Creating Myth


This is a slightly re-written ver­sion of a short piece I wrote else­where. I’m put­ting it up here because it tackles a timely prob­lem. What do you do when you want to attract tour­ist dol­lars, but keep los­ing out to that big archae­olo­gical site down the road? The cit­izens of Chucuito saw at the bus­loads of vis­it­ors going to Tiahuanaco and decided to build their own temple. The prob­lem is that Tiahuanaco is pretty impress­ive so any com­pet­i­tion would either have to be equally large, or else some­thing pretty noteworthy.

Inca? Temple
Chucuito Fertility Temple. Photo by Moonbird.

Welcome to the Inca Ullo temple of fertility.

A researcher invest­ig­at­ing Inca sites dis­covered that twelve years ago the people of Chucuito decided to build their own authen­tic ruins dat­ing from the 1500s. They then con­coted a legend that women would visit the temple to ask for fer­til­ity. Twenty four stone phal­luses later, they had one killer photo oppor­tun­ity and thou­sands of vis­it­ors. You can see more pho­tos at Jerry Peek’s site, or Rhymer​.net. You might be won­der­ing, “Is this safe for work?” but how unsafe could a temple devoted to penis wor­ship be?

The story made a small splash on the web, with brief notices from Ananova and The Commonwealth Times. The Sun had a big­ger story, com­plete with pic­ture. We can only be thank­ful the reporter didn’t know that the early 1500s in some parts of Peru is known as the Wanka period. The International Herald Tribune only seems to have picked up the story this spring.

The decep­tion raises some inter­est­ing ques­tions about con­sump­tion of the past. Is it a fake site? The answer might seem to be pretty obvi­ously yes, but what does it mean for a site to be fake? A lot of the myth sur­round­ing King Arthur is made up. Yet people would accept Glastonbury as a genu­ine Arthurian site but reject Milton Keynes as hav­ing any role in the myth. Surely a lot of Milton Keynes would be explained by an Arthurian curse on the land. The bound­ary between real and fake isn’t hard and fast when look­ing at mythic sites, as Cornelius Holtorf noted in an earlier ver­sion of this post. Does a myth accrue authen­ti­city with the passing of cen­tur­ies, or can myths be cre­ated today?

I sus­pect the rev­el­a­tion will only increase vis­itor num­bers because now it’s a ‘con­tro­ver­sial’ site. Indeed if Disney made a heart­warm­ing film of plucky vil­la­gers build­ing a fake temple to save the local orphan­age from clos­ing then it would become even more of a draw. Is this site, and her­it­age sites in gen­eral, selling know­ledge or exper­i­ence? One for Michael Shanks or Cornelius Holtorf I think. For a less post-modern approach to exper­i­ence there’s the Trireme Veterans for Truth.



Imitation, a meme?
Imitation, a meme? Photo (cc) Sean Dreilinger

Memes are a dif­fi­cult concept to tackle, par­tic­u­larly if you’re talk­ing to a mixed audi­ence. Talking to an audi­ence of sci­ent­ists you can explain the prob­lems with them, but if you’re talk­ing to someone from the human­it­ies then you have to start by explain­ing what a meme is. It’s not a concept that has made much head­way in the social sci­ences and I’m not sure if it will.

The meme star­ted as an example of a rep­lic­ator in Richard Dawkins’s Selfish Gene. The inten­tion was to demon­strate that the prin­ciple of nat­ural selec­tion is inde­pend­ent of bio­logy. The Selfish Gene focuses on what is the unit of rep­lic­a­tion and Dawkins con­cludes it’s the gene. This is some­what dated in bio­logy these days, but many pop­u­lar books start from a simplistic ver­sion of this 30 year old model. The res­ult is the idea that a meme is a simple unit of cul­ture like the Amish virus.

You have just received the Amish virus.

Since we have no elec­tri­city or com­puters, you are on the honor sys­tem.
Please delete all of your files on your hard drive. Then for­ward this mes­sage to every­one in your address book.

We thank thee.

The Amish virus is also found as the Indian virus, the Irish virus and the virus of more or less any other people you want to make funny. That’s fairly obvi­ously a meme because it includes instruc­tions to rep­lic­ate it, though it’s the humour rather than the instruc­tions that causes replication.

Nothing kills a joke like an aca­demic explan­a­tion. You should hear my explan­a­tion of Police Academy* via Structuration.

