• This week in bullshit: Chimp Gods, Hitler Trump, and Feminist Glaciers

    Image from Bill Maher’s “Religulous”

    Nature published a paper about chimpanzees who hurl rocks at particular trees leading to cairn-like piles, leading to absurd speculation about chimpanzee religion by internet media. Some examples:

    Mysterious chimpanzee behaviour could be ‘sacred rituals’ and show that chimps believe in god
    Is this proof chimps believe in God? Scientists baffled by footage of primates throwing rocks and ‘building shrines at sacred tree’ for no reason

    The behavior itself is a fascinating and novel observation because it seems to be tool use without any obvious function. The authors probably made a mistake in comparing a possible purpose in these stones (marking territory) to human uses of stone accumulation, writing,

    For example, stone accumulation shrines at ‘sacred’ trees are well described for indigenous West African peoples.

    Chimp stone throwing compilation from Laura Kehoe on Vimeo.

    The use of the word sacred, though it is not even applied to the chimps, is probably ill-advised for a number of reasons. Anthropology professor Barbara J. King wrote a sensible commentary for NPR, “I can think of no good scientific reason to indulge in speculation that chimpanzees would have any notion of the sacred.” In the same piece, she quoted a good observation from sociocultural anthropologist Alex Golub that comparing chimpanzees and West African peoples sounds pretty racist.

    Why the rock hurling?

    The 80 authors of the Nature paper speculate about two possibilities. For example, it could be an extension of male agonistic display behaviors. This is evidenced by the similarity of behaviors and vocalizations between this rock tossing and other male displays. But really we just don’t know right now. There is much debate going on about what ritual, the sacred, and superstition are and if this applies or not in some way. These are watery terms, even when we’re talking about humans. This ape behavior could eventually teach us something about ritual or superstition, or some evolutionary precursor to those. But this is basically day one, and there is a great deal of work to be done first. The behavior does not have an obvious (to humans) function, but that does not mean there just isn’t one. We have to sort that out first. Then, alternative hypotheses about more culture-y explanations have to be formed, vetted, and tested. Many of those may have nothing to do with the “sacred” or superstition. When the more plausible and likely explanations are exhausted, we can move to less plausible but tenable ones.

    Trump = Hitler?

    There’s a long, dumb tradition of comparing one’s political enemy to Hitler. To wit:

    Everyone is Hitler. Got it, thanks.
    Everyone is Hitler. Got it, thanks.

    Apparently, we’ve had many Hitler presidencies recently, and yet very few world wars or genocides. Recently comedian Louis CK joined the bandwagon, this time commenting on Donald Trump. He’s not alone there. See examples from  HuffPo, Bill Maher, Glenn Beck (of all people), Cracked.com, and Know Your Meme database.

    It is granted, the Trump comparison is less absurd than some others. Trump admits of his racism and xenophobia. He celebrates his aggression and threats. But the comparison is still senseless and even liberals who fear a Trump presidency shouldn’t be temped to make it.

    First of all, it doesn’t work. People who support whomever you are calling Hitler will just think you’re unreasonable. Even people on the fence, if there are any, probably won’t be moved because the tactic has become so tired and expected. Godwin’s law is an internet adage that is now well known because of how poor a tactic this is. Godwin’s law states that the longer an internet argument goes on, the higher the probability is that someone will make a comparison to Nazis/Hitler. In some circles, the comparison also means an automatic loss to the party making it. Either way, the practice is clearly a kind of degradation of discourse, often the final stop as an argument becomes fatally dysfunctional. In fact, here Mike Godwin himself comments on the recent slinging of Hitler mud at Donald Trump.

    Second, it’s just wrong. Hitler wasn’t dangerous merely because he was a genocidal tyrant. We’ve always had people like him around and desirous of political power. What made him dangerous was post WWI Germany’s utterly destroyed psyche. Following the economic and political devastation, Germans felt so angry, vulnerable, and desperate that anyone who promised safety, security, and dignity and seemed strong enough to bring it, sounded like a pretty good deal. This let Hitler subvert the mechanisms of democracy without too much trouble.

    This scenario could hardly be less like 2016 America. The US has incredibly low unemployment, surging GDP, shrinking deficit, and a generally strong economy. It has, by far, the most powerful military in the world and everyone knows it. There’s no reason anyone would put up with criminal activities like having political rivals executed.

    Our democracy remains flawed, but strong. The President is not a king, nor is there any reason at all to think that could change. The Congress is the only body that can create legislation. The Supreme Court is the only body that can rule on the legitimacy of a law. The Congress can impeach and potentially remove the President for any “high crimes and misdemeanors” which we learned under President Clinton’s presidency can mean lying about a sexual affair.

    Feminist Glaciology

    Has the study of glaciers been marred by sexism and patriarchy? According to a January paper in Progress in Human Geography, it has:

    The feminist lens is crucial given the historical marginalization of women, the importance of gender in glacier-related knowledges, and the ways in which systems of colonialism, imperialism, and patriarchy co-constituted gendered science.

    We probably only study glaciers because they’re white. Claims are made that glaciology is hypermasculine and exclusive of women:

    . . . the filmmakers and media adhere to tropes of masculine vigor, risk, adventurous exploration, and heroic science to attract audiences and validate research.

    Who says vigor, risk, heroism, and exploration are inherently masculine? Isn’t it possible you just need these qualities to do certain kinds of risky work, like going to remote glaciers and getting data and samples? The “masculine” includes the use of technology and instruments, as we know technology is inherently male:

    Terry, for example, argues that climate discourse ‘is still a stereotypically “masculine” one, of new technologies, large-scale economic instruments, and complex computer modeling’, which for glaciers can render them static, essentialized, and passive.

    What’s the antidote to this problem?

    Cruikshank explains… knowledge of the landscape is influenced profoundly by culture, gender, age, and the personal experiences of each individual living with glaciers. Additionally, whereas glaciologists may try to measure glaciers and understand ice physics by studying the glacial ice itself, indigenous accounts do not portray the ice as passive, to be measured and mastered in a stereotypically masculinist sense. ‘The glaciers these women speak of’, explains Cruikshank, ‘engage all the senses. [The glaciers] are willful, capricious, easily excited by human intemperance, but equally placated by quick-witted human responses. Proper behavior is deferential. I was warned, for instance, about firm taboos against “cooking with grease” near glaciers that are offended by such smells.… (emphasis mine -Ed)

    Yes, we’ve far too long been hamstrung by the penis-y strictures of objective measurement, data collection, and understanding the physical properties of glaciers and processes of how they form and change. What we really need to know is what offends glaciers, so that we don’t hurt their feelings.

    OK, I am being sarcastic here. I am not a glaciologist and don’t know what that science is like. Maybe it needs more women, and to be more welcoming or diversify its approach. I see nothing wrong with any of that. But I know antiscientific criticism when I see it, and the field will not benefit from this sort of discourse, because building knowledge takes women (and men) who understand the centrality of objective evidence and rigorous experiment.

    Category: Critical ThinkingEvolutionary Psychologypsychologyscienceskepticismsocial justice

  • Article by: Edward Clint

    Ed Clint is an evolutionary psychologist, co-founder of Skeptic Ink, and USAF veteran.