Thursday, October 11, 2007

Possible, Plausible, Probable, Proven

“Possible,” “Plausible,” “Probable,” and “Proven” are terms used to indicate rough degrees of statistical probability of something happening or some proposition being true. (My use of the “probable” here reflects the vernacular. When we say that something is probably true, we don’t mean that it has just any level of statistical probability, but specifically that it is quite likely to be true.)

The terms do reflect an ascending order of probability (and a nested one – anything that is plausible is also possible; anything proven is also probable, plausible, and possible), though not in a numerically precise way. They represent a sort of qualitative statistics. When we can realistically indicate precise probabilities, that is obviously a useful thing, but even a rough sense of degree of probability is far more useful than no such sense at all.

Errors in thinking arise whenever we jump up this ascending ladder of probability without evidence, or without sufficient evidence (though admittedly, knowing what counts as sufficient evidence is always tricky business). Just because it’s possible that Bigfoot could be running around the Pacific Northwest or elsewhere doesn’t make it plausible, much less probable or proven.

The Possible

Saying that something is possible simply means that it does not violate the basic laws of logic. In the realm of empirical scholarship, one could also add that it does not violate basic physical laws, that something is both logically and physically possible.

The existence of Bigfoot is possible – it violates no logical or physical rules, but given the overwhelming lack of evidence, there’s no reason to regard Bigfoot’s existence as having anything but the lowest degree of probability. The same goes for claims about extraterrestrial influence in building the Egyptian Pyramids or Stonehenge or the Nazca Lines.

The Plausible

To say that something is plausible is to indicate that it has a higher probability than the merely possible - it is believable, it makes sense. But claims that are merely plausible (that is, that are not also probable) lack the evidence to be taken as having a high degree of probability of truth.

Thor Heyerdahl’s famous voyage on his Kon-Tiki raft from South America to Polynesia certainly proved that it was possible for people to have traveled from the one place to the other using fairly simple watercraft. He even made it plausible that Polynesians could have made voyages to South America, but his voyage alone did nothing to make such notions probable, much less proven. (See this news article from this past summer from Live Science on both Heyerdahl and more recent evidence of Polynesian voyaging to South America that I’ll discuss below.)

An article I encountered this morning on Science Daily, “Early Apes Walked Upright 15 Million Years Earlier Than Previously Thought, Evolutionary Biologist Argues,” makes what I’d consider a plausible claim. “An extraordinary advance in human origins research reveals evidence of the emergence of the upright human body plan over 15 million years earlier than most experts have believed. More dramatically, the study confirms preliminary evidence that many early hominoid apes were most likely upright bipedal walkers sharing the basic body form of modern humans.” So long as there’s evidence, it’s plausible that hominoid bipedalism might be much older than previously thought, but this is an extraordinary claim, and as such requires not simply a single study with good evidence, but a body of good evidence in order to be taken as probable, much less proven by many scholars.

The Probable and the Proven

To say that something is probable means that it is very likely to be the case, that it has a high degree of probability. To refer to something as proven implies that a claim is definitely true, though given the ever present possibilities of faulty observation (even systematic faulty observation), partial understanding or misunderstanding of empirical materials, nothing (at least outside the abstract realm of pure logic and mathematics) is ever demonstrated to be completely and irrevocably true. Instead, to say something is proven is really to say that it has such a high degree of probability of truth that we can pragmatically assume it to be true (though ideally keeping an open mind towards potential counter-evidence).

When Pizarro and his Spanish soldiers reached Peru, they encountered chickens (an Old World domesticated bird) already there. There are at least a couple ways the chickens could have arrived in the New World – they could have been brought by the very earliest European voyages to the Caribbean and Central America in the 1490s and 1500s and very rapidly diffused southward; or they could have been brought by Polynesia voyagers to South America (the only problem there being, at least until now, a lack of evidence of such Polynesian voyages having actually occurred).

When Captain Cook and other explorers encountered a variety of Polynesian islands in the late 18th century, they encountered sweet potatoes, among other crops being grown. As I understand it, there’s no definite evidence of how these South American plants reached Polynesia. They could have been brought by the Spanish to the Philippines early in the Colonial period and diffused from there to Indonesia, Melanesia, and ultimately Polynesia, or they could have been brought back from South America by Polynesians themselves.

New evidence released this past summer addresses this situation. Chicken bones were recovered in Peru that, according to carbon dating, predate Spanish voyages to the Americas by about a century. Further, genetic evidence links the chicken bones to Polynesian varieties of chickens. (See the previously cited article from Live Science and also this article from New Scientist.)

