Friday, 15 October 2010

The Caring Neanderthal

Good morning and I hope people are going to have a pleasant weekend.

It gives me great pleasure to post about a new article and book on the evolution of compassion which has been co-written by one of my close friends. The Prehistory of Compassion, by Penny Spikins, Holly Rutherford and Andy Needham is a book concerning empathy and the role it plays in our evolution.

The proposal focuses on the concept that altruism and compassion derive from a successful evolutionary tactic according to Dawkins’ “Selfish Gene” concept. Spikins, Rutherford and Needham use this idea to evaluate whether or not compassion is a successful tactic and one that may have assisted us in our evolutionary success.

Penny Spikins, a Professor of Archaeology at the University of York and first author, has been interested in the evolutionary role of emotions for a few years. The ideas present in her book and the evidence she provides with her co-authors are matters that she’s discussed in seminars. This article shows the culmination of these debates and touches on a lot of evidence that was used in the seminars. As a result, the book shows a wide-range of ideas in how compassion evolved, the use of it in evolutionary terms as well as possible limitations. 

As a former student of Penny’s and a former devil’s advocate to Andy’s ideas, I find it hard to find many criticisms in their paper. The concept is valid and has plenty of evidence in the form of burials, primatology and palaeopathology. However, is it the major factor in all of these cases? Are there other emotions that have played just as important parts in our evolution that haven’t been considered? Has the evidence been misinterpreted in some cases? These are possibly some of the questions that the researchers might give answers on soon. 

In conclusion though, the main aspect to remember is this. We are social animals. Empathy and compassion are needed in these situations as strategies to cope with group living. The examples given from primates demonstrate that these social animals display similar qualities. As a result, Spikins, Rutherford and Needham argue strongly for emotions, especially empathy and compassion to be given consideration when establishing the factors for human evolution. 

Relevant Links

Burial Outrage

In other news, the Ministry of Justice have imposed restrictions on human remains from archaeological excavations. The Ministry has decided to impose the 1857 Burial Act upon archaeologists which has caused outrage as it requires the remains to be reburied within 2 years.

Now I am confused on why they have done this. I can understand some people’s reluctance for human remains to be kept in the hands of archaeologists and this is why most burials that are attributed to particular religions are given to those religious authorities, therefore Christian remains are overseen by the Church and Jewish remains by the Jewish authorities, etc, etc. This I feel is a fair system, allowing a bond of respect to exist between the archaeologist and the religious. 

Furthermore, two years is not particularly a long time to study remains. For my dissertation I looked at 17 skeletons from a collection of 63 which had been excavated in 2002. I started looking at these in 2007, five years after! In addition, the analysis done by the archaeologist on site was considered shoddy by many of the experts I consulted, misidentifying pathologies and in some cases not noticing them. 

Another question that must be asked is what happens to those remains that have been in teaching collections? Does this mean the University of Bradford has to rebury its extensive collection of archaeological remains and therefore lose its reputation as the University to study Osteology? Photographs are only so helpful when analysing remains and often archaeologists encounter diseases, such as Leprosy, TB and syphilis which had greater effect on us before antibiotics. This could be a severe blow to the archaeological as well as the medical community.

With all these flaws in the argument as well as the aspects outlined in the Guardian I feel that this is going to cause a lot of outrage in the archaeological world and I do wonder how many collections will mysteriously become less than two years old.

Other News

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Druidry is now a religion

Recently I read on the BBC News site that Druidry or Druidism has been recognised as a religion by the Charity Commission. The story here, outlines the acceptance of this belief.

Now the problem I have with Druids is not their core beliefs which worship the natural world, but the appropriation of prehistoric monuments and remains by their faith. The current model comes from 17th-19th Century Romantic views on Iron Age practises and are in conflict with current archaeological thought. Druids avoid sacrificing animals and people in the modern era because it goes against modern ideas. They have essentially made up this Romanticised ideal of how Druids used to be, if they actually existed. For example, I recommend noting the Druid, King Arthur Pendragon's name, which sounds to me, linked to Thomas Mallory than any actual "Celtic" Arthur or druid.

Druids also come into conflict with archaeologists over prehistoric human remains which they claim repatriation rights. This article from the BBC here, shows how they fought for the remains of a Neolithic child from Avebury, an era of prehistory far removed from their "Druids" by about 2 000 years.

My main concern is that this will give a form of legitimacy to the druids, letting them argue more eloquently for monuments and remains which are not related to them. This would be bad for archaeology as it could mean that prehistoric monuments are treated by druids as their Churches, creating additional conflict between them and archaeologists.

In other news, here is an article outlining the faulty reporting made by journalists on the ADHD story. Whilst I appreciated the scientific coverage and rebuttal by experts in the news, I feel that some, such as one Professor on the BBC, may have been a little too harsh on the journalists trying to interview him on his opinions on the case.

And unfortunately a new ID centre has opened in the UK. Claiming to focus on science rather than religion, hopefully it shall go the same way as Christian Voice, unheard and ignored.

Finally, the Guardian has some good articles on the problems the coalition will cause by cutting funding to science research, an area which frequently produces a good profit.

Science Funding in the UK