Saturday, 29 May 2010

L. Rendell et al.: Why Copy Others?

Another Journal Club article - this one discussed by Celia Heyes on Wednesday:

Rendell, L., Boyd, R., Cownden, D., Enquist, M., Eriksson, K., Feldman, M. W., et al. (2010). Why copy others? insights from the social learning strategies tournament. Science, 328, 208-213.

"Social learning (learning through observation or interaction with other individuals) is widespread in nature and is central to the remarkable success of humanity, yet it remains unclear why copying is profitable and how to copy most effectively. To address these questions, we organized a computer tournament in which entrants submitted strategies specifying how to use social learning and its asocial alternative (for example, trial-and-error learning) to acquire adaptive behavior in a complex environment. Most current theory predicts the emergence of mixed strategies that rely on some combination of the two types of learning. In the tournament, however, strategies that relied heavily on social learning were found to be remarkably successful, even when asocial information was no more costly than social information. Social learning proved advantageous because individuals frequently demonstrated the highest-payoff behaviour in their repertoire, inadvertently filtering information for copiers. The winning strategy (discountmachine) relied nearly exclusively on social information and weighted information according to the time since acquisition."

The tournament reported in this article (discussing the results of which was one of the focal points of the EHBEA meeting I attended in St Andrews last year) was modelled on Axelrod and Hamilton's famous
Iterated Prisoner's Dilemma tournament, which resulted in the identification of "tit for tat" as an evolutionarily stable strategy and the invigoration of theoretical and empirical work on the evolution of cooperation. But the present tournament's results are not so clear-cut. Reading through the article I got a vague sense that the design of the tournament game was overly complex (designed by committee, perhaps?). This was clarified in discussion at Journal Club.

There are only three moves available to agents in each round of the game: INNOVATE (picks a strategy at random - supposed to model individual learning), OBSERVE (picks a strategy that a neighbour has used - to model social learning) and EXPLOIT (uses a strategy and obtains a payoff). This seems simple enough - although I did wonder whether, since pitting individual against social learning is the main test under consideration, it might have been clearer to put EXPLOIT in a separate phase of each round (i.e. in each round, an agent either OBSERVEs, INNOVATEs, or perhaps does nothing, then always EXPLOITs); the actual design muddies the waters by also testing whether it is more efficient to spend time exploiting known strategies or observing/innovating new ones.

But Celia pointed out something that I had completely missed in the article and the conference discussion, and which was indeed buried deep in the Supplementary Material: the EXPLOIT move also updates the current payoff value of whichever strategy is chosen, so there is a form of individual learning built into this move as well as the INNOVATE move. Furthermore, the OBSERVE move does not always copy a strategy faithfully from a neighbour, but has a non-zero probability of returning some other strategy instead - so there seems to be an element of individual learning built into this move as well. Given that both these other moves contain a degree of individual learning, and that the INNOVATE move returns a strategy completely at random, it is not clear why any agent would ever want to use INNOVATE at all. This makes the main finding of the tournament - that the winning agents mostly used the EXPLOIT move, mixed with a bit of OBSERVE and hardly any INNOVATE - rather unsurprising.

Perhaps one way to make the INNOVATE strategy more attractive would have been to have added some directionality to it, rather than making it simply return a random number. In the real world, people do not innovate randomly from a blank slate, but try to improve on an existing strategy in their repertoire (which of course will often have a social origin). Of course, there is no guarantee that their efforts will results in an improvement, but the probability of improvement is something that could have been varied as a parameter - just as a way to give some advantage to using INNOVATE.

