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The History of Human Biology in the United States of America


Michael A. Little

Dr. Michael A. Little possesses the title of “distinguished professor” at Pennsylvania State University (where he also earned both his masters and PhD). He began his research career examining cold adaptation in the high Peruvian Andes before he began a 20 year, multidisciplinary project that studied the health, biology, and culture of pastoralists in northwest Kenya. His current work focuses mainly on documenting the history of biological anthropology mainly, through archival research. He teaches classes at PSU on comparative human growth, human biological variation, and the history of biological anthropology. In 2005, he received the Franz Boas award from the Human Biology Association and later, in 2007, received the Charles R. Darwin award from the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

Francis E. Johnston

Dr. Francis E. Johnston is Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, where he also earned his PhD (his masters was earned at the University of Kentucky). He specializes in the study of the development of children in Latin America, particularly in regard to nutritional status and health. He is the founder and director of the Urban Nutrition Initiative. He was President of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists from 1983 to 1985 and has been the Editor-in-Chief of The American Journal of Physical Anthropology, Human Biology, and The American Journal of Human Biology (where he was also founding editor). In 2003, he received the Charles Darwin Lifetime Achievement Award of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

Human Biology and Its History

  • Timeline
    • Middle Ages: the earliest form of human biology begins with the study of cadavers to determine bodily structure
    • 1924: Raymond Pearl is the first modern scholar to use the term human biology
      • Discussion: Since this chapter focuses only on the history of American human biology (due to space restrictions), what kind of biases do you think could be present, if any?

Human Variation

  • Timeline
    • 1850-1940s: the measurement and description of past and present humans in the form of a typology is popular
      • Typologies can be problematic since they represent more of an idealized image than reality.
      • Eugenics arguing for the superiority of Western Europeans were popular at the time
      • It was believed that all races were: 1) fixed, 2) came from three primary races, and 3) were one of the primary races or a mixture of two or three primary races
      • 1897: Franz Boaz measured the heads of migrants and their children, showing that the environment and plasticity were important factors in variation
        • He stated that race and culture were separate
      • 1950: The new phase of physical anthropology begins with a conference held by Theodosius Dobzhansky and Sherwood Washburn
        • The use of the scientific method in the study of evolutionary theory became the new focus of this phase of anthropology
      • 1950: Races: A study of the Problem of Race Formation in Man, written by Carleton Coon, Stanley Garn, and Joseph Birdsell, argues that racial categories formed to the conditions of the environment via natural selection
        • Race was seen as ever-changing instead of static
      • Currently: race is no longer a subject of study, with the exception of clarifying misusages of the term that lead to discrimination. Human variation is viewed as dynamic.
        • Discussion: What are some current examples of the misuse of the concept of race? How are these examples different from misusages in the past?

Human Adaptability

  • 1950s: Bodily adaptation to the environment is viewed as happening largely in terms of adaptation to climate (particularly temperature extremes)
  • 1960s—1970s: The International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU) implemented the International Biological Programme (IBP)
    • Human adaptability studies were a part of this, though the more scientifically inclined methodology of the research kept some human biologists from participating
    • Ecosystems science (a combination of ecology and the mathematical study of systems science) became popular
    • The physiological measurements that were also taken at this time allowed for the study of how populations adapt biobehaviorally to the environment
    • Many of the projects conducted by the human adaptability section of the IBP were multidisciplinary projects
      • Discussion: What are the advantages and disadvantages of a large-scale study such as the human adaptability research at the IBP?

