Penn anthropology series talks extinction

“How do humans perceive extinction?” asks Adriana Petryna, a Penn cultural anthropologist in the School of Arts & Sciences. “And how do we manage or mismanage resources as a result? What kinds of interventions are taken on behalf of something—a way of life, a language, an ecosystem—said to be disappearing?”

Those important questions are at the heart of a yearlong colloquium Petryna and Theodore Schurr, a Penn biological anthropologist, created, which includes a series of speakers across disciplines and from more than a dozen universities.

The program brings together the four anthropology sub-fields represented at Penn: archaeology, biological anthropology, cultural anthropology, and anthropological linguistics. The first studies human behavior via artifacts. The second and third look at human origins and evolution, as well as collective behavior and norms. The final focuses on language’s evolution and social dimensions.

Each comes at extinction from a different point of view.

“Biological anthropologists understand loss in a particular way. The archaeologists are mapping loss, literally. What are the common languages across these approaches?” Petryna says. “That’s something we’re trying to get at and have students think more deeply about.” 

Though the seminar series itself isn’t new, this is the first attempt by the Department of Anthropology to create focus around a key issue for the public and give graduate students—the majority of whom are working toward their Ph.Ds.—more opportunities to hear a range of unique perspectives about a single theme.

“Extinction is a topic that’s in conversation publicly, broadly, in a whole variety of ways,” Schurr says. “The idea is to create a cross-fertilization.”

For example, Dan Janzen from Penn’s Department of Biology presented this past fall on biodiversity loss in Costa Rica. The spring lineup currently includes an ecologist speaking about the Pleistocene era, an African-American studies professor focusing on race and science, and an anthropologist covering genocide and its aftermath.

At the close of the semester, graduate students will present original research based on the year’s conversations and stemming from overarching keywords such as loss, responsibility, and stewardship.

“When you think of biodiversity decreasing, what, in fact, is getting lost? How do we measure that loss? When ancient cultural heritage sites are deliberately destroyed, what technologies do we have to record that loss?” Petryna says. “It’s not a metaphorical issue.”

The topic has struck a chord with students, who carry conversations well beyond the 90-minute talks.

“There’s a deep desire for this integrative dialogue, and it can have profound social implications for the department,” Petryna adds. “We’re trying to engineer something [permanent] that really shows what Penn Anthropology can do.”

At the end of January, the colloquium will resume with Peter Dodson, a professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Science and a professor of anatomy at the School of Veterinary Medicine. Dodson will speak about dinosaurs, a case study in extinction tens of millions of years in the making.