Human, quadruped: Uner Tan Syndrome, part 1

(I am republishing a lot of my ‘legacy content’ from our PLOS Neuroanthropology weblog, which has been taken down, along with many of the other founding PLOS Blogs. Some of these, I am putting up because I teach with them. If you have any requests, don’t hesitate to email me at: greg (dot) downey @ mq (dot) edu (dot) au. I suspect many of the links in this piece will be broken, but I will endeavour to try to slowly rebuild this content. Originally published 3 September 2010.)

The photos that accompanied news releases about quadrupedal people living in Turkey, members of a family that allegedly could not walk except on hands and feet, looked staged when I first saw them. Three women and one man scrambling across rocky ground, the women in brightly coloured clothing, the sky radiant blue behind them, their eyes forward and backsides high in the air – like children engaged in some sort of awkward race at a field day or sporting carnival.

Members of a Turkish family with Uner Tan Syndrome

For an anthropologist interested in human motor variation and adaptation, the family looked too good to be true. Subsequent reports and a string of papers confirmed that the families did exist, and they suffered from a condition that came to be called ‘Uner Tan Syndrome’ (sometimes ‘Unertan Syndrome’ or UTS). This story is not new, having already broken and exhausted itself on the waves of internet enthusiasm, but I’ve been wanting to write a sober reflection on the lessons I take from UTS for a while now, and my first major post on our new site seems like a good place. Continue reading

Human (amphibious model): living in and on the water (originally 3 Feb, 2011)

(I am republishing a lot of my ‘legacy content’ from our PLOS Neuroanthropology weblog, which has been taken down, along with many of the other founding PLOS Blogs. Some of these, I am putting up because I teach with them. If you have any requests, don’t hesitate to email me at: greg (dot) downey @ mq (dot) edu (dot) au. I suspect many of the links in this piece will be broken, but I will endeavour to try to slowly rebuild this content.)

At the beginning of the film clip, Bajau fisherman Sulbin sits on the side of a boat on the coast of Borneo, gulping air, handling his speargun.  And then, he drops into the water.  The footage suddenly changes and becomes arresting: silent, dreamy, slow, and so blue.  Sulbin strokes deliberately and descends until he strides along the bottom of the ocean, holding his breath, and hunts for fish through handmade goggles. [I’ve had to get a new version of the video clip, 2019.]

Finally, after a couple of minutes, he spears a fish and heads for the surface.  The narrator tells us that Sulbin could stay down twice as long and dive deeper if necessary.  Most viewers, unfamiliar with free diving, exceptional if they can hold their breath longer than thirty seconds, are quite likely to be shaking their heads by the end of the clip, wondering at the ability of the human body to adapt to life in water.  Life as an amphibious human can appear so alien that it’s stranger than science fiction, but painfully beautiful to watch.

I stumbled across the video clip in part because of my academic interest in free diving [I have had to embed a new video clip. GD 2019]. Earlier this month, I was supposed to attend a free diving workshop in New Zealand with one of the sport’s world record holder, Will Trubridge (or see the story on the Times Online).  The workshop fell through at almost the same time I was diagnosed with multiple hernias, so my first free diving experience likely wouldn’t have worked out – I’m still hoping to do it as part of my ethnographic research on extraordinary human performance in the near future. Continue reading

Anth 207: new open education space – update!

If you follow Neuroanthropology, either here or on Facebook, you may have noticed something new. We’ve had a bit of a facelift to this site and added a page: Anth 207 Neuroanth 101. This new venture is an effort to generate open educational resources for people interested in psychological anthropology: students, teachers, researchers, the curious…

The first video for Anth 207  Neuroanth 101 is already posted: WEIRD psychology.

We’ll be adding more videos slowly, as well as suggested readings, other related resources, reflection questions, and notes. The goal is to start building an open resource for those who want to start learning about neuroanthropology.

Check back, or join the Neuroanthropology Interest Group on Facebook to keep up with new developments.

UPDATE: After a quick consultation with partner-in-online Daniel Lende, we’ve decided to go whole hog with the new look, new feel, and all-neuroanthropology message. I’ve done a quick rename to ‘Neuroanthropology 101’ with the goal of making it clear what we’re doing, and hopefully making a space to which other neuroanthropologists will want to contribute.

Almost Here! The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology

It started on this blog. In 2007, Greg and I co-founded Neuroanthropology. Five years later our book is out! “The Encultured Brain” will be published by MIT Press this Friday, August 24th, 2012. You can already order itat Amazon!

The brain and the nervous system are our most cultural organs. Our nervous system is especially immature at birth, our brain disproportionately small in relation to its adult size and open to cultural sculpting at multiple levels. Recognizing this, the new field of neuroanthropology places the brain at the center of discussions about human nature and culture.

