“And a Wise Custom It Is”–More on Divination, and Rationality in general

The Naskapi people were hunters of Caribou.
Cassava or Manioc, a very reliable staple crop if properly prepared..

(Buckle up your wading pants, it gets a little deep at the end! A fun post, until I tried to write the end. I’m not too sure what it comes to, but I will leave that for you to help sort out! Thanks.)

In the previous post, How Weird is Divination?, we found that divinatioon is very weird but it actually may have done some good as a stage in our history of development as Decision-Makers.

Divination was at its peak in Western Culture at the onset of life in cities and in empires. This was enabled by the development of agriculture and metallurgy. No longer was the familiar support of intimate and local customs and kinship relations available to guide one’s behavior. Divination rose as a socially accepted method of making tough decisions. It involved a statement of the issue, and then a determined point of resolution. Its social acceptance functioned somewhat as a referee in a ball game by being given the authority “to make a call” that would be accepted by all sides, resolve an unclear situation and allow life to move on. That is an important social function!

The Referees signal the play is over, the runner is down and it is A Touchdown!

Divination May Work Even Better Than That

But how often was The Divined Answer a good one? Granted, it helped clarify and resolve a situation, but was it good advise? In that initial post, I simply declared that, often, the Divined Decision “was about as good as any that could be made”, considering that there was limited information available, and the decision may have been a “toss up” to begin with.

But I have now come across additional information, from a new book I’m reading by Harvard biologist Joseph Henrich, The Secret of Our Success (2016).

Consider the situation of the Naskapi foragers of Labrador, Canada. They hunt caribou, but caribou are evasive. Caribou do not frequent the same spots, there are many places to graze and these animals are, too often, unpredictable. They avoid spots where they have encountered hunters in the past. They do not congregate regularly at a specific watering site and such. So commonsense and “reasonable approaches“, like going to where success was had in the past, do not work.

(Traditional Naskapi territory is shown in yellow. They are closely related to the Cree people to their south and west. They largely escaped contact with Europeans until the early to mid 1800s.)

The Naskapi have devised a peculiar ‘solution’ to find them. They have a Divination Ritual that starts with an old shoulder blade of a caribou. It is heated on the coals of a fire until it develops cracks and scorched spots. It is “then read as a kind of map” by the hunters sending them in a specific direction and guiding them to hunting areas ‘designated’ by the bone, explains Henrich.

Surely this is foolishness, but Henrich hypothesizes that it is not. It is a custom with a long past, and if this ritual was not working why do these people keep doing it? And, if that foolish, how would the Naskapi continue to survive?

Henrich argues that A Randomizing Strategy for the Naskapi is the most reasonable approach to finding caribou. The cracks and scorched spots are randomly formed in the bone and certainly in relation to the location of caribou: There is no connection between the two events. But, the ritual is a Choice by Chance Method of Decision and thus reasonable and effective. More effective than many other more ‘obvious’ approaches, like having a favorite hunting spot, or going where another hunting party just saw caribou.

After all, Naskapi did not have helicopters to find caribou, or remote detection devices. Maintaining their overall life style, involves none of those modern technologies, but their culture has provided them with a decision technique in hunting that is compatible with who they are, and reasonably effective. Just as the caribou graze in random locations, so do the Naskapi hunters hunt in random locations!

(The value of Random Behavior is not unusual in nature. The Fruit Fly (left) uses this method to search for food. It flies in some direction, then randomly stops, turns sharply in different directions —trying to detect an enticing odor— with none detected, it then shoots off on a new (seemingly random) straight path only at some point to stop again, randomly, and sniff about that area. Also, Butterflies fly erratic (random) flight paths, that is their norm, not more efficient straight paths, apparently to make themselves a harder target while in flight for predators. Of course, neither of these creatures behave this way consciously; it is ‘just’ in their evolved good design!)

This is a cool suggestion, and it really goes further. It suggests that the millions of years of Natural Selection and then the thousands of years of Cultural Selection between caribou and various predators (including the Naskapi) has stumbled upon randomizing solutions that worked. The Naskapi do not understand why this Divination ‘works’, it was simply “custom” to them, but we now have an opportunity to do so. It involves the use of Game Theory in mathematics to understand the relationship. Mother Nature stumbled upon the solution, but in modern times the environment has dramatically changed for both Naskapi and Caribou, and each are in serious decline. It was “a wise Custom”, says Henrich. While it lasted.

