Malu is Like a Golden Ticket (Pt. 1)

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Instead of syllabus day, I read this story on the first day of my Fall 2017 Neuroanthropology class then launched right into the class. I’d never done this before, but I like to think of the course as interdisciplinary and experimental and that different ways of experiencing materials is important. I was inspired to do this by anthropologist Katie Hinde, who wrote a story to start her human evolution course at Arizona State and blogged about it. Katie is a friend and colleague of mine. She is a contemporary but probably a few years younger than me. Nonetheless, she is trailblazer and someone I admire and look to for inspiration in how to conduct an anthropological career-life. You can find her work at MammalsSuck…Milk, a clever play on words, as her research focus is about mammal milk.Tweet from Robin Nelson about Katie Hinde's story

This piece is about the fieldwork I’ve conducted the past two summers. I just wrote it the weekend before the first day of class, so, for better or worse, students heard an early draft of this story that may get published on its own somewhere or in a book some day in some form that will probably ultimately be very different than this. I wrote it because I think our work this summer epitomizes the nature of neuroanthropology as essentially biocultural, and because I think this story encapsulates much of our experience of fieldwork this summer. There may be less neuro than you’d expect here, given the course I read it to, but it’s the ethnographic prelude before we’ve finished collecting and analyzing the neuro data.

Malu is like a golden ticket

We were sitting in a parking lot behind Pago Pago Plaza as the sun went down. The parking lot is between the plaza and the water of the harbor, and a man came by to close the gates. He said the parking lot was open 24 hours, but this one gate would be closed. We sat chatting, both of us getting spooked. It’s not that Pago Pago is the bad part of town like some places in the world where you definitely don’t want to be after dark. I was recently in Antananarivo, Madagascar, where every tour book, every hotel clerk, every driver, every friend says, ‘don’t walk around at night. Take taxis.’

I was in Antananarivo to meet with our partners at Eagles Wings Montessori School for our Anthropology is Elemental project.

I was in Antananarivo to meet with our partners at Eagles Wings Montessori School for our Anthropology is Elemental project.

A good rule of thumb for anthropologists in the field is that when the people who live there don’t go out at night, we shouldn’t either.

But the village of Pago Pago is a dicier area of American Samoa, especially down by the waterfront. It is adjacent to where the tuna canneries are, the ships coming into the freight yards, and the Chinese and Korean and other prostitutes work the bars there.

Author and former American Samoa Historic Preservation Director John Enright paints an appropriately noir picture in his American Samoa detective series that in all others ways feels spot-on. In Pago Pago Tango, this is the area where the bodies of undocumented sex workers from neighboring Samoa, of all places, are found in the water.

American Samoa is not one of those places in the world where people are “disappeared”—government spooks aren’t showing up at people’s houses and whisking them away in the night—but it is a place where disenchanted palagis (non-Samoan, generally white people —pronounced puh-LONG-eez—Samoan ‘g’ always gets an ‘ng’ sound) often go to not be found. While running away from it all to a South Pacific island has an air of romance about it, anyone familiar with such stories beyond the first few pages—think of French post-impressionist artist Paul Gaugin in Tahiti for instance—knows such stories never end well.Gaugin in Tahiti

Palagis never blend seamlessly with natives. They are always outsiders. These islands are small. There is not much to do. People there to get away from it all seem sad, are often alcoholics or mentally ill. Enright nails this in his second book Fire Knife Dancing, when he mentions one palagi who locals don’t really know except that he is seen walking the main road every day, not talking to anyone, not looking anyone in the eye. He walks from his house to Pago and back. It’s not clear what he does. This guy is real, and you can see him daily. I walked past him once, and he glanced up from an averted gaze but was careful not to exchange pleasantries.

But as Michaela and I sat in the parking lot, frankly, my mind was on the serial murders that had just taken place in Pennsylvania, where two antisocial, psychopathic 20-somethings had lured others they knew into their cars or to their farm and butchered them. No one knew my research partner and I were there or that we were scheduled to meet a “Tongan” guy covered in jailhouse tattoos who was supposed to be taking us back to his house, a guy who I had met in a cargo box outside Family Mart. So both of us were getting paranoid as hell.2 Cousins Charges with Murder

The week before, Michaela and I were on the downward swing of our cycle of elation and despondency in the field. Field research is like that. It doesn’t matter where you are. You have deadlines. You have limited money. You have a project you proposed doing within a timeframe you knew was impossible when you proposed it, but in the current age of funding, you can’t get funding without purporting to be able to accomplish some deliverable in an unreasonable period of time. Our deliverable was to sample saliva from 100 people getting tattooed in American Samoa within a year. Michaela and I study cultural impacts on health, and this study is a follow-up to one we conducted in Alabama a few years earlier. Mind you, when I say we, I designed the study, all data were collected by students, salivary data were analyzed by my colleague Jason DeCaro, and I analyzed, wrote the paper, and reaped the glory of the media coverage.Tattooing to "Toughen up"

So, while Michaela and I have independently collected biocultural data like this before, we hadn’t run this actual protocol, and we hadn’t run it together. That didn’t turn out to be much of an issue. We had days of success and pride in our mastery of our craft. But the inexperience with this protocol in this setting—it’s a thing, a source of anxiety. As teachers and researchers, we need to stop ignoring the significance of anxiety and emotional disturbance engendered by and within our research. We need to stop pretending we’ll just get used to the structural impediments that affect psychological stability and the capacity to finish a project like this, such as having some kind of emotional support, either in the field itself or back home.