It’s harder to identify memes in the wild, and no-one has a con­vin­cing defin­i­tion for them. Is a pot a meme or is the pot-making pro­cess the meme? Susan Blackmore has writ­ten a lot on this in The Meme Machine.

Kristine Steenbergh’s post on memes and The Meme Machine gives another good example of a dif­fi­culty with memes. Memes don’t address ques­tions that many his­tor­i­ans or other social sci­ent­ists ask. Her post reminded of a paper by Adam Kuper If memes are the answer, what is the ques­tion? in Darwinizing Culture. If I were to write a book on evol­u­tion based on what I’ve learned in school – or even from fairly recent pop­u­lar books – there’s a good chance I’ll be paint­ing a pic­ture in primary col­ours and skip­ping over issues that are import­ant. Similarly research in social sci­ences has moved on a bit since Desmond Morris’s Manwatching. It’s not that the memetic view of cul­ture is badly wrong, but it can be simplistic. There’s not an inher­ent hos­til­ity to memes, Kristine ends her post “If you know of any more attempts to ‘bridge the gap,’ or even works that provide a Foucauldian read­ing of the meme epi­steme, do drop a com­ment!” but I haven’t found one yet and I won­der how many people com­ing from nat­ural sci­ences would have the will to tackle Foucault.

Darwinizing Culture, edited by Robert Aunger, is the best meme book I’ve read because none of the papers are irre­voc­ably hos­tile or uncrit­ical to memes. Another of the papers in there which is help­ful is Boyd and Richerson’s Memes: Universal acid of bet­ter mousetrap? You can read an earlier ver­sion of it online as a PDF from Rob Boyd’s site. This provides an evol­u­tion­ary altern­at­ive to memes in look­ing at vari­ations in pop­u­la­tions. If Boyd and Richerson are right then you can have a Darwinian model without replicators.

Another use­ful book is Ben Cullen’s Contagious Ideas. It’s a posthum­ous col­lec­tion of his papers on Cultural Virus Theory. It’s not easy read­ing but the reason why I stick with it is that it’s derived from an archae­olo­gical per­spect­ive. Cultural Viruses sound so much like memes you can more or less assume they are. The dif­fer­ence is that Cultural Virus the­ory isn’t stuck on this idea of what the unit of rep­lic­a­tion is. Instead it asks How do ideas spread? This is a ques­tion that archae­olo­gists and his­tor­i­ans do ask. Cullen took the time to place his ideas in the wider con­text of archae­olo­gical the­ory, so he took time to explain how it related to other ideas like pro­ces­su­al­ism (which I’ll describe briefly and inac­cur­ately as ‘sci­entific archae­ology’) and post-processualism (which I’ll describe briefly and per­haps more inac­cur­ately as ‘non-scientific archaeology’).

Cullen’s view was that ques­tions about the pro­cesses of human activ­ity were at one level and the realm of his the­ory, whether evol­u­tion of soci­ety was Darwinian or Lamarckian oper­ated at a higher level. This is the Holy Grail of Theoretical Archaeology because it neatly side-steps any cri­ti­cisms based in cur­rent schools of Theory. Cynicism aside, I think Cullen was right, evol­u­tion­ary ques­tions are dif­fer­ent from ques­tions about pro­cess or agency. Boyd and Richerson’s work tackles memes and cul­tural virus the­ory because it is expli­citly about evol­u­tion. I don’t know if Kristene Steenbergh’s request for a Foucauldian read­ing of memes is can be found, but this dif­fer­ence in approach sug­gests to me that it’s not impossible. It won’t be me who does it though as I really struggle to under­stand Foucault.

* The ori­ginal ver­sion. Police Academy 2 is an allegory of the Vietnam War.

Wikipedia and Me and a few other people


Co.Derry, Auglish

This is a follow-up to Wikipedia and Me. I’ve uploaded my archae­oastro­nomy entry to Wikipedia and cor­rec­ted a couple of bits. It all went fairly smoothly though I ended up upload­ing the image of Auglish (above) to illus­trate a sec­tion, else most of the pho­tos would have been of American sites. The first edit on it fol­lowed a few hours later with someone tidy­ing up the format­ting. Then Steve McCluskey came along and cla­ri­fied a sec­tion on the Oxford con­fer­ences. After a week it’s fairly static and a bet­ter art­icle than the ori­ginal version.