Anyway that's enough criticism from me! Kudos to the designers for putting together such a groundbreaking tournament. It's just a fact of life that many studies are more interesting for the mistakes they make (and hence, the learning opportunities they create) than for their actual findings. What I really want to do now is get into some modelling, and work out how the entrants' agents would have done if the rules of the game had been more like what I outline above (with EXPLOIT in a separate round and INNOVATE biased to pick a better strategy). I wonder if I could find out all the entrants' algorithms - maybe from Luke Rendell - must get in contact with him about that.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Cristine Legare: The Development of Causal Explanation

Cristine Legare, who is visiting the Centre for Anthropology and Mind for the next six months, gave a talk last Monday on her research. She seems to have done an incredible amount of work already, encompassing experiments on children's causal reasoning and cross-cultural research, in Africa and the US, on explanations for AIDS. Her basic question of interest -  a very big question - is how we construct knowledge through explanation, exploration and hypothesis-testing. In particular, she is interested in how different explanatory frameworks - the scientific and the supernatural - may coexist. Her starting point in the talk was that questions are powerful problem-solving tools, and that the process of seeking, generating and evaluating explanations imposes constraints on learning that are often beneficial. Hence, students (in the broad sense; all children are students of the culture they grow up in) who explain things - even to themselves - learn material more effectively and generalise more readily to novel contexts. 

The first part of her talk dealt with her causal reasoning experiments, some of which were set out in a recent article:

Legare, C. H., Gelman, S. A., & Wellman, H. M. (2010). Inconsistency with prior knowledge triggers children's causal explanatory reasoning. Child Development, 81, 929-944.

I'm going to be lazy and post the abstract rather than summarize what she said - she puts it much better than I would have done anyway!:

"What events trigger causal explanatory reasoning in young children? Children's explanations could be triggered by either consistent events (suggesting that explanations serve a confirmatory function) or inconsistent events (suggesting that they promote discovery of new information). In 2 studies with preschool children (N = 80), events that were consistent with children's prior knowledge, and children were invited to explain either outcome (or both). Results demonstrate that inconsistent outcomes are an especially powerful trigger for children's explanations and that the explanations children provide for inconsistent outcomes refer to internal causal properties, overriding perceptual appearances. In sum, the data provide empirical evidence that inconsistent events motivate children to construct explanations, thereby suggesting that children's explanations function in the service of discovery."

One especially interesting point was that in about 50% of cases, children chose a causal-functional explanation for why one of the gadgets wasn't behaving as expected, while in 35% of cases they chose a "category switch" explanation, arguing that the gadget was "really" an example of a different category of things. Notably, these category switch explanations increased in frequency with age. Legare sees in them the possible origins of confirmation bias, whereby people discount evidence that something strange is going on and effectively see what they want to see.

Although this is important work, for me an even more interesting part of Legare's talk was the bit when she talked about explanations for AIDS in South Africa. Her main point was that science and religion need not be competitive ways of explaining the world: they may give rise to "synthetic" or blended models. Even five-year-olds in South Africa were more likely to give "bad blood" than contagion as an explanation for the spread of AIDS, so there is awareness of the science there. But in both SA and the US, there is a tendency also to look for supernatural explanations of AIDS - it's just that in America these explanations are couched in terms of God's punishment, whereas in Africa they are couched in terms of witchcraft. And whereas in America the punishment tended to be seen as a consequence of homosexuality or some other kind of "fornication", in South Africa witchcraft attacks were presumed to stem from envy, or from failing to show enough generosity to one's neighbours.

There were several interesting questions at the end of the talk. Legare had argued that the association of witchcraft with AIDS occurred because the latter had several features (notably, being associated with death) that made it especially salient to people. Harvey Whitehouse asked whether the unpredictability of AIDS might not also be a factor. Legare agreed and said that the prevalence of supernatural beliefs might ultimately stem from the fact that causal explanations are not much use in the social domain [because of second-order intentionality - or "free will", as some people might want to call it - though she didn't go into detail on this point]. People might be predisposed to see witchcraft because of a kind of "hyperactive hostility detection device" - if you think someone might want to do you harm, you can't be too preoccupied with the causal chain by which they might harm you. Interestingly though, in the causal reasoning experiments, social cues didn't make much difference to whether expectation violations were regarded as salient (but this was perhaps because the violations were so obvious in this case; she is planning new experiments in this area). Finally, Ryan McKay suggested that causal reasoning might be associated with the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, as neuropsychiatrists, using similar experimental paradigms to Legare's, have found that people with delusions don't tend to distinguish very well between confirmatory and disconfirmatory trials.