American Samoa map from Lonely PlanetNot to mention, American Samoa is small and has a small population. There are only 65,000 people who live in American Samoa. There is only one tattoo studio with a visible storefront on the entire island group, which includes the island of Tutuila, where most of the population lives and where we were, as well as the Manu’a Islands, Rose Atoll, and Swain’s Island. Aside from that tattoo studio, there is only one other tattooist with an actual studio. There are two Su’a or master hand tap artists in American Samoa. And then there are a handful of tattooists who work out of their homes or travel to other people’s homes, by word of mouth.

This so-called Tongan guy was one such artist who worked out of a home studio or his kitchen or something. We weren’t quite sure. As we went from artist to artist, we asked who else tattoos on the island.

My friend Niko rattled off a list and was calling people for us. I met Niko through Duffy, who we met through Tish. Niko tattooed by going to other people’s houses, and I hung out with him for a few days. He rode around with me one day while I was running errands and gave me a rundown on the tattoo community and his part in it, but he never actually did any tattooing while we were there. He told me a schedule going into two weeks that gave me a lot of hope for data collection, then he had family issues and caught the flu and session after session would be cancelled for one reason or another. So when he told me this Tongan tattoo artist worked at Family Mart, I thought, I know where that is. How hard can he be to find? And we were really curious about the Tongan tattoo artists working in American Samoa. Samoans and Tongans don’t generally speak highly of each other. Neither do Hawaiians and Samoans for that matter. There is a lot of ethnic tension within Polynesia, despite sharing a heritage.

Most Samoans place their origins and the ancestral home of the Polynesian god Tagaloa (pronounced TONGA-low-uh) in the Manu’a Islands, which are the easternmost of the populated Samoan Islands. For much of Samoan prehistory, the Manu’a Islands have been somewhat distant and independent from Tutuila, Upolu, and Savai’i, which are closer to each other. However, archaeological and genetic evidence suggest that movement across the Pacific from Near Oceania—New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and other islands associated with the former Sahul landmass—began around 3500 years ago and is associated with the Lapita culture. Within 500 years, they spread to Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga. It was roughly another 1000 years before migration moved on—possibly spreading from the Manu’a islands as the easternmost point—to the Cook Islands, Marquesas, Hawaii, Easter Island, and New Zealand. Throughout prehistory and history, there was continuous movement among the islands, especially those relatively close to each other, like Tonga and Samoa, and opportunity for fierce rivalry and warfare to occur. Tonga and Samoa experienced a period of extreme tension and warfare during a Tongan occupation from 950-1250 AD, where there was cruelty between the two sides that resulted in centuries of bitterness.fautasi

Lest you underestimate my point, and adding insult to this longstanding injury, in the 1970s the King of Tonga entered a boat fiberglass boat made in New Zealand in the annual Samoan fautasi race. Fautasi are the traditional Samoan longboats that made such an impression upon early European explorers that the Samoan Islands were first called the Navigator Islands for the speed and distance Samoans were able to travel in these boats. However, by the 20th century, these skills were all but lost and, in fact, banned for all but racing. Villages sponsor boats and race against each other, and the pride of villages is tied up in these races. So for a Tongan boat to win is a crushing blow. And, while it was initially blamed on the novel fiberglass construction, the Tongans switched boats with a Samoan crew to prove their worth and won again, handily. Despite this, fautasi boat-craft shifted precipitously from a native investment in culture to an economic investment in a New Zealand industry, another example of a globalizing process that results in loss of native skill and economic viability.2017 Flag Day Fautasi Fever

Thus, Tongans, Fijians, and other Polynesians are treated like second-class citizens in American Samoa, and I imagine the same is true of Samoans on other Polynesian Islands. Tongans supposedly eat dog, according to Samoans. And Tongan tattoo artists supposedly think nothing of tattooing kids, according to Samoan tattoo artists. And they all live in that area behind the elementary school in the village of Pavai’i. This was akin to living in a trailer park outside of town in the areas of the U.S. where I’ve grown up and lived. But, as it happened, Pavai’i was right down the mountain from Tafeta, where we were staying. We could walk through the trees to get there if we were inclined, which gave it an even more intrigue and appeal.

…To be continued

This narrative derives from field notes from the Inking of Immunity and Pepe, Aiga, and Tina Health Study (PATHS) in American Samoa.

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Is tattooing a costly honest signal of fitness?

Last year I published a book chapter synthesizing an evolutionary perspective on tattooing for our Evolution Education in the American South volume and concluded by wondering whether athletes, specifically football players, get tattoos more than the average person (Lynn & Medeiros 2017). Earlier research by Koziel and colleagues (2010) indicated that tattooing (but not piercing) is positively associated with bilateral symmetry—meaning more fit people may be getting tattooed to show off their fitness. In between these two papers, my colleagues and I found that tattooing may prime the immune system (Lynn et al. 2016). The idea was that the body gets used to tattooing, like it gets used to exercise or an inoculation effect, and that the immunosuppressant effects of stress (and cortisol) become lessened with time somehow, so the body does not become susceptible to infection every time it undergoes purposeful moderate stress.

