As epiphanies go, it was hallucinatory and a little disconcerting… I had been reading about human evolution for a couple of weeks, off and on, trying to wrap my mind around the sheer span of the time involved -- the hundreds of thousands of generations, running back (the current estimate goes) some four million years.
Arguably the story begins a million or two years earlier still, when some kind of proto-hominid emerged from the line that led to the chimpanzees and the bonobos. Humans share more than 99 percent of our DNA with them. We’ve done a lot with the upright posture and those opposable thumbs. The past two million years – the period between Australopithecus and Homo sapiens digitalis – looks positively frenzied by contrast with the usual pace of evolution. And yet we are still distant cousins of the chimps, despite our gift for exalting humankind as existing above nature, or outside it.
One day, while reading these facts and thinking these thoughts, I looked up to see that a very strange thing had happened to everyone around me. They were, all of them, tangibly and unmistakably primates. (Or rather, we were, since my own hand suddenly looked like a well-articulated variety of paw.)
It is one thing to understand evolution at a conceptual level; a fairly difficult thing. Experiencing the continuity between human beings and other species is something else altogether; something like a waking dream. And perhaps especially when seated in a bakery frequented by lawyers, lobbyists, and media people from nearby offices – wearing clothes and mostly fur-less, but still recognizable as mammals distantly akin to monkeys or apes, despite obvious differences in carriage and demeanor.
They (we, rather) were eating scones for breakfast, not chunks of raw antelope. But for a few dizzying moments there, this did not seem as large a difference as it ordinarily might.
Fair warning, then: Reading Travis Rayne Pickering’s Rough and Tumble: Aggression, Hunting, and Human Evolution (University of California Press) may well leave the bright line between nature and culture looking thinner and blurrier than usual. (Pickering is professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.) I should also warn vegans against reading the book, unless they are in a particularly argumentative mood.
More on that in due course. First, a look at the perennial dispute that Pickering has joined about the source of mankind’s history of violence. One familiar bull-session or editorial-page option is to understand the penchant for violence as an intrinsic and inescapable human disposition, something for which we are genetically programmed, even. In support of this idea, one can cite Jane Goodall’s discovery about the chimps she observed in the wild. While sociable amongst themselves, members of one band were capable not just of killing outsiders but of teaming up to wipe out the young males in another group.
And remember, we share 99 percent of our DNA with the chimps. Case closed! Well, perhaps not, since we have the same margin of genetic overlap with the bonobos. “In general,” Pickering writes, “bonobos engage in sexual contact frequently and casually, in many cases to seemingly allay what could otherwise turn into aggressive interaction.” Besides making love, not war, bonobos in the wild “hunt less frequently than do wild chimpanzees.”
Bunch of hippies. Anyway, the old Hobbes vs. Rousseau dichotomy cannot be decided by consulting the genome -- and the fossil record suggests a more blended perspective on what human beings are and how we got here.
Pickering moves through the evidence and hypotheses about our prehistory with an eye on the disputes they have inspired among paleoarcheologists. Some of them sound quite nasty. (The disputes, that is, though a couple of the researchers also come across as petty and vicious.) I’ll sketch the author’s own conclusions here briefly, but what makes the book especially interesting is its tour of the disciplinary battlefield.
The brains and teeth of our distant ancestors give reason to think they were hunters: regular, successful hunters, at that. The brain consumes a lot of energy. Once proto-humans left the jungles to roam the savanna, their brains grew considerably and at a relatively rapid pace – something a steady diet of meat could only have helped. (And vice versa, since “acquiring meat presumably requires a smarter brain than does picking stationary nuts or grubbing for fixed roots.”)
Besides being available “in the form of large herds of grazing ungulates,” meat “is also soft and does not require that its consumers have a massive dental battery to break it down in the mouth.” Furthermore, the teeth in hominid fossils do not show the kinds and quantity of abrasion found in mammals that normally consume seeds and nuts (also sources of protein) in quantity.
Meat “adheres to bones, comes in large packages, and is stubbornly encased in hairy, elastic hides, so a cutting technology would have been most useful for a blunt-toothed [primate] that had begun to exploit this resource.” Pickering considers the fossil evidence not just of tools and weapons but of animal bones scored with knife-marks left by prehistoric butchers.
