Hatred and the Environment

July 29th, 2015

Hatred and the Environment:

The 21st Century’s Defining Political Issue


  1. N. Anderson




“Fascism includes supremacy of the military, the need for perpetual war and a disdain for pacifism, a  merging of corporate and state power, dismantling the unions, indirect control of the media, national security and patriotism as a motivational tool for the masses, government corruption, candidates appointed by the party command, and an erosion of voter rights.”  Benito Mussolini, quoted by Rainer Bussmann, 2015.



PART I.   Hate and the Environment


The environment is now the most serious area of political problems for the world—the only area where bad choices will literally lead to the extinction of the human race and possibly of all life on earth.  Global warming, deforestation, fresh water overdraft, urbanization and desertification of farmland, and pollution all threaten survival of billions of people.

Yet, politically, environmental politics has been neutralized.  Since a flurry of measures in the 1960s and 1970s, environmental measures worldwide have been limited to a number of idealistic but toothless treaties.  A few countries have made strides, but most are small nations (Scandinavia…) or else the strides have been modest and erratic (Brazil…).  Most countries have suffered declines in environment that range from serious to catastrophic.  China, the world’s most populous country, is one of the catastrophes (Anderson 2015).

The reason for the stagnation is simple and straightforward: opposition by the giant primary-production firms that profit from destruction.  Big oil is the most politically active of these, but mining, agribusiness, coal, timber, and related industries are heavily involved.  So are the banks and other service firms that directly work for them.  Particularly opposed to environmental and health measures are the firms whose production directly damages health, especially big oil (Anderson 2010; Juhasz 2008; Klein 2014) and big tobacco (Hakim 2015, Mukherjee 2010).  These companies have not only succeeded in blocking all significant restrictions on environmental damage; they have actually increased their environmental damage while increasing their direct and indirect subsidies from governments (Anderson 2010; Johnston 2007; McAdam 2015).

Big oil alone now gets 5.2 trillion US dollars in subsidies, worldwide, according to the IMF’s rather minimal figures (McAdam 2015). A Sunlight Foundationn report, Nov. 2014 (on their website http://sunlightfoundation.com/; see also Allison and Harkins 2014), reported that the 200 most politically active corporations in the United States spent 5.8 billion in campaigns and lobbying between 2007 and 2012, and got 4.4 trillion in subsidies, contracts (1/3 of all military contract dollars), tax breaks, bailouts, and giveaways—so they got a return of $760 for every dollar invested.  The effective corp tax rate was 17.7%, the nominal 35%.


The real question is how they get away with it.  The immediate and long-term self-interest of the 7,000,000,000 people in the world who are not directly employed by those firms should be enough to counterbalance them.  In democracies, the overwhelming majority of voters should vote against the giant firms, as indeed they did in the 1960s.  The firms all appeal to “jobs” and “economic growth,” but these claims are transparently false.  With tobacco killing 5,000,000 people a year worldwide (Munro 2015) and doing incalculable damage to health and the economy, the tiny benefits it confers on a few executives and tobacco farmers are hardly visible when compared to the costs.  The same goes for unregulated oil and chemical use.  If regulated to reduce public costs, those are necessary and highly beneficial industries.  The problem is that they successfully resist meaningful regulation, with resulting huge spills, fires, and other costs to the general public.  If economics mattered, the giant primary-production firms would be reined in, regulated, and denied government subsidies.

However, both politics and economics in the US and most other countries are now dominated or influenced by firms that increasingly rely on subsidies and tax breaks rather than on economic competitiveness (Galbraith 2008).  If they had to compete in a free market, economic theory suggests that they would not be able to afford racial segregation, religious domination of the public sector, and similar ills.  It would hurt their bottom line.  Indeed, many firms are still doing business the old way, and finding this to be the case.  The problem is that the US and many other countries do not have free markets.  The economy is dominated by the subsidized firms, especially oil, agribusiness (including tobacco), mining, chemicals, armaments and the like.  These firms find it in their self-interest to play politics rather than producing superior products (see above-cited sources).  They do better through subsidies than through legitimate business.  Estimates run as high as 700-to-1 return on lobbying expenses.  And they do best in politics by whipping up hate.

The ways they operate include bribery, corruption, and—especially in poorer nations—intimidation, and through spreading disinformation (Michaels 2008) as the tobacco companies do.  Certain oil firms, in particular Koch Industries (see Dickinson 2014) but not only them, have actually hired the same public-relations firms that fight so hard and successfully for big tobacco (Goldenberg 2013a; Klein 2014; Oreskes and Conway 2010; Robbins and Seifter 2015).  Since 90 firms, mostly big oil corporations including Norway’s and Saudi Arabia’s, cause 2/3 of greenhouse gas release (Goldenberg 2013b), one or two firms in denial can have a huge effect (on big oil in general, see Ross 2012).

But by far the most important and significant is through cultivating fear, hate, and negative emotionality in general.  The details of hatred in the service of environmental destruction, and the rise of hatred in the US, will be detailed below.

Many giant firms, though apparently always those in the secondary and tertiary sectors of the economy, recognize the dangers, and are doing what they can to move in the other direction.  Even so simple a message as the need to maintain well-paid, secure consumers in order to have a functioning economy has been abandoned by the far right, but many of the secondary and tertiary sector firms see this with crystal clarity.  Perhaps business will save us from business.  However, the prognosis is not good: fascism in 1930s Europe still serves as the prime case of business firms whipping up hatred only to see it rampage out of control and destroy all of society (on fascism, still definitive are Neumann 1943, 1957, on which sources I draw heavily below).

If business does save the modern world, it will have to de-fang hate-based politics first of all.  The only hope for human survival now lies in understanding and stopping hatred.


The Failure of Rational Politics

I now take a longer view, grounding the whole problem of hate in social theory.

Like most of my generation, I was raised in the belief that humans are creatures of rational individual choice.  We rationally decide to maximize material interest, money, or “utility” on the basis of carefully collected and assessed information, processed in the most cool and thorough manner possible.  Even rats act according to conditioning, i.e. learning what brings food pellets and what brings electric shocks.  Intangible rewards were not part of the mix.

Not only all economic theory, but all social science theory of any note, was based on this idea.  Karl Marx had recognized humans as “impassioned,” but in obscure works that few noticed (like the Grundrisse,1973).  Ordinary Marxism of the 1960s and 1970s and since was “vulgar materialist.”  The rich conspired to maximize profits; the working class would soon see their real interests lay in uniting against the rich.  This left Marxists wondering why workers usually had “false consciousness,” i.e. seeing their interests as lying with bosses, or with fascist rabble-rousers, or with simply turning to alcohol, rather than joining the Revolution.

Even the findings of Herbert Simon (1957) on “bounded rationality” seemed only to prove the rationalist case.  Simon found that humans “satisfice,” accommodating to lack of time and lack of perfect information by approximating, and by putting up with less than ideal solutions.  Similarly, James Olds’ findings that rats would do anything just to stimulate certain parts of the brain did not damage the model.  He reasoned, correctly, that those were the reward centers that normally would be stimulated by getting a food pellet.

As a voracious reader of world literature, I knew that essentially all writers from the author of Gilgamesh to William Faulkner disagreed with this simple, mechanical view.  They saw humans as creatures of passion.  But I compartmentalized that and considered it “literature,” not “science.”

Like many social scientists, I was first confronted with scientific evidence for the literary view in Robert Zajonc’s classic paper “Feeling and Thinking: Preferences Need No Inferences,” in American Psychologist (1980).  Zajonc showed that humans and other animals process perceptions emotionally before they identify them cognitively, and decide emotional responses before they decide cognitively.  (Zajonc’s name rhymes with “science” and is Polish for “squirrel,” which somehow fits.)

At the same time, Simon’s work had spawned a vast amount of research on limitations to human rationality—on the “heuristics and biases” that allow us to operate in the real world, where the “perfect information” and “perfect rationality” of economic theory do not exist.  The work was done largely by the Israeli researchers Paul Tversky and Daniel Kahneman (see Kahneman 2011).   It came to the world’s attention in the late 1970s through a flurry of articles.  Richard Nisbett’s and Lee Ross’s book Human Inference (1980) brought it to wide attention.  Gerd Gigerenzer has shown at length that the “heuristics and biases” found by Tversky and Kahnemann actually make sense, like Simon’s satisficing, in a world where perfect information is impossible to find; we have to cut corners, approximate, make do, and guess, and Gigerenzer has shown that the heuristics are very good for doing that (Gigerenzer 1991, 2007).  But they aren’t “rational” and they make nonsense of the classic and neoclassic economic models.  Between Zajonc  and Nisbett and Ross, I had my explanation for “false consciousness.”

The “rational individual choice” model of behavior took a while to die.  Several books in the 1980s (especially Jon Elster 1983) and the early 1990s damaged it beyond repair, but the final devastating blow was given by Antonio Damasio, who basically extended Zajonc’s agenda, studying the role of emotional responses in humans and lab animals.  His book Descartes’ Error (1994) was widely read.  He laid out a clear, forthright, uncontrovertible case that emotions and deeper drives motivated behavior, with reason being merely one way of getting those drives satisfied.  David Hume’s observation in the 1740’s had been right all along:  “Reason is, and should ever be, the slave of the passions” (Hume 1969).

This all leaves us in a crisis of social theory.  We are now in the same situation that medicine in 1870, when 2000-year-old theories were suddenly challenged by new data showing that microorganisms, not humoral imbalance, caused infectious disease.  We are living with nineteenth-century theories adapted to a totally different world and wrong even for it: socialism, communism, neoclassical economics.  These are challenged by Damasio just as Galenic medicine was by Pasteur and Koch.


Bounded Rationality, Emotion, and Human Nature

This is not to say people are irrational.  They take reasonably direct routes to work.  They pay attention to “the main chance.”  Comparing two otherwise identical tubes of toothpaste, they will generally choose the cheaper one.  Even so, I am astonished to see at my local drugstore that the “brand name” items still sell, even though the identical products made by the same manufacturer are available next to them for considerably less—the only difference being that the latter are sold under the drug store’s own label.  Brand-name loyalty is one classic heuristic.

However, the farther we get into really important decision-making, the less individual material rationality matters.  People choose their spouses, vices, favorite restaurants, enemies, and political causes on the basis of love and hate, not individual maximization.  Gary Becker (1996) famously defended economic rationality by arguing that people become drunks and dope addicts because they prefer alcohol and drugs to money—apparently not realizing that by this defense he had totally given away the store.  If people prefer suicidal “fun” to rational saving of money, the view of people as creatures of rational self-interest is not maintained.  Calling self-destruction “rational” strips the word of all meaning.  If everything is “rational,” the term has no explanatory value.

Materialistic and financial considerations are not lacking in this world, and certainly are not to be ignored.  Often, they combine with emotional factors as reasons for decision.  There are, for instance, usually both emotional and economically rational reasons for war; the public hates the enemy, while the ruling class gets loot or at least the profits from making guns and bombs.  Similarly, true love laughs at wealth, but in reality most lovers do not marry people much poorer than they are.  This simple realization inspired a revolution in psychotherapy, with Albert Ellis’ rational-emotional therapy, Aaron Beck’s cognitive-behavioral therapy, and William Glasser’s control therapy.  Consideration of these is outside the scope of this paper, but suffice it to say that almost all psychotherapy today is based partly on getting the balance of reason and emotion better adjusted.  Albert Ellis’ rational-emotional model works.  People are creatures of reason and emotion, usually using the reason to achieve goals set by emotion.  Managing emotion and acting reasonably are both basic to mental health.

A finding of Ellis, Beck, and others is that the really difficult situations are those in which emotion distorts rational decision-making, such that people think they are being rational and maximizing their self-interets when in fact they are acting against it. This clearly emerges in environmental issues:  people go for the short-term and narrow benefits at the expense of long-term ones.  Among the Tversky and Kahnemann heuristics is a finding that people overvalue the near; in economic terms, they have overly steep discount slopes.  Another heuristic is optimism: people assume the best, and it is hard to get them to be realistic.  What looks good, emotionally, is very plausible.  Gigerenzer and his fellows have pointed out, correctly as usual, that this is a survival mechanism: if we weren’t a bit overhopeful we’d never do anything, given the chances of failure in this imperfect world.   Martin Seligman (1990) showed that people are happier and more successful when a bit overoptimistic.  Every successful restaurant is a monument to hope, since about 90% of new restaurants fail.  But when overoptimism takes over fisheries regulation or water allocation or reforestation planning, the results are bound to be catastrophic.


Thus, many of us who were involved in environmental and political movements realized that we were arguing wrongly by confining ourselves to arguing for rational self-interest alone.  Political scientsts have now admitted that voters are irrational, or “boundedly” rational (Caplan 2007; Marcus 2002; Westen 2007).

People’s emotions are innate, but they learn how to express or repress them, and they learn from experience and peers when to whip emotions up into overdrive, such that the emotions may get out of control and lead to violence or other troubles.  Politicians depend on their ability to stir their followers to action, as in the famous story: “When Democritus spoke, people said ‘What a good orator,’ but when Pericles spoke, they said ‘let us march.’  (This bit of folklore is told in several versions about several different people and has no known source—I heard it as a child and have found many versions on Google—but it certainly makes the point.)

In particular, conservation was often “irrational” in the short run.  Inspection of the classical success stories in traditional societies, and of the works of great conservationists from Thoreau to Aldo Leopold, made it clear that economic and ecological arguments were often important, but that love of nature was what mattered.  I had tended to dismiss such writers as Leopold for being too “touchy-feely,” and I learned the full error of my ways.

Thus in 1996 I produced a modest book, Ecologies of the Heart, arguing for love and care as the determinants of environmental protection, and showing how traditional societies marshall those emotions through mechanisms that social scientists usually call “religion.”  Significantly, the traditional societies themselves usually regard the beliefs in question as obvious fact, not religion.  The beliefs do, however, run heavily to dragons, protective spirits, rocks with souls, and other beings unknown to everyday science.  They also inspire moral rules, ceremonies, and ritual behaviors that serve the cause of conservation.  Emotion and reason serve each other.

Soon after, Kay Milton brought out a book called Loving Nature (2002) that argued the same in regard to modern environmental movements.  The idea has been accepted with astonishing rapidity since, and now seems established.  Rational self-interest appears necessary to sell environmental ideas widely, but emotion is also critical, especially in motivating activists and lifestyle-changers.

I produced more books about loving nature and the social construction thereof in traditional ecological wisdom.  Many others have done the same.  However, nature remains unsaved.   Neither love nor the now-obvious fact that we are committing planetary suicide has motivated change.

The reason became clear as I worked with my wife on studies of genocide (Anderson and Anderson 2012).  The other, and in the end stronger, major human emotion is hate.  It gets in the way.  It not only motivates, routinely, the cold-blooded mass murder of minority groups (over 100 million people in the 20th century), but it also motivates the rejection of ecological sanity.


Studying Hate

Hate is far less studied than love.  Look at any psychological journal and you will probably find an article or two about love.  You will not find any about hate. With some stunning exceptions, notably Roy Baumeister’s Evil (1997) and Erwin Staub’s The Roots of Evil (1989) and Overcoming Evil (Staub 2011); significantly, he too was a genocide scholar), hate has been ignored (though see also Sternberg and Sternberg, The Nature of Hate, 2008).  Yet it now is the strongest motive in American political life, and in much of the rest of world politics.  (What follows builds mostly on these four books.)

I must thus build from our genocide work, and from the findings of Baumeister, Staub, and a very few others.  Unlike my work on love of nature, this leaves me highly exposed—exploring new terrain in which I do not have a lifetime of research experience.  I am somewhat consoled by the fact that my wife’s and my model of the development of genocide was also developed, quite independently of our own efforts, by conflict student Barbara Harff.  Harff and we had no knowledge of each other and used quite different databases, but came out with the same model in the same year (Harff 2012; Anderson and Anderson 2015), showing that we have at least something to say.  (Depressingly, the genocide establishment, concerned with particularist history, has totally ignored all three of us, as well as Gregory Stanton, who has posted a similar model online.)  Harff made more than we did of what she called “exclusionary ideologies”—what my wife and I had been calling “hate ideologies.”  Staub and some others had also made much of hate, but an astonishing percentage of the genocide literature either ignores ultimate motives or follows the old rational paradigm and blames genocide on people wanting to take others’ property or at least being envious of it.  This is so clearly inadequate that it merely serves to discredit the rational-economistic paradigm further.

I thus plunge into the study of evil with more ambition than optimism.  But “fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”  Someone has to make a start on this.  Lacking angels, I will try my best.


Weakness into Hate

Weakness and defensiveness are among the major causes of hate.  The other cause is actual harm, to oneself or one’s group.  Realtively weak people will respond with anger that easily gets out of control and turns into the long-running emotional scenario we usually imply by the word “hate.”

Hatred is almost universal and is learned from almost any source.  We seem to be adapted to learn it, as we are adapted to learn language.

People are naturally social, and naturally hate and compete for social place above all, then power, then resourcesPeople will always, thus, plow resources into power competion and power into social-place competition.

Responses to social threat, harm, slights, and fear differ according to the self-efficacy of the responder.  The weakest collapse into passivity—they go limp.  Next weakest is sheer conformity.  Third is escapism, finding refuge in religion or fantasy.  Fourth is anger and hate.  Fifth is rational responding.  Sixth and highest is rational proactive coping.  At any point, hopelessness and depression can take over. The alternative is courage: not lack of fear, but carrying on even when frightened.  Some threats are real and some hurts are deadly serious; going on in spite of them is what makes human society possible.

It is impossible to surf the Internet, especially media like Facebook, without immediately encountering hateful attacks on the rich, the poor, the gay community, the whites, the minorities, men, women, immigrants, Democrats, Republicans, and every other highly visible group.  A dozen countries worldwide are torn by religious conflicts that have little to do with economic self-interest.  A dedicated economic theorist would no doubt point to the trivial financial gains of militants in ISIS, but any actual rational calculation of expected benefits vs. chance of death would lead any Muslim to avoid ISIS—as most in fact do.  As I wrote this, my wife found and recycled a raft of Facebook postings filled with rants about men, women, gays, straights, minorities, and so on—many of the rants serious enough to make one question the ranters’ sanity, and also to endanger them somewhat.  Yet, nothing can do less good than a Facebook rant.  People are expressing their hate for no reason except their own satisfaction (if such it can be called).

America is probably not going to collapse right away, but hatred gone out of control has now escalated into national meltdowns in Afghanistan, Congo (DR), Iraq. Israel, Libya, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, and other countries.  Others are teetering on the brink, saved largely by international action: Central African Republic, Chad, Lebanon, Mali, Sudan.  These have ongoing killings and highly polarized politics.  Recent violence in the republics that once were Yugoslavia, in Ukraine, in Georgia, and elsewhere show that rich, developed nations are not immune.  Indeed, the Terror in Northern Ireland was as horrific a hate-based civil war as anything in Africa (though ultimately on a smaller scale), and it took place over decades in a stable, rich democracy (see Staub 2011).

Much less serious, but still destructive, and very much more widespread, is the use of hate to blind people to their self-interest and get them to vote against themselves.  This has notoriously been the Republican Party’s specialty in recent US history (Frank 2004), but it is hardly confined to them.  Political parties all over the world do it.  It was a time-honored trick before Hitler and Stalin made it into national movements.

Some idea of the dominance of irrational hate over common sense is seen in the US business community’s backing for the right-wing apotheosis of racism and religious bigotry.  Hitler’s Germany proves that such backing is suicidal for business.  The left, for balance, has poured hatred on “the rich” and “the 1%,” in spite of the fact that the rich have voted about 50-50 (with only slight Republican bias) in recent presidential elections.


Hatred blocks thinking through long-term and wide-flung benefits versus short-term, narrow ones.  Hatred makes people look to their own narrow group.  It keeps people from seeing that the general welfare not only matters, but is an imperative consideration.  If we do not stop global warming, global pollution, global fresh water waste, and similar behaviors, we will all suffer—a fact obvious to anyone who looks at even a tiny slice of data.  But, worldwide, most political activity remains mired in attempts to score off on immediate opponent groups.  This is in large part because the problems are far in the future, and of uncertain magnitude; recall the steep discount slope.

My particular cause is the environment, and environmental questions show this effect more clearly than other types, precisely because they can be addressed only by love for the environment coupled with rational action of wide-flung, long-term scales.  They are thus the most vulnerable to the politics of hate.

Of course, there are also simple economic reasons for resisting environmentalism.  Some environmentalists do go far into a realm of telling people to give up practically everything, live a spartan lifestyle, and forget about economic growth.  Any rational person would have trouble with this scenario.  There are also more legitimate issues of short-term/long-term tradeoffs.  These complicate the picture.  However, examination of resource politics reveals that polluting and overexploiting interests frequently whip up hatred to get the public to vote for pollution and against community interest.  Similar use of hate to sell anti-environmental and anti-worker cadidates have been successful from Brazil to Turkey and from Australia to Canada.  We will examine this, but for the moment I will look at the wider questions.


Needs and Motives

Needs are not motives.  Need for water isn’t a motive or motivation; thirst is.  The same applies to food vs hunger, health vs curing, social needs vs socializing.  Security and dealing with fear are needs, but give rise to several motives: fight, flight, freeze, anger, hate, or quick rational action.

Of course, hatred is not the only emotional driver of irrationally short-term, narrow behavior.  Laziness, sheer fear, irresponsiblity, hopelessness, meekness, and conformity to immobilizing social norms can all do it.  Even love can do it.  Psychopathy can make people evil and violent without particular hatred.  However, these other motives are inadequate to explain social and political outcomes.  It is usually actual opposition, based on intense negative emotions, that defeats leaders and causes.

By hatred I mean here the focal meaning of the word:  highly emotional rejection and dislike of individuals or groups.  This includes bias, prejudice, bigotry, bullying, overneg, displacement, cowardly lashing out, gratuitous meanness, etc.  Hating boiled cabbage, or romantic films, or rap music is not what I mean.  More significantly, I am not talking about hatred of ideas or theories.  Hating an idea—as opposed to hating the bearers of that idea—probably does no particular damage worldwide.  It is when hatred extends to actual living humans or other lives that hatred does damage.  One can hate racism or bigotry or bullying and be all the better for it.  But when one extends hatred to a whole group, even if the group is racists or bullies, one is on a slippery slope to irrational violence.  The old line “hate the sin but not the sinner” applies.

Even hatred of individuals as people may be excusable if they have done harm to one.  The hatred that is the subject of the present paper is hatred of whole groups where no adequate reason can be adduced.  Hatred of a personal enemy who has done one multiple wrongs is a different matter.  The problem is that there is no real boundary; the one grades into the other.  A bigot can always say that his whole opponent-group has done wrong to his or her own group.  This may sometimes be reasonable; more often it verges on paranoia; the issue has to be considered case by case.  I will stick closely to incontrovertibly unfair and bigoted hates in the present work.

Diminishing another’s humanity is a classic mark of hate, but can be done for other reasons, notably commercial ones; pop culture diminishes people for simple commercial reasons.  Corporations spend the least possible amount producing songs and films, and please the lowest common denominator.  This is deplorable, but should not be confused with the deliberate diminishing of humanity seen in hate campaigns, which almost invariably compare the hated group with rats, cockroaches, and other disliked animals (Kiernan 2007; Staub 1989, 2011).  On the other hand, hate campaigns can and do take fiendish advantage of the diminishment of humanity in popular culture, as anyone knows who has followed the controversies around gangsta rap.


Causes of Hatred

Hatred itself comes from several sources.  The clearest and most obvious is actual experience with harm and threat, especially if it is erratic and hard to predict.  However, many people are hurt and yet cope perfectly well.  For it to call up anger that turns to long-running hate, personal inadequacy is often required.  Weak, scared people who have some access to strength or force become bullies or hate-ideologues.  In particular, weak or fearful members of powerful majority groups often identify with the group and become extreme hatemongers.

However, Roy Baumeister, on the basis of much research, counseled against taking this view too far (Baumeister 1997).  He found plenty of hateful, bullying people with eminently fine records of bravery and high self-esteem.  In fact, the worst people often had the highest self-esteem, partly because high self-esteem is typical of psychopaths and sociopaths.  (He and others demolished the self-esteem movement by finding that self-esteem is not necessarily a good thing.)  There is, in fact, a range from cowardly haters to very brave and courageous ones.  We cannot accuse the soldiers of ISIS of outstanding fear.

That said, in general, behind antagonism is a need for “security” at all costs.  Dictators have always found that people will accept anything if you can convince them that “security” is at issue.  The only times and places anything else wins are when the country is secure and people have opportunity to do better.  Freedom is desired, but freedom means different things, and often “freedom from fear” is held to be the most important one.  To some, freedom means the right to bully, rape, exploit, and even kill anyone weaker.  As the Federalist Papers pointed out, such “freedom” is really anarchy or tyranny.

So life can become a security/opportunity tradeoff, with opportunity winning only when there are overwhelming chances of doing better.  Most self-risk is for security—fighting for country and peace, in particular.  Even sacrificing one’s life for one’s religion can be a security issue, if it is intended to bring security for one’s family or security for oneself in Heaven.  Similarly, most individual motivation (work, self-improvement…) has security as a real goal, not advancement.

Next most obvious is simple cultural tradition.  Hatred of Black people in the American South goes back to slavery days, and especially to the conflict between first enslaved and later free Blacks and poor whites vying for the same limited set of jobs.  The hatred persists, long after its economic roots have ceased to matter much.  In fact, hatred has become a point of pride and of cultural solidarity in the south today, and groups that were not particularly racist in older times are now heavily racist.  (This trend applies notably to my own ethnic group, southern Scots-Irish, and I have watched its progress with increasing dismay over my lifetime.)  In fact, most people worldwide get their hatred from their parents and peers, not from their own experience or psychodynamics.  Individual psychology, however, must explain why some individuals are so much more susceptible and extreme than others in the same cultural surroundings.

Economic rationality does have its role.  In a downwardly mobile time, like the early 1930s, people tend to become more competitive, group against group.  In an upbound time, people see more benefits from cooperation.

This can be modeled as negative-sum, zero-sum and positive-sum games.  Negative-sum games are predictable when everyone is getting worse off and the only hope lies in making other people even more rapidly worse off to slow one’s own decline.  Zero-sum games dominate in ordinary times, when my gain may be expected to be at your expense, but at least the pie is fairly constant.  Positive-sum games, in which everyone gets better off through cooperation, are expected only in strongly hopeful economic times.


The biggest hatred problem worldwide is hating those beneath one in the socioeconomic ladder, especially poorer minorities.  This is interesting because it almost has to come from fear and displacement. Usually, cowardice and defensive aggression are deployed, with the aggression being displaced downwards.   Hating those higher in the social scale is also common, but apparently less so than hating down.  Cowardly defensiveness may be the most important single motive of human action, not because it is the commonest or the most dominant, but because its consequences are so devastating.

Cowardly defensiveness in most people thus takes the forms of scapegoating, displacing, bigotry, and bullying the weak.  Many a tough guy is tough as a way of overcompensating; many a hyperfeminine woman is defending herself.


How Evil Wins

Hate wins because fear is both the strongest emotion and the one that must be prioritized, and then aggression and hate are the strongest way to deal.  Fear causes a fight-flight-freeze response in all animals. In humans, fighting is often verbal and ideological; flight is often into escapism, including Hollywood films, social media, games, and romantic novels; freezing often goes into depression and inanition.  The social construction of the fight response most often moves into right-wing politics, while more moderate and liberal souls often take to escapism and inanition, though there are plenty of intemperate fighters on the left too.

Bad things are always happening in this imperfect world, and have to be dealt with.  One accident—even a minor one—can ruin a world of good.  More to the point when we come to understand human hate, one insult or harsh word can destroy a marriage or a lifelong friendship.  We cannot ignore bads or hates.  We have to learn to deal coolly and reasonably with them, or else we tend to fall into chronic hatred or hopelessness.

As a large, predatory, hypersocial animal, the human is wired to defend by violence, and especially to defend the group.  Hatred, slighting, contempuous dismissal, toxic neglect, irresponsibility, are often directed against other groups simply because they exist and seem to compete for some types of goods or utilities..

Giving up control and making oneself abject is a huge part of the problem.  The popularity of the “fifty shades” books and similar literature seems to indicate that many women actually want to be beaten, insulted, dominated and abused.  The outpourings of racism and religious bigotry worldwide seem to be to be intimately related.  They are all part of one syndrome: giving in to weakness and mixing up coping with brutality.  These connections have not been explored much by psychologists; they need very serious attention.

Dealing by just cowering or by rational coping stands little chance against hate-based aggression in a straight physical fight, and often in political fights too.  So the worst win.  In a typical country, perhaps 20% of people are truly hateful; the other 80% may hate to varying degrees, but often simply go along out of passivity or irresponsiblity.  (These figures come from voting records; there are very consistent levels of voting for outright-fascist candidates, around the world; the fascists get about 20% of the vote in straight elections, sometimes up to 30-40% if the other choices are weak.  This has shown up recently in voting tolls in the United States, Britain, Canada, France and several other countries, and it showed up in Europe in the 1930s also.  Surveys confirm that about 20% of people are highly bigoted against whatever minority is salient, and another 20% will go along if the economy is in trouble or other stressors exist.)

Liberals in the United States today are typical of the other 80%: they mean well, but they are often disunited, apathetic, and not responsible enough to vote.  Passivity and ataraxia are escapist, and derive from the same irrational reponse to fear that drives hatred.  People range from close to 100% good to 100% bad, which makes it hard to predict how they will break, but simple need to fight back against threat means that at any given time there will be much hatred and violence in the world.

Individuals vary enormously in aggressiveness, hatefulness, reactive anger, psychopathy, sociopathy, and personal weakness and withdrawal.  Their complexities are not captured by “us”-“them” distinctions.  All individuals have cross-cutting loyalties and social identifications.  In modern society, this becomes complicated: a typical person is part of his or her family, work group, ethnic group, religious (or unreligious) congregation, political party, local eating group, and so on and on.  One may have cross-cutting loyalties to dozens of groups.  One person may be intensely identified with his or her religion, while another is identified with career and career-mates, another with family, another with political party.  Everyone has to balance the resulting loyalties and solidarities.  Everyone must choose, then, whom to love, hate, or disregard.  Can one ignore one’s religious group?  Work colleagues?  Local barfly scene?

No one gets away with a simple us-them or us-other distinction.  No one can avoid getting pulled in different directions.  No one can avoid being torn by pressures to like, dislike, accept, reject, love or hate the various people in one’s many different groups.  Moreover, almost everyone is an odd-person-out in one way or another: the only Jew in a right-wing Christian town, the only teacher in an anti-intellectual neighborhood, the only motorcycle nut on a dourly quiet street.

Thus, no one can avoid social hurts and social cross-pressures.  The resulting emotions almost inevitably include defensiveness and resistance. This starts with offense or stress, especially social (disrespect, “hurt feelings”), leading to irritation, exasperation, disapproval, and upset.  In so far as people feel entitled to respect, they become really angry.  If not consoled and comforted, they become even more so.


Bad Arguments

Some arguments by haters are so universal that they are diagnostic:

–Contrasting one’s own highest ideals with the worst practices of the opponents (we value freedom and democracy, whereas those other guys beat their wives).

–Referring to each side as if it was totally uniform (Israel vs the Arabs, rather than Netanyahu’s group vs Hamas).

–Emphasizing the evils of the other side while studiously ignoring one’s own (for Hitler, the Jews cheated people while the Aryans were strong and noble).

–If one has to acknowledge one’s own sins, claiming one was forced to do it by the outrageous actions of the other side (we had to rape their women because their boys threw rocks at us).

Each side takes the other’s bad actions as a spur to do even worse, to scare them into stopping or just to get rid of them.  “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” as Gandhi said, but this is worse: two eyes for an eye.

These specious arguments can construct up into whole ideologies, Barbara Harff’s “exclusionary ideologies.”  Hitler’s Nazism, Stalinist Communism, the Tea Party, and Maoism in China are typical examples of the worst possible scenario: building hate into a whole ideology of life, with every aspect of governance, personal behavior, knowledge, and even aesthetics derived from the basic hate.



Much or all of the problem starts in childhood.  Children cannot rationally respond tohatred, attacks, and abuse; they do not know how, and would not have the power to act accordingly if they did know.  Many of us were raised with parents who were both disempowering and hypercritical—constantly making negative judgments but giving little opportunity to cope with the problems.  That sort of disempowering child-rearing leads to fearful, weak defensiveness.  This in turn can to malignancy as the child grows up, if the child is raised in the intolerant, bullying atmosphere that was the lot of many of us as schoolchildren.

This in turn leads to extreme touchiness—“taking offense”—and a resulting domestic economy of mutual slights and hurts.  It also leads to scapegoating and displacing defensive anger toward non-family members. Abusive and bullying parents also produce haters.

Unfortunately, the opposite is not always perfect.  Parents who are too “nice” and indulgent run the risk of producing children who are meek and easy-going enough to put up with too much hatred in and from others, and perhaps also so “entitled” that they do not feel solidarity with the oppressed.  Only a strongly empowering child-rearing pattern raises children who can deal with a mean and brutal world.  Empowering must include forcing children to make their own decisions and pay the consequences; parents must be there but must not be “helicopter” or “tiger” parents who sap all linitiative.

All the innate good of people is in every child, but it is easily deflected by childrearing that weakens or embitters the child. The good thing about that is that the hatreds all learned, though all too easy to learn (hate goes into a natural groove), and thus is preventable. One can interrupt at three points: strengthen the child, prevent learning biases, stop actual harm.  But one must do all three at once, not always an easy agenda (on this see, again, Baumeister 1997 and Sternberg and Sternberg 2008).


Hatred and Economics

To see how hate distorts environmental policies and practices, we must return to the often-bad accommodation of passion and reason.

What we see in the modern world is a large number of giant multinational corporations, increasingly dominant in the world economy, increasingly cut off from accountability or feedback, and increasingly able to dominate governments.  Their CEO’s will not suffer if civilization collapses in 50 years or if humanity becomes extinct in 100.  In fact, their CEO’s are not in the least worried about the ecological conequence of their firms’ actions.  If a few thousand people in India or Amazonia die because of corporate malfeasance, no executive will suffer, and probably few or no employees will.  The corporations are powerful enough to be above the law.

This is not really about “greed” in a simple sense.  The corporations want security and market share more than profits.  Some shareholders want profits more, but many shareholders are giant investors who also prefer stability to risky profit maximization.  The rich who own the firms have enough money; they want stability for the firms, and status and power for themselves.


Hatred and Corporations

Bigness is a distorter of society.  The powerful get inordinate amounts of respect, as well as disproportionate shares of resources.  They can manipulate public opinion simply because they are respected and feared.  They can also buy and manipulate media.  They can hire writers and commentators.  They can even set up whole foundations and think tanks.  They can start and fund whole social movements; the Koch brothers started and funded the Tea Party.  Ultimately, they can even control governments.  Several governments worldwide are dominated by oil interests, most obviously Saudi Arabia but also more than a dozen others from Brunei to Equatorial Guinea.  Above all, though, they can draw on status emulation.  Humans seem to be hard-wired to imitate those in authority.  (Evolutionary psychologists suspect this developed to motivate children to emulate their elders.)  The powerful can always count on this; they need not work or spend money to get people to imitate them or follow them.

Quite apart from the immediate rational self-interest of big firms and powerful people to maximize their advantage, there is the fact that the more competitive and ruthless a person is, the more that person can rise in politics.  Whipping up hatred and exploiting it is always one of the easiest, cheapest and safest ways to get power.  Democracy partially prevents this, as does monarchic succession, but even a prosperous democracy is easily swayed to vote for a tyrant.  Hitler, Rios Montt (in Guatemala), and many other infamous genociders were democratically elected, though usually by pluralities rather than majorities.

Thus, some corporations have seen their best interest in whipping up hatred.  Many giant German firms backed Hitler in the 1930s.  More recently, many large-scale corporations in the United States—notably certain big oil firms—have systematically backed overtly racist and religiously bigoted candidates, and have also backed, funded, and sometimes even written measures to discourage minorities from voting and to establish extremist religious laws in defiance of the Constitution.

The core of fascism is greed taking advantage of hate, but there is more:  the fusion of primary-production and heavy-industry interests with government and the development of a specific hate ideology.  Hitler added militarism, bullying of all sorts, and Nietzschean power-worship (see, again, Neumann 1943, 1957).  Stalin combined fascism and communism.

Whipping up extremism and hatred was, of course, typical of fascism in Europe, and later of Stalinism and Maoism.  It is now typical of politics in China, India, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan,  the United States, and dozens of other countries.  In general, the worst problem is religious hatred; Stalinist and Maoist Communism were virtual religions.  Racism is less prevalent, but is important in right-wing politics in Australia, Canada, and the US, among other places, and of course in Hitler’s Germany.

In all cases, there is very extensive funding, and it does not come from the pockets of the people—usually unemployed young men—who carry out the violence.  It comes from big oil (especially in the Middle East) and other giant interests that have a stake in drawing off unwelcome attention by whipping up other causes.

The oil-based Saudi Arabian government has funded the propagation of Wahhabite and Salafite extremism that has converted Islam worldwide from a religion of peace and order to one increasingly identified with terrorist murder.  It raised a serpent which is now, in the form of ISIS, biting its creator.  Not to be outdone, the oil-based Iranian government has propagated equivalent forms of Shi’a.  Many Americans do not realize that Islam has its own sects, and these shifts are equivalent to America’s replacement of mainstream churches by extremist fundamentalism as the stereotype of “normal” Christianity.  Big oil backs the extremists, in Islamic countries as in the United States.

The increasing reliance of primary-production and other giant firms on hatred is thus worldwide and not confined to democracies where votes are needed.  It is a link that seems to have taken on a life of its own, and become the defining political fact of the 21st century.

Commentators widely miss this, because they see problems as either economic (giant firms, global warming…) or emotional (racism, bigotry).  They do not see the connection.  This is not for lack of data.  Anyone following the news can see the billions of dollars poured into anti-minority, anti-immigrant, anti-gay, anti-woman, and other bigoted causes, and especially devoted to political candidates from such movements, by such corporations as Koch Industries, ExxonMobil, the tobacco industry, and Monsanto.

It will cost.  The firms now rely on their hate-motivated legions to block any action on global warming, forest protection, or other things that diminish their profits.  Anti-environmentalism has become a defining cause for the right, and has been linked with racism, religious hate, anti-woman and anti-gay extremism, and other hates.  This is a dangerous game, because the legions are far more extreme than their corporate manipulators.  The corporate executives might be tempted to compromise when things get serious—when south Florida starts going under water, for instance—but the haters will not compromise on anything, as we know from past experience with Hitler, Stalin and Mao and present experience in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria, and elsewhere.

This point has finally been realized by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which routinely backed the most extremist candidates—the racists, religious rabble-rousers, anti-gay and anti-woman candidates—in the early 21st century.  They succeeded in electing many, and find that such politicians are devastating to business interests.  They are thus beginning to work against them, and to restore Republican moderates to life (McCarter 2015).

Most oil companies now admit global warming is partly human-caused and are willing to work on it, but the far right has now taken over the cause, refusing compromise.  For some, it is literally a religious cause; they believe God gave humans “dominion” over the earth in a total and uncompromising way, and would not allow the earth to warm too much.  This religious fervor has no excuse in the Bible, but it is closely linked to other anti-science causes, notably anti-evolutionism, and somewhat less closely to racism, anti-vaccination, and other anti-science causes.  One remembers Hitler’s and Stalin’s use of pseudoscience to aid their causes, and Goebbels’ propaganda device of the “Big Lie.”

One invariable correlate is anti-science and pseudoscience.  Hitler had racism, anthroposophism and bizarre sexual theories.  Stalin promoted Lysenko.  Pseudoscience now is reaching Hitlerian heights in the United States, with the Wall Street Journal refusing to accept the truth of global warming, New York Times science reporter Nicholas Wade promoting racism very close to Hitler’s (Wade 2014), and right-wing politicians calling for eliminating the teaching of evolution from the schools.



A basic world problem is abuse of power, which is inevitable when there is a disproportionate amount of it concentrated in the hands of one person or group.  Unfortunately, there is no way to tell what is a “disproportionate” amount.  Once power is concentrated, the tendency for people to get into more and more vicious rat-fights, to win more power, is irresistable.  Egalitarian society and civil behavior are cures, but can never be total.,  Bottom-up organization is necessary to balance the power at the top, but somebody has to keep order and set standards, also.  We are back to the problem identified by Shen Buhai 2300 years ago: how to assign the right level of decision-making power to the right levels in an organizational hierarchy.  Top-down meddling and power-tripping and bottom-up irresponsibility and violence are all dangerous.


“Power” in society as ability to make others do what you want.  Some add that they themselves should not want to do it, in which case direct physical force, or the threat of it, must be invoked.  However, far more often, power is exercised through manipulating wants.  Charismatic and persuasive individuals, or simply outright liars and conmen, can convince people to “want” things they would not want if they were left to themselves and were being rational.  Much more common—in fact the overwhelmingly most important way power is exercised in society—is use of social pressure to make people conform, go along, or bear.  They may not actively want to do what they are doing, but they are convinced it’s “right” or that they have to go along with society.  The various ways of doing this have been explored in detail by Weber, Foucault, Bourdieu, Benedict Anderson, and many others.  They range from religious teaching to school-playground peer pressure, and from taste in literature to group hate.  People normally want to do what their reference group does, think as others in it think, feel as they feel, and like what they like. In a free and complex society, individuals can more or less choose what reference group to join, but throughout most of history, few had that choice.  Even within my lifetime, religion has gone from something that one was born into and died in, and which governed one’s behavior, to something barely noticed by many and chosen by others from a smorgasbord of cults and teachings.

In short, power in society is largely exercised by society itself, and enforced by censure, criticism, rejection, and ostracism.  People fear this above all else, as we know from the willingness of most people to die for a cause or to avoid shame.

The fear is not just of being rejected.  More deadly and agonizing is the fear of being genuinely despicable—of being rejected and held in contempt for good reasons.  Of course the “good reasons” are socially learned, to a large extent.  People need to be accepted, but they need even more to be (or at least feel they are) acceptable.

All this makes “power” look more like social agency and social control.  Individuals want to control themselves and their own lives, but they also want to or have to give up control to the group.  Formal institutions have high “legitimacy,” meaning people decide they are there for good reason or at least are inescapable, and do as they are told.  At the other extreme, popular and grassroots pressure makes most people like (or pretend to like) the offerings of popular culture.

Social power also makes people very susceptible to emotional blackmail: bullying, guilt-tripping, passive-aggressive manipulation, and all the other devices of those who use social power for their own ends.

This naturally bridges to the active use and manipulation of hatred to sell policies and politicians.  Politicians everywhere whip up class, ethnic, racial, religious, and political rivalries and hatreds in order to win popular support for themselves and their policies.  Then, reference groups become highly important.  One follows one’s chosen reference group in hating its perceived enemies or rivals. An extreme form is found in the writings of Hobbes, Freud and many others: an across-the-board judgment that basic human nature is profoundly hateful, or at least torn by angry, hateful, or lustful emotions.

Another pathology is the use of being “with it” as proof of social good or social belonging.  Those who are not up on the latest fad are not only out of the loop; they are evil, contrary, mean, repulsive, spoiled, inadequate, and every other name that can be thrown at them.  This is as common among academics as among others; we all know the fate of social scientists who do not keep up on the latest French philosophe hyped by the New York Review of Books.  Teenage peer groups are usually even more direct and savage, and thus affect people profoundly at the most vulnerable and decisive stage in their lives.

People are seriously afraid of power.  They are terrified of superior force and of deadly force.  They are, if anything, even more terrified of social rejection.


Of the several kinds of goods one might want in the world, power is the worst to want.  If you want food, drink, and sex, you are relatively easily satisfied.  (Pathological cravings are another matter; they are, most often, not really about food or sex.)  If you want money, you can get a lot without really diminishing others’ wealth, since the economy can always expand at least a little, in the short term.  But if you want status or power, you must compete directly with others for them.  These goods are limited.  Thus “position goods” become markers: items that are intrinsically limited, like genuine Van Gogh paintings, or items that are at least somewhat limited in number, like Ferrari cars. They thus come to mark status, and get correspondingly bid up in price. More to the point, though, positions of power are very limited indeed, and often the only way to get them is to fight for them—violently or through Machiavellian dealings.

One can always invent new status markers, and expand the system to provide more powerful positions, thus partially neutralizing this particular set of problems, but in the end the competition is often seen as a fight for the top.

Thus need for power is deadly to society.  Only one person can be ruler.  Only a few can be in Congress.  Only a few can be CEO’s of giant corporations, and with corporate mergers, that number is actually shrinking, in spite of the rise of more and more small firms.  Competition is deadly, and there is no way to make win-win games out of it.  Thus, a group losing power in a declining economy is particularly likely to hate other groups and to try to make them go down even faster.

Actual violent conflict is even worse.  The conflict between Jews and Palestinians in Israel shows with horrible clarity how the worst win out by taking advantage of a situation.  Israel’s initial idealism and the Palestinians’ hope, hard work, and initial peaceful resistance slowly gave way to today’s antagonistic and brutal behaviors.

Power is basically the social construction of managing the control need.  Charisma, suavity, good communication ability, brokering, humor and other soft powers grade into real badgering, bullying, etc., and then into actual force.  Persuasion, rewards (mostly monetary), force, and institutional power are basic, but social ostracization is probably by far the most usual way to exert it.

In a meritocratic society, the ones who wind up on the bottom are the meek or passive or disorganized ones; the midrange is the smart, hard-working ones; the top layer is the ruthless, merciless, cruel ones.  One can see that in accounts of old-time military kingships, which were arguably more meritocratic than the modern US in spite of social ascriptions.  (The kings and courtiers had to fight, or at least make life-and-death political calculations, and thus had more skin in the game than modern elites, who are often born to money and never had to work.)

Adam Smith saw (but his modern followers rarely do) that the real advantage of private property and free enterprise is that the costs are specified on the beneficiaries, forcing them to do something about said costs.  That is the measure of any ownership system.  Modern giant corporations, however, capture the benefits partly from subsidies and government preferences rather than earnings, and export the costs to the public as “externalities.”  Thus, there is no incentive to improve or fix anything.  They neither depend for benefits on doing well, nor do they have any incentive to minimize costs (extensive documentation of this can be found in Anderson 2010).  “Competition” does not make people “do it better” unless the costs of production are specified on the producers.  With costs “externalized” and production subsidized, as in the modern US, there is every incentive for producers to act as irresponsibly as possible.  They are rewarded not for fixing their problems, but for lobbying for even more subsidies and even more relief from laws that control “externality” production.


Short-term, Narrow Thinking Does Not Explain All

The things inexplicable by either rational self-interest or overly short-term thinking are numerous:

–War and conflict where both sides are clearly taking extreme, indefensible positions, as is true in almost all violent conflicts.

–The steady decline of nation-states into fascism.

–The total failure of decolonialization.  Most former colonies have been unable to shake their colonial limitations and merge into full growth.

–The “self-interest” of those who trustingly follow big oil and big agribusiness even though the policies of big oil are extremely counterproductive to most of their followers.

–“Economic growth” vs real growth, and solidarity vs regulation and government, seem major factors.

–Any hurting self to hurt enemies even if you hurt them less badly, from suicide bombing down to nasty postings on Facebook

–Self-destructive acts done just to be defiant, when it isn’t even fun, like eating junk food.

–Gratuitous rejection, nastiness, etc., up to and including actual abuse, of loved ones and others; this is usually done to maintain a sense of control.

–conformity, at least in things that are genuinely self-harming, like tattooing and piercing.


Short-termism does predict

-first and foremost, most of the envir damage

–anti-intellectualism, anti-education

–war for loot

–zero-sum competition

–scapegoating, if by incompetent of more competent but lower gps


–sacrificing vast future for trivial present benefits

–educational administrators destroying education systems for their own power—cutting teachers’ wages, wrecking libraries, short-changing students


Hatred into Violence

Aggression/aggressiveness, hatred, and violence are three different things, and do not have to co-occur.  Most people have their hates.  Many aggressive people, in contrast, are not particularly hateful; they just like a good fight.  Violence is notoriously done mostly for loyalty and group defense.

Aggressiveness is greatly exacerbated by attributing harmful intent to others (Dodge et al. 2015), especially if they have done something that appears to be a slight.  A tendency to overattribute harmful intent is learned, and explains much of the difference between groups, worldwide, in their levels of violence (Dodge et al. 2015).  This appears to explain a good deal of the observed difference in aggressive behavior from place to place around the world.

Hate ideology puts them all together, sustaining violent, murderous rebellions or governments.  Just “down with the opposition” or “death to the state” or even “death to the Jews” doesn’t do the job at all.  It doesn’t give a vision, create a plan, or give enough to bring a group together to organize and plan.

There is a range in human societies from no killing to almost all deaths due to violence (the society thus destroying itself)  However, the tails—societies as peaceful as the Semai or as violent as the Waorani (Robarchek and Robarchek 1998)—are really rare.  Interestingly, the same society can go from one extreme to the other with astonishing speed.  The Waorani were pacified by missionary persuasion.  Slower but equally dramatic changes from hyperviolent to totally peaceful occurred in Scandinavia from the Viking period to the present; in Japan from 1560 to 1620; in China from the 1940s to the 1950s; and in many other cases.  Changes from peaceful to hyperviolent are evident enough in our own time.  Within the same society, there can be huge differences.  Murder rates vary 10-20fold in the US from southern inner cities to northern small towns, and even within the same urban area (e.g. from Compton to Santa Monica in the Los Angeles area).

Usually, murder rates from around 2 per 100,000 people per year, in modern liberal democracies, up to 700-1000 in Europe in WWII and in gold-rush towns in the mining days.  Most are toward the peaceful end of that scale, and most people are relatively nonviolent all their lives.  The stereotypes of killer ape, Hobbesian savage, and Freudian id are nonsense.  Thus is it doubly interesting that hate and murder are as common as they are.

Even in violent societies, most of the killing is done either in war or by psychopaths or extremely aggressive individuals.  It is only if there is a martial or hateful ideology, a violent economy (drug gangs, looting…), or an actual war on, that ordinary people become killers.  Even in war, it turns out that most soldiers on the front lines never kill anyone.  Another astonishing observation on human violence, or lack thereof, is the degree to which people at war can be peaceful at home.  The United States was rarely, if ever, more tranquil at home than during World War II.  More striking is the case of the Barí Indigenous people of Venezuela.  For several decades they had to fight a ferocious war of resistance to prevent attempted genocide by government-backed settlers.  They won the war, terrorizing whole detachments of soldiers into flight.  During the entire time there was not one recorded murder among the Barí.  They saved their killing for actual enemies (Beckerman and Lizarralde 2013).  It would be hard to find clearer proof that violence in humans is consciously deployed, not innate.

In a functioning community, most people will band together to avoid or stop killing.  But to get the rate really down requires strong leadership that can deploy legitimate force to stop conflict (that is what is usually lacking in chiefdoms, which are notoriously warlike).

As Erwin Staub (2011) points out, all societies need ways of damping down escalating conflicts and vicious spirals, especially by talking things out, informally and in formal meetings and group assemblies.  This is universal and essential in tribal societies, and is what succeeds so well among the Semai and what broke down and was later restored among the Waorani.  However, mere encounter groups don’t work; talking out requires social norms, enforced.  Something like Habermas’ civil society (Habermas 1987) is needed.  “We’re all in this together” works if it means we are all together in a structured community, but mere jawboning doesn’t work.


Extreme violence within a group, to outgroup, to women, etc. (as one package) is due to social breakdown.  However, it appears to be endemic in Afghanistan and northern Pakistan, having lasted there continually for thousands of years (since Alexander noted it around 300 BCE).  Even there, it tracks chaotic times.  Certainly the old idea of mountain refuges near agrarian empires is part of it.  The Scots border, the border between China and Central Asia, borderlands in New Guinea, and other examples occur to mind.  But the China-Tibet and China-Southeast Asia borders were not as violent, though bloody enough.  Cultural traditions of fighting, feuding, and “honor,” over time, clearly have much to do with it.

Historically, hatred translated into killing may have started with revenge killings, a universal part of human society.  Then communities took to fighting communities, often for no good reason.  Consider the hatreds between fans of rival sports teams, a phenomenon attested in ancient Rome and Byzantium and seen more recently in the “soccer war” between El Salvador and Honduras in 1969.

Hatred-led violence probably moved quickly in the direction of capturing neighboring women, and then of repressing women in general. It has been worst in the longest-civilized parts of the Old World, a very dubious comment on the value of civilization.  There, it correlates with militarism and with rape as a war tactic, and also with power in the hands of political and bureaucratic elites as opposed to warriors or merchants.  This and all other violent hatreds are always least where merchants dominate.

Next oldest is ethnic hate—it goes back to tribal times, and is probably universal.  This is partly because psychopaths and sociopaths that sooner or later turn up everywhere.

Then class: up and down.  Education grew slowly as a part of this, then broke off of itself and became a separate dimension, just last 200 years or so.  Pol Pot in Cambodia tried to exterminate all those who could read.  Hitler massacred intellectuals.  In the United States, the whole anti-“elite” rhetoric has the same roots; it is hatred of educated people, not of ruling elites.

Then, in history, came religion, the main and worst source of genocide.  As a factor in mass killings, it largely followed the rise of the world religions with their missionary zeal.  Tribes each have their own religions, and kill over more practical matters like land and vengeance. Differences in religion seem least tolerated.

Race and nation have come last—since 1500 and mostly since 1700.

Ethnic killing has been worse since 1900, with the rise of genocide.  In mature industrial societies, labor is abundant, and a few million workers don’t matter.  Genocide became cheap and easy.

Finally, political ideology has become the main driver of killing.  It was not even a factor till the revolutions of the late 18th century, and only since 1900 has it been a major factor.


War and Genocide

The usual causes of war have been power over people and land.  Also important have been capturing slaves (perhaps especially women), loot, profit for munitions makers, pride, warlike ideology, overactive young men, revenge, ethnic and religious hate (now and then regional, national, linguistic, etc.), honor, and traditional enmities.  Religion has been particularly associated with war, as cause or excuse, since the rise of world religions identified with empires.  Usually the “rule of three” operates:  Elites make war only when they have at least three good reasons.

It is easy to mobilize people to fight to defend their kingroup; everybody does it without much pressure.  It is harder to get them to fight for tribe or ethnic group.  It is hardest to make them fight for nations and empires.  Elites must create solidarity by appeals to imagined community (Benedict Anderson 1991), with appropriate symbols and rhetoric.

In traditional times, war was openly about power over people, secondarily about land.  In early modern times, war shifted to involvement in trade and empire.  Now it is basically about hate—genocide totally so, civil war mostly, international war largely.

People are haters throughout history, and thus fight often.  But wars require solidarity.  They are thus hard to mobilize; if people are anxious to fight, they usually prefer to fight neighbors, not strangers.  So conquest requires ‘asabiyah—loyalty, solidarity—as Ibn Khaldun said (Ibn Khaldun 1958).   Social movements have the same problem.  Thus, stopping war is often as difficult as fighting in it.  Fighting back or demonstrating are the only hopes, but they can work only within a shell of other, more constructive things


Modern political genocide has a different etiology.  It occurs when an autocratic regime animated by a hate ideology (or exclusionary ideology) is consolidating its position, or facing a major threat, and feels it has to crack down to survive.  This very simple model turns out to be almost totally predictive (Anderson and Anderson 2012, 2015).  The hate ideology is crucial, but so is the stress; regimes started by hatemongers have often proved surprisingly merciful and liberal, if the country is peaceful and increasingly prosperous.  Conversely, countries with only weakly hateful dictators have gone down the genocide path when faced with outright civil war or the like.

In earlier times, genocide was rather rare, and for rather different reasons.  One reason ws takeover of land by one group and consequent extermination of the group that was already there (Kiernan 2007).  Such settler genocides are universal in history.  Another was consolidation of new regimes, which generally led to politicide throughout history—though leading to far more in the 20th century than in most earlier eras.  Another common reason for mass murder was religion.  Heretics were to be exterminated.  Much of the old-time religious persecution started over land (Cathar crusade, Reconquista, etc.), but mere land squabbles always lead to enslaving the captured, or at least making them serve the new rulers.  Only religion can make the new rulers want to exterminate people who would have been willing workers.  It was religious genocide that led most directly to modern genocide, especially via the route from pogroms and anti-Jewish massacres to Hitler.

Genocide has become commoner and much larger in scope in the last century, though, partly because people are so excessively common as to be dispensable.  But, even now, religious persecution is the model.


Are small genocide worse than big wars?  Or massive structural violence?  Genocide is bad for three reasons: it kills; it kills innocents; it exterminates whole cultures.  That makes it hard to compare with a simple war.  Structural violence can be used to commit genocide by stealth.


Civil war occurs when a breakaway region rebels, or weak government faces mass unrest, often due to economic changes (Collier and Sambanis 2005).  These economic changes can be either bad or good and yet lead to civil war either way.  Changes for the worse lead to rebellions of desperation.  Changes for the better lead to “revolutions of rising expectations.”

Cycles of government usually predict revolutions and regime change; a government usually comes to power with high expectations, becomes slowly corrupt, and eventually falls apart, as in the dynastic cycles of the Arab Caliphate and the Chinese Empire (Turchin and Zevedov 2009).  Variants of this cyclic pattern exist.

International war is usually started by greedy people in high and safe places.  If the dictator or prime minister own munition plants, or expects huge landholdings in conquered terrain, war is pretty certain.  After that, national rivalry, traditional or otherwise, accounts for some wars.  Aggressive war is, naturally, most often waged against smaller, weaker polities.




PART II. Fixing It


“No one made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.”

Edmund Burke


Back to the Environment

In summary, firms that destroy the environment find it convenient to deflect public politics to hatred and intolerance, as a smoke screen or distraction.  But the politics of the environment also includes a wider problem with “nature” and “natural” things.  The western world has a long-standing, though never totally dominant, tradition of hating nature and wilderness and doing everything possible to get rid of them.  This can be traced back to ancient Sumer, and certainly to imperial Rome (Anderson 2014).  It surfaces in the Bible in the verse giving “man” the “dominion” over the world (Genesis 1:28), though this attitude is contradicted in the next chapter by God’s ordaining a stewardship ethic (Genesis 2), and most of the rest of the Bible follows the stewardship view.

With the rise of modern industry, the western world’s alternation between dominion and stewardship shifted far toward the “dominion” position.  Industry seemed to give humans true mastery.  There were “inexhaustible” resources, and people could always make artificial things that were better than anything natural.  This led in the mid-20th century to the most extreme positions imaginable.  Natural childbirth was condemned; interventions multiplied, with Caesarian sections commoner than natural births in some countries today.  Breastfeeding was similarly condemned and almost abolished, though it is far healthier and cheaper than bottle-feeding.  And so throughout life:  natural ways of learning were replaced by drills for standardized tests, cosmetic surgery slowly but surely gained ground, air conditioning replaced building for the climate, lawns replaced natural landscapes.  Plastic surgery to change drastically one’s natural appearance is now common worldwide and increasingly obligatory in some “beautiful people” circles (Stein 2015).

Much of the ecological damage of our time follows from cowardly defensiveness and general fear of all that surrounds us.   This cowardice about living translates to hate and fear of nature.  Then, anything unnatural is better than anything natural.  The effects on childrearing are serious (Louv 2005). The effects on environmental management are even more so.


Yet, people remain basically good most of the time.  They take care of their families, do their jobs, and act decently.  The evil in the world is very often the result of the above-mentioned tendency of the most evil to take over, so that the higher the social level the more laden it is with evil persons.


Opposites of Hate

Jon Elster, in his book on emotion (1998), usefully picks up from Alexis de Tocqueville the idea of an internal opposite and an external opposite to every emotion.  The internal opposite of hatred is simply lack of hate—indifference, basically.  The external opposite is caring and concern.  One might think of love, but it is too well known (ever since the Roman poet Catullus wrote “I hate and I love”) that one can hate a loved one.  So the external opposite is compassion, eusociality, and warm social feelings.  Only sociality can counter hate and fear.  Only social pressure can stop or change haters.

The internal opposite of cowardice—so often the wellspring of hatred—is simply going on: bearing up, “just doing it,” “hanging in there.”  The external opposite is courage.  Courage differs from foolhardiness in that courageous people know what they are up against, and even feel the full range of fear in face of it.  They go on anyway.  The foolhardy ignore danger; that is a formula for doing stupid things, not for doing good things.

Happiness, ataraxia (Buddhist-like absence of desire), mood management, and the like are never enough.  Only courage works.  Much of life involves doing extremely unpleasant things, often for other people, as every parent knows.  Another big part of life consists of fearful waiting for outcomes over which we have no control, ranging from medical tests to declarations of war.  We keep on because of what courage we have.  Without courage, humans tend to fall into fear, then anger, then hate.

Clearly, we need to get as far from hate as we can, and thus we need to push all these opposites as hard as we can.  The internal opposite of hate, simply not hating or at least not getting violent about it, is surely the first, best need, but it requires those talking-out sessions that the Semai and Erwin Staub agree on.


For fixing it, the first and most necessary perception is that we’re all in this together.  People are basically social, and know they depend on the social group.  This both reassures them and makes them vulnerable.  So they have to be raised in security, and trained out of excessive weak fear, and above all out of hatred and violent defensiveness.  This requires absolute support, but also full personal empowerment.  Children have to learn the all beings deserve respect, valuing, and compassion.

The necessary values also include patience, industry, courage, wisdom, learning, and serious self-improvement, as well as integrity and taking the world as it is. Resulting social morals include justice-as-fairness (Rawls 1971), justice as civic duty, civility, and real defense (self and collective) as opposed to defensiveness.

Process goals—goals that can never be totally reached, but are worth fighting for all the way—are basic; these include peace, justice, fairness, equaloity of opportunity, health, and security.

Ideally, people act for actual self-betterment, as long as it is not at expense of others.  It may seem strange to favor selfishness, but group hate, especially the cowardly form, is notably unselfish.  People routinely die for it; they court death.

By contrast, self-improvement is usually best done through positive-sum games—by improving everybody.  Selfishness at the expense of others is all too common, but impartial observation shows it is less common, under normal circumstances, than postive-sum gaming.  We do our best for our children because it feels satisfying to do so; we love because love is supremely delightful.

On the other hand, when conditions worsen, society often collapses not into individual selfishness but into group hate and into rival groups.  The future then belongs to blocs taking out rival blocs.


A problem is that good, by itself, does not cure bad.  All the niceness and beauty in the world won’t stop genocide; it has to be stopped by force or economic sanctions.  Overwhelming negative publicity is desirable but never adequate.  Some good things—peace, tolerance, caring—do stop evil, but only because they are themselves simply the absence of bad.  It is as with health: we want positive well-being, but mostly we just want illness cured.

Though holding up the Good, by itself, is never enough, without a vision of the Good nothing can be done.  Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Mandela saw this.   They could be warm, forgiving, supporting, yet pragmatic, and always openly antagonistic to hatred,  They could write, organize, and talk.

Fixing the world must involve direct censure of hatred and harm as immoral, including patient, rational explanation of what is wrong about specific hates.  We can insist on minimal human rights and other standards of conduct, and move in to enforce these as necessary.  We can teach decent behavior by precept and example, maintain a reputation for integrity and uncompromising ideals, and stay out of insult-trading.


The moral sense is a personal and cultural construction of our natural biological grounding and of cold fear at social rejection.  People are terrified of social rejection and criticism in a way they are not terrified of snakes, lions, fires, or tornadoes.  And with good reason:  first, we are compulsively social; second, people are far, far more dangerous to people than are all other things combined.  So people generalize that fear of social rejection via empathy channels (mirror neurons or similar mechanisms) and make avoiding social cuts and slashes a deeply felt general issue.  This would seem to explain the rapid changes that can occur in morality, both on a cultural level (the right fork) and on the individual level (gay marriage).

The basic biological grounding of morals seems to include several things:  a sense of fairness, not hurting fellow community members, defending the group (with appropriate fission-fusion and segmentation and cross-links), aiding and physically helping community members, generosity, and following social rules in general (see e.g. Boehm 2012).  Most or all cultures add respect, deference, and conditional obedience to elders and betters.  Then the question arises of how to define the community, and how much breaking down and crosscutting can happen in it.

This leads to the core question: who to attack and who to defend.  Then comes a question of what counts as breaking social rules: killing your neighbor, or merely not using the right fork?


Legally, we need to force internalization of costs by producers.  Personally, we need to make people less cowardly and less hateful.  The most immediate fix is tolerance, for obvious reasons.  It has to work on both rational and emotional levels, driving morality and responsibility. It also has to go beyond tolerance (the internal opposite of intolerance, bias and bigotry) into actual valuing of and respect for others and of diversity (the external opposite).

The ideal world would be all positive-sum games. That would lead to a world of civil virtues and eternal verities: sharing, fairness, egalitarianism, interest, civility, responsibility, respect, courage, love, caring, proactive help, common sense, and actual rational self-interest. Even righteous wrath would have a place.  However, it has only a small place.  Fighting fire with fire is sometimes a good idea, but not if the fire is in a hospital.  Fear and anger aren’t totally preventable, but care and reason must always be driven against them.

Unfortunately, a world with only positive-sum games will never come, so we have to be ready to deal in a zero-sum world without developing group hates.

With fear as the root problem, teaching courage and self-confidence is essential, but so is making sure that everyone knows society has his or her back.  This includes insuring security in material goods and health.


So the operating system for a decent world would be, first, tolerance—both putting up with people you dislike and learning to value everyone for what they can offer.  Then mutual aid, cooperation, and social solidarity with all.  Then a firm, strict rule of my rights stop where yours start, or, as someone put it, “your right to swing your arm ends at my nose.”  That basic principle would immediately put an end to racism and religious bigotry.  The right wing in the US today lives only to force their pseudo-Christian religious hate on others; they plead “freedom of religion,” but freedom of religion in the Constitution means protection of rights, not abnegation of the rights of the weaker.

Tolerance and recognition of the necessity of social order should allow Jurgen Habermas’ (1987) civil society, in which people actually talk out their problems.  It also drives the whole civil rights and human rights agenda.

With that framework, solving social problems, including environmental ones, would be possible.

Fighting evil can only be via a movement that builds solidarity, mutual aid, mutual care, and mutual benefit.  Labor unions have long seen this, but current liberal politics misses it.  This is why the protests fail now, and why the Democrats are failing.  They cannot get beyond individualism and moral grandstanding.

One goal has to be the classic utilitarian one:  Jeremy Bentham’s “greatest good for the greatest number over the greatest time,” in which “each one counts for one, no one for more than one.”  (See Bentham 1988, orig. 18th century.)  This is similar to basic Confucian morality: the best rules for a society that works harmoniously and peacefully but allows everyone to do their best  Whether one assumes with Xunzi that people are basically flawed, or with Mencius about their being basically eusocial, education is absolutely critical.  Social rules have to be decided on, and then taught.

This has to be an emotional movement.  We have to care, not  just invoke wooden Benthamism.   Of course this introduces counting and values problems, when done above the family level.  Valuation would have to get more and more cut-and-dried, which of course is why economists and Bentham have to be so soulless about it.

People need food, water, air, and protection most of all, but then need society, beauty, and meaning, from there they move up to caring, compassion, and concern   Aesthetics and fun are part of the answer, but they are mostly socially defined.  Either one has to start the style or to take advantage of it and shift it.  On the other hand, basic morality is somewhat more constant through time and place, with a central tendency toward public goods and public spirit for the in-group versus the outgroups.  So then defining “in” vs. “out” is critical, and depends on acceptance or rejection.

Ideally, the in-group would be all life on the planet.  Fear of strangers and outsiders, fear of threats to livelihood, fear of different-looking and different-acting people, and other fears have to be combatted directly.

All morality has to include an idea of helping rather than gratuitously harming, and many moral codes are based essentially on that idea.  They are also based on extending morality as widely as possible—ideally to the universe, then the world, then one’s own largest group, and so on down to the individual.  Of course real-world codes differ enormously in how much they approximate these ideas.

The above basics sound rather banal, but they are sorely lacking in most “progressive” and all “conservative” moral discourse today.  We have gotten ourselves into a politics of individuals who care little for common good, and blocs that care only to take each other down.



It is critical is to remember that all good came from movements launched, organized, ideologized, and matured during bad times.  Antislavery came about in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the period of the worst and most pervasive slavery.  The labor movement took shape in the arch-capitalist 1840s-1880s.  Good movements usually had long incubation periods during bad times.  During bad times most people either go passive or get into some hopeless, basically conservative movement.  The good movements begin and stay small, but are then prepared to flourish when opportunity affords.

An ideal world differs from ours today in four key ways:  Love would be really deep and central; community would be real, family-based, and basic; anger would be dealt with by feeling it but then rationally coping with the causes of it; foibles would be dealt with by seeing them as strengths or, at worst, the costs of benefits, instead of excuses to hate.  People would try to improve themselves instead of taking others down.

It would be a world in which people would be raised secure enough, but with serious needs and high standards enough, to learn to take the world as is, deal with it, and cope by making things better. 

Therefore, social life would not be constant complaints, whining, and snapping.  People would not hunt for slights to resent.  There would be few “hurt feelings” or “disrespecting,” and concerns about honor would be about one’s personal integrity and decency, not one’s social show.  (The mutating of honor from personal honor to dunghill-rooster vanity is one of the less lovable changes in modern politics.  It has happened largely during my lifetime.)

The ways to get there are exhaustively described in Erwin Staub’s Overcoming Hate (2011).  They boil down to teaching children not to hate; talking out hate and hate-caused problems; and getting people to interact in positive ways with groups they fear, distrust or dislike.  Merely integrating schools and housing is notoriously unsuccessful.  Even the very conscious and intensive efforts to fuse “Yugoslavia” into one nation failed dismally, with the component ethnic groups immediately descending into genocidal war when the communist government fell.  Similarly, the countless efforts to reduce hatred in the United States, through everything from “multiculturalism” to integrated TV shows, have had only some effect; they have had some, however, and the rising generation is far more tolerant than their elders, so many of our efforts are clearly succeeding.  New laws and the dramatic changes in popular culture (TV, movies, advertising…) seem especially significant.

People have to work together, preferably at some project that strengthens everyone.  The old-time folk societies of the world were good at integrating local communities, because everyone had complementary roles and also much collective celebration and much group effort.  Unfortunately, folk communities were typically isolated from other folk communities, and got into rivalry with nearby ones, leading to hate problems.  We need, today, an even more networked world than the one we have—a world in which people find it necessary to deal with and accommodate to all sorts of people (see Staub 2011).

The directions for developing workshops, classes, work groups, projects, and discussions can be found in Staub’s book, and would be tedious to repeat here.  Suffice it to say that there is simply no substitute for ongoing civil discussion and cowork.  There is also no substitute for education that seriously addresses these issues and teaches people the strength, courage, forbearance, civility and above all respect to live with them.  We are not going to get rid of hatred, and teaching people to be “nice” is hopelessly inadequate.  The hope is that we can get enough mutual respect that people will not only stop killing each other, but will stop other people—strangers, neighbors—from killing or bullying.

At a higher level, though, governments must intervene.  This basically means full civil rights legislation, going rather beyond the US Civil Rights Act, which has proved inadequate to stop discrimination, segregation, and injustice.  Minority communities are subjected to police brutality that goes uninvestigated (let alone punished).  Housing and schools are as segregated now as they were before the act.  Few provisions for encouraging tolerance or fighting hatred exist.  Law enforcement got it right about dealing with evil: deliberate, methodical, cold-factual.  No emotion—that just leads to cops shooting fleeing Black kids.

Experience has proved that freedom of speech is preferable to censorship—getting hate out into the light of day, to be discussed and attacked, is preferable to letting it fester.  Allowing openly hateful and terrorist groups to flourish, however, is not a good plan.  Germany’s continued outlawing of Nazi groups is clearly a good idea.  The United States’ tolerance of the Ku Klux Klan and similar organizations seems less good.  They should be listed as terrorist organizations and subjected to all the legal restraints of the extremist Muslim groups that have been so classified.

The government—the higher levels, that is—should protect the public through such measures, but actually dealing with individuals and their hates must be left to the grassroots level.  Both vertical and lateral integration of anti-hate, anti-violence efforts are needed.



Religion needs a special section, since it should be the major way to combat hate, but it is instead the most deadly driver of or excuse for hatred today.

Religion, worldwide, is mostly social.  It is about ceremonies, group morals, group rules.  It has also always involved an individualist, quietist or mystical, aesthetic streak.  The combination is necessary to produce basic social rules that have to be internalized as individual principles: caring, compassion, respect,  love of God and neighbor.  The medieval Chinese fusion of mystical Daoism, compassionate Buddhism, and hypersocial Confucianism got all that explicitly (see e.g. Mote 1999).

Religion is also about satisfaction of higher-order needs: society, control of one’s life, meaning, emotional peace.  Morality is basically an institutionalization of management of the social need.  It tells us what is necessary or desirable to make interpersonal communication and action possible.  It gets used for many other purposes, but those are secondary.


Religion developed from local-community religion in simple stateless societies.  With the rise of empire, “world religions”—invariably propagated by an early empire—arose.  This led to the development of full religious organizations, from the Catholic church to the Islamic legal schools to the Confucian academies.  These took on a life of their own, and once nation-states evolved, religion evolved with them, into a counter-organization.  No longer was church equal to state.  This devewlopment took place earlier in China, with its rival religions, than in the Christian West, where the concept began in the wars of religion of the 15th-17th centuries but was not explicit till the 18th.

When that happened, religion was available to be almost instantly coopted by nationalism, and then unions, clubs, everybody.  All sorts of organizations learned that flags, art works, exhibitions, ceremonies, bulletins, meetings, hierarchies, and all the other trappings of the church could be used for everything from nation-building to forming a school band (B. Anderson 1991).

Religion has to be based on trust.  It is, as Durkheim (1995) showed, the collective representation of the community.  More specifically, it is a way of constructing commuinty by engaging people’s emotions. It has to provide security, social support, certainty, clear rules, and the like.  It is thus the ideal way to drive long-term, wide considerations against short-term ones.





Descriptive and Predictive Observations


The United States

In the United States, certain giant primary-production interests have funded the far right and its candidates.  Money is vitally important in modern politics, particularly after those same interests have pressed cases through the Supreme Court that eliminate most restrictions on campaign funding.  But, in the end, votes are necessary.  Since the rise of the “southern strategy” designed by Lee Atwater and Karl Rove in the 1970s, the Republican Party in the US has been increasingly appealing to a sector of the right wing that is racist and religiously bigoted (on religion, see Domke and Coe 2007).  In the South, most of these people (though by no means all) were Democrats until the 1980s, since which they have become essentially 100% Republican.  In the North, the bigot vote was fairly evenly divided; it is now solidly Republican.  Big corporations also pander to the wild conspiracy theories of the right (for which see Barkun 2013).  Frimer et al. (2015) mildly refer to a “decline of prosocial language” in American politics.  That is an understatement.

The overwhelming majority of right-wing voters in the US are middling to very poor; they vote against gays, blacks, Hispanics, and poor people, not for their own self-interest.  A rational economist would point out that such voters are voting against competing blocs—“demographics” that are moving up the socioeconomic scale and challenging the supremacy of less educated whites.  The economist would also point to the way that downward mobility exacerbates hate; Hitler took over in the Depression. True, and both these are extremely important points.  However, they are not adequate to explain the level of virulence or the self-handicapping that goes along with it.  Rural America has been forsaken by both parties—except for subsidizing agribusiness.  So they increasingly vote Republican, and they increasingly hate downward economically, and scapegoat the minorities and the poor.  All rural districts that are not minority-majority are now red on the election maps.

The original idea was to exploit this sector, but, as so often happens, the racists and religious bigots gained more and more power and they made up a higher and higher percentage of the Republican voters, especially of those willing to vote in the primaries.  The giant primary-production corporations, largely Republican already, found that they had to play increasingly to this votership.  They have now caved in (in spite of the above-noted incipient backlash), and donate money to even the most extreme racists and religious fanatics.  The relatively reasonable, non-racist conservatives who formerly dominated the Republican Party have now deserted it in droves, swelling the ranks of Independents, or, in a very few cases, even becoming Democrats.

