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

This year (2011-2012) the University of Pennsylvania has chosen the theme of “Games” for a series of on-campus activities and explorations. The best thing I have seem associated with this theme year is the development of a Quidditch team at Penn; the worst thing is the small display on games at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (Penn Museum).

The Penn Museum should have been the perfect venue for an exhibit on games. It has an extensive collection of games from different cultures around the world and across time. The gaming collection was not accidental but the deliberate development of the first director of the museum, Stewart Culin (1892-1899). Culin thought that studying games was important because other scholars and many collectors were certain games were only interesting because they were “primitive pastimes” that proved that “savage” cultures we inferior to more evolved Western ones. Culin thought, instead, that the study of games was essential for studying any culture because it connected everyday life with mythology and worldmaking, two activities that define cultures. Through a study of games, Culin thought he could figure out the “worldview” of a culture, its general perspectives on how the world worked, the mythic concepts that guided its thinking, and the categories it used to organize the world and keep chaos away. He published a renowned book, Games of the North American Indian, that is still highly regarded today, nearly 100 years after its publication. The connections between games, gambling, divination, worldview, and mythology constitute Culin’s greatest contribution to anthropology.

To carry out these research concerns, Culin collected gaming materials for the new museum at the University of Pennsylvania. Many of these artifacts came from world’s fairs and international expositions, many of which included ethnographic displays of material from other cultures that showed connections between other human traditions and ours. Other artifacts came into the collection through archaeological excavations by Penn scholars and Culin’s own fieldwork. I have written about the significance of Culin’s work and gaming in a publication of the Penn Museum and will use some of that publication to explain the problems with the Penn Museum exhibit. A PDF of the entire article can be downloaded here:  Veni, Vidi, Vici: Taking a Chance on Chance

The hundreds of objects in the Penn Museum gaming collection could have given a fine sense of the significance of play in human societies. Instead, the museum has presented a small, two-case display that distorts the significance of games and play, and provides simplistic and inaccurate comments about games. Both cases contain text that fails to reflect the rich ideas of gaming theory, and they promote one simplistic purpose of gaming: to win. If there is anything games are not about, it is simply winning, or simply producing one winner who beats out the competition. This “winning is all” mentality would never be presented as the definition of play, gaming, competition, or games by anyone who had spent the least bit of time study the literature on the subject from the past 100 years. That it dominates the Penn Museum exhibit suggests either a hasty exhibit design or one controlled by an uninformed designer.

First the exhibit cases: there are two, one labeled “Games of Chance,” and the other labeled, “Games of Skill.” Each case contains a single, small window that contains several artifacts. Over the window is an explanatory text; below the window is a quote and artifact identifications. “Games of Chance” contains playing cards, ancient dice, Tarot cards, and a Hopi game board. The “Games of Skill” contains different kinds of balls.

Each case contains a large print quote from authors whose connection to gaming is not at all clear. Nevertheless, the selection of these quotes is illuminating of the faulty process by which these exhibits were designed. The first case, Games of Chance, has a quote from the 30th U.S. President John Calvin Coolidge: “Those who trust to chance must abide by the results of chance.” It’s hard to think of a less meaningful definition of chance or a less meaningful source for such a definition. Calvin Coolidge? Conservative, small-government, Silent Cal Coolidge? I’m guessing good ole John Calvin Coolidge never had fun at games in his whole life so why pick him to say something about games of chance? He didn’t believe in chance and stated that explicitly in his 1925 Inaugural Address; he believed in business and history and an unchanging human nature. I was not able to find a context or source for the quote used in this exhibit but the second half of it seems to be, “They have no legitimate complaint against anyone but themselves.” It is a damning statement for those who believe in chance. Coolidge and his conservative cronies believed that Americans had to take care of themselves and those who left their fate to chance (or worse, thought the government should help them) were foolish and deserved to suffer. Coolidge, by the way, was known for his inactivity  and for running a government that did nothing, on purpose. When learning that he had died, writer Dorothy Parker reportedly said, “How could they tell?”

