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john hawks weblog

paleoanthropology, genetics and evolution

Photo Credit: Pre-Clovis Gault Assemblage artifacts. Thomas Williams et al. (2018) CC-BY-NC

Why are biology classes ignoring insects?

A new content analysis of college biology textbooks finds that they have changed over the years to focus less and less on insects: A “College Textbooks Largely Overlook the Most Common Animals”.

From 1906-1920, introductory biology textbooks included an average of 32.6 pages devoted to insects, accounting for about 8.8 percent of the total pages. From 2000-2016, the textbooks devoted an average of 5.67 pages to insects, or only 0.59 percent of the total text.
“This is problematic because it puts students at a disadvantage when it comes to understanding how ecosystems work; they have very little background on key species,” Landin says. “And, in the long term, it means students may lack the information they need to identify population shifts that could have significant effects on ecosystems – including effects with ramifications for human health and well-being.”

Years ago, I did a seminar for graduate students in genetics. I asked them, “How many of you work with model organisms?” Everyone’s hands went up.

Then I asked, “How many of you can tell me three facts about your model organism’s natural habitat?” Not a single one of them volunteered.

The study of biology has shifted hugely away from naturalist knowledge and toward genetics and statistical knowledge. Within biology, students are learning more about molecular interactions than they are about ecology. It is still possible to learn about macroscale natural systems, of course, but the focus in introductory courses has shifted toward covering DNA, proteins, and cells, and away from systematics. More and more organismal biology content is focusing on humans and model organisms, of which Drosophila is just one.

Biology has grown enormously in popularity as a major, and careers in life sciences are growing markedly. Few of those careers are in evolution or ecology; most of them are in health sciences, agriculture, and natural resources. Insects are pretty important to the latter two, and remain important for health sciences also. So reducing students’ exposure to the breadth of insect life is not a good idea.

I would advocate for greater coverage of insects in anthropology textbooks also. Insects are hugely important to the human diet, both today and in the past. Not only insects themselves but their products, especially honey, have been essential to hunting and gathering populations, and remain important in Western food systems. Insects and insect products are also very important to living non-human primates.

Most human evolution textbooks and courses spend a huge amount of time and space on hunting large mammals. We’ve known for a long time that they have underemphasized plant foods relative to the importance of plants to ancient diets. Insects have been off the menu for these courses, and that’s wrong.

Lately I’ve been reading Julie Lesnik’s new book, Edible Insects and Human Evolution. The book does a great job of bringing light to this underappreciated part of human diet, and how anthropologists are studying it. I’ll be doing a review of the book when I have some time.

Besides their importance to the diet, insects are essential aspects of human ecology, especially notable in their impact on pathogen transmission–not only malaria and yellow fever, but Chagas’ disease, trypanosomiasis, plague, and countless others.

Just last week, we learned that plague struck European populations unexpectedly earlier than previously thought, implying a very different ecology for early Neolithic village life. More and more we are seeing stories of this kind, and they mean that our knowledge of human-insect interactions is getting much more intricate than anyone knew.

Is science nearing an end of practical progress?

An article in The Atlantic by Patrick Collison and Michael Nielsen asks why it seems like scientific progress is slowing down: “Science Is Getting Less Bang for Its Buck”.

The problem of diminishing returns is mentioned nowhere in the 2018 report of the National Science Foundation, which instead talks optimistically of “potentially transformative research that will generate pioneering discoveries and advance exciting new frontiers in science.” Of course, many scientific institutions—particularly new institutions—do aim to find improved ways of operating in their own fields. But that’s not the same as an organized institutional response to diminishing returns.
Perhaps this lack of response is in part because some scientists see acknowledging diminishing returns as betraying scientists’ collective self-interest. Most scientists strongly favor more research funding. They like to portray science in a positive light, emphasizing benefits and minimizing negatives. While understandable, the evidence is that science has slowed enormously per dollar or hour spent. That evidence demands a large-scale institutional response. It should be a major subject in public policy, and at grant agencies and universities. Better understanding the cause of this phenomenon is important, and identifying ways to reverse it is one of the greatest opportunities to improve our future.

The entire piece is an example of why fundamental physics is a bad model for the scientific enterprise as a whole. A small category of physicists may be spinning their wheels, but other areas of science are going strong.

