10/27/2012

I really did try hard to raise my children to be socially skilled, and in that I was pretty successful. It is sort of a miracle that they are so very successful, as I am not -- my father did not like people around the house, so we never had to learn how to listen to or charm visitors. Anyway, my adult children are much more socially skilled than I and part of their skill lies in the fact that they like people and enjoy being with them. Another part of their skill lies in the fact that they are not selfish or self-centered and they work to let others know they are important. In other words, they let other people talk and they are good listeners. Where I might have failed, however, was in failing to teach some non-skeptical acceptance of pronouncements (i.e., mine). If I say something they think is stupid, they let me know one way or another -- even if (especially if) I am only saying it to try to maneuver their behavior in a certain direction. I also might have created some problems when I gave them adult knowledge at young ages. I had inherited this fascination with knowledge from generations of my ancestors and I passed it on. Some of the things I taught them have proved to be helpful -- mathematics (e.g., algebra, prime numbers), languages, cooking, the Greek myths, plants and animals of the Andes, coast and rainforest, and prehistoric cultures of Ecuador and Colombia. However, sometimes knowledge can be problematic. Their knowledge often did not fit comfortably with widely held practices. I had learned vast amounts of odd bits of knowledge, but as I never talked, never having social skills, no one ever found out (and that applies to the present time). One evening I found my young daughter in the front yard of our Ecuadorian home, kneeling in the moonlight. I asked her what she was doing. She, in what made sense, probably, in the prehistoric Ecuador that we had studied, said she was praying to the god of the moon. That practice/belief was not something, however, that probably went over well in show-and-tell at the Deutsche Schule, where Catholicism and Luteranism were widely accepted -- especially in the 1-4 grades. My only major regret, as she thankfully was not thrown out of the school, is that I did not ask, or else I do not remember, what she was talking to the God of the Moon about, what changes she might have wanted to bring about. Another time she wrote a book on reproduction that was pretty darn graphic. She may have had a bit too much book knowledge in what I now think may have been way too soon, and in a place where such knowledge in a young child would have been a bit shocking. Again, she was never thrown out of that school. When they were born I had no Dr. Spock. I remember coming home from the hospital and thinking, with some desperation, what do I do with this baby? I had never truly even babysat for an infant. Certainly I had never given them a bath (did they need them, I wondered), or had to deal with colic or a baby who never slept (and still does not sleep) or who vomited when she was moved from breast milk to bottle milk. The only book I had was on primate mothers and their babies and from that book I was able to draw lessons (no, not on sex education) on demand feeding, on holding babies much of the time and keeping them near you, on closely monitoring their development. While mothering in humans is or can be culturally complex, there might be some simple lessons to seem to work well in caring for infants. They did learn they were loved, unconditionally. They, in turn, love unconditionally. My daughter, in particular, has always been generous and accepting. She sees people, not in terms of their possessions or SES status, but in terms of who they are in their hearts (yes, I know that is a metaphor). She did notice that they had less than she did and generally from the time she was quite small gave away her toys to try to bring into equal number the relative quantity of possessions.

10/20/2012

Election Time: The best of times, the worst of times


It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only. Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities


3/26/2010

Art and symbol

My friend Christy, who lives in the Galapagos and has time to think!!!!, has tweaked me enough, finally awakening me from my stupor so that I try to articulate some coherent thoughts (if they are not coherent, she will jump on any failure in logic like a ton of proverbial bricks). A number of problems, I would argue, have prevented us from understanding visual art, including beads (all of the arts, but I do not have enough energy right now to take on all the arts).

The first problem, as Count Leo Tolstoy claimed -- and he wrote quite insightfully about visual art -- is a failure to define the term. At one time, definition was a first step of the scientific method. No longer. I cannot remember the last time I read anything in the scientific literature -- from biology to social science that provided a theoretical definition. Sad, but true.

A second problem is all the BS -- academic hyperbole -- that obscures the phenomenon and makes understanding difficult if not impossible. One element of the BS/AH is the focus on symbol -- with a failure to define what a symbol is. The argument then becomes when humans first began to symbolize -- at what point (exact day and time) did our minds become capable of symbolizing?

An additional problem is the aesthetic emotion. How can we identify in the prehistory record whether or not the cave person got a thrill looking at the red ochre. I am not even sure we know what the emotion is. Yes, Christy, I am ready for your descriptions of aesthetic thrill. I wonder how it differs from other thrills in life -- how or if? The large human brain has been around a long time -- how do we know when those presumed emotions kicked in?

This brings me to an additional problem, which is testability. We need to stick to hypotheses we can test. It is not possible to know either when the mind began to symbolize or whether or not an item is symbolic. It is a waste of time to talk about such things, at least when we assume we are increasing knowledge and not just listening to the flow of words from our own mouth.

Another problem is that we need to recognize (and would if we defined terms) that symbols are learned -- to the extent they are cultural, symbols involve an association of a spoken explanation (that stands for X) with an object. Culture, remember, is shared--it is not individualistic behavior. We cannot know whether something was symbolic -- had a learned association -- when looking at the prehistoric record.

One thing we can appreciate in both the ethnographic and prehistoric records is replication/copying. In my book I wrote that a minimal difference -- or major one, Christy -- is that so called animal art -- draping vines around one's neck (No, Christy, I did not call this visual art, other art philosophers do) is not noticed and it is not replicated. Surely replication is important and surely it suggests a social element to the object, as we learn from others, generally by watching them as they do something. It also could be argued that replication implies intergenerational ties. To the extent that humans lived in small groups of kin, they learned from kin. The process of learning the techniques of art provided the opportunity for building social relationship and learning (and teaching) the history of one's people. This is why I argue that the process of learning to make art is possibly more important socially -- and we are a social spec ies -- than the art object.