My reactions:
I'm having lunch with Cristine tomorrow so I don't want to say too much about my initial reactions here: I'll maybe ask her some questions then and see how she answers them! I did ask her a question at the end of the talk about how initial curiosity becomes confirmation bias: when do we stop looking for causal answers and decide that our existing theory is good enough? She acknowledged that this is a major mystery of cognitive development, and suggested that there might be certain conditions under which further exploration is encouraged in a child (perhaps social conditions, I thought, though she was more equivocal about that).
Finally although she was careful to talk about the compatibility of "supernatural" explanations with scientific ones, I did still think she was a little guilty of making the easy division between the two that so many people do. The problem is that this is not necessarily a distinction that exists in the mind of the people that hold them: the explanations that we label "scientific" are simply the ones that happen to accord with our worldview; and whether there is actually any psychological difference between scientific and supernatural explanations is a moot point, it seems to me - both categories seem too big and diverse to compare in toto like that.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Daniel Nettle: "Dying Young and Living Fast: Variation in Life History across English Neighbourhoods

Not a talk this time, but a recent article by Daniel Nettle in Behavioral Ecology, discussed by Robin Dunbar in the weekly Journal Club at the Institute of Cognitive & Evolutionary Anthropology:

Nettle, D. (2010). Dying young and living fast: Variation in life history across english neighbourhoods. Behavioral Ecology, 21(2), 387-395.

Where the expected reproductive life span is short, theory predicts that individuals should follow a "fast" life-history strategy of early reproduction, reduced investment in each offspring, and high reproductive rate. I apply this prediction to different neighborhood environments in contemporary England. There are substantial differences in the expectation of healthy life between the most deprived and most affluent neighborhoods. Using data from the Millennium Cohort Study (n= 8660 families), I show that in deprived neighborhoods compared with affluent ones, age at first birth is younger, birthweights are lower, and breastfeeding duration is shorter. There is also indirect evidence that reproductive rates are higher. Coresidence of a father figure is less common, and contact with maternal grandmothers is less frequent, though grandmaternal contact shows a curvilinear relationship with neighborhood quality. Children from deprived neighborhoods perform less well on a verbal cognitive assessment at age 5 years, and this deficit is partly mediated by parental age and investment variables. I suggest that fast life history is a comprehensible response, produced through phenotypic plasticity, to the ecological context of poverty, but one that entails specific costs to children.

My reactions:
I am greatly in sympathy with Nettle's aim of showing that much of working-class behaviour is not pathological, but an adaptive response. There is compelling evidence for this from other sources - for example, the age of menarche is lower for girls from deprived backgrounds, which is suggestive of a need to procreate earlier to make up for a shorter healthy adult lifespan. Similarly, the greater propensity of young working-class men to engage in risky behaviour (drinking, fighting, drug-taking, gambling, etc) can perhaps be explained, at an ultimate level, by their shortened future horizons and lack of access to mates, compared to their middle-class peers. But I'm not sure that Nettle's dependent variables can be similarly explained, at least directly (some of them may be an indirect consequence of risk-taking behaviour, a possibility which he doesn't mention in the article).

His dependent variables are set out most clearly in Figure 2 of the article. I'll go through them one by one.