I know that this is an objection that Collison and Nielsen discuss in their article. They specifically suggest that advances like CRISPR that are in the news today in biology are no more significant than past advances in biology.

In a sense, I cannot disagree. In genetics the basic observations of people like Mendel, Fisher, and Haldane formed a series of effective discoveries based on accessible mathematics and observations that might be made on any number of systems. A similar series of discoveries that could be achieved by monks and algebra is unlikely to be repeated in the future. Today’s theoretical population geneticists are exploring deeper and more complicated holes beyond the simplified models of evolution that to a first approximation may describe many small datasets.

But to be realistic, very complicated models have proven necessary to describe the inheritance of most human phenotypes, and we have not yet reached the point where we understand how to apply whole genome data to most questions. So these areas may be less “fundamental” but they are no less important to practical facts. If this starts to sound more like engineering than basic science, that is precisely what marks scientific progress, I would say.

More to the point, in my field of science we are still making many basic observations for the first time. I have been fortunate to be one of the first scientists to grapple with an entirely new fossil hominin discovery. We are still making those new discoveries, and they are still revealing new and unexpected things about human prehistory.

Someday we may face diminishing returns in human evolution research. But we are very, very far from that day. The last twenty years have seen an enormous increase in the fossil record. We keep finding unexpected things. We still have a lot of places to look with our current approaches.

What it will take for scientific discovery to continue at a high pace across scientific fields is for us to continue to find new ways of exploring the universe.


Brian Switek reports on a study that investigated bony features correlated with lung morphology in birds and crocodiles, to see how much dinosaur lungs resembled birds: “Dinosaurs Had Birdlike Lungs”. Birds have pretty efficient lungs, and while researchers already knew that many dinosaurs had air sacs similar to those of birds, that didn’t fully answer the question about the lung morphology.

The bottom line is that dinosaurs probably had lungs that were similar in morphology and function to those of living birds.

This doesn’t mean that all dinosaurs were just big birds. (Very non-bird like dinosaurs like Triceratops were part of this study, as well as those closely related to the origin of birds.) Rather, as the anatomists point out, the results indicate that the ancestral condition for dinosaurs was “a dorsally immobile lung, strongly partitioned into gas-exchanging and ventilatory regions.” Modifications from that basic setup - perhaps kept conservative in ornithischian dinosaurs and highly modified with air sac systems in saurischians - allowed for the respiratory diversity that paleontologists are now assessing and studying.

This is one of those anatomical observations that is very difficult to examine with the kind of evidence left from dinosaurs, and yet to most people it probably seems like it should be obvious.

I’m reading today about Neanderthal ribcage morphology, and that’s another issue that many people have written about in the past, but the evidence from most fossils just does not provide enough evidence to be sure about the overall shape and function of the anatomical structure.

It’s great when scientists can put together a more synthetic view that draws upon a broad spectrum of evidence.

'Where my house is, those trees were once growing'

The New York Times reports on a revival of the agricultural variety: “Finding Lost Apples and Reviving a Beloved Cider”.

Mr. Rosen, the former chief executive of a Manhattan advertising agency that promoted Svedka vodka and Mike’s Hard Lemonade, wants to reintroduce Newark cider, an 18th- and 19th-century alcoholic drink once famously compared to Champagne.
Newark cider was both a point of pride and big business for the region — requested by name, reportedly lauded by George Washington and produced by dozens of Newark-area cideries with acres of orchards. The secret wasn’t a recipe, but the blending of a quartet of superior apples born in the region: Campfield, Poveshon, Granniwinkle and Harrison, the most celebrated of the four.

I’m always inspired by these discoveries of lost varietals, which give us the potential of tasting the foods and drinks of the past, while recovering variation that might be useful or valuable again.

Richard Lee tells a story about the nuclear arms race

Richard Lee is best known to followers of anthropology as one of the co-organizers of the “Man the Hunter” conference in 1966. His fieldwork with the Dobe !Kung helped dispel some old anthropological myths about hunting and gathering peoples, and served as a nucleus for ideas about the evolution of human sociality.

