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 fivethirtyeight.com 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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Reason #7 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

Reason 7 – You will be sharing the experience with 1000s of others

We are making a big enrollment push in anticipation of next week’s course re-launch. Yesterday alone, more than 1500 learners signed up for 207x, Introduction to Human Evolution. I don’t need to go more than a few dozen names down the list to find people ranging in age from 78 to 18, and home addresses as close as Cambridge, MA, or as far as Egypt, Australia, Hungary, South Africa, and Belize. The first run of 207x had students from more than 120 countries.

207x v1.0 student enrollment

207x v1.0 student enrollment

I am of two minds on the “massiveness” of MOOCs. On one hand, it is undeniably exciting. I was anticipating a large set of students during our first run, but even I was taken aback by what that actually looks like in practice. On the other hand, I tend to think the “massiveness” for the sake of massiveness gets overplayed in terms of its importance when it comes to MOOCs. It is fascinating to have a worldwide class–and in a course about human evolution, where human biological variation is the main theme, it has significant pedagogical value–but I firmly believe learning outcomes are at their best when students are personally engaged with a course, its instructors, and their fellow learners.

And this is where my two minds come together. One of the things I tried to encourage in the course’s first run was for learners to seek out other learners and share the experience. That there was a study group for 207x meeting in Bogota, Colombia, and another one in Saskatchewan, Canada, for example, blew me away. Groups of students met up and did museum trips and attended lectures at local institutions. I wrote about this at the time, but the idea that a MOOCs massiveness can facilitate social action and social learning is pretty incredible.

207x is an online course. You can take it on your schedule. But you don’t have to do it alone. This time around I am going to work even harder to try and facilitate those personal connections between students and solicit feedback on those encounters. As one student wrote at the end of our first run:

Don’t tell me that online education is not interactive, not emotional and not personal. I’ve never thought this would be possible in an online course. As a former teacher I loved the interaction in a classroom between students and myself, and this course was close to the real thing.

I couldn’t hope for anything more.

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 #8 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!

Reason 8 – Our evolutionary past informs how we understand human difference today

It is hard to look at the news each day–today mine features the double blow of the ongoing reaction to police violence in Baltimore and the combination of heroism and tragedy that is inherent to Nepal’s ongoing earthquake response–and not be aware of the tremendous diversity of life experiences encompassed by humanity. Not only are our lives different, but how we see and interact with the world is different. And we are different.

The pattern of human differences is, in part, a product of our evolutionary past. This is true in two critical ways. First, the pattern of inherited differences that forms the substrate of human biological variation is very directly a product of our evolutionary past. The expansions, dispersals, connections, and response to specific regimes of natural selection that human populations have undergone over the many millennia of our past shape the broad outlines of that complex reality. Hiding in plain sight in this pattern is the overwhelming shared similarity that represents all of humanity. We share much of the evolutionarily significant events as part of our common human story. The differences that do exist often defy simple categorizations of human variation that we tend to employ and have employed throughout history, such as social categories of race. Knowing how evolution works and how evolution has worked are important components to understanding why we are different (and similar!) today.

More subtlety, how we cognitively and linguistically interact with each other, how we recognize and identify similarities and differences between ourselves and others, is itself a product of our evolutionary past. In other words, our brain has evolved specific mechanisms and we have evolved specific developmentally plastic pathways to shape how we identify people apart from us. The interplay between culture and biology through evolved cognitive structures is hugely important. And hugely consequential for how we understand the often tragic and horrific path of human history when it comes to responses to systems of human categorization.

Check out the AAA’s “Understanding Race” project for more information.

From the AAA “Understanding Race” project

Understanding how we are different (and how little), and how and why evolution has shaped human variation in the ways that it has, provides an important vantage point on human diversity in the present.

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 #9 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.

Reason #9 – It is open and free.

This one is almost too easy. Anthropology 207x is free. It costs you nothing to enroll, browse, explore, and learn. There is an option to pay a small fee for a “verified certificate” from the course, but all of the content, all of the material, all of the exercises are fully open and free.

The fact that this course is free and open is important to me for reasons that go well beyond increasing enrollment. Evolution remains poorly understood and stubbornly controversial within the United States and many other parts of the world. As such, resources for learning and teaching about evolution can, at times, be difficult to access. For more details on this, you can check out last week’s Science Friday podcast, which featured a segment with Dr. Amanda Glaze (@evophd) on the challenges and opportunities of being a science instructor in the U.S. South (you can also check out their web discussion here). I would like 207x to be one small effort to change that.

It was hugely gratifying to see so many positive responses from learners who took the course in its first run who are also teachers. I would like to see that success again:

It has been 20 years since I took evolution and I feel that I have a better grasp than ever on the origins of humans and their relationship to other primates. This is my second MOOC course and I have thoroughly enjoyed learning in the format just for the sake of learning. It will make me a better teacher if I continue to work on the areas I am weak and that is my ultimate goal. THANK YOU!

I want to thank Edx, Wellesley and especially APV for making such an interesting MOOC. I felt I was at university. I had to solve some problems as I kept on with the course due to my ignorance, but I’ve learnt so much. Yes, so much that I find myself at parties or “ASADOS” (I live in Argentina), talking about Evolution and genetics and so many other things. It is a topic that relates to every aspect of our lives. As a teacher, I must tell you that you’ve inspired me. I’ve enrolled in other evolution courses, and I hope you will organize a second round.

I’m a high school Biology teacher and I really enjoyed every lecture. I learned so much and can’t wait to share some of my new knowledge with my students. I can’t thank you enough for taking the time to offer all of the content for FREE- wow edx and Professor Van Arsdale- great MOOC!!

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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