Dynamic Network Analysis: 2. Relativity

Truth may not be as appealing and important—as useful—to us as the benefits of things and events (and people, too) that are easy, convenient, and predictable.

Lined Up Harvest Fruit Source: https://www.maxpixel.net/Lined-Up-Harvest-Fruit-Goldparmaene-Apple-Series-1675775

John Terrell

IN THE INAUGURAL POSTING in this series, I made note of the fact that history  shows us time and again that as a species we have decided strengths and obvious weaknesses.

Why it’s good to be human

On the plus side, our kind of animal is outstanding at reshaping and rebuilding the world around us to make the challenges we face as individuals and as a species as humdrum, predictable, and hence as manageable as possible.

Poets, playwrights, philosophers, and scientists may debate the particulars of human motives and intentions, but there is no denying one of the reasons we spend so much time and effort at redoing the conditions under which we live out our days on earth. The more predictable a situation or event is, the easier it is for our brain to cope with it. And if need be, respond more or less appropriately.

Spice Bazaar, Istanbul. Personal photograph

I also argued in the previous post that to avoid becoming overwhelmed by what our body’s senses—classically said to be five in number—are telling us about the state of things and events both inside and outside our skin, our brain ignores much of what it is being told. Instead it mostly relies on the pragmatic strategy of simplifying what it is hearing, both literally and figuratively, by mentally putting things, people, and experiences into separate and seemingly distinct mind boxes—into different categories.


However, there is a fine line between paying too much attention to what our senses are telling us, and too little. (I like to call this the Goldilocks Line after the 19th century children’s story). Failing to pay sufficient attention to what’s happening inside or outside our body can be disastrous, as anyone who has survived the experience can tell us about why they shouldn’t have been texting while driving.

Why it’s bad to be human

As my mother so often liked to say, things can be both good and bad at the same time. However pragmatic and unintentionally self-centered we are as individuals for understandable evolutionary and psychological reasons, the dark side of our human ways cannot be denied.

I wasn’t being cynical in the previous post, therefore, when I remarked that truth may not be as appealing and important—that is, as useful—to us as human beings as the immediate and pragmatic benefits of things and events (and people, too) that are easy, convenient, and predictable.

However, taking the easy way out, the easy answer, the easy job, and so forth can be costly down the road—sometimes sooner rather than later. Doing so can make it difficult for us to notice and pay enough attention to how things, people, and experiences are linked, intertwined, and interrelated. Said more formally, what I called previously “categorical thinking” can lead to “categorical mistakes.”

The power of words

According to more than just a few of us, life’s big question is Why am I here? Others instead see How come I am here? as the mystery to be solved. Conventionally, people turn to theologians, philosophers, psychologists, and their best friends when they are seeking answers to the first question. The second one falls more in the thoughtful arena of pediatricians, scientists, cosmologists, mystics, and priests.

This division of labor, however, is not absolute, and is certainly not as categorical as such a divide implies.  One common thread crossing between these two realms of expertise is the belief or assumption—sometimes up front, sometimes only lurking in the background—that words are both powerful and are usually grounded in reality except, of course, when someone is “making things up” that they know are untrue.

The belief that words can be both truthful and powerful—that by naming things we are not just “putting into words” something already “out there” in the world, but can create something new as if “out of nothing”—is deeply rooted in the antiquity of our species. A classic example would be invoking the word abracadabra during a magic show to lend apparent substance to some clever illusion. But the roots of seeing words as powerfully creative run deeper than this trivial example.

The Almighty. Genesis cap 1 v 16. De Vos [By Phillip Medhurst [CC BY-SA 3.0, from Wikimedia Commons
For instance, consider the opening words of the Book of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible and Old Testament:

IN THE BEGINNING God created the heaven and the earth.
2  And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
3  And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
4  And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.
5  And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
Relational thinking

In my first post I said that I am writing this series on dynamic network analysis (DYNA) because I want to explore with you how a different way of thinking about the world and our place in it can make it easier for us to see and make something out of how widely and how often critically things, people, and events are not separate and distinct in neat categorical ways, but instead are interwoven into relationships that make the whole totality of them, as the saying goes, bigger than the sum of the parts. Since what I want to write about, however, is complicated, I need to proceed step by step.

The next step in this second post is a brief quiz I’d like you to take before we move on to take a closer look in Post #3 at what is called network analysis.

Quiz: How good are you at thinking outside the category?

Please take a piece of printer paper and draw a line down the middle from top to bottom. Near the top of the left-hand column, write the word categorical. Do the same for the right column, except make the word relational. Then write in items under these two headings matching those shown here. Note that the last two rows are blank. In a moment I will be asking what you would add in these two bottom rows resonating with the rows above them.

Here’s the question I want to ask: What makes the items in the right-hand column different from those in the left-hand column? Yes, it is OK to use Google if some of the items seem obscure. And yes, this is a categorical question for sure.

The answers I am looking for

There are many ways to talk about the items in the left-hand column.  #1-2 are often viewed nowadays as wasteful single-use items that pollute the environment; #3 is a famous writer who rejected the virtues of altruism, praised individual rights, and is seen by many as a prophet of selfishness; #4 is an organization dedicated to protecting the rights of individual gun owners; #5 is the day each year when a given individual was born; #6 refers to the belief that all things can be boiled down to singular, individual particles called atoms.

In contrast, paper bags and paper straws are being promoted today as more environmentally friendly than their counterparts in the left column. #3 could be described as the high priest of the relativity rather than the individuality of things in the universe. Without trying to pin them down, the remaining three items are similarly all about things, events, and species that are enmeshed with one another.

Now here’s your job. What would you write in the blank rows at the end of this table? For instance, I myself would be tempted to write in one of these rows the card game solitaire vs. the team sport of boat racing.

By National Library of Ireland on The Commons (Waterford Boat Club) [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons
What’s the point I am trying to make?

In the first post in this series, I observed that for entirely understandable reasons each of us is by nature self-centered. Saying this, however, does not have to mean we are also inherently selfish despite the fact that jumping to such a conclusion is unfortunately fairly commonplace even in scholarly circles.  

As we will be exploring in this series, Ayn Rand and others both before and since have been misguided to believe otherwise. The continuing popularity of Rand’s ideas only shows that words can be powerful at least in the limited yet dangerous sense that they can be used to persuade us about what’s real and what’s unreal in the world of yesterday, today, and tomorrow without actual proof.

This is precisely why we need ways of getting outside our heads and dealing directly with the world that force us to “think outside the category.” Why? Because we need ways to confront our hasty impressions, deep-seated desires, wishes, and wants so that we can avoid errors in judgment, however innocent, that tragically can result in the desecration of the world we live in—and if we are not careful, our own extinction as a species.   

This is Part 2 in a series introducing dynamic network analysis. Next up: 3. Connecting the dots.


© 2018 John Edward Terrell. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited. The statements and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not constitute official statements or positions of the Editors and others associated with SCIENCE DIALOGUES.

