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Blog20 Excellent TED Talks for Anthropologists

20 Excellent TED Talks for Anthropologists

Considering its multidisciplinary status, many students adore taking up anthropology as a major. Few other career paths let them travel all over the world in order to meet fascinating peoples and dissect the hows and whys of their bodies, minds and cultures. Anyone familiar with the TED Talks lecture and demonstration series probably realizes that the site overflows with videos of interest to the anthropological community. Think of the following list as a mere sample! Be sure to explore the rest of TED for more intellectual, provocative pleasures.

  1. Zeresenay Alemseged looks for humanity’s roots

    To this paleoanthropologist, the badlands of Ethiopia provide fascinating insight into humanity’s mysterious history. The 3.3 million-year-old skeleton of a toddler girl (nicknamed “Selam”) stands at the forefront of this lecture, highlighting the main points of Zeresenay Alemseged’s research. Beyond his inquiries into humanity’s history, the discoveries he makes also shed some light on how landscapes, climates and environments change over millennia.

  2. Amber Case: We are all cyborgs now

    Pull back from studying the past and learn about one anthropologist’s thoughts regarding its future. Amber Case argues that staggering advances in mobile communication technology can be interpreted as veritable external hard drives for the mind. In this, most “plugged-in” people could consider themselves cyborgs, and as science marches on such connections could change the purely organic state of humanity forever.

  3. Aubrey de Grey says we can avoid aging

    Because of his extensive research at Cambridge, Aubrey de Grey has discovered seven different classifications of aging. His somewhat controversial theories posit that this universal reality for all living things can be treated as a disease — if not outright reversed. While such procedures won’t grant immortality, they can extend one’s lifespan and help fight off many of the medical issues that come with growing older and feebler.

  4. Dean Ornish says your genes are not your fate

    It’s common knowledge that regular exercise and painstakingly orchestrated, healthy diet promote longevity and a comparatively shorter medical record. But few people realize that sticking with such disciplined habits for years can actually yield results at the most basic biological level. UCSF clinical professor Dean Ornish spends a little over three minutes explaining the details of how this phenomenon works and application methods to improve one’s daily life.

  5. Wade Davis on the worldwide web of belief and ritual

    Anthropologists and anthropology buffs alike must carefully dissect and research the thousands (if not millions) of cultural, creative and linguistic memes, religious traditions and biological phenomena inherent to people. Wade Davis has been fortunate enough to experience so many of them firsthand, and he uses this lecture to break down many barriers people tend to form. Many cultures share common values and traditions — even with those they never encountered — which showcases the true interconnectivity of humanity.

  6. Wade Davis on endangered cultures

    Davis’ time with National Geographic has afforded him myriad enviable opportunities to encounter peoples and places all over the world, each with their own intriguing story to tell. However, one of the more tragic effects of globalization revolves around acculturation and uniqueness lost to repeated interpersonal exposure. Here, the explorer ruminates on some of the civilizations threatened by the encroachment of others, offering solutions to preserving their lives and ideas.

  7. Laurie Santos: A monkey economy as irrational as ours

    Far beyond merely sharing DNA and common ancestors, humanity’s fellow primates also display many of the exact same behaviors. Though plenty of dedicated research, Laurie Santos of Yale’s Comparative Cognition Laboratory discovered that monkeys typically made similar choices as humans when it comes to economics. Watch this delightful and enlightening lecture instead of merely reading the transcript — it definitely provides some amazing visuals along with plenty points to contemplate.

  8. Ben Cameron: The true power of the performing arts

    Anthropologists understand the integral role that dance, music and theatre play in the whole of human history. Here, the Doris Duke Foundation’s Ben Cameron gives a compelling lecture solidifying how they survive in an era of almost immediate entertainment and gratification. No matter how sophisticated science and technology become, there will always be an integral place for the performing arts in society.

  9. Louise Leakey digs for humanity’s origins

    This lecture takes viewers on a journey to various points in East Africa, where anthropologists, archaeologists and paleontologists continue their exhaustive search for mankind’s progenitor. Homo erectus lay at the center of one giant historical, biological mystery. Its fossils lead to even more questions about the division between humans and other primates as well as how they evolved into today’s forms.

