You should go to Denver!

For the AAAs!This year’s annual meeting of the American Association of Anthropology will be in beautiful, Denver, Colorado, from November 18-22. As the Biological Anthropology Section program chair, part of my responsibility was to organize the symposia, papers, and presentations within our section. I think the program we have is fantastic (see below), and I think you should go. If you are student, you should consider applying for the BAS student paper/poster award, which has a cash award and special recognition among the BAS membership. As with any meetings, there is a real cost (and AAA is more than many), but I think it provides real opportunity for value in return.

Preliminary BAS program for the 2015 AAA meetings, Denver CO, November 18-22.

Wednesday, 11/18

Lawrence M Schell, Julia Ravenscroft and Lawrence M Schell

  • To be Food Secure or Not: Food Desirability As a Factor in Perceptions of Food Insecurity
    David A Himmelgreen (University of South Florida, Department of Anthropology)
  • Old Foods, New Cuisines: Globalization and Changing Production Regimes in the Andes
    Thomas L Leatherman (University of Massachusetts, Amherst – Department of Anthropology) and Morgan Hoke (Northwestern University)
  • The Centrality of Food in Children’s Concepts of Health: A Cross-Cultural Study
    Jonathan N Maupin (Arizona State University, School of Human Evolution and Social Change) and Jillian Renslow (Arizona State University)
  • Milk Consumption in India: New Life for an Old Food
    Andrea S Wiley (Indiana University)
  • Transforming the Familiar to the Strange: Is Adulterated and Contaminated Food the New Normal?
    Lawrence M Schell (University at Albany, State University of New York)
  • The New Three Sisters: The Transformation of Food Choice and Dietary Patterns at Akwesasne
    Julia Ravenscroft (University at Albany, State University of New York)
  • Getting “Dumped”: Bariatric Patients’ Strange Eating of Familiar Food
    Alexandra A Brewis (Arizona State University), Sarah S Trainer (Arizona State University) and Amber Wutich (Arizona State University)

Thursday, 11/19

Tiffiny A Tung, Matthew Carlos Velasco, Scott G Ortman and Christopher Stojanowski

  • Cultural Affinity and Ethnic Identity Along the Great Wall of China
    Christine Lee (California State University, Los Angeles)
  • Bioarchaeology, Ethnogenesis and the Construction of Social Identities in Late Antiquity
    Jorge López Quiroga (Universidad Autónoma de Madrid)
  • A Bioarchaeological Contribution to Early Medieval Gentes
    Charisse Carver (Arizona State University)
  • Ethnogenesis on the Eve of Inka Expansion: The Case of the Collaguas, a Late Prehispanic Ethnic Group from the Southern Peruvian Andes
    Matthew Carlos Velasco (Vanderbilt University)
  • Migrating People and Moving Ideas: Reevaluating the Ethnogenesis of Aztec Ruins
    Ryan P Harrod (University of Alaska Anchorage) and Alyssa Willett (University of Alaska Anchorage)
  • Discussant
    Scott G Ortman (University of Colorado-Boulder)
  • Discussant
    Christopher Stojanowski (Arizona State Univ)

Charlotte A. Roberts and Susan G Sheridan

  • Pious Pain: Repetitive Motion Disorders Associated with Excessive Genuflection in a Byzantine Monastic Community from Jerusalem
    Susan G Sheridan (University of Notre Dame)
  • Binding, Wrapping, Constricting, and Constraining the Head. a Consideration Ofcranial Vault Modification and the Notion of Purposeful Pain
    Christina Torres-Rouff (UC Merced)
  • Pain As Performance: The Suffering Elites at Chaco Canyon (AD 850-1150)
    Meaghan Kincaid (University of Alaska Anchorage), John J Crandall (University of Nevada, Las Vegas), Ryan P Harrod (University of Alaska Anchorage) and Debra L Martin (UNLV)
  • Meaningful Play, Meaningful Pain: Traumatic Brain Injuries in Youth Sports
    Gabriel Alejandro Torres Colon (University of Notre Dame) and Sharia Smith (University of Notre Dame)
  • Purposeful, Anticipated, Intermittent, and Normal: Grappling with the Familiar/Strange Dichotomy of Childbirth Pain
    Vania Smith-Oka (University of Notre Dame) and Nicholas James Nissen (University of Notre Dame)
  • Addiction, Pain and Pleasure
    Daniel H Lende (University of South Florida)
  • Pain As Power: Pain As a Mechanism for Social Control
    Anna Osterholtz (University of Nevada)

Cathy Willermet, Sang-Hee Lee, Sang-Hee Lee, Cathy Willermet and Rachel Caspari

  • The Strange (?) Fuzziness Inherent in Familiar Population Biodistance Models
    Cathy Willermet (Central Michigan University)
  • Parsing the Paradox: Examining Heterogeneous Frailty in Bioarchaeological Assemblages
    Sharon DeWitte (University of South Carolina)
  • Methods without Mechanisms: Moving Beyond Body Counts in Human Biology Research
    Robin G Nelson (Skidmore College)
  • Paleoanthropology and Analytical Rigor: The Need to Do Less with More
    Adam P Van Arsdale (Wellesley College – Department of Anthropology)
  • Hegemony and the Central Asian Paleolithic Record: Perspectives on Pleistocene Landscapes and Morphological Mosaicism
    Michelle M Glantz (Colorado State University)
  • Defamiliarizing, Unpacking, and Rethinking Modernity: A Case of the Korean Early Late Paleolithic
    Sang-Hee Lee (University of California, Riverside – Department of Anthropology) and Hyeong Woo Lee (Chonbuk National University)
  • Discussant
    Rachel Caspari (Central Michigan University)

Lesley Jo Weaver, Lesley Jo Weaver, Christopher D Lynn and Robin G Nelson (INVITED SESSION)

  • Disasters in the Field: Learning from the Challenges of Fieldwork Gone Wrong
    Gillian H Ice (Ohio U Coll of Osteopathic Med), Darna L Dufour (University of Colorado Boulder) and Nancy J Stevens (Ohio University)
  • Anthropologists, Kids, and Careers: When Family Is Strange and the Field Familiar
    Christopher D Lynn (University of Alabama) and Michaela E Howells (University of North Carolina Wilmington)
  • Considering the Whole Person As Ethnographer
    Eileen P Anderson-Fye (Case Western Reserve University, Department of Anthropology)
  • Vicarious Trauma: Bearing Witness in the Field
    Rebecca J Lester (Washington University in St. Louis, Department of Anthropology)
  • Raced Encounters in Fieldwork: Reflections and Questions
    Lesley Jo Weaver (University of Alabama)
  • Discussant
    Robin G Nelson (Skidmore College)

Adam P Van Arsdale

Friday, 11/20

Nicole L Falk, Courtney L Everson, Wenda Trevathan, Nicole L Falk, Courtney L Everson, Melissa Cheyney, Courtney L Everson, Nicole L Falk, Holly Horan, Elizabeth Miller and Kirsten Resnick

