Spotlight on Supporting Diverse Voices: Cara Ocobock

Spotlight on Supporting Diverse Voices: Cara Ocobock

Scroll to Article Content

With Supporting Diverse Voices grants, Princeton University Press offers historically excluded and underrepresented scholars around the globe the opportunity to develop a book proposal in group or one-on-one settings with one of our partnering book coaches, each with her own approach to the collaborative development process. In this Author Q&A, we highlight the work of Dr. Cara Ocobock, Supporting Diverse Voices grantee and Assistant Professor of Anthropology at University of Notre Dame.

If you were to perform a Google image search of “human evolution,” you would invariably come across the all-too-familiar depiction of men linearly evolving from apes to modern humans. This image, while overly simplistic, is nearly ubiquitous because much of the story of human evolution has been written by and about men to the exclusion of women. Consequently, many of the key theories explaining the unique suite of human features seem to assume that evolutionary forces act only upon men while women are merely passive beneficiaries. Building upon the stellar foundational work by feminist scientists, That’s What She Said: The Story of Hu(Wo)man Evolution will give the other half of the population its fair due. Dr. Cara Ocobock will weave together a reimagining of the human evolution story using threads from contemporary research in biological anthropology, cultural anthropology, archaeology, primatology, exercise physiology, and reproductive health to demonstrate that women were and still are a driving force in human evolution.

Why did you write this book?

CO: One of my favorite classes to teach is Fundamentals of Biological Anthropology. This class covers your typical topics in biological anthropology, from the basics of evolutionary theory to non-human primates to human evolution and modern human variation. Given the breadth of information this course needs to cover, I rely heavily on creative assignments that charge students with taking a deep dive into the specifics of some topics. For example, there are just too many cool fossil hominins for me to properly discuss each. As such, I have students create an online dating profile (think Tinder or Hinge) for the fossil hominin of their choosing where they have to answer questions on behalf of their chosen hominin, such as, what are your best physical features? What are your special skills and hobbies? What you are currently binge watching? While this assignment expectedly leads to hilarious results, it unexpectedly revealed an interesting bias—the vast majority of my students, regardless of their sex and gender, described their fossil hominin as a man. This pattern held semester after semester.

Why were so many of my students choosing to do this assignment from the perspective of a man? Upon reflection, it struck me—human evolution education and educational materials have not changed all that much since I was a student. During my undergraduate education, biological anthropology textbooks never addressed issues of sex and gender head on and typically told the story of human evolution from the perspective of men. One need to look no further than the many theories attempting to explain why human bipedalism evolved. For example, the persistence hunting hypothesis contends that everything that makes us human, and therefore different from our chimpanzee evolutionary cousins, is the result of selection on features that improved persistence hunting success. And who did this persistent style of hunting according to this hypothesis? Men. This hypothesis attempts to explain our unique set of human traits as the result of natural selection on men to the exclusion of women. And that male perspective is the default. Women are considered passive beneficiaries to the evolution that seemingly only acts upon men. And that default is repeated and perpetuated in textbooks, in modern research, and in the classroom. I want to change that.

Why should we look more closely at how evolution acting upon women may have shaped our evolutionary trajectory?

CO: Humans (and their closest relatives, the great apes) as a species are limited by a woman’s reproductive capacity. We as a species are only successful due to our successful reproduction. Human pregnancy last ~40 weeks with an extended year-long period of child dependency on its mother and other helpers. A pregnant person’s body must undergo drastic physiological and anatomical changes to support a successful pregnancy, making this a key point for evolutionary action. This likely won’t surprise anyone, but what few have considered are the ways in which evolution acting upon this key process may have altered anatomy and physiology among all humans (regardless of pregnancy status), contributed to sex differences as well as similarities, and could even be affecting health, wellbeing, and athletic performance today.

What’s an example of a key feature evolution likely acted upon that many scientists haven’t really focused on before?

CO: Estrogen! I cannot stress this enough! Estrogen does oh-so-many things in all bodies and appears to be absolutely essential to most life functions. Estrogen is not just a reproductive hormone, and it likely didn’t start as a reproductive hormone when it came about as many as ~1.2 billion years ago. Testosterone, for example, may only be half that old. That’s a long time for evolution to act upon estrogen and for it to become a key hormone for multiple physiological processes across species. When we look at health among humans (and rodent studies, too), estrogen seems to protect against heart disease and type II diabetes, improve the ability of blood to clot in the face of injury, and maintain proper kidney function. This oft-ignored hormone has been written off as the feminine hormone, but it is so much more!

What are some characteristics women tend to have that men don’t that may alter how we reconstruct our evolutionary past?

CO: One of the long-standing human evolution narratives is that of Man the Hunter, which contends hunting was key to our evolutionary trajectory. Furthermore, it was only males that did this hunting; therefore, evolution acted upon males conducting the hunting while females were merely passive beneficiaries. However, evidence suggests that intentional hunting (rather than scavenging) came a bit later in our evolutionary timeline. Once hunting did become important (though how important is still debated), it likely took the form of persistence hunting, where individuals had to run an animal to exhaustion before going in for the kill. With this style of hunting, speed and strength take a back seat to submaximal endurance effort—the exact kind of physical activity where females tend to excel over males. Females appear to be better suited in most ways, especially physiologically, for endurance exercise, potentially making females the better option for persistence style hunting. As we continue to learn about female endurance capacities, which are poorly studied even to this day, we will be able to better understand and reconstruct the ways in which females contributed to hunting and other physically demanding activities in our evolutionary past.

What do you hope people learn from this book?

CO: My goal is not to rewrite the entirety of human evolution. Nor is the goal to contend that evolution was not acting upon males—it was, but it wasn’t only acting upon males. My hope is that while reading this book, people, for a time, set aside the well- researched, publicized, and internalized male perspective in order to explore how natural selection (and other forces) acting upon females may have shaped our evolutionary trajectory. I am certain that some will find my contentions controversial, but I hope that readers will approach this book with an understanding that whoever does the research can bias the narrative (myself included). I want this book to encourage others to bring their experience and points of view to bear. Because who asks the questions matters, and a greater diversity of views can only improve and enrich our understanding of human evolution.