Is archaeology a science? 2. “Plug & Play” archaeology

John Edward Terrell


This is part 2 of a 3 part commentary


New and improved archaeology?

In 1962 the archaeologist Lewis R. Binford had an article published in the journal American Antiquity titled “Archaeology as anthropology”  that electrified the field of academic research into things ancient and not so ancient (Binford 1962). Many saw this paper as a call to turn away from just counting potsherds and pretending to write history toward doing real science in the realm of historical studies (Yu et al. 2015).

Nancy Stone and Lew Binford on an Acheulean site at Yediyapur in the Hunsgi Valley, South India, June 1986. Source: http://antiquity.ac.uk/tributes/binford.html

Since those halcyon days of the 1960s and what came to be called “processual archaeology,” professionals and amateurs alike have voiced strong doubts about whether archaeology is a science. Some have more or less utterly rejected Binford’s claim that archaeologists could be or should be scientists—an unwillingness to play along with Binford and those who would follow in his footsteps that, needless to say, plays right into the hands of someone like Congressman Lamar Smith (Jones 2016; Mizoguchi 2015).

Lewis Binford died in 2011. Despite his many naysayers, the archaeologist Mark Leone observed in a memorial appreciation of the man and his work published in the British journal Antiquity that Binford had unquestionably shown the rest of us “his astonishing capacity to connect archaeological things to the questions that mattered.”

Which raises an obvious concern. What kinds of questions might these be?

Ask no small questions

In 2012, a number of archaeologists, mostly Americans, decided they needed to come up with a list of questions for archaeologists to tackle in the years ahead. The resulting compendium, billed as “Grand challenges for archaeology,” was published in 2014 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) (Kintigh et al. 2014a).

“The challenges had to be, in principle,” they agreed, “susceptible to a solution supported by data.” In all they came up with 25 worthy concerns. Reading through the listing makes it clear they concluded no challenge too big was beyond the scope of archaeology. Borrowing words from their published report:

These challenges focus on understanding the dynamics of cultural processes and the operation of coupled human and natural systems, recognizing that humans—mediated by culture—both affect and are affected by their natural environments. The challenges addressed questions of emergence, complexity, demography, mobility, identity, resilience, and human–environment interactions. There is a notable lack of concern with the earliest, the largest, and the otherwise unique.

What sorts of challenges are among the 25 listed? They are grouped into five separate categories labeled A–D. Here is a selection of five, one drawn from each category. Keep in mind as you read through them that these five are alike said to be within the reasonable pursue of archaeologists working as archaeologists.

A.7:  What is the role of conflict—both internal factional violence and external warfare—in the evolution of complex cultural formations?

B. 4:  How does ideology structure economic, political, and ritual systems?

C.1:  What processes led to, and resulted from, the global dispersal of modern humans?

D.2:  How do people form identities, and what are the aggregate long-term and large-scale effects of these processes?

E.7:  How do humans perceive and react to changes in climate and the natural environment over short- and long-terms?

What seems most astonishing about these five and the remaining 20 others is that none of these identified challenges said to be of global significance is accompanied by clear statements—specific research hypotheses—that might be taken to be unambiguously testable using archaeologically recovered empirical data. Not one. Yet the claim is made, nonetheless, that

the facts of the past provide the evidence that is essential to confront all of these questions. We harbor no illusions about the difficulties of addressing these classes of problems. Rather, we share a conviction that these are the domains in which the most important problems reside.

These scholars note at the end of their PNAS commentary that they have made a longer version of their collective statement available in American Antiquity (Kintigh et al. 2014b). However, whether what they outline there in more detail would satisfy Congressman Smith is questionable. With regard to challenge A.7, for example, they say:

Exploring the dialectical relationship between conflict and complex cultural formations will undoubtedly foster new approaches to the archaeological record. Conflict is notoriously difficult to identify and quantify through archaeological remains. Though some methods have been developed, more systematic and large-scale analyses are certainly necessary before this question can be thoroughly explored. These methods will involve innovations in osteology and molecular anthropology, as well as advances in comparative studies of material culture and technology.

Plug & Play archaeology

You don’t need to be as skeptical nor as dismissive as Lamar Smith to wonder what these experts have in mind to do in the years ahead to give substance to their 25 grand challenges. Being neither clairvoyant nor a mind-reader, the best anyone else can do is suggest what might or might not fit the bill—if not for Lamar Smith, at least for others.

First, therefore, what wouldn’t meet these challenges? There are many possible ways to answer such a provocative  question. Here is one. Archaeologists should avoid doing Plug & Play archaeology (fig. 1). What does my pairing of these two words refer to? Here is an example.

Figure 1. Source: the author

In January 2016 Marta Lahr at Cambridge University and her colleagues made the cover of the prestigious science journal Nature with a detailed report on human remains dating back about 10,000 years to the early Holocene that had been excavated at Nataruk in northern Kenya (Lahr et al. 2016). Some of the skeletons recovered have traumatic lesions suggesting the probable cause of death (see: fig. 1, left). Not surprisingly perhaps, given this seemingly gruesome physical testimony, Lahr and her co-authors inferred that they had in hand evidence of inter-group violence against people who, given the antiquity of the remains, were probably wandering hunter-gatherers rather than settled agriculturalists.

Now if you were Lamar Smith you might be asking yourself right now “So what?” At the close of their Nature report, Lahr and her colleagues acknowledge directly that the apparent violence attested at Nataruk might be an “ephemeral, but perhaps not unusual, event in the life of prehistoric foraging societies.” Before then in their report, however, and certainly in the press coverage around the world that this report quickly received, what is featured are possible stories about interpersonal violence that could be told given such ancient cold-case injuries.

Both in their report in Nature and in subsequent popular accounts, the central claim made is that these scholars have caught humanity red-handed doing something fundamental—and nasty—long ago strongly hinting that violence is, as many still popularly assume, one of the defining characteristics of our species.

Here is where plug & play come into operation. All that it takes to reach this kind of conclusion about ourselves as human beings is evidence such as these fossil bones (fig. 1, left), a few seemingly reasonable assumptions about human nature (fig. 1, center), and before you know it, you have a story to tell (fig. 1, right).

In fairness, it must be said that at the end their report, Lahr and her co-authors do comment that Nataruk may be showing us little more than “a standard antagonistic response to an encounter between two social groups.” But then why write about these bones, and why feature them on the cover of Nature?

There is no disputing taste, and these authors have clearly done a good job of coming up with what might be said about these prehistoric finds. But “plugging” them into an interpretation—into a story—however appealing is not what STEM education is all about, and surely not what someone like Lamar Smith would take to be real science. It may be true, as these authors conclude at the very end of their report in Nature, that “the deaths at Nataruk are testimony to the antiquity of inter-group violence and war.” So what?

But if not Plug & Play archaeology, then what?

Part 3: Problem solving 

References

Binford, Lewis R. 1962. Archaeology as anthropology. American Antiquity 28: 217-225.

Hart, John P., Termeh Shafie, Jennifer Birch, Susan Dermarkar, and Ronald F. Williamson. 2016. Nation building and social signaling in southern Ontario: AD 1350–1650. PloS One 11, no. 5: e0156178.

Jones, Sharyn. 2016. Anthropological archaeology in 2015: Entanglements, reflection, reevaluation, and archaeology beyond disciplinary boundaries. American Anthropologist 118: 301-316.

Kintigh, Keith W., Jeffrey H. Altschul, Mary C. Beaudry, Robert D. Drennan, Ann P. Kinzig, Timothy A. Kohler, W. Fredrick Limp et al. 2014a. Grand challenges for archaeology. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111: 879-880.

Kintigh, Keith W., Jeffrey H. Altschul, Mary C. Beaudry, Robert D. Drennan, Ann P. Kinzig, Timothy A. Kohler, W. Fredrick Limp, Herbert D. G. Maschner, William K. Michener, Timothy R. Pauketat, Peter Peregrine, Jeremy A. Sabloff, Tony J. Wilkinson, Henry T. Wright, and Melinda A. Zeder. 2014b. Grand challenges for archaeology. American Antiquity 79: 5-24.