Does this guy really need tattoos to show off how fit he is? (Photo by Taco Fleur [CC0])

Does this guy really need tattoos to show off how fit he is? (Photo by Taco Fleur [CC0])

In our book chapter, we pondered whether elite athletes would be more heavily tattooed to draw attention to their fitness or if they are merely over represented in the media (the media love to show us athlete ink). After all, why would an elite athlete need to do anything additional to look better? They are already clearly fit as elite athletes. But why not test it to be sure? So we rolled out a simple prevalence survey, following Mayers et al. (2002) and Mayers and Chiffriller (2008), using Facebook, email, etc. and collected over 600 usable responses from undergrads nationwide. Our proxy for “elite” athletes was to target varsity. We’re at the University of Alabama, which has a huge varsity program, and of course the winningest football program is the modern era. I only mention that because the tattoos of the football players sometimes get as much press as they do on their own. Current Seattle Seahawk Jesse Williams is a Pacific Islander was in the press for his tats all the time. They weren’t Pacific Island style, but still it was a spectacle, especially when he got “YOLO” on the side of his face. I used to see him in the grocery all the time and embarrass him by approaching him “for research.” A.J. McCarron, who I think was just picked up by the Buffalo Bills from the Bengals, had a garnish mess of Jesus and crosses on his chest. And Reuben Foster (now with the 49ers) thought he was going to Auburn and had their logo tattooed on his shoulder throughout his high profile tenure at Bama.

Pacific Islander Jesse Williams was a spectacle while at Alabama for his tattoos (Photo: Mike Morris, CC By-SA 2.0)

However, at first we found almost nothing useful. Getting varsity athletes to participate in the survey turned out to be really difficult. Of the 600 usable responses, only about 40 are varsity athletes, and there is no statistical differences in tattooing rates between varsity athletes and anyone else. The only thing that predicts tattooing is BMI, which is interesting—higher BMI is associated with being tatted. With piercing, the only predictor is gender. Females are more likely to get pierced—period. So it would seem like a wash until we examine tattoo- and piercing-related complications. Mind you, the rates of tattoo-related complications is really low. Tattoos are simply not that dangers to get. By contrast, the factor most predictive of getting a piercing-related complication is being pierced. Piercing is more risky than tattooing. The only factor predictive of tattooing-related complications is, again, BMI.

Take home: Larger BMI is predictive of more tattooing, but it’s also predictive of more tattoo-related complications. What’s that mean? People may enhance or emphasize their phenotypes with tattoos, but there’s an ultimate costliness if one’s health is poor (i.e., maybe they are overweight?). You can’t cover up poor health with a tattoo—you’re more likely to draw additional attention to it, like the peacock whose tail feathers are TOO big.

Poor Gertrude McFuzz crossed the tail feather rubicon that garnered her attention until it and she became a burden. (

Poor Gertrude McFuzz crossed the tail feather rubicon that garnered her attention until it and she became a burden. (

To retest this model, we surveyed all 30,000 undergrads at the University of Alabama and got over 6000 responses! But I will save those juicy insights for next time. They are even more cool, I promise you!

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Men May Be #Woking, But We Are Not Evolving

Journalists, please stop saying “evolve” when you mean “change,” “improve,” or “progress.” As anyone who studies evolution knows, the scientific meaning of evolve is not synonymous with progress. However, the continued use of the terms synonymous confuses people who do not study evolution and contribute to continued misunderstanding of processes that are already confusing enough.

My rant is precipitated by several well-meaning news podcasts I listen to discussing men who are #woke re the #metoo movement (I think it was the Daily Zeitgeist or maybe The Nod) and, most recently, The Monocle Daily discussing the introspection of National Geographic and New York Times in redressing obituaries of famous black women who were allowed to pass without comment or use of racist terminology in characterizing people in the recent past. As these movements and reflections take as their modus operandi, words matter. Meaning matters. Thus, I don’t think they are aware they are reifying scientific confusion about evolution science.

One of the problems with this is it is so difficult to get students to take classes that will ever address these misunderstandings (see article by Rissler et al. or chapter by Schrein for deets on this problem). It is the same problem we have with the unfortunate linear representation of evolution so often depicted by evolutionists themselves, which, taken at face value, suggests we are evolved directly from what appear to be living apes (see great article by Bruce MacFadden about how this misconception is reified in museum exhibits). By the time students get to college, to be like me who make it their daily bread to correct misconceptions and provide students the tools to be constructive cultural critics of the media and popularizations of science, students can already decide whether or not to take a class with someone like me. It’s an elective, one people avoid if they are already biased against it. And that’s just the people who go to college.

So, journalists, you have a lot of power. People repeat the erudite words you use. If you use them incorrectly, they are repeated incorrectly. People become confused about the meaning, or meanings become more broad. Sure, in the vernacular, “evolve” is broad. But that broad definition has negative consequences for science literacy.

#evolutionsciencerant #wokeevolutionist #improvenotevolve

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What All Good Psychotherapy Has In Common

Evolutionary approaches to human behavior often try to “carve nature at its joints.” This phrase, somehow evocative of Pinocchio, means that when we try to describe or classify psychological phenomena, we shouldn’t use just any old arbitrary organization scheme. Rather, we should base our thinking on underlying natural, evolutionarily informed, realities.

