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Cultural Contexts & Paleo Parenting: How Anthropologists Study Well-Being in Children

Source: Pixabay

The chapter, ‘Child Well-Being: Anthropological Perspectives’ in the Handbook of Child Well-Being (2014), is co-authored by anthropologists Edward G. J. Stevenson and Carol M. Worthman.  While not explicitly stated, it is highly likely that this collaboration came about due to the author’s shared affiliation at Emory University: Dr. Worthman has been a faculty member at Emory since the 1980s and Dr. Stevenson graduated with his PhD from Emory in 2011.

Dr. Stevenson (Source: UCL faculty page)

Dr. Stevenson is currently a Teaching Fellow at University College London and his research is focused on health and human development in sub-Saharan Africa.

Dr. Worthman (Source: Emory faculty page)

Dr. Worthman is the director for the Laboratory for Comparative Human Biology at Emory University which began in 1987. The lab focuses on differences in human well-being and aims to collaborate with non-laboratory based researchers.  Former members of this lab include several authors that we have read this semester including Dr. Seligman, Dr. DeCaro, and the co-author of our textbook, Dr. Lende.

Overview

This chapter focuses on breaking down how anthropologists approach studying well-being in children by distinguishing between different conceptual models and how they are impacted by historical and environmental factors. 

Heuristic Models

Source: Pixabay

Heuristic models commonly fall into three categories (ecocultural, developmental niche, and cultural mediation) and generally compare how child development and well-being differ in two cultural contexts. These models provide valuable information about a particular culture at a specific point in time.

Ecocultural Model

This model examines how child well-being is influenced by everyday activities and routines. For instance, the authors provide the example of how an ecocultural model can be used to look at how parents of children with disabilities adapt to their child’s needs versus parents of children without developmental disabilities (see Weisner 1997, 2002). The benefit of this type of model is the ability to examine child well-being at smaller levels such as the individual household.

Developmental Niche Model

Super and Harkness (1986) originally developed this model to look at cross-cultural variation in child development. This model focuses on a wide-range of factors that can influence child health and development. This includes looking at  physical and social circumstances, local customs, the beliefs and goals of caretakers, as well as traits the child are born with or epigenetic factors.

Cultural Mediation Model

This model combines insights from evolutionary theory, economic-demographic pressures, and cultural elements to examine how child care is organized within a society. The authors emphasize that each of these factors in isolation cannot provide an explanation for childcare practices.

Predictive Models

Source: Pixabay

The authors suggest that there are four main categories of predictive models: discordance, developmental ecology, embodied capital, and ecosystem dynamics. These models take more of an evolutionary approach and attempt to  gauge what universal factors might impact childhood well-being.

Discordance Model

This model deals with environmental mismatch between modern and ancestral environments. Given the vast amount of time that humans spent in hunter-gatherer groups, this model predicts that child well-being will be highest in situations that more closely resemble these ancestral roots.

Developmental Ecology Model

Evolution teaches us that there are always trade-offs. This model focuses on how early experiences influence future development in humans in order to employ the most adaptive responses to environmental conditions.  An example of this might be to look at how breastfeeding impacts future immune response or how early life nutritional deprivation may increase fat storage later in life (known as the “thrifty phenotype” hypothesis).

Embodied Capital Model

The concept of embodied capital refers to an individual’s ability to survive and reproduce based on the current conditions and capacities of the individual. This model uses this concept to explore how parents invest in children. It is predicted that in situations where resources are scarce, parents may focus on quantity of offspring over quality. On the other hand, when conditions are favorable, it is predicted that parents will invest more in a smaller amount of offspring (i.e., quality over quantity).

Ecosystem Dynamics Model

The final model presented explores how macroecology (e.g., political-economic, demographic,  technological context) and microecology (e.g., immediate surroundings, caretakers,  childcare customs) influence childhood well-being.

Historical Transitions, Policy Implications, & Future Research

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The final sections of the chapter describes how the theoretical models of child well-being described above are impacted by historical changes in five areas: (1) demography, (2) epidemiology and nutrition, (3) education, (4) politics/economics, and (5) ecology.  The authors argue that by considering these factors and models, policymakers and researchers can better understand how to improve child well-being.

