All posts by Aaron Jonas Stutz

About Aaron Jonas Stutz

I am an anthropologist, with a primary research focus in bioarchaeology. I seek to understand more clearly how we have evolved intricately with our environment. After all, things and people have identities and histories defined by multiple, thoroughly intertwined dimensions. The challenge is that, when we--as scientists--start to define more rigid, logically sharp definitions, models, and research questions, we lose sight of those intricate, complex evolutionary feedbacks that transgress simpler physical and chronological units, like cells, organisms, and populations; days, years, and generations; inside, on, and beyond bodies. This holistic perspective--with my aim of making the complex a bit more comprehensible--is certainly reflected in my blog and other professional activities, from research to teaching, advising, and consulting. Thus, I am a paleoanthropologist obsessively interested in better understanding in our joint biological and cultural nature. I have long been a professor with primary interest in undergraduate teaching and students’ liberal arts learning experiences. I am a field archaeologist who thrives on the intricate puzzle-solving challenge of figuring out patterns and associations among widely disparate, interdisciplinary observations and analyses. I am an anthropologist committed to rejuvenating substantial intellectual connections between now-fragmented cultural/humanistic and evolutionary/scientific approaches to understanding our diversity AND our shared biocultural inheritance. And I am an educator who seeks to find new ways to engage in and promote the values of critical thinking, scientific inquiry, thoughtful reflection, mutual respect, constructive communication, and lifelong learning. This is just my professional identity. Key research themes that I discuss on the bioculturalevolution.net site include: - niche-adaptation co-evolution in the human evolutionary lineage (the hominins) - evolution of the human life history strategy (we grow up slowly and live a really long time) - human sociality (we’re even more social–and socially interdependent–than our very close ape relatives) - intergenerational transfer strategies (our sociality is strongly tied to how material, information, and social resources are transferred from older to younger generations) - long-term demographic and health patterns (sociality and intergeneration resource transfers influence and are influenced by longer-term trends in demography and health) - language, symbolic thought, embodied social practice, and technology (what more can I say?) - the narrative and metaphorical nature of memory and its role in shaping ideologies of power and masking conflicts of interest in our complex social lives (social conflicts of interest are a highly derived hominin phenotype) As a "medföljande partner" (accompanying spouse), I have now followed my remarkable wife Liv Nilsson Stutz to Sweden (which has long been my second home). I am currently developing my new site bioarkeologen.com, which offers osteological analysis, Swedish-English translation, academic English proofreading, data analysis and data presentation consultation, and educational modules in the key biocultural topics of disability and race.

What Makes a Niche in Nature? And Where Does it End Up?

Or: How to Learn from your Undergraduate Students

by Aaron Jonas Stutz

Let’s start with learning from the learners. In all of my courses, I attempt to challenge my early undergraduate (Freshman and Sophomore) students to clarify and make connections among concepts that my scientific colleagues and I don’t entirely agree on. Or even pay attention to.

I look at it this way. As many of my faculty colleagues in diverse institutions would vouch for, it is basically impossible for any one of us scientists to steer general academic conversations–within any given discipline or specialization–toward concept-focused issues of what we don’t understand, have failed to define, or have thoroughly muddled. This is partly because, as Thomas Kuhn (1996 [1962]) famously discussed, scientific research communities tend toward what are tacitly accepted as normal paradigms. No matter how compelling a lone dissenter’s argument may be, it’s unlikely that a broader research community will immediately see a shared interest in un-learning, re-learning, and creatively reorganizing and redefining key concepts, observation and analysis methods, questions, and all of the jargon and time spent reading and debating that goes with it.

In any case, for several years now, I have confronted my students in an Emory University 200-level core course in the Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology major with a major problem in studying the evolutionary foundations of human behavior:

  • what is the human niche … and where is it?

Continue reading What Makes a Niche in Nature? And Where Does it End Up?

The Environmental Forms of Religious Life

by Aaron Jonas Stutz
Lot Leaving Sodom. Detail from the Nuremburg Chronicle, by Hartmann Schedel, 1493.

A recent article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences statistically demonstrates something that is bound to get environmental determinists excited.

Here it is:

Human cultures incorporating concepts of “moralizing high gods” tend to exist in relatively harsh environments.

Of course, the authors of the study (Botero et al., 2014) cautiously point out that the relevant data consist of statistical patterns. And that the societies under study are constituted by human beings. There have to be multiple interacting factors at play, Botero and colleagues state. I mean, we’re talking about a rather complex pattern of cultural development: whether “moralizing high gods” concepts and representations have already reached historical widespread adoption and intergenerational persistence within a community.

Yet, the authors are clear about their theoretical perspective on the data:

In general, our findings are consistent with the notion that a shared belief in moralizing high gods can improve a group’s ability to deal with environmental duress and may therefore be ecologically adaptive … (Botero et al. 2014: p. 3)

From an interdisciplinary perspective, a wide range of experimental, historical, and ethnographic evidence supports sound theoretical argument. This is a darn plausible hypothesis.

And it’s certainly nice to document–with a robust pattern of scientific observation–support for the “environment influences religion” hypothesis.

This result will certainly not please everyone. Botero et al.’s (2014) study will effectively pull on a salient contemporary cultural tension, which exists between our own conflicting beliefs about agency and freedom versus genetic or environmental inevitability.

But that cultural tension is not really salient for a comprehensive and consistent  understanding of how religious beliefs persist or change in a culturally constituted environmental context. How can that really be? The main result seems to be a pretty clear point for the environmental determinism side.

What remains implicit in the study’s theoretical framework–but what warrants the authors’ point that many interlinked factors have to be involved in shaping cross-cultural variation in the religious structuration of moral commitment–is that there are multiple, historically dependent ways that large-scale societies can hold themselves together over many generations, in very challenging ecological conditions.

