I’ve got a varied academic background: my B.A. is in Biology (population biology), my Ph.D. is in Biological Anthropology, and I’m now an Associate Professor doing Cultural Anthropology. I’ve done research in a variety of places: the United States, Paraguay (with the Ache Indians), Brazil, and Russia. And I’ve worked on a variety of topics: cross-cultural physical attractiveness; racial categorization and essentialism; kin selection and the evolution of norms; kinship, cognition, descent, and marriage rules.
If there’s a unifying thread here, it’s this: On the one hand I’m interested in using evolutionary theory to explain human behavior. On the other hand, I think Homo sapiens is a pretty unusual species, so the evolutionary theory we use will have to be specially tailored for us. Human beings are not just another unique species, but a uniquely unique species, and figuring out how evolutionary theory applies to us is one of the most challenging and interesting games around.
Kinship Cognition, Descent, and Marriage Rules
An odd thing about human kinship is that kinship and language, very different in content, are intriguingly similar in form. Kinship has to do with aunts and uncles, matrilineages and patrilineages, and ascending and descending generations, while linguistics has to do with phonemes and syllables, morphemes and word classes, and heads and phrases. But kinship and language are similar in their combinatorial structure. Anthropologists have known this for a long time, but recent advances in cognitive science now give a clearer idea why. The study of kin categories is a window onto the cognitive psychology of kinship (it’s about more than just calculating coefficients of relatedness) and into the nature of grammar and communication (they’re about more than just syntax). The study of kinship in relation to marriage may even offer special insights into theories of “moral grammar” that relate moral judgments and grammatical judgments.
Kin Selection and the Evolution of Norms
Theories of kinship have played a central role in both evolutionary biology and social anthropology. Evolutionists use the theory of kin selection to predict that that organisms (including humans) will behave altruistically to their genetic relatives. But social anthropologists emphasize that a lot of what people do is governed by social norms, rather than individual sentiments. People may be nice to their kin because it’s expected of them, not because they like them. Some of my work involves figuring out what the theory of kin selection looks when kin altruism is socially enforced. (See The Brothers Karamazov Game.)