An interview with Anne Weaver

I was surprised and delighted last week, when I got in the mail a copy of the new book, The Voyage of the Beetle.

It's what my daughter Sophie would call a "chapter book" -- a reimagining of Charles Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle as seen through the eyes of a beetle named Rosie. It starts with the real story of Darwin popping a beetle in his mouth, and proceeds along with his journeys and discoveries. Anyway, Sophie made off with it, so I guess Amazon's suggestion that the book's reading level is 9-12 years can extend to a bright 7-year-old.

The best treat is that the author, Anne Weaver, is an anthropologist! She's now working as a full-time writer in Santa Fe. She took her Ph.D. from the University of New Mexico and previously taught at Santa Fe Community College. Anne graciously agreed to answer some questions about her book and her earlier work on human brain evolution.

Hawks: Your new book, Voyage of the Beetle, was a lot of fun for me to read. Could you describe it a bit for readers, and let us know how you got the idea?

Weaver: I'm so glad you liked the Beetle! It was fun to write, too. The book was inspired by Charles Darwin's own account of his seminal five-year voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle. I loved Darwin's youthful enthusiasm, his unbounded curiosity, and his lively descriptions. I wanted to introduce a wider audience to this appealing character whose ideas changed the way we think about life on earth.

The Voyage of the Beetle is narrated by a rose-chafer beetle named Rosie. It's written as a search for the "Mystery of Mysteries," the question of species origins. Rosie uses encounters with the natural world -- based on descriptions in The Voyage of the Beagle -- to provide clues to the mystery. She writes the clues in beetle tracks in Darwin's journal while he is sleeping. The reader is invited to come up with a solution before Charles does.

The book is intended to work for readers at many levels. It unfolds as an adventure story, with humor and anecdotes to appeal to younger readers. There is a wide cast of Rosie's cousins who discuss adaptation, variation, and ecology in accessible language. At the same time, every chapter opens with Darwin's own words, and the elements of natural selection theory are presented "straight up." We've also put up a web site (http://www.voyageofthebeetle.com), where we're starting to develop classroom activities and provide a forum for questions ("Ask Rosie").

Hawks: What has been the reception for the book so far?

Weaver: George Lawrence, the Beetle's gifted illustrator, and I have been delighted with its reception so far. The responses have been very positive, from a local reviewer who called the Rosie character "riveting," to little kids we've met at book signings, to junior high and high school biology teachers who are delighted to find engaging materials on evolution for their classrooms. We also got a nice write-up in the Books section of Science News, and we're looking forward to a review by the National Center for Science Education early next year.

Hawks: I'm often asked by students what kinds of career possibilities follow with a degree in anthropology. And a surprising number of my colleagues and students have turned out to be writers. What got you started writing?

Weaver: My writing is a direct outgrowth of teaching. I taught at Santa Fe Community College practically from the first day I got my M.S. until very recently. From the beginning I was fascinated by the challenge of communicating complex material in an exciting and lucid way. And writing is an extension of that challenge. The great thing about being published is that all your hard work doesn't just vanish into the ether the way it does after a lecture. The downside is you don't get that magical live interaction that happens when a class is really cooking. Though if your recent posts are any example, John, blogging can be very rewarding in that respect.

Hawks: How do you see it working out? Do you have another project in the works?

Weaver: George and I have a second book under contract with UNM Press, called Children of Time. It's a unique series of stories that take the reader into the world of early hominids from the viewpoint of child fossils (the Taung child, OH 7, the Turkana boy, a Neandertal infant from Amud, the Dolni Vestonice teenagers.) Obviously this is a work of imagination, but I've been scrupulous about reconstructing credible situations and environments from the literature to bring the fossils to life in an authentic way. We're very excited about this book. The text is complete and has gone through review, and George has about one-third of the illustrations done. They are beautiful, even more evocative than the ones in the Beetle. They're poignant and vibrant and as accurate as he can make them as far as facial reconstructions and postcranial proportions go.

I'm also working on a historical mystery set in 1878 in a Colorado, using the genre format to explore the excitement of creating communities in the wilderness, the complexities of cross-cultural encounters, and the implacability of historical forces.

Hawks: Any advice for students?

Weaver: I've long been inspired a quote attributed to Goethe: "Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. In boldness lies genius, power and magic."

...And stick with anthropology. It won't make you rich, and it is in fact hard to find a full-time job in the field, especially when higher education is relying more and more on adjuncts, but it's the most interesting subject in the world, and it opens a thousand doorways into new insights.

...And if you're an undergraduate, especially a freshman, find ways to make the material you're studying your own: make a chart, draw a picture, rewrite in your own words, explain what you're trying to learn to someone else. Learning involves changing the physical properties of your brain. Most things worth learning, most complex and interesting things, don't get into your brain just by reading, or passively listening to a lecture.

...And if you're going for a Ph.D., there comes a point where it's not about how smart you are. It's about never giving up. Remember, in the end, there are only two kinds of dissertations: Done. And Not Done.

