Posts Tagged ‘Anthropology’

Book on the Evolution of the Human Brain

December 30, 2017

The Human Brain Evolving: Paleoneurological Studies in Honor of Ralph L. Holloway, edited by Douglas Broadfield, Michael Yuan, Kathy Schick and Nicholas Toth. Stone Age Institute Press, Gosport Indiana and Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana. 2010.

This is another book I got much cheaper than the cover prise through Oxbow Books’ bargain catalogue. The book is a collection of papers from a two day conference by the Stone Age Institute in April 2007 to celebrate the life and work of Ralph Holloway, one of the great founders of the field. Holloway as he explains in the first paper in which he gives his personal perspective, started out studying metallurgy at Drexel Institute of Technology in Philadelphia in the 1950s. He then moved to the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where he took courses in anthropology and geology. After this, he enrolled in the Ph.D. programme in anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. There he became interested in exploring how evolution had shaped the development of primate brains. His interest in this area led him to do research in the brain casts from australopithecine skulls in South Africa, where his mentor was professor Phillip V. Tobias. In 1969 he settled down to study paleoneurology fulltime. His decision was partly made by the testicular trauma he suffered the previous year by the cops while in a student demonstration in New York. This gave him considerable with Prof. Tobias as the struggles he was having against apartheid and the fuzz in South Africa.

As Holloway himself explains, any study of the evolutionary development of the specialised structure of the human brain was very strongly discouraged when he was a student. The simple assumption was that humans got more intelligent as their brains got bigger. There was no investigation about how the particular areas of the brain, in which specific brain functions are located, developed. Indeed this was actively and vehemently discouraged. He says that his first mentor at Berkeley was Professor Sherwood Washburn, who kindly suggested that he take various courses in anatomy. When Holloway told him that he wanted to take the course in neuroanatomy, however, Washburn was horrified, and said that he would no longer be Holloway’s mentor if he did so, fearing that it would make him too specialised to be a physical anthropologist, an argument Holloway found unconvincing. He goes on to point out the paucity of material in physical anthropological textbooks from the 1950s to the present, pointing out that only one, published in 2008 actually does because its co-author, John Allen, is a neurologist.

The book’s contents include the following papers.

Chapter 1: The Human Brain Evolving: A Personal Retrospective, Ralph L. Holloway.

Chapter 2: The Maternal Energy Hypothesis of Brain Evolution: An Update, Robert D. Martin and Karen Isler.

Chapter 3: The Meaning of Brain Size: The Evolution of Conceptual Complexity, P. Tom Schoeneman.

Chapter 4: Human Brain Endocasts and the LB1 Hobbit Brain, Ralph L. Holloway.

Chapter 5: The Fossil Hominid Brains of Dmanisi: D 2280 and D2282, Dominique Grimaud-Herve and David Lordkipandze.

Chapter 6: The Evolution of the Parietal Cortical Areas in the Human Genus: Between Structure and Cognition, by Emiliano Bruner.

Chapter 8: Study of Human Brain Evolution at the Genetic Level, by Eric J. Vallender and Bruce T. Lahn.

Chapter 9: Brain Reorganisation in Humans and Apes, by Katerina Semendeferi, Nicole Barger and Natalie Schenker.

Chapter 10: Searching for Human Brain Specializations with Structural and Functional Neuroimaging, by James K. Rilling.

Chapter 11: Structural and Diffusion MRI of a Gorilla Brain Performed Ex Vivo at 9.4 Tesla, by Jason A. Kaufman, J. Michael Tyszka, Francine “Penny” Patterson, Joseph M. Erwin, Patrick R. Hof, and John M. Allman.

Chapter 12: The role of Vertical Organisation in the Encephalisation and Reorganisation of the Primate Cortex, Daniel P. Buxhoeveden.

Chapter 13: The Evolution of Cortical Neurotransmitter Systems Among Primates and their Relevance to Cognition, Mary Ann Raghanti, Patrick R. Hof, and Chet C. Sherwood.

Chapter 14: Sex Differences in the Corpus Callosum of Macaca fascicularis and Pan troglodytes, by Douglas C. Broadfield.

Chapter 15: Dental Maturation, Middle Childhood and the Pattern of Growth and Development in Earlier Hominins, by Janet Monge and Alan Mann.

Chapter 16: Perikymata Counts in Two Modern Human Sample Populations, by Michael Sheng-Tien Yuan.

