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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Reason #10 to enroll in 207x

With the re-launch of Anth 207x (Introduction to Human Evolution) just 10 days away, I wanted to highlight some of the reasons you should consider enrolling in the course. Each day between now and May 6th, the start date for the course, I will highlight one reason to take 207x. Without further ado…

Reason #10 – Origin stories are captivating. Scientific origin stories can be unifying.

My father is currently in the midst of what seems to be some kind of right of passage for a certain kind of recently retired person. He is investigating our family lineage. Where did we—and in this case, the broad ancestral web of kin that represent “we”—come from? What stories are part of our past? He has tried to convince me that at some point in that ever expanding web we cross paths with the original governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and a Moroccan pirate with five or six wives. I am skeptical. But my dad is fascinated. In 30+ years maybe I will be, too.

Nearly every cultural tradition has an origin story or myth as part of its heritage. In cultures of faith, such stories are often foundational, connecting the realities of the present to a divine and infinite past. Browse across cultures and many of these stories are fascinating, incorporating elements of human nature with supernatural events. In some faiths, humans are created from mud, in others, from water. The supernatural aspects of these stories require faith. Were I to believe, for example, that the heavens and earth and all things in it were created in seven days would be to suspend my understanding of how the world around me works. It would, in other words, require faith. No observation I could make could prove or support the story. Indeed, were I to depend on such an observation I would be leaving the world of “faith” behind. As such, origin stories of this kind are inherently personal. If I believe one thing and my neighbor believes another, there is no guarantee anything can bridge this gap in belief between us. Certainly, many cultures of faith find overlap in the principals they espouse or the practices they perform, creating ecumenical structures. But faith does not guarantee such outcomes.

Part of humanity's shared evolutionary past, coming out of the ground....

Part of humanity’s shared evolutionary past, coming out of the ground….

Human evolution is the story of where all of us, the entire human species, comes from. And unlike stories of faith, our evolutionary history is not grounded in belief. It is grounded in observation. It comes from our understanding of the principles which govern biological change through time and our knowledge of specific fossils drawn from the past. While science typically falls short of this goal, in theory, science seeks to create an understanding the brings people together in a mutual interpretation of shared observations. Science bridges. Human evolution is story of our past that we all share in common.

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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Finalizing my course on poverty…

What have I missed in my syllabus? (click link below for preliminary syllabus)


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#BioAnth at AAA: the meeting within a meeting

Last week the American Anthropological Association held their annual meetings in Washington, D.C. This is the largest gathering of anthropologists in the world, this year topping 7,000 registered attendees. But of this large group, only a small fraction are members of the Biological Anthropology Section (BAS). This creates an interesting dynamic. On one hand, all of the typical trappings of a large-scale conference are present (including the high price tag), with hordes of people roaming the halls and staking out every available outlet in the lobby, a seemingly endless number of overlapping paper sessions, and that steady background hum of academic conversation. And yet, for someone focused primarily on biological anthropology, the space can feel quite intimate.

This year I was kept busy at the meetings primarily with business work (e.g. conducting job interviews for a search in our department, reviewing BAS student prize submissions, volunteering at a workshop on post-grad school employment), but the past two years I have participated on some of the most exciting panels I have been part of in my career to date.


Last year, it was, “Entangling the Biological: Steps Towards and Integrative Anthropology.” Organized by Katie MacKinnon and Agustin Fuentes, this was an all-star panel (and I do not include myself in that categorization), featuring Jim McKenna, Jon Marks, Libby Cowgill, Kristi Lewton, Lee Gettler, Michael Park, Karen Strier, Michelle Benzanson, Robin Nelson, Lance Gravelee, Erin Riley, and Julienne Rutherford. Rock stars all of them. But also scholars representing a variety of sub-disciplines in biological anthropology and coming from across several generations of scholarship within biological anthropology. Here is proof:


It is hard to have rich dialogues across this kind of spectrum of scholarship at the AAPA meetings, for example, where the concentration of ~3000 biological anthropologists inevitably causes you to drift towards your own sub-sub-fields and colleagues with whom you have worked and spent time with in the field in the past. This is not a criticism of the AAPAs or similar conferences, but only meant to point out the strength of the AAA as a biological anthropologist. The AAAs, despite their size, offer a unique “meeting within a meeting” experience.

