Bloody matam & display

Materialism. It is a sin great in our age, so tell us the priests the progressives. But, it is a truism that one usually would prefer to be the richest individual on a block, even if the other option was being considerably wealthier in absolute terms but low on the pecking order in relative terms. If materials were just about utility this wouldn’t make much sense, but they are about status. Materialism is the proximate, and status is an the ultimate, though status is ultimately the proximate to the ultimate of sex. I thought about this as I read the following from Mullahs on the Mainframe:

…in this particular masjid, about a dozen men engage in “bloody” matam, a custom frowned upon by the dawat but practiced surreptitiously nonetheless….

The matam reaches its climax in the courtyard, in a rare display of devotion with ritual implements…Once his skin has been crisscrossed by a series of red gashes, each man passes the scourge to the next flagellant.

The entire operation seems to have been carefully planned and executed….The courtyard’s marble floor is soon running with spilled blood, red puddles running turning pink when diluted with water from the wuzu enclosure. The rest of the worshipers have to walk barefoot through this area in order to reach the shoe rack and exit…Although this practice is officially shunned, there is not doubt that the men who engage in it earn great community prestige: each man whose pure white kurta has been reddened is treated as a hero, and the packed crownd reverently make way for him to pass.

This text must be set in the context of the following two facts:

The religious leaders of the Bohras have forbidden the practice.
As I read mullahs on the mainframe I could understand why Aziz could think that the Catholic-Protestant analogy could illustrate how the Shia differ from the Sunni: I did not know the extent to which the Bohra regulate their lives by the dictates of their clerical class. I do think for those who are in the know that the Bohra resemble Mormons more than anything else in the tightness of their community and the top-down religious organization.

The men above are violating the injunctions from on high in a community that does not normally tolerate this behavior, but they are admired and respected (according to the author). Is this an instance of irrational insanity?

I don’t think so. Flagellation, self-mutiliation and mortification are recurrent motifs in human religious movements, whether that be Hindu ascetism, medieval Catholic Christianity or modern Shia Islam. One could assert that it is a recurrent psychopathology, but the description above, the respect that peculiar ascetes are accorded in Hindu culture or the power that European flagellators exercised suggests to me that we might have to redefine “irrational” or “pathological” if these behaviors fall under those umbrellas.

Like materialism, behavior like flagellation is nothing more than a status cue, those who survive great hardships with effortless aplomb are accorded respect. One could assert that this is an example of The Handicap Principle at work. It is a form of honest signalling. In the case of the Bohras, not only must an individual who goes through bloody matam have a modicum of physical fitness, he must possess psychological fortitude and perhaps the social capital to ignore the directives of the religious authorities.

It also illustrates the various tensions in complex cultural constructs. The Ismaili Bohras are impacted by the “meme” of the shahada, the profession of Muslim belief which sets them apart from non-Muslims. They are also shaped by historical forces that differentiate them from Sunnis as Shia Muslims. Additionally, the vicissitudes of holding together a top-down religious organization has resulted in periodic schisms, first from other Shia, and later from other Ismailis. In terms of their practice and doctrine, the 20th century has been characterized by a “reform” and drive toward outward conformity imposed from above upon the Bohras by their religious leadership.

But underneath all this the basic psychological forces remain resilient. The need for leveraging a religious organization into something that serves one’s own self-interest is just one of those irresistable forces. The need for status overwhelmed the strictures against engaging in a forbidden practice. And those who know of the practice, despite their general adherence to the wishes and dictates of their religious superiors, could but not help feel a natural admiration. Just like political systems, or individual lives, religions are constrained by the realities of our psychology, often shaped by our past evolutionary history.

The Golden Calf was not a symbol of material greed, it was a reflection of the human urge to become as the gods, surrounded by supplicants and basking in the glory of the bracing wind on top of the mountain.

Related note: I will give a full review of Mullahs on the Mainframe in conjunction with reflections on The Sword of the Prophet: History, Theology, Impact on the World, by Srdja Trifkovic, who has penned a deliciously Islamophobic text (though the book would be better titled Rending of the Orthodox).

