Leslie Aiello

President, Wenner-Gren Foundation


Hosted by AAA President Virginia R. Dominguez, “Inside the President’s Studio” features interviews with anthropologists about their ideas, research and passions. It is part of an ongoing effort to foster public, visible and active engagement with anthropologists. Become a part of the conversation by reading and listening to the interviews, adding your comments to the blog, and suggesting people or topics for future pieces.

This month the studio features  Leslie Aiello, President, Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, Incorporated.

(1) What are you most passionate about–in life, at work, in your everyday activities, or your weekly choices?  And has this been a passion for decades or only more recently?

Doing the best job possible no matter what the task. When I was younger, this probably manifested itself as overachieving, and was likely my way of trying to be liked and accepted. I had a serious speech impediment from an early age and doing well in school and “girls’ activities” that were acceptable in the1950s and 1960s was in retrospect a way of compensating. It was also a huge challenge when I started teaching – as a teaching assistant at UCLA and as an adjunct. I remember driving home after three-hour evening classes in tears and being totally convinced the career path I had chosen in anthropology was simply not going to be possible. It was really an effort to get back in the car for the next class – but I knew that it was something that I had to overcome.

It was also a huge issue when I started to media work in the UK – with the BBC and independent broadcasting. For years I refused offers until I met a BBC producer at a social event. She convinced me just to try a radio interview, promising that they could edit out any speech problems. I gave it a try, and must have been ok, because they kept inviting me back. I was really proud of getting over that hurdle, but still refuse to listen to myself on the radio or TV or even a podcast….

As the years went on, this passion extended to bigger projects and challenges. Some that I am particularly proud of are the book I did with Chris Dean on Human Evolutionary Anatomy and the new Anthropology building that negotiated while I was head of department at UCL. Some of the biggest challenges in recent years were developing from scratch the IRB for non-medical research at UCL and rolling out a skills training program for over 3000 doctoral students in 72 departments – both while I was Head of the Graduate School. The current challenges at Wenner-Gren are to navigate the current uncertain financial climate and to ensure the foundation continues to have a significant impact on the field.

(2) How did you first encounter anthropology?  Were you very young at the time?  Did you meet someone who inspired you and intrigued you, or was it something totally different?  Do you remember the moment you decided you wanted to be an anthropologist?

I first encountered Anthropology as a freshman at UCLA. A combination of a great introductory class (Wendell Oswald) and an 8-week archaeological field school in Cedar City, Utah, convinced me to change my major from Zoology/Geology to Anthropology. I hate to admit it now, but I remember sitting in a lecture and thinking that since I was a woman I wouldn’t have to worry about supporting myself and could study what I really enjoyed. This was in 1963 and the world was different then.

The 1960s was a great time at UCLA and there was a strong faculty across the sub-disciplines. By the time I began Graduate School in 1967, I was a committed Upper Palaeolithic archaeologist, was introduced to feminism by Sally Binford (who was a friend and mentor throughout this period), to fieldwork in the South of France by Jim Sackett, and to human evolution by Bernard Campbell. It was a very exciting period, particularly in the context of the social and political atmosphere of the time.

(3) You have made some impressive career moves in your life– for example, choosing to go the United Kingdom for your doctoral studies in biological anthropology rather than staying in the U.S. to pursue the degree here, then spending some 3 decades at University College London but returning to the U.S. in 2005 to take up the Presidency of the Wenner-Gren Foundation.  Looking back at these moves, do you think you were taking big risks each time, or did you just see them as logical choices, or perhaps just as moving pragmatically within the world of anthropology?

In retrospect, the career moves that I made were risky, but at the time they seemed to be the obvious choice. The real reason I went to London was to start a new life. My marriage had broken up, I had dropped out of graduate school, and I was teaching at Cal State Northridge on a temporary contract. Gail Kennedy, a Northridge colleague and friend had just returned from London with a Ph.D. in human evolution. She said “What’s keeping you in L.A.?” and I asked myself the same question. I was ready for a new adventure and at that time London was the place to go for human evolution. I was tired of stones tools and had become fascinated with the people who had made them. Human evolution was what I wanted to do, and I became the student of Michael Day at St. Thomas’s Hospital, University of London.

The first year (1975) was difficult, but good friends like Peter Andrews and Chris Stringer helped me through it. We were all young, excited to be in London and just at the beginning of our careers. After the first year I was hired at UCL on a 12-month contract, which was extended and extended again – although I had no intention of staying past the completion of my doctorate. But life intervened, the Ph.D. took longer than expected, I met a man (who I am still with), I was given a permanent contract, and I realized that London was an ideal place for an academic career. I was curious about academic life in the U.S., however, and took a visiting position at Yale in 1986/87. It was a great year, I wrote a major book, and made some close friends, but I also realized that all was not always greener on the other side of the Atlantic, and happily returned to “real life” in London at the end of the year.