The American Marten (cute!), related to weasels, mink, and wolverine. By the 1830s The Hudson Bay Company encouraged (or forced) the Naskapi to trap Marten for the fur. That proposition was not a success for either the company or the Naskapi. 2- 3 feet (1m) in length including tail, and 2-3 lbs. (1-1.5 kg) weight, their fur was used to make mittens!

Making Cassava (I love Tapioca!)

The Cassava tuber and plant. Painting by A. Eckhout, Dutch Brazil, 17th century.

A second example of the value of Custom involves cassava, more widely known as manioc (“man-ee-ok”). This is one of the most widely used staple crops in the world, behind corn and rice. It is especially dependable in drought prone areas but also areas suffering from poor top soil, as in rainforests. The tuber (similar to a potato) is made into flour, eaten boiled, made into noodles; its liquid is used as a starch and glue; it is even fermented into various alcoholic beverages. It comes in two forms, known as “bitter” and “sweet”, the ‘sweet’ is only less bitter, according to various sites. I am only familiar with it as tapioca (and I do like tapioca, but how often have I had it in recent decades?). The “bitter” manioc is especially hearty in the event of drought and poor soil, an important advantage to it and its growers and consumers.

Manioc was first domesticated and widely used in South America thousands of years ago, and especially in the Amazonian area. In these regions a Strict Social Custom arose concerning its use and preparation. It is a multistep, labor-intensive, multiday, procedure. Henrich is both a biologist and an ethnologist — who has done field work in the Amazon — he tells us that the tubers are pealed, soaked, often grated, and then washed again “in order to separate the fibers, starch, and liquid.” The fibers and starch are then let to sit for two additional days. At that point they can be baked, boiled or cooked into various dishes. Asked why such a prolonged and difficult method of preparation, these indigenous South Americans will only say, (like the Naskapi) “It is our custom.”

And the issue with manioc is that it is full of CYANIDE! Especially the “bitter” form, but the “sweet” has plenty too. The general result of eating inadequately processed manioc is a gradual increase of cyanide in your system. This food can taste fine, but will eventually lead to neurological problems, thyroid issues, birth defects and paralysis in the legs, but more immediately to an increase in stomach issues, diarrhea, and fatigue.

I do believe I will put on my mask and go out and get me some, Yum! Old School!

Henrich sites testing that has shown that the traditional processing and cooking methods reduce the cyanide content to safer levels, well below 10% in most food uses. The cyanide in the plant provides protection for it from various insects and plant diseases; it is part of what makes manioc a hearty species. (Maybe it can ward off the Corona virus too; I’ll let you know.)

History has provided a generally unfortunate test case for the value of this Cultural Tradition of preparation. In the 17th century the Portuguese began exporting manioc from Brazil to West Africa, but they did not bring along the customs of its preparation. The product did catch on (It was a meme. GWW) but hundreds of years later, chronic cyanide poisoning is still a problem in this area of the world. Some people developed preparation traditions of their own that are helpful; they reduce the bitterness and then, also, the cyanide, but educational programs are still necessary.

So, here is another “strange” custom, and one in no way fully understood by its practitioners; “and a wise custom it is” concludes Henrich.

Some Brief Thoughts on Rationality

Repeatedly throughout this section of the book —Chapter 7: “On The Origin Of Faith“– Henrich tries to make the point that a modern, Western person, would be trying to find a more “direct” route; looking for behaviors that do not involve ‘inefficient’, ‘extra’, and ‘unexplained’ steps, a more “reasonable” approach, we would say, to the goal. Why heat a bone and follow it? Why peal and soak, grate and let sit, and wash again, before cooking manioc? And the traditional practitioner could offer no explicit explanation for why they did what they did. It is just the way they were taught; the way it has always been done, and they have” faith” in their tradition.