My Thoughts

One of the aspects of this article that I liked the best was the use of tables to summarize some of the main areas of research along with some sample citations. I felt that this was an effective way of organizing the wealth of information that was provided without becoming overwhelming. While I generally enjoy brevity in a paper, this might be one of the only times that I would have liked to have seen more examples for each model simply because I found the content so fascinating. However, for someone less interested in these topics, this chapter provides a great overview that is also easily digestible.

Source: Max Pixel

Discussion Questions

  1.  Well-being was also a central focus of the Campbell chapter from last week. How do you feel these two papers compare in their conceptualization of well-being? Did one have a stronger approach?
  2.  What are some ways in which children living in industrialized societies might be worse off than those living in circumstances that more closely reflect our hunter-gatherer ancestors?
  3.  Conversely, what are some ways in which children might be better off in modern environments?
  4.  Did you feel that any of the models were stronger than others?
  5.  Could any of the models presented be applied to your research interests?

 

 

The Evolving Human Brain

EVOLUTION AND THE BRAIN

It has long been appreciated that there is something about the human brain that makes it unique amongst other primates and mammals in general. Dr. Greg Downey  and Dr. Daniel Lende explore how and why the human brain has evolved the way that it has in Chapter 4 of The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology. The authors are well-qualified to provide an overview on this topic as both have a wealth of publications in this area, as well as being leaders in the development of the field of Neuroanthropology.

SIZE MATTERS

Blue Whale at The American Museum of Natural History

What makes a human brain unique? Is it simply the sheer size of it? Well, no. Anyone who has visited the American Museum of Natural History in New York City can clearly see that the enormous blue whale hanging from the ceiling has a brain much larger in size than that of a human’s. Perhaps the issue is not sheer size then, but the size relative to one’s own body. Unfortunately, we once again do not have a satisfactory explanation for human’s unique cognitive capabilities. While looking at relative size does work to explain the blue whale example (a blue whale’s brain only accounts for 0.01% of its body’s mass while a human brain accounts for 2%) we see other species that are an exception to this rule. For instance, a pocket mouse has a brain that comprises 10% of their body mass, much more than that of a human and yet we don’t see the unique functionality of a human brain expressed in a mouse.

Pocket Mouse at White Sands National Monument

However, when we turn instead to the encephalization quotient (i.e. the ratio of predicted brain mass to observed brain mass) we see that humans do stand out in this respect. In fact, humans exhibit an encephalization quotient that is between five to seven times higher than what is predicted for a mammal of our size. While greater encephalization is found across primates, humans are still an outlier and it appears this has been true for quite some time. Around two million years ago the genus Homo appears and with it we see a tripling in brain size in our ancestors as compared to other apes. However, it is not just the increase in size that is notable here–brain organization is a key component in better understanding our cognitive evolution.

STRUCTURE MATTERS

So, do humans simply have brains that have a ton of new structures that other primates don’t possess? This is once again an incorrect assumption. Rather than humans and primates differing in existing regions of the brain, our current evidence suggests that the differences are actually proportional which has fascinating implications for our evolutionary understanding of cognitive function. Instead of evolving new structures, it appears that humans have modified or repurposed existing structures so that certain brain regions have expanded at a different rate than others. This evolutionary trade-off has resulted in decreased development in areas like the human olfactory bulb, while structures like the cerebellum which is involved in frontal lobe functioning has shown great expansion.

Human Olfactory Bulb


CONNECTIONS MATTER

In addition to size and structure changing across evolutionary time, connections among regions of the brain have also seen significant changes.

In particular, we have seen an increase in the total number of neurons and with this, we see that larger brains tend to develop areas that are increasingly independent or modular which requires an increase in white connective matter. Understanding the brain’s connectivity is likely a key component of understanding human consciousness. Further, many researchers are now emphasizing the failure of previous metaphors such as the brain being “hard-wired” which does not capture the way in which brains are shaped through interactions and development (i.e. “wet-wired”).

