The 82nd Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2013)

Crossing disciplines to challenge the adaptationist paradigm


Department of Archaeology, University of Cape Town

Thursday 1:15-1:30, Ballroom A Add to calendar

In the wake of the Modern Synthesis, Sherwood Washburn’s appeal for a new physical anthropology explicitly called for a shift towards a process-oriented view of evolution. Like others at the time, Washburn overwhelmingly emphasized the role that selection plays in shaping diversity, and biological anthropologists soon began to embrace the idea of interpreting human variation and evolution in terms of underlying selective processes. Today, explanations for phenotypic variation in human evolution remain largely functional/adaptive, despite the strong challenges to the adaptationist paradigm mounted outside of biological anthropology in the past few decades. In this paper, I will discuss our current understanding of the important role that random genetic drift and gene flow have played in shaping phenotypic diversity in hominins. This fuller understanding of the underlying processes responsible for variation has necessitated engaging with other disciplines (e.g. evolutionary biology, quantitative genetics). We have much to gain from modifying the methodological approaches and theoretical developments within those disciplines to our own ends, including a more sophisticated interpretation of the fossil record. As one example, the emerging genomic evidence for gene flow among archaic human populations (e.g. Neanderthals, Denisovans) might have been less surprising (to those for whom it was a surprise) were it not for methodological approaches couched within a lingering adaptationist perspective that has failed to provide a sufficiently nuanced understanding of the evolutionary prevalence and phenotypic consequences of the ‘other’ evolutionary forces.

Research funded by the National Research Foundation of South Africa and the University of Cape Town.

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