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"....Because it is bitter, and because it is my heart."
July 12, 2009 10:26 PM   Subscribe

From these various anthropological approaches, a basic dichotomy has emerged between two types of societies from very different ecosystems: societies born in rain forests and those that thrive in deserts.... Begin with religious beliefs. A striking proportion of rain forest dwellers are polytheistic, worshipping an array of spirits and gods.... But desert dwellers... are usually monotheistic. Of course, despite allegiances to a single deity, other supernatural beings may be involved, like angels and djinns and Satan. But the hierarchy is notable, with minor deities subservient to the Omnipotent One. This division makes ecological sense.... Desert societies, with their far-flung members tending goats and camels, are classic spawning grounds for warrior classes and the accessories of militarism.... Rain forest cultures also are less likely to harbor beliefs about the inferiority of women; you won’t be likely to find rain forest men giving thanks in prayer that they were not created female, as is the case in at least one notable desert-derived religion.... (Previously, previously, previously)
posted by orthogonality (73 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite

 
"Deserts possess a particular magic, since they have exhausted their own futures, and are thus free of time. Anything erected there, a city, a pyramid, a motel, exists outside time. It's no coincidence that religious leaders emerge from the desert. Modern shopping malls have much the same function. A future Van Gogh, Rimbaud or Adolf Hitler from their timeless wastes.

"Some of the best American thrillers have been set in the desert - The Getaway, The Hitcher, Charley Varrick, Blood Simple. Given that there is no time past and no future, the idea of death and retribution has a doubly threatening force."


-- JG Ballrd, The Atrocity Exhibition, notes to chapter 9.
posted by WPW at 10:42 PM on July 12, 2009 [3 favorites]


JG Ballard, obviously, not Ballrd.
posted by WPW at 10:48 PM on July 12, 2009


I suspect the desert-dwellers of Australia might disagree.
posted by pompomtom at 10:50 PM on July 12, 2009 [5 favorites]


An interesting theory, but it doesn't fit well for Australian Aboriginal cultures, dwellers on the last continent to be discovered and invaded/settled by Europeans. Their religious mythoi are animistic and pantheistic with some polytheism, they lived in rainforests, deserts, and in some cases both, they had almost no means of conducting wars even if they had anything to fight wars over, and it's impossible, due to the near-total lack of a written record, to know anything about the beliefs and cultural practices of their ancestors for the 50,000 to 120,000 years their cultures persisted prior to perhaps 1700 AD or so.

If the theory were correct, it would imply that Australian Aboriginal subgroups who lived in the scarcity of the desert for generations (as many did) would become male-dominated raider cultures, and those who lived in the abundance of the rainforest for generations (as many did) would become egalitarian gatherer cultures. I don't know enough about Australian Aboriginal history to express an opinion on whether that might have been the case. It's certainly possible.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 10:50 PM on July 12, 2009 [4 favorites]


An interesting article, however it is a bit weak and I'd love to see something with some more theory about this.

The desert / rain forest split could really just be a series of extremes that really just reflect how the level of diversity of resource influences a cultures perception of the world. And then their perception is codified into their religious beliefs.

I love studying the anthropology of religion, because more and more I keep finding what I would consider cultural tool marks on the "word of god." Such as how leviticus appears to codify the food taboos of specific cultural group and their perception of liminal animals more than being a practical list of forbidden items. If it was supposed to be a practical list (from a diety who created the world and all animals on it), shouldn't it include every animal (such as a platypus), instead of just ones around what is now the Middle East?
posted by mrzarquon at 10:51 PM on July 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


This article is beyond weak.

If nothing else, didn't this dumbass even consider how much the climate of (for example) the middle east has changed in the last 2-3k years?

"desert people" indeed.
posted by Riemann at 10:53 PM on July 12, 2009 [9 favorites]


> An interesting theory, but it doesn't fit well for Australian Aboriginal cultures, dwellers on the last continent to be discovered and invaded/settled by Europeans.

And then not to mention that a good deal of the first researchers and documentarians of these cultures are almost all coming from a Judeo/Christian/Desert cultural background, so may have introduced their own prejudices in their notetaking and observations of specific groups which were the basis for the "desert people are like this / rain forest people are like this" split.

What about the Inuit and other Artic region cultures? I can't find an easy way to put them into desert or rain forest, if I were just to assess them on their cultural / theistic practices (but I haven't read up on them in forever).

I guess the other way is to do the reverse, could one easily and consistently identify the geographic history of a cultural group if given a summary of their religious practices and heritage?
posted by mrzarquon at 10:58 PM on July 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


It's pretty easy to understand how monotheism will win over polytheism... Polytheists have no drive within their religious framework to kill others because they worship a different deity. Monotheists, on the other hand, have this built into their belief structures, and a conquering mindset will nearly always gain an upper hand over an accepting one.

I do wish the argument had been about something more than how the Children Of The Book are managing to destroy other indigenous religions. The Australia question has already been raised, but what about the belief systems of Native Americans in the southwest compared to those in the plains or the former megaforest in the east? Is India a forested country? How were the beliefs of the Chinese in the Gobi different from those in more lush areas of the country?

Interesting concept, not nearly enough follow-through to make it important beyond a little stoned contemplation.
posted by hippybear at 11:02 PM on July 12, 2009


mrzarquon I love studying the anthropology of religion, because more and more I keep finding what I would consider cultural tool marks on the "word of god." [...] shouldn't it include every animal (such as a platypus), instead of just ones around what is now the Middle East?

