Race and Forensic Anthropology

The work of forensic anthropologists who work with police departments is making inroads debunking myths about race.

Changes in forensic anthropology are blowing away myths about race! It’s a rather new field began in 1903, but the foundations laid by Ales Hrdlicka were faulty. He was a eugenicist who looted human remains in his search to classify humans into different races based on appearances and traits. Turns out skeletons can show age, height, sex, certain aspects of ancestry, but not race–that is because it is not possible.  The skull can be more telling and for a while there was a trait called a post-bregmatic depression, which  forensic anthropologists thought was only among those they called negroid. But that depression turned out to be present in other skulls as well. Since 1903 there has been a series of steps, each a step forward  to debunk the myth of race. The four racial groups Hrdlicka was eager to find made way for the concept of ancestry. But that proved to be inadequate. For example the skulls of Panamanians is distinct from those of Colombians, and that is due to the history of slavery and intermarriage. The preferred term now is population affinity. But it is still a controversial subject and not all forensic anthropologists  agree to go with population affinity—at least for the present.  One of the issues in finding the right terminology is what is deemed as possible mindsets associated with police departments. Since forensic anthropology deals with crime, contacts with police is part of their work. Police departments tend to prefer more categorical classifications. Yet the more progress there is in the field, the more the idea of race is shown to be the myth it is.

Saving Butterflies

Because Butterflies are like a canary in a coal mine, here are two efforts to save them.

We know there are less bees and that is bad for the pollination needed to grow vegetables, fruits, flowers. The same is so with butterflies. Several species are near extinction due to global warming, loss of habitat, pesticides, droughts and fires. Speaking of that extinction, Scott Black the executive director of Xerxes Society for Invertebrate Conservation, says “butterflies are the canary in the coal mine. We’re going to see other butterflies and bees, and other important insects, and then our birds; and then our mammals head that same way if we don’t take action soon.” There are now several projects going on in California to preserve and protect butterflies. An impressive one is at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, where the patience and care they take with the larvae can’t help but impress. Apparently bugs fight so they keep having to separate the caterpillars into smaller dishes, where they are fed nectar and can feed on the plants where the butterflies had laid eggs. The butterflies are delicately caught so they can be bred. They are sprayed and even fed Gatorade—because they like it. Usually they are fed flowers and nectar water until they lay eggs, and then once the new butterflies are hatched, even more delicately transported and released in the wild. Another project is Monarch Challenge, it’s the brainchild of Carlo Mondavi, grandchild of Robert Mondavi of wine making fame. Mondavi avoids pesticides and even uses artificial intelligence to track the butterflies. His methods may add 18 cents a bottle—a nominal sum, one must admit—but are making a difference. He and his fellow farmers—his word—rely on any number of sustainable methods to farm without harmful chemicals. He relies on good bugs and good weeds to take care of the bad ones and encourage biodiversity. He also makes a practical suggestion, for people to grow flowers to attract butterflies and allow them to flourish. Indeed I have several friends who have created butterfly gardens!

Flax Seed Oil and Floors

Using a flax seed oil which dries like a resin much improves the lives of those with dirt floors.

Earth Enable, I’d never heard of them, which is not surprising since they operate mainly in Rwanda and Uganda, but what they do is something that is bound to be of interest to anyone who cares about poverty and how to improve the lives of the poor. Earth Enable builds floors. That in itself may not sound revolutionary but it ended up being. Dirt floors invite disease. They cannot be cleaned properly, they do not show up the fecal matter that may be there for instance and when it rains they can turn to mud. The people who live with dirt floors cough and  are more prone to health issues such as diarrhea, particularly the children. And of course there is also the issue of comfort and dignity. So Gayatri Datar and Rick Zuzow along with a group of Stanford University students found an answer. Zuzow invented a flax seed oil which, when after it is applied, dries like a resin. It can be easily cleaned and it is cheap–2 to 3 dollars  a square foot or about 50 dollars per home. The people can pay it all at once or it can be stretched over several months.  In the past floors could be covered by cement, but cement floors can be more than 3 times the cost and are not environment friendly. The dirt floor conversion began in  Rwanda, and some floors have also been converted in neighboring Uganda. The flax seed has been imported from India but they now plan  to grow it in not far away Kenya so that the whole endeavor can be more local.  Earth Enable which began in 2014 is now a known and respected construction company branching out wherever it can be of use, in Mexico for example. Regardless of where it continues going, it’s an amazing story not only solving the problem of dirt floors but solving it with climate friendly flax seed oil!

Water Smart Cities

There’s much we can do to combat droughts, recycle water, for one.

Droughts have  brought water shortages to the forefront, and if one lives in southern California as I do, then hearing or reading about water shortages is unavoidable. It’s also worrisome, so reading about  water smart cities was not only comforting, it pointed to what we need to do and do now. Drought are often responsible  for food insecurity, poverty and inequalities as well as for political upheaval, they were in Syria cited as a cause for the rise of the Islamic State. They also require a change of life style and a new mindset.  Let me share some of the things water smart cities need to include, things we can do. I don’t think any one is new, but when they’re put together as a package as they were in the Bloomberg article I read, they add up to pointing to answers.

Water is something we use once. We recycle plastic, but not water, so recycling water is important.  Recycling water is called greywater and greywater can be used for toilets and for landscaping, that alone accounts for a large portion of our usage. As much as 75% of domestic use of water can be reused as  grey water. Another item is for utilities companies to redesign how they charge us. The more water we use, the better for them. They need to be prevailed upon to think differently. And that would entail metering our usage differently.  Desalination is in the mix, also collecting rain water,  and although it wouldn’t amount to much collecting the water that stems from the use of air conditioning and even the mist of fog can matter. Every drop matters because any water that we use from an alternative source is water we do not take from a natural one in the environment.

We ought to have begun thinking about water smart cities decades ago. Our infrastructure and policies must change and keep pace with the need. We must now seriously think about droughts if we are to avoid one  consequence of climate change.