“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.

Me, trying to sound fancier than I am

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:

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’:

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.