Not wanting to derail the discussion, but ... yes. If we wanted a religion without cultural tool marks, in which each new revelation brings with it greater understanding of preceding ones, and the potential for new revelations after, we would worship mathematical physics. It surprises me a little that nobody really does, yet.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 11:06 PM on July 12, 2009 [3 favorites]


It's pretty easy to understand how monotheism will win over polytheism... Polytheists have no drive within their religious framework to kill others because they worship a different deity. Monotheists, on the other hand, have this built into their belief structures, and a conquering mindset will nearly always gain an upper hand over an accepting one.

Actually, as I remember my history degree a decade ago, a key factor is that polytheisms and animisms are strongly rooted in place and thus don't travel well, so they spread with difficulty beyond their land of origin. Monotheisms, however, make a claim to universality and travel easily, so Christians and Muslims were able to trot about building the trading networks and overseas communities.
posted by WPW at 11:14 PM on July 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


hippybear It's pretty easy to understand how monotheism will win over polytheism... Polytheists have no drive within their religious framework to kill others because they worship a different deity. Monotheists, on the other hand, have this built into their belief structures, and a conquering mindset will nearly always gain an upper hand over an accepting one.

I'd call this sample bias. Of the monotheisms of Abrahamic descent, some have evangelism and intolerance in their belief structures, and some (eg Judaism, Sufism) do not, or not so much. The only polytheisms most of us know of are Hinduism and the Chinese Celestial Bureaucracy, both of which served to keep a concrete-hard solidity around the caste system of the society in which they originated.

The Roman Empire, one of the most successful expansionistic cultures in human history, was polytheistic; Zoroastrianism was monotheistic and generally speaking seems to have been less aggressive than most contemporary polytheistic cultures.

It seems to me that the aggression of the religion follows the aggression of the practitioners, which is to say that it's the politics, not the religion, that determines it.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 11:18 PM on July 12, 2009 [14 favorites]


Hrm. Okay, so he brushes against those questions I have briefly in one paragraph. That's what I get for not reading closely. Still, not enough info.
posted by hippybear at 11:19 PM on July 12, 2009


Shopping malls... a future... Adolf Hitler from their timeless wastes.

[ rokubot% insert Banana Republic joke here ]
posted by rokusan at 11:20 PM on July 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


aeschenkarnos, problem is that a lot of people aren't educated enough to properly appreciate mathematical physics for what it really is.

I have a reasonable understanding of it (for someone who's only taken calculus and who is a neurobiology major so doesn't have to, or have the time to, take more advanced math) and I think it is so awesome that I wish I had the time to minor in physics. I want to at least try to learn multivariable calculus, linear algebra, manipulate tensors and all that other stuff.
posted by kldickson at 11:21 PM on July 12, 2009


Neurologists would probably be less than keen if anthropologists starting sounding off about neurology, and it's quite clear that neurologists should in return stay well far away from anthropology. He's cherry picked cultures that fit his thesis the desert/forest dichotomy, and if I had an inclination I'd cherry pick more that prove the exact opposite (Off the top of my head, how about them Incas, eh? Highly successful desert-adapted Polytheists. Or the Hopi. Or maybe the Zuni. Or maybe the ...)

The only scholarly anthropological work on Google Scholar that references this article is a BA thesis (Dreisbach, 2007, Are Arid Climates More Likely to Produce Monotheistic Religions: An Archaeology and Anthropological Perspective, U. Wisconsin). Her conclusion is that the development of monotheism seems more tied to social and political circumstances, rather than environment.

The fact that the only person to bother even acknowledging this article is an undergrad (and her 31-page thesis isn't bad) just seems to back up my gut feeling: this is a shitty article.
posted by barnacles at 11:25 PM on July 12, 2009 [3 favorites]


And then not to mention that a good deal of the first researchers and documentarians of these cultures are almost all coming from a Judeo/Christian/Desert cultural background, so may have introduced their own prejudices in their notetaking and observations of specific groups which were the basis for the "desert people are like this / rain forest people are like this" split.

Well, thanks for killing my plans for Christians Are From Mars, Hindis Are From Venus.
posted by dw at 11:25 PM on July 12, 2009 [2 favorites]


It's pretty easy to understand how monotheism will win over polytheism... Polytheists have no drive within their religious framework to kill others because they worship a different deity. Monotheists, on the other hand, have this built into their belief structures, and a conquering mindset will nearly always gain an upper hand over an accepting one.

I think you're right to a certain extent. I also think monotheism has the upper hand linguistically, much in the same way that the Parmenidean One was able to dominate and guide Ancient Greek philosophy. Although I think memetics is a little too all-encompassing of a theory, it does a good job of explaining the stubborn survival of the monotheistic deity.

As for the correlation between geography and religious belief, while it is certainly the case that ecological factors play a significant role in how cultures organize themselves, it is somewhat of a stretch to demarcate the sorts of god or gods that people worship through deserts and rainforests. It's a nice idea though. There is much more to anthropomorphize in a an ecosystem of diversity and interconnectedness than in an ecosystem of stasis and homogeny. But this theory might be as vague and non-falsifiable as the deities it is dealing with.
posted by ageispolis at 11:33 PM on July 12, 2009


> If we wanted a religion without cultural tool marks, in which each new revelation brings with it greater understanding of preceding ones, and the potential for new revelations after, we would worship mathematical physics.

Or we would just cut out the middle man, and realize that all those powers and abilities of which we have ascribed towards deities are in fact created by man. So really, humans created gods, not the other way around. Stand back and soak in the awe that is human imagination and creativity, and call it humanism. "Worship" consists of learning and growing our cultural knowledge and abilities, and respecting and loving all those other humans around us. Thats about the whole thing.

