories go, an ‘Emperor Yu’ rose to power based on his ability to drain lowlands of flood. No one knew whether Emperor Yu was a real person or whether the floodwaters he tamed actually existed.

Yet studying the landslides in the Jishi Gorge that dammed the Yellow River high in the Tibetan plateau, a team of Chinese scientists gathered archaeological and geological evidence to demonstrate that the dams failed right around the time that China’s first dynasty emerged. The failure rerouted the Yellow River, a dynamic that could lead to persistent flooding downstream. The researchers also found evidence of large-scale drainage projects in the Yellow River delta that popped up not long after the Jishi Gorge landslides.

My personal suburban legends left me intimately familiar with what to do if I ever saw a funnel cloud

The destructive power of natural disasters hasn’t diminished in the thousands of years during which these stories were told and retold. And humanity now faces an even greater catastrophe in the form of climate change. Unlike floods, earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanoes, the devastation from global warming isn’t sudden and violent. It has been creeping up on us for decades, but that doesn’t mean it will be any less deadly. To fight these changes, humanity needs a new set of tales.

On Fiji, 25-year-old Betty Barkha is traversing her homeland to gather stories of how locals are responding to increased cyclones and flooding caused by our changing climate. These stories might not have the nail-biting drama of oral epics filled with supernatural forces, but they can connect with readers and listeners in ways that dry data from government agencies can’t.

Most humans don’t spend their evenings swapping stories around a campfire, but we haven’t lost our penchant for myth. The same summer storms caused by gods gone bowling could also generate tornadoes. As a child in the Midwest, I knew all the signs: a sky that looked like pea soup, wind that had the angry roar of an oncoming train, and the plaintive wail of a warning siren. A few years before I was born, a tornado had ripped through my town, leaving a path of debris less than a quarter mile from my home. Decades later, stories are still told of how a gas station was levelled on one side of the street but a building diagonally across was untouched. My personal suburban legends left me intimately familiar with what to do if I ever saw a funnel cloud.

Whether the disaster is earthquake, volcano or ocean wave, modern responses will likely involve cutting-edge science, but chances are we’ll also be spinning stories for aeons to come.

13 April 2017

Greater than the sum of our parts: The evolution of collective intelligence (EurekaAlert!)

News Release 15-Jun-2021

University of Cambridge

Research News

The period preceding the emergence of behaviourally modern humans was characterised by dramatic climatic and environmental variability – it is these pressures, occurring over hundreds of thousands of years that shaped human evolution.

New research published today in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal proposes a new theory of human cognitive evolution entitled ‘Complementary Cognition’ which suggests that in adapting to dramatic environmental and climactic variabilities our ancestors evolved to specialise in different, but complementary, ways of thinking.

Lead author Dr Helen Taylor, Research Associate at the University of Strathclyde and Affiliated Scholar at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge, explained: “This system of complementary cognition functions in a way that is similar to evolution at the genetic level but instead of underlying physical adaptation, may underlay our species’ immense ability to create behavioural, cultural and technological adaptations. It provides insights into the evolution of uniquely human adaptations like language suggesting that this evolved in concert with specialisation in human cognition.”

The theory of complementary cognition proposes that our species cooperatively adapt and evolve culturally through a system of collective cognitive search alongside genetic search which enables phenotypic adaptation (Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection can be interpreted as a ‘search’ process) and cognitive search which enables behavioural adaptation.

Dr Taylor continued, “Each of these search systems is essentially a way of adapting using a mixture of building on and exploiting past solutions and exploring to update them; as a consequence, we see evolution in those solutions over time. This is the first study to explore the notion that individual members of our species are neurocognitively specialised in complementary cognitive search strategies.”

Complementary cognition could lie at the core of explaining the exceptional level of cultural adaptation in our species and provides an explanatory framework for the emergence of language. Language can be viewed as evolving both as a means of facilitating cooperative search and as an inheritance mechanism for sharing the more complex results of complementary cognitive search. Language is viewed as an integral part of the system of complementary cognition.

The theory of complementary cognition brings together observations from disparate disciplines, showing that they can be viewed as various faces of the same underlying phenomenon.

Dr Taylor continued: “For example, a form of cognition currently viewed as a disorder, dyslexia, is shown to be a neurocognitive specialisation whose nature in turn predicts that our species evolved in a highly variable environment. This concurs with the conclusions of many other disciplines including palaeoarchaeological evidence confirming that the crucible of our species’ evolution was highly variable.”

Nick Posford, CEO, British Dyslexia Association said, “As the leading charity for dyslexia, we welcome Dr Helen Taylor’s ground-breaking research on the evolution of complementary cognition. Whilst our current education and work environments are often not designed to make the most of dyslexia-associated thinking, we hope this research provides a starting point for further exploration of the economic, cultural and social benefits the whole of society can gain from the unique abilities of people with dyslexia.”

At the same time, this may also provide insights into understanding the kind of cumulative cultural evolution seen in our species. Specialisation in complementary search strategies and cooperatively adapting would have vastly increased the ability of human groups to produce adaptive knowledge, enabling us to continually adapt to highly variable conditions. But in periods of greater stability and abundance when adaptive knowledge did not become obsolete at such a rate, it would have instead accumulated, and as such Complementary Cognition may also be a key factor in explaining cumulative cultural evolution.

Complementary cognition has enabled us to adapt to different environments, and may be at the heart of our species’ success, enabling us to adapt much faster and more effectively than any other highly complex organism. However, this may also be our species’ greatest vulnerability.

Dr Taylor concluded: “The impact of human activity on the environment is the most pressing and stark example of this. The challenge of collaborating and cooperatively adapting at scale creates many difficulties and we may have unwittingly put in place a number of cultural systems and practices, particularly in education, which are undermining our ability to adapt. These self-imposed limitations disrupt our complementary cognitive search capability and may restrict our capacity to find and act upon innovative and creative solutions.”

“Complementary cognition should be seen as a starting point in exploring a rich area of human evolution and as a valuable tool in helping to create an adaptive and sustainable society. Our species may owe our spectacular technological and cultural achievements to neurocognitive specialisation and cooperative cognitive search, but our adaptive success so far may belie the importance of attaining an equilibrium of approaches. If this system becomes maladjusted, it can quickly lead to equally spectacular failures to adapt – and to survive, it is critical that this system be explored and understood further.”

Humans Are Evolving Faster Than Ever. The Reason Is Not Genetic, Study Claims (Science Alert)

Cameron Duke, Live Science – 15 JUNE 2021

At the mercy of natural selection since the dawn of life, our ancestors adapted, mated and died, passing on tiny genetic mutations that eventually made humans what we are today. 

But evolution isn’t bound strictly to genes anymore, a new study suggests. Instead, human culture may be driving evolution faster than genetic mutations can work.

In this conception, evolution no longer requires genetic mutations that confer a survival advantage being passed on and becoming widespread. Instead, learned behaviors passed on through culture are the “mutations” that provide survival advantages.

This so-called cultural evolution may now shape humanity’s fate more strongly than natural selection, the researchers argue.

“When a virus attacks a species, it typically becomes immune to that virus through genetic evolution,” study co-author Zach Wood, a postdoctoral researcher in the School of Biology and Ecology at the University of Maine, told Live Science.

Such evolution works slowly, as those who are more susceptible die off and only those who survive pass on their genes. 

But nowadays, humans mostly don’t need to adapt to such threats genetically. Instead, we adapt by developing vaccines and other medical interventions, which are not the results of one person’s work but rather of many people building on the accumulated “mutations” of cultural knowledge.

By developing vaccines, human culture improves its collective “immune system,” said study co-author Tim Waring, an associate professor of social-ecological systems modeling at the University of Maine.

And sometimes, cultural evolution can lead to genetic evolution. “The classic example is lactose tolerance,” Waring told Live Science. “Drinking cow’s milk began as a cultural trait that then drove the [genetic] evolution of a group of humans.”

In that case, cultural change preceded genetic change, not the other way around. 

The concept of cultural evolution began with the father of evolution himself, Waring said. Charles Darwin understood that behaviors could evolve and be passed to offspring just as physical traits are, but scientists in his day believed that changes in behaviors were inherited. For example, if a mother had a trait that inclined her to teach a daughter to forage for food, she would pass on this inherited trait to her daughter. In turn, her daughter might be more likely to survive, and as a result, that trait would become more common in the population. 

Waring and Wood argue in their new study, published June 2 in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, that at some point in human history, culture began to wrest evolutionary control from our DNA. And now, they say, cultural change is allowing us to evolve in ways biological change alone could not.

Here’s why: Culture is group-oriented, and people in those groups talk to, learn from and imitate one another. These group behaviors allow people to pass on adaptations they learned through culture faster than genes can transmit similar survival benefits.

An individual can learn skills and information from a nearly unlimited number of people in a small amount of time and, in turn, spread that information to many others. And the more people available to learn from, the better. Large groups solve problems faster than smaller groups, and intergroup competition stimulates adaptations that might help those groups survive.

As ideas spread, cultures develop new traits.

In contrast, a person only inherits genetic information from two parents and racks up relatively few random mutations in their eggs or sperm, which takes about 20 years to be passed on to their small handful of children. That’s just a much slower pace of change.

“This theory has been a long time coming,” said Paul Smaldino, an associate professor of cognitive and information sciences at the University of California, Merced who was not affiliated with this study. “People have been working for a long time to describe how evolutionary biology interacts with culture.”

It’s possible, the researchers suggest, that the appearance of human culture represents a key evolutionary milestone.

“Their big argument is that culture is the next evolutionary transition state,” Smaldino told Live Science.

Throughout the history of life, key transition states have had huge effects on the pace and direction of evolution. The evolution of cells with DNA was a big transitional state, and then when larger cells with organelles and complex internal structures arrived, it changed the game again. Cells coalescing into plants and animals was another big sea change, as was the evolution of sex, the transition to life on land and so on.

Each of these events changed the way evolution acted, and now humans might be in the midst of yet another evolutionary transformation. We might still evolve genetically, but that may not control human survival very much anymore.

“In the very long term, we suggest that humans are evolving from individual genetic organisms to cultural groups which function as superorganisms, similar to ant colonies and beehives,” Waring said in a statement.

But genetics drives bee colonies, while the human superorganism will exist in a category all its own. What that superorganism looks like in the distant future is unclear, but it will likely take a village to figure it out. 

UMaine researchers: Culture drives human evolution more than genetics (Eureka Alert!)

News Release 2-Jun-2021

University of Maine

Research News

In a new study, University of Maine researchers found that culture helps humans adapt to their environment and overcome challenges better and faster than genetics.

After conducting an extensive review of the literature and evidence of long-term human evolution, scientists Tim Waring and Zach Wood concluded that humans are experiencing a “special evolutionary transition” in which the importance of culture, such as learned knowledge, practices and skills, is surpassing the value of genes as the primary driver of human evolution.

Culture is an under-appreciated factor in human evolution, Waring says. Like genes, culture helps people adjust to their environment and meet the challenges of survival and reproduction. Culture, however, does so more effectively than genes because the transfer of knowledge is faster and more flexible than the inheritance of genes, according to Waring and Wood.

Culture is a stronger mechanism of adaptation for a couple of reasons, Waring says. It’s faster: gene transfer occurs only once a generation, while cultural practices can be rapidly learned and frequently updated. Culture is also more flexible than genes: gene transfer is rigid and limited to the genetic information of two parents, while cultural transmission is based on flexible human learning and effectively unlimited with the ability to make use of information from peers and experts far beyond parents. As a result, cultural evolution is a stronger type of adaptation than old genetics.

Waring, an associate professor of social-ecological systems modeling, and Wood, a postdoctoral research associate with the School of Biology and Ecology, have just published their findings in a literature review in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the flagship biological research journal of The Royal Society in London.

“This research explains why humans are such a unique species. We evolve both genetically and culturally over time, but we are slowly becoming ever more cultural and ever less genetic,” Waring says.

Culture has influenced how humans survive and evolve for millenia. According to Waring and Wood, the combination of both culture and genes has fueled several key adaptations in humans such as reduced aggression, cooperative inclinations, collaborative abilities and the capacity for social learning. Increasingly, the researchers suggest, human adaptations are steered by culture, and require genes to accommodate.

Waring and Wood say culture is also special in one important way: it is strongly group-oriented. Factors like conformity, social identity and shared norms and institutions — factors that have no genetic equivalent — make cultural evolution very group-oriented, according to researchers. Therefore, competition between culturally organized groups propels adaptations such as new cooperative norms and social systems that help groups survive better together.

According to researchers, “culturally organized groups appear to solve adaptive problems more readily than individuals, through the compounding value of social learning and cultural transmission in groups.” Cultural adaptations may also occur faster in larger groups than in small ones.

With groups primarily driving culture and culture now fueling human evolution more than genetics, Waring and Wood found that evolution itself has become more group-oriented.

“In the very long term, we suggest that humans are evolving from individual genetic organisms to cultural groups which function as superorganisms, similar to ant colonies and beehives,” Waring says. “The ‘society as organism’ metaphor is not so metaphorical after all. This insight can help society better understand how individuals can fit into a well-organized and mutually beneficial system. Take the coronavirus pandemic, for example. An effective national epidemic response program is truly a national immune system, and we can therefore learn directly from how immune systems work to improve our COVID response.”


Waring is a member of the Cultural Evolution Society, an international research network that studies the evolution of culture in all species. He applies cultural evolution to the study of sustainability in social-ecological systems and cooperation in organizational evolution.

Wood works in the UMaine Evolutionary Applications Laboratory managed by Michael Kinnison, a professor of evolutionary applications. His research focuses on eco-evolutionary dynamics, particularly rapid evolution during trophic cascades.

Why ‘Tight’ Cultures May Fare Better Than ‘Loose’ Cultures In A Pandemic (NPR)

Fran Kritz, February 23, 2021

Top left: An officer asks people to observe lockdown rules in Brighton, England. Bottom left: A protester at a lockdown demonstration in Brussels, Belgium last month. Top right: Malaysian health officers screen passengers with a thermal scanner at Kuala Lumpur Airport in January 2020. Bottom right: Employees eat their lunch in Wuhan, China, in March 2020. Luke Dray/Getty Images; Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images; Mohd Rasfan/AFP; Getty Images

On Monday, the U.S. reached a heartbreaking 500,000 deaths from COVID-19.

But widespread death from COVID-19 isn’t necessarily inevitable.

Data from Johns Hopkins University shows that some countries have had few cases and fewer deaths per capita. The U.S. has had 152 deaths per 100,000 people, for example, versus .03 in Burundi and .04 in Taiwan.

There are many reasons for these differences among countries, but a study in The Lancet Planetary Health published last month suggests that a key factor may be cultural.

The study looks at “loose” nations — those with relaxed social norms and fewer rules and restrictions — and “tight” nations, those with stricter rules and restrictions and harsher disciplinary measures. And it found that “loose” nations had five times more cases (7,132 cases per million people versus 1,428 per million) and over eight times more deaths from COVID-19 (183 deaths per million people versus 21 per million) than “tight” countries during the first ten months of the pandemic.

Michele Gelfand, the lead author of the study and a professor at the University of Maryland who specializes in cross cultural psychology, previously published work on tight- and loose- rules nations in Scienceand in a 2018 book, Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World.

Gelfand says her past research suggested that tight cultures may be better equipped to respond to a global pandemic than loose cultures because their citizensmay be more willing to cooperate with rules, and that the pandemic “is the first time we have been able to examine how countries around the world respond to the same collective threat simultaneously.”

For the Lancet article, the researchers examined data from 57 countries in the fall of 2020 using the online database “Our World in Data,” which provides daily updates on COVID-19 cases and deaths. They paired this information with previous research classifying each of the countries on a scale of cultural tightness or looseness. Results revealed that nations categorized as looser — like the U.S., Brazil and Spain — experienced significantly more cases and deaths from COVID-19 by October 2020 than countries like South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, which have much tighter cultures.

NPR talks to Gelfand about the findings and about how understanding the concepts of “looser” and “tighter” nations might lead to measures that help prevent COVID-19 cases and deaths as the pandemic continues.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did your past research bring you to your current findings about the pandemic?

One of the things I’ve been looking at for many years is how strictly cultures abide by social norms. All cultures have social norms that are kind of unwritten rules for social behavior. We don’t face backward in elevators. We don’t start singing loudly in movie theaters. And we behave this way because it helps us to coordinate with other human beings, to help our societies function. [Norms] are really the glue that keep us together.

One thing we learned during our earlier work is that some cultures abide by social norms quite strictly. And these differences are not random. Tight cultures tend to have had a lot of threat in their histories from Mother Nature, like disasters, famine and pathogen outbreaks, and non-natural threats such as invasions on their territory. And the idea is when you have a lot of collective threat you need strict rules. They help people coordinate and predict each other’s behavior. So, in a sense, you can think about it from an evolutionary perspective that following rules helps us to survive chaos and crisis.

Can you change a culture to make it tighter?

Yes, but you need leadership to tell you this is a really dangerous situation. And you need people from the bottom up being willing to sacrifice some of the freedom for rules to keep the whole country safe. And that’s what’s happening in New Zealand, where they had few cases and few deaths per million, and where they’re really very egalitarian. My interpretation is that people said look, “We all have to follow the rules to keep people safe.”

Can you give us some examples of how tight and loose cultures operate when there’s not a pandemic going on?

Tight cultures have a lot of order and discipline — they have a lot less crime and more monitoring of [citizens’] behavior and [more] security personnel and police per capita. Loose cultures struggle with order.

Loose cultures corner the market on openness toward people from different races and religion and are far more creative in terms of idea generation and ability to think outside the box. Tight cultures struggle with openness.

Do you think it’s possible to tighten up as needed?

Yeah, absolutely. I mean I would call that ambidexterity — the ability to tighten up when there’s an objective threat and to loosen up when the threat is diminished. People who don’t like the idea of tightening would need to understand that this is temporary and the quicker we tighten the quicker it will reduce the threat and the quicker we can get back to our freedom-loving behavior.

I imagine people are worried, though, about long-term consequences of tightening up.

We shouldn’t confuse authoritarianism with tightness.

Following rules in terms of wearing masks and social distancing will help get us back faster to opening up the economy and to saving our freedom. And we can also look to other cultures that have been able to open up with greater success, like Taiwan for example. Increased self-regulation and [abidance of] physical distancing, wearing masks and avoiding large crowds allowed the country to keep both the infection and mortality rates low without shutting down the economy entirely. We need to think of this as being situation-specific in terms of following certain types of rules.

It requires using cultural intelligence to understand when we deploy tightness and when we deploy looseness. And my optimistic view is that we’re going to learn how to communicate about threats better, how to nudge people to follow rules, so that people understand the danger but also feel empowered to deal with it.

[In the U.S., for example, we] need to have national unity to cope with collective threat so that we are prepared as a nation to come together like we have in the past during other collected threats, such as after September 11.

Fran Kritz is a health policy reporter based in Washington, D.C., who has contributed to The Washington Post and Kaiser Health News. Find her on Twitter: @fkritz

Interdisciplinary approach yields new insights into human evolution (Vanderbilt University)


Vanderbilt biologist Nicole Creanza Nicole Creanza takes interdisciplinary approach to human evolution as guest editor of Royal Society journal

The evolution of human biology should be considered part and parcel with the evolution of humanity itself, proposes Nicole Creanza, assistant professor of biological sciences. She is the guest editor of a new themed issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, the oldest scientific journal in the world, that focuses on an interdisciplinary approach to human evolution.

Stanford professor Marc Feldman and Stanford postdoc Oren Kolodny collaborated with Creanza on the special issue.

“Within the blink of an eye on a geological timescale, humans advanced from using basic stone tools to examining the rocks on Mars; however, our exact evolutionary path and the relative importance of genetic and cultural evolution remain a mystery,” said Creanza, who specializes in the application of computational and theoretical approaches to human and cultural evolution, particularly language development. “Our cultural capacities-to create new ideas, to communicate and learn from one another, and to form vast social networks-together make us uniquely human, but the origins, the mechanisms, and the evolutionary impact of these capacities remain unknown.”

The special issue brings together researchers in biology, anthropology, archaeology, economics, psychology, computer science and more to explore the cultural forces affecting human evolution from a wider perspective than is usually taken.

“Researchers have begun to recognize that understanding non-genetic inheritance, including culture, ecology, the microbiome, and regulation of gene expression, is fundamental to fully comprehending evolution,” said Creanza. “It is essential to understand the dynamics of cultural inheritance at different temporal and spatial scales, to uncover the underlying mechanisms that drive these dynamics, and to shed light on their implications for our current theory of evolution as well as for our interpretation and predictions regarding human behavior.”

In addition to an essay discussing the need for an interdisciplinary approach to human evolution, Creanza included an interdisciplinary study of her own, examining the origins of English’s contribution to Sranan, a creole that emerged in Suriname following an influx of indentured servants from England in the 17th century.

Creanza, along with linguists Andre Sherriah and Hubert Devonish of the University of the West Indes and psychologist Ewart Thomas from Stanford, sought to determine the geographic origins of the English speakers whose regional dialects formed the backbone of Sranan. Their work combined linguistic, historical and genetic approaches to determine that the English speakers who influenced Sranan the most originated largely from two counties on opposite sides of southern England: Bristol, in the west, and Essex, in the east.

“Thus, analyzing the features of modern-day languages might give us new information about events in human history that left few other traces,” Creanza said.

They Hunt. They Gather. They’re Very Good at Talking About Smells (N.Y.Times)

The answer might come down partly to culture, suggests a study published Thursday in Current Biology.