He has written an article in this year’s Annual Review of Anthropology that examines both uses and misuses of hunter-gatherer ethnography in theory-building about human nature: “Hunter-Gatherers and Human Evolution: New Light on Old Debates.”

In the introduction to the article, he recounts a story involving his “Man the Hunter” co-editor, the late Irven DeVore:

Senator William Fulbright of Arkansas, a brilliant US legislator in the 1960s and the founder of the scholarship program that bears his name, was just one public figure struggling to come to grips with the import of Lorenz’s theses. I vividly remember the late Irven DeVore coming into my office at Harvard University. “I just got off the phone with Senator William Fulbright calling from Washington,” Devore said. “He asked me ‘Professor DeVore, if Konrad Lorenz is right, how are we ever to negotiate a nuclear arms reduction treaty with the Soviet Union?’”
DeVore reassured Fulbright that Lorenz’s views were far from universally accepted among anthropologists, that violence in human history was a variable not a constant, and that its causes and expressions were far more complex than could be explained simply by pure animal instinct.
DeVore’s disclaimers appeared to calm Senator Fulbright’s nerves, and in fact the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) went on to successfully negotiate a series of nuclear arms reduction treaties over the years. Nevertheless, the question of violence in human history continued to animate the debate within anthropology, fueled by Robert Ardrey’s “killer ape” hypothesis in his books African Genesis (Ardrey 1961) and The Territorial Imperative (Ardrey 1966). Interest was sustained by Napoleon Chagnon’s (1968) influential ethnography of the “fierce” Yanomamo and more recently by the writings of Wrangham & Peterson (1996), such as Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence. I have labeled this persistent thread within anthropology and related disciplines as the “Bellicose School” (Lee 2014).

I am spending some time reading this review and taking notes, and it bears close reading. Lee’s theme is that many people who use “hunter-gatherers” as a category are actually lumping things that are quite different from each other. If you want to use ethnographic studies of today’s people to say anything about prehistoric people, you need to understand that any living group may be like ancient people in some ways, and very different from ancient people in other ways. Lumping across the entire category of “hunter-gatherers” doesn’t work if some of those living hunter-gatherers have economies, subsistence patterns, and social organization that is unlike anything that archaeology tells us about prehistoric groups.

Here’s a teaser from a box that discusses the work of Steven Pinker:

Despite the apparent magnitude of the Ju/’hoan/!Kung homicide rate, these still represent only 1.0–1.6% of overall deaths, compared to the 8–58% figure referenced in Pinker’s TED Talk.

I’ll hopefully be able to write a bit more about this as I read.


Lee, Richard B. 2018. Hunter-Gatherers and Human Evolution: New Light on Old Debates. Annual Review of Anthropology 47 (online early) doi:10.1146/annurev-anthro-102116-041448

The fattest bear

I enjoyed the Washington Post account of the “annual fattest bear contest” in Katmai National Park: “America’s fattest bear has now been crowned”.

The science nugget that drives the outreach here is that grizzlies in Alaska lose a third of their body mass over their hibernation in the winter. They have to put on fat during the summer and early fall to survive, and the result is one of the largest cycles of annual weight gain and loss. The outcome is impressive (with photos at the article).

They were probably too busy on the small Brooks River, an upstream bottleneck for hundreds of thousands of the 62 million salmon that passed through Alaska’s Bristol Bay this year, LaValle said. There, the bears easily snatch the fish, then promptly massacre them for the fattiest parts — the skin, fat and brain — before nonchalantly discarding the flesh for which we humans might pay upward of $30 a pound.
LaValle compares this surgical approach to not filling up on bread at a restaurant — the fat is the good stuff, and there’s plenty more where it came from.

Lots to think about for students who are learning about optimal foraging.

Micro-museums, cabinets of curiosities

On the subject of natural history museums changing for the future, this update from the Simons Foundation is fascinating: “Science Sandbox: The changing face of science museums”.

MICRO, a nonprofit founded in 2016 by computational ecologist Amanda Schochet and media producer Charles Philipp, works with designers, artists and scientists to pack knowledge into cabinets of curiosity about the size of a vending machine. MICRO increases exposure to science learning by partnering with venues such as the Brooklyn Public Library, Ronald McDonald House and Rockefeller Center to install these tiny museums. The first museum in their ‘fleet,’ the Smallest Mollusk Museum, can go almost anywhere, from hospital waiting rooms to community centers and malls, reaching people where they already are.

