Category Archives: Biological anthropology

What a Brown Recluse Spider Has Taught Me

After having recently received a venomous bite by a brown recluse spider in NYC, I’ve spent some time researching my arachnid aggressor and discovering how to recover from the poisonous attack. Along the way, I’ve learned some life lessons.

Brown Recluse on Cardboard

Brown recluse spider

Statistical odds provide unrealistic reassurance.

  • Brown recluse spiders normally live in South America and a few southern and midwestern states of the U.S. They’re also loners and rarely approach humans. Yet, somehow, one managed to find its way to Manhattan, and to me.

Twain-Lies, Damn Lies, & Statistics

Rational choice theory is alive and well, even in those who challenge it

  • When in NYC, if I worry at all about the risks to life and limb, I probably focus (unconsciously) on getting hit by a speeding taxi, or crushed by a collapsing construction site, or shot in a terrorist attack. What I have most certainly neglected to worry about is getting bit by a subtropical spider far from its home territory. In this, my calculations must implicitly revolve around a rational choice model of risk/benefit assessment.

     

     

    But, really, I should have known better. Back in 1975, my graduate fellowship had me assisting in (and once lecturing to) a course that highlighted Mary Douglas’ theory of risk–a far different perspective that emphasizes individual perception shaped by complex social and cultural factors well beyond “simple” (especially economic) costs and benefits. Mark Twain’s insight is an earlier (and pithier) way of saying: statistical odds, at best, provide likelihood rather than certainty.

     

     

    Still

    , to be honest, there aren’t enough hours in the day to worry about every catastrophe that could conceivably befall us. So, we pick and choose our worries based on statistical odds that turn out not to be all that rational.

Ir-rational

 

Globalization works for creatures beyond humans, too.

Invasive Species Fish Cartoon

We are hardier than we may fear.

  • After surviving a herniated disc/back surgery, 15 months of intestinal parasites, and two unmedicated childbirths (my choice) a couple of decades ago, my pain threshold apparently remains pretty high. Okay, the partly-necrotic tissue now disfiguring a big chunk of my leg might have reminded me of a Green Day song about taking Novacaine. Still, wincing from the throbbing wound on my leg, I’ve managed to keep up with e-mail and other work tasks while popping only a few ibuprofens.

Pain-is-Temporary

Despite the above-mentioned point: Our life plans are frailer than we may hope.

  • Scheduled errands, meetings, outings, and dinners with friends are all on hold. My doctor predicts that my bite may take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks to heal. The Internet warns me it could even be a few months. That’s a lot of iCal events to tentatively reschedule.

Keep It or Cancel it?

I now know what bit me while living in a small village in Ivory Coast.

  • Back in 1980, a mysterious wound showed up on my ankle that worsened alarmingly, nearly causing gangrene. The local Senegalese doctor prescribed nine antibiotic treatments a day (3 shots + 6 pills)   . . . and declared me lucky to avoid amputation of my foot.

     

     

    In Parallel Worlds, Philip Graham and I wrote that my wound’s origins stumped the doctor, although he thought it might be an allergic reaction to an insect bite. But the symptoms resembled those of my current spider bite so closely that I am now certain it must have been a spider, not an insect, that assaulted me. Perhaps it was a kind of violin spider–the Loxosceles lacroixi, which lives in Ivory Coast and belongs to the same Loxosceles family as my more recent nemesis, the brown recluse. Of the violin spider, one website notes: “Their venom destroys tissue, causing a specific kind of skin necrosis known as loxoscelism in 66% of cases. The danger of secondary infection is high if left untreated.” Yep.

Snakes loom larger in the popular imagination than do spiders.

Poisonous Snake About to Bite

 

I am now officially nervous around spiders.

  • In any case, arachnophobia is a thing (not just a horror movie), and it’s definitely gendered. Until now, I’ve never had much patience for girls who screamed at the sight of a (harmless) spider. Hmm–is it too late for a feminist to enthusiastically embrace demeaning gender stereotypes?