If the carbon dating and DNA evidence hold up (always an important consideration with important new claims), this proves that Polynesian chickens reached Peru at least on one occasion. Given the highly implausible nature of chickens making the voyage on their own (though not logically impossible), it makes highly probable if not proving claims that Polynesians came to South America on at least one occasion. It makes highly probable that the chickens seen by Pizarro were of Polynesian stock as well. I’d even go so far as to say that this new evidence makes probable the idea that Polynesians brought sweet potatoes back from South America directly, though the distinction between plausible and probable is a bit more ambiguous in this case.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Charles Wagley's "On Social Race in the Americas"

Much has been written about race in the Americas since this article by Charles Wagley was first published in the 1950s. This article, though, was foundational for much of the writing on race by anthropologists since then, and with perhaps a few caveats it still functions quite well as an overview of the social organization of race in various parts of the Western Hemisphere. (The most important qualification is that Wagley’s terminology for reference to populations, “negroid,” “caucasoid,” “mongoloid,” is now anachronistic – though the terms were common parlance in social science writing of the day. The terms Wagley uses are often taken to have connotations of biological fixity of the racial groups that his own work did much to help undermine. If the terms are read as “African,” “European,” and “Native American,” that is as simply indicating geographic regions of origin, what Wagley says about the three groups and their interactions remains important.)

Wagley identifies several factors that are influential in shaping three broadly distinguished patterns of social race. Each of the patterns takes into consideration ancestry (i.e. degree of ancestral membership in any of the three areas of geographic origin), physical appearance (e.g. skin color, facial features, hair texture or other physical features that can be taken as signs of race), and cultural factors (e.g. language, dress, occupation). These factors of ancestry, physical appearance, and culture are differentially emphasized, though, generating one pattern with a strongly delineated binary distinction between European and African (i.e. black and white) with a focus on ancestry especially; a second pattern emphasizing a continuum of racial mixture between African and European, with physical appearance especially emphasized in categorization; and a third pattern emphasizing a continuum of racial mixture between Native American and European, with cultural factors particularly important in racial categorization.

Wagley points out how these three basic patterns are regionally associated, not so much with three specific regions, but with three types of regions in the Americas. These types of regions are defined by Wagley in broad ecological terms: the temperate zones of northern North America (specifically northeastern North America during the colonial period in which race patterns were first constituted) and southern South America associated with the first pattern; the tropical lowland areas of Brazil, the Caribbean, and coastal Spanish America (and to a lesser extent, the sub-tropical southeastern North America – at least for a time) associated with the second pattern; and tropical to temperate highland zones of Latin America (i.e. Mesoamerica and the Andes) associated with the third.

Equally important for Wagley are two other factors, both of which are intimately connected to the basic ecological characteristics of the different types of regions. First are the predominant economic activities of a region. For example, a critical difference between the first and second type regions is the pervasive presence of extremely labor intensive agricultural practices based for a long time in plantation slavery in tropical lowland areas in contrast to Euro-American farming practices in Northern North America and Southern South America that, while quite distinct in certain ways from one another, had in common the lack of utilization of large pools of intensive labor, i.e. the lack of plantation agriculture or slavery practiced on a large scale.

Alongside economic practices, another important consideration discussed by Wagley is population history. Although Wagley doesn’t quite put it this way, the population history of Native Americans is particularly important in playing a role in shaping the organization of race. Low population densities of Native Americans persisted at least into the 19th century in Northeastern North America and Southern South America, but without being particularly integrated with European society in the form of a laboring group. (The fur trade in North America and cattle ranching in South America certainly involved Native American labor, but with relatively small numbers of laborers involved and in ways and contexts where Europeans still thought of them as largely outside their own social universe.) High population densities of Native Americans in the tropical lowlands were largely wiped out early on, mainly by disease, and were replaced with slave labor imported from Africa on newly introduced plantation systems. Even higher population densities of Native Americas in the Latin American highlands were also decimated by disease, but large numbers of Native Americans remained even after the worst of the plague years of the 1500s and 1600s and were incorporated as labor into a variety of economic endeavors.

In this article and other writings (his work tended to focus on race in the Americas generally or on the ethnography of Brazil in particular), Wagley was an important influence on the shape of anthropological debate in the mid- to late 20th century. He especially influenced the development of ecological and economic anthropology in the 1950s through the 1970s. In most anthropologists’ conception of the history of the discipline, he is greatly overshadowed in this regard by figures such as Julian Steward, and probably rightfully so – Steward’s writings, such as Theory of Culture Change, are more widely read today and were so at the time as well. Wagley’s influence took more the form of teaching and mentorship. He taught at Columbia at a time when many scholars who were to become extremely important in ecological and economic anthropology were studying there as Ph.D. students, probably most prominently Eric Wolf (see Europe and the People without History), Sidney Mintz (see Sweetness and Power), and Marvin Harris (see Cultural Materialism and The Rise of Anthropological Theory). It is clear that Harris was especially influenced by Wagley: Harris’ early work on race in the Americas is essentially a direct development of Wagley’s work, and Harris’ cultural materialist theory builds upon Wagley’s broadly ecological approach (though obviously also drawing on many other sources of inspiration also).