NOT A BRAIN ALONE

To better understand how it is that experiences help shape the brain, Downey and Lende draw on the concept of niche construction which emphasizes the role that organisms play in shaping their own environment and subsequent selective pressures.

The authors argue that niche construction provides a place for cultural researchers within evolutionary studies–an interdisciplinary relationship that is too rarely created. This relationship is absolutely necessary since an understanding of human “intelligence” cannot be obtained by looking simply at the size and structure of the brain. Rather, we must also consider how our social relationships allow us to transfer and amass all of the components that we regard as forms of “intelligence” (e.g., technology, skills, information). Moreover, the authors emphasize how emotions, motivation, and perception are all factors that play into our social and cultural complexity and, thus, cognitive evolution.

MY THOUGHTS

This last section of the chapter was by far my favorite as I feel the authors made a convincing argument for the role of culture and social relationships in our understanding of human evolution. Additionally, I think that they do a great job of not allowing those who are skeptical or critical of previous evolutionary research to “throw the baby out with the bathwater.” I think their point is best summed up in the following quote:

Powerful, but overly simple, models of evolution that assume evolutionary traits will necessarily result in human universals need to give way, not to erase evolutionary explanations, but to provide richer accounts that incorporate data emerging from genetics, paleoanthropology, comparative neuroscience, and anthropology, including research on human diversity (p. 124).

EVOLUTION OF THE CEREBELLAR CORTEX: THE SELECTIVE EXPANSION OF PREFRONTAL-PROJECTING CEREBELLAR LOBULES

The lead author for this paper is Dr. Joshua Balsters whose research interests are in the area of social and emotional decision making. While not covered in the article, Dr. Balsters states that his specific interest is in Autism Spectrum Conditions (ASC) which he studies using a combination of fMRI, EEG, and computational modeling.

STUDY OVERVIEW

Capuchin Monkey

At the broadest level, the researchers are interested in whether the process of brain evolution is mosaic (i.e. evolutionary pressures act on individual neural structures) or concerted (i.e. evolution acts on interconnected parts of the brain that comprise whole functional systems). To test this, the researchers examine the cortico-cerebellar system in three different primate species: humans, chimpanzees, and capuchin monkeys.

METHODS

Chimpanzee

The study consisted of obtaining high-resolution MRI scans from 10 primates from each of the previously mentioned species (5 females and 5 males). All of the included primates had either reached sexual maturity or were close. The researchers were able to isolate the cerebellum and examine the lobules related to the primary motor cortex and the prefrontal cortex.

RESULTS

The data demonstrate that the lobules related to motor and prefrontal cortex occupy a greater proportion of the human cerebellum (83.87%) as compared to chimpanzees (67.1%) and capuchin monkeys (56.82%). Moreover, the results show that where there were increases in the prefrontal cortex, there were proportional decreases in the motor cortex. Since the volume of areas of the prefrontal cortex increased relative to cerebellar lobules connected to the motor cortex, these data suggest that these associated functional systems evolved together.

Cerebellum in Humans

DISCUSSION

This study provides support for the idea that brain systems evolve in a concerted fashion. The results from this study are important as they suggest a potential route to find clues regarding the evolutionary pressures that may have contributed to various expansions in the brain. Additionally, this research demonstrates how comparative MRI can be utilized to examine differences across primates.