To better understand why the Jahai have this knack with naming smells, researchers compared a different group of hunter-gatherers on the peninsula, the Semaq Beri, with neighbors who are not hunter-gatherers. Even though they shared related languages and a home environment, the Semaq Beri had a superior ability at putting words to odors. These results challenge assumptions that smelling just isn’t something people are good at. They also show how important culture is to shaping who we are — and even what we do with our noses.

[READ: Ancestral Climates May Have Shaped Your Nose]

In the rainforests of the Malay Peninsula, the Semaq Beri, like the Jahai, are hunter-gatherers. But the Semelai, a group that lives nearby, cultivate rice and trade collected forest items.

Semaq Beri members clearing undergrowth in the durian fruit season. A neighboring group, the Semelai, share a related language but were less adept at naming odors they smelled. Credit: Nicole Kruspe

To test their color and odor naming abilities, the researchers asked members of each group to identify colors on swatches and odors trapped inside pens. When it came to naming more than a dozen odors including leather, fish and banana, the differences were clear. The Semaq Beri used particular terms to describe odor qualities. But when the Semelai tried to identify the source, they often got it wrong. The difference between the two groups was as pronounced as the gap in the earlier study between the Jahai and English-speaking Americans.

“I thought the differences would be more subtle between the two groups,” said Nicole Kruspe, a linguist at Lund University in Sweden who co-authored the study.

Perhaps the importance a culture places on odor influences how people describe it. And if you depend on the forest’s produce to live, you may want to know more subtle attributes that indicate origin, safety or quality.

“A cultural preoccupation with odor is useful in the forest with limited vision,” said Dr. Kruspe.

The Semaq Beri value odors as food-locating resources but also as important pieces of life that can indicate a person’s identity and guide taboos and rules for behavior. But “that in itself doesn’t explain it,” Dr. Kruspe said.

[READ: The Nose, an Emotional Time Machine.]

Perhaps well-practiced skills preserved odor-detecting genes or primed brains to be better odor-detectors — which suggests that without continuing to use this ability, it could one day be lost.

Asifa Majid, a linguist at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands and co-author of the paper, has also studied hunter-gatherers with comparable skills in Mexico and worries that pressures of globalization may disrupt these lifestyles, limit access to odors and threaten a vibrant odor lexicon.

One way to explore that possibility would be to see what happens to the lexicon for odors of descendants of hunter-gatherers who have been removed from that lifestyle.

“Unfortunately,” said Dr. Kruspe, “we will probably be able to test for that in a couple of generations.”

Wimps or warriors? Honey bee larvae absorb the social culture of the hive, study finds (Science Daily)

October 29, 2015
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Even as larvae, honey bees are tuned in to the social culture of the hive, becoming more or less aggressive depending on who raises them, researchers report.

Even as larvae, honey bees are tuned in to the social culture of the hive, becoming more or less aggressive depending on who raises them. The researchers don’t yet know how the social information is being transmitted to the larvae. Credit: © gertrudda / Fotolia

Even as larvae, honey bees are tuned in to the social culture of the hive, becoming more or less aggressive depending on who raises them, researchers report in the journal Scientific Reports.

“We are interested in the general issue of how social information gets under the skin, and we decided to take a chance and ask about very young bees that are weeks away from adulthood,” said University of Illinois entomology professor and Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology director Gene Robinson, who led the research with postdoctoral researcher Clare Rittschof and Pennsylvania State University professor Christina Grozinger.

“In a previous study, we cross-fostered adult bees from gentle colonies into more aggressive colonies and vice versa, and then we measured their brain gene expression,” Robinson said. “We found that the bees had a complex pattern of gene expression, partly influenced by their own personal genetic identity and partly influenced by the environment of the colony they were living in. This led us to wonder when they become so sensitive to their social environment.”

In the new study, the researchers again cross-fostered bees, but this time as larvae in order to manipulate the bees’ early life experiences. The larvae were from a variety of queens, with sister larvae divided between high- and low-aggression colonies.

The larvae were removed from their foster hives and put into a neutral laboratory environment one day before they emerged as adults. The researchers tested their aggressiveness by exposing them to an intruder bee.

They were surprised to see that the bees retained the social information they had acquired as larvae. Those raised in aggressive colonies were 10 to 15 percent more aggressive than those raised in the gentler colonies.

“Even sisters born of the same queen but reared in different colonies differed in aggression, demonstrating the potency of this environmental effect,” Robinson said.

The finding was surprising in part because bee larvae undergo metamorphosis, which radically changes the structure of their bodies and brains.

“It’s hard to imagine what elements of the brain are influenced during the larval period that then survive the massive reorganization of the brain to bias behavior in this way,” Robinson said.

The aggressive honey bees also had more robust immune responses than their gentler counterparts, the team found.

“We challenged them with pesticides and found that the aggressive bees were more resistant to pesticide,” Grozinger said. “That’s surprising considering what we know from vertebrates, where stress in early life leads to a diminishment of resilience. With the bees, we saw an increase in resilience.”

This finding also suggests that the effects of the social environment on young bees could extend beyond brain function and behavior, Robinson said.

The researchers don’t yet know how the social information is being transmitted to the larvae. They tested whether the bees differed in size, which would suggest that they had been fed differently, but found no size differences between aggressive and gentle bees.

“Adult honey bees are well known for their sociality, their communication skills and their ability to adjust their behavior in response to the needs of the hive,” Rittschof said.

“In mammals, including humans, the effects of early life social interactions often persist throughout adulthood despite additional social experiences,” she said. “A similar pattern in honey bees has broad implications for our understanding of social behavior within the hive and in comparison with other species.”


Journal Reference:

  1. Clare C. Rittschof, Chelsey B. Coombs, Maryann Frazier, Christina M. Grozinger, Gene E. Robinson. Early-life experience affects honey bee aggression and resilience to immune challengeScientific Reports, 2015; 5: 15572 DOI: 10.1038/srep15572

Kurt Vonnegut graphed the world’s most popular stories (The Washington Post)

 February 9

This post comes via Know More, Wonkblog’s social media site.

Kurt Vonnegut claimed that his prettiest contribution to culture wasn’t a popular novel like “Cat’s Cradle” or “Slaughterhouse-Five,” but a largely forgotten master’s thesis he wrote while studying anthropology at the University of Chicago. The thesis argued that a main character has ups and downs that can be graphed to reveal the taxonomy of a story, as well as something about the culture it comes from. “The fundamental idea is that stories have shapes which can be drawn on graph paper, and that the shape of a given society’s stories is at least as interesting as the shape of its pots or spearheads,” Vonnegut said.

In addition to churning out novels, Vonnegut was deeply interested in the practice of writing. The tips he wrote for other writers – including “How to write with style” and “Eight rules for writing fiction” — are concise, funny, and still very useful. The thesis shows that Vonnegut’s preoccupation with the nuts and bolts of writing started early in his career.

Vonnegut spelled out the main argument of his thesis in a hilarious lecture, where he also graphed some of the more common story types. (Vonnegut was famously funny and irreverent, and you can hear the audience losing it throughout.) He published the transcript of this talk in his memoir, “A Man Without a Country,” which includes his own drawings of the graphs.

Vonnegut plotted stories on a vertical “G-I axis,” representing the good or ill fortunes of the main character, and a horizontal “B-E” axis that represented the course of the story from beginning to end.

One of the most popular story types is what Vonnegut called “Man in Hole,” graphed here by designer Maya Eilam. Somebody gets in trouble, gets out of it again, and ends up better off than where they started. “You see this story again and again. People love it, and it is not copyrighted,” Vonnegut says in his lecture. A close variant is “Boy Loses Girl,” in which a person gets something amazing, loses it, and then gets it back again.

Creation and religious stories follow a different arc, one that feels unfamiliar to modern readers. In most creation stories, a deity delivers incremental gifts that build to form the world. The Old Testament features the same pattern, except it ends with humans getting the rug pulled out from under them.

The New Testament follows a more modern story path, according to Vonnegut. He was delighted by the similarity of that story arc with Cinderella, which he called, “The most popular story in our civilization. Every time it’s retold, someone makes a million dollars.”

Some of the most notable works of literature are more ambiguous – like Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” which starts off bad and gets infinitely worse, and “Hamlet,” in which story developments are deeply ambiguous.

In his lecture, Vonnegut explains why we consider Hamlet, with this ambiguous and uncomfortable story type, to be a masterpiece:

“Cinderella or Kafka’s cockroach? I don’t think Shakespeare believed in a heaven or hell any more than I do. And so we don’t know whether it’s good news or bad news.

“I have just demonstrated to you that Shakespeare was as poor a storyteller as any Arapaho.

“But there’s a reason we recognize Hamlet as a masterpiece: it’s that Shakespeare told us the truth, and people so rarely tell us the truth in this rise and fall here [indicates blackboard]. The truth is, we know so little about life, we don’t really know what the good news is and what the bad news is.

“And if I die — God forbid — I would like to go to heaven to ask somebody in charge up there, ‘Hey, what was the good news and what was the bad news?’”

What do some Afro-Brazilian religions actually believe? (Washington Post)

 February 6 at 3:30 AM


Candomblé is a Brazilian religion developed from animist beliefs, imported by African slaves. But the quasi-respectability gained in recent decades is now under attack from radical Evangelical Christians – a growing force in Catholic Brazil – who regard it as the devil’s work. (The Washington Post)

RIO DE JANEIRO — In its contemporary form, Brazil’s Candomblé religion looks about as removed from Western Christianity as could be imagined. It must have seemed positively diabolical, then, to the brutal Portuguese overlords whose slaves imported it from Africa, and whom they believed had been converted. Those slaves may have cleverly “synchronized” their own deities with Catholic saints to be able to continue worshiping, but they did not synchronize their beliefs.

This does not make Candomblé the devil’s work. It does not have the concept of heaven and hell, nor a rigid moral code in the sense that Christians would understand it. Instead, believers are supposed to fulfill their destiny, whatever that might be. Both men and women can become priests. Homosexuality is accepted, secretive animal sacrifices play an important role and the sexual lives of devotees are their own business when they are outside the walls of the Candomblé “house,” or center.

Decorative body paint, jewelry and costumes are part in a Candomble ceremony in Rio de Janeiro on Jan. 23. (Lianne Milton for The Washington Post)

There are elaborate theatrical rituals, with costumes and accessories that can include robes, small swords and shields, a mini archer’s bow, and even as witnessed in one ceremony in Rio, an elaborate silver helmet with a tiny figure on a plinth on top that looked like something a 19th-century Prussian army officer might have sported.

But these accoutrements are no more outlandish than a Catholic Mass might have appeared to an 19th-century African who had just been enslaved. Candomblé is a religion like any other, with its own rules, hierarchies and sense of the spiritual. This is true especially in Brazil, where the existence of spirituality and an afterlife is regarded as an incontestable truth by the majority of the population — be they Catholics, or followers of more esoteric, yet tolerated religions, such as the spiritualist sect that follows the teachings of 19th-century French writer Hippolyte Léon Denizard Rivail, who wrote the Spiritist Codification under the pseudonym Allan Kardec.

Or followers of both, because many Catholics have no problem also being spiritualists. Religious duality is popular in Brazil, one reason why some estimates put followers of Candomblé and its sister religion, Umbanda, in the tens of millions, not the official half a million or so who admitted to it in the 2010 government census.

Candomblé is an oral culture with no sacred text. There are seven Candomblé nations — or variations – such as Ketu and Angola, depending on which Brazilian state it developed in, and where in Africa the slaves practicing it came from. They believe in a supreme being, called Olódùmarè (whose name can be spelled with or without the accents). Beneath this god are 16 Orixás — deities, or entities — many of whom have characteristics that are distinctly human in nature.

Yemanjá, the sea goddess, is given gifts like flowers or champagne by millions of Brazilians every New Year’s Eve. She is sometimes associated with the Virgin Mary, but she is also famously vain.

The warrior Ogum is linked to Saint George — courageous and persistent, and popular in Brazil for these qualities.

Then there is a female Orixá of the wind, Iansã, who is — as might be expected in Brazil — a more sensual deity.

Nature is perhaps the single most important factor in Candomblé, and each Orixá is connected to an element. “All of them are responsible for a part of nature,” said Rodrigo Silva, “father-of-saint,” or priest of the Logun Edé Palace Candomblé center. It is not uncommon to see Candomblé being practiced on beaches, or in waterfalls. “Our gods are ecological gods,” said Beatriz Moreira Costa, 84, a revered priestess called Mother Beatá.

In its sister religion, Umbanda, invented in Rio in the early 20th century, both the Catholic God and reincarnation also play a part. “It is a Christian doctrine,” said Tábata Lugao, 27, a recent convert. Orixás and Catholic saints are synchronized — but Umbanda also has its own holy figures, such as Preto Velho, or “Old Black Man,” a wily old slave figure who smokes a pipe.

The mostly female, middle-age worshippers being “incorporated” by Preto Velho at a recent Umbanda ceremony in São Gonçalo, near Rio, drank beer and smoked cigars and appeared to be enjoying themselves enormously, but they also took their ceremony extremely seriously — another kind of quintessentially Brazilian religious duality.

Unlike Umbanda, Candomblé initiates spend 21 days in seclusion living in the center, before being initiated as Yaô (this can also be spelled in different ways). Then they can be “incorporated” by Orixás — and initiates have individual Orixás they must follow.

After seven years as a Yaô, they become an Egbomi, and can then decide if they want to progress to the highest stage, that of father-of-saint or mother-of-saint.

The musicians who play percussion and sing the songs in African languages at Candomblé ceremonies that aim to honor and conjure up the Orixás are another kind of Yaô, called Ogá.

This does not necessarily involve being righteous, and it is here, perhaps, that Candomblé is most controversial. Those priests who sell curses or spells, via lower-level spirits called Exús, prompt some of the prejudice that surrounds the religion. “There are those who have pleasure in doing bad, others who like to help,” said Silva.

His center, he emphasized, does not get involved in the darker side of Candomblé’s neighborhood witchcraft, pejoratively called Macumba in Brazil. “It was made to protect and help people who need this help,” he said. “We fight for peace.”

Chimps joining new troop learn its ‘words’: study (Reuters)


NEW YORK, Thu Feb 5, 2015 1:03pm EST

(Reuters) – Just as Bostonians moving to Tokyo ditch “grapefruit” and adopt “pamplemousse,” so chimps joining a new troop change their calls to match those of their new troop, scientists reported on Thursday in the journal Current Biology.

The discovery represents the first evidence that animals besides humans can replace the vocal sounds their native group uses for specific objects – in the chimps’ case, apples – with those of their new community.

One expert on chimp vocalizations, Bill Hopkins of Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta, who was not involved in the study, questioned some of its methodology, such as how the scientists elicited and recorded the chimps’ calls, but called it “interesting work.”

Chimps have specific grunts, barks, hoots and other vocalizations for particular foods, for predators and for requests such as “look at me,” which members of their troop understand.

Earlier studies had shown that these primates, humans’ closest living relatives, can learn totally new calls in research settings through intensive training. And a 2012 study led by Yerkes’ Hopkins showed that young chimps are able to pick up sounds meaning “human, pay attention to me,” from their mothers.

But no previous research had shown that chimps can replace a call they had used for years with one used by another troop. Instead, primatologists had thought that sounds referring to objects in the environment were learned at a young age and essentially permanent, with any variations reflecting nuances such as how excited the animal is about, say, a banana.

In the new research, scientists studied adult chimpanzees that in 2010 had been moved from a safari park in the Netherlands to Scotland’s Edinburgh Zoo, to live with nine other adults in a huge new enclosure.

It took three years, and the formation of strong social bonds among the animals, but the grunt that the seven Dutch chimps used for “apple” (a favorite food) changed from a high-pitched eow-eow-eow to the lower-pitched udh-udh-udh used by the six Scots, said co-author Simon Townsend of the University of Zurich. The change was apparent even to non-chimp-speakers (scientists).

“We showed that, through social learning, the chimps could change their vocalizations,” Townsend said in an interview. That suggests human language isn’t unique in using socially-learned sounds to signify objects.

Unanswered is what motivated the Dutch chimps to sound more like the Scots: to be better understood, or to fit in by adopting the reining patois?

(Reporting by Sharon Begley; Editing by Nick Zieminski)

Humans, baboons share cumulative culture ability (Science Daily)

Date: November 5, 2014

Source: Le Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS)

Summary: The ability to build up knowledge over generations, called cumulative culture, has given humankind language and technology. While it was thought to be limited to humans until now, researchers have recently found that baboons are also capable of cumulative culture.

Baboon using a touch screen. Credit: © 2014 Nicolas Claidière

The ability to build up knowledge over generations, called cumulative culture, has given mankind language and technology. While it was thought to be limited to humans until now, researchers from the Laboratoire de psychologie cognitive (CNRS/AMU), working in collaboration with colleagues at the University of Edinburgh (UK), have recently found that baboons are also capable of cumulative culture. Their findings are published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B on 5 November 2014.

Humankind is capable of great accomplishments, such as sending probes into space and eradicating diseases; these achievements have been made possible because humans learn from their elders and enrich this knowledge over generations. It was previously thought that this cumulative aspect of culture — whereby small changes build up, are transmitted, used and enriched by others — was limited to humans, but it has now been observed in another primate, the baboon.

While it is clear that monkeys like chimpanzees learn many things from their peers, each individual seems to start learning from scratch. In contrast, humans use techniques that evolve and improve from one generation to the next, and also differ from one population to another. The origin of cumulative culture in humans has therefore remained a mystery to scientists, who are trying to identify the necessary conditions for this cultural accumulation.

Nicolas Claidière and Joël Fagot, of the Laboratoire de psychologie cognitive, conducted the present study at the CNRS Primatology Center in Rousset, southeastern France. Baboons live in groups there and have free access to an area with touch screens where they can play a “memory game” specifically designed for the study. The screen briefly displays a grid of 16 squares, four of which are red and the others white. This image is then replaced by a similar grid, but composed of only white squares, and the baboons must touch the four squares that were previously red. Phase one of the experiment started with a task-learning period in which the position of the four red squares was randomized. Phase two comprised a kind of visual form of “Chinese whispers” wherein information was transmitted from one individual to another. In this second phase, a baboon’s response (the squares touched on the screen) was used to generate the next grid pattern that the following baboon had to memorize and reproduce, and so on for 12 “generations.”

The researchers, in collaboration with Simon Kirby and Kenny Smith from the University of Edinburgh, noted that baboons performed better in the phase involving a transmission chain (compared with random testing, which continued throughout the period of the experiment): success rate (1) increased from 80% to over 95%. Due to errors by the baboons, the patterns evolved between the beginning and the end of each chain. Yet to the surprise of researchers, the random computer-generated patterns were gradually replaced by “tetrominos” (Tetris®-like shapes composed of four adjacent squares), even though these forms represent only 6.2% of possible configurations! An even more surprising result was that the baboons’ performance on these rare shapes was poor during random testing, but increased throughout the transmission chain, during which the tetrominos accumulated. Moreover, when the experiment was replicated several times, the starting patterns did not lead to the same set of tetrominos. This study shows that, like humans, baboons have the ability to transmit and accumulate changes over “cultural generations” and that these incremental changes, which may differ depending on the chain, become structured and more efficient.

Researchers have ensured that all the necessary conditions were present to observe a type of cumulative cultural evolution in non-human primates, with its three characteristic properties (progressive increase in performance, emergence of systematic structures, and lineage specificity). These results show that cumulative culture does not require specifically human capacities, such as language. So why have no examples of this type of cultural evolution been clearly identified in the wild? Perhaps because the utilitarian dimension of non-human primate culture (e.g., the development of tools) hinders such evolution.

(1) The task was considered successful if at least 3 out of 4 squares were correctly memorized.

Journal Reference:

  1. N. Claidière, K. Smith, S. Kirby, J. Fagot. Cultural evolution of systematically structured behaviour in a non-human primate. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, November 2014 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2014.1541

On Culture and Other Crimes: An Interview with Slavoj Zizek (Exchange)

Accessed October 28, 2014

By Kerry Chance
University of Chicago

Slavoj Zizek, psychoanalytic philosopher and cultural critic at the Institute of Sociology in Slovenia, has taught all over the world, most recently at the University of Chicago. His first public lecture at Chicago, entitled “The Ignorance of Chicken, or, Who Believes What Today”, looked every bit the rock show. Crowds stretched across the main campus quad, a ‘merch’ table featured his latest book The Parallax View, and as the lecture began with crowds still waiting outside, people climbed through the windows of the packed auditorium. While at Chicago, Zizek also taught a seminar as the Critical Inquiry Visiting Professor on topics ranging from Lacanian ethics, political correctness, habit in Hegel, the Big Other, Stalin, theology, politics and the role of the intellectual. Zizek has written innumerable articles and is the author of more than fifty books, including The Sublime Object of Ideology, The Ticklish Subject, Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?, On Belief andWelcome to the Desert of the RealÑto name just a few that have contributed to his widespread popularity in and outside the academy. Here, Zizek speaks to Exchange about culture, Lacan, cognitive science, neoliberalism and projects for contemporary anthropology.


Chance: In class and in your public lectures here at Chicago, you’ve frequently talked about culture and have done so in two ways: first, in terms of belief as you have theorized it in your earlier work, and secondly in terms of Hegel’s notion of habit. How are you thinking culture in Lacanian terms?

Zizek: Traditionally, Lacanians like to identify culture simply as the symbolic system, within which there is a linguistically limited horizon of meaning, but I think two things should be added.