*puffs twice and passes*
posted by mrzarquon at 11:37 PM on July 12, 2009 [11 favorites]


This theory seems to ignore the fact that the Arabs were polytheistic prior to the arrival of Mohammad - part of the reason that Islam so quickly supplanted polytheism in the region was apparently the fact that monotheism is far more politically unifying, leading to a more cohesive fighting force.

The ancient Mesopotamians were similarly polytheistic, as were the Egyptians, although it's debatable whether you'd really call those areas "desert".
posted by UbuRoivas at 11:42 PM on July 12, 2009 [5 favorites]


SAHARASIA: The 4000 BCE Origins of Child Abuse, Sex-Repression, Warfare and Social Violence, In the Deserts of the Old World is another work on much the same subject. This work is considerably more rigorous than the linked article.
posted by telstar at 11:46 PM on July 12, 2009


The Hebrews were polytheistic too. Monotheism came very late to the People of the Book. Certainly they were still actively worshiping (not just acknowledging the existence of, but worshiping) Asherah alongside Yahweh for a very long time after they settled down in Canaan.
posted by Riemann at 11:47 PM on July 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


"This item: SAHARASIA: The 4000 BCE Origins of Child Abuse, Sex-Repression, Warfare and Social Violence, In the Deserts of the Old World by James DeMeo"

Hmm...

"Customers buy this book with The Orgone Accumulator Handbook: Construction Plans Experimental Use and Protection Against Toxic Energy by James DeMeo"

Wat? (woooo-hooooooo)
posted by orthogonality at 11:52 PM on July 12, 2009


Yeah, the development of monothestic Yahwehism among the ancient Hebrews was long, difficult and not without it's hiccups. You can still find the occasional pagan prayer or poetic reference in the Psalms, for example.
posted by Avenger at 11:53 PM on July 12, 2009


So the jungle-dwelling Aztecs were a peaceable, inclusive people?
posted by rodgerd at 11:59 PM on July 12, 2009


If we wanted a religion without cultural tool marks, in which each new revelation brings with it greater understanding of preceding ones, and the potential for new revelations after, we would worship mathematical physics. It surprises me a little that nobody really does, yet.

Way ahead of you.
posted by AdamCSnider at 12:15 AM on July 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


The Hebrews were polytheistic too.

And anybody who's checked out the constellations of Catholic saints might have similar opinion of them.
posted by GuyZero at 12:30 AM on July 13, 2009


I, for one, worship mathematical physics. It's a pretty easy going god though

See also sacred geometry.
posted by leibniz at 1:00 AM on July 13, 2009


All odd numbers, admittedly with some exceptions, are prime.
posted by fleacircus at 1:15 AM on July 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


Especially, GuyZero, when one remembers how many of them were absorbed from non-Christian groups in order to facilitate the adoption of Christianity by absorbing other faiths and practises.

See also: Easter eggs, Christmas trees, etc.
posted by rodgerd at 1:31 AM on July 13, 2009


UbuRoivas This theory seems to ignore the fact that the Arabs were polytheistic prior to the arrival of Mohammad - part of the reason that Islam so quickly supplanted polytheism in the region was apparently the fact that monotheism is far more politically unifying, leading to a more cohesive fighting force.

To some extent I think all that says is that that monotheism was more politically unifying (or conversely, that more committed political unifiers used that monotheism as a mechanism for unification) than that polytheism. It's reasonable to expect polytheisms in general to be more open to embrace and extend, but on the other hand that will come with some reframing: "Oh, sounds like your god Jehovah must be an aspect of Woden and Jesus sure sounds like Baldur. That Satan guy is obviously Loki with a horned mask. You can put up their symbols in the temple, if you like, and we'll all pray and sacrifice to them together."

I don't think "there are no gods but the Twelve!" is any sillier than "there is no god but the One!". If the pantheonic distribution makes cohesive sense--ie is sufficiently Pythagorean--it could be a stronger meme than a single generic god of fish, bananas, Tuesdays, rebellion and marriage, who demands everything in general and nothing in particular.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 1:33 AM on July 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


So the jungle-dwelling Aztecs were a peaceable, inclusive people?

You're thinking of the Maya, I believe. The Aztec core regions were to be found in the Valley of Mexico, which ranges from temperate to arid with some tropical bits in the far south.
That said, desert dwelling Native Americans do not appear to have been monotheists either. Overall I'd chalk this guy's arguments down to selection bias.
posted by AdamCSnider at 1:42 AM on July 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


The ancient Mesopotamians were similarly polytheistic, as were the Egyptians...

...And the Sumerians, and the Navajo, and the Pueblo, and the Hopi, and the people who lived in the deserts of the Indian subcontinent, and the people who lived in the deserts of China, and...

And the article doesn't even address temperate areas like Europe (originally polytheistic), although that simply may have been deliberate ("We're ONLY looking at desert-vs.-rain forest").

still, a lot of holes in this.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:23 AM on July 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


Isn't this largely to do with resources?

The harder your environment, the more likely a society is to create a them and us to sequester available resources, and to impose status ranking on its members so that more powerful members get what they want.

If there is enough food and resources to go round, then "competing" religions, emancipation etc are more likely to flourish or survive.
posted by MuffinMan at 3:10 AM on July 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


The article is sort of bullshit, but there is little doubt from my reading of the anthropological literature that desert societies tend to privilege visual aesthetics and cognition, and rain forest societies tend to privilege aural aesthetics, neither to the exclusion of the other, but in a definite cross-cultural pattern, for fairly obvious ecological and subsistence reasons. Compare Steve Feld's work on the Kaluli of Papua New Guinea with Keith Basso's on the Western Apache, for examples.