Calvin Coolidge:

Not the best source, obviously, for a statement on chance. I would have chosen Gerda Reith’s brilliant book, The Age of Chance: Gambling and Western Culture, as a source of the definition of chance which, she points out, has changed through the millenia. Today, chance is associated, Reith says, with uncertainty, insecurity, randomness, risk, unpredictability. Chance doesn’t require a quoted definition as much as an understanding of its shifting and pervasive influences. Gaming, especially gambling (playing at games of chance while risking something tangible), is an engagement with chance. As Reitch says, gambling involves deliberately and knowingly stepping up to chance and seeing how far we can push it, “challenging destiny to reveal its intentions” because, even if we cannot change destiny, its intentions are weakened under our knowing attacks. She concludes that “gambling offers a microcosm of the uncertainty of the outside world” and this means that games are about more than a few artifacts that show what we play with. They are about how we try to make the world secure, she emphasizes, not how we try to win or become rich. Games, says French social theorist Roger Caillois, in his book Man, Play and Games, let us experience a world in which there are conditions of “pure equality” that we are denied in everyday life. The rules of chance and merit (his word for skill) are “clear and indisputable” in play whereas in real life they are always in dispute.

The second case in the Penn Museum exhibit describes Games of Skill and the quote highlighted in it is from author John Ruskin: Skill is the unified force of experience, intellect and passion in their operation.  As far as I can tell, Ruskin had nothing to do with gaming: it is as if someone did a search for the word “skill” and found a quote that fit the space, even if it was not entirely significant. The quote is so difficult to untangle that it certainly is not the best way to define what is meant in this case by skill. I don’t know much about Ruskin but a simple wiki search (which anyone inserting this quote could have checked) suggests that he was not enamored of displays of skill but felt instead that an artist’s work should communicate their worldview, their moral outlook. To him, art (one of the subjects he wrote about) should not just be a demonstration of skill. Not the best person to be quoting for a definition of skill.

Reith points out that the distinction between games of skill and those of chance is artificial when it comes to gambling. Although there are elements of skill to playing poker for example, there are also elements of chance. This blending of these the seemingly different modes of play was acknowledged by the refusal of American federal authorities to sanction online poker because the element of chance was, for them, too integral to the game. Calloiss talks about skill, as described above, as something you bring to a game, not something that is inherent in the outcome of the game. Skill, or merit, is tested against chance and each player has the same opportunity to display and test their proposed superiority. The “prowess” one brings to a game can be wiped out, Callois reminds us, by the effects of chance which negates the influence of “work, patience, experience, and qualifications.” That blending, or even battle, between skill and chance, is what makes games so fascinating, not whether a game has only one or the other. They are always implicated in our understanding of the outcome of a game.

So the quotes, such a prominent element of the design of the cases, are irrelevant at best and misleading at worst. And the basic premise of the two cases, that you can divide skill and chance, is overly simplistic and unfortunate.

Back to the first case which presents the concept that one of the two forms of  gaming is games of chance. Nowhere is there a definition of games or play or chance (and the connections between them). There are many possible definitions of play from many perspectives: economic, social, biological, psychological, physiological, cognitive, therapy, ritual, educational, neuroscience, mathematical, political, etc. Any of these could have informed an exhibit but since none of them was used here, I will suggest the one I prefer. I see play as an essential part of the flow of everyday human life, not a set of activities completely different from everything else we do, especially work. Play is stepping temporarily away from the everyday and entering into a set of activities that comment on, test, prod, challenge, redefine, confirm, and/or rehearse the real and the mundane. Play, says Roger Caillois, is “an occasion of pure waste” that takes place in an alternative universe that is voluntarily entered and abandoned at will. It is both restrictive, with clear and precise rules, and free, offering pleasure even though its outcome is uncertain or dangerous or expensive.

Where does that pleasure come from? For anthropologist Victor Turner, that pleasure is inherent in the state of liminality, the experience of in-betweeness. Entering a liminal or in-between world (as we do in play) lets us experience a world of rules turned upside-down, logic  challenged, cause-effect reversed, masquerade and imposture valued, chance run rampant, values redefined, and prohibitions laughed at. We play because we have to, because in order to understand how to evaluate and question the arbitrary nature of rules in the “real” world we need to experience its illogical alternative. The people who don’t play, who aren’t playful, are by definition uncreative, narrow-minded, blind to alternative visions, and stuck in the mundane.

Fate, chance, risk, luck, and destiny are all ways of thinking about and categorizing the world into those things you can do and control, and those things that seem beyond human control, beyond all rational, logical, magical, or religious explanations. Humans use the rules of specialized play to find out how chance works, what happens when they tempt fate, and how far they can push the laws of logic, cause-effect, statistics, and probability. James Smith and Vicki Abt, in their article “Gambling as Play,” suggest that in gambling, like in much game play, “There is a balance of skill—which makes the victory honorable and worthy of admiration— and luck—which makes victory possible for the less skillful.” It is interesting to them that most adult gaming involves chance and they suggest that, “Perhaps adults have less confidence in their ability to control their destinies and are therefore more willing to accept the unearned prizes bestowed by chance.”  If this is the case, gambling is less about the exchange of money and simple fun and more about the production of meaning and sense in a world of chance and risk.

