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Adventures from reading books captured within short reviews.

Biological Anthropology: An Evolutionary Perspective (The Great Courses)

Biological Anthropology: An Evolutionary Perspective (The Great Courses) - Barbara J. King This is a good introduction to a fascinating subject, and is probably equivalent to a first semester collegiate level lecture class on the subject. The lectures were recorded in 2002 so they may be getting a bit dated for a subject area that is frequently updated with new discoveries and new theories. The first seventeen lectures generally follow the evolution of Hominids from the early common ancestors with the Primates through to Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens. The final seven lectures explore language, race, cultural, and political issues that are part of the world of humans today. Biological anthropology has an odd time line, starting several million years ago and going up to about 30,000 years ago when Homo Sapiens became the lone surviving hominid. Then from there they skip to modern times. The intervening time between 30,000 years ago and the present is left to the historians and archaeologists.

The following are some examples discussed in the lectures where past evolutionary pressures may be working against our health today:
1. The propensity to become obese when cheap calories are readily available
2. Inheriting a single gene (not two) that causes sickle cell anemia affords protection from malaria
3. The interrelationship of skin pigmentation, vitamin D, and UV radiation
4. High blood pressure and its increased prevalence in African Americans
5. Morning sickness commonly experienced in early pregnancy
Most of these have previously appeared in the popular press. However, I hadn't heard the one about high blood pressure before.

Another interesting item is that analysis of the bones found in a 17th to 18th Century Manhattan cemetery for slaves determined that their infant mortality rate was about 50%, and the death rate for 15 to 25 year olds was higher than that of the rest of the population. These findings are indirect evidence regarding the quality of their living and working conditions.

One lecture was dedicated to making the point that race has no biological significance. That may be true based on her definitions. But the investigators on CSI would certainly be required to use more adjectives if they couldn't refer to race.

Early in the series there's a lecture on controversies regarding evolution. It's a shame that time needs to be spent dealing with that issue, but we need to remember that polls show that nearly half of the American population claim to not accept the theory evolution. I don't envy college lecturers who can expect to have a few students every year in their classes who have come from backgrounds that taught them that the theory of evolution was the work of the devil. The lecturer, Barbara J. King, admitted that her own mother was skeptical of the concept of evolution.