When not treated in reductionist ways, such distinctions have their uses.
posted by fourcheesemac at 3:52 AM on July 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


I've no idea about the whole desert vs. rain forest thing, with Incas being an obvious counterexample. I'm not so sure the Australian Aborigines are problematic given that Islands evolve under very different resource constraints.

I suspect the dominant feature is that societies of conquerers usually have religions that are hierarchical and support rape & pillage of non-believers, hence the success of christianity and islam. So a single violent culture like the Incas might rise to dominance even if rain forests are generally pacifying. You might still find that violent society always arrises in the desert first if the desert is inhabited.
posted by jeffburdges at 4:14 AM on July 13, 2009


This explains why those Vikings were so peaceful, with no raping and pillaging action at all; it's because they were polytheistic!
posted by Hildegarde at 4:29 AM on July 13, 2009 [3 favorites]


A shitty post redeemed by brilliant commentary.
posted by seanmpuckett at 5:11 AM on July 13, 2009 [3 favorites]


I, personally, welcome my new mathematical physicist overlords.
posted by nax at 5:20 AM on July 13, 2009


To summarize, if:

1) you ignore all ecosystems but "rain forest" and "desert".
2) you rely on a collection of cultural "traits" compiled forty years ago.
3) you ignore obvious counter-examples.

You can make this theory work.

Then, you can really start with the tenuous jumps of logic and relate it all to geopolitics!
posted by bitterpants at 5:32 AM on July 13, 2009 [6 favorites]


I'm not so sure the Australian Aborigines are problematic given that Islands evolve under very different resource constraints.

Islands? Do you have any idea how big Australia is?
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:50 AM on July 13, 2009


Zoroastrianism was monotheistic and generally speaking seems to have been less aggressive than most contemporary polytheistic cultures.

I'm pretty sure that the Greeks and Romans would disagree.
posted by deanc at 5:51 AM on July 13, 2009


quite.
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:55 AM on July 13, 2009


Good for some stoned contemplation, you say? Well then, I'll be back later!
posted by jamstigator at 5:56 AM on July 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm back. What were we talking about again?
posted by jamstigator at 5:57 AM on July 13, 2009


crystal skulls, if i'm not mistaken.
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:59 AM on July 13, 2009


Test: If you had to pick one or the other to live in for the rest of your life, which would it be? Why? (500 words, spelling counts).
posted by Postroad at 7:10 AM on July 13, 2009


there is little doubt from my reading of the anthropological literature that desert societies tend to privilege visual aesthetics and cognition, and rain forest societies tend to privilege aural aesthetics

Don't the Pacific Northwest Indians contradict this?
posted by unmake at 7:44 AM on July 13, 2009


Were not the arab tribes polythesitic in large measure before the introduction of Islam?
posted by absalom at 7:46 AM on July 13, 2009


To add a little more information: the database that this article mentions is called the Human Relations Area Files (HRAF). Those of you associated with universities may have electronic access to it if you want to kick its tires. It is a collection of data on a few hundred cultures categories by 100 variables. Most of the data are quotes from ethnographies with citations. This is actually very useful for comparative studies but you have to be careful...

I am an anthropological archaeologist and like not of the readers here, it seems, I find the interpretations in this article questionable. The conclusions mentioned in this article simply ignore the historical trajectory of these groups. The lack of historical context is one of the most oft-cited criticisms of people who make grand interpretations based on HRAF data and one of the several reasons its use has declined since the early 80's (there are several other reasons too).

Unlike some of my colleagues, I do find HRAF studies helpful. Some of the more famous studies show strong correlations between certain cultural features suggesting that societies faced with similar problems tend to arrive at similar solutions. For example, horticulture is highly correlated with matrilineal societies and higher incidences of warfare.
posted by Tallguy at 7:52 AM on July 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


Anthropologists say all the world's cultures fall into two basic groups: those from forests and those from arid lands. Increasingly, the future looks treeless.
I've been studying socio-cultural anthropology for 10 years and I have never heard an anthropologist say this. Just to be sure, I went and checked out my Anthropology Theory, and my Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology, and re-read the overviews of Cultural Ecology and Neomaterialism (which is the area of theory that Sapolsky is talking about), and ya, there's no mention of the dessert/rain forest divide. There are other divides (which have been critiqued), but not that one.

The article is, in my opinion, a pretty poor representation of anthropology and grossly oversimplifies a number of theoretical positions. It is also poorly informed about the ethnographic details of the societies it tries to pigeonhole. My own recent fieldwork among a "rainforest" people provides a counterpoint to many of his arguments.
Other anthropologists explored the ecological roots of violence. In 1982 Melvin Ember of Yale found that certain ecosystems are so stable and benign that families remain intact throughout the year, farming their plot of land or hunting and gathering in the surrounding rich forest. In less forgiving settings, family units often split up for long periods, dividing their herds into smaller groups during dry seasons, for instance, with family members scattered with subflocks on distant pockets of grazing land. In such situations, warrior classes—as one sees among the pastoralist cowherding Masai of East Africa—are more common. There are advantages to having a communal standing army in case enemies appear when many of the men are away finding grass for the cattle.
The people I worked with are called the Asante. They formed around 300-350 years ago, in the central rainforests of what is now called Ghana. The name translates literally as "from war", and refers to the fact that the nation was formed as an alliance of families to protect themselves from attack by a neighbouring group. Their alliance was so effective that they soon switched from defensive to offensive, and began a massive expansion into the forests, warring with and colonizing the surrounding peoples until they lost their 6th war with the British in the late 1800's and themselves became a colony.