Chapter 17: Mosaic Cognitive Evolution: The case of Imitation Learning, by Francys Subiaul.

Chapter 18: The Foundations of Primate Intelligence and Language Skills, by Duane M. Rumbaugh, E. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, ,James E. King and Jared P. Taglialatella.

Chapter 19: Hominid Brain Reorganisation, Technological Change, and Cognitive Complexity, Nicholas Toth and Kathy Schick.

Clearly this is a written at an advanced, technical level for a specialist academic audience. I’ve done little but skim through it so far, but have found some fascinating facts. For example, Holloway’s paper on the brain of the Flores Hobbit recognises that it does share some features of modern microcephalics, but also others that are very different. This could mean that the creature could have been an archaic hominid suffering from a peculiar form of neurological defects that now no longer exists.

Emiliano Bruner’s paper argues from the study of Neanderthal and Early Modern Humans that modern humans’ parietal lobes are actually larger than would have been predicted by evolutionary theory for hominids of our size.

Anne Weaver’s paper argues that, in contrast to the standard view that this area of the brain has not evolved in the course of the development of modern humans, 30,000 years ago the size of the Cerebellum increased relative to the Cerebrum. The cerebellum is the part of the human brain dedicated to motor coordination and related tasks.

Douglas Broadfield’s paper on sex difference in chimp brains takes further Holloway’s and Kitty Lacoste’s 1982 paper, which controversially showed that that the corpus callosum in women was larger than those of men. His study of this part of the brain in chimps shows that this development is unique to humans.

Paleoneurology is still controversial, and Holloway holds some very controversial opinions. He’s an evolutionary reductionist, who considers culture to be the sole product of evolution, and religion and politics to be intrinsically evil. It’s an opinion he recognises is not held by the vast majority of people.

He also laments how the anthropology course at Columbia has abandoned physical anthropology, and been taken over completely by social anthropology, stating that the majority appear ‘postmodern, post colonialist, feminist and political’. This led to him being marginalised and isolated at the faculty.

He also states that it is stupid, for reasons of ‘political correctness’ not to consider that the same evolutionary processes that have shaped the different physical forms of the various human races, have not also affected their mental capacities and evolution too. He describes this research as intensely political and near-suicidal, and describes how he was accused of being a Nazi because of his investigation into it. He states that one critic described it as the kind of research that got his relatives put into concentration camps.

Professor Holloway is clearly a decent, humane man, who has in his day stood up for liberal values and protested against institutional racism. However, while he states that the neurological differences between male and female brains are ‘more or less accepted’ today, there are still women neurologists, who argue against them. More recently they’ve argued that sex difference in the brain are a continuum between the extremely male and extremely female, with most people lumped somewhere in between. In fact, the sex differences in the brain are so small that you simply can’t tell by looking whether a brain is male or female.

Furthermore, anthropological science was used in the period of full-blown European colonialism to justify White rule over their non-White subject peoples, and certainly has been used by Nazis and Fascists to justify their persecution of Jews, Gypsies, Slavs and other ‘subhumans’. After the War, the British Fascist leader Oswald Mosley cited scientific papers on the differences in intelligence between the races to argue for a form of apartheid that would lead to the complete separation of Blacks and Jews from White, gentile Brits. This would affect only those, who were allowed to remain in Britain, because their culture was compatible with White, gentile British civilisation. See the section 13, ‘The Colour Question in Britain, Immigration, the Racial Question’ in his wretched book, Mosley – Right or Wrong, published by Lion Books in 1961. And of course, like all Fascist after the War, Mosley denied that he was actually racist!

Holloway knows from personal experience just how touchy this subject is, and is aware that the lower IQ scores made by Black Americans is still a subject of intense and acrimonious debate. But he thinks it silly to rule out the question of racial differences in human brain structure because of current political dogma.

This is too complacent. My impression here is Prof. Holloway has this rather more tolerant view of the acceptability of this direction of neurological investigation, because he is a White man from a privileged background. After all, in the 1950s very few working or lower middle class Americans could afford to do a university or college degree. It simply has not affected him personally, although he has stood on the barricades to denounce racism and support other liberal causes during the student unrest of the late ’60s. The same applies to women. In the second edition of the BBC popular science programme QED in the ’80s, a female scientist presented a programme on how male scientists down the centuries had tried to argue that women were biologically inferior, before concluding that ‘the tables are turning’.

