Anthropology, Politics, and The Science of Understanding One Another

by | Nov 17, 2017 | POLITICS

Located in the back storage room of her basement lab, Dr. Amy Rector has a cabinet of anatomical wonders, including a significant collection of human skulls, which she uses to teach anthropology at Virginia Commonwealth University. The skulls have been donated and handed down to VCU; fragile and delicate, they come complete with missing teeth and pencil marks from continued use. In one of the more macabre pieces of anatomy, she has a human brain that’s missing a diagonal section, indicating suicide from a gunshot wound. She even has a portion of someone’s jaw that has two decayed sections from abscessed infections.


Rector is an assistant professor with Virginia Commonwealth University’s anthropology faculty and one of the region’s brightest minds in human development. From her scientific viewpoint, anthropology exists on the fault line between the constraints of biology and culture, making her uniquely placed to walk us through today’s challenges.

Dr. Amy Rector

Which is important because contemporary America is defined by populations existing in perpetual divisiveness, aligning, identifying, and ostracizing themselves from the “other.” While this might be a historical phenomenon in the US, it is hardly unique in the scope of human development. The need for us, as humans, to group together is basic, and quite essential for the survival of our species. This gets deeply complex when one population imposes control over resources needed by different coexisting populations. Basically, it’s “us versus them” — an accurate anthropological description of the United States’ political climate as 2017 gives way to 2018.

To shed some light on what has brought us to this point, RVA Mag caught up with Dr. Rector to chat about the science of human development and group politics. Anthropology attempts to provide reasons for our current divisive state, using examples throughout our species’ history.

Hand Axe from 1.5 Million Years Ago

Rector’s expertise stems from her work in eastern and southern Africa, where she reconstructs paleoecological frameworks to decipher early human evolution. In layperson terms, paleoecology is the historical study of relationships between organisms, their interactions, and their environments.

She also focuses on fossil mammal communities by analyzing and identifying their ecological and bio-geographic relationships throughout their existence. Which is to say, she loves bones and loves mapping bone data to reconstruct not only fossil records of natural evolution, but how these organisms coexisted with their environment – giving us the broadest understanding of how we continue to relate with one another, even today. 

Deconstructed Skull

This semester, Rector has been teaching two of her favorite classes: bio-anthropology and human evolution. Bio-anthropology classes, which take her students more deeply into the subject, focus on topics unique to the discipline, explaining this as, “human variation and human adaptation, what differences mean — and what they don’t mean.” She added that this semester specifically, the class has a social justice angle to it in order to contextualize and dispel certain notions, such as the lack of genetic variation between the races.

“For example, this week we talked about health, disease, and how differing socio-economic statuses can affect a population’s overall health,” said Rector. “We talk about real-world modern problems that populations are up against, and how anthropology can solve, or help solve those problems.” She explained that culture widens these gaps between populations, not genetics and that different variations and cultures should be celebrating their commonalities, instead of further demonizing one another.

More often than not, the disagreement between populations in America originates out of prejudice and bias against those in the minority. However, the history of anthropology has not always been above the biases that have gripped Western societies for centuries. In Rector’s human evolution class, where she goes through the fossil record, she covers the ways early anthropological methods were inherently racist. She matter-of-factly discusses the methodology of our evolutionary lineage by highlighting the biased ways fossils have been studied. “We’re all from the same place, right? Scientists haven’t always interpreted it like that,” said Rector. “I make sure that when I teach, I contextualize that racial bias has been a part of anthropology from the beginning.” 

Human Heart

An example of a racially-biased and outdated form of physical anthropology is the study of phrenology, a pseudoscience that measured various parts of an individual’s skull and extrapolated impossible details about that individual from the results. It was used in the early 20th century as a paleo-anthropological tool to compare skull shapes of prehistoric men to alleged criminals.

While our physical differences can’t actually be used to determine criminal potential, there are still many things we can learn from the anthropological study of our differences. At one point, Rector spoke of South Africa’s pride over their place in the still-developing fossil record; they claim they are the birthplace of humans, “The Rainbow Nation.”

Human Skulls

Rector noted the significance of South Africa as humanity’s birthplace. “We all come from these lineages, spanning 7 million years,” said Rector. “And what’s so interesting about us is how we as populations diverged, where the variance emerged. That’s why we’ve survived. We can do the extraordinary, because our populations are variable.”

Variance refers to the differences that can emerge in two human populations located even a mere 50 miles apart. The demographic variables within this spectrum include life expectancy, fertility, and migration patterns — all things that help us better understand our core commonalities.

“Genetically, all humans are really similar with very little variation. You cannot identify someone’s race based on their genes, that’s not how it works,” she explained. “The social reality of race is very real, however, because of culture and traditions. That’s where anthropology sits; on the line between biology and culture.”

The fault line between culture and biology is something widely researched. Recently published by the National Institute of Health in an article titled “The biology of cultural conflict,” authors Gregory Burns and Scott Atran state that, “cultural conflict should manifest in two ways. First, if there are systemic and substantial cultural differences between groups of people, this would result in different types of processing in individual brains that form the group.” They explained further, “Take, for example, religion. When presented with a concept like God, a Christian and an atheist would surely react differently, and this will probably manifest as differences in brain activation.”

Therefore, from a scientific standpoint, the real question in our hyper-divisive age becomes: “Why don’t we value our commonalities, instead of exploiting our differences?” Rector used the basic analogy of the hunter-gatherer group to explain group dynamics and their subsequent politics and dynamics, and how the “us versus them” dichotomy originated from the first self-identified populations of humans – our ancestors. In her bioanthropology class, they “talk about the biology, or lack thereof, of racial categories,” said Rector, bringing it back, once again, to culture and tradition.

Brain Specimen

The anatomical wonders in Rector’s lab and the skulls from humans and our hominin ancestors provide a snapshot of human development spanning millions of years. While we may think the divisive nature of today’s society is something new, birthed from current ideologies, the truth is it’s nothing new. Group dynamics have been around as long as we have, but according to Rector, they’re what make us special, not a flaw. “I keep coming back to that over and over again in anthropology,” she said. “We need to value our differences. That’s what makes us strong.”


*Photos by Landon Shroder. All Specimens from Dr. Amy Rector’s Lab

Christopher McDaniel

Christopher McDaniel

Christopher Alan McDaniel is a 2015 VCU graduate with his Bachelor’s in English and a minor in Creative Writing. Chris aspires to be a collegiate professor of writing in his future. Until then, you can find him hosting free public creative writing workshops with the Filthy Rich and writing grants for Dogtown Dance Theatre. Chris can also be found around Richmond’s breweries and music venues enjoying what the city has to offer.

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