  1. Maternal age: This seems the clearest candidate for an adaptive response (as already alluded to in the discussion of menarche above). But what is the proximate mechanism here? It is likely to be a complex mixture of age of menarche, greater risk-taking behaviour, cultural imitation (if all one's friends and relatives have children early, one is likely to do the same), and lack of feasible alternatives (we should avoid the trap - as Nettle doesn't, quite - of assuming that middle-class behaviour is natural, and working-class behaviour needs to be explained as a deviation from this norm; from a wider cultural perspective, it's really middle-class behaviour in developed countries that is weird, and we need to explain why so many women sacrifice the possibility of having children at a young age for the sake of "having a career").
  2. Mean birthweight: There doesn't seem to be much of a relationship with neighbourhood quality here, if one excludes the lowest-quality areas. And the low birthweight in these areas can presumably be explained by poor nutrition and other lifestyle factors (notably smoking and/or drinking during pregnancy). Again, this is caused by cultural variation, and it would seem to be pathological rather than adaptive: I'm not sure why Nettle included it as a measure of life-history strategy at all.
  3. Breastfeeding duration: There is a nice strong relationship here, which I would guess results from a cultural difference in the normativity of breastfeeding. Again, I would question the relevance of breastfeeding duration to life-history strategy. Presumably the argument would be that the instinct is not to breastfeed for long, as this inhibits conception, and poor people need to churn babies out quickly. This might work if the mean for the poorest neighbourhoods were 6 months, and the mean for the richest neighbourhoods 18 months; but in fact the mean for the former is 1.5 months, and the mean for the latter is 4 months. Therefore this would not make much difference to overall life history (and anyway how many mothers, even in the most deprived areas, conceive 2 months after a birth?!). It might have been more interesting to look at age of weaning, or perhaps even age of first tooth!
  4. Maternal activities: As Nettle points out, there is no relationship with neighbourhood quality. In fact, this is perhaps the most interesting result in the article, and one that he could have made more of. The range of the neighbourhood means is only about the same as the 95% confidence interval for the mean of each group, indicating that individual differences are far more important than inter-group differences, at least for this sample of white Englishwomen. (I wonder whether the inter-group variation would be similarly small if one looked at different ethnic groups?) This really speaks against the demonisation of working-class mums, and particularly single mums, that tends to take place in the middle-class media.
  5. Paternal involvement: This effect is driven by the large proportion of single mums in poor-quality neighbourhoods: as Nettle points out, if the 0s are removed, the relationship is not significant. So again there is an interesting point to make here about working-class fathers spending more time with their kids than middle-class people might think. Instead of highlighting this, though, Nettle tells a convoluted story about how fathers in high-quality areas are older and therefore more likely to settle down with their children's mother (which doesn't really fit with the longer future horizons that these men are supposed to have). I would think that an equally important factor might be the degree of engagement in risky behaviour leading to casual, unprotected sex. Furthermore, having lived in a very low-quality area myself I would point out that any data on single-parent percentages from such areas are not to be trusted: women there are often "officially" single mums for benefit reasons, while in fact having a partner (or ex-partner) who spends a lot of time with their kids.
  6. Maternal grandmother contact: This relationship is curvilinear: grannies in both low-quality and high-quality areas do not spend that much time with their grandkids (presumably in the latter case, as Nettle points out, due to geographical separation). The difference between low-quality and medium-quality areas seems to work against his theory about women having kids earlier because of their inability otherwise to spend much time with their grandkids: if this really worked, one would expect it to smooth out the curve in Figure 2(f).
So in all, a very interesting study with a laudable aim, and a great use of the Millennium Cohort data, but I'm just not convinced by the central thesis. Nettle needs to explain how proximate mechanisms (such as cultural imitation) come together to result in adaptive responses, and what the evidence for this is. As Celia Heyes pointed out at Journal Club, he also needs to show that people in poor areas who have kids early do better than those who have them later. Otherwise, most of these variables just look like the effects of class differences: how can we assess whether they are adaptive or not. I think he might be better sticking with more physiological variables (such as age of menarche) as it is hard to draw the link from adaptive value to complex psychology, in such detailed contexts.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Gillian Evans: "The aboriginal people of England: the culture of class politics in contemporary Britain"

Yesterday Gillian Evans gave a departmental seminar at the School of Anthropology. Her work is on white working-class Londoners. I thought the second part of her talk, in which she talked more directly about her ethnographic fieldwork, was more interesting than the first half, which was a long preamble about the consequences of legal interpretations of the term "ethnic" in the 1976 Race Relations Act, and in particular the BNP's growing use of tropes of indigineity and ethnicity. She pointed out that although the party was trying to  moving away from a perception that it was obsessed with race, the idea of "whiteness" was still there in the background, as people like Nick Griffin still let slip in unguarded moments (such as during a heated discussion in his recent appearance on the BBC's Question Time). She agrees with Adam Kuper that far-right politics in Europe is the unfortunate and unintended corollary of the increasing emphasis on indigeneity in former colonies; hence the 2008 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples stresses (rather unscientifically, to my mind!) that a group of people must be "politically underprivileged" in order to be treated as "indigenous".