First, what is for me the zero-sum of culture, if I improvise, is what to do about embarrassing excesses. When somebody does something embarrassing, burps after eating for example, culture is how you react to it in a polite way. To be very vulgar, all seduction rituals are the cultured way of dealing with the fact that people would like to copulate with each other. Now, someone will say, “wait a minute, to feel something as embarrassment, culture must already be there.” No, I don’t think so. Somehow, embarrassment is first. In other words, we have to presuppose an excess, again, embarrassment apropos of something disgusting, non-social, or an excess of obscenity or enjoyment.

So again, this would be the first specification: to put it in bombastic Lacanian terms, first the excess of the real, embarrassment, shock – and culture is how you deal with it. This is why Lacan in a nice, tasteless way put it that one measure of the passage from the animal to the human kingdom is what to do with shit. He always liked this example, that an animal by definition just shits wherever, for humans shit is always an embarrassment. It always amused me when I was a boy that, at circuses, you have animals, horses and especially elephants that take a big shit and usually you see people hidden behind them ready to make the shit quickly disappear. Animals don’t care. The problem with humans is what to do with this embarrassment.

The second thing that interests me, which is a much more concrete historical analysis, is why there is such an obsession with culture today. Why is it that today not only do we have culture studies but everything – and by everything I mean at least the humanities and for some people even the hard sciences – has become a subspecies of cultural studies? In the hard sciences, people will say following Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, their history is the history of culture, of paradigm shifts and so on. Everything becomes culture.

Chance: How is this linked to your notion of belief?

Zizek: Again, this is linked to my notion of belief, to the idea that something is changing in the status of belief. Today, the predominant form is a belief that culture is the name of a belief, which is no longer taken seriously. Culture means, for example, I am a Jew, and although I don’t think there was a stupid god coming down and shouting some stupid things to people on Mount Sinai, I nonetheless say out of respect for my lifestyle or whatever, I don’t eat pork. This is culture.

To complicate things even further, I think two traps should be avoided here. Among other things, I have tried to focus my work on one of these traps in the last few years. First, it is too simple to say, “does this mean once before people were taking culture seriously.” No. Not only conservatives, but even progressives like to criticize the present, evoking, “oh, but once it was different, things were more authentic.” No, it wasn’t. It is not that before people did believe. If anything, they believe more today. It’s just that the modality of distance was different. Before, it wasn’t a matter of belief. Rather, it was a feeling of being more attached to, and having more respect for, the power of appearance of ritual as such. Something changed today at that level, I think. So paradoxically these external signs of belief – “nobody takes anything seriously” – if anything, points to how it’s more difficult today for us to trust the symbolic ritual, the symbolic institution. But again, there is no time when people ‘really meant it.’

What I know from anthropology, I may be wrong, is that all the great errors started with a phenomenological evolutionary illusion. I think when researchers found a certain gap between reality and beliefs or between form and content, they always thought, “ah, we have a later descendent state of evolution, there must have been some point earlier when people meant it.” The dream is that there was an original moment when people really ‘meant it.’ An example I know from my Marxist past, in anthropology you must know him from the 19th century, Lewis Henry Morgan. I remember from my youth that Engels among other classical Marxists relied on him. Morgan found that in some tribes all the men in one tribe referred to the women of the other tribe as their ‘sister wives.’ From this he deduced, that this is the linguistic remainder of some primordial form of marriage. The incest prohibition already in place, you were not allowed to have sex with women in your tribe, but only with the women in another tribe. The women were exchanged in a block, collectively. It was basic incest, but regulated. The way I heard it, anthropologists later proved that there never was this nice regulated collective orgy. That is to say, the wrong conclusion was that from this name ‘sister wives’ you conclude that there was a point when it was really meant. No, the gap is here from the very beginning.

What fascinates me in this example also is the logic of institution. By institution, I mean how, in order for something to function as a belief, you cannot simply say, “okay, let’s pretend.” In my book, I think the Ticklish Subject (Verso, 1999), I have a wonderful anecdote, which for me again tells about what culture is as an institution. It is a crazy story about elections some fifteen years ago in my country, Slovenia. An ex-friend of mine, who was a candidate told me – okay, he had to do these democratic games like kissing the asses of local constituents – an old lady came to him and said if he wanted her vote he would have to do her a favor. She was obsessed with the idea that something was wrong with her house number (number 24, not even 13), that this number brings misfortune. There was a burglary twice, lightning struck the house, and she’s convinced that it’s because of the number. She said, can she arrange with the city authorities to change the number, to 23a or something, just not 24. He said to her, “But lady, why even go through all this mess? Why don’t you simply paint a new number and change it yourself?” She said, “No, it must be done properly.” Though it was only superstition, to be effective it must be done properly through the institution. The must be a minimum reification to take the game seriously.

Chance: Is this a project for anthropology?

Zizek: This returns to another aspect of your question. That is, another lesson of all these notions of culture is the irreducibility of alienation. We should abandon this old phenomenological – and for some people, Marxist motive – that every institutionalization means reification in two directions, the past and the future. For the past, it is the idea that we should try to reconstitute a moment when it was not alienated, when it was ‘meant seriously.’ For the future, it is to isolate the moment, to dream or to work toward the moment when this transparency and authenticity of meaning will be reinstalled. No, we should also see the liberating aspect of it.

To return here to what I know of anthropology, when anthropology about half a century ago shifted from “let’s observe the mating rituals in Southern Samoa or South Pacific” or whatever, to focusing on our daily life rituals. You remember Florida, the scandal elections and the first Bush victory. A guy somewhere from Africa wrote an article imitating that sort of journalistic report, you know, an enlightened Western journalist goes to Africa, where they allegedly have some election and he mocks the election, “ha, ha, what corruption.” Well, this guy wrote about Florida in the same way, saying there are votes disappearing, the brother of the candidate is the local government, you know, describing Florida as a provincial Banana Republic case of cheating. It was a wonderful result. It was anthropology at its best.

I think this is what interests me, the anthropology of our lives. Not only is this a politically correct procedure – in this exceptional case, I use the term ‘politically correct’ in a positive way – but also I find it always a subversive procedure. The starting point is always the implicit racism of the anthropologist: you look at a foreign culture, you study them with this detachment, “oh what strange rituals” and so on. The phenomenological humanist temptation would be to say, “No, in this engaged participating fieldwork, we should immerse ourselves, become one of them to really understand them.” This series of presuppositions we should reject. What does it mean that we should be one of them to understand them? They usually don’t understand themselves – isn’t it the basic experience that people as a rule follow rituals that are just a part of tradition, which they themselves don’t get? I think the anthropology of our lives is the true breakthrough from this implicitly racist attitude of studying the eccentricity of others, to adopt the same view of ourselves. It is much better as a double alienation.

This is connected to another central motive of my work, this obsession with not only rules but also habits, which tell you how to obey or disobey rules. Especially social prohibitions never mean what they appear to mean. This is an incredibly wealthy topic of ideology for contemporary anthropology. Why is it so important? Precisely because we live in an era of so-called post-ideology. I claim that at precisely this level, ideology has survived.

My interest in anthropology, what always fascinated me was people never mean what they say and in order to be a part of a culture you have to get this gap. There is an important role of obscenities here. Let me tell you a comic adventure. This weekend, I was with Fred Jameson at Duke and there Fred invited an old, very distinguished Argentine gentleman – I will not tell you the name it’s too embarrassing – because of my wife, who is also Argentinean. This gentleman, you would be afraid of using the f-word in front of him, so I said to myself, okay, can I make him say something dirty? And I did seduce him, you know how? The specificities of Argentine Spanish are very different from say Venezuelan Spanish or Mexican Spanish. So, I told him how I tried to learn Spanish, and then I made my first step into obscenity. I told him I knew the word ‘cojo,’ which in Spanish simply means ‘to catch’ something, like “how do I catch a taxi?” Now, this word will be important because I told him I heard somewhere in Argentina there is a series of jokes, where a stupid Spaniard comes to Argentina and asks, “Where do I catch a taxi?” In Argentinean Spanish, ‘catch’ here means the f-word. Then, the distinguished gentleman smiled briefly and I saw that he knew a really dirty example. And I like it how he broke down. After two or three minutes, he broke down and said, “It’s against my nature but I must tell you Argentines have an even more dirty joke…” which is that a Spanish guy says, “How do you catch a cab?,” which means to fuck a taxi, and the Argentine says, “Well, the only practical way I can imagine is the exhaust pipe.” I was so glad that this distinguished gentleman, that I made him say this joke. For me, this is culture. For me, it is not a violation, but the closest you can get to authentic communication.


Chance: I wanted to talk about Lacanian ethics and about Lacan’s injunction to be consistent with your desire –

Zizek: The thing about Lacan’s injunction is what if your desire is not consistent? In other words, the way I read Lacan is that more and more in his late work he devalues desire, desire itself as not an ethical category. The Lacan of the fifties and sixties, it is the ethics of desire to not compromise your desire. But later, more and more he emphasizes that desire is a priori something hypocritical, inconsistent. In this sense, desire mostly thinks with a secret code that you will not get, the whole economy is to avoid the realization of desire, which is why Lacan understood that fantasy is a realization of desire. He doesn’t mean realization of desire in the sense of getting what you desire, like I want to eat strawberry cakes and I in the fantasy imagine myself realizing it. For Lacan, it is to stage a scene where that desire as such emerges. What would be a nicer example, let’s say I have a desire to eat strawberries but as always with desires, you have this suspicion, what if I will be disappointed. A fantasy would be, for example, I am there sleeping and somebody brings me strawberries, then I taste one, then I stop and it goes on. This ‘going on’ – I never fully have the strawberries – is fantasy. You don’t realize desire – getting your dirty mouth full of strawberries – you just stage this scene on a pleasant, hopeful state of desire, on the verge of satisfaction but not yet there. There is a pleasant obstacle preventing it all the time. This is fantasy.

Chance: How does this ethical injunction, both in the early and late Lacan, play out in the political realm, specifically thinking about it in relation to the cartoon depictions of Mohammad, a debate that opposed unlimited freedom of the press to respect for the other?

Zizek: Do you see the piece I wrote – not in The New York Times, which was censored – but “Antinomies of Tolerant Reason”? (See HYPERLINK “”

You know, many leftists were mad at me there. They thought I made too many compromises with Western liberals, too much anti-Muslim compromise. But the reason I did it was that I got a little bit sick and tired with these politically correct Western liberals – didn’t you notice this hypocrisy? I noticed it was the same people, who in the West are so sensitive – like I look at you and it already can be harassment – and all of sudden, they say it is a different culture, blah, blah, blah. I hate that even some feminists now are turning to culture as one of the standard defenses of Islam. In the West, we at least have formal equality of women. I am very sorry but there, you have a culture, at least in the predominant mode that is so openly anti-feminine. My god, but they are openly doing what we here are trying to unearth as the anti-feminism beneath the emancipated feminine. My god, are we now even prohibited from stating the obvious?

Do you know this famous, eternal politically correct example of clitoridechtomy? This example is not Islam – it is a ritual independent of Islam. But I remember some Muslim women claiming: isn’t it that in the West in order to be attractive to men, women have to remain slim, seductive; isn’t this a global clitoridechtomy; isn’t it much worse? There, it’s only the clitoris, here, it’s as if your entire body is clitoridechtomized. I hate this – I remember when I was a youth what the facts were about the Gulag. People would say: but at least here, you are in or out of the Gulag; isn’t it that the whole United States is one ideological Gulag? You know, this cheap counter universalization. I don’t buy it – this is what I try to say in that text. The first thing is to admit a genuine deadlock and to stop this hypocrisy.

In that text, I hope it is obvious this fury I have at this logic of respect. Sometimes, respect is the most disrespectful category. Respect here is like telling a child false things so not to hurt him. Here, respect means not taking him seriously. I think a lot of the people who preach, “you should show restraint, show respect to Islam,” are enacting the worst sort of patronization. Paradoxically, violent critics of Islam, on the most elementary level, show more respect for Islam than those who, out of respect, do not attack it. I am not saying we should turn to this, but at least those critics take people seriously as believers.


Chance: What does it mean to return to big theory?

Zizek: You remember, years ago it was fashionable to say big theory overlooks its own historical, concrete, anthropological conditions and presuppositions. That it is na•ve. Foucault has this attitude in its utmost when he says, before asking what’s the meaning of the universe, you should ask in what historical context is it even possible to ask this question. So direct truth questions become questions about the concrete historical conditions in which one can raise such a question. I think this was a deadlock.

Today’s big theory is no longer a na•ve big theory. It’s not saying “let’s forget about historical context and again ask, does god exist, or are we free.” No, the point is that concrete theory – the idea that we cannot ask metaphysical questions, only historical questions – had a skeleton in the closet: it has its own big theory presuppositions. Usually, even some rather primitive historicist, relativist ideas, for example, everything depends on historical circumstances or interactions, there are no universalities, and so on. So for me, it’s about not forgetting from where one speaks. It’s about including into reflection, into historical reflection, the very historicism, which was unquestioned in this eternal, Foucauldian model. I find it so boring. It’s so boring to say, “no, you shouldn’t ask are we free, the only question is what does it mean in our society to ask the question are we free.”

Chance: The presence of cognitive science is increasingly felt in anthropology. What particular problems does cognitive science pose for social sciences?

Zizek: Big theory brings us nicely to cognitive science because what it so tickling about them is precisely this question of freedom – does it mean we are not free? It’s interesting that all the debates about cognitive sciences – the image of the human being emerging from all these interactions, from the brain sciences or more abstract mind sciences – is about are we free.

I don’t know about social sciences, but I know about my field, psychoanalysis. I dealt with cognitive sciences extensively in my last book (SeeThe Parallax View, MIT Press 2006). I think firstly, they should be taken seriously. They should not be dismissed as just another na•ve, naturalizing, positivist approach. The question should be seriously asked, how do they compel us to redefine the most basic notions of human dignity, freedom? That is to say, what we experience as dignity and freedom is it all just an illusion, as they put it in computer user terms, a user’s illusion. Meaning, for example, when you write a text on a computer, you have this user’s illusion scrolling up or down that there is text above or below. There is no text there. Is our freedom the same as a user’s illusion or is there a freedom?

The thing to do – and I’m not saying I did it, I’m saying I am trying to do it – is to take these sciences very seriously, and find a point in them where there is a need for an intervention of concepts developed by psychoanalysis. I think – I hope – that I isolated one such point. I noticed how, when they tried to account for consciousness, they all have to resort to almost always the same metaphor of this autopoesis, self-reflexive move, some kind of self-relating, self-referring closed circuit. They are only able to describe it metaphorically. What I claim is that this is what Freud meant by death drive and so on.

But it’s not that we psychoanalysts know it and can teach the idiots. I think this is also good for us – and by us I mean, my gang of psychoanalytically oriented people. It compels us also to formulate our terminology, to purify our technology as it were.


Chance: What, if anything, is neoliberalism?

Zizek: You must know, and it has often been noted, that the big shift in the study of the human mind from traditional approaches to modern cognitivism mirrors perfectly the shift from bureaucratic capitalism to neoliberal capitalism with its flexibility and plasticity. It’s so interesting to notice how many cognitivists that I’ve read even say this openly. They say that traditional science of mind was production oriented, organizing up and down, like traditional bureaucratic capitalism. Today, it’s like this digital, flexible capitalism – you don’t have one central deciding point, you have free interaction, nomadic plasticity and so on. I found this very interesting.

Catherine Malabou wrote a wonderful book called What to Do With the Human Brain. She develops, in a very nice way, that plasticity can have two meanings. One meaning is this neoliberal plasticity. Basically, it’s an accommodating plasticity: how to succeed on the market, how to adopt new identity. But there is a more radical plasticity, where the point is not just an adaptive plasticity. It’s a plasticity that not only adapts itself to existing circumstances but also tries to form a margin of freedom to intervene, to change the circumstances.

The same would go for me for neoliberalism. My point would be first, there obviously exists something like neoliberalism. That is to say, it is a fact that at the level of relations between the states, within singular economies new rules of capitalism are emerging today.

But my first doubt would be about the process of describing the fact that something new is emerging. I don’t think it is adequately described by the way neoliberalism describes itself. For example, saying “the rule is no longer state intervention, but free interaction, flexibility, the diminishing role of the state.” But wait a minute, is this really going on? I mean, take Reagan’s presidency and Bush’s presidency today. While bombasting against big spending Democrats – that is to say, big state – the state has never been as strong as it is today and there is an incredible explosion of state apparatuses. State control today is stronger than ever. That would be my automatic reaction: yes, there is something new but, when covered by the label neoliberalism, it is not adequately described. The self-perception of today’s era as neoliberal is a wrong self-perception.

Even leftist critics all too often accept this self-description on its own terms and then proceed to criticize it, saying, “no, we can’t leave everything to the market.” Wait a minute, who is leaving everything to the market? If we look at today’s American economy, how much support there is for American farmers, how much intervention, military contracts, where is there any free market? I mean, sorry, but I don’t see much free market here.

Just look at this paradox, which I think is the nicest icon of what goes on today. You know the problem of cotton in the state of Mali I think, which is the producer of cheap cotton far better than the United States’ cotton. The country is going to ruin because, as you know, the American cotton producers get more state support than the entire Gross Domestic Product of the state of Mali. And they say there, we don’t want American help, what we want is just when you preach about corrupt state intervention and the free market, you play by your own rules. You know, there’s so much cheating going on here.

So that would be the kind of anthropological study that’s needed: what neoliberalism really means. That’s what we have to do.

Zizek PicksMost important book published in the last six months: On Creaturely Life by Eric Santner

It will sound hypocritical but really, I would say On Creaturely Life. If you go further back to 2005, it would be The Persistence of Subjectivity by Robert Pippin.

Most important film released in the last six months: Manderlay directed by Lars Von Trier

My god, this is a tough question. My problem is, as much as I love even commercial Hollywood, I really don’t remember one in particular. It’s a weird film but I like it, the last Lars Von Trier, Manderlay. Need I add that I haven’t seen it, but a priori I don’t deal with empirical things.

Favorite obscure text: Sex and Character by Otto Weininger

Sex and Character. It’s obscure today but remember that this book was published in 1903 and was reprinted like fifty times. Then, it was a megabook. It’s vicious – radically anti-feminist, anti-Semitic, anti-whatever-you-want but I think it’s shattering.

Most underrated philosopher: Hegel

It will sound crazy because he is one of the most overrated philosophers, but I think, Hegel. Because for the last two hundred years, every philosopher defines himself as somehow wanting to go over Hegel. He’s this universal punching bag. Known as he is, he is still the most underrated.

Favorite politician of all time? Lenin and Cromwell

My answer is so boring. It’s boring, it’s stupid, it’s provocative, I’m ashamed to pronounce it: Lenin. You know, many na•ve leftists, who want to maintain their democratic credentials, would say some tragic victim like Allende. I think there is no perspective there. I have a cynical idea that Pinochet’s coup d’etat came at the right point. Imagine what would have happened if someone like Clinton and not that stupid Nixon-Kissinger gang were in power. Someone like Clinton would have gotten the formula: annoy him economically, wait for the true economic crisis to explode and then Allende would either have to opt for a three-way neoliberalism and play all those emancipatory welfare games. Or, he would have to turn Castro, get really tough and lose. Don’t you think they struck at the right point to redeem him? So I don’t respect this kind of person.

I would love to have somebody else – I have such traditional tastes. Okay, again, it’s traditional but if you go back further, Freud loved him: Oliver Cromwell. I like it the way he ruthlessly went from first using the Parliament to cut off the head of the king, to then disbanding Parliament.

What surprises me is this myth that Cromwell was this cruel Puritan. Not only did he have personal integrity, but contrary to royalist myth, he was not revengeful. To put it naively, he was even personally kind. It may also come as a surprise how religiously tolerant he was. This is a myth, you know, this pale-lips Puritan just killing all the Catholics and everybody else. No, he was striving very much, for his vision was a kind of secular plurality of religions. He was a genuine tragic, tragic figure, I think.

The cultural side of science communication (Northwestern University)


Hilary Hurd Anyaso

New research explores how culture affects our conceptions of nature

EVANSTON, Ill. — Do we think of nature as something that we enjoy when we visit a national park and something we need to “preserve?” Or do we think of ourselves as a part of nature? A bird’s nest is a part of nature, but what about a house?

The answers to these questions reflect different cultural orientations. They are also reflected in our actions, our speech and in cultural artifacts.

A new Northwestern University study, in partnership with the University of Washington, the American Indian Center of Chicago and the Menominee tribe of Wisconsin, focuses on science communication and how that discipline necessarily involves language and other media-related artifacts such as illustrations. The challenge is to identify effective ways of communicating information to culturally diverse groups in a way that avoids cultural polarization, say the authors.

“We suggest that trying to present science in a culturally neutral way is like trying to paint a picture without taking a perspective,” said Douglas Medin, lead author of the study and professor of psychology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern.

This research builds on the broader research on cultural differences in the understanding of and engagement with science.

“We argue that science communication — for example, words, photographs and illustrations — necessarily makes use of artifacts, both physical and conceptual, and these artifacts commonly reflect the cultural orientations and assumptions of their creators,” write the authors.

“These cultural artifacts both reflect and reinforce ways of seeing the world and are correlated with cultural differences in ways of thinking about nature. Therefore, science communication must pay attention to culture and the corresponding different ways of looking at the world.”

