The American Museum of Natural History, here in New York, offers many opportunities to connect the public with active scientists in the many fields represented among the exhibits. The Sackler Educational Lab for Comparative Genomics and Human Origins in the Hall of Human Origins hosts the Meet the Scientist series. For a few hours on the first Saturday of every month an active scientist in physical anthropology is available to share their own research, demonstrate concepts with touchable fossil casts and materials, and answer questions from the public.
In March, I was afforded the opportunity to meet the public as the scientist featured in the Sackler Educational Lab. After about a 10 minute spiel on the ways the muscles of the lower limb have changed in our lineage’s transition to bipedality (Title: Beyond Bones: The Evolution of Soft Tissue Morphology in Hominin Lower Limbs) the floor was open for the members of the public to ask me questions.
Here is where the real learning began.
I was mildly disappointed that I didn’t get a chance to tackle any ‘out-there’ questions about aliens, the Aquatic Ape Theory, or why are there still monkeys if we evolved from them. However, I found the questions and comments from the audience to be informative on the way the scientific community has communicated with the public through various educational and media outlets. The majority of the questions not directly related to what I had presented fell into two categories: Human-Neanderthal admixture and the ‘bushy’ nature of our family tree.
Genetic tests and popular media proclaiming percentages of Neanderthals in modern humans have excited the public in recent years. I was eager to discover that I am 2.8% Neanderthal according to results from National Geographic’s Genographic Project. Unfortunately, the coverage has also led to some confusion about our relationships with Neanderthals.
One father questioned if Neanderthals were just absorbed into modern human groups through inbreeding. I explained that the genetic data suggests relatively infrequent admixture events (read more here). His daughter then challenged the authenticity of what we think is the Neanderthal genome by questioning how we know that the fossils we have sampled represent “pure” Neanderthals and not hybrid descendants. This family’s interest, and that of the public at large, in human-Neanderthal interactions stems from the intimate connection to our own species.
The second most popular topic was the existence of multiple “human ancestors” living at the same time. The iconic image of a chimpanzee-esq silhouette progressively standing up to be a modern human has become the de facto logo for human evolutionary studies. Further, when we use words like ancestors and family tree it denotes a linear, anagenetic view of human evolution. In many ways that view is easiest to disseminate to the public as proof of evolution and gradual change over time.
However, the fossil record shows us that there are many side branches, which are closely related, but not directly ancestral to modern humans. Paleoanthropologists are excited to find any member of the human family bush. Even species that are not our direct ancestors are informative in answering questions about evolutionary trends, diet, locomotion, and behavior in our ancestors. They show us which features are unique to humans and help us order the major evolutionary events that produced those traits.
Overall, my few hours meeting the public was highly rewarding and illuminating. I sincerely hope the museum patrons who stopped by the Sackler Educational Lab that afternoon learned a little more about human evolution. I do know that through our conversations I learned how to better communicate complex relationships between hominins simply and concisely.
My transition from member of the general public to undergraduate major to Ph.D. student in physical anthropology has been a slow and gradual process of learning about the evolutionary history of our species, Homo sapiens, and our primate relatives. Engulfed in the world of academia it is easy to forget how the patchy information about human evolution in books, Discovery Channel specials, and museum exhibits translates to members of the general public. I would encourage any scientist to go out and engage with non-scientists to not only share information, but also to learn about how their field is perceived from the outside looking in.
I would like to thank the American Museum of Natural History, the Education Department, and the staff in the Sackler Educational Lab for this opportunity and for help with my presentation.
Kristen is a Ph.D. student at CUNY/NYCEP concentrating on the evolution of the upper limb in the genus Homo