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Erroneous Notions of Race and Human Biology

The latest discussions of anthropology in the New York Times has spurred conversation amongst AAA members. Below is a letter to the editor by AAA member, Agustín Fuentes in response to Nicolas Wade’s recent article.

Dear Editor,

Nicolas Wade’s article of Feb. 14th, 2013, presents erroneous notions of race and human biology. Wade distorts the findings of two studies on human genetic variation by couching the research in racialized terms not used by the scientists themselves. One of the studies proposes possible explanations for a genetic variant common in North-east Asian Han peoples (via human genes inserted into mice) and the other looks at patterns of genetic variation across 179 people from Nigeria, Utah, Beijing and Tokyo. Humans vary in complex and important ways, but Wade’s categories of “East Asian,” “African,” and “European” are not biologically valid groups. His assertions of what the two studies tell us ignore abundant genomic, morphological and physiological data and act to reinforce public misunderstandings of science. I urge the readership of the New York Times not to accept the myths offered by Wade, but rather to seek out what we actually know about human biology and evolution for themselves.

Agustín Fuentes
Professor, Department of Anthropology
University of Notre Dame

Indiana Jones is to Anthropology as Fred Flintstone is to Neolithic Life

Below is a copy of the Letter to the Editor of the New York Times Magazine by President Mullings in response to the recent article by Emily Eakin.

To the Editor,

While we recognize that the figure of Indiana Jones is attractive, it is about as useful for understanding anthropology as Fred Flintstone is for understanding life in the Neolithic. Your article perpetuates an outdated and narrow stereotype of our profession. The 11,000 members of the American Anthropological Association alone actually spend their time doing a vast array of things. Today’s anthropologists can be found in such diverse endeavors as leading the World Bank, designing health care for areas devastated by disaster, or researching  the causes of the 2008 recession or the deaths of 100 boys in a defunct reform school in Florida. The  representation of a field paralyzed by  debates about  ‘science, ’ vs. ‘advocacy ’ is similarly inaccurate, given the non-polarized ways most anthropologists today understand ‘science’, ‘advocacy’ and the nature of the field. The article also misses one of Napoleon Chagnon’s lasting legacies to our field: the reminder to engage in constant reflection about anthropological ethics. The American Anthropological Association recently did just that, releasing its new Statement on Ethics: Principles of Professional Responsibility in October 2012. Finally, we consider lively debate neither dangerous nor self-serving: it is a key to knowledge.

Leith Mullings
American Anthropological Association
Distinguished Professor
Graduate Center, City University of New York

Surprising Prevelance of Autism in South Korea

AAA member, Roy Richard Grinker is making global headlines as senior author for a study unveiled this week on autism. The study, a collaborative effort by Yale Child Study Center and George Washington University and to be featured in The American Journal of Psychiatry, sought to gauge the rate of childhood autism in a middle-class city in South Korea. The rate within the community studied indicated that 2.6 percent of all children aged 7-12 years old were diagnosed with autism.

“South Korea was chosen not only because autism prevalence had not been measured there, but also because its national health care system, universal education and homogeneous population made it a promising region for a planned series of studies that will also look at genetic and environmental factors in autism,” said New York Times reporter, Claudia Wallis.

CNN reported Grinker’s response to the study as surprising but not alarming. Grinker believes the study’s estimate reveal that “autism is more common than we think it is.”

Nature.com interviewed Dr. Grinker on their news blog to gain an insight on the study. Aside from discussing the take home message of the study, blogger Meredith Wadman asks:

It seems that by definition, if you were largely in schools that are not for special needs or intellectually impaired kids, that you must have been discovering milder cases on the autism spectrum. Wouldn’t it be hard for a profoundly affected child to pass in a mainstream school?
In the US we are so sensitized to picking up special needs and providing services. But not every country in the world does that. Depending on the state, 10-15% of American kids are getting some special education services. That number is less than 1% in South Korea. So of course you are going to find those kids in mainstream school environments. Sixteen percent of the kids that were in the mainstream schools that we diagnosed had some degree of mental retardation. Also there were certainly children that I saw in schools that had significant impairments. But South Korea has a pretty strong mandate for inclusion, legally. They have laws in place for inclusion. Unfortunately that inclusion does not come along with a lot of services. Some kids can get by and adapt to the situation.

Visit the links below for additional details of this study and media coverage:
Autism Speaks
NBC Today Show
National Public Radio
New York Times

Looking for more information on autism? Check out the Ethos issue on Rethinking Autism, Rethinking Anthropology.

Are you an AAA making headlines? Let us know! We feature newsmakers on the AAA Members in the News webpage.

AAA Member’s Study Makes Global Headlines

courtesy of the UK Daily Mail

AAA member, Dr. Alexandra Brewis and her colleagues recently completed a multi-country study with the intention of providing a snapshot of weight and body image.

The study abstract outlines the objectives, tools used and the results:

Using cultural surveys and body mass estimates collected from 680 adults from urban areas in 10 countries and territories, we test for cultural variation in how people conceptualize and stigmatize excess weight and obesity. Using consensus analysis of belief states about obese and fat bodies, we find evidence of a shared model of obesity that transcends populations and includes traditionally fat-positive societies.

Media coverage of the study spans the globe. From the major news outlets around the globe to local newspapers and television stations right here in the United States, people are weighing in on their own perception and their cultural perception of weight and body image.

Here’s a round-up of just a few of the media stories:
New York Times
UK Daily Mail
Times Of India
International Business Times

The study even made mention on NBC’s Saturday Night Live (study segment starts at 38:35 in the linked video).

Are you an AAA member in the headlines? Let AAA know! We feature our members in the news on the AAA website. E-mail Joslyn with your news stories.

Discovery of Stone Tools Suggest Early Escape

Courtesy of The New York Times/Science/AAAS

The discovery of stone tools, made by modern humans suggest that they escaped their ancestral homelands much earlier than originally suspected. The tools were discovered from an archaeological site called Jebel Faya in today’s United Arab Emirates.  AAA member and palaeontologist at the Natural Museum of London, Christopher Stringer speaks with the New York Times about this discovery and the questions it further raises about the movement of the modern humans outside of the Africa. Read more in the complete article written by journalist Nicholas Wade.

Life Span of Early Man Same as Neanderthals’

Erik Trinkaus, AAA member and anthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis found that the longevity in early modern humans and in Neanderthals was about the same in his study featured in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study suggests that long life was not what helped the population of early modern human increase.

Trinkaus, quoted in an article of the same title by New York Times reporter Sindya Bhanoo, remarks “There must have been something else happening because the populations of early modern humans were expanding,” he said. “The last Neanderthal we know of lived about 40,000 years ago.” To read the complete article, click here.


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