This extended preamble over the BNP's claim to represent the "indigenous" white people of Britain did not mesh terribly well with the second part, although she did draw out some interesting connections in the Q&A session at the end (when she seemed to become more lively and engaging than in the main body of the talk). In her ethnography of Bermondsey she has aimed to show how there is been a discursive shift (both locally and nationally) away from the discussion of the politics of class, and towards what she called "an absurd politics of culture". Bermondsey, in South-East London, is a white working-class enclave which was once so inward-looking that one of her older female informants recalled how her father accused her of bringing a "foreigner" home when, in her youth, she introduced him to her boyfriend - who was also white and working-class, but hailed from Peckham (just a couple of miles away)! Local pride began to be undermined when it was fused with the "rival" neighbouring boroughs of Southwark and Camberwell: some people were apparently forced out of certain types of public housing, which led to bad feeling between different strata of the white working classes.

The sense of isolation, a siege mentality almost, of the inhabitants of Bermondsey was further increased by mass immigration during the 1960s and 70s: while Bermondsey remained largely white, the neighbouring area  of Peckham became known as a "black people's manor". Once known as "London's larder" because of its proximity to the docks and consequent involvement in the importation and processing of food from the colonies, the transnational relationship between white labourers at one end of the supply chain in Bermondsey and colonial people at the other end had always been in the background (witness "Jamaica Road", the main thoroughfare of the area), but now came to the fore as large numbers of former colonials moved to London in search of new economic opportunities. These immigrants began to form a "fourth class" beneath the old white working class.

There was a midly tragic element to the attempts of the newcomers to integrate with their new neighbours. Bermondsey women used to take great pride in their council flats, taking it in turns to clean the communal areas according to a strict weekly rota - a cycle of reciprocal exchange. One informant recalled how immigrants were systematically excluded from this system. One Jamaican mother, keen to do her share, washed the hallway on a Sunday - which for the other women was a day of rest - and poured the dirty water down the stairs as she had seen the other women do. This backfired as the natives took the opportunity to complain about her ruining their nice clean stairs! One black family was even told, to their faces, that they were not welcome in the local church when they turned up for a service one Sunday. An Irish woman told how she had been made to work in a separate room of a local biscuit factory with the black women after she complained about their segregation.

In the Q&A session, Evans ruminated on how people in Bermondsey and similar areas now feel disconnected from their working-class background, and aren't sure how to define themselves. People used to be defined by the sort of work that dominated in their area: e.g. the inhabitants of the Potteries of Stoke called themselves "the People of the Clay". People don't self-describe as working-class any more. Instead, a lot of their sense of identity derives from a narrow, postcode-based territoriality [although this seems also to have been true of Bermondsey in the past, on her own account]. One big puzzle thrown up by her study, which she herself acknowledged, was why the discourse of class had been replaced with the discourse of ethnicity. This reduces the common ground between different groups, and confuses the policy reaction. For example, black youth workers seemed to have no sense that sections of deprived white youth suffered from similar social problems as black youths; and educational policies aimed at improving the performance of white working-class boys ignore the fact that black working-class boys fail at least as much, and for similar reasons.

