ASU anthropologist helps shape study of small-scale economies

October 29, 2009

How forms of wealth perpetuate economic inequality over generations is at the heart of a new study by 26 anthropologists, statisticians and economists, including an Arizona State University professor. Their research findings of wealth inheritance and inequality in small-scale societies appear in the Oct. 30 issue of the journal Science.

Led by evolutionary anthropologist Monique Borgerhoff Mulder and economist Sam Bowles, the transdisciplinary endeavor is part of the Santa Fe Institute’s ongoing Persistent Inequality Project of the Behavioral Sciences Program. Download Full Image

The results of the study look at a variety of populations in Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America. Chief among the findings is that the means of a group’s livelihood influence wealth inheritance and inequality.

For example, in herding- and farming-based societies, the offspring of landholders and owners of livestock inherit materialistically, keeping the wealth in the family. In these groups, wealth inheritance and inequality are similar to the world’s most unbalanced economies.

On the other hand, societies of hunter-gatherers prize non-material wealth that includes strength, skills, intelligence and social connections – facets that are not necessarily inherited by offspring. These populations display modest wealth inheritance with inequality akin to the democratic economies of Scandinavia, the most egalitarian at present.

Institutions also play a large role. Sharing resources, including information, and level of personal property ownership are defining factors. The researchers note that while our current knowledge-based economy is similar to that of hunter-gatherers, ultimately societal norms and institutions will determine whether the economy becomes more equitable.

Kim Hill, a physical anthropology professor in the ASU School of Human Evolution and Social Change in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, contributed the data and analyses on hunter-gatherers, as well as theoretical insights into the meaning of the patterns reported.

He says the research is aimed at a general explanation of wealth transmission that applies to all human societies across spans of time since the Pleistocene.

“Since a huge array of other human experiences are determined by different levels of wealth access, it is critical that we formulate a general understanding of the persistence of wealth differentials,” he says. “The research also ties transmission in human societies to a larger body of general theory about the importance of epigenetic transmission in determining phenotypes in all living organisms.

The coauthors gathered a huge comparative data set allowing 43 estimates of the scope of inheritance and wealth within families and the degree of wealth inequality in small-scale societies. The sweeping study is unusual not only because it applies economics to traditional societies but also because it brings extensive quantification to the typically qualitative field of sociocultural anthropology.

Rebecca Howe

Communications Specialist, School of Human Evolution and Social Change


With venom and vigor bugs vie to be crowned ‘ugliest’

October 29, 2009

A paper wasp whose sting can cause anaphylactic shock and a scorpion that crushes its prey with pincers and injects them with a neurotoxic venom, are just two of the 10 contenders in this year's Ugly Bug Contest.

The champion will be determined by how passionately the public appreciates the atrociousness of their traits and uniqueness of their attributes. The ability to inject enemies with poison, suck the blood of innocent bystanders, or crawl under the skin of unsuspecting hikers are some of the characteristics that could earn one bug the crown and title: 2009 Ugliest Bug. Download Full Image

Until Dec. 15, insect enthusiasts around the world have the opportunity to vote and learn more about some of the planet's most creepy creatures, including "The Hammer," a carpenter bee and "La Cucaracha," a cockroach.

To cast a vote or gain insight into the lives of these cuticle-covered organisms visit the contest's Web site at Arizona State University:

Other">"> creatures on this year's roster of repugnant gladiators are "The Blade," an aphid; "Stretch," a snakefly; "The Ringleader," Jerdon's jumping ant; "Sweetness," a honey bee; "The Leaf Foot," a coreidae; and "The Gollywopper," a crane fly.

Each has a photo and a bio on the Web site, with details including their size, weight and Latin genus names. Most of the bugs in this year's contest weigh less than 3 grams – the weight of 10 average grains of table salt.

The images of the bugs are made possible by a scanning electron microscope, providing a view of the bugs unattainable with the human eye. The colorful close-ups allow students and teachers an intriguing new level of intimacy with creatures often dismissed as detestable.

There's also a YouTube">">YouTube video that imitates an Ultimate Fighting Championship® bout, with each bug emerging into the octagon at the sound of a bell.

In addition to serving as the contest's voting hub, the "Ask A Biologist" Web site is a scientific sanctuary for students and teachers alike. Complete with downloadable wallpapers, a poster">">poster and pages to color, and inter-active reasoning modules designed to improve student's skills, the site is laden with material aimed at introducing students of all ages to the capacious field of biology.

The Ugly Bug Contest was started in Flagstaff, Ariz., by Marilee Sellers of Northern Arizona University. For 10 years, it was a local fixture – part of the Flagstaff Festival of Science and the Mount Campus Science Day.

Last year, she teamed up with Charles Kazilek to bring the contest to the Web. Kazilek, a senior research professional in ASU's School of Life Sciences, sports the moniker "Dr. Biology" to host the popular children's podcast "Ask a Biologist."

In its first year on the Ask a Biologist Web site the contest accumulated more than 3,000 votes.

"We are talking about bugs here," Kazilek says when asked why kids are attracted to the contest." You are either excited by them or scared to have one next to you. They certainly can get under your skin. It is fun to see these really tiny animals in a way that just is not possible with the unaided eye."

Last year, the winner was "The Tick" with 1,056 votes – more than twice the amount any other bug received.

"I think it was the blood sucking ability that gave it the edge," Kazilek says.

"There is a lot of science hidden in the contest, but maybe the best part is people get to participate by looking and reading about each of the bugs before they vote," he says. "It is also a fun way to get up close and personal with the bug that might be walking, crawling or flying next to you."

Pointing out that many of the bugs contending for the crown are far from ugly, Kazilek adds: "In fact, they are very elegant and often quite beautiful. Somehow calling it the Beautiful Bug Contest seemed contrary to most people's idea of bugs."

Other sponsors for this years contest include Dow AgroSciences, NAU's Imaging and Histology Core Facility, and ASU's W.M">">W.M Keck Bioimaging Laboratory and International">">International Institute for Species Exploration in the College">">College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Written by Dan Moore (dhmoore">"> for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences