science

Why Anthropology Matters (now more than ever)

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Excited chatter echoes down the second floor corridor as a group of middle school girls approaches the door to the osteology lab. The young women file into the lab wide-eyed, curiously craning their necks to see the rows of bones on the shelves and tables. “Are those real?” They ask, pointing to a row of skulls or the complete skeleton on the table, “are those someone’s bones?”

Typically, I begin these GiST (Girls in STEM at Tulane) workshops by introducing myself and welcoming them to the New Life in Buried Bones workshop. Today, I tell them, you all will learn about the study of human skeletal remains from archaeological sites and in forensic cases. Using the examples of bones with dental disease and cranial modification, I show these young women how human bones inform us on ancient life. They always love to hear gory forensic cases, so I make sure to include a few examples of blunt-force trauma and gun-shot wounds. For those interested in medicine or biomechanics, I give demonstrations of how repetitive motions to two joint surfaces can result in boney changes and sometimes even osteoarthritis. Every once in a while, one girl will exclaim that she also wants to be a bioarchaeolgist or a forensic anthropologist when she grows up.

Today, this workshop felt as if it would be different. Today, my enthusiasm felt strained. I had spent the last few days deliberating over what I was going to say to these girls. I could not simply pretend that everything was okay. It certainly wasn’t. I could not think of words eloquent enough to express how distraught I felt. Today, it was my job to stand in front of these young women and tell them that her education was one of the most important things she’ll ever have. She shouldn’t feel discouraged when she fails, or when her peers let her down. I was supposed to tell her that the bullies don’t win in the end. Hard work and critical thinking are invaluable. Being bold, imaginative, and fearless is what leads to innovation and discovery. The world is full of its problems, but she has the ability to tackle the most insurmountable challenges. Pursuing science, I would tell her, is one way to do that.

Today, those words felt hallow, flippant, and simply untrue. I should be thinking of ways to encourage and inspire these women, but instead, in light of this week’s election, I was plagued with memories of all the troubles I had when I was their age. I thought of the bullies, male peers who harassed me for answering questions in class or commented on my appearance, as if that had something to do with my value or intelligence. How was I supposed to tell them that no matter how impressive her accomplishments, there will be that person who attempts to discredit her, belittle her, and make her feel worthless? Worst of all, how am I supposed to tell her that all of these problems are simply a phase, and that things will get better after middle and high school? She has a bright future, I should tell her. She would be accepted to university based on her merits. But would always be someone there, a real or fictions demon on her shoulder whispering in her ear that she only got in because she’s a woman, a woman of color, an immigrant, a LGBT? I shudder to think of those who said similar things to me (and I enjoy more privilege than most); those men who said or implied that I took their spot, that being a woman gave me a competitive edge they did not enjoy. Forgot that maybe my successes meant I was qualified. Someone had to be blamed, and I was the unlucky winner.

As much as I wanted to unleash my own frustrations, I knew that was not the best way to proceed. I am sad, I am angry, but I am certainly not going to back down and admit defeat.

Instead, I will look to my greatest comfort: anthropology.

What is anthropology? I ask the young women.

“The study of human bones!”

“The study of ancient societies!”

“The study of artifacts and archaeology!”

“The study of culture!”

You are all correct, I tell them, these are all important aspects of being human and they are intimately interconnected and manifest in infinite, fascinating ways. Anthropology is the science of human beings. We have the tool kit of a scientist: we ask questions, formulate hypotheses, make observations of the evidence, and evaluate our results. Our goal is to understand the complexities of human nature, why humans do what we do. It is during that fascinating, fulfilling, and sometimes frustrating journey that we discover how valuable and rare our open-mindedness and thirst for understanding is in the world.

My fellow anthropologists, all you linguists, cultural and medical anthropologists, forensic anthropologists, archaeologists, bioarchaeologists, and primatologists, you know this. And it thrills me to call you my friends and colleagues.

But to those who are unfamiliar with what I do, this is for you. Anthropology is not simply an intellectual oddity tucked away in the ivory towers of university campuses. It cannot be buried in piles of jargon-heavy books and articles, though that doesn’t mean some haven’t tried. Studying the interconnectedness of all aspects of human life enables us to understand why diseases spread and why crops fail. This science of human nature allows us to explore why societies commissioned art to inspire creativity or to evoke a sense of the divine. Anthropology explores how empires expand and collapse. It does not shy away from discussions of race, gender, and colonialism; in fact, it confronts these debates head-on, challenging us to critically evaluate our past mistakes so that our future is full of thoughtful, well-informed decisions. To an anthropologist, why early humans migrated out of Africa, over Beringia, and went to the moon seems almost obvious. Humans are wired to look to the horizon, across oceans, and up at the night sky: we want to go beyond our known world to see what lies just out of reach.

Anthropology has comforted me these last few days. Hatred and fear are simply the symptoms of ignorance, and it can spread like wildfire if left unchecked and unchallenged. To be an anthropologist is to understand human similarities and differences. We do not hate the unknown nor fear the challenges of this ever-changing world. Instead, we build connections with our global community and to the past by studying cultures, ancient societies, and their material correlates; we do not build walls. Anthropology is a discipline that has the power to understand who we were. It is more important now than ever that we recognize that anthropology also has the indispensable power to help us decide who we are and who we want to be.

