Scientific Racism

The site’s been quiet in 2017, with little time to blog on top of my regular professional responsibilities, and of course watching the fascist smoke rising from the garbage fire of our 45th presidential administration with horrified disbelief. At work, my two new classes are keeping me plenty busy, and their content is quite distinct – one is on the archaeological record of Central Asia, the other centers around Homo naledi to teach about fossils. But by complete accident, examples of scientific racism came up in the readings for each course last week.


Scientific racism refers to using data or evidence from the biological and social sciences to support racist arguments, that one racial group is better or worse than another group; the groups of course, are culturally determined rather than empirically discrete biological entities. This evidence is often cherry-picked, misinterpreted, and/or outright weak. Nicolas’ Wade’s 2014 A Troublesome Inheritance is a recent example of such a work. The book’s racial claims amount to nothing more than handwaving, and so egregious is the misrepresentation of genetic evidence that nearly 150 of the world’s top geneticists signed a letter to the editor rebuking Wade for “misappropriation of research from our field to support arguments about differences among human societies.” Wade’s book has no place in scientific discourse, but then almost anyone can write a book as long as a publisher thinks it will sell.

In addition to the outright misrepresentation of scientific evidence to support racist arguments, another manifestation of scientific racism is the influence of cultural biases in the interpretation of empirical observations. This may be less malicious than the first example, but is equally dangerous as it more tacitly supports systemic and pervasive racism. And this brings us to my classes’ recent readings.

First was a reference to the “Movius Line” in a review of the Paleolithic record of Central Asia (Vishnyatsky 1999) for my prehistory class. Back in the 1940s Hallum Movius, archaeologist and amazing-name-haver, noticed a distinct geographic pattern in the distribution of early stone tool technology across the Old World: “hand-axes” could be found at sites across Africa and western Eurasia, while they were largely absent from East Asian sites, which were dominated by more basic stone tools.


Movius’ illustration of the distribution of Early Paleolithic technologies. From Fig. 1 in Dennell (2015).

Robin Dennell (2016) provides a nice review of how Movius’ personal, culturally influenced perception of China colored his interpretation of this pattern. Movius read this archaeological evidence to mean that early East Asian humans were unable to create the more advanced technology of the west, a biological and cognitive deficiency resulting from cultural separation: “East Asia gives the impression of having acted (just as historical China and in sharp contrast with the Mediterranean world) as an isolated and self-sufficient area, closed to any major human migratory wave” (Movius 1941: 86, cited in Dennell 2015). Racial and cultural stereotypes about East Asia directly translated to his interpretation of an archaeological pattern.

This type of old school scientific racism also arose in a review of endocasts (Falk, 2014) for my Homo naledi class. Endocasts are negative impressions or casts of a space or cavity, and comprise the only direct evidence of what extinct animals’ brains looked like. So to see how the structure of the brain has changed over the course of human evolution, scientists can search for the impressions of important brain structures in fossil human endocasts. Falk (2014) reviews one of the most famous of these structures – the “lunate sulcus” – which was used as evidence for reorganization of the hominin brain for nearly 100 years. In the early 20th century, anatomist and anthropologist GE Smith (not GE Smith from the Saturday Night Live Band)  thought he’d identified the human homologue of a groove that in apes separates the parietal lobe from the visual cortex. In humans, however, this groove was positioned more toward the back of the brain, which Smith interpreted as an expansion of an area relating to advanced cognition.

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The back of the brain, viewed from the left, of a chimpanzee (left) and two humans, the red line illustrating the Affenspalte or lunate sulcus (Fig. 1 from Falk 2014, which was modified from Smith 1903). The middle one also might be a grumpy fish.

It turns out that the lunate sulcus does not actually exist in humans, as the grooves identified as such are not structurally or functionally the same as the lunate sulcus in apes (Allen et al., 2006). Nevertheless, given what Smith thought the lunate sulcus was, it’s tragic to read his interpretations of human variation: “resemblance to the Simian [ape] pattern… is not quite so obvious…. in European types of brain….” (Smith 1904: 437, quoted in Falk 2014). The human condition for this trait was for it to be located in the back, reflecting an expansion of the cognitive area in front of it, and this pattern was less pronounced, according to Smith, in non-European people’s brains. This interpretation reflects two traditions at the time: 1) to refer to racial ‘types,’ ignoring variation within and overlap between groups, as well as 2) the prevailing wisdom that Europeans were more intelligent or advanced than other geographical groups.

