Good Works in Laos

Manophet Rice Paddy

Manophet in a rice field near the Plain of Jars

I never do this, but I’m asking people to check out a few sites that do good work related to Laos, and possibly consider donating to them.

The first, The Plain of Jars Project, was recently brought to my attention by its founder, Jon Witsell. This is borne directly out of the Lone Buffalo Foundation, named after Manophet Lonebuffalo, who I wrote about on this blog a couple of years ago after I learned that he had passed away from a stroke (and far too young). 

I met Manophet in the town of Phonsavanh in 2009 on a trip that was very meaningful to me. I only knew him for a few days, but he made an impression. I saw some of the good work he did with children and teenagers, teaching them English in his home and coaching football (soccer) in the field across the road. Those were his evening jobs. In the day, he also worked for the Japanese Mine Action Service, which helps remove the bombs that the US dropped on Laos during the war years. He was also an excellent tour guide and a single father of three boys.

He seemed to touch the hearts of many, and it’s no wonder that the people at The Plain of Jars Project would want to continue the good work he did. They have a fundraiser at The video below explains their goals, which include teaching boys and girls English, soccer, and awareness of avoiding unexploded ordnance (UXO).  Continue reading

An Amazing Thing

This is from Sasha Sagan, daughter of Ann Druyan and Carl  Sagan, remembering a time from her childhood when she began to understand mortality. Her parents told her: 

“You are alive right this second. That is an amazing thing,” they told me. When you consider the nearly infinite number of forks in the road that lead to any single person being born, they said, you must be grateful that you’re you at this very second. Think of the enormous number of potential alternate universes where, for example, your great-great-grandparents never meet and you never come to be. Moreover, you have the pleasure of living on a planet where you have evolved to breathe the air, drink the water, and love the warmth of the closest star. You’re connected to the generations through DNA — and, even farther back, to the universe, because every cell in your body was cooked in the hearts of stars. We are star stuff, my dad famously said, and he made me feel that way.

My parents taught me that even though it’s not forever — because it’s not forever — being alive is a profoundly beautiful thing for which each of us should feel deeply grateful. If we lived forever it would not be so amazing.”

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Patriots’ Day

Patrick Clarkin:

I wrote this a year ago, when my thoughts were still raw and fresh after the Boston Marathon bombings. I recently added the photo of Martin Richard, who was tragically killed that day. All unjust deaths are tragedies, but a child who asked for peace just seems so much worse. I feel for his family, and anyone who’s lost someone close to them. I often think about, and find inspiration from, this photo of an 8 year-old boy showing wisdom that often eludes adults: Just don’t hurt anybody. That’s about as fundamental as it gets. But tragedies are not in short supply: the shootings in Kansas, the Crimea, Syria, the Central African Republic, and on and on it goes.

Originally posted on Patrick F. Clarkin, Ph.D.:

No more hurting people. (Martin Richard).

No more hurting people. (Martin Richard).

I’m at a loss as to how to properly addressyesterday’s tragedyhere in Boston, on Patriots’ Day. Following the attacks at the marathon and a nearby scare for our neighbors at the JFK Library, our university was closed yesterday afternoon and for most of the day today as a precaution. I’ve been wondering how, as teachers, to we’ll get back to normal so soon after the event. Do we ignore it, and go on as if nothing happened, or address it head on? I don’t know, and will probably make some gut decision during tomorrow’s morning commute.

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Magical Origins of Love

People have come up with various ways to explain the origins of passionate love, including the scientific (we can find answers in our evolutionary past and  in our current biology, particularly the brain) or the mysterious (it’s ineffable, beyond comprehension). Others focus on the magical. The following passage comes from Bronislaw Malinowski’s classic ethnography of the Trobriand Islands, “The Sexual Lives of Savages” where he relayed the Trobriander view on the mythic origins of passionate love, as told by some of his informants, as well as his interpretation of the need for explanation (1929:539-44).

Bronislaw Malinowski with Trobriand Islanders, 1918. (wikipedia)



Love, the power of attraction, the mysterious charm that comes forth from a woman to a man or from a man to a woman and produces the obsession of a single desire, is, as we know, attributed by the natives to one main source: the magic of love. 