The Koch backing of Scott Walker is possibly the most extreme and dramatic example, but the whole Republican sweep of 2014 was funded by a specific set of firms, largely oil, coal, chemical, and agribusiness with some influence from gambling and other shady sectors.  The victorious candidates were almost entirely from the extreme-bigot end of the Republican Party. Moderate Republicans and Democrats are both politically very rare today.  Major abridgements of civil rights, especially voting rights and women’s rights, promptly became law in Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma, North Carolina, Wisconsin, and several other states.  Previous Republican abridgements of voting rights were directly responsible for wins in West Virginia and North Carolina, according to analysis of the votes.

This is not to say that all, or even most, corporations support the far-right agenda; rather few actually do.  I am also not saying that the Republican party has been taken over entirely by hatemongering, although it appears, as of 2015, to be very close to that state.  What has happened is more limited: a handful of corporations have found that whipping up hatred and bigotry allows them to win elections and to distract public attention from environmental ills.

The hatred is not all on the Republican side.  Blind hate of “the rich,” “the 1%,” “capitalism” (never defined), and “the banks,” shows that Democrats are far from immune from the same disease.  On the social media, the troll comments from the left are as common and hateful as those from the right.  And outright racists are certainly not lacking from the Democratic Party.  There is also a great deal of minority-on-minority hate (most recently including Black evangelicals criticizing gays, while many Hispanics and Asians attack Blacks).  This is a political game that any number can and do play.

So far, only the Republican Party has actually fallen into the clutches of extremists, but some recent Democratic attacks on “the 1%” are chilling.  Even more chilling is the toxic irresponsibility of the liberals who refuse to vote for the “lesser of two evils” and either do not vote or throw their votes away on quixotic candidates.  Excessive individualism combined with an easygoing attitude have created a toxic mix of civic irresponsibility and inability to unite behind a single candidate or program.  Moreover, liberal politics runs on money too, and the rich liberals tend to be a great deal less serious about helping the poor than they would like to think.  (At my university, the self-described “radicals” mostly live in mansions—not just big houses, but genuine mansions.  They have money from sources well beyond academia.)  The liberals present a wasteland of people too weak and dispirited to act..

Most corporations are far from hate-selling, but they have been cajoled into supporting the Tea Party, ALEC, and their ilk, as these groups increasingly dominate the Republican Party.  The corporations fear Democrats more than they fear the chaos of a fascist world—not a good choice.  Giant corporations have been put in a position of having to support hatred, and hate-merchandising candidates.  More and more elections have turned on racism, bashing the poor, and religious hate.  In the 2014 elections, Republicans swept the country, relying overwhelmingly on the bigot vote.  The party platform consisted almost entirely of anti-immigrant, anti-Black, anti-gay, anti-labor union, anti-woman, anti-Muslim and other bigoted planks.  The old economic conservatism was lost from the platform—partly because the giant corporations, which depend very heavily on taxpayer subsidies, do not want either small government or a decline in overall social spending.  They may oppose spending on the poor, but they want more subsidies for themselves.

Anyone who doubts this is advised to follow on Facebook or other media sites the latest pronouncements of Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, or almost any other leading Republican.  More revealing is tracing the money that bankrolls them.  Much of it comes from Charles and David Koch, oil and timber barons and founders and funders of the Tea Party and many other right-wing causes.  Whether they personally are racist or religiously bigoted, I do not know, but they certainly back candidates who run on hate.  Most of the rest of the money comes largely from a small group of primary-production firms and bottom-end retailers.  Dan and Farris Wilks, for example, Texas fracking billionaires, are financing Ted Cruz’ campaign, which is currently the most extreme of the hate-based campaigns; the Wilks maintain that they are defending Christianity, or at least their oil-and-Old-Testament version of it (Einenkel 2015).

In fact, how much the moneyed Republican establishment is racist remains to be seen.  Certainly not all Republicans are racist.  However, Republicans made bestsellers of The Bell Curve (Herrnstein and Murray 1994) and A Troublesome Inheritance (Wade 2014), outrageously unscientific and dishonest works of extreme racism that are largely derived directly or indirectly from the same sources that Hitler and his Nazis drew on for their propaganda.  Evidently a large percentage of the more “moderate” Republicans, and essentially all the right-wingers, really believe this stuff.  The same is true of religion; it would be tendentious to question the sincerity of the preachers who call for the extermination of gays, or the Republican lawyers in California who attempted to put a bill to that effect on the 2016 ballot, or of the preachers that want to eliminate all spending on the poor, deprive women of basic rights, and bring back racial segregation.  The 2016 Republican primary is shaping up to be a battle of bigots; moderate candidates are making no visible showing in the polls, while the front-runners (with the partial exception of Jeb Bush) are, as of mid-2015, the most extreme of the huge list of candidates

On a more general level, the Republicans in the United States have, in fact, created a “war on science” (Mooney 2006), which includes attempts to apply devastating cuts to NSF—especially to its social science section (which studies issues of poverty and ethicity) and its earth science section (which studies climate change).  Eliminating the earth sciences would be seriously damaging to oil and coal interests, which rely to a significant extent on findings in these areas, but the radical-right politicians proposing the cuts are now moving out of the control of their oil and coal sponsors.

One must haste to add that other countries have equivalent anti-minority, religiously-bigoted, and anti-science movements, ranging from militant Biblical and Quranic literalism to Europe’s neo-Nazi extremist parties.  The United States is far from alone.  Schoolyard bullies and their bootlickers dominate much of American and world politics.  We are seeing the rise of the Nazi mentality:  Adulation of physical force and violence; anti-intellectualism; scorn for the “weak,” including minorities; general intolerance.

The triumph of the Republicans in 2014  was nearly total; they won every seriously contested election, including capture of even more state legislatures too, even in New Hampshire.  What happened was expectable: primary-production industries not only voted Republican but contributed the money that put it over.  Democrat foolishness cost them many elections, through failure to appeal to labor and then failure to get out the vote.


If hatred continues to escalate, it will be a matter of time until an extremist candidate wins the presidency.  Then, a worst-case but not at all implausible scenario would begin with government cooperation with giant firms in eliminating restrictions on banks, environmental protection, minimum wage laws, public health care, labor unions, and restrictions on what employers can force workers to do.  Homosexuality would be criminalized and ruthlessly suppressed.  Care for disabled persons would be eliminated.  Women’s rights would be rolled back.  Birth control and abortion would be outlawed.  All this would bring the US to financial ruin in a few years, with average per capita income shrinking 70-80%.  The government would then start a war as the only possible way to stimulate the economy without re-enacting liberal reforms.  War would provide an excuse for declaring a state of emergency, suspending the Constitution, and instituting a crackdown.  Some 5% of Americans would be murdered in the resulting genocide.

If his scenario sounds strangely familiar, you know your German history: it is actually Germany in the 1930s and early 1940s (Neumann 1943, 1957; a few Republican suggestions have been added to localize the scenario in the US.)  Guatemala in the 1970s and 1980s followed a similar path, though to a less extreme degree.  Several other comparison cases could be adduced.  This is not an implausible scenario, nor, as noted above, is it impossible in a democracy.  It is also significant that the Republican platform for 2016 bears a close resemblance to the Nazi platform of the 1930s.


The following are the major areas of polarization in the United States today:

Environment, environmentalists, ecology (incl population, wildlife, predators, soil, water….)

Hate and fear of nature and idealization of “development,” the more destructive the better (literally)


Rejection of science, notably global warming and evolution

Human nature; blaming the victim

Hate, scorn, or rejection of the poor


Hatred as the best way to run a country

“Freedom” as hatred of restrictions that protect the public good

Economic theory and findings: wages, taxes, incentives, trickle-down, etc.

Free enterprise

Industry, big oil, banks, big firms, chemicals, agribusiness….

Welfare and aid

Class war

Race and racism

Gender: women, gays, children, birth, infants



Birth control

Hate-down, incl bullying, hating welfare clients, hating even vets, loving Israel (vs Palestinians)

US history, especially southern

US culture


Disease control (even to vaccinations)

Foreign policy and other countries in general


Guns and “self-defense”


Land planning, urban life

Idealizing consumerism and trash culture, incl junk food (and trashing “food nazis”)

Hateful attitudes in these areas are predictable from generic fear and hate of the world.


Corresponding lies and hates on the left:


Excessive fondness for socialism and communism

19th-century “capitalism” as a reality today

“Neoliberalism”—a thing to hate that does not even exist

The ideal of throwing money at problems

“Economic growth” and other cornucopia ideas  left over from Marxism

Rational self-interest as a reality; “voting the pocketbook”

Denying real need for war on occasion

Hating up, “1%,” “occupy”

Never blaming the victim, including denial that some welfare clients are indeed cheaters

Excessive “political correctness,” to the extent that it blocks more serious issues

Verbally trashing whites in general, rural people in general, and the south in general

Being in denial about hate, violence, even genocide


The Rest of the Modern World



Nearest to true was the Club of Rome: we are exactly on their lines in running out of stuff.  But they did not predict the most obvious feature of the last 50 years: giant corporations have taken advantage of both socialism and capitalism, consolidated their hold, frozen innovation in the necessary areas, and let everything spin downward.

Other predictions have notably failed.  We are not yet at a Hobbesian or Orwellian stage, though some countries (notably China) are awfully close to Orwell’s 1984.  Predictions of revolution and subsequent utopia or improvement have alike failed totally.  Science-fiction predictions have almost all turned out wrong; the writers of 60 years ago confidently predicted mass space travel by now, with people skating on the canals of Mars, but did not predict the laptop computer, the internet, and the whole IT revolution.

Science has progressed, especially psychology and medicine, but popular culture has remained in a sorry state.  Politics has gotten worse worldwide; economic growth has come but at the expense of the environment.

There is a worldwide drift toward fascism, though some regions have gone against the trend and moved toward democracy, especially South America.  The poor get poorer worldwide, but many get better off.   Even without fascism, the world will hit limits in the 2040s.  Forests, wild-caught fish, and game will be gone.  Fresh water and farmland will have peaked, and possibly also oil.  Advancement or fixing will be virtually impossible, since there will be no spare resources to draw down and invest.  Thus, predictably, rapid decline after 2050, no matter what happens in the next 35 years.  Most likely is a fascist US leading to world economic collapse.  The economy would collapse from the bottom up and from the outside in: the poorest would be the first to go, but also those who depend on the resource extraction economy, such as loggers, fishers, and miners.  But, since primary production of food, fibre and fuel is the most necessary and basic part of the economy, the giant primary-production firms would be the last to go down.  Therefore, they could continue to play the hate card and to influence politics until the human race ceases to exist.



Totalitarian states with comprehensive exclusionary ideologies that stroke the majority go on until they hit a crisis: North Korea, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Guatemala, etc.  They flourish especially if they do well economically. Those states that are just military dictatorships, or look like such in spite of trying to spin hate ideologies, tend to fall or give way to democracy, if there is any civil society.  Recent examples include  Thailand, most of Latin America, Korea and Taiwan.  Unfortunately, some merely fall to revolving-door coups. This was typical of Latin America until recently, but now democracy has spread.

Those that are based on a minority ruling a majority get more and more troubled and eventually collapse into civil war ensues: Iraq, Syria, Libya (secular), etc.  The USSR came to that in the end.

If the US turns fascist, it will be in the first group.  The haters know enough to keep white women and less affluent whites on the program.

Worldwide, the giant primary-production firms will increasingly depend on thug gangs and corrupt governments.  This will lead to civil breakdown and return to medieval feudalism: kings vying to see who can best use generosity at home and terror outside.

Part of the future clearly belong to ISIS and Taliban.

Part probably belongs to dictatorships openly run by giant primary-production corporations.  Such technodictatorships are fascist; the old-fashioned kings and military dictators are obsolete.  “Kings” like those of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are essentially oil executives.

Previously, fascism has been of three types:  one dominated by a psychotic dictator (Hitler, Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot); one dominated by a more ordinary leader or elite (most Middle East and the rest of Asia, plus fascism in Spain and Italy); or corporate (as in China, in Guatemala and El Salvador in the 1980s, and Iraq under Saddam).  They blur into each other.  The technofascist option will probably dominate the future.

China will maintain its extreme repressive dictatorship for foreseeable future; all credible challenges are being effectively dealt with now.

The future for most states, then, is standard cyclic fate: Buildup of corruption and above-the-law till violence is out of control because crime gets too big to regulate, as in Mexico, El Salvador, Brazil, Paraguay, Indonesia, and increasingly China and Russia.




Acknowledgements:  I am very grateful to Jeremy Solin for advice on this ms.





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The Environment and China’s Future

July 7th, 2015

The Environment and China’s Future

  1. N. Anderson

Dept. of Anthropology

University of California, Riverside



ROUGH DRAFT; comments and corrections urgently desired!


This paper is a very modest effort at bringing together quotes and facts from leading scientists on the environmental problems of modern China.  Interpretation and commentary is kept to a minimum, mostly obvious conclusions based narrowly on the facts presented.  I am hoping that some readers will be able to use the information here to help in reaching more significant conclusions.


Portions of this paper were given as presentations at the California Sociological Association annual meetings, 2012 and 2014, Riverside, CA



After 5000 years of trying to live in some degree of “harmony” (he or heping) with the environment, China under Mao turned toward “struggling against nature” (in Mao Zedong’s phrase).  The result of this conflict is, inevitably, that both people and nature lose.  China now suffers massive deforestation, pollution, soil erosion, desertification, urban sprawl onto prime farmland, and building of huge uneconomic projects that destroy the environment (statistics supplied in this paper).  This in turn has led to ill health among the citizenry.  Now, China has turned to other countries, as it seeks resources to make up for those it has lost.


“When you’re thirsty it’s too late to dig a well.”

Chinese proverb



Many commentators have seen China’s economic rise as a promise of triumph, with China perhaps being the world leader or “hegemonic power” of the 21st century.  This, however, is impossible, unless China greatly changes its environmental policies.  Failing that, shortages of food, water, breathable air, and sheer space for construction, among other things, will limit China’s ability to dominate the world, economically or politically.

Communist China’s economic success is due to a number of things.  Some of these are commendable, at least in general principles if not always in detail.  China now has mass education, scientific research, generally available health care, a vastly improved infrastructure, and law and order.

However, some other features of China’s economy have caught the eyes of foreign observers.  Many American observers ascribe China’s success to four things.  First is keeping wages low and preventing workers from grassroots organizing.  Second is massive government support for primary production.  Third is an autocratic government that suppresses dissent and free speech.  Fourth is the concern of the present paper:  the relative lack of meaningful environmental regulations or protection.  China has decided that environmental protection is in conflict with economic growth.

In this, Communist China has reversed China’s 5000-year history of trying to live and work with the environment.  Imperial China often failed in the execution, but at least had a reasonably consistent belief that a well-managed environment is necessary to the survival of agriculture and civilization.  The Chinese Communist under Mao Zedong reversed this policy, and adopted the Marxist-Leninist idea of “struggle against nature”—a favorite phrase of Mao’s.  Marx shared the 19th-century European belief in progress through destroying nature and substituting an industrial landscape.  Marx himself was quite moderate about this, and had some sense of a need for environmental management (Foster 2000), but Lenin and Stalin opted for heavy industrialization at all costs.

In China, after 1948, things went well for about ten years.  It did not bring in extreme collectivization measures until 1958.  Instead, it began ambitious and stunningly successful measures of flood control, erosion prevention, reforestation, and public relief.  Capital was freed by expropriating landlords.  Workers were more efficiently mobilized.  Cooperatives, successful locally even before communism, spread and flourished.  Food production soared.

Most successful of all in saving the environment has been the policies on birth.  A two-child policy changed to one child only for most Han Chinese; minorities and some rural populations get better dispensations.  China still has 22% of the world’s population on only 7% of the land.

However, Communist China has been harsher on the environment than was dynastic China (on dynastic management, see Anderson 2014; Elvin 2004, but Elvin considerably too harsh on the traditional system; Marks 1998, 2009, 2012; Menzies 1994).  The Communists substituted a mentality of “struggling against nature” for the older tradition of going with nature.  This increased production in the short run, but major policy errors—the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, “taking grain as the key link,” and others—led to massive famines.

The Great Leap Forward in 1958-1961 caused what was almost certainly the greatest famine in all Chinese history.  A history of this event has finally come forth:  Mao’s Great Famine by Frank Dikötter  (2010; see also Smil 2004; Dikötter’s work has been criticized, largely for maintaining it was deliberate genocide; it was more a matter of mistaken policy; see Eberlein 2012.  However, the death toll is what matters here).  Further famines during the Great Cultural Revolution (due more to the confusion of that time) continued to erode Communist successes.

Li (2007:359) cites an estimate of 23 million dead in the 1958-61 famine, but her figures for the areas she knows are relatively higher, and so are mine (very incomplete but revealing) from interviews with refugees in Hong Kong.  I would estimate at least twice her figure, and many other estimates are higher (Dikötter 2010).  After long and detailed review of the evidence, Li breaks her usual objective stance to say that “the Mao famine…stands alone…an ‘error’ of an individual human being.  Some Qing emperors were exemplary leaders,…others were lacking in ability….  But none could be said to have actually caused a famine to occur….  The spirit of the country was high…. The government was fully functional….  For the Mao famine, there is no record, no acknowledgment, no acceptance of …responsibility” (Li 2007:364).  The Qing officials did their best and made reports on any failures.  Not only Mao, but even the post-Mao governments of China, have never done that.  Secrecy was and is maintained.  The story remains untold, the dead not only unacknowledged in public but uncounted.

In retrospect, we can see Mao’s policies as, in some ways, typical of the world of the 1950s.  It was a unique period, characterized everywhere by a rush to privilege the artificial over the natural.  This was the age when processed food was better than unprocessed, bottle feeding better than breastfeeding, episiotomies and anaesthetics and Caesarian sections better than natural childbirth, leafblowers better than lighter and faster brooms, and any and all “labor-saving” devices better than the old ways even when the latter actually involved less effort and expense.  Research on biocontrol would have saved the world from pesticides.  Often, as in China, the results were irreversible.  As Rachel Carson predicted in Silent Spring (1962), pesticides have exterminated the biocontrol agents—the birds, bugs and bacteria that used to control pests.  In China, active and deliberate extermination of small birds, believed to eat grain (wrongly in all cases except for one or two species), was added to that mix.  Bees are so completely exterminated that apple and pear farmers are pollinating flowers by hand (Goulson 2012).

Policy was substantially changed after Mao Zedong’s passing, leading to several environmental reforms, and to dramatic production increases.  These, however, came at increasing environmental cost.  Massive pollution by extreme overuse of fertilizers and insecticides (up to 10 times the recommended rates) has accompanied massive loss of farmland to urbanization, erosion, desertification, and pollution.

The result of China’s policies has been deforestation, desertification, pollution, and waste of resources.  Many books document this (Abe and Nickum 2009; Day 2005; Economy 2005; He 1991; Marks 2012; Shapiro 2001; Smil 1984, 2004; Tilt 2009; Watts 2010; for thorough and general recent reviews of environmental-economic prospects for China, see Song and Woo 2008).  Richard Smith has recently written on why “China’s environmental crisis is so horrific, so much worse than “normal” capitalism most everywhere else, and why the government is incapable of suppressing pollution even from its own industries” (Smith 2015:1).  And this in spite of Smith’s acceptance of China’s economic growth figures, which, as will appear below, are far from realistic.

Even more serious for the future is the fact that much of the damage is essentially irreversible.  Lester Brown (1995), Richard Edmonds (1998), Robert Marks (2012), Vaclav Smil (1984, 2004), and Judith Shapiro (2001) have been particularly sharp and insightful recorders.  Smil (2004) criticizes Brown’s negativity, but can only agree with the facts.  Smil differs from Brown only in the projections.  Brown adopts a worst-case scenario in which China keeps going downhill.  Smil, on the basis of hindsight, sees much more hope.  Indeed, after the massive floods in 1998 (see below), China’s leadership recognized that something had to be done.  Thus, not only Smil, but other observers of the Chinese environmental scene (Day 2005; Economy 2005), saw considerable hope for the future, as of the early 2000’s.  A major report on the environment by the World Bank (2007) noted in enormous detail the horrific levels of air and water pollution.  They estimated that damage to human health and lifespan and to structures and crops by air pollution cost the country 6.5% of GDP, while water pollution caused damage to human health that cost 1.9%, with crop damage and other damage on top of that.  They also noted that many major changes for the better had occurred; China was using energy resources more efficiently, cleaning the air, supplying better water.  Since then, however, the situation has widely deteriorated.



Unfortunately, since these books appeared, the rate of urbanization and ruin of farmland and the levels of pollution have increased, and the government seems to have backed away from its sensible policies (cf. Hyde and Xu 2009), though reforestation continues and is notably successful in some places.  My observations and my students’ make it clear that Smil is too optimistic.  Brown was closer to the truth.  Things are not going well.

Yonglong Lu et al. have summarized the problems in a recent article in Science Advances (2015).  They find that more and more intensive food production, to improve the quality of food for China’s increasing population, is on a collision course with environmental survival (let alone sustainability).  Area of lakes seriously eutrophied by fertilizer has gone from 135 sq km in 1967 to 8700 in 2007 and still more now.  Nitrogen in the air (and precipitating from it) has almost tripled since 1980.  Air pollution of all sorts is reducing crop yields.  Use of pesticides is twice the world average.  More than 40% of China’s land is affected by erosion (which has been going on for millennia, but much more rapidly since 1958).  They make the obvious broad and general recommendations, but offer no help with the specific measures needed in order to make the government enact them.  So far, it has made hopeful but inadequate moves in that direction.

China’s usable farmland is down to 120 million ha, an enormous decline from the peak in the 1960s.  China had 7% of the world’s arable land; this would drop it to 5-6%.  The country lost more than 15% of its agricultural land from 1957 to 1990 (Smil 2004:124)—probably quite a lot more—and it has lost at least as much since.  Reported losses from 1997 to 2008 were 12.31 million hectares (Moyo 2012), and the truth is certainly higher.  As recently as the early 1990s, China had 140-145 million ha or more (Smil 2004:128), and that was after enormous prior declines; the greatest extent of China’s agriculture came in the 1960s, when over 160 million ha may have been cultivated.  (“May have been” because China’s official figures in earlier decades were often too low [see Smil 2004:125-127], and satellite imagery, now used to correct them, was not adequately available in the 1960s.)  Taking 160 million ha as base, and using a figure from 2007 of 122 million ha now (Shi 2010:4), we have around a 25% decline.  The steady loss of farmland and of local rights is working increasing hardship on the poor and middle class (Fenby 2014; Zhao 2013).

The decline is currently at 860,000 ha a year from urbanization alone (Larson 2013b), not counting the even greater amount of land lost to erosion.  Seto et al (2012) point out that China may triple or quadruple its urbanized land area by 2030, from about 80,525 square km in 2000 to perhaps 300,000 in 2030.  This would require spending $100 billion a year simply to keep up with infrastructure.  At this rate, China’s last farm will disappear around 2200.  (At least this is better than California; before the housing crash of 2008, California was urbanizing at a rate that would have eliminated its last farm around 2050.)  Meanwhile, global warming is seriously impacting crops; rice pollen dies when the temperature passes 37 degrees C, which is now happening in southern China (Larson 2013b).

Agricultural policies are devastating.  China’s farmers are not making money; rural incomes are stagnating, and more and more people are moving to the city (Johnson 2014 gives a recent update).  Rents are high, profits low, and government still constrains and controls what can be produced.  Grain is particularly unprofitable.  Banks are understandably less than willing to advance capital for farming.  Recent attempts to free up farmers’ land use decisions have so far had little effect, but may improve the situation (Johnson 2014).

Three leading Chinese academics have recently published in Nature, the world’s leading scientific journal, a scathing indictment of urbanization policy.  One can do no better than quote the highlights of their article:  “In the past decade, the urban built-up land area in China has grown by 78.5%….  About half of urban growth has been at the expense of arable land, raising concerns about food security.  To curb the loss of agricultural land, the central government has introduced strict regulations….  These policies have had…adverse consequences.  In a desperate search for non-agricultural land to develop, cities have reclaimed wetlands and lakes and converted pristine mountains.  At the same time, developed land is not being used efficiently—attention quickly shifts ot the next development project….  Illegal discharge of industrial waste-water, which contains heavy metals and other pollutants, around cities is blamed by some for more than 400 ‘cancer villages,’ in which cancer diagnoses and deaths are sometimes 20-30 times higher than the national average….” (Bai et al. 2014:158-159; on cancer villages see Smith 2015).  The authors note that Wuhan has lost 70% of its lake area.  They also deal in detail with the problems of rural-urban migrants, forced urbanization, and policy already inadequate  and made more so by corruption.  They outline a number of remedies, some being tried, some visionary; the process of urbanization could be controlled (though not reversed), but it would take a political reversal that seems most unlikely at this time.

A measure of China’s land use planning, and of its method of executing those plans, is provided by the summary expulsion of less affluent people from their land to make way for development that profits local businesspeople and government officials (the latter often through corruption; Bai et al. 2014).  This is often a measure of desperation; local governments are overextended and poorly funded, and must do this if they are to meet operating costs, according to Jonathan Fenby (2014:65-66).  Another reason for driving people off the land is the dream of “large-scale, modernized farming” (Bai et al. 2014:158)—in other words, the industrial farming that is proving disastrous worldwide; as in its drive to provide private cars, China is copying western foolishness instead of building on its own sound experience.  Summary expulsion from land and houses, without appropriate compensation, has affected an estimated 43% of villages and cities.  Gangs of thugs are sent to beat residents who object.  A revealing case involved a gang of seven attacked the home of Shen Jianzhang in a small village; unfortunately for them, he was a gongfu master, and he and his son quickly reduced the seven to a crumpled mass on the floor.  The result, though, was that he had to flee the town and his son was jailed (Hannon 2012).  His wife had videoed the episode, however, and the video has now been seen all over China, inspiring some concerted action.

Poor economic and ecological conditions in the rural areas are driving people, especially men, to work in the cities—often illegally in terms of China’s strict controls on residence (Bai et al. 2014 give a good up-to-date account of the magnitude of the problem).  A result is that 58 million children were effectively fatherless in 2010, and 40 million women and 47 million aging parents were also deserted.  This exodus has also led to poorer land care; some land has gone out of cultivation, while composting is reduced and overuse of chemicals increases (Yang 2013).

Brown pointed out that China’s aggressive campaign to modernize transportation is sacrificing vast areas of farmland to roads, parking lots, airports, and the like.  I found his claims and figures hard to believe until I visited China in 1999; in a short visit, I personally observed tens of thousands of acres of prime rice land being converted to these uses.  The situation has gotten much worse since.  On the other hand, transportation has moved rapidly toward fast rail, subway, good buses, and other more environmentally friendly means.  Yet the drive to increase the number of cars is continuing.  Farmland paved over for cars is out of production for a very long time.

The remainder is acidifying, and the more heavily fertilized parts are degrading seriously because of this (Guo et al. 2010).  The BBC News website (in a posting on 23 April 2007) related that China’s farmland is so seriously polluted that more than 10% is out of production or nearly so.  Pollution took out of production some 307,000 ha of arable land in the first 10 months of 2006 alone.  A Chinese governmental estimate, from 2013, says that some 3.3 million hectares (8 million acres) of farmland are too polluted to use (Atkin 2013).  The Chinese government wants to keep at least 120 million hectares in farmland; it has 135 million as of 2013, but only 120 million are usable, because of desertification and erosion as well as pollution.  (For the record, China had 80 million under cultivation in 1600 [Parker 2013:619]).

More recent figures indicate that, as of early 2014, “6.1% of China’s soil was polluted, including 19.4% of farmlnd, 10.0% of forest land, 10.4% of grassland, and 11.4% of unused land” (Chen et al. 2014)  82% of these lands contaned heavy metals and other non-organic, long-lasting toxics.  “China consumes nearly one-third of the world’s fertiloizer, and the pesticide usage per unit area is 2.5 times the world average” (Chen et al. 2014).  Meanwhile, over 5000 urban brownfields are adding to the problem (Yang et al. 2014).

However, it was excessive fertilizing, polluted water, heavy metals, and solid wastes that did most of the damage to China’s farmland acreage.  Heavy metals are especially bad, since they persist essentially forever; they caused losses of $2.6 billion in 2006.  China’s government now admits, on the basis of surveys between 2005 and 2009, that 16.1% of China’s soil, including 19.4% of China’s arable land is contaminated, largely with heavy metals including the deadly lead and cadmium (BBC News 2014b).  Hunan has had particular problems with this, due to illegal releases from a lead smelter, and there have been deaths (Liu 2014).  But even ordinary nitrogen, which has increased from 9 teragrams overall to 56 from 1910 to 2010, is getting out of hand and creating huge problems of eutrophication and environmental pollution (Cui et al. 2013).  “Approximately 8.3% of the country’s…arable land…is contaminated buy unbridled mining, trash dumping, and long-term use of pesticides” (Liu et al. 2013).  By 2014, the percentage of farmland seriously contaminated was up to 20%, and 40% of farmland was degraded by pollution, erosion, and desertification (Smith 2015:16).



2015  China’s Water Problems.  Nottingham University, China Policy Institute, Policy Paper Series, issue 6.  http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/cpi/chinaanalysis/policy-papers/index.aspx.  7 pp.


China has faced local droughts and floods throughout history, and was a leader in irrigated agriculture from early imperial times.  The Communist government since 1949 has made enormous strides in making water available, in developing irrigation and hydropower, and in regulating and rationalizing water use.  However, today, China faces a full-scale water crisis, excellently surveyed in a major report by Debra Tan and associates (2015), who examine policy choices ahead. The history of water in China has also been told by David Pietz in The Yellow River (2015).

China has only 6% of the world’s fresh water (Pietz 2015:10), for 7% of the world’s area and 20% of the world’s population.  Agriculture uses 65% of water in China, as opposed to 59% worldwide (and 80% in comparably water-short California).

Most of China is exceedingly dry.  This makes vast areas of Xinjiang and Tibet uninhabitable, but of more immediate concern is the rapid depletion of water in 34% of China’s cropland (Tan et al. 2015:16).  As elsewhere, agriculture offers the highest potential for saving, but China’s world of small to tiny farms makes saving difficult.  Water transfers from the wet southeast to the north are ongoing, but will soon reach a limit.

The energy/power tradeoff is serious.  Desalinating seawater requires enormous power inputs, recycling and reclamation only somewhat less.  The more water is conserved, the more energy is used (Tan et al. 2015:30-32; their report explores this contradiction).  Obviously, efficiency is needed, but can go only so far.  Meanwhile, coal and fracking for gas and oil continue to be live options. Shale-gas extraction by fracking is now contaminating more of the groundwater.  Wind, solar, and even hydroelectric power are better for water resources than fossil fuels when both water use and pollution are taken into account (Tan et al. 50-51).  Coal remains basic, but mining and processing it consumes much water, and burning it causes much pollution (Tan et al.2015).  It cannot be China’s long-range future.  Some alternatives, such as biofuel, use even more water.  China must convert toward wind and solar, and is slowly doing so.  China is now the world’s largest maker of solar panels (though this industry too pollutes the water; Smith 2015).

Science magazine reports: “Fully 90% of China’s shallow groundwater is polluted…and an alarming 37% is so foul that it cannot be treated for use as drinking water….  The toll is significant:  Every year, an estimated 190 million Chinese fall ill and 60,000 die because of water pollution.  According to the World Bank, such illnesses cost the government $23 billion a year, or 1% of China’s gross domestic product” (Qiu 2011b; see also Smith 2015; Tan 2015).  Some 60% of groundwater is severely polluted; surface waters are comparably problematic, but can be renewed naturally, whereas groundwater pollution is impossible to remove and will remain for centuries or millennia (Smith 2015:15).

Ma Jun, a Chinese water expert, says that “the 300-odd rivers that drain the North China Plain ‘are open sewers if they are not completely dry’” (cited Smith 2015:14).

Polluted groundwater used to irrigate crops is causing the crops to become toxic.  Some “36% of rice grown in Hunan province…was found to have cadmium levels above those specified by China’s food standards regulation” (Yang et al. 2013); Hunan is one of the rice bowls of China, and cadmium causes horrible pathologies.  Food contamination, from polluted water or deliberate adulteration, is now rampant (Smith 2015 provides summaries).

The Yellow River no longer reaches the sea (Moyo 2012:41; Smith 2015), and tens of millions of people along its former lower course suffer desperate shortages of water.  The Yangtze is also drying slowly in its lower course, and is so compromised that its signature animal, the white-flag dolphin, has become extinct (Smith 2015).  The Yangtze sturgeon is down to perhaps 100 as of 2014, and they are not reproducing (BBC News 2014a).  This should have more symbolic significance than it seems to have.  The sturgeon was traditionally believed—by many, at least—to be a dragon rather than a fish, or at least a fish-dragon, and the barbels around its mouth may be the original for the tendrils around the dragon’s mouth in Chinese artistic representations.  The other inspiration for the dragon, the Yangtze alligator, is also on the verge of disappearing in the wild.  So China’s signature animal, in the form of the two real animals that inspired it, may be gone soon—a terrible symbol of China’s suicidal environmental mismanagement.

China’s lowland lakes, such as the famous Dongting and Poyang Lakes, are rapidly filling up with sediment, and their water is too polluted to be usable.  Attempts to clean up groundwater are more notable for the pollution they document than for their success (Qiu 2011b).  Science further reports:  “Two-thirds of China’s 669 cities have water shortages, more than 49% of its rivers are severely polluted, 80% of its lakes suffer from eutrophication, and about 300 million rural residents lack access to safe drinking water….”; waste and outdated technology increase water use while conferring no benefits.  “More than 46,000 of the 87,000 dams and reservoirs built since the 1950s have surpassed their life spans, or will within 10 years”; they are silting up or wearing out.  “Many water projects…were rushed without following the national law of environmental impact assessments and have caused enormous environmental and socioeconomic impacts” (Liu and Yang 2012).

Even the projects that did pass environmental review are turning out to have costs higher than their benefits.  Jiao Li (2013) reports that the Chinese are finally waking up to the problem, recognizing groundwater contamination.  Factories in Weifang and elsewhere had been discharging pollutant wastes into groundwater.

Zhiwei Wang, of Tonji University in Shanghai, writes in Science:  “In 2011, China generated 65.21 billion tons of wastewater”; this may reach 784 billion tons by 2015.  China has ambitious plans to increase treatment, now rudimentary in rural areas and far from perfect in cities.  Amazing progress has been made since 1949, but keeping up with economic growth is difficult.  Goals will be hard to meet (Wang 2012).

Jonathan Fenby reports further tragedies:  “A 2012 report by the Land Ministry found that of 4,929 goundwater monitoring sites across the country, 41 per cent had extremely poor water quality…. The resulting annual human toll is put at 60,000 premature deaths” (Fenby 2014:87).  And this is the official figure.  The truth is almost surely worse.

A Science headline summarizes another problem:  “China’s Lakes of Pig Manure Spawn Antibiotic Resistance” (Larson 2015).  Half the antibiotics in China go into pigs, to make them grow faster, and the antibiotics get into the water.  At least one antibiotic producer has been caught dumping excess production into water, also.  Raw sewage, untreated, is standardly released into China’s lakes and rivers, and bacteria are being selected for antibiotic resistance accordingly.

A vast project to transfer water from the wet south to the dry north has come on stream (literally), but many cities are not buying into it; the water is, of course, extremely polluted, it costs an appreciable amount, and cities would have to change their systems.  Thus they continue to overpump groundwater (Chen 2015).

Excellent plans for improving water quality are coming out of China, e.g. Tao Tao and Kunliun Xin’s sustainable plan (Tao and Xin 2014), but these plans are more significant for the disasters they reveal than for the proposals they advance, because under the current political regime there is no chance of the plans being implemented.  Tao and Xin report that “nearly half of 634 Chinese rivers, lakes and reservoirs tested in 2011 failed to meet drinking standards,” already rather minimal.  The cities consumed 44 billion tonnes of water that year.  Their plan involves treating water, but also continuing to advocate that households boil water for human consumption (Tao and Xin 2014:5328).

In water as in other things, China has gone for short-term benefits that occasion later but far greater costs.  The huge water transfer plan to provision Beijing with water by bringing it from the south has been criticized on that basis.  Critics point out that hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced to make room for the canals and pipelines, but Beijing’s water problem is still not solved, partly because no one is addressing the demand problem—there is little interest in efficiency of use, and very little interest (understandably) in raising the low price of water (Agence France-Presse and Stephen Chen 2014).  Britt Crowe-Miller, water expert at Portland State University, comments that dealing with supply alone is inadequate, and that “China’s current development model is very short-sighted” (ibid.).  Water is now being put ahead of energy by China’s planners (Tan et al. 2015), since the crisis is more critical and immediate.

The costs of environmental ruin are now beginning to come out.  China thus displays an acute form of a worldwide problem:  the benefits of environmental wreckage have largely been reaped, and often squandered, by the super-rich, while the costs are now coming due, and will be paid by the entire human race—especially the poor.

Not quite in China, but showing problems China is beginning to feel, is the sinking of the Mekong River delta in Vietnam (Schmidt 2015).  This, the world’s third largest delta (55,000 square km), is rapidly sinking because of groundwater withdrawal for aquaculture.  Water is pumped from the ground for shrimp and fish, then drained out through the river channels.  The delta, averaging 2 m above sea level, could sink a meter by 2050.  Meanwhile, world sea levels are rising.  Nothing seems to be done about this, and the cost of fixing it (e.g. poldering) would be enormous.  China is already facing sinking land in the north, and will no doubt soon face sinking deltas.


Dams present another concern.  As Brian Tilt (2012, 2014) points out, dams generate many benefits.  They produce a great deal of power that would otherwise be generated by coal; regulate flooding; and regularize supply of irrigation water.  They also help interior transportation—easily navigable reservoirs cover what once were rapids.  Whether they are cost-effective in the long term is the real issue.

However, they come with costs.  Dai Qing (1998), Deirdre Chetham (2002), Richard Stone (2010), Peter Gleick (2012), and others have documented the disasters caused by big dams, which, in China as elsewhere, are often planned with inadequate attention to cost/benefit ratios.  Landslides, siltation, damage to downstream fisheries, loss of villages to rising waters, and many other problems have occurred.  Protesters have been ruthlessly suppressed, though dam-protest movements are building in spite of this (Forney 2005).  Coggins (2003) has recorded the problems and trials of conservation in one mountain village.  Ideally, dams provide power, thus preventing the use of coal, and store water.  In fact, worldwide, poorly planned dams always have poor cost/benefit ratios and rarely pay for themselves (William Partridge, pers. comm.; Scudder 2005).

Meanwhile, China has refused to enter into international agreements on water and river management, partly because they are upstream of several countries and want the full benefits of that position (Gleick 2012).  Being downstream in China itself is bad enough; being downstream from China is looking disastrous.  China is, for instance, aiding with dams on the lower Mekong, which threaten to wipe out that river’s ecology and devastate Cambodia’s agriculture.  Similar plans for the Irrawaddy, Salween, and Bhramaputra are frightening Burma and India. China is also funding big and ecologically irresponsible dams in Africa and elsewhere (Gleick 2012).

China’s big dams are largely for hydropower.  Even here, however, it appears that poor planning has limited the value of development.  David Stanway, reporting for Reuters (Stanway 2015), finds that “dozens” of dams on the Dadu River of Sichuan were built without planning for coordinating and transmitting power.  Overall, China has the potential to produce 2.2 trillion KwH of hydroelectricity, but produces only one trillion that actually reaches consumers.  Leakage, poor grid coordination, waste of water due to lack of grid capacity, and other problems lead to wastage greater than the combined total electric power use of Germany and France (Stanway 2015).  China promises to address the overall issue, but doing so will require massive development of the national grid (Smith 2015).

Other considerations, including the rights and livelihoods of the less affluent, receive little attention in planning dams.  Brutal political repression faces those who protest.  Huge dams, climaxing in the Three Gorges Dam (Dai 1997; Yan and Potter 2009), have led to massive displacement of people, ruin of downstream fisheries and other water benefits, and geological instability—yet siltation is filling these dams much faster than expected, and they will be useless in a few decades.  On recent visits to China I have seen up to half the reservoirs in some areas ruined by silt infill.  The rapid siltation, in turn, is the result of deforestation and poor farming practices, both of which are the results of specific Communist policies that reversed previous good care.

The Three Gorges Dam was so obviously a disaster for the Yangtze River’s endemic fish that a reserve was declared upstream, a 500-km stretch of river (350 km on the Yangtze, the rest on main tributaries).  However, as is typical of Communist conservation, this was deceptive.  The reserve lasted only as long as it took the engineers to plan and commence new dams.  It is now giving way to more and more high dams.  These will turn the Yangtze and its main tributaries to slack water—until the dams silt up.

Meanwhile, pollution, low and unreliable water levels, and loss of valuable fisheries are the lot of the Yangtze downstream from Three Gorges (Fenby 2014: 87; Qiu 2012).  In 2011 “China’s cabinet, the State Council, admitted that the dam is plagued by pollution, silt accumulation and ecologtical deterioration nearby, and has affected irrigation, water supply and shipping in downstream regions” (Nature 487:144, news item “Three Gorges Dam Reaches Full Power”).  Cultural damage is occurring in Tibet, where whole communities are displaced.  More dangerous still is the potential for devastating the economies of downriver countries, particularly the Mekong-dependent nations of Laos and Cambodia, as well as southern Vietnam.

China’s obsession with huge, uneconomical or hard-to-sustain dams (Schmitt and Tilt 2012; Tilt 2014) is an extreme form of a world pathology (Scudder 2005; see Quarternary International, vol. 304, passim, 2013, for many articles on China’s water management).  China now has or is planning over 25,000 big dams, more than the rest of the world now has; even North America, dam-crazed for decades and now forced to take out many old ones, has only 8,000 (Tilt 2012, 2014).  Moreover, the damage is of a really tragic nature—ruining the poor, destroying prime farmland, exterminating countless species, displacing whole indigenous groups—while the benefits are banal: more power and more irrigation control—invariably benefiting rich businessmen more than the poor majority.

Even more irrational than megadam projects are the artificial ornamental and recreational lakes now appearing everywhere in China.  They are being created even in the deserts of Ningxia and the drought-afflicted basins of Shaanxi (Liu and He 2012).  They get their water from the major rivers, including the Yellow River, whose flow is now so reduced that it does not even come close to reaching the sea.  Local governments, unaccountable to the people in general but under constant pressure to deliver quick economic benefits, seem largely responsible.  The increasing irrationality of maximizing short-term benefits at the expense of medium-term and long-term ones increases apace.

A final threat is a plan for a seawall all along the coast.  This would probably do little in the long run to deal with sea level rises or storms, but would destroy or devastate coastal wetlands, which are critically important for all the east Siberian shorebirds and many other bird species, some acutely endangered (such as the Spoon-billed Sandpiper).  The plans are proceeding with little attention to ecology or enviornmental concerns (Ma et al. 2014).

Water could be most easily saved by giving up irrigation in areas better used for pasture, such as Inner Mongolia, and in urban drylands such as around Beijing, where groundwater is depleting fast.  Inner Mongolia loses much of its water in the form of agricultural products sent to the rest of China (see also Dalin et al. 2015).

China’s centralized, authoritarian leadership could quickly implement reforms.  Excellent proposals to conserve water, reduce pollution, and control water use have been made.  There are, however, major structural barriers, especially the rush for production at all costs, and the entrenched and often corrupt bureaucracy (Anderson 2014; Smith 2015).  China’s imports of beef, soybeans, and similar products from other countries increase its water use by 30%–the costs of that water being borne by the exporters (Dalin et al. 2015).


China’s most recent fad in earth moving is flattening mountains to create more level land for urbanization.  Of course, one cannot level a high rocky mountain; the ones leveled appear to be largely the steep loess hills of interior north China (see Li et al. 2014).  But leveling they are, and Peiyue Li and coauthors—professors of environmental science in China—warn: “Until we know more about the consequences, we urge governments to seek scientific advice and prceed with caution” (Li et al. 2014:31).

The Three Gorges Dam produced a 500-mile-long reservoir into which garbage and sewage are pouring from surrounding cities; the reservoir is not only filling in rapidly, but it is filling in with toxic or dangerous substances (see e.g. Smith 2015:15).

Dams, water abuse, and other environmental problems have led people to attempt to flee the land to better land or to the city.  This was met with state violence:  “… in the 1970s and 1980s, several thousands of the Miao [minority] moved spontaneously from northeast Yunnan and northwest Guizhou, and reclaimed wasteland and took up farming in the mountainous areas of Anning City near Kunming….  In response, their newly-built houses were burned down and they were sent by force back to their original villages….” (Cang 2009:80-81).

But then, the state, realizing the need, completely reversed itself and began a policy of forced migration that took millions of people from their homes and scattered them far away (Cang 2009 and other chapters in Abe and Nickum 2009).  Often, these were minority-group people, and they were settled among Han.  Anyone aware of China’s recent policies, which have not infrequently been virulently anti-minority, will suspect that the plan was to destroy these minority groups’ cultures and political bases rather than to help them economically.  China’s minority policies have differed considerably from place to place; the much-publicized situation in Tibet and Xinjiang is rather balanced by the more benign policies in Guangxi, Yunnan, Sichuan and elsewhere (see e.g. Harrell 2001; Harrell ed., 1995, 2001).  Still, China is, at best, committed to acculturating its minorities to Han culture.  At worst, it simply displaces or represses minorities to make way for Han Chinese.

Development projects are now firmly entrenched at the provincial level, requiring centralized government to fix—but the centralization is a problem also.  At present, provincial and local officials are in various forms of collaboration with developers, using construction and mass transit as plums and moneymakers.  Overuse of power in all these projects leads to constant power failures, and use of yet more coal, though solar is building fast (Dylan Kirk, personal communication, email of Sept. 29, 2013).  An extremely thorough and detailed assessment of China’s megaprojects and construction booms is provided by Richard Smith (2015).

Local authorities are short of cash—and want more for themselves—with results that can be hard on farmland and environment:  “local authorities are short of cash to meet spoending obligations; to fill the gap, they requisition farm land, classify it for development and sell it to developers” (Fenby 2014:57).  This is one of the major reasons that China’s agricultural land is shrinking fast.

China’s air pollution, the worst in the world, is causing enormous damage to crops and forests not only in China itself but in Korea, Japan, Russia, and elsewhere.  The World Health Organization estimates that some 700,000 people die from air pollution every year.  The World Bank estimated that in 2009 China lost $100 billion from ill health (Pierson 2013).  The truth may be worse; the Harvard School of Public Health estimates that 83 million Chinese will die of lung problems in the next 25 years (from 2008; “Chinese Lung Disease ‘To Kill 83m’”; BBC News Online, Oct. 4, 2008; Fagin 2008; see also Smith 2015:8).  Worse estimates are reported by Fenby:   “outdoor air pollution is estimated to contributre to 1.2 million premature deaths a year…. Cigarette smoking…kills 2,000 people a day”; diesel trucks and coal plants add to the mix (Fenby 2014:86).  An eight-year-old girl recently contracted lung cancer—the youngest in China’s history to do so—due to air pollution (Kessler 2014).

Air pollution, including massive amounts of pesticides and polycyclic hydrocarbons, may be responsible for some of the very high level of birth defects, including spina bifida, in China.  Christina Larson (2013a) reports that there are 140 babies with neural tube defects for every 10,000 births in Shanxi, as opposed to 7.5 in the United States.  Several studies have shown correlations of birth defects and high pollution levels. On the other hand, as Clayton Dube of the UCLA Political Science faculty points out (posting to Chinapol listserve, Jan. 7, 2015), neural tube defects are typically due to folic acid deficiency in the early months of pregnancy, so one can suspect that the high defect rates are due to poor nutrition and to smoking (which interferes with folic acid metabolism) and other such problems.

India has recently learned that air pollution is reducing grain production by up to 50% locally and by substantial amounts nationally (Ghorayshi 2014).  Black carbon (soot) and ozone are the principal causes.  China is much more polluted than India, and the diminution of grain yield can only be imagined.

Cigarette smoking is the government’s fault, to a significant extent, because the Chinese government owns the tobacco company (the blessings of Communism) and thus has done everything possible to promote smoking, including circulating dishonest claims about the health effects of smoking and deliberately suppressing the truth on the matter.

Current estimates indicate that over 300,000,000 people are sick from air pollution.  This is more than the entire population of the United States.  Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, “an incurable respiratory disorder that can cause severe breathing difficulties,” is now extremely common, affecting “roughly 8% [of] people who are 40 or older”; it is caused by smoking and air pollution (Hughes 2012:818).  One recalls that the Chinese government owns tobacco companies and sells cigarettes, and thus has a vested interest in maximizing smoking.  Women rarely smoke but most men do, and the women are affected by secondhand smoke.

In 2014, one village finally won a legal victory: a toxic waste disposal firm was forced to pay some compensation to some 400 villagers for drenching their environment in toxic fumes.  It was too late for many who had died of cancer.  This is one of approximately 245 admitted “cancer villages,” in which toxic wastes and pollutants have caused skyrocketing rates of cancer.  As noted above, outside estimates run over 400 cancer villages.  Their existence was admitted only in 2013 (Phillips 2014).  Manufacturing, including textiles (Smith 2015:5-6), produces ever more substances of ever more dangerous nature, and these are very often simply dumped into water and air.

At the end of 2012 and beginning of 2013, cold stagnant air led to the buildup of pollution over China.  Some 33 cities recorded hazardous readings, with Beijing’s air being extremely hazardous for days.  Enormous and unprecedented health costs were registered (Pierson 2013).  Dai Qing noted that this was “dangerous” for civil unrest as well as for health; people might protest environmental damage more than other ills.  The pollution followed years of replacing air quality experts with bureaucrats unwilling to criticize government in the relevant bureaus.  On the other hand, 75 cities were reporting pollution levels, and the trend is toward better reporting and publicity (Demick 2013).  The initial pollutants are bad enough, but in the air they may chemically change, creating new and different dangers; such secondary aerosols are common in Chinese haze (Huang et al. 2014).

Life expectancy in China is 75 years (as of 2012; Google; the US is 79, India 66).  But in North China, is 5.5 years less (and in Beijing perhaps 16 years less) than in the south, because of Mao’s policy to have coal-fired boilers heating interiors everywhere.  He denied this to the south.  The 500 million north Chinese lost, collectively, 2.5 billion years (Chen et al. 2013).  This study showed that particulate pollution from coal is much more dangerous than was thought previously.  One wonders at the damage to other life-forms.  Many, probably most, animals are more susceptible to air pollution than humans are.  On the other hand, much or most of the pollution was indoors.

Even more frightening is the permanent brain damage caused by pollution.  Hundreds of millions of people are now affected by heavy metals, plastic-making chemicals, and air pollutants that are known to damage the brains of growing embryos and children.  This is giving China a legacy that will last; some of the pollutants actually affect not only the children, but even their future children.

As of 2006, about 36% of anthropogenic sulfur dioxide, 27% of nitrogen oxides, 22% of carbon monoxide, and 17% of black carbon in China’s air pollution was the result of production for export.  The United States, as China’s major buyer, was responsible for 21% of China’s air pollution (across categories: 21% of each category above).  Much of this blew right across the Pacific, contributing, for example, 12-24% of the sulfur dioxide pollution in the United States (Lin et al. 2014).  Proportions have not changed much since.  The United States thus pays some of the price for allowing firms to dodge environmental restrictions by exporting production to countries without rules.

Qiang Wang (2014), a Chinese expert on air quality, notes the seriousness of the situation, advocates a “total cap on emissions,” and quickly converting to nuclear and natural gas for power generation as bridges until solar and other really clean power can come on stream.  China is now by far the main injector of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and most of this comes from coal burning, with damage to health as a by-product.

Solid wastes, many of them toxic, are also increasing:  “China has surpassed the US to become the world’s largest trash producer, churning out more than 260 million tons a year” (Makinen 2012).  Where China will put all this is a real problem.  Richard Smith (2015) discusses at length the coming of the West’s throw-away economy to China,  Copying especially the United States—largely because American firms exported manufacturing to China and led the way—China has taken up the use-once-only mentality with a vengeance; this is a country that, within living memory (including mine), recycled and reused everything possible, even shredding and composting worn-out ropes and sandals.  Today, Richard Smith cynically summarizes the situation as “cooking the planet to produce junk no one needs” (Smith 2015:8).

Serious malnutrition has declined dramatically; it was, of course, rampant in pre-Communist China and again after 1958.  Stunting from malnutrition still affected 33.1% of Chinese in 1990, but was down to 9.9% by 2010.  However, “nearly 6.5 million children under age 5 in China are stunted” (Stone 2012).  Of course this is a very small percentage of Chinese children, but it is a lot of people.

Even government scientists admit serious problems.  In 2011 the minister for the environment, Zhou Shengxian, said that “the depletion, deterioration and exhaustion of resources and the deterioration of the environment have become serious bottlenecks constraining economic and social development” (Moyo 2012:27).  Xu Jun of the Ministry of Science and Technology says that China’s “ecological situation is terrible” (Qiu 2011a).  Bojie Fu, a Chinese scientist writing in Science (2008), admits:  “Over the past 20 years, the total cost from environmental pollution and ecological deterioration is estimated to have been 7 to 20% of the annual gross domestic product….”  This means that China’s vaunted 10% growth per year is indeed neutralized, as Brown feared.  Moreover, “40% of urban wastewater was discharged into neighborhood water bodies without treatment.  In 2007, water quality at half of the 197 monitored rivers of China was rated as heavily polluted…” as were 60% of lakes.  Air quality was equally bad, and “excess erosion from wind and water has deteriorated about 37.1% of China’s total land mass.”  Recall that this is the government’s official statistics; the truth is certainly worse, but we shall probably never know how much worse.

Charles Parton noted in an email on the Chinapol listserv, Dec. 12, 2014, that the Chinese news agency Caijing had reported that the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei area is down to 286 cubic metres of water per person, ¼ of the FAO figure for water shortage.  Some places go without water for months.  He also noted that he had asked three prominent economists, recently, about how they took account of environmental costs in their studies of China, and they said they had not considered the question.  I have had the same experience, with David Harvey among others.

China now has passed the United States to become the world’s largest producer of greenhouse gases, thus contributing mightily to global warming, which itself is drying up west China and producing more typhoons in the south.  Yet China not only refuses to do much (the vaunted “clean energy” China produces is actually a drop in their bucket; see Moyo 2012), but joins the United States in actively working against international agreements to curb greenhouse gas emissions.  China’s energy production and transmission is extremely inefficient (Smith 2015), and the Chinese government does not seriously address improving emissions to control global warming (see Song and Woo for reviews).  China is, however, moving rapidly into clean energy; it is by far the biggest producer of solar panels, and has moved into wind energy and other cleaner sources.  All these have their own problems, but they are certainly preferable to coal, the major current source of China’s energy.  China’s current problem in this area is a nice kind of problem: they have moved so fast into clean energy that they are suffering from overcapacity and overproduction (Nature, 4 Oct. 2012).  This may yet brighten China’s environmental record, in future.

China once had 14% of the world’s grassland, but half of that is now lost to farming and mining and 90% of the rest is severely degraded by overuse and erosion (Qiu 2011a).  Inner Mongolia suffered dreadfully, as Mongol land-sparing patterns of herding were replaced by environmentally disastrous farming and overgrazing (Sneath 1998, on Russia vs. Mongolia; Normile 2007 and Williams 1996a, 1996b, 2000 on China’s ruin of Inner Mongolia).  Superb management by traditional methods was replaced by complete disaster, leading to massive desertification and economic ruin (Abe and Nickum 2009; Williams 1996a, 1996b, 2000, 2002).  Desertification there is being dealt with in some areas by mass poisoning of rodents and other small animals, a measure so ecologically insane that it is certain to backfire (Hao Xin 2008).

This was not the only area where plowing fragile desert grasslands led to total desertification.

China enters the 21st century almost completely deforested, with rather little reforestation.  Reforestation began in the 1950s, but has had a very up-and-down career—mostly down.  Extreme programs of grain-growing and timber-cutting in the 1960s and 1970s led to massive deforestation.  Meanwhile, planted trees died of neglect.

However, as of the early 21st century, the most intensively managed and long-reforested parts of China actually have appreciable tree cover—at least in the south, where forests flourish much more than in the north.  The areas north of Hong Kong, which I could see from my research areas in the 1960s and 1970s, were utterly barren as of 1966.  They were showing a faint green haze of pathetically spindly saplings by 1975.  They are now well forested with pines, except where housing has replaced all natural cover.  Some other areas of the south have done well too (personal observation, eked out by careful study of satellite photographs).  Unfortunately, in the north, the deep interior, and many other areas, reforestation has not done well.  However, there is still hope; the Great Wall, which when I saw it in 1978 was surrounded by a moonscape, is now surrounded by a healthy woodland, and it has been interesting to follow the progress of this growth through photographs and satellite imagery.

China has some 62 million ha of forest, about 4% of the world’s forests—by some measure the most forested area of any country in the world (Peng et all. 2014; I do not believe the last claim—Russia and Brazil must be well ahead).  Almost all this forest is seriously degraded.  Devastating policies of deforestation caused massive erosion and land ruin in much of China from 1958 to 1980.  “Before 1980, China long promoted a grain-focused agricultural policy called ‘taking grain as the key link,’ which produced large areas of deforestation in the name of opening up uncultivated ‘wasteland.’  For example…felling all trees was executed in Nujiang Prefecture, which destroyed a lot of forest reserves and finally led to…disastrous mud-rock flows….”  (Cang 2009:81).  Forests have collapsed, and China’s search for wood has devastated southeast Asia.

Deforestation increased dramatically in the 20th century, especially after 1950, and reforestation campaigns in the 1950s and 1960s failed, for various reasons.  So have many since (Marks 2012), though many have worked well (personal observation).   Incalculable damage has been done, though forests are left and reforestation is better now (see Richardson 1990 for more on forests).  One result has been massive soil erosion, filling reservoirs and swamping fields with mud.  In 1998, disastrous floods swept central and south China, and the Chinese government finally put an end to forest clearing, whether for logging or agriculture.  This has not proved totally enforceable, but has stopped the worst of deforestation.

In this and many other ways, China has made great strides in environmental management, as acknowledged by e.g. Vaclav Smil, who did the best job of documenting China’s environmental destruction in the 1980s (Smil 1984).  Smil has applauded the partial turnaround (Smil 2000, 2004).  Plant conservation has recently been improved (Huang et al. 2002; my personal observation, especially in 1999, confirms this), but may now be going downhill again.  Observation on the ground in 2013 in Guangdong showed a healthy regrowth of trees and forest wherever people allowed it, but a rampant spread of urbanization that destroyed forests and farms alike.  Satellite photographs confirm both impressions on a large scale.  Forces of conservation and destruction are both actively at work; conservation in China has a long and complex history which needs unpacking.

Mara Hvistendahl (2012) reports that China has now turned many forests over to local communities or individuals, in a belated, rather desperate attempt to counteract the disadvantages of Communism—summed up by one villager as “What was everyone’s was really no one’s” (Hvistendahl 2012:27).  Unfortunately, the problems of private ownership immediately surfaced.  These are the same problems that smallholder forest owners face in the United States, such as incentives to deforest rapidly for ready cash, to replace mixed forest with commercial monocrop, to sell out to predatory big interests because of high offers or because of threats and bullying.  Both public and private forests have suffered from the worst curse of forestry worldwide: the temptation to replace mixed, sustainably-harvested stands with quick-growing commercial monocrops such as pine, eucalyptus, and rubber (Hvistendahl 2012, and my own observations).

Other privatization schemes have suffered similarly.  Yunnan’s forests, virgin till recently because carefully protected by local people, have given way to monocrop rubber plantations (Qiu 2009; Yin 2001, 2009; Ziegler et al. 2009).  This was first pushed by the government; the government is now trying to slow the pace, but the local people have been converted, and continue to replace forest with rubber (Ayoe Wang, 2008 and personal communication of ongoing research; see also Abe and Nickum 2009), to the detriment of wildlife, water supply, biodiversity, tourism, and sustainability.  Thus, China’s claims of enormous reforestation, for example, are disingenuous; most of the “reforestation” consists of rubber and eucalyptus plantations and other environmentally devastating commercial planting, rather than actual regrowth or replacement of real working forests that could supply timber, forest products, or environmental services (Xu 2011; Xu is a leading forester in China, so this can hardly be dismissed as outsider grousing).

China once had 10% of the world’s wetlands, but China’s wetlands are now also degraded and mostly now gone.  China has also lost 73% of its mangroves and 80% of its coral reefs as of 2011 (Qiu 2011a).

Biodiversity has been devastated by overhunting, overfishing, medicine collecting, and, above all, habitat destruction (see e.g. Harris 2008; Marks 2012).  Overfishing and pollution have decimated or completely eliminated most wild fish resources.  The zone of death in the seas is spreading rapidly from the China coasts throughout the west Pacific region (see e.g. Fabinyi 2012; Fabinyi et al. 2012).  Overfishing for the Chinese and Japanese market is simply wiping out the oceans.  Even sea cucumbers, one of the least vulnerable of marine organisms, are now disappearing fast (Schenkman 2011).  Sea cucumbers are being wiped out even in Canadian and Alaskan waters, to feed the Chinese demand.

China’s wonderful heritage of rare and unique crop varieties is severely threatened.  One story from my own research is sufficient.  Hong Kong used to produce salt-tolerant rice that was extremely flavorful.  But it did not yield high quantities, and Hong Kong urbanized, so the rice—and other salt-tolerant rices—are gone, to the permanent and serious loss of the world in this age of rising sea levels and salination of cropland.

One of the stranger threats to biodiversity was the anti-pest campaign under Mao Zedong in the middle 1950s.  This led to some elimination of rats and flies—probably not effective—but it led to mass extermination of small birds, held to be “sparrows” and to eat vast quantities of grain.  In 1958, the Chinese press reported that 1,650,000,000 sparrows were killed (Taylor 2005:117, citing the Chinese Medical Journal).  The grain consumption by these birds is inconsequential, but their insect consumption is phenomenal.  The result of this campaign was massive outbreaks of insect pests.  The campaign was halted, but China’s small bird populations were permanently decimated.  Between this campaign and habitat destruction, as well as hunting for food by desperate people, China’s bird life is almost nonexistent today except in remote reserves.

Wildlife conservation is increasingly troubled by poaching, inadequacy of reserves, inadequate enforcement of laws in reserves, excessive tourist development in some of them, and other typical problems of crowded lands with shaky governmental legitimacy (Harris 2008).

China has 2538 nature reserves covering 15% of the country, as of 2011, but this extremely impressive total is less than it appears; many are “paper parks,” there on paper to impress outsiders, but unenforced and unenforceable locally.  Most of these reserves are in fact subject to extraction, and many are suffering from unregulated mass tourism.  As many as ten million tourists a year now visit Lijiang, and other sites have comparable masses (Huang 2012).  The government often cannot resist the Yosemite Valley model of putting a flashy, revenue-generating tourist center on fragile habitat that was supposed to be protected.  China now has 400 endangered species, and many more species have probably gone extinct without anyone noting it (Marks 2012).

At the same time, pests from around the world are swarming to take advantage of monocrop cultivation and of destruction of natural predators.  Familiar plagues such as the whitefly Bemisia tabaci (a notorious vector of plant diseases) and the pine bark beetle have reached China and are causing devastation there (Qiu 2013a).  Once, China’s healthy ecosystem could absorb such creatures, with hosts of birds and other insectivores destroying them.  No longer.

Moreover, China is exporting its mismanagement.   Rabinowitz (1998) documents the virtually complete extermination of wildlife in Laos by hunting for the Chinese market (I have personally observed the striking emptiness of Laotian forests).  Most of them go for medicine; Chinese folk medicine uses almost everything.  Food, however, is also an end product of overhunting.  Smil (2004) points out the devastation of wildlife, noting that a huge percentage of China’s animals are endangered, yet are still sold in restaurants—26% of animals sold in restaurants are from endangered species (Smil 2004:108).  Ten tons of snake meat are sold daily in Shenzhen, a thousand tons annually in Shanghai (Smil 2004:109).  Edible birds’ nests, once sustainably harvested, are now disappearing as fast as thieves and overharvesters can take them (Kong et al. 1990).  In the “bad” old days, China tried and Laos succeeded in sustainable management of animals, using religious taboos and conscious government and local policies.  All this “feudal superstition” was abolished by the Communists in both countries, leading to unqualified onslaught (in spite of some recent, and mostly toothless, laws).

Meanwhile, China is buying or leasing land throughout the tropics, and appropriating the product.  Africa is a major target; Africa’s starving millions now have to compete with relatively well-to-do Chinese for the products of African agriculture (see e.g. Moyo 2012).  In Australia, eucalypts have been replaced by wheat for China, which has led to massive salinization and loss of millions of acres of land (personal research and observation, southwest Australia; simply looking at the area on Google’s satellite photographs is revealing).

Brazil’s rainforest and cerrado forest are the latest casualties; they are being destroyed to produce soybeans and other foods for the Chinese market.  Legal protection for these forests was greatly relaxed in 2012 under Chinese pressure. China is already buying enough food to impact world markets.  Lester Brown (1995) was right: China was destroying its agricultural potential and would soon be forced to raid the rest of the world for imports.  This has now begun to have the effect of raising world food prices, as Brown feared it would.  Even the United States is facing squeeze on agriculture, and consequent high prices, because of direct and indirect effects of the China market.

This is not a problem confined to food.  China’s deforestation is giving it an appetite for trees and other imports that destroy forests, grasslands, and fisheries worldwide (Aldhous 2005; Beech 2005; Lu and Diamond 2005, 2008; Moyo 2012; Smith 2015).  China is now the world’s biggest importer of forest products, and has bought massively from other countries; one result has been increases in unsustainable logging in most of southeast Asia and in some other tropical areas (Smith 2015:4).  Elephant and rhinoceros poaching in Africa, sea cucumber overharvests in Maine, and illegal rosewood extraction in Madagascar all occur for the Chinese market (not entirely within China; the ethnic Chinese market in southeast Asia is large).

Meanwhile, China is increasingly stressing its neighbors by taking water from cross-border rivers.  Kazakhstan is particularly endangered, since essentially all the water in the eastern part of the country flows out of China.  China is taking much of this and refuses even to discuss fair deals; its position is that it has the right to the water and need not consider Kazakhstan (Stone 2012).  This could lead to catastrophic agricultural failure and the near-drying of Lake Balkhash.  Kazakhstan has reason to worry, since in USSR days water diversion almost completely dried up the Aral Sea, leading to an environmental catastrophe; Kazakhstan has been desperately trying, with fair success, to restore its part of the Aral, but Uzbekistan—which controls most of it—remains intransigent (see Anderson 2010 for this and much other relevant data).

China became a modest exporter of oil by 1993, but is now a major importer, in spite of considerable reserves and production of its own, and it is moving toward fracking in the homeland (Smith 2015:4).  It also imports iron ore and many other commodities.

China is consuming more animal protein, and using many of the imported soybeans to feed the animals (Du Bois et al 2008).  Meat consumption soared from 8 million tons in 1978 to 71 million in 2012 (Larson 2013b).  Smil (2004), and all other recent observers, are struck by the rapid increase in obesity, diabetes, atherosclerosis, and other food-related health problems in China. China will have to limit its consumption of red meat, fats and oils, and sugars—either voluntarily or through morbidity and death.  The picture is not pretty.  At least the Communist leadership does not have “face” invested in this, as they do in their suicidal big-dam and automobile-development projects (on which see Smith 2015, in extenso).  One can be cautiously optimistic about the chances for limiting “junk food” consumption.

Still, the new China is too successful at providing bulk calories, too unsuccessful at providing vitamins and minerals.  One-fourth of Chinese are obese (BBC News, July 8, 2008), and the proportion is rapidly rising.  This is due to more bulk calories and less exercise, but I suspect a further factor, one that certainly operates in the west:  unsatisfied hunger due to insufficient nutrients.  “Man does not live by bread alone,” and sugar, oil and white flour do not satisfy, even in excessive amounts.  Not surprisingly, rates of diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease are rising rapidly.  Diabetes, often blamed on sugar, is actually exacerbated more by polished rice than by sucrose; polished rice eaters have up to 25% higher risk than eaters of more varied foods of lower glycemic index.  Again, an unbalanced diet short of vitamins and minerals is also a factor.  Eating more meat, fat, and sugar, and less vegetables, bean curd, and unprocessed grain, has led to the rise in rates of obesity and diabetes.  Longevity has increased with modern medicine, but heart attacks are commoner than simple life extension can explain.

Moreover, the Chinese government has turned away from its spectacular early successes in medical care, which more than doubled life expectancy from the 1940s to the 1980s.  Health spending as a part of total government spending declined “from 28% to 14% between 1981 and 1993, allocation to the rural ‘cooperative medical-insurance system’ decreased from 20% to 2%,” while rampant corruption and price-gouging have denied care to the poor (Dong, Hoven and Rosenfeld 2005:573-574).  Public health care is declining seriously in rural areas (Arif Dirlik, talk of May 26, 2005, UCR), threatening the future.  Given the epidemics of SARS and AIDS as well as the drastic decline in healthy eating, China is in trouble.  Problems for the future include not only obesity and diabetes (Normile 2010), but specific deficiencies, such as anemia (chronic in China for millennia) and folic acid deficiency (an emergent danger with the decline in eating vegetables and whole grains).  Folic acid deficiency is probably the major cause of birth defects round the world, and is probably increasing in China.  (The double “probably” reflects the dismal state of knowledge of this insidious problem.)

Through the 1970s, all Chinese had free health care.  By 2000, only 15% of the population had medical insurance, and the rest had to pay full cost; “the World Health Organization ranked China 144th out of 191 national health care systems” (Hvistendahl 2013c).

Since then, things have turned around.  Life expectancy continues to increase (so far), and Chinese now live almost as long as Westerners.  In Taiwan, and parts of south China, they live as long as do the inhabitants of well-off European nations.  Food and medical care continue to be reasonably adequate, and the scale of differences from two generations ago are almost unparalleled in world history.  China plans to triple its medical spending.  Better hospitals are being built.  Mental health care is improving after earlier neglect.  But the rapid growth of heart and circulatory diseases, and other consequences of modernization and accompanying changes, has caught the system in a serious squeeze (Hvistendahl 2013b).

Far more dangerous is China’s extremely shaky control over epidemics.  The SARS outbreak and subsequent flu epidemics were wake-up calls, heeded but not adequately heeded.  China faces a situation in which an extremely dense, homogeneous population is packed into increasingly close quarters, with pigs, ducks, chickens, and other disease-vectoring animals numbering in the hundreds of millions very close to major cities.  The corruption and poor supervision endemic China’s bureaucracy have proved hard to fight in making China more ready for epidemics.  If the future involves economic and social decline, or more health damage from pollution, the chances of major epidemics will greatly increase.

Life satisfaction in China has been stagnant for decades, in spite of the huge (alleged) increases in economic well-being (Easterlin et al. 2013).  This stagnation tracks social, economic, and medical insecurity, declining real standards of living, and paper growth that is more growth in pollution than in welfare.  The stagnation or even reduction in living standards of the hundreds of millions of poor, in particular, leads to widespread unsatisfaction.

China’s economy is also shaky, in spite of growth, and Timothy Beardsley (2013) has contexted the environmental problem within a study of China’s troubled economic future.  However, the World Bank, in a report of 2015, provides a rosy picture of China’s economy and its future without mentioning the environment at all.  Its own dismal report of 2007 has been forgotten.

In short, through “modernization,” China has made great strides in food production.  However, this has often involved adopting poor ideas from the rest of the world, from excessive use of chemicals to feeding meat animals on grain that humans could eat.  Flooding, biodiversity loss, water shortages, and paving of cropland have yet to show their full effects; they will be more deadly in future (see also Marks 2012).  Unless something truly revolutionary is done, China will face in 20 years a food, pollution, and environment crisis unprecedented in the history of humanity.  This will have global effects (Brown 1995; Liu and Diamond 2005, 2008).



There are signs of improvement.  In 2014, China passed an environmental law, taking effect at the beginning of 2015.  It protects whistle-blowers, penalizes falsifying data, makes local governments more accountable, and tries to harmonize enterprise and economic growth with the environment.

More important still, in 2015 China announced details of plans to cut air pollution, especially greenhouse gas emissions.  They hope to cut these 15% by 2020 and as much as 60-65% by 2030 (BBC online, June 30, 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-33317451).  These are incredibly ambitious goals, but could be achieved by massive shifts to renewable power sources.  China’s authoritarian government has the power to accomplish this, which may put it in a better position than many democracies.

However, Bo Zhang of China’s environmental agency and Cong Cao of Nottingham University note four problems with the 2014 law (Zhang and Cao 2015).  It can be “trumped” by other laws, for example those relating to forests and grasslands.  It is hampered by unclear and overlapping jurisdictions and enforcement agencies.  It “fails to acknowledge citizens’ basic right to an environment fit for life” (p. 434), unlike similar laws in most countries.  And it does not address adequately the conflicts of interest and problems with enforcement that bedevil China’s laws in general.  Similar problems could hamstring the 2015 policies.

In regard to farmland, Chinese scientists have made major strides in winning more grain from less land; at present, if all their findings were put in practice (sadly unlikely), China could feed itself again from its shrunken land base (Chen et al. 2014).  Best of all, as of September 2014, China has just set up markets for carbon release and otherwise gotten really serious about reducing its carbon footprint—currently by far the largest in the world (West 2014).  And Xinhua, the Chinese news agency, reports that the Ministry of Agriculture has set a limit of “1.56 billion mu (about 104 million ha) of arable land” to be saved as basic farmland, from 1.8 billion mu as agriculturally designated land.  Also, water efficiency and agricultural waste disposal are targeted for improvement (Xinhua, May 27, http%3a%2f%2fnews.xinhuanet.com%2fenglish%2f2015-05%2f27%2fc_134275861.htm).

At the same time, China is finally moving on the air pollution front.  “China has set up more than 130 local environmental courts; this summer, the Supreme Court estalished an Environmental and Resources Tribunal” and also recognized about 300 nongovernmental organizations that can sue polluters (Makinen 2014b:6).  Much more stringent regulation and enforcement is promised.  On the other hand, local developers are still hard to control; big state-owned and state-sponsored firms are still too big to have much to fear; and independent protest is still done at risk of life and freedom.

Air pollution could be substantially reduced by setting regional emissions targets, increasing transparency of monitoring and reporting, expanding carbon trading, and bringing minority and remote areas up to speed, among other things (Liu et al. 2015).  There is some serious effort in these directions, but far from enough.  The usual problems, especially corruption and local-level foot-dragging, have surfaced.  At least the direction is clear, and China’s top-down, autocratic governance could rapidly turn things aro0und if the government had the will.

Conservation, especially reforestation, is on the government’s program now, and awareness of the devastating effects of pollution is now quite high.  Forest product use is efficient, a really bright spot (Ajani 2011).  Reforestation of many lands ravaged in Mao’s day has led to cooling of the lands reforested, and since this is fast-growing forest it is blotting up greenhouse gases at a dramatic rate (Peng et al. 2014).  This is very, very good news for the planet.  Cutting of old-growth forests is generally prohibited, with fluctuating effectiveness, since 1998.  Steep slopes are returned to natural cover.  Forest management is encouraged, and households and villages that return land to forests are subsidized (Xu 2014), though information from friends with experience in relevant areas suggests that this program is often inadequate.

China has taken a strong lead in some aspects of clean energy, notably the mass production of solar panels, but also water, wind, and other sources (most recent update at this writing is Mathews and Tan 2014), and is using more and more of the solar panels originally designed mostly for export.  China even has a desalination plant powered by wind under contruction; world desalination costs are down to 1 cent per 5 gallons, and this should lower it further (Bird 2014).  China has in 2014-15 leveled off on coal-burning, and is trying to move away from the coal-intensive power generation that has made it the leading country in release of greenhouse gases.

The call for better environmental management now comes from Chinese at all levels, but very often from expatriate Chinese, since protest in China itself is suppressed; thus a particularly direct recent call for action comes from a Chinese scientist now working in Norway (Yang 2014).

Public transportation is another bright spot (Edwin Schmitt, pers. comm.)  In degraded grasslands, experiments with market-based but environmentally sensitive bottom-up planning led to great improvement and some grassland recovery (Kemp et al. 2013).  Tian Shi’s solid review of the problems and prospects of “sustainable ecological agriculture in China” (2010) begins with a long treatise on what that agriculture is, then moves into a consideration of China’s problems and prospects, including a case study of one fairly successful experiment.  Tian Shi is well aware of the Marxist ideology of refusing to acknowledge ecological problems (see esp. p. 95), but recognizes that there is some hope.