Dynamic Network Analysis: 1. Human nature

Despite claims both popular and scientific, we are not inherently selfish creatures. Yet we often seem self-centered. Why? Short answer: because we are looking out at the world from inside our skulls.

Highway at night. Source: https://www.maxpixel.net/Long-Exposure-Night-Highway-Motion-Traffic-Light-216090

John Terrell

HUMAN BEINGS ARE BY NATURE highly social animals. Despite claims both popular and scientific, we also are not inherently selfish creatures. Yet we often seem self-centered. Why? Short answer: because we are looking out at the world from inside our skulls.

As my mother used to say, this is both good and bad. Let me explain briefly by offering you a few elementary observations about being human.

Your pragmatic brain

A fully functioning human brain is a remarkable compromise. Your senses are constantly feeding you input—lots of it—about what’s happening in the world around you, and also about what’s going on inside your body. If your brain were to pay close attention to all the details it is receiving about the state of things within and beyond you, it would rapidly become overloaded. That, of course, would make it useless to you as an organ dedicated to helping you in an admittedly self-serving fashion navigate your way more or less successfully from the cradle to the grave.

It is perfectly understandable, therefore, why your brain perpetually walks a fine line between paying too much attention to what it is being told by its senses, and too little.

Figure 1. “I swear they came out the box this way | by frankieleon” https://www.flickr.com/photos/armydre2008/3576170595

One way the brain accomplishes this delicate balancing act is to put things, people, or events striking it as more or less like one another into the same mind box—that is, into the same mental category. By this I mean what a dictionary says this word means:  “a class or division of people or things regarded as having particular shared characteristics.”

well-known rule of thumb illustrates the point I am trying to make: if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck. A colorful example is shown in Fig. 1.

But here’s the rub. What if your brain draws the line between too much and too little in the wrong place? What if it doesn’t pay enough attention to what it is being told by your senses about the animal your brain has concluded must be a duck? More to the point, what if making such a categorical mistake leads to serious consequences? Say, mistaking a friend coming into a darkened room for an intruder. And impulsively you shoot your friend dead?

Clearly having a pragmatic brain lodged inside that bony vault up there on your shoulders can be both good and bad, just as my mother would observe.

A world of our own making

Here’s another observation about how humans deal with the world. If novelty is the spice of life, then from your brain’s pragmatic point of view, predictability is life’s bread & butter.

Put simply, the more predictable a situation or event is, the easier it is for your brain to categorize it. And then, if need be, respond appropriately (or not).

Figure 2. By Crusier [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0, from Wikimedia Commons
It is again understandable, therefore, why as a species we humans invest so much of our time and effort (and money) into dumbing down the world around us to make the challenges we face as humdrum, predictable, and therefore categorical as possible.

By “dumbing down” I mean our species is remarkably skilled at remaking the world we live in to be less risky and uncertain than it otherwise would be for us. Said another way, we love to make what’s out there in the world fit into simple, convenient, widely applicable mind boxes, i.e., categories.

Humans are not the only creatures on earth who are predisposed to make the things and events they have to deal with as humdrum as they can make them. Many of the earth’s countless species are similarly committed in their own more limited ways—biochemical, physical, or behavioral—to enhancing their surroundings and creating favorable opportunities for themselves (we are not the only self-centered creatures on earth) by making things more suitable, more accommodating, more predictable. And for them, as well, more categorical.

This last remark is important, as I will be explaining in a later posting in this series. The brain's mind boxes called "categories" may or may not have actual words associated with them that we can use to talk about them. This is often why we may find it hard to put our ideas into words. But with this remark I am getting ahead of what I want to say in this first post. 

Figure 3. Termite mound, Litchfield National Park, Northern Territory, Australia [By brewbooks from near Seattle, USA (Cathedral Termite Mound). CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Classic examples of what other species do to dumb down the world for themselves would be beavers constructing dams to create ponds that help protect them against predators; termites building earthen mounds in Africa, South America, and Australia to live in; birds building nests; and earthworms improving the quality of the soil they move through by eating it and passing it through their bodies, over and over again, generation after generation, thereby making life easier and more fulfilling for the earthworms that take their place in the great circle of life.

Clearly, therefore, we are not alone as a species in being both able and crafty enough to improve our lives and living circumstances by making the world a safer and more predictable place to live in.

Even so, we humans are certifiably the Earth’s champions at the fine and skillful art of redoing the world to suit our needs as well as our fancies, however odd the latter may be (let’s all admit, shall we, that the artificial islands of the exotic tourist resort shown in Fig. 4 are an extreme example of our willingness to redesign the world to suit our fancies and our credit cards).

Figure 4. Palm Island Resort, Dubai, United Arab Emirates https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dubai_-_The_Palm_Jumeirah_-_panoramio.jpg
Confronting our pragmatic and often self-centered ways

We have reason, therefore, to be proud of the fact that our species excels all others at creatively dumbing down the world we live in to make the challenges we face humdrum and predictable. But there are genuine risks involved. Why so? Because we are not truly god-like in our powers. We are not all-seeing and wise. We are not always as good as we may think we are at drawing the line between knowing too much about the world and knowing too little.

And furthermore let’s be honest. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, truth (spelled with or without a capital “T”) may not actually be as appealing and important—that is, as useful—to us during our journey from the nursery to the grave as the pragmatic benefits and virtues of things and events (and people, too) that are easy, convenient, and predictable.

Here then is what this series of posts at SCIENCE DIALOGUES will be about:

  • Millions of years of evolution have done a skillful job of making us clever, inventive, and remarkably successful beings.
  • As history shows us again and again, however, our reliance as a species on the pragmatic (and generally self-serving) strategy of mentally putting things, people, and experiences into separate and seemingly distinct mind boxes—into different categories—often makes it hard for us to notice and pay sufficient attention instead to how things, people, and experiences are almost always linked and interrelated rather than separate and distinct. 
  • In this series, I will be calling the first brain strategy categorical thinking, and the second one relational thinking.
  • My goal in writing these posts will be to survey for you how the second way of thinking about the world and our place in it makes it easier for us to see and understand how widely and often critically things, people, and events impact one another—sometimes in unexpected and even disastrous ways (for example, see: Fig. 5).

Moral of the story so far: while understandable from an evolutionary and psychological point of view, being self-centered creatures is a handicap we humans need ways to confront and overcome.

Dynamic network analysis (DYNA) is one such way. I hope to convince you it is a good one, too.

Figure 5. The beach at Kanapou Bay collects debris from throughout the Pacific Ocean. https://www.flickr.com/photos/noaaphotolib/19778606375
This is Part 1 inseries introducing dynamic network analysis. Next up: 2. Relativity.


© 2018 John Edward Terrell. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited. The statements and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not constitute official statements or positions of the Editors and others associated with SCIENCE DIALOGUES.

