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Posts Tagged ‘anthropology’

It’s an old trick, and a common childhood game – to cut out an adult head from a magazine photograph and paste it onto the body of a baby. Evian use it on their latest bus-stop advertising campaign.

The first visual message, very boring, is that if you drink a litre of Evian water you will be as stunningly beautiful and alarmingly thin as this model. The second message, slightly tongue-in-cheek, together with the Live Young caption in the corner and the baby’s body T-shirt, is that you will retain the youthfulness, innocence, playfulness and perfect skin that you had when you were a little baby.

The subliminal pro-life message, paid for by Evian, is philosophical: whatever you think about the ‘personhood’ of a baby, this baby is you; you are the same human being; it’s one continuous life; looking backwards – once you were a baby and now you have become an adult; looking forwards – this is the baby who will become (if it survives) an adult.

When I look at a photo of myself at 15 years old, or 5 years, or 5 months, or when I look at an ultrasound scan image of myself at 36 weeks, or 24, or 12 – I say ‘this is me’. It’s a hugely different me, but it’s still me. I ‘identify’ (at a personal level) with this image, with this human being, because there is an ‘identity’ (at a biological and philosophical level) between me today and me back then; just as I identify with the me who existed 2 minutes ago. Identity doesn’t undermine difference – of course there are differences. It just allows you to affirm, at a deeper level, a continuity of existence, and gives you a sound reason for saying ‘that’s me’ or ‘we are the same person’.

The poster reminds you of the continuity between the adult ‘you’ and the infant ‘you’. It doesn’t take much to then make the link between the infant ‘you’ and the ‘you’ in the womb. And that reminds you of the importance of remembering that the human being in the womb is another ‘you’ and not just an ‘it’.

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I reviewed Marilynne Robinson’s latest book in the Tablet recently. My very first post, nearly three years ago, referred to a passage about wonder in her extraordinary novel Gilead.

When I Was A Child I Read Books is a collection of essays about subjects as diverse as Calvinist theology, evolutionary psychology, American hymnody, Japanese economics, growing up in small-town Idaho, and the decline of democracy. You may not have a passionate interest in all or any of these topics, but the book is still well worth reading, because her deepest concern is always to understand what it means to be human, what it means to confront the reality around us, and what lies just beyond the boundaries, in ‘the vast terrain of what cannot be said’.

I won’t copy the whole review here, but here is a passage about Robinson’s distinctive interest in religion:

I doubt that there are many self-professed ‘unreconstructed liberals’ who wear their Calvinism on their sleeve. Robinson is never preachy, but it’s clear how her Christian faith informs her view of things. Religion, for her, is not a cosy enclave, but a disruptive force, which expands and shatters the narrow definitions we would otherwise have of ourselves and our world.

The story of God’s extravagant, wondrous love casts a ‘saturating light’ over the whole of human history. Even original sin, which seems such a pessimistic idea, points to ‘the literally cosmic significance of humankind as a central actor in creation who is, in some important sense, free to depart from, even to defy, the will of God’.

Theology, in other words, leads us back to anthropology – to our understanding of the human person. Robinson laments the loss of the word ‘soul’ in contemporary discourse, and has a clear-sighted view of how human dignity needs some external theistic foundation if it is to be defended. Why? Because any notion of human ‘exceptionalism’ needs to anchor our nature, our dignity, ‘in a reality outside the world of circumstance’.

When the Declaration of Independence states ‘that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights’, it makes the human person sacred, once by creation and again by endowment, ‘and thereby sets individual rights outside the reach of rationalization’. Religion, in this context, stops our thinking from becoming too narrow or domineering.

Robinson is a debunker of lazy ideologies. She is incensed by the reductionist assumptions implicit in so much contemporary thought. Evolutionary psychology, for example, focusses its attention on the adaptations it claims allowed human beings to survive on the primordial savannah – but marginalises everything else about us. For Robinson, our humanity consists in the fact that we do more than survive. ‘This kind of thinking places everything remarkable about us in the category “accidental”.’

So yes, I’m recommending it. But even more so, I’d recommend Gilead.

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For anyone interested in questions about marriage and the family, Maryvale Institute in Birmingham is taking new students for the MA course which beings again this January. [This is last year’s poster.]