Individuals are doing great things, ranging from criticizing the current paradigms to doing direct hands-on work with local people.  A recent article (Zheng and Wang 2014) chronicles the lifetime of work by Shixiong Cao to help local people restore what they can of the damage done by megaprojects and other policy-driven destruction.  China has a relatively high number of self-sacrificing, responsible citizens, and they have their effect.

Methods of appeal matter too.  Bing Xue oif China’s Institute of Applied Ecology found that Chinese officials would not give high priority to far-future problems from global climate change, but that when he spoke of immediate problems with economic development, and the opportunities for economic growth in climate-change-related areas, they listened seriously.  They also were sensible to the immediate advantages of reducing pollution (Xue 2015).

A recent documentary, “Under the Dome,” made by Ms. Chai Jing, is 103 minutes long yet had almost 100 million viewings in its first few days.  It reportedly tells many of the stories above, and focuses espeically on PetroChina (I have not seen it).  It apparently has government approval, or at least acceptance, indicating that the problem is now recognized at high levels.  It attracted an enormous amount of attention in China, from public to highest levels, partly because of the intensely personal quality of the film (Yawei Liu, email posting to Chinapol listserv, March 1, 2015).

Unfortunately, they are subject to beatings, torture, jail, and “disappearance” if they cut too close to local party interests.  Repression of political dissent has now spread to repression of all grassroots civic organizations, even those advocating things like tolerance for HIV and Hepatitis B sufferers.  Not all civic organizations have been shut down, but rapid increase of arbitrary, unpredictable, and widely targeted arrests and closures have intimidated the social network, and made the country very much less free than it was even a year or two ago (Jacobs and Buckley 2015).

Moreover, faced with overwhelming popular challenge, polluters can simply move to “greener” pastures.  They have recently been moving to the savagely repressed province of Xinjiang, where local dissent is met with deadly force, and to Inner Mongolia (Miao et al. 2015).  They thus escape highly-placed, well-to-do opponents and find themselves in regions where jobs are sought at any cost and where protest is dangerous.

China has finally made some strides toward changing its policies, but progress is incremental and slow.  Minor improvements to China’s Environmental Protection Law were recommended by the National People’s Congress in 2011, adopted (watered down) in 2012, and rejected in 2013 (He et al. 2013).  A plan for lowering carbon release into the air, and saving energy, has been developed, and China is working seriously on this issue (Liu et al. 2013).  Meanwhile the Communist Party adopted genuinely radical (for them) new stance:  adding to their constitution the idea of “ecological civilization,” meaning a civilization based on “man-nature, production-consumption harmony” (He et al. 2013).  In early 2014, the government renewed their commitment to cleaning the air, dedicated resources to this, and took a no-nonsense fast-track position with allowable levels set (Qiu 2014b).

A group from the Chinese Academy of Science Research Center for Eco-Environmental Sciences recommended that the law reaffirm commitment to environmental protection, provide “a strong legal basis…for independent strategic environmental assessment and performance-based auditing,” improve law enforcement, and “shift from regulation to governance,” meaning that the government should work with NGO’s, local groups, local polities, and education and voluntary agreements (He et al. 2013).  These are all worthy goals, and the United States could well learn from this assessment, but the fact that an outside group needs to call for them speaks volumes about what the Communist Party is not considering.

Unfortunately, at current rates of change, China will collapse before much can be done.  Repairing ecological damage is a slow process.  Economic lock-ins and rampant corruption are holding back implementation of even the gradualist plans devised so far.

One major reason for China’s failure is the extremely rapid growth of income inequality.

As Yu Xie and Xiang Zhou report:  “By now, China’s income inequality not only surpasses that of the United States by a large margin but also ranks among the highest in the world, especially among countries with comparable or higher standards of living” (Xie and Zhou 2014:6928).  The Gini coefficient is above .5, versus .45 in the United States.  Much of this is due to regional and rural/urban differences.  The Gini coefficient in China bottomed out at less than .3 around 1980, but since then has been rising much more rapidly than that of the United States (where it is rising very fast).  China’s upward line crossed that of the US just after 2000, and continues to move upward.  This level of inequality means that rich people have more and more political power, especially in a society as corrupt as modern China’s.  Worldwide, those who benefit from pollution and environmental destruction get disproportionately rich by reaping the benefits of these practices while passing the costs on to the poor as “externalities” (Anderson 2010).  The more inequality and the greater the power of the rich, the more environmental damage occurs.

Another problem is China’s insane pursuit of a form of “modernization” that has long been recognized elsewhere as a hopeless failure: government-driven, top-down forcing of heavy industry and extractive enterprise at any cost.  The old-fashioned western idea that any and all destruction of nature is good has surfaced in China and refuses to go away.  Even traditional culture—including its love and sensitivity in regard to the environment—is condemned in the worst of all terms, i.e. that it is not modern.  A recent indicator is documented by Erik Mueggler (2014): the destruction of the beautiful, poetic, moving funeral laments of the Yi people (and, I can add, other groups too) because they are not “modern,” i.e. are not like the worst and most embarrassingly shallow of western culture—the definition of the “modern” in China for a century or more now.  These are marginally concerned with the environment, but interesting here more to show the mindset of today’s China.  It is a world in which the most insane and anti-human policies can and do sell, simply because they are what the worst of the west did a generation ago.  (I can match this story with plenty of my own; I am not overstating or exaggerating.)

Another problem is that the Communist government has increasingly repressed its non-Han inhabitants.  For example, the Tibetans, who conserved animal life because of their Buddhist faith, have lost control of their land, which has been settled by vast numbers of Han Chinese who have hunted the animals into extinction (Buckley 2014).  There are the problems with Mongolian grasslands noted above.  Similar stories come from all parts of China that have local minority groups (including Han groups that are not officially “minorities” but are local identifiable groups under cultural attack).

Indigenous peoples are usually good managers.  Indeed, some are model resource managers—among the best in the world at sustainable landscape use.  Invaders and new settlers are not usually so aware of the land.  They usually do not know enough to manage it so well. But instead of learning from traditional people, China’s government has chosen to repress them savagely.  The dominant Han Chinese have considered the minorities to be trapped in “backward,”  “superstitious,” “feudal” or even “slave society” stages of cultural evolution—Marxism used to justify racism.  Thus, for example, Edwin Schmitt  documents in detail the way “scientific” agriculture was forced on the swidden-cultivating Ersu people of Sichuan, with resulting destruction of both environment and culture (Schmitt 2014).  The “scientific” agriculture was standard Chinese industrial agriculture; actual application of science would have preserved the swiddening and prevented industrial agriculture from spreading in the Ersu’s fragile mountain environment.  The minorities are supposed to acculturate to Han norms in the name of “progress.”   Blanket condemnation of their behavior as “backward” is particularly troubling.  Imperial Chinese attitudes seem to have been better, or at least no worse.

Since these are small, weak groups subjected to often intense discrimination, they are in a very weak position in regard to protecting their resources.  Typically, a frontier mentality (the sort described in the western United States as “rape, ruin and run”) has developed.  In many areas this has greatly improved, as the frontier fills up, but the improvement is too late to save the resources.  (This is based on my own wide observation and on the work of many students, but the latter are largely Chinese and would be endangered by being named here.)

All this has caused a problem for modern environmental researchers trying to understand traditional China.  They often back-project the disastrous mismanagement of the 20th century on earlier periods.  This is inaccurate and misleading.

Meanwhile, Tibet suffered as Chinese hunters exterminated wildlife long protected by Buddhism.  (Tibetans have now reportedly taken, locally, to poaching as well.)  Tibet’s fragile environment is under attack by uncontrolled mining (Buckley 2014; Qiu 2014a), roadbuilding, shooting, pollution, mining, and overgrazing.  Many Tibetans and Mongols have charged that Han Chinese are stripping resources not only to get the wealth but also to oppress the indigenous people.  China boasts of heavy investment in Tibet, but Tibetan refugees maintain that this investment goes to Han individuals.  The Han Chinese deny this.  Proof, however, emerges from the systematic destruction of the Tibetan way of life (Buckley 2014) and the relentless campaigns against the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan refugee community, and Tibetan Buddhism.   But the disasters are real, and they match Communist China’s deliberate destruction of its own cultural traditions (Leys 1985) all too closely.  Unlike the Great Cultural Revolution, which soon ended, the repression of Tibetan and Uighur culture is ongoing.

An example in microcosm is the fate of the reindeer-herding Evenki, a Tungus people of far northeast China (Wang et al. 2015).  They are a tiny group—only abouyt 100 still herd—but environmental mismanagement, including privatization of herds and deforestation of the region, is driving them to abandon their lifestyle, an ecologically very successful one.  With the loss of such sustainable and efficient practices, China moves farther and farther toward self-destruction.

An emerging pattern, especially in Xinjiang, is uncomfortably close to the familiar pattern of settler/invader cultures such as the Europeans in the Western Hemisphere:  Take local land and resources; provoke the local people to resist; then use their resistance as an excuse to massacre them.

The question of how China treats its minorities is a somewhat vexed one.  There are many charges on all sides.  Certainly China’s current stated policies are highly fair and civil.  Behavior on the ground does not always match ideals.  Nor are stated policies necessarily the real policies.

China’s current leadership is beginning to play a deadly game—one that is played to the hilt in other countries, including the United States:  retaining power by whipping up hatred of minorities and “enemies.”  The Uighurs and Tibetans have been the minority victims, the Japanese the primary foreign nation targeted.  On recent visits to China, I have detected an ugly racism that was hard to find before.  The Chinese have always had a lively sense of their own qualities, and have been prone to make less than tactful remarks about other cultures, but that is quite different from “The (fill in the blank) are bad people; they are terrorists, they are evil, they have nothing to offer.”  If China’s leadership succeeds in demonizing whole groups this way, they will have a legacy that will not soon end and that will threaten the nation as nothing else can do—not even ecocide.


In short, after early success, and in spite of many hopeful developments today, China’s environmental practices have gone downhill, though with many hopeful reversals.  Old China had a goal of getting maximum benefit through minimal cost, usually by striving for harmony with environmental forces.  The Communists introduced the Marxian idea of “struggle against nature” (see Shapiro 2001).  “Nature,” in this thoroughly western and Marxist sense, was quite a new concept to China—and, for that matter, “struggle” in the Marxist sense was also a rather new concept.  Mao said that “if people living in nature want to be free, they will have to use natural sciences to understand nature, to overcome nature and to change nature” and “to struggle against the heavens is endless joy; to struggle against the earth is endless joy; to struggle against people is endless joy” (Tilt 2009:136).  Even by western standards this is rather strong stuff, and to Chinese raised on Daoism, Confucianism, and solid rural experience in working with nature, it was appalling.

In what must be the most stunning non sequitur in history, the Communist apologist Jiang Zemin commented—as summarized by Lillian Li—“that China had the task of feeding 22 percent of the world’s population on only 7 percent of its arable land; therefore, political dissent and democratization had to take second place” (Li 2007:5; on this sort of political Newspeak in general, see Leys 1985; Smil 2004:144-145).  Of course, the experience of the rest of the world is that democracy and freedom translate into better management and more productivity in agriculture.  There is, in fact, an almost perfect correlation.  China has indeed greatly opened its political and economic system over the last few decades in order to keep producing food, but it has not opened enough to prevent loss of farming capacity.  China must depend increasingly on imports.

Another Orwellian claim is that China will become “first rich, then clean,” as the Chinese government mistakenly believed the west had done.  However, the non-Communist west was never even remotely close to being as polluted and eroded as China is today.  The west never had the population density or the technology until long after conservation was a major political force.  Environmentalism arose in the west before 1900, and was already stunningly successful, especially in forest and wildlife protection, under Theodore Roosevelt and his European equivalents.  The Germans, for instance, were already model forest managers in the 1880s.  At that time, and indeed until the 1920s, the United States was a poor and overwhelmingly rural country.  Pollution control began as early, and climaxed with the many laws of the early 1970s.  Only in Communist East Europe was there ever anything like China’s current devastation without an opposite reaction from political conservation.

In any case, “first rich, then green” does not work.  Even if the government could reverse its policies of 70 years, those 83 million people would not be brought back to life, nor would the farmland ruined by urbanization and heavy metal pollution be restored.  Moreover, China has developed an extreme case of “lock-in.”  It is trapped in a dirty economy that is now beyond major change unless there are enormous governmental changes at all levels—changes that are impossible so long as the government is in the hands of the notoriously corrupt Communist Party.  Even if national policy were to shift, local corruption would make major change impossible.  My students have documented the ways that local officials persist in devastating policies even after the national government has suffered a genuine change of heart and of laws (see also Tilt 2009).

More serious is the fact that China will never be rich if it does not become clean soon.  China’s vaunted economic growth rate is actually half or less what is claimed (Smil 2004; Tilt 2009), because the official figures do not take into account the costs of the pollution and erosion.  The World Bank has said that environmental pollution costs China 9% of its GDP (Fenby 2014:21).  The official figures are inflated by an uncertain amount too, so the actual growth rate is in fact close to zero.  This is not even to mention the point that the world does not have enough resources to allow China to consume at current western levels.

It is highly relevant to observe that China’s human rights record is also notorious.  Correlation of human rights abuse and environmental mismanagement is typical, not only in China but worldwide.

China represses those who protest environmental mismangement; this was reported in regard to the floods in Beijing in 2012 (Yahoo! News Online, July 24), but Edwin Schmitt, who was there at the time, says there was no repression and the 77 dead were all acknowledged (Schmitt, pers. comm., in writing, email of Sept. 21, 2012).  Political protest is often fatal in China.  Nature reports “Green protests on the rise in China” (Gilbert 2012), but they appear to have little chance of making a difference.  Meanwhile, China has recently imprisoned and tortured activists (including the artist Ai Weiwei) for protesting shoddy school construction that led to hundreds of child deaths in earthquakes.  Wu Lihong, who has spent years exposing polluters who are destroying Lake Tai, has been jailed, hounded, threatened, subjected to character assassination, and harassed (Jacobs 2014), although he is protecting an increasingly polluted lake that supplies millions of people with drinking water.  The firms violate the pollution laws because even if they are caught and charged, the fines and other costs are less than the benefits they get from externalizing their pollution problems—a story very familiar in the United States, of course.  Protesters have often been executed, their bodies then parted out like used cars—China harvests the organs of its executed “criminals” (BBC News Online, Aug. 16, 2013: “China Announces End Date for Taking Prisoners’ Organs”—note that an end date is announced but no end to the practice has actually occurred so far; Geng and Burkitt 2014 update this with news of yet another announcement of the projected end…).  A government that stifles criticism and “shoots the messenger” in cases of such flagrant abuse clearly has problems.

The government has not always been able to crush or coopt protest.  Usually, however, the government can prevail, stifling dissent or answering it with purely cosmetic changes (see e.g. Dirlik and Prazniak 2012; Economy 2005; Fenby 2014; Watts 2010).  The Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 still casts a shadow over Chinese science and environmental politics, leading people to stay silent or leave the country (Hvistendahl 2014b).  On the other hand, popular and scientific opinion killed a major section of the huge and environmentally dreadful South to North Water Transfer project (Mufson 2010).  Popular protest, led by a few environmental activists at serious risk of their lives, is slowly forcing the government to wake up; it is a bottom-up movement, with the government driven to act only when pressure is great.  Carbon limits are being set and the worst cities are now the subjects of serious plans (Qiu 2013b).

A new and even more stringent crackdown in 2014 has occurred. As the Los Angeles Times reports:  “Journalists are banned from writing ‘critical reports’ without approval from their employers the State Administration of Press, Piublication, Radio, Film and Televsion warned…. Censors lay a heavy hand on China’s media, and state-run outlets serve as a channel for party propaganda” (Makinen 2014a).  Interviews are strictly controlled.  This means not only that protest is suppressed, but that vitally facts about environmental problems will not be reported.  The government, even if it wanted to act, will not have the information.

Crackdowns on social media, education, politics in Hong Kong, and all other openings quickly followed.  (See Chang Ping 2014 on education and “brainwashing”—the Chinese original of this English term is a bit less forceful than the English).  In a particularly revealing episode, China expressed major anxieties about students studying in America being exposed to the U.S. Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and other democratic documents and historical narratives (Los Angeles Times, Aug. 31, A2, and much internet coverage).  This would seem a true measure of desperation.  The Chinese Communist hierarchy is clearly terrified of losing control.  An excellent, in-depth article by Jeff Goodell in Rolling Stone (2014) quoted a high official on what would happen if anyone organized a mass protest over environmental issues:  “’You don’t even want to think about it,’ [he] answers, fear flashing in his eyes” (Goodell 2014).

A study in 2014, using real and planted emails, found that China’s censors are fairly tolerant of individual complaints and rants, but crack down absolutely and condignly on anything remotely related to public protest.  They immediately purge from the Internet and local networks any reference to public protests in the past, let alone anything that could be construed as organizing them now (Hvistendahl 2014a; King et al. 2014). Censorship is uneven—much of it is local, not coordinated well with national norms—but this particular tendency is China-wide.

China is riding a tiger.  The more it needs to change, the more the old men who rule it fear that change, since changes are more and more threatening to their power.  They thus crack down more and more condignly on dissent or innovation.  This is rather reminiscent of the Qianlong Emperor’s similar behavior in the last decades of his rule, but the situation is far more extreme today than in his 18th-century time.  As Jonathan Fenby says, “China finds itself at a watershed in which it needs to change but knows that change will face it with the biggest test since Deng Xiaoping…” (Fenby 2014:122-123).  Or perhaps since the fall of the Qing Dynasty.



China is beginning to face the consequences of its folly, but its government has locked in much of the pollution by heavy subsidizing of power plants and polluting industries, as well as by pro-car policies.  (Though, recall, public fast transit is also being furthered.)  Above all, a combination of corruption and extreme repression of public opinion has rendered the polluting interests not only above the law but above all criticism.  The usual dynamic has appeared:  an industry heavily subsidized becomes wealthy and politically connected, and thus is too powerful to be controlled effectively.  Pollution is far worse than the government’s statistics admit (Abe and Nickum 2010; Cyranoski 2007).

Subsidies include the release of China’s firms—especially the state firms that still dominate the economy—from having to pay the costs of production.  In a free market, ideally, the cotss of production—including pollution, waste, loss of farmland, and loss of ecosystem services—would be paid by the producers.  This may or may not be true, but we will never know; capitalist societies always involve governments that subsidize giant firms and protect them from lawsuits and other restraints on externalizing (Anderson 2010).  The farther a society gets from a free market, other things being equal, the more the government protects firms from such costs by “externalizing” them—passing them on to the public.  Marx and Engels saw this problem clearly, and tried to escape it by envisioning comprehensive planning (see e.g. Engels’ Anti-Duhring, 1966, one of the last works written by the founding fathers and thus particularly revealing on such matters).  In practice, the Marxian drive for production at all costs led to externalizing costs far beyond anything permitted in democratic countries.

In the last analysis, Communism is a philosophy of production. Its goal was always to maximize production of useful goods, as readers of Marx and Engels know.  It is not set up to moderate production to maintain ecosystem goods.

It is also a totalitarian and absolutist philosophy, with no place for upward feedback.  The Chinese Communist system remains a top-down one, autocratic and savagely repressive of criticism.  The resulting political sclerosis has been well documented by Jonathanb Fenby (2014), among others.  Change is difficult.  Even if the leaders want it, they have to overcome the vast inertia of the local bosses, middle managers, and bureaucrats. Unlike leaders in democracies, they cannot use support from ordinary people.

One sad result of all this has been the creation of socialist people.  Westerners sometimes say that Communism “fails” because it does not create selfless people.  The fact is that it never tried, at least in the USSR and China.  In those countries, Communism took the form of classic tyranny, which, as the ancient Greeks (e.g. Plato and Aristotle) pointed out, makes people passive, deceitful, and weak, rather than cooperative and enterprising.  Particularly dramatic has been the rise of reluctance to help in accidents, reportedly because of fear of getting into trouble with the police.  Bystanders in a position to help, sometimes even when asked, have let children die and allowed old, handicapped people suffer (Demick 2011).  Another indicator of the effect of totalitarianism on morality and rule of law is provided by the state banks’ support of counterfeiters (Associated Press 2015)—the masses of businesses that produce cheap imitations of Gucci, Vuitton, Tiffany and other name brands and sell them as the real thing.  These firms are probably mostly in China, and certainly do their banking there.  The banks have stonewalled all attempts to get information about the counterfeiters or to freeze their funds or accounts; in fact, the banks have protested that any such attempts (which are perfectly normal under international law and have been for decades) are themselves wrong, immoral, disrespectful, and anti-China.  With this solidarity among state institutions in protecting flagrant lawbreaking, there is little hope for enforcement of more arcane and controversial matters like environmental protection.

The government sometimes blames Chinese traditions, but of course Chinese traditions advised helping all, in no uncertain terms:  “between the four seas all are siblings,” and much more.  There were reports of callousness in traditional times also, but always in the same circumstances:  tyranny and corrupt police.  Except in such situations, I saw only the opposite—extremely helpful, prosocial behavior—in my many years in Chinese communities.  But when my wife and I have been in police-ridden communities (including mainland China itself) we have sometimes seen the passive avoidance of help.  Perhaps Demick and others are exaggerating the situation, but they are clearly not inventing it.  Opening China post-Mao has slowly and steadily changed this for the better, and it is impossible to break the Chinese spirit in any case—but there seems to have been a genuine change here, however much Demick’s case may be exaggerated.

My assessment is that China has done more damage to its environment in the last 60 years than in the entire 3500-year history of Imperial China.  I cannot prove this from figures.  However, certainly the damage before 1900 was substantial, but I do know that since 1966 when I first saw Hong Kong, and even since 1978 when I traveled throughout China, the country’s environment and health have declined at a dizzying pace.

Considerable pressure for change and improvement has built up in recent years (Smil 2004; Tilt 2009).  The horrific floods of 1998 forced the Communist leadership to recognize that deforestation was having devastating consequences on downstream areas.  The Olympic Games of 2008 led to some significant cleanup of the Beijing area, which showed in turn how much improvement could be done for relatively little money.  Water shortages are forcing major reforms of water management in north China.  Recent forest policies are far from new or adequate, but they are not bad and may be improving.  An important review by Julia Strauss (2009) offers hope, but only if China does a number of things, notably streamlining policy and involving local people in all ways at all levels.  These seem, at this writing, unlikely.

More hopeful, however, are the rapidly increasing protests against environmental ruin (Wang et al. 2012).  The public is seriously fed up, and the government is having more and more trouble balancing their tendency to crack down on dissent with the need to appear at least somewhat aware of the problem and also to appear somewhat less draconian.  International investors as well as the public have to be considered.

Also hopeful is a government plan to move toward a national circular economy—one in which material and energy flows are made as efficient as possible, with maximal recycling, minimal waste, and maximal sustainability using renewable materials (Geng et al. 2013).  It remains to be seen whether this policy will be implemented, but it represents a stunning turnaround in rhetoric, and may well transform practice.  One can only hope so.

Finally, this comes within a much broader phenomenon: the number of well-educated middle class people in China is rapidly increasing.  Such people always bring pressure for forward and progressive change.  It may be that they will yet force the issue, and make China’s dinosauric Communist Party wake up.

Thus, some observers have been led to hopeful assessments of the future (e.g. Hyde and Xu 2009).  Unfortunately, these assessments are based on acceptance of official statistics known to be massaged or fabricated outright to fit national goals, and on policy statements that are not necessarily taken seriously at the local level.  Studies by local scholars show a very different reality indeed (Abe and Nickum 2009; also Ayoe (Jianhua) Wang 2013; Yu Huang, Bryan Tilt, Stevan Harrell, and others, personal communication about ongoing research). The Chinese say “numbers make leaders and leaders make numbers” (Liu and Yang 2009): fabricating statistics gets one promoted, and then one fabricates more (see e.g. Hvistendahl 2013b).

Tilt (2009), among others, thinks that China’s totalitarian government could as easily impose conservation as it imposed devastation.  This is, unfortunately, quite wrong (Ayoe Wang, pers. comm.; and see e.g. Fenby 2014, Marks 2012, Watts 2010, and the entire history of the Soviet Union, East Europe, and Cuba).  To begin with, there is the matter of changes that are difficult to reverse.

Most obviously, it takes 50 years to regrow a tree cut in 10 seconds, perhaps a thousand years to restore soil eroded in one storm, and thousands of years for urbanized land to become arable again.  Extinct species will never come back.  Surviving ones may be so depleted, and their habitat so altered, that they can never even begin to recover their original populations.  This is true of fish like the yellow croaker, as well as essentially all wild land animals in China.  And policies once set are very hard to reverse overnight, even for a totalitarian state.  The “lock-in” is a well-recognized economic phenomenon.

But, also, people have now irrevocably lost the old ideology of working (however imperfectly) with nature, and are slow to change from the newly-learned but now thoroughly-learned ethic of resource drawdown.

The old ritual links to the land are long broken.  Mao’s devastating campaign against popular religion eliminated the fengshui groves and other land-sparing religious and magical institutions.  It also eliminated the ritual and religious instantiations of community that held people together and made them responsible (see e.g. David Johnson, 2009, a stunning picture of lost folk plays in interior China; for the general case, Leys 1985).

In a particularly bitter irony, China’s new premier Xi Jinping has now called, in a rather pathetic plea, for a revival of traditional religions to fill China’s moral void (Kim and Blanchard 2013).  Belatedly, the Communist rulers realize that over 60 years of repression, involving millions of murders in which repression of religion and traditional philosophy were part of the justification, was a mistake, costing Chinese society very dearly indeed (Kim and Blanchard detail the continuing repression).

Some of the problems are systemic.  Anne Stevenson-Yang, an expert on Chinese politics and economics, has summarized one such:  “This is a system that excels at organizing around campaigns:  building the Grand Canal, completing the Long March, overtaking the West at steel production.  If something can be accomplished via vertical integration of people and capital, it shall be done.  If something requires lateral coordination and feedback and adjustment, this is not your system” (from a posting to Chinapol listserve, July 4, 2015, quoted by her kind permission via email of July 4).  The traditional Chinese agricultural system, especially the wet-rice irrigated form, survived by lateral integration.  That kept it in ecological balance.  Abandoning this for top-down control has, fortunately, not been total, but it has been serious enough to break down ecological controls.

Minorities suffered in particular, from Mongolia in the north (see Williams references below) to Xishuangbanna in the far south (Wang 2008, 2013).  Communists systematically destroyed these practices, seeing them as backward, superstitious, wasteful, and otherwise bad.  The reality, on the ground, was a combination of extreme and vicious racism and short-sighted attention to immediate profit at the expense of the future and of sustainability (Wang 2013 documents this at exhaustive length for Yunnan; there are comparable if sometimes less sophisticated studies for almost all minority areas).

Violently anti-environmental and anti-environmentalist rhetoric, harking back to the early Communist period, is still highly visible; Robert Marks quotes some of it (2012:325).  It is cited to government officials, but may be idiosyncratic rather than policy.  Ironically, it sounds very much like the right-wing anti-environmentalism of the Koch brothers and their ilk in the United States.  There actually seems to be some copying of specific slurs.  Also, China’s government is now so honeycombed with corruption that enforcing any regulations that run counter to local economic interests is difficult.  Local authorities are in league with and dependent on developers, and any American knows what that means.  A Chinese observer, Xiaolu Wang, puts it:  “Income inequality…is likely to be even greater [than reported] because unreported income (including illegal income) is huge, and is concentrated to a small proportion of high-income earners….  Rent-seeking behavior and corruption in the public sector are increasing; there is evidence of unjustified distribution of returns from land, natural resources and financial resources” (X. Wang 2008:167).

Possibly even more threatening are rapidly tightening restrictions on research that could throw light on China’s environmental management and mismanagement (Hvistendahl 2013a).  Outsiders are not allowed to map or photograph in much of China, and China is trying to get satellite photographs to be shot at low resolution; this is claimed as necessary to protect security of military sites and the like, but it is enforced in oil drilling areas and other environmentally—but not militarily—sensitive sites.  Thus, one can assume that there is an agenda of hiding environmental damage.  Foreigners taking photographs—even without having been warned, or ever notified of new rules—have been fined; Chinese have been jailed and tortured.

It should be emphasized that China is a Communist country, not a capitalist one, in spite of claims in the media.  The government plans, manages, and controls the economy and the labor force (Fenby 2014; Moyo 2012).  Market reforms have opened much of the economy, but these reforms, and their effects, are still under the control of the government.  It should be remembered that Communism does not necessarily mean total direct control of every economic enterprise by government; it means planning by government such that the economy is subservient to government policy.  (On Chinese government, some particularly thoughtful and interesting studies by Andrew Kipnis are particularly good at problematizing simple narratives of “Communism,” “capitalism,” and state power; Kipnis 1997, 2007, 2008.)

The worst problem for such a regime is that, with government and production equated or at least totally interlocked, criticizing pollution is criticizing the government, which, in China, means it is criticizing the Communist Party.  Individual protests are tolerated to some extent, but any mass protest is inevitably seen as treason.  The protestors are not just complaining about smoke; they have launched an attack on the State.  They are treated accordingly.

China has become something of a fantasyland for westerners, who either demonize it or praise it on the basis of very poor information (Palmer 2015).  The reality is neither demonic nor wonderful: it is the reality of a huge, autocratic government trying to develop and modernize a huge, complex country.  Corruption and lock-in of mistakes are inevitable under the circumstances.  The question is whether those will bring the whole system down.

This reminds us of the theoretical point that simple greed is not necessarily exclusive.  Lots of people can succeed.  Political power, however, is exclusive.  You have it or you don’t.  And any challenge to it is seen as a fight to the death by those who have it, to the extent that they have total command.  A city councilman may lose a seat and not complain; a governor will scheme and play games; a dictator will kill any number of people, by any terrifying means possible, to prevent even a small challenge.  (It should be noted that the United States, with its tiny handful of extremely powerful oil, coal, chemical, and defense firms, is very close to China now.  It is no longer a free-market, competitive system; it is essentially a socialist one.)

China now has one of the most unequal income patterns in the world, rivaling the United States—with the difference that China’s largest category is the poor, not the middle class (on this and other aspects of Chinese governance see Dirlik and Prazniak 2012; Dirlik is coming out with further overviews).  Distributional equality is not helped by the current pattern of local governments using eminent domain to force farmers to give up their lands (with purely nominal compensation), which the local governments then sell for hundreds or thousands of dollars an acre to urban developers.  The officials pocket the money (Orlik 2013).

The result of this—and perhaps the most critically important observation one can make—is that China now has the worst of Communism: commandism, top-down planning, fabrication of statistics, and the like, and also savage repression of dissent and independent thought.  It also has the worst of capitalism:  obsession with short-term profit by the powerful at the expense of everyone else.  The best of Communism—overall planning for the long term and roughly equal access to key resources—has been abandoned.  The best of capitalism—relative freedom of speech and action, resulting in real enterprise and improvement of production—has never been permitted.

One effect of this is an extreme form of the well-known problem with big government in general, and government subsidies in particular: they lock in inefficiency and waste, by making it profitable to pass on costs of production to the public, and by making it difficult and expensive to change and innovate.  Also, as noted, such centralized planning guarantees cooked figures and invented statistics (as Chinese dynastic planners already knew thousands of years ago!).  Also, Communism teaches that industry, short-term economic gains, and “development” of resources should always take precedence, and privileging of short-term gains over long-term considerations is locked into the Chinese system.  As the Chinese environmental scientists Tian Shi reports:  “abandoning or even compromising growth for the sake of environmental protection or resource conservation is regarded as a heretical concept.

Even when environmental problems are acknowledged, the Chinese government generally denies the reality of the limits to growth.  This perspective is based on the Marxist axiom that the problems of mankind have their origin in the structure of social relationships, especially those surrounding the means of production; nature presents no obstacles that cannot be overcome by the appropriate social arrangements and the wonders of scientific-technological productivity” (Shi 2010; see also p. 62).  All environmentalists who have tried to deal with western Marxists know too much about this, and many of China’s communists are more extreme than most western devotees.

Centralized economies have always been successful at resource drawdown, but conservation and sustainable development is generally best organized at the grassroots level, as conservationists have learned through thousands of cases worldwide.  Grassroots citizen action has, in fact, been the only real force motivating change for the better in China (Economy 2005; Tilt 2009).

Things could be worse.  Nature reserves (around 1800 now), reforestation, water management, conversion away from coal, and other hopeful programs are growing and improving apace.  Unfortunately, these continue to be outbalanced by rapid degradation.  China’s vaunted economic growth appears to be a myth.  The real costs of environmental decline are already serious.  They will increase exponentially in the near future, threatening or dooming China’s chances of being a world economic leader.



Jared Diamond’s famous book Collapse (2005) found several societies that collapsed from wrecking their local ecosystems, or ignoring ecological changes that threatened them.  The most interesting point about the book, to me, is that Diamond found so few cases.

Why aren’t there more?  Humans tend to be careless and take little thought of the future when planning for the environment (Anderson 2010).  So there should be more collapse stories, and Diamond was evidently rather surprised to find there were very few—all highly local and either on islands or in special zones that were ecologically island-like such as Mesa Verde.

From my research, I believe that the reason is that the beginnings of an ecological crisis cause so much political chaos, so rapidly, that there is no time for a genuine Malthusian crisis to occur.  As Malthusian pressures build, people become so desperate to preserve their own lives, and the lives of their immediate families or friends or clients, that they work against the wider system and against all sacrifice for the future.  If one is confident that one is going to be ruined in the short term, the long term is no longer meaningful.  In fact, even the slightest downturn is apt to bring rapid political dissention and conflict, as we are seeing in the United States today.  Worse downturns bring worse troubles, as Europe saw in the Great Depression.  (The United States was spared the worst of that depression, but still had its tensions.)  Then the social system melts down even before the ecological system fails.  The resulting economic and demographic decline takes the pressure off resources.  Thus, when China’s ecological disasters catch up with the economy, we can confidently expect political trouble and a regression toward a Hobbesian social world.

In fact, it is quite possible that China’s environmental crisis will combine with a political crisis in about 15-20 years.  China is almost three generations away from the revolution of 1948-1950 that put the Communist Party in power.  Three or four generations are critical in Ibn Khaldun’s quite successfully predictive theory of the evolution of a polity (Ibn Khaldun 1958; cf. Anderson and Chase-Dunn 2005).  Ibn Khaldun observed that, for a generation, a new government is held together by bonds of loyalty, mutual support, and sharing the loot.  They had to stand together to win the country, and this carried them through while the conqueror generation was in charge.  The second generation relaxes the military discipline and ideological solidarity of the winners, but achieves wealth, power and glory, more or less through momentum.  The third and fourth decline into luxury, corruption, and a general attitude of every-man-for-himself or every-group-for-itself.  Power blocs can grow over the years until they challenge the center.  It may be assumed that there are always people wanting to take power.  If the government is strong, the challengers cannot prevail.  As the Ibn Khaldun cycle works its way along, certain blocs of people can accumulate more and more power, while the government weakens.  This leads to collapse.

In a situation where many people become selfish while others fall back on loyalty to a group, the groups in question tend to become fanatical and violent.  They thus often win, since a highly motivated group can easily conquer a vast number of disunited individuals, one at a time.  However, this rarely happened in China’s long history; what usually happened was that either the leading general or some similar powerful individual simply took over the country in a coup, or else a semiperipheral marcher state invaded and took over.

The cycle takes about a hundred years, in Ibn Khaldun’s theory, and by and large in Chinese history, though cross-cultural statistics show it typically taking about 75 in many other areas (including the United States:  Independence to Civil War to Depression to current economic woes).  My own study of Chinese crises show that they did occur at roughly 75-year intervals since the unification of China in 221 BCE.  However, the range was great.  It ran from a mere 14 years (the dismally short reign of China’s very first dynasty) to 228 (the amazingly long run of peace in the later Ming Dynasty [1368-1644], from Yongle’s bloody coup in 1402 to the beginning of the violent end in 1630).  So the figure is hardly predictive.  However, there is every reason to believe that China’s next crisis will indeed come around 2025.

At this point the future becomes unclear.  China resolved many crises by a sort of coup by the government against itself:  a more or less legitimate but undesignated or displaced member of the imperial family seizing full power, eliminating rivals, and reinventing the government.  At other times, an army general would stage a coup, usually with bloody but limited fighting.  Total collapse occurred only when the government was completely nonfunctional due to selfish behavior by all parties.  The major collapses involved long periods of dynastic weakness, during which it the government lost legitimacy in the eyes of the people—“lost the mandate of Heaven,” as the Chinese put it.  This led to the rise of competing groups: bandits,” local armies, and “barbarians.”  These got into fiercer and fiercer spirals of violence, often creating local kingdoms or warlord fiefs, until some one powerful armed group rolled up the whole of China.  This happened most recently at the fall of Qing in 1911; China was not again united till the Communist victory under Mao Zedong in 1948-1950.

China’s many dynasties all fit the Ibn Khaldun model, but with one major difference:  Almost all of them lasted about 300 years—three or four Khaldun cycles.  This was, however, not as far from Ibn Khaldun’s theory as it looks.  Every one of them had crises at roughly 75-year intervals, sometimes involving actual overthrow of the dynasty by a coup and its recovery in a countercoup.  (This happened twice in the Han Dynasty.  China was ruled, historically, by eight major dynasties.  Of these, three involved conquest by semiperipheral marcher states, two of which were non-Chinese; four involved takeover by leading generals serving the previous regimes; and one was an actual popular revolution.  The Communist revolution marked the second takeover in China’s history by a popular movement. There were, in addition, several dynasties that conquered large parts of China but not the whole; five involved conquest of north China by non-Chinese semiperipheral marcher states, or perhaps in one case a truly peripheral state.  It may be worth noting that two major dynasties, Sui and Tang, had founders who were allegedly part “barbarian,” having Xiongnu, Xianbei or Turkic ancestry.  But they were culturally Han Chinese themselves.)

China’s current government is rapidly losing legitimacy through rampant corruption and brutal repression.  The environment is a major part of the action, since mass protests over displacement of millions by big-dam projects, groundwater pollution, and so on are building, and since soil erosion, deforestation, and pollution are wrecking the livelihoods of literally hundreds of millions of rural residents.  Meanwhile, political crises are surfacing, due to more ordinary competition for power.  Also, the rest of the world is going through a long, unstable, economically parlous period, that will probably not end before some currently wealthy countries are leveled down.  The United States in particular seems poised to collapse, with fascist dictatorship a possible outcome.  This would have repercussions that would be serious for China, as for everyone else worldwide.

By 2025—75 years from the triumph of the Revolution—China will be in a parlous situation.

Major environmental and consequent economic crises at this point in an Ibn Khaldun cycle will weaken or bring down the government.  China’s history suggests that anything could happen, from an internal coup to a complete meltdown into total chaos and violence.

We may get a bit farther in predicting which.  On the one hand, China’s history suggests that the first 75-year crisis in a regime is usually handled well; the regime reforms or revitalizes, and carries on.  (This occurred in Han, Tang, Sung, Ming, Qing, and several minor dynasties, but not in Qin, Sui or Yuan among the majors.)  This suggests that the present governmental system, with its gray apparatchik leaders, might collapse, but the Communist Party or the Red Army would produce dynamic leadership to replace them.

On the other hand, historical China never had anything like the present resource crisis, except at the fall of the Qing Dynasty when population had overshot food production and the food supply base was threatened by erosion, floods, and droughts.  Moreover, the current Chinese ideology is communist, as opposed to the traditional eclectic mix of various philosophies.

Communism under Mao, as under Stalin, often behaved like an extreme religion, comparable to extremist Islam and right-wing Christianity.  After Mao, China’s government greatly relaxed its hold, but under Xi Jinping the noose has tightened again, to almost Maoist levels.  The Internet is censored.  Political bloggers, from important to barely visible, have been ruthlessly suppressed (Grigg 2015).  The government promptly propped up the stock market after a run in June 2015, eliominating the possibility that anything resembling a free market would exist to teach investors about risk and actual costs.  The government is rapidly reasserting control of the economy via reinvigorated state enterprises.

Given current environmental conditions, all this essentially guarantees government failure.  China has shot all the messengers, from market forces to civilian watchdogs, who could tell the government about environmental crises or urge action on ones already known.  China has meanwhile invested heavily in urban construction, transportation infrastructure, manufacturing, fossil fuel extraction, and other environmentally devastating but currently profitable channels.  The government has maximal incentive to do more damage, and no democratic mechanisms for allowing advocacy of alternative futures.

In this case, it is possible that China will suffer one of its periodic collapses into violence and chaos, such as occurred at the end of each of the great dynasties.  On the other hand, it is also possible that present hopeful trends continue.  The government is in facft aware of the environmental problems, and imminent crisis might shock the leadership into taking charge, forcing temporary austerity on the people, and working to clean up the environment.  China might still save itself at the last moment.

Doing so will require a well-known set of conditions (Anderson 2010).  First, serious cost-benefit accounting will be necessary; the real costs of dams, air pollution, loss of farmland, and the like must be factored into budgets rather than being concealed and passed on to the poor.  Second, a system of accountability and recourse must be established; officials and local firms must be held accountable for damages, and ordinary people must have the right to protest (peacefully) and to sue in court.  Third, corruption must be fought.  This does not mean simply making pious statements about amoral officials; it means that powerful firms and local interests must be absolutely prevented from using covert means or unequal power to get their way.  (This is not always called “corruption”; in the United States, giant firms can legally do essentially anything they want to get their way politically, including the use of measures that are considered “corruption” in virtually every other nation, China included.  Conversely, the trivial “corruption” involved in inviting a cadre to a feast in exchange for getting some ordinary government service would not make much difference.)

Fourth, however, there is a serious need to end, totally and completely, Mao’s “struggle against nature.”  There is a need to return to the long-standing Chinese tradition of working in some degree or type of harmony and balance (heping) with the environment.  The idea that people had to live in the world and deal with its realities, and thus had to conserve things like forests, soil, and water, was basic to Daoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Legalism, and indeed all the traditional Chinese ways of thought.  It has been abandoned in favor of a thoroughly western concept that has proved disastrous in the west.  China’s ideology, and above all its education system, needs to abandon the equation of “modernization” with destroying nature.  Wholesale mindless imitation of the worst of the west (from “struggling against nature” to fast junk foods) is very far from the Marxian goals that China once had, and even farther from Chinese tradition.  It is also far from the current thinking in the west itself.  A major reform of the educational system would be a focal place to start.

In the near and middle term, the world is not likely to recover from its present economic doldrums.  China is not the only country dealing with environmental crises.  Also, many countries are dealing with hard times by cutting expenses and programs—in other words, by decimating consumption and spending, not a very good way to grow the economy.  All this suggests that China will have a very hard landing indeed, and will, at best, not be a great economic driver of the future world economy.

The world needs to learn from China’s investments in education, science, technology, and infrastructure.  China has made incredible strides in health, food production, and industrialization.  At first, in the 1950s and 1960s, China made enormous gains in dealing with water pollution.  These should all inspire world efforts.  The world should, however, not follow China over the cliff into autocratic government, repression of the public, and environmental ruin.



Will China collapse?  Not just yet.  Xi Jinping has launched a terrific crackdown.  Dissent and difference of opinion are savagely cut down.  On the other hand, Xi is no fool, and has made some fairly major steps to slow down environmental ruin.

This may, however, simply make things worse.  Environmental decline continues.  Repressing dissent means less chance to deal with problems.  Whistleblowers and bearers of bad news are in special trouble, which does not bode well for dealing with crises before they get out of hand.  Xi’s anti-corruption campaign is allegedly targeting his political rivals rather than corrupt officials in general.  This is a rumor, but a believable one, since that is the pattern of anti-corruption campaigns in most authoritarian states, including China in the past.

Collapse, however, will probably not come on Xi’s watch. He is too ruthless and wily.  Also, environmental decline is not yet to the point at which mass deaths can be expected.

Once Xi is gone, however, the situation will deteriorate.  Leaving aside possible succession conflicts, many events will be outside China’s control.  Global warming, continued shrinking of the land base, and continued pollution will squeeze China in a vice.  China’s desperate attempts to insure food by buying up land abroad, and by getting agreements and sweet deals with exporters in other countries, will increasingly fail.  Other countries in question are reaching their own limits.  Brazil, for instance, has skyrocketed its exports to China by turning its formerly vast forests into cropland.  This will end very soon, since Brazil is not only running out of forests (its last tree will fall in a very few decades) but is also facing a Malthusian squeeze as its population, mostly poor and frequently desperate for food, soars.  Australia’s farmland has been declining due to factors including salt buildup and global warming with consequent drought.  African countries that have contracted with China for land for farming are facing very rapidly increasing populations.  Most other supplier countries have similar problems.

When collapse comes, it will probably take the form of increasing repression, leading eventually to the country snapping as that repression comes into more and more conflict with increasing misery.  In previous centuries, this situation always led to one conclusion: massive civil breakdown.  Anarchic violence, banditry, and warlordism quickly reduced the population to sustainable levels.  There was plenty of direct killing, but the real problems were starvation and disease, following from social breakdown.  Major failures of life support systems force people to take the law into their own hands, and when that happens, fear and hate take over.  Irrational killing and system-smashing occurs.

This may be part of a worldwide collapse.  The United States is currently drifting into fascism.  A Republican win of all three branches of government in 2016 is quite likely, following which a fascist dictatorship and resulting war and genocide would be possible, based on my studies of the rise of fascism in many countries (I will present these elsewhere!).  This would lead to economic collapse of the United States, and that collapse would probably bring down China as well, along with much of the world economy.

The current world situation is not even remotely close to being sustainable.  When the crunch comes, the results will certainly involve mass violence and social breakdown.  China, the country currently most rapidly destroying its life support system, will be among the first to go.




Thanks to Alex Alvarez and Christopher Chase-Dunn for help and encouragement, and thanks in particular to Rob Efird and Edwin Schmitt for very careful readings and analysis that led me to modify many statements.





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Love: A New Model

July 7th, 2015

Love: a new model


Unpacking “Love” and Loves

Positive emotions tend to get lumped as “love” in English and many other languages.  The great cognitive psychologist Jerome Kagan (2006) admonishes us to unpack simple cover terms for psychological states, and see their full complexity.  If we do this with the English word “love,” we realize that we are talking about many quite different feelings.  There is a common emotional ground:  intense affection for and interest in a specific person or thing.

Still, the emotions associated with that enthusiasm and intensity can be very different indeed.   I love my wife, mixed green salad, and early medieval poetry.  Obviously, these three kinds of love are phenomenologically different.  Even love for the same individual may mean different emotions at different times.  My love for my oldest daughter, now 45, is certainly a different set of feeling from my love for her when she was newborn.

There is a delightful Spanish Renaissance song about a peasant who loves three things:  Inés, ham, and eggplants with cheese (which Inés obligingly cooks for him).  The poet assumes that his sophisticated readers will laugh indulgently at the foolish young swain who can’t tell a noble passion from a satisfied stomach (Alcázar 1961:167; my translation and discussion of it have been incorporated by David Kronenfeld into his book on cognition: 2008:212-213).

One can distinguish, within the space covered by the word “love,” at least the following quite different emotions or feeling-states.  (Various other minds have animadverted to this sort of listing.  A somewhat different list with some other possibilities is found in Kenrick et al. 2010; Hatfield et al. 2007 give a whole list of types of erotic love.):

Erotic infatuation

Familial love:  parents and children, siblings, relatives

Friendship and companionship

Dependency (loving someone solely because one depends on the person; a major part, though by no means all, of an infant’s love for parents; common in erotic relationships also)

Enjoying good food and other physical comforts

Familiarity love:  love for a pair of old shoes, or an old bathrobe, just because they are so familiar

Love for wild nature: flowers, mountains, deer, flowing water

Aesthetic love for great art, music, literature

Love for all humanity, or even all beings, as taught by world religions

Love for knowledge and wisdom:  philosophy, social theory, baseball statistics

Spiritual love (for God or functional equivalents, for natural wonders, and so on)

Love for principles:  justice, truth, helping

Patriotic love:  a strange emotion.  It seems to be basically passionate loyalty to leaders transferred to an abstract concept (the nation, state, or flag).

All these loves have subdivisions.  Erotic love, for instance, varies from wild passion—considered a major medical problem in olden times (Wack 1990)—to calm, quiet bliss (Hatfield et al. 2007).  In a lasting marriage, erotic infatuation generally gives way to companionate love.  There are many whole books on how to revive the infatuation, indicating a pent-up demand for that.  A love affair or marriage, if it’s any good, involves a range of loves:  erotic attraction, friendship, trust, mutual dependence, familiarity, and so on.  We get used to thinking that way, and have trouble unpacking “love.”

Familiarity love typically increases with time, but sometimes we get to hate familiar things more and more, and sometimes a worn shoe is just a worn shoe.  Usually this depends on whether the shoe has been worn in pleasant or unpleasant contexts (hiking shoes may be loved, formal ones just thrown away when a bit frayed) but sometimes the logic of familiarity love escapes us.  Children are particularly unpredictable in this regard.  Contemplate any young child’s choice of favorite stuffed animal, and the way such choice may change suddenly for no apparent reason.   “Loving” things like a familiar pair of old shoes, or a favorite food, involves awfully minimal interest.  Boundary phenomena define a category, so we cannot neglect the old shoes.

Aesthetic love is so vague as to be almost a “garbage-can category.”  Love for Bach’s harpsichord music seems pretty far from love for Tolstoi’s novels or Navaho rugs.  Even within music, love for Chinese opera seems hard to square with love for Chinese classical music (which is slow, soft, and mostly solo), but Chinese music aficionados adore both.

Patriotic love involves loving an abstraction, in an oddly impersonal yet passionate way.  This seems a very human thing; one can imagine a dog trained to die for a flag, but not to understand the abstract concept of “the nation” behind it.

In English, and in many other languages, the word “love,” by itself, is always understood to mean boy-girl.  It does not even include parent-child love, let alone a gourmet’s love for poule de Bresse.  One particularly benighted recent article on Darwin and psychology, for instance, restricts “love” to reproduction, listing only love for mate (singular) and kids (Nesse and Ellsworth 2009).  Psychologists of romance also restrict “love” to couples (Sternberg and Sternberg 2008; Sternberg and Weis 2006).  Some are even more extreme, considering teenage crushes as “infatuation,” not love.  All these limitations are truly culture-bound.  They exclude not only the hapless teenagers, but also temporary affairs, polygamous relationships (which can be deeply loving in China, Korea, and elsewhere), polyamory in general, and indeed everything except middle-class Anglo-American ideal mating.  One would think that no one ever has positive emotions outside of erotic passion and, perhaps, mothers’ love for babies.  There is very little on fathering, and, to my knowledge, not a single study of grandparental love (as opposed to the evolutionary significance of grandparenting).

Even romantic love has only recently been studied beyond the level of simplistic boy-girl mating (Sternberg and Weis 2006).  Rusbult et al. (2009) have recently shown that couples flourish in proportion to how much each member thinks the other brings out his or her “ideal self.”  This not only presents a relatively new subject for scientific research (novelists have long noted it, of course) but meshes with Viktor Frankl’s writings and other works that speak of the deeper desires of the human animal for ideals, life commitments, and true personal meaning in life.  We are most different from other animals when we are most involved with lifetime visions and projects.

This, however, somewhat ignores the fact that each love is different.  It often occurs that one passionately loves a person for reasons A, B, and C, then in the next affair passionately loves a person for reasons X, Y, and Z, then in yet a third affair loves a person in a quiet, gentle, non-“passionate” way.

The western world has had a positive, romantic idea of erotic love since the Greeks and Ovid.  Others have different ideas of it, and their knowledge might well be taken into account by modern psychologists.  In the Middle Ages, romantic love, at least if it became “severe” enough to interfere with ordinary life, was often considered a form of melancholia or other mental trouble, and treated by doctors—or sometimes philosophers (Burton 1932).  This was especially true in the Near East.  Here is the Arab physician ‘Ali ben ‘Abbās (c. 994) on dealing with this vexing illness: “On the Treatment of Love…. Such patients should undergo a moistening regime….  They should take baths, moderate horse exercise and anoint themselves with oil of violets.  They should look upon gardens, fields, meadows, and flowers, listen to sweet and low sounds as of the lute or lyre, and their minds should be occupied by stories or pleasant and interesting news.  But they must also have some work or business, so as to keep them from ideness, and from thoughts of the loved ones, and it is good to excite them to quarrel and argument that their minds may be yet further distracted” (Kamal 1975:421).

Perhaps the best balance is found in another Arab work, The Ring of the Dove by ibn Hazm (1953).  Ibn Hazm was a sober, serious judge and a leading authority on Islamic law.  That did not stop him from writing perhaps the most urbane, tolerant and wise book ever written on romance—one which, incidentally, gives equal place to homosexual and heterosexual love, without making an issue of it.  The book is a useful corrective to the extremist concepts of Islam now all too visible in the media.  Ibn Hazm covers everything from happy lifelong mating to obsessive and dangerous infatuation, with appropriate notes on treating the latter.

A vast amount of ink has been spilled on how love “evolved”—usually, I fear, by people who do not know much Darwinian theory.  This literature is inadequate even for boy-girl love, and ignores every other sort.  We all know now that fairly big breasts and a small waist attract men because they show reproductive fitness, and that men and women everywhere want someone who will listen to them and be sympathetic and kind, but we know surprisingly little more about even this best-studied of types of love.  We know a good deal about parent-infant bonding and early love, but there are mysteries here and many ridiculous claims in the literature (see Anderson 2007).  We have no clue—beyond the obvious facts known to the ancients—about how human family bonding with older children and grandchildren is maintained.  The family dog’s love for us is rather better studied than our love for him (Serpell 1995).  “Lord, help me be the person my dog thinks I am,” says a bumper sticker.  Showing how humans and mice are alike does not tell us how love evolved; we want an account of how humans and mice are different.  One doubts if a mouse wants someone who brings out his or her ideal self.

The literature on romance reaches amazing heights of of ridiculousness.  Great effort has been expended on a quest to find human body scents that attract the opposite sex.  This quest remains futile, yet biologists claim that love must be a chemical process.  The BBC (Murphy 2009) reported one Tim Jacobs as saying of love scent-chemistry:  “Unfortunately all this doesn’t seem to leave much room for romance.”  Well, yes, if it were true.  But we have plenty of hard evidence that love is about listening, caring, sharing ideal selves, living together and accommodating, and much else that is romantic—and no evidence that natural body smells are involved except in the well-known negative way.  An expert on the matter, Tristram Wyatt, writes:  “[S]o far, no [human] pheromones have been conclusively identified, despite stories in the popular press” (Wyatt 2009:263).  The human animal is wired to like natural-disinfectant smells on skin, hence the popularity of perfumes, most of which are based on disinfectant chemicals like lavender, jasmine, and rose oils.  Musk is an exception—an animal sex attractant—so one cannot rule out human sex attractant chemicals.  Certainly people are more sensitive to natural scents than we used to think.  Studies show people recognize their children’s and loves’ odors.  But romance survives.

David Buss, once the champion of extreme simplicity in regard to male-female attractions (women want wealth, men want reproductive vigor), now admits that men have many disparate strategies for attracting women (Buss 2009:143-144).  The insights of evolutionary psychology, cutting through common sense to the real core of things, have ended with a lame admission that common sense was right all the time.


Many languages are sharply different, focusing their words equivalent to “love” on the parent-child bond.  This too involves a range of emotionalities.  Some parents live for their children; others dutifully love their children without being much interested in them as people—especially once they have left home.  Cultures that focus on parent-child love (as in Polynesia, and on the island of Chuuk; see below) sometimes have different words for the other emotions in the “love” camp.  Ancient Greek unpacked “love” into eros for the obvious, agape for ideal selfless (nonsexual) love, caritas for compassionate love, and the verb philein for general strong positive affect.  The latter in turn had derivatives like philadelphia for “brotherly love” (a quality rather rare these days in the city named for it…).  There is also storge “friendship,” and still other words for mothering.  Already in the 18th century, Johann Herder, a major ancestor of anthropology, discussed various German loves and love-words in the late 18th century (Herder 1993:115-6).

All this means that “love” is a very difficult concept to use as “a motive.” Jesus clearly meant for people to “love one another” in the familial and companionate senses—a broad spirit of warm, accepting sociability.  Yet countless millions of Christians over time have interpreted it as meaning that their prime duty was to kill anyone who disagreed with them, or even anyone who looked different.

Real love for particular persons leads to caring and responsibility, unless one is fearfully disempowered, but obviously some kinds of love lead more directly and seriously to this than others do.  Family love (not erotic love) stands out as by far the most important motivator of care.  Companionate love is a strong second.  Caring for the environment is a lower priority (if it is a priority at all) compared to taking care of one’s family.  If my family was starving and I had to catch the last members of an endangered fish species to keep them alive, I would do it, though I realize that, to the world, the survival of my family may matter less than the survival of the fish.  Worldwide, millions of people are faced with essentially this choice.  Poverty forces them to catch fish, or cut down forests, to feed their families, though they may know that the end result of overuse is starvation for all.

Love, friendship, and respect are more based on morals than psychologists thought.  A recent study by Goodwin et al (2014) finds that morals beat warmth, pleasantness, and sociability in the long run, in evaluating persons.  More research is needed, but at the least, having shared morals makes for better relationships of any kind.  Conversely, McClure and Lydon (2014) found that people with high attachment anxiety are considered very undesirable as mates or partners.  Attachment anxiety typically follows from an approach-avoidance upbringing (often by an attachment-anxious mother).  It is a major handicap for anyone seeking a mate, and thus one of those things that ought to be addressed on a wide scale.

Love and caring may lead to active warm interest, but often we are interested in something we don’t really love—as I am interested in social theory without exactly “loving” either the theory or society itself.   In fact, most of us are interested in murder (at least to the point of reading mystery novels), and we certainly do not love that.  Conversely, the dependency love noted above usually goes with relatively little interest in the recipient, or with a very special kind of interest.  A newborn baby loves its mother and is intensely interested in her, in immediate personal ways, but obviously is not prepared to ask about her life story and hobbies.  Most of us know loving, long-standing married couples that have no intellectual interest in each other’s lives or thoughts.  Such couples are notoriously prone to break up when the kids leave home—they have nothing left to talk about.

Mystical experience is a part of intense erotic love for some (many?) people, but need not be, and mystical experience without love is common.

The development of love in humans can be roughly divided into stages, following Freud and Erik Erikson (1950) but without their specific theory commitments.  Babies and young children love without much understanding of those they love, or even knowing enough to seek understanding; they love from dependence and because of nurturing, care, and contact.  Teenagers tend to have brief, intense infatuations based on often rather superficial reasons, such as the conventional attractiveness or the popularity of their loves.  Their friendships are often similarly based and similarly transient.  Adults love from sharing, mutual friendship, longstanding commitment, trust, and the like.  Finally, a highest stage of erotic love, reserved for a fortunate few (or more—no one seems to know, involves a real mutual interest—seeking for knowledge of what will really please the other, seeking for knowledge of the other’s life and interests, but holding one’s own and expecting a return.  This sort of lifelong-learning love also plays across other attachments:  to friends, career, landscapes, art, even machines.


Hedonia and eudaimonia

Following Aristotle and his time, psychologists now distinguish between two very different kinds of happiness (Waterman 2007).  Hedonia is just good immediate fun.  Eudaimonia is the happiness, or satisfaction, that comes from having a deep life commitment.  Evolutionarily, this would have been one’s genetic destiny—children, and in a long-mated species like ours, normally also the other parent of said children.  By extension, humans have come to see life careers as meaningful.  Probably this evolved, and long ago:  hunter-gatherers had to feel eudaimonia for hunting and gathering, to motivate them to go out and get food for their families.

The obvious difference between hedonia and eudaimonia is that eudaimonia often isn’t much fun, but in the end is a lot more satisfying.  Parents, not only human ones but even higher animals, find young children are often an appalling trial, but more wonderful and delightful than all the “fun” in the world.  Many of us find our careers to be like that too.  I am perpetually being told to stop working and have some fun for a change; I can’t get it through people’s heads that I enjoy my work more than “fun.”

Some people seem wired for hedonia, some for eudaimonia.  Many people maintain a balance, but some seem interested only in immediate fun and unable to sustain commitments, others live for long-term goals and find transient pleasures quite unsatisfying.  Personality theories have sometimes noted this difference, but we do not really understand it.

Simply being interested is an extremely important, and extremely undervalued, mood-state.  Normal people are overwhelmingly interested in their social world, as we have seen.  Many are not very interested in anything else, though most people seem to expand their interest to take into account their work and work environments.  Some few, but reliably one or two in every group, displace much interest onto nature.  This becomes institutionalized as “science” when rapid expansion of a trade-and-commerce economy leads to floods of new information, as in Athens, early Islam, medieval China, and the western world since 1400.




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Basic Human Nature: needs and individuals

July 7th, 2015

Theory 1:  Needs and Wants


Basic Biology of Knowledge

“[T]he economy, social structure, and beliefs of a historical era, like the fence restraining a baboon troop at a zoo, limit each person’s understanding of the world to a small space in which each day is lived”  (Jerome Kagan 2006:253; cf. pp. 195-196).  The simile is closer than Kagan ever thought:  baboons too have their social metaphysics (Cheney and Seyfarth 2007).

Recent findings have firmly grounded our hypersocial life, our cultural learning abilities, and our unique language skills in evolutionary biology.  The “killer ape,” and the “savage” in a permanent “state of warre” (Hobbes 1950/1651) are long dead.  Instead, biologists have found much inborn mental equipment, including innate sociability.  This includes some interesting parallels with birds as well as mammals.  Humans are animals with a complex evolutionary history.  (Only 40% of Americans accept evolution; 40% reject it totally; Miller et al 2006.)

Our behavior is, ultimately, the product of genes.  These specify very few rigid instincts:  dilating our pupils in the dark; closing our eyes when we sneeze; breathing even when asleep (and even that instinct fails in sleep apnea and sudden infant death syndrome).  More often, our genes specify ability to learn.  We learn some things much more easily than others, and which things are easy to learn is usually readily explained by our social needs and our former needs as hunter-gatherers in varied or savannah-like landscapes (Barkow et al. 1992).  We have a genetic mechanism to learn language, but we can learn—with equal ease—any of the 6800 or more natural languages and any number of computer languages and artificial codes.  We are genetically programmed to recognize blood kin, but we humans go beyond that:  we have elaborated thousands of different kinship systems, and we adopt, foster, and otherwise create artificial kinship links with great enthusiasm.  Biology produces general contours of thinking and feeling, while environment—notably including culture—fine-tunes these.  Biological templates, grounds, or modules are shaped by learning.  Jerome Kagan (2006, esp. pp. 234-245), who has done much of the relevant research, points out that the sorting is poor, the interplay complex.

The idea that humans are “blank slates,” without genetic programming, is long dead (Pinker 2003).  John Locke usually gets blamed for the tabula rasa view, and indeed he used the phrase, but he was quite aware of, and indeed had a quite modern view of, innate information-processing capabilities.  (Among other things, he draws interesting contrasts between normal individuals and “changelings”:  autistic persons, thought by countryfolk to have been fairy-children “changed” for real children that the fairies stole.6knew they were not fairy-children but ordinary humans who were simply born different.  See Locke 1979 [1697]).

As one would expect from animals evolved as hunters and gatherers, we notice animals more than objects.  Experimenters claim that children notice animals even more than internal-combustion-engine vans.  (See Holden 2007—but they obviously weren’t testing my sons!)  We also notice anything strongly patterned in nature.  It is pattern sense that lets us pick out the snake from the grass, the fruit from the foliage.  We notice flowers, guides to food for a primate.  A walk with a dog reminds one of how much inborn preferences matter.  Dogs care little about flowers, much about rotten bones that humans try to ignore.



Humans act to satisfy needs, and not only physical ones.  Critical was the discovery in the 1950s and 1960s that all mammals would work for chances to explore, chances to see new and interesting stimuli, and even for chances to stimulate the pleasure centers of the brain via electric currents.  This discovery can be accommodated in an extended theory of “needs,” but only if one remembers that the old “drive-reduction” view is wrong (Anderson 1996; Baumeister 2005).

Humans have several broad classes of needs.  Abraham Maslow constructed a classic needs pyramid in 1970; the lowest but most basic needs must be fulfilled first in order to survive.  The others can be delayed progressively longer.  Maslow’s original list (as summarized in Kenrick et al. 2010) was:  Immediate physiological needs; safety; love; esteem; self-actualization.  (The last was never well formulated and has tended to drop out; see Kenrick et al. 2010.)

In order of immediacy—how long it takes to die from lack of need satisfaction—we may expand the classic list a bit:  breathing (oxygen); water; food; temperature regulation (fire, shelter, clothing…); health and physical safety; sleep and arousal; control over life situation; and social life from acceptance to social place (“esteem”) to love and belonging.  In addition, reproduction is a need for society, though not for individual survival.

People have to prioritize getting air, water and food.  Making a living, and coping with ordinary life, have to take first place.  But social, control, and reproductive needs are more important to people.  Thus people have to balance immediate, urgent, but less psychologically deep needs with things that can be put off but are more deeply significant.

These needs are not simple.  “Food” is a complex of needs for protein, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals.  We have genetic programs telling us to eat, but no two human groups eat quite the same foods.  Silk moths live only on mulberry trees, pinyon jays live on pine seeds in pinyon groves, but humans live anywhere, and, as we used to say in Texas, “will eat anything that won’t eat back faster.”  Genes specify how our bodies lay down fat, but obesity incidence has skyrocketed in recent years.  Faced with floods of fast-food, some overeat, others exercise and eat wisely and stay thin.  All this makes nonsense of the claim for “fat genes.”  Where were those genes in 1900, when Americans ate much more than now, but were almost all thin?

Sleep and arousal are not simple states; sleep ranges from deep sleep to highly creative dreaming, and arousal varies from doziness to passionate interest, wild excitement, and manic enthusiasm.

Reproduction is not just sex;  it involves a few minutes of sex followed by nine months of pregnancy and 20 years of child-rearing.  Human birth and child-rearing require assistance (see Hrdy 1998).  Biologists, especially male ones, often write as if human reproduction was all “mate selection” and the sex act.  Darwinian selection has operated on the entire process, including the whole social program associated with birth, development, and education (Hrdy 1998; Zuk 2002).  Humans are programmed to learn from peers, elders, and indeed almost anyone, as well as from parents (see Harris 1998).  Unlike many animals, we learn throughout life, and in a multiplicity of ways.

In the face of this, Douglas Kenrick and associates have recently redone Maslow’s classic table (Kenrick et al. 2010).  Acknowledging the huge amount of attention to mating and parenting needs in recent years, they now see the list as: Immediate physiological needs, self-protection, affiliation, status/esteem, mate acquisition, mate retention, parenting.  They provide a very thorough discussion of the recent Darwinian theorizing on all these.  Oddly, they miss the control needs.




We return now to human higher-order needs.  People everywhere clearly have a primary need to feel in control of their lives and situations (Anderson 1996; Heckhausen and Schulz 1995, 1999).  The control needs presumably derive from primal fear and the basic animal need for security and safety.  Humans need more:  we need not only to feel secure, but also to feel we have autonomy, that we know enough to exercise it effectively, and that we have the physical and mental ability to execute the plans so constructed.

These needs for various aspects of control are the biological bases of the human need for feelings of self-efficacy.  Albert Bandura’s theory of self-efficacy (Bandura 1982, 1986) is foundational to much of social science.  Humans have to feel that they are able to manage enough of their lives, critically including their social lives, to give them what they need in the world, including social position.  To the extent we feel out of control, we first fight against whatever is restraining us; even a newborn will struggle against restraint of motion.  If that fails, people fall into despond, depression, and inaction.

What matters is perceived self-efficacy, not some objective “reality.”  Most people are fairly realistic about it, but many give up in spite of obvious opportunity, and others keep fighting long after all is lost.  Those who give up generally turn out to have had some major and unmanageable problem in childhood, such as alcoholic or abusive parents.  Even certain success is foregone by self-handicappers (Bandura 1986).  The perseverers turn out to have had the opposite experience:  a background of fighting through, somehow, against long odds.

All this leads to some imperfections in the human condition, dashing the optimism that comes from belief in human rationality.  People insecure in their self-efficacy are defensive.  This most obviously takes the form of open aggression, but most children are disciplined for that.  They learn to be passive-aggressive, treacherous, or at worst vengefully self-destructive.

Control needs may add to the normal animal need for security.  Notoriously, people will do anything to feel secure.  But the opposite can happen too:  teenagers show control by seeing how fast the family car will go.  Indian ascetics strive for control over their bodies.  Insecure, aggressive people strive for control over other people.

Few data exist on the different phenomenology of being at the mercy of natural forces as opposed to being controlled by other people.  My Chinese and Maya rural friends, and the rural Americans among whom I spent my youth, lived very much at the mercy of nature:  hurricanes, typhoons, floods, droughts, crop failures.  Yet they felt fairly well in control of their lives.  They shrugged off the disasters as “fate” and went on coping.  Modern urban Americans are not subjected to such disasters, but their worlds are dominated by bosses, politicians, and giant corporations.  Even their entertainment and diversion is canned in Hollywood.  They seem to feel a quite different kind of stress from those who must create their own lives in the face of often-hostile nature.  Facing the latter often breeds independence and self-reliance.  Facing the urban social world is much more prone to create feelings of hopelessness, anxiety, and alienation.  In China I encountered a saying:  “Better sink in water than among people; if you sink in water you can swim, but if you sink among people you can do nothing.”

This is the “learned helplessness” of Martin Seligman, who has emphasized that people can also learn optimism and get out of the despond trap (Seligman 1990).  But helplessness in the face of control loss is not just learned.  It is a natural response.  The natural animal response to threat is to flee or fight, but if those fail, the animal cowers down and tries to stay as invisible as possible.  It hides in a den or hole, or just crouches in the grass.  (This is probably a main biological root of depression, though grief and loss are also important in that condition.)  This is the passivity of people whose horizons are restricted and whose options are limited.  Recently, Seligman’s coworker Steven Maier has learned that the response is mediated through the dorsal raphe nucleus (in rats and presumably all mammals; see Dingfelder 2009).  This is a rather primitive and general emotional processor within the brain.  Getting control and coping involves activity in the more recently evolved ventromedial prefrontal cortex, a structure highly developed in humans.

The control needs involve not only physical control of surroundings, but also understanding them.  Like security, knowledge is a much wider and more basic need; every animal has to know enough to find food.  But humans go much farther.  We want simply to know.  We enjoy learning facts simply because they may come in useful some day.  We need to know what will happen.  This is not just a want but a literal life-and-death need (Anderson 1996; Baumeister 2005). The desire to know and understand seems somewhat a separate system in the mind, though psychological studies show that it too grows from the control need.  The need for knowledge is different from the need for outright social power.  Enjoyment of learning appears to arise, ultimately, from the value of understanding the world for one’s control of one’s life.  There may be two separate systems here; or, perhaps, we are merely judging components of one system by their different results.

The need for security can be sated in normal individuals.  When they feel safe and accepted, they go on to something else.  But the wider, derived control needs are somewhat open-ended; unlike (normal) thirst, hunger, or desire for sex, they do not get automatically satiated by gratification.  Some people wind up constantly needing control:  they are “control freaks,” “power junkies,” or “rigid personalities.”  Some individuals, driven perhaps by deep insecurity, seem literally mad for power.  Their need, like the fire in Ecclesiastes, is never filled, and the result has been a world history of disasters.  Except for such people, Nietzsche’s claim that humans have a basic desire for “power” is simply wrong.

Fortunate those whose need for control is channeled into a need for understanding!  They have the best of all worlds, a life spent in learning and in enjoying it.  Possibly we can work at rechanneling the needs of the “control freaks” into healthy desire to accumulate more knowledge.

Finally, a dramatic recent finding by Brandon Schmeichel and Kahleen Vohs (2009) shows that one’s values are critical to maintaining this sense of control.  In a wide range of experiments, they showed that loss of self-efficacy was repaired by simply listing and explaining one’s core values.  A sharp and thought-provoking contrast with pleasant words and reassurance emerged from these studies:  reaffirming core values made people feel not only a lot better about themselves, but back in control, confident of their personhood.  Nice words reassured them about their social situation and disarmed anger and sulking, but did not fix the low sense of self.  This reminds us of the advice of the stoic philosophers, especially Marcus Aurelius: keep your principles and you can endure the world’s harms.  Easy for him to say—he was Emperor of Rome!—but it seems to work even for those of us who have much less real control of our world.


Social Needs


“One of the unpardonable sins, in the eyes of most people, is for a man to go about unlabelled.  The world regards such a person as the police do an unmuzzled dog, not under proper control.”  –T. H. Huxley (Gross 1983:58)


Randall Collins (2001) postulates an “emotional energy,” not really either emotion or energy, but the inner state produced by rewards and recognition in social interactions.  Every interaction produces some if this commodity.  Positive energy accrues to those who get approval and approbation.  Common English recognizes many kinds of emotional flow in interactions.  Approbation, status, warmth, affection, liking, and other good things contrast with criticism, censure, annoyance, and disapproval.  Worse are rejection, anger, fury, and hate.

Warm and close sociability is the highest pleasure.  The naïve may think “sex” is the highest; the experienced will recall the difference between sex-without-love and sex-with-love.  The social needs include needs for love, recognition, sense of a “place” in society, and just plain ordinary socializing.  We humans love gossip (Dunbar 2004).  Our favorite recreation is hearing about (and, often, interfering with) the lives of other people.  This finds modern expression in reading novels, watching movies and TV, or obsessively following the lives of “celebrities.”

How much of a typical human’s enjoyment is solitary?  How much is simply the enjoyment of social contact?  Good sex is more about personal intimacy than about twitching.  Conversation and most artistic activities are social.  Good food and drink are more than doubly good when shared.  Of all pleasures, perhaps only meditation and the enjoyment of nature are better when done solo.  Art, dance, and sports have an ultimately rewarding and pleasant aspect quite apart from their social side, but they are more fun with others.  An Arab proverb says that “God does not count against your life the time spent in good company,” and modern medicine agrees.  It is literally true that the more good sociability one has, the longer one lives.

We need social life so much that people will endure any abuse, oppression, and cruelty to avoid ostracism or life in a bleak companionless setting.  Women endure abusive relationships.  Children removed from unspeakable family situations cry to “go home,” especially if they are put in a cold, impersonal shelter.  The abject conformity of much of 20th century life, with its mass media, uniform clothing styles, and monotonously identical shopping centers with the same chain franchises, is apparently preferable to loneliness.  Isolation and anomie are frightening, and people do anything to conform to what they see as social expectations.  Those who do not observe the conventions are enemies, or at least untrustworthy.  This was even more true in the 1940s and 1950s than now, so the best analyses come from that period:  Erich Fromm’s Escape from Freedom (1941) and David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd (Riesman et al. 1950).

Incidentally, to anticipate a later section on “individualism” versus “collectivism,” the almost insanely abject conformists of Fromm’s and Riesman’s all-too-accurate accounts were precisely the people who talked most about “American Individualism.”  The same is true today; those who claim to idealize “individualism” are those who are most paranoid about immigrants, homosexuals, Muslims, and so on and on.  They endlessly agitate to outlaw all such deviant behaviors.  They have even idealized junk food, simply because it is American, and denounce critics of junk food as “food Nazis.”  The left-wing equivalents talk of “personal liberty” but enforce political correctness.  All this proves once again the general principle that people idealize what they want for themselves, not what they actually have, and—conversely—tend to hate most in others what they secretly hate most in themselves (in this case, mindless followership).

All studies show that people are happy in proportion to their warm, supportive social group.  Loners, rich or poor, are less happy than warmly social people.  Change in social status makes the most difference in happiness.  Loss of a loved one is the cause of the deepest grief, and that grief does not go away soon. Many people will not eat to live unless they are socializing.  Meals on Wheels, an organization that brings meals to elderly or invalid shut-ins, has its workers stay to share mealtimes, knowing that people will often starve to death if they have no one to eat with.

Social place, social acceptance, social validation are all-important.  Banishment and ostracism are the worst punishments short of death, and sometimes death is preferred; suicide is often the result of loss of social position, whether by shame (as in Japanese seppuku) or loneliness and isolation (as in many American and European suicides, especially of older people).