Update: Choosing the Right Pond: Human Behavior and the Quest for Status is a good introduction to an evolutionary psychological view of economic competition. Here is an excerpt from an abstract of a paper presented at The Paradoxes of Happiness in Economics conference:

The idea that people might prefer inequality is somewhat surprising…Our result concerns those who are left behind when others’ incomes are raised. These people now see fewer people with similar or lower incomes. Furthermore, they observe the raised expenditure of those who have benefited from the change in income distribution. There is increased social pressure to keep up. This investigation also appears to be timely in that the relationship between happiness and inequality has been subject to much recent empirical work. Ineed, we were surprised to become aware after writing an initial draft of the current work that there was some empirical support for our finding that inequality and happiness could be positively linked. Alesina et al. (2001) find that there is greater satisifaction and happpiness with inequality amongst the poor than the rich in the US. Clark (2000) and Ball and Chernova (2002) both find a positive relationship between inequality and self-reported happiness. Equally, however, Alesinia et al. find that in Europe inequality and happiness and negatively related, a result echoed in work on German data by Schwarze and Harpfer (2002). The difference in results perhaps reflects different social norms and dynamics issues such as social mobility, not captured by our static model. However, one result that is consistent across these studies is that relative income matters for happiness.

The point I made above about relative status has obvious constraints, who would want to be the least destitute among the destitute? Additionally, the point above has some implications for Rawlsian liberalism and the choices that a “rational” observer might make when given a choice between various social arrangements. Libertarians have always asserted that there is no evidence that anyone should choose the “low risk” (egalitarian) social model over the “high risk” (nonegalitarian) model, and now t
here is some empirical support for that supposition. The attitudes expressed above also explain why role-playing video games without hierarchy are always busts (and complex role playing games become enmeshed in real world financial transactions as status is bought on ebay). It might also shed light on why people below the median income level reject the logic of free trade, though they would benefit in absolute terms (cheaper goods & services), those above the median would benefit far more, unless off course they are a subset of the working class that would lose out less than other subsets, raising their relative status.

Posted by razib at 12:37 AM

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Harold and Kumar go to Krispy Kreme?

That could have been the title to the new film Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle unfortunately the donut company turned down the free hour and a half plus advertisement. I bring this up for two reasons: first it is a brilliant new way to introduce advertisements, and second I find it very ironic that White Castle would allow their name to be used in this film. Let me explain;

Back in the 20’s when White Castle(WC) started, hamburger meat was considered disgusting, something that only the very poor would consume. This was because of the ease of bacterial infection and the prevalence of other animals worked into the food. Cheap food stands like WC were also suspect because of the sanitary practices of the staff. So WC had to build an image. To do so they took two words; White (implying clean and wholesome) and Castle (implying strong and safe), and the stands took off. They also took great strides to build/maintain this image, making their staff and stands appear impeccably clean and cooking the food where the customers could see.

Now, in 2004, WC has associated itself with a movie that includes such “unwholesome” activities as; pot smoking, sex, and sexual perversion (just watch the trailer to see what I mean)

P.S. Please do not read anything racial in my qualifying things in the movie as “unwholesome”.

My favorite critic loved “Harold and Kumar” and, tying into Razib’s post from before, hated “The Village”

Oh and in the extended entry is the secret of the village CAUTION: do not look if you do not want spoilers

Ivy’s grandfather was a billionare who bought a wildlife preserve that Hurt’s character moved the children into when they were newborns to save them from the violent outside world. The creatures are just the elders in costumes. The grandfather also paid to have all airflights re-routed around the preserve.

disappointing, but it does tie into this and this post.

Posted by scottm at 12:09 PM

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A man for all seasons

In the comments for Mirror Museums, a post that dismissed the importance of the Creationist “threat,” I rejected godless’ implication that Panda’s Thumb is an adjunct of the Gould-Lewontin project by pointing out that Paul R. Gross is listed as a contributor. Paul R. Gross has made contributions to the counter-attack against both the plagues of Creationism and Post Modernism!

In 1994 Gross coauthored Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels With Science, now 10 years on he has penned Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design. A regular contributor to The New Criterion, Gross has rebuked those who would slime the reputation of scientists like E. O. Wilson because of their normative quibbles with sociobiology, and displayed the courage to positively review Race: The Reality of Human Differences.

No gods but the pursuit of truth!

Godless comments:

Just to clarify, the reason I thought the Panda’s Thumb hewed the Lewontin line is because:

The term “The Panda’s Thumb” was the name of a book byGould. PZ Myers is a big fan of Lewontin.

Glad to see that I was mistaken. By the way, I define the “Lewontin line” as the position that evolution and genetics have nothing to tell us about human behavior.