To save time I’m just copying this helpful summary from the Witness to Love website from earlier this year:

A new course has just begun at the Maryvale Institute in Birmingham, an international Catholic distance-learning College. It is an MA programme in Marriage and Family based on the teaching and vision of John Paul II (especially his Theology of the Body) drawn up in close collaboration with the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Rome. The new MA programme runs via distance learning on somewhat similar lines to Open University courses and promises to be a really exciting and innovative way to bring the wisdom and beauty of John Paul II’s teaching to others.

The Maryvale Institute was also the home of Blessed John Newman in 1846 after his conversion when he lived there with a small community. Maryvale is also a former seminary (1794-1838) and orphanage (1851-1980) run by the Sisters of Mercy. It houses the historic and beautiful Chapel of the Sacred Heart from its seminary period and has also today houses a convent for Bridgettine sisters since 1999.
The new MA pathway “seeks to develop an ‘adequate anthropology’ through the study of God’s plan for marriage and family” (see pathway No. 6 here). It is therefore interdisciplinary and could be of interest to students from a wide variety of backgrounds such as teachers, priests, youth workers, those involved in marriage care, medicine or family law.

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I’m dying to see James Marsh’s new film Project Nim, not only because he directed one of my favourite documentaries of recent years (Man on Wire), but because it’s about the question of whether or not human beings have a unique ability to communicate with language.

Marsh documents the attempt by Herb Terrance, a psychology professor at Columbia University in New York, to discover whether chimpanzees can learn a human language.

Mick Brown explains:

Terrace’s idea was to give rise to one of the most idiosyncratic scientific experiments of the era, to take a newborn chimpanzee and raise it as if it were a human being, while teaching it to communicate using American Sign Language (ASL). For a period in the 1970s Terrace’s chimpanzee, named Nim, became a celebrity, featuring in newspapers and magazines and appearing on television chat shows – the tribune, as a New York magazine cover story had it, of a ‘scientific revolution with religious consequences that occurs once every few hundred years’.

Herb Terrace was not the first person to hit on the idea of communicating with an ape through sign language. In 1661 Samuel Pepys described in his diaries encountering ‘a great baboon’ brought from ‘Guiny’ that was ‘so much like a man in most things… I do believe that it already understands much English, and I am of the mind it might be taught to speak or make signs.’ In the 1960s a husband and wife team, Allen and Beatrix Gardner, had raised a chimp named Washoe, claiming to have taught it more than 300 signs.

Terrace’s own experiment was forged in a spirit of heated debate about language and behaviour that was raging through academia in the 1960s and 70s. A disciple of the behaviourist BF Skinner, Terrace wanted to disprove the theory of Skinner’s great rival, the linguist Noam Chomsky, that humans are uniquely ‘hard-wired’ to develop language. Even the choice of his chimp’s name, Nim Chimpsky, was designed to cock a snook at Chomsky.

In search of a surrogate mother for his chimp, Terrace turned to one of his former graduate psychology students – and a former lover – Stephanie LaFarge. ‘Herb wanted to do something equivalent to Galileo and Freud in creating a paradigm shift for human beings,’ LaFarge says. ‘That’s who he is: very arrogant and very ambitious.’

Things didn’t work out as planned – you can read the article or see the film to find out why. But here are the conclusions that Terrace came to about the possibility of chimpanzee-human language:

Terrace remains unrepentant about the experiment and its findings. He is presently working on a new book, with the provisional title of Why a Chimp Can’t Learn Language. Chimps, he believes, as Nim demonstrated, are highly intelligent but they do not have what is called ‘a theory of mind’.

‘No chimpanzee – no animal – has ever engaged in conversation. It’s always been “gimme, gimme, gimme”. They’re very astute readers of body language, as Nim showed. But a chimp does not have any reason to think of its own mind, or that somebody else has a mind.’

Not only would a chimpanzee not be able to construct a meaningful sentence of ‘man bites dog’, Terrace says, but ‘he would have no interest in communicating that. A chimp is never going to say, “This is a beautiful sunset”, or “That’s a lovely suit you’re wearing.”’ In short, they will forever remain a closed book.

Terrace ends up agreeing with Chomsky and concludes that there is something unique about the mental and linguistic abilities of human beings.

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Speaking of stone-age tribes and their cultures, take a look at this aerial video of an uncontacted tribe in the remote Amazonian rainforest.