Dynamic Network Analysis (DYNA) — new series

“. . . network ideas appear, are then dissipated, and re-emerge again. They have never defined the core concerns of any discipline or research specialism to the extent that they form part of its canon and are seen as fundamental to its ongoing concerns” (Knox et al. 2006: 114).


John Terrell

DURING THE SECOND HALF of 2018 SCIENCE DIALOGUES will be featuring a series of reports on the steps that have been taken at the Field Museum in Chicago since the early 1970s to promote dynamic network analysis (DYNA) in the social and historical sciences. 

The goal of these reports is to prepare the way for writing a book about how networks analysis is currently revolutionizing scientific (and hopefully human) thought about the world we live in and our place in it.

  1. Human nature

  2. Relativity

  3. Connecting the dots

  4. Exploring the 5th dimension

  5. What is a relationship?

  6. What is a network?

  7. Why do network analysis?

  8. Adaptive networks

  9. Asking questions

  10. What?

  11. Where? 

  12. Who?

  13. Why?

  14. When?

  15. How?

  16. what’s next?

Cover art (a fantasy) for the proposed book on networks thinking.

Reference cited

Knox, Hannah, Mike Savage, and Penny Harvey (2006). Social networks and the study of relations: Networks as method, metaphor and form. Economy and Society 35: 113–140.

History and Human Genetics: challenges of collaboration

 Writing history is a lot harder than some may realize

John Terrell

UK’s LEADING ARCHAEOLOGY MAGAZINE Current Archaeology has taken a  sympathetic look at the often strained relationship between archaeology and human molecular genetics today.

It should come as no surprise to anyone who knows firsthand the challenges of writing history that this brief assessment highlights the concerns some archaeologists have voiced that “aDNA is unable to account for the complexity and subtleties of human behavior.”

This brief published commentary ends on a hopeful note. In the years ahead, collaborations between archaeologists and experts working in other sciences will “becoming stronger and more balanced.”

 “So what? Why should I care?”

This same week in May 2018, Scientific American published my own assessment of  the strengths and weaknesses of paleogenetics today focusing on what is being written about Pacific prehistory by David Reich and others. Reich is the author of an enthusiastic overview of aDNA research around the world published this year by Pantheon.

John Terrell on Teop Island, North Solomons, 1969

Here is what I say at the end of this analysis (somewhat shortened in length):

There are two thoughts I want to leave you with.

My first thought is about scientific responsibility. Pacific Islanders have been dealing with foreigners telling them what to do and how to do it ever since Europeans began sailing around the Pacific in the 16th century. Are we now committed to telling them also what was their history? Why would we want to do this? The days of European colonialism are over, aren’t they? Or are they?

The second thought is this one. Call them “populations” or call them “races,” it makes no difference. As modern molecular genetics has now shown us in remarkable detail, we are all 99.9 percent the same. It may be conventional wisdom to think we humans come in different kinds called races, populations and the like. A statistic like this one, however, ought to be enough to convince anyone willing to listen that we don’t come in kinds whatever you want to call them.

Hence the apparent willingness of more than a few geneticists today to use words like populations, migrations and admixture when they are writing about ancient DNA and the past does more than just misinform the rest of us. As reviews of Reich’s book, both pro and con, have sometimes scoldingly observed, when scientists talk this way, they can sound like they are doing racial profiling. Apparently, it can be hard for some folks to see that what my grandfather called hogwash may not just be something unbelievable. Hogwash can also be words and stories that are socially, politically and, yes, historically misleading. Maybe even dangerous.

Racism, science, and common sense

John Edward Terrell

Five ways to stop sounding like a racist if you aren’t one.

If you think racism isprejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior,” science has something surprising to tell you.

WHAT A DIFFERENCE A DECADE CAN MAKE. Back in 2006, Angela Davis remarked during a keynote address at the University of Wyoming honoring Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday: “We have been basically persuaded that we should not talk about racism.”  Following the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of African-American teen Trayvon Martin in 2013, the activist movement Black Lives Matter was born. Since then the issue of racism has been front and center in American politics. What remains elusive, however, is why racism however motivated finds such fertile ground in the human psyche.

The Earth is flat

Kyrie Irving, who plays basketball brilliantly for the Cleveland Cavaliers, made headlines in February 2017 for declaring boldly that the Earth is flat. He was perhaps pulling our collective leg.  His stated rationale, however, has more than a little bit of good old common sense to back it up:

“For what I’ve known for as many years and what I’ve come to believe, what I’ve been taught, is that the Earth is round,” he continued. “But if you really think about it from a landscape of the way we travel, the way we move, and the fact that—can you really think of us rotating around the sun and all planets aligned, rotating in specific dates, being perpendicular with what’s going on with these planets?”

Crazy thinking?  Maybe, but then what about this? A poll published two years ago by the U.S. National Science Foundation found that 26% of Americans don’t know that despite appearances to the contrary, the Sun does not go around the Earth.   Perhaps more astonishing, when asked, 52% of Americans evidently don’t agree with the statement that humans evolved from earlier animal species.

You don’t have to be Bill Nye or Neil deGrasse Tyson to see that all these instances of scientific ignorance make perfect sense from a common sense point of view despite being wrong. Furthermore, it wasn’t all that long ago most people on Earth in point of fact were misinformed in precisely these ways: yes, of course, the Earth is flat; yes, it is obvious that the Sun goes around the Earth; and haven’t you heard? Humans were created in their present form by a special act of Divine Will.

. . . and races are real

There are no polls I know of to back up the claim. Even so, it seems likely many people today—maybe even most—would also say they can’t possibly be at all racist because, don’t you know?, they don’t look down upon people in other races (see the dictionary definition reprinted above).

Editorial cartoon showing a Chinese man, surrounded by luggage labeled “Industry”, “Order”, “Sobriety”, and “Peace”, being excluded from entry to the “Golden Gate of Liberty”. The sign next to the iron door reads, “Notice—Communist, Nihilist, Socialist, Fenian & Hoodlum welcome. But no admittance to Chinamen.” At the bottom, the caption reads, “THE ONLY ONE BARRED OUT. Enlightened American Statesman—’We must draw the line somewhere, you know.'” 1882. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_only_one_barred_out_cph.3b48680.jpg. . . and races are real

This argument may be socially honorable, but if this is what many truly believe, then there are people who need to hear that just like the idea that the Earth is flat, so too, the notion that  human beings come in different kinds that can be labeled as “races” is just plain scientifically wrong.

As the anthropologist Jonathan Marks at the University of North Carolina – Charlotte and many others, too, have been saying for years, human genetic variation around the globe is real. But the same cannot be said for the commonsense claim that the Earth is peopled by separate and distinct human races.

As Marks has observed on numerous occasions, when we try to divide people up into different races, it’s not that we’re reading natural patterns of variation and simply extracting this idea from nature. Instead,

what we’re doing is we’re deciding that certain patterns of variation are less important than others, and certain patterns of variation are more important than others. We decide that the difference between a Norwegian and an Italian is not significant and so we’ll place them in the same category. And we decide that the difference between a Persian and a Somali is important; and so we’ll place them in different categories.

