I am going to give a detailed account of why I think Bill Nye, the science guy, failed in his attempt to debate creationist Ken Ham at the bizarro-world Creation Museum last month in Kentucky. But before I get to that, I will post this pre-cursor: an essay I wrote about a similar debt that took place when the Dover school system here in Pennsylvania attempted to add creationism to the science curriculum. My point here and in the next analysis is that anthropology provided a way to make sense of these sort of debates in a way that either a scientific or a religious approach do not.


Egyptian Spit, “Intelligent Design,” and Other Tales of the Origin of the World

The belief system called “intelligent design” (ID) that is being debated for inclusion in the Dover school curriculum is certainly not scientific, and there is no benefit in redefining science just to fit in this one, narrowly focused, newly-minted origin story. But it is disconcerting to hear opponents of religious origin stories like intelligent design state that there is no place in a school curriculum for a discussion of beliefs about the beginning of our worlds.

There is some benefit, as anthropologists around the world have often noted, in examining and comparing different systems of religious principles in order to understand why people believe certain things and how they act on those beliefs. The place, then, for the discussion of religious origin stories and their related cultural agendas is certainly in a classroom, a classroom of anthropology.

But a warning: an anthropological approach would place ID and creationism into some pretty fascinating and quite provocative company, and ID supporters will find that their simple tales may not hold up to such cross-cultural competition. For example, the Australian Aborigine creation time, roughly translated as “The Dreaming,” conveys the work of spirits who designated features of the landscape that are still lived in by today’s original people of Australia. In the Southwest United States, there is a breathtaking description of emergence from an underground lake by the first Pueblo people and their subsequent spread across the harsh but magnificent landscape.

The ancient Maya left an account called the Popol Vuh which tells the story of gods who simply thought the world into being and then, wanting to be admired, populated it with flawed humans made out of maize. Native Hawaiians can describe the creation of the natural world from a gourd that was split in half and the creation of people from red earth. Over time the ancient Egyptians had several ideas about creation, some involving mucus, spit, and other bodily fluids, one involving a goose that lays an egg, and all designed to be integrated with the contemporaneous political situation. Creation gods have been male or female or sometimes both at once; they have been sneaky shape-shifters, bizarre jokesters, good teachers, bold thieves, dangerous animals, and aspects of the sky, the water or the land. They have been both kind and really, really nasty.

What would quickly become evident in a cross-cultural comparison of intelligent design with other origin stories is that they all have similar mythological elements and characters: the divine beings who dramatically create the natural world, tricksters who try to deny or thwart that creation, humans who leave on journeys that separate them from the divine or from nature, and human beings who have forgotten how to trust each other. They also have similar functions: to make sense of today’s problems and issues by using origin stories that are supposed to explain why things are they way they are.

All the world’s belief systems are rich in myths and rituals and symbols that prove the creativity of the human mind and the vibrancy of human social life. It would be a shame if intelligent design supporters and opponents alike, by trying to limit religious ideas about creation to one spare tale, kept us all from seeing this bigger picture of the world’s religious beliefs painted on a huge and diverse canvas. Science is another canvas altogether, and it would be a disservice to both religion and science if they had to live by each other’s rules

One sure-fire way to test the legitimacy of the 2012 predictions stuff you might be reading is to look at the language the author uses to describe these folks who supposedly predicted the end of the world on Dec 21, 2012. The scholarly world refer to the ancient and contemporary people of Mesoamerica who, starting around 4,000 years ago, created a magnificent and complex civilization that continues to this day. The proper term for these people, at least in scholarly language, is “Maya” (the contemporary Maya have other terms for who they are, but that is another part of the story). The word is not “Mayan.” If your newspaper or magazine article or blog or tweet says, “Mayan” that person has not done their homework. Even Wikipedia gets the “Maya” and “Mayan” distinction correct (having been corrected many times by knowledgable editors over the years). It’s Maya, both singular and plural; the term Mayan refers to the languages spoken by these people and may also refer to scholars who study them, the Mayanists. By the way, if linguistics isn’t your thing, use this other test: if they talk about the Lost Continent of Atlantis or ancient astronauts and extraterrestrials, run for the hills!

Every bogus prediction uses the term Mayan. It is like some uncontrollable tic, which is kind of nice because it is like a red flag going up for you, dear reader. But there is another problem that is beginning to surface, which is that acknowledging the existence of real Maya people doesn’t matter. Recently I had a discussion with some fellow members of my 3D modeling community at the DAZ 3D site (here is the link but you may have to be a member of the community to see it: Calendar Stone discussion). The question was whether the model offered for sale, called Mayan 2012, should have been based on an Aztec calendar stone instead of something specifically Maya.