Anthropological Genetics

  • Timeline
    • 1860’s- Mendel experiments with peas to develop the laws of  segregation and independent assortment
      • Explores dominance in alleles
      • Compares genotype to phenotype
    • 1927-1930- JBS Haldane and Robert Fisher expressed evolution as the aggregate effect of interactions between mutations, gene flow, selection, and genetic drift
      • Integrated Darwinian theory, population genetics, and advanced mathematical analyses
      • Let to the rise of the two modern approaches to the interpretation of patterns of gene frequency
        • One focuses on natural selection
        • One focuses on the stochastic processes of genetic drift and gene flow
    • 1900- Karl Landsteiner provides first description of human ABO blood type groups
      • Discovery of these and other antigens revolutionized immunology and segued into the study of human population genetics
      • Later found that the frequencies of these antigens are shaped, at least in a small degree, by natural selection
    • 1950- William Boyd argues against the use of anthropometry
      • Wanted scientists to focus on genetics that were not shaped by environment
      • Still believed in race as a true biological category
    • 1958- Frank B. Livingstone analyzes the distribution and dynamics  of the hemoglobin S (sickle-cell) gene
    • 1987- National Institutes of Health begin the Human Genome Project
  • Review and Discussion
    • Darwin’s description of natural selection was not complete until Mendel completed his work with the pea plants
      • Where do you stand on the issue of the main force behind evolution? Do you agree with E.B. Ford who argues that genetic polymorphism is maintained by selection and that gene frequencies are kept in equilibrium by opposing selective forces? Would  you say that population demographics like age structure, mortality rates, sex ratio, and migration/immigration patterns have the strongest  impact on the genetic variability within a population?
    • The Modern Trends
      • Most of the study of human genetics has  been at the level of DNA
      • The Human Genome Project focuses mainly on alleles considered responsible for disease
        • What else could be studied through the mapping of the human genome?
        • What portion of disease patterns do you consider to be affected by genetics and what portion of the pattern is affected by culture/environment?

Growth and Development

  • Timeline
    • 1948- Wilton M. Krogman starts to study the “whole child” and is       considered the “father” of growth studies in America
    • 1970- Though incorrect, Rose Frisch developed a hypothesis about the relationship between a “critical weight” and menarche in young females, thus sparking the interest in reproductive ecology popular in the 1980’s
    • 1986- Elizabeth Watts introduces an evolutionary perspective to the study of human growth
  • Review and Discussion
    • Franz Boas is considered the first to emphasize longitudinal studies when examining growth and development?
      • Why had few people done these before? What are the benefits? Do the benefits outweigh the numerous complications?
    • The new interest in human growth also opened new avenues on exploring the interactions between biology and the environment
      • Human ecology emerges, initiating studies that examine the physical changes that occur in people who live in extreme conditions
      • The exploration into the sub-division of reproductive ecology led to the discovery of the many environmental (and cultural) variables that influence reproduction and infant care
      • What framework were anthropologists previously using to examine         reproduction? 
    • The thrifty phenotype
      • First appears in the early 90’s
      • Based on the concept of developmental plasticity
      • States that some adult diseases can be associated with earlier growth patterns
      • How do you feel about the accuracy of this hypothesis? How could it be tested?

Biomedical Anthropology

  • Timeline
    • ~1960- Albert Damon describes the health significance in variations in physique
  • Review and Discussion
    • Four related factors that culminate in the discipline known as “biomedical anthropology"
        • The plasticity of human variability
        • Concept of “risk factors” refined by the field of epidemiology
        • Primary affiliation of many “human biologist” with the medical or dental industries
          • How would having a medical background assist a physical anthropologist? Could it be a hindrance? Or does it not really make a significant difference? 
        • The emergence of Darwinian (evolutionary) medicine
          • Examines the evolutionary aspects of contemporary human diseases
          • Includes “diseases of civilization,” representative of the fact that early adaptations to preindustrial life have become maladaptive in a contemporary, urban society
            • The book lists obesity, cardiovascular disease, and sudden infant death syndrome as examples, can you think of any others?
        • The realization of functional lifestyle changes that occur in immigrant populations
          • Focuses particularly on stress arising from culture shock and a change in social structure
          • Can culture also “cure” some of these stresses by providing a new form of adaptation?  

17 thoughts on “The History of Human Biology in the United States of America

  1. Katie Coward

    I think a common misconception of race today is that there are set racial groups based on skin color and physical appearance. I was not aware that this was no longer correct until I took ANT102. These common misconceptions probably arose from past typological measurements. One advantage of such large scale studies such as the IBP is that the larger the sample size, the more accurate their data would be. It would also be beneficial that the study be multidisciplinary because the kind of data gathered would be more specialized. One disadvantage is that overall it would be much more difficult to maintain organization. I feel that the thrifty phenotype hypothesis is correct. This could be tested by observing whether or not malnourished fetuses grow up to become obese or develop cardiac diseases. Having a medical background would assist a physical anthropologist in that they would be more knowledgable about the biological factors influencing human health rather than only having a background in anthropology. The only way that it would be a hindrance would be if they were less inclined to consider the cultural influences on health. Another example of "diseases of civilization" would be stress and anxiety due to lack of physical activity in modern societies.