Humans have a powerful compulsion to establish, maintain, and when possible improve one’s social place.  People live for social approbation.  The American individualist or independent self-made entrepreneur reacts with fury and despair to the least threat or challenge to his or her social standing.  This is not merely “belonging” and is not confined to “love.”  It is a matter of having a defined, stable, secure place in a social group.  One needs to have a secure position, with status, role, group recognition, reciprocity, authority, and nurturance more or less reliably assured.  Conversely, a chance word can ruin a lifetime friendship.

All societies have countless rules and visible signs to tell who is “in” and who is “out.”  Membership in the group is shown by everything from skin color and language to tattoos and ritual scarification.  Status in the group is shown by the same:  the higher-ups speak a different way (as Shaw’s Pygmalion reminded the world).  Every society must have painful, unpleasant, or at least foolishly arbitrary markers of belonging.  They are “costly signaling,” in psychological jargon:  they are hard to fake, and no one would do them for individual satisfaction.  These markers range from scars to uncomfortable clothing to rigid body postures to endless boring ceremonies.  The obsessive watching of awful films and TV programs in the United States is arguably the same thing.  One watches them to show that one will undergo any suffering, even watching Hollywood TV, in order to be “with it.”

Individual nonconformists  (even those that cannot help themselves, like the mentally ill) and highly visible minority groups are united in a category of “foldbreakers.”  Such people are not only hated and despised; they are “unacceptable,” “inappropriate,” “disapproved,” “sinful,” “shameful,” and so on and on.  Social rejection is a quite different matter from ordinary personal hatred.  Individual hatred can be controlled, but social rejection leads to genocide.

Failure of mutual aid and support follow lack of personal closeness, or accumulation of minor hurts and threats.  These weaken social bonds and make cooperation difficult.  Businesses are torn by rivalries and bickering.  Academic departments are almost always riven by petty jealousies and lack of close bonding.  This is devastating to work, but it always seems to happen, and very rarely is anything done about it.  The world at large is ruined by lack of solidarity, lack of responsibility, and petty annoyances.  Religion and morality exist largely to minimize this, but often make it worse.  They bond the members of a group together, but often interfere with bridging to other groups.

Many, perhaps all, of us stay alive only because of some goal beyond ourselves—helping our families, for instance, or living for an ideal.  Viktor Frankl, surviving a Nazi death camp, found his fellow survivors to be those animated by such higher callings (Frankl 1959, 1978).  Those who had nothing to live for did not live.  The higher callings were family or social group or a life-project relating to improving the human world.  Thus, these wider goals seem to be the highest level of the social need (see also Seligman 2006; cf. “self-actualization,” Maslow 1970).  The degree to which this need for meaning is inborn is controversial, but unquestionably these concerns tap something very deep in the human mind.  Franklian meaning therefore seems to come from—though not to end with—doing  something for one’s group, and from having a real place in that group based on this self-sacrificing action.  Even very young children feel terribly proud and pleased when they do something for others, and more so if they get some recognition for it.  Franklian meaning is important enough to have become a very effective component of therapy for depression and other cognitive problems (Seligman 2006).

So people do “not live by bread alone.”  They do not live for bread at all.  For the human animal, life is about maintaining family relationships, social place, and overall social security.  Bread is merely a means of staying alive for that end.


Control and Social Needs in Conflict

The needs for control and sociability lie behind the notorious cross-pull between autonomy and affiliation that defines the human condition.  People desperately want and need freedom.  But humans also desperately want and need support, social acceptance, and warm social life.  These needs are always getting in each other’s way, since living in society involves checking one’s more disruptive individual desires (Bandura 1986).  Only the most sensitive of families or communities can give people a reasonable balance.  Failure is deadly; a job with high demands but low levels of control over one’s work greatly increases the chance of heart disease.

Humans need society, but they find social stimuli to be daunting, and strong emotion to be downright threatening.  Any strong emotion, even love, can seem invasive or aggressive.  It brings the affiliation vs. autonomy conflict to the fore.

This leads to social codes that enjoin low-key, gentle social behavior, and discourage open expression of emotions.  Politeness and civility codes always stress the need to seem tolerant and calm.  Almost all that are known to me strongly discourage open expression of emotion, especially negative and aggressive emotion.  One exception—the idealization of “talking about feelings” in America in the 1960s and 1970s—withered with amazing rapidity.  People learned that they not only did not want to hear about others’ feelings, they were actually stressed and frightened by them.  Even positive emotions were stressful, let alone negative ones.  By 2000, people were back to status quo ante: idealizing the strong silent male and the warm but tactfully reserved female.  Stephen Pinker (2007) argues convincingly that human sociability requires indirection, exaggerated gentleness, and pulling emotional punches.  Humans simply cannot handle bluntly direct communication.

A better resolution is empowerment.  This concept has languished long in the realm of dreams—a high-sounding word that somehow says what we all know we need, but lacks much real definition.  Finally the team of Lauren Cattaneo and Aliya Chapman have given it a working definition (see Cattaneo and Chapman 2010).  They see it as an iterative process in the direction of “personally meaningful and power-oriented goals” (Cattaneo and Chapman 2010:646).  These are a problem; one normally has to fiigure out what one’s long-term and short-term goals really are.  Most of us go through life without thinking enough about that.  Then, to achieve said goals, we need “self-efficacy [Bandura again], knowledge, [and] competence” (Cattaneo and Chapman 2010:646).  One then has to act, and then think about how well the actions work—what impact they have.  Ideally, this gives one mastery over one’s life and ability to deal with social situations (the article goes on to make clear how one can actually do all this).

All societies have some degree of hierarchy; the most egalitarian hunter-gatherer group recognizes its elders, its best hunters, and its best group leaders.  Yet when real status hierarchies emerge, few like them, and all too many amoral power-seekers take

advantage of them.

In all societies, the irreducible need for autonomy and control plays against the social system.  All social systems find ways of managing it, but the ways differ greatly according to local circumstances.  The social construction of resistance, power, and autonomy is a compromise between the strong and the weak, as well as between control needs and social needs.

Social-place jockeying often takes the form conspicuous consumption, often miscalled “greed” but really a major sacrifice of wealth in the name of social showing off.  Alternatively, social-place jockeying involves the most unpleasant and infuriating of all social games:  the endless worries about slights and imagined slights, cutting remarks, and so on.  These are managed, with varying degrees of success, by ignoring them, attacking the perpetrators, displacing anger onto weaker people (especially minority groups), joining a monastery, or trying to talk things out civilly.  The last is the only one with much hope of success, but is rarely used, because it can cause major fights.  “Honor” (and its violent consequences; Baumeister 1997, 2005) is notoriously a socially damaging coping mechanism.  The drive for “power” in the Nietzschean sense, and the oppression of minority groups, both stem largely from this general social insecurity.  Real co-work is actually the best cure; people who have to depend on each other will work things out eventually.

This has parallels in other social animals.  Gorillas drum their chests. Nightingales try to outsing each other; their night song is for the females, their dawn song for rival males.


Religions address group solidarity—even urging love or compassion—and attack the most notoriously bad coping strategies:  selfishness, greed, and insensate drive for power.  They also urge communicants to accept each other, and often to close ranks against everyone else.  This is one more proof that religion is about social life, not about explaining origins or about managing “altered states.”  Religion gets most of its traction from providing social place, support, and empowerment.  At least, it should stop the cycle of social cuts and responses.  Fascism, Stalinism, Maoism, and other fanatical secular movements have replaced religion in these areas in the last hundred years, but afford no improvement.

In short, social science in the last 200 years has stood Hobbes on his head.  Instead of society forming from the “warre of each against all,” the “warre” forms from society gone wrong.  Humans are naturally social; they fall into civil war when social hate and rejection get out of control and economic problems exacerbate the conflict.  When a human society actually approximates Hobbesian “warre,” it has often gotten there through social rivalries and perceived slights (Baumeister 1997).

Reformers often want to improve material conditions, since those are most concrete, most easily fixable, and most immediate.  But, pace the economists, it is the social and control needs that actually motivate people.  Material conditions are created through politics.  Improving material conditions is certainly desirable, but must wait on dealing with political problems:  solidarity versus hatred,active helping versus passive conforming.  Improving material conditions would help more people faster, but governments, businesses, and organizations will not help unless political and social forces make them do it.  Politics is about regulating social life.  In spite of Marx and the “public choice” writers, it is not primarily about material interests or individual amoral power-maximizing.  It is about social place and group competition.  Politics and other conflicts, especially in hierarchy situations, are more about group hate than about rationality.  Public choice theorists who think that political behavior is rational live in a dream-world.

If people have a fair, responsive government, they will solve their own material problems unless they are utterly destitute of resources.  If they do not have a decent government, nothing helps much; they government rips off anything donated and the people sink into despair.


Individual Differences

Ashley Montagu, many years ago, wrote a book called The Biosocial Nature of Man (1973; of course he meant to include women; “man” was the general term then).  He stressed the biological grounding of human sociability.  Indeed, we are the heirs of millions of years of evolution as a social species.

One of the more thought-provoking findings of biology is that people are individuals all the way down.  No two people, not even identical twins, are identical in anatomy and physiology.  The differences in nutritional needs, psychological predispositions, and even functional anatomy between unrelated individuals can be very striking indeed.  As early as 1956, Roger Williams, in his book Biochemical Individuality (1956), emphasized this point, on the basis of his pioneering studies of nutrition.  He found that, among armadillos, even identical quadruplets had slightly different nutritional requirements.  He was also the discoverer of several of the B-complex vitamins.

People differ considerably within even very narrow compass.  My identical-twin nieces, raised together and doing everything together all their lives, have startlingly different personalities and interests.  Genes make them broadly similar, but growth and experience have had effects.  Those media stories of identical twins reared apart who gave their daughters the same name, liked the same pickles, and so on, are highly suspect.  Take any two people from similar cultural backgrounds and you will discover a lot of surprising resemblances.  Add tabloid exaggeration and even downright invention, and you get those stories.

There is still room for a lot of thought about why genetics “allows” so much free variation.  Even dogs and horses vary.  Humans have increased the range of variation by selecting fierce and meek strains of dogs, “hot-blooded” and “cold-blooded” horses, and so on.  Humans are about as genetically homogeneous an organism as the world affords.  We, like cheetahs, seem to have passed through a narrow genetic bottleneck not long ago, probaby at the dawn of modern humanity some 100,000-200,000 years ago.  Yet we have not only a great deal of physical variation, but also—cross-cutting it—a great deal of variation in basic personality.  Both of these cross-cut cultural variation, ensuring that everyone is truly unique.  We have the full range from introverts to extraverts, neat to sloppy people, leaders to followers, scoundrels to saints, happy-go-luckies to perpetually terrified neurotics, wild thrill-seekers and adventurers to stay-at-homes who never try a different restaurant.  Not a few sibling sets show almost the full range.

Brain chemistry and physiology differ between individuals (Damasio 1994).  Differences in experience—so obvious to us all—thus work on differences already “wired in” (Harris 1998, 2006).  The differences are subtle—matters of secretion of a bit more or less neurotransmitter, or numbers of neurons in some part of the brain—but they may have profound effects.  It is worth reflecting, when one reads about the pathological cases reported by Damasio, that these cases do not contrast to some uniform “normal” which can stand as the one “healthy” brain.  Normalcy is a matter of approximation and degree.

Over time, also, individuals change, for reasons not well understood.  Basic personality is remarkably stable over the life course—the shy baby will probably grow up to be shy at 90 (Kagan 1998; Kagan and Snidman 2004)—but much else can change somewhat.  Everyone with much time on this planet knows many who have “shaped up” and many others who unexpectedly “went wrong.”  The clichés tell us that the former “had internal strength” or “were saved by love,” the latter “had a fatal flaw” or “fell in with bad company.”  Actually, we don’t know much about it.  In the one good long-term study I have seen, Emmy Werner and collaborators (Werner 1989; Werner and Smith 1982) found that a strong family with solid values predicts success even after early troubles, while a dysfunctional family or upbringing can lead to disaster even after a good start.  Werner and her group also found that the military or the community colleges turned around many kids who were headed down a dubious path.  Studies of responses to illness or to loss of a loved one show similar variation.

Religious conversion often does not seem to have much effect, contrary to stereotypes.  One of my students, Jean Bartlett, studied religious conversion in California (Bartlett 1984), and found that people usually stuck with the faith of their parents or some extremely similar faith.  Failing that, they shopped around until they found a sect that was congenial to their lifestyle.  Theology had little to do with it.  Practical rules, such as avoiding meat or alcohol, mattered much more.  Seekers eventually sorted with people of similar educational background, class status, emotional makeup, everyday habits, and even musical taste. Few of these seekers even understood the theology of the sects they joined—let alone cared about such abstruse matters.  To the credit of religion, some converts did kick drug and alcohol habits and turn their lives around.  Most, however, sought a religion that let them do what they were doing anyway.

When the liberals of the 18th century fought and died for freedom of religion, many of them no doubt did so in the fond belief that, once people had a free choice, everyone would naturally see that the particular faith these 18th-century sages espoused was the “right” one.  Things did not work out that way.  Left to themselves, people opted for everything from Seventh-Day Adventism to Wiccan, depending on personal variables.  The chef Louis Ude described the English as having “a hundred religions and only one sauce” (Anderson 2014) because religious uniformity was imposed—violently—on France.  (Who imposed sauce uniformity on England?)  In the modern United States, we have far more than a hundred, if we do as Ude did and count each sect separately.

Individuals differ so much that, when a market offers only one or two choices, one can safely infer that there is something very wrong with the market.  People seem to want choices even when the differences are insignificant, as between commodities and brands that are tightly regulated.

These subtle differences between people may not make the obvious differences that cultural differences do.  However, they provide a substrate for cultural interpretation.  Even if two people were exposed to exactly the same cultural influences, they would come out with slight differences in behavior, because they would interpret and respond differently to the same stimuli.  In practice, of course, they are never given the same experiences.  Brilliant approximators that we are, we can always find common ground, and describe our culture in generally accurate ways.  We all know that no two people speak English or Navaho in exactly the same way, or have exactly the same religious beliefs or personal habits.  But we can communicate perfectly well and share understanding to a great extent.

These facts are rather devastating to much of social theory.  Traditional anthropology, sociology, and related fields were usually based on the assumption of uniformity or near-uniformity among people in the group in question.  Even the postmodern age, with its much more sensitive awareness of multivocality and diversity, has not really coped with the full implications of individual variation.  We continue to talk about and relentlessly essentialize “blacks” and “whites” and even “Asians/Pacific Islanders” as if these were homogeneous populations.


Personality Shapes Knowledge

Innate personality characteristics, in the good old Hippocratic-Galenic medical tradition, were known as “temperament.”  Originally, the humors—blood, phlegm, bile, and black bile—were supposed to be in balance.  Relative excess of one or another caused disorders of thought.  The balance was the “temperament” in question.  We still use the Hippocratic-Galenic language today, to describe personality, though we have abandoned (only in the last two centuries!) the explanation.  In Galenic thought, having too much bile (choler) resulted in what we still call a “bad temper” or being “choleric.”  Phlegm makes one “phlegmatic.”  Having a lot of blood makes one “sanguine,” but real excess of blood makes one manic.  Having a lot of these humors (especially blood) made one “humorous.”  Black bile, melancholia in Greek, is the dead blood that clogs the bile duct and neighboring intestine in serious cases of malaria or liver disease.  Having too much of it was thought to produce melancholy.  Indeed, having malaria or hepatitis is not great for one’s mood.

Several modern theorists have worked on issues of temperament and of inborn personality dispositions.  We have come surprisingly close to the old Galenic ideas.  Carl Jung (1969) recognized that their value as emotional classification outlived the inferred mechanism via body fluids.  Building on Jung, modern four-factor theories of temperament (Keirsey and Bates 1978; Myers 1980) recapitulated some of the old ideas.  Jerome Kagan’s more free-floating theory of temperament has also continued the tradition (Kagan 1998).

Modern five-dimension theories of personality drew yet again on this system, and independently rediscovered more of it (McCrae and Costa 1989; Wiggins 1996).  Today, the basic factors of personality in the standard system are openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism (McCrae and Costa 1989).  Liberals, or perhaps more accurately moderates, are higher in openness than conservatives; thugs are lower in agreeableness than most of us; procrastinators are low in conscientiousness.

These five seem all real traits, but their opposites are not always such.  In particular, a person may be less than conscientious because of born laziness, or because of defiant hate of authority, or because of inability to get her life together, or because of disease.  A person who is lacking openness may be defensive, or just raised in a very traditional community.

In terms of this theory, the sanguine personality is, in general, extraverted, agreeable, not very conscientious, open, and not neurotic—though manic when carried to extremes. The choleric is extraverted, not usually agreeable, not very conscientious, not very open, somewhat neurotic in that cholerics are sensitive and easily angered.  The phlegmatic is introverted, somewhat agreeable, not very conscientious, not open, and not particularly neurotic.  Phlegmatics are the slow, lazy, easy-going but serious ones among us.  The melancholic is introverted, not usually very agreeable, quite conscientious, usually open, and generally rather neurotic—more to the point, the melancholic is depressed, even to the point of mental illness (see Robert Burton’s classic The Anatomy of Melancholy, 1932 [1651]).

Those particular five are not necessarily cast in stone.  There are several other systems, with three to seven basic factors.  Cross-culturally, everybody seems to recognize extraversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness, but not MacRae and Costa’s other two; conversely, many recognize honesty as a basic trait (De Raad et al. 2010).

A properly complex social life should provide lots of opportunities for different personality types to flourish.  Another trait theory of personality, the Briggs-Myers theory (Myers 1980; McCrae and Costa 1989), is explicitly based on the assumption that personality polymorphy is desirable.  Different personality types fit together to produce a successful society (Keirsey and Bates 1978 provide a superb discussion of this.  Incidentally, the most sexist comment I have ever seen in a learned journal was a dismissal of the Briggs-Myers theory because it was developed by “a housewife.”  In fact, Katherine Briggs (the developer of the Briggs-Myers theory) was a trained psychologist.  In her day, the misfortune of being born female doomed her to “housewife” status).

The five-factor evaluative dimensions are all judgmental terms.  The older Briggs-Myers test carefully avoided this, and did not assess for highly negative traits, but this fact rather narrows its application.  We often want to test for evil.  On the other hand, telling a testee that he is at the bottom on agreeableness and conscientiousness will not win his confidence.  This is not helped by the vagueness of these factors; one can be disagreeable either by being a general curmudgeon or by loving some and hating others, and one can be conscientious either by being honest and above-board or by being highly loyal.  A mafioso might test very high in conscientiousness.  A sorry commentary on the human race is that a person at the 50th percentile on the OCEAN test is not a particularly pleasant or likable sort.  Humans are sociable, but perhaps more because they are scared of aloneness than because they like people.

Fortunately, today, personality psychologists are escaping the tyranny of the “normal.”  Increasing numbers argue that various innate and early-learned predispositions create quite different types of personality, all of which are equally valid and valuable (Keirsey and Bates 1978; McCrae and Costa 1989, 1997; Myers 1980; Ozer and Benet-Martínez 2006).  These psychologists glory in difference.  They argue that a well-run enterprise should have people of several different types, mutually supporting each other.

Differences in Big Five traits correlate with everything from success in business to crime and addiction (Ozer and Benet-Martínez 2006; Wiggins 1996).  Business successes are extraverted and agreeable, criminals are high in openness (e.g. to lawbreaking) and neuroticism.

In the human career, there has been a singular lack of convergence on a single personality type.  I sometimes debate with my old friend, personality psychologist Dan Ozer, whether individual variation was random fluctuation about a middle point (his position) or actively selected for by disruptive selection (my hunch).  In fact, natural selection has selected for a range of skills, personality types, and inclinations, among animals as among people.  Max Wolf and collaborators (Wolf et al. 2007) have provided an explanation for some of this.  They point out that animals differ in behavioral commitment to a long future.  Some, like mice, follow a live-fast-die-young strategy; others, like elephants, follow a careful strategy to insure a long life.  Now, if these differences may be expected to occur within a species, we would see personality differences, at least in risk-taking and in risky behaviors like aggression and combat.  Wolf et al. provide mathematical models of how this could easily happen.

Some striking evidence for the value of personality differences comes from the fact that even bees show them, and there is a clear advantage for the bees.  Some bees, when foraging, are much more prone to seek out new sites.  These have more catecholamine, glutamate, and gamma-aminobutryric acid in their brains, pretty much like novelty-seeking humans—people who score high in openness.  The neurotransmitters involved in this seem highly conserved from the common ancestor of insects and people.

Daniel Nettle has argued that natural selection has operated to maintain a large amount of variation along these dimensions (Nettle 2009).  Even animals display personality differences (Ley and Bennett 2007).  Nettle argues from the differential successes of human types in mating and social life.  Extraverts get more sexual partners but introverts tend to be steadier at staying with a mate.  Agreeable people obviously do better than disagreeable ones in ordinary social life, but disagreeable ones may protect themselves better in bad situations or when conformity backfires.

We can see the advantages to hunter-gatherers of having different types of people in the group.  Extraverts organize hunts, but introverts are better at lone searches.  Agreeable people cooperate in the search, but disagreeable ones fight off raiders and enemies.  Neurotics stay home and have visions, and may become curers.  Openness leads to more exploration, but its opposite leads to patiently working over the same old root-and-seed patch, day after day.  Conscientious people take care of others, but off-the-wall types and ADHD youths take chances on new hunting grounds, wander about spotting game trails, and imagine new possibilities for toolmaking.

Personality traits seem generally distributed in a vaguely “normal” way, in the statistical sense:  they produce bell curves.  So do the traits to be discussed below, like intelligence.  But we usually have little knowledge of why this is so.

An interesting, but tentative, study by Aurelio Figuerdo and colleagues (2007) found evidence that the “good” ends of the Big Five scale (agreeableness, conscientiousness, etc.) correlate with health, good self-care, stable marriage, good care for children, and stable social life; this is not surprising (it fits with Big Five theorists’ findings).  The investigators go on to see this as all produced by selection for stable family caretaking.  Investing a great deal in a few children, rather than a very little in a very large number of young, used to be called “K selection” in biology, and Figuerdo et al. hypothesize a new genetic style of “Super-K.”  Humans are very K-selected relative to, say, codfish or sponges, or even monkeys.  Some humans appear to be more K-selected than others—though any genetic differences are blanked, in practice, by the horribly damaging effects on family life of chronic poverty and social instability.  Poor people in traditional village settings tend to act K, or Super-K, but the slum-dwelling poor, homeless poor, and others in unstable contexts may become less K (or more “r,” to use the old jargon).

However, obviously, the “bad” ends of the Big Five would have been selected out of the human species long ago if they didn’t have value in raising children.  Less conscientious parents may be more fun and rewarding.  Less agreeable and open ones will discipline their children more, which may be necessary in many contexts.  Neurotic parents will make sure their children take no chances.  The group that prospers is the one that has enough variation that it is prepared for anything.

A long literature on Big Five traits as adaptive has now developed, especially since even the biologists have admitted that animals clearly show them.  Every dog owner knows that some dogs are more extraverted, some more neurotic, and certainly some more agreeable, and finally some attention has been devoted to evolutionary aspects of this.  Moreover, personality traits have various adaptive values in humans (Alvergne et al. 2010—a source which reviews the literature, including the animals studies).  Extraverted males leave more children in polygamous societies, as one might expect.  In one case, neurotic women had more children but took less good care of them; however, in this study it is possible that the women became “neurotic” because of having many children and inadequate resources, rather than the other way round (Barbara Anderson, personal communication).

Jerome Kagan (Kagan 2006; Kagan and Snidman 2004) adds concern about “high arousal” and “low arousal” types of people.  The former are more nervous, excitable, and easily scared under some circumstances; “low arousal” ones are more relaxed, outgoing, and able to cope with stress.  Kagan, however, wisely emphasizes the problems of simple categories such as “fear” or “arousal.”  He points out that we are betrayed by such vague, general words.  A stimulus may produce fear in one situation, not in another.  Fear in a fish probably doesn’t feel like fear in a human.  Also, there are different types of fear; a sudden encounter with a rattlesnake on a narrow trail is not the same as brooding over rising sea levels caused by global warming.  Kagan also unpacks “self-esteem,” noting that an extremely ambiguous, complex set of concepts is measured in standard psychological studies by a ten-minute test (Kagan 2006:232).

All this leads to a conclusion rather astonishing to anyone of my generation:  personality cross-cuts culture, rather than being caused or formed by it (see below under Culture).

Moreover, there are still many areas of personality left unsampled by the Briggs-Myers and Big Five measures.  Courage is left out, to say nothing of the distinction between courage, bravery, and foolhardiness.  Aesthetics is left out.  It is a complex diminesion; some peole are highly competent, apparently “naturally” (whatever that may mean), at music or painting or other arts, but show no inclination to follow up and work at it; others are inept, but live by art anyway.  I am one of the latter; untalented at music, I love it to the point of being utterly unable to live without it, and thus sing and play guitar a good deal of the time, in spite of the fact that no one but my wife can stand the result.  Of those who are gifted, they take different tracks.  My son the artist designs sophisticated computer websites, interfaces, and systems instead of painting.

People also differ in levels of awe, reverence, devotion, and other spiritual emotions.  Psychologists rarely want to touch this, though there are some studies of mysticism.  Sociological studies routinely confuse religiosity in the sense of going to church (the ones I have seen were done on American and European Christians) with emotional spirituality.  Going to church may measure nothing more than conformity, or boredom on Sunday, or peer pressure.  It does not necessarily measure anything deeply religious or spiritual. (I am writing a book on religion, and defer further discussion and citation to it.)

Motivation is also, broadly speaking, left out, though the received personality types do somewhat track it.  Particular ambitions are left out.  Above all, interest is left out.  Why are some people interested in everything (like Leonardo da Vinci) while others are content to watch sports on TV forever?  Why are some interested in philosophy, some in Civil War history, some in birdwatching, and some in sleeping in the shade?   We can trace interest to influence—people usually pick up their interests from older peers, or parents, or sometimes from books—but we do not really understand more than that.

As a professor, I found the most maddening, disappointing, and draining of my tasks was dealing with student disinterest.  It is simply impossible for an ordinary professor, given the short contact times we usually have, to get most students interested in a subject.  Many students are interested only in parties.  A few gifted and charismatic professors can really whip up student interest, but this really is a rare skill and hard to learn.  Yet, in spite of obvious need, there are—to my knowledge—no studies of why people differ in levels of interest in general, and precious few on why they differ in their hobbies and obsessions.

The same is true of differences in intelligence. I have purposely left “intelligence” out of this book, because the literature on it is a nest of nightmares.  But the point must be made here that there is still no believable evidence for significant differences in intelligence—however defined—between ethnic groups or any other large segments of the human race.  Conversely, there are obvious and huge differences in both the level and the type of intelligence between individuals even within one family.  Specific types of intelligence crosscut culture, bringing people close together across cultural lines.

The much-vaunted “g” factor that measures “intelligence” and is hereditary remains awfully hard to pin down.  Being quite verbal and utterly inept at math, I am living proof that there is no “g factor” that makes one good at both.  I know many mathematicians who are not especially verbal.  The hereditary component of “g” remains refractory when socioeconomic status is ignored (in spite of claims to the contrary in the more extreme literature).

Instead, people seem to show different interests, abilities, and energies.  My university has math geniuses from China, Russia, America, and India, communicating perfectly with each other (but not with me). On the other hand, I am in blissfully perfect communication with Maya woodsmen and Chinese fishermen over plants, animals, and weather; we share a mentality highly attuned to natural kinds.  Indeed, intelligences, personality types, culture, and genetic background totally crosscut each other, with absolute abandon.   The horribly vexed questions concerning “intelligence” have prevented social scientists from looking at this astonishing fact.  It requires explanation.  Why do we have math geniuses occurring at about the same rate everywhere?  Why do we have verbal artists in all climes and places?  Why do we have poor simple souls, unable to learn even ordinary facts, in all cultures and communities?


Personality Gets Serious:  Culture and Mental Problems

Recently, controversy has swirled around such terms as “autism,” “Asperger’s syndrome,” and “ADHD.”  These show diagnosis creep:  they are diagnosed more and more often, for less and less cause.  When I was young, autism meant complete shutdown:  a child who was unable to speak or interact and who banged his (more rarely, her) head on the wall.  Now, via “Asperger’s syndrome” (“mild autism”), it is used to label anyone slightly unsocial, thus creating a “false epidemic” (Frances 2010; see also Grinker 2008).  ADHD has similarly crept up on us (Frances 2010); suffice it to say it is diagnosed ten to twenty times as often in the United States as in European countries (Dennis 2006).  Some have cynically commented that it is sometimes merely an excuse for drugging “uppity” children, usually minority members, into calm, or for saving taxpayers’ money by eliminating recess and playgrounds (Dennis 2006).

People have always recognized mental illness—a strange, often incurable inability to manage life emotionally and intellectually.  Traditional cultures generally regard it as some sort of supernatural condition; the mentally ill are “fools of God” or faery-children or victims of demons.  Modern psychology has not always done better.  Heredity has long been known to be a factor, but environment is also certainly involved, since identical twin studies show only about 50% or less congruence.  Now it appears that extreme malnutrition can be involved in causing schizophrenia.  Famines double the incidence (Reedy 2006).

Social theory has undertheorized the role of personal differences.  The fall of the Great Man theory, so popular in the 19th century, led to an overreaction.  So did the failures of early psychology to produce good personality theories.  This led to a social-science assumption that all people are the same, or have to be treated by theorists as if they were.  Moreover, Max Weber and others showed that situations—especially, the nature and number of followers—greatly influence leaders.  This led to an idea that any reasonably competent person could be a leader; all that was needed was available followers (see Vroom and Jago 2007).  Good leaders—not only successful, but morally good—appear in all societies, and really differ, to varying degrees, from us ordinary folk (Zaccaro 2007, and related articles in that issue of American Psychologist).  Unfortunately, poor leaders are also universal (Kellerman 2004), and truly evil leaders are not only universal but common and successful (Lipman-Blumen 2006).  Particularly interesting are the leaders who start out reasonably tolerable, or even good, and progressively decline into horrific evil.  Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe is a recent example.  Did he go mad, or senile, or did he simply get caught up in his own power?  Other leaders seem in hindsight to have had fatal flaws that led in the end to apparently insane behavior.  Zhu Yuanzhang, the brilliant founder of the Ming Dynasty and one of the most fascinating characters in history, was clearly paranoid-schizophrenic.  He declined from erratic but spectacularly successful youth into mad old age. The same could be said of Emperor Theodore (Tewodros) of Ethiopia in the 19th century.  Mao Zidong became more extreme and murderous throughout life.

In every culture, evil leaders can appeal to group hate.  This always attracts vast numbers of people, especially young men willing to die for the cause.  By contrast, leaders who want to do good have to depend on skilled and reflective secondary leaders who have the knowledge to carry out the mission.  Whether the campaign is public health, economic development, organized military effort, or education, a leader-for-good has to rely on a pyramid of other leaders.  Public health requires highly trained, highly motivated, independent, self-reliant medical personnel.  Education requires similar ranks of teachers.  This is notoriously rare, providing yet another reason why evil triumphs in the world.  Institutions theoretically help the situation, providing platforms and training possibilities.  Unfortunately, institutions become corrupted easily, by bad leaders or simply by ordinary foot-dragging and corner-cutting.  Hierarchy, too, has its costs.


Age Shapes Personhood

Finally, age, life status, and other developmental factors shape the way culture plays out in individuals.  The Big Five personality traits change over the life track; people get better (thank goodness), becoming more agreeable, open, conscientious, and and less extraverted and neurotic.  However, all the first four of those decline dramatically from 10 to 13, picking up slowly after 14 or 15.  Neuroticism rises during the same period, but only in young women; in men it just steadily and slowly declines, as it does in women after 15.  Parents of teenagers will not be surprised by these findings (Soto et al. 2011).

The developmental cycle in individuals and in families changes all the ways culture is experienced.  Children have their own subcultures.  Youths have theirs, and are maximally open to learning about wider cultural matters—theirs and others’—but are also at the most headstrong stage of life.  Aging brings wider life experience, and theoretically brings “wisdom.”  However, it notoriously makes most people more rigid and defensive—“crotchety,” we used to say.  Few indeed are those who can keep open minds and keep learning after 60.  This should make worrisome the increasing dominance of world politics by the very old.  (The average US Senator is now around 70).  Older people often identify more and more tightly with a reference group that often is shrinking, or folding back on itself; they may return to the group of their childhood, or become more caught up in the micropolitics of their work or neighborhood.  Rare, but not unknown and certainly valuable beyond all wealth, is the elder who can keep broadening his or her perspective and humanity throughout life.


Simple Pleasures

Sudden successful fulfillment of an urgent need is one main source of human pleasure.  We all know this about sex and about cold beer on a hot day, and practically every culture seems to have a proverb equivalent to “hunger is the best sauce.”

Arousal—whether by stimulants or by dangerous sports—can be a pleasure in its own right.  The pleasures of sex seem usually to involve more effort in heightening desire than in satisfying it.

Feeling in control is a good feeling; pushing one’s sense of control to or beyond the limit (as on a roller coaster or in extreme sports) is exciting, and not just because of the physiology of “adrenaline rushes.”  Learning and understanding satisfy a need and are truly enjoyable.  We humans like to whip up curiosity and then satisfy it; consider the pleasure of mystery tales.  Almost everyone seems to have a hobby:  some one thing they want to learn about just because they enjoy learning.

Normally, however, such curiosity is structured by immediate need.  People, like all other mammals, are usually interested in things only to the degree that they have a material or social reason to be interested. Throughout history, the vast majority of people, when faced with the need to know about anything beyond their social group, have simply accepted conventional wisdom or ancient book-learning.  Always there is some interest, explaining the slow but steady progress of knowledge in all societies, but only in the west since 1500 has the drive to accumulate new knowledge become a major industry.  The origins of this remain obscure, but correlations with the expansion of trade, business, and religious enquiry are obvious.

Among academics, learning is often a goal in itself—a pure pleasure, not just a way of knowing enough to cope.  Academics forget that this is unusual, and make sour remarks about students who have a normal, instrumental attitude toward knowledge.

A professor who has built her life on analyzing the proteins in the fur of the two-toed sloth can never understand how students can fail to be absolutely fascinated, and can be hurt and angry when students persist in being bored with sloth proteins.  What is astonishing is how many students do become interested in them if the teacher is inspiring.  Truly, social charisma can do anything.

Some of us even have made a hobby of understanding everything!  If only life were long enough….  Yet, worldwide, even among academics, the most interesting thing is always one’s social group, and gossip remains the major topic of conversation (Dunbar 2004).

Throughout history, hedonists have lived for their key pleasure, puritans have lived to stop them.  The hedonist lives to eat.  The puritan eats to live, and lives to blame the hedonist for immorality.  Some people have sex only to produce children, others only for pleasure, others only as part of a love relationship.  Such “revealed preferences”—the things people actually do, or spend their money on—keep surprising us.

Happiness in an activity can come from many sources, only one of which is the intrinsic pleasure of the activity.  More often, the happiness or pleasure comes from social approbation.  Something intrinsically unenjoyable seems pleasurable because “everybody does it,” or because we get respected for doing it.  In fact, the whole point of many activities is that they are so unpleasant, difficult, and demanding that others are impressed by our ability to do them at all.  Just as believing the preposterous is a great way of proving one is truly religious (Atran 2002, 2010), so torturing oneself to follow the latest media fad is a great way of proving one is part of the group.  (The technical term for this is “costly signaling,” and it is almost universal among animals.)

Extreme sports are an example.  Some people climb mountains just because they enjoy the activity and the view.  Most of us who have this persuasion climb rather small mountains.  Others want to triumph over nature, or over themselves.  The most serious climbers, though, usually seem to have social approbation on their minds, however much they may also enjoy the peaks.  They want the respect that comes from doing a “hairy” climb, especially if they can be the first to solo up south face in winter, or something of that nature.

Once a need is satisfied, further satisfaction is not usually pleasant.  Our bodies tell us when we have had enough to eat, enough to drink, enough sex.  They err less than you might think; eating 100 calories more than you burn up, every day, will make you gain a pound a month.  Very few people do that.

The major exception here is the control need.  It has no obvious satiation point.  This is fine when one asserts control by knowing.  It is less fine when one feels the need to control everyone and everything in the vicinity.

Money does indeed fail to buy happiness; it can buy “life satisfaction”—relative content with one’s life—but real positive feelings depend on  “fulfillment of pscyhological needs: learning, autonomy, using ones skills, respect, and the ability to count on others” (Diener et al. 2010).  In other words, on social and control need satisfaction.  Even the “life satisfaction” seems to be more about keeping up with the Joneses than about the pleasures of wealth, for rising incomes do not cause notable rises in it, unless one moves from genuine want to genuine comfort.

On the whole, most of us are content to hold even, but people find real meaning in more demanding activities.  The old German formula for a good life, made famous by Sigmund Freud, is “work and love.”  Most people who seem deeply satisfied with life do indeed get their satisfaction from these two things (see Frankl 1959, 1978).  They also get their real social place from those two, and social place is far more basic and deeply important than happiness or satisfaction.  Thus, even correcting someone at a task is often taken as a deadly rejection, and produces anger that often seems highly disproportionate to the scale of the correction.  This is one of the reasons administrators often burn out.




One might note how progressive restriction of level of explanation can operate in analyzing foodways (see Anderson 2014):

At the most basic biological level, we need the calories, protein, fats, vitamins, minerals.

We then need to avoid poisons and stay healthy.

We then need to figure out how to get all that for minimum effort or expense—to do “optimal foraging,” in the jargon.

This means, in an agricultural society, looking at crop ecology and other agricultural issues.

In a civilization, one has to worry about money and prices.

Then, that done, food always gets involved in social bonding: sharing, reciprocity, generosity.  It marks religious and ethnic affiliation.  It diffuses among neighbors.

It marks class, region, occupation, gender, age, and so on.

On a still smaller and more restricted level, it marks occasion: birthday, Christmas, business deal.

It allows individuals to show off and jockey for status.

It reveals social knowledge via ordinary etiquette.

Then, at all levels, it is affected by contingent histories and just plain accidents, including personal taste.

Social scientists have explained social systems in dozens of ways, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous.  We will find it useful to classify these, very roughly and crudely, into four types.

Mode 1 consists of rational need-satisfaction theories.  Most of them are broadly materialist.  These include straightforward biological functionalism:  society seen as a way of getting food, shelter, and reproduction.  It includes more complex materialist theories like Adam Smith’s cultural evolutionary dynamics, Marxism and other political economies, “rational choice theory,” and modern enviromental and ecological theories.

Mode 2 consists of explanations resorting largely to human instincts or innate tendencies.  People clearly have inborn behavior.  A smile is a smile everywhere, even if the Mona Lisa had her own brand.

Mode 3 consists of explanations that are broadly idealist—not in the sense of having high ideals, but in the sense of living according to ideas rather than material needs or evil wants.  Most religious leaders thought, and think, this way.  In western social science it was the view of Immanuel Kant, and since he essentially created most of modern social science, he had a truly profound influence on us all.  His straight-line intellectual descendents included Dilthey, Boas, Parsons, Lévi-Strauss, and most of the other makers of modern sociology and anthropology.

Social functionalism, from Marx to Durkheim and the later functionalists, is a Kantian offshoot with considerable cross-fertilization from Mode 1.  Social functionalists see that a society needs communication systems, a law code, a calendar, a leadership and power system, allocated roles, status and prestige, morals, festivals, and so on.  These emergents cannot be predicted directly from physical needs; they have a social and interactive history.

Mode 4 is a broadly empirical tradition.  Pure empiricists hold that one can simply observe and count behaviors, and get along by inferring minimal thought-processes behind the actions.   Pure empiricists form a grand chain, from John Locke to B. F. Skinner.  Locke was the least extreme, and in fact is really more an ancestor to Kant—an early scholar of cognitive processes.  Since Kant, empiricists have been less and less able to resist taking account of thought processes.  The pure-empiricist trend in social science ended with Skinner’s attempts to equate pigeon behavior in the lab with language learning (see Skinner 1957, 1959).  This was so patently hopeless, and so memorably demolished by a famous review by Noam Chomsky (1959), that the pure empiricist program could not survive.  However, modern experimental psychology, especially the heavily biological forms like neuropsychology, are derived from this lineage.  They now take explicit account of ideas and mental phenomena, however (Damasio 1994; LeDoux 1996).

All four of the above have merit.  Theories, as Michel Foucault (2007) reminds us, are a tool kit, not a religion.  Every worker needs a whole set of tools.  Unity comes in the result—fixing the house or the world—rather than in the means.  You can’t fix even a simple toy with only one tool, and social theorists might reflect on that.

Theorists find their favorite level to explain.  Biologists like the whole-species level.  They prefer to explain the things that all people do everywhere.  Human ecologists and political scientists are more restrictive, but still prefer the big picture:  variations and history dynamics on a world scale.  Interpretivists and cultural anthropologists like to look at cultures.  Psychologists (except those who are basically biologists) like to look at individuals.  To get the whole picture, one has to integrate all these.



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Chickens and Millet: Early Agriculture in China

May 9th, 2015

Paper delivered at Society of Ethnobiology annual conference, Santa Barbara, CA, May 2015


Chickens and Millet:  The Significance of New Findings in Chinese Food Archaeology

Recent findings in archaeology have considerably pushed back the dates for domestication of chickens, millets, rice, pigs, and other domestic life forms of eastern Asia.  North China has taken a lead over south China, though this may change with further investigation.  Early evidence of milking and stockraising in central Asia is relevant. To a cultural anthropologist working with modern uses of plants and animals, the new findings confirm my models and suppositions about the origins and development of agriculture: it happened when environmental conditions improved and food got more abundant, not during periods of scarcity; it probably involved trade and certainly contact with other groups; it took place in favorable locations at probable trade crossroads.  Early items grown were those either storable or highly valued or both.  Uses of many items tended to shift over time as more efficient systems were discovered.  The development of food systems has to be understood in a context of induced biological development: changes were most likely when they removed bottlenecks that inhibited trade, contact, and efficiency.


A number of recent excavation projects in China have shown that agriculture there is much older than we once thought.  When I was a student, agriculture was known back to about 4000-5000 BCE.  It now appears to go back at least to 8000 BCE (for excellent recent reviews of Chinese archaeology, see Li 2013; Liu 2005; Liu and Chen 2012; see also Anderson 2014).

Pottery is even earlier, and those who still believes in the “Neolithic Revolution” will be delighted to learn that pottery goes back to 20,000 years ago or more in China (Wu Xiaohong et al. 2012).  It was soon quite widely spread, from the Pearl River at 15,000 BCE (Pearson 2006) to the Amur River on China before 11,000 BCE (Zhushchikovskaya 1997).  It is in Japan by 13,000 or earlier.  This pottery is probably ancestral to that of Europe, since one sees a slow spread of similar wares across Siberia.  Ground stone appears early in the form of milling stones (metates).

The first agriculture known in China involves two species of millet, foxtail (Setaria italica) and broomcorn or panic millet (Panicum miliaceum). Several sites report them around that date, but the most interesting currently at Nanzhuangtou, somewhat south of Beijing.  Here not only early millets but the earliest domestic chickens in the world are found, at 8000 BCE (Xiang et al. 2014, 2015).  The earliest dog in China is also there, and is even earlier, at 10,000 BCE (Liu and Chen 2012:64).  Very early pigs and dogs are found at nearby sites.

The Nanzhuangtou site got its domesticates during the rise of warm wet weather around 8000 BCE.  There and elsewhere, rise and spread of domestication tracks warming and wetting trends, with dramatic improvement of growing conditions.  Around Dadiwan, for instance, there were forests of oak, birch, maple, hazelnut, cherry, chestnut, hophornbeam, sorbus, persimmon, hornbeam, elm, Toxicodendron (I didn’t know China had that), locally even liquidambar, eucommia, and other warm-weather trees.  Spruce occurred locally, with sharp decline after 2600 BCE (Li et al. 2013).  Most of these must have been on the mountains above the site, not in the dry, desolate plains where the site is, but trees evidently moved down the valleys.  It is worth noting that the mountains support a forest today, though not such a subtropical one.  The high Qinling Mountains to the south also had a warm-temperate forest (Zhao et al. 2014).

Several sites in the Yellow River drainage report millets back to 7000 BCE.  Millet agriculture had reached Dadiwan, far out into west China and almost in the Central Asian desert, by 6000 BCE (Bettinger et al. 2010).  It had also reached Inner Mongolia by this time (Shelach et al. 2011).  Millets are C4 plants, almost everything else in China is C3 (including rice), so where C4 shows up in bone signatures one can be sure that millet is being devoured.  This allows us to find transitions to agriculture in the record, with C4 dominating by 6000 BCE.  Rice occurs at Jiahu, one of the millet-agricultural sites from around 5000 BCE (Zhang and Hung 2013).  Also at Jiahu were residues of millet beer brewed with honey, hawthorn fruit, and grapes (Liu and Chen 2012:120; McGovern 2009).  Patrick McGovern, who analyzed this residue, worked with Dogfish Head Brewery in Delaware to reconstruct it, and you can now buy “Chateau Jiahu” beer if you can find it.  It is possibly a bit less than the finest brew, and thus is rarely stocked by liquor stores.

Millet agriculture, complete with chickens, pigs, and dogs, spread from north-central China throughout what is now China by 4000 BCE.  Its expansion could very well have coincided with, and been responsible for, the spread of the Tibeto-Burman (a.k.a. Sino-Tibetan) language phylum.  The timing, location, and motivation all seem right.  This phylum may have started in high west China, judging from surviving origin myths, or from central north China.  Its more recent radiation, giving us the Tibetan, Burman, Qiang, and other branches and probably the Chinese too, is generally thought to have been in Sichuan; there are many good grounds for this (van Driem 1999, 2002).  If so, that was probably after the spread of millet agriculture into that mountainous region, which is perfect for differentiation and migration of groups.

Meanwhile, rice (Oryza sativa) was domesticated by 7000 BCE in the Yangzi area (Liu and Chen 2012:76)  The Peiligang culture, flourishing 7000-5000 BCE, had a lot of it, as well as millet (Liu 2012).  At Hemudu by 5000 BCE rice was common, with large containers of it having been found.  (Rice then probably yielded 500 kg/ha; it now yields over ten tons per ha, thanks to the masterful breeding programs of Yuan Longping [2002] and others.)

A great deal of controversy surrounds rice.  All evidence points to the Yangzi drainage, except for some recent genetics work that pinpoints the Pearl River drainage, far to the south (Huang et al. 2012).  But they sampled wild rice (Oryza rufipogon) largely from that area, and the plant is mostly gone in the Yangzi area, so this is probably an artifact.  Jeanmarie Molina et al. (2011) found that their genetic data pointed to a single origin in the Yangzi area for rice, but more recent work

There are two major divisions of rice, japonica (short grain) and indica (long grain).  These are very separate and hard to cross (Yang et al. 2012), indicating a very long period of divergence; they were very likely different in the wild long before humans came on the scene, and thus must have been domesticated separately.  They may both be native to the Yangzi area. Reports of indica in early Chinese sites are common but controversial.  However, recent work suggests that indica may have arisen in India from hybridization of introduced japonica with local Indian strains (Callaway 2014).  Rice is not found in south China till about 4000 BCE (Lu 2011).

It was in Taiwan, along with millets, in the Daben’geng culture, which represents Austronesians migrating from southern China to that island around 3000 BCE (Hung and Carson 2014).  The Austronesians, specifically the Malayo-Polynesian branch thereof, apparently radiated later from Taiwan throughout Oceania (Bellwood 2009; Bellwood and Renfrew 2002).  Many agricultural words reconstruct to proto-Austronesian or at least proto-Malayo-Polynesian, including words for grains, root crops, chickens, and pigs.

Rice may have been spread by the ancestors of the Thai-Kadai language phylum.  It in turn may be related to Austronesian and even other relevant groups (Sagart et al. 2005).  The Austroasiatic phylum is generally believed to have arisen in India, but now some think that it arose in China and spread rice there; there are many words associated with rice cultivation in its reconstructed original vocabulary (Sagart et al 2005).  In any case, it is hard to deny that the various phyla in south China—Thai-Kadai, Yao-Mian, Miao-Hmong, Austronesian, Austroasiatic—may all have been involved from a quite early time.  The Austronesian word for unhusked rice may even have invaded Tibeto-Burman: Bahasa Malaysia beras, Tibetan mbras (Sagart et al 2005), but the similarity of the words—if it is not purely accidental, which I think it is—would imply a very recent borrowing.

Returning to the chicken, a very interesting point is that the word for “chicken” all over east Asia and widely in the rest of the world derives from the Thai-Kadai root kai (Cantonese kai, surely the Thai word; Mandarin ji from *kai; and so on; Blench 2007).  This indicates to me that the ancestors of the Thai-Kadai, who were almost certainly in the Yangzi valley, domesticated the bird, in which case it spread north after domestication to Nanzhuangtou.

Along with rice came peaches.  Possibly domesticated peaches occur by 6000-5000 BCE in the lower Yangzi and are certainly domesticated by 3000 (Zheng et al. 2014).  It can be safely assumed that if people were domesticating peaches they must have domesticated a range of other fruits, as well as vegetables and other plants.  I also strongly suspect that China had long been managing wild trees, as Native Americans did (and locally still do), to maximize nut tree production; oaks and various nut trees abounded.   Elsewhere in China, buckwheat was being domesticated about this time (Ohnishi 1998).

By 4000 BCE, then, millets, rice, and the commoner domestic animals, as well as fruits and other foods, were all over what is now China, except for the remote mountain and desert areas.  (Tibet in particular remained long unsettled.)  Large villages developed, and beautiful, exquisitely made pottery was common.  Dairying was evidently beginning in central Asia; not long after, residues of kefir and other milk products appear on pots (Yang et al. 2014).

Before 3000 BCE, settlements grew large, implying rich chiefdoms (Drennan and Dai 2010).  Some settlements grew to near urban size, such as the mysterious towns of the Hongshan culture in far north China.  This culture goes back as far as 4500 BCE (Shelach et al. 2011; Zhang et al 2013).  By 3000 it was producing sizable towns that seem like capitals and have associated ceremonial and ritual items (Allan 2002).  It remained at a chiefdom level, with only about 1000 people in these large towns (Peterson et al 2010).  But then it declined and fell,  It had depended on C4 food entirely, but now regressed to getting 15% of its food from C3 plants (Liu and Chen 2012:177), indicating a return to foraging on wild foods or eating coarse grains and vegetables.


What lies behind this certainly includes climate.  China’s last and harshest ice age gave way, as elsewhere, betweem about 15,000 and11,000 years ago.  Then a warm and quite wet period came, between 10,000 and 5,000 years ago, with a maximum warmth around 8,000 to 5,000 years ago.  This is exactly the period when agriculture developed and flourished most, and when large settlements arose.  The period from 3000 to 2000 BCE was one of decline.  Cultures like Hongshan sank back to small village levels.  Significantly, the area at the great bend of the Yellow River, at the focus of the great logical trade routes of northern China, was countercyclic: it grew and flourished in population in the late 2000s BCE.

Around 2000 it broke over into full civilization, with bronze work, intensive agriculture, and massive architecture.  Soon after that, the city at what is now the village of Erlitou reached a population between 18,000 and 30,000 (Liu 2009; Liu and Chen 2003).  Nothing remotely close to that size existed elsewhere in China.  It has been awfully hard for people to resist equating this statelet with the legendary Xia Dynasty, China’s first dynasty, known only from reports in much later history works.  The only problem is that the Erlitou culture had no writing (though some marks on pots point toward it).  We can only guess.  Many, I think most, Chinese archaeologists, however, now simply assume that Erlitou was Xia.

There may have been some climatic improvement, but it seems more likely that Erlitou flourished because times were hard.  It was strategically placed to dominate trade, communication, and military adventuring in the Yellow River drainage.  Competition over scarce resources might well have driven a race to build bigger, more defensible settlements.  Ceramics and other stylistic markers show that Erlitou exerted at least cultural and possibly political dominance over a local area about the size of a typical early state or large chiefdom.  (See Liu and Chen 2003, 2012, esp. 2012:258-259.)


Significantly, through all of this, China lost almost no wild species.  Some megafauna went extinct at the end of the ice age, but China kept most of its megafauna.  Elephants, rhinoceri, and other large animals still existed well into historic times, and of course China still has pandas, tigers, bears, gibbons, and even a few elephants in the far south.  Hunting was a major source of food in the Neolithic, as was fishing.  China’s fantastic botanical diversity flourished.  During cold dry periods, animals and plants retreated southward.  In warm wet ones, they moved north again.


So the record is one of agriculture expanding rapidly along with the improvement of the climate for plant growth, and the continuing flourishing of megafauna.  This goes totally against the received wisdom in studies of agricultural origins, which usually assume that agriculture was invented because people needed food.  Either they killed off the megafauna, or they grew rapidly in population or they just plain starved.  (For a summary of theories of agricultural origin, with full references, see Graeme Barker 2006.)  Yet, in China, it was not only the richest and most food-abundant areas that developed agriculture, but specifically the areas that were most rapidly getting richer still.

But it does dramatically confirm one theory:  Carl Sauer’s, from his book Agricultural Origins and Dispersals (1952).  Sauer understood that developing agriculture is a very long, slow process that does not pay off immediately.  It requires people who are playing around with plants, using them, letting them seed themselves.  He guessed that agriculture was invented by settled people who lived by fishing and gathering in southeast Asia.

The earliest agriculture in the world is in the Near East, and the earliest agriculture elsewhere is in northern China, but Sauer is close to right.  The communities in north China were relatively settled, plant-dependent, and above all on a climatic roll. Moreover, agriculture began in exactly the area that was turned from a cold, harsh steppe into a lush, warm-temperate paradise.  It spread first to other areas with that history, then south and out into other areas that were also improving, but less rapidly.

This being determined, what was the motive?  If wild food was rapidly increasing, why farm?  Sauer thought people might start with fibre crops instead of food, but this was not the case.  Brian Hayden and his associates (2001) hypothesized that the motive might be producing food for feasts.  Indeed, there is evidence of some feasting, but largely later in time.

For over 40 years, I have been arguing that agriculture developed because of trade.  People wanted trade goods to be around the settlement—both to have them on hand to trade and to be able to protect them from raid.  It so happens that the early Chinese sites are in good areas for trading.  However, there is not much evidence for trade on any scale until agriculture was well developed.  I suspect it was there, but it certainly was not overwhelmingly obvious.

Storage is another concern.  Grain can be stored easily.  Domestic animals are a form of storage: one controls them and their reproduction, in contrast to the situation with wild animals.  They are always around the house.  The larger and more settled a group is, the more useful storage is to them.  However, what we often find is a replacement of wild nut crops—acorns, chestnuts, walnuts—by grain (Liu 2012).  This happens quite dramatically in much of the north around 7000-5000 BCE.  Grain is much more controllable.  It grows fast, yields reliably, and can be spatially manipulated—you can plant it anywhere.  Tree crops, in contrast, bear erratically, cannot be moved around easily, and cannot regrow fast after a fire, flood or disease episode.  It would make a great deal of sense for people to take control of their destinies by growing their animals and quick-maturing plant foods, instead of depending on uncertain nature.

However, I do not believe that storage and control are adequate motives.  I still think the trade and protection theory is the only one that can explain existing patterns of early agriculture.  Only it, for instance, explains the persistent correlation of development and progress with areas that are central to trade.  The early sites are near trade routes, and the strategic location of Erlitou and other larger, later sites is unquestionable.  There is also the issue of those early chickens: they probably came from farther south—chickens are not native anywhere near Nanzhuangtou.  If they were traded up from a domestication farther south, as I think they were, we have good evidence of important trade in domesticated food items.  I await further research, in hopes it will provide more evidence. Meanwhile, at the very least, the theories that assume agriculture developed because people needed food do not fit the Chinese case, or any other case known to me.





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Bird Song, Primate Calls, and the Evolution of Language

March 30th, 2015

Society for Anthropological Sciences, annual conference, Pittsburgh, PA, 2015



Language Evolution and Animal Communication

  1. N. Anderson

Dept. of Anthropology

University of California, Riverside







Speculations on the origins of language were so rife already in 1865 that the Société Linguistique de Paris banned discussion of them.  The Philological Society of London followed suit in 1873 (Luef and Pika 2015).  It did no good.  The tradition continues, and I will now add to it.

  1. Tecumseh Fitch’s masterful review The Evolution of Language (2010; Fitch et al. 2005) leaves very little to say on that topic. He covers an amazing range of topics, from physiology to formal language and from evolutionary theory to the sign-language of the deaf, with brilliant insight, impeccable logic, and total control of the material.  Also, the book is clearly written, and spares us the dreadful musings on “consciousness” and “mind” that ruin so much of the cognitive-evolutionary literature.  All in all, this is one of the great books of social science, and deserves to become a classic.

However, he does leave something.  He knows so much more than I do about most fields—anatomy, neurology, formal linguistics, and linguistic theory, for instance—that I would not dream of saying anything, but in a few areas I may have a tiny bit to add, primarily in the field of animal communication.  Like Fitch, I started out in that area of study, but I drifted into ecological anthropology while he (later) drifted into linguistics.

All communication systems in the animal world are used primarily for social ends.  Usually the most complex systems are involved in mating and in raising young.  Often they are also involved in maintaining the social group and relationships within it, or in cooperative hunting, or nesting.  Lifelong association with dogs and coyotes teaches me that animal communication is not all about territory and mate-getting (as most older books allege).  Most, in these species, is about social bonding, and negotiating social systems.

Bird song is one area I know from research and observation.  The songs of birds are multifunctional:  they declare territory, attract mates, hold mates, keep up contact with young, warn rivals, signal to friendly neighbors that their old friend is still singing, warn predators that the singer is alert and ready to chase them off, and probably several other functions.  Signaling to the friendly neighbor community is a newly discovered function that turns out to be extremely important, but was totally missed until recently because biologists assumed birds were too dumb, individualist, combative, etc. to do that.  (See Kroodsma 2005 for both a good introduction to bird song and a sadly, and inaccurately, limited take on their meanings; see also Marler and Slabbekorn, a major source for Fitch.)


Clearing Away Underbrush: What We Can and Can’t Learn from Animal Communication


One of the biggest problems with studies of the evolution of language is that rather few of the people who deal in that field know the details of recent findings on animal communication.  Admittedly, it is a rather arcane field.  The increasing tendency of scholarship to take place in “silos” keeps linguists from finding out about the bird song or wolf literature.

Another problem is the sort of arid speculation in a vacuum that the learned societies attempted to ban.  A recent article in Current Anthropology (Scott-Phillips 2015), with full CA* commentary, manages to spend 24 pages without one single item of data, either in the main text or the commentaries.  It is all on a high philosophic level.  Unsurprisingly, the authors show no detectable understanding of animal communication.  I found little of remark in this work.

Most of the classic barriers that were supposed to separate human language from animal communication have broken down long ago. The classic Cartesian view that since animals cannot talk they are mere machines, without souls or “reason” (Descartes 1999 [1637]), is of course mere Catholic religious dogma.  It has absolutely no scientific excuse.  Modern pseudo-scientific repetitions of it, e.g. “Lloyd Morgan’s canon,” are long disproved.  (For a superb review of animal sociality, showing how it can all be explained by standard Darwinian selection without recourse to group selection, see Bourke 2011.)

Animal sounds are structured and often show duality of patterning.  The smarter animals—the more highly social, highly encephalized birds and mammals—clearly intend to communicate, as opposed to producing mere “instinctive sounds” or “conditioned reflexes.”

When a bird learns a song to communicate its territorial boundary or its desire for a mate, it is clearly engaging in symbolic communication: there is no relationship per se between a song and a territory or a mate.  The song is not iconic or indexical; it is a symbol.  There is obviously some instinctive/inborn tendency to sing, but humans have an inborn tendency to talk.  Singing and talking are used deliberately to communicate various meanings that have nothing to do with the vocal sounds as such.


Bird Song as Model?


Birds learn their songs, and have a similar FOXp2 gene to the human one associated with language learning capability, as Fitch notes (and see Haesler 2007).  He also knows that birds need to  hear their own songs to perfect them (Keller et al. 2009).  Since Fitch wrote, even more human-like details of hemisphere specialization, song development, and other bird expression have surfaced (Moorman et al. 2012).  And birds, like primates, have mirror neurons (Prather et al. 2008).

Learning of songs and calls is widespread.  (What follows is summarized from a lifetime of reading and field work; for good up-to-date summaries of the science, see Kroodsma 2005; Marler and Slabbekorn 2004.)   Most bird singers, and all good singers, are members of one group, the suborder Oscines within the order Passeriformes.  It is clear how song evolved: the suboscines in that order give purely, or almost purely, instinctual calls that are like songs in that they loudly announce territory and attract mates; these in turn evolved from similar, even simpler, calls common to essentially all bird groups.  Song—partially learned—independently evolved in hummingbirds and some other groups.  There is little doubt how it evolved: in small birds with tightly-packed territories, something of this sort is needed to stake out territory and attract mates to same and to allow, simultaneously, neighbor recognition—a very important function that is critical to song learning.

The most dramatic cases are of those birds that not only imitate other sounds, but weave these sounds into their songs, changing the sounds progressively to fit the song.  Mockingbirds are the familiar example here in southern California.  They imitate neighboring birds such as kingbirds, woodpeckers, killdeer, and orioles, and once they have learned a harsh note they will work at transforming it to make it more songlike.  (This spares perceptive birdwatchers a lot of errors—one learns to tell imitations from the actual kingbirds, etc.)  Many other imitators do the same, as I can testify from experience with nightingales, goldfinches, and some others.

Mockingbirds and thrashers (mockingbirds are actually a kind of thrasher) can learn far more than 1000 song phrases.  Some obsessive birdwatcher counted, and found the champion in his count was the brown thrasher, with over 2000 known song phrases (Botero et al. 2009; Kroodsma 2005).  Mockingbirds are close.  It turned out that the farther north a species in the mockingbird and thrasher family bred, the more phrases it knew (Botero et al. 2009).  The investigators thought that migration required health and strength, and the females would assess a male’s strength by his song knowledge.  Another possibility is that the migrants have to regain and retake territory every year (instead of holding it year-round) and thus have to work harder.  These are not mutually exclusive; I dare say both are right.  Mockingbird song is elaborated from the more simple phrases of the wren group of birds.  Most wrens sing songs of one to four or five notes, with many variants of each song.  Combining the variants into one long song, and fantastically increasing the number of them, gives us mimid song.  Some wrens have paralleled mimids in this, or have developed complexity in another direction: elaborate duets (see below).

Much less dramatic, but much more widespread, is the tendency of songbirds to have a single, simple template for their songs, but to learn the refinements and modifications of that from their parents and other adults in their neighborhoods.  Apparently all songbirds sing many different songs (per bird), and all make their own personal songs unique.  However, they follow the style of the neighborhood.  Song dialects were first studied in chaffinches, but made really famous by studies of white-crowned sparrows, because they were famous for such dialects and because they were easily available on the UC Berkeley campus when Peter Marler (who started out with the chaffinches) set out to study song dialects.  Often, they go on to invent their own songs, patterned closely after the adults’ and thus producing a regional dialect with countless variations.

Bird song structure is phrasal.  Typically, a bird song is made up of phrases ranging from two to 12 notes, usually around four to six.  A song may be one phrase; the magnificent song of the canyon wren is one grand, swooping descent of the scale.  Most birds sing two or three phrases.  The mockingbird and its kin sing an open-ended number—in a day a mockingbird can work through dozens of phrases.

Margaret Morse Nice (1937-1943), in her classic work on the song sparrow that was the first and perhaps still the best monograph on a single bird species’ behavior, noted that a given song sparrow will have many songs, which are similar to neighbors’ songs but which are original to the individual.  (Nice apparently never held an academic job, in spite of being one of the greatest ornithologists of her or any other time—such was the fate of women in those days.)  He (males do the singing) will sing one song several times, switch to another, sing it several times, and so on all day—working through a monumental number of songs. Each song is made up of three or four phrases, and these are clearly patterned and organized in an overall way—not just Markov chaining but a very rudimentary sort of “grammar,” a type of Chomsky’s “phrase structure grammar.”  I have noted that each song is somewhat related to the past one; the birds evidently pattern their song sequences.

Most birds learn the songs of their natal neighborhood, but at least one, the South Island Saddleback of New Zealand, disperses and then learns the songs of the neighborhood in which it finally settles down.  (See Marler and Slabbekoorn 2004.  Alas, there is now little chance to study this fascinating bird, because its vulnerability to introduced rats, cats and weasels—especially as nest robbers—has led to its extinction except on a couple of tiny predator-free islets.)  Probably other birds do this also.

Another complex behavior carried out by birds is song duetting.  Pairs of plain-tailed wrens of South America, for instance, coordinate very closely their long, intricate songs.  This takes appreciable thinking.  It involves timing and song type coordination that go far beyond anything explicable by simple instinct or conditioning (Fortune et al. 2011).  Many other birds duet, including several closely related wren species.  They all probably have the same conscious planning behind it, but this has not been studied.

Songs may vary systematically with ecology.  Blackcaps—small European warblers with notable songs—have some migratory populations and some permanent-resident ones.  The former have more elaborate courting songs, but less elaborate male-rivalry songs, than stationary ones; this flags the quite different mating strategies of the two ecotypes (Collins 2009).

The complexity of bird song was greatly underestimated until better field studies, with modern recording equipment, appeared.  We now know much more about alternation of song types, song learning, and phrase construction.  Every new study reveals new complexity.

Song, however, does not exhaust bird communication.  Birds display visually, build bowers and nests, manipulate objects, engage in courtship feeding, and otherwise communicate by visual channels.  They also use touch, as in the well-known “billing and cooing” of mating pigeons and doves.  Some birds may even communicate by scent, though most birds have little sense of smell.

The most complex communication known in a nonhuman species is not found in primates but in the Satin Bowerbird of Australia (Johnsgard 1994:215-216).  Males build huge, complex bowers, which they decorate with all kinds of objects, especially bright blue ones that highlight the blue sheen of the black males.  In the wild, they use flowers and berries, but today they have taken to seeking out bits of blue glass, plastic, and painted materials.  One famous photograph, much reproduced, shows a bower beautifully decorated with a whole clotheslinefull of blue plastic clothespins.  The human family must have wondered why their laundry was all on the ground.  This, however, is only the beginning: the bird not only artfully arranges all these objects into patterns pointing to its own display place, it even paints the bower.  Using a small wad of vegetable matter for a brush, it applies colored clay or similar material to the grass and twigs of the bower.  The whole construction can imvolve many cubic metres of material.  Within this bower, at its focal point, the male displays, singing a complex song that is highly imitative.  As with the mockingbird, the male satin bowerbird weaves any available sound into a full repertoire of phrases.  He also engages in acrobatics on his perch.

The reason for all this is that the bird that builds the best bower, and does the best display, gets the most attention from the females.  Bowerbirds are lek species: the males display competitively to many females, and the most attractive male gets by far the most sex.  So runaway selection happens.  In bowerbirds, the learning component is so large that only a long-lived male can compete.  A good bower builder is thought to need ten to twelve years or so of experience to be competitive.  Thus, the females, in choosing the best builder and singer, are choosing a bird that has succeeded in dodging cats, owls, hawks, and other enemies for years—even while showing off in a most conspicuous way.  The females presumably do not think about this; they think only of who has the most impressive show.  But, underneath, natural selection has led to the oldest and smartest leaving the most descendants.

This is truly astonishing in that it is the only animal communication known to me that goes beyond simple phrase structure grammar, or that goes beyond one or at most two levels of recursion.  The bowerbird is combining learned sounds (unnatural to him) into songs, combining found objects into a bower, and and then combining gestures into a display—and combining all these into one bravura performance.  Other species of bowerbird are only somewhat less complex.  No other group of birds comes close, but many do build extra nests, modify twigs, clear areas of ground, or otherwise construct managed spaces.

Mimicry can be deployed in positively Machiavellian ways.  The forked-tailed drongo (Dicrurus assimilis), an African bird, can mimic almost anything, and has learned that if it mimics various alarm calls it can scare birds away from their food and steal the food (Flower et al. 2014).  If it mimicked only one alarm call, the other birds would soon learn, and not fall for the trick (birds learn such things easily).  This is, I think, the first time anyone has shown that any nonhuman animal can deliberately learn, choose, and invoke other species’ alarm calls for a particular functional reason.  It is awfully hard to believe that this is not conscious, wilful deception.  It is deployed situationally and appropriately.

Song learning can get amazingly complex: nest-parasitizing African indigobirds learn to sing the song of their foster parents, then attract members of the opposite sex with that song, making sure that specific lines of parasitizing go on and on (Payne and Sorenson 2006).

All this is clearly important for understanding the development of structural complexity and use of symbol in communication.  Unfortunately, it does not get us far in understanding the functional side of human language, and thus the whole Darwinian explanation of language evolution.

The reason is that bird song, complex though it may be, carries the simplest and most unchanging of messages.  The old idea that it is about nothing more than territory and mating is long disproved, but it does not really do much more.  The only demonstrated uses are:

(1) things they apparently do with some awareness:

–creating, marking and holding territory

–attracting and holding a mate (many birds have special pair-bonding songs; others sing to lure females for extra-pair copulations)

–sheer enjoyment and good spirits (birds clearly love to sing, or else they wouldn’t do it)

–recognizing the neighbors and being friendly with them, and, in consequence,

–knowing when a stranger comes into the neighborhood, to be attacked or at least evaluated for attack

–express high energy levels and personal excitement

–greet the new day (for whatever reason, birds usually do their main singing at dawn; sometimes also at dusk or in the dawn-like situation of clearing rainstorm clouds)

(2) things that were presumably evolutionary factors in the development of song:

–serving notice that the bird in question is on territory, healthy, and willing to fight or love

–signaling to the females (assuming male bird singing, which is the usual case) that the male in question is healthy, strong, intelligent, a survivor, and thus a good Darwinian match

–possibly, signaling good conditions: good climate, safe environment, food available, and the like.  This is by no means certain.

The first seven of those functions are clearly conscious and deliberate.  The male sings when those contingencies arise and does not choose to sing otherwise.  The last three, however, are probably “instinctive” in that they are not consciously communicated.

This is a fairly impressive list of messages for a brain weighing a few grams, but the problem is that it never changes.  The mockingbird and the brown thrasher, with their thousands of phrases, say only this—over and over.  Even the satin bowerbird says nothing more than this.  All these birds love to learn and try out new sounds, and work to get them to fit their singing style.  They obviously become quite creative and involved in the process.  But they use them for the same tired old purposes.  This is expectable from brain size: the song center makes up a fourth or more of the brain of a mockingbird or other good singer, leaving very little space for any other type of thinking.  This is the biggest difference between bird and human communication.  We can write novels like War and Peace and books like The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  Birds can manage “Judy, will you marry me?” and “Hi gang!” but not a lot more.


Bird Song Not as Model


The real problem with bird song as a model for human language, however, is a very different one, not heretofore noted (you are hearing it for the first time!):  the most social songbirds do not sing.  Several species of songbirds have evolved away from singing.  One can be sure their ancestors were singing because these nonsinging species are standouts within their family or even within their genus, and they are clearly the more recently evolved and specialized members of said family or genus.  Also, some intelligent birds that can learn human words are not songbirds at all (e.g. parrots; Pepperberg 1999).

The extreme case is that of the crows and ravens.  Jays, the more ancestral forms in the family Corvidae, sing (at least the ones I know do).  Crows and ravens are by far the most complexly social of birds, and probably the most intelligent (see Heinrich and Bugnar 2007; Marzluff and Angel 2005, 2012; Taylor et al. 2012).  They occur in flocks that may number hundreds in some species (rooks, Sinaloan crows) or even thousands (American crows, Mexican crows).  These flocks have a structure: they consist of nuclear families associated into extended families that extend outward into the whole population.  They are vast kingroups.  Mates in-marry and lone birds can join, but, basically, flocks are stable over very long time frames, and exist as stable descent groups.  Communication involves very complex displays and vocal sounds, but no songs.  (This paragraph is largely from my own observation and the work of Russell Balda and John Marzluff on pinyon jays—which are small crows, not jays—and crows; Marzluff and Balda 1992 and pers. comm.)

Other notable nonsingers include the western bluebird, whose congeners the eastern bluebird and mountain bluebird do sing; the obvious difference is that western bluebirds nest in loose colonies and flock in winter, while the other two are more solitary.  Cedar waxwings do not sing and are always in flocks, while their close relatives the phainopeplas are less flock-oriented and have complex songs.  Among marsh blackbirds, there is a continuum from the fairly colonial but still territorial redwing—a good singer—to the more colonial tricolored and yellow-headed blackbirds, which have much less impressive and complex songs, but which have smaller territories if they have territories at all.  Other social species with reduced songs include chickadees, the smaller nuthatches, and the more colonial swallows.  There are many songbirds that nest fairly colonially and still sing, but the converse is not true: I can think of no non-singing songbirds that are not colonial or flock-oriented.

Conversely, the truly great singers are all fiercely territorial.  They live at fairly high population densities—this seems critical; they need to be in earshot of several rivalds—but defend sizable territories against all comers.  This does not guarantee a good song (the California towhee is famously territorial and famously rudimentary as a singer) but it does seem that only strong territory-defenders have good songs. The conclusion is inescapable that songs are first and foremost about holding territory, and competing to see who can sing the best and thus hold territory the best.  We can therefore learn very little here about an insanely social species like Homo sapiens.  Humans are like crows: they are never happier, and never noisier and more vocal, than when they are in flocks of thousands.  (See any shopping mall, football game….)  Humans are not territorial in the way birds are; they have absolutely no tendency to defend standardized small areas against all comers (except family).  Like crows, they always occur in large, complex groups.  Territorial defense by groups has essentially nothing in common with bird territoriality; it is a highly flexible behavior engaged in by relatively large social units.


Many songbirds not only sing; they display.  This reaches an incredible pinnacle among the bowerbirds of Australia and New Guinea.  The males build elaborate stages on which to perform their songs and dances.  They are polygynous, and the most spectacular bower and display lures more females than the others, so the male who creates them leaves a disproportionate number of descendents.  This has led to runaway evolution.  The Satin Bowerbird of eastern Australia not only makes an elaborate bower, but he paints it with colorful clays, and decorates it with bright blue objects that set off his iridescent blue plumage.  Satin Bowerbirds are famous for stealing blue clothespins and other bright blue plastic and metal objects.  On top of that, the male sings a brilliant song full of imitations of other birds (see Johnsgard 1994:204-223).  It is really impossible to imagine all this being done without a great deal of intelligence and self-awareness.


Mammals as Model


Turning to mammals, there are few studies of song.  Mammals as diverse as grasshopper mice, whales, and bats  have long, patterned, musical sound sequences that appear to be true songs.  Many species of bats have partially-learned songs that display a “grammar” comparable to that of birds: they structure their phrases and songs quite deliberately.  They communicate species and individual identity, and also place.  They apparently are unusual in that they do not defend territory by song; they live in dense colonies, and use the songs to define colonies and hold them together (Morell 2014).

Howler monkeys (which I have studied in the field) use their howling choruses exactly the way birds do:  To hold territory, communicate with neighbors and tell neighbors from strangers, attract and hold mates, express excitement, and generally express high spirits (personal observation; details on request—I have lived among them and spent countless hours with them).  The African rock hyrax, a small mammal similar to a marmot but related to elephants, has a complex song (Morelle 2012).  Rock hyrax males sing long songs, which they learn, and they have local song dialects.  Apparently the songs are sung to impress females.  These songs have some sort of grammar, comparable to whales, etc.; presumably phrase structure grammar.  Their song consists of “wail, chuck, snort, squeak and tweet” (Morelle 2012).

Better studied are the howling choruses of dogs (Horowitz 2010), wolves (Mech 1988) and coyotes.  These appear to be true songs in that they are sharply marked off from ordinary, largely instinctive noises (barking, whining, growling, etc.).  Howling is more consciously managed, more patterned, more unique to individuals (thus presumably more learned), and more consciously given in special, marked situations.  It serves the same functions as bird song, but it also holds the packs together, communicates the place and situation of members who cannot see each other, and communicates various kinds of emotional arousal.  Sirens and other howl-like noises always set off a chorus.

