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Robin Nelson: The Fascinating World of Biological Anthropology

Robin Nelson is an assistant professor of biological anthropology at Santa Clara. Her work focuses on using evolutionary theory to learn about human social and health outcomes. She has done research in Jamaica on the role that adult figures play in child development. A few of her course titles include: “Anthropology of Love, Sex, and War,” “Modern Family: Science and Social Experiences of Human Familial Bonds” and “Kinship and Health.”


In this conversation, we start with Dr. Nelson’s story of finding biological anthropology and what surprising ideas she’s learned from her research. In the second half, we dive into some hot topics around the intersection of gene editing, biology, oppression and systems of power.


Interview Highlights

Gavin Cosgrave: What was your life like growing up, and how did you get interested in biological anthropology?


Listen at 2:00 to find out


GC: Was biological anthropology the combination of working with science and people that you wanted?


Robin Nelson: Yes, what I realized is that I loved medical anthropology but I also wanted to do the science aspects of understanding people’s health. Biological anthropologists do actual scientific investigations. Between my undergrad and graduate school, I worked in a lab that worked on HIV vaccines at the University of Pennsylvania and I learned a lot about lab work. I could ask different kinds of questions because of my background.


GC: What’s one research project you’ve done that has been fascinating or surprising?


RN: I never thought I would work with children; children are hard. You have to be very on top of your ethical awareness in terms of the questions you ask.


I do my research in Jamaica and one project I became interested in involved kids who were living in children’s homes, what we could call orphanages. We looked at whether the adults in their lives created a care network that approximated what it would be like to be in a family.


One of the fascinating findings of that research was that there were ways that some of the caretakers of these children’s homes set up systems that made kids feel safe and comfortable, and it had a lot to do with their psycho-social attachments with adults. The kids who had an adult they could connect with did much better.


Growing up, I came of age at the time during the fall of the Soviet Union and we had images of Romanian orphanages that were really neglected. My idea of what an orphanage was that these kids would really be in trouble. To see the creative ways with low budgets that caretakers could support kids was encouraging.


One of the interesting things in the U.S. is that we got rid of these kinds of big orphanages and turned towards a foster care system, for good and for bad. We know that the foster care system has lots of challenges, and kids get moved around a lot. Attachment is key. Kids need to feel like there are reliable, trustworthy and dependable adults in their lives. The more stability we can give kids, the better off they are.


GC: Is there a balance between being close to your family and wanting to explore and travel the world?


RN: At my age now, I’m not the same person as I was at 22 when I wanted to study anthropology and travel the world. I didn’t think I would have kids, I wanted to see the world. I think there is great value in getting outside your home environment if you can. That might not mean traveling, that might mean going to communities near your home that you have never spent any time in. Get outside your comfort zone and learn something new about other folks.


GC: You taught a class called the “Biology of Poverty.” What is that class about?


RN: I kind of love teaching that class, but it is not the cheeriest topic. That class is about first, how we make real differences between communities. We talk about how we have made race real via slavery, segregation and different policies.


We also talk about how poverty itself becomes embodied. Who is more likely to live in areas with environmental toxins? Folks who are poor. Who is likely to experience poor sleep and noise pollution? Those who are poor. We talk about different factors that influence your biology because of your class situation. Biology and poverty feed into each other like a loop.  


GC: How do you navigate the debate between equality and scientific differences between people?


RN: One of the things we talk about a lot in the class is how much difference is actually meaningful, and what differences are not so meaningful but have been inscribed with social or cultural value.


We say things like “men are taller than women” or “men are stronger than women.” Most people would assume that those are well-accepted biological facts. When you look at men and women’s heights around the world. At the far extremes, you have very short women like me, and very tall men like LeBron James, but for everybody else in the middle there’s quite a lot of overlap. We try to get to the bare bones of what differences are useful for us to think about, and which ones have been given a lot of value because of patriarchal practices.


GC: There have been a lot of recent advances in gene editing technologies, and we can easily see a future where we can prevent genetic diseases, but this technology may give rich people an opportunity to “upgrade” their children. What do you think about gene editing?


Listen at 21:15…

“Science doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Science happens in very specific social and cultural environments. When we start thinking about gene editing, we’re baking in all the other biases that we bring into our lives.”


GC: The differences between a child who has two really supportive parents who are very invested in their learning might end up in a totally different place than someone from a dysfunctional family situation. Whether biology or life circumstances, these differences seem to be perpetuated.   


RN: [There’s nothing wrong with] individual intentions. “I got up this morning, went for a run and felt good about it!” But individual intentions often get baked into structural inequalities. To use schools as an example, all parents want their kids to go to the best schools. But we know that property taxes (often local property taxes) support schools, and so have inequity with regards to wealth and property taxes.


Some parents might say, “Look, it’s not my fault. We live in the nice neighborhood and our kids go to the nice school. You need to improve yourself and get your kid into a good school. Sorry your school isn’t so good.”


But how is the other kid going to improve themselves? It goes from an individual idea to a structural system where districts will never be equal. If someone said, “I just want to improve my life and my kid,” then I would ask, “at what cost to whom?” Because there is a cost.

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