  • Introductions:
    Wenda Trevathan (New Mexico State University)
  • Chairs:
    Nicole L Falk (University of South Florida) and Courtney L Everson (Midwives College of Utah and Oregon State University)
  • Roundtable Presenters:
    Melissa Cheyney (Oregon State University, Department of Anthropology), Courtney L Everson (Oregon State University), Nicole L Falk (University of South Florida), Holly Horan (Oregon State University), Elizabeth Miller (University of South Florida) and Kirsten Resnick (Boston University)

Catherine E Bolten, Genese Marie Sodikoff and Alex M Nading

  • Hominin Carnivory, Tapeworms, and Cooking: Zoonoses in the Paleoanthropocene
    Robert Scott (Rutgers University, New Brunswick)
  • The Infectious Optimism of the Mining Giants: Biodiversity Offsets and Pathogenesis in Madagascar
    Genese Marie Sodikoff (Rutgers University, Newark)
  • Emergent Disease in an Emergent Democracy: Livestock and Land Tenure in Laikipia, Kenya
    Rebecca D Hardin (University of Michigan)
  • Co-Production of Chagas Disease in Panama
    Caitlin E Mertzlufft (University of Georgia)
  • Food from the Forest, Food from the Farms: Ethnographic Explorations of the Zoonotic Disease Interface in Sierra Leone
    Catherine E Bolten (University of Notre Dame, Department of Anthropology)
  • Discussant
    Alex M Nading (University of Edinburgh)

Julie Lesnik, Julie Lesnik, Margaret J Schoeninger and Darna L Dufour

  • Food Choice in White-Faced Capuchin Monkeys (Cebus capucinus): Variability in Insect Use Across Age and Sex Classes
    Katherine C. MacKinnon (Saint Louis University, Department of Sociology and Anthropology)
  • The Role of Insects in the Diet of East African Chimpanzees
    Robert C O’Malley (The George Washington University), Carson M Murray (The George Washington University) and Michael L Power (Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute)
  • The Evolution of Insects As Food, from Hominids to the United Nations
    Julie Lesnik (Wayne State University) and R. Nathan Allen (Aspire Food Group)
  • Chapulines in the Mexican Marketplaces: The Socio-Economics of Grasshoppers As Food and Fad
    Jeffrey H Cohen (The Ohio State University) and Nydia Delhi Mata Sánchez (Universidad Tecnológica de los Valles Centrales de Oaxaca)
  • Insects As an Alternative to What and for Whom? Ethical Considerations for the Insects-As-Food Movement
    Yuson Jung (Wayne State University, Detroit, MI)
  • Discussant
    Margaret J Schoeninger (University of California, San Diego – Department of Anthropology)
  • Discussant
    Darna L Dufour (University of Colorado Boulder)

William W Dressler, William W Dressler and Jason A DeCaro

  • Doing Faith: Prosperity Theology and Health in a Brazilian Neo-Pentecostal Church
    Henri J Dengah II (Utah State University)
  • Introducing the “Index of Vulnerability”: Operationalizing Vulnerability and Predicting Health Outcomes in the Amazon
    Paula Skye Tallman (The Field Museum of Natural History, Integrated Research Center)
  • Is Chronic Maternal Psychosocial Stress Linked to Neonate Outcomes in American Samoan Women? the Intergenerational Effects of Stress on Neonate Body Size
    Michaela E Howells (University of North Carolina Wilmington), Darna L Dufour (University of Colorado Boulder), Richard L Bender (University of Colorado Boulder), Margaret Sesepasara (Department of Health American Samoa) and Alex Lloyd (University of North Carolina Wilmington)
  • Culture As a Mediator of Gene-Environment Interaction
    William W Dressler (University of Alabama, Department of Anthropology)
  • Chronic Psychosocial Stress Among Forager-Farmers: Culturally Salient Status, Income and a Retrospective Measure of Cortisol
    Alan F Schultz (Baylor University – Department of Anthropology), Gideon Koren (The Hospital for Sick Children) and Stan Van Uum (University of Western Ontario)
  • What Constitutes a ‘constitution?’ Biological Sensitivity, Canalization, and the Biocultural Substrates of Differential Resilience
    Jason A DeCaro (University of Alabama, Department of Anthropology)

Caroline VanSickle, Virginia Hutton Estabrook, Virginia Hutton Estabrook, Caroline VanSickle, Karen Rosenberg and Silvia Tomaskova

  • Some Theoretical Musings on Finding Women in the Paleolithic:Why and Where?
    Margaret W Conkey (University of California, Berkeley)
  • A Census of Women in the Paleolithic
    Melanie Lee Chang (Portland State University) and April Nowell (University of Victoria – Department of Anthropology)
  • In Search of Mothers in the Paleolithic
    Caroline VanSickle (University of Wisconsin-Madison)
  • Bioarchaeology of Gendered Labor in the Middle and Upper Paleolithic
    Virginia Hutton Estabrook (Armstrong State University)
  • In Search of Men in the Paleolithic
    Kathleen Sterling (Binghamton University)
  • Discussant
    Silvia Tomaskova (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill)
  • Discussant
    Karen Rosenberg (University of Delaware)


  • Trekking Made Us Human II
    Carol Lauer (Rollins College)
  • Human-Animal Relationships in a Zoo-Setting
    Janni Pedersen (Ashford University) and Kathryn Sorensen (Ashford University)
  • Using Exploratory Factor Analysis to Aid Interpretation of Anthropometric Variables: A Reanalysis of Data from Cali, Colombia
    Richard L Bender (University of Colorado Boulder), Paul A Sandberg (University of Colorado Boulder) and Darna L Dufour (University of Colorado Boulder)
  • Cultural “Beauty” As Evidence of Pain: Progression of a Healing Pseudo-Jones Fracture from a Heel Fall
    Serrin Brianne Boys (Florida Gulf Coast University) and Heather A Walsh-Haney (Florida Gulf Coast University)
  • Changing Student Misconceptions about Evolution in Introductory Biological Anthropology Courses
    Susan L Johnston (West Chester University, Department of Anthropology & Sociology), Josh Auld (West Chester University, Department of Biology), Maureen Knabb (West Chester University, Department of Biology) and Loretta Rieser-Danner (West Chester University, Department of Psychology)
  • Campfires, Television, and the Social Milieu: The Social Synergy of Fireside Relaxation
    April Boatwright (University of Alabama, Department of Anthropology), Melinda Carr (University of Alabama), Ashley Daugherty (University of Alabama) and Christopher D Lynn (University of Alabama)

Rachel Caspari

Saturday, 11/21

Karen B Strier, Kerry McAuliffe Dore, Kerry McAuliffe Dore, Karen B Strier and Carolyn A Jost Robinson

