Annalisa is a blogging archaeologist and artist living in Alaska. This is a reblog of her SAA poster from this year. Check out her Tumblr which contains many good archaeology bits as well as other interests from her life.
I feel we are in a constant struggle with BAD journalism… from the local paper to Smithsonian Magazine to the History Channel, we constantly fight to print real information. Catch phrases, bad researchers, political lobbyists and other liars confuse the public and create a strange mythology about our past. A small handful of “regulars” haunt the media with agendas having little or nothing to do with science. I’m glad not to be the only one to notice the escalation of poorly written stories in the press. Below is a lengthy excerpt from the Science 2.0 website:
By Oliver Knevitt | April 17th 2013 01:59 AM
Evolution is misunderstood by millions. And, it has to be said, a lot of the time, this problem isn’t helped by the way things are reported on the TV or in the news.
These are the 5 most common terms that, when I hear them used, I die a little. Though their effect is subtle, all of these terms perpetrate common myths about the way evolution works. The sooner they become extinct, the better!
1. Survival of the Fittest
Now, this term is something that often gets used synonymously with natural selection. In fact, it wasn’t actually coined by Darwin himself; it was first used by Herbert Spencer, though Darwin later came to use it extensively.
The problem with the phrase “survival of the fittest”, in my view, is that it rather misrepresents the way that selection really works. This is because it isn’t really the survival of the fittest organism that drives evolution. It’s the death of the least fit organism.
I can see how “survival of the fittest” appealed to victorian sensibilities! Instead of implying a brutal, red-in-tooth-and-claw vision of nature, it implies a striving towards self improvement. Which is, it has to be said, appealing. Unfortunately, it’s neither borne out by theory nor facts.
2. Living fossil
This is another very appealing term. Below was the best example I could find after a quick rifle through the drawers here in Leicester. It is a maple leaf next to a modernish mapleish leaf (sycamore).
It’s so appealing because for some so called living fossils really look like just that: like a sorcerer has breathed life into an inanimate fossil. Or that the fossil animal has been there all along, biding its time.
However, it just doesn’t reflect reality. No organism can survive without adapting. Yes, it may well be that their body form seems relatively conservative, but then, it is likely there is a lot of change that we may have missed.
I think it’s very improbable that the same environment would be around for hundreds of millions of years, and even more improbable that the same organism would be able to stay on top of the game for that long. Instead, these organisms have necessarily had to flexible; ready to adapt to the tumultuous changes in the environment over the aeons.
Richard Fortey advocates the term “survivors” instead; a much more preferable term. These animals are simply very, very successful, and are not some sort of dinosaur.
3. Missing link
This is undoubtedly the worst term in general use. There are many, many fundamental problems with this term, as I’ve written about before, but one the main problems is that a link implies a chain; a great chain of being, with the dumber animals at the bottom and clever man at the top.
Yet, there is a much deeper reason why I’d like this term to be dead and buried. It is entirely perjorative. It is only used by those wishing to deinigrate evolution. It automatically implies that we are involved in some sort of gigantic join-the-dots puzzle; that we spend our time desperately poring through rocks trying to find that one elusive crocoduck that will fill in our tree and finally legitimize our ill-conceived agenda.
The reality is that, if anything, it’s the other way round. We have far too many fossils and which ones are closer to the ancestral line and which are further is the tricky bit.
This is the one term that I am willing to issue a full, North Korea style, gagging order on. The main reason is that media reporting is obsessed with this idea. What we’re interested in is uncovering the history of life on Earth and understanding how evolution works. We’re not simply trying to prove that it happened.
In summary, we are not missing anything, and we’re not looking, thank you very much.
4. More evolved/less evolved
I have to say that, in outreach work that I’ve done, I’ve succumbed to saying this. It’s just too convenient to say. Instead, however, I prefer the term basal. A lamprey is considered to be a more basal vertebrate than a human because it shares similar characteristics with what we expect the common ancestor of all vertebrates to have. We didn’t evolve from a lamprey; we share a common ancestor that is just as distant from lampreys as it is from humans, it only looks a lot more like a lamprey.
Strictly speaking, we are no more evolved than a lamprey. We are good at we do and lampreys are good at what they do.
Now, I’m sure that a lot of people will call me a pedant for disliking this term. The problem with using the word adaptation instead of trait or character is that it assumes that it got there via adaptionism.
