Partially buried moai statues on Easter Island. Image by Carl Lipo (CC BY 2.0)

Did Easter Island culture collapse? The answer is not simple.

Reposted from the article I wrote for Aeon (published 11th May 2016).
Image of partially buried moai statues on Easter Island by Carl Lipo (CC BY 2.0) 

Easter Island, also known as Rapa Nui, is an island in the Pacific famous for the massive humanoid statues peppered along its coasts. These moai are commonly called stone heads, but actually most possess bodies, and the largest constructed stands at over 30 feet and weighs 82 tons. Ever since these monoliths were encountered by European explorers in the 18th century, the history of the island has been a topic of fascination and debate. Most captivating is the mystery of how almost 900 moai were carved and transported, mostly between 1250 CE and 1500 CE, only to be toppled and abandoned by the 18th century.

The history remains contentious and its scholarship is currently hosting a fierce debate between two rival camps. The first account, popularised by Jared Diamond in his bestselling book Collapse (2005), presents the island’s history as a cautionary tale of the destructive potential of humans to overexploit natural resources. A contradictory account has been advocated over the past decade by a group of scholars, led by the anthropologists Carl Lipo and Terry Hunt, who contend that the ‘collapse’ Diamond describes is largely a European myth. Instead, continuity is the hallmark of settlement on Rapa Nui.


A 2016 Update

It’s been a long time since I posted on the blog and it’s also quite late in the year to be giving a 2016 update, but I hear there is no time like the present to get things done so without further adieu…

2016 has been quite a busy year for me.

The first major milestone (and one four years in the making) is that I submitted, successfully defended, and completed the requested minor corrections for my PhD thesis. So I am now done with my DPhil at Oxford and have become Dr. Christopher Kavanagh. All I have left is the official ceremony to attend (which I will do in November) but there is no more work to be done on the thesis. As you can imagine this is a pretty big deal for me and one that I am still internally celebrating, although externally nothing has really changed in my day-to-day life.

Me prior to my thesis defence in Oxford’s archaic garb

The next noteworthy development is that I managed to secure a post-doctoral research position at… (wait for it)… Oxford! Yes, that’s right, I am staying exactly where I am and continuing to work as a member of the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology (ICEA) f0r at least the next three years. More specifically I will be continuing to work with my PhD supervisor, Harvey Whitehouse, as a coordinating researcher on a large scale ERC funded project that is set to examine rituals and their effects on people using a diverse range of approaches. Location wise I will remain primarily based at Masaki Yuki’s social psychology lab in Hokkaido University in Sapporo but will be travelling about to field sites/meetings outside Japan as and when is necessary.

So that’s what has been going academia wise. Now before the new project kicks off in November I am working hard to finalise a bunch of journal articles based on data from my thesis and also finishing up some older papers that I had put aside during my PhD studies.

In terms of blogging I have been much less productive. I was kindly offered the opportunity to start a new blog over at Patheos which I did and you can find here. It’s called Cognitive Demons and it addresses very similar topics to what I was writing about here, minus the more personal political commentary. However, you might also notice that I haven’t exactly been consistent with my posting there- which is a shame and something I am hoping to rectify.

And this leads me to the issue of what to do about this blog. I have a strong attachment to this blog not just because of how long I’ve had it but also because this remains my own space where I have complete independence and do not need to be concerned with things like ‘for profit’ copyright restrictions. This is not to suggest I have experienced any problematic editorial oversight at Patheos but it is still the case that this space feels more like my personal ‘home turf’.

When I joined Patheos I checked if it was possible to ‘cross post’ my content so that the blog here wouldn’t languish without any content updates for months and was reassured that there was there no issue with doing so. Unfortunately the only thing I failed to factor into my considerations was whether I would remember/be motivated to do so myself and it seems that this was really the only crucial factor. With that mea culpa I am now giving notice that over the next few days I will be migrating a copy of all of the existing Cognitive Demons content over to here. My goal in doing so is that I would still like to maintain one location where all of my dispersed writing can be collated and easily referenced, regardless of where I end up writing and blogging.