Medin said their previous work reveals that Native Americans traditionally see themselves as a part of nature and tend to focus on ecological relationships. In contrast, European-Americans tend to see humans as apart from nature and focus more on taxonomic relationships.

“We show that these cultural differences are also reflected in media, such as children’s picture books,” said Medin, who co-authored the study with Megan Bang of the University of Washington. “Books authored and illustrated by Native Americans are more likely to have illustrations of scenes that are close-up, and the text is more likely to mention the plants, trees and other geographic features and relationships that are present compared with popular children’s books not done by Native Americans.

“The European-American cultural assumption that humans are not part of ecosystems is readily apparent in illustrations,” he said.

The authors went to Google images and entered “ecosystems,” and 98 percent of the images did not have humans present. A fair number of the remaining 2 percent had children outside the ecosystem, observing it through a magnifying glass and saying, “I spy an ecosystem.”

“These results suggest that formal and informal science communications are not culturally neutral but rather embody particular cultural assumptions that exclude people from nature,” Medin said.

Medin and his research team have developed a series of “urban ecology” programs at the American Indian Center of Chicago, and these programs suggest that children can learn about the rest of nature in urban settings and come to see humans as active players in the world ecosystems.

Firelight talk of the Kalahari Bushmen (University of Utah)


Lee J. Siegel

Did tales told over fires aid our social and cultural evolution?

IMAGE: A !Kung Bushman, sporting a Calvin Klein hat, tells stories at a firelight gathering in Africa’s Kalahari Desert. University of Utah anthropologist Polly Wiessner has published a new study of…

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SALT LAKE CITY, Sept. 22, 2014 – After human ancestors controlled fire 400,000 to 1 million years ago, flames not only let them cook food and fend off predators, but also extended their day.

A University of Utah study of Africa’s Kalahari Bushmen suggests that stories told over firelight helped human culture and thought evolve by reinforcing social traditions, promoting harmony and equality, and sparking the imagination to envision a broad sense of community, both with distant people and the spirit world.

Researchers previously studied how cooking affected diets and anatomy, but “little is known about how important the extended day was for igniting the embers of culture and society,” anthropology professor Polly Wiessner writes in a study published online today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“There is something about fire in the middle of the darkness that bonds, mellows and also excites people. It’s intimate,” says Wiessner, who has studied the Bushmen for 40 years. “Nighttime around a fire is universally time for bonding, for telling social information, for entertaining, for a lot of shared emotions.”

Wiessner’s study, which she calls “exploratory,” analyzed scores of daytime and firelight conversations among !Kung Bushmen – also known as Ju/’hoansi Bushmen – some 4,000 of which now live in the Kalahari Desert of northeast Namibia and northwest Botswana. (The exclamation, slash and apostrophe symbols represent click sounds in their language.) They are among several groups of Kalahari Bushmen.

Why study the campfire tales of Bushmen?

“We can’t tell about the past from the Bushmen,” Wiessner says. “But these people live from hunting and gathering. For 99 percent of our evolution, this is how our ancestors lived. What transpires during the firelit night hours by hunter-gatherers? It helps answer the question of what firelit space contributes to human life.”

She writes: “Stories are told in virtually all hunter-gatherer societies; together with gifts, they were the original social media.”

IMAGE: !Kung Kalahari Bushmen in Africa sit in camp. A University of Utah study of nighttime gatherings around fires by these hunter-gatherers suggests that human cultural development was advanced when human…

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From the Workaday World to Nights of Bonding and Wonder

In her study, “Embers of Society: Firelight Talk among the Ju/’hoansi Bushmen,” Wiessner says archaeological evidence indicates human ancestors had sporadic control of fire 1 million or more years ago, and regularly used it after 400,000 years ago.

“Fire altered our circadian rhythms, the light allowed us to stay awake, and the question is what happened in the fire-lit space? What did it do for human development?” asks Wiessner, who earlier this year was among three University of Utah researchers elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

Wiessner says !Kung Bushmen hold firelight gatherings most nights in groups of up to 15 people. A camp has hearths for each family, but at night people often converge at a single hearth. She analyzed only conversations involving five or more people.

Firelight stories deal with topics such as past hunts, fights over meat, marriage, premarital customs, murder, bush fires, birth, getting lost, interactions with other groups, truck breakdowns, being chased by animals, disputes and extramarital affairs. And there also are traditional myths.

For her study, Wiessner analyzed two sets of data:

  • Notes she took in 1974 (initially for another purpose) of 174 daytime and nighttime conversations at two !Kung camps in northwest Botswana. Each conversation lasted more than 20 to 30 minutes and involved five to 15 people.
  • Digital recordings, transcribed by educated Bushmen, of 68 firelight stories Wiessner originally heard in the 1970s but came back to have retold and recorded during three visits in 2011-2013 to !Kung villages in Botswana and Namibia.

Wiessner found daytime conversations differed much from firelight discussions. Of daytime conversations, 34 percent were complaints, criticism and gossip to regulate social relationships; 31 percent were economic matters, such as hunting for dinner; 16 percent were jokes; only 6 percent were stories and the rest were other topics

But at night, 81 percent of the conversations involved stories, and only 7 percent were complaints, criticism and gossip and 4 percent were economic.

IMAGE: A group of !Kung Bushmen in Africa’s Kalahari Desert work together to transcribe and translate a recorded firelight conversation into a written text. Such translations were used by University of…

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Bonding with People Near and Far – and with the Supernatural

Wiessner found how conversations reinforced major !Kung social institutions and values: arranged marriages, the kinship system, a social structure based on equality, the sharing of food during times of hardship, land rights, trance healing and xaro, a system of exchange that involved pledges of mutual assistance, including housing and food, in troubled times.

“What I found was a big difference between day and night conversation, the kinds of information transmitted and the use of imaginary thought,” Wiessner says.

“Day conversation has a lot to do with economic activities – working, getting food, what resources are where,” she says. “It has a lot to do with social issues and controls: criticism, complaints and gripes.”

“At night, people really let go, mellow out and seek entertainment. If there have been conflicts in the day, they overcome those and bond. Night conversation has more to do with stories, talking about the characteristics of people who are not present and who are in your broader networks, and thoughts about the spirit world and how it influences the human world. You have singing and dancing, too, which bonds groups.”

Healers dance and go into trances, “travel to god’s village and communicate with the spirits of deceased loved ones who are trying to take sick people away,” Wiessner says.

She says nonhuman primates don’t maintain mutually supportive ties outside their group: “We are really unique. We create far-flung ties outside our groups.”

Such extended communities allowed humans “to colonize our planet because they had networks of mutual support, which you see expressed today in our capacity for social networking” she adds. “Humans form communities that are not together in space, but are in our heads – virtual communities. They are communities in our heads. For the Bushmen, they may be up to 120 miles away.”

Wiessner suggests that firelight stories, conversations, ceremonies and celebrations sparked human imagination and “cognitive capacities to form these imagined communities, whether it’s our social networks, all of our relatives on Earth or communities that link us to the spirit world.” She says they also bolstered the human ability to “read” what others are thinking – not just their thoughts or intentions, but their views toward other people.

What Has Electricity Done to Us?

Examining how firelight extended the day prompted Wiessner to wonder about modern society, asking, “What happens when economically unproductive firelit time is turned to productive time by artificial lighting?”

Parents read stories or show videos to their children, but now, “work spills into the night. We now sit on laptops in our homes. When you are able to work at night, you suddenly have a conflict: ‘I have only 15 minutes to tell my kids a bedtime story. I don’t have time to sit around and talk.’ Artificial light turned potential social time into potential work time. What happens to social relations?”

Her research raises that question, but doesn’t answer it.

Preserving Biocultural Diversity (New York Times)


In a small classroom in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, a little girl sits, her face knitted in concentration. “Nitóxka, nátoka, niuóxka” — one, two, three — she slowly counts out, just as generations of other Piegan children have before her. Meanwhile, half a world away on the lower slopes of Mount Gorongosa in southern Africa, another little girl races excitedly about a field with her friends, gathering as many bugs as quickly as possible. She takes one particularly fetching find to a man who identifies it as a praying mantis, member of the family Mantidae, and adds it to a running tally.

What do these two far-flung scenes have in common? Each of these girls is, in her own unassuming way, making a contribution to preserving the world’s cultural and biological diversity.

The first is learning her indigenous language, a dialect of Blackfeet, in an immersion program in Montana. The second is taking part in a bioblitz on the outskirts of Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique — an organized effort, under the direction of a scientist, in which ordinary people collect and add up as many species as they can in a defined area within a set time. In this case, the scientist is none other than the biologist Edward O. Wilson, one of the world’s greatest champions of biodiversity, who recalls the scene in his newest book, “A Window on Eternity.” By counting, each little girl is learning how to keep track of the differences she will encounter in the world.

Most of us think of nature and culture as belonging to two separate domains. One contains items such as butterflies, the Amazon rainforest and photosynthesis; the other, things like wedding ceremonies, Beethoven’s piano sonatas and sushi. But in fact nature and culture — which we can think of as two great realms of diversity in which all the world’s differences are registered — often interpenetrate. These areas of overlap are now often described by a new term: biocultural diversity.

We see the commonalities clearly when we look at two fundamental components of biological and cultural diversity: species and languages. Both evolve via a process of descent with modification, although cultural evolution is far more rapid than biological evolution. Both can be classified into closely related families that share a common ancestor. Both coincide geographically, with highest diversity in the tropics and lowest at the poles. And both are threatened with extinction on a scale never before seen in history.

How deep is the threat to biocultural diversity? In a new report, “Biocultural Diversity: Threatened Species, Endangered Languages,” we compare the status of and trends in biological and linguistic diversity around the world. Because species and languages are alike in many ways, we use methods originally developed by biologists and adapt them to measure global linguistic diversity. Our analysis shows that at least 25 percent of the world’s 7,000 languages are threatened with extinction, compared with at least 30 percent of amphibians, 21 percent of mammals, 15 percent of reptiles and 13 percent of birds.

We also developed a new Index of Linguistic Diversity that captures the recent general trend in which a few of the world’s largest languages are “cornering the market” as speakers shift away from smaller ones. When we superimpose the global trend line of our new index upon that of the Living Planet Index, a well-respected measure of the rate at which biodiversity is declining, the result is astonishing: They track one another almost perfectly, with both falling about 30 percent between 1970 and 2009.

Why is this happening? The ultimate reason is globalization. We now live in a world where the dominant economic and political forces are aligned to encourage uniformity and the seamless global interchange of products and information. Government policies generally favor developing resources for human use, which simplifies the landscape as it destroys wild animal and plant habitats. Similar policies promote linguistic unification either directly, through sanctions on minority language use, or indirectly, such as by concentrating economic opportunities in cities, thereby making it more difficult for the rural areas in which most languages evolved to remain viable places for the next generation of speakers.

Many of us are uneasy about the proposition that erasing differences is the only route to well-being. But almost inevitably, the facts and figures, all of them pointing toward death and disappearance, make our deepest longings seem puny by comparison. Overwhelmed by trend lines, confused and dispirited, we fall victim to a kind of moral paralysis in which we do not act to protect what we value most because we think we cannot legitimately justify why we care in the first place.

The late Darrell Kipp knew this well. He co-founded the Blackfeet immersion program in Montana as part of a lifetime dedicated to preserving that language. In a guidebook widely used by other Native American language activists, Kipp hammered home that the only obstacle to setting forth is our own feeling of helplessness. “Don’t wait, even if you can’t speak the language,” he urged. “In the beginning, I knew thirty words, then fifty, then sixty. One day I woke up and realized I was dreaming in Blackfeet.”

The dual extinction crisis is actually a golden opportunity for new directions in conservation. If biodiversity organizations joined forces with advocates for linguistic and cultural self-determination, there would be a double payoff. Traditional ecological knowledge that has evolved over millennia among indigenous peoples living in a diversity of Earth’s ecosystems is being rapidly lost as the languages which encode that knowledge disappear. By working together with biologists, field linguists could help to maintain those cultural treasure troves. Conservation biologists could benefit from applying some of that traditional knowledge to their own work. By combining expertise, not only would biocultural diversity be conserved in the environments in which it evolved, but time-tested traditional environmental knowledge could be shared and adapted as appropriate to the wider landscape.

Some of this is already happening. For example, a recent study by scientists in collaboration with Canada’s Taku River Tlingit First Nation used in-depth interviews with tribal members, each with many years’ experience closely observing woodland caribou, to develop a habitat model to help recover this endangered species. When compared with a model created using Western scientific methods alone, the First Nation model correctly identified the caribou’s preference for using frozen lakes as part of its winter habitat — an important nuance that was missed by the Western model. Knowledge of this kind is valuable for our understanding of wildlife ecology and management. The Tlingit language, however, is now spoken by fewer than 1,000 people and is critically endangered.

This kind of cross-cutting conservation work is increasing, but much of what is going on is at the grass roots, far under the radar. From Montana to Mozambique, everyday people are dreaming dreams of a world whose differences are valued and protected. There are many powerful forces arrayed against the continuation of our planet’s generative capacity, and many of these same forces stand to benefit if the world’s cultures are homogenized. But on the other side of the equation is the cumulative power of millions of individuals who know that diversity in nature and culture is the genuine condition of life on Earth.

David Harmon is executive director of the George Wright Society, which promotes support for protected areas and cultural sites, and a co-founder of Terralingua, an NGO devoted to biocultural diversity. Jonathan Loh is a biologist specializing in biological and cultural diversity, and an honorary research associate of the Zoological Society of London.

From Amazon to Garden State (CBS)

MAY 11, 2014, 9:53 AM|David Good’s mother grew up in a remote village in the Amazon jungle. After meeting an American anthropologist, she moved to New Jersey and started a family. After she decided to return to her village, her son made an extraordinary trip to reconnect with her. Steve Hartman reports.

Latinos in the U.S. have a strong belief in the spirit world (Pew Research Center)

MAY 15, 2014


A majority of American Catholics see Pope Francis as a major change for the Catholic Church. But in one area, Francis may be the most traditional pope in a generation: He has “not only dwelled far more on Satan in sermons and speeches than his recent predecessors have,” according to a recent Washington Post article, “but also sought to rekindle the Devil’s image as a supernatural entity with the forces of evil at his beck and call.”

Francis is the first pope from Latin America, where “mystical views of Satan still hold sway in broad areas of the region,” according to the Post. Last week, Catholics from 33 countries gathered in Vatican City for a conference on exorcism. The Post estimated the number of “official exorcists” to be between 500 and 600, “the vast majority operating in Latin America and Eastern Europe.”

While we do not have data on how many Americans overall believe in the presence of spirits, a recent Pew Research survey found widespread belief in this among Latinos in the United States. More than half (57%) said that people can be possessed by spirits, and 44% said magic, sorcery or witchcraft can influence people’s lives.

In our survey, about one-in-eight Hispanic Catholics in the U.S. (12%) said they have witnessed an exorcism. Even more Hispanic Protestants (37%) – including 59% of Pentecostals – said they have seen “the devil or evil spirits being driven out of a person.”

Varying percentages of U.S. Hispanics also hold other spiritual beliefs, which in some cases may reflect a mix of Christian and indigenous or Afro-Caribbean influences.

Roughly four-in-ten U.S. Hispanics (39%), including a similar share of Hispanic Catholics, said they believe in the “evil eye,” or that certain people can cast curses or spells that cause bad things to happen. A smaller share (15%) said they have had witchcraft or black magic practiced on them or someone close to them.

Jardim Botânico do Rio lança livro de plantas medicinais em tribo no Acre (EFE)

sáb, 17 de mai de 2014

Janaína Quinet.

Rio de Janeiro, 17 mai (EFE).- O Instituto de Pesquisa do Jardim Botânico do Rio de Janeiro (IJBRJ) e a Editora Dantes lançaram nesta semana o livro “Una Isi Kayawa, Livro da Cura”, que documenta o conhecimento medicinal do povo Huni Kuin do Rio Jordão, no Acre.

O trabalho que durou cerca de dois anos e meio foi realizado através de pesquisas e oficinas com os pajés das 33 aldeias das três terras indígenas Kaxinawá, que, que se estendem pelo Rio Jordão.

Comandado pelo pesquisador do JBRJ, Alexandre Quinet, e com o apoio do Coordenador do Centro Nacional da Conservação da Flora Brasileira do Instituto de Pesquisa do Jardim Botânico, Gustavo Martinelli, o livro conta com 109 espécies de plantas com a descrição de seus usos medicinais em português e em “hatxa kuin”, língua falada na tribo.

A identificação do material botânico foi feita com a colaboração de 21 taxonomistas de instituições brasileiras e internacionais. A obra apresenta, além do conhecimento científico das plantas, a cultura do povo Huni Kuin por meio de relatos e desenhos, desde seus hábitos alimentares e artesanato como também as suas concepções espirituais.

Por conta do lançamento, foi organizada na Aldeia São Joaquim uma grande festa, reunindo a maior parte dos pajés das 33 aldeias, que realizaram seus rituais com a “nixi pae” (ayhausca) e rapé de tabaco. Todos vestiram suas roupas tradicionais, enfeitaram-se com seus cocares e, com urucum e jenipapo, desenharam em seus corpos os “kenes”, representações gráficas de conceitos sagrados.

Durante a entrega dos livros aos pajés de cada aldeia, Quinet declarou que o livro “é um registro fiel do que foi dito pelos pajés.

“Esse foi um processo todo participativo. Nós fomos apenas os costureiros. Essas palavras são de vocês, vocês são os autores e protagonistas deste livro feito por vocês e para vocês”, disse.

Já Martinelli afirmou que o acolhimento que o povo lhe proporcionou foi o melhor que ele recebeu em todas as suas viagens.

“Desde a primeira vez que eu vim aqui, nunca tinha me sentido tão bem acolhido. As pessoas estavam aqui me saudando, e nunca vou esquecer esse momento. Por isso eu quis retribuir, colaborando ao máximo para concretização desse projeto”, explicou.

Anna Dantes, que editou o livro acompanhando sua realização desde as oficinas, coordenando a tradução dos textos em “hatxa kuin” e selecionando com eles os desenhos, exaltou a iniciativa.

“Trabalho com a edição de livros há mais de 20 anos, para mim isso é pegar um sonho e fazer com que ele alcance outras pessoas. O livro vai durar mais tempo que a gente, o livro fica na história”, argumentou.

Ela ainda explicou que, para apresentar um conteúdo tão rico, foi criada uma fonte tipográfica a partir das letras manuscritas em cadernos, placas dos parques e quadros negros.

A fonte foi usada para a escrita do “hatxa kuin” e para todas as informações de autoria Huni Kuin no livro. Além disso, o papel utilizado na impressão é resistente e pode ser molhado, já que é feito de garrafas de plástico recicladas. O objetivo é que ele possa resistir às condições úmidas e permeáveis da floresta.

A realização deste livro é a concretização do sonho do pajé Agostinho Manduca Mateus Inka Muru.

Durante 20 anos, ele realizou a missão de reunir seu povo que estava disperso, de resgatar sua cultura, com seus cânticos, rituais, pinturas, tecelagem, desenhos, alimentos, histórias e lendas. Ele desejava perpetuar todo esse conhecimento em um livro, “como os brancos”, dizia ele, para que os mais jovens não esquecessem e pudessem passar adiante as tradições e a cultura Huni Kuin.

Dias após a realização da última oficina, tendo encaminhado sua missão de transmissão de conhecimento, enquanto terminava suas recomendações para o livro, o Pajé Ika Muru morreu nos braços de seus filhos. EFE

Bolivianos em São Paulo comemoram a Festa de Alasitas (Yahoo Notícias)

EFE – 24.jan.2014

São Paulo, 24 jan (EFE).- A comunidade boliviana em São Paulo, a que mais cresceu nos últimos anos na cidade, celebrou nesta sexta-feira, em meio a um forte calor e com as tradicionais oferendas, a Festa de Alasitas, em homenagem a Ekeko, o deus da abundância.

A celebração, que há 14 anos acontece em São Paulo, foi realizada pela segunda vez na Praça Cívica do Memorial da América Latina, projetado por Oscar Niemeyer.

Segundo os organizadores, 25 mil pessoas participaram da festa, que antes acontecia na Praça da Kantuta, no bairro de Pari, um parque frequentado pela comunidade boliviana, geralmente, aos domingos.

Conforme contou à Agência Efe o comerciante boliviano Élder Cruz, o número de participantes poderia ser ainda maior se a data caísse durante o fim de semana, já que “muitas pessoas queriam vir, trazer a família, mas não podem deixar o trabalho”.

O Centro de Apoio ao Migrante (Cami) e a Associação Cultural e Gastronômica Boliviana Padre Bento (ACGBPB) organizaram uma programação artística com danças folclóricas, apresentações musicais, festival gastronômico e feira de artesanato.

O tradicional culto ao deus índio Ekeko não podia falta. Conforme a crença é ele o responsável pela realização dos sonhos de quem faz as oferendas ao meio-dia do dia 24 de janeiro de cada ano.

Sob o sol intenso, centenas de pessoas formaram longas filas nas barracas em que os curandeiros “vatiri” abençoavam as oferendas, formadas por réplicas em miniaturas dos desejos, como automóveis, casinhas, cópias de dinheiro e moedas, passaportes e diplomas.

“É uma tradição muito arraigada em toda a Bolívia, principalmente em La Paz, e continua com todos os que chegam a um país estrangeiro, e passamos isto a nossos filhos, muitos deles já brasileiros”, contou à Agência Efe Freddy Carrillo, da ACGBPB e um dos responsáveis pela programação artística.