Here is the blurb from the BBC:

An isolated tribe living in the Amazon rainforest on the Brazil-Peru border has been filmed for the first time.

Jose Carlos Meirelles, of Funai, said his government agency needs proof of the existence of “uncontacted” Indian communities in Brazil due to the threat posed by illegal logging and mining. They are known as “uncontacted” because they have only limited dealings with the outside world.

The BBC was allowed to film from 1km away using a stabilised zoom lens.

The pictures here are even more stunning – close-ups of the tribes-people; but I can’t reproduce them because of copyright.

It raises so many moral/philosophical questions. Is it right to contact them and ‘interfere’ with their way of life, and open their culture up to exploitation, alien diseases, etc? Is it right not to contact them, and hold them in a kind of cultural bubble? The shots of Meirelles flying over the village remind me of Ed Harris in The Truman Show, sitting in his control room overlooking the artificially constructed town in which Jim Carrey is brought up and observed, like an unknowing contestant in Big Brother.



Harris is far more sinister, because Carrey is literally imprisoned in this artificial world, unaware that the rest of the world is looking in through the hidden TV cameras. But when Meirelles speaks about preserving their freedom I’m not sure if he is truly liberating them or imposing on them a kind of cultural imprisonment. He says:

It’s important for humanity that these people exist. They remind us it’s possible to live in a different way. They’re the last free people on the planet.

I feel very ambivalent. There is a genuine care being expressed for the tribes-people and their way of life, and behind this the knowledge that the often ruthless logging industry is ready to roll in and flatten their entire culture. But the language reveals the mind of a scientist and anthropologist considering what the preservation of this pristine culture offers to us, the rest of humanity; making God-like decisions, literally ‘from on high’, about how to ‘protect’ a people and preserve them in isolation. I’m not judging – I’m genuinely ambivalent about what would be the best course of action.

On the other hand, at the Uncontacted Tribes website, the debate is framed in the terms not of enforced isolation, but of protecting the land from despoliation and of respecting the right of tribes-people to relate to outside cultures on their own terms:

TV presenter Bruce Parry of hit TV series Tribe said, ‘Protecting the land where uncontacted tribes live is of global importance. We have consistently failed to introduce them to our world without inflicting terrible traumas. It is for them to decide when they want to join our world. Not us.’

Survival’s Director Stephen Corry said today, ‘The illegal loggers will destroy this tribe. It’s vital that the Peruvian government stop them before time runs out. The people in these photos are self-evidently healthy and thriving. What they need from us is their territory protected, so that they can make their own choices about their future.

‘But this area is now at real risk, and if the wave of illegal logging isn’t stopped fast, their future will be taken out of their hands. This isn’t just a possibility: it’s irrefutable history, rewritten on the graves of countless tribes for the last five centuries.’

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Why should we keep the Sabbath? I know, because it’s there in the Bible; and it’s not just a throwaway line, it’s one of the Ten Commandments. But what is the reason given there for keeping the Sabbath?

It hadn’t struck me until morning meditation in the chapel yesterday that the two accounts of the giving of the Decalogue in the Old Testament offer two quite different explanations of why we should keep the Sabbath.

First, in the book of Exodus (Ch. 20), it’s about God and creation:

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. [But why?] For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

Then, in the book of Deuteronomy (Ch. 5), it’s about the Jewish people and their liberation from slavery in Egypt:

Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. [But why?] Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.

So there are two different but complimentary meanings presented here. First, the day of rest tells us something about the nature of God himself. He is not just the creator, busying himself with his activity on behalf of the world – represented by the Six Days of Creation. He is not just defined in terms of his relationship with creation in general, or with us human beings in particular. He is also a God of rest, who exists in himself, and – as it were –  for himself. His being, his self-sufficiency, comes ‘before’ his activity; and in the creation story his being, his resting, is the climax and fulfilment of that activity – although in God himself ‘being’ and ‘activity’ are all one, because there is a fundamental simplicity at the heart of everything that God is and does.

So the Sabbath, the day of rest, builds into the very rhythm of our week, and so into the structure of our very existence, a proper understanding of God. It shows us that his nature, and our ultimate destiny as sharing in that nature, is something completely beyond time, beyond temporal activity, beyond all the striving that we associate with a purposeful life.