Sinner heal thyself

It is probably true that most human geneticists nowadays recognize that human beings don’t come in kinds—that is, races aren’t real. It is more than unfortunate, therefore, that geneticists today generally still don’t seem to know how to talk about human biological variation from place to place and down through time without using words—the term “population,” for example—that all too easily can mislead others less knowledgeable into believing science still endorses the old commonsense idea that human races exist in the real world to be embraced or savaged depending on one’s personal and moral proclivities.

No wonder, therefore, that dictionary definitions of racism (such as the one at the top of this commentary) can still make it sound like there is nothing wrong with the idea of race provided we don’t use this notion as an excuse for prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism.

The way forward

Most of us don’t believe the Earth is flat. Yet most of us live and act as if it were because this commonsense idea is a seemingly trivial lie that mostly works just fine in everyday life. Similarly, most of us may feel comfortable using the word race for the same reason. Truth be told, however, most of us also know the consequences of doing so can be deadly. Is there a way forward?

Here are 5 recommendations. They have been written specifically with geneticists in mind. But you don’t have to be a professional geneticist to add them to your own personal stock of “best practices.”

  1. Avoid whenever possible using facile concepts and terms such as ancestry, migration, and admixture when writing about human diversity.
  2. Abandon using the outdated concept of a “population,” and replace it with the statistician’s term “sample.”
  3. Stop writing about the “population structure” of this or that species, and instead report on their “genetic structure” as a species.
  4. Develop comparative databases documenting the genetic structure of other species to demonstrate publicly and repeatedly until the truth finally sinks in that geographic variation doesn’t have to be “racial” to be real.
  5. Create mathematical tools and network algorithms to use when mapping, analyzing, and reporting on the genetic structure of a species that unlike current methods (e.g., the popular computer program Structure) are non-categorical.


© 2017 John Edward Terrell. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited. The statements and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not constitute official statements or positions of the Editors and others associated with SCIENCE DIALOGUES.

Speaking truth to power: The three faces of authority

John Edward Terrell

Please note: this commentary, recovered on 28-Jan-2017, was originally published in Science Dialogues on 21-Febr-2015.

ONE OF THE THINGS I have learned both as a human being and as an anthropologist is that I never fully understand other human beings—and certainly not other anthropologists. In the former category, and sometimes in the latter, I include government bureaucrats, university deans, academic chairs, and institutional vice presidents.

I have also found that the door opens—or rather stays partly closed—both ways. Human beings in such positions of power over other human beings all too often do not seem to understand the human sources of their authority. And therein lies a tale.


On 9 March 1993 after years of discussion, planning, and hard work, Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago and the Maori community at Tokomaru Bay, New Zealand, formally reopened to the public a fully renovated Maori meeting house safeguarded there within the Museum’s 20th century walls.

As one consequence of Museum’s close collaboration with Tokomaru Bay, it is now known for sure that this house in Chicago was built at Tokomaru in 1881 to honor Ruatepupuke, a legendary figure who is said to have brought the art of woodcarving to the Maori people from the underwater house of the sea god, Tangaroa. The ridgepole of the building is his spine; the rafters are his ribs, and the wide boards along the roof at the front are Ruatepupuke’s arms outstretched to welcome visitors.

The Maori meeting house called Ruatepupuke II at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. Source: author.
The three faces of authority

As  a museum curator, I am given to saying that material things mediate human relationships. They mediate our relationships with the world around us. We call them “tools.” They mediate our relationships with other human beings. We talk about them in many ways such as “gifts,” “mobile phones,” and “money.” And things, too, mediate our relationships with worlds unseen or merely imagined. Then we may call them “religious icons,” “ceremonial objects,” “money,” and “computer games.”

While I was working with my Maori friends during the negotiations for and restoration of the incredible “thing” at the Field Museum called Ruatepupuke II, I was lucky enough to learn much about how Maori New Zealanders are likely to think about life, community, and meeting houses.

One of the truly unexpected benefits of this partnership was learning about how nuanced a Maori way of thinking about power can be. They may not have as many ways to talk about authority as a Canadian has at his or her disposal to talk about snow, but they have three ways in particular that reveal a depth of human understanding that is insightful and wise.

Wehi, wana, and ihi

What I learned was that there are at least three different words in the Maori Polynesian language for “power,” each of which captures a different facet of what it means to be powerful:

wehi refers to the power to inspire fear, awe, or dread in the beholder. An example of wehi would be the visceral power of the traditional Maori war dance called the haka. Another would be a phone call from your doctor, department chair, or divisional vice president;

wana can mean  “excitement,” “spiritual awe,” and the like in a more enveloping sense; and

ihi is difficult to translate into English but means, I think, what we would call “confidence,” “charm,” “bearing,” or “inherent authority.” In New Zealand there are sayings to the effect “you do not need to ask who is the chief,” and “everyone knows when the chief has come into the room.” You know you are feeling the ihi of a person or thing when the hairs stand up on the back of your neck.

The fragility of mana

These three faces or facets of power in a Maori sense all work together to nurture what in Polynesian is called mana—yet another word difficult to translate and understand that means, all too simply put, “power,” “prestige,” and “status.” Elsewhere I have argued that this word often can mean what social scientists call social capital.

The point I want to make in telling you all this about these Maori ways of talking about power is that together they reveal how fragile is the power of bureaucrats, deans, chairs, divisional vice presidents, and other authority figures.

The mana of an administrator does not come with the title on the door to his or her office. The ability to hire, fire, or censure someone “under” someone else’s thumb in our own society may have an inherent degree of wehi associated with it because of our legal, corporate, and social conventions. But the ihi and wana of anyone’s “authority” can collapse when the support of others has been lost.

In New Zealand, for example, the primal mana of a chief is said to be passed down by fact or right of birth to his offspring. But what a child then goes on in life to do with such a gift can weaken rather than strength that person’s mana in the eyes of others. Just as a chief who fails in battle may be seen as having lost his mana, so too a child who does not live up to his or her birthright may loose standing and the following of others.

This is a fact of life that needs no translation from Maori into English, and it is a lesson that all those in positions of power would do well to heed.

Social capital, after all, is social, not monetary.

© 2015 John Edward Terrell. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited. The statements and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not constitute official statements or positions of the Editors and others associated with SCIENCE DIALOGUES.

Social network analysis: Hypothesis testing and what-if projections

John Edward Terrell

Please note: this commentary, recovered on 28-Jan-2017, was originally published in Science Dialogues on 13-June-2014.

GIVEN A RELIABLE DATABASE of information and a good computer program (such as Microsoft Excel), it is possible today to simulate a broad range of hypothetical real-world situations under differing possible opening and subsequent conditions (Embrechts and Hofet 2014). Said differently, by changing the parameters and values of a spreadsheet in meaningful ways it is possible to do informative what-if analyses of many kinds of situations—thereby gaining better understanding not only of possible but also plausible outcomes.