But our ancestors’ diet is only part of the story, since the author is less interested in what they ate than in how they developed the capacity to do so regularly. Hunting big game required more than spears and courage. In addition, Pickering stresses the need for emotional control: coolness, grace under pressure, the proper combination of strategy and stealth. He also suggests that the capacity to organize and manage aggression played a role within pre-human society, by obliging members to keep the group’s well-being in mind. An excessively greedy or violent leader might not last for long: the skills required to sneak up on and kill a buffalo could be turned to political uses.
Given how contentious the field seems to be (the title Rough and Tumble clearly refers to paleontologists as much as to prehistoric society) it will be interesting to see how Pickering’s colleagues respond to the book. As a layman, I can only say that it was fascinating and thought-provoking. And that, all things considered, I’d rather be a bonobo.
Reading the scholarship devoted to the phenomenon of blogging sometimes calls to mind a comment that Jackie Gleason is said to have made about people who review TV programs -- that it's "like writing about a car wreck for an audience made up entirely of eyewitnesses."
Not that researchers shouldn't gather data from LiveJournal, or make connections between the blogosphere and Jurgen Habermas's Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, or whatever. But even the most impressive work tends to tell you something you already know, more or less.
For example: A recent number-crunching analysis of political blogging during the 2004 election demonstrated, among other things, that conservatives have created a dense online social network -- one with strong links among sites, that is, making them an effective medium for focusing on a particular topic or message.
Bloggers to the left, by contrast, have created a much less compact and efficient network. The tables and charts that the researchers prepared to demonstrate this are impressive enough. Even so, it all adds up to something slightly less incisive than an observation made, sooner or later, by anyone watching American political life: that there is an almost instinctive tendency on the part of self-identified "progressives" to cooperate just long enough to form a circular firing squad.
To be fair, the ideas and methods used in blog scholarship are sometimes more thought-provoking than the immediate results. That's especially true, it seems to me, with research using models of how networks emerge and function. (Then again, there is always something a little awesome about finding that "the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics" that Eugene Wigner pointed out in the natural sciences also applies to human behavior en masse.)
But with an awful lot of work on the content and context of blogging, you have the Jackie Gleason effect in purest form. It isn't anybody's fault. The problem, arguably, is endemic to just about any kind of qualitative (that is, non-statistical) research on a new social phenomenon. In short: how do you get from offering a description to forming concepts? The conundrum may be even tougher with an emergent cultural form such as blogging -- one prone, that is, to incessant labors at self-definition, self-promotion, and self-mockery.
So what would a really interesting and exciting piece of qualitative research on blogging look like? And how would it get around the problems of overfamiliarity with the phenomenon (on the one hand) and blogospheric navel-gazing (on the other)?
To get an answer, it isn't necessary to speculate. Just read "The Vulgar Spirit of Blogging: On Language, Culture, and Power in Persian Weblogestan," by Alireza Doostdar, which appears in the current issue of American Anthropologist. A scanned copy is available here. The author is now working at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University, where he will start work on his Ph.D. in social anthropology and Middle Eastern studies.
"Weblogestan" is an Iranian online slang term for the realm of Persian-language blogs. (The time has definitely come for it to be adapted, and adopted, into Anglophone usage.) Over the last two years, Western journalists have looked at blogging as part of the political and cultural ferment in Iran -- treating it, predictably enough, as a simple manifestation of the yearning for a more open society. Doostdar complicates this picture by looking at what we might call the borders of Veblogestan (to employ a closer transliteration of the term, as used specifically to name Iranian blogging).
In an unpublished manuscript he sent me last week, Doostdar provides a quick overview of the region's population: "There are roughly 65,000 active blogs in Veblogestan," he writes, "making Persian the fourth language for blogs after English, Portugese, and French. The topics for blog entries include everything from personal diaries, expressions of spirituality, and works of experimental poetry and fiction to film criticism, sports commentary, social critique, and of course political analysis. Some bloggers focus on only one of these topics throughout the life of their blogs, while others write about a different topic in every new entry, or even deal with multiple topics within a single entry."
He notes that "a major factor in the widespread adoption of blogging" in Iran "has been the Unicode standard, which has made it possible for people to write and publish easily in the Persian script." Nor does it hurt that it is easy to set up a blog -- or to use a pseudonym. The result has been the creation of a medium that cuts across social and geographic boundaries. In his manuscript, Doostdar says that his work bought him into contact with "high school and university students, journalists, literary critics, Web designers, women's rights activists, and statesmen, living in Tehran, Toronto, Berlin, New York, London, Prague, and Paris, along with numerous other anonymous and half-anonymous bloggers scattered around the world."