Anthropology offers brain science more robust accounts of enculturation to explain observable difference in brain function; neuroscience offers anthropology evidence of neuroplasticity’s role in social and cultural dynamics. This book provides a foundational text for neuroanthropology, offering basic concepts and case studies at the intersection of brain and culture.

“The Encultured Brain” is really two books in one – the approach Greg and I have built to neuroanthropology, and other researchers using neuroanthropology in their own work. So at under $40 on Amazon, it’s a great deal!

#1: Our comprehensive take on neuroanthropology – an introduction to the field and the book, an in-depth statement on what neuroanthropology is, the evolutionary background to this approach, an outline for future research, and our own expert examples on balance and addiction.

#2: Nine case studies by other researchers, covering memory, PTSD, primates, skill acquisition, humor, autism, male vitality, smoking, and depression. These additional chapters really push “The Encultured Brain” into a new space, for they show how scholars are already using neuroanthropology to address an array of research problems.

Greg and I both hope you go order The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology

Neuroanthropology Now on Facebook

Neuroanthropology now comes in two forms on Facebook!

The Blog – With Extra Content

If you want to follow everything that we’re doing on the Neuroanthropology PLOS blog, and you also want short, fun posts that Greg and I have specifically written for Facebook, then head over to the Neuroanthropology Blog Facebook Page. I just stuck the great photo featured here up on Facebook – just a sample!

Neuroanthropology Interest Group

An active interest group – with lots of shared links and discussion – is growing quickly on Facebook. Here you can share and discover news stories and journal articles, and engage with like-minded people who want to explore the intersection of neuroscience and anthropology.

So two choices for more Neuroanthropology:

Link to Neuroanthropology Blog on Facebook

Link to Facebook Interest Group

Neuroanthropology.net at 1,000,000

Neuroanthropology.net just broke through the 1,000,000 visits mark! We’ve done that in three years. Our very post came in December 2007.

Even though Greg and I have moved over to Neuroanthropology PLoS, this site has continued to generate impressive traffic since September 1st. Here are some of the posts that got us over the top:

We agree it’s WEIRD, but is it WEIRD enough?
-Greg dissects the excellent study by Henrich et al. that took psychologists to task for basing claims about universal psychology using samples of college students

Inside the Mind of a Pedophile
-Absolutely incredible comments on this post, as readers continue to debate pedophilia, the people who have done it, and the children and families who have suffered from it

Forever at War: Veterans’ Everyday Battles with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder
-Veterans suffering from PTSD share what it’s like to have PTSD, and what they want other vets and the broader public to know about PTSD

Life without language
-Author Susan Schaller’s work with a profoundly deaf immigrant who grew up without sign language, and an exploration of what it is like to live without language

The new linguistic relativism: Guy Deutscher in the NYTimes
-Does language shape how you think? A re-examination of language and thought

Edge: Getting at the Neuroanthropology of Morality
-The new scientists of morality are actually doing neuroanthropology, and not evolutionary psychology

The dog-human connection in evolution
-Dogs made us more human

It’s hard to believe that we’ve had 1,000,000 onsite visits in three years, plus all the other people who’ve read this site through Google reader or other rss feeds. When we started, we never expected to have such success with this site. So thank you!

And now we’re doing the same great stuff over on Neuroanthropology on PLoS. Here are five of our top posts since September 1st:

Anthropology, Science, and Public Understanding
-The American Anthropological Association dropped the word “science” from the mission statement included in the association’s long-term plan, and the media and blogosphere erupted. Here’s the post that kicked off Neuroanthropology’s extensive coverage of the controversy

An Interview with Mark Changizi: Culture Harnessing the Brain
-Cognitive scientist Mark Changizi gives us his inside view of how culture and brain evolved together, with an inside glimpse into his forthcoming book Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man

Food for thought: Cooking in human evolution
-Did cooking make us human, giving us the necessary energy to have super brains?

Anthropology, Science, and the AAA Long-Range Plan: What Really Happened
-The New York Times portrayed anthropologists as split into warring tribes over the word “science.” Here’s what actually happened with the AAA controversy

The Culture of Poverty Debate
-The controversial Culture of Poverty idea has made a comeback. Here’s coverage of the good and bad about the media reports and research on the renewed look at the links between culture and poverty

The Wilberforce Award: The population puzzle part 2

Our Neuroanthropology blog has moved to PLoS Blogs, and if you are interested in the topic of sustainable population growth, you may be interested in The Culture of Poverty Debate, The Culture of Poverty Debate continued, and Culture of Poverty: Analysis and Policy.

Attention to the Population Puzzle has been gaining attention with blogs written by: Rachel in Melbourne, Himalayan Sun, EconNewsAustralia, Simon Butler, Thomas Parkes, North Canberra Community Council, Jeremy Williams, Steve Austin, Population Media Center, Sharon Ede, The Australian, 2UE, and more… If there is a team of people ready to constructively and ethically address this problem, then count me in.