The ecology of the place certainly had its impact. Although families tended to remain together throughout the year, the expansionist mode often meant that villages were very small, and therefor vulnerable. But it would be a mistake to extrapolate that all rainforest people would follow the same pattern. The Asante had a tremendous amount of wealth, for instance, and participated in a far flung international trade that made war very profitable (captured men could be sold on the coast as slaves, for instance, or kept as labourers in gold mines). The ecology certainly helped to shape the culture, but non-ecological factors as clearly had major impacts as well.
Begin with religious beliefs. A striking proportion of rain forest dwellers are polytheistic, worshipping an array of spirits and gods. Polytheism is prevalent among tribes in the Amazon basin (the Sherenti, Mundurucu, and Tapirape) and in the rain forests of Africa (the Ndorobo), New Guinea (the Keraki and Ulawans), and Southeast Asia (the Iban of Borneo and the Mnong Gar and Lolo of Vietnam). But desert dwellers—the bedouin of Arabia, the Berbers of the western Sahara, the !Kung of the Kalahari Desert, the Nuer and Turkana of the Kenyan/Sudanese desert—are usually monotheistic. Of course, despite allegiances to a single deity, other supernatural beings may be involved, like angels and djinns and Satan. But the hierarchy is notable, with minor deities subservient to the Omnipotent One.
Here Saplosky is playing fast and loose with definitions, in a way that actually highlights what is wrong with trying to make such broad correlations. One who knows anything about Asante traditional religious believes is inclined to yell at one's computer "well is it monotheistic or is it not????" But let's look at what he says. A monotheistic can have lots of deities or supernatural beings, but it has a hierarchy. Forest dwellers worship and "array of spirits and gods". How are these different? Presumably hierarchy. Except the Asante traditional beliefs included a strict hierarchy with one omnipotent god and many subservient gods and spirits. In fact, one person once told me that he thinks this is why Christianity has had such success in Ghana (around 90% of Asante now list themselves as "Christian" in surveys such as the national census).
This division makes ecological sense. Deserts teach large, singular lessons, like how tough, spare, and withholding the environment is; the world is reduced to simple, desiccated, furnace-blasted basics.
This is a simplistic, armchair rationalization for a religious distinction that is so poorly defined it falls apart at the slightest introduction of ethnographic fact. It is simply not representative of the kind of theorizations that anthropologists studying ecological interactions with culture make.
Moreover, those rain forest dwellers that are monotheistic are much less likely to believe that their god sticks his or her nose into other people’s business by controlling the weather, prompting illness, or the like.
A belief that sickness is linked to the supernatural is one of the few near-universals that anthropologists might agree on (we're not big on universals overall). It was certainly the case in Ghana that people believed that both traditional gods and the Christian one play a role in the timing of sickness and death.

Links between culture and ecology seem very intuitive. If you start from the premise, as most people do these days, that "human" is a single category and we are all basically the same, then the question "why are we different" seems to naturally point to ecology. We're different because we grew up in different places, and we learned to do different things because either they are things that we need to/can do now because of our environment (wearing mittens and skiing, vs wearing sunscreen and surfing) or because they are things our ancestors needed to do to survive in our environment (like deal with seasonal harvests and winter vs year round harvests and virulent disease).

But the culture-factor is complex, and it is influenced by needs, beliefs, and practices that go beyond our environment. In fact, anthropologists recognize culture as an adaptation that lessens the evolutionary pressure of the environment on us as a species. The problem with simplifying ecological-cultural interactions is that people often use them to justify stereotypes, racism, and any number of simply non-factual correlations.

In the end, of course, Sapolsky's point has very little to do with the actual interaction between ecology and culture. He wants to talk about what he sees as harmful beliefs and cultural practices which are gaining cultural and political dominance throughout the world. But in doing so, he lays the blame firmly on an ancestral "desert" religious influence and completely ignores a number of predominantly secular influences (such as neo-classical economic policy that grew out of a revisioning of Adam Smith's work, who himself was a secular liberal). It plays into what I think (anthropologically speaking) is both a profoundly misguided and unproductive anti-theism in American discourse, with a hefty dose of subtle racism to boot.
posted by carmen at 8:37 AM on July 13, 2009 [30 favorites]


carmen, I think I just got a little turned on.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:52 AM on July 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


I got a little wary of the author's sense of causality when he suggested that nomadic goat-herding tribes were more likely to develop militaristic systems. Why?

It would be easier, although just as speculative, to posit that monotheistic groups would be more likely to fight each other than polytheistic groups.
posted by kozad at 8:59 AM on July 13, 2009


there's no mention of the dessert/rain forest divide

If someone left that fucking cake outside and it got soggy again, I'm going to be pissed. That recipe is hard to come by, and takes forever!

posted by hippybear at 9:02 AM on July 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


Isn't this argument like saying that the reason why Europeans were so successful (on their on terms) in building empires and developing material wealth is because they come from cooler climates that facilitate and encourage enterprise? "Third World" countries are doomed to remain less developed because their hotter climates encourage sloth and discourage creativity.

