Friday, March 7, 2008

Crunch, Strip...and a Death Machine

Getting there! Fourteen more pages, then just bio, acknowledgements, a few preface items, and (well...till Author Review, through the month of April)..."Anthropology for Dummies" will be in the bag -- and I'll go flying and diving.

It's funny, when you think of a 'For Dummies' book you think, oh jeez, what kinda hack-work is this? But writing my first Dummies has been like teaching an Intro course; it's the toughest of all, because there's so much to boil down into short, concise and accurate statements (some tips on popular-science writing are in this article, which I wrote with my buddy Chuck Sullivan, with whom I also wrote the popular-science book The Top Ten Myths About Evolution.) How do that for a topic as vast and sprawling as anthropology, the study of humanity, from DNA to shamanic quest?

You take a good knowledge of the material (hey, I didn't spend 14 years in grad school for nothing!) and rend it down, strip this, nip that, carve away everything you don't need to mention. You might even like what the French aviator/poet/writer Antoine de Saint-Exuperey said about perfection (though the idea of perfection chaps my hide, I can handle this mention of it):

"Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."

Add a dash of your own opinion, and the text flows something like this:

The Decoupling of Behavior from Biology

You’ll want to pay attention here; there’s a quiz later. Just kidding. But really, this is one of the main lessons of anthropology and of this entire book!

Human migration required adjustment to survive in new environments, and the process of adjustment is called "adaptation". As a noun, an adaptation is a thing that itself allows survival in that new environment, such as warm fur clothing for a cold environment, or a new kind of sail for your sailing vessel. One of the most distinctive things about humanity is that while all other animals adapt unconsciously and reactively, with their bodies (which either do or do not have traits that allow survival in new environments), humanity proactively chooses to make new adaptations; humanity invents them.

Humanity, then, adapts not entirely with its body, but with its inventions—be they artifacts or social customs. This is one of the most important lessons of anthropology, one profound thing that it has learned about humanity: for good or ill, humanity has evolved ways of adapting that have decoupled behavior from biology.

Biologically, human bodies are frail, and could hardly survive the Arctic or the Sahara. But humans have invented ways to live in both places, for thousands of years and in fine health; again, humanity has invented adaptations to places that our biology could never endure.

The rest of this chapter is really a series of examples of the diversity of these fascinating adaptations. As I mentioned, they include two main types:

* artifacts: physical adaptations (e.g. a warm coat)
* behaviors: cultural adaptations (e.g. the practice of voluntary suicide when one is a burden to a small foraging band)

One way to imagine the staggering history of early human global migration is to consider the environments people were moving into, and what material and social adaptations might have made those new environments survivable. This is good food for exciting thought!

(c) 2008 by Cameron M. Smith for "Anthropology for Dummies", Wiley, August 2008

Now, if you've come here for some red meat, and don't care about any of this anthropology stuff, below I present to you the "Backpack Coaxial Helicopter," which I just call a "Death Machine." Oh yah, just what I want, six guillotines rotating at thousands of RPM just a foot above your noggin! Yaw this contraption all you want, but pitch or roll it a little too much and you're going to have some--er, real trouble! I mean heavy-duty, Dan-o!


Charles Sullivan said...

Very nice and concise writing sample.

I find stone tools as an adaptation fascinating. They seem overly simple by modern standards, and some people refer to "the stone age" in a disparaging way. Yet, the variety, shapes, uses, ingenuity and skill involved in making those tools is utterly amazing.

It's cool to watch those modern flintknappers make stone tools just like our ancestors did. Then when you watch a modern novice give it a go, you realize just how much skill and practice are involved in making some of those stone tools.

About that flying machine video: That's a head chopper-offer, for sure.

Anonymous said...

Les enfants seuls savent ce qu'ils cherchent. (only children know what they are looking for).

-antoine de saint exupery