Thoughts on “The Anthropology of Childhood” by David Lancy

As noted previously, The Anthropology of Childhood is excellent, and now I can say that it is excellent throughout. There are too many points to summarize the book effectively or even to hit many of its main points. One could productively read it with Bryan Caplan’s Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, since both books argue, sometimes implicitly, that upper-middle class Western child-raising practices have become crazed, neurotic, and conceivably even counter-productive (and almost certainly counter-productive in life-satisfaction terms). Consider this example, from Anthropology:

An interesting contrast can be made with WEIRD [Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, and Democratic] society, where girls are not usually assigned sibcare [sibling care] duties and where young mothers labor alone without the guidance of their old female relatives. “The relative isolation of the nuclear family . . . means that each woman rears her newborn infant from scratch” and young, urban mothers are unprepared for squalling, active, and very unhappy babies (Hubert 1974: 46–47). The foibles of clueless parents have proven to be quite entertaining, as evidenced by “reality” TV shows such Nanny 911, which aired in the USA between 2004 and 2007, and Supernanny (2004 – 2011), in which a competent nanny brings order and harmony to dysfunctional families.

anthro_of_childhoodYet almost no one considers this point, or many similar points.

Wealth may enable a wide range of non-adaptive behaviors and beliefs that can be sustained primarily because we’re rich enough to sustain them. Bedrock beliefs held by many Westerners about the nature of humans and families are actually culturally selected, and some of those beliefs surprised me. Nerds, however, may be unpopular because nerds often attempt to interject facts into belief- and feeling-based conversations; I suspect many citations to The Anthropology of Childhood, and especially the sections on infanticide, will not go down well.

Still, self-deception also helps explain why so many people adapt seemingly non-functional behaviors; Charles Murray describes many of those behaviors in Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, a book that like many true books that puncture popular beliefs is deeply unpopular in many quarters. Most people can, if they choose to, easily see whether their partners exhibit traits related to fidelity, tenacity, conscientiousness, grit, and so forth—but many if not most of us choose to ignore these obvious signals. Our values are observed everywhere.

There seems to be a growing bifurcation in American society between crazed, neurotic, and anxious upper-middle class two-parent households in which little Madison needs ice-skating lessons, soccer practice, oboe lessons, and round-the-clock enrichment activities, or else she’ll never be a “success” and will become a drug-addicted prostituted without even a public-school degree, and single-parent low-income households in which any babysitter is a good babysitter and survival is everything. The former need to chill out and the latter… I actually don’t see a good public policy for the latter, though both the political left and right have many strongly held opinions, neither of which have done much to countervail the larger trends Murray describes. Another writer, Michel Houellebecq, describes them as well, though much more obliquely.

The Anthropology of Childhood is, as Michael Erardjan suggests in the New York Times, going to become my go-to baby gift for those who have recently spawned, though careful readers may find sections disconcerting:

Another common tactic used by new mothers is to exaggerate the resemblance between the newborn and their husband [. . .] In spite of the confidence with which humans claim “he looks just like his father,” experimental studies show that babies cannot be reliably paired to their parents on the basis of appearance (Pagel 2012: 315). Studies in our monogamous, adultery-condemning society have shown that 10 percent of men designated as the biological father of a particular child are not (Buss 1994: 66–67), so the baby’s anonymous appearance confers a survival advantage.

If 10 percent of men designated as the biological father of a particular child are not, one has to ask what kinds of fictions prevent a society in which DNA testing is cheap and easy from automatically doing so as a matter of standard practice. The answers may get very ugly very fast.

I want badly for Lancy to write an advice column; something like Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar is beautifully written and yet so utterly conditioned by contemporary American beliefs, and so utterly unfamiliar with cross-cultural comparisons or evolutionary biology. Read it anyway—that beauty! that feeling!—but read it with Lancy. Compare and contrast. Imagine what Lancy might say about the myriad of problems medicated, neurotic Americans experience, or think we experience. Most contemporary advice columnists are as much repositories of conventional thinking as religious figures were a century or two ago. Lancy is different. Lancy knows things. But the things he knows we instinctively want to reject—which is why reading him is so valuable.

Links: Toni Bentley on “50 Shades,” MFA madness, global climate change, media politics, and more!

* “Fifty Shades of Grey Is an Ode to Female Sexuality, but There’s One Thing Missing” by Toni Bentley, whose amazing and amazingly lascivious book The Surrender I often want to recommend and yet rarely do, for reasons that will probably be obvious to readers of said book.

* “Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One,” though it’s false that “Writers are born with talent” and that people who didn’t start as teenagers are probably doomed. The rest, though, are true, especially this: “If you aren’t a serious reader, don’t expect anyone to read what you write.”

* “Scientists know there are more giant craters in Siberia, but are nervous to even study them,” which may be the most important article you’re going to skip.

* The Robots Are Coming: John Lancaster, brilliantly, on Tyler Cowen’s Average is Over and Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s The Second Machine Age. Both are good but if you’re a non-specialist be biased towards Average is Over.

* “Dave Barry: The Greatest (Party) Generation.”

* “Mercedes Carrera Explains Why Cytherea’s Rape Was Not Covered By The Feminist-Dominated Media.”

* “Are landlords the future global plutocracy?” See also Yglesias, The Rent Is Too Damn High: What To Do About It, And Why It Matters More Than You Think; I find it fascinating that many superficial liberals claim to be concerned about income distributions but also favor heavy land-use controls that exacerbate inequality. One or the other, people!