  • Primates of Least Concern: Ecological Flexibility, Phenotypic Plasticity, and Variability Selection
    Andrea R Eller (University of Oregon, Department of Anthropology), Stephen R Frost (University of Oregon), Frances White (University of Oregon) and Trudy R Turner (University of WI-Milwaukee)
  • Rolling Stones Gather No Moss: Stone Handling Behavior in Macaques and the Value of Being Forever Young!
    Michael Alan Huffman (Kyoto University) and Charmalie AD Nahallage (University of Sri Jayawardenepura)
  • Dietary Ethanol Ingestion By Free-Ranging Spider Monkeys (Ateles geoffroyi): An Evaluation of the ‘Drunken Monkey’ Hypothesis
    Victoria Weaver (California State University, Northridge – Department of Anthropology) and Christina J Campbell (California State University – Northridge)
  • Vervet Monkeys (Chlorocebus aethiops) in New Geographic Areas: Preliminary Data from Florida, St. Maarten/St. Martin, and Tortola
    Deborah Williams (Florida Atlantic University) and Kerry McAuliffe Dore (Marist College)
  • Strange Locomotion? When Rare Becomes Interesting in Primate Positional Behavior Studies
    Michelle Bezanson (Santa Clara University, Department of Anthropology)
  • Arboreal Primates on the Ground: Causes, Consequences, and Implications for Human Evolution
    Karen B Strier (University of Wisconsin-Madison)
  • Discussant
    Carolyn A Jost Robinson (University of North Carolina, Wilmington)

Deborah A Bolnick, Rick Wayne Aldon Smith and Jonathan M Marks

  • Imposing Colonial Modernity on the Past: Narratives of Identity and Race in Ancient DNA Research
    Deborah A Bolnick (University of Texas at Austin) and Jennifer Raff (University of Kansas)
  • Can the Subaltern Genome Code? Examining Power and Participation in Postcolonial Genomics.
    Ruha Benjamin (Princeton University)
  • In Cold Blood: Scientific Silence and the Constitution of an Indigenous Past
    Rick Wayne Aldon Smith (University of Texas at Austin) and Deborah A Bolnick (University of Texas at Austin)
  • Selling Identity: The Commercialization of Genetic Ancestry Testing and Scientific Claims of Human Difference
    Sandra S Lee (Stanford University)
  • Rehabilitating Genomics? Indigenous Governance of Genomic Research in Australia
    Emma E Kowal (Deakin University)
  • Discussant
    Jonathan M Marks (University of North Carolina, Charlotte – Department of Anthropology)

Rick Wayne Aldon Smith, Deborah A Bolnick and Dorothy Roberts

  • An Empirical Examination of Race in the Life Sciences: 1950-2000
    Osagie K Obasogie (University of California, Hastings, College of Law)
  • “No Harm Can Come from Knowledge”: Working with Communities to Build Living Memories
    Jada Benn Torres (University of Notre Dame)
  • Missing Histories of Colonial and Diasporic Genetic Research
    Lauren Springs (University of Texas at Austin), Deborah A Bolnick (University of Texas at Austin) and James Garber (Texas State University)
  • Faces: The Politics of Becoming Native American in the Genomic Age
    Jessica Kolopenuk (University of Victoria)
  • Molecular Death and Redface Reincarnation: Indigenous Appropriations in the U.S.
    Kim TallBear (University of Texas, Austin)
  • Discussant
    Dorothy Roberts (University of Pennsylvania Law School)

Rachel Caspari

Sunday, 11/22

Pamela K Stone, John J Crandall, Pamela K Stone and Alexis Boutin

  • Foreign Laborers, Familiar Suffering: The Construction and Othering of Coolie Laborers in the 19th Century American West
    John J Crandall (University of Nevada, Las Vegas)
  • The Invisible and Vulnerable: Investigating Famine in Past Communities
    Kalyna Horocholyn (McMaster University) and Megan Brickley (McMaster University)
  • The Dissected Dead: Social Marginalization, Anatomization, and the Disappeared in the Hamann-Todd Anatomical Collection
    Carlina de la Cova (University of South Carolina)
  • Riding into Battle: Personhood and Otherness in Early Medieval “Warrior” Burials
    Lauren Hosek (Syracuse University) and Vanessa Reeves (Syracuse University)
  • Anatomical Collections As the Bioanthropological Other: Some Considerations
    Rachel J Watkins (American University)
  • Discussant
    Alexis Boutin (Sonoma State University)

John J Crandall, John J Crandall, Pamela K Stone and Molly Kathleen Zuckerman

  • From Womb to Tomb? Narrating the Reproductive Female Body
    Pamela K Stone (HAMPSHIRE COLLEGE)
  • ‘Til Poison Phosphorous Brought Them Death’: The Construction and Othering of Working Class Bodies in 19th Century England
    Rebecca Gowland (Durham University), Charlotte A. Roberts (Durham University), Tina Jakob (Durham University), Anwen Caffell (Durham University) and Kori Filipek-Ogden (Durham University)
  • Crisis, Disruption, and Othering in the Indus Age of South Asia
    Gwen Robbins Schug (Appalachian State University)
  • The Poetics of Processing: Deviant Performances and Memory Making in the Ancient Southwest
    Debra L Martin (UNLV) and Anna Osterholtz (University of Nevada)
  • Corporeal Estrangement of Child Poorhouse “Inmates:” Embodiments of Institutionalization, Isolation, and Perceived Disability
    Jennifer Muller (Ithaca College)
  • Specimen 2032: The Doings and Undoings of an Other Victim of the Mountain Meadows Massacre
    Alanna Warner (Syracuse University) and Shannon A Novak (Syracuse University)
  • Discussant
    Molly Kathleen Zuckerman (Mississippi State University)

Awesome! And this list only includes those sessions officially sponsored by the BAS or Executive Committee sessions involving BAS membership. There is certainly much more of interest within the broader AAA program, including to those like me who are more biologically-oriented.

Posted in Anthropology | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Moving Beyond Trees: Metaphors for Evolution

…for there is some one entity (or more than one) which always persists and from which all other things are generated. All are not agreed, however, as to the number and character of these principles. Thales, the founder of this school of philosophy, says the permanent entity is water…(Aristotle, Metaphysics, 983b)

Two weeks ago, while live-blogging NOVA’s new documentary, “The Dawn of Humanity,” I suggested that we need a better metaphor for evolutionary processes. This was in response to the documentary’s use of a “braided stream” metaphor to describe human evolution (more on this below), something John Hawks has been promoting for some time. Here is my attempt to provide an additional alternative.

For nearly as long as the idea of evolution has been around, trees have been used to metaphorically convey what evolution is all about. Darwin’s 1859 publication of On the Origin of Species includes just a single illustration (seen below), and while it is not explicitly a tree, it’s “tree-like” nature is quite apparent.


In this sketch, Darwin conveys a number of key points about evolution. First and foremost is the notion of common descent. Living organisms (level XIV on Darwin’s figure) are descended from common ancestors in the past (found in levels I-X). Second, and perhaps equally important, is the idea that variation is an important part of a species. This is perhaps the most subtle part of the illustration, but is apparent in the short, dotted lines emanating out of the nodes in layers I-X. Evolution creates and shapes patterns of variation. It is all about variation. And finally, as evolutionary lineages move forward in time they diverge in various ways from their common ancestral states (the lateral movement of lines in Darwin’s figure). The appeal of a tree to convey all of this is quite obvious.