I’m not a com­plete con­vert. I don’t under­stand the NPOV concept yet. I can see how a Neutral Point of View sounds like a good thing, but if one side of is sup­por­ted by the evid­ence and another isn’t NPOV is mis­lead­ing. I think this is a flaw in Wikipedia, but if you have open access edit­ing I’m not sure how you could con­sist­ently take another approach. The easi­est way round that prob­lem is to not get into argu­ments about points of view.

I’m not sure how to judge if the entry is suc­cess­ful. Stasis isn’t a very good yard­stick as that could just mean it’s being ignored. I could go for peer-review and so on, but that’s a lot of effort.

The Temple of the Fox


The Andes reveal a few more secrets. Photo by Luis Perez.

Meanwhile half a world away there’s news of what might be the earli­est known astro­nom­ical align­ment and sculp­tures in the New World. The story has been covered by the Columbia Missourian and nobody else. It con­nects a temple in south­ern Peru and a fig­ure in the Milky Way. And there’s a twist – this story is plausible.

The Columbia Missourian story has a few oddit­ies in it and I haven’t read Inca archae­ology recently so I’m rusty between my ignor­ance and pos­sible mis­re­port­ing the story seemed pecu­liar. Fortunately you can visit the Buena Vista pro­ject homepage and also down­load some of the present­a­tions for the site (in Spanish in a large power­point file, but with nice pic­tures). They’ve found some­thing quite special.

What they’ve found is a temple that barely escaped the atten­tion of loot­ers pro­curers of authen­tic antiquit­ies. It has an axial align­ment which looks out to north of west. In the south­ern hemi­sphere this is the mid­winter sun­set align­ment. By itself that would be inter­est­ing but not some­thing I could get too excited about. If the temple has an axis then it has to point some­where. The reason why this is more inter­est­ing is that they say that this pat­tern is found in sim­ilar temples in the region, which sug­gests it’s more likely to be delib­er­ate. The truly unusual thing is what you see look­ing in the other dir­ec­tion. If the hori­zon was flat you’d see the mid­sum­mer sun­rise. What you also see is the dark cloud con­stel­la­tion of the Fox.
Continue read­ing

Social Evolution


Darwin Statue
Darwin Statue. Photo by Kevinzim.

This is just me think­ing out loud rather than pro­du­cing fin­ished or even coher­ent work, so much of it will be wrong or at least naïve. The reason I’m open­ing it up is to pin down some thoughts. I could do it in a Word file, but this is access­ible at work, and also has a slight “My good­ness! Did I say some­thing that fool­ish?” kick to it, which might make my think­ing a bit sharper.

There is a prob­lem of where to start. I could start in the middle with Richerson and Boyd’s book “Not by Genes Alone” which I’m about half-way through*. It’s thought-provoking and is say­ing a lot of what I’m think­ing, only more artic­u­lately. When I’m fin­ished I’ll be a bit frus­trated by that, but for now it’s a fun read. The reason I like it so far is that it provides an argu­ment for Darwinian Social Evolution that doesn’t use memes. That’s help­ful because I’m not con­vinced by memes and am work­ing on a non-memetic model, but for many in the social sci­ences memes and Darwinian Evolution have a bad name.
Continue read­ing



Hard 'n' Phirm

If you’ve ever wanted to mem­or­ise the first nine digits of pi then you’re in luck. Inkycircus points to a video by Hard ‘n’ Phirm extolling the joys of pi. There’s even a rap bit which tells you how to mem­or­ise them back­wards if you live in Quebec.

When ink and pen in hands of men inscribe your form biped­ally,
They draw an altar on which God has slaughtered all sta­bil­ity.
No eyes could ever soak in all the places you anoint,
And yet to see you all at once we only need the point.
Flirting with infin­ity, your geo­met­ric pro­geny,
That fit inside you oh so tight,
With tri­angles that feel so right.


Your ever-constant homily says flaw is dis­cip­line.
The pat­ron saint of imper­fec­tion frees us from our sin,
And if our tran­scend­ental lift shall find a final floor,
Then Man will know the death of God where won­der was before.

…and then because there’s a rap that’s where the pi-related swear­ing starts.

It’s poetry. You can tell it’s poetry because it rhymes which is nine-tenths of poetry as far as I’m con­cerned. When I finally get round to read­ing Stephen Fry’s Ode Less Travelled I might have a more intel­li­gent opin­ion on poetry, but for now I’ll stick with my stu­pid one. The song closes with over 170 digits of pi, so if you mem­or­ise the lyr­ics you’ll have all the pi you need.