* “University labour strife underscores cost of tenured academics;” tenure costs much more than its distortionary effects are worth. But I would say that, wouldn’t I?

* “Finding the Dense City Hidden in Los Angeles,” which surprises me too.

How do you judiciously help someone whose work isn’t very good?

This question keeps reappearing in various guises: How do you help someone whose work isn’t very good? Simply saying “This sucks” isn’t helpful and is usually taken with offense. A sufficiently screwed up work may also be unrecoverable. But making minor changes and saying, “It’s great!” often isn’t helpful either, because the work isn’t great and false praise is a lie. Those seeking criticism should be tactful enough not to ask, “Is it good?”, but often they aren’t and it leaves critics and editors in an awkward position.

I’m a writer, so I tend to see stuff from bad writers, but the same principles apply to other people with other domains of expertise. I developed my method of commenting on bad writing years ago, when a former student and now friend asked me to read a few stories she’d written for a creative writing class. Given her age they weren’t terrible; I made some comments, fixed a couple of minor things, and suggested some books that might speak to her.*

She asked if I thought the stories were good, but fortunately she asked via email so I had a few minutes to think about my response. I replied that I’d reframe the question: if she keeps writing, reading about writing, and developing her own sense of good writing, in four or five years she’ll reread her stories and be able to decide for herself whether her work was any good. I mentioned that when I was 26 or so, I no longer thought the stuff I’d written from 18 – 22 was any good. She got the point, I think, and seemed to appreciate what I was saying without saying.

And what I told her was and is true: I don’t think much of that early work now. But I also wouldn’t be where I am today without having written what I did then. In addition to being true, that sort of advice has the advantage of being tactful. I think John Irving said that every writer who seeks feedback really wants to be told, “It’s perfect. Don’t change a thing.” But of course nothing is perfect and editors exist for a reason (so do therapists; the reasons may be more closely related than we’d like to commonly assume).


* Anyone interested in writing ought to look at this list, which I still think good. I periodically re-read every book on it. In some sense no good writer ever fully stops being a beginner.

Links: Child payment nightmares, Houellebecq, Hanson, publishing, 50 Shades, and more

* “Man Ordered by Judge to Pay $30,000 in Support for Child That Isn’t His.”

* “The Next Thing: Michel Houellebecq’s Francophobic satire.” Though this may not seem related at first, Salon.com’s “ Sex orgies of the 1 percent: What really happens when the rich and powerful gather for group sex” could be compared and contrasted with the Houellbecq article. The second link is SFW, at least in photo terms.

* Hanson on “Ian Morris on Foragers, Farmers, Industry, & Ems.”

* Read the full title: “Brontosaurus BDSM, Werewolf Marines, and Serious Social Issues: Self-Publishing in the Wild.”

* “Why GM Hired 8,000 Programmers.”

* “Lenovo installs ghastly spyware on all its laptops,” in a move that is shocking, dangerous, and cruel.

* The bizarre opposition to due process on campuses.

* “The Accurate Erotics of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey,’” which is perhaps overgenerous; see also my essay.

* Someone found this blog by searching for “technology wrecks relationship.”

* Why so-called “digital natives” prefer to read paper.

* Silicon Valley’s War on Sex continues as Google bans adult blogs.

Defining fiction

“The relentless definition of feelings, states, and relationships” could be one definition of literature.

I’m reading Paul Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train, and it includes this: “In Cathy’s flat I always feel like a guest at the very out limit of her welcome.” It’s a brilliant description of a feeling I’ve both had and inflicted on others and never thought explicitly about before. The description, while brilliant, is also brilliant like millions of similar descriptions in millions of other books; I’m not singling it out because it’s extraordinary, but because it’s ordinary, and for whatever reason it triggered in my mind the description that composes the first paragraph of this post.

The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age — Hoffman, Casnocha, and Yeh

It is especially odd to read The Alliance next to “A longtime proponent of marriage wants to reassess the institution’s future,” since the book and the article describe the same suite of ideas but apply them to different arenas: business and love/marriage/sex, respectively. One could do a find and replace for key words and phrases in The Alliance and have an entirely different book. The structure of dating markets and economic markets are more similar than is commonly supposed (though that may be changing).

The_AllianceThe Alliance is excellent and should be read; the authors note that the “family” model many corporations deploy when describing employees is at best dishonest and at worst fraudulent in a way likely to engender tremendous, justified ill-will. Individuals can’t rely on companies to look out for them (“Both parties act in ways that blatantly contradict their official positions”). Despite this, however, a world of strict, consultant-like free agents is not a happy one either, per the Coase Theorem—though Coase is not cited directly. The solution proposed is an “alliance” that doesn’t promise lifetime employment but does attempt to set explicit expectations for employer-employee interactions.

The book is not as heavily researched as I might have hoped but there are numerous useful bits, like this:

The Towers Watson 2012 Global Workforce Study found that even though about half of employees wanted to stay with their current employer, most of them felt that they would have to take a job at a different company in order to advance their careers.

And those workers are probably right. Still, “A business without loyalty is a business without long-term thinking.” Stock options do a little to ameliorate short-term thinking, but not enough; one reason for startups may be to enforce long-term thinking by putting companies in the control of founders. Large companies, however, are here to stay, and The Alliance offers a way to navigate through them.

As the quotes above show, the book is not gorgeously written, but it is competently written and held my attention throughout. It begs to be given.

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