One of the first attempts to explicitly use a tree as the metaphor for evolutionary processes involving humans comes from the German biologist, Ernst Haeckel, in 1874 (see below).


While this tree still conveys the notions of common descent and the relationship among taxa fairly well, it is a less appealing figure on the whole. Haeckel reflects a dominant anthrocentrism in placing humans “Menschen” at the “top” or apex of evolution. The inherent value of greater/higher/better is hard to avoid in this representation. But my frustration with trees runs to a deeper issue.


To step back just one step, it is important to recognize that implicit in Darwin’s original sketch is the biological notion that species are a real thing. Evolution sorts variation, generated by mutation, via processes of drift and natural selection, and structured by population relationships through gene flow. And it does this within species. In other words, species are real units of biology, shaped by evolution, and therefore the proper “nodes” of an evolutionary or “phylogenetic” tree. I have no problem with this. I am happy to accept Ernst Mayr’s definition of a biological species, even if we recognize today that in some organisms, particularly things like bacteria or viruses, this definition can be tricky or inaccurate.

Hawk’s preference for a “braided stream” metaphor for evolution, I think, is an attempt to recognize the difficulty in employing Mayr’s definition for evolutionary lineages evolving over time. While species may be the product of evolution’s sorting, species by themselves do not adequately describe the process by which species are generated. If we conceive of species as independently evolving gene pools, there may be times in the evolution of a lineage in which some population or populations of a species become isolated and are functionally evolving as an independent gene pool. Given enough time, this newly independent gene pool might generate enough evolutionary divergence to ensure that it remains an independent gene pool, and therefore a new species. But the generation of evolutionary isolating mechanisms, the kind that give rise to new species (particularly in things like mammals and other complex organisms), do not happen instantly. So it may be possible, looking across evolutionary time, to sample lineages that are evolving separately but have not reached the point of true evolutionary independence. Within human evolution, Neandertals are a great example of this. Neandertals persisted as a discrete and identifiable lineage for upwards of 100,000-250,000 years (with the usual caveats…to varying degrees across time and space), at the end of which, they were different, but not different enough to prevent them from contributing in meaningful ways to the gene pool of living humans.

braided stream

So in the image above, a braided stream metaphor quite effectively displays what a species (or evolutionary lineage) might look like across its evolutionary time. Particularly a geographically dispersed species like our human ancestors. In this sense, I think the braided stream metaphor is great!


My bigger complaint, though, reflects my desire to employ a metaphor that not only effectively conveys the product of evolution (i.e. species), but also the processes that shape those products. My problem with the tree for a metaphor for evolution is the nature of how trees branch. There are lots of different trees we could choose from to represent the evolutionary relatedness of living (and extinct) species, but they all involve branches that split discretely. One branch (or species) splits into two or more new branchs (or descendent species).


Trees with complex branching patterns (or root branching patterns) like mangroves or cypress can express more complex relationships, but they still tell us nothing about how species come about, only that they do. I think we can ask more of our evolutionary metaphors. I think Darwin managed to convey more out of his one illustration in 1859.

The answer, in my mind, is water. If we conceive of a biological species as an isolated gene pool, in which individual populations are connected via gene flow, we are already predisposed to recognize the utility of water as a metaphor. The movement of heritable material is what characterizes a species. That movement occurs to different degrees, in different ways, depending on the ecology of the organisms in question. In other words, some evolutionary lineages readily create new species (forming “bushy” phylogenies) and others do not (forming more “linear” phylogenies). Darwin seems to have been well aware of this in his original sketch above. How do we convey this with water?…by thinking about how water moves through drainages in varying ways depending on the substrate and topography of a landscape. Species exist on different evolutionary substrates (more or less “speciose” or prone to development of reproductive isolating mechanisms) and on different evolutionary topographies (narrow and broach niches).

Some drainage systems are strongly constrained. As an evolutionary metaphor, this can represent as well as provide some explanation for why some evolutionary lineages remain relatively static or “linear” for long periods of evolutionary time.


Other drainage systems meander and separate across the landscape freely, relatively unencumbered by topographic or substrate constraints, in the same way perhaps that some evolutionary lineages rapidly differentiate.



One of the main stumbling blocks for some skeptics of evolution is the process of speciation itself. These people are happy to accept that species change over time (“microevolution”), but have trouble accepting that new species have arisen via evolutionary processes over time (“macroevolution”). Talking about trees doesn’t help this confusion. While an evolutionary tree represents something about how species are related, contrary to Darwin’s 1859 illustration, it really does not tell us anything about the process that gives rise to species or the variation inherent in that process!

Water flows…in much the same way that heritable material is exchanged within and between populations in a gene pool. The movement of water throughout a drainage system can therefore represent not only the relationship between related species, but also tell us something about the evolutionary processes which have shaped the different pattern of species that we see. Watersheds have the added bonus of giving us a little more flexibility to consider processes like introgression, the periodic movement of genetic material between species (think “floods” or “rain”).

Following the recent Calpe 2015 conference via twitter, it was fascinating to (virtually) see a discussion among prominent anthropologists about the proper use of species concepts in paleoanthropology. Even professionals struggle with this! And the struggle isn’t, largely, about how to convey the relationship between species. It is about what processes are important in generating lasting evolutionary differences. In other words, it is about the topography and substrate on which human evolution is taking place. I think we can all agree that we can recognize evolutionary differences, the challenge is how we assign value within a taxonomic system to those differences. Recognizing that engaging in “species argument” in this context is not really about the name, it is about the process, a better metaphor can help.

I love trees. Trees do a pretty good job of representing how things are related. But I love water even more. As a metaphor for evolution, water has the added advantage of potentially telling us not just about the relationship between species, but also the unique processes by which species are created. Or so I think…

Posted in Evolution, Fossils, Genetics | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Homo naledi, part 1

Paleoanthropology got front-page (above the fold!) coverage last week with the announcement and initial publication of Homo naledi, a new species of Homo, based on the large assemblage of hominin fossils recovered from the Rising Star Cave, South Africa, in 2013. The fossils, more than 1,500 of them in all, represent one of the largest single locality samples of hominins ever published. That is a big deal. Regardless of whether you agree with the initial scientific conclusions of the research team regarding where this assemblage fits in the human evolutionary story (and I will have more on that later in the week), this is a human evolutionary story worth following. Before I get into the details of the fossils themselves, I want to highlight the process that led to this publication, and why it is such a positive step forward for paleoanthropology.


