My Academic Cross-Training project is guided by the premise that each culture develops in the context of a unique physical and social ecology, which leave marks on its patterns of thought and emotion, and philosophies. I started the interdisciplinary study of factors that have made China Chinese by interpreting features of Chinese philosophy in light of psychological norms that render people in China the same as, and also different from, others. For examples, I tried to understand the unique Confucian norms wrapped tightly around the parent-child relationship, and how the special role of shame influences culturally-embedded social emotion and cognition in Confucian Heritage Cultures. In doing this research, I had to set aside what is known as the “close reading” method *** familiar from Humanities. In the interest of finding new methods of inquiry, my collaborators Ted Slingerland and Kristoffer Nielbo and I began to explore historical Chinese corpora for patterns and to test interpretive hypotheses about the Confucian canon through corpus-based machine-learning. This set my ideas about early Chinese thought on firmer foundations, raised my confidence that formal methods like these had much to teach me, and pulled me in many different directions. To move beyond the texts I needed further help.

When I was told about the John Templeton Foundation’s call for applications for an “Academic Cross-Training” grant, I knew this would be the best (if not also the only plausible) way to reach my research goals. Once Justin Barrett, a research psychologist at Fuller Theological Seminary, agreed to serve as the faculty mentor on my project, I decided to apply. I expected to fail. Failure had already become familiar. The cross-training grant offered funding for three years. With a budget that included generous in-kind contributions by Cal State Fullerton and the Dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, I earmarked money for tuition for courses with best-of-breed researchers at universities here in Los Angeles and Orange counties from whom I could learn about varied influences on Chinese culture. To my surprise I was awarded the grant.

I’ve been an active member of a cross-training gym, CrossFit Structured, for years. Double-unders, wall balls, box jumps, chest-to-bar pull-ups, power snatches, handstand pushups, one after another, until you are a pool of sweat. (Where failure became familiar. See above.) But having the discipline to return to the gym day in, day out, and feeling the need to push myself, and the knowledge that I could often do what I earlier thought I couldn’t, has prepared me for my work on the Academic Cross-Training grant. I’ve now re-trained by taking a sequence in statistics courses along with classes in evolutionary anthropology, behavioral endocrinology, experimental economics, contemporary Chinese anthropology, cross-cultural genetics, bronze age archaeology of China, and more.

I am working so that discoveries and insights from this coursework are reflected in my ongoing attempt to understand the factors that made China Chinese. Just shy of the halfway point on this Cross-Training project, so far I don’t have a lot to show for my grant. But since you may have arrived here to seek information about what such a grant is for, let me offer you a few teasers about what I have been learning:

  • In a pair of graduate-level anthropology courses, I studied footbinding from fields including economics, game theory, evolutionary psychology and literature, Chinese history and women’s studies. I finally developed a tentative explanation for the origins, maintenance, and cessation of footbinding that attempts to bring contributing factors into harmony better than the current reigning theory. The best current theory is the only current theory. It says that parents were motivated by financial profit to bind feet of daughters because that was the best way parents found to keep their girls inside making yard and cloth. Preliminary research and reading says this theory is not close to correct, and that the one I developed is likely to be more plausible, but the problem is that its advocates, Melissa Brown, Hill Gates, and Laurel Bossen, have refused the multiple requests I, and others, have made for access to their data. The labor market theory attributes to Chinese parents motives that are rooted in avariciousness for behavior that involves breaking bones in the feet of their daughters. Yea, this is hard to stomach. It is also unlikely to be psychologically true. Instead, Gerald Mackie’s game theoretic analysis of footbinding as a result of runaway competition amongst parents is surely correct. This coheres with material from English and Chinese sources emphasizing the increased mate value of footbound women entering open marriage markets. Along with its other elements, the emergent account of footbinding appears to have explanatory power, is consistent with what historical Chinese authors actually say about the practice and its motivations, and makes a great deal of sense on principles of evolutionary psychology and cultural evolution.

  • In a course on bronze age China I studied the initial social, physical and genetic conditions of early China. In this connection, the mtDNA of the Dawenkou Culture from Neolithic Shandong was fascinating for its lack of diversity relative to other early Neolithic cultures in Continental East Asia. Further, the frequency and severity of bone diseases in men and in women over Neolithic time from Erlitou to the Zhou Dynasty was revealing for what it tells about social stratification. Social status as measured with grave goods, like number or quality of vessels, and social status as measured by laboratory archaeologists in terms of isotopes of nitrogen and carbon in extant bone, isotopes that signal rates of meat-eating, I discovered, were mutually supporting.

  • In a course in behavioral endocrinology, I was startled to learn that people descended from members of East Asian haplogroups tend to have a distinctively patterned set of receptors for oxytocin, a neurohormone associated with social bonding. These patterns are now identified with a small set of alleles, for example, on rs53576. This gene has been associated with children’s social and emotional growth through the lifespan. Individuals have three pairs of alleles associated with rs53576, but these pairs are distributed in very different rates across people group. Though I studied the dispersal of these rates by group, I have not yet learned how specific alleles influence social bonding. I have more work to do.

Speaking of which, it is time to get back to work. John Templeton Foundation, you have my sincerest thanks.