“What do you do?”: A two word summary
It used to be the hardest question to answer for me. The verbose answer is something like what I have in the About me section of my website:
I study human cognition from a very interdisciplinary approach, including data from Genetics, Neurobiology, Comparative Cognition, Archaeology and early brain development.
It’s not a bad description, I guess. I wish I had something more specific, but my background and the kind of projects I have carried on so for have forced me this description. In any case, I don’t feel there are many people doing the things I do, at least as I do them: most of the experts in human evolution (people far more competent than me) are either population geneticists, clinical researchers, field primatologists and archaeologists or hyperefficient bioinformaticians. I look up at each one of them and wish I were all at the same time (that might in fact be the problem!).
That means I lie in a sort of methodological limbo most of the time, specially as I am forced to use mostly ‘second hand’ data such as every bit of aDNA that the Max Planck for Evolutionary Anthropology produces.
I think often about what my overall field is, and most of the times I use something like, well, Evolutionary Anthropology. The term captures:
- That I work in Evolution, but I don’t do bones. I’m opposing this to Biological Antropology, a term I like but can’t use because it’s traditionally associated with anatomy.
- That I work with human biology, and that there is a remnant of the humanities in there. It should be a truism, but sadly it isn’t.
Let’s readopt ‘Molecular archaeology’
I don’t know it this term was used before, but I think it was semi-popular in the first papers that establish the emergence of ancient DNA studies, such as this one from 1989 by a certain future Max Planck director.
‘Molecular archaeology’ is a favourite for me. ‘Evolutive Anthropology’ is a fine term, but as vage as it gets – it can encompass everything from genetics to purely archaeological work or primate ethology. I’m ok with that, but let’s consider the beauty of ‘Molecular archaeology’:
- It assumes biological information as the primary method of study.
- It incorporates archaeology, a better term than “Anthropology”, which is sometimes confused with the study of purely cultural practices. It’s also pays a higher homage to the historical roots of the field, as a complement to the fossil record. Let’s remember the first aDNA was recolected from an egiptian mummy.
I haven’t seen ‘molecular archaeology’ used as much lately. How about we reclaim it?
PS: But does any of this really matter?
One could argue that these details don’t matter as long as your job is good - but before you do so, consider how necessary quick and accurate labelling has become in communicating research. I wish I could just tell people what I do in extent, but the hypercompetition of science as it is built today do force us to adopt sometimes funny field descriptors. In any case, at least I appreciate it. It does force me as well to consider what constitutes a scientific discipline, and that’s worth asking.