Tag Archives: human behavioral ecology

AAA Post-Mortem

Well, it’s been a long time and there are bunch of things I should really catch up on here. I spent last year on sabbatical in the very remote location, at least half a mile from my house, of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, where I was working on various book manuscripts that seem to grow in number the more I write. Then there’s the fact that I changed Earth Systems Science. This is a topic that clearly requires a bit of explication at some point, but now is not the time. I figured I’d break back into the blog by doing my semiregular, highly-selective review of the American Anthropological Association meetings.

The meetings this year were in Minneapolis, which is a lovely city, but maybe not the best place for a conference that meets in mid-November. Apparently, the weather was beautiful for the first couple days. However, I had spent the beginning of the week in Atlanta at the meeting of the American Society for Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (that was a very interesting meeting, but this post is about AAA). This meant that I had to fly in late Friday evening before my Saturday session. By this time, the weather had changed to something slightly more horrifying. While my flight seemed like a relatively long-haul (4.5 hours from SFO), we nonetheless flew in a regional jet. A storm had moved into the Twin Cities area by Friday afternoon and our little plane got tossed around quite a bit in our approach to MSP. In fact, we flew in a holding pattern for about an hour before the pilot came on intercom and said that we “we’re going to try to land” Try? It was a white-knuckle landing in which we experienced more yaw than I care to remember. There are many reasons that I’m grateful that our try at landing was successful, and high among those is the fact that I didn’t relish the thought of climbing back through that unsettled air if we had failed on our first pass.

Once safely on the ground, I was able to take the lovely (and cheap!) light rail straight to downtown, about three blocks from the conference venue. I don’t know what one calls the precipitation that was falling at this point (sleet? freezing rain? wintery mix?), but it was quite a shock for this adopted Californian.

The meeting was held in the Minneapolis Convention Center, a cavernous space that the 5,000 or so anthropologists didn’t come close to filling. This gave the conference a bit of a ghost-town feeling. Adventitious encounters were minimal and I definitely saw far fewer anthropologists of different stripes than I have at past meetings. The registration process was surprisingly efficient (maybe because I was registering on what I thought was the last day and there wasn’t much of a crowd). Rather than the standard canvas bag, we were given fluorescent green plastic (?) bags. I have actually wondered whether I hallucinated this, since I threw mine out immediately and have been completely unable to find a picture on one on the internets, but Rex over at Savage Minds has also commented on the bizarre bags (alas, I don’t think they were soy fiber, Rex).

Then there were the conference badges. Not so much badges as they were bibs — a bonus to the messy eaters in our midst! They were bright red (if you are lucky enough to be a AAA member) and were reminiscent of those travel wallets that are designed to fit a passport and shout “I’m a tourist, please harass me!” Too bad I left my fanny-pack at home. Once again, AAA astounds me with its tone-deaf marking of outsiders. Oh, you’re not a member of our club? Then wear this other-colored bib to display your status for all to see! I’ve been to many different societies’ conferences and AAA is the only one where I’ve experienced this practice.

If we’re being perfectly honest here, I’m not big on conference talks. I generally try to minimize the number of attend. Let’s face it, most conference talks are not great and when you have to submit your talk nine months before the conference, freshness of material tends not to be super high. I spend most of my time at conferences meeting with people: planning a paper with co-authors, strategizing with program officers, meeting with editors, catching up with former students, dining and drinking with colleagues I haven’t seen in years. This is the really productive work of an academic conference. Nonetheless, I was curious what AAA had to offer. I found the online program so difficult to use that I gave up on even trying to find talks I wanted to see (this is another topic that Rex takes up hilariously — I couldn’t agree more on his review). This tool was clearly not designed by anyone who actually attends academic conferences. The more I use it to write this piece, the more comically dysfunctional I realize it is. Who thinks it’s a good idea to hide the author names in a search result? See the screenshot below for an example of what gets returned from a search for Anthropology and Environment Society talks:

screenshot of online schedule search

I organized a session for the Evolutionary Anthropology Society entitled, “Evolutionary Anthropological Approaches to Inequality.” It seemed to me that there is a group of human behavioral ecologists out there doing long-term ethnographic work, measuring economic and demographic variables, and thinking hard about how people adapt in a rapidly-changing world, and that these scholars might have some real insights into the mechanisms generating economic inequality. I was right.

One of my goals for this session was to beat the bushes for contributions from scholars other than the usual suspects. Don’t get me wrong; I’m very fond of the usual suspects in EAS, but there is a lot of great work being done that is both relevant to our section’s mission and engages different communities of scholars. I had some success recruiting different people in the initial call for papers. Unfortunately, when these new folks saw how much it costs to present a paper at AAA (the conference is very expensive, particularly when you adjust for the overall quality of the scientific program), they backed out. Fortunately, we had enough people still signed up that we were able to retain our session (apparently, you only need four speakers to stay on the program). When faced with a sparse session, the organizer has a few options: add a discussant, give speakers longer slots, open up a discussion. I decided to opt for yet another strategy. We wildcatted three late-breaking talks by junior researchers. Obviously, these talks didn’t make the program (not sure that’s much of a penalty though, given what a mess the program was), but it still gave the speakers the opportunity to present their research in front of a crowd of at least 50 (we had a great turn-out for the entire session).

The line-up for the session included a number of stars from EAS (well, and me):

  1. Paul Hooper (Emory), “If You Know What Feeds Hierarchy, then You Can Starve It”
  2. Siobhán Mattison (UNM), “Market Integration, Kinship, and Social Inequality Among the Mosuo of Southwest China”
  3. me (Stanford),”State-Dependence, Uncertainty, and the Economic Rationality of Poor People”
  4. Katie Starkweather (MPI), “Subsistence Strategies: Risk, Reward and Gender Roles for the Boat-Dwelling Shodagor of Bangladesh”

We missed Tamas David-Barrett, who had to deal with some emergent business back home. Our late-breaking talks were contributed by Elspeth Ready (Stanford), E’lana Jordan (Stanford), and Dave Nolin (Missouri). All were great. This was E’lana’s debut, as she is just back from the field, and she killed it. Elspeth was, as ever, dazzling in her analytical sophistication and the general bad-assery of her fieldwork.

The other EAS session, “Finding Insights in the Field: Ethnographic Experience and the Scientific Process,” organized by former student and current Omidyar post-doc at SFI, Elly Power, was also terrific. All the talks in this session were very good and the attendance was excellent. Naturally, I was particularly partial to the incredibly sophisticated analysis that Elly presented to close out this excellent session.

This has now happened enough times at AAA that it has tweaked that paranoid part of my brain. Our EAS session was scheduled at the same time as a great-looking session sponsored by Anthropology and the Environment Society called “Emergent Landscapes, Disturbance Ecology, and New Approaches in Ecological Anthropology.” Friends and colleagues involved in this session included Mark Moritz (Ohio State), Steve Lansing (Nanyang Technological University, Singapore), Brian Codding (Utah), Sean Downey (Maryland), and Kathy Galvin (Colorado State), among others. This session would have been of great interest to many in EAS, but, unless you’re Hermione Granger, you can only be in one session at a time. It was particularly frustrating because the editor for the new journal, Nature Human Behavior, also had to choose between sessions. These are constituencies who have natural affinities and we should work on getting them to coordinate somehow, AAA scheduling be damned.

