“I’ve never seen a Chinese monkey” (Essentialism & Human Variation)

I taught my first undergraduate anthropology class seventeen years ago, which is sometimes hard for me to believe. In that time, I’ve had over two thousand students enrolled in my courses, many of whom have left an impression on me. I hope I make a good impression on them too, though sometimes I have my doubts. A few years ago, a student asked me what my name was as they started to fill out the line after “Instructor” on the front page of their exam blue book. That was about halfway into the semester. You can’t reach them all, I suppose.

During my fourth year of teaching “Introduction to Biological Anthropology,” we got about two-thirds into the semester, and I paused to take the class’ pulse on how things were going. I asked them if they had any general thoughts about the class, such as what ideas they found interesting (or not), things they wished we could discussed more in depth, etc. I have since forgotten most of the students’ comments, except for one.

I remember that he wasn’t exactly the best student, and that he had struggled with most of the graded assignments. Nonetheless, I still learned something from him that day. He told the class that he thought evolution was an interesting idea, but he was skeptical about it applying to humans because, as he said, “Well, I’ve never seen a Chinese monkey.” This all occurred a long time ago, but I remember that at first I was puzzled by what he meant. And then it clicked.

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Our Overlapping Family Trees

“If I did not believe that anthropology could also serve as an instrument of peace and a tool for human conviviality … I would have long since renounced this uncomfortable and difficult science and somewhat marginal way of life.”

— Nancy Scheper Hughes, “Saints, Scholars, and Schizophrenics” (2001: 53)

“One sunny mornin’ we’ll rise, I know/  And I’ll meet you further on up the road.”

— Johnny Cash, “Further On Up the Road

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I thought it might be helpful to visualize just how quickly the number of direct ancestors can grow, and how we can confidently say that all people share ancestors. Let’s say that this is your biological family tree for a just a handful of generations, keeping in mind that ‘family’ here refers to direct biological ancestors. This might not exactly be the family you recognize during holidays and get-togethers, and we all have people who fall in and out of our lives. But everyone has two biological parents. OK, OK, some people might have more than two biological parents, but let’s keep it simple.

Going back a mere three generations, you have 8 direct biological great-grandparents, as this number doubles with each generation we go back.

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Family Tree1

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“The Fundamental Connection That We All Share”

On his visit to Ethiopia, U.S. President Barack Obama viewed the fossil remains of three famous human ancestors. These included two belonging to the 3 to 3.8 million-year old hominin species Australopithecus afarensis, “Lucy” and “Selam”), as well as “Ardi” from an older species Ardipithecus ramidus. (Click here for a nice overview of our hominin family tree). Later, he said this

“When you see our ancestor, 3.5 million years old, we are reminded that Ethiopians, Americans, all the people of the world are part of the same human family, the same chain… And as one of the professors (Zeresenay Alemseged) who was describing the artifacts correctly pointed out, so much of the hardship and conflict and sadness and violence that occurs around the world is because we forget that fact.  We look at superficial differences as opposed to seeing the fundamental connection that we all share.

I think Obama got it right, which isn’t surprising, since his mother was an anthropologist. Humans everywhere belong to the same species and share common ancestry. We have our differences — some trivial, some significant to us — but our bedrock should be that shared connection. That may be an ideological approach, but the nice thing is that it’s also scientifically accurate. 

Pesident Obama touches the fossilized vertebra of Lucy, an early human ancestor in Ethiopia on Monday. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

President Obama touches the fossilized vertebra of Lucy, an early human ancestor in Ethiopia on Monday. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Six Million Years of Hominin Evolution in Four Minutes

From the Natural History Museum in Vienna, Austria, this video shows some of the major hominin fossils discovered so far. It’ seems to have been recorded by a tourist, so the quality isn’t the best. However, it’s really well done, and the nice part is that it nicely illustrates these species’ geographic and temporal distributions, which can be hard to find elsewhere. 

We Are Complex

A list of claims of what humans are, with ‘human nature’ overtones. It’s meant to be in fun, and the list isn’t complete. 

  • We are moral animals. (1)
  • We are killer apes. (2)
  • We are risen apes, not fallen angels. (3)
  • We are aquatic apes. (4) No we’re not.
  • Man the hunter. (5)
  • Woman the gatherer. (6)
  • Man the firemaker. (7)
  • Homo, the endurance runner. (8)

    runners

    Born to run? (Source: Wikipedia)

  • Homo, the high-velocity thrower. (9)
  • We have an instinct for art. (10)
  • We have an instinct for language. (11)
  • We do not have an instinct for language. (12)
  • We are Homo economicus. (13)
  • Man the tool-maker. (14)
  • Pan the tool-maker. (15) Not us, but it’s clever.
  • We are social animals. (16)
  • We are cooperative breeders. (17)
  • We are hypersexual animals. (18)
  • We are sexy beasts. (19)
  • We are political animals. (20)
  • We are rational animals. (21)
  • We are irrational animals. (22)
  • We are no longer just apes; we are biocultural ex-apes. (23)
  • We are complex.

 

A Chain of Ancestors

One of the better examples I’ve yet found that conveys the concept of evolution comes from the 2002 NOVA documentary “Search for the First Human.” The main focus of the video is the species Orrorin tugenensis and it’s possible place in our family tree six million years ago. However, two particular segments stand out to me, and I think do a pretty good job of conveying the idea of evolution to students.

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