Posted by razib at 03:12 PM

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ToM, terrorism and proteanism

Abiola has been posting about the possible futility of the “swarthy Middle Eastern male” profiling strategy, noting that rationally a transnational multiracial religio-political-cult would probably simply use operatives who could evade tightly focused radar. This reminded me of the Theory of Mind cognitive adaptation, that is, modelling the minds of other individuals, taking into account deception as well as the fact that they are also accounting for deception on your part, and so forth. The almost random shifting of strategies can also be conceived of as proteanism. ToM and proteanism are pretty vanilla innate tendencies, that is, you don’t have to be a genius to think or behave in a machiavellian & mercurial fashion.

Posted by razib at 02:35 AM

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Family garbarge & the pious mob

A month ago I put up a long post about my experiences in Bangladesh from the Hong Kong airport. Since then I haven’t followed up much. Since Bangladesh is in the news now, I have decided to congeal some of my reflections into something that resembles post.

Some background facts to keep in mind. Bangladesh is home to 140 million individuals crammed into a geographical expanse about the size of New York state (or Wisconsin, or 1/3 the size of Imbler, you get the picture). This high level of crowding in well known, almost one of the stereotypical assumptions about Bangladesh, but it needs to be experienced to be truly understood.

One of the consequences of a high birthrate (at least in the past) is that many adults have somewhere on the order of 3-5 siblings. With the development of roads and the spread of automobile use among the “middle class” these extended family social networks have become extremely tight, tighter I suspect than in the past. Many families who migrated to Dhaka decades ago now keep in far closer touch with their rural roots than in the past because it is feasible to take day trips to one’s ancestral village. Recall that Bangladesh is a relativey compact nation, with the vast majority of the population living within 100 miles of Dhaka.

Family is everything in Bangaldesh, a nation that is the world’s most corrupt. The large families in the past, a traditional culture and the rise of modern transportation seems to have resulted in a hardening of “conservative” familial norms and a reversal of the process of cultural change and divergence between urban and rural. Bangladesh is a nation where a close relative (brother, first cousin, etc.) can arrive at your doorstep without warning and expect that you will put him up without any complaint.

On the other hand, relations with non-kin are different. There is a qualitative difference in tenor when socializating with those not of one’s blood. For example, the amount of sweets that one brings to a occasion after an invitation is inversely proportional to familial closeness, that is, with kin one does not need to bring as many sweet dishes because one can expect far more tangible things from kin (boarding and lodging primarily if need be). While conversation with kin tends to focus on familial topics and gossip, especially when women are in the room, interactions with non-kin seem more forced and without a mooring, because the common kin world-view and knowledge base can not be leveraged.

In fact, the one time that I felt I was in a social situation that resembled the United States was when we visited my father’s old colleagues from Dhaka University. There were individuals who were chemists and physicists, my father’s old colleagues. They asked my brother what his plans were and he mentioned that he was going to attend graduate school in the fall studying physics. My father’s closest non-kin best friend exclaimed, “Ah, such a beautiful topic of study.” To hear such an abstract and aesthetic judgement on the sciences being expressed brought me back to my world, unmoored and unshaped by familial considerations and gossip, dictated by ideas and methods, soaked in information. Such things can not compete with gossip about family and relations, but when speaking to non-kin they have a chance because familial information commonality is sharply attenuated.

In simultaenous conjunction with the overwhelming preoccupation with kin ties there exists a total lack of devotion to the public arena. As note above, there are collegial friendships that cross the boundaries of kin, but I doubt there is ever the possibility that one would put a close friend above kin in a pinch. Many “friends” (most) seem to be first and second cousins, or somehow related to one’s extended family network. Instead of atomic individuals forming social networks and exploring social space, one already has a preformed network that one is slotted into upon birth. Marriages and business relationships alter the shape of the social space that one is embedded within (that is, the extended family network), it seems difficult to truly affect unilateral change as an individual. Outside of this network exist the Others. If humans have a fixed basket of “altruism” to give (more likely, perceived altruism), and all of it is distributed amongst one’s kin, it seems that altruism toward non-kin and the general society is starved.

For me, the clearest indication of this is the attitude toward garbage. One of my relatives lives in a modern air-conditioned apartment complex. Adjacent to this relatively posh abode there exists a small collection of hovels. My cousin looks down upon these hovels from her 6th floor apartment. Below you could see the minutiae of every day life for the urban poor, rickshaw drivers and the like. Chickens dash to and fro and women wash their clothing in public.