Some personal observations on howling and canine music reveal that it is more complex than usually understood.  Many humans howl to or with their dogs, and the dogs often respond. The Hollywood movie Never Cry Wolf (based on Farley Mowat’s book of that title, 1963) has a scene in which the actor plays his bassoon to the wolves and they answer.  This was Hollywood romance, but it turns out not to be totally so.  I was once camped in a remote part of British Columbia.  At the next campsite was a professional saxophonist who had obviously seen the movie.  He played his saxophone to the wolf pack howling nearby, and they answered.  He would play a riff (as close to the wolves’ pitch and cadence as he could) and they would answer perfectly, throwing in some improvisation of their own.  They kept it up half the night.  The wolves answered him on key.   Sometimes they seemed to be copying his tune, but this was impossible to determine.  He was most certainly imitating them.  I would bet that he played the riffs in his next concert and said he learned them from the wolves.


Mammals and Society


Closer to home, the three packs (pairs with young) of coyotes that range into Two Trees Canyon, though they are all related, have quite different howling behaviors, which have persisted over at least the last several years.  The southfork pack’s vocalization is typical of local coyote behavior, howling at dawn and when sirens sound.  The summit pack is notably more quiet.  The northfork pack is amazing: not only do they vocalize far more than the others do, almost always starting any group chorus, but they produce not only howls but an incredible range of squeals, moans, barks, yodels, and sounds beyond description or name.  I have heard other coyote packs do this too, especially in remote desert areas, but it seems definitely a behavior limited to certain highly musical and improvisational packs.  In Two Trees Canyon the northfork pack almost always does it if they howl at all.  The other two packs almost never do.

Some dogs go on to produce music in other means.  I have no idea how much conditioning goes into the circus and TV acts in which dogs play horns (by squeezing bulbs with their mouths).  One—only one—of the dogs in my life learned spontaneously to play tunes on his squeaky toys, and spends many minutes at a time doing so.  He will create a three- or four-note phrase and repeat it several times, then switch to another, just like a mockingbird.  He clearly does it for pleasure; he will leave playing with the other dogs to do it, and it has never been rewarded (except for some verbal praise, after days of doing it).  He sometimes plays along with a music record, matching the timing.  The interesting thing here is that he is expressing himself in a totally unnatural and purely learned way.

As to ordinary communication, dogs, wolves, and coyotes do not limit their communication to vocal channels.  A full interaction between two canids, especially if they have not seen each other for a while, is quite striking.  They make a range of appropriate sounds: bark, whine, growl, etc.  Meanwhile, they bow, wag their tails (even coyotes do this when packs reunite), run about, present their throats to each other, flag their ears, crouch, sometimes roll over, and do a whole range of other behaviors (Horowitz 2010).  There is a whole language of ear elevation/depression, tail elevation/depression, fur erection/flattening, mouth corner drawback, etc.  (Drawing back the mouth corners to show deference is a pan-mammalian behavior that is the origin of the human smile.)

This, however, is far from all.  A human with a sensitive nose learns that the dogs are also releasing a strikingly wide range of pheromones from their anal, foot, shoulder, head, and other scent glands.  Each of these glands has a different mix of chemicals, particular to that gland but also varying by individual, allowing individual recognition.  Dogs communicate not only identity but emotional level and situation by scent.  Song—howling—is only one small, very public part of their repertoire.  Fine-tuning intimate social interaction in canids is not done by howling but by soft sounds, postures, scent, and other low-key means, all of which can be varied and adapted.  The basic behaviors are innate, but the fine-tuning and the combination are not.  They are learned, or innovated, and deployed according to sitiuation, with every appearance of being under some (though not necessarily much) conscious control.

Although this has been known for decades, it is surprisingly little studied, and the standard books on canine behavior barely mention it—quite amazingly, since everyone knows, or should know, that dogs live in a world of scent just as much as humans live in a world of sight.  The degree to which pheromone release is under voluntary control remains mysterious.  A striking example of how clueless behavioral scientists are about this is their use of the “spot on the forehead, in the mirror” test to see if dogs have “a concept of self.”  I have made it a point to watch dogs confronting mirrors for the first time.  They invariably look startled at the strange dog, sniff at it, and instantly lose all interest.  They never bother with mirrors again.  Of course dogs recognize self and other, but they do it by scent, as every dog owner knows from watching dogs identify their own toys, blankets, and so forth, and from watching dogs “read the local newspaper” at the neighborhood fire hydrant or lamppost.

A dog communicates mate-getting and territorial messages, but also fear, pain, excitement, pleasure, annoyance, anger (defensive or aggressive), desire to play, desire to take a walk, and much more.  Dogs have specific barks for specific situations; the play-bark in particular is quite different from the aggressive bark. A dog can combine vocalizations, ear flagging, tail wagging or drooping, stance, and facial expression to transmit exceedingly precise and subtle messages about level of arousal, intended behavior, and so on.  Dogs communicate not only a desire to play, but exactly what level of play they want, and how active and violent it is to be.  When one dog gets carried away in play and hurts the other, the hurt animal gives out a characteristic yelp, whereupon play immediately ends and an apology is forthcoming—often by the dogs stretching their necks out and touching noses.  Then play resumes.

Consider an interaction that happens almost every evening in my house:

Pup:  “Hey, let’s play!”             Older dogs:  “Lay off, we’re resting.”

Pup:  “You can always rest.  It’s evening! Active time for dogs!  C’mon!”

Older dogs:  “Well, maybe.  What you wanna play?”

Pup:  “We might play with this squeaky-toy.  Kit, you especially—here it is, just to tempt you—right in your face.”

Older dogs:  “Oh, OK, I guess we can play a bit, if Mom lets us get away with it.”

All this is communicated by gestures and barks, but the messages are clear.  “We might play with this squeaky-toy” actually is: play-bow with frantic tail-wagging; presentation of toy to older dogs, especially Kit, the more playful one; dancing around a bit; more play-bow and wagging and shoving toy in Kit’s face till he relents.  Note that it involves a clear subjunctive mood (the pup is just suggesting it); it involves a purely learned category (squeaky-toys are not part of canine evolution, but the dogs know everything about them); and a rudimentary theory of mind: the pup knows the older dogs have to be coaxed, with Kit being easier to coax.  Furtive glances at my wife express that final “if” clause better than words.

Even a human can generally tell when an angry dog is about to attack directly, or too scared to attack, or not interested in attacking.  Above all, however, dogs and coyotes communicate very complex and subtle messages to pups:  family bonding, support, reassurance, nurturance, alarm, and so on.  I have very often watched coyotes tell their pups exactly how afraid of me they should be, and exactly what to do about it—how far to run, when to hide, and so on.  I have also watched adults teaching young what to eat and how to eat it.  I have watched enthusiastic reunions with young who had been out wandering.


Important here is that all this communicative work, unlike bird song, is eminently social, directed at the pack and at any other canids in the neighborhood.  Coyotes and dogs howl to each other, and at closer range go through a wide range of typical social behaviors if they know each other.  Unlike bird song, these various canine modes are highly productive functionally as well as structurally.  They convey a wide range of social messages and nuances, from playful friendship to savage attack, from warm interest to cold disdain.

On the other hand, though wolves have over ten times the brain mass of songbirds, they are not up to the human level.  There is no indication that canids are saying much that is new and different.  They can fine-tune their very complex and interesting social lives in a way that birds do not approach, but (contrary to what my wife says about our border collie) they do not write philosophy books, speculate on astrophysics, or do calculus.  To be sure, most humans do not do those things either, and my wife may be right that “Bandit is smarter than a lot of people” (as she regularly says), but still we do not expect much new or exciting from the Canidae.  I fear that Gary Larson was right in the Far Side cartoon that showed a scientist who had invented a machine to translate barking into English and found that it meant just “Hey!  Hey!  Hey!”

This leaves us somewhat lost, for, frankly, I have never seen believable accounts of primates being any better at communicating than wolves are.  The one exception would be the few chimps and bonobos that have been taught to do limited signing.  However, dogs can clearly beat this when it comes to following and executing commands expressed in symbols.  Sheepdogs routinely learn 150 to 200 whistled and/or gestured commands, and we are not talking “sit” and “stay” but “pick out the black sheep, cut him out of the flock, and bring him here.”  One dog, Chaser, has learned over 1000 English words (Pilley 2013).  Dogs can easily figure out that if you tell them to “bring the X,” where X is a new word and the set that is indicated has one strange object in it, they are to bring the strange object; and thereafter they will remember it is the X.  Dogs learn to follow pointing fingers to find objects (wolves do not), and dogs learn to point in that way with their muzzles.  They may do that naturally, but pointers learn to do it with a combination of muzzle and foreleg, and that is not natural.

Dogs do plan ahead, and chimps apparently do, and canids most certainly recognize other individuals and act on the basis of what they know about those others.  Every owner of more than one dog knows how one dog will figure out ways to take advantage of personal differences from other dogs to get some food.  I once had two dogs, one a smart leader, one a born follower.  The leader was smaller and less competitive at the food dish.  So she quickly learned to lead the other one into the house, then quickly whirl, leave the other inside, and rush outside to the food.  It worked every time.  All my other dogs have learned similar games, with humans as well as with dogs.  They immediately learn which of their human pets is an easier mark for food, which for walks, and so on.


Mammals Not as Model


We have, however, run into a blind alley here.  Chimps do not sign in nature.  Dogs do not learn 1000 words or 200 commands in nature, nor do wolves or coyotes.  Dogs do not plan ahead more than to the next snack or walk.  Neither, apparently, do chimps.  They can plan a little, and they can “read minds” a little, but they are apparently quite far behind humans (Suddendorf 2013) .  They have, in captivity, learned to call for apples by different notes, and chimps kept in the Netherlands learned new apple calls when moved to a British zoo (Nature 2015), but this is a one-“word” case in a totally unnatural situation.

Thomas Suddendorf, in an excellent recent review of the human-animal divide, sees a “gap” between animal basics—ability to communicate and remember, social reason, physical reasoning, empathy, tradition—and strictly human things, which he lists as “language, mental time travel, mindreading, theories, morality, culture.” (Suddendorf 2013:216).  He hints rather broadly that all the human skills seem to boil down to one thing: an ability to see the world more deeply and widely than animals can do.  This is close to Marc Hauser’s five (or more) levels of recursion.  More to the point, it was anticipated by David Kronenfeld in 1979, in his article that pointed out that language skills are an expectable corollary of the ability of humans to plan ahead in complex ways, as shown by Karl Lashley long ago (Lashley 1960).  The human tendency to think in tactics, strategies, objectives, goals, and the overall mission reprises the five levels of recursion.

No nonhuman animal has been shown to create genuinely new messages in the sense that a folktale or a myth is a new message.  (The isolated “water bird” story in the chimp literature—actually bonobo literature; it was Kanzi the bonobo, studied by Sue Savage-Rumbaugh [Suddendorf 2013:85]—is wildly suspect.  I think the bonobo was signing “water” and “bird” separately.  Kanzi did produce simple commands, like a two-year-old human.)

Canids can communicate endlessly about the latest changes in their social situations, and can indicate there is food and lead pack-mates to it, but this seems about the extent of their productivity.  To my knowledge (and I have a lot of field hours with several species of monkeys, as well as a fair knowledge of the literature), this is about the situation with primates too.  (For a recent review of primate intelligence, see De Waal and Ferrari 2012.  For a particularly fine account of one species, see Cheney and Seyfarth 2007; I know the actual baboons they studied, from personal experience in the Okavango Delta—and can testify that they are fiendishly intelligent; they routinely stole our stuff and shook us down for food.  They also combine vocal and other behavioral signals in context-appropriate and innovative ways, as canids do; I have watched this at some length.)

Chimps can communicate incredibly complex and detailed messages about immediate social states and situations (see e.g. De Waal 1982, 1995), and quite a bit about immediate food prospects, but they cannot—for example—tell a friend what happened last week, or describe in detail how to find a food item that is out of sight.  (They can indicate hidden items by signs, however.)  This sort of displacement in time and space is a purely human ability, and must have had considerable effect on driving language evolution.


Humans as Distinctive


We now turn to another biological matter:  human physical evolution for talking.  This is largely beyond my competence, but a few things need to be stressed.  One is the wide distribution of language and/or speech over the brain: not only Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas, but involvement of the frontal cortex more or less in its entirety, as well as specialization in the motor sectors for fine-tuning motion of mouth, tongue, lips, throat, and hands.

This accompanies major evolution of the vocal apparatus.  The glottal cords do not exist in any other mammal (but songbirds do have perfect analogues).  They not only allow sound production of many types; they also are part of a mechanism to allow us to talk while eating, which many of us do far beyond what our mothers permitted at the table.  In mammals, the breathing tract crosses the swallowing tract, one of the many proofs that if we are the product of “intelligent design” the designer got drunk pretty frequently.  So a specific mechanism had to evolve.  The human mouthparts, including the lips and especially the tongue, are highly evolved to allow extremely precise articulation of a wide variety of sounds.  Apes cannot do this.

The sheer amount of gross physical modification in the mouth and throat, and the concomitant neurological remodeling of the brain, did not happen in a week.  This is not at all comparable to the cases of rapid evolution in which one gene flips, conveys a dramatic Darwinian advantage, and becomes fixed in the population in relatively few generations (as in the case of lactose tolerance in Europe and East Africa).

Of course, this refers to the faculty of language in the broad sense (FLB; Fitch et al. 2005).  Language in the narrow sense (FLN) is the mental representation side of language: language as an “instrument of thought” (Fitch et al. 2005; Chomsky 2013).  Language in that strict sense is the ability to arrange concepts in complex structures that can be subjected to transformations; it is not necessarily spoken, since it can be expressed perfectly well by gestures or various forms of writing, or not expressed at all—we talk inwardly to ourselves all the time (at least I do).  And there is, of course, a strong case to be made for language having evolved in gesture mode and only later become spoken (as Kronenfeld suggests, and he has a lot of company; Suddendorf 2013:81.)  I doubt this, but the point is that language, as it appears now in Homo sapiens, is totally unlike bird song or wolf howling in that it is decoupled from the vocal and is an internal capacity.

We simply cannot escape the conclusion that language (FLB) evolved slowly, over a long time. And even FLN was not—cannot have been—an “invention,” or the result of a rapid mutational process.  It simply involves too many genes, structures, and systems, variously coopted to linguistic use (for some of the complexities, see Christiansen and Kirby 2003).  Brain scans show that a huge percentage of the brain is involved, to say nothing of whatever means—tongue and mouth, hands, or writing arm—is used to get it out in public.  The extremely oversold, and now largely disproved, idea of evolution by rapid jumps could work—if it ever worked—only if one or a very few genes controlled the trait in question.  This is not the case with language (even FLN).

It was not a matter of evolving a “mind,” whatever that is, and then suddenly putting it to use to talk.  It was not a matter of switching from gesture to vocal, unless that switch was done very early (which is, of course, possible).  (“Mind” is even more poorly defined than “consciousness,” which at least has a recognized operational meaning: “awake and aware as opposed to being knocked out.”  “Mind” has no operationally meaningful definition at all, so far as I can determine from the literature.  The currently popular line “mind is what the brain does” is a capitulation, not a definition.  What the brain does is use glucose to fuel transmission of neural electric impulses via a whole series of complex neurotransmitter chemicals, facilitating or inhibiting specific synaptic connections in the process.  If that is mind, so be it.)

Given the well-known link of brain size, social group size (Bourne 2011), and communication, and in birds of brain song center size and song complexity, it is impossible for me to escape the conclusion that language evolution tracked closely the evolution of brain size from around 350-400 cc (chimps and Australopithecines) to the modern 1400 cc.   Sayers et al (2012) caution anthropologists against the “chimpanzee referential doctrine,” the idea that the chimp is a perfect copy of the last common ancestor of chimps and humans.  They point out that the two lineages have been diverging for millions of years—they argue for eight million—and there are many striking differences that have clearly evolved in the chimp line.  One is huge canines; early hominids and all hominins have small canines.  This probably indicates that the violent male-male conflicts over territory and harems are a recently evolved trait in apes, not an ancestral condition.  All this makes me wonder if chimps have dumbed down.  Their brains are large, but their social and communicative behavior, based on what I have read, seems less impressive than that of wolves.  Possibly Australopithecines had a more complex communication system, involving more conscious shaping, deployment, and combination of instinctive sounds.

I think Homo erectus must have had an intermediate ability, developing from very limited productive communication ca. 1.5-1.8 mya up to something very simple but possibly definable as “language” by 350,000 ya.  I think language and linguistic capacity then continued to evolve, up to the Neanderthals and very possibly even more in modern Homo sapiens sapiens.  The relative simplicity of Neanderthal material culture and its lack of anything clearly artistic or ornamental leads one to suspect that they had a simple, practical sort of language, possibly somewhat lacking in the poetic and speculative flights we associate with the medium.


Humans Not as Distinctive


Why did language evolve?  If we consider the development of complex communication systems among animals, we find that all of them without exception developed to talk about complex social situations.  Birds have to negotiate territory, neighborhood (familiar fellow members of the species), mating, and family life.  Wolves have to deal with packs and neighboring packs, and wolf packs are socially very complicated.  Coordinating pack hunting is especially complex.

Primates are almost all quite social.  Baboon troops sometimes number in the hundreds; such large troops have an internal structure, with family and kindred groups.  (One might think that there is much more going on in these troops than the descriptions attest, but my observations—which are limited—do not go beyond published documentation.  Cheney and Seyfarth—who studied the same baboons I observed in Botswana—have the full story pretty well down [2007].)

In all cases, the more complex the social life, the more complex the communication, other things being equal.  Recall that brain size varies this way too; more social animals have larger brains than their socially simple relatives—among the primates, among canids, and in many other groups.  I would assume, in fact I cannot believe otherwise, that language, brain size, and social group size all evolved together.

The expansion in human brain size (from around 400 cc in Australopithecus to 1400 cc today) took place largely in the last 2,000,000 years, mostly in the Homo erectus stage.  On the whole, throughout the animal kingdom, brain size tracks body size and sociability—including the complexity of social messages.  Since humans have had about the same body size since Homo erectus came in, this brain expansion is clearly related largely to social factors.  (Neanderthals had brains the size of ours or larger, but also had larger bodies, so their bigger brains probably have to do with bigger bodies rather than with more sophisticated communication.  There is still rather little evidence that they had sophisticated symbolic communication.)

Robin Dunbar and many, many others have made the obvious assumption that human language must have evolved primarily as a social tool.  Dunbar’s findings that most human talk is “gossip” certainly fits this.  Dunbar’s number of 50-150 is a very robust finding across all human societies for the number of people in the ordinary face-to-face group.  (Several people, including some of my students working on this issue, have independently corroborated it.  See e.g. Binford 2001.)   I think the expansion of the brain from 400 to 1400 cubic centimetres tracks perfectly the expansion of the group from 20 to 500.

Language as it exists today is vastly overengineered for the needs of a nuclear family; it is hard to imagine it being useful enough to evolve unless it was required to fine-tune society and sociability in groups of a hundred or more.  Dunbar is surely correct in seeing modern humans as having evolved in groups of 50-150 (Dunbar 1993, 2004).  Dunbar found that about 2/3 of human talk is about immediate social relationships, this figure being broadly consistent from Cambridge dons to working-class and rural people (Dunbar 1993, 2004, 2010; Fitch uses Dunbar’s findings).

A further number of 500 is equally robust across societies as the total number of fairly regular contacts a person has.  The corroborree group in Australia, the tribe among Native Americans, the village in medieval Europe, and the widest friend circle in modern America all approximate this.  (A quick survey of my Facebook friends shows a modal number around 300, with variation from around 10 to several thousand—but those last are a very few cases of people using Facebook as a professional tool.  The vast majority of my friends report 100-700 friends.)

Increasingly complex communication would have to emerge for such groups.  This must have entailed more and more communication over wide distances and at night.  That soon made gestures and instinctive cries inadequate.  I think Dunbar has the strongest case.  I suspect that, indeed, the first words included “father” and other kinterms, as in the development of infants’ speech: ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny again.

Such compulsive sociability influences language; Fitch emphasizes the importance in modern humans of mitteilungsbedürfnis, the human need to talk all the time about feelings and thoughts.  (Some, especially of the female gender, seem to have more mitteilungsbedürfnis than others.)

Humans, over the millennia, became more and more specialized on finding rich patches of food, as they became more intelligent and social.  The bigger the brain and the bigger the social group, the more the group depends on rich patches of food.  They need these because there were more and more people to feed and lots of brain to fuel; the human nervous system uses 400 calories/day.  This would have been another positive feedback loop.  Language must have evolved partly for the purpose of telling all one’s kin where the rich food patches were.

Naming plants, animals, and landscape features, and describing how to find them, must have been very early.  The idea that language arose to talk about “hunting” is flagrant male chauvinism at its silliest.  Gathering must have had just as much to do with it.  One wishes to report to the group where the best berry-picking is, where the seeds are ripe, where the greens are springing up, and where the flowers indicate a good future fruit crop, just as much as one needs to talk about where the game is.

Tools are another possibility; my mentor in such matters, Sherwood Washburn, always used to say that “language evolved to talk about tools” (Washburn, in countless lectures).  Philip Wilke and Leslie Quintero believe that even Homo erectus tools are too complicated to make without at least some verbal instruction.  They are world-class flintknappers and instructors of younger flintknappers, so they know whereof they speak.  The need for more and more rich, uncommon, and hard-to-find patches of stone also gave people a reason to talk about where to find it.  Fitch somewhat minimizes the tool theory, noting that people usually learn to make things by observing and imitating rather than by listening.  I certainly agree—that is my experience—but some talking is often necessary, in stone tool making as in other processes.

My experience is that traditional people around the world talk largely for social reasons, just as we do, and that they learn about food-getting and toolmaking with a minimum of verbal instruction.  But the verbal instruction, little though it may be, can be critically important.

The larger the group, the more internal differentiation would inevitably have arisen.  Gender roles, age roles, and differential expertise and skills would have appeared immediately.  Even chimp troops have rudimentary forms.  These differences would have increased over time.  Differences in status and power and in social function would eventually have arisen and increased.  The oldest profession—which is that of healer, not prostitute—must go back to the very dawn of human society as we know it.  Perhaps before the dawn.  Tools and feeding arrangements were getting more complex too, and these would have had their effect.  Above all, humans would have been scattering out to forage, and would have needed to tell each other where the best food was.  I think this was probably not only a direct cause of language, but also a direct cause of social complexity and therefore an indirect cause of language.

Social communication extends to talking about social place, status, role, mating, childrearing, balancing obligations, reminding people of debts and favors, inviting people to share food and tools, instructing the young on life skills, talking about hunting and gathering, coordinating any and all activities, discussing territory and place and range, and much, much more.  No wonder a complicated communication system was needed.  But without a large group it would not have been necessary, even for an intelligent omnivore.  Raccoons manage fine without it.

An interesting point is the complexity of grammar and syntax in all languages.  Academics often miss the import of this, since they are used to academic prose, where the vocabulary is learned, arcane, and diverse, but the syntax is usually limited to declarative sentences.  Ordinary everyday speech, on the other hand, can be a wild tangle of conditionals, subjunctives, dependent clauses, dangling participial phrases, and everything else.  You may not need to know the four different types of infinitives, all inflected, that Finnish displays, if you merely read Finnish newspapers, but you will have to know them to talk.  I have noticed this extreme contrast of academic prose (simple grammar, rich vocabulary) and everyday speech (vice versa) in English, Spanish, Turkish, and other languages.  (It is less pronounced in Chinese, which has a very simple grammar, and in German and Maya, whose complex grammars are hard to escape even in simple declarative prose.)  All this suggests that the complex syntax that distinguishes human from animal communication is probably very old and very deeply rooted, contra a theory sometimes espoused by Chomsky and others that it must be a recent and rapid development.

Given the above, the idea that language was “invented” (for whatever reason—one recalls the old “bow-wow” theories) makes about as much sense as saying that people first developed complicated tools and then invented hands to work with them!  I would agree with Chomsky in thinking that his highly philosophical, mentalistic, even spiritual language (his FLN) was a late development (though I would guess on the basis of zero evidence that it began to appear in the Homo erectus stage).  But I assume it came long after productive, expressive speech had already developed the capacity to talk, or gesture, about a wide range of things, from kinship to cutting up dead elephants with stone tools.


Biological Notes and Queries


I find it plausible to think that talking, gestures, and music evolved as one single symbolic-communication system.  I do not find plausible the idea that gesture was first.  For one thing, all our evolution has been in the vocal-auditory system.  Also, all higher animals communicate largely by vocal signs (or by smells, but not in higher primates).  None uses gestures as a principal channel.  Almost all do use gestures and bodily poses and signs as major ancillary markers, however, so I expect gesture was involved from the start in human linguistic evolution.  In modern humans, gesture communicates a great deal, and in deaf language it bears the whole load.  People gesture when talking on the telephone.  In fact, I routinely see people endanger their lives by driving alone while holding a cellphone in one hand and gesturing wildly with the other.  People blind from birth gesture to each other when talking.  This suggests that gesture has indeed maintained a linguistic function straight through from the chimp, and has always been used to convey specific information.

As to music, I am always intrigued by the idea, first floated by Giambattista Vico (2000 [1725]) and later by Darwin (1871) and by Steven Mithen (2007), that language and music forked off from a single original form, a sort of warbling or chanting.  Communicating mood states vocally is also standard for humans.  Cries of pain, lulling noises to babies, noises of surprise, shouts of anger, and the like are very close to chimp calls. We now culturally construct vocal communication of mood into music.  However, I have reluctantly abandoned this position in light of the fact that the brain wirings for language and for music are very different, and also in light of the fact that the mix would be more, rather than less, complicated than either descendant.  I still like the idea, and I still am convinced that language and music—the two very complex, highly recursive, highly symbolic modes of communicatioin—evolved together.  At present, and probably always, language deals with specific concrete concepts, music with mood and broad emotionality.  This is somewhat similar to the positions that cries and songs, respectively, occupy among songbirds.


A suite of features has developed in humans for the purpose of talking: improved vocal cords, extremely fine musculature on tongue and lips, and appropriate innervation.  Fitch shows these are not particularly confined to humans, but they are certainly more fine-tuned in the human species.  The human brain is heavily involved in language.  Everyone knows about Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas, but language turns out to be widely distributed over the brain.  Often, the localities that show up in brain scans are ones that are used for other things and seem to have been secondarily used for language as well as their original functions.  This area is controversial.  Two things emerge:  first, gesture does seem to draw on many of these areas, making the gestural theory of linguistic origin plausible, and, second, music (or music-related functionality) is extremely widely and deeply distributed in the brain, making Mithen’s (or Vico’s) theory plausible.

It is worth remembering that a huge brain not only has a huge calorie cost, it has a huge cost in difficulty of birth, leading to more maternal and infant deaths and to a need for midwives.  (A recent claim that human birth is not all that difficult is simply wrong.)  The human brain is about ¼ adult size at birth; a chimp’s is about ½.  So humans are born very immature and in need of total care for months.  This has the interesting side function of making language more developable—the brain is so immature and plastic that language can shape it massively from the start.  This is part of Fitch’s case for the importance of parentese in the development of language (see below).


And What’s Right?


I tend to follow Chomsky (1957; see also 2013) in defining “language” by the presence of true sentences (or similar strings):  Long sequences of morphemes that can be rearranged to make questions, negative clauses, etc., and can have dependent clauses embedded.  No animal does anything like this.  Even the mockingbirds, which are known to sing around 12,000 different phrases and to learn other birds’ songs and work those into their own, apparently never do anythnig beyond a simple phrase.  They string phrases together endlessly, but they appear to have no higher-level grammar at all.  The only communications in the animal kingdom that seems almost Chomskian-grammatical are the aforementioned bowers of the most evolved bowerbirds.  The Satin Bowerbird combines materials according to rules, and even seeks out plant fibres to make little paintbrushes, then seeks out colored wet clay, and paints his bower.  The bower and his display in it are all structured according to fairly sophisticated rules, and the process of successfully combining them with his song takes us almost into the realm of transformational grammar.  But all this is done simply to lure females.  It is all different from human society that it has nothing much to tell us.

So, why and when did we evolve full syntax in the Chomskian sense?  There is no way of knowing.  It must have been gradual.  I suppose Homo erectus had something, perhaps three-word sentencelets.  I suspect that full-scale language with dependent clauses embedded in questions embedded in long utterances probably came only with Homo sapiens.  But, of course, we will probably never know.  If “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny,” and child language development shows us anything, humanity started with single words, then got to two-word phrases, then to three, then to very simple declarative sentences, then to imperatives, questions, and negations, and finally to embedded clauses and the like.  But, as Stephen Jay Gould pointed out in his book Ontogeny and Phylogeny, ontogeny does not always recapitulate phylogeny.  (Better go with James Joyce:  “Hagiography recapitulates proctology.”)  Fitch (chapters 10-14) thus maintains that human evolution may not be well reflected in child language.

We now know that Homo sapiens in the narrow sense appeared only about 150,000 years ago, in east Africa.  H. sapiens radiated out from Africa into the rest of the world a mere 70,000-100,000 years ago.  This makes the possibility of reconstructing a bit of “proto-world,” or at least “proto-diaspora,” actually thinkable.  I expect this language was inflected, at least with noun/pronoun cases such as nominative, accusative and dative, and verb conjugations to show past, present, and future, and to indicated continuing vs. one-shot actions (i.e. “imperfect” vs “perfect” forms).  This seems to be something close to a common denominator worldwide.  Exceedingly complex grammars (like the “polysynthetic” grammar of Inuit) are rather rare.  Isolating languages (i.e. without any grammatical endings) do not exist.  The claim that Chinese is such a language is based on classical Chinese, which was originally a sort of court speedwriting, probably introduced by scribes to write down court actions as they occurred.  We know that ancient Chinese, like modern Chinese, had inflections and functional grammar words, because there are some verbatim quotes preserved in historical texts.

Songbird evolution again proves useful here.  Leaving aside a few nonpasserines that have independently evolved song, we can consider the passerine or songbird order, Passeriformes.  It includes several families that are vocally primitive: they have songs, but the songs are purely instinctive, identical throughout the species’ range.  This is true of flycatchers, for instance.  Then there are some more evolved groups that have very simple but still partially learned songs, such as the chickadees, nuthatches, and creepers.  Then there are the many that have songs with a strong component of learning, much individual variation and innovation, and local dialects, such as many of the sparrows.  Finally, the mockingbirds and some other groups have incredibly complicated songs, involving learning from other species as well as their own.  Except for the fact (noted above) that social songbirds often do not sing, this proveds a model for how human language could have evolved.

Fitch closes his book with considerations of gestures and of music as linguistic bases.  I am duly convinced that people have been gesturing straight through the entire course of evolution from the apes.  Gesture was an integral part of language evolution, and that gesture is a reasonable place to look for evolutionary innovations.  The basic reason for considering gesture so basic is that apes gesture all the time, and can sign quite complicated messages even when left to themselves, to say nothing of the degree to which they can learn sign language.  (Fitch emphasizes this, but even he understates it; more and more data keep coming out on ape skills in this regard.)  I am also convinced by long discussions with David Kronenfeld  But what really convinced me was observing not just one but many drivers, driving alone in their vehicles, holding cellphone to ear with one hand and gesturing wildly with the other.  (S. Goldin-Meadow 2010 has studied cellphone gesturing, and also notes the fact that congenitally blind people gesture.)  Surely it must be a strong instinct that can thus overcome both minimal regard for safety and minimal obedience to California’s strict driving laws.

As to music: here Fitch finally ran out of energy, not surprising in a book well over 600 pages long.  He lists some design features that supposedly separate music from language, and gets some sadly wrong.  Among these are discrete pitches and isochrony (p. 479), which, if he means these words the way they are normally used, are universal in tonal languages, and thus anything but distinctive of music.  Fitch discusses tone languages and notes that most of the world’s languages are tonal, so either he is using the terms in a strange and incomprehensible way, or he has made an oversight.  Another design feature he considers distinctive of music is repeatability.  For Fitch, a song can be repeated over and over again, but language is about “pervasive novelty” (480) and is not normallly repeated.  The only exception he allows is the case of minor greeting rituals.  He is thinking too much of academic discourse.  In the wider world, poems, stories, slogans, political rhetoric, taglines, and so on are repeated endlessly, and no one seems bored by that (except possibly some academics).

More serious a deficiency is Fitch’s failure to tell us whether music was fully evolved before speech came along, or whether they evolved together, or whether, as suggested by Giambattista Vico almost 300 years ago, they differentiated from a more primitive warbling or chanting, imperfectly worded and imperfectly musicalized (Vico 2000 [1725]; cf. Mithen 2005; Vico is oddly uncited by Fitch).  Vico thought modern epics were survivals of this stage—or more accurately of the stage just after it, when language existed but was still sung rather than spoken.  His general model fits well with the music of small-scale societies, which is usually extremely simple.  It might represent this next-level-up, where chanting with meaningless syllables is still common, but real tunes and words have also entered the soundscape.  Fitch writes as if music were as complex from the beginning as modern folk and even concert music is.  But the music of the San, Inuit, and many comparable groups is almost as simple as Vico’s model suggests.  Finally, Fitch does not say much about the differences in brain wiring for music as opposed to language, though these are substantial.




I conclude that language probably emerged from a mixed-channel system like that of many other animals.  Birds have displays and songs.  Dogs have scent, voice and motion.  Chimpanzees have body positions, gestures, and vocalizations.  Ancestral humans had gestures, protolanguage, and protomusic.

I think protolanguage evolved from the single instinctive cries of apes to longer but still instinctive utterances; then to phrasal language with limited phrase-structure grammar; then to more complex, sophisticated, and innovative protolanguage, and finally to full-scale language as we know it.  I believe David Kronenfeld is right in arguing that this developed along with wider abilities to plan, think ahead, and in general use recursion to bootstrap thought.  But children develop language so much faster than they develop recursion in other fields that there is clearly something more going on than mere carryover from task planning to speech planning (Fitch, pp. 492-494; there is a large literature on this issue; see also Chomsky 2013).

I agree totally with Fitch that language must have evolved in groups with relatively high relatedness, and that from the first it had a great deal to do with child care and upbringing.  Parent-child communication was critically important to every aspect of language evolution.  I need only cite him for discussion (see esp. pp. 492-494).  As he points out, this is necessary to explain why children learn language so fast, and why language is not confined to adult males, or adult males and females, as song is in birds.

Music took a separate but parallel course.  It evolved from simple singing, no doubt including lullabyes, courting songs, work songs, dance songs, and possibly other types.  Fitch’s insightful comments about the value of language for dealing with very young children certainly hold for music too, and I suspect lullabyes were the very first musical performances.  (Darwin and others held that music evolved for male display, but this does not fit the facts; Fitch’s comments on language and children work for music too.)  It gradually became more melodically and harmonically complex, with musical instruments being added very slowly over time.   It now differs from language in being a holistic, wordless way of communicating emotions and moods, as opposed to an open-ended system characterized by separate phonemes and morphemes and by the ability to combine and recombine these into highly precise but also innovative propositions.

A point too softly made by Fitch is that language, in its full-blown form, is vastly overengineered for mere family life (Bickerton 2014).  Most nuclear families get by without a rich vocabulary or a full range of linguistic performances.  The full play of language requires a wide arena, at the very least a tribal group with politics, religion, ritual, song and story, arguments, debates, discussion of different people, organizing against other groups, and all the other things for which we use language in public spaces.

So, here is a scenario.

Australopithecus:  “Instinctive” cries, used in unproductive and noninnovative situations, but complex, and used by conscious decision to fine-tune social situations.  However, no innovation, no complex grammar, no learning, no productivity.

Homo habilis:  Cries have mutated into a system in which there is some putting together of cries into two-cry or three-cry phrases, which are somewhat learned.  Increasing importance of learning over time. Homo habilis is a not-at-all-missing link; a stage fossil showing some mental and manual development.

Homo erectus:  Brain size increases; group size increases with it.  I think selection for larger and larger groups drove the whole process.  Language evolves from simple phrases made by combining semi-instinctive noises (“ug, wug, zug, phthslug” meaning “I want dinner”) in very early millennia to a simple but functional language-like system late in the career of this temporal species (“I want dinner and there is a dead mastodon.”)

Homo sapiens sens. lat.  I agree with Chomsky (1957) that the real watershed between nonhuman and human communication is the sentence—a long, complex utterance that can be transformed by head-down planning processes.  I assume that the phrase-structure grammars of Homo erectus developed into the capacity to produce actual sentences, that can be changed to questions, negatives, passives, etc. by grammatical rearrangement, over the last 300,000-400,000 years, possibly only the last 200,000.  Derek Bickerton (2007, etc.) could well be right that pidgin and creole languages re-create something like the original human sentence and grammar structure.  Brain size levels off with Neanderthal, but brain function evidently keeps growing.  We just don’t have any art or symbolic-type items of any kind from the pre-sapiens world.

I find it difficult to imagine the steps, but assume people slowly evolved the ability to plan more and more complex recursions, or at least embedded constructions, and transformations.  (Luuk and Luuk have recently pointed out that embeddedness does not really require recursion in the formal sense; iteration can model it.)  At present, the simple phrases of bird and dog communication require about two levels of embedding: planning the phrase and vocalizing it.  Humans can plan whole narratives, within which are nested paragraphs, within which are sentences, within which are phrases, within which are morphemes, within which are phonemes—six levels of embeddedness.  This is pushing the “magical number seven” (Miller 1957) awfully hard, and I doubt if we can go much higher.  Music is recursive, just as language is:  notes to phrases to tunes to themes to songs to symphonies….  Both can produce infinite numbers of sentences/compositions.  (Luuk and Luuk point out that the numbers could not really be infinite, given the finite number of humans and finite time for them to talk and write, but what matters is the potential infinity.  No animal has that capacity, except in a trivial way; no two animal calls are quite identical, but the messages are the same dull stuff.)

An interesting sidelight is that we academics tend to think our typical language is complicated while “low-class” people have what a monumental snob of a British linguist once called “restricted codes.”  The truth is rather the opposite.  Academic talk is largely simple declarative sentences, however long the words:  “The orbitofrontal cortex of Homo sapiens is greatly expanded in comparison with that of the Australopithecines.”   “Low-class” speech tends to be simpler in vocabulary but complex in grammar, idiom, style, and metaphor:  “And I was like wow when I realized that Susie would have gone with Mike if she had thought to do that, but since she was, you know, like, in the middle of something she thought was more important…”  I have noted the same contrast of simple grammar and complex vocabulary with complex grammar and simple vocabulary in Spanish and in Maya.  (Not, however, in Chinese—all simple—or German—all complex.)  Similarly, traditional languages of small-scale societies almost all have fantastically complex grammars compared to English or Chinese.




Thanks to Alan Beals, David Ellerman, Alan Fix, and David Kronenfeld for discussion of these points.





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New Predictive Models of Genocide

March 30th, 2015

Paper, Society for Applied Anthropology, 2015, Pittsburgh, PA


Predicting Genocide

  1. N. Anderson

Dept. of Anthropology

University of California, Riverside






Last year at the SfAA-SASci meeting I gave papers on war and genocide.  More data are now available, thanks to the dreadful events of the last year.  Several recent authors, especially Scott Atran, stress the inadequacy of economic explanations.  I stressed last year the role of ideological systems based on emotional rhetoric against some target group.  I extend this explanation here with current data.  This raises a wider question:  if costly acts, counter to rational self-interest, are common (in this and other areas), we will need a whole new social theory.  This fits the conference theme of Continuity and Change.


Genocide may be the defining crime of the 20th century, and seems to be maintaining itself in the 21st.   Not only genocide itself, but indifference to it by the international community, remains a huge problem for the world (Apsel and Verdeja 2013; Hirsch 2014; Totten 2012, 2014).

We may therefore wish to be able to predict and explain it.  My wife Barbara Anderson and I constructed a rather tentative model for predicting genocide in our book Warning Signs of Genocide (2012; see review by Shirley Heying, 2013).  We have reported on our progress to SfAA in 2011 and 2014.

We follow the original definition by Raphael Lemkin: “the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group” (Lemkin 1944:79; see Lemkin 2013).  He included cultural destruction through forced assimilation, and also partial or attempted genocide that did not totally succeed.  (Indeed, few actually totally succeed.)   We further defined genocide as murder by a government of its own citizens or subjects, when they have done nothing other than belong to a particular category.

This category can be a religion or sect, a political philosophy, a “race” (however defined by the genociders), an ethnic group, or any other essentially arbitrary cultural category.  Killing of actual enemies, however general and ruthless, does not count, which means we are using a quite different definition from Ben Kiernan’s in his magistral work Blood and Soil (2007).  Kiernan, in a truly great study of genocide, defines it as any mass murder of noncombatants.  Since all wars involve this, he basically studies all war throughout all history.

Restricting genocide to murder of a government’s own peaceful subjects eliminates almost all Kiernan’s cases.  It leaves us with two quite different types:  Settler genocides (Wolfe 2006), and modern total genocide.  In the former, an ethnic group takes over an area and clears the land, once the people are subjected, by methodically exterminating them.  This occurred in the New World with many Native American groups, and in Australia with the Aboriginals.  In the latter, a government picks on long-established citizen groups and exterminates them for arbitrary reasons.  The classic case, of course, is Hitler’s extermination of most Jews, Roma, homosexuals, handicapped and mentally ill persons, political dissenters, modern artists, and several other categories.  Other particularly horrific examples include the massacre of Armenians by the “Young Turk” government of Turkey (Akçam 2012) and the genocide in Cambodia in th 1970s.

We found that modern genocide was predicted by 1) authoritarian government; 2) major challenging situation to it, almost always either consolidation after it just seized power, or civil or international war in which loss by the government was very likely.  Hitler’s genocide, for instance, began with WWII but did not become total—the “Final Solution”—till it was uncomfortably apparent that the Axis was losing ground and would probably be defeated.  Settler genocides (and conquest genocides that are structurally the same) are expected when a government of settlers (conquerors) is consolidating control, and has reduced the conquered people to subjects but is still afraid of rebellion or outbreak.  Further work showed that an ideology constructed from hatred, but extending more widely to cover economic and moral issues in general, is also deadly, and when combined with the other causal circumstances appears to be 100% predictive.

Well, “great minds run in the same channels,” and every time I have a real insight, someone else independently has the same idea about the same time.  In this case it was Barbara Harff, a student of conflict and civil unrest; she and her husband Ted Gurr are leading authorities in that area (Harff and Gurr 2005).  We were alerted to her work by Armenian genocide scholar Alan Whitehorn, whose work is more interpretive and poetic (Whitehorn nd., 2015).

Her contributions to genocide specifically are relatively brief and hard to find, but extremely good.  She was annoyingly outside the citation pattern of the more visible genocide scholars, which confirms my impression that they are not deeply interested in prediction or explanation—always excepting Ben Kiernan, but, again, his definition of genocide is so far from everyone else’s that he is really talking about a completely different thing.

Harff uses Lemkin’s definition, as we do.  She further follows the UN definition, elaborated from (and partly by) Lemkin (but she and we follow Lemkin and not the UN in including political-ideological massacres).  She defines genocide as governmental attempt “to destroy, in whole or in part, a communal, political, or politicized ethnic group” (Haff 2003:58, her italics; note that she does not make a point of noncombatant status, but she sympathetically cites others who do; she does not deal with the possibility that religion, gender identity, or modern art could be definers; we disagree with her here).  Her sample in 2003 was genocides from 1955 to 1997.  Ours was 1800 to 2007.

Like us, she stresses the role of autocratic governments, and also “political upheaval” 62; again, her italics) as the near-invariable immediate cause.  She emphasizes the frequency of prior genocides in a nation’s record, which we did not stress because we worked with a larger sample, over a longer period of time, which tended to wash out this variable.  She discusses the existence of “ethnic and religious cleavages” (63) and (later in the paper) found no correlation; all nations have diversity but only some have genocide.  “Low economic development (64)” also bought her little variance, and again our wider sample confirms this, destroying any correlation.  After all, major genociders included Germany at a time when it was one of the three or four richest countries in the world, and even within her time frame there were genocides in Argentina, Chile, China, Serbia, and elsewhere, as she notes.  More recently, Israel has engaged in genocidal activities in Palestine, with calls by major government figures for outright extermination of Palestinians (Robinson 2014), and several other affluent nations have hovered on the brink.

She does find, quite robustly, that recent genocides have more likely in countries that were relatively isolated or independent of the world-system (65).  Again this does not hold for older genocides.  Even in her sample, it is difficult variable to deal with, because of such issues as China’s genocides in remote western areas (Tibet, Xinjiang) while being open to the world (69).

Her final result as of 2003 (66) was that autocratic government and prior genocides were both correlated at .9 with genocides that occurred, but of course both conditions also existed in countries without genocide.  Other political upheaval correlated only .47, but “exclusionary ideologies” (our “hate ideologies,” Anderson and Anderson 2014) and rule by members of a self-conscious ethnic minority both correlated .69.  Openness to trade, a proxy for world-system incorporation in my terms, correlated .7.  She admits that the model did not predict genocides in rich, trade-involved countries (e.g. Chile), or even poor but trade-involved ones (Philippines, El Salvador, several others).

In 2012 she reaffirmed her risk factors, and predicted serious troubles in several countries.  First on the list was Myanmar, which in fact has had genocidal attacks on Muslims since she wrote.  As she pointed out, it was rather a simple prediction, since the country was a military dictatorship with almost continual war against minorities.  Second was Syria, and we know what has happened there.  Third was China, and indeed the Uighur genocide has come up since she wrote.  Fourth was Sudan, but the breakaway of South Sudan damaged the government so much that it has not had the energy to do much more than harass Darfur, though that long-running genocide continues.  Meanwhile, South Sudan has had genocides of its own.  Less successful predictions were the next few:  Pakistan, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, and Iran, though the first two have had a great deal of violence and repression.  Then comes a solid hit, D. R. Congo, but of course genocide was already ongoing there when she wrote.  A number of lower-risk countries follow, of which only Central African Republic has had a genocide, and there—for once—the international community moved fast to damp it down (Brown 2013).  The others include very stable countries like Saudi Arabia.

In general, since we found essentially the same risk factors she did, I would make similar predictions at the top range, though different ones farther down (partly on the basis of her nonsuccesses, I admit).  However, our model has the advantage of breaking regime consolidation out from response to disruption, and also noting that economic and military disruptions are both causative and predictive.

The most hopeful sign in all this is that both Harff and we have independently come to stress more and more the ideological side—what she calls “exclusionary ideologies” and I call “hate ideologies.”  Governments that live and maintain themselves by mobilizing hatreds are almost always forced sooner or later to deliver—to exterminate the people they say they hate.  I have studied one case in which this did not happen: Mahathir bin Muhamad’s Malaysia in the 1970s.  That case may be instructive.  Mahathir took over on a ticket of hatred and suppression of the Chinese, after several years of ethnic rioting and violence in which Bumiputera (Malays) and Chinese battled.  Under Mahathir, the Chinese gave as little cause as they could for actual repression, tolerated a great deal of impact, and meanwhile worked terribly hard to build up the economy and make sure Mahathir and his group were beneficiaries of this.  His position softened in direct proportion to his own and his political group’s economic success….  Thus hate ideologies are real and dangerous, but enough economic success may convince most haters to be more quiet.  This has not happened recently in the United States, however, where every new statistic showing the US is economically flourishing seems to make the racists more and more furious with Obama.


Meanwhile, Samuel Totten, veteran student of genocide and especially of mass murder of Indigenous minorities, has added his own more immediate warning signs—signs that genocide is ongoing, not just that it is potential:

–A specific groups is “demeaned, ostracized, marginalized, segregated, excluded, or isolated”;

–“mass deportations and forcible transfer”;

–Government forces “kill unarmed civilians at will” [hardly a warning sign—the fact itself!];

–“test massacres are carried out”;

–“mass rape and enforced pregnancy are taking place.”  (Totten 2014:24).


A somewhat similar list is found in “The Ten Stages of Genocide,” posted by Gregory Stanton (2013) on his Genocide Watch website—a very useful resource.  The ten stages are classification, symbolization, discrimination, dehumanization, organization, polarization, preparation, persecution, extermination and denial.  They are indeed stages to watch for, and Stanton gives quick definitions and suggests countermeasures, including things for governments and the United Nations to do.  Dr. Stanton is promising a book on this.  He also maintains on his website a list and map of countries that are genocidal or threatening to go there: http://genocidewatch.net/alerts-2/new-alerts/.  The assessments are similar to Barbara Harff’s (he cites her on the website) and to ours.  An earlier posting, “Twelve Ways to Deny a Genocide” (2005), neatly summarizes that unpleasant aspect of mass murder.  It will be noted that nobody takes these denials very seriously.  They are thin excuses, not real denials.  The international community ignores them for various reasons, but rarely believes them.

With Harff and Stanton actively predicting risks and advocating preventive measures, and with other new work summarized below, knowledge about genocide prevention has been revolutionized since we wrote our book.  I wish I could be hopeful that this will translate into action, but continued fecklessness of the world community in the face of ISIS and Boku Haram indicate that the lessons are not being learned.


Also, since we wrote, a very good review by Kristin Doughty (2015; thankfully received) of our book has appeared in the American Anthropologist.  She has identified several needs for future work that we do indeed hope to address, including “the political and moral economy in which violence and humanitarianism occur,” and looking more at “recent anthropological work on violence, the state, collective belonging, and human rights” (all quotes are from p. 175); she also points out that when we define genocide as state murder of its own citizens, we should have provided an extension for genocidal pursuit of people across national boundaries.  We thought this was obvious from Hitler’s massacre of the Jews and others—he murdered all he found in any country under his control—and also from our notes on the hot pursuit by Tutsi and Hutu of each other into the Congo (which she notes), but we should have spelled it out.  Finally, she asks some questions.  First, the directs us to more attention to “how the act of labeling violence is political and…mobilized within specific historical trajectories of global configurations of power.”  On this we plead not guilty by reason of the fact that Ben Kiernan, Taner Aksam, and others have covered it beyond all need for further attention in a general work.  Much more serious is her other question: “What are the warning signs that the human tendency toward group hate is being exploited by powerful people for violent ends?” We had, again, thought that was obvious, but the appalling failure of the world at large to spot this in the Koch brothers’ manipulation of the Tea Party, the Saudi Arabian manipulation of extremist Islam, and many other governments’ exploitation of hate shows we were extremely misguided.  I will devote much future attention to this question.


On a more hopeful side, prevention of genocide and bringing genociders to justice have moved forward.  Governments are more aware of international sanctions.  Rios Montt was finally found guilty of genocide in Guatemala and sentenced to 80 years in prison, though of course he will not serve any such time frame (Faussett 2013; see superb new study of his rule by Victoria Sanford, 2014).  Marcus Alexander and Fotini Christia (2011) found that schools in Bosnia that had been well integrated ethnically did not have the hatred and problems of schools that had not.  The journal Genocide Studies International moved up from newsletter to serious major journal in 2014, with a stunning introduction by veteran genocide scholar Herbert Hirsch that bluntly calls out the world powers for failing to deal with the problem (Hirsch 2014).

The Gurr group’s biennial survey of conflict has moved to new editors (Hewitt et al. 2012; Barker et al. 2014).  Barker, Wlkenfeld and Huth’s new survey (2014) uses their own model of risk for overall conflict, which identifies—in order—Afghanistan, Guinea-Bissau, Djibouti, Guinea, Burundi, D. R. Congo, Somalia, Niger, Mali, Pakistan, and so on down a list.  Several of these countries are indeed troubled with violence, but it seems odd that very peaceful places like Djibouti are far above Syria, Iraq, Myanmar, and Indonesia.  Syria is, astonishingly, ranked “low risk” (p. 8), in spite of one of the world’s most historically violent civil wars ongoing as the book was published—a “clouded crystal ball” of epic proportions.  However, they make up for this in later (and later-written) sections of the book, in which they provide extremely thorough and valuable summaries and analyses of conflicts in Syria and every other country.  This book is essential reading for anyone interested in conflict, anywhere.

International denial and national denial have been rigorously analyzed by Kaligian (2014).  Carol Kidron (2012) compared Jewish and Cambodian refugees in their approach toward their genocidal past; Jews talked more and worked it over, Cambodians talked less and had more problems, but the situation is not as simple as talking vs. silence; there are many issues of community support, how one does the talking, whether one is listened to, success in the new society, and more (Barbara Anderson had little trouble getting most Cambodian refugees to talk, but it did require counseling skills and some never opened up).  A new collection of texts by Bartrop (2013) gives enough anguished stories to convince anyone that genocide should be stopped.

The challenge to social science in these models is abundantly clear.  Social science has overwhelmingly assumed that people were rational, and acted in their rational self-interest.  Such is clearly not the case; humans are creatures of irrational hate.  The Harff, Totten, and other models have extremely high success in predicting and explaining behavior based on the implicit or explicit assumption (implicit in Harff and Gurr, explicit in ours) that humans are primarily social and primarily creatures of emotion, and that their primary emotion is hate.  There is no amount of self-interest they will not abandon to kill their rivals, and even their friends and neighbors.

Violence in a hierarchic, repressive society almost invariably triggers outbreaks that seem to the outsider to be literally insane.  People afterwards often recall feeling out of their minds—either crazed with blood lust or feeling like automatons (Anderson and Anderson 2012 review a very long literature on this, and I have found a lot more since; see also Staub 1989, 2011).  From a considerable literature on evil and human hate, we may mention Scott Atran’s Talking to the Enemy (2010), Roy Baumeister’s Evil (1997), Aaron Beck’s Prisoners of Hate (1999), and Erwin Staub’s The Roots of Evil (1989) as particularly comprehensive and valuable works.

Social science will have to start over from the ground up, with the basic principles that people are basically social and emotional, and that hate takes priority in times of threat and disturbance.  Love and solidarity may rule, or reasonable self-interest or unreasonable greed may rule, the rest of the time; in any case, emotion is the usual driver.  This may make sense in a world that is often threatening, and in which we never have the “perfect information” on which rational choice models depend.  We have to be alert to danger, and prioritize response to it when threatened—which is a lot of the time.  But when the response is social hate, as it often is, violent trouble begins.  When the hate is further whipped up and mobilized by a dictator, for his own reasons, then catastrophe is predictable.


Fortunately, better things are possible.  Some years ago, John Heidenreich (2001) gave us a number of ways that diplomacy and political resolve could stop genocide.  Far more ambitious is Ervin Staub’s life work, epitomized in Overcoming Evil (2011).  This book summarizes all possible causes of genocide and terrorism, and gives an extremely comprehensive and detailed account of what can be done by ordinary people to damp down the vicious cycles of hate and violence that lead to mass murder.  The methods range from getting people from the different sides to talk to each other and work out their problems (the classic group therapy techniques) to active-bystander intervention, and on up to political, media, and educational approaches.  The latter will certainly be needed, since encounter groups can never be comprehensive and widespread enough to do the job—though they are surely desirable, even necessary.  Staub emphasizes the need to see others as ourselves—to see that we are all in the same boat, all humans together (see summary point, p. 515).  I am more inclined to see the successes he describes as coming from damping down vicious cycles—from turning positive feedback loops of hatred into negative ones.  The germs of genocide are the millions of imagined slights and trivial hurts that we all suffer every day in our capacity as social beings.  They almost always get constructed into annoyance and exasperation, and then projected on scapegoats.  People angry at their loved ones take it out on safe targets, especially minorities and other vulnerable people.  Evil businessmen and politicians find this tendency very easy to exploit.  They deliberately whip up hatred and direct it against scapegoats.  They they get caught in the vicious cycles they have started.  We are seeing this in the United States today; the Koch brothers started the Tea Party, which has become an out-of-control rampage of racism, religious bigotry, gender hate, and structural violence against the poor.  It could easily destroy the United States, including the Koch interests.


We will all have to confront these crimes at national and international levels, and throw the whole weight of citizenry behind ways to reverse vicious spirals and get people to see each other as all in the same lifeboat, and not fighting over the provisions on it, either.


As I write, violent ethnic repression is going on in China (Xinjiang and Tibet), Congo (D. R.), Israel, Turkey (Kurds—once again),  Worst of all is the outright genocide of Yazidis and mass murder of Shi’a and of rival tribes within the unrecognized but all too real Islamic State of the Levant.

Civil war or violent civil unrest are on a large scale in Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, and elsewhere.  Significant ethnic and related violence is taking place in India, Myanmar, and many other countries.  Hatred ideologies are too numerous to list.  The Salafi/Wahhabi form of Islam (if Islam it can be called) is by far the most deadly.  However, the BJP has taken over control of India, and its past as a terrorist neo-Nazi party is all too obtrusively evident in its policies, so I personally would now regard India as the highest-risk country in the world that is not actually at war or in a warlike state (as are e.g. Pakistan and Nigeria).

The United States is drifting rapidly toward genocide.  Many leading conservative religious figures have recently called openly on national media for total extermination of gays and lesbians.  Calls for extermination or re-enslavement of African-Americans are far more marginal, but are now quite commonly heard or seen if one follows right-wing social media.  The Tea Party, created and funded largely by Charles and David Koch, has been a consistent voice for racist, religious, and gender-based hate.  They could easily elect a president in 2016, in which case I believe genocide would be certain—I mean literally 100% probable.  Many other countries are on the edge.

In such a world, I find it incredible that most Americans seem concerned solely with video games and TV shows.  Even those who are concerned with political troubles are apparently more worried about “Wall Street” than about genocide or other really serious world problems.  I do not mean to minimize the problem with banking in America, but it can at worst slow the economy down a bit as in 2008.  The election of a Tea Party president in 2016, by contrast, would, by my best prediction, lead to 15,000,000 murdered through genocide within a few years.  (The figure is derived from looking at the percentages of their populations slain by Hitler, Stalin, Rios Montt, Pol Pot, the Interahamwe, and others; range 2% to >25%, average around 5; 5% of the US gives us 15 million.)

We need to be very worried about the United States and much of the rest of the world.  The good news is that genocide can be prevented, and can be stopped when it starts.  We need to deal with risks rapidly and thoroughly.







Akçam, Taner.  2012.  The Young Turks’ Crime against Humanity:  The Armenian Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing in the Ottoman Empire.  Princeton: Princeton University Press.


Alexander, Marcus, and Fotini Christia.  2011.  “Context Modularity of Human Altruism.”  Science 334:1392-1394.


Anderson, E. N., and Barbara Anderson.  2011.  “Poisoned Soil, Deadly Seed:  Preventing the Conditions of Genocide.”  Paper, Society for Applied Anthropology, annual conference, Seattle.


—  2012.  Warning Signs of Genocide.  Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.


—  2014.  “A Predictive Model of Genocide.”  Paper, Society for Applied Anthropology, annual conference, Albuquerque.


Apsel, Joyce, and Ernesto Verdeja (eds.).  2013.  Genocide Matters: Ongoing Issues and Emerging Perspectives.  New York: Routledge.


Atran, Scott.  2010.  Talking to the Enemy:  Faith, Brotherhood, and the (Un)Making of Terrorists.  New York:  HarperCollins.


Backer, David A.; Jonathan Wilkenfeld; Paul K. Huth.  2014.  Peace and Conflict 2014.  Boulder: Paradigm.


Bartrop, Paul.  2014.  Encountering Genocide: Personal Accounts from Victims, Perpetrators and Witnesses.  Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.


Baumeister, Roy F.  1997.  Evil:  Inside Human Cruelty and Violence. San Francisco:  W. H. Freeman.


Beck, Aaron.  1999.  Prisoners of Hate: The Cognitive Basis of Anger, Hostility, and Violence.  NY: HarperCollins.


Brown, Hayes.  2013.  “The Inside Story of How the U.S. Acted to Prevent Another Rwanda.”  ThinkProgress website, Dec. 20.


Doughty, Kristin.  2015.  Review of Warning Signs of Genocide: An Anthropological Perspective.  American Anthropologist 117:174-175.


Fausset, Richard.  2013.  “Ex-Guatemalan Dictator Found Guilty of Genocide.”  Los Angeles Times, May. 11, p. AA6.


Fiske, Alan Page, and Tage Shakti Rai.  2014.  Virtuous Violence: Hurting and Killing to Create, Sustain, End, and Honor Social Relationships.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Harff, Barbara.  2003.  “No Lessons Learned from the Holocaust? Assessing Risks of Genocide and Political Mass Murder since 1955.” American Political Science Review 97:57-73


—  2012.  “Assessing Risks of Genocide and Politicide: A Global Watch List for 2012.”  In Peace and Conflict 2012, J. Joseph Hewitt, Jonathan Wilkenfeld, and Ted Robert Gurr, eds.  Boulder, CO: Paradigm Press.  Pp. 53-56.


Heidenrich, John G.  2001.  How to Prevent Genocide: A Guide for Policymakrs, Scholars, and the Concerned Citizen.  Westport, CT:  Praeger.


Hersch, Herbert.  2014.  “Introduction: Preventing Genocide and Protecting Human Rights: A Failure of Policy.”  Genocide Studies International 8:1:1-22.


Hewitt, J. Joseph; Jonathan Wilkenfeld; Ted Robert Gurr.  2012.  Peace and Conflict 2012.  Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.


Heying, Shirley.  2013.  Review of “Warning Signs of Genocide.”  Journal of Anthropological Research 69:587-588


Kaligian, Dikran.  2014.  “Anatomy of Denial: Manipulating Sources and Manufacturing a Rebellion.”  Genocide Studies International 8:208-223.


Kidron, Carol A.  2012.  “Alterity and the Particular Limits of Universalism: Comparing Jewish-Israeli Holocaust and Canadian-Cambodian Genocide Legacies.”  Current Anthropology 53:723-754.


Kiernan, Ben.  2007.  Blood and Soil:  A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur. New Haven: Yale University Press.


Lemkin, Raphael.  1944.  Axis Rule in Occupied Europe:  Laws of Occupation—Analysis of Government—Proposals for Redress.  Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.


Lemkin, Raphael, ed. by Donna-Lee Frieze.  2013.  Totally Unofficial: The Autobiography of Raphael Lemkin.  New Haven: Yale University Press.


Robinson, William I.  2014.  “The Political Economy of Israeli Apartheid and the Spectre of Genocide.”  Truthout, online, Sept. 19, http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/26254-the-political-economy-of-israeli-apartheid-and-the-specter-of-genocide#.VBx1N7Gx35A.facebook.


Sanford, Victoria.  2014.  “Communal Responsibility and the Guatemalan Genocide: Genocide as a Millitary Plan of the Guatemalan Army under the Dictatorships of Generals Lucas Garcia., Rios Montt and Mejia Victores.”  Genocide Studies International 8:1:86-101.


Stanton, Gregory.  2005.  “Twelve Ways to Deny a Genocide.”  Posting, Genocide Watch website , http://genocidewatch.net/genocide-2/12-ways-to-deny-genocide/


—  2013.  “The Ten Stages of Genocide.”  Posting, Genocide Watch website: http://genocidewatch.net/genocide-2/8-stages-of-genocide/


Staub, Ervin.  1989.  The Roots of Evil. New York: Cambridge University Press.


—  2011.  Overcoming Evil:  Genocide, Violent Conflict, and Terrorism.  New York: Oxford University Press.


Totten, Samuel.  2012.  Genocide by Attrition: Nuba Mountains, Sudan.  New Brunswick, NJ:  Transaction.


—  2014. “Paying Lip Service to R2P and Genocide Prevention: The Muted Response of the US Atrocities Prevention Board and the USHMM’s Committee on Conscience to the Crisis in the Nuba Mountains.”  Genocide Studies International 8:1:23-57.


Whitehorn, Alan. N.d.   Just Poems: Reflections on the Armenian Genocide. Winnipeg, Manitoba: Hybrid.


Whitehorn, Alan (ed.).  2015.  The Armenian Genocide: The Essential Reference Guide.  Santa Barbara:  ABC-CLIO.


Wolfe, Patrick.  2006.  “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native.”  Journal of Genocide Research 8:387-409






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Anthropology and the Arts

March 6th, 2015

Anthropology and the Arts

With Special Attention to Music


  1. N. Anderson


“[T]o take an immediate interest in the beauty of nature…is always a mark of a good soul…it at least indicates a frame of mind favorable to the moral feeling…He who by himself…regards the beautiful figure of a wild flower, a bird, an insect, etc., with admiration and love…who still less wants any advantage from it—he takes an immediate and also an intellectual interest in the beauty of nature” (Kant 1951:141).




These stray and very preliminary notes are intended to get anthropologists more interested in the arts, and to lay down a bit of a framework for cross-cultural study thereof.  A great deal of work has been done, over the decades, on the ethnography and ethnology of music, dance (Anawalt 2007), visual art (R. Anderson 1989, 1990; Armstrong 1971, 1981), traditional literature (Hymes 1981, 2003), vernacular architecture (Moholy-Nagy 1957, 1968; Rapoport 1969; Rudofsky 1965), and even food and scent (Anderson 2014).  I have no intention of reviewing this enormous body of frequently excellent work.  Two things stand out, however.  First, the vast majority of it concerns arts in one culture, often with the claim that the music/art/food of the So-and-so is completely unique, distinctive, and special.  This is never the case; their arts always look a lot like their neighbors’.  Second, when comparative studies are done—and there are many very fine ones—they rarely dig deeply or widely into the deep origins of arts in biology and psychology.  Thus, what follows is devoted largely to general questions of the biology, psychology, and comparative sociology of the arts.  I am staying at a strictly introductory level, except perhaps on the relationship of bird song to music.  I provide references for further exploration.  I am hopeful that comparative ethnology of arts will emerge.  Arts are far more important than social scientists have generally realized.


Part I.  Arts in Anthropology


Anthropologists Discover Art


Many people, worldwide, are uncomfortable putting their emotions into ordinary words.  Emotion is often highly disruptive socially, and can be pure dynamite.  People in small communities and face-to-face societies are very chary about expressing it openly, especially to relative strangers such as visiting ethnographers.

In such societies, people “mount the rider of their thought on the horse of song,” as the Arabs say.  To understand these communities’ emotionalities, one must look to their arts rather than to what individuals may say in ordinary everyday speech.  All societies thus use music, literature, visual arts, dance, and other art forms to communicate social messages.  Typically, especially in traditional societies, arts become “collective representations of community,” like religion (Durkheim 1995/1912).

Rationalist social scientists often write as if emotion did not exist, then go home and listen to blues or Beethoven like the rest of us.  This lack of attention to expression of emotion through art has been remarked on in anthropology (Rosaldo 1989) and the best ethnographies are often those that go directly against this grain (e.g. Abu-Lughod 1989; Feld 1982).

Arts often communicate the deepest and most important parts of a culture, just as they communicate the deepest and most important feelings of an individual.  For instance, most traditional cultures express their environmental philosophies and attitudes through myth, poetry, song, visual arts, dance, and ceremony more than through ordinary language.  Of course, arts can also communicate any other feelings and values, up to the most transient and evanescent.  They can serve evil as easily as good, as Nazi artists like Leni Riefenstahl knew all too well.  One cannot assume that arts ennoble or improve.  They do whatever their creators and consumers want them to do.  The point is that they do it very effectively indeed.  Anyone concerned with cultures and environments cannot neglect either arts or the emotions they communicate.

Early anthropology was deeply concerned with the arts.  This was especially true during the peak period of neo-Kantian anthropology (Patterson 2001), the era of Franz Boas and his students and colleagues.  Neo-Kantianism, especially through the work of Wilhelm Dilthey (1985), was concerned above all with interpersonal interaction, and thus with communication.  Hence Boas focused on language (Boas 1917), but not only on that; he was deeply concerned with all the ways people communicate, especially the symbolic and aesthetic forms by which they communicate emotion.  Most of his work in this area was on folktales, but his most famous work on aesthetics was on visual art (Boas 1908, 1955 [1927], 1995).

As Boas saw, folk and traditional arts are the ones that most directly communicate cultural norms and are most clearly culturally structured.  Elite and popular arts are more narrow; they communicate the feelings of the elites or of the professional entertainers.  Inevitably they communicate more widely shared cultural matters, but they are specialized to varying degrees, reaching an extreme in some contemporary art forms that appeal to audiences of only a few people.  Folk and traditional arts usually (but not always) speak more directly for their communities.  Boas was influenced by volksgeist views that exaggerated this point, and tended to see folk arts as the authentic voice of the Folk, but he later learned better as studies of diffusion and creation convinced him that people more agency and independent creativity than that, and that one way they show it is by borrowing far beyond their cultures’ limits.

Boas was also profoundly influenced by the writings of Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803; see Herder 1993, 2002, 2004).  Herder, a Kant student, was the first person to theorize at length and explicitly about the role of arts in different cultures.  He introduced the idea that the arts of a given volk—a “people” or “nation”—develop naturally from that people’s experience and life.  Taking from Kant the idea of perception developing through interaction, Herder theorized that a given people would have artistic and emotional expressive forms that followed from their unique and distinctive experience of interacting with each other and with their surroundings.

Thus every poetic and artistic tradition was unique and valuable, a new and valid expression of human experience and creativity.  As he said of poetry:  “Poetry…changes its form in accordance with a people’s language, morals, habits, temperament, climate, and even with their accent.  Nations migrate; languages mix with other languages and change; human beings come into contact with new things; their tendencies assume different directions, their strivings take on different purposes…even that tiny part of the body, the tongue, moves differently, and the ear becomes accustomed to new sounds” (Herder 1993:141).

Herder was the first to argue explicitly and in detail that we should experience, value, and appreciate the cultural productions of all humanity.  He argued against both intolerance of others’ productions and shame about one’s own.  He also argued that studying a culture’s arts and ethics shows it at its best, whereas normal history—the story of wars and intrigues—shows it at its worst.  This obviously influenced anthropology; we of the trade like to show our subjects of study in the best possible light, and we follow Herder.

Herder was also an uncompromising monogenist, convinced that all humans were one, rather than being separately evolved races.  Culture, not heredity, was responsible for the important differences between nations.  This view too was adopted by Boas, who became the leader in the struggle against racism in the early 20th century.  Yet another view eventually adopted by anthropology was that each culture is the end of a long process of evolution, rather than being something to classify on a scale from “primitive” to “we moderns.”  The latter—the unilineal position—still has its followers, but was so devastated by the critical research of Boas and his students that it is practically extinct.  Herder still held a form of it, and Boas in his very earliest writings shows some of it, but he rapidly came to realize that no surviving culture is primitive in any meaningful sense.  Obviously, civilizations evolved from smaller-scale societies, and this is an interesting process, but we now realize that today’s small-scale societies are as far from the “primitive” condition as the civilizations are.  They have specialized in their way, just as larger-scale societies have.  They have changed along with—and often through the direct

influence of—the civilizations.  They bear some key resemblances to humans of 100,000 years ago, but so do modern industrial folk.

This thinking (and similar, if less elaborated, thinking by others) led to the rise of “folklore” studies and eventually to cultural anthropology with its emphasis on communication, national character, and expressive forms.

Herder’s theory of arts, and of appreciation for each culture’s unique contributions, was to be Boas’ guiding principle.  Boas devoted his life to saving what seemed to be (and often were) disappearing languages, arts, myths, and other cultural forms.  For him, each one was supremely valuable as an expression of the human spirit.

Herder’s ideas influenced his friend Goethe, and later was influential across the political spectrum from Marx to the exteme nationalists.  Herder literally invented nationalism—the word and the concept (Herder 2004).  The Marxian interpretation exalted “the folk” above commercial bourgeois culture, eventually leading to the radical but romantic idealization of folklore by reformers in the 20th century.  In the United States, this led via the Lomax and Seeger families of ethnomusicologists (see e.g. Lomax and Seeger 1975) to the folklore movement and the “folk song revivial” of the 1950s and 1960s.  This in turn produced a great deal of modern music culture.  It was also the virtually universal ideology of folklore studies in academia.

However, the extreme right could play this game as well.  By the early 19th century, hypernationalism was exploiting the idea of a folk spirit (volksgeist).  This eventually climaxed in the mad Aryanism and Germanism of the Nazis.  Nothing could have been farther from Herder’s tolerant mind (see Herder 2004).


Not only the Boasians, but other anthropologists of the time, diligently recorded myths and tales, obtained art objects for study and curation, and described dances and ceremonies.  In studying music, technology was a limit at first, but Jesse Walter Fewkes was recording Algonkian and Hopi music on Edison’s cylinders as early as 1890.  Major ethnomusicological recording began as soon as really portable cylinder-recording equipment was invented.

Anthropologists of the time have recently been attacked for “stealing” artifacts, or at best taking them out of cultural context.  Boas and most other serious scholars paid fair prices to willing sellers, and virtually all the items they bought would otherwise have been destroyed by time or by overzealous missionaries.  The only early record we have of most ethnic arts in the world is from these collections. Many unscrupulous persons, some with legitimate scholarly posts, did indeed steal artifacts and rob graves, giving this field a bad name, but that should not blind moderns to the incredible value of responsible collecting.


Arts fell from grace as anthropology turned toward more “scientific,” or at least scientistic, descriptions of culture.  By the mid-century most anthropologists were interested in narrow social dynamics (especially kinship systems) or in even more narrowly materialist studies of culture.  However, some kept the focus on art, especially Claude Lévi-Strauss (1964-1971), a Kantian inspired by Boas.  Lévi-Strauss differed from Boas in being a traditional Kantian, concerned with knowledge and its structure, rather than a neo-Kantian concerned with interaction and communication.  Thus Lévi-Strauss was more concerned with the ways myth and art reflected cultural structuring of knowledge than with emotional communication.  He joined with linguists and literary critics in the movement known as structuralism.

Again the wheel turned, and structuralism fell from favor, to be replaced by interpretivism.  This view, most explicitly and famously advocated by Clifford Geertz (1972), put the burden of interpretation on the anthropologist, rather than making the anthropologist seek out “native” understandings and leave analysis to them.  Unfortunately, this doomed the interpretivist paradigm to being mere opinion.  Very often (if not always), that opinion was promptly challenged by the “natives” when they got their turn (as in the devastatingly revealing material buried in footnotes in Geertz 1980).  Especially prominent in challenging outsider anthropologists’ interpretations was the Lakota writer Vine Deloria (1969), who had a formidable knowledge of anthropology, partly because his aunt Ella Deloria was an anthropologist who studied with Boas (she was one of many Native American anthropologists that Boas and Powell trained).

One is reminded of the countless times that authors have rounded on literary critics who “interpreted” their works.  Interpretation is valuable, even a necessary part of a good ethnographer’s job, and it can and often should go beyond the data.  But it is of no anthropological value unless it is supported in at least some way by the testimony of the actual producers and local users of the material in question.

Fortunately, vocal “natives” like Vine Deloria had the effect of forcing anthropology back on track.  Recent works on indigenous art, ethnomusicology, and other interactive communication forms do not shirk the task of providing ethnographers’ insights, but pay proper attention to “native” interpretations (see e.g. Feld 1982 for music; Hymes 1981, 2003 for myths and texts; Myers 2002 for visual art; Ness 1992, 2003 for dance and performance).  Some recent studies have returned not only to the Boas agenda but to Boas himself, as in the work of Aldona Jonaitis (1988, and see also her edited collection of Boas’ work, 1995).

What matters here is the fact that arts are major forms of communication in every culture known to anthropology, and that they usually have the role of communicating emotions and feelings, though they very often communicate specific cognitive meanings as well.  Unfortunately, far too many social scientists neglect them or to relegate them to “mere ornament” status.  Most social scientists are post-Enlightenment academics, trained to idealize Reason and distrust emotion.  Even scholars of emotion are loath to look deeply at its expression and communication in artistic forms.  The otherwise authoritative and definitive Handbook of the Sociology of Emotions  (Stets and Turner 2006) has nothing on the arts.



Origins of Art


The origins of the arts remain obscure.  Arts were once supposed to be confined to Homo sapiens, but now a mussel shell engraved with a whole pattern of hatch marks has turned up in a Homo erectus deposit half a million years old, at Trinil, Java (Joordens et al. 2015).  Painted and perforated shells and pigment containers 50,000 years old have turned up on the Iberian Peninsula when only Neanderthals were there (Branan 2010).  Some Neanderthal burials include red ochre, and one famous one at Shanidar had flower pollen, though the flowers seem to have been weeds and possibly medicines rather than beautiful blooms.  Homo sapiens groups in Africa were beads and other minor ornaments 80,000 years ago.  Art may be much older; the beauty and symmetry of early hand axes and other tools seems beyond mere utility.  (For a quick review of the latest finds of earliest art, see Balter 2009).