Similarly, it is possible to use a good network analysis program (such as UCINET; Borgatti et al. 2013) to simulate differing social situations and their plausible impacts. Here briefly described is one example based on research currently being done to explore the history of social networks along the north coast of Papua New Guinea.

Research question

During the last glacial maximum (~21,000 BP), sea-levels were ~125 m (410 ft) lower than they are today. It is likely that New Guinea’s northern coast was mostly a steep rocky shoreline offering few resources supporting human settlements (Chappell 1982).  As one consequence, New Guinea during the last Ice Age served more as a vicariant barrier than a land bridge between Asia and island Oceania (Terrell 2004).

Figure 1. New Guinea is the second largest island in the world. The northern coastline is over 1,600 miles (2,600 km) long. Shown here in comparison with the 48 mainland states in the U.S.A.

Both historical and archaeological evidence (Welsch and Terrell 1998; Terrell and Schechter 2011) suggests that villages on the northern coastline of New Guinea and the nearby offshore islands have been linked with one another by far-reaching social and economic networks for the past 2,000 years. An obvious and historically important question, therefore, is whether people and places there in the more distant past were similarly integrated in comparable widely-distributed communities of practice (Terrell n.d.).After the last Ice Age, however, sea levels rose steadily and then began to stabilize around their modern levels ~6,000–7,000 years ago. The resulting formation of coastal plains and environmentally productive lagoons and estuaries led to peak biodiversity (Hope and Haberle 2005) and probably also peak human population densities along this coastline between ~4000–2000 BP.

Materials and methods

Figure 2 shows two mini-max networks (Cochrane and Lipo 2010) drawn using UCINET 6 (version 6.289) and NetDraw (version 2.109) with the edges weighted at two different thresholds. The upper network shows the connectivity of places in this region given a maximal customary voyaging distance of 220 km or less—the greatest distance known to have been locally traversed during the Pleistocene and the mid-Holocene prior to ~3300 BP (Golitko and Terrell n.d.). The lower network has a threshold of 360 km—the greatest voyaging distance (from Makira-Ulawa in the Solomon Islands to Temotu in the Reefs/Santa Cruz group) documented as having been crossed during the first settlement of Remote Oceania ~3300–3100 BP (Irwin 1992).

Also shown in this figure are (a) the network positions (blue) of this region’s major sources of obsidian, a volcanic glass widely transported both historically and prehistorically in this region of the world; and (b) the location of our study area (red) on this coast in the Aitape district (Terrell and Schechter 2011).

Figure 2. Connectivity of obsidian sources (blue nodes) and Aitape (red node) on the Sepik coast of Papua New Guinea. Top: when the edge distance is 220 km or less; bottom: when it is 360 km or less (baseline image source: Mark L. Golitko). Likely cut lines in these networks projected using the Girvan-Newman algorithm (Girvan and Newman 2002) are shown here as heavy black lines. The same four groupings in the upper mapping occur at any assumed what-if linkage distance between 186 and 270 km.
Network analysis

Given these analyses, it is readily apparent that the what-if connectivity of these mappings differs markedly. Under the upper scenario, it can be hypothesized that obsidian from sources southeast of Aitape (they are on New Britain Island) has probably been transported from place to place at least as far west as Aitape, but it is less likely that obsidian from the other sources—located in the Admiralty Islands—has also arrived there despite the fact that these sources are geographically closer to our study area. The situation is different in the lower mapping. Instead of four probable groupings within the network shown, there are only two, and given this scenario, when obsidian has reached Aitape, it is more likely to have been mined at the nearer Admiralty sources.

Hypothesis testing

The presence of Admiralty Islands obsidian at prehistoric sites has not been securely documented archaeologically outside the Admiralty Group earlier than the mid 2nd millennium B.C. Its widespread popularity at Aitape and elsewhere in this part of the world thereafter is generally associated with suspected improvements in canoe-making design and technology thought to have been introduced from Island Southeast Asia around this same time (Specht et al. 2014; Terrell n.d.). However, it is also generally accepted that the movement of animals, obsidian, and people between islands and coastal villages was characteristic of life in this part of the world for many millennia before then—in other words, the suspected improvements in watercraft design and voyaging prowess did not initiate coastal and inter-island mobility in this region but instead made longer-distance travel more feasible and routine (Specht et al. 2014).

Figure 3. The actual geographic locations of the obsidian sources (blue dots) and the study area (red dot) at Aitape on the Sepik coast of Papua New Guinea.

While obsidian from Admiralty sources has been found at archaeological sites on the north coast of New Guinea that are younger than ~2000 BP, almost all of the obsidian that has been recovered archaeologically on mainland New Guinea older than ~3,500 BP has been sourced to the the Kutau/Bao locality on the Willaumez Peninsula of western New Britain (Summerhayes 2009).

Our fieldwork at Aitape in 1993/1994 and 1996 supported by the National Science Foundation ((BNS-8819618 and DBS-9120301)  discovered large quantities of obsidian and chert at localities along the former mid-Holocene shoreline (which at Aitape is now located several kilometers inland) including assemblages with notably high frequencies of  obsidian from New Britain marked by large average flake sizes (Golitko 2011)—an archaeological signature consistent with pre-2000 BP obsidian assemblages found elsewhere in northern Melanesia (Summerhayes 2009).

Therefore, given our two what-if network analyses and this archaeological evidence it may be hypothesized that obsidian has probably been indirectly available to people living in what is now the Aitape district ever since the stabilization of world sea levels around 6,000–7,000 years ago, but it is likely that the major sources of this natural glass prior to ~3,500 BP were those located on New Britain.

With funding from the National Science Foundation my colleague Dr. Mark Golitko is currently (June–July 2014) leading a research team at Aitape that is surveying archaeological sites there on the mid-Holocene (~5000 BP) shoreline (as reconstructed from estimated local uplift rates and sea-level records) to document how far-reaching or alternatively how restricted were cultural and material exchanges on this coast at that time. Discovering how isolated or widely linked communities at Aitape were during the mid-Holocene is  critical to understanding the patterning of modern human diversity in northern New Guinea and elsewhere in the Pacific (Terrell 2010a, 2010b).


Obsidian has long been a popular although largely nonessential raw material in the Pacific (as elsewhere on earth) despite the fact that alternative and equally useful cutting materials (such as bamboo) are readily available. Hence the ancient transport of obsidian through inter-community networks is commonly interpreted by archaeologists as more a social phenomenon than a practical (“economic”) necessity (Torrence 2011). As suggested by the what-if analyses discussed here, we anticipate  that Golitko and his team will discover this summer that obsidian was reaching communities on the Sepik coast well before ~3,500 BP.

Funding for this research was provided by National Science Foundation Grant No. BCS-1155338–”Archaeological and Environmental Investigations along the mid-Holocene shoreline near Aitape, Northern Papua New Guinea,” Mark L. Golitko and John E. Terrell.

Borgatti, S. P., M. G. Everett, and J. C. Johnson. 2013. Analyzing social networks. Los Angeles: Sage.