A mistura de sincretismo, religiosidade, mística, música, gastronomia e arte também chamou atenção dos moradores da região e de outros estrangeiros.

Para a pedagoga Ilsa Campânia, que aprecia manifestações culturais, eventos assim aproximam mais o país da realidade dos imigrantes.

“É conviver um pouco e conhecer o vizinho, porque os bolivianos não são estranhos. Já são parte da vida e de uma realidade como a de São Paulo”, disse ela. EFE

O antropólogo contra o Estado (Piauí)

Edição 88 > _vultos das humanidades > Dezembro de 2013

As ideias e as brigas de Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, o intelectual brasileiro que virou a filosofia ocidental pelo avesso



Marcio Ferreira da Silva, um sujeito grandalhão e bem-humorado, professor de antropologia na Universidade de São Paulo, tentava encontrar um volume nas estantes de seu apartamento. Depois de perscrutar as prateleiras da sala, sumiu por um instante no corredor que levava aos quartos. “Achei”, exclamou. Trouxe lá de dentro uma edição especial da revista L’Homme, publicada no ano 2000, em que o antropólogo Claude Lévi-Strauss, aos 91 anos, comentava os avanços recentes de sua disciplina.

“Olha o que o bruxo escreveu!”, disse o antropólogo da USP. Passou então a ler em voz alta os parágrafos finais de um artigo em que o etnólogo francês exalta o trabalho dos “colegas brasileiros”, atribuindo a eles a descoberta de uma metafísica própria aos índios sul-americanos. “A filosofia ocupa novamente o proscênio da antropologia”, escreveu Lévi-Strauss. “Não mais a nossa filosofia”, acrescentou, mas a filosofia dos “povos exóticos”. O texto que Marcio Silva tinha nas mãos indicava que algo havia mudado na relação da academia brasileira com a metrópole – uma relação que poderia ser descrita como uma via de mão única, ou quase isso, ao longo da maior parte do século XX.

Num artigo que causou certa discussão, escrito em 1968 para a aut aut, prestigiosa revista italiana de filosofia, o filósofo Bento Prado Jr. registrou que resenhar, naquela publicação, as obras de seus pares produzidas no Brasil “não implicaria nenhuma informação para o leitor europeu”. E argumentava: “Aqui também se faz marxismo, fenomenologia, existencialismo, positivismo.” Mas não havia novidade ou contribuição maior: “Quase sempre, o que se faz é divulgação.” Três décadas depois, Lévi-Strauss identificava um conjunto de ideias na fronteira da antropologia e da filosofia que, a seu ver, o leitor europeu precisava conhecer.

Marcio Silva havia retirado outro volume da estante. Leu o título: Transformations of Kinship [Transformações do Parentesco]. “É a última grande compilação de estudos da área. O último grande livro do século XX. Tem um artigo do Eduardo”, disse, referindo-se ao antropólogo Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, seu orientador no doutorado, nos anos 80. Abriu o livro nas páginas finais e procurou referências bibliográficas. Encontrou os nomes de ex-alunos de Viveiros de Castro. “Olha aqui o Carlos Fausto. Citado em português! A Aparecida Vilaça também.” O próprio Silva também constava da lista. “Foi por causa do Eduardo que os ‘colegas brasileiros’ passaram a existir”, disse. “É muito fácil aferir isso. Basta folhear as principais revistas da disciplina. Isso mudou. E mudou por causa dele.”

Eduardo Viveiros de Castro mora com a mulher, Déborah Danowski, e a única filha deles, Irene, de 18 anos, num prédio antigo, estilo art déco, na praia de Botafogo, no Rio de Janeiro. No apartamento de pé-direito alto, estantes de livros cobrem as paredes já no pequeno corredor que serve como hall de entrada. Na prateleira de uma delas, na sala, vê-se uma foto antiga do antropólogo, na casa dos 20 anos, com o cabelo comprido. Ao lado, um retrato de Bob Dylan.

Numa noite de outubro do ano passado, Viveiros de Castro criticava o avanço do governo de Dilma Rousseff sobre a Amazônia, seus projetos de estradas e usinas hidrelétricas, benefícios ao agronegócio – e descaso com os direitos dos povos indígenas. Sentado no sofá, o antropólogo comparou as ambições desenvolvimentistas da atual presidente à megalomania da ditadura, com seu ideário de “Brasil Grande”.

“Hegel deve estar dando pulinhos de alegria no túmulo, vendo como a dialética funciona”, ele disse. “Foi preciso a esquerda, uma ex-guerrilheira, para realizar o projeto da direita. Na verdade, eles sempre quiseram a mesma coisa, que é mandar no povo. Direita e esquerda achavam que sabiam o que era melhor para o povo e, o que é pior, o que eles pensavam que fosse o melhor é muito parecido. Os militares talvez fossem mais violentos, mais fascistas, mas o fato é que é muito parecido.”

Apesar da contundência, falava com calma, o tom de voz baixo. “O PT, a esquerda em geral, tem uma incapacidade congênita para pensar todo tipo de gente que não seja o bom operário que vai se transformar em consumidor. Uma incapacidade enorme para entender as populações que se recusaram a entrar no jogo do capitalismo. Quem não entrou no jogo – o índio, o seringueiro, o camponês, o quilombola –, gente que quer viver em paz, que quer ficar na dela, eles não entendem. O Lula e o PT pensam o Brasil a partir de São Bernardo. Ou de Barretos. Eles têm essa concepção de produção, de que viver é produzir – ‘O trabalho é a essência do homem’. O trabalho é a essência do homem porra nenhuma. A atividade talvez seja, mas trabalhar, não.”

Viveiros de Castro não é um homem alto. “Oficialmente”, mede 1,68 metro, mas diz que a idade já deve lhe ter roubado 1 ou 2 centímetros. Tem 62 anos, o cabelo e a barba grisalhos. O que se destaca em sua fisionomia é o nariz grande, reto, quase um triângulo retângulo aplicado ao rosto. Seus gestos são contidos e ele fala numa versão mais atenuada, mais diluída, do sotaque carioca. Em contraste com o discurso combativo, faz lembrar, na prosódia e nos modos, um diplomata. Afável, o antropólogo recusa a imagem: a comparação com a elite burocrática do país – espécie de símbolo da vida burguesa bem-comportada – não lhe agrada.

Num texto memorialístico recente, Viveiros de Castro contabilizou dezesseis anos de estudo, do primário à faculdade, em duas tradicionais instituições cariocas: o Colégio Santo Inácio e a Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio. “Dois estabelecimentos privados de classe média e alta – ninguém é perfeito – de minha cidade natal, ambos dirigidos pelos padres jesuítas”, escreveu. Seu pai pertencia a uma família de “políticos e juristas”. Augusto Olympio Viveiros de Castro, bisavô de Eduardo, foi ministro do Supremo Tribunal Federal e hoje é nome de rua em Copacabana. Outro bisavô, Lauro Sodré, nome de avenida em Botafogo, foi militar, senador e governador do Pará. Participou da Revolta da Vacina, em 1904 – segundo o antropólogo, por ser positivista e acreditar que o Estado “só podia chegar até a pele” dos cidadãos. “Um argumento curioso”, comentou. “Equivocado, no caso da vacina. Mas tem seu interesse retórico. Tendo a simpatizar com ele. Acho que o Estado devia parar muito antes, bem longe da pele.”

Do ponto de vista intelectual, Viveiros de Castro é herdeiro de cientistas sociais que ajudaram a derrubar o senso comum de que os povos indígenas são marcados pelo atraso em relação ao mundo ocidental. Essas sociedades sempre foram descritas como “primitivas” por carecerem de instituições modernas – como o Estado e a ciência.

Foi Claude Lévi-Strauss quem aposentou definitivamente a ideia de que os povos sem escrita seriam menos racionais do que os europeus. Os índios ocupavam um lugar próximo, nessa visão de mundo que ele ajudou a desfazer, ao das crianças, ou dos loucos. O pesquisador francês argumentou que havia método e ordem nas aparentemente caóticas associações que esses povos faziam – entre tipos de animais, acidentes geográficos, corpos celestes e instituições sociais. Eram o resultado não da falta de razão, mas, em certo sentido, de seu excesso. O que nenhuma sociedade humana tolera, dizia Lévi-Strauss, é a falta de sentido. O “pensamento selvagem”, assim, é totalizante, e procura, por meio de analogias, uma compreensão completa de todo o universo, estabelecendo relações entre os diferentes tipos de fenômenos. Um determinado rio se distingue de outro de maneira análoga ao modo como uma espécie animal é diferente de outra, ou um grupo social, de seus vizinhos. Nada pode escapar à sua malha de significados.

Nos anos 70, o antropólogo francês Pierre Clastres argumentou que a falta de Estado nos povos das terras baixas sul-americanas – em contraste com a forte centralização política de seus vizinhos andinos – não seria uma carência, mas uma escolha deliberada, coletiva. Há entre eles, com frequência, alguma forma de chefia. Em troca de prestígio, o chefe ocupa um lugar privilegiado, e apartado, em relação aos demais integrantes da sociedade. Pode falar à vontade. Mas ninguém lhe dá ouvidos. “O chefe por vezes prega no deserto”, escreveu Clastres. Do chefe é exigida uma generosidade maior, que o obriga a distribuir bens para o restante da sociedade. Lévi-Strauss, ao falar dos Nambikwara, dizia que “a generosidade desempenha um papel fundamental para determinar o grau de popularidade de que gozará o novo chefe”.

Por mais populares que sejam, contudo, tais líderes não dispõem de nenhuma capacidade coercitiva. O chefe não manda. Tudo se passa como se essas sociedades criassem uma posição privilegiada, o lugar exato onde o Estado poderia nascer, para então esvaziá-la de poder, numa espécie de ação preventiva. Foi o que Clastres chamou de “sociedades contra o Estado”. Defendeu a ideia, em um de seus artigos, argumentando que “só os tolos podem acreditar que, para recusar a alienação, é preciso primeiro tê-la experimentado”.

Naquela mesma década de 70, o norte-americano Marshall Sahlins se ocupou da dimensão econômica dessas sociedades. Procurou analisar as mais “pobres” dentre elas, os grupos nômades de caçadores-coletores. Segundo a visão então consagrada, tais sociedades mal conseguiriam assegurar a própria subsistência. Com técnicas pouco desenvolvidas e baixa produtividade, por certo não havia nelas produção excedente, poupança, investimento. Viviam da mão para a boca.

Ocorre que o tempo dedicado ao trabalho também era pequeno. Esses estranhos “primitivos” pareciam ser ao mesmo tempo miseráveis e ociosos. Oque Sahlins argumentou é que não fazia sentido, para grupos nômades, acumular bens – quanto menos tivessem que carregar, tanto melhor. Tampouco era lógico produzir estoques, quando esses estão ao redor, “na própria natureza”. Do ponto de vista dos caçadores-coletores, não lhes faltava nada. Trabalhar pouco era uma escolha, e aqueles grupos constituiriam o que o antropólogo chamou de primeira “sociedade de afluência”.

Em alguns de seus textos, Viveiros de Castro cita Lévi-Strauss e Pierre Clastres como paixões intelectuais. Não chega a fazer o mesmo com Sahlins, mas o ex-aluno dos padres jesuítas retomou o autor norte-americano, num ensaio recente, para argumentar que, junto aos outros dois, ele contribuiu para colocar em questão “a santíssima trindade do homem moderno: o Estado, o Mercado e a Razão, que são como o Pai, o Filho e o Espírito Santo da teologia capitalista”. Em vez de símbolo de atraso, a “sociedade primitiva”, escreveu o antropólogo carioca, “é uma das muitas encarnações conceituais da perene tese da esquerda de que um outro mundo é possível: de que há vida fora do capitalismo, como há socialidade fora do Estado. Sempre houve, e – é para isso que lutamos – continuará havendo”.

O antropólogo e sua mulher mantêm uma casa simples num condomínio de classe média alta, em Petrópolis, na serra fluminense. Costumam passar os finais de semana lá. No centro do terreno se ergue uma espécie de pequeno Pão de Açúcar, uma pedra grande, com cerca de 5 metros de diâmetro, que se mostrou providencial para baratear o preço do lote. “O pessoal por aqui quer casa com cinco salas, cinco suítes”, disse Viveiros de Castro. “Esse pedregulho atrapalha.” Nos fundos, fica uma obra a que ele se dedica com afinco e que parece lhe dar grande orgulho: um jardim-pomar.

Num domingo de céu sem nuvens, ele caminhava por entre os arbustos distribuídos no terreno gramado. Levava um cajado de madeira quase do seu tamanho. Usava-o sobretudo para apontar as frutas de nomes estranhos, que eram sempre aparentadas de outras, mais conhecidas. “Essa é da família da pitanga”; aquela outra, “parente da lichia”; uma terceira, “deliciosa, com o gosto entre a goiaba e o abacaxi”. Déborah acompanhava o percurso. Ela é professora de filosofia na PUC do Rio. Os dois são casados há quase três décadas. Quando voltamos para a sala da casa, pedi que Viveiros de Castro falasse sobre a ideia que o projetou. A síntese da metafísica dos povos “exóticos”, a que se referia Lévi-Strauss, surgiu em 1996. Ganhou o nome de “perspectivismo ameríndio”.

Fazia já alguns anos, então, que o antropólogo se ocupava de um traço específico do pensamento indígena nas Américas. Em contraste com a ênfase dada pelas sociedades industriais à produção de objetos, vigora entre esses povos a lógica da predação. O pensamento ameríndio dá muita importância às relações entre caça e caçador – que têm, para eles, um valor comparável ao que conferimos ao trabalho e à fabricação de bens de consumo. Diferentes espécies animais são pensadas a partir da posição que ocupam nessa relação. Gente, por exemplo, é ao mesmo tempo presa de onça e predadora de porcos.

Duas alunas suas, Aparecida Vilaça e Tânia Stolze Lima, preparavam, naquela ocasião, teses de doutorado que chamavam a atenção para outra característica curiosa do pensamento de diferentes grupos indígenas. Tânia pesquisava os Juruna, do Xingu; Aparecida, os Wari, em Rondônia. Pois bem: de acordo com os interlocutores de ambas, os animais podiam assumir a perspectiva humana. Tânia e Viveiros de Castro fizeram um levantamento que indicava a existência de ideias semelhantes em outros grupos espalhados pelas Américas, do Alasca à Patagônia. Segundo diferentes etnias, os porcos, por exemplo, se viam uns aos outros como gente. E enxergavam os humanos, seus predadores, como onça. As onças, por sua vez, viam a si mesmas e às outras onças como gente. Para elas, contudo, os índios eram tapires ou pecaris – eram presa. Essa lógica não se restringia aos animais. Aplicava-se aos espíritos, que veem os homens como caça, e também aos deuses e aos mortos.

Ser gente parecia uma questão de ponto de vista. Gente é quem ocupa a posição de sujeito. No mundo amazônico, escreveu o antropólogo, “há mais pessoas no céu e na terra do que sonham nossas antropologias”.

Ao se verem como gente, os animais adotam também todas as características culturais humanas. Da perspectiva de um urubu, os vermes da carne podre que ele come são peixes grelhados, comida de gente. O sangue que a onça bebe é, para ela, cauim, porque é cauim o que se bebe com tanto gosto. Urubus entre urubus também têm relações sociais humanas, com ritos, festas e regras de casamento. O mesmo vale para peixes entre peixes, ou porcos-do-mato entre porcos-do-mato.

Tudo se passa, conforme Viveiros de Castro, como se os índios pensassem o mundo de maneira inversa à nossa, se consideradas as noções de “natureza” e de “cultura”. Para nós, o que é dado, o universal, é a natureza, igual para todos os povos do planeta. O que é construído é a cultura, que varia de uma sociedade para outra. Para os povos ameríndios, ao contrário, o dado universal é a cultura, uma única cultura, que é sempre a mesma para todo sujeito. Ser gente, para seres humanos, animais e espíritos, é viver segundo as regras de casamento do grupo, comer peixe, beber cauim, temer onça, caçar porco.

Mas se a cultura é igual para todos, algo precisa mudar. E o que muda, o que é construído, dependendo do observador, é a natureza. Para o urubu, os vermes no corpo em decomposição são peixe assado. Para nós, são vermes. Não há uma terceira posição, superior e fundadora das outras duas. Ao passarmos de um observador a outro, para que a cultura permaneça a mesma, toda a natureza em volta precisa mudar.

Já fazia alguns minutos que Déborah tinha se enfurnado dentro da casa, enquanto o antropólogo falava de peixes, antas e urubus. Viveiros de Castro disse se lembrar de que estava lendo um ensaio de Lévi-Strauss quando teve o “estalo” que deu origem ao perspectivismo. Fez uma pausa e, sem se levantar da poltrona, chamou pela mulher. “Débi!” Ela apareceu no mezanino, sobre nossas cabeças. O antropólogo voltou a contar a história. “Eu lembro que saí do escritório, onde estava lendo esse texto, e disse à Débi que tinha acabado de ter uma ideia; uma ideia que iria me ocupar por uns dez anos, se eu quisesse tirar todas as consequências dela.” Virou-se para cima e perguntou: “Lembra, Débi?” Do alto do mezanino, ela riu, simpática, e respondeu balançando a cabeça: “Não.”

A antropóloga Manuela Carneiro da Cunha, professora da Universidade de Chicago, avalia que as ideias desenvolvidas por Viveiros de Castro a partir do perspectivismo ameríndio dialogam diretamente com boa parte da tradiçãofilosófica ocidental. Ao mesmo tempo, a síntese que ele propôs do pensamento indígena é uma crítica a essa tradição, ao colocar em questão as noções de “natureza” e “cultura” da “vulgata metafísica ocidental”.

Essa capacidade crítica foi logo notada. Durante um debate na Inglaterra, mal a ideia havia sido apresentada, um interlocutor do antropólogo carioca lhe disse que os índios de que ele falava “pareciam ter estudado em Paris”. Reagindo à provocação, Viveiros de Castro comentou que “na realidade havia ocorrido exatamente o contrário: que alguns parisienses”, e ele se referia certamente a Lévi-Strauss, que viveu no Brasil entre 1935 e 1939, “haviam estudado na Amazônia”. E argumentou que sua análise “devia tanto ao estruturalismo francês”, de Lévi-Strauss, quanto este estava em débito com o conhecimento que travara com povos indígenas do Brasil. “Não fora o Pará que estivera em Paris”, disse o antropólogo, “mas sim Paris no Pará”.

Viveiros de Castro promoveu, em relação à filosofia, algo análogo ao que Pierre Clastres e Marshall Sahlins haviam feito em relação ao Estado e à economia de mercado: mostrou que um outro mundo é possível. A ideia recebeu enorme atenção, dentro e fora do país, quase imediatamente após sua formulação. “Na França e na Inglaterra, o Eduardo é altamente respeitado”, declarou a professora da Universidade de Chicago; “basta dizer que na livraria Gibert, em Paris, há uma seção de prateleira com o nome dele.”

Nos Estados Unidos, a resistência ao perspectivismo foi maior, observou Manuela. No final de novembro passado, contudo, após uma conferência de Viveiros de Castro para a Associação Americana de Antropologia, ela me enviou uma mensagem informando que a recepção às ideias dele estava “melhorando bastante”. Mesmo antes disso, de toda forma, o professor brasileiro já contava com defensores importantes. Marshall Sahlins, colega de Manuela em Chicago, considera Viveiros de Castro “o antropólogo mais erudito e original do planeta” da atualidade, tendo inaugurado “uma nova era para a antropologia, com profundas implicações para o resto das ciências humanas e das humanidades”.

Eduardo Batalha Viveiros de Castro nasceu no dia 19 de abril de 1951, no Rio de Janeiro. Passou toda a adolescência na Gávea, Zona Sul da cidade. Nos anos 60, o bairro era uma larga ilha de classe média contida entre a Rocinha, no alto do morro, e o Parque Proletário, uma favela que não existe mais. Eduardo morava numa casa grande de dois andares, movimentada, aberta à vizinhança, com os pais e os cinco irmãos mais novos. A mãe “era dona de casa, formada em letras, como convinha a uma moça de boa família”. O pai, um advogado trabalhista, não dirigia. Nos finais de semana, contratava os serviços de um vizinho taxista para levar a família à praia em Ipanema.

Tampouco tinham tevê – levaram certo tempo até adquirir uma, “meio que obrigando a gente a estudar”. Por outro lado, a biblioteca era boa. “Os livros que não eram brasileiros eram franceses. Aprendi a ler em francês folheando os livros do meu pai. Minha mãe, também, tinha estudado numa escola de freiras francesas. Havia um ruído de fundo em francês na casa.”

Viveiros de Castro não deu muita atenção quando chegou ao bairro a notícia do golpe militar, em 64: “Eu tinha 13 anos, estava jogando bola.” Seu interesse, além do futebol, eram os livros de divulgação científica. Começou a gostar de música na época em que os discos dos Beatles e dos Rolling Stones desembarcaram no país, e decidiu aprender inglês quando conheceu as canções de Bob Dylan, que ele reputa, ainda hoje, personagem fundamental em sua formação intelectual. “Os discos dele em geral tinham as letras na contracapa. Era só abrir o dicionário.” Foi por meio do cantor norte-americano que o antropólogo descobriu a geração beat, com seus valores libertários, e a contracultura.

Em contraposição à vida alegre da Gávea, o Colégio Santo Inácio, onde estudou até chegar à faculdade, foi um longo “serviço militar”, do qual disse não guardar boas lembranças – nem más. Uma escola exclusivamente masculina, em que a ênfase não estava no ensino religioso, mas na disciplina.