The semester just began here at Wellesley, which means I am fresh off several lectures focused on the nature of science and scientific knowledge production. Paleoanthropology, as a science, faces several challenges. One of the first is that paleoanthropology is inherently tied to the material evidence of human evolution. We can (and do) learn a vast amount about the world around us, including our evolutionary origins, through comparative research on living organisms in a contemporary context. But in the end, it is necessary to go back to the fossil record itself to gather direct evidence of our evolutionary past and to test hypotheses about the events that shaped us into the species that we have become. This is a challenge, in part, because most of our evolutionary story is in Africa, and most of the funding for studying human evolution is in North America and Europe. Additionally, paleoanthropology, and particularly the field work side of things, has historically been dominated by male voices (though check out Trowelblazers for amazing stories of pioneering women in the field!). These two items, coupled with the gate-keeping nature of many academic structures, have limited who has access to the basic observational data at the core of paleoanthropology.

The strength of science is that it attempts to be a fully translatable system of knowledge. Given the same set of observations, two informed individuals can reach the same conclusion. This, in turn, allows the knowledge produced by science to be cumulative, leading to further and further refinements about our understanding of the observable world around us. The assumption that two individuals can have access to the same set of observations too often turns out not to be the case in paleoanthropology.

The Rising Star project, organized by the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, was international, inclusive, and conspicuously focused on assisting new voices in our field. Following the initial recovery of materials from the cave, work carried out in large part by six female researchers, the “workshop” that conducted the initial investigation of these materials targeted graduate students and pre-tenure faculty (I got tenure a year too soon!…just kidding). I can’t speak to how this all actually worked out, but these are certainly positive ideals to shoot for. And then there is this…


The picture above is a 3D model of the UW 101-1261 mandible from the Dinaledi chamber of the Rising Star Cave system. It is part of the type specimen of Homo naledi, and the model is freely available on the open access site, So here I am, before class, printing it out.

IMG_4756 (1)

Paleoanthropology cannot be a science if the only voices involved in shaping the knowledge we produce are the few who have access to the primary observational data. A 3D model like that above cannot replace the “real thing,” and there is still tremendous value in the actual original material itself. That is not going to change. But the ability to conduct good science is immensely aided by enhancing access to the primary data in our field. There have been numerous attempts to increase the level of access to fossil material in paleoanthropology, but I can’t think of anything quite on this scale, in terms of the amount of material made public and speed with which it has been done.

Homo naledi may indeed be a “new branch” on the human evolutionary story. It might tell us exciting new things about the evolution of our lineage. Or maybe it will just re-confirm or solidify things we already know. I don’t know. But given I can directly access a lot of the material directly, within days of the initial publication, in my lab…at least I have the hope of someday knowing.

And by the way…if you are interested in learning more about human evolution, including Homo naledi, check out Anthropology 207x, an open-access course on human evolution! If you do, you will be part of the now more than 30,000 people who have taken part in the course since it debuted two years ago!

Posted in Anthropology, Evolution, Fossils | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Breast milk isn’t magic, it IS an important evolutionary feature in humans

I started the day off yesterday by upsetting some colleagues.

You see, Dr. Katie Hinde (@Mammals_Suck) is a human evolutionary biologist (I like to say anthropologist) at Harvard whose expertise is on mammalian lactation. Dr. Elizabeth Quinn (@Quinnanthrowman) is an anthropologist with expertise in the same area at Washington University. And what I had done was point out this editorial by Dr. Emily Oster (@profemilyoster), an economist at Brown University. In that essay, Oster concludes:

Many women find breastfeeding to be an enjoyable way to bond with their babies. There is certainly no evidence that breastfeeding is any worse for a baby than formula. And maybe there are some early-life benefits in terms of digestion and rashes, which you may or may not think are important. But what the evidence says is that the popular perception that breast milk is some kind of magical substance that will lead your child to be healthy and brilliant is simply not correct.

Breast milk is not magical. But breast milk is the product of a long evolutionary heritage shared by mammals, and something that does do some pretty surprising and amazing things for infants.

Oster raises some good points in her essay, most notably that we should all calm down a little bit about breastfeeding. There is plenty of “mother-shaming” that is already going on, we don’t need to contribute to it, particularly when many women find themselves in positions where they are actively constrained from the kinds of parenting decisions they can make because of legal, socio-economic, or simply culturally discriminating practices. But as someone teaching a course about human evolution to a public audience of 5000 people at the moment, and having just made the argument that understanding human evolution is important because it matters today, and because I really like Katie and Elizabeth and feel bad for ruining their day…I wanted to respond to some of the points Prof. Oster leaves out.

To begin…Prof. Oster writes this:

The purported benefits of nursing (here is one list from the California Department of Public Health) extend to better mother-infant bonding, lower infant mortality, fewer infections in infancy, higher IQ, higher wages in adulthood, less cancer and on and on. If one takes the claims seriously, it is not difficult to conclude that breastfed babies are all thin, rich geniuses who love their mothers and are never sick a day in their lives while formula-fed babies become overweight, low-IQ adults who hate their parents and spend most of their lives in the hospital.

“…it is not difficult to conclude…” well…except that such a conclusion would be wrong. Suggesting breast milk has advantages does not mean it is an automatic path to a determined outcome. It means that it is, on average, likely to accrue positive benefits. This means that breast feeding might shift the possible distribution of outcomes in a positive direction, which is good. I think of as a site grounded in sound statistical and probabilistic reasoning, so I was surprised that Prof. Oster would falsely relay such a probabilistic shift as leading to a kind of assumed certainty. That is not what the research says, even though Prof. Oster seems to imply that this is inevitably how people will read it.

In poor countries where water quality is very poor, these benefits may be very large since the alternative is to use formula made with contaminated water. In developed countries — the main focus of the discussion here — this isn’t an issue.

Here the anthropologist in me just has to jump up and point out that poor water quality is not a condition confined to or inherent to “poor” countries. This kind of construction–assuming a problem found in “other” places does not extend to “us” here in the wonderful US of A–is very common and not at all helpful (in addition to being wrong).

And if you are planning to be home with your baby for an extended period of time, breastfeeding can be convenient and inexpensive (if you are planning to return to work, this is largely not the case, given the time and costs of pumping).

Here my issue is that there is an assumption embedded here that working and breastfeeding cannot go together without pumping. This is part of that larger structural problem with how we “normalize” particular kinds of maternal parenting behaviors. Not everyone can nurse at work, but far more people can than are allowed to because of overly restrictive understandings of what breast feeding is held by many in this country (and many other countries). I can eat a sandwich during a lunch meeting, why can’t a baby nurse? It really is not a big deal.

It is not that the claims about benefits are completely made up. They are mostly based on some data. The trouble is that the evidence they are based on is often seriously biased by the fact that women who breastfeed are typically different from those who do not. Breastfeeding rates differ dramatically across income, education and race.

Yes! This is a good point. And it is a reason to continue to press to study breast feeding more and in more different contexts. But it is not a reason to disregard to the results of those studies that have been done. And, oh by the way, anthropologists have been studying breast feeding in other contexts for a long time.

In the U.S. (and most developed countries), white, wealthy women with a lot of education are much, much more likely to nurse their babies than the rest of the population. But these demographic characteristics are also linked to better outcomes for infants even independent of breastfeeding. This makes it very difficult to infer the actual causal effect of breastfeeding. Sure, there is a correlation between nursing and various good outcomes — but that doesn’t mean that for an individual woman, nursing her baby would improve the child’s life.