Once again, there was apparently nothing newsworthy at AAA, as a Google news search turns up no hits from the actual meeting. This is a big difference between AAA and other major professional meetings, where new discoveries or novel analyses make their way into different quarters of the news media. The usual defensive response to this critique is that anthropology is more a humanities discipline (which, of course, is itself debatable) and, as such, doesn’t lend itself to “discoveries” or press releases. I don’t buy that. A similar search for the MLA, for example, turns up quite a few stories. I think it’s something about which we should be concerned as a discipline. While I am heartened by some of the work I saw at AAA (or from which I was structurally blocked from seeing but about which I heard in conversations with speakers later that evening), I really wonder about the relevance of our discipline as a whole. In principle, I believe the world really needs anthropology — perhaps now more than ever. But, in practice, I’m not sure what anthropologists are doing is what the world needs.

Among other things, I wonder if we really need to have meetings in convention centers. The public spaces seemed particularly sparse this year and many of the sessions I walked by looked like they had more speakers than audience members. I know it’s hard, but maybe we need to conduct a bit of quality control. Of course, I should be careful what I ask for. Given the fact that EAS is not a powerful section of AAA, we would almost certainly lose, even though our sessions are very well attended. This may sound heretical, but maybe we should collect data on session attendance and factor that into which sessions get included. Surely, the number of people who actually attend a session is a better measure of interest than the number of people who belong to a given section. In my experience, both EAS, BAS, and Anthropology and the Environment would do quite well on that criterion, even if they are relatively small sections.

I will probably keep going to AAA, at least occasionally, not because I think it’s a good conference in general. I will go because there is a core of great young researchers in EAS and I want to continue to support them, even if AAA is, at best, an uneasy home for them.

Winter Anthropology Colloquium, Part 2

We had the second of our speakers in the winter anthropology colloquium Friday. Daniel Nettle came on Friday. Daniel’s talk was co-sponsored by the Institute for Research in the Social Sciences. Daniel is a human behavioral ecologist with extremely broad interests and a penchant for using HBE as a tool for studying social inequality and human health. Somehow, we’d never met before. I’m glad that’s been taken care of now. Of the dozens of things that Daniel could have talked about, he chose to talk about his ethnographic project in Newcastle on Tyne.

Given my interests in demography and epidemiology, I’ve seen lots of talks on social deprivation, inequality, neighborhood effects, etc., but Daniel’s talk showed a refreshing creativity. A large fraction of the data he presented came from deceptively simple ethological methods. I think that there is a lot that both the methods and theory of behavioral ecology and ethology have to offer studies of social inequality and health. Of course, I’m not alone in this belief. Mhairi Gibson (my collaborator in Uganda) and David Lawson (this week’s speaker!) published a terrific  book last year on the application of HBE to applied problems.

Much of the work Daniel’s work in this area is published in open-access journals (e.g., here and here). I’m intrigued by the relatively new journal, PeerJ, where he has published a number of papers now, and am planning to submit something there soon.

The flyer for Daniel’s talk:


Winter Anthropology Colloquium, Part 1

I am organizing the colloquium for the Stanford Anthropology department this winter. I believe it may be the first time that a faculty member for the Ecology and Environment group has organized the colloquium since the Blessed Event that merged departments back in 2008 (though I’m not certain of that). There have been a few scheduling glitches, as it seems winter quarter 2015 has the highest density of talks I’ve yet encountered in 11 years at Stanford, but we’re off to a great start. Our first speaker came all the way from the UK to speak to us about social dilemmas and cooperation. Shakti Lamba is an ESRC Research Fellow and Lecturer in Human Behavioural Ecology in the Centre for Ecology and Conservation at the University of Exeter.

Shakti talked about her very exciting work on behavioral norms. She uses a variety of methods, including ethnography, experimental games, and advanced statistical techniques to understand the nature of variation in cooperative norms within and between populations (see, e.g., papers here or here for examples of her work). I generally have mixed feelings about experimental games, but I think there is a small cadre of anthropologists, including Shakti and Drew Gerkey, among others, who use them as a tool for eliciting much richer behavioral and social observations than do most field researchers (whether or not they use experimental games!). I was impressed by the sophistication of her approach, her keen experimental design, and the excellent population thinking that it entails. However, I was most impressed with her coolness and eloquence under some pretty heated questioning from a number of senior faculty members who simply misunderstand evolutionary process.  Looking forward to seeing more of her work, especially forthcoming longitudinal research with Alex Alvergne, in the future!

Here is the poster for her talk:


On Genetics and Human Behavioral Biology

Nicholas Wade, former science reporter for the New York Times has written a book, A Troublesome Inheritance, in which he argues that large-scale societal differences (e.g., the existence of capitalist democracies in the West or of paternalistic, authoritarian political systems in Asia) may be attributable to small genetic differences that were fixed at a population level through the action of natural selection since the emergence of anatomically modern humans and their subsequent dispersal from Africa. The fixation of these gene variants happened because the continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa (homes of the major “racial” groups) differed in systematic ways. David Dobbs recently reviewed it in the Sunday Review of Books, which prompted a kind of amicus brief letter-to-the-editor from over 120 population geneticists, affirming that Wade’s writing misrepresents the current science of genetics. A full list of the signatories of this letter can be found here. It is a veritable who’s who of contemporary population genetics.

As you might imagine, A Troublesome Inheritance has been quite controversial. A great deal has already been written on this book, both in formal publications and in the science (and economics) blogging ecosystem. To name just a few, Greg Laden, my old homie and fellow TF for Irv DeVore‘s famous Harvard class, Science B-29, Human Behavioral Biology, wrote a brief review here for American Scientist. Columbia statistician and political scientist, Andrew Gelman, wrote a review for Slate.com. Notre Dame professor and frequent contributor of popular work on human evolution, Agustin Fuentes, wrote a critique for Huffington Post, while UNC-C anthropology professor Jonathan Marks wrote a critique for the American Anthropological Association blog, which also appears in HuffPo.

Honestly, I think that Wade’s book is so scientifically weak and ideological (despite his protestations that science should be apolitical) that it is likely to have a very short half-life in contemporary discourse on human diversity and science more broadly. In fact, I have advocated to the editorial boards of professional societies to which I belong not to do anything special about this book since I’m confident it will be soon forgotten for its sheer scientific mediocrity. I find it interesting that the great majority of the people who like the book seem not to be scientists but comment on Wade’s “bravery” for spurning “political correctness” and the like. There are substantial parallels here to public debate over climate change or vaccination: the professional conclusions of the scientists who actually work on the topic only matter when they correspond with the social, political, or economic interests of the parties engaging in the debate. What do geneticists know about genetics anyway? So, it is with some hesitancy that I write about it, but my colleagues’ letter has reminded me of a larger beef I have with the contemporary state of human evolutionary studies. This beef boils down to the fact that most contemporary students of human evolutionary biology know next to nothing about genetics. I’ve actually encountered a number of leading figures in human behavioral biology who maintain an outright hostility toward genetics. This is a topic that my colleague Charles Roseman and I have grumbled about for a few years now. We keep threatening to do something about it, but haven’t quite gotten around to it yet. Perhaps this is a humble start…

This state of affairs is extremely problematic since genetics is the material cause (in the Aristotelean sense) or one of the mechanistic causes (in the Tinbergian sense) of much of the diversity of life. If we are going to make a scientific claim that some observed trait is the result of natural selection, we should be able to have a sense for how such a trait could evolve in the first place. The standard excuse for ignoring genetics in the adaptive analysis of a trait of interest is what Alan Grafen termed the “phenotypic gambit.” The basic idea behind the phenotypic gambit is that natural selection is strong enough to overcome whatever constraints may be acting on it. The phenotypic gambit is a powerful idea and it has yielded some productive work in behavioral ecology. I use it. However, a complete evolutionary explanation of a trait’s existence needs to consider all levels of explanation. In modern terms, and as nicely outlined a letter by Randolph Nesse, we need to answer questions about mechanism, ontogeny, phylogeny, and function. Explanations relying on the phenotypic gambit only address the functional question (i.e., fitness, or what Tinbergen called the “survival value” of the trait).

