Friday, September 17, 2004

MIT adds Myth, Ritual, and Symbolism to OpenCourseware Lineup

Myth, Ritual, and Symbolism I was very excited to see that MIT has started to add Anthropology courses to their OpenCourseware free offerings. For those of you that may not be aware of the initiative, MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) launched a project several years ago to place all course materials for all of their courses online for anyone interested in learning to use at no cost. Most of the courses to date have been engineering and science courses but now they are beginning to add some of their more liberal arts-type courses to the lineup.

As an ancient history enthusiast, I am particularly interested in the role of myth, ritual, and symbolism in the development of ancient cultures so I was excited to see Professor Howe's course on the subject list. Here's a short excerpt from Prof. Howe's introductory lecture notes:

"Previously, many explanations of human actions and thought in terms of environmental determinism. Why do people in Alps believe in witches?---thin mountain air. Why are people in Latin America or Indonesia inferior to us Europeans? Hot, unchanging climate. Climate doesn't challenge them like our temperate climate Montesquieu said Northerners were brave, vigorous, insensitive to pain, weakly sexed, intelligent, and drunkards. Another Frenchman of the Enlightenment said Northerners faithful, loyal to government, cruel, undersexed. Southerners malicious, crafty, wise, expert in science but bad in government. Another said northern languages have lots of consonants, because people afraid to open mouths and let in cold air. Sounds silly now, but was very common, still pops up. At other extreme, many things explained in terms of some basic traits common to all humans, so-called human nature, or else by traits thought to vary biologically from one population to another. Something innate. With development of racial and biological thinking was thought to be in our blood or genes. So caught between external nature, environment, or internal nature, heredity There was a vague sense that there was something in the middle, neither biologically nor environmentally determined, called custom / tradition / lifeway / mentality / habit / usos y costumbres. But vague. Then, 19th century, word culture adopted. Borrowed from art/music, expanded to encompass everything. Most often associated with early British anthro, Edward Tylor. Was a complex whole that humans carried with them and passed on non-biologically.

Learned, not biologically programmed. Varies independently of biology. People who look very different but share same culture, and vice-versa. Carried on by a chain of learning, though doesn't mean that consciously taught. Shared: has to be group, small or large. But carried on by individuals, in their heads. Wholly or partly mental. Includes ideas, values, assumptions, procedures, practices. This does not mean that the environment and our biological natures are thus irrelevant. They may affect culture in all sorts of ways. Been suggested that all herding peoples, because of way must care for, move, guard animals, value independent personalities, aren't big believers in witchcraft but often warlike, etc. Similarly, though people in two different societies may make facial expressions differently, there are pan-human constants in expressions, so how one smiles probably combination of "human nature" and cultural peculiarities. Still many debates on relative importance of different factors. But neither the environment nor biology works by itself, with nothing in between. Cultures are systems with integrity of own, those other factors are inputs into system."