Racial neurology and the neurology of gender differences is particularly dangerous now with the rise of the Alt Right and real White supremacists and Nazis surrounding Donald Trump, and the whole milieu of the Republican party and Libertarians in America. These are intensely racist, despising Blacks, Asians and Latinos, and using scientific evidence like the highly controversial ‘Bell Curve’ to argue that Blacks are intellectually inferior to Whites. I’ve also seen the islamophobes argue that Muslims also shouldn’t be allowed into Britain from the Middle East and Pakistan, as the average intelligence of the people from those regions is 75! Which to my mind is just ridiculous.

I’ve also heard from a friend, who keeps up with the latest neurological research by talking to some of the scientists involved, that recent studies of neuroplasticity have cast doubt on the amount of specialisation of brain function in specific brain regions. Moreover, everyone’s brain, male and female, is weird up differently. We may in fact know far less about the nature of the human brain, a point made by the neurologist and Humanist Professor Raymond Tallis in his book, Aping Mankind, written against precisely this kind of reductionism, which tries to reduce human cognition and culture by viewing it solely in terms of Darwinian theory in which humans are simply another species of ape.

This is a fascinating book, and offers many insights into the evolution of the human brain. But this is an area that is still developing, and intensely controversial. As such, other scientific opinions are available and should be read as well.


RT Shows Clip of Triple Suns Seen in China

December 28, 2017

This is a bit of fun and Fortean weirdness to cheer people up after the gloom and chaos of the seasonal weather and the continuing Tory destruction of the NHS, the economy, and everything decent in our society. A couple of days ago, RT put up this very short video of the triple suns seen in the sky over Hailun City. The blurb for the video states that it mesmerised the residents, and appeared at about half eight in the morning.

It’s an illusion, of course, which the RT blurb duly mentions. I think these type of illusions are called Sundogs, or parhelion. The large, middle sun is the real sun, whose light is refracted by ice or water crystals in the Earth’s atmosphere, thus creating the illusion that there are two smaller suns either side of it. It’s been seen several times in history. I think one appearance is recorded in one of the medieval chronicles for the 12/13th centuries, where three suns were seen by the people of one particular county in England.

I have read attempts to explain the strange creatures seen by the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel as sundogs. When these appeared in the sky before him, they were travelling in strange vehicles like wheels, which also had other wheels revolving within them. This doesn’t actually sound like a sundog to me, and I think the incident is far better explained as a visionary experience. Of course, the UFO crowd have also tried to claim that what Ezekiel saw were really visiting extraterrestrials in their spaceships, following the theories of Von Daniken and the like. I really don’t believe that explanation either. Von Daniken’s ideas have been massively influential in promoting the ‘ancient astronaut’ hypothesis – that Earth has been visited throughout its history by aliens. But it’s also been extensively critiqued itself. Von Daniken got much of his facts wrong, and misinterpreted the archaeological and anthropological evidence he used to support his ideas.

But whatever your view of visiting aliens and UFOs, I think we can all enjoy this strange and weirdly beautiful spectacle.

Moral Relativism in Totalitarian Dictatorships

May 30, 2013

Sir Isaiah Berlin, Vico and the Origins of the Rejection of Absolute Moral Values

One of the defining features of contemporary Postmodernism is its rejection of an absolute, transcendent morality. All societies are seen as equally valid in their worldviews, and attempts to evaluate them according to a particular system of morality are attacked as both philosophically incorrect and immoral. Indeed, the belief in an objective morality is viewed as one of the components of western imperialism and the horrific totalitarianisms of the 20th century. The attitude is not new, and certainly not pointless. The view that each period of history possessed its own unique morality goes back to the 17th -18th century philosopher, Giambattista Vico. In his book, Scienza Nuova (New Science), published in 1725, Vico argued that human history was divided into distinct cultural periods, so these periods could only be properly understood on their own terms. Vico’s view was championed after the War by the great British philosopher, Sir Isaiah Berlin. Berlin was horrified at the absolute moral authority claimed and demanded by the Fascist and Communist regimes. He was a leading figure during the Cold War of the 1950s to trace, explain and attack their ideological roots. He was particularly instrumental in making contact with an supporting some of the leading Soviet dissidents. Berlin attempted to counter their claims to absolute moral authority by denying the existence of absolute, unviersal moral values. He attempted to avoid the opposite pitfall of moral nihilism by stating that there were, however, certain values that acted as if they possessed a universal validity. One of these, for example, is the obvious injunction against killing innocents.