I could go on about this for a long time, so I will limit myself to three points: (1) complex traits will generally not be created by a single gene, (2) heritability and the response to selection are regularly misunderstood and misapplied, (3) we need to think about the strength of selection and the constancy of selective regimes when making statements about the adaptive evolution of specific traits.

First, we need to get over the whole one-gene thing. Among other things, the types of adaptive arguments that are made particularly for recent human behavioral innovations are simply highly implausible for single genes. There are a variety of formulae for calculating the time to fixation of advantageous alleles that depend on the particulars of the system (e.g., details about dominance, initial frequency, mutation rate). Using the approximation that the number of generations that it takes for the fixation of a highly advantageous allele with selection coefficient s is simply twice the natural logarithm of s divided by s, we can calculate the expected time to fixation for an advantageous allele. With a (very) substantial average selection coefficient of s=0.05 (think of lopping of 5% of the population each generation), the time to fixation of such a highly advantageous allele is about 120 generations generations. That’s over 3,000 years for humans. This is interesting, of course, because it makes the type of recent evolution the John Hawks or Henry Harpending have discussed more than plausible. It makes it hard to imagine how the large changes in presumably complex behavioral complexes in historical time suggested by authors such as Wade or Gregory Clark, author of Farewell to Alms (which I actually find a fascinating book), pretty implausible.

In addition to the population-genetic implausibility of single-locus evolutionary models, complex traits are polygenic, meaning that they are constructed from multiple genes, each of which typically has a small effect. Now, this doesn’t even address the issue of epigenetics, where genotype-environment interactions profoundly shape gene expression and can produce fundamentally different phenotypes in the absence of significant genetic difference, but that’s another post. In many ways, this is good news for people who study whole organisms in a naturalistic context (like human behavioral ecologists!) because it means that we can work with quantitatively-measured trait values and apply regression models to understanding their dynamics. In short, the math is easier though, admittedly, the statistics can be pretty tricky. Further good news: there are lots of people who would probably be happy to collaborate and there are plenty of training opportunities in quantitative genetics through short courses, etc.

The masterful review paper that Marc Feldman and Dick Lewontin wrote for Science in 1975 amid the controversy surrounding Arthur Jensen’s work on the genetics of intelligence, and its implications for racial educational achievement differentials, still applies. Heritability is a systematically misunderstood concept and its misuse seems to surface in policy debates approximately every twenty years. Heritability, in the strict sense, is a ratio of the total phenotypic variance that is attributable to additive genetic variance (i.e., the variance contributed by the mean effect of different alleles). Because total variance of the phenotype is in the denominator of this ratio, heritability is very much a population-specific measure. If a population has low total phenotypic variance because of a uniformly positive environment, for instance, there is more potential for a greater fraction of the total variance to be due to additive genetic variance. Think, for example, about children’s intelligence (as measured through psychometric tests) in a wealthy community with an excellent school district where most parents are college-educated and therefore have the motivation to guide their children to high scholastic achievement, the resources to supplement their children’s school instruction (e.g., hiring tutors or sending kids to enrichment programs), and the study skills and knowledge base to help their children with homework, etc. I have used this example in prior post. Given the relative uniformity of the environment, more of the variation in test scores may be attributable to additive genetic contributions and heritability would be higher than it would be in a more heterogeneous population. This is a hypothetical example, but it illustrates the rather constrained meaning of heritability and the problems associated with its application to cross-population comparisons. It is also suggestive of the problem of effect sizes of different contributions to phenotypic variance. The potential for environmental variance to swamp real additive genetic variance is quite large. What’s a better predictor of life expectancy: having a genetic predisposition to high longevity or living in a neighborhood with a high homicide rate or a endemic cholera in the drinking water supply?

Heritability essentially measures the potential response to selection, everything else being equal. The so-called Breeder’s Equation (Lush 1937) states that the change in a single quantitative phenotype (e.g., height) from one generation to the next is equal to the product of heritability and the force of selection. If there is lots of additive variability in a trait but not much selective advantage to it, the change in the mean phenotype will be small. Similarly, even if selection is very strong, the phenotype will not change much if the amount of additive variance is low. A famous, but frequently misunderstood result, known as Fisher’s Fundamental Theorem shows that the change in fitness is directly proportional to variance in fitness. This is really just a special case of the breeder’s equation, as shown in great detail in Lynch and Walsh’s textbook (and their online draft chapter 6) or in Steve Frank’s terrific book, in which the trait we care about is fitness itself. An important implication of Fisher’s theorem is that selection should deplete variance in fitness — and this makes sense if we think of selection as truncating a distribution. A corollary of Fisher’s theorem is that traits which are highly correlated with fitness should not have high heritability. Oops. Does this mean that intelligence, with its putatively very high heritabilities is not important for fitness?

Everything in the last paragraph applies to the case where we are only considering a single trait. When we consider the joint response of two or more traits to selection, we must account for correlations between traits (technically, additive genetic covariances between the traits). Sometimes these covariances will be positive; sometimes they will be negative. When the additive genetic covariance between two traits is negative, it means that selection to increase the mean of one will reduce the mean of the other. In their fundamental (1983) paper, my Imperial College colleague Russ Lande and Steven Arnold generalized the breeder’s equation to the multivariate case. The response to selection becomes a balancing act between the different force of selection, additive genetic variance, and additive genetic covariance for all the traits. Indeed, this is where constraints come from (or it’s at least one place). Suppose there are two traits (1 and 2) that share a negative covariance. Further suppose that the force of selection is positive for both but is stronger on trait 1 than it is on trait 2. Depending on the amount of genetic variance present, this could mean that the mean of trait 2 will not change or even that the mean could decrease from one generation to the next.

The work of Lande and Arnold (and many others) has spawned a huge literature on evolvability (something that Charles has moved into and that we have some nascent collaborative work on in the area of human life-history evolution). This work is very important for understanding things like the evolution of human psychology. Consider the hypothesis, popular in evolutionary psychology, that the mind is divided into a large number of specific problem-solving “modules,” each of which is the product of natural selection on the outcome of the problem-solving. How do you create so many of these “organs” in a relatively short time frame? Humans last shared a common ancestor with chimpanzees and bonobos around five million years ago and most likely human ancestors until about 1.8 million years ago seem awfully ape-like (and therefore probably not carrying around anything like the human mental toolkit in their heads). One of the key processes responsible for the creation of complex phenotypes is known as modularity (which is a bit confusing since this is also the term that evolutionary psychologists use for these mental organs!) and one of the fundamental mechanisms by which modularity is achieved is through the duplication of sets of genes responsible for existing structures. These duplicated “modules” are less constrained because of their redundancy and can evolve to form new structures. However, the fact that modules are duplicated means that they should experience substantial genetic correlation with their ancestral modules. This makes me skeptical that the diversity of hypothetical structures posited by the massive modularity hypothesis could be constructed by directional selection on each module. There is just bound to be too much correlation in the system to permit it to move in a fine-tuned way toward to phenotypic optimum for each module.