Excellent…correlation does not equal causation. To understand causation, you actually want to look at the evolutionary and biological mechanisms associated with lactation, breastfeeding, and infant health. That is exactly the kind of work that Katie and Elizabeth (and many others) do! And here is my real rub…there is a lot of value in putting together pieces that synthesize a large body of research for a public audience. I try to do some of that here. But if you are trying to explain the “science” behind scientific studies you need to do so in a comprehensive and thorough fashion. Implying the multiple correlations make it impossible to trust the results of studies showing positive outcomes associated with breastfeeding is only fine if we don’t have other studies which actually demonstrate the causal mechanisms underlying those outcomes. And we do!

(As an aside, I am not even going to go into the use of IQ as an evaluative property of an individual here, but I have strong feelings about why this is a poor understanding of what IQ is that I have written elsewhere)

Oster continues:

To actually learn about the impacts of breastfeeding, we need to rely on studies in which breastfeeding is assigned randomly (the best option) or, in the absence of that experiment design, studies that somehow fully adjust for differences across women.

I am fortunate to conduct most of my research in the serene environment of paleolandscapes with long dead hominin fossils. But in the real world, the awesome people who study these kinds of topics are working with real people. Real mothers and real infants. And real IRB boards, and real study sampling challenges, and real ethical considerations for how we construct “ideal” samples. These are not mere obstacles in the way of getting at “the true data,” they are valuable, legitimate, and necessary components of the research process.

Given how much interest there is in this topic, it is perhaps surprising that we have only this one large randomized trial of breastfeeding. It’s not clear to me why this is the case. People may be so convinced of the benefits of breastfeeding that they see no need for further testing. Or it may be that a large enough study is too daunting and expensive to run. Whatever the reason, the randomized evidence is limited to this single case.

See above. And, we do not only gather knowledge about health from randomized trials. There are lots of studies about the biology, evolution, and variation surrounding lactation, nursing, and infant health that are available. LOTS. As one example, there is the Cebu Longitudinal Health and Nutrition Survey that has been looking at breastfeeding among a variety of other health behaviors in the Philippines for more than two decades.

So what does evolution have to offer to our understanding of breastfeeding and its importance? I will just give you the basics, and leave the rest to those colleagues of mine who are actual legitimate experts in this area. First of all, the infant developmental period is a hugely critical window in our lives. For at least the past two million years and probably the past four million years, human childhood has been getting longer. The reason for this is that childhood has become an increasingly evolutionarily important period for the development and transmission of life characteristics associated with adult morbidity and fertility. We don’t just learn how to be adults in childhood, our bodies learn how to interact with the food, pathogens, and other biological and social aspects of the world around us. And evolution has been making this more and more the case for a long time. Humans are not born as little adults. We are born as infants with a basic, but vastly incomplete paradigm of who we might become. We rely on life, our parents, and the world around us to help fill that in.

In this context, milk is not merely a food product for infants, it is a transmission mechanism between mother and offspring. Milk contains not just macronutrients used for fuel, but also hormones and other physiologically active endocrine communicators to convey evolutionarily valuable information to an infant. These signals play a role in the development of infant immune systems, organ function, metabolic pathways, genetic expression, and on and on and on…

There are lots of ways to be a great mother. Breastfeeding can be part of that. It would be great if we had public policies and cultural norms that made breastfeeding easier for mothers. From an evolutionary perspective, breastfeeding is not as important as many people think…it is MORE important than most people think. Lots of studies, not just of the outcome of breastfeeding, but of the biology and evolutionary perspectives that underlie nursing in mammals, demonstrate this.

And if you don’t trust me, trust the experts:

Mega mammal milk analysis, by Dr. Katie Hinde
Getting the message via milk, by Dr. Katie Hinde
When to wean, by Dr. Katie Hinde
Of mice and milk, mind and memory, by Dr. Katie Hinde
Sweet mother monkey milk cortisol, reloaded, by Dr. Katie Hinde
Nursing patterns and mothers milk, by Dr. Katie Hinde
Human milk has a microbiome, by Dr. EA Quinn
Milk remembers, by Dr. EA Quinn
Milk responds, by Dr. EA Quinn

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Reason #1 to enroll in 207x

The actual start of the course (and the end of classes at Wellesley) kept me from finishing this off. But Anthropology 207x (Introduction to Human Evolution) is off to a fantastic start and you can continue to enroll at any point, so without further ado….

Previous entries:
#10 Origin stories are captivating. Scientific origin stories can be unifying.
#9 It’s open and free!
#8 Our evolutionary past informs how we understand human difference today
#7 You will be sharing the experience with 1000s of others
#6 Human evolution encompasses a fascinating set of questions, bringing together many different disciplines
#5 Human health lies at the intersection of our evolutionary past and contemporary present
#4 207x meets on your time
#3 Understanding evolution connects our past with the present/
#2 It is worth your time (and not just because it is free)

Reason 1 – Understanding how evolution operates, even a little, is important

As I have already mentioned, knowing how evolution works provides us with a valuable perspective for understanding human difference today and for how human health works. But here’s the thing. Understanding how evolution works is actually important for lots of things. First of all, many systems, not just biological ones, operate with some kind of evolutionary dynamics. By that I mean, systems that are based on replication with modification are pretty widespread. And that is evolution…descent with modification. Machine learning…that’s evolutionary. How your kid learns to use language…that’s evolutionary.

On top of that, it is not just that many important things have evolutionary dynamics, it is also that some very important things are fundamentally grounded in how evolution works. The relationship between population size, health, the environment, and technology…that’s evolution. The co-evolution between humans and bacteria that necessitates newer and more effective anti-biotics, that’s evolution. Understanding what “natural” means in the context of genetically-modified organisms, that’s evolution.

We value certain subjects because of their assumed universal necessity. You need to know how to communicate and understand others when they communicate, so you learn to read and write. You need to be able to work with numbers and quantifiable things, so you learn math. We are evolved organisms. Our way of life is a product of our evolutionary past. We live in an evolving world. Evolution is grounded in the interaction of a few basic principles and processes that operate even outside the biological world. It is a good, and important, thing to know how evolution works.

The course is live, but you are always welcome to join.

Enroll in 207x here!

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Reason #2 to enroll in 207x

Continuing my series on the top 10 reasons to enroll in Anthropology 207x (Introduction to Human Evolution), which officially begins on May 6th….

Previous entries:
#10 Origin stories are captivating. Scientific origin stories can be unifying.
#9 It’s open and free!
#8 Our evolutionary past informs how we understand human difference today
#7 You will be sharing the experience with 1000s of others
#6 Human evolution encompasses a fascinating set of questions, bringing together many different disciplines
#5 Human health lies at the intersection of our evolutionary past and contemporary present
#4 207x meets on your time
#3 Understanding evolution connects our past with the present/

Reason 2 – It is worth your time (and not just because it is free)

As I said in an earlier post in this series, 207x actually takes a significant amount of time to complete. Many people naively assume that because it is online, it is more or less instantaneous. Even if you watch all of the video lectures for 207x at double-time, or you bypass those videos altogether and use your speed reading abilities on the transcripts, it takes time.