It’s undeniably true that most important force that shapes the morphology of an organism is adaptation, i.e. evolving them so that they are better adapted to the task required. However, it is not the only force that shapes body parts or behaviours. Often, they are there because of constraints on evolution; they may arise simply in tandem with the evolution of another body part. So, I don’t like it because it makes us inadvertently make assumptions about the origin of any character of an animal.
Really, the people that ruined this term were evolutionary psycholgists, who, it’s fair to say, regularly take an overwhelmingly adaptionist view of the human body. The worst example I can think of is the hypothesis that women like pink because it is an adaptation to picking berries. By using the term adaption, it automatically implies that there must be a selective reason for this. Remember what I was saying about survival of the fittest? This is a perfect example of that being misapplied. It is not simply that those who preferred pink were more likely to survive to have offspring; it would necessarily mean that those who didn’t prefer pink would have to die. Which is… improbable, to say the least.
Interesting news from the genetics world. We’re slowly building a clearer picture of early Americans.
“A new genetic study of South American natives, published on the journal PLOS Genetics, provides scientific evidence to reformulate the traditional model and define new theories of human settlement of the Americas” from a new article by Professor Daniel Turbón, from the Department of Animal Biology of the University of Barcelona.
“This new research is based on the analysis of male Y-chromosomal genetic markers in about one thousand individuals, representing 50 tribal South American native populations.”
Recent travels allowed for a quick visit to the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits. Now in their one hundredth year of excavation, the site has yielded over 600 species to date with a NISP of over 3.5 million (not counting over 200 bacteria). It’s a remarkable place and I feel privileged to to have been given an excellent tour by Dr John Harris and Curator Gary Takeuchi. Tar still bubbles and oozes and excavations continue, thanks in part to continuing growth of this highly urbanized area.
Although most of the tar seeps are closed off for safety, a couple can be accessed with a guide. The surface is just as deceptive as it is described and is often covered with leaves and dirt. The tar can also be deceptively solid feeling until the incredible stickiness locks your feet to the tar. Dr Harris provided a great example by having us poke the tar with a wooden lath. Even though it is solid enough to resist the lath for more than a top inch or two, it is extremely difficult to pull it back out again and it’s easy to imagine a hooved animal becoming mired almost instantly to await it’s demise by large cat or wolf or even thirst.
For reasons that aren’t completely clear, there are an extremely high number of predators and scavengers in the mix, implying that many carnivores may be tempted by a struggling animal but the more cautious grazers were likely scared away by their thrashing comrades. The upshot of this is an enormous number of coyotes, wolves, saber-toothed cats, short-faced bears, and American lions as well as the full gamut of vulture-like birds filling these pits and seeps. Below I am holding the humerus of a Smilodon fatalis, a prevalent creature at the Tar Pits.
Tusks grow like tree-rings and tell scientists a lot about the environment the creature lived in by proxy. A section of this particular specimen has been removed for analysis already.
For anyone interested in Ice Age fauna, the Page Museum is a definite “must see” stop on the journey through life.
As this question has come up about half a dozen times in the past few weeks, maybe I need to address it, if not for the inquisitors, at least for myself.
When people ask “Why did you become and archaeologist?” is it wrong to say “It’s better than a real* job”? For some people that makes total sense, for others, they think “WHA…!? you don’t make real money doing that!” It’s tough to make the argument that you want to be educated and have knowledge for knowledge’s sake in a world that equates education to vocational training with the sole aim of making money. If you are that type of person then please go no further here. I would suggest you go read Forbes and try banking or insurance as a career.
The real answer as to why I am an archaeologist is, of course, more complicated than that. First and foremost, I try to remember that I am an anthropologist studying people through cultural and environmental materials. The perception of what we do (even to many students and workers in our field) equates our job to some version of an antiquarian specializing in pots or tools or coins or whatever. That sounds fun but doesn’t exactly approach an understanding of the human condition. Like all collecting, that type of activity is a socially acceptable form of hoarding on some level. In the rare cases when collector/hoarders become archaeologists, things can and do get ugly. I am not that type of hoarder so I will not digress…
When is it anthropology? Here is a short definition from thisisanthropology.org: “Anthropology is the study of what makes us human. Anthropologists take a broad approach to understanding the many different aspects of the human experience, which we call holism. They consider the past, through archaeology, to see how human groups lived hundreds or thousands of years ago and what was important to them. They consider what makes up our biological bodies and genetics, as well as our bones, diet, and health. Anthropologists also compare humans with other animals (most often, other primates like monkeys and chimpanzees) to see what we have in common with them and what makes us unique. Even though nearly all humans need the same things to survive, like food, water, and companionship, the ways people meet these needs can be very different.”
