The human spine evolved differently in males and females in order to alleviate back pressure from the weight of carrying a baby, according to anthropologist Liza Shapiro whose findings were first documented in Nature.
The researcher believes the adaptation first appeared at least two million years ago, in the early human ancestor Australopithecus. The male-female difference does not appear in chimpanzees, meaning the human evolution of walking upright led to the adaptation.
“Natural selection favored this adaptation because it reduces extra stress on a pregnant female’s spine,” says Shapiro who conducted the research with Katherine K. Whitcome, an alumna who is a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University. “Without the adaptation, pregnancy would have placed a heavier burden on back muscles, causing considerable pain and fatigue and possibly limiting foraging capacity and the ability to escape from predators.”
Harvard anthropologist Daniel Lieberman also contributed to the study, which shows the key differences between males and females appear in the lower back, or lumbar portion of the spine.
Human spines have a unique forward curve in the lumbar region, but the curve extends across more vertebrae in females. That helps offset harmful forces that might occur on the spine when pregnant women lean back or hyperextend their spines to balance the weight of the fetus, Shapiro says. The joints between the vertebrae also are larger in females and angled differently than in males to better support the extra weight.
“Any mother can attest to the awkwardness of standing and walking while balancing pregnancy weight in front of the body,” Shapiro says. “Yet our research shows their spines have evolved to make pregnancy safer and less painful than it might have been if these adaptations had not occurred.”
More than 40 million years ago, primates preferred Texas to northern climates that were significantly cooling, according to new fossil evidence discovered by Chris Kirk, physical anthropologist.
Kirk and Blythe Williams from Duke University have discovered Diablomomys dalquesti, a new genus and species of primate that dates to 44-43 million years ago when tropical forests and active volcanoes covered west Texas.
The researchers published their discovery in the Journal of Human Evolution article, “New Uintan Primates from Texas and their Implications for North American Patterns of Species Richness during the Eocene.”
During the early part of the Eocene epoch, primates were common in the tropical forests that covered most of North America. Over time, however, climatic cooling caused a dramatic decline in the abundance and diversity of North American primates. By the end of the Eocene, primates and most tropical species had almost disappeared from North America.
Kirk’s discovery of late middle Eocene (Uintan) primates at the Devil’s Graveyard Formation in Southwest Texas reveals new information about how North American primates evolved during this period of faunal (animal) reorganization. “After several years of collecting new fossils, reviewing Texas’ primate community and comparing it to other places in North America, we found a much more diverse group of primate species in Texas than we expected,” Kirk says. “It seems that primates stuck around in Texas much longer than many other parts of the continent because the climate stayed warm for a longer period of time.”
While primate diversity was falling off precipitously in places like Utah and Wyoming during the late middle Eocene, west Texas provided a humid, tropical refuge for primates and other arboreal (tree-inhabiting) animals.
The anthropologists named the new primate Diablomomys dalquesti, combining “Diablo” to represent the Devil’s Graveyard Formation (sand- and mudstones near Big Bend National Park) with Omomys, a related fossil genus.
The dalquesti species name honors Walter and Rose Dalquest, who donated the land on which the fossil was collected (Midwestern State University’s ‘Dalquest Research Site’). Walter was a Texas paleontologist and distinguished biology professor at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls until his death in 2000.
In Western Madagascar, Rebecca Lewis, assistant professor of anthropology, established a new field site and research station in Kirindy Mitea National Park.
The ecologically unique park encompasses the transition between deciduous forest, spiny desert and mangroves. At this site, Lewis is examining the social behavior, ecology, hormones and genetics of wild lemurs (Verreaux’s sifaka).
She has created an 82-kilometer trail system and placed radio collars on eight lemur groups inhabiting the research area. She is investigating how variation in male chest coloration attracts
potential mates and signals social competitiveness.
She found that males with dark, greasy chest stains have higher testosterone than other males. The anthropologist also studies the foods the lemurs eat and has marked every food source used by four lemur groups during the course of a year.
