Monday, October 19, 2009

Evolution or Extinction: The Ultimate Challenge to Our Species

When I was teaching physical, or biological anthropology, I was often asked, "Is our species still evolving?" Sometimes, the question was posed to me a bit more forcefully, as a challenge to the reality of evolution, itself. Some students would ask, "If evolution occurred, why aren't we humans still evolving?" (And those were some of the easier questions I fielded in my thirty something years of teaching anthropology prior to my retirement several years ago due to an autoimmune disease). What made and makes these particular queries so simple to address is, first, the overwhelming evidence that we humans are still undergoing evolutionary change. About three years ago, for example, University Chicago Professor Jonathan Pritchard and his colleagues identified a number of genes that have been undergoing changes in the last 10,000 years - among them genes related to skin color, taste, smell, and brain structure. Biological evolution involves changes in gene frequencies over time. Of course, humans evolve in other ways - we make alterations in our behavior and these, in turn, are often preceded by environmental shifts.

Although space and time constraints for this particular post preclude further explanation of the mechanisms of evolutionary change, I felt compelled in my inaugural blog on this forum to underscore the following: nothing short of major evolutionary shifts will prevent humankind’s extinction. After all, far more species who’ve inhabited this planet met the fate of extinction rather than survival and subsequent evolution. But what kinds of evolutionary changes are requisite to our long-term chances of survival? Please note that I’m not suggesting that some sort of biological characteristics will suddenly emerge that will save our species at the last minute like a cosmic hail Mary pass. Quite to the contrary, alterations in behavior typically precede biological changes and we must make fundamental behavioral changes to have even a fighting chance of reversing the doomsday scenario we’ve created. The modern environmental movement, catalyzed by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, helped to raise initial awareness about the harmful effects of human behavior on ecosystems and other species, and while we’re currently making unparalleled progress in reversing some of our most destructive behaviors and initiating new, alternative measures, the obstacles we face are staggering.

What kinds of behavioral evolution in our local, national and global communities will reverse our species’ self destructive course? I believe that at this – perhaps the most critical precipice in our evolution in thousands of years or more – we are compelled to take several fundamental actions. First, we must reconnect with nature as intimately as possible, recognizing our deep emotional needs for the natural world. This will involve re-exploring our species’ place as a part of nature, with all the vulnerability that this implies. We must also become a more caring species, not only by cultivating feelings of compassion but also by learning to care in the most proactive and educated ways possible. Finally, we must all become more scientifically literate and thus better able to participate in the social and technological changes required of us at the present time. I look forward to delving more deeply into each of these topics in the days and weeks to come.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

It's Fall Again!

Though I am no longer teaching, the beginnings of the fall semester still strike me at the cellular level. Growing up with parents as college professors, I learned, long before I ever called the roll of my own classes, that the fall semester brings its own unique sense of anticipation and excitement. Still today, former students write to me, sharing their plans for the year or seeking advice on careers or graduate school. Outside, the air gets cooler, the mornings brisker, I'm hit with a flood of memories - of shivering in the bleachers at football games, practicing marching band routines, pulling all nighters to the sounds of ABBA and Cat Stevens, and washing formaldehyde out of my pores after a day in gross anatomy class.

Though I am no longer teaching, this year feels especially intense. Perhaps it is the unsettled mood of our country; over the past month we’ve witnessed anxious angry crowds and mourned a long list of individuals, from a senator to writers to actresses to rock stars to television journalists, many of whom contributed to changes that at one time were undesirable or unthinkable in our country. Most of us have suffered more personal losses, from childhood friends to relatives to a beloved pet. As our lives and society shift at breakneck speed, fall feels like the comfort food of the seasons, a warm blanket that we snuggle in as we release the fiery freedoms of summer and the losses of the year, and brace for the icy incubation of winter.

Though I am no longer teaching, I am laying out a plan for the academic year, something that was required of me every year of my career in academe. It’s an exercise that takes place in the fall as teachers start learning their students’ names and reacquainting themselves with returning colleagues. Faculty members are asked to articulate their “goals and objectives” and, later, when the spring semester winds down, they’ll be evaluated on their progress with respect to the same.

Though I am no longer teaching – at least in a university setting – I am still compelled to step forward at teachable moments, to discover new knowledge and to share my insights with a larger audience. I am still convinced that anthropology, widely shared and applied, will make and, indeed, already has made, a huge difference in the world. I am equally convinced that science - and my own specialty of biological anthropology - is absolutely essential for our continued existence as a species on this fragile blue marble.

