I thought I would share this on Usain Bolt written by a friend:
in light of Lee Drummond article on the OAC here:
Thinking through these both, the concept of a less wealthy nation 'hacking the system' sprung to mind?
Interesting, but I am wondering what the anthropological content is here. In response, the man in the street might say 'Isn't the word of Carl Lewis on Usain Bolt a bit suspect given that that USA running team has been so thoroughly disgraced by its involvement in doping?', or 'isn't a given runner innocent until proven guilty?' or equally they might just say that, even with the most heavily supervised drug enforcement arrangements ever, Usain Bolt still thrashed the USA opposition at the recent Olympics so who cares what a retired American runner has to say about it. What this sounds like is sour grapes -- if Americans can't even win when they are as high as kites on drugs, how could a runner who grew up in a backways part of Trelawney parish (a village built on squatted land in Northern Jamaica) possibly win without doping?
As I read it, Lee's intervention concerning Lance Armstrong asked much more complicated questions than that. The whole issue has to do with the expectations people have about human 'natural' ability and the impossibility of expecting those ideas about human nature to exist uncontaminated by human augmentation. It turns out that, after Lance Armstrong's disgrace, the next winner of the Tour de France, (now Sir) Bradley Wiggins was taking steroid injections legally (that is in accordance with institutional rules), something revealed by the Russian hacking of WADA. Wiggins response has been to say that he had the injections because he gets asthma and that this 'levelled the playing field'. The issue Lee raised then, which is much more anthropologically significant, is what possible 'playing field' can exist in this foggy zone between 'natural ability' and 'augmented ability'. It is in this light that the paralympic games start to look like a much more valid arena of sporting achievement given actually existing world culture, since, in this case, the understanding of homo habilis is much more sophisticated.
For some reason I’ve been unable to access OAC on my home computer, but am now at a shiny new one which does just fine.
As Huon notes, the interesting thing about the disputes over Armstrong and Bolt is not whether they took “performance-enhancing drugs,” but what the outrage over that says about our perspective on what is “natural” and what is not. The Nature-Culture opposition is not just a leftover from the bad old days of structuralism; it is an important folk taxonomy in American / Western society. We want our athletes to be pure, that is, natural, unsullied by the evils of technology. Our disappointment in Armstrong and Bolt is especially strong since both are, let’s say, chthonic figures – sprung from native soil. Armstrong was a kid from the rural heartland, and overcame a terrible physical affliction; Bolt is not only from a Third World nation, but an impoverished part of it. The stuff of which heroes are made – except when, OMG!, they start hooking down steroids.
With the Olympics mercifully behind us, I have to say that I personally don’t begin to understand the fuss and bother over whether someone runs the 100 a few hundredths of a second faster than anyone else. Who cares? Well, of course, a whole lot of folks.
And that brings me to the second feature of the cultural structure at play here. In addition to the folk taxonomy of nature:culture, there is the heart and soul of capitalism – the compete-and-win ethic. Competition and winning are inseparably linked for us; how could things be otherwise? Why would anyone run or bike for the sheer elation of the physical experience? What kinda Commie crap is that?
So, both runner and biker shine a light, not on a wrenching ethical dilemma, but on the way our minds are put together that we should get so bothered by steroid use. This is especially ironic, since steroids, along with human growth hormone, are, yes, “natural” products of the body, and as we age we might do well to start hooking them down along with Bolt and Armstrong. Hey, the stuff is good for us!
I wonder if we couldn't do a bit more with the anthropology here. I am thinking, in particular, of exploring the boundary between nature and culture as it is defined across a range of sports. All sports with rules defined by official bodies are rife with debates about what should and shouldn't be allowed in players' equipment. Equipment makers compete by introducing innovations that push the boundaries of what is allowed. Performance enhancing drugs go a step further by penetrating the boundary that separates equipment from the player's "natural" body. The case of human growth hormone introduces a third consideration, when does something "natural" become "unnatural" if introduced from outside the player's body in larger quantities that the player's own body produces? We now have at least three states to explore: (1) external enhancements that may go too far, (2) enhancements that violate the basic Nature-Culture distinction, and (3) "natural" enhancements that become unnatural in their out-of-body origin and the quantity involved. Are there other possibilities?
There are also, of course, questions about what is fair when the boundary between Nature and Culture is not directly challenged, things like professional training regimes, equipment and coaches available only to those with specific forms of social or economic capital.......
