Friday, April 12, 2013

Anthropology meeting: lots of good people, but not much action

We're at the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (AAPA) annual meeting, this year being held in Knoxville, TN.  The University of Tennessee has long had a very good faculty in biological anthropology, changing over the years but retaining status as substantial contributor to the field.

The attendance seems substantial, but the program itself seems rather short on hefty content.  There are several symposia to honor the careers of noteworthy biological anthropologists, from UT's history and beyond, and there are some good overview papers and various interesting poster presentations.

But, unlike many physical anthropology meetings of the past, there are few if any announcements of major findings.  No big splash fossil or genetic findings, no new primate species discovered in the wildes of Nowhere.  Instead, the program at least judging by titles, consists of a plethora of papers on very restrictive topics.  In the past, major new findings in paleontology or primatology or in human genetics and osteology would be presented here.

Unless we learn of more broadly applying presentations to be given, our impression is that a great increase in the number of faculty in this subject and the pressure to present new findings in rapid-fire fashion has largely sliced and diced work into rather minimalist, very focused but narrow presentations.  Most of these topics could be presented in an online format, and it is not clear that the wheeling and dealing is worth the cost of the travel and so on to have such a meeting.

Our own area, genetics, seems rather thinly represented given the big media news that genetic findings (or claims of them) make every week.  Over the years, mainline human genetics seems to have drifted away from the AAPA members or their use of these meetings.  More human geneticists are operating out of medical schools, often with a rather shallow understanding of evolution (but more money), and both geneticists and paleontologists have chosen to present their results on the hyper-media stage than at specialist meetings such as these.  In part, but only in part,  the depth of knowledge and use of technology that properly trained anthropologists can muster has a hard time competing with the resources of the medical school NIH-funding world, where teaching is often considered a kind of 4-letter word.  In part, anthropology has indulged too much in over-simplified evolutionary notions and has avoided the high level of technology and molecular and computing skills needed in this field, rather than being the more knowledgeable watch-dogs of the Just-So stories and promises coming out of NIH.

And yet....
Still, the meeting has not been a failure for us by any means.  We've already met many very good scientists and friends, and had a very fine dinner and conversation with our great MT co-conspirator Holly Dunsworth, the elegant and thoughtful contributor of so many wonderful posts on our blog.  And we've talked with Holly and others about ways we might encourage universities to revise their faculty evaluation criteria to take appropriate account for tthe active and successful use of social media (moving towards what we've called Broadreach University, the second Gutenberg-like transformation of intellectual communication).  One wonders if in-person meetings of the kind we're attending will be changed to something different, or if the old style (posters, podium presentations, plenary talks) will have legs into the future.

Holly is involved in many creative projects for the dissemination of knowledge about genetics and evolution (and more), both for public education and to improve teaching, along with her own research on evolutionary topics.

If we hear interesting presentations in the next couple of days here, we'll write about them.


Terry Salad said...

I had the same thoughts looking over the meeting abstracts. Plenty of good work, but nothing terribly exciting. Are we in a rut?

Ken Weiss said...

Well discoveries come perhaps in bursts or this is a gap year, so to speak. More relevant may be the partitioning of research into more, but smaller parcels, and the more highly focused but hence more narrowly applicable work. And the expansion to something like 1700 participants in physical anth., a rather restricted field.

Still, there are some interesting papers, which is good.

Terry Salad said...

Also, this year the Paleoanthropology Association meetings are being held elsewhere (Hawaii). In the past, they were often held in the same city just before the AAPA meetings.