In the Trobriands, most important systems of magic are founded on myth. The origin of man’s power over rain and wind; of his ability to control the fertility of the soil and the movements of fish; of the sorcerer’s destructive or healing powers — all these are traced back to certain primeval occurrences which, to the natives, account for man’s capacity to wield magic. Myth does not furnish an explanation in terms of logical or empirical causality. It moves in a special order of reality peculiar to dogmatic thought, and it contains rather a warrant of magical efficiency, a charter of its secret and traditional nature than an intellectual answer to the scientific why. The facts narrated in myth and the ideas which underlie it, colour and influence native belief and behaviour. The events of a remote past are re-lived in actual experience.This is especially important in the myth we are discussing, since its basic idea is that magic is so powerful that it can even break down the barrier of the strongest moral taboo. This influence of the past over the present is so strong that the myth generates its own replicas and is often used to excuse and explain certain otherwise inexcusable breaches of tribal law.

We have already spoken about the several systems of love magic, and pointed out that the two most important ones are associated with two local centres, Iwa and Kumilabwaga, which are united by a myth of the origin of their magic.

This is the story of the myth as I obtained it from informants of Kumilabwaga, the locality where the tragic events took place.


The story itself is fairly lengthy, but to summarize: long ago, a man made a potion of magical herbs, mint leaves, and coconut oil. He then hung the concoction in a vessel near the door of his family’s hut and left to bathe. His sister returned and accidentally brushed her head against the vessel, which allowed the potion to seep into her hair. She then smelled it, at which point “the power of magic struck her, it entered her inside, and turned her mind.” She then asked her mother where her brother was, found him, and removed her clothes, causing him to flee. Eventually, the magic overtook him as well, after which they copulated three times– in the water, on the beach, and in a nearby grotto. They then fell asleep, and died from shame and remorse for breaking the brother-sister incest taboo.

Malinowski wrote that there were several morals in the story. First, it was not a true origin myth. Rather, it was about how love had been transferred from one part of the islands (Kumilabwaga, where the brother and sister had lived) to another (Iwa). After the brother and sister had died, an Iwa man saw them in a dream, then paddled his canoe to their home and learned what happened from their mother, who –despite her grief– taught him the secrets of the magic, which he took home with him. Therefore, love’s origins had no true beginning. Instead, “most magic is imagined to have existed from the beginning of time, and to have been brought by each sub-clan from underground.” 

Second, Malinowski noted that in the story, the bulk of the blame for the siblings’ shame and ultimate death lay primarily at the feet of women, however unfairly. It was the mother who told her daughter to enter the hut in the first place to find some drinking water because she was too busy to pour some for her.  Malinowski compared the account to the biblical story of Eve giving the apple to Adam, or the legend of Isolde giving a love potion to Tristan: “in most mythological and legendary incidents, the man remains passive and the woman is the aggressor.” 

Finally, the magic of passionate love was powerful enough that it could overpower even one of the strongest taboos in Trobriand society. As Malinowski wrote, magic and myths from the past are “often used to excuse and explain certain otherwise inexcusable breaches of tribal law.” For those with a more scientific mode of thinking, they might remove the magical explanation and substitute it with hormones, neurotransmitters, or a specific brain region. Or, you could combine magical and scientific approaches: “I pull up to the front of your driveway, with magic soaking my spine.” Some of these are extrinsic to the individual, while others are intrinsic. What they have in common is that they fill a void in the search to explain agency and causality.


Acts of Reconciliation in Rwanda

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”
                                                                                             - Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms


The New York Times Magazine published a photo essay of case studies of forgiveness and reconciliation in Rwanda, two decades after the genocide there. The photos show a Hutu perpetrator with his Tutsi victim, along with a brief description of their individual stories of violence and the long road to asking for forgiveness. In the above picture, the woman, Vivianne, says of her former perpetrator, Jean Pierre: Continue reading

Another Trip to KIPP

This is the fourth year I’ve visited the 8th graders at the KIPP school in Lynn, Massachusetts to talk about anthropology and evolution for a few hours. Every year, their teacher has them write me thank you notes, about 90 in all over three classes. That alone makes the visit worth it.

KIPP 2014


Public Outreach: Sharing Anthropology Outside the University
Public Outreach 2: KIPP Lynn
More Public Outreach
KIPP Students Rock


Part 15: Humans Are (Blank)-ogamous: Lessons from Models of Sex and Love

Part 15: Humans Are (Blank)-ogamous: Lessons from Models of Sex and Love

The introduction to this series can be found here.