Two years ago, I co-organized a panel with Jamie Clark. Our goal, once again, was to bring together scholars from a range of backgrounds within anthropology to talk about modern human origins. We were able to bring together Milford Wolpoff, Frank Marlowe, Julien Riel-Salvatore, Tanya Smith, Marissa Sobolewski, April Nowell, Luke Premo, John Hawks, Eric Heffter, and Alan Barnard…all in one room, all to talk about recent human evolution. Primatologists, demographers, geneticists, linguists, paleoanthropologists, archaeologists, dental anthropologists…all talking together and to one another.


The NSF and Wenner-Gren have funding available to organize invited workshops around particular themes (which are fantastic), but the funding and opportunity is limited. Essentially, we had the opportunity to tailor our own themed conference, piggy-backing on the existing structure of AAAs. The AAAs are expensive, but if you are smart about it, you can generate a lot of intellectual value out of the experience by setting up the kind of interactions that are often impossible in other settings. Following each of the above panels, the panelists were all able to carry on the conversations started during the session to dinner, and for many of us, the bar afterwards. Two years later, I am still productively working on ideas that came up in those conversations.


Why do I bring all of this up now? Well, as it turns out, I am the incoming Program Chair for the Biological Anthropology Section of the AAA. Now is the time to start thinking about panels you might be interested in putting together for next year’s meetings which will be in Denver, and I am the person to get in touch with for feedback on those ideas. The AAAs are valuable, but overwhelming. But the BAS portion of the AAAs?….they are free to be shaped in ways that create a degree of academic intimacy hard to achieve in larger settings. And if you are a biological anthropologist inclined towards the holistic view of anthropology, the BAS is an invaluable professional network and set of colleagues.

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Uniformitarianism and the stratigraphic profiles of academia


One of the great challenges in paleoanthropological field work is understanding the sequence of events that led to the accumulation of materials at a site. How did these sediments get here? What agents led to the assemblage of fossils that are present? How much time is represented in this or that stratigraphic layer? These are fundamental questions for the interpretation of a site, but also questions that are often not fully resolvable. In order to test hypotheses for these questions, we draw upon geology, taphonomy, archaeology, ecology, osteology, and often other disciplines. Naturally, I love these kinds of questions. Understanding a profile, such as the one above (from one of the satellite excavation areas at Dmanisi, Georgia), therefore is something that often takes years of work, but can be extraordinarily rewarding in terms of the information it provides to address important evolutionary questions.


In academia, an individual’s CV takes on something of the role of a stratigraphic profile. Each year, we add new layers of publications, grants (applied for and awarded), conferences, and other professional scholarly work. Having been on both ends of the job spectrum (i.e. hiring and looking to be hired), looking through the CV is an exercise in assessing “what does this candidate have?” Dmanisi has some of the most wonderfully preserved and earliest fossil representatives of Homo anywhere in the fossil record…brilliant! This candidate has an article in Nature, two in the Journal of Human Evolution, and a forthcoming PNAS piece…excellent!

An individual’s academic stratigraphy is what we have left behind for public consumption. It is the end product of our work as a scholar and researcher. And yet, it is not all that occupies our time.


A governing principle in evolutionary studies is uniformitarianism. The concept–often most associated with the early English geologist Charles Lyell, and recognized by many biographers of Darwin as highly influential in his own development of the theory of evolution by natural selection–refers to the tendency of change on the planet to be the result of consistent forces acting regularly over long periods of time. The oceans are shaped by incremental movements of vast continental plates, mountains rise up millimeter by millimeter through processes of uplift, and canyons are carved by the steady action of moving water over seemingly endless stretches of time.

Uniformitarianism is a guiding principle, not a law. The world is not a constant, after all, but a dynamically changing reality. Viewed from the temporal perspective of geology, events may seem long and gradual, but that incorporates a degree of time-averaging that obscures the idiosyncrasies of specific events.

Van Gogh (1887): Self-portrait with a straw hat

Van Gogh (1887): Self-portrait with a straw hat

Van Gogh’s face in the self-portrait above, viewed from a few feet, reveals a red-tinged, pale face. Up close, the individual brush strokes reveal a broader palette of yellows, oranges, reds, and browns.
Detail: Van Gogh (1887): Self-portrait with a straw hat

Detail: Van Gogh (1887): Self-portrait with a straw hat

The Dmanisi profile above encompasses several stratigraphic time periods, ranging from the Middle Ages to the Lower Pleistocene, nearly two million years ago. The principle of uniformity, sediments and materials slowly accumulating with modification over time, holds true, even if the details of each event (and the gaps between them) are specific to each circumstance.