  2. Becca Leon

    1. Discussion: Since this chapter focuses only on the history of American human biology (due to space restrictions), what kind of biases do you think could be present, if any?

    I understand that the authors had space restrictions and thus could not discuss the history of human biology beyond the United States. However, the problem that I see with this is that the reader is only getting to read about the American history/culture that has shaped the study of human biology. The social and political environments of a society have always influenced the scientific research of the day. Although the issue of fixed races began to disappear in the scientific world after World War II, some American scientists like William Boyd were still advocating for race as a true biological category into the 1950s and beyond. This probably has a lot to do with the cultural environment of the time when racial clashes/issues were still being dealt with in the United State for several decades following WWII. The focus on American human biologists does not allow us to understand the cultural influences of other societies on the scientific study of human biology.

    2. Discussion: What are some current examples of the misuse of the concept of race? How are these examples different from misusages in the past?

    The term “race” is still being used today in politics, the media, pop culture, and even other academic fields. This term is constantly being misused, because the general public does not understand exactly what the term means. In the past, people used “race” to refer to a specific population that implied they were of a different species from other human populations. However, there is only one human race and if there were multiple races of humans then we shouldn’t be able to reproduce with one another, which is obviously not the case. Today, the term continues to be misused in a way of separating one population from another. This differentiates us from others leading to racist feelings/ideas. Yes, there are many differences between human populations, but the use of the term “race” does not allow the general public to see the many similarities that also exist between groups.

    3. Where do you stand on the issue of the main force behind evolution? Do you agree with E.B. Ford who argues that genetic polymorphism is maintained by selection and that gene frequencies are kept in equilibrium by opposing selective forces? Would you say that population demographics like age structure, mortality rates, sex ratio, and migration/immigration patterns have the strongest impact on the genetic variability within a population?

    Personally, I think the main force (i.e., most important) behind evolution is mutation. As we know, mutations are the only source for new genetic material/variation. Without mutation there would be nothing for evolution to act on except for the genes that were already present in our gene pool. Natural selection can only influence evolution by selecting for or against new mutations that occur within a population. Genetic drift and gene flow only encourage or discourage respectively genetic variation. Based on what I know I would have to say that I agree with E.B. Ford’s argument that genetic polymorphism is maintained by selection and gene frequencies are kept in equilibrium by opposing selective forces. As stated above, genetic drift and gene flow can only increase or decrease genetic variation. So, it makes sense that natural selection is the only evolutionary force that is responsible for maintaining genetic variation within a population. There needs to be some variety within a population in case a catastrophic event occurs, so maybe one type of genetic make-up has the chance to survive. Otherwise if everyone had the same genes the likely hood that they would be able to survive would not be high without possibly a random mutation. Out of the population demographics that you listed I think that migration/immigration has the strongest impact on genetic variability within a population. Besides mutation, the only other way for a population to obtain new genetic material would be through new members migrating and interacting/reproducing with them.

    I am also curious as to what everyone thinks about the Human Genome Project. Many groups, such as Native Americans and some anthropologists argue that the HGP will lead to racial stereotyping and/or exploitation. Do you agree or disagree?

  3. Jonathan

    Here are my responses to the discussion questions

    Human Adaptability: An advantage of a large scale research project like this is that we can get a lot of data on a topic and it has an incredibly large sample size. This would allow us to see previous unseen connections. A disadvantage is that it will generate enormous amounts of data to go through and that it isn't a quick study. This will have to continue for a long time to see connections and get answers.

    Anthropological Genetics: I feel the forces behind evolution work together, and that there probably isn't a main one responsible.
    Through mapping the human genome we can also see where genes for non-lethal traits are located. It is possible we could understand the linkages between traits as we study more of it.
    I think that although disease patterns are ultimately controlled by genetics, the culture and environment can affect it. If someone is predisposed to high cholesterol, and then happens to live in the US, the culture and diet can exacerbate the problem. This can lead to some very bad medical complications. Whereas if that individual was born in a culture where food contains less LDL, then their preexisting condition might not show.