This principle is especially salient to evolutionary clinical psychologists, because psychotherapists are encouraged to each develop their own “orientation,” which is a particular way of thinking about where psychological distress comes from and informs how it can be treated. The orientation is unique to each psychologist but is typically created in part by assembling elements from a number of the most common established orientations, and usually (though not always) picking a primary allegiance: psychodynamic, humanistic, cognitive-behavioral, and family systems are among the most well-known orientations. Each of these orientations has its own distinct perspective on the nature of psychological distress, its own history, traditions, and associated therapies. While cognitive-behavioral is often considered to be the most scientific-minded of the orientations, the truth is that there is good science supporting the efficacy of therapy from each of the orientations (and plenty of bad science in each); and crucially, there’s very little evidence that any orientation is vastly more effective than any of the rest!*

Thus, the evolutionary clinical psychologist faces a paradox: How can we think about uncovering the “true” nature of psychological distress and mental disorders if any old way of thinking about psychotherapy is just as good as any of the others?

The resolution, in my view, is to focus on what elements all the orientations have in common. Looking past all the differences, what similarities do we see? If we get to the bottom of what these common factors are, we’ll have a better sense of the true mechanisms of psychotherapy, and thus a more satisfying and universal explanation for psychological distress and its treatment. Because, to me, for whatever reason, admitting that there’s a set of totally different points of view, all of which are equally valid, just doesn’t have that satisfying scientific ring to it. To me, it’s no kind of answer, but rather an invitation to ask further questions.

As it turns out, one thing that all effective treatments based on legitimate orientations do (intentionally or not) is get the client in touch with — and working WITH, not against — their naturally occurring emotions.

By this, I mean not just any old emotional reactions that people engage in, but the emotions that were naturally selected as appropriate responses to situations. For example, for a person with crippling self-doubts, fear is a situationally appropriate (although maybe exaggerated) emotional response to the possibility that others will judge you. Explosive anger towards your boss who asks you to give a presentation is not necessarily appropriate, if that anger is a way to avoid the real core fear of judgment. Treatments derived from each of the orientations go about this emotional approach in different ways.

Psychodynamic therapies do this by encouraging outward expression of unconscious, suppressed, repressed, or misdirected emotion (going back to Freud’s recognition of the power of “catharsis” — the sudden breaking-through of that true emotion). Humanistic therapies do it by fostering the therapist’s unconditional positive regard for the client, allowing him/her the space to guide him/herself through whatever emotions may arise on the journey to self-actualization. Cognitive-behavioral therapies teach skills to help the client examine and approach distressing thoughts and situations, which ends up resulting in the expression of long-avoided emotions (often, but certainly not always, fear or anxiety).**

Thus, a researcher seeking an evolutionarily informed understanding of why people encounter emotional disorders and adjustment issues (by this I mean clinically relevant depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, etc.) should focus, in large part, on this core mechanism of emotional avoidance, and how it so frequently pops up and gets in the way of our mental health in modern society.

If this perspective is true, it inevitably invites the question of why people seem to need so much help engaging in what evolutionists would consider to be a naturally selected adaptive function — something that should be a biologically primary ability! This is an important question, and whether the disciplines of evolution and clinical psychology can be reconciled depends on our ability to resolve this paradox. I’ll explore some thoughts on this in Part II of this entry (coming soon).

*If the therapist’s orientation isn’t the most important determinant of therapy outcome, then what is? It turns out, it’s the quality of the alliance between the therapist and the client.

**I’m not necessarily advocating here that all orientations are equally good for all clients/issues — or even equally good overall. Nor am I saying that a therapist’s orientation doesn’t make any difference at all. However, I view that matter as a somewhat orthogonal point to the one I’m discussing here.

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Alabama Beats Mississippi!

And not just in football. No, we whup their ass in football (69-3?). But I digress. A few years ago, Alabama scored a dismal 50 of 50 in teaching evolution at K-12 levels, earning an F-. And when I share the map with the grades my state, I literally hear people yell, “how did we lose to Mississippi?” I am not a native Alabamian, but that rivalry to not be the worst is a thing. Well, buck up, Alabamian, because we can now say we’re better than Mississippi in more than football. In a recent study by Bertha Vazquez in Evolution: Education and Outreach that graded states on teaching evolution in middle schools, Alabama beat Mississippi with…wait for it…a D! Right, so it’s not time to be too proud yet. We still have a lot of work ahead of us.


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Of “Toxic” Tattooed Lymph Nodes and Public Relations

I was heartened this week by conversations with visiting ALLELE lecturer Nina Jablonski, one of the world’s foremost experts on skin biology and evolution. I was glad to see that she discussed tattooing in her 2006 book Skin: A Natural History, though she did not go deep on the biology of tattooing. One reason is that there is not much out there about the biology of tattooing that is not essentially alarmist and negative. What heartened me is that she said she gets a lot of queries about tattooing that are beyond her expertise and interest and that she will start referring the (non-quack) queries to me. Which made me realize I’m something of a expert, having conducted one study on the biology of tattooing, read a lot about it, and currently conducting another in the South Pacific with my main collaborator Michaela Howells.

Interviewing Nina Jablonski for “Sausage of Science” and “Science of Race” podcasts with Jim Bindon, Erik Peterson, & Jo Weaver (taking the picture).

That recognition obliges me to speak up about the study just out in Scientific Reports (a Nature journal) that I have been sent press links about in the last several days. I heard one of the researchers speak about the study on a podcast I listen to regularly (I think BBC World Serivce but can’t relocate at moment) and was not impressed. The gist of the study is that tattooing has become extremely popular, but the inks are understudied as toxicants. I beg to differ. The potential dangers of tattoo inks is in fact among the most reported on and studied aspects of tattooing addressed in the biomedical literature, alongside the correlations between tattooing and risk behavior (which is a cultural phenomenon, with little to do with the biology of tattooing aside from the signaling function it serves).