Franz Boas and Anthropological Opposition to Nazism and Racism

The view that every culture possesses its own unique worldview, and should be appreciated and assessed according to its values, rather than those of the West, was also pioneered by Franz Boas. Boas was a German anthropologist who migrated to America before the Second World War. He worked extensively among the Native American peoples, including the Inuit. Boas was Jewish, and had been driven out of his homeland by the Nazis. He formulated his rejection of a dominant, universal morality as a way of attacking the racist morality promoted by and supporting the Nazi regime. At the same time, he also sought to protect indigenous peoples against the assaults on their culture by Western civilisation under the view that such peoples were also morally and culturally inferior.

Moral Relativism in Hegel and Nietzschean Nihilism

In fact, the modern rejection of eternal, univeral moral values predates Berlin. It emerged in the 19th century in Hegelian philosophy and Nietzsche’s atheist existentialism. The attitude that there were no universal moral values, and that morality was relative, became increasingly strong after the First World War. Many Western intellectuals felt that the horrific carnage had discredited Western culture and the moral systems that had justified such mass slaughter. It was because of this background of cultural and moral relativism that Einsteins’s Theory of Relativity, which in fact has nothing to say about morality, was seized on by some philosophers as scientific justification for the absence of universal moral values.

Hegel viewed history as created through a process of dialectical change, as nations and cultures rose, fell and were superseded by higher cultures. As nations, states and cultures changed, so did ideas, and so there could be no universal ethical system. Furthermore, some events were beneficial even though they could not be justified by conventional morality. For example, those sympathetic to the Anglo-Saxons would argue that the Norman Conquest was immoral. Nevertheless, the Conquest also brought cultural and political advances and improvements. The dialectal process thus validated the Norman Conquest, even though the Conquest itself, by the standards of conventional morality, could be seen as morally wrong.

Apart from Hegel, Neitzsche also argued that without God, there were no objective moral standards. The individual was therefore free to create his own morals through heroic acts of will.

Hegel’s philosophy, although authoritarian, was developed to justify the new ascendant position of the Prussian monarchy after the Napoleonic Wars. The new Germany of the Hohenzollerns was, in his view, the culmination of the dialectal process. Nietzsche himself was a defender of aristocratic values, who despised the nationalism of the Wihelmine monarchy and the new mass politics. Despite their personal politics, elements of Hegelian philosophy became incorporated into Fascism and Communism, while Italian Fascism also contained the same atheist existentialism. Mussolini had been a radical Socialist before the foundation of the Fascist party and its alliance with and absorbtion of aggressively anti-socialist movements and parties. Even then, the party still contained radical socialist and particularly anarcho-syndicalist elements. These took their inspiration from the French Syndalist writer, Georges Sorel. Sorel considered that in the absence of universal moral values, what mattered was emotion and struggle. It was only in revolutionary conflict that the individual became truly free. This irrationalism thus served to justify the Fascist use of force and governments by elites, who rejected conventional morality.

Marx, Lenin and Moral Relativism

Marx followed Hegel in rejecting the existence of universal moral values. According to his doctrine of dialectal materialism, cultures and moral values were merely the ideological superstructure created by the economic basis of society. As the economic systems changed, so did a society’s culture and moral code. Moreover, each culture’s system of morality was appropriate for its period of economic and historical development. R.N. Carew Hunt in his examination of Communist ideology, The Theory and Practive of Communism, notes that the Communist Manifesto is the most powerful indictment of capitalism. It does not, however, condemn it as a morally wrong or unjust. When it does describe capitalism as exploitive, it is simply as a system of social relations, rather than a moral judgement. He quotes Marx’s own statement of Communist morality in his Ant-Duhring:

‘We therefore reject every attempt to impose on us any moral dogma whatsoever as an eternal, ultimate, and for ever immutable moral law on the pretext that the moral world too has its permanent principles which transcend history and the differences between nations. We maintain on the contrary that all former moral theories are the product, in the last analysis, of the economic stage which society had reached at that particular epoch. And as society has hitherto moved in class antagonisms, morality was always a class morality; it has either justified the domination and the interests of the ruling class, or, as soon as the oppressed class has become powerful enough, it has represented the revolt against this domination and the future interests of the oppressed. That in this process there has on teh whole been progress in morality, as in all other branches of human knowledge, cannot be doubted. But we have not yet passed beyond class morality. A really human morality which transcends class antagonisms and their legacies in thought becomes possible only at a stage of society whicdh has not only overcome class contradictions but has even forgotten them in practical life.’