Lahr, M. Mirazón, F. Rivera, R. K. Power, A. Mounier, B. Copsey, F. Crivellaro, J. E. Edung et al. 2016. Inter-group violence among early Holocene hunter-gatherers of West Turkana, Kenya. Nature 529: 394-398.

Levins, Richard. 1966. The strategy of model building in population biology. American Scientist 54:421–431.

Levins, Richard. 1993. A response to Orzack and Sober: formal analysis and the fluidity of science. Quarterly Review of Biology 68:547–555.

Mizoguchi, Koji. 2015. A future of archaeology. Antiquity 89: 12-22.

Moore, Carmella C., and A. Kimball Romney. 1994. Material culture, geographic propinquity, and linguistic affiliation on the North coast of New Guinea: A reanalysis of Welsch, Terrell, and Nadolski (1992). American Anthropologist 96: 370-396.

Terrell, John. 1990. Storytelling and prehistory. Archaeological Method and Theory 2: 1-29.

Terrell, John Edward. 2010. Language and material culture on the Sepik coast of Papua New Guinea: Using social network analysis to simulate, graph, identify, and analyze social and cultural boundaries between communities. Journal of Island & Coastal Archaeology 5: 3-32.

Terrell, John Edward. 2012. Polynesians and the seductive
power of common sense. Cultural Geographies 20: 135–152.

Terrell, John, Hunt, Terry L., and Gosden, Chris. 1997. The dimensions of social life in the Pacific: Human diversity and the myth of the primitive isolate. Current Anthropology 37: 155-195.

Yu, Pei-Lin, Matthew Schmader, and James G. Enloe. 2015. “I’m the oldest new archaeologist in town”: The intellectual evolution of Lewis R. Binford. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 38: 2-7.

© 2017 John Edward Terrell. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited. The statements and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not constitute official statements or positions of the Editors and others associated with SCIENCE DIALOGUES.

Is archaeology a science? 1: The “So what?” question

John Edward Terrell


           Is archaeology more than storytelling with the help of            visual aids and esoteric props?

This is part 1 of a 3 part commentary


The brahmin sport?

Back in the early 1960s when I was an undergraduate, I was asked by a graduate student in my department what I wanted to be when I grew up. That may not have been the phrasing of the question, but that was the spirit of his inquiry. This individual was the self-identified son of an academically famous father. When I told him I wanted to be an archaeologist, his response didn’t surprise me, although I will leave it to you to decide why I wasn’t taken aback by his retort. With an air of seeming good humor, he quipped: “Ah, the brahmin sport.”

I have no idea who were the particular brahmins he had in mind. Perhaps he was thinking of Agatha Christie and Max Mallowan, or maybe Lord Carnarvon of King Tutankhamun fame. In any case, by the 1960s such a quip was off target.

Agatha Christie (2nd from the left), Max Mallowan (center, with cigarette), and others at the ancient Sumerian city of Nippur in southern Iraq. Source: https://www.penn.museum/blog/collection/archival-practice/mystery-in-the-stacks-a-discovery-is-made-in-the-museum-archives/.
A waste of the taxpayer’s money?

The National Science Foundation was established by an Act of Congress in 1950 to “promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; and to secure the national defense.” All well and good perhaps, but whether social sciences such as anthropology and archaeology should be viewed as rigorous enough in their objectivity, verifiability, and generality to be included under the umbrella of the NSF was a matter of great and continuing contention even before the establishment of this government agency. Nevertheless, by 1958 an office for the social sciences had been established at the NSF despite the fact, as one board member commented in 1958, “we have to face up to the fact that the social sciences—except for a few extremely limited areas—are a source of trouble beyond anything released by Pandora.”

Given the availability of federal funding for research in the social sciences, anthropology and archaeology by the 1960s were no longer beholden to the whims or the fanatical ideas of the rich and socially privileged. Provided, of course, the research proposals getting funded could convince not only peer reviewers in these disciplines, but Congress, too, that the work lucky enough to be funded was worthy of being labeled as “scientific” not just in name but also in deed.

As the saying goes, that was then, this is now. Over the course of the last half century or so has archaeology lived up to the prospect that it is a science? Or have archaeologists been pulling the wool over the eyes of congressmen and everyday civilians alike as often as some critics of archaeology—and anthropology—then and now contend?

Science—The Endless Frontier

Here’s a bit more history to ponder. World War II had brought the federal government into the arena of basic science research as never before in the history of the United States. Interest in Washington in supporting whatever could be done to win the war was clear and pressing.  Ignorance about what the world was like beyond our borders was no longer excusable and could be deadly. Even anthropologists and other scholars of the esoteric who had lived and worked in the Near East, Asia, and the Pacific found themselves being sought out for their advice and guidance in advancing the war effort (Terrell et al. 1997).

In 1945 Vannevar Bush, the engineer who had led the government’s wartime Office of Scientific Research and Development, wrote a report for President Roosevelt outlining the future for science in the nation cleverly titled Science—The Endless Frontier. He argued persuasively that government support for scientific research and education would prove beneficial to both the peacetime economy and national security. Arguing in graphic terms that scientific progress is essential, his report makes the stakes involved as down to earth as anyone can get: “Science, by itself, provides no panacea for individual, social, and economic ills. It can be effective in the national welfare only as a member of a team, whether the conditions be peace or war. But without scientific progress no amount of achievement in other directions can insure our health, prosperity, and security as a nation in the modern world.”

The newly found sense of relevance to solving the world’s problems carried over after the war in many of the academic disciplines that had hitherto defined themselves as being more about history and diversity than about pattern and process.  Notably geography, ecology, and natural history all experienced what soon came to be called the “quantitative revolution” marked by deliberate and carefully mastered efforts to make such previously descriptive studies more mathematical, more generalizing, and hence more “scientific.” And as I have already noted, eventually even the social sciences were able to convince federal decision makers that these so-called soft sciences were worthy of financial support.

But to repeat: that was then, this is now. And despite claims to the contrary, history can repeat itself.

The “So what?” question and STEM education

Lamar Smith, a Republican, has represented the 21st congressional district in Texas since 1987. He currently serves as the Chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology which has jurisdiction over programs at NASA, the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Science Foundation, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. He supports Donald Drumpf on border security, not using federal tax dollars to fund abortions under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare), and reigning in the “costly, overly burdensome regulations” of the Environmental Protection Agency. He is also strongly opposed to wasting taxpayer’s dollars funding frivolous or low-priority projects, particularly in the social sciences. In 2016, for example, Democrats in Congress viewed his actions as Committee Chair as “a political litmus test that would allow Smith and other Republicans to trim research by social scientists and those studying climate change.”

Lamar Smith evidently likes to take the social sciences head on. Currently, however, there are also less direct ways of challenging whether they are wasteful and frivolous. Take STEM, the acronym that stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics educational programs and curricula. In the words of one prominent advocacy group:

The STEM Education Coalition works aggressively to raise awareness in Congress, the Administration, and other organizations about the critical role that STEM education plays in enabling the U.S. to remain the economic and technological leader of the global marketplace of the 21st century. Members of the STEM Coalition believe that our nation must improve the way our students learn science, mathematics, technology and engineering and that the business, education, and STEM communities must work together to achieve this goal.

In November 2016 the Coalition sent a memorandum to President-elect Donald Trump titled “STEM Education, Good Jobs and American Prosperity.” Nowhere in this statement do the words “social science” or “humanities” occur. Furthermore, the memorandum notes, for instance, that the “top 10 bachelor-degree majors with the highest median earnings are all in STEM fields.”

Is archaeology science?
Koster Site, Kampsville, Illinois in the 1970s. Source: http://users.stlcc.edu/mfuller/koster.html

Few would question that archaeology can be fun, fascinating, entertaining, and an entirely worthwhile summer camping experience. How would cable channels such as Discovery and National Geographic keep the viewing audiences they have without the mysteries and thrilling excitement of archaeological discoveries in places near and far?

Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stonehenge_(sun).jpg

Granting archaeology’s genuine entertainment value and emotional appeal may not, however, be good enough to position such work as worthwhile enough to merit taxpayer’s dollars. At least not in the eyes of someone like Lamar Smith.