Theresa Jones, psychology professor, examines the neurobiology of learning and memory and neural plasticity after brain damage. Supported by the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, she studies how the brain changes to adapt to an injury and how it is affected by alterations in behavior.
Jones is working to understand the neural mechanisms behind these changes after suffering brain damage such a stroke. She also examines how motor rehabilitation, alone and in combination with other therapies, can drive more effective neural and behavioral adaptation to brain damage.
Employees who have more control over their daily activities and do challenging work they enjoy are likely to be in better health, according to a study by John Mirowsky, professor of sociology, published in a recent issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.
“The most important finding is that creative activity helps people stay healthy,” Mirowsky says. “Creative activity is non-routine, enjoyable and provides opportunity for learning and for solving problems. People who do that kind of work, whether paid or not, feel healthier and have fewer physical problems.”
Although people who work do give up some control over their daily activities, the study found that being employed leads to better health generally, regardless of the amount of creativity required. The researchers were surprised to find that the daily activities of employed persons are more creative than those of non-employed persons of the same sex, age and level of education.
“The health advantage of being somewhat above average in creative work (in the 60th percentile) versus being somewhat below average (in the 40th percentile) is equal to being 6.7 years younger,” Mirowsky says. Although the authors didn’t examine specific jobs that may confer this health advantage, professions considered not to involve a creative environment included those in which people work in assembly lines. They found jobs that are highstatus, with managerial authority, or that require complex work with data, generally provide more access to creative work.
And, people with higher levels of education tend to have more creative activities in their lives, paid or not.
The 1973 supernatural horror film “The Exorcist” introduced Linda Blair’s famous head-spinning performance of demonic possession to audiences worldwide. Since then, Hollywood’s fascination with stories of spiritual oppression has not abated. Recent films such as “Stigmata” (1999), “Constantine” (2005) and the “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” (2005) explored themes of possession, exorcism and the nature of evil.
In 1999, perhaps prompted by renewed public interest in the supernatural phenomenon, the Vatican issued the first updated ritual for exorcism since 1614. And, in 2005, the Regina Apostolorum, a pontifical university in Italy, offered Catholic priests a new course on exorcism.
The belief that demons can enter the bodies of human beings and control their movements and behavior has been present in Christianity since its foundation, says Brian Levack, the John E. Green Regents Professor of History, who studies the phenomenon of possession.
However, current popular representations of demonic influence are actually rooted in many documented cases of possession that swept through Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries, the scholar says.
“During the age of the Reformation, hundreds of people fell into fits and convulsions, vomited foreign objects, exhibited preternatural strength, committed blasphemies and spoke in foreign tongues,” Levack says. “These symptoms are similar to those depicted in popular films.”
Levack’s book-length research project, “The Devil Within: Demonic Possession in Reformation Europe,” will explore the cultural history and representations of demonic possession, from the Reformation to the modern era. The interdisciplinary approach will include work by historians, biblical scholars, theologians, psychologists and medical doctors.
“Thirty years ago, the topics of demonology and witchcraft were on the periphery of historical research,” Levack says. “However, historians now recognize that cases of possession are not isolated phenomena and should not be explained away as a product of disease, mental illness or social tensions. The activities of demoniacs should be studied as performances that reflect the religious culture of early modern Europe.”
Ultimately, the performance of the possessed and rituals of exorcism can shed light on some
of the major theological disputes between Catholics and Protestants. It also can inform understanding of early modern society, Levack contends.
Levack also studies the history of witchcraft and is the author of “Witch-Hunting in Scotland: Law, Politics and Religion” (2008). His book, “The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe” (1987), is in its third edition and has been translated into eight languages. Levack also edited “The Witchcraft Sourcebook” (2004).
Concerned about sanitation during a severe bout of plague in Milan, Leonardo da Vinci designed an ideal, clean city. Leonardo was not alone in thinking about personal and public hygiene, writes Douglas Biow, professor of Italian and comparative literature in “The Culture of Cleanliness in Renaissance Italy” (2006).
