Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Saving "Africa"

Recently, there has been a lot of work coming out of various multilateral and bilateral organizations (WHO, WorldBank, IMF, etc) about how effective aid really is. If you think about it, you hear a lot on the news and other forms of media about "saving Africa" or "the AIDS epidemic," or "the energy crisis." What do any of these terms really mean? I can tell you right now - they don't really mean anything. What is "Africa"? What specifically do we mean when we say "energy crisis"? These terms are far too general, which brings me to a point that Dr. Mark Padilla, a professor of public health and anthropology has raised in much of his work - the all-around lack of institutional ethnography. I think many of my peers view ethnography as a bunch of "just so" stories, or one person's opinion of something, or worse yet, not "scientific" enough. To these people, first of all, I ask how "scientific" is science? Not science as an idealistic pursuit of "Truth" (yes, with a capital T, I am going there) but science as it is practiced, in reality, in the so-called "social sciences." Even in the "hard sciences," for that matter. These terms are a couple more that don't mean much, but that's a whole other issue.

To prevent myself from ranting too much, I will stick to my point. Institutional ethnography is the reflection of either members of an institution or of outsiders on many facets of the "institution" itself. What type of ideology does it propagate? How are its members socialized? What does it do, as compared to what it "says" it will do (i. e. mission statements, and so forth)? Why is any of this important? Well, if you take a look at aid organizations, it becomes very relevant. First of all, consider the strain on our local and the global economy, and it is very clear that foreign aid is going to be cut drastically. In an article by Jeffrey Sachs, entitled "How Aid Can Work," he notes that we are spending $550 billion on the military EACH YEAR, compared with just $4 billion on aid to Africa. And that was without this impending recession. Imagine now how that will suffer, just as one example of what will be cut...but I'm willing to bet that if John McCain is elected into office, that $550 billion will not go down, it will go up. It seems there is a problem here that is typical for our country, where we do not act preventively, instead, we act responsively. I do not think that the military is unnecessary, but I do think our willingness to ignore problematic situations, then employ the military as a response IS unnecessary and not just that - it's scary. We have to re-evaluate the way we view our relationship with other countries in the world, and one way to do so is to overhaul the way we think of "aid" and the way that public and private organizations, as well as the government, dispenses it.

There have been an endless number of campaigns to "fix" an endless number of problems. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, IMF, the World Bank, these are just a couple examples of different types of aid organizations. But what do these organizations do? In a recent report from the UK Food Group, entitled "More Aid for African Agriculture,"  discusses a specific issue - but at the same time, is problematic. "African Agriculture" is not a good source for aid. What we need is specific regional focus to aid attempts, and this becomes very clear from the problems outlined in this report (which I highly recommend taking a look at, if you have the time). But donors do not want to hear that - aid organizations do not necessarily want to hear that. It is far more complicated to tackle all of the specific issues of each region (that's not each country, but each REGION), given a highly variable set of political, cultural, environmental, and social factors which will NECESSARILY lead to different outcomes when one unitary aid policy or donation fund is utilized. Another thing donors (or governments, for that matter) do not want to hear is that the problems which are most pressing are perhaps those that (1) cannot be solved by more money or, and maybe what is more accurate is, (2) that these problems do not have easy, tangible goals which can be written up into a grant proposal and funded in such a way that there is a clear end point to the "project." Because it's not just a project, it's people's lives.

The thing is, as this article and many others like it reflect, this is extremely complicated. It is much harder to provide tangible goals when you decide to look at a place region by region and have to figure out not only what is going to work for that region, but also how to get different regions to come together, which becomes necessary when they are under the leadership of a single government. I can think of similar examples in public health - not to go on a tangent, but just to provide an example of something I am a little more familiar with. For instance, let's say there is a certain disease (e. g. malaria) affecting a region. It would be a very tangible, fundable goal to try to provide medication for X number of people. But does giving people pills really solve the problem? Will it really decrease the number of malaria cases? Maybe. But maybe not. What is really necessary is something called "upstream" thinking, where you look further up the "stream" to see what is causing the more micro-level problems downstream. Perhaps there are certain environmental factors leading to a higher prevalence of malaria, or problems in how aid reaches individual people. Of course, it is likely a combination of both and even more factors, and how exactly do you propose to fund that in a grant proposal? It is hard. So thinking about the examples from this article, I think that improved governance and African ownership are really important because they directly affect how effective any aid-based programs are. People really have to care, believe what they are doing is going to effectively change their current situation, and have governance that respects them (and which they respect) in order for any sort of change to occur. I realize this is a generalized statement and I haven't hit on too many particulars in the article, but the problem here is not in simply not acknowledging particulars but in the entire way we think about and view aid to "Africa," or anywhere. Or any project, any goal, any population. 