In grad school, we are trained to be diligent, academic-stratigraphic, uniformitarianists. Your goal is to produce X number of peer-reviewed publications each year, submit Y number of new grant applications each year, so that your CV can expand at a rate of Z lines per year. Put two CVs alongside one another, and maybe you can postulate how the two might look five years in the future, getting ready to come up for tenure and promotion. And as long as we view graduate school as a place to train researchers, there is not necessarily anything fundamentally wrong with that construction.

However, there is a reality that most graduate students who go on to pursue academia professionally will find themselves in jobs that have boundaries which extend beyond the CV-building training of graduate school. Teaching, advising, serving on College/University-wide committees, constructing curricula…these are all activities that are largely foreign to an incoming faculty member. They are also activities that often leave no trace, nothing durable, on a CV, despite the large amount of time they can come to occupy. A period of scholarly inactivity, in other words, may simply reflect the realities of invisible processes on the accumulation of research that is possible at any given time.

And all of this says nothing about the relentless march of life. Like an expanding universe, it merely seems to grow larger and more engrossing with each year. The simple walk from apartment to lab and back in grad school, a cycle in which life and work may be nearly indistinguishable, becomes a commute, a meeting, a class, research, and repeat. Relationships expand. Kids are born. Wonderful and tragic and trying and happy and sad moments accumulate, each of them occupying time, most of them bearing little direct relationship to what you do as a professional and what you have trained to be as an adult.

In contrasting the profiles of two individuals, it might be easy to generalize about the relative productivity of of each. It might be further possible to hypothesize reasons, different life choices and values, that might explain some of the differences. But this view can also be misleading. A lot of things are not choices, and do not present professionals with options to choose from. Sometimes we have the freedom to choose aspects of our life, and sometimes life just happens without our consent.

My own life in the past 16 months has provided me with significant helpings of each, both on the personal and professional ends of the spectrum. In my experience, this reality presents an especially challenging psychological situation. Much of our self-worth, particularly as young members of a field, comes from peer interactions: conversations at conferences about our work and progress, peer reviews, invitations to participate in scholarly activities. In other words, activities that largely reflect the durable aspects of our academic stratigraphic profile. I have never seen anyone boasting about their committee work with colleagues at the bar at a conference, even if they did boast-worthy work on said committee. Instead, conversations return again and again to the profile-accumulating aspects of publication, funding, and fieldwork. So that even at the end of an extraordinarily busy year, one might find oneself asking…what have I really done?

Ultimately the antagonistic symbiosis of life and an academic career must find some resolution, and the equilibrium point of that equation is likely a dynamic and shifting one. And that should be ok.


What is the point of all this? Mainly, it is a personal exercise in writing for me. When life disrupts the forward momentum of academic production, it is sometimes necessary to give it a little kick-start. This bit of writing is my own kick-start.

But I also think this is an important message, and one that young scholars do not often hear. Life happens, and that should not be an academic crime. We are trained to admire or envy the pre-graduation publications, the hyper-productive post-doc, and ultimately, the colleagues with the longest CVs. They are the peer-review certified experts. And that is fine. But I do find myself–in the midst of the busiest, though certainly not the most academically productive year of my life–more open to the diversity of my colleagues lives and work. Quantity does not equal quality, after all, and while it is nice to strive for professional practices that promote a uniformitarian ideal, that is probably not a reasonable personal goal. I am also in the midst of the transition from being an untenured “junior” faculty member, to a tenured member of Wellesley College, and therefore one who might find myself in judgement of others. That task of academic valuation, even self-evaluation, like reading a stratigraphic profile, is not a simple problem.

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And then we came to the end, a few post #MOOC musings

This past semester was…hectic. I could add many other adjectives with differing connotations to that sentence, but needless to say, teaching Wellesley’s first MOOC course, coupled with ordinary professional obligations, coupled with a lot of life, coupled with a few other significant personal and professional happenings, made for a busy semester. Hence my internet silence in this space.

