Ask Me about My Science

Curious public means many opportunities for biological anthropologists willing to speak up

I once took a cast of a Neandertal skull with me on a research trip, packing it in my carry-on luggage. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the TSA agents at the small Midwestern airport when that bag went through security. To my delight, after I told them what it was, they called over additional agents to see the skull, and they all asked me questions (unrelated to security) about Neandertals. I told them this hominin lived approximately 70,000 years ago in Europe and showed them how it could be distinguished from humans today based on the elongated cranium, brow ridge, and occipital bun (thickened bone at the back of the head). They let me continue through security without trouble, and I thought how satisfying it was to have shared some paleoanthropology knowledge with even just a few people who perhaps normally wouldn’t encounter the cast of a Neandertal skull.

That experience has stuck with me. When I get frustrated about my research or job prospects, I think about why I’m in this field, why biological anthropology matters. I always come back to two answers: It matters to me because I am still always completely amazed that we have fossil evidence of ancient hominins and that I get to study it. And, it matters to the world because of the curiosity and excitement I saw in those TSA agents’ eyes and heard in their voices as they asked me questions—people want to know about humans, past and present.

Biological anthropology has so much to share, in part because it provides a framework for studying biology while considering culture. The premise that we are a combination of our biology and our culture is a built-in part of the discipline. Biological anthropologists apply this framework to everything humans do—how we give birth, raise children, eat, sleep, exercise, adapt to new settings, treat sickness, deal with and create social inequality, and even how we die. Biological anthropologists like me study how our species evolved, while others study how our species lives today, and still others study how the past and present experiences of our species are related. Biological anthropology can dispel myths about biological determinism, by providing data on human variation to contradict the claim that human races are biological, or scientifically testing effects of anatomical differences between the sexes to challenge prescribed gender roles. As a discipline, biological anthropology is a science of topics that the public finds interesting. The public’s curiosity about what makes us human, where humans came from, and why humans are the way they are presents biological anthropologists with an opportunity to start a conversation.

Biological anthropology has so much to share, in part because it provides a framework for studying biology while considering culture.
These conversations are often already in progress. Many biological anthropologists are active on social media and have taken the time to write about their research for a general audience, either for news websites or on their own dedicated blogs. Many others have volunteered to speak at public events or to non-college classrooms about their research. Though I may be relatively new to communicating my science to the public, I have witnessed the power speaking up has. The public responds with genuine questions about their well-being when biological anthropologists talk about the relationship between human health and social practices. They respond with amazement when shown how hominin fossils are excavated and new species discovered. They attend public talks by biological anthropologists, respond to comments on Twitter, and share news on Facebook. Biological anthropology matters because it studies a topic that most humans are interested in: ourselves!

That’s why the upcoming AAA executive session, “Biological Anthropology & the Public” (#bioanthpub on Twitter) is all about: highlighting the biological anthropologists who are already engaging with a curious public. The session features six speakers, each of whom approaches public outreach differently, each with their own successes and pitfalls. The talks feature the BioAnthro News Network, the BOAS Network, the Smithsonian’s Human Origins Initiative, PeriodPodcast, and outreach related to human insect-eating and new discoveries in paleoanthropology. Annual Meeting attendees are invited to join us at 10:15 a.m. on Saturday, December 2nd, to listen and participate in a discussion about presenting biological anthropology to the public.

Caroline VanSickle is visiting assistant professor of anthropology at Bryn Mawr College.

Cite as: VanSickle, Caroline. 2017. “Ask Me about My Science.” Anthropology News website, November 3, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.663

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