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I Am Not an Alien!

Understanding Human Skeletal Variation

IN RECENT YEARS THE POPULARITY OF SHOWS like Ancient Aliens has led to many misconceptions about human skeletal variation. One of the most common ongoing myths is that elongated skulls belonged to aliens (or human-alien hybrids), even though knowledge of humans’ ability to shape crania has been documented for over a century. Widespread dissemination of faulty information has led many who are unfamiliar with skeletal variation to believe fantastical myths, such as the biblical story of giants, extra ribs in females, and alien construction of the pyramids. An enormous amount of normal variation exists on the outside (e.g., body size differences, skin color, hair variation, facial types, nose shape, attached or unattached earlobes). People—especially in multicultural populations—accept these differences as normal human variation, but for some unknown reason people expect skeletons to be nearly identical from one person to the next. Any variation is thought to be alien, pathological, or abnormal.

The Anthropology of Diversity

Anthropologists have been key players in helping people understand and accept human diversity. They played important roles in the enactment of civil rights laws. For instance, Andrew Goodman, one of three activists killed in Mississippi in 1964, was an anthropologist who studied at Queen’s College in New York. Franz Boas, the founding father of American Anthropology and one-time president of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, was a proponent for equal treatment across races; although he died in 1942, his students were key in contributing to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).1 And, Boasian anthropology has been used to teach students that variation is changeable and normal. Since the early days of anthropology, anthropologists have attempted to explain differences, such as skin color and height, in terms of adaptations to different environmental pressures.2 And they have been at the forefront of demonstrating that the vast diversity seen in humans is the result of very minor differences in genes. We are all far more similar than we are different, and those differences, some of which appear dramatic, are in fact superficial.

Anthropologists have also helped promote the acceptance of diversity through books, museum exhibitions, and websites that highlight the difficulty in identifying race; a recent endeavor has been the public education endeavors by the American Anthropological Association and the statement on race by the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. Companion books, such as Race: Are We So Different? by Goodman and colleagues,3 have been praised by both cultural and physical anthropologists. Arguing that race is not a biological concept has been a key theme in helping people accept differences without placing people into categories. Through these efforts, along with the plethora of general education classes in anthropology, upper division courses on human variation, and many more educating efforts, anthropologists have changed the way we look at human diversity. Diversity is not seen as pathological (or diseased), sometimes even when it is. Variation is accepted as normal for the vast majority of differences; body size, race, and stature differences are not perceived as abnormal even among those who are not necessarily tolerant of variation. However, this does not mean that human variation at a deeper level—a skeletal level—is understood or accepted as part of the normal human condition.

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About Skeptic

EVIL, THEISM, and ATHEISM Answering the Hard Question “You’re an Atheist?! How Do You Find Meaning and Morality in Life if There is No God?”; God, Heaven, and Evil: A Renewed Defense of Atheism; The Devil’s Mark: The Evaluation of Evil, the Measurement of Morality, and the Statistical Significance of Sin; Whence Cometh Evil? The Concept and Mechanics of Natural Evil; Virtuous Reality: Why Right and Wrong Seem Real: a Critique of Moral Realism; Tearing Down Mr. Hume’s Wall: A Response to Moral Realism Skeptics; Brazilian Cancer Quackery; The “Sonic Attack” on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba: Why the State Department’s Claims Don’t Add Up; Understanding Human Skeletal Variation; Updating the Software and Hardware in Educational Practice: A Way Forward for Science and Mathematics Education; Why Freud Matters: Sigmund Freud, Anna Freud, and the Skeptical Humanist Tradition; Hope and Hype for Alzheimer’s; I, Too, Am Thinking About Me, Too; Junior Skeptic: The Incredible Claims of Pet Psychics…