Rock art in Australia dates to perhaps 50,000 years ago.  The great cave paintings of Europe date back to 35,000 years ago and earlier.  The earliest of the spectacular and brilliant cave art of Europe is that old (Clottes 2008).  A 35,000-year-old sculpture of a woman with exaggerated sexual characteristics has recently been found in Germany (Conard 2009).  These various forms show that visual art was already developed.  The paintings in Chauvet Cave in France, for instance, are often as good as any animal paintings since (see e.g. Clottes 2008, perhaps especially pp. 38-39.)  Music and literature leave no archaeological traces except the bone flutes that turn up in sites a few tens of thousands of years old.  Over ¾ of the hand prints associated with these sites, in many caves all over western Europe and over the whole Upper Paleolithic period, are of the hands of women (Snow 2013)—raising some critical questions about who created this art, and why.


Representational art is often said to derive from magic.  The early cave paintings are deep in the darkest holes of the earth, and represent game animals and large predators.  Their association with religion or magic seems impossible to deny, but we have no idea what the actual cults were like.  Countless grave authorities have developed conflicting scenarios, but no one has any way of determining which ones are right.

Visual art, unlike technology, does not seem to progress much. Lascaux and Chauvet caves have art as beautiful as any created recently.  Yet they seem to be at the very beginning of art; we have little that is older.  Musical complexity has progressed with technology, but beauty is another matter; folk songs can be as lovely as symphonies, and probably go back to the dawn of modern humanity.  Written literature can be more elaborate and diverse than oral, but in sheer literary power no one has surpassed Homer or the great Native American and Australian myth cycles.

Changes in arts track major changes in culture.  Arts express emotional qualities of life.  They catch the mood of the age.

Oral poetry and epic would seem naturally to follow from this as well.  Traditional nonliterate peoples sing or chant their verbal art.  Non-sung poetry is surely a modern invention, probably a result of writing and literacy.



Evolution and Art


There is no question that the aesthetic senses are biologically grounded, and thus must have evolved through natural selection over thousands or millions of years.  In part, they developed as part of the evolution of communication.  Music in particular is inseparable from language, as pointed out by the ancient Greeks.  However, the aesthetic senses are grounded in deeper and more basic psychological processes.  The arts have biological primes—inborn tendencies that prime us to like certain things.

This is most obvious in the universal appeal of healthy young members of the (usually) opposite sex, and representations thereof.  The nude is a stock theme, and paintings of nudes rarely show aged or unhealthy specimens of Homo sapiens.  One does not have to be a Darwinian to understand, though the Darwinians have naturally had a field day with these data.  David Buss (2003) points out that cross-culturally, people desire youith and symmetry in possible mates.  In particular, one notes the striking gender difference:  straight men find nothing more beautiful than a nubile, well-proportioned young woman, while finding good-looking men totally boring and uninteresting.  Straight women and gay men usually have the reverse assessment.  This certainly proves that beauty is not just a purely idiosyncratic thing.  “There’s no accounting for tastes” is not an opinion that gets any traction with Darwinians considering sexual attraction.

More subtle and interesting biological primes exist.  As pointed out by E. H. Gombrich (1960, 1979), visual art has everything to do with the pleasure of rhythm and pattern.  (The same is true of music.)  Visual art seems to get much of its appeal from the need to recognize pattern in nature, so that we can spot the fruit in the trees and the snake in the grass.  We take great pleasure in recognizing patterns; even the snake is beautiful, however frightening.  Humans get a tremendous pleasure out of simply engaging with patterns—geometical art, rhythmic music and dance, regular prosody.  No one seems to have studied this, or even decided whether it is an “emotion,” a “mood,” a “feeling,” or what.  Yet it is one of the most pervasive, evident, and important human tastes.  Apes also show it, and indeed most higher mammals seem to fall into rhythm when communicating.  Rhythms of walking, chewing, breathing, sex, and other normal activities are clearly involved somehow, but no one seems to have determined exactly how.

The enormous importance of pattern in all this has rarely been appreciated except in the case of music (see below), but E. H. Gombrich (1979) discusses it for art, and Bakhtin (esp. 1984) for literature.  The structuralists (notably Lévi-Strauss 1964-71) analyzed structure in all the arts, but somewhat skipped over the lower-level phenomena described by Gombrich and the very high-level ones best evoked by Bakhtin.

An innate attraction to proper environment is a necessary bit of mental equipment for any animal.  A red-winged blackbird has to seek out cattail marshes.  A porcupine has to look for dense forests.  It is always striking to watch a migrating bird turn sharply aside and downward when it sees the right kind of tree or lake for its species.  Humans show a cross-cultural attraction to waterways, mountains, and scattered groves of trees, among other things.  Gordon Orians and Judith Heerwagen (1992) speculated that humans evolved to recognize and seek out landscapes like the savannahs on which we presumably evolved in east Africa.  Evidence includes the way we create such landscapes—scattered trees in open grasslands, with small streams here and there— in farms, gardens, parks, cemeteries, and other spaces where we can do what we want.  Lndscape paintings typically show landscapes of this kind, when they do not trade on fear and awe by showing dramatic mountains.  Even when arguing against inborn tastes, psychologists admit this (Gardner 2011:42-43).  Proof is, in the nature of things, impossible, but the idea is almost certainly correct as far as it goes.

Other inborn tendencies in visual art are harder to pin down, but most higher animals are attentive to motion, bright colors, flashing lights, and other visual cues that could be important.  Higher primates are more attentive to colors than most other mammals, because of the need to pick out ripe fruit.  They can see more colors than most mammals (though fewer than many birds).  Clearly, we have evolved with a strong color sense.  The sheer pleasure of playing with color and form is biologically grounded, as we know from watching human children and young monkeys and apes play with paints.  Young chimps, especially, produce paintings very pleasing to the human eye.  They work quite hard at it—they do not merely make random daubs (Morris 1962).

The anti-evolutionary arguments that rely on the admittedly wide cultural and social judgments of art (e.g. Gardner 2011) are flawed by confusing judgments of beauty with judgments of cultural familiarity and appropriateness.  People like what they are used to—another clearly evolved biological tendency—and judge art accordingly.

Thus, for instance, Howard Gardner and other relativists greatly exaggerate the initial rejection of Impressionism and use it to “prove” that good art can be hated.  In fact, many art-lovers liked Impressionism from the start.  The attackers were largely older critics who opposed “the new” rather than “the ugly”—however they may have phrased it.  Gardner’s main problem is that he thinks art is mainly about beauty; he neglects the fact that it is a general communications medium, which can just as easily be about the ugly as about the beautiful.  Antiwar posters, the “ash can school” of socially conscious art in the United States, and many other art forms deliberately portray the ugly.  Art is also used for social solidarity, snobbism (see below), motivating workers, advertising cars, scaring people, or any other social purpose.  Gardner is surprised to find that most contemporary art is more about being “with it” than about being beautiful; no one familiar with the history of art is very surprised.

In fact, what culture and individuality show is not that art is not biologically grounded, but that we are biologically flexible.  We can satisfy love of beauty in an infinite number of ways, though there are some constraints and some tendencies.  This is clearer in food:  we absolutely must have protein, carbohydrates, fats, and certain vitamins and minerals, but we can devise an infinite number of superb and subtle dishes that provide them.  The clearest case in visual beauty is the female form: cultures differ widely in what they idealize, but they all wind up idealizing symmetrical young adults (whatever their skin color, fat level, and so forth may be).  Other taste areas are less constrained.

As with music—but in fewer cases—birds provide a fascinating case of convergent evolution.  Male bowerbirds of Australia and New Guinea construct complex, elaborate, beautiful structures to lure females.  Those of the satin bowerbirds of Australia are painted with little brushlike wads of material, and decorated with blue objects that set off the birds’ blue-highlighted plumage (Johnsgard 1994).  Blue plastic clothespins are a favorite.  Males compete to produce better bowers, and it takes years of experience to create one that lures females really successfully.  This allows females to pick a smart, experienced, survival-type male, a good genetic bet.  Such a male lures many females into his bower, and thus leaves many genes, so building better bowers is strongly selected for.  Note that this is selection for better creating of a new and different bower, not just an instinctive, never-changing one.  These birds both learn and innovate.  The various motions are based on nest-building, but the result is very different from a nest, and is largely a male activity, whereas females do the nestbuilding in this as in many bird species.

Evolutionarily, bower-building results from the higher genetic success of better builders, and is thus tightly linked with polygamy.  Humans are not usually polygamous, however.  (Most human societies allow polygamy, but few in those societies actually practice it.)  Some other reason must explain our use of arts.  In fact, almost all art is directed at large social groups, not at a prospective mate.  Paintings of nudes are for public display, not seduction.  Love songs may be all over the radio, but few actually sing them to loved ones; they are mass entertainment.  Most listeners seem to relate to the singer’s experience as a lover, not to the lovee.



Taste: How Universal?


In humans, local social and cultural standards for the arts tend to dominate, making the inborn preferences in form, pattern, color, rhythm, harmony, melody, and so on recede into a background.  However, the panhuman nature of basic aesthetic taste is shown by the general worldwide agreement on the greatness of at least some paintings, literary works, and musical compositions.  Great art is hard to define, but usually recognized by thoughtful people.  There is surprising agreement across cultures about the greatness of Shakespeare and Tu Fu, Mozart and Beethoven, Rembrandt and Ni Zan.  Their work is extremely well-done technically, extremely deep emotionally, and often significant on many levels.  Great poetry and art often use small things to show great truths: Robert Frost’s snowy woods, Rainer Maria Rilke’s panther, Edward Thomas’ fields.  Great art is often a complex but organized development of a simple theme, like the many variations on the story of Dr. Faustus, or a very simple form with extreme complexity, subtlety and evocation packed into it, as in haiku.

Thus, some sort of panhuman mechanism seems to be operating.  Some artistic creations, including Beethoven’s music, Shakespeare’s plays, and Chinese black-ink art seem to succeed everywhere.  Chinese food and Andean popular music have astonishingly universal appeal.  Other arts do not travel:  Chinese popular music and Andean food, for instance.  The exact dynamics of this remain profoundly mysterious, but the phenomenon proves that some fraction of “taste” is universal, though much or most is culture-centric.

Significantly, great art can be created for fun, or money, or personal glory as easily as for passionate self-expression.  Rembrandt and Rubens were businessmen running large studios.  We like to think of Van Gogh’s lonely and unappreciated passion, but at the same time Monet was driving hard bargains—downright skinflint deals in many cases—for his art.  Art was a commercial proposition, however emotional the artists may have been.

Worldwide evidence proves conclusively that people everywhere gravitate toward similar, and fairly high, standards of art, music, literature (or oral “literature”), and performance.  Quality is real, though easily subverted or directed into cultural channels.  Individual taste is real, but often takes the form of idiosyncratic limitations.  I love Monet and Van Gogh but have a blind spot for Renoir and Degas; almost everyone who likes painting finds this problematic, which convinces me that this is something lacking in my personal eye, not a proof that taste is purely an individual matter.  Probably everyone has similar blind spots in appreciating art, music and literature.  Individual taste matters more with second-rate (or tenth-rate) painters and musicians, but even there the existence of consensus is usually strong enough to show that there is something going on here beyond pure arbitrary individuality.  There is, for instance, certainly a universal agreement that genuinely bad drawing and awkwardly proportioned space is unattractive.  No one would ever confuse the typical Sunday painter’s efforts, or my drawings for my childrren, with passable (let alone good) art.

On the other hand, it is equally clear that people do differ, and that no two people have exactly the same preference patterns.  Evolutionarily, this might have allowed everyone to find a mate, back when personal beauty and accomplishment mattered more than they do now (that is, back before religion, wealth and political views became so important).  The point is that there is variation around a vague, general, but real central tendency or template—a very vague humanity-wide one, and a set of much more specific ones associated with each culture and subculture.

Within broad limits, artistic taste is socially conditioned.  People overwhelmingly like what their peers like.  This is notably true when it is very different from what their parents like (Harris 1998).  Good art prevails when an elite or an artistically sophisticated group dominates tastemaking and is regarded as worthy of emulation.  This group can as easily be a set of tribal shamans or folk craftspeople as a museum curatorship or university department—in fact, the shamans and folk craftspeople generally have better taste, in my experience.  The point is that somebody who knows and cares about the art needs to have a voice.

Otherwise, a “lowest common denominator” effect prevails, with the most mass-appeal material adulated and regarded as “best” and standard.   These sociocultural truths lead to a widespread feeling that all artistic taste is mere snobbism.  This belief reached serious sociology, as in Pierre Bourdieu’s book Distinction (1984).  This book was devastatingly reviewed for its reductionism by Jon Elster [1981] and others.  Bourdieu, presumably at least partially in consequence, massively revised his position in The Rules of Art (1996.)

Societies, or more usually their elites, find ways of manipulating taste.  George Orwell, in 1984 and many essays, wrote the definitive material on how fascism, Stalinism, and top-down bossist capitalism systematically force the worst, vilest, most soul-hurting art on the public, specifically to deaden their souls and corrupt their minds.  At the other extreme, no major religion has missed the use of the greatest art, music, dance, ritual, and even food and scent to hook people emotionally.  This is as true of Australian Aboriginal and Native American religions as of the world faiths.


Artists in many cultures are considered rather wild and deviant.  This is not true in most small-scale societies and folk communities, where anyone may create and perform.  It is most true in complex civilizations.  Among these, it is actually a rather widespread stereotype, though far from universal.  In the west, it received a major boost in the Renaissance, when artists were supposed to be real “characters”—a stereotype that owes much to the artist-writer Giorgio Vasari, whose Lives of the Artists (1991, orig. 16th century) gleefully protrayed the great Italian artists—many of whom were his personal friends—as larger and wilder than life.  It received another huge boost in the Romantic period, when the idea of the “artistic temperament” became firmly established in the public mind.

Musicians, in particular, are so regularly considered deviant that music is assigned to despised or feared minorities in much of the world.  Popular music in particular was a task for Roma in Europe, blacks in the American South, and similarly outcasted groups in old China and Japan.  In fact, throughout the world, the stereotype of the “inferior race” includes the line “they are very musical.”  Americans have heard this all too often about Blacks, and I heard the same about the fishermen I worked with in Hong Kong.  I have heard or seen this stereotype applied to Roma, Irish, burakumin (in Japan), and so on—everywhere I go, the racists assure me that the people they most fear and abhor are the most musical.  Today in America, with racism somewhat less overt, “rock musicians” and “rap musicians” have become a despised class of their own.  This intolerance of musicians always seems strange to me.  It sometimes extends even to elite performers; in parts of the old Near East and Africa, even eminent and well-to-do musicians were considered low.  Similar ideas were once held by some individuals in Europe and the United States.


Most art communicates emotion by using pattern and structure to carry it.  At best, the artist creates the desired mood in the hearer or viewer.  At worst, the artist at least says what she feels in a way evocative enough to give the audience some idea of it.

As Gombrich noted (see above), many art forms are really nothing but pattern:  Islamic tiling, Elizabethan lute and keyboard music, some Russian romantic poetry, and so on.  The pleasure of experiencing them comes purely from unfolding delight at the more and more complex and intricate patterns created.  At best, this is quite capable of putting the prepared viewer into a mystic state.  This is explicitly intended in Islamic mosque decoration, for instance.  In music, the mystical dances of the Sufis and the more intense ragas of India are explicitly intended to produce mystical states.  Elizabethan musicians seem to have planned similarly; John Dowland and William Byrd can certainly send the sensitive listener into an abstracted state, and Byrd’s religious music is intended to do that.  Pattern sense is an emotional ground, or mood-state, and a very underappreciated and understudied one.

At a higher level of structuring, Greek tragedy mastered the technique of so perfectly designing a work that the inexorable logic of the system drives the audience deeper and deeper into the tragic action.  Every word of Sophocles’ plays is calculated to drive the structure, and the structure drives the message.  Even a long episodic novel like Cao Xueqin’s Story of the Stone (18th century) can do this.

Notable is the cross-cultural appeal of a particular kind of art:  that which operates by persuading the reader to construct her own work, prompted by the artist.  This is best studied for visual art.  E. H. Gombrich (1960) documented how artists found out by trial and error how to use brushstrokes to make the human eye and brain fill in the painting, rather than to make a “realistic” picture.  The Dutch landscapists brought this to a high pitch, Constable followed and improved on them, and Turner went on beyond him.  Finally, the Impressionists could benefit from actual visual psychology—a new science at the time—to manipulate points (Seurat), brush strokes (Monet), color fields (Gauguin), and so on, to make the viewer construct her own scene from rich-textured foundations.  This makes the paintings more real and vibrant.

The same thing operates in poetry, most obviously in Japanese haiku.  Consider Issa’s great poem on his mother, who died giving birth to him:

“Mother I never knew:

Every time I see the ocean,

Every time….”

This makes the reader fill in all the associations and emotions, which then are necessarily the reader’s own real emotions.  By contrast, the trite, cliché-ridden grief poetry all of us know so well leaves nothing to the imagination, and is, in consequence, poetic garbage.

Equivalents in music and dance will easily occur to mind.  Even food has its subtle and suggestive flavors as opposed to the crude, basic flavors of fast food.


From these and related observations we may conclude that great art may be either an extremely complex but organized run-up of a simple theme (as in the Iliad), or an extremely simple form that evokes extreme complexity, subtlety and emotion, as in haiku.


Another universal tendency in art is complex, multilayered symbolism (on symbols in anthropology, see Turner 1967).  Few widespread, long-lasting creations have only one meaning.  Consider the number of meanings attached to the rose in the western world.  Medieval and Renaissance artists in Europe systematized this, such that a serious painting would frequently have four levels of meaning:  literal, symbolic, metaphoric, and allegorical. One common realization of this was to have a literal motif, which serves as a symbol of a Christian moral value, a metaphor for perfecting one’s life with a view toward its end, and an allegory of God and His works or message (Schneider 1992:17).  Another possible mix was seen in medieval accounts of Jerusalem as a historic city, an allegory of heavenly urbanity, an anagogical diagram of what such a city could be and how to get there, and a tropological metaphor for the soul.  We see this fourfold symbolism in more recent times, including some blues lyrics.  John Hurt in his stunning performances of “Slidin’ Delta Blues” made the Slidin’ Delta—a train—into a symbol of parting, a metaphor of death, and an allegory of mystic absorption in God.  (This is clearest on the record “Worried Blues,” Piedmont Records 1963.)  All these were standard symbolic uses of railroads in American folksong, and are quite transparent to a listener used to that genre.



Art in Society


Arts, and religion, at their best, privilege individuals and make them seem important.  Human beings are infinitely important, at least to other humans, as Emmanuel Levinas (1969, 1998) pointed out.  We create each other and maintain each other; the importance of the “other” to each person is literally boundless.  Real art notes this, and real religion is founded partly on the perception.  Mass culture does the opposite, reducing individuals to stereotypes or caricatures.  Religion that does not privilege the individual, as divinely created and thus deserving of respect and honor, should be suspect.

Art once brought people face to face with the natural world.  People could see the wild through the eyes of great artists, from Lascaux Cave to modern Northwest Coast Native creators.


Arts today are dismissed as “frills” and “luxuries,” and banished from schools, economic stimulus and development packages, and other “serious” venues.  Many arts have declined sadly.  This is sometimes blamed on European rationalism, but Europe at the peak of the rational Enlightenment movement was obsessed with art.

The failure of arts in the contemporary world has much to do with the fractionation of society.  If arts typically represent the community, and often (not always!) represent its deepest moral and spiritual principles, then breakup of community naturally breaks up the arts.  Also, the world today is going through a cyclic decline in society, comparable to the Hellenistic period, the late Roman Empire (both east and west), the Near East after the devastation of the Mongols and the bubonic plague, and China in the late Ming Dynasty.  These were periods of sterile repetition or mindless innovation—change for change’s sake—rather than of creativity put to the purpose of transmitting human messages.  We see something of the same today, especially in elite music and visual arts.  Literature, more broadly based, continues to flourish, as do the less elite visual arts, including film and photography.

Globalization and dominance by giant multinational firms, including ones that promote the lowest sort of arts, is the most obvious reason for the general decline.  The equivalent of the Roman and Mongol Empires is the empire of Fox News, ExxonMobil, Hollywood, and the World Bank.  One cannot expect greatness to flow from giant corporations motivated solely by cost-cutting and market-share-expanding imperatives.  They will create on the cheap and appeal to the “lowest common denominator.”

One reason they cannot appeal beyond that is that they cannot afford to do much development of individuality or character.  Persons, being different and distinctive, have the value that such uniqueness can give.  The old tragic vision, from Greek plays to Scottish ballads, recognized this; the protagonist of a tragedy became a unique individual, and the most important person in the world as long as the drama lasted.  Today, movies treat humans in the mass. Hollywood thrillers kill legions of people every few seconds.  These persons have no individuality, no importance–no humanity.  Even the hero is a cardboard figure with no character or individuality.

Such movies teach indifference to human life, and thus deaden us to the horrors of the news.  They are ideal for pushing totalitarian agendas.  Fusion of Hollywood and Washington has been a major part of the corruption and decline of American politics.  Ronald Reagan, the quintessential cardboard hero, began it, and Arnold Schwartzenegger continued the tradition.  George W. Bush appeared to be desperately attempting to imitate John Wayne. Both Democrats and Republicans appeal to stars and try to get their public support.

This has moved into wider realms.  Decline in concern about the resource base and about endangered species may well be merely a reflection of declining concern about the human species.

Thus, arts can often debase people and ruin their humanity.  Again, this is not new: it characterized some other periods of world-system decline, including the dying days of the Roman Empire.

This raises the wider question of whether arts can improve people.  I was taught by my parents and other elders that appreciating the arts was a moral necessity, since it widened and deepened one’s awareness and emotionality and thus one’s sympathy and caring.  Well, yes, and I still believe this to some extent, but often it does not work that way.  There is what we may call Terry Gross’ Paradox.  Terry Gross, the delightful host of National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air” show, was once interviewing a biographer of Joseph Stalin.  The biographer reported that Stalin had good taste in music, loving the classic Russian composers among others.  The inimitable Terry commented: “So much for the ennobling power of art!”

Artists themselves, especially musicians, are famously tortured souls, so we need not expect conventionally virtuous behavior of them, but what of art lovers?  Alas, knowing college professors of literature and arts does not help one believe my parents’ teachings.  Humanities professors may not be Stalin, but they are certainly no better than the rest of us.  One can take comfort from knowing that ethics professors are not particularly ethical—not just in my experience, but according to a study done by my colleague Eric Schwitzgebel (pers. comm.).  I think I understand:  the ones who are less than ennobled by art and philosophy are those for whom these are very much a “snob fields.”  They go with the most “in” views, generally the pontifications of incomprehensible writers at the French academies, or, failing that, the elite private universities of England and America.  Literary criticism in particular is a field driven by fads started in these institutions.

Arts can improve people if the people in question meditate deeply on what they are reading or watching or hearing, think deeply about it, and let it widen and deepen their emotional and intellectual experience.  This tends to produce sympathy and caring.  On the other hand, evil arts (think of the Nazi artists and the whole BDSM industry), or any arts attended to for shallow or snobbish reasons, simply debase people.


Arts, at best, allow a person to break through the barriers of hate, dullness, and everyday culture, and come to direct unbarriered experience of nature, love, and basic humanity—the beautiful human mind and body uncluttered by our usual blindnesses.  Vermeer can make you see a peasant girl’s intense humanity so perfectly that a sensitive viewer is moved to tears, as in his painting “The Milkmaid” (ca. 1658).  His use of color and shading was so perfect at bringing out the girl’s humanity that it is almost impossible to reproduce; I had seen countless book-illustrations, but was totally unprepared for the shattering impact of seeing the actual painting.

Michelangelo’s religious art makes one see the vast power and unity inherent in all things—the hand of God directly touching us.  Monet’s landscapes have a literally shamanic power.  As noted above, Gombrich showed how good painters trick us, the viewers, into constructing the scene ourselves rather than seeing it literally copied in the painting.  Monet’s genius was to see how to strip a scene of all but the most intense, powerful, and direct elements, making us construct not just a scene but an incredibly powerful emotional effect of the scene.  If I went to the gorge of the Creuse, I would probably see it in dull midday light with all sorts of distractions.  If I look at Monet’s paintings of it, however, my eye turns the subtle brushstrokes into a scene that is not only savagely beautiful but that seems to come right inside me and tear my heart.  No other landscape painter accomplishes this for me, though some come close.  We know enough about Monet to know that this is not some weird quirk of mine; Monet was quite deliberately trying for this, by portraying only what will make the viewer construct the scene in the most compelling way possible. In fact, in his paintings of the gorge of the Creuse, he trimmed the tree that usually centered those paintings, to prevent it leafing out in spring and to maintain it stark and bare.  Similar careful work lies behind Vermeer’s and Rembrandt’s humans, Michelangelo’s and Luca Signorelli’s religious art, and the great Chinese mountains-and-water paintings; artists learned how to create intense effects by very complex and subtle means.

Great music drives deeper and deeper into our emotions till it wrings out the entire mind and soul—everything we have becomes concentrated in the experience of Beethoven’s Ninth or John Hurt’s blues.  Again, an incredible amount of effort and understanding, both conscious and intuitive, goes into this.

By contrast, a poor artist gives us at best a stale, flat view, and at worst merely heightens and thickens the barriers that prevent our seeing.  Bad music in particular does this.  It is the art of those who seek for wealth, power, and status—the opposites of nature, humanity, and love.  Wealth means treating the world as “resources,” not wonders to revere and respect.  Power means treating humans as enemies.  Status means treating humans as means to self-gratification, not ends, and status-seeking is thus incompatible with love, though people often manage to have both by compartmentalizing.  If one wants those, one will naturally produce either the cheapest, dullest music possible, or the most bombastic and overdone.



Authentic Tradition?


Two red herrings in talking about ethnic art are “authentic” and “traditional.”  “Authentic” can be an invidious label, used to put down contemporary artists.  “Traditional” can imply “rigid” or “stagnant.”  It is best to unpack these and see what we are really talking about.  Being no philosopher, I can do that most easily through examples.  I will draw on Northwest Coast Native American art, a highly distinctive and easily recognizable style much analyzed by Franz Boas.

One confusion is about the authenticity of the artist as a Northwest Coast native and the authenticity of the art as an example of the style.  The wonderful art historian and ethnographer Bill Holm worked out the rules of the traditional arts, and made exquisite pieces in impeccable classic Northwest Coast style—yet he was entirely European by background.  Conversely, some Native people have done fine European-style artworks; they are Northwest Coast Native artists but are not creating Northwest Coast art.

There are, inevitably, some people who are part Northwest Coast and part White.  They often become perfectly good Northwest Coast artists, and can create Northwest Coast art, but they merge into truly borderline cases.

Because of problems like this, I generally avoid the word “authentic.”  There is a large literature on the matter, but it seems somewhat extraneous to my charge in the present work.

As far as tradition goes, modern Northwest Coast Native people who create art following the rules of the grand style—the classic style of the period from around 500 AD to 2000 AD—are obviously traditional.  Then there are artists like Preston Singletary or Susan Point, who are Northwest Coast Native people creating art in brilliant and original modern transformations of classic themes and motifs.  They are traditional, but less so in some ways.  Yet, perhaps in other ways they are more traditional, since it was praiseworthy in the old days to innovate and freely vary interpretations and executions of the themes.  Innovation is traditional.

Turning to folk music, we find Scottish folk music and American country music being composed today; the rules and styling are traditional.  The “sound” is more or less what it has been for at least two centuries.  Anyone can compose a tune, following those traditions, and though new it will be a traditional-style tune.  It may become a “traditional tune” in due course.  It appears to take about three generations to make something fully traditional in the eyes of its usual audience.  If Grandpa did it when he was young, amd we’ve done it since, it’s traditional now. Many traditions are even younger, especially if they are only small variants of older theme (Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983).

Traditions change, develop, and add or subtract stylistic elements all the time.  English is English though it is not Chaucer’s or Shakespeare’s English.  Tradition has disappeared only when there is nothing left of the canonical forms and styles.





In sum, arts communicate emotions and moods.  Arts are intensely social, yet intensely individual.  They are, at best, about an individual sharing his or her full, unbarriered, unchecked selfhood with the wide world.  At their greatest, arts communicate the most intense, powerful, and dramatic emotional states.  But they must do this in a tightly controlled, stylistically guided way.  The more perfect the artist’s control of his or her medium, the more intensely the emotion can be communicated.  Most of us wrote awful poems or sang awful songs in our teenage years, getting our raw emotions out for our friends.  Maturity brought either silence or much better control and much more effective communication.  The brilliance of John Hurt’s “Slidin’ Delta” depends on his matchless control of blues guitar; he could thoughtlessly and effortlessly make perfect music, using all his conscious mind to drive the intensity of the message.  In poetry, Creide’s lament for Cael at his death seems all the more intense, spontaneous, and heartrending because it is written in the most elaborately complex and stylized medieval Irish Gaelic; somehow we forget the improbability of such high style under such circumstances.  Shakespeare’s love sonnets seem spontaneous and personal, not least because Shakespeare was such a master of English poetry that his exquisitely crafted poems flow without apparent difficulties.

Of course, such control and stylistic overlearning has its dangers.  If form becomes an end in itself, technical brilliance can, and very often does, smother the message under layers of mannerism. It can even replace the message entirely with mere style.  Some traditions, like the blues, Renaissance masses, early Gaelic poetry, and Baroque Spanish religious painting, try to avoid this by deliberately seeking to drive emotion as intensely as possible, and design the whole art form to communicate it as intensely as possible.  Other traditions, however, follow an all too familiar path downward into sterility.  This has notoriously been the bane of poetic forms, from sonnets to haiku.  Even more extreme is the decline of impressionist painting from Monet to the “plein air” painters and on down to today’s Sunday artists painting-by-the-numbers.



Part II:  Music as Example


Music:  Biology and Evolution


Of all the neglected realms of social science, the most neglected may be music.  A major problem is the lack of interest in music in the puritanical Protestant culture that gave rise to so much modern science, especially social science.  Music is at best a frill, at worst a sin, to many or most traditional Protestants.  Any familiarity with almost any culture outside northwest Europe and its colonial offshoots destroys the idea that music is a frill.  A few other cultures seem indifferent, but the vast majority see music as an essential part of life and communication.

Music is not only universal, but is highly developed in all cultures.  Many of the world’s cultures have rather rudimentary visual art, but none lacks a highly developed musical tradition.  Moreover, music is important in almost every human life.  People love it.  In this electronic age, few are out of earshot of it for very long.  Even in traditional societies not blessed with ever-present noisemakers, people sing frequently.  Work songs, dance songs, love songs, lullabyes, and play songs seem not only universal in all cultures, but important in virtually everyone’s life.  Humans have considerable brain wiring for music, and by some accounts reading and playing music is the most complex mental act we perform.

It appears that people playing music together synchronize their brain waves (Sänger et al. 2014; the study involved guitar players, but surely applies to all musicians).  They seem almost telepathic; deep brain structures as well as (presumably) mirror cells are involved.  The ability seems wired in, though developed by practice.

This implies that music is exceedingly important to humans.  The Greek theorist Polybius was already well aware of this, maintaining that the people of his native Arcady—an impoverished montane region in Greece—centered their institutions around music, to soften and (literally) harmonize the minds of the people there (Glacken 1967:95).  He proved his point by noting that one area within Arcady did not take to music.  They did little except fight and cause trouble, and Polybius drew his conclusions. If he was right, this seems to be the first known case in history of a group consciously changing its culture to improve its adaptation.  Even if he was wrong, it is an interesting point, because he would have been the first to discuss the possibility with such self-conscious interest.

Durkheim’s ideas of religion building solidarity within community were anticipated by the early Chinese, and they gave music a prime place in this. Xunzi wrote:  “Music unites that which is the same; rites distinguish that which is different; and through the combination rites and music the human heart is governed” (Tr. Burton Watson 1963:117).  In other words, music unites everyone involved in the worship rites and ceremonies; rites distinguish the different groups that participate, keeping them separate and reminding them of their different tasks.  This was criticially necessary in Xunzi’s society, where bureaucratic systems were part of ritual.  From a different world but a similar psychology, the Spanish proverb tells us donde musica hubiere, cosa mala no existiere (“where music is, nothing bad can exist”).

Yet, until recently, music received very little attention from psychological and social theorists (though see Feld 1982; Rouget 1985; and a tradition of ethnomusicology going back to Curt Sachs).  “Primitive” music was thought to be miserable, which drew a recent blast from the great archaeologist Martin Carver:  “…why does every attempt to represent Paleolithic music have to resemble a dying duck in a thunderstorm?…  Paleolithic persons had an ear for nature’s noises, a good sense of pitch and rhythm, flutes with pentatonic notes, rattles with pebbles.  There is no evidence that they were permanently trapped in the seventh level of hell, gnawed by angry aardvarks.  Why is it so improbable that they might express a sense of harmony, excitement and joy—like their paintings in fact?”  (Carver 2011:329.)  Of course he is correct, and we can safely assume that good (if simple) music existed tens of thousands of years ago—indeed, song may well have preceded speech (Mithen 2006; Vico 1999).

Recently, however, some good work on the social science of music has appeared (Jourdain 1997; Levitin 2007; Patel 2008; Raffman 1993; Sacks 2007; Seeger 2004).  Ethnomusicology and music history are small fields, largely devoted to description.  Evolutionary studies of music have been largely confined to bird song (reviewed in Marler and Slabbekoorn 2004).  Darwinian essays on human music have been rather tentative and preliminary (see e.g. Wallin et al 2000, in which the best articles are on nonhumans).  This is changing fast, with the work of scholars such as Aniruddh Patel (2008).  Darwin himself suggested that music might have evolved partly for courting, and indeed we all know that successful musicians can succeed notably well in finding mates (for long or short time periods).  Music may indeed have evolved partly as a mechanism for mate choice.

Animal song is useful as a source of simple models, or at least simple ideas.  Crickets sing to attract females, and, other things being equal, the one who sings most gets the females and actually leaves more descendents.  Thus a small cricket with a good steady song can leave more offspring than a big tough bruiser who doesn’t sing much (Rodríguez-Muñoz et al. 2010).  Song in crickets is generally thought to show superior health, and the females judge that a constantly singing male is probably a good bet, reproductively.  Successful human musicians may not be such a good health bet, but they are probably drawing on an ancient ploy.

Bird song is strikingly similar to human music, except that it is much simpler (Marler and Slabbekoorn 2004; Patel 2008; Slater 2000).  Biologists, however, underestimate its complexity.  Patel, who as a sociobiologist should know better, even says it is used only for “territorial warning and sexual advertisement” (2008:244).  Even his own book mentions other uses:  individual and descent-group recognition, local-population recognition, and physical state.  Many species recognize their close neighbors’ songs, and also the song-dialects of their geographical areas.

Bird song is known to signal health, reproductive state, energy level, seasonality, and quite a few other things.  Better singers are, other things being equal, healthier and more “fit,” and members of the opposite sex preferentially seek them out (Zuk 2002).  Whether the bird is “conscious” of all this or not is another question, one that cannot be answered with present experimental protocols.)  Simple calls work fine for announcing territory and for mating; song would not have evolved if that had been the only game.  Incidentally, birds often share human tastes, flocking to the opposite-sex individual that we humans would call the “best singer.”  There are spectacular exceptions—the male Yellow-headed Blackbird charms his mate with a sound reminiscent of the screech of a rusted gate, and the more awful it sounds to humans, the more the females seem to be attracted.

Bird song is always at least partly learned, in the advanced songbirds.  It is concentrated in the left brain, as is human speech, but human music is largely a right-brain activity.  This might imply that bird song is more about communication, less about emotion, than human music, or it might be mere chance.

Many birds sing different types of songs for different occasions, often a simple song for general social note (and possibly amusement?) and a more complex one for territorial display or courting (Slater 2000).  As long ago as 1963, Edward Armstrong showed that simplistic accounts of bird song (as mere “instinct” or for simple reasons like courting and territoriality) were hopelessly inadequate.  Birds improvise, and clearly sing for pleasure (in the sense of self-reinforcing activity).

Parrots, moreover, actually can understand and use human language semantically, to a very limited but very real degree (Pepperberg 1999; there has been much further work, but no easily available synthesis, since that book).

Why do they learn rather than merely giving instinctive calls?  Flycatchers, woodpeckers, and other highly evolved and intelligent birds do perfectly well with the latter.  Several possibilities exist and some are proved.  Recognizing one’s neighbors is the best-studied (see Marler and Slabbekoorn 2004, and other sources above).  If one knows one’s neighbors and is in one’s proper community, one is safe, and can avoid major fights.  Territories are already worked out within the ‘hood, and a stranger who needs to be fought can be recognized.  Also well demonstrated is the preference of females for better singers; a good singer is generally more experienced, more clever, and more good at social matters, as well as healthier.  Another possible benefit is confusing predators, but this seems dubious.  Every birdwatcher with good hearing soon learns to recognize a Bewick wren’s song by its tonal quality, in spite of the notorious extreme variation of pattern from wren to wren.  Even the dumbest predator should be able to do as much.

There are certainly more reasons than the above.  Bird societies are much more complex than we thought even 10 years ago, and song must be used to negotiate much of the complexity.

One thus wonders whether mockingbirds are really just wasting their time and energy with their endless and brilliantly original songs.  They can sing for 12 hours at a stretch, as every sleepless southern Californian knows.  They not only imitate; they modify imitated sounds to weave them into their own songs, and then improvise highly original phrases.  If this were mere “biologically mediated reproductive behavior” (Patel 2008:356) they could get away with a few squeaks, as most bird species do.  Obviously something more is afoot.  It would be truer to say that my singing when I was courting my wife was mere “biologically mediated reproductive behavior”; I didn’t write my own songs, and I most certainly didn’t sing as well as a mockingbird.  Patel seems to think that birds only sing in mating time, but of course mockingbirds sing all year.  So do many other good singers among birds.  Mockingbirds are monogamous and apparently mate for life, so their singing is not usually to lure a mate.  It does, however, keep longterm mates in touch.  Among nightingales, and thus very possibly among mockingbirds too, constant original song keeps females duly impressed with their mates and less prone to stray into “extrapair copulation” (Birkhead 2008).  Song lets adults keep track of their young as well.  Thus it can happen any time.  Mockingbirds sing partly to hold territory, against not only other mockingbirds but also other invaders of the turf, and this coupled with their fearlessness gives them an incentive to sing a lot.  But it does not explain the improvisation.

Mockingbirds that are healthy, safe, and secure sing more, louder, and more creatively.  Probably, much else is communicated: perhaps level of sexual arousal, level of fondness for mate, level of excitement at life in general, level of peace with the world.  Mockingbirds sing ardently on moonlit nights, a fact which must have a reason—especially since their arch-enemies, the cats, are out, and can see better in the dark than the mockers do.

A major study by Carlos Botero et al. (2009) of mockingbirds and their relatives (the family Mimidae) shows that there is a strong correlation between song diversity and climate—the more drastic the variation from summer to winter, the more song types.  The range is from the Caribbean islands’ pearly-eyed thrasher, singing rather monotonously in an idyllic climate, to eastern North America’s brown thrasher, which ranges far north and must deal with terrific cold even in freaky summer weather.  The extremely good singers are all highly migratory, a pattern found also in related families like the thrushes.  It turns out, on analysis, that the higher the need for intelligent, adaptive behavior, the more varied the song.  Females apparently pick the best singer, having evolved to assume he is the smartest adapter.

This does not explain the imitation, however; it does not correlate.  Californian gardeners know how mockingbirds deliberately scare other birds by imitating hawks, jays, and cats—apparently purely for fun, though sometimes they seem to be scaring nest-predators off.  Is there more going on?  Is this the only time they actually refer to the things they imitate?  Mockers frequently imitate killdeers and roosters.  Do they think of those birds as they imitate them?  Do they really enjoy this, as they seem to do?  Does a good imitation make the singer’s mate think of killdeers or roosters?  Does he feel pride in his ability?  We just don’t know.


One thing we do know is that birds, even mockingbirds, appear to have nothing beyond a simple “phrase structure grammar” (in the linguistic sense; Chomsky 1957).  They do not seem to plan utterances beyond the short-phrase level, and phrases seem pretty stereotyped and simple, even in mockingbird song.  The only indication that there is a “more” is that mockers and other good imitators often work at a given imitation to make it fit better with their overall song pattern.

Productive, creative song is confined to one group of birds, the advanced Oscines branch of the Passeriformes.  Otherwise, real song is limited to two other groups:  Many hummingbirds have simple songs, and some learn a bit of their songs.  Parrots, closely related to Passeriformes, have evolved their own form of productivity, more transferable to verbal learning.  Apparently song evolved to give the smaller passeriforms a better way of communicating fairly complex messages over long distances.

Simpler singers are instinctively wired to sing in a particular way, but may need some learning or practice.  Zebra finches raised in isolation sing formless, disorganized songs, but their descendents, if raised together, gradually move back to the normal song—they have a genetic template somewhere in their brains (Fehér et al. 2009).  By contrast, flycatchers, even raised in isolation, sing pretty much the same old song; they are instinct-driven and do not learn their songs.  Mockingbirds, on the other hand, might never work out the right sound.

Significantly, the birds with extremely elaborate songs, like mockers and nightingales, are often dull-colored inhabitants of dense brush.  They also tend to be either aggressive, or fast, elusive flyers, or—like mockingbirds—both.  They have to be, since their songs are a neon billboard as far as hawks and cats are concerned!  Birds often get so caught up in their songs that they seem almost in a trance state.  I once sneaked to within three feet of a singing nightingale, and I have been almost as close to many a mockingbird.  A romantic legend has it that the nightingale presses his breast against a thorn to make himself sing more plaintively.  Nightingales do indeed hide in thorn bushes to sing, but the reason is sheer self-protection.

The California towhee shares the mockingbird’s suburban habitat and is aggressive and successful, but has a feeble song given only at the height of the breeding season.  The difference is that towhees spend their lives on the ground, where they are susceptible to cats and other ground predators; thus they have evolved to avoid attracting attention to their whereabouts.  Significantly, the only time they get far above ground is to sing from a high perch.

Bird communication, especially its functions, remains understudied.  It is a sure bet that birds are not even reaching the lowly level of “I’m here!”—birds have nothing like the incredibly complicated human concepts of “I,” “am,” and “here.”  But it is an equally sure bet that the birds are doing more than merely marking territory and calling mates.  One point often missed is that “calling mates” includes both finding mates and maintaining pair-bonds with one’s long-term mate.

Many birds, especially migrants, sing only in the breeding season because the song center of the brain actually shrinks after that time, and regrows only the following spring.  This is apparently to lighten the bird’s wing loading.  Birds, like humans, are highly encephalized.  The song center is a large part of that relatively big brain.  The song center weighs only one or two grams, but that is significant to a bird weighing at most a few ounces that has to fly hundreds of miles.

Social mammals and birds have many different sounds for different purposes.  Coyotes (another animal with which I have a great deal of field experience) howl to maintain pack contact, bark to attract attention, whine on a level pitch to show pain, whine on a descending scale to beg, growl to show fear and vigilance, snarl to show outright aggression, and also yap, yowl, make purring sounds, and so on; the young have their own sounds.  Coyote families sing extremely complex, long-lasting choruses, with each individual contributing a different type of note; the father may howl while his mate yodels and the pups bark, whine and yap.

Wolves are probably even more complicated.  Coyotes and wolves will communicate with humans.  They answer if I howl.  Once when I was singing and playing my guitar on my balcony, the local coyotes joined me, in the same key.  Movie buffs will recall the film Never Cry Wolf, in which the hero plays his bassoon to the wolves and they howl back.  I was once camped out in a remote part of Canada.  At the next campsite was a saxophonist—clearly a professional; he was a superb player—who had obviously seen the film.  He spent half the night playing riffs for the local wolves.  They howled back, in key, with a similar riff, every time.  Human and canine alternated every five minutes or so, and kept it up for hours.

There is a You-tube video of a woman, “Krissy,” playing a saw and getting coyotes to answer it, in the Angeles National Forest near my home (“Duet for Saw and Coyotes,” circulating on the Internet, 2014).  Of course coyotes routinely answer dogs, and join in with ambulances and fire trucks.  More interesting is my dog Kangal’s fondness for playing his squeaky-toys along with my records.  He once accompanied Andres Segovia in a marvelous duet, Kangal on the squeaky-toy perfectly matching Segovia’s pitch and timing for quite a while.  Segovia is probably turning in his grave, but the sheer ability of Kangal to follow recorded music is impressive.  I had not known or heard of a dog doing this, but my wolf and coyote experiences alerted me to the possibility.


Among primates, music seems unique to humans.  Most other primates’ calls are instinctive—hybrids even give hybrid calls (Wallin 2000).  Chimpanzees dance and whoop, but their sound repertoire is instinctive and simple, whereas music is largely learned and is very complex.  Rhesus monkeys have no musical taste; they prefer silence to any music, and dislike harmonious music as much as dissonant (Holden 2007).  Presumably, however, they enjoy their own calls, which sound horribly raucous and uncouth to human ears; they spend a great deal of time calling.  Some primates apparently learn some of their calls, and all can learn when to call and when not, but at best the nonhuman primates are far behind songbirds.

Music evidently evolved in the human lineage, like language.  Music probably evolved along with language as part of one communication system.  In modern humans, music communicates primarily emotion, while language communicates specific cognitive information (as well as a good deal of emotion).  The neglect of music by scientists is presumably related to the role of music as primarily a mood-communicator; science has tended to shy away from emotion (Damasio 1994).  Some grave souls have even denied that music has an important role, even claiming it is a sort of accidental by-product of evolution (Schrock 2009).  Oliver Sacks (2007) and Robin Dunbar (2010) refute this view.  Darwinian theory renders impossible the view that such an enormously important, universal human trait, involving more of the brain than any other activity, could be a mere trivial accident.  Darwin himself noted this, writing of it as an important evolved capability of humans.



Music in Humans:  Society and Communication


The enormous importance and appeal of music was well stated around 400 A.D. by St. John Chrysostom (a nickname, “golden mouth,” in recognition of his ability with words):  “By nature we take such delight in song that even infants clinging at the breast, if they are crying and perturbed, can be put to sleep by singing….  So too journeymen, driving their yoked oxen in the nonday, often sing as they go…wine-growers, treading the winepress, or gathering grapes, or dressing the vines, or doing any other piece of work, often do it to a song.  And the sailors likewise, as they pull the oars.  Again, women who are weaving…often sing…” (quoted Dronke 1969:14).

In the 18th century, Giambattista Vico (2000) speculated that people originally sang to communicate; music and speech diverged late in human history.  The idea that music and speech slowly diverging from a common source deserves, and has received, further consideration (see e.g. Mithen 2006; Patel 2008; Sacks 2007).  Music and language share hierarchic planning; just as phonemes combine into morphemes, which combine into sentences, which combine into texts, so notes combine into lines which become tunes which can be parts of much larger rituals or masses or concerts.

Many good theories of music origin have been proposed (Schrock 2009), but none seems adequate to me.  The commonest one has been noted above: music evolved for sexual display and selection—basically, for courting.  Indeed, men and sometimes women court by singing, and many songs are about love, but the vast majority of human song is in the service of dance, work, religion, and children’s activities.  Even love songs are more often produced for group entertainment, often including group dance, than for actual courtship.  Music for courtship seems rather rare except in societies where actual talking would be considered risqué or worse.  Moreover, among humans, both sexes sing.  In striking contrast to almost all songbirds, humans do not have a male bias in their singing activity.  Dunbar (2010:72) thinks music may simply be a general social communication device, later adapted to more specific messages like courting.

Ellen Dissanayake has argued that music arises from mother-infant interactions (that should have been parent-infant).  This certainly explains some of the action.  But it is, again, inadequate to explain the use of music in so many venues.

However, all these theories seem to me to be too specific.  Recall that higher mammals all have different noises for different purposes.  It is effectively certain that the immediate ancestors of humans had separate classes of noises for baby-care, mating, coordinating co-work, coordinating dances, inspiring warriors to fight, lamenting tragedies, and all the other purposes to which music is routinely put.  In fact, we still have nonmusical, and at least partly instinctive, noises for baby-care (lulling, soothing sounds), war (angry yells and screams), lamenting (weeping, sobbing), and so on.

As human communication became more and more a matter of learning, less and less instinctive, the sounds all came to be  incorporated into the new media.  They inspired or developed into songs.  These culturally-learned descendents of instinctive noises merged into one vast cultural soundscape.

If Vico and his modern followers are right, as seems increasingly likely, music and language developed from one original system—a chantlike or murmuring sound (as Vico described it), rather like the babbling of babies when they are at the threshold of talking.  If you slow down and computer-analyze a baby’s babbling at that time—around 7 or 8 months old—you will find that she is trying to say actual words.  Cleaning up the tape reveals “mama,” “papa,” and other deep thoughts, expressed as well as practice permits.  I suspect that songlike babbling is expressive of emotion, as adult song is.

As communication became more and more complex, more a matter of cultural learning, language and music forked off—language to communicate cognitive data, music to communicate emotion.  Language always nested in the left brain (in most people), but music is distributed over the whole brain.  Language differs from bird song in that it can communicate nested ideas:  “He said that she thought that I said that the President acted stupidly.”  Humans can easily handle up to five levels of this (Dunbar 2010) and, if necessary, even more.  Music is similarly “recursive”:  tunes and themes nest in longer compositions, with up to five levels of recursion in ordinary music and many more in Brahms or Beethoven.  Bird song is recursive only up to one or two levels, so far as we can determine.


Music obviously evolved from biological primes.  Simplest of all is rhythm:  it builds on heartbeat, breathing, walking, working, sex, and other body rhythms.  Humans are a rhythmic animal.  Very often, music is explicitly used to coordinate work or enhance sex, and of course it is virtually inseparable from dance.

People everywhere chant to coordinate dancing and working, and grieve in a characteristic high-falling cadence.  They speak in characteristic, language-specific rhythms and tonalities.  Many local musics correspond well to the local language (Huron 2006:188).

One rarely-mentioned proof that music is basic and important to humans is the worldwide phenomenon of the “earworm”—getting a song stuck in one’s head, particularly a song one is learning.  Mark Twain wrote a famous story about being driven nearly mad because he could not get the popular song “Punch, Brothers” out of his mind—till he taught it to someone else, and passed on the obsession!  Somehow, many or most of us are driven, almost or quite instinctively, to repeat a new song till we have it down.  Birds seem to share this; a mockingbird or nightingale will practice a newly-learned imitation for hours, all too often just outside the window of a human trying to sleep.  I recently heard a local thrasher work for hours on perfecting his imitation of a Bell’s vireo song, not an easy song to copy.  This cannot be explained except by assuming that songs are fundamentally important to the life of the singer, and that an attraction, or even compulsion, to learn them has been built into the brain.

In fact, learning to perform music, in childhood, leads to brain growth in several areas, including the connections between right and left brain.  Maximal effects require learning by the age of seven.  Children trained extremely early by the Suzuki method turn out to have more developed brains than controls (Healy 2010). Children with early musical-instrument training have more cortical thickness in regions associated with executive function (Barnes 2015a).  Working memory, attention, self-control, and organizational abilities are involved.  Music training also has the enormous value of teaching children that competence in an area comes slowly, from hard work, rather than being inborn or coming easily.

Biology also gives a wider range of patterned sounds:  speech rhythms, work sounds, natural sounds.  Our ancestors presumably responded to sound patterns in nature because they needed to tell a game animal’s noises from the wind in the trees, a lion’s roar from thunder, a mate’s call from a random bird noise.

Humans have built on this to create far more complex layers of patterning.  Biology gives us the basics, but only human ingenuity can build it into blues cross-rhythms or Balkan dance beats.  Some musics, notably in West Africa as well as the Balkans, specialize in rhythmic complexity.  By contrast, Laurel Trainor, one of the people who has found that children’s brains benefit from music, points out that western classical music is astonishingly simple rhymically compared to many folk forms.  The west has specialized on complex harmonic systems instead (Trainor 2008).  It is hard to do both.  Jazz manages to do it, but is a specialized, sophisticated form.

The emotional moods of music apparently have biological roots also.  Sad songs convey benefits by stimulating peacefulness, nostalgia, tenderness, and wonder, and may stimulate release of prolactin, the hormone associated with breastfeeding and other pleasuarable physical representations of tenderness (Sciencealert Staff 2014).  Happy songs more obviously connect with plesaant emotions.  Military music, lullabyes, and mourning chants all sound appropriate to their occasions, stimulating the mind accordingly.

It would seem, then, that music exists to allow emotion and mood to be socially shared, through being patterned in such a way that a large group can coordinate their musical performance and thus make easier the sharing.  More:  Music exists to allow a social group to coordinate action—work and dance in particular—and at the same time to get them in the proper mood for that action.  Music and dance bring people together and allow them to share culturally appropriate moods.  We in the modern west think of dance as “fun,” but other cultures have dances for ritual, for mourning, for communication of important messages, for war, and for almost every other conceivable purpose.

An occasional claim that music evolved for courtship is based on analogy to the old, discredited belief about  bird song.  In fact, courtship is one of the important functions of music in humans, but is much less important than are several other functions.  Music is far more important in large-group settings, from Australian Aboriginal rituals and Inuit shaman sessions to New York concert halls and Los Angeles dance floors.  Even in intimate contexts, courtship is surpassed in frequency by lulling babies, singing to and with children, and playing tranquil music to relax.


In short, music is to mood what language is to concrete meaning.  Music gives a hierarchical and recursive patterning to the communication of mood, just as language gives it (through phonemics and grammar) to communication of cognitive and specific messages.



Psychological Functionality and Music


Music has been widely used in psychotherapy.  Music therapy is not especially popular now, but was a hugely important part of treatment, especially for the mentally ill but also for the physically ill, in the medieval and early-modern Near East (Dols 1992:166-173).  Hospitals had live music, designed to cure the mad and soothe those in pain.  Apparently it worked well, because it remained popular and had the weight of medical authority behind it.  (It had the opposite effect on one French traveler in the 17th century, though; he described the music as “wretched” [Dols 1992:172].  Possibly it was as bad as modern medical-office music, which so often elicits the same opinion.)

We are now a long way from medieval Islam in this regard, but music therapy is still done.  A recent review of music therapy by William Thompson and Gottfried Schlaug (2015) picks out an amazing range of ways music is now used.  One notable way is in retraining people who have had left-brain strokes.  Science has known for decades that people who have lost the use of ordinary language, due to strokes to the left temporal lobes where language is processed, often retain the ability to sing.  Often, they can even sing what they want to say, even though they cannot say it in ordinary speech.  Building on this by mental bootstrapping allows stroke victims to develop linguistic ability in the right half of the brain.  The brain is perfectly capable of retraining in this way, but it has to have something to build on, and song is the foundation.

Music also coordinates and entrains body rhythms, and thus is used in helping disabled people to learn or regain abilities, and in helping ordinary people to coordinate better and exercise more effectively.  Use of music to set the rhythm for exercising is almost universal.  Music also engages people socially, entraining emotions, as Durkheim said ritual does; it was the music and dancing in the rituals that really did the work.  Of course, secular sociability builds on this too.  Music has helped people with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s cope with deteriorating functionality.  It is also extremely valuable in helping people on the autism spectrum (as I can attest; I have some Asperger’s condition, and music has made an enormous difference for me).  Autistic persons can be calmed, socially integrated, and socially coordinated with the help of music.  Music identifiably changes the brain—physically.

Training in playing a musical instrument helps language learning and overall ability to learn, partly by providing discipline.  One extremely valuable side of musical-instrument learning is not related to the music, however: musical instrument training inevitably starts from scratch and is a slow, incremental process, but one in which every week brings material improvement (if the learner does what he or she is told).  This has saved many a child who was expected to perfect at first try, or at least very soon, by overly driving parents and peers, and who thus developed a huge fear of trying (since nothing worth doing is easy at first attempt).  It has also saved many who were put down savagely and told they could do nothing.

Finally, singing during childbirth makes labor more bearable.  It appears that many women sing at this time.  They may start only to prevent themselves crying out in pain, but, from accounts, they find the singing actually helps the whole process.  (This from personal communications, largely from my midwife spouse Barbara Anderson.)

Given the enormous benefits of music, it is tragic that Americans have so greatly reduced their singing and playing in recent decades.  Most Americans now say they “can’t sing” or “can’t learn an instrument” or “don’t have time,” and thus miss it.  Things were very different when I was young.  We were always singing: in school (all schools had music then), in church, on camping trips, on the road, during parties, during drunken get-togethers (when I got old enough for that), and just around the house and around the town.  All that is gone.  Our loss is incalculable.  Even the sheer physical loss in brain development is profound; the social losses are much greater.



Structure in Music:  Some Psychological Considerations


Music creates a world of steady rhythms, pure tones, neat and simple harmonies, and exciting micro-variations.  (Elite music in the 20th century often violated all these rules, but almost no other music ever has.)  People are remarkably sensitive to the building blocks of each other’s musics, in spite of cultural differences that often make them insensitive to the total package (see below).

Patel (2008) emphasizes the differences of music and speech.  Speech rhythms are very different from the carefully counted, more or less equal and regular beats usual in music.  Speech contours, including the tones of tonal languages, are not set to absolute pitches, and differ a lot even in the same utterance, let alone between different speakers.  On the other hand, Patel and others have found that people do process grammar and musical sequences in similar ways; there is commonality in the overall processes that allow us to construct and interpret sentences, on the one hand, and long musical pieces on the other.

Sentences differ from phrases (as in bird song) in that sentences are more complex, and can be transformed grammatically.  “The boy hit the ball” is already beyond a bird’s (known) ability, but the grammatical sense necessary to turn it into “the ball was hit by the boy” and “did the boy hit the ball?” are truly beyond any animal’s comprehension (Chomsky 1957—confirmed by every bit of evidence since).  Similarly, birds may string phrases together indefinitely, but they cannot create a even a simple song that integrates several phrases into a composition.  Some can make up a simple, consistent song of four or five phrases strung together, but this is as good as it gets.  Still less can they parallel a blues song or a concerto or anything else requiring overall planning.

Many scholars strongly suspect that this is simply one aspect of a wider human ability to do hierarchic planning.  Animals cannot seem to do any sort of multilevel, hierarchic, recursive planning.  Humans do it not only in language and music, but also in hunting and gathering, farming, war, and indeed every activity we take on.  We are born to plan.

Patel gives enormous technical detail about the small-scale building blocks that we process subconsciously and usually do not think about.  Most people do not even realize they are doing all these complex things until linguists point it out.  This was brought home to me by his comment that “there are tone languages with stress (e.g. Mandarin) and without it (e.g. Cantonese)” (Patel 2008:119).  I speak both, or used to, and had indeed been properly using stress in the one and not in the other, but I never realized it.  I learned it and processed it preattentively.  (Actually, Cantonese has slight stress patterns, but not enough to make the contrast invalid.)  He finds plenty of similarities and differences between language and music.

John Sloboda reports that “a fifth of adults believe they are ‘tone deaf,’ so they don’t see music as something they do; rather, they experience music as something that is done to them” (Sloboda 2008:32).  He suspects that this part of a “disconnection” that arose “in the past 50 years” because we consume music rather than producing it.

Certainly, as noted above, there has been a profound change in American life in my time.  When I was a child, everybody sang, most people played musical instruments, music was taught in schools, and folk music was a living tradition rather than a record genre.  Today, few make music any more, and music is out of the schools.  However, most teenagers do at least something (be it church choir or rock band), and more people sing than admit it.  Watch individuals alone in cars at any stoplight; you will soon see several who are obviously singing.  Most would probably never do it in public.  Sloboda, and Patel (2008), suspect that few people are really tone-deaf.  Most are simply too ashamed of their purely imaginary lack of ability to let themselves develop their musicality.

Group bonding is certainly involved in the uses of music (Dunbar 2004; Patel 2008:370).  It cannot be the only factor; primates bond into big groups without it, while humans perform music alone for their own amusement, as well as in or for groups (Patel 2008:370-371).  Still, the universal use of music and chant as group phenomena tells us a very clear story.

Chris Loersch and Nathan Arbuckle, in an excellent study that is the first actual test of theories, proved conclusively that music engages and entrains social linking.  They quote Darwin on the mysterious nature of music. They found that music is “intimately tied to the other core social phenomena that bind us together into groups” (Loesch and Arbuckle 2013:777).  Those phenomena included general sociability as well as language, personal traits like extraversion, and group activities.

Music does not display many of the features that prove we have evolved for language (Patel 2008:379f.).  Patel rather surprisingly concludes that music was invented rather than evolved (Patel 2008:400-401), though building blocks such as rhythm sense might be genetic.

I find this unsatisfactory.  I can live with a theory in which only the building blocks—rhythm, pure tone, harmony, recursive tune compostion—are evolved, but only if a need to express emotion and mood state through composed song is also involved.  Music is universal.  It grades into speech via chant, word-music, tonal languages, rhythmic speech, and the like.  Thus it is clearly a part of the evolved human communication system.  Recent findings disprove the old idea that speech is located in the left brain, music in the right; in fact they are both distributed widely, music in particular being a total-brain activity, though some key components are right-brain-processed (see e.g. Deutsch 2010).  Babies respond to their parents’ voices and speech rhythms, and even young infants’ crying is in those rhythms; people (especially women) with more “musical” speech tend to be more socially adept (Deutsch 2010).

Individuals create music alone to put themselves in particular moods, or get themselves out of same.  I find I have to play and sing music to settle and harmonize myself during exciting moments, and to wake myself up during dull ones.  Almost all children sing for sheer pleasure; they seem to have an almost physical need of it during joyful times.  So both manipulation and communication of mood states is involved.  This gives us the beginning of a theory, but only the beginning.



Music:  Some New Findings and Speculations


A recent study of music by several psychologists (Bonneville-Roussy et al. 2013) deserves to be quoted in extenso.  They found that people in the modern world—their study was in the United States and the UK—are intensely engaged with music.  This varies with age.  The peak was among teenagers; 18-year-olds topped the list with 25 hours a week of listening.  The low point was 58; people that age averaged 12 hours.  The range, over all ages, was dramatic—from zero to 96 hours a week!

Once retired, past 65, people renewed musicality, typically considering it more important than at any previous time.  Adults often did much of their music listening while working around the house (Bonneville-Roussy et al. 2013:706).

No one will be surprised to learn that teens were much more prone than others to listen to music as a part of active socializing.  It is well known that teenagers are especially influenced by music; that tastes picked up from teenage peers tend to be permanent; and that teenagers’ and early twenty-somethings’ favorite songs tend to be beloved throughout their whole lives.  Even songs that one did not much like at the time often remain deeply embedded in consciousness, not displaced by other far better songs learned later.  It appears that the growing brain reaches a point at this time when music gets deeply encoded in the neurons (Stern 2014), apparently as part of the formation of a stable self.  It is also a part of the rapid expansion of the social circle that takes place at that age; after all, the self is defined socially (G.H. Mead 1964).  It is also relevant that we reminisce about childhood and teen years more than about other times (Stern 2014).  (For the record, my most deeply felt songs were largely learned or heard from 18 to 24, but many date from my 6-to-14 years, and many from 35-45.  This fits the social-universe theory: the 35-45 period was the time of the breakup of my first marriage and my slow re-forming of a new social universe.)

The study follows recent literature in dividing music into mellow, unpretentious, sophisticated, intense, and contemporary.  There was some stereotypy according to music preferred: lovers of heavy metal and punk were supposedly bad dudes, listeners to classical were supposedly affluent and educated.  This reminds us of the African-American psychologist Claude Steele and his use of whistling Vivaldi to disarm fears of him as a “black male.”  I suppose that would work only among people who could tell Vivaldi from Snoop Doggy Dogg.  Most of the people who might attack a black psychologist probably cannot do that.  Still, Dr. Steele felt safer when whistling the former (Steele 2010).

Tastes changed across the life track.  Mellow music was popular with teens and older people.  Sophisticated music (classical music, modern jazz, and the like) grew steadily over time.  So did unpretentious music (folk, country, conventional religious).  Intense (heavy metal, punk) and contemporary (other current forms) declined steadily.  The investigators did not find a cohort effect.  This proves they were not going far enough back; the change in taste from unpretentious or sophisticated in the cohorts born before 1940 to intense and contemporary in later cohorts would have stood out clearly.  Personality somewhat influenced preference, with lovers of intense music being a bit low on conscientiousness, and openness to experience being associated with liking for most musical styles.  No surprises there.


Music can be described in terms of schemas (basic structures of knowledge).  One can speak of a very simple schema for 2/4 rhythm, or a very complex one representing a whole symphony.  Arturo Toscanini, the legendary conductor, must have had a set of schemas not only for all Beethoven’s works, but for all the ways to play them—every note (microvariations and all) of the first violin, every bang of the cymbals, every sort and level of performance.

Patel (2008; see esp. p. 290) compares these patterns with syntax in language, finding, as usual, similarities and differences.  Both are created by generative grammars, but of course music does not have nouns, verbs and so on; it has notes, themes, ornamentation, and the like.  The point is that generative rules work for both, organizing an infinite range of possible sentences and compositions.



Findings on Musical Taste


Patterns are basic; suddenly varying the pattern, therefore, keeps the music interesting.

One poorly explored musical type is the theme-and-variations pattern found worldwide, especially in cultures with sophisticated stringed and keyboard instruments.  Middle Eastern ‘ud and santur music, Indian ragas, Chinese qin and zheng performances, Elizabethan lute music, Baroque harpsichord music, and West African kora and bania music (and its descendent, American country blues) follow a general pattern:  they take a theme and subject it to more and more complex variations over a period ranging from a few minutes to several hours.  Often, the intensity of the music builds up, as in Indian ragas, but equally often it remains at a calm, cool, crystalline level, as in Chinese qin playing.  (Chinese performers have told me there are over a hundred ways to strike a single note on the qin.)  No one seems to have analyzed the reasons why this generally cool, low-volume music is so universally popular.  It looks very much as if the theme-and-variations piece is a larger, more consciously processed equivalent of the patterned microvariations discussed below.

David Huron (2006) and Philip Ball (2008, 2010) have dealt with the role of predictability and surprise in music.  Much of this is related to such pattern variations.  Huron points out that major surprise provokes a fight-flight-freeze response in an animal.  In humans, mild surprise provokes a kind of relievedly unserious shadow of these.  Mild fight response, provoked by scary music, is frisson—the prickling you feel at horror-movie music.  Mild flight becomes laughter, and musicians (notably Peter Schickele, whose music Huron analyzes) provoke it by sudden outrageous violations of musical norms.  Mild freeze-response becomes awe, and is evoked by the more bombastic romantic composers.  Surprise may be based on subconsciously processed or consciously known factors.  Huron distinguishes several kinds of surprise, based on what sorts of expectation we have:  for rhythm, tone, sequence, melody, and so on.  A sudden fortissimo at an odd spot in a quiet passage, as in Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, is the most basic level of surprise.  Even an infant gets that.  At the most complex level, we have wild jazz variations on well-known themes, and even on well-known previous variations of the themes.  To get the surprise, you have to know the themes and their usual variations.  Huron, who knows his ethnomusicology thoroughly, sees this throughout the world.  He discusses the total assault of the high modernists, Schoenberg and Stravinsky in particular; they lived to devastate people’s expectations.  Huron laments the disappearance of the world’s small musical traditions—those of indigenous and local communities—not only because we lose their wonderful music, but because we have no comparative material left to study (Huron 2008.)

This being said, musical surprise—to the point of frisson, laughter, and awe—is actually quite rare in actual performances.  Ball’s contribution is to point out that we want expectations that are played with, not devastated.  We build expectations about particular genres, composers, tune types, and so on.  Then variations are most striking when just subtle enough to take some attention.

Especially important is microvariation:  tiny, almost imperceptible variations in pitch, timing, attack, dynamics, rhythm, and everything else.  These are controlled with exquisite perfection by a great performer.  A naïve audience is usually quite unaware of them at a conscious level, but still shows subconscious awareness by responding dramatically to good performance in this area.  Even sophisticated listeners may be aware to only varying degrees.  I had long realized the importance of these tiny details, but did not realize how self-consciously they are cultivated until, many years ago, I heard Mischa Schneider of the Budapest String Quartet working with a young string quartet whose cellist was a close friend of mine.  My friend played the cello marvelously, but Schneider showed him some tricks that made a real qualitative difference—the performance went from excellent to sublime.  Yet the tricks were incredibly subtle—tiny differences in sharpness of attack, slur in pitch, dynamics, and motion of the fingers on the strings.

Ordinary unsophisticated listeners who have no intellectual knowledge of these fine points can most certainly appreciate them in practice.  A few years later, at a folk festival, I listened to fiddle music by some of the famous names in fiddling—some of the best fiddlers I have heard.  The crowd applauded politely.  Then an unknown teenage kid named Alison Krauss took the stage and blew them all away.  The crowd simply went wild—screaming, jumping up, dancing.  As many readers will know, Alison Krauss has gone on to fulfill the promise of that long-ago summer day.  The point here, however, is the audience response.  This listeners were local residents out for a day in the park.  Most had little or no musical training, and could not have picked out the extremely subtle microvariations that Krauss so exquisitely controlled.  They most certainly could hear them, though; they were picking up on them subconsciously.  They could fully react to what they heard.

A fascinating study shows this is true of rhythm too.  Many of us know all too well the mindless bump, bump, bump of the drum machine, driving any sensitive listener crazy by its utter sameness.  Some programs try to save it by injecting small random variations.  Now a study by Holger Hennig et al. (2011) shows that people find these meaningless variations unsatisfying, but respond to, and enjoy, the patterned, systematic variations that good human drummers inject into their drumming.  Of course, the better the drummer, the more control he or she has over this, and the better the result.

Singing is similarly variable in ways easy to hear but almost impossible to describe.  Tango singer Carlos Gardel rose from the slums of Buenos Aires’ port to world fame on the strength of a voice so heavenly that women who had never seen him committed suicide when he died.  The Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum had men literally swooning when she was in her 70s.  People across cultural and musical boundaries responded more or less the same to these singers; their vocal appeal was not culture-bound.  People everywhere respond more or less the same to awful singers, too (trust me…I speak from experience).  Cultural differences in singing style are dramatic, but have not prevented Tuvan throat singers and Peruvian mountaineers from hitting world best-seller charts, simply by doing a stellar job with their distinctive cultural traditions.  One pair of Bulgarian singers simply happened to be picked up in a rather random collection of local folklore; they were just a couple of village teenagers.  But they were good enough to get on the world music circuit on the basis of a cut on an obscure folklore record.

Culture is real, and as an anthropologist I am hardly about to underplay it, but some things cross cultural lines with ease and grace.

One wide implication of all this is that knowledge and culture are improvisational, not stereotypic.  People learn from each other.  They do not mindlessly absorb; they learn what they expect, want, and need to learn.  Then each person adapts, transforms, personalizes, and applies that knowledge.

This stands in extreme contrast to the views of learning and culture as mindless absorption, from Leslie White’s “culturology” to Dawkins’ “memes” (the latter concept vies with racism for the title of most ridiculous thing to pass for science in the 20th century).

The examples of Alison Krauss and Carlos Gardel, among many others, show that listeners, including those with no musical background to speak of, do discriminate musical quality when they listen to it.  When they are not carefully attending, though, they may miss it very widely indeed.  The Washington Post recently placed a famous violinist, Joshua Bell, in the subway to play for pennies.  He performed great classical violin pieces in the Washington metro for a morning.  “Only 27 out of 1,097 (2.5 percent) put money into Bell’s open Stradivarius violin case and only 7 (0.5 percent) stopped to listen for more than a minute” (Ariely 2009:218), and, of these 7, one recognized him and another was a professional violinist.  Most passers-by stopped and interviewed by the Post had not even noticed Bell.  I must say that this is not usually my experience of street musicians; many people do listen.  I certainly do, and, if they are better than I am, I give them money.  Since I am no musician, this means that almost all of them get their buck.  Even in the Washington Metro I would probably pick out a Krauss or a Bell.  But I might not; those subways have awful acoustics.


Types of Music and What Is Communicated


Music has rather consistent functions and structures across cultures.

Lullabyes are, for obvious reasons, usually the simplest kind of music.  Humans everywhere lull babies to sleep with soft crooning noises, and so do at least some primates.  Lullabye songs are simple cultural constructions from this shushing noise.

Culture makes little difference at this level.  Lullabyes are pretty much the same everywhere, but symphonies aren’t.

Lullabyes construct up to the bland, syrupy music infamously infesting elevators and stores today.  Dentists routinely use such music to soothe their clients.  Music psychologist Laurel Trainor discusses the lullabye issue, and adds that a more active, playful music for the young is also widely similar:  “Across cultures, songs sung while playing with babies are fast, high and contain exaggerated rhythmic accents;…  Talking to people of all ages, we use falling pitches [notes going down the scale, not falling cadences] to express comfort; relatively flat, high pitches to express fear; and large bell-shaped pitch contours to express joy and surprise” (Trainor 2008:598).  She believes these basics of music are hardwired into the brain.  This explains our persistent failure to like atonal music much.

Funeral laments everywhere are very similar to weeping from intense grief, and are obviously culturally constructed from that.  This is quite explicit in many cultures, from the Kaluli of Papua-New Guinea (Feld 1982) to the Hupa and their neighbors in California (Keeling 1992).  It is also obvious in the great requiem masses of Victoria, Duarte Lobo, and Mozart.

Sad music from blues to rembetika also builds on laments, with high falling cadences, drawn-out notes, minor-third intervals, and so on.

Work songs drive the rhythm of the task.  They may have been among the earliest songs in the world.  They tend to be simple, for obvious reasons.  Humorous songs, welcoming songs, farewell songs, birthday songs, and similar minor-occasion songs also tend to be rather simple.  Narrative songs such as ballads may be simple, or they may be elaborated extensively.

An interesting worldwide finding is that the bass instrument of an ensemble, or the bass strings on a single instrument, almost invariably give the rhythm; this is because the human brain is better at detecting timing and rhythm at low pitches than at high ones (Hove et al. 2014).

Romantic music related to love—probably the most universal and common of the categories—is naturally soft, with swooping glissandos and simple but mellifluous harmonies.  It may sound happy or sad, depending on whether it celebrates true love or laments loss and loneliness.  It can be a vehicle for the most deep and complex musicality, but usually is less ambitious, and thus it provides most of the ear-candy all too familiar as auditory tranquilizers in supermarkets and dental offices.

Popular music—the music of mass entertainment—is normally simple and uncomplicated, not so much because it has to appeal to the unsophisticated as because it has to be fairly cheap to produce and because it naturally expresses the relatively shallow, simple interactive relationships of public places.  As specialized audiences build up for particular forms of popular music, the music quickly grows more complex, sophisticated, and elaborate.  This is an evolution visible very widely.  Some scattered examples include this progression in Neapolitan songs of the 19th and 20th centuries, in Chinese popular songs of the middle ages, in dance music from Argentine tango to American rock, and in medieval French popular tunes from early times to the complex dances recorded by Thoinot Arbeau in the 16th century.

War music often builds on defiant cries or on coordinated march rhythms.  Throughout the world, especially in the old and warlike civilizations, it evolved into a great deal of court music, outdoor music, entertainment music, and popular music.  Chinese opera, Indian street music, Near Eastern public music, and European brass band music all have roots in martial music, and all have a loud, strident, far-carrying sound and a driving heavy beat.  (Some of these forms have been rather sourly compared to the sounds of a man trying to get rid of squalling cats by yelling and throwing kitchen pans at them.)  Martial music may also lie somewhere behind contemporary world pop.   No one can miss the extreme anger of much rap music and other modern pop forms.  Many of the lyrics glorify random and criminal violence in the same way that old-time war songs glorified the structured military equivalent.

In short, public music tends to be loud, strident, simple, monotonous, and raucous.  The shawms and nackers of old Europe and the modern Near East and India, the music of Chinese operas and street fairs, the brasses of the military, and the dramatic drumming of Africa find a natural descendent, and apotheosis, in the popular music of the world today.  It outdoes them all in strident, obtrusive noisiness.  It forces the public will on everyone.  We should remember that it does have an ancestry, and is not really a solely modern phenomenon—let alone a plot to corrupt the morals of the young, as it is often alleged to be.