Therefore, the question cannot be artfully avoided. Is archaeology more than storytelling? Is it also a science? An honest answer would have to be maybe yes, maybe sometimes.


Part 2: Plug & Play archaeology


References

Binford, Lewis R. 1962. Archaeology as anthropology. American  Antiquity 28: 217-225.

Hart, John P., Termeh Shafie, Jennifer Birch, Susan Dermarkar, and Ronald F. Williamson. 2016. Nation building and social signaling in southern Ontario: AD 1350–1650. PloS One 11, no. 5: e0156178.

Jones, Sharyn. 2016. Anthropological archaeology in 2015: Entanglements, reflection, reevaluation, and archaeology beyond disciplinary boundaries. American Anthropologist 118: 301-316.

Kintigh, Keith W., Jeffrey H. Altschul, Mary C. Beaudry, Robert D. Drennan, Ann P. Kinzig, Timothy A. Kohler, W. Fredrick Limp et al. 2014a. Grand challenges for archaeology. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111: 879-880.

Kintigh, Keith W., Jeffrey H. Altschul, Mary C. Beaudry, Robert D. Drennan, Ann P. Kinzig, Timothy A. Kohler, W. Fredrick Limp, Herbert D. G. Maschner, William K. Michener, Timothy R. Pauketat, Peter Peregrine, Jeremy A. Sabloff, Tony J. Wilkinson, Henry T. Wright, and Melinda A. Zeder. 2014b. Grand challenges for archaeology. American Antiquity 79: 5-24.

Lahr, M. Mirazón, F. Rivera, R. K. Power, A. Mounier, B. Copsey, F. Crivellaro, J. E. Edung et al. 2016. Inter-group violence among early Holocene hunter-gatherers of West Turkana, Kenya. Nature 529: 394-398.

Levins, Richard. 1966. The strategy of model building in population biology. American Scientist 54:421–431.

Levins, Richard. 1993. A response to Orzack and Sober: formal analysis and the fluidity of science. Quarterly Review of Biology 68:547–555.

Mizoguchi, Koji. 2015. A future of archaeology. Antiquity 89: 12-22.

Moore, Carmella C., and A. Kimball Romney. 1994. Material culture, geographic propinquity, and linguistic affiliation on the North coast of New Guinea: A reanalysis of Welsch, Terrell, and Nadolski (1992). American Anthropologist 96: 370-396.

Terrell, John. 1990. Storytelling and prehistory. Archaeological Method and Theory 2: 1-29.

Terrell, John Edward. 2010. Language and material culture on the Sepik coast of Papua New Guinea: Using social network analysis to simulate, graph, identify, and analyze social and cultural boundaries between communities. Journal of Island & Coastal Archaeology 5: 3-32.

Terrell, John Edward. 2012. Polynesians and the seductive
power of common sense. Cultural Geographies 20: 135–152.

Terrell, John, Hunt, Terry L., and Gosden, Chris. 1997. The dimensions of social life in the Pacific: Human diversity and the myth of the primitive isolate. Current Anthropology 37: 155-195.

Yu, Pei-Lin, Matthew Schmader, and James G. Enloe. 2015. “I’m the oldest new archaeologist in town”: The intellectual evolution of Lewis R. Binford. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 38: 2-7.

© 2017 John Edward Terrell. This is an open-accessarticle distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited. The statements and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not constitute official statements or positions of the Editors and others associated with SCIENCE DIALOGUES.

The moral story of how we came to be – 2

Tom Clark


Please note: this commentary, recovered on 28-Jan-2017, was originally published in Science Dialogues on 24-May-2014.


Part 1 ended as I began to sketch the deep history of the building blocks of morality, which goes back to the origin of autonomy in the beginning of life (after Rosslenbroich 2014). Life’s capacities for self-direction and degrees of independence from the immediate surroundings have evolved.

Nervous systems supported flexible responding

For 600 million years, nerve cells have allowed animals to respond to their surroundings less and less like billiard balls. Nervous systems expanded autonomy by connecting inside with outside, so animals could sense what was going on around them and act in ways that worked for them.

Nervous systems and the earliest light sensitive "eyes" also made skeletons more useful.
Skeletons allowed animals to grow larger and move faster

550 Million years ago, long before cats and mice arrived on the scene, animals’ pursuit of meals and escape from becoming a meal gave the advantage to hard skeletons. Skeletons allowed animals to grow bigger, move faster, chew food, and defend against being chewed.

Paraplesiobatis heinrichsi, by Apokryltaros. Source: commons.wikimedia.org

With eyes and skeletons came an explosion of variation in body shapes. Among these were animals with a bundle of nerves up front near the mouth, a tail at the back end, and a spine between that aided movement while protecting the cord of nerves coordinating this movement (vertebrates).

 

Vertebrates specialized in learning

For over 500 million years, vertebrate ancestors have initiated vital activities that favored selection of their brain and sense organs at one end of a simple spine chassis. And vice versa, this body plan allowed such effectiveness. A firm yet flexible spine and a network of nerves each made the other more useful. Putting both to good use, our ancestors bootstrapped a growing competence that featured an ability to learn from experience.

With the ability to learn, some adaptations became possible within an animal’s lifetime, instead of waiting for natural selection to play out its mix of luck and deaths. As learning affected selection outcomes, animals’ mental lives and activities became important forces of evolution.

The octopus reminds us that vertebrates have no monopoly on learning.
Four-legged animals left the seas

Autonomy strode forward with the evolution of legs that leveraged faster movement across greater distances. For animals in contact with the ground near the water’s edge, legs minimized friction by shrinking points of contact with the ground. Fewer legs were more efficient than either many legs or no legs.

Snakes would later lose their legs, writing a new chapter in the story of legs and friction.
Icthyostega, by Nobu Tamura. Source: commons.wikimedia.org

Between 395 and 350 million years ago, vertebrates with two pairs of legs (tetrapods) followed plants onto land, establishing independence from the salty seas on which life had depended for over three billion years.

The ends of legs extended autonomy further, as wings, paws, and hands put limbs and brains to yet more good uses in precisely coordinated, intentional, goal-directed activities.

Elbow room and elbow grease are central features of our vertebrate heritage. Our elbows and our brains are the embodiments of an expanded autonomy, allowing us to take the initiative, get a grip, and seize the moment.

Birds and mammals made relationships heritable resources

Warm-bloodedness, a further expansion of autonomy, supported and demanded larger brains and more intense activity for longer stretches of time. Unlike their reptilian ancestors, our mammalian ancestors could no longer afford to sit and wait for a meal to pass by. They had to stay busy finding things to eat, to get the calories that support a higher resting metabolism.

Grus canadensis (Sandhill Crane), by Nigel. Source, commons.wikimedia.org

To secure the advantages of maintaining a stable, higher body temperature, the young had to be fed and sheltered. Relationships became obligatory and personal 200-150 million years ago.

Relationships build on the nervous system’s connection of inside and outside to connect my inside with your inside. My effectiveness depends on recognizing, understanding, and sometimes caring about you, and vice versa. Skilled relating, the achievement of birds and mammals, is a powerful and specialized use of our brains.

Humans extended these achievements with ethics and friendship
Justice (John van Nost the Younger, Gate of Justice, Dublin), by J. -H. Janssen. Source: commons.mikimedia.org

Social mammals extended the benefits and the demands of relationships throughout the lifespan, beyond the youthful period of dependence.

Our ancestors’ achievement of politically egalitarian group living further expanded our autonomy hand in hand with our circles of commitment and obligation.

4ever, by Mkoenitzer. Source: commons.wikimedia.org

 

 

Friendships are as fundamentally human as walking on two legs, opposable thumbs, language and abstract reasoning (Terrell 2015).

We are so thoroughly social, our relationships are like water to fish. But unlike fish, we created the relationship-rich world that “gives us a social baseline of emotional support and security”, sustaining our loftier pursuits (see: Terrell & Terrell, Thinking about Thinking 4. Our Social Baseline, in Science Dialogues, April 16).

