Archive | Biological Anthropology RSS feed for this section

Guess who’s coming to dinner? Nine billion of your closest friends.

31 May

Humans eat, poop, and die just like all other animals. How’s that for a Saturday morning happy thought? All of the other wonders that “make us human” begin there: culture, art, religion, language, science, etc. You can’t travel to the stars on an empty tummy, so like the humble clam or hummingbird, we must consume energy in order to thrive and, most importantly, reproduce.


You Are Here.

You Are Here.


And, over the last 10,000 or so years, we’ve gotten exceedingly good at transforming nature to meet our caloric needs. So good that we practically can’t stop reproducing! For better or worse, we have a lot of people to feed. We’re likely going to need all of the ingenuity, intelligence, and experimentation that led us into this mess to get back out of it. How do we sustainably feed 9 billion people by the year 2050? The National Geographic Society is working on it, and you can help. Here’s their fundraising mailer:


“When I say food, what do you think of? Your favorite comfort food? Social gatherings? Family traditions? Food is such a central part of our lives. It’s also a critical issue facing our planet.

When we think of environmental threats, we tend to think of energy use, water and air pollution, or industrial waste. But the truth is, our growing need for food and the environmental challenges posed by agriculture are some of the biggest challenges we need to address.

This year, National Geographic is exploring how we can feed two billion more people by 2050 without harming the planet. You can support National Geographic’s programs, including our work toward finding better ways to produce and consume food in ways that don’t harm the planet…

Here’s a sample of the kind of work our grantees are doing, supported by your donation:

  • Helping farmers develop tools for designing sustainable agricultural systems based on the diversity and stability of local ecosystems, in places like Malawi, where agriculture has been winnowed down to the production of primarily one crop – corn.
  • Discovering, recording, and using traditional knowledge about medicinal and edible plants from cultures as diverse as the Sioux in South Dakota and native Jamaicans in the bio-diverse parish of Portland.
  • Examining the trade-offs of organic farming versus genetically modified crops for farmers and the environment in places like India.

Your gift will help us continue National Geographic’s programs, including exploring ways to double the availability of food to feed a predicted population of nine billion, while simultaneously cutting the environmental harms caused by agriculture.

Discovering low-input, high-output food cultivation practices and disseminating them to small farmers across the planet will both reduce agriculture’s significant contribution to climate change and provide a healthier diet for millions of people.

It will also add to our knowledge about how what we put into our bodies contributes to how we feel and function on a daily basis, and ultimately the length of our life” (


If you would like to contribute to National Geographic’s research, here is a link to make a donation. Thanks!


Year of the Sheep

10 May

Read a fascinating Washington Post article this morning called “Chinese couples rush to get pregnant before dreaded Year of the Sheep.” In summary, many Chinese couples are feverishly trying to conceive and have children in 2014 – the Year of the Horse, following the Chinese lunar calendar – rather than 2015, the inauspicious Year of the Sheep. (Incidentally, 2015 is also the year I turn 40. 1975 was a Year of the Rabbit). Believers in the Chinese zodiac associate Sheep with following, rather than leading, bad luck in business, unhappy marriages…bad stuff. Little wonder some seek to avoid that fate for their children!



For me, the most interesting aspect of the article is the power that cultural traditions can have on reproductive (biological) decisions. Among other things, this suggests some possibilities for limiting overpopulation – more voluntary, and less draconian, than China’s “one child” policy. Presumably, if people can avoid reproducing in “inauspicious” years, we could do the same for leap years, odd numbered years, etc. Any combination of “less-than-ideal” years for childbirth could reduce population growth. And potentially stigmatize children born in those years. I admit, it’s not a perfect solution. Even in contemporary China, Sheep years have “no discernible effect on national demographics.”


In biology, reproductive fitness is everything. Cultural influences, Chinese zodiac or anything else, that can stem the tide of overpopulation are worth considering. What do you think?