So today, as I looked at those excited, hopeful, bright young women in the osteology lab, I tell them I decided to study anthropology because I wanted to fully comprehend and appreciate the complex, beautiful world around me. In the words of Ruth Benedict, I tell them, “the purposes of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences.”

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Science and Sexism in the South

My hiatus from the inter-webs can be contributed to several things; the main reason being my temporary, part-time job. As I have mentioned, I am starting a PhD program at Tulane in the fall. Though I am receiving a generous stipend package, moving and paying a rent deposit cost money. So, alas, I had to take a part-time job to fill in the months before I head off into the second phase of my life: graduate-school-induced-melt-down.

I have several qualms with this job. Well, not several, a better description would be “thousands.” I should not explicitly state where I work, so I’ll just say that we sell books. The topic of today’s post isn’t necessarily about books, the store where I work, or even the customers (though, let’s be candid, I could write volumes on each aforementioned subject), it is about science and sexism in the South. Broad, huh? I try to avoid going on too many tirades and being completely biased to a place that enjoys its way of life without being told what to do…but I can’t let this rest. It’s exhausting.

I have written about the misconceptions, mistrust, and general issues the South has with the sciences and sexism. Once I wrote about it during the local museum’s Darwin Day celebration back in 2013. I’ve posted on Facebook and Twitter about failing science standards and the general dislike some people have towards science. I wrote a post about the sexist comments I received when I told people I was starting my Phd in the fall.  I attribute it to age: older people are products of their time and are set in their ways. Understandable. Not ideal, but I get it: you grew up in a small community devoted to your religion and enrolled in a school system that taught you…well…it taught you what it taught you. Boys had to be strong, silent, and play football. Girls had to be pretty and think about marrying their high school sweethearts. You are a product of your time and place.

I feel less sympathetic towards my peers. Other men and women my age, who have innumerable resources that could answer all their science questions, and proudly state “I don’t believe in evolution.” You don’t “believing” or “not believing;” you accept it, or don’t.  I encounter these people at work. We are allowed to check out books from the store, and I decided to read “The Sixth Extinction” by Elizabeth Kolbert. I liked the book generally, sometimes I wish it was less a narrative about her trudging out to the field to hunt for fossil and more fact- and research-based treatise, but I understand that she wanted to give the reader a picture of what natural scientists actually do. One chapter is about how climate change is impacting coral reef systems by increasing the acidity in the ocean. When one of my co-workers asked me how I liked my book, I reiterated what the author wrote about the endangered coral reefs. His response, “I don’t think global warming is an issue. I don’t think people are the ones who have altered it. What would recycling even do?” I thought he was kidding at first, but alas, he was not.

Our store also participated in a book drive for a local elementary school. I was super pumped for this philanthropic endeavor, especially since we could pick the books to display for customers to donate. The day of, when I arrivedI saw that they shelves were covered with kids fiction, familiar and unfamiliar titles. What didn’t I see? Any science, history, or educational books. So I went to the kids education section and grabbed books on rain forests, mammals, snakes, US history, Ancient Egypt, algebra, mummies, anything and everything educational. As I was setting up the books, one of my co-workers exclaimed; “great idea Rachel! There are too many girly books up here, I’d glad you grabbed some books boys would like.” I wasn’t aware that science and history had a gender.  I wasn’t aware that it was “girly” to like fiction and “boyish” to like math. I was shocked by her comment, and said, “These aren’t subjects for boys, girls can be scientists and historians too.” And my co-worker didn’t even understand that what she said was sexist.

These men and women, additionally, are given the same opportunities, but I still see many females wearing teeshirts saying, “I’m too pretty to do math.” One co-worker outright stated to me, “I don’t understand why we waste space with a Women Studies or African-American Studies sections.”  I can’t even get into that comment right now. (Actually I can, if she could have articulated why she didn’t think those groups deserved sections, then I would have been willing to listen. But she didn’t. She just thought they were given special treatment. I’ll remember that when I am honored with the special treatment of begin cat called.) I digress.

So the store has special displays for Mother’s and Father’s day. For Mother’s Day, the store had tables with books on gardening, cooking, style, with a few romance novels thrown in. For Father’s Day, tables were filled with titles about hiking, home-brewing, and raunchy comedians. I mentioned it to my coworkers, and no one seemed to think that this blatant gender divide was shocking. Personally, I liked the Father’s Day books more! What if moms wanted to make beer at home and dads wanted to learn more about gardening? Why can’t men be stylish and women learn more about the species of trout in Tennessee?

So there you have it. 31 Days until I move and begin my new life, but just for good measure, this town is making sure that I get one taste of narrow-mindedness before I leave. Fantastic.  I wonder how everyone will react when I tell them I’m leaving to start my PhD in a social science. Probably call me a boy and say my career path is a lie.