Hawks: Some of my readers remember your work on human brain evolution, in particular, the pattern of evolution of the cerebellum compared to the rest of the brain. I find myself looking your 2005 PNAS paper a lot, because like much of Ralph Holloway's work it shows that brain reorganization has been a major aspect of our evolution. How did that work come about?

Weaver: I've been thinking about it, too, especially in the context of your recently published paper. (Congratulations!!!) My work provides support for the hypothesis that the human brain continued to evolve after 30,000 years ago. It also suggests that an element of that evolution involved a reduction in the relative size of the neocortex and an absolute and relative increase in cerebellar volume. Surprisingly, it looks like the neocortex of recent humans is actually smaller in proportion to the rest of the brain than it was in either Neandertals or early modern humans.

Since the PNAS paper was published, I have become interested in the concept of "distributed cognition" as the selective context for continued brain evolution. My hypothesis is that cerebellar algorithms enable contemporary humans to manage the massive information available in complex cultures more efficiently. I'm also intrigued by the fact that the cerebellum is in a computational loop with the dorso-lateral prefrontal cortex, the last cortical region to reach adult proportions, in late adolescence (Giedd 2004). Maturation of the dorso-lateral prefrontal correlates with Piaget's terminal stage of cognitive development, which he called "formal operational" thinking, along with other behaviors associated with impulse control, planning and problem solving -- all survival skills in contemporary human societies.

The original impetus for the cerebellum research came from the same motivation that attracts me to historical/prehistorical fiction. I started out wanting to know how our ancestors thought, how they interacted, how they perceived the world, how it felt to "be there". Which meant looking at their brains. Which led me to Ralph Holloway.

Ralph once said that an endocast resembles a baked potato. Even so, through his meticulous work over the past forty or more years, he has managed to squeeze a few drops of blood from those stones. His work was particularly inspiring to me because from his earliest writings Ralph de-emphasized the frontal lobes and went beyond what John Searle called "cortical chauvinism."

Then I read Leiner, Leiner and Dow's 1986 paper, "Does the cerebellum contribute to mental skills?" the same summer I took gross anatomy at UNM Medical School as part of my Ph.D. requirements. Leiner et al. wrote about the possible contribution of the cerebellum to a broad range of cognitive tasks. Since then, a huge volume of literature has addressed the cerebellum's role in cognition.

Unlike most other functional regions of the brain, the cerebellum occupies a discrete compartment in the endocranium, the posterior cranial fossa, which is measurable in an endocast. I did a little pilot analysis using rudimentary linear measurements (e.g. from Kochetkova 1978). It looked like there might be significant variation in relative cerebellar size among fossil hominids. So I wrote to Ralph, and he invited me to his Paleoneurology Lab at Columbia.

Ralph and his students, especially the gracious and generous Michael Yuan, were very supportive of my work and sanguine about my prolonged intrusion with a monster digital scanner.

Hawks: Do you have some scientific projects you're working on, or are you full-time writing?

Weaver: I am writing a lot, as well as volunteering with local organizations dedicated to improving science education in our schools. I am also hoping my new web site (http://www.voyageofthebeetle.com) will evolve into a substantial resource for teachers, with classroom activities as well as an "Ask Rosie" e-mail feature.

Hawks: You were a student of Erik Trinkaus and Joseph Powell at the University New Mexico in Albuquerque. What was that like? Any stories you can relate about your training?

Weaver: I had an opportunity to begin graduate school as a "non-traditional" student when I was in my forties. It was a stroke of fortune that my first class was with Erik Trinkaus. I still remember the "Wow" moment when he talked about how you could look at the shape of a bone and extrapolate its function. Erik's knowledge, his academic integrity, his intellectual creativity, and his rigorous insistence on sticking to the evidence bowled me over. They still do. It was a transformative encounter.

When Erik left UNM for Washington University, Joe Powell agreed to be my committee co-chair. Joe is a skilled statistician, which was a great help. And though he was battling a severe illness at the time he was my advisor, he was very supportive.

Lawrence Straus was my third mentor and committee member at UNM. I loved taking his classes. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of the European Paleolithic. Lawrence has long emphasized the cultural continuity between the Middle and Upper Paleolithic and de-emphasized the idea of an Upper Paleolithic "explosion." His perspective on the archeology gave an important context to my neurocognitive analysis. And I appreciated his generosity in including me in field work at the magnificent El Miron Cave, near Santander in northern Spain one summer.

References:

Giedd JN. 2004. Structural Magnetic Resonance Imaging of the Adolescent Brain . Ann NY Acad Sci 1021:77-85. doi:10.1196/annals.1308.009

Leiner HC, Leiner AL, Dow RS. 1986. Does the cerebellum contribute to mental skills? Behavioral Neuroscience 100:443-454.

Kotchetkova VI. 1978. Paleoneurology. Halsted Press, New York.