ResearchBlogging.orgAnecdotes such as these may seem like mere scientific and historical curios, but they should serve as important reminders both that science can be accidentally guided by cultural values, or intentionally used for malevolent ends. Misconceptions and errors of the past shouldn’t be erased, but rather touted so that we don’t repeat mistakes that can have major consequences in our not-so-post-racial society.


Allen JS, Bruss J, & Damasio H (2006). Looking for the lunate sulcus: a magnetic resonance imaging study in modern humans. The anatomical record. Part A, Discoveries in molecular, cellular, and evolutionary biology, 288 (8), 867-76 PMID: 16835937

Dennell, R. (2016). Life without the Movius Line: The structure of the East and Southeast Asian Early Palaeolithic Quaternary International, 400, 14-22 DOI: 10.1016/j.quaint.2015.09.001

Falk D (2014). Interpreting sulci on hominin endocasts: old hypotheses and new findings. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 8 PMID: 24822043

Vishnyatsky L (1999). The Paleolithic of Central Asia. Journal of World Prehistory, 13, 69-122.

Did Neandertal brains grow like humans’ or not?

According to Marcia Ponce de Leon and colleagues, “Brain development is similar in Neandertals and modern humans.” They reached this conclusion after comparing how the shape of the brain case changes across the growth period of humans and Neandertals. This finding differs from earlier studies of Neandertal brain shape growth (Gunz et al. 2010, 2012).

Although Neandertals had similar adult brain sizes as humans do today, the brains are nevertheless slightly different in shape:

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Endocranial surfaces of a human (left, blue) and Neandertal (right, red), from Gunz et al. (2012). These surfaces reflect the size and shape of the brain, blood vessels, cerebrospinal fluid, and meninges.

Gunz et al. (2010, 2012) previously showed that endocranial development in humans, but not in Neandertals or chimpanzees, has a “globularization phase” shortly after birth: the endocranial surface becomes overall rounder, largely as a result of the expansion of the cerebellum:

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Endocranial (e.g., brain) shape change in humans (blue), Neandertals (red) and chimpanzees (green), Fig. 7 from Gunz et al. (2012). Age groups are indicated by numbers. The human “globularization phase” is represented by the great difference in the y-axis values of groups 1-2 (infants). The Neandertals match the chimpanzee pattern of shape change; Neandertal neonates (LeM2 and M) do not plot as predicted by a human pattern of growth.

Ponce de Leon and colleagues now challenge this result with their own similar analysis, suggesting similar patterns of shape change with Neandertals experiencing this globularization phase as well (note that endocranial shapes are always different, nevertheless):

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Endocranial shape change in humans (green) and Neandertals (red), from Ponce de Leon et al. (2016). Note that the human polygons and letters represent age groups, whereas the Neandertal polygons and labels are reconstructions of individual specimens.

The biggest reason for the difference between studies is in the fossil sample. Ponce de Leon et al. have a larger fossil sample, with more non-adults including Dederiyeh 1-2, young infants in the age group where human brains become more globular.

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Comparison of fossil samples between the two studies.

But I don’t think this alone accounts for the different findings of the two studies. Overall shape development is depicted in PC 1: in general, older individuals have higher PC1 scores. The globularization detected by Gunz et al. (2010; 2012) is manifest in PC2; the youngest groups overlap entirely on PC1. The biggest difference I see between these studies is where Mezmaiskaya, a neonate, falls on PC2. In the top plot (Gunz et al., 2012), both Mezmaiskaya and the Le Moustier 2 newborn have similar PC2 values as older Neandertals. In the bottom plot (Ponce de Leon et al., 2012), the Mezmaiskaya neonate has lower PC2 scores than the other Neandertals. Note also the great variability in Mezmaiskaya reconstructions of Ponce de Leon et al. compared with Gunz et al.; some of the reconstructions have high PC2 values which would greatly diminish the similarity between samples. It’s also a bit odd that Engis and Roc de Marsal appear “younger” (i.e., lower PC1 score) than the Dederiyeh infants that are actually a little bit older.

Ponce de Leon et al. acknowledge the probable influence of fossil reconstruction methods, and consider other reasons for their novel findings, in the supplementary material. Nevertheless, a great follow-up to this, to settle the issue of Neandertal brain development once and for all, would be for these two research teams to join forces, combining their samples and comparing their reconstructions.