MY THOUGHTS

I was able to somewhat follow the methodology of this study; however, I found myself both intrigued and somewhat intimidated by what I couldn’t grasp. This makes me wonder about some of the practical issues with interdisciplinary collaboration. I loved Downey and Lende’s description of how cultural researchers could and should be involved in evolutionary research, but there will likely be some limitations to this collaboration. In many ways, Balsters et al. (2009) is speaking a different language with words and acronyms that will have no meaning to someone who is not well-versed in the cognitive literature. Even simply grasping the hypothesis or overall finding for the study would likely be quite difficult for someone outside the field to grasp. Here is our challenge: if we were to reduce the complexity of the article, perhaps more researchers could understand the results; contrastly, researchers most likely to utilize this study will need a detailed report of the methodology and results in order to replicate or expand on this study. How do we find this balance? 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • How would our understanding of human brain evolution be different if we didn’t consider it in terms of niche construction?
  • What are some arguments against the idea that humans have “unusual cognitive abilities?”
  • In light of new ideas regarding “dual-inheritance,” what are some reasons why anthropologists might be uniquely qualified to examine human cognitive evolution?
  • How might we define “culture” in evolutionary terms?
  • With the full acknowledgement that there is very likely more than one explanation for human brain encephalization, what is your favorite theory for why humans evolved such large and complex brains?
  • How can we encourage interdisciplinary research when each field has their own “language”?

Red or Green?

This was taken in December 2014 during a visit home. Note the complete lack of snow or any sign of winter present.

I was born and raised in Las Cruces, New Mexico. It’s hard to pick out what I miss most about this gorgeous little city nestled in the desert. Perhaps it’s the overwhelming friendliness–the way that people aren’t afraid to joke and laugh with total strangers. Maybe it’s the 350 days of sunshine a year and the blissful ability to perceive the 70’s as brisk weather. Or, it might just be that little green pepper, the one that tastes like pure happiness and instantly transports me back home–Hatch green chile.

I am about to make a claim that will sound utterly ridiculous to most people and completely mundane to any New Mexican: My favorite hobby is tracking down and consuming Hatch green chile.

A picture of me that my roommate took at the Wegmans’ Hatch Chile Festival in Binghamton, NY in 2016.

To understand how it is that I can declare grocery shopping and eating as the hobby that most defines me, one first needs to understand that green chile is not just food to New Mexicans–it’s a central part of our culture. In fact, this weekend tens of thousands of people will descend upon the New Mexico village of Hatch for the annual Hatch Chile Festival. But it doesn’t take a special event like a festival to get New Mexicans excited about green chile, we incorporate it into everything that we eat. We add green chile to burgers, pizza, sandwiches, and breakfast. We have green chile wine, green chile toffee, and green chile custard. Fast food chains like Sonic or McDonalds let you add green chile to any of the menu items for a few quarters. New Mexico is even the only state that has an official question: “Red or green?”

In 2010, I moved to New Paltz, NY to attend grad school for my M.A. in Psychology. In the months prior to my departure, each joyful congratulations about my move from my fellow New Mexicans was quickly followed with their condolences that I would soon be unable to easily get green chile. Indeed, I found one of the hardest adjustments to my new life on the East Coast was the difference in food.

A combination platter smothered in green chile and cheese.

Each time I would return home, my mom would have a combination platter smothered in green chile waiting for me in the car so that the second I was off the plane I could start to get my green chile fix.

However, to my surprise, I wouldn’t have to go completely without green chile while I was in New York. Each time that I would stumble upon a place that had Hatch green chile it would be a day of intense celebration. I would quickly buy 20 pounds or more to store in my freezer to carefully portion out through the next year. Beyond just the joy of having my stash of peppers in the freezer, was the fun of getting to share this treasure with New Yorkers who had never even heard of Hatch, New Mexico.

My first Hatch Chile Festival at Wegmans in Binghamton, NY in 2014. I literally wept tears of joy in the parking lot when I smelled the green chile roasting.

From explaining to the perplexed employees what the hell I was planning on doing with that much green chile, to introducing my friends to the wonders of this food–these were the moments where I got to share New Mexico with New York. I would tell anyone who would listen about our cultural obsession as I channeled Bubba from Forrest Gump with my endless list of everything that green chile can go into. Through following leads and sheer luck, I was able to have a stock of green chile in my freezer for 5 out of the 7 years I was in New York.  