Although I had no dispute with the quality of the model (and actually purchased it), and the description of it by the designer is appropriately vague, it is another example of mashing up all things south of the border and remote in time. That this is not a Maya image he is using, but an Aztec one, is what I pointed out. The reaction and conversation should tell us, anthropologists, just how we have failed to help educate the world about the wonders of diverse cultures. The discussants basically dismissed the need to distinguish the Maya and the Aztec, arguing they are the same or that ethnicity or cultural identity or historical accuracy is not important.

People are used to make labels on everything and everything is based on theories . Yesterday they called them Aztecs today they are Mexican and tomorrow God know what else ..


I always understood that he Aztec calendar was based on the Mayan Calendar anyway.Who cares? I bought it and I love it.I’m sure anyone who needed a genuine Mayan calendar would know straight away what this was because it’s far more famous visually than a Mayan calendar.

And it is often used as a symbol for the Mayan Calendar.



Ethnicity really does not matter.


This next one especially disturbs me because she was an anthropology major!

Don’t worry about mixing up Aztec and Maya. It happens all the time and we are all fair game to human error. I’m a former history/anthropology major and this little mix up didn’t upset me in the least. You got the right general area and era so I give you props for that. Smile

Check out the work of the Penn Cultural Heritage Center for a sense of why acknowledging heritage and identity is an important act. I will be starting a pop culture blog on heritage to tie this in to examples like this one here.

Steve Jobs is dead and it kills me to have to say that. He has contributed more innovation to our  society than most of us who have been left to live on. He has many lessons to teach us (see his speech at Stanford University for examples) but here is one that hit me as I was walking through the Penn Museum right after news of his death.

Jobs was famous for not using focus groups and consumer testing to try out his spectacular new products before they hit the market. I have been at several of his keynote presentations at MacWorld in San Francisco and Boston in the 1990s and the thousands of us who entered the auditorium to hear him (after waiting in line for hours) always left wanting the new gizmo or service he had just introduced. We were some of the cutting edge computer people then so we weren’t naive about what we had been shown. But no one had asked our opinion before the iPod, iPhone, or iPad were introduced. Instead they were designed and created by innovators, design geniuses, and people with a visionary mode of thought. Jobs exemplified this type of leadership.

An article after his death in Forbes magazine explained it this way:

 To create the future, you can’t do it through focus groups – There is a school of thought in management theory that … you’ve got to listen to your customer.  Steve Jobs was one of the first businessmen to say that was a waste of time.  The customers today don’t always know what they want, especially if it’s something they’ve never seen, heard, or touched before.  When it became clear that Apple would come out with a tablet, many were skeptical.  When people heard the name (iPad), it was a joke in the Twitter-sphere for a day.  But when people held one, and used it, it became a ‘must have.’  They didn’t know how they’d previously lived without one.  It became the fastest growing Apple product in its history.  Jobs (and the Apple team) trusted himself more than others.  Picasso and great artists have done that for centuries.  Jobs was the first in business.

There is a new exhibit in the Penn Museum that is soliciting ideas from the general public about how and why the museum should display its African collection. This is apparently a favorite approach of funding agencies these days, funding processes that ask visitors what they want and then giving it to them. Imagine doing that with, for example, the upcoming Penn Museum exhibit on the ancient Maya and 2012 predictions of the end of the world: It could have ended up looking like a display at a bad New Age convention (rest assured,  it won’t).

Now the Penn Museum exhibit, Imagine Africa, has some fine notions and impressive community leaders behind it, and there is no faulting it for trying to involve outsiders in the planning of an important exhibit. But you have to wonder if the museum would be willing to do the same thing with, say, the collection from the classical worlds of Greece and Rome. Let’s bring in some Greeks and Romans and ask them what they think of their stuff displayed all lined up in pretty cases. Or if it would be willing to let Israelis and Palastinians come in and scribble up stuff about how to display their conflicting groups. Should an entire museum be designed this was or is there something special about Africa that requires this approach?

Within the museum there is not a visionary, like Steve Jobs, who can come up with a way of seeing this amazing collection of cultural artifacts in a fascinating, innovative, shockingly brilliant, or awe-inspiring way. Good exhibits don’t come from comments written on white boards or from survey questions on a computers. They come from visionaries, as Jobs has said, who connect the dots in ways no one else can see. As Jobs stated it,

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.

Designers, then, of a new African exhibit need to be thinkers: they have to really “get” the material, not just make it look nice. They have to know it, figure out how it works. As nice as it is to get comments on the displays of clothing and toys and body decoration, it takes living with these objects for more than a few minutes to “get” them. As Jobs described it, ” It takes a passionate commitment to really thoroughly understand something, chew it up, not just quickly swallow it. Most people don’t take the time to do that.”