When considering the importance of anthropological work to solving these types of global problems, the lack of institutional ethnography thus is actually pretty important. We need to reflect on how these institutions - from the WHO to the World Bank to USAID, etc. - are structured, what they are doing vs. what they say they will do, and what types of ideology they are propagating. Why are they advocating certain positions, and what are their interests? While these questions may seem obvious, there is surprisingly little work done on institutions in this manner. The organizations themselves, also need to allow for self-reflectivity, and I think that for instance, in bilateral organizations, the local governing body or ministry has to pose questions to the organization that may be administering the aid. And vice versa. This is kind of a theoretical point, but I think it is so important to really evoking any change. This is how aid effectiveness can be improved - by looking at the existing structures of power, how they serve those IN power, and how this can be changed.

I guess the point of all of this is the result of a lot of self-reflectivity over the course of the past year. It is easy for so-called "hard scientists" to place themselves on some moral high ground, and look down on "social scientists" with contempt. But think about it this way.  Take what a lot of aid organizations have been saying about the need for vast changes in agriculture in Africa. There have been a lot of advances in organic agriculture (as discussed in particular in the Badgley 2007 article I will cite at the end of this), and that's great. So these might be called "scientific,"  or "technological" advances. But has the development of such scientific strategies actually changed a whole lot about, say, the way agriculture is done in Malawi or Mali? The link here is not just that, oh the technology has not "reached" these areas. It is more than that. What technology is specifically being considered, and how can external technology be effectively used in conjunction with existing local structures…or can it? What are local technologies? I think in this literature, there tends to be perhaps an ignorance of local technology and how it may be possible to combine local technologies/ideas with external ones.

Badgley, C. et al. (2007). "Organic agriculture and the global food supply." Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems: 22(2); 86–108.

Sachs, J. (2007). “How Aid Can Work.” NY Review of Books. (review of Easterly’s White Man’s Burden)

UK Food Group. "More Aid For African Agriculture."

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Old bones, new methods

A paper has come out that examines dinosaurs' sense of smell by using computed tomography (CT) to measure the size of the relative size of dinosaurs' olfactory bulbs, part of the brain that deals with the sense of smell. This is one example of the really interesting paleontological questions that can be addressed with modern imaging techniques (hint into my NSF proposal...).

The olfactory bulb is a part of the brain that deals with smell. Quite simply, the larger the olfactory bulb, the greater an organism's reliance upon smelling. As a group, primates rely less on scent than many other mammals, and so their olfactory bulbs are relatively small. Humans have a greatly reduced bulb compared to other primates. Prosimians, the most primitive primates, have much larger bulbs than other primates. Thus, scent plays a larger role for their ecology, possibly due to the fact that many are nocturnal (there's less light at night, but smells always abound).

This dinosaur study used this logic to infer that Tyrannosaurus rex (probably the 'sexiest,' most over hyped dinosaur ever) had a very strong sense of smell. This has important implications about T. rex--was it nocturnal (like all those scenes in Jurassic Park...)? Did scent play an important social role (like modern scent-marking mammals including prosimians)?

Also cool was how the team examined olfactory bulb and brain size. The importance of an scent can be inferred based on an animal's olfactory bulb size relative to the size of the entire brain. The study used endocasts (naturally preserved impressions of surfaces) of brains and CT scans of skulls to estimate these sizes. This illustrates the usefulness of computed tomography in paleontology. It can be difficult to study certain aspects of fossils non-invasively. By CT scanning a fossil, a digital 3D image of it is created, and this allows researchers to examine all the surfaces (including interior) of the bone, with much better accuracy and resolution than X-rays. In this way, researchers can create 'virtual' endocasts, among other things. CT scanning also makes bone (and other material) of different densities distinguishable, so that fossil teeth and the insides of bones can be examined without having to damage them.