When we look at the building blocks of ethics, science offers abundant evidence of an open image of life. As autonomy evolved, the processes of evolution also changed. More and more, the self-directed activities of whole organisms affected the course of life’s changes, along with the lawfulness and luck of genes and environments (Lewontin 2000).

Whatever the biological slants to our morality, they are as much consequences as causes of our ancestors’ moral judgments (Boehm 2008). In the hands of our ancestors, morality has been both a product and a force of evolution.

Our social lives are not on a short leash with biology at the handle (Lumsden and Wilson 1981). Socio-biological connections are more like a tight braid, within which our social lives also harness and direct life. Consider for example the changes wrought by shifting from small single-family farms that protect genetic diversity, mitigate and internalize many ecological costs, and sustain rural communities, to industrial agriculture that does not. Or the lives and health of children whose parents and communities provide relationships of secure dependence and attachment compared with children who are not afforded this ground in which to grow.

Becoming oneself together

In making do, our ancestors made up our story as they went along. Not all of it, but some of it. We say that luck comes to those who are prepared. It’s the same in evolution. There’s a lot of luck, and preparedness still matters. Along with an unbroken chain of good luck and full compliance with the laws of physics and chemistry, our ancestors’ intentional, motivated activities explain how our story has turned up such effective protagonists as you and me.

Yet our self-direction as participants in life’s story is deeply connected with the self-direction of others. “To be one is to become with many” (Haraway 2008: 4). This is life, becoming together, with our own kind and with other kinds of lives, in our lifetimes and through our deep past.

And what have we become? We are not free agents with easy exits and strong negotiating positions. Nor are we passive spectators. We got here by way of interdependent semi-autonomy. We have become—as bundled as these dozen syllables—interdependently semi-autonomous.

The extent of our freedom grew hand in hand with the complexity of our relationships. Our ancestors’ recognition of their own and each other’s interdependent capabilities, responsibilities, and bonds of affection motivated activities that helped make us human. This is how our ancestors got us here.

Now it is our turn. We can leverage our efforts in the tasks ahead by including our ancestors’ lives in the story of how we got here, along with the luck and lawfulness of their genes and environments. Telling an origin story that affirms our ancestors’ participation in becoming who we are sparks our moral imaginations by reminding us that our gratitude can scarcely match our debt, that we are responsible for where we go from here.

References

Boehm, C. 2008. Purposive social selection and the evolution of human altruism. Cross-Cultural Research 42: 319–352.

Haraway, D. J. 2008. When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Lewontin, R. C. 2000. The Triple Helix. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Lumsden, C. J. and E. O. Wilson. 1981. Genes, Mind, and Culture. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Rosslenbroich, B. 2014. On the Origin of Autonomy. Cham: Springer.

Terrell, J. E. 2015. A Talent for Friendship. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Tom Clark is a psychologist who has been interested in the role of behavior in evolution since his graduate training at the University of South Florida.


© 2015, Thomas L. Clark. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. The statements and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not constitute official statements or positions of the Editors and others associated with SCIENCE DIALOGUES.

The moral of the story of how we came to be – 1

Tom Clark


Please note: this commentary, recovered on 28-Jan-2017, was originally published in Science Dialogues on 17-May-2015.


From our one short lifetime, we look back and wonder “How did we get here?” This matters because we also want to know “What are we doing here?”  Our imaginations squint to make out answers.

Looking back to the way we got here, we try to imagine the magnitude of time and the qualities of changes that made up the past. Our views are limited not only by the shortness of our lifetimes, but also by the stories we tell about the view backwards through the keyhole of our lives.

We have portrayed the past in our own image, assigning nature’s varied powers to a single human-like God who put us here for a reason and authorized our dominion over life. Exaggerating how much purpose has been a part of our story, how much the past anticipated our own local purposes, these stories mislead us because they are too much about us. We are not all that.

Making sense of our lives by placing them within a scientific story of how we got here, we struggle to keep in mind that every moment of life’s deep past was intricately inhabited by lives-in-progress. It is so hard to imagine all those moments in all those lives, we settle for making them redundant, folding them into formulas of lawfulness and randomness, necessity and chance.

Nature took its course, we have imagined, indifferent to our ancestors’ purposeful efforts. Exaggerating the absence of purpose in our past, we threw out the baby of responsibility with the bathwater of a punishing God. We naturalized our dominion by different means but with similar ends. Shrinking our lives into molecular algorithms, these stories have done a different kind of disservice. We are more than this.

To get a clear view of how we got here and what we are doing here, we must hold in our mind’s eye a deep past of richly engaged lives (Shryock and Smail 2011). This is no easy matter. We will have to tolerate a lot of tickling of our imaginations.

Origin myths and human nature

When we talk about the role of our ancestors’ activities, which is to say animal behavior, in how we came to be, scientific theory becomes human nature mythology. Myth not as falsehood, but as “vital ingredient of human civilization … not an idle tale, but a hard-worked active force” (Malinowski 1948: 79).

Origin myths shape the kinds of people we become, by expressing a shared sense of who we are, in the telling of how we came to be. Telling of the past, they are aimed at the future.

By tradition the factual details of myths have been cooked up, knowingly, to get the story “right” in a moral sense. Intended to be forces of history more than sources of history, origin myths function as moral rudders, not archival records.

This is why literal readings of the Bible’s Genesis story, among believers and skeptics alike, miss the point. The story’s intent being allegorical, debating its historical accuracy does more to freeze moral rudders than to move them. We sway rudders better by contesting the messages within the allegory, for example: “… thy husband … shall rule over thee” (King James Bible).

Scientists aim to get the facts right, but can avoid neither social influences on their work nor social influences of their work. “Culture seeps into science unbidden” (de Waal 2001: 46). Intended or not, scientific origin theories also carry out cultural functions as origin myths, goading and curbing our moral imaginations.

So when Richard Leakey (2010) tells us that natural laws and chance are all we need to explain life’s evolution, this is an article of faith – more curb than goad – maintained in the secular culture within and around science, not a scientific finding of fact.

Whether allegory or science, we see ourselves in origin stories, the tellings of which are moral acts of historic significance (Bock 1994).

We tell two broad kinds of origin myths, presenting open or closed images of humanity. Open stories tell us that we are by nature free and therefore obliged to commit ourselves to courses of action for which we are responsible. According to these stories, history was made in part by the wits, determination and cooperation of our ancestors. The differences we make are partly of our own doing. It is possible to fail. We can also rise to challenges. Open stories remind us that we play a part on life’s stage.

Closed origin myths tell us we are born with good or bad moral qualities in our souls, hearts, bones, or more recently, genes. The past unfolded as a sequence of events caused by prior events or higher powers. When we make a difference, it is not our doing. Inevitability makes moral failings more likely but less painful, even less noticeable. Lulling our moral imaginations, these stories place us in balcony seats watching life play out (except those telling the story).

Evolution and ethics

Open versions of scientific origin myths are at home with Gould’s maxim “Moral inquiry is our struggle, not nature’s display” (1990: 12), or Simpson’s view that “ethics cannot be independent of evolution, but neither can it be derived from evolution” (1969: 142).

Closed versions channel Ruse’s view that belief in moral principles is “a collective illusion foisted upon us by our genes” (1986: 253). By assuming that ethics can be derived from evolutionary theory, these stories degrade what they are attempting to understand.

We can expect ethics to inform our understanding of life because ethics are part of human life.

For biology to inform our ethics without degrading it, we need a view of life that is also informed by ethics. We can expect ethics to inform our understanding of life because ethics are part of human life with beginnings in mammalian life. The moral imaginations of Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and their contemporaries were imaginary in the sense that they were of the imagination, fantastic in the sense of extraordinary goodness, and neither in the sense of being not real (Bromwich 2014).

And what does morality tell us about how we got here? Morality indicates a deeper history of its building blocks than is usually told. A short sketch of this history goes something like this (from Rosslenbroich 2014).

Life is inherently semi-autonomous

For 3.6 billion years, life has been an emergent and open process harnessing the reliabilities of physics and chemistry, in constant tension between its self-directed inside and dependence on what is outside. Living its freedom by degrees, life is semi-autonomous.