Girl Screams at Spider

 

Speaking of gender . . .  turns out my poison was probably deposited by a devoted spider mom looking out for her kids’ interests.

  • That’s what Nobel Prize-winning chemist, Kary Mullis, wrote in his 1998 memoir, Dancing Naked in the Mind Field: “It’s a mother spider that first gets you and she wants a hole in you that oozes and expands and doesn’t ever heal. The females have the most powerful venom . . . . She wants that hole because her babies need a place to feed. They can dip their ugly little heads into the pool of nutrients that you are exuding and suck your vital fluids through their sucking tubes, and they can live. . .  After making the hole, she moves away and lays her eggs. It’s elegant biotechnology from the point of view of the spider.”

     

     

    I find this alarming. As a devoted mother of two, myself, I should sympathize with any mom’s efforts to nourish her children and give them the best foundation she can for their health and well-being. I have certainly tried to do that for my kids. Somehow, though, there’s a cross-species sympathy chasm I’m simply unable to traverse. I guess that’s a second blow to my identity as a feminist.

Brown Recluse Spiderling on Egg Sac (Photo by Sturgis McKeever, Georgia Southern U), cropped

 

Brown recluse spiderling on an egg sac (photo by Sturgis McKeever)

Conclusion:  Maybe it’s time for a new approach to studying pain.

Campodesmus alobatus (Millipede in CI)Guinea Worm Reduction Statistics

Campodesmus alobatus (millipede in Côte d’Ivoire)

 

  • When you live with long-term, disabling pain from childhood, how does that shape your brain, your temperament, your world view? Your sense of self, and your sense of being subject to, and capable of overcoming, hardships? By contrast, when pain invades your life only rarely, and briefly, what sort of identity forms surrounding notions of (in)vulnerability?

Pain Chart Form

  • Anthropologists: We have explored how plenty of other somatic experiences are influenced by factors beyond biology. Pregnancy and childbirth, menstruation, diseases from cancer to mental illness, and sports from walking to basketball have all claimed our attention. Yet, we live in a world of many people who experience pain routinely or even chronically. And when we’re not actively suffering from pain, we may spend much time thinking back on past episodes with amazement that we survived . . . or anticipating future episodes with dread. fear-tension-painPuzzlingly, few anthropologists have put that fundamental human experience front and center. True, some scholars discuss pain in investigating particular topics such as childbirthendometriosis and acupuncture. But to date, the 48 sections and interest groups contained within the American Anthropological Association–which focus on topics ranging from visual anthropology, music, and museums to agriculture, corporations, and tourism–do not include a group dedicated to exploring the world of pain.

    In a rundown of selected global perspectives on pain, anthropologist Mary Free has crafted a superb opening for a new subdiscipline. The brown recluse spider that deposited its poison in my leg this past weekend has suggested to me: it may be time for a systematic and dedicated anthropology of pain.

     

Postscript (Oct. 5, 2017): I’ve now been in touch with two entomologists who specialize in spiders, one of whom is a leading expert on brown recluse spiders. Both are quite skeptical that a brown recluse could have found its way to a park bench in Manhattan. My doctor and I are revisiting the diagnosis. Stay posted.

We Are All Africans

An impressively interdisciplinary team of geneticists, biological anthropologists, archaeologists, and geologists has just published an article detailing the genetic makeup of a man who lived in Ethiopia some 4,500 years ago. Why is this relevant today? The analysis shows close genetic ties between some contemporary Sardinian farmers, German farmers from 7,000 years ago, and contemporary people living in Ethiopia and elsewhere in the Horn of Africa. That’s big news in these days of far too many complaints about “too many immigrants,” and far too much discussion about “race” as if it were a simple category with immutable boundaries.