Chappell, J. 1982. Sea levels and sediments: some features of the context of coastal archaeological sites in the Tropics. Archaeology in Oceania 17:69–78.

Cochrane, E. E. and C. P. Lipo. 2010. Phylogenetic analyses of Lapita decoration do not support branching evolution or regional population structure during colonization of Remote Oceania. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 365:3889–3902.

Embrechts, P. and M. Hofet. 2014. Statistics and quantitative risk management for banking and insurance.  Annual Review of Statistics and It Application 1: 493–514.

Girvan, M. and M. E. J. Newman. 2002. Community structure in social and biological networks. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 99:7821–7826.

Golitko, M. 2011. Provenience Investigations of Ceramic and Obsidian Samples Using Laser Ablation Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry and Portable X-Ray Fluorescence. In Exploring prehistory on the Sepik coast of Papua New Guinea, J. E. Terrell and E. M. Schechter, eds., pages 251–287. Fieldiana Anthropology New Series No. 42. Chicago: Field Museum of Natural History.

Golitko, M. and J. E. Terrell. n.d. Modeling cultural patterning and prehistoric interaction along the “inland” Bismarck Sea using network analysis. Unpublished manuscript, 2012 NEOMAP Project “Inland Seas in a Global Perspective,” Leiden, Netherlands.

Hope, G. S. and S. G. Haberle. 2005. The history of the human landscapes of New Guinea. In Papuan Pasts: cultural, linguistic, and biological histories of Papuan-speaking peoples, A. Pawley, R. Attenborough, J. Golson, and R. Hide, eds., pages 541–554. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics.

Irwin, G. J. 1992. The prehistoric exploration and colonisation of the Pacific. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Specht, J., T. Denham, J. Goff, and J. E. Terrell. 2014. Deconstructing the Lapita cultural complex in the Bismarck Archipelago. Journal of Archaeological Research 22:89–140.

Summerhayes, G. R. 2009. Obsidian network patterns in Melanesia—sources, characterisation and distribution. IPPA Bulletin 29:109–124.

Terrell, J. E. 2004. The “sleeping giant” hypothesis and New Guinea’s place in the prehistory of Greater Near Oceania. World Archaeology 36:601–609.

Terrell, J. E. 2010a. Language and material culture on the Sepik coast of Papua New Guinea: using social network analysis to simulate, graph, identify, and analyze social and cultural boundaries between communities. The Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology 5:3-32.

Terrell, J. E. 2010b. Social network analysis of the genetic structure of Pacific Islanders. Annals of Human Genetics 74:211–232.

Terrell, John Edward. n.d. Understanding Lapita as history. In The Oxford handbook of prehistoric Oceania, Ethan Cochrane and Terry Hunt, eds. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Terrell. J. E. and E. M. Schechter. 2011.Archaeological investigations on the Sepik coast of Papua New GuineaFieldiana: Anthropology42:1–303.

Torrence, R. 2011. Finding the right question: learning from stone tools on the Willaumez Peninsula, Papua New Guinea. Archaeology in Oceania 46: 29-41.

Welsch, R. and J. E. Terrell. 1998. Material culture, social fields, and social boundaries on the Sepik coast of New Guinea. In The archaeology of social boundaries, Miriam Stark, ed., pages 50–77. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.

© 2014 John Edward Terrell. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited. The statements and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not constitute official statements or positions of the Editors and others associated with SCIENCE DIALOGUES.

America’s latest “cargo cult”?

John Edward Terrell

In the 16th century, faced with reformers who thought they knew the way forward better than he did, Martin Luther is famous for having said what Jesus once said (Matthew 16:23) “Devil get thee behind me.” Waking up on Wednesday morning, November 9th, the majority of voters in America may have felt the same. Trump hadn’t won the election. Yet he had won the American presidency thanks to the peculiar institution of the Electoral College. Trump and the reformist movement of the seemingly disadvantaged and overlooked in American society he asserted he was leading would now be empowered to drain the swamp in Washington and make America great again.

Source: http://maxpixel.freegreatpicture.com/Bubble-Rainbow-Colorful-Iridescent-Soap-Bubble-1891638

Or maybe not. Since the election everyone or her brother has come forward with an explanation for what happened to bring about such a cataclysmic realignment of the stars. It’s the economy. No, it’s Neoliberalism. No, it’s racism, pure and evil. No again, it’s the sheer stupidity of the American masses. The list of reasons for the success of The Donald is as lengthy as there are people in the room to offer them.

I am an anthropologist who works in the South Pacific where social movements like Trump’s have been commonplace. Out there we call them “cargo cults” since many of these often short-lived social uprisings have centered on ways to miraculously achieve wealth and Western material goods. Academics also call them “nativistic movements.” Others prefer “millenarian movements,” and suggest Christianity began as just such reformist movement among the discontented Jewish faithful living under yoke of Roman rule. The anthropologist Anthony F. C. Wallace at the University of Pennsylvania, however, preferred instead “revitalization movements.” Whatever label used, Wallace defined such a social movement as a “deliberate, organized, conscious effort by members of a society to construct a more satisfying culture.”

Many years ago I had the good fortune to take Wallace’s course on these self-conscious populist efforts by which people seek to recover their sense of self-worth and dignity. If he were alive today—he died in 2015 at 92—my wager would be that he might have predicted the outcome of our recent election. He would have seen Trump for what he is, not the Devil incarnate. But rather a razzle-dazzle Harold Hill kind of prophet, however flawed or sincere you take him to be.

Wallace also might have observed—perhaps even in time to save the day for her—that the way to handle an upstart like Donald J. Trump  is definitely not the way Hillary tackled him. Not by ridicule or tones of elite superiority, but instead by matching his magical vision of what makes America great with an equally visionary (and perhaps similarly magical) wish-dream of her own. In short, she should have fought fire with fire much the way Bernie Sanders did for many months before the Democratic Convention. You don’t have to be Harry Potter to know it takes magic to defeat magic.

Wallace was an authority on the spiritual and social revivalist movement among the Iroquois of upstate New York in the early 19th century inspired and led by the Seneca prophet Handsome Lake. Here are a few basic facts. A century earlier, the Iroquois had been a powerful political and economic force in the northeastern United States thanks to the fur trade. Then they had the misfortune to side with the British during the American Revolution. Thereafter, they found themselves cramped into small reservations on both sides of Canada-U.S.A. border.

No need to give you details of Handsome Lake’s prophetic message or the religious movement he led until his death in 1815 beyond noting that many today still embrace his message of redemption. Here instead is the lesson for all of us Wallace drew from his scholarly research on Handsome Lake and also several hundred other similar case studies down through history.[1]

Wallace argues that revitalization movements in general, not only what Handsome Lake said he was inspired by the Creator to lead, have a common pattern that can be broken down into five steps or phases of development.[2] Wallace’s own phrasing of these five is academic. I have rewritten them to make them more user-friendly by restating them as if being seen in hindsight by someone participating in such a movement.

