Friday, September 07, 2012

Anthropology and Common Sense

Recently I decided to go back to school and get a degree in Anthropology. There are a lot of historical and anthropological theories that don't make a lot of sense.

For example, what motivates cultural change? The most basic answer is Problems. Desire is also a motivator, although within groups the group typically reacts to problems rather than goals. In my experience it takes a very charismatic leader to motivate a group to achieve a goal. Motivating a group to avoid a common problem is much easier. This is why politicians engage in attack politics; it is easier to group people together if they share the perception of a common problem.

Why didn't the stone age people of the Americas invent the wheel? The reality is that they probably did create wooden rollers that were much more difficult to build and use than skid technology so the rollers were abandoned except in very specific circumstances. For the most part a man or dog dragging a travois was easier to build and use than a wheel. In rough or soft ground wheels become stuck easily which is why tracks are common on construction equipment. The wheel was more of a problem for the people of the Americas than skid technology which never becomes stuck in the mud.

Problems must be solved. In a group the majority of the group must perceive a problem in order to create a group solution. Desires can be satisfied. In a group the majority of the group must share a desire and believe it can be attained to satisfy a desire.

Groups act or create customs, laws and rituals in order to solve what the group perceives as a problem or to satisfy what the group perceives as an attainable desire.

This is essentially the theory of evolution, the members of a species that respond “best” to a problem live and those that respond “badly” to a problem die. The weather begins to turn cold so either those who run south fastest live or those who can control their environment, fire, shelter, clothes, live.

This is basic common sense stuff, but, open up a text book on Cultural Anthropology and read a bunch of different theories on the development of culture that make almost no sense. It boggles the mind.

Different cultures develop differently because of different conditions. These conditions can be anything from climate to charismatic leaders. Aristotle proposed the idea of the geocentric universe and was so charismatic that almost two thousand years later people were torturing and killing those that disagreed with Aristotle's theories.

Aristotle solved what some people believed was a problem. That solution became so important to so many that they were willing to kill to support it. I think that is pretty crazy, but, it still happens today. People adopt ideologies from charismatic leaders and those people are willing to kill others to maintain that ideology over all other ideologies.

In these cases the problem is ideological as opposed to physical. Who cares if the sun goes around the earth or the earth goes around the sun as long as crops grow, children are born healthy and people can enjoy the warmth of the sun?

In reality the sun going around the earth or the earth going around the sun is relative to the observers position. Einstein proved this issue of relativity. Yet rather than accept the relativistic viewpoint people will kill each other over what they perceive to be the “truth”. We could accept that our position on Earth makes the motion of the sun relative to us OR we can insist that motion is relative to some arbitrary point calculated as “galactic center” (per Doctor Who) or the center of the universe.

This relativity is only a problem if we perceive it as one, and it seems we do. As cultures we fight, torture and kill each other over acceptance of these relative viewpoints. Could anything people do be more ridiculous?

Cultures react to the perception of common problems or the attainability of common desires.

Before Aristotle began teaching his geocentric view of the universe, and even after, did it really matter in the distribution and utilization of cultural resources? Does it matter today if we take a relativistic viewpoint from our location or a different arbitrary location? If people in a group don't perceive this “truth” as either a problem or an attainable desire the idea becomes irrelevant.

Anthropologists Pascal Boyer and Scott Atran believe that humans have a predisposition for religion. I think that is actually horsecrap. I think humans have a predisposition to seek out answers to questions or solutions to problems or solutions to desires. Religion often provides these solutions, as does science.

The question of whether these solutions are delusional or not I will leave to another time, although I will state categorically that I do not believe faith based solutions are delusional. I did say I would leave the question until later, not that I would leave the answer to that question until later. The illiterate will assume that both statements have the same meaning and yet they are very different. The literate among readers will also notice that I wrote “solutions are delusional” and not “religious solutions are delusional”.

So why Anthropology? Because there is so much horsecrap that has nothing to do with common sense and everything to do with academics blathering about, beating their chests and patting themselves on the back. In fact, it is a lot like every group based scientific endeavor I have ever been involved with.

“Just a sec John, you just pointed out the ridiculousness of killing over an idea that, relativistically, is true from both perspectives. Why not just accept that other things can be relativistically true from alternate perspectives?”

Excellent question oh wise and literate reader. Because we learn through disagreement and discussion. Devolving a disagreement into torture, murder, war, etc is ridiculous. Sure, all of us get emotional about a subject and will become angry and offended when people disagree with us. We will call each other names and tell others the person or people who disagrees with us is/are delusional.

In working on advanced manufacturing science projects I found it easier to work with and advance when I worked with people to whom English was a second language. These people focused more on content, the message rather than the messenger or the wrappings of the message.

I think we need to focus on basics. The message rather than the envelope and paper, metaphorically speaking.

In my opinion the development of culture is easy to track. Just look at the peoples perception of problems and attainable desires; everything comes together.

Addendum:  Re-reading this it occurs to me that some people won't understand the relationship between cultural change occurring as a response to a perceived problem, the hard wired predisposition to seek solutions and killing people over a relativistic issue like geocentric versus heliocentric universe.  I will bet that skipped right over some people's heads.  It has to do with how egotistical people are about a solution.  Aristotle solved the "problem" by "proving" the geocentric universe theory.  When people like Aristarchus presented the heliocentric theory guys like Archimedes called Aristarchus an idiot (paraphrased).  Some people in some cultures place so much importance on their solutions they are willing to torture and murder to protect their solution.
 The issue of a specific relativistic center is an example of the perception of a problem and the acceptance of a specific solution and how those issues are of primary significance in cultural change.
The way a culture or cultural group handles the perception of a problem and/or desire and the perception of a/the solution defines the group.

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