CT data are becoming very important not just in medical imaging, but also biological anthropology (Dana knows lots!). Many anthropologists, including the team I met in Vienna this summer, are using CT data to reconstruct fragmentary fossils, uncover tooth shapes in fossil hominins, study brain evolution with 'virtual' endocasts, and many other things. This is a very exciting time for anthropology and paleontology, as modern medical imaging techniques have made it possible to address (and ask) research questions that were not possible in the past. In fact, my current NSF graduate research fellowship proposal is seeks to develop a new method for studying cranial variation using CT scans. If I get it (fingers crossed), I'll keep you all updated with how the research goes. Here's hoping!

Zelinitsky D, Therrien T and Koboyashi Y. Olfactory acuity in theropods: paleobiological and evolutionary implications. Proceedings of the Royal Academy B. Corrected proof, in press.

Monday, October 27, 2008

coming soon: kristen talks

Hello everyone,

Once the NSF is submitted, I promise a post about the importance of anthropology and energy policy. Hopefully this interests someone, as it affects all of us.

- kmunn

Sunday, October 26, 2008

New colors!

Zach changed the color scheme! It looks nice! I like it!

(is it obvious that it's NSF time - and no one has anything academic to say right now?)

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Bonobo hunting and Early Homo in Asia

Lots of news in biological anthropology lately.

Paniscus's palate for primates
Much buzz in the past few days has stemmed from recently published observations of bonobos (Pan paniscus) hunting other primates (Surbeck and Hohmann 2008). It is not news that bonobos actively acquire and eat vertebrates. But they've never been observed to hunt and eat other primates, as is very common in their 'common' chimpanzee cousin (P. troglodytes).

This should not be too big of a surprise, considering that P. troglodytes hunts primates fairly often. The authors of the paper opine that this is the first evidence for bonobo primate-hunting simply because they are not as well-studied as chimpanzees, which is perfectly logical.

So what can we take from bonobo-primate hunting? As it stands I think it is probably completely irrelevant for discussing human hunting behavior. First, whereas humans and Pan separated several million years ago, the two Pan species have been diverged for ~1.2 Ma (based on genetic data, no fossils...), so the primate-hunting seen in Pan might have arisen after the Pan-human split. Furthermore, to my knowledge humans' hunting is quite different from that of Pan. Human hunting is more efficient in terms of energy expenditure and intake. Arguably human hunting is more dietary, whereas Pan's has been argued to be more of a social thing. My point is that I don't think hunting here can necessarily be looked at from an evolutionary perspective--as though hunting in humans and Pan is homologous (due to common ancestry).

I think the social implications of this paper are, however, very interesting. In chimpanzee hunting, males are the hunters. In the observed instances of bonobo hunting, females were actively involved, and successful in hunting. Could this be related to the relative female dominance in P. paniscus, compared to the male-dominated P. troglodytes society? Interesting...

Early Homo in the House of the Rising Sun

Journal of Human Evolution has also presented some interesting papers recently. Most recently, the earliest evidence of Homo in Asia has been estimated at 1.7 Ma (Zhu et al., in press). Incisors and stone tools of early Homo from Yuanmou Basin in China were dated to 1.7 Ma by the paleomagentism. Earth's magnetic polarity reverses every now and again, and this signature of polarity of reversal is recorded in particle orientations of many types of rocks. The sequence of polarity reversals in geological deposits at sites that can't be radiometrically dated (i.e. Yuanmou Basin) can be compared to sequences from radiometrically-dated sites, as a way to estimate the absolute age. How nice of the Earth to give us such handy clues! So Homo in China, Dmanisi (W. Asia), and probably southeast Asia shortly after 2 Ma. Early Homo just booked it out of Africa--couldn't take the heat, I guess.

There are other things, but I'll have to get to them later--time to get to class. Also I spilled coffee on my computer a week ago, so it's in the shop. That means that I don't have access to my Endnote, so citing is a pain in the buttocks. Here's a pathetic, rushed attempt at citation:

Surbeck M and Hohmann G. 2008. Primate hunting by bonobos at LuiKotale, Salonga National Park. Current Biology 18: R906-907.

Zhu RX, et al. Early evidence of the genus Homo in East Asia. Journal of Human Evolution, in press.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Guest Post: Jerry and Julie Jive

"Good news, everyone!" to quote Prof. Farnsworth. Our good friends Jerry DeSilva and Julie Lesnik just published a paper in the Journal of Human Evolution, about neonatal brain size in primates [1]. Rather than talk and talk about it, probably missing the important stuff, I made some calls. The authors were kind enough to make a cameo appearance at Lawn Chair to talk about their paper about their paper. Thanks, Jerry and Julie! Here's what they had to say:


This paper presents a regression equation that can be used to calculate the size of the brain at birth in different hominin species.