Screen shots from a sampling of the lectures for 207x

Screen shots from a sampling of the lectures for 207x

Not surprisingly, one of the first things I wanted to write about in my return to this space is that MOOC (WellesleyX 207x – Introduction to Human Evolution). I wrote about my expectations going into the course a fair amount over the summer last year (see here), but I wanted to start by looking back at the goals I laid out for the course.

1) Dissemination of knowledge about human evolution

My biggest goal for the class was to make an open-access resource for education about human evolution. Course “certificates” were processed today and more than 1000 students successfully passed the course. The online course, 207x, is not equivalent to my on-campus Introduction to Human Evolution seminar, Anthropology 207. The latter is intended to provide students an introduction in human evolution and evolutionary theory in order to equip them to take that knowledge with them into advanced-level college courses. 207x worked off a lot of shared content, but was never meant to achieve the same ends. Yes, it was still intended to provide students with an introduction to human evolution, but with the goal of giving students an enhanced ability to critically engage with representations of human evolution in the public sphere. I feel pretty good about this goal.

In addition to the 1000-plus students who earned certificates, probably about 3x that number were active in some form by the end of the 12th and final week of the course, either watching lecture videos, reading articles, or completing assignments. By the 12th week, that represented a commitment of ~50-60 hours of work…all geared towards human evolution. A Facebook study group that popped up even prior to the launch of the course remains active even now that the course is over, with nearly 1,300 users. But the numbers only tell a small part of the story.

One student, a volunteer docent at the Smithsonian, is making downloaded copies of the course available for other docents interested in improving their knowledge on the subject in order to make them better at what they do:

In any case, it is clear to me that many of my fellow HHO Resource Docents who were unable to take your course would benefit by an enhanced understanding in many topic areas from being able to watch your video lectures and having access to the course maps and summaries and to the items on your course reading list.

One of my goals was that some of the course content might be usable in high school settings, providing students with evolutionary resources prior to college. Along that line:

Thanks for letting me reactivate ‘my inner fish’. I intend to pickup teaching biology again.

And more…

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!!


2) Pedagogical Improvement

My job is to research human evolution and teach human evolution to Wellesley College students. For the investment in 207x to be worthwhile, it needs to return some value to those students. One of my goals was therefore to use 207x to create more of a flipped classroom environment for my on-campus class, transforming it from a lecture-dominated course to a more seminar-style discussion, with more in-class time dedicated to creative pedagogy.

In its first iteration, I was only partially able to achieve this goal. But even with partial success, this meant that my on-campus 207 class went from being about 80% lecture to about 50% lecture. Next time I teach it, that number will be closer to 20%, with considerable class time freed up to work directly with fossil casts, engage in facilitated but open-ended discussion, and give students more opportunity to bring their own understandings into class. My favorite day of class this past semester was “bipedality day” in which, instead of lecturing on the anatomy and functional morphology of bipedality, I relocated our classroom to the gym and had everyone walk funny. It was great!

So while I did not quite do everything I wanted in this arena (yet), I am optimistic running 207x will continue to improve my teaching of the course at Wellesley.

As an aside, the process of putting together an online course, including the organization, filming, and other production considerations, was itself a valuable experience for me. It is always good to have the opportunity to think about teaching and the different components that go into teaching in a different way.

3) Generate Interest in Evolutionary Studies

Part of my goal of engaging with a public audience was to generate more interest in human evolution and evolutionary studies. 207x offered no credit, in part, because I do not want my teaching to undercut the teaching of my colleagues at peer institutions. One of my final lines from the course was this, “I don’t want 207x to be your last course on this topic, I want it to be your first.”

It is a little difficult for me to directly assess this goal, but again, I have some hints. First, a seemingly large number of my students have enrolled in John Hawks forthcoming course, “Human Evolution: Past and Future” (offered via Coursera).

More than 5000 students with less than a college degree signed up for the course. I have not yet checked the cross-tabs to see what percentage of these students stuck with the course, but that is a large audience, many of them high school students, potentially getting ready to go off to College, hopefully with an enhanced interest in human evolution.

But even beyond these kinds of interactions, my hope is that students from 207x go out into the world as newly critical students of human evolution. To that end:

I’m taking so much away from this class. I can’t wait to go to the nearby museums and caves to not only learn more but to get involved as much as I can.

And more…

I spent the day at the American Museum of Natural History today and spent a little time in the Hall of Human Origins. We were there to see a couple of ticketed events, so I didn’t have too much time, but it was amazing to see so many of the fossils we studied in the course in person…I hope to go back soon to spend more time there. If anyone has plans to go and would like company, let me know.