Thirty years is a long time to be in one place, and after working myself up through the academic ranks. I began to wonder what more I could accomplish at UCL. These niggling doubts coincided with a downturn in the U.K. funding environment for human evolution, my husband’s decision to take early retirement, and the fortuitous arrival of the Wenner-Gren job advertisement in my inbox. We decided we had another adventure left in us and N.Y. and Wenner-Gren were it. I was quite a jolt moving from an academic environment, however. Wenner-Gren is the first non-university job I have had since I was 17 and a sales girl at JC Penney’s.

(4) What were you like as a 13 or 14 year old?  Were you studious? Rebellious?  Athletic? Intrepid?  And would any of us who know you now, or meet you now, have trouble imagining you then?

I don’t think that anyone – even me – would recognize my 13 year-old self. I was 13 in 1959, a suburban California girl, spending my summers at the beach and listening to the likes of Elvis Presley, Frankie Avalon, the Kingston Trio, Connie Francis, Ritchie Valens, the Drifters, and Bobby Darin. I would like to say I was rebellious, athletic, intrepid, etc. – but I was pretty much of an average 1950s teenager concentrating on moving on to high school. Although by that time I had read the entire Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan and Barsoom (Martian) series, which may have had something to do with my future interests in anthropology and the past.

(5) What makes you mad?

Pretension in colleagues. Sometimes there is too much ego in the field that gets in the way of good Anthropology.

(6) Diet, locomotion, and brain size are among the things I know you have spent much of your pre-Foundation life studying.  Is one of these especially fascinating to you, and why?   I am reminded of a conversation I had in the late 1990s with my former Dean at the University of Iowa, Linda Maxson, a biologist most of whose scientific work has focused on frogs.  Friends even buy her jewelry, artwork, and souvenirs in the shape of frogs, and her house is full of these items.  When I asked her why she was so interested in frogs, she told me about the ongoing effects of environmental changes on them and how she sees frogs as one key way of tracking problems with our changing environment.  I have never looked at frogs the same way since that conversation.       Do you think of diet or flora that way–with respect to human evolution or even more generally in our contemporary lives?

I didn’t have any particular interest in diet and brain size until I was asked to do a short entry on primate energetics for the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Human Evolution(1992; CUP). This opened my eyes to a whole new world of looking at evolution and adaptation that extended beyond the bones and stones that had been my prior focus. It also made me aware of the anomaly in humans – that we have a very large, energetically expensive brain but don’t apparently have the corresponding metabolic rate to support its growth and development. This led to the Expensive Tissue Hypothesis  which postulated a trade-off between brain size and one of our other ‘expensive organs’, the gut. A high-quality, easy-to-digest diet is a precondition for a small, energy-efficient gut, and dietary change tracked brain enlargement in the fossil record.

Things have moved on now from the ETH, but it is nice to see that the idea stimulated so much research into energetics and human evolution since the idea was first published in 1995. What is becoming clear is that there are numerous ways that animals manage their energy budgets with far reaching implications for their morphology and their life history strategies.

One of the most interesting things for humans and human evolution is that it moves females into the spotlight. Large body size and large brain size require an equally large daily energy budget, and across mammals they are also related to long interbirth intervals and a corresponding reduction in overall fertility. This is necessary because females must provide for their own energy needs as well as those of their offspring. This is a risky strategy, though, as our ancestors moved into a more dangerous, open, terrestrial environment where the extrinsic mortality rates for both adults and children were higher. Humans were able to solve this problem, shorten their interbirth intervals, increase their fertility and ultimately increase in numbers, and spread throughout the world by sharing the reproductive burden. This happened through cooperation and food sharing that both reduced the energetic burden on the females and undoubtedly created a safer environment.

It wasn’t just human biology, but a combination of biology and human culture that got us to where we are today. For most questions in human evolution, a broad biocultural approach is essential and this is important for the modern field of anthropology to recognize, as tensions develop along the fault-lines separating the sub-disciplines.

(7) Is the Paleolithic especially interesting?  I know biological anthropologists who work on the Paleolithic but also many who don’t.  What is it about the Paleolithic that has been so intriguing to you over the years?

The Paleolithic is interesting because it provides an alternative to the modern human condition and also offers clues to how and why we reached the point we are today. Jim Sackett used to tell us as students that the Upper Paleolithic in the south of France was the high point of human existence, with abundant resources and a stunning artistic culture. This left a huge impression on me. But the Paleolithic also holds rather frightening lessons for the future. Climate and environmental change are common and are accompanied by changes in sea level of up to 300 feet. What is different now from then is the human population explosion and the urbanization of this population. Humans have gone through severe bottlenecks in the past and it is astounding that the species has survived. We can only hope that the same will be true in the future.

(8) Do you think of yourself as American?  Did that sense change (deepen, weaken, transform itself) over the course of the decades you lived and worked in Britain?  And did it change again upon returning to the U.S. in 2005?