Though I am no longer teaching, I am still convinced that each year, every year, I must search for ways to share the most important lessons that I have learned. These include the importance of passing on an academic/intellectual legacy – a set of ideas and practices that provide context and history to how I study the natural world in a manner modeled for me by my mentors and teachers. Now, as a senior scholar, I may rearrange, add on, or remodel the elements of this legacy, but the fundamental supports remain the same. This legacy molds the ways I learn about the past and present worlds and influences the paths I envision to a sustainable future.

Though I am no longer teaching, I want to provide an overview of what to expect to see on my blog this year as if we were sitting together on the first day of class. Expect me to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by focusing on the relationships that we humans have with other species and the environment. These relationships are essential for understanding humankind’s place in and responsibilities to the natural world and they are inextricably tied to our ability to heal, change and create a better world. Expect me to talk about our need for love and beauty, a drive to form positive, emotional connections with other species, nature and our fellow human beings, and the vital importance of working toward something that is bigger than ourselves. I promise to live, write and photograph in keeping with my mentor, Dr. Brues’ adage that “Everything is relevant if you’re smart enough to see it.” I’m very likely to talk in the next few blogs about the relevance of anthropology to analyzing complex issues of health care and environment , for I believe we humans we’ll either grow together by confronting these challenges directly and honestly or we’ll surely drown, much more quickly than any of us expect, in a swill of greed, fear, ignorance, and arrogance.

Though I am no longer teaching, I am still propelled out of bed in the morning by the love to share what I’ve learned and the drive to discover and experience new things each day. Whether I express it in words or pixels, this love is why I do what I do. And despite the rancor and vitriol and raw fear of the debates we’ve heard of late, I genuinely believe that we’ve yet to experience our greatest goodness, and the opportunities for this present themselves every day.

And so, though I am no longer teaching, I wrap myself in my blanket and prepare for the days ahead, and share a line from one of my favorite movies, The Lion in Winter, spoken by Katherine Hepburn, in her Academy Award winning performance of Eleanor of Aquitaine.
We have such possibilities my children, we can change the world.

IT's Fall Again!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Requiem for a Lion

For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die. Edward M. Kennedy (1932-2009)

On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas, Texas. Soon after Walter Cronkite announced the news to the nation, my third grade teacher tearfully passed the information along to us; classes were dismissed and we went home to our parents where most of us continued to watch the tragedy unfold on our black and white television sets. For almost three days, bleak, heartbreaking images became imbedded in our memories – a young widow kneeling to kiss her husband’s casket, a tiny son saluting his father, a saddled horse with no rider and two men in morning coats following behind the casket of their slain brother, the President of the United States. Sitting beside my sisters and me on the couch, my mother and father put aside their own grief to help us understand the pivotal events that were taking place before our eyes. They pointed to the television set and attached names to the two men who accompanied Mrs. Kennedy. One was attorney General Robert F. Kennedy; the other the youngest brother of the Kennedy family, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who was only thirty years old at the time of his brother’s death.

As a devoted follower of politics and current events, I would see and hear Senator Edward Kennedy many more times in my lifetime. I watched him as he eulogized his brother, Bobby (who, like Jack, was felled by an assassin). I listened to him deliver keynote speeches at political conventions, question Supreme Court nominees on the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings and debate issues on the Senate floor. I followed him as he ran for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1980 and then continued on as an active, outspoken and productive Senator.
Senator Kennedy is being heralded today as one of the greatest senators of modern America and of that I have no doubts. During his forty seven years in the Senate he played a key role in over 2500 pieces of legislation – and many of those were pivotal. Many of those impacted my life directly. As a child of the segregated south, I appreciated Kennedy as a champion of civil rights and human equality. He spoke out passionately for the passage of the Civil Rights Act and an end to segregation. As a girl and young woman, I was unable to participate in school sports or to have access to scholarships to college sports. But, Ted Kennedy’s enthusiastic participation in the passage of Title IX helped to provide those opportunities for future generations of girls and women. As one who grew up in one of the poorest states in this country (Arkansas), I saw people with inadequate nutrition and healthcare. Ted Kennedy was an early and strong advocate of the WIC program (providing food and support for women and children), as well as Medicare and Medicaid. Indeed, Senator Kennedy is one of our country’s most vocal spokesmen for the position that health care is a basic right. Speaking as a person who is disabled, I owe Senator Kennedy a great deal of gratitude for his passionate sponsorship of the Americans with Disabilities Act or ADA. He helped to de-stigmatize mental illness by supporting inclusion of mental illness in the ADA. As one who has lost friends to AIDS, and served as a volunteer in AIDS service organizations, I remember that Ted Kennedy was a force behind the passage of the Ryan White Act, which provided emergency funding for many of those affected by HIV/AIDS, at a time in this country when anti-viral drugs like AZT were often unavailable due to high cost. There simply isn’t the space here to enumerate his many acts on behalf of our country, but you can read about his remarkable record here