You might also remember that I was previously attached to the Genealogy of Religion blog run by Cris Campbell. The website has been dormant for over a year and I haven’t heard from Cris so I’m guessing that he also has gotten a bit snowed under by his academic work also. If so he has my sincere sympathies but whatever the case I won’t be posting on the site for now so just a in case you were wondering update.

I’ve also been writing some articles for Aeon- a website that hosts short and long form essays and documentaries. I just recently wrote a long piece about definitions of religion, ‘religion’ in Japan and the widespread bias of focusing on beliefs rather than practices. I’m pretty happy with how it turned out and the response it garnered.

If interested you can check it out here: Can Religion be based on ritual practice without belief?
I also wrote a shorter post about the debates over Easter Island: The Easter Island controversy has no single simple answer.

So that’s how things stand right now.

Any questions or things you are wondering about feel free to ask in the comment section but expect updates and content to start appearing again over the next few days.

Side note: Finished writing this during the first Trump/Clinton presidential debate- it’s just so infuriating to watch

[Comment] Double Standards on Syria

The conflict in Syria continues to generate untold misery as millions of Syrians suffer under the complete clusterf**k  of a genocidal theocratic regime, a brutal tyrannical dictator, a diverse assortment of radical militias and rebels, and the interventions of various foreign powers. I’ve already made my position clear on the UK’s involvement in the bombing campaign against ISIS (see here) but today I want to discuss Russia’s actions in the region and the lack of reaction amongst far-left commentators.

The motivation for this post comes out of the tragic news that missile attacks have killed up to 50 people, as hospitals and schools are struck during an attack on rebel (non-ISIS) forces in Northern Syria. This follows attacks a few days previously on a medecins sans frontieres hospital in another province which killed at least seven, injured scores more, and deprived an estimated 40,000 of critical medical services.

There is widespread recognition that the forces responsible for the bombings are either the Syrian government or the Russian military, since those are the groups with the necessary firepower, currently engaged in a campaign against rebel-held (non-ISIS) territories in the region. It is also possible, but less plausible, that the attacks were carried out by militia forces that Assad & Russia are supporting.

For coverage of the attacks see the following sources:
Al Jaazera-

Russia and the Syrian government’s response to the attacks was (predictably) to deny responsibility and instead blame the US, with the Syrian ambassador in Russia stating: “Concerning the hospital which was destroyed, in actual fact it was destroyed by the American Air Force. The Russian Air Force has nothing to do it with” and the Russian health minister stating: “We are confident that [there is] no way could it be done by our defense forces. This contradicts our ideology”. (Incidentally, how anyone can read the coverage of events like this on Russia Today and still cite it as a reliable news source is beyond me.)

In contrast, the president of MSF, Mego Terzian, stated “The author of the strike is clearly … either the government or Russia” and an Amnesty International director for the region commented that “Russian and Syrian forces know full well that deliberate attacks on medical facilities are war crimes. All parties to the conflict must cease such horrific attacks, stop destroying medical facilities and allow medical workers to carry out their life-saving work without fear of being killed or injured in the line of duty”.

The NGO Physicians for Human Rights has also produced a horrific record of all known attacks on health care facilities throughout the Syrian conflict noting the location and forces responsible and summarise that, as of November 2015, from 336 attacks: 305 attacks were committed by Syrian government and allied forces (285 by Syrian government forces, 12 by Russian forces, 8 by either Russian or Syrian government forces), 19 by non-state armed groups (11 by IS forces, six by opposition forces, and two by IS and opposition forces together), one by international coalition forces, 10 by unknown forces“.

I’ve highlighted the sections that I consider most pertinent here because I think it is remarkably telling how loud figures like John Pilger, Green Greenwald, Noam Chomsky, and Jeremy Corbyn/Stop The War are about these kind of attacks when the source is the international coalition forces and how quiet they are when it is anyone else. Just stop for a minute and imagine how swift the condemnation would have been if these attacks had been attributed to the UK or the US. Where are the fiery denouncements of Russia’s brutal realpolitik or the detailed articles about the atrocities?  I strongly suspect that they won’t be forthcoming anytime soon, and if the issue does become impossible to ignore I would anticipate perfunctory treatments that will inevitably reframe responsibility away from Russia and Assad and back towards the West. This is why many on the left, including myself, feel alienated by the ideological bias of the modern far-left, now sometimes disparagingly referred to as the ‘regressive left’.

