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TVOL1000 Profile: Kathryn Coe

Kathryn Coe is Emeritus Professor at Indiana University’s Fairbanks School of Public Health. Her current research focuses on the health care system of Afghanistan and culture and health of, Serbia Gypsies/Roma women. Coe received her PhD at Arizona State University and has published over 100 theoretical and research papers and book chapters on a wide range of topics: visual art, rituals, storytelling, religion, migration and health, disease etiology, nausea and vomiting in pregnancy, health disparities and health equity, women’s health, and men’s health. While these topics may seem disconnected, culture and evolution are the threads that bind them together.

I grew up on a ranch nestled in the hills near the Arizona-Mexico border. The desert of the southwest, populated by often antagonistic creatures fighting hard to survive in the searing summer heat, taught tough lessons occasionally softened by the small number of people who passed through our lives or by the books I chose to read. As an undergraduate I was first drawn to the humanities and classes in literature, history, philosophy, and art dominated my class schedule. However, while the humanities described human lives, science classes helped make sense of thefli complex web of life I had observed growing up, so I received my PhD in cultural anthropology and evolutionary biology. It made sense to me that while humans are indeed the creators of literature and art, we are also life forms that have co-evolved with and are often dependent upon other forms of life. We, like they, are the living descendants of a very long line of ancestors each of which reproduced, thus transmitting both their genes and cultures to us.

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After graduation the lessons in evolution continued in South America where my former husband and I raised fighting bulls. Breeding is important– you need to produce fearless bulls. However, you cannot test the young males; they, like other mammals, learn quickly to go for the person behind the cape. The young females are put to the test and those that charge — ignoring the pain inflicted by the picador – are selected to be the future mothers of the fighting bulls. It was a good example of artificial selection and a solid example of the inheritance of behavioral traits.

The papers I write today are built not only upon my personal life and academic education, but also my experiences working with craftsmen and women making traditional art and telling ancestral stories in the remote corners of the Andes and rainforests of South America, in Mexico and in Spain. Building on these experiences, I have written about visual art, which played a crucial role in their lives, and I have compared the characteristics of stories with the characteristics of the “news” carried by men who traveled from one people to another. I have described how figurines are used to teach and I have written about cultural strategies used to temper male sexuality. I have compared the early legal systems with moral systems – which early anthropologists referred to as “tribal law”, written about ancestor worship and other traditions that have lasted thousands of years, changing little over time.  I have written about women’s health, interactions between culture and chronic and infectious disease, and about nausea and vomiting in pregnancy. What has fascinated me most, however, was learning how traditions have been used to transmit wisdom to Homo sapiens children.

For More About Kathryn:
The Ancestress Hypothesis: Visual Art as Adaptation (Rutgers Series in Human Evolution)
School of Public Health at Indiana University – Purdue University

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