Understanding Denial

25 Apr



The concepts of cultural relativism and an emic perspective are basic to cultural anthropology. There are plenty of subtly different definitions of these terms. Here are two I particularly like:


Cultural relativism: Understanding another culture in its own terms sympathetically enough that the culture appears to be a coherent and meaningful design for living (Schultz and Lavenda 2014).

Emic: An approach to gathering data that investigates how local people think and how they understand the world (Guest 2014).


Both require understanding and are essential skills for any human in the 21st Century. These skills come to some of us more naturally than others. I’m fairly open-minded by nature, and have had plenty of training, but had occasionally overwhelming culture shock when working in the Central African Republic. I had to consciously practice cultural relativism – and still do sometimes. A great way to practice is by intentionally exposing yourself to beliefs and behaviors that seem inexplicable or nonsensical. And there are plenty to choose from.


What’s most surprising is that some of the behaviors I have the hardest time wrapping my head around occur within my own culture! Maybe this is because we expect far away cultures to be strange and those close-to-home to be familiar. Maybe the “weirdness” is more notable when it occurs in our own backyards.


All anthropologists have weak points in their relativistic armor. Mine are 1) a strong sense of morality, which makes it especially hard for me to objectively interpret practices that conflict with it and 2) what can be loosely lumped together as denialism: clinging to widely-discredited, counter-factual beliefs or opinions in the face of “beyond the shadow of a doubt” evidence. (Of course, if I was suffering from severe denial, I wouldn’t know it!).


Well-documented perspectives that can classified as denialism are: creationism, climate change denial, people who think the moon landing was a hoax, flat earthers, “birthers,” anti-vaxxers, people who doubt links between smoking and cancer or HIV and AIDS, holocaust deniers, 9/11 truthers, etc. We’ve all met people who are dogmatic about absurdities and seemingly impervious to contradictory evidence. And it’s very easy to come up with rational explanations for their irrationality. Still, I’ve never felt like I really understood where they’re coming from.


Irrationality in response to emotional trauma is easy to understand. In his book Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Harms the Planet and Threatens Our Lives, author Michael Specter notes: “We have all been in denial at some point in our lives; faced with truths too painful to accept, rejection often seems the only way to cope. Under those circumstances, facts, no matter how detailed or irrefutable, rarely make a difference” (2009:3). Yet some forms of denial, like “moon landing skeptics,” aren’t particularly tied to strong negative emotions or personal suffering.


Undoubtedly, tons of psychological and sociological studies have been conducted on this phenomenon, and I’m simply unaware of them. I would speculate that a denialist’s personal identity gets inseparably intertwined with his or her “strange” beliefs; to abandon the belief would be to lose his or her sense of purpose or self – but I’m way beyond my field of expertise with this speculation.


Donald Prothero’s Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future is an excellent overview of the many forms of American denialism. Michael Shermer’s foreword to Prothero’s book includes the best explanation of the process of denialist reasoning I know of:

“Denialism is typically driven by ideology, politics, or religious beliefs, in which the commitment to the belief takes precedence over the evidence for or against it. Belief comes first, reasons for belief follow, and those reasons are winnowed to assure that the belief is always supported” (Prothero 2013:xiii).


Shermer describes a pretty sophisticated and self-reinforcing system of denial. As someone who values empirical evidence above all else, it’s hard to accept this perversion of the scientific method. For me, reliable facts are the objective – even if they only lead to an ambiguous or tentative conclusion. For a denialist, sustaining a preconceived “conclusion” is the objective – even if evidence must be ignored or forced through the narrow funnel of belief. I guess I can understand that, even as I fervently disagree with it.


Interestingly, both books cited above include “Threaten” in their titles. Do you see denialism as a threat or harmless oddity?

Your Inner Fish Tonight

9 Apr

A three-part documentary called Your Inner Fish, based on Neil Shubin’s book of the same name begins tonight on PBS (Check local listings). Must-See TV for anyone interested in vertebrate evolution!