But the larger story embedded in this research packs an even bigger punch. We humans have been on the move for a good 70,000 years, and our connections across Africa, the Middle East, and Europe have been actively maintained, with criss-crossed migrations and gene sharing ever since. Leaders of today’s far-right parties claim that ethnic and racial mixing is unnatural, and that migration goes against our nature. Donald Trump, Scott Walker, and Marine Le Pen need to study their history.

Racist Anti-Immigration Poster Racist, anti-immigration poster of the English Defence League, a far-right street protest group dedicated to opposing Muslims living in the UK

Donald Trump vs. Blood Magic

Donald Trump has revived old stereotypes in claiming that Fox News commentator/Republican debate moderator Megyn Kelly was ruled by her hormones (“bleeding from her wherever”) when she critiqued his multiple sexist statements and stances.  Explaining away women’s anger by reference to the menstrual cycle is an old habit of those who wish to exclude women from decision-making positions.  Let’s see if I become a new target of Donald Trump after being quoted in this NPR blog post by Susan Brink . . .

PMS 5 Beware of PMS

Meanwhile, I’m honored that an essay I wrote about Beng menstrual beliefs and practices was just quoted in an article by Candida Moss, “Weak Men Like Trump Have Always Feared Menstruation,” in The Daily Beast.

A Tale of Two Chins

Cell phones . . . couches . . . gyms and community centers . . . archaeologists of the future will unearth countless artifacts and buildings that will testify to the nature of our lives as social creatures.

Recently, anthropologists have argued for evidence of a different sort that tells a far earlier story of our social nature: to wit, some ancient chins.

Yes, our evolving chin shape apparently demonstrates some major alternations in our species’ profile.

Nowadays, women’s fashion magazines might dispense advice about how to choose sunglasses depending on one’s chin shape.
Screenshot 2015-04-18 19.03.20
But these small differences pale compared to that between our current, species-wide, facial shape and that of our much older ancestors.

For, before 80,000 years ago, our ancestors pretty much lacked chins altogether.
2 Chins

Left: Note the chin on this modern human; Right: No chin on this Neanderthal!
[Image: Tim Schoon]

Many changes happened in a short time. Among other notable alterations, our early ancestors’ head sizes shrank overall, while their brains grew out of all proportion. In turn, the enlarging brains of these pre-modern humans shrank the space available for their faces. (Today, most people boast faces some 15 percent shorter than the faces of Neanderthals.) In turn, those smaller faces pushed out our ancestors’ chins.

According to biological anthropologist Nathan Holton, the development of a chin—a facial feature unique to our über-social species—correlates temporally with other transformations.

For this bony shift in facial shape occurred while males’ testosterone levels lowered, social cooperation between groups heightened, and our early ancestors produced the first art.

So it’s not that our chins actually made us more sociable. Rather, their sudden appearance on the facial scene signals the development of our social nature.

Biological anthropologist Robert Franciscus explains: “modern humans had an advantage at some point to have a well-connected social network, they can exchange information, and mates, more readily, there’s innovation . . . and for that to happen, males have to tolerate each other. There had to be more curiosity and inquisitiveness than aggression, and the evidence of that lies in facial architecture.”

Nowadays, in the midst of daily headlines that scream examples of violence on scales both massive (war) and intimate (rape), we easily forget that the impulse to violence that captures our collective attention is, somewhere deep inside our genetic makeup, counterbalanced by an impulse to cooperation.

What will it take for us to reclaim that pointy-chin part of our species’ capacities?

Read more: “Feminization, Social Tolerance, and the Origins of Behavioral Modernity,” by Robert L. Cieri, et al.

P.S. A recent lecture at Harvard by my Illinois colleague, archaeologist Stan Ambrose, argues that our lineage of modern humans beat out Neanderthals some 74,000 years ago because of our close ancestors’ capacity for cooperation; he builds his argument by looking at the changing relationship between testosterone levels, face shape, deep voice, and trust (skip to 47’47 to get to the heart of the argument).