Complete hogwash, of course. I thought environmental determinism was thrown out decades ago, in favour of more sophisticated socio/cultural/economic theories. Perhaps everything old is new again. I hear in this current economic slump, Marxism, for example, is back in vogue.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:13 AM on July 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


"The only scholarly anthropological work on Google Scholar that references this article is a BA thesis (Dreisbach, 2007, Are Arid Climates More Likely to Produce Monotheistic Religions: An Archaeology and Anthropological Perspective, U. Wisconsin). Her conclusion is that the development of monotheism seems more tied to social and political circumstances, rather than environment.

The fact that the only person to bother even acknowledging this article is an undergrad (and her 31-page thesis isn't bad) just seems to back up my gut feeling: this is a shitty article.
I'm not saying this is a good article, barnacle, but isn't that just a tad disingenuous? You're expecting articles in academic journals to cite Discover? Google Scholar lists 128 citations for Textor's A Cross-Cultural Summary, the book this article is ham-handedly adapting.
posted by HumuloneRanger at 9:14 AM on July 13, 2009


I thought environmental determinism was thrown out decades ago, in favour of more sophisticated socio/cultural/economic theories.

Environmental influence is not the same as environmental determinism, and even environmental determinism (involving factors such as available food sources, geological activity, soil composition, etc.) is not the same as the sort of strictly climatological determinism purely based on temperature you're describing here. The idea that the development of different regions of the world can be largely extrapolated from a range of environmental influences has become particularly popular in the wake of the works of Jared Diamond, I think.
posted by AdamCSnider at 9:23 AM on July 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


AdamCSnider, the systematic study and theorization of interactions between ecology and culture predates Diamond by several decades. It began in American anthropology in the 1940s, and probably around the same time (within a decade or so) in cultural geography. Marvin Harris was a popularizer of one branch of this study, in books such as Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: the Riddles of Culture, which also predates Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel by more than 2 decades.

I don't think ecological/cultural interactions are popular because of Diamond. I think Diamond is popular because the importance of environment in social practices is very intuitively satisfying. But if you want to really know anything about how societies work, how they change, and why they are the way they are, you have to be particular (even in your comparisons), and your have to look at environment as one of many factors. That is why most social theorizing has moved beyond Harris (and why anthropologists get frustrated with Diamond's popularizations).
posted by carmen at 9:56 AM on July 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


Discover magazine is the equivalent of TMZ.
posted by hal_c_on at 10:11 AM on July 13, 2009


Or we would just cut out the middle man, and realize that all those powers and abilities of which we have ascribed towards deities are in fact created by man. So really, humans created gods, not the other way around.

Yes. There is nothing but the human mind in the whole wide universe. Absolutely nothing in the vast mindless depths of infinite space, lurking, brooding, waiting, squamous and hungry. Nothing at all.
posted by FatherDagon at 10:46 AM on July 13, 2009 [3 favorites]


Only now do I realize that Robert Sapolsky wrote this, making me all the more disappointed, because for the most part he's a smart guy. This strikes me as a case where someone who's impressive in his own field (the biology of stress and the behavior of primates) leverages his expertise and reputation to make ungrounded assertions in another field (anthropology and history of religion).

He's also a vocal atheist. Not in a militant, Dawkins-esque sort of way, but nevertheless he does have his own religious axes to grind... much like most of us have our own personal religious/ideological axes to grind, but I think he's letting those spill over into his essays which themselves are trading on his professional/scientific reputation.
posted by deanc at 11:20 AM on July 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


I think Diamond is popular because the importance of environment in social practices is very intuitively satisfying.

Undoubtably. But (going on my own anecdotal experience) for many laymen Diamond seems to have been their first real encounter with this intuitively attractive concept. Of course, I grew up in the 90s, so perhaps I am simply unfamiliar with similarly mainstream works based off of Harris et al.
posted by AdamCSnider at 11:44 AM on July 13, 2009


I don't think ecological/cultural interactions are popular because of Diamond. I think Diamond is popular because the importance of environment in social practices is very intuitively satisfying.

Or, because Diamond has the knack for presenting these concepts in a way which many people find a) easily graspable for the layman and b) entertaining.

I actually was one of the few people I know who disliked Guns, Germs, and Steel, however, because I felt that he actually dismissed some data simply for conveniences' sake. Even among the people I've talked to who DID like it, they also agree that he made some generalizations which were quite whumping, and didn't quite hold up to strictest scientific scruitiny. Still, they liked his book nevertheless, because of how it was written, and I think that goes a long way to explaining his popularity.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:14 PM on July 13, 2009


Um. I have to admit, sometimes I am very thankful i wasn't born a woman. Not from any superiority bullshit, rather because I know in my heart I wouldn't be able to put up with the huge amount of crap that any woman has to deal with on a day-to-day basis.
posted by HalfJack at 12:23 PM on July 13, 2009


HalfJack I know in my heart I wouldn't be able to put up with the huge amount of crap

But how do you know your "putting up with crap" level hasn't been calibrated where it is by your masculine biochemistry, and cultural expectations of you as a male?
posted by aeschenkarnos at 3:55 PM on July 13, 2009


Wow, I added a lot of comments to Favorites in this thread.
posted by Amanojaku at 4:06 PM on July 13, 2009


This explains why those Vikings were so peaceful, with no raping and pillaging action at all; it's because they were polytheistic!