Basically, “moralizing high gods” are just one of many cultural possibilities for religious systems of moral commitment … even in harsh, unpredictable, low-biomass-production environments.

It’s just that, recently, there are many cultures from around the world that are documented to have concepts of “moralizing high gods” … AND they tend to associate–a bit statistically more, than not–with such difficult environmental settings.

Continue reading The Environmental Forms of Religious Life

Were Baby Boomers the First Demographic Wave of Electoral Malaise?

by Aaron Jonas Stutz

When the first wave of baby boomers turned 18, it marked a turning point in American youth voter disaffection. But more on the baby boomers in a moment.

My previous post suggested that those of us who are both eligible to vote and actually vote in the United States … well, we aren’t talking seriously about who’s not voting and why it matters to all of us.

The Pew Center released survey results shortly before the November 4th elections, providing some helpful information about “non-voter demographics.” The Pew Center’s study is available here and I’ve embedded one of the report summary slides at right. The results overwhelmingly show that a large minority of American citizens who are struggling to make it economically, who feel alienated from community or economic institutional structures that the majority of citizens enjoy … well, that experience of everyday alienation translates into effective disenfranchisement. The economically marginalized tend not to vote. Continue reading Were Baby Boomers the First Demographic Wave of Electoral Malaise?

Why Don’t We See the Impact of Voter Registration Drives?

King Corpse, by Sam Francis (1986).
by Aaron Jonas Stutz

Talking about elections is hard.

That doesn’t stop politicians and news media.

But the thing that gets me …

I mean, there’s something that tends to go unacknowledged … About the complexity of democratic election results. From the local to the national. From votes on referenda and constitutional amendments to races for political offices.

Elections are almost always determined by a small minority of swing voters … But we talk about the results as if the electorate really was a coherent “body politic” that had deliberated, reached a decision, and announced it with ritual fanfare.

Of course, human social life is full of tensions and confusions between identifying-with and separating-from the bodies of others. The ambiguity and contradictory emotions involved in experiencing and committing to the similarities or the differences between self and other shape what it means to be human. Being part of, with, or even in others often defines identities through distance and intimacy, tenderness and violence. Bodies link us and keep us apart, very very metaphorically AND very very literally.

But when democracy seems only to enhance the ambiguity between separate, free, and variable versus collective and coherent and constrained bodies … well, that seems to undermine the point of democratic rule and accountability, for citizens and elected rulers alike. It would hardly be the only instance in which ritualized, mass media drama makes it seem like the very performance of elections is enough to make our bodies and their connections to others’ sufficiently safe and orderly. Continue reading Why Don’t We See the Impact of Voter Registration Drives?

Neandertals, Early Modern Humans, and Us

Ancient human genomes provide evidence for surprisingly dynamic, interconnected population histories

by Aaron Jonas Stutz

DNA from this ca. 45,000-year-old thigh bone is so well preserved that it has allowed researchers to reconstruct the entire genome of this ancient individual. Details of the genome confirm what the anatomy of this bone suggest. This is the oldest known anatomically modern human (AMH) to be positively associated with the critical AMH population expansion that unfolded ca. 50,000-40,000 years ago and led to the virtual extinction of Neandertals in Western Eurasia.
DNA from this ca. 45,000-year-old thigh bone is so well preserved that it has allowed researchers to reconstruct the entire genome of this ancient individual. Details of the genome confirm what the anatomy of this bone suggest. This is the oldest known anatomically modern human (AMH) to be positively associated with the critical AMH population expansion that unfolded very roughly ca. 60,000-30,000 years ago and led to the virtual extinction of Neandertals in Western Eurasia.

“Ust’-Ishim”  has now joined the ranks of human fossil find sites that biological anthropology students will be conscientiously writing down on index cards, as they prep to memorize spelling and key associated facts, like geographic location and geological age. It thus joins the likes of Hadar, of Dmanisi.

OK. As with those other sites, “Ust’-Ishim” itself should not really be the purpose of any memorization exercise. (Although you can really get into spacing out and repeating “Ust’-Ishim,” as it rolls ticklingly off the tongue … and as your concentration on studying fades … Now, rested and focused from your meditation, back to the important point.)

What is it that’s important to remember here? The site provides a kind of mnemonic tag for learning something new about our part in the natural world. “Ust’-Ishim” is now a heavy-stock, clearly printed and embossed tag for these two facts:

  • Anatomically modern humans spread out of Africa and–over many generations of recurring, slight, but significant population growth, over the time period 60,000-30,000 years ago (very roughly)–they decisively made an outsized contribution to ancestry of all later populations outside of Africa, thus shaping worldwide patterns of genetic diversity, right up to the present day.
  • But anatomically modern humans (AMH) did not spread into a Eurasian landmass devoid of people. When AMH population growth and expansion into Eurasia began to reach a (quite low but non-zero) escape velocity around 60,000 years ago, at least some AMH groups–with what was then relatively recent African ancestry–mixed and interbred at substantial rates with indigenous Neandertal and other Eurasian populations.

So, the basic recap: major AMH population expansion across Eurasia after 60,000 years ago, and admixture between AMH and indigenous “archaic” human groups.

To be sure, there’s plenty of controversy and debate about why AMH groups successfully and rapidly grew and spread out of Africa when they did … and then persistently pushed the geographic frontiers of the genus Homo, especially northward into arctic latitudes, southeastward into Australia, and eastward into the Americas. Moreover, there’s plenty of disagreement and uncertainty about when the initial, significant pattern of interbreeding occurred, how long it persisted, and–perhaps most significantly–why it was not followed by further interbreeding, but rather population competition and archaic human extinction. Continue reading Neandertals, Early Modern Humans, and Us