“One of the major concerns that defined the Italian Renaissance was a preoccupation with dirt and cleanliness,” the director for European studies explains. “The topic of cleanliness crops up everywhere, from Dante’s ‘Inferno,’ which depicted hell as a cesspool, to the paintings of Vittore Carpaccio, which contain images of laundry hanging out to dry over the canals of Venice.”
Biow traverses the Renaissance approach to hygiene by analyzing key texts and what they reveal about soap and washerwomen, purifying behaviors in households in cities, and latrines and latrine-cleaners. Dante’s hell functioned as a massive, funnel-shaped latrine, Biow posits.
“Renaissance culture will never look—or smell—the same to those who read this book,” wrote Stephen Botterill in Choice Magazine’s review of the book.
Biow’s research has been supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Guggenheim Foundation. He also is the author of “Doctors, Ambassadors, Secretaries: Humanism and Professions in Renaissance Italy.”
To learn more about Dante’s “Inferno,” visit the Danteworlds website, developed by Guy Raffa, associate professor of Italian.
When graduating from medical school, many new doctors swear to the Hippocratic oath, an ancient moral code followed by physicians since antiquity. Scholars are not certain who wrote the oath, but generally attribute it to Hippocrates, a 5th century Greek physician often referred to as the father of medicine.
The oath is one of most enduring traditions in Western medicine and serves as the foundation of medical ethics today, according to the American Medical Association. In taking the oath, physicians swear to preserve the sacred principles of treating the sick with benevolence, respect patient privacy and teach the secrets ofmedicine to the next generation.
The question of who first took the oath andwhen, and its connection to Hippocrates, was one of the issues addressed at the “Colloquium Hippocraticum,” hosted by the Departments of Classics and Philosophy, and organized by Lesley Dean-Jones, associate professor of classics.
The conference brought together international scholars of ancient medicine, science, philosophy, history and literature to discuss ancient medical treatises, Hippocrates and the Hippocratic oath. The National Science Foundation supported the conference with a $25,000 grant. Additional sponsors included the Seton Group of Hospitals, Society for Ancient Medicine and Texas Medical Association.
Dean-Jones is the author of “Women’s Bodies in Classical Greek Science.” She has writtennumerous scholarly articles related to ancient medicine and philosophy. She earned a 2008 Loeb Classical Library Foundation Award to pursue research on a medical treatise on reproduction attributed to Aristotle.
Sam Gosling, associate professor of psychology, has spent the past decade researching how people express their personality in everyday settings. In “Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You” (Basic Books, 2008), he tracks the traces people leave in their spaces to reveal their inner selves.
Gosling’s system for sleuthing focuses on three clues: 1) identity claims that make intentional statements, including posters and photographs; 2) behavior residue, or actions, that leave a trace in the environment such as a messy desk; and 3) thought and feeling regulators that help people alter their mood such as personal mementos or music.
In addition to snooping through people’s living spaces and offices, Gosling analyzes online social networking profiles and music collections.
QUICK TIP: If you’re interested in understanding people’s interests and values, tuning into their music collections would be a sound investment.
Where did the Freudian slip come from? How are hesitations and interruptions in speaking useful to cops and interrogators? Why do President George W. Bush’s verbal gaffes, such as “misunderestimate,” resonate with the American people?
These are just a few of the questions liberal arts alumnus Michael Erard (M.A. Linguistics, ’96; Ph.D. English, ’00) tackles in “Um…: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean” (Random House, 2007). According to Erard, everyday speech is filled wth verbal blunders—approximately one in every ten words. That gives him a lot of ground to cover in “Um,” which is packed with interviews from interpreters, police officers, psychologists, transcribers at the Federal News Service, and members of Toastmasters, a public speaking club.
Erard investigates everything from a brief history of the word “um” to the birth of bloopers,
distilling complex linguistic theories along the way.
“Who’d have thought that a book called ‘Um…’ could be such a page-turner?” says Geoffrey Nunberg, a commentator for National Public Radio. “But Michael Erard’s investigations of ‘applied blunderology’ come to something more than the familiar catalogues of verbal slips and gaffes from the high and the low. It’s also a fascinating meditation on why blunders happen, and what they tell us about language and ourselves.”