Acknowledgment: These questions owe a great deal, of course, to Pierre Bourdieu's observation that distinctions that draw boundaries are always contested or, in other words, sites of struggle.
The Russian hacking of WADA, following the exclusion or dishonouring of various members of its enormous Olympic team, should also be a reminder that sport is ideology -- at the level of the Olympics it is an enormous propaganda exercise by the states involved which in turn entails vast capital investment. As I recall, e.g., each British gold medal at the Olympics was touted as costing £4000,000 in training etc. Notably, some countries like India don't seem to feel the need to engage to the highest degree in this quadrennial agonistic fete or potlatch.
And so it is, as Lee indicated, and as might be expected in a world society still entranced by a story of everlasting GDP growth, that human beings must be shown to be endlessly improvable in their agonistic capacities, and this involves not just bending the rules that describe 'natural' human capacity (while retaining the contrast in place), but also an enormous economic infrastructure must be created around those individuals so that they can show off their 'natural' individual talent according to a staggeringly hubristic worldwide ranking scheme. And thus people warm to the athlete who comes from the poor third world country to take the top spot against the odds.
Agreed Huon. I was interested in a second opinion on whether it was a sour grapes approach as you put it, as an old school friend wrote it and its hard to have a somewhat clear view on the matter when personable relationships are involved. That said I am aware of the depth of Lee's article. The article I shared is obviously of a different type, a simple proposition instead. I was just interested in Lee's take on such propositions, in some sense as a form of ethnographic data, the author of it as an informant. But that aside I was wondering whether there is any purchase in the idea of performance enhancing drug takers to be considered hackers, or innovators rather than cheats, in the sense that the difference between a cheat and a hacker and an innovator is a matter of who holds the power to draw the lines between them. Lee develops how the audience holds some power in this (hence the other linked article is an interesting ethnographic source as written by an audience member). What I am mainly interested in is comments on whether it makes sense for me to think through Lee's article and re-classify Armstrong as a hacker, and in doing so see how this illuminates my thinking around illegal and legal hunting, poaching, bred-for-release game and so forth. Where poaching is to sports hacking, as legal trophy hunting is to some olympic sports that by their nature will integrally be dominated by people who have had the luck of being born around the right equipment and funding to even consider doing such a sport. Anyway your comments so far have been fruitful for me :)
Hacking the Genome
John: We now have at least three states to explore: (1) external enhancements that may go too far, (2) enhancements that violate the basic Nature-Culture distinction, and (3) "natural" enhancements that become unnatural in their out-of-body origin and the quantity involved. Are there other possibilities?
Abraham: I was wondering whether there is any purchase in the idea of performance enhancing drug takers to be considered hackers, or innovators rather than cheats, in the sense that the difference between a cheat and a hacker and an innovator is a matter of who holds the power to draw the lines between them.
I think there is a fourth possibility, and Abraham is close to identifying it: hacking. Taking steroids may indeed be considered a sort of hacking, but really serious messing with the human body can be done by hacking the genome. And why not? After all, Mother Nature has been at that project for lo, these millions of years. Forget the latest exotic products of pharmaceutical companies and head straight for your friendly neighborhood genomics lab, where truly miraculous things are already being done. Individuals like Armstrong and Bolt are the stars they are largely because they lucked out in the great genetic crapshoot when meiosis rolled the dice. Surely we don’t believe that the runner and biker achieved their victories because they were more devoted at training than their competitors? No, people are born different, and some are very, very different. As I recall, in the early part of Descent Darwin writes a lot about morphological variability within our species. Musculature, veins, nerves, organs all present original designs, which endow individuals with different levels of ability. Long before I read Darwin I used to wonder about this in grade school. I liked to run and thought I was fast. There I’d be, my legs churning, the ground flying by; I was going all-out. But in school sports there was one boy, Ray, a ranch kid like myself, who was faster. A lot faster. You couldn’t tell it by looking at him. We were both slim and trim, got lots of exercise. But somehow he was put together differently. Same with Bolt and Armstrong, but to a much greater degree – as far as I know, Ray didn’t make it to the Olympics or Tour de France. So the question becomes: When do we continue what Mother Nature started, by slicing and dicing genes until runners and bikers even more impressive than Bolt and Armstrong are born? We have GMO tomatoes and aquarium fish that glow in the dark, why not GMO folks?
