Tag Archives: development

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?

 

 

Evolving Brain Stuff, Y’all (part 2)

****Pictures coming soon***

I was especially excited to review “Evolution and the Brain ” from The Encultured Brain because evolution is something that interests me. I really like to see how evolutionary theory applies to different disciplines (can anybody say EvoS?). Theodosius Dobzhansky said “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” I have found that this can apply to many different fields other than biology.

I have studied development in the context of evolution before, but never in a neurological context. This chapter really built onto my existing understanding of human evolution. As someone studying anthropology (I guess this is a neuroanthropology blog), I was especially excited to read about how the human brain and culture interact and how we can understand this interaction in an evolutionary context. Below is a quick summary of the chapter.

About the Authors

Greg Downey is Head of Department and Associate Professor of anthropology at Macquarie University. His interests include, but are not limited to, neuroanthropology, ethnomusicology, economic anthropology, and evolutionary theory. His main research focus is on skill acquisition from a neuroanthropological perspective.

Daniel H. Lende is an Associate Professor at the University of South Florida. His interests include neuroanthropology and biocultural medical anthropology. His research interests focus on substance and abuse, stress, cancer, PTSD, among others.

Together, Downey and Lende run the PLOS (Public Library of Science) blog site. The PLOS blog site is intended to facilitate discussion about science and medicine.

Size Matters

When we talk about how special human brains are, we typically first talk about size. Although size itself is not the only feature important when studying the brain, it is especially important to consider in an evolutionary context. It takes a lot of energy from high quality food sources to develop and maintain large brains. However, absolute size isn’t the determining factor of intelligence, and neither is relative brain size. Rather, the encephalization quotient of an animal best predicts brain and body size relationships. Humans are outliers, with a ~6X higher encephaliztion quotient for mammals our size.

Before our ancestors enjoyed an increase in brain size, they were distinguished by bipedalism. After this initial divergence, our ancestors’ brains tripled in size by two million years ago. Body size also increased, but not at the same rate. Another jump in brain size occurred about 500,000 years ago. Genetic research has revealed a great deal of similarity between humans and chimpanzees (our closest relatives) especially compared to our other primate relatives. Even the small differences in our genes account for huge phenotypic variation.

“Evo-devo” is a recently developed paradigm combining evolutionary theory and developmental biology. The idea that we can look at developmental processes to get an idea of how evolution has shaped us is not a new idea, but only recently has it been a widely accepted way of evaluating how evolution has shaped us.

Structure Matters

Comparative neuroscience is a great way to see how evolution has acted on the brain structure itself. By looking at human brains along with other primates we can see that evolution acts on existing structures, changing the function of a structure instead of creating a completely new structure. One way this is exhibited is by increasing the size of certain regions in proportion to others. There are often trade-offs when this happens; when one region increase another must decrease in order to remain metabolically stable. Humans are especially unique in our hemispheric specializations. This creates a streamlined process for quicker and more varied neural processing but also leaves us highly susceptible to injury (trade-off). Brain regions growing disproportionately is a demonstration of natural selection acting on this growth.

Connections Matter

The larger our brains get, the more neurons we possess, opening up more connections in neural pathways. Evolution acts, not only on the number of neurons in a region, but also on connections within and between regions. In humans, control of our larynx has been affected by a neocortical “invasion,” which is important for language. Other animals do not have these connections, and are therefore missing brain function vital to speech.

Not a Brain Alone

I think it is hard for people to grasp that intelligence is not shaped entirely within. Culture plays a big role in our learning and brain development. During the first three months after birth, there are many neurons in an infant’s brain that adults will not possess. During these three months, vital connections are made, and there is a pruning of neurons that go unused. It is during this time that a lot of cultural cues become ingrained in people. The social intelligence hypothesis places paramount importance on intelligence as a tool for cooperation. The focus is on the individual and how collaborative actions benefit the individual. In the cultural niche hypothesis, emphasis is on the interaction between multiple brain. Many human intelligence innovations could not be possible without the collaboration of multiple peoples’ brains. Regardless, sociality is a large contributing factor to human intelligence.