Nobu Tamura (

Nobu Tamura (

Creation Myths and the Cosmos

4 Apr

Evidently, Biblical literalists are upset that Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey introduces the Big Bang and evolution without giving equal time to “alternative” explanations. The difficulty, of course, is that pseudoscientists never think of themselves as such, but as a suppressed (but vocal!) minority view. Many of us spend time arguing why “teaching the controversy” in science classes – or on science shows – is not warranted (because there is no scientific controversy). Amanda Marcotte at Alternet has an intriguing solution: Why not take an anthropological perspective and devote one episode of Cosmos to creation myths…all of them? That way everyone can be offended by having their literally-true-in-all-respects origin lumped in with the obviously-culturally-constructed stories of other cultures. I’m not sure if that would make anyone happy, but it would be illuminating to watch!

Our Place in the Universe

9 Mar

Cosmos promo

Carl Sagan’s original Cosmos (1980) featured many anthropological themes and set the bar for much of the educational programming that has aired since. Hopefully, this updated version, hosted by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, will spark renewed public interest in the science of humanity!

“There is no in between…”

6 Feb

There’s always an in between.

The thing I like most about teaching anthropology: it makes a positive difference in the world. The thing I like least about teaching anthropology: feeling like I have to tiptoe through one of the least controversial facts in all of science – humans evolved.

Like many other teachers, I would like to spend more time sharing my passion for the wonders of evolution and less time convincing people that evolution is real; less time rehashing 19th Century arguments in a 21st Century world.

This is one reason I chose not to watch the Bill Nye and Ken Ham Evolution-Creation debate this week. Why are we “debating” this in the year 2014? It’s like debating who won Super Bowl XLVIII (my beloved Seattle Seahawks!). What fun is there in watching a debate where one side honors time-tested rules of evidence and the other just makes s— up? As much fun as watching a football game where one team plays by NFL rules and the other team kicks the ball into the stands and screams “100 points, we win!”

If anything good came out of the debate, it’s that people are talking about evolution – most often talking past each other. Ignorance is on proud display. Images like this break the heart of an anthropologist.

Photo by BuzzFeed's Matt Stopera.

Photo by BuzzFeed’s Matt Stopera.

If you’ve seen all 22 of these images, you know that it’s a whole lot of wrong; people smugly holding signs displaying the most elementary misunderstandings of science and religion. Good news: if you want to make your extinct hominin memorable to an anti-evolutionist, give it a cute name like “Lucy.” Bad news: that might be all he/she remembers – to the exclusion of all other paleoanthropological finds!

If you’re taking the time to read Anthropology Now, you probably know that Lucy is one specimen of the species Australopithecus afarensis. There are, of course, other individuals representing this species. And Lucy’s skeleton is 40% complete (more than “a few pieces”). You want hundreds of bone specimens? Below is a partial list of hominin species identified in the fossil record (there is some disagreement about which were truly distinct species and which could be “lumped” into the same species – now that is an actual evolutionary debate!):

Sahelanthropus tchadensis

Orrorin tugenensis

Ardipithecus kadabba

Ardipithecus ramidus

Australopithecus anamensis

Australopithecus afarensis (the young lady and I agree that this one exists)

Australopithecus garhi

Australopithecus sediba

Australopithecus (Paranthropus ) aethiopicus

Australopithecus (Paranthropus) boisei

Australopithecus (Paranthropus) robustus

Homo habilis

Homo rudolfensis

Homo ergaster

Homo erectus

Homo heidelbergensis

Homo neanderthalensis

Homo sapiens (I’m guessing she acknowledges the existence of this one too).

Also the mysterious Denisovans and Homo floresiensis (“Hobbit”) about whom we still have a lot to learn. There’s plenty of freely available information on each of these species online, along with links to the peer-reviewed primary literature and tons of popular books, magazine articles, and documentaries. Just Google any of the species names above.

Our evolutionary past can only remain a mystery if we choose not to see it.