Upon injection of tattoo inks, particles can be either passively transported via blood and lymph fluids or phagocytized by immune cells and subsequently deposited in regional lymph nodes. After healing, particles are present in the dermis and in the sinusoids of the draining lymph nodes. The picture was drawn by the authors (i.e., C.S.).1SCIentIFIC REPORTS | 7: 11395 | DOI:10.1038/s41598-017-11721-z

Translocation of tattoo particles from skin to lymph nodes. Upon injection of tattoo inks, particles can be either passively transported via blood and lymph fluids or phagocytized by immune cells and subsequently deposited in regional lymph nodes. After healing, particles are present in the dermis and in the sinusoids of the draining lymph nodes. The picture was drawn by the authors (i.e., C.S.).1SCIentIFIC REPORTS | 7: 11395 | DOI:10.1038/s41598-017-11721-z

The fetishism of tattooing in Euroamerican culture over the past few decades is reflected in the alarmist focus of the dermatological literature. Mind you, I don’t dispute the findings of the researchers this this Scientific Reports study at all. They find that nanoparticles from tattoo inks migrate to lymph nodes over time. OK. However, one has to dig to the end of the article to the methods section that comes AFTER the Discussion to discover that these findings are based on a sample of 4 corpses with tattoos and 2 corpses without tattoos. There is no indication of the age of the deceased or how long they had their tattoos. There is no indication of where on the body these tattoos are relative to the lymph nodes. And the word “toxic” is used throughout, which has strong cultural bias. The authors conclude:

Altogether we report strong evidence for both migration and long-term deposition of toxic elements and tattoo pigments as well as for conformational alterations of biomolecules that likely contribute to cutaneous inflammation and other adversities upon tattooing.

The piece that finally got me to sit down and write this is titled “Nanoparticle Scientists Warned Tattooed Folks.” The fact is that, because of hygiene and sanitation practices around professional tattooing in much of the world, infection is exceedingly rare. The exceptions get all the press. This title alone feeds into the mysticism of nanoscientists and people with doctoral degrees, huge biomedical grants, and big expensive toys as having access to a deeper insights on the human condition. Furthermore, the warning to “tattooed folks” plays into the cultural narrative that tattooed people are a monolithic group that need protection. I may be overreacting in the this latter evaluation somewhat, but the implication is there, at least in part.

I appreciated the podcast interviewer’s question to lead author Ines Schreiver, asking her if she actually has any tattoos (I will keep looking for this and provide a link). Whether or not she has them is immaterial, but the way she deflected the question and gave the impression that she does not have any was telling. It suggests to me that she is dismissing the cultural context and meaning tattoos have to make a case for an objective scientific study. There is no complete objectivity in science and even less when we try to disconnect it from context and avoid hidden but potential meaningful variables, like who these corpses were, where on their bodies their tattoos are, and how long they’ve had them—frankly, these are basic and shamefully overlooked demographic factors. So, I am more concerned with what is not discussed about the corpses than the researchers, but scientific agendas matter.

This study doesn’t yet tell us much, as this CBCNews piece points out. I’m glad that we are applying neuroscience approaches to cultural practices, but a neuroanthropological approach is warranted in studying tattooing. There is no link between tattooing and disease, disorder, or death in any of these corpses. There is limited evidence that tattoos can cause some reactions in some people. My lab has an as yet unpublished epidemiological study of tattooing, piercing, and adverse reactions in athletes, following up on two studies (2002 and 2008) at Pace University by the late Lester Mayers and colleagues. The rates of adverse reactions reported by respondents in all of these studies is extremely low, and our study sampled over 1000 people from around the US. Sometimes my tattoos raise up on my skin and itch. This experience is common among tattooed people I have talked to. But is it adverse? I have injuries from playing sports going back to when I was a child that act up. I am frequently sore from going to the gym, but I just need to be careful.

Skin response to pigments is worth investigating, but the framing of this scientific article and some of the media coverage leave much to be desired.  I have some experience with this. On the other end of the spectrum, my colleagues and I conducted a small study of the health benefits of tattooing a few years ago. We found that the stress of tattooing MAY prime the immune system. We framed our interpretation in evolutionary signaling and allostasis theory in that article and in a book chapter that makes hypotheses about the signaling functions of tattoos for athletes and fans. The press ate it up and widely reported that, essentially, tattoos are good for you. Except for Jezebel. Caroline Weinberg interviewed me about our study and wrote a measured piece titled “How One Study Produced a Bunch of Untrue Headlines About Tattoos Strengthening Your Immune System.”

It is no wonder the public does not know what to believe when it comes to scientific recommendations and health. It is hard to go into the weeds on these studies if one is not an expert. The devil is in the details, and they are exceedingly hard to discern. The public needs to trust us, but it is obvious why they don’t. I am saying tattoos can be beneficial. These scientists are saying tattoos can be toxic. Who is right? The truth is in the middle and linked to context. Let’s be honest and say that the benefits are probably negligible for the everyday and so are the detriments. These factoids are interesting for scientists but have few implications for everyday people the way they are reported. They are most likely additive benefits and detriments that may even cancel each other out within a contingent biocultural context that is a diverse as are humans.

That is not to say these studies are not important and should not be reported. I think that understanding the biology of tattooing can have implications for understanding the immune system better. I think there’s a link between the priming effect we think we see, autoimmune disease, and the hygiene hypothesis. But I don’t think this is related to tattooing alone. Tattooing is one cultural practice that may stimulate immune function, but there are others. We can examine these biocultural interactions to better understand human health in context. But without context, we are just in spin city.