    Biomedical Anthropology: The benefits to having a medically trained anthropologist would be that more of the medical effects of stress, or other disorders, can be known. And when studies on topics like this start, a person with this training can be brought in, whereas partnering with a person only trained in the medical might not understand the purpose.
    Other forms of "diseases of civilization" could be certain forms of cancer; some forms might never have arisen in a preindustrial society, Mesothelioma for an example.
    Your question on stress and culture show brings up an interesting question in and of itself, Do any groups feel more stress at the hands of culture shock? Do you think that possibly certain countries where multiple cultures mix might have less stress during initial culture shock?

  4. Madeleine Cheatham

    I am very interested in the thrifty phenotype. The book defines the thrifty phenotype hypothesis as an extension of developmental plasticity, where metabolism during gestation and infancy adapts to nutritional status and selects an appropriate "trajectory" of growth. So poor nutrition during early growth followed by excess intake during childhood and later years increases the risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. I'm interested to know more about this. Where is this happening and to how many people? Is this happening everywhere or just in certain parts of the world, or am I just really confused and getting the whole concept completely wrong?

  5. Andrea Roulaine

    One of the areas that interested me the most was the Human Genome Project. The Human Genome Project holds benefits to many fields from medicine to evolution. The Human Genome Project will allow us to do a number of things, such as; it will help us understand diseases, identity mutations links to cancer, and help us trace our ancestry. The Human Genome Project will indeed create a number of benefits, but what are the cultural risks, cultural meaning, privacy issues, and will this project interfere with human adaptability as far as the natural process of evolution goes?

  6. Taylor Burbach

    That's a lot of discussion questions! I'll answer just a few, since I'm sure we'll have a lot to talk about during class.
    Firstly, I think bias is inherent in the choice itself to focus on the history of American human biology. The authors both received degrees from American universities, and possibly wrote primarily for American students, so focusing on the American history seems to be the smart choice if space was an issue.
    Second, I think there are so many things we can learn from the Human Genome Project that don't pertain to disease markers. Although I personally struggle with the idea that DNA accounts for all aspects of human personality, I think studying the human genome can reveal to what extent we are driven by our genes. I flip-flop on this subject, and I'd like to see more research.
    Stemming from that, I think that disease patterns are affected mainly by the environment. From what I understand, even if you have a genetic predisposition for certain ailments, they may never reveal themselves if you do not encounter the right environmental factors.
    I know there is a lot more to talk about, but I hope this is enough to work from. I'd like to hear what everyone thinks, especially concerning the Human Genome Project.

  7. Emily Barron

    I thought that the "diseases of civilization" part of the chapter was really interesting. I would include joint and back pain due to running/walking as a result of maladaptation to urban living. For example, we are not well adapted to running on hard cement with thick rubber soles. The book "Born to Run" describes the Tarahumara in Mexico and their way of life. They can run for days over rough terrain with thin soles under their feet without pain, but many of us run a few miles on the road and have back and knee pain. I think it's interesting that we pave our sidewalks to increase mobility (among other reasons) but it actually hurts us. Obesity (mentioned in the text) also contributes to stress on our joints and backs.

  8. Jess Leonard

    Overall, I found the the chapter very interesting, specifically, the fact that Human Biology as a field of study is a relatively new concept in science. Aside from that and the list of prominent scientists and medical professionals who have contributed to the field, i was interested in Franz Boas and his work studying growth in children of European migrants as it related to the concept of race during his time. While he showed that Typology and was outdated and that developmental plasticity was a major cause for human variation, the text makes known that both the scientific community and popular opinion in reference to genetics, continued to focus on Eugenics for nearly a half-century after his findings (until World War II). For discussion, I wonder if the heavy emphasis on Eugenics put in place by the Nazi regime in Germany, both in theory and dreadful practice, served to phase out these antiquated theories after World War II. In other words, did the Nazis "ruin" the "science" of Eugenics for what proponents it had left in the rest of the world?