And, once they converted to monotheism, became the murderous, bloodthirsty Norwegians and Swedes of the present day.
posted by kersplunk at 5:45 PM on July 13, 2009


the systematic study and theorization of interactions between ecology and culture predates Diamond by several decades. It began in American anthropology in the 1940s, and probably around the same time (within a decade or so) in cultural geography. Marvin Harris was a popularizer of one branch of this study, in books such as Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: the Riddles of Culture

Yes, it's one of the most fun historical ironies of anthropology that Americans were putting forward cultural materialist theories at the height of McCarthyism that were - in effect - paraphrases of the most central tenet of Marxism: that the cultural superstructure is built upon, and directly caused by, the economic base.
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:59 PM on July 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm not saying this is a good article, barnacle, but isn't that just a tad disingenuous? You're expecting articles in academic journals to cite Discover? Google Scholar lists 128 citations for Textor's A Cross-Cultural Summary, the book this article is ham-handedly adapting.

HumuloneRanger, I'm just pointing out that if there was any traction at all in this 4-year old article that I would have expected others to have picked up on it and written some articles. The fact that no one has leads me to believe that it's more of a case like that of carmen's response, where it's not even really deserving of response.
posted by barnacles at 6:20 PM on July 13, 2009


Don't the Pacific Northwest Indians contradict this? (posted by unmask)

Sorry I'm later returning to this interesting thread which, as someone said above, transcends the article it's discussing. I was on my way back from a month of fieldwork with a desert Inuit "society" (the Arctic is technically a desert, and shares certain key subsistence and resource similarities to the more conventional "desert" conditions of the American Southwest, Central Australia, Western Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa.)

As to the Pacific Northwest as a "vision-privileging" rainforest society, it's an interesting challenge to what I wrote. I was careful to say the correlations I discern (desert/visuality, rainforest/aurality) are tendencies, not categorical distinctions. Obviously rainforest cultures produce beautiful visual art that is often ritually central. The visual art of the coastal tribes of the Pacific Northwest is justifiably celebrated. And so are Aboriginal Australian and Navajo music and oral literature, products of cultures long associated with vast deserts. Iñupiat and Yup'ik people are most famous for visual art (carving, needlework, etc.), but I myself study their amazing musical culture (which is utterly dependent on and expressive of their very visual subsistence culture) and they have a rich tradition of oral narrative. But having just come back from a month of hanging with seal hunters on the ocean and caribou hunters on the tundra, in both settings the crucial and most highly developed sense is vision. My Eskimo friends can see things on the ocean, the ice, or the tundra with their naked eyes that I can't see through binoculars or a gun scope. Their oral literature and music are richly visual (the music really includes a beautiful style of dancing as a necessary component). Hearing is a much less useful skill for a sea ice hunter or a tundra hunter; either the distances are too vast or the wind too loud to make the ears a useful tool for locating prey or surviving the hunt. Not useless, to be sure. Just not the crucial sense.

Pacific Northwest music and hunting traditions are broadly similar, as are the values of reciprocity and social organization, to coastal Inuit traditions. Inland Inuit subsistence culture and aesthetic traditions are different again from the coastal ones, as are the inland Athabascan practices and traditions vs. coastal Pacific Northwest. One might indeed want to add a finer grained continuum of environmental categories -- with coastal and mountainous zones offering obviously specific conditions for subsistence co-varying with climate and, of course, with specific histories of cultural development, inter-cultural contact, and colonial encounters.

Heck, to speak of "societies" as a comparable abstract unit is problematic. There is a broadly "Inuit" social organizational model, and set of cultural values, to be sure, that circles the entire polar region. But that environment favored small bands with distinctive (and varied) territories and cultures for thousands of years, despite a shared language family and genetic history, and the pan-ethnic Inuit (or even "tribal" -- as in "Iñupiat") identities that prevail now are largely modern and post-contact imagined communities (whatever their cultural, biological and linguistic bases, which are substantial).

Tools like the HRAF, which is indeed a dated artifact of a era when anthropological theory overreached for generalizations too easily for lack of specific knowledge, have their uses if they can be understood as providing data about what anthropologists have noticed or found interesting rather than absolute features of "societies" or "cultures" or "ethnicities," which are not natural categories, but constructions produced largely by the colonial encounters of the modern era. (We're in Raymond Williams' territory here -- "Culture" and "Society" are both modern concepts as labels for unitary categories of human history or experience.) Without doubt, anthropologists have tended to find what they have looked for, and look for what theory tells them should be important. Boas was obsessed from the beginning with visuality, visual art, and visual cognition, although also deeply interested in sound, both language and music; he was a fine musician and made significant innovations in the study of the sound structure of human language (not many people acknowledge that he is really a co-inventor of the concept of the phoneme, for example).

In general, music and verbal art were treated as afterthoughts in anthropology (for the most part, with exceptions such as Boas' student George Herzog, and later David McAllester) until the late 1960s, when ethnomusicology and the systematic study of verbal art in sociolinguistics and folkloristics (as well as linguistic anthropology, my home field) began to correct that balance. (Here, the crucial works are Blacking's *How Musical is Man?* [1973] and Merriam's *The Anthropology of Music* [1964] and Dennis Tedlock's work, collected in *The Spoken Word and the Work of Intepretation,* along with parallel work by Dell Hymes, Joel Sherzer, Steven Feld, etc.). We've started to correct a longstanding visualist bias in anthropology (emergent with the discipline in the late 19th century) more generally over the last 40 years, and still have miles to go before there's parity. But this shift has begun to show us subtle but significant relationships between aurality (and visuality) and environment as well as other historical and ecological contexts and conditions.

To the extent that Pacific Northwest tribes rely on marine resources, especially, one would in fact expect the emphasis on visual aesthetics that the literature appears to show, despite the rainforests that hug that coastline. But the literature also underplays music and sonic aesthetics more generally, so it's hard to argue this one way or the other. Obviously, neither emphasis precludes the cognitive or expressive development of acuity and focus in other dimensions of the sensorium. Alan Lomax (relying, in fact, on the HRAF and an even cruder parsing of musical "basic features," and an utterly reified notion of "culture") famously argued for a high degree of correlation between "sound structure *and* social structure" with his Cantometrics project in the 1950s-70s. Feld wrote a well known article criticizing Lomax's work ("Sound Structure *as* Social Structure," 1984).