11/14/2009

The last one with the memory

My grandfather, Percy Taylor Coe, was born into a long lineage of Presbyterians, many of them ministers or missionaries. They were serious about their faith.

Evidence of this was the prayer said before each meal, prayers when one went to bed, service to the poor, giving 10% to the church, trying to love people you did not want to like much less love....One of my memories is riding home with them after church. My grandmother wanted ice cream, but was ashamed to stop at the store to buy it, as buying things on Sunday was not done. Meals for Sunday were to be prepared the day before. I don't know of anyone else with this memory of Presbyterians being so careful about keeping the Sabbath holy. When I once told the story, people looked at me like my ancestors had come from another planet, which, come to think of it, they might have done.

However, this memory is not the one I refer to when I talk about being the last person alive with a particular memory, a memory that will end with me, although my children, having heard the story, possibly will remember the story, not the act.

After my grandfather died, many came to his funeral to say their good byes. They all looked like Presbyterians, men in suits and ties and polished shoes, women in modest dresses and with hats and gloves-- church clothes. What was odd, however, was that at the end of the service, the minister said, we have one last request from Mr. Coe and that is to play his favorite song, The Bells of St. Mary's. "It is," the minister said, "odd that a strong Presbyterian would ask for this song to be played at his funeral. He loved the song and asked us to play it." And they did, leaving me to ponder this mystery for the rest of my life.

I am listening to the song now, sung by Vera Lynn. I am trying to figure out why he loved it so. It is a love song. Either it was about his love for my grandmother -- and we never had doubts that they loved each other even though she was an Eleanor Roosevelt type wife. However, my grandmother told me that when he died, he sat up in his hospital bed (he was dying of cancer), held out his arms, and called out the names of two people --a couple -- who had been friends of his in his youth. He had been skating with them on a pond in Baxter Springs, Kansas, before he and his brothers moved west. As they skated the ice broke and the young couple fell through the ice and drowned before they could be rescued. In dying he called out both their names. "The bells of St. Mary's ...I hear they are calling. The young love, the true love, who calls from the sea, and so my beloved when red leaves are falling, the love...." I always wondered if that song reminded him of his lost friends.

5/17/2009

early art/symbolism, schmimbolism

World’s Oldest Manufactured Beads Are Older Than Previously Thought
ScienceDaily (May 7, 2009) — A team of archaeologists has uncovered some of the world’s earliest shell ornaments in a limestone cave in Eastern Morocco. The researchers have found 47 examples of Nassarius marine shells, most of them perforated and including examples covered in red ochre, at the Grotte des Pigeons at Taforalt.
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The fingernail-size shells, already known from 82,000-year-old Aterian deposits in the cave, have now been found in even earlier layers. While the team is still awaiting exact dates for these layers, they believe this discovery makes them arguably the earliest shell ornaments in prehistory.
The shells are currently at the centre of a debate concerning the origins of modern behaviour in early humans. Many archaeologists regard the shell bead ornaments as proof that anatomically modern humans had developed a sophisticated symbolic material culture. Up until now, Blombos cave in South Africa has been leading the ‘bead race’ with 41 Nassarius shell beads that can confidently be dated to 72,000 years ago.

Aside from this latest discovery unearthing an even greater number of beads, the research team says the most striking aspect of the Taforalt discoveries is that identical shell types should appear in two such geographically distant regions. As well as Blombos, there are now at least four other Aterian sites in Morocco with Nassarius shell beads. The newest evidence, in a paper by the authors to be published in the next few weeks in the Journal of Quaternary Science Reviews, shows that the Aterian in Morocco dates back to at least 110,000 years ago.

Research team leader, Professor Nick Barton, from the Institute of Archaeology at the University of Oxford, said: ‘These new finds are exciting because they show that bead manufacturing probably arose independently in different cultures and confirms a long suspected pattern that humans with modern symbolic behaviour were present from a very early stage at both ends of the continent, probably as early as 110,000 years ago.’

Also leading the research team Dr Abdeljalil Bouzouggar, from the Institut National des Sciences de l’Archéologie et du Patrimoine in Morocco, said: ‘The archaeological and chronological contexts of the Taforalt discoveries suggest a much longer tradition of bead-making than previously suspected, making them perhaps the earliest such ornaments in the world.’

Archaeologists widely believe that humans in Europe first started fashioning purely symbolic objects about 40,000 years ago, but in Africa this latest evidence shows that humans were engaged in this activity at least 40,000 years before this.

Excavations in April 2009 also continued in the upper levels of Taforalt to investigate a large well-preserved cemetery dating to around 12,500 years ago. The project, co-ordinated by Dr Louise Humphrey, from the Natural History Museum in London, has found adult as well as infant burials at the site. The infant burials throw an interesting light on early burial traditions as many of the infants seem to be buried singly beneath distinctive blue stones with the undersides smeared with red ochre. By contrast, studies by Dr Elaine Turner of the Römisch Germanisches Zentralmuseum, Mainz, show that the adults’ grave pits were generally marked by the horn cores of wild barbary sheep. Taforalt remains the largest necropolis of the Late Stone Age period in North Africa presently under excavation.

Professor Barton said: ‘Taking our new discovery of the shell beads at Taforalt, together with the discoveries of the decorated burials excavated by Dr Louise Humphrey, it shows that the cave must have retained its special interest for different groups of people over many thousands of years. One of its unique attractions and a focal point of interest seems to have been a freshwater spring that rises next to the cave.’
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Hum, it looks like a duck. Could that be because I was just watching a film of Konrad Lorenz walking with his ducks.