I like Abraham’s analogy between Olympic gold medalists and trophy hunting – that and his work on poaching vs. legal hunting all lead into important and deep questions and it would be great to hear more about that. As far as I’m concerned, the absurdity of the Olympics is that individual accomplishment – the ability to run, swim faster, jump higher, etc. is utterly corrupted by claiming that represents national achievement and worth: which nation brings home the gold? To do that, as Abraham and Huon note, requires big bucks. The quest for Olympic gold is a form of trophy hunting and both are repugnant. Here’s a hunting experience that would leave our Upper Paleolithic hunting ancestors shaking their heads:
No Game, No Pay at the High Adventure Ranch!
We now know through the study of epigenetics that we are all 'hacking' our gene expression every time we eat that tasty snack full of E numbers. Waddington noted long ago that if you gas fruit flies with ether at the right moment they will develop two sets of wings -- it changes the gene expression: those flies can pass that trait on. We also know from studies of psycho-social growth failure, amongst other things, that human beings need a nourishing social environment in order for their bodies, especially their brains, to grow to what we would consider to be a basic level of functionality. Similarly, the idea of IQ as an indicator of 'natural' ability has been blown out of the water by the Flynn effect (we are all statistically getting smarter without any alteration to our genes). IQ, physical growth, including growth in the size of the brain, can all be 'hacked' without even using hormones; just ordinary kindness and healthy food can do the trick quite effectively. The idea of the natural born leader or overman is as archaic and distorted as the Olympic games itself. Our human love of distortion and of the extreme is powerful but it never entirely wipes out common sense.
So I am going out on a limb here, perhaps pushing comparison too far.
As Lee questions: "we don’t believe that the runner and biker achieved their victories because they were more devoted at training than their competitors" (Lee)
And in article I shared the argument is precisely actually believing that "unique physicality and raw talent has enabled him to work hard and become the most untouchably brilliant sprinter ever to grace the sport". repeated a number of times.
So this is also a common aspect as picked apart in Lee's article and by comments above, perhaps I missed it but there seems to be another comparative point to hunting.
I feel Lee has fully dealt with the aspect of 'talent' but maybe an addressal of 'work' could be further developed?
I am not quite sure of the right wording yet, but its to do with the fetishisation of the work ethic. In sprinting sports case it is that it is by 'work' and 'work' alone, categorised again in a very specific sense (is it utilitarian? hylomorphic?).
Whilst hunting as a highly diverse activity, a general consensus (apart from total nutter fanatics) amongst non-hunters, or shall we say the audience, is that hunting is acceptable when its subsistence hunting e.g. when its done for purely material utlity. When it strays out of this sub-category of 'work' it is categorised as 'leisure' and this is where large segments of the world audience get riled.
In the case of some types of trophy hunting, the way 'work' and 'leisure' are split are embraced. And hunting is festishised as pure leisure.
However in many cases hunting is both 'subsistence' (i hate this word) and pleasurable, and pleasurable and subsistence. Hunting of monkeys by Chimps or peccari by many so called 'tribal groups' are often forced in to the 'subsistence' box, but that is total balls, just as (i will prove from my research) hunting pre-10,000 years ago was often not a utilitarian activity in a land of scarcity. Currently the best cross-category word I have found is 'vocational'
So in both cases work and leisure are fetishised, the question being why and who this benefits. This is what I am trying to work out, and what the infrastructure is that enables it. Obviously Graeber caught the public attention with his point about jobs and work, but that's more of an observation than analysis. Anyway I am going to start rambling if I don't pause there
Abraham: Hunting of monkeys by Chimps or peccari by many so called 'tribal groups' are often forced in to the 'subsistence' box, but that is total balls, just as (i will prove from my research) hunting pre-10,000 years ago was often not a utilitarian activity in a land of scarcity. Currently the best cross-category word I have found is 'vocational'.
There are plenty of cave bears, wooly mammoths, and giant sloths who would agree with the above – except they can’t since they went extinct big-time, as Donald says, in the late Pleistocene, just as you-know-who made their appearance in the Americas. Although still much-debated and the focus of lots of ideological friction, the late Pleistocene megafauna extinction certainly raises questions about what has been called the “ecological Indian.” Ditto for a number of buffalo jumps or pishkun, where the carcasses of hundreds of animals were selectively butchered for their prime cuts. Instead of a strictly utilitarian explanation of Paleolithic hunting, Abraham proposes a mix of practical and – what? – I’d say cultural; where he proposes the “cross-category word” “vocational,” maybe “valuational” would be better. It would be very interesting to learn more about his work on poaching, etc. , especially as that ties into our wider issue of hacking the system.