In short, it’s quite likely that your life was made better now, or in the future, because of the hard work of Senator Kennedy. The Kennedy legacy - the dream of human equality and freedom – will never die. When he “passed the torch to a new generation” by endorsing Barack Obama for President, he called us all to join the fight to fulfill this great dream. It is incumbent on all of who would like to see that legacy brought to fruition to do everything we can at the present to bring about health care for all Americans. There could be no greater tribute to the “lion” of the Senate and no greater contribution to our fellow Americans.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Seeing the Trees...and the Forest: Evolution in Nature

Over the past month I've been spending one evening a week learning more about forest ecology here in the Northwest. I'm not going back to school - would that my health were good enough for that - or planning some new career, but I am becoming a forest steward in a terrific program sponsored by the Cooperative Extension of Washington State University in conjunction with the Department of Natural Resources. The course is designed to help independent owners of small forests develop short and long term plans for their land.

My partner and I own five acres of northwest coastal forest filled with conifers like Douglas Firs, Western Hemlocks and Western Pines and deciduous tress such as Red Alders. Our primary goal is to maintain a healthy, sustainable forest where we, and our friends and family - and those who come after us - can walk, listen and learn from nature.

Putting myself back into a classroom on the other side of the desk brought back memories of my own school days, of favorite professors and classes, and most especially of the nature hikes I used to go on with my closest graduate school friends and a very special mentor, Dr. Alice Brues. During my last few years as a graduate student in Boulder, Dr. Brues would invite us to drive her somewhere up into the foothills where she knew of trails, or lakes, or special forests. I don't recall ever having to be pursuaded (or have my arm twisted) to go along, or even to be the designated driver. As Alice clambered over the rocky hills, binoculars firmly in hands, we'd watch her, watching and calling to birds, admiring wildflowers, and identifying trees. I'd never before been in the presence of someone who knew so much about nature and talked about it with such passion and authority. It was possible to imagine Alice completely comfortable walking through the woods with Charles Darwin and the two of them having an animated conversation about birds and beetles, a scampering mammal or an outcropping of basalt.

Within the first few minutes of my forestry class I knew that I was home again, in the woods. Themes that I've heard all of my life as a physical anthropologist were applied to species of trees, mammals and invertebrates found in forest ecosystems. As one teacher reviewed some basic species of tree identification in northwest forests I heard a familiar admonitition, "Watch for variation, though, when you're beginning to learn to identify trees...Even in the same species you'll see variation in height or width or even in the dimensions of leaves."

I heard in my mind a well-known quotation - actually the title of an essay, by a famous geneticist, Theodosius G. Dobzhansky, "Nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution." I thought about my walks over the rolling pine-needle strewn trails of the forest surrounding our home. As I sit under on a stump under a new grove of Red Alder, I sometimes imagine the mighty glacier that helped form these rocks, soils and hills as it retreated. I think of what has become a truism in science that, indeed, nothing makes sense in biology except in light of evolution.

This evening at dusk I came within three feet of a woodpecker, as I strained to see her markings and the length of her beak to determine her species. Was I was looking at a large downy or small hairy woodpecker? Careful to move slowly, so as not to startle her, I was so close to her I could hear her beak each time she struck the suet and seed brick. Suddenly she flew away, leaving me behind to make up my mind about her identification as I paused to examine the hole she'd chisled into the seed brick. While it's true that evolution helps us make sense of what we see, what are the clues we focus on to gain insight about the evolutionary process? Those clues - the observations that we can make around us in our own backyards - and in the privacy of our own homes - revolve around this phenomenon: variation in populations. And that - particularly when it comes to our own species - is the domain of the physical anthropologist.

