Archive | February, 2013

“Group Selection” and the Human Conquest of Earth

27 Feb

Edward O. Wilson, professor emeritus at Harvard, is a highly respected pillar of modern evolutionary biology. Check out this link for a summary of his many contributions to our understanding of life and humankind.

I recently read Wilson’s latest book The Social Conquest of Earth and greatly enjoyed parts of it. Wilson’s writing is clear and compelling as he tackles THE BIG QUESTION: How did a single primate species (If you’re reading this, you’re a member of that species) so quickly conquer the world? But I was surprised to see that much of Wilson’s argument is built on the foundation of group selection, also called “multilevel selection.”

Group selection attempts to explain how traits (for example, altruistic behavior) that are costly to individuals, but beneficial to larger groups, can persist. Why doesn’t natural selection, which acts on individuals, eliminate such “maladaptive” traits? If it pays (evolutionarily) to be selfish, why do humans routinely perform selfless acts? As applied to humans, group selection is the idea that groups composed of cooperative altruists are able to outcompete groups of selfish people, increasing their populations, and fostering the spread of altruism.

Most scholars view group selection as highly unlikely or, at best, a very weak force in the evolution of human cooperation. It’s not a bad idea, just not as parsimonious an explanation as inclusive fitness or kin selection: “The concept that altruistic behavior can be selected for if it increases the probability of survival of close relatives” (Relethford 2013:148) – and for the vast majority of our evolutionary history, we lived in societies composed almost exclusively of close relatives.

This week, E. O. Wilson reiterated his support for multilevel selection in a New York Times piece called “The Riddle of the Human Species.” It’s a short summary of the argument detailed in his book. For a counterpoint from Jerry Coyne, professor of biology at the University of Chicago, please see this post at Coyne’s Why Evolution is True website (the linked post also includes links to previous posts on this topic of group selection).

I highly recommend these resources for anyone interested in anthropology and the evolution of human behavior. As stated, I think kin selection is a better explanation for the evolution and spread of altruism than group selection, but remain open to the possibility of new evidence. What do you think? Did multilevel selection, as argued by Wilson, play a role in the social conquest of Earth by Homo sapiens?

We’re Made of Star Stuff

11 Feb

At the risk of turning this blog into little more than a list of recommended readings, here’s another book worth checking out.

Neil Shubin, associate dean of biological sciences at the University of Chicago, and author of the wonderful Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body has written a new one. Titled The Universe Within: Discovering the Common History of Rocks, Planets, and People, it’s about as “big picture” as a book can be – relevant to anthropology because it explores humans and our connection to…(dramatic pause)…everything.


My hero Carl Sagan used to say that “We are made of star stuff.” It sounds kind of like mystical nonsense, redeemed only by the fact that it’s literally true! Hard not to feel some cosmic connection when we reflect on that fact.

The “star stuff” shared by rocks, planets, and people is the subject of The Universe Within. As someone who is endlessly fascinated by where humans fit in the whole scheme of things, I look forward to reading this book soon (I have a copy sitting here on my desk just begging to be read when time allows). Enjoy!

Happy 100th Birthday, Mary Leakey!

6 Feb

I was just lecturing about Mary Leakey’s many accomplishments in an introductory archaeology class yesterday. Little did I know that today would mark the 100th anniversary of her birth. has honored her as their Google doodle for February 6th, 2013. Check it out and be sure to search “Mary Leakey” while you’re there. You’ll find plenty of tributes and great information on her contributions to the study of human origins. For starters, here is a brief biography from

“Mary Douglas Leakey was recognized in her lifetime as one of the world’s most distinguished fossil hunters.  Because of her many important discoveries and her dedication to field research, she is considered a giant in the study of human origins.

She was born Mary Douglas Nicol in London on February 6, 1913. She was the daughter of a popular landscape painter, Erskine Nicol, and Cecilia Frere. Mary herself was interested in art and archaeology at an early age. As a child she frequently travelled to France with her parents.  There, she visited a museum of prehistory and was allowed to participate in archaeological digs where she found ancient stone tools. She also visited the French caves at Font de Guame and La Mouthe, which are famous for their prehistoric paintings.  As a result of her father’s death in 1926, Mary and her mother moved back to London.  She rebelled against the constraints of the Catholic schools to which her mother sent her. In 1930, she began auditing university courses in archaeology and geology. She soon established herself as an authority on flint points and was recognised for her mastery of scientific illustration. She was introduced to Louis Leakey in 1933. Louis invited her to join him in Africa to draw the stone tools he had found. Three years later (after Leakey’s divorce from his first wife Frida) they were married. They had three sons (Jonathan in 1940, Richard in 1944, and Philip in 1948).