This is such a cool idea. It’s like a tiny bookmobile for mollusc science.

I’m going to start planning a tiny cabinet that might work in public outreach for human origins. I think this has a lot of promise.

Some thoughts on museums, new species descriptions, and collections

What is the value of museum collections? One way of looking at this value is to watch people who newly describe species based upon specimens from collections taken long in the past. Today’s broader knowledge of biological diversity has created opportunities for scientists to recognize and describe specimens that don’t fit within recognized species.

Natural history museums are in a difficult place right now. Their budgets are tight and rely heavily upon their work in public education and engagement. The research side of these museums is having more and more trouble retaining talent in a landscape where universities and research institutes are better-funded. The age of genomics has brought new scientific interest to many collections, but the highest-profile results often benefiting highly-funded external researchers who snap up the low-hanging fruit.

Jake Buehler in Gizmodo tells the story of a new description of a parasitic plant species in Japan, and draws broader implications for the value of museum collections: “Mysterious New Plant Discovered in Museum Collection Is Probably Already Extinct”

This propensity to show up briefly only to vanish without a trace is likely a consequence of fairy lanterns’ strange life-cycle. Since they don’t need to photosynthesise, they can lay dormant underground for years, only sending miniscule flowers to the surface when they’re in a reproductive mood.
The discovery of the new fairy lantern highlights the crucial role museum collections play in our understanding of Earth’s biodiversity. Wurdack noted that in the in the Smithsonian’s U.S. National Herbarium alone, “we have hundreds of new species awaiting scientific description and further research.”

I don’t have a quarrel with this idea. There is a value to scientific description and understanding, as a way to alert people to the loss of biodiversity and the need to protect habitats.

But collection is also by its nature an act of destruction. Could this little fairy lantern have been the last of its kind? I’m interested that genetics was not a part of this story, although more and more it will be. We need to step up our means of noninvasive documentation of all kinds, from incidental genomic sampling to photo and photogrammetric documentation.

Future biological museums will mostly be data repositories. Natural history museums were established as repositories for physical collections. But the science in the future will rely upon vastly more data than physical specimens. We are not preparing museum supporters well for the coming era.

Another reaction: It’s indisputably true that museums possess many undescribed species within their collections. Important paleontological specimens keep emerging from the massive, incompletely-prepared collections from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

That’s not a reason to praise these collections. All the undescribed specimens in these collections are the result of what today we would consider to have been near-indiscriminate destruction of sites.

In fortunate cases, the original collector recorded some contextual information, which is still associated with those specimens in the collections. Contextual information is often better for zoological and botanical specimens, mainly because living creatures were collected as complete bodies, skins, leaves, or skeletons, and the essential context is the collection location and time. The situation for paleontological and archaeological specimens is much worse, because excavation practices often did not result in any accurate idea of stratigraphic context. In many cases of both types, contextual information has been lost over time.

Sure, it’s a good thing that museums have stored these collections, often bringing them up to modern standards of curation that make such scientific description possible. Clever people can find some details of context even if original data are absent or poor. This scientific value is why we must maintain old physical collections and keep them as an intrinsic part of biology.

At the same time we must also redirect our scientific collections to integrate new models of data acquisition.

Obviously, a plot of forest that is about to be made into a parking lot is not the place to fret about leaving plant specimens in the field. My knowledge and concerns are more tuned toward paleontological cases, and as a paleoanthropologist I’m fortunate to work at sites that are either protected or have a strong potential to become protected because of their heritage value.

But that position gives us a broader responsibility. Paleoanthropologists should be at the leading edge of developing new and better ways of data collection, and finding ways to integrate those new approaches with old collections.

Thalamus in the spotlight

Knowable magazine, which covers research published in Annual Reviews journals, has a nice interview by writer Emily Underwod of Michael Halassa, an expert on the functional neuroscience of the thalamus: “A long-overlooked brain region may be key to complex thought”.