But second, the day of rest, as presented in Deuteronomy, tells us something about our own nature as human beings – in so far as the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt points to a more universal truth about the human condition. In this context, the Sabbath is a reminder that whatever freedom we have now is actually a gift – whether this freedom is social, political, moral, spiritual, religious, etc. We are free because God’s goodness, his mighty hand and outstretched arm, have given us this freedom – by creating us in the first place, and then by stepping into history to renew it. And it is our duty not just to remember this with thanksgiving, but also to use that freedom for good, and in a way that ultimately leads us back to the God who called us into freedom into the first place.

So the Sabbath ‘forces’ us to remember that we don’t belong to ourselves or completely determine the meaning of our own lives. Our life is given. Our freedom, to the extent that we can discover and live it, is given. That weekly moment of rest and letting go is in one sense a restriction, because we can’t do everything we would like to do; but in another sense it is the very foundation of all our activity and striving, because it helps us remember that this freedom is not something we can create for ourselves. There are many ways of making the Sabbath holy, but the primary meaning of the Sabbath lies in ‘consecrating’ the whole day, in setting it apart from the rest of the week.

Of course there are many other meanings to the Sabbath, many other ways in which it must be kept holy; and for Christians it is given a radical new meaning in the light of the Resurrection. These thoughts arise just from reflecting on the explanations given in the Decalogue. The Sabbath is about God and about us as human beings. It’s both a theology and an anthropology. We lay hold of all this simply by the discipline of letting go – as far as possible – of work and shopping for one day a week…

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Jack's Beanstalk

I forgot to blog about the Kingdom of Ife exhibition at the British Museum, and I’ve just found out that it closes on 4 July. So you have a few days to go.

This is the exhibition that includes those remarkable brass heads from 14th and 15th century West Africa. They are stately and serene, but still highly personal. William Bascom, an American anthropologist who was involved in the finds, wrote: “Little that Italy or Greece or Egypt ever produced could be finer, and the appeal of their beauty is immediate and universal”

Less powerful, but equally interesting, were two terracotta chameleons about 4 inches long, each perched on a stone. Chameleons had a mythical status in Ife culture, and the captions retold the Ife creation myth (I’m summarising):

Olodumare, the supreme god who inhabited the sky, sent the god Orishanla to create the world and humankind. He got drunk on palm wine and fell asleep, so his younger brother Oduduwa took over the job.

Oduduwa climbed down an iron chain that had been hung from the sky to the watery land below. He carried from the sky above a snail-shell full of soil, a five-toed chicken, and a chameleon. He emptied out the soil, and the dry land was formed by the chicken kicking the soil around as he searched for food. The chameleon tested the land to see if it was firm. And then Orishanla (now sober) created human beings, while Oduduwa formed the rest of the living world. Oduduwa is described as the progenitor of the Yoruba race.

I love creation stories. But this one excited me so much because it reminded me of Jack and the Beanstalk. This beautiful image of the world above being united to our own world by some kind of cord. Either let down from above, like the chain; or grown up from below, like the beanstalk. The Tower of Babel. Jacob’s ladder. The Cross. Human desire stretching up; and God – perhaps – reaching down. Although for Jack the world above the clouds was not particularly heavenly.

It was always one of my favourite children’s stories. And even the comic version done for TV by the Goodies seemed magical to me. I must find a modern children’s book to see how it is being depicted today.

Here is the British Museum plug for the exhibition. It’s well worth catching:

This major exhibition presents exquisite examples of brass, copper, stone and terracotta sculpture from West Africa.

The Kingdom of Ife (pronounced ee-feh) was a powerful, cosmopolitan and wealthy city-state in West Africa (in what is now modern south-west Nigeria). 

Ife flourished as a political, spiritual, cultural and economic centre in the 12th–15th centuries AD, and was an influential hub of local and long-distance trade networks.

The exhibition features superb pieces of Ife sculpture, drawn almost entirely from the magnificent collections of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria.

The artists of Ife developed a refined and highly naturalistic sculptural tradition in stone, terracotta, brass and copper to create a style unlike anything in Africa at the time. The technical sophistication of the casting process is matched by the artworks’ enduring beauty.

The human figures portray a wide cross-section of Ife society and include images of youth and old age, health and disease, suffering and serenity.

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