Games are organized and cooperative play, and games can take all sorts of forms: that is what makes them so fascinating and what makes the appearance of gaming throughout human history so relevant. Greeks in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE played a drunken gambling game called kottabos during which they tossed wine dregs at an elaborate target, winning sweet treats, kisses, eggs, or a look at their future.

Kottabos players from a wall mural at Paestum, Italy (photo by Louise Krasniewicz)

As long as 5,000 years ago, ancient Egyptians, in the afterlife, played a board game called senet, which re-enacts the nightly voyage of the sun god and the soul of the deceased through the Underworld, resulting in a judgment before the gods and an elevation for the winner to divine status. The stakes in this symbolic passage through the stages of the afterlife was nothing less that the player’s soul! A recreational version of the game was likely played by the living.

A senet board at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY (photo by Louise Krasniewicz)

Bernardino de Sahagún, a 16th century Spanish missionary, reported that the Aztec wagered on a violent ballgame and also played a pachisi-like board game generally called patolli.

Aztec playing patolli as both a game and a spiritual activity, Codex Magliabecchiano

Games in mythology are often about order and chaos. Stewart Culin felt that the games were born out of the human desire to understand, categorize, and control our world. He saw evidence of this in the existence of gaming and gambler gods in tribal origin myths. For example, the Navajo tell of a Great Gambler god who, like his counterpart in other cultures, is a powerful supernatural being that shakes up the world and needs to be put back into his place. In these tales a good gambler-hero must defeat the god and restore order and justice. Similarly, in the ancient Maya Popol Vuh, the hero twins defeat the Lords of the Underworld in several bizarre games that include a ball game played with heads. Likewise, one of the great national epics of India, the Mahabharata, contains a dramatic account of a dice game that changes the fate of the entire world.

The second case in this exhibit insists that the most significant aspect of games is competition and the drive to win. It states, “Games are competitions that have a common goal: to win.” That is such a narrow view of play and games: it seems to favor organized, and maybe even professional and intercollegiate sports, as its prototype. I emphasize the cooperative rather than competitive nature of play because the idea that most play must result in a winner defeats the purpose of play and games. Winning is often incidental, important in some aspects of games but not in others and not the main reason to play. Maybe the truism, “It’s not whether you win or lose but how you play the game” should come into play here, so to speak. How you play the game says much more about you as a player in the world of games than all the wins in the world. If the recent scandal at Penn State involving its winning football team should teach us anything, it is exactly that. No championship in the world, no trophy or honor for most wins or fancy sports facilities or millionaire coaches is worth more than the honor of playing—and living— with fairness and dignity and respect and caring for others. Competition and winning, as defined in this museum case, are misleading and damaging to our sense of play.

I just attended the Quidditch World Cup in New York, a gathering of 100 teams devoted to playing the centuries-old fantasy and real magical game revealed in the Harry Potter books. That there is competition in the games is not denied: everyone wanted to see the defeat of the 5 year champions, Middlebury College. But more importantly, this gathering and the games were about defining who you are, and who your community of shared values is. It is about making meanings, and making life more meaningful than is possible in cutthroat competition and the quantification of all aspects of life. It is playful, in all the wonderful and community-strengthening aspects of play. The sport, in which fantasy becomes reality for a brief time,  is played on over 300 college campuses and high schools, and in 12 countries.  It includes males and females on all teams and people of different sizes and abilities.

In the opening ceremonies, the International Quidditch Association commissioner, Alex Benepe, gave a speech that conveyed the origins of the sport on the Middlebury campus in 2005. Benepe told of overhearing at Middlebury two dudes making fun of the nascent Quidditch team and that only strengthened his determination to support the development of Quidditch. It was important, he stated to wild enthusiasm from the thousands of players and spectators in attendance, to, in his blunt words, “show those douche bags” just how cool and fun and valuable Quiddith was. He also encouraged players to play a “beautiful” game and to, of course, clean up after themselves.

The 2011 Quidditch World Cup (photos by Louise Krasniewicz)

The Penn Museum exhibit could have taken a lesson from the magical Quidditch players on just what constitutes a game and why games are so important. That the museum presented an overly simplistic and inaccurate exhibit on the meaning and value of games makes it a poor contribution to The Year of Games at Penn.

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.