In the interview, Halassa emphasizes that the thalamus has often been assumed to function basically as a relay station between the senses and the cortex, based mainly on visual processing as a model for the rest:

What’s so interesting about primate vision and visual cognition is that when we interact with the world, we’re not just interacting with pixel intensities, we’re building internal representations of objects. That’s why you can categorize any cup you see, even if you've never actually seen that particular cup before, and it looks different from other cups. Neurons that can specifically recognize male or female faces, or respond only to a photo of Jennifer Aniston — all that exciting stuff happens in the cortex, which is part of the reason that the thalamus has been sort of shoved to the side.
But there are many other areas of the thalamus besides the LGN and other sensory areas that interact with the cortex, including areas involved in motor control and cognition. Now we are studying those too.

If you did purely imagine the thalamus as a relay station, that would not mean it was unlikely to be important to cognition. In the real-world telecommunications network, relays have to work fast and flawlessly. But to evolution, noise in a relay system is potentially a source of adaptive variation. A small change to the relay, like a slightly greater or lesser degree of crosstalk to one or another region, might often be a negative, but once in a great while might have an effect on cognition that enhanced survival or reproductive fitness. Even if the relay functions are strongly conserved among species, getting these connections slightly wrong would occasionally be useful in one or another lineage.

Humans, with a rapidly evolving brain and vastly larger cortex, might be just the lineage in which “wrong” connections might have a positive effect once in a while.

Nobel Wikipedia lapse points to the holes in science journalism

This story from Marina Koren in The Atlantic about new Nobel laureate Donna Strickland has an important message: “One Wikipedia Page Is a Metaphor for the Nobel Prize’s Record With Women”.

Unlike her fellow winners, Strickland did not have a Wikipedia page at the time of the announcement. A Wikipedia user tried to set up a page in May, but it was denied by a moderator with the message: “This submission’s references do not show that the subject qualifies for a Wikipedia article.” Strickland, it was determined, had not received enough dedicated coverage elsewhere on the internet to warrant a page.

As a science writer friend pointed out, this is a hole in science journalism. Here we have Nobel-Prize-winning work, and before the Prize was awarded this week, there were not enough stories to justify a page.

The vast majority of wonderful and important work in science will never win a Nobel. Far more good science, I’m sure, than there are writers who write about science. To have a Nobel-winning area that hasn’t been covered in depth by science writers since the 1980s is far from an unthinkable circumstance.

But clearly in this case the science press has had different priorities from physicists who judge the long-term significance of research. That means the public isn’t seeing the spectrum of highly-significant work. How many pages have been printed, and internet virtual ink spilled, on string theorists and untestable ideas? In the meantime, how much of the real empirical record of physics has gone unheralded by any journalists at all?

This is equally true in most fields of science, probably all of them. There are amazing, rich discoveries in human evolution that I think are really cool that don’t get the attention they should. I do what I can to bring attention to many of them, and I’ll keep on trying to do so.

Looking at linguistic echoes of extinct species

Priscilla Wehi and coworkers have a neat article in The Conversation describing a recent research paper that looked at traditional sayings in Māori, to try to understand whether they contain a trace of how the Māori ancestors interacted with bird species that the first encountered when reaching New Zealand: “Dead as the moa: oral traditions show that early Māori recognised extinction”.

It takes all kinds to study the past. Our team includes a conservation biologist, a linguist, a bioinformaticist and experts in Māori culture. Together, we delved into the wealth of ecological knowledge embedded in Māori oral traditions. We unpicked language cues, historical events and cultural contexts to understand habitats, animals, landscapes and the relationships between them.
Many whakataukī (pithy sayings like English proverbs) reveal intimate observations about nature. The link between flowering times and animal activity expose seasonal cycles. Whakataukī note the abundance of food resources.
Of those that refer to birds, a disproportionate number talk about moa. What they looked like. How they trampled through the forest with their heads in the air. How best to eat them.

This really is a fascinating concept, that the way that ancient people interacted with different species may be recorded in subtle ways by oral traditions. For those people who are curious about the stories of “ancients” in various parts of the world, this is the kind of linguistic research that might open a crack into unrecognized histories.

Remembering King Leopold's human zoo

National Public Radio (U.S.) has a story about one of the evils of Belgian colonization of the Congo: King Leopold brought hundreds of Congolese to Belgium to live in a mock African village for public display: “Where ‘Human Zoos’ Once Stood, A Belgian Museum Now Faces Its Colonial Past”.