Trade-offs matter for the evolution of phenotypes. While I suspect that very few human evolutionary biologists would argue with that, I think that we generally fall short of considering the impact of trade-offs for adaptive optima. The multivariate breeders’ equation of Lande and Arnold gives us an important (though incomplete) tool for looking at these trade-offs mechanistically. A few authors have done this. The example that comes immediately to mind is Virpi Luumaa and her research group, who have done some outstanding work on the quantitative genetics of human life histories using Finnish historical records.

My third, and last (for now), point addresses the constancy of selection. This is related to the concept of the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (EEA), central to the reasoning of evolutionary psychology. A few years back, I wrote quite a longish piece on this topic and its attendant problems. Note that when we use population-genetic models like the one we discussed above for the expected time to fixation of an advantageous allele, the selection coefficient s is the average value of that coefficient over time. In reality, it will fluctuate, just as the demography of the population selection is working on will vary. Variation in vital rates can have huge impacts on demographic outcomes, as my Stanford colleague Shripad Tuljapurkar has spent a career showing. It can also have enormous effects on population-genetic outcomes, which shouldn’t be too surprising since it’s the population of individuals which is governed by the demography that is passing genetic material from on generation to the next!

When I read accounts of rapid selection that rely heavily on EEA-type environments or the type of generalizations found in the second half of Wade’s book (e.g., Asians live in paternalistic, autocratic societies), my constant-environment alarm bells start to sound. I worry that we are essentializing societies. One of the all-time classic works of British Social Anthropology is Sir Edmund Leach’s groundbreaking Political systems of Highland Burma. Leach found that the social systems of northern Burma were far more fluid than anthropologists of the time typically thought was the case. One of the key results is that there was a great deal of interchange between the two major social systems in northern Burma, the Kachin and and Shan. Interestingly, the Shan, who occupied lowland valleys, practiced wet-rice agriculture, and whose social systems were highly stratified were seen by western observers as being more “civilized” than the Kachin, who occupied the hills, practiced slash-and-burn agriculture, and had much more egalitarian social relations. Leach (1954: 264) writes, “within the general Kachin-Shan complex we have, I claim, a number of unstable sub-systems. Particular communities are capable of changing from one sub-system into another.” Yale anthropologist/political scientist James Scott has extended Leach’s analysis in his recent book, The Art of Not Being Governed, and suggested that the fluid mode of social organization, where people alternate between hierarchical agrarian states, and marginal tribes depending on political, historical, and ecological vicissitudes is, in fact, the norm for the societies of Southeast Asia.

The clear implication of this work for our present discussion is that a single lineage may find some of its members struggling for existence in hierarchical states where the type of docility that Wade suggests should be advantageous would be beneficial, while descendants just a generation or two distant might find themselves in egalitarian societies where physical dominance, initiative, and energy might be more likely to determine evolutionary success. I don’t mean to imply that these generalizations regarding personality-type and evolutionary success are necessarily supported by evidence. The key here is that the social milieux of successive generations could be radically different if the models of Leach and Scott are right (and the evidence brought to bear by Scott is impressive and leads me to think that the models are right). At the very least, this will reduce the average selection differential on the putative genes for personality types that are adapted to particular socio-political environments. More likely, I suspect, it will establish quite different selective regimes — say, for behavioral flexibility through strong genotype-environment interactions!

These are some of the big issues regarding genetics and the evolution of human behavior that have been bothering me recently. I’m not sure how we go about fixing this problem, but a great place to start is by fostering more collaborations between geneticists and behavioral biologists. Of course, this would be predicated on behavioral biologists’ motivation to fully understand the origin and maintenance of phenotypes and I worry that the institutional incentives for this are not in place.

On Anthropological Sciences and the AAA

I guess the time has rolled around again for my annual navel-gaze regarding my discipline, my place within it, and its future. Two strangely interwoven events have conspired to make me particularly philosophical as we enter into the winter holidays. First, I am in the middle of a visit by my friend, colleague, and former student, Charles Roseman, now an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. The second is that the American Anthropological Association meetings just went down in San Francisco and this always induces an odd sense of shock and subsequent introspection.

Charles graduated with a Ph.D. from the Department of Anthropological Sciences (once a highly ranked department according the the National Research Council) in 2005. He was awarded tenure at UIUC, a leading department for biological anthropology, this past year and has come back to The Farm to collaborate with me on our top-secret sleeper project of the past seven years. We’ve made some serious progress on this project since he arrived and maybe I’ll be able to write about that soon too.

The annual AAA meeting is one  that I never attended until about four years ago, coinciding with what we sometimes refer to as “the blessed event,” the remarrying of the two Stanford Anthropology departments. It’s actually a bit of coincidence that I started attending AAAs the same year that we merged but it has largely been business of the new Department of Anthropology that has kept me going back – largely to serve on job search committees. This year, I had two responsibilities that drew me to the AAAs. The first was the editorial board meeting for American Anthropologist, the flagship publication of the association.  I joined the editorial board this year and it seemed a good idea to go and get a feel for what is happening with the journal and where it is likely to head over the next couple years.

My other primary responsibility was chairing a session that was organized by two of my Ph.D. students, Yeon Jung Yu and Shannon Randolph. In addition to Yeon and Shannon, my Ph.D. student Alejandro Feged also presented work from his dissertation research.  All three of these students were actually accepted into Anthsci and are part of the last cohort of students to leave Stanford still knowing the two-department system.

It was a great pleasure to sit in the audience and watch Yeon, Shannon, and Alejandro dazzle the audience with their sophisticated methods, beautiful images, and accounts of impressive, extended — and often hardcore — fieldwork. For her dissertation research, Yeon worked for two years with commercial sex workers in southern China, attempting to understand how women get recruited into sex work and how social relations facilitate their ability to survive and even thrive in a world that is quite hostile to them. Her talk was incredibly professional and theoretically sophisticated. For her dissertation research, Shannon worked in the markets of Yaoundé, Cameroon, trying to understand the motivations for consumption of wild bushmeat. Shannon was able to share with the audience her innovative approaches to collecting data (over 4,000 price points, among other things) on a grey-market activity that people are not especially eager to discuss, especially in the market itself. Alejandro did his dissertation research in the Colombian Amazon, where he investigated the human ecology of malaria in this highly endemic region. His talk demonstrated that the conventional wisdom about malaria ecology in this region — namely, that the people most at risk for infection are adult men who spend the most time in the forest — is simply incorrect for some indidenous popualtions and his time-budget analyses made a convincing case for the behavioral basis of this violation of expectations. This was a pretty heterogeneous collection of talks but they shared the commonality of a very strong methodological basis to the research.