To finish, I’d like to provide a quote from facebook from a friend who works in humanitarian aid provision in the Middle East: “Right. I’m going to rant, because no sane person is taking this serious are they? Russia bombs Islamic extremists (the vast majority conveniently living in hospitals and schools in civilian neighbourhoods). Russia then says it wants a ceasefire but it will exclude Islamic extremists. So, what’s changing here? what are we talking about? The US and ISSG jumping on this like it’s the best thing to happen in Syria since Asads’ wife’s Vogue photo shoot – definite indicators of when something is off – is another sign that should make everyone think twice. If any policy maker on Syria attending Munich talks really wants some serious advice about Peace, please focus on the fact that the Russians will have a new Western Syria protectorate by the end of the year and with hundreds of thousands of people already fleeing this “new Syria” huddled in the cold on the Turkish border, you should maybe have a think about what that means for anyone who had ever hoped to return home“.

Redefining the ‘Blank Slate’


Following on from the previous post, today I came across a newly published article by D.S. Wilson titled ‘In Defense of the Blank Slate‘. This is a provocative title given that the Blank Slate (Tabula Rasa) is the almost entirely discredited theory that “individuals are born without built-in mental content and that therefore all knowledge comes from experience or perception” (Source: Wikipedia). If that sounds like an odd position for a noted evolutionary theorist to be defending, that’s because it is. Hence, Steven Pinker previously devoted an entire book, called the Blank Slate, to present evidence as to why the theory is well intentioned but entirely invalid.

D.S. Wilson certainly is aware of this and so choosing to title his post as he has seems to be an intentional decision to cast himself as the opponent of Pinker’s view*. But is he? From my reading it doesn’t actually seem so. To elaborate, Wilson begins his article by recounting an interaction with Michael Shermer on twitter concerning the recent unearthed evidence of an ancient massacre. Shermer seemed to think this counts as evidence against the Blank Slate thesis and Wilson was (rightly) perplexed about how such ancient evidence of a massacre had any relevance to such debates (see also Peter Turchin’s excellent coverage of the discovery). Shermer’s response was that it demonstrated that war was not a modern invention but based on our ‘evolutionary propensity to aggression’. Here, I concur with Wilson’s assessment that:

To my mind, that’s like mixing apples and oranges. How far warfare extends back in human history is one matter. The open-ended flexibility of the human mind is another. I don’t care how much they have been conflated in the past. If we’re interested in our capacity to behave in almost any fashion, then an ancient massacre tells us nothing. Zero. Zip.

However, that’s about the point I stop agreeing with Wilson’s arguments, as he then goes on to redefine the ‘Blank Slate’ to mean recognising that “human behavioral and cultural flexibility has an open-ended component”, while simultaneously noting that this does not replace the need to consider our evolutionary history and it’s impact on our physical and cognitive systems. The issue here isn’t that Wilson is wrong; he is completely correct when he says that “a fully rounded evolutionary approach requires attention to both proximate and ultimate causation, or ‘function’, ‘phylogeny’, ‘mechanism’ and ‘development’”. The issue is that is not what the Blank Slate theory advocates. Those promoting a Tabula Rasa approach to understanding human cognition or societies do not say we need to give due consideration to our evolutionary history, they say that such history is an irrelevance. (Note: This has been argued by some to be a strawman that no-one actually endorses but my experiences during my undergraduate and masters studies in Social Anthropology strongly suggest otherwise.)

So what D.S. Wilson is defending is not the Blank Slate theory as traditionally understood but a redefinition of the term that makes it into something that almost no modern evolutionary theorist would disagree with. This choice to redefine a generally accepted view under the label of an almost universally discredited one is confusing, but it bears an uncanny resemblance to his recent efforts to redefine Social Darwinism (see this previous post for more details).

I like Wilson’s work, and I am generally more in agreement with his views on cultural group selection than the likes of Pinker (and I suspect Shermer), but I can’t help thinking that with this kind of argument he is engaging in the academic equivalent of click baiting.