Except for the part about writing Persian script using Unicode, this is a familiar picture of the blogging world. It is, in effect, a neighborhood within what Manuel Castells identified, some years back, as "the network society" -- a global "space without a place." And Doostdar's account of the routine practices among Iranian bloggers will also ring a bell with their American cousins. There are group blogs, "trackback pings," comment fields, blogrolls, and even emoticons (the horror, the horror ;-).
At one level, then, it sounds like a new chapter in the worldwide spread of homogenizing mass media. The more globalization-friendly spin on this would be that blogging is a tool with which Iranians are creating a culture that challenges the fundamentalist social order.
Fortunately, Doostdar's work does not stick to either of these scripts. His paper in American Anthropologist looks at a controversy that raged during the final months of 2003 -- the bahs-e ebtezaal or "vulgarity debate," a heated discussion of the place of blogging in Iranian culture. On one side were members of the roshanfekr class -- meaning those writers and intellectuals possessing an "enlightened mind," but also a certain degree of education, sophistication, and social prestige. The term, writes Doostdar, "has historically come to represent one who is conversant with modernist or postmodernist discourses, is a humanist, feels a certain commitment toward the well-being of his or her won society, and continually and publically [criticizes] the values, norms, and behaviors of that society."
There are members of the roshanfekr classwho write for blogs, but they have other outlets as well, including newspapers and magazines. On the other side of the debate were Iranian bloggers who were "not intellectuals by social function or profession." The practice of blogrolling and cross-referencing allowed some of them to gain "popularity and a reputation within the community of bloggers."
But it was precisely the "focus on a contextual constitution of self" (with its attendant rituals of backscratching and mini-celebrity) that made blogging a venue for "a radically different set of priorities" from those of "the more 'noble' genres of traditional journalism and literary composition" practiced by the roshanfekr class. "In blogging," writes Doostdar, "speed often takes precedence over thoroughness, outlandishness over rigor, and emotive self-expression over dispassionate analysis."
In October 2003, Seyyed Reza Shokrollahi. a prominent journalist and literary critic, referred to "the stink of vulgarity in Weblogestan" -- complaining about the spelling errors, sloppy language, and low argumentative standards prevailing among bloggers. And as a nice touch, he did this on his own blog. The effect, as Doostdar put it, was to unleash "a cacophony of blog entries, online magazine articles, comments, responses, and counterresponses that continued for several weeks."
Some of the non- roshanfekr who denounced "intellectualist pretense" appear to have taken extra care to make errors in spelling and grammar when they replied. (As Doostdar puts it, they tried to "metapragmatically index themselves as linguistic and cultural rebels by being deliberately careless.")
And you can feel the seething bitterness of one blogger who denounced a prominent journalist and short story writer: "Keep mistaking this place as a literary conference when others consider it to be an informal and safe place for chatting. Come sit down wearing a suit and tie and mock those who are wearing jeans."
The populist tone is familiar. Change the accent, and it wouldn't sound out of place on Rush Limbaugh's radio show. And yet the lines in the Iranian vulgarity debate were not drawn for the convenience of American pundits.
For one thing, it isn't the familiar story of democratic reformers versus fundamentalist mullahs. It's more complicated than that. The liberalizing influence of the roshanfekr intelligentsia, "although significant, is still small relative to the dominant traditionalist clergy," writes Doostdar. "Their strongest cultural and political leverage is most likely among academics and in the domain of print media..." Going online gives them "a much less restricted environment for publication and cultural-political action" -- but in a space where "just about anything can (and does) get published and there is no authority to enforce linguistic and cultural standards."
The result? Well, consider the case of Seyyed Reza Shokrollahi, who launched the initial salvo against "the stench of vulgarity in Weblogstan." Shortly afterward, he created a Web page with links to online editions of fiction that is censored in Iran. But according to Doostday, some "charged that he wanted to stifle free speech" with his criticism of vulgarity, "and compared him to government censors."
On Thursday: Using a Soviet dissident theorist's work to think about the blogopshere Also: is there a "pious spirit of blogging" in Iran?
Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs on Tuesdays and Thursdays.