At at time when many anthropologists express legitimate concerns over their professional prospects, I have enormous confidence in this crop of students, all three of whom are regularly asked to do consulting for government and/or non-govermental organizations because of their subject knowledge and methodological expertise. Anthsci graduates — there weren’t that many of them since the department existed for less than 10 years — have done very well in the profession overall. I will list just a couple here whose work I knew well because I was on their committees or their work was generally in my area

In addition to these grad students, I think that it’s important to note the success of the post-docs who worked either in Anthsci or with former Anthsci faculty on projects that started before the merger. Some of these outstanding people include:

In a discipline that is lukewarm at best on the even very notion of methodology, I suspect that students with strong methodological skills — in addition to the expected theoretical sophistication and critical thinking (note that these skills do not actually trade-off) — enjoy a distinct comparative advantage when entering a less-than-ideal job market. Of course, I don’t mean to imply that Anthsci didn’t have its share of graduates who leave the field out of frustration or lack of opportunity or who get stuck in the vicious cycle of adjunct teaching. But this accounting gives me hope. It gives me hope for my both my current and future students and it gives me hope for the field. Maybe I’ll even go to AAAs again next year…

Risk Management: The Fundamental Human Adaptation

It was a conceptually dense week in class.  The first part of the week I spent talking about topics such as ecological complexity, vulnerability, adaptation, and resilience. One of the key take-home messages of this material is that uncertainty is ubiquitous in complex ecological systems.  Now, while systemic uncertainty does not mean that the world is unpatterned or erratic, it does mean that people are never sure what their foraging returns will be or whether they will come down with the flu next week or whether their neighbor will support them or turn against them in a local political fight. Because uncertainty is so ubiquitous, I see it as especially important for understanding human evolution and the capacity for adaptation. In fact, I think it’s so important a topic that I’m writing a book about it.  More on that later…

First, it’s important to distinguish two related concepts.  Uncertainty  simply means that you don’t know the outcome of a process with 100% certainty.  Outcomes are probabilistic.  Risk, on the other hand, combines both the likelihood of a negative outcome and the outcome’s severity. There could be a mildly negative outcome that has a very high probability of occurring and we would probably think that it was less risky than a more severe outcome that happened with lower probability. When a forager leaves camp for a hunt, he does not know what return he will get.  10,000 kcal? 5,000 kcal? 0 kcal? This is uncertainty.  If the hunter’s children are starving and might die if he doesn’t return with food, the outcome of returning with 0 kcal worth of food is risky as well.

Human behavioral ecology has a number of elements that distinguish it as an approach to studying human ecology and decision-making.  These features have been discussed extensively by Bruce Winterhalder and Eric Smith (1992, 2000), among others.  Included among these are: (1) the logic of natural selection, (2) hypothetico-deductive framework, (3) a piecemeal approach to understanding human behavior, (4) focus on simple (strategic) models, (5) emphasis on behavioral strategies, (6) methodological individualism.  Some others that I would add include: (7) ethological (i.e., naturalistic) data collection, (8) rich ethnographic context, (9) a focus on adaptation and behavioral flexibility in contrast to typology and progressivism.  The hypothetico-deductive framework and use of simple models (along with the logic of selection) jointly accounts for the frequent use of optimality models in behavioral ecology. Not to overdo it with the laundry lists, but optimality models also all share some common features.  These include: (1) the definition of an actor, (2) a currency and an objective function (i.e., the thing that is maximized), (3) a strategy set or set of alternative actions, and (4) a set of constraints.

For concreteness’ sake, I will focus on foraging in this discussion, though the points apply to other types of problems. When behavioral ecologists attempt to understand foraging decisions, the currency they overwhelmingly favor is the rate of energy gain. There are plenty of good reasons for this.  Check out Stephens and Krebs (1986) if you are interested. The point that I want to make here is that, ultimately, it’s not the energy itself that matters for fitness.  Rather it is what you do with it. How does a successful foraging bout increase your marginal survival probability or fertility rate? This doesn’t sound like such a big issue but it has important implications. In particular, fitness (or utility) is a function of energy return.  This means that in a variable environment, it matters how we average.  Different averages can give different answers. For example, what is the average of the square root of 10 and 2? There are two ways to do this: (1) average the two values and take the square root (i.e., take the function of the mean), and (2) take the square roots and average (i.e., take the mean of the function). The first of these is \sqrt{6}=2.45. The second is (\sqrt{10} + \sqrt{2})/2=2.29.  The function of the mean is greater than the mean of the function.  This is a result of Jensen’s inequality. The square root function is concave — it has a negative second derivative. This means that while \sqrt{x} gets bigger as x gets bigger (its first derivative is positive), the increase is incrementally smaller as x gets larger. This is commonly known as diminishing marginal utility.

Lots of things naturally show diminishing marginal gains.  Imagine foraging for berries in a blueberry bush when you’re really hungry.  When you arrive at the bush (i.e., ‘the patch’), your rate of energy gain is very high. You’re gobbling berries about as fast as you can move your hands from the bush to your mouth. But after you’ve been there a while, your rate of consumption starts to slow down.  You’re depleting the bush.  It takes longer to pick the berries because you have to reach into the interior of the bush or go around the other side or get down on the ground to get the low-hanging berries.


Chances are, there’s going to come a point where you don’t think it’s worth the effort any more.  Maybe it’s time to find another bush; maybe you’ve got other important things to do that are incompatible with berry-picking. In his classic paper, Ric Charnov derived the conditions under which a rate-maximizing berry-picker should move on, the so-called ‘marginal value theorem’ (abandon the patch when the marginal rate of energy gain equals the mean rate for the environment). There are a number of similar marginal value solutions in ecology and evolutionary biology (they all arise from maximizing some rate or another). Two other examples: Parker derived an marginal value solution for the optimal time that a male dung fly should copulate (can’t make this stuff up). van Baalen and Sabelis derived the optimal virulence for a pathogen when the conditional probability of transmission and the contact rate between infectious and susceptible hosts trade off.

So, what does all this have to do with risk? In a word, everything.

Consider a utility curve with diminishing marginal returns.  Suppose you are at the mean, indicated by \bar{x}. Now you take a gamble.  If you’re successful, you move to x_1 and its associated utility.  However, if you fail, you move down to x_0 and its associated utility.  These two outcomes are equidistant from the mean. Because the curve is concave, the gain in utility that you get moving from \bar{x} to x_1 is much smaller than the loss you incur moving from \bar{x} to x_0.  The downside risk is much bigger than the upside gain.  This is illustrated in the following figure:


When returns are variable and utility/fitness is a function of returns, we can use expected utility as a tool for understanding optimal decisions. The idea goes back to von Neumann and Morgenstern, the fathers of game theory. Expected utility has received some attention in behavioral ecology, though not as much as it deserves.  Stephens and Krebs (1986) discuss it in their definitive book on foraging theory.  Bruce Winterhalder, Flora Lu, and Bram Tucker (1999) have discussed expected utility in analyzing human foraging decisions and Bruce has also written with Paul Leslie (2002; Leslie & Winterhalder 2002) on the topic with regard to fertility decisions.  Expected utility encapsulates the very sensible idea that when faced with a choice between two options that have uncertain outcomes, choose the one with the higher average payoff. The basic idea is that the world presents variable pay-offs. Each pay-off has a utility associated with it. The best decision is the one that has the highest overall expected, or average, utility associated with it. Consider a forager deciding what type of hunt to undertake. He can go for big game but there is only a 10% chance of success. When he succeeds, he gets 10,000 kcal of energy. When he fails, he can almost always find something else on the way back home to bring to camp. 90% of the time, he will bring back 1,000 kcal.  The other option is to go for small game, which is generally much more certain endeavor. 90% of the time, he will net 2,000 units of energy.  Such small game is remarkably uniform in its payoff but sometimes (10%) the forager will get lucky and receive 3,000 kcal. We calculate the expected utility by summing the products of the probabilities and the rewards, assuming for simplicity in this case that the utility is simply the energy value (if we didn’t make this assumption, we would calculate the utilities associated with the returns first before averaging).

Big Game: 0.1*10000 + 0.9*1000 = 1900

Small Game: 0.9*2000 + 0.1*3000 = 2100

Small game is preferred because it has higher expected utility.

We can do a bit of analysis on our utility curve and show something very important about risk and expected utility. I’ll spare the mathematical details, but we can expand our utility function around the mean return using a Taylor series and then calculate expectations (i.e., average) on both sides.  The resulting expression encapsulates a lot of the theory of risk management. Let w(x) indicate the utility associated with return x (where I follow the population genetics convention that fitness is given by a w).