As a fundamental characteristic of life, autonomy is a mainspring of evolution, not a residue. Biology does not merely constrain autonomy. Biology – life – sustains autonomy, as it has from its beginning.

Autonomy has evolved

Capacities for self-direction and relative independence from the immediate surroundings have increased in some lines of descent. For two billion years, cells with special parts to make and store energy, keep the inside organized, and control give-and-take with the outside (eukaryotes) have been more autonomous than cells without these parts (prokaryotes).

It took eukaryotic cells a billion years to come together into multicellular organisms, each cell losing a measure of individual autonomy to gain greater overall autonomy. Exploiting the advantages of size and specialization, multicellular life (animals more so than plants) moved vital functions like breathing, digesting and eliminating waste from their surface to their inside, thus gaining further control of give-and-take with the outside.

The story of autonomy’s evolution will continue in Part 2 of this article.

References

Bock, K. 1994. Human Nature Mythology. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Bromwich, D. 2014. Moral Imagination. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

De Waal, F. 2001. Without walls. New Scientist 172: 46-49.

Gould, S. J. 1990. Darwin and Paley meet the invisible hand. Natural History 99 (11): 8-12.

King James Bible Online. http://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/Genesis-Chapter-3/

Leakey, R. E. 2010. Why Our Origins Matter. Origins ’10 public lecture series, Florida State University, April 1.

Malinowski, B. 1948. Magic, Science and Religion. Glencoe, Il: The Free Press.

Rosslenbroich, B. 2014. On the Origin of Autonomy. Cham: Springer.

Ruse, M. 1986. Taking Darwin Seriously. Oxford: Blackwell.

Shryock, A. and D. L. Smail. 2011. Deep History. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Simpson, G. G. 1969. Biology and Man. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World.


Tom Clark is a psychologist who has been interested in the role of behavior in evolution since his graduate training at the University of South Florida.


© 2015, Thomas L. Clark. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited. The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not constitute official statements or positions of the Editors and others associated with SCIENCE DIALOGUES.

Speaking truth to power: The three faces of authority

John Edward Terrell


Please note: this commentary, recovered on 28-Jan-2017, was originally published in Science Dialogues on 21-Febr-2015.


ONE OF THE THINGS I have learned both as a human being and as an anthropologist is that I never fully understand other human beings—and certainly not other anthropologists. In the former category, and sometimes in the latter, I include government bureaucrats, university deans, academic chairs, and institutional vice presidents.

I have also found that the door opens—or rather stays partly closed—both ways. Human beings in such positions of power over other human beings all too often do not seem to understand the human sources of their authority. And therein lies a tale.

Ruatepupuke

On 9 March 1993 after years of discussion, planning, and hard work, Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago and the Maori community at Tokomaru Bay, New Zealand, formally reopened to the public a fully renovated Maori meeting house safeguarded there within the Museum’s 20th century walls.

As one consequence of Museum’s close collaboration with Tokomaru Bay, it is now known for sure that this house in Chicago was built at Tokomaru in 1881 to honor Ruatepupuke, a legendary figure who is said to have brought the art of woodcarving to the Maori people from the underwater house of the sea god, Tangaroa. The ridgepole of the building is his spine; the rafters are his ribs, and the wide boards along the roof at the front are Ruatepupuke’s arms outstretched to welcome visitors.

The Maori meeting house called Ruatepupuke II at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. Source: author.
The three faces of authority

As  a museum curator, I am given to saying that material things mediate human relationships. They mediate our relationships with the world around us. We call them “tools.” They mediate our relationships with other human beings. We talk about them in many ways such as “gifts,” “mobile phones,” and “money.” And things, too, mediate our relationships with worlds unseen or merely imagined. Then we may call them “religious icons,” “ceremonial objects,” “money,” and “computer games.”

While I was working with my Maori friends during the negotiations for and restoration of the incredible “thing” at the Field Museum called Ruatepupuke II, I was lucky enough to learn much about how Maori New Zealanders are likely to think about life, community, and meeting houses.

One of the truly unexpected benefits of this partnership was learning about how nuanced a Maori way of thinking about power can be. They may not have as many ways to talk about authority as a Canadian has at his or her disposal to talk about snow, but they have three ways in particular that reveal a depth of human understanding that is insightful and wise.

Wehi, wana, and ihi

What I learned was that there are at least three different words in the Maori Polynesian language for “power,” each of which captures a different facet of what it means to be powerful:

wehi refers to the power to inspire fear, awe, or dread in the beholder. An example of wehi would be the visceral power of the traditional Maori war dance called the haka. Another would be a phone call from your doctor, department chair, or divisional vice president;

wana can mean  “excitement,” “spiritual awe,” and the like in a more enveloping sense; and

ihi is difficult to translate into English but means, I think, what we would call “confidence,” “charm,” “bearing,” or “inherent authority.” In New Zealand there are sayings to the effect “you do not need to ask who is the chief,” and “everyone knows when the chief has come into the room.” You know you are feeling the ihi of a person or thing when the hairs stand up on the back of your neck.

The fragility of mana

These three faces or facets of power in a Maori sense all work together to nurture what in Polynesian is called mana—yet another word difficult to translate and understand that means, all too simply put, “power,” “prestige,” and “status.” Elsewhere I have argued that this word often can mean what social scientists call social capital.

The point I want to make in telling you all this about these Maori ways of talking about power is that together they reveal how fragile is the power of bureaucrats, deans, chairs, divisional vice presidents, and other authority figures.

The mana of an administrator does not come with the title on the door to his or her office. The ability to hire, fire, or censure someone “under” someone else’s thumb in our own society may have an inherent degree of wehi associated with it because of our legal, corporate, and social conventions. But the ihi and wana of anyone’s “authority” can collapse when the support of others has been lost.

In New Zealand, for example, the primal mana of a chief is said to be passed down by fact or right of birth to his offspring. But what a child then goes on in life to do with such a gift can weaken rather than strength that person’s mana in the eyes of others. Just as a chief who fails in battle may be seen as having lost his mana, so too a child who does not live up to his or her birthright may loose standing and the following of others.

This is a fact of life that needs no translation from Maori into English, and it is a lesson that all those in positions of power would do well to heed.

Social capital, after all, is social, not monetary.

© 2015 John Edward Terrell. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited. The statements and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not constitute official statements or positions of the Editors and others associated with SCIENCE DIALOGUES.

Zambia paleo dig yields new insights on Permian-Triassic environments

Mark Alvey


Please note: this news story, recovered on 28-Jan-2017, was originally published in Science Dialogues on 27-August-2014.


Ken Angielczyk in the Luangwa Basin of Zambia holding two specimens of the dicynodont Diictodon. Photo by Roger Smith.

Associate Curator Ken Angielczyk of The Field Museum was part of an international team of collaborators that conducted paleontological fieldwork in Zambia between June 22 and July 31. Ken and his collaborators focused on Middle Permian (~265 Mya) to Middle Triassic (~240 Mya) rocks in two areas of the country, the Zambezi Basin in southern Zambia and the Luangwa Basin in northeastern Zambia. The team had done preliminary work in the Zambezi Basin in 2011 and 2012, but only spent a total of about 5 days working there. This time, they spent about two weeks there and their discoveries include multiple species of archaic amphibians and dinocephalians and dicynodonts (both ancient mammal relatives) from the Middle Permian, extremely well preserved fossil wood, and evidence that two temporally-distinct faunas are preserved in the Permian rocks in the Zambezi Basin. They also collected a large amount of geological data that will help complete the picture of the environments in which the plants and animals were living.

Ken’s colleagues Sebastien Steyer and Charles Beightol excavate a dinocephalian skeleton preserved in Permian rocks in the Zambezi Basin of Zambia. Photo: Cristian Sidor.

The team had conducted more extensive fieldwork in the Luangwa Basin in 2009 and 2011, and this year their work focused on rounding out their previous collections and collecting more geological data to understand  paleoenvironments. Among their discoveries is evidence of strong associations of particular dicynodonts with specific environments in the Late Permian rocks of the Luangwa Basin, and strong evidence of increased aridity and changes in the nature of river systems in the area moving from the Late Permian to the Middle Triassic. Ken and his collaborators will use these data to investigate the role environmental changes played in shaping the end-Permian mass extinction (the largest extinction in Earth history) and the recovery following the event.