Summary: There are many ways to put a human life together, including for sex and love. Each path has tradeoffs.


Happiness is love. Full stop.  – George Vaillant

I thought I knew what love was. What did I know?Don Henley, “Boys of Summer”

There are all kinds of love in this world, but never the same love twice. – F. Scott Fitzgerald

Nothing in life is to be feared; it is only to be understood. – Marie Curie


“Mom, love is love, whatever you are.” These words of wisdom came from Jackson, the 12 year-old son of actress Maria Bello, after she revealed to him that she had fallen in love with a woman. Bello’s essay, Coming Out as a Modern Family, appeared in last November’s New York Times, where she bravely reflected on her handful of past romantic relationships (mostly with men), her trepidation in revealing her evolving feelings on love, and the variety of meaningful relationships – platonic, familial, romantic – she had in her life.

In the most important sense, which is of course the sense that Jackson meant, love is love, irrespective of one’s sexuality, gender, or ethnicity. Studies from neurobiology reveal that people in the early stages of romantic love show consistent activation in specific brain regions (the ventral tegmental area and caudate) when viewing a photo of one’s partner. This was true for (1) men and women, (2) hetero- and homo-sexuals, and (3) American, British, and Chinese adults (Zeki and Romaya 2010; Xu et al. 2011). Not that Jackson needed it, because a person’s choices in love should be respected regardless of what neurobiology tells us, but he has science on his side.

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Two Million Tons of Bombs over Laos in One Minute

This is a simple, yet powerful, video cataloging the 600,000 bombing missions and 2 million tons of bombs the U.S. dropped over Laos from 1964-73. I’ve never been able to comprehend the scale of the bombing in Laos because it’s hard to get a handle on such large numbers. This short video helps put it into perspective.

The person who made the video, Jerry Redfern, also has a new book out Eternal Harvest: The Legacy of American Bombs in Laos (co-authored with his wife, Karen Coates). 

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What War Does to Children

This is a powerful message from Save the Children, meant to raise awareness of recent events in Syria:

I think the power of the video comes from the fact that it follows a single child over time, as we watch the vibrancy of her personality gradually fade away as the conditions around her deteriorate. We see her become more anxious, and even her physical health falters as her hair starts falling out. By extension, all we have to do is make a short mental leap from this fictional British girl to that of any child, anywhere, who is currently living under war conditions, knowing that they have probably undergone a similar transition. 

The reality is that the impacts of war on child health are consistently negative, not only for Syria, but virtually everywhere. On one hand, it’s important to remember that children living in such harsh conditions can be resilient, and that they are not lost causes, broken beyond repair. On the other hand, they shouldn’t have to be put in that position in the first place. 

Our Essential, Fragile Bonds

Today would have been my brother’s birthday, and I’ve been saving this passage from Boris Pasternik’s Doctor Zhivago to mark it. Here the title character, Yura Zhivago, is speaking to Anna Ivanovna who feared she was terminally ill. He offers what he thinks happens to us when we die, and the primacy of our social connections:

“So what will happen to your consciousness? Your consciousness, yours, not anyone else’s. Well, what are you? There’s the point. Let’s try to find out. What is it about you that you have always known as yourself? What are you conscious of in yourself? Your kidneys? Your liver? Your blood vessels? No. However far back you go in your memory, it is always in some external, active manifestation of yourself that you come across your identity–in the work of your hands, in your family, in other people. And now listen carefully. You in others–this is your soul. This is what you are. This is what your consciousness has breathed and lived on and enjoyed throughout your life–your soul, your immortality, your life in others. And what now? You have always been in others and you will remain in others. And what does it matter to you if later on that is called your memory? This will be you–the you that enters the future and becomes part of it.” (Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago, p. 68)


I still haven’t mastered the ability to completely separate the academic and the personal, and I’m not sure I completely want to. Instead of an impenetrable wall between them, perhaps, for me, there is a wrought-iron fence with an open gate. What I mean is that I often go between the two, allowing them to inform each other. The passage from Zhivago is from literature, and is not a scientific statement. But it runs parallel to some aspects of science, which seems poetic to me, particularly on a day I’m thinking of my brother. 

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