The Wikipedia entry on Piphilology has this nice poem:

Sir, I send a rhyme excel­ling,
in sac­red truth and rigid spelling,
numer­ical sprites elu­cid­ate,
for me the lexicon’s dull weight.

which encodes the first twenty-one digits. But that’s no help if you want to mem­or­ise pi backwards.

Because pi is an irra­tional num­ber you can find any finite sequence of num­bers in it if you look hard enough. You can (prob­ably) find your birth­day in the first 200 mil­lion digits of pi.

The thing that bothered me in school is that pi is the ratio of a circle’s cir­cum­fer­ence to its dia­meter. So how do you cal­cu­late pi accur­ately? You simply can­not meas­ure a circle accur­ately enough (if you could find a per­fect circle). If the Earth’s orbit were per­fectly cir­cu­lar and you could meas­ure it to mil­li­metre accur­acy you still wouldn’t reach twenty decimal places. So where do you get 200 mil­lion from? Mathworld gives you vari­ous ways to cal­cu­late it.



Eight. Photo by Lukasd2009.

I found an inter­est­ing art­icle on the BBC Magazine yes­ter­day: Believe it or not: The battle over cer­tainty. It’s the first in a series A Point of View broad­cast­ing on Radio 4. The whole thing is worth read­ing but there were a couple of standout points.

Sometimes, if you’re lucky as a his­tor­ian, you find a bit of evid­ence which illu­min­ates a big idea. That happened to me this week in the Pepys Library at Magdalene College, Cambridge.

The thought upper­most in my mind was how odd it is that non-scientists think of sci­ence as being about cer­tain­ties and abso­lute truth. Whereas sci­ent­ists are actu­ally quite tent­at­ive — they simply try to arrive at the best fit between the exper­i­mental find­ings so far and a gen­eral principle.

…there’s a lot of fas­cin­at­ing stuff about Huygens and his clocks then…

The most today’s Royal Society is pre­pared to say is that a belief that all spe­cies on earth have always exis­ted in their present form, and that the earth is “not con­sist­ent with the evid­ence from geo­logy, astro­nomy and phys­ics”. And that is prob­ably not enough to sat­isfy ordin­ary thought­ful cit­izens without a sci­entific training.

I won­der about this. I think people do think about life in terms of prob­ab­il­it­ies. In court cases decisions are made based on prob­ab­il­ity. The state doesn’t have to defin­it­ively prove its case — merely that it should be proved bey­ond reas­on­able doubt. That might seem a woolly cri­terion, but that’s the gaps where the law­yers make their money.

A court case is rarely decided by re-running the crime to see what happened. Often there isn’t a con­tin­ous nar­rat­ive and the jury has to decide how to put together the dis­par­ate pieces of evid­ence. There’s uncer­tainty and you build from what you know and try and work out how the pieces fit together.

Science is a pro­cess where you try and answer that prob­lem by re-running events until you think you’ve elim­in­ated all vari­ants apart from the ones you want to study. When this hap­pens a sci­ent­ist has an advant­age a juror lacks. Unfortunately some prob­lems are simply untest­able as they stand. Global Warming, which Lisa Jardine refers to would be a cinch to solve if you had a few thou­sand identical Earths. Having only the one we have to test indi­vidual man­age­able prob­lems and then argue how we put them together.

Events like Global Warming affect us all and so we should all have some input into how we tackle the prob­lem. Warming is hap­pen­ing, the data are expli­cit. Is it all part of a nat­ural cycle as fewer and fewer sci­ent­ists think or are there actions we could take to pro­tect our soci­ety? Which factors would make a genu­ine dif­fer­ence and which would simply be window-dressing? This is why the last sen­tence is so inter­est­ing.

A pub­lic under­stand­ing of sci­ence has never been more important.

If your neigh­bours have the vote, then they have a say on issues that will impact on your family’s future. So will your neighbour’s chil­dren. Are they get­ting the sci­ence edu­ca­tion they need to decide on a import­ant issues like Carbon Emissions, GM Crops or Cloning that will dir­ectly affect you and your family?

It seems in the USA people are by and large very happy as Coturnix reports. Pharyngula also has a post high­light­ing some­thing I liked in the recent Royal Society state­ment which gets lost some­times in the Creationism debate. Children are entitled to an edu­ca­tion.