Conversations with: Professor Bernard Wood

I am delighted to introduce today’s guest, Professor Bernard Wood, a comparative anatomist and palaeoanthropologist at George Washington University (GWU). Bernard originally trained in medicine at the University of London before moving into full time research and teaching. He also previously worked at the University of Liverpool and was appointed Dean of the Medical School before moving to the USA in 1997. As well as holding the position of Professor of Human Origins at GWU, he is an Adjunct Senior Scientist at the National Museum of Natural History of the Smithsonian Institution. His research focuses on hominin systematics, and in particular on ways to improve the reliability of hypotheses about the relationships among fossil hominins. He is also interested in improving the accessibility of information about the hominin fossil record.

Professor Bernard Wood of George Washington University (Image: George Washington University).

What is your particular area of expertise within anthropology?

I am a biological anthropologist who is interested in the earlier stages of human evolutionary history — once fossils look at all like modern humans, I lose interest. I use my training and expertise in primate and human anatomy to interpret the human fossil record. My main questions are how many taxa are represented, and how are those taxa related. I would dearly like to know how you can reliably tell the ancestors of modern humans from their non-ancestral close relatives. The early hominin taxon that intrigues me is Paranthropus boisei. They are especially weird creatures that lived at the same time as early Homo. Most researchers steer clear of them because they are almost certainly not the ancestors of modern humans, but that is precisely what makes them appealing to me. What were they doing so successfully for a million years, or so?

You have pursued a dual career in Human Anatomy and Palaeoanthropology.  How did you become interested in evolutionary questions?

That interest began when I was taking classes for an undergraduate degree in Anatomy when I was a medical student. I enjoyed, and was good at, anatomy, so I figured I should do something I was likely to be successful at. I had studied evolution in A-level biology at school, but I had no special interest in natural history, nor was I one of those children who was fascinated by natural history museums. But I enjoyed learning about living and fossil primates in a class taught by John Napier. Michael Day taught a separate course about human evolution, and I was intrigued by the idea that fossil evidence might help us understand how we, modern humans, came to be such an odd ape. Michael Day gave me a foot bone from Olduvai to analyze for my project, and it resulted in a paper — not a very good one — that launched my career as a palaeoanthropologist. I was still planning to be a surgeon, but for a whole bunch of reasons palaeoanthropology won out.

What was your PhD experience like?

I realized that if I wanted to be an academic I needed to have a PhD, but I was already working as a Junior Lecturer teaching anatomy to medical students, as preparation for taking the first part of the FRCS exams. I lectured five or six times a week in the morning, and we spent every afternoon, except Wednesdays, teaching in the dissecting room, so I could only collect the data for my PhD during the student holidays. I had been assigned the task of making sense of the cranial remains from East Turkana, so decided to try to understand as much as I could about intraspecific variation, and in particular sexual dimorphism. The conventional wisdom was that most of the differences within species were size differences, whereas among species the differences were a mixture of size and shape. It turns out that shape differed within as well as among species, but the shape differences within species were mostly predictable, because they were due to allometry acting on size differences. I am not a naturally quantitative person, so I was especially grateful to a colleague, Michael Clarke, who became a close friend, for helping me understand multivariate analysis, which in the early 1970s was still in its infancy.

Looking at newly-recovered hominin fossils, brought down to Nairobi by Don Johanson from Hadar in 1973, at the old Center for Prehistory and Palaeontology at the National Museums of Kenya. From left to right, Tim White, Richard Leakey, Bernard Wood and Don Johanson. Photo by Bob Campbell

At Liverpool, you developed a hominid palaeontology group over several years. What were the interests of this group?

It was part of generally ramping up research in what was mainly a teaching-oriented department. I tried to recruit people for the Hominid Palaeontology Research Group with interests that complemented mine. Robin Crompton was interested in functional morphology, and Gabriele Macho in life history. We also had post-docs — for example Fred Spoor and Alan Turner — and graduate students who also broadened the HPRG’s research interests. Joan Taylor in Archaeology and the folks in Earth Sciences added to the breadth of research interests relevant to human evolution at Liverpool, and Joan helped recruit John Gowlett.

At East Turkana you worked alongside other well-known scientists, especially Richard Leakey and Glynn Isaac.  Do you look on that as a ‘golden era’ of exploring for early hominins?

