Wednesday 1 October 2014

Fiat Lux* Polly Wiessner Tries Unsuccessfully to Shine a Light on Cognitive Evolution.

Polly Wiessner gave archaeologists something fresh to think about in 1983 with the publication of "Style and Social Information in Kalahari San Projectile Points" (American Antiquity 48:253-276.) It. Kicked. Butt. It was a rigorous investigation of stylistic variability in one economic artifact—the projectile point—among and between several linguistically related southern African hunter-gatherers. At one and the same time it opened the door to a deeper understanding of stylistic differences in subsistence foragers, and exposed the porous theories then extant for explaining both what and why style exists, and how and why is varies. I think it's still an open question if there aren't as many ways of using style as a means of symbolic communication as there are coherent groups in the human species. But that's an empirical question, something toward which Wiessner *cough* pointed us in that paper.

From Wiessner 1983.

Today, however, I become a turn-coat. Professor Wiessner has produced another brilliant work of anthropology, again based on long experience of life among the same southern African people. But, this time, the good doctor has gone too far—it seems to me—in extending her insights of life in the Kalahari Desert into what she uncritically accepts is the deep past of humanity's controlled use of fire.

There is great value in her discussion of fire's light in modern human societies, even those whose material complexity has turned firelight into a self-conscious diversion and a form of entertainment.

As Weissner puts it
Control of fire and the capacity for cooking led to major anatomical and residential changes for early humans, starting more than a million years ago. However, little is known about what transpired when the day was extended by firelight. Data from the Ju/’hoan hunter-gatherers of southern Africa show major differences between day and night talk. Day talk centered on practicalities and sanctioning gossip; firelit activities centered on conversations that evoked the imagination, helped people remember and understand others in their external networks, healed rifts of the day, and conveyed information about cultural institutions that generate regularity of behavior and corresponding trust. Appetites for firelit settings for intimate conversations and for evening stories remain with us today.
And she provides plenty of evidence for the divide between what goes on under the sun, and under the moon and the start. And her narrative is interesting, inventive, and diverting.

But just as naive children ask questions like "Where did God come from?" Weissner has to ask the question of what her insights might tell us about the role of fire in our cognitive evolution. She may not put it quite that way, but that's where her question leads. And, rather than simply muse as to when that might have had its beginnings, she demonstrates a similarly childlike naivete in her regurgitation of some of the extreme claims for the antiquity of controlled use of fire on which the Subversive Archaeologist has thrown a good measure of cold water.

Here is the stage, as Weissner sets it.
Current archaeological evidence indicates that our ancestors had sporadic control of fire by 1 million y ago or longer . . . and regular use after approximately 400,000 ka . . . . With or following the control of fire, many developments were unfolding that rendered modern humans “unique” . . . : extended co- operative breeding . . . , higher orders of theory of mind . . . , religion . . . , language . . . , social learning and cultural transmission . . . , cultural institutions and their regulation . . . , and intergroup cooperation and exchange . . . . Although much work been has done on the effects of cooking on diet and anatomy, little is known about how important the extended day was for igniting the embers of culture and society.
And there you have it. And there you don't.

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Dear Reader, I know you're not one of the credulous. So, you already know that there are very good reasons to doubt the claims for controlled use of fire at Wonderwerk Cave. Just ask me! Beginning with the aptly titled "I must be bat-guano crazy!" yours truly, the Subversive Archaeologist has laid out the myriad reasons for doubting the truly crazy gesticulating and arm-waving that emanated from that big southern African cave, mined for bat guano in the 20th century, and excavated by flaming archaeological imagineers. Then here, the so-called scientific support for controlled use of fire—using Fourier Transform Infrared Spectrometry [Sounds great, doesn't it? Unfortunately, a scientific knowledge claim is an inferential argument, from evidence, and this argument falls flat on its face, 'cause it doesn't have any evidence.]

If they can't rule out spontaneous combustion of bat shit, and at the same time want to pretend that the cave was never much of a bat cave [*clears throat* tell me again, what were they mining?], these alleged scientists have no authority, as far as I'm concerned. And, if they can't demonstrate that the fire was controlled, and they can't rule out natural processes for the observations they acquired at Wonderwerk, Polly Wiessner has no basis on which to muse about the inner workings of the cognitive processes of a bipedal ape about which we know less than nothing.

So, think what you want. But at a certain restaurant at the end of the universe, when the data are all, finally, in, there I'll be, swimming in the biggest Pan-galactic gargle blaster that ever existed, paid for by the oops!es and the whoops!es of the ones who got it wrong, and the legions of their credulous megaphones.
* I'm a graduate of the Universitas Californiensis, the Latin motto of which is a quote from the Latin Vulgate Bible: Fiat Lux, the first words written down relating the will of the Abrahamic deity, whose name I shall not write here, out of respect for hundreds of millions of Jews. In the English vernacular of the Authorized Version of the Holy Bible—the King James Version—it means "Let there be light."
I'm not a Holy Man. I'm not a devout man. I'm devoted to just one belief when it comes the world's cosmologies—I believe there are no gods.
I am, nevertheless, an anthropologist, and I like a good story as much as the next reflexive post-modern student of humanity. Apparently I'm not alone. Although, to me, a good story doesn't necessarily mean good science. But I digress.
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