So here I am, knee-deep in a recently published reader on food and sociology and I’m just reading along, minding my own business until I come to a chapter midway through the book. Well, slightly prior to midway. It’s written by what I can assume is a well-respected and well-researched author. However, I’m about a third of the way through the chapter and I’ve noticed that so far, up to this point, the author has almost entirely failed to elaborate on the thesis of the paper — which I have so far unsuccessfully ascertained — and to convey their own original thoughts. How can I be so sure of this?

In one and a half paragraphs, there are seventeen different citations. In a rough total of twenty sentences, excluding a lengthy quoted piece, there are seventeen citation. I’ve also read the phrase “in this paper”, “this paper”, “the paper”, or “the emphasis of this paper” about a dozen times as well. And I still have another 15 or so pages to slog through.

This means I have, so far, read more of other authors’ thoughts on the subject of this particular paper than the original author’s own. I fully expect something like this from an undergrad like myself or a grad student, just looking to stuff citations to meet a requirement but a paper by someone at the top of their field? That’s not writing, that’s cobbling together a lot of research notes and formatting them nicely. I’ve read biology articles in journals with fewer total citations in the whole thing than I have in just these twenty or so sentences…this year. I have heard that this kind of stuffing has become more popular in recent years, wherein authors basically round-robin references to each other to increase visibility in journals and scholarly search engines which can equal higher standing in one’s department and/or research niche.

But this? This isn’t even academic writing.

PS – I realize it’s been what, six months since the last post? Yeah. I’m not good at writing about life, I’m better at experiencing it.

Having spent most of my summer reading books rather than blog posts, I’ve been slacking on the news-at-large in the anthropology world and it seems that really, I haven’t missed much. I came across this post from Living Anthropologically about a recent sit-down at The Edge to basically deify Napoleon Chagnon and champion his greatness. This isn’t my hyperbole, the nearly three hours of video and transcript basically do just that. Also, The Edge has this air of a old boy’s drinking club where people go to pat each other on the back, I need to be in this club, sounds great. Anyway.

Jason from L.A. makes great points about the discussion, Chagnon, and his place in the pantheon of anthropology but the best parts are the links he’s gathered to different discussions of the roundtable at The Edge. But the ones I liked the best were the comments at BoingBoing apparently written by mostly sane people who can look past their noses to see through the sycophantic chitchat at The Edge and Cris Campbell’s take on the whole thing. Like Campbell, I too got to spend basically an entire semester knee-deep in Chagnon’s monograph and then a scant amount of time thinking about the ensuing controversies surrounding it and his work over the last 30 years. Cris, I have bad news for you: even though your studies of Chagnon and mine are separated by many years, anthropology students are still forced to read this book and stake out our claims on the controversies.

Here I am on the side of Daniel Everett in which he says that “Chagnon is controversial, but he ought not to be” (from The Edge) because the truth is, he shouldn’t be at all. His monograph was excellently written from an ethnographical and technical perspective, hands-down the most detailed and in-depth one I’ve read on a single society, contained in a single volume. While I found a lot of the writing to be repetitive and at times, flat out boring, he went to extraordinary lengths to describe bottom-to-top the Yanomami culture. Out of the few dozen ethnographies I’ve read, not a single one comes to matching the depth of information of Chagnon’s and that should be the biggest take away from the book. The rest of the controversy of the 30+ years? I could care less. Part of that is the fact that I, as a student, am so far divorced from the issues that they do not directly affect me or my studies (or, apparently, my professor’s ideas on the subject and she’s an older anthropologist much closer to this than myself) but also because they’re just distractions from the content of the work and the point of an ethnography. The monograph was an excellent exposition into a far-flung secluded world of an amazingly resilient people whose society isn’t really that different from modern Western society despite being typically characterized as “primitive” or “stone-aged”. Really? Their intra-tribal wars are mostly about the same things ours are: economic resources. All of the fights Chagnon describes are typically over a natural resource encroachment or theft (or attempted theft) of another economic resource: women. Sure, their methods and reasoning are very different from ours but at a macro level, the two do not drift far apart.

And this is where Campbell and Antrosio, and many other researchers, end up, they valuate this information academically and on the merit of the work itself, discarding all the chaff. But there are so many people out there who want to deify Chagnon for “bravely” facing these seemingly unsurmountable controversies that seek to make Swiss cheese of his legacy, even though all the available information on the issues clearly show that he is complicit in causing these issues to even have come to the fore in the first place. Dawkins, the atheist’s best friend and one of the most vocal people in all of science, is practically tripping over himself to shower Chagnon in compliments at The Edge, presumably because he feels that the two are kindred spirits in their firebrandism — oh and because of the whole Darwin connection of Chagnon’s work, but mostly the first bit. I have immense respect for Dawkins’ scientific work and for a long time, respect as an atheist but let’s be honest, his public discussions are a one-trick pony of sticking a finger in the eye of opposition as hard as possible while trying to remain erudite. And that’s how he comes off in the discussion at The Edge: the great sycophantic defender of Chagnon for standing up to The Man. He’s drumming up an (almost dead) controversy in the grandest way possible to laud Chagnon and in part, himself. Much of the talk wasn’t about the academic merit of the work but about the problems, finger-pointing, and vitriol over the last few decades.