Over the next few blogs I'll be talking about the importance of variation in populations and the study of variation by anthropologists - and a few naturalists or so. For now, consider that physical anthropology is actually organised around the investigation of a central paradigm - that we humans are all the same, and that we humans are also all different. The exploration and interpretation of this paradigm is a central task of physical anthropologists, whether we are considering human beings in the present or our ancestors in the past. And it is essentially the same paradigm that naturalists apply when they endeavor to tell a female downy from a female hairy woodpecker or, to ask themselves, in turn, why does this variation among and between species exist in the first place. Variation is an exciting and sometimes controversial subject, but it's absolutely essential to evolutionary processes and therefore to our understanding of nature and of ourselves.

I look forward to picking up here next time. In the meantime, learn this name: Ernst Mayr. That's it for now. Class dismissed.

Monday, March 9, 2009

A Very Good Day for Science: President Obama and Stem Cell Research

During his inauguration, the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama, pledged to restore science to its rightful place in society. Specifically, he stated

"Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America. For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act - not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. And all this we will do."

Today, he took key steps in that direction. In the presence of a mixed audience comprised of patients, caregivers, family members, health care workers, scientists, policy advocates, government officials he issued an Executive Order, REMOVING BARRIERS TO RESPONSIBLE SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH INVOLVING HUMAN STEM CELLS. By taking this action, scientists who use embryonic stem cells to conduct research will once again be able to apply for and receive government funded research - something that is essential to run costly scientific projects at the molecular/cellular level. Treatments and possible cures for conditions including diabetes,heart disease, Parkinsons, and others, will be furthered by this line of scientific inquiry. It is a great day for science indeed.

At the same time, President Obama took another action to put scientific research back on track in this country. He issued an official Memorandum charging the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy to draw up recommendations relating to scientific integrity and transparency. Noting that the public must be able to trust the results of scientific inquiry and, further, that the government should not supress the results of scientific studies, he made it abundantly clear that his administration would rely upon scientific studies in developing policies relating to such areas as the environment, health and national security. He further outlined guiding principles for how the recommendations relating to scientific integrity should be implemented by the various departments and agencies of the Executive branch of our government. I encourage everyone to read his entire memorandum posted on the White House web site at

It's essential that all of us - scientists and general public alike - commit to becoming (and remaining) engaged in our government. During George W. Bush's administration, serious blows to science, scientific integrity and policies related to climate change, wildlife conservation, birth control and diseases, were incurred in ways that may have, in at least some instances, cause irreparable harm. I am especially grateful to the work of the Union of Concerned Scientists for their efforts to expose the egregious actions taken to cover up or - in some instances - rewrite scientific investigations by members of the Bush administration. The Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit organisation, has developed standards relating to scientific integrity that are readily available on its web site.

We must stay involved and informed; for the sake of our country and indeed, the rest of the world, we must never again allow an anti-science agenda to control our government and its policies. It is incumbant on all of us to work to educate others about science and how scientific findings can inform the policies of our society and help us in working toward the greatest good for all.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

New Discoveries Pertaining to the Evolution of Sex

What do we know about the evolution of sex? Specifically, what do we know about the process of internal fertilisation of eggs by sperm?

Information relevant to these key questions have been documented in a new discovery that was recently reported in the journal Nature and discussed in an online article by the BBC.

The discovery actually happened in the laboratory when a group of scientists at London's Natural History Museum began investigating Placoderms, a group of fish dating from the Devonian ("the age of Fishes), that were characterised by a strong external armour-like covering. One particular specimen, dating to approximately 365 mya (million years ago), shows particularly striking and direct evidence for internal reproduction. A small embryo, 5 cm in length, was found inside this particular fossil. Internal fertilisation is also suggested among the Placoderms, in general, by evolutionary changes to the pelvic fin which forms a structure known as a clasper. The anatomical modification provided a means for male and female fish to connect - so to speak - during mating.

The Placoderms were among the earliest jawed vertebrates. thus occupying a place in our evolutionary heritage near the origins of vertebrates. Placoderms - like most species, both ancient and modern - became extinct. They were suceeded by a group of bony fishes that ultimately evolved into the tetrapods - animals with a four-limb pattern that include birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians.