Huon: The idea of the natural born leader or overman is as archaic and distorted as the Olympic games itself. Our human love of distortion and of the extreme is powerful but it never entirely wipes out common sense.
I’m always a bit leery of appeals to common sense in the decidedly uncommon world we inhabit. Human variability is endless and issues from a host of factors, including those you mention, such as healthy food and a loving, caring environment. Abraham identifies others: hacking the human body with pharmaceuticals and an exercise regime. I’ve suggested an imminent future that includes “hacking the genome.” All these take their place alongside the enormous variability that already exists within our species – which, following Manfred Eigen, I think we should describe as a “quasi-species” at best. I like Howard Gardner’s idea of multiple intelligences because it identifies some important kinds of variability. Several of these are, I think, patent, including musical, mathematical, and kinesthetic aptitudes. A loving home and the right breakfast cereal did not produce a Mozart or a Ramanujan. Nor a Bolt or Armstrong. His “interpersonal” intelligence is softer, but I think there’s something to it. You reject “the idea of the natural born leader or overman,” but in the U. S. I do think Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan have/had something that Hillary and Al Gore lack. And it now appears that “something” may be embodied in a character with orange hair. Infinite variability, infinitely interesting, infinitely, yes, scary.
What I have in mind by common sense is the kind of pragmatic getting on with life Malinowski talks about in Coral Gardens and their Magic. As Malinowski points out, while it all may look pretty strange, the everyday pragmatics of living life constitute a great leveller. Clever, smart or fast as you may be, you still have to eat and drink at some point and you have to enlist others to help you. It is of course true that while getting on with academic life we may encounter some truly admirable nutcases, but that may lead us into a delusion about what most of life is actually about - which is working out a way of getting along with the other people, not just admiring (or hating) their latest theory. On the other hand, I agree that national politics does seem to have entered a post-real or post-common sense phase in its vaunting of improbable natures. In the U.S. that seems to come back down to irreconcilable differences -- Bill Clinton was the 'first black president' (according to Toni Morrison), Trump may be the first openly white supremacist president (in modern memory) tout ca change.
John: Question for Lee. Would you agree that when we start hacking the genome, the original nature/culture distinction ceases to be relevant, sincethereisnolonger any way inwhichthedistinctilncan be maintained?
Nice word play, but I think this question needs some unpacking. I’m not sure what the “original nature/culture distinction” is, and I won’t try to unscramble that here. In Western thought is it Locke vs. Rousseau, earlier, later? However we got here, I think it’s clear that most folks, at least in the archetypal West, hold the firm belief that there is a natural world “out there” which humans with their infernal technology (read: culture) are messing with. I’d claim the opposition is a major element in our set of folk taxonomies. Yet huuuge problems arise when people try to be precise – and authoritative – and claim that a particular entity or action is “natural” vs. not natural. That’s the basis of the whole Lance Armstrong flap. But as I’ve argued, there is no objective basis for that belief. For over three million years the present human population has been undergoing biocultural evolution so that we’re all kind of cyborgs.
Anthropologists have their own taxonomy regarding the opposition. At least since Geertz there’s been an established argument that physical, i.e., natural evolution proceeded up to the point where Homo appeared and took over. A newly minted Culture trumped an old, slow-moving Nature. Memes replaced genes as the moving force in social relations, belief, etc. Well, that’s another just-so story. We’re biocultural beings; there is no this or that, nature or culture. And besides, it appears that good old fashioned physical evolution is still going strong, as evidenced by an article in Science earlier this year:
Many people think evolution requires thousands or millions of years, but biologists know it can happen fast. Now, thanks to the genomic revolution, researchers can actually track the population-level genetic shifts that mark evolution in action—and they’re doing this in humans. Two studies presented at the Biology of Genomes meeting here last week show how our genomes have changed over centuries or decades, charting how since Roman times the British have evolved to be taller and fairer, and how just in the last generation the effect of a gene that favors cigarette smoking has dwindled in some groups.
So, revolutionary-sounding as “hacking the genome” may be, it’s really just a twist in an ages-old process of change in the for-now human population.