*This is not an entirely surprising choice given that on the value of group selection for modern evolutionary theory they are certainly at odds

Resurrecting Social Darwinism


D.S. Wilson is on a quest to ‘rescue’ Social Darwinism and restore the term to respectability. Although this is now old news, I still think it is worth taking some time to discuss the implications and potential unintended consequences of this agenda.


[Comment] Bi-Polar Politics & Syria

I’m writing this post in the wake of the UK parliament passing a vote to support the expansion of aerial attacks against ISIS in Syria (they are already involved in action against them in Iraq). To state my position upfront: overall I agree with military intervention by Western powers against ISIS, and in Syria more broadly (including against Assad’s brutal regime) and I agree with the UK lending its support to such efforts. Yet, I also agree with those who maintain that the UK government’s current strategy does not seem likely to be successful. Specifically, all the well-informed military analysts I’ve heard have repeated the same mantra: aerial bombardment without complementary ground troops will be unable to rout ISIS. Furthermore, Assad’s forces are responsible for inflicting suffering on a much grander scale and as such attacking his opponents, no matter how distasteful, has the potential to prove disastrously counterproductive.

However, my primary motivation for making this post is not to try and justify my position but to lament the bipartisan grandstanding surrounding the Syrian intervention on both sides of the debate. Increasingly, it feels like the UK is slipping into US style bipolar politics, as was evident with the recent election campaign and its ‘fear the Scottish’ tenor (masterminded by Lynton Crosby and his ‘wedge politics’). Cameron labelling all opposition to Britain’s involvement as ‘terrorist sympathisers’ is a clear illustration of such binary thinking and has the reek of cynical opportunism. His refusal to apologise during the 11 hour debate that followed, despite the repeated requests, was also depressingly consistent with his sound-bite focused, morally bankrupt leadership. In summary, I still really don’t like David Cameron or the general policies of the current Tory government.

And yet… I find the liberal anti-interventionist rhetoric to not be much better. Instead of recognising that politicians, or people more generally, could genuinely disagree on whether intervention against ISIS will be beneficial or harmful, the most selfish motivations or profit making conspiracies are presented as indisputable facts. Similarly, any left wing politician who disagrees with ‘Stop the War’-esque rhetoric is immediately labelled as a closet Tory, traitor, morally bankrupt, war monger, or worse. It is theoretically possible that all those supporting British involvement are morally bankrupt capitalists, purely concerned with increasing their personal profits from untold conflict and suffering, but it is not actually very plausible (Jonathan Haidt’s research should be required reading for those who want to demonise the OTHER side of the political spectrum).

To illustrate the problem: Yesterday, a British friend, after declaring that the UK will kill ‘millions’ in Syria, asked what gave David Cameron the ‘right’ to take the UK into Syria. Well, the answer unfortunately is DEMOCRACY. The conservatives won a majority in the general election, and then won a majority for the Syrian intervention in the Commons, following an eleven hour debate. Whether the intervention is justified, will have the desired effect, or will be waged sensibly, are all different (important) issues but if you value democracy you have to live with outcomes you don’t agree with and it doesn’t necessarily mean the system is broken.

This is also incidentally why it should be of concern to liberals whether the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn can attract a majority in an election. If people dislike what the Conservatives are doing in power then a primary goal should be to ensure they are defeated in the next general election. Protesting from the opposition benches, or outside of parliament, is never going to be as effective as being the party in charge. It’s not just cynical pragmatism to be concerned with elections.

[Comment] Know Thy Enemy


Displays of solidarity in Paris (image from BBC News)

In the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks, articles about ISIS are appearing at a remarkable rate. These articles are highly variable in quality (and in the relevant expertise of the authors) but commonly contain commentaries on how ‘we’ can defeat ISIS and their ‘true’ causes and motivations.

For ideologues on the right, this typically means emphasising the danger posed by refugees and Muslims in general, alongside exhortations to bomb ISIS into the ground in Syria. Meanwhile, their ideological counterparts on the left are busy reframing the issue as not really being about ISIS but rather how everything is the inevitable result of illegitimate Western wars and profit driven expansionist foreign policies. Their preferred solution is to withdraw all Western forces from Syria and welcome more refugees.

