ASU professor's new book: Discoveries on why humans stand out as a species

A pioneer in the field of anthropology, Robert Boyd is proving why human beings are special

February 19, 2018

What makes humans special? It's a question mankind has puzzled over for centuries. According to anthropology pioneer Robert Boyd, there are a handful of ingredients that make up human uniqueness, setting us apart from all other living things and allowing our species to flourish.

In his newly published book, “A Different Kind of Animal,” the Arizona State University professor explains why humans have been so successful compared with other species. Yes, humans are smart, but there is so much more that makes us unique. Arizona State University Professor Robert Boyd has published a new book, “A Different Kind of Animal,” and expands scientific possibilities through his research. Download Full Image

"Humans are outliers in the natural world, but why?” said Boyd. “What happened over the last 5 million years that allowed people to diverge from the common run of creatures, and become this rather odd and extremely ecologically successful species?”

Boyd’s book seeks to answer these questions and discusses the three key things that make humans distinctive from other vertebrates: cognition, culture and cooperation. Although these elements all are important, Boyd’s research focuses mainly on culture and cooperation — the idea that mankind is so successful because of our ability to learn and work with each other toward a common goal.

“What makes humans special is the fact that we are able to learn from each other,” said Boyd. “Human societies have this immense web of cooperation and division of labor behind everything and can operate in large numbers with unrelated individuals.”

For the past 45 years, Boyd and his colleagues have worked hard to blaze a trail connecting social culture to human evolution. Before his interest in anthropology, Boyd earned a Bachelor of Science in physics from the University of California, San Diego. After working in an oceanography lab and meeting scientists in different fields, he decided to earn his PhD in mathematical biology. During his time at graduate school, Boyd discovered his fascination with human cultural evolution.

“I became interested in the question of how social learning and culture has effected human evolution and the evolution of other cultural organisms,” said Boyd. “I was trained as a biologist, but if you want to study humans, you have to be in the anthropology department.”

It was this realization that drove Boyd to become a professor. After teaching at the University of California, Los Angeles for many years, Boyd found his way to ASU in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

“ASU is a better place to be,” said Boyd. “There are so many opportunities to build programs, and being a professor is a great life. I get to work on what I love and with so many interesting people.”

Boyd and his fellow researchers have expanded the realm of human evolution studies. Previously, cultural evolution was not a topic that was discussed, but Boyd and his research set out to change that.

“Being one of the handful of people that was able to understand and make progress on the problem of incorporating social learning and cultural processes into Darwinian evolutionary ideas is something I am really proud of,” said Boyd. “It’s gone from beyond-the-frontier research to being pretty respectable.”

Boyd’s work has presented new central questions in the study of social learning and human evolution, and he hopes to continue that in the future.

“I feel quite confident that this work will influence the way social scientists think about things,” said Boyd. “The kinds of things my team is studying could potentially inform economists about why some societies grow, and why corruption is present in some places but not others.”

With so much progress already made, Boyd isn’t slowing down. Although he faces some challenges, such as having no lasting foraging societies to study, Boyd will continue down his current path in hopes to further his progress.

“This research has already had such a big impact on how evolution and biology approaches the human species,” said Boyd. “I’m pushing along in the same roads I’ve been pushing for a long time, because I think knowing how the world works is always a positive thing.”

Olivia Knecht

Student writer-reporter, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences


At SILC, professor finds opportunity to grow Arabic program

February 19, 2018

The School of International Letters and Cultures is a place for leaders, and one of the people demonstrating that is Souad T. Ali. In 2004, instead of going to Princeton, she came to Arizona State University and helped build the Middle Eastern Studies program into its current form.

“This was going to be an excellent opportunity for me to build a program,” Ali said. “I never regretted that.” Professor Souad T. Ali Professor Souad T. Ali. Download Full Image

She credits President Michael Crow, the deans and the provost with helping her found the Council of Arabic and Islamic Studies, an organization that promotes interactions and collaboration between ASU and groups throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds, an especially timely mission.

“The mission statement of the council is very consistent with my goals, from the very beginning of the program. To build cross-cultural understanding, multiculturalism, interfaith dialogue, diversity at ASU,” Ali said. “Education, and education as the key word, to help people understand both cultures.”

Ali and the department’s books and research all help ASU students down that path, and as enrollment numbers increased, it only became more effective. For her students, between events and classes, Ali builds connections between language and culture, creating multiple avenues for exploring Arab and Muslim worlds.

Ali is also a humanities fellow, part of a small group at SILC who promote cultural understanding for groups around the world “to promote research, to help those who are going for full professor,” Ali explained.

Her current project within that group is a book on Kuwaiti women in positions of leadership. This original study illuminates the relationship between the advocacy of women’s issues and power in the State of Kuwait. It identifies how women in positions of authority in Kuwait are, or are not, sympathetic to a feminist framework; how such women perceive their role in society; and by what path they advocate furthering women’s issues in Kuwait and the Gulf Region.

With her help, SILC has added the Arabic studies certificate and Arabic studies minor, and most recently added the International Letters and Cultures bachelor’s degree concentration in Arabic studies.

“It’s important, this breakthrough,” Ali said. “Huge cultural projects … helping deconstruct misconceptions.”

Gabriel Sandler