News reporters and film crews have called on Holly Dunsworth more times than she can count in recent years. She has been invited to share her insights about painful childbirth on the Netflix program “Sex, Explained,” discussed why babies cry on National Public Radio, commented about why chimps can’t throw well for the Washington Post, and addressed numerous other topics for prominent news outlets around the world.
The University of Rhode Island anthropology professor is in demand because she loves to poke holes in misconceptions about human evolution and provides entertaining and highly quotable insights to challenging questions about the world in which we live.
“My ancestors’ lives are the context for the way things have unfolded in my life,” said Dunsworth, a Richmond resident who grew up in central Florida, where as a child she dug up dead pets to play with their bones, spent weekends learning about fossils, and was fascinated by natural history and cultural traditions. “I didn’t learn that all that is about anthropology until college, but it’s been full speed ahead ever since.”
Dunsworth describes anthropology as the most human of the sciences and the most scientific of the humanities. And while her specific area of expertise – primate evolution – remains a controversial topic in some places, she argues that it shouldn’t be.
“There’s long been a religious controversy over evolution because it sometimes clashed with what people were believing or hearing from their religious leaders,” she said. “But this is our shared origin story. It’s where we all come from. It’s the thing that unites us all. It shouldn’t be taboo. I think it’s more awkward and more sensitive to talk about now because of the racism and sexism that’s been tied up in evolutionary thinking for the last 150 years.”
Dunsworth’s primary focus is on de-coupling this historical baggage from the discussion of evolution so no one is excluded. For instance, she has been working to eradicate the long-held belief that human races are analogous to dog breeds, which may sound innocent, but it carries unfortunate racist undertones.
Using genetic evidence, she posits that the great variation in dog breeds is due entirely to biological differences that evolved through highly-controlled breeding and domestication. Human races, on the other hand, differ very little biologically.
“Race is not skin color variation or hair color variation; it’s not heredity,” she said. “Race is a social construct because it’s about the racist ranking of people by superiority. Race is more than biology; it’s about socioeconomic, political power structures through history.”
She has also tackled the accepted explanation for why men are taller than women. It’s not because men compete for women and tall men usually win, she said. It’s really about how estrogen production slows women’s skeletal growth once they reach puberty, while men keep growing.
“This male-biased story about males competing and how it’s evident in their bones is bogus,” Dunsworth said.
She has debunked other misconceptions about primate evolution as well, like what scientists call the “obstetric dilemma,” which links the duration of human gestation to the baby’s big brain and the mother’s narrow birth canal. Dunsworth’s research has convinced most in the scientific community that babies are born when the mother cannot put any more energy into gestation and fetal growth and just as she is about to cross into a metabolic danger zone. And the belief that humans mature slowly and have long lives isn’t because they have to devote so much energy to the development of their large brains, as has long been believed. According to Dunsworth, it’s actually because primates expend much less energy every day than other mammals, and this reduced metabolic rate accounts for their slow pace of life.
When she’s not teaching and studying evolution or being interviewed by reporters, Dunsworth loves to run and cycle, do art projects with her five-year-old son, and attend live music with her musician husband, Kevin. She also enjoys hiking and bouldering at Long and Ell Pond Preserve in Hopkinton and at Zion National Park in Utah. But while she’s doing those things, she’s probably still thinking about anthropology.
“The story of evolution is all about where we come from, how we got there, and where we’re going. It belongs to everyone, and I’m in it with everyone else,” she said. “There are a lot of people who love nature and natural history, and they should feel good about knowing how they fit in with nature.”
To help people better understand evolution and their role in it, Dunsworth is writing a book tentatively titled I Am Evolution, written for those who wouldn’t ordinarily read a book about human evolution. In it, she takes readers on a journey through their lives from conception to death, and each stage of the journey is explained based on human evolutionary science. The book is based on the way she teaches her URI course on evolution.
“The book helps us relate our own daily lives to the big story of human evolution,” she concluded. “And the hero is you.”