Gunz P, Neubauer S, Maureille B, & Hublin JJ (2010). Brain development after birth differs between Neanderthals and modern humans. Current Biology : 20 (21) PMID: 21056830

Gunz P, Neubauer S, Golovanova L, Doronichev V, Maureille B, & Hublin JJ (2012). A uniquely modern human pattern of endocranial development. Insights from a new cranial reconstruction of the Neandertal newborn from Mezmaiskaya. Journal of Human Evolution, 62 (2), 300-13 PMID: 22221766

Ponce de León, M., Bienvenu, T., Akazawa, T., & Zollikofer, C. (2016). Brain development is similar in Neanderthals and modern humans Current Biology, 26 (14) DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2016.06.022

Bioanthro lab activity: Hominin brain size

Last week in my Human Evolution class we looked at whether we could estimate hominin brain sizes, or endocranial volumes (ECV), based on just the length and width of the bony brain case. Students took these measurements on 3D surface scans…

Maximum cranial length in Australopithecus boisei specimen KNM-ER 406.

Maximum cranial length in Australopithecus boisei specimen KNM-ER 406.

… and then plugged their data into equations relating these measurements to brain size in chimpanzees (Neubauer et al., 2012) and humans (Coqueugniot and Hublin, 2012).

The relationship between cranial length (x axis) and ECV (y axis).

The relationship between cranial length (x axis) and ECV (y axis). Left shows the chimpanzee regression (modified from Fig. 2 in Neubauer et al., 2012), while the right plot is humans (from the Supplementary Materials of Coqueugniot and Hublin, 2012).

So in addition to spending time with fossils, students also learned about osteometric landmarks with fun names like “glabella” and “opisthocranion.” More importantly, students compared their estimates with published endocranial volumes for these specimens, based on endocast measurements:

Human and chimpanzee regression equations don't do great at estimating hominin brain sizes.

Human and chimpanzee regression equations don’t do great at predicting hominin brain sizes. Each point is a hominin fossil, the x value depicting its directly-measured endocranial volume and the y value its estimated volume based on different regression equations. Black and red points are estimates based on chimpanzee cranial width and length, respectively, while green and blue points are based on human width and length, respectively. The dashed line shows y=x, or a correct estimate.

This comparison highlights the point that regression equations might not be appropriate outside of the samples on which they are developed. Here, estimates based on the relationship between cranial dimensions and brain size in chimpanzees tend to underestimate fossils’ actual values (black and red in the plot above), while the human regressions tend to overestimate hominins’ brain sizes. Students must think about why these equations perform poorly on fossil hominins.

Most of the fossil scans come from, but a few are from Artec’s sample gallery. One of the cool, fairly recent humans at African Fossils (KNM ER 5306) will give students something else to think about:

"Why doesn't this look like the rest of the human crania we've seen this semester?"

“Why doesn’t this look like the rest of the human crania we’ve seen this semester?”

Here are the lab materials so you can use and adapt this for your own class:

Lab 4-Brain size (Instructions & questions)

Lab 4 data table (with equations)

Coqueugniot, H., & Hublin, J. (2012). Age-related changes of digital endocranial volume during human ontogeny: Results from an osteological reference collection American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 147 (2), 312-318 DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.21655

Neubauer, S., Gunz, P., Schwarz, U., Hublin, J., & Boesch, C. (2012). Brief communication: Endocranial volumes in an ontogenetic sample of chimpanzees from the taï forest national park, ivory coast American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 147 (2), 319-325 DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.21641

A new year of bioanthro lab activities

One of my goals in teaching is to introduce students to how we come to know things in biological anthropology, and lab activities give students hands-on experience in using scientific approaches to address research questions. Biological anthropology (really, all biology) is about understanding variation, and I’ve created some labs for students to scrutinize biological variation within the classroom.

In my Introduction class, the first aspect of human uniqueness we will focus on is the brain. To complement readings and lectures, we’ll also investigate variation in brain size among students in class. Of course, measuring their actual brain sizes is impossible without either murdering them (unethical and messy) or subjecting them to CT or MRI scanning (costly and time-consuming). Instead, it’s fast and easy to measure head circumference, so we’ll estimate just how brainy they are in a way that will also introduce them to data collection, measurement error, and the regression analysis.

The lab activity is based on a paper by Bartholomeusz and colleagues (2002), who used CT scanning to measure the external head circumferences and brain volumes of males ranging from 1-40 years. Focusing on the adults of this sample, there are several possible regression equations that students could use to estimate their brain size from their head circumference:

The relationship between head circumference and brain volume in adult humans. Note each regression line is based on different age groups.

The relationship between head circumference and brain volume in adult humans. Note each regression line is based on different age groups. Data from Bartholomeusz et al. (2002).

Bartholomeusz et al. divided their sample into age groups, and students will learn that the relationship between the two variables differs subtly depending on the age group. Students will therefore have to decide (and justify) which equation they will use – should they pick the one based on their own age group, or the one with the lowest prediction error?

