Information Theory and Paleoanthropology

A few weeks ago I had communicated a bit with paleoanthropologist John Hawks.  I wanted to take a moment to highlight the fact that he maintains an excellent blog primarily concerning his areas of research which include anthropology, genetics and evolution.  Even more specifically, he is one of the few people in these areas with at least a passing interest in the topic of information theory as it relates to his work. I recommend everyone take a look at his information theory specific posts.

silhouette of John Hawks from his blog

I’ve previously written a brief review of John Hawks’ (in collaboration with Anthony Martin) “Major Transitions in Evolution” course from The Learning Company as part of their Great Courses series of lectures. Given my interest in the MOOC revolution in higher education, I’ll also mention that Dr. Hawks has recently begun a free Coursera class entitled “Human Evolution: Past and Future“. I’m sure his current course focuses more on the area of human evolution compared with the prior course which only dedicated a short segment on this time period.  Given Hawks’ excellent prior teaching work, I’m sure this will be of general interest to readers interested in information theory as it relates to evolution, biology, and big history.

I’d love to hear from others in the area of anthropology who are interested in information theoretical applications.

 

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Review of “Major Transitions In Evolution” by Anthony Martin and John Hawks

Overall this series of 24 video lectures from The Teaching Company as part of their Great Courses series is a great introduction to evolution and many of its interdisciplinary sub-fields. I particularly enjoyed seeing the perspective of a geologist/paleontologist to start things off and then the tag-team to cover human evolution from primates.

Anthony Martin
Professor at Emory University; Ph.D., from University of Georgia
John Hawks
Professor at University of Wisconsin–Madison; Ph.D., from University of Michigan

I especially loved the philosophical conceptualization of “deep time” (in analogy with “deep space”) particularly as one considers the even broader idea of “Big History“. Though the professors here don’t delve into Big History directly, they’re covering a large portion of the cross-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary studies which underpin a large portion of the field. More specifically taking the general viewpoint of “transitions” in evolution underlines this conceptualization.

Though the transitional viewpoint seems to be a very natural and highly illustrative one to take, I would be curious in seeing alternate presentations of evolution from a pedagogical standpoint. It was nice to hear a bit of alternate discussion in the final lecture as well as discussion of where things might “go from here.”

I do wish that there were additional follow-on lectures that covered additional material in more depth. It would also have been nice to have included a handful of lectures from a microbiologist’s viewpoint and background to give some additional rounding out of the material and this could have been done either in the early parts of the material or certainly around the discussions of primate evolution. Overall all though, these are wonderfully self-contained and don’t require a huge prior background in material to understand well.

It’s always great to see lecturers who truly love their fields and have the ability to relate that through their lectures and infect their students.

From a purely technical standpoint, I’m glad to see that The Teaching Company only offers a video version of (as opposed to their usual additional offering of audio-only) as having pictures of the fossils and organisms under discussion and their relative physiological structures was very helpful. Additionally having the recurring timecharts of the portions of geological time under discussion was very useful and generally reinforcing of the chronology. Somewhat monotonous from a visual perspective was the almost programmatic back and forth pacing between two cameras during the lectures which at times became distracting in and of itself. Certainly including a third camera would have added some variety as would having had camera operators to zoom in or move the camera around while the lecturers stand relatively stationary. (Though the production value here is exceptionally high, small details like this over the span of several hours of watching become important. As an example of better execution, I prefer Glenn Holland’s “Religion in the Ancient Mediterranean World” as a model – though there wasn’t as much additional visual material there, the lectures were simply more “watchable” because of the camera work.)

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