Os anos decisivos foram 1967 e 1968. Interessou-se pelas discussões intelectuais publicadas nos suplementos dominicais da imprensa, tomando o partido da poesia concreta, das revoluções formais e do tropicalismo, contra o que se refere como vertente nacional-populista, “tipo samba de raiz, Tinhorão, CPC – o marxismo cultural, chamemos assim”. Passou a ler obras de linguística, filosofia, poesia brasileira e literatura francesa. Ainda gostava de matemática, carreira que considerou seguir. Desistiu ao se confrontar com um colega que “nadava de costas” na disciplina. “Ele era muito melhor do que eu. Vi que não tinha condições de ser matemático.”

Foi nessa época, disse o antropólogo, que ele descobriu o mundo intelectual “pra valer”. “Comecei também a desenvolver sentimentos antiburgueses. Deixei o cabelo crescer, por assim dizer. Passei a experimentar as drogas, a frequentar ambientes pouco recomendáveis e a ter amigos fora do colégio. Sobretudo um, que foi muito importante para me situar nos debates da época, amigo meu até hoje, que é o Ivan Cardoso, cineasta.”

Quando se referem um ao outro, Viveiros de Castro e o amigo do tempo da adolescência, dois senhores de mais de 60 anos, parecem garotos. Assim que encontrei Ivan Cardoso pela primeira vez, em sua casa, em Copacabana, ele foi logo dizendo: “O Viveiros? Eu comia ele.”

Com uma calva pronunciada, o cineasta trazia o cabelo desarrumado nas têmporas e na nuca. Numa sala atulhada de móveis e objetos criados por ele, quadros com esmaecidas bandeirolas de Festa Junina se destacavam. “São Volpis?”, perguntei. “São Ivolpis”, ele respondeu, satisfeito, “Ivolpis!”

Mais conhecido por seu longa O Segredo da Múmia, de 1982, Cardoso foi um inovador formal, rodando filmes de vanguarda em super-8 a partir do final dos anos 60. Viveiros de Castro conta que a preocupação do amigo com a plasticidade das cenas, aliada à paródia das fitas de terror que fazia, levou o poeta e crítico Haroldo de Campos a sintetizar sua obra como “Mondrian no açougue”. “Tenho uma admiração imensa pelo Ivan”, me disse o antropólogo. “Ele, sim, é um artista. Nunca se afastou disso, e tem uma puta imaginação plástica. Eu sou um anão. O Ivan é um gigante.”

Os pais de Ivan Cardoso e de Viveiros de Castro eram amigos. Os dois garotos estudavam em escolas diferentes, mas próximas. O Colégio São Fernando, que Ivan frequentava, ficava em Botafogo, como o Santo Inácio. Cardoso editava um jornal estudantil e convidava artistas plásticos para dar palestras aos alunos. “O Ivan era muito cara de pau”, explicou o antropólogo. “Batia na porta das pessoas. Eu ia um pouco no vácuo dele.” Os dois ficaram amigos de Hélio Oiticica. “Ele gostou da gente”, contou o antropólogo. “Ensinava coisas. Foi um pouco nosso guia no mundo artístico.”

Esticado na cama de seu quarto, Ivan Cardoso lembrou a primeira vez em que encontrou Oiticica. Cardoso havia ligado para o artista, pedindo que falasse a seus colegas, na escola. Recebeu, como resposta, um convite para que fosse a sua casa, no Jardim Botânico – um lugar que mais tarde ele e Viveiros de Castro passariam a frequentar. “A casa do Hélio era estranhíssima. Misturavam-se críticos de arte e malandros do morro. Era um desfile. Na sala, tinha uma tenda. Ele morava com a mãe. Todo mundo queimando fumo, e a mãe dele descia a escada e reclamava: ‘Vocês vão ser todos presos! Eu já chamei a polícia, seus maconheiros!’ A velha sofreu.”

Viveiros de Castro e Hélio Oiticica gostavam de conversar sobre literatura e filosofia. “Os dois já tinham lido tudo. Cheguei à conclusão de que não adiantava mais eu ler. Qualquer coisa, perguntava para eles.” Segundo o cineasta, seu amigo tomava o café da manhã com um livro aberto na mesa. “Ele lia até trepando”, disse, rindo. “Mas não era apenas um intelectual. Ele andava com um canivete de mola. Era transviado também. Uma vez ele arrumou uma confusão desgraçada no baixo Leblon. Arranjou briga, tacou o carro em cima de um desgraçado lá, um elemento nocivo, tipo um ‘bad boyzinho’ desses. Ele sempre foi uma pessoa carismática, e fazia o marketing dele. Fumava Continental sem filtro, que é um destronca peito desgraçado, e era um bom pé de cana. Tomava traçado.”

No meio da conversa, o cineasta quis saber o que eu achava do amigo intelectual. Em silêncio, sério, prestou atenção à resposta. “Então é isso”, concluiu. “O Caetano está perdendo tempo com esse Mangabeira Unger. É um merda.”

Em 1969, Viveiros de Castro começou a estudar na PUC. Cursou jornalismo por um ano. No ciclo básico, se interessou por ciências sociais e pediu transferência. Parte considerável do que era lecionado no novo curso, no entanto, não o agradava. “O que o pessoal estava ensinando era teoria da dependência, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, burguesia nacional, teoria da revolução – quem seria o guia da mudança, se o operariado ou o campesinato”, contou.

“Eu, na verdade, tinha horror àquela coisa. Não tinha saco para a teoria da dependência e não gostava da teoria do Brasil. Achava de uma arrogância absurda enunciar a verdade sobre o que o povo deve ser, o que o povo deve fazer. Isso de teorizar o Brasil é uma coisa que a classe dominante sempre fez. Quem fala ‘Brasil’ é sempre alguém que está mandando. Seja para fazer revolução de esquerda, seja para soltar os gorilas da ditadura na rua. E aqueles caras… Eu ficava pensando: eles querem as mesmas coisas que os militares. Só que querem ser eles a mandar. Vai ser um quartel, isso aqui.”

O tema mobiliza Viveiros de Castro: esquerda tradicional, “careta”, de um lado; esquerda existencial, “libertária”, de outro. A divisão, ele observa, não era apenas intelectual. Definiu trajetórias pessoais, “como ir para a clandestinidade e para a luta armada; ou ir para a praia, fumar maconha, tocar violão”. Num texto de memórias, disse admirar seus “companheiros mais corajosos” que se arriscaram na clandestinidade. Viveiros resolveu ir à praia.

Em 1970, um píer foi construído em Ipanema, por ocasião das obras para lançar o esgoto longe da costa. Moveram a areia e surgiram morrotes altos, que mais tarde ganhariam o apelido de “dunas do barato”. Mudanças no fundo do mar melhoraram as ondas, atraindo os surfistas. Com eles vieram os hippies e o que havia de contracultura no Rio de Janeiro de então. O jovem estudante da PUC também fazia ponto por lá.

“Como diz o Ivan Cardoso, esse era o tempo em que a gente era feliz e sabia. Eu ia nos finais de semana. Tinha muita droga. Muita maconha, muito ácido. Foi um momento importante porque houve uma interpenetração cultural entre o morro e a baixada, por causa do pessoal que vendia pó, vendia fumo.” Ele próprio, segundo disse, não gostava particularmente das substâncias em voga naquele momento. “Eu sou uma pessoa medrosa. Experimentei uma ou duas vezes LSD. Não gostei, fiquei paranoico. Maconha eu usei muito, mas mais porque era coisa da época. O efeito em si… Me dava sono.”

Seu perfil de usuário era mais clássico: álcool, tabaco e cocaína. “Não era maconha, comida vegetariana, ácido. Eu era mais década de 50 do que década de 70. Fui quase viciado em cocaína. Parei porque achei que não ia aguentar fisicamente. É uma droga horrível. Ela te transforma num monstro narcísico. Dá uma sensação de onipotência, que na verdade é uma ‘oni-impotência’. Quando você está mais onipotente é na verdade quando você está completamente impotente: você fica só falando merda, fazendo besteira, e também não é um estimulante sexual. É uma droga idiota, fascista. Mas eu gostava. Eu usava.”

Entre o píer e a PUC, Viveiros de Castro conheceu a obra de Lévi-Strauss, que começava a ser lida no Brasil. O crítico literário Luiz Costa Lima, professor na mesma PUC, disse ter tomado contato com as ideias do antropólogo francês em meados dos anos 60, “quando começou a moda do estruturalismo”. Atraído pelo rigor formal das análises lévi-straussianas, passou a estudá-las a sério. O que aprendia, ensinava na faculdade. Viveiros de Castro seguiu seu curso. “O estruturalismo fazia parte daquilo que a esquerda tradicional considerava anátema”, disse o ex-aluno. “Falavam que era burguês, formalista, que negava a história. Tinha uma série de palavras de ordem que você ouvia.”

Costa Lima e o aluno se tornaram amigos. Formaram um grupo de estudos e se dedicaram por alguns anos, duas vezes por semana, à leitura sistemática das Mitológicas, a obra em que Lévi-Strauss analisa a lógica de mitos ameríndios, reunindo rigor formal e atenção aos detalhes concretos, significativos nas narrativas: cores, cheiros, comportamentos dos animais, detalhes escatológicos, sexo. “Fiquei fascinado com os mitos”, disse Viveiros de Castro. “Eram rabelaisianos, mas tinham uma lógica formal, por causa das combinações, das permutações. Eram ‘Mondrian no açougue’, como os filmes do Ivan. Aquilo tinha uma relação com as coisas que eu lia nos suplementos e de que gostava. Em particular a linguística. E os concretistas. Havia uma afinidade, não direta, mas havia, entre concretistas, tropicalismo e estruturalismo.”

Essa não foi a única influência que Costa Lima exerceria na vida do aluno. Terminada a faculdade, Viveiros de Castro não sabia que rumo tomar. Pensou em fazer pós-graduação em letras. O professor, crítico literário, o desestimulou. Fez isso, explicaria mais tarde, porque “o estudo de literatura sempre foi muito ruim no Brasil”. “Hoje é péssimo”, frisou. Recomendou ao aluno, entusiasmado pelas Mitológicas, que cursasse antropologia no Museu Nacional, vinculado à Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro.

Roberto DaMatta, à época professor do Museu, participou da banca de seleção para o mestrado. “Eu era besta pra cacete”, comentou Viveiros de Castro, ao falar sobre o exame. “O Matta me perguntou: ‘Estou vendo aqui no seu currículo que você leu Lévi-Strauss. O que você leu?’ E eu respondi: ‘Tudo!’”

Na sala de sua casa, em São Paulo, Marcio Silva acendeu um cigarro. O antropólogo pegou uma prancheta na qual havia anotado pontos importantes da trajetória intelectual de seu antigo orientador. Viveiros de Castro se tornou professor assistente do Museu em 1978, pouco depois de concluir o mestrado. Naquele mesmo ano, escreveu um artigo com seus professores Anthony

Seeger e Roberto DaMatta sobre a noção de pessoa entre os grupos indígenas da América do Sul, texto que se tornaria referência para o estudo desses povos.

Marcio ressaltou a audácia dos primeiros parágrafos do artigo. Ali os três autores afirmam que diferentes regiões do planeta haviam contribuído, no passado, com algum aspecto importante da teoria antropológica. A Melanésia, diziam, descobriu a reciprocidade – a obrigação social de dar, receber e retribuir “dádivas”, cuja circulação seria como a linha de costura da sociedade, mantendo-a coesa. O Sudeste Asiático, por sua vez, alargou a compreensão dos sistemas de parentesco e das alianças feitas por regras de casamento. Da África, lembravam, veio um entendimento melhor das linhagens, da bruxaria e da política.

Davam então o passo ousado. Os povos da América do Sul, menos pesquisados e conhecidos, deveriam também fazer sua contribuição, resultado de uma característica específica dessas sociedades: o privilégio que conferiam, em suas cosmologias, ao corpo. “Ele, o corpo, afirmado ou negado, pintado e perfurado, resguardado ou devorado, tende sempre a ocupar uma posição central na visão que as sociedades indígenas têm da natureza do ser humano.”

Perguntei a Marcio Silva se seu ex-orientador, à época desse artigo um jovem de 27 anos, não lhe parecia “atrevido, pretensioso”. “Essa palavra, ‘atrevido’, é boa”, respondeu Silva. “Às vezes ele parece gostar de correr riscos.”

Deu um exemplo. Nos anos 80, Viveiros de Castro retomou um tema, antes central, que estava fora de moda na antropologia: o parentesco. A partir do final do século XIX, pesquisadores passaram a identificar os laços forjados pela consanguinidade – aqueles que criam grupos de descendência – e pela aliança por casamento – laços que “costuram” as relações sociais entre grupos diferentes – como a coluna vertebral das “sociedades primitivas”. Era assim que elas se mantinham coesas, e era por meio do estudo desses laços que os antropólogos poderiam conhecê-las melhor.

Viveiros de Castro fez uma pergunta distinta. Ele não queria saber apenas o que o parentesco dizia sobre os povos indígenas, mas também o que as culturas ameríndias teriam a dizer sobre o parentesco. Será que os índios explicavam o parentesco do mesmo modo que nós, ocidentais? A ideia que lhe ocorreu é em tudo semelhante à lógica do perspectivismo. Pode ser considerada um passo prévio, mais fácil de compreender quando já se conhece a metafísica dos povos indígenas das Américas.

No Ocidente, ele disse, o que é dado são as relações de filiação, de “consanguinidade”. A ligação entre pais, irmãos e filhos é “natural”, logicamente anterior às relações com esposa, sogros e cunhados – relações de “afinidade” que não são dadas, mas construídas pelas escolhas dos indivíduos.

Para os povos ameríndios, contudo, o valor fundamental não está nos laços biológicos, “de sangue”, mas nas relações de aliança, com sogros e cunhados. Aquilo que para nós faz parte da cultura, do que precisa ser construído, para eles já é dado, é a referência que dá sentido e organiza as relações sociais. A lógica da afinidade, das normas que proíbem ou prescrevem casamentos entre pessoas e grupos distintos, é usada mesmo nas relações sociais relativamente distantes, com outros povos, inimigos e espíritos; relações que não têm a ver, necessariamente, com a troca de cônjuges.

O que precisa ser construído por eles, por outro lado, é aquilo que para nós já é dado: o corpo. A “consanguinidade”, a relação de semelhança corporal entre parentes e, até, entre pais e filhos, precisa ser fabricada mesmo depois do nascimento – por meio da partilha dos mesmos alimentos, por exemplo. Daí a importância do corpo, notada no artigo de 1978.

O atrevimento de seu ex-orientador, segundo Marcio Silva, foi tirar todas as consequências desse fato. Os dois modos de compreensão do parentesco têm implicações políticas distintas. “Numa sociedade como a nossa, a consanguinidade, a relação entre irmãos, é pensada como um modelo da relação social”, disse Silva. “Por exemplo, como Viveiros de Castro lembrava, na Revolução Francesa você tem liberdade, igualdade e fraternidade. Fiquemos com a fraternidade. A relação social boa é como se fosse uma relação entre irmãos. Mesmo que eu não tenha parentesco com você, eu sou seu irmão: somos ambos filhos de Deus. Também nas constituições laicas operamos com base nessa metáfora fortíssima de irmãos. O que significa dizer que você é meu irmão? Significa que somos semelhantes e que somos conectados por um ente superior. Que pode ser o Estado, pode ser Deus, pode ser o nosso pai, se formos irmãos mesmo. Isso que nos unifica é um termo superior.”

Já na lógica social dos povos indígenas, não há termo superior que unifique. Os outros – que podem ser um povo indígena diferente, o inimigo, os animais – são para os ameríndios, antes de tudo, uma espécie de cunhado. “O que significa chamar de cunhado? Entre dois cunhados não tem ninguém que seja superior: tem uma mulher que é diferente para cada um. Para um é irmã, para o outro é esposa. Somos relacionados porque vemos uma mesma mulher de maneiras diferentes.” Não há, aí, necessidade de Deus, de pai ou de Estado para se pensar a boa relação social.

“Lembro-me dele dizendo em sala de aula, em tom de blague, que na Amazônia não valia o lema ‘liberdade, igualdade e fraternidade’. Liberdade, tudo bem. Mas no lugar de igualdade, diferença. No lugar de fraternidade, afinidade.”

Se a Melanésia havia contribuído com a noção de reciprocidade, e a África com os grupos de descendência, então os povos da América do Sul forneciam, no início dos anos 90, a ideia de “afinidade potencial”. Tanto nesse caso quanto no perspectivismo ameríndio, que surgiria poucos anos depois, Viveiros de Castro usou conceitos ocidentais – natureza, cultura, consanguinidade, afinidade – para tentar entender as culturas ameríndias. Mas descobriu que era preciso invertê-los para que funcionassem bem naquelas sociedades.

As consequências políticas dessa operação, tanto no caso do parentesco quanto no da metafísica indígena, em que a natureza muda dependendo do observador, eram as mesmas. “Esse é um mundo em que você não tem um ponto de vista dominante, soberano, monárquico”, explicou Viveiros de Castro. “Ao contrário, a condição de sujeito está espalhada, dispersa. Não tem uma transcendência, um ponto de vista do todo, privilegiado. O perspectivismo é o correlato cosmológico, metafísico, da ideia de sociedade contra o Estado, do Pierre Clastres.”

No seu apartamento, em outubro passado, Viveiros de Castro parecia irritado. Explicou que havia se contrariado no trabalho, o que não era incomum. Descreveu mais de três décadas de uma relação conflituosa com seus colegas de instituição. A origem dos aborrecimentos, ele disse, remontava a 1978, quando havia concluído o mestrado e concorreu a uma vaga de professor assistente no Museu Nacional. Dois candidatos se apresentaram: ele próprio e o antropólogo João Pacheco de Oliveira Filho.

Oliveira Filho é, hoje, um dos principais representantes de uma linha de pesquisa importante na instituição carioca. Seus seguidores procuram entender os povos indígenas em suas relações com a sociedade e o Estado brasileiros. Essa corrente descende de Darcy Ribeiro, passando por Roberto Cardoso de Oliveira, um dos criadores da pós-graduação em antropologia no Museu Nacional, em 1968. Cardoso de Oliveira descreveu a “sociologia do contato”, que ele praticava, como uma tentativa de explicar a “sociedade tribal, vista não mais em si, mas em relação à sociedade envolvente”. Em um artigo recente, em que mencionava os Ticuna, do Amazonas, João Pacheco de Oliveira ressaltou que mesmo as “crenças, costumes e princípios organizativos” dos povos indígenas estão “interligados e articulados com determinaçõese projetos da sociedade nacional”.

Por telefone, o norte-americano Anthony Seeger, coautor do artigo de 1978 e orientador de Viveiros de Castro no doutorado, disse que ele e o aluno acreditavam que “as sociedades em si também mereciam atenção”. Ao se preocuparem com o parentesco e com as cosmologias dos grupos que estudavam, praticavam uma etnologia – a parte da antropologia que se ocupa dos povos indígenas – “clássica”, tida por representantes da outra corrente como excessivamente “filosófica”, apolítica e pouco comprometida com as circunstâncias sociais dos índios. De sua parte, Viveiros de Castro acredita que é a “sociologia do contato”, uma linha de pesquisa, ele diz, associada à “esquerda tradicional”, que é politicamente questionável. Seus rivais veriam os índios a partir da mesma perspectiva adotada pelo Estado, como parte do Brasil. Ele, ao contrário, inverteria o ponto de vista. Partiria das sociedades indígenas, tomando suas ideias e práticas como referências para criticar o Brasil, o Estado, o capitalismo.

Viveiros de Castro perdeu o concurso de 1978. Segundo ele porque os representantes da esquerda tradicional eram majoritários na banca. João Pacheco de Oliveira Filho foi o escolhido, mas uma segunda vaga foi criada. O etnólogo “clássico” se tornou, ele também, um jovem professor do Museu. Nos anos seguintes, o que começara como uma disputa teórica se transformaria em cizânia e ressentimento.

Tanto assim que as opiniões sobre o antropólogo carioca se dividem, de maneira marcada. Entre ex-alunos, ele é reconhecido por gestos de generosidade e de correção intelectual. Contudo, são também frequentes os relatos de arrogância na relação de Viveiros de Castro com os colegas, o que contribui para o clima de animosidade na instituição. Ele próprio disse representar, no Museu, “uma posição que é considerada trouble maker, anarquista, e que despreza os outros”. “Isso é quase verdade. Sou tido como alguém que não leva muito a sério o outro tipo de antropologia que é feita lá. De fato. Eu nunca manifestei isso, acho eu. Mas o pessoal percebe. Hoje eu diria que está quase todo mundo aliado ao João, e contra mim. Alguns ficam em cima do muro, que é a posição mais confortável.”

O antropólogo Paulo Maia, professor da Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais e ex-orientando de Viveiros de Castro, afirma que o antigo professor tende a assumir posições pouco diplomáticas. “Ele não quer encontrar um meio-termo: quer marcar posições”, disse Maia. “O Eduardo não busca o consenso e não gosta de pessoas que têm um caráter mais subalterno, boazinhas. Ele gosta de gente mais intempestiva mesmo. Na própria escrita dele, dá para ver isso. É um estilo que não é muito diferente do modo como ele fala. O que para muitos alunos é encantador. A escrita dele é cativante.”