Ulemosaurus svijagensis – primitive tapinocephalian from Middle Permian of Tatarstan. Illustration by Dmitry Bogdanov. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ulemosaurus#/media/File:Ulemosaurus22DB.jpg.

And one important result of fieldwork like that: scientific publications.  Ken and colleagues have a paper in the July issue of Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology describing fossils of tapinocephalids from Southern Zambia.  Tapinocephalids are hippo-sized, herbivorous mammal relatives that lived about 265 million years ago; the fossils were discovered by Ken and his collaborators during short exploratory trips to the Zambezi Basin in southern Zambia in 2011 and 2012. They are the oldest known tetrapod remains from Zambia, and demonstrated the potential of the area for further paleontological exploration (as in previous item). This is also the second time that Ken and his teammates have discovered tapinocephalids in an area from which they were previously unknown (the first time was in 2008 in Tanzania).

© 2014 Mark Alvey. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited. The statements and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not constitute official statements or positions of the Editors and others associated with SCIENCE DIALOGUES

Birders and botanist join forces to shed new light on an age-old riddle of avian migration

Mark Alvery


Please note: this news story, recovered on 28-Jan-2017, was originally published in Science Dialogues on 5-Sept-2014.


A team from the University of Chicago, The Field Museum, and the University of Minnesota has been working for three years on a topic that has long confounded avian biogeographers: the origins and evolution of bird migration. In the August 19 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences the team—U of C Ph.D. student Ben Winger, FMNH Associate Curator Rick Ree, and Minnesota prof Keith Barker—published a paper aimed at resolving that question for one of the largest groups of migratory birds.

Ben Winger measuring specimens in the Field Museum Bird collections.

Traditionally, there have been two schools of thought on where migration began and how it evolved: one theory proposed that ancestors of migratory birds spent the whole year in temperate regions, and that migration patterns evolved over time as these birds’ winter ranges gradually moved to the tropics. The other theory held that these ancestors were originally found in the tropics, with breeding grounds shifting to more temperate locales like North America.

To solve this riddle of migration the team used an innovative phylogenetic model designed to infer the historical biogeography of migratory birds. Ben and Rick developed this new model based on an existing biogeographic method that Rick developed called the “dispersal-extinction-cladogenesis” model, which has been widely used by biogeographers. They applied the model to New World “emberizoid” songbirds, a large group of migratory birds that include warblers, cardinals, sparrows, tanagers, and orioles, using a comprehensive phylogenetic tree developed by Keith and a group of colleagues. “We named it the ‘domino model’ because the breeding and winter ranges of species were coded in 3×2 grids of binary values, like dots on domino pieces,” Rick explains. “The computational challenge was to reconstruct the most probable evolutionary shifts from one domino to another.” Examining common ancestors of migratory and non-migratory species over time using the phylogenetic data, the team concluded that there was more evidence supporting the idea that birds lived year-round in North America and began migrating further and further south, resulting in today’s birds migrating thousands of miles every year.

Another result of the study suggests that many tropical species of birds are descendants of migratory ancestors that lost migration and stayed in the tropics year-round. “This is an interesting result because species diversity in this group is much higher in the tropics,” notes Ben. “Previously, more species in the tropics led to the assumption that temperate, migratory species are derived from tropical, non-migratory ancestors; however, the results of our phylogenetic study suggest that the opposite pattern happened often in this group.”

This study received nice coverage by National Geographic, among other outlets, and will soon be featured on the Field’s Science Newsflash web feature.

“Geneticist at work.” In The Field Museum’s Pritzker Lab for Molecular Systematics and Evolution.

So what’s that about botanist and birders joining forces? Well, Ben and Keith are ornithologists, and Rick is a botanist, but with deep experience in biogeography and genomics, which he has applied beyond plants (e.g., butterflies, Amazonian amphibians, lichens). Natural history museums are places where scientists in nominally different fields, but with congruent interests—like biogeography and genomics—can cross paths, and disciplines. Which is one of the things that makes them particularly fascinating places to work.

Here’s the full citation for the article: Benjamin M. Winger, F. Keith Barker, and Richard H. Ree. Temperate origins of long-distance seasonal migration in New World songbirds. PNAS, August 4, 2014 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1405000111

© 2014 Mark Alvey. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited. The statements and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not constitute official statements or positions of the Editors and others associated with SCIENCE DIALOGUES.

Do men and women think differently?

Marc Kissel


Please note: this commentary, recovered on 28-Jan-2017, was originally published in Science Dialogues on 3-August-2014.


Years ago I mentioned to a group of female friends that I didn’t think men and women were really that different (well, besides the obvious ones). This caused quite the kerfuffle and led to the conclusion that I was an idiot. Yet, while it seems self-evident that men & women think differently this doesn’t mean that it is true . After all, it wasn’t too long ago were it was “obvious” that race was biology, that the sun circled the earth, and that jorts were a good idea.

A paper published last January caused quite the hubbub when it claimed to find significant differences between male and female brains (Ingalhalikar et al. 2014). Not tested in the paper, however, was whether those differences were cultural (in fact, the differences between sexes increased as the age of the children studied increased, which may suggest that something other than biology was at play).  A new study by Daniela Weber and colleagues (2014) investigates the role cultural factors may play in these apparent differences. They do so by examining cognitive task results from surveys of “nonindustrialized” men & women over 50 living in Europe, merging 13 countries into three regional groups and then comparing within and between these populations. The main results are shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Source: Webster et al. 2014.

For episodic memory (how well someone recalls a list of previously read words), women in Northern Europe have a higher average score than men, but the situation is more complex in other regions. Results differed in numeracy & category fluency categories based upon region as well. If you thought male/female difference were hard-wired, this shouldn’t be the case.

What causes these geographic differences? The Nick Wade’s of the world would probably suggest genetic differences are at the heart of the matter, but that does not seem to be the case. Instead access to education, along with other social factors, may be at the root of much of this.

Figure 2. Source: Webster et al. 2014.

This isn’t the clearest of figures. On the Y-axis is the average level of education for women minus that of men. When the number is negative, men on average spend a longer time in school than women do. On the X-Axis, is women’s cognitive performance minus men’s cognitive performance. I added colored lines at ‘0’ for each axis. Points to the right of the red line represent cohorts where women outperform men, while points above the blue line are when women have higher levels of education than men. As can be seen, in almost all cases men have reached higher education levels. It is interesting that, for episodic memory, as the mean years of differences in education years decreases, the difference between the sexes also decreases. Or as they put it: “These findings suggest that if women and men had equal levels of education, we should expect a female advantage in episodic memory, a male advantage in numeracy, and no gender differences in category fluency” (Weber et al. 2014:3).

In other words, reducing differences in access to education should lessen the differences in test scores.  Trying to discover sex-based differences without acknowledging the role cultural plays is always going to cause anthropologists to be wary so it is nice to see this acknowledged. As noted in the paper, there are many confounding variables that cannot be tested here and it is difficult to rule out  decline in mental acumen due to age-related cognitive decline. Further, I wonder about the geographic populations they define. What patterns would emerge if you didn’t group the 13 countries together in the same way as is done in this paper? Also interesting, though not really discussed, is that Northern Europeans (here represented by Denmark & Sweden) did better on all the cognitive assessments.

But it is always nice to see approaches that note that differences may be cultural rather than biological. Oh, and don’t get me  started on the blue = boys and girls =  pink nonsense.

References

Ingalhalikar, Madhura, et al. “Sex differences in the structural connectome of the human brain.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111.2 (2014): 823-828.

Weber, Daniela, et al. “The changing face of cognitive gender differences in Europe.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2014): 201319538.

