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Begging the Bigger Questions

A visit with Carol Ward, Associate Professor, Department of Pathology and Anatomical Sciences

By LuAnne Roth
Published: - Topics: paleontology anthropology human evolution vertebral column brain

We see that as humans we are different from other modern primates, although we don't know exactly how that came to be. Unlocking this mystery has been Anthropology professor Carol Ward's life's work. While the fossil record is sketchy at times, it is crucial in estimating the chronology of certain key acquisitions of modern humans, be it walking on two feet, developing big brains, changing their diet, or changing their tool-making behavior. Working with fossils, Ward seeks to answer the bigger question—why did those changes occur?

For example, 4.2 million years ago one of the first changes in our branch of the family tree--the hominids--involved becoming bipedal, that is, standing upright and walking on two feet. This dramatic shift in behavior threw open the door for further developments, changing how they moved about their environment, where they could live, what their hands were freed up to do. In this vein, Ward has spent a great deal of time studying the vertebral column that was nicely arched when walking on four legs; in order to stand upright, however, "we now have to balance all our weight on this precarious column of bone," forcing the vertebrae to develop very differently.

Of course, the downside of walking upright is back pain. Working with colleague Bruce Latimer from the Cleveland Museum of National History, Ward strives to understand why these bones are built as they are and whether this historical perspective may be applied to understanding modern human problems with spine function. In a collaboration with orthopedic surgeons at MU and Doug Smith from MU’s Department of Engineering, Ward and her team have developed a way to use CT scans to examine individual patients' spines in virtual 3-D space, build solid models to study stress concentration, and determine how variations in anatomy affect the health of our spines. If successful, this understanding would eventually be applied in helping to diagnose and treat people with chronic back pain.

Another of Ward's research projects combines the knowledge of psychology (working with professor David Geary) and comparative behavior (with professor Mark Flinn) with the fossil record, a collaboration that could help determine whether zoologist Richard Alexander’s theory—that humans developed such large brains in order to handle complex social relationships—is supported by the data. The standard theory suggests that our "ecological dominance" (being masters of our environments) was a factor in our brain development. Once humans established ecological dominance, so goes that explanation, their ability to cooperate and compete against other humans became much more important, Alexander's theory argues. At this point, humans likely turned their attention to solving social problems, leading to "an arms race in human intelligence."

"The big problems require input from a lot of people with a lot of different areas of expertise," explains Ward of her tendency toward interdisciplinary projects. Indeed, as Ward describes the collaborative nature of her work, one is struck by the sheer magnitude of what MU's talented multi-departmental research teams can accomplish once they link forces.