Em 1997, a tensão entre colegas no Museu Nacional se tornou mais aguda. A instituição abriu concurso para professor titular, o posto mais alto da carreira universitária. Quase duas décadas depois da primeira disputa entre os dois, Viveiros de Castro e João Pacheco de Oliveira tinham novamente a intenção de se candidatar à mesma posição. Outros integrantes do departamento se mobilizaram para evitar o embate. “Houve uma pressão muito forte, dentro da instituição, para que só se apresentasse um candidato”, disse Viveiros de Castro. “Partindo daquele éthos característico da academia, em que você prefere arranjar as coisas para evitar situações delicadas. Entenda-se: para que não entre a pessoa que você não quer.”

A solução encontrada, segundo professores do Museu, foi a realização de um sorteio prévio: quem ganhasse se apresentaria como candidato, e o derrotado desistiria da disputa. Viveiros de Castro perdeu.

Naquele mesmo ano, o antropólogo viajou para a Inglaterra, convidado para uma temporada de um ano na Universidade de Cambridge. Lá, conheceu Marilyn Strathern, professora titular de antropologia social na instituição, talvez o cargo de maior prestígio da disciplina. Ela ainda não conhecia o trabalho do colega brasileiro, que fez quatro conferências sobre o perspectivismo ameríndio. Strathern disse ter ficado impressionada com o argumento, exposto com “erudição e autoconfiança” – o mesmo atrevimento que lhe causava problemas em casa ajudava-o a conquistar audiências estrangeiras. A ideia exposta por Viveiros de Castro pareceu à professora “profundamente imaginativa e bastante precisa”.

O texto sobre o perspectivismo foi lançado em inglês em 1998. “Foram essas conferências de Cambridge e a publicação em inglês que alçaram o tema a uma posição de destaque no campo antropológico”, observou Viveiros de Castro. Segundo Strathern, as ideias do brasileiro fazem, hoje, parte do cânone apresentado aos estudantes de pós-graduação da disciplina no Reino Unido.

O caráter conflituoso de Viveiros de Castro se manifesta nas redes sociais. O antropólogo tem mantido, nos últimos anos, intensa atividade política no Twitter e no Facebook. Seus curtos enunciados são às vezes enigmáticos, com frequência irônicos, quase sempre militantes. Em outubro, quando manifestantes subiram no Monumento às Bandeiras, em São Paulo, e cobriram de tinta as estátuas de Brecheret que celebram a conquista do Oeste pelos paulistas, com consequências trágicas para os índios, ele ofereceu seu veredicto: “É preciso derrubar essa porcaria.”

Boa parte das frases e dos pequenos textos que publicou no Twitter e no Facebook, desde junho, manifestava entusiasmo pelas manifestações de rua, das quais ele evitou participar, por medo de aglomerações. Seus posts revelavam também o que ele chamou de “simpatia” em relação à ação dos black blocs. “É espantoso como a esquerda tradicional está histérica com os black blocs”, ele me disse. “Está histérica porque não controla, porque não é partido. Não é militante de partido. Os black blocs nem existem como movimento. É uma tática.”

“Devo dizer que fiquei muito feliz de ver os manifestantes subirem na parte de cima do Caveirão. Gostaria que eles tivessem virado o Caveirão de cabeça para baixo. Se tivessem feito isso, acharia legal! E será que destruir a porta de um banco é uma coisa assim tão abominável? Em que será que se está tocando quando se quebra a porta de um banco? Por que deixa todo mundo tão nervoso?”

Já havia manifestado ideia semelhante no Facebook. “Quebrou uma vitrine do Banco Itaú, é vândalo, apanha da polícia e vai pro presídio; desapareceu com bilhões do BNDES, é empresário em dificuldades, vai para recuperação judicial”, publicou, no início de novembro. Estendeu-se um pouco mais noutro comentário: “O que o Estado faz, e deixa fazer, com os índios é um resumo altamente concentrado e potencializado do que ele faz, e deixa que façam, com toda a população. Os que dizem que não se pode mesmo dar mole para esses selvagens, que é preciso logo civilizá-los etc., são como o servo que se acha senhor porque o servo do lado levou mais chicotadas no lombo do que ele.”

Em seu apartamento, ao lado da mulher, o antropólogo explicou sua conversão recente às redes sociais, resultado de uma briga com a imprensa mainstream. Há pouco mais de três anos, a revista Veja publicou uma reportagem intitulada “A farra da antropologia oportunista”. Criticava a multiplicação de povos indígenas no país, interessados nas terras que sua nova condição lhes daria direito. “Em 2000, o Ceará contava com seis povos indígenas”, o texto registrava. “Hoje, tem doze. Na Bahia, catorze populações reivindicam reservas. Na Amazônia, quarenta grupos de ribeirinhos de repente se descobriram índios.”

Citavam então Viveiros de Castro, atribuindo a ele uma opinião crítica aos “índios ressurgidos”: “Não basta dizer que é índio para se transformar em um deles. Só é índio quem nasce, cresce e vive num ambiente de cultura indígena original.” A primeira frase havia sido retirada de um texto publicado pelo antropólogo, intitulado “No Brasil, todo mundo é índio, exceto quem não é”. A segunda, ele nunca disse ou escreveu. “Colocaram entre aspas uma frase que tiraram de um artigo meu, e acrescentaram a ela outra, que eles inventaram.” Ao inventarem, puseram em sua boca ideias opostas às que ele defende. Nas últimas décadas, argumentou o antropólogo, tem acontecido no Brasil algo inverso ao problema que ocupava os fundadores da sociologia do contato. Em vez de os índios se tornarem, aos poucos, brasileiros, são os brasileiros que estão virando índios. E não é necessário um “ambiente de cultura indígena original” para que um grupo advogue essa condição.

“Várias populações tradicionais estão se redescobrindo indígenas. Isso acontece porque eram índios. Foram obrigadas a esquecer que eram, forçadas a aprender português. Houve um processo de branqueamento que nunca se completou. E não se completar fazia parte do processo: o cara deixava de ser índio, mas você não o deixava virar branco. Parava no meio. Virava um brasileiro. O que é um brasileiro? É um índio pra quem você diz: ‘Você vai ser branco, você deixará de ser índio’, mas o cara para no meio. Você é quase branco. O cara perde a sua condição indígena, mas não ganha do outro lado.”

Foi para divulgar sua indignação com a revista, disse o antropólogo, que ele passou a usar as redes sociais. Primeiro o Twitter, no qual tem hoje cerca de 4 600 seguidores. Depois o Facebook, onde conta com mil amigos e quase 5 mil seguidores.

Um dos temas caros a Viveiros de Castro e a Déborah Danowski, tratado com frequência por ele em sua militância na internet, é o que chamam de “catástrofe” ambiental. Em outubro, no dia do primeiro leilão do pré-sal, o antropólogo escreveu: “Não faça parte das minorias com projetos ideológicos irreais: colabore para a destruição do planeta. Deus proverá. Viva Libra, viva a Shell, viva a Total, viva a China, viva o Brasil.” Em meados de novembro, um outro post conclamava: “Liberar a Terra das cadeias produtivas.”

Desde os anos 80, o antropólogo milita contra a construção de hidrelétricas na Amazônia. Foi um dos fundadores do ISA, o Instituto Socioambiental, uma das principais ONGs de defesa do meio ambiente e dos povos indígenas no país. Na sala de sua casa, no Rio, o casal citou estimativas de aquecimento global feitas pelo IPCC, o Painel Intergovernamental sobre Mudanças Climáticas, da ONU. Um aumento de temperatura que não é improvável neste século, disseram, pode pôr em risco a maior floresta do planeta. “A parte oriental da Amazônia é mais seca do que a ocidental”, afirmou o antropólogo. “Essa parte mais seca, em alguns lugares, está começando a perder mais água do que recebe. Aquilo está secando. Um processo de ressecamento progressivo, discreto talvez, no sentido de que não é uma coisa catastrófica. Mas acontece que, se essa floresta passa de determinado ponto crítico de ressecamento, uma hora pega fogo e ninguém mais apaga.”

Os dois lembraram ainda a impossibilidade de o planeta comportar, para toda a sua população, o atual padrão de produção e consumo ocidental. “O que vai acontecer, provavelmente, é a falência degenerativa, muito mais do que apocalíptica, do atual sistema técnico-econômico mundial, que não vai se sustentar”, disse Viveiros de Castro. “Temos que nos preparar para um mundo radicalmente diferente deste em que vivemos. Temos que pensar num mundo fora do milênio, fora da ideia de que um dia vamos dar tudo para todos, seja no capitalismo ‘sustentável’, dois ponto zero, seja no socialismo.
A ideia de que vamos finalmente chegar a um estágio de plenitude, de abundância e de equilíbrio. Nós não vamos. Minha impressão é de que estamos numa curva descendente do ponto de vista da civilização, talvez da espécie, e que a gente tem que se preparar para o declínio.”

Argumentei que há quem conte com inovações tecnológicas, como já aconteceu no passado, para mover a fronteira dos limites planetários. “Eu acho que isso é religião”, respondeu o antropólogo. “Essa coisa de que vamos sair dessa é teologia. É achar que o homem sempre pode dar um jeito, pela sua capacidade, de transcender as condições naturais. Isso para mim é cristianismo laicizado.”

O que fazer? “Oposição ao governo, dono de um projeto ecocida”, respondeu. O antropólogo votou em Marina Silva, em 2010, mas disse ter dúvidas se repetirá o apoio em 2014, caso ela venha a concorrer. “Não morro de paixão pelas alianças que ela fez nem por sua base de consulta intelectual”, composta por economistas liberais. “Mas nada, nem o Serra, vai me fazer votar na Dilma. Não adianta virem com o Serra pra cima de mim. ‘Olha o Serra!’ Não há Cristo, nem Diabo, que me faça votar na Dilma.”

A política partidária, de toda forma, parece pouco relevante em seu discurso, fatalista. “Pode ser que nós, ocidentais de classe média, o francês, o brasileiro rico de São Paulo, o americano, pode ser que passemos pela mesma coisa por que passaram os índios em 1500. Eles continuam aí, mas o mundo deles acabou em 1500. Se formos falar do fim do mundo, pergunte aos índios como é, porque eles sabem. Eles viveram isso. A América acabou. Pode ser que venhamos todos a ser índios, nesse sentido. Todos venhamos a passar por essa experiência de ter um mundo desabando. No caso deles, eles foram invadidos por nós. Nós também vamos ser invadidos por nós. Já estamos sendo invadidos por nós mesmos. Vamos acabar com nós mesmos da mesma maneira como acabamos com os índios: com essa concepção de que é preciso crescer mais, produzir mais.”

No seu apartamento, já de noite, Viveiros de Castro se disse pessimista. “Mas esse pessimismo não é paralisante. Não é um quietismo. A sensação que eu tenho é de que a gente está lutando dentro de casa. Quarteirão a quarteirão. Como essas guerrilhas.” Deu um exemplo de resistência. “Dizem que os índios já foram incorporados ao capitalismo. Mas não foram dominados mentalmente. Já foram dominados economicamente, politicamente, mas não mentalmente. O problema com os índios é que eles são insubordinados. Você não consegue domesticar o índio. É por isso que o governo tem tanto horror deles.”

“É isso que significa o brasileiro virar índio”, disse, alargando o sentido da frase. “Numa versão ‘Twitter’, para encurtar a conversa, é isso. É virar black bloc. Menos pelego, e mais black bloc.”

Em 2008, Marilyn Strathern se aposentou do cargo de professora titular de antropologia social, em Cambridge. Mais de um ano antes, tinha dado início ao processo de escolha de seu sucessor. Ela sugeriu ao etnólogo carioca que apresentasse sua candidatura ao posto.

Viveiros de Castro disse que foi só por causa da insistência da amiga que concordou em concorrer. “Relutei e tergiversei, pois não tinha a intenção de aceitar”, diria mais tarde. Além de razões práticas – como o trabalho de sua mulher no Rio –, afirmou que “sabia do tamanho do abacaxi que era ser o cabeça da antropologia social” na universidade inglesa. Disse não ter vontade de se dedicar à administração acadêmica, o que certamente seria exigido pela posição.

De toda forma, no final de 2007, estava entre os três finalistas. Viajou à Inglaterra para apresentar uma aula na universidade, parte do processo de seleção. Na sala em que falou, numa noite fria do outono inglês, alunos e professores se apertavam, muitos sentados no chão, outros espremidos nos cantos, junto às paredes.

Foi só quatro anos depois de concorrer à vaga na Inglaterra que Viveiros de Castro pôde afinal se candidatar, em 2011, ao posto de professor titular do Museu Nacional. O memorial que escreveu para o pleito foi redigido “num tom quase insolente” de propósito, ele disse. Ali ele afirma que sua produção intelectual “exerceu uma influência teórica muito significativa” na antropologia, “talvez a influência mais significativa exercida até o presente pelo trabalho de um antropólogo brasileiro”. No mesmo texto, voltou ao assunto do cargo em Cambridge, revelando seu desfecho. “Fizeram-me saber (ou deixaram-me saber, como se diz) que eu tinha todas as chances de ser o escolhido. Escrevi rapidamente ao departamento e a Marilyn recusando o posto, just in case. Eu realmente queria continuar sendo um jardineiro em Petrópolis.”

Considerava já ter alcançado, então, o objetivo de se fazer ouvir ao norte do Equador. No memorial, um balanço de mais de três décadas de atividade intelectual, Viveiros de Castro afirmou ter tido, desde o início de sua carreira, o propósito explícito de “rebater para a matriz nossas lucubrações periféricas” e de “meter a colher na sopa metropolitana”.

“Cuido que consegui”, ele conclui, sem modéstia.

Ancient Traditions: Why We Make New Year Resolutions (Science Daily)

Dec. 30, 2013 — As many of us start to think about our New Year’s resolutions (or breaking them), we may not realize that the tradition of making promises on the first day of the year is a custom started by our Roman ancestors.

Janus, the Roman god of new beginnings, was frequently shown with two faces, referring to the fact that he looks both backwards and forwards. The Romans named the first month of the Julian calendar, Januarius, in his honour. (Credit: Royal Holloway University)

“Rome’s highest officials made a resolution to remain loyal to the republic and swore oaths to the Emperor on 1st January,” said Professor Richard Alston, from the Department of Classics at Royal Holloway University.

“A grand ceremony marked the occasion, where the Roman legions would parade and sacrifices were made on the Capitoline Hill. This annual event renewed the bonds between citizens, the state and the gods.”

New Year’s Day offered all Roman citizens an opportunity to reflect on the past and look to the year ahead. People would exchange sweet fruits and honey, greet each other with blessings for the coming year and the courts only worked in the mornings, so they had a half day holiday.

“On 1 January, our Roman ancestors celebrated Janus, the god of new beginnings who had two faces — one looking into the past and another looking to the future,” Professor Alston added. “Janus represented doors and thresholds and the Romans named the month of January in his honour.

“Janus also symbolized the values of home, family, friendship and civilization, and the doors of his temple were closed when Rome was at peace and thrown open in times of war, as if the god was no longer present. Just like we do today, we also know that the Romans celebrated a mid-winter festival in which they met with friends, exchanges gifts and had a good time before the start of the year ahead.”

The cultures endangered by climate change (PLOS)

Posted: September 9, 2013

By Greg Downey

The Bull of Winter weakens

In 2003, after decades of working with the Viliui Sakha, indigenous horse and cattle breeders in the Vilyuy River region of northeastern Siberia, anthropologist Susan Crate began to hear the local people complain about climate change:

My own “ethnographic moment” occurred when I heard a Sakha elder recount the age-old story of Jyl Oghuha (the bull of winter). Jyl Oghuha’s legacy explains the 100o C annual temperature range of Sakha’s subarctic habitat. Sakha personify winter, the most challenging season for them, in the form of a white bull with blue spots, huge horns, and frosty breath. In early December this bull of winter arrives from the Arctic Ocean to hold temperatures at their coldest (-60o to -65o C; -76o to -85o F) for December and January. Although I had heard the story many times before, this time it had an unexpected ending… (Crate 2008: 570)

Lena Pillars, photo by Maarten Takens (CC BY SA)

Lena Pillars, photo by Maarten Takens (CC BY SA)

This Sakha elder, born in 1935, talked about how the bull symbolically collapsed each spring, but also its uncertain future:

The bull of winter is a legendary Sakha creature whose presence explains the turning from the frigid winter to the warming spring. The legend tells that the bull of winter, who keeps the cold in winter, loses his first horn at the end of January as the cold begins to let go to warmth; then his second horn melts off at the end of February, and finally, by the end of March, he loses his head, as spring is sure to have arrived. It seems that now with the warming, perhaps the bull of winter will no longer be. (ibid.)

Crate found that the ‘softening’ of winter disrupted the Sakha way of life in a number of ways far less prosaic. The winters were warmer, bringing more rain and upsetting the haying season; familiar animals grew less common and new species migrated north; more snow fell, making hunting more difficult in winter; and when that snow thawed, water inundated their towns, fields, and countryside, rotting their houses, bogging down farming, and generally making life more difficult. Or, as a Sakha elder put it to Crate:

I have seen two ugut jil (big water years) in my lifetime. One was the big flood in 1959 — I remember canoeing down the street to our kin’s house. The other is now. The difference is that in ‘59 the water was only here for a few days and now it does not seem to be going away. (Sakha elder, 2009; in Crate 2011: 184).

(Currently, Eastern Russia is struggling with unprecedented flooding along the Chinese border, and, in July, unusual forest fires struck areas of the region that were permafrost.) As I write this, the website CO2 Now reports that the average atmospheric CO2 level for July 2013 at the Mauna Loa Observatory was 397.23 parts per million, slightly below the landmark 400+ ppm levels recorded in May. The vast majority of climate scientists now argue, not about whether we will witness anthropogenic atmospheric change, but how much and how quicklythe climate will change. Will we cross potential ‘tipping points’, when feedback dynamics accelerate the pace of warming?

While climate science might be controversial with the public in the US (less so here in Australia and among scientists), the effects on human populations are more poorly understood and unpredictable, both by the public and scientists alike. Following on from Wendy Foden and colleagues’ piece in the PLOS special collection proposing a method to identify the species at greatest risk (Foden et al. 2013), I want to consider how we might identify which cultures are at greatest risk from climate change.

Will climate change threaten human cultural diversity, and if so, which groups will be pushed to the brink most quickly? Are groups like the Viliui Sakha at the greatest risk, especially as we know that climate change is already affecting the Arctic and warming may be exaggerated there? And what about island groups, threatened by sea level changes? Who will have to change most and adapt because of a shifting climate? Daniel Lende (2013: 496) has suggested that anthropologists need to put our special expertise to work in public commentary, and in the area of climate change, these human impacts seem to be one place where that expertise might be most useful.

The Sakha Republic

The Sakha Republic where the Viliui Sakha live is half of Russia’s Far Eastern Federal District, a district that covers an area almost as large as India, twice the size of Alaska. Nevertheless, fewer than one million people live there, spread thinly across the rugged landscape. The region contains the coldest spot on the planet, the Verkhoyansk Range, where the average January temperature —average — is around -50O, so cold that it doesn’t matter whether that’s Fahrenheit or Celsius.

The area that is now the Sakha Republic was first taken control by Tsarist Russia in the seventeenth century, a tax taken from the local people in furs. Many early Russian migrants to the region adopted Sakha customs. Both the Tsars and the later Communist governors exiled criminals to the region, which came to be called Yakutia; after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation recognised the Sakha Republic. The Sakha, also called Yakuts, are the largest group in the area today; since the fall of the Soviets, many of the ethnic Russian migrants have left.

Verkhoyansk Mountains, Sakha Republic, by Maarten Takens, CC (BY SA).

Verkhoyansk Mountains, Sakha Republic, by Maarten Takens, CC (BY SA).

Sakha speakers first migrated north into Siberia as reindeer hunters, mixing with and eventually assimilating the Evenki, a Tungus-speaking group that lived there nomadically. Then these nomadic groups were later assimilated or forced further north by more sedentary groups of Sakha who raised horses and practiced more intensive reindeer herding and some agriculture (for more information see Susan Crate’s excellent discussion, ‘The Legacy of the Viliui Reinfeer-Herding Complex’ at Cultural Survival). The later migrants forced those practicing the earlier, nomadic reindeer-herding way of life into the most remote and rugged pockets of the region. By the first part of the twentieth century, Crate reports, the traditional reindeer-herding lifestyle was completely replaced in the Viliui watershed, although people elsewhere in Siberia continued to practice nomadic lifestyles, following herds of reindeer.

Today the economy of the Sakha Republic relies heavily on mining: gold, tin, and especially diamonds. Almost a quarter of all diamonds in the world — virtually all of Russia’s production — comes from Sakha. The great Udachnaya pipe, a diamond deposit just outside the Arctic circle, is now the third deepest open pit mine in the world, extending down more than 600 meters.

A new project promises to build a pipeline to take advantage of the massive Chaynda gas field in Sakha, sending the gas eastward to Vladivostok on Russia’s Pacific coast (story in the Siberia Times). The $24 billion Gazprom pipeline, which President Putin’s office says he wants developed ‘within the tightest possible timescale’, would mean that Russia would not have to sell natural gas exclusively through Europe, opening a line for direct delivery into the Pacific.

The Sakha have made the transition to the post-Soviet era remarkably well, with a robust economy and a political system that seems capable of balancing development and environmental safeguards (Crate 2003). But after successfully navigating a political thaw, will the Sakha, and other indigenous peoples of the region, fall victim to a much more literal warming?