I'll have more to say about the evolution of animals and plants in upcoming posts on variation and intermediate forms.

Thanks to Graeme Wright for information about the findings pertaining to Placoderms.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Announcing: Classic and Contemporary Readings in Physical Anthropology

I'm happy to announce a new book of readings in physical anthropology which I edited with Dr. Eileen Jackson. We selected readings that reflect important articles in the history of physical anthropology as well as more recent offerings that highlight new discoveries and innovative methodologies. We include the vision of physical anthropology as originally seen by its founder, Ales Hrdlicka, as well as a groundbreaking article by Sherwood Washburn on the new physical anthropology. Key articles on evolutionary theory, primates, human genetics and contemporary human variation are included. Discussion questions follow each chapter along with key terms and recommended web sites. Publication information is presented below along with a link to the publisher's website.

Classic and Contemporary Readings in Physical Anthropology, 1st Edition
Mary K. Sandford
ISBN-10: 0495510149 ISBN-13: 9780495510147
160 Pages Paperbound
© 2009 Published

Thursday, February 19, 2009

In the News: Updates on Blog for Darwin

Bloggers from around the world participated in the "Blog Slam" program, "Blogging for Darwin," in honor of the 200th birthday of Charles Robert Darwin, the man who is arguably the single most influential life scientist ever. One hundred sixty five bloggers from such diverse locations as Turkey, the Galapagos Islands, and the United States posted writings from 12th February to the 15th February. These blogs will be archived by subject and available as permanent resources for students and teachers. The two blogs I wrote as part of this endeavor were published on the front page of the "Blog for Darwin" site. You can explore "Blog for Darwin" using the following address:

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Advice to a Young (or Old) Scholar: Reading Darwin, Part 1

Now that I’ve made the challenge to actually read On the Origin of Species by the 24th November 2009 (the anniversary of the book’s First Edition), I want to offer some advice that will probably make your experience with this incredible work more enjoyable. If there’s a Cliff Notes (or something like and similar) for On the Origin of Species, I couldn’t find it back in ’76 when I was taking Dr. Greene’s seminar on Evolutionary Theory. Fortunately, there are many resources that will make your experience with this book more enjoyable and enlightening – you’ll be making something akin to your own Cliff Notes as you go. And while you don’t have to assemble a scale model of the Beagle or explore your backyard with a bug box, there are a number of ways that you can prepare your brain for experiencing this masterpiece of scientific elegance.

Whenever we read historical works – whether they’re scientific tomes or novels – learning something about the context is crucial to our understanding. It’s a point that’s often (and unfortunately), lost particularly by those who wish to play “gotcha” with the lives of scientists from times past. So, before you lose yourself in On the Origin of Species, find out more about the person and times of Charles Darwin. And he had a fascinating life indeed. As a boy, he was a passionate collector – of practically anything – and, as an adult at Down House, he cared for his children, juggled several books and projects at a time, and struggled with disabling chronic illnesses.

What we’re really after here is a contextual overview of Darwin’s life before delving into the specificity of his work. Scientific investigations aren’t acts of special creation. Darwin’s life and science were born out of the intellectual and social milieu of 19th century, and influenced by his predecessors, teachers and colleagues. What were the intellectual and scientific foundations for his work? Who influenced him, and how?

If all this sounds like you’ll need (minimally) a new set of Encyclopedia Britannica just to get started, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to learn that you won’t need anything beyond a computer with internet access. A great place to launch your study of Origin of Species is at Down House, itself, home to Charles and Emma Darwin and their children. It was here in his study where he wrote by the fire in his favorite chair and peered through his microscope at slides of stems and seeds. Fortunately, we can take a virtual tour of Down House with David Attenborough as our guide by exploring the estate’s website at .

For learning about the person of Charles Darwin we have virtual access to his autobiography, a work that was edited and includes supplementary material by Francis Darwin, his son. elder Darwin never intended to publish his autobiography – he wrote this rich collection of stories solely for his children and future generations. The work is a gift to all who want a better appreciation for his life and an excellent prelude to your explorations of Darwin’s scientific work.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

A New Challenge: Reading for Darwin

Have you actually read Charles Robert Darwin’s book, On the Origin of Species? That’s both a question and a challenge that I’m posing to you today on the occasion of his 200th birthday. If you have not, I want you to consider – as you ponder the meaning of his life and work – reading (or re-reading) his magnum opus. If you have studied the volume, perhaps you might want to pick it up again; I would be quite surprised if you aren’t filled with a sense of awe when you contemplate Darwin’s actual words.