Once students have estimated their brain sizes, I’ll enter the data into R and we’ll look at how (estimated) brain size varies within the classroom, looking also at possible covariates including sex and region of birth. After discussing our data in class, students have to write up a brief report describing our research question and proposing additional hypotheses about brain size variation.

So that’s this week’s lab in Introduction to Biological Anthropology. There will be four more this semester, in three of which students will collect data on themselves, as well as four other labs for my Human Evolution course. In case you’re interested in using this activity for your class, I’m including the lab handout here. I’ll also try to post lab assignments to the blog (as I’ve done here) as the semester progresses.

Activity handout: Lab 1 Instructions and report


Bartholomeusz, H., Courchesne, E., & Karns, C. (2002). Relationship Between Head Circumference and Brain Volume in Healthy Normal Toddlers, Children, and Adults Neuropediatrics, 33 (5), 239-241 DOI: 10.1055/s-2002-36735

Brain size growth in wild and captive chimpanzees

I’m back in Astana, overcoming jet lag, after the annual conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, which was held in my home state of Missouri. I’d forgotten how popular ranch dressing and shredded cheese is out there; but hey, at least you can drink the tap water! It was also nice to be immersed in a culture of evolution, primates and fossils, something so far lacking at the nascent NU.

Although I usually present in evolution and fossil-focused sessions, my recent interest in brain growth landed me in a session devoted to Primate Life History this year. The publication of endocranial volumes (ECVs) from wild chimpanzees of known age from Taï Forest (Neubauer et al., 2012) led me to ask whether this cross-sectional sample displays the same pattern of size change as seen in captive chimpanzee brain masses (Herndon et al., 1999). These are unique datasets because precise ages are known for each individual, and this information is generally lacking for most skeletal populations. We therefore have a unique opportunity to estimate patterns and rates of growth, and to compare different populations. Here are the data up to age 25 (the oldest known age of the wild chimps):

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Brain size plotted against age in chimpanzees. Blue Ys are the Yerkes (captive) apes and green Ts are the Taï (wild) chimps. Note that Yerkes data are brain masses while the Taï data are endocranial volumes (ECVs). Mass and volume – as different as apples and oranges, or as oranges and tangerines? Note the relatively high “Y” at 1.25 years, who was omitted from the subsequent analysis.

This is an interesting comparison for a few reasons. First, to the best of my knowledge brain size growth hasn’t been compared between chimp populations (although it has been compared between chimps and bonobos: Durrleman et al., 2012). Second, many studies have found differences in tooth eruption, maturation and skeletal growth and development between wild and captive animals, but again I don’t think this has been examined for brain growth. Finally, and most fundamentally, it’s not clear whether ECV and brain mass follow the same basic pattern of change (brain mass but not ECV is known to decrease at older ages in humans and chimps, but at younger ages…?.

So to first make the datasets comparable, I used published data to examine the relationship between brain mass and ECV in primates, to estimate the likely ECV of the Yerkes brain masses. Two datasets examine adult brain size across different primate species (red and blue in the plot below), and one looks at brain mass and ECV of individuals for a combined sample of gorillas (McFarlin et al., 2013) and seals (Eisert et al., 2013). In short, ECV and brain mass in these datasets give regression slopes not significantly different from 1. One dataset has a negative y-intercept significantly different from 0, meaning that ECV should actually be slightly less than brain mass, but I think this pattern is driven by the really small-brained animals like New World Monkeys).


The relationship between endocranial volume and brain mass in primates (and Weddell seals). Solid lines and shaded confidence intervals are given for each regression, and the dashed line represents isometry, or a 1:1 relationship (ECV=brain mass). The rug at the bottom shows the range of the Yerkes masses. Note that the red and black regressions are not significantly different from isometry, while the blue regression is shifted slightly below isometry.

So let’s assume for now that the ECVs of the Yerkes apes are the same as their masses, meaning the two datasets are directly comparable. There are lots of ways to mathematically model growth, and as George Box famously quipped, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” Here, I wanted to use something that explained the greatest amount of ontogenetic variation in ECV while also levelling off once adult brain size was reached (by 5 years based on visual inspection of the first plot above). This led me to the B-spline. With some tinkering I found that having two knots, one between each 0.1-2.5 and 2.6-5, provided models that fit the data pretty well, and I resampled knot combinations to find the best fit for each dataset. The result:

B-splines describing the relationship between ECV (or brain mass) and age in the TaÏ (green) and Yerkes (blue) data. Although resampling identified different knots for each sample, the regression coefficients are not significantly different.