The site near Tervuren is now part of the current grounds of the Royal Museum for Central Africa. As the story details, it wasn’t a one-off:

Fifty years later, Belgium built another mock African village at the 1958 Brussels world's fair. The Congolese who traveled to Belgium for the exposition thought it would be a cultural exchange, says Zana Etambala, a historian at the Royal Museum for Central Africa.
Instead, they found themselves standing behind a bamboo fence, on live display for Europeans, some of whom made monkey noises to get their attention.
"They were throwing bananas and peanuts to [the Congolese]," says Etambala, who grew up in Belgium and Congo. "And the Congolese protested against that. They wanted to be respected and not seen as animals in a zoo."

The Royal Museum today is undergoing a renovation that will bring some of the horrific stories of colonial abuses into the public displays.

The postmortem grandchild


The British couple’s only child, a son, had died suddenly in a motorcycle accident, at the young age of 26. Somehow, the son’s body wasn’t recovered for two full days.
But after the discovery of the body, his parents apparently jumped into action quickly; they had their son’s sperm extracted from his body. Once extracted, the parents began the process of trying to use the sperm to bring into the world their own grandchild. Oh boy.

With a donor egg and a surrogate, the couple now has a three-year-old biological grandchild. The linked article goes into the legal aspects, including the problem that this was all impossible in the U.K., where the couple lives, and so they brought their grandchild into the world in the U.S.

Engaging scientists from indigenous communities in genomic data

This is an important news article by Lizzie Wade in Science, covering the Summer Internship for Indigenous Peoples in Genomics: “To overcome decades of mistrust, a workshop aims to train Indigenous researchers to be their own genome experts”.

The internship is a program that provides training and information about genomic research for scientists who are members of indigenous groups around the world. The idea is to bridge the mistrust that has emerged from past interactions, where scientists took samples from communities without sharing anything back.

The article gives some background on the anthropological geneticist Ripan Malhi, who has helped to organize the program. I wanted to share this paragraph describing one of his early career experiences that epitomizes why such an effort is important.

[In Malhi's early career] he kicked off his effort with a lecture at a reservation in Northern California. It was the first time he had spoken with a Native American community, despite years of studying their genetics. Expecting to gather dozens of DNA samples, "I brought a bunch of cheek swabs with me," he recalls. But at the end of his talk on DNA variation and the importance of filling in sampling gaps, the room fell uncomfortably silent. "Then one person stood up and said, ‘Why should we trust you?’" Malhi remembers. "That's a formative memory. I had not learned about anthropologists going to communities, taking samples, and just leaving."
He got no samples that day.

As Kim TallBear, quoted in the article, puts it: “If you’re going to work with Indigenous communities collaboratively on genetics, you have to be willing to make lifelong relations”.

The point is, you cannot engage people as research subjects and then just disappear. The approach of scientists in the past to indigenous groups has been fundamentally exploitative: Scientists went to communities and got samples, then did analyses, published papers, and built careers, but provided no opportunity for research subjects to shape the research, and gave nothing of value back to the people who volunteered their time and genetic information.

Changing that bad history means making real collaborations in which the research subjects have agency and influence on the study design and research questions. I would add something not reflected in this article: Descendant communities should equally have the ability to influence the shape of research on DNA from ancient remains.

This is an article that has many observations and stories worth reading, and I plan to distribute it to my classes. I highly recommend it.

Upcoming lecture: Michigan State University

For readers and friends in the Lansing area, I’ll be giving a lecture at Michigan State University on Thursday, October 4.. The talk is in the International Center room 115, at 2:15 pm.

Here’s a promo:

Hybrids and Ghosts: How ancient DNA and new fossils are changing the science of human origins.

John Hawks is delivering a lecture on Ancient DNA & Human Origins. The rapidly changing field of ancient DNA has settled into a kind of normal science, as several teams of researchers have coalesced around a set of approaches to discover the genetic relationships among ancient peoples.

I’ll be talking about Neandertals, Denisovans, and various signatures of other ancestral human populations, as well as the increasingly complex fossil record.