Anywyay, after a scrumptious meal I wondered where the leavings from the food were going to be tossed. I watched as my cousin took the bucket and simply emptied into the “courtyard” of the hovels below. When I looked closer it was clear that everyone in the apartment complex was using the the courtyard as their dumping pit. To me seemed a particularly repulsive behavior, individuals who were rather affluent simply tossing their trash in the laps of those who were living in the grossest poverty. I talked to someone else who had visited Bangladesh when I came back to the United States, and they too noted that the attitude toward garbage was shocking. We both realized we had independently developed the habit of stuffing trash in our pants, so difficult was it for us to leave crap in the corner so that the servants could toss it outside somwhere “convenient.”

It is peculiar that Bangladeshis will complain at the same time about the problem of the lack of public spiritedness in the company of their extended family, as the answer is sitting right before them! One of my uncles is notorious for helping out members of his family and settling his neices and nephews into good jobs and good marriages and good apartments. People talk about how the man is run ragged and has no time. But talking to my uncle I suspect that if he wasn’t doing all this for his relatives, he might be doing something else for the public good, perhaps being an anti-corruption activist or getting invovled in a civic forum. As it is, he has no time for that. So focused are many Bangladeshis on the inner world of their family, their “clan,” that they simply have no time for the outside world. And because the outside world is so bereft of succor, sympathy and justice, because they have left it to the basest of human wolves, they focus only on the inner circle of their family.

At least this is the general pattern. There are exceptions. One of which I will illustrate with a story.

One of my uncles is a geology professor who takes constant leave to aid in the activities of his Muslim religious order. He has a beard, his wife and daughter are in purdah, while his sons study the Koran and Hadiths. He is a true-blue fundamentalist. On the other hand, he is apolitical and generally against violence, coercion and non-consensual “persuasion.” His goal is to convince Muslims to be good Muslims, and he travels Bangladesh and the world on educational excursions.

On this particular day he was on a bus. Five times a day he has to perform salat prayer, and so he would get up and do his duty to his god. Initially, he asked the bus driver to stop so he could pray without motion and be assured that he faced Mecca, but the driver refused. Soon, he realized that the driver was becoming erratic and turning the bus here and there whenever he got up to pray. My uncle complained but the driver just gave him a disgusted look. Dressed in
white, in his cap and beard, my uncle stands out as one of the pious, so he often is the target of praise, respect and revulsion. This was one of the last cases.

At some point they stopped in a medium-sized town. My uncle was at a fruit stall when he saw another man dressed as he was. He made eye contact and exclaimed, “Brother!” The other man smiled and greeted him. They had never met each other, but exchanged information about their experiences in their religious order and my uncle noted the difficulties of the trip. The other man was outraged. He excused himself and came back with a dozen “brothers” of his religious order. Soon some of these left and came back with another two dozen. Somewhere south of fifty men marched to the bus, and they dressed down the bus driver for his “impious” activity. After that point the bus driver was more careful about his driving when my uncle prayed.

The point I wanted to illustrate with the story is that a non-kin network does exist in Bangladesh, a network that can mobilize and execute within 30 minutes in a totally alien part of the nation (from my uncle’s vantage point). It is of course a form of Islam, and its emphasize on universal brotherhood helps to reorient from kin and kith to the world outside. The organization channels some of the altruism of humans and mobilizes them in unison in a way that is akin to an army. If my uncle was not a religious man it would seem ludicrous for him to seek out the aid of non-kin, but as it was, he had a quasi-family that extended throughout the nation that he could call upon. This serves as a potent practical incentive for some people to display piety, though the costs involved in becoming part of the Tableegh (his order) is not trivial in terms of scholarship, rituals, rules and time one needs to invest.

In a previous entry, Up to Medievalism, I argued that Bangladesh must tolerate the crass and common corruption of NGOs because they serve as the main counterweights to religious orders as far as civic institutions go. A theocratic society is unworkable if Iran is any judge, so the hard path to modernity is through development of non-familial ties via work and government. A central model where there is the national government on top is just not appropriate for Bangladesh, rather, one must create a dense local non-kin network, and that is where NGOs come in. There are no easy answers, what I depicted above is probably the result of a few stable social equilibria, so some destablizing input needs to be inserted to jar them over the hill toward modernity.