The United Nations on indigenous people and climate change

This past month, we celebrated the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People (9 August). From 2005 to 2014, the United Nations called for ‘A Decade for Action and Dignity.’ The focus of this year’s observance is ‘Indigenous peoples building alliances: Honouring treaties, agreements and other constructive arrangements’ (for more information, here’s the UN’s website). According to the UN Development Programme, the day ‘presents an opportunity to honour diverse indigenous cultures and recognize the achievements and valuable contributions of an estimated 370 million indigenous peoples.’

The UN has highlighted the widespread belief that climate change will be especially cruel to indigenous peoples:

Despite having contributed the least to GHG [green house gas], indigenous peoples are the ones most at risk from the consequences of climate change because of their dependence upon and close relationship with the environment and its resources. Although climate change is regionally specific and will be significant for indigenous peoples in many different ways, indigenous peoples in general are expected to be disproportionately affected. Indigenous communities already affected by other stresses (such as, for example, the aftermath of resettlement processes), are considered especially vulnerable. (UN 2009: 95)

The UN’s report, State of the World’s Indigenous People, goes on to cite the following specific ‘changes or even losses in the biodiversity of their environment’ for indigenous groups, that will directly threaten aspects of indigenous life:

  • the traditional hunting, fishing and herding practices of indigenous peoples, not only in the Arctic, but also in other parts of the world;

  • the livelihood of pastoralists worldwide;

  • the traditional agricultural activities of indigenous peoples living in mountainous regions;

  • the cultural and ritual practices that are not only related to specific species or specific annual cycles, but also to specific places and spiritual sites, etc.;

  • the health of indigenous communities (vector-borne diseases, hunger, etc.);

  • the revenues from tourism. (ibid.: 96)

For example, climate change has been linked to extreme drought in Kenya where the Maasai, pastoral peoples, find their herds shrinking and good pasture harder and harder to find. For the Kamayurá in the Xingu region of Brazil, less rain and warmer water have decimated fish stocks in their river and made cassava cultivation a hit and miss affair; children are reduced to eating ants on flatbread to stave off hunger.

The UN report touches on a number of different ecosystems where the impacts of climate change will be especially severe, singling out the Arctic:

The Arctic region is predicted to lose whole ecosystems, which will have implications for the use, protection and management of wildlife, fisheries, and forests, affecting the customary uses of culturally and economically important species and resources. Arctic indigenous communities—as well as First Nations communities in Canada—are already experiencing a decline in traditional food sources, such as ringed seal and caribou, which are mainstays of their traditional diet. Some communities are being forced to relocate because the thawing permafrost is damaging the road and building infrastructure. Throughout the region, travel is becoming dangerous and more expensive as a consequence of thinning sea ice, unpredictable freezing and thawing of rivers and lakes, and the delay in opening winter roads (roads that can be used only when the land is frozen). (ibid.: 97)

Island populations are also often pointed out as being on the sharp edge of climate change (Lazrus 2012). The award-winning film, ‘There Once Was an Island,’ focuses on a community in the Pacific at risk from a rise in the sea level. As a website for the film describes:

Takuu, a tiny atoll in Papua New Guinea, contains the last Polynesian culture of its kind.  Facing escalating climate-related impacts, including a terrifying flood, community members Teloo, Endar, and Satty, take us on an intimate journey to the core of their lives and dreams. Will they relocate to war-ravaged Bougainville – becoming environmental refugees – or fight to stay? Two visiting scientists investigate on the island, leading audience and community to a greater understanding of climate change.

Similarly, The Global Mail reported the island nation of Kiribati was likely to become uninhabitable in coming decades, not simply because the islands flood but because patterns of rainfall shift and seawater encroaches on the coastal aquifer, leaving wells saline and undrinkable.

Heather Lazrus (2012: 288) reviews a number of other cases:

Low-lying islands and coastal areas such as the Maldives; the Marshall Islands; the Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, and Tuvalu; and many arctic islands such as Shishmaref… and the small islands in Nunavut… may be rendered uninhabitable as sea levels rise and freshwater resources are reduced.

Certainly, the evidence from twentieth century cases in which whole island populations were relocated suggests that the move can be terribly disruptive, the social damage lingering long after suitcases are unpacked.

Adding climate injury to cultural insult

In fact, even before average temperatures climbed or sea levels rose, indigenous groups were already at risk and have been for a while. By nearly every available measure, indigenous peoples’ distinctive lifeways and the globe’s cultural diversity are threatened, not so much by climate, but by their wealthier, more technologically advanced neighbours, who often exercise sovereignty over them.

If we take language diversity as an index of cultural distinctiveness, for example, linguist Howard Krauss (1992: 4) warned in the early 1990s that a whole range of languages were either endangered or ‘moribund,’ no longer being learned by new speakers or young people. These moribund languages, Krauss pointed out, would inevitably die with a speaker who had already been born, an individual who would someday be unable to converse in that language because there would simply be no one else to talk to:

The Eyak language of Alaska now has two aged speakers; Mandan has 6, Osage 5, Abenaki-Penobscot 20, and Iowa has 5 fluent speakers. According to counts in 1977, already 13 years ago, Coeur d’Alene had fewer than 20, Tuscarora fewer than 30, Menomini fewer than 50, Yokuts fewer than 10. On and on this sad litany goes, and by no means only for Native North America. Sirenikski Eskimo has two speakers, Ainu is perhaps extinct. Ubykh, the Northwest Caucasian language with the most consonants, 80-some, is nearly extinct, with perhaps only one remaining speaker. (ibid.)

Two decades ago, Krauss went on to estimate that 90% of the Arctic indigenous languages were ‘moribund’; 80% of the Native North American languages; 90% of Aboriginal Australian languages (ibid.: 5). Although the estimate involved a fair bit of guesswork, and we have seen some interesting evidence of ‘revivals’, Krauss suggested that 50% of all languages on earth were in danger of disappearing.

The prognosis may not be quite as grim today, but the intervening years have confirmed the overall pattern. Just recently, The Times of India reported that the country has lost 20% of its languages since 1961 — 220 languages disappeared in fifty years, with the pace accelerating. The spiffy updated Ethnologue website, based upon a more sophisticated set of categories and more precise accounting, suggests that, of the 7105 languages that they recognise globally, around 19% are ‘moribund’ or in worse shape, while another 15% are shrinking but still being taught to new users (see Ethnologue’s discussion of language status here  and UNESCO’s interactive atlas of endangered languages).

Back in 2010, I argued that the disappearance of languages was a human rights issue, not simply the inevitable by-product of cultural ‘evolution’, economic motivations, and globalisation (‘Language extinction ain’t no big thing?’ – butbeware as my style of blogging has changed a lot since then). Few peoples voluntarily forsake their mother tongues; the disappearance of a language or assimilation of a culture is generally not a path strode by choice, but a lessor-of-evils choice when threatened with chronic violence, abject poverty, and marginalisation.

I’ve also written about the case of ‘uncontacted’ Indians on the border of Brazil and Peru, where Western observers sometimes assume that indigenous peoples assimilate because they seek the benefits of ‘modernization’ when, in fact, they are more commonly the victims of exploitation and violent displacement. Just this June, a group of Mashco-Piro, an isolated indigenous group in Peru that has little contact with other societies, engaged in a tense stand-off at the Las Piedras river, a tributary of the Amazon. Caught on video, they appeared to be trying to contact or barter with local Yine Indians at a ranger station. Not only have this group of the Mashco-Piro fought in previous decades with loggers, but they now find that low-flying planes are disturbing their territory in search of natural gas and oil. (Globo Brasil also released footage taken in 2011 by officials from Brazil’s National Indian Foundation, FUNAI, of the Kawahiva, also called the Rio Pardo Indians, an isolated group from Mato Grosso state.)

In 1992, Krauss pleaded with fellow scholars to do something about the loss of cultural variation, lest linguistics ‘go down in history as the only science that presided obliviously over the disappearance of 90% of the very field to which it is dedicated’ (1992: 10):

Surely, just as the extinction of any animal species diminishes our world, so does the extinction of any language. Surely we linguists know, and the general public can sense, that any language is a supreme achievement of a uniquely human collective genius, as divine and endless a mystery as a living organism. Should we mourn the loss of Eyak or Ubykh any less than the loss of the panda or California condor? (ibid.: 8)

The pace of extinction is so quick that some activists, like anthropologist and attorney David Lempert (2010), argue that our field needs to collaborate on the creation of a cultural ‘Red Book,’ analogous to the Red Book for Endangered Species. Anthropologists may fight over the theoretical consequences of reifying cultures, but the political and legal reality is that even states with laws on the books to protect cultural diversity often have no clear guidelines as to what that entails.

But treating cultures solely as fragile victims of climate change misrepresents how humans will adapt to climate change. Culture is not merely a fixed tradition, calcified ‘customs’ at risk from warming; culture is also out adaptive tool, the primary way in which our ancestors adapted to such a great range of ecological niches in the first place and we will continue to adapt into the future. And this is not the first time that indigenous groups have confronted climate change.

Culture as threatened, culture as adaptation

One important stream of research in the anthropology of climate change shows very clearly that indigenous cultures are quite resilient in the face of environmental change. Anthropologist Sarah Strauss of the University of Wyoming has cautioned that, if we only focus on cultural extinction from climate change as a threat, we may miss the role of culture in allowing people toaccommodate wide variation in the environment:

People are extraordinarily resilient. Our cultures have allowed human groups to colonize the most extreme reaches of planet Earth, and no matter where we have gone, we have contended with both environmental and social change…. For this reason, I do not worry that the need to adapt to new and dramatic environmental changes (those of our own making, as well as natural occurrences like volcanoes) will drive cultures—even small island cultures—to disappear entirely.  (Strauss 2012: n.p. [2])

A number of ethnographic cases show how indigenous groups can adapt to severe climatic shifts. Crate (2008: 571), for example, points out that the Sakha adapted to a major migration northward, transforming a Turkic culture born in moderate climates to suit their new home. Kalaugher (2010) also discusses the Yamal Nenets, another group of Siberian nomads, who adapted to both climate change and industrial encroachment, including the arrival of oil and gas companies that fouled waterways and degraded their land (Survival International has a wonderful photo essay about the Yamal Nenets here.). A team led by Bruce Forbes of the University of Lapland, Finland, found:

The Nenet have responded by adjusting their migration routes and timing, avoiding disturbed and degraded areas, and developing new economic practices and social interaction, for example by trading with workers who have moved into gas villages in the area. (article here)

Northeast Science Station, Cherskiy, Sakha Republic, by David Mayer, CC (BY NC SA).

Northeast Science Station, Cherskiy, Sakha Republic, by David Mayer, CC (BY NC SA).

But one of the most amazing stories about the resilience and adaptability of the peoples of the Arctic comes from Wade Davis, anthropologist and National Geographic ‘explorer in residence.’ In his wonderful TED presentation, ‘Dreams from endangered cultures,’ Davis tells a story he heard on a trip to the northern tip of Baffin Island, Canada:

…this man, Olayuk, told me a marvelous story of his grandfather. The Canadian government has not always been kind to the Inuit people, and during the 1950s, to establish our sovereignty, we forced them into settlements. This old man’s grandfather refused to go. The family, fearful for his life, took away all of his weapons, all of his tools. Now, you must understand that the Inuit did not fear the cold; they took advantage of it. The runners of their sleds were originally made of fish wrapped in caribou hide. So, this man’s grandfather was not intimidated by the Arctic night or the blizzard that was blowing. He simply slipped outside, pulled down his sealskin trousers and defecated into his hand. And as the feces began to freeze, he shaped it into the form of a blade. He put a spray of saliva on the edge of the shit knife, and as it finally froze solid, he butchered a dog with it. He skinned the dog and improvised a harness, took the ribcage of the dog and improvised a sled, harnessed up an adjacent dog, and disappeared over the ice floes, shit knife in belt. Talk about getting by with nothing.

… and there’s nothing more than I can say after ‘… and disappeared over the ice floes, shit knife in belt’ that can make this story any better…

Climate change in context

The problem for many indigenous cultures is not climate change alone or in isolation, but the potential speed of that change and how it interacts with other factors, many human-induced: introduced diseases, environmental degradation, deforestation and resource depletion, social problems such as substance abuse and domestic violence, and legal systems imposed upon them, including forced settlement and forms of property that prevent movement. As Strauss explains:

Many researchers… see climate change not as a separate problem, in fact, but rather as an intensifier, which overlays but does not transcend the rest of the challenges we face; it is therefore larger in scale and impact, perhaps, but not entirely separable from the many other environmental and cultural change problems already facing human societies. (Strauss 2012: n.p. [2])

One of the clearest examples of these intensifier effects is the way in which nomadic peoples, generally quite resilient, lose their capacity to adapt when they are prevented from moving. The Siberian Yamal Nenets makes this clear:

“We found that free access to open space has been critical for success, as each new threat has arisen, and that institutional constraints and drivers were as important as the documented ecological changes,” said Forbes. “Our findings point to concrete ways in which the Nenets can continue to coexist as their lands are increasingly fragmented by extensive natural gas production and a rapidly warming climate.” (Kalaugher 2010)

With language loss in India, it’s probably no coincidence that, ‘Most of the lost languages belonged to nomadic communities scattered across the country’ (Times of India).

In previous generations, if climate changed, nomadic groups might have migrated to follow familiar resources or adopt techniques from neighbours who had already adapted to forces novel to them. An excellent recent documentary series on the way that Australian Aboriginal people have adapted to climate change on our continent — the end of an ice age, the extinction of megafauna, wholesale climate change including desertification — is a striking example (the website for the series, First Footprints, is excellent).

Today, migration is treated by UN officials and outsiders as ‘failure to adapt’, as people who move fall under the new rubric of ‘climate refugees’ (Lazrus 2012: 293). Migration, instead of being recognised as an adaptive strategy, is treated as just another part of the diabolical problem. (Here in Australia, where refugees on boats trigger unmatched political hysteria, migration from neighbouring areas would be treated as a national security problem rather than an acceptable coping strategy.)

For the most part, the kind of migration that first brought the Viliui Sakha to northeastern Siberia is no longer possible. As the Yamal Nenets, for example, migrate with their herds of reindeer, the come across the drills, pipelines, and even the Obskaya-Bovanenkovo railway – the northern-most railway line in the world – all part of Gazprom’s ‘Yamal Megaproject.’  Endangered indigenous groups are hemmed in on all sides, surviving only in geographical niches that were not attractive to their dominant neighbours, unsuitable for farming. AsElisabeth Rosenthal wrote in The New York Times:

Throughout history, the traditional final response for indigenous cultures threatened by untenable climate conditions or political strife was to move. But today, moving is often impossible. Land surrounding tribes is now usually occupied by an expanding global population, and once-nomadic groups have often settled down, building homes and schools and even declaring statehood.

For the Kamayurá, for example, eating ants instead of fish in Brazil’s Xingu National Park, they are no longer surrounded by the vast expanse of the Amazon and other rivers where they might still fish; the park is now surrounded by ranches and farms, some of which grow sugarcane to feed Brazil’s vast ethanol industry or raise cattle to feed the world’s growing appetite for beef.

Now, some of these indigenous groups find themselves squarely in the path of massive new resource extraction projects with nowhere to go, whether that’s in northern Alberta, eastern Peru, Burma, or remnant forests in Indonesia. That is, indigenous peoples have adapted before to severe climate change; but how much latitude (literally) do these groups now have to adapt if we do not allow them to move?

In sum, indigenous people are often not directly threatened by climate change alone; rather, they are pinched between climate change and majority cultures who want Indigenous peoples’ resources while also preventing them from adapting in familiar ways. The irony is that the dynamic driving climate change is attacking them from two sides: the forests that they need, the mountains where they keep their herds, and the soil under the lands where they live are being coveted for the very industrial processes that belch excess carbon into the atmosphere.

It’s hard not to be struck by the bitter tragedy that, in exchange for the resources to which we are addicted, we offer them assimilation. If they get out of the way so that we can drill out the gas or oil under their land or take their forests, we will invite them in join in our addiction (albeit, as much poorer addicts on the fringes of our societies, if truth be told). They have had little say in the process, or in our efforts to mitigate the process. We assume that our technologies and ways of life are the only potential cure for the problems created by these very technologies and ways of life.

In 2008, for example, Warwick Baird, Director of the Native Title Unit of the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, warned that the shift to an economic mode of addressing climate change abatement threatened to further sideline indigenous people:

Things are moving fast in the world of climate change policy and the urgency is only going to get greater. Yet Indigenous peoples, despite their deep engagement with the land and waters, it seems to me, have little engagement with the formulation of climate change policy little engagement in climate change negotiations ­ and little engagement in developing and applying mitigation and adaptation strategies. They have not been included. Human rights have not been at the forefront. (transcript of speech here)

The problem then is not that indigenous populations are especially fragile or unable to adapt; in fact, both human prehistory and history demonstrate that these populations are remarkably resilient. Rather, many of these populations have been pushed to the brink, forced to choose between assimilation or extinction by the unceasing demands of the majority cultures they must live along side. The danger is not that the indigenous will fall off the precipice, but rather that the flailing attempts of the resource-thirsty developed world toavoid inevitable culture change — the necessary move away from unsustainable modes of living — will push much more sustainable lifeways over the edge into the abyss first.


Inuit Knowledge and Climate Change (54:07 documentary).
Isuma TV, network of Inuit and Indigenous media producers.

Inuit Perspectives on Recent Climate Change, Skeptical Science, by Caitlyn Baikie, an Inuit geography student at Memorial University of Newfoundland.


The Lena Pillars by Maarten Takens, CC licensed (BY SA). Original at Flickr:

Verkhoyansk Mountains, Sakha Republic, by Maarten Takens, CC licensed (BY SA). Original at Flickr:

Northeast Science Station in late July 2012. Cherskiy, Sakha Republic, Russia, by David Mayer, CC licensed (BY NC SA). Original at Flickr:


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Crate, S. 2008. Gone the Bull of Winter? Grappling with the Cultural Implications of and Anthropology’s Role(s) in Global Climate Change. Current Anthropology 49(4): 569-595. doi: 10.1086/529543. Stable URL:

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Krauss, M. 1992. The world’s languages in crisis. Language 68(1): 4-10. (pdf available here)

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by climate change? Yes, but. . . WIREs Clim Change. doi: 10.1002/wcc.181 (pdf available here)

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Vendettas, not war? Unpicking why our ancestors killed (New Scientist)

20:03 18 July 2013 by Bob Holmes

Is war in our blood? Perhaps not, if you believe a controversial new study that suggests violence in primitive cultures is overwhelmingly the result of personal squabbles, rather than organised violence between two different groups. The finding contradicts the popular view that humans have evolved to be innately warlike.

In recent years, many anthropologists and evolutionary biologists have come to believe that warfare arose deep in humans’ evolutionary past. In part that is because even chimpanzees exhibit this kind of intergroup violence, which suggests the trait shares a common origin. Proponents of this view also point to the occurrence of war in traditional hunter-gatherer societies today, such as some notoriously quarrelsome groups in the Amazon, and hence to its likely prevalence in early human societies.

Yet the archaeological record of warfare in early humans is sketchy, and not all contemporary hunter-gatherers make war.

In a bid to resolve the issue, Douglas Fry and Patrik Soderberg of Åbo Akademi University in Vasa, Finland, turned to the Ethnographic Atlas, a widely used database that was created in the 1960s to provide an unbiased cross-cultural sample of primitive societies.

From this, Fry and Soderberg selected the 21 societies that were exclusively nomadic hunter-gatherers – groups that upped sticks to wherever conditions were best – without livestock or social class divisions. They reasoned that these groups would most closely resemble early human societies.

Hello, sailor

The researchers then sifted through the early ethnographic accounts of each of these societies – the earliest of which was from the 17th century, while most were from the 19th and 20th centuries – and noted every reference to violent deaths, classifying them by how many people were involved and who they were. The records include accounts of events such as a man killing a rival for a woman, revenge killings for earlier deaths, and killing of outsiders such as shipwrecked sailors.

The pair found that in almost every society, deaths due to violence were rare – and the vast majority of those were one-on-one killings better classified as homicides than as warfare. Indeed, for 20 of the 21 societies, only 15 per cent of killings happened between two different groups. The exception was the Tiwi people of northern Australia, where intergroup feuds and retaliatory killings were common.

Fry and Soderberg say this suggests that warfare is rare in such primitive societies and may instead have become common only after the rise of more complex societies just a few thousand years ago. If so, then warfare would have likely played only a minor role in human evolution.

Anecdotal evidence

Not everyone agrees. For one thing, the data set Fry and Soderberg used is essentially a collection of anecdotes rather than a systematic survey of causes of death, says Kim Hill, an anthropologist at Arizona State University in Tempe. They are relying on the people who originally noted down these events to have included all the important details.

Moreover, they focus only on nomadic foragers and exclude any sedentary foraging societies – groups that would have foraged from a permanent base. Yet these sedentary foragers would probably have occupied the richest habitats and so would have been most likely to be involved in wars over territory, says Richard Wrangham, an anthropologist at Harvard University.

Fry and Soderberg are probably correct that most violent deaths are the result of homicide, not warfare – that was even true for the US during the Vietnam War, says Sam Bowles at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico. He has put forward the idea that altruism evolved out of the need for our ancestors to cooperate during times of war. But even if warfare is relatively uncommon, it can still exert an important evolutionary force, he says.

Journal reference: Science, DOI:10.1126/science.1235675