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.

Is archaeology a science? 1: The “So what?” question

John Edward Terrell

           Is archaeology more than storytelling with the help of            visual aids and esoteric props?

This is part 1 of a 3 part commentary

The brahmin sport?

Back in the early 1960s when I was an undergraduate, I was asked by a graduate student in my department what I wanted to be when I grew up. That may not have been the phrasing of the question, but that was the spirit of his inquiry. This individual was the self-identified son of an academically famous father. When I told him I wanted to be an archaeologist, his response didn’t surprise me, although I will leave it to you to decide why I wasn’t taken aback by his retort. With an air of seeming good humor, he quipped: “Ah, the brahmin sport.”

I have no idea who were the particular brahmins he had in mind. Perhaps he was thinking of Agatha Christie and Max Mallowan, or maybe Lord Carnarvon of King Tutankhamun fame. In any case, by the 1960s such a quip was off target.

Agatha Christie (2nd from the left), Max Mallowan (center, with cigarette), and others at the ancient Sumerian city of Nippur in southern Iraq. Source: https://www.penn.museum/blog/collection/archival-practice/mystery-in-the-stacks-a-discovery-is-made-in-the-museum-archives/.
A waste of the taxpayer’s money?

The National Science Foundation was established by an Act of Congress in 1950 to “promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; and to secure the national defense.” All well and good perhaps, but whether social sciences such as anthropology and archaeology should be viewed as rigorous enough in their objectivity, verifiability, and generality to be included under the umbrella of the NSF was a matter of great and continuing contention even before the establishment of this government agency. Nevertheless, by 1958 an office for the social sciences had been established at the NSF despite the fact, as one board member commented in 1958, “we have to face up to the fact that the social sciences—except for a few extremely limited areas—are a source of trouble beyond anything released by Pandora.”

Given the availability of federal funding for research in the social sciences, anthropology and archaeology by the 1960s were no longer beholden to the whims or the fanatical ideas of the rich and socially privileged. Provided, of course, the research proposals getting funded could convince not only peer reviewers in these disciplines, but Congress, too, that the work lucky enough to be funded was worthy of being labeled as “scientific” not just in name but also in deed.

As the saying goes, that was then, this is now. Over the course of the last half century or so has archaeology lived up to the prospect that it is a science? Or have archaeologists been pulling the wool over the eyes of congressmen and everyday civilians alike as often as some critics of archaeology—and anthropology—then and now contend?

Science—The Endless Frontier

Here’s a bit more history to ponder. World War II had brought the federal government into the arena of basic science research as never before in the history of the United States. Interest in Washington in supporting whatever could be done to win the war was clear and pressing.  Ignorance about what the world was like beyond our borders was no longer excusable and could be deadly. Even anthropologists and other scholars of the esoteric who had lived and worked in the Near East, Asia, and the Pacific found themselves being sought out for their advice and guidance in advancing the war effort (Terrell et al. 1997).

In 1945 Vannevar Bush, the engineer who had led the government’s wartime Office of Scientific Research and Development, wrote a report for President Roosevelt outlining the future for science in the nation cleverly titled Science—The Endless Frontier. He argued persuasively that government support for scientific research and education would prove beneficial to both the peacetime economy and national security. Arguing in graphic terms that scientific progress is essential, his report makes the stakes involved as down to earth as anyone can get: “Science, by itself, provides no panacea for individual, social, and economic ills. It can be effective in the national welfare only as a member of a team, whether the conditions be peace or war. But without scientific progress no amount of achievement in other directions can insure our health, prosperity, and security as a nation in the modern world.”

The newly found sense of relevance to solving the world’s problems carried over after the war in many of the academic disciplines that had hitherto defined themselves as being more about history and diversity than about pattern and process.  Notably geography, ecology, and natural history all experienced what soon came to be called the “quantitative revolution” marked by deliberate and carefully mastered efforts to make such previously descriptive studies more mathematical, more generalizing, and hence more “scientific.” And as I have already noted, eventually even the social sciences were able to convince federal decision makers that these so-called soft sciences were worthy of financial support.

But to repeat: that was then, this is now. And despite claims to the contrary, history can repeat itself.

The “So what?” question and STEM education

Lamar Smith, a Republican, has represented the 21st congressional district in Texas since 1987. He currently serves as the Chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology which has jurisdiction over programs at NASA, the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Science Foundation, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. He supports Donald Drumpf on border security, not using federal tax dollars to fund abortions under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare), and reigning in the “costly, overly burdensome regulations” of the Environmental Protection Agency. He is also strongly opposed to wasting taxpayer’s dollars funding frivolous or low-priority projects, particularly in the social sciences. In 2016, for example, Democrats in Congress viewed his actions as Committee Chair as “a political litmus test that would allow Smith and other Republicans to trim research by social scientists and those studying climate change.”

Lamar Smith evidently likes to take the social sciences head on. Currently, however, there are also less direct ways of challenging whether they are wasteful and frivolous. Take STEM, the acronym that stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics educational programs and curricula. In the words of one prominent advocacy group:

The STEM Education Coalition works aggressively to raise awareness in Congress, the Administration, and other organizations about the critical role that STEM education plays in enabling the U.S. to remain the economic and technological leader of the global marketplace of the 21st century. Members of the STEM Coalition believe that our nation must improve the way our students learn science, mathematics, technology and engineering and that the business, education, and STEM communities must work together to achieve this goal.

In November 2016 the Coalition sent a memorandum to President-elect Donald Trump titled “STEM Education, Good Jobs and American Prosperity.” Nowhere in this statement do the words “social science” or “humanities” occur. Furthermore, the memorandum notes, for instance, that the “top 10 bachelor-degree majors with the highest median earnings are all in STEM fields.”

Is archaeology science?
Koster Site, Kampsville, Illinois in the 1970s. Source: http://users.stlcc.edu/mfuller/koster.html

Few would question that archaeology can be fun, fascinating, entertaining, and an entirely worthwhile summer camping experience. How would cable channels such as Discovery and National Geographic keep the viewing audiences they have without the mysteries and thrilling excitement of archaeological discoveries in places near and far?

Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stonehenge_(sun).jpg

Granting archaeology’s genuine entertainment value and emotional appeal may not, however, be good enough to position such work as worthwhile enough to merit taxpayer’s dollars. At least not in the eyes of someone like Lamar Smith.

Therefore, the question cannot be artfully avoided. Is archaeology more than storytelling? Is it also a science? An honest answer would have to be maybe yes, maybe sometimes.

Part 2: Plug & Play archaeology


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© 2017 John Edward Terrell. This is an open-accessarticle 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.