Dr. Cynthia Beall and the Science of Human Adaptability

This Friday, Nov. 4 at 12pm, those attending the FHSA distinguished scientist lecture will have the privilege of hearing from and talking with Case Western’s Dr. Cynthia Beall. Gina Rumore, an FHSA stalwart, got in touch with Beall and offers the following introduction to her work. Enjoy:

Cynthia Beall and nomad friends: Phala, Tibet, altitude 4500m, 2005, 
copyright Cynthia Beall and Melvyn Goldstein

Dr. Cynthia Beall of Case Western University will deliver this year’s FHSA Distinguished Scientist Lecture at the History of Science Society’s annual meeting in Cleveland, Ohio. Beall, a physical anthropologist, studies how humans adapt, physiologically, to living at high altitudes. She conducts her research on populations in the South American Andes, the Tibetan Plateau in the Himalayas, and the Simien Plateau of Ethiopia. She is a member of the United States National Academy of Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. Over the past forty years, Beall’s research has challenged some of the most fundamental ideas about human adaptation—including her breakthrough discovery that Tibetan and Andean highlanders have adapted physiologically quite differently to living at high altitude. She is, indeed, a distinguished American scientist, and her talk on the history of high altitude studies and physical anthropology promises to be of interest to a diverse audience of historians of science. There is truly a little something for everyone in her story.

In 1970, Beall began her graduate education at Pennsylvania State under Dr. Paul Baker, who is credited as the founder of human adaptability studies. Focused on addressing questions of how natural selection acts on humans, Beall never really considered the challenges of being a female graduate student in an all-male program. “My dissertation advisor, and I didn’t know this until I got there,” Beall recalls, “it turns out was famous for not liking to take female graduate students. Or infamous I should say. And I remember someone telling me this and asking, ‘why?’ I was so out of it, right, that it never occurred to me that of all of the things someone would worry about they would worry about that. After my first field experience I found out that the male graduate students had had a betting pool as to whether or not I would survive the season. I don’t know who won it. I hope they all lost their shirts. It never occurred to me that it would be a problem.” Beall not only survived that first field season in Peru, but she would go on to become the most successful of Baker’s students, revolutionizing the field of high altitude population studies along the way.

Beall completed her doctorate in 1976 and immediately began to study, with her partner and colleague Melvyn Goldstein, the adaptations of populations living on the Tibetan Plateau of Nepal and, beginning in the early 1980s, of Tibet as well. “[T]here was no possibility of working [in Tibet] until the open door policy of the early 80s,” Beall explains, “and that, I should also say, was a policy of the Dalai Lama too. They used to either turn people away or kill them.” Access to these populations fundamentally altered the views of anthropologists and physiologists on how humans have adapted to live at high altitude. “Well the first change occurred in studying Tibetans in Nepal and finding that they didn’t have the same biological patterns as Andean highlanders,” according to Beall. “However, in Nepal, the people who we had access to at the time lived, what you might call, at the edge of the Tibetan Plateau, and so it was possible for them in the course of an annual cycle or even in the course of a day to move up and down a lot in altitude. So there was always in the back of people’s minds the idea that the reason for the apparent Tibetan Indian difference was a pattern in the difference of exposure to high altitude. So in going to Tibet, where it’s a huge plateau, and you are talking about people living in the midst of the plateau, they never go to low altitude. So that was a very nice study design to address that one particular concern.” The natives of the Tibetan Plateau had adapted, physiologically, quite differently to living at high altitude than the Andean natives of Bolivia and Peru.

Humans living at high altitude face the deadly threat of high-altitude hypoxia, or oxygen deprivation, resulting from the lower air pressure at high altitudes making it harder for sufficient oxygen molecules to enter the blood stream. Earlier studies of the Andean populations living at high altitudes revealed that individuals in these populations generally had elevated hemoglobin concentrations, and this came to be the accepted means of high-altitude adaptation. But when anthropologists began studying the populations of the Tibetan Plateau in the 1970s and 1980s, they discovered that these populations did not adapt in the same way. Beall’s work over the past four decades has addressed this question of how these two populations, as well as a third, Ethiopian highlanders, have evolved different physiological mechanisms to solve the same biological problem – the need to draw sufficient oxygen into the blood stream from thin air.

