Apologies for the unintentional hiatus. I'm interning 30+ hours a week (at Women's Health Magazine), while also going to school, and surviving my first NYC heat wave. Now that I've also gotten through my requisite bi-yearly cold, I should be back to blogging!
[Image credit: Lynda Marchant]
Anthropology is the study of humans. At UC San Diego I majored in biological anthropology (also called physical anthropology) which, in short, is the study of human evolution and primates. There is also sociocultural anthropology (study of human society and culture) and paleontology (using a whip to recover ancient artifacts while dodging poisoned arrows and giant, oddly-spherical boulders).
The following is a list of 5 things anyone interested in human evolution should know:
1. Evolution is not about perfection. There is no end goal. Just because one species has taken on more mutations than another or seems more complex doesn't mean it's evolutionarily superior. Oftentimes a specific trait is advantageous at one point in time, then hurtful at another (humans' excellent ability to store calories for example). Sometimes species seem to lose some of their complexity as they evolve (consider "blind" cavefish). All in all, evolution is not interchangeable with a time line from worst to best.
2. There is no such thing as The Missing Link. Contrary to the drawing on your witty t-shirt, the evolution of humans does not go 1) monkey 2) monkey/man thing 3) caveman 4) us. There aren't clear steps, evolution is gradual. For that reason we will never find that glorious half-ape, half-human creature that proves evolution to everyone. If you really want to hold on to your missing link, consider every individual hominin a missing link because that's as close as your going to get.
3. "Survival of the fittest" is a ridiculous saying. It's redundant. "Fitness" in evolution means the ability of an organism to survive and pass on its genes. Thus, this saying means "survival of an organism that is the best at surviving." (Also, my mom would never let me hear the end of it if I didn't take this opportunity to mention that, if you say "ATM machine," you are saying "Automatic Teller Machine machine.")
4. It is pronounced NeanderTAL, not NeanderTHAL. I see that there is a "th" but it's a German word so it's pronounced like "t" is pronounced in English. Yes, I'm being an anthro-snob but if you want to speak Anthropologist, there you have it.
5. Chimps are not monkeys, neither are gorillas. I know this is annoying to most people but it's an important distinction. Are you a monkey? I didn't think so (but if you are, give me a call because I would love to interview a monkey that reads). It's like believing a killer whale is actually a whale -- not the worst thing in the world but a little irritating. Need help telling the difference? Apes (us, chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, orangutans, gibbons, siamangs) don't have tails, whereas most monkeys do.
As a result of my current journalism crash course, I have become semi-obsessed with the idea of objectivity in the media. I believe, like most journalists, that we should do our best to give accurate and fair information. For that reason, I also believe we should make it clear that journalists are not objective, all-knowing pseudo-humans.
Journalists are people too and people are always biased in some way. This should be made more clear for the sake of our readers. For their part, our audience should also make an effort to recognize that everything they read goes through a person (if not multiple people) before it gets to them.
Even when we do our best to be objective, every choice we make -- from what sources we contact, to what quotes we choose -- is affected by our personal preferences.
So, in an effort to put my money where my mouth is, here are some of my personal science-related biases:
I know science is not the same as truth
Scientists (most of them) know this too. That being said, science is also not simple guesswork. The vast majority of scientists put a lot of care into their work and consult time-tested scientific knowledge. Still, sometimes science is wrong. Really coming to terms with this can be uncomfortable but everyone should do it.
I believe in evolution
I was a biological anthropology major in undergraduate. That means I studied human evolution. I believe in the overall Theory of Evolution. However, I also believe that there is a lot of uncertainty in evolutionary science (as in all science) and that it needs to be constantly questioned and readjusted in order for it to improve. If you don't believe me, Google "epigenetics." It was quite a surprise for many hard-core evolutionists.
I believe people are causing climate change
The human race has created truly incredible things over the span of its existence. Much of the time, I can't even wrap my head around how we've gotten where we are. That being said, anyone who sees what we've made should also be able to recognize the grand effect we've have on our planet. Again, like with evolution, there is still a lot of work to be done before we fully understand what's happening to the climate. Unfortunately, we don't have the luxury of time in this case and should be putting some serious work into reducing our negative impact on the environment.
I have a serious soft spot for nature
I love plants and animals (but, no, I'm not a vegetarian). The smell of flowers, the unintentional smile of a dog, and the crackle of pine needles beneath my feet all give me immense pleasure. I would choose a park over a shopping mall any day. That being said, I am beginning to accept that one way for us to protect nature is by moving closer together into cities. I don't like it, but it's true.
I support gay rights
The topic of gay rights goes far beyond the realm of science. Regardless of the context, I firmly believe that people should never be discriminated against on the basis of their sexual orientation. I can only hope that our civilization will soon realize how cruel they are being by stigmatizing homosexuality.
If you have any opinions on this topic, please leave me a comment. I would love to hear other people's thoughts about bias in journalism.
Since you are considerate enough to be reading my blog, I'll explain the title to you.
If you're not a journalist, you should know that "TK" means "to come" in journalist jargon. We write this in our drafts as a placeholder for something that we are expecting -- or delusionally determined -- to have in later versions of our story.
An example might be: [TK: quote from Prof. Brown explaining how he feels about this blog.]
I've been told that the misspelling stems from old editing practices. It is said that journalists wanted to make sure that all of the TK's would be removed from their stories before they went to print, so they spelled it "tokum" in order to catch the eye of those human spellcheckers commonly known as editors. (Not that editors are merely human spellcheckers.)
For those of you who have yet to catch the wordplay, "TK" are also my initials.
See what I did there now? Yeah, I'm pretty impressed with myself too.