Even so, modern corporate callousness has taken pop music to new lows.  The music is marketed at the least sophisticated audiences—typically, young teenagers.  The corporations have found that simplicity sells and that certain tune and rhythm combinations sell particularly well, so they produce these same things over and over (Barnes 2015b).  Virtually identical songs sung by virtually identical singers are the result.  As corporations get more entrenched, this only gets worse (Barnes 2015b).  Niche markets preserve some originality, but with the pop material setting the bar, standards cannot be very high anywhere.  Thus, a combination of public noise, giant corporations, and angry moods among today’s young people produce a music of simple tunes and harmonies but highly expressive of loud, angry emotions.

By contrast, folk and classical music are for narrower but more sophisticated audiences and for more enclosed spaces, so they are usually softer and more subtle—unless they are going for a broad-scope audience.  Literature, a more private art form by nature, shows similar contrasts; public declamations are usually sorry stuff.  Great literature and folk literature are both for small and special audiences.

Biology also gives us emotions, and apparently a great deal of the music-emotion correspondence, but culture does the real work.  For example, the old idea that driving rhythm automatically led to trance is incorrect; culture has to teach what rhythms lead to what mental states (Rouget 1985).  Even more arbitrary is the identification of minor key with sadness (most of the authors discuss this, including Patel 2008).  This well-known association is found in western European music of the last couple of centuries, but not in Asian music, or even in early European music.  I remember having to learn it, as a child.  It is certainly cultural, not a natural linkage.

Sometimes, the links with specific meaning are quite clear if one has any cultural knowledge at all.  Evocations of cuckoo calls and nightingale song are common throughout western musical history.  Even more evocative, and well-known from the Middle Ages until today, are musical versions of hunting. Often these involve barking dogs, running horses, blowing horns, and shouting men—all imitated by a choir, or even a harmonica.  They are often hilariously funny, partly because they gently satirize a frequently silly pastime.  More common today are train imitations.  Usually these too are playful.  On the other hand, the use of the train as a stock blues image of parting, grief, and death makes some of them extremely serious indeed.

Readers raised in American suburbs in the 1950s will recall the imbecilic “program music” considered suitable for “the kiddies” in that benighted age, and the even more imbecilic explanations that teachers provided:  “Now, children, in this passage you can hear how the squirrel runs up the tree….”  Apart from giving us a lifelong hatred of that kind of music, this proved to us young people that music’s “meanings” are learned, not innate in the sound.  The composers had done their damnedest to make the music transparent to people supposed to have exceedingly limited intelligence, but explanation was still necessary.

This must all be sorted out from the actual effects of the music by itself.  A Japanese or Australian Aboriginal listener to, say, a cuckoo imitation might enjoy the sound, and might even know it was a cuckoo, but would be unable to place the cuckoo in western culture, and unable to get any sense of the connotations of the bird.  Anyone ignorant of blues traditions and American cultural symbols would fail to pick up the powerful significance of the imitations of railroad sounds.

Patel points out that all these cultural emotionalities prove a general point shows that music cannot have precise “meaning” the way a normal, declarative sentence does.  Culture has to give it specific meaning, and even then the meaning is rarely as specific as a sentence’s.  Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony is a musical equivalent of Theocritus’ Idylls, but does not fill quite the same cognitive niche.

Patel wisely notes that many musical feelings are not among the “emotions” we normally list, and indeed may be specific to music.  In my experience, and I think in others’, the theme-and-variations music described above sets up a unique feeling.  This is particularly true of pieces that do nothing but work out more and more elaborate patterns, on a single instrument, from a very simple theme, like William Byrd’s variations on “John Come Kiss Me” or Giles Farnaby’s on “Woodycock” or Ustad Ali Akbar Khan’s ragas.  I get a sense of increasing involvement in the pattern, until the pattern becomes my whole life, and every cell of my body seems to depend on it.  The resolution can be shattering.

This is a pure pattern sense.  It is an intellectual passion; it does not arouse any fear, awe, anger, love, or joy.  It is pure delight in pattern.  I get something similar, though weaker, from looking at Islamic decorative art.  I have never seen this feeling described, but the universal appeal of such music (it is often used, in many cultures, to heighten sex) seems to indicate that I am far from alone.  Also, I can get it equally easily from closely equivalent pieces in Chinese classical music, Andean folk music, and West African kora music.  So it is certainly not a culture-bound or culturally learned feeling, at least in my case.

From this and many other examples—dance music, laments, lullabyes, and so on—we may conclude that human vocal communication has a built-in ability to stimulate mood.  On the other hand, specific meanings have to be culturally assigned.  If a person is screaming “Help!” a hearer ignorant of English will probably get the message.  But a quiet, matter-of-fact statement, “I’m afraid it’s terminal, Ms. Rogers,” will cause overwhelming fear and grief only if hearer knows English.


In most (perhaps all) premodern musical cultures, including early classical European music, ritual and religious music is the most complex and involved, from Australian corroborees to Baroque masses.  Love music is usually second in importance and complexity, and devotes itself to celebrating the beloved or lamenting his or her departure.  Complicated “mood music” has, of course, been cultivated deliberately since the Romantic period.  Beethoven, Wagner, and later composers developed all manner of musical tropes that came to be associated with specific emotions.  Today, movies and television build on this; we know what music is supposed to accompany scary situations, romantic situations, and so forth, and can almost work out the whole plot of a movie from hearing the music track.  Most, if not all, of this is culturally learned; little of it transferred across cultures until Hollywood became the world.

Indian ragas are coupled with mystical meditation—one gets deeper and more intensely into the meditative mood as the raga develops.  On a perhaps baser level, ragas—like similar musical forms around the world—are often used to enhance sex.  The slow increase of intensity and complexity in a rhythmic performance is of obvious use in this regard.  Whole genres of music are sometimes identified with such; “jazz” is an old term for semen, and “jazz music” was originally the music of the “jazz houses” of old New Orleans.  Nor was New Orleans the only place in which houses of prostitution had their own musical traditions.  It is interesting that grave authors like Huron and Patel never mention the universally-known use of music in sexual encounters.

The cooler, sharper musics of the Elizabethans or Chinese or of Arab ‘ud playing seem less adapted to such roles.  One must fall back, once again, on personal experience:  these pieces arouse a general good feeling of being in harmony with the world, and then deepen it, till one loses oneself in a generic sense of goodness, rightness, and moral value.  One comes out a significantly better person, at least for a few minutes.  This is presumably why music (or some music) has often been considered a moral enterprise.  Both Plato and Confucius recommended slow, restrained music as moral, and condemned as immoral certain other forms—probably fast dances associated with erotic agendas.

Another area that needs exploration is why much European religious music has the effect it has.  Is it only learned association that makes many of us feel spiritual when Mozart’s Requiem or Sweelinck’s organ pieces are played?  Why do Palestrina’s and Victoria’s masses have the effect they do?  Why does Black gospel music have its quite different but equally passionate spiritual impact?  There is evidently more than culturally learned response here.  Just-any-religious-music has, if anything, the opposite effect.  When Rimbaud wrote of the “vingt gueules gueulant les hymnes pieux” (“twenty snouts snouting the pious hymns”) he was clearly moved away from, not toward, spirituality by that particular church choir.

The rich, complex variation within the tightly constrained structure of a Baroque mass is important.  The great range of pitch and volume must also matter.  At least in my case, when a Victoria passage climaxes in a full-throated open chord, I feel that every cell in my body shatters and reassembles in a better way.  (And I am not a Catholic like Victoria—though his involvement in the liberal-humanist movement of his time makes us perhaps closer than dogma would suggest.)  I have never felt the same after discovering Victoria more than half a century ago.  Music is life-changing.

Individuals everywhere love to make music alone, often to soothe themselves or ease work, but music is essentially a communicative activity.  It communicates and usually synchronizes mood, feeling, motion, bodily state, and effort.  It is inseparably linked with social practice.  Frequently, a given culture’s most elaborate music is part of an even more elaborate performance:  religious ceremony, social dance, festive party, grieving funeral, court ritual.  Music is almost always involved in dance and ritual, and these hold societies together (Durkheim 1995).  It is also invariably a part of religion.  Frequently, it is used to help the faithful achieve intense emotional and mystical states.  Mystic ecstasy over music is not confined to religion; concert-goers know it well (Jourdain 1997).


Sometimes people like new and different traditions.  Recently, Celtic, Andean, North Indian, and even Australian aboriginal music have gone global, performed by street musicians or concert professionals from Vienna to Singapore.  Not only have they survived; they have “swum upstream” against the vast outpourings of American pop. One hears them in the very streets and shopping malls of Hollywood itself.

However, people are not necessarily fond of each other’s music.  A Jewish traveler in the 10th century described German singing:  “There is no uglier song than the groans that come out of their throats.  It is like the baying of hounds, only worse” (Ibrāhim ibn Ya‘qub, in Ibn Fadlān 2012:163; in another translation, a“’quite horrible sound, resembling the barking of dogs but more beast-like’”; Lewis 2001:136).  Evidently he had been hearing the ancestors of Wagner’s music, which, as Ambrose Bierce tactfully noted, “is better than it sounds” (Bierce 2000:305).  One could find many similar quotes by Europeans about Chinese music, by Chinese about European music, and indeed by almost everyone about strangers’ musics.  Even familiar music can be cordially hated.  I have friends today who abhor country music, others who abhor rap, and others who abhor “easy listening.”  This can get socially constructed in striking ways (see below, “Music History”).

Recall (from above) that musical tastes are apparently most significantly shaped by the peer group in teenage or immediate preteen years (Harris 1998, confirmed by my own wide experiences with children, students, and fieldwork).  We like what our teen peers liked, and often hate music associated with bad experiences at that time.  Parents and teachers can have a major role too.  Musical abilities and tastes probably have a genetic component, but this remains little known (cf. Patel 2008:358).

This makes Patel (2008:301) a bit more unusual than he thinks, in his ability to appreciate music from different cultures.  For a trained, widely-experienced listener like Patel, it is very much easier to understand another culture’s music than its language.  But our Arab friend must also have been highly sophisticated in music.  It was part of any literate Spanish Arab’s training at the time.  Yet German music was as incomprehensible to him as the German language.  I have talked with many ethnomusicologists about this issue (the general one, not the Arab case); some agreed with Patel, others thought music is hard to reach across cultures.

A rather unfortunate problem for anyone interested in the biology of music is the narrowness of some of the writers; this is why I rely on Patel so much.  Jourdain seems not to know much besides late Classical and pop, and Levitin (2007, 2008) little beyond pop.  Without serious comparison of other radically different traditions, such as Patel makes, little understanding is really possible.  Many of Jourdain’s statements are invalidated by common folk traditions of his own culture!  Even Patel seems unaware of how extremely different music is in certain remote parts of Indonesia, Aboriginal Australia, and highland Southeast Asia.  However, the many ethnomusicologists I know who are familiar with this entire range are understandably unwilling to generalize.

In general, however, Patel seems broadly correct.  Music is, if not a “universal language” (as it used to be called), at least easier for most people than actual languages are.  People everywhere can relate to pure sounds, harmonies, and rhythms.  This seems wired in the human animal.  In many years of teaching survey courses in ethnomusicology, I found—and colleagues also found—that students with reasonably open minds soon learned to relate to almost any music we would play.  Only very rigid students failed in this.  Some musics, however, seem much more accessible than others, as witness the globalization of those mentioned above.

Patel reviews several brief studies testing how cross-cultural music understanding and appreciation are, but they are limited.  They are usually carried out with Western late-classical music, which is to some extent familiar to almost everyone worldwide, thanks to Hollywood film music.  The studies remain inconclusive.



Music and Culture


One reason music delights us, even across cultural borders, is that it is a simple model of life.  Life is often a matter of improvising endlessly on a few themes.  Often, the themes are very simple, the improvisations extremely original and complex, as in blues or jazz or Baroque pieces.  The degree to which improvisation follows rules then becomes important.  Jazz riffs are infinitely variable, but they follow certain broad rules, and standard riffs are well known.  Jazz musicians know what Bix Biederbecke, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk did with a tune.  Any decent jazz musician has a vast mental library of well-known variations for every note in every theme in every tune in the standard repertoire.  The musician will be able to build from those to create new variations.

This is how we ordinary mortals deal with culture.  Culture gives us general rules.  Some, like the more ordinary grammatical rules, are quite cut-and-dried and generally known.  Others, like the rules for courtship, are more complex and variable, and call forth more original riffs.

Music, in fact, is a very good model for culture in general.  The various elements of music build on biological groundings, and go on to more and more complex realms (see e.g. Jourdain 1997).



Music History


Music seems to have evolved from very simple rhythmic crooning to melody, harmony, themes and variations, and finally full symphonic complexities with many layers of meaning.  All societies on earth have basic rhythms and simple songs.  Only civilizations have complex harmony and multi-theme composed pieces.  Only the more recent civilizations (possibly starting in China or in India) came up with such spectacular bits of complexity as operatic performances with multiple themes played by full orchestras.  (Jourdain argues that Wagner is some sort of high point because he went the farthest in this direction.  If so, never was more effort expended to less worth; see Bierce above).

Music clearly tracks public emotional needs.  American popular music was cheerful and assertive in the early 20th century.  This gave way to lullabye music (crooners and big bands) when the Depression and World War II traumatized the west.  Peace and prosperity led to youth preferring simple and driving music in the ambitious 1960s.  The break when the rising post-World War II generation rejected crooners for rock’n’roll, around 1955, was extremely dramatic, and led to real generational tensions; many venues banned the new, disruptive music entirely.  Some Americans blamed it on Communism, at the same time the USSR was banning it as capitalist!  Rock’n’roll in turn gave way to savagely angry rap in the greedy, selfish 1990s, and again society was convulsed by controversy.  Many middle-class Blacks (and others) held that rap was a deliberate ploy by white racists to keep African-Americans down by steering them into anger and crime.

Music also has the advantage of showing clearly how different individuals can be in the same culture.  Almost all members of standard American culture know about major and minor scales; they can tell the difference even if they don’t know the names.  Most Americans know “The Star-Spangled Banner” and a few children’s tunes.  Virtually all know something about the latest popular music.  Here consensus ends.  Individuals select differently from the vast smorgasbord of musics available.  Some are musical, some not.  Some are expert in their favorite line of music, some barely know the major names.  Some play instruments or sing at virtuoso level, some fool around with an instrument, some only listen.  Blues, jazz, rock’n’roll, campfire songs, Charles Ives, John Cage, rap, and Sacred Harp hymn-singing are all part of American musical culture, and all in some sense equally typical of it, but one would be hard put to find anyone knowledgeable about all of them—or even able to stand all of them.

Thus, observing the vicissitudes of music in human society can tell us a great deal about human mentality.

In the Renaissance and Baroque, musicians delighted in exploring the possibilities of ever more complicated and elaborate patterns of rhythm, melody, and harmony.  The last developed from unison singing to melody over ground bass, chordal harmony, and finally the complex polyphonic music of Palestrina and Victoria.  Cross-rhythms made a brief but spectacular appearance in Elizabethan music; they may have been introduced by lute players from the Mediterranean world (notably Alfonso Ferrabosco, from Italy via Spain).  The rhythms would have come ultimately from the Near East and Africa.  Intensity in the music of the time derived from piling more and more subtle, complex, and dynamic variations on relatively simple themes.  The excitement lay in this development of patterns.  This was the extreme opposite of later “mood music,” which evokes gross audience emotions and images rather than pure musical intensity.

Much of modern folk culture perserves elements of Medieval and Renaissance European culture.  Folk music, for instance, continues those forms in the few places where it survives.  The typical folk dance piece, in the more conservative parts of the European world and as far afield as Afghanistan, is a four-line, sixteen-bar tune with two somewhat differing melodies.  These are usually “major key” (Ionian mode in Medieval terminology, referring to the places where half-notes occur in the scale), sometimes “melodic minor” (basically, the old Aeolian mode), rarely Dorian or some other mode.  These are alternated:  one is played and repeated, then the other is played and repeated, then the first is played and repeated again, and so on.  This very characteristic way of making music has been constant since the late Middle Ages at the latest.  It usually goes with a lyric, a poem rhyming the second and fourth lines.  This form appears rather suddenly in Europe, in the hymns of Venantius Fortunatus in the 6th century.  I assume an ancestor of the two-part folk tune must have gone with this poetic form.  The form is surely not native to Europe, and may come from East Asia, where such poems were universal and had been for centuries.

Other folk dance music of a newer form flourishes and grows in Latin America and elsewhere, but retains much of the same spirit:  complex, rhymically sophisticated, musically rather simple but carefully constructed.  It speaks to a self-reliant, hard-living rural world.  In Latin America and elsewhere, African influences have long been known.  The first cumbia (or “cumba”) piece to be written down was recorded in the mid-18th century by a Spanish composer, Sebastián de Murcia, who was fascinated by the amazing new musics he met in Mexico when he traveled there(he also recorded Native American-derived pieces).  Cumbia is a West African dance form, fused in the Caribbean with 18th-century Spanish music.  It survives very robustly today.

Somewhat less archaic is the folk choral music now surviving in shape-note hymnal singing and a few other choral traditions that hang on today, many of them on the Mediterranean islands.  These reflect Renaissance and Baroque norms, as well as later innovations.  The open chords and wildly stark harmonies of Victoria, and the fuguing of Bach, survive there, though long abandoned in concert music.  Some shape-note singing groups have faithfully copied their forebears since the early 19th century, and their music was archaic even then, so we have a rare insight into older musics.  One thing such relictive musics show is that open, unornamented singing was essentially universal in early times.  The constriction, operatic style, downslurring, and weird variations that modern singers feel called upon to add to Medieval and even Renaissance music are purely modern.

Perhaps this goes with a continuation of the Renaissance world in isolated folk circles.  Clearly, the world has changed greatly since then, and folk societies are far from conservative; they have picked up modern technology and many modern art forms and themes.  Where they preserve old forms, they must have an ongoing, functional reason.  They do not preserve anything out of mindless conservatism.  It seems more likely that the music reflects a world of sober, rational, hopeful, self-sufficient people who have to know a wide range of things to get along in the world.  Non-affluent rural people still have to be “Renaissance” men and women—able to play music, fix cars, raise food, manage without gas and electricity, and keep hoping for better times through it all.

Folk music, by definition, is performed by musicians who are not professionally trained or licensed.  Normally, however, their local audiences demand that they be highly skilled.  The best are at least as skilled at what they do as the finest concert musicians.  Their audiences, consisting (again by definition) of family and neighbors, are highly knowledgeable about the traditions involved, and are exceedingly demanding.  Standards in good folk music are high.

This is often true when the audience breaks out of purely “folk” bounds and becomes wider and more anonymous.  The golden age of blues was not in its folk days but in its early urban period in the 1920s through 1940s.  The golden age of country music in the United States and Canada was the 1920s and 1930s, with records and radio driving the phenomenon.  Celtic folk music had a slightly later golden age, from the 1930s onward.  (I will not dare to set an ending date, since many would say the golden age is still with us.)  Folk music tends to evolve eventually into popular music, defined as folk-like music performed by full professionals for anonymous mass audiences.  Old-time country music was folk; bluegrass was popular, not only in the sense that millions liked it, but also in the sense that it was performed by professionals for huge anonymous audiences rather than by neighbors for neighbors.  Old-time blues were folk; after the early years, urban “Chicago”-style blues were for wider audiences.  Rock’n’roll began as a black folk form, but went popular very fast.

Folk music also drifts off into elite music.  Elite composers (from medieval choristers to Beethoven to Aaron Copeland) constantly adopt folk tunes and styles.  The music is radically transformed—regularized, complexly harmonized, and so on—in the process.  And elite music trickles down to the folk, changing as it goes to fit folk forms.  It may happen that a tune starts as a folksong, becomes a pop tune, gets elite treatment, and sinks down to folk level again.  This happened to “Greensleeves,” which has been a widely-known tune for almost 500 years now.  Thus, folk, popular, and elite musics never actually separate.  They are best thought of as corners of a triangle.  The folk corner would be represented by an old farmer of a century ago, fiddling for his neighbors; the elite corner by Mozart; the pop by modern radio music.  Most music is somewhere in the space within the triangle.

None of this is a new phenomenon; it is not confined to modern times.  All was anticipated by the evolution of lute and guitar music in the 16th through 17th centuries, harp music in 18th-century Spain, and many other musics in history.  More recently, not only did Copeland use folk songs in classical-style compositions, but the neo-“folk” music of Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, and other songwriters is a continuation of the process; these singers extracted some styles from folk music and injected them into the pop-music world.

The slow development from Renaissance and Baroque music to Romantic has been equated by some historians with the rise of the “bourgeoisie”—the urban class divorced from actual production, living by trade, commerce, management, and intellectual endeavors.  As it get farther from primary production and independent living, it came to need more shallow but violent emotional stimulus.  Also, music got farther and farther from a small, highly trained circle of performers and sophsticated audiences, and became more and more a mass phenomenon, attempting to rouse at least some emotion (however shallow) from the sleepers and bored husbands in a concert hall.  The bored bourgeois, especially the women (living empty, confined lives in the 19th century), needed Wagner and Tchaikovsky to keep from emotional freeze-up.

Admittedly, this brief picture of 19th-century music history has become such a cliché that revisionists have duly taken it apart, but there is surely something to the idea. Obviously there is much more to it, but further exploration of the issue is outside our concerns here.  What matters is watching the evolution of music from something performed for a tiny sophsticated audience to something performed for a huge but unsophisticated one.  The consequent progression from subtle skill to “lowest common denominator” is hard to miss.

In any case, in the early 20th century, late romantic music forked off in two directions.  Among the musical elite, it gave way in self-consciously “modern” circles to the clean, cool, rationally calculated, sometimes arcane music of Bartok, Berg, Schoenberg, and Webern.  Among the ordinary listeners, it gave rise to film music, which is derived from late romantic music.  At the same time, popular music, also highly romantic, was suddenly and dramatically confronted by African-derived forms:  blues, jazz, Caribbean music.  This led to an incredible musical ferment in the 1920s and 1930s.  Depression and World War II, however, not only ruined many small recording companies, but made people seek a calm, simple music.  By the late 1940s, the most popular music was extremely simple (three chords maximum!), almost always major key, slow-paced, dynamically limited, and, in short, exactly the type of music used as lullabyes in all times and places.  Then, as noted above, rock’n’roll broke the mold, and popular music followed changing culture into the 21st century.



Music Grades into Speech


Patel explicitly exempts poetry and chant from consideration, thus ruling boundary phenomena off the turf.  This is wise for his purposes, but impossible for mine.  I have to look at the boundary.

His contrast of music and speech slurs over a vast range of intermediate forms.  We have chant, prayer, ritual incantation, and above all sound-poetry and word-music, in which poets deliberately “problematize” the boundary.  One reason he can do this is that English-language poetry is rather indifferent to word-music.  Russian and Welsh, among many other languages, do far more with it.

Dylan Thomas imported Welsh word-music styles into English poetry, influencing a whole generation.  His readings were legendary, and deservedly so.  I dare say that listeners completely ignorant of English would have appreciated them thoroughly.  I find the word-music of Russian poetry shatteringly beautiful, though I know very little Russian, and thus have no idea what the meaning is.  Following a translation actually detracts from the experience.  Reading translations of lyrics by Afanasy Foeth or Fyodor Tyuchev or even Pushkin, you may wonder what anyone ever saw in such efforts.  Then you hear a native speaker read them in the original…and when you have picked yourself up off the floor, all you can say is “Oh.”  English simply has nothing comparable to the Russian sacrifice of meaning to sound.  Some Russian poems are almost literally meaningless; the whole game is the word-music.

Middle English poetry paid much attention to sound; lyrics like “Lenten is come with love to toune…” (Luria and Hoffman 1974:6) are as pyrotechnic in their displays of internal rhyme, alliteration, vowel harmony, assonance, and so on as is Celtic literature.  The Great Vowel Shift and the roughly concurrent fashion for continental literature, often in translation, combined to dilute this in the 16th century.  Of course sound never went out entirely.  Swinburne tried to reintroduce it, partly at least from ancient Greek, but did not succeed.  Readers will, of course, point also to obvious passages of Keats, Eliot, Stevens, and many other poets.  The point is that even they never got off anything like “Lenten…” or like Foeth’s other-worldly lyrics.

Of course, early modernists pushed the boundary as far as they could.  The Dadaist Kurt Schwitters wrote a “poem” consisting of the letter W, pronounced “v” in Schwitters’ native German; the poem consisted of his making a v sound for 15 minutes, playing with pitch and dynamics, ending with a shriek (Moholy-Nagy 1956:325).  He has not been widely imitated.

There is also the question of lyrics and melodies.  It is rare to find a happy theme set to a slow, monotonous melody, or vice versa.  Good songwriters try to fit text with tune, according to whatever cultural rules apply.  A songwriter has to know the rules for her culture, genre, and audience.

Both linguists like Chomsky and Hauser and musicologists like Patel and Jourdain ignore these intermediate formations.  This costs them far more than they realize.  The most important intermediate form—chant and chant-like song—is absolutely basic to almost every religious tradition of every one of the 6800-odd cultures of the world.  Relevant religious forms range from African-American sermons to Gregorian chants, and from Temiar dream songs of Malaysia to Yuma creation-myth chants of Native California.  Praying and chanting in unison is at the core of religious services from the Church of England to the deserts of Australia and the stone temples of Polynesia.

Exceptions are largely confined to rare hyper-puritanical sects that ban all music, and they usually have some kind of rhythmic speech.  (There are, of course, those legendary tribes in the Amazon that “lack music,” the way they “lack numbers” and “lack religion” and “lack color terms” and “lack general nouns,” but we await serious studies of them.  They appear to be as real as the Yeti, the Loch Ness monster, and the Madagascar man-eating tree.)

Even greeting rituals can be musical chants.  Formal greetings in the Wolof language of Senegal can go on for many minutes.  The words are purely formulaic; the art is in the deliverery, which follows Wolof musical style (my observation, based on tapes collected by Dr. Sabina Perrino, heard Mar. 2, 2015).  Speeches, sermons, and other language forms around the world often dissolve into rhythmic speech and then sometimes into actual song.  This is true, for instance, of African-American sermons, which are partly based on Wolof forms.

Obviously, someone should be studying these neglected vocal forms.  There is clearly something about chanting together that creates social solidarity in a way nothing else quite accomplishes.  Add the sharing of food—be it a sacrificial bull or only a wafer and a sip of grape juice—and you have communitas.



Music into Words:  Song Lyrics and Their Diffusion


Ideally, lyrics are fitted to the music.  Tunes may go down or up in pitch along with the speech rhythms one would hear if the texts were spoken (Patel 2008:342-343).  Usually, the fit is looser.  The same lyrics may be sung to different tunes, and the same tunes used for wildly different sets of words—as will appear.

The best-studied case of diffusion is the spread of folktales and folksongs.

Probably the best-studied of the folksongs that got around are the great tragic and romantic ballads collected by Francis James Child (Bronson 1976; Child 1882-1898) and a host of later workers.  These include some of the deepest and most intense statements of the human condition in all world literature.  Yet many of them spread throughout Europe and often beyond, and were appreciated everywhere.  Several things emerge from this research.  (The following account draws on hundreds of records, plus field work, singing experience, and scattered published sources, but most of the essential information is in Bronson and Child.)

Child found 305 ballads that had entered oral tradition and been collected from folk sources.  “Folk” in this case meant relatively unlettered working-class people who sang these songs because their parents and elders had.  No one knew who wrote them or where they came from.  Further collection has disclosed countless more folk ballads, including many written since Child’s time.  Rarely is an author’s name known.

Beyond the 305 ballads, there are thousands of English folksongs, and every other culture on earth has countless songs.  Singing is the most universal of arts, being highly developed, complex, self-conscious, and diverse in every single cultural group on earth, even those that almost totally lack visual art, instrumental music, or crafts.

To the anonymous folk songs may be added a large number of songs of known authorship that have entered folk tradition so completely that they are passed on orally and without general knowledge of whence they came.  I was surprised, on reaching adulthood, to learn that many songs I had “always known”—some of them from my father’s singing—traced back to well-known poets like Robert Burns and Thomas Moore.

Most European songs are made up of four-line stanzas, with four beats per line, and with the second and fourth lines rhyming.  Most often, the last words in these two lines are dragged out over two beats:

“Fair Margaret sat at her high chamber,

Combing out her long brown hair,

When who should she see but her own true love

Ride by with a lady fair.”  (From a version of the Ballad of Margaret and William, Childe 74.)

The general rhythm patterns go back to the Roman Empire; the first example of the pattern seen in the first two lines above is in a chant for Caesar (Waddell 1955:16).  The four-line stanza emerged by the 4th or 5th century A.D., and became popular for hymns.  The same pattern existed earlier in China—it is typical of the rhymes in the Book of Songs, ca 500 BC—and almost certainly is earlier in southeast Asia as well.  I find no evidence that it spread from east to west, and it seems to come naturally from Roman prosody, but one wonders.  In China, Malaysia, and Europe, in lyric folksongs, the first two lines often provide a natural image used in the next two as symbol for a social one, often erotic:

“The higher up the cherry tree,

The riper grow the cherries;

The more you hug and kiss the girls

The sooner they get married.”  (From the folksong “Shady Grove”)


“Brown-pepper plant fruits

Spread far, grow large;

The gentleman over there,

He is great without peer.”  (Book of Songs, Song 116, my translation.)

Most readers will know the symbolism of “cherry” in folk English, but will not know that the Chinese pepper plant’s fruits look exactly like tiny male genitalia, inspiring a euphemistic image that was used for centuries.

Among European traditional songs, the ballads are most interesting, because they tell actual circumstantial stories.  (That is the definition of a “ballad”:  A song that tells a coherent story.  A “lyric,” by contrast, simply poses a scene or tells a brief, generalized tale—usually of love successful or love unsuccessful.)  Thousands of ballads have appeared over the last few centuries.  Many survive in chapbook and handbill collections.  Any event of interest could be memorialized.  Some survived, some did not.  Sheer chance must have something to do with this, but most of the songs are clearly more memorable than the average throwaway handbill.

Since the memory research of F. Bartlett, considerable effort has gone into the characteristics that make them so (Dundes 1965).  The stories are memorable in themselves, but especially so because they follow canonical plots of endless fascination to ordinary audiences.  Often they incorporate permanently fascinating themes such as love, sex, violence, ghosts, unexpected meetings (often with failure of recognition), deception, betrayal.

Particularly important is that most of them highlight, clearly and dramatically, major tension points in society.  Many of them turn on the age-old plot of the marriage forbidden by parents.  In the tragic ballads, this leads to suicide, fighting, or other violence.  In the happy ones, it is resolved by the lovers’ persistence or cleverness or luck.  This brings out and highlights the broader conflict between agnates and affines—to use the classic anthropological jargon for blood kin and marital kin.  In “The Douglas Tragedy” (Child 7; ballads in Child’s collection are always referred to by their numbers in that work), the hero abducts the girl, is pursued by her father and seven brothers, kills the brothers and wounds the father, and subsequently dies of his own wounds—leaving his lady to die of grief.   In one version, roses grow from their graves and twine in a “true lover’s knot,” but her father—the sole survivor—tears up the one growing from the hero’s grave, and throws it in St. Mary’s Loch, a huge, dark, brooding, cold lake in Scotland.

Other ballads turn on forbidden love, which raises the same tension:  follow parents’ will or heart’s desire?  In one of the most popular ballads, “Lord Thomas and Fair Eleanor” (Child 73), Lord Thomas’ mother orders him to marry “the brown girl” instead of his love Fair Eleanor; the lord, his love Eleanor, and his unloved bride all end up dead.  “Fair Margaret and Sweet William” (Child 74) has an even more sinister ending:  Fair Margaret kills herself so that her ghost will haunt and kill Sweet William, who has married another, though it is not stated that his parents made him take her.  I encountered this same belief in the avenging ghost of a wronged woman in China; it seems nearly worldwide.

This theme in turn is part of a wider concern with conflicting loyalties.  In feudal and folk societies, personal loyalty is life and death.  Thus, when a person is caught between two irreconcilable and unshakable loyalties, death is the expected result.  Loyalty to love versus loyalty to parents is the most immediate, comprehensible, and telling.  It involves sex and desire as well as simply loyalty.

Loyalty by itself, though, produces epic conflicts.  Other ballads deal with these.  Possibly the most dramatically powerful ballad in English, the very old Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens (Child 58), is a simple story of a ship captain and his noble passengers sent out in winter on the north sea in a storm.  This meant certain death, given the frail sailing craft of the Scottish Middle Ages.  Tradition tells that the king wanted to get rid of Sir Patrick and the others, and had figured out this underhanded way to do it.  Sir Patrick could have rebelled, or fled, but he stayed loyal and went unflinchingly to his fate.

Interesting is that these ballads were effective enough at evoking timeless themes to carry on in oral tradition not only in their native Scotland but in the United States, where immigrants (presumably Scottish) brought them.  They, and all the more popular Child ballads, have been collected from Appalachian-region singers.  Some of these were far removed from Scottish medieval life.  Thus, singers converted “I have six galleons a-sailing on the sea” to “I have six gallons a-sailing on a ship” (in “The House Carpenter” [Child 243, under the name “The Daemon Lover”—comparing the Child versions with Appalachian versions as sung by Jean Ritchie among others).  But the basic plots were preserved faithfully except in very fragmentary versions.  Ballad singing is far from extinct even today in the Appalachians, though since the early 20th century it has benefited from books, records, and radio, and is no longer a strictly oral, person-to-person matter.

The long-lasting ballads songs have much more going for them than good stories, however.  To summarize a large literature, they are more tightly organized and structured than the average throwaway song.  Language is simple and direct.  They have few superfluous words.  When they do have duplication or repeating, it is in contexts that are particularly helpful to memory, but also such repeats usually occur at transition points in the song.  The first statement introduces a theme; the repetition introduces a sharp change, a new development in the plot.  Thus helping memory and marking transition combine usefully in one rhetorical device.

The ballads are tightly structured, with clear rhythm and rhyme, but enough variation to avoid monotony.  They build to a climax instead of wandering over the rhetorical map (as the nonmemorable ballads almost invariably do).  The only problem with basing too much on this is that we have the original, or nearly original, forms of some of the ballads, and they were wordy and poorly organized at first (“The House Carpenter” is a case in point); folk transmission has cleaned them up and streamlined them.  This throws us back on plot issues as basic to their initial popularity.  Even so, clear, tightly structured, spare songs do better and get into oral tradition more easily.

Many ballads treat of themes that were not polite subjects for ordinary speech:  sex, treachery, conflicts with parents.  This is a universal subject for song; everywhere in the world, people sing what they do not dare say (see e.g. Abu-Lughod 1989 for Egypt; Anderson 2006 for China).  They also sing out themes so passionate that speech is inadequate (Anderson 2006; Feld 1982; Seeger 2004).  Usually love and death are the themes of such songs, which are very often laments (Anderson 2006; Feld 1982).  Steven Feld’s classic study of Kaluli singing in Papua-New Guinea, which is the best study of traditional song known to me, turns on this theme; Kaluli song reaches its highest point in the agonizingly beautiful laments for the dead.  Feld’s recordings of these are heartbreaking even to Anglo-American listeners (Feld n.d.).

Not only the themes, but many of the symbols and images, are the sort that Carl Jung called “archetypes” (Jung 1964) and Mary Douglas called “natural symbols” (Douglas 1966).  One need not share Jung’s mystical approach or Douglas’ social-functional one to realize that birds, trees, flowers, rivers, sea, and the sun and moon are going to crop up in folk poetry, and that British Isles rural society will add horses, grain, and weaponry to the mix.  The songs make the most evocative and effective use of this, often making one symbol stand as metaphor for two or three meanings.  Some of them, possibly influenced at some remove by medieval religious poetry, use its four-layered symbolism (image, symbol, metaphor, allegory—in one scholastic formulation).

Like ballads, folksongs, and epics everywhere, stock phrases and repetitions make stories and songs more memorable.  The classic studies of this phenomenon were done by Milman Parry (1930) and Albert Lord (1960) on Homer and on Slavic folk epics, but the same has been found for ballads and songs everywhere.  Stock phrases, lines, and images carry over.  Countless Child ballads have their “milk-white steed,” the maiden “sewing her silken seam” (note the alliteration—a standard memory aid), and the rose growing from the grave of the lover.  These images and lines, however, have to be selectively deployed, or they overwhelm the song, and ruin rather than aid memory.  The monotonous repetition of the same religious clichés in hymns makes them almost impossible to remember; one never recalls which set is found in Hymn 103 as opposed to 104.

It has been noted many times that catchy tunes make good ballads.  Child commented, and almost everyone agrees with him, that “Lord Lovel” owes its existence to a very simple, hard-to-forget tune; the words are not anyone’s idea of excitement.  Some tunes have jumped around rather freely from song to song.  I found one Appalachian ballad tune used by a Kwakwala-speaking Native American in British Columbia for a Kwakwala hymn!  Presumably he had learned the tune from a missionary, likely one from Appalachia.  (Thanks to his granddaughter, Mabel James, for making the tune and story available.)   A tune picked up by a missionary in India became (with some changes) the old religious song “There Is a Happy Land Far, Far Away,” and that tune was then “liberated” to serve for the riotously obscene drinking song “Poor Bugger Jagger.”  Martin Luther is said to have set his hymns to current dance tunes “so that the devil would not have all the good tunes.”  Certainly, hymns, ballads, and lyric songs have been swapping tunes since, and some popular tunes become vehicles for several different unrelated songs in folk usage.

Stories can go on and on as well.  Many children still sing “The Fox” (“The fox went out on a starry night, And he prayed for the moon for to give him light…”).  This children’s song is attested in two 15th-century versions (Luria and Hoffman 1974:125-127).  These are already divergent enough, and sophisticated enough, to prove a fairly long history even then.  Some of the classic tragic ballads, including “Margaret and William,” have versions all over Europe.  Indeed, some of the stock phrases and poetic devices go back to Proto-Indo-European.  Calvert Watkins finds many formulas, taglines, and stock themes distributed over Indo-European languages at very early dates, and hypothesizes that most, if not all, of them go back to Proto-Indo-European (Watkins 1995).  This may not always be the case, since some are found in non-IE languages too, but at any rate they diffused very widely and very early.

On the other hand, Child’s belief that all ballads had to be old, and that none was being written now, was wildly wrong.  Collectors soon found that ballad-making was as common as groundhogs in the Appalachians, and was common also in isolated, traditional parts of Europe.  Even the radio did not end it; dozens of new ballads were written for the new medium.  Only TV, which privileges visual impact over long narrative, ended the ballad worldwide.

Folktales have a similar fate: some stories are good enough to spread worldwide, some stay local, some die at birth.  Variants of the Orpheus and Swan Maiden stories, far too similar to be independent of each other, have been recorded all over the Northern Hemisphere.  Flood myth stories are worldwide, but in this case the stories are different enough that no one can tell whether they come from one source or were independently devised.  In any case, retelling prunes excess words, but the constraints of folktales are much looser than those of classic ballads and lyrics; rhyme is not needed, for instance.  Folktales thus turn on good, adaptable plots, and on dramatic, evocative, easily-understood symbolism.

Beyond these simple literary criteria, there is the question of what gets accepted where.  The Child ballads died out in North America everywhere except Appalachia.  (A few lasted into the early 20th century in New England and neighboring Canada.)  Folktales are not told often any more, except for very brief or very unprintable ones.  Mass media have usurped the role of ballads and folktales in entertainment.

The rural world of these forms—a world of lords and ladies, horses and swords, barren moors, peasants tilling tiny miserable plots—is simply too far from modern experience.  Rap and rock’n’roll replace the old songs.  Even the aforementioned literary songs of Robert Burns and Thomas Moore have died out of ordinary life (except in Scotland and Ireland respectively!).

So the songs and tales spread far and last long, and the best of them can get very far from their social and cultural origins (“Sir Patrick Spens” in Tennessee, for instance), but they cannot escape change forever.  Sooner or later, the world is so different that they cannot survive.

Yet a very few literary pieces that started in oral transmission go on forever.  Homer, the first known bit of European literature, is more popular than ever.  So is the Spanish poem of the Cid.  Beowulf keeps getting retranslated and retold.  To be sure, they have been book-learning for centuries, having long died out in oral transmission, but the point here is that they are so dramatic, so deathless in theme, and so compellingly told that they simply never die.  The Orpheus story—having shown up as ballad, myth, folktale, and Native American religious legend—continues to inspire.  Rainer Maria Rilke’s incomparable telling of it in the poem “Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes” is strikingly close to the Nez Perce traditional version from the mountains of Oregon (Ramsey 1981).  Its tale of love, loss, and yearning is so powerful and so universally human that the sophisticated imagist poet and the remote horse nomads of the Wallowa Mountains not only loved it, they developed it thematically and emotionally in the same ways.

In short, some things spread more easily than others.  Those that spread speak to universal human social and psychological tension points, and use universally appealing symbols to talk about those.  They tell their stories in spare, direct, clear, but beautifully structured language.  They hold up a bright mirror to our deepest concerns.

Many good stories do not spread far; they are narrowly tied to one lifestyle or culture, or they are not tense and dramatic enough.  Many poor, sorry stories and songs spread, for various reasons.  In all cases, some historical analysis will find both general and contingent reasons why fate has been so.  (For one contingent reason, it certainly helps to have one’s tales written down early; Homer would have been forgotten if the Greeks hadn’t done that.   The tales picked up by the brothers Grimm have lasted longer than other German stories, in their rather bowdlerized and cleaned-up Grimm forms.)

One could go on to discuss the appeal of literary productions—the plays, novels, and poems that never were in oral transmission but have spread anyway.  Shakespeare, Tolstoi, and Goethe are part of every educated person’s knowledge, worldwide, and the great Chinese philosophers and poets are rapidly becoming so.  Cultural gaps have not proved barriers to their spread.  Some cultures have been almost overwhelmed by borrowings, and, of course, countless cultures have succumbed to others and have disappeared, as Gaulish civilization melted away under Roman and German impacts.  (A few Celtic influences survived in France, but mostly through the Bretons, not because the Gauls kept the flame.)

In short, people borrow some literary productions all over the world, because they speak to common human concerns in a compelling way.  They state the concerns clearly, use evocative symbols, and come out with clear, sharp ideas on the matter.

Productions are appealing in proportion to how well they fit with—or can be fitted to—local society and culture.  Epics and ballads were products of feudal society.  Symphonies and operas were notoriously associated with the concert-going bourgeoisie, who wished to be impressed by vast assemblages of musicians and by spectacular effects.  Chinese solo stringed-instrumental music has been associated for almost three millennia with the scholar, alone or with close company, playing for meditation.  Rock music spreads with the rise and dominance of the machine, because it involves fancy electronics and the associated machine noises.

In general, feudal cultures and early agrarian civilizations valued individual skill highly, because it was rare and tended to be economically limited.  The rulers thus loved to show off the amount of skilled workpersons they could control, by having the finest quality of ornaments, music, and food around them.  The bourgeois and socialist cultures that followed depended on mechanical mass production, and thus their status consumption has always been sheer mass.  Clothes were works of art in the Renaissance; they now are made by children in Third World sweatshops. to be sold worldwide, and are worn a very few times before being thrown away.  (Anyone who thinks I am unfairly comparing early elites with modern masses is invited to visit the Benaki Museum in Athens, examine the exquisite clothing of even quite poor people in the old-time Balkans, and compare that with what rich Americans wear today.  Or one can listen to old folk recordings and compare them with modern pop music.)

Here and elsewhere, it should be noted that almost no songs, tales, or other fairly complex knowledges, are universally distributed in a culture.  Almost all Americans share knowledge of two or three songs (“Happy Birthday…”), but few share many more than that.  The view of culture as knowledge universally shared in a culture is quite inadequate.  Most cultural knowledge is distributed, not universally known.  Assessment of cultural consensus (Romney et al. 1986) is very valuable, but precisely because consensus is the unusual case.


Knowledge diffuses rapidly.  Not only useful knowledge, but folktales and even children’s songs (Dundes 1965; Opie and Opie 1961), can diffuse around the world in a matter of weeks.  This was true even before mass media appeared.  Lewis and Clark ran into French folktales among Native Americans previously uncontacted by whites.  Folktales, like diseases, ran well ahead of settlers.

Significantly, the very first sustained participant-observation fieldwork ever done, Frank Cushing’s research in Zuni Pueblo, established the fact that folktales change to suit local needs.  Cushing found that the Zuni had drastically reconfigured Spanish folktales to reflect Zuni rather than Spanish society and morals (Cushing 1931).


High aesthetic levels emerge in most societies that have leisure and enough material wealth to give them a settled life with some comforts.  Aboriginal northeastern North America, the nomadic societies of eastern and southern Africa, and many hunting-gathering societies in really harsh environments produce relatively few large and complex works of visual art; they simply don’t have the spare material and time.  But societies with onliy a little more wealth in northwestern America, west and central Africa, and northern Australia have produced a great deal of the world’s finest art. Some areas are anomalously thin.  Aboriginal southeastern North America left us very few items of art, but this may be because most of the art was done in wood and other perishable materials.  The late Roman Empire had little beyond dully repetitive statuary and columns.  The modern United States reveals its puritanical tradition through low level of spending on arts.  There is, today, an incredible contrast between the stale and emotionally thin pop and elite mainstream art and the genuinely great and superb art of contemporary Native peoples, Chicano artists of the American Southwest, and other minorities kept out of the artistic mainstream.







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January 11th, 2015


  1. N. Anderson, 2014



Anthropology has developed some excellent methods over time, and so have other social sciences.  Not using these is comparable to an astronomer using a spyglass instead of computer-integrated information from modern telescopes, or an anatomist using a paleolithic handaxe instead of a scalpel and microscope.  There is simply no excuse for doing poor work, especially on a genuinely valuable project, because of failure to learn a few simple methods.


  1. General Background


Technically, a methodology is a suite of methods entailed by a particular theory.  One uses these methods because they are the proper or best way to test hypotheses generated by the theory.

A theory, in turn, is a general assumption (or set of interconnected assumptions) about how things work.  (The best account of such matters is Kitcher 1993).  The theory may be just guesses, like string theory, or may be very obvious statements that need formalization and extension, like the theory of gravity. Newton did not discover that things fall down instead of up; his genius was to explain why they did, as well as could be done at the time, and to state it mathematically.

A theory should lead to hypotheses (predictions or similar bets) that can be tested; otherwise it’s too vague to count.  Many theories get along without making clear testatble statements, though, in spite of positivism.  Still, if the theory doesn’t make you formulate some sort of testable hypotheses, it’s a waste of time.  Marxism and capitalist economics are both famously untestable bodies of theory, but do lead to testable statements.  The failures of the USSR and Mao’s China show that, whatever Marxism-in-general has to offer, some orthodox Marxisms don’t work.  The Great Depression and the world recession of 2008 show that capitalism doesn’t always work, either.  Many do not count Marxism as a body of theory, however.

Some theories are disproved and are essentially dead.  The most famous of these is Galen’s theory of humoral medicine, which guided medical science throughout the Old World for centuries.  Usually, however, a theory does not totally die; it generates a few useful formulations that go on and on.  And even a bad theory can generate useful hypotheses and conclusions.  Galen’s ideas about moderation in diet and exercise are still with us, since he was perfectly right about them, though for the wrong theoretical reasons.

A theory differs from several theory-like formulations, all of which can be useful but are not really theories.  Orienting statements are one type.  An orienting statement gives you a general way of looking at things, but is too general and abstract to test or to suggest testable statements.  Recent “theories” about globalization, for instance, direct us to look at global-scale phenomena, but usually do not make testable claims about those.  Often an orienting statement is a moral claim, and therefore untestable because it is about what we should do, rather than what we do.

Another shaky type of “theory” is the banal, trivial sort of statement for which certain branches of sociology are infamous (Mills 1959).  Saying that humans are social, that society requires organization, and that organization requires leadership is too bland to be worthy of the name “theory.”  Theory begins when we make claims about how organizations form, how leaders come on board, and what form leadership structures take under given social circumstances.

Another, and much worthier, alternative to true theory is interpretation (Geertz 1973).  Interpretation is, by definition, unprovable.  It can range from my idiosyncratic take on something to a generally accepted understanding, but it is not provable in the scientific sense.  We find it most frequently in literary studies.  Science cannot prove that one or another understanding of the Bible or Hamlet is the “right” one, or that Beethoven’s Ninth is noble and imposing, or that Dutch still-life paintings were comments on the transience of life.  We do not have the creators of these works around to ask.  Yet, it is well worth while to talk of such matters and speculate about them, and anthropology would be immeasurably poorer without such discourse.

One goal of theory and interpretation is to “tell the story behind the story”—i.e., to figure out what is actually causing the events we see.  In social science, theories often divide into broad categories according to what is assumed to be the main cause of action.  Economists tend to assume people want money or material goods.  Sociologists often assume social solidarity or social position are especially important.  Political theorists, including “critical” thinkers like Foucault, often assume power is the most basic thing (though they often have a hard time defining it).  There are other possibilities.  The wise social scientist will keep an open mind, and see how all factors play in a given situation.

Finally, we have philosophy, classically defined by Plato as the study of “the true, the good and the beautiful.”  Neither science nor interpretation will ever tell us what those are, but the human race cannot stop speculating and arguing about them.  We are better and nobler for doing so, in spite of the ultimate hopelessness of the task.

Hopefully, all this will save readers from the all-too-common tendency in anthropology to write a fun story about one’s field work, and then—after the fact—hang some sort of “theory” on it because an editor demanded same.  A decent anthropologist goes to the field with a body of theories, or interpretive ideas, or philosophic concepts, and expects to test them, or at least learn something important about them.


Methodology comes in as a way of testing the hypotheses and examining the theory.  It can also greatly sharpen, expand, and improve the quality of interpretation and philosophy.

Usually, we in anthropology do not follow the rigorous positivist rule that a given theory must call forth a specific methodology and a given method-set must be theory-driven.  (Some anthropologists, especially in archaeology, do follow the positivist rules on this.)  We use the term “methodology” to refer to methods in general.  Moreover, all the methods I describe below can be used with almost any theory, though a particular mix of them may be appropriate to only one body of theory.  However, it is well to remember the connection with theory.  Most current cultural anthropology is weakly theorized; at worst, it is mere travel writing.  So-called “theory” is often no more than a positive attitude toward the people studied and a negative attitude toward outsiders that have an effect on their lives.  This is bias, not theory.

Physical anthropology uses Darwinian theory, archaeology often uses ecological or processual or post-processual theories, but cultural anthropology currently uses actual theory rather sporadically.  Theories of the past (Boasian, Durkheimian, Marxian, etc.) are now used only in a rather loose or general way.  Some ecological, linguistic, and economic theories are still used, but are often dated by now.  The theories of mid-20th-century writers like Michel Foucault remain valuable, but often used vaguely or loosely.  This has produced a situation in which much of anthropology reads like poor-quality journalism—a situation in serious need of correction.


It is extremely valuable to go into the field with a full tool kit of theories and methods.  No theory is adequate by itself.  Even the most comprehensive social-science theories need major supplementation.  The more you reject theories, the more limited and hard to use your results will be.  Both the “postmodern” anthropology that rejected science or even systematic data collecting and the hyper-“scientific” work of the early optimal-foraging-theory days have turned out to be too limited to use for any purpose except stimulating others to go beyond them.  A simple theory is always a good starting point, but anthropology by 100 years ago had reached a stage where truly simplistic theories were known to be inadequate (see e.g. Lowie 1937).

Many anthropologists over the years have found great consolation in T. C. Chamberlin’s classic essay “The Method of Multiple Working Hypotheses,” originally published in Science in 1890 (republished 1965) and now available online on many websites—just search the title.  Chamberlin, a geologist, learned to go into the field with multiple theories and hypotheses available for every observed event.  His explanation of how and why to do this has never been surpassed.  I have actually found this method the most valuable I have ever used.  It means you have to be familiar with the widest possible range of high-level and mid-range theories, from functionalism and structuralism to Foucaultian ideas and Darwinian biology.

Thus, you might think of using some or all of the methods below, so as to get at least some real control on data.


Anthropology is based on a methodology consisting of three fundamental approaches:

–Extended field work, usually lasting at least a year, with a particular community.  The preferred method is “participant observation,” in which one lives as much as possible in the way the local people do.  Of course, really living as the locals do is possible only if one is a local; many anthropologists study their homelands, but most go to some less familiar group, which involves adjustment and makes participant observation a rather qualified matter.

–A holistic approach, which involves taking into account ecological, economic, technological, social, psychological, and political factors.

–Cross-cultural comparison, which involves comparing as many different cultures as possible, to establish or disprove generalizations about people.

This methodology was devised by Lewis Henry Morgan, the father of American anthropology, in the 1850s and 1860s.  I think of it as the three stones that hold up the cooking pot— a metaphor used for social categories (rather than anthropological methods!) by indigenous peoples from the Toba Batak of Sumatera to the Maya of Quintana Roo.


The leading methods book for anthropology is Russell Bernard’s classic Research Methods in Anthropology (now in its 4th edition, 2006).  This is a genuinely great work, a real Bible, and must be kept at hand in field work and analysis.

The only other work I consider indispensable for all ethnographers is Charles Frake’s Language and Cultural Description (1980), which contains several essays on methods that are vitally important.  These essays include especially the classic descriptions of frame elicitation (see below)

There are specialized journals devoted to field work and methods.


  1. The Question of Interpretation and Reality


The key thing anthropologists can do is find out about the local culture.  This does not mean “getting inside the heads” of the locals or “finding out what they think”; it means finding out about what they share.  As an outsider, you will not have the level of access to that shared knowledge and behavior that an insider has, but by using specialized anthropological techniques you can get very close.  You can learn just as well as any immigrant and almost as well as any child.  Frake gives excellent discussions of what the ethnographer can and cannot do.  You can’t read the local minds, but neither can the locals; they have to infer rules, structures, and understandings, just as you do.

The goal of the field worker should be what Frake (1980) calls “appropriate anticipation”—be able to predict, more or less as well as the locals do, what will happen in a given situation.  The goals of the ethnographer, again following Frake, should include telling the reader enough that the reader could act appropriately if s/he were there.  Think of a language textbook:  it should, at the very least, tell you what to say in given situations.  Similarly, an ethnography of local religion should at least tell you how to act and what to expect if you go there and are asked to a ceremony.  (Of course, a work on general theory, or on comparative mythology, or on demographic history, will probably not have such instructions.  We are discussing ethnography, specifically, in this case.)

On the one hand, this means you can learn the culture, and claims that the locals have some mystic telepathic sharing denied to you are just silly.  On the other hand, it means you should be exceedingly modest about “interpretation”—even if you are a local!  Geertzian “interpretive anthropology” (Geertz 1973) and its ancestors (“national character” studies, etc.) have a dubious record.  Unless you are a cultural insider, you will not normally share individual or collective experiences of war, genocide, bias, or for that matter the joys of good harvests or religious ceremonies.  It is wise to simply quote the locals, extensively, on such matters.  Let them do the sophisticated interpreting.

In short, you should do everything possible to find out shared knowledge and shared behavior, but you should be appropriately modest about your ability to understand personal experiences of particularly intense, evocative states and situations.

There was a major debate within anthropology in the 1960s over whether we can get at “what people think.”  Marvin Harris (1968) took an extreme view on the “no” side.  He maintained that we can record only behavior, and cannot trust what people say, let alone our interpretations.  People lie, misrepresent, misunderstand their own motives, etc.  At the other end of the scale, interpretivists like Geertz and cultural psychologists like Rick Shweder (1991), without making a huge point of it (as Harris did), took relatively strong “yes” positions.  Geertz and Shweder implied that understanding what is in people’s heads is relatively unproblematic, at least if one uses modern methods of finding out.   Geertz is modest about his interpretations, leaving the possibility of other interpretations quite open.  Shweder, and  others, have been more assertive.

The field basically solved the problem by voting with their feet for the latter position.  I do not know of anyone maintaining Harris’ position today.  All anthropologists now infer, to varying degrees, “what people think.”  All anthropologists admit that people do sometimes say what they think, and that by careful cross-verification and other techniques (see below) one can get at, or at least approximate, truth.  Even archaeologists are increasingly confident in their ability to infer at least some simple, straightforward ideas from material remains and ethnographic parallels, though this is a tricky game.

There is, however, a huge range.  Some extremely careful anthropologists use a whole armamentarium of techniques to establish meticulously a few rather simple understandings; this would include many cognitivists, who work hard to find the meanings of “simple” plant and animal names, food lore, kinterms, landscape terms, and other straightforward terms that can be grounded in visible reality.  (I am in this category.)  Others make really quite wild assumptions about their ability to understand in depth the most arcane and abstruse religious and philosophical ideas.  This is obviously a dangerous game, since even the locals may not share abstruse ideas very widely.

One necessary part of this is getting a thorough sense of what words mean.  You don’t have to be totally fluent in the local language, though it helps.  Systematic questioning, coupled with lots of listening and observation of how words are used in actual conversations, is necessary.  (See Frake, again.)  Using the words yourself is obviously desirable—you’re sure to misuse them in interesting ways, thus producing innnocent amusement for your subjects as well as a learning experience for yourself.  (Every ethnographer has a favorite story.  Mine is:  when first in Hong Kong I had to buy water from a local standpipe.  People would give me the standard greeting, “Where are you going?”  I would answer “I’m going to buy water.”  After a couple of shocked looks, I realized something was wrong, and found out that the phrase “buy water” is used only when you are getting water to wash the corpse of a family member!  Just one of those idioms….)


Finally, it is abundantly clear that anthropologists have been far too dismissive of local interpretations, theories, and wisdom generally.  The interpretive or functionalist anthropologist, the optimal-foraging or economic theorist, often assumes his or her interpretations and theories are better, truer, more privileged, and more insightful.  Comment should be unnecessary; you come for ONE year and you know more about these people than they know about themselves from thousands of years of interaction?  Right.  But traditional and local people are not used to verbalizing their philosophies and social theories.  You have to be sensitive and keep asking.  Also, as an outsider (if you are one), you CAN see things that the locals don’t notice because they are so used to them.  Proper humility is needed, but is not self-abnegation!

There is the notorious risk, though, that if you do that you will get into a dialogue with a local thinker and wind up with something marvelous and original but outside normal local thinking.  The type case is Marcel Griaule’s Conversations with Ogotemmeli (1965), a wonderful and classic book by a larger-than-life French adventurer-ethnographer and the brilliant (if illiterate) Dogon sage Ogotemmeli, in Mali, Africa.  This book is a philosophical classic that you should read, but it is the philosophical speculation of Ogotemmeli as prompted and encouraged by Griaule, not the traditional Dogon view.  Of course, in the world I usually work in (China), traditional philosophy is more well known, and the fact that individuals have different philosophies is also well known, but very few non-Chinese ethnographers have used Chinese social theories to explain anything.  Fortunately, Chinese ethnographers do, so we have that benefit.

Now that there are many Native American and other ethnographers, we have many books explaining traditional philosophy from within, such as Richard Atleo’s Tsawalk (2004) and Traditions of Tsawalk (2011; Richard is Nuu-chah-nulth, from Vancouver Island, Canada, and like several other Nuu-chah-nulth he has an anthropology Ph.D.).


  1. Techniques


Field work by cultural anthropologists usually involves participant observation (DeWalt and DeWalt 2001; Spradley 1980), lasting at least six months and usually a year or more.  Serious comprehensive ethnographic research requires this.  However, for many reasons, we also do quick visits, long-distance studies (using other people’s findings), straight interviews, visual studies, library and documentary research, and cross-cultural comparative studies, among other things.  Limited projects (e.g. to find out about one narrow subject—say, fish names or vegetable marketing) can be completed in a few weeks, especially if one is familiar with the area and people.

One valuable technique is rapid rural assessment (RRA), which is a specialized interview-and-observation technique that allows very rapid discovery of a lot of data (Gladwin 1989 covers it; there are more up-to-date, complete sources).  Related is participatory rural assessment, which involves organizing local people to do their own fact-finding and synthesis.  In participatory rural assessment, local people set their own goals, map their communities, figure out what they need by way of development or problem-solving, figure out what resources they have, and so on; the anthropologist guides the approach and sets the tasks.


Getting started:  Every community has somebody who knows everybody.  Frequently, this individual is a minor government functionary in a “helping” role (as opposed to a person keeping the place in line).  The local postmaster filled the role in American small towns.   So did the waitresses at the local coffee shop.  Sometimes the village storekeeper is a contact person, but sometimes he is seen as the village skinflint.  Check around!

Then, wander around the community being very nice to everyone, greeting them, learning their names, introducing and explaining yourself.  Become a local fixture to the point where you are semi-invisible—just the local foreigner.

A census is a good way to start serious work and get to know everyone.  Ask very nonthreatening questions on an initial census!  See below on finding out about local question etiquette.

There is a whole literature on field notes (Canfield 2011 provides perspectives from all field sciences, not just anthropology).  Suffice it to say that recording everything is impossible, but getting as near as you can is a good idea at first, till you figure out what is really important.


Interviewing is the basic technique in ethnography.  This can mean anything from applying a set questionnaire (closed-ended interviewing) to free-ranging questions and discussion (open-ended interviewing).  I get best results with a semi-structured questionnaire, one that you memorize thoroughly before the interview and then apply in a rather improvisational manner—not letting the interviewee escape without getting all the questions answered, but letting some free play happen, so the interviewee can get clear about meanings, discuss points, clear up ambiguities, etc.  See any good book on social interviewing, as well as Bernard.

Keep working on the language—we could all use better fluency.  I am a terrible linguist, but I try.

The whole issue of how to interview and ask questions is the first thing to address when you get to the field.  Cultures differ dramatically as to what types of question are acceptable.  Many Americans are astonishingly open about sex but hate to disclose their income.  Chinese (at least the ones I worked with) are the reverse.  Americans also hate to admit they are racist.  A colleague of mine was amazed at how little racism his students found in our city of residence.  I asked him if it had occurred to him that having bright young university students doing the interviewing might possibly bias the responses.  “Why, no….”  Another colleague was similarly surprised by how carefully people were shopping in the supermarket—I was less surprised, since he and his co-worker had followed shoppers around with a videocamera.  Having (again) bright young university students watch every move would make anyone more careful!  Such examples are so obvious as to be funny, but the danger is in far more subtle matters, especially when one is translating a perfectly innocent question in English into what may be a subtly leading question in Spanish or Chinese.

See also The Long Interview (McCracken 1988) and James Spradley’s The Ethnographic Interview (1979)Others recommend (but I have not seen) a book by Charles Briggs called Learning How to Ask (1986), one by Meyer and Booker (1991) on interpreting interview data, and a book on “active interviewing” by Holstein and Gubrium (1995).  It is also very worthwhile to spend a while with reporters finding out about journalistic methods of interviewing and getting data.

One absolutely critical interviewing technique that nobody covers well is depth interviewing.  This is a 2- to 4-hour interview in which the ethnographer probes deeper and deeper into the interviewee’s emotions, feelings, and personal stories.  A good interviewer tries to keep questions down to a minimum, and usually just makes encouraging noises (“and then…?”  “mm-hm?”).  The interviewer must appear relaxed but thoroughly engaged—completely present, interested, and supportive.  A good interviewer will appear not to “pry” or “apply pressure” but will be sympathetic and concerned and genuinely interested.  This involves being comfortable with silences—Native American informants in particular often remain silent for a minute or even several minutes during such conversations.  On the other hand, very gentle questioning of the type “How did you feel about that?” and “are you comfortable talking with me about that?” is necessary.  In such cases, DO take “no” for an answer; be comfortable with letting the interviewee set limits.

Almost anyone loves to talk about almost any subject, if they are given this level of genuine concern.  (Be prepared for tears and other emotional releases.)  Such interviewing is an art form, though it is basically developed from what close and empathetic friends and family members do for each other all the time.  It is also so intensely personal that unless you are genuinely concerned and caring about the interviewee, YOU SHOULD NOT ATTEMPT IT.

Depth interviewing is necessary in many, many ethnographic cases, especially in interviewing about tragedy and major stress.  It is astonishingly rarely taught or used.  Psychotherapists are supposed to learn it but often do not.  The literature that alleges lack of mother love and lack of regret for dead infants in certain societies is evidently based on lack of familiarity with this interviewing technique.  I know this not only from the literature but more directly from my own field work in at least one society where such lack was widely alleged by superficial ethnographers, but instantly disappeared under depth interviewing, when grief could come out openly.


Finally, never underestimate the value of “deep hanging out”—an excellent phrase used by Clifford Geertz to describe everyday ethnography.  Just hanging around keeping your eyes and ears open remains the best of all field techniques.  I have found I talk less and look more every time I do field work.


Etics and emics:  Kenneth Pike liberated the linguistic endings from “phonetic” and “phonemic.”  He meant something really creative:  Etics involve studying a system by applying a universal metric or analytic system—in the case of phonetics, the international methods of studying sounds, via the sonagram and other mechanical/impersonal techniques.  Emics involves studying a system by finding its internal structure and the units that make that up—in the case of phonemics, the sounds recognized by speakers of the language as making meaningful contrasts.

Etics does not mean “outsider’s view” and emics does not mean “insider’s view,” contra the sloppy usage in many anthro books (including Conrad Kottak’s widely-used textbooks).  Using the terms this way loses all their value.  Both emics and etics can be done by either outsiders or insiders, but only when trained in structural analysis. In language, for example, any trained insider can use a sonagram as well as any outsider; conversely, most people cannot provide a phonemic analysis of their own language—only trained linguists do that.

A good ethnographer, whether outsider or insider, will study both etics and emics, just as any decent linguist will record both the phonetics and the phonemics of a language.  Consider food:  a good ethnographer will do a nutritional analysis and some kind of optimal foraging model or Bayesian-optimizing model (all these are etic), but will also find out what the locals call their foods, how they classify them, how they structure them in terms of nutrition and social use, and other emic matters.  Neither of these has anything to do with outsider vs insider per se.  (The typical outsider’s view of local foodways is “yuck!”  The typical insider’s view is “yum!”  This does not get us far analytically.)


Stories and texts:   These were the bread-and-butter of old-time ethnographers, and often is to this day.  Nothing beats collecting stories—personal stories, stories about the community, about the origin of the world, about the economy, anything.  People love telling stories.  In most cultures, stories are teaching devices; people teach their children and each other through this medium.  Any and all texts and accounts are valuable.  Record them and transcribe them.  A particularly good authority on working with stories is Julie Cruikshank (1998, 2005).

A specialized, extremely important story to collect is the life story. Since the brilliant and innovative work of Paul Radin in the early 20th century, collecting detailed life stories from interviewees is a key part of many anthropologists’ work.  Most, however, do not do it; it tends to be rather a specialized thing to do.  I have collected brief life stories in Hong Kong and a long, detailed one in Mexico (Anderson and Medina Tzuc 2005).

There is now, in psychology rather than anthropology, a valuable and widely-used interview prompt for this work:  The McAdams Life Story Interview (1995; Google it; it is available to download).

One standard thing to do with life stories is textual analysis.  This often begins with, but does not end with, analysis of words.  Psychologists have developed a terrific software for scanning a document for important words (Pennebaker et al. 2007).  From words, one often progresses to themes, and here McAdams has developed some key themes to look for in the life stories he collects (McAdams et al. 1996, 2001).


Decision-making is also a very important, basic approach, best introduced in Christina Gladwin’s little booklet Ethnographic Decision Tree Modeling (1989, Sage) is basic.  A classic study, with methodological reflections (especially in the 2nd edn., 1994) is James Young and Linda Garro: Medical Choice in a Mexican Village.  Shankar Aswani has done some good work on decision-making in fisheries, and thoughtfully related that to more purely economic and biological methods (e.g. Aswani and Weiant 2004).  Basically, the idea is to ask people in detail about the steps that they went through to make a particular decision—what crop to plant (Gladwin), what to do when someone in the family is sick (Young and Garro), what to do about fishing and fish conservation (Aswani), and so on.  This technique assumes that decisions can be broken down into ordered sequences of yes/no answers:  Can I get the seed for this crop?  Can I get fertilizer for it? Can I get enough water for it?  And so on.  People usually do decide that way, at least in clear-cut matters like crop choice, and even if they don’t you can break down decisions into yes/no or more-versus-less choices.  But sometimes people decide on impulse, or subconsciously integrate several factors at once.  Careful questioning allows you to deal with such cases, and continue to use decision tree analysis.  It is a particularly powerful technique, especially for decisions that are important but that involve well-known, rather routine choices, like agricultural decisions.  A farmer or gardener normally knows exactly what crops she can plant and how to grow them, and how to get information if she does not know enough about something.  Decisions about what to do in an unforeseen new emergency are less clear-cut and consequently harder to analyze, but in principle can be covered the same way.

Decision-making studies have led to looking at cultural models, but so far little methodology has been developed for this; for a major exception that gets us fairly far in doing comparable analyses of this difficult realm, see Victor de Munck (2011) on romantic love.


Another absolutely essential technique is the focus group, in which the interviewer recruits 4-6 people or so and gets them to talk about the specific subject under investigation.  This has turned out to be a major winner as a research method for political researchers and marketers as well as for anthropologists.  See David Morgan (1996).


Another universally used technique is the Likert scale, that little scale where you get to rank things from “agree strongly” to “disagree strongly” or “most liked” to “most disliked,” as on student evaluations, political surveys, etc.   It works well only if you use 5 or 7 cells.  5 is generally better.


A large range of personality tests and other psychological tests is available.  In general, I advise against using these, because they rarely work in local conditions—the local worldview and language are probably too different from the testmakers’.  But they may be useful where this does not apply and where you can get a psychologist to help administer them.


Other formal techniques include frame elicitation.  This is best explained by Frake (see above), but basically it consists of looking around and asking everyone “what’s that?”  When you have names, you sit down with a consultant and ask “what kinds of X are there?” till there are no more divisions.  Then you can work up:  “Is X a kind of…?”  Beware, though; this can force a spurious level of systematization on your consultants.  Better to do all this informally in the field, one question at a time, and to use focus groups to get people talking about how they conceptualize things.  Carefully used—with much asking, pointing, and walking around, rather than mechanical frame interviewing in a house—this is the most valuable of all the analytic or specialized techniques.

Related are card-sorts and pile-sorts, in which names of things are written on cards and sorted into piles according to whatever criteria you want to study.

On all these formal methods, and on basic statistics, see, in addition to Bernard’s book, the superb article by W. Penn Handwerker in A Companion to Cognitive Anthropology (2011).  Handwerker manages to get into a few pages more solid advice and reference material on methodology than many authors get into whole books.  On statistics, however, be sure to read Darrell Huff’s classic How to Lie with Statistics (1954).  “Figures don’t lie but liars figure,” as the proverb says, and Huff warns you of a lot of ways they do it.


Walking around in the fields and woods, asking about everything, remains the best of all techniques for finding out about names, categories, and ethnobiological knowledge.  A formalization is a “nature trail,” in which the investigator lays out a short set course with known plants along it.  Then the investigator can walk this trail with different subjects, seeing how many plants they can name.  This is particularly useful with children—one can see how much they know at what age.  (Brian Stross, Gene Hunn, Rebecca Zarger, and J. R. Stepp, studying children in the south Mexican highlands, have worked particularly with this technique.)

Child-following is used to advantage in such situations, and in nutrition research.  You just follow a child around, seeing what she does.  It’s the only way to find out what children actually eat, as memorably shown by the late Christine Wilson in her field work.

For that matter, following adults is necessary too, but has to be done with more circumspection.


There are also censusing, surveying, survey design, optimal foraging study and modeling, GIS and GPS, statistics, economic data management, and other formal techniques; Bernard covers all of them adequately, though if seriously interested in optimal foraging or in economics you will need supplementary reading on these (they have a large, specialized literature).

Surveys often involve poorly designed questions that lead to misleading results.  Most people agree with both “Individuals are more to blame than social conditions for crime” and “Social conditions are more to blame than individuals for crime”—depending on which one you ask (Radwin 2009:B9).  In other words, people love to agree with any old statement.  It’s all in the way you phrase it.  Question order, bias words, and so forth all influence the result.  Some questions are so poorly worded that a large percentage of the respondents cannot figure out what is being asked.  This is particularly common when a questionnaire is translated from one language to another, as very often happens in anthropological research, so watch out; pre-test questionnaires for comprehensibility.

Remember to avoid leading questions (now often called “push questions”):  questions that imply you want a certain answer.  Indeed, avoid everything that might be taken as implying you want to hear a particular kind of answer.  Find out what counts as leading questions in the culture you are studying.  Many questions that are perfectly innocent and non-leading in English turn out to be strongly leading when translated into Chinese.  I found out the hard way—but at least I learned it fast—that “how are you?” was interpreted as “you look sick, what’s wrong?”  Similar pitfalls occur in other languages.

Response bias can enter quite dramatically.  Surveys of food consumption in the United States correlate very well with sales figures at stores, but sales figures of liquor consumption can be up to five times what the surveys show!  People may understate consumption, but more important here is the fact that an extremely high percentage of liquor is drunk by relatively few people, and those few are rarely in any condition to answer a survey.

Finally, people lie, almost always to give the socially “correct” response.  Many more people say they voted in the last election than could actually have done so (Radwin 2009:B9).  And almost no racists exist in the United States—if you believe the survey results!

Anthropologists also do a great deal of visual anthropology: photography, recording, film and videotape work, and other methods of making a permanent and more-or-less-objective record of what we find.  There is also ethnomusicological recording to worry about.  There are specialized works on this.   My experience is that it is difficult to do quality visual work and quality interviewing or other talking-ethnography at the same time.  One can work as a team, or do the interviewing first and visuals later.  Some geniuses can do both at the same time, but I am far from this level.

I’m not an expert, and will not push this one, but a useful tip from Douglas Medin (presentation at Society for Anthropological Sciences, 2010) is that there are four general ways to do a picture:  directly on (the usual approach—“voyeur”), embodied (shows hands working, from the viewpoint of the worker—as if you and the camera are doing the work with your hands), over the shoulder (of your main subject—so you are standing behind her and seeing what she sees), and “fourth wall” or “breaking the wall,” in which case the people in the photo are all looking at you (as in a standard group shot).  Doug showed that Native American children’s book illustrations (drawings, not photos) have much more of the last three types of pictures than Anglo ones, a culturally very interesting observation.

This brings home the point that interpreting others’ photos and pictures is a major part of visual anthro.  Both interpreting cultural representations (pictures, etc.) and getting your subjects to take photos for you are standard techniques and very effective if well done.


Another under-taught topic is historical research–documentary, archival, and text work.  Historians learn as a kind of second nature how to evaluate a document—how much to trust it, how to cross-check, how to allow for biases, etc.  The best way to find out about this is to ask a historian.  They have their own books, but an hour with a seasoned historian will give you a good enough start.

At the very least, read the major anthropological and historical works on your area!  I am appalled at the illiteracy of some graduate students.  What were their professors thinking?  Egregious mistakes even get into the published literature.  This is inexcusable.  Much more common is the field worker who misses a great deal for lack of knowing the questions to ask, the deeper matters to look for, and the contexts to use in interpretation.


How to take and keep field notes is the subject of Roger Sanjek’s Fieldnotes and a lot of journal articles.  Some other useful lore is in Tony Robben’s Ethnographic Fieldwork:  An Anthropological Reader; Joseph Casagrande’s marvelous and far too neglected anthology, In the Company of Man; and Michael Agar’s classic The Professional Stranger.  See also LeCompte and Schensul, Designing and Conducting Ethnographic Research (2nd edn. 2010).


Multi-sited ethnography:  this has been advocated by George Marcus and many others.  Obviously it’s appropriate if you’re studying mobile, transnational, or migrant populations.  It isn’t if you’re studying people who stay put, unless you want to do systematic or controlled comparisons (very valuable, but a different issue).  Use common sense and don’t feel compelled to do it just because it was a buzz word for a while.  If you have only a year, as most of us do, it’s better to stay put.  Finding out much about even a very small community in a year is already challenging enough.  The great transnational studies, like Michael Kearney’s (see Kearney 1996—a “must read” if you’re working with this), were 30-year or 40-year projects.


Teamwork:  The day of the lone field worker who found out “everything” about the Trobriands or the Nuer is most emphatically gone.  Do what you do best, and collaborate with other people who do what they do best.

Work with biologists, political scientists, photographers, anyone that has expertise you need.  Many ethnographers go in as part of a team.  I find it more useful to work with people on the ground.  Local scholars generally need and appreciate the opportunities.  (On the other hand, many see outside scholars as a threat to their monopoly and their status.  Be careful about this.)

