Teaching Human Evolution in Honolulu (Feb-March 2020)
By Becky A. Sigmon, Prof. Emeritus of Anthropology


My connection with Honolulu

Honolulu is a small city melding the features of the Orient and the West into a uniquely adaptive human blend of physical and cultural variation.  It is this character that appeals to me.  Honolulu’s international University is placed in the Manoa Valley at the base of ancient volcanic hills, away from and yet a distal appendage of this Pacific Island city. On four occasions I was summer term Professor in the Anthropology Department, teaching  courses on Human Evolution and Physical Anthropology to students coming from all over the South Pacific as well as from  Asian and Euro-American cultures.  This varied human mixture makes teaching challenging and yet very interesting for a Physical Anthropologist because human variation is a major focus of our research. The fact that we are a product of our genetic as well as our environmental backgrounds is a fascinating topic to teach, and it gives the student some answers about their own unique physical features.

Honolulu has become my second residence of choice and the University of Hawaii, my second academic institution.  When the opportunity arose this year (2020) for me to offer mature students a five-week course in human evolution, (February to early-March, and yes, my timing was perfect) I accepted enthusiastically. The year before, I myself attended courses in the University’s Later Life Learning Institute, and found them informative and inspiring. Noting that there were no course offerings in Physical Anthropology, I volunteered to teach one myself.  I knew the students for these courses would come largely from Hawaii’s two main sources of employment – the medical professions and the military (Oahu has bases for each of the U.S. military branches). There being no major industries other than tourism (if that can be considered an “industry”), these would be the main professions of students signing up for the course, well educated and bright, and with already half a century of specialized knowledge in their own fields. It would be a challenging audience to teach. As it turned out, the medical people quickly caught on to the biology and the military ones were faster in seeing how human variation could be practically applied.

With such a class in mind, I began an outline for a course that I named “Homo sapiens: Its Origins and Evolution”. An alternative choice was “Palaeo-Anthropology is About Us” but that title got lost in paperwork. Past experience has shown me that this topic is of special interest to the average educated person. For example, when popular publications sometimes shower us with agonizingly outrageous and inflated interpretations of newly discovered fossil hominids, I am frequently asked my opinion. My own colleagues would already have communicated with me about their incredulity of such outlandish published material, and I commiserated. I know that fossils and human evolution hold a fascination for many people. Even in Toronto I have frequently been asked to comment on flashy news reports and sometimes ridiculously exaggerated claims about a new discovery. One of my pet peeves is reading a distortion of scientific evidence about fossils and human evolution that is misleading and inaccurate.

Therefore, it seemed to me that a course that provides the scientific framework that would give students the background enabling them to judge questionable matter in popular literature, would be desirable as well as beneficial for the discipline. If people understand how the scientist works in studying fossils, then they themselves can judge the validity of publications. I felt that five classes could provide that scientific background for this goal. My challenging job would be choosing and compressing the right knowledge into five meetings, and presenting it in the right way to maintain the class’s attention and interest.

How did I do it, and how did it work out?

I decided to begin the course by providing a framework that represents a general scientific consensus for interpreting the evidence, fossil and otherwise, of 5 million years of human evolution, with major features of each stage including its time of known existence. This would make it easier for students to fit into one or another of these stages, all the names of fossils that were known (of which there are multitudes), and would help clarify much of their confusion about where a particular fossil or group of fossils fit in an evolutionary scheme.

My outline for the five 2-hour classes included what I had carefully considered would represent a broad but brief summary of each of these evolutionary stages. The first lecture introduced to the class the significance of the single most important feature—upright bipedal posture and locomotion—that characterizes the entire taxonomic family Hominidae that includes fossil and extant species. This feature would be the first step (literally an upright bipedal one) into becoming human and it first evolved in a group of fossils called australopithecines. I suggested students compare themselves with quadrupedal animals to see obvious advantages.

Who were australopithecines? This was my second lecture with a very abbreviated summary of the fossil evidence, and naturally leading me into the third topic on the geology and origins of fossils. How do we know where to look? How do Palaeontologists organize their expeditions, and what are their methods of finding and interpreting fossils when discovered? For this lecture, I used my personal experience in the field and my involvement with the International Afar Expedition in Ethiopia at the location where the famous “Lucy” was discovered, and where subsequent work uncovered the “First Family,” a large group of fossils representing a band that had died a sudden death probably from a flood that had buried and left them undisturbed for 3 million years. The class responded enthusiastically as they vicariously experienced what it is like to be a palaeoanthropologist.

In order to keep up class interest, I chose for my fourth lecture a review of the mysterious loss of original fossils of Homo erectus, the next evolutionary stage following australopithecines. One of the major scientific losses in China during the Second World War was the collection of fossils found at Choukoutien, near Peking, in the 1930s, and lost during the Japanese invasion of China in December, 1941. Because of the historical interest of the Pearl Harbour bombing, this was a particularly appropriate topic for a Hawaiian audience. I even considered it possible that someone in the class might know somebody who could give us further information about the missing fossils. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen.

My last lecture was the most challenging to write. I wanted it to be a brief review of Epigenetics (non-genetic effects of embryological environmental influences) and the resurrection of the evolutionary theory of the inheritance of acquired traits that offers an explanation of why species appear to be well adapted to their environment. Lamarckism, named after the proposer of this theory (1801), had been rejected by “science” in favour of Darwinism and natural selection (1859). It was also excluded from mid-20th century’s “Evolutionary Synthesis” that emphasized Darwinian theory and “evolutionary genetics” and regarded environmental effects as just useless “noise.”

Scientific papers reviving epigenetics were beginning to appear in the literature in the late 20th century. Evidence for the inheritance of environmentally influenced traits was being documented, especially by researchers in medical sciences. Biologists have been slow to appreciate the evolutionary implications. As epigenetic research emerges in science, it is becoming apparent that evolutionary theory must include the role of environment and inheritance of environmentally influenced traits. There has to be room on the evolutionary stage for both a genetic and an epigenetic explanation. How could I include all I wanted to say into one class period?

The weekend before this last lecture, I pondered over how to present this material. I drew diagram after diagram, redrew them, redrew them again, as I tried to summarize evolutionary biological history in the making! The last weekend before the last lecture was pretty sleepless for me as my mind kept going over how to present a review of this evolutionary shift in thinking. The day before the class I finally saw a way to show it in a single diagram, on just one page. There wasn’t time to print it out, so I hand wrote it, and made photocopies to pass out in class. The diagram formed the text of my last lecture. In it I was able to show how the 3 disciplines of fossil studies, genetics, and epigenetics had historically developed and were now being incorporated into a 21st century New Evolutionary Synthesis.

The class ended after 20 minutes overtime, and we all applauded. To me it was gratefulness to the class that motivated me to work out a way to explain how to fit together fossils, evolutionary theory, genetics, and environment! To the class, I think they felt the excitement, but to be honest, their favorite lecture was the Ethiopian palaeontological field expedition and what it is like to be a Palaeoanthropologist!