And more…

Last weekend I happened to visit the Museum of Man in San Diego, where I live, and had forgotten the permanent display there called “Footsteps in Time.” There I saw reproductions of so many of the fossils shown in the course–Lucy, the Taung Child, the Black Skull, samples of Oldowan tools, and best of all, a plaster of the Laetoli steps. It was, wow, these are like old friends–I know about each of them. Then I read the recent article in the New York Times about obtaining DNA from a 300,000 year old hominid and was able to read it intelligently and could place it in the context of the complexity of our evolution that was discussed in class.

Win. Win. Win.

As a academic professionals, I think it is extremely important to be aware of the potentially corrosive aspects of making higher education passive and online. I think these fears can be dealt with responsibly, however, to generate something that produces a net benefit not only to its students, but also to the professional community associated with the study of human evolution.

Take Advantage of the Properties of a Truly Massive Classroom

My final goal was to take advantage of having a truly LARGE classroom. Evolution is all about variation. Human evolution is all about variation in humans. The variation you can sample out of a class of 20 students, even a diverse institution like Wellesley College, is limited. The diversity you can sample out of students logging in from 172 different countries?…that is much larger. And potentially a great tool for teaching evolution! Each week my students had the opportunity to answer questions about themselves. Basic, simple (and at times a bit odd) questions, but questions that represent some of the variability we express as humans in how we look, what we do, and how we interact with the world around us.

This is a goal that will really only be fully realized in the course’s second iteration. The EdX platform is still maturing, and in its present form, did not make it easy for me to quickly and easily access student response data. But I will get to those data eventually. And I think the results will be interesting…


I feel very good about the first iteration of 207x. I will be writing more about it over the coming weeks and months, but my initial response is quite positive (despite the fact that the original production of the course, on an extremely compressed timeframe, was quite stressful). There are a lot of questions higher ed institutions need to face about MOOCs, the most significant being what is the intended goal and do the costs and benefits justify that end. There are also questions for academics (e.g. how can these courses be conducted in an ethical and beneficial way to the profession as a whole?). And while I remain deeply skeptical and critical of the notion that MOOCs might “replace” traditional higher ed teaching, my view that MOOCs can generate positive value has been reinforced.

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The new (wonderful) Dmanisi skull

A new paper on the newest skull from the Lower Paleolithic site of Dmanisi (Georgia) is out in Science this afternoon (Lordkipanidze, et al. 2013)1 (the accompanying Science news story, from Ann Gibbons, is here). This is a spectacular specimen and I am very excited to see the research being published. I had the tremendous privilege of being at the site the day the fossil was first uncovered in 2005, and watched it as it slowly emerged and was eventually removed during that field season.

D4500 at the time of its discovery

D4500 at the time of its discovery

Not only is it a fantastic specimen (meticulously prepared by Gocha Kiladze and Yoel Rak), but it is associated with my favorite fossil in the hominin fossil record, the Dmanisi 2600 mandible. Dmanisi now has produced five relatively complete crania, four of which have associated mandibular remains, in addition to the post-cranial remains of several other individuals. It is not an overstatement to say that Dmanisi may be the most important single locality anywhere in the pre-1 million year hominin fossil record. I will have much more to say about this specimen and the new work in the coming days and weeks, but lets start with a few of the basics.

Why is Dmanisi important, and what does this new specimen add?

Dmanisi provides the best window we have as to what normal variation looks like in the early Homo fossil record. Dated to between 1.81-1.76 million years, the site sits in the midst of some of the most important fossil sequences in the human fossil record (i.e. Koobi Fora and the Turkana Basin, Olduvai Gorge). But unlike those African sites, the fossils from Dmanisi come from a single locality, with all of the fossil hominins coming from a narrow slice of time within that horizon.

In addition to everything coming from the same deposits, the fossils themselves represent multiple skeletal elements of multiple individuals. Recovering multiple elements from single individuals gives you a much richer window into the biology of these extinct specimens. This is why “Lucy” (i.e. A.L. 288-1), the partial skeleton of an adult, female Australopithecus afarensis, found in Ethiopia in 1974, was such a significant find. Dmanisi has the potential to produce a set of five Lucys (or more).