All of this is not even to mention the other senses, more recently the subject of a broader exploration in anthropology in the the work of people like Paul Stoller, David Howes, and Constance Classen (see Feld and Keith Basso's edited volume *Senses of Place* for a series of essays on the sensory dimensions of place and emplacement, or see Paul Stoller's classic monograph *The Taste of Ethnographic Things.*)

All I am saying for sure is that there are clear and complex causal -- not deterministic, but not random -- relationships between environment, resource base, mode of subsistence, social organization, and the development of particular aesthetic and expressive emphases, but that such relationships are always the products of actual histories of culture contact, human inventiveness, and individual genius. The Jared Diamond "this or that ecological factor explains everything" phenomenon strikes me as giving the masses the reductionist and deterministic accounts they demand because such accounts absolve "us" (and indeed "them") of historical agency by positing biology or ecology as "ultimate causes" of cultural phenomena -- which of course they are -- to the exclusion of the much more subtle interplay of ecological, historical, individual, and sheerly contingent causes and determinations that most anthropologists now take as the baseline model for cultural development and evolution.

Stephen Pinker and Helen Fisher and Malcolm Gladwell and many others play the same game. If you want to sell books, it helps to posit a simple over-arching "theory of everything" that is easily grasped by the casual picked-it-up-at-the-airport-bookstore reader conditioned to think of human difference in what amounts to racially reductionist terms. It's easy enough to shoot down their kind of bullshit, but that shouldn't blind us to the existence of significant comparative data or the significant large-scale causes of human similarity and difference such data (which has reached a far finer-grained state than the HRAF era could have imagined) suggest.
posted by fourcheesemac at 8:02 AM on July 14, 2009 [2 favorites]


Pacific Northwest music and hunting traditions are broadly similar, as are the values of reciprocity and social organization, to coastal Inuit traditions. Inland Inuit subsistence culture and aesthetic traditions are different again from the coastal ones, as are the inland Athabascan practices and traditions vs. coastal Pacific Northwest. One might indeed want to add a finer grained continuum of environmental categories -- with coastal and mountainous zones offering obviously specific conditions for subsistence co-varying with climate and, of course, with specific histories of cultural development, inter-cultural contact, and colonial encounters.

To which I should have added that, obviously, many of the similarities I refer to are the result of extensive intercultural trade, contact, and conflict between these broad and rather abstract "societies."
posted by fourcheesemac at 8:48 AM on July 14, 2009


Oh, and forgive the multiple posts, but I have an interesting story that indicates the persistence and complexity of these issues:

I recently showed a historical documentary about coastal Iñupiat hunting culture (from the 1940s) to a group of young Iñupiats (mostly twenties, some teens). They were riveted by the visual details, and highly observant readers of the film's visual rhetoric, and also good at listening analytically and critically to the film's soundtrack (I was showing it mostly because it has an interesting segment showing Iñupiat music and dance from that era.)

At one point the film showed a hunter shooting a ringed seal ("natchiq") from the beach. After the hunter fires his gun, the film splices in what a brief bit of archival or simulated audio of the seal's distress call after being shot even as the image shows an actual natchiq seal actually hit by a bullet fired from the beach by this hunter. The entire group of students laughed immediately; when I asked why, one said "that's not the sound a natchiq makes when it's shot; that's a sea lion sound!" Seconds later they hissed in admiration, but then instantly cracked up again: the reason was that the next shot showed the hunter casting a rope-hook 30 feet into the water, and, in another subtle splice, the hook hitting the seal's carcass and the carcass being dragged back to shore. The students were impressed immediately by the *apparent* way the hunter hit the seal with the hook on the try, when that's a very rare thing indeed. But instantly they analyzed the scene further and determined the "one shot hit" was simulated, because the water through which the seal was dragged was slightly calmer -- the waves were smaller -- than the water in which the seal had been shown being shot seconds earlier (the film was in black and white, so there were no color cues to the splicing effect).

These, as it happens, were mostly inland Iñupiat young people, who primarily hunt caribou on tundra, not marine mammals. Even so, both their eyes and their ears were finely calibrated to the look and sound of coastal hunting (which most of the young men have done, of course, and all of the young people had seen plenty of times live and in person) such that the special effects which I have rarely seen non-Iñupiat viewers of the same sequence notice as implausible were immediately, laughably wrong to them.

Humans are amazing, aren't they we? Culture is a significant conditioner of the quality of our sensory and sensual apprehension of the external world.
posted by fourcheesemac at 9:10 AM on July 14, 2009 [3 favorites]


fourcheesemac, this is totally off topic, but you just reminded me of one of my favourite ethnographies. Have you read Culture and the Senses by Kathryn Linn Geurts? It focuses on the Ewe of Ghana, but you might find it interesting. She discusses, among other things, the way in which cultural influences in childhood create a sort of order of senses, and privilege some senses over others. One of the most interesting things is her suggestion that the kinaesthetic sense, which doesn't even make into the North American top 5, is one of the primary senses for the Ewe.
posted by carmen at 11:53 AM on July 14, 2009


Thanks for the rec., carmen. I am aware of her work but haven't read it.
posted by fourcheesemac at 3:03 PM on July 14, 2009


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