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AiE in Madagascar IV: Centre ValBio & Night Walking with Mouse Lemurs

See previous post III, and III in this series, or related posts to this month-long trip here and here.

Note in our previous episode that I wasn’t sure if I had meetings set up, with who, or about what when I arrived at Ranomafana. I received a message from Dustin that I had a 10AM appointment, but he had not been able to confirm, so I should just ask for Maya Moore or Pascal Rabeson. When I arrived at Centre ValBio (CVB), Maya had left for Tana and Pascal was in another village until later in the day. Nevertheless, I was able to get an appointment for later in the day with him.

In the meantime, I explored the village, taking photos. I came across one of the silk making coops. I couldn’t afford to buy a scarf but was given permission to take photos. However, I overstayed my welcome, taking so many photos of every corner of the room that the coop president (How do I know she was president? I took photos of all the photos and lists of offers and deduced who she was) asked me to pay them 5000 ari for the photos.

I went down to the bridge to the town’s thermal baths and took photos of the bridge they were replacing. It had been knocked out in a big cyclone that hit Madagascar 20 days earlier.

I’m glad I took so many photos. Later, when I was meeting with Pascal, it turned out he was lab mates at the University of Georgia with our close family friend Jon Benstead. Jon had done his dissertation research in Ranomafana when CVB was just a shack in the woods.

The shacks in the woods that used the be the Centre ValBio facilities are still there but unused.

The shacks in the woods that used the be the Centre ValBio facilities are still there but unused.

CVB had the best wifi in the village so I shot Jon an email while I was there, and he asked me to take lots of photos of the Centre and village for him, since he hadn’t been there in 18 years.

I ended up meeting with Lova Razafindravony and Pascal. Lova runs the My Rainforest My World project, and Pascal and Maya are co-directors of outreach.

But let me back up. Because I walked in here rather cold. CVB is a rather famous world class facility for conservation and education. It was started by primatologist Patricia Wright from Stony Brook University (SUNY). I have been meaning to invite Pat Wright for an ALLELE lecture ever since hearing what a great talk she gave at SUNY New Paltz. I have even more incentive now.

Dr. Wright discovered a new lemur species at Ranomafana, the golden bamboo lemur, and established the park to protect it. One of the amazing thing about bamboo lemurs is that they eat young bamboo, which contains toxic amounts of cyanide. So they process it somehow because they don’t die (at least not from cyanide—humans, on the other hand…). The current buildings of CVB were built later. They are a facility that hosts researchers, conducts study abroad, houses both, and provides lab and lecture facilities. They work with the local community to provide vocational training for Malagasy to work in or with the Centre and facilitate and develop cooperatives to promote economic and cultural sustainability, such as the aforementioned silk cooperative. My nature guide Rodan said, “Pat Wright is like a mother to us all, to the whole village of Ranomafana.”

Lova told me abut the MRMW project and the education efforts more generally. Those involve efforts to train teachers to provide conservation and science-related education in remote village and at “road” schools, or those reachable without too much difficulty by car and the main road.

By the next meeting with Pascal, I had a thought on how we could collaborate. I told them about our project and we arranged for them to send us their lessons which we will curate and share on our website. Their programs were developed in conjunction with American educators but are only being implemented in limited schools around the park. We will put them in a format that can be used by our teachers in the US, Greg’s class in Costa Rica (more on that later), and Eagles Wings in Tana, and other schools around Madagascar and the world (maybe yours?). We will link the material back to CVB to ensure credit but hopefully extend their reach of the material.

On the surface, these things don’t seem so complex they could not have been done by email. But it’s easy to send an email and just as easy to ignore. It’s equally easy to say yes in an email and not follow through. There are no stakes to an email. But taking the trip to Madagascar, to go to see how a partner is doing what they do means a lot, I hope. I intend it as a strong signal of commitment. It enables us all to vet each other using our senses and guts and to establish a rapport and trust.

Let me reiterate: There is nothing out there to give guidance for teaching 4-field anthropology at the primary school levels. There are things here and there, but what we are creating is a unique resource and testament to the value of and excitement for doing it.

Lova gave me a tour of CVB after my meetings. Then I rendezvoused with my guide for a night walk. I was pleased to be able to see and photograph several mouse lemurs and chameleons.

The chameleons were very very cooler—cooler than I expected—but LEMURS!

Anthropology is Elemental is currently funded by a grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation.

Repost from April 2017 on Bama Anthro Blog Network, where missing photos can be found:

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AiE in Madagascar III: Road to Ranomafana

See previous post 1 and post 2 in this series, or related posts to this month-long trip here and here.

The drive to Ranomafana is about 12 hours. After experiencing the Tana roads, I thought maybe it was close via bad roads, but it’s really 12 hours in a 4WD at relatively high speed but through winding roads. For 12 hours, I was tossed side to side, tires screeching on the road.

I was very passive in this adventure, which is ironic when I think that this project arose because the TMSE PTA asked me to offer an anthropology course several years ago when my kids were in 3rd grade. I didn’t want to do it because I didn’t have the time to take on any more service, but I wanted to do it because I wanted to be able to share what I do with my kids and help their school. I remember discussing it with DoVeanna Fulton, then chair of Gender and Race Studies, whose son had been a classmate of my kids. She said, ‘if you wait till you have more time, will your kids still want you to do it and will there still be an opportunity?’ Thank you, DoVeanna.