Now, as I begin my life down in the south, I was overjoyed to find in my first week here that a local restaurant was willing to sell me Hatch green chile. The manager was very kind as he gently explained that they could, unfortunately, only sell it to me in 5 pound bags. I did my best to hold in my laughter as I explained that this wouldn’t be a problem as I was hoping to buy 20 pounds to freeze. After confirming with him several times that he did hear me correctly and that I did understand how much that would cost (~$80), he brought out the most beautiful sight that any New Mexican living out of state could possibly see:

20 lbs. of Hatch Green Chile that I acquired during my first week in Alabama.

So, why do I have this obsession and can Tinbergen’s 4 questions help get at the answer?

Proximal: Proximate is always the easy one. At the most basic level, I eat green chile because green chile is delicious. I continue to seek out and consume green chile because it tastes very good to me. The more interesting question, of course, is why?

Functional: Before we ask, why green chile tastes “good” to me, we should  really start by asking, “why do we taste things at all?” In general, it is adaptive to have keen gustatory abilities so that you can detect potential toxins. Thus, when something tastes “bad” we generally develop an aversion to it; and, lo and behold, that thing that tasted “bad” is more often than not something that could be potentially harmful to your health and should be avoided.

In fact, Dr. Gordon Gallup gave a fascinating talk in the SUNY New Paltz Evolutionary Studies seminar series when I was a grad student that argued that one of the major overlooked factors in the mass extinction of dinosaurs was their inability to develop taste aversion to toxic plants

Now, to our main question. There are a couple of reasons for why I have such a positive reaction when I consume this substance. One interesting evolutionary hypothesis proposed by Dr. Jennifer Billing and Dr. Paul Sherman in the late 1990s suggests that spices (many of which are powerful antimicrobial agents) may aid in reproductive success by cleansing foods of pathogens; thus, those individuals who find these flavors enjoyable would have an advantage when it comes to health and survival since the food they consume is less likely to be contaminated. To support this hypothesis, the authors demonstrate that areas with a higher mean temperatures and thus a higher likelihood of food spoilage (i.e. pathogen contamination) also contain more spices in their cuisine. Given the hot climate of the southwest, it was likely adaptive to incorporate chile peppers into the local cuisine.

Another reason for my green chile obsession is likely due to this being an in-group marker for my identity as someone born and raised in Las Cruces, NM. By eating green chile, I feel connected to my group–something that is highly desirable in an incredibly social species like humans. Additionally, it might be that demonstrating my ability to consume spicy foods is a form of costly signalling as it demonstrates pain tolerance.

Phylogeny: We can also make an argument for an evolutionary legacy here. Humans have been adding spices to their food for thousands of years. Additionally, we see this cross-culturally which suggests a shared evolutionary history.  In fact, in Billing and Sherman (1999), 22 out of the 34 countries examined had chile peppers in their traditional recipes.

Ontogeny: Preference for green chile does depend on a number of factors related to age and reproductive state. For instance, as I’ve grown older, I have started to enjoy hotter peppers than I did as a child. Additionally, it might be that this preference for spicy foods would change depending on my current reproductive state. A somewhat controversial theory put forth by Margie Profet in the late 1980s and later expanded upon by Flaxman and Sherman in 2000 suggests that a pregnant woman’s taste aversions and cravings in the first trimester are an adaptive mechanism for protecting a vulnerable fetus as well as a vulnerable mother who is immunosuppressed in the first trimester so that she does not reject the growing embryo. This could mean that preferences for spicy foods like green chile might change during this stage. 

In conclusion, if you ever get the chance to try Hatch green chile–do it! Just be warned that you may end up with a packed freezer and an uncontrollable reaction to suggest that every meal you have “would be better if they added green chile.”

For Additional Reading: 

  • Billing, J., & Sherman, P. W. (1998). Antimicrobial functions of spices: why some like it hot. The Quarterly review of biology73(1), 3-49.
  • Flaxman, S. M., & Sherman, P. W. (2000). Morning sickness: a mechanism for protecting mother and embryo. The Quarterly review of biology75(2), 113-148.
  • Profet, M. (1988). The evolution of pregnancy sickness as protection to the embryo against Pleistocene teratogens. Evolutionary Theory8(3), 177-190.