This is the point where anthropologists just need to stand up and in unison say “Enough is enough, we get it” because we do. There are bigger things to debate these days, so when can we start debating them? Like the need for public anthropology or how polarizing HTS is.

Came across this today, which has me even more geeked up about going to the unveiling of STS-135 Atlantis’ permanent exhibit at Kennedy Space Center at the end of the month. It’s a hands-on demonstration of the thermal tiles used on Atlantis in order to protect it from the extreme heats of space flight.

So three months ago, I wrote a (sort of) takedown of the lack of anthropological data in many popular Paleo/Primal books and information in general. My view on this has not changed and I still will be looking into other data as I said I would, I just don’t have the time to write right now…I’m doing enough of that for school!

But recently in the last month or so, the whole paleosphere has basically blown up due to (thanks to?) the publication of Marlene Zuk’s new book entitled Paleofantasy… in which she basically says everything paleo is bunk, based on made-up garbage science, et cetera. So this sent pretty much everyone into a tizzy on both sides of the debate, something I’d frankly kept out of because I’ve been doing something more important than keeping up with a trend: reading books. Anyway, her book sent many people either into body-twisting shit fits or lots of finger pointing and sneering, depending on what side of the fence you’re on. I’ve read enough now to know that much of her book is written as a smear attempt, based on factually incorrect data that she, a evoltionary biologist, should have known better than to use. Kind of like Derek Freeman’s attempt to takedown Margaret Mead’s Samoan data by using his own heavily biased data, which was summarily ripped apart by the anthropological community. Zuk attempted a hit on the scene and she’ll sell a lot of books, convince a lot of people that eating meat and veggies (and other real foods) are a “fad”, but I don’t think she’ll be writing an update to the book in the future, her credibility will have suffered too much.

However, I did read a pair of great posts by Miki Ben-Dor of Tel Aviv and one by Paul Jaminet, author of the Perfect Health Diet (still the best Paleo diet book I’ve read to date) that go heads and shoulders above nearly everything else everyone has written. Not because they try very hard to maintain a neutral bias, but because they do one thing: stick to facts. Nikoley has a great post full of piss and vinegar, as anyone would expect, but it’s not something I would point someone to if I wanted to say “this will explain in detail why Zuk’s wrong”, whereas Ben-Dor and Jaminet nailed it on the head. One thing I read that I can really agree with is that Zuk’s book “should have been a blog post in 2012, not a book in 2013” (Sisson, natch!). And he’s totally right. She mostly covered stuff that the community figured out about two years ago and summarily left behind.

All of this back-and-forth only proves one thing: paleo’s hit the mainstream and it’s having some real growing pains. Prominent TV talking heads have been talking about it for the last year or two, numerous news outlets have run articles on it (pro and con), and it’s even crept on to The Biggest Loser. This book will be both good and bad for the community as a whole, but it certainly will do little to stop its progress forward.

In my last post, I pondered on how historically accurate the paleo diet movement may be and the last few weeks, I’ve had my nose buried in ethnographies, mostly on the Dobe Ju/’hoansi or the !Kung San of the Kalahari (pejoratively known as Kalahari Bushmen). These indigenous African people are one of our closest links to paleolithic times, as their culture had remained virtually unchanged for the last 20,000 years1, even after contact with white Europeans and Blacks — their term for the Tswana and Herero tribes of Botswana and Namibia. But this all changed in the late 1960s when South Africa attempted a huge land grab of both Botswana and Namibia via the South African military. One tribe, the Nyae Nyae Ju/’hoansi moved to the neighboring village of Tsumkwe (or Tshum!kwi, depending on translation) or !Kangwa, and this had deleterious effects on their health:

In the medical world the !Kung San had been famous for having very low serum cholesterols, low blood pressures that do not rise with age, and a general of heart disease…Restudies in the late 1980s of the same population indicate that cholesterol counts and blood pressures at all ages are higher…Adoption of a diet dominated by refined carbohydrates, heavier smoking, alcohol consumption, and changes in lifestyle are all factors implicated in producing these changes. (Lee 2012: 187)2

In other words, they moved to a village and began eating a fairly standard “modern” diet and became very unhealthy. This is pretty damning information in just how short of a time frame it was. So, in a span 20 years, these people went from the pinnacle of health to the modern norm, the baseline of…crappy. And this is just about blood work and blood pressure, it’s not even talking about the high incidences of tuberculosis and other diseases, most of which were unheard of in the San population before their (forced) integration into modern society.

If they were screwed, basically, in two decades, the rest of the Western world is doomed from birth unless some things really change.