One type of “teamwork” is working as a family.  Fortunate is the anthropologist who has a spouse who can work with him or her.  Alas, field work is not always the easiest posting, and some spouses do not adjust well.  Most valuable of all is working as a family with children.  Children disarm suspicion, attract friendly and solicitous attention, evoke stories, and allow study of child-training practices.  Also, when they are old enough, they are born ethnographers.  They are curious about everything and are amazingly quick with social cues and social learning. (They are wired for it.  The human animal evolved as a social creature, and social learning is a child’s main occupation.)  However, working with children is reasonable only if you are near a good hospital.  Children have died in remote field situations.


“Studying up”:  Laura Nader and others have advocated studying the rich and powerful.  Unfortunately, I could never get a million-dollar grant for subsistence.  More seriously, most anthropologists don’t have the tools and training to do this effectively.  If you want to study up, work with and learn from political scientists and sociologists!  They have the methods and tools!  When faced with the need to find out what the powerful were up to, I have worked with political scientists, and have also picked the brains of anthropologists who had done that type of work and had learned the techniques and methods.

There are lots of political scientists, sociologists, historians, and others studying elites, but only anthropologists study the people low on the political hierarchy.  We thus best use our talents and training in the latter cause.  We are generally the only people that can bring their words and concerns to a wide audience.  Now and then we get the chance to help them bring their own voices or causes to the wide arena—a blessed and wonderful chance if carefully done.  I thus strongly recommend studying ordinary people and especially neglected and oppressed ones.


  1. General Philosophical Concerns


Completeness and comparability are major concerns, and major problems with many field projects.  Be sure to get all the data possible on the subjects under study.  Be sure that interviews, forms, and data recording makes findings strictly comparable between subjects and situations.  The same information has to be collected in the same way.


One word of philosophical guidance about culture in general:  Only real people (or animals) do things.  This should be obvious, but anthropologists all too often fall into the social science trap of saying that Capitalism, or The State, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster did such-and-such a thing.  No.  They didn’t.  People did.  Capitalism and the Flying Spaghetti Monster don’t exist (the former is an analytical abstraction that bears only some resemblance to any current real-world referent).  The State exists, but if you think it acts or is real by itself, look at Somalia, DR Congo, or Afghanistan.  The State functions because the people in it have decided that preserving it and working for it will best accomplish their human goals.  It becomes a true emergent, like a kinship system or a myth, and thus has a genuine reality (unlike capitalism).  However—again like a kinship system—it exists only as long as a lot of people buy into it and don’t question it too strongly.  Always study emergents and recognize their reality, but remember they don’t really act by themselves.  The ability of people to believe in such things, and to believe they act on their own, is fascinating, and related to the belief in supernatural beings.


As Andrew “Pete” Vayda has been insisting for years (Vayda 2008), some background in the philosophy and history of science (specifically, epistemology) is absolutely essential.  This would include, at least, Thomas Kuhn’s classic The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) and Philip Kitcher’s The Advancement of Science (1993).  See also Ian Hacking (1999), Bruno Latour’s work (esp. 2004, 2005), Alison Wylie’s work (2002, 2004), and Pete Vayda’s and others’ relevant writings.  Some background in the history of anthropology is essential (see many books by Adam Kuper and by George Stocking).  Theory and history are not covered adequately in many anthro graduate programs, so read these on your own.

Perhaps the most valuable thing one learns from these works is how to avoid mindless use of current buzzwords.  Buzzwords usually start out as useful concepts, but lose it all when they become too widely used.  Go back to the original source and read the full, properly qualified story.  Those of us who have checked are always astonished at how wrong even the best secondary sources get the classic writers, to say nothing of slapdash textbooks.  Reading Durkheim, for example, is a real revelation if you knew him only from even the best histories of anthropology.


Ethics:  Here again, one can start with Bernard, but an excellent practical guide to working ethics has now appeared (Whiteford and Trotter 2004)  Many ethical questions have been treated in detail in Anthropology News over many decades.  The American Anthropological Association’s Code of Ethics is easily available online from the Association, and is basic.

Always be meticulous about touching bases in the field area.  Contact local scholars, and promise to help and work with them if possible.  Go through all the bureaucratic hoops uncomplainingly.  Find people you can work with, institutes you can collaborate with, and universities you can hang out at.  Be humble; First World investigators are threatening to many Third World bureaucrats and scholars.  Many—if not all—Third World and indigenous scholars have encountered arrogant, overbearing, and inconsiderate First Worlders.  These were not usually anthropologists, but you will pay the price even if it was a diplomat or an agricultural advisor that dissed the local scholars.  Bear it and be genuinely polite.  Save your hate for the diplomat or advisor, not the locals.

In your community, similarly, get the official cooperation of the local authorities—complete with signed permission to workShare your results, in so far as possible, when you do any writing up.

Questions that permanently concern anthropologists include:  Are we really somehow ripping off the “natives” by finding out things?  How does one collaborate?  Coauthor?  How does one “represent the other” without being a mental colonialist?  How to get honest responses and publish them?  How much can one publish the local dirt—corruption, conflict, sordid tales?  (My recommendation is simple:  don’t unless you have to.)   How to be tactful?  How much to get involved in local matters?  How to avoid factions?  How to avoid local entanglements? One would, for instance, think it unnecessary to warn people NOT EVER to get sexually involved with people one is doing field work with!  But I hear that some people do this—a good way to get killed.

Err on the side of caution.  Remember the first clause in the AAA’s Code is that your most immediate duty is to the people you are working with.  It is not acceptable to put them at serious risk.  It is not acceptable to exploit them for money, e.g. by selling photos or writing a bestseller without cutting them in on the profits.  It is not acceptable to use their words and information without giving full credit, including coauthorship if their input is really significant.  It is not acceptable to refrain from helping them with medicines, etc., if you have the knowledge or connections; if it messes up your medical anthro research a bit, too bad; their lives are more important than any dreams of intellectual purity.  Do not let yourself be exploited or “used,” but be as helpful as possible when help is needed.

Avoid involvement with local factions, no matter how right your favorite one seems to be.  Involvement ruins your field work, endangers your safety, and inevitably makes local politics worse.  Let them sort it out.

The wider question of advocacy is more serious.  Anthropologists almost always find that their groups are getting a raw deal, because we usually study small, less-than-affluent communities who are low on the political hierarchy.  Serious advocacy is often desirable, but should take the form of “speaking truth to power” as the phrase goes.  It is not usually appropriate to get off into strong statements or political action in the field site  On the other hand, it sometimes is appropriate, e.g. in cases of outright genocide.  Generally, the very best thing is to carry local voices to the wide world—if you can do it without endangering your subjects.  For example, giving quotes that can be traced to an individual is not a good idea in a state that is persecuting that community.  Confidential reports to trusted government people who can really help your community are sometimes desirable.  The best thing is usually to do the best job you can at getting the facts right and producing a scholarly book.  Do what is morally right, but in the most cautious and least overstated way.

Think seriously about who can hear your message and use it.  I did one substantial piece of field work in a really dangerous situation.  I never published or disclosed the worst and most hidden material.  I got the rest of the really touchy material to people in the government whom I knew I could trust and whom I knew would use the information wisely.  I kept everything else on ice for years, until the situation changed and I could safely publish the less touchy chunks of it.

Anthropologists are driven almost mad by the steadily increasing obsessiveness of institutional review boards (IRB’s, a.k.a. Human Subjects Review Committees).  They exist to prevent lawsuits over problems arising in sensitive, invasive, or dangerous medical and psychological research.  Thus they are often inappropriately restrictive for anthropological field work.  We cannot always get signed, detailed protocols proving that our subjects know every possible risk they are incurring.  And we may have to take photographs and films of large ritual or market situations where we cannot possibly get signed permissions from every man, woman and child.

And we rarely do anything that puts subjects at any real risk.  The main exception, and it is an important one, is research in or on military, criminal, or other genuinely dangerous matters.  For these, the investigator does need to worry about the full IRB panoply of concerns.  For the full story, see the fall 2007 issue of American Ethnologist, which has a whole excellent section on IRB’s.


Applied anthropology is a whole separate area that I do not want to cover here; suffice it to say that the same general moral rules apply.  Do what will actually help and what will actually not be undercut by someone else.

Collaboration with local communities in getting particular projects done is another enormously complex and involved topic, beyond my range here.  See the journal Human Organization—just search back through it.


The question of objectivity always surfaces.  No, you aren’t totally objective; you’re involved with your subjects.  But, as one anthropologist wrote, “just because you can’t maintain pure asepsis doesn’t mean you can do surgical operations in a sewer” (Geertz 1973).  Be solidly grounded in facts and establish everything as solidly as possible.  I once worked with an anthropologist, a superb field worker, who collected over 50 detailed stories of the same event—and stayed perfectly neutral and calm through it all, properly writing down everything, though the stories wildly disagreed about basic details!  Then we sat down to analyze why the stories were so different.

The idea is to be as factual, or objective, as possible, but be open about your biases, too.  Self-awareness is important.


  1. Final Tips


Field work is lots of fun, but one thing we face is culture shock, a useful term coined by the Finnish-Canadian anthropologist Kalervo Oberg.  This condition is not confined to anthropologists.  What typically happens, when Person A goes to live in Society B, is that the first 3 to 6 months are a sort of honeymoon period.  After that, Reality hits, and it can hit pretty hard.  A period of painful adjustment follows—the 6th month is usually the hardest!  It’s good to plan a brief vacation from your field work at that time.  After the 6th month, things get easier.  Students are familiar with a mild form of this from adjusting to college (dorms, roommates, classes…).  Adjusting to marriage or any other life-and-residence change is comparable.  There is a honeymoon period, a let-down period, and then adjustment, hopefully peaceful and contented.

Once you have adjusted to a new community, adjusting back to your own home typically involves some “reverse culture shock.”  Do not be surprised at this; it’s normal.


Field work is normally one of the least dangerous activities on earth.  I have always been healthier in the field than at home.  Forget the poisonous snakes and scorpions of the travel books—you won’t see any, or if you do they will be the least of your worries.  (I have had to kill more than one cobra in my field dwellings.  They don’t usually strike.)

However, don’t take insane chances.  Take a first-aid kit and standard first-aid medications, notably general antibiotics that will quickly knock out skin infections, traveler’s diarrhea and food poisoning (Salmonella, Shigella, etc.), and the like.  Be sure to take the proper anti-malarial medicine in malarial areas; the medicine of choice varies from region to region.

Use tough, sturdy shoes or boots if in a literal “field” situation.  Today, the “field” is often an urban neighborhood, but some of us still work in actual fields.  You are far more likely to come to grief from wearing inadequate shoes than from all those poisonous critters put together.  Take sunblock and suchlike things as appropriate.  DO ask people who have been in the area you are going, and DO read the Lonely Planet guides, or similar guides for active and enterprising travelers.

Don’t worry about the local food, including “street food.”  It’s safe enough if cooked at high heat.  Any fruit or veg with a tough peel (bananas, mangoes…) is safe if the peel isn’t broken.  In most of the tropics, the water is still dubious, however, and so is raw seafood.  The only time I got really sick in 2 years of field work in Mexico was from eating undercooked oysters in a fancy restaurant.


The fad for “reflexive” ethnography a few years ago gives you lots of accounts to learn from.  Many are far from exemplary.  One particularly candid account of a particularly intelligent, sensitive researcher’s first taste of the field is found in Eric Mueggler’s The Age of Wild Ghosts (2001).  I could name many others.  A nice balance of self-revelation with consultant’s own stories is Zapotec Women by Lynn Stephen (1991).  She has her opinions and experiences; she also gives the facts; and she gives the women’s own testimonies, which often disagree with her interpretation.  Stephen makes their lot sound very bleak, but the women she quotes sound decidedly more happy.  I visited her field site and did some field work myself to understand this.  It turned out that Stephen emphasizes the hardship which is indeed the lot of most Zapotec women, but the women she quoted in the book were a relatively more successful group who were generally more upbeat on their situation.  Also, Mexican women are taught to aguantar—bear uncomplainingly.  They don’t expect as much from life as an elite American academic does.


This shows the advantages of field-checking anything one reads, if one possibly can.  More:  it shows how much perspective and outlook matter, and how they can color analysis by even the best anthropologists.  Always double-check.  Always look for alternative views.  Always try to find someone else from a different perspective and training who can study your area and hopefully validate your work.



Thanks to many people, notably Russ Bernard, Nick Colby, Victor De Munck, Norie Huddle, Eugene Hunn, Dell Hymes, Michael Kearney, Tara McCoy, Evelyn Pinkerton, and above all David Kronenfeld for discussions that taught me what I know about these matters.





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Radwin, David.  2009.  “High Response Rates Don’t Ensure Survey Accuracy.”  Chronicle of Higher Education Review, Oct. 9, pp. B8-B9.


Robben, Antonius C.  2006.  Ethnographic Fieldwork:  An Anthropological Reader.  New York:  Wiley-Blackwell.


Rubin, Herbert, and Irene Rubin.  2005.  Qualitative Interviewing:  The Art of Hearing Data.  2nd edn.  Sage.


Sanjek, Roger.  1990.  Fieldnotes:  The Making of Anthropology.  Ithaca:  Cornell University Press.


Shweder, Richard.  1991.  Thinking Through Cultures:  Explorations in Cultural Psychology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


Spradley, James.  1979.  The Ethnographic Interview. New York:  Holt, Rinehart and Winston.


—  1980.  Participant Observation.  New York:  Holt, Rinehart and Winston.


Stephen, Lynn.  1991.  Zapotec Women.  Austin:  University of Texas Press.


Vayda, Andrew P.  2008.  “Causal Explanations as a Research Goal:  A Pragmatic View.”  In Against the Grain:  The Vayda Tradition in Ecological Anthropology, Bradley Walker, Bonnie McCay, Paige West, and Susan Lees, eds.  Lanham, MD:  AltaMira (division of Rowman and Littlefield).  Pp. 317-367.


Whiteford, Linda M., and Robert T. Trotter II.  2008.  Ethics for Anthropological Research and Practice. Long Grove, IL:  Waveland Press.


Wylie, Alison.  2002.  Thinking from Things:  Essays in the Philosophy of Archaeology.  UC.  Essays; 514 pp.


Wylie, Alison.  2004.  “Why Standpoint Matters.”  In The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader:  Intellectual and Political Controversies, ed Sandra Harding. London:  Routledge.  Pp. 339-352.


Young, James Clay, and Linda Garro. l994.  Medical Choice in a Mexican Village.  2nd edn. Boulder, CO:  Westview.


Bibliography of E. N. Anderson

December 13th, 2014




Just about an even 7200 pages as of 2014 (after bk 25, article 46, chap 50).




Books and Monographs


  1. 1970.  The Floating World of Castle Peak Bay. Washington, DC:  American Anthropological Association, Anthropological Studies Series, Vol. 3, 274 pages.


  1. 1972.  Essays on South China’s Boat People. Taipei: Orient Cultural Service.  146 pages.


  1. 1973.  Eugene N. Anderson and Marja L. Anderson.  Mountains and Water. Taipei:  Orient Cultural Service.  179 pages.


  1. 1978.  Eugene N. Anderson and Marja L. Anderson.  Fishing in Troubled Waters: Research on the Chinese Fishing Industry in West Malaysia.  346 pages. Taipei: Orient Cultural Service.


  1. 1978.  A Revised, Annotated Bibliography of the Chumash and Their Predecessors. Socorro, New Mexico:  Ballena Press.  82 pp.


  1. 1983. Coyote Space.  Shelter Cove, CA: Holmgangers Press.  26 pp.  (Poetry.)


  1. 1988. The Food of China. New Haven: Yale University Press.  263 pp.


7a.  1997.  One chapter, “Traditional Medical Values of Food,” reprinted (from above) in a book of readings in nutritional anthropology: Counihan, Carole, and Penny Van Esterik (eds.): Food and Culture: A Reader. New York and London: Routledge.  Pp. 80-91.


  1. 1996. Ecologies of the Heart. New York: Oxford University Press.  xiii + 256 pp.


8a.  1999.  One chapter, “Chinese Nutritional Therapy” (pp. 29-54), reprinted in a book of readings in nutritional anthropology: Alan Goodman, Darna Dufour and Getel Pelto (eds.), Nutritional Anthropology:  Biocultural Perspectives on Food and Nutrition. Mountain View, CA:  Mayfield.  Pp. 198-211.


  1. 1996. Ed./introduction to:  Duff, Wilson: Bird of Paradox, the Unpublished Writings of Wilson Duff. Surrey, B.C.: Hancock House.  (Introductory material, pp. 1-117, and editorial matter, pp. 281-313, plus overall editing, of posthumous work by a leading Canadian anthropologist.)


  1. 1997. Coyote Way. Pleasant Hills, CA:  Small Poetry Press.  100 pp.  (Poetry.)


  1. 2000. A Soup for the Qan.  By Paul D. Buell and E. N. Anderson. London:  Kegan Paul International.  715 pp.  (Chinese text [ca. 160 pp.], translation, and book-length editorial matter, scholarly commentary, and annotations.)

Second edition, 2010.  Xviii, 662 pp.  Leiden:  Brill.


  1. 2003. Those Who Bring the Flowers:  Maya Ethnobotany in Quintana Roo, Mexico.  By E. N. Anderson with José Cauich Canul, Aurora Dzib, Salvador Flores Guido, Gerald Islebe, Felix Medina Tzuc, Odilón Sánchez Sánchez, and Pastor Valdez Chale.  Chetumal, Quintana Roo:  ECOSUR.  323 pp.

Spanish edition:  Las Plantas de los Mayas:  Etnobotánica en Quintana Roo, México.  Tr. Gerald Islebe and Odilón Sánchez Sánchez.  Chetumal:  Colegio de la Frontera Sur (successor to ECOSUR).


  1. 2004. Introduction to Cultural Ecology, by Mark Q. Sutton and E. N. Anderson. Walnut Creek:  AltaMira (division of Rowman and Littlefield).  Xiii + 385 pp.

Second edition, 2009.

Third edition, 2013.


  1. 2004. Rights, Resources, Culture, and Conservation in the Land of the Maya.  Ed. by Betty B. Faust, E. N. Anderson, and John G. Frazier. Westport, CT: Greenwood.


  1. 2005. Everyone Eats. New York: New York University Press.  Viii + 294 pp.

2nd edn., 2014.


  1. Chase-Dunn, Christopher, and E. N. Anderson, eds. 2005. The Historical Evolution of World-Systems.  New York:  Palgrave MacMillan.


  1. 2005. Animals and the Maya in Southeast Mexico, by E. N. Anderson and Felix Medina Tzuc. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.  Xviii + 251 pp.


  1. 2005. Political Ecology in a Yucatec Maya Community. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.  Xx + 275 pp.


  1. 2007. Floating World Lost:  A Hong Kong Fishing Community. New Orleans:  University Press of the South. Ix + 206 pp.


  1. 2008. Mayaland Cuisine: The Food of Maya Mexico.  St. Louis: Mira Publishing Co.

2nd edn., 2013, 213 pp.


  1. 2010. The Pursuit of Ecotopia:  Lessons from Indigeonous and Traditional Societies for the Human Ecology of Our Modern World.  Santa Barbara, CA:  Praeger (imprint of ABC-Clio).  Xiii + 251 pp.


  1. 2011 Ethnobiology, ed. by E. N. Anderson, Deborah M. Pearsall, Eugene S. Hunn, and Nancy J. Turner.  Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.  Viii + 399 pp.


  1. 2013 Warning Signs of Genocide, by Eugene N. Anderson and Barbara A. Anderson.  Lanham, MD: Lexington Books (division of Rowman and Littlefield).  Xiii + 213 pp.


  1. 2014. Caring for Place.  Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press.  305 pp.  (Selected by Choice magazine as an Outstanding Academic Book for 2014; about 1/10 of books they review, and thus about 2.5% of all academic books, make this cut)


  1. 2014. Food and Environment in Early and Medieval China.  Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press. 338 pp.



Refereed/Scholarly Journal Articles


  1. 1963    “Tahitian Bonito Fishing,” Kroeber Anthropological Society Papers 28:87-113.


  1. 1964    “A Bibliography of the Chumash and Their Predecessors,” University of California Archaeological Survey Reports 61:25-74.


  1. 1967    “Prejudice and Ethnic Stereotypes in Rural Hong Kong,” Kroeber Anthropological Society Papers 37:90-107.


  1. 1967    “The Folksongs of the Hong Kong Boat People,” Journal of American Folklore 80:285-296.  Reprinted in Essays on South China’s Boat People, 1972.


  1. 1968    “Changing Patterns of Land Use in Rural Hong Kong,” Pacific Viewpoint 9:1:33-50.  Reprinted in Mountains and Water, 1973.


  1. 1969    Eugene N. Anderson and Marja L. Anderson.  “Folk Medicine in Rural Hong Kong.”  Ethnoiatria II:I.  Reprinted in Mountains and Water, 1973.


  1. 1969    Eugene N. Anderson and Marja L. Anderson.  “Cantonese Ethnohoptology.”  Ethnos, pp. 107-117.  Reprinted in Mountains and Water, 1973.


  1. 1969    “Sacred Fish,” Man 4:3:443-449.  Reprinted in Essays on South China’s Boat People, 1972.


  1. 1970    “The Boat People of South China,”  Anthropos 65:248-256. Reprinted in Essays on South China’s Boat People, 1972.


  1. 1970 “Traditional Aquaculture in Hong Kong,” Journal of Tropical Geography 30:11-16.


  1. 1970 “Reflexions sue la cuisine.”  L’Homme 10:2:122-124.


  1. 1970 Eugene N. Anderson and Marja L. Anderson.  “The Social Context of a Local Lingo.”  Western Folklore XXXIX:153-165.


  1. 1971 “Beginnings of a Radical Ecology Movement.”  Biological Conservation 3:4:1-2.


  1. 1972 “Radical Ecology:  Notes on a Conservation Movement.”  Biological Conservation 4:4:285-291.


  1. 1972 Eugene N. Anderson and Marja L. Anderson.  “Penang Hokkien Ethnohoptology.”  Ethnos 1-4:134-147.


  1. 1972 “Some Chinese Methods of Dealing with Crowding.”  Urban Anthropology 1:2:141-150.  Reprinted in Mountains and Water, 1973.


  1. 1972 “On the Folk Art of Landscaping”  Western Folklore  XXXI:3:179-188.


  1. 1973 “A Case Study in Conservation Politics: California’s Coastline Initiative.”   Biological Conservation 5:3:160-162.


  1. 1974 “On the Need for Studies of Food Consumption Ideas.”  Journal of the New Alchemists 2:128-132.


  1. 1975 “Songs of the Hong Kong Boat People.”  Chinoperl News 5:8-ll4.


  1. 1977 “The Changing Tastes of the Gods.” Asian Folklore 36:1:19-30.


  1. 1980 “’Heating’ and ‘Cooling’ Foods in Hong Kong and Taiwan.” Social Science Information 19:2:237-268.


  1. 1984 “`Heating’ and `Cooling’ Foods Re-examined.”  Social Science Information 23:4/5:755-773.


  1. 1985 “The Complex Causation of South Chinese Foodways.”  Annals of the Chinese Historical Society of the Pacific Northwest, pp. 147-158.


  1. 1985 “Two Chinese Birds Among the Golden Mountains.”  Annals of the Chinese Historical Society of the Pacific Northwest for 1984, pp. 257-259.


  1. 1987 “Why is Humoral Medicine So Popular?”  Social Science and Medicine, 25:4:331-337.


  1. 1987 Eugene N. Anderson and Chun-Hua Wang. “Changing Foodways of Chinese Immigrants in Southern California.”  In Annals of the Chinese Historical Society of the Pacific Northwest, 1985-86, pp. 63-69.


  1. 1990 “Up Against Famine:  Chinese Diet in the Early Twentieth Century.”  Crossroads 1:1:11-24.


  1. 1991 “Chinese Folk Classification of Food Plants.”  Crossroads 1:2:51-67.


  1. 1992 “Chinese Fisher Families: Variations on Chinese Themes.”  Comparative Family Studies 23:2:231-247.


  1. 1992 “A Healing Place: Ethnographic Notes on a Treatment Center.”  Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly 9:3/4:1-21.


  1. 1993 “Gardens in Tropical America and Tropical Asia.” Biotica n.e. 1:81-102.


  1. 1993 “Southeast Asian Gardens: Nutrition, Cash and Ethnicity.”  Biotica n.e. 1:1-12.


  1. 1998 Teresa Wang and E. N. Anderson.  “Ni Tsan and His ‘Cloud Forest Hall collection of Rules for Drinking and Eating.’”  Petits Propos Culinaires 60:24-41.


34a.  Reprinted with additions and corrections by Victor Mair and ENA:  Eugene N. Anderson, Teresa Wang, and Victor Mair.  2005.  “Ni Zan, Cloud Forest Hall Collection of Rules for Drinking and Eating.”  In Victor Mair, Nancy Steinhardt and Paul R. Goldin (eds.), Hawai’i Reader in Traditional Chinese Culture. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press.  Pp. 444-455.


  1. 1999 “Child-raising among Hong Kong Fisherfolk: Variations on Chinese Themes.”  Bulletin of the Institute of Ethnology, Academia Sinica, 86:121-155.


  1. 2000 E. N. Anderson, Teik Aun Wong and Lynn Thomas.  “Good and Bad Persons: The Construction of Ethical Discourse in a Chinese Fishing Community.” Bulletin of the Institute of Ethnology, Academia Sinica, 87:129-167.


  1. 2000 “Maya Knowledge and ‘Science Wars.’”  Journal of Ethnobiology 20:129-158.


  1. 2002 “Some Preliminary Observations on the California Black Walnut (Juglans californica).  Fremontia 30:12-19.  (Nonrefereed  scholarly journal of the California Native Plant Society).


  1. 2004 Barbara A. Anderson, E. N. Anderson, Tracy Franklin, and Aurora Dzib-Xihum de Cen.  “Pathways of Decision Making among Yucatan Mayan Traditional Birth Attendants.”  Journal of Midwifery and Women’s Health 49:4:312-319.


  1. 2007 “Malaysian Foodways:  Confluence and Separation.”  Ecology of Food and Nutrition 46:205-220 (Special Issue:  Tribute to Christine S. Wilson (1919-2005), ed. by Barrett P. Brenton, Miriam Chaiken, and Leslie Sue Lieberman.)


  1. 2011 “Yucatec Maya Botany and the ‘Nature’ of Science.”  Journal of Ecological Anthropology 14:67-73.


  1. 2012 E. N. Anderson and Barbara Anderson: “Development and the Yucatec Maya in Quintana Roo: Some Successes and Failures.”  Journal of Political Ecology 18:51-65.


  1. 2012 “Anthropology of Religion and Environment: A Skeletal History to 1970.”  Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture 6:9-36.


  1. 2012 Hiroko Inoue, Alexis Alvarez, Kirk Lawrence, Anthony Roberts, E. N. Anderson and Christopher Chase-Dunn.  “Polity Scale Shifts in World-Systems Since the Bronze Age: A Comparative Inventory of Upsweeps and Collapses.” International Journal of Comparative Sociology 53:210-229.  (I contributed only about 1% of this.)


  1. 2012 “Religion in Conservation and Management:  A Durkheimian View.”  Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture 6:398-420.


  1. 2013 “Conquest, Migration and Food in Mongol China: Yuan Food in Chinese Context.”  Journal of Chinese Dietary Culture 9:1-51.



Invited Book Chapters and Working Papers


  1. 1972 “The Life and Culture of Ecotopia,”  in Reinventing Anthropology, edited by Dell Hymes. New York: Pantheon Press, pp. 264-283.  Reprinted in paperback, Vintage, 1973.


  1. 1975 “Chinese Fishermen in Hong Kong and Malaysia,” in Maritime Adaptations in the Pacific, edited by Richard Casteel and George I. Quimby, pp. 231-246.  Hague:          Mouton.  (In “World Anthropology” series.)


  1. 1975 Eugene N. Anderson and Marja L. Anderson.  “Folk Dietetics in Two Chinese Communities and its implications for the Study of Chinese Medicine.”  In Medicine in Chinese Cultures, edited by Arthur Kleinman, Peter Kunstadter, E. Russell   Alexander, and James E. Gale.  USHEW, pp. 143-176.


  1. 1977 Eugene N. Anderson and Marja L. Anderson.  “Modern China: South.”  In Food in Chinese Culture, edited by K.C. Chang, Yale University Press, 1977, pp. 319-382.


  1. 1978 Eugene N. Anderson and Marja L. Anderson and John H.C. Ho.  “Environmental Background of Young Chinese Nasopharyngeal Carcinoma Patients.”  In Nasopharyngeal Carcinoma: Etiology and Control, edited by G. Dethe and Y. Ito. Lyon, France:  WHO, International Agency for Research on Cancer.  Pp. 231-240.


  1. 1979 “Social History of Hong Kong Boat Folk Songs” in Legend, Lore and Religion in China: Essays in Honor of Wolfram Eberhard on His Seventieth Birthday,” edited by Sarah Allen and Alvin Cohen, CMC Asian Library Series No. 13. San Francisco: Chinese Materials Center, pp. 155-175.


  1. 1981 “The Changing Social Context of Hong Kong Fishermen’s Songs.”  Proceedings of the 30th International Congress of Human Sciences in Asia and North Africa: China, Vol. I. Mexico City: El Colegio de Mexico.  15 pp.


  1. 1982 “Cuisine,” invited article for The Cambridge Encyclopedia of China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 382-390.

Reprinted with some revisions in the second edition of the encyclopedia, 1991, pp. 368-377.


  1. 1983 “A View from the Bottom: The Rise and Decline of a Malaysian Chinese Town.”  In The Chinese in Southeast Asia, Vol. 2, Peter Gosling and Linda Lim, eds., pp. 147-169. Singapore: Maruzen Asia.


  1. 1984 “Ecologies of the Heart.”  In Proceedings, International Chinese Conference, Michael W. Gandy, Mason Shen and Effram Korngold, eds., pp. 205-230. Oakland: Michael Gandy.


  1. 1985 “A Mosaic of Two Food Systems on Penang Island, Malaysia.”  In Food Energy in Tropical Systems, Dorothy Cattle and Karl Schwerin, eds.  Food and Nutrition in History and Anthropology Series, Vol. l4, pp. 83-104. New York: Gordon and Breach.


  1. 1987 “A Malaysian Tragedy of the Commons.”  In The Question of the Commons, McCay, Bonnie, and James Acheson, eds. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.  Pp. 327-343.


  1. 1987 Eugene N. Anderson and Harry Lawton.  “Chinese Religion, Temples and Festivals in the San Bernardino Valley.  In Wong Ho Leun: An American Chinatown.  The Great Basin Foundation, editors. San Diego: The Great Basin Foundation.  Vol. 2, pp. 25-44.


  1. 1989 “The First Green Revolution:  Chinese Agriculture in the Han Dynasty.”  Food and Farm, Christina Gladwin and Kathleen Truman, eds. New York:  University Press of America and Society for Economic Anthropology, pp. 135-151.


  1. 1994 “Food and Health at the Mongol Court.”  In: Kaplan, Edward H., and Donald W. Whisenhunt (eds.): Opuscula Altaica: Essays Presented in Honor of Henry Schwarz. Bellingham: Western Washington University, pp. 17-43.


  1. 1994 “Fish as Gods and Kin.”  In: Dyer, Christopher, and James R. McGoodwin (eds.): Folk Management in the World’s Fisheries. Niwot, CO: University Press of Colorado,  pp. 139-160.


  1. 1994 “Food.”  In: Wu Dingbo and Patrick Murphy (eds.): Handbook of Chinese Popular Culture. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, pp. 35-54.


  1. 1995 “Prinz Wen Huis Koch–Einfuhrung in die chinesische Nahrungs-Therapie.”  In: Keller, Frank Beat (ed.):  Krank Warum? Ostfildern, Germany: Cantz (for Swiss Ethnological Museum), pp. 3-22.


  1. 1995 “Natural Resource Use in a Maya Village.”  In: Fedick, Scott, and Karl Taube (eds.): The View from Yalahau. Riverside: Latin American Studies Program Field Report Series #2.  Pp. 139-148.


  1. 1996 “Gardens of Chunhuhub.”  In: Hostetler, Ueli (ed.): Los Mayas de Quintana Roo: Investigaciones antropologicas recientes.  Universitat Bern, Institut fur Ethnologie, Arbeitsblatter, #14.  Pp. 64-76.

20a.  1998.  Republished in slightly different form in Tercer Congreso Internacional de Mayistas, Memoria. Mexico City: Universidad Autónoma de México and Universidad de Quintana Roo.  Pp. 291-310.


  1. 2001 “Flowering Apricot:  Environmental Practice, Folk Religion, and Daoism.”  In: N. J. Girardot, James Miller, and Liu Xiaogan (eds.):  Daoism and Ecology: Ways within a Cosmic Landscape. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, Center for the Study of World Religions, Harvard Divinity School.  Pp. 157-184.

Translated into Chinese for Chinese edition of this book, Beijing, 2008.


  1. 2001 “Comments.”  In: Richard Ford (ed.), Ethnobiology at the Millennium. Ann Arbor, MI: Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan.  Anthropological papers No. 91.  Pp. 175-186.  (Comments on a series of papers from the Society of Ethnobiology annual conference, 2000, published here in book form.)


  1. 2002 “Biodiversity Conservation: A New View from Mexico.”   In:  John R. Stepp, Felice S. Wyndham, and Rebecca K. Zarger (eds.):  Ethnobiology and Biocultural Diversity. Athens, GA:   University of Georgia Press.   Pp. 113-122.


  1. 2003 “Traditional Knowledge of Plant Resources.”  In:  A. Gomez-Pompa, M. F. Allen, Scott Fedick, and Juan J. Jimenez-Osornio (eds.): The Lowland Maya Area: Three Millennia at the Human-Wildland Interface. New York: Haworth Press.  Pp. 533-550.


  1. 2003 “Caffeine and Culture.”  In:  William Jankowiak and Daniel Bradburd (eds.):  Drugs, Labor, and Colonial Expansion. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.  Pp. 159-176.


  1. 2003 “China,” subentries “Ancient and Dynastic China,” “Beijing (Peking) Cuisine,” “Guangzhou (Canton) Cuisine,” “Sichuan (Szechuan) Cuisine,” “Zhejiang (Chekiang) Cuisine,” Encyclopedia of Food and Culture, ed. by Solomon Katz and William Woys Weaver. New York:  Charles Scribners’ Sons.  Pp. 379–396.


  1. 2003 “Ess- und Trinkkultur.”  Das Grosse China-Lexikon, ed. by Brunhild Staiger, Stefan Friedrich und Hans-Wilm Schütte. Darmstadt, Germany:  Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.  Pp. 194-197.  (Encyclopedia entry.)


  1. 2004  E. N. Anderson, Betty B. Faust, John G. Frazier.  “Introduction:  An Environmental and Cultural History of Maya Communities in the Yucatan Peninsula.”  In:  Betty B. Faust, E. N. Anderson, and John G. Frazier (eds.):  Rights Resources, Culture, and Conservation in the Land of the Maya.   Westport, CT:  Praeger.  Pp. 1-30.


  1. 2004  “Valuing the Maya Forests.”  In:  Betty B. Faust, E. N. Anderson, and John G. Frazier (eds.):  Rights Resources, Culture, and Conservation in the Land of the Maya.   Westport, CT:  Praeger.  Pp.  117-130.


  1. 2004  “Heating and Cooling Qi and Modern American Dietary Guidelines:  Personal Thoughts on Cultural Convergence.”  In Jacqueline Newman and Roberta Halperin (eds.):  Chinese Cuisine, American Palate. New York:  Center for Thanatology Research and Education, Inc.  Pp. 26-33.


  1. 2004 Barbara Anderson, E. N. Anderson, and Roseanne Rushing:  “Violence:  Assault on Personhood.”  In Barbara A. Anderson:  Reproductive Health:  Women and Men’s Shared Responsibility. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett.  Pp. 163-204.


  1. 2005 E. N. Anderson and Christopher Chase-Dunn: “The Rise and Fall of Great Powers.”  In Christopher Chase-Dunn and E. N. Anderson (eds.):  The Historical Evolution of World-Systems. New York:  Palgrave MacMillan.  Pp. 1-19.


  1. 2005 “Lamb, Rice, and Hegemonic Decline:  The Mongol Empire in the Fourteenth Century.”  In Christopher Chase-Dunn and E. N. Anderson (eds.):  The Historical Evolution of World-Systems. New York:  Palgrave MacMillan.  Pp. 113-121.


  1. 2007 E. N. Anderson and Lisa Raphals: “Taoism and Animals.”  In Paul Waldau and Kimberley Patton (eds.):  A Communion of Subjects:  Animals in Religion, Science, and Ethics. New York: Columbia University Press.  Pp. 275-290.


  1. 2009 “Northwest Chinese Cuisine and the Central Asian Connection.”  In David Holm (ed.), Regionalism and Globalism in Chinese Culinary Culture.  Taipei:  Foundation of Chinese Dietary Culture.  Pp. 49-78.


  1. 2009 “Cuisines” and “Health, Nutrition, and Food,” Berkshire Encyclopedia of China (online), pp. 529-535 and 1010-1012.


  1. 2009 “Indigenous Traditions:  Asia.”  Berkshire Encyclopedia of Sustainability, vol. 1, The Spirit of Sustainability.  Pp. 216-221.


  1. 2010 “Food and Feasting in the Zona Maya of Quintana Roo.”  In John Staller and Michael Carrasco (eds.), Pre-Columbian Foodways:  Interdisciplinary Approaches to Food, Culture, and Markets in Ancient Mesoamerica.  New York:  Springer.  Pp. 441-465.


  1. 2010  “Managing Maya Landscapes:  Quintana Roo, Mexico.”  In Leslie Main Johnson and Eugene S. Hunn (eds.), Landscape Ethnoecology:  Concepts of Biotic and Physical Space.  New York:  Berghahn.  Pp. 255-276.


  1. 2010 “Food Cultures:  Linking People to Landscapes.”  In Sarah Pilgrim and Jules Pretty (eds.),  Nature and Culture: Rebuilding Lost Connections.  London:  Earthscan.  Pp. 185-196.


  1. 2011 “Emotions, Motivation, and Behavior in Cognitive Anthropology.”  In David Kronenfeld, Giovanni Bennardo, Victor C. de Munck, and Michael D. Fischer (eds.), A Companion to Cognitive Anthropology.  New York: Wiley-Blackwell.  Pp. 331-354.


  1. 2011 “Introduction.”  In E. N. Anderson, Deborah Pearsall, Eugene Hunn and Nancy Turner (eds.),  Ethnobiology.  Hoboken, NJ:  Wiley-Blackwell.  Pp. 1-14.


  1. 2011 “Ethnobiology and Agroecology.” In E. N. Anderson, Deborah Pearsall, Eugene Hunn and Nancy Turner (eds.),  Ethnobiology.  Hoboken, NJ:  Wiley-Blackwell.  Pp. 305-318.


  1. 2011 “Drawing from Traditional and ‘Indigenous’ Socioecological Theories.”  In Helen Kopnina and Eleanor Shoreman-Ouimet, Environmental Anthropology Today.  London:  Routledge.  Pp. 56-74.


  1. 2011 “War, Migration, and Food in Mongol China:  Yuan Dynasty Food and Medicine.”  In Proceedings of the 12th Symposium on Chinese Dietary Culture.  Taiwan:  Foundation for Chinese Dietary Culture.  Pp. 1-32.


  1. 2011 “China.”  In Food Cultures of the World:  Encyclopedia.  Vol.:  Asia, Ken Albala, ed.  Santa Barbara, CA:  ABC-Clio.  Pp. 61-72.

Access electronically:  http://ebooks.abc-clio.com. User B5342E, password abccomp.


  1. 2013 “Culture and the Wild.”  In The Rediscovery of the Wild, Peter H. Kahn, Jr., and Patricia H. Hasbach, eds.  Cambridge, MA:  MIT Press.  Pp. 157-180.


  1. 2013  “What Shapes Cognition?  Traditional Sciences and Modern International Science.”  In Explorations in Ethnobiology: The Legacy of Amadeo Rea, Marsha Wquinland and Dana Lepofsky, eds.  Denton, TX:  Society of Ethnobiology.  Pp. 47-77.


  1. 2013  “Learning Is Like Chicken Feet: Assembling the Chinese Food System.”  In International Conference onn Foodways and Heritage, Conference Proceedings, Sidney C. H. Cheung and Chau Hing-wah, eds.  Hong Kong: Government of Hong Kong, Leisure and Cultural Services Dept.  Pp. 3-20.


  1. 2013 Stand Straight and Never Bend:  How China Fed Millions of People for Thousands of Years.  Working Paper #1, Dept. of Anthropology, Sun Yat-sen University [Zhongshan University], Guangdong, China.  24 pp.


  1. 2014 “China.”  In Food in Time and Place:The American HistoricalAssociation Companion to Food History.  Berkeley: University of California Press.  Pp. 41-67.


Electronic publications


  1. 1998  “Managing Maya Commons: Chunhuhub, Quintana Roo.”  Proceedings of the International Association for the Study of Common Property, annual conference, Vancouver, Canada.  One of several papers selected by the organizers of the conference for electronic publication.   (Book chapter 35 above is a greatly expanded and rewritten version.)


  1. 2008 Mayaland Cuisine.  Cookbook of south Mexican folk foods, made available online and for publication on demand.  195 pp.





  1. 1966 “Coyote Song,” Coyote’s Journal, #4.  (Refereed, poem)


  1. 1966 “Bird Selling in San Hui,” Hong Kong Bird Report, 1965 pp. 49-51.


  1. 1968 “The Chumash Indians of Southern California,” Malki Museum Brochure #4. Malki Museum Press.  (Popular writing) Reprinted 1975.


  1. 1969 “The Kingfishers” and “The Duck Farm,” In Transit: The Gary Snyder Issue, pp. 24-25.  (Two poems)


  1. 1969 “The Social Factors Have Been Ignored,” Harvard Educational Review, 39:3:581-585.  (Commentary, unrefereed, in major journal.)


  1. 1969 “Caucasian Genes in American Negroes,” in Science, 166:3911:1353.  Reprinted in Human Population, Genetic Variation and Evolution, by Laura Newell Morris.  1971, pp. 446-447.  (Letter, reprinted in reader on human genetics.)


  1. 1970 “Lineage Atrophy in Chinese Society,” American Anthropologist 72:363-365.   Reprinted in Mountains and Water, 1973.  (Unrefereed research note in major journal)


  1. 1970 Invited Comment on: “Mannerism and Cultural Change: An Ethnomusicological Example,” by Ruth Katz, Current Anthropology, XI:469.  (Note)


  1. 1970 “Hoklo Boat People,” Urgent Anthropology, Current Anthropology, XI:I:82-83.  (Brief comment in major journal.)


  1. 1970 “Toward a Planner’s Guide to Ecology,” Ecology: The Journal of Cultural Transformation, 1:6-11.  (Popular writing)


  1. 1970 “Notes for the Biosphere,” Ecology: The Journal of Cultural Transformation, 1:2-5.  (Popular writing)


  1. 1971 “A Food Tract,” Ecology: The Journal of Cultural Transformation, 1:3:5-18 and 1:4:6-13.  (Popular writing)


  1. 1971 “A Design for the Tropical Center,” The New Alchemy Institute Spring Bulletin, pp. 16-20.  (Scholarly but unrefereed journal.)


  1. 1971 “A Design for the Tropical Center” (in Spanish).  Leaflet distributed by The New Alchemy Institute.  6 pages.  (Largely a translation of the previous item.)


  1. 1972 Western Riverside County: A Natural History Guide, E. N. Anderson, Riverside.  33 pages.  (Popular writing, booklet)


  1. 1972 Man on the Santa Ana.  Tri-County Conservation League Riverside.  10 pages.  (Popular writing, booklet)


  1. 1972 The Living Santa Ana River.  Edited and majority written by E.N. Anderson.  Tri-County Conservation League, Riverside.  3l pages.  (Popular writing, booklet)


  1. 1972 Herbs.  Jurupa Cultural Center, Riverside.  32 pages. (Popular writing, booklet)


  1. 1973 The Edible Forest.  Jurupa Cultural Center, Riverside. 26 pages.  (Popular writing, booklet)


  1. 1973 Vegetables.  Jurupa Cultural Center, Riverside.  26   pages.  (Popular writing, booklet)


  1. 1977 Comment on Marvin Harris’ “Cultural Ecology of India’s Sacred Cattle.”  Current Anthropology 18:3:552.


  1. 1977 Comment on R. Winzeler.  Current Anthropology 18:3:552.


  1. 1977 Will Staple, Gene Anderson, Lowell Levant.  Coyote Run: Poems by Will Staple, Gene Anderson, Lowell Levant. Anderson Publications, Riverside.  (Book; my poems, pp. 27-56)


  1. 1978 “Sea Birds Off Tahiti” Western Tanager.  Journal of Los Angeles Audubon Soceity, p. 6.  (Popular.)


  1. 1978 Invited Comment on Paul Diener and Eugene Robkin, “Ecology, Evolution, and the Search for Cultural Origins: The Question of Islamic Pig Prohibition.” Current Anthropology 19:3:509.


  1. 1979 “Chinese Food: First Million Years.”  Wok Talk III:5:1, 8.  (Popular.)


  1. 1979 “Beijing and Delhi.”  Western Tanager 45:10:6.  (Popular.  Reprinted in Bird Watcher’s Digest.)


  1. 1980 Invited comment on Paul Diener, “Quantum Adjustment, Macroevolution, and the Social Field: Some Comments on Evolution and Culture.”  Cultural Anthropology 21:4:431-432.


  1. 1980 Comment on Daniel E. Moerman, “On the Anthropology of Symbolic Healing.”  Current Anthropology 22:1:107.


  1. 1980 “Food and Philosophy in Ancient China.”  Wok Talk IV:3:1-7.  (Popular.)


  1. 1980 “A Closer Look at Hakka Cooking.”  Wok Talk IV:5:1-7. (Popular.)


  1. 1980 “Teochiu Cuisine.”  Wok Talk IV:4:1 and 8.  (Popular.)


  1. 1980 Eugene N. Anderson and Dexter Kelley.  “Birding in Nearer Baja.”  Western Tanager 47:4:1-3.  (Popular.)


  1. 1981 “On Preserving Seafood.”  Wok Talk V:3:2-7.  (Popular.)


  1. 1981 “The Foods of China’s Golden Age.”  Wok Talk VI:1:9-10.  (Popular.)


  1. 1982 “Wisdom Literature as Prayers to Coyote.”  Coyote’s Journal, P. 64.  (Poem; major journal of poetry and literature)


  1. 1983 The Inland Empire: A Natural History Guide.  Jurupa Cultural Center, Riverside.  (Booklet, 62 quarto pp.)


  1. 1983 Nunez, Christina; Michael Hogan; E. N. Anderson.  Food Banks and the Anthropology of Voluntary Organizations. California Anthropology 13:2:23-39.  (Minor unrefereed journal.  I was responsible for about 1/3 of this article.  The other two authors were students here.  Item missing from previous files, because the senior author published it without telling me.)


  1. 1984 “Plant Communities and Bird Habitats in Southern California, Part II: The Chaparral.”  Western Tanager 52:3:1-4.  (Popular.)


  1. 1985 Three poems in Reflections, Iain Prattis, ed. Washington: American Anthropological Association.  (Collection of poetry by anthropologists about anthropological themes) pp. 211-217.


  1. 1985 Invited comment on Cecil Brown, “Mode of Subsistence and Folk Biological Taxonomy.”  Current Anthropology 26:1:53-54.


  1. 1986 Invited comment on Cecil Brown, “The Growth of Ethnobiological Nomenclature.”  Current Anthropology 27:1:11-12.


  1. 1986 Comment on “The Social Context of Early Food Production”  Current Anthropology 27:3:262-263.


  1. 1988 Jean Gilbert, Claudia Fishman, Neil Tashima and Barbara Pillsbury, Fred Hess, Elvin Hatch, Barbara Frankel and Gene Anderson.  “National Association of Practicing Anthropologists’ Ethical Guidelines for Practitioners.”  American Anthropological Association Newsletter 29:8:8-9.


  1. 1992 Invited comment “On Training and Certification,” CommuNiCator (Newsletter of the Council on Nutritional Anthropology), 16:1:1-2.


  1. 1992 “Can Ancient Maya Wisdom Save Our Favorite Birds from the Cows?”  Western Tanager March 1992, pp. 1-4.  (Popular.)


  1. 1992 “Four Fields in Ecological Anthropology,” long contribution to ongoing debate on the “Four Fields in Anthropology,” Anthropology Newsletter (official newsletter of the American Anthropological Assn.), Nov. 1992, p. 3.


  1. 1993 “Teaching Philosophy,” statement to accompany Honorable Mention for Distinguished Teaching award from National Association of Student Anthropologists, Anthropology Newsletter, Feb. 1993, p. 18.


  1. 1993 “A ‘Blue-Headed’ Solitary Vireo from Baja California,” The Euphonia 2:1:22.  (Brief note)


  1. 1993 “How Much Should We Privilege ‘Native’ Accounts?”  American Anthropologist 95:706-707.  (Commentary, unrefereed, in major journal.)


  1. 1994 “Caught in the Flood of Urbanization.”  Western Tanager 61:4:1-3.  (Popular.)


  1. 1995 “After the Fire: Bird Use of a New Burn.”  Western Tanager 61:7:1-3.  (Popular.)


  1. 1995 “On Objectivity vs. Militancy.”  Current Anthropology 36:820-821.  (Commentary.)


  1. 1997 “Vegetables, Roots, and Wisdom in Old China.”  Journal of Ethnobiology 17:1:147-148 (Short Communication).


  1. 2000 “On an Antiessential Political Ecology.”  Current Anthropology 41:105-106.


  1. 2000 “On ‘Are East African Pastoralists Truly Conservationists?’”  Current Anthropology 41:626-627.


  1. 2000 “Brief Notes on Observations in Spain.”  Anthropology Newsletter 41:9:41-42.


  1. 2001 Folk song text (collected and translated by myself), five photographs I took, and summary of my research writings on Hong Kong, published in Elizabeth Johnson:  Recording a Rich Heritage: Research on Hong Kong’s ‘New Territories.’ Hong Kong Heritage Museum, Hong Kong.  Pp. 82-88.


  1. 2001 “Psychology and a Sustainable Future.”  American Psychologist 56:5:457-458.  (Comment on a series of articles on psychology and the environment.)


  1. 2001 “Tropical Forest Game Conservation.”  Conservation Biology 15:791-792.  (Edited comment; major journal.)


  1. 2002 Comment on “Maya Medicine in the Biomedical Gaze” by Ronald Nigh.  Current Anthropology 43:789-790.


  1. 2003 “Tropical Multiple Use.”  Journal of Conservation Ecology 7:14.  (Comment on earlier article:  Victor Toledo, B. Ortiz-Espejel, L. Cortes, P. Moguel, M. D. J. Ordonez, 2003, “The Multiple Use of Torpical Forests by Indigenous Peoples in Mexico:  A Case of Adaptive Management,” Journal of Conservation Ecology 7:article 9 online.)


  1. 2008 Comment on “Reason and Reenchantment in Cultural Change:  Sustainability in Higher Education” by Peggy Barlett (Current Anthropology 49:1077-1098).  Current Anthropology 49:1090.


  1. 2009 Comment on “Cultural Relativity 2.0” by Michael Brown (Current Anthropology 49:363-383).  Current Anthropology 50:251.


  1. 2010 Comment on “Attachment and Cooperation in Religious Groups” by Carol Popp Weingarten and James S. Chisholm.  Current Anthropology 51:421-422.


  1. 2010 “Ancient and Modern Foods from the Tarim Basin.”  Expedition 52:3:5-6.


  1. 2011 “AAA Long-Range Plan.”  (Letter.)  Anthropology News, Feb., p. 3.


  1. 2011 “Salt Water Songs of Hong Kong.”   In The Columbia Anthology of Chinese Folk and Popular Literature, Victor H. Mair and Mark Bender (eds.).  New York:  Columbia University Press.  Pp. 145-147.


  1. 2012 “Cooking with Kublai Khan.”  Flavor and Fortune 19:4:13-14.


  1. 2013 “Folk Nutritional Therapy in Modern China.”  In Chinese Medicine and Healing: An Illustrated History, TJ Hinrichs and Linda Barnes, eds.  Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press.  Pp. 259-260.


  1. 2013 “Are Minds Modular?”  (Letter, with answer by Michael Shermer and comment by Steven Pinker.)  Scientific American, May, 8-9.


  1. 2-13 “Happiness Now or Later.”  (Letter, with answer by editors.)  Scientific American Mind, July/August, p. 4.


  1. 2013 “Foreword.”  In Environmental Anthropology Engaging Ecotopia:  Bioregionalism, Permaculture, and Ecovillages, Joshua Lockyer and James R. Veteto, eds.  New York:  Berghahn.  Pp. xi-xviii.


  1. 2013. Preface and two poems, “Desert in Fall” and “Nocturne.”  In A Poet Drives a Truck: Poems by and for Lowell Levant, Ronald Levant, Carol Slatter and Caren Levant, eds.  Copley, OH:  Truck Stop Press.




  1. 1967    “The Ethnoichthyology of the Hong Kong Boat People,” Ph.D. Dissertation, University of California, Berkeley. Printed in Essays on South China’s Boat People, 1972. 105 pp.


  1. 1987 Eugene N. Anderson and Evelyn Pinkerton.  “The Kakawis Experience.”  Kakawis Family Development Centre, 68 pp. + appendices.  (Contracted technical study and report to Kakawis Family Development Centre.)


  1. 2007 Sun Simiao.  Recipes Worth a Thousand Gold:  The Food Sections.  Tr. Sumei Yi, ed. E. N. Anderson.  Ms circulated electronically.  56 pp.


  1. 2007 The Tropical Food Security Garden.  On website, www.krazykioti.com.




Review Articles


  1. 1977 The Chinese by C. Osgood.  Reviews in Anthropology 4:1:17-24.


  1. 1981 Review article of Arthur Kleinman: Patients and Healers in the Context of Culture: An Exploration of the Borderland between Anthropology, Medicine and Psychiatry, and Margaret Lock, East Asian Medicine in Urban Japan.  Reviews in Anthropology 8:1:45-58.


  1. 1984 Cooking, Cuisine and Class by Jack Goody.  Reviews in Anthropology 10:2:89-95.


  1. 1994 Islands, Plants and Polynesians ed. by Paul Alan Cox and Sandra Anne Banack, and Traditional Plant Foods of Canadian Indigenous Peoples: Nutrition, Botany and Use by Harriet Kuhnlein and Nancy J. Turner. Reviews in Anthropology 23:97-104.


  1. 1995 Human Ecology as Human Behavior by John Bennett, and Radical Ecology by Carolyn Merchant.  Reviews in Anthropology 24:113-122.


  1. 1999 “Native American Cultural Representations of Flora and Fauna.”   Ethnohistory 46:373-382


  1. 2000 The Ecological Indian by Shepard Krech.  Journal of Ethnobiology 20:37-42.


  1. 2002 “ New Textbooks Show Ecological Anthropology Is Flourishing.”  Reviews in Anthropology 33:231-242.


  1. 2007 Behavioral Ecology and the Transition to Agriculture, ed. by Douglas Kennett and Bruce Winterhalder.  Journal of Ethnobiology 27:277-280.


  1. 2009 Trying Leviathan:  The Nineteenth-Century New York Court Case that Put the Whale on Trial and Challenged the Order of Nature, by D. Graham Burnett.  Journal of Ethnobiology 29:362-365.


  1. 2014 E. N. Anderson and Seth Abrutyn:  “Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution.”  Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture 8:111-127.



Short Reviews

(Probably not a complete list, since I think I have missed some announcements from Choice that my short reviews for them were published)


  1. 1966    “La peche au grand filet a Tahiti,” by Paul Ottino. Journal of Polynesian Society 75:1:130-131.


  1. 1967    The Sea Nomads, by David E. Sopher. Oceania 37:4:313-314.


  1. 1974    Tai Yu Shan: Traditional Ecological Adaptation in a South Chinese Island, by Armando de Silva and The Men and Women of Chung Ho Ch’ang, by Mary B. Treudley.  American Anthropologist 76:3:610-611.


  1. 1975    December’s Child, by Thomas Blackburn.  Journal of California Anthropology 2:2:241-244.


  1. 1975    Chinese Symbols and Superstitions by H. T. Morgan, Journal of American Folklore.  Spring 1975.


  1. 1976    California: Five Centuries of Cultural Contrasts by J. Nava and B. Barger.  Journal of California Anthropology 3:3:100-102.


  1. 1977    The Eye of the Flute by T. Hudson et al. Journal of California Anthropology 4:1:1-141-142.


  1. 1977    Migrants of the Mountains by W.R. Geddes  Ethnopharmacology Society Newsletter 1:1:5-6.


  1. 1977    Fig Tree John: An Indian in Fact and Fiction by P. Beidler, Journal of California Anthropology 4:2:322.


  1. 1978 Food in Chinese Culture by Charles W. Hayford, Journal of Asian Studies XXXVII:4:738-40.


  1. 1978 Edible and Useful Plants of California by Charlotte Clarke, Journal of California Anthropology 5:1:139-140.


  1. 1981 Chinese Village Politics in the Malaysian State by Judith Strauch, Newsletter of the Association for Political and Legal Anthropology 5:3:17-19.


  1. 1981 Manna: An Historical Geography by R.A. Donkin, Journal of Historical Geography 7:3:329-330.


  1. 1983 “Cities in China” film series (three films: “Xian,” “Suzhou,” Biejing”).  American Anthropologist 85:2:491-492.


  1. 1984 Shenfan by William Hinton, American Anthropologist 1986:1002.


  1. 1984 Nourishment of Life by Linda Koo, Social Science and Medicine 20:3:350-354.


  1. 1985 Living the Fishing by Paul Thompson, et al, Urban Life 14:3:350-354.


  1. 1987 Wives and Midwives by Carol Laderman, Medical Anthropology Newsletter.


  1. 1987 Man and Land in Chinese History by Kang Chao, American Asian Review V:3:105-107.


  1. 1987 Medicine in China History, Vol. 1: A History of Ideas.  Vol. 2: A History of Pharmaceutics.  Vol. 3: Nan-Ching: The Classic of Difficult Issues by Paul Unschuld, American Asian Review V:3:115-118.


  1. 1988 The Cambridge History of China, vol. I: The Ch’in and Han Empires, ed. by Denis Twitchett and Michael Loewe, American Asian Review VI:1:78-82.


  1. 1990 Disputers of the Tao by A. C. Graham.  American Asian Review 8:4:135-139.


  1. 1991 Cannibalism in China by Key Ray Chong.  American Asian Review 9:2:109-112.


  1. 1991 Native North American Interaction Patterns by Regna Darnell and Michael K. Foster, eds.  Culture: Journal of the Canadian Anthropological Society, pp. 92-94.


  1. 1991 Nch’i Wana: The Big River by Eugene Hunn.  American Anthropologist 93:4:1002-1003.


  1. 1991 With Bitter Herbs They Shall Eat It by Timothy Johns.  Journal of Ethnobiology 11:2:184-186.


  1. 1992 Origins of Agriculture and Settled Life by Richard S. MacNeish.  Journal of Ethnobiology 12:198-26.


  1. 1993 Coyote Stories and A Salishan Autobiography by Mourning Dove.  Anthropology and Humanism Quarterly 18:2:84-85.


  1. 1993 Tangweera by C. Napier Bell.  Anthropology and Humanism Quarterly 18:2:85-86.


  1. 1994 The Flowering of Man by Dennis Breedlove and Robert Laughlin.  Economic Botany 48:1:101-102.


  1. 1995 The Cuba Commission Report: A Hidden History of the Chinese in Cuba ed. by Dennis Helly.  Journal of Caribbean Studies 10:99-101.


  1. 1995 Chumash Healing by Phillip L. Walker and Travis Hudson.  Journal of Ethnobiology 14:184.


  1. 1995 Environmental Values in American Culture by Willett Kempton, James S. Boster, and Jennifer A. Hartley.  Choice 33.2.


  1. 1995 Prophets of Agroforestry:  Guaraní Communities and Commercial Gathering by Richard K. Reed.  Choice 33:3.


  1. 1995 Memoirs of an Indo Woman: Twentieth-Century Life in the East Indies and Abroad by Marguerite Schenkhuizen, ed. and trans. by Lizelot Stout van Balgooy.  Anthropology and Humanism 20:172-173.


  1. 1996 Earth’s Insights by J. Baird Callicott.  Journal of Ethnobiology 16:130-131.


  1. 1996 Eat Not This Flesh (2nd edn.) by Frederick Simoons.  Journal of Ethnobiology 16:128-130.


  1. 1996 Guest People: Hakka Identity in China and Abroad ed. by Nicole Constable.  Choice 34:4.


  1. 1997 Green Guerrillas ed. by Helen Collinson.  Choice 34:6.


  1. 1997 Humanity’s Descent by Rick Potts.  Choice 35:1.


  1. 1997 Hunting the Wren by Elizabeth Atwood Lawrence.  Journal of Ethnobiology 17:67-68.


  1. 1997 The Animal World of the Pharaohs by Patrick F. Houlihan.  Journal of Ethnobiology 17:135-136.


  1. 1997 Wild Men in the Looking Glass and The Artificial Savage by Roger Bartra.  Journal of Ethnobiology 17:136-138.


  1. 1997 Eco Homo by Noel T. Boaz.  Choice 35:4.


  1. 1997 Greenlanders, Whales, and Whaling by Richard Caulfield.  Choice 35:4.


  1. 1998 Shamanic Songs and Myths of Tuva by Mihaly Hoppal.  Choice 35:5.


  1. 1998 Bhutan: Mountain Fortress of the Gods ed. by Christian Schicklgruber and Francoise Pommaret. Choice 35:7.


  1. 1998 Uncommon Ground by Victoria Strang.  Choice 35:7.


  1. 1998 Knowledges: Culture, Counterculture, Subculture by Peter Worsley.  Choice 35:10.


  1. 1998 Contested Arctic ed. by Eric Alden Smith and Joan McCarter.  Choice 35:10.


  1. 1998 Natural Premises:  Ecology and Peasant Life in the Western Himalaya, 1800-1950 by Chetan Singh.  Choice 36:5.


  1. 1998 Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent, by Meredith Small.  Choice 36:2.


  1. 1999 Golden Arches East:  McDonald’s in East Asia, edited by James L. Watson.  Anth rpos 94:307-310.


  1. 1999 Wisdom from a Rainforest, by Stuart Schlegel.  Choice 36:8.


  1. 1999 Siren Feasts, by Andrew Dalby.  Journal of Ethnobiology 18:2:188.


  1. 1999 Building a New Biocultural Synthesis, ed. by Alan Goodman and Thomas Leatherman.  Choice 36:10.


  1. 1999 Rebuilding the Local Landscape:  Environmental Management in Burkina Faso,

by Chris Howorth.  Choice 37:3.


  1. 2000 That Complex Whole:  Culture and the Evolution of Human Behavior, by Lee Cronk.  Choice 37:5.


  1. 2000 Anthropology of Food: The Social Dynamics of Food Scarcity by Johan Pottier.  Anthropos 95:1:296-298.


  1. 2000 Plants for Food and Medicine  ed. by H. D. V. Prendergast, N. L. Etkin, D. R. Harris, and P. J. Houghton.  American Anthropologist 102:50-51.


  1. 2000 Ruins of Identity: Ethnogenesis in the Japanese Islands by Mark J. Hudson.  Choice 37:7.


  1. 2000 Sustaining the Forest, the People, and the Spirit by Thomas Davis.  Choice 37:10.


  1. 2000 Las Plantas de la Milpa entre los Maya by Silvia Teran and Christian Rasmussen.  Journal of Ethnobiology 19:219-220.


  1. 2000 The Ambonese Curiosity Cabinet, by Georgius Everhardus Rumphius.   Journal of Ethnobiology 19:258-259.


  1. 2000 The Great Maya Droughts, by Richardson Gill.  Choice 38:3.


  1. 2001 In One’s Own Shadow: An Ethnographic Account of the Condition of Post-Reform Rural China, by Xin Liu.  Choice 38:3.


  1. 2001 Indigenous Environmental Knowledge and Its Trasnformations: Critical Anthropological Perspectives, ed. by Roy Ellen, Peter Parkes, and Alan Bicker.  Choice 38:10.


  1. 2001 Portraits of “Primitives”:  Ordering Human Kinds in the Chinese Nation, by Susan Blum. Choice 38:10.


  1. 2001 Between Mecca and Beijing:  Modernization and Consumption among Urban Chinese Muslims, by Maris Boyd Gillette.  Choice 38:10.


  1. 2001 Feeding the World, by Vaclav Smil.  Journal of Ethnobiology 20:217-221.


  1. 2001 El Bosque Mediterráneo en el Norte de África, by Jesús Charco.  Journal of Ethnobiology 20:237-238.


  1. 2001 The Age of Wild Ghosts:  Memory, Violence, and Place in Southwest China, by Erik Mueggler. Choice 39:02.


  1. 2001 Environmental Anthropology:  From Pigs to Politics, by Patricia Townsend.  Choice 39:1.


  1. 2001 New Directions in Anthropology and Environment: Intersections, ed. by Carole Crumley.  Choice 39:4.


  1. 2001 Imperfect Balance: Landscape Transformations in the Precolumbian Americas, ed. by David Lentz.  Journal of Ethnobiology 21:53-55.


  1. 2001 The Ecological Indian:  Myth and Reality, by Shepard Krech III.  Journal of Ethnobiology 20:37-42.


76a.        2002  A Society without Fathers or Husbands, by Hua Cai.  Choice 39:5.


  1. 2002 The Hmong of China: Context, Agency, and the Imaginary, by Nicholas Tapp.  Choice 39:5.


  1. 2002 Cocina indigena y popular, by CONACULTA.  Petits Propos Culinaires 69:124-125.


  1. 2002 Chinese Gleams of Sufi Light, by Sachiko Murata.  Philosophy East and West 52:257-260.


  1. 2002 Hosts and Guests Revisited: Tourism Issues of the 21st Century, ed. by Valene Smith and Maryann Brent.   Choice 39:08.


  1. 2002 Black Rice, by Judith A. Carney.  Journal of Ethnobiology 21:53-54.


  1. 2002 Changing Chinese Foodways in Asia, ed. by David Wu and Tan Chee-Beng.  Journal of Asian Studies 61:2:689-691.


  1. 2002 Mayo Ethnobotany, by David Yetman and Thomas VanDevender.  Choice 39:11.


  1. 2002 Feasts: Archaeological and Ethnographic Perspectives on Food, Politics, and Power, ed. by Michael Dietler and Brian Hayden.  Anthropos 97:573-574.


  1. 2002 The Cambridge World History of Food, ed. by Kenneth Kiple and Kriemhild Ornelas.  Journal of Ethnobiology 22:163-164.


  1. 2002 Ways of Being Ethnic in Southwest China by Stevan Harrell.  Choice 40:03.


  1. 2002 Culture, Environment, and Conservation in the Appalachian South, ed. by Benita J. Howell.  Choice 40:3.


  1. 2002 Appetites:  Food and Sex in Postsocialist China, by Judith Farquhar.  Choice 40:04.


  1. 2003 When Culture and Biology Collide, by E. O. Smith.  Choice 40:3479.


  1. 2003 The World and the Wild, ed. by David Rothenberg and Marta Ulvaeus.  Pacific Affairs 75:4:588.


  1. 2003 China to Chinatown:  Chinese Food in the West, by J. A. G. Roberts.  Journal of Asian Studies 62:569-571.


  1. 2003 Changing Chinese Foodways in Asia, ed. by David Wu and Tan Chee-beng.  Anthropos 98:620-622.


  1. 2003 Crafting Tradition, by Michael Chibnik.  Choice 41-1618.


  1. 2003 New Year Celebrations in Central China in Late Imperial Times, by Goran Aijmer.  Choice 41-2554.


  1. 2004 Moral Politics in a South Chinese Village:  Responsibility, Reciprocity and Resistance, by Hok-Bun Ku.  Choice 41-5442.


  1.      2004 Indus Ethnobiology, ed. by Steven A Weber and William R. Belcher.  Choice 41-5993.


  1. 2004  Food in the Ancient World from A to Z, by Andrew Dalby.  Journal of Ethnobiology 24:163-164.


  1.      2004  Political Ecology:  An Integrative Approach to Geography and Evnironment-Development Studies, ed. by Karl Zimmerer and Thomas J. Bassett.  Choice 41-6682.


  1.       2004  Social History and African Environments, ed. by William Beinart and JoAnn McGregor.  Choice 41-6689.


  1. 2004 The Nehalem Tillamook:  An Ethnography, by Elizabeth Derr Jacobs.  Choice 41-1026.


  1. 2004  The Retreat of the Elephants, by Mark Elvin.  Journal of Ethnobiology 24:352-354.


  1. 2004 Anthropology of the Performing Arts, by Anya Royce.  Choice 42:3518.


  1. 2004 Miniature Crafts and Their Makers:  Palm Weaving in a Mexican Town.  Choice 42:6669.


  1. 2005 Political Ecology, by Paul Robbins.  Choice 42-5341.


  1. 2005 Miniature Crafts and Their Makers:  Palm Weaving in a Mexican Town, by Katrin S. Flechsig.  Choice 2004:10393.


  1. 2005  Collapse:  How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, by Jared Diamond.  Journal of Ethnobiology 25:143-145.


  1. 2005 The Origin and Evolution of Cultures, by Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson.  Choice 43:1027.


  1. 2005 Facing the Wild:  Ecotourism, Conservation and Animal Encounters, by Chilla Bulbeck.  Choice 43:1641.


  1. 2005 Intelligence in Nature:  An Inquiry in Knowledge, by Jeremy Narby.  Choice 43:2765.


  1. 2006 Tending the Wild:  Native American Knowledge and the Management of Calfornia’s Natural Resources, by Kat Anderson.  Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology 25:255-258.


  1. 2006 Survival Skills of Native California, by Paul D. Campbell.  Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology 25:262-263.


  1. 2006 Food Plants of China, by Hu Shiu-Ying.  Journal of Ethnobiology 26:165-167.


  1. 2006. Where Rivers and Mountains Sing:  Sound, Music and Nomadism in Tuva and Beyond, by Theodore Levin.  Choice 44:0226.


  1. 2006 Miraculous Response:  Doing Popular Religion in Contemporary China, by Adam Yuet Chau.  Choice 44-0394.


  1. 2006  People and Nature: An Introduction to Human Ecological Relations, by Emilio Moran.  Choice 44:2770.


  1. 2006 As Days Go By:  Our History, Our Land, and Our People—The Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla, ed. by Jennifer Karson.  Choice 45-1077


  1. 2007 Be of Good Mind:  Essays on the Coast Salish, ed. by Bruce Granville Miller.  Choice 45:2204.


  1. 2007 The Earth Only Endures:  On Reconnecting with Nature and Our Place in It, by Jules Pretty.  Choice 45:4461.


  1. 2007 Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Natural Resource Management, ed. by Charles R. Menzies.  American Anthropologist 109:571-572.


  1. 2008 “An Anthropology of Chocolate.”  Review article on Chocolate in Mesoamerica:  A Cultural History of Cacao, ed. by Cameron McNeil.  American Anthropologist 110:71-73.


  1. 2008 Chumash Ethnobotany:  Plant Knowledge among the Chumash People of Southern California, by Jan Timbrook.  Choice 45-6271.


  1. 2008 Chumash Ethnobotany:  Plant Knowledge among the Chumash People of Southern California, by Jan Timbrook.  Journal of Ethnobiology 28:136-138.


  1. 2008 Animals the Ancestors Hunted:  An Account of the Wil Mammals of the Kalam Area, Papua-new Guinea, by Ian Saem Majnep and Ralph Bulmer.  Journal of Ethnobiology 28j:134-136.


  1. 2008 Wild Harvest in the Heartland:  Ethnobotany in Missouri’s Little Dixie, by Justin Nolan.   Journal of Ethnobiology 28:139-140.


  1. 2008  Life in a Kam Village in Southwest China, 1930-1949, by Ou Chaoquan, tr. by D. Norman Geary.  Brill, 2007.


  1. 2008 Kinship and Food in South East Asia, ed. by Monica Janowski and Fiona Kerlogue. Copenhagen:  NIAS press, 2007.  Anthropos 103:2:598-599.


  1. 2008 The Nature of an Ancient Maya City:  Resources, Interaction and Power at Blue Creek, Belize, by Thomas Guderjan.  Choice 46-1659.


  1. 2008 Environmental Anthropology: a historical reader, ed. by Michael R. Dove and Carol Carpenter.  Choice 46-1566.


  1. 2008 Koekboya (and) Nomads in Anatolia, by Harald Bőhmer.  Journal of Ethnobiology 28:318-319.


  1. 2009  The Fishermen’s Frontier:  People and Salmon in Southeast Alaska, by David F. Arnold.  Choice 46-4615.


  1. 2009 State and Ethnicity in China’s Southwest, by Xiaolin Guo.  Choice 46-5188.


  1. 2009 Christmas Island:  An Anthropological Study, by Simone Dennis.  Choice 46-6282.


  1. 2009 Against the Grain, ed. by Bradley Walters, Bonnie J. McCay, Paige West and Susan Lees.  Journal of Ethnobiology 29:360-362.


  1. 2010 Spirits of the Air:  Birds and American Indians in the South, by Shepard Krech.  Choice 47-3251.


  1. 2010  California Indians and the Environment:  An Introduction (2nd edn.), by Kent Lightfoot and Otis Parrish.  Choice 47-3252.


  1. 2010 Biocultural diversity and indigenous ways of knowing: human ecology in the Arctic, by Karim-Aly Kassam.  University of Calgary Press,  2009.  Choice 47-5105.


  1. 2010 Terres de Vanoise:  Agriculture en Montagne Savoyarde, by Brien Meilleur.  Journal of Ethnobiology 30:173-174.


  1. 2010 Material Choices:  Refashioning Bast and Leaf Fibres in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, edited by Roy Hamilton and Lynne Milgram.  Ethnobiology Letters 1:3.


  1. 2010 Trying Leviathan, by D. Graham Burnett.  Ethnobiology Letters 1:4-6.


  1. 2010 Grass Roots:  African Origins of an American Art, edited by Dale Rosengarten, Theodore Rosengarten, and Enid Schildkrout.  Ethnobiology Letters 1:7-8.


  1. 2010. Spirits of the Air:  Birds and American Indians in the South, by Shepard Krech III.  Ethnobiology Letters 1:16-17.


  1. 2010. Naming Nature:  The Clash between Instinct and Science, by Carol Kaesuk Yoon.  Ethnobiology Letters 1:30-32.


  1. 2010 After the first full moon in April: a sourcebook of herbal medicine from a California Indian elder, by Josephine Grant Peters and Beverly R. Ortiz.  Choice 48-1558.


  1. 2010 Jungle laboratories: Mexican peasants, national projects, and the making of the pill, by Gabriela Soto Laveaga.  Choice 48-2255.


  1. 2011 Different truths: ethnomedicine in early postcards, by Peter A. G. M. de Smet.  Kit Publishers, 2010.  Choice 48-2759.


  1. 2011 Biocultural diversity conservation: a global sourcebook, by Luisa Maffi and Ellen Woodley.    Earthscan Publications Ltd., 2010.  Choice 48-2767.


  1. 2011 Indigenous Knowledge, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, by Raymond Pierotti.  Ethnobiology Letters 2:3-5.


  1. 2011 Feeding the People, Feeding the Spirit:  Revitalizing Northwest Coastal Indian Food, ed. by Elise Krohn and Valerie Segrest.  Ethnobiology Letters 2:45.


  1. 2011 Dark Green Religion, by Bron Taylor.  Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Cultue 5:2:244-245.


  1. 2012 The Banana Tree at the Gate, by Michael Dove.  Ethnobiology Letters 3:13.


  1. 2012 From the Hands of the Weaver, ed. by Jacilee Wray.  Choice 50-2152


  1. 2013 Spiritual Ecology, by Leslie Sponsel.  Current Anthropology 54:245-247.


  1. 2014 Environmental Winds, by Michael Hathaway.  Choice 51-2805.


  1. 2014. How Forests Think, by Eduardo Kohn.  Choice 51-2744.


  1. 2014 Uses of Plants by the Hidatsas of the Northern Plains, by Gilbert Wilson.  Choice 52-2068.