Among her many scientific accomplishments, Mary is credited with the discovery of Proconsul africanus in 1948, Zinjanthropus boisei (now known as Australopithecus boisei) in 1959, Homo habilis in 1960, and an amazingly well-preserved 89-foot long trail of early human footprints found at Laetoli (1979). These footprints have been dated to about 3.6 million years old and their discovery proved conclusively that our ancestors were at that time practicing bipedal locomotion. Mary and her team continued to find important hominid and prehistoric animal fossils until her retirement from active fieldwork in 1983.

Upon retirement, she moved to Nairobi from Olduvai Gorge, where she had lived for nearly 20 years. In retirement, she continued to contribute to science, writing articles about her lifetime of incredible discoveries. She died in 1996 at the age of eighty-three” (Source:

Remains of King Richard III Confirmed!

4 Feb

The University of Leicester issued a press release today confirming that skeletal remains recently found under a parking lot in Leicester, England are those of King Richard III. It’s a wonderful and very well-documented piece of archaeological detective work – especially because it demonstrates how multiple lines of evidence can be used to strengthen our interpretations.

Check out this site for the University of Leicester’s full press release, background information on King Richard III, multimedia presentations, and more. Enjoy!

Historical Archaeology at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello

1 Feb

Thomas Jefferson is famous for many things: author of the Declaration of Independence, third President of the United States, founder of the University of Virginia, and the man who authorized the Lewis and Clark expedition. Less well known is that many consider him to be America’s first scientific archaeologist.


Most people associate archaeology with prehistory. This makes perfect sense because the vast majority of the human past is prehistoric; it occurred before the development of written records. But there is a subfield of archaeology called historical archaeology: “Study of archaeological sites in conjunction with historical records” (Fagan 2012:332). In other words, archaeology explores the entire human past, from our ancient proto-human ancestors to the relatively recent historical times of Thomas Jefferson.

Occasionally, students ask why there is any need for historical archaeology. After all, if these times are described in written histories, what do we have to gain by digging up what we already know? Historical times should be less mysterious than the distant past – and they are – but excavations can reveal much that we would otherwise never know about life in historical contexts.

The archaeological record and historical record are both imperfect, incomplete representations of the past. The archaeological record is incomplete because human behavior is impermanent, and even the material remains of human behavior rarely preserve for us to find.

The historical record is equally incomplete because, though authors may record events in vivid detail, historical documents reflect only one point of view, often a point of view that excludes or ignores many others. Worse, historical records can be intentionally deceptive. Humans are fallible and it’s tempting to selectively edit our personal stories and the histories of our societies – to make us look a little better to the people of the future. (Case in point: Jefferson certainly never volunteered the information that he fathered children with Sally Hemings, a fact known to Hemings’ descendents and confirmed by genetic testing). A desire to erase mistakes or exaggerate accomplishments is all too human.

I could go on about the limitations of written histories, but the point is that historical records aren’t always completely truthful or accurate. The archaeological record, for all its imperfections, never intentionally lies to us. Therefore it can be an excellent supplement to history; a way of confirming or questioning what we “already know” or revealing unknown things not recorded in history.

Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia plantation Monticello is a perfect example of how much historical archaeology can reveal about the lives of everyone. History records much about famous elites like Jefferson, much less about everyday people. Only more recent scholarship, in conjunction with archaeological excavations, has shed light on the lives of Monticello’s slave population.

Today, anyone can visit Monticello, and they do an excellent job of public education and outreach. If you have an interest in historical archaeology and happen to be within traveling distance of Charlottesville, Virginia, they are offering a free Archaeology Family Workshop soon:


Thomas Jefferson Visitor Center

Saturday, February 9, 2013,10:00 am – 12:00 pm

Reservations: Required (434) 984-9880

This two-hour workshop provides a hands-on introduction to archaeology at Monticello. In a classroom setting participants engage in a mock archaeological excavation. While handling and observing authentic artifacts, participants work together to uncover evidence about the people who lived at Monticello.

For children in grades 4 through 7 accompanied by an adult.