Anthropology, as defined, is the study of all things human; therefore, one wishing to obtain a completely rounded perspective of all things human cannot exclude the aspect of biology (Park 10). After all, biology is shaped as much by culture as culture is shaped by biology. Therefore, biological aspects of anthropological research have fallen into its own distinct category of study. The broad field of biological anthropology, also known as physical anthropology, deals with everything from evolutionary theory to the human fossil record. However, this particular field does not limit itself solely to the past. Like cultural anthropology, biological anthropologists also lend their knowledge of human biology to aid in the identification and human skeletal remains from accidents and crime scenes.
That said, biological anthropology is a science lying within a holistic setting in order to fully understand it one must also have an understanding of science and the scientific method and also know that those findings should be explored science as a human endeavor (Park 23). By exploring biology as scientific fact influenced by humanistic activities, it is the responsibility of the biological anthropologist to look into every aspect of the biology of the human subject. These aspects include; genetics, environmental influences, anatomy and physiology, adaptations, behavior, evolution, and even human history, making sure to express the importance of the interrelationships among all of these different aspects in the applied field of anthropology as a whole (Park 12).
Therefore, for that reason and considering the complicated, involved nature of this particular branch of anthropology it is important for anthropologists to ask questions like; “What are the biological characteristics that define the human species?”, “How do these characteristics set us apart from other species?”, “Where do we come from?”, “What biological variations are there within our species and how does this effect us?”. The questions are seemingly endless.
It is within these types of endless questions that led early scientists to seek answers long before anthropology was accepted as a science. Three very specific influences upon the field of biological anthropology still maintain their place among the field even today. To start, one must look at the works of a known naturalist named Charles Darwin. Darwin is best associated with his theories of evolution wherein he stated that species of living things can change over time, and under the right circumstances, those changes can produce a new species (Bogin 26). Some scholars have even gone so far to suggest that without Darwin and his theories, anthropology would not exist. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, a French naturalist’s findings were partially supported by Darwin’s theory of non-progressive evolution. Lamark however, supported the conclusion “survival of the fittest”; in other words, that plants and animals are in fact adaptive to their environment, thus each kind of living organism should theoretically carry traits which would in turn allow them to survive (Park 35). Finally there is the early work conducted by Gregor Mendel, known today as the “father of modern genetics”. While Mendel’s efforts were restricted in comparison to the lengths researchers have made with the aid of technology in this day and age, Mendel’s experimentation constructed the basic laws of genetic inheritance (Bogin 54). His research today is regarded as Mendelian genetics.
Issues surrounding these landmark theories find their way into the work of biological anthropologists even to this day. Take for example, the issue of adaptation. Overall, the concept of adaptation is a fairly simple one. By its simplest definition, adaptation is any alteration in the structure or function of an organism or any of its parts that results from natural selection and by which the organism becomes better fitted to survive within its environment (Webster). The actual process of adaptation however, is one that is much more complex and presents itself in many different ways. As a whole, adaptation can be environmental, biological, and even social and the causes behind each reason can be more complex than that.
Starting first with adaptation to the surrounding environment, one must first look at the different physical factors which come directly into play. Skin color and body types stand out as the two most common and direct examples of physical adaptation to the surrounding environment. Through the process of genetic drift and selection over a very extended period of times, each of these different types have eventually been selected as a direct result of what would survive the best in that particular environment. Body size, for example can play a very important role in maintaining the specific body temperature needed for survival in a particular habitat. Shorter, stockier body types, found mostly in climates of colder weather keep body heat in.
Biological adaptations on the other hand, can be a result of either environment, disease or even a combination of both. In cases of infectious disease, adaptation may take the route of selection to suite whatever is best for a worse case scenario. Sickle cell’s relation to malaria, HIV to historical strains of the plague, each shows the process of adaptation for the best outcome of survival.
Finally, there is the concept of social adaptation, where dietary means can lead to the change in phenotypes among members of a population. Therefore, the ability to tolerate lactose products are believed to be a large example of a circumstance that plays a part in both the cultural and biological portions of human adaptation (Goodman 354).
Yet another issue that has been raised by the pursuit of biological anthropologists deals with the confusion of race and ethnicity with biological differences. The confusion of race and ethnicity with biological information is an unfortunate side effect that has come out of the study of human variation. What is commonly thought of by the social perspective of race, which is used to classify individual to be biologically different from one another, is simply not true. It has been proven that using race as a method of demonstrating human variation can in fact be very dangerous on many levels. As best put in a lecture by Dr Angrosino, using race to explain variation opens a means to the social justification of actions that would otherwise never be considered. To classify the human species is to open up individuals to prejudice based on plain adaptation.
Race, it is argued, simply does not exist on a biological level. Human variation is based on an intricate number of environmental and evolutionary factors. The social stratification of race simply has no foundation. One good example of dispelling this myth id the very fact that there is more genetic variation within a single population than there is across the overall species. If one were to simply stop and consider what exactly this means, one might then discover that variation is even closer related to social perspective than biology in some instances.
Medical studies, like those examined by foster and sharp help to explain why using race to explain population variances is both beneficial and detrimental. On one hand, using specific genetic markers to observe a disease might be beneficial only if those reading the results understand that a disease is only more prominent in one group of people over another because they may not have the means or be confined by different social restrictions that prevent them from mingling outside of that community. While these markers might be helpful in aiding biologists to effectively treat that disease, it does not mean that the disease is more prominent or even restricted to that particular population. It is because that of that populations limited genetic distribution that
biologists are able to achieve a better understand of the disease. Unfortunately, not all studies like this are interpreted in such a manner. Socially, studies like this can only lend towards social prejudice.
Like most every branch of anthropology, the methods for accumulating support regarding such issues and other focuses of research remain mostly the same, the most common of which is field work. Biological anthropology however, is not completely reliant on field research either. Information gathered from the field can be studied more in depth through lab work and the study of genetic samples.
The University of South Florida, is one of a few institutions thatmakes sure that the importance of biology to the field of anthropology is well known. Aside from offering core introductory course, the department also offers more specific branches of biological anthropology dealing in human variation, forensics and even evolutionary theory. Outside of the academic scene however, researching the field of biological anthropology might appear at first a little vague. There are however, textbooks, online journals, and other publications made available through the American Anthropological Association as well as the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.
Angrosino, Michael V. Rethinking Anthropology: Class Lectures in Race, Ethics, and Theory. Social Sciences Building, University of South Florida, Tampa, FL. Fall Semester 2006.
Bogin, Barry, Dennis O’Rourke, Sara Stinson, and Rebecca Huss-Bogin. Human Biology: An Evolutionary and Biocultural Perspective. New York: Wiley-Liss Inc, 2000.
Goodman, Alan H. and Thomas L. Leatherman. Building a New Biocultural Synthesis; Political-Economic Studies on Human Biology. Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2001.
Park, Michael Alan. Biological Anthropology. 3rd Edition. Boston: McGraw-Hill/Mayfield. 2002.
Merriam-Webster Online. 2006. Merriam-Webster Inc. 4th Dec. 2006. http://www.m-w.com/.