 \overline{w(x)} = w(\bar{x}) + \frac{1}{2} w? \mathrm{Var}(x).

Mean fitness is equal to the fitness of the mean payoff plus a term that includes the variance in x and the second derivative of the utility function.  When there is diminishing marginal utility, this will be negative.  Therefore, variance will reduce mean fitness below the fitness of the mean. When there is diminishing marginal utility, variance is bad. How bad is determined both by the magnitude of the variance but also by how curved the utility curve is.  If there is no curve, utility is a straight line and w?=0.  In that case, variance doesn’t matter.

So variance is bad for fitness.  And variance can get big. One can imagine it being quite sensible to sacrifice some mean return in exchange for a reduction in variance if this reduction outweighed the premium paid from the mean. This is exactly what we do when we purchase insurance or when a farmer sells grain futures.  This is also something that animals with parental care do.  Rather than spewing out millions of gametes in the hope that it will get lucky (e.g., like a sea urchin), animals with parental care use the energy they could spend on lots more gametes and reinvest in ensuring the survival of their offspring. This is probably also why hunter-gatherer women target reliable resources that generally have a lower mean return than other available, but risky, items.

It turns out that humans have all sorts of ways of dealing with risk, some of them embodied in our very biology.  I’m going to come up short in enumerating these because this is the central argument of my book manuscript and I don’t want to give it away (yet)! I hope to blog here in the near future about three papers that I have nearly completed that deal with risk management and the evolution of social systems, reproductive decision-making in an historical population, and foraging decisions by contemporary hunter-gatherers.  When they come out, my blog will be the first to know!


Charnov, E. L. 1976. Optimal foraging: The marginal value theorem. Theoretical Population Biology. 9:129-136.

Leslie, P., and B. Winterhalder. 2002. Demographic consequences of unpredictability in fertility outcomes. American Journal of Human Biology. 14 (2):168-183.

Parker, G. A., and R. A. Stuart. 1976. Animal behavior as a strategy optimizer: evolution of resource assessment strategies and optimal emigration thresholds. American Naturalist. 110 (1055-1076).

Stephens, D. W., and J. R. Krebs. 1986. Foraging theory. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

van Baalen, M., and M. W. Sabelis. 1995. The dynamics of multiple infection and the evolution of virulence. American Naturalist. 146 (6):881-910.

Winterhalder, B., and P. Leslie. 2002. Risk-sensitive fertility:The variance compensation hypothesis. Evolution and Human Behavior. 23:59-82.

Winterhalder, B., F. Lu, and B. Tucker. 1999. Risk-sensitive adaptive tactics: Models and evidence from subsistence studies in biology and anthropology. Journal of Archaeological Research. 7 (4):301-348.

Winterhalder, B., and E. A. Smith. 2000. Analyzing adaptive strategies: Human behavioral ecology at twenty-five. Evolutionary Anthropology. 9 (2):51-72.

Ecology, Evolution, and Human Health

Yesterday, I spent most of the day collecting content for my upcoming classes this spring and getting the course web sites together.  For the first time in a while, I will (officially) be teaching two classes in one quarter (which effectively means teaching three or four when I add the other things like lab meetings in).  The first is our graduate class on statistics in the anthropological sciences.  I taught something like this back in the old department (i.e., Anthropological Sciences) but haven’t taught it in years (though a Google search for “department of anthropological sciences stanford” turns up the syllabus for this class).  It is technically a requirement for Ph.D. students in the Ecology and Environment focus within Anthropology, so it’s about time.  It will be fun to teach again and we’re looking to use the class as a platform to develop resources for anthropologists doing statistical work (more later).

The other class that I will be teaching starting next week is Ecology, Evolution, and Human Health, a class I first taught last year. This class is meant to be an introduction to the Ecology and Environment undergraduate focus in Anthropology.  I’m actually really looking forward to teaching it again.  The course material forms the core of a book I am writing on human population biology and my attempts at improving the lectures has done wonders for my writing output of late.  We’ll see what happens when the quarter actually starts. Hopefully, between trips to Rwanda and Tanzania and moving into Arroyo House this summer, I will find time to finish it!

Back in December, when the is-anthropology-science kerfuffle was going strong, I wrote a blog post in which I suggested that if you want to feel good about the future of scientific anthropology (which, I admit, can sometimes be difficult, even for an obstinate optimist), all you need to do is look at the great work coming from the new generation of trans-disciplinary anthropologists (and other biosocial scientists).  At the time, I put together a short list of people whose work I greatly admire.  These included:

  • Craig Hadley at Emory on food security and psychological well-being
  • Amber Wutich at ASU on vulnerability, water security, and common-pool resources
  • Lance Gravlee at UF on the embodiment of racial discrimination and its manifestations in health
  • Brooke Scelza at UCLA on parental investment and childhood outcomes
  • Dan Hrushka at ASU on how cultural beliefs, norms and values interact with economic constraints to produce health outcomes
  • Crickette Sanz at Washington University on multi-ape ecology of the Goualougo Triangle, Republic of Congo
  • Herman Pontzer at CUNY on measuring daily energy expenditures in hunter-gatherers
  • Rebecca and Douglas Bird on subsistence and signaling among Martu foragers

In preparing for Anthro 31, I started to put together a list of links to people doing the kind of work we will discuss.  In a pique of obsessiveness yesterday, I greatly expanded that list.  It occurred to me that this list is somewhat orphaned in an obscure directory for a particular class I occasionally teach and that it would make sense to share it more generally.  So, here we go, copied wholesale from my class links page (though that page still contains links to books, professional societies, and other resources for students interested in human ecology, demography, health, etc.):

There are a number of excellent practicing anthropologists who maintain science blogs. Among these are Kate Clancy‘s (UIUC) Context and Variation, Daniel Lende and Greg Downey‘s Neuroanthropology, Julienne Rutherford‘s AAPA BANDIT, and Patrick Clarkin’s blog dedicated to biological anthropology, war and health, growth nutrition. Along with Rebecca Stumpf, Kate Clancy is also the director of the Laboratory for Evolutionary Endocrinology (which has its own blog) at the University of Illinois.

Upon further reflection, I think that the University of Illinois has to be a major contender for best place to study biological anthropology. Wow, they’ve got an amazing group of biological anthropologists there. Stanley Ambrose, Kate Clancy, Paul Garber, Lyle Konigsberg, Steve Leigh, Ripan Malhi, John Polk, Charles Roseman, Laura Shackelford, Rebecca Stumpf. Too many to link to directly. I don’t know all of them, but the ones I know are outstanding. Yipes! I think they may be plotting to take over the field.

Back to the blog front, you can always count on gems of anthropological, evolutionary, and political wisdom from Greg Laden as well.

Susan C. Antón (NYU) and Josh Snodgrass (Oregon) organize the Bones and Behavior Working Group, the goal of which is to foster greater synthesis across the different sub-areas of biological anthropology. Of particular interest are their standardized protocols for anthropometry.

Mario Luis Small, at the University of Chicago, has done some really outstanding work measuring how social institutions affect social capital and the impact such differences in social capital actually have for people’s well-being.

Richard Bribiescas is the author of Men: Evolutionary and Life History and is director of the Reproductive Ecology Laboratory at Yale. Yale is also now the home to Catherine Panter-Brick who also happens to be the senior editor for medical anthropology at Social Science and Medicine.