So, Duke Beasley and I collaborated on the course that first time, and it went well that first time. But only my sons Lux and Jagger took it. The next year, Bailey wanted to take it, so Duke and I offered it again. Still, I was never going to do it again, but it was popular and I’d got a curriculum developed that I could hand off to students to teach, so I kept it going. Later, I recognized an opportunity to turn it into a service learning course when I saw an application to develop a community service course. At the time, I had another course in mind and didn’t realize I was already doing one. Then later, Jason DeCaro came across a Wenner-Gren Foundation grant call because he was flying to New York and would be meeting with president Leslie Aiello. So I threw together a proposal, got feedback from her, tweaked the proposal, and got funding for this project.

I met Dustin Eirdosh, who has been my liaison on this Madagascar collaboration, just as serendipitously in a way. He was working with David Sloan Wilson and the EvoS Consortium for resources and in touch with Becky Burch. I started contacting Dustin to brainstorm about collaboration potential and saw that his energy is similar to mine. So I say “passive” when I describe my activity in Madagascar, but what I really seem to do is flap my wings hard and fast like a hummingbird until an opening appears, then I hit it hard and without hesitation.

I set this trip up without any real game plan. I deferred to Dustin and Josia to give me a lead that I would then take. So it was Dustin who suggested a trip to Ranomafana and Josia who booked the driver for me. The first one got in an accident the day before, so she arranged the second one at the last minute. She used the same company she books for her own research, but I’m not sure that that was the same in both cases.

The driver was going to cost 140,000 ariary/day (around $50/day, 460,000 ari total). Gas would cost me another 420,000 ari for the trip. Then I would need hotel for 3 nights, which I found for 100,000/night. That’s about $400, not including food or other things. That’s a sizable amount of money, considering I had no specific plans of who I was going to talk to or if I would even be able to get a meeting and had very little money with me.

This was covered by grant funding, but universities never want to give you your grant money up front. They want you to pay it out first and reimburse you. Presumably, there’s liability involved. I also think it’s being used in some slush fund somewhere or earning interest. When I asked for a $1,000 advance, I was treated like I was asking for money to go binge drinking. I was told I was asking for a LOAN and that it is against state policy to LOAN employees travel funds. Load of crap. We researchers have rents or mortgages to pay back home when we travel. Sorry to tell the world, but you don’t get much financial compensation for a PhD in the social sciences and humanities. I’m so deep in debt from student loans, I will never be free (see the notice of being served because of my student loan debt from the first day of this trip).

So $400 is a lot for money for me, as I was traveling exclusively cash and carry, with nothing in a bank account I could access and no place in Madagascar takes credit cards. What an adventure, right? This means I was riding for 12 hours in a car to meet with people I didn’t know would meet with me about what I didn’t exactly know and not sure I’d have enough money to pay the driver when I got back.

Jao gripping the wheel.

Jao gripping the wheel.

But this is not a mystery story, so I’ll let you off the hook. I stressed on the ride, tallying up my expenses, especially when Jao, my driver, stopped at a tourist hotel restaurant for lunch to eat “normal” food. Normal for me, is what I think he meant. Also, “clean,” he said. But it ended up costing me a pretty penny. The next meal was a little better, but I had to keep pushing him: “Let me worry about the food poisoning. Let’s eat Malagasy food at hotelys.”

If there are traditional musicians selling their CDs at the hotel restaurant, it probably costs more than you want to spend for a quick road stop. Or if there are old New Yorkers talking loudly at the table behind them.

If there are traditional musicians selling their CDs at the hotel restaurant, it probably costs more than you want to spend for a quick road stop. Or if there are old New Yorkers talking loudly at the table behind them.

And I had to ask Jao to help me change currency so I could pay him. Banks there won’t change $100 bills, which is all I had. And we were returning on a Sunday when everything was closed. So we had to meet a black market money changer by the side of the road on the way back into town. I don’t mean to make this sound in any way like Romancing the Stone or Indiana Jones crap. Other field researchers have a million such stories, as do all the people who live in such countries. And they are unfortunately not rare in the world. I borrowed my money belt and steel-reinforced bag from a friend who regaled me with stories of dealing with a cholera outbreak, regularly carrying vast quantities of cash on her to cover field school expenses, meeting sketchy money changers in strange homes, and drinking with murderous warlords during her field seasons. It’s all a matter of perspective. But this time, I was in Africa, while she was back home attending the premier of Beauty and the Beast!

I took lots of photos as Jao drove in silence. He listened to music all the way back. At the first, I felt bad he had obviously not felt comfortable playing music in the car until I heard him playing Otis Redding and asked him to turn it up. We listened to that and a Beatles album on the way back, which I loved singing along to, but then the next 9 hours were taken up by bad 80s hair metal and Celine Dion. And I was stuck with only Neil Gaiman’s new Norse Mythology as my Audible book. It was interesting for about an hour, but then stories of Thor’s dumb brutishness and Loki’s selfish mischief just lulled me to sleep.

However, the Betsiloa countryside was beautiful. They are the tribe that occupies the highland south of Tana. Their homes are tall and made of red brick that matches the red clay of the ground. Their terracing for rice, corn, and other produce is more distinctive than terracing elsewhere (I got great photos of this but—foreshadowing—those photos are sadly no longer with me). Apparently, they get three annual harvest, where other only get 1-2.