Marc Kissel (Ph.D, University of Wisconsin-Madison) is a native New Yorker transplanted into the wilds of the Midwest. His dissertation examined genetic models that try to explain why humans are so inbred compared to the living apes and asks if these models conform to anthropological reality (spoiler alert: they don’t!). He is interested in human evolution and likes to apply mathematical models, genetic data, and anthropology to questions about our evolutionary history (especially Neandertals). Currently he is a postdoc at Notre Dame studying the evolution of wisdom. You can find him him on Twitter @MarcKissel
© 2014 Marc Kissel. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited. The statements and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not constitute official statements or positions of the Editors and others associated with SCIENCE DIALOGUES.

Social network analysis: Hypothesis testing and what-if projections

John Edward Terrell


Please note: this commentary, recovered on 28-Jan-2017, was originally published in Science Dialogues on 13-June-2014.


GIVEN A RELIABLE DATABASE of information and a good computer program (such as Microsoft Excel), it is possible today to simulate a broad range of hypothetical real-world situations under differing possible opening and subsequent conditions (Embrechts and Hofet 2014). Said differently, by changing the parameters and values of a spreadsheet in meaningful ways it is possible to do informative what-if analyses of many kinds of situations—thereby gaining better understanding not only of possible but also plausible outcomes.

Similarly, it is possible to use a good network analysis program (such as UCINET; Borgatti et al. 2013) to simulate differing social situations and their plausible impacts. Here briefly described is one example based on research currently being done to explore the history of social networks along the north coast of Papua New Guinea.

Research question

During the last glacial maximum (~21,000 BP), sea-levels were ~125 m (410 ft) lower than they are today. It is likely that New Guinea’s northern coast was mostly a steep rocky shoreline offering few resources supporting human settlements (Chappell 1982).  As one consequence, New Guinea during the last Ice Age served more as a vicariant barrier than a land bridge between Asia and island Oceania (Terrell 2004).

Figure 1. New Guinea is the second largest island in the world. The northern coastline is over 1,600 miles (2,600 km) long. Shown here in comparison with the 48 mainland states in the U.S.A.

Both historical and archaeological evidence (Welsch and Terrell 1998; Terrell and Schechter 2011) suggests that villages on the northern coastline of New Guinea and the nearby offshore islands have been linked with one another by far-reaching social and economic networks for the past 2,000 years. An obvious and historically important question, therefore, is whether people and places there in the more distant past were similarly integrated in comparable widely-distributed communities of practice (Terrell n.d.).After the last Ice Age, however, sea levels rose steadily and then began to stabilize around their modern levels ~6,000–7,000 years ago. The resulting formation of coastal plains and environmentally productive lagoons and estuaries led to peak biodiversity (Hope and Haberle 2005) and probably also peak human population densities along this coastline between ~4000–2000 BP.

Materials and methods

Figure 2 shows two mini-max networks (Cochrane and Lipo 2010) drawn using UCINET 6 (version 6.289) and NetDraw (version 2.109) with the edges weighted at two different thresholds. The upper network shows the connectivity of places in this region given a maximal customary voyaging distance of 220 km or less—the greatest distance known to have been locally traversed during the Pleistocene and the mid-Holocene prior to ~3300 BP (Golitko and Terrell n.d.). The lower network has a threshold of 360 km—the greatest voyaging distance (from Makira-Ulawa in the Solomon Islands to Temotu in the Reefs/Santa Cruz group) documented as having been crossed during the first settlement of Remote Oceania ~3300–3100 BP (Irwin 1992).

Also shown in this figure are (a) the network positions (blue) of this region’s major sources of obsidian, a volcanic glass widely transported both historically and prehistorically in this region of the world; and (b) the location of our study area (red) on this coast in the Aitape district (Terrell and Schechter 2011).

Figure 2. Connectivity of obsidian sources (blue nodes) and Aitape (red node) on the Sepik coast of Papua New Guinea. Top: when the edge distance is 220 km or less; bottom: when it is 360 km or less (baseline image source: Mark L. Golitko). Likely cut lines in these networks projected using the Girvan-Newman algorithm (Girvan and Newman 2002) are shown here as heavy black lines. The same four groupings in the upper mapping occur at any assumed what-if linkage distance between 186 and 270 km.
Network analysis

Given these analyses, it is readily apparent that the what-if connectivity of these mappings differs markedly. Under the upper scenario, it can be hypothesized that obsidian from sources southeast of Aitape (they are on New Britain Island) has probably been transported from place to place at least as far west as Aitape, but it is less likely that obsidian from the other sources—located in the Admiralty Islands—has also arrived there despite the fact that these sources are geographically closer to our study area. The situation is different in the lower mapping. Instead of four probable groupings within the network shown, there are only two, and given this scenario, when obsidian has reached Aitape, it is more likely to have been mined at the nearer Admiralty sources.

Hypothesis testing

The presence of Admiralty Islands obsidian at prehistoric sites has not been securely documented archaeologically outside the Admiralty Group earlier than the mid 2nd millennium B.C. Its widespread popularity at Aitape and elsewhere in this part of the world thereafter is generally associated with suspected improvements in canoe-making design and technology thought to have been introduced from Island Southeast Asia around this same time (Specht et al. 2014; Terrell n.d.). However, it is also generally accepted that the movement of animals, obsidian, and people between islands and coastal villages was characteristic of life in this part of the world for many millennia before then—in other words, the suspected improvements in watercraft design and voyaging prowess did not initiate coastal and inter-island mobility in this region but instead made longer-distance travel more feasible and routine (Specht et al. 2014).

Figure 3. The actual geographic locations of the obsidian sources (blue dots) and the study area (red dot) at Aitape on the Sepik coast of Papua New Guinea.

While obsidian from Admiralty sources has been found at archaeological sites on the north coast of New Guinea that are younger than ~2000 BP, almost all of the obsidian that has been recovered archaeologically on mainland New Guinea older than ~3,500 BP has been sourced to the the Kutau/Bao locality on the Willaumez Peninsula of western New Britain (Summerhayes 2009).

Our fieldwork at Aitape in 1993/1994 and 1996 supported by the National Science Foundation ((BNS-8819618 and DBS-9120301)  discovered large quantities of obsidian and chert at localities along the former mid-Holocene shoreline (which at Aitape is now located several kilometers inland) including assemblages with notably high frequencies of  obsidian from New Britain marked by large average flake sizes (Golitko 2011)—an archaeological signature consistent with pre-2000 BP obsidian assemblages found elsewhere in northern Melanesia (Summerhayes 2009).

Therefore, given our two what-if network analyses and this archaeological evidence it may be hypothesized that obsidian has probably been indirectly available to people living in what is now the Aitape district ever since the stabilization of world sea levels around 6,000–7,000 years ago, but it is likely that the major sources of this natural glass prior to ~3,500 BP were those located on New Britain.

With funding from the National Science Foundation my colleague Dr. Mark Golitko is currently (June–July 2014) leading a research team at Aitape that is surveying archaeological sites there on the mid-Holocene (~5000 BP) shoreline (as reconstructed from estimated local uplift rates and sea-level records) to document how far-reaching or alternatively how restricted were cultural and material exchanges on this coast at that time. Discovering how isolated or widely linked communities at Aitape were during the mid-Holocene is  critical to understanding the patterning of modern human diversity in northern New Guinea and elsewhere in the Pacific (Terrell 2010a, 2010b).

Conclusions

Obsidian has long been a popular although largely nonessential raw material in the Pacific (as elsewhere on earth) despite the fact that alternative and equally useful cutting materials (such as bamboo) are readily available. Hence the ancient transport of obsidian through inter-community networks is commonly interpreted by archaeologists as more a social phenomenon than a practical (“economic”) necessity (Torrence 2011). As suggested by the what-if analyses discussed here, we anticipate  that Golitko and his team will discover this summer that obsidian was reaching communities on the Sepik coast well before ~3,500 BP.

Funding for this research was provided by National Science Foundation Grant No. BCS-1155338–”Archaeological and Environmental Investigations along the mid-Holocene shoreline near Aitape, Northern Papua New Guinea,” Mark L. Golitko and John E. Terrell.
References:

Borgatti, S. P., M. G. Everett, and J. C. Johnson. 2013. Analyzing social networks. Los Angeles: Sage.

Chappell, J. 1982. Sea levels and sediments: some features of the context of coastal archaeological sites in the Tropics. Archaeology in Oceania 17:69–78.

