Race, Racism and Human Variation

I am most interested in reaching a diverse, wide audience with information and ideas about the intersection of race, human biology and racism as history, science, and lived experience.  In addition to the recent website, exhibit, and books, I am writing a new book that is a combination of personal experiences and scientific tales.  One chapter is on Jewish Noses.

Biology & Culture

One of the historian’s most tenacious mental habits is the strict separation of biology as an immutable sphere of life from society and culture as spheres that are variable and change over time.  In this dichotomy between nature and history, the body is assigned to the category of nature and biology.” (Barbara Duden 1991:vii, The Women Beneath the Skin).

In agreement with the quote above by historian Barbara Duden, nearly everyone inside and outside of the academy tends to view biology as natural (genetic, god given) and stable.  This is a problem because biology does not sit still, and we are active in making biology and human biology.  I am interested in how we “read” biological information such as skin color and height; additionally, I am especially interested in how political economic processes intersect with life on the ground and “get under the skin”.

My predominant interest of late is in understanding how biology is more than genetic, and is highly cultural. Human biology is cultural in how we read phenotypes and how political-economic processes get under the skin.  An example is work with Tom Leatherman in the Yucatan on dietary changes (coca-colonization), a process that begins in the North and spreads to the global South.  In one small Mayan community we found over 40 tiendas where one could buy a coke.  Soft drink consumption changes economies and bodies. I am increasingly interested in how one frames what is biology, and seeing biology as a complex and fascinating result of the intersections of genes, environment and culture.

Current projects include the continuation of long term studies of infant and childhood malnutrition in the Mexican Highlands and Yucatan and writing projects essentially around the question of “What is (Human) Biology?”.

Teeth as bio-indicators of stress, nutrition and health

I have worked on teeth as indicators of stress since graduate student days (see publications).  My current work involves working with Dula Amarasiriwardena on laser-ablation of enamel as a record of nutrition, pollution and past locations. See Dula’s webpage for some of this work.

I continue to work with Joe Jones and other members of the research team of the New York African Burial Ground on determining lead levels of enslaved Africans and using enamel chemistry to provide insights into natality.

Finally, I am fascinated by how ameloblasts, enamel forming cells, although genetic clones and exposed to the same bath of blood supply, can behave very differently.  This work links to my interest in the complexities of biology.