As we passed through Antsirabe, suddenly there were colorful tricycle taxis everywhere. “City of Pouse-pouse,” Jao told me. The region is resplendent with bicycles and pouse-pouses. I couldn’t get enough photos of them and the colorful markets (alas, many of those also lost with someone on the road to perdition—okay, maybe a little harsh, but I’m very annoyed about it).

We rolled into Ranomafana around 4, a bit earlier than expected. I got a place at Hotel Cristo, which came recommended both by Lonely Planet and Josia and Rija. It turned out to be very lovely.

Again, in true colonial style, I sat on the veranda watching the sunset over the rainforest and Namorona River, while people spoke Dutch and English nearby, and brown-skinned hotel employees brought me a double expresso. But at least they owned the place this time. Dear Malinowski

Anthropology is Elemental is currently funded by a grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation.

Repost from April 2017 on Bama Anthro Blog Network. See that post for photo galleries missing above:

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AiE in Madagascar II: Studying & Teaching Abroad Opportunities in Madagascar

I’ve been jet lagged from the 8-hour time difference and keep waking up at 2:30 AM, unable to go to sleep. After a day or two, I remembered I have Starbucks instant coffees in my bag. I got some hot water from the sink and hazarded a coffee in the middle of the night to get me going enough to get some work done. Later I checked and learned that the water has some dirt in it, but, according to Jurgen, the owner of Villa V where I am staying, the German Embassy actually had it tested, hoping it would be found undrinkable and merit them getting raises for working in an undesirable location. It’s got some silt in it but is fine otherwise. No raises for them, no dysentery for me.

It says 37 minutes but generally took over an hour to make this trip because Rija would get stuck in traffic, much to his delight (he did not enjoy this)

It says 37 minutes but generally took over an hour to make this trip because Rija would get stuck in traffic, much to his delight (he did not enjoy this).

I spent Monday and Tuesday going to Eagles Wings Elementary and Middle Schools. The elementary is run by Omega Rakotomalala, who gave me a tour of the four classes spread across three buildings.

With Omega & Tana behind us.

With Omega & Tana behind us.

The first two EW Elementary buildings are across an alley of sorts from each other. The third is a mile or so away, and we had to drive there. I observed the first three classes, which were two pre-K age classes and a 6-9 year old class.

When we went to the other building, I sat in circle time with the 10-12 year olds and chatted, had lunch, watched them play soccer outside.

Then spent the rest of the day showing them how to use the iPad to make a video. I had them pass it around, introduce themselves, and edit it to include their names. We went back to the 6-9 year olds later and recorded them singing the Eagles Wings theme song to add on at the end.

Middle school kids working on a video on the iPad purchased with Wenner Gren funding for our cultural exchange.

Middle school kids working on a video on the iPad purchased with Wenner Gren funding for our cultural exchange.

We did roughly the same thing on Tuesday but with the older kids. They were a bit more intransigent, but, on the other hand, Josia had me give them a bit more of a lecture on what anthropology is. We did a few activities, such as primate relay races, to get them up out of their seats and involved. According to Josia, it went over very well. They paid more attention than usual, so I consider it an all around success.

Eagles Wings Middle School & friends

Eagles Wings Middle School & friends

One of the more exciting things to come out of the few days was the realization that Eagles Wings has teaching opportunities for my master’s level or above students that includes room and board and a little stipend for food. During the year, the middle school is looking for native English speakers (Eagles Wings teaches in English) who might want to work in country while conducting research. Alternatively, there are opportunities to help out with summer workshops for those who can’t go during the school year. Either way, it includes room and board in their offices. Also, Josia could take students to the field with her when she collects data for their ethnoprimatology project. This includes lemur observations, as well as interviewing local people about their relationships with the lemurs. There would be opportunities for collecting additional data in the course of this. For students who stay at least a year, they have means of defraying or paying the travel costs to get there. I’m really excited about presenting this opportunity to my quality students.

University of Antananarivo campus

University of Antananarivo campus

On Wednesday, I met with faculty from the Anthropology and Experimental Natural Science Education departments and gave talks at the University of Anatananarivo. Their anthropology department focuses on humans and environment, genetics of origins of Malagasy, and assessing diachronic variation of human character (which I took to mean environment and development of human, health, growth and development, and human biology). Their department was very interested in developing a collaboration with UA. They asked if I or any of our biocultural doctoral students would be interested in being visiting lecturers, anywhere from a semester to a few weeks before heading to the field to do research. There were several good questions after my talk, despite my concern that my inability to speak French or Malagasy might hamper our communication. However, since the students need to speak English to attend the mandatory field schools hosted in conjunction with Northern Illinois and Bristol Universities, they all seemed to follow along. Their department chair asked what kind of support I had in mind when I discussed our future collaboration, since many of their students cannot get funding to go anywhere to conduct research. I suggested that they are in a position to collect data in Madagascar to compare with similar data collected elsewhere, such as the PATHS study Michaela and I are conducting, that would give them to the opportunity to co-author publication in US and Europe-based journals. This would enhance their chances when applying to U.S. or European graduate programs. This seems to have been appealing—when I asked if anyone wanted a business card, more hands shot up than I had cards to distribute.

This is all very exciting and has my mind reeling. I want to figure out how to harness this energy and excitement before I return home and tumble headlong into the next deadline without processing all of these experiences.

Anthropology is Elemental is funded through a grant by the Wenner-Gren Foundation.

This is a repost from April 2017 on the Bama Anthropology Blog Network:

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EvoS Discussion Panel

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