Anthropology - Other

An Introduction to Evolutionary Anthropology

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"An Introduction to Evolutionary Anthropology"
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At its heart, evolutionary anthropology concerns itself with social behavior, specifically that concerning how behavior relates to the biological and cultural evolution of hominids (the great apes') and non-hominid primates. Hominids include all the great apes, while hominins are restricted to humans and chimpanzees, and thus far the work of hominins has been the prevailing intellectual force behind the research extant in the field of evolutionary anthropology.

While the "evolutionary" appellation suggests a biology-heavy angle, evolutionary anthropology is a fairly comprehensive and ideologically liberal field as it includes and accepts the prevailing theories in genetics, human biology and primatology, but also allows for psychology and cultural evolution to influence its findings. In fact, biology and psychology are inextricably linked therein.

So while the biological and physiological changes pursuant to evolution remain an integral part of evolutionary anthropology, the entire human experience must be encountered within the discipline. That broad-minded premise allows for and impels consideration of how man's physical changes have motivated concomitant social, behavioral and psychological adaptation.

Humans are said to possess four "brains," only one of which the neocortex is the exclusive possession of our species. But the cerebral function of the neocortex to analyze stands as an unequivocal disconnect between the stimuli we encounter and any notion of a peremptory pre-programmed reflexive response.

We think, therefore we are. More to the point, we can think to think and pause to think, therefore we are [human].

Logic dictates that the bulk of the scientific and somehow "empirical" studies done on evolutionary anthropology tilt heavily toward the biological side, but there is an emerging body of scholars and initiatives that are spearheading a more parity-minded look at evolutionary anthropology in its intended state as a nexus of research from various coordinating disciplines.

Chimpanzees as fellow hominins retain their status as the nearest biological link to homo sapiens and recent studies indicate that the intellectual divide between humans and chimps is closer than we imagined as well. This premise naturally allows for more studies involving chimpanzees to be assigned scholarly relevance to human application.

Researcher Tetsuro Matsuzawa of Kyoto University recently participated in a study that seems to debunk the notion that "humans are superior to chimpanzees in all cognitive functions," according to the Associated Press.

Matsuzawa and his colleagues pitted university students who had trained for six months against five-year-old chimpanzees in a short-term memory test, and the chimpanzees were the better overall performers. One chimp, Ayumu, placed 80 percent of nine Arabic numerals in the correct order after the numbers were flashed on a screen for just two-tenths of a second. The nine humans who took the same test managed to average only 40 percent between them, according to the AP.

"It's amazing what this chimpanzee is able to do," Elizabeth Lonsdorf, director of the Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago told the AP. "I just watched the video of that and I can tell you right now, there's no way I can do it. It's unbelievable. I can't even get the first two (squares)."

Matsuzawa's theory behind this superior ability on the part of the chimpanzees has to do partly with the age of the chimps. But he also supplied another idea perhaps less concerned with bare-bones empiricism that is supplying profound grist for evolutionary anthropologists' mills. Matsuzawa in an E-mail to the AP, reported that he "believes human ancestors gave up much of this skill of [short-term memory] over evolutionary time to make room in the brain for gaining language abilities."

As the infusion between biology and genetics and psychology and culture continue to propel the discipline, evolutionary anthropology remains a compelling field where nothing is static, where chimpanzees can leapfrog humans in certain cognitive respects, and where so much if left to prove and disprove.

With Darwin at the helm, The Beagle made it from Cape Verde to Mauritius to England and to so many places in-between. Today his academic descendants continue the voyage, and fueled by a formidable collaboration of biology and psychology, of dialectic and rhetoric; The Beagle sails on.

More about this author: Nathan Wada

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