A number of excellent human biologists find their home in the Laboratory for Human Biology Research at Northwestern. This includes Bill Leonard, Thom McDade, and Chris Kuzawa. Rumor has it that alumna Elizabeth Sweet is moving back to Northwestern as well. She is doing truly innovative work integrating the rigorous analysis of biomarkers of health (and a bicultural perspective favored by the Northwestern group) and the political economy of economic and social disparities — really getting at how inequality ‘gets under the skin.’  I really look forward to seeing what comes from her future research.

Karen Kramer, in the department formerly known as (Biological) Anthropology at Harvard, is a real leader in integrating evolutionary, demographic, and economic perspectives on human reproduction and the life histories.

Patrick Clarkin at UMass, Boston has a very interesting research program employing biocultural and evolutionary models to understand the effects of war on nutrition and growth among SE Asian diaspora. UMass, Boston is also home to Colleen Nyberg who does great work on acculturation and health, the psychobiology of stress and HPA function, and growth and development.

Julienne Rutherford at the University of Illinois, Chicago School of Dentistry works on the role of the intrauterine environment on health. Of particular interest for this class is her collaborative work on understanding the epigenetic regulation of placental systems of amino acid transport as part of the Cebu Longitudinal Study in the Philippines. UIC also has a number of excellent human biologists scattered about in anthropology, including Betsy Abrams and Crystal Patil, Epidemiology (Bob Bailey) and Community Health Sciences (Nadine Peacock).

Let’s not forget our friends across The Pond. Durham may have lost Catherine Panter-Brick to Yale, but they got a number of new folks who, when combined with the veterans, make it a very appealing place to study ecological/evolutionary anthropology. Among the faculty there are my colleagues Gillian Bentley, Rebecca Sear, and Frank Marlowe, and numerous others. Rebecca does very sophisticated work in anthropological demography, while Frank is one of the leading ethnographers of contemporary hunter-gatherers (and my collaborator on our Hadza demography project).

Ruth Mace, in my opinion, does some of the best work in human behavioral ecology right now and she keeps churning out top students at UCL.

I’m looking forward to working with Mhairi Gibson at Bristol on our new project on the transmission dynamics of primate retroviruses and human-wildlife contact in Uganda. She has done excellent work on the behavioral ecology of reproduction and parental investment in Ethiopia.

I will also mention a number of excellent researchers who teach classes that are relevant to Ecology, Evolution, and Human Health:

Mark Moritz at Ohio State University has established a Hunter-Gatherer Wiki is conjunction with his course on Hunter-Gatherers. Mark came and gave a terrific talk on livestock exchanges among FulBe pastoralists at the MAPSS colloquium this year.

Mike Gurven at UCSB teaches a course on the behavioral ecology of hunter-gatherers. Mike does some of the most interesting biodemographic work out there these days.

Bruce Winterhalder at UC Davis, a founding father of human behavioral ecology, has a very interesting course on classics in cultural ecology.

Claudia Valeggia, at Penn, does great work among the Toba people of Argentina teaches a class on reproductive ecology.

Lots of good people. Lots of good work.  Surely, there is reason for optimism…

Nicholas Wade on Science and Anthropology

Nicholas Wade, who normally writes really terrific stuff on science in the New York Times, has a brief piece on our Anthropology fracas du jour. It’s good to see an expression of concern for the place of science in anthropology in such a prominent place and by such an important science writer.  I just wish he had gotten a few more things right.  While the Darkness in El Dorado fiasco was not a high point for the AAA, I suspect that this had not one iota to do with the re-wording of AAA’s long-range planning document. Secondly, I was pretty horrified to learn that science can’t be used as a framework for studying gender, ethnicity, and race, nor, apparently, can scientists advocate for indigenous people’s or human rights:

The decision [to remove the word ‘science’ from the long-range planning document] has reopened a long-simmering tension between researchers in science-based anthropological disciplines — including archaeologists, physical anthropologists and some cultural anthropologists — and members of the profession who study race, ethnicity and gender and see themselves as advocates for native peoples or human rights.

I think that this will come as quite an unpleasant surprise to many fine scientific anthropologists who are apparently fooling themselves by attempting to understand race or gender or working to improve the lives of the people with whom they work.

So, I’m left with mixed feelings about this turn of events.  On the one hand, the prominence of a Science Times piece by Nicholas Wade means that debate is likely to continue for a while to come. It would be particularly helpful if this work helped engage what I suspect is a quiet majority of anthropologists who are (1) sympathetic to science maintaining a prominent place in anthropology, and (2) too busy with their work to worry about yet another shrill controversy in the professional society they may or may not belong to (having given up membership because they already felt it didn’t represent their interests). On the other hand, I think we’re going to need to stop being inflammatory and falling back on facile received categories (e.g., “postmodernists,” “sociobiologists,” etc.) at every opportunity if we are going to make this debate productive and fashion a society that is friendly to rigorous scholarship in whatever form it may take. For my part, I am sticking with my view that the best way to promote science in anthropology is to do it, do it well, and communicate with a broad scientific readership.

Back to grading my final exams…

On Husserl, Hexis, and Hissy-Fits

There has been quite a brouhaha percolating through some Anthropology circles following the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Associate in New Orleans last month.  It seems that the AAA executive board, in all its wisdom, has seen fit to excise the term “science” from the Association’s long-range planning document. You can sample some of the reaction to this re-write in blog posts from anthropologi.info, Neuroanthropology, Evolution on the Beach,  AAPA BANDITInside HigherEd, and Fetishes I Don’t Get at Psychology Today. There is also a letter from AAA president, Virginia Dominguez here and you can find the full text of the planning document here. The primary concern has centered on the first paragraph of this document.  Here is that paragraph as it stood before the November meeting:

The purposes of the Association shall be to advance anthropology as the science that studies humankind in all its aspects, through archeological, biological, ethnological, and linguistic research; and to further the professional interests of American anthropologists; including the dissemination of anthropological knowledge and its use to solve human problems.

The new wording is as follows:

The purposes of the Association shall be to advance public understanding of humankind in all its aspects. This includes, but is not limited to, archaeological, biological, social, cultural, economic, political, historical, medical, visual, and linguistic anthropological research.  The Association also commits itself and to further the professional interests of anthropologists, including the dissemination of anthropological knowledge, expertise, and interpretation.

So, anthropology is no longer a science, though there are lots of rather particularistic approaches through which one can pursue anthropology that may or may not be scientific.  Apparently, the executive board has a newfound passion for public communication as well.  I guess we don’t really need an organization that promotes scholarly understanding or the production of new knowledge.  Just look where that’s gotten us!

The new wording has greatly concerned a number of parties, including the Society for Anthropological Sciences.  I am a member of this section and have never seen so much traffic on the society’s listserv.

I will admit to being somewhat dismayed by the Society’s response.  While I am not quite as tweaked by this as many, I nonetheless wrote a longish call for specific action — one that involved good old-fashioned political organizing and attempting to forge alliances both with other sections within AAA and across other scholarly societies with an interest in anthropology (e.g., AAPA, HBA, SAA, HBES).  My call was greeted with a deafening (virtual) silence and I am left to guess why.  Perhaps the membership is suspicious of the imperialist ambitions of a biological anthropologist with the taint of evolution on him?  Perhaps they’ve heard and tried it all before and were simply convinced it would not work?  Perhaps they actually like being an embattled minority and don’t really want to take action to jeopardize that status?

To what extent is the scandal a tempest in a teapot?  I honestly don’t know.  The word “science” has been taken out of the first paragraph but there is nothing inherently anti-scientific about the statement.  After all, “advancing public understanding” can be done through “archaeological, biological, social, cultural, economic, political, historical, medical, visual, and linguistic anthropological research.” Any number of these can be done through a scientific approach to understanding.