If you aren’t familiar with it, what you might immediately observe about Origin of Species is the sheer vastness of this work. The book is a comprehensive synthesis of Darwin’s knowledge, as well as his own experiments and observations, from his beginnings as a naturalist to his maturation as a scientist. But its significance is not in its sheer volume. Rather, the vastness of his work reflects his breadth and meticulousness as a scientist and, more important, the magnitude of evidence he used 1) to demonstrate that biological evolution is a scientific fact and 2) to formulate his argument for evolution by means of the mechanism he named natural selection.

These points may seem rather mundane in light of other recent articles and blogs circulating around the virtual world in Darwin’s anniversary year. Yet I feel compelled to review some very basic information about Darwin and to stress the importance – now more than ever – of reading primary sources and understanding them in their historical contexts. It’s easier than ever to access the body of Darwin’s work. Thanks to some very dedicated scholars, digital technology and the information highway, you can read the complete works of Charles Darwin – a virtual library – online at It’s even possible at this marvelous site to see drawings of specimens that Darwin collected during the voyage of the Beagle, to read his natural history treatises and other important books, and to pour over every single page up through the 6th edition of his most famous – and one of the most groundbreaking – books in human history.

Charles Darwin’s work – and the results thereof – has been a guiding force in my life since I was a little girl. I remember the first time I heard his name – a memory that occupies the same compartment of my brain as those that recall picking up fossilized corals and shells while roaming fields near my home in Arkansas and seeing my first dinosaur skeletons extending up toward the high ceilings of the Denver Museum of Natural History. My parents have always been voracious readers and one of their greatest gifts to me was the love of learning – through books, museums and even the fields beneath our feet. Early in my childhood, my mother, a sociologist, followed her fascination with humankind into the discipline of anthropology where she discovered physical anthropology, or the scientific study of human evolution and variation. A few years later (circa 1964), she introduced a handful of college students to topics like natural selection, fossil evidence for human evolution, and biological variation. Meanwhile, both of my parents helped to fend off the less informed; the latter included at least one biology teacher who was convinced that men had one less rib than women and those who leaned on me to make a false choice between “the Bible” or “Darwin.”

So, today, in honoring Charles Darwin, I also want to honor those individuals who introduced me to his work and modeled for me an understanding of its relevance for our lives today on this tiny planet. My parents showed incredible courage in navigating the often circuitous and confusing course required by the life of the mind. Mom taught evolution before it actually became legal to do so in the state of Arkansas in 1968. I would’ve otherwise been denied the opportunity to learn about Charles Darwin and natural selection until I reached college (1971).

Ultimately physical anthropology became my academic home where I taught for close to twenty-five years before my recent retirement. Several semesters into graduate school at the University of Colorado, I took a seminar in Evolutionary Theory taught by Professor David L. Green. It was there – around a long seminar table, worn with age – that I first experienced the true excitement about biological change over time as we read and discussed Origin of Species in its entirety, along with works by Thomas Henry Huxley, Teilhard de Chardin, Ernest Mayr, George Gaylord Simpson, and Jacques Monod (among others). As can be inferred from my presence here today, physical anthropology remains my passion. Link by link, my education as a physical anthropologist was forged; Professor Dennis Van Gerven helped me learn to recognize and interpret variation in ancient, prehistoric and modern skeletons and Dr. Alice M. Brues – a key founder of physical anthropology – took me right to the historical roots of physical anthropology – through gross anatomy and natural history. Most important, she led my friends and me into the foothills surrounding Boulder where she taught us to view the world around us – the birds, wildflowers, trees and, even, the mountains themselves – through the eyes of a naturalist with whom Darwin himself would’ve felt completely at home. It was altogether fitting, then, when Dr. Brues was named recipient of the inaugural Charles R. Darwin award by the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. I thank these people – and I thank my former students and colleagues, who continue to challenge and teach me with their questions, discoveries and perspectives – as I remember the life and work of Charles Darwin today.

Thus, I challenge us all – in a world where knowledge and understanding of science is absolutely essential for our continued life on this planet – to read and continue to talk about Charles Darwin’s greatest contribution to science by November 24, 2009, the 150rh anniversary of publication of Origin of Species.

