How Anthropology Informs Us

By Elaine Miller

March 7, 2019

Author in the lab

I never thought I would study anthropology. For a long time, I believed that anthropologists were people watchers whose contributions to science were interesting but did not have much application. And, now, I embark on my second semester in the PhD program at the Center for Advanced Study of Human Paleobiolgy (CASHP) within the Department of Anthropology at The George Washington University. I am embarrassed to expose my past ignorance to the vast and wonderful world of human studies. But, I hope that if anyone out there shares my past sentiments, I can persuade them to see anthropology for all that it is and all that it offers.

I began my science career in a biomedical setting with a focus on understanding disease using animal models. My first research experience was looking at neuroimmune interactions during fetal development that might result in autism. From there, I went on to study the microbiota-gut-brain axis in inflammatory bowel disease. Finally, I worked on characterizing an ATP-release channel called CALHM (calcium homeostasis modulator) that has been implicated in late-onset Alzheimer’s disease. For a long time, I felt that the most relevant research should have a direct application to medicine because this is how we advance our methods in treatment of disease; this is how we help stop suffering. I neglected to acknowledge that the diseases I was studying so intensively, autism and Alzheimer’s, are unique to humans. And then, it finally dawned on me: How can we truly understand these diseases when we do not entirely understand the species they are affecting?

This is where my appreciation for anthropology originates. Of course, anthropology is fun to study because primates are super cute – this definitely helped to draw me into the field. But, studying humans and their close phylogenetic relatives allows us to understand from where we’ve come and why we are the way we are. We, humans, are a unique species even among primates for many reasons including the way we walk on two legs, cook our food, and dress ourselves in all sorts of garments. More intriguing is that we have taken cognition and sociality to the extreme with our incredible intellect and prosocial behavior. These characters make us unique, but also more vulnerable to deficits that can affect the complicated cognitive and social processing in the brain.

Consider, for example, how studying the human brain from an anthropologist’s perspective has informed our understanding of autism. Neuroscientists in anthropology have described the human brain as developing more slowly compared to other primates1while also being reorganized so that there is a larger proportion of long-range connections between areas of the cerebral cortex2,3. At the same time, scientists have found that there is brain overgrowth in infants with autism, meaning these individuals have a brain development pattern that is shifted from the human norm4,5. Additionally, scientists have found that individuals with autism exhibit atypical connectivity patterns between areas of the cerebral cortex, most notably an increase in short-range connections and a decrease in long-range connections6. Anthropologists have set the stage for studying human disease – including cognitive and behavioral disorders – by establishing an understanding of typical life history characters, anatomy, and behavior in humans.

My point is simple: anthropology is a multi-faceted field with applications that run deeper than one may realize with just a superficial glance. Anthropology encompasses four primary areas of study including sociocultural anthropology, linguistic anthropology, biological anthropology, and archaeology. Each of these subfields contributes to our understanding of how humans have evolved and each has applications beyond simply knowing how language has influenced the construction of societies or how stone tools have allowed us to exploit new adaptive niches.

As a budding anthropologist, my interest lies with the human brain because there are still huge gaps in our understanding of how this complicated and fascinating organ has evolved. We are still describing how the various neurons and glia take shape, how the structures in the brain are connected and how these neurons, glia and all their intricate connections interact to produce human intelligence and behavior. I believe that every bit of information is like a piece to a puzzle that has the potential, not only to help resolve questions in understanding neural disease, but also to understand how we’ve become an intellectual anomaly. After all, our brains make us, and we’re extraordinary.

  1. Finlay BL, Workman AD. 2013. Human Exceptionalism. Trends in Cognitive Sciences17:199 – 201.
  2. Hecht EE, Gutman DA, Bradley BA, Preuss TM, Stout D. 2015. Virtual dissection and comparative connectivity of the superior longitudinal fasciculus in chimpanzees and humans. Neuroimage 108:124–137.
  3. Rilling JK, Glasser MF, Preuss TM, Ma X, Zhao T, Hu X, Behrens TEJ. 2008. The evolution of the arcuate fasciculus revealed with comparative DTI. Nature Neuroscience 11:426–428
  4. Courchesne E, Carper R, Akshoomoff N. 2003. Evidence of brain overgrowth in the first year of life in autism. Journal of the American Medical Association290, 337–344.
  5. Courchesne E, Karns C, Davis HR, Ziccardi R, Tigue Z, Pierce K. 2001. Unusual growth patterns in early life in patients with autistic disorder: an MRI study. Neurology57:245–254.
  6. Courchesne E, Pierce K. 2005. Why the frontal cortex in autism might be talking only to itself: local over-connectivity but long-distance disconnection. Current Opinion in Neurobiology15:225–230.