Erard’s essays on language and culture have appeared in The New York Times, Atlantic Monthly and Rolling Stone. He earned a 2008 Ralph A. Johnston Writing Fellowship from the university and Texas Institute of Letters. He will begin a residency at Paisano Ranch during the fall.
Geographers traditionally have studied the interactions between people and their natural and built environments, ranging from urban spaces to global environmental systems.
With the rise of the Internet and new media technologies, geographers have a new world to map: the virtual one, also known as the “mediascape.”
“With our expertise in mapping human-environment interactions, geographers are uniquely positioned to explore this new terrain,” says Paul Adams, associate professor of geography and the environment and director of the university’s Urban Studies Program.
Adams is a leading scholar in the field of human and communication geography. His book, “The Boundless Self: Communication in Physical and Virtual Spaces” (2005), applies geographical theories to communication studies to explore how people are using new media technologies, such as cell phones, email and instant messaging, to transcend boundaries of time and space.
When National Geographic revealed the discovery of the Gospel of Judas in 2006, the news swept across the globe. Judas Iscariot, the scorned disciple who betrayed Jesus to Roman soldiers with a kiss, was suddenly redeemed.
The gospel presented Judas as a hero, the disciple who knew Jesus best and understood his identity as the son of God. To many this finding was confusing and even disturbing. Judas was the most hated man in the New Testament. Does this discovered text change the way we read the four gospelsof the Bible?
Not exactly, says Michael White, the Ronald Nelson Smith Chair in Classics and Christian Origins and director of the Institute for the Study of Antiquity and Christian Origins.
“Step back, take a deep breath and don’t worry,” White says. “Because it’s more complicated than that. We have to put these things in a historical framework to understand why they were even written and for whom they were written.”
As a scholar with a background in religious studies, classics and archaeology, White understands that contexts of the time—historical, social and cultural—are critical to understanding all the gospels, newly discovered or not.
His book, “From Jesus to Christianity: How Four Generations of Visionaries and Storytellers Created the New Testament and Christian Faith” (2004), leads readers through the first 200 years of early Christianity, when followers sought to create a unified religion and tell the story of Jesus’ life.
In a series of expeditions to the Black Sea in the early 2000s, Robert Ballard of the University of Rhode Island—famous for locating the wreck of the Titanic—discovered a miraculously well preserved Byzantine shipwreck dating from the 6th century.
Dan Davis, a nautical archaeologist and Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Classics, is a member of Ballard’s research team, which is using remotely operated vehicles to excavate the ancient shipwreck.
National Geographic featured the groundbreaking research project in the television special “Ghost Ships of the Black Sea” last June.
In 1855, American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a letter to his publisher lashing out at the “damned mob of scribbling women” whose works gained wide readership in antebellum America.
“Hawthorne’s comments represent the uphill battle women writers faced in earning legitimacy for their work,” says Carol MacKay, professor of English and affiliate of the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies. “Historically, this task has been a cultural challenge—if not a psychological impossibility—for women writers worldwide.”
Though the male autobiographical impulse began to manifest itself in Western culture in the Enlightenment during the 18th-century in Europe, women writers usually confined themselves to the less egoistic modes of diary and letter writing, MacKay says.
The professor teaches “Emerging Selves: The Autobiographical Impulse in Women’s Writing,” a course that explores the array of narrative strategies women writers have used to construct and project their autobiographical self through literature. Students in the class begin with early works such as “Revelations of Divine Love” (1373) by Julian of Norwich, move through the early 20th century with “A Room of One’s Own” by Virginia Woolf, and conclude with contemporary works such as “Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood” (1984) by bell hooks and “Barefoot Heart: Stories of a Migrant Child” (1999) by Elva Trevino Hart.
MacKay will teach “Emerging Selves” as a Freshman Signature Course which is the centerpiece of curriculum reform envisioned by the Commission of 125 and led by Paul Woodruff, professor of philosophy and dean of the School of Undergraduate Studies.