Author Archives: David Gerstle

I am a Lecturer in Communication and Media at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY. Trained as a linguistic anthropologist, I study the production, popularization, and reception of evolution, biology, and genetics. I follow both historical and contemporary representations of human nature and evolution in popular media, policy, marketing, medical health, education, and activism. Within these social fields, evolutionary and biological science cross with simultaneous understandings of race, gender, sexuality, disability, and socio-economic class. In brief, this is human biology within the public imagination. I study its forms and impacts.

Writing Science: Viewing Science as Social Practice in the Composition Classroom

Composition endures, in fact thrives, at universities that are heavily invested in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. But, this also means that composition instructors who are primarily trained in the Humanities and Social Sciences may encounter more and more students whose interests and majors are (for some) somewhat alien. Put simply, STEM topics do not readily offer themselves up to make writing assignments for broad audiences, and students may struggle in constructing them. A further challenge in working with STEM students has to do with their dispositions toward critiques of science and ideology. Students in STEM fields may not have been exposed to the possibility that social norms have been packaged into scientific knowledge production, and they sometimes find such suggestions threatening. One way to productively engage students STEM topics is to highlight that science as a social practice. That is, science not entirely viewed as the ‘discovery’ of facts, but as a pursuit embedded within particular cultural and historical contexts. Scientific knowledge is produced and disseminated by people for other people, and so must follow the social and rhetorical codes of its times. Viewed in this way, scientists do not ‘reveal’ the nature of the world, but rather make arguments about it. As those arguments ‘go public,’ their authors take on a broader set of interests, concerns, presuppositions, and stakeholders than might be encountered among expert audiences. (read more...)

Heredity, Genealogy, and Popular Knowledge: An Interview with Carl Zimmer

For three decades, Carl Zimmer has researched and written on both professional and popular understandings of science and technology for readers of Discover and The New York Times, as well as contributing regularly to NPR’s Radiolab and This American Life. His books and articles on evolutionary theory and microbiology have covered the winding histories of scientific revolutions and the broad impacts of expert knowledge entering into public discourse. In She Has Her Mother’s Laugh, Zimmer turns to the troublesome science of heredity, tracing its changing manifestations, from Gregor Mendel to the eugenics movement, from the Double Helix to 23andMe. (read more...)

Modern Lives and Stone Age Minds: The Ambiguous Rhetoric of Evolutionary Mismatch

Over the last three decades, popular science authors have used evolutionary mismatch theory to shed light on a vast number of modern social problems, pointing to differences between contemporary environments and those of humanity’s distant ancestors. These authors argue that the majority of Homo sapiens’ existence took place in the Pleistocene (approximately 2 million to 10,000 years BCE), and so this epoch presented the greatest adaptive challenges to the species’ survival and reproduction. These were the contexts that shaped modern human physiology and sociality through natural selection. Large-scale civilizations, they argue, no longer resemble this so-called “environment of evolutionary adaptedness,” even though the humans that inhabit them retain the genetic and psychological makeup of their Pleistocene precursors. Many contemporary problems of Western social life, the story goes, can thus be attributed to this mismatch between the evolved human-animal and the novel problems of the present. As evolutionary psychologists John Tooby (read more...)

Diet and the Disease of Civilization: An Interview with Adrienne Rose Bitar

  In her recently published Diet and the Disease of Civilization, Dr. Adrienne Rose Bitar argues that diet books capture the socio-political concerns of America. Looking at Paleo, Devotional (or ‘Eden’), Pacific Islander (or ‘Primitive’), and Detox Diets, she posits that the narratives of modern diet books both mourn and critique a loss of innocence, purity, and purpose. They criticize post-industrial excesses, addiction, technocratic alienation, and the disappearance of traditional morals and lifeways. These developments, authors contend, are showing themselves in a decline of physical health (obesity, hypertension, stress, diabetes) – conditions that result from the average American’s disconnect from nature and ‘natural’ ways of eating. (read more...)

Busting Myths of Human Nature: An Interview with Dr. Agustín Fuentes

Many of our most enduring social problems are propped up by equally enduring beliefs in the inherent, biological nature of human beings – our perceptions, behaviors, and potentials are ‘hard-wired’ through genetics and evolution. This is particularly true in matters of racial and gender inequality, as well as beliefs in humans’ supposedly innate aggressiveness. In the past, professionals in the human sciences helped to perpetuate these myths, lending their voices and authority to assertions that lacked evidence and allowing stereotypes and biases to stand in for genuine research. Dr. Agustín Fuentes, biological anthropologist and primatologist at Norte Dame University, takes on these assertions in his book Race, Monogamy, and Other Lies They Told You: Busting Myths About Human Nature. (read more...)