But it is worth your time. I could have said that prior to the first run of the course, predicated on my knowledge of the time I, and other members of the WellesleyX/EdX production team, put into making the course. Now that isn’t necessary, though. Now I can say 207x is worth your time because of the several thousand learners who experienced it the first time and told me how much they valued their experience. Here are some of their thoughts on the topic:

I would like to thank you Professor and your staff at Wellseley for offering this MOOC. I loved every minute of it. After work, no matter how tired I was, I couldn’t wait to dive into a video or lab. The videos shot outside were a brilliant touch — especially the ones in which we could see and hear our cousins in the background. The labs were excellent. And, the lectures themselves were well paced and always tightly focused on the topic so no getting lost. I also liked their length — not overwhelming at all:) The final video was just amazing! This course has been an intellectual life raft for the past twelve weeks inspiring lots of late night skypes with friends in other countries. I really hope this is just the beginning of evolution courses with you and your team. Thank you so much.

This has been a completely amazing course that has stretched my imagination to the nth about who we are, where we came from, and how we got here through millions of years of evolution. It has changed my entire perspective on our past and present, and given me the beginnings of a window through which to imagine who our ancestors were and what they could have been thinking and experiencing. I’ve always been a fan of this subject, but this course has actually provided a way to think deeply and scientifically meaningfully about these very profound questions. I will definitely follow up in any way possible. Thank you!!

This has been the most satisfying structured educational experience of my rather long, generally unconventional, and ultimately advanced (doctorate degree) academic career. Every aspect engaged my interest, particularly the labs that elucidated some of the genomic techniques that are used in this field of study. Not only has the content been fascinating, but it is also the case that the presentation is polished as well as warm and inviting. From both a personal and a professional standpoint, I have been elevated by this course.

Professor, I’ve taken dozens of MOOCs, and I can honestly say that this class was the best of them all. I am very thankful for all the effort you put into providing a wonderful learning experience for us students. I think this class hit the best balance I have seen between accessibility and challenge, and I really learned a lot.

I am just getting out of the military after 6 years of service, and currently applying to colleges to use my GI Bill. MOOCs provided me a great resource to “shop around” for colleges by allowing me to get a sense of what the coursework is like, and the character of the school and its faculty. Plus, the fact that a university is investing in MOOCs shows that they are on the forefront of education and pushing boundaries!

I enjoyed this class so much that I wanted to apply to Wellesley.

The more time spent with this material, the more powerful it became in terms of expanding one’s sense of where we have been and even where we stand right now. The course was addictive to the point that many other things on the personal TO DO last got set aside. No regrets, however.
Anyone who has ever been a teacher knows how much time it takes to prepare material for students. Thank you APV for all the time you (and your staff!) took so that so many of us could have the opportunity to learn about something that we might not otherwise would have had the discipline to tackle!!

One additional comment. This was a bucket-list item… Check!

I will have additional updates each day between now and May 6, when the course goes live.

Enroll in 207x here!

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Reason #3 to enroll in 207x

Continuing my series on the top 10 reasons to enroll in Anthropology 207x (Introduction to Human Evolution), which officially begins on May 6th….

Previous entries:
#10 Origin stories are captivating. Scientific origin stories can be unifying.
#9 It’s open and free!
#8 Our evolutionary past informs how we understand human difference today
#7 You will be sharing the experience with 1000s of others
#6 Human evolution encompasses a fascinating set of questions, bringing together many different disciplines
#5 Human health lies at the intersection of our evolutionary past and contemporary present
#4 207x meets on your time

Reason 3 – Understanding evolution connects our past with the present

The expression, “those who do not know the past are condemned to repeat it,” or some version thereof, is well known. And while I would not say that failure to know our evolutionary past condemns us to repeat it–indeed, the one constant in evolution is that time moves forward–it does have many lessons for us in the present.

Many of the fundamental challenges that face us in the modern world can be traced back to our Pleistocene evolutionary roots. The struggle for stable and sufficient food resources goes back to our foraging past and is pivotal in our transition to agricultural production in the Holocene. The movement to increasingly dense, urban lifestyles, also goes back at least to that transition, some 15,000 years ago. The challenge of dealing with aging, and the blessing and curse of increased longevity, has traces in the early Pleistocene. Our fascination and dependency on technology as a means to navigate and delimit our relationship with the world around us, goes back at least to the beginning of the Pleistocene (perhaps earlier, if recent research on the topic is correct).

The world's first grandmother? (or maybe grandfather...)

The world’s first grandmother? (or maybe grandfather…)

It is easy to view the contemporary (“modern”) world as a unique entity. Global climate change is a recent, human-caused problem. Public health epidemics are a problem with how we live today. Food insecurity is a contemporary political problem. All of these views are meaningful, but they also obscure the longer patterns of behavior and evolutionary change that stretch deep into our past. Better understanding this relationships gives us more capacity to understand and act in the face of contemporary challenges.

So, no, failing to understand our evolutionary past is not going to condemn you to an Australopithecine future. But…it does limit the knowledge available to you with which you can assess the present and contemplate the future.

I will have additional updates each day between now and May 6, when the course goes live.

Enroll in 207x here!

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Reason #4 to enroll in 207x

Continuing my series on the top 10 reasons to enroll in Anthropology 207x (Introduction to Human Evolution), which officially begins on May 6th….

Previous entries:
#10 Origin stories are captivating. Scientific origin stories can be unifying.
#9 It’s open and free!
#8 Our evolutionary past informs how we understand human difference today
#7 You will be sharing the experience with 1000s of others
#6 Human evolution encompasses a fascinating set of questions, bringing together many different disciplines
#5 Human health lies at the intersection of our evolutionary past and contemporary present

Reason 4 – 207x meets on your time

207x takes time. If you participate fully in the course, it really will take you 4-6 hours a week to complete (more, if you become highly involved in the discussion forums or spend extra time re-watching lectures or reviewing assignments). Over twelve weeks, that is more than 50 hours of time. As a working parent of three, I know that 50 hours is not in any way an insignificant amount of time. I often long for a free 20 minutes in my day to day schedule (I am actually writing this post from a Starbucks parking lot during the warm-up for my daughter’s soccer game).

What makes that 50 hours manageable is that you can spread it out however you would like. The course is not divided into fifty one-hour lectures. Instead, the lecture content for the course is divided across about 166 videos, average about five minutes in length. They are always available to watch, and they are always available to go back and re-watch. They all have searchable, downloadable transcripts, synched to the video, to enable easier review. If you have a particularly busy week and need to take some time off…you can. If you want to spend a weekend binge-taking the course…you can.

All of this is not to say that all strategies for taking the course are likely to lead to the same positive learning outcome. But at least you have the freedom to structure your experience of the course around the realities of your schedule.