Posted by razib at 12:03 PM

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Below godless posted about whites marching in penitence for the sin of slavery. Many issues can be illuminated here. In the comments sections I reacted with a sarcastic quip where I basically implied that some whites believe themselves to be such morally exalted folk that they take upon their shoulders a sort of “white man’s burden” of shame that they would never expect from conventionally barbarous darkies. I think this is a relevant point, but it’s not the only issue.

Steve Sailer asserts that this sort of behavior is a way for a certain class of whites, generally educated professionals, to strike a moralistic pose that distinguishes them from working class whites who lack such cultivated sensitivities. It in other words, public remorse for some vague ancestral crime is a form of display that signals one’s social status, intellectual capacity and general spiritual development.

But to be more specific, I will give two examples:

Several months ago I was IMing Aziz Poonwalla about his religious group, the Daudi Bohras, and I inquired about their origins. The traditional theory is that they were generally converted from Vaishya castes, that is, traders. We chatted a bit about genetic evidence which indicates the close affinity of Indian Muslims with various Hindu communities and what not. Offhand, Aziz mentioned that progressive/liberal Bohras asserted that some of their community’s more regressive tendencies were the legacies of their Brahmin origins. I found this an interesting observation.

The “progressives” pointed to Brahmin ancestry (cultural traditions) as the root cause behind long-term religious pathologies.
Brahmin ancestry is generally considered prestigious in India (Syrian Christians from Kerala often claim Brahmin ancestry as well).

I believe the “progressives” have simultaneously struck a pose of moral righteousness & appealed to innate human snobbery. They know that they are sinners, that their community needs to reform and they have the self-awareness to acknowledge this, and, they have also highlighted their own “prestigous” ancestry. Of course, as righteous liberal Muslims, they shouldn’t be proud of Brahmin ancestry because they believe in egalitarianism. But I think the other factor is also at work, as conversations with people espousing this sort of puffy righteousness often elicit inordinate repetition of ostensibly “shameful” “facts” (yes, I know your great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather was a evil tyrant of some dung hill!).

Let me now give a second example. In high school I had a friend named “Karen.” Unlike 90% of the students in my high school she was a liberal. In A.P. History one day we were talking about slavery, and as a normal American of our age, she did not speak of the practice positively. But, she mentioned offhand that her ancestors were from the South and they might have owned slaves, as if it was a source of shame. Well, at any given time 80% of white Southerners did not own slaves, though over the decades a family might have owned a slave at some time. Where did I get the 80% number? We had been talking about it 15 minutes before. Karen still suggested that perhaps her ancestors had owned slaves anyway, even though she had no knowledge they did, and in other circumstances had implied that her forebears were “white trash” fleeing economic deprivation in the late 19th century when they arrived in Imbler. But someone whose ancestors owned slaves is someone whose ancestors were at the top of the social pyramid, and I think that is what was at work in that particular case. As a guilty-white-liberal she displayed sufficient shame and regret about slavery to contrast herself with the general student body, but additionally, she also associated herself with the herrenvolk of ages past, a “natural” inclination which most humans give vent to.

Anyway, boasting about ancestors is dumb, seeing as how we’re all descended from “winners.” Slavery sucked, and reflection on the abomination is important. Nevertheless, I find ostentatious displays of remorse unseemly, because they seem to do far more for those expressing remorse than the memories of those who were wronged in the past.

Posted by razib at 12:25 AM

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Crick no longer ticks

Francis Crick dies. Just put him under the “Great Men” heading under our links, the second Francis!

Related: Obit in The Independent.

Addendum: I received a complaint that for someone who laid the foundation for “gene expression” I’m not giving Crick his due.

The obits haven’t come it.
Figure other bloggers would weigh in.
Watson tends to have the juicey quotes.

I will say I enjoyed Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul, though advances in neuroscience make broadsides into the “ghost in the machine” progressively more banal. Here is a timeline of Crick’s life. One thing about Crick, I wish he hadn’t coined the term The Central Dogma, the last word really isn’t a good one to use for science! In any case, here is a graphical depiction of TCD, and a succinct verbal description. Funniest scientific dead-end in Crick’s life? Probably Panspermia.

More obits:

Nick Wade in The New York Times. Another in The Scientist. NPR audio file. Nature weighs in here.

Posted by razib at 12:51 PM

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