So Dmanisi has yielded a remarkable set of fossils from the same time and place. Adding to the bonanza, the fossils represent a set of individuals ranging in age (from middle/late adolescence to advanced adult) and encompassing males and females (though some might disagree about the specific designations). In other words, we have young and old individuals, male and female individuals, well-preserved, from the same time and place. Go out onto the street and look around at the people you see. Most of what distinguishes them in terms of their anatomy is their age and sex. If you wanted to construct a window on what kind of variation exists in fossil populations of early Homo, you would be hard pressed to engineer a better site.

And what does that window show?….variation. Lots of it. The existence of the extraordinarily large D2600 mandible was a pretty good preview of what to expect, but even it undersells the true picture of variation at the site. I will save the details for another post, but the new skull means we no longer have to guess as to the face that might accompany that large (presumably male) D2600 jaw.

So what does all this variation mean?

In a paleoanthropological context, we study variation in order to understand how evolution has acted in our past. The first step in this process, when possible, is to try and determine what exactly you are analyzing. And in this, there are different approaches. Some prefer to identify species differences first, so as to have a control over taxonomy first and foremost. This makes sense. Species are a real biological entity, so using them as the basis for future analyses seems like a good starting point.

However, the variation encompassed by any given species can be divided into different components. The two most significant components of variation within a population, as outlined above, are who happens to individuals as they develop throughout life and, at least in humans and many other sexually dimorphic primates, what differences typically exist between males and females. The challenge with starting out by identifying species, is that in order to do so, you must assume some kind of pattern of development and sexual dimorphism. An alternative approach is to begin by asking questions about intraspecific variation (i.e. age, sex, geography). Trying to understand what normal variation looks like within a species by testing hypotheses about the processes (development, sexual differentiation) that give rise to that variation allows us to construct a hypothesis about taxonomy based on more basal aspects of variation. This approach is not necessarily possible with every fossil sample, but a site like Dmanisi, with multiple individuals from the same time and place, is ideal for such an analysis. Indeed, this is the approach I have taken to the Dmanisi hominins since my dissertation (.pdf)2.

The authors of this new study make the argument that the Dmanisi variation is consistent with variation from a single “paleodeme,” or fossil population, from a single species1. The Dmanisi sample comes from one species of early Homo. This is consistent with previous work by the team, including my own work focused on the mandibles. The support for this view is the pattern of preserved morphology in the specimens as well as the geoarchaeological data that place these specimens in the same place and time. Despite the large range of variation encompassed by Dmanisi, it would require special pleading to argue for multiple species at this point.

One of the authors of the new Dmanisi study, Dr. Ani Margvelashvili, was also the lead author of a paper last week that appeared in PNAS on the Dmanisi mandibles (Margvelashvili, et al. 2013)3. Her approach was to examine the seemingly large amount of variation in the Dmanisi mandibles–a topic I have also examined from a different perspective (Van Arsdale & Lordkipanidze, 2012)4–from the perspective of normal dental development and wear. Again, the results highlight the important ways in which normal processes that shape variation at the population level play out within the Dmanisi sample.

The value and significance of Dmanisi extends far beyond Georgia. The window on variation at Dmanisi can be applied to the rich fossil samples from East Africa and elsewhere. When the authors of this study make that step, they determine that we have likely be over-taxonomizing, or relying too much on species identification and diversity to explain the variation we observe in fossils of this time period. All the fossil variation that in East Africa gets divided by some into Homo habilis, Homo rudolfensis, Homo ergaster, and Homo erectus, because the specimens are too variable to represent a single species, viewed from Dmanisi, suddenly look like a single evolving lineage. Or at least, make it harder to reject that idea as a starting hypothesis. Indeed, this is the exact conclusion I reached in a paper published earlier this year, again utilizing a different approach (Van Arsdale & Wolpoff, 2013)5.

The main Dmanisi excavation area and site museum director, Gocha Kiladze

The main Dmanisi excavation area and site museum director, Gocha Kiladze

I will have much more to say about this paper, and these fossils, and the specific details of my own view of these remains. It will be interesting to see how much the current paper shifts the thinking on issues related to early Homo. In the meantime, enjoy this fantastic new fossil and the hard work that went into this paper by a large group of researchers!


1. Lordkipanidze, D., Ponce de León, M., Margvelashvili, A., et al. (2013) “A Complete Skull from Dmanisi, Georgia, and the Evolutionary Biology of Early HomoScience 342:326-331.