Let the learning begin and the conversation never cease!

Monday, February 9, 2009

The Economy: It's Science, Stupid!

A saying made famous in the War Room of President Clinton’s 1992 campaign was the oft-quoted “It’s the Economy, Stupid!” It’s not entirely clear who first coined the phrase – I’ve heard both James Carville and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton mentioned as possible authors – but there’s no doubt of its inherent wisdom. It’s as true today as it was in 1992 and given the rate at which our economy continues to worsen it ought to become a mantra repeated dutifully by every member of our society who has any possible contribution to make to economic recovery.

In all the recent talk about the economy – in all the Senate debates, press conference, Sunday news shows – it has become equally clear that Democrats and Republicans – at least with respect to the current economic crisis – are divided along the lines of evidence-based versus ideology-driven policy. President Obama promised during the campaign and his inaugural address to restore science to its rightful place. Without scientific evidence and critical thinking we will see further deterioration of this society and our ability to positively impact the rest of the world. Ideology-driven policies are subject to biases, prejudices, exclusion and raw emotions, like fear.

The wide ranging effects of ideology-driven policy in this country have never been more apparent than in the monumental clean up necessitated by eight years of presidential malpractice at the hands of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Right now, in the face of evidence that 1) an economic stimulus package is absolutely essential to turn the tide of the economic downturn and 2) spending is an inherent part of stimulus, Republicans continue to argue for government to keep its hands free of intervening in the economic wows. If anything, Republicans want tax cuts – particularly for corporations and business people at the upper income levels – a practice that helped to catapult this country into the precarious situation at present. Indeed a test vote in the Senate today got the votes that will be needed to pass a stimulus package but only three Republicans had the moral courage to cross the proverbial aisle and join in support with their Demographic colleagues.

When Obama says “I won’t return to the failed theories of the past eight years.” he is implying that his administration’s approach to macroeconomics is based on empirical data. We have, in other words, scientific evidence – reliable data – that a spending approach/stimulus package will promote economic recovery. Harvard economist and Nobel laureate Paul Krugman has discussed the importance of economic stimulus for weeks now. Indeed his most recent column in the New York Times expresses his fear that the stimulus – now delayed by Republicans and perhaps watered down in ill-considered attempts at compromise – will be too little, too late.

The economic system, together with its inexorable ties to subsistence practices and the physical environment, is arguably the most basic foundation upon which society rests. The integration of the environment, subsistence, and economic exchange and their impacts on other aspects of society are well documented among anthropologists. Theoretical orientations including cultural materialism, cultural ecology, political economy and political ecology all reinforce the key position of the economy in other aspects of society.

Anthropologists also recognize, however, that different components of society change at different rates, creating a cultural lag. And, American society demonstrates a cultural lag between science and empirical thinking on the one hand, and an ideology that’s lagged far behind – an ideology closely akin to magical thinking, on the other. And so, for example, in the face of overwhelming evidence for climate change and global warming, there are those who deny it and attempt to argue against it. And, as Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday approaches – and in light of the tens of thousands of fossils, DNA studies and comparative anatomical investigations that have taken place since Origin of Species was published in 1859 – we still find individuals who will argue vociferously that human beings were created in their present form some 10.000 years ago. Understanding and interpreting data that informs us about our economic crisis presents a similar challenge in today’s world.

Scientists should be actively engaged in responsibly representing and explaining the results of empirical investigations. I’ve always believed that anthropologists have a tremendous responsibility in this regard. We who have inherited hundreds of years of empirical studies focused on our own species (and our close relatives the living primates) – we who devote our own legacies to the further study of humankind – must contribute to resolving the complex and dire problems of the contemporary world.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Stay Tuned...

Fieldnotes by Doc is a blog about all things anthropological, written by an anthropologist. If you're familiar with this field, you know that it covers a vast territory. There will undoubtedly be a slight bias in the articles I write and publish. I am a physical, or biological, anthropologist, and my work has included investigations of past peoples in places like the Caribbean and west Mexico. But I promise not just to talk about my own research. Archaeological discoveries and other new findings pertaining to anthropology, are in the news everyday. And every current event, every crisis facing our world, can be viewed from anthropological perspectives. Which means, yes, I will from time to time talk about politics, current events, and international crises.

Stop in again soon, and we'll look at the world around us through anthropological eyes.

-- DOC