  1. Once upon a time life was good. We were happy, hopeful, and successful.
  2. Then things changed, and we started feeling that how we were living was not fulfilling our needs and aspirations.
  3. We entered an increasingly difficult time when our old ways no longer gave us what we want out of life. Many of us cast about for alternative and often unsatisfactory ways to bring meaning back into our lives by turning to alcohol, drugs, or social deviance. Disillusionment and apathy became common.
  4. Then suddenly someone came forward with a transformative vision, a way by which we could rediscover better days—Wallace called such an inspirational experience a prophetic “vision-dream”—setting out what must be done to feel good again, and be as successful as we once were. Here Wallace’s own words directly apply: “Converts are made by the prophet. Some undergo hysterical seizures induced by suggestion in a crowd situation; some experience an ecstatic vision in private circumstances; some are convinced by more or less rational arguments, some by considerations of expediency and opportunity. A small clique of special disciples (often including a few already influential men) clusters about the prophet and an embryonic campaign organization develops with three orders of personnel: the prophet; the disciples; and the followers. Frequently the action program from here on is effectively administered in large part by a political rather than a religious leadership. Like the prophet, many of the converts undergo a revitalizing personality transformation.”
  5. So now it looks like we are in for good times again. Perhaps. As Wallace wrote: “This group program may, however, be more or less realistic and more or less adaptive: some programs are literally suicidal; others represent well-conceived and successful projects of further social, political, or economic reform; some fail, not through any deficiency in conception and execution, but because circumstances made defeat inevitable.”

Who knows whether Donald Trump has ever had anything like a prophetic vision-dream in all his 70 years of life. However, judging by his public performances during the recent campaign, it can be maintained he did begin to see himself as the true prophet (“I am your voice”) of his very own personal revitalization movement.[3]

Is he sincere? Who knows? But here is my first point. What we are now experiencing in America isn’t something new and certainly not something strange. So stop trying to pin down and blame this or that for why The Donald won. People can be unhappy with their lot in life for countless reasons, not just because down deep inside they genuinely loathe immigrants, are racists, are fed up with the same-old, same-old coming out of Washington, or any of the other countless excuses being offered by pundits or exchanged at Starbucks between friends still in shock.

Here’s my second point. It is time to focus on Wallace’s last step. Here there is reason to worry. As Wallace wrote: “In instances where organized hostility to the movement develops, a crystallization of counter-hostility against unbelievers frequently occurs, and emphasis shifts from cultivation of the ideal to combat against the unbeliever and uncertainty.” I am not the first suggest we will be going down a very rocky road to 2020. Since I am almost as old as he is, it is fair for me to say to Bernie Sanders that we will need a new prophet to lead those of us who were in this camp to the Promised Land.

[1] Wallace, Anthony. Death and Rebirth of Seneca. Vintage, 2010.

[2] Wallace, Anthony FC. “Revitalization movements.” American anthropologist58, no. 2 (1956): 264-281.

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ehvUQrRDyyU

This post was first published on 1 January 2017 at SCIENCE DIALOGUES, and a link was corrected on 11 January 2017

John Edward Terrell is Regenstein Curator of Pacific Anthropology at The Field Museum, Chicago, IL 60605. His latest book A Talent for Friendship: Rediscovery of a Remarkable Trait was published on December 1, 2014 by Oxford University Press. Email address: terrell[at]fieldmuseum.org

© 2017 John Edward Terrell. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited. The statements and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not constitute official statements or positions of the Editors and others associated with SCIENCE DIALOGUES.

Logical seduction and historical delusion

John Edward Terrell

Please note: this commentary, recovered on 9-Jan-2017, was originally published in Science Dialogues on 20-Feb-2015.

In his acclaimed novel The Oxford Murders, the Argentinean writer and mathematician Guillermo Martínez engagingly shows how easy it is to hide the truth from others by getting them to think that a series of similar events—in this instance, a series of murders—is happening because, when taken in sequence, they appear to add up to a coded message that we are being taunted to decipher.

Judging by appearances, each murder apparently symbolizes one of the logical steps in a predictable sequence, just as most of us would probably agree that the next logical number in the familiar series 2, 4, 8, and 16 must be the multiple 32.  Perhaps, but as the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein famously observed, any finite sequence of numbers can be continued in a variety of different ways, not just in the one way that may seem reasonable (Biletzki and Matar 2006).

For example, the narrator, whose name we are never told, is asked early in this novel if he can figure out what is the next symbol in the odd series reproduced here as Fig. 1a.

Figure 1.
Figure 1. Alternative possible solutions
to Martínez’s cryptic symbol series.

Although Martínez never shows us the solution he has in mind (the narrator merely tells us later on that the answer is the number series 1, 2, 3, 4), we suspect those who find riddles like this one appealing are likely to say the solution shown in Fig. 1b is the right resolve:  an answer derived from the rules of symmetry (Fig. 1c). Yet in keeping with Martínez’s revealing observations about both logic and magic set here and there in this story, what if the proper solution is not so playful?

For example, what if the three symbols already revealed follow instead the alternative rule that one stroke equals 1?  If this were so, then the missing fourth symbol in this cryptic series would not be an “M” with a bar drawn horizontally through it (in keeping with our different rule, this strange symbol could stand instead for the number 5), but disconcertingly could be drawn either as a single stroke (Fig. 1d), or possibly as an inscribed circle, the letter “O,” or a zero (Fig. 1e).

Doubt as to the proper resolve of Martínez’s series of symbols illustrates Wittgenstein’s cryptic and oft-quoted remark:  “This was our paradox:  no course of action could be determined by a rule, because every course of action can be made out to accord with the rule. The answer was:  if everything can be made out to accord with the rule, then it can also be made out to conflict with it. And so there would be neither accord nor conflict” (quoted in:  Biletzki and Matar 2006).

I am not a philosopher, nor a novelist.  It seems to me, however, that Martinez’s tale and Wittgenstein’s remark both tell us something about ourselves, about how we are given to looking for similarities among things and events proving that what we are seeing makes sense not by chance but necessity.  It might even be argued that human beings are strongly predisposed to equate similarity with necessity.

This is why we need statisticians, however much statistics may sometimes seem only a cultivated way of lying for effect.  They keep us from foolishly jumping to the conclusion that similarities in appearance or similarities in effect are necessarily similarities of cause.

And in this regard, we need to remember that when statisticians say that something should be attributed to “chance,” they do not mean “without cause.”  Far from it:  the point they are making is that the cause (or causes) is not necessarily the one we think it is.

Note: These observations were originally published as the introduction in my chapter "Return to the entangled bank: Deciphering the Lapita cultural series" in Sheppard, P. J., Thomas, T., and Summerhayes, G. R., eds., Lapita: Ancestors and Descendants, pages 255-269. Monograph 28. New Zealand Archaeological Association, Auckland, 2009.