Just as access to new populations has shifted anthropologists’ perspectives on how humans adapt to high altitude, changes in science and technology over the past four decades have also radically reshaped the questions physical anthropologists can ask and what data they collect and how. “[When we first started out in the field,” Beall recalls, “it was things like height and weight, chest depth, everything super low tech … and then it became possible slowly to have portable generators, so you could have some electricity. So then you could expand a little bit what you could measure. My favorite device was invented in the early-to-mid 80s, called the pulse oximeter that measures the amount of oxygen that hemoglobin is carrying. And that’s a little portable box that changed the field radically, because before to get that measurement you had to take an arterial blood sample. And that’s quite invasive. Sometimes you can’t even get permission to that here in the U.S. Then blood samples became smaller, people developed new techniques for measuring things in saliva and in urine, and in exhaled breath … So all of that has changed what we can measure. Now in the more rural areas people are starting to put in micro-hydro and they have their own electricity or they have solar panels and they have their own electricity. And then we moved to genetics, and again there have been changes: at first you needed blood, and now you only need saliva. People are happy to spit.” Technological changes have also allowed anthropologists to begin to tackle a tough question with genetic data: what genes are responsible for adaptability to living at high altitude (meaning what allows humans from low altitude to acclimate) and what specific genes show adaptation driven by natural selection?

Despite the many changes in science and technology over the past forty years, Beall is careful to point out that much of the basic work of physical anthropology remains the same: “You need pedigrees. So you need to know who is related to whom. You need to know what people do for a living. You need to know what they eat. What their exercise patterns are… a lot of the social context, and you still have to get that by sitting down and talking with people and living in the village. And that has absolutely not changed and that is crucial. There are some classic examples where basically we were misled by data being collected from the wrong people or without thinking about important confounding social factors. So the things that I have been talking about have been technical changes that have allowed us to be able to measure human biology better. The things that have remained the same are old-fashioned techniques. We are doing ethnography and observing people and talking with them.” As a physical anthropologist, Beall spends months at a time living among the high-altitude populations with whom she works. And, fortunately, she has a knack both for learning languages—she is fluent in Spanish and speaks conversational Tibetan (she did note that she does not yet speak Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia)—and she seems to be immune to altitude sickness.

Beyond, or perhaps in conjunction with, their research, Beall and Goldstein (a social anthropologist) have also worked hard to give back to the communities in which they conduct their research. One of their largest efforts has been establishing a sheep bank in the nomadic area of the Tibetan Plateau. “[W]e thought, what is it that nomads can do to get rich?” Beall recalls. “Everyone else in China is starting businesses and things like that, and what can the nomads do? Well, the only thing they can do is raise more animals, and so what we did is we got funding so that we could buy 250 fertile female sheep of the highest quality one year. And we talked to the community and the community helped decide which five families should get this loan of animals, and the idea was that they would be able to keep any babies that were born in subsequent years, keep the milk, the meat, the wool. Well, we hoped that they wouldn’t keep the meat. We did not want them to kill any animals. So remove the meat from that list. Then in the fourth year they were to pay back half of the animals and in the fifth year pay back the second half. Then we did the same thing in year two; we got another 250 animals, and in year three we got another 250 and now its been working for about seven years and the idea is that as they pay back their animals, then the community has a bank. It has these animals to loan out to other families. And it’s been working beautifully. They took 100% seriously control. They watch, they monitor. If Joe Schmoe looks like he has a gambling problem, and he’s about to sell his animals and eat them, they go and take them back.”

Listening to Beall tell of her work in Tibet, it is hard to miss the passion for the people, the environment and the science that motivates her research. Beall’s career touches on and highlights so many issues in the history of science in America: really cool, cutting-edge science; the role of gender in science; the challenges of working in the field and working on human subjects—a natural experiment, as she calls it; and technology and how it has changed and been changed by scientists and their research questions. She will, without a doubt, add immeasurably to the History of Science Society program this November. Her talk will take place on Friday, November 4, following the noon business meeting for the Forum for the History of Science in America.

Gina Rumore is a lecturer in the Program in the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine at the University of Minnesota. Her dissertation, titled “A Natural Laboratory, A National Monument: Carving out a Place for Science in Glacier Bay, Alaska, 1879-1959,” won the 2010 Rachel Carson Prize for the Best Dissertation in Environmental History. Rumore has served as Secretary-Treasurer of FHSA since 2006.


2 thoughts on “Dr. Cynthia Beall and the Science of Human Adaptability

  1. Dan

    I hope it goes without saying that I'll be at this talk and I hope many of our readers will show up too. Before the talk will be a short FHSA business meeting—all our encouraged to attend, especially if you would like to get more involved in our interest group.

    Thanks again to Gina for writing this piece. I think it's a really useful introduction to Beall's work. My interest is piqued.


  2. Joanna

    Yes, thanks for this post! I was on a panel with Prof. Beall last year at the Physical Anthropology meetings. She provided thoughtful comments on my research on the history of blood collection in the context of human adaptability research during the International Biological Program. I'm looking forward to her talk (and to meeting you Gina!)



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