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© 2014 John Edward Terrell. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited. The statements and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not constitute official statements or positions of the Editors and others associated with SCIENCE DIALOGUES.

Reconfiguring biological diversity 2. Coming to grips with diversity

John Edward Terrell


This is part 2 of a two part article

Coming to grips with diversity

Perhaps the greatest stumbling block to deciphering how biological diversity is patterned, or structured, in space and time within any given species is that most existing ways of modeling such diversity presuppose that genes are nested in some fashion within demonstrable and persistent primary units that can be labeled as populations, subpopulations, demes, communities, stocks, races, and like. Yet is this how biological reproduction works? Aren’t genes perfectly capable of “escaping,” so to speak, from such allegedly defining and confining “boxes” through the very acts of reproduction, reassortment, growth, and development?

It could be argued that there is irony in the fact that molecular genetics now has made it possible for scientists to map diversity at the genetic level. Yet many are still given to thinking about diversity as if they were compelled by the old limitations of their laboratory techniques to lump this new fine-grained evidence into inclusive nested sets (e.g., Pritchard et al. 2000; Greenbaum et al. 2016; Skoglund et al. 2016).

Perhaps it is not surprising, therefore, that some have concluded that “the observed pattern of global gene identity variation was produced by a combination of serial population fissions, bottlenecks and long-range migrations associated with the peopling of major geographic regions, and subsequent gene flow between local populations” (Hunley et al. 2009).

All three of these identified processes are plausible reasons for biological diversity in time and space. But aren’t all three of these population-level explanations ignoring individual agency and decision-making? Not to mention love, lust, and human compassion?

Moving beyond population modeling

Current population-level modeling based on molecular genetics is arguably an advance over older metapopulation models framing diversity as an ever-changing flux within species among discrete subpopulations inhabiting separate habitat patches linked by migration and extinction (Fig. 2). Certainly few today would accept that diversity within any species can be adequately explained solely or even largely as the product of fluctuating colonization and extinction events.

Figure 2. A simple metapopulation model at two time periods (A and B) attributing spatial diversity to a shifting dynamic of colonization and extinction events.

Similarly, the concept of the fitness landscape (also known as as an adaptive landscape; see Fig. 3) introduced by the geneticist Sewell Wright in 1932 is another long-debated way of modeling the dynamic interplay—or balance—of a number of plausible determinants of genetic variation in space and time. As Wright explained in 1932:

The most general conclusion is that evolution depends on a certain balance among its factors. There must be gene mutation, but an excessive rate gives an array of freaks, not evolution; there must be selection, but too severe a process destroys the field of variability, and thus the basis for further advance; prevalence of local inbreeding within a species has extremely important evolutionary consequences, but too close inbreeding leads merely to extinction. A certain amount of crossbreeding is favorable but not too much. In this dependence on balance the species is like a living organism. At all levels of organization life depends on the maintenance of a certain balance among its factors. (Wright 1932)

Figure 3. “Field of gene combinations occupied by a population within the general field
of possible combinations. Type of history under specified conditions indicated by relation
to initial field (heavy broken contour) and arrow.” Source: Wright 1932, fig. 4.

A “balance of factors” sounds right and reasonable, but are the ones he mentions the only major factors that must be taken into account? Surely adaptation is not the only driving force of evolution?

Agency and social networks

Consider the observation that human beings are notably variable in stature, weight, and other characteristics of their appearance. Clearly the gene mutations supporting such phenotypic variation have not resulted in what Wright would describe as “an array of freaks.” Evidently such diversity is not selected against—to use Wright’s way of framing the discussion. Why? Because much of the burden of human adaptation does not need to be genetically endowed. Instead, as most social scientists would insist, much of what we do supporting our survival and reproduction is accomplished using socially learned skills rather than by genetically inherited biological means.

Recently Greenbaum and his colleagues observed that the research strategies and tools of modern network analysis are increasingly being used to explore genetics questions in genomics, landscape genetics, migration-selection dynamics, and the study of the genetic structure of species more generally speaking (Greenbaum et al. 2016).

Adopting a networks approach to genetics makes it possible to come to grips not only with the ways in which racism—to return to Roseman’s point raised earlier—has shaped human variation in the past few hundred years, but also how our species’ mobility, adaptive skills, technologies, and social behaviors have been configuring human variation throughout the history of our species.

Figures 4 and 5 illustrate the potential value of using of network analysis in the study of genetic diversity. The first figure is a network mapping of localities reported in a genome scan published in 2008. While the patterning is complex, there is an obvious geographic signal in the genetic linkages shown. Figure 5 resolves the relationships among a smaller subset of the localities that had been sampled, specifically those in the Bismarck Archipelago-North Solomons region of the southwest Pacific.

Figure 4. Spring-embedding network mapping of the localities sampled in a genome scan of autosomal markers (687 microsatellites and 203 insertions/deletions) on 952 individuals from 41 Pacific populations). Mapping derived from the mean STRUCTURE assignment probabilities when K = 10 reported by Friedlaender at al. (2008) color-coded by geographic location. Blue-white = Asia; blue = Taiwan; black = Europe; red = Polynesia; pink = Micronesia; yellow = New Britain; purple = New Guinea; dark green = North Solomons; green = New Ireland; light green = New Hanover; pale green = Mussau. Source: adapted from Terrell 2010b, fig. 3.

 

Figure 5. Nearest-neighbor structuring of interaction among the localities sampled in the Bismarck Archipelago and North Solomons color-coded to show genetic clustering (blue nodes represent locations not represented in the genetic scan). Source: Terrell 2010b, fig. 11.Both network mappings suggest that geography has influenced the structuring of genetic similarities among people living in the sampled localities shown. Yet it also is apparent that the linkages shown may often be closer than geographic distance alone would lead us to expect. Judging by figure 5, the effect of isolation by distance is evidently constrained by social networks (as projected in this figure using nearest-neighbor linkages). Hence while geographic distance may be contributing to the patterning of genetic diversity among people in this part of the world, geography is by no means the whole story.
Conclusions

The network analysis briefly introduced in figures 4 and 5 had two principal aims, one phylogenetic, the other tokogenetic (Terrell 2010b). Do people living today in the Pacific segregate genetically along lines concordant with the reputedly separate (i.e., cladistic) histories of languages spoken there, principally the divide drawn by linguists and others between speakers of Austronesian and non-Austronesian (Papuan) languages (Terrell 2006)? To what extent does the genetic similarity among people living in different residential communities correlate with the nearest-neighbor propinquity of these sampled places?

Neither of these aims presuppose that the research goal is to define genetically discrete human populations (or subpopulations, demes, groups, communities, races, and the like) either a priori or by using, say, individual-based clustering (IBC) methods (e.g., Ball et al. 2010).

These two aims have more in common with those of the emerging field of landscape genetics (Dyer and Nason 2004; Garroway et al. 2008) than with most previous research in population genetics. However, both of these aims focus more directly on the genetic consequences of the behavior of organisms in space and time—in this case, humans—than on the geography, ecology, and environmental history of the locales where the people in question reside.

Both can also be seen as stepping back from Roseman’s observations about the impact of racial politics and social practices on the human genome in the past few centuries to underscore a more general issue in evolutionary biology: How much do the mobility and social behavior of individuals within any given animal species structure the genetic variation of that species?

As Dyer and Nason (2004) have remarked: “The evolution of population genetic structure is a dynamic process influenced by both historical and recurrent evolutionary processes.” Using network theory and visualization techniques to map the genetic structure of a species in space and time is still in its infancy. Reconfiguring how science grapples with the inherent complexity of evolution as an ever unfolding process using network approaches has the promise of making it easier to explore how comparable or dissimilar species are in their strategies for survival and reproduction (Fortuna et al. 2009).

Looking long and hard at what other species do to survive and reproduce may make it easier for us to see just how toxic our own social strategies—and the assumptions supporting them—can be.

Acknowledgements

I thank Neal Matherne and Tom Clark for their comments on a draft of this commentary.

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© 2017 John Edward Terrell. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited. The statements and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not constitute official statements or positions of the Editors and others associated with SCIENCE DIALOGUES.