The thinking Jobs is talking about is described in the “Think Different” ad campaigns that Apple used to honor and align itself with the world’s creative thinkers. The text of the ads, both as videos and in print, stated,

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.

As Jobs concluded, “The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.” A broader understanding of human experiences, the kind that anthropologists develop through their cross-cultural perspective, could help develop a new African exhibit but the museum has not invested in a full-time African curator, a curious oversight considering the data being gathered by the exhibit needs to be analyzed by someone with the broader experience that includes actually being able to make those creative connections that come from years of fieldwork and research in Africa. Just tabulating the “metrics” and spitting out marketing plans would be an insult to the  inspiring thoughts Steve Jobs has put into our world and to the millions of Africans who made and used these objects.

Steve Jobs: gone, just when we need him the most.

The greatest threat to the future of humankind has been revealed. It is quiche. Again. You remember  the social threats of quiche, don’t you? In the 1980s, “Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche” was a satirical book about masculinity and what makes a real man easily identifiable was that he didn’t eat girly foods like quiche. Manly men ate red meat. Most of those manly beef-eaters are now probably dead, but that is another story. “Real men don’t eat quiche” was a cultural truism at the time and it was easy to identify the wimpy, effeminate, maybe-gay men like actor Alan Alda and talk show host Phil Donahue, and any man who was sensitive and kind. They were the men who ate quiche. In the 2000s they were metrosexuals. Who knows where they are hiding today.

I have a handmade sign in my office that I picked up off the floor at a professional wrestling match  from the same time period. I was studying wrestling and the Wild Samoans were a fascinating team: big burly guys who were supposedly semi-primitive fellows from Samoa. Not under any circumstances were they guys you would want to cross. The discarded fan’s sign read, “Samoans  eat quiche.” It was the ultimate insult of the time  and I hope the guy ran after he waved that sign.

So, when I heard in the new movie 2012 that quiche was once again the threat that this time would cause the earth to upheave and humans to build new arks complete with giraffes and rich Middle Easterners, I should not have been surprised. But of all the wacky things that this wacky movie pronounces, it is the renewal of the fear of quiche (and bedwetting, but more on that later) that was the most disconcerting.

I am using pronounce literally here. In the beginning of the movie, a television journalist is reporting on the suicides that have just taken place at Tikal (pronounced, oddly, “tickle”), an ancient site of the Maya civilization. This mass suicide is due to the predictions of the end of the world that would take place on December 21, 2012. The source of the predictions is supposedly the “Mayan Quiche calendar.” The word Quiche is pronounced “keesh” like the egg pie. So for the next two hours and 30 minutes I am thinking about girly brunch food raining down on an unsuspecting world.

There has been plenty of debunking of the 2012 predictions and most of them do a good job of explaining that like all calendars the Maya one is cyclical and has beginnings and ending that are marked but not that result in the world melting into its core. So, I will tackle here instead the language used in 2012. First, I love disaster movies and it is hard to rile me while I am watching floods and earth fissures and ash storms devour human beings. But 2012 is not honest to its form. The best disaster movies are carefully researched “what if” scenarios and a big part of making “what if” worlds believable is getting the language right.

So quiche, that sort-of-French dish that is an egg and custard and cheese pie, is pronounced “keesh.” It is not a dish of the Maya, ancient or otherwise. The word the reporter in 2012 mispronounced and that the movie misunderstood is Quiché (with an accent) and pronouced keech-chay. The Quiché (or K’iché’) are one one of several Maya people who still live in Mexico and Central America. You will notice I said “Maya” and not “Mayan.” The people are called Maya, singular and plural. The civilization is called “Maya” and the calendar is a “Maya” calendar. The term “Mayan” is not a generic adjective. “Mayan” is generally restricted to the languages of these people: “Mayan” to refer collectively to the languages of all the Maya people, K’iché’ Mayan to refer to the specific language of the K’iché’ people. How hard would it have been to call up an expert on the ancient Maya culture to find this out?

Most people, of course, didn’t get annoyed by this and spent the rest of the movie watching people fall into abyss after abyss as the world fulfilled the ancient quiche’s prediction. I pictured a bubbling crusted pie opening a slit (like Harry Potter’s sorting hat) and proclaiming the end of the world, with male quiche-eaters the first to go. By the way, there was not one Maya person depicted in the film so clearly this prediction was not coming from the Maya people but from the brunch food that had apparently escaped from the 1980s.

Mayan Quiche.  Serve it at your next “girly-man” event.