How Biological Anthropology Works

What It Means to Be Human

Existentialists get all the credit for asking those big life questions: Who am I? How did we get here? Biological anthropologists, however, are asking those same questions and delving into scientific investigations to figure out the answers.

There is so much variation in the idea of a human being. Different skin color, different stature, different intellect, different everything. We are, after all, each our own special snowflakes. There is a thread, however, that makes us all human. We evolved to land in this diverse pool in which we currently exist. But how? Biological anthropologists use tools from genetics, zoology, paleontology and more to understand the differences within and between human populations, getting at the environmental and hereditary bases of diversity. As you can imagine, this can get messy.

As we mentioned earlier, people have used some of the ideas from biological anthropology to make justifications for supremacy of one race over another. Biological anthropologists must work hard at investigating human diversity scientifically without allowing race to act as a basic organizing tool, and they do this by employing a few strategies. First, they control data for economic status and access to health care, comparing populations of humans based on their social circumstances. Second, they look closely at the origin and basis of physical features without categorizing those features within particular races. For example, they look at skin color as a continuum of a spectrum, not in association with one race or another. Finally, they explore geographic distribution of human traits without racial identification. While connections to race will inevitably exist, racializing the approach to data collection and analysis does not provide useful information about the overall human condition.

Biological anthropologists get to explore all our differences to get at what it really means to be human. The diversity of the contributors to this field is second only to the diversity that exists in the populations they research. Using ideas from a myriad of disciplines, biological anthropologists get to look into the past, study the present and learn more about our future as an evolving species.

Author's Note: How Biological Anthropology Works

As a physical scientist, I've always loved numbers, irrefutable rules of nature, logic. The social sciences have always felt too messy to me because they involve humans. And, well, we're messy. Learning more about biological anthropology made me realize, however, that the mess is what makes it fun. The different factors that all go into making the study of humans messy – where we grew up, how we grew up, our genes, etc. – is what makes it so interesting to study. And frankly, what makes it so interesting to be human. Living in a world of robots that all followed rules of nature and logic precisely sounds lame.

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More Great Links


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  • Encyclopedia Britannica. "Acclimatization." 2015. (April 29, 2015)
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  • Turner, Trudy R., ed. "Biological Anthropology and Ethics." State University of New York Press. 2005.

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