Biletzki, Anat and Matar, Anat, “Ludwig Wittgenstein”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2014/entries/wittgenstein/>.


John Edward Terrell is Regenstein Curator of Pacific Anthropology at The Field Museum, Chicago, IL 60605. His latest book A Talent for Friendship: Rediscovery of a Remarkable Trait was published on December 1, 2014 by Oxford University Press. Email address: terrell[at]fieldmuseum.org

© 2015 John Edward Terrell. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited. The statements and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not constitute official statements or positions of the Editors and others associated with SCIENCE DIALOGUES.


Thinking about thinking 1. Cognitive niche construction

John Edward Terrell 

Please note: this commentary, recovered on 9-Jan-2017, was originally published in Science Dialogues on 22-Jan-2015.

“Can we state more distinctly still the manner in which the mental life seems to intervene between impressions made from without upon the body, and reactions of the body upon the outer world again?”

William James, The Principles of Psychology, 1890: 6

By Dmitry Rozhkov (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
THE NEUROLOGIST MARCUS RAICHLE HAS remarked that studies of brain function have traditionally focused on task-evoked responses (Raichle 2010, 2015). As Daniel Kahneman has explained, such research has contributed the useful convention that there are two modes of thinking—two systems in the mind, System 1 (or Type 1) and System 2 (or Type 2). In Kahneman’s words (2011: 20–21):

System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.

System 2 allocates attention in the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.

Although such conventions are useful, Raichle argues that focusing on task-evoked responses “ignores the alternative possibility that brain functions are mainly intrinsic, involving information processing for interpreting, responding to and predicting environmental demands” (2010: 180).

As he says, it is not difficult to see why so much attention has been given to monitoring neural responses to carefully designed tasks that can be rigorously controlled: “evaluating the behavioral relevance of intrinsic activity (i.e. ongoing neural and metabolic activity which is not directly associated with subjects’ performance of a task) can be an elusive enterprise” (2010: 180).

While it could be argued that intrinsic brain tasks are part and parcel of System 2 thinking, I believe it may be more constructive to infer instead that there is a third mode of thinking—one that I have suggested may be called cognitive niche construction (Terrell 2015: 29–32, 168–172)—a way of thinking that may strongly engage the brain’s default-mode network.

Default-mode network

As Raichle (2015) and Robert Spunt and his colleagues (in press) have underscored, there is considerable metabolic cost to running the human brain when it is engaged in ongoing internal activity. As the latter researchers observe: “most of the brain’s energy budget is consumed not by activity evoked by specific cognitive tasks (e.g., mental arithmetic) but by spontaneous ongoing activity that is most notable when the brain is at rest.”

Given the metabolic cost of this ongoing internal activity in what has been dubbed the brain’s default mode network (DMN) when we are not task-engaged, an obvious question arises. How can we afford such stimulus-independent activity?

Raiche, Spunt et al., and others stress the likelihood that such inner-directed brain activity must be somehow adaptive in a realistic Darwinian sense, i.e., this inner activity must be “functionally consequential for the execution of stimulus-dependent mental state inferences” (Spunt et al. in press). This inference is plausible, but arguably not sufficient.

Niche construction

How we are able to remake the world around us when we put our minds and backs to the effort has been called niche construction (Odling-Smee et al. 2003). In the biological sciences, the word “niche” means “way of life,” and every species is said to have its particular place, or niche, in the economy of life. We are just one of a number of species that excel at making and remaking their way of life, their place in the grand scheme of things, their ecological niche. Similarly, I have argued that even when it may look as if we are day-dreaming, our minds actually may be hard at work engaged in cognitive niche construction—a way of using our brains that is possibly but not necessarily unique to our species (Terrell 2015).

Others recently have also written about cognitive niche construction, but what they evidently have in mind may be more clearly activity under the heading of System 2 thinking. Steven Pinker, for instance, has defined cognitive niche construction as “a mode of survival characterized by manipulating the environment through causal reasoning and social cooperation” (Pinker 2010: 8993).

Such a description glosses over how difficult it can be to apply what we envision in our mind’s eye to the realities of life. More to the point, such a definition does not confront the obvious weakness of cognitive niche construction at least as I have described it. What goes on between our ears when we are engaged in such mental activity does not have to be rational at all, at least not if by “rational” we mean thinking that makes practical sense in the real world outside our bodies.

A Paradox

By detaching from the realities of the moment and turning our mind to our inner thoughts, we are able to ponder what I like to call the “coulds & shoulds” of life. We can devote our mind to a kind of imaginary niche construction that does not even have to be “of this world” at all. We can see seemingly impossible things in our mind’s eye. We can engage in “what if” fantasies of remarkable, perhaps sexually charged, and even quite unrealistic complexity. We can invent imaginary worlds, invent new things, rewrite the story of our life to our heart’s content. All in the mind rather than in the real world.

In short, it seems likely we engage in cognitive niche construction not just for interpreting, responding to, and predicting environmental demands—to paraphrase what Raichle has previously said. As Spunt et al. observe: “Given that the DMN activity is metabolically costly, widely distributed in the cortex, and highly sensitive to both the presence and type of task demand, it should be no surprise that this network would have functional consequences in multiple domains” (Spunt et al., in press).

They themselves hypothesize that natural selection has favored the evolution of such a costly DMN in humans (and possibly also in chimpanzees and monkeys) so that we can more skillfully “see the world in terms of other minds” and live together socially—thereby gaining far more socially than would be likely by living separately.

While this is a plausible hypothesis, it is not the only one possible, as Gabriel Terrell and I will discuss in the forthcoming commentaries.

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of eight commentaries at SCIENCE DIALOGUES on cognitive niche construction and its implications for psychology, philosophy, and the social sciences generally.

Next in this series: “Thinking about thinking 2. Through the looking-glass.”


Kahneman, Daniel (2011). Thinking: Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Odling-Smee, F. John, Kevin N. Laland, and Marcus W. Feldman (2003). Niche Construction. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Pinker, Steven (2010). The cognitive niche: Coevolution of intelligence, sociality, and language. Proceedings of the National Academy USA 107, suppl. 2: 8993–8999.

Raichle, Marcus (2010). Two views of brain function. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 14: 180–190.

Raichle, Marcus (2015). The restless brain: How intrinsic activity organizes brain function. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 370: 20140172. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2014.0172

Spunt, Robert P., Meghan L. Meyer, and Matthew D. Lieberman (in press). The default mode of human brain function primes the intentional stance. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.

Terrell, John Edward (2015). A Talent for Friendship: Rediscovery of a Remarkable Trait. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

John Edward Terrell is Regenstein Curator of Pacific Anthropology at The Field Museum, Chicago, IL 60605. His latest book A Talent for Friendship: Rediscovery of a Remarkable Trait was published on December 1, 2014 by Oxford University Press. Email address: terrell[at]fieldmuseum.org

© 2015 John Edward Terrell. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited. The statements and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not constitute official statements or positions of the Editors and others associated with SCIENCE DIALOGUES.