My reactions:
  • I wasn't quite clear about how the first part of Evans's talk - and in particular, her lengthy discussion of some of the legal material relating to the Race Relations Act - connected with the second part. Why has it been a shrewd legal move on the part of the BNP to move away from the discourse of race and towards the discourse of ethnicity, when racial discrimination, as well as ethnic discrimination, is obviously outlawed by this Act? It seems more like a sensible PR move based on the fact that most people these days feel intensely uncomfortable with being labelled as "racists". I did also wonder if it fitted in nicely with the new wave of immigrants "flocking in" from Eastern Europe, who are not really racially distinguishable from the English, but are certainly ethnically distinguishable.
  • In connection with that last point, I meant to ask her (but didn't quite get round to it) which the BNP would see as less desirable: a thoroughly acculturated person of Afro-Caribbean descent, or a completely unacculturated Pole. I suspect that for the average grassroots member it would be the latter; but then again there is still the lunatic fringe of white supremacists (from which the party seems to have done a good PR job of dissociating itself, at least in the public imagination) who might take the opposite view.
  • One questioner asked persistently why the discourse on class had been replaced with discourse on ethnicity, and Evans had no terribly convincing answer, beyond arguing that the answer was a historical one linked to the deliberate suppression of class politics over the last couple of decades. I did wonder if a more comprehensive answer might be constructed with reference to globalisation, which on the one hand has made ethnic differences more salient, and on the other has turned the working class of developed countries into a global elite, through an inflow of cheap luxury goods. I suspect there is also an evolutionary answer in there somewhere about how people are primed to use arbitrary cultural markers to differentiate themselves from "other" people, while tolerating indicators of social status (such as wealth) as intra-group variation.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Stephen Gudeman

Today Stephen Gudeman gave a talk at Queen Elizabeth House (the Centre for International Development in Oxford). Gudeman is a distinguished economic anthropologist who is well known for his distinction between community (that area of human life in which the base of economic activity is shared) and market (the area of human life in which exchanges are balanced and monetised). In this talk he was drawing on the same ethnographic work among peasant communities of Latin America (Panama and Colombia) which informed that distinction. He was contrasting the native folk-economic theory of vis vita (vital energy) - a kind of "life-force" that pervades and passes between all living things, and is not created or destroyed, but only gathered together or lost - with capitalist theories of wealth. The most interesting part of his talk was at the end when he asked what we could learn from vis vita if we are to develop a new and more sustainable economic system.

Gudeman identified three ways in which vis vita might be a helpful concept for us to pick up on in our present economic difficulties:
  1. It emphasises thrift instead of profit.
  2. It emphasises connections between people (making it a biosocial theory, as opposed to money which is supposed to be purely material).
  3. It emphasises necessities rather than desires/wants.
He suggested three possible solutions, in terms of currency:
  1. Basing a currency on vital energy.
  2. Having a dual currency system, using both money and vital energy.
  3. Developing a vital Energy Added Tax (EAT), in which money is charged for adding energy to a product.
He favoured the third option. The first option would be no good because, I think he said, it would be a limit currency - governments couldn't create new money as it was needed. The second option would be no good because of the potential for arbitrage between the two currencies. I agree with his reasoning on the second option, but I'm not so sure that the first option isn't viable. Surely the idea of a limit currency ties in quite well with sustainability: in my opinion, money is only "created" out of the destruction of nature. Far better to treat it as though it were a finite supply, and work out how best to share it around. The third option on the other hand seems unworkable to me - just another form of taxation. How would it differ substantively from a carbon tax? It just seems like a slightly more comprehensive version. Adding a new tax isn't going to change the whole way we behave economically.

Anyway it's not a subject that I'm an expert on by any means, but it is an extremely important subject and it was good to hear such original ideas. I really like the way that he was using native concepts to critique our own culture, too: more anthropologists should do that!

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Peter Rudiak-Gould: "The Sea Also Rises: Facing Climate Change in the Marshall Islands"

Peter is a published writer and a PhD student at the Centre for Anthropology and Mind in Oxford, supervised by Harvey Whitehouse. He just gave an excellent talk on his PhD research in the Marshall Islands, which focuses on islanders' perceptions of climate change and the risks associated with it. This group of tiny corall atolls in Micronesia have a maximum elevation of 32ft and a mean elevation of only 7ft, so they are right in the front line of rising sea levels.