  10. Richard Dawkins on our “queer” universe

    For anthropologists who enjoy contemplating the universe and the millions of psychological and philosophical questions that inhabit it, the renowned evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins provides an amazingly insightful TED Talk. Perspective and preconception prevent people from fully exploring and comprehending the vastness of space, time and the science that keeps the species going. He argues that such patterns need breaking in the interest of progress.

  11. Stefana Broadbent: How the internet enables intimacy

    Thanks to the internet and sophisticated mobile communication technologies, millions of people around the world can exchange ideas and insights with one another almost instantaneously. However, some complain that such methods prove largely impersonal — a mindset which Stefana Broadbent, a respected cognitive scientist, pooh-poohs. If anything, she argues, such interconnectivity and accessibility actually nurtures friendships, family ties and professional relationships.

  12. Elaine Morgan says we evolved from aquatic apes

    Elaine Morgan sits at the front of the aquatic ape hypothesis, explaining that humanity’s evolution came about through them rather than the oft-touted terrestrial monkeys. She uses TED as a forum to discuss how she came to conceive of and support this plan, and how the scientific community reacted. For anthropologists seeking out some unconventional takes on some all-too-familiar subjects, this lecture will make for interesting viewing.

  13. Susan Savage-Rumbaugh on apes

    The old psychological debate on nature versus nurture gets run through an anthropological filter in Susan Savage-Rumbaugh’s illuminating talk. Witness how bonobos easily adapt to human behaviors and cultures — even comprehending basic bits of language and learning how to write, carve stone tools and cut leather. Though not human, studying their abilities intently can easily shed a spot of light on how all primates operate.

  14. Nina Jablonski breaks the illusion of skin color

    As respected as Darwin is in the biological and anthropological communities, Nina Jablonski disagrees with his theories of how race eventually burst into existence. Using maps by NASA’s TOMS 7 satellite, she makes connections between UV exposure and skin color. The main argument revolves around illustrating how the sun and atmosphere altered pigments in the skin of humanity’s ancestors, eventually altering genetic lines.

  15. Jane Goodall helps humans and animals live together

    Long after her legendary stint amongst the chimpanzees of Tanzania, renowned primatologist Jane Goodall has returned to Gombe National Park on a humanitarian mission. Known as Take Care, this admirable initiative emphasizes sustainability issues benefiting human and animal alike. Participants have found numerous strategies that ensure both groups receive the resources necessary for survival, and the scientist discusses their most effective ones here.

  16. Jane Goodall on what separates us from the apes

    In spite of myriad biological and psychological overlaps between humanity and its primate cousins and ancestors, there exists at least one significant difference. Peoples’ language skills, Goodall believes, forms the great dividing line because of sheer sophistication. Ever the philanthropist, she uses her pulpit to deliver a message of peace and justice.

  17. Mechai Viravaidya: How Mr. Condom made Thailand a better place

    Anthropologists and anthropology students (and hobbyists!) interested in today’s persistently shifting cultural memes will likely find this video exceptionally intriguing. Mechai Viravaidya introduces viewers to Thailand’s historical efforts to bolster the nation out of poverty. His contribution — the one earning him the moniker “Mr. Condom” — involves intensive education in sexual health.

  18. Spencer Wells builds a family tree for humanity

    Though ancient evidence for humanity’s origins is sparse — if even still in existence — scientists have pieced together a viable enough timeline for the species’ evolution. Geneticist Spencer Wells started the Genographic Project in order to study biological similarities in individuals from 17 countries worldwide, discovering some startling facts along the way. One of the major questions forming the initiative’s core involves whether or not everyone on the planet evolved from a single shared ancestor.

  19. Dan Dennett on dangerous memes

    As anyone who studies the ins and outs of the human mind and body knows, memes are much broader entities than mere cat photos and viral videos. Oftentimes compared to viruses, many scientists argue that they spread and replicate themselves to the point they can almost be considered living entities. Considering they form the core of human perception, cognition and culture, Dan Dennett’s enlightening TED Talk makes for essential viewing.

  20. Chris Abani muses on humanity

    A lifetime spent in war-torn Nigeria exposed Chris Abani to both the ugliest and most beautiful human acts. Through his stories, he reflects upon how the experiences of others serve as a provocative, effective conduit for self-reflection. Anthropologists will particularly appreciate the rumination on the cultural concept of unbuntu.

By Jamie Davis

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