2. Van Arsdale, A. (2006). “Mandibular variation in early Homo from Dmanisi, Georgia”
Department of Anthropology, Ph.D. dissertation. University of Michigan

3. Margvelashvili, A., Zollikofer, C., Lordkipanidze, D., et al. (2013). “Tooth wear and dentoalveolar remodeling are key factors of morphological variation in the Dmanisi mandibles” PNAS October 7, 2013, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1316052110

4. Van Arsdale, A. and D. Lordkipanidze (2012). “A quantitative assessment of mandibular variation in the Dmanisi hominins” Paleoanthropology 134-144.

5. Van Arsdale, A. and M. Wolpoff (2013). “A single Lineage in early Pleistocene Homo: Size variation continuity in early Pleistocene Homo crania from East Africa and Georgia” Evolution 67(3):841-850.

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The privilege of moving past

The past weekend brought a flurry of activity in the science blogging community, much of it having to do with the assumption of power and authority (and their abuse) associated with gendered roles.

To recap, an editor at made reference to Dr. Danielle Lee as a “whore” when she refused an offer to make a (unpaid) contribution to their online publication. Dr. Lee, a woman of color, responded to the reference by posting a response on her blog, the Urban Scientist, at SciAm. That post was very quickly deleted by the editors, initially without explanation. Why should Dr. Lee not be allowed to respond (and her response is great) when called a whore? The response from Scientific American as to why they deleted the post was slow in coming and awkward in production.

The story got a lot of attention, however, and one of the people who saw it was Monica Byrne (Wellesley ’03), a writer and playwright. Ms. Byrne, it turns out, has had her own unwanted and unwarranted encounter with the coordinating editor of SciAm’s blogs, Bora Zivkovic. While she had previously described her experience of sexual harassment with Zivkovic without naming him, Dr. Lee’s story prompted her to name him. And sure enough, in the comments to her post, she is not the only one who describes this kind of behavior from Zivkovic (despite his apology which describes the encounter with Ms. Byrne as an isolated incident).

So in the span of a few days the science blogging community witnessed two events unfold, both predicated on the power dynamics that permeate the seemingly open and friendly community of online science bloggers, writers, and professionals. I had no prior connections with any of the people involved in these events, but I am a fellow science blogger and as such I think it is right to reflect on these incidents.

The point I would like to bring up now is the problem with the desire, particularly in this case expressed by those in positions of power, to “move past” these issues. A desire to move past unpleasant (and at times criminal) events like these is not ok. “Moving past” is simply another expression of privilege, the same kind of privilege that makes the actions directed at Dr. Lee and Ms. Byrne far too frequent. A woman subject to repeated acts of harassment because she is a woman cannot “move past” that reality. A person of color regularly subject to the assumption of inferiority cannot “move past” that reality. A person whose sexual orientation does not match your own preference and is therefore discriminated against, legally and illegally, cannot “move past” that reality.

Rather than “move past,” we, especially those of us in power or gifted with the privilege of the “proper” gender, skin color, or set of attractions, should seek to linger. Linger in the moments of doubt and uncertainty we have about our own actions (or inactions) and our own culpability in the past. All of us in that position have certainly had many moments when we have actively or passively assumed a position of power and authority because of who we are and the privilege, benefit of the doubt, and assumption of innocence/correctness granted to us. Spend a little time lingering and you will no doubt uncover things you have done (or not done) that facilitated the bad behavior of those around you. And probably you have done some bad things, too. I have.

I haven’t called anyone a whore. I haven’t improperly propositioned someone I have professional power over. But you don’t have to be that obvious to be a part of the problem. Think about your behavior at conferences. Think about your behavior in faculty meetings. Think about your behavior in the field. Think about what you tolerate in others and what you do yourself. Think about the papers you think are “seminal” and look at the authors. How many of them are women? How many of them are researchers of color? Think about how you treat international collaborators and colleagues. Linger in these questions for awhile and probably, like me, you will feel a lot of things float to the surface that are not “the best version of yourself” if not worse. Linger in that feeling and you will likely realize it sucks. But don’t move past it. If you, if I, want to create a better community, better scientists, and better science, that discomfort associated with the realization of your active use of privilege is one of the keys. It needs to be our guide. And no, don’t expect a cookie for the effort.

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