Peter has taken  a mixed-methods approach, using interviews, quantitative attitude surveys, and a little bit of participant observation (on scientific expeditions and in educational sessions). His main conclusion is that discourse about climate change fits in well with a more widespread Marshall Islander belief in cultural entropy: a general socio-cultural decline. Although he found that climate change may be as high as #3 on the list of concerns that people have about the future, they tended to be more worried about economic hardship and a decline in lifestyles and social mores.

Not surprisingly, the oldest age group were more likely to report noticing the effects of climate change, as they have had more time to notice it; but cleverly, Peter pointed out that this demonstrates that people are not just parroting media accounts of climate change, but are integrating it with their own local environmental awareness (a process that Lazrus, 2009, calls triangulation). On the other hand, awareness of the scientific concepts involved also drives people's reports of local climate change. He argues that the idea of global warming should be studied alongside local beliefs, as it has now entered their culture.

Another layer of triangulation occurs in the integration of both scientific and local beliefs with Biblical narratives - particularly the Flood myth from Genesis and the prophecy of destruction by fire from Revelation. Peter drew a neat contrast between the islanders' attitudes to scientists, who are seen as giving a clear message on climate change but are not necessarily to be trusted, and their attitudes to God, who is to be trusted implicitly but whose "message" on climate change is unclear.

One of the central problems of Peter's research was to work out why islanders tend to blame themselves for climate change. Wouldn't it be more natural to blame America (as not only the biggest polluter in the World, but also a former colonial power in the Marshall Islands)? He argues that self-blame ties in with a kind of "original sin" narrative, in which islanders blame themselves for being tempted into adopting elements of a corrupt and destructive foreign culture, abandoning the harmonious traditional culture which has recently been popping up in idealised form in street murals. It also reflects the rhetorical strategy of the MI government, who have been emphasising what people can do to combat the short-term effects of climate change themselves, rather than encouraging them to blame other countries and focusing on a perhaps inevitable long-term catastrophe. Finally, there is a resonance with the Marshall Islanders' complex attitudes towards the USA, which they see as a bit like a traditional chief who demands sacrifices but also confers benefits and provides protection.

All in all a fascinating and very clear talk with a wealth of information!

My reactions:
  • Belief in "cultural entropy" seems (anecdotally, at least) to be a human universal. I wonder what causes it, developmentally. Is it simply a transposition to the social sphere of the awareness of one's own failing powers as one gets older - a counterpart of personal nostalgia? Or could it possibly stem from a growing awareness, as one gets older, that there are powerful forces in one's society that do not share one's own values (an awareness that one is perhaps sheltered from in youth)?
  • Peter quipped that climate change seemed to fit so well with the Marshall Islanders' belief in cultural entropy, that if it didn't exist, they would have had to invent it! But I'm not sure this is quite true. Cultural entropy applies to the social domain, yet climate change is a problem with nature. In this context, I thought it was interesting that the local environmental change that seemed to most distress people, and that they found most unprecedented, was graveyard erosion. This seems to me to stand as a perfect metaphor for the values of the ancestors being under attack! An unusually damaging flood, on the other hand, was dismissed by most as part of the natural weather cycle.
  • Perhaps the part of his talk that I had the most problems with was when he discussed the shift in rhetorical strategies, in discussing climate change, from dire warnings of apocalypse in the (relatively) distant future, brought about by outsiders' actions, to an emphasis on what local people can do to improve their behaviour and mitigate the short-term environmental effects. Peter seemed almost to regard this as a positive development, but I'm not so sure. Maybe I'm too cynical but I wonder whether persuading people to blame themselves, and to carry out token actions to absolve themselves of blame, reduces their tendency to campaign for more large-scale, meaningful actions by governments. This whole idea of blaming oneselves, at a local level, for climate change reminds me of Bourdieu's concept of symbolic violence: the acceptance by the poor of the very structures which oppress them, in the sense that they come to see themselves as deserving of the bad condition of their environment. But, it's a complex issue and of course I wouldn't want people to stop recycling or anything like that; I just wish they would combine it with putting real pressure on governments to bring about real change. To be honest, we should probably be rioting in the streets about climate change - it's the only way we'd ever get them to listen.