This was my first experience with online learning and what a wonderful experience it was. I graduated college with a degree in Anthropology in 1984 and have not been subjected to the rigors of academia since that time. Even with 3 kids, a full time job and a dog that always needed a walk in the middle of my 207X session, I managed to hang on and complete the course, even passing it!! The course you provided, in my opinion, truly set the bar very high. I want to thank Wellesley College for supporting MOOC, Professor Van Arsdale and staff for their excellent work in providing a superior online learning experience.

I will have additional updates each day between now and May 6, when the course goes live.

Enroll in 207x here!

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Reason #5 to enroll in 207x

Continuing my series on the top 10 reasons to enroll in Anthropology 207x (Introduction to Human Evolution), which officially begins on May 6th….

Previous entries:
#10 Origin stories are captivating. Scientific origin stories can be unifying.
#9 It’s open and free!
#8 Our evolutionary past informs how we understand human difference today
#7 You will be sharing the experience with 1000s of others
#6 Human evolution encompasses a fascinating set of questions, bringing together many different disciplines

Reason 5 – Human health lies at the intersection of our evolutionary past and contemporary present

Knowledge is wonderful. I love knowing things just to know them. This is perhaps one of the qualities that has led me on the career path I have chosen, and one of the reasons I have loved being affiliated with institutions of higher education for 18 years and counting. But as great as it is to know something, it is even more satisfying when you can use that knowledge in meaningful ways. One of the areas that knowledge about how evolution works, and specifically knowledge about our evolutionary past as a species, becomes useful is in understanding contemporary human health.

As an example, my father and I have both been dealing with knee problems of late. My problems began 8 months ago when our family moved, and I spent several weeks lugging boxes and awkward furniture up and down stairs and into and out of trucks. My father’s problems seem to be more chronic, relating to years of wear and tear. Knee problems are not uncommon, and both situations, mine and my father’s, seem pretty standard. Many of us face similar kinds of health issues everyday. The most typical responses people have to health problems are either to ignore them, or to go to a doctor, both of which might produce varying kinds of outcomes (at the moment, I am doing the former, while my dad is doing the latter).

If we had bird legs, my dad and I probably would not have knee problems

If we had bird legs, my dad and I probably would not have knee problems

Questions of health like these can also be informed by understanding a little bit about our evolutionary past. In the case above, that understanding begins with knowing more about human anatomy, and the evolutionary events that have shaped our musculo-skeletal system. Our knee is a product of the compromises that went into the emergence of bipedality some five million years ago, and the evolution of a modern postcranial skeleton over the past two million years. We could interrogate the issue even further by looking at what kind of evolutionary environment shaped the knee over this time period, and how does our current reality, living in the 21st century, differ from that evolutionary past. Or we could think more critically about human gait–actually how we walk–and how we as individuals, in particular, walk. This kind of functional anatomy/biomechanic approach is commonly employed by biological anthropologists to understand our evolutionary past, but it also gives us a more informed vantage point on the present.

Perhaps instead, you are interested in the rising incidence of lyme disease in the United States. Taking an evolutionary perspective, we might have a better way of understanding the changing nature of such a human-parasite interaction. Or maybe you want to know why it seems like food allergies are so much more common than you remember as a kid? Again, an evolutionary/anthropological perspective can help.

Knowing something about evolution doesn’t make you a doctor. But it can provide you with a more informed position, allowing you to better interact with your physician. At a time when faux-science and anti-science health claims are incredibly widespread (see some examples here, here, and here). Science isn’t perfect, but scientific literary allows us to make more informed and critical decisions about a range of issues, including human health.

I will have additional updates each day between now and May 6, when the course goes live.

Enroll in 207x here!

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Reason #6 to enroll in 207x

Continuing my series on the top 10 reasons to enroll in Anthropology 207x (Introduction to Human Evolution), which officially begins on May 6th….

Previous entries:
#10 Origin stories are captivating. Scientific origin stories can be unifying.
#9 It’s open and free!
#8 Our evolutionary past informs how we understand human difference today
#7 You will be sharing the experience with 1000s of others

Reason 6 – Human evolution encompasses a fascinating set of questions, bringing together many different disciplines

What got me hooked on human evolution was my undergraduate senior thesis. I probably had a latent, National Geographic-inspired interest in the topic, but it was the effort of putting together that work that made me sure I wanted to go to grad school, get a Ph.D., and pursue this as a career.

My undergraduate thesis was a synthesis of literature on the question of whether or not the human species experienced a Late Pleistocene (~100-200 KYA) population bottleneck. On the surface, it seems a banal question. Did the human species get really small for a time during the ice ages? It turns out to be quite complex, though, and amenable to data and theory derived from lots of different sources. At the time, the mid/late ’90s, there was an emerging body of genetic literature on the topic. Groundbreaking work on mitochondrial DNA in the late ’80s and early ’90s had suggested the entire human species, or at least our mitochondrial DNA, had a relatively recent and narrow origin, someplace in Africa, sometime in the past 200,000 years. But a larger body of nuclear DNA data was just coming online, and those data were not quite so clear on this point. Much of my thesis was a review of this literature and grounded in my first voyage into population genetics theory.

But the topic expands into a whole host of other areas. What about the archaeological record? What can a widespread record of cultural change through time–some of it indicating continuity, some of it not–say about population history and our species origin? And doesn’t our understanding of subsistence foraging populations in the current and recent past inform these questions? And shouldn’t we ask questions about the paleoclimatic record in more detail? And don’t those lead into more complex ecological questions about specific habitat utilization? And don’t those questions lead back into questions about population dynamics, and back into that basic population genetics theory? And what about the whole host of related issues regarding human physiology, biological development, human plasticity, comparative nonhuman primate data, and on and on and on…

A brief perusal of the most recent issue of the Journal of Human Evolution reveals a similar diversity of topics:
* Stable isotope paleoecology of Late Pleistocene Middle Stone Age humans from the Lake Victoria basin, Kenya
* Spatial and temporal variation of body size among early Homo
* A geometric morphometrics comparative analysis of Neandertal humeri (epiphyses-fused) from the El Sidrón cave site
* The Neanderthal in the karst: First dating, morphometric, and paleogenetic data on the fossil skeleton from Altamura
* The lithic industry of Sima del Elefante (Atapuerca, Burgos, Spain)
* Dental eruption in East African wild chimpanzees
* Do bimanual coordination, tool use, and body posture contribute equally to hand preferences in bonobos?

The point being, human evolution is fascinating because it is a set of complex questions. As a paleoanthropologist, you are arriving on the scene of an investigation not knowing who the characters were involved, what happened, and how the events preceded. But you know something happened, otherwise you (and more broadly, we, as a species) wouldn’t be who you are today. Against these odds, though, are the many different lines of evidence that inform our understanding of the past. As an anthropologist first and foremost, I am naturally pre-disposed to enjoy this kind of interdisciplinary admixture. And hopefully you will, too…

I will have additional updates each day between now and May 6, when the course goes live.

Enroll in 207x here!

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