Henrich contends that the relations between these customary rituals and their outcomes — caribou found and cyanide depleted — are “causally opaque” to us and even to their traditional practitioners. To more modern and western ways of thinking, these practices look downright Foolish, at least initially. So, it was the “wisdom” of Natural Selection that ultimately proved to be effective! Natural and Cultural Selection sorted through a massive number of attempts, over thousands of years, and came upon these most appropriate practices and coordinations. Mother Nature is smarter than you or I, we may reasonably conclude, as does Henrich! Our Rationality and Problem-Solving are more limited than hers.

“A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing” says the old aphorism, and Philosopher Dan Dennett also suggests in his book on religion, that it has often been “safer to substitute a potent myth for incomplete knowledge.” Some traditions are true for us by their capacity to promote our adaptation.

Mother Nature is Smarter than We Are

This truth is still effective today. Do we currently have Customs that are “causally opaque” to us? Do we have Customs that are effective, but that we do not fully understand? Yes.

We have been learning that Religion, at least in some of its forms, was vital in the origination of our Cultural way of living together (see post: “Folk Religion”, The Strange Idea of..). We have The Custom of Ethical Behavior. This includes Individual Responsibility, Moral and Legal Standards, Manners, Altruistic Behavior and even Decision-Making, itself; about all of these we have greatly varying ideas concerning their reality and composition (see post: PLAIN TALK: If Mind is not The Brain, then What the Heck is It?).

Why do we make Art? To some, art is just emotional; it cuts no deeper than that. Visual art, poetry, music, dance: These Customary Practices have been briefly explored —here at The Connection— for their role in the origin of Language and even Mate-Selection (see post: A Paleolithic Sex Symbol). It has been one of our oft-stated positions, that Art is a search for truth, not in same sense as science, but truth nonetheless.

But, we have had many customs that it is quiet wise to have gotten rid of, or at least tried: slavery, racial and ethnic discrimination, religious persecution, sexism. Tradition has been no guarantee for acceptability and probity.

And, why do we Reasonably Discourse? What kind of Custom is that? Is there a place for Rationality in a world primarily composed of subatomic particles, chemical reactions, and neural networks? Will scientists one day discover that their own rational search for Truth leads them to believe that the customary practice of “rationality” is itself just so much “reading of burnt and cracked bones”, a “smoke screen” that hid the real neurological mechanisms in the brain?

As we take apart and scrutinize our traditions, we need to recognize that Nature’s Selections have been at play in the institution and maintenance of these traditions. SO, with some traditions, we may say Our world may be put together Far Better than is often thought. OR, for some others, The Persons of the past —through their Traditions— have often acted without Complete Knowledge and Responsibility for all that they did or all that became of it.

In our troubled world, these thoughts may be of modest consolation: Our world is often surprisingly well put together, but also People act based from what they have been given —Traditions. Apparently, it is up to us to sift through it and move forward.

As the poet wrote:

Come gather 'round, people 
Wherever you roam.
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown 
...For the times they are a-changin'

Removing the statue of Christopher Columbus from in front of Columbus City Hall, late in June and in response to criticisms of it in the midst of the Black Lives Matters Protests. Chris had stood there for 65 years following his donation to us by our sister city, Genoa, Italy. “Bye, Bye, Old Friend! I thought of you as a particularly courageous and adventurous sailor, but The Times have tarnished your reputation!” (Photo and story thanks to The Columbus Dispatch)
Keeping it Real at The Connection: the naturereligionconnection.org Drawing by my Lovely Sister, Martha

In The Words of the Poet: Bob Dylan

Come gather 'round, people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You'll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin'
And you better start swimmin'
Or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin'

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won't come again
And don't speak too soon
For the wheel's still in spin
And there's no tellin' who
That it's namin'
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin'

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don't stand in the doorway
Don't block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
The battle outside ragin'
Will soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin'

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don't criticize
What you can't understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin'
Please get out of the new one
If you can't lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin'

The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin'
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin'

Thank You for your attention; I hope this was worthy of Your Precious Time.

GOT MY BOWL OF TAPIOKE! It was GOOD! Mine was not nearly as exotic as this Filipino dessert called Bilo-bilo, made with coconut milk and much larger tapioca pearls. The “pearls” are the manioc/cassava.
I came across this photo of Two Old Dogs: GregWW and Nika
Looking for Connection in Our Traditions of Nature and Religion.

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