What is your current position and area of research?
I am the Evan Pugh University Professor of Anthropology at Penn State (University Park). I conduct research on human and primate evolution in relation to the environment, and am especially interested in the roles played by skin as a physical and social interface with the environment.
What led you to this field/area of research?
I have long been interested in the fossil evidence for primate evolution, but I made the big switch to working primarily on living humans about 25 years ago, and it was completely serendipitous. I realized that I had new insights about the evolution of human skin and skin color that no one had had previously, and I just went with it. But over the years, I have retained my original interests and research program in paleoanthropology.
What in your opinion has been the greatest achievement in your area of science?
Understanding the course of human evolution through the combined evidence of the fossil and archaeological records and human genetics, and fully appreciating the role of chance events in human history.
Where do you see your field progressing over the next 10 years?
In the last 20 years, we have learned a lot about the liability of the human genome and the human nervous system within human lifetimes. In the next decade, scientists from many disciplines including biological anthropology will try to understand better how our genome is regulated through the lifespan by a wide range of environmental influences including behavior (broadly, epigenetics), and thence how gene expression affects the physical and behavioral phenotype. In other words, we shall be exploring the limits of human plasticity.
What is the best part of being on the board?
Learning! I have never learned so much so quickly and in such a convivial atmosphere as during our Board meetings. A very close second is the experience of developing practical implementations – for the public good – of the many kinds of research we undertake as scholars.
If you could meet anyone from history who would it be and why?
The historical Buddha, a person who understood the workings of the human mind and the nature of human culture through personal observation only.
What is the greatest book you ever read and why?
Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830-1833) helped me understand the physical foundation for life on earth, and allowed me to appreciate the insignificance of humanity.