The thing that I find completely bizarre about the new wording is the exclusive focus on public understanding.  Public understanding? Really? Judging from my recent search committee and scientific review panel experience, I can only be left with the conclusion that the public must have an insatiable hunger for phenomenology.  This explains why I can never find any Husserl at Barnes and Noble — he must just be flying off the shelves!  You’d think if the goal of our flagship professional organization is really promoting public understanding, that more anthropologists would write in a manner that was generally understandable to, you know, the public.  In his distinguished lecture, the eminent archaeologist Jeremy Sabloff chastised anthropologists for their unwillingness to engage with the general public.  I could not agree with this perspective more, especially if “engaging with the public” entails engaging with colleagues from cognate disciplines, another thing that I think we do a miserable job of, in general.

I was a bit disappointed to read Alex Golub’s write-up of this issue on the Savage Minds blog.  I’m usually a big fan of both this blog and Alex’s posts more generally. However, in this case I think that Alex engages in the kind of ahistorical, totalizing stereotyping of scientific anthropologists that normally gives anthropologists the willies.  Advocates of science are characterized as close-minded automata, utterly lacking any appreciation for ambiguity, historicity, politics, or contested meaning.  For example, he writes

The fact that the model used by ‘scientific’ anthropologists has as much complexity as an average episode of WWE Smackdown — with a distinction between the evil ‘fluff-head’ cultural anthropologists and the good ‘scientific’ cultural anthropologists — should be the first sign that something fishy is going on.

Très nuanced, eh?

The statements made by many scientific anthropologists, particularly those of the generation to enter the profession in the 1960s and 1970s, need to be understood in the historical and political context of the speakers.  I think that it is simply disingenuous to claim that scientific approaches to anthropological knowledge have not become increasingly marginalized within the mainstream of anthropology over the last several decades.  One need only look at what has become to the departments that were home to the vaunted physical anthropology programs of the past to find evidence of this trend. Consider, for example, the University of Chicago, the University of California Berkeley or Columbia University.  And this is just biological anthropology; it does not account for the loss of scientific social and cultural anthropologists (think Gene Hammel or Roy D’Andrade) in elite, Ph.D.-granting programs. The reasons for the marginalization of scientific approaches to anthropology are complex and do not fit neatly into the simplistic narrative of “objective, scientific anthropology … under assault from interpretivists like Clifford Geertz who do not believe in truth.” No doubt, part of the problem is simply the compartmentalization of knowledge.  As scholars become increasingly specialized, it becomes more and more difficult to be both scientist and humanist.  Increasingly, hiring decisions are zero-sum games. The gain of a scientist represents the loss of a humanist and vice-versa. Gone is Eric Wolf’s conception of Anthropology as “both the most scientific of the humanities and the most humanist of the sciences.”

The key is that the declining importance of science in the elite anthropology departments has led to a feeling of embattlement — that is almost certainly counter-productive most of the time — among the remaining scientific anthropologists. Another consequence is that the decline of the place of science within anthropological discourse selects for personalities who thrive on embattlement, so that the reproduction of the field is relatively enriched with young scholars who see no point to professional or intellectual engagement. And so it gets more and more difficult to integrate.  This is the lens through which I view much of the public complaining about the recent actions of the AAA executive board. However, as my colleague Rebecca Bird noted, those of us who still see a place for science in anthropology need to move beyond reactionary statements.  We need to be proactive and positive.

The academy is changing. This can be seen in the increasing number of cross-cutting requests-for-proposals from funding agencies such as NSF (e.g., HSD, EID, CHNS) or NIH and the wholesale re-organization of many research universities (ASU is only the most extreme case; the ascendency of interdisciplinary centers such as the Woods Institute for the Environment or the Freeman-Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford is a more common manifestation of this trend; the Columbia Earth Institute also comes to mind).  In an academy that increasingly values transdisciplinarity and integration of knowledge, I think that anthropologists have an enormous comparative advantage — if we could just get over ourselves.  As I wrote in my 2009 Anthropology News piece:

Four-field anthropology is a biosocial discipline that integrates information from all levels of biological and social organization. To understand human behavior, the four-field anthropologist considers genetics and physiology; the history of the human lineage; historical, cultural and social processes; the dynamics of face-to-face interactions; and global political economy. Each of these individual areas is studied by other disciplines, but no other field provides the grounding in all, along with the specific mandate to understand the scope of human diversity. The anthropologist stands in a unique position to serve as the fulcrum upon which the quality of an interdisciplinary research team balances. Revitalizing the four-subfield approach to anthropological training could move anthropology from the margins of the interdisciplinary, research-based academy of the near future to the core.

I have no interest in disparaging forms of knowledge or excluding particular types of scholars from any social movement, but I think that scientific anthropologists have a particularly important role to play in such a revitalization, if for no other reason than they (presumably) care about more of these levels of organization.  Maybe such scholars could even communicate the subtlety and richness of ethnographic experience that our more humanistic colleagues so value if we could just get beyond the name-calling.

I may be dismissed as being naively optimistic by the old guard of scientific anthropologists (hypothesis 2, above), but I think that I have good reasons to be optimistic about the future of anthropology, despite the many challenges. This optimism stems from the work of individual anthropologists.  I’ll do a quick shout-out to a number of people who I think are doing particularly good work, integrating different anthropological perspectives, and communicating with a broader audience.  This is a very personal and idiosyncratic list — these scholars are people I’ve encountered recently or whose work has been brought to my attention of late. They tend to be focused on questions of health and human-environment interactions, naturally, since these are the issues that organize my research.

If you want to feel good about the future of a scientific anthropology that is simultaneously integrated into contemporary anthropology and communicates with a broader scientific and policy audience (and is generally great and transformative — that key NSF buzz word), check out the work of:

  • Craig Hadley at Emory on food security and psychological well-being
  • Amber Wutich at ASU on vulnerability, water security, and common-pool resources
  • Lance Gravlee at UF on the embodiment of racial discrimination and its manifestations in health
  • Brooke Scelza at UCLA on parental investment and childhood outcomes
  • Dan Hrushka at ASU on how cultural beliefs, norms and values interact with economic constraints to produce health outcomes
  • Crickette Sanz at Washington University on multi-ape ecology of the Goualougo Triangle, Republic of Congo
  • Herman Pontzer at CUNY on measuring daily energy expenditures in hunter-gatherers
  • Rebecca and Douglas Bird on subsistence and signaling among Martu foragers

This list could go on. I won’t even mention the amazing anthropology post-docs, Siobhan MattisonSean Downey, and Brian Wood, with whom I have been so lucky to interact this academic year.

I have plenty more to say on this — particularly how the portrayal of politics and political agendas enters the discourse — but I have final exams to grade!

Nice Piece on Burning in the Stanford Report

As part of a series of articles on interdisciplinary environmental research at Stanford, the Stanford Report has just published a nice piece on the research on Aboriginal burning in Western Australia led by Rebecca and Doug Bird. This work is supported by a grant from the Woods Institute Environmental Venture Project fund as well as a major grant from the National Science Foundation.  We have a fairly recent paper in PNAS that describes some of the major findings, which I have written about previously here.

We’ve got some exciting things in the works as a follow-up to this paper thanks to the EVP funding. These include agent-based models of foraging and its effects on landscape development and new statistical methods for characterizing the scale and pattern of burning-induced landscape mosaics.  We’re also hoping to move into some comparative work across foraging populations and to expand upon the ecological interactions between human foragers and plant species upon which they depend.