I try to keep this in mind when I think about what I do. There is nothing in this common definition about generating wealth or getting rich but a theme of learning about ourselves that derives from a thirst for knowledge. We are, after all, human.
My journey to anthropology is, in a nutshell, one of interest in both the ancient world and of living people not like myself. I left high school early and traveled extensively and on the cheap, allowing me to see a fair bit of the world both inside and out of the United States while gaining many survival skills that have served me well. I took anthropology classes and archaeological field school long before I was an anthropology major. At the time I was in music performance for about seven semesters with no real plan but was a voracious reader on many topics.
Having a trade helped provide me with a little money for school and life. There was a time where I earned my keep through honest toil as I still didn’t know that you can actually be paid to do things like archaeology. Jumping ahead now…
The education paid off in more ways than I can articulate and grounded me with both skills and ethics that kept me on the better path in this field. Even my time in anthropology has been a winding path. Coming out of music and having an interest in ethnography, it seemed the logical choice to combine those talents into ethnomusicology. After a semester or two it was clear I was at the wrong university for that so I began pursuing another interest; Old World Prehistory. Essentially, I was studying Western European and North African prehistory from the end of the Ice Age until the rise of the Roman Empire (a sort of golden age in my immature world view); a somewhat more traditional path in anthropology.
After years of study and some time working and learning in Europe, various things brought me home to the midwest. Dumb luck and the bizarre interconnectedness of all things, more than real effort, led me to interesting and fun positions at Iowa, Missouri State, Eastern New Mexico, and other non-profit archaeological projects all around the West. Now I am an archaeologist, and while not getting rich, I rarely hate or dread my job like so many of my contemporaries. As long as this works, I’m willing to stick with it.
NOTE: In my experience in this field, it’s important to remember that “archaeologist” can mean very different things. In the Federal Government, it seems to be merely a title for mid-level administrators who deal with compliance in the cultural realm regardless of their education, skills, or knowledge. Many of these “archaeologists” don’t participate in the anthropological community as a whole but confine themselves to the bureaucratic tasks associated with development, often even hiding or discouraging research and discourse in our field. That’s fine, but maybe we should use a different term for that position. Those are NOT anthropologists and therefore NOT archaeologists in my opinionated mind.
*real job – socially acceptable toil generally associated with furthering the welfare of a corporate or government entity lacking in genuine productivity, morality, freedom, etc. This often involves spending time in a sound-dampened cubicle trying to look as if you aren’t really slacking while producing the minimum required to keep said job.
There are many bird watchers that visit the Blackwater Draw site. Many visitors gleefully return from their mile hike around the site, binoculars dangling, to mention particular bird sightings. This weekend was a delightful exception. One of our visitors, Robert Templeton of northern New Mexico, provided such extensive knowledge of migratory birds and returned with a list of birds that he and Karen Cohen witnessed during their visit, it seemed necessary to post the list.
Please visit Robert’s site rioembudobirds.org to learn more, and keep the lists coming!
April 6, 2013 bird sightings at Blackwater by Robert Templeton
- Northern Harrier
- Eurasian Collared-dove
- Mourning Dove
- House Finch
- Western Meadowlark
- White-crowned Sparrow
- Rock Wren
- Red-tailed Hawk
- Say’s Phoebe
- Ladder-backed Woodpecker
- Chipping Sparrow
- Barn Owl
- Great-tailed Grackle
- Swainson’s Hawk
from the Heritage Journal…
HERITAGE: Do We Really Give a Damn?
A guest post by Philip I. Powell. First published at
http://www.facebook.com/megalithicmonuments.ireland, reproduced with permission.
TOORMORE WEDGE TOMB
RMP No. CO148-001
A colleague, on a recent visit to a wedge tomb in west Cork, was shocked to find it being used as an out-house, containing trash bins, old rubbish and strewn with litter. I find this totally unacceptable, to see such callous disregard for a national monument and deeply concerned about what we really think about our national heritage. Is it that, unless it is given national attention via the state & independent media networks, we actually don’t care! Or are we saying that certain monuments deserve protection and others are perhaps not worthy of such protection.