I don’t think that any ex-patriate ever loses his or her original identity, but long-term experience of alternatives allows you to put your own country in perspective. I think that the only change is in becoming more cosmopolitan than many others who have stayed at home. In everyday life,  modern international instant communication and mass media keep you in touch and reduce the feeling of isolation – it is certainly an improvement on the International Herald Tribune, which was the only real source of U.S. news when I first went to the U.K.

One strong impression, however, is how parochial U.S. students really are in their approach to scholarship. Reading numerous funding applications, it is clear that if sources are not available online, are older than about 10 or 15 years, or are not published in English, they are not significant.  One of the things that I do miss from the U.K. is close association with my European colleagues and a more ready appreciation of international voices in the field.

(9) You are an active member of the World Council of Anthropological Associations (the WCAA); you have served since 2007 on the AAA Commission (and now Committee) on World Anthropologies; and you are committed to ensuring that the Wenner-Gren Foundation truly foster anthropology in multiple countries and not just the U.S.  Clearly you do not just talk about internationalism.  And yet what do you really think is possible in this arena? Do we delude ourselves into thinking that national agendas and practices can be surmounted in the interest of deeper collaborations and exchanges across national communities of anthropologists around the world?   Can you think of 3-4 changes that have come about from your own efforts in these three associations/organizations (in collaboration with others, of course)?

This is a huge area and a very difficult, but important, problem. The Wenner-Gren Foundation is in a unique position to provide funds to encourage international networking, which, in fact, has been central to our mission since the 1950s. In the six years I have been at Wenner-Gren, I have tried to build on the strong basis that was already in place. For example, in our Conference and Workshop Grant program we only provide funds for events with a serious international agenda and participation. We also have an International Collaborative Research Grant program that funds research carried out jointly by collaborators from different countries and different anthropological traditions. It also provides additional funds for training and exchange where this is beneficial to capacity-building and to the successful outcome of the research. Our support for the WCAA is another way to help ensure that the resources are available for internationalization. There are now 42 society members of WCAA and tremendous potential for mutual collaboration. Organizations such as the WCAA and the AAA’s CWA are essential to keep the momentum going.

There are two initiatives that Wenner-Gren is about to introduce that I hope will have a big effect. The first is an Engaged Anthropology Grant program that will provide additional funds to our grantees to allow them to return to the field and disseminate the results of their research in the most appropriate manner – both to their research community and to their academic colleagues in their country of research. The other initiative is stepping into social media. The Foundation has a large database of international anthropologists (and their research) that is available online – but no one knows about it. We want to use social media to make the field aware of the excellent research that is being carried out by anthropologists around the world and opportunities for networking and collaboration.

(10) What is something most of us do not know about you and that you are now willing to share with a wider public?

The main thing is most probably insecurity — the lingering doubt in your own ability to be successful and achieve goals you have set. This is probably a good lesson for students, and particularly doctoral students, who are on the roller-coaster of thesis completion. We all have been, and continue to be, in positions where we doubt our abilities. Thesis completion, tenure or promotion does not totally cure the doubts and insecurities – but things do get a bit better over time.

(11)  Clifford Geertz said something in the early 1990s that I have never forgotten.  He was visiting the University of California at Santa Cruz and I was then on the faculty there.  At something like a fireside chat, someone asked him if he thought there would still be anthropology 50-80-100 years from now. He paused but only briefly, and then said that he didn’t know if there would still be something called anthropology but that the kinds of questions today’s anthropologists pursue would still be questions scholars would be pursuing 100 years from now.   What do you think?  Do you believe that there will still be anthropology 50-80-100 years from now?  And would it bother you (or please you) if it turned out that Geertz was right in the way he answered it?

One thing that human evolution teaches you is that things never stay the same. Anthropology is a very young discipline and this is one of the reasons that Axel Wenner-Gren gave the original endowment to the Foundation. In 1941 he felt that the young and relatively neglected field had potential importance in engendering post-World War II social cooperation. Anthropology has always grown and changed and “anthropology” outside of the U.S. often goes by different names and is sub-divided in different ways. One of the problems in providing funding to the field is to try to determine what is, and what isn’t, anthropology. There is no doubt that we will continue to be interested in the same questions in 50 or 100 years, and what name we give to the field  – or how it is organized along disciplinary lines – is of lesser importance.

(12) What is the question you most wish I had asked you here (and haven’t so far)?

Probably – what advice I would give young anthropologists entering the field?  When my students were going through hard times with research or thesis completion, I used to tell them to remember that they were here because they wanted to be – no one was forcing them. To be successful, you need to be confident that anthropology is the right choice for you. An academic life is not easy, particularly in the present financial climate. There is considerable pressure, but there also can be considerable rewards – although these will be unlikely to be financial. Know why you are doing it and be honest with yourself in relation to your goals and exceptions – then go for it.


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