I find little of merit in ideological pieces. Their content is predetermined and rarely changes to reflect any potential insights from a new event. Instead, events just become grist for the mill of their preferred narrative and are reframed accordingly, regardless of any leaps in logic required. This doesn’t mean that the ideologues are never correct; leftist ideologues, for instance, are right when they emphasize how the West’s bigoted treatment of Syrian refugees and demonising of all Muslims is counterproductive and harmful. But occasionally advocating sensible positions is not evidence of good critical thinking, or valuing reliable research, instead it just demonstrates that ideologies occasionally line up with evidence supported positions. Like vaccines and autism, the error lies in mistaking such correlations as an illustration of any fundamental connection between the two.

To offer something other than just frustrated complaints about the state of current coverage, I thought I would point to a few articles/resources that avoid bipartisan posturing and offer strong, frequently horrifying, analysis:

  1. What ISIS Really Wants? (The Atlantic) by Graeme Wood: A justly famous extended article based on the journalist Graeme Wood’s interviews with ISIS supporters based in the West. The importance of the groups millennial religious ideology and how it is too readily dismissed as non-Islamic by well intentioned liberal analysts is also discussed. There are a number of follow ups to this piece that are also worth reading, including Wood’s recent discussion of whether the Paris attacks were actually masterminded by ISIS or whether it just sought credit.
  2. 7 Things I Learned Reading Every Issue Of ISIS’s Magazine (Cracked) by Robert Evans: This isn’t a long or deeply analytical piece, instead it offers a very straightforward summary of the major recurrent themes in ISIS internal propaganda magazine Dabiq. Several of the points identified unfortunately seem to be popularly unknown, such as ISIS ongoing conflict with Al Qaida and their hatred for Iran. If you are a glutton for punishment the actual magazines are available online via the Clarion Project.
  3. What I discovered from Interviewing ISIS Prisoners (The Nation) by Lydia Wilson: This is a fascinating ‘on the ground’ account by a researcher working with Scott Atran and interviewing captured ISIS fighters. It provides nice, rich ethnographic description that is typically excised from academic papers and hence also serves as an important reminder of how academic research on terrorism is not as infallible as it is often portrayed.
  4. The Attacks in Paris Reveal the Strategic Limits of ISIS (NY Times) by Olivier Roy: A useful article that summarises the differing interests amongst the various groups active in Syria. The main take-away point is that any portrayal of the conflict as a simplistic ‘West’ vs. ‘ISIS/the Rest’ is completely misleading.
  5. ISIS: The State of Terror (by Jessica Stern & J.M. Berger): This is a book I read some time ago to help get a better understanding of ISIS. It provides a good summary of the origins of ISIS and its leader al-Baghdadi’s murky history. It is strongest in the chapters that deal with ISIS’ propaganda and online tactics and how these represent a fundamental departure from Al-Qaeda and other previous terrorist groups.
  6. ISIS Enshrines a Theology of Rape (NY Times) by Rukmini Callichi: A long, depressing article by a very well informed journalist, which details the horrific and systematic sexual abuse of minorities endorsed and promoted by ISIS. This article alone should serve as a clear rejoinder to those who argue for a moral equivalence between ISIS and Western nations. Callichi was also interviewed on the Reply All podcast about her twitter interactions with ISIS supporters and fighters. It’s short and worth a listen.
  7. Can ‘Islamic State’ Be Defeated? (BBC World News- The Inquiry): A short radio/podcast episode interviewing experts with differing opinions on how to defeat ISIS, and whether this is even a feasible. It is short and succinct and I felt that all of the experts provide well informed opinions.
  8. The Islamic State (VICE News): A 5 part documentary series that you can now watch as one full length documentary. The series was made some time back but the level of access that the VICE journalist managed to achieve remains unsurpassed. The depictions of life under ISIS are deeply depressing, especially in regards the indoctrination of the kids filmed, but they also highlight how they ISIS are capitalising on the persecution felt by many Sunni Muslims living in Iraq and Syria.

There are certainly other good sources out there and I’m making no claim to the above being a comprehensive list. If anyone has any other resources to recommend, please let me know in the comments section. I’m always interested to discover new (good) writing and analysis.