Knowing the size of the brain at birth is critical for understanding obstetric constraints and brain development throughout human evolution. Unfortunately, it is very unlikely to find fossil evidence of how big the brain was at birth in human ancestors (though see below). This paper presents a way to get around the absence of fossil evidence and calculate the size of the neonatal brain in early homs using what we know about brain development in modern primates.

Things Jerry liked about the paper:

Humans are so unusual, and in biological anthropology we often study ways in which humans are different from other primates. However, what this study finds is that humans are no different from other primates in terms of the adult/neonatal brain scaling relationship. This means that we have exactly the brain size at birth expected given the size of our brains as adults. Because of this, we can infer that our extinct ancestors and relatives also followed this 'rule' of adult/neonatal brain size, and can calculate the size of the brain at birth from reliable estimates of brain size in 89 adult fossil crania that have been unearthed.

I am also thrilled that Julie and I may have solved the "% brain size at birth" issue that has been all over the literature lately. Did Homo erectus have a more human-like or a more chimpanzee-like pattern of brain growth? What about australopiths? Well, we've found that the whole issue of % brain size at birth is simply a function of the scaling relationship between adult and neonatal brain size. Because they do not scale 1:1, but instead scale 1:0.73 (roughly), as the adult brain gets bigger, the neonatal brain gets proportionately smaller. Therefore, less of brain growth occurs in the womb as overall adult brain size increases. If you know the size of a hominin brain as an adult (which we do from the many preserved fossil crania), you can calculate the size of the brain as a baby, and then easily take a % of how much of that brain growth is achieved by birth.

Again, because of the negative allometry (m=0.73), we argue that % of brain size at birth in hominins was never "chimpanzee-like" or "human-like", but instead followed a gradual progression from a chimpanzee-like ancestral condition to what we have today.

Things Julie liked about the paper:

So much is going on when we think about hominid evolution, especially in the early Pleistocene. With the emergence of Homo brain size is increasing, bipedality is becoming more efficient, and tool use is becoming more advanced. What I like about this paper is that understanding neonatal brain size is one way of tying all of those elements together. Humans are considered to be secondarily altricial meaning that they are born in a more underdeveloped state than their ancestors. Selection for this smaller neonatal size is often considered to be linked to the constraints placed on the pelvis by selection for more efficient bipedal locomotion. A small brain size at birth and a large adult brain always seemed exceptional for Homo. What our paper shows is that the relationship is entirely normal across anthropoids. So, where is the selective pressure? On the larger brain as an adult or on the smaller brain as a newborn? I am now more apt to lean towards larger adult brain. Efficient bipedality is important for exactly that reason; it’s efficient and therefore requires less energy to walk upright and allows the body to allot that energy to other tasks, such as maintenance of a large brain. Add tool-use advancement to the equation and it seems bigger brains and more advanced cognitive abilities were of primary importance at this stage of human evolution.

What we’d do different:

I would have included Neandertals. Julie and I made a statement in the introduction that the discovery of neonatal crania was bordering on impossible. Just days before our paper appeared on-line, however, Marcia Ponce de Leon published a fantastic paper in PNAS on a neonatal Neandertal cranium from Mezmaiskaya Cave in Russia [2]. What is very exciting to me is that this newly described fossil allows us to test our regression equation. How accurate is it in predicting the size of the brain at birth in Neandertals (which we now know because of this new specimen)? Our regression would predict a brain size of about 425 cc, which is very close to the size of the brain at birth in the Mezmaiskaya infant and well within the 95% CI. When two independent methods arrive at the same result, it is reasonable to argue that the method is valid.


1. DeSilva J, and Lesnik J. 2008. Brain size at birth throughout human evolution: a new method for estimating neonatal brain size in hominins. Journal of Human Evolution, corrected proof in press.

2. Ponce de Leon M, Golovanova L, Doronichev V, Ramanova G, Akazawa T, Kondo O, Ishima H, and Zollikofer C. 2008. Neanderthal brain size at birth provides insights into the evolution of human life history. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 105: 13764-13768