B-splines describing the relationship between ECV (or brain mass) and age in the TaÏ (green) and Yerkes (blue) data. Note that although the Yerkes line is elevated above the Taï line after 4 years, the confidence intervals (shaded regions) overlap at all ages.

These models fit the data pretty well (r-squared >0.90), and nicely capture the major changes in growth rates. Resampling knot positions reveals best-fit models with different knots for each sample, but otherwise the two models cannot be statistically distinguished from one another: the 95% confidence intervals of both the model coefficients and brain size estimates overlap. So statistical modelling of brain growth in these samples suggests they’re the same, but there are some hints of difference.

Growth rates at each age calculated from the B-spline regressions. Note these are arithmetic velocities and not first derivatives of the growth curves.

Growth rates at each age calculated from the B-spline regressions. Note these are arithmetic velocities and not first derivatives of the growth curves. The dashed horizontal line at 0 indicates the end of brain size growth.

Converting the growth curves to arithmetic velocities we see what accounts for the subtle differences between samples. The velocity plot hints that, in these cross-sectional data, brain size increases rapidly after birth but growth slows down and ends sooner in Taï than among the Yerkes apes. I’m cautious about over-interpreting this difference, since there is great overlap between growth curves, and there is only one Taï newborn compared to about 20 in Yerkes: even just a few more newborns from Taï might reveal greater similarity with Yerkes.

So there you have it, it looks like the wild Taï and captive Yerkes chimps follow basically the same pattern of brain growth, despite living in different environments. Whereas the generally greater stressors in the wild often lead to different patterns of skeletal and dental development in wild vs. captive settings, brain growth appears pretty robust to these environmental differences. That brain growth should be canalized is not too surprising, given the importance of having a well-developed brain for survival and reproduction. But it’s cool to see this theoretical expectation borne out with empirical observations.


Tomorrow I’m heading to St. Louis, MO for the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. I’ll be giving a talk on Saturday presenting results of a comparison of brain size growth between captive and wild chimpanzees. Some recent work has highlighted differences between captive and wild animals in terms of bodily growth and maturation, but so far as I know brain development has not been part of this. Here’s a teaser plot, showing how the captive (blue) and wild (green) datasets deviate from a piecewise linear regression of brain size against age (for the combined wild+captive sample):

Rplot copyThe dashed black line is zero, or no deviation from the model. This plot shows that each dataset deviates little from the model at younger ages (when the brain is growing rapidly), but at older ages the captive animals have larger brains, and the wild animals have smaller brains, than predicted by the model. What’s the meaning of this? Find out Saturday afternoon at 3 pm…

2015 AAPA conference: More brain growth

The American Association of Physical Anthropologists is holding its annual meeting next year in St. Louis, in my home state of Missouri (I’m from Kansas City, which is by far the best city in the state, if not the entirety of the Midwest). I’ll be giving a talk comparing brain size growth in captive and wild chimpanzees, on Saturday 28 March in the Primate Life History session. Here’s a sneak peak:

Velocity curve for brain size from birth to 5 years in wild (green) and caprive (blue) chimpanzees. For the captive models, the dashed line is fit to the raw brain masses, and the solid line is fit to the estimated endocranial volumes.

Velocity curves for brain size growth from birth to 5 years in wild (green) and captive (blue) chimpanzees. The wild data are endocranial volumes, but the captive specimens are represented by brain masses. So the captive data are modeled for both the original masses (dashed) and estimated volumes (solid). Wild data are from Neubauer et al. 2011, captive data from Herndon et al., 1999.

Abstract: This study compares postnatal brain size change in two important chimpanzee samples: brain masses of captive apes at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, and endocranial volumes (ECVs) of wild-collected individuals from the Taï Forest. Importantly, age at death is known for every individual, so these cross-sectional samples allow inferences of patterns and rates of brain growth in these populations. Previous studies have revealed differences in growth and health between wild and captive animals, but such habitat effects have yet to be investigated for brain growth. It has also been hypothesized that brain mass and endocranial volume follow different growth curves. To address these issues, I compare the Yerkes brain mass data (n=70) with the Taï ECVs (n=30), modeling both size and velocity change over time with polynomial regression. Yerkes masses overlap with Taï volumes at all ages, though values for the former tend to be slightly elevated over the latter. Velocity curves indicate that growth decelerates more rapidly for mass than ECV. Both velocity curves come to encompass zero between three and four years of age, with Yerkes mass slightly preceding Taï ECV. Thus, Yerkes brain masses and Taï ECVs show a very similar pattern of size change, but there are minor differences indicating at least a small effect of differences in habitat, unit of measurement, or a combination of both. The overall similarity between datasets, however, points to the canalization of brain growth in Pan troglodytes.