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January 22, 2015

Evolution lecture series set

What did our human ancestors look like? How did they behave? And how is it we have come to know what we think we know about them?

A three-part lecture series, “Race, Sex and Human Evolution,” presented by the University Honors College in conjunction with the UPMC Health Services Division and Pitt’s Humanities Center, the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, the global studies program, the Department of Anthropology and the gender, sexuality and women’s studies program, will examine the biases underlying our commonly held ideas.

Anthropology professor Jeffrey Schwartz said the series will build on the 2013 “Mysteries of Evolution” lecture series, which aimed to challenge public perceptions of human evolution that often are taken for granted. (See Oct. 10, 2013, University Times.)

“Human evolution is one of those areas that’s filled with storytelling. I think people get used to the storytelling and they don’t know where the fact and fiction cease,” he said, noting that the initial series explored the historical underpinnings for how and why people think the way they do, and how it informs their science — if it actually is science.

The concept of a single evolving human lineage from one species to the next often is repeated without question, Schwartz said. “If you have this unilinear idea of human evolution, it’s really the only case of such in life,” he said, pointing out that the evolution of plants and animals is filled with diversity and diversification of different species.

The “Mysteries of Evolution” series brought three speakers who dealt directly with fossils, “who had things to say to shake up that scenario and at least get people used to the idea that there may be more than one interpretation of human evolution, and that certain fossils cannot be continually swept under the rug and explained away as anomalous just to maintain what you were taught,” he said.

“The way I teach is to try to get students in the introductory course and above to feel comfortable with the idea that they can question things… and that’s what the first series was meant to do.

“The second series as well, but rather than dealing specifically with fossils … what I want people to do is to raise questions of how people then interpret human fossils,” Schwartz said.

That includes artistic representations of our ancestors. Were they hairy or not? Blue-eyed or dark-eyed? If humans evolved in Africa, did they look like today’s Africans? “Those kinds of expressions that you then leave with the public have some kind of bias behind them,” Schwartz said.

“You’re putting these finished products that look like they were alive in public view and this is the view that people are going to have of our ancestors,” he said.

French sculptor Elisabeth Daynès, who specializes in reconstructions of early humans and other hominids, will begin the “Race, Sex and Human Evolution” series on Jan. 26 with “Original Flesh: What Did Extinct Humans Really Look Like?”

Schwartz views Daynès, whose work has been exhibited around the world (, as “the most neutral of the big names out there who are ‘putting the flesh on our ancestors.’”

In the second lecture of the series, historian and philosopher of science Claudine Cohen, director of biology and society studies at Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes in Paris, will speak on gender issues — “how these things have affected the way people have interpreted human fossils, created stories of human evolution and compartmentalized or stereotyped male versus female roles in the past,” Schwartz said.

Did club-wielding Neanderthal males rule the cave while females busied themselves with domestic cave chores? Cohen will deconstruct such concepts and try to unravel the underlying history “and how real it actually could be — or not be,” Schwartz said.

Cohen’s talk, “The Descent of Women: Gender Issues in Human Evolution,” is set for Feb. 16.

The third speaker, evolutionary biologist Jonathan Marks of the University of North Carolina-Charlotte’s Department of Anthropology, will speak March 2 on “Race and the Bio-politics of Human Ancestry.”  Schwartz said the lecture will tackle “issues about whether race is a mental construct or is biological, or whether it matters … and how this trickles into the way people have talked about human evolution.”


All lectures are free and open to the public. Each will begin at 8 p.m. in the Frick Fine Arts auditorium. For additional information, visit

—Kimberly K. Barlow