Lenin’s own view of Marxist morality was expressed in his Address to the 3rd Congress of the Russian Young Communist League of 2nd October 1920:

‘Is there such a thing as Communist ethics? Is there such a thing as Communist morality? Of course there is. It is often made to appear that we have no ethics of our own; and very often the bourgeoisie accuse us Communists of repudiating all ethics. This is a method of throwing dust in the eyes of the workers and peasants.

In what sense doe we repudiate ethics and morality?

In the sense that it is preached by the bourgeoisie, who derived ethics from God’s commandments … Or instead of deriving ethics from the commandments of God, they derived them from idealist or semi-idealist phrases, which always amounted to something very similar to God’s commandments. We repudiate all morality derived from non-human and non-class concepts. We say that it is a deception, a fraud in the interests of the landlords and capitalists. We say that our morality is entirely subordinated to the interests of the class struggle of the proletariat. Our morality is derived from the interests of the class struggle of the proletariat…The class struggle is still continuing…We subordinate our communist morality to this task. We say: morality is what serves to destroy the old exploiting society and to unite all the toilers around the proletariat, which is creating a new communist society .. We do not believe in an eternal morality’.

Communist Morality Justified Brutality, against Judeo-Christian Values in British Ethical Socialism

The result was a highly utilitarian moral attitude which justified deceit, assassination and mass murder on the grounds that this assisted the Revolution and the Soviet system as the worker’s state. As the quotes from Lenin makes blatantly clearly, Communist morality was completely opposed to Western religious values. This amoral attitude to politics and human life and worth was condemned by members of the democratic left, such as Harold Laski, and Christian Socialists such as Kingsley Martin. In the June 1946 issue of New Statesman, Martin declared that Soviet morality was completely opposed to the Greco-Roman-Christiain tradition that stressed the innate value of the individual moral conscience. Christian socialism was a strong element in the British Labour party. Reviewing a history of the British working class’ reading over a decade ago, The Spectator stated that it wasn’t surprising that Communism didn’t get very far in Wales, considering that most of the members of the Welsh Labour party in the 1920 were churchgoing Christians who listed their favourite book as the Bible. As a result, the Russian Communists sneered at the Labour part for its ethical socialism. This was held to provide an insufficient basis for socialism, unlike Marx’s ‘scientific socialism’. If anything, the opposite was true.

Moral Relativism Does Not Prevent, But Can Even Support Totalitarianism

Now this does not mean that there is anything inherently totalitarian about moral relativism. Indeed, it is now used to justify opposition and resistance to Western imperialism and exploitation. It does not, however, provide a secure basis for the protection of those economic or ethnic groups seen as most vulnerable to such treatment.If there are no universal moral values, then it can also be argued that totalitarian regimes and movements also cannot be condemned for their brutal treatment of the poor, political opponents, and the subjugation or extermination of different races or cultures. Indeed, Marx and Engels looked forward to the disappearance of backward ethnic groups, like the Celts in Britain and France, and Basques in Spain as Capitalism advanced. When the various slavonic peoples in the German and Austro-Hungarian Empire revolted in the home of gaining independence in 1848, they condemned them as a threat to their own working-class movement and looked forward to a racial war against them. Their statement there presages the mass deportations and persecution of various ethnic minorities, including Cossacks, Ukrainians, Jews and some of the Caucasian Muslim peoples by the Stalinist state. And as it has been shown, moral relativism formed part of Italian Fascist and Russian Communist ideology.

Ability of Objective Morality to Defend Different Culture’s Right to Existence and Dignity

In fact you don’t need moral relativism to defend the rights of different peoples to dignity and the value of their culture. The very existence of human rights, including the rights of different ethnic groups to existence and the possession of their own culture, is based on the idea of an objective morality. All that is needed is to accept that each culture also has its own intrinsic moral value. One can and should be able to argue that certain aspects of another culture are objectively wrong, such as those institutions that may also brutalise and exploit women and outsiders to that culture. One can also recognise that these aspects do not necessarily invalidate the whole of that culture, or justify the brutalisation or extermination of its people.


R.N. Carew Hunt, The Theory and Practice of Communism (Harmondsworth: Pelican 1950)

David Fernbach (ed.), Karl Marx: The Revolutions of 1848 (Harmondsworth: Penguin/ New Left Review 1973)

The Seizure of Power – this study of the rise of Italian Fascism and Mussolini’s coup.