One Step toward Diversifying the Evolutionary Human Sciences

A new directory for underrepresented scholars aims to promote diversity and inclusion through social networking and mentorship, and by challenging memory biases.

The challenges of the past year have stimulated a new wave of conversations regarding long-standing problems of diversity and inclusion in academia. In particular, the calls to act against anti-Black racism and other sources of inequality, are justified both in terms of equity concerns and the value that diversity brings to scientific inquiry. As evolutionary anthropologists, we have more room for improvement than many adjacent fields. A recent analysis of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists membership suggests the field suffers from less diversity than many adjacent ones such as Biology and Genetics. Evolutionary anthropologists also have more to gain intellectually from diversification efforts.

Our discipline is in the business of understanding our shared human nature and how it gives rise to human diversity. In this respect, the quality of our research questions, hypotheses, and methods may be improved when the endeavor includes colleagues with a broad range of cultural norms, and therefore less overlap in assumptions. A more inclusive practice of biological and evolutionary anthropology would diversify the set of hypotheses tested within evolutionary social sciences, and lead to a more accurate understanding of the shared human condition.

An illustration of a person sketching hand stencils in a cave
Image description: A person stands in a cave and sketches hand stencils that are lining the cave walls.
Caption: Evolutionary anthropology aims to understand our shared human nature and how it gives rise to human diversity. Anthro Illustrated

But our field is still shaking off associations with scientific enterprises such as eugenics and scientific racism that were used to justify socially constructed racial hierarchies as biologically grounded. Our work can also be misused to naturalize existing patriarchal and gendered inequalities. These historical and sociological considerations may engender distrust among, and perpetuate the exclusion of, young scientists from historically underrepresented communities, particularly ones that have been the targets of discrimination and racism in science.

As a small step towards remedying these problems, we set up the Diversify Evolutionary Human Sciences (EHS) platform during the September 2020 Scholar Strike organized by Anthea Butler and Kevin Gannon. Diversity EHS provides public access to a crowdsourced directory of evolutionary human scientists who have nominated themselves for inclusion on the basis of their identification with an community that is underrepresented in their field. We have borrowed this idea from other fields, including adjacent ones that may be of interest to some EAS members.

We acknowledge that there are heated debates regarding the types of diversity that matter, and that the need to diversify varies by institution and area of study. For example, within evolutionary anthropology, researchers modelling cultural evolution are more disproportionately men than are those researching reproductive decision-making. Dynamics will also vary by country. Furthermore, power dynamics in academia often mirror those between nation states, meaning that even scholars who do not feel marginalized in their home departments may find themselves underrepresented in international conferences or publications. While we have been asked by several colleagues whether they “count” as underrepresented, we will continue to push that decision back to them. We suggest reframing the questions as, Do you have life experiences that are underrepresented in your academic networks? Will other colleagues from underrepresented backgrounds see you as someone who can support them as they navigate their academic careers? In essence, Will your self-nomination serve the goals of improving equity and scientific practices in our field?

We hope that Diversify EHS will promote diversity and inclusion in our field in two ways: First, the platform facilitates organic social networking and mentorship among underrepresented scholars. Academics with underrepresented identities are less likely to find colleagues with similar identities in their in-person communities, departments, or conferences. Additionally, they may face particular challenges in their academic careers, and can support each other in specific ways. For example, field research presents different challenges to scholars with different social identities. Many academic norms also reflect the needs and desires of white, cis, abled, higher socioeconomic status, men from institutions in Europe and the US. These factors can lead to feelings of isolation among scholars with experiences and identities that are underrepresented in their fields. Organizations such as BlackinBioAnth and QueerBioAnth work towards this common goal for specific communities. Second, the platform can help redress memory biases that all academics face when deciding who to invite to conferences, panels, speaker series, or even to apply for jobs. While such invitations can be consequential for scholars’ careers, the decisions are often based on recall memory, social networks, and crowdsourcing. There is little systematicity to these decisions, and the types of biases that creep in when relying on such heuristics may disadvantage underrepresented scholars, particularly those who are early career.

There are risks and pitfalls associated with projects likes Diversify EHS. If the platform is not taken up broadly, it risks exacerbating one of the problems it seeks to redress, by making underrepresented researchers feel marginalized or further underrepresented in their fields. This concern is somewhat alleviated by the over 40 people who had nominated themselves by the time of writing, despite this being a nascent effort. We also worry that many diversity efforts end up tokenizing the very people they are intended to serve. Avoiding this requires anyone who uses this resource to exercise empathy, exhibit genuine curiosity, and treat every colleague with dignity. In other words, the platform should be used to promote scholars’ ideas and to support systematic inclusion, as opposed to ticking checklists or filling quotas that achieve the appearance of diversity without changing access to opportunities, honors, and supportive workplace environments.

We recognize that the Diversify EHS platform is a small and insufficient remedy for a complex problem. Equity would be best promoted by larger scale efforts at state levels (e.g., improving the quality of primary education), university levels (e.g., paying graduate students a living wage), and departmental levels (e.g., covering moving costs for new graduate students rather than expecting them to shoulder this burden before being paid). Nonetheless, we hope that the Diversify EHS directory will complement, rather than compete with, other efforts to make inclusive policy the norm in biological and evolutionary anthropology. Diversifying the field will take a multipronged approach, and we urge our colleagues to make use of the Diversify EHS platform in any way that serves our common goals of improving science and equity.

Cristina Moya is a lecturer in psychology at Brunel University’s Centre for Culture and Evolution and an assistant professor of anthropology at University of California, Davis. She studies how humans create and respond adaptively to culturally-structured social worlds, such as ethnolinguistic boundaries, kin networks, and ritual sites.

Michelle Ann Kline is currently a senior lecturer at the Centre for Culture and Evolution at Brunel University, London. She researches social learning and teaching from a cultural evolutionary perspective, working with rural communities in the Yasawa Islands, Fiji, and participants across the rural-urban spectrum in the UK and Europe.

Katie Starkweather is an assistant professor of biological anthropology at the University of Illinois Chicago. She studies ecological influences and health outcomes of the tradeoffs women make between work and childcare, working in Bangladesh with a community of traditionally boat-dwelling fishers and traders.

Sheina Lew-Levy and Mallika Sarma are section contributing editors for the Evolutionary Anthropology Society.

Cite as: Moya, Cristina, Michelle Ann Kline, and Katie Starkweather. 2021. “One Step to Diversifying the Evolutionary Human Sciences.” Anthropology News website, April 8, 2021.

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