So far, over 1,200 people have read my post about The Wilberforce Award, but that’s not enough. It concerns me that only 550 or so people are fans of the facebook group “Dick Smith’s Wilberforce Award“, and that almost 4000 people are fans of a group called “What’s with the sudden overpopulation of wannabe ‘rappers’ ??!!” We need action and education. Or maybe we just need a rapper to bring lyrics about overpopulation to the world stage. Maybe someone like Matt Chamberlin, or… um… maybe not…  I think I’m more partial to someone like Imogen Heap spreading the message with inspiring music and splendid visuals… But Matt’s video clip is a comic and engaging way to raise awareness nonetheless.

Talking about popular music and population growth reminds me of my favourite Indonesian singer, Rhoma Irama  the king of Dangdut music—a popular style of music in Indonesia. When I was doing my fieldwork in Indonesia during 2007-2009, people would laugh when I told them that I liked the music of Rhoma Irama. They laughed even harder when I tried to sing any of his songs. Rhoma Irama was a huge star in Indonesia during the 70s and 80s. In 2007, locals didn’t expect a foreigner in his twenties to enjoy Dangdut music, let alone Rhoma Irama. But talking about Rhoma Irama’s music was a quick and easy way for me to find common points of interest with people in the places I was working. In 1977, Rhoma Irama released a song called “135million” that was about the number of people living in Indonesia and their many ethnic origins. The song still enjoys popularity, but people often joke that the lyrics need to be constantly changed. And really, every year, the lyrics need to be changed. By 1980, the population of Indonesia had grown to 147.5million and today the population is approaching 235million. When you have lived in the shanty towns of Indonesia, the overcrowded villages of the highland regions, and the poverty-ridden cities of the coast, you see first-hand the effects of rapid and unsustainable population growth. (Interested in Indonesia and the developing world? Read more about Globalisation and Ethics in Indonesia, and Globalisation, Ethics and Wellbeing).

Three websites that I highly recommend to everyone interested in birth rate, life expectancy, and population growth is the new Public Data Explorer available through Google;  Gapminder for an amazing array of publicly accessible data; and Poodwaddle World Clock for an engaging site with the most up to date statistics of our times (pun intended). Mixing design, statistics, and experience in global development, Hans Rosling delivers a fantastic presentation on global health for the TEDtalks available through YouTube. I urge you to watch it, you will not be disappointed.

At Macquarie University, I have been teaching for a subject on Human Evolution and Diversity. One of the rooms we use is an experimental education facility where one wall is entirely covered with whiteboad paint. That means that you can use the entire wall as a giant whiteboard. In the final tutorial of the year, I drew a line starting at a power-socket in the bottom left-hand corner of the wall, continued along the skirting board at the base of the wall, and then abruptly curved upwards at the right end of the wall. With the students, we plotted dates, important developments in medicine and technology, and population figures. Starting somewhere around 7million people pre-agriculture some 20,000 years ago, students were amazed to see just how suddenly population has soared since 1500AD (only recently) and peaked at 7billion people at the top right hand corner of the room.  Their faces grew from excitement at the beginning of the tutorial, to astonishment at the end of the tutorial. One of the most interesting discussions was about whether or not we owe China carbon-credits for the one-child policy. After vibrant discussions in all of my tutorial classes, there was a firm consensus that a multi-pronged, interdisciplinary and multi-sector effort was required to successfully implement steps to a sustainable future. Next year, we will continue a study group about sustainable populations for interested students. Our first venture will be to update the information contained in the chapter on “Mining Australia” in Jared Diamond’s illuminating book, “Collapse”.

For those of you who are interested, I have written an article looking at Population growth, urbanisation & pollution in the developing world, which has been published by the postgraduate journal, NEO: Journal for Higher Degree Research Students in the Social Sciences and Humanities, Volume 3, 2010. This article is in English and French and has received fantastic support and feedback from my friends and colleagues in the Amicale des Centres Internationaux Francophones. Merci a vous tous! One of the ideas I raise in this article is the cheap production and distribution of the contraceptive pill to women who wish to use it. Now that the pill is off-patent, it means that we could turn this idea into a reality. And, in light of recent research highlighing the enormous health benefits the pill offers women, this idea becomes even more of an ethical imperative. Contrary to popular and misplaced belief, the pill has actually been proven to have a raft of health benefits. See this TVNZ special for more.

Dick Smith’s million dollar prize is for a solution at home, in Australia. How can we organise our economy, be more strategic about skilled migration, and simultaneously accomodate for an aging population? I recommend following the developments of the Population Puzzle on facebook and Dick Smith’s website. And of course, stay tuned to our neuroanthropology blog for more. As soon as I finish my PhD on cultural evolution, I plan to turn my attention to the question of a sustainable future for the country I call home.
 
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