I am more interested in the analysis of fossil evidence, than in its discovery and recovery, but the opportunity to spend time at East Turkana gave me an invaluable perspective on the strengths and weaknesses of the fossil, archeological and contextual evidence for human evolution. First Richard, and then Glynn and Richard, assembled an impressive group of mainly young researchers to help collect and interpret the evidence. Apart from my role in interpreting the fossil hominins, I was mainly an onlooker with respect to the fieldwork. But, the chance to be out in the field with Kay Behrensmeyer surveying the locations where hominins had been found, and working on the team with Glynn on his ‘Scatter between the patches’ project, provided me with crash courses on stratigraphy and archeology. More than that, discussions in the field, and over the dinner table, with these and other fine scientists, provided me with a valuable scientific education. Richard Leakey’s generosity enabled my career; Glynn Isaac was a major influence on the way I approach my research.

Consultations in the field during the Earliest Man and Environments in the lake Rudolf Basin conference in 1973.  From left to right, John Harris, Richard Leakey, Meave Leakey, Glynn Isaac, Ian Findlater and Jack Harris. Taken by Bernard Wood

What projects are you currently involved with? Where do you hope these will go in the future?

I enjoy sifting through fossil evidence, and then identifying tractable research questions. I come up with many more questions than I have the talent or time to pursue, so my strategy has been to try and interest students and post-docs to do the real work. My current research interests are the ones I listed in response at the beginning. How can we squeeze more information out of the fossil record to help us be less ignorant about human evolution? With respect to phylogeny reconstruction, I would dearly like to know what aspects of hard-tissue morphology are ‘signal’ and what are ‘noise’? If I had my time again, I think I would have paid more attention to ‘evo-devo’ questions. For example, how is development modified in P. boisei to make its dental enamel so thick, and its premolars into molars?

What do you enjoy the most about being a paleoanthropologist?

Although I ended up taking mostly science classes at school, my real interest was history. I liked reading about, and trying to understand, what happened in the past, but most of all, what was it like in the past. Being a paleoanthropologist is like being a historian. You are trying to reconstruct evolutionary history from scraps of evidence. You need to understand the limitations of that evidence, as well as the opportunities it provides. You also need to be aware of the different scales involved. How can you responsibly extrapolate from an individual, or even a few individuals, to a species, or from evidence from one lake basin to a continent? The other enjoyable aspect of being a paleoanthropologist is working with other paleoanthropologists, who, with a few exceptions, are smart and generous people.

Richard Leakey in 1972 at the National Museums of Kenya. In his right hand he is holding KNM-ER 406, belonging to Paranthropus boisei, and in his left KNM-ER 1470, belonging to Homo rudolfensis. Photo by Bob Campbell

Which of your several major monographs, and an encyclopaedia, do you regard as your most worthwhile accomplishment?

That’s a tough one. I worked on the research that was summarized in the monograph about the cranial remains from East Turkana (aka Koobi Fora) for about 15 years. My interpretations of the evidence were not necessarily the same as Richard Leakey’s, so it was a lonely, and at times a stressful, task. But I saw it through to its conclusion, and that pleased me then, and it still pleases me now. I get satisfaction from taking a complex problem, and reducing it to a relatively simple question, so my publications that do that are the ones I take most pride in. The encyclopaedia of human evolution was borne out of my frustration that there was no human evolution equivalent of a medical dictionary. Like a most of my publications, it was written for me. I write papers about topics I don’t understand. Why would I bother to write about something I think I understand?

In his 1991 monograph on the cranial remains from East Turkana, Bernard argued that KNM-ER 1470, on the right, and KNM-ER 1813, on the left, were unlikely to belong to the same species.

Do you have any advice for current PhD students, like myself? 

Work out what you are good at. Pick a topic that plays to your strengths, not your weaknesses. Conventional wisdom is fertile ground for PhD topics. Once something is conventional wisdom, people stop thinking critically about it. You can look at it afresh. My only important advice is to find an advisor you respect and admire, and who you think you can get on with. They will be your colleague for life, so choose wisely.


Published by lucyjt96

PhD researcher in the Archaeology of Human Origins research group at the University of Liverpool

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