The Importance of Evolutionary Anthropology

As an evolutionary anthropologist, I am constantly confronted with the public perception that anthropology has no practical utility.  Throughout America and Canada, there is a disturbingly negative perception of anthropological inquiry.  This is why Governor Rick Scott was confident to proclaim that anthropology was not a vital interest to the state (Stoller, 2011).  In some sense, many other people in the western world share this view.  However, the perspective that anthropology has no practical utility is ill informed, narrow-minded, and dangerous for the future growth of the global economy, as well as various aspects of social development  This is because a) physical anthropologists hold irreplaceable positions within both the public and private sectors, and b) produce world-class science research about our species.  This makes anthropology of incredibly vital interest to the state or province of any country.

As the anthropologists of Scott’s home state aptly pointed out, Florida’s anthropologists are currently working to increase state park revenues, aid in crime scene reconstruction, and develop preventative health care programs (Newcomb, R., 2011).  Throughout the world, evolutionary anthropologists are irreplaceable contributors to zoos, museums, hospitals, universities, and law enforcement departments.  Furthermore, several multinational corporations actively seek graduates from anthropology to help them develop internationally, and many public sector employers hire anthropologists to help them engage with an increasingly diverse citizenry.  As a result, it is increasingly common for graduates from anthropology to enter graduate programs in business, public health, and human resources.  Evolutionary anthropologists develop careers as teachers educating the next generation of thinkers in elementary, secondary, and post-secondary schools.  They also develop careers as doctor, offering the health care system knowledge that can only be gained from training in a subject that incorporates both the social and life sciences.

Evolutionary anthropologists are also on the forefront of producing world-class science research, on topics regarding human origins, language, societal development, religion, race, migration, genetics, evolution, and more.  For example, in 2012 evolutionary anthropologists made some of the most exciting and important science discoveries in the world.  This included large-scale mapping of the earliest complex civilizations (Menze & Ur, 2012), identifying the origins of the Indo-European language family (Bouckaert, R., et al., 2012), decoding the genome of an extinct human species (Meyer, et al., 2012), discovering the underlying cause of human cumulative culture (Dean, L.G., et al., 2012), decoding the genomes of gorillas (Scally, A., et al., 2012) and bonobos (Prufer, K., et al., 2012), understanding the genetic contribution of extinct human species to the modern human gene pool (Reich, D., et al., 2012), exploring the origin of our genus (Leakey, M.G., et al., 2012), continent-wide assessment of great ape habitat loss (Junker, J., et al., 2012), correlating linguistic and biological diversity loss (Gorenflo, L.G., et al., 2012), discovery of the oldest musical instruments (Higham, T., et al., 2012), origins of horse domestication (Warmuth et al., 2012), and identifying the key variables in causing human conflict (Riddihough, G., et al., 2012).  These discoveries were highlighted and distributed through the top science journals in the world (e.g., ScienceNaturePNASJournal of Human EvolutionPLoSONE).  Furthermore, the research and discoveries of evolutionary anthropologists are among the most discussed and highlighted works within the popular scientific press.  For example, the year-end edition of one of the largest popular scientific publications, Scientific American, focused an entire issue on how evolutionary anthropology can help us understand what it means to be human.

At the beginning of the 20th century, our species had a very poor understanding of our evolutionary history, our closest relatives, the processes that led to major economic transitions, how early peoples lived and interacted over large-scales, and how humans have impacted the past and present biosphere.  Evolutionary anthropologists are the experts in understanding these aspects of our species, and the knowledge we produce is not just knowledge for knowledge’s sake.  Understanding our species creates a more informed private sector, public sector, and general citizenry.  Without a grasp on our past, we have no way to understand the trends that are transforming our planet now.  I decided to dedicate my life to evolutionary anthropology because I care about the future of our species.  I hope that in my lifetime the negative perception of this type of scientific inquiry will transform into an appreciation for what it has, and can continue to teach us about our past, present, and future.

References:

Bouckaert, R., et al.  2012.  Mapping the Origins and Expansion of the Indo-European Language Family.  Science, 337: 957-960.

Curnoe, D., et al.  2012.  Human remains from the Pleistocene-Holocene Transition of Southwest China Suggest a Complex Evolutionary History for East Asians.  PLoSONE, 7: e31918.

Dean, L.G., et al.  2012.  Identification of the Social and Cognitive Processes Underlying Human Cumulative Culture.  Science, 335: 1114-1118.

Gorenflo, L.J., et al.  2012.  Co-occurrence of linguistic and biological diversity in biodiversity hotspots and high biodiversity wilderness areas.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 109: 8032-8037.

Higham, T., et al.  2012.  Testing models for the beginnings of the Aurignacian and the advent of figurative art and music.  Journal of Human Evolution, 62: 664-676.

Junker, J. et al.  2012.  Recent decline in suitable environmental conditions for African great apes.  Diversity and Distributions, 18: 1077-1091.

Leakey, M.G., et al.  2012.  New fossils from Koobi Fora in northern Kenya confirm taxonomic diversity in early Homo.  Nature, 488: 201-204.

Menze, B.H. & Ur, J.A.  Mapping patterns of long-term settlement in Northern Mesopotamia at a large scale.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1115472109

Meyer, M., et al.  2012.  A High-Coverage Genome Sequence from an Archaic Denisovan Individual.  Science, 338: 222-226.

Newcomb, R.  2011.  To Governor Rick Scott: What Anthropologists Can Do for Florida.  Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rachel-newcomb/to-governor-rick-scott-wh_b_1008964.html.  Accessed January 12, 2013.

Prufer, K., et al.  2012.  The bonobo genome compared with the chimpanzee and human genomes.  Nature, doi: 10.1038/nature11128.

Reich, D., et al.  2012.  Genetic history of an archaic hominin group from Denisova Cave in Siberia.  Nature, 468: 1053-1060.

Riddihough, G., et al.  2012.  Human conflict: winning the peace.  Science, 336: 818-819.

Scally, A., et al. 2012.  Insights into hominid evolution from the gorilla genome sequence.  Nature, 483: 169-175.

Stoller, P.  2011.  The Limited Good of Rick Scott’s Anthropology.  Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/paul-stoller/the-limited-good-of-rick-_b_1012356.html.  Accessed January 12, 2013.

Warmuth et al.  2012.  Solving the riddle of horse domestication.  PNAS, 109: 7949-7950.

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About Cadell Last
I am a science educator, freelance science writer, and founder of The Advanced Apes based in Toronto, Ontario. In the past my academic research focused on the evolution, ecology, and behaviour of non-human primates (i.e., chimpanzees, gorillas, ring-tailed lemurs). Currently, my official blog, The Ratchet, can be found via The Advanced Apes and Svbtle. I enjoy exploring recent research in human evolutionary sciences, as well as biology, ecology, astronomy, physics, and computer science. My work has been featured in Scientific American, American Humanist, Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, and Jane Goodall Institute of Canada. I am also exploring science popularization in new mediums in collaboration with PBS Digital Studios with an animated YouTube channel. You can contact me on Twitter (@cadelllast) or via email: cadell.last@gmail.com

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