  9. Brittany Fuller

    Discussion 1:
    I think that there can be many biases when only looking at one culture in any subject. People in America can come up with biases on why their human biology is better than other countries, even though this is not always correct. Not only is there a problem with the aspect that they only looked at one Society, but I also agree with Becca that they should have looked at more aspects in the American Culture as well.
    Discussion 2:
    People still use the word “race” or hear it almost daily. It is in our news, music, and culture. The sad thing is that the word or term “race” is very misused and normally based on the color of one’s skin.
    Discussion 3:
    I am not really sure what I think is the main force behind evolution. I am interested to see what others say about this subject so maybe I can become more knowledgeable about the subject and be more clear of what I think is the main force.

  10. ammorris4

    "Discussion: What are the advantages and disadvantages of a large-scale study such as the human adaptability research at the IBP?" It might be difficult to conduct a large-scale study of human adaptability simply because of the wide range of cultures and the technology they have. A culture that has the technology to keep up with either climate change or illness will be able to adapt easier, whereas a culture that does not have the means to keep up with change will have a more difficult time adapting. Also being able to collect such data would take years and years before you would able to make any conclusions.
    “What are some current examples of the misuse of the concept of race? How are these examples different from misusages in the past?” The term race is misused today in a way that it almost makes it sound as though there are different species of humans which is not the case. Disputes over this have caused racists ideals to arise over the past few years. Saying that there are differences among human populations would be more correct to say there are different races.

  11. Sophia Fazal

    Some other diseases of civilization can include Type 2 diabetes, chronic liver disease, and and even depression. Many of these diseases have been thought to have no cure until recently. For example, Type 2 diabetes has been known to clear up in patients that have lost a substantial amount of weight. Along with this, obesity and cardiovascular disease have been known to prove the same with results of a complete lifestyle change.

  12. Paula Adams

    The Human Genome project was mostly for looking at disease alleles yes, but it is so much more than that. Once the genome was mapped we could begin understanding the genetic interactions behind every protein in our body. We can then compare our genome to other genomes (chimps, bonobos, apes, monkeys, and now neanderthals and denisovians). This allows us to better understand how closely related we are to those species and to understand what makes us different from them. The more we understand about the human genome the more we can understand about human adaptability. What in our genome allowed us to become the way we are, to be so flexible?? The Human genome project may have originally helped with diseases and illnesses, and that is a huge break through in medicine, but understanding our relationship to other speices and how we are different may be the biggest clue for understanding evolution.

  13. Christopher Lynn

    I like these bios. I will offer up to 1 course point in extra credit for each substantive biographical post (i.e., more detailed than these) outlining the life/career/contribution of leaders in the history & discipline of human evolutionary biology. They should not be bios of folks your already assigned to read in this book & will be doing bios on anyway, which means you'll have to cull back thru these history articles to see who've been left out.

  14. Noël Cameron

    I don't know what source you have used for your timeline of the history of Human Biology but it excludes the importance of European initiatives particularly from the 1950s onwards. As a point of accuracy there were 16 longitudinal studies of human growth that had been undertaken in the USA by 1948 - the British Human Biologist Jim Tanner, who co-edited the journal Human Biology with Gabriel Lasker from 1963 to 1973, reported on them all in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology (Tanner JM 1948. A guide to American growth studies: report to the Viking Summer seminar. Yearbook of Physical Anthropology, 3; 28-33). The journal Human Biology was, in fact, the offical journal of the UK Society for the Study of Human Biology from 1963 and only ceased being so with the publication of the Annals of Human Biology in 1974 as the offical journal of the SSHB. The newly formed Human Biology Council in the USA subsequenetly used the journal Human Biology as its official journal.

    This short response serves to indicate that American and European human biology developed along parallel lines . To ignore the influence of European human biology, and human biolgosts, is to exclude rich and significant contributions to the science on both sides of the Atlantic.

    For more information see, for example,
    Cameron N Editorial: 50 years of the Society for the Study of Human Biology. Annals of Human Biology 2008 35(5): 457- 461;
    Cameron N. The Human Biology of Jim Tanner. Ann Hum Biol. 2012 Sep;39(5):329-34. .

    1. Christopher Lynn

      Hi Noel, Thanks for chiming in! It's important that we recognize that oversight. We're using the Stinson et al "Human Bio" text, but we'll add in your piece from now on. Thanks for bringing it to our attention! BTW, did you see the online academic phylogeny in the previous comment? It's pretty cool, but you, Ines, & Hannah are adrift on there last I checked...

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